Tabloids & Men’s Soft Core: Part 3

| Jun 25, 2012
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YOU WON’T BELIEVE YOUR EYES!

This is the third installment of our series examining how we classy transgendered folks were portrayed in cheap tabloids, the progenitors of today’s supermarket sensational press, and risqué men’s magazines; an innocent genre of porn which was more naughty than raunchy. Men were the target audience for these publications, and their yellowed yellow journalism tells us how we looked to some guys in the years between 1949 and 1977.

In part one, Stay Off The Streets If You Know What’s Good For You, we found that we were portrayed as criminals, prostitutes or both in 14 out of 17 articles. One crossdresser who spied against Russia to revenge his castration at the hands of Soviet doctors, was actually depicted as a hero. (I was a red-nightie baby with a pink peek-a-boo bra for J. Edgar Hoover?) There was only one article about female crossdressing and this one presented the transgendered in the most positive light.

The second in our series, A Public Hall That Isn’t Very Fussy About Its Clientele, was about drag balls. The hate and disgust inspired by openly gay men in drag was monumental. One writer’s pen literally dripped venom as he gleefully linked homophobia and transphobia with the godless Red Menace of Communism. It was frightening.

Now we turn our attention to the Theatre and consider articles about professional actors and professional female impersonators. In our collection, there are many more of these articles: 34 compared with 17 about dressing in public and 6 about drag balls. The time span of these articles is greater too, almost 30 years from 1949-1977, including both the oldest and newest articles in this series.

The coverage is more international. Most earlier articles were from either England or the U.S. Now we have reports from Germany, France and Japan, as well. Most of the articles, 26, are about professional female impersonators: including 6 strippers, 1 belly dancer, (who daylights as a cabby) several impersonators who are married, 2 who trick famous actors on dates and one FtM working as a female impersonator. Though most of these articles don’t rival the hate-mongering we’ve seen previously, they still view the transgendered as oddities, part of life’s sideshow.

Mid-20th century American attitudes toward theatrical crossdressing can be summed up in one line, Audiences love the guys as dolls — when it’s done by pros — not limp-wristers! (Why Do Actors Like Jack Benny Dress Up in Skirts by Marjory Manning). There was always an attempt to separate the professionals from the homosexuals, as though the two were mutually exclusive. People had to be assured that homosexuals were not performing on Broadway or TV. “They were playing in clubs featuring a revue of several young men done up in women’s clothes who minced, swished, sang falsetto and performed artless exotic dances.” (Manning)

These articles often lament that until about 30 years ago(from the article’s publication), the art of female impersonation was a highly respected and highly paid professional part of show business. After the war with the great increase of homosexuality, and the openness with which it thrived, impersonating females became something that only queers took on. (…Dress Up Like Girls! by Belle Gay) Other authors cite the end of Prohibition as the beginning of degradation when women all but disappeared from the audiences of female impersonator shows. These articles typically include photos of golden age performers like Julian Eltinge, Karyl Norman, Barbette and Bert Savoy. They also feature drag roles by professional actors of a more recent vintage, such as the King of TV Milton Berle, either Jack Benny or Ray Bolger as Charlie’s Aunt or stills of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon from Some Like It Hot.

THE BENEFITS OF DRAG

It seems many stars did charity benefits in drag. One lauded act was Jack Benny dressed as Gracie Allen performing with George Burns, Gracie’s partner and husband. Burns and Benny as Burns and Allen, first performed at the Friars Club, was performed at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in the mid-forties. “Some 6, 000 people, paying from five to twenty-five dollars, laughed themselves silly as Jack walked on in his bugle-beads, looking more like Gracie Allen then Gracie herself.” (Manning)

Though raising money for charity is usually considered an excellent excuse for drag (just ask your local Empress), there’s no pleasing some authors. Exposed: Actors in Drag (Photo Life, Feb. 1961, vol. 7, #6) claims that Sir Lawrence Olivier and Kenneth More’s bedroom scene of two women undressing for bed turned stomachs everywhere . . . the most charitable thing to be said for it was that the two actors didn’t stay on stage long. And even though the event was part of the Night of Stars benefit, This magazine suggests arresting the publicity agent who arranged the whole sordid affair in the name of charity.

OUR SAVIOR

In the late 1950s many saw an impersonation renaissance in the career of T. C. Jones. This Broadway transvesti received major coverage in three articles, which always respected his considerable talent. A Woman is a Sometime Thing begins whining that “Sweet femininity, alas, may be naught but a shell to conceal muscular masculinity and the good old days when men were men have been replaced by the fantastic fifties when quite often they are also women.” However, soon the author turned to praise, in spite of himself: “Chiefly responsible for this turn of events is one T. C. Jones, a female impersonator who looks more like Tallulah than Tallulah does, sounds more like Bette Davis than the star herself and when miming Katie Hepburn, fairly sprouts calla lilies.”

Though that sounds like a pretty good review, other authors expected even more of the WW II Navy veteran. “Today, almost without exception, the hangouts of the female impersonator are the sub-rosa ‘queer’ nightclubs which operate within and outside the law in our major cities . . . Now at last there is a young performer who threatens to change all that. T.C. Jones will take us back to the golden age of female impersonation, before the invasion of a fascinating medium by the limp-wristed legions who degraded it and brought it to its present state of disrepute.” (The Truth About T. C. Jones by Jane Gordon, Suppressed, Feb., 1957, vol. 4, #1, p. 33)

Like Julian Eltinge, queen of the golden age, the articles say that T.C. would never stoop to innuendo. “Jones says, ‘I certainly never have used blue material.’ He keeps his interpretations strictly for the family trade . . . concentrating on personality imitations rather than smut.” (Gordon) Even so, T.C. is a camp and the prudish author takes exception to his emphasizing the word gay in the line, everything that’s light and gay, while singing I’ll be Seeing You as Tallulah Bankhead. Maybe the author didn’t notice, but the only thing Jones had to say about his years in the Navy was, “Those summer whites — they always looked so starched and stiff and beautiful, like midshipmen in an Ethel Merman thing.” Even so we are assured that he’s really just one of the boys, after all in 1953 he married Connie, a beauty shop owner in San Francisco.

The only performer with coverage rivaling T. C. Jones is English impersonator Danny LaRue. At the time Danny is probably the most respected main stream mimic in the world. Danny LaRue Regales Royalty (Candid Press) and Danny LaRue Gets Rise Out of Royalty by Donald Zec (Confidential Flash, Aug. 20. 1966, p.3) find Danny curtseying for Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon backstage at a benefit performance for Invalid Children’s Aid Association. The homophobic Candid Press had to assure their readers that this is a legitimate charity event at London’s Palace Theater and Meg and Tony don’t hang around the jock-flattener joints.

A NOBLE INSTITUTION

Though T.C. Jones is the only performer whose military service is mentioned, marriages are often used to help present the female impersonators as regular guys who just happen to work in dresses. Of course some impersonators were married, but the ample helping of erotic fantasy in, He’s All Man But My Husband is a Female Impersonator! Says Mrs. Tammy Novack by Richard Campbell, (National Bulletin, Jan. 24, 1972, p. 19) doesn’t make the story more credible.

Matrimony also makes news in A Happy Family Man by Day . . . He Turns into a Woman at Night by Paul Fuchs (Midnight, May 5, 1969, p. 13) and Hubby by Day . . . Stripper by Night (Inside News, p. 17). Though both articles use the same photo, the facts are a bit confused. In one the happy hubby is German Horst Bund, 28, married to Lauren, 23. In the other he’s Horst Bueller, 25, married to Eva, 24. But both would agree that he, “during the daytime . . . looks a little like Truman Capote. But when he’s on the job (he works nights) he looks like Elizabeth Taylor.” (Midnight) Yet in spite of a few exaggerations, Horst’s story seems to ring true.

But, why do otherwise normal men choose to bring home the bacon in a bra? Money. Boys will be girls! Especially for money! (Campbell) “Betty Salway, Mr. Tammy Novak’s wife of five years, claims her husband is making ten times the money since he became a female impersonator.” “Horst commands a salary of $3,000.00 a week performing as Helga Grunik in Munich.” (Fuchs) But the only claim worth believing is that “T.C. Jones was a hit in the smaller cafes and eventually worked himself into the big time, able to command a four figure salary as he now tours the country from New York to California.”(Manning) Don’t you just love the equation:

female impersonation + happy marriage + strong work ethic = four figure salary.


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Category: Impersonation, Transgender History

Ms. bob

About the Author ()

Ms. Bob is Dean of Liberal Arts and the Castro Campus at City College of San Francisco. She is the former Transgender Outreach and Advocacy Coordinator at City College and board secretary of the GLBT Historical Society. She is an avid collector of books, photos, magazines and ephemera on transgender related subjects and loves to trade or purchase new items for her collection. She can be reached c/o TGForum.

Comments (1)

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  1. scalesman scalesman says:

    Ms. Bob has done a good job of research and writing. It is important for everyone to understand history in general and also history as it specifically relates to modern times.
    The historical references are all rather recent but they nevertheless show the great advances that have taken place over the past few decades.
    My thanks to the author and to TGF.
    Pat.