Archive for October, 2009

Stars of Vaudeville #72: Ethel Waters

Posted in African American Interest, Hollywood (History), Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , on October 31, 2009 by travsd

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From poverty and marriage at age 13, Ethel Waters was to go on to earn one of the highest salaries in vaudeville ($3000-4000 a week), becoming a huge star of stage and screen.

Waters got her feet wet on the TOBA circuit, debuting at Baltimore’s Lincoln Theatre at age 17. By the mid-twenties, she was a star of black vaudeville, and other opportunities started to open up. In 1925 she had a double breakthrough, inking a contract to record for Columbia Records, and securing a booking to succeed Florence Mills at the Plantation Club. In 1927 she starred in the Broadway show Africana at the Daly Theatre. In that year, too, she crossed over into mainstream vaudeville, debuting at the New York Palace. By the following year, she was headlining at the Chicago Palace. In 1930, she starred in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds with Mantan Moreland and Buck and Bubbles. In 1933 she introduced the song Lena Horne was later to become famous for “Stormy Weather”, at the Cotton Club. That year she also made the short Rufus Jones for President featuring a pint-sized Sammy Davis, Jr. A star of radio and live performance throughout the 30s and 40s, she also principal roles in the films Cabin in the Sky (1943) and Pinky (1949) . She was in both stage and screen versions of Carson McCuller’s Member of the Wedding (1950 and 1952, respectively). For the last two decades or so of her life, she would only sing spirituals, and criss-crossed the country with evangelist Billy Graham, paving her way for her inevitable passage to Glory in 1977.

Here she is performing “Am I Blue” from the 1929 picture On With the Show:

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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Stars of Vaudeville #71: Fanny Brice

Posted in Broadway, Comediennes, Jews/ Show Biz, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singing Comediennes, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2009 by travsd

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

A pox upon me for a clumsy lout. Yesterday was Fanny Brice’s birthday and I completely forgot to do her blog post. Well here she is, better late than nevah.

Best known today via Barbara Streisand’s portrayal of her in the musical films Funny Girl and Funny Lady, Brice was actually rather unlike Streisand in appearance. Tall and gangly like Olive Oyl, with two bright crescent-shaped eyes on either side of her parrot-like nose, Brice was always using this mug for low comedy effect, crossing her eyes, and so forth. She usually spoke with a Yiddish accent for laughs, although she didn’t actually speak that way herself. Brice made her fame parodying the sort of women she wasn’t (cinematic vamps and high-class society dames with English accents), thereby allowing the audience to laugh at them and her at the same time. She also became very well known for singing sentimental character songs crafted around the names “Sadie” and “Rose”.

Born Fanny Borach in 1891, her parents ran a saloon in Newark where Fanny sang and danced as a child. Her father was a drunk from Alsace. Her mother, who wore the pants in the family, was from Hungary. The mother ran the saloon, but the father drank the profits. So they moved to Brooklyn, where the mother sold real estate, which you couldn’t drink, at least.

At age 14, Fanny won an amateur contest at a Brooklyn theatre when she sang “When You Know You’re Not Forgotten by the Girl You Can’t Forget.” She took the name “Brice” from a  neighbor. She got a job early in the chorus of a Cohan musical starring Victor Moore The Talk of New York (1907) but was fired for joking around during rehearsal.

Hired by the Columbia Burlesque Wheel, she commissioned two songs from the then unknown Irving Berlin. One of them was “Sadie Salome, Go Home”. She was a hit in The College Girls in 1910. She performed in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1910and 1911. Like Jimmy Durante, she was one of the few to make it big in show business PRIOR to working in vaudeville. When she worked in vaudeville it was strictly prestige dates such as Hammerstein’s Victoria and the Palace. A number of Shubert musicals followed, such as The Whirl of Society (1912) and The Honeymoon Express. In the years 1916-23, she returned to the Follies. In the late 20s, it was back to vaudeville.

Her one shot at a real starring role in a talkie, the 1927 vehicle My Man (based on her theme song) was not a real hit. As Joe Smith of Smith & Dale said, “She was a very funny girl, but a good actress for only about fifteen minutes.” The truth was, she couldn’t act—she mugged too hard, and played her roles from too great a distance. You can see it in the 1936 film The Great Ziegfeld: in her big dramatic scene, in which she plays herself, she is definitely weeping tears of glycerine.

Brice divorced her husband, jailed gangster Nick Arnstein in 1927 and married impresario Billy Rose in 1929. A number of Rose vehicles followed, such as Sweet and Low (1930), and Billy Rose’s Crazy Quilt (1931), with Phil Baker and Ted Healy. She did a Ziegfeld Follies in 1934, where she introduced her popular character Baby Snooks. In 1936 she separated from Billy Rose. Illness (spinal neuritis) and divorce caused her early retirement from the stage. She moved out to L.A. where she starred as Baby Snooks on radio, and took bit parts in movies for the remainder of her career. She died in 1951 of a cerebral hemorrhage.

The 1939 film Rose of Washington Square is supposedly based on Brice’s relationship with Arnstein. Unfortunately, it stars Alice Faye and Tyrone Power, which is sort of like casting mayonnaise and white bread in a story about mustard and pumpernickel. Lacking any hint of humor or spice, the film also makes the traditional Hollywood mistake of featuring 1939 music and fashions in a story set twenty years earlier. Funny Girl (1968) gets it better, but somehow seems to be more about its star Barbara Streisand than about Brice. The film focuses on Brice’s problematic relationship with Arnstein (Omar Sharif), who comes off in the movie – unaccountably – as a saint. the 1975 sequel Funny Lady is about Brice’s rocky marriage to Rose. Brice herself managed to make a cameo from beyond the grave in the 1983 Woody Allen film Zelig, thanks to Modern Movie Magic.

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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Theatre of Blood

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), PLUGS, The Hall of Hams with tags , on October 30, 2009 by travsd

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One of my favorite movies opens tonight at the Film Forum and will play all week. In Theatre of Blood, Vincent Price plays a demented ham who fakes his own death in order to get revenge upon a gaggle of theatre critics who’ve literally driven him mad. One by one, he bumps them off in clever, amusing ways drawn from the great plays of Shakespeare. And each critic is played by a hilarious British character actor (Robert Morley as a big, preening sissy stands out in my memory). And for sex appeal, there’s Diana Rigg as Price’s dutiful, equally insane daughter. This movie is as delicious as a bag of Halloween candy — with no apples.

Watch this spot a few days from now, for a suprising follow up to this post. And for more info on the current showing of Theatre of Blood, go here.

Stars of Vaudeville #69 and 70: Jack Pearl and Walter C. Kelly

Posted in African American Interest, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on October 29, 2009 by travsd

Today is the birthday of two major vaudevillians who’ve grown to be unfortunate footnotes. Of Jack Pearl, I have only to say, “Vuz you dere, Charlie?” (see bio here)

And now, on to–

WALTER C. KELLY, “The Virginia Judge”

bcdd6379b8762e02Grace Kelly’s uncle Walter was one of the few unalloyed racists in big time vaudeville. While many, such as Al Jolson or Sophie Tucker may have put on blackface, the racism of their acts were a complex mixture of love, scorn, homage, condescension, admiration and disrespect. No such hash complicated Kelly’s feelings. His act consisted of his interpretation of life in a courtroom he had witnessed as an aspiring ward politician in Newport News, Virginia. The characters were chiefly the no-nonsense Southern judge who presided there…and the parade of tremulous, “no-account” blacks who faced his summary justice. Much humor was accomplished by the unsentimental swiftness and the wit with which he brought sentence – a form of humor not foreign to fans of Judges Wapner, Judy and the many others that have graced television screens since the 1980s.

JUDGE: First case on the docket—Sadie Anderson.

PRISONER: Yes, sir, that’s me.

JUDGE: Thirty days in Jail. That’s me.

** * * *

JUDGE: Jim, this is the third time you have been here for cutting people. Tell me, how old are you?

JIM: I’se jest twenty-fo’, Jedge.

JUDGE: Well, Jim, you will be just twenty-five when you get out.”

*****

JUDGE: Rufus Johnson, you are charged with larceny of two chickens from the premises of Howard Brooks on Brierfield Road. What have you to say about it?

RUFUS: Well, Jedge, I never was near Mr. Brook’s house and the Lord may strike me down dead if I stole those chickens.

JUDGE: Well, Rufus, you stand aside for ten minutes, and if the Lord don’t strike you, I will give you thirty days.

*****

It’s all very amusing until you remember that the Lord struck plenty of black people dead for stealing chickens and equally minor – often nonexistent – crimes. Lynching was a palpable reality at the time of these comedy routines, and at the time the Virginia Judge was making audiences fall down in the aisles, black people in the South weren’t laughing. If your only exposure to the racial politics of American justice is a movie like Sounder, you still already know that a black man on trial for petty larceny in the South was no joke.

Nevertheless, people loved Kelly. He started out in an amateur capacity, making his fellow Democrats laugh at a smoker at Big Tim Sullivan’s club in 1900. Vaudeville engagements resulted and within a few weeks, he climbed up the ladder from Tony Pastor’s to Keith’s Union Square, and then a tour of the Keith and Proctors wheels. By 1904, he was a headliner at Percy Williams’ Alhambra. He continued to do the Virginia Judge bit until the demise of vaudeville. For the last stretch, he worked as much as he wanted to and earned one of vaudeville’s highest salaries. But the fact that he refused to perform on a bill with the legendary Bert Williams in 1909 will tell you the color of his money.

When vaudeville expired, Kelly was big enough a star to jump to Broadway shows and Hollywood films, including a 1935 adaptation of his Virginia Judge material. In 1938, the Lord struck Walter C. Kelly dead in the form of an errant – or perhaps deadly accurate – motorist.  Le’s jes’ say he got runned over  by a karma.


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 Blood Brothers Present the New Guignol

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Horror (Mostly Gothic), PLUGS with tags , , on October 28, 2009 by travsd

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I can’t recall receiving so many invitations, or seeing so many ads, for so many halloween shows, haunted house attractions or parties — if you wanted to and you were able to clone yourself, you could probably do a dozen different such events every night this week. It’s very exciting to me since Halloween is my favorite holiday, although I’m mighty glad I’m not competing against all this glut. At any rate, I’m either rehearsing or traveling every day between now and the unholy holiday, so will get to see none of them. But if I had to choose only ONE to see, it would have been The Blood Brothers Present the New Guignol, which opens at The Brick tonight. Not just because the Nosedive guys are friends and colleagues, but also because they were ahead of the current curve, and they’ve been doing a different edition of this horror-show for several years. I confess the campy hosts are my favorite element — I like my horror mixed with laughs…just like real life, heh heh heh. At any rate, that’s my endorsement. Please buy the ticket I would have bought (or to be more accurate, mooched).

Here’s how: http://www.bricktheater.com/bloodbrothers

Stars of Vaudeville #68: Harrigan and Hart

Posted in Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Irish, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on October 26, 2009 by travsd

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Today is Ned Harrigan’s birthday. Harrigan was one of George M. Cohan’s favorite performers, and the inspiration for the eponymous song.

From No Applause:

The two biggest Irish comedians to come out of the variety scene, becoming the most popular stars of the American theatre of the 70s and 80s, was the team of Edward “Ned” Harrigan and Tony Hart. A New York native, Harrigan made his debut in San Francisco in 1867, singing (to his own banjo accompaniment) at some of the principal stages of the Barbary Coast: Butler’s Melodeon, the Belle Union, the Olympic, Gilbert’s Melodeon and the Pacific Variety Hall. Clog dancing was also one of his specialties. From singing and dancing, he worked his way up to comedy sketches, playing an impressive range of character roles: blackface parts, a Swedish servant girl, Chinese laundrymen, Irish landlords, and so-called Dutch (or German) characters.

His first partner, Alex O’Brien, was such a drunk that Harrigan was forced to bring him to the “House for Inebriates” on a wagon. His next partner Sam Rickey worked with him clear across the continent, arriving in New York in 1871. Advertised as “the noted California comedians” they did their Dutch sketch “The Little Frauds” at the Globe Theatre on the Bowery. Unfortunately, Ricky was an even bigger drunk than O’Brien was, and wound up in the gutter himself.

When Harrigan was 26 he hooked up with Hart, only 16 years old and then calling himself “Master Antonio”. Born Anthony Cannon, in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1855, he was placed in reform school at age 9 for announcing that he wanted to go into the theatre. He escaped and ran away to New York, singing, dancing and doing odd jobs at circuses, saloons and minstrel shows. By the time he and Harrigan joined their fortunes, Cannon had become famous for one particular number, a tear-jerker called “Put Me in My Little Bed”, which he sang dressed as a young girl. Audiences were crazy about Hart. Nat C. Goodwin said: “Hart caused more joy and sunshine by his delightful gifts than any artist of his time. To refer to him as talented was an insult. Genius was the only word that could be applied. He sung like a nightingale, danced like a fairy, and acted like a master comedian.”

Harrigan hired Cannon to replace Ricky as “Fraulein” in his sketch. That was when Cannon changed his name to Hart, deciding that sounded better with “Harrigan”.

A regular gig at New York’s Theatre Comique allowed the team to demonstrate their many talents. The variety show was 3 ½ hours long, followed by an afterpiece of 40 minutes. Harrigan and Hart might do several different turns in this course of such a show: blackface routines, brief sketches interspersed with dancing, juggling and singing. By 1876, when they assumed joint ownership of the Theatre Comique, the afterpieces became so popular that they became the focal point of the entire performance, and variety was dropped…

FOR WHAT HAPPENS NEXT GO HERE.

(c) 2004 Trav S.D.

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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Stars of Vaudeville #67: The Dolly Sisters

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Burlesk, Dance, Singers, Sister Acts, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , on October 25, 2009 by travsd

 

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Two, two, two Dollies in one! The Duncan Sisters were more talented, the Hilton Sisters were more freakish, but no sister act was more beautiful, or more beautifully outfitted, than this pair of Hungarian identical twins.

Born Yansci and Rozicke Deutsch in Budapest in 1892, the girls moved to Brooklyn at age 5, where they quickly became “Jennie” and “Rosie”. Their mother enrolled them in ballet school; this was to be the full extent of their formal training. A completely unreliable Hollywood movie has them doing Hungarian folk dances in a social club in 1904 to cover their uncle’s gambling debts. The verifiable record has them debuting professionally at Keith’s Union Square in 1909. Legend has it that they chose the name Dolly because a friend said they were as cute as little dolls.

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In 1911, Ziegfeld booked them for the Follies, and in so doing created the personae and mystique that was to be the basis of all their future stage (and offstage) success. For their Siamese twin dance routine, Ziegfeld draped them in fabulous costumes of the sort that were to be their mainstay throughout the rest of their careers, accentuating the latent exoticism of their almond-shaped eyes, black hair, and small, svelte bodies, with Asiatic finery, jewels, head-dresses and finger-cymbals. They seemed to be from the Far East, and back then, Hungary was pretty far east. To this reviewer, the whole concept bears an unfortunate resemblance to the miniature twin goddesses in the 1961 Japanese horror film Mothra. “Return the egg! Please, return the egg!”

Throughout their careers, they were as famous for who they were dating, who they were marrying, and how much money they had, as for any stage “accomplishment”. They went around with the likes of Diamond Jim Brady and the Prince of Wales. When they were marrying, they tended to do it tandem, perhaps each independently following the rhythmic imperatives of their identical DNA. In 1913, Rosie married Jean Schwartz, author of the Jolson hit “Rock-a-bye Your Baby (With a Dixie Melody)”. The next year, Jenny married Harry Fox, inventor of the Fox Trot.

Jenny and Fox made a sort of team for awhile, appearing at the Palace and Hammerstein’s Victoria together and in revues like the 1915 Stop! Look! Listen! Jenny and Dolly starred in separate films in 1915, Rosie in D.W. Griffith’s The Lily and the Rose, and Jenny in The Call of the Dance. In 1916, they were back as a permanent team again, starting a relationship with the Palace that was to last many years, and co-starring in the Far East espionage thriller The Million Dollar Dollies.

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The Dollys not only had twin marriages, they had twin divorces. Jenny divorced Fox in 1920; Rosie and Jean Schwartz split up in 1921. In the 20s, Paris became their home base, becoming the toast of the town with engagements at the Folies Bergere and the Casino de Paris. Their last American engagement was the Greenwich Village Follies of 1924.

Like Josephine Baker and Peggy Hopkins Joyce, the Dolly Sisters became closely identified with the spirit of the 20s, the opulence, the decadence, the frippery and the frivolousness. They mattered not for how they sang or danced, but how they looked while doing it. Nor did they have any desire to be artists. It was clear that, to them, the stage was just a means to an end. Once they were well fixed (by the late 20s), they retired, and spent all their time dating royalty and gambling in Monte Carlo.

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Rosie and Nechter

In 1927 Rosie married tobacco heir Mortimer Davis, whom she traded in for department store heir Irving Netcher in 1931. In 1933, Jenny was involved in a major auto accident with her fiance, the French aviator Max Constant. She endured 15 separate operations to restore her once matchless face, selling off her jewelery in the process. In the end, it was futile; her looks were forever gone. It is said that she regretted having survived without her beauty. In 1941, she proved it by hanging herself.

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In 1945, George Jessel made the lives of the Dollies into a preposterous bio-pic starring June Payne and Betty Grable. The film was a huge hit in its day – but it has nothing to do with the Dolly Sisters. In 1962, the seventy year old Rosie unsuccessfully attempted suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills. She was to live on in ignominious old age for another eight years.

Here is a clip from that Jessel film:

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

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To learn about silent and slapstick comedy please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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