W.C. Fields remarked that "When Julian Eltinge enters a room, all the women swoon and all the men leave for the smoking room." It was Eltinge, considered one of the greatest of female impersonators, who gracefully broke through the strictures regarding gender roles in the early 20th century.
Though his professional life is widely known, his personal life is shrouded in the mist of time. It is believed that his father was a mining engineer and that early in his life he traveled out west with his father, ending up in Butte, Montana.
His start in show business, like his early life, is also shrouded in myth. One story details him playing his first female role at the age of ten with the Boston Cadets Review. In this story, he played so well that the next year the revue was written around him. In another version he was talking cakewalk lessons from a Mrs. Wyman's dance studio when he impressed upon his teacher an incredible ability to emulate females. It was Mrs. Wyman who encouraged young William to study the art of female impersonation. It is known, however, that his first appearances were in Boston, Massachusetts with the Tremont Theatre with the Cadet Theatricals. It was there that he was spotted by producer E. E. Rice and from there he was off to a life of fame and fortune.
Eltinge's first drag appearance on Broadway was in the British musical comedy Mr. Wix of Wickham which opened September 19, 1904 at the Bijou Theatre in New York City. Following the success of the show, Eltinge entered vaudeville, which was followed by a tour of Europe. He toured simply as Eltinge, leaving his gender a question mark. At the end of his performances, he would remove his wig, revealing his true nature.
While in London, Eltinge was commanded to give a performance for King Edward VII, who later presented him with a pet bulldog.
Eltinge's star began to shine on Broadway and on national tours and his name became known worldwide. Indeed, women were so enthralled by his performances that he established the Eltinge Magazine which advised women on beauty, fashion, and home tips. In 1910, Eltinge opened one of his most famous shows, The Fascinating Widow where he played Hal Blake who disguises himself as Mrs. Monte in a Charley's Aunt-like plot. The show only ran 56 performances in New York, but toured for several years.
Aside from the gracefulness he exhibited onstage, Eltinge used a super-masculine facade in public to combat the rumours of his homosexuality. This facade included the occasional bar-fight, smoking cigars, and drawn out engagements to women (though he never married).
In 1911, producer Al Woods built the Eltinge Theatre in New York. This theatre still stands as the 42nd Street Theatre, now a movie house.
As many actors began to leave for movies, Eltinge followed and in 1917 he starred in silent pictures appearing with Rudolph Valentino in The Isle of Love (1922). By 1920, Eltinge was very wealthy and was living in one of the most lavish mansions in Southern California, Villa Capistrano. But, by this time, the female impersonations that had built his career had begun to lose popularity. The Eltinge Theater was shut down in the 1930s during a public morality campaign.
Eltinge died on May 7, 1941 in New York City of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Julian Eltinge Facts
|May 14, 1881
|Newton, Massachusetts, USA
|Date of death
|March 7, 1941 (age 59)
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