Ladies and gentleman, we are pleased to present to you, appearing for the first time on this stage, with athletic abilities that will amaze you and natural grace that will charm you, the internationally famous, world renowned and much beloved...
Here at the Brooklyn Collection, we are fortunate to house the personal papers, photographs and scrapbooks of the early 20th-century dancer, Gertrude Hoffman. Her name may not roll as readily off the tongue as that of Ruth St. Denis or Isadora Duncan in a discussion of modern dance pioneers, but she was nonetheless famous in her time for her efforts to raise dance to the level of high art. Hoffman was, after all, the first dancer to introduce American audiences to the much lauded Ballet Russes in 1911 (never mind that she did it by copying the famed troupe's routine after seeing them perform in Paris and then hiring U.S.-based dancers to tour with the act, essentially pirating the choreography). Her sometimes controversial career spanned four decades, from the turn of the century through the 1930s.
The busy dancer in a moment of studied repose.
Her career also spanned genres. In her early years, Hoffman was a comedic impressionist and jack-of-all entertainments on Broadway before moving on to high-art hoofing, and even songwriting, with the help of her husband, composer Max Hoffman.
Mixing what seems to be genuine artistic enthusiasm with a heavy dose of calculated opportunism, Hoffman's ever-evolving act was often at the leading edge of show business trends while toeing the line of public morality. It's a classic formula that's still employed by publicists and tabloids to thrust performers into the public eye.
Hoffman, left, impersonating... something.
Here's an image of Hoffman impersonating show biz king Flo Ziegfeld's paramour and muse, Anna Held. According to Ethan Mordden's "Ziegfeld: the Man Who Invented Show Business", Held and Hoffman performed the Maxixe dance together in 1906. Hoffman dressed in drag to play the man and, in turn, shocked audiences.
Taking on ever more artistic control while launching ever larger stage spectacles, she eventually created the Gertrude Hoffman Girls troupe, which ranged from 16 to 25 dancers. Hoffman choreographed their massive ensemble pieces with dozens of costumes, lavish sets, and athletic dancing timed with the machinelike precision popularized by Busby Berkeley.
Severely bobbed Gertrude Hoffman Girls form an intimidating dance line.
I am still processing the collection, which fills three large boxes and includes dozens of fragile photographs, newspaper clippings and promotional posters. While these materials richly illustrate the story of Hoffman's life, they do not tell the whole story. Many of these materials are undated, out of any chronological order, and in very fragile condition. It takes a bit of effort and patience to connect the visually captivating scraps of ephemera into a broader, cohesive narrative of Hoffman's professional career
Full-page ad from Hoffman's vaudeville days, a bit crumbly and undated.
Piecing together Hoffman's personal biography comes with challenges as well -- she seems to have disappeared from the stage and the public eye in the late 1930s and is often confused with at least one other Gertrude Hoffman, a German-born actress who appeared in Hitchcock films and the 1950s sitcom My Little Margie. We do not even know, yet, how long our Hoffman lived in Brooklyn, although an Eagle clipping attests that she was building a oceanfront cottage in the Sea Gate community on Coney Island in 1911.
Hoffman frolicks as a sea-nymph in a risque photo shoot, circa 1914.
All I have discovered thus far about Hoffman is, while fascinating, too much to cover in one humble blog post. Tune in next time, when I will turn to the pages of our own Brooklyn Daily Eagle -- which regularly covered the triumphs, scandals, and foibles of the dancer -- to delve a little deeper into the glamorous life of this Brooklyn resident and world-famous entertainer. Until then, enjoy "The Gertrude Hoffman Glide", a song Hoffman's husband penned just for her and which appeared in the review that aptly sums up Hoffman's own career trajectory, From Broadway to Paris.