OLD NEWS: Dads in drag made Arkansans howl as ‘Womanless Wedding’ swept state

In November 1917, The Sentinel Record asked its readers whether they’d ever heard of a “Womanless Wedding.”

Quite likely they had. This new all-male community theatrical had been making a hilarious march through small-town Arkansas since early May, when it had landed inside state borders at Earle in Crittenden County. The show pranced in dressed as a fundraiser, and the warm glow of all the worthy causes it supported made a virtue of cross-dressing by prominent men — for about six decades.

“Don’t laugh,” the Hot Springs daily wrote, “for it is a reality, and if you doubt it, just wait until the City Federation of [Women’s] Clubs produces this merry farce, which they intend doing early next month.”

It matters that women organized these shows in which men made fools of themselves while dressed as women. Women also appear to have written the most popular scripts. Different ones made the rounds, but a coerced groom and a pregnant or greedy bride were common motifs.

One script, for a patriotic version designed in 1918 for Red Cross fundraisers, stated that the key to success was the social standing of the men:

“Special care should be exercised in the selection of the cast. Use prominent men. Men taking ladies’ parts should wear ladies’ shoes if possible. A small groom and a large bride will prove effective.”

A modern short story by Elizabeth McCracken imagines how the parts were assigned:

“If you were a big man you got to play a woman; if you were small, you’d be your own thin self, your eyebrows augmented with greasepaint, your mouth obscured by a false mustache. Chances are you’d be picked up by one of the larger men and carted around stage, like a doll. In other words, if you were big, you’d make a fool of yourself, and if you were small, someone would make a fool out of you.” (This story is available through JStor, which allows free accounts; arkansasonline.com/314jstor.)

Since the shows were not presented as professional theater, bad acting made everything better. And uproarious fun was welcome that perilous fall as more and more fathers and brothers were drafted to fight in the Great War in Europe. Also about this time, militant women began to win voting rights, state by state; and men were being challenged to share authority in public and at home. And meanwhile, homosexuality was presumed to be vanishingly rare (although state laws punished same-sex acts as crimes).

A girl could be arrested for wearing her brother’s clothing on the streets of Little Rock (see the “Attention Men!” item at arkansasonline.com/314hazel); but it was perfectly respectable to laugh at men pretending they were women to raise money for a good cause. Playing with the gender roles somehow demonstrated the unshakable importance of marriage to the community.

Arkansans laughed until they cried.

IT CAME FROM…

With Crittenden County as its first stop in Arkansas, the idea might have flowed west through jazzy Memphis. But when you peer down into the big digital databases of Newspapers.com and ChroniclingAmerica.loc.gov, the idea looks more likely to have come from Mississippi.

Months before any mention of this thing in Arkansas or elsewhere, the Sept. 29, 1916, Grenada Sentinel in Grenada, Miss., carried two classified ads and a reported item:

◼️ “Some old maids are pining to be in the Womanless Wedding Friday evening. Entertainment at Hardy Hall.”

◼️ “It is a pity to deny the old maids a prominent part in the Womanless Wedding Friday evening, Sept. 29. Admission 25 cents.”

◼️ “The Wesleyan Circle of the Methodist church announce that there will be a Womanless Wedding at Hardy Hall, Grenada, Friday evening, 8:15 o’clock. Not a woman in it; not even an old maid in it. A barrel of rich fun. Characters unique. Admission 25 cents.”

That fundraising amateur theatrical, further described as “the Bigg-Short Womanless Wedding” was noted in the Jackson Daily News on Oct. 2, 1916: “This affair was gotten up by one of the local societies of the Methodist church for the benefit of their piano fund. Some seventy-five men of the city participated and an unusually large crowd witnessed the performance. Quite a large sum was realized.”

Prominent men in drag mocking a shotgun wedding turned into such a sure-fire fundraiser for worthy causes from schools to churches to the American Red Cross that they proflifferated … OK, OK — proliferated across the 20th century into the 1960s. Boomer Reader may well have attended one, long ago. They seem to have petered out by the 1970s, judging from news accounts.

FOR EXAMPLE

You can read a script from 1918 at arkansasonline.com/314script. samples:

Ministry — Wilt thou give her all thy money to spend? Wilt thou never fuss if she burns the bread or forgets the supper? Wilt thou freely and willingly support her father, mother, sisters, the twins, her widowed aunt and seven children, that poor old grandfather and mother with their worthless grandson and three poodle dogs?

Groom (interrupting) — I will.

Ministry — Wilt thou keep two automobiles for them and not complain when thou hast to walk? Wilt thou keep her better dressed than her father de ella did and let her take a trip to New York twice a year? Wilt thou gladly buy her de ella paint, high heeled shoes and false hair? In short, wilt thou be humbly obedient, allowing her to have her way of her in all things whatsoever? So long as you both shall live? The answer is I will.

Groom— I will.”

The men borrowed the women’s clothes to prance about as members of the wedding and ruined them with greasepaint or horseplay involving stuffed bosoms.

MANY CAUSES, MANY SHOWS

In summer 1917, the Gazette reported a Womanless Wedding in Crossett on the Fourth of July, to benefit the Red Cross and directed by a “Mrs. Shankle” from Mississippi. Arkadelphia, Jonesboro, Arkansas City, Dumas, Helena, Brinkley, Batesville, Ozark, Clarksville and Carlisle all had productions.

On and on it went for years. The item that caught my eye appeared in the March 12, 1922, Gazette about a Womanless Wedding that would be presented by the fathers of children attending Pulaski Heights Junior High School and the Peabody School in Little Rock. This was actually a repeat performance by the dads. The first show, that February, had packed the school auditorium with an estimated 1,000 guests.

Jerry Butler, a writer in Hot Springs, recalls a Womanless Wedding fundraiser from his boyhood. His mother, Janie Florene Butler, was president of the Geyer Springs Elementary School PTA in the late 1940s when it staged a Womanless Wedding.

“As I recall they combined the wedding with a ‘womanless’ style show, and the little auditorium was packed,” he says. “The bride was pregnant and the mother of the bride toted a shotgun.”

His mother directed the show, sewed the wedding gown “and helped coerce the men,” he adds.

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