Years active
1862-1901

Stage Name(s)
Bessie Bonehill

Category
Male Impersonator

Country of Origin
United Kingdom

Birth – Death
1855 – 1902

Bio
Bessie Bonehill claimed to be the first male impersonator in the English music halls and ‘is one of the first male impersonators who ventured into America variety’ (1). In 1889 she was invited by Tony Pastor to perform in his NY theatre on Fourteenth Street, and became an instant hit.  She moved to the US in 1891 to continue her career and lived there with her family till she died August 21, 1902.  She dedicated her life to male impersonation and built a successful career allotting her to tour the world becoming ‘one of the most famous and wealthy entertainers of her day.’ (2)

Bessie Bonehill was born Betsey Bonehill on February 17, 1855 in West Bromwich, Sandwell, West Midlands, England. She started performing principal boy characters in pantomime in 1862 at the age of seven. ‘She claimed to be the first male impersonator in the English music halls and was so dedicated that she cut off her hair to fit her growing ambition’ (3).   ‘While in England she specialized in boy characters such as newsboys, sailors, and soldiers singing patriotic songs’ (4).  ‘Many of her songs were written by Arthur West, a friend of Charlie Chaplin’ (5).  She caught the attention of Tony Pastor from New York, and in 1889 accepted his offer to come and perform in his theatre.  According to the New York Times she was an instant hit:

New York Times, 5 Nov 1889, ANOTHER BRITISH ARTIST. Mr.Tony Pastor’s latest acquisition, Miss Bessie Bonehill, direct from London and set down on the play bill as “England’s greatest character and descriptive singer,” was enthusiastically welcomed last night and overwhelmed with floral offerings, after the correct and truly orthodox fashion. Miss Bonehill, besides being lithe and frisky, strident as to voice and nimble as to feet, is evidently a public performer of extended experience. Her command of the stage is something remarkable, and she is as much at home in masculine garb as if to the manner born.”

This was also written about her first appearance at Tony Pastor’s theatre in 1889: ‘“Entering the stage for her first appearance in America, Bessie was greeted with a standing ovation. With a soft, sympathetic voice, an attractive personality and a magnetism that quickly captured her audience, she began to sing. She was frequently interrupted in the middle of a song. Her first two songs were done in full evening male attire, her third in a newsboy suit and her fourth dressed as a naval attache. Her expressive face and lithe form were in accord with the song lyrics. Audiences quickly discovered she was a singer, an actress and a dancer. At the conclusion of her set, audiences were on their feet applauding for a full five minutes. Floral greetings were numerous and lavish. The best news followed when Tony announced that Bessie would play at the theatre for six weeks.”’(6)

In 1891 she moved to the US to continue her successful career which lasted until 1901 (when she started to become ill with cancer).  In her ten years living in the United States she carried out a 360 consecutive sell-out performance over a 5 week period with fellow male impersonator Millie Hylton,  starred in the boy role of Christopher in “Little Christopher”, toured the world including South Africa, Ireland, and Berlin, and ‘established the new performance aesthetics for male impersonation in the US’ (7).  She became one of the most famous and wealthy entertainers of her day.  She died of stomach cancer on August 21, 1902 in the company of her family at their Dear Hill Farm in Sayville, L.I.

Research Submitted by: Drag King Flare of Toronto, Canada

  1. Bonehill, Richard. org/HamletPeople.  January 4, 2010
  2. Rodger, Gillian M.. Just One of the Boys: Female-to-Male Cross-Dressing on the American Variety Stage. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2018, 147
  3. Bonehill, Richard. England’s Gem, the story of Bessie Bonehill, 2013
  4. Unknown author. intothelimelight.  August 25, 2015
  5. Rodger, Just One of the Boys, 147
  6. Anthony, Barry. Chaplin’s Music Hall: The Chaplins and Their Inner Circle in the Limelight.  B. Tauris, 2013, 103
  7. Fields, Arnold. Tony Pastor: Father of Vaudeville.  Mcfarland; Reprint edition, 2012, 131
  8. Rodger, Just One of the Boys, 149

All Public Domain

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