Today is the birthday of Francis Leon (b. Francis Patrick Glassey, 1844-1883), one of America’s first female impersonators. Trained as an operatic boy soprano, he went on the minstrel stage at age 14, playing wench roles, but bringing a subtlty and accuracy to his portrayals that presaged the style of Julian Eltinge. He also trained in ballet and kept an extensive wardrobe of the latest fashions. He eventually became the highest paid performer in minstrelsy, and was so famous he was often billed merely as “Leon”.
After only 6 years, he formed his own troupe with comedian Edwin Kelly. Leon (and the team) were almost universally imitated throughout the world of minstrelsy. When I read of the early days of Harrigan and Hart, for example, who came along just a few years later, it occurs to me that Hart (who was well loved for his wench portrayals) was emulating Leon. In later years, the Leon and Kelly’s Minstrels disbanded, and Leon starred with the San Francisco Minstrels.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, 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 Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.