Thursday, February 1, 2024

'The Girards': deciphering the gymnastic comedy actors.


Last week, the Operetta Research Centre asked me for any info that I had on the Girards.


Yes, well. I must have. Well-known, of course. Acrobats, trapezists, burlesque and comic gymnasts and dancers ... As with other such acts of a visual nature, they travelled beyond the limits of the English-speaking world and the name of 'Girard' became internationally known. As well as widely appropriated. But I had very little. Beyond the Soldene-Morton connection, they hadn't impinged on the front page of my work  ..

A Girard group, probably 1896

Girard is not such an uncommon name, but I thought I'd at least have a try at sorting out their histories. I've spent a whole day at it. And I've ended up with as many questions as answers. But I'll expose here what I have worked out ...

The first appearance of 'les frères Girard(s)' (sic) and their 'double-trapeze' comes to me at a familiar venue. The Philharmonic Hall in Islington. 1867. During its pre-Emily Soldene existence as a music hall. No announcement, that I can find, as to its being a first appearance, so maybe it wasn't. No mention, that I can find, of them in France. But they are top of the bill. The English James Ellis (b Manchester 1830) 'eminent professor of gymnastics and Manager of the Canterbury Hall', formerly gym instructor at Glasgow's Ibrox Park Academy, later manager of the Leeds Princess's, and the agent for a number of acrobatic acts, advertised himself, a year or three later, as their instructor. He had some pretty good pupils such as Eurardo (eig Joseph Rowley) 'the spiral ascensionist'. So, were the 'brothers' Scots? Well, wherever they came from, they were not, it seems, 'brothers', but they clearly had been at the gymnastic business for a while already. The press commented on their bulgingly muscled arms. I also notice they were billed on top of an Ellis acrobatic bill as 'the Brother Gerrard'. Hmmm. Shall we ever know?

They performed, with considerable success, at Gatti's, for Charles Morton at the North Woolwich Gardens and the Canterbury Hall (with Soldene, then at the head of The Revels of the Gymnasts), I see them at Portsmouth's South of England Music Hall, the Star in Liverpool, the Holborn Amphitheatre (all top dates, and still two performers) until mid 1870. Then they shoot off somewhere ...  just before the 1871 census, dammit.

The next sighting of 'The Brothers Girard' is at the Bowery Theatre in January 1872. And, at last, there are prenoms: Emile, Julian and Russell(e). Three of them. And the act seems a bit different - a not uncommon thing, nevertheless, in polyvalent circus circles -- 'excellent comic dancing', Legerdemania, Caperonicon -- we are into Clodoches territory. In 1873 they were a spesh in a revival of Black Crook at Niblo's, and in Humpty Dumpty with George Fox .. 


Tremendous thought.  Are these Girards the same Girards as the British ones? I think, maybe not. For an ad in the Hampshire press announces in September 1872 'the Brothers Girard, star gymnasts and vaulters'. May 1872 they are 'the French trapezists and clowns' at Derby. 1873 Derby: 'The European Wonders the Freres Girard in their dashing and rapid trapeze performance'


And meanwhile a 'Frank Girard' had appeared at Pastor's doing a nigger act, a Prosper Girard was 'harpist and bird imitator' on the halls, and an 'Eddie Girard' (Edward Gerard) was coming up in the minstrel line ...and a Willie Girard whose real name was Maloney ...

Willie Maloney 'Girard'

Sadly, I have not yet wholly deciphered the various teams, but I deeply suspect that the team at the Bowery were all or mostly American. I know Russell(e) was. He was J Dutton Russell Clarke from Brighton, Mass and he died in Boston 28 August 1876 aged 29.

However, the bit of their lives which got me into this was the trio's -- and yes, confirmedly Emile, Julian and Russell 'from Niblo's Gardens' -- visit they paid to Australia (arrived by the Mongol from CaliforniaMay 1874). They and their smash hit act were used by the venial playwright Marcus Clarke to try to cast impurity on the shows staged by the excellent H R Harwood in yet another tale of newspaper 'vengeance'. Why? Because Emile began the act in grotesque female costume. Just like the Clodoches. Clarke's reputation will remain forever besmirched (just like Walt Whitman's) by this piece of cheap-fictional journalism. The Australian papers, typically, described the act in much more detail than their Northern Hemisphere confreres ...

The Girards played the best part of a year in Australia with ubiquitous success, survived (with injuries) a gas explosion in the Theatre, a rumoured bout of consumption for Russell, and left in 1875 ...

Russell's death -- and he seems to have been the moving cog in the organisation of the act -- left them adrift, but, by 1876, they were back on the American scene doing the 'most startlingly grotesque act ever' with a certain 'Robert Girard' replacing Russell. Robert was American as well, and Allister Hardiman has identified him as being Robert Hanna Durlee or Durié or other (b San Francisco c 1855; d Carmel, Cal 4 October 1935). 

Anyway, Robert didn't last more than a few years. He walked out on the troupe while they were playing at Paris's Folies Bergère, in 1880, and went home to the US of A (and his family) where he worked in various Californian theatrical jobs thereafter. The 'original' Girards, and their second morphosis were done. 

The other thing that had happened was that Emile had acquired a 'wife'. She was actually someone else's, but ... Kate Perrin (b Tasmania 12 February 1860) was apparently an expert highkicker. She also did not marry Emile in New Zealand in 1878-9 as alleged. She sued husband George Fawcett Rowe for divorce in 1879 ... anyway she was billed already as 'Kate Girard' and, unless proven otherwise, de facto-ed until her death from pneumonia in New York in 1897 (31 December).

After Robert's defection, there was a Joseph who joined Emile and Kate for a while. Julian compiled a troupe of his own 'the marvellous Girards' (increased from 3 to 4) and had a fine London season incliuding the Covent Garden panto. In 1881 the Era newspaper posted three adjacent ads -- Emile 'the original' (with Kate and Joseph), an ephemeral Lucien 'having seceded from ...' 'at the Casino, Lyon' and Julian with a small troupe ('Frederick, Victor and Marius' all dubbed Girard) and large advertising by a noisy agent ..



The British census of 1881 gives Julian as 'born America c1849' and a companion 'George Girard', also from over the water. George?  I suspect this of being a landlady's guesstimate. We are told that in 1882 Julian suffered an injury and had to withdraw from his troupe. I don't see the marvellous lot again until the following Christmas. And after 1884, not at all. Anyway, I assume he is the Julian Girard who took part in a few subsequent West End pantos ... and probably the Julian Girard who died in Croydon, under that name, in 1901. Aged 52. 


Emile ...? Well, Kate died as 'Girard'. Maybe it was his real name. Various little newspaper paras mention the name therafter. I suspect sometimes Emile is mixed up with Eddie. He was reported as being at the Orpheum, Los Angeles in 1906. There was one of his name who died in LA on 20 December 1912. Born Ancelles, Provence 21 April 1856. Bit late? Nope, he's a total red herring. I se he is now doing hat-spinning ..e he and Kate back in Australia in 1895 ..


A team named 'the Trio Girard' toured France in 1896 ... a Gilbert Girard played the Alhmbra in 1907. The name had become a brand-mark for a certain type of performance.


Work very much in progress. Any assistance gratefully received!

1884. I wonder who was somersaulting whom by this time ... or is this someone merely burlesquing them?

And who is this? Louise Girard?  Hmmmm ....


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