The MerryWhirl of 1920
By Christopher Shields
Pictured here is the front cover of a souvenir program for “The MerryWhirl of 1920”, an entertainment extravaganza (known as a kirmess) presented to raise funds for Greenwich Hospital. The beautiful illustration is by artist George Wharton Edwards, a painter and illustrator who was a member of the Cos Cob art colony and a Greenwich resident. This original artwork was auctioned off near the end of the three-day event.
Although the term “kirmess”, defined as an entertainment intended as a fundraiser for a charity, has largely fallen out of use, newspaper articles from the late 19th and early 20th centuries feature many mentions of these popular spectacles. It was apparently a word that was well known during that period.
The executive committee of the Kirmess Association, which organized the event, was composed of the wives of prominent and influential men in the community. Other notable men and women served as actors and actresses in the featured theatrical offerings.
The introduction to the program highlights the important role of Greenwich Hospital in answering the healthcare needs of all residents, but noted the financial burden placed on the institution by its service to the poor. “The greater the service and success of a hospital the greater is the burden of expense as the money paid by patients (excepting for the private rooms) is scarcely a third of the cost of their care.” Financier, philanthropist and avid yachtsman E. C. Benedict had donated the new hospital building to meet the needs of the town just three years earlier in 1917.
The MerryWhirl consisted of four performances held in the Havemeyer Auditorium (in the building that now houses the Board of Education) and featured a Roman pageant with local participants portraying the Emperor, Empress, Juno, Venus and Marc Antony. There was also an “Egyptian episode” featuring Cleopatra and an “Oriental episode” with the Prince and Princess of Persia. Joining these depictions from antiquity was a performance with a decidedly more modern (and local) flavor: the wedding of General Israel Putnam.
The amount of money raised is not clear, but another elaborate fundraising event was held the following year on the grounds of the late E. C. Benedict’s Indian Harbor estate. That event featured a Venetian fête and a circus from Coney Island’s Luna Park. A newspaper account of the event says that the circus animals and props arrived by steamboat from the city.
The kirmess returned to the Havemeyer Auditorium in 1922 billed as “The Greenwich Follies”.
—Christopher Shields, Archivist, Greenwich Historical Society