The exhibition entitled “Anthony Nellé: Art Deco Stage Designs to Anti-Nazi Posters” was showcased at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center in 1997. This highly popular exhibition showcased Nellé’s original stage designs and World War II poster designs, along with a range of costumes, furniture, and other objects sourced from collections in Western New York. These collections exemplify the elegant and sophisticated Art Deco style. A concise biography of Nellé can be found in his book titled “Nellé,” which was compiled and edited by Sanford Shire, featuring text from Sanford Shire, Marjorie Luesebrink, and Rachel Chodorov. This illustrated book, published by Rizzoli in 1981, spans 128 pages.
Zdislaw Antoni Nellé, born on July 21, 1894, in Warsaw, Poland, hailed from a family immersed in the world of theater and ballet. His father, Stanislau Nellé, served as a conductor for the Russian Imperial Opera Orchestra, while his mother, Florentyna Kuklinska Nellé, was a dancer. Antoni’s exposure to these art forms fostered a deep appreciation and passion within him. Consequently, in 1905, he enrolled at the Russian Imperial School of the Theatre in Warsaw, where he honed his skills. Graduating in 1913, Nellé went on to perform in notable productions such as Swan Lake and Lizkinka, a Georgian folk dance commemorating the royal Romanoff family’s 300th Year Jubilee, as part of the Bolshoi program. He eventually rose to become a premier dancer at the Warsaw Imperial Opera. Later, Nellé ventured to Odessa, assuming the role of director and performer in the city’s opera company. Unfortunately, his marriage to the prima donna in 1915 ended tragically, as she passed away just six weeks after their union. Nellé returned to Warsaw, but due to the German invasion in 1916, he was conscripted into the Russian Imperial Air Corps and assigned to a motorcycle reconnaissance patrol.
Following his military service, Nellé embarked on a tour throughout Russia as a choreographer, director, and dancer with the Zon Theatre Corporation. He garnered acclaim and, in 1921, received an invitation to join the renowned Anna Pavlova’s ballet company in England. This opportunity led to an extensive tour spanning from London to Canada and the United States.
Nellé’s time in the U.S. proved pivotal, as he drew inspiration from jazz and incorporated more modern dance interpretations into his work. Consequently, he decided to remain in the country and joined the Greenwich Village Follies touring company in 1922. Noteworthy designer Erté crafted costumes for Nellé and his duet partner, Russian ballerina Anna Nurova. Following this tour, they participated in a Sol Hurok production called “Night of Love,” which took them to Mexico.
Nellé’s focus gradually shifted and he increasingly devoted his efforts to choreography and stage design. His next dance partners were Ardath De Sales, followed by Margaret Donaldson. Together, they occasionally performed live stage “prologues” in large theaters prior to silent films. On May 20, 1929, Anthony and Margaret tied the knot at her family’s residence in Gowanda, New York, marking the beginning of his connection to Western New York. They resided in New York City initially, but later relocated to Hollywood, where Nellé produced stage presentations and prologues.
As the era of silent films gave way to “talkies,” the couple embarked on a trip to Warsaw in 1931, where they were treated like celebrities. However, due to unfavorable economic conditions, they were compelled to move to Paris in 1933, and subsequently settled in Blackpool, England. Their Folies Bergère style productions were warmly received at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London.
In 1935, after spending the summer in Gowanda, they decided to move to Berlin. Nellé chose to voice modest criticism of the burgeoning Nazi regime, while continuing his work staging dances and designing sets for Scala Girls’ revues until 1937. Secretly, Nellé also created miniature stage sets depicting underground artillery base, hangars, and submarine pens, enabling him to clandestinely communicate anti-Nazi information. In 1939, they were forced to flee Germany due to the worsening economy, ultimately resettling in Gowanda.
Following a period of modest success teaching and choreographing in New York City, Nellé joined the American war effort. In December 1941, he shared his drawings of German war installations with military authorities and received letters of commendation for his patriotic contribution from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and General George Marshall. Despite his inventive blueprints for a “Permanent Invisible Submarine Base,” designed for the Army, Navy, and Air Force, being deemed unfeasible for production, Nellé attempted to work as a camouflage artist but was denied due to his non-American citizenship. He nevertheless designed anti-Nazi posters, which eventually landed him a job as a draftsman and illustrator at Bell Aircraft in Niagara Falls, New York. Eventually, in 1943, Nellé became an American citizen.
After the conclusion of the war in 1944, Nellé made a comeback in the theater scene, performing in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, New York, New Jersey, and Chicago. In 1956, following the passing of Margaret’s mother, the couple retired to Gowanda. However, they still made occasional trips to Buffalo and New York until health issues hindered their travels. On December 31, 1977, Anthony Nellé passed away at the age of 83, followed by Margaret fourteen months later.
www.ftn-books.com has the 1981 Rizzoli book on NELLÉ now available.