Belle Story: The Belle of Vaudeville by Katherine Raymer

Belle Storey (later shortened to Story) was one of the most important coloratura sopranos of the first 30 years of the 20th century and in many ways a pioneering artist in her field, although she is forgotten and unknown even to opera buffs today. No recordings of her artistry survive to our knowledge.

Born Grace Leard in 1887, she was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who encouraged her musical training but not her stage career. Storey was her mother’s maiden name. She studied voice at the beginning of the 20th century with Mme. Marcella Sembrich, the famous Polish Metropolitan opera superstar and teacher of many opera greats.

By 1903, upon recommendations from Mme. Sembrich, she was already performing at age 16 in Victor Herbert’s operetta Babette.

 

Belle Story, including stories from her own personal lifetime scrapbook, now in the vaudeville archive of the University of Arizona Special Collections, Main Library

By 1914 she was an established star and was noted for her great beauty and slimness (unlike many opera stars of the time), her extraordinary voice and her amusing and warm stage presence. She was therefore popular enough to cross over from only doing opera to singing popular music of the time, often supporting the work of female and feminist composers. In 1913, for example, she had a cross-over pop hit with In the Candlelight by feminist and pioneering pop composer Fleta Jo Brown from the feminist silent movie Madam President starring Fannie Ward who was herself a pioneer in many fields including sexually-charged film themes and early sound and video recording.

During Her “Golden Age” between 1913 and 1920 Belle was as likely to appear on the vaudeville stage as the concert stage and she was hailed by the great bandmaster John Phillip Sousa as one of his “Ladies in White”, selected to sing with him on tours and at his famous Willow Grove Park band concerts.

She was also known for Broadway tunes such as Chin-Chin Open Your Heart from the popular Fred Stone and Dave Montgomery show Chin-Chin (1914). Her encores included The Flower Garden Ball and Hip-Hip Hooray, which she performed at New York City’s giant Hippodrome in 1916. At age 29, at the peak of her career, she married Chicagoan Frederic E. Andrews, a Wall Street broker.

From 1917 on she focused on a concert career with pianist Leopold Godowsky and she performed at Carnegie Hall with the Russian Symphony Orchestra. At the famed Biltmore Musicales she performed with mega-star Enrico Caruso. She was at this time billed as “America’s greatest coloratura singer” and her voice described as sweet, flute-like and bird-like. She was the first singer to perform Over There by George M. Cohan before it was published and became a hit for Nora Bayes in 1917. In 1918 she was one of the stars of R. H. Burnside’s large show Everything, portraying Columbia in a fifteen-act musical spectacle.

The scrapbook ends in 1920. Information about her is scarce after that and it is only known that she retired in 1934, four years after the death of her first husband, and moved to Texas. She had a relationship with a certain Eulalio Estrella who is said to have been living with her from 1968 to 1970 in Winnetka, Illinois, when she sold her home there. He took the scrapbook which we have to Brazil. 30 years later his stepson’s fiancée found it in Brazil and brought it back to America with Mr. Estrella’s permission. In 2000 she donated it to the American Vaudeville museum and in 2007 it was part of the collection donated to the University of Arizona Special Collections, thus completing the long journey of the only surviving main documentation of this important American opera star.

Belle Story: The Belle of Vaudeville

by Katherine Raymer

Belle Story, originally written as “Storey”, was a vaudeville and concert singer from the 1910s until 1923. Her real name was Grace Leard—sometimes spelled Laird—and she was born into a lower-middle-class family at a time when women of such means had a very difficult time rising to positions of wealth and fame. With very little chance of ever escaping the small towns in which she lived, Grace transformed herself into one of the biggest stars of vaudeville and light operatic entertainment. She seemingly did so overnight and her tale is dotted with unusual adventure. And just as quickly as she had appeared on the vaudeville and concert scene, she just as quickly faded away.

Grace Leard was born in a small town in Farmingdale, IL in 1887—three years before The National Woman Suffrage Association was formed and thirty-three years before women received the right to vote. She grew up, for the most part, in Omaha, Nebraska. Her father, Asa Leard, was a Presbyterian Minister and her mother, Isabelle Storey-Leard, took care of Grace and her sister Otis.[1] They all moved to Springfield, Missouri after her father became a pastor of Calvary Church.[2] Grace wasn’t like most of the other girls who worried about their hair, the latest fashion, boys, or picking out names for their future babies. When she was a teenager she would come home from school, undo her hair, throw on jeans, go ride a bike and play with the boys. Instead of dreaming about white picket fences with babies in the yard, she dreamed about pitching for the Giants in a next life.[3]

By her mid-teens Grace had shown an incredible talent for singing during her involvement in the church choir. She learned to play the piano in order to better practice singing.[4] Later in her career, journalists would rewrite her background story with a more colorful twist. Stories would circulate of Grace at the age of 10 playing the trombone and singing on street corners through Oklahoma and Kansas in order to “attract sinners” for her father’s church.[5]

Grace had never had a great desire to be on stage, but she loved to sing. At age 15 she requested from her parents that they let her take lessons. Despite her parents being apprehensive toward her interests her mother arranged music lessons.[6] These lessons gave the first signs that Grace wasn’t an ordinary singer. Her teachers and neighbors urged her parents to find better training in a larger city.[7] After joining a travelling quartette, her mother accompanied her on her studies in Europe. During her 2 years abroad she sang in Milan, Berlin, and Paris whilst studying with some of the best voice masters and noted European pedagogues of her time.[8] Shortly after Grace returned home, she joined Homer Rodehaver on an evangelical concert tour. In 1910, at the age of 23, she had her first concert with Reverend W.E. Blederwolf and toured with him for a year. Afterwards, she moved to New York and hired Madame Sembrich—who was an internationally famous Polish coloratura soprano that sang at the New York Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, and Covent Garden—as her music teacher.[9]

In order to gain a better vocal range and strengthen her musical prowess Grace would often study with different music teachers from a variety of backgrounds and is quoted saying, “I think that keeping the wrong person, or taking lessons from one teacher from whom one can get nothing which one understands is foolish. Changing teachers is better than never learning anything. Don’t you think so?”[10] She also signed Mrs. Dudley Buck as her agent and, with her encouragement, Grace Leard created the stage name Belle Storey in honor of her mother Isabelle Storey.[11] Later she would shorten Storey to Story for advertising purposes. Mrs. Dudley Buck got the brand-new Belle Story her first job sitting in a box and singing the chorus for performers at Hammerstein’s Victoria Theater.[12] The appearance put the spotlight on Belle Story and nearly overnight she became a star.

The Globe Theater in New York City welcomed Belle Story to the stage in 1914, where she starred as Goddess of the Lamp in the hit musical, “Chin Chin”.[13] She became the American prima donna with Montgomery and Stone for an entire season with more than a million spectators. The audience was enraptured by her perfected soprano voice with birdlike sounds and flutelike sustains. Belle was “versed in soprano literature and could run the gamut of expression, interpreting gaiety, sadness, humor, tragedy, grace or passion alike with a depth of understanding and sincerity”. After a year at the Globe, Charles Dillingham, a producer, transferred her to the Hippodrome to perform in the Ziegfeld Follies. For two seasons she performed twice per day where, on average, there were 5000 people in attendance. There were over 2 million seats sold for $1 each during her time in the leading female role for “Hip, Hip, Hooray”. Similarly, Ben-Hur played for 2 years and sold less than a million seats total.[14] While at the Hippodrome, Belle became one of the lead soprano soloists in the infamous Sousa Band, which consisted of some of the best musicians in the world and was led by John Philip Sousa.

During one of her early concerts at the Temple Theater in Detroit, Belle appeared on stage in a simple white frock after supposedly losing her wardrobe trunk during her travels. The media and the audience absolutely loved it! She took all of the attention away from the elaborate dresses and costumes she would normally wear and captured the theater solely with her performance.[15] “It is not so much the voice that entrances, but the perfect beauty and pathos of her singing. She uses no artificial tremolo, nothing false or exaggerated. The foundation of her singing is spontaneity”.[16]

Belle’s physical beauty was never raved about in the papers. She didn’t look like an actress or the other performers that were described as tall, slender, and average looking.[17] She never did anything decorative with her hair and, in fact, only ever did her hair one way. When asked about it she would state that she would never do it any other way even if she knew how.[18]

In 1915, rumors had been spreading of a secret relationship and possible wedding to Hugh Allen—a baritone that Belle Story had toured with. The newspapers exploded after a writer from The World reportedly caught her in a courthouse acquiring a marriage license to marry Mr. Fred Andrews. After initially being asked for comments Belle denied having ever been there or knowing anything about the accusations.[19] After nonstop questions and stories she admitted to getting a marriage license, but she declared that she was not yet married.[20] She would not comment on the rumors of a wedding or about the legitimacy of the supposed relationship with Hugh Allen. We now know that there was indeed a marriage shortly after she was spotted filing for a marriage license. She was wed to Frederick F. Andrews, a 23-year-old broker from Chicago who worked on Wall Street.[21] In order to continue singing and follow her dreams she had to keep her relationship status a secret. Women that worked after marriage during this time were looked down upon and often forced to stay at home to take care of their husbands and have children. However, she decided to move to New York permanently in order to stay closer to her husband. That same year she was given the opportunity to work with the Russian Symphony Orchestra and Leopold Godowski on New Year’s Eve at Carnegie Hall in Manhattan.[22]

Belle Story enchanted reporters. Not only did she have a remarkable voice, but she also told wonderfully entertaining stories about herself. She would brag about her love of the author Tolstoy and go on to talk about playing golf, tennis, baseball, and other sports that women weren’t known for playing. She would ride Kentucky thoroughbreds through parks and didn’t bother yielding to society’s norms for women.[23] Belle would also tell stories about how she demanded her chauffeur speed down roads and, if a police officer would catch them, she would lay in the backseat as if she had fainted and have her driver claim to be taking her to the doctor for immediate medical treatment.[24] In interviews she would discuss her admiration and allegiance to America and stated that she refused to tour overseas. She only wanted to sing for her own American public.[25] She embodied the all-American girl and gained favor with feminists of this era because she refused to fall victim to gender stereotyping while capturing America’s heart with her comedic adventures and devotion to her country. She even spoke out against those who bashed artists in vaudeville. She stated that, “the work, if properly carried on, does not harm the voice” and added further that it did not harm careers.[26]

BELLE STORY in 1914 during the period of her ascendancy. From the University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection.

 

1916 was the year of Belle Story. She was in demand at concert halls across the nation and signed Max Sanders, one of the biggest personal representatives in vaudeville.[27] She was breaking the glass ceiling for women and climbing to the top. Her name was in electric lights at every theater she performed at. Even the Green Room Club, an exclusive and prestigious fraternal organization in New York City where women were prohibited, hired her to play. The men in this club were involved in the dramatic arts and included singers, managers, actors, composers, and more. Belle was one of the only women to ever be invited to play at this club and performed alongside other big names such as George M. Cohen, Sir Herbert Tree, and Irvin Cobb.[28] She also sang at the Majestic Theater with Manuel Quiroga, who was one of the greatest Spanish violinists of the time; Morton & Morris, who did team dancing; and more.[29] Belle was hired by Mr. R. E. Johnston to perform in the Biltmore Series of Friday Morning Musicals in the ballroom of the Biltmore Hotel, which lasted from November of 1916 until February of 1917. These seats sold for $3 each and were a huge success.[30]

Despite this, after the series ended Belle Story seemed to completely disappear. She went back to her original life under the name of Grace Leard and gave birth to a baby girl.[31] She had made the decision to keep her private life out of the papers and stayed at home for almost three years in order to raise her daughter.

Towards the end of 1919, she put her costumes back on and Belle Story stepped back out onto the stage once more. It was as if she had never left and, without skipping a beat, Belle began performing in the vaudeville theaters. Her personal pamphlet that would be distributed at concerts stated, “In giving up her stage career, and devoting herself entirely to the concert stage, Miss Story has proven to the world that among the American women there are idealists of the highest grade, and that ambition for high achievements, counts more than all monitory considerations. When it is remembered that Miss Story’s income as a star in light opera was as great as that of the President of the United States, one can see that it takes quite a determined character to give up such an income with a name known from the Atlantic to the Pacific and join a profession (the concert platform) where this artist is more or less a stranger.”[32] Newspapers were reporting her as being one of the best singers vaudeville had ever known. She especially enjoyed performing for children after returning to public life, but kept the fact that she was a new mother to herself.[33] She would perform around the city headlining with Helen Ware, a successful Broadway star and actress, as well as Morton & Moore at B.F. Keith’s Theater in Boston while also blowing crowds away as an opera singer on other stages.[34] At the end of the day, she would come home and take care of her daughter and supportive husband.

Some of the top vaudeville theaters were once more graced with Belle’s voice after she reappeared. Some of these theaters included: Heilig Theater in Portland, the Colonial Theater in New York City, the Alhambra Theater in Harlem, and the New Brighton Theater on Coney Island[35].

In 1923, Belle’s husband passed away unexpectedly at only 31 years old. Immediately, her number of performances drastically dropped. By 1927 she had remarried and retired completely. Belle was once again known as Grace and the only memento from her time as a vaudeville celebrity was a single scrapbook she had created during her travels. She and her daughter moved to Texas where her new husband lived.[36]

Some years after her husband died she moved to Winnetka, Illinois and lived with Eulalio Estrella from 1968-1970. After selling her home, she gifted her precious scrapbook—the only memory of Belle Story—to Eulalio, who then took it to his home in Brazil for safekeeping. Thirty years later it would be discovered by Alicia Shirakbari on her visit to see Mr. Estrella—her fiance’s stepfather. This scrapbook, along with letters from Belle Story’s daughter, have helped the world to rediscover and preserve Belle Story as one of America and vaudeville’s greatest treasures.

In the blink of an eye Belle Story had become a household name among concert and vaudeville goers. Then, just as suddenly, she was gone. She had broken the rules set for women in an age when women still did not have the right to vote. Without relying on her physical beauty, marriage, or background she used her voice to move her audience and breakdown the stereotypes and precedents set for women. She engaged in activities that were typical of men, played at concerts where women were barred, and still found time to be a mother and a wife. Although her moment was brief, Belle’s career would make a definite impact on American history.


Bibliography

“Belle Storey | IBDB: The Official Source For Broadway Information”.Ibdb.com. N.p., 2001.

Danner, Phyllis. “John Philip Sousa: The Illinois Collection. – Free Online Library”. Thefreelibrary.com. N.p., 1998.

“The Biltmore Series Of Friday Morning Musicales”. The Music Magazine-Musical Courier 74 (1917): 56. Print.

Vaudeville Collection. MS421 Box 61. University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[1] Mrs. Watson, Letter, 2000; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[2] “Belle Story Had No Musical Ancestors: In Fact, Her Stage Career Did Not Meet With Approval of Her Father”, Newspaper clipping, c. 1916; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[3] Untitled, Newspaper clipping, c. 1914; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[4] Mrs. Watson, Letter, 2000; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[5] “Wedding License Not Hers, Belle Storey Asserts”, Newspaper clipping, c. 1915; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[6] “Belle Story Had No Musical Ancestors: In Fact, Her Stage Career Did Not Meet With Approval of Her Father”, Newspaper clipping, c. 1916; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[7] “La Belle Story of Belle Storey”, Newspaper clipping, c. 1915; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[8] “Belle Story: America’s Greatest Coloratura Singer”, Pamphlet, c. 1919; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[9] Mrs. Watson, Letter, 2000; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[10] Florence E Yoder, “’Singing in Vaudeville Will Not Harm the Voice,’ Says Belle Story”, Newspaper clipping, c. 1915; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[11] Mrs. Watson, Letter, 2000; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[12] “Wedding License Not Hers, Belle Storey Asserts”, Newspaper clipping, c. 1915; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[13] “’Chin-Chin’ Lively Musical Comedy”, Newspaper clipping, c. 1914; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[14] “More than 2,000,000 Saw Hippodrome Show During Past Season”, Newspaper clipping, c. 1914; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[15] “Temple-Vaudeville”, Newspaper clipping, c. 1914; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[16] “Miss Belle Story: A Charming Coloratura Soprano”, Pamphlet, c. 1915; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[17] Untitled, Newspaper clipping, c. 1914; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[18] Untitled, Newspaper clipping, c. 1914; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[19] “Wedding License Not Hers, Belle Storey Asserts”, Newspaper clipping, c. 1915; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[20] “Belle Storey is to Wed F. E. Andrews”, Newspaper clipping, c. 1915; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[21] Mrs. Watson, Letter, 2000; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[22] “In Opera and Concert Next Week”, Newspaper clipping, c. 1915; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[23] Untitled, Newspaper clipping, c. 1914; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[24] “How Belle Story Fools the Cops”, Newspaper clipping, c. 1915; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[25] “Belle Story: America’s Greatest Coloratura Singer”, Pamphlet, c. 1919; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[26] Florence E Yoder, “’Singing in Vaudeville Will Not Harm the Voice,’ Says Belle Story”, Newspaper clipping, c. 1915; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[27] Belle Story (Grace Leard), Postcard, c. 1917; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[28] “Greenroom Club Rules and Traditions Upset by a Venturesome Eve: Woman Entered the Forbidden Portals and the Men Liked the Intrusion”, Newspaper clipping, c. 1916; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[29] “Miss Belle Story at the Majestic”, Newspaper clipping, c. 1916; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[30] “The Biltmore Friday Morning Musicals”, Pamphlet, 1917; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[31] Mrs. Watson, Letter, 2000; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[32] “Belle Story: America’s Greatest Coloratura Singer”, Pamphlet, c. 1919; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[33] “Belle Story at the Temple”, Newspaper clipping, c. 1919; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[34] “The Vaudeville Houses”, Newspaper clipping, c. 1919; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[35] “Miss Leard Success on Vaudeville Stage”, Newspaper clipping, c. 1916; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

[36] Mrs. Watson, Letter, 2000; MS421 Box 61, Vaudeville collection; University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

The University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection has the following music by Belle Story:

THE ROSE OF THE MOUNTAIN TRAIL 1914 – by Jack Caddigan and James A. Brennan. “As sung by MISS BELLE STORY”.

Name: Story
Topics: Light Opera | Opera