The Soubrettes of Cincinnati: Chorus Girls or Courtesans?

Our turn-of-the-century media and theater fans had a thing for showgirls.

It took several decades for Cincinnati to get its act together, so to speak, but the Queen City eventually earned a reputation as a hot town for theater. From the National down near Third Street to Heuck’s Opera House in Over-the-Rhine, local stages attracted luminaries of the dramatic arts.

The “Nellie Kelly Girls” constituted the chorus for Estelle Bird’s entertainment at Cincinnati’s Walnut Theater in 1904.

Image from the Cincinnati Post and extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Attendant to the headliners were bevies of young women known variously as starlets, showgirls, chorus girls, ingénues, or soubrettes. The soubrette was characteristically flirtatious, and local newspapers drooled salaciously in the sort of “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” innuendo suggesting that she might be free with her charms if offered a nice enough gift. In other words, they considered showgirls approximately equivalent to prostitutes.

Although overt accusations were rare, the implication ran through any number of articles about soubrettes. The Cincinnati Post [April 28, 1904] detailed a budget for a typical showgirl making $20 a week who claimed that room and board alone ate up $21:

“Subtracting, you find that to pay for that silk dress, picture hat, patent leather slippers, silk hosiery, lingerie, gloves of white, black and tan, bonbons and what not, you have minus $1.”

Flirtatious showgirls were among the main draws at Cincinnati theaters and the newspapers usually published several promotional photos in most issues. This lineup is from a single 1904 copy of the Cincinnati Post.

Image from the Cincinnati Post and extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

According to The Post, showgirls brought in additional funds through any number of schemes. If a soubrette told a stage-door Johnny that she was fined for winking at him from the stage, he was likely to reimburse her fine, whether real or not. Other girls posed for “art” photos. The Enquirer [January 5, 1922] reported that police confiscated several such “immodest” photos from local theaters. Other women simply attracted gifts from infatuated admirers. As one soubrette told The Post:

“Not so very long ago I received a valuable diamond ring from a man that I never even saw to my knowledge, before or after receiving the gift. It came with a bunch of roses and his card. Now what was I to do? Throw it away? I should say not! I believe some men are monomaniacs on the subject of the stage, or, to be more precise, chorus and show girls.”

Another showgirl described a sort of antediluvian escort service, in which she made money serving as decoration:

“The night after [George B.] McLellan’s election [as mayor] in New York, a city official invited a bunch of show girls out to dine. His money seemed to him of no more value than so much sand, and he insisted upon distributing large quantities of it among us, telling us to use it for bonbons. We would not rise or fall in his estimation by accepting it, and we did.”

Did some soubrettes offer anything beyond a wink and a smile to their admirers? They insisted they did not, but stories of men abandoning their wives for a showgirl’s embraces are legion.

Take Edward B. Trout, a Cincinnati boy employed as an elevator operator until he made some lucky bets on the stock market. Fancying himself a financier, he left his wife in 1906 to follow a showgirl named Lola Jones. When he ran low on funds, he passed some fraudulent checks and ended up in prison.

Sister showgirls Ivy and Dot Paget appeared in Cincinnati and gave an interview to The Post [December 15, 1905] in which Dot unloaded on the topic of home-wrecking:

“Most men are weak-minded, anyway, when it comes to women. The fanfare of the stage casts a spell over the older men, as well as over the much talked about ‘stage-door Johnny’ of the younger element. Many an actress has set her cap for some man with lots of money, regardless of wife and children, and got him, too. She has no love for him, but she is skilled in acting. She loves his money, and the man is taken in.”

Sometimes that gambit backfires, as Cincinnati showgirl Mary Madeline Collins discovered. While prancing among the footlights in New York City, she warmed the cockles of Walter Dressel’s heart. His money, earned from real estate deals, charmed Miss Collins, and they wed after a brief courtship. Within a year, she was back in Cincinnati, filing for divorce according to The Post [April 30, 1904] because she found he loved whiskey more than her.

Likewise, The Enquirer [April 13, 1922] reported on the divorce of 19-year-old Walter W. Volhard, heir to a leather-tanning fortune, who eloped with 24-year-old showgirl named Merle Bancroft. She agreed to an annulment “for a substantial sum.”

Not all showgirls welcomed male attention. One disenchanted chorus girl shared with The Post [September 14, 1911] some hard-earned wisdom from her brief time on the road:

“Girls have to be careful on the street. The best way to squelch a masher is to mash, too (with your fist). If you’re ever especially hungry, beware of old men who grin at you.”

To complicate matters, it appears that some actual prostitutes claimed to be actresses when confronted about their occupation. The Enquirer [April 29, 1906] investigated this practice:

“An entire block of lodging houses of such ill favor that the police keep it under constant surveillance is so commonly called Soubrette Row that many folks believe it to be really inhabited by actresses of a frivolous kind, yet really actresses because they say so when arraigned in Magistrates Court as thieves.”

Still, despite the aroma of immorality, Cincinnati newspapers generally printed positive profiles whenever a local girl found a spot in a big-time show chorus. Brownie Hall, a graduate of Woodward High School, got such treatment when she landed in the road cast of The Runaways on stage at the Walnut Theater in 1904. When Blanche Ring headlined The Yankee Girl at the Lyric Theater in 1910, the attention went to Alma Hill in the chorus on her first Cincinnati appearance in four years.

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