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From vaudeville to nightclubs: Drag performance in Minnesota at the turn of the 20th century

Theater allowed drag performers to evade laws banning “cross-dressing.”

historic photo of drag performers
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Members of a Minnesota Elks Club ready to perform in drag as the Flora Dora Girls, 1908.
Drag performance, historically referred to as “male impersonation” or “female impersonation,” was a popular act in Minnesota theater from the 1880s through the 1920s, reflecting the heyday of vaudeville nationally. As vaudeville declined after the 1920s, drag moved to standalone performances in bars and nightclubs, intertwining with Minnesota’s increasingly public queer scene. The shift coincided with drag queens of color gaining visibility and the emergence of drag celebrities — not just as humorous side acts in larger productions, but as artists in their own right and practice.

The language used to discuss drag performance was mutable at the turn of the twentieth century. The more contemporary term “drag” applies to people performing gender expressions such as masculinity and femininity through makeup, costume, or mannerisms. Until the mid-twentieth century, however, newspapers referred to drag as “male impersonation” or “female impersonation.” They also used the word “impersonator” both for individuals performing in drag and for people wearing clothes of the supposed opposite sex in their everyday lives.

Minneapolis maintained a city ordinance against cross-dressing between 1877 and the mid-1900s, and St. Paul didn’t repeal its 1891 ordinance prohibiting people from wearing “clothes not belonging to their sex” in public until 2003. Theater allowed drag performers to evade these legalities in ways that individuals “cross-dressing” in daily life could not. Mainstream society allowed and accepted drag so long as performers were explicitly donning a costume, maintaining a “fourth wall” between themselves and the audience. It did not make these allowances for individuals “cross-dressing” outside of explicit performance, who were far more subject to policing. The fact that costumes were temporary and restricted to the stage soothed many societal fears.

Many travelling performers stopped in Minnesota during tours that crossed the country. Popular “female impersonators” like Julian Eltinge, Karyl Norman, and Paul Vernon performed in venues like the Grand Opera House in St. Paul and the Metropolitan Theater and the Orpheum in Minneapolis. The elitism of the venues reflected the “fashionable society” who attended. But even during this early period of drag, performers were not exclusively men; women performed and received similar acclaim as “male impersonators.” “High-class vaudeville” artists like Mary Marble and Margaret Grayce toured nationally, stopping to perform in Minnesota in 1897 and 1908, respectively. Acts were tailored to the strengths of the performer, and often appeared amid a lineup of variety shows. Wearing a jacket and bowler hat, Marble was noted for singing a comedic number, accompanied by dancers, and Grayce performed in a lineup among acrobats and marionettes. Karyl Norman moved between masculinity and femininity, singing in a “soprano voice” and “magnificent wraps, gowns, robes, and frocks” before changing into a “conventional tuxedo” and baritone.

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Minnesotans also participated in drag performance, from college and community theater productions to professional performers who toured the United States. Some participated in the performance tradition of the “womanless wedding,” popularized at the turn of the twentieth century, in which an all-male cast made up of community members reenacted a comedic wedding scene by playing roles of both men and women. At the same time that these revues allowed for socially accepted manipulations of class and gender norms, they also served as fundraisers hosted at local schools or churches, such as Fuller Elementary School and First Congregational Church in Minneapolis. They were popular in both urban and rural communities; the performers of “womanless wedding” revues held in Lanesboro, Renville, and Worthington were extensively photographed in costume.

Vaudeville and early drag overlapped with blackface minstrelsy during the nineteenth century. They were often part of the same productions, with white performers masquerading in identities that were not their own for the purpose of a comedic caricature. Unlike blackface, not all drag performances employed offensive stereotypes. When drag separated from vaudeville during the 1920s, minstrelsy disappeared from the acts, but anxieties grew around performers blurring the expectations of “male” and “female.” Vaudeville developed a coarse reputation, evident in the critical news articles published as vaudeville’s popularity lessened.

As vaudeville declined after 1930, drag performances moved from elite, high-capacity theater venues into smaller nightclubs, particularly in Minneapolis’s Gateway District. The newspapers’ reporting on drag performances shifted along with the location. In 1886, the Stillwater Messenger described a production that included drag as “chaste and elegant and calculated to suit the tastes of the most refined and cultured lady.” Through the 1920s, newspapers reported on drag with a relatively positive attitude, treating it like other theatrical productions (though “male impersonation” disappeared from Minnesota newspaper reports after 1921). By the 1930s, drag was written up in newspapers more as the cause of police raids than as a performance notice. Police interfered not so much due to the content, but rather because of the interaction between performers and audiences. Police told Variety that acts contained “nothing obscene or immoral in show…but [we’d] like it stopped anyhow.” Once drag moved into nightclubs, there was more interaction between audience and performer, with artists often mingling in-costume with attendees after the show. The increased anxieties around nightclubs that featured drag were multiplied by societal backlash against sexuality, since many of the clubs associated with drag were considered gathering places for Minneapolis’s queer community.

In 1935, performers at the Stables nightclub in St. Paul were extradited to Chicago by police after mingling with “male customers” after their act. By 1949, Twin Cities police widely suppressed drag, closing shows and pressuring clubs to end contracts with performers. The Jewel Box Revue, the first integrated and longest-touring drag company in the United States, had a six-month contract with Curly’s Theater Cafe in Minneapolis during 1949. Although the show was wildly popular, Minneapolis police requested the termination of the contract. For the next five years, drag shows were banned from the area to quell the supposed “immorality” of the people who attended them.

In spite of the city actively trying to suppress drag in nightclubs, those who were performing diversified. As the 1940s progressed, drag was not exclusive to white performers. Minneapolis’s Clef Club catered to Black patrons and featured Black performers, such as the singer Alma Smith and drag artist Carroll Lee, and the 1950s and 60s brought acclaim to Black drag artists like Stormé DeLarverie, Dodie Daniels, and Don Marshall, featured in the Jewel Box Revue.

Drag in Minnesota was available to both straight and queer performers and attendees, and early drag in theaters brought visibility to increasingly public queer life. It also allowed individuals to move outside of strict societal norms, if only temporarily. Drag’s move to nightclubs, moreover, contributed to the growing presence of queer bars in the Twin Cities. Its popularity continued to grow throughout the second half of the twentieth century in bars like the Gay 90’s and the Town House Bar, carving out a Midwestern space for drag queens and kings.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.