Drag King: Miss Florence Hines(PID:49988535952) Source
posted by alias Bluesy Daye on Tuesday 9th of June 2020 03:11:04 PM
Historically, some of the most visible queer people in America have been performers, particularly male and female impersonators. On the vaudeville and variety stages of the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, performers that transgressed the gender binary were a common sight. For the most popular among them — people like Ella Wesner, Annie Hindle, and Julian Eltinge — doing drag could be a lucrative and fame-making endeavor. Eltinge, for instance, published three different magazines with his name on them, including “Julian Eltinge's Magazine of Beauty Hints and Tips,” which offered beauty advice and sold Eltinge-branded products to women. Wesner was so famous that she was hired by cigarette and champagne companies to hock their wares from the stage — the Little Beauties Cigarette company even went so far as to produce promotional cards featuring Wesner smoking their products. Not all of these performers were queer. For some, drag was simply a business; Eltinge, for example, cultivated the masculine public persona of a good college boy who just happened to discover he was skilled at female impersonation (although rumors dogged the bachelor Eltinge for his entire career). But life on the stage did offer some particular inducements for queer people: living on the road could be a way to avoid prying eyes, the police, or one’s family; fame could provide a measure of protection to those who transgressed gender norms off the stage as well; and traveling from city to city allowed them to forge connections with nascent queer communities around the country. By virtue of their work, we have more complete records of their lives than we do of other Victorian- and Progressive-era gender non-conforming folks. Yet even some of the most famous male and female impersonators of their time have been mostly forgotten today, even by historians — particularly performers of color. So it is with Florence Hines, a Black singer and drag king who got her start on the stage sometime around 1891, when she began to receive particular notice for her performances with Sam T. Jack’s Creole Burlesque. When the show came to Paterson, NJ, on November 23, 1891, “hundreds were turned away from the doorway” before the Creole Burlesque was even scheduled to take the stage, according to the Paterson Daily Caller. In their review, they called out Hines in particular for being an “excellent male impersonator.” The Creole Burlesque was a standard minstrel show, featuring all Black performers, led by a white manager, giving skits, songs, and scenes that featured standard variety acts (everything from clog dancing to drag) set in a pre-Civil War Southern plantation fantasy. But within a few years, Sam T. Jack would launch The Creole Show, an important milestone in Black performance in America. For the first time, an all-Black revue was presented as a modern, staged performance — not as an “authentic” recreation of Black life. According to Whiting Up, a history of white face entertainment by Black theater historian Marvin McAllister, The Creole Show was “a major outlet for Black artists interested in… developing a comedic tradition that was racially grounded but not riddled with stereotyping.” In another important departure from tradition, instead of hiring a man to play the traditional lead role of interlocutor or master of ceremonies, Sam T. Jack hired Florence Hines. As a drag king, Hines performed a routine that made mock of the “dandy” — flashy, modern, young men who drank and dated openly, and wore the latest clothes. One of her most famous numbers was “Hi Waiter! A Dozen More Bottles,” whose first verse went: Lovely woman was made to be loved, To be fondled and courted and kissed; And the fellows who’ve never made love to a girl, Well they don’t know what fun they have missed. I’m a fellow, who’s up on the times, Just the boy for a lark or a spree There’s a chap that’s dead stuck on women and wine, You can bet your old boots that it’s me. Many white drag kings of the day also performed this song, and similar dandy characters. For these performers, the dandy was a way to needle the men in the audience. But for Black performers, taking on a dandy role was also a way of resisting degraded depictions of Black people that were common on stage at the time. As Kathleen B. Casey wrote in The Prettiest Girl on the Stage is a Man, “when worn by a Black performer, the tuxedo with tails, cane, cape and a top hat countered the image of the ragged, shoeless plantation slave.” Thus, Hines made a natural choice for a show that wanted to show an entirely new kind of Black performance. By 1904, The Indianapolis Freeman would report that Hines “commanded the largest salary paid to a colored female performer.” In their book, Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895, Lynn Abott and Doug Seroff wrote that “Hines’s male impersonations provided the standard against which African American comediennes were compared for decades.” Yet today, little is known about Hines. It is impossible to establish a place or date of her birth. Unlike her white counterparts, Hines seems not to have been profiled in major newspapers of her day, nor did she have promotional products with her face on them, or even posters. How she got her start on the stage is unknown. Her time in the Creole Show provides one of the few insights into her life off the stage: While in Ohio in 1892, Hines got into a fight with one of her co-stars, a singer named Marie Roberts. The Cincinnati Enquirer covered the incident with a healthy dose implication that Hines and Roberts were lovers, writing “the utmost intimacy has existed between the two women for the past year, their marked devotion being not only noticeable but a subject of comment among their associates on the stage.” Hines’s career seems to have lasted about 15 years — at least, her career as a male impersonator did. According to a letter to the editor written by a traveling vaudevillian from the Famous Georgia Minstrels, which was published in The Chicago Defender in 1920 (the year Prohibition was enacted), Hines became a preacher, now that her home city of Salem, Oregon had gone dry. “She would be pleased to hear from old friends,” the letter write wrote. But three years later, the Defender would publish a short column about Hines, “recognized as the greatest male impersonator of all times and all races,” in which they wrote that she had been paralyzed and an invalid since 1906. The final mention of Hines that I can find is also from the Defender, who carried a letter on March 22, 1924, from a Santa Clara, California woman named Nunnie Williams, saying “My mother was Florence Hines… called by many the mother of the Colored show business… she died on March 7th and was buried in Santa Clara cemetery on the 10th.” Today, Florence Hines deserves to stand in the long line of queer, Black, stud performers, from Gladys Bentley all the way up to Lena Waithe, whose incredible talent has won them acclaim from audiences all too ready to dismiss them for their race, their gender, and their queerness. themstory: This Black Drag King Was Once Known As the Greatest Male Impersonator of All Time Florence Hines deserves recognition in the long line of queer, Black, stud performers, from Gladys Bentley to Lena Waithe. Article written by Hugh Ryan
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- Published 08.09.22
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