At the heart of American Vaudeville is one strange, unsettling fact: for nearly fifty years, from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s, vaudeville was everywhere—then, suddenly, it was nowhere. This book tells the story of what was once the most popular form of entertainment in the country using lists, creation myths, thumbnail biographies, dreams, and obituaries. A lyric history—part social history, part song—American Vaudeville sits at the nexus between poetry, experimental nonfiction, and, because it includes historic images, art books.
In this excerpt from Geoffrey Hilsabeck’s new book (available and shipping now when ordered from our website), the author conjures Julian Eltinge, who achieved fame as a female impersonator in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Hilsabeck will read from American Vaudeville at White Whale Bookstore on June 16.
The door to Julian Eltinge’s dressing room is painted black. When knocked, it rattles in its frame. He stands in front of a mirror, whitening his face and neck with powder. He’s taken off his clothes (a brown suit hovers against the wall, a pair of brown loafers snug below), his bathrobe hangs loosely off his waist, and he’s dipping a sponge into a cigar box full of white powder and touching it to his skin. He works with the semiconsciousness of an expert. At each touch of the sponge, his body becomes softer, rounder. Curves emerge.
. . . next day decided that I would wear skirts at the entertainment to be given in Reading. Mrs. Wyman became interested, and I worked hard three hours a day for weeks at a time. I learned to dress from the skin out.
All the time he talks, he works away. By now the first layer of powder has stiffened and a second has been loosely applied. He rubs cold cream into his cheeks and forehead, over his nose with two smooth strokes, over his ears and behind them under the little cap covering his hair and then down to his neck, grabs a rag from the dressing table and wipes off some excess cream and then puts more powder on his face with the sponge and on top of that a layer of rouge. “It depends on where you put the paint, not how much you splash on,” he says, not looking at me, focused entirely on the transformation at hand. He rubs blue-black grease paint around his eyes and works it into the rouge and powder, adding contrast to his face, blackens his eyebrows, reddens his lips. Like a painter he dips a sharp little stick into a metal cup, which has been heated over a candle, and transfers beads of a black, sticky mixture to his eyelashes, a little black bead on each trembling lash.Read More »