Archive for June, 2009

Cinquevalli: The Human Billiard Table

Posted in Jugglers, Stars of Vaudeville, 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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May Irwin: Madame Laughter

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

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!

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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Arthur Tracy: The Street Singer

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

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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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Clark and McCullough: Sunshine and Roses

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

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OF CLARK AND MCCULLOUGH

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

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Photo by Evan Fairbanks

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.

To find out more about Clark and McCullough 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.

Cliff Edwards, a.k.a “Ukulele Ike”, a.k.a. “Jiminy Cricket”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2009 by travsd

Best known today as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in the 1940 Disney film Pinnochio,  Cliff Edwards (June 14, 1895 – July 17, 1971) probably gained his widest popularity on radio.

He was also big in vaudeville, films, and had a successful recording career. As the name implies, he accompanied himself on the uke. He entered vaudeville in the late teens. In 1920, he paired briefly with singer/dancer Pierre Keegan in an act called “Jazz As Is”. He cut his first record in 1922. His pleasant, smooth voice with its folksy edge made quite a hit, and by 1924, he was playing the Palace. Broadway shows included Mimic World of 1921Lady Be Good (1924), and numerous others.

His film career was launched with  The Hollywood Revue of 1929 wherein first made popular the song “Singin’ in the Rain”.  More than 80 films followed, including several co-starring vehicles with Buster Keaton. In clips, one who expects to find a Burl Ives-looking character based on his voice, will be surprised to see a young man with a Rudy Vallee like appeal.

In 1932, he launched his first radio show. In 1949, he launched two different TV shows on CBS: The Cliff Edwards Show and The 54th Street Revue. He died in 1971.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville and performers like Cliff Edwards, a.k.a. Ukulele Ike a.k.a Jiminy Cricketconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Ted Lewis: “The Jazz King”

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2009 by travsd

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Ted Lewis was the original party animal. His catchphrase “Is ev’rybodyhappy?” still rings on the lips of millions who never even heard of Lewis himself. He wore a dented old top hat when he performed, and himself a crazy old good time up on the stage, and as any veteran will tell you, that’s half the battle.

Born Theodore Freidman, in Circleville, Ohio (1890), he started out singing and playing his clarinet in nicklodeons, medicine shows and carnivals. For years he played the small time and his own nightclubs and cabarets with the Ted Lewis Nut band. His debut at the Palace in 1919 was a wow, and he was to repeat it many times. Trademark Ted Lewis tunes include “When My Baby Smiles At Me”, and “Me and My Shadow.” For good measure, he would roll his hat down his arm and catch it. He had great success through the twenties in revues such as Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic and the Greenwich Village Follies. In 1925, he had successful run at London’s Kit Kat Club with the Dolly Sisters. By the thirties, he was out of style, and he gradually faded into the woodwork, passing away in 1971.

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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Josephine Baker: America’s Greatest Export

Posted in African American Interest, Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Dance, Dixieland & Early Jazz, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2009 by travsd

JOSEPHINE BAKER

A sinuous idol that enslaves and incites mankind…it was as though the jazz, catching on the wing of the vibrations of this mad body, were interpreting, word by word, its fantastic monologue…It was no longer a grotesque dancing girl that stood before the audience, but the black Venus that haunted Baudelaire.

Andre Levinson, quoted in Theatre Arts, August, 1942

Born Frida McDonald in 1906, the future symbol of the Jazz Age left home at 15 to perform with a traveling vaudeville troupe. Her first break was a part Sissle and Blake’s 1923 musical Shuffle Along. She appeared in the team’s next project The Chocolate Dandies, but when that petered out, she began performing in Harlem nightclubs.

From there, she departed for Paris, where she was able to ascend the very highest pinnacle of stardom without experiencing the racism she had always known in the United States. Engagements at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees and the Folies Bergere made her the toast of Par-ee. No montage sequence of the 1920s would be complete without a shot of her, without a long string pf pearls and a skirt made out of bananas doing the Charleston, the Black Bottom, or a similar dance of the time.

Her ability to be both funny and sexy endeared her to her audiences at the time:

America never properly embraced her in her lifetime. She returned to the U.S. for bookings on a couple of occasions, but for the most part, France remained her new home. She died of a stroke in 1975.

To find out more about Josephine Baker, the Jazz Age, 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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