Afra Hines during the Actors' Equity Gypsy Robe ceremony at "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" at Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in April 2018. (Photo courtesy of Walter McBride)

Actors’ Equity’s New Name for the Gypsy Robe: The ‘Legacy Robe’

The ceremony honoring Broadway chorus members has a new, more culturally sensitive name.

NEW YORK CITY: Actors’ Equity Association has announced that a new name has been chosen for the tradition formerly known as the “Gypsy Robe.” Moving forward, the Robe and tradition, in which the longest-performing chorus member of each Broadway show is honored on opening night with a colorful patchwork garment, will be referred to as the “Legacy Robe,” a name chosen by members in a survey.

“The Legacy Robe reminds us why our tradition exists,” said Mary McColl, executive director of Actors’ Equity, in a statement. “It emphasizes the history of chorus performers, their years of dedication and hard work and just how essential they are to every Broadway musical. The ceremony on opening night will go on like it has for years, and I look forward to celebrating another season’s long serving chorus performers with recognition of their professionalism as they receive the Legacy Robe.”

The name change came following a multi-step process that included a vote of Equity’s National Council, and recommendations from Equity’s Advisory Committee on Chorus Affairs and National Equal Employment Opportunity Committee.

While the original name was intended by members to be an honorific, the name change was made to recognize that the usage of the former name “Gypsy” no longer had that impact but was instead insensitive, and viewed by many in the Romani community as an ethnic slur. As a union for actors and stage managers, Equity has an obligation to lead by example on this issue. The next presentation of the Legacy Robe will take place on July 26 at the Hudson Theatre, where the musical Head Over Heels will open.

Following the tradition, the Robe recipient circles the stage three times while cast members reach out and touch the Robe for good luck. The recipient of the Robe then visits each dressing room to “bless” the show. A decorative panel representing their show is then sewn onto the Robe, which is passed on to a recipient in the next chorus musical that opens.

This ritual began in 1950 when Bill Bradley, a chorus member of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, persuaded fellow chorus member Florence Baum to give him her dressing gown. As a lark he sent it to a friend, Arthur Partington, a Call Me Madam chorus member, on opening night, telling him it had been worn by all the Ziegfeld beauties. Arthur added a rose from star Ethel Merman’s gown and sent it to a chorus member on the next opening night of Guys and Dolls.

It was then passed from show to show and was often presented to a friend of the previous recipient or awarded to a chorus member based on popularity. Through the decades, the passing of the Robe became a specific ceremony, with official rules stating how it is to be presented, worn, and paraded on stage. Three retired Robes are at the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts; there are also Robes at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and at the Museum of the City of New York. All others are with Actors’ Equity.