"the" Mrs. Astor

Friday, April 11, 2008

My dear friend Marc asked if I had seen the exhibit of drag queens and kings at the Bass presentation on Miami design, Promises of Paradise and, of course, we had. It left us agog and, had those precious brochures to such loveliness not been behind glass cases, I might just have snatched a few and made a run for it. These delectable pamphlets were of an act known at The Jewel Box, which was formed in 1939 and found great popularity in the playland Miami represented. I didn't mention it because Leopoldo and I had really, really attended the Bass for the architectural aspect of the show; I was also waiting until our weekly date with Henrietta at Twist this Saturday to ask her what she remembered of group. Marc's inquiry made me think of just how much time I've spent over the years enjoying and photographing drag.

Lavern Cummings was a long-time performer in the traveling troupe of The Jewel Box. This was an rather large group of entertainers which traveled around the United States and dispensed the feel of big city nightclub glamor to middle American cities. They weren't exactly playing at county fairs, but it must have brought not a few ideas to curious, male minds. Cumming's career seems to have spanned the post-war period into the sixties if you judge by her clothing and hair (and, you can always count on that barometer). I have a copy of the 1971 photo collection by Avery Willard, "Female Impersonation; it is a slim volume, but striking to leaf through.

Promotional material was quite prevalent, also, although you have to wonder into whose hands these eventually ended up.

If a young boy needed instruction at the art of celebrity and glamor, there were always these, too.

Julian Eltinge was not the first impersonator to wow the stage, that having been done in the hundreds of years females were not allowed to perform on it, but he was the first to make the leap from Broadway to a black and white film around 1915.

This is so precious and is entitled "A flock of lovelies, place and date unknown". My guess is 1963 or 4 and--with a black man enjoying himself too--it must have been a liberal city like San Francisco. Only a guess. A great deal of good, drag fun can be had at the TG Forum, a site I love to wander around. I distinctly remembering my mother showing me a B & W glossy of a group of "girls" surrounding one man. "They are all men," she told me, and was delighted enough to go with my father again to their performance the next night. It was even signed to her. I stared at that for a long time, studying the dresses, make-up, and hair. I don't know if it was The Jewel Box Revue, but it certainly wasn't indigenous to Rhode Island; I never looked again at her wardrobe the same way.
And, as I have wondered: Did traveling drag shows affect middle America in any way?


At 8:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I ripped the zipper seam in my sister's prom dress BEFORE she had worn it. Yes. drag reached middle America.

At 11:26 PM, Blogger Ed Grow said...

Oh Alexis! I think not...one of my earliest memories of "drag" people was when as a child, my mother told me her hair dresser in St. Louis was a transvestite. At the time, it was the mid eighties, and she feared that perhaps the ladee would cut her self with scissors and give my mom AIDS. The worst part? My mom was in med school.

What a long way we've come?

Give my love to the Mr (and the pool boy).

At 9:35 AM, Anonymous Marc said...

Thanks for all that, Alexis. It's such fascinating stuff!

I love to think of all the gay boys scattered across the country, studying these people and their photos and perfecting their own skills, until they grow up and meet each other and put on a show.

At 9:36 AM, Blogger Tosca15 said...

I shouldn't be, but I'm constantly amazed at the depth of your brilliant knowledge. I love learning from you. *patiently waits for more photos*

At 10:31 AM, Blogger "the" Mrs. Astor said...

I tried on a few things, I must admit, but never ripped anything but my mind.

Ed, presumably the fear of not looking good outstripped the fear of AIDS.

I love it, Marc, as you well know.

Tosca, I'd take "Drag History" for a thousand any day, but don't ask me an algebra question.

At 10:39 AM, Blogger Countess Bedelia said...

One of my life goals is to meet every drag queen in the world.

Although some people think I am one!

Love from The Countess, dragging around NYC


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