Bessie Bonehill: The British Female Male Impersonator by David Soren

Bessie Bonehill (Born Betsey Bonehill in West Bromwich, Staffordshire, England, February 17, 1855 – died Portsea, Portsmouth, Hampshire, August 21, 1902) performed in English music hall and American vaudeville and plays as a singing comedienne and male impersonator, dressing up in boots and jacket with a top hat and touring across America to great acclaim. She became extraordinarily wealthy as well and influenced prominent later male impersonators such as Vesta Tilley and Hetty King. Starting out in England with her two sisters, she played a boy in local pantomimes, did some Irish clog dancing and coon singing (songs in a loud voice without benefit of course of a microphone) and then moved on to London where she became known for her coster songs in the 1870s and 1880s, which she delivered with a sharp piercing voice and quick dance steps to punctuate the verses.

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Male impersonator BESSIE BONEHILL in the show PLAYMATES (1894), written by her husband.

 

In addition to coster tunes she was known for dressing up as a newsboy. Her strong voice did not require amplification which did not exist yet in her time and in England voices had to be doubly powerful and well-enunciated in order to be heard over the lower class music hall rowdiness. She had a strong personality and was able to work up a crowd with patriotic music and anti-Russian songs, a legacy of the Crimean War of the 1850s in which the British had supported the Turks against Russian influence and aggression.

The pantomime was performed normally in the Christmas season for children and contained jokes and fairy tale stories as well as broad or slapstick comedy while coster songs were songs associated with street-sellers and vegetable peddlers in carts in 19th century England, a tough and rowdy lot with considerable hatred of law enforcement and songs in a particular street dialect. They wore showy clothes, with particular emphasis on caps and hats, neckerchiefs and boots. Bessie had a great ability to link with the working class audience and to get the audience to participate and sing along with her songs through gentle cajoling and teasing.

Bessie married young and had two daughters and a son by one Louis Abrahams and had nonetheless continued her career for many years in London with considerable success until she was finally, in her middle thirties seen by the vaudeville pioneer Tony Pastor who persuaded her to come to Manhattan and his 14th Street Theatre in 1889. Pastor admired her because although she was earthy and convincingly masculine as a performer, she was never vulgar as so many others were and Pastor was interested in producing clean vaudeville shows. He determined to give her a huge buildup even before she arrived in New York City. She became an instant hit in this period where foreign performers added a touch of panache and exoticism to incipient vaudeville shows and she began also to tour successfully and lucratively in America over the next ten years, bringing her children Marion, Lena and Jack with her but by this time her husband had died suddenly at the age of just 33.

Scarcely a year later came her remarriage to American William Smith in Erie, Pennsylvania: he was known professionally as William Seeley,a playwright, actor and sketch writer 13 years younger than she and she had a son William by him, although barely stopping her performing and touring to do so and adding her husband and son Jack by her previous marriage to her act. Son William lived with an aunt in Boston while Bessie and her troupe were on the road.

One of her successful touring shows was called Playmates and was written by her new husband in 1894. It featured two of her most famous songs, Playmates and Buttercups and Daisies, which were asked for wherever she played. She became known as “England’s Gem” and “England’s Favorite Cantatrice”. She traveled all over the world with her show, primarily in English language areas but also including South America. In 1896 she purchased a fifty acre run-down farm at Sayville, Long Island called Deer Hill which she turned into the family home. The family was able to use the site for a summer retreat when the lack of air conditioning or cooling systems caused hiatuses in her touring.

Despite being at the height of her career and highly influential on other female comediennes, and right in the middle of a tour of English music halls, she contracted stomach cancer and died at Portsea in 1901 at just 47 years of age. Typically she continued performing even with the illness for as long as she was able, keeping a physician offstage to administer stimulants to get her through her performance.

Bessie was known for her gentleness onstage and off and her even, kindly disposition and her numerous acts of charity and community support in the Long Island area, which even extended to raising money to support a local fire department. An intercontinental star, she was admired and loved by her generation and her fellow performers. Although completely forgotten today and her genre of singing long gone, she was once considered to be one of the very highest paid artists in vaudeville.

Name: Bonehill