Tribute to Nikita Balieff

O. O. McIntyre

Chattanooga News/September 29, 1936

New York Sept 20—There was a vivid collection of real life triumph and tragedy of the stage when they buried the roly-poly and cherubic Nikita Balieff of the famed Chauve Souris in Belasco’s tomb some weeks ago. The chief mourner was rightfully Morris Gent, who discovered him in a dark Moscow cellar.

Balieff was still performing in a cellar—a gilded grill on Central Park South—when stricken. He had but one trick. That was his strutting exploitation of “The March of the Wooden Soldiers,” a tune that sets feet atingle wherever it is heard. And Balieff made the most of it.

He paraded it in New York more than a year, then in every large city in America and across the European Continent and back several times. He had at one time a fortune of $500,000 in a safety box in cash. But eventually his wooden soldiers became worn out toys. And Balieff a Pagliacci.

Like many improvident idealists, he thought success would go on forever. He lived on a grand scale, a charming host to Russian refugees and titled pick-thanks. Always good for a touch, this bland smiling little man. But not many came to him in his hour of dolor.

And there was scant comment on another figure in the Broadway theater world who passed from the scene the same time as Balieff. I refer to White, the pioneer photographer. The first to introduce flash light, then a dangerous experiment that maimed and blinded. Readers of theater news learned to know that identification on a picture “Photo by White Studio.” Two others I recall were Byron and Sarony. But White seemed better known and his full stage enlargements graced many lobbies. He paved the way for the Cevil Beatons and other deluxe lensmen who now merely touch a button to achieve art with the elegant A.

I somehow do not laugh over my reading as once. But the other day the usually grave Times in attempting facetiousness inspired a chuckle. I cannot tell just why and likely few other mouth corners would curl upward. Yet I chuckled when it editorialized: “It was a great advantage to a Republican orator if he could bring to the platform a white-haired and lifelong Democrat who had at last seen the error of his ways and turned to the true party faith.” A convert, in other words, in the Billy Sunday style. But the writer of this unexpected mirth made the mistake we all make—having said the thing he goes on to say it again and again. We who write are wont to repeat and thus evirate the edge of bright expression. Rare indeed the writer who “hits and runs.” Booth Tarkington is about the only one who says it and never refers to it again.

Newspaper fellows show a better-than-average knowledge of English, naturally But I don’t know that they ought to upbraid others for being less proficient. To many educated people, approximate constructions and sounds are considered near enough and in matters other than English such persons may express intellectual virtues in which newspaper men are sadly lax. The other day a great scientist on the air said e-pock’-al for ep’-ochal. A fellow in our berg excused himself from a dance with a young lady one night saying his collar was “irrigating” his neck. Invariably he said “comic” for “comet.” He became a state’s attorney. A malapropish attitude may merely mean the offender does not think it worthwhile to dig out the exactitudes.

Few actors can fool around with indifference to audiences. Noel Coward accomplishes it to a degree. Lou Holtz at times has an irritating nonchalance. The Barrymores—Ethel and John—expressed a hoity-toity. But Lionel, more unbending, has endured longer and is far the more popular of the royal family. In the old Winter Garden days there was an outfit eager to please—Jolson, Florence Moore, George Munro and Harry Fox. Yet among them was a performer of extreme diffidence. I refer to Melville Ellis. When he swaggered on to play the piano he didn’t give a whoop whether anyone remained or not—but nobody ever thought of leaving.

An old, but still good, story via radio today. It was one the mordant and wry-necked Rube Marquard used to tell. The locale, Haverhill, Mass. The Browns were playing the Greens during a wet season with the river out of banks cutting into left field. A player hit a long one to deep left. The outfielder went back for it—his hand and the ball shooting simultaneously into the stream. Then he threw the runner out at third with a mackerel.

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