Today is the birthday of one of the best straight men in history, Jay Brennan (1881-1961). While he had many partners over the years, only one was legendary: Bert Savoy.
Bert Savoy was the first modern drag queen, and was the complete opposite of Julian Eltinge. He established the pattern for drag performance that obtains to this day, creating a character who was campy, mean, and brassy and who inspired both pathos and rude guffaws. Arch and cutting, he was a true artist in directing his satire inward, making no attempt to seem graceful and glamorous like Eltinge, preferring to accentuate his hairy arms, awkward, manly size, and male voice for comic effect. He called everyone “dearie”and referred to gay men as “she”. The odds are pretty good that he was “that way”.
Born Everett McKenzie in Boston in 1880, he started working in dime museums and Bowery saloons such as Steve Brodie’s as a boy cooch dancer. (surely there are laws-?) While touring in a show as a chorus boy, he found himself stranded in Deadwood, South Dakota. It was there –of all places on earth! — that he first went on the music hall stage as a female impersonator. (as Eltinge had done female impersonation in Montana. One wonders what it was about the Old West that all these manly men and cowboys would pay real gold to go see men-dressed-as-women entertainers. Can it be that the shortage of actual woman created a grudging acceptance of “approximate women”, as it does in prisons?)
Back East, he was busted in Baltimore for posing as a fortune teller named “Mademoiselle Veen.” Next came the job that really made him. He apprenticed with an act called the Russell Brothers that sounds like one of the most boldly hilarious routines in show business history. Called “Maid to Order” the two men played bitchy, gossipy Irish servant girls. The stereotype was so outrageous, the pair was frequently under attack by Irish anti-defamation groups. The pair toured in vaud through 1914 when James Russell died. Savoy, the understudy, took over at that point. The experience clearly caused him to blossom.
Shortly thereafter he created a new act with Jay Brennan, whom he’d met on a streetcar the previous year. Brennan turned out to be one of the best straight men in the business, feeding lines to Savoy, who played a loud-mouthed overdressed woman who rambled on constantly about her friend “Margie”. Savoy based his character on a woman he and Brennan met in a bar. Edmund Wilson described her as: “a gigantic red-haired harlot…reeking of corrosive cocktails…one felt oneself in the presence of the vast vulgarity of New York incarnate and made heroic.”
BRENNAN: Is Margie married?
SAVOY: No, she’s a widow.
BRENNAN: Where did she bury her husband?
SAVOY: She said his last wish was to be buried in San Francisco, but Margie buried him over in Brooklyn.
BRENNAN: But she should have carried out his wish.
SAVOY: That‘s what his sister said: “If you don’t he’s liable to come back and haunt you.” I thought I’d die! Margie said, “We’ll try him over in Brooklyn. If he bothers me, I will send him to ‘Frisco.
Savoy was “on”, offstage and on. He was always in character, frequently peppering his speech with the same expressions: “You must come over”, “I’m glad you ast me”, “You shoulda been with us” and “you don’t know the half of it, dearie”
To modern ears, there is a tinge of misogyny in such an impression of a female. A lot of risque stuff came out of his mouth of the sort Mae West would later get in trouble for, but because he was a man, Savoy got away with it. Furthermore the act went over big with the audience, and it was hard for managers to argue with that. From small time, the team rapidly rose to big time and revues: the Passing Show (1915), the Palace (1916), Hitchy Koo (1917), the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918, and the Greenwich Village Follies (1922).
Savoy died tragically young in 1923. His last words are perhaps the richest that ever were spoken, and predictably blasphemous. While walking on a Long Island beach with friends during a violent lightning storm, he turned to the person next to him and said, “Mercy, ain’t Miss God cutting up something awful?” There was a blue flash, a crack – and that was the end of Bert Savoy.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville and stars like Savoy and Brennan, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.