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Roxanne Barlow models Equity's famous
Gypsy Robe (Carol Rosegg Photo)

A Gypsy What?

By Francine L. Trevens
ART TIMES November 2005

It began on a whim, and grew into a beloved backstage tradition.Launched with a raggedy old white satin wrapper it metamorphosed into almost a dozen wearable works of art. First a hand-me-down from friend to friend in various musicals, it later became a prescribed ritual, and now is a highlight of a Broadway musical’s opening night.No Broadway dancer is unaware of it – but few people uninvolved with Broadway musicals know it exists.

It’s the ceremony of the Gypsy Robe.

The Gypsy what?

Gypsy Robe, or more accurately, robes. For over the years, there have been almost two-dozen of these individual works of art, some residing in such places as the Smithsonian, The Museum of the City of New York, Lincoln Center Library of the Arts and most recently, the People’s Hall of Fame.

 As the ceremony has evolved, it occurs an hour before opening of any new Broadway musical that has a chorus.Representatives from Actors Equity, including Terry Marone, who heads the ACCA (Actors Committee of Chorus Affairs) and the previous recipient of the robe arrive, and the ritual begins: awarding the robe and crowning the King or Queen of the Gypsies.

 It’s the award just for chorus members, who receive far too little recognition.

But lets back up.

Chorus performers had a long struggle before gaining any recognition, and this year is a major one in their history.It is the 50th anniversary since their incorporation into Actor’s Equity.It is also the year the People’s Hall of Fame recognized them and accepted one of the robes for display.

On November 7th at the American Airlines Theatre, Chita Rivera and Harvey Fierstein will host a celebration of chorus – called THE GYPSY IN OUR SOULS – to pay tribute to the Broadway chorus troupers.These are the men and women who dance, in one Broadway show after another, not only for money but for the sheer love of dancing!

In 1919, six years after the formation of Actor’s Equity, chorus actors fought for a union, the Chorus Equity Association, formulated in consultation with Equity leaders.They became, in essence, a section of Actor’s Equity.Members of the famed Drew and Barrymore families assisted them in their fight to receive rehearsal pay, to have decent dressing rooms, etc.Marie Dressler was their first president. In 1955

Tom Titone with Alfred Molina (Walter McBride Photo)

, they merged with Actors Equity.Now they have health insurance, pension benefits and other important considerations. It’s a long way from rehearsing as much as 16 weeks without pay and providing their own shoes, for the privilege of dancing on Broadway in a show which might close in under a week!

Still, there is little recognition of hard working, talented chorus members, nicknamed gypsies, as in the song “She’s No Longer a Gypsy,” in APPLAUSE.

They are never mentioned at the Tonys – although they often dance at this annual award event.Where is their moment of glory, the recognition of the public for their work?

 In 1957 – backstage at GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES -- chorus member Bill Bradley got a brainstorm, in the midst of the flurry of preparation and the nervous excitement of an opening night.He asked if he could borrow an old white satin wrapper from a fellow “Gypsy.”She agreed.

Donning the robe, he visited the other chorus members in their dressing rooms, bestowing blessings on them and the production.

Bradley then sent the robe to a pal in CALL ME MADAM.There a rose from Ethel Merman’s gown got sewn on, before being passed on to another pal in another show, where again an item representing the musical was added. Pretty soon, the robe was overloaded with souvenirs of plays and a new robe was needed.

No one documented the proceedings pr the winners at that time, and some of the old robes have been lost to history.

In 1982 Terry Marone, herself a gypsy, decided to make the tradition more than a happenstance. The Gypsy Robe presentation is now an intimate, charming tribute, an award to honor the services of the most experienced chorus member in each new musical.

No longer does an old wrapper serve. Currently, when a new robe is needed, wardrobe people make one of heavy muslin.

Terry Marone explained, “I used to pay for fabric to have this done. Equity now pays the cost of the fabric – about $40. The AVENUE Q wardrobe people created a pattern, making it easy for new robes to be made.”

But don't get the idea they are dull and pedestrian cover-ups.These robes are more colorful than a kid’s collection of crayons and more creative than the most modern stage set.They have become living memorials of every musical boasting a chorus that opened on Broadway since 1982.The Gypsy Robe even has its own pages on the Equity web site!

Records are kept, rules created and adhered to, and the robe’s an award chorus dancers covet. Terry Marone wants to get the Gypsy Robe onto the Tony telecast.Seeing how much she has already accomplished in giving the robe status, you can expect that soon.

 The robe ceremony occurs on opening night. No one on the company knows, when the stage manager calls them onstage for the event, who will be the recipient until the robe is draped on the shoulders of the gypsy, who has appeared in the most Broadway musicals, according to Equity employment records.

No more nepotism involved, although, occasionally it is a friend who passes it on to the next dancer.That was the case when, after being awarded the robe for NICK AND NORA, in December of ’91, Cynthia Thole passed it to Bob Freschi in MOST HAPPY FELLA in February of ’92.In the interim, the robe is kept at Equity.

Cynthia and Bob had appeared in ME AND MY GIRL together, so “He was thrilled to be awarded the robe.It was made very special knowing the presenter.

“The robe is about community, not just in the individual theatre community that is having an opening, but all of Broadway.”

Cynthia recalls, “I had such a feeling of pride and honor to wear the robe, to represent our company among all those great actors. I have fond memories of the opening for many reasons, and certainly the Gypsy robe ceremony remains a favorite.”

 A representative from Equity and the previous recipient join the chorus and other company members (these days even the principals in the musical attend) of the newly opening show on stage an hour before curtain time.Since musicals open extra early the first night, the ceremony is usually late afternoon.

 The recipient becomes King or Queen of the gypsies. S/he then tours the stage three times, with everyone touching the robe for luck.

 Later, still wearing the robe, the winner visits each dressing room to bestow the good luck the robe represents.

 Before the robe is passed on, a souvenir of the show is added, along with signatures of the chorus members.Some of these additions are quite elaborate.Such as the quilted helicopter from MISS SAIGON, on one, and a picture of every chorus member wearing a miniature costume from the play for FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.Wardrobe personnel for those shows lovingly created all of this.As a result, some robes can weigh as much as 40 pounds before they are retired!

“A robe used to last for maybe 15-20 different openings.Now its six to eight,” Terry Marone informed me.

 According to Ms. Marone, whose pet project this has been since 1982, the most touching time was when a fellow who had AIDS won the robe.“The entire company almost cried as he proudly toured the stage.”

Though the dancer died a few months later, the image of him in the robe still lives in the minds of everyone who was on stage that afternoon.

Since the number of Broadway credits determines the winner, several people have worn a robe more than once…though not necessarily the same one.They've earned it by their hard work and persistence.

Some claim this charming tradition, which began as a lark and evolved into a touching ceremony (literally and figuratively) is due to superstition – claiming that most performers are very superstitious.

Ms. Thole humorously remarks, “I'm not very superstitious.But if I got a job wearing a certain leotard, I would often wear it to the next audition.If out of work, sometimes I allowed myself to buy my next opening night dress to put out good karma for a new job!”

Ms. Marone feels the tradition is continued because it gives chorus members an award of their own; a special moment of recognition on that all-important opening night.

Ms. Thole seconds that, noting, “It’s wonderful because it carries the hopes and dreams of all the other actors that have gone through the thrill and stress of an opening night onto your stage and backstage with you.Actors really are hopeful that all shows will be hits.”

One hit we can be sure of is the Gypsy Robe tradition.

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