Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.
Print Email

Charmed Life

Burlington Bertie From Baltimore

Christopher Myers

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 7/25/2001

Singing, dancing Ella Shields blew out of Canton bent on conquering the show-biz world. And the East Baltimore girl succeeded. Her decades-spanning career saw her stride before the footlights on most every continent. She gave command performances for British royalty and strutted her stuff at the grand opening of London's storied Palladium Theatre. Her signature song was on everyone's lips, and her comic antics were compared to those of Charlie Chaplin.

And there's more to her tale: She was a gender-bending pioneer who performed mostly in men's attire. (It's said she was an inspiration for Julie Andrews in Victor, Victoria.) Shields was an incredible talent who led an incredible life. So how come you've never heard of her?

Well, it could be that this Baltimorean's big time was long ago and far away. Shields was still striding the boards when she died in 1952 at the age of 73, but her career had peaked decades earlier, when she was a bright light on the British music-hall circuit ("music hall" being the Anglo equivalent of vaudeville). While her name and song still spark some recognition across the pond, in her hometown Shields is a prophet without honor.

Well, almost. If there's one place in town where Shields still shines, it's Harriet Lynn's house. Lynn, a professional singer and dancer in her own right, has spent some 10 years researching Shields' life. Her appreciation has blossomed into the one-woman show Ella Shields: The Woman Behind the Man, wherein Lynn brings Shields' song-and-dance routines to life. Lynn will perform the show in London this September as part of International Museum Theatre Alliance Conference.

"I identify with her in so many ways," Lynn says. "I still ask myself, How in the world did she do all she did?"

Twenty-one years ago, Lynn, like most folks, had never heard of Ella Shields. Lynn had recently returned to her native Baltimore after a lengthy performance career that took her from the Bahamas to Las Vegas. She was working with a youth theater group at Center Stage when her mother handed her a small Sun article on Shields. Lynn was fascinated and wanted to learn more about the entertainer. But local resources, such as the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Maryland Historical Society, offered little more than a few yellowed clippings. She had more luck with the ads she placed in U.S. and British theatrical trade publications requesting info on Shields.

"People were fantastic," Lynn says. "I got letters and cassette tapes from all over--Australia, California, and London. One Englishman even sent a video tape of Shields performing."

Shields was born in 1879, and available city records suggest she lived in Canton. Her surname was actually Buscher (sometimes spelled Busher). It's not certain when she adopted the stage name Shields ("Ella" might have been a stage name too), but it is known that by 1898 she doing a vaudeville song-and-dance act with her sisters. In 1904 a talent scout lured a now-solo Shields to London, where she was billed as the "Southern Nightingale." The Brits took to her, but bigger fame awaited.

One night in 1910 Shields was attending a party at which music-hall performers did their acts for one another. Half of a two-man musical act was out sick, and Shields put on pants to fill in for him.

"No one had ever seen her as anything but the Southern Nightingale," Lynn says "But she just decided to go on as a guy."

This impromptu turn in trousers proved to be the turning point of her career. She was a hit as a he, and Shields rarely wore dresses on stage again. (Her act wasn't unprecedented, though; cross-dressers--male and female--were already a component of the music-hall repertoire.)

Her next career milestone came five years later, when her songwriting husband, William Hargreaves, penned "Burlington Bertie From Bow," a comic ditty about a penniless Londoner who affects the manner of well-heeled gentleman.

"'Bertie' put her on the map," Lynn says. "She never got away from that song. For the rest of her life she was known as Bertie as much as Ella." (She wasn't long to be known as Mrs. Hargreaves, however; she and her husband divorced messily in 1923.)

The Baltimore lady turned tatterdemalion British gent toured the world, including appearances at Baltimore's now-demolished Maryland Theatre in 1924 and '26. While audiences knew she was a woman, many assumed she was British, but Lynn says Shields "never tried to hide [her American roots]. She was proud to say she was from Baltimore."

The Depression brought rocky times for many entertainers, and Shields was no exception. (She spent time working a Macy's jewelry counter in New York.) After a bout of performing in obscurity, a late-'40s music-hall reunion show called Thanks for the Memory put "Bertie" back in the spotlight. In August of '52, a septuagenarian Shields performed in northern England. It would be her final show.

"Oh, it was so amazing and dramatic," Lynn says. "Her song starts, 'I'm Burlington Bertie,' but at this performance she sang 'I was Burlington Bertie.' She finished the song, collapsed, and died three days later without regaining consciousness. I think she knew she was going, but she was a trouper to the end."

After performing in London, Harriet Lynn hopes to bring her Ella Shields show back to Baltimore. In the meantime, anyone with additional information on Shields' life and work can contact Lynn at hlynn@c-h-n.com.

Related stories

Charmed Life archives

More from Brennen Jensen

Period Pieces (8/1/2007)
Why A Maryland Man Turned His Rec Room Into The World's First Museum Of Menstruation

Wild Bunch (8/9/2006)
Prickly Racial Politics And Murderous Mafia Plots Amid Baltimore's Banana Wars

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers (4/19/2006)

Comments powered by Disqus
Calendar
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter