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A history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) online

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Burlesque 91

twinge of old age in Maguire, still the top Impresario in
town. Indicative of the times was the sale of the seats in
the Academy to Samuel Tetlow, proprietor of the Bella Union
Melodeon. The gradual approach of the "big theatre" enter-
tainment to melodeon burlesque was automatically lifting the
stigma of immorality from the latter. The molodeons were
coming into their own^ the heads of the big theatres were

Two extraordinary examples of the new realism
were the only high spots of the legitimate drama from 1867 to
1870, There was Under the Gaslight by the American, Daly; and
After Dark, a Tale of London Life , by the Irishman, Bouci-
cault. The English play was apparently little more than the
American play in a London setting. The production of these
plays in San Francisco ( Under the Gaslight at the Metropoli-
tan; and After Dark at the Opera House) were inevitably echoed
by burlesque versions at the Alhambra and the Olympic. De-
tails of the burlesque versions are scant as usual. The re-
view of Under the Gaslight , in the Bulletin for November 25,
1867, will give an idea what vulnerable hold this drama of-
fered to a troupe of clever burlosqviers :

"Charles Daly's famous drama of Under the Gas -
light was produced, and in a manner that sur-
prisod as well as delighted all who were pres-
ent. We cannot speak in too high praise of the
liberality of the lessees and the skill of the
artists. No pains or oxpcnso have boon spared
in putting the piece on the stage in the most
attractive and telling manner. The scenery is
all now and much of it is exceedingly beautiful.

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Burlesque 92

Many of the mechanical effects are equal to any-
thing produced here or elsewhere. The view of
New York at night — with the hay and the rivers,
the ships and wharves, the Jersey City ferry-
boats plying to and fro, the ships lying at an-
chor and the smaller craft under sail- -is sin*
gularly vivid and lifelike. So is that of the
Tomhs, interiorly and exteriorly. But the
crowning moclianical triumph of the piece is the
signal station on the railroad, with the night
express thundering past under full speed, the
engine puffing and shrieking, the sparks fly-
ing and the smoke rolling in a sooty trail be-

"Of the drama itself there is not a great deal
to be said. As a literary performance it is
not of very high order. With two or three ex-
ceptions the characters have little individual-
ity, and the dialogue is not remarkable for v/it
or sprightliness. . . .It groups together in a
very felicitous manner, the two extremes of
society, presenting us at once with the
splendors yet meanness (?) of wealth, and the
degradation of crime and miseries of common
poverty. In Trafford vie have the amiability,
irresolution and moral cowardice of 'our best
society'; in Laura Courtland we have beauty
and angelic virtue rising superior to the
frowns of fortune, the neglect of fair-weather
friends and tho temptations of poverty j in
Byke and the old hag Judas wc have incar-
nated tho frightful depravity that rots and
festers in the heart of a groat city. The
coarsest elements of social life are happily
(?) represented by the slattern 'Peach Blos-
som,' so admirably played by Mrs, Saunders, the
red- skirted ballad- vendor and the boxer, and
the ragged news and peanut vendors. Indeed, all
the odds and ends - tho rag-tag and bob-tail of
the social masquerade - are grouped together in
Mr, Daly's clever tableaux and made to show off
their most salient points,

"As played on Saturday evening the piece was too
long. Three hours and a half is too much for
human endurance. .. .There is, moreover, a good
deal of redvindant dialogue which the audience
can well dispense v/lth..,."

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Burlesque 93

An interesting financial account of the first

week's run of Under the Gaslight was published in the

Bulletin for December 9, 1867:

"Edwards, Bates, and Vinson, the new lessees
of the Metropolitan Theatre, have returned to
the Revenue Department the following sums as
the receipts of seven nights' performance of
Undor the Gaslight ; November 23, :.^1 035 j Novem-
ber" ^sT'^'^S^TTB^November 26, ;;;a81.25; November
27, .^370. 50 J November 28, ;ii>1558.75; November
29, Hpa93-.50; November 50, :3)1448.50; total,
;ii7622.25. The return of this for this week is
without; precedent, and the sum taken on
Thank.^giving Day was the largest ever kncwn
in the theatre in this city at present prices.
We understand that Mr.Whoatloigh remits by this
steamer ^AOOO to Augustin Daly of New York, as
the author's share of the profits for a little
over a fortnight of the remarkably sensational

All that is salvaged from that distant time as to
the Olyropic's burlesque version of Undor the Gaslight , is the
suggestive title: Under the Cairo-soon Lamp Post .

Boucicault's After Dark opened early in the 1868-
69 season. The English play immediately came in for a rigor-
ous comparison with its .'American progenitor.

"The drama After Dark is a pictvire of the
night side of London life, as Under the Gas -
light and the Lottery of Life were pictures of
the night side of New York. . . .Prom the Gaslight
he (Boucicault) has taken the pier and railroad
scenes, and from the Lottery of Life the music
saloon scene. The under side of the dilapidated
stone bridge of Blackfriars, supported on piles
and timber framing (crutches) as it has been
for many a year, is made the abode of thieves
and vagabonds as the under side of the Boston
pier was, and while in the original drama the
pier was the scene of the abduction and an at-
tempt to mxirder, in the other the bridge is the
scene of an attempt at suicide by the heroine.

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Burlesque 94

...The Magnolia Saloon of Brougham's play was
full of life, and familiar in every feature to
an American audience. The more staid manners
and appointments of the London music saloon in
After Dark could not be expected in this coun-
try to create the same enthusiasm. The absence
of pretty waiter girls, with thoir paint and
curls, their airs and blandisliments, is very
noticeable. The song from the saloon stage is
an ordinary London comic ditty, and gives the
performer no such scope as Melville had in a
similar part. It wants the novelty and rollick-
somoness, both in tune and words of 'Coal Oil
Tommy. '

"The railroad scene lacks many of the elements
which aided in working up the audience to that
unprocedontcd pitch of excitement which
attended every roprosontatlon of the night ex-
press train passing Shrewsbury Bond station
from the first to tlio last. In the first place,
the man who has boon doomed to perish lies like
a log on the track, if not dead, insensible.
Except that the audience see him to be in dan-
ger, he contributes nothing to the interest of
the scene. There are not those alternate emo-
tions, the struggle for life, followed by self-
abnegation, there are no manifestations of hero-
ism in the bound man, as in the case of the
doomed 'Snorkey.' The scene is defective also
in that it has no preliminary business, during
which the audience, as in the Gaslight , witness
the daily routine of a roadside s^tion, and
become familiarized vrith the idea that they are
standing beside a railroad line....

"George Edwards, a new face in the company,
dressed and sang his character song, 'The
Provident Mud Lark,' in good stylo, and it was
unfortunate for him that some of the good ef-
fect of his efforts were marred by the per-
sistent shouting of the gods for the raising
of the 'rag' as they call the border when it
intercepts thoir viev;. . . . "*

The burlesque version of After Dark received three

notices in the press. Johnny Mack, quite famous at this time

for his burlesques of current plays, opened his show at the

Now Alhambra.

* Bulletin . November 17, 1858.



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Burlesque 95

"The announcement oi'' the performance of Johnny
Mack's "burlesque, After Dark , drew a crowded
house. The piece is amusing, and cleverly trav-
esties some of the more striking scenes in the
original drama. The arrest of the locomotive
by 'Pointer,' the policeman, (Johnny Mack) and
his exposition of how the thing was done elicit-
ed much applause. In fact the audience were
amused from first to last and went home in the
best of humor. ''^

"Exquisite dances by Sands and Ashcroft,a jolly
medley by Miss Olivia Rand, graceful gymnastics
by Leon Samuels, a sentimental ballad by Master
Pvilton, comic acts by Lew Rattler, Johnny Mack,
George Coos, De Angelis and the rest of the sa-
ble brotherhood with the new travesty, After
Dar'c Dro up-;at to Li gilt will constitute ?Ee
■pr6'{']ViiLr: tonight."-'^*

"The burlesque en After Dar k does not follow the
original very closely, but the travesties of
tho rescue scene at the bridge, the gambling
room in the Music Hall, and the railroad sensa-
tion. Tho last is done very well. Johnny Mack,
as Pinter, (sic) the policeman, arrests the lo-
comotive, and exposes the manner of running the
train across the stage by pulling out the stage
carpenter from behind the painted canvas.

"The policeman is made the principal character
in the travesty, and, he succeeds in bringing
down the house by a satire on the efficiency,
and boldness of the gentlemen of the baton. "'^'**

Johnny Mack directed a long and successful season
of burlesque and variety programs at the Alhambra. Gradually
it became as proper a thing to attend one of Mack's riotous
satires as to sit through the smug prototype at the Metro-
politan or the Opera House. The shift of public taste was
obvious. Several new burlesque houses wore opened. The

* Bulletin , December 4, 1868.

^H ^Daily Alta California , December 3, 1868.

-5HHtIbid. December 4, 1868.

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Burlesque 96

Bella Union was extravagantly remodeled. Even the new Cal-
ifornia Theatre (opened January 18, 1869), last successful
outpost of the legitimate stock companies in San Francisco,
admitted a burlesque program by Lotta Crabtree and V/illie
Edouin to its boards. In March 1869, Maguire brought
Johnny Mack and some able assistants to the Opera House in a
program of travesty and song-and-dance. The cancan craze
finally and loudly laid low any attempt at classical or con-
temporary dratna. Burlesque, with ancillary bill of variety,
was at last intrenched in the sacred halls built for stento-
rian tragedy. Before the year was out, Eltae Holt would
flame upward as the first glamor girl of burlesque. The only
constant, alv;ays perceptible, never tarnished thread of enter-
tainment throughout the whole decade of fluctuating taste had
been the Martinettis. Despite the triximph of leg show bur-
lesque, the Martinettis appeared throughout the city dtiring
1869, always to packed houses and spontaneous critical ac-
claim. It is time to give a backward glance of analysis to
the extraordinary charm of these satirical pantomimists.


The nineteenth century made it painfully clear that
the tradition of the literary theatre was decadent. The am-
bitious new compositions of "high" tragedy were quickly clos-
eted as drama to be read in stuffy, Victorian solitude. The
great, creative intensity of the Coimnedia dell 'Arte had been
given a permanent form by Moliere,batiiie Commedia dell 'Arte

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Burlesque 97

itself had soon thereafter been circumscribed by the advent
of a bourgeoisie not inclined to art patronage. There was
very little left for the nineteenth century — neither a lit-
erary nor a popular tradition. The great service of the laelo-
deons of San Francisco and Nev/ York, and of the music halls
of London was their somewhat unconscious use of the actor's
art of ijnproviaationj in a crude from, the vitality of the
old Italian, realism and satire, survived. The value of the
pantomime troupes such as the Ravel family, and their succes-
sors, the Martinettis, lay in their conscious use of Coramedia
dell 'Arte technique. Not that the critical genius of the
renaissance comedians was approached; but that the framework
of a highly artistic, popular theatre had been refurbished
for further use.

There is plenty of superficial evidence. After ten
years of activity in San Francisco playhouses, Julien Martin-
etti, in all press notices, was automatically spoken of as the
Clown; Philippe Martinetti as Pantaloon; Paul Martinetti as
Harlequin; and Madam Desire'e Martinetti as Columbine. It is
remembered that the actors of the Oommedia dell 'Arte troupes
finally became identified personally with the roles which
they played consistently throughout their lifetime. The jug-
glery and acrobatics are also present. A saltimbanque of the
I Gelosi troupe, for instance, performing some Incredible
contortion on the outdoor stage of the troupe in Bologna in
the sixteenth century, and one of the Martinettis performing

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Burlesque 9S

a comical trick on a trapeze at the Metropolitan theatre in
San Francisco in 1869, are in continuous tradition.

The broad, angular gesture of stylized pantomime
is more evidence of continuity. There is record of the famous
sixteenth-century actor, Scaramouche, who could keep his
audience constantly delighted for fifteen minutes while he
sat in a chair giving comical evidence of terror at the ap-
proach of an enemy from the rearj while in 1867, Julien
Mar tine tti could be regarded by the Bulletin of March 1, as
"the best comic artist who ever visited this coast," and
Julien had rarely or never appeared in any of the speaking
parts of the Martinetti shows.

Within this traditional framework, the nineteenth-
century pantonimists developed their own kind of show. Ballet
was added. The simple, straight-hitting satire of the Ital-
ian realists was now filtered through the fantastic facade
indicated by some of the titles of the Martinetti pantomimes:
The Green Monster , The, Golden Bgg , The Red Gnome , Jack and
Jill . But these fantasies were not of the deadly, Greek-Eng-
lish variety used in so many burlesques of the time; they had
the imaginative liveliness of genuine fairy talo. Acrobatic
display had by this time developed into a large part of pan-
tomimic entertainment. And there was more and more exploi-
tation of trick staging; but where trick staging in regular
burlesque v/as to be used for the overwhelming and grandiose

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Burlesque 99

effect, in pantomime it was used for small bits of exciting,
"s\irrealistic" business. In this regard, the Bulletin for
December 11, 1866 has the following to say about a perform-
ance of The Golden Egfi at the Metropolitan:

"The glamour of enchantment seemed to per-
vade everything and everybody. The stage and
those who walked it appeared possessed; chairs
and tables moved off on the slightest provoca-
tion; beds and bedding took themselves wings;
shop signs became suddenly Inverted or fo\ind
themselves transferred to opposite sides of the
street; men and women were whisked through the
air, and appeared and disappeared in the most
tantalizing manner; the most uncouth monsters,
gigantic geese, deformed donkeys, toads, gob-
lins, played fantastic tricks and ass\amed the
most protean shapes...."

The J-Iartinettis , like their famous teachers, the

Ravels, hailed from Paris. Early in the nineteenth century,

the Ravels had given definite, new lusture to the obscured

pantomimic art. A clear signing av;ay of vitality had occurred

in the late 1700s: Riccoboni's company of actors, last

of the famous Italian troupes to be licensed to the French

court, addressed an illuminating request to a high official:

"The actors entreat your Highness to make
urgent representations at the Court that they
may be permitted, as in Italy, the free use of
the Holy Sacrament, the more so as they will
never recite anything scandalous; and Riccoboni
undertakes to submit the scenarios of the plays
for examination by the Minister and also by an
Ecclesiastic, for their approval,"*

* Quoted by Sheldon Cheney in The Theatre .Three Thousand
Years of Drama, Acting and Stagecraft p. 240

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Burlesque 100

Unfortunately there ia no material available to in-
dicate the likely family connections of the Ravels and Mar-
tinettis with these last Coramedia dell' Arte actors in Paris.
No doubt there were parental threads which transmitted the
art of broad gesture and brief speech through the bourgeois
revolutions, through the shift from coiirt patronage to com-
mercial theatre. At any rate, there was no large lapse of
time between the disappearance of the Commedia dell' Arte in
Europe and the appearance of ninoteenth-century pantomime.

Once beforo, in the 1850s, the Martinettls had ap-
peared in San Francisco under the leadership of their aging
tutor, Gabriel Ravel. Now, in December of 1860, they returned
in their ov/n right as the Martinettl Troupe. A delighted
public kept them in town for a forty-five night engagement,
which v/as unusual for San Francisco not only at that time but
even today. The press admitted the excellence of the per-
formances, but tliroughout their first engagement the critics
held on to a few dutiful reservations. As the decade pro-
ceeded and the perennial freshness of the Martinetti engage-
ments was established, the critics followed the public into
complete approval of the French family's extraordinary enter-
tainment •

Little can bo done to reconstruct a com.plete pic-
ture of a Martinetti program, A good part of their "business"
was sheer gesture. The few spoken parts have not been set
down in any permanent form. The eyes of the contemporary


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Biarlesque 101

press must furnish 'ivhatever vision can be had of this troupe

in action:

Bulletin for December 4, 1860 j
"The Martinettl troupe continue to attract
crov/ds every night. Their performances are
very pleasing, and in the case of the tight-
rope 'evolutions,' perhaps wonderful. The
brothers Mar tine tti and Master Paul give an in-
genious exhibition on what n;ay be called a dou-
ble story tight-rope, that is the t^vo elders,
while at a distance from each other, on the
rope, support around their necks a rail, on
which the boy mounts and goes through sundry
antics, corresponding in time and sympathy with
those of his bearers, all three being provided
with balsjioing poles. The feats cf Miss Chiarini,
with a hoop and 7/ithout a pole, the quick step
of Mr. Chiarini and the tremendous leaps and
somersaults of Mr, Leliman are likewise worth a
passing notice ♦ The dances of the principal
members of the troupe, and the corps de ballet
are prettily arranged and well executed, with-
out being at all extraordinary. The drolleries
of Julien Mar tine tti, as the 'I'iO.iite Knight' in
the pantomime of the Green Ptonster , excite much
mirth, in young and old. . . ,"

Bulletin for December 21, 1860:
''Tomorrow, a grand afternoon performance will be
given at 2 o'clock, for the special benefit of
children and faaiilies, when new evolutions on
the tight-rops, a ballot divertissement and the
grand pantomime of Jocko, or the Brazilian Ape ,
will be presented. Master Paul, as ' Jocko' is
particularly excellent and amusing."

Bulletin for January 10, 1831:

"In the pantomime ( The Rod Gnome ), Mr. Lehman
is very effective as the 'Gnome.' Much serio-
comic use is made in this piece of a hidoous
character representing a skeleton, which offends
against good taste. The figure has a peculiar
hitch, or palsied dropping of the side when it
v/alks, YiThich will be apt to haunt the memory of
the nervous."

Bulletin for March 6, 1861:

"The latest pantomime, The Magic Pills , passed

off successfully last night, and was received

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Burlesque 102

with much laughter and applause. Some of the
scenes are very amusing, (though not quite new)
such as that of the medium-sized and the little
and the great landladies. The program, too Is
remarkably managed by 'Master Paul,' no doubt.
The piece will be repeated this evening, to-
gether with ballet of Le Diable V Quatre ."

The acrobatic flourish of a precarious ascent on a
rope often closed the performances. Tho Bulletin for April
8, April 16, and April 20 announces three of the spectacular
ascensions of the Martinetti troupe during their spring en-
gagement in 1861:

"A 'grand ascension' on two ropes, by Philipiie
and Julien Martinetti with Mile, Desire'e, will
close the entertainment."

"A grand ascension, by Julien Martinetti, who

Online LibraryEttore RellaA history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) → online text (page 9 of 29)