Jolly and comfortable, Paint & Powder at 100

JACQUES KELLY

May 26, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

It's another rehearsal of a Paint and Powder Club musical. The singers can't be heard, chorus members crash into one another, someone sprains an ankle and the men dress in ladies' clothes.

With a straight face, a stage technician says, "Ladies, I need to know whose tambourines are falling apart."

It's another sign of spring in old, old uptown Baltimore when the men and ladies of the city's oldest amateur troupe are rehearsing for their annual charity fund-raiser production.

This year's version, "Centennial Sensations," will be staged June 4 and 5 at Goucher College. The shows begin at 8 p.m. and the laughter at 8:01. Tickets are $25, with proceeds going to the Greater Baltimore Medical Center and the Maryland Historical Society.

The centennial reference is to the age of the venerable club. Organized in 1893, it has staged annual shows ever since, save for intermissions for wartime and a few other occasions.

Longtime Paint and Powder regulars know a lot of the intentional humor isn't funny. It's the doses of the unintentional humor that split your sides.

"Some years, the dress rehearsal turns out to be our best show. Everyone in the cast seems like they have a lot of fun. You come away discovering things in yourself, like confidence you never knew you had," says T. Franklin Fiske, a Rodgers Forge resident whose father was also a P&P man.

"It's a high, a great feeling to have the audience laugh with you," Fiske adds.

Typically, Paint and Powder audiences know someone in the cast and buy tickets to see -- or roar at -- that performer.

According to the club's rules, women may not be official members though they are given parts in the show. From 1894 until the late 1930s, all roles were performed by males. A few drag numbers are still retained as a Paint and Powder trademark.

"They try to find the biggest and hairiest guys to put in oversized cocktail dresses and ugly wigs. They probably played football at Gilman. They don't try to make the guys look like Cher or Madonna," says April Inloes Smith, who danced in the women's chorus several years ago.

Not every show makes a pile of money for charity. Some years, the club is able to turn over more than $10,000.

Other times, the shows don't draw well and the beneficiary may get considerably less.

"It gets a little more difficult each year to pull an audience," Fiske says.

The club is mainly for socializing. While there is only one show per year, there is a full calendar of Paint and Powder events -- a fall outing, a Christmas party, the President's Ball, a kickoff party, a cast party and a thank-you party. Rehearsals for "Centennial Sensations" began early last month.

One member, who is not in this year's show, made this observation: "The fellows have straightened up a lot. They've stopped selling beer at the rehearsals. It used to be their biggest money maker."

The club was organized by Baltimore's male social elite in the fall of 1893. Its first production was staged at the old Ford's Theatre on Fayette Street near Howard Street. It was entitled "Mustapha" and opened on Feb. 5, 1894, and produced two noted personalities.

The operetta's composer was Paint and Powder member A. Baldwin Sloane, who went on to become a prolific Broadway composer. He wrote scads of scores ("The Never Homes" and "The Hen Pecks" for example) but his music never caught on big. He was, however, a busy second-rate tunesmith.

The other graduate of the first show was Harry Lehr, a gay blade and socialite who moved to New York, where he became the darling of that city's fabled Four Hundred set.

"Suddenly, a shout of laughter rent the theatre. . . . It was Harry Lehr's neck," wrote a Sun critic of the drag performer listed in the program as Marie Papillon of Paris.

"The opera was built for Baltimore, and it had a jolly house-like air about it and a sort of attitude toward the audience that made it go with a snap," the critic wrote nearly 100 years ago.

And that philosophy of putting on a show pretty much sums up the Paint and Powder Club a century later.

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