Archive for June, 2009

Stars of Vaudeville #26: Cinquevalli

Posted in Jugglers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on June 30, 2009 by travsd
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Alexander Turnbull Library

The greatest juggler of his day and an influence on W.C. Fields and many others, Cinquevalli’s real name was the more prosaic Paul Kesner. Born in Lissa Poland in 1859, he was apprenticed at age 13 to a gymnast/aerliast named…Cinqevalli. Kesner took his last name. It was a common practice for acrobats to do that in those days. As you’ll see from many another upcoming example, joining an acrobatic troup was literally like joining a family.  By 1885, Paul C. had developed an act called “The Human Billiard Table” wherein he would play a game of pool on his own back. I guess he shot the balls…um…into his pockets!

His first U.S. tour was in 1888 (which was when Fields first caught him) and he returned in 1910 to work the Keith circuit, including 10 weeks at Keith’s Union Square—not too shabby. During World War I he was mislabled a German and that was it for his career. He died shortly after the war in 1919.

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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Those Whistling Lads: The Poetry and Short Stories of Dorothy Parker

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, Jews/ Show Biz, Women with tags , on June 29, 2009 by travsd

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Maureen Van Trease is — if you’ll pardon the expression — a dead ringer for Dorothy Parker, that legendary quipster and writer of thanatoptic light verse, short stories and criticism. The picture above is of Parker but it might as well be Van Trease. (Although, at 5′ 0″, Van Trease would have towered over Parker , who stood a mere 4′ 11″. There is an excellent representation of the famous wit at Madame Tussaud’s. It is roughly the size of a six year old).

Perhaps to compensate for her physical slightness, Parker became larger than life. She is one of those whose legend was so large that it has long outlived its tiny creator. She ranks with Shaw and Wilde as one of the most quoted writers of modern times. She is the subject of Alan Rudolph’s 1994 film Mrs. Parker and the Viscious Circle. New York even has a rather large and flourishing club called the Dorothy Parker Society , dedicated entirely to doing…Dorothy Parker type stuff.

Van Trease wrote and stars in Those Whistling Lads, an educational show about Parker’s life and work designed to tour colleges, and presented recently in the Planet Connections Theater Festivity. The play cleverly juxtaposes enactments of her poems and stories, with bits of Parker’s real life. Humor and tragedy go hand in glove in Parker’s life and art… suicide attempts, failed and aborted pregnancies, unrequited romances and alcoholism fueled her writing, making for some of the darkest “light comedy” in the written record. Van Trease does a good job of connecting the two levels of reality, although the show ends rather abruptly — could use some kind of definitive button, some assessment or conclusion for us to carry out of the theatre with us. Her performance is also great, undoubtedly closer to the real Parker than Jennifer Jason Leigh (who was much criticized for her slurred diction in the Rudolph film). And the rest of the ensemble gamely attack their multiplicity of parts in scenes both serious and silly. All in all, I think Mrs. Parker would approve.

Stars of Vaudeville #25: May Irwin

Posted in Broadway, Silent Film, Singing Comediennes, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , on June 27, 2009 by travsd

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MAY IRWIN, “Madame Laughter”

Mae Irwin spent her career alternating between the legit theatre and vaudeville, but her most lasting legacy is the fact that she is one of the first vaudevillians (make that one of the first people) preserved on celluloid, in the 1895 flicker The Kiss. The film captured her for a brief moment in her starring role in the show The Widow Jones. That was the whole film, just the kiss. Talk about cutting to the chase! And here it is:

Born in Whitby Canada in 1862, she started out singing in the church choir. She debuted with her sister in a straight show at the Adelphi Theatre in buffalo in 1876. The pair worked as coon shouters and toured the Midwest. Tony Pastor spotted them in Detroit and brought them back to work at his Metropolitan Theatre in New York the following year. In 1883, Mae was booked as member of Augustin Daly’s company, where she starred for many years. In 1907 she returned to vaudeville, capitalizing on her skill and reputation as a low comedian, and her commodious, matronly body. She continued to work both vaudeville and the legitimate stage until retirement in 1920.

Douglas Gilbert recounted one notable occasion when she stepped out of retirement, however. At age 70, she was called frantically and begged to substitute for a performer who’d gotten sick at a benefit show. At that point, Mae a wealthy old woman who’d been out of performing for well over a decade. She told three stories and sang a song called “The Bully” and brought the house down.

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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Wagon Wheel

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Romani (Gypsy) with tags , , on June 26, 2009 by travsd

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Readers of No Applause know that the romance of the gypsy forms an important part of the perpetual fairy tale circulating in my brain. “Travelers”, as they are often known: free spirits, outsiders, artists. Maybe it’s a stereotype, but it’s a glamorous one. Singing, dancing, drinking wine all day, banging a tamborine.

In reality, it’s not so pretty. The real life Roma continue to maintain their itinerant culture and are among the poorest people in Europe, still ostracized after centuries of persecution. Wagon Wheel, a new musical recently presented at the “Planet Connections” festival, purports to tell their story. I use the arch verb with reason. While a program note informs us that it is “Post World War II Eastern Europe”, there is no reference whatever to real events either historical or contemporary in the show.  It really seems set in a cocoon of fairy tale timelessness, which is okay by me (just don’t claim otherwise). “Eastern Europe” is a clue: Hungary? Poland? Romania? Vast differences among their cultures; even among their Roma cultures. (Recommended reading: Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, by Isabel Fonseca)

I am an advocate for authenticity and folkishness on the stage. This is why I am a fan of Viva Patshiva — who bring real gypsy melodies and dances to their productions unalloyed. (Full disclosure, I appeared in their Surf Reality “Under the Highway” incarnation as the token rich white guy). This is prefatory to saying that, to my surprise, I didn’t hate Erato Kremmyda’s mongrelized approach to the music for Wagon Wheel…a little gypsy flavor mixed with a lot of “Broadway musical”. Half way into the first number I went from gritting my teeth at the piano flourishes…to admiring the pretty melody. While there are twice too many of them, the songs are consistently gorgeous throughout. I would even play the CD.

The book’s problems are greater. Robin Sandusky’s story is fairly hackneyed; the entire arc of the plot can be discerned within the play’s first five minutes without the assistance of a crystal ball. Young Laszo ( Michael-August Turley) is unexpectedly vaulted  to King of the Caravan when the death of his father (Yoav Levin) reveals that the eldest brother Zjohai (Christopher Johnson) is of suspect parentage. A stickler for tradition, Zjohair insists that the unprepared Laszo (who looks about 14 years old) not only the assume the post, but also assume his arranged bride (Rebecca Odoriso0). Which might be okay if his own girlfriend (Ani Niemann) wasn’t carrying his child. Fiery people + jealousy + knives. You do the math. At any rate, something didn’t quite add up in this production. In spite of the tragic ending, the three Cockneys in front of me couldn’t stop giggling.

And yet…I can’t say why, but I think there may be potential in this show. It needs to be worked on. The Robert Moss Theatre (where I saw it) is too small, for one thing. I’m not sure if I even saw the show that is latently there. Perhaps if the singing and dancing were “let rip” on a much bigger stage, it would be easier to engage with it.  And the book has snags that need to be ironed out. Is this the real world? A gypsy folk tale? What do I look like, a mind reader?

Stars of Vaudeville #24: Arthur Tracy

Posted in Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on June 25, 2009 by travsd

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ARTHUR TRACY, “THE STREET SINGER”

There is a tradition in American show business of the male singer being on some level a “bad boy”. Long before rock and roll, part of the image of the heart-throb was that he was a bit of a blade, a rake, a devil. There’d be a suggestion in his attitude of race tracks, of night clubs, of late hours. If he came calling, your parents would not approve at first; they’d give their grudging consent “once they got to know him.” This was the image of most of them: Al Jolson, Harry Richman, Harry Fox, and later Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, etc. etc, and on into the rock era, when parents would only give consent over their dead body.

That’s one vision of romance. There used to be another. The alternate vision is long dead, and was on its way to dying out long before rock and roll put the last bullet in its temple. That is the image represented by personae like Nelson Eddy’s characters, Sir Galahad, and Superman. A legacy of opera and operetta, this vision posits a lover who would never actually have sex with a woman: good-looking, virile and morally pure. Dudley Do-Right. Such was the persona, too, of Arthur Tracy.

Tracy had a musical childhood. He started singing at the age of six. His father taught him voice and violin, he also took professional lessons, and in his spare time he listened to Caruso records. An early booking at the Logan Theatre in his native Philadelphia lasted 11 months. Such success brought him to New York, where he started out in the amateur night at Keith’s 14th Street. He won so much that the management made him M.C. so the audience wouldn’t think the competition was rigged. A few years of club dates and vaudeville followed, then roles in the Shubert operettas Blossom Time and The Student Prince.

In 1931, Frank Pepper of the act Salt and Pepper hooked him up with a scout a CBS. His voice was such a hit, he was booked for his own program, which was called “The Street Singer of the Air.” The persona had been invented specifically for the program, but it became his identity for all subsequent performances, based on his radio fame. In live performances the big show stopper was “Marta”, his radio theme song. News of “jazz” never reached this man; he knew just what to do with “Danny Boy”. Ladies thrilled to his rich, baritone voice, and his old-fashioned sentimentality, which seemed plucked straight from the mountains of Switzerland—just like the posies in a bouquet. He accompanied himself on the accordion.

And yet, audiences went wild. Police had to be called in to control the mobs. He was a star of radio and vaudeville in the early 30s playing the RKO and Loew’s circuits and setting records at the Palace and the Hippodrome. In 1935, he moved to England, where they understood his kind of performance even better. He stayed there six years. After this, he was never a star on the old scale, but he continued working for the next fifty years.

In 1982, his old rendering of “Pennies from Heaven” was used in the eponymous Steve Martin film. And shortly before his death in 1997, Tracy sang “I Love You Truly” at the wedding of New York disc jockey Rich Conaty. This was easily one of the last dates played by an original vaudevillian.

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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Barbara Maier Profile

Posted in Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Drag and/or LGBT, ME, Singers, Women with tags , , , on June 19, 2009 by travsd

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It was my privilege to interview an interesting and lovely New York character the other day. My profile on Barbara Maier is at:

http://thevillager.com/villager_320/vocalcoachvalued.html

Stars of Vaudeville #23: Clark and McCullough

Posted in Broadway, Circus, Clown, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on June 16, 2009 by travsd

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Today is Bobby Clark’s birthday (the guy from whom I stole the glasses).

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A tension exists in all comedy teams between the “funny” member(s) and the straight man or stooge. One gets all the glory and is everyone’s favorite – the other remains an unsung hero, truly appreciated by only a few aficionados. The situation can lead to strife, and there are numerous examples of the straight man turning to drink, exploding, and/or just quitting in disgust: Bud AbbotEd Gallagher, and Zeppo Marx are some prime examples. But the most extreme and tragic illustration of this psychological phenomenon is that of Clark and McCullough.

Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough were boyhood friends, born and bred in Springfield, Ohio. McCullough was the senior, having been born in 1883, five years  before Clark. It is McCullough who introduced Clark to tumbling, and they both took gymnastics lessons at the local YMCA. They made the official decision to team up and go onstage in 1900. Their first real employment was in minstrelsy, where they expanded their skills, learned to sing and dance and other show business fundamentals. From there, they went on to work as circus clowns at Ringling Brothers and others, billed variously as The Jazzbo Brothers or Sunshine and Roses. During these years (1906-11) they developed a routine that was to be a staple of their act for many years, a pantomimic routine involving the pair’s inability to to successfully deposit a chair on top of a table. McCullough, originally the comedian, would say: “It looks simple…but its actually quite complicated.”

Circus clown days. With a third partner, Hank Peare

Circus clown days. With a third partner, Hank Peare

By 1912, the boys’ characters had taken shape and they made the plunge into vaudeville as Clark and McCullough. Contrary to standard practice, them team put the “funny” member’s name first. How this evolved is not difficult to imagine. Bobby Clark was a scene stealer who hogged all the attention wherever he went. He was one of show business’s great grotesques; as with Ed Wynn or Groucho or Harpo Marx, he is more “clown” than comedian.  His get-up alone qualified him as a sort of honorary Marx Brother. His trademarks were a pair of eyeglasses which he drew directly on his face with grease paint, and a cane, which he apparently carried only to hook things with. Standing a mere 5’4”, and invariably with a cigar in his puss, he would charge around the stage like a scene-chewing dynamo, devouring anything and everything in his path. His leer was downright creepy, a little too real, and more dangerous than Groucho’s. A favorite trick of his was to spit his cigar out and catch it a couple of feet in front of his face, and continue smoking. McCullough was a sort of mixture of the straight man and stooge roles. Slow witted and innocent, he would feed Clark the set-ups for all the laugh lines. Clark wrote all the routines, which consisted of verbal non sequiturs, stunts and sight gags in such profusion and delivered so rapidly that it left the audience gasping for air.

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Yet, while, the pair worked steadily in vaudeville, they never headlined (during these early years).

And, in 1917, they spoiled their chance to do so by participating in the White Rat strike. They were put on the Vaudeville Managers Association’s blacklist and barred from big time. They made a hit in burlesque however, becoming some of the biggest comedy stars in the entire industry, so much so that by 1922, they were able to creep back into vaudeville and receive better and better bookings. In 1922 they were starring in a revue called The Chuckles of 1922 where they were spotted by Irving Berlin. He brought them back to the states to headline his Music Box Revue. It is their big shot. After this the team takes off, starring in numerous book musicals over the next decade, notably Gershwin’s Strike Up the Band, but many others as well.

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Vaudeville continued to play a part, and in 1928 they headlined at the Palace. Hollywood also beckoned, and they made several shorts for Fox in the late 20s and some films for RKO in the thirties, while continuing their work in the theatre.

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In these later years, Clark literally stole the show, and McCullough had less and less to do. In the films, McCullough contributes little but a rasping laugh, which he does so often it becomes irritating. Sometimes he has no lines—he just laughs at Clark’s. Demoralized, he would ask for less to do, for the little he’d been doing he’d begun not to like. By the mid-30s, McCullough was hardly in their shows at all, and was barely missed. Following a nervous breakdown and a sanitarium stay, he committed suicide in 1936 by slashing his own throat with a straight razor. He’d stopped into a barber shop for a haircut, and picked up the razor when the barber wasn’t looking. Top that for a big finish.

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Miraculous as it may seem, Clark managed to recover from this trauma after a few months and went on to become a bigger star than ever, headlining in numerous Broadway book musicals and even legit classics by Congreve, Sheridan and Moliere. He makes an appearance in the 1938 film The Goldwyn Follies. His last Broadway show was 1949, although he briefly came out of retirement for a regional tour of Damn Yankees in 1956. But the stage was Clark’s milieu– he never conquered another medium, which, ironically means that his fame was ephemeral and today he is every bit as obscure as his hapless partner. If only someone could have told that to McCullough.

And now here they are in one of my favorite Clark and McCullough shorts, The Iceman’s Ball (1932). 

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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