This week, guest blogger Sunny Stalter-Pace marks the 50th anniversary of dancer and choreographer Gertrude Hoffmann's death with a post sharing some information about Hoffmann's early life and career. Stalter-Pace is writing a biography of Hoffmann and has used the Gertrude Hoffmann Collection here at the Brooklyn Collection as part of her research.
Gertrude Hoffmann (1885-1966) enjoyed a long career as a performer, choreographer, and producer. Brooklynology introduced the versatile vaudevillian in a blog post that’s now more than 5 years old; it followed that post with another on her most famous act, the scandalous “Vision of Salome” dance. Since October 21 will mark 50 years since her death in Los Angeles, now is a good time to look back on her early career. Her remarkable life on stage is outlined in a typed resume titled “Gertrude Hoffmann: Experiences and Credits” that is part of the Gertrude Hoffmann Collection at the Brooklyn Public Library.
Born Catherine Gertrude Hay in San Francisco, Gertrude Hoffmann changed her name several times early on. She was Kitty Hayes at the Alcazar Theater, then Gertrude Hayes at the Grand Opera House. (These stage names, plus the German character actress named Gertrude Hoffman whose career overlapped with hers, have made it tough to pin down some of the basic chronology of Hoffmann’s life.) She performed as a dancer in the pantomimes, operettas, and extravaganzas that were popular in the late Victorian era. As a member of the Belasco Stock Company, she supported stars of the day such as Florence Roberts and Eddie Foy.
Gertrude played the punningly named “Miss Judge” in the San Francisco tryout of The Night of the Fourth. When the touring company left for New York, she went with them. The show was a failure, playing a mere 14 shows at Oscar Hammerstein’s Victoria Theater. But one thing came out of it that was a success: Gertrude married the show’s music director Max Hoffmann in 1901.
In the early years of the twentieth century, Gertrude and Max worked in a touring stock theater group called the Bijou Musical Comedy Company. He wrote the songs, and she staged the dance numbers and performed in the shows. One collaboration was “Sadie My Creole Lady,” a song that debuted in the Bijou show called What Happened to Jones? On the cover of the song’s sheet music an illustration of the titular Sadie seems to make coy eye contact with the viewer. An inset photograph of Gertrude Hoffmann shows her propped on one elbow, reading on a bench. This is no modest ingénue, though: she posed in such a way that her legs, clad in striped tights, are exposed up to the knee. Gertrude’s tights – or lack thereof – would become an important sticking point in her later dances.
Source: Historic American Sheet Music, David M. Rubinstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Members of the Bijou Company traveled to Brooklyn on Labor Day weekend in 1902 to help open the fall season at the Orpheum Theater. The Orpheum was located on Fulton Street and Rockwell Place, near the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Gertrude Hoffmann appears on the top of the Orpheum Bill with fellow Bijou stock company member Little Chip and the New York Theater Ballet. They performed what the Brooklyn Daily Eagle termed a “novel singing and dancing act, ‘My Zulu Lu,’ which has been the hit of the summer season at the New York Theater Roof Garden” (August 31, 1902). This fake African number appeared on the same bill as a duo whose importance to African American theater cannot be overstated: Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson, brother and sometimes collaborator of Harlem Renaissance man James Weldon Johnson.
When she appeared at the Orpheum again in 1907, Hoffmann shared a bill with another innovator, cartoonist Winsor McCay. Hoffmann had established herself as a solo performer, one who focused on celebrity imitations. An advertisement in the Brooklyn Public Library’s Gertrude Hoffman Collection shows her as a dainty puppeteer. She sits on her suitcase, holding the strings that lead to celebrity puppets like George M. Cohan, dancer Adeline Genée, and vaudeville’s reigning bad girl Eva Tanguay. Individually they may have been more famous than Hoffmann, but she could bring them all to life onstage.
I’ve only touched on the first decade of Hoffmann’s more than forty years onstage. Some highlights of her later acts included counterfeit Russian ballets, snake dances, and acrobatic acts that would rival present-day Cirque du Soleil. But there was one constant from her early days. In a life otherwise marked by constant change, Gertrude married her music director Max in 1901 and stayed married to him until his death in 1963.
Source: Gertrude and Max Hoffmann Papers, Special Collections & Archives, Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Wake Forest University.
Sunny Stalter-Pace is writing a biography of Gertrude Hoffmann. She is an associate professor in the English Department at Auburn University, where she teaches modern drama, American literature, and critical theory. Her first book, Underground Movements: Modern Culture on the New York City Subway, was published by University of Massachusetts Press in 2013. Find her on Twitter at @slstalter.
Note: Previous posts on this blog had spelled Hoffmann’s name with only one N, but primary source documentation spells it with both one and two Ns. In this post, we defer to the expertise and research of our guest blogger, who determined it should be spelled with two Ns based on the spelling of Hoffmann's legal married name.