While Craig Russell liked to be called a female impressionist, we can comfortably say he was a drag queen.
He loved all things female, all things fashion and all things Hollywood. Performing tributes to great female entertainers – impressionism – was his passion and the key to his art, and drag was the lock where that key fit to open the door to what became a remarkable career on screen and stages across the world.
Here are five facts you may not have known about Craig and drag in Toronto:
Craig learned about drag through entertainer Mae West
There was no female entertainer more influential to Craig than Mae West, a dynamic and vibrant star known for her confident swagger, unshakable bravado, quick wit and seductive sexuality.
Mae was a performing artist who made films, theatre and records. She knew drag was a place for Craig before he did. It was a familiar art form for her. She not only included female impersonators in her stage shows, she had performed as a male impersonator herself early in her career.
It was with Mae that Craig first experimented with transforming himself from excitable young man to seductive woman. She taught him about fashion and make-up, performance and control of an audience, and it was in front of her that he toyed with wearing her furs, gowns, wigs and accessories.
The transformation was not only addicting, but exactly what he needed to do as a person, so it was no surprise that after he came home from living with Mae he went right to the drag queens working in Toronto to make connections and find a place for himself.
The first time Craig went out in drag was on Halloween 1970
While Craig played in drag for friends in private, the first time he stepped out completely transformed was in 1970 when he was 22-years-old.
He chose to dress up as Tallulah Bankhead, a sensational actress known as much for her femininity and sexuality, as for her ability to embrace and express her masculinity. He was not quite ready to perform publicly, but in the meantime, Halloween proved the perfect opportunity to dress up and go out impersonating one of his favourite stars. He loved it and had a grand time with other queens at Club Manatee, a gay dance bar near Yonge and Wellesley that was drag friendly.
Craig found drag fun and freeing. It also made him feel strong and brave, emotions he did not feel offstage, outside of a dress.
Drag helped save two “mainstream” venues
In the summer of 1969 in Toronto, two venues would turn to drag as a business opportunity.
The first was a nightclub called Brownings, a straight discotheque located in a space above what became Bistro 990 on Bay St. that was struggling to get customers in the door. The other was called the Global Village, a theatre behind the Sutton Place Hotel that was operating under the watchful eye of uncertain city officials because of its avant-garde and provocative programming.
As both businesses worked to get by, they noticed how including a drag performer in their shows was helping business. Brownings converted to a discreet gay club called Oscars and introduced regular shows that were the talk of the town. Meanwhile, the Global Village hired a drag queen to play Marilyn Monroe in one of their productions. Everyone talked about it! The businesses did better and started making money.
Soon, the venues collaborated on a production called Facad, cleverly nicknamed to indicate “that things are not what they seem.” Facad was nothing short of a sensation and both businesses were saved. The show was so successful in its brief run, it went on to a run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, while some of its performers went on to another show called She-Rade at a dinner theatre called Theatre in the Dell. These venues also found great success including drag on their stages.
Drag is not new. It goes back hundreds of years
Drag was rooted in theatre before it became part of gay culture. The practice of dressing in another gender’s clothing can be found going back hundreds of years, extending to the festivities, fairs and theatres of ancient Europe and Asia, where it had a place in everything from opera and ballet to cabaret and pantomime.
Theatres were once rowdy places, akin more to seedy dens for vagrants rather than to polite, respected institutions. The stage was a place where actors were allowed to flout the rules that elsewhere they would have been penalized for disregarding. That included gender norms. Boys and men almost always played women, because women were not welcome in theatres.
Drag even has a place in the church. Drama was once used in church services to communicate with illiterate congregations. Women had no part of the formalities. Choirboys played their roles.
Craig Russell’s talent took him from drag shows to theatres and screen
While Craig Russell was successful as a performer in Toronto’s gay venues of the day, he was not very successful expanding away into larger cabarets, supper clubs and theatres. A drag performer was still seen as too far out there for many people.
Craig could not find new venues for his act until he moved to the U.S. He played at flashy venues in Las Vegas, popular clubs in Chicago and posh hotels in New York City. It was only after those bookings that the venues changed and expanded when he returned to Toronto. He was eventually booked at the Imperial Room of the Royal York Hotel and Massey Hall, venues where drag was not common. He was so good one of his shows was recorded with intent to release it in an album format, a first for a Canadian drag performer.
A pinnacle for him was a starring role in Outrageous!, a Toronto-made low-budget film about the special friendship between a drag queen and a woman struggling with mental illness. The role was another first for a Canadian drag performer and both the film’s storyline and surprising success marked a milestone for Canadian film. Outrageous! became a cult-classic film that packs movie theatres even today.
Bonus fact! Drag continues to have huge appeal even today
While drag was once relatively isolated to Toronto’s gay clubs and an unusual novelty if it was included elsewhere (like in a film such as Outrageous!), it is comfortably found not only across the city, but in our daily popular culture.
Drag can be found in many productions in Toronto’s many theatres, in gay-friendly bars far beyond the Gay Village, at social events and community activities. Drag queens host everything from bingo nights to television series viewing parties. Some even host drag queen story time for children in libraries.
Drag has become arguably common in television and film, and more often than not, it is at the heart of success. RuPaul’s Drag Race is a popular, ongoing reality show; low-budget and blockbuster films have included characters who do drag; and streaming services all include films and series with drag, as well as documentaries.
In Toronto’s Gay Village, drag continues to be a draw to its existing venues. The neighbourhood has had hard times in recent years with rising rents, gentrification and other growing pains. Some days the once-busy streets are even quiet. What has remained constant is drag. That is when the line-ups return, the excitement reverberates in the air and music echoes all around. It is a place where everyone can come together and belong.
Brian Bradley is a writer, journalist, and biographer and works at the Toronto Star. He has researched the lives of Craig Russell and Lori Russell Eadie for over a decade. Brian lives in Hamilton, Ontario. Read more here.