The city’s star female impersonator of 1904

All but forgotten today, Julian Eltinge was one of the highest paid actors in the early 1900s.

His shtick: He played all his roles in drag.

But unlike most drag queens, who present a caricature of a woman, Eltinge was a “gender illusionist” pretending, with a wink, to actually be a woman.

He made his debut in his 20s at the Bijou Theater in 1904. In subsequent shows written just for him, he played to packed houses.

Audiences knew he was a man, but he was so convincing as a woman, he was dubbed “Mr. Lillian Russell.” He even launched a magazine that gave women beauty tips.

Perhaps to fend off rumors that he was gay, Eltinge put up a macho facade off-stage and was known to smoke cigars and get into bar brawls, according to It Happened in New York City, cowritten by Fran Capo.

His star faded in the 1920s after leading roles in silent films. He died in 1941 following a 52nd Street club performance.

If you want to see Eltinge today, head to the lobby of the Empire Theater, at 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue.

This is the former Eltinge Theater, and a ceiling mural—uncovered during renovations in the 1990s—depicts three women in flowing robes, all of whom are thought to be Eltinge.

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One Response to “The city’s star female impersonator of 1904”

  1. mattucee Says:

    In fact, the AMC Empire Theater on 42nd near 8th Ave was originally the Eltinge Theater when it was built in 1912. It’s also where Bud Abbot & Lou Costello first performed their classic skit; “Who’s On First?”

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