Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Once Upon a Time

By Mikki

Once upon a time, there were female impersonators all over the place. It was a mainstay of burlesque. There was even a Broadway theater named for Julian Eltinge

Female impersonator establishments displayed hundreds of ads for female impersonators in regular newspapers. But as more people were turning to television for entertainment, burlesque died except for Milton Berle and a few burlesque veterans who crossed over to television. 

Likewise female impersonator nightclubs... a few of the venerable ones like the 82 Club lasted a while longer and several television variety shows would have female impersonator acts – Dinah Shore was probably the last of TV shows to have them on, circa 1960. I was in the DC area and we had a bunch of clubs, including the Golden Key Club in North Beach, Maryland. We still have a few clubs, but not even close to what we had in the “olden days.”

I found out about 82 Club (aka Club 82), my favorite by far, from friends at the Golden Key Club, and when I went to work in LA, that same friend told me about the Queen Mary Nightclub. “The Queen” was large and had a back bar that was very CD/TG/Drag-friendly. And when I went to work in San Francisco, the venerable Finocchio’s was there waiting for me. My great surprise there was that the beauty I saw (and fell instantly in love with) in the Jewel Box Revue when I was 13, LaVerne Cummings, was the star of the show. 

The 82 Club lasted until 1978. Finocchio’s and the Queen Mary hung in there until 1999 and 2003, respectively with “The Queen” devolving from live into lip sync. Today, you have to go to Vegas or Bourbon Street in New Orleans to find a dedicated female impersonator club. 

Female impersonation just faded into the background, but RuPaul is responsible for exhuming it in a public way. Of course, there are bars all over the country that have drag on occasion, but RuPaul put it back in the open. 

Now I’d probably be hard pressed to find a town of a moderate-to-larger size that doesn't have some sort of drag brunch. Here in Baltimore, we have a very active drag scene. And the closest thing to a Jewel Box Revue we have are those RuPaul’s drag queen contestants on tour. The two I've been to were in large venues that were packed. The audiences were way more "civilian" than our community. My friend and I were the only two “ladies” at the shows. 

Drag/female impersonation has gone from ubiquitous to dedicated show bars, back to local bars and now back out in the open, if differently, thanks to RuPaul. But dedicated clubs are still as rare as hen’s teeth. And maybe the audience has reverted a bit toward the people who went to see female impersonation back in burlesque, not surprised to see it and comfortable with it when they do see it. 

And the RuPaul tours play to largely packed houses. So watching this “evolution” makes me think that drag and female impersonation will be around for a long, long time. And it’s probably going to creep onto television bit by bit until it and we are going to be hardly noticed. And we won’t have to be nearly as concerned about acceptance.

Source: Bella Dahl
Wearing Bella Dahl

Club 82/82 Club
Postcard from Club 82/82 Club in New York City


  1. I lived in Chelsea in the 60’s and went to the 82 Club a few times. The girls opened my eyes so to say and my admiration began.

  2. Missing in this commentary is the Baton, a Chicago institution and still going strong albeit in a Northside location rather than the Chicago original. It's storied owner just celebrate their 80th birthday with 200 or so fans and friends. They still go to work everyday and have no intention of slowing down. A must for Chicago visitors because it is living history.

  3. As transgender person become a part of the mainstream the need for dedicated venues lessens, we see that gay bars are disappearing as gay person not longer need to set themselves apart in a separate culture but become more part of the culture.

    I remember reading and hearing so much about the Queen Mary back in the late 90's I went on a business trip to LA dressed up for one of my first times and walked up to the door but couldn't bring myself to go in...

  4. I've heard about The Baton and have seen photos -- amazing photos, actually -- of the girls working there but I've never been there. I wrote about places I've been to -- inhabited, actually. . The management of The Baton required their performers to still have at least one "man part" to work there. Most of the photos of The Baton girls I've seen bear no resemblance to drag queens -- they look like women who could easily compete in "civilian" beauty contests. It's good to know this venerable club lives on. Thanks, Paula.

  5. I remember the Baton when it was in downtown Chicago. At least once, Phil Donahue had the lovely performers from the Baton on his show, maybe it was more than once. When it comes to female impersonators, my favorite who inspired me in my youth was the fantastic Christopher Morley who appeared in many TV shows and movies. Miss Morley was in a fabulous episode of Partners in Crime with Loni Anderson and Lynda Carter! Wowsa! At that time there was also the beautiful Michael Andrews and Karen Dior. Sadly, both Michael and Karen have passed away.

    1. At one time, Christopher Morley read this blog:

      Maybe he still does!

  6. Hey,
    I’m impressed by your blog. Absolutely amazing work.

  7. Given this days GREAT SCHOLARSHIP in todays Femulate, I decided to google if any such clubs were ever in the South (not including NOLA).
    Most everything came up as too late in the time period....
    A huge group of possibilities for other places in the USA.

  8. however successful the drag scene may be becoming again now, going from "rupaul's drag race" and the professional queens i see in the manchester gay village it apparently bears no relation to what i consider the "golden era" from the late 40's to the early 70's (which i was sadly born too late to witness, or maybe even have become part of?). classy performers of yesteryear who were convincing enough to pass in public have now been replaced by brazen freaks from outer space that can be spotted a hundred yards away. laverne cummings & co must surely be spinning in their graves?

  9. Two recent shows that featured drag culture on mainstream TV were Pose and Katy Keene. Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist included a genderfluid characte4.

  10. I am so ready to bartend in drag!! That would be my dream job.