A face, faded and distant, gazes up from its bleached acreage, yearning to escape the sepia dimensions. A buried life, it is a portrait as remote and sad as a mermaid chained beneath the sea.
Yet when she lived, she was part of New York City’s urban garishness. She performed before the remnants of The Gilded Age, staring into the cheap wealth and tastelessness of the new century.
For a year she was on the stage, playing in the water and perched in the air, posed next to her iridescent sisters wearing silks that rippled with color and oceanic fancy. From 1906-1907 she sang dainty songs of fish that spoke, ships that sailed and half-women who swam.
They wore necklaces of beads that dazzled their throats in foreign patterns. Ropes of shells decorated their hair and swung below their faces – bejeweled like pelagic czarinas. In costumes that clicked and murmured they decorated artificial and painted seas. They glittered with myth and romance, in the middle of New York, inside its newest theater.
The Hippodrome, a boastful expanse of bricks and plaster, was completed in 1905.
The following year, ‘Neptune’s Daughter’ began its 10-month run. It is a story of how Sirene, Queen of the Mermaids, tempted a young man below the sea, to mend and tantalize his broken heart. But the heroine, who secretly loves him, despairs at the edge of the sands. In answer to her misery, Neptune rises from the water inviting her to accompany him beneath the sea, to join her beloved. Throughout the course of the play, the world’s largest water tank is used, as figures appear and disappear as gracefully as any denizen of the sea god’s court.
How did they do it?
“No spectacular invention or innovation of recent years has aroused such popular interest or awakened such widespread curiosity as the mermaid scene in “Neptune’s Daughter” at the Hippodrome.”
It was a secret: a salty vow taken to uphold the mystery of their submerged kingdom.
“The mermaids ‘hoped they might die’ if they told, and knew they would lose their positions in case they had the hardihood to break faith with the management”.
Did the maritime fogs breathe through their veins or did their bones arch like coral prisons in an unnatural pact between sea and physiology? Were their hearts like grottos: multi-chambered and shaped like stars? Did the moon hold them in a lunar thrall – did they ride on her radiant tides?
Or perhaps it was just earthly invention, the whimsy of physics. These ladies were a part of fact, not fancy. Each maid of the sea was provided with her own oceanic chamber, “as safe as a true mermaid in a real submarine dwelling house.” Each of these submerged bubbles was open at the bottom, a room of confined air, just large enough for an actress to reside in, waiting for her time to swim through the opening to the surface of the tank.
“A genuine submerged village is there under the surface of the Hippodrome tank…”
It was an odd performance, trapped inside the water, watching the splashes of light and the prisms of music sink towards her.
The audience was stunned by the sight. But shallow interests abounded in the great city, inviting society’s wandering attention. In August, 1907, ‘Neptune’s Daughter’ closed, returning its mermaids back to earth. But still the beads of water trailed after them, rainbow-edged and firm, like forlorn droplets of mercury. The summer heat offended their watery souls, and the petals fell in defeat from their hair.
Thirty-two years later, the Hippodrome was destroyed. In 1952, the bragging acreage was replaced by office buildings and a parking garage. Perhaps as they were laying down the liquid concrete the workmen were startled by an invisible chorus of pretty, filigreed voices raised in protest.