Excerpt: 'The Man Who Designed the Future: Norman Bel Geddes and the Invention of Twentieth-Century America' by B. Alexandra Szerlip


From Elephants in Tutus:

The most unusual and talked about aspect of the 1942 season would be created with the help of two brilliant Russian emigres, a Norwegian prima ballerina, and more pachyderms than Hannibal conscripted for his famous march across the Alps.

To thousands of fans, elephants were the essence of the circus; they’d been stock players since Roman times. A circus without elephants, wrote veteran clown Robert Sherwood, “would be like Hamlet without Hamlet.” Ballet was still a novelty to American audiences, something exotic, a high-toned European oddity. Combined, they would create a new way to feature the unique dancing talents of Old Modoc, a Ringling veteran, the largest Indian elephant this side of the Atlantic. 

An elephant ballet. It’s unclear whose initial idea it was; Bel Geddes’ notes suggest it was his. True, Disney’s Fantasia, which had had a limited release the previous November, included a segment of ballet-dancing hippos and elephants, but few saw the original, pedantic, 220-minute “film symphony.” And there was a world of difference between quadrupeds prancing on celluloid and an elaborate performance piece starring live ones.

In an audacious stroke, Johnny North contacted choreographer George Balanchine, master of the idealized and the elevated. Having recently completed his masterwork “Ballet Imperiale,” the Russian was on the lookout for projects, and he had a soft spot for Broadway and Hollywood dazzle. (His “Romeo and Juliet” ballet in the 1938 Goldwyn Follies had included tap-dancing Montagues.)

Balanchine, in turn, telephoned fellow ex-patriot Igor Stravinsky in Los Angeles. (The genius behind Fokine’s “Firebird” ballet, Stravinksy had also composed works for Woody Herman and Paul Whiteman and turned down several “serious” commissions to work on a Billy Rose production.) Abstract and intellectual as his music was accused of being, his infamous “Rite of Spring” had accompanied Fantasia’s dinosaurs. 

The conversation, in Russian, went something like this:

“Igor, I wonder if you’d like to do a little ballet for me.”

“For whom?”

“For some elephants.”

“It would be difficult,” the composer replied. “I’m preparing a rather important piece, twice the size of the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. Twenty-five instruments. It premieres in February and I’m conducting.”

“Just a polka. A short one,” Balanchine assured him. “Something a circus band can play.”

“Elephants, you say?”


“How old?”

“Oh … very young.”

“How many?”

“Fifty. And fifty ballerinas. Also very young.”

Stravinsky paused.

“All right,” he agreed. “If they are very young elephants, and you can wait until March, perhaps I can do it.”


Balanchine began spending time at Ringling’s winter headquarters in Florida to collaborate with elephant trainer Walter McClain, who explained, among other things, all the ills of the flesh his charges were prone to, from indigestion and in-grown toenails to colds, blisters, bunions and tangled eyelashes (they grew to four inches long). The choreographer quickly learned to recognize each pachyderm and what each could do, and he took to calling them by name. For the uninitiated, these powerful herbivores — averaging 8 feet high at the shoulder and weighing between 6,000 and 8,000 pounds — inspired trepidation, if not terror. But according to one of the fifty young women hired for the act (part Ringling “starlets,” part professional ballerinas ‘imported’ from New York), all would have “walked into a cage full of hungry lions” for Balanchine, whose “romantic good looks and soft-spoken courtesy” were in marked contrast to the “cigar-filled faces” of circus men and John Murray Anderson’s signature sarcasm. The choreographer inspired similar affection in the elephants, all females, who were soon following him around the grounds.

Also in the cast was Balanchine’s wife, Vera Zorina. The Norwegian beauty (nee Eva Brigitta Hartwig) would make a guest appearance opening night, a benefit fundraiser, as Modoc’s partner.

Maintaining the Corps des Elephants was a serious financial enterprise. Each of the fifty pachyderms consumed 125 pounds of hay, half a bushel of oats and seven pounds of bran every day and together, by season’s end, enough water to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Once the show was on tour, they stuck their heads into the dancing girls’ trailers, opening drawers (and pulling everything out). Refrigerators and the popcorn concession were also fair game. Grooming included “shaving” their bristles every few days with an acetylene torch and applying top-quality neatsfoot oil (more than 150 gallons for the season) to keep their thick hides from cracking. Then there were the unforeseeable hazards. The previous season, in Atlanta, eleven elephants had been poisoned.

On top of everything else, it was inevitable that, within the confines of Ringling’s winter quarters, a contingent of 50 exceptionally large elephants would come in contact with the horses, whom they loathed. Other hazards included zebras (mean and likely to kick at anything nearby), camels (deadly accurate spitters) and performers’ pampered pets (a trained pig, a goose). One clown had a chihuahua he’d incorporated into his act. Dressed up as an elephant, it terrified the real ones.

Still, they’d prove their worth above and beyond a terpsichorean mandate. In Lexington, they’d be called on, as in former days, to haul up the Big Top when the tractors got hopelessly mired in deep mud.

. . . .

In the wake of Pearl Harbor, the production adopted a patriotic theme. Norman covered the main arena, where the ballet would take place, with blue sawdust, the end rings with red and white. He decided on pink tulle tutu skirts and jeweled, feather-crested headbands for the quadrupeds, with matching pink skirts and huge satin hair bows for their human partners. The pachyderm contingent would require some six thousand yards of fabric. His dreamy twilight lighting may have been informed by his ideas for the foundering Hayden Planetarium.

. . . .

The first week at Madison Square Garden was given over to rehearsals. Introduced to their costumes and Norman’s lighting scheme for the first time, the elephants, apparently excited, raced through their routine ahead of the music. Toward the end, pirouetting on their backsides, they “let go” in unison, releasing steaming piles of excrement. When they rose, the under-portions of their tutus were smeared brown, rubbed in by four tons of pressure. The elephants seemed to know something was wrong; their heads hung low as they exited to laughter and applause. Clearly, the sitting-and-pirouetting finale had to go. But a taught routine was not easily altered. Duplicates sets of the one-hundred-and-thirty-yard costumes were rushed to completion and the strongest available cleaning chemicals stockpiled, just in case.

But ultimately, the three-hundred-legged, “original choreographic tour de force” proved worth all the trouble.

It began with an inter-species duet. Vera Zorina entered the arena perched atop Modoc’s head to a vast roar of applause, as the band played a rendition of von Weber’s “Invitation to the Dance.”

We were alone in the blinding spotlight. I felt the incredible grandeur of riding on that noble beast, who knew exactly what to do …. She walked majestically into the deafening fanfare … and entered the middle ring. She knelt down and gently let me off … [Her] “dance” … consisted of lifting up one front foot (which took eight bars), then slowly lifting the other, then doing a turn …

The duet complete, the two knelt in a reverential bow, touching foreheads in the sawdust. When Modoc “offered” her trunk, Zorina lay back on it, grasping the elephant’s jeweled headband as she was lifted up and gently carried offstage.

Then the rest of the troupe entered the stadium’s heart, lit as an ethereal blue dusk. First the fifty all-pink dancers — holding garlands of flowers above their heads, their tutus standing out in crisp net folds, the ribbons of their ballet slippers crisscrossing their calves. Then their fifty enormous partners, sporting Norman’s pink skirts around their ample middles, feathered aigrettes perched coyly between their eyes. A blue spotlight followed them through the blue dusk, their gigantic scale making the girls look tiny.

The ballerinas danced over and between the three circus rings, performing fifty pas de deux as their towering partners nodded rhythmically and gravely swayed.

The arc of sway widened and the stomping picked up with the music. In the central ring, Modoc the Elephant danced with amazing grace ….

The elephants linked trunks to tails in an endless chain, the ground shaking with their measured steps.

They balanced atop individual stools, while the dancers arranged themselves in formations. 

They rose up on their hind legs to create an immense oval, each pair of front legs resting on the skirt of the beast before it, trunks elegantly curled — a great grey necklace — while the dancers posed in fifty arabesques atop fifty enormous heads.

Through it all the bull men, like Bunraku puppeteers, kept things moving, there but invisible.

At the very end, the smallest Ringling midget, in page boy attire, presented Modoc with an enormous bunch of American Beauty roses, the stems twice as tall as the fellow himself. One blossom dropped from the bunch. Modoc lifted it with his trunk and handed it to Zorina, who’d returned to share the final bow.

It was an absurd and extraordinary event — a mix of classical ballet and circus acrobatics, designed by the 20th century’s greatest choreographer, set to music by the era’s greatest living composer, costumed and lit by the much-lauded designer of The Miracle and Futurama.

Variety found the Stravinsky score “weird” and the tutus “ridiculous.” Norman’s perennial rival also chimed in. “A pseudo-sophisticated mess halfway between stage and tanbark. All veddy, veddy distingue´,” wrote Raymond Loewy, a man who wore silk ascots to go pheasant hunting and boasted that he put Chanel No. 5 in his scuba gear to mitigate the smell of rubber. “All frightfully dull.” He’d apparently been curious enough to buy a ticket.

But those were minority opinions. The ballet would ultimately be performed 425 times, and most of the millions who saw it agreed with the initially skeptical New York Times. It was “breathtaking.”

Seated beneath Madison Square Garden’s roof that early April evening, transported, it was impossible to imagine the absurd and extraordinary events of a very different kind underway at that same hour. Starving Parisians picking through garbage as their greatest paintings and sculpture were shipped, by the trainload, to Germany. Londoners coping with the aftermath of the Blitz. Shanghai and Nanking reeling from the massacre of hundreds of thousands by the Japanese. The opening of Treblinka and Sobibor in occupied Poland and the introduction of Zyklon B at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The prelude to the Bataan Death March in the Philippines. Preparations for the U.S. bombing of Tokyo.

Excerpted from The Man Who Designed the Future: Norman Bel Geddes and the Invention of Twentieth-Century America by B. Alexandra Szerlip. Forthcoming April 2017 from Melville House. Excerpted with permission of the author.