More Creepy Ventriloquists: William Wood

Posted in Illusionists, PLUGS, Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , on October 24, 2014 by travsd

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The current production the ventrilooquialcentric Dead End Dummy has prompted me to add to the ventriloquism section of Travalanche. We already have most of the best known ventriloquists of the classical show biz era represented (find them here),  but there is always more to add (although less will likely be known about them). Anyway, here is today’s installment…

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William Wood (1862-1908) was an American ventriloquist and magician who began his career as an assistant to Harry Kellar. One of his most famous stunts (as depicted on these posters) was the spectacular levitation his wife Edna. By the last decade of his life he was considered one of America’s top ventriloquists.

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While traveling on the Gulf of Mexico on tour, with his young daughter, a large sum of money and all his equipment including eight ventriloquist dummies he was lost at sea under mysterious circumstances. There was reported to have been a shipwreck, but (suspiciously) all of the crew survived, while Wood, his daughter and and their money ($20,000) all vanished. All that survived were four dummies, which washed ashore. They now reside at the Vent Haven Museum in Kentucky, where they are being preserved. Here is one of them:

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These dummies were featured on a 2013 episode of Mysteries at the Museum on the Travel Channel.

But if you truly can’t get enough mysterious ventriloquism, please join us here!

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Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla

Posted in CAMP, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Italian with tags , , , , , on October 24, 2014 by travsd
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“It will stiffen you with laughter”

Today is the birthday of the legendary Jerry Lewis impersonator Sammy Petrillo (1934-2007), best known for his one starring movie role, in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952). But first, a little background.

Petrillo (born Patrello, rather a lateral name change), was second generation show biz, his father being a Catskills comedian and dancer, his mother Alice Faye’s double in the movies. He attended New York’s High School for the Performing Arts. He was 15 when Martin and Lewis hit it big on the radio and in movies (1949). The kids at school noticed a resemblance so Petrillo worked up an impression. His family show biz connections got him a meeting with Milton Berle, who got him a meeting with Lewis himself, who got him an agent and employed him on a sketch on the Colgate Comedy Hour. After this, Lewis’s attitude toward Petrillo quickly chilled and he withdrew his support. But Petrillo was relatively hot (as hot as he would ever be), because Jerry was hot, and so he found work on tv variety shows with Eddie Cantor, Olsen and Johnson and Milton Berle.

Then he teamed up with Italian American crooner Duke Mitchell (Dominic Miceli) and the two formed a night club act not unlike…Martin and Lewis. As a team, the two appeared in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952), as high as they ever got (low as it is). Petrillo alleged that Lewis thwarted their career, getting them bumped off a spot on the Colgate Comedy Hour with Abbott and Costello, and getting them blackballed from important club dates. Still the team hung on as long as Martin and Lewis did, breaking up shortly after their famous role models finally terminated their partnership in 1956. After this both men plugged along in show business for the rest of their lives, much farther away from the big time.

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Petrillo always acted persecuted by Lewis, but I have to say this is a grey area at best. Yes, it sucks that the powerful Lewis wouldn’t allow Petrillo to make his way in the world as best he could. On the other hand, Petrillo was doing Lewis’s shtick! It reminds me a lot of the professional imitators of Weber and Fields, and Charlie Chaplin, back in the day. It’s rather close to plagiarism. Perhaps no specific lines are copied, but the character is. I’ve tried (without success) to think of someone since Petrillo who’s tried a similar gambit (getting famous doing someone else’s act), and I can’t think of one. I think the reason why is that in modern times lawyers simply don’t let that happen. But here’s what’s sad. Petrillo was definitely talented. He did other impressions besides Lewis, for example. But so much depends on luck, and judgment. He was a teenager when he decided to place his chips on doing the Jerry Lewis thing, and that is what he became known for — branded with, really. With more seasoning, you can say that a safer route would have been for Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo to broaden the appeal of their act. For example, Steve Rossi and Marty Allen also followed a partnership formula very similar to Martin and Lewis…but no one could accuse Marty Allen (for better or worse) of being anything but original.

At any rate, it’s the Halloween season! And Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is a classic camp horror movie! Let’s talk about that!

The film was almost the last step down for the perpetually descending Lugosi, whose pinnacle had been Dracula 20 years earlier, and whose FINAL step down would be into the repertory company of Edward D. Wood Jr (they were to make Glen or Glenda together the following year). The director was the legendary William “One Shot” Beaudine, who had earlier directed Lugosi in The Ape Man (1943) and Voodoo Man (1944).

In the film Mitchell and Petrillo play themselves, en route to perform for the troops in Guam (it’s the height of the Korean War). They parachute from their plane and land on the fictional isle of Kola Kola. There they meet many natives and Duke falls for the chief’s daughter Nona (played by the fetching Charlita, whose list of IMDB credits is actually quite respectable.) Still, the boys want to escape, so they travel to the other side of the island, where a mad scientist (Lugosi) performs research in his castle. One of his test subjects is played by Ramona the Chimp, whose best known credits were as Cheetah in the Tarzan movies. Unfortunately, Lugosi also loves Nona, and when he senses the chemistry between her and Duke, he does what any mad scientist would do in his position — injects Duke with a serum that turns him into a guy in a gorilla suit. This adds a nice symmetry to the plot, for Sammy’s love interest seems to be Ramona the Chimp. At any rate, Petrillo is able to recognize Mitchell when the latter manages to sing his signature song “Indeed I Do” from inside his gorilla suit.  Anyway, it all turns out to have all been a dream. (Good ending! Who saw that twist coming?)  When last we leave the boys they are doing their act in a jungle-themed nightclub.

Here’s Sammy himself in later years reminiscing about the picture:

Harold Lloyd in “Never Weaken”

Posted in Comedy, Harold Lloyd, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on October 22, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of Never Weaken (1921), one of the last of Harold Lloyd’s shorts, and one of the best of his so-called “thrill comedies”, paving the way for his most famous in that line Safety Last. 

Like many of the best short comedies, this one is in three sections. In the first part, the plucky Harold devises ingenious ways to drum up business for his sweetie’s (Mildred Davis) boss, an osteopath. In the second he thinks his girlfriend is going to marry some other guy and he unsuccessfully tries to commit suicide. In the last part, poor unsuspecting Harold is in his office minding his own business when a crane at the construction site across the street swings a girder in the window and picks up the chair in which he’s sitting. There follows an odyssey of nightmare proportions as Harold tries to make his way to earth from the upper levels of an unfinished building with no floors, stairs or elevator.

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Charlie Chaplin in “The Adventurer”

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on October 22, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of Charlie Chaplin’s The Adventurer (1917), his last film on his Mutual contract, and one of his funniest, best-made flat-out comedies.

The action starts from the very first frame, when Charlie makes his appearance (from underneath the sand on a beach) as an escaped criminal, with an entire police force hot on his trail. The chase is one of Chaplin’s best — my favorite part is his brilliant staging at a fork in the road, with one path leading up a steep hill, the other, flat terrain — a masterpiece of comedy choreography.

Eventually he eludes his pursuers by jumping in the water and swimming for it. Meanwhile, nearby on a pier, Edna Purviance and her suitor (Eric Campbell) are relaxing at a table. Suddenly, Edna’s mother (Marta Golden), who is swimming, yells for help. The suitor (who has been vain about his muscles) is too cowardly to save her, so Edna jumps in but soon she too needs rescuing. Then the suitor and another fat man lean over the rail and they too fall in. Chaplin swims over and ends up rescuing them all.

Later, with the others in an ambulance, Charlie goes to put the suitor on a stretcher and dumps him in the water again. He goes to rescue him once more but by this time is exhausted and he passes out and has to be rescued himself. He wakes up at Edna’s house. The fact that he had earlier referred to his “yacht” may be the major reason the family trusts him. He and the suitor antagonize each other throughout the picture. Then the suitor sees Charlie’s picture in a newspaper as an escaped convict. He calls the cops, and then a chase even better than the one that began the picture ensues, back and forth, employing stairs, an outdoor balcony, a sliding door, furniture etc. Finally a cop catches him. Charlie introduces the cop to Edna and when the officer releases him to shake hands with her, he bolts again! We’re right where we started!

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Grandpa Jones!

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, Comedy, Crackers, Music, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , on October 20, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great Louis Marshall “Grandpa” Jones (1913-1998).

Most of us know Grandpa Jones as one of the anchors of the tv variety series Hee Haw from 1969 through 1992, where he would play clawhammer style banjo, sing old time gospel, and had a recurring segment: “Hey Grandpa! What’s for supper?”

But if you’re like me, that’s just not good enough! Where’s a guy like that come from? What did he do before that?

Louis Jones started out singing on the radio as a teenager in the area aroudn Akron, Ohio, where he grew up. One of the groups he sang with in the early 30s were the Pine Ridge String Band, the musical act on the Lum and Abner show. Throughout the 30s and 40s he sang (and played guitar and banjo) on radio stations throughout the east, from Boston, to West Virginia to Cincinnati. he began having hit records in the mid 40s. (His most famous song that I know is “Mountain Dew”.) Starting in 1946 he made Nashville his home base, and the Grand Ole Opry became his platform, which is what led naturally to Hee Haw years later.

Here he is with his buddy String Bean tearin’ it up on the traditional “Little Liza Jane”. Kind of a weird instinct on the the part of the producers to stick in a laugh-track and a cartoon pig when String Bean dances. One of many reasons I am glad the seventies are over. When String Bean was senselessly murdered in 1973, it was Grandpa Jones who found the body. He delivered a moving tribute on Hee Haw not long thereafter – – I remember the event very well. For more on String Bean, and to see that eulogy go here. Meantime, for something on the more joyful side:

To learn about the history of variety entertainment, including tv varietyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Charlie Chaplin in “Shoulder Arms”

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on October 20, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of Charlie Chaplin’s seminal World War One comedy Shoulder Arms (1918).

Shoulder Arms (initially called Camouflage), was first planned to come in at five reels, about fifty minutes, which was no shorter than many features in those days.  As originally conceived, the film would have had an opening act showing the Little Fellow’s home life with his wife and kids. Then it would take him into the process of being inducted into the army. It would then have had a closing act wherein the Little Fellow is celebrated as a war hero, before inevitably being awakened from a dream. Chaplin eventually decided to cut it to just the middle – the Little Fellow’s service in the war.

As comic subject matter this film was unprecedentedly dark, not just for Chaplin, but for the movies. No one had ever done a comedy that included trench warfare, gas masks, bullets, barbed wire, and No Man’s Land. Not only was Shoulder Arms the first war comedy, it was also the first black comedy, introducing a side of Chaplin that would come to full flowering in The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. It’s hard to imagine much of Stanley Kubrick’s work, for example, in particular Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) without the precedent of Shoulder Arms. Fortunately, Chaplin had already inoculated himself against charges of being unpatriotic or unserious about the war by participating in a nationwide bond drive and making the propaganda film The Bond. And the fact that Shoulder Arms was funny covered all manner of sins. Memorable takeaways included scenes where Charlie made his way through enemy territory disguised as a tree, tried to sleep in an underground barracks neck deep in water, and used his gas mask as protection against limburger cheese.

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Force Majeure Tonight!

Posted in Contemporary Variety, PLUGS with tags , , on October 19, 2014 by travsd

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