Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Kings of Drag

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

On the night of November 21, 2004, a group of talented drag kings and queens strutted their stuff at the annual Mr. & Miss Angles Pageant at Angles Ultimate Dance Club on Railroad Avenue. Contestants competed in the categories of evening wear and performance. While most people are familiar with the concept of drag queens, few are aware of the long history of drag kings, or male impersonators. 

The history of men dressing as women for theatrical purposes dates back centuries. The history of women impersonating men is nearly as old. Male impersonators have played an important role in Chinese opera dating as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.) where The Butterfly Lovers, an ancient folktale of two star-crossed crossdressing lovers, was hugely popular. The golden age of Chinese male impersonators came during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1369 C.E.). In 1364, author and theater enthusiast Xia Tingzhi wrote 117 biographies of some of the most prominent performers. They played a wide range of roles from military figures and brigands (complete with martial arts choreography) to tender young lovers. In the West, most male impersonators played teenage boys or women disguising themselves as men. The trend largely dated back to the early-1700s. By the mid-1800s, male impersonation for comedic purposes in vaudeville sketches had also become popular. 

Male impersonator Zelma Rawlston, 1894

 Locally, women performed male roles throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1894, Miss Virginia Earl drew praise from the Star-Gazette’s theater critic for her role as the young prince of Siam in the operetta Wang. Several vaudeville performers including Ida LePage and Zelma Rawlston played men in comedic sketches or musical numbers. In 1935, there were two male impersonators working the Elmira bar scene: Buddie Warren and Buddie Brown. Warren was the M.C. and host of the Wonder Bar, 160 Lake Street, where she introduced various acts. Brown, meanwhile, was a singer at the Annex Grill, 62 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Ad for the Wonder Bar, September 6, 1935

The use of the phrase “drag king” to refer to male impersonators first became popular in the mid-20th century. Much like drag queens, modern day drag kings tend to be members of the LGBTQ community. While historically that was not always the case, several prominent male impersonators have, in fact, been very queer. Julie D’Aubigny (1673-1707), was a French opera star and duelist who regularly played male roles and had lovers of both sexes. Annie Hindle (1840s-1897), the most well-known American male impersonator of her day, married her dresser Annie Ryan in 1886 under an assumed name.    

Modern drag kings often perform dance numbers and comedy routines which play up certain male stereotypes. They often take punny stage names like Mo B. Dick and Freddie Prinze Charming. Locally, there are a few places where you can catch a show including Angles Ultimate Dance Club, the Starlight Room, and the Clemens Center.

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