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 }

Mixed Messages

24 July 2021

 The people of the theater have always lived
in a world of fantasy, pretense, and illusion.
On a theater stage reality is suspended.
The set is make-believe.
The lighting is simulated. 
The actors pretend to be someone that they are not.
And even time is transformed into another dimension. 

In the early 20th century
one kind of entertainer
made a career out of theatrical misdirection.
They were female impersonators,
a popular kind of novelty act
in the music halls of Europe.


These men assumed a female persona
that used costumes, comedy, and music
to fabricate a glamorous fantasy of a woman.

Today I feature postcards
of seven of these remarkable entertainers.

The first performer is
? Crist Jebben? Stimme Phänomen
– Voice phenomenon 
Sitting provocatively on an ornate side table, she/he is dressed in an elaborate gown filled with beads, sequins, and embroidery. This postcard was never mailed but has the imprint of a German publisher from Lübeck, a port city in north Germany on the Baltic Sea. The card's paper type likely dates it from 1912-1918.

* * *

My second postcard is captioned:
Imitant une chanteuse Russe

Imitating a Russian singer

This entertainer wears a floor-length velvet dress with floral embroidery and fur trim, topped off by a Russian crown-like hat. Her/his full name was M. Robert Bertin, a French actor/vocalist who performed in many theaters throughout France and even South America, becoming one of the leading female impersonators of the Belle Epoque. Bertin produced dozen of postcards demonstrating a wide variety of character styles that imitated famous female singers of this era from 1900 to 1914. One of Bertin's French contemporaries, Eloi Ouvrard, said after meeting him/her, "We had the impression of admiring on stage, not only a real woman but a beautiful and pretty woman!"

M. R. Bertin
Source: Cornell University Library

Not surprisingly female impersonators were popular in France and I've featured some in two posts from 2015, Louis Vernassier – Musical Excentrique and Things Are Not Always What They Seem. The cabaret show was not unique to Paris, but it was where the all the best entertainers found work and where most of their publicity was produced.   

* * *

My third female impersonator is
Harry Vorst
Mitglied der Junghähnel

Member of the cockerel singers

In this postcard a woman contemplates her reflection in a hall mirror. She/he is dress in an extra long floor-length gown with incredibly lavish embroidery. In the upper corner is a vignette portrait of Harry Vorst as a man. 

This postcard was sent to a soldier via the German army Feldpost on 28 June 1918 from Hohenstein-Ernstthal, a town in the Zwickau rural district, in the Free State of Saxony, Germany.

 * * *


My fourth entertainer,
Gustl Schneider
is technically not advertised
as a female impersonator.
But I think Gustl was one,
because if she/he was a woman,
then the proper feminine word in German
would be Sängerin.

Her/his outfit is more modern and less flashy, almost an ordinary woman's city day dress.This postcard was sent from Berlin on 21 April 1919.


* * *


The next performer's postcard is simply captioned:
Myllardo ?

The question mark was a common device used to highlight the ambiguity of a female impersonators. It implied mystery and magic. Was it a woman or a man?
Myllardo is seated and wears a satiny white gown. Like several of the others, she/he uses a feather headdress to accentuate a ladylike effect. This postcard, also printed in Lübeck, was sent through the Feldpost from Leipzig on 25 May 1915.


* * *


My next example of a cross-dressing entertainer is
Hermann Barra
Migl. d. Orig. Leipz.
Fritz-Weber- Sänger

This member of the Original Leipzig Fritz Weber Singers is dressed in a folk costume not unlike that worn by the Original Wiener Damenorchester «Donauwellen» in my story from two weeks ago, The Waves of the Danube. Her/his hat is different, but the fashion resembles the same traditional German apparel. Like Harry Vorst, Hermann Barra's male portrait is in the upper corner.
This card has a free Feldpost postmark of 15 May 1916 from Magdeburg. Someone, presumably the writer, has penciled in a mustache and goatee on Hermann's portrait.

German female and male impersonators seem to have produced the most souvenir postcards during the era of 1900-20. Most likely this was because at the time Germany's printing industry manufactured most of the world's postcards. But it seems unlikely that Germany's music halls would have generated such a large number of cross-dressing entertainers if its audiences did not find them an appealing act. 
* * *
During the war years even the German army accepted this kind of transvestite performer as I have shown in two earlier posts from 2014 and 2017 entitled Theatrical Ladies and Artists of Das Wandertheater. This traveling troupe was called the Wandertheater Armee Abteilung A.  and presented a musical variety show for the troops that included a female impersonator named Jose ??? or sometimes Fritzi Jose.

This performer was very likely a well known act and in postcards of the Wandertheater ensemble she/he was given a prominent placed at the center of the photo. This postcard of Jose ? ? ? is a third card that I've acquired but not featured before. It is postmarked 22 August 1917.

From our perspective in the 21st century it is not possible, nor is it fair, to judge the sexuality of these men by our current attitudes to LGBTQ people. There is nothing in these postcards that actually discloses such intimate personal details. Undoubtedly, because of the titillating nature of their act, these men were subject to exploitation, abuse, and violence. Yet we can only guess, as the true reality of the lives of these entertainers will always be hidden.
But what is clear from these postcards is that all these men had show business talent and could boast of some success, if not fame in their own time. Utilizing the fantasy that is the theater, they each developed an act that offered entertainment and sold tickets. Not to mention souvenir postcards too. My collection now has enough postcard examples of both female and male impersonators from this era that I believe that musical cross-dressers were as much a standard act in European music halls as Tyrolean brass bands, cowboy sharpshooters, Indian jugglers, and Chinese magicians.
However we are still forced to guess at what their acts were actually like. From the captions we know they sang, but not their repertoire or how they were accompanied. Their extravagant costumes imply a kind of over-the-top comedy, probably with risque or at least double entendre humor. But after over a century, their jokes have vanished into the fog of time.
This week I searched on YouTube for historic silent films of early music hall shows, hoping I might find something with a female impersonator. I couldn't find anything from this 1900-1920 era, but I did find an excerpt from a 1933 movie, Arizona to Broadway, in which a female impersonator plays a role. This so-called pre-code film was produced before the enforcement of the 1934 Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines. The performer is Gene Malin (1908–1933), an American actor, emcee, and drag performer who became one of the first openly gay night club performers during America's prohibition era. 
The movie has a complicated story-line involving three con men helping a young woman recover stolen money from some other crooks. Malin plays a vaudeville star that is clearly imitating Mae West's style of humor. At about 2:00 into this excerpt she/he comes on stage after a dance number to sing a torch song. It gives us a little appreciation for what the acts of these earlier cross-dressing performers must have been like.





This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where stars are born every weekend.


Barbara Rogers said...

Wonderful take-off from Marlene, who frequently performed in top hat and men's tuxedos. I have enjoyed a modern female impersonator or two, and marveled at the extravagant costumes, the jokes, and the talent these men exhibited! I am sure the ones you've found on these post cards must represent just the tip of the iceberg of entertainment.

La Nightingail said...

Great postcards! My favorite is Hermann Barra. So sweet. Actually (and I've no doubt you know this) female roles before the mid 1600s were always played by either men or young boys because women were thought to be too 'sexy' to play serious roles. What a bunch of hogwash, but such was the thinking back then. The other thing I've always found interesting is that all human life (male and female) begins female! (Adam was definitely not first!) The female X chromosome is the only active chromosome for the first 5 or 6 weeks of embryonic development. It isn't until after that, the male Y chromosome factor comes into play if the human life forming is going to be male. So I suppose it's not so surprising males can play females more easily than females can play males. Perhaps? ;)

Molly of Molly's Canopy said...

The outfits in these postcard photographs are stunning -- and the fact that so many postcards were printed and sent speaks to a widespread public acceptance of a spectrum of gender identities at the time. The rare video clip is an absolute treasure as well!


  © Blogger template Shush by 2009

Back to TOP