Above, champion swimmer and silent film star Annette Kellerman, National Film and Sound Archive of Australia
Hedda Burgemeister, January 1914
Footsteps. Not waiting for his knock, Hedda throws her arms around Otto’s neck before he can enter the privacy of the parlor.
Her improper exuberance brings a wide grin to Otto’s lips as he, hat in hand, sweeps from behind his back the fullest brilliant white ostrich plume a bird could produce.
“Oh, Otto, this makes six. Surely that is sufficient for me to have the most splendid hat ever!”
“Not yet. You deserve the finest hat in all of San Antonio, one that would make the most elegant of aristocrats on the Champs d’Elysee envious.”
He takes a seat and pulls her onto his lap.
“Ah, meine Perle. I wish I could stay here all afternoon, but I can’t.”
Disappointment, undisguised, flashes across Hedda’s face.
“I only came to deliver this plume – a symbol of my enduring love. You know an ostrich mates for life. I am your loyal ostrich.”
He pulls an envelope out of his breast pocket. “Oh, and one more present. This, Schätzchen, is the most sought-after ticket in town.”
“Whatever is it for?”
“Some call it indecent.”
Cooped up in her house, fearful of leaving and missing one of his now less infrequent visits, Hedda is willing to go anywhere. “I’d even go see hootchy-kootchy dancers at the fairgrounds.”
“What of the ‘Diving Venus’ in Neptune’s Daughter? I hear her attire leaves little to a man’s imagination.”
She pauses. “The mermaid? Annette Kellermann?”
“After her arrest for indecent exposure on the beach in Boston, Miss Kellerman redesigned her scandalous swimsuits to skirt the law. They still cling to her body, revealing every curve. Technically, she keeps most of her skin covered, if one considers black stockings sufficient cover. Yet, her justification for skimpy clothing does seem reasonable. After her arrest, Annette said, ‘I cannot swim wearing more stuff than you can hang on a clothesline.’”
“I saw Annette in a newsreel as she bravely struggled to swim across the English Channel.”
“This, Hedda, presents an opportunity to glimpse much more of the ‘Diving Venus.’ An entire film. Annette purportedly was not naked during the shooting of Neptune’s Daughter, but the illusion is created that she wears absolutely nothing at all underwater. The evening will be proper, though. It’s the grand opening of the Empire Theater.”
“The opening night? Oh, Otto. I read the inside of the theater shimmers as radiantly as that of a queen’s jewel box.”
“Thomas Brady hired fine architects from St. Louis for the project. The old Italian, Hannibal Pianta, who created all the ornamental plaster for my home, died a year or so ago. This is the work of his son John, who some claim crafts even greater masterpieces than his father. Everyone in town will be there – the mayor… Fraulein Hedda Burgemeister….”
“But how can I go alone?”
“This contains a pair of tickets. Invite the nurse who helps young Dr. Herff.”
“Missus Hatzenbuehler? Why, yes, Hilda probably would love to accompany me. Otto, I’m thrilled. You’re going, aren’t you?”
“Yes, of course. We made special arrangements to accommodate Emma’s wheelchair, so we’ll be right by the orchestra pit. All the better for close inspection of the lovely Miss Kellerman’s wardrobe.” Otto wiggles his eyebrows up and down. “There will be no orchestra because Thomas installed a very fine pipe organ. This should be a splendid spectacle. I must be off now. Go find your friend Hilda.”
~ ~ ~
An usher helps Hilda and Hedda weave their way through the festive crowd to their seats on the lower balcony, almost exactly in the center of the third row.
“Hedda, these seats are marvelous! However did you come by them?”
“A gift from a friend who always claims I saved his life. He exaggerates, of course.”
One of Mr. Kalteyer’s pharmacists, Mr. Pfeiffer, is seated in front of them. His short stature promises a clear view. Otto and Mrs. Koehler are easy to spot on the front row, with half the audience stopping by to greet them before taking their seats.
Just as the lights dim and the master of ceremonies attempts to hush the audience, a lady with a gentleman on each arm makes her way to the seats in front of the pharmacist. Perched atop her head is the most stunning plumed hat ever seen in San Antonio. The unfortunate pharmacist appears more distressed than impressed. A forest of feathers now blocks his chance to gawk at Miss Kellerman’s underwater maneuvers.
First the mayor talks about how the Empire is such a wonderful addition to this fine city. Then Rabbi Marks. Then Judge Davis and several others of whom Hedda has never heard. The speeches are both endless and repetitive, but the two nurses savor every minute, inspecting everyone’s attire all the while. Both are accustomed to reading about prominent social occasions, not attending them.
Finally, Mr. Geils, who must be the tallest organist or almost anything else in the world, strikes the chords indicating the film is beginning. The lights go down. The audience stills. The curtain opens.
Hilda and Hedda are mesmerized, aside from the ongoing distraction of Mr. Pfeiffer constantly squirming this way and that in vain attempts to see anything but feathers. During the most critical scene, from a man’s point of view, the frustrated pharmacist can contain himself no longer. He rises up out of his seat and parts the feathers with his hands.
Rather than a glimpse of the sea nymph, Mr. Pfeiffer receives a sharp rap across the brow from the lady’s fan. Giggles ripple through the balcony, prompting loud shushes from the audience below.
Beware of the unreliable narrator. The formal opening of the Empire Theater did not occur until December of 1914, but the Author wanted you, Hedda and Otto all to be able to attend. Eleven months later would not work at all.
The details of the event, including the screening of the sensational seven-reel Neptune’s Daughter and the presence of Mr. Geils, “the world’s tallest organist,” are true. Mr. Pfieffer and the woman with the fine feathered bonnet, Miss Lang you might assume, are invented.