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Famous and Not Forgotten: Vaudevillian Julian Eltinge

Updated: Nov 18, 2021

"Women went into ecstasy about him,” the comedian W.C. Fields once remarked about Julian Eltinge. “Men went into the smoking room.”

The buzz of 1900s Broadway and a gender bender of silent films, long-forgotten actor and drag queen Julian Eltinge was especially popular in Butte, where he had once accepted his first theater position as an usher at the old John Maguire Opera House. During a two day engagement in Butte at the height of his popularity, Eltinge noted that he was first bitten by the showbiz bug while he and his friends hung around the Caplice Hall (a dance hall and performance theater in Butte).

“My first ambitions to mix in the theatrical game were registered then,” later acknowledged Eltinge.

Fanciful Origin Stories

A native of Newtonville, Massachusetts, Eltinge was born William “Bill” Julian Dalton on May 14, 1881, the only child of Michael and Julia (Baker) Dalton — so reads the date on his birth certificate, not the May 14, 1883 date he gave out during his life. He claimed that he arrived in Butte as a boy of seven, which would be 1888 which may be why no Dalton listings appear in the Butte city directories for 1885–86.

John Dalton begins appearing in Butte city directories starting in 1888, was listed in 1890 as a barber for E.M. Kunze and C.M. Joyce, and appeared from 1893 to 1898 as a teamster and driver for Johnston and Borthwick.

The entire family appears to have lived in Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1891 and 1892. Etta M. Dalton, listed in the mid-1890s as a lady clerk in Hennessy’s Department Store, is most likely Julian’s mother, born Julietta Baker at Lowell, Massachusetts.

Eltinge told reporters that his father had come to Butte “because of mining interests,” and another time he said that the father “worked as a clerk in W.A. Clark’s bank.” Throughout his career, he would tell snippets of the truth to the press or seemingly fabricate grand sagas about his childhood. What is known to be factual is that the Dalton family periodically made its home in Butte, where the young Bill Dalton attended the old Broadway School. His best friend and classmate was a boy named Will Eltinge.

The origin of the name “Julian Eltinge” was told by R.J. Barton, Eltinge’s manager. “Mr. Eltinge’s real, every-day name is William Julian Dalton,” Barton said. “It was through another Butte boy that his present stage designation was chosen. At school ‘Billy’ Dalton’s best friend and chum was Will Eltinge, who later became a clerk in Clark’s bank. When Billy Dalton went on the stage he took his own middle name and the last name of his chum, the result being a name quite satisfactory as theatrical title — Julian Eltinge. The other night while our show was in Spokane we had dinner with the real Will Eltinge,” Barton explained.

Destined for Glory

When the Daltons left Butte, they headed for Boston, where they finally settled. According to several reports, a Boston dance teacher named Mrs. Wyman encouraged Eltinge to work toward becoming a female impersonator after she caught him mimicking the female students. By 1904, Eltinge had made his first Broadway stage appearance as a female impersonator, and only two years later, Eltinge was delighting international audiences at London’s Palace Theatre. Soon after, he gave a royal command performance at Windsor Castle for King Edward VII.

His first performance back in his former hometown of Butte was on January 22, 1910, when he served as the opening act to Scottish vaudevillian Harry Lauder. It was reported in the Butte Evening News that Eltinge, as he stepped off the train, was “met by a large delegation of personal friends.”

Although Lauder received the lion’s share of the publicity, the News noted that “Eltinge, the Butte boy, in feminine characterizations, was also highly appreciated. He took his wig off when he had finished and made a little speech in which he told the size of his corsets.”

Also in 1912, Eltinge returned to Butte for a three-day engagement of “The Fascinating Widow.” The Butte Inter Mountain praised his performance at the Broadway Theater: “Whatever your opinion in general of merry widows, there is one, the merriest widow of them all, you can’t afford to miss.”

The Butte Miner expressed this view: “Eltinge carries a dual role, unique in the history of the drama, and so difficult that it is very probable that he is the one man in the world to do it full justice.”

The following year, Eltinge again played “The Fascinating Widow” in Butte. The Butte Miner noted that Eltinge had “lost none of his cleverness as a female impersonator and the play has lost none of its charm.”

Eltinge continued to perform on the stage in such plays as “The Crinoline Girl” and “Cousin Lucy.” Additionally, Eltinge had minor roles in such silent films as “An Adventuress in 1914,” which also featured a then unknown Rudolph Valentino; “How Molly Malone Made Good” in 1915; and “Seven Chances” with Buster Keaton (1925).

Eltinge returned to Butte’s Broadway Theater in 1919. During the performance, he introduced a new tune titled “The Cute Little Beaut from Butte, Montana.” The show was called “a glorified vaudeville of the type that Butte theater-goers have few chances to witness… laughter was unrestrained through most of the numbers.”

Eltinge continued to perform on stage and in films throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. Unfortunately, his audiences grew smaller, and his popularity dissipated. During this period of his life, he spent much of his time at his California ranch, where his mother, Julia, resided.

He died in New York City on March 7, 1941.

“Julian Eltinge, as virile as anybody virile, contributed to the gaiety of nations by playing fascinating widows more fascinatingly than if fascinating real widows played them,” the actress Ruth Gordon wrote in The New York Times on August 31, 1969.

—Brian D’Ambrosio

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