On this date America’s foremost female impersonator was born as JULIAN ELTINGE in Newtonville, Massachusetts. Eltinge was a stage and silent film star with few realizing he was actually a man. After appearing in the Boston Cadets Revue at the age of ten in feminine garb, Eltinge garnered notice from other producers and made his first appearance on Broadway in 1904 in the musical comedy “Mr. Wix of Wickham” which opened September 19, 1904 at the Bijou Theatre in New York City. The show included music by Jerome Kern among others.
Eltinge did not present a caricature of women but presented the illusion of actually being a woman. He toured simply as “Eltinge” which left his sex unknown and his act included singing and dancing in a variety of female roles. At the conclusion of his performances, he would remove his wig, revealing his true nature to the surprise of the often unknowing audience.
As Eltinge’s star began to rise, he appeared in vaudeville and toured Europe and the United States even giving a command performance before King Edward VII. Eltinge appeared in a series of musical comedies written specifically for his talents starting in 1910 with “The Fascinating Widow,” returning to vaudeville in 1918. His popularity soon earned him the moniker “Mr. Lillian Russell” for the equally popular beauty and musical comedy star.
As Eltinge’s star began to shine on Broadway and on national tours and his name became known worldwide, women were so enthralled by his performances that he established the Eltinge Magazine which advised women on beauty, fashion, and home tips. Hollywood beckoned Eltinge and in 1917 he appeared in his first feature film, “The Countess Charming.” This would lead to other films including 1918’s “The Isle of Love” with Rudolph Valentino. By the time Eltinge arrived in Hollywood, he was considered one of the highest paid actors on the American stage but with the arrival of the Great Depression and the death of vaudeville; Eltinge’s star began to fade.
He continued his show in nightclubs but found little success, he died in 1941 following a show at a New York nightclub. He leaves a legacy as one of the greatest female impersonators of the 20th century and a pretty great Dorothy Parker verse.
My heart is simply melting at the thought of Julian Eltinge;
His alter ego, Vesta Tilley, too.
Since our language is so dexterous, let us call them ambi-sexterous –
Why hasn’t this occurred before to you?
Dorothy Parker, “A Musical Comedy Thought” – Vanity Fair, June 1916
According to reader Pierce Titring: The theatre named for him is still standing on 42nd Street, or at least the Facade is. If you go into the Multiplex on the south side of the building, there is a fresco on the ceiling, which is just about all that remains of his theatre.
In Buster Keaton’s comedy, Seven Chances, Keaton’s character is expected to find a bride by the end of the day or lose his inheritance. At one point, he goes into the stage door of the Eltinge Theatre and comes out having had his face slapped. Few modern audiences realize that Keaton has just proposed to a drag queen. Audiences of the day, however, probably got the joke.