This current season marked a change for one of Broadway’s most historic opening night ceremonies. Now known to the world as the “Legacy Robe” the renowned piece of clothing has played part in opening nights since the 1950’s and formally since 1982 when Actors Equity decided to formalize the ceremony. Since then there have been over 200 robe ceremonies and the tradition lives to to this day. The most recent of these recipients to receive the now “Legacy Robe” was Ryan Worsing of “The Cher Show.” However we are going to take you back to the beginning of this unique and truly inspiring tradition.
The year was 1950 on the set of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” where chorus member Bill Bradley was known to steal fellow cast member Florence Baum’s robe. Bradley would wear the robe backstage in order to entertain the rest of the cast. Sometime into the run Bradley and Baum decided on a lark to send the robe to friend and fellow broadway performer, Arthur Partington, who was in the chorus of the soon to open “Call Me Madame.”
The two concocted a legend that was included with their gift to Partington. One in which the robe had been worn by all the Ziegfeld Beauties and had blessed their show. After opening night of “Call me Madame” Partington added a rose worn by Ethel Merman to add extra luck and passed it along to the next show, and birthing a tradition.
Today the tradition is much more formalized and Equity oversees the passing on of the robe ceremonies. The robe for years was known to the Broadway community as “The Gypsy Robe” and held a special mark for those who have dedicated their lives to this art form. In order to earn the robe one must meet a few qualifications. The first is to be in an eligible show, meaning a show that is eligible for Tony nominations in a given season. Next you must be the actor amongst the cast with the most chorus contracts. This means many times the winner of the robe is not a person new to Broadway, but instead one who has worked for years and is being rewarded for their continued work.
Once you have received the robe your show is to add something special, like Partington and the rose, to the robe. Once a robe is completely decorated it is retired and a new one begins the cycle. The Actor who previously received the robe will present it to the next recipient at their own opening night ceremony. Again mimicking the passing of the robe much like Bradley, Baum, and Partington.
There are multiple robes on display in New York. Three of them reside at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts; three at at the Museum of the City of New York. Two more are at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and the rest reside with Actors Equity. The supervision and guardianship of the Robes are under the auspices of the Advisory Committee on Chorus Affairs (ACCA) and David Westphal, National Chorus Business Representative.
The robe signifies a lifetime of achievement and dedication to a business that can be hard and grueling. Those who receive it are experienced and old enough to appreciate all that the robe means. It is a tradition that hopefully will live on to bles many more shows and inspire new generations to work hard and chase their dreams in this business. To learn about previous recipients of the “Legacy Robe” visit Actors Equity’s page concerning the rules and traditions of the rituals.