Nina Payne was an eccentric, futurist American dancer who, after long years in vaudeville travelling across the USA, made a trip to Europe and became an instant hit in Paris where she remained throughout the 1920s.
Nina Payne was born in Charlestown, Indiana 15th November 1890 and her family moved to Seattle when she was young. Dancing was her obvious talent and at the age of 16 she appeared in vaudeville houses nearby before going on the road around the West Coast. Her big break came when G. Molasso featured her in La Somnambule, described as a French pantomime-comedy-drama, staged by William Morris at the American Music hall, 42nd Street, New York in May 1910. This was her first appearance in New York and she was described as coming direct from San Francisco. One of the segments was called ‘La Danse de la Robe de Nuit’ and during one of her performances she sent a thrill through the audience demonstrating she was quick witted and cool headed. She carried a lit candle and in the middle of a dance set fire to her hair and then a silken robe but she put the fire out by rolling on the floor to stop the fire and her mother also ran from the wings to help.
The show toured other vaudeville venues through 1910 and her performance received excellent notices before it was included in the show A La Broadway staged at the Folies Bergere, at 49th street in the heart of the theatre district from 22nd September 1911. This new venue had been opened by Henry Harris and Jessy Lasky on 26th April 1911 and was a theatre-restaurant designed to reflect Parisian bohemian style. However, although it was an interesting, new, experiment for New York, there was limited seating and no opportunities for dancing which made the idea an ultimate failure. A La Broadway closed in just over a week. Thereafter, Nina Payne continued working for Molasso and appeared in another Molasso production called ‘Cleopatra En Masque’.
By 1916 she was appearing in her own vaudeville act described as ‘Character Studies in Dance’ with scenary and costumes designed by Homar Conant and she was described as ‘one of America’s foremost exponents of character dancing.’ She continued playing vaudeville over the Keith and Orpheum circuits through to 1921 and also made a trip to Cuba. Her exotic act was supplemented by bizarre costumes and she often wore a huge top hat and carried a cane, all features that were to be exploited to the full in her later routines in Paris.
Then in May 1921 she decided to take a rest and go to Paris on a three week holiday. Shortly after her arrival she met fellow American Harry Pilcer. He needed a partner for an act at the Pre-Catalan restaurant on the Bois de Bologne and persuaded Nina to join him. They were a huge success and gave further performances at charity events. Even the famous French performer Mistinguett sang her praises and told her to put on her own act. She didn’t know what line to take and was at tea one day at Claridge’s and heard the Arnold Jazz-band playing. She was fascinated by the verve of their tempo and their ingenious effects and asked them if they would like to join her and be part of her act. They appeared at the Olympia Theatre on a one week booking which turned into five weeks and then she was snapped up by Louis Lemarchand for the 1922 season of the Folies Bergere. The holiday turned into a two year work contract.
Folies Sur Folies was launched at the Folies Bergere on 11th February 1922 and Nina appeared in two scenes – she was the Ibis in the spectacular tableaux Let Women be Beautiful and gave Cubist and Dadaist dances in The Girl of Tomorrow supported by the jazz band of the Ad-Libs. They were also given another big tableaux called Musical Pirates in the next show En Pleine Folie launched on 16th March 1923. During the run of this revue Nina doubled at other cabaret nightspots including the Pavilion Dauphine with the Dorel Sisters in June 1923 and L’Ours (4 Rue Daunou) in October 1923.
She had become a definite part of Parisian nightlife when she was listed as one of the celebrities at the gala opening of the second season of Le Jardin De Ma Soeur on the Rue de Caumartin in October. A month later it was announced that the Folies Bergere was going to be imported to New York and Irma Rubenstein and Nina Payne would head this international edition. Sadly, this did not materialise.
Seemingly Nina was not placed in a big Parisian show in 1924 and in May 1924 she assisted the famous artist and fete organiser Jean Gabriel Domerque to create several gala shows at the L’Hermitage next door to Claridge’s on the Champs Elysees. She also performed with partners Gilbert and French.
On 9th Sept 1924, she arrived back in New York aboard Lapland from Cherbourg along with her travelling companion and mother Emma (aged 62, born 1861) and proceeded to headline at the Hippodrome doing a range of her successful Parisian dance interpretations. She was back in Europe at the beginning of 1925 and visited the Riviera appearing at the Fete Normande at the Ambassadeurs Restaurant in the Hotel Metropole, Monte Carlo. She was a huge success ‘her work is delightfully fresh, and one feels that even if the orchestra were to stop playing the dance would continue with just as much rhythm; as though, in fact, Nina Payne actually conducts her beats with these ever-twinkling toes.’
She returned to America again for several months in the summer and appeared in vaudeville including an appearance with a Joe Niemeyer (from Oakland) at the Oakland Orpheum in Berkeley, California during September 1925. However, by October she was back in Paris before visiting Berlin and dancing at the Nelson Theatre toward the end of the year. In early 1926 she was once again dancing at the Ambassadeurs at the Hotel Metropole in Monte Carlo before being added to the Palace Theatre revue called Paris Voyeur, that had already been running since September of the previous year in Paris.
Later in the year she visited Biarritz and then fulfilled an engagement in Stockholm before another trip to the Riviera in early 1927 and this time a tour of resorts that including the Majestic Hotel in Nice with Fay Harcourt and Nicolas and the Carlton, Monte Carlo. Her repertoire now comprised interpretative ancient Egyptian dances, oriental dances, and startling modernistic dances.
Through 1927 and 1928 she appears to have toured various cities in Europe including Berlin, Munich, Dresden, Vienna, Budapest and Copenhagen and in early 1928, for example appeared in a show with the famous Josephine Baker in Vienna before returning to Paris. One of last appearances in Paris appears to have been with Barbette and Joe Jackson at the Moulin Rouge in April 1929.
In early 1930 she returned to New York and at some point married Charles A. Bostwick (born 1881) and retired from dancing in public. She was his second wife. Bostwick had been in engaged in the clothing business in Lowville, New York and had then been a resident of Rochester. His last business venture was in advertising and he ran the CA Bostwick, Inc. advertising agency. In early 1937 they moved to New York City but he died suddenly six months later on 26th July 1937 at the age of 57. Shortly afterward Nina was made president of the company.
She spent sometime in Hollywood in late 1938 visiting an old friend and ex-vaudevillian Marie Bishop, whose husband the actor Chic Sale had also recently died and then in early 1940, along with the writer Vivian Kennerly, she made an interesting trip on a freighter to the Orient and back via the Suez canal and Bombay.
It is not known what happened to her after this and when she died.
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Clippings file NYPL, Variety, Dance Magazine, Dance Lovers Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Dancing Times, Menton & Monte Carlo News, The Sketch
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