At the Empire
“We’re born naked and the rest is drag.”
— RuPaul, supermodel
Saskatoon’s Empire Theatre opened in December 1910 adjoining the Empire Hotel at the corner of 2nd Avenue and 20th Street. With a capacity of 1,200 it immediately became the city’s centre of live entertainment, featuring many of the greatest performers of the age including Harry Lauder, Sophie Tucker and Eva Tanguay. In 1930 it was sold and thereafter operated primarily as a motion picture theatre.
Many gender impersonators appeared at the Empire in Christmas pantomimes, in vaudeville programs, and as part of touring all-male musical revues such as the Dumbells.
Gender impersonation in the United Kingdom has its roots in pantomime or ‘Panto,’ the traditional Christmas family entertainment. Panto is a mixture of music, magic and slapstick comedy built around a well-known fairy story or tale. It is meant to appeal primarily to children. Part of the traditional cast is a principal boy played by a young woman with a good pair of legs in tights. The principal comic role, the Dame, is almost always played by an older male actor. Money is spent lavishly on sets, costumes and special effects.
The Dumbells were an immensely popular variety troupe composed of Canadian ex-servicemen that toured Canada and the US from 1919 to 1932. The group debuted in 1917 as the Canadian Army Third Division Concert Party, organized to entertain Canadian and other allied troops near the front. Private Ross Hamilton (1889-1965) or “Marjorie” was an original member of the revue, always winning over audiences with sentimental songs sung in a falsetto soprano. Several of the other soldiers sang and danced in drag.
The Dumbells frequently appeared at the Empire Theatre in the 1920s. In Never Sleep Three in a Bed, a memoir of his youth in Saskatchewan, Max Braithwaite described the excitement surrounding these appearances at the Empire and the particular appeal of ‘Marjorie’.
Those were the more innocent – or perhaps the more short-sighted days. Words like "homosexual" and "transvestite" weren’t kicked around as freely as they are now. Dressing up like a woman and singing and dancing like one, was looked upon as a damned clever trick – something like sawing a female in half, or making a rabbit disappear – nothing more.
Charley’s Aunt, a chestnut of Victorian comedy, has been presented many times on Saskatchewan stages. Two Oxford students, Jack and Charley, persuade another student to impersonate Charley’s aunt Dona Lucia from Brazil ‘where the nuts come from’ so that they can invite young ladies to tea. The fake Dona Lucia quickly attracts the attention of two unsuspecting male suitors while using his/her disguise to get touchy-feely with the girls.