Our History: Mainstream Crossdressing

In the 1890s, the UW–Madison Haresfoot Club brought gender-bending into vogue.

In the 1890s, the UW–Madison Haresfoot Club brought gender-bending into vogue.

Theater with gender irregularity is as Wisconsin as cheese with your apple pie.

There’s a long Wisconsin theatrical tradition of drag performances. The University of Wisconsin– Madison and the state had over half a century of experience with the well-known Haresfoot Club.
Formed in 1899 for university light drama presentations, the club productions proved so popular that they were taken on the road to communities around Wisconsin and even beyond. Since the University frowned on male and female students traveling together, especially on special trains, men had to assume all the feminine roles. The club’s popular slogan became, “All of our girls are men, yet everyone’s a lady.”

The name stemmed from a publication of 1877, “Haresfoot & Rouge: How to ‘Make-Up,’ A Pratical Guide to the Art of ‘Making Up’ for Amateurs,” which prescribed the application of powder with the foot of a rabbit.

The productions, mainly written and composed by the club members, spoofed popular topics. In early 1939 the program for the forty-first show depicted a Nazi storm-trooper for a show titled, “Annex Me Another.” A musical comedy based on the legend of Paul Bunyon was titled “Big as Life.”

When traveling around the state the Haresfoot productions were most frequently produced in high school auditoriums or perhaps an American Legion Hall. The paper of the La Crosse State Teachers College (now UW La Crosse) reported in 1928, “James Curtis, as Marian Grey, will long be remembered for the impression he made in ‘Feature That!’ With a blond wig, a pretty complexion and deep-set dimples together with his pretty delicately colored gowns, certainly made him very attractive.” Presumably, the attractive and dimpled Mr. Curtis had a starring role.

Republican Governor Walter J. Kohler in 1954 heaped praise in a manner designed to appeal to both the Irish and cross-dressers in a letter in the program. “Like Saint Patrick’s Day in Dublin, the Haresfoot show is always a grand and hilarious occasion for those present.”

The male chorines of Haresfoot were named “The Ponies.” Badger yearbook would show them in drag and as regularly attired male students.

Haresfoot students went on to fame. Porter Butts performed in drag and assisted productions many times, and later became director of the Memorial Union. Jerry Bock, born in 1928 in New Haven, Conn., was a senior when he scored the Paul Bunyon play and later went on to compose the Broadway success, Fiddler on the Roof. Herbert Stothart also wrote music for Haresfoot and went on to win an Oscar for his arranging the score for the The Wizard of Oz. Joseph E. Davies was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ambassador to Russia and published his memoir as Mission to Moscow.

The traditions of vaudeville, burlesque and operetta which spawned the type of musical comedy Haresfoot embodied were disappearing from mainstream life after World War II in America. Harefoot would continue into the age of the New Frontier, but just barely. Female impersonation was becoming associated with the gay subculture. Men spoofing female dress was less acceptable when women’s liberation was seriously questioning female presentation and roles. So the curtain came down, but a lot of fun was had on and off stage.