The Gene Pearson Story

Gene Pearson, 1922, Collection of Don McLeod.jpg

Gene Pearson, 1922. Collection of Don McLeod.

1911 Julian Eltinge, The Fascinating-Widow, Broadway.jpg

Julian Eltinge in the Broadway production of The Fascinating Widow, 1911. White Studio, New York. New York Public Library.

1917-1919 Dumbells Concert Party, c1917-19. Ross Hamilton (%22Marjorie%22) seated center. Dept. of National Defence:Library and Archives Canada.jpg

The Dumbells Concert Party, ca. 1917–19. Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada.

1919 Dumbells %22Big Beauty Chorus%22 c1919 Ross Hamilton (Marjorie) center Dept of National Defence:Library and Archives, Canada.jpg

The Dumbells skit “Big Beauty Chorus”, ca. 1919, with Ross Hamilton (“Marjorie”) at the center. Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada.

1917-00-00 (date approximate) Ross-Hamilton-as-marjorie LARGER Dept. of National Defence:Library and Archives Canada.jpg

Ross Hamilton as “Marjorie”, ca. 1920. Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada.

1921 Dumbells troupeAmbassador Theatre, NY, during %22Biff, Bing, Bang%22, 1921. Dept. of National Defence:Library and Archives Canada..jpg

The Dumbells troupe in front of the Ambassador Theatre, New York, during the run of their hit show Biff, Bing, Bang, 1921. Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada.

1923-09-08 Originals, Rapid Fire, advert Montreal Gazette, September 8, 1923, 13.jpeg

Originals, Rapid Fire, advertisement. Montreal Gazette, September 8, 1923, 13.

1925-12-06 Originals, Steping Out, advert Calgary Daily Herald, December 6, 1924, 11.jpeg

Originals, Stepping Out, advertisement. Calgary Daily Herald, December 6, 1924, 11,

1924-12-13 Gene Pearson, Originals, Calgary Daily Herald, Dec 13, 1924, 13..jpeg

“Coming Here Wednesday to Grand,” Calgary Daily Herald, December 13, 1924, 13.

1925-01-19 Gene Pearson, left Calgary Daily Herald, Jan 19, 1925, 4.jpeg

“Brilliant Soldier Entertainers Return to Grand Wednesday Only,” Calgary Daily Herald, January 19, 1925, 4.

1925-09-06 Gene Pearson, Thumbs Up, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, Oct 6, 1925, 9.jpeg

Gene Pearson, Thumbs Up. Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, October 6, 1925, 9.

1925-10-06 Originals, Thumbs Up advert Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, October 6, 1925, 9..jpeg

Originals, Thumbs Up, advertisement. Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, October 6, 1925, 9.

1925-11-03 Gene Pearson, Bob Anderson, Victoria Daily Times (Victoria, British Columbia), Nov 3, 1925, 14.jpeg

Bob Anderson, Gene Pearson, Daily Times (Victoria, British Columbia), November 3, 1925, 14.

1927-00-00 West, Mae, SEX %22Warning%22 poster.jpg

Poster advertising Mae West’s play Sex, 1927.

1928-10-02 Raid, NYT Oct 2, 1928 GRAB.jpeg

Headlines from the New York Times, October 2, 1928, 1, 34.

1928 Pleasure Man cast during arrest SOURCE UNCLEAR.jpg

Cast members of Pleasure Man arrested after the second performance, October 2, 1928. New York Daily News.

1928-10-03 %22Filth,%22 Daily News, Oct 3 1928, p. 23.jpeg

“Filth on the Stage,” New York Daily News, October 3, 1928, 23.

1928 Florenz Ziegfeld.jpg

Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., 1928. Wikipedia.

1932-10-13 Gene Pearson %22Miss 1932-10-13 America%22 Newark Advocate and American Tribune (Newark, Ohio), October 13, 1932, 8..jpeg

Miss America on Parade, advert Newark Advocate and American Tribune (Newark, Ohio), October 13, 1932, 8.

1932-12-07 PEARSON'S GRAVE DSC06299.JPG

Gene Pearson’s grave at the Toronto Necropolis. Collection of Don McLeod.

In November 2019 I purchased a collection of cards and photographs dating from the 1920s from Gadabout, a purveyor of vintage clothing, textiles, and curios located in Toronto, Canada. The cache included fourteen items concerning a performer named Gene Pearson, who was a professional female impersonator and singer. My many years of volunteer work at the ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ+ Archives have given me a good understanding of gender diversity through history, and in particular an appreciation for how rare original photographs and documents from the 1920s are that relate to female impersonation. This paper will discuss these documents and will attempt to outline a reconstruction of the life and artistic contribution of Gene Pearson.

The Gene Pearson Artifacts
The items related to Pearson include nine photographs, four photo postcards, and one portrait. Most are undated, but others are from the period 1922 to 1927. Several photos are signed by Pearson on the verso as “Benny”, a reference to his birth name, Benjamin. Two of the postcards were mailed by Pearson to Arthur Heathcote in Toronto.[1] One shows four images of Gene Pearson in drag, with a photo of him in male evening dress in the centre, mailed from Akron, Ohio, in 1927. The second was a Christmas postcard, an advertising card for the vaudeville show A Daisy and a Dame, on the Keith and Orpheum Circuits, showing images of Gene Pearson and Bob Anderson, mailed from Jamestown, New York, in December 1927. The inked inscription “Love Benny” is added at the side.

These artifacts must be interpreted against a background of the rapidly changing world of popular entertainment during the early twentieth century. Formerly popular entertainments such as minstrel shows, vaudeville, and silent films were losing their appeal by the 1920s, to be replaced by the modernity of radio and sound motion pictures, in particular. This had a great effect on Gene Pearson’s career.

It should be noted that I have been unable to locate additional collections of papers or archives relating to Gene Pearson. My research in tracing Pearson’s career is heavily indebted to, a searchable commercial database of many thousands of full-text newspapers, associated with The database includes large dailies and tiny local newspapers and is rich with material from the 1920s and 1930s. Coverage is incomplete, of course, but offers an excellent sampling.[2]  

Who Was Gene Pearson?
Benjamin Pearson, Jr., known as Benny and later Gene Pearson, was born in Yorkshire, England, on June 11, 1899, the son of Benjamin Pearson, Sr. (1866–1946) and Annie Lizzie Laws (1871–1915). He was one of six children, four boys and two girls. The family emigrated to Canada in 1911 and settled in Toronto. Tragedy struck on November 14, 1915, when Annie Lizzie Pearson died at the Toronto General Hospital. She was buried at the Toronto Necropolis Cemetery in the city’s Cabbagetown district, only a few blocks from where they lived in a semi-detached house at 422 Wellesley Street East, at Wellesley Avenue.[3]

Benjamin Pearson, Jr., was called up to the Canadian army on June 21, 1918, under the Military Service Act, 1917. He was assigned as a private to the Second Battalion of the Canadian Garrison Regiment, regimental number 3236443, located in Toronto. His military service records have survived and provide vital background information on Pearson. He was single, a Methodist, with his trade or calling listed as “clerk”. His next of kin was Benjamin Pearson, Sr., who still lived at 422 Wellesley Street East.

The most interesting details of these records relate to the Medical History Sheet, completed after a physical examination on July 15, 1918. Pearson was nineteen years and one month old, five feet six-and-a-half inches, and 110 pounds. His chest measurement was twenty-nine inches minimum, and thirty-one-and-a-half inches at maximum. His physical development was listed as “fair”. Pearson’s physique was judged to be not satisfactory due to a small chest, and on September 5, 1918, he was judged by a medical board at Exhibition Camp, Toronto, as being unsatisfactory for service. The subsequent document Medical History of an Invalid, completed by the medical board, lists Pearson’s former trade as costumer. He had been disabled because of his poor physique, in particular a small chest. It was noted that “there is a slight scoliosis of the spine and lumbar region,” and that his nutrition was “fair”. The report states that the “patient has been of poor physique since birth”. The Proceedings on Discharge, confirmed on September 20, 1918, stated that Pearson had been “discharged in consequence of being erroneously ordered to report.” Pearson was free to go.[4]   

Gus Hill’s Minstrels
Gene Pearson likely returned to his previous occupation as a costumer, which suggests he may have been involved in the theatre. By 1920, at only twenty-one years old, he was performing with Gus Hill’s Minstrels, one of the last of the large touring minstrel companies. Typically, the troupe promised “a sumptuous scenic production, a gorgeous costumed first part, a performance teeming with novelties, a score of sweet singers, a score of mirth-provoking comedians and a platoon of dancers.”[5] I have been unable to determine when or where Gene Pearson joined Gus Hill’s Minstrels. The troupe was constantly on tour in the United States and Canada, and 1920 marked their fourth touring season.[6] Advertisements and reviews of the shows during early 1920 do not mention Pearson by name. The ads often mention a number of headline performers, but Pearson was likely included among the additional “twenty-five other singers, dancers, and comedians.”[7]

Gus Hill (born Gustave Metz, 1858–1937) was a legend of the American performing arts, first as a performing juggler but most importantly as a manager and entrepreneur in the fields of vaudeville and burlesque. He would often have numerous reviews running on a circuit at the same time, and became president of the American Burlesque Association. He funded minstrel shows and African-American reviews, promoted live theatrical performances based on comic strips or cartoons (known as cartoon theatricals), and also produced Broadway shows as well as motion pictures. At the beginning of the 1920s Hill was at his peak, and also served as the president of the Touring Managers’ Association, which employed about 6,000 actors. This was at the time that Gene Pearson was fortunate in gaining experience in one of Hill’s productions. It is said that Hill was keen to watch expenses and was famous for “employing performers who could not demand high wages since they were not yet known, or were past their peak”.[8] In 1920 Pearson was a young performer, not yet well-known.

It has been claimed that from its origin in the late 1820s and through the 1880s, the minstrel show was the most popular form of entertainment in America.[9] Seen today as obviously racist and derogatory of African-American history and culture, minstrel shows during their heyday were wildly popular among all American classes and races. They popularized some of America’s greatest and most enduring folk music, including “Beautiful Dreamer,” “Camptown Races,” “Dixie,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and many others. Near the end of the nineteenth century minstrel traditions began to change and some troupes began to introduce different sorts of entertainment, including acrobats and clowns. Others, such as those of George Primrose and William West, began to perform without black-face makeup. Many African Americans also began to break into show business by joining minstrel shows. For example, W.C. Handy, the composer of “St. Louis Blues,” had a long career as a black minstrel.

The formal parts of a minstrel show were set during the nineteenth century, and rarely wavered after. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica,

In part one the performers were arranged in a semicircle, with the interlocutor in the centre and the end men—Mr. Tambo, who played the tambourine, and Mr. Bones, who rattled the bones (a pair of clappers, named after the original material from which they were made)—at the ends. The interlocutor, in whiteface, usually wore formal attire; the others, in blackface, wore gaudy swallow-tailed coats and striped trousers. The program opened with a chorus, often as a grand entrance, and at the conclusion of the song the interlocutor gave the command, “Gentlemen, be seated.” Then followed a series of jokes between the interlocutor and end men, interspersed with ballads, comic songs, and instrumental numbers, chiefly on the banjo and violin. The second part, or olio (mixture or medley), consisted of a series of individual acts that concluded with a hoedown or walk-around in which every member did a specialty number while the others sang and clapped. Occasionally there was a third part consisting of a farce, burlesque, or comic opera.[10]

The Gus Hill minstrel show in which Gene Pearson performed was purposefully old-fashioned, designed to invoke nostalgia. The fifty or more performers were all male, and performed in black-face makeup. Gus Hill’s dedication to the revival of the old-time standards was often praised in the press, such as by an anonymous writer in the Wichita Beacon:

The tenacity with which the memory of thousands of people in America clings to negro minstrelsy is quite evident by the fact of the crowded houses that greet Gus Hill’s big minstrels enroute. The essentials of the old-time minstrel troupe of the better class were a good orchestra, splendid soloists, clever end-men, graceful dancers and capable management. It was not the music, but the way it was played; it was not the song, but the way it was sung; it was not the afterpieces, but the comedians; it was not the song and dance but the way such a great performer as Billy Emerson used to do it, that gave such charm to a minstrel show. It is Gus Hill who is responsible for the “come back” of minstrelsy. He must be given credit for bringing about a successful revival of the negro minstrel performance as it was in its palmiest days, by discovering talent equal to that which entertained our forefathers.[11]        

By early September 1920, Gene Pearson’s name was listed in ads as being a notable talent. Sometimes he was singled out for praise in reviews. The Rutland Daily Herald (Rutland, Vermont) notes that “Gene Pearson, a remarkable male soprano, sang ‘The Trail of Home Sweet Home.’”[12]

The touring and performing life was exhausting. Gus Hill’s Minstrels toured relentlessly, across Western Canada early in 1920, moving to Toronto and Ottawa by September, and into the United States afterwards. The venues were large and small: the Chicago Auditorium, as a benefit for the Policemen’s Benevolent Association, for four weeks in October–November 1920; Oshkosh, Sheboygan, Kenosha, and Neenah, Wisconsin, in November 1920; Keokuk, Iowa City, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in November–December 1920; Madison and La Crosse, Wisconsin, in December 1920; and Wichita, Kansas, at the end of December 1920. Gene Pearson was even able to squeeze in an appearance in Boston on December 12, 1920, to sing several selections at a fundraising benefit for the Children’s Hospital and Convalescent Home.[13]        

In January 1921 Gus Hill’s Minstrels toured Kansas and by January 25 had reached Vicksburg, Mississippi. Pearson is still listed among “the all-star aggregation of burnt cork celebrities” for the Vicksburg performance, but for the final time. Pearson was struck down by illness and had to stop performing. I have not been able to determine the exact nature of the affliction other than that Pearson has hospitalized. An advertisement from the Boston Globe on April 3, 1921, refers to a benefit to be held that day at the Colonial Theatre for Pearson, “whose case has interested many and who was recently released from a health sanitarium.”[14]       

The Canadian census of 1921, taken sometime after June 1, 1921, throws more light on Pearson’s situation at this time. He is listed as being single, an actor employee in vaudeville, and living at 536 Gladstone Avenue in Parkdale, Toronto, his sister Irene’s home. Other members of the household include Arthur C. Heathcote (head), his wife Irene, their daughter Irene, their baby son Arthur, and Stephen Pearson, aged twenty-eight, Gene’s older brother. It lists that Gene’s total earnings for the previous twelve months, since June 1, 1920, had been $4,000. This was a respectable sum, equal to about $51,000 today. It becomes more impressive when we see that he had been unemployed for thirteen weeks since June 1, 1920, and eight of those weeks were due to illness.[15] This reference to the eight-week illness most likely refers to the period February–March 1921, when he was no longer listed with Gus Hill’s Minstrels and at the end of which he emerged from the sanitarium.

Neil O’Brien’s Minstrels
Pearson must have taken some time off to recuperate, or at least slow down. We do know from the 1921 Canadian census that he was working on June 1, 1921, but don’t know exactly what he was doing. He was likely trying to get back into the business, and successfully re-entered the minstrel show circuit by 1922. It is not known when or where Pearson joined Neil O’Brien’s Minstrels, but his name was appearing in their advertisements as early as August 18, 1922.[16] Pearson, of course, was familiar with the minstrel show format, the expectations of performers, and had become a featured player during his time with Gus Hill. He made a good addition to the O’Brien troupe. 

Cornelius J. (Neil) O’Brien (1869–1954) was a vaudeville performer and minstrel show performer and promoter.[17] Neil O’Brien’s Minstrels was mostly modelled on the traditional show, with an all-male cast performing (mostly) in black-face. In August 1922 they were in the midst of their eleventh annual tour. Their stop in Rutland, Vermont, on August 17, 1922, was described in the local press and gives a good idea of the format of the performance. Allan Karle acted as master of ceremonies, presiding over the first part, comprised of the usual collection of comic songs, ballads, and jokes. The end of the first act contained an elaborate scenic display of battle scenes from the late war, capped by the song “Lest We Forget”. Edward Cupero and his orchestra played during the intermission, which was followed by the second part (olio) with the skit “Rufus in the Lion’s Den”, followed by a section of old-time song and dance minstrel hits entitled “In Days of Old”. Neil O’Brien performed the sketch “Put and Take”, followed by Jay Clay (“the walking literary digest”), who discussed topics of the day. The finale was a comic mystery, “A Certain Party”, in three scenes. The entire show was preceded by a traditional parade of the company through the business district, followed by a concert in front of the theatre.[18]    

As the tour continued, slight changes were made to the show’s performers and acts. In the performance at Binghamton, New York, on August 25, 1922, for example, the performers (with the exception of the ends) were said to be in white face.[19] Also, reviews began to pay more attention to Gene Pearson. A reviewer in Rock Island, Illinois, noted that “Gene Pearson, the male soprano, claimed his share of attention. His voice was very clear and when he took the high notes it was almost impossible to believe that a man was singing.”[20] Virginia Lee Cox, a reviewer in Richmond, Virginia, remarked that “Gene Pearson must be mentioned for his beautiful soprano voice, which was especially beautiful in ‘In the Gloaming’”.[21]      

The tour continued through the southern United States in 1923, performing before large crowds and being praised in reviews. Blackburn W. Johnson, for example, reviewed an appearance of the show in Charlotte, North Carolina, on March 24, 1923. He noted that Gene Pearson appeared in the skit “In Days of Old”; “Gene Pearson, as ‘Mammy’, displayed an unusual ability to sing a clear falsetto, imitating with expression a venerable negro mammy singing an old southern song”.[22]    

Gene Pearson was doing well in the minstrel show, and getting good reviews. But, his days on the minstrel circuit were numbered. The review for the performance in Charlotte on March 24, 1923, is the last mention I could find of Gene Pearson performing with Neil O’Brien’s Minstrels. Gene Pearson was likely restless, looking for new opportunities. In particular, he was looking northward to Canada at a spectacular new traveling troupe that was becoming famous there.

The Dumbells and The Originals
The Dumbells, formed in 1917 near Vimy Ridge, France, was one of the most famous of the concert party troupes formed during the First World War. Ten men from the Canadian army’s Third Division comprised the original group of Dumbells, under the direction of Captain Merton “Wesley” Plunkett (1888–1966), a former YMCA entertainment director.[23]

About thirty comedy or musical troupes entertained the troops in France, but the Dumbells were a stand-out. Their program of patriotic and other songs of the day and skits about army life and days in the trenches were wildly popular. There were impersonators to play the female roles, most famously Ross Hamilton (“Marjorie”; 1889–1965) and Allan Murray (“Marie from Montreal”). Songs performed regularly by “Marjorie”, such as “Hello My Dearie” and “Someday I’ll Make You Love Me”, became highlights. The Dumbells became so famous that they were able to play a four-week engagement in 1918 at the Coliseum, at that time the largest vaudeville theatre in London, and later performed before King Albert of Belgium.

Demobilization in 1919 could have spelled the end of the Dumbells but instead they transformed into a leading Canadian vaudeville troupe, performing in both Canada and the United States, until disbanding in 1932. Their first postwar revue, Biff, Bing, Bang, opened on October 1, 1919, at the Grand Opera House in London, Ontario, and was a resounding success. It later moved to Toronto’s Grand Theatre for sixteen weeks. A revised version of Biff, Bing, Bang opened at the Ambassador Theater in New York in May 1921 and played for twelve weeks. It was a triumph, and a milestone as it marked the first Canadian musical revue to appear on Broadway, and featured the first Canadian to conduct an orchestra on Broadway (Ivor “Jack” Ayre, d. 1977).

Despite their resounding success as a traveling vaudeville troupe, all was not well with the Dumbells. There were grumblings about a pay dispute, and in the fall of 1922 all of the members except for Merton Plunkett, his bother Al, and Ross Hamilton split from the group. The rebels decided to form their own competing troupe, known as the Originals (sometimes referred to as the Old Dumbells). Plunkett and his remaining troupe were able to survive by enlisting other ex-servicemen entertainers, and the Dumbells and the Originals began to tour independently, carefully avoiding each others itinerary.               

The first of the touring shows performed by the Originals was Full O’ Pep, which started in Saint Catharines, Ontario, on January 8, 1923, and ended in North Bay, Ontario, on May 30, 1923. The papers of Ivor “Jack” Ayre, who left the Dumbells to join the Originals in 1922, contain two route books that trace the remarkably meandering itinerary of performances in between, in more than fifty Canadian cities and towns, ranging from Victoria, B.C., to Halifax, Nova Scotia.[24] Gene Pearson, of course, did not perform in Full O’ Pep as he was still performing with Neil O’Brien’s Minstrels as late as March 1923. The leading female impersonator in Full O’ Pep was Arthur “Jock” Holland, described in the Calgary Daily Herald as “Canada’s greatest and most versatile female impersonator”.[25]

Rapid Fire (192324)
By the time Rapid Fire, the second touring show of the Originals, debuted in Hamilton, Ontario, on August 30, 1923, the Originals had a new headliner. Gene Pearson had reinvented himself, and appeared thereafter as a glamourous, well-dressed female impersonator with a spectacular countertenor voice. As we have seen in his performances with both Gus Hill’s Minstrels and Neil O’Brien’s Minstrels Pearson was noted in reviews as a “remarkable male soprano”. His work with the Originals only bolstered this reputation, and Gene Pearson became a star.

Rapid Fire toured extensively, starting in Hamilton and moving through Ontario and briefly into Quebec before proceeding though western Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia. One new feature was a series of six stops in Washington State in November 1923, before returning back across the Canadian prairies, through Ontario, to the Maritime provinces in March 1924, and then back to Montreal and into Ontario, ending in Guelph, Ontario, on May 10, 1924. There were eighty stops, ranging in duration from one to twenty-three days (Toronto).[26]

The show garnered rave reviews wherever it went. And although there were other female impersonators in Rapid Fire, including Fred Fenwick and Arthur “Jock” Holland, it was Pearson who gained the most praise. He was hailed as a marvellous new find, even though he had already had a considerable career on the minstrel circuit, and was seen by some as “a male Galli-Curci.”[27] His large wardrobe included several costumes that cost hundreds of dollars each.[28] Pearson’s stage presence as a female was convincing, so much so that the Calgary Daily Herald opined that “Mr. Pearson is distinctly feminine, and it is hard to believe that he belongs to the male sex.”[29] It was said that his voice was so true and convincing that “when he sings his soprano would deceive most any teacher of music.”[30]

I read dozens of advertisements and reviews concerning Rapid Fire. The most perceptive, and not uncritical, review concerning Pearson, in my opinion, is an anonymous piece that appeared in the Montreal Gazette on September 18, 1923, and which I quote at length: 

‘Rapid Fire’ brings to the notice of the public a new female impersonator of stellar rank, so far as vocal ability is concerned, in the person of Gene Pearson. He possesses a soprano voice of remarkable range, flexibility and sweetness, and his rendering of ballads is marked by an ease of accomplishment and an artistic effect that might be envied by some feminine soloists of considerable note. His ‘Carmena’ was a number so rich in quality and so true in tone that it was difficult to believe that it was a man singing, and in ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ a similar success was achieved. Mr. Pearson confined his efforts entirely to vocalization and made little effort to suggest character, but if he should prove to have the histrionic ability which will enable him to imitate feminine traits and tricks, a future awaits him as a female impersonator.[31]   

One interesting feature of the Rapid Fire tour was the introduction of radio broadcasting of the show. It was so well received in Calgary that CFAC Herald radio decided to broadcast the entire show on the evening of November 23, 1923. The Calgary Daily Herald printed a handy guide for listeners, which included a complete listing of the two acts. There were thirteen songs or skits in act one, and twenty-seven songs or skits in act two. All titles of songs or skits were listed, as were the names of the performers of each.[32]

By the time the tour of Rapid Fire ended in Guelph, Ontario, in May 1924, there was no doubt that Gene Pearson was a star. By May 13, Pearson had returned to Toronto to visit the Heathcotes, but he left for New York within a few days.[33] By October 1924 he was back in Toronto with the Heathcotes. An item in the Toronto Globe mentions that he had been touring the southern United States for three months before returning to New York and on to Toronto. I have been unable to determine if this was a vacation, and have not been able to find any advertisements or reviews concerning his performances during this time.

Stepping Out (192425)
The Originals launched an all-new show, Stepping Out, by November 1924. The cast had changed considerably, with old stalwarts like Jimmie Goode, Arthur “Jock” Holland, and Red Newman no longer with the troupe. Gene Pearson and comedian Bob Anderson were the headliners, and were billed as such, with Leonard Young as the producer.

There is no exact or complete record of the itinerary for performances of Stepping Out, but advertisements and reviews in present a familiar pattern. They were performing in Ottawa by November 8, 1924, after which they moved across Ontario, the major prairie cities, and on to the west coast by the end of the year. There appear to have been fewer engagements that with Rapid Fire, and there were no American dates at all. Stepping Out was back in Toronto in February and March 1925, and is last reported to have appeared in Windsor, Ontario, on March 24, 1925.[34]

Stepping Out received excellent reviews. The Regina Leader claimed that “‘Stepping Out’ is the best revue that has been staged by Canada’s own Originals.”[35] Pearson appeared in beautiful stage wardrobe, playing a fetching prima donna in a one-act operetta that had been written especially for him. An anonymous reviewer in the Saskatoon Daily Star remarked that Pearson, who

looks and acts more like a pretty girl than most girls we know, bears the burden of the feminine relief, and he’s amazingly good—in fact, with the exception of Ross Hamilton, he is the only female impersonator this reviewer has seen whom he wouldn’t like to aim a brick at.[36]  

Pearson’s vocal treats in the show included “The Dancing Lesson”, “Love Will Come Back”, a love ballad written by the Canadian composers Handyside and Harrower, “The Love Trail”, written by Willard Crocker of Montreal, and “Mighty Lak a Rose”.[37] By this time Pearson was commonly referred to as “the greatest male soprano before the public”[38] or “the recognized queen of feminine impersonators.”[39]

While in Toronto near the end of the run of Stepping Out, Gene Pearson and several other members of the company gave a brief concert broadcast on CHNC radio on March 6, 1925. The broadcast was sponsored by the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association and was meant to promote its Made-in-Canada month campaign.[40]

Thumbs Up (192526)
Thumbs Up, the fourth and final touring show of the Originals, premiered in Barrie, Ontario, on September 7, 1925.[41] Pearson, Bob Anderson, and Jimmie Goode, Canada’s foremost blackface comedian, shared top billing.

Advertisements and reviews in suggest the usual itinerary, extending from Ontario through the prairies to the west coast and then sweeping back to Ontario. There were no performances in the United States, and the last recorded performance was in Montreal in March 1926.[42] As with Stepping Out, the number of stops and performances were reduced compared to the heyday of Rapid Fire, only a year and a half before.

As with the previous productions, Thumbs Up received glowing reviews. The Calgary Daily Herald claimed that it “certainly eclipses anything they have yet offered the Calgary public in this particular field of entertainment,” while in Saskatoon Thumbs Up was judged “splendid”.[43]

Certainly, critics remarked on Gene Pearson. The Peterborough Evening Examiner said that Thumbs Up was “the greatest triumph of his career …. This clever impersonator in a wealth of lavish costumes has been wisely given an opportunity to display his wonderful ability as a singer and every number last night was a hit.”[44] Pearson’s wardrobe came in for special attention, particularly among the ladies. As the Saskatoon Phoenix noted, “Ladies of the audience must have envied him his Paris ‘creations’, which were simply gorgeous—seemed ridiculous to waste their beauty on a mere male actor, but he bore them well.”[45] The production spared no expense on Pearson’s wardrobe, and according to the Calgary Daily Herald “His gowns are from New York, his ermine wraps from London, his fans from Paris and his shoes from New York. Gene’s lovely golden locks as worn on the stage, and the wigs of the entire company, are from London.”[46]

By March 1926 it was all over, and the Originals never toured again. Although they were still garnering excellent reviews, and seemed to have a loyal fan base, the grind and expense of mounting tours of elaborate productions had taken its toll. And vaudeville itself was about to become less interesting to mass audiences with the advent of The Jazz Singer and the official arrival of talking motion pictures the next year.    

A Daisy and a Dame (192628)
Gene Pearson was visiting Toronto in July 1926, and on July 9 left “on an extended trip to points east”.[47] He was developing a new show with the comedian Bob Anderson, and by October 1926 they were  presenting A Daisy and a Dame, their debut on the B.F. Keith vaudeville circuit under the management of Rosalie Stewart.[48] The Keith circuit at that time included a large number of theatres in both Canada and the United States.[49]

It is not possible to chart the exact itinerary of the production, but the numerous advertisements and reviews captured by show that they toured widely in Canada and the United States between October 1926 and May 1928. The tour appears to have started in Montreal, followed by Ottawa, where advance notices stated that Pearson and Anderson had performed with the Originals on numerous occasions in Ottawa, with Pearson as the “leading lady” and Anderson as the “star comedian”.[50]

From Ottawa they proceeded to Connecticut in December 1926, then along the coast through Massachusetts, New Jersey, Delaware Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, and reaching as far south as Richmond, Virginia, in May 1927. The rest of the tour was mostly of America’s old industrial heartland, with dozens of stops in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and finally ending in North Carolina, in May 1928. presents dozens of advertisements for the show in these places, but few detailed reviews. Some descriptions are enigmatic, such as “a humorous combination of patter and songs.”[51] Others give slightly more information, such as “They are everything the title implies. Both are costumed in feminine habiliaments (sic), and the one is just as comely as the other is unique”.[52]

The act was clever for its day, and according to the reviews was well received everywhere and even evoked “gales of laughter” from certain audiences.[53] Both men dressed as women, with Anderson giving “a serious impersonation in which clothes and singing are done in fine style”.[54] Anderson was in comedy makeup and burlesque costumes, and with a deep voice could not pass as female. Pearson, on the other hand, was the perfect lady, and with some great comedic lines. The Detroit Free Press remarked that he “goes in for fancy gowns and feather fans and sings operatic selections like a bonafide prima donna”.[55]

A Daisy and a Dame opened with Anderson, in widow’s weeds, singing “He Was More Like a Friend Than a Husband,” followed later by the lament “Why Am I Always the Bridesmaid?” (which he had also performed in Thumbs Up). Pearson, in contrast, dressed to female perfection, carried a palm leaf fan and sang such selections as “Because I Love You”.[56] Some reviews praised Pearson, in particular, as looking like “the real thing”. The Raleigh News and Observer said that Pearson’s “characterizations are perfect, not merely a matter of dress but of jesture (sic) and voice”.[57]

A Daisy and a Dame ended in a triumphant unveiling when, as recorded in Baltimore’s Evening Sun, “They both pull off their wigs at the seemly moment and reveal he-men ‘neath their drug-store epidermis”.[58] Some audiences showed confusion at this moment because of Pearson’s skill. As reported in the Raleigh News and Observer, “Pearson is an accomplished female impersonator, and to such an extent that the whole audience was bewildered when he doffed the blond wig to show his hair of the same color.”[59]

May was the end of the season on the Keith vaudeville circuit, and A Daisy and a Dame was last performed on May 10, 1928, in Charlotte, North Carolina. By the end of May, Gene Pearson had returned to Toronto to rest, staying with the Heathcotes.[60]

Mae West’s Pleasure Man (1928)
Mae West (1893–1980), the American actress and playwright, was at the height of notoriety by 1928. Her 1926 play Sex, a comedy-drama written under the pseudonym “Jane Mast”, was popular with audiences but reviled by critics. It opened at Daly’s 63rd Street Theater on April 26, 1926, with West as the writer, producer, director, and star. It lasted for 375 performances, and was seen by thousands of people before being raided and closed by police on March 19, 1927. A charge of “corrupting the morals of youth” was upheld in court, and on April 19, 1927, West was fined $500. She refused to pay, and instead served eight days (with an additional two days off for good behaviour) in a workhouse on Welfare (now Roosevelt) Island in New York. The resulting publicity only served to boost her career as the “bad girl” of Broadway.[61]

By April 1928 West was enjoying major success on Broadway. Her play Diamond Lil opened at the Royale Theatre on April 9, 1928, and ran for 323 performances until January 12, 1929. The “Gay Nineties” drama was a major success, and West later used it to inspire her Lady Lou character as the basis for her 1933 debut film She Done Him Wrong.

During the same period West was performing in Diamond Lil, she had plans to mount yet another production, Pleasure Man. West had written a play called The Drag (1927), and although it had enjoyed preview performances in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Paterson, New Jersey, early in 1927 it was never produced on Broadway.[62] The play’s frankly provocative theme of homosexuality and female impersonation was reworked into Pleasure Man. This new play was intended as a look behind the scenes of vaudeville and female impersonation and is considered to be a landmark of the New York “pansy craze” of the 1920s.[63]

It is known that Gene Pearson was in New York in May 1928, just after finishing performing in A Daisy and a Dame, and that he returned to Toronto for a brief visit, staying with the Heathcotes before returning to New York, likely to rehearse for Pleasure Man.[64] Trial performances were held at the Bronx Opera House on September 16, 1928, and then at the Boulevard Theatre in Queens, New York. District attorneys from both boroughs had members of their staff attend the performances, where they ordered that certain lines and plot situations be eliminated.[65]

Expectations of trouble dogged the production through its opening night at the Biltmore Theatre in New York, October 1, 1928. Uniformed and undercover policemen were in or near the theatre while the play was in progress, and the New York Times reported that the appearance of police reserves in front of the theatre just before the end of the performance generated much interest, and large crowds:

Soon Forty-seventh Street, from Eighth Avenue half way up the block to Broadway, was packed with men and women, many in evening clothes, and the presence of automobiles and taxicabs awaiting actors and audiences from other theatres added to the congestion.[66]

At the end of the play the policemen pounced, arresting the entire cast of Pleasure Man—fifty-six people—and charging them with violating section 1, 140-A of the Penal Code, which prohibited the performance of an indecent play, and with violating the Wales amendment to the code, which prohibited the portrayal of degeneracy on the stage. The accused were taken to the Forty-seventh Street Police Station, where they were released on bail at 2:30 a.m. on October 2. An injunction allowed a matinee performance of Pleasure Man that afternoon, and although some parts of the show were cut it was raided again, during the performance, and everyone was rearrested.[67]

Critics were not kind. The New York Daily News called it “filth on the stage”[68] while the Brooklyn Daily Times declared “‘Pleasure Man’ is, to our mind, the most perverse and offensive play yet to appear on Broadway ….”[69]

The October 2, 1928, account of the raid by the New York Times listed all of the accused, including Gene Pearson. Pearson played the role of the “male Jeritza”, appearing as a singing female impersonator.[70]

The trial of Pleasure Man went on for a year and a half. It suffered a number of delays, everything from problems in selecting a jury, to the death of Mae West’s mother, to the illness of the judge. The delays caused an uncomfortable apprehension among the accused, and interfered with their livelihood. There were complaints that it became difficult to assemble the accused as they had taken up various forms of employment across the country. Interestingly, the Sioux City Journal reported in January 1930 that fifteen of the male defendants who had appeared as female impersonators had joined the navy since they had been indicted and that the district attorney’s office had appealed to the navy department to facilitate their return to stand trial.[71]   

Finally, a “blue-ribbon” jury of twelve men was selected and the case proceeded under General Sessions Judge Amadeo A. Bertini. Much of the testimony focussed on female impersonation as a theatrical device, and its historical use in vaudeville. More than ten performers testified, including two tumblers who displayed the backflips and tumbling performed in the play. James J. Coy, a heavyset police officer who witnessed the performance, testified for the prosecution and mimicked the antics of the female impersonator defendants, much to the amusement of spectators.[72] The defense concluded that what had been presented in Pleasure Man had been shown in vaudeville before, and was innocent. The assistant district attorney saw it differently, stating that the accused were “cunning, unscrupulous people willing to capitalize filth.”[73]

On April 3, 1930, District Attorney James Wallace filed a motion that the charges be dismissed against all but twenty-four of the defendants. Wallace argued that “these defendants played minor parts in ‘Pleasure Man’ and did not contribute as much as Mae West and the others in a commission of a crime.”[74] Judge Bertini agreed and dropped the charges. The remaining twenty-four defendants, seen as the main instigators, included Mae West and Gene Pearson. The charge was read to the jury, which took more than an hour. The jury began its deliberations, but after ten hours declared that it was unable to reach a verdict. Judge Bertini dismissed the jury, and on April 4, 1930, District Attorney Craig asked Judge Bertini to dismiss the indictment against the remaining defendants, which he did.[75]          

There is no question that Gene Pearson’s involvement in the Pleasure Man fiasco affected his career for the worse. After the initial indictment Pearson took a welcome respite in Toronto during the Christmas holidays at the end of 1928, staying with the Heathcotes.[76] But after that, I have been unable to find much mention of Gene Pearson in the press until 1932. There is the performance of A Daisy and a Dame in Camden, New Jersey, on February 23, 1929, but that is all.

The Pleasure Man trouble hit Gene Pearson at a bad time. The Originals were finished, and the Dumbells were winding down. Audiences had tired of the wartime humour of the old acts, now more than ten years old, and were looking for something modern and new. Ornate, traveling stage acts had become prohibitively expensive to produce. Vaudeville itself was losing popularity and could not compete with radio or the “talkies”, motion pictures with sound and music that had come to the fore in 1927. Vaudeville shows were soon being followed on the same bill by “talkies”, and were soon overtaken entirely. In November 1932, the Palace Theater, the largest vaudeville theatre in New York City, converted into a full-time movie theatre, the RKO Palace. The Great Depression, officially launched by the Black Tuesday crash on October 29, 1929, continued through the 1930s and left many people with little money to spend on entertainment. Employment opportunities in entertainment also dried up.

There are some hints in references to Gene Pearson published in 1932 that he had acquired radio broadcast experience in Cleveland, Ohio, at station WTAM, perhaps between 1930 and 1932, but I have been unable to verify this.[77]

Florenz Ziegfeld’s Hot-Cha! (1932)
The great Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. (1867–1932) had a storied career as an American Broadway impresario, perhaps best known as the founder of the Ziegfeld Follies (1907–31), the original producer of the musical Show Boat (1927–28), and builder in 1927 of the Ziegfeld Theatre at Sixth Avenue and Fifty-fourth Street in Manhattan.[78] By 1932, though, Ziegfeld faced several challenges. He had lost most of his fortune in the 1929 Crash, and mounting expenses and changing tastes forced Ziegfeld to discontinue the Follies in 1931. He fought back by mounting the first revival of Show Boat in 1932, and also the new show Hot-Cha! During the same period Ziegfeld was battling pneumonia and by the middle of the year was resting at a sanitarium in New Mexico.

Hot-Cha! was a musical comedy set in Mexico that ran at the Ziegfeld Theatre for 119 performances, between March 8, 1932, and June 18, 1932. It starred Bert Lahr, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, and Lupe Velez. Rose Louise (later Gypsy Rose Lee) appeared in a small part, and Eleanor Powell was a dancer.

I have checked the production history of Hot-Cha! and cannot verify how Gene Pearson was involved. He is not listed as a member of the cast or crew on opening night. Perhaps he joined later, or participated in previews? The only evidence of his involvement that I have been able to find are mentions of Hot-Cha! in his obituary.[79]

Hot-Cha! had a troubled history. Critics called it dull and outmoded or old-fashioned.[80] And yet it made money, at least at the start, and reportedly brought in $47,000 in its first week.[81] Success was short-lived, though. On May 26, Ziegfeld announced that the cast (excluding the stage hands) had agreed to take a voluntary cut in salary in order to enable the theatre to reduce the price of seats by a dollar. Buddy Rogers would have none of it, and quit the cast rather than continue at a reduced wage. He was replaced by Art Jarrett, a radio singer.[82] The attempt to attract a larger audience at reduced rates was ultimately unsuccessful, and Hot-Cha! closed on June 18, 1932.[83] Barely a month later, on July 22, 1932, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., died of pleurisy, and an era had passed.

Miss America on Parade (1932)
Gene Pearson was last seen as a performer in the vaudeville show Miss America on Parade, which was performed at the Midland Theater in Newark, Ohio, October 13, 14, and 15, 1932, with matinee and evening shows. Billed as a “modern musical revue of stage and radio stars,” Pearson was the headliner.[84] Bobby Jones appeared as the master of ceremonies, and a six-piece orchestra (Bob Veon and his Crazy Rhythm Boys) filled in between the acts. The cabaret-like setting featured dancing girls (the DO-X Dancing Rockets) and Ukelele Lew. Marvel and Lawrence, a broadcasting comedy team from WTAM Cleveland, did some singing and dancing, and Mates and Bretts performed as tumblers. This was all standard vaudeville fare but the industry was in the midst of change, particularly due to evolving tastes in public entertainment. People were also careful with their money, as this was at the height of the Great Depression. It came to be that a vaudeville show alone was no longer enough to attract a large audience. Miss America on Parade was only the first part of the bill, followed by the motion picture 70,000 Witnesses, a mystery set at a football game. Miss America on Parade was promoted heavily in the newspapers, with ads stating that “over 50 valuable prizes” would be given away, with the grand prize being an Essex Terraplane automobile. All of this for evening show seats going for forty cents each for adults, and twenty cents for children.[85]

The single review of Miss America on Parade I have been able to find mentions Gene Pearson, but is not entirely favourable:

Gene Pearson is a female impersonator. He may fool some of the audience, but not many. But he has a fair soprano register in his voice and wears stunning costumes. The suggestive gestures he used were not necessary.[86]

Final Curtain
In November 1932, Gene Pearson found work as master of ceremonies at one of Cleveland’s leading nightclubs, Club Madrid, located at 2442 Euclid Avenue.[87] His new position was short-lived, however, as he developed pneumonia at the beginning of December. Days later, on December 7, 1932, Pearson died at the age of thirty-three. His sudden death must have been a shock, but to people who knew him well perhaps less so. Pearson’s health had always been delicate, as we recall from his medical report as an army recruit, which rejected him for his “poor physique”, and also his collapse and hospitalization in 1921.

Gene Pearson’s passing did not go unnoticed. A short news item appeared the next day in the Cleveland Plain Dealer[88], and was later picked up by the CP and INS wire services and reprinted, with variations, in newspapers in the United States and across Canada, from Vancouver to Montreal. The news accounts were usually only about half correct. In every case they mention that he had been a female impersonator. Pearson was generally described as British, and that his body would be sent back to London. The Canadian papers said that he had been born in Toronto, rather than Britain, but did mention that he was a member of the Dumbells Theatrical Company.[89] Some mentioned that he was survived by his father, two sisters, and three brothers.

Pearson’s body was shipped to Toronto almost immediately, and on December 10, 1932, he was buried next to his mother in the family plot at the Necropolis.

Major questions about Gene Pearson remain unanswered. For example, whom did he admire as a female impersonator? Who were his influences? During his time there was the split between the burlesque female impersonators, who used comic costumes and were not believable as females, and the refined types, who worked hard to appear female in every way. Pearson was of the latter sort, particularly starting with the Originals. There were several Canadians who could have been of some influence to him, including Ross “Marjorie” Hamilton of the Dumbells. But there was one elegant contemporary who was on a different plane, and who became the most revered female impersonator in America. Julian Eltinge (born William Julian Dalton, 1881–1941) at his peak was without peer. He worked his way up in the world of vaudeville, touring in the United States and England, eventually earning the nickname “Mr. Lillian Russell” after the popular musical star. By 1911 he was the toast of Broadway, appearing in the comedy The Fascinating Widow, and was soon making silent motion pictures in Hollywood, including a version of The Fascinating Widow in 1925. When he returned to Broadway in 1918, performing at the Palace Theatre with the Julian Eltinge Players, he was one of the highest paid performers in show business, making $3,500 USD per week. Eltinge was not only extremely glamorous, but worked hard to present as a real female. He would have no doubt influenced Pearson, who may have seen him perform in person, or on the screen, during the 1920s. We may view an interesting eight-minute clip of Mark Berger’s documentary-in-progress on Eltinge on YouTube, part of which shows him in an elaborate stage costume addressing the audience in a deep, male voice.[90]

Also, by the age of twenty-one Gene Pearson was being recognized in reviews for the fine quality of his male soprano voice. But how, and where, did Pearson learn to sing? Did he take lessons, or have a vocal coach? There were likely numerous rehearsals for all of his shows, and he was performing very regularly, but this was not enough. A hint is given in one of Pearson’s obituaries, which stated that “before appearing on the stage he had been a boy soprano in the choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London”.[91] Life as a boy soprano may have been his start, but I have not been able to verify this. Pearson lived in England until 1911, when at the age of twelve he moved with his family to Toronto. I have been unable to find other documentation relating to Pearson’s vocal training. But, what about the quality of his voice, from a modern viewpoint? 

We are fortunate that a number of 78-rpm recordings were made of performances by the Originals, and are available in digital form on YouTube. Pearson, billed as the “Male Galli-Curci”, sings “The Dancing Lesson” recorded from Stepping Out[92] as well as “Carmena” and “Love’s Old Sweet Song”, both from Thumbs Up.[93]   

Steve Edmondson, commenting on YouTube in 2018 about Pearson’s renditions of “Carmena” and “Love’s Old Sweet Song”, remarked

He sounds like he's singing in a male falsetto register to me. Though the voice is strong and dynamic, the intonation throughout has the characteristics of a falsetto vocal production. If you listen closely, his sound lacks the inner core and support of a trained countertenor's voice. It's a great falsetto and he probably would have been a sensation in any era; either as a serious singer of operatic repertoire, or with a touch of camp, a hysterical comic performer.[94]

Daniel Taylor, a renowned Canadian countertenor and head of early music and professor of voice, University of Toronto, listened to the three Pearson recordings and remarked that “Gene Pearson had a glorious instrument, a clear voice with a tremendous range, good intonation and so very expressive.”[95]

Finally, do we know anything about Gene Pearson’s sexual orientation? Pearson never married, but then he died at only thirty-three. Just because he performed as a woman, and convincingly, does not mean that he was a homosexual. Without further evidence, at this time there is no way to deduce Pearson’s orientation.

There is considerable scholarship concerning the evolution of public opinion associating cross-dressing with homosexuality and thus abnormality and, as Geraldine Maschio argues, eventually “theatrical female impersonation, particularly glamour drag, became tainted with effeminate blood.”[96] Some gay and heterosexual men were attracted to performing as glamorous women on stage, either because they could publicly (and safely) wear female attire or, as Maschio suggests, “they could enjoy the demonstration of power and privilege suggested by the embodiment of the Other”.[97] But, there were rules. The performance of the impersonator had to be carefully staged to separate it from the appearance of effeminacy in the performer himself. Julian Eltinge, for example, was a master at this. There was never any question that Eltinge was a man, and his shows began and ended with him in male clothing. As early as 1907, a reviewer of Eltinge’s performance sighed with relief that “Eltinge’s act is free from much of the effeminate affectation that seems the stock and trade of the majority of female impersonators”.[98] Similarly, the New York Telegraph noted in 1911 that “never for an instant does [Eltinge] stoop to effeminacy. He avoids all unpleasant features and keeps the masquerade which makes his portrayal a feat of genius”.[99] As Maschio notes, “Such critical comments suggest that these writers disapproved of homosexuality and conflated it with female impersonation in the theatre.”[100] Eltinge, a life-long bachelor, later went to extraordinary lengths to appear ultra-masculine while off the stage, to help ward off any speculation about his sexual orientation. In order to appear as the “right kind” of butch man, Eltinge staged photo opportunities at his Long Island farm, posing for photographers while dressed in overalls and a straw hat, wielding a pitchfork.[101] But, by the late 1920s, glamorous female impersonators came to be seen as somehow sexually contaminated and were soon exiled to the homosexual subculture.      

It is safe to say that Gene Pearson, once billed as “The Male Galli- Curci” and “The Canadian Nightingale”, has been forgotten. The entire notion of vaudeville is but a distant memory, and even towering figures such as Ziegfeld, Gus Hill, or The Dumbells are dimly remembered. There is no question, though, that Gene Pearson made a mark in the history of vaudeville, and in the great tradition of female impersonation. During a few years in the 1920s Pearson was in top form, gathering praise not only for his remarkable voice but for his convincing and glamorous presentation as a woman. Female impersonation survives today in the form of drag performances in countless gay bars and other venues around the world. Professional and amateur performers vie to compete, mostly through lip-synched routines matched to popular music. Elaborate make-up and costumes are the norm. Some performers have become international or national stars in their own right. In Canada alone the names Guilda, Craig Russell, and The Great Imposters (Michelle DuBarry, Rusty Ryan, Jackie Loren, and others) recall great stars of the past. And in the past few years, female impersonation or drag has entered the mainstream. RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009—), for example, remains one of the most popular American reality competition television series, with an international following. Even so, few female impersonators today could match Gene Pearson in his prime for his glamour, or his voice.            

[1] Heathcote (1894–1975) was Pearson’s brother-in-law, married to his elder sister, Irene Pearson (1898–1979). The Pearson artifacts belonged to them. The Heathcote family gravestone in Park Lawn Cemetery, Toronto, may be viewed online through Find a Grave, here: (accessed March 29, 2020).

[2] See (I accessed the version available in April 2020).

[3] Biographical details on Pearson and his family have been taken from the 1921 Census of Canada, Reference Number: RG 31; Folder Number: 79; Census Place: Toronto (City), Parkdale, Ontario, page 1. Accessed through 1921 Census of Canada (database online). Provo, UT: Operations Inc., 2013. See also the personnel records of Benjamin Pearson, Jr., from the First World War: Library and Archives Canada, Personnel Records of the First World War, Benjamin Pearson, regimental number 3236443, RG 150, Accession 1992–93/166, Box 7683–24, item number 567732, record group Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), digitized service file PDF format B7683–S024. The Pearson family grave plot is located at the Necropolis, 200 Winchester Street, Toronto, in section X, range 19, lot 920.

[4] See Pearson, Personnel Records of the First World War, ibid.

[5] “What Press Agents Say About Coming Events: Gus Hill’s Minstrels,” Toronto Daily Star, September 20, 1920, 10.

[6] “Minstrel Deans Here Soon with Great Offering: Gus Hill Company Opens at Empire Theatre on May 31,” Edmonton Journal, May 22, 1920, 3.

[7] “Sixty Capable Men in Hill’s Minstrels: Look Out for the Street Parade and Band Concert Thursday,” Calgary Daily Herald, June 2, 1920, 19.

[8] “Gus Hill,” in Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman, and Donald McNeilly, Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America. New York: Routledge, 2007, 510.

[9] Robert C. Toll, “Behind the Blackface: Minstrel Men and Minstrel Myths,” American Heritage, 29, no. 3 (April/May 1978).

[10] “Minstrel Show,” Encyclopedia Britannica, (accessed May 3, 2020).

[11] “Gus Hill’s Minstrels at Crawford Tonight,” Wichita Beacon (Wichita, Kans.), December 29, 1920, 6. Note that the article is accompanied by a photograph entitled “A Scene in Gus Hill’s Minstrels” showing eight men in black-face makeup grouped around a man dressed as “Mammy,” also in black-face.

[12] “Minstelsy Pleases Playhouse Audience: Gus Hill’s Aggregation Well Received Yesterday at Two Performances,” Rutland Daily Herald (Rutland, Vermont), September 7, 1920, 12.

[13] “Famed Stars Will Appear: Big Benefit for Children’s Hospital Sunday Night,” Boston Post, December 11, 1920, 8; “Stage Stars Help Benefit: Performance for Children’s Hospital Success,” Boston Post, December 13, 1920, 11; “Thespians Help Out Children’s Hospital,” Boston Globe, December 13, 1920, 2. 

[14] “Concert at Colonial Tonight,” Boston Globe, April 3, 1921, 61.

[15] Benjamin Pearson, 1921 Census of Canada, op cit.

[16] “O’Brien’s Minstrels Here Again with Lot of New Stuff,” Rutland Daily Herald (Rutland, Vermont), August 18, 1922, 7.

[17] “Neil O’Brien Dies at 85: Retired Minstrel Once with Primrose & Rockstader (sic, Dockstader),” New York Times, January 14, 1954, 29.

[18] “O’Brien’s Minstrels Here Again with Lot of New Stuff,” op cit.

[19] “O’Brien’s Minstrels Please Large Crowd,” Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, New York), August 26, 1922, 4.

[20] “O’Brien Minstrels Score,” Rock Island Argus (Rock Island, Illinois), October 4, 1922, 4.

[21] Virginia Lee Cox, “O’Brien’s Minstrels Please,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 29, 1922, 3.

[22] Blackburn W. Johnson, “Large Audience Sees Minstrel: Neil O’Brien, on Second Appearance, Well Received,” Charlotte Sunday Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina), March 25, 1923, 4.

[23] The best book on the Dumbells is by Jason Wilson, Soldiers of Song: The Dumbells and Other Canadian Concert Parties of the First World War. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012.

[24] Ivor “Jack” Ayre route books in the Dumbells Collection, envelope five, Toronto Reference Library, Toronto, Ontario, as reported in Wilson, Soldiers of Song, 169–70.

[25]Full O’ Pep,” Calgary Daily Herald, April 28, 1923, 13.

[26] Ayre route books, reported in Wilson, 170–71.

[27] “’Originals’ Coming During October,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, August 11, 1923, 21. Amelita Galli-Curci (1882–1963) was an Italian coloratura soprano, one of the most popular operatic performers of the twentieth century.

[28] “The ‘Originals’ in ‘Rapid Fire’: Third Division C.E.F. Entertainers at the Russell Next Monday and Tuesday Nights,” Ottawa Journal, September 8, 1923, 12.

[29] Walter, “’Rapid Fire’ Goes with Biff, Bing, Bang and Full of Pep: At Grand,” Calgary Daily Herald, November 23, 1923, 8.

[30] “Dumbells’ Best Show at Walker: ‘Rapid Fire’ Contains Comedy in Plenitude, Rich Settings: Everything New,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, October 2, 1923, 14.

[31] “‘Rapid Fire’ Seen at His Majesty’s: Dumbell Favorites and Newcomer, Gene Pearson, Give Capital Performance,” Montreal Gazette, September 18, 1923, 10.

[32] “Herald Radio Will Broadcast ‘Rapid Fire’ This Evening,” Calgary Daily Herald, November 23, 1923, 16.

[33] “Social Events,” The Globe (Toronto), May 13, 1924, 15.

[34] Staff Reporter, “Originals Play,” Border Cities Star (Windsor, Ont.), March 25, 1925, 14.

[35] “‘Stepping Out’ Is the Best Revue That Has Been Staged by Canada’s Own Originals: Production Brimful of Novelties Opens at Regina Theatre on Monday for 3-Day Engagement,” The Leader (Regina, Sask.), November 22, 1924, 16.

[36] “Originals Score on Return to City: You’ll Fare a Lot Worse in the Show Line If You Pass Up ‘Stepping Out,’” Saskatoon Daily Star, November 28, 1924, 5.

[37] “’Stepping Out’ Is Big Thing at Grand Wednesday,” Calgary Daily Herald, December 13, 1924, 13.

[38] “Stage,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, February 11, 1925, 15.

[39] “Coming Attractions,” The Globe (Toronto), February 28, 1925, 13.

[40] “Gives Radio Concert to Conclude Month: Manufacturers’ Association Is Broadcasting Tonight from CHNC,” The Globe (Toronto), March 6, 1925, 9.

[41] “Jimmie Goode Returns to Originals: Popular Soldier Star Back with Old Pals,” Lethbridge Daily Herald (Lethbridge, Alta.), September 2, 1925, 10.

[42] “’Thumbs Up’ Good Show: Originals Have Smart Revue at The Orpheum,” Montreal Gazette, March 2, 1926, 8.

[43] “’The Originals’ Close at the Grand,” Calgary Daily Herald, October 31, 1925, 11; “Originals Offering Splendid Vehicle,” Saskatoon Phoenix, October 6, 1925, 9.

[44] Quoted in “Peterboro Paper Only One of Many Who Praise Soldier Revue,” The Leader (Regina, Sask.), October 3, 1925, 21.

[45] “Originals Offering Splendid Vehicle,” Saskatoon Phoenix, October 6, 1925, 9.

[46] “Soldier Entertainers, Originals, ‘Thumbs Up,’” Calgary Daily Herald, October 28, 1925, 6.

[47] “Social Events,” The Globe (Toronto), July 9, 1926, 11.

[48] “Two Headline Acts on B.F. Keith’s Vaudeville Programme Next Week,” Ottawa Journal, October 30, 1926, 23.

[49] The merger of the Keith-Albee and Orpheum vaudeville theatres in January 1928 formed the largest chain in vaudeville, including more than 700 theatres with a total seating capacity of 1,500,000. See “700 Theatres Merged in Vaudeville Circuit: Keith-Albee and Orpheum Now Largest in Country,” New York Times, January 27, 1928, 14.

[50] “At the Imperial: Bob Anderson and Gene Pearson on Vaudeville Bill,” Montreal Gazette, October 23, 1926, 11; “Canadian Soldier Entertainers and Viola May Share Headlines,” Ottawa Citizen, October 30, 1926, 18; “Two Headline Acts on B.F. Keith’s Vaudeville Programme Next Week,” Ottawa Journal, October 30, 1926, 23; “Two Ottawa Favorites at Keith’s,” Ottawa Citizen, October 30, 1926, 19.

[51] Advertisement, The Morning Call (Allentown, Penn.), March 31, 1927, 10.

[52] “’The Four Camerons’ Head Orpheum Bill,” The Morning Call (Allentown, Penn.), April 1, 1927, 29.

[53] “At Poli’s,” Times-Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Penn.), May 16, 1927, 16.

[54] “Program at Lyric Presents Features: Colorful and Diversified Bill Entertaining to Audience,” Times-Dispatch (Richmond, Va.), May 10, 1927, 12.

[55] “The Theater: B.F. Keith’s Temple—Vaudeville,” Detroit Free Press, June 27, 1927, 6.

[56] James Muir, “Splendid Show at Keith’s,” Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio), June 6, 1927, 12.

[57] “Miss Lee Morse Keith Headliner,” News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), April 29, 1928, 6.

[58] “Vannessi on Bill at New Garden,” Evening Sun (Baltimore, Md.), April 10, 1928, 22.

[59] “Last Vaudeville Program Big Hit,” News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), May 1, 1928, 12.

[60] “Social Events,” The Globe (Toronto), June 1, 1928, 16.

[61] Williams Hutchings, “Mae West as Playwright: Broadway’s Sex Scandal of 1926–27,” Text & Presentation: The Journal of the Comparative Drama Conference 21 (2000): 101+. For background see also Ramona Curry, Too Much of a Good Thing: Mae West as a Cultural Icon (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996) and Marybeth Hamilton, “When I’m Bad, I’m Better”: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995).

[62] See Richard Helfer, “The Drag: Mae West and the Gay World,” Journal of American Drama and Theatre 8 (Winter 1996): 50–66, as well as Ariel Nereson, “Queens ‘Campin’’ Onstage: Performing Queerness in Mae West’s ‘Gay Plays,’” Theatre Journal 64 (2012): 513–32.

[63] For background on the “pansy craze” see George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994), particularly chapter 11, "Pansies on Parade: Prohibition and the Spectacle of the Pansy", as well as Chad Heap, Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885–1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), chapter 6, "The Pansy and Lesbian Craze in White and Black".

[64] “Social Events,” The Globe (Toronto), June 1, 1928, 16.

[65] “Raid Mae West Play, Seize 56 at Opening,” New York Times, October 2, 1928, 1, 34.

[66] Ibid.

[67] High-quality photographs taken in front of the theatre by the New York Daily News document the second raid and arrests, and may be viewed as part of the short documentary The Pansy Craze on Stage and Screen (2017), (accessed May 9, 2020).

[68] “Filth on the Stage,” Daily News (New York), October 3, 1928, 23.

[69] C.E.H., “’Pleasure Man,’” Brooklyn Daily Times, October 2, 1928, 7.

[70] Maria Jeritza (1887–1982) was at that time a well-known Czech soprano star of the Metropolitan Opera, known by the nickname “The Moravian Thunderbolt”.

[71] “Actress and 50 Other Persons Face Indecency Charges,” Sioux City Journal (Sioux City, Iowa), January 27, 1930, 3.

[72] “’Pleasure Man’ Portrayed by Cop: Heavy Police Lieutenant Proves Good Female Impersonator in Mae West Trial,” Brooklyn Daily Times, March 20, 1930, 4; “’Whoops!’ ‘Cop’ Makes Hit with His Performance of ‘Pleasure Man’. Imitates Falsetto and Does Ballet Steps. Shakes Broad Shoulders Like ‘Impoisanators’…,” The Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio), March 21, 1930, 9.

[73] “Burkan Says Police ‘Framed’ Mae West: Both Sides Charge Perjury as ‘Pleasure Man’ Trial Draws to a Close,” New York Times, April 3, 1930, 15.

[74] “Jury Fails to Agree at Mae West Trial: Discharged After Deliberating 10 Hours—Reported 7 to 5 for Conviction,” New York Times, April 4, 1930, 1, 14.

[75] “Bertini Sees Need for Stage Censor,” New York Times, April 5, 1930, 13.

[76] “Social and Personal,” Toronto Daily Star, December 21, 1928, 24.

[77]  A 1932 news item in the Newark Advocate and American Tribune described Pearson as a “late feature of WTAM, Cleveland, and a veteran of many broadcasts.” See “Radio Stars Are Staging Program,” Newark Advocate and American Tribune (Newark, Ohio), October 11, 1932, 10. Thanks to Donald Boozer at the Cleveland Public Library for checking files on WTAM there.

[78] For more on Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., see Cynthia Brideson and Sara Brideson, Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Biography of Broadway’s Greatest Producer (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and Richard Ziegfeld and Paulette Ziegfeld, The Ziegfeld Touch: The Life and Times of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1993).

[79] See, for example, “British Actor, in Club Here, Is Dead,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 8, 1932, 2, and “Pearson, Female Impersonator, Dies,” Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio), December 8, 1932, 14.

[80] See, in particular, Rowland Field, “The New Play: Florenz Ziegfeld Presents ‘Hot-Cha!’ at His Theatre,” Times Union (Brooklyn, New York), March 10, 1932, 55, and Arthur Pollock, “Plays and Things,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 13, 1932, E1.

[81] Arthur Pollock, “The Theaters: Yes, Mr. Ziegfeld Must Be Old-fashioned! — His Latest Show, ‘Hot-Cha!’ Is Making Big Money, Just as Shows Did in Grandpa’s Day,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 24, 1932, 24.

[82] “’Hot-Cha!’ Stays at Ziegfeld with Prices Lowered,” Daily News (New York), May 27, 1932, 45.

[83] “Theatre Notes,” Daily News (New York), June 18, 1932, 21.

[84] “Radio Stars Are Staging Program,” Newark Advocate and American Tribune (Newark, Ohio), October 11, 1932, 10.

[85] Advertisement, Newark Advocate and American Tribune (Newark, Ohio), October 12, 1932, 12.

[86] H.T.K., “Vaudeville Bill Well Received; Film Is Excellent,” Newark Advocate and American Tribune (Newark, Ohio), October 14, 1932, 13.

[87] In November 1932 the Club Madrid was described as a “hot down town spot” with nightly entertainment by Billy Banks and his orchestra as well as a variety of singers (Floyd G. Snelson, Jr., “Newsy Newsettes,” Pittsburgh Courier, November 12, 1932, 16. Today, the location is the site of the Euclid Commons, Cleveland State University.

[88] “British Actor, in Club Here, Is Dead,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 8, 1932, 2.

[89] See, for example, “’Dumbell’ Actor Passes,” Calgary Daily Herald, December 8, 1932, 1, and “Gene Pearson, Female Impersonator with the Dumbells, Is Dead,” Vancouver Daily Province, December 9, 1932, 2.

[90] Mark Berger, Julian Eltinge Documentary (2012, in progress), (accessed May 9, 2020).

[91] “British Actor, in Club Here, Is Dead,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 8, 1932, 2.

[92] Gene Pearson singing “The Dancing Lesson” (Nichols) from Stepping Out (1924–25), 694–B, 2:52 min. See (accessed May 9, 2020).

[93] Gene Pearson singing “Carmena” (Walton-Wilson) from Thumbs Up (1925–26), 716–A, 2:41 min., and “Love’s Old Sweet Song” (Molloy-Bingham) from Thumbs Up (1925–26), 716–B, 2:57 min. See (accessed May 9, 2020).

[94] Steve Edmondson’s 2018 comment on Pearson’s performance of “Carmena” and “Love’s Old Sweet Song”. See (accessed May 9, 2020).

[95] Daniel Taylor e-mail to the author, May 14, 2020.

[96] Geraldine Maschio, “Effeminacy or Art? The Performativity of Julian Eltinge,” Journal of American Drama and Theatre 10 (Winter 1998): 28–38.

[97] Maschio, 31.

[98] “Chapin’s Lincoln at 125th St.,” New York Telegraph, October 30, 1907, quoted in Maschio, 34.

[99] Acton Davies, “Julian Eltinge Triumphs in ‘The Fascinating Widow,’” New York Evening Sun, September 12, 1911, quoted in Maschio, 34.

[100] Maschio, 35.

[101] Maschio, 36.

About the Author
Donald W. McLeod is a librarian at the University of Toronto and a long-time volunteer at The ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives. His books on queer topics include Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Canada: A Selected Annotated Chronology, 1976–1981 (2017); A Brief History of GAY, Canada’s First Gay Tabloid, 1964–1966 (2003); (with Jim Egan) Challenging the Conspiracy of Silence: My Life as a Canadian Gay Activist (1998); and Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Canada: A Selected Annotated Chronology, 1964–1975 (1996.)

Thanks to Prof. Jane Errington, Ed Jackson, and Prof. Daniel Taylor for their helpful comments, as well as Donald Boozer of the Cleveland Public Library for research assistance.