Recent research argues that gay-oriented performances have been a constant in American entertainment at least since the early nineteenth century. Evolved from minstrel shows and a gay subculture, female impersonation, a popular mode of gay performance, entered variety theater in San Francisco by the 1860s and eastern cities in the 1870s. By the 1890s, the homosexual presence was overt in clubs in New York's Bowery.
While New York's Harlem and Greenwich Village supported a gay culture of theater, music, and club acts by 1910, in other cities, entertainment venues catering to gay and lesbian audiences emerged later in Depression-era speakeasies. After Prohibition, cabarets and nightclubs provided venues for gay performances.
Middle-class theaters and clubs in America and some European cities in the nineteenth century shaped powerful and damaging effeminate stereotypes that persist in entertainment today. At the turn of the century, Paris revues offered such freakish caricatures. In the twentieth century, homosexual performers in variety, revue, and cabaret entertainment have gradually become the creators of those images, balancing the demeaning portrayals in movies, television, and popular entertainment.
Songs and characters of the minstrel show, America's premier antebellum entertainment, gave white men avenues to desire black men and made “currency out of the black man” for the white males in the audience, it is argued. The appeal of minstrelsy paralleled the birth of a gay male subculture in New York City and elsewhere. Moreover, the minstrel characters-men and women played by men-allowed the tracing of homoerotic desire between the performer and the male observer. In England, the music halls, the emergent mid-nineteenthcentury entertainment, fostered the dame, a man in woman's costume, who sang popular songs laden with social and sexual commentary, a counterpart to the minstrel wench.
The wench and dame roles evolved into the fixed characters of the twentieth-century female-impersonator repertoire, the dame and the prima donna. The dame and the prima donna have been viewed as constructions of gender in which sexuality could be commented upon by the impersonator and considered by the audience.
The ultimate cabaret was born at the end of the nineteenth century, especially in Germany, France, and Holland, of a quest for entertainment that distilled from popular amusements to convey a political or social message. But between the wars, the “amusement cabaret, ” scorned by those in political cabaret, offered venues with gay performers that attracted gay audiences. In Weimar Berlin by the late 1920s, numerous gay cabarets, such as the Alexander-Palais, encouraged a gay subculture and attracted a tourist trade.
Female impersonation, legitimated by theater and vaudeville, entertained and, in a subtle, nonpolitical way, provoked audience members to consider their political and social worlds. Important performers in the early decades of the century included Karyl Norman, Jean Malin, and Francis Renault. Julian Eltinge, who led musical, minstrel show, and vaudeville bills after 1906, was the model for serious but humorous impersonation of women that flourished in cabarets in the 1920s. In contrast, Bert Savoy offered the model of the loud-mouthed prostitute. Barbette, an acrobat, performed a strip on the
CABARET, VARIETY, AND REVUE ENTERTAINMENT
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Publication information: Book title: Gay Histories and Cultures. Contributors: George E. Haggerty - Editor, John Beynon - Editor, Douglas Eisner - Editor. Publisher: Garland. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 2000. Page number: 157.
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