Years active
1870-1908

Stage Name(s)
Ella Wesner

Category
Male Impersonator

Country of Origin
USA

Birth – Death
1841 – 1917

Bio
Ella Wesner was from a family of ballet dancers and began her career in children’s ballet corps in Philadelphia (1).  Before she was thirty, and prior to her career as a male impersonator, she was a ballet dancer in regional stock companies in Galveston Texas (2).  In August 1869, she was booked to perform ballet at the John Stetson Show in New York city where she met male impersonator Annie Hindle. Though ‘this was the only time these women shared a bill, and there is no record of any friendship between them, their names are linked by the fact that they were the first two women in their speciality in the United States’ (3). During the summer of 1870 Tony Pastor billed Ella Wesner as a male impersonator at his New York Theatre.  She got herself an agent and started performing regular gigs in New York and with touring companies that took her across America.   She toured England from 1876 to 1880 performing at Oxford, the Cambridge, and at the Sun Music Halls in London, and was noted as ‘The New York Beau’ and ‘American Male Impersonator’.  In 1880 she returned to the US where she continued her career touring with Tony Pastor, being a regular at Koster and Bial’s and at Harry Miner’s in New York, and creating her own touring show “Captain of the Queen’s Own”.  The New York Dramatic Mirror credits her with helping Vesta Tilley; and, she mentored her niece Maggie Weston in the artform. ‘She asked to be buried in her male costume.’ (4) 

Ella Wesner was part of a family of dancers and actors.  ‘She attained a twenty year career in ballet in regional stock companies in Galveston Texas, and was said to support her mother and four sisters on her salaries’(5).  ‘In 1864 Ella Wesner was part of the ballet corps in the play “Bel Demonio” which featured opera singer Felicita Vestvali in the role of Angelo who wore male costumes throughout the play.  This production ran almost two months, allowing Wesner time to study the way the leading actress transformed herself to perform in a male role’ (6).  Then in 1869, she was introduced to male impersonator Annie Hindle (who is known to be the first male impersonator in the US) while working at the John Stetson Show.  ‘It is said that Annie Hindle gave her performance tips as well as songs to help launch Wesner’s career.  However, there is no record of them being billed or touring together’, and when Wesner hired Annie Hindle’s agent T. Allston Brown in 1871, Annie left that agency and hired Harry Cunningham. (7)

July 1870 Tony Pastor books Ella Wesner as a male impersonator in his New York theatre.  She is an instant sensation.  Her dancing and acting gave her the abilities for quick and multiple character changes.  ‘She depicted a fairly broad range of male characters, from young to mature men as well as working; middle; and upper-class men.’ ‘Portrayed a different male character, and between songs the actress changed her costume in the wings’ (8).  Some of her characters were the ‘Swell’, the “Dude”, and the “Captain”.  ‘In 1872 she joined Tony Pastor’s summer tour in the northeastern States where she met Helen Josephine (“Josie”) Mansfield.  Josie was the notorious mistress of Jim Fisk and Edward Stokes.  After Edward Stokes shot Jim Fisk, Josie took off with Ella Wesner to Paris where they presided over a salon at the Café Américan for less than six months’ (9).  ‘Ella Wesner returned to the US in 1873 without Josie and started right back into her career performing at the Theatre Comique with manager Josh Hart that March’ (10). With or without her, the final gravesite website notes that Josie was Wesner’s spouse.

‘June 1876, Ella Wesner arrives in England with first bookings at Oxford, the Cambridge, and the Sun Music Halls in London.’ ‘She was noted in the newspaper as ‘The New York Beau’ (11).  From the ages of 35-39 Wesner performed in England learning the styles of the English male impersonators who had already established the artform.  ‘Reviewers who wrote for the London Era treated her as being in a class of her own and distinctly different from the other women who performed as male impersonators.’ (12).  ‘She even got treated by English reviewers as though she were a male performer.  Billed “the idol of New York” “American Male Impersonator”’ (13).  When she came back to the US in 1880 she brought her English ‘swell’ with her and got to perform at the National Theatre in Philadelphia.  Immediately after she joined Tony Pastor’s tour and toured with him till 1881.  ‘In 1882 she joined William Davene’s Colossal Allied Attraction and toured widely through the Northeast and Midwest of the USA.’ (14), and then returned to New York in 1883 to perform at Harry Miner’s and at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall.  ‘In 1885 she performed an older character called “The Captain” and started making money singing for “Little Beauties Cigarette company” and for singing for champagne companies.  By October 1885 ‘she started her own company/show called “Captain of the Queen’s Own” written by Laura LeClair Phillips and opened at Tony Pastor’s Theatre.  It was a hit and noted such in the New York World and The Clipper.’(15).  After being in New York for two weeks her show toured Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, St.Louis, Kentucky, and Indianapolis, but ended with a bad review there and the show disbanded.  She returned to New York and performed regularly until the early 1890’s when her career started to decline (16).

On top of her successful 38 year career as a male impersonator both in the US and in the UK, Ella Wesner also mentored her niece Maggie Weston in male impersonation ‘who moved from variety into melodrama, and after having spent much of the 1880’s performing in male impersonation, Maggie transitioned into comedy and ended her career as a supporting player in the emerging movie industry in the early twentieth century’ (17).  Ella Wesner has also been noted by the New York Dramatic Mirror as helping Vesta Tilley debut as a male impersonator. ‘From Vesta Tilley “I am proud to be compared to Miss Wesner.  When I was a child I saw her on stage”’ (18).  And, Ella Shields noted in an interview that she felt honoured when she was compared to Ella Wesner, due to her strong depiction of male characters.

‘She passed away November 1917 requesting to be buried in her male costume.’ (19)

Research Submitted by: Drag King Flare of Toronto, Canada

  1. Rodger, Gillian M.. Just One of the Boys: Female-to-Male Cross-Dressing on the American Variety Stage. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2018, 33
  2. Rodger, Just One of the Boys, 32
  3. Rodger, Just One of the Boys, 32
  4. Senelick, Laurence. The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre; Gender in Performance: Routledge, 2002, 331-335, 340, 346
  5. Rodger, Just One of the Boys, 32
  6. Rodger, Just One of the Boys, 33
  7. Rodger, Just One of the Boys, 35-36
  8. Rodger, Just One of the Boys, 38
  9. Senelick, The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre, 340
  10. Rodger, Just One of the Boys, 54-55
  11. Rodger, Just One of the Boys, 90
  12. Rodger, Just One of the Boys, 107
  13. Rodger, Just One of the Boys, 110
  14. Rodger, Just One of the Boys, 133
  15. Rodger, Just One of the Boys, 135-136
  16. Rodger, Just One of the Boys, 138
  17. Rodger, Just One of the Boys, 12
  18. Fuller, Sophie & Whitesell, Lloyd. Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity. University of Illinois Press, 2008, 127 (info by Gillian Rodger ‘Repertoire of Male Impersonators 1870-1930’)
  19. Senelick, The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre, 340
  20. Rodger, Just One of the Boys, 58

 

The following photos are From the Billy Rose Theatre Collection via the New York Public Library Digital Collection https://digitalcollections.nypl.
Free to use for academic purposes – please cite source

  • EllaWesner_Postcard_BowlerCane_Signed_NYPL_PD
  • EllaWesner_Postcard_CentralMusicHall_HarrisonPrint_Chicago_NYPL_PD
  • EllaWesner_Postcard_HoldingChin_NYPL_PD
  • EllaWesner_Postcard_Smoke_Signed_NYPL_PD

The following photos are in the public domain and were taken by Napoleon Sarony

  • EllaWesner_GildedAge_Leaning_Sarony_1873
  • EllaWesner_Leaning_Sarony_NewYork_1870_PD

The poster is in the public domain and is from the show Ella Wesner produced “The Captain”