Community Testimony: Gathering Veteran Performer Histories During a Pandemic

Metropolitan Archivist
Metropolitan Archivist
8 min readJan 16, 2024


by Kirsten Larvick
Independent filmmaker and archivist

“That business we call show” has been heavily documented. Archives hold thousands of objects, preserving this culturally pervasive history. Despite all that’s been achieved, the enormity of the art form is such that much has already been lost.

While considerable focus is afforded to recognizable names within the field, many others in the performing arts are not well-represented in the archives. As an archivist and collector with a fascination with mid-20th-century history, arts, and culture, my objective is to revive a specific history. I do this through interviews and the digitization of surviving artifacts of an under-documented subset of performers.

Contact sheet detail, singer John Hemmer and cast, Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, 1968.

In 2013 I began recording oral histories, including with retired singer John Hemmer. I met John through my mother, and he introduced me to a community of nightclub-era artists that he was part of, and who gathered annually. The attending alumni united to commemorate The Latin Quarter, a Times Square theatre-restaurant whose infamous stage these entertainers once graced.

A 630-seat cafe with full-scale productions featuring headliners, singers, showgirls, dancers, comedians, and novelty acts, the New York hotspot enjoyed an almost 30-year stint, from 1942–1969. Being welcomed into this group proved intriguing, and I quickly realized that the remaining fragments of this cocktail culture were evaporating. This coterie also worked nightclubs around the world, the Broadway stage, Vegas, and the television variety shows and specials of the day. Their stories depict a bigger picture of performing arts culture that no longer exists.

Postcard, Latin Quarter nightclub, 48th & Broadway, New York, NY, c. 1940s-1950s.

The span of my role has since expanded to the creation of documentary vignettes, digitization of ephemera, and writing of long-form articles. I am currently building a database that catalogs everything from item-level memorabilia to stage production data. This multifaceted project became the John Hemmer Archive, a website and collection of digital and physical artifacts collected through donations, auctions, and inheritance.

As the world faced its first global pandemic in about 100 years, my sense of urgency heightened. During “the great pause” of 2020, the cohort of performers and I found avenues to continue chronicling remembrances. The barriers to gathering gave us purpose at a time of quiet. It seemed circumstances inspired vulnerability, and the stories grew from lived experience statements into emotional memories.

While some performers utilized technology, others weren’t able to use email and didn’t have the ability to photograph and share memorabilia. The following case studies exemplify practices adopted to keep this project alive.

Portfolio pages, photographs of showgirl Bernadette Brookes in costume, various Latin Quarter nightclub productions, Latin Quarter program, Maid in Paris production, portrait, Bernadette Brookes in the wings, Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, c. mid-1960s

In my world, the first person to succumb to the coronavirus was vibrant showgirl Bernadette Brookes (1935–2020). A quintessential bohemian, Bernadette was brimming with passion and an artist’s perspective. Regardless of my inquiry, she would respond with bursts of insight, bearing the unvarnished truth of her circumstances or the times she lived through.

While at a rehabilitation center in 2019, I conducted in-person written interviews and photographed what remained of her remarkable portfolio. Just before lockdown, I handed her questions to ponder until my next visit, which, sadly, never materialized.

The snippets I did register of Bernadette’s career surpass what I uncovered elsewhere. While her story is incomplete, it reflects her mysterious nature, leaving behind subtle traces of an enduring legacy. See her story here.

Dancer Mollie Fennell Numark resides in the far reaches of Long Island with her husband. When COVID-19 struck, neighbors delivered essentials to their doorstep. As Mollie and I began chronicling her career, their neighbors played a crucial role.

I recorded video of Mollie in 2016, but the footage remained on a hard drive. Then, as the pandemic continued, the overall project evolved. When we talked again, she sent a beautiful memoir that was both her personal story and a global one.

Mollie Fennell in costume, the Children’s Ballet, Over the Rainbow production, Blackpool Tower, Blackpool, England, 1943.

Mollie’s narrative covered experiences during World War II, a time when she studied at the Royal Academy of Dance in England. Her determination led her to perform throughout the war, shouldering a good part of the financial responsibility for her parents and sister.

During the war at The Blackpool Tower we only earned less than a pound I gave to my mom. After the war working in Theaters I remember we earned 5 pounds which was the same as a working man’s salary. My dad had two jobs and my salary helped. My years in London we earned 8 pounds a week for two shows a night. And we still sent some money home. ~ Mollie Fennelll Numark

I transcribed Mollie’s book, and by email and phone, we filled in further details. From buzz bombs to ration books, productions continued amidst the raging war and its aftermath, including a performance at the Palladium with Danny Kaye for King George VI and Queen Consort Elizabeth. Her journey to the States and the Latin Quarter nightclubs unfolded as a saga of its own.

Dancers in costume (left to right): Dale Strong, Mollie Fennell, Chris Carter; unknown production, Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, c. 1950s.

Mollie then organized a treasure trove of materials from her personal archive and her neighbors served as the conduit, sending bundles by USPS while Mollie and Marshall sheltered in place.

What struck me is how Mollie exemplifies the essential role of artistic expression during times of crisis, while shedding light on the post-war transition towards optimism and underscoring residual trauma.

Dancers in costume. Corky Baysinger, Sally Mills, Mollie Fennell, and unidentified dancer, with staff and friends, unknown production, Latin Quarter nightclub, backstage, New York, NY, c. early 1950s.

Mollie’s resulting articles served as a template for other performers who were also quarantining or geographically distant. Due to the constraints the pandemic imposed, these partnerships extended to encompass our mutual experiences during this challenging time, and friendships were formed.

In 2020, Betty Jo Spyropulos Alvies and her husband stayed home. She sent me numerous parcels filled with collectibles, and in exchange, I sent questions.

Showgirl Betty Jo Alvies in costume by Freddy Wittop with dog (belonging to guest Jayne Mansfield), French Dressing production, backstage, Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, 1966.

The initial video interview with Betty Jo conducted in 2016 was later complemented by her written history and imagery. In addition to photographs and programs, she holds management notes, letters from producers, and publicity materials.

Stage management notice from backstage wall, French Dressing production, Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, 1966.

Raised in Indiana, Betty Jo first became a showgirl in the renowned Idlewild Revue and was then recruited to revues in Atlantic City, New York, Miami, and tours. Her story (see her article here) provides a layered view of an era and sheds light on the broader context around race and gender roles within the nightclub scene of the mid-20th century.

Showgirl Betty Jo Alvies (far left), guest headliner Sammy Davis Jr. (center) and cast, Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs, Club Harlem, Atlantic City, NJ, c. 1961–1965.

Sal Angelica’s story reflects the migration of entertainers out west. In 1965, the New York native auditioned for choreographer Ronnie Lewis, leading him to the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas for Casino de Paris.

Dancer Sal Angelica in costume by Freddy Wittop, Sky High production, backstage, Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, 1959.

Preserving Sal’s extensive dance career posed challenges. Sending memorabilia across the country from Vegas would have been a bit precarious. Sal did possess a scanner; however, it wasn’t producing archival-level resolution. Still, I didn’t want the technical aspects to weigh us down. I decided to embrace the notion that it’s more worthwhile to capture the history with available resources than to forfeit the opportunity to record his legacy.

The articles with Sal are divided into three parts. The images in the database serve as “access files” and provide crucial testimony. Sal has arranged to donate his scrapbooks to a Las Vegas archive, solidifying his ties with institutions like UNLV and the LGBT center.

My friendship with Lawrence Merritt (1939–2023) began in 2013 when I met the tall, lanky former dancer/actor who was also a terrific storyteller. I later recorded a longer conversation and photographed his scrapbook using my phone in preparation for an on-camera recording that never came to pass.

Dancers Ron Field, Calvin Von Reinhold, andLawrence Merritt in costumes by Freddy Wittop, Vive La Femme production, Backstage, Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, 1961–1962.

Amidst the pandemic, he was temporarily relocated to a rehabilitation center. He faced an increased risk of falls and at that time visitation was prohibited.

While Lawrence regained strength in rehabilitation, I met with his partner, Richard, and gathered an array of memorabilia, resulting in three articles filled with humor and vivid testimony.

TV Times publication cover featuring television special, Dames At Sea. In foreground: Ann-Margret (center) and dancer Lawrence Merritt (right) with dancers and cast, Los Angeles, CA, 1971.

Prior to publishing the final article, Lawrence passed. With the generosity of Richard and other members of Lawrence’s family, I gained access to his remaining materials on loan. Lawrence represents an epoch in performing arts when small club gigs paid the rent. The sense of community was intimate and fruitful. He danced from the Borscht Belt to Broadway, and from Paris to Hollywood. See his article series here.

These histories unveil the road traveled to arrive at our present moment. Performers entertained through World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and Second Wave Feminism. Performing arts was obviously a reflection of these larger events.

The trauma of COVID-19 was measurable to everyone everywhere. What I found is that as a group we relied on these productive distractions to cope. I also felt that my understanding of a unique history deepened. The pandemic required us to discover creative ways to connect. While this protocol isn’t unheard of, the coronavirus gave it added weight.

As a private collector, I take seriously my modest contribution to aiding the longevity of these legacies. As one person, it’s a slow-moving train. I’m able to achieve small victories and involve Latin Quarter veterans.

Guest curating at The City Reliquary Museum has been rewarding and has given some of the collected materials a wider audience. The Latin Quarter Revue: Behind the Curtain, on view through early 2024, explores the cafe society through the John Hemmer Archive, other performer media, and additional private collections.

As some performers have passed on, I’ve been charged with caring for and interpreting their histories. I seek to represent individuals and their collective with dignity. Being a custodian of a heritage that isn’t my own, I ponder my appropriate role, and how best to share and contextualize all of this information. I have boxes of “unprocessed” memorabilia. The responsibility is overwhelming, yet I am also humbled. There are Latin Quarter artists who are still here, and I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to work and socialize with them. My long-term goal is to locate an institution that will house the materials, and provide access and public engagement.

Archival practices during the pandemic gave the project new dimensions, changing its path going forward. As one performer articulated about our efforts, “Creativity often grows out of necessity. We dancers look at limitation, and make it into art… and through this archiving we’re creating together.”

35mm film, production audition, impresario Lou Walter (glasses, center table), Latin Quarter nightclub, New York, NY, c. 1950s. Photographer: Arthur Courtney Hafela.



Metropolitan Archivist
Metropolitan Archivist

A publication of The Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York, Inc. (ART).