Archive for May, 2009

Stars of Vaudeville #19: Fred Allen

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

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Originally Posted in 2009. 

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.

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 these variety artists 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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Stars of Vaudeville #18: Ben Bernie

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Radio (Old Time Radio), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2009 by travsd

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BEN BERNIE, “THE OL’ MAESTRO”

As we have seen, personality was everything vaudeville. Pretty music aside, a major factor in the success of a band was a colorful and entertaining bandleader. Bernie and others we’ll meet frequently developed their own catchphrases, many of which outlived the fame of their originators. You may not have heard of Bernie, but you’ve certainly heard the phrase “yowsah, yowsah, yowsah.” That one was his.

Born Bernard Anzelvitz in 1891, he set out to be a serious musician. He debuted as a concert violinist at Carnegie Hall at age 14. Apparently that didn’t go anywhere, for in 1910, he teamed up with accordionist Charles Klass to from the vaudeville act “the Fiddle-Up-Boys”. In 1915 he formed a more successful partnership with Phil Baker. Baker played the accordion and gradually added more and more jokes until it was essentially a comedy act. They parted ways in 1923, with Baker going to even greater fame on stage, screen and radio.

Bernie was more interested in music then laughs. In ’23, he formed Ben Bernie and All the Lads, which had a standing gig at the Roosevelt Hotel for the next six years. In the early 30s, the band toured vaudeville with Maurice Chevalier. For a long time, Oscar Levant was Bernie’s piano player. Bernie’s radio show was a fixture on CBS from 1931 until he passed away in 1943.

Bernie is responsible for Jack Benny’s stage name. In 1921, the comedian (whose real name was Benjamin Kubelsky) began calling himself Ben K. Benny. He soon receieved a “cease and desist” letter from Bernie’s lawyers – too similar. His music may have been sleepy and gentle, but in show business you played hardball. Yowsah, yowsah, yowsah.

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.

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Stars of Vaudeville #16 & 17: Bob Hope and Beatrice Lillie

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

What an amazing coincidence that these two stars share the same birthday. They were friends and starred on Broadway together. And they are both among my very favorite vaudevillians of all time…

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

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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!

He was born Leslie Towne Hope in 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.

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.

Hope was next booked for a revue called The Antics of 1931 at the Palace on a bill with Bea Lillie (see below). 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 (n 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.

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.

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BEATRICE LILLIE

Bea Lillie was one of the most beloved performers in show business history, adored by both her fans and colleagues alike. She appeared at a glance to be very proper and British but could be as undignified, fun-loving and insane as the lowest of low comedians, such as Milton Berle and Bert Lahr, both of whom she worked with. A good example of this ability was her favorite stunt of gyrating her neck so that her pearls would spin round and round hula hoop style.

This very “British” British subject was actually Canadian — born in Toronto in 1894. She took piano and acting lessons as a child. In 1913, she moved to England, where she made her stage debut at Chatham’s Music Hall the following year. Also in 1914 she appeared in Andre Charlot’s revue Not Likely, beginning a relationship that was to last for over a decade. In 1920 she married Sir Robert Peel, the last in a long line of Robert Peels stretching back at least as far as the time of Cromwell.

She made her triumphant return to North America with Charlot’s Revue of 1924, which played at the Times Square Theatre, as did the 1925 version. In 1927, she toured the Orpheum circuit, but was not so well received by the rubes of the American west. She debuted at the Palace the following year, and made subsequent appearances over the next few years. Her long professional relationship with Noel Coward began in 1928 with This Year of Grace, and continued with the Third Little Show, (1931), where she sang “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”.

Her entire song repertoire was comic, and her style was such that songwriters penned special material just to hear it come out of her mouth. She had much in common with her friend Fanny Brice. As with Brice, Lillie’s energy and character seemed focused on mockery of the role of the women singer – a parody of how women singers normally behave. Typical numbers included “Snoops, the Lawyer” and “There Are Faeries in the Bottom of My Garden”. In the recorded version of the last number, she would extend the songs highest note, which comes at a dramatically climactic point in each verse, a ridiculous length of time to build comic tension. There is little doubt that a variety of funny faces accompanied such moments in a Lillie performance.

When vaudeville evaporated she was big enough to star in musicals and films for the next several decades. Stage hits included Walk a Little Faster in London with Bobby Clarke in 1932, The Show’s On with Bert Lahr in 1936, a 1952 tour of An Evening with Beatrice Lillie, the 1957 revival of the Zeigfeld Follies, and High Spirits, a 1964 musical version of Coward’s Blythe Spirit. Film highlights included 1930’s Are You Here? and Thoroughly Modern Millie. She died in 1989.

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.

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Stars of Vaudeville #15: Al Jolson

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, 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 hos 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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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 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.

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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

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Stars of Vaudeville #14: Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

Posted in African American Interest, Dance, Hollywood (History), 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.

And now the famous Stair Dance with Shirley Temple:

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.

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Stars of Vaudeville #12 & 13: Nazimova and the Ritz Brothers

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Ritz Brothers, Russian, Silent Film, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2009 by travsd

Two vaudeville birthdays today: Alla Nazimova and Harry Ritz.

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ALLA NAZIMOVA

One of the great actresses of the early twentieth century, Nazimova was also one of vaudeville’s great sensationalists.

She was born Mariam Edez Adelaida “Alla” Leventon in Yalta in 1879. As a child she had studied the violin, but fear of her stern father prevented her from formal dramatic study until the age of 17. She was accepted to Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko’s Philharmonic School in Moscow, which merged with Stanislawski’s newborn Moscow Art Theatre in 1898. She struggled on in minor roles and as a stage manager with the theatre for a few years, and then split off the work with the Kostroma stock company. While acting there, she met met Pavel Orlenev, a friend of Chekhov and Gorky. The two became collaborators and lovers. From touring the Russian provinces, in 1904 they went on to success in Berlin and London. In 1905, they were a hit in New York, where the Shuberts were so impressed, they offered to produce her if she would stay in the U.S. and learn English. She did.

Her 1906 performance as Hedda Gabler was such a hit that she went on to star in most of Ibsen’s major plays over the next few years. She almost always did “important” realistic plays, usually with progressive political themes. A gorgeous woman, with enormous eyes and a sensuous mouth, she reinforced the sensationalism of her feminist forays by giving them sex appeal. This is what made her a hit in vaudeville.

In 1914 she debuted a one act at the Palace called An Unknown Woman which pleaded for more sensible divorce laws. A querulous Edward Albee cancelled the act at the urging of a Roman Catholic clergyman, although Nazimova was paid in full for her services. In 1915, she returned with the pacifist playlet War Brides, which was especially timely given the conflict overseas. This turn was such a hit she toured the Orpheum Circuit with it, and then turned it into a 1916 movie. The film version was a major success, resulting in Metro offering her a 5 year, $13,000 a week contract in 1917—a deal better than even Mary Pickford’s. For the next several years, she was a major movie star and the mansion she built “The Garden of Alla”, one of the center’s of the Hollywood social scene. Her contract her total creative control, and unfortunately, as time went on her use of it alienated both critics and audiences. Her exotic sexuality was often exploited, which  critics found “lurid” and “preposterous.” She lost audiences by indulging her artistic impulses. She began to allow free reign to experimental set designer Natacha Rambova, who became her lover. Rambova became the wife of Rudolph Valentino, was Nazimova’s co-star in Camille (1921). Though Camille was a success Metro started becoming uncomfortable with all of this art, and cut Nazimova loose. She produced two films on her own in 1922, A Doll’s House and Salome which continued with the stylized sets and acting. They tanked at the box office unfortunately, and Nazimova was to play only small roles in Hollywood thereafter.

It is perhaps for this reason that she returned to the Palace for several vaudeville engagements through the 1920s. One of the playlets she introduced was a feminist drama called India, co-written by Edgar Allen Woolf. Major theatre roles of her late career included Christine in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), O-lan in Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1932), and the leads in major revivals of Ghosts and Hedda Galbler which she directed in 1935 and 1936 respectively. She died in 1945.

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RITZ BROS.

Back in the 20s and 30s when someone used the word “madcap” to describe certain comedians it actually made some sense. this was the period when anarchistic comedy was in vogue. it was just as important for the comedian to be “insane” then as it is for a stand up comedian to be topical and observational today. Thus, the Marx Bros, Olsen and Johnson, Ed Wynn, Joe Cook, Clark & McCullough and the Ritz Bros.

Conceptually the Ritz Bros are a sort of cross between the Marx bros and the 3 Stooges. Like the former, they were “crazy”. They brought pandemonium with them when they enter a room. You wondered “where’s the straight jacket?” And of course, they were brothers. Like the Three Stooges (two of whom at any given time were also brothers), there was a sameness to them. They were roughly the same size and build, and there was very little individuality in their characterizations. In the case of the Ritz Bros, there was precisely NO individual characterization.

Al started out first as a song and dance man, but was quickly joined by his brothers Jim and Harry. They debuted at the Albee Theatre in Brooklyn in 1925, dressed as college kids, dancing, kidding around and  playing the ukulele. Over time, the kidding around began to make up the bulk of the act. By the end of the decade, they were headliners at the Palace. In the middle 30s they were familiar fixtures in such pictures as One in a Million (1937), On the Avenue (1937), The Goldwyn Follies (1938) and The Three Musketeers (1939). They generally weren’t the stars of their pictures, usually but got 3rd billing, woven in and out of their musical plots.

The boys’ actual patronymic was Joachim. They took the name “Ritz” from the crackers, and it was appropriate, for they were frequently covered in cheese. Audiences either loved or hated the Ritz. Bros. your author confesses to the latter stance, though no less a personage than Sid Caesar considered them his idols. To this viewer, in their films at least, they seem to be really exerting themselves, making a lot of random, aimless contortions to little effect. Rarely have so many faces been pulled in the production of so little laughter. It’s true you can see their influence on Caesar—he makes the same kind of faces—eyes crossed or bugging out, strands of hair that flop onto the forehead . The difference is, in a Caesar sketch, his eyes are crossed because (for example) he has just been hit in the stomach, his eyes are bulging in anger or terror, the hair is flopping because he is freaking out over something. The Ritz Brothers just throw out those faces just for the heck of it. John Bubbles reported seeing them at Loew’s State in 1931: “When they finished, they had to steal a bow! And they were the headliners!”.

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.

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Stars of Vaudeville #11: Julian Eltinge

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

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Originally posted in 2009. 

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.

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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 etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

 

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