Flora Zabelle -the conquest of Broadway

Flora Mangasarian (1902); Photographer – Bernard Lamarche; University of Washington Libraries.

The first Broadway actress of Armenian descent, Flora Zabelle (Mangasarian) was also one of the first Armenian actress of a early silent movies. Flora Mangasarian had a nice soprano voice,  and very often she made a performances to entertain relatives and friends of the family. Coming from a family of a prominent pastor Dr. Mangasar Mangasarian , she was born in Constantinople, Ottoman Empire on April 1, 1880. Her mother Akabie Altunian was from of Amasia. Zabelle Mangasarian had 2 brothers and one sister.

Despite of Mangasarians were one of the respectful families in the city (her grandfather was a famous physician), they didn’t escape Armenian massacres during the rule of Sultan Abdul Hamid. One of her uncles was killed, little Flora also became a witness of a murder of her friend of the childhood.

Flora Zabelle The New York Public Library
Flora Zabelle
The New York Public Library

At the end of 1880-th Mangasarian’s family left Constantinople for US. Her father Dr. Mangasarian was a pastor and scholar, author of a number of books, dedicated to theology, phylosophy, Armenian and Turkish history.


Wikipedia-logo-en-bigBorn in Mashger (now within Turkey) in the Ottoman Empire, he attended Robert College in Constantinople, and was ordained as minister in Marsovan in 1878. In about 1880 he enrolled at Princeton University. He was pastor at a Presbyterian church in Philadelphia from 1882 to 1885, when he resigned, becoming an independent preacher and a lecturer on “independent religion” in New York. In 1892 he became leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Chicago, a group established by Felix Adler. In 1900 he organized the Independent Religious Society of Chicago, a rationalist group, of which he remained pastor until 1925. He retired to Piedmont, California, where he lived for the rest of his life.

During one of his lectures which usually attended a large audience, he had an emotional speech, in which criticized Turkish Sultan for the mass killings of Armenians. Some time  later, during his mysterious trip to Istanbul in 1900s (newspapers wrote about some secret mission, and that trying to stay incognito in Istanbul he have shaved his beard and mustache), he was arrested and taken in prison. All attempts of American organizations to take him back weren’t successful.


Meanwhile, Flora at age of 19 decided move to New York and start her career at the theatrical stage, which was a brave action for young girl at that time. She visited the various famous theatrical agencies in NY, and unfortunately got a refusal everywhere  — nobody wanted to work with an inexperienced girl.

At about this period theatrical manager Henry W. Savage was organizing a second Castle Square Grand Opera Company to present opera, and the young woman approached the manager with little hope of securing work. Mr. Savage tried her voice and finding it satisfactory gave her an engagement in the chorus.

Miss Mangasarian is svelte, low-voiced, of ready and graceful speech. On Broadway, in New York, or at home, she seems the well-bred clever American girl. But a word of her reminiscences or her ambitions and the Armenian daughter of the Armenians is revealed. … Gifted musically and with musical trace of movements, she has chosen the stage as her vocation. She is playing small parts with the Castle Square Opera company at the American Theatre in New York. Critics have already noticed the fresh, strong, young voice, with flute-like notes in it.
The Wichita daily eagle., January 31, 1900


People around her have always notice that she was hardworking and ambitious. However, the only dream of the young Flora Mangasarian was to earn enough money to hire an attorney for her father, who stayed at the Turkish prison. She was concentrated on the work, and was rejecting all marriage proposes. At last, after three years, she met her father again.

American newspapers were surprised of emancipated and at the same time modest girl from the East, calling her the “American suffrage”. But she unlike the feminists did not create much noise around her person and has not made any oratorical speeches. She prefered to defend her beliefs by actions, such as the decision to start an independent life despite of discontent of relatives.

“She broke the chrysalis of tradition and in the gorgeous colors of the butterfly, raised her wings and flew away to freedom, shouting “emancipation”.
The Ogden standard., November 08, 1913.

When she was born, all friends expressed a sympathy to her father, because of “It’s a girl” news. All her childhood she spent surrounded by mother, aunts, grandmothers and other females, relatives were the only men she had seen. It was not as badly as people talk about it, noticed with irony Flora. All day ladies were engaged in reading French novels, eating sweets and having fun playing mandolin. However, she wanted something more for herself.

She started from education, and get support of her father. And despite the fact that it was not easy for parents to accept the choice of their daughter to be an actress, they were proud of her success on the stage.

However, the same can not be said about aunts of Flora, who constantly wrote long letters to his brother Mangasar in which explain their concerns about the future of the girl. They believed that Flora’s “behavior” will not let her to find a husband in America and offered to find her a man among the Armenians in Turkey. After this letter, Flora suddenly got marriage proposal from a famous comedian, vaudeville star Raymond Hitchcock. So the “question” was resolved. The couple was always in the center of newspapers attention.

During the roaring twenties, she was part of the emerging film and theatre colony that converged in New Port Richey, Florida, and included comedian Ed Wynn, actress Gloria Swanson, pro-golfer Gene Sarazen and infamous celebrity, Al Capone. They became the first of many jet sets synonymous with American celebrity and fame.

Hrag Vartanian
AGBU news 4/1/2002


Musical The Red Widow in which the couple starred together, brought popularity in New York, many musical pieces of the musical became hits, and the charachter of Colonel Butt, played by Raymond, was especially mentioned by critics.  During her career she played at 14 theatre musicials and 5 silent movies. After the death of Raymond in 1929, Flora left the stage and became a designer and partner in Jacques Bodart Inc. Flora Zabelle died at age of 88 in 1968.

Raymond Hitchcock and Flora Zabelle Hitchcock; Motography Jul-Dec 1913; Library of Congress
Raymond Hitchcock and Flora Zabelle Hitchcock; Motography Jul-Dec 1913; Library of Congress




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