Drag Queens & 'Girlie Shows' in Omaha, NE

Drag Queens aka 'Female Impersonators'

Burlesque, at its core, deals with gender and ultimately the presentation of gender as entertainment. It should be no surprise that people of many genders have performed burlesque and called the burlesque stage their home. Nebraska has a long history of drag queens or 'female impersonators', as they were called in the past, performing and entertaining audiences across the state.

The earliest mention of a 'female impersonator' performing in Omaha was in 1879. The Pinafore English Opera Company performed at the Academy of Music on April 1st. The 'snap troupe' performed a burlesque (or satire) of the popular opera "H.M.S. Pinafore". Burion Stanley (named in newspaper) performed as 'Little Buttercup' in drag. The Omaha Herald stated she, 'gave a most perfect and finished piece of acting, fully sustaining (her) high reputation as a burlesque female impersonator.' (Omaha World Herald. "Pinafore this Evening." April 1, 1879) The show was reviewed the next day by the Omaha Evening Bee News in a negative light stating, "The opera was slaughtered unmercifully, the music being rendered in a manner that would have driven Arthur Sulliven (the composer) crazy had he been present, while dramatically it was so cruelly butchered, that W.S. Gilbert (the writer), had he been in the audience, would probably have committed suicide then and there." The author then goes on to report that a local Omaha troupe will 'properly' present the opera the next month for charity. (Omaha Evening Bee News. "Snide Pinafore Company." April 2, 1879) During the late 1800s, men performing as 'female impersonators' in operatic burlesque troupes was not uncommon. Most reviews of the shows featuring a drag queen had positive reviews and performers were embraced for their many talents.

One of the earliest instances of drag I found in the newspapers was of Walter Adams who filed a lawsuit in district court after a traffic accident that left him with injuries, unable to perform. The article states he was able to earn at least $100 a week as a drag queen in Omaha in 1920. $100 in 1920 is worth a little more than $1,600 today.

(Omaha Daily Bee. March 23, 1920)

 

Lestra La Monte at the Orpheum | 1928

The Orpheum hosted a cornucopia of talent in July 1928. Lestra La Monte, a female impersonator, was said to have performed an impressive act with crepe paper and 6 ladies—including a singer, Isabel Brown, and an acrobatic, Madelyn Moore. (Omaha Morning Bee News. “Review of Stage & Screen.” July 9, 1928)

(Omaha Sunday Bee News. July 8, 1928. Two advertisements: Top is for the Orpheum Theatre, Bottom is for the Ad Sell Restaurant.)
The newspaper advertisement for the Orpheum Theatre lists "Lestra La Monte, The Paper Fashion Star, in 'Paper Creations', A Riot of Jazz, Color and Novelty." The advertisement below, for Ad Sell Restaurant on the 10th Floor of the Brandeis Store, reads, "Personal Appearance Monday and Tuesday from 12 o'clock to 1 o'clock; Lestra La Monte, Paper Fashion Star and Female Impersonator and Six Living Models. A Riot of Jazz and Novelty Appearing at the Orpheum Theatre This Week. They Will Entertain You While You Enjoy Our Tasty 40c, 50c, 60c Luncheons. Where It Is Really Cool." (Omaha Sunday Bee News. July 8, 1928)
("Lestra (1)."  Photograph.  1958.  Digital Transgender Archive,  https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/fn106z273)

 

The Cloverleaf Club | 119 S. 15th St. | 1930s

(Clover Leaf Club under The Burlington Trailways. 1937. Bostwick-Frohardt/KM3TV Photography Collection at The Durham Museum Photo Archive)

The Clover Leaf Club opened in 1933 at 119 S. 15th St. Specifically, in the basement of the Burlington Trailways bus building. The club was air conditioned and had nightly floor shows. It was raided by the police several times in 1937/38 for illegal gambling and featuring drag queens and burlesque dancers. A brief advertisement of the Clover Leaf Club describes its decor as a “realistic forest glen”, decorated with fake flora and fauna, where patrons could buy sandwiches and refreshments while being entertained. (Omaha World Herald. “Here’s Relief in Sultry August.” July 23, 1933)

The Club is subject to multiple articles in the Omaha newspapers about their 'troubles' with the police and Mayor Butler. The Clover Leaf Club was raided by the police morals squad and two employees were charged with selling liquor after the legal closing hour. The manager was booked as a keeper of a disorderly house when a dice cup was taken as evidence. Three bottles of liquor were also confiscated as evidence. (Omaha Evening Bee News. “Police Again Raid Clover Leaf Club.” January 4, 1937)


The owner of the Clover Leaf Club, Charlie Hutter, sold the club to his friend Fred Barnes for $3,500 and moved to Canada for an “extended vacation.” It didn't skip a beat though! The Club began advertising the same week as 'reopening under new management.' (Omaha Evening Bee News. “Hutter Plans Vacation in Canada.” May 13, 1937)

During the 1930s, Mayor Butler was on a crusade to ‘clean up’ Omaha and its entertainment district. Mayor Butler’s private ‘police force’ raided the Clover Leaf in early September 1938 and arrested 6 entertainers. It's reported that the police had let the show run its course before making the arrests. Two entertainers, Danny Brown and Dion Banner (both named in the papers), were charged with “staging an immodest exhibition.” The four other performers were booked with bans on nude performers or appearing in clothing of the “other” sex. Based off of this evidence, the Clover Leaf Club was definitely hosting shows with burlesque performers and drag queens. (Morning World Herald. “Palmtag Hits at Cloverleaf Club 3d Time; Total of Bonds for Performers is $490; Again a Long Ride.” September 29, 1938)

Following the raid, the Mayor asked the City Council to have a special meeting to revoke the liquor license of the club because of the permanence of shows with female impersonators. The police were working under the orders of the Mayor who said that Einar Abramson, the Club Manager, had promised no more shows featuring female impersonators, but Abramson ignored this ultimately when the license was renewed. (Evening World Herald. “Jepsen Yields as Palmtag Raids Again; Clover Leaf Inmates Go to South Omaha; ‘Mayor Has Right.’” September 28, 1938)

Welfare Inspector Tom Knapp referred to a troupe of female impersonators, who performed at the Clover Leaf Club earlier that year, as ‘perfectly respectable.’ Mayor Butler, threatened his job and mentioned how the City Council had put in an ordinance prohibiting female impersonation two months earlier. (Evening World Herald. “‘On the Carpet,’ Knapp Denies Clover Leaf O.K.” October 1, 1938)

Four drag queens were arrested at the Club by the police, for Mayor Butler again, in December 1938. The performers were give 15 day suspended sentences and were immediately appealed. (Morning World Herald. “Clover Leaf Case is Ended.” December 16, 1938)

Indecent Exposure Laws

In 1941, the following laws were put into affect in Omaha:

"It is unlawful to show any immodest or immoral act, scene, play, floor show, moving picture, screen picture, talking picture or any immodest or immoral dance, song or dialogue."

"It is unlawful to appear in a state of nudity, or in a dress not becoming to his or her sex, or in an indecent or lewd dress, or to make any indecent exposure of his or her person, or be guilty of any lewd or indecent act or behavior."

"It is unlawful to commit any indecent, lewd, or filthy act or to utter any lewd or filthy words, or to sing any song, the words of which are suggestive of indecency or immorality."

In this context, lewd is described as, "inclined to, characterized by, or inciting to lust or lechery; obscene or indecent." (The South Omaha Sun. February 25, 1965) These new laws made it easier to arrest and prosecute queer people, drag performers, and exotic dancers, while officials turned a blind eye to (presumably) straight, white, cisgender men performing in drag during 'Girlie Shows' or 'Den Shows.'

Ak-Sar-Ben 'Den Shows' | 1923

(The Imported Egyptian Ballet. Female Impersonators. Louis Bostwick and Homer Frohardt. Durham Museum. August 20, 1923)
(Den Show. Durham Museum Louis Bostwick Collection. August 19, 1923)

 

Throughout the 1920s, the Governors of Ak-Sar-Ben hosted a series of 'Den Shows' for the public. The shows were usually paired with a membership drive. They consisted of an all cisgender male cast, 'impersonating' women. The photographs above show Ak-Sar-Ben's Den Show in which 12 men dressed as 'Imported Egyptian Ballet' dancers (yikes).

(Omaha World Herald. September 30, 1923)

Creighton University | 'Girlie Show' | 1941

(Evening World Herald. April 18, 1941)
In the Spring of 1941, the students of Dowling Hall at Creighton University produced an 'all-male musical extravaganza' for the student body and faculty to witness. The prominence of 'girlie shows', where all male casts dress in drag and perform satirical musicals or plays were popular from the 30s through the 40s. The main performance featured the "Dowling Dollies" in which male students impersonated the Follies Bergere. The satirical musical was not viewed in the same light as queer performers in drag. The article states the University's Reverends and President watched the performances. Robert Prendergast was the featured performer in a 'feminine style show' called "What They Didn't Wear in 1937." Roy Araujo, a student from Hawaii, performed and sang in a grass skirt. The show was written by three students--Ben Bishop, Nick Taylor, and Emmerich Lamb.
It should be noted that during this time police and city officials actively targeting 'female impersonators' for lewd conduct. It's fascinating to see the hypocrisy as during this time as it was illegal to wear clothing of the 'opposite sex'--it was classified as 'indecent exposure'. In fact, people were still being arrested for dressing and performing in drag in the 1970s in Omaha. (Omaha World Herald. "Critic and Clubs Both Aim to Please." December 30, 1971)

 

Benson Jamboree - Benson Brothers | 'Girlie Show' | 1950

(Benson Jamboree, Benson Brothers. John Savage. Durham Museum. April 1950)
'Girlie Shows' preemptively meant the performers were straight cisgender men, dressing femininely with makeup. The photograph above features the Benson Brothers rehearsing for the talent show during the Benson Jamboree of 1950. It's presumed none of these performers were arrested for performing in drag, while queer performers were targeted by similar indecent exposure laws of the 1940s.

The Guys & Dolls Lounge | 1519 Farnam St.

(Omaha World Herald. November 4, 1971)
Bars and lounges during the 1960s and 70s featured continuous entertainment, whether that be a band, a singer, a burlesque dancer, or a drag queen. The Guys & Dolls Lounge was no exception. It was located at 1519 Farnam Street and frequently hosted Go-Go contests and burlesque dancers. In the above advertisement, patrons would've seen Billy Carrol, Koko Kay, and Nikki D'Carr from 9PM to 1AM with continuous go-go girls from noon to 1am!
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