The Pony Ballet
The group of women who became world famous as The Pony Ballet were all trained by Professor Van Tiller at the Tiller Training School for dancing in London, making their debut on Boxing Night 1896.
Legend has it (or rather their clever promoter, James Lederer, claimed it) that he had been in England managing a production of The Belle of New York at the Shaftesbury Theatre when he was approached by a girl who persuaded him to go and watch her troop dance. He did and was so impressed that he engaged them immediately, placing them in his company as extras in order to keep their tightly synchronised style of dancing secret. His plan was to launch them in the new George W Lederer production of The Man in the Moon, which was opening in April 1899 at the New York Theatre, New York. The arrival of the Tiller Girl ensemble – Flo Farmer, Flo Glenville, Lizzie Lyons, Carrie Poltz, Eva Marlowe, Maud Corbett, Alice Donaldson, Ada Robertson, Marie Sanford, Sissie MacNeil, Lizzie Hawman, Mabel Sabin, Aida Harley, Jennie Makepeace, Maggie Taylor and Beatrice Liddell – was also kept secret before their debut performance.
The Man in the Moon was extremely popular running for 192 performances between April and November 1899. The British dancers were part of the larger cast but were specifically called on to perform The Jockey Chorus (also known as the Pony Ballet) which seems to have been a routine featuring a number of white horses but I have not found an exact description of the dance.
For this, the troop of 16 girls were paid $10 a week and performed their duties to mild acclaim for the run of the show before returning to London. Nine months later 8 of them (now billed as The Pony Ballet) returned to the United States to star in the revival of The Casino Girl, another Lederer production, where their main routine appears to have included a synchronised skipping rope dance.
The Belle of New York, 1896
The Pony Ballet in 1901
The Pony Ballet in 1902
And it is after the closing of The Casino Girl that we first see the personalities of this group of girls (most of them were under 16) who have travelled a long way from their roots in the North of England and London in such a short space of time.
After the play closed James Lederer apparently decided to keep them on salary but they were not happy with this and one day just disappeared. They press reported that they had accepted an engagement with a Colonel Hopkins and by August 1901 they were performing at Forest Park Highlands.
“We decided to be our own treasurers. Mr Lederer treated us fine and we like him… He agreed with our London manager to pay our expenses back home but he has no contract with our parents. We can do as we please.”
– Beatrice Hawman (St Louis Republic 12.08.1901)
Despite a little bit of backlash from the press, this move was a smart one and, basing themselves in Chicago, they performed in Vaudeville theatres within a 300-mile radius of the city. They went from strength to strength and ended up being one of the highest paid acts in Vaudeville – earning between $300 – $850 a week depending on the engagement.
But then tragedy struck in 1902 when, having been back at the Forest Park Highlands for a short tour, two of the group, Eugenie Makepeace and Carrie Poltz became very sick at their next engagement in Milwaukee. Carrie survived but Eugenie died in hospital of Typhoid Fever after being sick for 7 days. Eugenie’s body was sent back to England.
The group were devastated and refused all engagements for several months before returning to New York to start rehearsing Mr Bluebird as part of the Klaw and Erlanger Company. Dorothy Marlowe had been brought in to replace Eugenie and Lonie Hauman replaced Maggie Taylor who was performing in The Silver Slipper.
In January 1903 Mr Bluebeard opened at the Knickerbocker theatre and toured for the rest of the year before being transferred to the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago in December 1903. And it was here that the Pony Ballet were caught up in the fire that killed 602 people at that theatre on New Years Eve 1903. Although they had a lucky escape Dorothy Marlow was severely burned and her sister, Eve, was also badly injured. They also lost all of their costumes and equipment in the fire so were forced to go back to New York with a cancelled play and nothing else lined up.
By April 1904 they opened in Piff!, Paff!, Pouf! at the Casino Theatre in New York, a play produced by F.C Whitney. This play was a huge success running for 264 performances before being transferred to the Majestic Theatre and a country-wide tour. It was estimated that they would earn $20,000 for one year’s engagement.
In Piff!, Paff!, Pouf! they became especially well known for their Radium Dance which was described by many as the highlight of the show. It was so successful that they also danced it in Whitney’s next production, The Runaways, in 1905.
The Pony Ballet – now often referred to as the Original English Pony Ballet – to differentiate from others that had sprung up carried on their contract with Whitney and appeared in The Pink Hussars, Isle of Spice and His Honor the Mayor over the course of the next couple of years.
Again controversy and their wonderful determined nature hit when they strike after their contract with Whitney was taken over by an Alfred Aarons. Claiming that Aarons owed them $1,000 they threaten not to perform that night. Aarons was reported as being non-plussed about this and the company manager, Bill Sill, reports that foreseeing this problem, he has already called Tiller to bring ten more of the girls the week before and had been training them secretly.
As promised the 6 girls did not go on stage and instead, watching from the audience, saw “Alfred E. Aarons English Ponies” dance in their place. The good news is that they won their case against Aarons and the scenery, receipts and costumes of His Honor the Mayor were seized against the money that was owed to them. Now a group of 6 (Dorothy Marlowe, Ada Robertson, Louise Harmon, Elizabeth Harmon, Seppie McNeil and Beatrice Liddell) they went on to perform in The Blue Moon in New York and several other plays in London and New York over the next few years before eventually disbanding completely.