Tuesday, October 13, 2009

LGBT History Month: The Pansy Craze

The Pansy Craze sounds like a fondness for gardening, but it isn't. It was a period in the late 20s and early 30s in which gay clubs and performers--known as pansy performers--experienced a surge in underground popularity in the United States.

They were the original Club Kids. They were Ray Bourbon and Gene--or Jean--Malin, Bruz Fletcher and Bert Savoy, among others.

The Craze seemed to erupt during Prohibition, in a time many referred to as the Era of Anything Goes. With liquor illegal, speakeasies popped up all over New York city, first in the Village and then in Harlem, where booze and performances unlike any seen before were welcomed and celebrated. With the end of Prohibition in 1933, many of these Pansy performers found themselves out of favor, out of work, out of style. But they set the stage for everyone from Jim Bailey to Rip Taylor to RuPaul, Lady Bunny, Charles Pierce and Varla Jean Merman....on and on I could go.

During the 20s, Broadway flirted with, ahem, homosexual themes, but the real performers were in small venues in the Village and up in Harlem. With Prohibition came the loss of inhibitions, and these once-underground performers became celebrated in private clubs and speakeasies all over New York.

It is perhaps telling that after the repeal of prohibition, this acceptance and enjoyment of the Pansy performers waned. Ray Bourbon was arrested many times for an act that is tame by today’s standards and by 1940, laws were so strict that even the internationally famous female impersonator Julian Eltinge--who had been a huge star with wide mainstream acceptance--could not get a waiver from the LAPD to perform in drag. He was forced to wear a tuxedo and point to his gowns hanging on racks behind him. That was the real drag.

Here, now, are some of the Pansies, who lived life large, and oftentimes fast, but who entertained us and paved the way for all of us to be ourselves, in whatever drag we might wish to be seen.

Gene MalinGene [Jean] Malin was born Victor Eugene James Malin in Brooklyn in 1908. he had two brothers; one became a cop and the other worked for a sugar refinery. Gene designed costumes, and won many awards for his efforts at the elaborate Manhattan Drag Balls of the 1920s.

By his late teens, he was a chorus boy in several Broadway shows, and began working as a drag performer in several Greenwich Village clubs, most notably the "Rubaiyat". Newspaper columnists took note of his performances and soon Malin was booked at Louis Schwartzs' elegant "Club Abbey."

It was at this point that Malins' career and fate took a most interesting turn. Although he was at times assisted by "Helen Morgan JR.", a popular drag artist of the day, Malin stopped appearing in drag himself. The crux of his act was not to impersonate women, but to appear as an openly gay male, moving about the stage and amongst the audience members as a tuxedo-clad, elegant, witty, wisecracking Emcee. Malin's 'joke' was that he was a gay man doing his impression of a straight man doing his impression of a gay man.

It was all very Victor/Victoria.

Malin became the top earner of Broadway for a time. After headlining numerous New York Clubs, he took his act to Boston and ultimately to the West Coast, where he had small roles in several films, usually as the stock character of a witty limpwristed clerk.

In the early hours of August 10, 1933, Gene Malin was killed in a freak accident. After his "farewell performance" at the "Ship Cafe" in Venice, California, Malin got into his sedan with roommate Jimmy Forlenza and comedic actress Patsy Kelly. He apparently confused the gears and the car lurched in reverse and went off a pier into the water. His friends were seriously injured, but Malin was killed instantly--pinned under the steering wheel.

Gene Malin was only 24 years of age at the time of his death, and although many saw him as an oddity, in a short span of time Jean Malin made history.

Bert SavoyA flurry of obituaries followed in all the cities where Malin had performed. Interestingly, many of the articles drew a comparison to the death 10 years or so prior, of famed vaudevillian drag performer Bert Savoy--whose character was largely the inspiration for the persona of Mae West.

Born in 1880, Bert Savoy began his drag act doing a hootchie-kootchie dance at freak shows in Boston and polished it in the wilds of Alaska. He hit the big time in 1914 while understudying for James Russell of the Russell Brothers--known for their "Maids to Order" bitch act as a pair of Irish servant girls. When Russell dropped dead, Bert Savoy began a partnership to "straight man" Jay Brennan, whom Savoy had picked up on a streetcar the year before. Their teaming was a huge success, leading them to headline the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918.

Savoy was one of the first of such acts to clearly be associated in the minds of his audience as being overtly homosexual. While most other female impersonators of the day, such as Julian Eltinge, went to great lengths to let you know that they were engaged in painstaking artifice--Eltinge's career was marked by an all-out public relations effort to show him in any number of traditional "virile male" activities when off stage--Bert Savoy was out, both on- and off-stage.

Drag had always been a main staple of vaudeville, but it was not performed as or perceived as "gay" until the appearance of Savoy, who was pure camp in public and private.

The story of Bert Savoys' death is legendary and, by all accounts, absolutely true. On June 26, 1923, Savoy and two friends were walking along the shore at Long Beach watching an upcoming storm when a thunderclap prompted Savoy to squeal "Ain't Miss God cuttin' up somethin' awful?"

He was immediately struck dead by a bolt of lightning.

Girl knew how to make an exit.

Bruz FletcherAnother artist that cashed in on the Pansy Craze with kind of a sophisticated and campy bitchiness was Bruz Fletcher. His career only ran from about 1929 to 1940 and when he committed suicide in 1941, at age 34, it was generally reported that he was despondent over his inability to find work as a gay performer.

One of his fans noted that Fletcher had “a level of genius equaled by very, very few.” Fletcher became a master of gay code and double speak in order to survive and flourish in a very homophobic era. A singer, composer, novelist, playwright, the darling of sophisticated night spots in the 30s, Bruz Fletcher left behind 3 albums of complex coded songs and 2 novels. His drama-filled life was a sad story of extremes and incredible plot twists.

Ray BourbonEqually dramatic was the life and career of Ray (Rae) Bourbon. If a good deal of mystery surrounds Bourbon, so many years after his death in 1971, it is probably due to the fact that Bourbon excelled at generating numerous conflicting stories about himself.

He was either born as "Hal Wadell" in Texarkana, in 1892, or "Ramon Icarez" in or near Chihuahua, TX in 1898, or the son of Franz Joseph of Austria and Louisa Bourbon. Many "facts" regarding Bourbon's early life­, his claim to birth of Bourbon royalty, his claim to an education at Tulane Medical School in New Orleans, his claim to have been Pancho Villa's notorious "Señora Diablo"­ are all unsubstantiated and probably products of Bourbon's own active imagination.

He was a queen with a dream and an aptitude for storytelling.

He claimed to have begun in the theatre in England in 1913, and this may well be true. It is true that he returned to the US by 1917 and, now known as Rae Bourbon, he supposedly won a Photoplay contest and was awarded a studio contract as first prize. He would say later that he worked in several silent films, and it is reported that he appeared under the name "Ramon Icarez" as a fire dancer at the opening of the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1923.

By the mid-20s, Bourbon was working with Bert Sherry as the vaudeville team of "Bourbon and Sherry" and later toured with the Martin Sisters. In 1932, he was working full-time as a female impersonator at Jimmy's Back Yard in Hollywood and Tait's in San Francisco. It was at Taits, in 1933, where his "Boys Will Be Girls" review was raided by police during a live radio show.

In the later 30s and early 40s he headlined at the Rendezvous in Los Angeles and starred in his own revue, "Don't Call Me Madam." His "Insults of 1944", at the Playtime Theatre in Los Angeles, caught the eye of Mae West and she cast Bourbon in her 1944 production of 'Catherine Was Great" and in her 1948 production of "Diamond Lil".

During the 50s and 60s Bourbon entertained at hundreds of clubs and released dozens of albums, certainly the most prolific female impersonator to have done the latter. His appearances are still fondly remembered by many who saw him when he toured in big and small towns all over the country, providing many isolated gay men with a glimpse of the LGBT community of pre-Stonewall America.

Ray’s comedy was, at once, highbrow and lowbrow, overtly gay and covertly subversive, and yet, despite his influence on gay men, he remained vague about his own sexuality. There is evidence that he had relationships with both men and women, was married twice, and fathered at least one son. In his memoirs, Ray discusses his sexual attractions and relationships to both genders with equal enthusiasm, but never called himself gay or bisexual. He worked on stage in and out of drag.

Another great Bourbon exaggeration came when he cashed in on the news of Christine Jorgensen and claimed to have had a sex change in 1956; this is almost certainly not true.
After a once quite successful career, by the late 1960s Bourbon had fallen on hard times. In 1968, barely eking out a living, traveling through Texas and working at the Jewel Box Revue in Kansas City, Bourbon was implicated in the murder of a dog kennel owner where Bourbon had lodged over 70 dogs.

The circumstances alone raise many questions, but Bourbon was convicted as the mastermind of the killing, along with two conspirators. The 78-year-old Bourbon was given a 99-year sentence and died on January 19, 1971 in the Howard County Texas prison, while penning his unfinished memoirs "Daddy Was a Lady".

The Pansy Craze. It may have been short and sweet but it's influence and effect on the LGBT community is still being felt today, everywhere from Vegas to Project Runway, MTV to VH1, New York to Smallville. They were fierce, fabulous, and some of the first.

On This Day In LGBT History

October 13, 1896 – The play “A Florida Enchantment” was reviewed in the New York Times. Some of the characters swallowed a magic seed which transformed them into members of the opposite sex. It was described as vile, stupid, and the worst play ever produced in New York.
October 13, 1970 – The first meeting of the London branch of the Gay Liberation Front was held at the London School of Economics.
October 13, 1987 – In Washington DC 600 people were arrested in an act of civil disobedience at the US Supreme Court to protest the Bowers v. Hardwick decision which upheld the constitutionality of Georgia’s sodomy law. It was the largest number to participate in an act of civil disobedience since the Vietnam War. (Federal law prohibits protesting on the steps of the US Supreme Court.)
October 13, 1993 – The Lesbian Avengers protested during a speech by Senator Sam Nunn (D) in New York City. Nunn fought to retain the military’s ban on gay and lesbian servicepersons.
October 13, 1997 – Retired US Army Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, who challenged the ban on gay and lesbian servicepersons, announced that she was considering running for the House of Representatives.
October 13, 1998 – In a New York Times article, Steven Schwalm, a spokesman for the Family Research Council, said that hate crimes laws criminalize pro-family beliefs.
October 13, 1999 – The French National Assembly approved a law giving unwed gay and straight couples the same rights as married couples.
October 13, 1999 – President Clinton renewed his call to include gay men and lesbians in hate crimes legislation.

1 comment:

Beth said...

Fascinating write-up, Bob! I enjoyed learning about these performers.