I’ll Be Live Tweeting Aquarius (the new Charles Manson Series)

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, ME, PLUGS, Television with tags , , , , , on May 28, 2015 by travsd


Tonight at 9pm (EST) NBC will premiere its new series on the Manson murders Aquarius (with the rest of the series available to binge-watch via live stream tomorrow)….or you can just watch the whole thing piecemeal once a week like a dinosaur.

Long time observers  know that I’m obsessed with these events (I even went so far to write a musical about it), so I will tune in with great interest, not to say extreme prejudice. The promotional photographs already look completely heinous — I am a stickler for details on a show like this: hairstyles, costumes, speech patterns, etc etc etc. The bad vibes have already begun.

I am seldom inspired to live tweet about anything, but this one has me off my ass to do so, so please check in! If you don’t follow me already, you may do so here: https://twitter.com/travsd.

(And to say what sounds obvious but isn’t, you’ll need to follow this via Twitter. I normally have an automatic feed from Twitter to Facebook but it generally seems to go on strike after about the first 10 or 15 tweets of the day).

Let the bloodbath commence!

The Cruel Tale of the Medicine Man

Posted in Burlesk, Clown, Comedy, Contemporary Variety, Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 28, 2015 by travsd


I had the highly pleasurable privilege the other day of catching a preview of James Habacker’s new movie The Cruel Tale of the Medicine Man. Habacker is the full-on auteur of this magical confection: producer, director, screenwriter, and — in the guise of his alter ego Mr. Choade — the star.


We’ve written about good Mr. Choade before.  He’s one of Habacker’s numerous hosting personae at his Lower East Side burlesque club The Slipper Room. Choade’s name is rich with meaning; I found this explanation very illuminating. Choade is a complex crossroads of the visual (a bit of Snidely Whiplash, a bit of the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), and the verbal (his vocabulary is studied, ornate, antique and quaint. not unlike W.C. Fields), and the musical (his speaking voice is deadpan and affectless, almost like a child in a school play, living in a jarring juxtaposition with the other two elements in punkish subversion). The latter element is what posits Choade in the present. He looks like he should tie damsels to railroad tracks; but he sounds like he just stepped off the IRT and only put on this costume so he could rob a branch office of HSBC.


The film is a wonderful manifestation of the same sensibility that cooked up Choade. First, it uses Habacker’s club The Slipper Room as the primary location — it’s so perfect that it’s almost like he dreamt up the club just to be the set for this movie. If you’ve been there, you know it’s gorgeous, traditional, candy-colored, and evokes the great era of saloons, with more than a suggestion of the Moulin Rouge. In the film, the club too is playing a character…a combination burlesque club and Grand Guignol…and, baby, that’s a club I want to go to so bad I hope someone starts it.

Choade is the master of ceremonies and proprietor, aided by two henchpeople (Camille Habacker and Arthur Aulisi). Below them in the pecking order is a company of enslaved burlesque dancers who are kept in line through their addiction to a mysterious green patent medicine (the green suggests absinthe; the addiction suggests an opiate). The meat of the performance consists of burlesque dances culminating in ritual sacrifices in the Grand Guignol show, highlighted by silly but gory special effects. When the girls get too troublesome, the fake weapons are replaced with real ones and there’s a lot of blood to mop up. The end game is the feeding of souls to the mysterious Medicine Man (played by outsider artist Joe Coleman), who lives in a little cottage in the woods, just like a witch or a troll. (Since Choade himself keeps a little boy in a cage, he can hardly cast aspersions). The bargain is that if Choade can supply the Medicine Man with enough souls, he will be rewarded by getting to present the best show ever.

That, by the way, is the template for the Robert Johnson myth, and many a fairy tale. Habacker’s visual sensibility, combined with his strict crafting of his narrative does indeed give his movie a storybook quality, and like the best storybook stories (Disney, the Wizard of Oz, the German Expressionists) his film is a genre-defying mixture of comedy, horror, sex, fantasy, freak show, dream and cartoon. On top of that, he has top loaded the film with underground (and some mainstream) marquee names: Matt Fraser (from American Horror Story: Freak Show), his wife, the burlesque performer and choreographer Julie Atlas Muz, Lefty Lucy, Stormy Leather (and among the extras) Carla Rhodes, Gal Friday, Albert Cadabra, and countless others I’ve left out because I wasn’t taking notes. Our Goldilocks/ Snow White/ Dorothy in all this is wide-eyed young Linda (Jillian McManemin), who drops by the club one day seeking a job, much as a fly would drop by a spider web. The rest of the cast (except the extras) can be found here. 


There seems to be something like a movement afoot, a cinematic school if you will, percolating out of the humid swamp of New York’s downtown performance community of which the burlesque and alternative (or “performance”) comedy crowds are subsets. I would include among this mini-movement Lola Rocknrolla and Rev Jen (and by god, I have an ever growing pile of scripts I wanna make, so hopefully I’ll join ’em in the trenches before I become worm food). These film-makers make me deliriously happy, reviving the freshness and freedom and attitude of the likes of Jack Smith and Andy Warhol and John Waters and the Kuchar Brothers — sophisticated, daring, bold, dirty, heroic, playful, defying category, defying the expectations of “the market”, essentially giving the finger to anyone who refuses to comprehend, even as it entertains the hell out of those those willing to go along for the ride. The existence of just one of these film-makers would make me hopeful. The existence of all three makes me confident and optimistic. Something good will come of this in the future.

Habacker’s film hasn’t been released yet, but when it is, I’ll be sure to trumpet the news here. Meantime, there are trailers. See them here: https://vimeo.com/118055482

On the Futility of Labels

Posted in Uncategorized on May 28, 2015 by travsd


I love this poster because it’s an illustration of the fact that definitions and taxonomy are bullshit, at least around the edges. M.B. Leavitt, considered a pioneer of burlesque, also claimed to have been the first to have started using the term vaudeville. Look at this 1899 poster – – it promises an extravaganza (a pre-cursor of musical comedy), but sure looks like burlesque, plus it says vaudeville at the bottom. It can be all, it can be none, it can be a combination, or as Bishop Berkley thought, it can be an idea in your friggin’ mind. Categories are invented. What is the fundamental? Performer + audience = show. That’s all that matters.

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


A Timeline of Vaudeville

Posted in Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on May 27, 2015 by travsd


My friend is opening a play with a vaudeville setting in a couple of weeks. She asked me to make a little vaudeville timeline for her program, and it turned out to be a kind of fun, instructive exercise, and a possibly useful one, so I thought I would share it here:


1860s: M.B. Leavitt produces touring variety shows. He later claimed to have been the first to regularly apply the term “vaudeville”

1865: Tony Pastor, the “Godfather of Vaudeville” begins to manage his first Bowery variety saloon

1870: Koster & Bial open their first variety saloon

1881: Tony Pastor opens his famous vaudeville house at Tammany Hall

1883: B.F. Keith opens his first theatre in Boston

1885: Edward Albee begins to work for Keith; they produce the first continuous vaudeville

1886: The Orpheum Theatre opens in San Francisco

1889: Weber and Fields start their first touring vaudeville company

1897: Sylvester Poli builds his New England circuit

1899: Martin Beck starts working for Orpheum, expanding it into a major circuit

1895: Oscar Hammerstein I opens the Olympia Theatre in what would become Times Square

1898: Oscar Hammerstein I opens the Victoria Theatre in Times Square

1901: The Vaudeville Managers Association, a cartel, is formed. The vaudeville performers union The White Rats go on strike. This is not a coincidence.

1901: Percy Williams opens his first theatre in Brooklyn

1904: Alexander Pantages opens his second Seattle Theatre, thus launching his chain

1904: Marcus Loew opens the People’s Vaudeville Company

1906: The United Box Office organization is formed, further consolidating the power of the managers. B.F. Keith merges with F.F. Proctor

1907: Shubert Vaudeville’s first ill-fated attempt at opposition

1912: Percy Williams sells his theatres to the cartel

1913: The Palace Theater opens in Times Square

1914: Victoria booker Willie Hammerstein dies, sealing the fate of that theatre. B.F. Keith dies the same year, leaving his chain in the hands of Albee

1915: The Birth of a Nation is a smash hit at the box office, boosting the popularity of feature-length films, the first of many ominous portents for the future of vaudeville

1916: The second ill-fated White Rats strike

1920: Shubert Vaudeville’s second ill-fated attempt at opposition

1921: Loew’s State opens in Times Square

1926: Network radio becomes a reality, further eating into vaudeville’s box office

1927: The Jazz Singer. Hollywood begins to convert to sound, causing further damage to vaudeville

1928: Joseph P. Kennedy wrests control of Albee’s circuit away from him and converts it to a cinema chain. Initially called “Keith-Albee-Orpheum”, within months it becomes “Radio-Keith-Orpheum”, or RKO

1929: The stock market crash is catastrophic to live theatre

1932: The last two-a-day at the Palace, considered by many to be the symbolic death of vaudeville.

For more on vaudeville 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.


Vincent Price’s First Starring Role — A Western!

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Westerns with tags , , , on May 27, 2015 by travsd


In honor of Vincent Price’s birthday (more on him here), we pay tribute to his first starring role — oddly enough, a western.

In Sam Fuller’s western The Baron of Arizona (1950), Price is aptly (if campily) cast as a real life scoundrel who forges a number of documents (going so far as to spend several years in a Spanish monastery) which paves the way for a claim on the entire territory of Arizona by means of a young Mexican girl he marries and claims is the heir. He causes a major uproar of course, especially when he begins demanding “tribute” from all the property holders in the territory. The government challenges him but not before near anarchy breaks out. The mob wants his blood. This aspect of the film pushes powerful buttons. The mob hates him for trying to take their property of course, but even more they hate him for being an un-American aristocrat (he literally uses the title “Baron”). In the movie’s most amusing scene, Price talks his way out of a noose with the craven, cowardly excuse that they cant prove their (legitimate) claims against him unless his shameless carcass is alive. The flaw in the film is too obvious. Price’s character couldn’t be less sympathetic – he’s practically Richard III. But the film attempts to make him sympathetic at the last minute, by having him fall in love with his wife and confess. In the “happy ending” she is waiting for him when he emerges from prison and they go off to start their life together. I can imagine there were universal groans in the theatre even in 1950.

Look at this photo and tell me you don’t want to see this movie:


Tonight on TCM: Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2015 by travsd


Tonight on TCM at 11:45 (EST), Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). Warning: we always include spoilers.

When I first knew about The Long Goodbye I didn’t know from Robert Altman films. My high school girlfriend and I used to sort of sneer about it because of the concept of Elliot Gould playing Philip Marlowe. (She loved hard-boiled 40s detectives and was crazy about both Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum.)

But, of course this is something else. Altman, as he often does, flips the genre on its head, but not really. Like McCabe and Mrs. Miller its not a straight-up genre parody…it works within the genre and comments on it from inside. It’s a bona fide noir/detective story—just a modern version. This Marlowe is countercultural, a sort of Holy Fool. His coolness is about being easy-going (“It’s okay with me” is his constant refrain).  He loves everybody, he has an almost Christ-like compassion. The only things he hates are authority, bullshit, and lies. He has a compulsive, almost martyr-like, need not to cooperate with cops or anybody who tries to muscle him.

The plot, like all Raymond Chandler, is a twisty-turny labyrinth, but ironically, Altman bends it into shape so that it actually makes coherent sense. In the end, the guy Marlowe’d been defending all along and who’d gotten him into all this trouble, and caused all sorts of death and misery—turns out to actually HAVE killed his wife, and used him. Marlowe learns he’s alive, and in a shocking (but grounded) twist, executes him: “Nobody cares but me”. It turns out the one thing that is NOT okay with him is lying to him. The twist feels noir in that Marlowe has been sucked down to the level of the criminal. On the other hand, what he delivers is extralegal justice.

Lots of great performances. I feel like Gould smirks too much in this role, but it kind of works—makes you want to punch him the way everyone else does. Sterling Hayden as the drunken writer does some of his best acting of his career. Henry Gibson as a slimy detox doctor. David Carradine in a jailhouse cameo. Tommy Kirk actually turns in a passable performance—something he almost never does! It’s an extremely good film. It would make a great double feature with Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, but I’m sure I’m not the first who’s thought of that.

Willie Best, a.k.a. “Sleep ‘n’ Eat”

Posted in African American Interest/ Blackface/ Minstrelsy, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television with tags , , , , , on May 27, 2015 by travsd


Today is the birthday of William “Willie” Best a.k.a “Sleep ‘n’ Eat” (1916-1962).

Like a character out of one his own films, Best came to Hollywood as a chauffeur, driving a vacationing couple – and just stayed to partake of the Milk and Honey. Almost instantly he became a successful character actor in comedy ensembles (he is sometimes unjustly described as a bit player which makes him sound like an extra — but he sometimes got substantial roles).

He is less well remembered today than Stepin Fetchit for two reasons, I think: one, he stopped using his more colorful but demeaning handle after about a half dozen movies, whereas Fetchit used his screen name throughout his career; and two, Best died sadly young, aged 45, so he didn’t live long enough for the late career appreciation that guys like Fetchit, Mantan Moreland and other experienced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Ironically, Best’s stereotypical African American representations were far less heinous than Stepin Fetchit’s.

It is not surprising to observe that his first film was Harold Lloyd’s Feet First (1930) – – Lloyd had also given Sunshine Sammy his start. Best worked with many of the great comedy teams and franchises of the day: with Shirley Temple (in the kind of roles we usually associate with Bill Robinson) in Little Miss Marker (1934) and The Littlest Rebel  (1936); with Wheeler and Woolsey in Kentucky Kernels (1934), The Nitwits (1935) and Silly Billies (1936); with Our Gang in General Spanky (1936); the Blondie films Blondie (1938) and Blondie on a Budget (1940); the Maisie films (Maisie Gets Her Man, 1942), and several of the Scattergood Baines comedies with Guy Kibee. One of his best roles was in The Ghost Breakers (1940) with Bob Hope , in which he was fifth billed and had something approaching a real role to play (although he was still a stereotyped servant). His list of credits is LENGTHY, mostly spook comedies, mysteries, horror films and westerns. And just as Mantan Moreland was comic relief in numerous Charlie Chan films, Willie Best served a similar function in Mr. Moto films. A drug arrest ended his film career; he worked in tv sit coms in the early 50s, then retired. Cancer killed him at age 45.

For more on comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc



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