Stars of Vaudeville #946: Valerie Bergere

Posted in Broadway, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , on February 8, 2016 by travsd


 Today is the birthday of Valerie Bergere (Valerie Zenobia de Beaumont Lieb, 1867-1938).

Borne in Alsace-Lorraine, she moved to to the San Francisco area with her family some time prior to the 1890s. She briefly worked at a local newspaper, and then began to take chorus parts and small roles with San Francisco based opera and theatre companies. She gradually worked her way way east to Philadelphia and finally, New York, where by 1900 she was in David Belasco’s company, playing roles that had formerly belonged to Blanche Bates. 

In 1902, she began to produce, direct and star in one-act plays at Percy Williams’ vaudeville theatres. Over the next two decades she would tour big time vaudeville in over two dozen such mini-productions, while continuing to take roles in “legit” productions through the end of the ’30s. She also managed several other vaudeville acts in similar sketches. Her film career was much more modest; she played bit roles in about a half-dozen films. Bergere was married three times, the first was to vaudevillian and former baseball star Jack Farrell; the second to vaudeville opera singer N. Dano; the third was actor Herbert Warren, with whom she had appeared in many plays. 

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Silent Sundays: Mardi Gras on Frenchman Street (1910)

Posted in HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Mardi Gras, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , on February 7, 2016 by travsd

A group of masked and costumed Mardi Gras revelers on Frenchman Street, New Orleans in 1910. Photograph by John N. Teunisson.

1910 Mardi Gras revelers on Frenchman Street, New Orleans photographed by John N. Teunisson, (via Trashy Diva).

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Little House on the Prairie

Posted in AMERICANA, BOOKS & AUTHORS, ME, My Family History, Television, Women with tags , , , , on February 7, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957), a distant cousin of mine via our mutual ancestor Edmund Ingalls (1586-1648) of Lynn Massachusetts, my (10th) great grandfather. I would have been delighted to have known this as a kid, when I was a fan of the tv show based on her series of kids books, which in turn were based on her life, Little House on the Prairie (1974-1982).

The tv Little House simplifies the setting to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, while the real life Ingalls’ lived all over the place: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and the Dakotas. While running a successful farm with her husband in Missouri, Wilder began contributing columns to local newspapers. During the Depression this finally led, with the encouragement and support of her already successful daughter Rose Wilder Lane, to the publishing of her fictionalized memoirs. When Lane died, the rights went to her heir and “adopted grandson” Roger MacBride. who produced the tv series some 40 years after the books were written. (MacBride, politically influenced by Lane, went on to be the Libertarian Party’s candidate for President in 1976.)


Nostalgia for Little House on the Prairie tends to be something people my age bond over. This show did much to stimulate my imagination about pioneer life, a foible of my boyhood I wrote about here. 

Although when you went back and read the original book(s) you realized how idealized the tv version was. On the show, the house seems more spacious and clean than would be true, the clothes are pristine. The parents are played by Michael Landon (previously of Bonanza) with his blow dried hair, dimpled chin and perfect teeth, and the lovely Karen Grassle; they are too modern and articulate for their roles, almost urbane, compared with what I imagine the truth to have been.

Melissa Gilbert, with her adorable overbite, was extremely likable as the author in her girlhood; Melissa Sue Anderson was her pretty, humorless older sister; and the babbling toddler Carrie was played by a pair of twins, Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush (that’s the custom in Hollywood where small children are concerned, it keeps them from working long hours. )

My favorite actor on the show however was Victor French, as the brusque, lovable, funny Mr. Edwards. With his scruffy beard and bulging eyes he reminded me of the illustrations of “Pap” in my edition of Huckleberry Finn. He was the only one who seemed properly rough enough to be believable. But I am also with the majority in a lasting appreciation of the comical Olsen family, the townfolk who ran the mercantile: the henpecked husband Nels (Richard Bull), his odious scheming wife Harriet (Katherine MacGregor) and their hilariously evil children Nellie (Allison Arngrim) and Willie (Jonathan Gilbert). Nellie, with her blonde curls, became a sort of archetype of villainy, while Willie was more like her stupid lackey. Dabbs Greer was also extremely memorable as Rev. Alden (and I subsequently caught him in countless old westerns).

The show lasted 9 seasons, but I lost my enthusiasm for it after the first 3 or 4, as I was by then in junior high school and moving away from “childish” family programming. I also resisted change, and new characters began to be added. I didn’t like the kid who played Albert, for example. I found him too “pretty” and “sweet” and boring. (There was a long list of male kid stars I preferred, most of them with a mischievous, funny side: Jack Wild, Danny Bonaduce, Eric Shea, Johnny Whitaker, Adam Rich, Lance Kerwin, and the three guys on The Brady Bunch all spring to mind.) And the show seemed to jump the shark when Mary went blind, got married etc (even though the stuff really happened. I still didn’t like it). And it became very preachy as was the trend in the late 70s, with each episode focused on some “issue of the week”, alcohol, gambling, prejudice, etc. I am against those things too. But you know what the REAL problems prairie farmers were dealing with in the 1870s? Oh, things like locusts, blight, drought, blizzards, starvation, primitive medicine, etc etc etc. There was precious little time for conversations about social problems. The early seasons dealt more with those aspects of frontier life, and I preferred them. Yes, the cannibalism of the Donner Party, that’s what family programming needs!

Stars of Vaudeville #945: Pat Harrington, Sr.

Posted in Broadway, Irish, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on February 6, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Pat Harrington, Sr. (1901-1965).  This performer came onto my radar just a few weeks ago, when his better known son Pat Harrington, Jr. (of The Steve Allen Show and One Day at a Time) passed away.

Originally from Quebec, Harrington was a song and dance man in vaudeville and night clubs prior to ascending to the arena where he made his biggest mark, Broadway, where he was in the original productions of Panama Hattie (1940-1942), Star and Garter (1942-1943), and Call Me Madam (1950-1952), among other shows. His screen career was more modest, with two films and a half dozen tv appearances to his credit.

I just found this jewel: the NYPL has the audio of an interview Harrington gave in 1961, in which he talks about working with Bobby Clark in Star and Garter. Discover it here. 

To learn more about  old school show biz especially vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


When is a Cherokee Not a Cherokee? Answer: When He’s William Holland Thomas

Posted in AMERICANA, ME, My Family History, Native American Interest with tags , , , , on February 5, 2016 by travsd


There is apparently a maxim in the genealogy field, something along the lines of “Genealogy without documentation is fairy tales.’

It’s meant to be an aspersion, but frankly I am unmoved. I like fairy tales. I find them much superior to, much truer than “facts”. Or…rather, I put things in perspective. Where there is an unknown, a story will do very nicely. When empirical facts emerge to replace the products of logic or imagination, who am I to argue? The facts become the new story. But until then….I work with what I’ve got, and that’s good enough for me. And if it ain’t good enough for you — here comes a train; go walk in front of it.

Which brings us to to this gentleman, William Holland Thomas (1805-1893). What an interesting guy. He was born on the frontier of western North Carolina. His father drowned before he was born, making it necessary for Thomas, an only child, to work for a living starting at a young age. He ended up running a general store for Congressman Felix Walker. When their contract was up, Walker found himself pecuniarily embarrassed. Unable to pay Thomas in money, he gave him a large number of books, a certain percentage of which were law books. Thomas studied hard and became a lawyer.

Meanwhile he’d been a storekeeper in a rural area. He’d made a lot of friends. Among them were a group known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee. This was a small group of several hundred Cherokee who’d managed to avoid being marched off in the Trail of Tears with the rest of the Eastern Indians. Thomas became their lawyer, and ended up winning several important Federal cases for them. He became the adopted son of the tribe’s Chief Yonaguska and — remarkably — succeeded him as tribal leader when the latter died in 1839. Thomas thus became the only Caucasian ever to be the official chief of an Indian tribe. He bought large amounts of land for himself and for the tribe, and served as a state senator from 1848 through 1860.

 In 1860 the Civil War broke out and the story gets even stranger. For Thomas was made a Colonel in the Confederate Army, and led Thomas’s Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders. That’s right. He led a unit composed largely of one subjugated people in a war to ensure the continued subjugation of another people. The motives for this mind-numbing tangle are complicated. I’m sure to write about this some more. But even Thomas appears not to have been able to wrap his head around it all. Two years after the war was over, Thomas went insane, and was in and out of mental hospitals for the remainder of his life.

Here’s how and why I learned about Thomas:

  • I have a dead end in my family tree that stops with one of my great-great grandfathers, John Burkley Thomas (1837-1926)
  • John Burkley Thomas was born in North Carolina and moved to Tennessee prior to 1865
  • My paternal grandmother contended that she was part Cherokee, and that her Cherokee connection came from the Thomas line.
  • When you Google “Thomas”, “North Carolina” and “Cherokee”, guess what you get?

Oh, I know it’s an enormous leap. I make no factual claim here. But there are several other facts that intrigue.

Thomas didn’t marry and begin to have his recorded “official” children until 1857, when he was 52 years old. His personal life prior to that is described in the book Confederate Colonel and Cherokee Chief: The Life of William Holland Thomas by E. Stanly Godbold, Jr. and Mattie U. Russell. Two facts interest me. One is that, as an orphan himself “Thomas was especially sympathetic with orphans and illegitimate children” and as tribal leader he adopted many of them. The identities of several are known; many more are not.

Then there is this excellent paragraph:

“At what point Thomas abandoned his youthful vow to remain chaste before marriage cannot be known, but as he passed through his twenties, thirties and forties yet unmarried, he apparently surrendered to the demands of his sexual nature…If he fathered illegitimate children by both Indian and white women, their identities rest behind the veils of time, gossip, and legend.”

The latter two of which I fully acknowledge apply to this blogpost. Yet there are times when they will do. A possibility exists that John Burkley Thomas was either an orphaned child adopted by Thomas OR one of Thomas’s own illegitimate children. Perhaps not just a possibility. Perhaps even a likelihood. Perhaps.

Some other pieces: I have had my DNA tested. There is no apparent Native American component. Yet there is a family rumor of Cherokee blood in the Thomas line. Well…here’s a man named Thomas who is a legal Cherokee but not a blood Cherokee.

And lastly, there is no explanation anywhere for the origins of John Burkley Thomas. Not only that, but the spelling of the middle name (as opposed to the much more common “Berkeley”) is rare and peculiar. It exists here and there but it is rare. But guess where William Holland Thomas lived and died? Burke County, North Carolina.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Until something better comes along.

Today is William Holland Thomas’s birthday.





Ten Foot Rat Cabaret Tonight

Posted in Contemporary Variety, Indie Theatre, PLUGS, Valentine's Day with tags , on February 3, 2016 by travsd


On a Man Named “Cuddles”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies with tags , , , , , on February 2, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall (1883-1955). Like most film buffs, I knew this performer well, but never learned his name until our friend Nora mentioned it one day, and now I will always know it. Because you don’t forget a name like “Cuddles”, least of all when it is the name of a human being.

Sakall started out doing comedy sketches in Hungarian vaudeville, and worked his way up to stage and screen roles in Austria and Germany. By 1940 the Nazis chased him out of Europe (Sakall was Jewish). Hollywood welcomed the chubby, bespectacled middle European with open arms however. He was perfect for playing waiters, and music teachers, and shopkeepers, and immigrant dads and such-like. Most of us encounter him first as Carl the Headwaiter in Casablanca (1942), but by that time he had already been in a number of American films, notably Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and the Barbara Stanwyck-Gary Cooper comedy Ball of Fire (1941). He’s also in Christmas in Connecticut (1945), The Dolly Sisters (1945), April Showers (1948), In the Good Old Summertime (1949), Oh You Beautiful Doll (1945), and The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady (1950), among many others. I associate him mainly with comedies, musicals, and show biz bio-pics, although he made all sorts of pictures. His last role was in a 1954 screen version of The Student Prince. 

For more about the history of show bizconsult 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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