Archive for the Drag and/or LGBT Category

Tonight: The Murray Hill Show

Posted in Burlesk, Contemporary Variety, Drag and/or LGBT with tags , , on March 8, 2014 by travsd

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Yankee Doodle in Berlin

Posted in Comedy, Drag and/or LGBT, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on March 2, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Mack Sennett feature length comedy Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919). This WWI-era patriotic comedy is doubly interesting to us: 1) because it stars so many greats from the Sennett stock company: Ford Sterling (as the Kaiser!), Ben Turpin, Mal St. Clair, Marie Prevost, Charlie Murray, both Chester and Heinie Conklin, and the Bathing Beauties; and 2) the star of the picture is Bothwell Browne, a vaudeville drag performer whose only starring film this is. (For more on Browne go here). This was Sennett’s most ambitious film up to that time, and only his third feature. Unfortunately he gambled on the war lasting longer than it did; it was already over by the time the film was in theatres.

The plot is just what you think it would be. Browne is an army captain who goes undercover in the Kaiser’s Germany, disguised as a woman. As long as Sterling or Turpin makes a pass at him, that’s all I ask! The film is actually available to purchase and I aim to do just that (Go here). In the meantime, here’s a preview:

For more on silent and slapstick 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 chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500 To learn more about show biz historyconsult 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 “Twice Two”

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Drag and/or LGBT, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , on February 25, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the release date of the hilarious Laurel and Hardy comedy Twice Two (1933). As the title implies, this is a doubling comedy, a device the team often relied on (see also Brats, Our Relations, etc). Here, the boys play their own wives! (Actresses supply their voices, a slightly disturbing effect). The plot is almost nil — an Anniversary dinner party, punctuated by squabbles, and thrown cakes. But I find it one of their funniest; the gimmick is enough to see it through. It was directed by the excellent James “Paul” Parrott, Charley Chase’s brother.

For more on slapstick film history, 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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For more on show biz historyconsult 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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Nazimova in “Salome”

Posted in Drag and/or LGBT, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , on February 15, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of Salome, starring Alla Nazimova (1923). The film has long been regarded as the notorious Nazimova’s Waterloo. A star of films since 1916 and on stage since long before that (see more about her overall career here), at a time of growing conservatism in Hollywood (mere months after the Arbuckle scandal broke) Nazimova rolled the dice and decided to self-produce a self-consciously arty version of Oscar Wilde’s Biblically inspired tale of incest, blood-lust and provocative nakedness.

The timing for this ambitious experiment couldn’t have been worse. Though versions of Salome and its wicked “dance of the Seven Veils” had been a bona fide craze for years, that vogue was over, old news, and the country was now pulling into a period of conservatism. People were tired of Nazimova’s antics, which were much more in tune with the Babylonian teens than the Calvin Coolidge twenties. On top of this, the movie is highly expressionistic, if that’s the word, filmed on an interior stage with sets and costumes designed by Natacha Rambova, based on Aubrey Beardsley’s original illustrations for the published version of Wilde’s play, and lots of stylized movement, gesture and dance. Somehow it never transports us though. Where The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari had used similar techniques and managed to launch us into the dream-space, in Salome  we are somehow always aware of the edges, of the studio walls just beyond the movie set.

At the time there was much difficulty getting the film released, and even more getting audiences to see it. Within a few months Nazimova left Hollywood, although she would return to appear in several films in the 1940s. Salome’s reputation has improved in the present era, both due to the enhanced statuses of Nazimova and Wilde as gay icons in recent years, but also because there is a market for films as apparently uncommercial as this. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is very interesting — certainly much more interesting than plenty of films that were hits in 1923.

For more on silent film history 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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To learn more about show biz historyconsult 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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Stars of Vaudeville #856: Vardaman

Posted in Drag and/or LGBT, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on January 17, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the female impersonator Vardaman (Mansel Vardaman G. Boyle, 1877-1945).

Vardaman was born in Santa Cruz, California and raised in Butte, Montana, where he first worked as a store clerk, stenographer and book-keeper before getting involved in local amateur productions where he donned his first skirts. This led naturally into vaudeville. From 1903 to 1913 he was working some of the top houses of the west and midwest, billed as “Vardman, the Auburn Haired Beauty” and “Vardaman, the Gay Deceiver”. In 1913 he embarked on a word tour that included the U.K., South Africa and Australia. In 1916 he toured the U.S. with the burlesque company The Champagne Belles.

By the the 1920s he was getting long in the tooth and no longer able to pull off a Pretty Little Miss. For a while he tried vaudeville under the handle “LaVardy” but by 1925 he had packed it in. For some years he lived with film star J. Warren Kerrigan. For a time he also lived with the family of Flint, Michigan theatre owener Louis Sunlin, as a live-in private cook. He passed away in 1945 in relative obscurity.

To find out more about 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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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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On the Christmas Pantomime

Posted in British Music Hall, Clown, Comedy, Drag and/or LGBT, HOLIDAYS, FESTIVALS, MEMORIALS & PARADES with tags , , on December 21, 2013 by travsd

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A timely topic and one I warrant has been a source of confusion for many Americans  travelling abroad during the holidays. Pantomime is one of those theatrical terms, like burlesque, vaudeville, cabaret and many others, that possesses several forms and meanings. The kind we aim to discuss today is NOT the silent, French Marcel Marceau type. Nor is it the ancient Greco-Roman type (which I bet most of you don’t care about anyway, although I sure do!) Today we speak of the British Panto, which has long been an annual Christmas tradition in the UK, Ireland, Australia, and Canada.

As we have written about many stars of the Panto here (Joseph Grimaldi, Dan Leno, Little Tich,  the Hanlon-Lees, Lily Morris, Bert Errol, Wilkie Bard, Nellie Wallace, G.S. Melvin, Bessie Bonehill, Wee Georgie Wood, Ada Reeve, et al) we thought it high time we provided a little more detail about what it was (and is).

British Panto evolved ultimately from the commedia dell’arte, an Italian import that gave the world a rich pantheon of comical stock characters (Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon, etc etc). In England this evolved into the Harlequinade in the early 18th century, a silent form (spoken dialogue being illegal in all but a couple of licensed theatres) very much focused on a small handful of the original commedia characters, the lovers Harlequin and Columbine and their escape from Pantaloon). The Harlequinade was initially presented on a bill with such entertainments as opera and ballet.

As time wore on, the show began to incorporate magical transformations by Harlequin, in which the presentation shifted to the telling of a story from classical mythology, a fairy tale or nursery rhyme. Eventually the Harlequinade fell away completely in the 19th century, leaving only the fairy tale (Puss in Boots, Jack and the Beanstalk, etc etc). The modern Panto is very much NOT silent. But there are several other distinctive features that make the Panto a unique theatre form:

* Drag. The Panto makes much use of comedy drag in the form of the Pantomime Dame (a guy dressed as a woman), and the Principal Boy (a gal dressed as a guy)

* Audience participation. The audience is coached by the actors to shout certain traditional things, such as “He’s behind you!” when the hero doesn’t see the villain creep up.

* Double entendres. The Panto is a family entertainment as opposed to a children’s entertainment. While the kids watch the fairy tale, the actors often make downright obscene jokes, but told in an oblique way designed to go over the smaller kid’s heads.

* Panto animals. Since time immemorial, the inclusion of a couple of actors in a horse or cow costume has been de rigeur

* Celebrity guests. A feature of the modern panto, at least the big productions, is that well-known tv and movie stars will drop in and take part.

Yes, the panto continues to be a living, breathing thing. Here is a random poster for a contemporary British panto from a couple of years ago featuring one of my favorite comic performers Dame Edna:

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No panto in the U.S., you ask? Well, we had very little theatre at all back when we were British colonies. There was some panto activity here in the 19th century (see my article here on George L. Fox) but it didn’t stick. But fairy tale theatre of a sort was all the rage in the late 19th/ early 20th century in the form of what were called “extravaganzas”. I’ll no doubt be treating of them in future.

For more on the variety theateconsult 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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For more slapstick and clown history 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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Esquerita!

Posted in African American Interest, Blackface & Minstrelsy, Drag and/or LGBT, Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , , on November 20, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Steven Quincy Reeder, a.k.a S.Q. Reeder a.k.a Eskew Reeder, a.k.a. Esquerita (1935-1986). WHO?, you ask. Well that is why we are doing a post on him!

I have been curious about this personage ever since reading an article about him in the Village Voice in the late 80s or early 90s. (When you hear old curmudgeons like me gripe about negative change — like I did here – this is why. I learned about so much in the world through that paper, once upon a time. No more!).

At any rate, Esquerita was a recording artist whose career dates from the early rock and roll era. he is invariably spoken of in comparison with Little Richard, whom he may have influence, and who may have influenced him — probably both.

Now: if you think about it, it’s surprising enough that the flamboyant Little Richard became a mainstream recording artist. But compared with Little Richard, Esquerita’s crossover potential was precisely zero. Check out the Kid n’ Play pompadour, the Jayne Mansfield sunglasses, and his sissified stance at the piano (like Little Richard, Esquerita was gay, perhaps more openly and unrepentantly so. He died of AIDS in 1986).

And his lyrics are hilariously risque. Here are some of his verses that make me smile:

1.

 Katie Mae’s a girl about six feet two

You’d be surprised at the things the gal can do!

2.

Hey Miss Lucy, You’re too fat and juicy for me

Hey Miss, Lucy, You’re too fat and juice for me

Every time I wanna rock, you don’t set me free

3.

I’m getting’ plenty lovin’ cuz my baby she’s tops!

I’m getting’ plenty lovin’ cuz she always wanna rock!

I’m getting’ plenty lovin’ cuz I love her so

I’m getting’ plenty lovin’ cuz she don’t want me to know

I’m getting’ plenty lovin’, I’m getting’ plenty lovin’

Cuz my baby she’s tops.

4.

Baby don’t you shake it like that

Baby don’t you shake it like

Cuz when you shake it like that

You drive me just as wild as a bat

Early rock and roll had a certain ambiguity that allowed it to slip by censorial instincts on the part of dee-jays and such. But Esquerita’s music was even less subtle than the stuff that preachers and politicians were complaining about. It less implied than outright SAID that these songs are about sex.

Also going against Esquerita’s entry into the mainstream was a certain roughness of musical execution. This is a quality I’m extremely forgiving of (because it’s how I play and sing), the quality you generally find in genuine rough-hewn homespun folk music. But even I notice in these songs that Esquerita frequently goes off pitch and often sounds close to laryngitis, the guitarist flubs notes sometimes, the piano often sounds out of tune, the drummer’s fills sound loose and sloppy like those in a stripper club band. The music sounds like what you’d be hearing in a smokey, low down bar in the wrong part of town. Only the most rebellious of teenagers would dare to play a record like this.

In the late 60s, Esquerita re-branded himself with other stage names and became increasingly obscure although he continued to perform in night clubs until shortly before he died.

Esquerita was not only ahead of his time, he remains ahead of OUR time, I think, and it’s likely that that will always be the case. Those are the people I like to celebrate above all.

Here’s one of his better known tunes, from 1959.

For more on the history of show business consult 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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Stars of Vaudeville #260: Clifton Webb

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Drag and/or LGBT, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on November 19, 2013 by travsd

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Originally posted in 2010

Webb Parmalee Hollenbeck was a mama’s boy, and mama was a stage mother. A frustrated actress, Mrs. Hollenbeck pushed young Webb into dancing school at the age of seven. When the father objected, she pushed him, too – right out of the family. Thereafter, queries about Mr. Hollenbeck were answered: “We never speak of him, he didn’t care for the theatre.”

The boy she raised was a perfect man of the theatre. He was to become one of the top dancers in the business, a professional opera singer, and an academy award nominated actor (twice). At age 7 he made his professional debut at Carnegie Hall in a children’s play called The Brownies. He followed this with the lead in Oliver Twist, and a play called The Master of Carlton Hall. A remarkable person by any measure, he graduated from high school at age 13, then studied painting and opera. In 1911, he sang with the Aborn Opera Company in Boston. Parts in La BohemeMadame Butterfly, and Hansel and Gretel followed.

By the mid teens, Castle Mania was sweeping the land. As a trained dancer, Webb was in a position to take advantage of the craze. He teamed up with Bonnie Glass, and then Mae Murray, performing on the Keith circuit and in nightclubs, and teaching private classes at the Webb Dance Studio. After this, he would add eccentric dances to his more traditional ballroom repertoire, and he partnered with Mary Hay and Gloria Goodwin. By the late 20s, he was headlining at the Palace.

Throughout the twenties and thirties he starred in musical and straight plays in both New York and London, and had numerous roles silent films. But it wasn’t until he was 51 years old, when he was cast in the film Laura (1944) that he became the movie star that he is primarily known as today. He went on to star in the original version of The Razor’s Edge (1946), the popular “Mr. Belvedere” series (1948-51), Stars and Stripes Forever (1952, in which he portrayed John Philip Sousa), the original Titanic (1953) and many others, into the 1960s.

Here is a little televisual tribute to him prepared by Indianapolis broadcaster Reid Duffy (Webb was also from Indiana):

For more on the history of vaudeville consult 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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On the Peculiar Genius of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Posted in Drag and/or LGBT, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on October 10, 2013 by travsd

Originally posted in 2012. 

Today is the birthday of Edward D. Wood, Jr. a.k.a. Ed Wood (1924-1978).

A number of years ago I was fortunate enough to take part in the Ed Wood Festival produced by Ian Hill and Frank Cwiklik and their respective companies (GeminiCollisonworks and DMTheatrics). I was overjoyed to be able to do so, having been a member of the cult of Wood since the very early 90s, when I was introduced to Wood’s work by my psychopharmacologist and pedicurist Robert Pinnock. (Prior to Pinnock, I’d only really known about Plan 9, because it was the name of a garage band in Rhode Island.) To those only familiar with the 1994 Tim Burton bio-pic, Wood’s oeurve includes not only the notorious Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955), and Plan 9 (1959), but also the unreleased sequel to Bride of the Monster, Night of the Ghouls (1959) which features a character named Dr. Acula; as well as scripts for Jail Bait (1954), a hoodlum plastic surgery yarn; The Violent Years (1956), a juvenile delinquent picture about an all-girl gang; The Sinister Urge (1960), a fairly disenguous expose of a pornography ring (given that porn was to be Wood’s bread and butter in later years); and Orgy of the Dead (1965), a nudie cutie and horror hybrid, which I helped adapt for the stage about ten years ago.  And much much more for those depraved enough to dig deeper.

My colleagues and I have had many a discussion on the silly topic of Ed Wood, and there’s an attitude about him and his work I believe we all share. All of us, at some relatively early stage, moved BEYOND a mere scoffing at Ed Wood’s ineptitude as a film-maker (which, don’t get me wrong, is near total in every conceivable way) to an APPRECIATION for the virtues he possesses. Anyone can laugh at something “bad.” And I assure you, I continue to howl all through Wood’s films, and to quote his terrible lines, and to impersonate his terrible actors. I must, or I wouldn’t have watched these films dozens of times.

And this is the crux of it. Something about these films compelled me to watch them dozens of times. And not just me, but many strangers from around the country – as though we all had the Close Encounters tune planted in our heads. I’ll be damned if I know what it is. I do think Wood is very good at conjuring up an atmosphere. I also think that since HE was such a huge film fan, he was able to transcend his ineptitude by conjuring countless visions planted in the collective unconscious by the Hollywood dreamsmiths: Bela Lugosi, Vampira, Tor Johnson, flying saucers, mad scientists, noir era hoodlums and gangsters. They don’t have to be in any plausible story, what they say doesn’t have to make sense – they just have to be there, as though someone had thrown some comic books, Universal horror posters and 45 rpm records into a blender and made movie slaw. And that’s kind of how dreams are, isn’t it? And, probably most important of all, Wood went at it with heart, with an absolute, vulnerable assurance – a vision – that every choice he was making was the right one. He believed in it. Belief – in this cynical world – is a rare and beautiful thing. And that virtue – that simplicity – in Wood’s films is to me a superior quality to the impulse to ridicule somebody else for some obvious but harmless fault.

And, now in honor of the day,  a taste of Wood:

Stars of Vaudeville #363: Ella Shields

Posted in British Music Hall, Drag and/or LGBT, Singers, Singing Comediennes, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , on September 26, 2013 by travsd

Originally posted in 2011

Ella Shields (born this day in 1879) was a male impersonator and a rare American export to the British music halls. A Baltimore native she started out in a sister act in American vaudeville in 1898. Billed as the Southern Nightingale, she crossed the puddle to try the halls in 1904. It wasn’t until six years later that she donned male drag (to fill in for an act that called in sick) and was such a hit that she stayed that way. It is speculated that Julie Andrews (whom she knew and performed with early in her career) based her character in Victor/ Victoria on Shields.

One of the major songs she was associated with was “Show Me the Way to Go Home”, well known to modern audiences as it is sung by the three main characters in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. (“How do those guys all happen to know that song?” I’ve always wondered.) But her most popular number, written especially for her in 1915 by her then-husband William Hargreaves was “Burlington Bertie from Bow”. And it was this number she was singing in 1952, when she was stricken onstage with a fatal heart attack. Here’s her singing that song:

To find out more about vaudeville 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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