Salvador Dali and Vaudeville

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Today is the birthday of the great Salvador Dali (1904-1989). Those of us whose lives were lucky enough to have overlapped his will have no problem digesting why this painter merits inclusion on a show biz and vaudeville blog. He himself was as much a work of art as any of his brilliant paintings. He dressed and groomed himself with such flash and flair, and more than this, he was a tv star, doing the rounds of television talk and variety shows just like any performing artist. There’s no doubt in my mind that if the opportunity had presented itself and the time was right he would have been on the vaudeville stage.

Look! Here he is on Merv in 1965:

You could devote an entire blog (not just a blogpost) to Dali’s life and work. As tempting as that is, today I have others to write about too, so I’ll just cut off a small, relevant slice: Salvador Dali and his connection to vaudeville.

First, there is Dali’s fascination with Mae West, as evidenced by his 1935 painting Face of Mae West Which May Be Used As An Apartment:

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And did you know that Dali wrote a script called Giraffe on Horseback Salad for the Marx Brothers in 1937? In my dream world (the real world, the world as it should be), the Marx Brothers make the film for RKO and Disney instead of all those wretched movies they made for MGM. Someday, my heart of heart hopes someone will finally produce the film using CGI.

And look, here is a special harp he made for Harpo. It’s made of spoons and barbed wire:

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In 1996, Harper’s published some of the scenario for Giraffes on Horseback Salad. It goes like this:

The “Surrealist woman” is lying in the middle of a great bed, sixty feet long, with the rest of the guests seated around each side.  Along the bed, as decorations, are a group of dwarfs caught by Harpo.  Each is supported on a crystal base, decorated with climbing flowers.  The dwarfs stay as still as statues, holding lighted candelabras, and change their positions every few minutes.

While love tears at Jimmy’s heart, Groucho tries to crack a nut on the bald head of the dwarf in front of him.  The dwarf, far from looking surprised, smiles at Groucho in the most amiable way possible. Suddenly in the middle of dinner, thunder and lightning begin inside the room.  A squall of wind blows the things over on the table and brings in a whirl of dry leaves, which stick to everything.  As Groucho opens his umbrella, it begins to rain slowly.

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Although the guests show surprise, they try for a time to continue their meal, which is, however, brought to an end by showers of rain. In a panic, the guests rush in all directions, while from the hall a torrent of waters washes in, bringing with it all sorts of debris, including a drowned ox.  A shepherd makes a desperate effort to collect his flock of sheep, which climb up on the sofas and the bed in an effort to avoid being carried away by the water.  A cradle is carried in on the flood containing a baby crying piteously, followed by the mother, hair streaming behind her.

The “Surrealist woman” crosses several rooms – rain falling more and more heavily – but stops in front of a door and hesitates.  She goes in, followed by Jimmy, who has never left her side.  On the other side of the door, there is no more rain and everything changes.  It is the childhood room of the “Surrealist woman,” where by her orders nothing has been touched since she was ten.  Overcome by emotion, she sits down in front of a mirror at a child’s table.  

Meanwhile, the Marx Brothers announce that a great fête is going to take place.  For this, large preparations have to be made. Four acres of desert are cleared of cacti and of all vegatation and flattened out like a tennis court.  The undergrowth that is cleared away is piled around the field to make a barrier, behind which stands are erected for spectators.

There is a competition for the person who can ride a bicycle the slowest with a stone balanced on his head.  All the participants have to grow beards.  In the middle is a tower in the form of a boat’s prow to be used as a judge’s box.

Before the spectacle begins, the vegetation around the fields is set alight.  This prevents the spectators in the stands from seeing anything at all.  From the top of the tower the sight is wonderful, with columns of smoke going up vertically, surrounding hundrds of cyclists – each balancing a rock on his head – threading their way with the sun setting behind.

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In the tower, Harpo is playing his harp ecstatically, like a modern Nero.  By his side, his back to the spectacle, Groucho is lying, smoking lazily.  Nearby, the “Surrealist woman” and Jimmy watch the spectacle, lying side by side.  Behind them, Chico, dressed in a diving suit, accompanies Harpo on the piano.  Scattered across the gangway leading to the tower, an orchestra plays the theme song with Wagnerian intensity as the sun sinks under the horizon.

And lastly, here is part of The Marriage of Buster Keaton, a collage done by Dali in 1926:

The Marriage of Buster Keaton, collage (part 1), 1926[1]

To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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