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The Gay Life Is a Drag

It’s a little known fact that Utah used to love its drag queens. It’s true. The Ogden Standard-Examiner reported in 1924 that female impersonator Jeff Jones was one of the featured acts at Weber County’s Old Folks Day Outing in Lorin Farr Park. This event was for Weber County pioneers over the age of 70.

And if that is not proof enough for you, in 1946 female impersonator “Madam LaPura Devonovitch” (Herbert Osmond Traynor) performed at the Deseret News Old Timer Club in the Lion’s House. Two Mormon Apostles, Elder A.E. Bower and Elder Mark E. Peterson were in the audience. Can someone tell me when Mormons became such sticks- in-the-mud?

Peruse the entertainment section of Utah’s local newspaper for Vaudeville shows from the 1890s to the 1920s and you will find female impersonators as part of almost every one. In 1902 the Deseret News reviewer of the play The Country Fair simply gushed over Neil Burgess’ farewell tour as “Abigail Prue,” the play’s elderly “spinster.” He wrote that Burgess “has become to be almost so much a household word where ever theaters are known, that his reappearance hardly needs describing. As a female impersonator, he occupies a place all by himself, and he has for so many years that it is impossible to think of him in any other habiliments [clothes].”

Another female impersonator the critics raved over was Ray Lawrence who, in 1915, played at Salt Lake City’s Pantages Vaudeville. A Deseret News critic wrote, “Ray Lawrence promises wonderful impersonations and delineations of feminine roles. He has an unusual falsetto voice with his natural feminine cast of countenances and ability to wear stunning gowns with the grace of a showgirl enables him to carry the deceptive role to perfection.” He added in another review, “Ray Lawrence, a female impersonator, looks stunning as he parades in attractive gowns. Also, he sings a fair soprano. ”

As long as these cross-dressers kept to the limelight they were praised and adored, but they ran smack into the arms of “Lilly Law” whenever they ventured on stage as recorded in 1906. “Roy Bland, one of the members of the Mahara minstrels, was arrested last night by [Provo] City Marshal Henry for masquerading as a woman. Bland left a $10 forfeit which he probably will not call for. He is a female impersonator and has been in the habit in other towns of carrying the impersonation farther than his contract requires. He attempted the same thing here and was arrested by Mr. Henry at the back door of a saloon and all his protestations that he was a lady did not avail him. He gave a sprinting stunt which would have been more effective in enabling him to escape from the guardian of the peace, had he not run into the arms of Officer Olsen, who was at the end of an alley through which Bland was making his exit.”

The tradition of men performing on the American stage as female impersonators can be traced back to Francis Leon or as he preferred to call himself, “The Only Leon.” Leon was born in 1844 and rose to fame in the 19th century by performing in minstrel shows. By the time Leon was 29, his influence was such that every major minstrel troop had its own “Leon” imitator and eventually even Vaudeville shows. Leon was said to have owned more than 300 dresses, which he refused to call “costumes.” Some of his gowns cost as much as $400. But he could afford it because, by 1882, Leon was earning more than any other minstrel performer in America. The press loved him and raved, “Leon is the best male-female actor known to the stage. He does it with such dignity, modesty, and refinement that it is truly art.”

In 1864, Francis Leon formed his own minstrel troop with Edwin Kelly, who was probably his lover. The pair began to feature theatrical elements using elaborate scenery and refined songs from operas. In three years Kelly and Leon were even able to open their own theater company at Hope Chapel in New York City.

But not all was well. Leon, who was considered girlish and even effeminate off stage, was being defamed by Tom Sharpe, the brother of Sam Sharply [aka Sharpe], another well-known performer who owned a rival minstrel troop. On December 11, 1867, Sam Sharply stopped the pair as they were leaving Hope Chapel and quarreled with Kelly and Leon in front of the theater. At one point Sam attempted to strike the diminutive Leon, who the New York Times had reported weighed 100 pounds or less. Sam chased Leon while Tom Sharpe and Edwin Kelly began to struggle. As soon as Kelly was pulled from Tom, he fired a pistol at Sharpe who fell to the ground. In a fit of rage Kelly then shot twice at the man as he lay in the gutter. Sam, seeing his brother lying dead, fired off a round at Kelly, grazing his head. Before Sam could get off another shot a police officer seized him. The body of Tom Sharpe was then taken into the vestibule of the Hope Chapel Theater to await an ambulance to take it to the city morgue. Edwin Kelly was arrested and after a sensational trial, he was found not guilty due to self-defense.

Kelly and Leon performed in Vaudeville houses across America for the next 10 years until 1878, when their company sailed for Australia and opened at the Queen’s Theatre in Melbourne. During their first four weeks there they made $11,000. One member of their troop was Thomas Dilverd, a three-foot, one-inch tall African-America female impersonator, who billed himself as “Japanese Tommy.” He popularized the expression ‘hunky dory’ in American culture.

Kelley and Leon ended their long relationship in Australia where Kelly remained and became lovers with a fellow American actor named W.H. Leake. When Kelly died in Adelaide in 1899, he was buried in the same grave as Leake.

Francis Leon’s career began to fade as he reached middle age. In America, he joined the famous Jack Haverley’s Mastodon Minstrels which had performed in London.

Whether Francis Leon ever played in Salt Lake is unknown to me, but the Salt Lake Herald reported that on June 30, 1882 and August 12, 1882, Francis Leon and the Haverley’s Mastodon Minstrels of San Francisco were staying at the White House Hotel in Salt Lake City. But they may just have been traveling cross country on a train and laid over in Salt Lake since the paper didn’t mention them performing in a local show.

The once world-famous Leon died in obscurity. He is mentioned in reviews in 1900, so he survived Edwin Kelly but who knows for how long. There are no notices in America’s media to mark the passing of the “Only Leon,” but his legacy, that performing in drag is indeed an American art form, lives on.

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