Treading the Boards with Wo/men at Work: An Orpheum Theater Circuit Contract with Ballet Dancer Simeon Karavaeff and His Four Stepping Sisters, Los Angeles, 2 October 1925

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As has been frequently noted on this blog, as greater Los Angeles experienced enormous growth during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were so many areas in which this was manifested, including in entertainment. Though the Angel City did, for example, host touring companies of theatrical companies, orchestras, and others as far as back as the 1870s, when the town underwent its first significant and sustained period of expansion, the trend greatly magnified with the boom of the 1880s, centered during the mayoral term of William H. Workman in 1887-1888, and subsequently.

Exponential development from the turn of the new century meant a corollary rise in entertainment options with traveling troupes, as well as home-grown talent, not to mention the atmospheric rise of the motion picture industry, so that, by the 1920s, when another massive boom was underway, Los Angeles was a major entertainment center in a comprehensive manner. One of the more interesting trends was the merging of live and filmed performances on a bill in theaters, though the continuing ascent of the movies meant a corresponding descent in certain stage presentations, including vaudeville, so that separation of the two became more marked.

Eau Claire [Wisconsin] Leader-Telegram, 4 December 1921.

The featured artifact from the Homestead’s holdings for this post is a rare contract between an artist and a theater, this one being a 2 October 1925 agreement between the “Junior Orpheum Los Angeles,” part of the nationwide Orpheum Circuit, comprising some forty venues, and Karavaeff and Company, a quartet of dancers and a violinist led by Russian-born ballet dancer Simeon Karavaeff (1890-1972). The document stipulated that Karavaeff agreed that his troupe would perform “Dancing & Violin” for three shows daily for a week beginning with a matinee on Monday, 4 January 1926 at the Hillstreet Theatre, for which the ensemble would be paid $1,235.

There were nineteen conditions related to transportation; an unplanned closure of the venue; exclusivity during the contracted period, including a ban on radio appearances; copyright; change in the ensemble; agreement of the artist to join a revue or “after-piece” if so requested and without additional compensation; publicity; rehearsals; non-appearance; the artist’s status as an independent contractor; a guarantee that “the said act has never been presented, played or advertised under the above or any other name in the aforesaid city within one year; and, lastly, the agreement could be cancelled if intoxication from alcohol or drugs or other “conduct detrimental to the Theatre” was found “in the opinion of the Manager.”

New York Herald, 4 June 1922.

At the bottom were the initials of a Junior Orpheum Los Angeles official and Karavaeff, who also provided his New York City address, while the cast names were also provided, including dancers Joyce Coles, Beatrice Carr and Kitty French, as well as violinist Sylvia Buckley. In addition to listing the other venues in the Orpheum chain, there was a special notice that there was no promise by or for either party regarding “the act’s position on the bill, dressing room, advertising or any other thing whatsoever” unless specified on the contract, which was not so done with this example.

Simeon Vasiliy Karavaeff was born on Valentine’s Day 1895 in St. Petersburg, Russia. According to a brief biography in the 23 February 1925 edition of the Los Angeles Times, he was “born of humble parentage,” but showed early talent in dancing at the age of 4 or 5. By age 10, he was a professional and, within a few years, “a featured star of the Imperial Opera Ballet, when he was honored for his artistic achievements by the Czar.”

From the Special Collections Division of the University of Washington Libraries.

With the onset of the Russian Revolution, the account continued, “its burdens descended on Karavaeff with exceptional weight” because “born without thumbs, the dancer was ineligible for any army service.” It was stated, though, that he gave “two years of the most strenuous service, from one camp to another, from one hospital to another, to keep the spirit of Russia’s fighting forces by the fire of his dancing.”

The married performer, moreover, spent two years trying to flee “Red Russia” with he and his wife finally getting passage to England, though his goal of coming to America was stymied because government officials rejected his application to migrate because the lack of thumbs was perceived to be a barrier to his making a living.

Los Angeles Express, 19 January 1925.

The account continued,

Finally, he was discovered by Anna Pavlowa [Pavlova, the world-famous ballerina who also fled Russia and formed her company, the Ballet Russe], who recognized the extraordinary ability of her countryman and made him a member of her company, bringing him to America.

Karavaeff was a featured member during tours of the United States with Pavlova in 1921 and 1922, after which he was signed to be part of the well-known Ziegfeld Follies. He performed with that troupe for almost two years, including more touring of the country, before he “decided to try his own wings, and organized an act for the Orpheum Circuit.” Notably, his group had a broadened palette of pieces, as the Times noted, “although Russian numbers are its outstanding feature . . . [the company members] offer several ballet numbers, a Bowery clog dance, an acrobatic, and a jazz toe dance.”

Los Angeles Times, 22 February 1925.

Karavaeff brought his “Company of Four Stepping Sisters” to Los Angeles and the Orpheum in mid-January 1925, with his cast including Coles, who was recommended to him by Pavlova when he decided to step out on his own, Muriel Kaye, Edith Mai and Charlotte Carmen. Grace Kingsley, a Times entertainment critic, observed in the 20 January edition of the paper that the act was “rather thin” as acrobatic dancing was not Kingsley’s favorite type of “hot-footing.”

She did allow that the leader’s “pirouettes and jigging are great,” but she was more impressed with one of the women dancers, who was not identified, though Kaye’s name was in a larger size than the others in advertisements and note the reference to Coles below, writing, “there’s a dancer with Karavaeff that the picture people are foolish if they let get out of town.”

Times, 23 February 1925.

In February, the troupe was engaged for another week at the circuit’s other Angel City venue, the Hillstreet, which opened in March 1922 at Hill and 8th streets, and it was during that run that the aforementioned sketch of Karavaeff’s life was published in the Times. In early December, the quintet returned to the Orpheum, but only Coles remained as Buckley, Carr and French comprised the remainder of the group.

The featured star of the program was Charlotte Greenwood, a tall, extraordinarily limber and very talented actor, dancer and singer who appeared regularly on stage in the Teens and Twenties had many subsequent memorable film appearances from the late-1920s through the mid-1950s.

Times, 29 November 1925.

Another Times bio appeared in its issue of 29 November and it was not materially different from the earlier sketch, though it said he was from “a family of eight workers,” was self-taught and began “at age four on top of a table.” After noting his Revolution-era activities, including dancing for Czar Nicholas II just three weeks prior to the outbreak of battle, and flight from the Bolsheviks, the paper added that he was “here only four years but learning our language so that he talks with the fluency of a native son.” The piece also noted that Coles was a veteran of several years with Pavlova and “was a conspicuous soloist” before she, with the legend’s blessing, joined Karavaeff.

Kingsley reviewed the performance on 1 December and observed that “high-class stepping with Karavdeff [sic] and company, with Terpsichore’s stuff registered in everything from jigging to toe-work [ballet], chalks up an altitudinous entertainment average.” It was added that “Joyce Coles is beautiful enough that she doesn’t need to know how to dance,” but she was praised for being “finely-trained, but not over-trained to the point of jerkiness” and “remains graceful, flexible, [and] completely a darling.” The critic added, “if [motion] pictures don’t page her, pictures lose.”

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 29 November 1925.

With respect to the leader, he “is excellently trained, but he didn’t let Russian Imperial Ballet memories kid him out of learning regular classy, if not classic, buck-and-wing hoofing.” The other dancers “hold up the record on looks and ability” while Buckley was praised for “putting over a violin solo sweetly.”

The Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, also of the 1st, opined that

For a fine, fast dancing number, Karavaeff can always be counted on. He has practically the same settings as last time and several of the same dancers, including graceful Joyce Coles. The entire act was well staged and it was enthusiastically received.

Then, there was the early October signing of Karavaeff and his “Four Singing Sisters” for the week in early January 1926 at the Hillstreet. The Los Angeles Express of New Year’s Day discussed the bill, including the headliner, “mental wizard” Harry Kahne, who “does six things at one time, talking [to the audience while], writing, adding and working out puzzles,” including crosswords upside down or writing headlines backwards or writing words simultaneously with each hand, foot and mouth.

Express, 4 January 1926.

Another notable performer was Olive Ann Alcorn, an actor and dancer best known for her “artistic nude” photos and whose “Beauty Sculpture” interpretive dance had an adjunct lecture to women on a Wednesday morning on the subject. As for Karavaeff, it was briefly stated that he “returns with his company of terpsichore [dance] artists in a new dance.”

On the 5th, the paper reviewed the opening night, including comedian Claudia Coleman, who impressed the unnamed reviewer with her interpretations of a club woman, a perpetually complaining naysayer, a flapper and more. Kahne, it was written, had “ample opportunity to exhibit his cerebral prowess,” while Alcorn’s “Venus-like proportions” were deemed “a valuable asset to the number” she performed, thought it was added that the dancer “scorns to be, in the parlance of slang, ‘a covered wagon.'” As for Karavaeff and company, their performances were deemed “graceful terpischorean creations,” even if “whether the company ever saw Russia is a matter for speculation,” though “this lithe band performs Muscovite numbers with fire and vigor.”

Karavaeff performed a few times in Los Angeles through the end of the Roaring Twenties, including in a 1929 piece called “Jazz Temple” at the Loew’s State Theatre and his last located local appearance was two years later. As vaudeville faded in popularity, he seems to have largely remained on the east coast, serving as a master of ceremonies at nightclubs in Washington, D.C. and New York as well as for the well-known Don Cossack Choir, which was created in the turmoil of the Russian Revolution by men who fought for the Czar and were imprisoned in a camp by the Bolsheviks. He died in March 1972 and was briefly recalled for his work with Pavlova, the Ziegfeld Follies and his club and choir MC work.

It is somewhat unusual to find entertainment contracts from the Homestead’s interpretive era, though one, for Russian-born actor Olga Baclanova, has been featured on this blog before, so this example is striking for its connection to another Russian immigrant, to 1920s vaudeville, and to the Orpheum Theater circuit in the Angel City.

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