Archive for January, 2010

Stars of Vaudeville #112: Eddie Cantor

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Comedy, Eddie Cantor, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Radio (Old Time Radio), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2010 by travsd

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Though almost forgotten today, there was no bigger star than Eddie Cantor in his heyday. He conquered more media than even Hope, Rogers or Benny: vaudeville, Broadway revues and book musicals, films, radio, tv and – because he was much a singer as he was a comedian – record albums. He was the first openly Jewish male entertainer to mainstream (his characters were always Jewish or “Russian” — a euphemism). The first entertainer of either gender to do it was Fanny Brice.

Cantor was definitely a creature of his times—very strange by today’s standards. Known as “Banjo Eyes” on account of his huge, rolling orbs, he was equally a singer and a comedian. He sang and recorded several crazy, nonsensical songs that were the very soul of the 1920s, such as “If You Knew Susie”, “Yes, We Have No Bananas”, “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby”, “Ma! He’s Making Eyes at Me” and the title song from his Broadway show and film Whoopie (which Sinatra later covered). On the the word “whoopie”, Cantor would roll his eyes and grin Groucho-style…although who’s to say Groucho didn’t roll his eyes Cantor-style?

Doctor: On what side are you Jewish?

Eddie: On the East Side.

(From the Eddie Cantor sketch “Insurance”)

He was born Israel Iskowitz, the son of Jewish Belarussian immigrants in 1892. Orphaned at age two and raised by his grandmother in New York’s Lower East Side, Cantor endured poorer circumstances than nearly any other player in this chronicle. He wore rags, had little to eat, and lived in a shabby basement. When his grandmother enrolled him at school as Israel Kantrowitz (her last name), the school thoughtfully took the liberty of shortening it to Kanter. At age 13, he changed his first name to Eddie to impress a girl.

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Like nearly all children in the Lower East Side at that time, Cantor stole and hung out with street gangs. He was funny from early childhood, making people around him laugh on the streets (as Richard Pryor would later do) to keep tougher guys from terrorizing him. He was bitten early by the show business bug, although he could seldom afford to see an actual show. Cantor once stole a girl’s life savings of $12 so he could see a production of Billy the Kid.

Teaming up with his friend Dan Lipsky, he did comedy and sang, performing weddings and bar mitzvahs at Henry Hall, which was next door to his house. He left home briefly at 15 in order to shack up with a 19 year old consort, but he was forced to go home with his tale between his legs after stealing the woman’s tickets to George M. Cohan’s, 45 Minutes to Broadway starring Fay Templeton.

In 1908, Cantor took the plunge into professionalism by performing at Miner’s Bowery Theatre amateur night. He was so poor he had to borrow a friend’s pants in order to go on. Despite a rough crowd, Cantor won the amateur contest and took home  $12 ($10 prize money, $2 in thrown coins). Later that year, he got a job in a touring burlesque show with producer Frank B. Carr. Indian Maidens but was stranded with the show in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania (an old story in vaudeville).

In 1909, he became a singer at Carrie Walsh’s Saloon, Coney Island. The pianist was 16 year old Jimmy Durante. They made a sort of loose team, learning every popular song from the past 20 years in order to fulfill audience requests. When they didn’t know a song, they would make one up around the title, and if the requester seemed displeased, say “What, there are two songs by that name?”

Cantor diligently saved his money from this work and invested in a new suit and business cards, so he could make the rounds with agents. Worn down by Cantor’s persistence, small time agent Joe Wood finally sent him out to Gain’s Manhattan Theatre just to be rid of him. The theatre was famous for sending acts packing. Shockingly, Cantor did so well he ended up being retained by the theatre. The impressed Wood started sending him to upstate theatres.

Cantor was working for the third-rate People’s Vaudeville Company when its owner Joe Schenk (later to become a movie mogul) told him if he came with some new material, he would be held over. Cantor solved the problem by doing the same act for several weeks in different ethnic personae: Hebrew, German, Blackface. The Blackface was a real revelation, as Cantor’s large round eyes read really well through the make-up.

Cantor made the big time in 1911 when he was hired by the juggling team of Bedini and Arthur to join them at Hammerstein’s Victoria. At first, Cantor was little more than a glorified assistant, never on stage, just fetching things for Bedini. After he passed this test for a few weeks, he was given a walk-on part in the show. His job was simply to walk across the stage and hand a plate to Bedini. Yet somehow Cantor managed to get a laugh even at this, walking on with an “attitude.” Bedini, the boss of the act gradually expanded his part with spoken lines, bits of business and even juggling. Essentially Cantor and Arthur were Bedini’s stooges, black-face servants, who supported the master juggler who was the star of the act.

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As usual, Cantor gave 110% and gradually upstaged Bedini. During this period, Cantor developed a character that would have revolutionized blackface, had blackface survived. His character deviated from all stereotypes. He was a sort of sissified, bookish character who wore glasses (Groucho Marx called the character “a nance”) and would say mincing things like “He means to do me bodily harm!” By defying stereotype, this was a step in the direction  of realism, but of course total realism came thereafter when black parts became exclusively played by real blacks.

Largely through Cantor’s efforts, Bedini and Arthur (Cantor remained unbilled) gradually moved up the bill to better and better spots. After seven months with the team, Cantor got a chance to sing with the act in Louisville when the manager needs them to pad for time. He sang Irving Berlin’s “Ragtime Violinand scored a huge hit, not just for his singing ability, but for his hyperactive onstage movements, which included handclaps and a sort of crazy-legged dance. Cantor would move this way on stage throughout his singing career.

In 1912, he got an offer to perform with a Gus Edwards’ revue “Kid Cabaret.” He purposely got himself fired from Bedini’s act so he could take it. Also in the cast of the Kid Cabaret was a young George Jessel, with whom Cantor became lifetime friends. In the act, Cantor played Jefferson, a blackface butler. They worked the Orpheum Circuit in 1913, where Cantor first met Will Rogers, another lifelong friend. Rogers took to Cantor and mentored him, even recommending him to his agent,the powerful Max Hart, who began to represent him.

Upon turning 21, he left Edwards. He performed as a single for a few months, visiting London in 1914 to play Charlot’s Revue while on his honeymoon. The trip was cut short by the outbreak of World War I, however. Back in New York, he teamed up with Al Lee, Ed Wynn’s former straight-man in an act called  “Master and Man”. Lee sang ballads which Cantor interrupted with nutty remarks.

The act stayed together until 1916, when Cantor was hired by Earl Carrol to play the part of the chauffeur in a show called Canary Cottage . In rehearsals, Cantor upstaged the star Trixie Friganza who threatened to walk if he was allowed to keep it up. Silent comedy star Raymond Griffith, who happened to be in attendance advised Cantor to lay off until performance and THEN pull all his stunts. Which he did, to great appreciation from the audience. With such laughs, the producers were forced to back Cantor.

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The next step was Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolics, his rooftop after-hours follow up to the Follies. Cantor was given a one-night trial, and his appearance was a triumph. He constantly did crazy, spontaneous things (like asking the likes of William Randolph Hearst to hold their hands high over their heads for a magic trick and then ignoring them for twenty minutes while they suffered). He gave an entirely different performance each night, a necessity at the Frolics, for the audience was the same each night, mostly composed of New York’s “400”.

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He was a very New York sort of character, impudent and familiar. His style in delivering a song was kinetic and eye-catching. He even had a signature exit—a little hankie he waved at the audience. In 1917, he was moved up to the Follies where he got to perform with Bert Williams, Fanny Brice, W.C. Fields and Will Rogers. In these early days, Cantor, in his eagerness to please, overdid everything, overplaying, mugging, etc. His newfound friends in the cast counseled to cool it down a little, and he went over even better.

Here’s a rare early film of Eddie in Broadway era prime (pre-Hollywood).

Cantor went on to star in numerous musicals, such as Make it Snappy (1922), Kid Boots (1923), and Whoopee! (1928). His first film Kid Boots (1926) was a silent version of his earlier musical. His second silent, Special Delivery (1927), was a flop. With and without blackface, he was one of the biggest stars of early talkies.

One of my favorite numbers of all time:

Films like Whoopee, Palmy Days, The Kid from Spain, Kid Millions, etc. were big hits and remain as peculiar artifacts of a bygone era. The films are very much akin to the early Marx Bros. pictures, extremely unpredictable, almost surreal semi-musicals.

Cantor became one of radio’s first big stars. Starting with the Chase and Sanborne Hour, he dominated the form from 1931-54. He was also big on tv from 1950-55, primarily for his show the Colgate Comedy Hour, which was successful for its first two years, but then a heart attack robbed Cantor of all of his strength and vitality and greatly reduced the energy of his performance. The tv Cantor was very different from the one of the films. Heavier, huskier, he was no longer the skinny “nance” of the 20s and 30s, but a grandfather whose appeal lay primarily in nostalgia.

Cantor’s last recording date was in 1957. Much of his final years were given to causes. Cantor founded the March of Dimes, for example. He had been a founding member of Actor’s Equity, AFTRA and the Screen Actors Guild, and was a big supporter of Israel upon its founding. Eddie Cantor passed away in 1964, far, far away from the basement he’d shared with his grandmother.

Interesting tidbit : Cantor had five daughters (who’d he always put on his radio and tv shows throughout the years). One of them, Natalie, was married to actor and performer Robert Clary, known to millions as “Le Beau” from Hogan’s Heroes.

And of course in recent years he’s coming back into the public’s consciousness somewhat as a character on Boardwalk Empire:

To learn about the roots 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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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 amazon.com etc etc etc

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A BRIEF HISTORY OF MURDER

Posted in BROOKLYN, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags , , , , on January 30, 2010 by travsd

By now it’s a familiar television subgenre. A familiar setting, say, a small country town (Twin Peaks) or a carnival (Carnevale) is invaded by the supernatural forces of evil through a series of mysterious murders that eventually add up to a small or large scale demonic holocaust. Richard Lovejoy’s A Brief History of Murder treads this well-trodden ground not once but twice in two rather incomplete full-length plays, asking us to connect the dots and fill in the blanks of an intentionally murky picture. The brevity announced in the title is therefore a joke – but so is the history and for that matter the murder.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a beautiful lady cop, (Anne Carlisle) investigates a series of small town killings in which the victims’ hearts have been removed and their eyelids drawn upon. She is aided by a couple of crusty detectives (Danny Bowes and Justin R.G. Holcomb) and a Keltonesque* rookie (Jesse Wilson). Meanwhile, her big city husband whines about neglect and the uneaten dinners he’s cooked (when he’s not working in the studio taking photographs of nude people.)

Furthermore, a brand new aquarium has just been built in the town – one apparently stocked with red herrings. The carnage we are privy to seems at various times to originate from several competing sources, none of whom are the conventional type of serial killer being sought by the police. The audience is able to see what the cops can’t, but that doesn’t help. A  literally lupine drifter “the last of his kind” (Timothy McCown Reynolds) hitches into town, snuffing a series of citizens in order to swallow small, glowing orbs he digs out of the back of their necks. Meanwhile, the Janus-faced mayor (David Arthur Bachrach) maintains his cover by delivering hokey press conferences – when he’s not drinking blood and controlling his minions with mesmerism. A trio of mysterious sylphs (Sarah Melinda Engelke, Kathryn Lawson, Eve Udesky) flit in and out of the proceedings from time to time; the suspicion that they are the Three Fates or Furies is thwarted by the fact that one has been recruited from the pile of murder victims. By the slow fade to black, the entire human race (and most of the dogs) appear to have been slaughtered. The bright side is, no one will be around to smell it.

Director Ivanna Cullinan is to be commended for wrestling this beast to the mat, and it looks like it was a job of work: musical numbers, special effects, stage combat, and scenes involving full frontal nudity, and (even more unsettling), foreign languages.  The actors all know what they’re doing, they live in the same universe, give truthful performances and don’t step on each other’s feet. If this sounds like faint praise, you haven’t seen much theatre; those are all minor miracles. Yet, in the end, the production fails to transcend a major flaw in the script, one that might have been addressed in the direction.

The flaw is an inconsistency in tone. An internal stylistic civil war mars the play. Mr. Lovejoy’s penchant for undeniably funny jokes are sprinkled throughout the grim drama like skittles in a spinach salad. Revelations of infidelity and scenes depicting the deaths of friends, neighbors and coworkers must swim upstream (or  vice versa) against a cop who throws up at the mention of donuts, and a character who asks for help renewing his library book even as he trips over the maimed corpse of the librarian. If the show is meant to be a parody of police procedurals (or their supernatural subgenre), the levity must stretch from curtain to curtain. If it is meant to be a straight genre exercise, there are too many jokes, and the wrong kind. It is as though the staff of Gilligan’s Island ventured to write an episode of Peyton Place, trying really, really hard to be serious. (You can tell I watch a lot of contemporary television).

As realized here these inconsistencies are a problem, but they needn’t be. The path out of the darkness is one that has already been blazed. Director Cullinan would have been better served by swallowing the Lynchian program whole hog. The realm in which word play and undefined menace coexist is dreamscape. For the most part, the cast pursues a tack of realism in their juicy scenes, a literalism that scarcely hints at the extent to which the stars are unaligned in the weird universe Lovejoy has written. I want tics, I want pregnant silences, I want expressionistic atmosphere. I want to see attitudes of vague bewilderment calibrated several notches below what is naturalistically called for, but a couple of notches above deadpan. The problem with playing it straight is that every time a joke pops up it diffuses the tension, and the whole whirligig has to rev itself up again. The script is weird; the tone of the show should be too.

But, even so, is “weird” enough?  For plenty of people, maybe, but I do ask more of four hours in the theatre, an expenditure in time I usually reserve for the likes of Mozart and Wagner. Nonsense can be meaningful: that is after all the nature of both poetry and religion. But while there is Mystery…and there are mysteries….there are also question marks…and I’m afraid A Brief History ranks as the latter.

Now then. What was really, really good about it? I absolutely loved the musical number sung the three Portal Sisters and reprised by the mayor (music by Chris Chappell, musical direction by Whitney Gardner, lyrics I guess by Rich Lovejoy [not indicated in the program]). A surreal, crazy lyric set to a vaudevillian tune (with a dance number choreographed by Becky Byers). A couple of performances were stand-outs. Justin R.G. Holcomb as Detective Chamber is an authentic find. I can see him being typecast in a never ending parade of police captains and farmhands but that would avail nothing if he were not so on the money in his measured, specific performance. I await his next stage turn with eagerness. And Sara Thigpen practically steals the show in a comical supporting part as the town busybody. I think we should all start referring to the stereotypical comic trope of an overbearing woman wearing a mudpack as “greenface”.

* The reference is to the works of Edward D. Wood, Jr.,  the recurring character Officer Kelton often providing comic relief.

A Brief History of Murder is at the Brick Theatre in Williamsburg, Brooklyn until tomorrow. For info and tickets go here.

Stars of Vaudeville #111: W.C. Fields

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jugglers, Radio (Old Time Radio), Silent Film, Vaudeville etc., W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , on January 29, 2010 by travsd

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Even if he had never made a film, W.C. Fields would have been one of the most important men in show business history. He was a man of several careers: tramp juggler in vaudeville, a star in Broadway revues, a popular radio guest, and star of two separate film careers, both silent and talkie. He spent the last 50 years of his life in show business and almost all of them as a star. For the first twenty or so of those years he was best known as a juggler, and one of the best in the business.

He was born William Claude Dukenfeld, in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in 1880. His father, an English immigrant, had a produce market, and it is said that young Claude got his start juggling his father’s wares. He became stagestruck in his early teens, periodically running away from home to stay with relatives or in a clubhouse he kept with his borderline criminal friends. Despite his seemingly undisciplined life, he made a careful study of all the jugglers who came to town, in particular Cinqevalli and the Byrne Brothers. He  practiced for hours daily, enduring physical pain, boredom and frustration in order to become pre-eminent at his skill. He first juggled balls, hats, sticks and the like but early on he demonstrated his originality by devising his renowned “cigar box trick”. He worked humor into the act as soon as he could, as when he juggled five items then contrived to lose one, just catching it as it started to fly away, as though it were all an accident.

His early gigs were in burlesquecircus, dime museums, amusement parks—the lower order of variety venues. A story, possibly apocryphal has his first performance at a church social, where the Philadelphia puritans refused to let him juggle his cigar boxes on account of their sinful nature. Young Fields responded by stealing all of their umbrellas after the show.

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Fields became a “Tramp Juggler” at some risk. Many such characters already existed, such as Nat Willis, The “Happy Tramp” and tramp juggler James Harrigan. His make-up was grotesque and clownish in the early years. By 1898 he was billed as W.C. Fields. In that year he married Hattie Hughes, a chorus girl who became his stage assistant. In 1899 he made his debut at Miner’s Bowery Theatre. He then embarked on a tour with Irwin’s Burlesquers. At this stage he was already getting great reviews. He had tons of amazing patter from the first, delivered in a voice not unlike the one we know from films and radio. He was not only a really good juggler but really funny, and this helped put him over with audiences and with bookers.

He was spotted in 1900 by a William Morris agent in St. Louis and thence booked for the Orpheum and Keith circuits. From 1900-14, he crisscrossed the globe many times, performing not only in Europe but also in such far flung place as Australia and South Africa (which is where he first met Will Rogers). In these years, he literally played before the Crowned Heads of Europe, further adding to the Fields mystique. During the years of the world tour he became a dumb act, to avoid the difficulties of the language barrier. While a non-verbal Fields may seem difficult to imagine, one must keep in mind what an adept physical comedian he was. He was a first rate pantomimist, and that skilled was honed during these years.

These long years of travel were very lonely. He’d separated from Hattie almost immediately after their marriage; she remained in New York to raise their son Claude. Fields’ constant companions during these were Dickens, Twain and Shakespeare – he carried them around in a steamer trunk packed full to groaning with books. Fields was an autodidact. Though he’d hated school, he loved to read. He taught himself to speak by reading these and other classic authors, and you can hear echoes of their voices in nearly everything he said. This love affair with these writers gave Fields his distinctive edge, it made him a sort of living bridge to the 19th century sensibility.

In 1903, he introduced his famous trick pool table, which featured a mechanism that pulled all fifteen balls into pockets at the same time. In 1905, Fields got his first speaking role in the McIntyre and Heath vehicle The Ham Tree on Broadway. The role was tailored for his already well-known personality and allowed him to perform many of his routines.

In 1915, he joined the Ziegfeld Follies where he worked straight through 1921. He performed in numerous other revues and book shows through 1930. Here he did many of the sketches that he later plundered for his talkies, such as The Barber Shop, The Dentist, The Pharmacist, The Fatal Glass of Beer and The Golf Specialist. In the Follies he became good friends with Will RogersEddie Cantor and Fanny Brice, often taking them for picnics and cross country drives in his convertible, which he drove at top speed and three sheets to the wind. Here are some great home movies of him during his Broadway heyday (1928):

His film career had several phases which came in nice discreet bundles. First he did two silent films in the mid-teens that went nowhere.

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One of them, Pool Sharks (1915), survives, and Fields acquits himself admirably in it. Here it is!

After an eight year hiatus he returned to do numerous silent features in the years 1924-28. These films did respectably well but were not blockbusters. A notable project during this time was D.W. Griffith’s 1925 adaptation of Fields Broadway hit Poppy, renamed Sally of the Sawdust. It is the archetypical Fields’ yarn: he plays a much-put-upon circus owner, who is the guardian of a young girl. The girl is in love with a rich young man, whose folks think she is not good enough for it by virtue of her being show folk. Underneath his venal exterior, Fields reveals a few sterling qualities at bottom, and so manages to effect a happy ending by the last reel.

His first talkies, were the aforementioned adaptations of Ziegfeld sketches which he did for Mack Sennett in the early thirties. There are a half dozen of these exquisite, nearly perfect set pieces – and far too few of them, at that.

It is in the talkies that we truly get the full Fields effect. Not only the shiney red face, steely blue eyes, bulbous nose and crooked little mouth, but the raspy voice, alternately shouting or muttering almost indecipherable asides in his distinctive lingo, “Godfrey Daniels” is the way he said “God damn it” in those censorious day. But Fields could leave no phrase alone. “I hit him on the head”, became “I smote him on the sconce” before Fields was done with it. He populated his scripts (and his film credits) with likewise Dickensian character names: Otis Cribblecobblis, Mahatama Kane Jeeves, and Egbert Souse. In some films, such as You’re Telling Me and It’s a Gift he portrays a much put-upon family man in a recognizable human situation. Others, like International House and Million Dollar Legs give full vent to total surrealism. It is interesting (and tantalizing) to know that Fields was under consideration for the role of the Wizard in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz.

A classic scene from It’s a Gift:

Ironically, the films Fields is best known for today were total disasters in his time. These are his last four starring vehicles, all produced by Universal: Never Give a Sucker an Even BreakYou Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, The Bank Dick and My Little Chickadee. Released in the era of Abbot and Costello and Bob Hope, these films were considered passe and even incomprehensible in their day. Today they are considered classics of screen comedy and in fact are the last true examples of vaudeville comedy style to come out of Hollywood.

His last years were plagued by health problems caused by his superhuman consumption of alcohol. He managed to turn in what are essentially vaudeville turns in 4 revue films released 1942-45. These last years also featured his famous verbal duels with Charlie McCarthy on radio.

Fields died on Christmas Day, 1946 with either a wink or curse for those assembled, depending on whose account you believe.

To learn about the roots of variety entertainmentconsult 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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February Column

Posted in Indie Theatre, ME with tags , , , on January 28, 2010 by travsd

My February column is up! Look for capsule reviews of the latest shows by Young Jean Lee, Richard Maxwell and Kamala Sankaram, as well preview tips on the Frigid Festival and shows by Charles Busch, Charles Mee, Reverend Billy, Clay McCleod Chapman (with the Venn Diagrams) and more! For all the info, go here.

Stars of Vaudeville #110: Joe Cook

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Broadway, Comedy, Jugglers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on January 28, 2010 by travsd

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Almost completely unknown today, Joe Cook was called by New York Times theatre critic Brooks Atkinson nothing less than  “the greatest man in the world”. Cook accurately billed himself variously as the “one man vaudeville show” and the “master of all trades.” His skills were listed as “juggling, unicycle riding, magic, hand balancing, ragtime piano and violin, dancing, globe rolling, wirewalking, talking and cartooning.” “Talking” in vaudeville jargon meant of course delivering comedy monologues. The one he is most famous for is known as the “Four Hawaiians” bit, and it goes like this:

I will now give an imitation of three Hawaiians. This is one (whistles) this is another (plays ukulele) and this is the third (marks time with his foot). I could imitate four Hawaiians just as easily, but I will tell you the reason why I don’t do it. You see,  I bought a horse for $50 and it turned out to be a running horse. I was offered $15,000 for him and I took it. I built a house with the $15,000 and when it was finished a neighbor offered me $100,000 for it. He said my house stood right where he wanted to dig a well. So I took the $100,000 to accommodate him. I invested the $100,000 in peanuts and that year there was a peanut famine so I sold the peanuts for $350,000. Now why should a man with $350,000 bother to imitate 4 Hawaiians?

He was born Joseph Lopez in Evansville, Indiana in 1890. His parents died when he was three, and he took the name of his adopted parents, becoming Joseph Cook. Raised on a farm, young Joe’s dream home was with the traveling tent shows that would come through his county year after year. He started practicing juggling and acrobatics as a child, giving performances in the barn, with the support and encouragement, oddly enough, of his family. He wasn’t even a teenager yet before he was already touring the mid-west with medicine shows. At the ripe old age of 15, he made the jump to New York. A doctored photo showing him juggle 17 balls simultaneously helped him secure his first employment.

Cook’s rise was meteoric. After a brief stint with his brother as “The Juggling Kids” he made his solo debut at Proctor’s 125th Street in 1907. After only 3 months in small time,he was booked at Hammerstein’s Victoria. By 1909 he was headlining.

His style seems to have been a pastiche of possible comedy approaches. One bit cast him as the landlord of a really tiny house. After arguing with the really tiny tenant, he picked up the house and walked away. He developed great sight gags with props and enormous Rube Goldberg style inventions, such as an elaborate, needlessly complicated device for “calling the hired man to dinner.”

Cook’s success in vaudeville led to an even greater career as the star of Broadway book musicals and reviews. Hitchy Koo (1919), Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1923-26) Rain or Shine (1928), Fine and Dandy (1930), and Hold Your Horses (1933). Rain or Shine was filmed in 1930. He also appeared as the title character in the western Arizona Mahoney (1936) and in numerous comedy shorts for Educational Pictures. Cook’s stooge in later years was Dave Chasen, later to start a famous Hollywood restaurant and to become a key member of W.C. Fields’ inner circle.

In these vehicles Cook’s character seems to have been an average Joe who turned out to behave as insanely as the Marx Bros., Bobby Clark or Ed Wynn. By 1933, Broadway audiences were tiring of him, however, and Hold Your Horses flopped. Frequent radio shots kept him going through the 1930s. His last show was the first ice show It Happens on Ice (1941), but during its run the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease began to overtake him and he was forced to retire. It took 17 years for the disease to finally finish him off, in 1959.

His great grandson is a chip off the old block. You can learn about him here. 

ADDENDUM:

In May, 2015 we went out to visit the Lake Hopatcong Historical Museum, which probably has the world’s biggest collection of Joe Cook materials (Cook had an estate nearby, whimsically named Sleepless Hollow, which we also visited). Here’s what we saw:

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To learn about the roots of variety entertainmentconsultNo 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 Big Bupkis!

Posted in Contemporary Variety, Jews/ Show Biz, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on January 27, 2010 by travsd

Back in the day there used to be a specialty in vaudeville known as the “Hebrew”. This was a comedian — possibly Jewish, possibly not — who played the part of a stereotypical Jew, with all the mannerisms, costume choices, and dialect impersonations that go along with such a thing, a concept not so far from blackface. I mention this as an opener only to point out the remarkable fact this is manifestly what Shane Baker is NOT.

Shane Baker is a goy from Kansas City, he does a Yiddish vaudeville routine (occasionally even donning yamalke and payiss) and his material is STILL not a stereotype. In The Big Bupkis: A Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville cleaves respectfully to genuine Yiddish vaudeville material (of the Second Avenue type) — he laughs with, rather than at, Jews. When I say with, I mean really with — he’s a scholar of the language and culture, and a fluent speaker. As he says in the current show, his fascination began when he saw Animal Crackers as a child and none of the adults could tell him what the word “shnorer” meant. Long time indie theatre fans will remember him from Nada Showworld’s 1999 God of Vengeance (translated by Caraid O’Brien, another goyische Yiddish scholar — what gives?)

In The Big Bupkis, the slender premise is that he is up for a Young Yiddish Entertainer of the Year (or “Y, Y, Y?” award). But that’s really just an excuse for him to showcase his abilities, and they are broad ranging indeed. He sings funny songs in Yiddish, tells funny jokes and stories in both languages, does ventriloquism, magic tricks, drag, and even works with a trained dog. He even makes a particularly funny face that I’d love to see more of. That’s the extent of the intellectuality in this review, I’m afraid – – “make more of that funny face”.

Unfortunately there’s no more vaudeville industry for Baker to strut his stuff in — he would have found work. Though I don’t think this is Palace (or even modern night club) material, it’s just right for venues like the community center I saw it in (the Workman’s Circle on 33th Street). Aside from a couple of dirty jokes, I think it would be a terrific show to bring kids to. As Baker says in the show (in so many words), if we don’t introduce our kids to this rich culture, it will indeed die out. To do your part (and have a good time doing it) go here. It’s playing through January 30.

To learn about the roots of variety entertainmentconsult 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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World Famous Bob at Joe’s Pub

Posted in Burlesk, Contemporary Variety, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Drag and/or LGBT, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , on January 26, 2010 by travsd

The World Famous Bob got a whole different kind of naked at Joes’ Pub on Sunday Night. In One Man Show the self-professed female female-impersonator took neo-burlesque back to its immediate roots, which, it may surprise you to know is not classical burlesque (that exploration came later) but performance art, in this case the autobiographical kind. It’s the sort of thing show biz junkies like me love. Yes we are enthralled with the artifice of persona, but equally compelling is the story behind the illusion.

Bob took us to her roots on a small farm in San Luis Obispo, California, where she used to cause trouble by dying the animals pink. Bored and alienated in a landscape where she says she never saw a single “strong, happy, over-the-top woman”, she skipped school, did speed, and bonded with the few “faggots” she encountered in her limited travels. She ran away from home at 16, moved to West Hollywood, then San Francisco and finally New York, where the likes of Lady Bunny and Jackie Beat took her under their colorful wings. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Like any good burlesque artist, she maddens us with tease. The show gets awfully close to genuine pain on several occasions, but shies away, keeping the proceedings light in the same way Gypsy Rose Lee kept most of her clothes on. This is appropriate in the night club environment that is Joe’s. Her writing is excellent and very smart; one is not surprised to learn that she once wanted to be a poet. And she works the stage like the most seasoned of stand-up comedians. As a kicker, as if to remind us that despite the past hour-plus of revelatory talk she’s still Bob, she finally strips to Thus Sake Zarathustra.

It’s good entertainment, but I will admit I came prepared to experience a bit more soul baring. I’ve known Bob since she starred in our 2001 Orgy of the Dead*; I can testify that there’s a big heart behind that big chest. And it’s much in evidence in the show, not only in her oft-expressed sympathy for outcasts and underdogs, but in the concrete examples of how she’s gone out on a limb for such people (as when she yanked off her top to pis off a principal at a high school dance, in one gesture transforming her date from the school pariah to a BMOC.) But as we all know, none of us resorts to the alchemy of transformation (in essence, self denial) unless the agony of the here and now is too great to bear. I think there must be another level to the story. Then again, this might not be what her audience wants. I am just sadistic and perverse enough to seek it. Being beautify is hard work; ugliness is even harder.

Bob’s One Man Show was directed by Kate Valentine, a veteran of two of my shows, 2002’s Sea of Love and 2009’s Kitsch. Kate is brilliant, and you can see her hand in this piece. At a formal level, it’s flawless – Bob plays each moment (and the audience) like a punk plays a pinball machine. It’s a kind of love-making. But I do think the raw material is there for another order of spectacle. Bob’s triumph in realizing her dreams, essentially living a real-life fantasy, is undoubtedly even sweeter than she tells it here. And the only way to convey that is to break our hearts a little bit first.

* By “our”, I mean my company Mountebanks and DMTheatrics. It was presented as a kind of coda to the Ed Wood Festival, which was also produced by GeminiCollisonworks. For pix, go here.

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