Archive for November, 2009

Stars of Vaudeville #85: The Cherry Sisters

Posted in AMERICANA, Sister Acts, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags on November 30, 2009 by travsd


As far I know, it’s none of their birthdays today, but I’m posting this anyway!

The cruelty underlying the appeal of this act makes it closer to gladiatorial spectacle in conception than to vaudeville. The Cherry Sisters were so awful it was like a car wreck. The difference between them and Fred Allen , who’d billed himself as “The World’s Worst Juggler”, was a complete lack of self awareness. There were five Cherry Sisters: Effie, Addie, Ella, Jessie and Lizzie. Singers without charm or wit, they stood there, sang off key, and were under the mistaken impression that they were actually quite good. [“It would not be too far off the mark, “ wrote one of them,” to say we were one of the best.”]

The appeal of the act appears to have been much akin to the appeal of screening an Ed Wood film today. The difference is the poor Cherry Sisters were live and in person to absorb the abuse of the audience, which not only hooted, howled and hissed, but threw vegetables at them.

A review from the Des Moines Leader was not sparing in its bile:

Effie is an old jade of 50 summers, Jessie a frisky filly of 40, and Addie the flower of the family, a capering monstrosity of 35. Their long skinny arms, equipped with talons at the extremities, swung mechanically, and anon waved frantically at the suffering audience. The mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns and sounds like the wailings of damned souls issued therefrom. They pranced around the stage with a motion that suggested a cross between a danse du ventre and fox-trot—strange creatures with painted faces and hideous mein. Effie is spavined, Addie is string-halt, and Jessie, the only one who showed her stockings, has legs with calves as classic in their outlines as the curves of a broom handle.

The girls hailed from Marion, Iowa. They started performing to raise funds so that they could attend the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. An enterprising and cynical genius spotted them and realized he could make an act out of it. As such, it was way ahead of its time. It was another 90 years, for example, before David Letterman would present Larry “Bud” Melman. The Cherry Sisters began to be booked throughout the mid-west. Oscar Hammerstein, having read about them in reviews like the one above quoted, brought them to the Victoria, knowing that a sophisticated and, well, cruel New York audience would especially relish this sort of entertainment.

The act the Cherries brought to New York was called “Something Good, Something Sad”. They never knew just how sad.


The act consisted of moral melodrama, bad singing, and inept comic turns. In addition to being  terrible performers, they also seem to have been rotten human beings, meddlesome Puritans of the worst kind, who couldn’t refrain from disparaging anything pleasurable, such as, oh, every other act in vaudeville. They had a particular animus for Mae West, who got her revenge by badmouthing them in one of her pictures. Their repertoire included a song called “My First Cigar” (a cautionary tale), another one called “Fair Columbia” (in which the singer was draped in a flag), and a tableux called “Clinging to the Cross” in which one of them, dressed as Jesus, was crucified. And then there was their theme song. Dressed as Salvation Army ladies, they banged a drum, rattled a tamborine and sang:

Cherries ripe, boom-de-ay!

Cherries red, boom de-ay!

The Cherry sisters have come to stay!

Hammerstein actually encouraged the audience to throw vegetables at them, explaining to the girls that the other acts, jealous, had hired them to do that. The Cherries were sold out in New York for ten weeks, rescuing Hammerstein’s other theatre the Olympia, from bankruptcy. They then embarked on a highly successful national tour.

By the time the youngest sister Jessie died in 1903, the girls had amassed a quarter of a millon dollars, with which they retired to their farm in Iowa. Comebacks were attempted but the Cherries’ moment was over. (The take of their first night back on the boards was $7). As late as 1935 Addie and Effie, the only ones remaining, attempted yet another comeback. Addie was well into her 80s, Effie was pushing 70. Given how bad they were when they were young, the mind reels, and the heart bleeds, at an idea of what that spectacle was like.

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.


A Guide to Gangsters, Murderers and Weirdos

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons with tags , on November 27, 2009 by travsd

Check out my review in the Villager of this excellent, if morbid, new guidebook to the Lower East Side here.

Pay Me With a Chicken

Posted in BUNKUM, PLUGS on November 24, 2009 by travsd

One of my best pals in high school Matt Cohen used to regale us with tales of his legendary Uncle Marc, a sort of combination comedian, practical joker, con artist and entrepreneur. Oh yes and videographer. I’ll let you judge which of those skill sets come into play in his latest venture, I think the name of the site speaks for itself.

Stars of Vaudeville #83 & 84: Ruth Etting and Fred Sanborn

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Singers, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , on November 23, 2009 by travsd


For this reporter, Ruth Etting is the first of the Bland Bombshells, representing the advent of legions of non-descript performers who were to inhabit American popular culture in the 1940s and 50s. Her saving grace is a voice that is to die for, warm, pleasant and likable, and, on record at least, that is all that matters. She sounded like, and looked like, the girl next door, which of course is the origin of her vaudeville handle. The essence of vaudeville prior to this, however, had been the colorful, individual character. Costumed, distinctive, and, yes, mannered. Posh or earthy, the mere mention of the name conjured up a personality: Nora Bayes, Eva Tanguay, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Beatrice Lillie…to name just a few. Henceforth, it was to become an industry where a pretty girl could get up onstage, smile ingratiatingly, and just sing. She might have the best voice in the world…but without that indispensable persona, we would forget about her the instant she walked off the stage. She was disposable.

This seems like a lot of heavy freight to lay at Ruth Etting’s feet, and Ms. Etting, wherever you are, I apologize. By all accounts she had no great designs on stardom, but would have been happy to continue on in the career she studied for in the late teens at the Chicago Art Institute: costume design. She started singing to earn a little money and soon became the principal project of one Martin “Moe the Gimp” Snyder, a Chicago gangster who became her manager and husband in 1922. (What is it with girl singers and these gangsters, anyway?) She became huge in Chicago before ever setting for in New York, playing the best vaudeville and nightclub jobs, performing on local radio, and starting to cut disks. Her Columbia hits included  “It All Depends On You” “Everybody Loves My Baby” “Mean to Me”,and many others.

Her New York debut was a 1927 job fronting Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra at the Paramount Theatre. In the 1927 Ziegfeld Follies she introduced another hit “Shaking the Blues Away”. The following year she appeared in both Eddie Cantor’s Whoopie! and Ed Wynn’s Simple Simon. While continuing to appear on stage, she went into films in the thirties, such as Eddie Cantor’s Roman Scandals (1933), and Hip Hip Hooray (1934), Gift of Gab (34) and 30 shorts for Paramount and Warner Brothers.

In 1936, she retired, further proof that she never had the mania for stardom to begin with. The following year divorced her husband/manager for her piano player Myrl Alderman – who soon found himself shot full of holes. You shouldn’t oughtta cross Moe the Gimp. This juicy story was made into a 1954 film, called Love Me or Leave Me starring Doris Day and James Cagney (for once, intelligent casting in a Hollywood bio-pic).

[Note: in addition to being Miss Etting’s birthday today, it is also the birthday of “fourth Stooge” Fred Sanborn. Check out the movie Soup to Nuts, which in addition to being entertaining, is a major revelation. We get to enjoy Ted Healy along with Moe, Larry and Shemp…and a fourth Stooge, Fred Sanborn who is a sort of Harpo-like figure, silent (but for unheard whispers), weaving in and out of the plot doing purely visual shtick. We should have seen more of him!]

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 #82: Moran and Mack

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Vaudeville etc. with tags , on November 22, 2009 by travsd


Moran and Mack have the dubious distinction of being the last major blackface team to work in vaudeville. As a boast, that’s sort of like putting “Kappelmeister to the Fuhrer” on your C.V.

Mack had been a stage electrician who told jokes all the time. Alexander Pantages suggested he go on stage. one night he was on the same bill as Garvin and Moran, and – just like that — Mack stole Moran.

Using the formula established by McIntyre and Heath, Mack was the slow witted comical one; Moran, was the straightman, always frustrated by his partner’s stupidity.

MACK: Wish I had a thousand ice cold watermelons.

MORAN: Glory be. I bet if you had a thousand ice cold watermelons, you’d give me one.

MACK: Oh, naw! No, siree. If you are too lazy to wish for your own watermelon, you ain’t gona get none of mine!

Oh, git along, now, you two!

The team had great success in vaudeville and in revues such as the 1917 Over the Top, Ziegfeld Follies, Earl Carroll’s Vanities, and The Greenwich Village Follies. In 1927 they recorded their sketch “The Early Bird Catches the Worm” on Columbia records, and it was nationwide smash that boosted their success even more. The team was featured in the 1928 Paramount film Why Bring That Up?

A dispute arose when Mack, who owned the act, refused to give Moran more than a tiny share of the take. Moran quit and another comedian was brought in (though still billed as Moran). This version of the team did 1930 film called Anybody’s War. The film did poorly, so Moran was re-hired at a high salary and the team resumed touring the RKO circuit.

The team also did the 1932 Mack Sennett  feature Hypnotized. They were discussing a deal to do a series of shorts with Sennett in 1934, when tragedy struck. The three men were driving to New York together when they were involved in an accident that killed Mack. Moran continued to perform but there was an ever decreasing market for his work.

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.


Indie Theatre Holiday Podcast

Posted in Christmas, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, ME, My Shows with tags , , on November 21, 2009 by travsd

Hard to believe this is already my third annual Holiday podcast for! This year’s batch of victims was an eclectic one: Heather Curran and Trey Compton of the Gallery Players, talking about their production of Christopher Durang’s Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge, featuring its original star. Then I talked to my old friends from the Axis Company (in particular artistic director Randy Sharp) about their 7th annual production of their holiday children’s production Seven In One Blow. Nutcase Jeffrey Solomon gives me the lowdown on Santa Claus Is Coming Out. And playwright/actor Ricardo Perez Gonzalez and I discuss war and peace and his new play In Fields Where They Lay, which is based on a real-life incident during World War I when German and British soldiers ceased fighting in order to celbrate Christmas together. Hear it all here.

Kitsch Press Round-up

Posted in ME, My Shows on November 21, 2009 by travsd

We had a modest but not unpleasing week for Kitsch press attention: three separate articles, all positive. With a short three week run and one of the weeks containing a holiday, and with myself as sole publicist (on top of my tasks as producer, playwright, songwriter, playwright and actor) this is liable to be the extent of it, so I will savor it to the full. (Though several major, influential journalists are attending without reviewing). Adam McGovern of Comiccritique came. He was perhaps the only critic who had a complete, intelligent appreciation and understanding of every aspect of Willy Nilly, so I was glad to get him here. He is already one of my favorite writers. His well-parsed encapsulation is here. Likewise, Scott Stiffler, culture editor of the Villager/Downtown Express constellation, and an old cohort presents this knowing preview. And Martin Denton of chimes in with his own fair and balanced assessment. One thing Martin gets really, really right (and which most reviewers almost never do) is an awareness of the conditions and limitations which cash-strapped Indie theatre artists operate under. When he spots some problems, he bothers to ask why they exist, and even postulates what it would take to address them. Hence, the production’s sluggish pace, brought on my the chronic underrehearsal we are all so tired of, improves with every performance–as he predicted it would. (The entire cast was never in the same place at the same time until opening night). And he notes that he large scale of the theatre make quick-changes tough…but in that observation, he’s just being generous. You have five more opportunities to catch the show, and we had a large crowd last night—make your reservations now! Here’s how:

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