Archive for the Drag and/or LGBT Category

Stars of Vaudeville #1014: Eugene O’Brien

Posted in Broadway, Drag and/or LGBT, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on November 14, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Eugene O’Brien (Louis O’Brien, 1880-1966).

Originally from Boulder, Colorado, O’Brien studied first to be a doctor and a civil engineer before finally ignoring his parents’ wishes to go on stage. He sang with quartets in vaudeville and acted in stock companies before getting a part in the chorus of The Rollicking Girl (1905), a Charles Frohman production. Frohman gave him a much better role in The Builder of Bridges (1909), but it was his part opposite Ethel Barrymore in Trelawney of the Wells (1911) that put him on the map. His last show on Broadway was The Country Cousin (1917).

Meanwhile he’d begun to star in films starting in 1915. Throughout the end of the silent era, he was to be leading man to the likes of Mary Pickford, Norma Talmadge and Gloria Swanson in such hits as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), The Perfect Lover (1919) and Secrets (1924). When talkies came in, he retired entirely from acting, both stage and screen. He was only 47 at the time.

O’Brien was one of the top matinee idols of the late teens and twenties. He socialized with his beautiful co-stars, received tens of thousands of letters from adoring female fans, and was even sued once (unsuccessfully) for statutory rape. But all that availeth nothing — it was an open secret in Hollywood that O’Brien was gay. In retirement, he told a reporter he was “untroubled by girls, and was reveling in athletics, gardening, and most of all bachelorhood.”

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Who Were the Gibson Girls?

Posted in AMERICANA, Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Drag and/or LGBT, My Family History, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , on September 14, 2016 by travsd
Gibson Girls Observe a Tiny Man Through a Magnifying Glass

Gibson Girls Observe a Tiny Man Through a Magnifying Glass

Today is the birthday of the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944)  — a distant relative of mine!

Gibson was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts and studied at the Art Students League in New York. By 1886 he was submitting work to Life magazine and other periodicals. In 1890 he introduced his famous “Gibson Girls”, for whom his sister Josephine was the original Muse. In 1895, he married Irene Langhorne; she and her four beautiful sisters became additional inspirations, as well as his models. He generally featured them in lightly humorous sketches, done in pencil, pen and ink, often with a caption. The Gibson Girls were modern and reflected changing attitudes towards women’s roles in their time. But the women in the images also became the beaux ideal of the day, the height of glamour and fashion. They were portrayed as powerful, cool, superior, independent, and strong (though never political; they weren’t associated with the Women’s Suffrage movement). They were always upper class and accoutered in the latest styles. Female sexual power is bursting out of them. There is an aloof spirit of mockery of the male that is irresistible to both sexes.



In addition to those members of Gibson’s family we’ve mentioned, his models included Evelyn Nesbit, Jobyna Howland, Mabel Normand, and Camille Clifford. 

The craze also was the inspiration for many a vaudeville act. Texas Guinan did an act called “The Gibson Girl”, and many drag performers made a point in mimicking the look, such as Julian Eltinge, Malcolm Scott, and Bothwell Browne.



By the second decade of the twentieth century, movies were coming in and the Biograph Girls like Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford now held sway. By World War One, the Gibson Girl was passe. Gibson became editor of Life in 1918, and later took over ownership of the magazine as well. He retired in 1936, though he continued to paint and draw until the end of his life.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc

Stars of Vaudeville #955: Marjorie Main

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Crackers, Drag and/or LGBT, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the great Marjorie Main (Mary Tomlinson, 1890-1975). The daughter of an Indiana minister, Main started out in vaudeville, on the Chautauqua and Orpheum circuits.

She broke into films and Broadway at around the same time, with extra roles in the 1928 play Salvation and the 1929 film short Harry Fox and His American Beauties. Throughout the 1930s she alternated her time between Broadway and movie roles. Her large size, matronly carriage and distinctive voice (which would have been excellent for cartoon voiceovers), made her eminently castable, and she worked constantly until she retired. She was often cast as rich dowagers in her early years, but she was especially adept at plain-spoken, fussy, earthier types so she eventually specialized in playing ill-tempered domestics and landladies, and (because of her country accent) especially frontier women in musicals and westerns, almost invariably comical ones.

She is in Stella Dallas (1937), both the stage and screen versions of Dead End (1935-1937), and both the stage and screen versions of The Women (1936-1939), five films with Wallace Beery starting with Barnacle Bill (1941), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Harvey Girls (1946), Summer Stock (1950), Friendly Persuasion (1956), and of course the film series she became best known for, Ma and Pa Kettle (1947-1957) (read more about that series here). And this is just the tip of the iceberg; she gave memorable turns in dozens more movies than this.

While she was briefly married, Main admitted in an interview to having had lesbian affairs, one of which is widely believed to have been with Spring Byington. Her last performance was in a 1958 episode of Wagon Train. Her last public appearance was the year before she died, at the world premiere of the MGM compilation film That’s Entertainment. 

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Stars of Vaudeville #949: Bill Tilden

Posted in Drag and/or LGBT, Sport & Recreation, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on February 10, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of tennis great “Big Bill” Tilden (1893-1953). Long a symbol of the Roaring Twenties, Tilden was the World #1 tennis player from 1920 through 1925, won seven U.S. championships, and a long list of other impressive sounding accolades I am too tennis illiterate to properly understand or appreciate. But what I do know is vaudeville, and Tilden like so many of his era, was bit by the bug. In 1928, he toured with a sketch a sketch called “A Night at the Tennis and Racquet Club.” The following year he was said to have visited London and U.S. theatres with a monologue “in one” wherein he recounted his tennis experiences. Tilden was said to have a star personality, and he hobknobbed on the courts with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. Later, scandal tarnished his image (he had a weakness for underage boys) and it damaged his career.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Stars of Vaudeville #944: Berta Beeson

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Circus, Drag and/or LGBT, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 2, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Berta Beeson (Herbert “Slats” Beeson, 1899-1969). Billed as the Julian Eltinge of the Wire, Beeson was a cross-dressing tightrope walker. It is not known whether Beeson was gay, straight, trans, or what — it is only known that he dressed up like a woman to do a highwire act.

Originally from Summitville, Indiana, Beeson started out working at his local vaudeville house. He debuted with the Sells-Floto circus in 1917 as “Mademoiselle Beeson, Marvelous High Wire Venus.” When Bird Millman retired from Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey in 1925, Beeson was her replacement. He retired from performing 11 years later, but continued to work for the circus as an advance man. Check it out: there’s an entire blog devoted to Berta Beeson. Read it here. 

To learn more about  old school show biz especially vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


The Vaudeville of David Bowie

Posted in Drag and/or LGBT, Music, OBITS, Rock and Pop, Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 16, 2016 by travsd


I have found that there are certain cultural figures who loom so large (at least in my personal world) that I can’t just do a single definitive blog entry on them as I have tried to do with many vaudeville and screen stars. Maybe the passage of time has made the older ones digestible — there can be a summation. But there are certain artists closer in time to us that I have regarded as mountains too big to scale and so I’ve either sort of nibbled at them in partial posts that take on some aspect of their legacy, or I’ve just blown it off with an intention to take it on down the road. David Bowie was one of these.

Think about this: words are actually, literally inadequate to describe what he was. The best I can come up with is “cultural figure”. It doesn’t do to say what someone was by making a list, does it? “Pop star” is grossly inadequate — Bowie distinguished himself in many other fields, in many other ways, in far too great a degree. And he affected the world in some ways  that don’t precisely have to do with a career or an art practice, but more with human culture, such as redefining the way people see gender in modern society. And so you get into a list. But a list is “less than”.

It’s taken me a few days of rumination to figure out what facet of this amazing person I want to talk about, but you know what it is and probably knew already even if I didn’t. Bowie occupied the absolute apex of what it is possible to achieve in show business as a high art. Show biz is normally thought of as populist. It is famous for pandering and the lowest common denominator. Except when it isnt that. All its greatest practitioners were innovators with higher aspirations, even hidden motives, with symbolisms and significances and ripples way beyond what the mass audience might be able to articulate even if they sense it with their lizard brains.

This may shock many of my close friends, but I knew Bowie almost entirely from his presence in the mass culture: his hit singles, television appearances, movie roles, and (in this case definitely not to be sneezed at) photos in the press. Believe it or not I’ve only spent substantial time with two or three of his LPs. But glam has been a major area of exploration for me of late and so I am destined to explore his whole body of recorded work going forward.


But glam seems the essence of what he was, and in a way it is the summit of what show business can be in the modern era. It is significant to me that glam emerged during the television era — and the color television era, at that. In this context, I have two strong associations of Bowie — television variety in the early 70s, and music videos in the early 80s. I was addicted to both of these televisual formats when they thrived. I miss them terribly, and today we have no proper substitute. Late-night talk shows and SNL do not fill the void left by the former. Youtube does not fill the void left by the latter. The eyes of America all need to be pointing in the same direction for these formats to happen. And while plenty of people watch late night TV, the format is not the same. Above all, modern variety television, such as it is, is visually barren and unimaginative. It’s always some monochromatic, muted, industrial landscape, with exposed theatrical lights and house grids, with predictable dry ice effects. This is without getting into how boring most of the acts are, both visually and in terms of what they have to say.

What glam brought to television in the early 70s (and what television brought to glam) is the rediscovery that performance has a VISUAL component and this is one of many things that ties it back to vaudeville. “In show business,” Sophie Tucker said, “Clothes matter”. Or as my pen pal James Taylor of Shocked and Amazed wrote to me the other day “Always dress better than your audience”. The picture at the top of this post is my favorite ever visual incarnation of Bowie — it’s from the MTV video for his 1984 single “Blue Jean”. (I tried to find a photo that showed my favorite aspect of this costume, the fact that he was wearing genie shoes with curled-up toes. You know, these kinda Hush Puppies:)


People WATCHED Bowie as much as they listened to him. He reincarnated himself not just with every album, every tour or every appearance, but every time he walked out the door. This is how it was in vaudeville. Eva Tanguay was the queen of this, but really it was the coin of the realm, especially among female performers, who were the biggest stars. By contrast, men were a bore. In fact, you can say that for visual flair in costume in variety entertainment, men don’t catch up to women until the 1960s. The Beatles’ matching suits were an initial factor (followed with even greater flair by the Mods), but this aspect of rock and pop seemed to fall apart in the late 60s, when “nature” seemed to be the ruling principle for a time. No one got all dressed up to flop around in the mud at Woodstock.

Glam restored the element of style in show biz and brought it to unprecedented heights. Drag, dandyism, and theatre in general were major influences on pop during this era. Theatre was one of Bowie’s NUMEROUS interests. He had actually opened for Marc Bolan and Tyrannousaurus Rex (before they became T.Rex) as a goddamn MIME. Now that’s purely visual. No sound at all! The albums of Bowie and many of his contemporaries were operas, with stories and characters. In 1982, Bowie even starred as the title character in a BBC TV production of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal.  That’s all very laudable (in fact, I drool at the idea of a pop star doing that), but Bowie brought the same sensibility to his appearances in variety television.

Add to that, there was an element of freak show to Bowie’s act: he had those strange eyes (one had been damaged in a fist fight), his androgyny and his well-publicized bisexuality, which was almost unheard of at the time. When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was The Book of Lists. One of the lists was a list of all the famous bisexuals, which included Bowie, Elton John, Janis Joplin, and Bessie Smith, as I recall. About a dozen names. Nowadays, such a list would be the size of the phone book, I imagine, especially if we include all those who, like Bowie, merely experimented in same sex love. But barring even whispers of the bedroom, make-up and nail polish on men in the early 70s was a very daring choice. Still is, actually, but when Bowie did it, it had not previously been done in mainstream show biz, aside from female impersonators and comedians.

"Can ya hear me, Majah Tom?"

“Can ya hear me, Majah Tom?”

Glam and variety television were a glorious mash-up of past, present and future. Future? Most of the glam artists were obsessed with rockets and space travel, both in subject matter for songs, but often in how the performers looked, as well. I think of them wearing silver space suits all the time, and plastic and synthetics, and platform shoes and padded gloves. At the same time, they’d raid the consignment shop for old hats and suits, and feather boas, and women’s coats. Camp and nostalgia were major elements. Young stars like Bowie would interact with old stars from the 1930s. Bowie was a trailblazer even as he drew from the past. He was there to take charge of passed torches. In 1977 he did that famous Christmas duet with Bing Crosby, “Peace on Earth/ The Little Drummer Boy“). That was variety television at its best. (The result was later released as a single). That was Bing’s last tv appearance (posthumous, in fact). Then in 1978, Bowie appeared with Marlene Dietrich in the film Just a Gigolo, which proved to be her last movie. And while Bowie obviously started out in rock (and emulated the usual rock and roll heroes, especially in the beginning) I read recently that one of his greatest influences as a singer was the very old school Anthony Newley, which is a validation of a quality I’d always perceived in his music. There are certain vocal things he does that sound a LOT like Anthony Newley.


A lot of my friends who are just a little bit younger than me have been very broken up by his passing. I think, being younger, their pathway in to him was quite a bit different from mine. My first awareness of him came with his hit 1975 singles “Fame” and “Golden Years”. I really loved both songs, and actually spent time trying to break them down and decipher them. To me at the age of ten, they both sounded strange and a little scary, and were quite different from other songs on the radio. And as I began to explore FM radio a little later, it seems to me I heard  “Space Oddity” and “Changes” in rotation quite a lot.  But the context was listening to him on the radio, usually top 40 radio, and seeing him occasionally on television. My first Bowie album was “Let’s Dance”, the most commercial thing he ever did. And then I saw nearly every movie he did in the 80s in the cinema: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), The Hunger (1983), Absolute Beginners (1986), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). (Ironically I didn’t see Labyrinth until this year). And I have seen almost all of his other movies by this point. Which means that I have experienced him much more as a movie star than as what he is to many people — a genius creator of rock concept albums.

He was so influential on younger generations of musicians, New Wave, New Romanticism — he is like the towering giant who lords over that stuff. I think many younger people discovered him that way first, that was their pathway in, and they’ll always see him that way. Something close to the way I look at Elvis and the Beatles, part of the firmament of the world before I was born. It’s a kind of trauma that I can fully understand. My pathway in, though, was show business, and my sadness is tinged with nostalgia. And how I miss catching appearances like this one, with another glamorous master of television variety and vaudeville values, Cher:

Stars of Vaudeville #917: Lilyan Tashman

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Drag and/or LGBT, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2015 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Lilyan Tashman (1896-1934). The daughter of Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, New York she began as a model in high school and broke into vaudeville during her teenage years. In 1914 she met and married Al Lee, who was Eddie Cantor’s comedy partner at the time, with whom she sometimes performed. In 1916 she moved up to Broadway, performing in three annual editions of the Ziegfeld Follies. In 1919 she was cast in Avery Hapgood’s The Gold Diggers in a supporting role and understudied star Ina Claire. This engagement lasted two years. She appeared in a couple more Broadway shows, then headed out to Hollywood to act in films starting in 1921. She divorced Lee at around the same time.

She found success in the movies, usually in supporting roles as catty “other women” and trouble-making villainneses. Notable silent films she appeared in included Pretty Ladies, (1925), Camille (1926), and Manhattan Cocktail (1928). Her success continued into the sound era in such movies as Bulldog Drummond (1929), The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929), Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929), and New York Nights (1930). She continued to work until her early death in 1934, although he health problems (which turned out to be cancer) began to interfere starting in 1932. She married actor Edmund Lowe in 1925, although she is rumored to have had an extremely active double life as a lesbian dating from her chorus girl days.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


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