This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

Things Are Not Always What They Seem

22 May 2015

The fake mustache must be the oldest theatrical gag in the world. Though an audience sees it as the most transparent of disguises, it always manages to fool the other characters in the play. Would this mustachioed young lady dressed in a soldier's fancy military jacket and shako deceive you?

Her name is on this postcard:

Cara Tietzsch

A soubrette is a theater term applied to a coquettish female character in light comedy. The word is also used in opera for a woman with a high soprano voice playing a role with the same lighthearted comic quality. It was often a supporting part in operettas and musicals.  We can guess from her costume and the upturned points of her mustache that Cara Tietzsch portrays a man in the Prussian or Austro-Hungarian military. No doubt she sang a lusty soldier's song too. 

* * *

The postcard was sent from Wiesbaden, Germany on 28 March 1903. The soft pencil used for the message and address makes the handwriting too difficult for me to decipher.

* * *

This duo are also a pair of music hall artists playing two gents who are out on the town in tatersall check suits and bowler hats. They also sport an odd pipe-like device for smoking cigars. But one of them is not the man she appears to be. The caption reads:


The postcard was printed in Wien, Austria and sent from Graz on 14 IX 1906 to a Fräulein Jose Prochska a Sprachlehrerin or Language Teacher of Budweis, a city whose beer is much better than its imitator in St. Louis. It is now in the Czech Republic, but in 1906 Budweis was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The writer Blick? has used a sharper pencil for a more clear script that refers to the Hotel Florian where he has heard these two performers. (Translations are always welcome!)

If you look hard enough even a small advertisement from 1905 can be found on the internet. The Hotel Terschek in Cilli (now Celje, Slovenia) had a notice printed in the Deutsche Wacht for 13 July 1905 on the upcoming entertainment.

Deutsche Wacht July 13, 1905

Freitag den 14. Juli 1905.
Gastspiel des populären Gesangs-komikers
Franz Maier
(„Mir gehts schlecht") und
Mina Walter
Die fesche Linzerin
D' Lerchenfelder

Friday 14 July 1905
Guest performance by the popular singing comedians
Franz Maier
("I feel bad") and
Mina Walter

The jaunty Linzerin
The Lark Fields

There were two other references in German newspapers that date from 1918. This advert for the Gasthof Werdl appeared in the Marburger Zeitung. Franz Maier is still singing that same old song 13 years later, „Mir gehts schlecht" – "I Feel Bad" which may have had a very different meaning for German audiences three months before the end of WW1. Note that Mina Walter is described as a Vortrags-Soubrette, which translates as a lecture soubrette, but I think it means she was a recital singer, as opposed to a concert hall singer.

Marburger Zeitung
August 02, 1918

* * *

The "woman" on this next postcard is captioned:
M. de Sternac
Dans son imitation de Mme. Yvette Guilbert
M. de Sternac
in his imitation of Mademoiselle Yvette Guilbert

It is dated 28 Novembre 1904 and is autographed by the artist, M. de Sternac. He/she wears an elegant sequined gown, not unlike the ones worn by a similar cross dressing performer, Louis Vernassier, whom I wrote about earlier this year. It supposedly imitates Yvette Guilbert (1865-1944), a celebrated Parisian cabaret singer and actress. She was the subject of many famous paintings and posters created by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec during the golden age of the Montmartre music halls. Her voice had a distinctive breathy style, almost spoken, that made her the model "diseuse" or "speaker" of French songs of  the Belle Époque, as she became famous for the extended monologue stories that she added. 

Yvette Guilbert (1864-1944) National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives
(middle) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Yvette Guilbert, 1895
(right) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Yvette Guilbert Taking a Bow, 1894

* * *

The artist M. de Sternac also imitated another celebrated woman who was much more exotic but is less well known today. In this postcard from 1905 he/she wears a floral kimono and holds a huge oriental fan behind. M. de Sternac portrays a celebrated dancer named  Sada Yacco or Sadayakko (1871-1946) and she was a Japanese Geisha dancer and actress.

Sada Yacco's early career began in the tea houses of Tokyo, where she was recognized for her talented acting by an aspiring actor named Otojirō Kawakami. They were married in 1893 when Kawkami returned from a short study in Paris. He endeavored to start his own theater company in Japan that was modeled after French theaters with modern electric lights and a Western proscenium stage. In 1899 the company was recruited by a businessman, Yumindo Kushibuki, to travel to the United States with a troupe of 18 Japanese performers. This Kabuki theater company toured the American theater circuit beginning in San Fransisco and ending in New York. and was possibly the first appearance of a traditional Japanese theater to Western audiences.

This world tour continued across the Atlantic where the group played first in London, then Paris, and finally Brussels before returning to Japan on January 1, 1901. Only months later in June of that year the Kawakami Theatre Troupe organized a second longer European tour that took in many more cities including London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Rome, and Madrid until finishing in London in July 1902. In two years this small Japanese ensemble, and especially Sada Yacco, produced a profound influence on European fashion, music, and art. 

Sada Yacco (1871-1946)

This image show Sada Yacco in her most famous role as the Kabuki dancer Musume Dōjō-ji or the Maiden at Dojo-ji Temple. Her character is a sweet young girl infatuated with a handsome Buddhist priest. When he rejects her affections, her rage transforms her into a fire-breathing serpent who kills him. Later she returns to the temple, and if I understand the story correctly, she dances as a Shirabyōshi, a female dancer in a male costume. It ends with her death. I wonder if M. De Sternac appreciated the irony.

I'm uncertain if Sada Yacco also sang songs, though there were traditional Japanese musicians in her husband's theater. Certainly the sound of the Japanese language would have seemed musical to European ears unfamiliar with it. In 1901, the artist Pablo Picasso was inspired (or maybe commissioned) to paint a poster featuring Sada Yacco. I don't know if the calligraphy is his own, or if it is actual Japanese writing added by the Kawakami Theatre Troupe.

Sada Yacco 1901 by Pablo Picasso

The idea of cross dressing a man as woman, or a woman as man, has ancient roots in the history of theater. Judging by the numerous male and female impersonators on postcards in the decades before 1914, it was a popular music hall entertainment. The Principal Boy was a standard "woman as a boy" role in English Pantomime, devised as a work-around from laws that prohibited children working on stage. Even the opera stage provided frequent opportunities for a fake mustache with the many Breeches or Trouser Roles for female singers portraying men. And of course there was also an old tradition of male comedians dressed as women in farcical variety show skits.

No doubt this was because of the titillating thrill of seeing someone who was not really what they seem. After all, people will gawp at anything unusual or potentially naughty. But I think it is wrong to presume that they were actually gay or transsexual. Beyond the oddity of the mixed-up gender are theater performers who worked hard to invent interesting stage characters that sang songs, told jokes, and entertained. Keep them smiling. That's the first rule of Show Biz. 

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone is Topsy Turvy this weekend


Liz Needle said...

A fascinating post. Great research. I believe in Shakespeare's day all the female roles were played by men as women were not allowed to be actors.

Postcardy said...

Interesting post on an interesting subject. Your research is very impressive.

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

Another riveting post. It's amazing how well men can play women. Women I think are less successful at capturing masculinity on the stage. I always think of The Mikado as the outcome of British fascination with the Japanese. Great research.

Barbara Rogers said...

Well, this post took you in a different direction than usual, and it was most enjoyable. I am sure you're right that people would cross dress for roles in theatrical performances. Unfortunately whenever I've met modern day cross-dressing folks, they follow the dramatic performance genre as well, and it is pretty humorous.

Brett Payne said...

A wonderful collection of images and story, Mike. I recognised the name Yvette Guilbert immediately, but only from Toulouse-Lautrec's artwork.

I watched kabuki theatre in Tokyo almost 30 years ago when I visited, but couldn't afford the earphone for the translation of what they were saying. Still the drama and costumes were entrancing, and one day I hope to return and see one with the translation.

I've seen quite a few cabinet card portraits, as opposed to trade cards, with women dressed as men and occasionally vice versa, mostly from the 1890s and early 1900s, and I often wonder about the coircumstances. Like you, I think it far more likely they were amateur theatrical roles or a bit of fun, rather than them being gay or transsexual.

La Nightingail said...

I was in a play a while back with a woman who was playing a man's role & it was interesting to see what she had to go through to make herself believable as a man. Speaking in a low voice was a given, but she had to learn how to walk, stand, sit, hold her head, use gesturing motions, etc., & she had to remember to do all those things every moment she was onstage. Not easy. I think it's probably much easier for a man to play the part of a woman.

Alex Daw said...

Ah Mike - as usual - so much to ponder and absorb. I confess to being taken in by the moustachioed impersonator in the first postcard. I am just hopeless - truly I am. Loved the Picasso. Loved the story of the spurned lover. That'll learn him. Thank you - as always for my edumecation.

Boobook said...

I think your last paragraph is 'on the money'. A fascinating collection of photos.

21 Wits said...

Mike, fascinating post, and interesting and fun photos as well. But what grabbed my attention and brought back memories, was reading about Wiesbaden! My father I believe was stationed there, or in and around because I remember seeing photos and hearing that about that city growing up!

Susanna Rosalie said...

This is as much as I can make out of the writing on the first postcard: It is addressed to 'Fräulein Elise'.

The other one written at Graz, addressed to what looks to me like 'Fräulein Josi Prochazka', name of the street is 'Langegasse 28', says:

'Hôtel Florian, beim Konzert der Gesellschaft Mayer und singen fleissig im Chor mit. „Schial i den nöt eh an! Euch zwei kom i do net nach!‟ Eben trinkt mir mein schönes Vis-à-vis zu mit feurigem Blick.

Hôtel Florian, at the concert of the party Mayer and are busy chanting. „Schial i den nöt eh an! Euch zwei kom i do net nach!‟ Just now, my pretty vis-à-vis is drinking to me with a fiery look.'

Apparently, a strophe of a song is cited which is seemingly in Austrian dialect and then spelled out. I think this comes close to its meaning:
'I am leering at him anyway! I am not going to follow you two.'

This is definitely funny, and I think they all had a great time with the party Mayer!
Unfortunately I could not find a signature of the person who wrote it. 'Blick' means look. Maybe there is a line missing on the scan, seems like there is still something written on the lower left?

Really nice postcards and again interesting topic!

Mike Brubaker said...

Vielen Danke, Susanna. My favorite musical postcards are those that have a comment about the performers, so I am pleased that my guess was correct.

I wish we could know if the lines came from Maier's song „Mir gehts schlecht", but it is probably no longer on the Top 100 chart. (It couldn't be any worse than those Eurovision songs!)

Little Nell said...

A thoroughly entertaining post and a nice set of pictures where things are not always what they seem. I remember the annual pantomime visits as a child, and being mystified, not so much by the female impersonators, who were just as outrageous as they could possibly be, but by the principal boys and all their ‘thigh-slapping’!


  © Blogger template Shush by 2009

Back to TOP