Back to August 2011 Show


The Drag King Show

August 2011 Script

Betty Thornton - Vice Versa (1945)
Rev. J.M. Gates - Manish Women (1930)
Buckinghams - Kind of a Drag (1967)

Yes, "Kind of a Drag," and that's what this entire show will be, though I hope in a good way. This is JD Doyle and this is an unusual edition of Queer Music Heritage. I've done many shows in the past that focused on the music of Drag Queens, but this time I'm tackling the subject of Drag Kings. And I say tackle because I found this a difficult show to write and research, and to find music to go along with it, and after all this is a music show.

I had no trouble picking the opening song. It's called "Vice Versa" and is one of my newer acquisitions. It's from 1946 by a singer of risqué material named Betty Thornton. The rare album I found by her is called "Tit for Tat" and the subtitle is "Sexucational Songs Sung by Betty Thornton." While Betty's backup band was doing the instrumental part I could not resist inserting a little of a sermon by the fiery minister Rev. J.M. Gates. It was called "Manish Women" and was actually released on a 78 rpm record, around 1930.

And of course I grabbed the intro for "Kind of a Drag," the 1967 hit by the Buckinghams, just so I could do some wordplay with the title. So, now we're ready to actually start this show. I found that the definition of a Drag King may be different to different people, and has changed a little over the last few decades. To quote Wikipedia, "Drag kings are mostly female performance artists who dress in masculine drag and personify male gender stereotypes as part of their performance." The Wiki article says that the term first showed up in print around 1972, and Part 1 of this show will focus on the Drag King art form in the last about thirty years.

Of course I am not ignoring the many well-known women who performed as male impersonators, dating from the end of the 1800's and up through the 1960's. These are folks like Vesta Tilley, Ella Shields, Annie Hindle, Hetty King, Gladys Bentley, Storme Delavarie, and others. I decided I had way too much to cover to try to fit all this into one hour, so Part 2 of this show will be sort of "Drag Kings, the Prequel."

I've got three I think interesting interviews that I hope gives you different perspectives. I'm starting off with Anderson Toone. He's been called one of the founding fathers of the Drag King movement, and while he certainly has the history, he also brings an additional spin into the subject, as a number of years ago he transitioned, and while a Drag King becoming transgender is definitely not the rule it does become the journey for some. This would be similar to a Drag Queen after a while deciding to identify as a woman, perhaps even having surgery.

My middle interview is with an artist also with a long history of performing as a Drag King. In the late 80's and through almost all the 90's Leigh Crow developed her character Elvis Herselvis into one of the most known and loved, performing all over the world. Finally, for the last spot I went local, and interviewed Robin Mack. She is one of the producers of a gender performance troupe called Houston Gendermyn. As you will see with her interview, she hesitates to call the group a Drag King group, and much prefers broader, more inclusive terms, which gives us a more modern look at how things may be evolving.

Again, first up is Anderson Toone, but I've been talking way way too long without playing any music, so first I'll play this next song and then I'll tell you about it.

Bucktooth Varmints - Billy the Dykeabilly (~1993-1995)

Anderson Toone Interview

That was "Billy the Dykeabilly" by the Bucktooth Varmints, from around 1995. And I want to tell you frankly that finding music for this show was quite difficult. One reason is that, along with skits and spoken word pieces, lipsync-ing is a big part of Drag King shows. Not too many Drag Kings do their own singing, and those that do, well, not many of them do recordings that have good enough sound quality for radio. If you search youtube you can find many performance clips, but they are almost all done in a noisy club with amateur video equipment, so this was a challenge. But I'm very pleased to have that last track, and it leads to my Anderson Toone interview. One of the first bands he formed when he was doing Drag Kinging was the Bucktooth Varmints, but we'll get to that in a few moments.

To go back a little on his resume, Anderson Toone was known pre-transition as Annie Toone and was an actor, singer, musician and around 1980 helped found the New York City band The Bloods. That band did extensive touring in Europe and Anderson spent ten years there, in Amsterdam and London and as a member of various bands, including Idiot Savant and the Well-Oiled Sisters. In 1992 he returned to the U.S., to San Francisco, where he immediately formed the Bucktooth Varmints. The next ten or so years included lots of Drag King performances under a variety of character names. In 1996 he helped create the first ever Drag King musical, called "Hillbillies on the Moon," for Theatre Rhinoceros, and around 2003 he decided to medically transition. In 2007 he was interviewed for the documentary "Riot Acts," which was released in 2009 and which I highly recommend. And yes, I glossed over a lot.

I started the interview like I started all three for this show, by asking "to you, what is a Drag King?"

JD: To you, what is a drag king?

Anderson Toone: A Drag King is a form of performance art that frames itself in terms of performing masculinity, and so that could mean a variety of things depending on who the person is. The way that I did it and where I come from was the early 80's and very sort of the expression of the butch side of butch-femme culture. But in the ensuing years it's now a broader term, which I don't think is necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. I've gone through different permutations, but I've sort of made my peace with it now.

JD: When did you first perform as a drag king?

AT: In 1980…was the first time I consciously performed masculinity, at the first WOW Festival, Women's One World performance festival in New York and I did a show with Jordy Mark called "Sex & Drag & Rock & Roles." It was sort of a cabaret act. We went through a variety of songs and characters; we did several as men and several as women. San Francisco in the 90's and New York in those early 80's were a really inspiring time for that, where people encouraged each other to step out of their regular roles, whether it was in a drag context or into drag or out of drag or not, people pushed each other and it was really fun.

JD: I know during the 80's you were involved in several acts, like the Bloods, Idiotsavant, the Well-Oiled Sisters, mostly in Europe, but you came back to San Francisco in 1992, and you picked up your Drag King involvement then, right?

AT: Yes, I had been doing some Drag Kinking in Europe as well, but yes, I picked it up then much more. I specifically created a band where I was playing a kingish character and I started performing a lot with Elvis Herselvis, and at Klubstitute where I created some characters.

JD: And was that band the Bucktooth Varmints?

AT: Yes, that was one of the projects that I did when I arrived back. I moved back to San Francisco cause I had met Elvis and Justin. I felt that I shared a sensibility with Justin Bond and Elvis Herselvis, Leigh Crow, and it turned out that I did. And I wanted to write songs about being a bulldagger and being transgendered and that experience, with a lot of humor. And that fit right in with what Leigh was doing as Elvis Herselvis and what Justin was doing as Kiki and Herb.

JD: How were the Bucktooth Varmints received?

AT: Oh, fabulously, fabulously by The Gardian and the straight press in San Francisco then in the early 90s and by the gay club scene and the gay club scene and by Klubstitute, specifically we became part of that.

I want to pause here to play a little of another song by that first drag king band, the Bucktooth Varmints. Here's "Brillcreem Blues."

Bucktooth Varmints - Brillcreem Blues (~1993-1995)

Before that song Anderson was saying how they had become part of Klubstitute, and I need to insert some history about that. In San Francisco in the early 90s there was a very popular and influential club called Klubstitute, known for very theatrical acts, and many queer music folk either got their start or played there, like Kiki & Herb, Veronica Klaus, Pansy Division, Pussy Tourette, Bambi Lake, and on and on. And the famous drag club Trannyshack was an offshoot of Klubstitute. Anderson is about to tell us how in 1996 club emcee David Hawkins along with Kelly Kittel, got he and Leigh Crow to create the first drag king musical, called "Hillbillies on the Moon."

JD: And how did that lead to the drag king musical?

AT: Well, let's see. David Hawkins, the comedian, and he's also a director and actor, and another friend of ours, Kelly (Kittel), who had written another play that had been staged at Rhino, sort of had a vision of the whole thing, really, and me and Leigh being these hillbilly brothers, and taking it half from all those Elvis movies and half from all the B-movies that were sort of little Abner-esque, and then all the 50's science fiction B-movies. So David and Kelly talked about writing something around us. But at a certain moment Theatre Rhino heard and actually commissioned them to write something, and commissioned me to write the songs and sort of made it official.

And this was "Hillbillies on the Moon"?

AT: This was "Hillbillies on the Moon," that's right.

JD: Would you care to talk about a couple of the songs from "Hillbillies on the Moon." The two I have are "Swing Like a King" and the title track.

AT: Well, the play opens with "Swing Like a King" and opens with us performing a gig at the sock hop, like it says in the song. And it was really, really fun to do, and the (Bucktooth) Varmints played the backup and Leigh and I sang it live every night. It was really, really very fun. I can tell you my memorable experiences of performing the song in the show. Two times in the show the lesbian icons, butch-femme couple, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who were both still alive then, came. And I cannot tell you how thrilling it had been to perform to two people who had been very important in my coming out, even though it turns out that I'm a transman and not a lesbian after all, when I was a teenager they were two people that were very validating to me.

Hillbillies on the Moon - Swing Like a King (1996)

JD: In "The Drag King Book" by Judith Halberstam, you were credited as a founding father of the Drag King movement. Who were some of the others?

AT: There were male impersonators in the 20s, 30s and 40s and 50s and I'll just quickly mention just a few of them, because there is a history that preceded us in the 70s and 80s and it's important to make that chain. And a lot of the women are women of color, not all, but It's important to contextualize this as a butch art originally, and a way to express butchness. So there was in the Harlem Renaissance there was Gladys Bentley who we feel connected to, those of us who write and play and sing, because she wrote music, she played the piano and she owned a club in Harlem, and she was somebody really important, so she's a distant forefather.

AT: Then closer to us in the 60s there was somebody who again did perform as a male emcee, and that's Storme Delavarie, and the Jewel Box Revue. And Storme was somebody who was a butch-identified lesbian who dressed in a tuxedo and had a male persona on-stage, and was the male emcee for a group of drag queen burlesque performers. And so "The Drag King Book" was dedicated to Storme and we all feel a connection to her. I met her much more recently. She was the doorman for a West Village lesbian club in New York for many, many years, and I've talked with her since then. She goes back and forth as to whether she wants to acknowledge Drag King as a descriptor. She sometimes says male impersonator, she's funny, she's gone back and forth about whether she claims that. But she's somebody that we claim as somebody that paved the way of being masculine on stage.

AT: And then the person I feel was directly a mentor of mine is both Jordy Mark, who I was in that "Sex and Drag" show with, and Peggy Shaw who subsequently been my drag dad all these years. And then some of my contemporaries back then in New York were Diane Torr, and Shelly Mars. And this is a butch cultural expression. It came from deep within butch-femme culture as a way for masculine-identified female bodied people to express themselves, and it's very important to acknowledge the people that created it. Otherwise it loses all its meaning.

JD: I think one of your major accomplishments was creating the Drag King Time Line, to capture this history.

AT: Yeah, I plan to flesh that out. Since transition I have to say though at a certain point I was working together with younger kings, and then I really took a big step back, because I really felt it was important that they stop deferring to us so the second and third wave could also create their own history, document their own history. They need also stretch out and take over too.

AT: And then the other thing for me with my specific trajectory, is I continued to king in the first few years of transition, but then I really felt like my issues, and what I wanted to create work about, doing it as a king, it wasn't really fitting. Yeah, I'm in a different place now. The last band that I did, at the beginning of transition, I did as a king character, Frankie Tenderloin & the Rent Boys, and some of the guys were also trans, some weren't, and we all performed as kings. And now that doesn't really fit me anymore.

JD: Where do drag kings fit into the transgender spectrum?

AT: Well, I don't know if they want to, and that's partly what's happened. I feel like I'm embracing and have been embraced by the trans community and maybe I'm also wrong, because I can only talk to my experience. It seems like San Francisco is a bubble, so certain things happen there that don't necessarily happen other places. So in the San Francisco bubble everybody is more mixed up together. I know this is not the answer that you want, but I don't see a future in drag kinging. I don't, and I think that it is being eroded. I don't think there will be drag kinging five years on from now. I know I've gone off on a tangent but the core of what I'm saying is that I don't see drag kinging being a viable art form, because I feel like it's been eroded…what's the word I'm looking for…diluted. I don't feel like it means anything anymore, what does it mean?

Do you say diluted because pretty much anybody can say they're a drag king now?

AT: Yes, it's not going to make me very popular, but I don't care, I've never necessarily been very popular. In 2002 I gave the keynote address at the IDKE (International Drag King Extravaganza) Conference. It was a very positive address, it wasn't negative. It wasn't as negative as I'd be now, but I did mention that I was concerned that what has since happened was going to happen. And the idea of IDKE was not supposed to be competitive like drag king contests. The idea of IDKE was supposed to be much more punk rock, really, and not people winning stuff but supporting each other. And I thought that was great, and so the thrust of my talk was that I wanted to contextualize the history of drag kinging coming from a butch culture, and being a butch cultural expression, I thought that of course everybody should be open to do kinging, and I still think that they should be able to. But I did think that it was important that the context and what it meant didn't get totally, totally diluted.

AT: I was never one to necessarily prescribe what a drag king had to be in terms of performance or anything. I'm not saying it's because I feel or felt that only butches should do it, but I do feel that it's important to understand that it was a way for butches to express masculinity, and that's where it came from. I do feel that that's what the best drag kinging is, the drag kinging that has the most power. Drag kinging and drag queening are about gender deconstruction, but they're only about gender deconstruction as a byproduct of being queer people and inhabiting our bodies queerly, and that's not the same thing. Drag kinging is not just about gender, it's about queering the stage. That's a much bigger idea.

JD: From your observations, do you think most drag kings are lesbian? Has that changed over the years?

AT: Yes, I feel that in the beginning of drag king culture it definitely started out as not only a lesbian expression but specifically a butch expression, and do I feel that's changed over time, absolutely, I feel like it's completely changed over time. And I wouldn't say you can necessarily assume that at all anymore.

JD: A number of cities have drag king troupes now, from your observations how do they differ from city to city in their approach and self-definition?

AT: Well, a lot of cities don't have drag king troupes anymore. A lot of cities had drag king troupes a few years ago. When there were lots and lots of troupes they did have definitely regional identities, which I think is your original question. And the ones that remain I suppose do. After the book came out (1999) and while the IDKE conference was going strong, the peak was probably in 2005 and 2006. There are not as many troupes anymore. Many of the kings who actually are actors or are musicians are now focusing more specifically on creating original pieces. A lot of good things happened because a lot of people met each other, and then made new troupes, or got into relationships or made magazines, or got doctorates and made films and books. And a lot of the troupes even though they've dissipated and broken up, it would be wrong to say that it just disappeared and oh it's all everybody's fault for watering it down to nothing…and I am not saying that. And that would be a gross over-simplification. That's not true. It's also been an incredible catalyst for all these people to meet and do other stuff.

Well, I thought those last few questions were really interesting, and he's right, they may be controversial, but I would sure rather have someone speak from what they believe than give out sugar-coated answers. Before I left Anderson I asked him, kind of off-topic, who he thinks right now is the most well-known Drag King.

AT: Probably Murray Hill.

JD: I thought of him, too.

AT: I don't know if he even calls himself a Drag King anymore. He doesn't want to, he wants…

JD: Well, he wants to play the mystery card.

AT: Yeah, but I guess he is, I guess he is. I can't think of another one anymore who is still doing a character. I mean, he does his character every week in New York, but yes, I would say probably the most visible woman impersonating masculinity at the moment is probably Murray Hill.

And Murray Hill has a bunch of videos on line, which of course you would need to see to do him justice, but here's the audio from a video commercial by him from 2007.

Murray Hill commercial (2007)
Hillbillies on the Moon - Hillbillies on the Moon (1996)

Leigh Crow Interview

That was the title track from the first Drag King musical, "Hillbillies on the Moon," and I could have played that during the Anderson Toone interview but it's just as relevant here, because Anderson was singing with Leigh Crow, my next interview guest. Now in that show they were playing the characters Deke and Zeke Rivers, but mostly around that time Leigh was making her persona Elvis Herselvis one of the most known and loved in the Drag Kingdom. So I was very glad to have the chance to talk with Leigh, and as answers may vary, I started again by asking "to you, what is a Drag King?"

JD: To you, what is a drag king?

Leigh Crow: for me a Drag King is someone who performs and someone who takes what we generally think of as the masculine or male image, and either heightens parts of that or makes a show of what it is to be perceived as male, or as a man, and brings that out in an entertaining way. For me that is the definition, and it certainly is not the same for everyone.

JD: When did you first perform as a drag king?

LC: My very first show was in December of 1989, so you could say I started in the 80's, barely. A good friend of mine, Nancy Kravitz, ran a wonderful sort of punk rock, rock & roll dyke club, called Female Trouble, on Haight Street in San Francisco. And every week she would bring dyke entertainment, all kinds of stuff, and this Christmas show as coming up, well it was between Christmas and New Year's, and she was talking to me, we became fast friends, and we were talking about, we should just do something fun, let's just do something off the cuff, and I said, well why don't we do a drag show, we could do some drag. And up until the night of the show I hadn't come up with a name. It was just billed as "Drag King Show," with my picture…I had dressed up as Elvis the Halloween before. A couple days before that I got divine inspiration to be called Elvis Herselvis. And It was about a 15-minute very draggy, very campy lip sync show, and the crowd really had a great time. It was just really fun, and soon after that I started doing numbers at a lot of benefits. I got asked to do a lot of duets and to do a lot of shows and it was really encouraging cause they were really wonderfully supportive.

JD: Did you start singing with your own voice right away?

LC: Not right away, it took a while. I certainly am a better singer now than I was then but that's okay.

JD: From your observations, do you think most drag kings are lesbian? Do you think the answer to that question has that changed over the years?

LC: I don't know that most of them are lesbian. I know many Drag Kings who do not identify as completely lesbian. They certainly are queer. But I think a lot of the Drag Kings that I know right now are also more all-around performers, doing different things, not doing specifically Drag King. And it definitely has opened up. It does bring about an interesting question whether the transmen who are doing performances, who are ostensibly doing drag, which is lip syncing a number, I know that many of them do not refer to themselves or identify as Drag Kings, and some still do. For me I would like to not try to put my definition of Drag King to try to define anyone else. But I definitely think that there are a lot of women who are gender queer, not specifically lesbian identified.

JD: What do you think is the future of the Drag King art form? Is it growing, is it changing?

LC: Well, I definitely think it's growing. What I have seen in the recent past, more so than when I started is I see a lot of group numbers, which I love, and it is a lot of young, young people, which I find that very encouraging, because there is safety in numbers, and I think it's a great way for people to start performing and be accepted in the dress and the style that you feel comfortable in. I think it's very encouraging and really, really positive.

JD: A number of cities, I've read, have drag king troupes now, from your observations how do they differ from city to city in their approach and self-definition?

LC: Well, I think in cities that have a smaller or lower profile gay and lesbian scene I think it is a more comfortable and safer way in a group to come out and to start performing and do that. Somewhere like San Francisco where we're so ridiculously gender queer…a place like this so many things go. But I think in somewhere let's say, like Denver where I hosted a Drag King contest, and other places like that I think the group really has its real benefits there.

JD: Are some cities more, I guess the word is, strict as far as who can perform as a Drag King"

LC: That I don't know. I would imagine. It brings up the very volatile question of trans people being able to or being allowed to perform in what is traditionally, pardon the expression, cross dressing. So once you then transition are you still cross dressing, and frankly to me, I don't care, and clearly I know that in the lesbian community that there is an issue and concern about what is woman space. And I understand that, and I think it's a valid concern but in my world I don't want to discriminate against anyone, especially someone who's gone through the self-searching and the whole process that someone who has transitioned has gone though.

JD: Are you still doing the Elvis Herselvis character?

LC: Well, I had taken a long bread, but in the last couple years I have done a few things and we're actually going to do, on August 13th, we're going to do an Elvis birthday, or actually, excuse me, Elvis death day show, called the Elvo-rama, which we hope to make a sort of yearly, fun variety show. That's sort of where Elvis Herselvis I think has found her new, coming out of retirement home.

I'm about to ask Leigh about a band she was in called Mighty Slim Pickins, which featured she and Nettie Hammar on lead vocals, and lasted for about five years, until the end of 2010. And I found a great description of the band, but since this will be on broadcast radio I have to substitute the work "heck" for the real word in this description. Here goes: The Mighty Slim Pickins were a San Francisco based "what-the-heck-abilly" band. Blending vintage country, rockabilly and punk, this all-female, all-queer outfit is a little bit heartache, a little bit hardcore and a whole lotta camp.

JD: Tell me about the band Mighty Slim Pickins.

LC: Mighty Slim Pickins was a fantastic all-queer, all-female rockabilly band. It was really something to go to pretty conventional rockabilly shows and play and watch people's reaction. When we came on they were like, really? But then we really rocked the house…with two lead singers, myself, a masculine woman and Nettie (Hammar), a hyper femme, and doing songs like "Jackson" and really classic country and rockabilly duets, and people just having a really good time with it

JD: Would you call Mighty Slim Pickins at least partially a Drag King band?

LC: Oh, absolutely…well, partially because me and the rest of the butchies in the band did not present ourselves as male, but certainly in our style, and we were definitely in men's clothes, I mean, we were definitely, absolutely cross-dressing…absolutely in heightened examples of what the rockabilly dress code was. We made it funny, too, and people loved that.

Talk about the song "Red Headed Woman"

LC: "Red Headed Woman" was again a really fun song for Nettie (Hammar) and I as the lead singers to present definitely a, under no question, a relationship between the two singers, a definitely sexually-charged relationship, and it's full of double entendre, and it was a really fun, really fun song to sing.

Mighty Slim Pickins - Red Headed Woman (2007)
Mighty Slim Pickins - 13 Times (2008)

I couldn't resist giving you a double shot of the band Mighty Slim Pickins, and from 2007 and 2008, you heard clips of both "Red Headed Woman" and "13 Times."

I've got some more music for you and a Drag King artist going by the name of King TuffNStuff was nice enough to send it to me. This is good because it shows the variety of styles you might find, in this case, the blues. This is from 2008 and is called "3-Hour Man."

King TuffNstuff - 3-Hour Man (2008)

I wish I had time in this segment to play full versions of the songs, but there's just too much to pack in. Again that was King TuffNStuff and "3-Hour Man"

Oh, and here's a song that will be in my internet-only version of this show, as there is no way I could play it on broadcast radio. It's from 2000 by the UK queercore act Sister George, and it's called "Handle Bar."

Sister George - Handle Bar (2000)

To some that song would be two minutes of noise, but it is one of the very few I found that is lyrically about Drag Kings.

I guess I need to state the obvious and say that with any interview show, these folks are giving only their own thoughts. If I interviewed different folks from different cities I would get I'm sure different takes on the Drag King world. Neither they nor I mean this to be the end-all on the subject.

Robin Mack Interview

For my third interview I went local, and interviewed Robin Mack. She is one of the producers of a gender performance troupe called Houston Gendermyn. And "Gendermyn" is spelled g-e-n-d-e-r-m-y-n. She'll give us a more current take on it, at least for this area.

Tell me about Gendermyn

RM: Well, the Houston Gendermyn was founded about four years ago by a bunch of friends, who had friends in Austin that were in a drag troupe. Austin Kings & Things has been around for nine years. Austin helped us start our own drag troupe here, with many, many people. It definitely took a collaborative (effort), so that's how we've got a co-op-ish feel to it.

JD: So, would you call the gendermyn a drag king group?

RM: We would call it a gender-variant troupe.

JD: So, what's the difference?

RM: Over the time frame, the evolution of drag kings, there's different ways of going about it, and we like to be as inclusive as possible to how people identify and where they're at in their space and time when they participate with us. So some people might be more femme-identified or queer-identified and we like to incorporate as many people as possible. So drag kings can be a limited umbrella but it is the umbrella that we fall under. And we're kind of around deconstruct the notions of binary, not to reconstruct it, and there are other troupes that are out for maintaining a very strict binary.

JD: To you, what is a drag king?

RM: For me drag kings are people who have no problem wavering from femininity to masculinity, and they kind of invite that magic of that process into their life.

JD: What is the hardest part of performing as a drag king, the hardest part of achieving believability? I know it's more than binding breasts and costume, it's an attitude.

RM: Totally, yeah, there's definitely some 101 basics, like the binding, the packing, things like that. I don't think that a packer necessarily makes a man, or facial hair makes a man, and I wasn't trying to be challenging. I just…it didn't occur to me that that was the way I wanted my character, Clint Torres, to go…I wanted a very metrosexual, sort of androgynous person. But it's the fun in it that comes with all the transition that makes a difference.

JD: One thing in my research that amused me was there's a woman named Diane Torr who over twenty years ago started drag king workshops. And one of the things that was taught…and this is going to sound amusing…is that men take up more space, and to achieve that you have to realize that and…broader arm movements and physicality, realize that difference.

RM: It can be very mind-blowing, like how you carry yourself. Sometimes women have more swishy hips, whereas men can be very rigid or very tight-walking. Women are taught to be more quiet, and guys are not afraid of that.

JD: Is there a sense of empowerment when performing as a drag king?

RM: Absolutely, absolutely. Where people would not own that much attention in their everyday lives, or have that many eyes commanded on them during their number, there's lots of empowerment that happens in being able to express yourself fully in the eyes of other people. That's what I love about stage life, is that it offers people a space to achieve their dreams, and that's super empowering to people.

JD: I know there are many clever drag king names. Does the local group have some you'd like to mention?

RM: Oh, definitely, Ultraviolet Andy, Love's Black Light, Love's Music is an amazing DJ and is known as UVA, Koomah is a full-time name, and is a variety show within himself. Pedro Asty is an older name. I myself am Clint Torres, and there's always a little fun kick at the end of hearing that. We have a new recruit just named Oliver, and he's a dandy, and he's very cute, and he is very dapper and handsome, and he just goes by Oliver.

JD: Where do drag kings fit into the transgender spectrum - do some transmen identify as drag kings? but these would be performers, correct?

RM: It's definitely under the umbrella, because they're consciously seeking the opposite gender, I think is the most simple definition. That again would be on a very individual level.

JD: Yeah, I did want to make a comment that I know many artists and musicians who are transmen, and they are performers who happen to be transmen, they are not going for any illusion, they are following their transgender journey and living their lives. And some transmen would deplore being considered a drag king, so it's a very individual thing, lots of room for lots of people.

RM: Definitely, and I think the distinction there is the keyword performer.

JD: If a person transitions to a transman, I guess they can still be a drag king.

RM: Absolutely, or if they identify as a transman and don't have any hormonal, or hormones or surgery additions to themselves, they can still identify as a transman and still be a drag king.

JD: Sounds like the Houston troupe is much broader than some of the other cities.

RM: Yeah, they are, they're a social justice troupe that got together to have a safe space for gender variance. To bring it back to transmen, we have had queer-identified androgynous performers for years, for years, and then they transition, but they don't always transition. And whatever they call themselves after the transition, like, how they identify, that too may change a couple times, you know.

JD: One person I interviewed was in a famous drag queen troupe in the 60's, called the Jewel Box Revue, and it was a wonderful interview, and she transitioned in '64 or '65, and at that point in time, when you became a woman you were out of the show, cause you were no longer a female impersonator, and it was a female impersonator show.

RM: Yeah, it just depends on what your demographic is and what your schtick is going to be, and we've had some people move here that say they specifically have moved here, A, because of the job market at the time, and B, because they knew that as performing was very important to them and the Houston Gendermyn would accommodate their diversity. And I'm specifically talking about transmen who before they decided to transition were in king troupes that were performing mainly masculinity, and they specifically stated that if you take testosterone you are out. Because you're no longer a woman and this is a woman troupe. And that can be very offensive to people, even the notion that people do that, but people do do that, and I've heard that from two different kings that moved here from other bigger cities, and we've performed with both of them. They're great performers and that's all that matters.

Okay, we've been talking a while so I want to sneak some music in, and this song clip is by a San Francisco band called Wood. Now, from around 1999 to 2004 they were sort of a retro-50's band called Woodyz, but they morphed into a hard rock cover band in 2005, and that incarnation lasted another three years. Here's a bit of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."

Wood - The Devil Went Down to Georgia (live, 2007)

JD: I've noticed a parallel of course with drag queens. One difference seems to be drag queens seem to have a goal of making and individual names for themselves, where drag kings tend to form troupes and performance groups. Do you think that difference is due to culture, gender, or do you agree?

RM: That's a great question. I have definitely noticed that, wondered that myself, brought the topic up to different people in the community, and I think some of the responses I've gotten is, like, well, honey, men, they're very individual, they're go-getters and that's how it is, and some of that I think would be gender and some of that would be culture. And then, flip side, drag kings…I don't know, some would say that feminine, nurturers, group people…and I'm sure there are lots of people that would shake their heads at this answer, but tend to get together more. What I do notice is the Houston Gendermyn are troupe-identified.

JD: In the Drag Queen world there are quite a number of straight divas to emulate, like Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland, Tina Turner, etc. Who are the main icons portrayed by Drag KIngs? Or do they portray icons much?

RM: I've seen Elvis done a couple times. I've seen a lot of cowboys, like "Brokeback Mountain" numbers. I would say that I don't see a lot of highlighted individuals, like drag queens do, I would definitely say that.

JD: They're going more for types or roles, like construction workers, or whatever.

RM: Exactly, exactly. When you're doing drag queen work, performing sometimes..that's kind of in a pageantry sort of look and feel, sort of diva-esque, if you will. And for a solo performer they may have a role model that they mirror after. Which I don't think drag kings don't not have that, but if you're in a troupe it comes across a little bit differently. What might be helpful to look at in that is that drag kings definitely do different scenes, and some are more fluid than others, whereas drag queens kind of have more of a schtick. The kings that have schticks do model after people, but I think it's an archetype, it's not an individual person. Where a drag queen maybe like, say, Marilyn Monroe, Liza Minnelli, or something like that. They're not doing a schtick, they're doing an actual person.

JD: If they're doing a Madonna song they might be trying to do Madonna.

RM: Exactly, they take it that step further and go for an individual person. I definitely see less of that in the drag king world.

JD: Last question I have is, what do you see as the future of the Drag King culture?

RM: I guess the answer is whatever we're willing to be responsible for. But, to overlook all the diversity that's coming up in all these different cities I think would be a little short coming. For instance, in Houston this last year, this is the first year where we've had multiple colleges host drag shows, like U. of H. Clearlake, and U. of H. Central, and Rice (University), and…

JD: Well, there are more gender studies at universities now

RM: Yes, more gender studies, more GLBT-friendly clubs in high schools and in colleges, and gender's just very fun and easy to perform, so I think it's definitely something that is taking the next wave and it's definitely something that is cultivating. And there's an International Drag King Extravanganza (IDKE) that's been going on for about 12 or 13 years now, and that's a one time (annual) thing where people come together from all the troupes in the nation, and they have a really great show with a couple days of workshops. And that's a huge undertaking in the middle of an economic crisis, so they are reconstructing how to make it less expensive.

This is JD Doyle, and I want to thank my interview guests, Anderson Toone, Leigh Crow, and Robin Mack and especially you for listening. Remember there's a Part 2 for this show, where I dig into the early music by male impersonators. That can be found at my site, For a closing song I really cannot consider any other choice, as it seems to be the most popular song about Drag Kings. And it's by the duo Bitch & Animal when they were still together, on their album from 2000 called "What's That Smell?" The song is "Drag King Bar."

Bitch & Animal - Drag King Bar (2000)

Bill Meyerl & Gwen Farrar - Masculine Women & Feminine Men (1926)

This is JD Doyle and welcome to Part 2 of Queer Music Heritage. This month I'm honoring the Drag King culture and Part 1 of the show gave a more modern look, roughly from 1980 up to the present. I feel I have to also pay tribute to the pioneers that came before that, so I'm calling this segment "Drag Kings, The Prequel." Now, the folks you'll hear certainly did not use the term "Drag King," as it did not even show up in print until 1972, but in spirit they belong to this history. Of course they were called "male impersonators" and there were some quite famous ones, taking us back, as far as recordings go, to the very early 1900's. There is a common reference to Annie Hindle being the first famous male impersonator, who started performing in New York in 1867, and other well known performers were Kitty Doner and Florenze Tempest, but I have to pretty much limit my show to those you can actually hear.

The song I opened with, well, is not a male impersonator song, but it's a fun way to start, as it talked about those "Masculine Women and Feminine Men." I've got a bunch of versions of that song in my collection and that one I picked deliberately. It was by Bill Meyerl and Gwen Farrar. Now, Gwen Farrar was quite popular and, with another music hall star, Norah Blaney, were well known as a couple on and off stage for a number of years. There's even an old newsreel clip of them together and though it has no sound, the body language and gestures sure today look like the intimacy of a couple. But they were not male impersonators, so on to a trio of women who were among the most famous from the 1910's through the 1930's. And I'll remind that you cannot at all assume that these early male impersonators were lesbian. I have no reason to think that of the next five artists you'll hear.

You might say that in the realm of male impersonators, at least for the ones who recorded music, there was a big three. And that trio was comprised of Vesta Tilley, Ella Shields and Hetty King. They were the most popular and their work extended the furthest and had the most impact. Vesta Tilley was the earliest of the three, and I have found references to her recordings from as early as 1911. I'm sharing three songs by Tilley, and in the first one in the lyrics she includes herself in the phrase "we military men." That's in the 1915 song "Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier."

Vesta Tilley - Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier (1915)

And in the next song she comments on the changing roles of women. For example, in the second verse she sings, "have you noticed what the girls are doing now? It's simply wonderful, simply wonderful. One will drive a motor while the other drives a plow." And she goes on to say, "the barmaid that I used to flirt and frivol with is an ammunition maker so I hear." So she is still singing from a male perspective, or if you want to take that leap, from a lesbian one, in the song from 1917 called "Where Are the Girls?"

Vesta Tilley - Where Are the Girls? (1917)

Vesta Tilley had a show business father and began her career still as a child. In addition to her stage success, she became quite the entrepreneur, and I recently read a biography about her. She was probably the first to expand her appeal by merchandising, and not only into areas like sheet music and lobby cards, but into clothing, as there was a Vesta Tilley vest, and hat, and socks and cigars, and it's interesting that these were items by a male impersonator geared to the male market. I did a quick search on eBay when writing this, and there were over 125 of her lobby cards and other items for sale, at least ten times that of any of her contemporaries. I've got one more song by Vesta Tilley and I don't know the year it was released, as I bought it as just a download. I'm thinking it's from around 1917, and it's definitely from the male perspective. It's called "The Girls I Left Behind Me."

Vesta Tilley - The Girls I Left Behind Me (~1917)

I want to share one more piece of trivia on Vesta Tilley, and I found it in a newspaper clipping from 1920. In it she was remembering her start and told of a time when she was four years old, and her father came into her room and found that she had dressed up in his hat and coat. Recalling the incident, she said, "He asked me how I would like to be a boy?" I said, "That's just what a want to be!" "And so you shall be," her father replied and had a little suit made for her. Of course today we can give an amusing different slant on that tale.

Vesta Tilley was about fifteen years older than the next male impersonator to gain fame, and that was Ella Shields. Unlike Tilley, who was English, Shields was born in the United States, but moved to London where she found her success. She started doing male impersonation around 1910. I've got three songs by Ella Shields, and the first, from 1925, was her version of the big hit "If You Knew Susie Like I Know Susie."

Ella Shields - If You Knew Susie Like I Know Susie (1925)
Ella Shields - Burlington Bertie from Bow (1934)

That was also Ella Shields and that was her most famous song, "Burlington Bertie from Bow" and I've got one more by her. I can't resist playing one that has a lyric that today has a different meaning. Several times in the song she invites the listener to "join the gay community." From 1927 is the song "Everybody's Singing."

Ella Shields - Everybody's Singing (1927)

Yes, "now's your opportunity, join the gay community, and keep on singing all the time." Ella Shields from 1927. Another famed music hall male impersonator was Hetty King. Also from England, and though younger than Tilley and Shields she was a contemporary of them as she began performing as a male at the age of six, and often all through her career performed in military costume. I've got two recordings by her from 1934 and in the first I'm again amusing myself by showcasing a lyric with a different meaning now. In the song "Piccadilly" she talks about the "playground of the gay."

Hetty King - Piccadilly (1934)
Hetty King - Fill 'Em Up (1934)

That was Hetty King and the very catchy "Fill 'Em Up." Notice that none of these performers tried to change their voices to sound more like a man. In those times the costume and stage illusion were enough.

Though I have read one review, where that person had seen a performance clip of Hetty King, and said, well, she was a pleasant enough woman, but really, no more believable as a man than Julie Andrews was in "Victor Victoria."

Now, these next two artists did sing with lower voices, and not much is known about them. The first referred to herself as the Original Bessie Brown, so as not to confuse with another singer by the same name. She was known to have recorded 25 tracks, between 1925 and 1929, and to have worked for a time as a male impersonator. Naturally I picked a song that made the gender relationships vague, as she sings "Senorita Mine."

Original Bessie Brown - Senorita Mine (~1927)

For this next artist, Lillyn Brown, all four of the tracks recorded by her were done in 1921, and she had most of her success up until 1934 when she retired from show business. For her act she wore a top hat and tails, and she toured Europe, appeared on Broadway and at major clubs. I've read that in her act she would perform several songs dressed as a man, and then let down her hair and continue the act as a woman. Here's Lillyn Brown and "Badland Blues."

Lillyn Brown - Badland Blues (1921)

This next artist is a favorite of mine in general and certainly my favorite of this show, as she was a big, bold and out of the closet lesbian, at a time when you just did not see that. In my opinion she had no peers. From the 1920's through the 1950's she headlined in clubs, first in Harlem, where she even had her own club for a while. When the depression changed the times, she moved to California and was a frequent star at Mona's Club 440 in San Francisco, and there are print ads from there showing her decked out in her signature white top hat and tails.

While she reportedly sang songs in her act, changing the lyrics to make them decidedly gay and definitely off-color, unfortunately none of those got recorded. I'm sharing with you two by her, from different times in her career. The first is perhaps her most famous song, and it appears on many blues compilation albums. From 1928 is the "Worried Blues."

Gladys Bentley - Worried Blues (1928)
Gladys Bentley - Thrill Me Till I Get My Thrill (1945)

That was "Thrill Me Till I Get My Thrill," from 1945, and what a voice. I so wish she had recorded more. I only know of about 25 tracks by her, spanning about that many years, with about half in the 20's and half in the mid-40's. Now, I guess I need to add that, yes, this show is about male impersonators, and I really don't consider her a male impersonator. I don't think that was her intent at all. But she needs to be included as she was just realizing her identity as a very butch lesbian, challenging male gender definitions.

I'm giving the subject some leeway by including this next artist. Jazz musician and band leader Billy Tipton has become sort of a hero, after his death. That's when he gained far more fame for the discovery that for over fifty years he was biologically female, and he had been living his life as a man. In an excellent biography of him, one of the theories for his rationale seemed to be that he could not get work during the thirties as a jazz artist as a woman, so he switched gender identities. As a musician he had modest success, doing lots of touring and radio performances, and he released two albums of piano instrumentals.

Now I'm not calling him a male impersonator at all, at least in a performance sense, because, for one thing the main definition of what makes an impersonation successful is that the audience be in on it, has to know it is an impersonation. Without that you might more correctly term what he did as a disguise. But again, I certainly want to include him in his show. I said he is most known for two albums of instrumentals. Those albums, from 1955 and 1956, included standards like "September in the Rain" and "Begin the Beguine," and this one, "Blue Skies."

Billy Tipton - Blue Skies (1956)

That was Billy Tipton's typical style, but I'm delighted to have for you something not commercially released, as it was a rare radio performance of Billy Tipton singing kind of a novelty song. From 1949, Here's "Rubber Dolly."

Billy Tipton - Rubber Dolly (1949)

Some may ask me, where do you get this stuff? Well, there was luck with that one. Diane Middlebrook wrote a wonderful biography on Billy Tipton that I mentioned a few moments ago, and of course she did extensive research. She shared some of the fruits of that with sound clips on her website. And I'm glad I grabbed those then, as unfortunately she passed away in 2007 and that site is now gone.

Okay, I hope you bear with me for this one, and I'm calling my inclusion of her an honorary mention. Beverly Shaw was an openly lesbian singer and club owner in Los Angeles in the 40's and 50's. Her repertoire was more in the standards area, and she released one album in the early 50's called "Songs Tailored to Your Taste." In all the photos of her I've seen she wears a men's jacket and shirt with a bowtie, though she is wearing a skirt. She was definitely at least halfway into the area of male impersonation, or at least challenging the stereotypes, and she also was a regular performer at Mona's 440 Club in San Francisco, probably around the same time Gladys Bentley performed there. Performers dressing as men was very common for that club, and others included Jimmy Reynard. In fact I have an ashtray from that club, and it says "Where Girls Will Be Boys." So here's a track from Beverly Shaw's album. It's one she also released on a 45rpm record, called "I'm Nobody's Baby."

Beverly Shaw - I'm Nobody's Baby (~1950)

That was Beverly Shaw and this is JD Doyle. I thank you for joining me in this visit to the music world of male impersonators and some who resided on the borders of that art form. I've got one more performer I have to include, and she's much respected. She's Storme Delaverie. She's also the only performer up to this point in this show who is still living. She's 89, and she's got a very colorful history. For one thing she was a veteran of the Stonewall Riots. That should be enough for any resume, but she started making history twenty years earlier when she joined a touring troupe of performers called the Jewel Box Revue. Their billing was that of a show of "25 Men & a Girl," and Storme was the girl. The 25 men were all female impersonators, and Storme, dressed as a man, was the male impersonator and the emcee, for a couple decades.

In 1987 film producer Michelle Parkerson made an interesting documentary called "Storme: Lady of the Jewel Box." It's only a 21-minute film but well worth tracking down. At that time Storme was doing occasional appearances in a jazz club, and I was delighted to see her talk about her life and even sing a song. I think you'll find her voice quite striking. Here's Storme Delaverie and "There Will Never Be Another You."

Storme Delaverie - There Will Never Be Another You (1987)

Okay, I changed my mind about that being the closing song, as I have one more to sneak in, and it's a recent song, but it has enough old blues spirit that it could have been recorded decades ago, and lyrically it fits right in. It's the title track from a CD from 2008 by Canadian artist Faith Nolan. It's called "Mannish Gal."

Faith Nolan - Mannish Gal (2008)

Just an image I found, they are surely Not the Drag Kings dealt with here