By Robert Simonson
08 Apr 2013
In the theatre, an industry replete with arcane tradition, the ritual surrounding the Gypsy Robe is one of the most persistent and beloved. It's been worn over the years by the likes of Casey Nicholaw and Jerry Mitchell each of whom graduated from the chorus to the director's and choreographer's chair to Tony-winning success.
The robe, which is handed from musical to musical each season as a sort of blessing, is a 60-year-old convention. Its custodian is David Westphal, the keeper of the Gypsy Robe for Actors' Equity Association (which took over stewardship of the robe in the 1980s).
Westphal, National Chorus Business Rep for Actors' Equity, is responsible for getting the florid garment — which is covered with souvenirs from every show it visited — to each new opening night. It's not an easy job. The stage manager of each show must be contacted, and information about the ceremony posted backstage.
While the recipient of the robe is traditionally the person with the most Broadway chorus credits, the current wearer of the robe must nonetheless approve the cast member and choose when there is a tie.
During the ceremony — choreographed by Westphal — everyone, including cast, crew, producers, Equity representatives and past Gypsy Robe recipients, gathers in a circle. First, people who are making their Broadway debut are invited into the middle of the circle. Then past recipients of the robe are asked in. The current robe bearer reads an official pronouncement aloud, finishing with the exclamation, "The show is blessed!"
The honoree must then circle the stage three times, as each cast member touches the robe for good luck. Backstage, they visit and bless every dressing room with the robe. Actors are nothing if not superstitious.
Finally the wardrobe department or some cast members design and attach a panel that is representative of the show to the robe. The robe then goes back to Equity for the next show's blessing.
The Gypsy Robe tradition began in 1950 when a chorus member of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Bill Bradley, persuaded a chorus girl, Florence Baum, to let him have her dressing gown. Bradley then lent the robe to a pal in Call Me Madam on that show's opening night. The friend pinned a rose from Ethel Merman's gown to the robe and passed it on to a chorus member of the show that next opened. A tradition was born.
The robe tradition continued through the years in a rather haphazard fashion. The robe was often presented to a friend of the previous recipient. Equity took over as custodian of the rite in 1983, as part of the Advisory Committee on Chorus Affairs and under the supervision of then-staffer and former chorus actor Terry Marone. It was a natural transition. Equity, after all, once had a sister union that specifically catered to gypsies, Chorus Equity. No theatrical institution had a better claim on the chorus line.
(Equity is engaged in a yearlong celebration of its birth. In celebration, Playbill will feature a monthly new story about AEA and its history in the theatre. This feature appears in the March 2013 issue of Playbill magazine.)
The 100-year history of Actors' Equity Association is celebrated in a new, lavishly illustrated book, "Performance of the Century," by Playbill writer Robert Simonson. To purchase it, visit the Playbill Store.