This Week in Armenian History

Birth of Flora Zabelle (April 1, 1880)

Flora Zabelle, a Broadway star, was probably the first Armenian-American film star in the early twentieth century.  

She was born Zabelle Mangasarian in Constantinople on April 1, 1880. Her father, Dr. Mangasar Mangasarian (M. M. Mangasarian, 1859-1943), was a prominent pastor and theologian. She appears to have moved to the United States at a very early age, for her father studied in Princeton around 1880 and then moved to Philadelphia (1882-1885) and later New York and Chicago. Her sister, Christine Mangasarian, was also an actress in Broadway.  

Zabelle Mangasarian attended Wellesley College and decided upon an acting career, which was particularly ambitious and brave for a woman so young and especially at that time. At the age of 19, she moved to New York and adopted the stage name Flora Zabelle. After a few rejections due to her lack of experience, she finally got in a chorus as a soprano for the Castle Square Grand Opera Company, and shortly thereafter portrayed Poppy in San Toy (1900). She progressively gained recognition on Broadway. In total, she played in 14 musicals and 5 silent movies. 

In 1902, she performed in the film King Dodo. Two years later, she appeared opposite Raymond Hitchcock in the Broadway show The Yankee Consul. The couple were married in 1905 and they appeared together in the shows Easy Dawson (1905), The Yankee Tourist (1907), The Mascot (1909), and The Man Who Owns Broadway (1909-10). Zabelle later appeared, without Hitchcock, in the shows The Kiss Waltz (1911), The Pearl Maiden (1912), the Ziegfield Follies of 1913, Toot-Toot! (1918) and The Girl from Home (1920). She was enough of a star by this point that her image was used on trading cards that came with Fatima Cigarettes.  

In response to certain criticisms that she had exploited the fame of her husband, she wrote in an article of 1913: “I had a fear of professional stagnation; would I continue in an indefinite, unestablished way or, worse still, fall back into oblivion? But I determined to apply myself as hard as I could, never for a moment to lose sight of my ambition’s goal, that of creating leading parts in Broadway musical plays, and I have tenaciously held to that ambition, with as great a desire to-day, and indeed greater, to win the approval of the public.” 

With Hitchcock, she appeared in the silent comedy movies The Savage Tiger (1914), The Ring-Tailed Rhinoceros (1915), and A Village Scandal (1915, also with Fatty Arbuckle). The Red Widow (1916) paired her with John Barrymore. A Perfect 36 (1918) with Mabel Normand was her last film. 

In 1920, she retired from the stage. About a decade later, after her husband’s death in 1929, she joined Jacques Bodart, Inc. as a designer and partner. In 1931, she briefly left retirement to portray Mrs. Van Allen in the Broadway play The Man on Stilts 

She died in New York City on October 7, 1968.