With recent controversies — armed protesters outside a Salt Lake City drag show, complaints over a drag performance in St. George — some might get the impression that drag is a new thing.
On the contrary, said historian Connell O’Donovan, who counted more than 200 men performed in drag on Utah stages between 1871 and 1931.
“There is a massive history of drag in Utah,” said O’Donovan, who is working on a book about the subject.
The Tribune has taken a deep dive into drag’s history, and the political and social impact of current arguments about drag performing. Here’s just a taste of that history, a sampling of events involving drag performance in Utah over the state’s history, taken from O’Donovan’s research and from The Salt Lake Tribune’s reporting.
June 1871 • William Horace Lingard became the first actor to perform in drag at the Salt Lake Theatre.
July 1882 • Evan Stephens — who in 1890 became director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir — sang in soprano in “full lady’s costume” during a concert in the Salt Lake Theatre, backed by a choir of 200 children.
1885-1900 • B. Morris Young, a son of early Latter-day Saint leader Brigham Young, performed as Madam Pattirini, an opera singer with a convincing falsetto. Young also was a founder of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association, the precursor of the Young Men program at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
January 1910 • The most famous drag star of the era, Julian Eltinge, was scheduled to perform with singer Harry Lauder’s touring troupe at the Salt Lake Tabernacle, but Presiding Bishop Charles W. Nibley canceled the booking a few days before the troupe was to arrive in Utah. Nibley released a statement a few days saying Eltinge, who was to appear in a woman’s bathing suit and woolen hose, “is not of a character in keeping with the sanctity of the Tabernacle.”
July 1919 • Salt Lake City’s Orpheum Theatre held a variety show headlined by a troupe of 17 female impersonators, all of them soldiers from the 27th Infantry Division who had just returned from fighting in France.
January 1928 • Joseph F. Smith — a drama professor at the University of Utah who years later was named patriarch to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — organized an all-male drama club at the U., called The Mummer’s Club. The club gave all-male performances, with men taking on the men’s and women’s roles.
July 1928 • Jarahal, born Joseph C. Hall, was the first Black queen to perform in Utah, at the Pantages Theatre on Salt Lake City’s Main Street.
Summer 1978 • Midnight screenings began at Salt Lake City’s The Blue Mouse for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” By the 1980s, fans were performing along with the action onscreen, first at The Blue Mouse, then Cinema In Your Face and later at the Tower Theatre. In 1993, the shadowcast became formalized, put on by Out of the Shadows Theatre Group. The screenings initially were weekly, then monthly, and in recent years, in October around Halloween. The movie was many Utahns’ first exposure to the notion of drag, and the word “transvestite.”
Jan. 19, 2001 • The movie adaptation of the musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” had its world premiere in Park City, at the Sundance Film Festival. The show’s creator, and the movie’s director and star, John Cameron Mitchell, wins the festival’s Directing Award.
2007 • Actor and playwright Charles Lynn Frost introduced his trademark character, Sister Dottie S. Dixon, a Latter-day Saint mom with a big mouth and a bigger heart. Dottie first appeared in a half-hour show on KRCL community radio, and then in two one-person plays staged by Pygmalion Productions. Frost kept the character going until his death in 2021.
May-June 2022 • The HBO reality show “We’re Here,” in which drag queens visit a rural town and stage a drag show, visited St. George to film an episode (which aired in December). The resulting uproar from City Council members and others led to the city manager, who approved the permit for HBO to stage the show in a public park, to resign and take a $625,000 settlement for being forced out.
September 2022-March 2023 • A monthly all-ages drag show at TeaZaanti, a local wine and tea shop in Sugar House, sees backlash from online platforms after sharing a video on social media of a child dancing with a drag queen at a show. At the January show, TeaZaanti saw a protest outside by armed members of the Proud Boys. Show organizers moved the event’s venue in March to Sugar Space Arts Warehouse in Poplar Grove.
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