910 E Main St, Lancaster, OH 43130
Karl Russell Denton (August 30, 1892 - 1957) was one of Miami’s most popular professional female impersonators.
An Ohio native who frequently performed in Miami with traveling shows, Karl Russell Denton was born in 1892. Denton enlisted in the army during World War I when he was twenty-five. He served in a machine gun battalion of the Eighty-Fourth Division that was sent to France but never saw battle. He later sustained significant injuries and was honorably discharged. Within a few weeks, a few years shy of thirty, he found his way to the stage.
His career in the minstrel business took off quickly and he became a popular female impersonator by the early 1920s. Denton must have been quite the sight, standing at five feet ten with a fit build, a ruddy complexion, and piercing gray eyes. Audiences were enamored of his high, feminine voice, which fit his early bill: “minstrelsy’s premier soprano.” He gained this reputation throughout Florida and parts of the U.S. South. One critic referred to him as the “prima donna of minstrelsy,” which also referenced a minstrel archetype. By 1924, Denton had joined the popular Lasses White All Star Minstrel. The show’s leader, Le Roy “Lasses” White, was a Texan and blackface pioneer who recorded a song titled “Nigger Blues” in 1913, further demonstrating how central racist tropes were to the formation of these gender-bending performances. During one of their minstrel sets, White recreated the “humor” of life on a “Dixie plantation.” Denton did most of his female impersonations solo, however. Onstage, he portrayed the desirable “prima donna,” sometimes referred to as the “wench.” He embodied the female lead through his feminine performance and voice. Critics praised him for complementing the deep male voices on the stage with his “soprano.” One reviewer observed how Denton “made a fascinating dame, and his singing voice was one of the best imitations of a lady’s that ever came from an Adam’s apple.” Miami audiences overwhelmingly praised Denton’s gender-bending act. He always received “a good hand from a Miami audience.” One local critic celebrated the return of Denton’s “girlish figure.” Another Miami observer praised Denton’s female impersonations as “clever” and showing great “versatility.” Yet another Miami critic called Denton’s performance “about the cleverest in that line ever seen here.” What exactly made his performances clever or versatile is unclear, although reports suggest his ability to pass as a woman was at the center of his success. “Denton is an artist at make-up,” observed one Florida review. “He looks and acts like a woman.” By all accounts, audiences appreciated and seemed fixated by Denton’s convincing performance as a woman. Everyone “wondered how . . . he came by those good-looking hands and neck and shoulders.” The realistic attributes associated with his staged impersonation allowed men to “safely” appreciate his feminine beauty and women to admire his fashion and style.
At the height of his popularity in the city, in the 1920s, no major reviewer even hinted at any sign of local contempt or disgust for Denton’s female impersonations. Rather, as one Florida critic reported, Denton’s “every portrayal bears the mark of class.” He also put on an elaborate show. “Mr. Denton spent last summer in Paris and while there arranged for this season’s costume], which are said to be the costliest ever used by a minstrel.” Audiences loved his costumes. In fact, if his troupe’s engagement in a city was long enough, Denton’s wardrobe was “displayed in the windows of one of the leading stores” for all to enjoy. Local communities not only found his gender-bending performances fascinating or tolerable, but they also celebrated them as decent and a form of studied art. Like those of other prima donnas before him, Denton’s performance provided Miami women a preview of the latest and lavish fashions. This drew in an increasing female audience who wanted to imitate his style and demeanor. Certain factors facilitated Denton’s warm reception in Miami and beyond. The aggressive marketing of Miami as fairyland encouraged challenges to established gender norms. Denton’s female impersonations appeared tame to some of the less “convincing” gender-transgressive images visible in the fairyland. In part, this was because Denton easily passed as a woman and he performed on a respectable stage. In one of Denton’s earlier performances, a Florida critic suggested the audience did not want to see the actor ever appear onstage as a man. In one performance, Denton performed with the troupe dressed as a man prior to appearing in his solo act as a woman. This, the critic believed, rendered his female impersonation “less effective” because it lost shock value or tainted their experience. His audiences might be swayed into seeing Denton as an impersonator rather than feeling duped by his convincing female persona. In his performance of the prima donna, he could also become the object of desire for the audience. For members in the audience to read him as a man dressed in women’s clothes—rather than as a feminine seductress—might evoke perversion.
While the historical record does not yield any definitive answers as to Denton’s own sexual proclivities, several anomalies suggest he had to shield himself from accusations of homosexuality and offstage femininity. Denton billed his performances in late 1926 as his final appearance in minstrels, as he had “signed a contract to appear in one of the Revues in New York.” While it is unclear what he did in New York—or if he ever made it to the revue—audiences there would have likely received him as part of the thriving queer culture that prominently featured female impersonators and pansies. It does not seem Denton experienced any long-term success there. There is no indication he ever played in Miami again, either. Instead, he moved back to his native Ohio, where he partnered with John Lester Haberkorn, whom he had performed with since at least 1926, as the act “Habb and Denton.” They were perfectly matched. While Denton had a feminine soprano, Haberkorn sang with a deep “baritone of Grand Opera fame.” They reinvented themselves as a “black and tan” act, referencing the colloquialism for interracial resorts and establishments. As Chad Heap has demonstrated, many “slummers” wanted a peek into the black and tan world where “Negro men and white girls and white men and negro wenches” got together. The duo performed as the former relationship, wherein Denton appeared as a white woman and Haberkorn smeared burnt cork on his face to create the illusion of a black man. As the black and tan couple toured select parts of the country, advertisements for their show no longer explicitly made reference to Denton’s female impersonations. While Denton’s gender-bending performances had been celebrated in Miami years before, the duo’s act was now described in nondescript and relatively innocuous ways. They became “society entertainers” or the performers in a “comedy skit” called a “Study in Black and Tan.” A 1942 review simply called Denton’s feminine act “artistic work,” which brought “a roar of approval from the audience.”
If Denton’s onstage performances of wooing men ever extended to any aspect of his personal life, this was discreetly veiled through the theatricality of the stage, or his ability to conjure “memories of the good old minstrel days.” While there is no evidence that the men’s coupling translated offstage, neither Denton nor Haberkorn ever married, and they lived decidedly “bachelor” lives that challenged traditional societal norms.
My published books:
BACK TO HOME PAGE