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Tom Martell

also, Tommy Martell, Tommy Martelle, Tom Martelle

Click for Clippings

Okay, can you name a female impersonator who had an ice cream flavor named after him? Nope, not RuPaulicious, not Divine Pink Flamingo...I'm not talking Ben & Jerry's commemorative names. You have to go back, way back for the one I have in mind. And it happened in 1926. The flavor was called "Hanford's Tommy Martelle Special." Hanford was the ice cream company, and it was sold in bricks. Tommy supposedly concocted the recipe himself, incorporating pecans, pineapple, coconut, black walnuts and maraschino cherries.

What? Tommy who? Tommy Martelle (sometimes spelled Martell in the early years) was one of the most successful female impersonators of the 1920's. His career began at least as early as 1911, when he was billed as "The Boy With the Pretty Gowns." It continued to build by the end of the teens, when he was in a production of Julian Eltinge's famous musical "The Fascinating Widow." Now, Eltinge was definitely THE most famous, and successful, female impersonator of the teens and 20's, and he became very wealthy with his shows. Eltinge even had the honor of having a New York theatre named after him.

But this is about Tommy, and I've found essentially nothing about his personal life, when he was born or died...just clipping after clipping of his show successes, all through the 1920's across the country. In 1923 his career skyrocketed with his musical, "The Gay Young Bride," and later with other shows named "The Fashion Girl," "Some Girls," and "Glorious Annabelle." One clue I got to his popularity is that he was among the very few whose image was used in the venue ads of the time. The most common billing given him was that he was "The Foremost Delineator of Feminine Types." He was especially known for his dazzling costumes, and one headline read "Tommy Martelle and Wardrobe Are Back." So, what happened to him after the 1920's? I'd love to know, but perhaps his career faltered in the 1930's when female impersonation had begun to lose popularity, and performing became difficult due to the laws in some locations forbidding cross-dressing.

(April 2020) Very nice for a "history friend" of mine, Clint Drake, to send me some research he did on Martelle.
He connected several dots regarding the performer:

There is an article from the Washington Times (11-29-1916) with the headline "Tommy Farrell Rose Like Meteor." The article mentions that he graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1914 and that "feeling sure that Tommy Farrell was too masculine a name for any such character study as he made of himself Tommy adopted the name of 'Martelle' as his nom du theater"..."rival of Julian Eltinge".

There are two draft records for him: WWI and WWII. In WWI, he identified as Thomas Sillas Martelle, for WWII, Thomas Silias Farrell. Same birthday (4-18-1894) and doubt the same person...also born in Los Angeles. The WWII draft card asks for a person that will "always know your address"--he lists Ella Sherwood, 1924 N. Berendo, Hollywood, California.

In 1940, he is listed as living with his wife Anna on Camarillo Street, LA. Occupation: actor.

This is presumably his sister for in the 1930 census he resides with Charles and Ella Sherwood on N. Berend street along with his wife, Anna. His relationship to the head of household is listed as brother-in-law. Occupation listed as: actor...legitimate stage.

The California Death Index lists a Thomas Silas Farrell, born 4-18-1893, died 8-23-1956 in Los Angeles. The birth date is one year off, but I am certain this is him based on other genealogical data and the low likelihood that it would not be based on all of the other context.

I have not gone too much further into it, but it looks like he was the son of Joseph Samuel Farrell and Mary Donahue who came from Canada to Los Angeles.

Article on Martelle

Below, in Houston!
and download file

below, circa 1920

below, one of my favorites, 1923...I have this one framed

Now, with a "e" added to his name

Below, 1923