Archive for September, 2009

Stars of Vaudeville #57: Blackstone

Posted in Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , on September 27, 2009 by travsd


Aside from being a great magician, Blackstone is noteworthy for bridging the gap between the classical age of magic at the beginning of this century, and the television era, when he was a familiar sight on television variety shows.

His real name was Henri Bouton. He got into magic because he worked for the cabinet-maker who put together Harry Kellar’s trick boxes. He seems largely to have been a sort of magic act Borg, swallowing up the acts of whomever he encountered, absorbing them and incorporating them into his own act. After learning what he could from Kellar’s cabinets, he bought up the illusions of one Albini the Great, who had just passed way. Originally calling his act “Harry Bouton and Company, Straight and Crooked Magic”,  he got a deal on an enormous quantity of playbills for a retired magician named Frederick. So Bouton was “Frederick the Great” until 1917, when America’s entry into World War I made being named after a German emporer seem not too swift.  He then became Blackstone. By now he was headlining in vaudeville. A particularly vaudevillian touch to the act was the presence of his wife Inez Morse “The Little Banjo Fiend”, who managed to squeeze a musical turn between all the legderdemain.

In the 20s the act got topical. In one of countless variations on “Metamorphosis”, Blackstone did a bit where he was seized by Ku Klux Klansmen, tied in a sack and hoisted into the air by a rope. A Klansman rides a horse onstage and removes his hood. Behold! It’s Blackstone! How’s that for politically charged showmanship?

“Oriental Nights” was a pageant featuring dancing girls and a camel, culminating in “the Phantom Stallion” a big black horse that disappeared. Despite the scale of all these illusions, his most famous trick comes under the heading of ”intimate magic”. It was called “the Spirit Dancing Handkerchief”. In it, he would borrow a handkerchief from someone in the audience, knot a corner, so that it  looked like a little ghost, then mysteriously make it dance all over the place on its own. During World War II, he did a USO tour of 165 bases, had his own radio series and 2 separate Blackstone comic books. Starting in the 50s he did TV shows like Ed Sullivan, the Tonight Show, Person to Person, and the Jackie Gleason Show. He died 1965, long enough to have been on the same bill with Herman’s Hermits — and to have inspired countless magicians who still walk among us.

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.


Willy Nilly Extended

Posted in Indie Theatre, My Shows, Rock and Pop with tags , , on September 12, 2009 by travsd


Apologies for the hiatus. First a vacation, and now a busy schedule have caused the stoppage…along with a dearth of vaudeville birthdays. I have a backlog of posts in the offing and in a week or two things should get really rolling again.

In the meantime…in case you have been out of shouting distance of myself and my 30 or so very best friends, my comedy about the Manson Family Willy Nilly, having sold out its Fringe NYC run, has been given an extension. It’ll be at the Actors Playhouse, Seventh Ave between Grove and Bleecker at the following times:

Thurs 9/17: 10:30pm

Fri 9/18: 10pm

Sat 9/19: 2pm

Sat 9/19: 10pm

Sun 9/20: 8:30pm

Tix and info:

Here’s a wrap of some of the cool media attention we got the first time out:

Time Out NY 1

Time Out NY 2

Michael Musto’s column in the Village Voice

New York Times arts blog

Paper Magazine

Playbill Radio

WFMU radio

The Villager




Off-Off Blogway

Comic Critique

One Producer in the City

And if any of these links don’t work, please visit: The links there do!

Stars of Vaudeville #56: Smith and Dale

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2009 by travsd


“Just thinking about them makes my sides ache”– Edgar Bergen.

Smith and Dale are the archetypical vaudeville male two act. When one thinks of a “vaudeville comedy team”, one thinks of something like Smith & Dale. Neil Simon based his play The Sunshine Boys on their act, although their offstage relationship wasn’t as dire as depicted—that part was more based on Gallagher and Shean.

Smith and Dale may have had another sort of influence on Neil Simon, as the originators of the “whattayou” joke construction so prevalent in the work of Simon and his imitators. Per exemplum: A line from Smith and Dale’s doctor sketch:

DALE (as doctor): What kind of dishes do you eat?

SMITH (as patient): Dishes? What am I, a crocodile?

From Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple:

OSCAR: (to Murray) What are you, Bulldog Drummond?

The kind of jokes Smith and Dale told became staples in the Borchst Belt. From their “Dr. Kronkite” sketch:

Doctor: Did you have this pain before?

Patient: Yes.

Doctor: Well, you got it again.

The line could have (and most assuredly did) come out of the mouths of the likes of Milton Berle and Henny Youngman again and again for the remainder of the twentieth-century.

They were born Joe Sultzer (Smith) and Charles Marks (Dale) in New York in the early 1880s. They met as teenagers when they had a bicycle accident. Their ensuing argument was thought by bystanders to be “as funny as Weber and Fields” and so they began to cultivate an act. They started out in Bowery saloons doing song and dance bits in blackface. They changed their names to “Smith and Dale” when they got a deal on some unclaimed business cards that had been printed with those names.

The Avon Comedy Four, featuring Smith and Dale

In 1900, they work for the Imperial Vaudeville and Comedy Company in the Catskills where they first perform their famous sketch “The New Schoolteacher”. Upon returning to New York City, they added Will Lester and Jack Coleman and became the Avon Comedy Four. This seminal team worked their first job at the Atlantic Gardens, in the Bowery. They scored big there and went on to Keith’s Union Square, then a tour. At Hyde and Behman’s Music Hall in Chicago, they were held over for ten weeks.

They continued to develop the school sketch, with the stock characters of  a Jew, a German, a tough guy and a sissy. The group also worked 4-part harmony singing into their act which was not only a success in vaudeville but also on record albums. The Gus Edwards song “School Days”, for example, was the theme song of “The New Schoolteacher”. Close to two dozen performers filled the other two slots in the Avon Comedy Four over the years, but the common denominator was always Smith and Dale.

A famous true life anecdote from their career plays like one of their sketches. In 1909 the team was busted for performing on a Sunday in violation of the law. Brought before the judge, a policeman attempted to describe their act. Listening with growing irritations, the judge finally banged his gavel and said “You have no act. Case Dismissed!”

In 1916, they added the “restaurant” sketch to their growing repertoire. How far their intentions were from “art” can be seen in the way their sketches tend to go untitled, and are merely tagged with the situation that allows them to spin off a barrage of site-specific jokes: the “doctor” sketch, the “school” sketch, the “bank” sketch, the “restaurant” sketch. In fact, the sketches are All Joke, zipping along from punchline to punchline (as in early Marx Brothers films) with gleeful disregard for plot and character. The very crudity of it has a distinctive vaudevillian charm.

By 1919 the Avon Comedy Four started to give way to “Smith and Dale” as the two went back out on their own. In 1925, they introduced a sketch at the Palace, called “Battery to the Bronx” , which was actually a series of mini-sketches, each of which took place near a different subway stop on the journey up Manhattan. By 1929 they were headlining at the London Palladium. Soon after this, however, vaudeville dried up.

The boys got some parts in movies, such as Manhattan Parade (1931) The Heart of New York (1932), and Two Tickets to Broadway (1951) but they were already old men by this time, and never actors to begin with.

In the 1940s and 1950s Smith and Dale appeared frequently on television on such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show and Toast of the Town. One can still see them in old kinescopes, fifty years into their career, well past their prime, but still entertaining audiences. Both exaggerated their Yiddish accents. Dale’s character was the stupid, whimpering, mush-mouthed one; Smith, the angry, fast-talking one with the heavy eye brows and the eagle beak.

In these old programs, the boys frequently seem like old performing horses, automatically going through the motions of an act they’ve done thousands of times and which long ago lost its luster. Anger and fatigue seem almost palpable, but after all, they were in their 70s by this time. Their appeal at this juncture was largely akin to that of Henny Youngman’s – they amuse because on a certain level, they are “bad”. Even when the act was new, the jokes were probably plundered from joke books. They are sewn together into sketches in a Frankensteinian fashion, often provoking laughter from the sheer audacity of their inorganic set-ups. Even more than Youngman, Smith and Dale were pioneers of ba-doomp-boomp comedy.

Charlie Dale died in 1971, but Joe Smith lived another decade – long enough to have seen scores of productions of The Sunshine Boys and to have been a mentor to our pal Michael Townsend Wright. Satisfaction enough, one would think, for a life lived in pursuit of comic immortality.

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.


Rage and Glory: The Volatile Life and Career of George C. Scott

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Hollywood (History) with tags , , on September 4, 2009 by travsd


Originally posted in 2009

In a business full of self-destructive characters, George C. Scott may very well top the list. Five times married, a fierce alcoholic, and possessed of a bestial temper that gave vent to physical violence perhaps hundreds of times in his adult life, Scott makes latter day bad boys like Sean Penn look like pipsqueaks. At the same time, his gentlemanly demeanor and deep intelligence (manifested in an articulateness rare in American actors) added another level which, combined with the volcano bubbling beneath, made him fascinating both as an actor and a human being.

David Sheward’s recent book Rage and Glory: The Volatile Life and Career of George C. Scott (Applause, 2008) is the first biography to capture this extraordinary performer and is likely to remain the definitive work on the subject for a long time to come. For someone of my age, who followed Scott chiefly during the 1980s and 90s (his declining years), the scale of Scott’s accomplishments – and his depravities – come as something of a revelation.

On stage and screen that seething presence was a self-taught phenomenon. The high point of course is Patton, but the truth is that in theatre, television and film, Scott was a trailblazer, using the power he’d acquired as a much sought-after marquee name to take on the powers that be. Unlike so many in his profession, he stubbornly believed in the theatre, treading the boards as well as the sound stages to the end of his days. Yet, while he appeared on Broadway from time to time, he was one of the prime players in the Off-Broadway and regional theatre movements, making his name at the Public and Circle in the Square, as well as founding the ill-fated Theatre of Michigan in the early 1960s. In television, where he’d worked steadily during the Golden Age on shows like Playhouse 90, he bucked the establishment as well, most notably in his civil rights era show East Side/ West Side, which he starred in and produced, and which chronicled the ups and downs of a New York City social worker. (He later tried to inject controversial content into his Fox sit-com Mr. President in the 1980s with much less success). In the cinema, he used his A list box office status to helm projects of his own, the films Rage (1972) and The Savage is Loose (1974) both of which were critical and box office failures. Like Marlon Brando, he refused his Academy Award on principle. Unlike Brando, his refusal was tied to no left-wing cause. Indeed, Scott was conservative in many ways. He merely hated the falsity of it all; he referred to the Oscars and show business as a “meat parade”.

This fierce independence – and the frustrations inherent in swimming against the tide – no doubt were part and parcel of the spirit that made him such a (his own words) son of a bitch. Sheward’s portrait of this aspect of Scott’s character is no less appalling for being objective and unsparing. Scott was an alcoholic on a scale most of us scarcely encounter. When he was drunk (which was constantly) he was shit-faced: stumbling, black-out, fist-fight drunk. Almost every colleague he worked with reports two things: how professional he was (how well he did his homework, knew his lines, and was a reliable and helpful scene partner); and….the fact that they were terrified of him. No one, male or female, was above his wrath, including the most beautiful woman in the world Ava Gardner, whom he reportedly beat to a pulp. And just as he was so very professional when he showed up at work, a good portion of the time he missed work entirely due to his frequent drunks and hangovers.

In the final analysis, one has to observe that, while Scott was plenty destructive, his self-destruction was something of a failure. Indeed, he did pass away as the result of refusing treatment for a fatal condition. But at the time he did so he was 72 years old. And he was amazingly productive right until the end.

I have to admit I adore George C. Scott, which is obviously what drew me to this book. His performances in The Hustler, Dr. Strangelove, Patton and The Hospital are among my favorites, just as I was saddened by his final choices, trotting out old warhorses like Inherit the Wind and Twelve Angry Men in which to chew the scenery during his final days. Sheward’s book covers every bit of these highs and lows, and includes interviews with ex-wives, estranged children, and major co-workers, making it both a valuable resource and a racy reading experience. Yet there are gaps. Rage and Glory is extremely strong on the “who, what, where and when” but sadly deficient on the “why”? Can a genetic predisposition to alcoholism explain all of it? What was he so angry about? His modest origins (he was a child of a coal miner who later became a factory worker and then a successful executive, and a cultured mother) are only touched upon here, and yet there must have been something that drove him – something that he hated, that he wanted to smash. Even speculation about what that was would be welcome. Likewise, there is nothing about Scott’s reaction to Colleen Dehurst’s death (eight years before his own). For a time the two were a great stage couple. Scott’s life with Dewhurst over two marriages seems to be the closest thing he ever knew to domestic stability, yet in Rage and Glory it is a blip. But these omissions are but small matters – nothing to punch anyone in the nose about.

To find out more about show business past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


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