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TGF Rerun: In Search of The Bigwood Twins

| Apr 2, 2012
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A picture may be worth a thousand words, but these three weren’t talking. Three professional publicity stills, dripping glamour, of the Bigwood Twins, a female impersonation duo from the bygone vaudeville stage. The photos peaked interest, provoked questions, but gave little information. The costumes and coiffures seem to be from the 1920s. The performers probably weren’t twins, but they presented a credible mirror image of each other. Credible, too, was their feminine image, aided by the tran-friendly flat-chested look of the 1920s flapper.

The first photo was yellowed, the corners showing holes from thumb tacks, as though it had long been on display. The Twins, looking over their shoulders, wore matching dresses, shoes and hats and stood in front of a painted impressionistic drop. The back of the second photo bore the residue of tape which had held it in place on a mat or in an album. Both photos were shot at The Butler Studio in Chicago. The twins wore the same dresses in both photos, which featured either bustles, farthingales or petticoats with great stiffening, to make them flair at the hips. For variety they changed backdrops and removed their hats for the second shot.

The second photo had two sets of writing on the back. A penciled identification had been crossed out in pen and below was written:

The Bigwood Twins

Billy Bigwood on left

Ray Bigwood on right (dead) now 1966

This identified the performers and said that Ray was dead by 1966. It didn’t really tell you when he died, though in a quick read, it might seem to.

The third photo features the Twins in bright off-the-shoulder gowns which showed the lace of their ankle-length pedal pushers. And (Terpsichorean delight!) they’re en pointe. The hats and the windows in the backdrop make them look like dancing shepherdesses from a pastoral pageant at the court of Louis XIV and Marie Antoniette. The photo studio is Empire in Los Angeles. On the back, written lightly in the same pencil as before, but not corrected this time, was:

Bigwood Twins

Pep & Personality

With these few leads the search for the Bigwood Twins began and almost ended. There was nothing about them in books on theatrical drag or vaudeville. The same was true of old Finocchio’s and Jewel Box Revue programs. The Twins weren’t listed in either the collected New York Times theater reviews or the Variety index of obituaries. And there was nothing about them at the San Francisco Performing Arts Library. In desperation Ms Bob made a long distance call to the Billy Rose Theatrical Collection at Lincoln Center, a complete loss. No Bigwoods there and the library wouldn’t let her reverse the charges.

“Pep & Personality”

However, these photos were only part of an inch-high pile of theatrical stills, perhaps examining the others would provide some information? Of the lot, fourteen photos were autographed to Ray, one to Ray Bigwood and one to the Bigwood Twins, sixteen photos which there’s some reason to believe fellow vaudevillians gave to Ray Bigwood. The photos feature fourteen different performers. Twelve were female impersonators. One was Dolly Malone, a boy impersonator. The back of her photo identified her act as “Ten Minutes of Kid Antics.” The other photo was of Grace May, “The Chinese Song Bird.”

Grace may be a female impersonator, but probably isn’t. The photo was dated May 28, 1925 and “Grace” was too womanly a name for impersonators in that era. Most female impersonators used male names in the roaring twenties, like Julian Eltinge or Bert Erroll. True, Karyl Norman’s stage name is more feminine than his real name, George Paduzzi. But Karyl isn’t really a woman’s name, either. It’s a neutered name. For a female impersonator to call himself “Grace” would bring up moral questions which would have made bookings impossible in the family oriented theaters of vaudeville.

But it was possible to patch together the following mosaic of the Bigwood Twins career from the autographed messages, photo studios’ logos and writing on the back of the photos. Not all photos are dated, but enough are that with some knowledge of the changing parade of women fashions, it is possible to place them in some kind of a chronology. The earliest photos were all shot in Chicago and Cleveland, 1925-1927. Perhaps the Bigwoods started performing in cities around the Great Lakes? Maybe Chicago was their hometown, since two of their photos were shot at a studio there.

Ray was young and excited, trying to collect mementos from what may have been the duo’s first professional gigs. After all, this was the only time he collected photos from acts who weren’t female impersonators. One of his new friends, song bird Grace May, writes very sweet wishes that ended with the kind of advice people give young adults. She even echoed Polonius’ speech to his son, Laertes, from Act I of Hamlet, “my dear be yourself — at all times regardless.” Was something troubling young Ray’s mind? Could he have been questioning a life on the stage — or performing in skirts — or his sexuality?

The photos from the next era, 1929-1936, put all three issues to rest. It seems the act stayed together and was now on a larger touring circuit. The next photos were signed far from Chicago: Del Gibson in Los Angeles (February 16, 1929), Maxine in Seattle (1936) and Phil Craige in Corpus Christi (September 5, 1936). Perhaps the twins had their photo session at Empire Studio in Los Angeles on the same trip they met Del Gibson in 1929? All these photos are of female impersonators and, since nobody was more interested in or more friendly to female impersonators than other female impersonators, the Twins were probably still a drag act.

Now about the sexual innuendo earlier. Maxine signed her photo to, “A real friend and Gay Prima Donna. In memory of our gay times in Seattle.” Is it possible to read “gay” twice in so short a sentiment and not think “homosexual?” And the photo is signed Maxine, the earliest man in this set of photos to use a woman’s name. On the back someone has written her male name, “Max A. Thorman (Maxine),” but she hadn’t used it.

The final photos, 1946-1947, imply that Ray was living in San Francisco. The six photos that feature ‘40s fashion were shot by Romaine, a San Francisco photography studio. Several of the performers can be found in old Finocchio’s programs: Vaughn Auldon, Chris Bailey, Poppy “Harrel” Lane, Freddy Mills and Freddie Renault. Freddie Renault was a real mainstay of the club, performing there for over ten years, starting in the chorus and advancing to Master of Ceremonies.

Ray may have been retired at this time, a grand dame visiting the clubs, regaling the kids with tales of his glorious past. Chris Bailey wrote that she was “looking forward to enjoying you again.” Maybe she meant “enjoying” Ray’s act, as though she hadn’t seen it for some time. Young Vaughn Auldon told Ray that, “your sense of humor is priceless,” which you might say to someone you’ve just spent a fun evening with, but probably not a fellow performer. “Your sense of timing is priceless,” would be more like something performers would write to each other. And Freddie Renault wrote to Ray that, “I think I would rather work with a bustle and a parasol than in this titty-boo crap,” which does sound like Ray was telling tales about the costumes of the good old days.

Having hypothesized the life and career of Ray Bigwood, let’s see if we can figure out where these photos have been and who identified the performers by writing on the backs. The photos came to Ms Bob, indirectly, from the collection of Harvey Lee, a female impersonator who died in San Francisco a few years ago. They passed through several owners between Harvey and Ms Bob, but none of them wrote on the photos.

By comparing hand writing from the backs of the photos with Harvey’s letters, it is clear that Harvey made the notes in pen. But, who made the notes in pencil, the ones Harvey corrected? Certainly not Ray. The pencil had identified one photo of the Bigwood Twins as, “Hall and Barber, Impressions of This & That.” Ray wouldn’t have confused his act with Hall and Barber, another impersonator duo. So Ray didn’t write the pencil notes which “Harvey the pen” corrected.

This is going out on a limb, but we believe none of the writing on the backs of the photos is Ray’s. In the original inch high pile of photos there are also nine photos autographed to Don Lathrop of later date, 1949-1965. Finocchio’s performer Chris Bailey autographed photos to both Ray and Don, but at different times, judging by the different poses and the different pens used for the autographs. Perhaps after Ray’s death his photos were given to Don Lathrop of some other third party. Since Ray hadn’t written anything on the photos, Don, or whoever the new owner was, tried to provide some kind of documentation by writing the names of performers he recognized on the back of the photos in pencil. Perhaps this new owner was an aficionado of female impersonators, but not a performer. Any way he didn’t always get the names right. Both Ray’s and Don’s collections later came to Harvey Lee who, being a professional impersonator, knew the performers better. He crossed out the “miss”-identification and wrote his own in pen.

All this proves one thing, as Dallas Denny has written: It is of the greatest importance that we “keep our history in our own hands.” Only members of the gender community care enough to treasure photos of female impersonators, saving them for decades, as Ray Bigwood and Harvey Lee did. Variety doesn’t care. The New York Times doesn’t care. And it is only through our efforts today that there will be an accurate record of either the past or the present for the queens and queers of the future.

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Category: Drag Queen, Transgender History

Ms. Bob

About the Author ()

Ms. Bob Davis, MFA, founder & director of the Louise Lawrence Transgender Archive in Vallejo, CA, served two terms on the GLBT Historical Society board of directors.

Comments (2)

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  1. says:

    This is really fascinating. What an amazing story.There must be many from these times we have never heard about.

  2. the one thing that alway leaves wondering
    when it came to vadvill female impersonator of tha time
    there very little known of their social lives
    along with romantic lives too.
    And yes like today back then as it still today
    going out in public and having a gay- TG romantic relationship was truly fround upon.
    so i wonder did they ever went on a date and fall in love??

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