Voice Over Actor Paul Frees (Boris Badenov) Got His Start in Vaudeville

Posted in Hollywood (History), Impressionists, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2017 by travsd

Paul Frees (Solomon Hersh Frees, 1920-1986) made his entrance on a June 22. Seldom has there been a voice so well recognized without an equally well-recognized face to go with it. For well over four decades Frees’ voice was a staple of animated cartoons, radio, tv commercials, children’s specials, and film narration and voice-loops. And occasionally, just occasionally you would get the whole actor.

Frees began his career as an impressionist in what was left of local Chicago vaudeville in the the late 1930s as a comedian and impressionist under the name Buddy Green. In 1942 he broke into radio. Much like Orson Welles and William Conrad he was gifted with a voice PERFECT for the medium. Once he was in the door he worked all that he wanted; probably MORE than he wanted. In addition to his radio jobs, he worked for just about all the major animation studios starting in the 1940s. He was unique among voice over artists in that he could be the straightest of straight (serious, square) narrators, but could also do very funny characters. So on the one hand, we associate him with being the voice of dire portent in science fiction films, on the other, he could descend into wackiness.

His best known character is Boris Badenov on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. I also associate him strongly with all the Rankin-Bass holiday specials. He plays several characters in Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Coming to Town (as the Burgermeister Meisterburger), and Here Comes Peter Cottontail, among about a dozen others. But he’s also highly present in several sci fi classics, most notably War of the Worlds (1953) and The Thing from Another World (1951). So distinctive is Frees’ voice that it is highly jarring, even alarming when he makes an on-camera appearance, as he does in both films. Even more unsettling is when his voice was used to replace that of another actor whose performance somehow marred the audio-track (e.g., because of a thick accent). In both  Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) and Midway (1976), a Japanese officer will open his mouth to speak, and Paul Frees’ voice will come out.

By then, producers should have known better, and by the ’70s Frees’ voice as so recognizable that it had essentially become camp. Ernie Fosselius wisely employed his talents in this fashion in the spoof classic Hardware Wars (1978). But camp or not camp, Frees remained in demand until the day he died. He never stopped working. That’s the goal of all performers.

For more on the history of vaudeville, including youthful impressionist like Paul Frees, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold. 

 

Helene Costello: Born with Summer; the Rest Was So Much Winter

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2017 by travsd

Helene Costello (1906-1957) was born the first day of summer, June 21. She is usually spoken of as part of a pair with her older sister Dolores Costello, also an actress. Both were daughters of the patriarchal thespian Maurice Costello. Dolores is best remembered today for having been married to John Barrymore, and for starring in The Magnificent Ambersons. Helene was married and divorced herself four times; her most famous husband was actor and director Lowell Sherman.

Dolores and Helene started out as child actresses in productions of their father’s, on the legit stage, in vaudeville and in silent movies. They appeared in the 1924 edition of George White’s Scandals together. Helene was voted a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1927. As talkies began to be phased in, she was in some notable landmark features, including the semi-talkie Lights of New York (1928), and the musical revue Your Show of Shows (1929), in which she performed a number with Dolores.

At this stage, she was poised for a great career in sound films, but a long list of personal problems (two divorces, a custody battle, money woes, and drug and alcohol problems) conspired to keep her away from the camera for the first half of the 1930s, crucial years to miss. By the time she attempted a return with a small role in Riffraff (1936) it was too late to regain momentum. There followed two more decades of the very same sorts of personal difficulties, and a single walk-on role in The Black Swan (1942). She died in a psychiatric hospital in 1957.

For more on the history of show business consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold. For more on early film, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

What’s Indie Theater? (Part 2)

Posted in Indie Theatre with tags , on June 20, 2017 by travsd

How’s this for reverb feedback circularity?

mdd speaks

brickTrav S.D., who is one of the great Renaissance men of contemporary indie theater (actor, composer, author, playwright, critic, director, impresario, et al), recently posted the following on Facebook (emphasis mine):

I have a large family of friends I have been collaborating with on theatre for close to 20 years. I think of them as my “Brick” friends (after the Brick theater in Williamsburg), and we tend to call ourselves that, although we all work in dozens of locations besides the Brick, many of us were already collaborating years before the Brick was even born, and most of us work with other people in other settings, and so forth. For example, though I just did a play there, it had been at least a half-dozen years since I had last done so. Still, no matter where any of us go the Brick is “home”, and it is what…

View original post 385 more words

Six Tall Towers of Coney

Posted in Amusement Parks, AMUSEMENTS, Brooklyn, Coney Island with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2017 by travsd

I don’t want to weird you out too much, but I essentially wrote this post while I was asleep last night. I laid the whole thing out in a dream state. Granted, I’d been reading about the subject before going to bed. Feel free not to read anything Freudian into it.

I’ve been working a bit at Coney Island lately and my interest in its history has consequently stepped up. I’m beginning to get a much better understanding of the geography of where the old  parks, pavilions and hotels were located. For those new to the historic layout of Coney — it has never been a single amusement park, like Disney World or Six Flags. In true American fashion, it has always been a neighborhood containing several different amusement parks in competition with each other. We’ll be blogging much more about that and other aspects of Coney Island in the near future.

At any rate, I found it interesting that towers have always been a major feature out there, sometimes as observation structures, sometimes as rides, sometimes as frames for dazzling lighting displays. It seems as though at any given time, there’s always at least one. Here they are!

The Iron Tower:  Never mind what the postcard says, most sources call it the Iron Tower. It was moved to its location, on what is now the grounds of the New York Aquarium, following the Philadelphia Centennial in 1877. It was 300 feet tall (for reference; that’s twice as tall as the Wonder Wheel). Patrons could get to the top on steam powered elevators and see for 30 miles around. Unfortunately the Iron Tower was destroyed in the 1911 Dreamland fire. That will be a recurring theme in this post! The Iron Tower was the tallest structure in the State of New York until the advent of the Beacon Tower (see below)

The Electric Tower: A scant 200 feet tall, The Electric Tower was the centerpiece of Luna Park when it opened for business in 1903. Impressive enough in the daytime, its real selling point was the 20,000 electric lights which illuminated it at night. This, at a time when the use of electric lighting for such purposes was still brand new (Broadway was just getting in on the act at the same time). And to tell you the truth, this would still be an impressive spectacle in our own day. Luna Park was destroyed by fires in 1944.

The Beacon Tower: I said “competition” and I meant it. When Dreamland Amusement Park opened in 1904, its centerpiece the Beacon Tower was both taller (375 ft) than the Iron Tower AND brilliantly illuminated at night like the Electric Tower. But the light which burns brightest often burns the briefest. The Beacon Tower was destined to live a much short life than either of the other two. It was destroyed in the 1911 Dreamland fire after just seven years of existence.

The Airship Tower: I can’t find the height or the date this one was built. It definitely went up some time between 1897 (when the first Steeplechase Park was built; that’s where it was located) and 1905 when it turns up on surviving postcards. The Airship Tower rotated and featured a blimp ride! It was destroyed by the Steeplechase fire in 1907. Steeplechase Park was rebuilt the following year and remained open through 1964.

Parachute Jump:  Now we come to the only one left standing! The 250 foot tall Parachute Jump was a highlight of the 1939 Worlds’ Fair in Queens. It was then purchased by the Tilyous of Steeplechase Park and moved there in 1941, becoming THE iconic Coney Island ride of the 1940s. No longer used as a ride, today it is gloriously lit up at night much as the Electric and Beacon Towers had been back in the day

The Astro Tower: Ironically the last of the big Coney Island amusement towers to be built is no longer standing. The 270 foot tall Astro Tower was erected in the center of Astroland Amusement Park in 1964. It was part of our lives here in New York for decades. I myself took that slow elevator ride to the top at least a couple of times. The Astro Tower remained up until 2013, when it began to sway precipitously, freaking everyone out. It was dismantled immediately.

And now I throw down the gauntlet! I know for certain that new towers are coming to Coney Island, but unfortunately they will be big ticket residential towers. Someone with dough should build something spectacular out there for The People! Something like this 700 foot Tower Globe but not a swindle! (Read its remarkable story here):

Space: 1999 (When Past Future Becomes Past Past)

Posted in Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2017 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Martin Landau (b. 1928). Landau is one of those actors who’s worked constantly but sort of at a low profile, with periodic tent pole moments (usually one per decade) where he enjoyed greater limelight: Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), the series Mission: Impossible (1966-1973), Space: 1999 (1975-1977), Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He’s been in much more of course, but these are highlights.

Space: 1999 has fallen by the wayside I feel, but at the time when it was made it was culturally crucial. It filled a void, and was transitional in aesthetics. The American science fiction series Star Trek had ceased production in 1969. The original Star Wars film came out in 1977. Space: 1999 lives at the center to connect them and draws from much else besides. It was the brainchild of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, best known today as the creators of The Thunderbirds, and this show proved to be the culmination of their careers. Space: 1999 was the most expensive British series ever produced up until that point. Still, despite that, with its extensive use of miniature sets and flying model rockets, one can’t help seeing it as an exercise in their patented technique of “Supermarionation”, ironically cheesy looking by modern standards.

Converting this into a toy will be an easy matter

On the other hand, the look of the sets clearly draws from the realistic technological speculations of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The series is set on a lunar outpost called Moonbase Alpha; scenes in the Kubrick film had been set on a similar base. The environment on the tv show is similar. But the time frame on both 2001 and Space: 1999 in retrospect proves to have been laughably optimistic. The U.S. was in the process of cancelling its lunar exploration program just as the series was getting under way. By the time 1999 rolled around, manned space exploration had consisted of nothing but brief excursions into low earth orbit for a quarter century.

The show is much closer to fantasy than science fiction, anyway. The entire premise, that an explosion causes the moon to leave the earth’s orbit intact and begin sailing around the universe on a series of adventures is so implausible that the word implausible hardly seems sufficient. The fact that the heroes constantly encounter humanoid aliens is equally fantastic. While this also happened on Star Trek and Lost in Space, those shows are set farther in the future and much farther away from earth. In Space: 1999, the heroes leave the earth’s orbit and five minutes later begin encountering weirdness. This aspect of the show, to my mind, aligns it closer to something like Dr. Who, which was still going strong at the time in its original incarnation (with its fourth Doctor, Tom Baker). Like Dr. Who, Space: 1999 seems much more about magic than science. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is more than okay. Just go with it. After all, the characters sure seem to!

Hey! You! Get offa my cloud!

To bolster American ratings, ITC’s Sir Lew Grade insisted on the casting of husband-wife acting team Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, both fresh off the hot U.S. show Mission: Impossible as the leads Commander Koenig and Dr. Helena Russell. But while a logical move and a laudable instinct, that gesture was hardly sufficient to make Space:1999 a smash hit in the U.S. Among other things, as a syndicated program it would never get prime time slots here nor be vigorously hyped by networks. I seem to recall it airing on Sundays, probably somewhere around 6pm. I was between the ages of ten and 13 when it ran here — of course I watched it faithfully every week. But it distinctly lacked the flash that American network tv shows had. I remember tons of excitement about The Six Million Dollar Man, Starsky and Hutch, Happy Days, and Welcome Back Kotter. But excitement was not a word I would use for how we felt about Space: 1999. It was sort of…quietly in our lives. Part of that was marketing but part was also the show itself. The idea that Martin Landau and Barbara Bain would make an American hit show is the kind of amusing, but understandable miscalculation a British producer would make. Silly man! You can’t just hire a “recognizable, competent American acting professional” to carry your series! That’s how they do things in Britain! In America we are looking for gimmicks and phenomena. At that time the American audience was looking for the next Fonzie, the next Baretta…a Farrah Fawcett-Majors, an Incredible Hulk. By contrast, Space:1999 seemed very low-key and subdued. Lots of drab and dull people brooding and worrying all the time. Though undeniably beautiful, Bain in particular was a snooze-o-rama. Landau could occasionally get worked up and interesting. With Bain, it’s almost like you’re looking for some sort of knob on your TV to turn HER up.

Hello! We’re ready for our action figures!

In their second season, the show tried to address this somewhat, replacing the mildly amusing science officer (Barry Morse) with an alien woman (Catherine Schnell) and throwing in more humor and action. But that was both inorganic and insufficient. Expensive to produce, the show was cancelled.

We were delighted to discover the other day that the whole series is available to watch on Hulu, so I looked at some episodes after an interval of four decades. And it was a gas. From the melodramatic, disco-tinged theme music, to the bell-bottomed polyester uniforms, long hair and mustaches (we just don’t see our action heroes sporting those styles any more. It looks like they’re all getting ready to go dancing). Many of the props are hilariously antiquated and were wrong for a space station environment even at the time. Drinking out of a breakable glass? Writing on pieces of paper on clipboards? Clocks with faces and hands? And science fiction set design has gotten so much better, so much more specific since then. What does that unmarked button DO? There are all these vague buttons and flashing lights all over the place and it’s obvious their only function is atmosphere.

But yet again, much of it made me nostalgic. There are video screens and electronic monitors of one sort or another all over the place on the show, yet they are SEVENTIES screens and monitors and signals. They were the height of modernity at the time; now they look like my youth, when video tech was in its infancy. In its way it’s like looking at an old radio cabinet:

Landau was very dissatisfied with Space: 1999, particularly its second season, and was only too glad to be done with it. But, really, since the next phase of his career was characterized by stuff like Meteor (1979) and The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island (1981), perhaps he began to find himself a little homesick for Moonbase Alpha.

“Three Way” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Posted in Brooklyn, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags , , , , , , on June 19, 2017 by travsd

In “Safe Word”, Eliza Bonet and Matthew Trevino demonstrate that you can’t keep a good man down

Just a few words of laudation for Three Way by composer Robert Paterson and librettist David Cote, staged by John Hoomes, co-produced by American Opera Projects and others, which we caught at the Brooklyn Academy of Music yesterday. Pride Month was the perfect occasion on which to experience this sex-positive triptych of operatic one acts. I’d heard snippets at our Opera on Tap evening a couple of years ago, but this was the NYC premiere of the whole musky magilla, the entire libidinous libretto, from soup to nut-sack.

The title is of course a bit of wordplay referring not just to a multi-partner sex encounter, but also to the fact that the show consists of a bill containing three separate but related works. In the best comic opera tradition, each seemed to draw from and engage with popular culture. The Companion is a science fiction tale about a busy woman (Danielle Pastin) and her dissatisfaction with her love robot (Samuel Levine), emerging with a life-lesson that would not be out of place on Fantasy Island. The SM thriller Safe Word comes with an O. Henry twist and musical passages that occasionally summoned the spirit of Bernard Herrmann. Masquerade most obviously evokes Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, while also (to my mind) conjuring Elizabethan comedy (it’s about strangers pairing off at an orgy). And the anthology format, each with racy, funny, sex themes — how could it not make those of us of a certain age to think of Love American Style?

Inevitably, Three Way’s “edge” will shock people more in the hinterlands than in NYC, the jaded Belly of the Beast. (I imagine a domme dungeon, a swingers club, and sex with a mechanical surrogate all happening a stone’s throw from BAM, even at the very moment the show was happening. I once went to an art opening where a woman named “The Countess” beat a man’s testicles with a metal rod and no one looked up from their champagne). But the carefully wrought storytelling and generous, open and inquiring spirit of the work, its depth of character and its wit, are the farthest thing from quotidian and much to be prized. Three Way put me in a good mood, and while not as enjoyable as sex itself, at least it put sex into an opera. Those of us who have experienced operas without sex can attest to how valuable that is.

BTW! The show is a co-production of the Nashville Opera, which presented it earlier this year at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (a venue I got to a visit when I covered the Nashville scene for American Theatre magazine about fifteen years ago). The producers and artists are looking to make a cast album down in Nashville and now have a kickstarter campaign under way to raise the necessary funds. Help ’em out here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/amodrecordings/three-way-nashville-opera-original-cast-album/

James Montgomery Flagg: Lived Up To His Name

Posted in AMERICANA, Silent Film, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2017 by travsd

Illustrator James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) was born on June 18. Flagg’s best known work (above) is especially timely — the Uncle Sam/ “I Want You” poster was created one century ago as part of the World War One recruitment drive. It’s so well known and so frequently parodied I used it as the inspiration for a publicity still around the time I was launching my American Vaudeville Theatre around 20 years ago.

Photo by Joseph Silva

Flagg designed a slue of patriotic pictures during the Great War. I liked his rendering of Columbia encouraging Victory Gardens so much I acquired the fridge magnet version:

My wife (herself an illustrator) and myself took in many of his works during our recent pilgrimage to the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport. RI. 

There are other good connections to this blog. For example, from 1903 through 1907, Flagg drew the comic strip Nervy Nat for Judge magazine. Nervy Nat is a tramp character of the sort that was popular at the time, and paved the way in some sense sense for Chaplin’s screen character a decade later

There is a 1904 comedy short called Nervy Nat Kisses the Bride produced by Edison, directed by Edwin S. Porter, and starring Arthur Byron and Evelyn Nesbit, which is clearly inspired by the strip. It is available to watch on Youtube.

Flagg is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. I have visited his marker! (I am not obsessed or anything. I was visiting ALL the stars. Have more to go, too).

Flagg was a prodigy. Originally from Pelham Manor, New York, he was already publishing magazine illustrations by age 12. He attended the Art Students League from 1894 through 1898, after which he studied for a couple of years in London and Paris before returning the the States to pursue his professional career. At one point he was the highest paid illustrator in America. One of his favorite models was Mabel Normand! He also painted portraits of prominent people like Ethyl Barrymore and Mark Twain.

%d bloggers like this: