October 7, 2015
Unusual Entertainment at Koster and Bial’s Gives a Sense of Life in Satan’s Circus
As described in our portrait of Satan’s Circus, this part of the Tenderloin was a raucous neighborhood where people could abandon themselves to drink, gambling and sex. However, a look at the entertainment at Koster and Bial’s, typical of the area and time, may give us an even better sense of the texture of the Satan Circus streets and the nature of their inhabitants.
As one reads through the newspaper accounts of the time, one is astounded to find everything on the Koster & Bial’s program: trapeze artists, ventriloquists, primitive dancers, singers of all kinds, female male impersonators, and tableaux vivants. One could see how these would appeal to the raucous crowds described by the reviewers. More surprising, however, is that these entertainments shared the stage with burlesques on popular operettas of the time (such as the “Mikado,” “Pinafore,” and “La Belle Helene”), sacred concerts, and classical concerts of music by composers such as Brahms lead by the owner’s cousin Rudolf Bial, an accomplished violinist and operetta composer.
Here is a small selection that shows the breadth of the exotic acts that appeared at Koster & Bial’s, and the types of entertainment that characterized life in Satan’s Circus in the 1880s and 90s.
Yang-Yings, an Acrobatic Act
One of the most interesting reviews of a Koster & Bial’s amusement is one for an “artistic” acrobatic act. On August 24, 1885, The New York Times reported, “The Yang-Yings include two young men and one young woman, whose attire is deftly contrived to attenuate and elongate as much as possible their respective figures. The female Yang-Ying removes with her foot the hats of the male Yang-Yings, while the three indulge in a fanciful French dance, and afterwards, each of the male Yang-Yings seize the other by a leg and flings him about as if the limb were of rope instead of flesh and blood. Heavy falls all over the stage, sudden disappearances into barrels, and astounding doubling up of the human frame add to the variety of the proceedings, which are carried out to an accompaniment of stirring music.”
Professor Fox’s Bird Imitations and a Mixed Bill
On March 15, 1886, The New York Times described the cacophony of performers appearing on a single evening at Koster and Bial’s, “Professor’ Fox was down for imitations of birds of greater and lesser degree. . . Miss Ella Wesner revealed herself in her masculine impersonations. The evening was brought to a close, as heretofore, by selections from “The Princess de Trebizond” in which Miss Louis Lester is most conspicuous as a vocalist.”
Shakespearean Ghost Walk
It hardly seems possible that the low brow entertainment at Koster & Bial’s would include Shakespeare, but as The New York Times reported on October 16, 1888, “The Ghost in ‘Hamlet’ walked last evening across the stage at Koster & Bial’s with the assistance of John K. Newman, while James Owen O’Conor, the comic tragedian, dressed as the melancholy Dane tried in vain to declaim the immortal lines of Shakespeare. The audience was large, and it was madly enthusiastic for sport. After O’Conor had struggled bravely with the Shakespearean scene, he had the temerity to respond to a call for a speech. He spoke, but no one could distinguish a word so great was the uproar.”
Many trapeze and acrobatic acts appeared at Koster & Bial’s. Here are the acts on one evening as reported by The New York Times on February 12, 1889, “Emma Jutau has proved a great favorite at Koster & Bial’s, and her wonderful trapeze acts and aerial flights were warmly commended by the audience last night . . .Others taking part in the entertainment were the Rixford Brothers, gymnasts . . . and Vanol, a Mexican equilibrist.”
Visitors from Samoa
As described by The New York Times on October 19, 1889: “Eight Samoan warriors in full feather, or rather in full undress costume, appeared on the stage of Koster & Bial’s Concert Hall last night, and showed a big audience how they behave themselves in their native islands. They were headed by Chief Atafu, a stalwart Samoan, who was so dignified that he could condescend only to dance while the others clapped their hands and beat the stage floor with sticks in unison. Atafu is a fine-looking fellow in apparently perfect physical condition, wearing a gorgeous clout about his hips and nodding headdress of plumes. His companions danced and sang and had an exciting mock fight with single-sticks.
“All of the warriors are fine-looking men, their faces being intelligent and their features regular. Their skin is of the shade of the Malay, and their forms are exceedingly muscular. Manogi, one of the largest of the lot, gave an exhibition juggling with one of the keen edged knives used for beheading, and caused considerable enthusiasm.”
Quadrille Fin de Siècle
Mlles. Serpolette, Folette, Risette and Clair de Lune made their American debut at Koster and Bail’s in November 1892 dancing the “Quadrille Fin de Siècle.” The ladies were putatively Parisian cancan dancers, but it seems The New York Times was not convinced. In its unflattering review, The Times said, “At Koster & Bial’s last night the second half of the programme was made up of imported Parisian ‘specialties,’ which were loudly applauded by the motley crowd. A ‘quadrille fin de siècle’ was performed by four dancers who were supposed to hail from the Moulin Rouge, the home of high kicking and acrobatic performances, but from their comparatively slight knowledge of the figures of the dance, it is probably that, if they did come from Paris at all, it was from one of the smaller cafés. They are four very large and rather vulgar-looking women of mature years.”
The Oshkosh Daily Northwestern reported in its Monday, November 28th, 1892 edition: “New York has a new attraction at one of her music halls. The four French dancers, Mlles. Serpolette, Clair de Lune, Folette and Risette, who made their first appearance in this country last week on Koster & Bial’s concert hall stage, gave what may be safely called the most sensational terpsichorean exhibition that has ever been witnessed on the American stage. Their exhibition was anything but artistic, or even fetching. It consisted in a more than liberal display of lingerie, some very high kicking, squatting on the floor with legs stretched out at right angles, making somersaults and other feats of similar nature.”
The Hamilton Daily Democrat out of Ohio, seemed aghast at the exhibition, saying, “Imagine the dignity of a young woman sinking down to the floor her limbs at right angles to the body. The undignified phase is lost in the rapturous applause which comes from all parts of the house, even from the box tiers of the Four Hundred…”
Big Frank the Boxing Kangaroo
A huge hit in England, Big Frank was brought to New York by Frank Bostock, and first presented at Madison Square Garden on June 1, 1893. As The New York Times described the event, the kangaroo wore a pair of regulation boxing gloves on his forepaws and was over six feet tall when standing on his hind legs. As soon as Frank Bostock called “Time!” the kangaroo hopped nimbly on his hind legs to the center of the ring with his paws in correct boxing position. He followed his opponent all about the ring, and used a downward chopping movement with his gloved paws. Every time he took a blow from his opponent, he used his tail to keep his balance.
One month after his debut at the Garden, Big Frank was a headliner at Koster and Bial’s. He was such a big hit that he remained on the bill at Koster and Bial’s all summer.
Polaire (“Pole Star”) had a career that stretched from the 1890s to the mid-1930s. Moving from music hall singer in the 1890s, she became a famous stage actress at the beginning of the 20th Century, particularly known for her comedic roles, and in 1909, she made her first silent movie.
Once portrayed by Toulouse Lautrec on a magazine cover, she was strikingly exotic. She stood only 5 feet 3 inches tall. A brunette, she wore unusually heavy eye makeup, deliberately evocative of the Arab world. But most startling of all was her waist. At a time when tightlacing among women was in vogue, she was famous for her tiny, corsetted waist, which was reported to have a circumference no greater than 16 inches. This accentuated her large bust, which was said to measure 38 inches. All of this, coupled with her perchance for wearing very short skirts and cropped hair, fashions that did not become common in the rest of society until the 1920s, made her both famous and infamous.
Renowned for dancing the French version of Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay, she appeared at the new Koster and Bial’s at 34th Street on a number of occasions in the fall and winter of 1895. Her performance must have been quite a thing to see, based on this account from Jean Lorrain: “What a devilish mimic, what a coffee-mill and what a belly-dancer! Yellow skirt tucked high, gloved in open-work stockings, Polaire skips, flutters, wriggles, arches from the hips, the back, the belly, mimes every kind of shock, twists, coils, rears, twirls…trembling like a stuck wasp, meows, faints to what music and what words! The house, frozen with stupor, forgets to applaud.”
Nevertheless, all of this must have been typical and highly appreciated fare for the visitors to Satan’s Circus, because Koster and Bial’s succeeded with this type of entertainment for nearly 24 years. It certainly draws a picture of a multifaceted world of ribald and “high-tone” entertainment pushing up against the grander lifestyle along Broadway and Fifth Avenue, with their fine hotels, restaurants and theatres leading all the way up to the Metropolitan Opera House at 28th Street and Broadway. It’s no wonder grandees often could be found dallying in Satan’s Circus.
The New York Times, “Amusements — Koster & Bial’s,” November 26, 1881.
The New York Times, “Amusements — Koster & Bial’s,” June 15, 1885.
The New York Times, “Koster & Bial’s,” August 24, 1885.
The New York Times, “Amusements — Koster & Bial’s,” December 28, 1885.
The New York Times, “Koster & Bial’s,” March 15, 1886.
The New York Times, “Koster & Bial’s,” October 16, 1888.
The New York Times, “Koster & Bial’s,” February 12, 1889.
The New York Times, “Visitors from Samoa,” October 19, 1889.
The Hatching Cat
“1893: The Kangaroo That Kicked and Boxed at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall”
“Quadrille Fin de Siècle”
With citations of quotes as follows:
The New York Times, New York, Wednesday, 22 November 1892, p. 5
Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Monday, 28 November 1892, p. 4a
Hamilton Daily Democrat, Hamilton, Ohio, 17 December 1892, p. 3d
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