Female and Male Impersonators in Minneapolis
From 1910-1929, a piano store owner named Elmer Brooks collected more than 150 autographed photos of traveling vaudeville performers who visited local theaters. The photos were originally pasted into Brooks’ personal photo albums, but they were disassembled and are now in archival boxes in the Special Collections Department.
Brooks’ collection includes autographs from female and male impersonators who performed well before the public understood words like “drag queen” or “drag king.” Francis Renault (bottom) always performed in extravagant costumes, often left theaters in character for publicity, and was arrested several times for doing so. Julian Eltinge (middle) became so famous that a New York Theater was named after him, and Kathleen Clifford (top) billed herself as “the smartest chap in town.” On stage, she wore a monocle and a top hat, and she briefly performed with a female impersonator named Bothwell Browne.
Like most female and male impersonators from the first third of the 20th century, Clifford, Eltinge, and Renault have become relatively unknown. Thanks to Elmer Brooks, we have some preserved reminders of how beloved those entertainers were, not to mention how much their work continues to influence today’s performers.
-Stewart Van Cleve, Special Collections Intern