(Text and photos by Michail Takach, for an historical panel created by this project in 2019. The panel is on loan to the 'This Is It' bar in downtown Milwaukee.)
Francis Leon (born Francis Patrick Glassey in 1844) was billed as "The Famous Leon" or "The Only Leon." On June 7, 1884, he performed what is believed to be the first "drag" show in Milwaukee history, at Nunnemacher's Grand Opera Hall in City Hall Square.
Leon ran away and joined a traveling minstrel show as a teenager. As a boy soprano in church choirs, he was able to perfectly mimic female voices, which made him the perfect female impersonator. His wardrobe included over 300 dresses, some costing as much as $400.
"Leon is the best male female actor known to the stage. He does it with such dignity, modesty, and refinement that it is truly art." according to The New York Clipper.
In 1864, he formed his own troupe in New York City with his lover, Edwin Kelly. The couple experienced public harassment and discrimination, because the 97-pound, petite Leon was considered "effeminate and womanly" even out of costume. It was okay for Leon to be feminine for other people's amusement; it was not okay, in Civil War America, to be gender non-conforming for one's own affirmation.
In 1867, the two were nearly killed by a competing troupe owner, who fired at them outside their theater. Kelly fired back in self-defense, killing the gunman, and faced a sensational and scandalous trial. Newspapers snarked that Leon "wept like an auntie" and "buried her face in silk shawls" in the courtroom throughout the trial.
By 1874, every minstrel company in the country had a Leon impostor, so he changed his stage name to "The Only Leon." In 1878, he and Kelly set sail for Australia where Leon's drag act earned $11,000 a week. Sadly, the couple broke up at the peak of Leon's fame.
Leon was the highest paid minstrel performer in America by 1882, but nearly bankrupt a year later, when he joined the San Francisco Minstrels. Somehow, he wound up in Milwaukee by 1884 where he played opera houses, vaudeville theaters and the Shoot-The-Chutes amusement park at North & Cambridge.
Last mentioned in a 1900 show review, "Famous Leon" disappeared into obscurity. His final fate remains unknown to this day.
Webmaster note: According to Wikipedia: Francis Leon (born Francis Patrick Glassey; 21 Nov 1844 – after 1891) was a blackface minstrel performer best known for his work as a female impersonator. He was largely responsible for making the prima donna a fixture of blackface minstrelsy.
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Photos and text on this page by Michail Takach
Last updated: May-2021.
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