Herstory 101: Hollywood Can Be A Drag by Scarlett Bleu

Shock your friends!  Surprise your enemies!  Win a round of trivia!  Herstory 101 is back in session!

Welcome back my fellow queens and queen enthusiasts!  I hope you’re ready to read all about another figure from herstory who laid the groundwork to make the art of drag what it is today!

Before we get too ahead of ourselves, I would like to make a slight correction to my article about Julie D’ Aubigny.  In my last article, I stated Julie was from the 15th century when I had intended to say she was from the 17th century.  Blame it on my poor math skills, Autocorrect, or blame it on the A-A-A-A-Alcohol, but it happened.  I hope you forgive me…

Oh you do?  Great.  Let’s move on.

Today we will be journeying back to the good ol’ U.S. of A. and discussing an actor and female impersonator from young Hollywood.  He was given the title of “ambisextrous” (watch that be RuPaul’s next catch phrase), and he supplied what may be my favorite quote of all time; “I’m not gay, I just like pearls.”  He was known as Julian Eltinge.

Mr. Julian Eltinge

Like every good female impersonator, no one knows exactly when Julian was born.  He claimed his birthdate was May 14, 1883, but a birth certificate was found in Massachusetts with his given name, William J. Dalton, stating he was born two years earlier, in 1981.  Additionally, there are multiple stories as to how young William got started in female impersonation, but they all agree that he was a fabulous cakewalker (it’s a sort of dance style.  Google it!), he trained in dance with Mrs. Lilla Viles Wyman, and he had adapted the stage name Julian Eltinge by his stage debut at 9 years old.

In 1900, Eltinge was invited to perform a small part in Miladi and The Musketeer, a show put on by Cadet Theatricals, a group of amateur male actors who acted in both the male and female parts of a play. Mrs. Wyman recommended him to the director of the Cadets, and Eltinge impressed the theatrical group so much with his work ethic that the show they produced the following year, Miss Simplicity, was supposedly written especially to showcase Julian’s talents, though he was not an official member.

The Fascinating Widow

His fame continued to grow with his talents, and in 1904 he was selected to star in a show in New York City, Mr. Wix of Wickham.  While the show itself failed to impress (lasting a little over 40 performances), critics were quite taken with Eltinge’s talents, writing such remarks as, “If a man ever succeeded in lifting and almost totally obliterating the stigma which… attaches to this work, Eltinge has.”  The following year, Eltinge joined the vaudeville circuit.  Audiences were fascinated by his stunning costumes as well as his remarkable poise and grace.  By 1910, at just 19 years of age, Julian Eltinge had reached the pinnacle of the Vaudeville circuit and made his transition into more traditional theater.

He began performing in The Fascinating Widow, a play that made its way up to Broadway’s Liberty Theater in 1911.  His role in this play is argued to be his greatest success on stage.  While The Fascinating Widow also had a very short run in New York, Eltinge himself still continued to grow in fame, becoming such a nationwide household name that a Broadway theater was constructed and named after him in 1912, though Eltinge never actually performed in this theater.

By this time, Eltinge had become a master at dealing with the press and promoting himself.  He sold a self-titled magazine at his performances, providing beauty and fashion tips to women, and included a glimmer of the drag wit we know and love from today’s queens.  “See what the Julian Eltinge Cold Creame does for a man. Imagine what it will do for a woman,” declared one of the ads for his cosmetics line. Marketing genius!

Master Marketer

Eltinge made sure to loudly express his unhappiness at performing as a woman.  He made sure to be seen boxing, smoking cigars, and anything else to separate himself from an image of effeminacy. There were also several engagements to women that were always broken off.  He claimed the only reason he continued to perform as a female impersonator was for the money.  Despite his adamant claims otherwise, rumors of his homosexuality still bubbled up.

1918 and 1919 saw Eltinge’s return to the Vaudeville circuit with several Hollywood silent film credits under his corset.  He had become one of the highest paid Hollywood actors and even owned one of the most lavish villas in Hollywood, which he moved into with his mother.

However, in the early 1920’s, gay speakeasies cropped up in New York City, and early forms of drag began to appear alongside them. Suddenly, Eltinge’s style of female impersonation began to look old-fashioned and outdated.  He began to drink heavily, and was even caught smuggling in liquor from Canada in 1923, which marked the beginning of his decline.

His first and only sound film was ultimately his last film that he would star in.  Released in 1931, Maid To Order only brought to light that Eltinge had lost his touch.  His weight gain was obvious, and rumors of his alcoholism grew.  While he tried to revive his career through the rest of the 1930’s, local laws prohibited men from wearing women’s clothing, and he was forced to perform in dingy nightclubs in a tuxedo, pointing to a rack in the corner, which held the dresses he used to wear.

On May 7th, 1941, just one week shy of his 60th birthday, Julian Eltinge passed away.  True to his shrouded life, there is much speculation as to his actual cause of demise. Some speculated suicide, others kidney disease, while his death certificate listed a cerebral hemorrhage as the cause.

What of the theater named after Eltinge?  When the Great Depression struck, it became a burlesque theater (Vaudeville’s sultry sister), and then eventually was converted to a movie theater in 1942. It was renamed The Empire Theater in 1954.  In 1998, the building itself was actually picked up and moved 170 feet to the west, and was purchased by AMC to become the AMC Empire Theater on 42nd street, which still stands today.  The façade of the original theater remains mostly unchanged, and the lobby of the theater is actually the Eltinge Theater’s auditorium. Visitors can still see a mural of Julian Eltinge located directly above the box office.

The original Eltinge Theater 42nd Street New York City

The theater as it appears today

So why does a fallen Hollywood star, whose name has faded from our culture’s memory, matter to us today?  First off, his career gives us hope that today’s modern drag queens can be just as celebrated in our culture today as his once was. With shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race putting female impersonation back into the eye of the public, that brand of wide-spread acceptance may be near.  Secondly, his career provides a cautionary tale on many levels, namely that one should never stop evolving with their craft lest they be left behind. Third, and this is a sentiment I have always tried to live by myself, his career, and life in general, tell us to always be grateful for what we have and where we come from. Too often drag performers, myself included, get caught up in the applause of a crowd and begin to take the limelight for granted.  Remembering to stay grounded and grateful for all our opportunities not only provides an endearing sense of humbleness, but also prevents a sudden career decline.

That being said, Julian Eltinge won the hearts of Americans with his poise, grace, and remarkable transformation skills.  His career, while a cautionary tale in many ways, should encourage drag performers and their supporters to continue to showcase the art of drag back into the minds and hearts of the world at large.

And always remember: the higher your heels and hair, the taller your pedestal will seem.

To find out more about Julian Eltinge, or to just see if I got it all right, check out my sources here:

http://www.thejulianeltingeproject.com/bio.html

http://scaa.sk.ca/gallery/genderimpersonators/eltinge/E_intro.htm

http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/255

PHOTO CREDIT: Garrett Matthew

Scarlett Bleu enjoys writing blogs and binge watching YouTube videos in her spare time. She frequently polishes her Miss Venture Inn 2013 crown, and often asks the question, “Whatever happened to Baby Scarlett?” while staring meaningfully out a window.  Regardless, she has learned to love herself, and feels that is enough.

All the Colors of a Queen

I met Scarlett Bleu at a karmic  performance at Venture Inn in Venture Variety on a cold March night in 2015. She was only in town visiting for a few days and had booked this one show. After she took the leap and contacted me with this generous email message, “Unfortunately the music was still a little loud after the show Wednesday, so I didn’t quite hear what you were saying as you passed me your card, but whatever you need from me, please feel free to ask!” we had a lovely Skype interview. Shortly thereafter I asked her onboard The Queen’s Court staff and she has become your Highness of Herstory. Scarlett’s own herstory has some twists worth noting.

Jake Kerney (not his real name) was the young guy nervously crossing the street through traffic any time he might see drag queens heading toward him down the sidewalk in Philly’s Gayborhood. He developed an unnatural fear of them during his college career at Temple University, much like some people develop a fear of clowns. The idea of men decked out in layers of makeup, layers of clothes, and layers of wigs freaked him out.

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Scarlett Bleu gave good face.

That was until a fateful day with Netflix.The buzz had just begun to stir around RuPaul’s Drag Race. He watched the first episode of season 2 so he could criticize and dismiss it. However, episode one became three more episodes, became the whole season, became devouring seasons 1 & 2 in three days.Then intrigue set in. Could he transform himself into a mannequin-esque beauty the likes of Jujubee, Raven, or Pandora?

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Punk Star Princess

This became the ultimate challenge. Jake built up an arsenal of makeup, watched application tutorial videos, and set to work on the feminine face. The first time out was in his own words, awful. The idea of creating a masterpiece of pretty was consuming and this burgeoning queen would settle for nothing less than flawless exquisiteness. The determination to “get it” had solidified into marble and in a couple of months she appeared like Snow White in the mirror. The fairest of them all?

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I kind of love/hate her for this pc.

But who was she? This dolly needed a name. “It was hard to come up with an obscure headlining name,” Jake admits. Friends helped by running through lists of Greek goddess names, and other monikers. Jake particularly liked a rocker called Porcelain Black, but could not very well plagiarize the name. For a while it seemed he might take the alias Lola Stellanova. Alas, even with the tongue-tripping rhyme and star-sprayed reticence, it did not bring to mind starlet. And then there it was, Scarlett, from the modern day silver screen actress Ms. Johansson, combined with the French translation of azure, Bleu. Scarlet Bleu had face and name. A fishy queen was born.

The first opportunity to perform came when a friend who was a regular at the historic bar Venture Inn mentioned that drag queens performed there often. From then Scarlett amassed costumes and began to perform with help from Henry Britton whom she considers a drag mother and Sandy Beach who is like her drag grandmother. Henry especially has been a supportive theatrical force and Sandy has offered advice from her decades in drag starting in Atlantic City. Back when Scarlett was creating her body with repurposed office chair pads (Think the manufacturer saw that one coming?) and harkening back to her memories of high school shows like Meet Me in St. Louis and The Importance of Being Earnest for inspiration, Sandy and Henry were there to keep her afloat.

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A tall glass of wine lover’s dream

After her first performance she was asked back, became a part time server at Venture’s Sunday Brunch, and shook her groove thing right outside the bar, too .  It was a natural next step then that she was crowned without ceremony (literally) Miss Venture Inn 2013, somewhat awkwardly in a scantily constructed costume from a previous number. Then there was an opportunity for time on the main stage at Outfest for Venture. Scarlett suggested an actual Miss Venture Inn pageant. She passed the crown on to Iris Spectre (Dylan Kepp) in 2014, and thanks to her creative thinking in coming up with the pageant it is now an annual event.

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The ringmistress of the show

Scarlett began to hone her craft treating drag as an art form. She aims to entertain with a mix of smarts and comedy. She recognizes many of the reasons queens do drag: money, attention, sharing talent, and increasing confidence. Scarlett allows Jake to quiet all the voices in his head and shine a spotlight on a bit of true self through a filter of self-esteem that is not as easily accessible out of drag.

Scarlett Bleu has had her sorrows: falling off the stage during a performance at Voyeur (She did continue unhurt with a performance of Keisha’s Take it Off in which she shed multiple layers of clothes and two wigs before she was done) and a painful 30 seconds of silence during a Helen Keller performance. She has also had her triumphs. Case in point, a Mary Poppins number that dragged “A Spoonful of Sugar” into “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and back through “Umbrella” by Rihanna. The most touching moment she recalls was being assigned a spot on the Venture Inn 2013 Pride Parade float. Scarlett was given blue beads to throw. When a kid on the sidelines looked up to see Scarlett complimenting his blue wig and tossing him a strand of blue beads a connection of understanding floated through the air between them just as the beads did. The kid’s eyes lit up.

Jake is back home in Connecticut where he was raised, though he is a self-described  army brat with a conservative Texan dad and the support of both parents. Scarlett Bleu is currently packed away in a rolling suitcase in a closet, but may traipse back to Philadelphia in the near future as she popped up earlier this year. She bloomed out of the dream to be a pretty, edgy,  punk who wanted to stomp around in Doc Martens and has morphed into a graceful gazelle-like creature who can be as complex as 5 different eye shadow shades in one look and always simply classy.

Straight Outta Long Island

“You’ve got to have balls to be a drag queen!” jokes Eric Torres during our Skype interview.

Technically, no. Figuratively, YES!

Eric, a Philly transplant from New York City, and his girlfriend Lindsay Barnett, agreed to talk with me about his involvement in drag performance as a straight man. Spit take? Double take? You read that right. Eric, a special effects makeup expert who has worked on such films as, “Resident Evil III” and Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”, jumpstarted his drag life after playing in a New York City theater production of “Rocky Horror Picture Show”. He created the role of Frank N Furter for two years, which in turn created his original drag queen character, simply called Erica. And before you start your doubting I made sure to ask the hard hitting question about sexual orientation.

TQC: So Eric, When did you know you were straight?

Eric: When I saw “Batman Returns”. Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman gave me the first boner I ever remember having.

We’ve got that out of the way and can continue the narrative of his venture into drag in New York.
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Sadly, his first attempt fizzled. It was not loss of interest or lack of dedication on his part, but an unwelcoming atmosphere that made his drag career go flat. The queens he was in with were not sweet on a straight man in their midst. There was an exclusive this-is-our-thing mentality that kept him from claiming the stage. This entertainment community is populated mostly with homosexual men. While this is true there are many outliers as well: faux queens, trans* queens, and at least one straight drag queen in Philly, Eric himself.

Eric sees the scene as an opportunity to express his theatrical side and employee his talents with makeup. So when he moved down from New York City to Philadelphia to help care for his brothers while his mom was ill, he realized there is a flourishing and evolving drag culture teeming within the Gayborhood.He began attending shows and testing the waters by showing up in drag. He still kept it separate from his dating life though. It was not a case of ever doubting his own sexuality or feeling uncomfortable in his own drag, if you will. In fact, he knew when the absolute right woman came along she would not mind and even be excited that he was a girl, sometimes.
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That woman is 27 year old Lindsey. She is a doe-eyed ballroom dance instructor who Eric thought was super cute on OKCupid. He did worry, however, that she might wonder if he was gay, because of his choice of hobby. Luckily, they both were raised in accepting inclusive families with LGBT members. At first drag culture friends of Eric’s did not quite get Eric and Lindsey’s relationship.

“This is my girlfriend,” Eric might say.

“You mean your girl friend?” another queen might ask.

“No my girlfriend.”

“Oh, you’re straight?”

But that’s where the conversation ends. Eric’s heterosexuality has never been a sticking point of contention for him here in Philadelphia. Overall, it seems that not only do the queens of the Gayborhood appreciate all walks of life in the audience, we are all invited to share the spotlight on stage. Well, as much as drag queens are willing to share the spotlight that is.So now Lindsey and Eric attend shows together and she is his “drag husband”! There’s a turn of events for you!
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When Eric becomes his drag persona though, is the most interesting thing about her that her boy-self is straight? Not by a long shot. Annie Christ, born out of Eric’s love of gothic themes, horror movies, and bands such as NIN is a dark diva with wicked sense of humor. She takes about two hours of makeup application to conjure up and will be strutting her stuff for the next few weeks on Team Bev during Drag Wars Cycle 6 at Voyeur Nightclub hosted by Mimi Imfurst. This broad can rock out to Taylor Swift just as easily as to Marilyn Manson and has some magic up her skirt you are going to want to watch for.