Friday Hoyden: Nellie Donegan, roller skater, 1913

Photo comes from the State Library online gallery on Flickr (via @dogpossum on Twitter): just look at the vitality and mischief of her!

A woman poses on rollerskates for a portrait - she is wearing a spangly embroidered costume with a mid-thigh-length skirt and a feather headdress - one foot is in the air behind her

According to the State Library’s page for the photo, they have been able to discover that Nellie Donegan played Henriette in A Parisian model (Broadway Theatre, Jan 1908) and that she was a former international speed skating champion. Apparently she was also at one time a “Zeigfield girl” (ugh, I hate that phrase).

The Google led me to a circus history site where I learnt that she grew up in a family that owned a skating rink in a small town in Indiana, that she was part of famous exhibition/vaudeville skating duo Reynolds and Donegan (the couple eventually married) and also that “Nellie gained some incidental fame as a steam calliope player between 1943 and 1945. She’s the only Ziegfeld girl to have played the calliope, as far as I know.”

If her birth dates are accurate (earliest reported as b1870, but there are discrepancies) then she was still skating into her 70s, just before her death in October 1945, which followed a disastrous Big Top fire for the Ringling Bros circus in Hartford, Connecticut in June of 1944. There seems to be a widespread belief that she died in this fire, which the dates make clear is not possible.

I wonder what she would have thought of the roller derby revival?

Categories: arts & entertainment, fun & hobbies

Tags: , ,

2 replies

  1. From troll-wrangling[Moderator note: this commentor
    is morphing their identity here.]
    ”Apparently she was also at one time a “Zeigfield girl” (ugh, I hate that phrase).”
    what’s a “Zeigfield girl” and why do you hate it?

    • Florenz Zeigfeld staged spectacular theatricals on Broadway and on tour from 1907-1931. He was particularly celebrated for his elaborate costume parade extravaganzas featuring the performers from the chorus line in the revue. These performers became known as “Zeigfield girls”, and I hate the phrase because it reduces them to an amorphous blob of pulchritude. I’m not keen on “Gibson girl” (a forerunner) or “Rockette” (a successor) for the same reason.
      I do understand that these phrases are meant to capture a particular aesthetic zeitgeist, and I’ve used them that way myself, but I can’t help but feel that the women such a phrase describes are getting seriously short shrift in terms of their individual special talents.

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