Archive for July, 2009

Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Broadway, Hollywood (History) with tags , , on July 29, 2009 by travsd


If there ever was a meaty (first beefy, then fatty) subject for a biographer to sink his teeth into it has to be Marlon Brando. Crazy as a bedbug, brilliant as a Wogglebug, he reinvented an entire art form and became a poster boy for disaffected youngsters everywhere — all done at the same time, and with a sneer on his face.  Stefan Kanfer’s recent book Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando focuses on Brando the neurotic, a perspective that, while narrow, is nevertheless thought-provoking.

Adroit film buffs will recognize the reference in the book’s title; it is what On the Waterfront’s mixed up boxer Terry Malloy wishes he was (in addition to a “contender…instead of a bum, which is what I am…”) Kanfer expertly teases out the thesis that the truth of those lines on the screen sprang from the fact that that was how Brando really felt about himself. The son of a womanizing traveling salesman and a self-involved, alcoholic housewife, Brando was an actor who forever sought attention by acting up and acting out. Repeatedly told by his father and nearly all of his teachers that he would never amount to anything , he turned to acting almost out of desperation, the stage being one of the few professions that actually rewards social misfits. Almost overnight he became acting guru Stella Adler’s star pupil, a phenomenon on Broadway, and a major Hollywood star. But old habits die hard. Unable to trust the adulation, he left that chip on his shoulder right where it was – kept it there, in fact, to his dying day. On its face, his constant denigration of the actor’s art might look like a kind of integrity, but it never quite proved to be that. For Brando wasn’t merely putting down his own performances in pursuit of some higher vision of art. Instead, he cynically knocked the entire profession itself, happy to earn millions of dollars for practicing a worthless craft if that was how the suckers wanted it.

Ah! But to what extent did he practice a craft? Brando’s lack of discipline was infamous, although when the perverse mood struck him, he would show off just how disciplined he could be just to screw with people’s heads, as when he played Marc Antony to Gielgud’s Cassius and showed he could be as boring as all the other musical comedy leading men in Guys and Dolls. Kanfer misses this major point a couple of times when he quotes admirers’ hushed reports of Brando’s “transformations” into “other people”. On the contrary, in the cinematic record at least, what Brando seemed best at was being himself. In his youth, his animal magnetism served him well in roles like Stanley Kowalski, Terry Malloy, and the iconic hoodlum in The Wild One. But the proof of the pudding to my mind was his middle period, in a film like Mutiny on the Bounty where he was both literally and figuratively at sea. By the 1960s, the world was full of Brandos and Brando himself, though just as adolescent as ever, was too old to play a juvenile delinquent. The limits of his “craft” manifested themselves in each succeeding picture as he played no end of unconvincing cowboys, southern sheriffs, aristocrats, playboys….the public wasn’t buying it. I find it telling that his comeback in the early 1970s came by playing a gangster in The Godfather and a sexoholic in Last Tango in Paris. It is proof to me that his art was somehow about his image, about Brando himself. In contrast to Olivier (whose name was often paired with his on a two-name list of the world’s greatest actors) his bag was not subsuming his identity into other characters at all. At parts that expressed the rebel Brando, he excelled; in all other parts, he was dreadful, self-conscious, bewildering.

As Kanfer skillfully relates, this same self-indulgent capriciousness marred other aspects of his public and private life. A famous political dabbler, Brando repeatedly proved himself adept at knocking things down, but clueless about how to build things up. His most famous act of activist chicanery was sending Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse his Oscar on behalf of Native Americans. If he ever used his influence or his millions to build some sustaining superstructure that would actually improve the health, income and morale of Native Americans, the world is unaware of it. One of Kanfer’s best insights is his comparison of such ineffective showboating with the career of the mature Paul Newman, another method actor who’d portrayed rebels in his youth, but whom (unlike Brando) actually founded a major charity that changed thousands of people’s lives. Brando, it appears wanted to be “somebody”…without actually doing anything.

Likewise, Brando’s personal life was a chaos of tragedy and waste, with a string of  wives and concubines, a suicide for a daughter, a drug-addled murderer for a son. The product of a dysfunctional home, Brando reacted by building a dozen dysfunctional homes from New York to Tahiti. Disdainful of his imperfect father, he responded by being an even bigger failure as a father by an order of magnitude.

Brando never ceased to be a child. That is fine so far as it goes. It’s also true of Elvis, Howard Hughes, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, and any number of our untethered, loony tunes, millionaire celebrity class. In fact, nearly all of them. What of it? Here we get less guidance. Kanfer’s book does provide a lot of context, perhaps 25% of the book, in the form of contemporary historical details. This may help the book’s longevity, but it still doesn’t get at the crux of the most important aspect of the Brando phenomenon: the meaning of his image. Why is he the subject of one of Warhol’s earliest silk screens? What is it about him that inspired both Elvis Presley (a cracker from Tennessee) and John Belushi (an Albanian from Chicago)? In the 1940s, men and women dressed – not just when they went out on dates, or when they went to work or church, but whenever they were seen in public. Brando startled everyone he met by showing up in jeans and a tee shirt. It’s since become the universal American uniform.

Brando is like Milton’s Satan or the Prometheus of Aeschylus. Long before his imitator James Dean, he was a “Rebel Without a Cause”. But what is that, but to say “no” just because someone else has said “yes”? Americans had always worshipped rebels, but usually ones with causes. Unhitched to anything good or valuable, antinomianism for its own sake is mere destructiveness, nihilism. And, after all, if you aren’t already “somebody”, then you must be nothing, a void. Kanfer makes a fleeting reference to Ahab in the book and I wish he’d gone much further down this path. For I think it is possible that Brando’s art (and his life) come closest to Melville’s – an exploration of his (and America’s) dark side. We see it at it’s peak in Brando’s insane, rambling, brilliant speeches as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now – all, according to Kanfer, largely improvised. The former biker who terrorized small American towns in The Wild One is now cut loose to do it on a larger scale in the villages of Vietnam. Art and madness have become one. It’s fine on the screen, but potentially dangerous as a real world credo.

While I’m recommending this book, let me take this opportunity to also recommend another by Kanfer as well, the excellent Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx, one of the references for my own No Applause and a terrific book in its own right.

Rudy Vallee: Vagabond Lover

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Hollywood (History), Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 28, 2009 by travsd


Rudy Vallee is remembered today as a singer, and it is usually forgotten that he was also the leader of his own band. Ben Bernie and Ted Lewis had sung with their bands, too, but Vallee was a real singer, one of the first heart throbs, and he sort of set the mold for the style and scale of stardom that Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra would later enjoy. He, too, was known for his own catchphrase: “Heigh ho, everybody!”

He was born Hubert Vallee, in Island Pond, Vermont in 1901, although he was to famously grow up in Maine. He loved music from his earliest childhood, singing and taking up the saxophone from a young age. His hero was a musician named Rudy Wiedoeft – from whom he stole his first name. In 1917 Vallee took job at the Star Theatre, in Westbrook, Maine where he swept, tended the furnace, ushered, and projected films. He went on to do similar work at the Strand Theatre in Portland. When there was an emergency opening, Vallee got to play his sax on the stage of the strand – his first professional engagement.

He worked his way through Yale playing in with the Yale Collegians. They started playing vaudeville during the summer. In 1928 they got a regular gig at the Heigh Ho, a new night club. Vallee sang, played the sax and lead the band, with the trademark gimmicks of a megaphone which he sang through cheerleader style, and a college sweater. He also had a very distinctive patter – highly articulate and every bit as literate as one would hope from a Yale educated man. Radio station WABC started to do a live hook-up from the Heigh Ho Club. Vallee’s beautiful voice and unusual patter made him an instant hit, and fan mail started to arrive by the thousands.

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

He changed the name of the band to the Connecticut Yankees, and they started to make other public appearances. A booking at the R.K.O. theatre at 82nd Street was packed with hundreds of screaming radio fans. He want on to do a tour of the Keith Circuit, including his 1929 debut at the Palace, where he broke the house record for attendance. The movie The Vagabond Lover made him an even bigger star.

In 1929, he started a new radio program, the Fleischman’s Yeast Show. (Imagine naming your show after yeast). In 1930, the group began a long engagement at the 4500 seat Brooklyn Paramount. In the 30s and 40s, he concentrated on films. Some of his notable ones include: International House (1933), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and Mad Wednesday (1947), though there were many more. In 1961, he appeared on Broadway in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He died in 1986.

Here he is doing what he he id best, at the height of his fame:

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.


Joe E. Brown: From Corkscrew Kid to Comedy Kingpin

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Circus, Comedy, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Joe E. Brown, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 28, 2009 by travsd


Known now primarily as a film comedian (he was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the early 30s), Joe E. Brown began his professional career as an acrobat in vaudeville and circuses. An enormous mouth , two strange slitty little eyes and a penchant for multi-colored vests were the assets he rode to success – but he was also an extraordinarily gifted comic.

Born the third of seven children in 1892, Brown was brought up in relative poverty, the son of a house painter, in rural Ohio. As a child, Brown started selling newspapers and shining shoes on the streets of Toledo.

At age ten, he auditioned for the Five Marvelous Ashtons, a small time acrobatic troupe run by one Billy Ashe. He was so young, his parents signed the contract on his behalf for his first tour. The Ashtons were what is called a “casting” act, i.e., a trapeze act where one member is thrown, does a mid-air somersault and is caught at the end. As the smallest member of the troupe, Brown was the one who got thrown and caught. Brown was a natural. Not only did he have the gift of physical coordination, but he also had that equally rare gift: the patience to attempt a seemingly impossible feat over and over and over again until he got it right.  The Ashtons played several circuses that first season: Sells & Downs; Busby Bros., John Robinson, Floto. The act was bad, and they got fired from each gig for not living up to their promises. Brown was ill-fed, underpaid, and he received a beating if he flubbed his tricks or talked out of turn. Brown did four seasons with the Ashtons, until his family pulled him out when they finally heard of the ill treatment which Brown had stoically kept hidden.

A friend sent a query letter out on his behalf, and a man named Tony Bell got in touch. Brown moved to New York to join his act. Astoundingly, Bell turned out to be crueler than Ashe, whose beatings were “fatherly” at least. Brown’s job was to stand on the shoulders of one acrobat, bounce on a trampoline, do a trick in mid-air, and land on the shoulders of the other. The so-called Prevost-Bell Trio didn’t last long. Bell saw to that by intentionally neglecting to catch Brown on one of his flips, causing him to break his leg. Such was the power of the employer in those days.

Brown recuped for several weeks in 1909 with the other member of the Trio Frank Gude (Prevost). When Brown got better, the two formed Prevost and Brown, a comedy acrobatic act. Brown had studied the clowns while in the circus, imitating their faces, etc. He worked up a “sneezing” bit that became a favorite part of the act.

His funny faces (and the body language that went with them) are the key to Brown. In addition to his natural equipment, which was prodigious (his real face was a virtual clown mask), his mode of performing was a highly wrought succession of comic faces, utterances and gestures – very reminiscent of Jim Carrey. As with Carrey, the effect is sidesplittingly funny. It appears that he has thought long and hard about his performance, dreamt of the funniest take on each beat, and delivered it with the artistry of a Heifitz. Just as with Carrey (or Jerry Lewis), the comedy is self-reflexive; the comedian is willing to go to great lengths to humiliate himself, to be a total dolt. Brown would cook up ways to get a laugh out of the tiniest, most insignificant bits of business. He learned to use his big mouth to great effect, as when he opened it wide to speak…paused for effect…and then emitted a really tiny voice.

Prevost and Brown played in burlesque to good reviews. Over the course of nine years, they worked their way up to big time in vaudeville:  the Palace. Brown was called the “Corkscrew Kid” because of his most popular maneuver. From the Pantages circuit they worked their way up the Orpheum, a move they had to change their name to accomplish, become Rochelle and Brown. They now good bookings in good houses, but, being acrobats, they were still always last on the bill.

Following a tour of the Marcus Loew circuit in 1915, Brown retired from show business briefly when he learned his wife was about to have a baby. First, he managed a pool hall, then worked in a factory. Then he joined Prevost again; he wasn’t making any more money at a “regular, steady job” anyway. Getting up there in years, Prevost now needed longer and longer breathing spells, so Brown increased his talking. He began telling a story of a “little mousie” who fell in a vat of whiskey. He devised one of the most ingenious bits in the history of vaudeville. Brown planted a a trampoline in the orchestra pit where it would be unseen by the audience. At a certain point in the act, he would fall flat as a board into the pit and bounce right back on stage. It never failed to surprise and delight audiences.

1917-18 was Brown’s last season with Prevost. He decided his next move would be to become a solo comedian. With great savvy, he decided he would go back to burlesque to work on this new act. He signed a 5 year contract with manager John Jermon. He broke it to take the lead in a show called Listen Lester when the lead became sick. Unfortunately, it was one of those heartbreaking phantom breaks — on the night Brown’s show was to start, Equity called a strike, and Brown, who hadn’t even known what Equity was, joined it. He was thrown of work for several weeks, literally starving. Then, ironically, he was grudgingly given a bit part in the touring company of Listen Lester by the producer who swore he’d never hire him again. Brown milked every bit of his small ten-minute part for laughs, and critics and audiences loved him. From he here, he went on to do several revues and book shows—he is a hit in every one. Examples include the 1920 show Jim Jam Jems with Harry Langdon and Frank Fay, and the Greenwich Village Follies (1921-23). He did a popular sketch in vaudeville called  “Arrest Me” based on an O. Henry story. The plot concerned a hungry man who tries to get arrested so that he will at least be fed. Then he inherits a fortune and THEN gets arrested. Other shows included Captain Jinks (1925) based on Clyde Fitch’s Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, and Twinkle Twinkle (1926). The national tour of the latter brought Brown to Hollywood, where he started working in films.

Brown did several silent pictures 1927-29, in most of which he unaccountably played dramatic roles. In 1928, he made his first talkie, the screamingly funny Vitaphone short Twinkle, Twinkle . During the years 1930-36 he made several successful pictures for Warner Bros.—he was, in fact, their reigning comic star. Titles included, Hold Everything (1930) which he famously stole from Bert LahrElmer the Great (which he performed on stage and screen, in 1931), and many others. He is perhaps best known today as Osgood Fielding III, the character who has the last line in Billy Wilder’s 1960 film Some Like it Hot. Brown finally tumbled from this mortal trampoline in 1973.


To find out more about  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. And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc

Burns and Allen: The Most Successful of the “Dumb Dora” Acts

Posted in Burns and Allen, Comediennes, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Irish, Jews/ Show Biz, Radio (Old Time Radio), Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2009 by travsd


Burns and Allen are the most successful “Dumb Dora” act (or male-female comedy team) of all time. Countless such acts came before them, and plenty after them, but none is as memorable as this pair, who were at the top of their game for forty years. The success of the act is most frequently chalked up to Gracie Allen’s unique artistry, but the fact is, George Burns was among the best straight men who ever walked the earth. He frequently protested that Gracie was the whole act and that he had no talent but this was just a public pose. Deep down he had to have known better. He wrote much of their material for one thing, and his material was consistently good, better than Bob Hope’s, for example. Furthermore, he proved himself a marvelous comedian on his own after Grace retired. Burns and Allen was a true partnership.

What set the act apart from all the other Dumb Dora acts was Gracie’s skill as a comic actress. Contrary to the tradition, which is to dress the Dumb Dora in loud, sexy, “funny” clothes, Gracie would dress tastefully in some fashionable, but normal, outfit from the sort of place where all the women in the audience shopped. She was not vulgar or burlesquy. There was no suggestion that she was “easy”. At 5 feet tall, 100 pounds, she was hardly the show-girl “babe” type. She was simply dumb, and a little bit crazy. Furthermore, she did not even play dumb, although her naturally high pitched voice helped reinforce the image that she was. As far as you knew it by watching her body language she was a perfectly intelligent woman, completely in the right and sincere about whatever she was talking about. The twist was, she was talking preposterous nonsense.

From their sketch “Dizzy”

A man comes out, puts his arms around Gracie, and kisses her, and she kisses him. They wave to each other as he backs offstage. Gracie returns to George center stage.

Gracie: Who was that?

George: You don’t know?

Gracie: No, my mother told me never to talk to strangers.

George: That makes sense.

Gracie: This always happens to me. On my way in, a man stopped me at the stage door and said, “Hi, you cutie, how about a bite tonight after the show?”

George: And you said?

Gracie: I said “I’ll be busy after the show, but I’m not doing anything right now, so I bit him.

George Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum in 1896, one of 12 kids from a poor family on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His parents were orthodox Jews, the mother from Poland, the father from Austria. He started dancing on street corners at age seven for coins. His first real act,was the Pee Wee Quartet, a juvenile singing act. He performed with perhaps dozens of failed acts (under as many names) previous to teaming up with Allen: Comedy acts, song and dance acts, even a trained seal act. One of the most serious of his earlier partners was the dancer Hermosa Jose, who was also his first wife. He was teamed with Billy Lorraine in 1923 (the two did impressions), when Burns decided he want to do a Dumb Dora act instead, because he has just copped a bunch of good jokes from a college humor magazine of that sort.

As it happened, Gracie Allen was looking for an act herself at that very time. Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen was born to a show business family in San Francisco in 1906. Her father, a well-known Irish clog dancer, ran out on the family when Gracie was five. When she was a teenager she joined a song and dance act with her sisters Bessie, Pearl and Hazel – the Four Colleens.  She then joined a dramatic act owned by a man named Larry Reilly but he canned her for getting better reviews than he did.

This was the state of her career when she went to go see George Burns. Long before any romance had sparked between them, they decided to try working together, all done in a tidy, businesslike fashion. Burns frequently testified that she was the straightman at first, and that he had all the funny lines – but she got all the laughs anyway. So they had to adjust the act to make her the “funny” partner. The act was instantly popular, because Gracie’s approach was so fresh. She didn’t “act”, or play to the house. She always just simply and sincerely spoke to George in character (whom she was nothing like in real life, incidentally).

The act’s finish was also unique. They’d dance a bit, the music would stop, they’d do a joke, the music would resume, and the process would repeat.

By 1925, they had really made the big time with a tour of the Orpheum Circuit. Comedy writer Al Boasberg (who also wrote for Block and Sully, another Dumb Dora act, and later wrote for the Marx Brothers), wrote a sketch for them called “Lamb Chops” that was probably the best thing they ever did. A 1929 Vitaphone short of this act survives, and it is an eye-opener, to see the pair of them so young, so fresh, and at the peak of their powers. One can see why this is the act that put them over—that made them stars for decades to come.

In 1926, the two were married but not before Gracie put George through his paces. She had been dating Benny Ryan, but George forced her to choose, and she finally acquiesced. The next few decades of their career record triumph after triumph. In 1926, they signed a five year contract with Keith-Orpheum. In 1928, they made a successful tour of England. Also, in 1928 they played the Palace for the first time, which Burns described as the greatest night of his life. The team was a smash at the Palace, and Gracie was invited to m.c., the first female ever so distinguished at the Palace. In 1929, they make their first short for films for Paramount, and several features through the 1930s. Gracie frequently worked without George in films; her last role was in Mrs. North in 1941.

Eddie Cantor booked Gracie as a solo for radio in 1930. The team did lots of spots on other people’s shows over the months. In 1932, Burns and Allen  became regulars on Guy Lombardo’s program. When Lombardo left the next season, Burns and Allen took over, renaming the show “The Adventures of Gracie.” Their theme song, which they used through the remainder of their career was “Love Nest.”  Their popular radio show ran until 1950, at which point they made the transition to television.

Their television show, which ran for eight years, was a strange hybrid. Though there was a situation comedy element, with a typical “house” set, each show was framed by Burns doing a Brechtian style “direct address” – stand up material and confidential little conversations with the television audience. When Gracie, who had a bad heart (among numerous other conditions) retired in 1958, Burns concentrated on a number of other projects. His production company, McCadden productions, was responsible for bring Mr. Ed to the screen. A George Burns Show bit the dust after a single season, suffering the same fate, for many of the same reasons, as Sonny Bono’s The Sonny Comedy Revue would ten years later.  With Gracie in retirement, Burns seemed to be floundering for quite some time. A solo act was tried in Vegas, and then he teamed up with Carol Channing as a sort of substitute for Gracie, a strange instinct to say the least. In 1964, he did a short lived sit com with Connie Stevens called Wendy and Me. That was the year, Gracie finally succumbed to her heart condition, ironically one of the youngest of her generation of vaudevillians to pass into the hereafter.

After a decade of grieving (and who wouldn’t take so long after the loss of such a partner?) Burns began to emerge from his cocoon. With a gentleman named Irving Fein as his manager, he made one of the most astounding comebacks in show business. In fact, it was more than a comeback, for Burns as a solo act had never been a success. The turnaround began with a role in the 1975 Neil Simon film The Sunshine Boys, a part originally intended for Jack Benny, who had just passed away. Burns had been slated to deliver the eulogy at Benny’s funeral, but was too emotionally distraught, and so passed the grim duty on to Bob Hope.

For the next twenty years, Burns was a first class star, sort of Hollywood’s token old guy.

For a whole generation of fans (the author included) George Burns was just George Burns – we had never known him with Gracie, and could discover her only through detective work. But George Burns – there he was in films, such as “Oh, God” (1978) and “Going in Style” (1979), countless TV appearances, and humor books (practically one a year, it seemed). He was at his best on talk shows, in conversation with people like Larry King or Johnny Carson, where he could tell his seemingly endless supply of show business anecdotes and ad libs, and reveal that he was, indeed, a very funny man, in his own right.  Burns died in 1996, stubbornly holding out for 100. At the point, he had been a performer for 93 years.

To find out more about  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.

And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


Nat Goodwin: Actor, Author, Mimic

Posted in Melodrama and Master Thespians, Stars of Vaudeville, The Hall of Hams, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on July 25, 2009 by travsd


In vaudeville I was very happy. I was rather self-conscious, for when salary day came around I felt as if I were cheating to take the magnificent sums I was receiving for my 27 minutes work twice a day

George M. Cohan’s favorite actor, Nathanial “Nat” Goodwin was a performer who straddled two different eras. He started acting in his native Boston in the mid 70s. Billed as “Actor, Author and Mimic” he made his first hit at Tony Pastor’s Broadway location in 1875 in a sketch called “Ned Strycker”. Of variety, he said “the salaries offered were tempting and the opportunities of advertising one’s ability much greater than in the legitimate”. On the legit stage he scored his greatest critical successes in farces in the 1880s and 1890s. He attempted tragedy on a number of occasions (e.g., Shylock in The Merchant of Venice) but was invariably savaged by critics. In the teens he returned to vaudeville, and made a number of silent pictures. His most famous role was Fagin in Oliver Twist which he portrayed on both stage and screen. He shuffled off this mortal coil 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.


Blossom Seeley and Bennie Fields: Jazz Age Sweethearts

Posted in Comedy, Dixieland & Early Jazz, Jews/ Show Biz, Ragtime, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2009 by travsd


The adorable husband-wife team of Blossom Seeley and Bennie Fields was still kicking around within the living memory of the Pepsi generation, enjoying a healthy second career performing in night clubs and on the Ed Sullivan Show throughout the 1950s. When Benny passed away in 1959, Blossom cheerfully plugged on halfway through her seventh decade in show business.

Seeley had begun professionally at the turn of the century in her tween years under the name “The Little Blossom”. The most thorough account of the tangle of her early years can be found here, by author Bill Edwards, a truly admirable undertaking and useful. One interesting tidbit I took away was that she performed with Fred Irwin’s burlesque troupe in 1902, which is just a couple of years after W.C. Fields had.

Whew! (fans himself)

As Blossom grew less little (that is, uh, “blossomed”) she developed a reputation for being the hottest girl singer around. She was an almost exact contemporary of (and competitor with) Sophie Tucker (indeed, she introduced the Shelton Brooks tune “Some of These Days” in vaudeville a year before Sophie). Blossom knew how to deliver a rag or jazz number in such a way that you would want to leap out of your seat and dance. She lit up the joint with her sassy renditions of “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” “I Cried for You” “Somebody Loves Me”, “Toddling the Tolado” and “Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey”. Throughout the teens she alternated vaudeville with musicals such as Lew Fields’ The Henpecks (1911, also with the Castles) and the Shuberts’ The Whirl of Society (1912, also with Al Jolson). In the mid-teens she performed with a trio called Seeley’s Syncopated Studio. From 1917 through 1920 she formed a partnership on the vaudeville stage and off with her then husband pro baseball player Rube Marquard. 

In 1921 she started working with Fields, who’d been part of her backing trio, in a new two act. Fields sang harmony, played the piano, and did the comedy chores. The pair was married the following year. As a team Blossom Seeley and Benny Fields headlined in Big Time vaudeville throughout the twenties and into the early thirties. This is the period when the pair befriended George Burns and Gracie Allen, who would remain their closest friends for the remainder of their lives. George Gershwin wrote a 25 minute jazz opera called “Blue Monday” for them to sing in the 1922 George White’s Scandals. The number was pulled for being too highbrow and debuted with the new title “125th Street” at Carnegie Hall in 1925. They performed their act in two Vitaphone shorts: Blossom Seeley and Bennie Fields (1927) and All Star Vaudeville (1935). They also appear as a team in the feature Mr. Broadway (1933). That year Blossom also appeared solo in Broadway Through a Keyhole and Blood Money.

Ted Lewis you’re not, Benny!

In 1936, Seeley made the ultimate sacrifice. Though she was plainly the star of the act, she retired to support Benny in the development of his career. The only rationale one could possibly think of (in addition to the obvious: love), was the fact that Blossom had had her day in the sun; she was a phenomenon for decades. And the closest Fields had come to stardom was as Mr. Blossom Seeley. So she decided to let him take his shot. As a solo artist, Fields flopped around awhile, made a few movies (you can see him in The Big Broadcast of 1937 and his one starring vehicle, 1944’s Minstrel Man) , but he never caught fire.

The two experienced a resurgence beginning in 1952 when they appeared as a team again at L.A.’s Coconut Grove club in conjunction with the release of their bio-pic Somebody Loves Me, starring Betty Hutton and Ralph Meeker.

Ya gotta make hay while the sun shines

There followed countless spots on tv variety shows starting in the mid 1950s. And nostalgic records like Two a Day at the Palace, released in 1956.

Fields died in 1959; Seeley continued to make television appearances through 1966.

For more on vaudeville history, including the seminal team of Blossom Seeley and Benny Fields, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Ken Murray: He, of the Blackouts

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Stand Up, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2009 by travsd


Not to be confused with Ken Berry, or Jan Murray, nor even a love-child of the two, Ken Murray is the subject of one of the most astounding tales in show business lore:

As a child, the central figures in his life had been two aged parents and one peculiarly domineering, annoying brother about 20 years older than  himself named Joseph. Joseph, a vaudevillian, was peculiarly meddlesome in Ken’s life, always bossing him around, never his pal, constantly forcing him to do his bidding. One night, when Ken was about thirteen years old, he stayed out late and upon his return, Joseph berated him. Now old enough to notice how odd it is for a brother to play such a stentorian role, he finally asked his mother why she and his father let him do it. After all, nobody else’s brothers boss them around like that! The bombshell: Joseph was really Ken’s father, and his “parents” were really his grandparents. His natural mother had also been a show business person, who (like Sophie Tucker) had made the unnatural decision to relinquish her own child in order to stay on the stage.

Notwithstanding the bizarre effect it had on his parents, Ken nonetheless wanted to be in show business. Joseph was only reluctantly helpful, letting Ken come back stage at gigs sometimes, and introducing him to fellow performers. One of these friends, a man named Burt Lartell, taught Ken the buck and wing, the waltz, clog dancing, and the soft shoe. Murray also taught himself to play clarinet, a skill that was to be a mainstay of his act in years to come.

His first professional gig was as straight man with the Pete Curly Trio in 1922. A vacancy in Morey, Senna, and Dean provided him with anew engagement and a new stage name. Born Doncourt, a name right out of the Arthurian legends, he changed his name to Murray to replace the departed “Morey”. Why “Murray” equals “Morey” don’t ask me, but there is something vaudevillian about the half –assed equation.

He married young and appeared in vaudeville with his wife Charlotte but she was soon out of the picture. At age 23, Ken Murray, as a solo, was being billed as the youngest comedian on the Keith Circuit. What value youth has in the arena of humor I’m not sure, but this was vaudeville and at least it was an exploitable superlative of SOME kind. But even while Keith-Albee was stressing his youth, Murray was devising stratagems to make himself seem older. One was the omnipresence of a cigar. Murray was among the first to use one as a comic prop, ironically because he was such a kid. Secondly, he threw risque material into his act.

Charlotte: Do you have a fairy godmother?

Ken: No, but I have an uncle we’re not so sure about.

It was such material that Joe Laurie, Jr. included among his reasons for the demise of vaudeville. That may well be the case, but not for the reason Laurie thought.

From headlining at the Palace in the late 20s, Murray moved up to the status of M.C. (Murray was Master of Ceremonies on the night Bob Hope made his Palace debut.)


The thirties were a busy time for Murray, starring in films for RKO (1929’s Half Marriage and 1930’s Leathernecking), radio The Ken Murray Show (1930) and Broadway and Earl Carrol’s Sketch Book (1935).

By the early 40s Murray reached a low point in his career. With jobs scarce, he conceived of Ken Murray’s Blackouts (1942-49). The revue was a long-running hit in Los Angeles, but when it transferred to New York during its final year, it flopped big time.

Murray then took his act to television, where the Ken Murray Show was seen on CBS from 1950 through 1952. One of the cast members was Darla Hood from The Little Rascals. Murray can also be seen in the John Ford western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1963).

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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