Shying away from the typical female roles in the music hall, a few women went a more different route: male impersonating. In doing so, these women stood out from the rest. The male audience respected them; the female audience saw them as a symbol of independence.
One of the most famous male impersonators was Vesta Tilley. Tilley would dress in full male attire, even down to her undergarments. However, she would not alter her voice, instead singing in a obvious female soprano.
When Tilley stepped down in 1920, there was Ella Shields, who has been around for a little while. Shields career started in 1910 when she filled in when one half of a two man act was out sick. She donned male attire and ended up being a big hit. Tilley is most famous for her song Burlington Bettie from Bow.
Male impersonating was not new to the theatre in the 19th century. In the 18th century Dorothea Jordan performed often in ‘breeches roles’ and was praised.
These male impersonators were most likely the inspiration for some more modern day entertainments such as Viktor und Viktoria and its more popular remake Victor Victoria while starred Julie Andrews in 1982.
The book and following TV mini series Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters also draws on this. Tipping the Velvet is about a young woman who falls in love with musical hall male impersonator.
The Music Hall Strike of 1907 started the way most strikes do: employees (actors in this case) were being underpaid and overworked.
Ideas of a strike started heating up when music hall owners started adding four extra matinées a week. This was an addition to the common one matinée a day. And most actors, musicians and stagehands were still being paid the same as if they were working the regular schedule.
On January 22, members of the Variety Artistes Federation started picketing in and around London. Music hall owners tried to hold on by putting on shows with other lessar known acts, but their efforts were fruitless. The strike lasted two weeks and at the end of it, the strikers got what they wanted. The performers not only won more money, but also minimum wage and maximum working week for musicians.