Archive for May, 2009

Fred Allen: “World’s Worst Juggler” in Vaudeville but Radio’s Top Comedy Star

Posted in Comedy, Fred Allen, Irish, Jugglers, Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 31, 2009 by travsd

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With his dour, doleful expression and his deadpan delivery it was perhaps inevitable that Fred Allen would make his greatest permanent mark in radio. On film, he strikes one as being aloof and uncommitted to the character he is playing. Before he went before either the camera or the microphone, however, he achieved what might have been thought impossible for an introverted, bookish, rather homely looking man – he conquered vaudeville. It is a testament to the audience, or to Allen – perhaps both – that this intelligent, subtle man became famous at all.

He was born John Florence Sullivan in Cambridge, Massachusetts on this day in 1894. His mother died when he was three years old. His father was an alcoholic bookbinder who normally left him in the care of an aunt. The elder Sullivan did teach the boy the trade of bookbinding, securing a position for him at the Boston Public Library at age 14. Unlike almost all other vaudevillians (and despite having to work hard at part-time jobs to earn his keep), young John Sullivan was an achiever at school. He attended the Boston High School of Commerce for Boys, where he got good grades, did athletics, and edited the school paper. This school gave him his first opportunity to perform, an assignment in salesmanship class to tell a humorous story. One can only imagine the chagrin of the teacher, who’d requested only a mild anecdote to put customers at ease, when he received the acid and flowery tour de force John Sullivan no doubt turned in.

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Strangely, juggling was Allen’s first love. He got a book on the subject, began practicing at odd hours and carefully studied the techniques of every juggler who came to town. After juggling in the library’s annual amateur talent show, he received so much encouragement that he resolved for once and for all to go into show business.

He started at the bottom rung, at an Boston Amateur Night run by a man named Sam Cohen. He was only 17 years old. He did so well that soon he was substituting for Cohen as Master of Ceremonies. Another opportunity arose when a a friend named Paul Huckle asked him to substitute for him at Keith’s National, in an evening supposedly presenting “professional talent new to Boston.” Performing as Fred St. James, he was a sensation, although the audience reportedly thought he was a parody of a vaudeville act.

Realizing his is only a mediocre act in a field where superlatives are everything, he decided to bill himself as “The World’s Worst Juggler”, because he knew he would never be the best. A performer named Griff was influential. The man was a juggler, but comedy was the most important part of the act. Forthwith, Allen began to amass potential material for his comedy in notebooks, a procedure with which he worked until his dying day. He increased the amount of monologue in his act,and bookings immediately picked up.

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Moving to New York, he now billed himself as “Freddy James, the World’s Worst Juggler.” A three day booking at Keeney’s Brooklyn on his very first day was misleading. Weeks went by without subsequent employment. Just as he was making up his mind to go home, he got a three week booking on the Poli Circuit in New England.

Upon returning from the tour, “James” met a Loew’s booker named Mark Leddy who finally started him on his way. The act had evolved into a sort of parody of vaudeville. “James” would mock other acts, by doing bad ventriloquism, a bad song on banjo, and of course, bad juggling . It is readily apparent that such an act was light years ahead of its time. Such “ironic” entertainment doesn’t really become widespread in the U.S. until the late 1950s and even then it is considered subversive (Bob and Ray, Nichols and MayLenny Bruce, even Mad Magazine). Not unil the 1970s and 1980s would it become mainstream with Saturday Night Live, SCTV, and David Letterman’s various shows). There can be little doubt that for a long time, folks just didn’t “get” Fred Allen’s sense of humor, which accounts for his ten year crawl to the top.

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In 1914, he embarked on a tour of Australia. As W.C. Fields had done, he coped with the long months of loneliness by reading every book he could get his hands on. By 1917, his verbal faculties were so highly improved that they play an increasingly important part of his act. After breaking in a new act on the Pantages Circuit, he changed his name to Fred Allen so he could work the big time. (The catch 22 in those days was that the big time houses wouldn’t book any small time acts. You would have to invent yourself anew each time.)

The new act debuted at Proctor’s Fifth Avenue Theatre in 1918, but a single pan in Variety sent him tumbling back to small time. (Allen insisted it was because he refused to buy an ad). Over the next four years, Allen’s career would see-saw heartbreakingly between big time and small time.

By 1921, he was relying almost entirely on his skills as a monologist, however, and the act was getting stronger all the time. The juggling shtick was abandoned. A Keith booker caught this new act and installed him at the Colonial and the Alhambra – prestige dates.

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By the mid-twenties he had graduated to Broadway Revues: e.g., Snapshots of 1922The  Passing Show of 1922Frank Fay’s FablesVogues of 1924Greenwich Village Follies (1924), The Little Show (1927) while continuing to headline in vaudeville. The Little Show, which co-starred Clifton Webb and Libby Holman, was a huge hit and helped make Allen a star.

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Early attempts at film in the 20s and early 30s revealed Allen’s limitations as a performer, but in radio, his verbal acuity found its perfect medium. Along with Jack Benny (with whom he created broadcasting’s first running “feud”) Allen became radio’s top comedian. His radio career spanned 17 years, with The Linit Bath Club Revue (1932), Town Hall Tonight (1934), and finally The Fred Allen Show (1939-50), as popular for its cast of regulars as it was for Allen himself. Among the most popular denizen’s of Allen’s Alley, were Titus Moody (a stereotyped Yankee) and Senator Claghorn (on whom Mel Blanc modeled  Foghorn Leghorn). The most astounding fact about Allen’s long-running series is that he wrote nearly every episode by himself – a feat surely unequaled in broadcasting history. Then, in 1949 the inevitable happened. The Fred Allen Show was famously clobbered in the ratings by a game show called Stop the Music. The disparity of the two shows, and the way Allen’s program was abruptly dropped is often used as a benchmark in the descent of American culture, a way station on the way to the sewer, as Gilligan’s Island, Jerry Springer and Jackass, each – for some – later marked low points.

Though as we said Fred Allen’s appearances on the big screen are few they are especially prized by comedy buffs. He had starred in a couple of shorts when sound came in, and played some supporting parts in features, but the one proper, feature-length starring vehicle for Fred Allen was the 1945 comedy film It’s in the Bag. It’s too strange for ordinary humans but maintains a devoted cult among people like me.

Allen’s time on television was brief and undistinguished. It’s one thing to listen to a sour, gravelly-voiced, cynical pessimist say nasty but funny things week after week. It’s another to look at a puffy-eyed , pale-skinned, tobacco-chewing old man doing the same thing. Nevertheless, Allen did persevere for several years, first as a host of the Colgate Comedy Hour in 1950 ( a chore he shared with Ed WynnMartin and Lewis, and Eddie Cantor on a rotating basis). He hosted Chesterfield Sound Off Time 1951-52, this time alternating with Bob Hope and Jerry Lester. His last gig was as a panelist on What’s My Line. He gave the world two great books Treadmill to Oblivion (1955, about his years in radio) and Much Ado About Me (1956, about his early years), before giving up the ghost of massive heart failure in 1956.

Now, there are plenty of tv clips of Fred Allen on youtube, but the whole point of Allen is radio, that’s the medium in which he was a genius. So we attach a clip of his radio show. As yesterday was Mel Blanc’s birthday, I thought it would be cool to listen to a clip of Allen with cast member Kenny Delmar in his character Senator Claghorn, which, as we said above, was the inspiration for Foghorn Leghorn:

To find out more about Fred Allen 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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Bob Hope: Master of All Ceremonies

Posted in Bob Hope, Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Radio (Old Time Radio), Stand Up, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2009 by travsd

 

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

Perhaps no more polarizing figure exists in these annals than that of Bob Hope. Years ago, a baby boomer friend spotted a copy of Don’t Shoot, It’s Only Me, Bob Hope on my shelf. “In that case,” he said, “I’ll be sure to take careful aim.” No doubt for this scraggly ex-hippie, Hope was the enemy – a mummified square who performed for the troops in Vietnam, co-starred in films such as I’ll Take Sweden with an equally decrepit Lucille Ball, and staged unbelievably unhip variety shows for which he booked acts ranging from Barbara Feldon to the U.S. Marine Corps Glee Club. A baby boomer’s vaudevillian would of course be an act more like the Marx. Bros – anarchistic, irreverent, anti-everything. Hope, however, is the epitome of the slavish flag-waver, the foremost heir to George M. Cohan of the post-war period. Hope was America’s premiere pro patria stand-up comedian, whose subject matter tended to be girls and sports. (“Say, how about that Dorothy Lamour?”, and “Hey, how about those Dodgers?”) He symbolizes so much about America. In him one can glean much that is characteristic of the successful vaudevillian: the breezy self-confidence, the brashness, the unapologetic affluence. How disorienting, in light of all that, to learn that Hope was born a foreigner!

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He was born Leslie Towne Hope on May 29, 1903 in Eltham, England. His father was a bricklayer, and the family was extremely poor. (Hope was one of seven children). Hope’s father moved the family to Cleveland, OH in search of better opportunities. For Hope senior, there weren’t any. His son would eventually be one of the richest men in the country.

As a teenager he saw Frank Fay perform at Keith’s 105th Street in Cleveland. (No doubt he told himself, “If there’s room for an arrogant jerk like that in show business, surely there’s a place for me!”)  In 1915, he got his first performing experience (in the same way Berle had gotten his) in one of the Charlie Chaplin contests that were so popular at that time.

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Hope quit school at age 16, took dancing lessons, and started singing with a  quartet. He was part of that song and dance team Durbin and Hope that performed in a revue starring filmdom’s disgraced expatriate Fatty Arbuckle in 1924. When Durbin died of TB, Hope teamed up with another hoofer named George Byrne. Among their memorable engagements in the three years they were together was a tour with Daisy and Violet Hilton, the Siamese Twins. In 1927, at a gig in New Castle, Pennsylvania, Hope was asked to announce upcoming shows – his first true assignment as a monologist. He threw in some jokes and Frank Fay’s walk and got big yuks. Hope decided that he would be more successful as a single at this point, and fired Byrne. He moved to Chicago that year and – after several weeks without work — began a successful run as m.c. at the Stratford theatre, where he went over big. As added joke fodder, he hired a girl named Grace Louis to play a Dumb Dora for part of the act.

Making the leap to New York, Hope got booked at Proctor’s 54th street. He consciously got this gig as a showcase to impress the Keith booker Lee Stewart. He soon learned that this was the toughest house in the city and that his turn would be a make or break moment. With typical resourcefulness, he devised a show stopping opening line while waiting in the wings to go on. Prior to his entrance, the stage was occupied by a woman named Leatrice Joy who was famously divorcing the actor John Gilbert. So as Joy walked off and Hope walked on (what a felicitous phrase!), Hope snapped to a woman in the audience, “No lady I am not John Gilbert”. The line slayed the audience and from there they were eating out of his hand. He got several curtain calls, and William Morris signed him to a three year contract with the Keith organization.

Hope’s strength was his comic manner, as opposed to his material. Something about his face, the arch eyebrows, the devilish glint in his eyes just before he delivered a punchline helped him sell it. His personality was brash and bold and he instinctively knew how to get a joke over, no matter how bad. Often the material was so weak in the early days (and frankly also the later ones) that in 1930 he hired the consummate vaudeville gag man Al Boasberg to write jokes for him. Boasberg wrote also for Burns and Allen, the Marx Bros. and others before being taken early by a corned beef induced heart attack.

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Hope was next booked for a revue called The Antics of 1931 at the Palace on a bill with Bea Lillie. He didn’t set the world on fire in the revue, but he got screams hosting something called “Celebrity Night at the Palace”, a Monday night all-star show that gave performers from other shows on Broadway an opportunity to see current performers on their night off. From there, it was The Ballyhoo of 1932, and a succession of other revues and book musicals through the mid-30s, radio throughout the 30s and 40s, film from The Big Broadcast of 1938 (in which he first sang his signature song “Thanks for the Memories”) through Cancel My Reservation (1972), live tours for the military in WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf, and periodic television variety shows in which he helped keep vaudeville alive for another 3 decades.

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His best films were in the 40s, especially the so-called “Road” pictures with Bing Crosby, in which they formed a sort of loose comedy team. Hope was also at the top of his form during these years as the sole star as such comedies as Monseuir Beaucaire (1946) and My Favorite Brunette (1947). Woody Allen cited Hope’s film persona during this period as a major influence. However, with the 1963 film Call Me Bwana, it is generally agreed that the quality of Hope’s output for the silver screen took a steady and permanent nosedive. At this point, Hope was just phoning it in.

Hope started in show business at just the right time. He came to vaudeville late in its evolution; his ascent coincided with its demise, but he managed to get a foothold elsewhere before it winked out. While there was a vaudeville he was glad to work there but by the time it died he didn’t need it any more. He stepped from his dates at the Palace to book musicals and radio as one might step off a ship that is going under. Though he never particularly distinguished himself in vaudeville per se, it was his training ground. He spent the better part of a decade on its stage, learning timing, improvisation and developing stage presence.

Traces of the vaudevillian remain throughout his 70 year career, notably his noticeably effeminate “swishy” style of walking on and off stage, which he consciously borrowed from monologist Frank Fay (as did Benny). Hope was still doing regular tv specials right up until the early 1990s, when his frail body simply couldn’t do it anymore.

To find out more about these variety artists 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.

Al Jolson: The Single Most Influential Male Performer To Come Out of Vaudeville

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2009 by travsd

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“Possessed of an immensely electric personality, a rare sense of comedy, considerable histrionic ability, a most unusual musical versatility in the way of song and dance, and, above all,  a gift for delivering lines for their full effect, he so far outdistances his rivals that they seem like the wrong ends of so many opera glasses”.

— George Jean Nathan

How powerful a performer was Jolson? Look no further than the WB frog. The WB frog, a Jolson parody, is Jolie’s most lasting legacy and not one person in a hundred is probably even aware of it. When that frog first made its appearance in the 1955 animated short One Froggy Evening, Jolson was already so washed up that the mere imitation of him was a kind of shorthand for “corny.” Yet, only a few years earlier, Jolson was the last word in cutting edge in the world of popular vocal music. Such was the rate of change in the twentieth century.

It was Jolson who transformed an industry drugged on saccharine, antiseptic renditions of songs like “Bicycle Built for Two” and “I Dream of Jeanie (With the Light Brown Hair)” and jazzed it up with finger popping, hyperkinetic rags. Despite the incriminating and archaic blackface**, he was a negrophile, who played a central role in promoting the styles and sounds of  black music to the mainstream white audience. Yet he was a transitional figure; by the 1940s he was worse than passe. His patented pathos, the hands on heart, down on one knee, calling for his dead Mammy….had become bathos in the age of Bobby soxers and Frank Sinatra. And time has never yet rehabilitated him.

He was born Asa Yoelson in the 1880s in Russia. He normally gave 1886 as the date, but most biographers claim that he made it up, he truly had no idea, as no records were kept. He started out singing with his father, a Washington D.C. cantor, at temple.

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He decided to go into show business after hearing Faye Templeton sing “Rosie, You Are My Posie”. The boy ran away from home several times as a minor to try to break into show business. Once, most famously, he had an extended stay at St. Mary’s Industrial Home for Boys in Baltimore, where he met Babe Ruth and Bill Robinson, both also waywards. He started really to break in when at an Eddie Leonard performance at the Bijoux Theatre in Washington, Leonard asked the audience to sing along with “Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider”. It was one of those moments where most of the people in the audience are too shy and only one person starts singing. Consequently everyone in the house, including Leonard, could clearly hear Jolson. Leonard was so impressed he asked him to stay on and do it for every performance. But Jolie, ever prideful from the beginning, turned him down, preferring to actually be on the stage. This early line in the sand  reveals a brash self-confidence that characterized his entire career. He never settled for less than he wanted.

But job opportunities for songbirds were scarce. He finally did swallow his pride and did a balcony job for Aggie “Jersey Lil” Beeler with the Villanova Touring Burlesque Company. Aggie never gave him billing or let him come onstage, so he quit and joined his brother Harry, who had also run away to be in show business, in New York. He was cast as an extra in a Broadway musical called Children of the Ghetto in 1891, which closed after three performances. Al then teamed briefly with a man named Fred Moore, but his voice began to change. During this awkward age, Al worked up a bit where he whistled rather than sang,  and teamed up in burlesque with Harry (“The Joelson Bros.) in an act called “The Hebrew and the Cadet.”

In 1901 the boys teamed team up with one Joe Palmer as  Jolson, Palmer and Jolson in a sketch called “A Little Bit of Everything”. Palmer was a former headliner who had written the lyrics to “In the Good Old Summertime”. He now had multiple sclerosis and was in a wheelchair. They boys dropped the “e” from their name because it wouldn’t fit on the business cards. Harry played a doctor, Al, a bellhop, and Palmer…the guy in the wheelchair. Al started using blackface at this time, and found that it liberated him so that he could really cut loose as a performer. The act was very successful. In 1905, they were contracted to play Tony Pastor’s but the act split up before the engagement started. Part of the boys’ obligation in the act was to clean, dress and otherwise babysit the infirm Palmer in their offstage moments. The boys had a falling out over who would take care of Palmer on a certain night. They never quite fully made up after this spat.

Now both Jolson brothers were working solo. By accident or by design the Jolson Brothers now cut up the continental U.S. into spheres of influence. While Harry worked the Keith and William Morris circuits in the east as “The Operatic Blackface Comedian”, Al worked Sullivan and Considine in the West as “the Blackface with the Grand Opera Voice”. Harry tried to sue Al to have him stop using his tag (his had pre-dated it). In 1906, Al placed a Variety ad that read: “Watch me – I’m a wow.” He proved it that year in performances in San Francisco immediately after the earthquake. The city had been devastated and was hungry for laughs. Here is where Jolson’s legendary dynamism first made itself manifest, honing the act for which he would become famous. It was here that he first uttered the words “you aint seen nothing yet” —  a ritual at every performance for the next 44 years.

Al was discovered by Lew Dockstader and hired for his minstrel company. Jolson helped prolong the life of that dying theatrical form by bringing a bit of jazz into it. By 1909 he was eclipsing Dockstader in his own show.

He started working with songwriters to cook up a new kind of song for his act. In December 1909, at the Colonial Theatre he introduced one of these “Hello, My Baby” and it became a huge hit. People started to notice him. Sime Silverman of Variety raved about his turn at the Fifth Avenue. Scouts for Hammerstein’s Victoria spotted him at the Grand Opera House. On the first night of his gig at the Victoria he established another Jolson ritual – he asked the manager to turn up the house lights so could see the audience. In 1910, he briefly went back to Dockstader, bringing his ragtime with him. Here he did Berlin’s new song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, making a hit of it.

In 1911 the Shuberts took over Dockstader’s Minstrels, including Al.  They booked him in a musical at the Winter Garden La Belle Paree: A Cook’s Tour Through Vaudeville with a Parisian Landscape (1911). Jolson was not a huge hit on the first night, but in the next performance, he arranged an earlier entrance. He threw out a bunch of gimmicks, including whistling on the chorus of some numbers, and scored this time. His part in the show quickly grew bigger and bigger. Audiences began flocking just to see him. Also that year he starred in Vera Violetta, where he began the Jolson tradition of prancing down the aisle as he sang. In later shows, he would have a special runway built just for this purpose.

Did Jolson let this success go to his head? That would imply that he wasn’t already egotistical. Consider: in 1910, he turned down an offer to audition for Ziegfeld: “Jolie don’t audition for nobody.” And in 1911, he placed this appalling holiday message in Variety : “Everybody likes me. Those who don’t are jealous. Anyhow, here’s wishing those that do and those that don’t a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year—Al Jolson” Thanks for nothing! Once he saw some empty seats in the house and had to be coerced into performing. Another favorite trick of his was to stop in the middle of a performance and say “Do you want me or do you want the show?”. If the audience chose “him” he would proceed to do a song set, and the rest of the other performers could go home.

In 1911 he began to cut records for RCA Victor, which helped propel his career even farther and faster. In the 1912 show The Whirl of Society he officially starred for the first time. In Hangman Express (1913) with Fanny Brice and Harry Fox, he got down on one knee for the first time. He later claimed that it was an accidental response to the pain caused by an ingrown toenail – but Milton Berle claimed that Blossom Seeley was using the move as much as a year earlier for dramatic effect. Seems likely Jolson borrowed it.

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**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

Meanwhile, the country was singing the songs Jolson made famous, “You Made Me Love You”, “Mammy”,  “Swannee”. Each show seemed to introduce at least one: Sinbad (1918) had “Rockabye My Baby with a Dixie Melody”. Bombo (1921) had “Toot, Toot, Tootsie”, and “April Showers”. By now Harry had long since resorted to billing himself as “Al Jolson’s Brother” to get bookings. It was just as well – Buster Keaton claimed that he was the only blackface act he’d ever seen with a Yiddish accent.

Jolson had frequent throat troubles, and it was not surprising, since he constantly bathed his tonsils in liquor and the smoke of unfiltered cigarettes. But he was stubborn. On one occasion he was really truly sick and refused to close a show because Eddie Cantor had a show on at the same time. Though Jolson didn’t know it, Cantor was also sick. When the Cantor show folded, that very day Jolson closed his own show.

On the other hand, if he didn’t feel good about what he was doing, he would pack up his tent in a heartbeat. Slated to appear in a D.W. Griffith picture to be called Mammy’s Boy, or Black and White , he walked off the set after a few days shooting, claiming “ill health”. In reality, he had no idea what he was doing without the response of an audience.

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Of his performance in the 1921 show Big Boy, Robert Benchley wrote that it was “to know what the coiners of the word ‘personality’ meant”. “If You Knew Susie” was a song from this show. Jolson wasn’t crazy about it, so he gave it to Cantor, who made a hit out of it, much to Jolson’s regret.

The next great leap came with pictures, which was ironic in light of the Griffith incident. When Jessel blew his chance at the film version of The Jazz Singer (1927), which was to be the first talkie, Jolson was given the role, thus cementing his place in cinematic as well as theatrical history.

The film he did in 1928, The Singing Fool film featured the songs “Sitting on Top of the World” and “Sonny Boy”. In 1930 he did two films, Mammy with songs by Irving Berlin, and a version of his stage hit Big Boy.

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In 1928 he married Ruby Keeler. Her boyfriend had been “Johnny Irish” Costello who fortunately was bumped off—or Jolson might have been. Jolson caused a brouhaha in 1930 when he inserted himself into a show in which he wasn’t even cast. On the opening night of the musical Show Girl in which Ruby appeared, as the band struck up the opening chords of “Liza”, the song Ruby was to sing, she seemed to freeze. With all the brass of someone who really was “sitting on top of the world”, Jolson stood up in his seat in the audience and sang the song himself. I guess he figured he’d done it before, he could do it again.

This late in the game, vaudeville was still a part of his life, but only sporadically. In 1930 he made his only appearance at the Palace, and worked a week at the Capitol Theatre. In 1931 he did the show Wonder Bar, his first on Broadway since Big Boy. From that show came the song “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” which was throughly in tune with the mood of Depression-era audiences.

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But for the most part films and broadcasting were the dominating forces in his career. He’d first been on radio in 1927. In 1932 he began his own program, with Chevrolet as the sponsor. In 1933, he launched Kraft Music Hall, the long running radio show he was associated with until his death. Throughout his broadcasting career, he was to forever drive his sponsors crazy—saying their name wrong, insulting other companies, and being sued in turn for liable. But what were they going to do, fire him?

In the early 30s, he was the 3rd richest man in Hollywood after Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. But just as quickly as it rose, his star rapidly fell. His 1934 picture Halleluiah, I’m a Bum highly regarded and studied today, was a flop when it was released. His 30s releases were increasingly formulaic, and hence uninteresting. Go Into Your Dance a joint picture with Ruby (who’d become a star because of her role in 42nd Street) seemed more an act of desperation than anything else. By 1939, he was down to 3rd billing in Rose of Washington  Square under Alice Faye and Tyrone Power – quite a comedown. Young people were not digging him at all by now. He was like something from another era. Playing E.P. Christie in the Stephen Foster bio-pic Swannee River only proved it.

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He toured extensively with the U.S.O. during World War II, and in the late 40s enjoyed a major comeback when the 1946 film The Jolson Story was released. Al was played with uncanny accuracy by Larry Parks, but he dubbed his own songs for the film, which were released as an L.P., jumpstarting his career. In 1947, Jolson Sings Again was also a hit.

He died in 1950 following a punishing U.S.O. tour of Korea. There were two funeral services, one presided over by George Jessel, the other by Eddie Cantor.

To hear a podcast of me discussing Jolson and other vaudevillians with “Jolson & Friends” blogger Brian Decker, go here. And…

To find out more about Al Jolson and the history of vaudeville, please avail yourself of  No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever brassy books are sold.

 

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson: “The Dark Cloud of Joy”

Posted in African American Interest, Dance, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2009 by travsd
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

Perhaps the best-known African-American in vaudeville (then and now), Bill Robinson left us a confusing hodgepodge of legacies. His life was a mass of contradictions perhaps best exemplified by his stage handle: “The Dark Cloud of Joy.” On the one hand, he is called by African-American scholar Donald Bogle “the quintessential Tom” for his cheerful and shameless subservience to whites in motion pictures. On the other hand, Robinson was in real life the sort of man who, when refused service at an all-white luncheonette, would lay his pearl-handled revolver on the counter and demand service. An illiterate, he was to become the unofficial Mayor of Harlem and one of the richest and best-known African Americans in the country. Even the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band song “Mr. Bojangles” which everyone assumes is about him, isn’t. (The song is about a hobo; Robinson was a class act in top hat and tails).

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He was born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia in 1880. A perhaps apocryphal story has him beating up his brother William, two years his junior, until the latter allowed him to appropriate his name. (The real Bill was forever after known as “Percy” – it must have been a sound drubbing.) The boys were orphaned around 1885 under mysterious circumstances, and raised by their grandmother and various foster parents. Robinson was a latchkey kid, largely shifting for himself, earning his own way by shining shoes, occasional theft and dancing for tips on streetcorners. He got his famous nickname after stealing a beaver hat from a local merchant Lion J. Boujasson, whose name no one could pronounce.

In 1892, he hopped a freight train for Washington, D.C. with a white friend named Lemuel Toney (who later went on to become Eddie Leonard, a major blackface star in minstrelsy and vaudeville). His first professional gig was the part of a “pickaninny” role in the show “The South Before the War” which toured the northeast. By 1900, he had made his way to New York. The following year, he won a prestigious dance contest at a Brooklyn theatre against a man named Henry Swinton, then considered the best dancer in the business. In the audience were the likes of Eubie Blake and Walker & Williams. He began to work with various partners and rapidly became one of only six African-American acts booked regularly on the Keith circuit. In 1902 he teamed up with a successful comedian named George W. Cooper, laying aside his dancing to become the comic foil for a period of 12 years.

When the team broke up in 1914, Robinson approached a big-time manager named Marty Forkins with a unique proposal. At the time in vaudeville the “two black rule” was in full force; African Americans were seen on stage only in pairs. Robinson proposed to become the first black solo act. In addition to being socially groundbreaking, the move had the virtue of being a very good gimmick, a must in vaudeville, and so the two forged ahead.

Robinson rapidly rose to become one of America’s best loved entertainers. His act was an amalgam of little steps and moves he had copped from others, then stitched together into a sequence that was greater than the sum of its parts. He worked his alchemy by rehearsing and performing the act so much that he could do it in his sleep, and then “selling it” through the sheer force of his infectious personality. His smile was called “a beacon”. He would intersperse his routines with little jokes and remarks, such as the famous “Everything’s copasetic!” (a word, incidentally, which Robinson invented). In 1918, Robinson introduced what was to become his signature bit, “the stair dance”, stolen of course, but thereafter irrevocably his. By 1923, he had reached the number two spot on the bill at the Palace (or next to “next to closing”) – the highest spot to which he could aspire given the prejudices of the times.

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As vaudeville began to wind down, Robinson was one of the lucky and talented few who not only kept working, but who actually became more famous. He starred in a number of revues, such as “Blackbirds of 1928” and “The Hot Mikado”, performed in top nightclubs in Harlem and elsewhere, and co-starred in numerous movies with the likes of Will Rogers, Lena Horne and – most famously – Shirley Temple. A variation of his stair dance can be seen in the Temple-Robinson vehicle The Little Colonel (1934).

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Robinson used his power and influence to break new ground for African Americans on several fronts: he was the first African-American solo act in vaudeville; he refused to wear blackface; he fought for (and achieved) the racial integration of countless social and cultural events in the north and the south; he was the first African American in a Hollywood movie whose character was responsible for safeguarding a white’s life.

Like all the top vaudevillians, he was an obsessed workaholic, either practicing or performing constantly, sometimes doing five shows a day by choice. He said that he danced best when totally exhausted; it took the edginess off his performance. He wore out 20-30 pairs of tap shoes a year—roughly one every two weeks. It is said that he literally danced himself to death. After a series of heart attacks, the doctor advised him to quit in 1948. Robinson maintained that though he had trouble walking, talking sleeping and breathing, when he danced he felt wonderful. He died a few months later.

 

To find out more about these variety artists 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.

Eltinge: Top Female Impersonator of the Vaudeville Era

Posted in Broadway, Drag and/or LGBT, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2009 by travsd

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The most famous female impersonator of the vaudeville era, Julian Eltinge was a point of cultural reference as late as the early 1960s when Lenny Bruce dropped his name in a stand-up routine. Two quotes give a sense about how this sort of act divided the audience: W.C. Fields famously said “women went into ecstasies over him. Men went into the smoking room”. On the other hand, Jesse Lasky said that “neither men nor women could take their eyes off him”

Born William Julian Dalton in Newtonville, Massachusetts in 1883, he was already in drag by age 10. After performing in the Boston Cadets’ annual review dressed as a little girl, he was so successful that the following year they wrote the whole show around him in a skirt. Soon thereafter he moved to Butte, Montana, where, while taking cakewalk lessons at Mrs. Wayman’s Dance Studio, he chanced to do an impression of some chorus girls who also took the class. Mrs. Wayman couldn’t help but notice that he was better at it than the girls themselves. She suggested he try female impersonation, which he did (with some misgivings), acting in an amateur production called My Lady.

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Soon he was getting national bookings. In 1904, he starred in the book musical  Mr. Wix of Wickham, his first big break. Next he tried vaudeville, where he generally received great reviews. A typical turn had him coming out as a Gibson Girl, then emerging as a “dainty young miss in a pink party dress”. Apparently his singing voice was far better than that of most other female impersonators, as was the illusion of femininity. A stocky man, he had his Japanese male dresser “Shima” corset him up and then spend two hours on his make-up and dressing. His bag of tricks included: powder, eye make-up, rouge, make up and powder on shoulders and arms, painted nails, and numerous wigs. He even shaved his fingers. Graceful and classy, Eltinge, as he was now called, was always said to be in good taste. — “inoffensive.”

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

The act went right to big-time: Keith’s Union Square (1905), the London Palace (1906), the New York Alhambra (1907). In 1908, he worked the short lived Cohan and Harris Minstrels**. In 1909 he introduced two new dance routines in his vaudeville act. “The Goddess of Incense” was a Hindu themed number.  “The Cobra Dance” was slow and sensual. His 1910 act had four parts.  First he impersonated “the Lady of Mystery”, by coming out in a long black gown. Then, for contrast, he was a “simple young woman in a bright blue dress singing ‘Honeymoon in June’”. Next he was a woman from the colonial era, and last of all he was a contemporary woman doing “That Spanish American Rag”.

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1910 saw The Fascinating Widow,  his greatest stage success, in which he portrayed…a man forced by circumstances to disguise himself as a woman. (What great casting! It calls to mind the 1971 Columbo episode where Rich Little portrayed a psychopathic Las Vegas impressionist). By 1912 Eltinge was so popular, he had a theatre named after him, which was renamed the Empire in 1956 and is now now a multiplex cinema.

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Concurrent with the launch of Eltinge’s own film career in 1915, he launched his own magazine, Julian Eltinge’s Magazine and Beauty Hints which offered beauty tips of the sort that would be most of the most use to unattractive or masculine women: how to dress so as to seem slimmer, how to cover up unsightly facial hair, etc.

After three years in films, Eltinge returned to vaudeville with an 18 minute act at the Palace. The act consisted of 4 songs, 4 costume changes and “the Julian Eltinge Players”.

He continued to headline in big time throughout the 1920s. Here’s an extremely cool clip of film from 1929 in a short from a series called The Voice of Hollywood (a good decade after his main film career). As an dded bonus we also get Reginald Denny and Bobby Vernon:

As vaudeville withered in the 30s, he toured with his own show “the Nine O’Clock Review”. As the depression worsened, the vogue for female impersonation shrank down to nothing. By 1940, Eltinge had sunk to the lowest low conceivable. Due to a Los Angeles law forbidding public appearances in female clothing, he did his act NEXT TO a clothes rack full of ladies’ outfits. (h’m…did Ed Wood see this particular show?) He passed away the following year.

Eltinge always insisted that it was all just an act, an illusion, the same as might be accomplished by a magician, a ventriloquist, etc.To prove it, he separated himself  from the gay subculture and any hint of “perversion”,  overcompensating with macho offstage behavior, fistfights , beer drinking, boxing, horseback riding (western style, natch). He circulated stories about himself beating up guys who impugned his manhood. Above all, he claimed not to even like dressing in woman’s clothing – it was just something he did to make money.

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

There’s a great gag in Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances where the young hero, desperate to find a bride, runs into a theatre and propositions someone, emerging with a black eye for his efforts. Then we see a sign: it was Eltinge.

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All of this is all well and good and it’s almost convincing…until you stop and remind yourself, yeah, yeah, that might be true…but you’re STILL a female impersonator, fellah. No man puts on a dress and make-up every night just because he needs the work. Think about it!

To find out more about these variety artists 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. And don’t miss 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.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

 

Vesta Tilley: Music Hall’s Favorite Drag King

Posted in British Music Hall, Drag and/or LGBT, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2009 by travsd

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Vesta Tilley was the most famous of all vaudeville male impersonators.

Completely unthreatening by today’s standards, she typically portrayed a dandy young man. Nevertheless she was the first male impersonator to be even a jot convincing and the first to dress wholly in male clothes, so she was revolutionary.

Born Matilda Alice Powles in 1864, she was the daughter of a music hall Master of Ceremonies (or “Chairman”) in Worcester, England. A child prodigy, “Tilley” started singing along with her father at rehearsals, and at age 4, she made her debut at a going-away benefit for her father, who was about to assume a new post at St. George’s Music Hall in Nottingham. Billed as “the Great Little Tilley”, she was such a hit that he started taking her on the road. Tilley became a star in her own right; her father stopped performing in order to become her manager. In 1872 she made her drag debut at Day’s Concert Hall in Birmingham, the top music hall of the provinces. Dressed in white tie and tails, the six year old scored big as “the Pocket Sim Reeves”, after the popular singer she impersonated. Her London debut was six years later. By then she was Vesta Tilley.

As she grew into adulthood she specialized in a certain type of character; a rakish young dude named Algy. Songs and sketches were written around the character; one pictures something like the aristocratic drunks Chaplin used to play in films like A Night Out or One A.M, only a much younger character. Tilley even worked with Chaplin (and Stan Laurel) in the Karno sketch “Mumming Birds”. Mime was not her forte, however; it was song:

I’m following in Father’s footsteps, I’m following dear old dad.

He’s just in front with a big fine gal, so I thought I’d have one as well.

I don’t know where’s he’s going, but when he gets there I’ll be glad!

I’m following in Father’s footsteps, yes, I’m following the dear old dad.

In 1890 she made a fortuitous marriage with music hall manager Walter de Frece. The two were part of a movement to make music hall “respectable”, something similar to the transformation Pastor, Proctor and Keith accomplished in American variety. The married life allowed her to very much the traditional domestic woman in private life. In this respect, she is very much the female analog of Eltinge.

Her U.S. debut was at Tony Pastor’s in 1894. Her engagement in  New York was a triumph. She returned to the States six times. In 1912 she gave a Royal Command performance – the first ever presented by Music Hall performers — but reportedly Queen Mary was so revolted at the prospect of a woman acting like a man that she couldn’t even look at the stage. Tilley was famously associated w/ the song “After the Ball” which became the title of her 1957 bio-pic. In 1920 de Frece went into Parliament as a Conservative and Tilley retired to support his career, proving who really wore the pants in the family. She played the role of Parliamentary wife for the remaining 23 years of her life.

The mature Tilley

To find out more about these variety artists 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.

Gallagher and Shean and the Most Popular Song in Vaudeville

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Jews/ Show Biz, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2009 by travsd
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

May 12 is the birthday of Al Shean.

GALLAGHER AND SHEAN

Gallagher and Shean were one of the most famous teams in the history of vaudeville and all on the strength of a single song, “Absolutely, Mr. Gallagher, Positively Mr. Shean”.

SHEAN: Oh, Mr. Gallagher, oh Mr. Gallagher.

In New York the girls are wearing such alluring styles.

At 42nd and Broadway

You could find me every day

I used to follow them for miles and miles.

GALLAGHER:Oh, Mr. Shean, Oh, Mr. Shean.

Here in Egypt they have styles I’ve never seen;

All up and down the Nile

The girls wear nothing but a smile.

SHEAN: That’s why I’m here, Mr. Gallagher!

GALLAGHER: That’s why I’m here, Mr. Shean!

The song was introduced in 1921 in the sketch “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean in Egypt” so it was always done thereafter with the actors wearing fezes in front of a pyramid backdrop, though that became a non sequiter subsequently. The original version of the song was reportedly written by Bryan Foy of the 7 Little Foys in 1921 when Gallagher & Shean and the Foys were performing on the same bill at Keith’s Indianapolis. But the roots of the song go far deeper, back to minstrelsy, where there was a rich tradition of such back-and-forth two-man songs.

SHEAN: Oh, Mr. Gallagher. Oh Mr. Gallagher.

There was a tiny baby born last night.

It was just as black as ink

and weighed half a pound I think

How can a baby be so dark and yet so light?

GALLAGHER: Oh, Mr. Shean, Oh Mr. Shean!

That’s the funniest color scheme I’ve ever seen!

I know a hen that’s black as night,

She can lay an egg that’s white!

SHEAN: Oh, that’s nothing, Mr. Gallagher!

GALLAGHER: Can YOU do it, Mr. Shean?

In the best folk song tradition (like “Yankee Doodle” or “La Cucaracha” ) the Gallagher and Shean song has hundreds of different versions, most of which are lost to history. The song was never repeated the same way twice, but constantly tailored to reflect current events, which helps explain its longevity.

SHEAN: Oh, Mr. Gallagher, Mr. Gallagher

Women’s rights is turning out be a joke.

They’ve been given the right to vote

But doesn’t it get your goat

In public places they now demand the right to smoke.

GALLAGHER: Oh, Mr. Shean, Why Mr. Shean.

They also love to gamble on the green.

Why they indulge in games of chance

Where you can lose your shirt and pants.

SHEAN: I’m speaking of women, Mr. Gallagher—

GALLAGHER: That makes no difference, Mr. Shean!

The team was actually together for only a short time. Their relationship was acromonious, and in fact was the basis of the more bilious aspects of Neil Simon’s Sunshine Boys. In reality, Gallagher and Shean were apart far more than they were together.

Abraham Alreser Schoenberg (Al Shean, b. 1868) had been a messenger, pants presser, and butcher boy before forming the Manhattan Quartette in 1888 with Charley Harris, George Brennan and Sam Curtis. The team played Bowery music halls and had at least one engagement at at Tony Pastor’s 14th Street. After a few years of this, he found some legit work. In 1891 he was cast in Apple Orchard Farm, at the Windsor Theatre, which closed after two weeks. His next show The County Fair gave him a run of three years. From 1895-1900 he was in the Manhattan Comedy Four with Sam Curtis, Arthur Williams and Ed Mack of Harrigan and Hart’s old troup. The group sang songs like “Sweet Molly Moran” and “After the Ball” in four part harmony and did comedy sketches, many of them written by Shean. The team was big time and toured the country, but Shean left to from a partnership with Charles L. Warner, with whom he performed through 1904.

Ed Gallagher was primarily a straight man (known as one of the best in the business), and worked in sketch comedy with a man named Joe Barret for 15 years. Gallagher and Shean first worked together in the operetta The Rose Maid in 1912. They then teamed up and worked together until 1914, when they split up the first time. They did not speak to each other for six years. No one knows why.  In 1920, Al Shean’s sister Minnie Marx (the Marx Brothers’ mother, and a capital instigator) convinced them to team up again. They debuted their hit song soon thereafter and rode it to great fame, but only for four years. The team broke up a second time in 1925 while touring with The Greenwich Village Follies. Gallagher went on to form an act with “Mademoiselle” Fifi D’Orsay, with whom he performed for two years. Gallagher’s growing alcohol problem began to overtake him by this point, and he dies in a sanitarium in 1929. Al Shean had a long solo career in vaudeville and movies through the 30s and 40s, and passed way in 1949. The song that they made famous continues to live and breath, and often pops up with entirely new lyrics in entirely new contexts. A relatively recent example can be found in the Tom Stoppard play Travesties. But scratchy old recordings of the real McCoy can still be heard today. Just take a look on Youtube!

To find out more about these variety artists 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. And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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