American Masters

FULL EPISODE

Masters of Drag: Julian Eltinge

In this new digital series, New York's sweetest drag diva Peppermint tells the story of pioneering American drag artists. In the process, she demonstrates how drag is a performance art form that has thrived in this country for generations, entertaining LGBTQ+ and general audiences alike, and providing the former with an important outlet of self-expression.

AIRED: March 01, 2021 | 0:04:45
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TRANSCRIPT

- Hi, all I'm Peppermint star,

RuPaul's drag race season nine.

Broadway's head over heels

and New York City's delightful diva.

Welcome to Masters of Drag

where we're telling you stories of American drag pioneers

and how the concept of drag has changed over time.

We're gonna start our journey with Julian Eltinge,

a stage and film star who experienced enormous success

in the early 20th century,

but he died practically broke and was largely forgotten.

So what happened?

Julian Eltinge was born William Dalton in 1891

in Butte, Montana.

He started dressing in drag at a young age

and was performing in local saloons

by the time he was a teenager.

When his father found out about him doing drag,

he was punished, and his mother sent him

to live in the Boston area for his own safety.

His big break came when a producer spotted him in a play

and brought him to New York city.

While performing Eltinge was so convincing as a woman

that often audiences didn't realize the illusion

until he took off his wig at the end of the show,

which is something I would never do.

Okay, so don't ask me to do this.

After performing in Vaudeville,

which were variety South shows,

popular in the early 20th century,

he made his Broadway debut in a musical in 1904

called Mr. Wix of Wickham,

about a man who disguises himself as a woman.

Now the show flopped, but he was singled out as a success.

He had perfected the art of female impersonation.

He was so talented that he was hired

to perform in many more shows

and eventually made his way to Hollywood.

He even once had a beauty magazine

that contained photos of him and his many dresses

and included ads for his very own brand of cold cream.

He also complained about having to fit into tight corsets

to achieve that 24 inch waist.

Darling I don't complain about any of those things.

(upbeat music)

Let's take a look at this footage from the 1920s,

the mannerisms, the make-up, the gowns,

it's all there honey.

Eltinge went on successful tours

throughout the United States and even Europe,

where he once gave a performance

at the request of the King of England, Edward VII.

King Edward liked it so much

that he even gifted Eltinge with a pet bulldog,

sounds like love at first sight.

Check out this Palatial Mansion

he built for himself in Los Angeles,

known by many as the Pink Castle on Silver Lake.

At the height of his career Eltinge made more money

than Hollywood superstar and legend Charlie Chaplin.

Now that's a lot of coin, things started to turn poorly

for Eltinge starting in the 1930s.

A different more outrageous style of drag performance

started become popular, making Eltinge seem out of date.

You see Eltinge's performance style

wasn't about being exaggerated

and funny and loud and campy,

as we know drag can be today.

He was all about fooling people

into thinking that he was a woman.

Now, we're not even sure that Eltinge

would have called his work drag

which is why we're using the phrase female impersonator.

Eltinge always walked a tight rope

when it came to questions about his sexuality.

He never married, lived with his mother

and made slide jokes about his dresses

and admitted that he was different, aren't we all?

Starting in the mid 1930s after prohibition

he started to drink heavily.

Homosexuality became more stigmatized

and the police increasingly cracked down on drag

and cross dressing.

Once a successful Hollywood star,

he was reduced to performing nightclub acts

standing next to his dresses,

describing the characters he used to do.

He stopped getting regular work

and eventually lost his mansion in LA.

By some accounts, he continued to struggle with alcohol

and wasn't successful in reviving his career.

He passed away in 1941 at the age of 60.

Julian left an incredible legacy of track performance

but, despite his former fame has been largely forgotten.

Me learning about the mainstream success of Eltinge

just proves to me that drag is for everybody.

It's probably because drag includes

performance and entertainment,

it deals with gender and sex and sexuality

and politics and a whole lot of fun.

Subscribe to this channel for more stories

of pioneering American masters of drag,

with me Peppermint.

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