Piroska (Zita)

Piroska (Zita)

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Finding the real Nita and Zita is next to impossible. After years of searching through performance archives and historical collections, and talking to neighbors, jazz historians and New Orleans historians, there are still enormous gaps in our knowledge. Here is what we know:

Flora and Piroska immigrated to the U.S. from the Jewish shtetl of Nagybanya, Hungary, in 1922 to pursue their career as "international dancers," performing under the names Nita and Zita. Photos indicate that their act combined burlesque and acrobatics. Together, they performed all over the United States, and, as far as we can tell, Shanghai, Panama, and perhaps Paris and Egypt. The sisters were known for carrying their elaborate, handmade clothes and costumes with them in two steamer trunks.

In the late 1940's, the sisters settled in New Orleans and became quite reclusive. Their home became their refuge. They painted their entire house -- inside and out -- in brightly colored sponge patterns, and painted most of their furniture with intricate spider web figures. On the rare occasions that they did leave the house, they dressed in fine handmade clothes of their own design.

Flora and Piroska died in 1985 and 1991 respectively. They are buried in the pauper's section of Hebrew's Rest Cemetery in New Orleans. The only people present at Piroska's funeral were a Rabbi and Betty Kirkland, the sisters' next door neighbor. Upon gaining permission from their only living relative to sell the sisters' belongings, Ms. Kirkland opened their home to what became a five-year garage sale. The house was literally packed with thousands of pieces of handmade clothing, hundreds of photos of Nita and Zita performing, handmade bead curtains, handmade placards advertising Nita and Zita performances, and more. Curious locals, vendors of vintage clothing and -- eventually -- collectors of outsider art snapped up Nita and Zita's clothes, furniture, photos and collectibles until Ms. Kirkland closed up shop in 1996. This sparked a veritable New Orleans underground "war," as several vintage clothing store vendors and Ms. Kirkland clashed over who was the authentic protector of Nita and Zita's image and memory.

Today, Judy's Collage, the vintage store which was the primary seller of Nita and Zita goods, has closed down. The proprietor, Cindy MacMurray, has created a website in Nita and Zita's memory, and made a poster paying homage to the two sisters. One of Nita and Zita's costumes is in the collection of the Lousiana State Museum in the French Quarter. We have a few Nita and Zita pieces which we use in the show, on loan from a local New Orleans collector. As far as we know, all other Nita and Zita pieces are scattered across New Orleans and the country, held by private collectors.

The Clothes

From what we have gathered, Nita and Zita would shop at thrift stores, looking for clothing made out of the highest quality fabric possible. They would alter the clothes for fit, as well as to match their personal style. Many of their dresses featured long sleeves that tapered down to a point at the knuckles of the hand. Much of the clothing featured prominent stitching wit thick, dark yarn. Our costume designer, Olivia Wildz, used actual Nita and Zita costumes as a starting point and inspiration for her original designs for the show.

The House

Nita and Zita lived in their house on Dauphine Street in the Faubourg Marigny from approximately 1947 until their respective deaths in 1985 and 1991. They were known for making all of the repairs to their home themselves, including repairs to the roof. Always resourceful, they fixed the floor of their home with tin can lids hammered in with tiny nails, and covered over holes in the wall with fabric. If they were known for their diligent work ethic, they were NOTORIOUS for their wild aesthetic: they painted their entire house, inside and out, with wild, abstract patterns. Bead curtains hung in the archways of their house, and photos of them in their showgirl prime lined the walls. In photos of Nita and Zita taken in their home when they were older, the painted walls and bead curtains give the effect of a fantastic nightclub or shimmering stage. These photos were taken by Harold and Holly Gee shortly after they purchased the house in the early 1990's. The house still stands, waiting for renovation. Many of the painted walls remain, though they are now in serious disrepair.