Bothwell Browne was vaudeville’s second most successful female impersonator, after Julian Eltinge. Born this day in 1877, his career was mostly west coast based, although he did spend some time in New York, especially early in his career. He got his start with Cohan and Harris’s Minstrels.** His vaudeville debut came in 1908 at New York’s Fifth Avenue Theatre with a sketch called “Winning a Gibson Girl“. Within a couple of years he had increased his number of impersonations to include a suffragette, a “pantaloon girl”, and Cleopatra. Later sketches would involve full casts of biological females, including his nieces the Browne Sisters. Unlike Eltinge, who broadened his appeal by remaining demure and safe, Browne alienated some audiences and critics by doing sexy, suggestive dances. (Dance was his forte. He was also a passable actor, but not much of a singer). Nonetheless, he got some decent shots. In 1911, he starred in his own Broadway show Miss Jack, about a college student forced to go incognito as a sorority girl. And in 1919, he starred in a feature length WWI comedy for Mack Sennett, Yankee Doodle in Berlin. When vaudeville began to die out toward the end of the 1920s, he worked in nightclubs and revues, where he continued to perform until his death in 1947.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, including female impersonators like Bothwell Browne, please consult my critically acclaimed book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments. 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.