The rise of female impersonator Julian Eltinge was a twist on the old story of instant stardom. In it, an agent/producer spots an ingénue from an amateur play in the provinces and rockets her (or him) to fame on Broadway.
Eltinge started out in the drag shows popular in Boston around the turn of the 20th century. They took him to Broadway, to European tours and to the vaudeville circuit as a star of George M. Cohan’s troupe.
He became one of the highest paid stars on stage, appearing in a string of hit Broadway musicals. He published three Julian Eltinge magazines, including Julian Eltinge’s Magazine of Beauty Hints and Tips, which promoted his own line of women’s cosmetics, corsets and shoes. A Broadway theater was named after him. He starred in early silent films, hobnobbed with Hollywood stars and built a lavish villa where he lived with his mother.
Offstage he cultivated a manly image, smoking cigars, cursing, riding horses, breaking engagements with women and staging fights in bars. He began to decline in his early 40s and died mysteriously on May 7, 1941.
1st Corps of Cadets
It all started with a fundraiser to build what is now The Castle at Park Plaza in Boston’s Back Bay. Also known as the Armory of the 1st Corps of Cadets, it used to be the headquarters for Massachusetts’ elite militia unit. Now a steak can be ordered in the gun room, as it is home to a Smith & Wollensky restaurant.
The 1st Corps of Cadets was organized in 1741 as a company of young gentlemen like John Hancock, who had the time and money to serve as the ceremonial honor guard for the royal governors.
The 1st Corps mission evolved over the years. By 1890, members decided they needed a place to meet, train and store their weapons. They commissioned William Gibbons Preston to design a granite, castlelike structure that could withstand crowd violence. Preston included a six-story tower. To pay for the building, the 1st Corps raised money through public subscription and annual comic operettas. Known as the Cadet Theatricals, members of the all-male cast played both men and women at the Tremont Theatre (now the site of a Loew’s Multiplex).
The Evolution of Julian Eltinge
Many details of the life of Julian Eltinge are unclear. He revealed little about his personal life because he wanted to quell rumors that he was gay. “I am not gay, I just like pearls,” he often said.
His birthday has been given on various dates, but a researcher finally nailed it down. He was born William Julian Dalton on May 14, 1881, in Newton, Mass., the son of Julia Baker Dalton and Michael Dalton. His father, a failed gold prospector, later opened a barbershop in Butte, Mont.
According to one version of the story, he played a girl in the Cadet Theatricals at the age of 10. His performance inspired the next year’s show to be written around him.
But his biographer, Martin Litvin, writes that Billy Dalton was encouraged by his mother to dress in skirts and entertain men in the saloons of Butte. When his father found out he beat him severely. At 17, he went to live with an aunt in Boston, where he worked in a dry goods store.
Another biographer picks up the thread. In Extravaganza King: Robert Barnet and Boston Musical Theatre, Anne Alison Barnet writes that Billy Dalton was then studying dance and taken the name Julian Eltinge (rhymes with sing). His dance instructor recommended him to Barnet, the Cadet Theatricals producer, because he had beautiful legs and was a joy to work with. He played the part of a soubrette named Mignonette in Miladi and the Musketeer.
The next year another amateur theatrical group asked him to perform — the Bank Officers Association, a benevolent society for bankers. The cadets had decided not to produce a show that year, but to spend more time drilling. Rumor had it that the military brass frowned on drag performances as unseemly.
And so the BOA took center stage, and Julian Eltinge stole the 1901 show as Claire de Loinville in Miss Simplicity. Two years later he dazzled the audience in Baron Humbug. A prominent producer named E.E. Rice then took him to Broadway.
The rest is history.
With thanks to the Julian Eltinge Project.
Images: By Tom™5 – Armory of the First Corps of Cadets, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4793014. This story was updated in 2022.