As I pointed out in my first blog post, many great 19th Century actresses (including Cousin Charlotte) would, upon occasion, play what they called "trouser roles." In addition to Romeo, Charlotte Cushman was publicly and critically acclaimed for her interpretations of Macbeth, King Lear, and Cardinal Richelieu.

When Sarah Bernhardt was in her teens, she played the young prince Edward, among other youthful male roles, and startled the world when, in 1885, she embarked on a European tour in the title role of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

So it's not surprising that other talented female performers crafted long, successful theatrical careers in American Vaudeville and in English Music Halls — fashioned largely on their abilities to entertain audiences by impersonating interesting men.
This post to STAGE WHISPERS is devoted to three such remarkable women — Vesta Tilley, Ella Shields and Hetty King — as it celebrates the DRAG KINGS OF THEATER in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Vesta Tilley, née Mathilda Alice Powles, was born into a British music hall family, and made her first stage appearance when she was not yet 4 years old. A year later she appeared for the first time in male attire as "The Great Little Tilley," and when she was 6, she debuted as Pocket Sims Reeves, in a parody of the then-famous opera singer.
She used her stage name, Vesta Tilley, for the first time when she was 11. By this time, she was quite comfortable in male clothing. She found it empowering, saying that "I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy." When young, she was billed as "the dandiest fellah turned sixteen," but once she achieved major stardom, that changed to "The London Idol."

Tilley's singing voice was considered adequate, but she made no effort to "sound" like a man. Rather, her character studies of young swells, policemen or servicemen, poked fun at the foppish manners of the rich, delighting her working class audiences.
She popularized many songs, among them "After the Ball," "Following in Father's Footsteps," "Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves A Sodier" and the favorite number of all male impersonators of that era, "Burlington Bertie."

Tilley was already a famous entertainer when, in 1890, she met and married Walter de Frece, who founded a chain of music halls called "The Hippodrome" where Tilley was a regular. Her popularity as an entertainer, and theirs as a respected and caring team, grew during WWI because of their military recruitment drives, and other wartime efforts for which Walter was knighted in 1919, and his lovely wife became Lady de Frece.

Vesta Tilley's last performance was given in 1920 at the Coliseum Theatre, London, after which she lived the rest of her life as Lady de Frece, moving to Monte Carlo with Walter when he retired. After her husband's death in 1935, she returned to England, where she lived until she died in 1952, at the age of 88.


Another wildly popular male impersonator was Ella Shields (née Ella Catherine Buscher). Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Ella began her vaudeville career in 1898, performing with her sisters in a song-and-dance act. It took six years, but she finally made it as a "single" when she was booked as The Southern Nightingale, in London music halls—obviously, still performing in female attire. But that changed in 1910 when she filled in for an absent performer—half of a two-man team was sick. She put on trousers and performed the routine. It was love at first sight: British audiences liked her style, and she liked theirs.

Although other male impersonators loved performing "Burlington Bertie from Bow", it really was Ella's signature number. It was written for her by her manager and first husband, William Hargreaves. It was an immediate hit, and to this day, is still sung in British music halls. Ella toured for years as Bertie, and was known the world over simply as Bertie.

Many entertainers found themselves out of work during the Great Depression, and Ella was no exception. For awhile, she clerked at the jewelry counter of Macy's in New York. She did whatever she could to keep going until news of a reunion of British music hall performers reached her. The show was called Thanks for the Memory, and put Bertie and many other variety artists back in circulation.

From that time on, Ella never stopped working. At the age of 73, she was performing her trademark song at a venue in northern England. Instead of the traditional opening lines, "I'm Burlington Bertie," she began with "I was Burlington Bertie." At song's end, accompanied by applause, she collapsed on stage and, without regaining consciousness, died three days later in the hospital at Lancashire.

Another popular male impersonator was Hetty King (née Winifred Emms), whose career spanned 70 of her 89 years. Hetty was born into a music hall family in London, and at the age of six, made her first stage appearance with her father, William Emms, a comedian whose stage name was Will King. A few years later she was wearing boy's clothing on stage, and by 1905 was appearing in music halls in a solo act as a male impersonator.

Hetty's popularity extended well beyond British music halls and American vaudeville theatres. She was hailed the world over as "The King of Male Impersonators." Often she was called "queen of the kings." She also starred in numerous Christmas Pantomimes, a staple of the holiday season in Great Britain.

Hetty's half brother Harold, with his wife Francine, wrote many of Hetty's songs. The two world wars in the first half of the 20th Century were responsible for an endless number of songs about soldiers, sailors and their sweethearts back home. Like all the male impersonators, Hetty added military costumes to her wardrobe, and worked a number of military medleys into her repertoire.

Hetty was married to T. S. Eliot's favorite comedian, Ernest "Ernie" Lotinga, a music hall performer and theatre proprietor, who was 27 years older than she. During the 1920s and '30s, he appeared in a number of comic films. He was supportive of his wife's career until his untimely death in London in 1951. Hetty, who died in 1972, was cremated and her ashes inurned at Golders Green.

Another variety arts performer was a male impersonator, but also an attractive female actress and dancer. All three talents blended to create her eclectic career. She was born in the U.S. in 1895, and died in the U.S. in 1988, at the age of 93. Her name is Kitty Doner.

Isn't she a doll? In 1914 she starred at New York's Winter Garden in Sigmund Romberg's Dancing Around, opposite Clifton Webb and the musical-comedy team of Doyle & Dixon. The following year, when the show was on tour in San Francisco, she struck up a friendship with Al Jolson. Following a star turn in another Romberg musical, she opened opposite Jolson in the 1918 musical, Sinbad.

It is believed that Kitty never performed in the British music halls, but in good old American Vaudeville fashion, she actually played the Palace — twice! In 1919, she was the first male impersonator ever to appear at the Palace. And she played there again in 1926. Kitty Doner, a true American Vaudeville star.


Well, you've just learned a little about the Kings of Drag. To be fair, the next STAGE WHISPERS post will attempt to give equal time to the Queens of Drag. Stop by any time, and get acquainted.

Stage Whispers is published by Carla Cushman at carlacushman.blogspot.com/


  1. .
    Wow - your theater history blog looks great -- another interesting and well researched piece. You are off to a great start --Good job, Mom!

    --Marianne Dow msdowantiques.com

  2. What an awesome blog, and an excellent source of information! You go girl...

  3. My great Aunt is Kitty Doner and I have much memorablia from her. Where do you find most of yours as I am looking to expand my collection.

    1. Hey Erin...I knew Kitty as an elderly woman who used to baby-sit us in the 60s...she was the coolest fun old-lady....more like an aged kid.....I knew her and saw her often for a period of about 10 years...as a teen worked for her at her house....she promised me a small figurine (made of cast-iron..i think) that was displayed in her living-room...a fun generous woman who showed me her theatrical trunk....and also the book she wrote called "GO WRITE A BOOK"...the title was suggested to her by Georgie Jessel...my name is Darrell Mills urbino05@msn.com

  4. Response to Erin:
    How lucky you are to have Kitty Doner memorabilia! As you no doubt noticed, I used only one photo of her in my Drag Kings article. That's because it's the only picture of her that I could find. I think it came from an old book about Vaudeville. I believe I was researching Al Jolson and came across that photo.

    For Stage Whispers, I try to illustrate with scanned copies of items in my collection of theatrical memorabilia. And I fill in with scanned pix from old books, or pictures obtained on photo websites.

    Hope this helps you.

    Carla Cushman

  5. The Daily Mirror, a blog on the website of the Los Angeles Times, has a weekly Mystery Photo. Usually the subject is a movie star or someone in the movie business, but occasionally a stage star is featured. This week's subject was Kitty Doner. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/thedailymirror/2010/04/mystery-photo.html Because of your blog, I was able to identify the Mystery woman on Tuesday- a first for me. Thanks!

  6. Dear Stage whisper,

    I want to know how drag king exist? What start the drag king.? Please give me full information.thank you.

  7. To SyQn: The word "drag" comes from the long, heavy skirts that dragged across the stage when they were worn by men playing female roles. So, just as men who perform as women are called "drag queens," women who perform as men have always been known as "drag kings." It was an easy and understandable way to identify them as opposite genders.

  8. so meaning that what start the drag king is drag queen.. I want to know how they can think such thing? I mean what start the cross dressing? Is it because of the culture or something else?? I want to know the history of it. can you give me the link so that i can do a research own my own.
    thank you.

  9. SyQn --

    Males (men or boys) performed all the roles in "ye olden days". Read these articles:




  10. Hi Carla - thanks for your site! Well done!

    Hetty King was my father, Arthur Coppock's, aunt. I never met her but liked to see her on TV when I was young. I think she would have been in her 80s when I saw her last on TV. She sang and danced. I wish I had met her. In the photos I saw of her on ebay - dressed elegantly as a young lady, she looked very pretty and not at all manly as when impersonating a man.

    I wish I had met her. I would like to have been able to tell my daughter more about her as she herself, is now a professional singer/actress/dancer. My father's 3 sisters were also on the stage in their younger days. I was told that Vesta Tilley was related to us - maybe on my mum's side - she was Margaret Ellen Crozier, but I forget what I was told. Blessings and best wishes to you Carla - Eva Coppock Stevens

    For Erin (ABOVE) Erin August 7, 2009 1:05 PM
    Do look on Ebay for photos of Kitty Doner your great aunt, as I saw several of my great aunt Hetty King on Ebay.

  11. I have an 8x10 autographed photo of Kitty Doner that I picked up in a box of other celeb photos. It is for sale and if you know of anyone interested, please contact me at: dkltht@gmail.com

    Normally, I deal in other types of ephemera and this is a unique piece - especially for the person who is related to this performer.

  12. The Miltown Kings out of Milwaukee WI have been keeping this tradition alive with large scale theater based drag shows check out www.miltownkings.com or http://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4CWKhLbEM-rweM-ZAhvD5w


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