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Variety and Vaudeville  
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One actor who won some fame in these roles was George Fortescue, who weighed well over 200 pounds. British pantomime also provided similar comic female roles for men dressed as women, for example, the three ugly sisters and stepmother in the story of Cinderella.

Burlesque and also pantomime provided women with opportunities to play a number of male roles. Known as the "principal boy" and "second boy" roles, these characters were usually gallant young men who were still innocent to the ways of the world. The actresses who played these roles dressed in short tunics or pants, but retained their feminine curves and exposed the full length of their legs. There was no attempt to be realistically masculine.

Burlesque as it was performed by Lydia Thompson's troupe met fierce opposition in the United States, particularly from moral reformers. The feminist actress Olive Logan was horrified by the form, feeling that burlesque performances degraded theater as a whole. She described burlesque actresses as nude women and likened the troupe managers to pimps.

The role that excited the most opposition was that of the principal boy. Critics were disturbed by watching a woman who was clearly identifiable as such striding, swearing, spitting, and otherwise acting like a man.

Female Minstrel Companies

During the 1880s burlesque and minstrelsy united in the form of female minstrel companies. This hybrid form consisted of a minstrel first part performed by the women of the troupe, sometimes in blackface, sometimes not. A series of variety acts followed in the olio, and the entertainment was concluded by a burlesque.

With the advent of female minstrelsy, the emphasis shifted even more towards sexual display. Companies featured dozens of female performers who provided the audience with a mass display of scantily-clad femininity. In most cases these women took non-speaking roles, performing in the "Amazon chorus" or as a corps de ballet for suggestive dances such as the Can Can.

Female minstrel companies were the forerunners of modern burlesque, with its heavy reliance on the female body and sexually suggestive performance.

Variety and Vaudeville

Variety first emerged in Northeastern cities of the United States in the 1850s in the form of formal and informal entertainment provided in bars. In its earliest days this entertainment consisted mostly of singers hired to entertain the patrons and to lead sing-alongs.

By 1860 it had grown quite elaborate, and large concert saloons provided stage re-enactments of current events, as well as a succession of singers, dancers, and comedians. Patrons were also plied with drinks by "pretty waiter girls" who were hired to serve alcohol.

Authorities, alarmed by the rising number of these establishments, began to enact laws designed to put concert saloons out of business. As a response to changes in the law, and to on-going harassment by the police, managers began to present what came to be known as variety in theaters rather than bars.

Variety was a theatrical form that could and did include almost any kind of act from performing animals to comedians to singers and dancers to one-act plays. It consisted of a series of acts unconnected by a narrative structure and concluded by a one-act play, usually a melodrama or burlesque.

It was considered the lowest class of popular forms, and individual acts rarely attracted much attention from the authorities or moral reformers unless they too obviously transgressed moral standards. Olive Logan considered variety to be a low and vile form of theater, but saw it as less of a threat to decency than burlesque because no one type of act dominated the stage.

A number of the kinds of acts featured on variety bills did challenge gender norms of the period, however. Female impersonators were present on the variety stage, although they were less common here than in minstrelsy or burlesque until the 1890s, when variety had come to be known as vaudeville.

Glamorous female impersonators appeared as solo acts, while the comic "Funny Old Gal" appeared in a number of variations. Comic depictions of women, often spinsters or widows, were common, as was the depiction of ethnic female types. The Russell Brothers, for example, performed a comedy routine as Irish cleaning women, and Harrigan and Hart performed an Irish act in which Tony Hart appeared as a woman.

A number of glamorous female impersonators won fame in vaudeville in the early twentieth century. Among these were Julian Eltinge, Bothwell Browne, Karyl Norman, and Barbette.

Barbette performed an acrobatic and wire walking act in female costume. It was not at all uncommon in the late nineteenth century for young male acrobats to perform dressed as girls--the audience was apparently more appreciative of feats of daring from young women. Barbette was widely known as homosexual, and such was reputed to be the case with many circus acrobats.

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