Friday, February 19th, 2016...2:08 pm
Male impersonators in early 20th century American sheet music
In the aughts and teens of the 20th century, a few female vaudeville performers, British and American, had great success with male impersonation acts. In performance, they sang romantic love songs (as boys or young men), comic songs and bragging songs. Here are a few examples of their songs as published sheet music.
Florence Tempest performed with her sister Marion Sunshine as Tempest and Sunshine; sometimes she was billed as “Florenze”.
Hetty King (real name Winifred Emms)
Claire Romaine (“London’s Pet Boy”)
Note the four different characters Romaine is playing on the cover – they appear to be from her stage repertoire: a young gentleman, a college student, a mischievous youth and a ruffian. (Perhaps the youth is represented by this song, which is sung from the perspective of a young boy.)
Vesta Tilley, later Lady de Frece
We shine in “The Row” by day,
And many a brilliant ray
We throw from our mashing eye
When duchesses are passing by.
Here is Tilley singing “I’m Following in Father’s Footsteps”.
Other boys may have their girls but I want mine
Other boys may rave about blue eyes that shine
They may think they have a queen with form divine
Other boys may have their girls but I want mine.
Zelma is described in a review in the link above as an “extremely clever impersonator of swell young men”; the jaunty hat adds to this impression.
Here is an unusual piece featuring Anna Held, Ziegfeld star – she was not known as a male impersonator, but here she is shown dressed as a boy.
In 2003, Houghton Library mounted an exhibit curated by Laurence Senelick, Cross-Dressing on the Stage, featuring photographs and ephemera relating to male performance of female roles in early theater, male and female impersonators, and “glamour drag.” In the Historical Sheet Music Collections at Harvard, more portraits of male and female impersonators including Julian Eltinge can been seen in this collection: 2003MT-88 Sheet Music Featuring Famous Cross-dressers of Both Sexes, Ca. 1868-1919. The question is, was an image of a woman dressed as a male waif, rake or dandy more or less acceptable than an image of a man dressed as a woman, as an impersonation or in drag? Did these performances affect the perception of queer culture in America, onstage and in daily life?
To read more about this:
Senelick, Laurence. The Changing Room : Sex, Drag, and Theatre. London ; New York: Routledge, 2000. Gender in Performance.
Moore, F. Michael. Drag!: Male and Female Impersonators on Stage, Screen and Television : An Illustrated World History. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1994.
Garber, Marjorie B. Vested Interests : Cross-dressing & Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992.
UCLA Special Collections Blog: What a Drag!
[Thanks to Dana Gee, Project Sheet Music Cataloger, for contributing this post.]