Archive for August, 2009

Coney Island Boom-a-Ring

Posted in BROOKLYN, Circus, Coney Island, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS with tags , , , on August 29, 2009 by travsd

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That’s it. Time to eat my words, and then wash them down with Kool-Aid. A few weeks ago I posted an item here in praise of the Cole Brothers Circus, one that elevated that show at the expense of the vastly bigger, badder Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey outfit. But yesterday, I saw the latter organization’s tented show Boom-a-Ring out at Coney Island, and I have to reverse myself. While still not the circus of my dreams, it sets a new high water mark.

Almost literally. Tropical Storm Daniel was dumping sheets of rain on Coney Island when the boys and I arrived for our annual pilgrimage there, making the circus the only thing doing. The trek from the subway station to the tent (which is pitched on the other side of Keyspan Park, an effortless jaunt on a normal day) was an epic trial. By the time we got to the box office, the three of us were soaked to the bones and shivering. We desperately needed things to start going right.

And then, miraculously, they did. First, the advertised ten dollar seats proved not to be a fable. Hilariously, we were given the absolute worst seats in the house. But in a one ring circus the worst is still great, and besides, we moved twenty rows down during intermission. Every aspect of the show turned out pleasant like this. We’d gotten there an hour early to purchase our tickets, thinking we’d get some lunch at Nathan’s before the show started. The kids didn’t want to go back out in the rain however. That was fine; I’d forgotten about the Ringling Bros. pre-show, when the children get to meet the performers in the ring. This is usually Bedlam, a nightmarish cacophony of squalling brats and pushy New York parents clambering over one another in order to trample the apprentice clowns. But on this day, because of the storm, my kids and I shared the stars of the circus with a few dozen other well-behaved tykes and their parents. The boys were still hungry of course, and though everything at Ringling Bros. is famously overpriced, even that went right. Though the popcorn was six dollars a box, when I handed the candy butcher a twenty, he gave me back $24 in change. I found myself having to lecture the man on the art of grifting.

And we still haven’t gotten to the show! Imagine the resources of the Ringling Bros. show in the service of a more tasteful artistic vision reminiscent of more straightened one ring tented shows like Cole Bros. and Big Apple Circus. Well, perhaps “reminiscent” is less apt than “stolen from”. But there is a fine old tradition of such theft in show business! Thus I didn’t exactly mind it when the size, shape and color of the Ringling Bros. tent is almost exactly the same as Big Apple’s, and the stage set and band configuration are based on Big Apple’s aesthetic. (The gobos in the shape of exploding cartoon stars pointed at the roof of the tent were perhaps taking the theft a bit far, however). Likewise, beginning the show with the National Anthem as a pretty girl rode around the ring on an elephant carrying an American flag is a touch that first made me fall in love with Cole Bros. No matter! It’s a terrific show! So much better watching six clowns you can recognize and appreciate, rather than six dozen ones scrambling and mugging and leaving you fondly gazing at the exit signs. My boy Charlie sharply recognized Justin Case, the French accented trick cyclist from Big Apple. But there’s so much in this show that you won’t find in its more impecunious competitors. Big Apple has fired all their performing elephants – Ringling Bros. presents a trio. Even better, Ringling Bros. is one of the few shows that still presents big cats – eight or so white tigers who leap over one another and grimace and pose ferociously on command. As a topper, the gorgeous tiger-tamer goes directly from the cage into the stratosphere, where she performs on trapeze. Other memorable moments: a pack of performing dachsunds, a gentleman who does trick shots with a cross bow, tumblers, jugglers, and a trio of motorcycle daredevils who ride around the cage of death. These are all that spring to mind at this writing, although there was much more. I couldn’t take notes (my paper was too soggy) and I was too cheap to buy a program. And in the end, that was probably sinful of me. The thought that the three of us were on the receiving end of a show like that for $36 makes me feel like I’ve done the impossible – committed a swindle against the circus.

Why do I still hold out and say that it’s still not perfect? At this stage, it’s merely a matter of sound waves. I could do without the loudspeakers blaring top 40 hits during the pre-show, and the show’s original musical score was very much not to my liking. Music creates atmosphere. The circus is supposed to be romantic, it’s supposed to take you away to far away times and places. By definition, it should be old-fashioned. I want calliope! I want it to sound like a carousel or a John Philip Sousa marching band! The day I finally walk into an American circus that sounds as magical as it looks will be the day that I love it without reservation.

http://www.ringling.com/PortalContent.aspx?linkID=856&parentID=848

Conversations with Woody Allen

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Comedy, Hollywood (History) with tags , , , on August 26, 2009 by travsd

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There is life in the bespectacled one yet. As with many directors (for example, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, both of whom he has been emulating of late) Woody Allen the senior citizen is still pumping out movies at a pace many younger colleagues might envy. A propitious time then for the release of an updated edition of Eric Lax’s Conversations with Woody Allen: His Films, the Movies and Moviemaking.

For frequently disappointed fans like myself, the book is a valuable window into the character and motivations of this elusive artist. He’s never been easy to pigeonhole. A Brooklyn-bred sports nut and musical reactionary, he first gained fame in the 1960s as a stand-up comedian who mixed a surrealist sensibility with a modern, urban persona which mirrored the real-life social transformations of his times. Frankly neurotic and up-front about his ongoing psychoanalysis, he was also a weirdly contemporary sex symbol even as he posed as someone who couldn’t get a date. Pegged early on as an “intellectual”, at the same time he freely acknowledged his debt to one of America’s least intellectual comedians, Bob Hope. His comedy routines, New Yorker humor pieces and early films owed much to the Marx Brothers and S.J. Perelman. After a decade and a half of mass adulation with this formula, he then seemed to turn against his audience by apparently trying to become that same intellectual he had always posed as being onstage (but denied ever being offstage). He now wore the likes of Chekhov, Ingmar Bergman and Fellini on his sleeve – and an ill fit it seemed indeed, turning off both audiences and critics, but still retaining a large enough contingent of hardcore fans to muddle through the fallow periods. By the 1990s, he was not only repeating himself, but repeating his repeats. Then, in the mid oughts, out of the blue, he hit a new stride with a series of dark, ironic pictures that eschewed static pretension for good old fashioned suspense.

The trajectory gets less bewildering when you get to hear the famously reclusive Allen speak on his own behalf. As he so often asserts, he is emphatically not an intellectual. Only in America would he pass for one. I’ve long held that American infatuation with European directors is a middlebrow affectation, and it’s one which just happened to have been fashionable in Allen’s young adulthood. Just as popular jazz standards and radio and cinema comedy turned him on in his youth, art house pictures grabbed him as a young man. But, as he freely admits, he hasn’t the slightest interest in, say, Samuel Beckett. His own stage plays have been commercial exercises all the way. George S. Kaufman is the only influence he mentions in that regard, with the possible exception of Danny Simon (Neil’s brother, Allen’s comedy writing partner on Your Show of Shows.) To my mind, films like Interiors (a slavish Bergman imitation) and Stardust Memories (ditto Fellini), as stylistic homages are of a kind with his parodies, whether he realizes it or not. He sees a style, he apes it, only this time not for comedy. It’s only in the films since Match Point (with the exception of Whatever Works) that he has found a way to synthesize those various cinematic voices and come up with a new one of his own.

Indeed his recent success (at all levels) has upset my longstanding belief that Allen’s chief enemy has been the pace he’s set for himself. Since the early eighties, all of his films had seemed thin, incomplete, half-baked. With more time taken, (went my theory) they would become richer, more thought-out (not to mention more original) and therefore more rewarding as experiences. Allen’s own self-assessment, quoted more than once in the book, seems to back up my thinking on this. He is fully aware that most of his films aren’t great. He claims, at least, that to him directing is just a job. He doesn’t claim to be any great artist, he just makes the best films he can. To me, it sounds like a bit of ass-covering, but also betrays a frustrating lack of ambition which is a breaking of a covenant with the audience. I, for one, would prefer to wait 18 months or two years for fewer, but better, Woody Allen films. But since the better Woody Allen films are now arriving once a year, the question is moot, at least temporarily.

All this nit-picking about Allen’s work I’m doing has of course been spawned by reading Lax’s book – which is a good sign, since books like this ought to get readers fired up about their subjects. And Conversations covers a lot of ground. I’m tempted to say too much ground, but since there was almost no single fact in the book that didn’t satisfy my greedy curiosity, that can’t have been the case. The book’s main flaws have to do with editing. The conversations are theoretically organized into broad categories (“Editing”, Directing”, Career”) but they digress wildly, meaning the various subjects bleed between chapters and wind up woven throughout the book – making the chapter headings largely superfluous. Many anecdotes and points are repeated several times as a result; the scissors would be used with profit, making it a less aimless read. The book’s most annoying feature is a downright insulting tendency to explain every reference that Allen and Lax use, in editorial italics. In other words, if reference is made to Sweet and Lowdown, we digress for an editorial recap of the film’s plot, who the stars were, etc. If reference is made to E.G. Marshall, it’ll be followed by “[died 1998]”. Hello! This is a book for Woody Allen fans! They know all that stuff! The only people who’d be requiring that sort of information in this context would be people who wouldn’t pick the book up to begin with. As a result, I found myself saying “Tsk! Duh!” so often I developed a tender spot on my soft palate. The flavor of the book’s repetitiveness is captured in its subtitle: “His Films, the Movies and Moviemaking.” Yes, there are three different meanings there. But so are there in “Me, Myself and I”. That said, for those who want to get the inside skinny on how Allen works, the book is fairly indispensable. Furthermore, several times he mentions an admiration for Jerry Lewis, which redeems the auteur several times over in my eyes.

Phil Baker: From Accordion Player to Game Show Host

Posted in Broadway, Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on August 24, 2009 by travsd

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Not be confused with Phil Harris, the “Bear Necessities” guy, Phil Baker (1896-1963) became best known as a radio comedian and the host of the game show “Take It or Leave It”, which became “The $64 Question”, which became the “$64,000 Question”. In vaudeville, Baker played accordion in addition to joke telling, and was for a time teamed with Ben Bernie (who played violin before becoming a popular bandleader). He wrote numerous popular songs and starred in many Broadway revues prior to his success on radio. Attempts to make it on the big and small screen were not successful, explaining his relative obscurity today. He passed away in 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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Naked in the Woods: Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, BUNKUM, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Silent Film with tags , , , on August 21, 2009 by travsd

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Take Henry David Thoreau and P.T. Barnum and smash them together and what do you get? Why Joe Knowles, of course. Joe Knowles. Never heard of him? Chances are good that your great grandparents did, that is, if they read newspapers during the years 1913 to 1916. In 1913, Knowles stepped into the Maine woods wearing nothing but a smile, only to emerge a month later in Quebec, clad in a homemade bearskin tunic and bursting with a hundred stories about his wilderness adventures. The stunt, repeated again a few month later in Northern California, was breathlessly reported by national newspaper chains, earned Knowles national fame, a string of lucrative public speaking engagements and silent film appearances, and a more modest later career as a writer and visual artist. The rub (there usually is one) is that some fairly convincing evidence emerged later that Knowles had faked, or at least exaggerated his exploits, spending those supposedly solitary weeks in a comfortable cabin drinking beer and hanging out with the Boston reporter who’d help him cook up the whole adventure.

Jim Motivalli’s Naked in the Woods: Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery is more than just what is likely to remain the definitive book on its now-obscure topic. Knowles is like a lightning rod for wide ranging discourse about countless facets of American culture during that pivotal moment when those big ideas (Frontier, Freedom, Self-Reliance) came unpegged from the palpable realities which had been taken for granted for nearly three centuries, and became mere iconography, the stuff of vaudeville, newspaper ink and Hollywood. Appropriately, Motivalli makes Knowles his touchstone to speak about those broader issues. After all, why have we never heard of Knowles? In the early chapters it occurred to me that his accomplishments (real or imagined) strike the modern sensibility as somewhat lame. Nowadays, there are tens of thousands of Americans who routinely pull off similar feats. 21st century America boasts no end of social clubs composed of people who do things like run triathlons through Death Valley, or climb Mount Everest. (A blind guy climbed Mount Everest for God’s sake!) But things were different in Knowles’ day. Within living memory, cities like Denver and Santa Fe had been wild west towns. But by 1913, America was in the process of softening. Teenagers were no longer chopping firewood, they were hanging out at the soda fountain. The idea of survivalism, of living like the Native Americans who had only recently been domesticated, was for the first time a novelty, a truly crazy thing to even think about doing. But it was also a fantasy. The American wilds in the nineteen-teens were already well trafficked by sportsmen and game wardens, the risks to life and limb substantially reduced. Like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, Knowles’s exploits helped extend the illusion that the America of old even existed anymore. That Knowles himself (though reportedly a capable backwoodsman) may have faked the whole thing merely adds to the eloquence of the episode. What counts is the idea.

A naturalist (if not a naturist) himself (he edits edits E/ The Environmental Magazine), Motivalli brings to this book not only a thorough understanding of America’s complex interaction with the wilderness, but a genuine literary bent, and a scholarly knowledge of American academic and popular culture. The book is at its best during those early chapters when Knowles is at the height of his notoriety. Less interesting are the chapters devoted to the three decades or so he lived in obscurity in the Pacific Northwest, although Motivalli gamely investigates Knowles’ accomplishments during these years as well, chiefly, his paintings, including a number of public art projects. But there is significance even here. While mostly self-taught, Knowles was not without skill as a painter. His works have more in common with great Americana artists like Audubon or Gilbert Stuart, than with the naïve or folk art you might expect. The final sections, which traces Knowles’ cultural legacy. Knowles casts a long shadow today, even if the image of the man himself has long since been shrouded in fog. Motivalli’s book is like a torch brought to Knowles’ obscure part of the forest, to reveal him in all his nakedness.

Fred Stone: The Original Scarecrow

Posted in Broadway, Dance, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on August 19, 2009 by travsd

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Today is Fred Stone’s birthday.  He was a major show biz legend as an eccentric dancer in his day; it is a sad fact that the sands of time have swallowed him up.

Stone actually grew up in Dodge City during the wild west days, and began his show business career in circuses and saloons with his brother as a kid. In 1895 he teamed up with Dave Montgomery, his partner in vaudeville and on Broadway for many years. It was Fred Stone’s performance as the Scarecrow in the 1903 Broadway version The Wizard of Oz that not only convinced Ray Bolger to be come an eccentric dancer, but that he too must someday play the part. (Montgomery was the Tin Man). In the years after Montgomery passed away in 1917, Stone continued to play in Broadway and in films (notably as the father in the 1935 Alice Adams). During the Hollywood years, he was Will Rogers’ best friend. He was also very active in the unions, being one of the founding members of the original vaudeville performers union the White Rats, and later President of the National Vaudeville Artists. His last stage role was Grandpa in the 1945 Broadway revival of You Can’t Take it With You. He passed away in 1959

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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Gus Edwards: Godfather of a Hundred Stars

Posted in Child Stars, German, Impresarios, Stars of Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2009 by travsd

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Not a vaudeville star himself per se, German-born Gus Edwards was more the Godfather of a hundred stars. He was vaudeville’s premier producer of kiddie acts. Having started out himself at Tony Pastor’s in the Newsboy Quartet, he went on to build a producing machine that developed and presented scores, probably hundreds of pint-sized vaudevillians — many of whom went on to bigger and better things. Famous products of the Gus Edwards mill include: Groucho Marx, Georgie Jessel, Eddie Cantor, Phil Silvers, Walter Winchell, Ray Bolger, Eleanor Powell, Sally Rand, Bert Wheeler, Lillian Roth and the Duncan Sisters. He was also a prolific songwriter (his best known song “School Days” is still known to many). He was born on this day in 1879.

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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Mae West: The Naughtiest Woman on the American Stage

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Burlesk, CAMP, Child Stars, Comediennes, Comedy, Drag and/or LGBT, Hollywood (History), Mae West, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2009 by travsd

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“To most people I am offstage what I am on, a deep-dyed hussy without a moral in the world…As a matter of fact I live quite a decent, quiet, moral life. I am a a showman and I know that the public wants sex in their entertainment and I give it to them.”

Odd though it may seem, throughout her vaudeville career Mae West was less a comedienne than a singer. She consciously modeled herself on Eva Tanguay, but really took only the sex element, replacing Tanguay’s aimless craziness with a calculating quality that was, shall we say, ahead of its time. Her finely-honed lifelong act of self creation foreshadowed that of Madonna. Unfortunately, though her instinct that sex sells was right on the money,  in the vaudeville era residual Victorianism was still in force, causing managers and critics to balk at her antics and thwart her success with audiences. Consequently, she most decidedly did NOT make a hit in vaudeville and never quite discovered herself until she cooked up the legit stage vehicles that allowed her to deliver her characteristic hand-on-hip epigrams.

Mary Jane West (born on this day in 1893) was the second child of two very different parents, each of whom had a strong influence on her identity.  Her mother Mathilda (Tillie), a former corset model, supplied the feminine influence, encouraging a love of girlish finery in Mae that was almost absurd.  At the same time, her dad “Battling Jack” West, an Irish bouncer and sometime pugilist, had taught her how to box, and surely how to talk and walk. This peculiar mix of gender influences manifested itself in Mae’s personality. In later years, people frequently took her for a trannie because of her mannish walk and tough manner of speech. (interestingly, though, it’s her exaggerated girlishness that makes her seem the most like a transvestite. Her frequent use of “dearie” came from Bert Savoy and was no doubt one of the contributing factors to the rumor that she was a man.)

The Wests lived in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, which supplied Mae with the familiar accent. An older sister, Kate, had died young, and so Mae was spoiled rotten from the very beginning. She was the very center of her parents’ lives.

From the start they encouraged her to perform, with a disturbing tendency to draw out Mae’s sex instinct at a younger age than most people would think appropriate. They bought her dancing lessons and put her onstage in an amateur contest at age five.

Right from the start Mae did risque character songs. Tillie actually urged Mae to study Eva Tanguay, whom they went to see at the theatre many times.

Another “shocking” preference, for wholly different reasons, was Mae’s other favorite performer Bert Williams. Prejudice apparently did not exist in the West household (at least not to degree that it did in the society-at-large) possibly owing to Jack West’s immersion in the boxing community. Mae would continue to draw from African American influences throughout her life, and it was another element that made her shocking, even unacceptable to polite audiences. When Mae was a girl, Jack somehow persuaded Williams to come back to the house for a visit, but Mae wouldn’t believe it was him. She didn’t recognize him without the blackface.

At age 8, Mae presented her impressions of Bert Williams and Eva Tanguay at an amateur show and was spotted by a representative of the Gotham Theatre, a stock company in Brooklyn run by a man named Hal Clarendon. There was still an audience for melodrama at the turn of the century, and Mae spent several years playing the kid roles in classics like Ten Nights in a Bar-room and Uncle Tom’s CabinThis experience, too, had a profound influence on Mae, particularly on her work as a playwright and screenwriter in the 20s and 30s.

When Mae reached her teenage years, the company couldn’t use her anymore, and she was phased out. This was a blow to the family, as she was already the principle breadwinner.

She decided to go into vaudeville. For close to twenty years she tried as many formulas as her mind could conceive to strike it big in vaudeville. None made her a star.

First she was a coon shouter, mixing blackface with a Tanguay-esque sexual approach. Then she began teaming up with various people. In 1909, Hogan and West did a “Huck Finn” act, where Mae was expected to delineate a Becky Thatcher type. Her character quickly evolved into a mischievous tomboy, out-Hucking Huck. In 1911, she met and toured the Fox Circuit with one Frank Wallace. Later that year, they worked the Columbia Wheel in a show called A Florida Enchantment in which West played “a little French adventuress.” Somewhere in there she married Wallace, apparently at his behest for the purposes of safe sex, i.e, in case of accident they’d already be hitched. But Mae didn’t like being tied down this way. In short order she left him and the act.

She returned to New York and started to work solo again. From the get-go her act was outrageous, daring, presenting sexually suggestive songs. She’d tone down the act in auditions for skittish managers, then pull out all the stops in front of the audience. Critics hated her vulgarity

An appalling amount of potential success slipped through Mae’s fingers in these early years. She starred in La Broadway , a Ned Wayburn revue at the short lived New York Folies Bergere in  1911. Despite Mae’s great notices for “the Philadelphia drag” the show folded after eight performances. Next, the Shuberts cast her in Vera Violetta with Jolson.

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

She was fired during the New Haven tryouts – either for inciting drunken Yale students to riot, or for upstaging French music hall star Gaby Deslys, but probably both.

In 1912 she played in vaudeville with “Mae West and Her Boys”.  Sime Silverman and others opined that she belonged more in burlesque, being too suggestive for the more refined audiences of vaudeville. Nonetheless she managed to get a Big Time agent named Frank Bohm who straightaway got her cast in the Ziegfeld show A Winsome Widow with Fanny Brice, the Dolly Sisters, and Leon Errol. She left the show after just 5 days, apparently because Bohm had gone to work for Keith and could now get her excellent vaudeville bookings. He booked at her Hammerstein’s Victoria, where she sang a few rags and played the bones, minstrel style. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Mae was to see-saw perpetually betwixt Keith and the small time for the next three years.

Bohm died in 1916, and Mae began to flounder again. She teamed briefly with dashing accordionist Guido Deiro and then her own sister Beverly, a partnership that lasted 12 weeks. Influenced by performers from Harlem nightclubs, she began to incorporate the blues and the shimmy into her act.

In 1918, entertainment lawyer James Timony started to represent her. He first got her into a Hammerstein show called Sometime, starring Ed Wynn. Her role as a smart-mouthed chorus girl was well received, and her performance of the shimmy (unprecedented on the Broadway stage) made her the hit of the 1918-19 season. She tried to exploit this notoriety in vaudeville but it still didn’t click. In the 1921 Shubert revue The Whirl of the Town she played “Shifty Liz” and also “Shimmy Mae”, a character on trial for doing the shimmy. Her performance brought  the house down. following tryouts, the show went to Broadway as The Mimic World of 1921. The show closed after a month.

By now it should have been obvious that audiences seemed to be receptive to Mae when there was some sort of script for context, but they weren’t crazy about her as an act. It seems likely that some people needed to think that Mae was playing a character in order to accept her scandalous behavior (others—mostly men, liked her just fine). But this realization dawned on Mae and Timony slowly.

Her first literary excursions, the playlet The Ruby Ring,and the semi-autobiographical full-length The Hussy went unproduced but gave her valuable experience. She starred in a very promising outing The Ginger Box Revue, in which she played Circe(!), did a duet with Harry Richman, and did a parody of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape. The producer absconded, however, imploding the production. She briefly teamed with Richman in 1922 and finally scored a hit in vaudeville, but when it seemed that Richman was garnering the bigger applause she sent him packing.  By the mid-twenties the writing was on the wall that she had hit a ceiling in vaudeville—she’d been at roughly the same level for a dozen years.

She resolved to conquer the world of the legitimate stage. Eugene O’Neill had proven it could be done with risqué material (viz., Desire Under the Elms). Lacking vehicles for the character she had been developing, she began to craft her own in a serious way.

Her first endeavor as both author and star couldn’t have been less ambiguous. Called Sex (1924), it was inspired by a prostitute she’d seen by the west side docks, and concerned the exploits of one Margy Lamont, call girl. Sex, like all of West’s plays and screenplays, share two very important qualities with the works of Oscar Wilde. One is a tendency to express herself through perverse and often paradoxical epigrams. “It’s not the men in your life; it’s the life in your men” – that could just as easily have come from Wilde. The other quality was a strong moral streak, but coming from a point of view most of conventional society finds immoral. Hating hypocrisy above all, West and Wilde took pleasure in revealing self-righteous moralizers as villainous, and making martyrs of  eloquent defenders of honest vice.

Mae_West.jpgA photo from 1933, when she was 40

Since self-righteous moralizers making up 90% of the critical establishment, her plays were uniformly panned. On the other hand, since most audiences are composed of human beings, and therefore possessed vices (and were probably tired of feeling guilty about them) her plays were big box office successes. Sex was the first Mae West project to undeniably make her a star. After out of town try-outs it moved to New York’s Daly Theatre in 1926, and was thereafter good newspaper copy. Anti-vice groups wanted to shut the play down. Mind you, the play contained no nudity nor no profanity. It merely dealt sympathetically with a character who was a prostitute and included one passionate make-out scene. When West opened The Drag, a play about homosexuals out of town in 1927, that’s when the authorities made their move. Sex was raided, and the cast dragged down to the station house. Mae spent nine days in jail, and no New York producer would touch The Drag. She backed off a little bit in her next play The Wicked Age, in which she played a flapper in a fixed beauty contest.

She was back on her game in 1928 with Diamond Lil . For the first time she became closely identified with the image we now think of her as – the gay nineties dance-hall girl, with a tight dress, a parasol, an infinity of hats, and a figure clearly bound tightly by a corset. The play’s nostalgia for San Francisco’s Barbary Coast struck a chord, and this time captivated even the critics and intellectuals. However its frank depiction of criminals and Mae’s sexual jokes caused the Hays Office to put it on a list of properties banned as potential films. (West got around this in 1933 by resetting the play in the Bowery and calling the screenplay She Done Him Wrong).

Her next play Pleasure Man was panned again, critics bending over backwards to think of  the worst metaphors possible:  “sewage” “garbage” “cow dirt”. She adapted her 1930 novel about miscegenation Babe Gordon into the 1931 stage vehicle The Constant Sinner. It didn’t do so well owing to a combination of economics (the depression was at its height) and social forces (racist audiences stayed away.)

But that didn’t matter. Her old pal George Raft was about to set her up in a new situation; the one most of us know her for today.

To find out more Mae West 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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