Thursday, August 13, 2009


Van der Clyde Broadway was born somewhere in Central Texas. Like most things in his life, the specifics were up for debate. He listed his father's name as 'Henry Broadway' (his name was probably Jeff); he listed his mother's name as 'Mrs. E.S. Loving' (her name was Hattie Wilson).

Barbette: "The first time [my mother] took me to the circus in Austin, I knew I would be a performer, and from then on I'd work in the fields during the cotton-picking season to earn money in order to go to the circus as often as possible."

So he graduated high school early, at the age of fourteen, and auditioned for an act in San Antonio. It was a sisters' circus act. One of the sisters had died unexpectedly and he answered an ad to be her replacement. He got it.

Barbette: "She told me that women's clothes always make a wire act more impressive...and she asked me if I'd mind dressing as a girl. I didn't; and that's how it began."

He became known as Barbette over time; he had picked the name himself. To him Barbette sounded exotic and could have meant almost anything. He was advertised as a 'versatile specialty.' He performed as a female impersonator in every act - tightrope walker, aerialist, acrobat, vaudevillian, trapeze artist - for the rest of his life. At the very end of every show he would disrobe, remove his wig and strike rather typically masculine postures.

Jean Cocteau: "[He] plays the part of a man. He rolls his shoulders, stretches his hands, swells his muscles...And after the fifteenth or so curtain call, he gives a mischievous wink, shifts from foot to foot, mimes a bit of an apology, and does a shuffling little street urchin dance -- all of it to erase the fabulous, dying-swan impression left by the act."

After a fall and subsequent injury, he endured rehabilitation to walk again and years of chronic pain. He continued to choreograph for everything from an Orson Welles produced musical to the creation of an aerial ballet for Disney. He committed suicide at the age of 74.