Julian Eltinge (Newtonville, Massachusetts, May 14, 1883 – New York, March 7 1941) was the most famous female impersonator of the 1910s and 1920s, so famous that the Eltinge Theatre in Manhattan was named after him and has a portrait of him in relief as a Muse on its auditorium ceiling. From his early childhood, Eltinge knew that he was what used to be called “different” and by his later teens he was already appearing regularly in drag in minor revues. In 1904 he appeared in Mr. Wix of Wickham, which was a musical comedy featuring a score by Jerome Kern and this began his trajectory to stardom, along with his successful career in vaudeville. The point of his act was to trick the audience into believing that he actually was a woman, and then he would remove his wig at the finale.
Eltinge quickly became known also for his elegant costumes, accessories and makeup, which eventually led to his publishing a magazine which had beauty tips for women. It was not uncommon for him and his Japanese costumer Shima to spend several hours getting him ready for a performance. A landmark moment for Eltinge, who often billed himself by only his last name, was the opening on Broadway of The Fascinating Widow. Although the show bombed and closed after just 65 performances Eltinge managed to take it on the road where its cross-dressing star delighted audiences for several years.
The Crinoline Girl, his next show, managed just 95 performances in 1914 on Broadway but it too became a hit around the country afterwards. Cousin Lucy in 1915 eked out 43 performances despite a Jerome Kern score but again proved successful on the road. In general Broadway audiences did not take to female impersonator shows in a large way. As was the case with Liberace, women and gay men liked the entertainer and many heterosexual males did not. Reviews were generally favorable but the sophisticated New York audiences didn’t buy tickets.
Eltinge always took pains to show himself off-stage as a staunchly masculine figure, dating and kissing women and even reporting that he engaged in boxing and had been in frequent brawls. On the other hand he produced a magazine which gave women beauty tips and indulged his deep fascination with cosmetics and elegant female attire, putting out his own line of beauty cream. He never married and lived with his mother. However, it was essential that he not reveal that he was a homosexual due to the tremendous stigma of this.
In the 1910s Eltinge had been fortunate to be able to promote his career in many ways. Indeed the quality of his productions were the result of much of his own producing and writing and fussing over detail, so that he might have set designers such as Erte (Romain de Tirtoff), the Russian-French designer so popular in the Art Deco period and whose stage work included the fashion designs for Gaby Deslys, described elsewhere in our listings. And there was also George M. Cohan, the great theater star and impresario who was a big supporter of Eltinge’s theatrical ideas and backed and supported his career several times. For a time he also co-wrote sketches and material with the great June Mathis, who had discovered Rudolph Valentino and had achieved the noteworthy screenplay for the 1925 blockbuster epic Ben-Hur.
Despite a few mercy bookings later in his life, Eltinge was essentially forced out of his livelihood by civic ordinances and anti-gay feelings which increased in America in the 1930s. In the early 1900s when Eltinge was at his peak, tolerance and a great deal of ignorance and lack of awareness about homosexuality allowed gays to congregate rather openly. Even in the 1920s, and especially in Germany, homosexuals were openly tolerated in most of society or simply left alone. Pop songs like the 1926 Masculine Women, Feminine Men poked fun at the way it was “hard to tell them apart today”. Mae West expressed the need for tolerance and even wrote a play featuring homosexuals called Drag. Even so Eltinge took great pains to avoid being labeled a homosexual out of fear of being closed down or attacked.
With the advent of radio and religious programming and pastors claiming biblical justification for being anti-gay, homosexuals were forced increasingly into private gatherings. In the later 1920s a more conservative mood overtook the general public and ordinances officially forbade the wearing by men of female clothing in public. As Josef Stalin came to power in Russia, he did a great deal to target and destroy gay life there, and he created a stigma which still exists there today. Gatherings of gays in America began to take place more in private circumstances or in bath houses which now became popular. Eltinge and the other great transvestite performers would fall quickly by the wayside so that Bert Errol or Karyl Norman or Tom Martell, once famous for their female impersonations and even for introducing major popular songs, disappeared from the scene. When William Haines, who had been the number one male screen star, came out of the closet in 1930 and refused to abandon his partner Jimmie Shields, it completely destroyed his film career. Eltinge realized the danger and was not willing to take that risk. Nonetheless, a Los Angeles ordinance cracked down on homosexuals and transvestite performances. This greatly impaired Eltinge’s career and opportunities and eventually closed him down entirely. It would not be until the Beatnik and Hippie movements of the 1950s and especially 1960s that gays began to re-emerge from hiding. By then it was far too late to save Julian Eltinge who died of kidney failure in his Manhattan apartment in 1941.
The University of Arizona collection has a large number of original sheet music featuring Julian Eltinge introducing popular songs and starring in his plays, plus a booklet from the Eltinge theater.
Here is the mistaken identity sequence from Madame Behave (1925) starring Julian Eltinge and Ann Pennington:
The University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection has a large group of Julian Eltinge music, and see the University of Arizona American Vaudeville Archive for more donated Eltinge music:
A PICNIC FOR TWO 1905 – Words by Arthur J. Lamb. Music by Albert Von Tilzer. “Albert Von Tilzer’s Greatest Song”. Cover photo JULIAN ELTINGE. Published by Von Tilzer.
HONEY BOY 1907 – Music by Albert Von Tilzer. Words by Jack Norworth. “The Sensational March Song Success”. Photo of JULIAN ELTINGE.
THE FASCINATING WIDOW 1910 – Words by E. Ray Goetz. Music by Kerry Mills. As sung by JULIAN ELTINGER in A. H. Woods’ New Musical Play THE FASCINATING WIDOW. Two photos of Eltinge, one in drag and one not.
THE FASCINATING WIDOW 1910 – alternate cover to the above with rearrangement of two photos.
THE RAGTIME COLLEGE GIRL 1911 – Words by E. Ray Goetz. Music by Kerry Mills. As sung by JULIAN ELTINGE in A. H. Woods’ New Musical Play THE FASCINATING WIDOW. Two photos of Eltinge, one in drag and one not.
THE RAGTIME COLLEGE GIRL 1911 – Alternate cover with bride and maids of honor on cover and portrait of JULIAN ELTINGE.
THE FASCINATING WIDOW, TO BE A BLUSHING BRIDE, and I’M TO BE A BLUSHING BRIDE 1911 – same cover design as preceding entry and note slightly different title of song in two slightly different musics.
ALL THE WORLD LOVES A LOVER 1911 – Lyric by Robert B. Smith. Music by Jean Gilbert. As sung in A. H. Woods’ new musical play THE FASCINATING WIDOW starring JULIAN ELTINGE.
MERRY WEDDING BELLS 1912 – Words by Edward Madden. Music by Jean Schwartz. A. H. Woods presents JULIAN ELTINGE in THE FASCINATING WIDOW. Book by Otto Hauerbach.
SOMETHING THAT I CAN’T EXPLAIN 1912 – Lyric by William Jerome. Music by Jean Schwartz. Otherwise, same credits as preceding
I’M AT YOUR SERVICE GIRLS. SOMETIMES THE DREAM COMES TRUE 1915 – Lyric by Edward Grossmith. Music by Ted D. Ward. Published by Bernard Granville. Cover JULIAN ELTINGE in COUSIN LUCY.
WHEN YOU SKATE WITH A WONDERFUL GIRL, EVERYBODY DO THE HULA! 1916 – Music by Percy Wenrich. Lyric by Edward Madden. Written expressly for and sung by JULIAN ELTINGE in his successful play COUSIN LUCY, by Charles Klein.