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Friday, April 27 2001
Volume 01 : Number 220

In this issue:

-The List
-The Impersonators (5)

Subject: The List

I am new to this list and I cannot describe the sheer pleasure I have derived in the last week from the articles, stories, pictures and all that goes with it. Thanks Ben Boxer for all of your hardwork and allowing us all of this pleasure.

My Best to you,
From: "Ben Boxer"
Subject: The Impersonators

Males took the roles of females in ancient Greek theater, as they did in Elizabethan drama and mediaeval morality plays, and as they still do in Japanese Kabuki. Japanese Noh drama also has a similar tradition, but in the past few decades, women have infiltrated the ranks of male Noh actors, and there have even been all-female productions, with women taking the parts of men. There is nothing new about that in Japan. "All-girl" dance companies have been around a long time, in which male roles are assayed by females. Marlon Brando's film, "Sayonara," is built around the theme of an American Occupationaire falling in love with the star of such a company in post-war Japan.

Considering our orientation, one wonders if homosexual actors prevailed in the female roles. There are few indications pro or con for the Greeks, but, given the nature of Greek tolerance for homosexuality, I am sure we were well-represented. The same may be true for the morality plays in the so-called Dark Ages, when our punishment was death, but the punishment remains the same in some countries even today, but that does not stop us from going undercover both literally and figuratively.

The Elizabethans were a randy lot, and gay was a serious crime, yet their poets were bold in their frank appraisal of masculine charms for other males, often veiled with "she" and "her," but generally detectable to the cognoscenti (that's us, those "in the know") all the same.

Guys who dress in drag and step onstage have been popular in recent times, as well, but mostly for comic relief and rarely in classically female roles. At Harvard and Yale and other universities here and abroad, drag has been an acceptable part of all-male club shows for generations, with participants over-emoting and playing it for laughs to make sure nobody thinks they're gay. I don't know how prevalent that is anymore, given the mixed-bag of our times in attitudes running hot and cold on the gay versus the straight. I believe there was more freedom in such things "then" than "now."

"Charley’s Aunt," written by English playwright Brandon Thomas, is a farce still in production after a hundred years on the boards. Comedian Jack Benny played it on film in the 1940s, and it pops up in professional, amateur, community, college and high school theatrical groups constantly. It is set at Oxford University in the 1890s. Two young upper-class college gentlemen invite their sweethearts to meet Charley’s Aunt. But, alas, she sends word that she cannot come.

They solve their problem by forcing their college buddy into a black dress and a wig. Lord Babberly, disguised as Charley’s Aunt, is then introduced to the young ladies, to Jack’s father, Sir Francis, and to Stephen Spettigue, the girls’ guardian. Each, for his/her own reasons, attempts to win the favor of the "old frump." The young college buddies run into even more problems when Charley’s "real aunt" arrives on the scene. It is a very funny romp, especially when the star football player on campus assays the title role.

"Drag queens" and other female impersonators have filled the bill in American theater and cabaret, most often as comics or personality imitators, few taken seriously until the decades since the sexual revolution of the 1960s-70s. I remember a female impersonator named T. C. Jones in New York theater and clubs in the 1950s. He was a statuesque beauty whom I saw in a show called "New Faces of 1956," a series of skits which also featured Maggie Smith and a few others who made it big. African-American singing star Eartha Kitt was a graduate of an earlier "New Faces." I don't recall that T. C. Jones was much heard from afterward, save for the New York clubs.

The vaudeville circuit always had a few female impersonators on the move from theater to theater across the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Bert Savoy and Joe Brennan appeared in 48 performances of "Miss 1917." Bert was outrageously effeminate both onstage and off. He referred to men as "she" and camped it up at every opportunity. His drag persona was a hip-swaying gossip who dished about herself and the sordid exploits of her friend "Margie" while the dapper Jay Brennan (himself a former female impersonator) listened. Mae West borrowed her famous hip-swaying walk from Savoy, and a few impersonators copied his act so thoroughly that Savoy had to take legal action to protect his routines.

However, the greatest star of them all, and a name I used to hear from the silverfoxes of my youth, was Julian Eltinge. There was no one quite like him in the business. He was so beautiful onstage they called him "Mr. Lillian Russell" in homage to the operetta star from Iowa who made it big on Broadway as "Diamond Lil." Only yesterday, I saw on cable the old Alice Faye movie bio of Miss Russell's life. It was fun, but not a word about Julian Eltinge!

Julian Eltinge was, without question, the most famous female impersonator in the history of the American theater. He was born in Newtonville, Massachusetts, on May 14, 1883, and first donned female attire at the age of ten, when he appeared in the annual revue of the Boston Cadets; apparently, he was so successful in the female role that the following year the revue was written around him. Word of his success reached the ears of a number of theatrical managers, and he was soon appearing in minor productions around the country.

Eltinge's first major success came in 1904 when he appeared in a musical comedy with music by Jerome Kern. He then went into vaudeville, making his debut in London at the Palace Theatre in the spring of 1906. He moved on to vaudeville stardom in New York in 1907 in an act called "The Sampson Girl," a skit based on the Gibson Girl fashion much in vogue and created by a late-Victorian and early-20th century magazine illustrator, the handsome Charles Dana Gibson. Eltinge must have had fun with that, masquerading as a virtuous young woman famed for ideal beauty and grace.

He pulled it off. Audiences loved him, and he was the darling of the critics. He was billed simply as "Eltinge," giving no clue that he was a man. Variety (September 21, 1907) reported, "The audience was completely deceived as to Eltinge's sex until he removed his wig after the second song. Eltinge will be liked. He is artistic in everything he does, and his act is far and away above what is described as female impersonation."

He wore beautiful gowns, which won over the female members of the audience completely, and had a creditable singing voice, "far superior to that of most other female impersonators." In a 1909 interview, Eltinge explained that he spent two hours transforming himself into a woman, with the help of his male Japanese dresser, Shima. Almost an hour would be devoted to his make-up, and Eltinge noted, "It depends on where you put the paint, not how much you splash on."

His success was phenomenal. He took his shows on tour across the USA, and audiences everywhere loved him. In 1917, he began making movies. In a 1920 film reissued in 1922 as "The Isle of Love." he appeared opposite the rising star Rudolph Valentino. It was farce, but who knows how seriously the two stars took each other? They were both closet gays who always denied their homosexuality. Valentino, of course, went on to become one of the greatest film stars of all time, renowned as a "great lover," which was all publicity and studio hype.

As a magazine editor in Hollywood forty years ago, I rented a bungalow in the eucalyptus garden behind the Spanish mansion of an English portraitist and her Irish actor husband. (I still see him in old films from time to time, a fabulously handsome, snowy-haired silverfox who loved to play.) The small cottage was built to resemble a 17th-century Spanish mission. One of its occupants forty years before had been Rudolph Valentino, who rented it as a trysting place to bring his boyfriends when he was married to a famous lesbian. Both them had places apart from the main mansion, for their respective tricks. The old Irish actor had many stories to tell, including a blow-by-blow of the great head Valentino gave him a few times for keeping HIS mouth shut about the idol of the age.

Julian Eltinge often played dual roles onstage and on film, doing both sexes more or less at the same time. When he played men, he adopted very masculine traits in body movements to cover the feminine side at which he excelled in female roles.

While appearing in films, Julian Eltinge also found time to write, cast and produce vaudeville sketches for his Julian Eltinge Players. He returned to vaudeville after an absence of several years in January of 1918 with an eighteen-minute act at the Palace which involved four songs and four costume changes, from widow's weeds to a bathing suit. Eltinge had lost twenty pounds through a strenuous course of exercise and dieting and appeared in many more productions.

In February of 1921, while appearing at the Majestic Theatre in Chicago, he confided to the audience that his corsets were hurting him, a problem with which many women in the theatre sympathized. The show was a huge success.

They even named a New York theater after him. Al H. Woods, who had produced "The Fascinating Widow," told Eltinge, "Sweetheart, you re a big money maker for me, and I m going to name my theatre for you." A year to the day from the opening of "The Fascinating Widow," September 11, 1912, the Eltinge Theatre opened on Forty-second Street. It was still standing in my New York days in the mid-1950s, virtually unchanged, but it had become the Empire and was a movie theatre.

Eltinge went to extraordinary lengths to stress his masculinity; there were endless stories of his beating up stagehands, members of the audience, and fellow vaudevillians who made suggestive remarks about his sexual preferences. There was never a hint of scandal attached to his name. Women and men in the general public always insisted that he was straight, but old-time male actors who were around backstage took a different view, as in the adage, "It takes one to know one."

Eltinge was not seen on the New York stage from October of 1927, when he headlined at the Palace, until 1940, when he appeared in Billy Rose's "Diamond Horseshoe Jubilee." He died at his New York apartment on March 7, 1941.

Certainly there was no other female impersonator who could look back on a career which included a theatre named in his honor and continual critical acclaim for the good taste with which he handled his craft.

W. C. Fields said of Julian Eltinge: "Women went into ecstasies over him. Men went into the smoking room."
From: EArmstrong@AOL.COM
Subject: Re: The Impersonators

Ben, that was really an interesting article, and extremely well-written (as usual). Just as a small addendum, there's a wonderful Chinese film (and I've been wracking my brain to come up with the title) of a few years back dealing with classical Chinese opera, where female roles were always played by men. This particular film told the story of two men, one straight and married, and the other gay. Both played singing female roles, often appearing in the same productions. And of course the gay man eventually falls in love with the straight one, which provides one of the major conflicts of the film. Chinese classical opera, by the way, bears no resemblance whatever to opera of the Western world.

The story begins in a school of young boys (usually waifs or abandoned children), who are there to learn to perform the female roles in their National Opera. It showed how they were unmercifully beaten and abused until they could sing the parts they were supposed to master. This beautifully-made film follows the career of the gay man, who eventually achieves the status of a national celebrity and is courted by wealthy bankers and land-owners to join them in their beds, after bestowing expensive gifts on him. The film continues until the time when China is invaded by the Japanese, who, portrayed in the film as crude and loutish conquerors, make great sport of the male "female" singers, who are wearing female garb and make-up.

I'm sure I have the movie somewhere on laser disc, but I haven't been able to locate it at this point. If anyone happens to know the title of this wonderful film (made in either Hong Kong or Taiwan in the late 80s or early 90s), please let me know. Hopefully it will appear on DVD in the very near future.

Thanks again for the fine article, Ben. It was well done.

Ethan in LA
From: "Ben Boxer"
Subject: Re: The Impersonators

The answer to your question is "Farewell My Concubine" a 1993 film from China. The affair you mention is the one who develops a romantic, homosexual love for the other, who can only return a fraternal love, It is the story of the two men and at the same time a brilliant study of life backstage at the Peking Opera. I acquired a taste for Chinese opera many years ago in Taiwan. Most Westerners hate it, but I love it, and yes the performers are male, as in Japanese Kabuki, and the acting is stylized and glorious to watch. I have "Farewell My Concubine" in my collection. I consider it to rank with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" as the two best films made in the last ten years. Thanks for your compliments.
From: EArmstrong@AOL.COM
Subject: Re: The Impersonators

Thanks for supplying the title to the Chinese film I was trying to remember ("Farewell My Concubine"). I have to agree with everything you said about it. Strange -- the very first time I saw the film (I've seen it 10 or 12 times by now), I thought the singers were trying to be funny! When I realized they weren't, I must admit I hated the singing. That is, until I had seen the film again. The singing is quite different -- REALLY different - -- from anything we're used to here. Now, like you, I love it. One does have to acquire a taste for it. Now it's one of my favorite films. I've acquired a liking for that kind of quality Chinese films, such as "Raise the Red Lantern," and some others that don't come to mind immediately. I especially like Gong Li, who I believe starred in "Red Lantern." She's quite a big star now in China (Taiwan, I believe). Thanks again, Ben.

Ethan in LA
From: Eric Cooks
Subject: Re: The Impersonators

If you like Gong Li, you should watch one of her earlier classic - Judou. It won an accolade in the Cannes festival. Comparable to Farewell My Concubine, a classic of its own. In order to understand "Concubine" better, you need to know the historical background. The story stretched from pre-warlord era to communist period which prohibits chinese opera.

End of silverfoxesclub-digest V1 #220