“It’s just like comedy!” Todd Robbins always quips in his act, and hearing about his new show True Nightmares , which premiers on Investigation Discovery next Wednesday at 10pm (EST), I can’t help thinking “It’s just like vaudeville.”
In that, this guy has so much show biz knowledge and experience by this point he could host a tv show of any sort backwards and in his sleep. (Come to think of it, isn’t that how Ed Sullivan used to do it? At least, that’s how Will Jordan used to do Ed Sullivan doing it!) Much like that first generation of vaudeville and Catskills-educated TV people, Milton Berle, Ken Murray, Red Skelton, etc etc etc, this guy is so ready for this. If you threw a pie at him, he’d probably go, “Should I catch it on the left cheek? Right cheek? The middle of my face? Want me to catch it in my hands?”
For the Mad Marchioness and myself, the idea of Todd Robbins hosting a show on ID is like the chocolate landing in the peanut butter to make a Reese’s. If you do a search under Todd’s name on this blog, you’ll see that we’re very much on record as being big fans of his. And…at home, the ID network just happens to be our default television. (In case you’re new around here, ID is Discovery’s 24 hour true crime network, which deals almost exclusively in true tales of murder and deception. I know that little factoid makes us seem crazy, twisted and middle-aged all at the same time, but, well…we are those things! We probably watch that network 10-15 hours a week, together. We blogged here about our enthusiasm for Lt. Joe Kenda: Homicide Hunter — and were thrilled beyond propriety to hear from the actor who plays Kenda in the re-enactments. Then a few months ago, we met Christopher Mason, host of Behind Mansion Walls at a party and were so jazzed we practically knocked him over. He now has a copy of No Applause, complete with a gushing inscription, unless he handed it off to his doorman.
Anyway, third time’s a charm. We’re chomping at the bit to see this show. I spoke with Todd this morning and he gave me the skinny. In his own words:
“A few years ago I got an e-mail from the director of development at Discovery Studios and he said, ‘We’re thinking about some sort of sideshow series. And when we research ‘sideshow’, your name comes up all over the place. You’re someone America might follow down the path of looking at the world of sideshows, you could be the Anthony Bourdain of sideshows.”
So they came to New York and shot a teaser reel in Times Square and Coney Island and captured a nice little cross section of modern sideshow with Albert Cadabra and Donny Vomit and Heather Holliday and Jellyboy the Clown. But they couldn’t sell it. So the development director said is there anything else you do? Luckily we had lots of video footage of [my spook show] Play Dead, directed by Teller of Penn and Teller. So we took that to ID. And we realized we kind of do the same thing — real stories about dark people, but we do it a little different, we make it creepy and fun. And we took a meeting with the development people and pitched the idea that, in addition to doing the usual intros and outros and voice-overs, I would also be a ghost in the re-enactments, as a hook for the audience to get them into the story. The camera pulls back and I’m there as an Unseen Angel of Death. And they liked the idea and were willing to try it, but they were a little leery.
But we did a pilot. It’s an hour long show. There are three stories, and I host in the tradition of Hitchcock or Rod Serling or One Step Beyond. And when the focus group tests came back they were through the roof. It tested better than any series they ever tested, and as host I got a perfect score.”
The first of the six episode airs this coming Wednesday. Todd told me about some of the segments they worked on, and they were mighty entertaining: one about a compulsive hoarder whose wife went missing…another about a Jazz Age sausage king who got tired of taking lip from his sweetie….there’s a teaser here on their web site: http://www.investigationdiscovery.com/tv-shows/true-nightmares/
Also, Todd will be hosting ID’s Halloween Scare-a-thon…in which he’ll be posing three Urban Legends to the audience under the title “Trick or Truth?” And they’ll be showing several episodes of True Nightmares back to back. Can’t wait! You ain’t heard the last on this subject!
Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather. In honor of Nance O’Neil’s birthday and the Halloween season upon us, I thought I would do a little post about great screen adaptations of the Lizzie Borden story. And when I did a quick inventory I realized there weren’t any! (Great ones, that is, and very few of any sort).
One assumes there would be more, for all sorts of reasons, I suppose. Much like the Jack the Ripper tale, it has been absorbed into folk lore. Everyone knows the story, everyone knows the song. Everyone can picture the house and all the characters. But as I looked at it, I realized that we mostly know about these things from non-fiction treatments in the media: re-enactments on reality television, documentary films, stories on news magazine programs and the like. Mainstream dramatized screen adaptations are somewhat rare, and have mostly fallen short of the mark. Why?
“Too soon”? In a way, yes. Borden died in 1927 (pretty recent). Unlike the Ripper, we actually know who she was, if not precisely what she did. And, to be perfectly factual (how boring) she was acquitted which means that if she has/had living relatives it might be kind of hard to say or imply that she actually did murders. Still, where there’s a will, there’s a way. I know of just two major tellings.
Until very recently the 1975 TV movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden starring Elizabeth Montgomery was the most widely known. I actually saw this on TV when it originally aired! Montgomery was fresh off her long stint on Bewitched , and there’s a sort of logic to this casting. But Montgomery was in reality far too beautiful and refined to play this character. And as a tv movie, it’s pretty light on the chop-chop-chop, if you know what I mean. As I’ve written, in general I’m not a fan of mere killer stories — when set in the present. But somehow, if it has the patina and distance of history, if it is “Gothic” or Victorian, it’s got a green light. Then it’s “horror”. (For the same reason I am SO majorly looking forward to the upcoming adaptation of The Devil in the White City, about H.H. Holmes.). The producers of this film were very smart in calling it “the LEGEND”, by the way. You can always say that you never claimed what you are telling is the truth if it’s just “The LEGEND of Lizzie Borden”. So, yeah, that pretty naked lady IS holding an ax. At any rate, this TV movie was OK; I’ll talk some more below about what I’d like to see someday.
Christina Ricci, also far too beautiful to play Lizzie Borden. I mean, unmarried at 32, living with her parents in the 19th century? And judging by photographs. This isn’t about lookism, it’s about the logic of storytelling. A knock-out’s getting married back then, probably even if only as a cover for lesbianism, if that was Lizzie’s true orientation, as some suspect. A plain, middle aged “papa’s girl” is simply more plausible storytelling. But Ricci can play the creepy affectless thing that worked so well for her as Wednesday Addams, and that’s a plus. So I was excited when her tv movie Lizzie Borden Took an Ax came out last year. And then was disappointed (my review is here). We also watched some of the new series The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, which takes even more liberties and liked it even less.
Besides these two, there were a handful of scattered adaptations of the story on television in the 1950s and 60s, mostly as installments on anthology shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and there have been a few plays and musicals.
So….it looks to me like the field is wide open here for the right person to do something amazing. With a good director, and the right casting, this is ripe to be an amazing horror film. Who would I want as Lizzie? Someone more like Shirley Stoler from The Honeymoon Killers (1969). Someone you can believe can get mad enough to swing an ax at someone, and then be psychotic enough to brazen out the inquiry afterwards. Kathy Bates, when she was younger? Yeah, Kathy Bates. Or, a comical goof version starring Melissa McCarthy? Anyway I sure know how I’d make MY Lizzie Borden movie! Investors, get in line!
Tomorrow at 6:00am (EST) on Turner Classic Movies, to kick off their day-long program of train movies, they will be showing Buster Keaton‘s The General (1927). Unthinkable as it may be to us today, this film, now regarded as Keaton’s masterpiece, and one of the greatest films of all time period, was among Keaton’s least successful films upon its initial release.
Inspired by the photos of Mathew Brady and by Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, this Civil War comedy is set in Georgia in 1861. The title refers not to an army officer but the nickname of a locomotive tended by a crackerjack engineer played by Keaton. The army decides that the young man is more valuable to the Confederacy in his usual job as a train engineer than as a soldier. But his girl thinks he is shirking and shuns him. He proves himself worthy by a daring single-handed rescue of his stolen train deep behind enemy lines.
That sounds like a plenty serious plot — and it is. Some speculate that this is the reason for its relative unpopularity in the 20s. Not only are there fewer gags in the film, but audiences were unamused by the subject matter. It seemed in bad taste to make a comedy against a backdrop of the country’s greatest tragedy. This was a case of Keaton’s emotional detachment blinding him to the nuances of the audience’s emotions. Keaton merely found the subject interesting. Others were not amused. Today, at a further remove, audiences find the film breathtakingly beautiful, and can laugh at its silliness without being too stressed out at the nail-biting climax.
For more on the stage and screen career of comic genius Buster Keaton go here.
For more on silent and 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. For more on show business history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
Today is the birthday of Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825-1875). I learned about this astounding person through genealogical research. I am distantly related to him through our mutual ancestor Colonel William Randolph. By now, I am amassing a collection of some of my more outre relations to write about. This guy definitely fits in with Sir John Harrington, Queen Elizabeth’s “Saucy Godson” and inventor of the flush toilet, and William Rufus Devane King, America’s gay 13th Vice President.
Randolph was of mixed-race ancestry, part black, part white, part Native American. His parents died when he was young, forcing him to go to sea in order to support himself. In time he found himself in Persia, which is where he learned ancient arts and rites of mysticism, including sex magic, of which he was the first proponent in the United States. Upon his return to America, he lectured widely, worked onstage as a trance medium, and published 50 books, tracts and pamphlets using the pseudonym “The Rosicrucian”. In addition to spiritualism he was also an early proponent of abolitionism, Pre-Adamism, and birth control.
In 1851, his work in the cause of abolitionism resulted in his forming a friendship with Abraham Lincoln (to whom I have also learned I am related). In 1858 he founded Fraternitas Rosae Crucis, the oldest Rosicrucian organization in the United States. In the years following the Civil War, he taught freed slaves how to read in New Orleans. According to this article, he was murdered by a jealous friend in 1875.
Oh yeah, don’t think I won’t be writing a lot more about this cat in the future.
Today is the birthday of Nance O’Neil (Gertrude Lamson, 1874-1965).
O’Neil was a major stage and screen star of her day, called “the American Bernhardt“, managed by McKee Rankin, she toured Australia, the British Isles and the whole of continental America, in addition to Broadway, playing the leads in such plays as Camille, Hedda Gabler, Trily, Judith of Bethuliah, and her breakthrough role in Leah, The Foraken. She also appeared in about three dozen movies from 1913 through 1932, notable ones being Floradora Girl (1930) with Marion Davies, and Edna Ferber’s Cimarron (1931).
But, because we are terrible, we find her most interesting because she was a close, personal friend of Lizzie Borden. I first learned about this from David Foley’s play Nance O’Neill, which I caught at the Access Theatre in 2010. O’Neill and Borden met at a party in Boston in 1904. This was 12 years after the Fall River murders. Both women had a certain notoriety, so there was something in common there. They became besties, and some suspect, more.
To find out about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media.