Archive for April, 2009

Lou Holtz: The Guy Behind Mr. Lapidus

Posted in Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2009 by travsd

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Cut of the same cloth as Benny Rubin, and traveling in the same pack (which also included George Burns, George Jessell, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, et al.) this singer/comedian’s most famous bit consisted of rhyming his jokes and setting them to the tune of “O Sole Mio”.

Born April 11, 1893 in San Francisco, he was performing at a theatre called the Crest in that city with the team of Boland, Holz and Harris when he was discovered by impressionist Elsie Janis’s mother. The year was 1913. Ma Janis convinced the trio to come East to New York to back up Elsie, who was one of the biggest acts in vaudeville at the time. The other two got cold feet and bolted, so Holtz went solo.

Holtz started out in blackface, copping a lot of his moves from Jolson and Cantor. He was employed by the Shuberts for some time as an understudy for Jolson, reportedly an attempt to keep the latter artist in his place. By 1919 Holtz was at the Palace, where he was soon a regular master of ceremonies. He was well prized for his dialects, particularly, the stereotypical Hebrew one, a character he called Mr. Lapidus. He continued to work in revues, nightclubs, and vaudeville straight through the thirties and by the forties, he had saved up (and carefully invested) a big enough pile to retire for the rest of his life — which is what he did (aside from occasional television appearances through the end of the 70s). He passed away in 1980.

Here he is on the radio show “Laugh Club”

To find out more about Lou Holtz and the history of 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.

Frank Keenan: Reluctant Relation

Posted in Melodrama and Master Thespians, Stars of Vaudeville, The Hall of Hams, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2009 by travsd

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One of the great thespians of his day, Frank Keenan (April 8, 1858-February 24, 1929) alternated performances in “legit” with dramatic sketches in vaudeville. Variety‘s Joe Laurie, Jr. put his performance in “Vindication” in his all-time dream vaudeville bill, so powerful an entertainment was the turn. Keenan’s career also included major roles in The Christian (1868), The Girl of the Golden West (1905) and The Warrens of Virginia (1909), and close to 40 films.

Ultimately Keenan had cause to regret the easy money of vaudeville. It was through that connection that he was to become the unwilling father-in-law of comedian Ed Wynn – a mere clown, and worse…an Israelite. Despite Keenan’s rancor (for a time he disowned the couple), Wynn named his first son for him: familiar character actor Keenan Wynn–best known perhaps for protecting the Coca Cola machine in Dr. Strangelove. And also as the voice of the Winter Warlock in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

To find out more about Frank Keenan and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Walter Huston: Spooks, Shoes and Time

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Stars of Vaudeville, The Hall of Hams, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2009 by travsd
Huston as Jerry Cohan

Huston as Jerry Cohan

He was very much the vaudevillian. He had great respect for it always. He never thought himself above it.

John Huston, on his father

As a kid growing up in Toronto, Walter Huston was always playing hooky, doing impressions, and putting on little shows for the other kids in the neighborhood. At 16, he was hired for a road show called The White Heather. He quit school to take the part, but his parents didn’t allow him to go. Stuck in town, he was forced to take the usual clerk and factory jobs available to an uneducated kid. But he kept his wits about him and saved enough money to attend one Shaw’s School of Acting, thus keeping a hand in.

Before long, he and his boyhood friend Archie Christie joined the Edward d’Oize Travelling Company to perform Mr. D’Oize’s plays The Mountebank and the classic David Garrick. As was common at the time, the tour ground to a halt in the middle of nowhere, the boys trunks were confiscated at the hotel for unpaid bills, and the pair decided to hobo their way to New York. The two starved and scraped for weeks, Huston eventually getting a tour of a play called Convict Stripes with a 5 year old Lillian Gish.

In 1902 he was cast in his first big show, a small role in Richard Mansfield’s production of Julius Caesar. He beat out 100 other comers for the part, which only had 4 lines. Unfortunately, he was so nervous on opening night, he forgot the lines. Mansfield was so angry he hissed Huston’s dismissal to him during the performance.

Dejected, Huston decided to play pro hockey awhile. (H’m, I think I’ll do that). Apparently he was either a really good hockey player (he was from Canada), or it was much easier to get in the leagues back then. Gradually he returned to acting, and more years of struggle in melodramas.

Meanwhile, his sister Margaret had become a successful opera singer. At her apartment she met many of her sophisticated and famous friends, whom he regaled with jokes and tales of his life out west. To Margaret’s chagrin, the friends were so entertained they told Walter he should go into vaudeville. He did.

Years later, Groucho Marx recalled being kept awake on a train by the sound of Walter Huston making love to a woman in the berth below him. Groucho responded by dropping coat hangers on the couple, but they didn’t seem to notice. The woman was undoubtedly Bayonne Whipple, who became Huston’s wife and partner (at least I hope she was). In 1909, Whipple and Huston began to work the circuits with an 18 minute sketch entitled “Spooks”. The climax of the piece involved a gag with a large face painted on a piece of expanding rubber. Huston capped it off a song called “I Haven’t Got The Do-Re-Mi.” After five years of “Spooks”, they moved on to “Shoes,” which took them to the Palace. After this, they moved on to “Time”, an elaborate musical show with a jazz band. Unfortunately, they worked up this last act for the renegade Shubert Advanced Vaudeville circuit, which folded. Keith of course blacklisted them. It was 1923 and they were finished in vaudeville.

Another bit of of bad luck for Walter’s sister ended up being good luck for Walter. Margaret had permanently lost her voice and so was finished in opera. She now used her knowledge to give voice and diction lessons. One of her first pupils had been John Barrymore. Now she trained Walter. Not only this, but she secured a backer for a vehicle for him to star in. Mr. Pitt garnered raves and Walter was on his way.

Stage successes included the original production of Desire Under the Elms (1924), The Fountain, The Barker, and Elmer the Great

In 1928 he broke into films with Gentlemen of the Press, which was followed by D.W. Griffith’s first talkie Abraham Lincoln. Other key performances of his career included the title character in the stage and screen versions of Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth, his portrayal of Jerry Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, and a crooked old prospector in his son John’s classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

DISTINGUISHED PROGENY: Walter’s son John was one of Hollywood’s finest directors for forty years, and his granddaughter (John’s daughter) Anjelica is a much respected actress.

To find out more about Walter Huston and the history of 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.

 

George Jessel: The Toastmaster General

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 3, 2009 by travsd

As part of the research for my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, I worked up hundreds of biographical sketches of the principal stars of vaudeville. Going forward, I’ll be posting them here on the artists’ birthdays.

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GEORGE JESSEL

Jessel, known invariably as “Georgie” did a little bit of everything in show business: kid act, comedian, songwriter, singer, Broadway actor, and movie producer are just some of the roles he filled. Yet he gained his greatest fame in vaudeville with a one-sided dialogue routine, a “telephone conversation” with his mother that anticipated similar routines by Bob Newhart three decades later.

Young Jessel and Cantor

Young Jessel and Cantor

Jessel (b. April 3, 1898) started performing as a child to help earn money when his father became ill. He debuted at the age of nine at the Imperial Theatre (116th Street and Lexington), where his mother worked as a wardrobe mistress. With Jack Weiner (later an agent) and Walter Winchell (later a famously cruel gossip columnist) he formed a singing group, the Imperial Trio, which sang songs to accompany slides. Then he performed with Winchell and Eddie Cantor in the Gus Edwards sketch “School Boys and Girls”. Joe Smith of Smith and Dale knew Jessel quite well during this era – he used to buy him ice cream. Charlie Chaplin, who also caught the act at this time, was more impressed with Winchell.

As he grew older, he formed a two-act with a young man named Lou Edwards (no relation to Gus) called “Two Patches from a Crazy Quilt”

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As a young man, he began to doing the “mama” bit, which apparently made even President Wilson crack up:

Hello, mom. This is Georgie, your son. Yes, the one from the checks…So tell me, Mom, what’s with Anna’s feller? They got engaged finally. Good, good. When’ll they get married? He has to wait? Wait for what? They’ve been going together for ten years and – oh, he’s waiting for a job. Did he at least give her a ring? He’s waiting for me to lend him the money. I see, Look, Mom, what’s the hurry, why does she have to get married? She’s still a young girl. After all, thirty-eight ain’t so old…Willie wants to talk to me? Okay, put him on. Hello, Willie. Ya a good boy? Good. How ya doing in school? Teacher’s got a grudge against you. I see. You want my autograph. Only last week I sent you four and a few weeks before I sent you—oh, I see, for every six of mine you can swap for one of Eddie Cantor’s.”

Jessel performed several of these routines, changing the material with each engagement, and usually signing off with with ”Yes, mama, the check is in the mail. Good night.”

In the 1920s, he graduated to Broadway shows, where he was a major star. Most notably, he played the title role in the stage version of The Jazz Singer (1925). He blew his big shot at the silver screen for demanding prohibitively high insurance to appear in the 1927 film version, it being such a “risky” venture. The role went to Jolson instead, and because of that one decision, Jessel, who was nationally well-known until the 1970s, is a historical footnote today.

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After a couple more Broadway shows The War Song (1928; co-wrote) Sweet and Low (1930); and High Kickers (1931; which he co-wrote), Jessel did finally make his mark in Hollywood—but as a producer. He made pictures for 20th Century Fox for 11 years, including atrocious bio-pics of the Dolly Sisters and Eva Tanguay.

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

In later years, the conservative Jessel was best known as a familiar face on television variety shows and as the U.S. Toastmaster General to six presidents, an unofficial, semi-political position, rather like Bill Robinson’s honorary mayorality of Harlem.

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He was still performing two weeks before he died in 1981.

Here’s a unique tv show, Jessel hosted in 1969, Here Come the Stars was similar in format to Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roasts, with fewer insults, and of course the host was for some reason dressed like a General:

And to bring us all the way up to the present, Billy West based the musch-mouthed Yiddish-inflected voice of the character Dr. Zoidberg on Futurama on Jessel’s:

To find out more about Jessel and the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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