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08 September 2007

Donna Delbert (1913-1991) Fire Eater

Delbert Eugene Hill, from Philadelphia, was a fire eater, who also did bits of magic tricks and some whip cracking. He went to England in 1942 as an entertainer in the US Air Force Special Services. Part of his act was in a grass skirt and coconut-shell bra as "Dirty Gertie from Bizerti". He kept performing during air-raids, and with this reputation was invited to a Royal Command Performance, 4 July 1944.

In 1945, he was re-assigned as a latrine orderly, and ran away. He disguised as Donna Delbert, "America's Outstanding Lady Magician and the Only Lady Fire Eater in the World". Female magicians were very rare, and Donna was quickly booked. She said that she was the widow of a tank gunner killed at Normandy. Between tours she worked at the Lambert & Butler factory as a tobacco-packer, where it was thought that she was a bit mannish, probably a lesbian.

The role lasted four years. Donna had two girlfriends who were in the know. One was jealous of the other, and shopped Delbert to the police. In prison back in the US, Delbert got a star turn in the inmate talent show, and wrote to The Performer telling the truth, and show-biz cronies wrote back.

Afterwards he returned home to Philadelphia, usually performing as a man, but sometimes as “Donna Delbert: The Celebrated English Magician & Fire Eater”. With time, however neither Delbert nor Donna was in as much demand, and they sold ice cream, worked in a Magic Fun Shop and even ran a diner.

They finally died of cancer in their mid-70s, and were buried in an unmarked grave.

  • Roger Baker. Drag: a history of Female Impersonation on the Stage. A Triton Book. 1968: 189.
  • Raymond Teller. “My Search for Donna Delbert”. SinCity - The Web Home of Penn & Teller.
  • Matt Lake.  Weird Pennsylvania: Your Travel Guide to Pennsylvania's Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. Sterling, 2009: 110-111. 

1 comment:

Benny Davis said...

I met Donna Delbert in London 1947 prior to 'her' appearance at the exclusive Maskelyne and Devant magic show, 'Hey Presto. at the Westminster Theatre. I have a signed flyer of the advertised event.She never appeared and no explanation was forhcomming.

Correction to 'her' publicised history. I fail to understand how she appeared before Queen Mary at a Royal Command performance in 1944 when these shows were cancelled during the war years, 1939/11944 inclusive, Also, Queen Elizabeth II was on the throne.

Also, I attended many movies and theatre shows during the blitz and can confirm that although an, 'Air Raid in Progress' was always announced, very few people left for air raid shelters. 'Panic' - never!