Note: This is an encore post from 2016.
One of the most famous female impersonators of all time, but now also one of the most forgotten, Julian Eltinge stood as one of the most successful headliners of the early 1900s, setting attendance records at vaudeville and theatre box offices. He entertained audiences as one of the best dressed and most hilarious women on stage for decades, with many shows written around his unique talents. For his 1915-1916 theatre musical, “Cousin Lucy,” he saw to it that a song was created that summed up his career, his audience, and his life.
Eltinge began performing on stage in the mid-1890s per historian Tony Slide in his book, “New York City Vaudeville.” The New York Tribune February 2, 1902, states that Eltinge is “well known to Boston, New York, and Newport society as a female impersonator of talent and stunning costumes.”
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Julian Eltinge and Olive Tell in the New York Tribune, Aug. 28, 1915.
His shows wowed audiences, setting box office records everywhere. His manager, A. H. Woods, commissioned renowned theatre architect Thomas W. Lamb to design an ornate theatre which was named after Eltinge, in recognition of his name and gifts.
On June 2, 1915, Woods announced that he had purchased the rights to “Cousin Lucy,” the last work of playwright Charles Klein, who had perished on the Lusitania, for Eltinge to star in, along with such performers as Jane Oaker, Olive Tell, Marie Chambers, Lillian Ormonde, and others. Instead of playing at the Eltinge Theatre, the show would run at the Cohan, because of the huge size of the sets. Jerome Kern would write the songs.
“Cousin Lucy” set a box office record in Atlantic City before opening on Broadway, making $13,000 in a week. The show earned mixed reviews from critics after opening on Broadway in August 1915, though once again earning huge box office receipts.
Variety’s August 27, 1915 review found it not quite up to Eltinge’s standards, though the three act farce succeeded thanks to his, Oaker’s and Dallas Welford’s performances, along with the spectacular wardrobe worn by Eltinge and ten models in the modiste shop. The trade found it entertaining, though suggested that extra songs would make it even more hilarious.
“Cousin Lucy” told the story of Jerry Jackson (Eltinge), forced to impersonate a female “cousin” due to financial difficulties. He creates the impression that he has been killed in the West, with Lucy named in charge of his estate. The review describes the first act ending with Jerry disrobing in front of the butler, with the second act revealing him running Madam Lucette’s dressmaking business as Lucy, with a display of elaborate frocks. Jerry finally returns in the last act to set everything right.
Variety stated that “Eltinge was the best looking “girl” in the aggregation..” The August 25 New York Evening World wrote, “Mr. Eltinge never lets you forget he is merely masquerading in skirts,” that “the play itself is largely a matter of clothing.” They described exceptional singing of Kern’s songs. The New York Tribune’s August 28 review stated about Eltinge, “Every inch a lady…any body would would criticize an Eltinge play is no gentleman.” They also described the fashionable gowns filling the dress shop “gorgeous, iridescent, bewitching.”
The show ended its run on Broadway October 2, with Eltinge revising and updating it before going on the road that fall. Kern added another song, and the show toured the East Coast, selling out in the Bronx, Boston, and other locations.
To appeal even more to his female fans, who purchased his clothing and cosmetic products, Eltinge decided to add a song that could be sold via sheet music. Bernard Granville Publishing Co., a small house, hired Edward Grossmith and Ted D. Ward, composers of songs such as “He’s Got a Bungalow.” Reviews called the song “showy” and fun, with Billboard praising it as well. Granville’s ads called it a “novelty sensation. ”Many stories in the entertainment trades noted that it soon became a popular part of various performers’ acts, particularly girl troupes and burlesque shows.
Julian Eltinge dispels stories that he thrashed a man who called him a “Cissie,” Variety, 1906.
The sheet music featured a glamorous head shot of a masculine Eltinge shot by renowned Broadway stills photography White Studio. The refrain stated, “I’m at your service, little girls, you pretty witty little girls,” going on to state it’s just a part of his personality. The second verse quoted, “father always told me seated on his knee, Always treat a girlie greatly as can be, When it comes to Daddies I must really say, He had the right idea, So you see I follow all his good advice, And he is proud to have a son so nice, So let me assure you that I’m sincere when I say…”
Eltinge brought “Cousin Lucy” to Los Angeles in early March 1917, earning full houses and great reviews in the Los Angeles Times. The March 2 paper noted that $10,000 had been spent on the fashionable gowns by top designers worn by the shoppers in the Modiste store, only seen on opening night of each run, in order to prevent copying. The March 4 edition of the Times noted that the show earned Eltinge $12,000 a week, and eventually $100,000 profit. Elating told the paper the only reason he wore skirts was to earn such huge money, which he could earn in no other way.
A later Los Angeles Times review began, “Female impersonation is an abomination . . . the female impersonation rule has only one exception, Julian Eltinge.” It went on to describe it as smart and in good taste, featuring good songs, and fine costumes.
Famous Players-Lasky signed Eltinge to a contract in fall 1917 to appear in films as a cross dresser made by his own production company. A wartime comedy, “Over the Rhine” was filmed in 1918, with 102 2-person biplanes appearing on screen for the first time and over 30 wardrobe changes by Eltinge. Young dashing actor Rudolph Valentino appeared in the film, which was shelved because of the end of the war and eventually released in 1920 under the title “An Adventuress.” After Virginia Rappe died tragically in 1922, the film was re-edited to focus more on her and Valentino under the title “Isle of Love.”
Attitudes began changing by the mid-1920s, and Eltinge slowly withdrew from performing before dying in New York in 1941.