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A Big Hit! “The Flirting Flapper” with Howard Blair

Advertisement for “The Flirting Flapper with Howard Blair,” a traveling cross-dressing / drag musical play that originated off-Broadway and toured on the vaudeville circuit in the mid-1920s. Here, it was at the Lowell (MA) Opera House.

Lowell Sun
JD Doyle Archives

"A Big Hit! "The Flirting Flapper" with Howard Blair." Clipping. 1925. , Queer Music Heritage, JD Doyle Archives

While flapper style and culture was mostly taken up by women, there were some men who also put on a bobbed wig, makeup, and sequined short dresses with tassels. Female impersonators, or what we would today call drag queens, were all the rage in vaudeville theaters and burlesque houses in the 1900s, 1910s, and 1920s. Some performers, such as the celebrity Julian Eltinge, grew wealthy performing largely to audiences of middle-class women and their families. Such audiences marveled at both his skill in appearing convincingly onstage as a woman and his showcasing of the latest fashions and cosmetics. Eltinge became so well known that he had a Broadway theater named after him. Others impersonators also had great success, such as Howard Blair, who made his living first in traveling circuses and later in vaudeville shows in the 1920s as “the flirting flapper.” In looking at this advertisement and review of his show, what were aspects of the performance that were emphasized? Why do you think that a female impersonator portraying a flapper would be exciting to mainstream audiences in the 1920s? Do a quick internet search on Julian Eltinge. Was he considered gay or transgender at the time? Why or why not?

Female impersonators enjoyed both mainstream popularity and admiration among the burgeoning LGBT urban subcultures of the early twentieth century. By the 1920s, though, impersonation was increasingly associated with homosexuality, which made it both more scandalous and sensational. Top performers such as Julian Eltinge and Howard Blair had to distance themselves from the association to remain successful on the vaudeville stage. Eltinge, for example, went to great lengths to assert a hypermasculine, white identity offstage. He also discouraged fans we would understand today as gay or transgender from congregating at the stage door for his autograph. In this decade of extremes, a flapper could be a woman or a female-impersonating man, and a female impersonator could be a respectable performer on the mainstream stage or a participant in a Harlem drag ball, as Source 5 suggests. By the Great Depression, many non-LGBT audiences lost their taste for female impersonation, as drag became even more linked to homosexuality — and homosexuality became increasingly (and erroneously) linked in medicine and social sciences to mental illness and crime. In the 1920s, though, both flappers and female impersonators represented the very visible, and popular, spectrum of gender and sexual possibilities that existed both onstage and off.

Lowell Opera House
The Home of the Spoken Drama
A Big Hit!
“The Flirting Flapper” with HOWARD BLAIR
Female Impersonator,
and the Entire Cast of
Matinees 25c, 35c
Evenings 25c, 35c; 50c, 83c
Phone 7640
Get Ahead of the Line
Howard Blair, female impersonator whose skill nearly rivals that of Julian Eltinge, made his bow to Lowell audiences yesterday at the Lowell Opera House in comedy with music, “The Flirting Flapper,” which is being presented by the Stanley James Players this week.

In his female roles, Blair sings several soprano numbers and entertains with a number of dancing steps. Gowned in the latest creations from Paris, one who had not read the program would believe him a woman, and a charming one.

When, in the course of the play, Blair takes the part of a man, his songs are sung in a deep baritone voice that is very pleasing, and his acting has the strength so essential for the success of the play.

The leading roles in the comedy are taken by Miss Miami Campbell, charming leading lady of the company, and Gerald Rowan, the leading man. The entire company is seen to advantage also in this vehicle.