Nita + Zita

by angeliska on August 26, 2010

I promised I would write about my deep love for Nita and Zita
a while back
, and as these mysterious ladies have been
haunting my dreams and acting as my muses lately, I
reckon I had better share their story here. I remember
first discovering the magic of these bohemian legends
at Judy’s Collage, an amazing junk-haven that used to
be on Chartres and Frenchmen. Man, I miss that place!
It was so packed with the most incredible stuff, you could
barely move around. Stalactites of flotsam hung from the
ceiling in a dimly lit mermaid’s cavern crammed with
jettisoned treasures. There was an odd little corner with
some of Nita and Zita’s costumes stuck on old mannequins
in kind of a chicken wire shrine. There were so many
fascinating characters in the Marigny and Bywater,
burlesque dancers and faded old queens with creole
cottages brimming with old photos and stories – I was
very blessed to meet and become friends with some of
them, and hear their stories. But oh! What I wouldn’t have
given to have been able to meet Nita and Zita! How
wonderful to have visited them in their amazing polka-dot
, and taken dance and exercise classes from them!
It hurts my heart to think of them being buried in pauper’s
graves with only the Rabbi and a neighbor come to pay
their respects! It kills me to think of them so friendless,
when now their old neighborhood is full of people who
revere their memories, write plays based on their lives,
and fight over their tattered belongings and who loved
them best. Flora and Piroska Gellért were born in the
Jewish shtetl of Nagybánya, Hungary – which apparently
is close to Szatmárnémeti
(now you know!) They immigrated
to America in 1922 to become Nita and Zita, exotic dancers
and acrobats of international renown. They traveled and
performed all over the world, their passports a patchwork
of stamps from Shanghai, Panama, Paris and Egypt.

“Nita and Zita were sisters. They were also exotic
or interpretive dancers (‘Hawaiian, Oriental, waltz,
veil dances,’ reads one of their old cards), and they
spent their last years in a small shotgun
house on Dauphine Street.
Nita and Zita had come originally from Romania (Hungary!)
and were often referred to in their old New Orleans neighborhood
as ‘The Gypsy Ladies.’ They danced on Bourbon Street toward the
end of their careers and gave dance and fitness lessons in one room
of their home: ‘Nita and Zita International Dancers. Health exercise
studio for 25 years till 60 years old persons for body and mind
improvment. Everybody need to exercise but persons in their
middle years need mild and slow exercises to have normal
blood circulation.’ How true. How very true.”

From VOICES, The annual report of the North Carolina
Folk Art Society, Vol. 1: 1992. By Howard Campbell

This is Piroska (Zita) Gellért. Piroska (Pir-osh-ka) is the Hungarian name for Little Red Riding Hood.
While I was in the midst of writing this, I received an email from my
dear friend in New Orleans, the inimitable Marquis Déjà Dû, which
included this amazing video from 1922 (the year the sisters came
to America!) showing the belles of the day posing and preening
in glorious color! I was just conversing with my sweetheart on how
odd it is to see these rare images the pre-technicolor era – we were
amazed by the photos from Russia in Color, a Century Ago. We
were musing on about how strangely shocking it is to
see color photographs from that time. It makes it all seem
so much closer, more real somehow, and – although
we know better, it’s easy to think of the world as being all
black and white back then. How odd, to see the blue of
an eye, the blush of a cheek. It shouldn’t be, but it is!

(Photograph from FLY)
Sort of unrelated, but still – my friend Masha Yakovenko is a model
in New York, and I just stumbled across this photo of her that I think
is just so exquisite. Doesn’t she look like a Louise Brooks sort of girl?
I think she would look amazing in one of Nita + Zita’s dresses like
this one that was being sold by Paisley Babylon a while back:

I love the hand stitching on these. I remember seeing the
famous portraits of Nita and Zita decorating Paisley
Babylon, which was such fabulous vintage store that
used to be on Decatur Street, but now exists only online
I wonder if she’ll ever put up any more of Nita and Zita’s
fabulous wardrobe? I can only wish and dream!

Not that I could have filled this frock out! Va-va-va-voom! Bazongas!
“I don’t know all the facts of Nita & Zita’s life (nobody does, really;
they have become mythic), but have pieced together a history
from the designs that they left behind. They were real bohemians:
they lived art, did everything in an artistic manner. They even repaired
their ramshackle Marigny home with needle and thread, sewing up
holes in the walls! Same with their clothing: they made and mended
them. In fact, it seems like they made nearly all of their dresses by
hand, or redesigned store-bought dresses, and would continue to
work on them until they were perfect! Sort of like those crafty hippies
did with their jeans! Embroidery is very Hungarian!
Dancers, contortionists, folk artists, above all Nita and Zita were seamstresses!”

Paisley Babylon
Brings to mind the new project from the lovely trans-continental
ladies, Drucilla & Mathyld, who are debuting Ragtime Seance,
“Part e-course, part secret club”, joining their forces to teach us
about embroidery and sewing! They are drawing inspiration
from the flappers of the 1920’s, so hopefully Saints Nita + Zita
will bless and inspire their endeavors! Sok szerencsét kivánok!
(A légpárnás hajóm tele van angolnákkal!)


I got chills reading this! their ghosts are definitely walking the old neighborhood, I have felt them.

by alita on August 26, 2010 at 2:37 pm. Reply #

Nita and Zita were so cute!
Me thinks you may have a hard time getting Masha into a dress like that, as she is strictly a jeans/cut-offs, tank top and sneakers kind of girl…but we can dream can’t we?

by Whiskey Deer Wolf on August 26, 2010 at 2:40 pm. Reply #

Darling Alita,
Yes, I feel them too! Maybe we should hold a
seance tea-party and invite them to come as
guests of honor. I’m going to see if Holly Gee
will let me spend a little time in their old house,
and take some photographs when I’m there in October.
Are you coming for Halloween? Say you will!

by Angeliska on August 26, 2010 at 2:40 pm. Reply #

Is Mo still in the Nita and Zita house? I got an amazing tour from her there in 2006…I think they would have been most happy to know what she did with the place!

by Melissa on August 26, 2010 at 2:51 pm. Reply #

this is very strange. i know i have read about them before…..or dreamt. or both. something in your writings of nita & zita is conjuring a deja vu moment in my mind. an old dusty book with some sort of inspired or documentary story…i just can’t place the time that i read it!
anyway…swoon!!! und mein gott im himmell–that rhinestone festooned headdress! it makes me a bit weak in the knees! thank you for the afternoon inspiration/pick-me-up…i think i’ll go do some sewing!

by katinka on August 26, 2010 at 3:01 pm. Reply #

How exotic-ly thrilling !! I didn’t know their names but loved some of these photos … Thanks so much for this post !
Also, I saw this Kodachrome film yesterday (was it on Tumblr ?) and can’t take my eyes off of it ! (I even like the music …)
And, last but not least, … What a treat to find my name & project included in this post ! Thanks so very much, you’re the cat’s pyjamas !
Toodle pip !
x x x

by mathyld ▲under the pyramids▲ on August 26, 2010 at 4:57 pm. Reply #

What a blessed gathering of these lovely cats You have offered up! Thank you ever for the Haunt.
All the Love.

by Saelokit on August 26, 2010 at 7:21 pm. Reply #

So lovely!!

by Shanna on August 27, 2010 at 2:18 pm. Reply #

Actually, 1922 is NOT pre-Technicolor!! (even if it was
not used much)

by Timothy Watson on August 29, 2010 at 11:17 am. Reply #

PS : you should enter our giveaway, by the way !

by mathyld ▲under the pyramids▲ on August 30, 2010 at 1:10 pm. Reply #

I had serendipitously come across a few delightful Nita and Zita dresses whilst looking up showgirl fripperies on eBay. This was shortly before my trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras this year. I think they were listed by Paisley Babylon. Maybe other Nita and Zita creations will be looking for a new home in the future?

by April Violet on August 31, 2010 at 9:34 pm. Reply #

Dear Melissa,
I don’t think Mo is still in there, alas! I’m going to try and visit the house while I’m in NOLA this autumn. Can you believe I’ve never been in before? Hey, I’m going to be in SF on Sunday – will you be around? Come to dinner Sunday night? Can’t wait to see you, miss!

by Angeliska on August 31, 2010 at 9:39 pm. Reply #

Dearest Katinka,
I am hoping to visit their house and maybe hold a tea-party seance in October! I made a headdress today that’s very inspired by Piroshka’s! Lots of silver beads and coins. Let me know if you figure out what’s triggering your memory of them!
love ever,

by Angeliska on August 31, 2010 at 9:44 pm. Reply #

Dearest Mathyld,
De rien, ma chere! You’re the eel’s hips!

by Angeliska on August 31, 2010 at 9:45 pm. Reply #

Dearest Saelokit,
I miss you! Where are you?

by Angeliska on August 31, 2010 at 9:45 pm. Reply #

Hi! My sister Lee, who lived in the Marigny for years, has an original polka dotted cloche worn by Nita and Zita for sale right now on Ebay. I just wanted to see what they looked like and stumbled onto your lovely site.

by Lynn Wilson on June 26, 2012 at 11:35 am. Reply #

We are a retirement community having a Luau and are looking for a Hawaiian dancer. We are on a limited budget if you think you are interested on coming to our community and dance please let us know.

by Judy Naquin on August 17, 2013 at 1:43 pm. Reply #

I have some of their belongings that were given to me by carole? (in winter 1991) the neighbor that cleaned out their home. i have a very cool story about it but i havent time to write right now!

by gabi on December 15, 2013 at 1:29 pm. Reply #

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