Who doesn’t enjoy a good drag show? The music. The costumes. The performances. What’s not to love?
Female impersonation has existed throughout the length of human civilization, dating as far back as Ancient Rome. Beginning in the late 19th century, high camp drag queens began wowing audiences with their impressive singing, dancing, and acrobatic skills on vaudeville stages across the country, ultimately paving the way for the international celebrity drag queens of today.
Scroll down to see fabulous photos of drag queens from yesteryear.
Born in 1877 as Walter Bothwell Bruhn, Bothwell Browne was known for her seductive and, at times, “unsettling” live performances. She delighted audiences on a number of Broadway stages, including the world famous Palace Theatre, and even made a cameo appearance in the 1919 film Yankee Doodle in Berlin.
The Rocky Twins
Twin brothers Leif and Paal Roschberg made a name for themselves as the Rocky Twins in the late 1920s. They made their theatrical debut in the Casino de Paris show Les Ailes de Paris in 1928, and eventually went on to star in stage shows across Europe and the United States.
Bert Savoy got his start as a child performer in Boston doing hootchie-kootchie dances. At 14, he worked as a female taxi dancer. And as an adult, he worked as a drag performer with a number of different companies. He always appeared in a red bobbed wig and often sported a large picture hat. Mae West is said to have drawn inspiration from Savoy for her own live act.
Antonio Auriemma, more commonly known as Francis Renault, got his start working in vaudeville. He performed everywhere from small venues across Europe to a packed house at Carnegie Hall. When touring, he would often wear his extravagant costumes on the streets as a way of drumming up publicity for the show, which occasionally led to him being arrested.
Arguably one of the most famous drag performers in history, Barbette was a female impersonator, high-wire performer, and trapeze artist who wowed crowds throughout the United State and Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. Over the years, she has been the subject of a number of essays, books, plays, and is even said to have been the inspiration for one of the characters in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1930 film Murder!
Gita Gilmore was a founding member of the Jewel Box Revue, one of the first touring drag companies in America. She was famous for her Mae West impersonation.
Gene La Marr
As this vintage newspaper ad writes, Gene La Marr was a Cuban-American male “prima donna” who made a name for himself in the New Orleans drag scene. La Marr was a regular performer at the Wonder Club, a popular dinner theater in New Orleans.
Gayle Sherman, aka Alexandra the Great 48
Gary Paradis was born in Ohio in 1940. He was raised by his aunt after both parents died in a car crash. At 16, he moved to New York, where he changed his name to Gayle Sherman after landing a role in the chorus with the Jewel Box Revue. She would later go on to have breast implants and change her name again, this time to Alexandra ‘The Great 48′, a reference to her breast measurement. She was often dubbed “Sophia Loren’s twin.”
Tony Midnight joined The Jewel Box Revue in 1948. In 1952, he opened a night club in Chicago and defied the Chicago Police Department, which did not want female impersonation acts happening in the city, by booking the Jewel Box Revue for a two week stint. The run proved so successful that it continued for a whopping eight months. In 1996, Tony was inducted into Chicago’s Gay & Lesbian Hall of Fame.
The iconic Lavern Cummings performed in the Jewel Box Revue from 1950 to 1956, with a short stint in 1954 at the Beige Room in San Francisco. From 1956 through 1982, he regularly performed at Finocchio’s Club, one of San Francisco’s most famous gay speakeasies.