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Variety and Vaudeville  
page: 1  2  3  

Julian Eltinge and Karyl Norman both began their careers in minstrelsy and later moved to vaudeville. Although their sexual orientations are not known, neither man was married.

In nineteenth-century variety there were also acts featuring women dressed in male costume. Sister acts featuring one sister dressed as a girl and the other as a boy were common into the twentieth century. Acts such as the Foy Sisters or the Richmond Sisters sang light sentimental songs in duet. This style of male impersonation was closest to that found in burlesque, with less emphasis on sex appeal and more on sentiment.

Variety also featured realistic male impersonators who sang in a believably male range. These were women who were masculine in appearance and dressed in the height of male fashion. They shared their repertoire and performance style with male performers. Among the most successful of these women were Annie Hindle, Ella Wesner, and Blanche Selwyn.

While these women had largely been forgotten by the end of the century, they were among the highest paid variety performers of the 1870s and 1880s, earning as much as $200 a week. They depicted a wide range of masculinity in their acts and were extremely popular with all-male working-class audiences because their acts mercilessly parodied middle-class values, while glorying in the excesses of leisure--alcohol, women, and fine fashion.

By the beginning of the twentieth century this style of male impersonation had disappeared and male impersonators were more feminine in appearance and were generally sopranos.

Other kinds of acts in variety also challenged prevailing gender constructions. Among these were acts such as the "double-voiced vocalist." This style of act could be performed by either a man or a woman. The performer was often dressed in a costume that combined male and female clothing--one half male, one half female.

One performer active in the 1870s was Dora Dawron, who sang both soprano and baritone and turned the appropriate side to the audience as she sang. Karyl Norman also performed a double voiced act, alternating between male and female characters and changing costume between songs.

Female strongwomen were also featured on the stage and the audience delighted in watching women do the impossible--lifting weights and furniture and even people. Female multi-instrumentalists also challenged gender norms as young women played instruments usually reserved for men, such as trumpet and saxophone and banjo. Because variety relied heavily on novelty, women performing such unfeminine feats of strength and skill were often very popular.

Gillian Rodger

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Allen, Robert. C. Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Bean, Annemarie, James V. Hatch, and Brooks McNamara, eds. Inside the Minstrel Masks: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy. Hanover, N. H.: University Press of New England for Wesleyan University Press, 1996.

Kibler, M. Alison. Rank Ladies: Gender and Cultural Hierarchy in American Vaudeville. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Logan, Olive. "About the Leg Business" and "About Nudity in Theatres." Apropos of Women and Theatres, With a Paper or Two on Parisian Topics. New York: Carleton, 1869. 110-153.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Rodger, Gillian. Male Impersonation on the North American Variety and Vaudeville Stage, 1868-1930. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1998.

Snyder, Robert. The Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.


    Citation Information
    Author: Rodger, Gillian  
    Entry Title: Variety and Vaudeville  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated January 22, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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