The most famous female impersonator of the vaudeville era, Julian Eltinge was a point of cultural reference as late as the early 1960s when Lenny Bruce dropped his name in a stand-up routine. Two quotes give a sense about how this sort of act divided the audience: W.C. Fields famously said “women went into ecstasies over him. Men went into the smoking room”. On the other hand, Jesse Lasky said that “neither men nor women could take their eyes off him”
Born William Julian Dalton in Newtonville, Massachusetts in 1883, he was already in drag by age 10. After performing in the Boston Cadets’ annual review dressed as a little girl, he was so successful that the following year they wrote the whole show around him in a skirt. Soon thereafter he moved to Butte, Montana, where, while taking cakewalk lessons at Mrs. Wayman’s Dance Studio, he chanced to do an impression of some chorus girls who also took the class. Mrs. Wayman couldn’t help but notice that he was better at it than the girls themselves. She suggested he try female impersonation, which he did (with some misgivings), acting in an amateur production called My Lady.
Soon he was getting national bookings. In 1904, he starred in the book musical Mr. Wix of Wickham, his first big break. Next he tried vaudeville, where he generally received great reviews. A typical turn had him coming out as a Gibson Girl, then emerging as a “dainty young miss in a pink party dress”. Apparently his singing voice was far better than that of most other female impersonators, as was the illusion of femininity. A stocky man, he had his Japanese male dresser “Shima” corset him up and then spend two hours on his make-up and dressing. His bag of tricks included: powder, eye make-up, rouge, make up and powder on shoulders and arms, painted nails, and numerous wigs. He even shaved his fingers. Graceful and classy, Eltinge, as he was now called, was always said to be in good taste. — “inoffensive.”
The act went right to big-time: Keith’s Union Square (1905), the London Palace (1906), the New York Alhambra (1907). In 1908, he worked the short lived Cohan and Harris Minstrels**. In 1909 he introduced two new dance routines in his vaudeville act. “The Goddess of Incense” was a Hindu themed number. “The Cobra Dance” was slow and sensual. His 1910 act had four parts. First he impersonated “the Lady of Mystery”, by coming out in a long black gown. Then, for contrast, he was a “simple young woman in a bright blue dress singing ‘Honeymoon in June’”. Next he was a woman from the colonial era, and last of all he was a contemporary woman doing “That Spanish American Rag”.
1910 saw The Fascinating Widow, his greatest stage success, in which he portrayed…a man forced by circumstances to disguise himself as a woman. (What great casting! It calls to mind the 1971 Columbo episode where Rich Little portrayed a psychopathic Las Vegas impressionist). By 1912 Eltinge was so popular, he had a theatre named after him, which was renamed the Empire in 1956 and is now now a multiplex cinema.
Concurrent with the launch of Eltinge’s own film career in 1915, he launched his own magazine, Julian Eltinge’s Magazine and Beauty Hints which offered beauty tips of the sort that would be most of the most use to unattractive or masculine women: how to dress so as to seem slimmer, how to cover up unsightly facial hair, etc.
After three years in films, Eltinge returned to vaudeville with an 18 minute act at the Palace. The act consisted of 4 songs, 4 costume changes and “the Julian Eltinge Players”.
He continued to headline in big time throughout the 1920s. Here’s an extremely cool clip of film from 1929 in a short from a series called The Voice of Hollywood (a good decade after his main film career). As an dded bonus we also get Reginald Denny and Bobby Vernon:
As vaudeville withered in the 30s, he toured with his own show “the Nine O’Clock Review”. As the depression worsened, the vogue for female impersonation shrank down to nothing. By 1940, Eltinge had sunk to the lowest low conceivable. Due to a Los Angeles law forbidding public appearances in female clothing, he did his act NEXT TO a clothes rack full of ladies’ outfits. (h’m…did Ed Wood see this particular show?) He passed away the following year.
Eltinge always insisted that it was all just an act, an illusion, the same as might be accomplished by a magician, a ventriloquist, etc.To prove it, he separated himself from the gay subculture and any hint of “perversion”, overcompensating with macho offstage behavior, fistfights , beer drinking, boxing, horseback riding (western style, natch). He circulated stories about himself beating up guys who impugned his manhood. Above all, he claimed not to even like dressing in woman’s clothing – it was just something he did to make money.
There’s a great gag in Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances where the young hero, desperate to find a bride, runs into a theatre and propositions someone, emerging with a black eye for his efforts. Then we see a sign: it was Eltinge.
All of this is all well and good and it’s almost convincing…until you stop and remind yourself, yeah, yeah, that might be true…but you’re STILL a female impersonator, fellah. No man puts on a dress and make-up every night just because he needs the work. Think about it!
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.