Random Thoughts

Tableaux

... old style entertainment ...

by Ann Robbins Talbot

Once upon a time, in my school days, tableaux were very popular. Many
consisted of a huge frame in which characters could be posed. My church
owned such a frame with a door that acted like the cover of a book.
When the characters were in place, the door was opened so the tableau
could be viewed. There was no movement but often music or a reading
accompanied the scene. I once played the role of Gretel in a tableau
production of “Hansel and Gretel” with Humperdinck’s lovely score and
readings by Mrs. Romeyn, a professional speaker. I did not have to sing
or learn lines but I had to learn to sit very still for several minutes
at a time. It helped to be able to lean on someone or something. We
rehearsed long and hard for this production. It was a lesson in using
your body to tell a story.

My school also had a frame for a tableau with curtains that opened. We
did a production of “Jack and the Beanstalk” using the tableaux as the
story progressed, but we also had dancers in front of the frame. I was
one of several Beans. For a story like “Jack …” it was much more
effective to have a paper mache golden goose than to have a student
portray the bird.

During the war years, tableaux were used often. I played the Statue of
Liberty. To keep me from wiggling the torch, it was hung from the top
of the frame. I just had to hold on to it. At that time we saw many
tableaux showing the flag raising on Iwo Jima. Another popular tableau
was the Holy Family at Christmastime. Sometimes it was called a “living
nativity”. And many Broadway musicals opened or closed a scene with all
characters frozen in their positions. I recently was reminded of this
by enjoying My Fair Lady’s “Ascot Opening Day” scene. The characters
are posed in black and white costumes, the women sporting outrageous
hats. In motion the ensemble performs the song depicting the horse race
ending with the original tableau.

But the most amazing tableaux were brought to Melrose High for us to
see as an assembly program on the auditorium stage. This was the famous
Springfield College Gym Show Finale with the athletes clad only in
briefs and painted with shining silver powder mixed with vegetable oil.
The original tableau was called “Aspiration” posed by a dozen young
men. They were very fit and the paint plus the spotlights made an
amazing display. It made our teenage hearts beat a little faster. Some
of our Melrose athletes were invited to participate in smaller
tableaux. They had to be very careful not to paint their entire bodies
because it was very dangerous. (I am sure we all remember the beautiful
girl lying on the bed at the beginning of “Goldfinger”, dead because
gold paint had closed all her pores.) We were bowled over by the
Springfield tableaux, originating in 1893 and still being performed
with special safety paint. We could tell which of our high school
friends had been in the tableaux because the following morning traces of
silver paint remained in their ears.


February 7, 2014


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