Tonight: Twirly Whirly Burly Q

Posted in Burlesk, Contemporary Variety, PLUGS with tags , , on May 1, 2016 by travsd

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In Which I Explain Your Own Country to You on May Day

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, ME, My Family History with tags , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2016 by travsd

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Today is May Day, celebrated by many as International Workers Day since the time of the Haymarket Riots.

Given my background, I have long confounded some people close to me, and often myself, for my ambivalence to the labor movement. You could be forgiven, I suppose, for assuming the opposite. My father was a Teamster; my mother was a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. For about six months, I myself was a dues paying member of a grocer’s union, a precondition for working in a supermarket that operated as a closed shop. Some of my earliest childhood memories involve strikes. When I was still riding a tricycle I joined my dad on a picket line. A few years later, I remember going to the union hall with my dad to pick up our Thanksgiving turkey (paid for with union dues) during another strike. My working class parents had great medical benefits. My father got time-and-a-half pay for overtime. Compared to what many Americans now face, it seems like a kind of Shangri-La. And yet…

I just came across a wonderful quote on the IWW website from a 19th century anarchist, written at a time when the American labor movement was being founded: “whether a man works eight hours a day or ten hours a day, he is still a slave.” My parents both loathed their existence. I don’t think I can recall a single day wherein both of them didn’t vocally curse the day they were born. Manufacturing work by its very nature is dehumanizing. It always seemed to me that the object ought to be to escape that kind of work entirely. Educate yourself, and get the fuck out! Where the trees are green and the birds are singing! That was always my motivational mantra. And that’s what I did.

“That’s great for you! But what if you can’t do that?” is the natural, inevitable reply.  “What if you have no choice but to do this kind of work? Shouldn’t those who work in those kind of jobs do what they can to make their life a little better?” In truth, it seems inarguable. I can think of no rational argument against it. And yet, throughout most of my life, I have found myself resisting the notion of collective action with all the irrational exertion of a dog being dragged to a bath tub. Why? What is it?

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I found myself asking these questions HARD recently, after seeing for the first time Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary Harlan County, U.S.A. In that film, the issues couldn’t be any clearer, any starker. Kentucky coal miners strike for better pay, and their bosses lie and use violence and intimidation to block them. The miners are so poor they seem to be living in some third world country, and it’s relatively modern times. And these are literally MY people…there’s no way I don’t have, say, 3rd or 4th or 5th or 6th cousins among those toothless, black-lunged miners, with their malnourished babies, living in cold water shacks. What is the prejudice against improving their lives? I really had to put this question to myself. I literally went for a walk and thought about it until I felt I had the key.

The answer I came up with is not some new thing; others (scholars, pundits) have undoubtedly identified it — although, in my many conversations with people about this subject, I can assure you that anecdotally, most people where I live don’t have any deep awareness of it. The answer is cultural, and most people where I live (New York City, the arts community) are from different cultures. They not only don’t share this aspect of my culture, but what they know of it when it comes to these matters, they dismiss out of hand, as some myth, or some idiotic, outdated holdover from other days. But I assure you that the idea lives, it is baked into the very substance of millions of Americans. Who would have a problem with negotiating an improved standard of living at a bargaining table?

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I think the answer is that ultimately the resistance comes from Calvinism, from Puritanism. Max Weber’s “Protestant Work Ethic”. In other words, ideas with roots in the 16th century, brought to America by its Anglo-Saxon founders in the 17th century, and held by their millions of descendants, and much of the culture they built, to one degree or another, ever since. Much has been written about how these ideas have fueled America’s philosophy of being self-made, and of pursuing wealth by what might be called Workaholism. Perhaps less has been written about the flip side. I examined my own feelings about the matter, and this is what I came up with. Fortune smiles on the elect, and the elect are those who have earned their gains. But at the same time, there is an ingrained hatred of materialism. This is a seeming contradiction, but it is true. It is called the “Work Ethic”, not the “Wealth Ethic”. The wealth is the by-product, the reward. Within this culture, traditionally, the admiration is for the hard work. Somebody who inherits their houses, their boats, and their cars, don’t we usually dismiss them to a certain degree? (*Trumptistas erroneously believe their boy is “self-made”, an impression probably given by The Apprentice, rather than the heir to millions and rather bad businessman that he actually is).

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Historically, there appeared to be a direct relationship between effort and gain. Poor Richard’s Almanac is full of maxims that attest to this widespread belief in financial dessert. And back then much more than today it was probably true. If you live in an agrarian economy, the industrious yeoman farmer is almost certain to do better than the lazy one. And this is true also of the independent craftsman, or the fur trapper, or anyone who is shifting for himself in the world. And also, the principle holds pretty well if you are already rich. If you start out with a large amount of capital, you can probably turn it into a lot more capital (unless you’re Donald Trump).

But what of the hireling? In a just world, he too would be gradually promoted for his industry and model habits. But since when has this been a just world? After the industrial revolution, millions of individuals were once again demoted to what most had been in ages past, something close to slaves or serfs. And their religion taught them that: A) you deserve what you get, and B) the material things of this world are vain and transitory. What truly matters are the rewards in heaven.

“If I deserve more, I will be paid more,” runs the belief. What sort of scoundrel ARGUES their way to a better salary? A loathsome kind of person, a deceitful, artful snake. Certainly a person with a very wrong set of values. (The deceitful, artful snake on the other side of the table doesn’t enter into this thought process. The boss is a pig; yes, that goes without saying. I hope he can live with himself. He is going to hell. Are you suggesting I should get down into the muck with the pig? He’s going to hell — not me.  I am above this kind of money grubbing. On some level, I would sooner starve.)

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NOW: as I say these are very old attitudes, centuries old. Circumstances changed rapidly; attitudes change slowly. It is certainly highly convenient for management to have a worker base that looks at life this way. It makes them easy pickings. In recent years, millions of working class whites have confounded certain other factions by flocking to the Republican party “against their own interests” as the appalled truism goes. How DARE they do something “against their own interests?,” certain people ask, “How stupid can they be?” This makes certain people tear their hair out. It makes them crazy. It has apparently never occurred to them that these people, much like themselves, are motivated by a philosophy. They are NOT “stupid”, they have made adult political choices based on what they happen to believe. Have they been misled? Lied to? Exploited? Yes. But they don’t need your elitist scorn and condescension, any more than they need being driven to the grave by slave-drivers.

The fact is that the left dropped the ball in this country, a long, long, LONG time ago. There is no inherent, natural divide between working class white Christians and the left. Starting in the 19th century, America’s progressive movement and Christianity were closely aligned. Abolitionism, Feminism, and Temperance (closely aligned with Feminism and other social reform movements) were all strongly associated with Christianity. In 1912, socialist Eugene V. Debs got 6% of the popular vote in the Presidential election. He would have gotten more if Teddy Roosevelt weren’t also running on another third party Progressive ticket, and if democrat Woodrow Wilson weren’t ALSO running on a progressive platform. My Alabama grandparents were STAUNCH New Deal  democrats.

Give Me That Old Time Religion: Populist William Jennings Bryan

Give Me That Old Time Religion: Populist William Jennings Bryan

And then? The Cold War marginalized the left in the 40s and 50s. While the labor movement flourished in those years it also distanced itself from anything that smacked of “socialism” and itself became compromised by associations with organized crime and corruption. In the 60s, the left’s priorities became (rightly) Civil Rights and the peace movement. Largely driven by academia, the American left now became culturally divorced from millions of working Americans who formerly made up part of its core constituency. Racism and cultural prejudice became wedges at this stage no doubt — these divisions cut both ways. This cultural wedge was immediately exploited by the right. Successive waves of working class white voters have been siphoned off by Republicans in the years since, who have rewarded the loyalty of these new devotees by giving them what they seem to want: symbols, words and a leadership disinterested in their actual well being, one way or the other. This is politics, after all. It ain’t what you do, it’s what you say that anyone notices or appreciates.

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This is one reason that I have been a little cynical about Sanders’ prospects in 2016. It’s not that I don’t embrace much of his platform. To my own shock (for I am much more of a philosophical anarchist than a socialist), I find that I do like what he promises. My skepticism is about how it can be delivered. The reason is that for political change to happen, there must be an overwhelming mandate. A movement. One that exists outside of college campuses and other elitist precincts. Evidence for such a mandate would be an actual Democratic Socialist PARTY, with many politicians in congress waving its banner…not one single Democratic Socialist politician, running on the Democratic Party’s ticket. And there would be organizers turning the Tea Partiers and misguided Trump followers into a born-again electorate committed to bringing about their own betterment (rather than that of a handful of CEOs) at the ballot box. There would be a substantial portion of Congress backing the same agenda.

The fact that these conditions don’t exist now, doesn’t mean that there can’t or won’t be. But it’s not about electing one guy. It seems to me that there’s ALWAYS this one guy. Ralph Nader. Howard Dean. How is this different? There needs to be a party, or at least a transformation of the Democratic Party. It’s creation would take an army of ambassadors who speak to these disaffected, alienated voters in their own language to persuade them, and it would take many decades, perhaps over two or three generations. Otherwise, you will not make this change, and if you make the change it will not stick.

Ronald Reagan on the shop floor  of a Harley Davidson factory.

Ronald Reagan on the shop floor of a Harley Davidson factory.

This is precisely what the Republicans did, you realize. The right has been playing the Long Game. They have been working on this demographic since I was in diapers. Nixon. The Moral Majority. Reagan. Bush. The Contract with America. Bush II. The Tea Party. All built, at least in part, with the participation of former Democrats or the type of people who used to be Democrats in ages past. Are there a long list of non-economic issues, rooted in cultural conservatism, to be confronted in trying to engage these people? Yes. And this is why it will take a long time. And if your attitude (as seems to be the case with so many) is “fuck ’em”, well, fine. You just said “fuck ’em” to their votes.  And yes, this demographic is going to matter less and less proportionally as we go forward, but it will be a long time indeed, perhaps never, before they don’t matter at all.

If you find the title of this post risible or offensive, good. It was meant to get your attention. I am clearly in favor of social and political change. But I think in order for it to happen, a much higher percentage of the American people have to be fully on board. But I also think that large numbers of people are there to be persuaded. A guy works at Wal-Mart, has no health care, and still doesn’t vote Democrat? Instead of writing him and several million other people off as idiots (the sort of thing I hear daily on social media), hadn’t you better try to figure him out?

Tomorrow in Brooklyn: Cartoon Carnival!

Posted in BROOKLYN, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , on April 29, 2016 by travsd

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Stars of Vaudeville #979: Marjorie “Babe” Kane

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc., W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Marjorie “Babe” Kane (1909-1992), not to be confused with her contemporaries Marjorie Beebe, Babe London, or Helen Kane.  The Kane in question started out as a teenager in Chicago vaudeville and presentation houses in the Balaban and Katz chain. Her performance of the “Varsity Drag” in the 1928 Chicago edition of the hit Broadway musical Good News brought her to the attention of scouts. She went to Hollywood for a screen test and was hired by Paramount just as talkies were coming in.

Kane was one of those ones whose movie career was most impressive at the very beginning. She performed a number called “The Flipperty Flop” in the 1929 Paramount The Dance of Life, then went on to good roles in movies like the insane Erich Von Stroheim ventriloquism vehicle The Great Gabbo and Fanny Brice’s starring film Be Yourself! (1930). Here she is in Sunny Skies (1930) with Benny Rubin.

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In 1920 she signed a five year contract with Mack Sennett, at whose studio she began to appear in comedy shorts with the likes of Andy Clyde, Bing Crosby and Edgar Kennedy. Nowadays she is perhaps best known for playing W.C. Fields’ daughter in the classic shorts The Dentist (1932) and The Pharmacist (1933). Unfortunately, Sennett went bankrupt shortly after this and the balance of her career consists mostly of bit parts and walk-ons. Notable films she appeared in during this period included Harry Langdon’s Counsel on de Fence (1934), Laurel and Hardy’s Swiss Miss (1938), Joe E. Brown’s The Gladiator (1938), Destry Rides Again (1939) and Life with Blondie, with Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake (1945). From 1940 through 1943, she appeared in Columbia shorts, supporting the Three Stooges, Slim Summerville and others. By the beginning of the 50s even the bit parts dried up, although she did return for one television walk-on in 1959. But for comedy fans, her role in The Dentist is more than enough to make her immortal.

To learn 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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No Mexicans, No Cowboys

Posted in AMERICANA, CULTURE & POLITICS, Hollywood (History), Latin American/ Spanish, ME, My Family History, Westerns with tags , , , , on April 25, 2016 by travsd

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“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bring those problems [to] us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

I don’t have to attribute this quote to anyone, do I? This candidate was dead to me before he even started, but once he uttered these risible remarks (and these ones were months ago, quite early in his campaign), anyone who ever had anything to do with him going forward were dead to me as well. This includes the Republican Party, which I usually have at least some good things to say about though I’ve never voted that way myself. And it includes the media which handed him his free megaphone.

The candidate’s statement is not only racist and race-baiting, but false on several fronts. To wit, the country of Mexico isn’t “sending” us anybody. The speaker makes it sound as though the situation were analogous to the Cuban prisoners Castro released in the direction of Florida as a kind of international practical joke, a sort of human hot-foot. No one is “sending” Mexicans in the direction of the United States. They, like people from the other 200+ nations on planet earth, come to America because in many ways it remains a desirable place to live and work, presumably more so than where they came from.

Secondly, look at the paragraph: it says nothing about the illegality of the immigration. He has a problem with Mexican immigration to the United States, period. He’s not talking about the political conundrum of how to solve a certain problem — he is simply issuing a blanket mischaracterization of the people who are involved. In other words, he’s not against illegal immigration; he’s against Mexicans, legal or illegal. He’s so against them he’s tarred them with the kind of sweeping lie that one associates with Goebbels. (Ironically, the speaker is from a relatively recent immigrant group himself. How easy it would be to tar the Germans in like fashion: “They send us their sado-masochists and their Jew-Killers, the monsters who raped and pillaged their way across France and Poland!”). And he ends with a rhetorical device that is right out of the Nazi playbook, he only “ASSUMES” some Mexicans are good people. But, this presidential candidate aside, German-Americans are not all to be characterized as Nazis. On the contrary, I have celebrated their contributions to American culture in print and in talks. Mexican-Americans deserve the same kind of shout out.

Today is the 170th anniversary of the start of the Mexican-American War.  I have ancestors who fought in that war, and others who fought in the war of Texas Independence and who otherwise pioneered former Mexican territory. And my research for the western book I’ve been working on made something abundantly clear that maybe hadn’t been, as some one who has spent his entire life on the northeast. The revelation I had was the extent to which America as a whole is culturally Mexican. Now, in an obvious way, Hollywood in particular has not done right by this group. I’ve watched hundreds of westerns over the last few years, and as you can imagine, positive portrayals of Mexicans are as rare as hen’s teeth. It’s very much in the tradition of blackface minstrelsy and other show business stereotypes: they’re either sinister or stupid. Even the films and tv shows that are meant to portray a Mexican in a good light, were patronizing and infantalizing, a kind of South-of-the-Border Uncle Tomisim. But for the most part it’s Speedy Gonzalez and Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. And as often as not, as in the latter case, it’s a white actor in brownface.

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BUT, as I began to explore western American history something dawned on me with great force. That is, the degree to which American culture itself ABSORBED aspects of Mexican culture, in a manner much similar to the way it absorbed elements of African culture, and Native American culture, and to lesser extents, every single culture we have assimilated. Immigrants are Americanized. But it works in the other direction as well. And since one-third of America WAS Mexico…America IS Mexico to a certain extent, not just geographically but culturally. In light of that, to see the situation as “them” and “us” strikes me, like all racism, as a kind of madness, a social disease that prevents people from seeing what’s really there in front of them.

When I visited London about 20 years ago, I met a guy who asked me, sort of playfully, “Are you from Texas?” He was egging me on, teasing me, but his joke said something about the American image in the world. It’s not someone like me, a New England Yankee — hasn’t been, almost from the beginning. It’s a cowboy. Ronald Reagan. John Wayne. Marlboro Man. Cowboy hat.

Thanks for the tribute to Mexico, Ron!

Thanks for the tribute to Mexico, Ron!

Have you ever stopped to ask the important questions “Why COWS?” Because I am kind of a spacey guy (and because I was researching a book), I have. How did that insane mania for beef come about? Cows are not indigenous to this continent. And they didn’t come over with the English and wend their west from Massachusetts and Virginia. (A few were imported to the original English colonies but not many). The big herds of the west? The Spanish brought them. The cattle industry of the great Southwest began when that territory was still Mexico. The migration of Yanquis to participate in that industry is what resulted in the Annexation of Texas and the Mexican American War (1846), which brought the territory that is now Arizona, New Mexico, California, and parts of Colorado and Nevada into the union. That symbol of American power the cowboy hat evolved from the sombrero – in many early western movies it is still called by the latter name. The lasso, the bandana, chaps. The unparalleled popularity in the U.S. of a Spanish instrument known as the guitar!

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Dance! Dance, You Unknowing Mexicans!

In other words, all of these things we have to think of as bedrock symbols of Americana (country music, rock and roll, ten gallon hats, fast food, the family barbecue), owe their existence to the influence of Mexican culture. The irony is that often a lot of the very people who have this apparent terror of the “Brown People” in our midst are dressed in Mexican-derived fashions, listening to music played on Mexican instruments, and gobbling a food staple that came to their door via Mexico. The ignorance and irony of that are mind-boggling.

And even if this were not the case? Drugs, crime, rapists? If I were Mexican, I’d be worried about the importation of those things from NORTH of the border. After all, we’ve been much more successful at invading THEM then they have at “invading” us.

Stars of Vaudeville #978: Kitty Gordon

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Singers, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of British-American actress Kitty Gordon (Constance Blades, 1878-1974). A star of musical comedy, started out touring the British provinces in 1901. Her first Broadway production was  Veronique (1904) , produced by Klaw and Erlanger. Five years later she moved to the states permanently. Among her notable shows were the Shubert revue La Belle Paree (1911) and the American premiere of Victor Herbert’s The Enchantress (1911-1912).

Her big vaudeville year appears to have been 1914, when she made a national tour of the Keith circuit, including the newly opened Palace. She seems to have been as prized for her looks as for her ability as a performer. In her book Vaudeville, Caroline Caffin notes “her luscious beauty and limpid voice and gowns of startling magnificence”. In her book The Palace, Marion Spitzer says she was “famous for her beautiful back” (a woman’s back was presumably a rare and exciting sight in public in the early 20th century, striking enough to rate a shout out).

Gordon did one last Broadway show, the Shubert revue A World of Pleasure (1915-1916) and then headed out to Hollywood to star in silent films for two years. Her last movie was Playthings of Passion (1919). Then it was back to vaudeville. In 1920, while performing a dramatic sketch at a Chicago vaudeville house, the prop gun she was using fire for real, shooting an acrobat who was standing in the wings. That’ll fix him for standing in the wings!

To learn 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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“Kentucky” Opens Tonight

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Indie Theatre, PLUGS with tags , on April 20, 2016 by travsd

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