On this date in 1918, the Bismarck Theater featured a performer “hailed by women as the most beautiful example of their sex.” However, Julian Eltinge was not a woman, but a “female impersonator,” and one of the most celebrated and highest paid performers in the United States.
Eltinge was born William Dalton in Massachusetts in 1881. As a boy, he showed an affinity for performance, and was fond of dressing up in ladies’ clothing. Dalton’s affinity was encouraged by his mother, but prohibited by his father. In the 1890s, the Dalton family moved to Butte, Montana, a booming mining town where several saloons and vaudeville houses sprang up. As a teenager, Dalton performed as a dancer in the saloons, dressed as a woman. This practice was not uncommon in the rough railroad and mining towns, due to the fact that the incoming population was predominately male, and a “respectable” young woman would not have been found near a saloon.
Dalton’s employment in the saloons was short-lived. When his father found out, Dalton was swiftly sent back to Boston to work as a store clerk. Yet his love of theater persisted. He studied dance and became active in amateur theater. It was during this time that the female alter ego of “Julian Eltinge” was born. In 1904, he made his New York Broadway debut in “Mr. Wix of Wickham,” which rocketed him to worldwide acclaim.
By 1912, Eltinge, aka Billy Dalton, was not only a Broadway headliner; a theater was named in his honor – The Eltinge 42nd Street Theater in Manhattan. However, a lesser-known theater was also named in his honor… in Bismarck, North Dakota!
In 1919, E. A. Hughes announced that his newly planned vaudeville and movie house would be named the Eltinge. According to the Grand Forks Herald, “the fair Julian” was “an old friend of the Hughes family.” Apart from the social ties, the air of glamour that accompanied Eltinge’s name likely figured into Hughes’s business decision. In 1920, The Eltinge Theater opened on Third Street in Bismarck.
Eltinge’s career straddled the era of vaudeville and motion pictures. Throughout the 1920s he starred in several films, while still performing in vaudeville tours. However, by the late 1930s, cultural tastes changed, and the trend of female impersonation was no longer regarded as light-hearted entertainment. Some cities even enacted laws against drag performances. Eltinge’s career declined, and 1941 he passed away after a performance in Manhattan.
The old theater building in Bismarck went through a couple of name changes and was eventually demolished. However, Eltinge’s legacy lives on in the preserved cinema productions. As for the original Eltinge Theater in Manhattan, it’s now a movie theater.
Dakota Datebook by Maria Witham
Grand Forks Herald. June 19, 1919, p. 3
Bismarck Daily Tribune., February 20, 1912, p. 3
The Bismarck Tribune., June 04, 1918, p.3