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Cole Porter - Anything Goes (1935)

That's Cole Porter writing and singing the title song from his hit 1934 musical "Anything Goes," and that may have been the feeling of much of the public when he wrote it. If you look at the night club culture in the country's major cities at that time, openly gay performers experienced a surge in popularity, so much so that the phenomenon became known as The Pansy Craze. This is JD Doyle and on this edition of Queer Music Heritage I'm going to hold your hand and take you through that world. Don't worry; it will be fine. My approach is that while there are lots of references on the internet about The Pansy Craze and mentioning the performers who shared the spotlight, there's no good place to actually hear them. So this show will be a resource for that. The term Pansy Craze was taken of course by the common slang for flamboyant gay men as being pansies. And before I give you any more history of the Craze itself, I want to get right into the music. And I'm starting at the very beginning.

Most references site The Pansy Craze as spanning the late 20s through the early 30s. Of course there were gray areas before and after. An early figure often named is Bert Savoy. He was a drag performer and was one of the first who was overtly homosexual in his act. It's been said he was pure camp on and off stage. It's also been widely said that Mae West patterned her own stage persona after Bert Savoy and one of his catch phrases "You Must Come Over" was morphed by her into "Come Up And See Me Sometime. " Savoy's partner on stage was Jay Brennan and we're lucky to have this very rare recording capturing their act. Like all of the recordings on this show, they naturally come from 78 rpm records, so please be forgiving on the sound quality. From 1923 here's Savoy & Brennan with "You Must Come Over" and the other catch phrase of their act, "You Don't Know the Half of It."

Savoy & Brennan - You Must Come Over (1923)
Savoy & Brennan - You Don't Know the Half of It (1923)

That was from 1923 and that same year Bert Savoy was killed when he was struck by lightning, so that is all we have of his act. This next artist I'm perhaps taking liberties at including, as he was from the UK but he did benefit from The Pansy Craze by having very successful engagements in New York in 1931. He's Douglas Byng and he was famous for his pantomime drag act, and for his songs full of sexual innuendos and double entendres. He was prolific at recording and performed into his late eighties. Here are two by him from 1928, starting with "The Sunday School Has Done a Lot For Me."

Douglas Byng - The Sunday School Has Done a Lot For Me (1928)
Douglas Byng & Lance Lister - Cabaret Boys (1928)

And that last one is a favorite mine by Douglas Byng, that time obviously not done in drag. That was "Cabaret Boys," a duet with Lance Lister.

Bailey's Lucky Seven, with Cliff Edwards - Nobody Lied (1922)

Let's get to a little history, and while we do that in the background we're going to hear a mostly instrumental song called "Nobody Lied," as done by a band called Bailey's Lucky Seven, with kind of jazz skatting in the middle by Cliff Edwards. I did not pick the song randomly. It was co-written by Karyl Norman. He was a prominent drag artist of this period, known as the Creole Fashion Plate, and he was also identified as a Pansy Craze performer. His photo, usually both in and out of drag, can be found on the sheet music for quite a number of songs of that period. I know of at least 15 for him. This was not uncommon for drag performers, but Karyl Norman, besides singing these songs, also wrote some of them. So while there were no recordings made by him, one of his songs was recorded by the band you're hearing.

Okay, here are the questions you should want to know. What set the stage for The Pansy Craze to even happen, and what caused it to end. Now, we're looking at social history from 70 to 80 years ago, and I'm using as my guide George Chauncey's book "Gay New York." To get the nuances you'll want to read the book, and for this broadcast I can of course just cover the main points. A lot of the story can be attributed to Prohibition, which was from 1920 to 1933. For the people who did not want to give up alcohol and nightlife, Prohibition created an underground subculture. And it was a culture that wanted to be entertained and was ready for the next novel acts. At least in New York City the Pansy Craze seemed to follow by a few years the drag balls that were popular in Harlem in the 20s. As tolerance for homosexuality was fostered in such an atmosphere, more and more of the gay night life gravitated to Time Square. And as Time Square was seen as the Crossroads of the World, club goers from all over experienced and help spread the taste for these acts. Chalk it up to the curiosity of tourists. And this new acceptance also fostered the building of a gay community itself and the mixing of gay people of all economic groups, and even gay and lesbian owned bars.

If you can sense dark clouds forming, you're right. A backlash had been brewing. To the extent that Prohibition was intended to legislate morality, it was at least in New York City instead encouraging the acceptance of diverse social elements, gays and lesbians included. It's time to mention Mae West again, as she could be said to have broken that camel's back. In 1927, five years before her first movie, she was already a force on Broadway, after staging a number of successful revues. She had a talent for attracting attention. The year before she had written, produced and directed a show called "Sex," which did good box office but city officials raided the theatre and prosecuted her on morals charges. Her next show suffered even worse fate. It was called "The Drag" and dealt with homosexuality. It did not make it past out of town tryouts, because a state law was quickly amended to ban any play from, quote, "depicting or dealing with the subject of sex degeneracy or sex perversion."

Okay, time for a music break, and as I've been talking about Mae West I picked a song very obviously done in her style, but by a man.

Cliff Edwards - Come Up and See Me Sometime (1933)

If that voice sounds familiar to you, it's because Cliff Edwards was the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Disney's "Pinocchio," and made famous the song "When You Wish Upon a Star." I need to say I have no reason to believe he was gay, but for this show that song was a natural.

We left off with homosexuality banned from the Broadway stage, but that did not ban it from the nightclubs. This brings us to Jean Malin, who many sources give credit for leading The Pansy Craze. Malin had been successful doing drag since his teens, winning prizes and attention. In 1930 he was hired to star at a rather swanky uptown venue, the Club Abbey. He was only 22. What was novel is that he did not bring a drag act to the club, but instead performed in elegant men's clothing, and brought with him the camp wit of the gay subculture. If he was heckled by men at the club he knew how to cut them to shreds with his wit, to the delight of the crowd. And being a large man, he was also reportedly willing and more than able to hold his own in a fight. He was earning admiration for essentially being a professional pansy. For a time he became the top earner on Broadway.

Success brings imitators of course and soon other clubs had their pansy acts and at the end of 1930 there was even the opening of a nightclub calling itself the Pansy Club, hosted by Karyl Norman. Other well-known female impersonators at this time and active at such venues were Francis Renault and Niles Marsh. Before I talk about other performers on this new scene I want to follow Jean Malin a bit further. In January of 1931 there was a gangland shooting at the Club Abbey. That spurred the police to mount a campaign against the pansy clubs and those featuring female impersonation, and within a few months all were either shut down or featured other kinds of acts. Malin moved his act to Boston and then in the Fall of 1932 to Hollywood, with even more success. There he appeared in at least two films and hosted at the Club New Yorker, where Hollywood celebrities hobnobbed. There was also a recording of two songs done by Malin in 1931, his only appearance on record. The first song you'll hear uses one of his famous quips, "I'd Rather Be Spanish Than Mannish." Being Spanish was apparently an in-joke for being gay in those days.

Jean Malin - I'd Rather Be Spanish Than Mannish (1931)
Jean Malin - That's What's The Matter With Me (1931)

Jean Malin and "I'd Rather Be Spanish Than Mannish," and "That's What's The Matter With Me." I mentioned he had small parts in a couple movies and I have a clip from one of them on my website. It's with some irony that he made his fame not dressing in women's clothing, but in the 1933 film "From Arizona To Broadway" he plays a female impersonator. His character is named Ray Best, a not-at-all disguised reference to Mae West, and it's West who he channels doing a number in a show. Here's just the music clip and it breaks part way through because the scene changed and I edited out the part not of him. Jean Malin, as Ray Best, doing a bit of "Frankie & Johnny."

Jean Malin - Frankie & Johnny (1933)

In August of 1933 Jean Malin died when he accidentally backed his car off a pier. He was only 25.

I've got the audio from another movie clip to share with you, and words do Not do justice to the visuals. In the 1932 Clara Bow movie "Call Her Savage" there is a short scene in a club that features two very mincing guys, dressed as maids and they prance around…there's no other way to say it…singing a song called "Working as Chambermaids." I mention it because the movie would have been made at the height of The Pansy Craze and this was perhaps Hollywood's way of giving the public a taste of it. It's only 30 seconds long but priceless.

"Call Her Savage" clip - Working As Chambermaids (1932)

"And on a great big battleship you'd like to be working as chambermaids." You owe it to yourself to track down that video on youtube.

And this is a good time to invite you to check out my website. If you visit it while you're listening you can see the playlist and follow along, while looking at photos of the artists and recordings. I've always considered our music history as a visual as well as an audio experience. Again, that's at www.queermusicheritage.com, Also, for more very queer programming, please listen to After Hours with Jimmy Carper, every Friday night/Saturday morning from 1 to 4 am, on KPFT; it's Queer Radio, with attitude.

Continuing our story I next introduce you to Ray Bourbon, who I think holds the honor of being the most colorful, most prolific and longest lasting of all these entertainers. He worked in silent films, did some vaudeville and by the 30s was working full time as a female impersonator. His recording career spanned some 30 years, with numerous releases on 78, 45 and LP, far more than any other female impersonator. He toured continually for decades and in the 40s Mae West cast him in a couple of her productions, "Catherine Was Great" and "Diamond Lil." In the 50s he claimed he had had a sex change, and accordingly changed the spelling of his name from r-a-y to r-a-e, but it was all hype, which he knew how to milk. One of his albums was even called "Let Me Tell You About My Operation." In 1970 he was convicted of charges of being an accomplice to murder and sentenced, at around age 75, to life in prison, where he died of a heart attack the next year. I did tell you he was colorful. But in the 30s The Pansy Craze brought him engagements in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago, to name a few. There is so much to tell, but that skates over the surface. I'm bringing you two songs by him, from 1936 and done in his sing-song way, a sort of recitation style that many of these artists used. Here is Ray Bourbon singing "My First Piece" and "Gigolo."

Ray Bourbon - My First Piece (1936)
Ray Bourbon - Gigolo (1936)

Accompanying Ray Bourbon on piano on these and many of his releases was Bart Howard, who was gay himself, and went on to fame later when he wrote the classic song "Fly Me To The Moon."

You can classify the Pansy Craze performers roughly into two groups, those who did and did not perform in drag. Bert Savoy, Douglas Byng, Karyl Norman and Ray Bourbon did it in drag, and as I already mentioned Jean Malin was the first to dress in male clothing, performing as your perfect pansy host. He was soon joined by others. Dwight Fiske was a classically trained pianist and was studying in Europe when Tallulah Bankhead discovered him and brought him to New York. There he soon became popular with his stories, that often ridiculed the very society circles he entertained. He had a long career, lasting until his death in the 50s and releasing quite a number of 78s and albums and writing several books. Perhaps his most well-known piece is called "Mrs Pettibone," from 1933.

Dwight Fiske - Mrs Pettibone (1933)

Dwight Fiske. Now to me, Fiske did not have quite as much gay sensibility as the other artists, and certainly not as much as the artist closing the show, Bruz Fletcher. And I'll get to Fletcher in a moment but want to insert another Cole Porter song. You'll see the relevance in a few moments. Okay, first off, please do not think I am classifying Cole Porter as part of the Pansy Craze. While he was gay that was more of an open secret than part of an act, and indeed, he rarely performed his own work. He was one of this country's finest composers and the recordings of him singing were more than likely not intended for release. Still, it's fun to hear him sing a song from one of his shows intended to be sung by a woman. Gertrude Lawrence sang "The Physician" in an original 1933 production, but here is Cole Porter doing it. And you'll see right away why I'm following it with a song by Bruz Fletcher.

Cole Porter - The Physician (1935)
Bruz Fletcher - My Doctor (1935)

"My Doctor," by Bruz Fletcher. For those just hearing this show, Bruz was spelled b-r-u-z and I understand that was a family nickname, his real name being Stroughton J Fletcher III. He also had a very colorful though very short career. One of my friends, Tyler Alpern, has literally written the book on Fletcher, having just published a comprehensive biography. According to Tyler, Fletcher was born into one of Indiana's wealthiest and most dysfunctional families. I'll skip to Fletcher landing in Hollywood where in the mid-30s he began headlining at the Club Bali. Originally booked for two weeks the engagement lasted over four years and that club was a frequent watering hole of Hollywood's who's who. As for Fletcher's act, I'll again quote his biography: "his songs have a only a few direct uncoded homosexual references but can be described as sophisticated, energetic, witty, gossipy, campy, bitchy, cosmopolitan, bawdy; in a single word gay." You've already heard the amusing innuendo of "My Doctor." This next song, one of the most well-known of his over 20 recordings, well illustrates the role of a bitchy society gossip. From 1937, "She's My Most Intimate Friend."

Bruz Fletcher - She's My Most Intimate Friend (1937)

By 1940 Fletcher had run into hard times. Police crackdowns on gay establishments had left him and many other gay performers out of work. It's theorized that led him to commit suicide in February of 1941, at age 34.

I've got one more song by Bruz Fletcher to close the show, but I want to say that of course given this timeframe I was only able to touch the surface regarding the artists who starred in The Pansy Craze. On my website I have an additional segment featuring more songs by many of the artists I've covered, along with others relevant to this story. I realize that, gee, there really is nowhere to hear these artists so I want to gather many of them together to give you that opportunity. So, there'll be more by Fletcher and Fiske, Byng and Bourbon, along with Noel Coward and even some female artists. All that can be found at my site, at www.queermusicheritage.com. And this is JD Doyle and I thank you for listening.

As I said, Bruz Fletcher is closing the show, and the last song is actually a song. While he's mostly known for his witty and bitchy recitations, he wrote an excellent song that, thanks to Frances Faye, has lived on. Faye included the Bruz Fletcher song "Drunk With Love" on her first album and kept it going by including it on two more albums and making it a staple of her live act. The song got life again in 2006 when jazz artist Terese Genecco based a show on Frances Faye and made it the title track of her own award winning album. But here's the original, from 1937, Bruz Fletcher and "Drunk With Love."

Bruz Fletcher - Drunk With Love (1937)


 

Fred Rich & His Orchestra - He's So Unusual (1929)

Welcome to Queer Music Heritage. I'm JD Doyle and I'm bringing you an extension of my show all about The Pansy Craze. In this segment I'm bringing you more of the main artists, and also some related ones, whose songs illustrate that period of our culture, covering mostly the 1930s. And this first act is not gay, but the song is. It's called "He's So Unusual," and was made famous by Helen Kane, but I chose for you a male version.

From 1929 that was by Fred Rich and His Orchestra, and Cyndi Lauper did a wonderful cover version of that song in 1984. Okay, you'll definitely notice a difference between parts 1 and 2 of this show. On part 1 I did way more talking than I usually do, because, well, there was just so much history to explain and I had to go into more depth to introduce the people, so that you knew how they fit in. In this part you already know most of the artists so I can get to the music more quickly. So, I promised you more of the main Pansy Craze acts, and I'm starting right off with two by Ray Bourbon. Listen for his trademark giggle as we hear the not-so-subtle songs "Chiropractor's Wife" and "First Swimming Lesson."

Ray Bourbon - Chiropractor's Wife (1936)
Ray Bourbon - First Swimming Lesson (1936)

Both from 1936, Ray Bourbon released those on his own label, Boubana. He may have gotten the label name idea from Dwight Fiske who started his Fiskana label a couple of years before. So, here are two by Fiske. Notice that he always first announces the name of the song.

Dwight Fiske - Mrs Trapp (1946)
Dwight Fiske - Salome (1955)

Those two were from a little later in the career of Dwight Fiske, from the 40s and 50s. Seems like he got less subtle by then with those two tracks, called "Mrs Trapp" and "Salome."

I had intended to play some Noel Coward in part one of this show. Not that I at all consider him as part of The Pansy Craze, but he has a couple of songs that certainly fit in. As in the case of the Cole Porter song I played, this first one was from a musical, and was sung by a woman in that show. And indeed over the years it's become a standard, covered by vocalists like Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and Dinah Washington. But of course I prefer his own version, from 1932, of "Mad About the Boy."

Noel Coward - Mad About the Boy (1932)

There's another song by Noel Coward that really fits this show, and that's "Green Carnation." It's from his 1933 musical "Bitter Sweet," and talks about the practice of gay men in England in the gay 90's wearing green carnations. There's no beating around the bush what the song is about, and for 1933 in a mainstream musical that was noteworthy. I wish I had a version of him singing the complete song, but all I've been able to track down is him doing it as part of a medley. So I've taken that snippet and coupled it with a version very faithful to the spirit of the song. It's from 1967 from a Noel Coward tribute album, and done by Edward Earle and the Satisfactions. They and Noel all wear a "Green Carnation"

Noel Coward - Green Carnation (1933)
Edward Earle & the Satisfactions - Green Carnation (1967)

Above, for some reason the Spanish title of the movie "The Trials
of Oscar Wilde" was "The Man With the Green Carnation"

I'm going to stay in the UK for a while and play for you a song by a great friend of Noel Coward's, Beatrice Lillie. Like many of the English artists she also made many successful appearances in the U.S. during the pansy era. Her signature song started out in 1917 as a children's song, but somehow it seems different when she sang it, in 1934. It's called "There Are Fairies At The Bottom of My Garden." And pay attention to the song that right after it, as it refers directly to those same fairies.

Beatrice Lillie - There Are Fairies At The Bottom Of My Garden (1934)
Durium Dance Band - Let's All Be Fairies (1933)

There's no mistaking the gay content of that song. That was "Let's All Be Fairies" from 1933 by the Durium Dance Band. Have you got time for a quick quote by Noel Coward. He said, "I should love to perform "There Are Fairies in the Bottom of My Garden," but I don't dare. It might come out "There Are Fairies in the Garden of My Bottom." And, you know, I have two more fairy songs for you. The first is an English music hall standard, with the amusing title of "No One Loves a Fairy When She's Forty."

Tessie O'Shea - No One Loves a Fairy When She's Forty (1935)

That was well-known British singer and actress Tessie O'Shea, singing that "No One Loves a Fairy When She's Forty." I've tried to find a male version of that song, and there must be one, but I've yet to uncover it.

I guess that was my set of fairy songs. I've got one more from the UK, and I said I'd play for you more by Douglas Byng and Bruz Fletcher. First from Douglas Byng, from 1933 is one called "And Modern American Ways."

Douglas Byng - And Modern American Ways (1933)

Again, that was Douglas Byng. And for Bruz Fletcher, here's one from 1937 called "The Prairie." Listen In the beginning for when he says "I've been rounded up a-plenty, ask my buddies Casey and Lee." Casey Roberts was his partner of many years, and himself quite accomplished as an artist and designer, garnering three Academy Award nominations.

Bruz Fletcher - The Prairie (1937)

Next you'll hear Fletcher sing "Oh for a Week in the Country," and pay close attention for all the double meanings, like for example, mention of a daisy chain.

Bruz Fletcher - Oh for a Week in the Country (1937)

The delightful Bruz Fletcher.

I want to share with you a couple by a straight artist named Nan BlaKstone. She also was known for the naughty double-entendre style of music, and she performed at the same clubs as some of our pansies. She headlined with Jean Malin in 1931 and Bruz Fletcher in 1934. She even paired up with Dwight Fiske to release an album together. And she was on one of the labels Ray Bourbon recorded on, Liberty Music Shop. She has a song I've played before on my show called "He Should Have Been a WAC," about a guy who, well, should have. But I've picked two for you that show just where her mind could go. Both from 1946, here are "The Elevator Song" and "Little Richard's Getting Bigger," and it's just what you think.

Nan BlaKstone - The Elevator Song (1946)
Nan BlaKstone - Little Richard's Getting Bigger (1944)

Nan BlaKstone, and on recordings made after 1939 you'll find her last name spelled without the c, and with the k capitalized, as that was when her publicist decided to change the spelling.

I've got another female performer to play for you, who went by Madame Spivy, or just Spivy. She started entertaining in New York City in the mid-1930s and made her first recordings in I believe 1939. She attained real attention when she ran her own club, called Spivy's Roof, located on 57th Street in New York City, which lasted from 1940 to 1951. That's quite a long run. Here's a quote from someone from that time period describing her: "This was Spivy. Her hair was combed and lacquered into a pointed pompadour with a white streak running through it, and she often wore a black dress with shoulder pads and sequined lapels. Spivy was squat and looked like a bulldog. We used to call her the bulldog bulldyke." After running her club in New York she went on to do the same in several European cities, and then returned to the U.S., and amazingly went from live performing to a quite successful movie and television career, appearing in major films. But back to the music, my favorite by her mentions Oscar Wilde. It's from 1939, and she says "I Brought Culture to Buffalo in the 90's."

Spivy - I Brought Culture to Buffalo in the 90's (1939)

Time to wind down this segment, and I've had a lot of fun bringing you music that you probably would not be able to hear anywhere else. I'm closing with three by Ray Bourbon, and the first is called "Bourbon to the Cleaners," and is from 1945, where he says he's cleaned up his act. Don't believe it. I like the song because he mentions some of his contemporaries, so you'll hear him talk about Nan Blakstone, Dora Maughan, Dwight Fiske, Sophie Tucker and Mae West.

Ray Bourbon - Bourbon to the Cleaners (1945)

Of course you noticed when Bourbon mentioned Mae West, who he had close associations with for years. In 1944 she cast him in one of her shows, called "Catherine Was Great." The critics hated it, but it ran for several months on Broadway. In it she sings the song "Strong, Solid and Sensational." Now, it's a very unusual recording where you can hear Ray Bourbon actually sing, but he departs from his normal recitation style to do his own version of that song, with his best Mae West impression.

Ray Bourbon - Strong, Solid and Sensational (1945)

From 1945, again, that was Ray Bourbon, and this is JD Doyle thanking you again for joining me on this visit to the music of the Pansy Craze. Closing the show is another rare track of Ray Bourbon singing, this time in his own voice. It's from 1941 and is a tropical journey with all the wordplays you would expect from a song called "Take a Lei."

Ray Bourbon - Take a Lei (1941)