Tommy Martelle – The Gay Young Bride

Okay, can you name a female impersonator who had an ice cream flavor named after him? Nope, not RuPaulicious, not Divine Pink Flamingo…I’m not talking Ben & Jerry’s commemorative names. You have to go back, way back for the one I have in mind. And it happened in 1926. The flavor was called “Hanford’s Tommy Martelle Special.” Hanford was the ice cream company, and it was sold in bricks. Tommy supposedly concocted the recipe himself, incorporating pecans, pineapple, coconut, black walnuts and maraschino cherries.

What? Tommy who? Tommy Martelle (sometimes spelled Martell in the early years) was one of the most successful female impersonators of the 1920’s. His career began at least as early as 1911, when he was billed as “The Boy With the Pretty Gowns.” It continued to build by the end of the teens, when he was in a production of Julian Eltinge’s famous musical “The Fascinating Widow.” Now, Eltinge was definitely THE most famous, and successful, female impersonator of the teens and 20’s, and he became very wealthy with his shows. Eltinge even had the honor of having a New York theatre named after him. 

But this is about Tommy, and I’ve found essentially nothing about his personal life, when he was born or died…just clipping after clipping of his show successes, all through the 1920’s across the country. In 1923 his career skyrocketed with his musical, “The Gay Young Bride,” and later with other shows named “The Fashion Girl,” “Some Girls,” and “Glorious Annabelle.” One clue I got to his popularity is that he was among the very few whose image was used in the venue ads of the time. The most common billing given him was that he was “The Foremost Delineator of Feminine Types.” He was especially known for his dazzling costumes, and one headline read “Tommy Martelle and Wardrobe Are Back.” So, what happened to him after the 1920’s? I’d love to know, but perhaps his career faltered in the 1930’s when female impersonation had begun to lose popularity, and performing became difficult due to the laws in some locations forbidding cross-dressing.
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