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    Putting on the Glitz: San Francisco’s Golden Age of Female Impersonation

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    She was one of the comeliest performers ever to grace a San Francisco theater, and was honored by men and emulated by women. Elegance, poise, bearing—all were hers. Onstage she was the fascinating widow, the crinoline girl, cousin Lucy. Offstage she was Julian Eltinge, the most famous and extraordinary cross-dresser in the world.

    San Francisco always welcomed female impersonators. At the city’s first public performance, on June 22, 1849, Stephen Massett—a composer whose popularity then rivaled that of Stephen Foster—did “an imitation” of a world famous prima donna absoluta and impressions “of an elderly lady and a German girl.” His audience included four women, “probably all there were in town.”

    Massett never performed in woman’s clothes, but Omar Kingsley did. As Ella Zoyara, “the greatest female rider that Europe had ever seen,” she first performed in San Francisco in 1863; later the San Francisco Chronicle described her as “more daring and brilliant than any equestrienne that had or has appeared before an American audience.” After two years touring the West Coast, she sailed for Australia.

    Because Kingsley dressed “in female attire on steamers, on the streets, in hotels, and in the circus,” wrote the Chronicle after his death in 1879, the surprise of those who saw him one day in 1866, “just after a performance, in male attire, and swearing like a Gulf pirate, was very great.” With the illusion forever shattered, he never again tried to deceive anyone about his gender, although he continued to appear professionally as a woman. 

    In 1868 and 1869, Kingsley appeared in San Francisco as Ella. In 1870, however, he billed himself as “Omar Kingsley, Champion Rider of the World,” the same year that William Horace Lingard made his local debut. Unlike Ella, he specialized in lightning costume changes, “by which,” one reviewer wrote, “Venus was changed into Adonis.” Never exclusively a female impersonator, “this man,” he noted, “had a great variety of costly dresses, such as are worn by females, as well as clothing worn by the male fraternity.”

     

    A few years later, Paul Vernon became one of the most popular vaudevillians in San Francisco, which was described by the historian Laurence Senelick even then as “a city already known for its taste in transvestite performance.” Critics praised Vernon’s “wonderful female impersonations.” He joined Haverly’s United Mastodon Minstrels as a “burlesque prima-donna” in 1880, appearing as Olivette in Billy Taylor and Olivette and the heroine Lean-O’er-Her (née Leonora) in the troupe’s perversion of Il Trovatore. He also performed as the Goddess of Liberty in the grand finale. 

    In an era when virtually every minstrel shows featured cross-dressing men, Vernon and his many counterparts were accepted readily by their almost entirely male audiences. If their characters were innocuous and inoffensive, or obvious and farcical, then no one saw a challenge to traditional masculine roles and identifications; any personal femininity was simply “a very finished piece of acting.” Only portrayals of “a certain class of effeminate young man” were considered distasteful. 

    When San Francisco’s own Bothwell Browne—born in Denmark, raised in San Jose—confronted those conventions, he found limited acceptance. His production of the play Miss Jack in 1911 failed because the entire cast cross-dressed. He had more success as Cleopatra in The Vampire of the Nile. Variety called it “the best staged, produced, costumed, and elaborate dancing turn that ever left the Pacific Coast,” but others found it too sensual and too seductive because of the unsettling questions about gender and sexual attraction it raised. 

    Browne’s greatest triumph came in Mack Sennett’s 1919 film comedy Yankee Doodle in Berlin. Playing Captain Bob White, he impersonates a woman who seduces members of the German high command, including the Kaiser, to get their war plans and military secrets. After a second, less successful screen appearance and a decline in theater bookings during the 1920s, he left performance to teach dance in San Francisco.

    No one, however, eclipsed the accomplishment of Julian Eltinge, who balanced convincing femininity on stage with comforting masculinity off stage for more than a quarter century. As ladylike as he appeared in the theater, his publicists always were careful to explain that “his assumed womanliness was a triumph of art over virile nature.” Not everyone was enchanted, of course. “When Julian Eltinge entered,” W. C. Fields quipped, “women went into ecstasies over him. Men went into the smoking room.”

    His debut performance in San Francisco, a triumph, was in 1905. When he returned in 1912, he appeared in the title role of The Fascinating Widow, his signature part and greatest success. As a famous female illusionist, he published the Julian Eltinge Magazine of Beauty Hints and Tips for women, endorsed a line of corsets, and marketed his own cold cream, liquid whiting, and powder. Lured to Hollywood, he was the most successful female impersonator in film until Lassie.

    With the waning of vaudeville during the 1920s, female impersonation as mainstream entertainment went into decline. Attempts to revive it in the early 1930s, during the so-called “pansy craze,” met with opposition, even in San Francisco. Some persevered. In 1936, when Finocchio’s opened in North Beach, it began presenting drag shows exclusively, became a major tourist attraction, and lived on until 1999. Today, in the brilliance of Donna Sachet and others, a glamorous heritage, dating to the Gold Rush, endures.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.