If you think that drag was created by RuPaul in 2009 with the premiere of Drag Race, you‘d be wrong. Drag goes back a long way in history, at least to the days of Greek Theatre with a stop on the way at Shakespeare.
In modern times, performers like Charles Busch and Divine made careers out of performing as women to varying degrees of camp. Both were slightly preceded by Charles Ludlam, although Ludlam’s drag tended to be incidental to his plays and not his main routine.
But… there’s someone who’s been doing drag since long before any of them, and who is probably more famous internationally as their drag persona than they are as themselves.
If you are from certain parts of the world, then you’re probably already familiar with Dame Edna Everage, outspoken Melbourne, Australia housewife. Well, she also self-describes as “investigative journalist, social anthropologist, talk show host, swami, children’s book illustrator, spin doctor, Zettastar, and Icon.”
In case you’re wondering, a “zettastar” is one quadrillion times as famous as a mere megastar.
Of course, if you are familiar with Dame Edna, then you’re already know the secret: Dame Edna is a character performed by Australian writer, actor, entertainer, and painter Barry Humphries AO CBE, who has been doing the role since 1956.
That’s going on 65 years now, if you can believe it. Of course, Humphries himself turned 87 this year, but he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen Dame Edna several times live. Hell, I actually saw Charles Busch perform in his plays a couple of times, too. But Edna gives one hell of a show. It’s just her on stage, holding court and doing a combination of scripted routine and insanely good improv interactions with the audience.
At some point, usually near the end of the show, she’ll sing and hurl gladiolas into the audience. At about the midpoint, she’ll introduce another performer, usually one of her “grandchildren,” who will do their own routine — this appears to be designed to allow Humphries to have a brief intermission, since it’s a full-length show that runs without a break.
Traditionally, the show ends with Edna exiting and video following her backstage, where Humphries is lurking in the shadows. He’ll wind up locking her in her dressing room, and then he’ll come onstage as himself in a tuxedo to take her bows.
It’s a brilliant evening and while Edna can be vicious toward certain classes, like politicians and the like, the gentle teasing she does with her audiences always comes with great affection. It’s clear that she’s just having fun but with no malice.
My favorite joke of hers ever, though, happened at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. It’s part of the Center Theatre Group (CTG), a non-profit arts organization comprising parts of the Music Center, as well as the Kirk Douglas Theatre, located in nearby Culver City which, as the name might imply, is its own municipality, separate from Los Angeles.
Around here, you can’t always rely on the “city” designation, though — Universal City, Studio City, and Century City are not, in fact, separate entities. Temple City and City of Industry are.
But back to the joke. There were a few empty rows in the orchestra for the performance, and at one point Edna referred to them. “Do you see all of those empty seats, possums?” she asked the audience, using her favored nickname for fans.
“Well, do you know why they’re empty? They belong to what are known as ‘subscribers,’ who are are all very old people who’ve come to the theatre for years. They buy those seats for the season, and then they die.”
A truer statement has never been made about CTG.
Humphries was born on February 17, 1934. Almost exactly three years earlier, on February 20, 1931, another famous drag performer named B. Morris Young died at the age of 77 after having a career performing in drag that lasted almost 50 years.
His persona was a singer known as Madam Pattirini, and while not a lot is known about his performances, it has been reported that he had a very believable falsetto and many people in the audience never even realized he was a man.
There’s a reason I’m not linking to Pattirini, Young, or the brand of gin named for his character. The secret here is just too good to reveal early, so don’t google anything yet! I can show you a commercial for the gin, though.
Now, in those days, drag wasn’t necessarily connected to the gay community. This was mainly because no such thing existed at that time. Drag was still a part of Victorian era theatre on both sides of the Atlantic.
Yes, there were certainly gay drag performers, but it wasn’t an exclusively gay thing. Young himself was almost certainly not gay. He was married and had ten children. He just enjoyed performing as a female Italian diva.
Maybe it was just a way to make himself stand out a bit among his siblings, which was probably necessary. Why? Because he was born #35 out of an astonish 56.
Or maybe it’s not so astonishing when I tell you that his first initial, “B,” stood for Brigham, and his father was Brigham Young. Yes, that one — the guy who was Joseph Smith’s successor as leader of the Mormon Church.
But you’ve read it correctly. Brigham Young’s son was a drag queen.