On Male Impersonator Ella Shields

Ella Shields (born this day in 1879) was a male impersonator and a rare American export to the British music halls. A Baltimore native she started out in a sister act in American vaudeville in 1898. Billed as the Southern Nightingale, she crossed the puddle to try the halls in 1904. It wasn’t until six years later that she donned male drag (to fill in for an act that called in sick) and was such a hit that she stayed that way. It is speculated that Julie Andrews (whom she knew and performed with early in her career) based her character in Victor/ Victoria on Shields.

One of the major songs she was associated with was “Show Me the Way to Go Home”, well known to modern audiences as it is sung by the three main characters in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. (“How do those guys all happen to know that song?” I’ve always wondered.) But her most popular number, written especially for her in 1915 by her then-husband William Hargreaves was “Burlington Bertie from Bow”. And it was this number she was singing in 1952, when she was stricken onstage with a fatal heart attack. Here’s her singing that song:

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.



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