Francis Leon: Minstrelsy’s Greatest Female Impersonator

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Today is the birthday of Francis Leon (Francis Patrick Glassey, b. 1844). Eventually billed simply as “Leon” or “The Only Leon”, he was the foremost female impersonator in blackface minstrelsy**.

Let it be known that the category of the “wench” was universally popular in minstrel shows — every comedian did drag, just like every comedian did blackface in the 19th century: if you didn’t, what good were you? But Leon was different from those lowbrow clowns. He was a hardcore female impersonator in the modern, vaudeville sense. He upped the ante, by being as convincing as humanly possible in his portrayals. It was no longer necessarily about comedy, it was about beauty and histrionic ability.

He went into show biz in his early teens. Because of his training as a boy soprano in church choirs he was able to mimic prima donnas, making him a novelty in minstrel shows. Rather than laying on burnt cork, he often portrayed “high yellow” dames, i.e. mulattoes. It’s said that there were as many as 300 dresses in his wardrobe, some of them costing as much as $400 — and astounding sum in those days. He presented refined opera and ballet and was renowned for the sensitivity accuracy of his representation of the fairer sex. In 1864 he formed his own troupe. Within a decade every minstrel company in the country had a Leon impersonator. The last historical reference to him is in San Francisco in 1883. Where and when he died remains unknown.

To learn more about the history of variety theatreconsult 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. 

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