Stage Whispers is published by Carla Cushman at carlacushman.blogspot.com/
DRAG QUEENS OF THEATRE Vaudeville History
It wasn't until the mid-18th century that theater directors began to cast females in gender-appropriate roles. Before that, the stage was the dominance of male performers. Did they call that "playing in drag?" Probably not. Most likely their pet name for those roles was something like "petticoats," "bloomers," or an unflattering anatomical term.
I've read several definitions of "drag" (including a couple of tongue-in-cheek acronyms), but the most logical meaning derives from the styles of women's costumes in the 18th and 19th centuries, with skirts so long and full and heavy beyond belief, that they actually dragged across the stage. Thus, the men who wore them were dressed "in drag."
ROBERT STEIDL (1865-1927)
When I first saw this post card image of Steidl performing as a female Spanish dancer, I thought it was a hoax...that he was far too dowdy and amateurish-looking to be dancing in drag on the stage of the Apollo Theatre in Berlin. But over time, I understood that (1) he was, indeed, spoofing his audience, and (2) back in the day, for a European variety artist to appear at the Apollo in Berlin was a measure of success akin to an American vaudevillian playing the Palace in New York.
That said, I can't tell you how glad I was to see that he grew that lovely mustache and became a cabaret performer—witty and urbane—and adored by European audiences.
Though I don't know who he is, I think this post card image of Leo Loyal is worth viewing to see (1) the poignancy and gentle beauty of the full-figured, farm-fresh young lady he portrays; and (2) the use of his phrase "character impersonator," which leads one to ponder the possible characters in his repertoire. If you know anything about the career of Leo Loyal, I invite you to use this venue to fill in the blanks.
RICHARD HARLOW (1873 - 1920)
Theatrical history was made in 1893 when a 20-year-old, 6-foot-tall, 200-pound Harvard grad opened in New York's Palmer's Theatre in the musical comedy (billed as an operatic extravaganza) "1492," playing the pivotal role of Queen Isabella. Audiences adored the show, especially Harlow and a funny man named Walter Jones, and they laughed from curtain up to curtain down. To quote the end of an 1893 New York Times review: "...people laughed and laughed and laughed. That is success."
For seven years, audiences continued to flock to 1492, critics continued to write excellent reviews, and Harlow continued to gain weight each year, prompting the New York Morning Advertiser to dub him "the ponderous but graceful Harlow." He left the show at the end of the 1898/99 season, and immediately followed it with several successful seasons in Vaudeville, after which he retired from the stage and became an interior decorator.
When Harlow left the show, he was replaced by Marie Dressler. As hard as I've tried, I can't imagine how the show could be funny with that casting...unless, of course, she was impersonating a man impersonating the queen. But of course, she wasn't. The gig didn't help her career any, and lasted only three months.
Arguably the finest female impersonator of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Julian Eltinge (né William J. Dalton) was born in Newton, Massachusetts, and first appeared in drag at the age of 10, in the Boston Cadets Revue. In 1900, he appeared at the Tremont Theatre, Boston, in Malady and the Musketeer, then with Robert Barnet in Miss Simplicity. Julian's Broadway debut in Mr. Wix of Wickham in 1904 launched his meteoric rise to stardom.
Two Sides of the Coin
Part of Julian's magic was that the women he created were stunningly beautiful from head to toe, not merely to look at, but to listen to, as well. A brilliant actor, his female voices were well modulated in speech, and memorable in song (although it boggles the mind how that was possible when he was so tightly corseted!).
The other part of his magic was his believably masculine side. He played male roles on stage, and every day in real life! And he seemed to know instinctively what role was required of him for any occasion. For example, he and a female friend were traveling together, and the press cornered him where their ship had docked. He enjoyed the good-natured banter of the press, and he easily introduced his traveling companion as his wife. She wasn't of course, but to Julian it seemed the appropriate dialog for the scene he was playing.
Julian's talents were equally appreciated by male and female audiences; moreover, he was equally liked by his men and women friends. It was as if Julian was completely erased when he went to bed, and when he woke up, he was re-programmed to play the day's required roles, both male and female.
The post card images promoting his greatest hit, show two sides of The Fascinating Widow.
As Julian matured, so did the characters he played:
Writers have called Julian Eltinge a drag star and a magician—even a gender-bender. He was all that, and so much more. Until the Great Depression, that is, and all its ordinances and laws that increasingly prohibited men from appearing in public in female clothing. It breaks my heart to tell you that he wound up in 1940, standing on stage in male clothing, performing his act NEXT TO a rack of his famous gowns.
Can you imagine this man talking, singing, joking and gesturing as a female, while pointing to or holding out a portion of one of these magnificent costumes?
Julian Eltinge had been impersonating "life" for nearly 50 years. After a year of humiliation, he passed away in 1941.
Working in Drag Today
The difference between Drag Queens of today and yesteryear is, in my opinion, the quantity and quality of the talents on display. Venues today are mostly limited to supper clubs and Las Vegas. The Vegas-like drag queen most often impersonates a known star—singing, looking, and dancing like Liza Minelli, for example—and in some cases, not even singing, but lip-synching the lyrics! Yes, I know, tastes change and entertainment evolves. But I also know that if Julian Eltinge were alive today, he'd be so happy that the nasty restrictions that did him in are gone, that he'd find a way to perform his show intact, like the trouper he was.
Plum Role for Comic Actors
The original Charley's Aunt was penned by Brandon Thomas especially as a vehicle for William S. Pensley (1851-1912), an English actor, singer and comedian. Pensley, after successfully entertaining English audiences in plays, musicals, and Gilbert & Sullivan light operas for 21 years, produced and starred in Charley's Aunt in 1892. It was hugely successful, and moved to the Globe Theatre in 1893, becoming an unprecedented hit, running for 1,466 performances in London. That historic record wasn't broken for decades. Moreover, three revivals were produced over the next 15 years, each starring Pensley.
The well known movie version of Charley's Aunt starred Jack Benny (1894 - 1974), a one-time vaudevillian cum radio personality cum TV star, who was never above donning women's clothes to get a laugh. Based on the original play, the movie version, according to the blurb on the old videocassette sleeve, "stars Benny as an Oxford undergrad who agrees to help his friends circumnavigate a strict university dating rule by acting as their chaperone." I remember watching the movie and laughing a lot, but I was just a kid. I'll order it on Netflix next week, and watch it again. I always liked Jack Benny.
Finally, no post dealing with men who entertain in women's wear would be complete without mentioning two of my all-time favorite actor/comedians, Milton Berle (1908 - 2002) and Harvey Korman (1927 - 2008), two beloved comics who knew how to get laughs—in drag or out.
In the 1950s, Milton Berle was known to us as Mr. Television or Uncle Miltie. He was the Star in the Texaco Star Theater. Slapstick comedy was his domain. A popular variety artist in the heyday of vaudeville, Miltie, to everyone's delight, brought vaudeville to television. Tuesday nights belonged to Uncle Miltie. He would walk out to greet his audience, clad in the wildest costumes—often in drag. Master of the sight-gag, he could just look into the camera and the tears would begin to roll down our faces, we were laughing so hard!
A generation later, Harvey Korman, a classically trained actor, couldn't stay away from comedy. He adored making people laugh, and showcased his versatility on The Carol Burnett Show, where he thrived on playing bizarre men and buxom old ladies.
A skit in 1968 shows Carol Burnett conducting a test for her audience, wherein five pairs of gorgeous gams are exposed. As the upper bodies are revealed, the audience goes wild when they realize that two sets of shapely legs belong to two men: Lyle Waggoner and Harvey Korman.
In case you hadn't notice, Harvey's the one with the cigar.
NEIL BURGESS (1846 - 1910)
I was going to save Mr. Burgess for a future post on the lengthy subject of "Hippodrama," but came to my senses in time to tell you a little something about this popular Vaudeville comedian. When he was just 19, he was an apprentice with a performing group known as Spalding's Bell Ringers. The illness of one of its actors resulted in his stepping into a female role, and his long career of impersonating "elderly widders" was born.
His greatest stage success was as the title character in The Widow Bedott which he introduced in 1879, and which served him well for more than 10 years. He went on to star as Auntie Abigail Prue in Charles Barnard's The Country Fair in 1889, and followed that with Old Miss Podd.
In addition to being an actor and a playwright, Mr. Burgess's many contributions to 19th century hippodrama earned him a large number of patents. Suffice it to say, he was a craftsman in all areas of theater.
Stage Whispers is published by Carla Cushman at carlacushman.blogspot.com/