For National Bat Appreciation Day: On Nikita Balieff and La Chauve-Souris 

April 17 is National Bat Appreciation Day. In the past we have used this day as an occasion to explore Mary Robert’s Rinehart’s The Bat, and we have certainly talked quite a lot about Batman and Dracula on this blog, and some day I will very likely do something on Der Fledermaus. This animal certainly has a hold on the human imagination! This year’s National Bat Appreciation Day finds us in alignment with two anniversaries that dictate yet another-bat related post: 2022 marks what may be the 150th year since the birth of Nikita Balieff (ca. 1873-1936), whom, as it also happens first toured the U.S. 100 years ago (1922) with his smash revue La Chauve-Souris (The Bat).

I’m not sure that it’s possible to be more “international” than Balieff, an ethnic Armenian, born in Turkey, who later became famous in Russia, and then the capitols of Western Europe, America, and around the globe. He’d gotten his start at Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre in 1906, but got tired of playing small roles, and had aspirations to do comedy. He started La Chauve-Souris in a nearby basement. It was a revue with singing, dancing, and comedy sketches. He named it after a bat that flew out of the theatre as he was evaluating the space, and the powerful brand stuck. The Russian Revolution drove him out of Moscow in 1917. He fled to Paris, where he and his company, became the toast of the town. From here, the show moved steadily westward, to London, and then New York and the U.S. Morris Gest produced his first tour in 1922. This was followed by subsequent editions in 1923, 1925, 1927, 1929, 1931, and 1934.

“The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” was one of his most beloved spectacles in the show. It was the subject of a DeForest PhonoFilm in 1923 and became the basis of the Rockettes version, which has been popular ever since. Balieff was also in demand as an actor in other shows. In 1924 he was in Max Reinhardt’s production of The Miracle. A decade later, he was in a Selwyn revue called Continental Varieties. You can also see him in one Hollywood film: Once in a Blue Moon (1935), directed by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, with Jimmy Savo and Cecilia Loftus.

For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous