At the risk of sounding too teacher-ish, I’d like to write a bit on the woman pictured above. However, before I discuss Maria Gambarelli, it is fitting to mention that she is just one of many interesting characters I ran across researching River of January. It is also fair to say that Helen’s audition for Miss Gambarelli altered the course of Helen’s early career.
Born in the US to Italian parents , Miss Gambarelli began classical training at a young age. Crossing the Atlantic she studied ballet under famed Russian dancer, Anna Pavlova. Once back in New York, Miss Gambarelli performed with acclaim on American stages. After an appearance on a New York radio show, Gambarelli grew to be a celebrity among audiences not interested in ballet. In her interviews she shared stories of Italian origin, along with related folk songs. The host, Roxy Rothafel soon made Miss Gambarelli a regular on his program, raising her profile as a dancer.
Rothafel was the man behind the construction of the Roxy Theater, which opened in New York in the late 1920’s. Miss Gambarelli began a long term contract at the theater, performing for audiences with her company of principal ballerina’s called the Roxy-ettes. As you may have guessed, that dance line most likely evolved into the famed Radio City Rockettes. At least that’s the story I found. Nailing down the past is a dicey proposition, competing with numerous other theories. However, it does seem to flow.
This ties into my book because Helen danced for Miss Gambarelli in 1932. The soloist had been engaged by investors to lead a dance company on a tour of European cities. The company titled “The American Beauties,” was slated to perform first in Paris, then to Brussels, Monte Carlo, and ending in Erba, Italy. I found in Helen’s papers that the backers worked through the William Morris Agency in New York, in conjunction with the Lartique Agency on the Champs Elysee in Paris.
Helen successfully won a spot with the troupe, and began rehearsals with ten other girls in New York. Then the dancers experienced a near mythical crossing on the SS Ile de France to Le Havre, and by rail to Paris–all in Miss Gambarelli care.
After the endless training, all of the traveling, all of the money spent in promotion–the tour faced failure. After only two weeks of performing at the “Le Ambassadeurs” club in Paris, Miss Gambarelli quit the tour. And not only did she quit, she turned around and sued Lartique for breech of contract. Miss Gambarelli wasn’t being treated up to her expectations, nor was she allowed to maintain control over the music, or the choreography of the production. So she quit.
When I wrote about this episode in the book I needed to find the right word to describe Miss Gambarelli’s behavior. I couldn’t use diva, because that’s a term that didn’t become a pejorative until today. Prima-donna is a tough one too. In fact spell-check doesn’t even recognized Prima-donna, let alone touch on its meaning.
But, if anyone fitted the term, it was Maria Gambarelli.
In the end the tour carried on without it’s star, and evolved over time into a broader variety program. A new headliner re-tooled the production adding more song and dance, enjoying great success by the time Helen left for New York in 1933.
The show must go on.