All About the Gypsy Robe

Most people aren’t as laissez-faire as moi (there I go, showing off my foreign tongue again).  Broadway was buzzing with news that Actors’ Equity would be renaming the legendary “gypsy robe” in “response to the cultural implications of the term” – i.e. so as not to offend the Romany people.  Have I missed a huge outcry about this relatively private Broadway tradition?  A Broadway “gypsy” is someone in the chorus who goes from show to show, city to city.  The tradition of the “gypsy robe” dates back to the Broadway production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1950.  A male chorister put on a robe and let everyone touch it.  He then sent the robe to Call Me Madam, where the choristers did a similar thing, except they attached a feather from Ethel Merman’s costume.  They passed it on to Guys and Dolls, etc.  The current tradition dictates that the robe goes to a Broadway show on opening night.  The chorister with the most Broadway credits wears it.  That chorister circles the stage three times while cast members touch it for good luck.  The robe wearer blesses each dressing room.  Finally, a memento from the show is affixed to the robe.  When a robe is filled with mementos, it is retired and exhibited in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the Smithsonian, or at Actors’ Equity.  That’s the history.

Somehow, this use of the term “gypsy” has been mixed up with the derogatory term for the Romany people – as if the chorister in the robe is shaking a tambourine and reading palms!  The “gypsy robe” has as much to do with the Romany people as the “wandering Jew” has to do with Israel!  But, you know – some people want to sanitize anything that could offend two people.  Petra Gelbart, a curator at RomArchive, said, “The fact that the term ‘gypsy’ is so often used to denote free-spirited or traveling lifestyles has real-life repercussions for actual Romany people.”  Yes, I’m sure people often look down on free-spirited travelers!  I wondered where this would end.  Days later, Tom Viola from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS announced that they would not change the name of Gypsy of the Year, an annual fundraiser where choristers and dancers raise millions of dollars to help those in need.  “Words have different meanings depending on the context in which they are used.  In our theatrical community, ‘the gypsy’ is beloved.”  Bravo!  Personally, I refuse to get behind any “gypsy” ban that hasn’t been officially sanctioned by Miss Mitzi Gaynor!

For now, we still have the hugely successful Easter Bonnet Competition which also benefits Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.  I say “for now” because I’m sure some Wiccan or Zoroastrian will find the word “Easter” offensive.  Nonetheless, the racially insensitive fundraiser brought in a record 5.7 million dirty dollars.indeed.  

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