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.

Herstory 101: That Girl Can Slay! by Scarlett Bleu

Settle in my fellow queens and queen enthusiasts; it’s time to learn your drag herstory!  That’s right, dolls! We are going to learn all about those lovely people who laid out the groundwork and made drag what it is today.

We are going to define “drag” as, “a person of one biological sex wearing the clothing of the opposite sex for entertainment or enjoyment purposes.” We are not excluding anyone, but if we started writing about any person who has ever put on the clothes of a different sex, we would go on about every football player who ever dressed up like a cheerleader for a laugh. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

So whom in the world do we talk about?  Do we start with RuPaul, who is credited for bringing drag into the mainstream spotlight?  What about the drag queen who supposedly started the Stonewall Riots that ignited the LGBT Civil Rights movement?  According to several online sources, the variety of drag that we have come to know and love today did not exist until the 1950’s or 60’s. Should we ignore that it was normal for men to play female roles on the Elizabethan Stage for a significant period in time, starting in 1660?

Time was taken to carefully consider each of these questions.  And then I remembered this is my article, and I can write about whomever I wanted!  So without further ado, I would like to introduce you to an inspiration for my personal life as well as my drag persona:

Ms. Julie d’Aubigny

Yes, that’s right.  I’m not even going to start with a QUEEN.  I’m going to talk about a drag KING!  Take THAT, patriarchy!

This lovely lady lived in France from 1670 to roughly 1707.  She was not only proudly bisexual, but she often wore men’s clothing whenever the mood struck her. Oh, and she was kick-ass.

She often made money while demonstrating her fencing talents in the streets of Paris while wearing men’s clothing.  According to several accounts, when a particularly intoxicated man doubted she was actually a female, she simply ripped open her shirt to prove it.  Clearly, she was comfortable with her own body, and played a convincing male as well.  Julie-D’Aubigny

You may be wondering if wearing men’s clothing was the norm for Julie, especially since it was pretty difficult to wield a sword in the corsetry, hoop skirts, and elaborate powdered wigs of the day.  While she did often wear men’s garments for comfort and the occasional disguise, she was no stranger to feminine garb. Most notably, she wore a nun’s habit during her short stint in a convent.

Yes, before she had even left her teenage years, our sword-slinging heroine had fallen in love with a young girl who was sent away to a convent when their relationship was discovered.  So d’Aubigny joined the convent herself, until eventually the convent burned down, (conveniently) giving the two lovebirds a chance to run away together… for about three months.  d’Aubigny then left the girl with her parents and took off for Paris.XT772_HistoryBoys_image_FinalPRINT

Another story says that while wearing men’s clothing, she accidentally walked into a young nobleman, Comte d’Albert, who then challenged her to a duel, not realizing she was a female.  She won the duel by running through his shoulder with her sword.  She later visited him in the hospital and it is rumored that the two began a passionate romance. At the very least they became good friends.  She was clearly very forgiving.

Other versions of this encounter say that she did not accidentally bump into d’Albert on the streets, but rather he accosted her after one of her shows, throwing vulgar insults at her that loosely translated into “I’ve listened to your chirping, now display your plumage.”

Have I forgotten to mention that Julie d’Aubigny was not only a master swordswoman, but also an opera singer?  Not only was this amazing woman able to stand up for herself and hold a remarkable sense of dignity and self-worth for a woman in this time period, but she was also the 15th-century equivalent of a rock star. Picture Beyoncé getting into sword fights.

I know, right?

There was also the time that she dressed as a gentleman and snuck into a ball in the royal palace, winning the attention of a beautiful young female.  When the lady’s three suitors discovered Julie and the maiden kissing, Julie was challenged to another duel, which she accepted.  She fought all three of them outside of the royal palace and beat them all.  Some say she even killed all three men.

Because of her celebrity status, and because she had gotten into trouble with the law before, she had to leave town until things quieted down.  She was, however, pardoned by the king for breaking the anti-dueling laws of the time.

As mentioned, drag as we know it didn’t come about until about the 1950’s.  So why does a bisexual, crossdressing, French opera star from the late 15th century matter to us now?

She matters because this is proof that wearing the garments of another sex is not exclusive to today’s modern times, nor is it a shameful act.  Drag is a very personal mode of self-expression and artistic identity.  While Julie d’Aubigny may not have had a direct influence on the art form, she serves as an example of someone who unapologetically lived her life the way she wanted, no matter who or what stood in her way. Whether she dressed for comfort during sword demonstrations, or to disguise herself to slip unrecognized into royal balls or down the street, she carried herself with the confidence every drag performer ought to embody when they present themselves to the world.  It’s exactly what RuPaul always preaches, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

Perhaps we ought to stick to using our sharp wit rather than burning down convents, though: just a suggestion.

For more information regarding Julie d’Aubigny, or to just make sure I got it all right, check her out on http://www.rejectedprincesses.com/princesses/julie-daubigny .

11030793_784740051611047_1143283186634995044_nScarlett Bleu, a Connecticut native, began her drag career performing in Philadelphia. The former Miss Venture Inn 2013 enjoys sharing her drag knowledge with willing and unwilling audiences alike, long walks on the beach, and lace front wigs. She has learned to love herself, and feels that is enough.