by José Manuel Araque
Mary Louise Aurora Hanrick was born to be a star on June 26, 1908, in Waco, Texas.
She was christened on July 4th of the same year. Her mother was Mamie Prescott and her older brother was Ripley Edward Gayoso Hanrick. Her father, Ripley Allen Hanrick, was a stenographer who worked in Banking and cotton trading, and was the grandson of Ripley Allen Arnold, the founder of Fort Worth.
The area of Waco was colonized early in the XIX Century, and the town was incorporated around 1850. It became a very important hub for the development of the West with the construction of the Suspension Bridge over the Brazos River in 1869, and with the rise of the cotton industry in the area around the turn of the century. By 1910 Waco was a bustling City of more than 30 thousand souls.
Papa Hanrick was a man of intellectual curiosity that had a keen interest in History. He collected news clippings, letters, legal papers about land disputes, and mementos that he sent to the New York Historical Society methodically over the years. In his hand-written memoir he spoke a little about Mary Louise’s education, and their family life.
In 1908 he bought the famous Cottonland Castle, but he confided he “probably lost money" in this venture until he sold it in 1913. That year the family and some friends went on a road trip to Corpus Christi on their new Studebaker. In 1915 he joined the George H. McFadden & Brother Agency, a firm of cotton brokers where he worked until disease forced him to retire in 1944. After 1920 he joined the Republican Party and ran for office unsuccessfully several times.
Mary Louise attended the Academy of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic school, and she was part of he chorus.
In 1917 the Hanricks separated, and Mama Hanrick and the kids went to live in Houston. The 108th Engineers Cabaret at the Houston Auditorium was a very popular event that included a parade in the afternoon. The boxes sold-out early for the event that took place on Saturday February 23, 1918. Baby Dolls Hanrick’s reputation already preceded her, she “was a sensation at the Cotton Palace during the Dallas fair the previous November”, they wrote. She was 9 years old.
That same year the Hanricks re-married and the family returned to Waco. Around this time the great influenza pandemic hit the US, and indoor events were cancelled for a while. By the time she turned 11 in August 1919, The Waco News Tribune was gushing about the talented “Babe”, as Mary Louise was affectionately known to the Town folks. She was the talk of the Town at social functions, she danced and sang "I am a Jazz Baby" at a gathering of Rotarians.
The American entertainment world was forever changed in the late 19th Century by theater entrepreneurs like Benjamin Franklin Keith, Frederick Proctor, and Alexander Pantages, who turned Vaudeville into a family affair, and built large chains of theaters. Keith ruled the East, while Pantages was strong in the West and Canada.
The ascent of Vaudeville coincided with the explosion in the popularity of social dancing in the United States, in particular after the invention of the phonograph, and the introduction of the two-step and other dances. Dancing became one of the most popular attractions in Vaudeville, dancing manuals proliferated, and dancing shoes became an industry. It is said that the Roman Catholic Church invested in Keith's theaters after he promised to enforce decorum. The continuous running show was born, from 10AM until 11PM it was non-stop Vaude across the land.
On April 4, 1920, Babe Hanrick debuted at the Orpheum, a local theater on Sixth Street that was known for presenting Vaudeville acts on the Pantages circuit. The review noted her “exquisite dancing”. A few weeks later she was in a home talent contest at the same theater.
The Hanricks wanted Mary Louise to further her Dance instruction, and that summer, when she turned 12, they sent her to Denishawn in Los Angeles, California, where she studied for two months with the legendary Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. Along with Isadora Duncan, Shawn and St Denis are credited with propelling the American Modern Dance movement.
Mama Hanrick traveled with Babe. The Denishawn dancers appeared for a whole week at Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater, on the Pantages circuit. The reviews noted that the Denishawn Dancers were the highest paid act in the bill, and some called it pretentious.
In December 1920 Babe was in the pageant at the Texas Cotton Palace, a Waco tradition since 1894.
In July 1921 Babe travelled to New York to study at the Alviene Dance School (225 West 57 Street). Fred and Adele Astaire, one of the hottest dancing acts in America, studied there 10 years before.
Babe also studied with Alexis Kosloff, a reputed Dance teacher that wrote a classic book on Russian Ballet Technique and setup shop on 24 West 57 Street since at least 1920. Both Dance Schools were about a block from Carnegie Hall, and not far from the Broadway Theater District.
In early October, back in Waco, she had her own “company”, and a few weeks later, at the Cotton Palace’s Trade Balls she was awarded, for the fourth consecutive year, a prize for her performance.
Through 1922 Babe Hanrick was a fixture at local functions and at the Hippodrome Theater of Waco.
On occasions she played the xylophone.
In Summer 1923, when Babe turned 15, she traveled to Peterborough, NH with Mama Hanrick, and joined the Denishawn Dance School at Mariarden.
These were the Golden Years of Denishawn, and the year was one of the busiest, Martha Graham was one of the dancers.
Louise Brooks, the legendary actress, was there too, and she was prominently featured in a program with Babe in late August. According to Brooks the Denishawn experience was grueling work.
But when the Denishawn Dance Company played in New York on October 22 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, neither Babe nor Martha Graham were with the troupe. Instead Babe joined the Marion Vadie Dancers and went on tour on Keith's Vaudeville circuit. Marion Vadie was a reputed dancer who was also a teacher. In 1923 she formed the Dancers and sent them on their own. They appeared at the Aldine in Philadelphia, PA; the Lyric in Richmond, VA; the Victory Theater in Tampa, FL; the Lyric in Birmingham, AL, and as far as Indiana and New Orleans. Mama Mama Hanrick was with them.
In late November the troupe played at the Grand Theater in Marion, OH. Papa Hanrick noted in his memoirs that they stopped at the tomb of the recently deceased Warren G. Harding, the 29th President of the United States. The picture was published in The Vaudeville News, a newspaper that had been a supporter of Harding causes, as were the Hanricks.
In 1924 Marion Vadie went on tour with her Dancers to Canada and the West Coast, but Babe decided to stay in New York. In June 1924 Papa Hanrick visited Babe and Mama Hanrick, and spent a few days with them. They went up in the Statue of Liberty, and to the Woolworth Tower, at the time the highest skyscraper in the city. They also went to six theaters, and saw the revival on Broadway of Reinhardt's The Miracle.
New York was still the epicenter of Vaudeville in the 1920s, performers from all around the world came to show their acts on Broadway, and to record them too, either on film or audio, on the burgeoning recording industry. And Babe wanted to be part of it all.
1. The Louise Brooks Society’s website is very informative, in particular about Denishawn
2. The New York Public Library has a trove of photographs from Denishawn
3. The Hanrick family papers at the New York Historical Society
1. Mark John and Camilo Gatica, for the corrections, for the Music, for this crazy project.
2. Maestra Alicia Cruzado
To Lola, with love and eternal gratitude for helping me write this one ❤️