As Pride Month comes to an end, I wanted to call attention to an interesting piece that appeared earlier this month about the history of drag performances in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area during the late 19th to early 20th century.
Despite laws prohibiting crossdressing, its use in theatrical performance was considered appropriate at the highest strata of society.
Minneapolis maintained a city ordinance against cross-dressing between 1877 and the mid-1900s, and St. Paul didn’t repeal its 1891 ordinance prohibiting people from wearing “clothes not belonging to their sex” in public until 2003. Theater allowed drag performers to evade these legalities in ways that individuals “cross-dressing” in daily life could not. Mainstream society allowed and accepted drag so long as performers were explicitly donning a costume, maintaining a “fourth wall” between themselves and the audience. It did not make these allowances for individuals not attired in gender conforming clothing outside of explicit performance, who were far more subject to policing….
…Popular “female impersonators” like Julian Eltinge, Karyl Norman and Paul Vernon performed in venues like the Grand Opera House in St. Paul and the Metropolitan Theater and the Orpheum in Minneapolis. The elitism of the venues reflected the “fashionable society” that attended. But even during this early period of drag, performers were not exclusively men; women performed and received similar acclaim as “male impersonators.” “High-class vaudeville” artists like Mary Marble and Margaret Grayce toured nationally, stopping to perform in Minnesota in 1897 and 1908, respectively.
According to the article, there was some uncomfortable intersections with blackface performance during this time. There is an implication that some of the drag depictions might have feed into similarly offensive stereotypes regarding gender.
It wasn’t until drag started to move to nightclubs and the illusion of the fourth wall was increasingly dissolved that the practice of crossdressing began to raise alarms socially.
By the 1930s, drag was written up in newspapers more as the cause of police raids than as a performance notice. Police interfered not so much due to the content, but rather because of the interaction between performers and audiences. Police told Variety that acts contained “nothing obscene or immoral in show … but (we’d) like it stopped anyhow.”
Despite police raids and attempts to close down established and widely popular shows, drag performances continued and became more diverse.
As the 1940s progressed, drag was not exclusive to white performers. Minneapolis’s Clef Club catered to Black patrons and featured Black performers, such as the singer Alma Smith and drag artist Carroll Lee, and the 1950s and 60s brought acclaim to Black drag artists like Stormé DeLarverie, Dodie Daniels and Don Marshall, featured in the Jewel Box Revue.