On this day January 9: Charles Holt, drag war hero

On January 9 1922, the Sydney Morning Herald reviewed the opening night of female impersonator Charles Holt and his Smart Set Diggers at Fuller’s Theatre in Castlereigh Street.

“The make-believe girls removed their stage wigs when responding to the clamorous curtain call at the close of a frisky finale.”

According to the Sunday Times, “Most people don’t know the secret silently revealed at the conclusion of the performance.”

The paper requested that those aware the lady singers were really men “not blab it to their friends. The surprise is worth waiting a long time for.”

The Times particularly liked Charles Holt.

“Special mention might be made of Charles Holt. As a gay deceiver, he is an adept. As an actor he is top-notch.”

Drag on the frontlines

charles holt january 9
The Smart Set in France, 1918. Charles Holt in white. Image: Australian War Memorial.

Born in New Zealand, Charles Holt worked as a draper after leaving school, and then moved to Australia in his early twenties. He gave up his job as a window dresser in Brisbane to enlist in WWI.

World War One was one of the deadliest conflicts of all time. It saw the widespread use of modern weaponry like tanks, machine guns and poison gas bombs. For the first time, aircraft flew over the battlefield. The hand-to-hand combat of previous conflicts gave way to trench warfare and the war ground on – and on – and on. Allied top brass needed some way of improving soldier morale.

Meanwhile, Charles Holt lay injured in a French hospital. During his recuperation, someone nominated him to form a troupe of frontline entertainers.

His Smart Set review, comprising singers, musicians, dancers, comics and female impersonators consequently performed over 1000 concerts close to the frontlines before the armistice of November 1918.

Following the war, Charles took the troupe on a 10-month tour of Great Britain and then brought them home to Australia. He renamed his show the Smart Set Diggers to emphasise both the cast’s stature as war veterans and also make the drag more platable. The fighting history of the female impersonators negated any doubts about their masculinity.

Charles Holt’s gowns received frequent mention, said to drive women mad with envy. He reputedly paid £1000 each to have the dresses custom-made in Paris. Of course, anyone who ever worked in a drag show knows – with his history in drapery and window dressing – Charles probably whipped up those frocks himself. Or had a dressmaker tucked away somewhere and sworn to secrecy.

Surfeit of feminency

The only criticism of the Smart Set Diggers came in a snide snippet in Everyone’s Magazine. The sceptical editor questioned what good such effeminate men would be in wartime.

“Whilst one is inclined to admire the wonderful make-up, there is rather a surfeit of feminency prevailing. What part these impersonators played in the World’s War would prove of interest to many.”

Perhaps the homophobic prick should have asked. Besides their previous service as ordinary soldiers, entertainers like those of the Smart Set displayed outstanding bravery as they travelled the front lines entertaining the troops.

In May 1918, the Smart Set performed a show in a huge barn near the Somme River. The Melbourne Age recalled what happened next.

“About 500 soldiers had just left the building when an enemy shell exploded in a nearby shed. There were many deaths, and when members of the concert party rushed to help the wounded, another shell hit the ‘theatre’, covering the beds where the musicians slept not long before.”

87 casualties resulted from the explosions.

Yet, a photo at the Australian War Memorial shows Charles Holt and his fellow entertainers among the rubble the following day, working out how to proceed with that night’s performance. The show must go on.

january 9 female impersonator
Image: Australian War Memorial.

Charles was a headline performer in Australia, Asia and the US until about 1930 when he disappears from the records. He reemerges to serve in WWII and then disappears again.

Charles Holt’s talent eventually prompted contrition even from the editor of Everyone’s Magazine.

“Mr Charles Holt, in his feminine characterisations, is so near the real thing that you needn’t worry about the difference.”

Read also: WWII frontline female impersonator, Sergeant Bill Donaldson and Adelaide’s Lindsay Kemble who volunteered in WWI and WWII.

charles holt female impersonator january 9
Image: Theatres, Society and Home, 1924.

Read more: January 8 <— On this day —> January 10

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