Celebrity for the week ending
Saturday, 19 May 2001

Barbette (Van der Clyde Broodway, 1899-1972)
American born international wire walker, aerialist and female impersonator


(photo: unknown, probably Paris, circa 1924)

‘On stage, against black velvet curtains appeared a young woman in a silvery-gold wig topped with plumes and feathers, with a train of rich lamé and silver lace, undressing on a couch of rich oriental carpets. The woman then rose, naked except for the gems on her breast and belly, and began walking a [low] steel tight-rope. Her eyes shaded green, like some mysterious Asiatic jewel, she walked backwards and forwards along the tight-rope, dispensed with her balancing-pole, and contorted her thin, nervous body as the entire audience held its breath… Then Barbette leapt down on to the stage, gave a bow, tore off her wig and revealed a bony Ango-Saxon acrobat’s head: gasps from the astonished audience, shattered by the sudden brutality of the action.
‘The Music-Hall has always had its female impersonators. But no one went further in the cult of sexual mystification than this young man who transformed himself into a jazz-age Botticelli…’
(Jacques Damase, Les Folies du Music-Hall; A History of the Paris Music-Hall from 1914 to the Present Day, English translation of the original 1960 French edition, Anthony Blond Ltd, London, 1962, p.30)

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Van de Clyde Broodway, known to the world in the 1920s and 1930s as Barbette, was born in Round Rock, Texas, on 20 December 1899. He began his career as a wire-walker with the Ringling Brothers’ circus but drifted into female impersonation after he replaced at short notice an ailing member of the Alfaretta Sisters trapeze act. In 1923 he was engaged for vaudeville by Thomas Barrasford at the Alhambra Music Hall, Paris, before moving on later that year to feature in the Casino de Paris revue, Y a qu’a Paris. Billed in this as ‘Barbette the Enigma,’ he caused a sensation at what proved to be the beginning of a highly successful international career. Broodway returned to the United States at the outbreak of the Second World War, but in 1942 he fell during a performance and sustained a serious injury. He subsequently became a circus producer and died on 5 August 1972.

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© John Culme, 2001