The Art of Arthur Blake

I’m pretty sure I learned about impressionist Arthur Blake (1914-1985) by virtue of the fact that he was performing at the Cocoanut Grove on the night of the famous 1942 fire. He is not to be confused with Arthur “Blind” Blake, the famous blues singer.

Blake is often described as a female impersonator, for he was gay and the majority of his repertoire consisted of impressions of female stars, though he also impersonated men. His impressive stock of voices included Bette Davis, Carmen Miranda, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Tallulah BankheadKatharine HepburnHedda Hopper, Edna May Oliver, Louella ParsonsZasu PittsBarbara Stanwyck, Sophie Tucker, Marlene Dietrich, Lionel Barrymore, Raymond Burr, Peter Lorre, Frank MorganJimmy Stewart, Clifton Webb, Orson Welles, and Noel Coward. Many of these celebrities knew and loved these impressions and were fans.

Blake’s career began in the mid ’30s, and for nearly five decades he was a mainstay of nightclubs (both mainstream and underground) in the U.S. and the U.K. He also played bit roles in Hollywood films starting in 1936. The fire seems to have raised his profile starting around that time, for he began to get slightly larger supporting parts in movies such as Gaslight (1944), Port of New York (1949), Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), and Harem Girl (1952). In his final film, Diplomatic Courier (1952), he performs a snippet of his act.

Blake’s routines were presumably too risque for television, but he did make a couple tv appearances on variety shows like Penthouse Party and The Frank Sinatra Show in the early ’50s. A good sample of his full act can be found on the 1957 record album Curtain Time: The Satirical Impressions of Arthur Blake.In the ’60s and ’70s he was known for his long headline run at the Crown and Anchor nightclub in Provincetown and for co-starring in the 1972 off-Broadway show They Don’t Make Em Like That Anymore with Luba Lisa. His last years were spent in Fort Lauderdale.

For more on variety entertainment, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.