PHOTOS: Step Back In Time With The Fabulous Drag Queens of Yesteryear

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.

Before Conchita Wurst there was RuPaul. Before RuPaul there was Divine. And before Divine, there were these ladies. They are the original drag divas.

Scroll down to see fabulous photos of drag queens from yesteryear.


Bothwell Browne

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

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.



Francis Renault

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

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 Midnite

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.


Lavern Cummings

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.


H/t: CivilNation

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  • hermantims

    How could you possibly leave out Charles Pierce? One of the greatest of all time!

  • gina

    If you’re interested in more about these performers, I highly recommend the blog “A Gender Variance Who’s Who.” This is one of the best resources for trans and queer biography and many of persons mentioned here are covered in greater detail on that site. http://zagria.blogspot.com/. Another one which well worth visiting is: http://queermusicheritage.com/drag.html. He has an amazing collection of programs and photos of performers both in the US and in Europe as well as some recordings of their performances (including Laverne Cummings). If you’re interested in the amazing French “transformiste” culture, visit: http://www.dianeetlesexedesanges.ch/3colset008/_page_album_stars.htm
    It’s all in French but with amazing photos and performers… some gay men, mostly trans women. Needless to say, the French did it better.

  • Will L

    I’m with hermantims. Charles Pierce has been gone long enough that he definitely qualifies as “yesteryear.”

  • Tackle

    Amazing review of history. Thanks for posting this Queerty. So much beauty, class and elegance even back then.

  • throwslikeagirl

    What, no Julian Eltinge? He was the first movie star! HUGE! If you’re gonna do it, do it right, guys! At least mention fleetingly Charles Pierce, Jim Bailey and the fabulous Lypsinka! But not to mention Julian Eltinge is just wrong.

  • greybat

    I agree. The elegant Julian Eltinge was so popular, Vanity Fair magazine upgraded his status from Drag Queen to “Pantomime Dame”.

  • SoThenWhatHappened

    @gina: Sigh. These are drag queens, not trans. Please stop misappropriating gay men for your purposes.

  • MrDolly1982

    Don’t forget James Taylor, Jr of Small Town Kansas came into the Finnochio Review in the 1980’s after winning a Dolly Parton look a like contest in a Gay Country Bar,… People were surprised at the Live Singing and the giggle was every bit the Country Songbird,… Rumor has it he is in his 50’s and battled Many Cancers after leaving Finnochios on Broadway in Early 1990’s when the Club Closed,… Saw Him in London in Mid 1990’s with a Smal Orchestra ( Gingham Blouses and Tight Fitting Jeans, Sequin Dresses, and a mind Blowing Voice)….The Dinner Theatre required the Girls to Work in a Line Dance and Sing Live,… not like the Drag Queens of Today with a Soundtrack.

  • Ruhlmann

    Craig Russell of Canada who was once Mae West’s personal secretary.

  • bonacartes

    Lovely piece…but 3rd pic down is definitely NOT Barbette…I’m pretty sure it’s Catherine Deneuve.

  • bonacartes

    @Ruhlmann: To be fair to the lovely Craig (who was a personal friend) , he was trans-sexual NOT a drag queen.

  • Ruhlmann

    @bonacartes:Yes, Craig was a lovely human being. I knew him in Toronto a couple of years before “Outrageous!” and he didn’t speak of being transexual then. As well, in an interview before his death he spoke of his fear of aging and becoming an “old fag”. It may be that he identified as female later in life but there’s nothing about this in anything I’ve read of him since. Craig was very up front about everything in his life, even to casual acquaintances and this is the first time I’ve heard of this.

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