In order to get the costumes and poses and lighting just so, I started to find out what I could about the photographs I was copying. The backs of the cards gave a clipped biography of the woman I was recreating, giving me leads of where to look. I scoured eBay for theatre programmes, publicity photos. I found special cigarette card fairs to complete my set and buy the files and folders to hold them. I’ve watched dozens of Hollywood musicals from the 20’s through to the 50’s. I bought biographies of dancers from around the time period. So, for example, I found myself reading about the life of a chorus girl, Constance Tomkinson, making her way around Europe in the 1930s. She writes of her time in Paris:
Bluebell was no shy, retiring flower, but a hardy Parisian perennial. She was a capable woman, and under that fragile exterior lurked a will of iron. ‘Do you want a job?’ Bluebell was speaking to me. ‘Yes,’ I said, somewhat taken aback. I had given up all hope. She gave me a careful appraising look from my open-toed sandals to my top curl. ‘When can you start?’
‘Oh-er, any time.
‘The pay is 550 francs a week.’ There was no nonsense about Bluebell. ‘Come back in fifteen minutes and I’ll take you out front to watch the show. You can go on tomorrow in the easy numbers.’Les Girls, Constance Tomkinson, 1956, London: Michael Joseph, p. 47-48
Thus, finding out about Miss Bluebell, I read her biography:
Bluebell realized that in her line of business there could be no greater goal than to be part of the Folies Bergère company–there was nowhere else in the world capable of presenting so many opportunities to an ambitious stage dancerBluebell, George Perry, 1986, London: Pavillion, p.52
Which lead me to two books on the Folies Bergère, one in particular written by Paul Derval the director between 1918 and 1966.
I will make a bet with you. Go and stand at the stage door of the Folies, any night, half an hour after the curtain comes down, and as the girls emerge, try your luck like a man.
Out of ten girls you attempt to lead astray, I wager that one will slap your face, two will lose their tempers, three will tell you icily where you get off and at least two will sail past you with their noses in the air. Reckon it up: you will see that the proportion of takers is not scandalous. A real womaniser would tell you that it is in fact low and that with ‘nice girls’ the risks of rebuffs would be considerably less.The Folies Bergère, Paul Derval, 1955, London: Methuen, p.25
I was in search of these particular performers, the nine women I was seeking to embody. I caught glimmers of a couple of performers who may have been one or two of them, but there were misspelled names. I was able to piece together a larger sense of what their lives were like, what their jobs entailed. But I found myself researching and researching and somewhat lost too–never quite finding what I was after. What was I after?