Ernest Torrence and Julian Eltinge

These are edited, expanded versions of entries on my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written around 2005–07.

Big, bulky character actor Ernest Torrence (né Torrance-Thomson) (26 June 1878-15 May 1933) was born in Edinburgh, Scotland to Col. Henry Torrence Thayson and Jessie Bryce. He was a very talented child pianist and had an operatic baritone, which enabled him to attend Stuttgart Conservatory, Edinburgh Academy. After graduation, he earned a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Music.

Ernest toured with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company until serious problems impacted his vocal chords. He and his much-older brother David, an actor, immigrated to the U.S. in March 1911, and became established on Broadway.

Ernest received much praise for Modest Suzanne (1912), and his work in The Night Boat (1920) earned him Hollywood attention. He usually played villains, in films including Steamboat Bill, Jr.; Across to Singapore; Captain SalvationTol’able David; and Peter Pan.

Two very uncharacteristic roles were Joe Easter (a gentle man longing for a wife) in Mantrap, and Peter in the original King of Kings. I absolutely love his Peter, a lovable big lug. He gives a very sweet, moving performance.

Those who knew him said Ernest was a very kind, sweet person off-camera, the opposite of the nasty villains he played, kind of like his portrayal of Peter come to life.

Ernest transitioned very well to sound, but his career was sadly cut short when he had a gallstone attack en route to Europe. He was rushed back to New York, and died of complications from surgery. He was only 54.

Julian Eltinge (né William Julian Dalton) (14 May 1881-7 March 1941) was born in Newtonville, Massachusetts, to Joseph Dalton (a mining engineer) and Julia Edna Baker. At age ten, he performed in drag at the Boston Cadets’ annual revue show by Tremont Theater. Reputedly, he was so good, the next revue was written around him. 

As a teen, he went to Butte, Montana with his dad, and performed in drag in saloons. Mr. Eltinge, furious to discover his son wearing women’s clothing, beat him and sent him back to Massachusetts. Mrs. Eltinge sent him to Boston, where he studied dance and worked as a dry goods salesman.

In 1904, he appeared on Broadway’s Bijou Theatre in drag, in musical comedy Mr. Wix of Wickham. He also performed in vaudeville. Unlike many other drag artists, he performed as a woman, not a man in womanface. He was billed simply as Eltinge, to leave patrons guessing.

Julian was so good, when he yanked his wig off at the end of his shows, the audience was frequently greatly shocked. They’d truly believed he was a real woman.

Julian became famous all over the world, even performing for the future King Edward VII in 1906. Ladies liked his shows so much, he rewarded them with Eltinge Magazine, which offered fashion, beauty, and domestic advice.

In 1914, he began acting in films. His first truly successful film was 1917’s The Countess Charming. He settled in Hollywood, though continued his vaudeville career in New York. At $3,500 a week, he earned one of the highest salaries in entertainment.

Julian was fabulously wealthy by 1920, and living in an extravagant mansion in Southern California.

Cognizant of what people assumed about his sexuality, he adopted an ultra-macho public image. He often physically attacked people who questioned his heterosexuality. However, there’s no evidence of any lovers of either sex.

In Seven Chances (1925), Buster Keaton bribes someone to let him inside a theatre with a picture of a beautiful woman. After Buster enters, a workman removes a box to reveal Julian Eltinge’s name at the bottom of the picture. Audiences understood why Buster emerges roughed-up.

Julian’s fortune suffered from the 1929 Stock Market crash, and vaudeville and drag shows both began losing popularity during the Thirties. He was also severely curtailed from performing in drag by Puritanical new laws.

At age 59, Julian took ill by Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe nightclub in New York. He was taken home, where he succumbed to a cerebral haemorrhage several days later.

5 thoughts on “Ernest Torrence and Julian Eltinge

  1. Pingback: A to Z Reflections 2019 | Welcome to My Magick Theatre

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