05/14/2012 12:30 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

What A Drag! America's Most Famous Impersonator

It's doubtful that teens packing the escalators of 42nd Street's AMC Empire Theater to see Marvel's The Avengers or The Hunger Games have ever heard of Julian Eltinge. But in his day, he was an international star -- much bigger than Jennifer Lawrence or Robert Downey Jr. And if the same movie patrons happened to glance towards the heavens on their ride up, they might be surprised to spot something quite unexpected. They'd see a handsome man in a lady's wig and a diaphanous gown floating in the sky. Julian Eltinge is the focal point of a mural in delicate shades of pink and blue right above the box office. The celestial work of art graces the entire theater's ceiling. Eltinge appears in three of his most famous roles -- as a gal. Could it be that a drag queen was a huge international star in the early part of the 20th century? Absolutely.

Eltinge was the most famous female impersonator of his day. By 1917, he had headlined vaudeville, appeared as the star in his own Broadway shows, starred in movies(including one with "Latin Lover" Rudolph Valentino) toured Europe performing for King Edward VII and even had a Broadway theater named after him. In fact, the AMC Empire is part of the original Eltinge Theater, built in 1912 to honor Eltinge by producer A.H. Woods. In 1998, according to published reports, the ornate theater (where Abbott and Costello once performed) was moved 200 feet to the east of its original location to serve as the facade and lobby for the AMC movie multiplex. The mural over the box office featuring Eltinge was lovingly restored. Julian Eltinge was the RuPaul of his day -- but without the sequins or the attitude. And now a new play with music, opening at New York City's Laurie Beechman Theater, pays homage to America's foremost female impersonator.

Eltinge made it to The Great White Way as a name above the title in 1911. His starring vehicle was The Fascinating Widow at The Liberty Theater on 42nd Street and Broadway. He played dual roles as a male and female performer. The reviews were great. And the crowds filled the Liberty night after night. Eltinge played the role of a college kid in love with a debutante. When her mom objects to the romance, Eltinge disguises himself in drag as a society widow. He/She eventually wins the love of the colegian's chief rival. In the final act, Eltinge humiliates his competitor and dramatically reveals his true identity (Yikes! He's a guy, not a girl!) and the mother gives in. True love follows. Cue theatrical applause! It was a formula that proved highly successful. Eltinge was soon a household name. Not only was a theater named after him but a national magazine too. Eltinge dispensed beauty advice to women and was so popular and well known around the country that soon even Hollywood beckoned. Eltinge was an American success story and the press ate it up. "The Crinoline Girl" was splashed on the front pages of newspapers and swarmed by fans. Eltinge was a sensation. Not bad for a precocious kid from Massachusetts. Biographers say Eltinge (born William Julian Dalton) dreamed of performing on stage as a female even before he entered his teens.

Michael Levesque, the New York playwright whose play Jules opens this week, says the genesis of his work came 15 years ago. Levesque said a homeless man offered him a $2 book with the title Cross Dressers and The Women Who Loved Them. "I wrote a play inspired by that book," Levesque says softly. But the homeless man also handed the writer another book: Female Impersonators. On the last page Levesque caught a blurb about Julian Eltinge."I remember it said he was great at playing a woman,"Levesque said."I sat on that for another eight years and about a year ago I googled Julian's name and was surprised to find all this information. The play wrote itself in a matter of days. What intrigued me was how he seemed to lead two seperate lives." On stage Eltinge dressed as a woman. Off stage, according to published reports, rumors swirled that he might be gay. According to the website The Julian Eltinge Project.Com: "In any case, Julian kept himself well in the closet, or at least, guarded his secrets well."

Levesque says the attention being placed on Eltinge today is especially significant in light of President Obama's recent endorsement of gay marriage. "I hear pundits on the right begining to question the "morality" of the gay lifestyle," he says. "It reminded me of Eltinge and his struggle with "morality laws" of the time," he says. He cites the passage of legislation by North Carolina to ban same sex marriages even as religious leaders condemn the "morality" of homosexual unions. Morality laws passed as Eltinge's career waned, Levesque says, sought to crack down on cross dressers and the perceived "immorality" of homosexuality. "You could be arrested if your wore a dress in public," Levesque says. "Now morality is being mentioned even as President Obama speaks out in defense of gays getting married."

In his plays and movies, Eltinge excelled at both male and female roles. Scenarios usually called for him to switch into female garb to win over a girl. As a female, Eltinge was fond of graceful gestures and ultra-feminine coyness. Eltinge was the girl in crinolines or the curvaceous bathing beauty. He was provocative but never vulgar. It was not crass-drag in any way -- but high brow entertainment primarily for an upscale clientele. Often Eltinge would sing in a beautiful falsetto that would charm his audiences. His male persona, in contrast, was gruff and masculine. At a certain point when he played a woman, Eltinge would triumphantly pull off his wig in a grand flourish. His audiences would gasp. In his private life, according to published reports, Eltinge dispelled rumors that he was anything but a macho man. He walked with a swagger and spoke in a deep baritone. According to the website The Julian Eltinge Project.Com: "Eltinge would work hard to create an image of absolute 'manliness' with public displays of horeseback riding, smoking cigars, cursing, endless engagements later broken off, fights in bars (usually 'arranged') and a bout with 'Gentleman' Jim Corbett that was splashed across newspapers." Levesque believes the conflict between his on-stage persona and his perceived sexuality deeply troubled Eltinge. "No one knew for sure if he was gay or straight. He lived with his mother. And Eltinge himself would always say 'I'm not gay. I just love pearls.'"

In the 1940 film If I Had My Way starring Bing Crosby, Eltinge plays himself. In the movie, a young girl walks up to him as he is sitting at a table and says "I've seen pictures of you Mr. Eltinge and you were dressed just like a lady." A less-than-amused Eltinge dressed in a natty suit bellows: "Yes, but don't forget, I always had a cigar in my mouth." To Levesque, his play is especially relevant today when major Hollywood stars fear that "coming out" might torpedo their careers. "I cannot believe that all male Hollywood stars are heterosexual men."

David Sabella-Mills( who plays Eltinge in Jules )agrees with Levesque that Eltinge appears to have struggled with his sexuality. "He couldn't admit to himself who he was," says Sabella-Mills who so memorably played the part of cross-dresser Mary Sunshine in the 1996 revival of the Broadway musical Chicago. His character even borrowed an Eltinge signature gesture -- dramatically yanking off his long tresses at the end of a song. "His whole life was a struggle with being in a dress," Sabella-Mills says. The actor says that morality laws in place at the end of Eltinge's career prohibited him from appearing in public in female attire. "He was legislated out of his career. His last performances were in a lecture series where he was dressed in a tux and could only point to his garments."

In the 1929 short film The Voice of Hollywood, one can catch the genius of Eltinge in a snippet where he performs with a chorus of young females. Here is the robust and corseted Eltinge in an upswept hair-do twirling and dipping in an elaborate headress made of ostrich feathers. His gown is covered in plumes as well. Eltinge was a Vegas-like showgirl before there was even a Vegas strip. Eltinge's fluttering gestures are exuberantly feminine. He brings his hands to his face in a caressing gesture. Although somewhat brawny, he is also surprisingly graceful and almost alluring. The apparent contradiction drew audiences like a magnet. Eltinge in feathers drifts off stage like a seductive sylph (his arms undulating) but suddenly struts to a microphone -- every inch a man. And when Eltinge speaks, it's clear that this is no longer a delicate damsel. Eltinge's voice is deep and resonant. "Greetings ladies and gentlemen," Eltinge booms. "Well here I am back in Hollywood making my first talking picture. I've had several ladies on the set and ladies around different studios ask me as to who is making my costumes," he continues. He then draws back his shoulders like a construction worker about to handle a forklift. And when he speaks he sounds almost like John Wayne: "I suppose today Hollywood leads the world in the making of gown creations," he says. "You see, we have so many marvelous movie stars who need so many clothes and costumes that it has drawn the finest designers from all parts of the world to Hollywood." Subtext: "Hey, I may be in fluffy feathers but I'm 100 percent man!" This drag queen sounded like she could eat nails for breakfast.

Acording to The Julian Eltinge Project.Com, Eltinge appeared in a series of Hollywood films in which he played both male and female roles. One, released as The Isle of Love featured a young Rudolph Valentino. "Eltinge was an intimate of the top Hollywood stars and a wealthy man worth over $250,000," says the website. "He built Villa Capistrano, one of the most lavish villas in the Hollywood area where he lived with his mother and entertained lavishly." As Eltinge got older, dual male and female parts dwindled and he returned to vaudeville. "Jules' takes place at his very last performance in New York at Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe now the site of the Paramount Hotel on 46th Street. Eltinge died just days after the performance. Jules features eight songs including music by Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. "He was such a good singer," said playwright Levesque. "He could sing in a woman's voice but he never played the camp of it. He played the truth of it." There are few recordings of Eltinge's singing voice. "He was dubbed Mr. Lillian Russell," says Sabella-Mills "so I imagined a rich mezzo-soprano." Sabella-Mills believes Eltinge was much more than just a female impersonator. "He was a true theatrical and vaudevillian legend of his day and made such a contribution to the LGBT community."

In fact, many believe Eltinge paved the way for such actors as Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon to play cross-dressers in such celebrated comedies as Some Like It Hot with Marilyn Monroe. Like Eltinge, the characters as men developed feelings for the heroine. Only when they dressed as women could they get closer to the objects of their desire and influence the plot. The Eltinge formula also worked like a charm in the movie Tootsie. Dustin Hoffman masqueraded as a working woman to win the affection of the hot ingenue played by Jessica Lange. But Curtis, Lemmon and Hoffman all married and lived much-publicized heterosexual lifestyles. Eltinge lived with his mom as gay rumors persisted. He reportedly staged photo opportunities with a variety of beautiful women but always broke off "engagements." Was Eltinge afraid that even a hint of homosexuality could affect his livelihood? We'll never know because he refused to elaborate on any of the rumors during his lifetime.

"The 1920s was a fascinating decade, what with Mae West's 1926 play Sex and the 'pansy craze' engendered by the thirsty overlaps of prohibition, which fostered a kind of gay renaissance that lasted until Prohibition's repeal in 1933," says Obie Award-winning performance artist John Kelly. I interviewed the renowned director, choreographer actor and impersonator especially for this story. "The adulation that Eltinge received seemed to extend beyond commerce and embrace genuine appreciation without condescension but on society's terms," he adds. "Through it all Eltinge remained closeted. I wonder if he had in fact been gay or even 'bi' and come out, would his career have flourished or died?" Kelly has been critically acclaimed for his astonishing impersonation of singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, which he has been perfecting for 20 years. "Would audiences have remained capable of accepting his (Eltinge's) 'acting' as a guy who dressed as a woman to get a gal?"

Today's acclaimed impersonators recognize Julian Eltinge as an important artist of his time. But as Kelly himself points out, the art of "drag" isn't what it use to be. "The culture has been glutted with so much mediocre drag since it came out of the closet and went mainstream, it's now a sanctioned genre," says Kelly. "Historically, in terms of someone like Julian Eltinge, it seems crucial to include the cultural context, venue and audience. In 1979, when I first started lip-synching Callas in punk drag at the Anvil, drag was still considered a socially rebellious and annoying outsider impulse, and could be riveting on multiple levels beyond mere entertainment and sensation." Sensation? Kelly is emphatic: "Cheap-shot surprising villains in film were regularly written as cross-dressing murderers (Psycho, Dressed to Kill)." Kelly has also performed as Barbette, the cross-dressing aerialist of the 1920's from Round Rock, Texas. Barbette became the rage of Paris and a main rival to Josephine Baker. "The illusion would be so effective that audience members would make bets that he could not be a she," Kelly says. "For me, it's always been a political act and acting -- no different in my mind from Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot or Nicole Kidman in The Hours. Performing in the opposite gender is a rigor," adds Kelly. Eltinge might certainly agree.

Although Eltinge's rich legacy is now celebrated in works like Jules -- Sabella-Mills sees an ultimate irony in the legendary figure he plays. "This is a man who throughout his life made people feel uplifted and liberated but he was never able to feel that way himself."

The same might be said for many closeted actors on Broadway and in Hollywood today. Jules plays at the Laurie Beechman Theater on May 10th and 17th at 9:30 pm and on May 14th and the 21st at 7pm.