Julian Eltinge (May 14, 1881 – March 7, 1941), born William Julian Dalton, was an American stage and screen actor and female impersonator. After appearing in the Boston Cadets Revue at the age of ten in feminine garb, Eltinge garnered notice from other producers and made his first appearance on Broadway in 1904. As his star began to rise, he appeared in vaudeville and toured Europe and the United States even giving a command performance before King Edward VII. Eltinge appeared in a series of musical comedies written specifically for his talents starting in 1910 with The Fascinating Widow, returning to vaudeville in 1918. His popularity soon earned him the moniker "Mr. Lillian Russell" for the equally popular beauty and musical comedy star.
Hollywood beckoned Eltinge and in 1917 he appeared in his first feature film, The Countess Charming. This would lead to other films including 1918s The Isle of Love with Rudolph Valentino and Virginia Rappe. By the time Eltinge arrived in Hollywood, he was considered one of the highest paid actors on the American stage but with the arrival of the Great Depression and the death of vaudeville; Eltinge’s star began to fade. He continued his show in nightclubs but found little success, he died in 1941 following a show at a New York nightclub. He leaves a legacy as one of the greatest female impersonators of the 20th century.
His start in show business, like his early life, is also shrouded in myth. Most sources cite his first female role being at the age of ten with the Boston Cadets Review at the Tremont Theater in Boston. He is reported to have played the role so well that the next year the revue was written around him which led to minor roles elsewhere. But as to how he came to perform as a female with the Boston Cadets, sources differ. In some versions he was taking cakewalk lessons from a Mrs. Wyman's dance studio when he impressed upon his teacher an incredible ability to emulate females. It is said to be Mrs. Wyman who encouraged young William to study the art of female impersonation. Boys often play female roles in all male organizations.
During this time Eltinge began performing in vaudeville. Unlike many of the female impersonation acts that existed at that time, like Bert Savoy or George Fortesque, Eltinge did not present a caricature of women but presented the illusion of actually being a woman. He toured simply as "Eltinge" which left his sex unknown and his act included singing and dancing in a variety of female roles including a Gibson Girl-like role called "The Sampson Girl". At the conclusion of his performances, he would remove his wig, revealing his true nature to the surprise of the often unknowing audience.
In 1906 Eltinge made his London debut at the Palace Theater. While in London, Eltinge was commanded to give a performance for King Edward VII, who later presented him with a white bulldog. The next year, Eltinge made his New York debut at the Alhambra Theater to critical acclaim. From 1908 to 1909 Eltinge toured with Cohan and Harris Minstrels.
Eltinge's star began to shine on Broadway and on national tours and his name became known worldwide. Indeed, women were so enthralled by his performances that he established the Eltinge Magazine which advised women on beauty, fashion, and home tips.
In 1911, Eltinge opened one of his most famous shows, The Fascinating Widow at New York's Liberty Theater. In it he played Hal Blake who disguises himself as "Mrs. Monte" in a Charley's Aunt-like plot. The show only ran 56 performances in New York, but toured the nation successfully for several years.
The success of this show led producer A. H. Woods to give Eltinge one of theatre's highest honors, having a theatre named for him. A year to the day that The Fascinating Widow opened, Woods opened the Eltinge Theatre on New York's 42nd Street designed by noted theater architect Thomas W. Lamb. After serving as a legitimate theater for many year, it became a notorious burlesque house and was shut down during a "public morality" campaign in 1943. The theater became a cinema the next year. The theater has now become part of the AMC Empire 25 cineplex having been lifted and moved in its entirety down the block from its original location.
Following on the success of The Fascinating Widow, Eltinge performed in two other comedies that had similar success, The Crinoline Girl which opened in 1914 and Cousin Lucy (with music by Kern) the next year.
Settling in Hollywood, Eltinge made three films in 1917 and also in 1918. During this time he wrote and produced a vaudeville group called "The Julian Eltinge Players". With this group he returned triumphantly to the vaudeville stage appearing at New York's Palace Theatre in 1918. The next year he returned again in a new vaudeville review with sets by the French designer Erté.
By 1920, Eltinge was very wealthy and was living in one of the most lavish mansions in Southern California, Villa Capistrano. His star began to shine even brighter after his appearance with Rudolf Valentino in the 1920 film An Adventuress (released as The Isle of Love in the U.S.). After filming, Eltinge continued touring onstage and would do so until 1927. He also made two films, Madame Behave and The Fascinating Widow, in 1925.
Aside from the graceful femininity he exhibited onstage, Eltinge used a super-masculine facade in public to combat the rumours of his homosexuality. This facade included the occasional bar-fight, smoking cigars, and drawn out engagements to women (though he never married). He was also known to physically attack stagehands, members of the audience and others who remarked on his sexuality. Indeed, his sexual duality led to the creation of the term "ambisextrous" to describe him.
As to his homosexuality, there is some question. Milton Berle and many others who worked with Eltinge believed that he was indeed gay, though actress Ruth Gordon stated in a New York Times article that he was "as virile as anybody virile." There is no existing record of a lover of either sex, though stories did abound. According to one such story recorded by Robert Toll in his book On with the Show!, Eltinge gave a photograph of himself as Salomé, signed "From your friend Jule", to a Boston sportswriter. When the sportswriter's wife discovered the photograph in her husband's coat pocket she was outraged. Confronting her husband, she had to be convinced that the "woman" in the photograph was actually a man, but however she was disturbed to find that her husband had been spending time with him.
The performances in nightclubs continued and while performing in New York in 1941, Eltinge died in his hotel room of what is reported to have been a cerebral hemorrhage, though the circumstances are considered mysterious to some scholars.