George Pangalos Creates Cairo Street Exhibit at 1893 World’s Fair

In 1893 George Pangalos, a Greek from Smyrna, was the creator and manager of the Cairo Street Exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Located on the Midway Plaisance, the Cairo Street Exhibit included all the so-called “Theatres of the Midway,” whether known as the Algerian, Persian, or Turkish Theatre; they were basically all the same in character and performance. That is where “Little Egypt,” aka Fahreda Mahzar or Bele Baya according to various sources, performed.
{42606}The performances typical to the Greek Cafe Scene are what Pangalos brought to North America. More than simply bellydancing, the standard musical and dance entertainments presented on a daily basis in any cafe in the Ottoman Empire were brought to the Exposition by Pangalos. One out of every four Americans in 1893 visited the Columbian Worlds Exposition in Chicago.
As a child, Pangalos was taken to Constantinople, where he was educated at Roberts College. His life after graduation was one filled with travel aimed at one business venture after another. Upon graduating he entered railroad service for five years in Asia Minor. Next, he spent one year as a bank clerk in Thessaloniki. Then, a year as a journalist at the Greek language newspaper, Gazette de Romanie. Afterwards Pangalos went to Alexandria, Egypt where he initially became a bank clerk but was soon promoted to be manager of the Anglo-Egyptian bank in Cairo, remaining there until 1888.
Pangalos conceived the idea of building Cairo Street at the Worlds Fair in Chicago. In December 1890, Pangalos sailed for Chicago and with the assistance he received there, successfully carried his project to a financial success. Reports depict that Pangalos was also the manger of a similar Streets of Cairo exhibition at the Paris Exposition and elsewhere, but those are not conclusive.
The entertainers Pangalos brought to the prairies of Illinois were a diverse group from many different parts of the Ottoman Empire. Clearly entertainers, animals, and material goods from Egypt were brought to Chicago. Unexpectedly, Syrian-Lebanese from the village of Ain Bourdai near Mount Lebanon not only performed at the Fair but stayed in America, eventually establishing a church there.
What has been so misunderstood for so many years is that the types of entertainment forms Pangalos produced were a mixture from many cultural traditions. Another avenue of research waiting to be explored is that news reports frequently speak of performers from Pangalos’ theaters going to play in Chicago venues in the evening. But little else is typically reported. Who did those musicians and dancers entertain?
The performances were they type one would see in any port city or major metropolis in the Ottoman Empire. Today, only the dancing girls are remembered. But a host of events aside from the dancing, singing, and solo instrumental performances were regularly featured at the Cairo Street theatres. They ranged from contests of strength such as wrestling to staged sword battles on horseback. Mock wedding ceremonies and mimed theatrical events are also frequently described.
The so-called “plays” at the Cairo Street theatres, that all the American newspapers were writing about, were art forms in a state of transition. To properly study them requires examining them from an Ottoman perspective, rather than an American one. By the 1870s changes in the social conditions within the Ottoman lands allowed for the limited abeyance of the Muslim ban on women performing in public.
In the Nineteenth Century the gradual appearance of Christian, Jewish, and Pagan women as dancers, singers, and musicians first began in private gatherings. By the 1800s those female performers were the key entertainers in the tuluat, improvised popular theatre acted out on a small stage. Those mixed gender tuluat performances were based on an earlier folk theatre always performed by all-male actors called ortaoyunu.
Those mime plays with their mock weddings and battles, their broad burlesque-style humor, and their acrobatic feats of strength cut across ethnic and religious lines. Such performances are known all across the Balkans and Western Anatolia. For Greeks, panegyri celebrations with their folk theatre performances and contests of strength are most similar to the folk entertainments adapted for the public cafe.
The cafe chantants, Oriental-style cafes of Europe, were already the familiar locations of the Eastern Mediterranean dance du ventre, which eventually became known in North America as the belly-dance. But in 1893 that dance was so new there was no reference frame by which to describe it. Most reporters at the Fair simply called it “the act by which John the Baptist lost his head.”
At one point the Fairs Board of Women in a much-publicized battle had the dance du ventre performances banned. So popular were those dancers that the sanction simply could not be imposed for very long. No one woman was the real “Star of the Orient.” A comparison of published accounts suggest that just like the title of “King of the Gypsies,” each moon-faced newspaper reporter was introduced to one or another of the dancing girls who was presented as the authentic star of Cairo Street.
The Balkan and Anatolian theatrical performances were simply too foreign for the popular American imagination to retain. While the myth of Little Egypt has grown since 1893, the reality of two Greek male performers in the staged theatrical events of Cairo Street has remained obscure. That fact is especially striking given the extreme popularity of the giant Bachibonzouk. That man seems to have been a type of herald who announced in a voice that could be heard from one end of the Midway to the other when the different shows began. Bachibonzouk also appears to have played a boisterous Falstaff-like character in the Cairo Street plays. An entertainer called Hadjiabeet was always seen in a full-dress fustanella and was described as the “bridegroom” in the various theatre productions. While clearly both those men were using “stage names” they are always identified in all newspaper account as Greeks.
Some American scholars and journalists unfamiliar with Balkan and Anatolian performance traditions have forgotten the theatrical performances and instead, focusing only on the dancers, have read the historical record backwards. They have tried to understand the dance du ventre performers at the 1893 Columbian Exposition as if they were the hootchy-kootchy dancers one sees today, in night clubs, at carnivals, and on television. Pangalos, unintentionally, provided too many dancers from too many cultural traditions for some unschooled American viewers to understand and appreciate the subtle differences in dance and musical style performed at the various Cairo Street theatres.
Pangalos is one of the most influential showmen ever to mount a performance in North America. Singlehandedly and within no more than a four-month period Pangalos established the continuing vision Americans have of the sensuous allure of the veiled bellydancer. Ironically, the seeming confusion and so conflation among the Greek, Turkish, and Middle Eastern bellydancers is one that Pangalos also unwittingly caused. Regrettably, in all the media heat to write about the dancing girls, Pangalos singular role as the first producer of traditional Balkan and Anatolian folk theatres has been largely lost to history.
Another lasting contribution to American popular entertainment traceable to Pangalos’ successful shows is in the fact that the Midway Plaisance proved so influential that it introduced the term “midway” into American English; to forever after describe a sideshow: it defined an area in which park rides such as Ferris Wheels, entertainment, and fast food booths were all concentrated at parks and fairs.
Aptly enough, it is that enduring image of the sensuous Oriental bellydancer that challenges the basic assumption that only Western European or North American showmen and entertainers have influenced world performance arts. P. T. Barnums Greatest Show on Earth and Buffalo Bills Wild West Show brought popular American entertainment and cultural images to Europe and the rest of the world. But it was Pangalos Cairo Street Theatres that brought the first major productions of traditional Balkan, Anatolian, and Middle Eastern music, dance, and popular theatrical performance to North America.
After the Cairo Street performances, music and dance in America would never to be the same.

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