In 1910 barely 1,000 people lived in Round Rock, but one boy stood out from the others. It was Vander Clyde Broadway, a bundle of talent, packaged in a small body. After seeing the circus in Austin, Vander knew he wanted to be a circus performer.
He begged his parents to let him join the circus; finally his mother relented, but only after he promised to finish school. After graduating from Round Rock High School in 1913, he was soon on the train to San Antonio to answer an ad in Billboard magazine. He joined the World-Famous Alfaretta Sisters, and agreed to dress as a woman to replace one of the ailing sisters. He continued this charade for several years and began to develop a plan for a unique act of his own.
Next, he joined the trio act of “Erford’s Whirling Sensations,” still dressing as a woman, and was suspended only by his teeth. His costume included huge butterfly wings that created the illusion of a giant insect in flight. Before long, he was on his way to Europe to perform solo as “Barbette, the Enigma.”
Barbette’s act would open with the spotlight on an elaborately-attired “woman” complete with sparkling, plumed headdress, and flowing sequined cape. Climbing high above the admiring spectators below, the aerialist would delight the audience with a series of agile movements on the high wire. In the finale, he would remove his wig to reveal himself as a man. Women would faint in surprise.
During the 1920s and 1930s, “Barbette” was the toast of Parisian society, befriended by European nobility and the literary set. For his charade, he received as much as $2,000 a performance.
In Paris, he often performed at the Moulin Rouge and appeared in the French film Blood of a Poet, written by avant-garde writer Jean Cocteau.
In 1938, at the height of his career, Barbette collapsed while performing at the Lowe’s Theatre in New York. He was rushed to the hospital and was diagnosed with polio. After recovery, he joined the Ringling, Barnum and Bailey Circus as aerial and costume director. He staged the Japanese Circus finale in Orson Welles’ movie, Around the World in 1946 and was a consultant to MGM Studios during the filming of Jumbo in 1962.
In 1963 he returned to Texas in failing health. He continued to work for three months out of the year with the Shrine Circus and the touring show, “Disney on Parade,” choreographing acts and costumes.
His health continued to fail and he committed suicide August 5, 1973, by taking sleeping pills. He was cremated and laid to rest at the foot of his mother’s grave in Round Rock Cemetery. A simple stone reads “Barbette December 19, 1899 – August 5, 1973,” a stark contrast to the glamorous trappings of a famous man whose life was a series of contrasts.
Thompson is author of seven books, including Historical Round Rock, Texas and Round Rock, Texas: From Cowboys to Computers.