A costume sketch by Gertrude Johnson

Who was Gertrude Johnson?

A few years ago a batch of rather delightful costume designs were sold on ebay all drawn, and many signed, by the rather enigmatic Gertrude A. Johnson. But who was Gertrude Johnson? Since the drawings come from America one can deduce that she was American and the distinctive style of her work, reflecting the prevailing eccentricities of the Jazz Age, clearly places them in the 1920s.

A sketch by Gertrude Johnson
A sketch by Gertrude Johnson

Gertrude Johnson first surfaces working for Behren’s theatrical costumiers in New York (163 West 48th Street) from 1919 through the early 1920s with another house designer called Marie Breivogel. By 1923 (and at 120 West 48th Street) only Gertrude featured in their advertisements.

Advert for Behrens Costume Company featuring 'original ideas' by Gertrude Johnson, December 1923
Advert for Behrens Costume Company featuring ‘original ideas’ by Gertrude Johnson, December 1923

 

 

One show that Behrens helped to costume during this period, along with several other costume houses like Brooks, was Frivolities of 1920 at the 44th Theatre in early 1920, which presumably featured Gertrude Johnson’s designs.

Confirmed theatre credits are sparse but it does appear that she dressed the Lew Leslie Plantation Revue that ran during July and August 1922 starring Florence Mills at the 48th Street Theatre, New York. A little later she was also credited with dressing Talk About Girls, a musical comedy produced by Harry and Sam Grisman which had an out of town run in May including the Garrick, Philadelphia and then in June 1927 at the Waldorf Theatre, New York, although the review in Variety says the costumes were by Nestor.

In April 1923 it was announced that the Mutual Burlesque Association had done a deal for Behrens Costume Company to furnish 8,700 costumes for the upcoming season comprising 35 shows. Each show was was to have 16 chorus girls with one costume changes in additional to creating all the costumes for the principal women. As chief designer at the time, it would have been Gertrude Johnson who created all these costumes.

One of my drawings (undated) comes from the Nesor Costume Company and one credit for Nesor in the 1920s was costuming the musical comedy Oh Ernest! at the Royale and Earl Carroll Theatres in mid 1927, although there is no mention of the designer. Perhaps Gertrude Johnson moved from Behrens to Nesor, run by Bam Balvin, in the mid 1920s.

In April 1927 it was announced that Baroness Marie Vorn Bronchilch had been signed by Nesor as exclusive designer but interestingly, in August 1927, Nesor merged with Booth-Willoughby to form the Nesor-Booth-Willoughby Costume Company. It is not known if Gertrude Johnson continued working for them through this period.

A sketch by Gertrude Johnson
A sketch by Gertrude Johnson

Some of the designs in George Glazer’s collection are allegedly from a production called Waltz Ho / American Beauty, but all attempts to trace this show have failed. Perhaps it is the title of a segment within a show or a cabaret or a vaudeville number.

Since Gertrude Johnson gained so few legitimate theatrical credits for mainstream Broadway productions one can only assume that she worked on shows where she did not get credit and perhaps she was more productive dressing regional shows, cabarets and vaudeville.

All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
For more images check out George Glazer
http://www.georgeglazer.com/search.html

 

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