Our Love Is Here To Stay III
Fairies & Nances
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:
(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.
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 openly borrowed Savoy's famous 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
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.)
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
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.