R.I.P. Mrs. Zeppo

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Marx Brothers, OBITS, Women with tags , , , , , , , on July 25, 2017 by travsd

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My internet has been out all day or else I would have posted this much earlier. We learned today that the lady best known as Barbara Sinatra died today at age 90 — although to Marx Brothers’  fans she will also be Mrs. Zeppo.  Frank Sinatra was her third husband; Zeppo Marx  was her second. She was born Barbara Blakely. Prior to marrying Zeppo in 1959, she had been a Las Vegas showgirl and a model, and had married and divorced a beauty pageant executive. According to her autobiography, Zeppo was jealous, possessive and rough with her. She started seeing Sinatra on the sly. She divorced Zeppo in 1973 and married Ol’ Blue Eyes in 1976. But the trio remained friendly and Barbara helped Zeppo through the ordeal of fighting the lung cancer that eventually killed him in 1979. With the recent passing of Miriam Marx we now have even fewer living links to the 20th century’s greatest comedy team. She died of natural causes.

Jack Gilford: A Cracker Jack Performer

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2017 by travsd

Happy birthday to Jack Gilford (Jacob Aaron Gellman, 1908-1990). This universally beloved pop culture figure was perhaps more present than ever on the American landscape during his last years, between the Crackerjack commercials and the Cocoon movies. His was a quiet, gentle presence, and I realize in retrospect that he was a pathway in for my appreciation of Harpo Marx. When I read about his early career, it sounds like his live act was even more Harpo-esque.

One reason I haven’t yet written about Gilford is that it has always been a little unclear to me whether he’d literally performed in vaudeville or not. That was my original impetus for writing performer biographies and I was originally fairly strict about my definition of vaudeville as consisting of the actual circuits, which had passed from the scene by the early 1930s. Gilford was definitely old enough to have performed in the literal vaudeville. Many obituaries and capsule biographies speak of Gilford as having been in vaudeville, but this was frequently done in such squibs. But it is at best an assumption. Until I see some specifics, i.e., what theatre, what city, what year, which will require more research, I will have to keep the idea of Gilford in vaudeville what it is: vague and uncertain. (The biggest irony of all this, I actually knew and briefly worked with one of Gilford’s sons at Theater for the New City, but, as often happens when I meet relatives of famous people, I erred on the side of not peppering him with questions about his dad. I may reach out to him now to try to get a better handle on the story).

You can definitely say that in STYLE Gifford was vaudevillian, and certainly was greatly influenced by vaudeville. He has much in common with Zero Mostel, with whom he was later to work so wonderfully in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Born on the Lower East Side, raised in Williamsburg, the son of Jewish immigrants, he was later to live in Greenwich Village — and lived there until he died. And though he did lots of film and tv, he really made his biggest mark on Broadway. He really was a cradle to grave New Yorker. Like Mostel, he cut his comedy teeth working in the Catskills and in New York City night clubs and cabarets. It is said that he competed in amateur nights against the likes of Jackie Gleason, and that Milton Berle was an early mentor. His act was a blend of monologue, impressions, and pantomime. His repertoire included imitations of Harry Langdon, George Jessel, Rudy Vallee, and many others. In 1936,  he got to do a version of his act in a movie short called Midnight Melodies. By 1938 he was the emcee at a club called Cafe Society, a high profile engagement.  In 1940, he was booked in the Broadway revue Meet the People with Jack Albertson, Nanette Fabares, and Doodles Weaver. The Broadway play They Should Have Stood in Bed (1942) may have been his first straight acting gig.

If this isn’t a Harpo moment, I don’t know what is

Throughout the ’50s his time seemed about equally divided between doing his comedy specialty in clubs, revues, and on tv; and acting in roles in Broadway, tv, and films. Again, like Zero Mostel, his devotion to left wing causes is thought to have hindered his career for a time due to the blacklist. But by the mid 1950s, his Broadway career was dazzling. Just a few highlights: the original productions of The Diary of Anne Frank (1955-1957), Once Upon a Mattress (1959-1960),  Paddy Chayefsky’s The Tenth Man (1959-1961), A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum (1962-1964), Cabaret (1966-1969), and Sly Fox (1976-1978), as well as the smash revival of No, No, Nanette (1971-1973) with Ruby Keeler. His last Broadway show was an adaptation of The World of Sholom Aleicheim (1982), which he’d originally done on television in 1959. He also did tv versions of many musicals, and guest shots on almost every tv show known to man. Some of his notable films include the movie version of Forum (1966), The Incident (1967), They Might be Giants (1973), Save the Tiger (1973 — for which he was nominated for an Oscar), Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976), Ringo Starr’s Caveman (1981), the Cocoon films (1985 and 1988), and Arthur 2: On the Rocks (1988). In 1988, he was on Golden Girls which brings us full circle to the person we began blogging about this morning, Estelle Getty. It is a synchronicitous morning.

To learn about vaudeville history,  see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

Estelle Getty: Comedy’s Grandma Moses

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2017 by travsd

We’s in the midst of a Golden Girls Renaissance these days; it seems like entire cable networks are devoted to showing it in reruns. I’m sure this is why it occurred to me to do something on Estelle Getty (Estelle Scher, 1923-2008). When Golden Girls originally aired, I frankly wasn’t much inclined to look at a sit-com about a bunch of old ladies, much as I loved and respected some of the cast members. But in recent months, I chanced to tune into some of these tv marathons, and, discovered that, damn, the writing and acting on the show is so jaw-droppingly funny. And yes, it’s significant that the show’s about a previously overlooked demographic (female senior citizens), blah blah blah, but why waste your time if it isn’t very good? But it was very good.

Getty, people delight in pointing out, was actually younger than Bea Arthur, who played her daughter. But she was petite and compact, and earthy and urban in that first generation immigrant way, which gave one the impression that she was from an earlier generation. And her professional background was very old school. She is said to have gotten her start doing Yiddish theatre, and performing in Catskills resorts.

She was nearly 40 when she got her first big break, playing the mother in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy on Broadway (1982-1985). At the same time, she began to get small roles in movies like Tootsie (1982) and Mask (1985). The Golden Girls debuted in 1985; that show and its sequels and spin offs kept her employed for a decade. And Getty was pretty great on the show, although, I will say my comparison to Grandma Moses is apt in ways beyond her mere age. Like the famous folk painter, she was a “natural”. She worked in the role because she was perfect for it and she could deliver a funny line. By comparison, Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan were histrionic professionals, who could chew scenery and manufacture tears by the bucketful. (Betty White is also an actress but her character on the show, like Getty’s, was more of a joke machine). Getty could do this one thing, and people loved her so much she became a surprise star as a result of the series, even winning an Emmy in 1988. But, I think you’ll notice, in scenes that require depth and pathos, she was uncomfortable with it. She’d much rather bark a salty line.

Getty continued to do guest shots on television until the turn of the century, and was in a couple of notable movies. Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot (1992) with Sylvester Stalone has been excoriated by critics as one of the worst movies ever (it earned an astounding 4% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes). And she played Grandma Estelle in the modern family classic Stuart Little (1999). When she passed away, three days prior to her 85th birthday, she was finally reaching the age of her Golden Girls character, which she’d begun playing when she was only 62.

On Nazi Comedies

Posted in Comedy, CULTURE & POLITICS, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2017 by travsd

Good heavens — no! I don’t mean great comedies MADE by the Nazi film studios!  I apologize if I gave you that impression, although if it got you here then it was a good headline. No, no, I mean, great comedies at the EXPENSE of the Nazis, of course. There’s enough of such movies to make a mini sub-genre. And you know what? Now is the ideal time to revive it.  A substantial portion of the American populace think it’s okay to warm up to Fascism; an even bigger slice think it’s fine to be soft on it, or pretend they don’t see it. But Fascism, like dog shit, is pretty unmistakable. It looks and smells odious. Animals, in their innocence, roll around in it. The rest of humanity, inasmuch as they represent humanity, have a zero tolerance policy towards it. You’re supposed to say, “Jesus! Dog shit!” Then you put a clothes pin on your nose, don some gloves, scoop the plop into a bag, and remove it from your midst. It’s the only rational course to take when confronted with unrepentant, unchanging racists, bigots, and authoritarians in a country that’s supposed to be free. You do not “live with” dog poop, even in a society of maximum tolerance. “What’s that next to the coffee table?” “Oh, that’s just some of the dog’s poop. What are you gonna do, right?” And if it’s outside your power to move the thing? Well, if you can’t scoop the abomination up, you can try to shrink it where it sits until it doesn’t matter any more. You can belittle Fascists, make them feel and appear insignificant, expose them as weak and foolish clowns. Some of our greatest comedians have chosen to make that statement at various times. If you ask me, we can use more than a few new anti-Nazi comedies at this very moment. But until new ones are forthcoming, these are these evergreen classics to enrich us:

The Great Dictator (1940)

The claim that “the Three Stooges did it first” is not completely true — Charlie Chaplin had actually begun pre-production on his satirical masterwork in 1937, three years before the short You Nazty Spy was even a gleam in Jules White’s eye, even if the latter film did beat The Great Dictator into theatres by three months. Chaplin’s comedy was not only devastating and surprisingly accessible but brave. Among Hollywood professionals only he was both rich enough and popular enough to take such a risk at the time. And the mustache made it virtually obligatory. My full essay on The Great Dictator is here. 

You Nazty Spy (1940) and I’ll Never Heil Again (1940)

Like we say, the Three Stooges beat Chaplin into cinemas with their Nazi satire, no doubt emboldened to take the risk by Chaplin. Jews themselves, they were no doubt second to none in their personal outrage at what was happening in Europe. But, speaking of Nazty Spies…the techniques in You Nazty Spy (1940) and its sequel I’ll Never Heil Again (1940) are so similar to what Chaplin was doing in The Great Dictator, I find it hard to believe the Stooges didn’t somehow get wind of what he had planned. Things like the burlesques on proper names, and the use of a globe as a football (where Chaplin had used a globe as a dancing partner) seem awfully similar. Moe is the natural Hitler figure, Curly a curiously apt Goering, and as for Larry, they sort of shoehorn into a Goebbels/Ribbentrop hybrid. After these two comedies, the Stooges continued to make Nazis their villains, frequently having Nazi spies and saboteurs be the bad guys in their films through the end of the war. (Many others used that as a plot device as well: the East Side Kids/ Bowery Boys, Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope. If we jump down the “Nazi Spy comedy” rabbit hole, we’ll never get out. This post is more about comedians ridiculing actual Nazis in uniform).

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

This movie was a lot of firsts for me — my first Lubitsch film, my first Jack Benny film, probably my first Carole Lombard film. While today it’s probably Lubitsch’s best known comedy, and in some ways might seem uncharacteristic (it’s so specifically political), there are also ways in which it is right in line with his usual concerns: it’s set in Europe; and it’s about squabbling and adultery on the part of a married couple. I’m not the hugest Lubitsch fan, but this is probably my favorite of his films on account of the farcical perfection of it, and the fact that there is the political anchor to it. Benny and Lombard play a vain, sophisticated husband-and-wife acting team at a Warsaw theatre, just as the Nazis are occupying Poland. They use their acting skills (and their whole like-minded troupe) to deceive the Nazis and foil their plans. There is a poignancy in the film’s quotation of Shylock’s “Hath Not a Jew” speech, but also in the Hamlet quote used as the film’s title. Poland has just ceased to “Be”. Many of the film’s characters have their backs to the wall — they have no choice but to be brave and take risks. What have they got to lose?

Der Fuhrers Face (1943)

This Donald Duck Short won the Oscar for Best Animated Short that year. There were many shorts featuring the Disney characters volunteering to serve, fighting in the war, and helping with home defense. This one went for the propagandistic jugular, and helped popularize the eponymous song, to boot.

A Night in Casablanca (1946) 

After the conclusion of WWII there was a grace period of about a year when Nazi spies were still permissible fodder for Hollywood films. Thus we have Orson Welles’ The Stranger, Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious and the Marx Brothers’ A Night in Casablanca all released in 1946. This is the only exception we make to the “No Nazi Spy Comedies” rule. The photo above seems to have been a publicity still — no uniformed Nazis appear in the movie. For my full post on A Night in Casablanca, go here. 

INTERMISSION:

There followed a period of about 20 years when you don’t see Nazis in comedy, for two conflicting reasons, I think. On the one hand, for a while (the 1950s anyway) World War II was passe in movies. On the other hand, in the wake of the Nuremberg trials and all the revelations about the Holocaust, ironically, it was also “too soon” to joke about Nazis. The full extent of their evil was so great. Perhaps, many people thought, it would never be possible to laugh at them ever again.  But that would be to underestimate the power of bad taste.

Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971)

Context helps us understand the mind-bogglingly weird phenomenon of Hogan’s Heroes, the sixties’ sit-com set in a Nazi Germany POW camp. One, I think, is the success of the films Stalag 17 (1953) and The Great Escape (1963), which, mashed-together, add up to something like Hogan’s Heroes. The latter, released only two years before, put an almost cheerful, positive spin on the ordeal of Allied POWs in a German camp. The added twist on the show is that Colonel Hogan (Bob Crane) and his men are secretly spies who pretty much escape in and out of the camp at will to collect information and relay it back to their superiors via a secret radio. The fact that many of the cast members were Jewish Holocaust survivors (I’ve blogged about one, Robert Clary) was a kind of insurance against charges of callousness. And in the long run, maybe Hogan’s Heroes was almost cathartic, laughing at silly, ineffectual Nazis every week. The show remained on the air for six years — an extremely long time for a television sit com.

La Grand Vadrouille (Don’t Look Now…We’re Being Shot At) (1966)

For 40 years this unpretentious, enjoyable comedy was the most successful movie in France in terms of box office. And it’s a great movie; I just watched it for the first time this morning. How odd that Americans have never heard of it. It’s extremely popular throughout the world, regarded as a kind of classic. In fact, it’s so well made that I watched this French film on Youtube without English dubbing or subtitles and was able to follow it perfectly.  Its simple plot: RAF pilot Terry-Thomas and his crew are forced to bail over occupied Paris. Some locals (played by French stars Bouvril and Louis de Funes, and others) help them to evade the occupying Nazis through a string of subterfuges, involving lots of farce and slapstick. Again, the Nazis are presented as straw men, easy to fool, easy to bonk on the head, easy to hide from. If only ’twere ever thus!

The Producers (1967)

Dick Shawn’s Hippie Hitler, Kenneth Mars’ stormtrooper playwright, and songs like “Springtime for Hitler” are only some of the delightful outrages in Mel Brooks pathbreaking satire. And it wasn’t even the first time he went there (think of “Siegfried” in Get Smart, which Brooks had co-created with Buck Henry).

Which Way to the Front? (1969)

For better or worse, the years 1969-1972 were Jerry Lewis’s Nazi period, encompassing not only this comedy but his later notorious drama, the unreleased The Day the Clown Cried (1972). Until we see the latter we won’t know which is the worse film, although I think of Which Way to the Front? as being among this comedy auteur’s worst. Based on a story by the one and only Dick Miller, it concerns a 4F millionaire who decides he’ll fight the war anyway with his own private army of misfits (which also seems a twist on The Dirty Dozen, which was released at around the same time.) Lewis’s character masquerades as a Nazi general and makes it all the way to Hitler, who, for some reason, has a Beatles haircut. In fact every dude in the movie has hair that’s way too long, they wear the wrong clothes, and the interior sets are all decorated wrong. The only thing Lewis seems to have gotten right or cared about was the actual Nazi uniforms. It is a deeply weird and grating movie. Oh, and don’t worry — he doesn’t miss the opportunity to do his offensive “Japanese” routine.

Soft Beds, Hard Battles aka Undercovers Hero (1974)

This is too interesting a movie to be as obscure as it is. Perhaps it is the fact that the film has no less than TWO terrible titles. And the movie….needs work. I’m sure a lot of people watch it and write it off as terrible, but I found myself fairly riveted, and not just because of all the topless women running around. It’s one of those comedies where Peter Sellers plays several characters, and in this, one of them is Adolph Hitler. It’s made by the Boulting Brothers, who made earlier Sellers films like I’m All Right, Jack (1959) and There’s a Girl in My Soup (1970). Here, they seem like they’re trying to get topical and experimental. The scenario is a lot like Genet’s The Balcony, set in a French brothel, where all the call girls have been called upon by the Resistance to spy on (and sometimes bump off) their high-up Nazi clientele. For some reason that must have seemed clever at the time, but must also have dated the film instantly, a Richard Nixon impersonator is the narrator.  Oh, and don’t worry — Sellers doesn’t miss the opportunity to do his offensive “Japanese” routine, either.

To Be or Not to Be re-make (1983)

I have never been really sure why this film exists. There is some logic I guess, given Mel Brooks track record, of casting him in a remake of To Be or Not to Be, and the director Alan Johnson is the guy who choreographed “Springtime for Hitler”. But the original movie was perfect. Why remake it? This version doesn’t particularly recontextualize the story or reinvigorate it or put any new twist on it. Why make this picture in 1983? At the time, Poland was in the news because of the labor strikes and so forth, but this doesn’t particularly seem attached to that, or to anything really. It’s just a remake, almost like Gus Van Sandt’s 1998 Pyscho is a remake. Now, on the other hand — now would be an excellent time to remake this movie. It would indeed.

Champion Jack Dupree: Seminal Blues Man with a Coney Island Connection

Posted in Blues, Coney Island, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2017 by travsd

July 23 is one of the many possible birth dates given for boogie woogie, blues, and barrelhouse piano player William Thomas “Champion Jack” Dupree (circa 1909 – 1992).  Born and raised in New Orleans, Dupree was the son of a Congolese father and a mother who was mixed-blood African American and Cherokee. Orphaned at age eight, Dupree taught himself piano, and played in saloons and other establishments from  a young age. His stage name came from the fact that he was also a professional boxer in his younger years, and had won a Golden Gloves championship. (This may be one of the reasons for a speech impediment noticeable on some of his recordings, although there are also joking references to a cleft palate). Around 1940 he became part of the Chicago blues scene, although his career was interrupted by years of World War Two service, including two years as a Japanese prisoner. But after the war followed nearly five decades as a successful musician. He was an influence on Jerry Lee Lewis, and recorded with such major artists as The Band, Eric Clapton, John Mayall, and Mick Taylor. He co-wrote the song “Walkin’ the Blues”, covered by Willie Dixon, Otis Spann and many others.

This is our first entry in the blues section of Travalanche in quite some time, and we have a special reason for doing it. This year, Coney Island USA’s building on Surf Avenue turns 100 years old. The building began life as Child’s Restaurant, but for a time in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was a music venue known as the Blue Bird Casino, where, for a while the house musician was….Champion Jack Dupree. Thanks, Dick Zigun, for the historical tidbit! You’ll be hearing more about the colorful history of the Child’s Restaurant building anon.

 

Althea Henley: Almost a Star

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , on July 23, 2017 by travsd

Chorus girl and actress Althea Henley (Althea Heinley, 1911-1996) was born on this day. As a girl, Henley trained as a dancer in her native Allentown,Pennsylvania. Encouraged by a teacher and a local theatre promoter, she auditioned for a chorus part in a tab musical, and began touring the Publix vaudeville circuit in 1926. Ned Wayburn spotted her and put her in his touring revue New Buds of 1927, which then led to a chorus part in Ziegfeld’s touring production of Three Cheers with Will Rogers and Dorothy Stone. This led to small roles in Ziegfeld’s Show Girl (1929) on Broadway with Ruby Keeler, Jimmy Durante and Eddie Foy, Jr. Probably through Foy or Stone, she was then cast in 1930’s Ripples, featuring Foy and the Fred Stone family.

That is she, paired with Curly on the left

Scouted while she was appearing in Ripples, she was given a contract at Fox and moved to Hollywood — where she only got bit roles and chorus parts, although she did appear in notable movies. She’s in the chorus in Eddie Cantor’s The Kid from Spain (1932), as well as International House (1933), George White’s Scandals (1934), and Redheads on Parade (1935). In 1931 she co-starred with Mary Mulhern, Jack Pickford’s last wife in a stage production of Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime, but not much seems to have come of it.  In 1935 she signed with Columbia, where she had roles in three Three Stooges shorts: Three Little Beers (1935), Ants in the Pantry (1936) and Movie Maniacs (1936).  She then had a walk on role in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936).

In 1936, she got her first decent feature role in the British film Find the Lady with Jack Melford and George Sanders. While in London she married her second husband, British auto manufacturer Arthur Markham. Markham died of a brain tumor, but Henley remained in London through the war years, returning to the U.S. to marry Hollywood agent William J. Begg in 1947. 

For more on vaudeville including performers like Althea Henley,  see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

Irene Delroy: A Star That Twinkled Briefly

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , on July 21, 2017 by travsd

A few notes about performer Irene Delroy (Josephine Sanders), born this day in 1900. She was originally from Bloomington, Illinois; the McLean County Museum of History has a comprehensive collection of her correspondence, photographs, and newspaper clippings.  It is said that Adlai Stevenson was her senior prom date, although that has the whiff of studio p.r. puffery.

Delroy started as a dancer with the Chicago Opera. Later, she was Tom Patricola’s partner in vaudeville; the two were romantically involved. Her invented surname was arrived at by joining the first part of her mother’s first name (Della) with that of her father (Royal). In 1920 she began her Broadway career, mostly appearing in revues and a few musicals: Frivolities of 1920, The Greenwich Village Follies of 1923 and 1925, Vogues of 1924, Ziegfeld Follies of 1927, and others. She is also said to have been in an edition of Raymond Hitchcock’s Hitchie Koo series, although this credit doesn’t appear on IBDB; it may have been a touring version.  Her last New York stage show was Top Speed (1930), which was later adapted into a Joe E. Brown screen vehicle.

Delroy starred in her first film for Warner Bros., Oh, Sailor Behave! that same year (1930), with Olsen and Johnson, Charles King, Vivien Oakland, and Noah Beery. Later that year, she was second billed to Winnie Lightner in The Life of the Party, with Jack Whiting, and Charles Butterworth. Then came Divorce Among Friends (1930) with Lew Cody and her last film Man of the Sky (1931).

Believe it or not, that seems to be the end of her brief career trajectory. She retired in 1931 to marry a real estate millionaire named William Austin. Sadly, she’d sacrificed her career for nothing tangible. The couple divorced in 1937, at which time she appeared in one comedy/ musical short called Sound Defects in 1937 with the Frazee Sisters. For a few years she did radio, regional theatre, and commercials. She remarried in 1972, and died in Ithaca, New York in 1985 following a 40 year retirement.

For more on vaudeville including performers like Irene Delroy,  see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

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