Gabrielle Ray as Frou Frou in The Merry Widow (1907)

In the first decade of the 20th century, Gabrielle Ray (1883 – 1973) had a good career in musical theatre, she was considered one of the most beautiful actresses on the London stage, and became one of the most photographed women in the world.

In 1907, Ray played Frou Frou in The Merry Widow, which became a sensation. The operetta starred Lily Elsie, Joseph Coyne and Robert Evett, with costumes by Lucile. It ran for 778 performances in London and toured extensively in Great Britain.

Ray’s dance number, complete with handstands and high kicks, all performed on a table at Maxim’s held head high by four men, was a show stopper.

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Gabrielle Ray as “Frou Frou” in “The Merry Widow” 1907. Costumes by Lucile.

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Gabrielle Ray as “Frou Frou” in “The Merry Widow” 1907. Costumes by Lucile.

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Gabrielle Ray as “Frou Frou” and mr. W. Berry in “The Merry Widow” 1907. Costumes by Lucile.

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Lily Elsie in the operetta The Merry Widow (Dressed by Lucile)

Lily Elsie (8 April 1886 – 16 December 1962) was a popular English actress and singer during the Edwardian era, best known for her starring role in the hit London premiere of Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow.

Early 20th-century fashion designer Lucile designed the costumes (including the plumed hats that became an extraordinary fad) and thereafter used Elsie to promote her fashions, designing her personal clothes and costumes for several of her other shows.

Lucile later wrote:

“I realised that here was a girl who had both beauty and intelligence but who had never learnt how to make the best of herself. So shy and diffident was she in those days that a less astute producer than George Edwardes would in all probability have passed her over and left her in the chorus.”

The production opened in June 1907 and ran for 778 performances at Daly’s Theatre. The show was an enormous success for its creators and made Elsie a major star.

Lily Elsie in The Merry Widow dressed by Lucile, 1907

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NPG x135274; Lily Elsie (Mrs Bullough) as Sonia in 'The Merry Widow' by Foulsham & Banfield, published by Rotary Photographic Co Ltd

Lily Elsie in The Merry Widow dressed by Lucile (1907)

by Foulsham & Banfield

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© National Portrait Gallery, London

NPG Ax160392; Lily Elsie (Mrs Bullough) as Sonia and Joseph Coyne as Prince Danilo in 'The Merry Widow' by Foulsham & Banfield, published by Rotary Photographic Co Ltd

Lily Elsie as Sonia and Joseph Coyne as Prince Danilo in ‘The Merry Widow’ (1907) by Foulsham & Banfield

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© National Portrait Gallery, London