by Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator
|Check out those bloomers!|
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The origins of men dressing as women in theater dates back centuries. Common in Shakespearean performances and in those by all-male troupes, female impersonation began, in part, as a necessity. Fast forward to the 19th century, and female impersonation was a staple of traveling minstrel troupes, which again, were mostly male. These roles were often played for comedic value, and in the case of minstrel shows, they often upheld racial and gender stereotypes.
By the early 1900s, Julian Eltinge was the most famous female impersonator. Known for his uncanny portrayal of a woman in Vaudeville, on Broadway, and later in film, Eltinge was a celebrity. Eltinge toured the world, and made appearances in Elmira.
But there were other performers, too, even if they didn't match Eltinge's fame. In 1892, Elmirans Fred Gibson and Harry Graves found fame in Vaudeville. In one act, the did "a small dude song and dance, changing in full view of the audience to a female impersonation skirt dance." Elmiran Matt Lockwood, an actor and costumer, was known for his humorous female portrayals, especially of old women. A performance by the Elmira Free Academy minstrels in 1910 featured, as its main plot point, a female impersonator who infiltrated a fraternity house. The humor came when "he unmasks to the dismay of his amiable fraternity brothers who have accorded him the most flattering courtesies." That same year, the members of Company L enjoyed a performance by a female impersonator named "Lottie Duval." The performance was so "clever" that some of the men didn't know he was a man until he took off his wig.
In 1923, the Cornell Masques performed "Listen to Me" at the Lyceum Theater, which featured student Al Force in the role of Peggy Lang. We have a composite photograph of Force in both his street clothes and his Peggy costume. The next year, former Elmiran George Bracken worked with the Neil O'Brien Minstrels, performing twice per show as a female impersonator.
|Al Force as Peggy Lang|
Cross-dressing in the theater served many purposes. It was sometimes about trickery, but often the actors were not really trying too hard to disguise their actual gender. And while I've focused primarily on female impersonation in this blog, male impersonation was also a popular theatrical attraction in this period. Ultimately, impersonation was supposed to be fun entertainment, and we can see from photographs like those from our collection, how this spirit of lighthearted gender-bending bled into the lives of non-actors.
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