My Sixth Fringe Show — But Who’s Counting?

Posted in Indie Theatre, ME, My Shows with tags , on July 23, 2014 by travsd
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Trav in “Misshapen Jack” in 1998 NY Int’l Fringe Festival

The happy news that I’ll Say She Is  will be in this summer’s New York International Fringe Festival provides a nice opening for this update re-blog on the topic of the Fringe.

On the pilot episode of the tv version of Indie Theatre Now  I remarked on the fact that the city now has scores of annual theatre festivals…at which point I heard something like a stifled snicker from one of the guests, essentially expressing the sentiment “Ffffffffp. Yeah.  Right. ‘Other’ festivals!”  I doubt the response came from Fringe Artistic Director and Co-Founder Elena K. Holy; she’s too ladylike. No, no. It could only have been her rambunctious, trouble-making co-founder John Clancy, whom I suspect also shot a spitball even as he collected tacks to put on my chair. But well may he gloat. His response (if he made it — it could have been the radiator) was the correct one. NY Fringe is the granddaddy, the Jabba the Hut of all the New York festivals. 95% of the others wouldn’t exist if this festival hadn’t blazed a trail. I won’t bore you with the impressive statistics (or impress you with the boring statistics). The bottom line is that the NY International Fringe is now a New York Institution, and it introduces tens and tens of thousands of people to all kinds of worthy and off-beat indie theatre on an annual basis.

My relationship to it over the years has been a complex one. I’ve probably looked at it through more lenses than almost anyone over the years: participant, conscientious objector, audience member, critic, adjudicator, FringeU panelist, gadfly, and even – just to keep me humble – rejected applicant. I have played a major role (producer, director, playwright, lead actor) in five Fringe shows; I’ll Say She Is will be my sixth. And I was accepted three additional times but found myself unable to participate on those occasions. NY Fringe’s existence has enriched my life immeasurably. I want to marry it.

Here then a brief chronicle of me and Fringe over the years…

1997. As I mentioned in a previous post, the inaugural year of the Fringe was one of abstention for me. Disgruntled by the prospect of a participation fee and a selective screening process, the anarchist in me aligned with the RATs that year. (The NY Times and Village Voice both covered the brouhaha). More than this, however, after a decade of going my own way, I indulged in the ultimate act of alienation by presenting my own one man “festival”, which I called “Beyond the Anti-Fringe.” Productions consisted of my play Nihils which I presented at an Alphabet City squat called Bullet Space, performances of Misshapen Jack the Nebraska Hunchback in a community garden, and my two hander Hecate and Beckett the Existential Magpies
in Dead God, Dead Dog, Dead Ducks
, which was included as part HERE’s American Living Room series.

1998. The depth of my commitment to abstention may be measured by the fact that it only took me one year to drink the Kool-Aid. In the Fringe Festival’s second year I presented my one man rant Misshapen Jack the Nebraska Hunchback, a very Fringey show, and was rewarded for doing so by mention in two New York Times pieces (http://www.nytimes.com/1998/08/27/theater/theater-review-sometimes-delightful-never-easy-it-s-fringe.html and also http://www.nytimes.com/1998/08/09/magazine/sunday-august-9-1998-theater-no-chickens-will-be-harmed.html).  I also performed in Surf Reality’s Fringe extravaganza “the 101st Congress of Unnatural Acts” and wrote for the Fringe journal Propaganda, then edited by David Cote who as at that time also editor of Off, which I also wrote for.

1999. Addicted to drama, in the third year of Fringe, I joined up with an ill-fated splinter festival called Pure Pop, formed by one of the Fringe’s co-founders Aaron Beall [see earlier post]. Earlier in the year I’d had a successful run of my American Vaudeville Theatre at Todo Con Nada. Since I had this association with the venue at the time, it was really only natural to extend it by being involved with Pure Pop. But the whole thing started to melt down. For one thing, the “venue” turned out to be an Orchard Street  storefront that was being used a storage space. To use it, we’d have had to move some merchant’s junk for him. Find yourself another sucker, bub! After this debacle I ended up doing some writing for the Fringe journal Propaganda again this year.

2000. Having learned my lesson, in 2000 I brought my country musical House of Trash, which had had a successful run at HERE earlier in the year, to Fringe. While some folks had only seen the HERE version, and the play has been produced subsequently, I continue to consider the 2000 Fringe version (which starred me in the central role of Preacher Bob) as the definitive production.

Trav S.D. as Preacher Bob in the 2000 NY Fringe production of "House of Trash"

Trav S.D. as Preacher Bob in the 2000 NY Fringe production of “House of Trash”

2001. This year, my follow up show to House of Trash was accepted into the Fringe Festival. This was my musical about the Manson Family called Son of Nothing (a.k.a Willy Nilly). As we started the process, the director of the show (for whom it was written) started to freak about the fact that he wouldn’t know the venue –or be able to design lights and sound for it — until the last minute, which is one of the admitted challenges of Fringe. So I was forced to pull the plug. The play finally made its Fringe debut in 2009 under the direction of Jeff Lewonczyck.

But that’s not all the drama from that year! I was also invited to participate in a Fringe U panel on the subject of whether the Fringe should be allowed to exist. I really didn’t want to participate, but was guilted into arguing “against” because they couldn’t find enough panelists. The idea of publicly arguing against the Fringe’s right to exist filled me with no end of anxiety. So much so that I resorted to converting my participation into a sort of Dada spectacle, standing and spouting poetic non sequiturs rather than answer any questions properly. And, in it’s way, I suppose it was as good an argument against Fringe as any. Alexis Soloski describes it in the Village Voice here:http://www.villagevoice.com/2001-08-21/theater/britney-s-school-for-alien.

Also in 2001, Greg Kotis (creator of Urinetown) and I were asked (as two “Fringe success stories” to comment on our favorite shows from that year in Time Out New York. I also reviewed many Fringe shows (perhaps a dozen) that year for nytheatre.com.

2002. This year, I presented my show Sea of Love in the Ice Factory Festival, but I wrote thisVillage Voice feature about that year’s Fringe: http://www.villagevoice.com/2002-07-02/theater/theater

2003. Abducted by aliens.

2004-2007. During these years I was simultaneously out of work and writing and promoting my book No ApplauseTo keep a hand in, I mounted several extremely small scale, barebones shows from my personal repertoire in the Brick’s annual summer festivals (Cold FireMisshapen Jack, a vaudeville revue and Nihils). The core Bricksters, I should note, are mostly folks who either met in the context of the NY Fringe, or at Todo Con Nada, run by Fringe co-founder Aaron Beall. The organizers may affirm or deny this, but the way I see it, the Brick festivals, while imminently legitimate in their own right, are playful parodies of Fringe, acorns from the Fringe’s oak.

Also in 2006, I reviewed several Fringe shows for Time Out NY.

And in 2007 — my first rejection from Fringe. The show I pitched was uncharacteristic for me — an extremely serious work, a chorale about Sept. 11, which R.J. Tolan had signed on to direct. The script was very far from finished however (perhaps about 25% finished) and I hope it was on that basis the production was rejected! Also, this year, I interviewed numerous Fringe participants for the Indie Theatre Now podcast.

2008. My play Tenth Life of the Tom Cat (a.k.a Family of Man) was accepted into Fringe, but lacking funds, and feeling a need for rewrites, I withdrew. But I did cover the festival for the Village Voice again:http://www.villagevoice.com/2008-08-05/theater/the-new-york-international-fringe-festival-returns.Also, this year, I interviewed numerous Fringe participants for the Indie Theatre Now podcast, and reviewed nine Fringe shows for the Voice.

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2009.  Willy Nilly finally made it to Fringe and was a sold out and extended hit (read more here)

2010. Produced elsewhere, but reviewed some Fringe shows

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2011. Another major homecoming. In this year’s Fringe I presented The American  Vaudeville Theatre’s 15th Anniversary ExTRAVaganza to spectacular houses at 45 Bleecker. More about that here. 

2012. I did a show in New York Music Theatre Festival (NYMF) instead, which featured Noah Diamond, the mover and shaker behind I’ll Say She Is

2013. I have no idea what the hell I did last year. Oh, yeah Chain of Fools.

2014. Now! I’ll Say She Is! Please go see it! Details here.

Stars of Vaudeville #758: Gus Elen

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, British Music Hall, Singers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on July 22, 2014 by travsd

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Originally posted in 2013. 

Today is the birthday of Gus Elen (Ernest Augustus Elen, 1862-1940), one of the first of the so-called “coster comedians” of the English music hall. Elen began achieve success in the English music hall around 1891 with songs like “It’s a Great Big Shame”, “Arf a Pint of Ale”, and “If It Wasn’t for the Houses in Between”. He was often compared with Albert Chevalier.

In 1907 William Morris booked him for the fledgling U.S. opposition “Advanced Vaudeville” circuit and enjoyed considerable success (although it can’t have endeared him to the Keith-Albee people). By 1914, Elen was effectively retired although he did briefly re-emerge in the 1930s.

To learn more about Gus Elen, check out a new biography and CD here: http://www.guselen.co.uk/

And now, “If It Wasn’t for the Houses in Between”:

To find out more 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.safe_imageAnd 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 etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

Buster Keaton in “The Blacksmith”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , on July 21, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the  Buster Keaton short The Blacksmith (1922). An extremely Keatonesque opening shot (Buster standing next to the tallest tree imaginable) followed by a film more characteristic of Laurel and Hardy or the Three Stooges. This was that interesting transitional time when your local blacksmith might also double as a garage mechanic…horses were still around and cars were also in the picture. And Buster wreaks a great deal of havoc in both worlds. The incompetence and chaos his character spreads doesn’t feel like so much like Buster’s accustomed turf to me.  Though the saddle with a shock absorber does. Buster’s co-director on the film was Mal St. Clair. Buster’s stern boss is his usual heavy, Big Joe Roberts, and the fancy lady is Virginia Fox.

To learn more about silent and slapstick film 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 find out more 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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Laurel and Hardy in “Them Thar Hills”

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , on July 21, 2014 by travsd

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Tonight is the anniversary of the release date of the hilarious Laurel and Hardy comedy Them Thar Hills (1934). In this Hal Roach production (a sequel to their earlier Tit for Tat, the boys go camping in a trailer as a treatment for Ollie’s gout. They end up accidentally getting drunk on moonshine that was poured down a well, and getting too friendly with Mrs. Hall (Mae Busch) — which Mr. Hall is none too happy about.

To learn more about silent and slapstick film 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 find out more 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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Tonight on TCM: Silent Comedians

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

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Tonight on TCM, a cornucopia of silent comedies; quite a diverse selection. It’ll be interesting to see the rationale they give for putting this particular batch on a bill together.

8:00pm E.S.T.

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Coney Island (1917)

Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton and Al St. John take turns dating the same girl (Alice Mann) at Coney Island (despite the fact that Arbuckle’s character is married). Inevitably he winds up going in drag in a woman’s bathing suit. In addition to priceless period footage of Coney’s Luna Park in its heyday, this film offers the sight of Keaton doing an impressive blackflip, and — even more exotic — crying!

 

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The Immigrant (1917)

Nowadays the film is almost always talked about in terms of its social commentary: shots of eager immigrants on a ship being manhandled like cattle, vs. the ironic image of the Statue of Liberty just across the harbor. It’s there, just as Chaplin’s humanity is always there. But what we are apt to forget is that what’s even more present is slapstick! It opens on a seasickness joke, then moves on to the first act’s main set piece which involves a bunch of guys trying to eat their soup in steerage on the violently rocking boat (the effect of course created by a violently rocking camera). Immigrant Charlie of course falls in love with immigrant Edna.

Which leads of course to the second act, in which he meets Edna again in a restaurant and we have the almost unbearably harrowing scene of Charlie (having lost his money) trying to buy time before the burly waiter (Eric Campbell) can learn that he is unable to pay for their meals. Spoiler: they will be bailed out by an artist (Henry Bergman) who wishes to paint the beautiful Edna. It all seems so simple and elegant, but watch Kevin Brownlow’s Unknown Chaplin doc to learn how much work it took Chaplin and his company to get to the finished product.

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Never Weaken (1921)

Never Weaken is one of the last and most important of Harold Lloyd’s shorts. 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. The last part (the famous part) is one of his thrill comedies, a dry run for Safety Last, in which Harold finds himself trapped on the top of an unfinished skyscraper, trying to get down without falling to his death.

 

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Two Tars (1928)

In this hysterical Laurel and Hardy comedy, the team plays a pair of sailors out on a date with a couple of girls. The meat of the picture occurs when they have a fender bender on the highway, and all of the stopped drivers wind up destroying each others’ cars.

10:00pm E.S.T.

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The Gold Rush (1925)

The inspiration for Chaplin’s masterpiece The Gold Rush came to him from a stereopticon slide he saw while visiting Pickfair, the fabled home of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. The shot (which Chaplin would recreate cinematically) was of a long line of hundreds of men trudging through the snow-covered Chilkoot Pass during the Alaskan gold rush (1897-1899).

The Gold Rush (1925) gave Chaplin an opportunity to dramatize privations even greater than those he had depicted in The Kid. The theme of the film is hunger: for food, for riches, for love.  At the center of it is the Tramp, one of the 100,000 prospectors who’ve descended on this remote, forbidding region in pursuit of big wealth. For his apparent ambitions he suffers mightily. Fleeing a blizzard, he must share a cabin with a wanted murderer named Black Larsen (Tom Murray) and later spends several weeks starving with the man who will become his partner, Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain). During this ordeal, the men resort to eating their own shoes for Thanksgiving dinner, and at a certain point McKay, crazed with hunger, mistakes the Tramp for a chicken and pursues him with an ax. Worse than the company of either of these two associates, however, is the specter of loneliness. The Tramp pines away for the love of the vivacious dance hall girl Georgia (Georgia Hale) whom Charlie mistakenly believes is interested in him due to a series of cruel jokes and misunderstandings. In the end McKay and the Tramp strike it rich, and the Tramp gets his girl.

For my longer post on The Gold Rush (my favorite silent comedy), go here. 

11:45pm (E.S.T.)

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His First Tooth (1916)

Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew as a doting couple concerned about the  arrival of their baby’s first chopper. The couple, the uncle and aunt of the Barrymores, were among the biggest comedy stars at Vitagraph. Learn more about them here.

Midnight (E.S.T.)

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Captain Kidd’s Kids (1919)

Harold Lloyd plays a young man who wakes up from a massive hangover. Snub Pollard is his butler. Harold is slated to marry Bebe Daniels but her disapproving mother calls it off because of Harold’s debauchery. The two women leave on a sea cruise the next day but Harold and the Butler manage to sneak on board. It gets weirder and weirder…culminating with the men being kidnapped by beautiful lady pirates!

 

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Look Pleasant, Please (1918)

A photographer (William Gillespie) seems only interested in making passes at his lady customers. After rejecting his advance a woman (Bebe Daniels) phones her husband (Harold Lloyd) to come kill him.

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Take a Chance (1918)

In this Keatonesque romp, Harold Lloyd wooes Bebe Daniels, then gets mistaken for an escaped convict and has to go on the run.

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A Submarine Pirate (1915)

A major hit in its day and still the best known comedy of its star Syd Chaplin (Charlie’s brother) who made it for Mack Sennett shortly after Charlie himself had gone over to Esssanay. Very topical stuff in its day (the World War One era).

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Court House Crooks (1915)

This little comedy has a number of interesting features, not the least of which is that it contains one of the very few screen appearances made by Harold Lloyd in a Keystone  picture. He hasn’t yet established his glasses character; he comes across as a very nice, if undistinguished young man.

Here’s the plot: Minta Durfee plays a judge’s wife. The judge (Charles Arling) has forgotten her anniversary so she makes him go buy her a gift, so he goes and gets a jeweled necklace. Meantime she also has something going with D.A. Ford Sterling (who also directed). She arranges to meet Ford at the soda fountain. The Judge accidentally drops the box with the necklace, which Ford just happens to find. He keeps the necklace and gives it to the Judge’s wife, throwing away the box, which a  young loafer (Harold Lloyd)  happens to find. Harold is pursued by police when he is discovered with the box. He runs home to his mother and little sister and hides in the closet.

The cops catch him, put him in jail. He escapes and climbs a ladder into what turns out to be the Judge’s house! He hides, once again, in a closet, but this tme it happens to be one in which Ford Sterling happens to be hiding. Ford tricks Harold into surrendering, claiming that he will get him off the hook. Then Ford slips out …does a tightrope walk on clotheslines! Coincidentally (there are quite a few coincidences in this movie) the house next door is where Lloyd’s mother and sister live. Ford promises to free the boy.

Climax: the big courtroom scene. (Um, as though they would allow a Judge to try a case in which he is also the victim). Ford renegs on his promise and vigorously argues the case to prosecute Harold. Harold’s little sister (she’s only about 7 or 8) gets an idea: she writes a message on a mirror then shines it into the court. Jury and Judge see the message. Ford hides under the Judge’s desk and Minta comes into the court wearing the necklace. Ford is bonked on the head and put in jail.

1:33am (E.S.T.)

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Help! (1916)

No, not the Beatles! It’s Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew again. I’ve not seen this one yet but here’s a description I found online: “Percival Montague marries a penniless American and is disowned by his father, Lord Battleaxe, an English Duke. Monty and wife Mary head to the United States, promising to make a fortune. A few months later, they’re looking for work of any kind. They hire on as waiter and cook at a nice Manhattan hotel. Monty shaves his mustache, but can’t stop using his monocle, so he’s teased constantly by the other hotel staff. He runs into trouble when people he knows arrive at the hotel. He pretends to be a fellow guest, joins them in revelry, and may lose his job. Mary is alarmed. Monty decides to tell his friends the real reason he’s dressed as he is. Is this their lot?”

For more on silent comedy don’t miss  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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Florence Foster Jenkins: The Worst Opera Singer in the World

Posted in Classical, Music, Singers, Women with tags , , on July 19, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944). Jenkins is a notorious in show business annals as the worst professional opera singer in history. A 1909 inheritance allowed her to pursue her singing in a serious way, although she restricted herself to a few annual recitals at concert halls and salons. Her relationship with the successful actor St. Clair Bayfield (who also became her manager), and her personal fortune allowed her to come to the attention of New York’s cultural and critical elite, among whom — much like the fabled Cherry Sisters — she was an impervious laughing stock. (Unlike the Cherries, Jenkins was never in vaudeville, however). Every aspect of her performance was said to be horrendous: pitch, rhythm, pronunciation, etc. She also made a number of recordings, allowing us to enjoy her today:

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult 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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Excelsior Burlesque’s Wonderland

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

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