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


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.

Stars of Vaudeville #55: Martha Raye

Posted in Broadway, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , on August 27, 2009 by travsd


This strange (and to many, irritating) performer was born Margaret Teresa Yvonne O’Reed on this day in 1916. As a comedian, she is in a class with Jerry Lewis and Carrot Top. There are times when you simply cannot look. Endowed by her maker with a cavernous cake-hole, and an odd-looking puss, she was not given to judicious or economic use of same. As an actress, she always seemed to be on uppers – talked, walked and moved like a speed freak. However, she did have a decent voice and a likable persona when focused on delivering a song.

She made her vaudeville debut at age three in her parents act. As she got older, she toured with comedian and dancer Ben Blue, who later fired her. Bing Crosby and Norman Taurog caught her act in a nightclub in 1936 and cast her in the film Rhythm on the Range, where she was given the comic novelty number “Mr. Paginini” to sing. In the late 30s, Olsen and Johnson made her part of their Hellzapoppin family, and she was to have one of the main roles in the film version in 1941. She enlisted her big, bellowy voice and steam-roller personality in the service of her country in a vigorous USO tour during the Second World War. Charlie Chaplin gave her the best screen role of her career in his 1947 Monseiur Verdoux, but barely anyone in America has ever seen it. From 1953-56 she had her own television program: The Martha Raye Show. She had a big role in the 1962 film Jumbo playing opposite Jimmy Durante, and starred in Broadway in Hello, Dolly (1967) and No, No, Nanette (1972). Younger readers will no doubt recall her as the villain in the psychedelic Sid and Marty Krofft show The Bugaloos. Her last major gig was as the national spokesperson for Polident. Great set of choppers on that lady.

Here’s here classic scene with Chaplin in Verdoux:

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


Conversations with Woody Allen

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


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.


Stars of Vaudeville #54: Chic Sale

Posted in Comedy, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Vaudeville etc. with tags , on August 25, 2009 by travsd


Much is made of the ethnic stereotyping in vaudeville, frequently committed by people of the very ethnicity being satirized. Blacks, Irish, Germans and Jews in particular were satirized but so were Italians, Chinese, and even Swedes. Another stock archetype, less evident because it has been with us from the very beginning and concerns a dominant sub-group, is the rural “cracker”.

Chic Sale was perhaps pre-eminent in that line (he actually used the expression “landsakes” in conversation), but he was also important for another reason. He has been called “the greatest character comedian in vaudeville”. He was a sort of one man Winesburg, Ohio, essentially playing enough characters in his act to represent the key citizens of a small town.  One thinks of him as a sort of Jonathan Winters of the vaudeville era.

Charles Sale was born in Huron, South Dakota, in 1885. There can’t have been many others that year! Soon thereafter the family moved to Urbana, Illinois where Chick worked up an act with his brother Dwight. It inevitably sounds like the little rascals—two kids putting on old hats and coats and impersonating the neighbors. Dwight died in 1907. Chick grieved no doubt but it didn’t stop him from developing a new act as a single. He changed his name to Chick Earle, moved to Minneapolis, and started working the Gus Sun Circuit. His success lay in his philosophy of truthfully enacting familiar characters, without any serious effort to exaggerate or satirize them. The characters themselves were funny; Sale’s commentary on them at most was mild.

Audiences responded enthusiastically. By 1916 he was playing the Palace.  By now his repertoire had grown to 27 different country characters, although he could never fit them all into a single vaudeville turn. ). His 1929 humor book The Specialist (which was told from the point of view of a man who built outhouses) sold over 2 million copies. Yes, children, even your great grandparents thought poop was funny.

Sale was in many films in the 30s, including The Star Witness (1931), The Gentleman from Louisiana (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937). It will come as no surprise to learn that while in Hollywood, one of his best friends was Will Rogers. Sale died an unfortunate and untimely death of pneumonia in 1936.

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.


Stars of Vaudeville #53: Phil Baker

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


Not be confused with Phil Harris, the “Bear Necessities” guy, Phil Baker 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.


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


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.

Stars of Vaudeville #52: Fred Stone

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


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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