Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Nella Fontaine Binckley: "Odds and Ends from an Artist's Life," Chapter VI, Part 3

[Nella Fontaine Binckley, "Odds and Ends from an Artist's Life," Chapter VI, part 3. From a transcription annotated by Patricia D'Arcy Binckley of typewritten original, February 25, 2005. Original "written some time after 1941 by Nellie F. Binckley, 1860-1950 or 51." Notes in brackets are mine, unless followed by the initials "P.D.B." Occasionally, additional paragraph breaks inserted for easier reading. 

Many thanks to William Myers, Mary Davy, Sally Young and Sue Davis for their ongoing research collaboration; specifically to William for providing a scan of the original document, and in turn many thanks to Peter Binckley and Patricia D'Arcy "Trish" Binckley (1951-2007), at the source.]

Some of the musical people of Lynchburg got up a sort of musical club, and we gave several of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. It was no end of fun. For the actual performance we imported professionals from New York for the leading parts, and hired what costumes we needed. But we did the rest. 

I was only in the chorus. I did have an infinitesimal role as Lady Saphir in Patience [italics added] [1881]. Our Bunthorne, Patience and Grosvenor were professionals. However, we did have some local talent. Dave Gregory had a splendid bass voice, and Otway Owen's voice was very good. They were two of the three dragoons. I have forgotten the third. Their uniforms were hired from New York. During the performance, with a large audience filling the Opera House, a considerable rip appeared in one of Dave's trouser legs, to his agonized apprehension and the smothered giggles of the rest of us.

Patience [italics added], as everyone knows, was a satire on the aesthetic movement started by Oscar Wilde, and which was then sweeping England. One aesthete had his home done over in the Queen Anne style, and would not allow a daily newspapers in the house, declaring it an anachronism. Oscar Wilde made a trip to the United States, but didn't seem to have made much of a hit. His manner was rather lofty and condescending. Of course he was entertained by the smart set. He remarked to one hostess, "Your country is so very new. No ruins, no curiosities." She replied, "Our ruins we shall have in time. As for our curiosities," -- she looked at him -- "we import them."

Our aesthetic gowns were long and slinky, high girdled, our hair loose and flowing. I made my dress of white cheesecloth and painted a tall sunflower -- life size -- along up the front. The curtain rises on the first act showing the twenty lovesick maidens. Those were the days of Delsarte, another aesthete, and his maxim was "Never stand when you can sit, and never sit when you can lie down."

So all twenty of us were lying on the floor. Some held musical instruments. They gave me a tambourine. And for some reason, perhaps because my hair was longer than most, put me in the middle of the front row. Next day a lady calling on us asked me which one I was. I replied, "The one with the tambourine." She exclaimed, "Was that you? Why, you looked perfectly beautiful! I never would [have] known you!" In the other acts I carried in my hand a single long peacock feather.

When we were dressing before the performance, being amateurs, none of us had any rouge. In those days rouge was considered the hallmark of ladies who were no better that [than?] they should be. It must be admitted however that some ladies of unquestioned respectability owned rouge. But they applied it very delicately and it was all very sub rosa. We realized that the footlights made rouge necessary, and of course on the stage it was all right. 

One of the girls announced that she had found by rubbing a damp coth over an artificial rose, she could get the dye to come off. So the red rose and the damp cloth were passed around, and soon we all had blooming cheeks which we toned down with plenty of face powder. After the performance, when we got into our street clothes, we made the alarming discovery that the red rose dye was indelible! We couldn't wash it off. Water only made it brighter. We went home with it on. And Mother wouldn't let me out of the house for several days till it finally wore off. For the other operas -- [T]he Mikado [1885] and [H.M.S.Pinafore [Italics added] [1878] -- we used it very gingerly, and remained in retirement afterwards for as long as necessary. 

Our operas were pronounced very successful, and our group was invited to sing in chorus at a music festival in Petersburg some time after. The Hahrs invited me to stay with them. I remember seeing there the old Bolling place with big grounds and lots of trees. President Wilson's second wife was a Bolling of Petersburg. The Bollings and several other Virginian families claimed to be descended fro Pacahontas. But I never could see how they managed it, as Pocahontas had only one child[,] who died in infancy.

After we came back to Lynchburg, we got up to Mrs. Jarley's Waxworks which everyone found very amusing. They made me the Maid With the Golden Locks. My hair was loose and covered me completely. My left hand protruded, holding a bottle. Every now and then my right hand, making jerky movements as if worked by machinery, would come out, reach over to the bottle tipped over by the left hand and rub imaginary hair tonic on the top of my head. Another time we had Bluebeard. When Sister Anne opened the forbidden door and looked in she saw a horrific sight. The wives' heads hung on a wall by their hair in a ghastly row. We cut holes in a burlap screen, our heads were in the holes and our hair was pulled up and fastened to big hooks above. It was horribly convincing, they told me.

We had shadow pictures, too. That was lots of fun. We had a large sheet stretched tight on a framework. Curtains on each side of the sheet blocked off the stage. A single very bright lamp stood on the floor inside, opposite the middle off the sheet. The audience was in darkness. The performers went through a pantomime, their shadows showing sharply on the sheet. For the exits the performer walked toward the lamp and his shadow shot upward and disappeared, giving a startling effect.    

[Ellen/Nellie/Nella Fontaine Binckley (September 1, 1860-April 27, 1951). Family names and dates were whimsically tweaked by their owners during their lifetime, adding mystery and sometimes causing confusion. For Binckley's "Artist's Life," I'm opting for the full artist's signature name, Nella Fontaine Binckley.

Grandmother = Jane Johnston Mitchell/Michel (1811-1892).
Aunt Sue = Sue Henry Mitchell/Michel Taliferro (1845-1940).
Mother = Mary Louisa Mitchell/Michel Binckley (1838-1930).

Dave Gregory = probably David P. Gregory, Sr. (1854-1911) of Lynchburg.
Otway Owen = probably William Otway Owen (1820-1892) of Lynchburg.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).
President Wilson's second wife = Edith Bolling Galt Wilson (1872-1961).]

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