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

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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.

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The Yes Men Fix the World

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, Movies (Contemporary) on September 26, 2009 by travsd

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I first became aware of the Yes Men when they were part of an article I wrote about theatrical protest for the Village Voice during the Republican National Convention in 2004. Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno are the titular characters. Their m.o. is to infiltrate actual corporate and government-sponsored convenings masquerading as presenters, and then to give heinous, completely objectionable talks, savoring the acceptance of their Swiftian propositions. Flim flam men to the core, they perform the valuable function of exposing the dark underbelly of the Bottom Line philosophy. It shouldn’t shock anyone to know that, while multi-national companies talk a good line about corporate responsibility (see any PBS sponsorship promo), when you get inside the corridors of power, human values and morality aren’t even on the table. It’s strictly about profit.

Their new film The Yes Men Fix the World gives us a front row seat at several of these jaw-dropping, hilarious stunts, and takes us behind the scenes to show how they are planned. At a 2005 Dow Chemical conference, the two give a presentation on “acceptable risk”, symbolizing actual harm to other human beings that’s profitable (hence acceptable) with a Golden Skeleton. At a petroleum conference in Canada, they share candles supposedly made from the boiled off fat of a victim of climate change named Reggie Watts: a new, cutting edge “bio-fuel” with more than a little in common with Soylent Green. At another event, they pass themselves off as representatives of Haliburton, introducing a preposterous new invention called “Survivaballs”, hazmat suits to be permanently worn by the rich and powerful after they destroy the earth. After this and several other of such presentations, the speakers are generally approached by approving audience members with words of encouragement, or at best, mild suggestions for improvement. The grand-daddy of the Yes Men stunts occurred when Andy Bichlbaum went on the BBC in 2004 and announced that Dow Chemical (which had recently acquired Union Carbide) was finally going to make equitable restitution to the residents of Bhopal, India for the 1984 industrial disaster, which took thousands of lives, and destroyed tens of thousands more.

Incredibly, these actions don’t seem to have had any legal repercussions for the pranksters, probably because they are INVITED to all of these platforms. (Granted, the invitations are the result of traps in the form of fake web sites). But there are repercussions. The BBC stunt resulted in a $2 billion drop in stock value for Dow Chemical that day (until the hoax was revealed). This development reveals an unpleasant reality, one from which the Yes Men draw the wrong lesson. The fact is that if all the CEOs and the boards of directors decided tomorrow to grant huge payouts to all the people they’d screwed over, they would get the same treatment as Mr. Deeds did in the Frank Capra movie. All of their fellow stakeholders would stop them. Corporations are not moral entities; they never have been; they were never meant to be. The market is a force of nature. Like fire, it is both an invaluable gift to mankind and an occasional horrible disaster. The movie is at its weakest when it attempts to ridicule representatives of libertarian think tanks as they try to explain this scientific fact. Morality is the business of other spheres of human endeavor: let the media, the church and government be a check on the worst excesses of corporations, for sure. Just so we’re clear—I’ll go even farther than the Yes Men. The callous perpetrators of Bhopal should be placed in stocks and have rotten vegetables and profanity hurled at them for the rest of their despicable lives. But the Yes Men’s sweeping indictment of free enterprise is adolescent at best, retarded at worst. The market developed and distributed the very video equipment on which they made their movie. The food in their stomachs — unless they subsist on Victory spam — is the result of free enterprise. And the one human institution capable of punishing capitalists and making them behave, the government, when given too much power, is the worst environmental (Chernobyl, Three Gorges Dam, the air and soil of Eastern Europe) and human rights (the Holocaust, Stalin’s relocations, Pol Pot) offender of all, making big corporations look like also-rans. The reality is, the only force that can put the check on the blind, corrupt, wicked humans who run corporations…is other blind, corrupt, wicked humans. It has nothing to do with any system. It has to do with the behavior of each individual human, and the choices they decide to make. Shame on anyone who who deprive someone else of life and liberty–or the pursuit of happiness.

The Yes Men Fix the World opens at Film Forum on October 7. For more info, go here.

Dispatches from the Tribe’s Diaspora

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, ME, My Shows, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2009 by travsd

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Mere days after the curtain closed on the last performance of Willy Nilly’s premiere run, I sought the company of my compeers wherever they now lurked. I found them scattered throughout the demi-monde, like so many orphans adrift in a theatrical gale, in no less than four separate shows, which I was able to catch in three consecutive days. Here is the madness I encountered:

On Tuesday, I caught Adam Swiderski (a.k.a Beach Nut Barney Carlson) with his musical outfit Supermajor performing the rock opera Viva Evel Knievel at the Brick Theatre. Penned by my compadre Lynn Berg (with music by Miriam Daly), this witty multi-media lark tells the bone crushing story of the All-American motorcycle daredevil, from his early jumps over mere parked cars…to his Quixotic rocket launch into the Snake River Canyon…to the Phoenix-like rebirth of the family franchise in the person of his son Robbie. Dry as the Nevada desert, the piece seems to walk a fine line between pure goof and genuine admiration for this larger-than-life mad man…a line only someone who’d been a kid during Knievel’s heyday could ever fully understand. Me, I fit that bill to a tee. Like Berg himself no doubt, I was one of the thousands who built makeshift ramps in his backyard, popping wheelies on his bike before sailing two or three feet into the stratosphere over piles of toys (and occasionally my sister, when we could catch her). Swiderski was well cast in the role, not strictly because of his white bread persona, but because he and Supermajor pull off these amazing songs (or parodies of songs?) with the assurance of, well, motorcycle jumpers. Ya either have a blast doing numbers about how someday you’re going to leap over the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle…or ya flame out. I’m glad to say that in Viva Evel Knievel, no bones were broken. In the lingo of the cyclist, it was a Triumph.

On Wednesday, I went to see Rich Lovejoy (a.k.a talent scout Danny Weiss) do his solo turn in The Dark Heart of Meteorology at Under St. Marks. I’ve come to know Rich as the sort of actor who’ll say yes to everything, including getting naked at the drop of a hat — sometimes before the hat even touches the ground. In this piece (written by Stephen Aubrey, directed by Jess Chayes), he delivers another sort of nakedness, one quite unexpected. Granted the piece contains its fair share of surreal absurdities.  In the play, Rich is a tv weatherman in the throes of a nervous breakdown. Having fled his job and his family he inexplicably now travels around the country telling his story to groups at increasingly sad venues, from a college, to a high school, to a church basement, to a rehab center. The unpredictability of the weather is a metaphor for the senselessness of human tragedy in the monologue, and Rich’s chops, I learned, run the gamut from slapstick to pathos. It surprised me that he has access to sadness, but upon further reflection it shouldn’t have. He has a soulful quality, and we stay with him throughout his weird journey, and want more of it. The actual play needs to percolate some more, I think; it possesses potential yet untapped. But Rich mines what’s there, and it’s a solid performance. For info on tickets etc, go here.

After Rich’s show, I hied me over to Otto’s Shrunken Head to see the Electric Mess do their Yardbirds tribute. The personnel of the Electric Mess contains three members of the Willy Nilly company, Esther Silberstein (Nazi, the Fifth Hoarse), Derek Davidson (bass, musical director), and Oweinama Biu (Farfeesa and electric sitar). Here, they and their cohorts unleashed a string of note-perfect Yardbirds covers, including “Come Tomorrow”, “Heart Full of Soul”, “Evil Hearted You”, “For Your Love”, and 6 or 8 other tunes I didn’t recognize because they weren’t on the greatest hits LP I played as a teenager. Esther is a show-woman non-pareil, literally trotting out her Jaggeresque maneuvers with throat and boots to match. She and the band have done their homework. I was especially impressed by by “Evil Hearted You”, on which she sounded so much like the original I kept looking around to see if there wasn’t a DJ involved. Not be outdone, Ow took over the vocals on a couple of numbers, notably “Heart Full of Soul”, matching his frontwoman in both substance and style (which is really saying something).

Thursday night, I caught Willy Nilly’s star Avery Pearson with his sketch comedy group Really Sketchy at Shetler Studios. Avery began the evening on a high note, impersonating a sex-crazed bonobo wearing nothing but a pair of adult diapers. From here, he became a French Revolutionary during the Great Terror. And so and so. Here we should point out that Avery is a team player in an ensemble that also include Sara Lauren Adler, Duane Cooper, Mark Garkusha, John Calvin Kelly, Dani Faith Leonard and R. Elizabeth Woodard. (But I also espied Willy Nilly’s stage manager Guenivere Pressley in the tech booth. Whore! Whose light cues won’t you call?!) More imaginative and eclectic than your garden variety sketch comedy troupe, Really Sketchy was winningly pleasant until the second act, when they proceeded to dazzle. I thought I had written the mother of all fart sketches, but mine is but a foothill next to the Matterhorn that is Really Sketchy’s fart sketch. No stone is left unturned in this Rabelaisian romp, concerning one Harry Bottom, the “Phantom Farter”. The writing in this epic is top-flight, as are the acting chops of the cast, who are often called on to fake dramatic moments in this rags-to-riches story about a performing flatulist. See it if you dare; smell it if you must.

This little Whitman Sampler accounts for seven of our little Tribe. What can the others be plotting? Ah, my friends, my friends. We’re born, and then we die, all in a heartbeat of time…

Spitting in the Face of the Devil

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags , , on September 18, 2009 by travsd

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Bob Brader and I met in the most delicious context possible. We were fellow actors in a project to bring the complete works of Ed Wood to the stage. As pleasurable work, this cannot be topped. Were I to somehow secure a job doing only this for the rest of my days, I would die a happy man. Bob, who somewhat resembles the original Flash Gordon Buster Crabbe, was uniquely suited to the work, with his all-American haircut, twinkling eyes, and smile that makes Burt Parks look like Leonard Cohen. Bob was forever playing the leads in these things. He just seems put on the earth to wear a striped tee shirt and seek shelter in mysterious, secluded farmhouses on rainy nights, vaguely perplexed that the “doctor” who’s taken him in has found it necessary to lock his bedroom door from the outside. If you haven’t already guessed, he’s one of my favorite actors.

But man cannot live on bread alone. I first got an inkling that there was more to Bob when I asked him to appear in some show and the word came down that he was withdrawing from the scene for a time to work on some serious solo writing. Well, this impressed me, too. While we’re on the Flash Gordon analogy, it’s heroic business dredging up your ugly past and making a show out of it. Most actors have such pasts, or they’d pick some form of steadier work, one that didn’t involve pretending to be somebody else. The heyday of autobiographical performance art was the late 80s and early 90s. What I saw of it, I generally didn’t like, usually because the perpetrators had a habit of symbolically assassinating villains from their youths without ever doing any self examination, which should always be a writer’s first job. Brader doesn’t make this mistake. He spits in the face of a couple of “devils” in this piece. The principle one, you won’t be surprised to learn, is his father. The other is himself.

Bob Brader, Sr. sounds like an appalling character, apparently incapable of love, and engaging in all sorts of abuse of the helpless charges under his roof. Through some genetic miracle, though, Bob Junior was born funny. As a consequence, his revenge becomes an enjoyable – and meaningful — ride. The meaning comes from the fact that, while Brader Sr. incessantly belittled Junior’s gift for mimicry, Junior now uses that very gift to even the score. Sitting at a table Spalding Gray style, Brader conjures up a vast catalog of characters from his life: teachers, doctors, girlfriends, all his relatives, and (everyone’s favorite) Paul Lynde. While Brader’s take on the old man feels a little two dimensional (an uncomplicated, irredeemable villain), the other portraits are diverse and often hysterical. “I always liked Bob”, says one of his maternal grandparents at his father’s funeral, “He never did anything to me.” But he did plenty to Bob Brader, Jr., his mother, and (spoiler alert) some of Bob Jr.’s friends. And the powerful refrain, repeated pointedly throughout the piece, is one we must always take away from testimonies like this: “And nobody helped.”

Brader’s piece, developed with his wife and director Suzanne Bachner, very carefully points out who might have helped: a treacherous guidance counselor, barbaric doctors, a weak if loving mother, and teachers who prize his talent but take their interest in him no farther. The old school take-away from a piece like this was that the “system” was at fault, that there might be some sort of political change that would make it impossible for such creatures as Brader’s father to act with impunity. But Brader is smarter than that. George Orwell, noting that many critics and scholars often made the mistake of claiming Charles Dickens as a socialist, wrote a perceptive essay correcting the record, asserting that Dickens was merely a humanitarian. Dickens, that chronicler of cruelty to children, never claimed that any “system” could change anything. He merely aroused our sympathy. There’s only one person in your life who can right any wrongs, correct any injustices you encounter as you slalom down your treacherous personal slope. And that person is you.

Spitting in the Face of the Devil played most recently at the 2009 New York International Fringe Festival.  The team’s new collaboration Sex Ed opens tomorrow night Where Eagles Dare Studio Blackbird. For details: http://bob-brader.com/.

Willy Nilly Extended

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

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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: http://www.fringenyc-encoreseries.com

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

Gothamist

NYTheatrecast

MetroMix

Off-Off Blogway

Comic Critique

One Producer in the City

And if any of these links don’t work, please visit: http://pipermckenzie.blogspot.com/. The links there do!

September

Posted in HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, September 11 with tags , on September 11, 2009 by travsd

How little do we dream

on these sere days

when clarity above all seems within our grasp

that the shadows have crept past the noon mark

and that we have entered the twilight month

the dusk of the year.

Just cresting the horizon

a shade creeps toward the river’s mouth

like the tenth plague to take our first born.

Soon the sharp outlines around us will recede into obscuring haze

Mountainous clouds seep across the land,

to make the morning midnight.

Now we see for the first time

that the infinite blue is a veil

And we can never look at it again without remembering

the day the very sky lied to us.

(c) 2003 Travis Stewart

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

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SMITH AND DALE

“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 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.

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 4. 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. 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.

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