“A Little bit of powder / A Little bit of paint / Makes a thing of beauty / Of a thing that ain’t.” -- Julian Eltinge
Welcome to Ambisextrous: Gender Impersonators of Music Hall and Vaudeville, an exhibition of images from the collection of the University of Saskatchewan Archives. Ambisextrous is a contribution to Saskatchewan Resources for Sexual Diversity (SRSD), a project established in 2004 to improve access to information on gender and sexual diversity available in Saskatchewan’s libraries and archives. In 2006 Neil Richards donated to the University of Saskatchewan Archives a collection dealing with the history of theatrical transvestism and gender impersonation. The collection was assembled in connection with research for his digital exhibition All Frocked Up: Glimpses of Cross-Dressing in Saskatchewan (2003).
The drag tradition, the wearing of clothes of the opposite gender, is as old as theatre itself. Many earlier societies – ancient Greece and Rome and Elizabethan England being perhaps the best known - considered the presence of women on theatrical stages distasteful or improper. Although actresses have been accepted on English stages since the reign of Charles II (1661-1685), many theatrical genres have continued to employ cross-gendered performances for a wide variety of purposes. Arguably the most notable of recent ‘femmulation’ roles is the character Edna Turnblad in the musical Hairspray, a role played on film in 2007 by John Travolta and by a whole series of “actors of a certain age” on stages across the globe.
The Richards collection comprises sheet music, programs, postcards, photographs, audio and video recordings. The collector attempted to represent many of the performing artists who crossed genders in their acts and the various arenas in which these impersonations were presented. An especial strength of the collection is the representation of performers associated with British music hall and with vaudeville, its North American counterpart.
Music hall and vaudeville presentations were variety shows mixing popular songs, comic monologues and sketches with an enormous range of specialty acts. These included magicians, escapologists, ventriloquists, animal trainers, strongmen and lecturing celebrities. Their Golden Age was the period from the late 1880s to the 1920s. Almost every large British and American city had theatres and auditoriums of various sizes and degrees of luxe which presented such entertainment. Performers booked outside the major hub cities such as London and New York struggled to elevate themselves from ‘small time’ (small town) circuits to the more desirable and profitable engagements available on the ‘big time’ circuits. In the 1930s both music hall and vaudeville declined in popularity faced with competition from both talking (and singing) motion pictures and entertainments presented on the radio.
Male and female impersonation acts were popular on music hall bills. In Britain many gender illusionists also worked in pantomimes or Panto. Panto is a traditional British entertainment, presented at Christmas time, ostensibly for children. Panto wraps popular songs, magic, and slapstick comedy around a well-known fairy story like Cinderella, Mother Goose or Aladdin. Part of the traditional Panto cast is the principal boy played by a young woman who looks good in tights. The principal comic role is the Dame, almost always played to camp effect by an older male comic. In neither role is the actor’s gender in any real doubt.
Many of the top male impersonators in British music hall, including Vesta Tilley, Hetty King and Ella Shields, donned army and navy uniforms to perform songs as soldiers and sailors in His Majesty’s Service. Music hall’s ascendency occurred during the greatest expansion of the British Empire and the Empire’s involvement in World War I.
Gender illusion was equally popular on North American vaudeville circuits. Its roots can be traced back to earlier American minstrel companies in which ‘wench’ roles were played in both drag and blackface. Some express surprise that theatrical gender impersonation was so popular during a period we have been taught to think intolerant of gender or sexual differences. Also that it should have been so welcome in vaudeville, a theatrical form, which unlike its more risqué sister burlesque, prided itself on presenting only clean family entertainment.
There were occasional complaints about the number of female impersonators on vaudeville bills and from time to time some newspaper critic ventured to lambast the genre. For example, on October 1 1915 a Variety editor complained of the “offensive, disgusting, effeminate male or ‘fairy’ impersonators” performing in New York. But generally in the late 19th and early 20th century female impersonation was viewed as a wholesome entertainment quite suitable for middle class women and children.
Perhaps our contemporary experiences with ‘drag’ entertainment lead us to misunderstand the goals and character of earlier cross-dressed performances. Many modern gender benders use irony-laced performances to challenge and criticize traditional understandings of sex and gender roles. Also reasonably familiar to many are the distinct variations of gender impersonation situated in LGBT communities, where queer performers use queer subject matter in formats designed primarily to appeal to a queer sensibility.
Although there were a few notable exceptions like the outrageously camp Bert Savoy, most music hall and vaudeville impersonators seem to have posed little challenge to gender norms. Most acts were essentially about illusion - a magical and astonishing recreation of the details associated with one gender by a performer who offstage was most definitely one of the other. These female illusionists did not lampoon or mock femininity but carefully portrayed and celebrated its delicacy, modesty and grace.
Most of the exhibition images have been reproduced from early sheet music and from souvenir postcards. Large music publishers of the time sold the right to publicly perform their songs to particular artists. Images of the stars, including male and female impersonators, who had successfully introduced new works to the stage, were often featured on the covers of popular sheet music.
The greatest popularity of vaudeville and music hall coincided with the Golden Age of Picture Postcards (1900-1914). During this period many of the top impersonators were included in the enormous number of souvenir postcards that were produced featuring the leading lights of both British and American theatre.
The site menu provides access to the complete finding aid of the Richards collection and to additional resources, in both print and digital format, relating to this fascinating chapter in theatre history. Need a laugh? Check out our bonus images for some additional fun and/or provocation.
* Note on the presentation of publication
information. Where publication information is not indicated or known the
following abbreviations have been used:
s.l. = "sine loco" (i.e. no place of publication mentioned)
s.n. = "sine nomine" (i.e. no publisher name mentioned)
n.d. = "sine datum" (i.e. no date mentioned)