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BY TRAV S.D. | During Pride Month, drag performers often rightfully get an extra amount of play, attention, and celebration. So we thought it would be fun to take a look at several drag artists from show business history who didn’t just sing, dance, lip sync or tell jokes, but who possessed at least one more exotic skill in the vaudeville tradition.
In years past, performers who were “biologically male” — an insufficient categorization for this topic best consigned to history — have made their bones in the guise of female acrobats, magicians, ventriloquists, and more.
One of the earliest we know about is equestrian trick rider Omar Kingsley (1840-79), an apprentice of impresario S.Q. Stokes. In the classic circus era, audiences loved female equestrians. Stokes encouraged young Kingsley to disguise himself as a girl for performances, billing him as “Mademoiselle Ella Zoyara.” Kingsley maintained the subterfuge offstage as well, going out in public in fashionable dresses, and socializing with prominent local women when on tour. Another early drag circus performer was “Mademoiselle Lulu,” presented by The Great Farini from 1870 through 1877. Lulu was an aerialist who performed on a series of trapezes and ladders, and sang songs.
Berta Beeson (Herbert “Slats” Beeson, 1899-1969) was billed as “The Julian Eltinge of the Wire,” Beeson was tightrope walker who cross-dressed (another contentious term, but one in vogue at the time). Originally from Summitville, Indiana, Beeson started out working at a local vaudeville house, and then debuted with the Sells-Floto circus in 1917 as “Mademoiselle Beeson, Marvelous High Wire Venus.” When famed lady tightrope walker Bird Millman retired from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1925, Beeson was her replacement. Beeson retired from performing 11 years later, but continued to work for the circus as an advance man.
It doesn’t get much more vaudevillian than female impersonator and trapeze artist Barbette (Vander Clyde, 1898-1973). Clyde spent his childhood practicing trapeze skills as a hobby. At age 14, he answered a job ad placed by the AfarettaSisters, the “World Famous Aerial Queens.” To get the job, he had to dress as a girl. Soon Barbette was working solo. At her debut at the Harlem Opera House in 1919, though only an opening act, she got three curtain calls. She did slack wire walking, rings, and trapeze… and then pulled off her wig for the big “wow.”
Soon, Barbette was a vaudeville headliner — what heteronormative trapeze artist ever accomplished that? By 1923, she was the hit of the Paris cabaret scene and a favorite of the intelligentsia. Jean Cocteau even included her in his 1930 film “The Blood of a Poet.” A character in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1930 film “Murder” is also clearly based on her. In 1935, she was featured in Billy Rose’s “Jumbo”along with many other circus and vaudeville notables. A 1938 bout with pneumonia effectively ended her performing career, and she retired to become a consultant and choreographer for projects requiring drag trapeze artists. You think there aren’t any? What about Hollywood films like “Till the Clouds Roll By” (1946),“The Big Circus” (1959), and “Some Like it Hot” (1959)?
Walter H. Lambert (1869-1949) was a British female impersonator and ventriloquist whose most famous act was called “Lydia Dreams.” His usual turf was the music hall in his home country, but he did come for a tour of US vaudeville in 1906. Most astounding of all, he wasn’t the only British music hall impersonator and ventriloquist. Bobbie Kimber (Ronald Victor Kimberley, 1918-1993), who performed in music hall from the 1930s through the ’60s, wore his hair long like a woman’s, and never divulged his biological gender one way or the other to the audience. The story of Bobbie’s gender identity is complicated. Married and the father of a daughter, he appears to have begun representing himself as a woman when he began performing in 1937, because there were almost no female ventriloquists working at the time, hence he got less competition. Yet, according to fellow performers, he played the woman offstage as well, and the public didn’t know he was biologically male until 1952.
Closer to our own time is the late drag magician Cashetta (Scott Weston, 1971-2015). Weston started out as a drag performer in the 1990s at Lips, singing and doing comedy. After studying at the feet of magicians while working as a makeup artist in Las Vegas, Cashetta broke in a solo magic act at NYC’s Fez Under Time Cafe, eventually getting bookings on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and “The Today Show.” Top billing was earned in the 2009 show “Magic’s a Drag,” at the Harmon Theater in Las Vegas.
We asked NYC drag icon and Wigstock creator Lady Bunny for her thoughts on who’s who in today’s drag vaudeville scene, and this is what she had to say: “Violet Chachki does aerial stuff in hoops combined with smoking burlesque in the fabbest costumes imaginable. Jaymes Mansfield uses puppets and ventriloquism, and will revive the late Wayland Flowers’ Madame this summer in Provincetown, sanctioned by Flowers’ estate. Jaymes made a puppet of me which I now use to interview myself in a comedy routine! Ivy Winters, perhaps the most underrated, uses stilts, fire-eating, and all kinds of specialty acts. She comes from a circus background. Lavinia Co-op uses stilts, as well. She works for Susanne Bartsch but has also appeared in Wigstock and was a founding member of the English drag troupe, Bloolips. Kennedy Davenport’s Texas-style dancing borders on acrobatic. I’ve seen her walk down the steps from a stage and then summersault back onto it; extremely high kicks and other hijinks!”
And as for Lady Bunny herself, she too can claim a special skill, which intersected with a singularly unique moment in pop culture history. “I have performed songs with yodeling,” she told us, including, “creating insane pops to the early electro hit ‘Popcorn’ on ‘Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes’ show on MTV. People think I’m lip syncing because it’s so high-pitched. I’m not!”
Lessons to be drawn? Vaudeville is very much alive, and drag is not just alive, but kicking. They go together like peanut butter and jelly. Get a gimmick, kids!