Today is the birthday of Karyl Norman (1896-1947). Billed in vaudeville as the “Creole Fashion Plate”, the famous female impersonator is sadly best known today from the twist Groucho Marx gave his stage name, “The Queer Old Fashion Plate”. (Sadly, Groucho revealed himself to be something of a homophobe in his last years).
Interestingly, Norman was originally from Baltimore, not New Orleans as you might expect from his stage name. The explanation I think lies in his minstrel show** past, and the fact that he specialized in Southern-themed numbers, in the proto-Jazz style that was so popular in the early part of the 20th century.
A major star of the big time Orpheum circuit in the mid 1920s, Norman’s act differed from most other contemporary drag artists in that half of the characters her impersonated or portrayed were male. After the fall of vaudeville he played mostly underground drag clubs in New York and Hollywood. His real name was George Paduzzi.
To find out about the history of vaudeville and performers like Karyl Norman, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
**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.