Sunday, September 20, 2009

Mae West: Ollie Burgoyne

Avid theatre-goer MAE WEST could spot charisma in a performer. As a 10-year-old child she fell under the spell of Bert Williams, mesmerized by his musical "In Dahomey" at the New York Theatre in 1903. The production of "In Dahomey" also included a talented actress-dancer, a black performer Mae would cast in her Harlem comedy "The Constant Sinner."
• • Performed on Broadway during the autumn of 1931 [from September 14th until November], this controversial bi-racial show was on stage 78 years ago at the Royale Theatre, 242 West 45th Street, with Mae West starring as Babe Gordon and Ollie Burgoyne featured in the role of Clara.
• • By mistake, the Internet Broadway Database lists Ollie Burgoyne as a MALE performer who was cast in SIX shows — — always in a female role. Time to meet the real Miss Burgoyne, who played in ten shows on The Great White Way and in other countries.
• • Olga "Ollie" Burgoyne • •
• • Ever notice how some theatrical reputations mimic a red poppy — — a vehement presence, brief, glorious, and dismembered in seconds?
• • Almost unknown today, versatile, graceful, ambitious, supremely talented Olga "Ollie" Burgoyne was part Russian and part Creole. Born on 13 June 1878 in Illinois, she had been an entertainer in Russia before joining the British-based cast of "In Dahomey," an operetta written by Bert Williams and George Walker. An outstanding success in the West End, "In Dahomey" came to London from New York City in 1903 and played at the Shaftesbury Theatre for nearly a year. When the acclaimed U.K. production finished, many of the performers created individual acts or assembled their own teams and toured. Heading one of these twosomes was the 27-year-old firecracker Olga Burgoyne who, with her partner, Usher Watts, formed the Duo Eclatant, according to Afro-American theater researcher Helen A Johnson. "Burgoyne was not only an entertainer in Russia, but a business woman as well," notes Johnson. "She was the owner of the Maison Creole, an elegant shop for women in St. Petersburg. She operated it until the war began — — while she was taking the baths in Austria."
• • Pursuing the course of an entrepreneur and entertainer could not have been easy for a Caucasian vaudevillian much less a dark-skinned female. Neverthless, Ollie Burgoyne earned respect for her work and was lauded as one of the eight major African American dancers/ choreographers of the Harlem Renaissance; she ranked in an elite group that comprised Helmsley Winfield, Edna Guy, Randolph Sawyer, Asadata Dafora, Katherine Dunham, Charles Williams, and Pearl Primus.
• • In March 1931, Ollie was performing in Yonkers, NY with a dance company called the Bronze Ballet Plastique. Since their performances went unnoticed, the group reinvented themselves as the New Negro Art Theater Dance Group. Billed as "The First Negro Dance Recital in America," Hemsley Winfield and Edna Guy, along with Ollie Burgoyne and 17 other dancers, opened at Chanin's Theater in the Clouds [NYC].
• • Ollie's dramatic training and the pleasing curves of her hipbones' kettle raised the heat at auditions. Appearing in ten Broadway productions from 1926—1937, her credits included: "Lulu Belle" [1926]; "Tired Business Man" [1929]; "Make Me Know It" [1929]; "The Constant Sinner" [1931]; "Blessed Event" [1932]; "Run, Little Chillun" [1933]; etc.
• • In the sophisticated romantic screen comedy "Laughter" [1930], starring Fredric March, Nancy Carroll, and Frank Morgan, Ollie had a bit part as a maid named Pearl.
• • Age did not slow her down. In April 1936, when she was 58, she was featured in "Mississippi Rainbow" [a show also known as "Brain Sweat"], which was seen at the John C. Brownell Lafayette Theatre, Harlem Unit, NYC.
• • As a sought-after choreographer and an instructor, Ollie Burgoyne worked behind the scenes in the motion picture industry as well, teaching Russian dances to American dancers.
• • In 1973, the vibrant 95-year-old died in the United States.

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