Our Love Is Here To Stay III

1900-1940: Life Upon the Wicked Stage

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996, revised 2008)

Fairies & Nances

By the start of the 20th century, George M. Cohan, Victor Herbert and other heterosexuals were perfecting the Broadway musical sound with a blend of romance, wit and American attitude. Low rents and proximity to major theatres made Manhattan's Times Square area a popular home for "fairies" working in the business.

"Gay men did not enjoy unalloyed acceptance in this work environment, to be sure, but the theatrical milieu did offer them more tolerance than most work places . . . Some men could be openly gay among their coworkers, and many others were at least unlikely to suffer serious retribution if their homosexuality were discovered."
- George Chauncey, Gay New York (New York: Basic Books, 1994), pp. 302.

The theatrical community was dominated by Lee and Jake Shubert, theatre owners whose empire stretched across the nation. As Herbert Goldman tells us in Jolson; The Legend Comes To Life (Oxford University Press, NY, 1988), the Shuberts hated homosexuals but had no objection to employing them, either onstage or backstage. In fact, the Shuberts hired more gay designers and chorus boys than anyone else in the business, but they wouldn't go so far as to give effeminate men leading roles, which might anger audiences. A popular slang term for homosexuals was "nance," an abbreviation for "Nancy." One of Al Jolson's favorite offstage jokes involved a fictional exchange between two effeminate Shubert chorus boys:

FIRST BOY: "Do you know Nance O'Neill?"
SECOND BOY: "No. Who is he?"

(Note: Nance O'Neill was a popular stage actress reputed to have had a love affair with the infamous Lizzie Borden.) Al Jolson's use of “nance” mannerisms onstage led some contemporaries to question his orientation. Having the flamboyant homosexual "Pansy" Holmes as his personal dresser only added to the talk, but talk is all it was. Jolson was an active, militant heterosexual, and smart enough to know that a little backstage gossip would do him no harm -- and that audiences loved to laugh at stereotypical gay mannerisms.

The 1920s

In the years following World War I, general prosperity and a new sense of the impermanence of life led a generation of "bright young things" to lead lives on the cutting edge. Open defiance of Prohibition laws made it easier for adventurous people to explore other forbidden possibilities. The bohemian balls at Webster Hall in Greenwich Village were among the first places where effeminate "pansies" mixed with straight-acting homosexuals and the general public. These events advertised themselves saying "unconventional to be sure . . . only be discreet." Those who were not discreet paid a heavy price. Hundreds were arrested in New York for "perverted" sexual behavior during the 1920s, and some were committed to insane asylums for sometimes drastic treatment of their "deviancy."

Many great stage and screen composers appeared in the years between the wars, and dozens of new musicals debuted every season. There were jobs aplenty in the theater, and many gay men found profitable careers there. The British stage of the 1920s and 30s was dominated by two gay songwriter/actors – Noel Coward (discussed in detail later on in this essay) and Ivor Novello. Coward's hit operetta Bittersweet included an open reference to homosexuality in the song "Green Carnation," celebrating one of the favorite symbols worn by gay aesthetes in the late 1800s. The handsome Novello was even more popular with London audiences than Coward. He also made some fascinating romantic conquests. According to The Alyson Almanac (New York: Alyson Publications, 1990, p. 107), Somerset Maugham got Winston Churchill to admit he had once slept with a man – Novello. Asked what it had been like, Churchill answered, "Musical!"

Performing Can Be a Drag

In the 1920s, female impersonators were among the most popular vaudeville headliners. Bert Savoy's behavior was outrageous both onstage and off. He referred to men as "she" and camped it up at every opportunity. His drag stage persona was a sumptuously gowned, hip-swaying female who dished about herself and the sordid exploits of her friend "Margie" while the dapper Jay Brennan (himself a former female impersonator) sat in a chair and listened attentively. Savoy was such a sensation that he appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies. Mae West later openly borrowed Savoy's campy hip-swaying walk, as well as his comic invitation to "come up and see me." Several impersonators copied his act so thoroughly that Savoy went to court to protect his routines. A typical Savoy gag –

"I'll never forget, dearie, the time a baroness or somethin' ast me if I knew Sir Herbert Tree, an' I answered, ‘No, but I knew his younger brother, Frank Bush."

In 1923, at the height of his popularity, Savoy's life was cut short by one of the campiest deaths on record. He was strolling along a Long Island beach when a deafening thunderclap made him exclaim to friends, "Mercy, ain't Miss God cutting up something awful?" Seconds after those words passed his lips, Savoy was struck dead by a lightning bolt.

The flamboyant Karyl Norman billed himself as "The Creole Fashion Plate" but fellow vaudevillians called him "The Queer Old Fashion Plate." This did not prevent his having a long and prosperous career, including a stint hosting a popular nightclub in midtown Manhattan. However, most of vaudeville's female impersonators made a point of "butching it up" offstage. Julian Eltinge, famous for his glamorous gowns, was so popular that a Broadway theatre was named after him. (Renamed The Empire, it is now a movie multiplex on 42nd Street.) This master of drag lived with his mother, never married, and viciously beat up anyone who questioned his sexual preference.  One is reminded of Shakespeare's immortal words, "the lady doth protest too much, methinks." (And as for Shakespeare, with his sonnets expressing love for a boy . . . but that argument belongs to other essays and other scholars.)

Broadway Cartoons

Homosexuals remained essentially invisible in the Broadway musicals of the 1930s. Now and then a homophobic reference might appear, like when the cowboys in George & Ira Gershwin's Girl Crazy sing that "on Western prairies we shoot the fairies or send them back to the East." When Noel Coward adapted his song "Mad About the Boy" for Broadway's Words and Music in 1938, the American producer forced him to cut a new verse in which a pinstripe-suited businessman was to admit his infatuation with a male movie idol by singing --

People I employ
Have the effrontery to call me Myrna Loy.

However, George Chauncey (Gay New York, p. 310) tells us that "pansy acts" appeared in many 1930s clubs and burlesque shows, with straight actors making vicious fun of homos in a "gay equivalent of blackface."

In 1941, heterosexual actor Danny Kaye became a star portraying Lady in the Dark's effusive – and ridiculous – fashion photographer, "Russell Paxton." As written by bisexual librettist Moss Hart, this character raves about a male movie star after a photo session –

"Girls, he's god-like! I've taken pictures of beautiful men, but this one is the end – the end! He's got a face that would melt in your mouth."

When that line was used in a 1940s radio production of Lady in the Dark, the audience roared, verifying that the public was aware of homosexual stereotypes and did not mind seeing them depicted, so long as it was in a degrading cartoonish form.

Things were somewhat different in Hollywood. During the first half of the 20th Century, film become the most popular entertainment medium in the world, and the introduction of sound opened the way for the creation of screen musicals.. As with the theatre, the creative needs of the motion picture industry made it a natural home for gays and lesbians.

Next: Life Upon the Wicked Screen