Archive for February, 2010

Stars of Vaudeville #124: Molly Picon

Posted in Jews/ Show Biz, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , on February 28, 2010 by travsd

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The Yiddish theatre’s greatest actress began her career at age five touring the small time with a singing and dancing act called The Four Seasons. In 1919 she returned to the Lower East Side and concentrated on Yiddish-language legit roles.

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She returned briefly to vaudeville as a star at the Palace in the late twenties and early thirties, and made the occasional detour into film and the Broadway stage – but her meat and potatoes was always on Second Avenue, the “Yiddish Rialto.” Nonetheless, you can also check out some of her few performances in Hollywood films, such as Come Blow Your Horn (1963), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), and Murder on Flight 502 (1975), a delicious rip-off of Airport 1975 that I have seen no less than four times. Ms. Picon passed away in 1992.

Here she is on record in 1931 singing “Yom Pom Pom”:

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

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Stars of Vaudeville #123: William Demarest

Posted in Hollywood (History), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on February 27, 2010 by travsd

William-Demarest

“You kids get upstairs and wash your hands for dinner!”

Yes, Uncle Charlie from My Three Sons was also a vaudevillian, and rather a successful one, at that. He entered vaud as a child, with his brothers Reuben and George. The Demarestio Brothers (for some reason they pretended to be Italian) did comedy bits and a softshoe in blackface. In 1904 their mother brought them to New York for greater exposure. Bill broke off and formed a single, before hooking up with Estelle Collete, whom he married in 1917. After serving in World War I, he developed the act that merits his inclusion in this section. In his own words:

The audience settles back and says, “Here comes another straight musical act.” I could play the hell out of that cello, and I get going good on “Zigeunerweisen.” All of a sudden I stop, put the cello down, lie down on the floor and try to do a nip-up. It looks like I’m going to make it, but I don’t. I snap way up in the air and come down flat on my back like a sack of cement. You’d think I’d broke my neck. I don’t say a damn thing, just pick up the cello, sit down an dgo on with “Zigeunerweisen” where I left off.

Music? Comedy? Acrobatics? Anyway, it worked for Demarest. In 1927, Warner Brothers signed him; he appeared in The Jazz Singer and several Vitaphone shorts.

By 1932, he was a Master of Ceremonies at the Palace. (In fact, he hosted their very last two-a-day). He still appeared with Collette, who would play violin along with his cello. But with vaudeville drying up, Demarest quit to become an agent. In 1940 Preston Sturges did the world a service by coaxing him out of retirement to act in The Great McGinty and several other of his films. He does a little of his old material in the 1946 film The Jolson Story. (The most difficult trick Demarest pulled off in that film was to smile in several scenes. As fans of My Three Sons can imagine, it is a disturbing trick, indeed.) Demarest continued to play character roles in films, and of course, was Uncle Charlie from 1965 through 1972. He passed away in 1983 — and he probably growled at St. Peter!

This is why we love him:

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

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

Craven Monkey and the Mountain of Fury

Posted in BROOKLYN, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, PLUGS with tags on February 26, 2010 by travsd

A toothy screech and an armpit scratch of approval are due to Piper Mckenzie productions, the “Sonny and Tennille” of Indie Theatre, whose recent Brick Theatre hit Craven Monkey and the Mountain of Fury has been extended through April 13. I’ve been watching their work for something like a decade now (gasp! can’t breathe…) and I think I can say objectively and without exaggeration that Craven Monkey is their best work to date. (This includes Willy Nilly, a work they’re so ashamed of, I couldn’t help but notice its nowhere on their web site. But that’s neither here nor there. Nor there. But it is, oh, it is most emphatically over THERE.) [Ed. addendum: the egregious lapse has since been rectified].

While they have produced many kinds of shows over the years, including serials, radio shows, variety shows and even plays by intellectual Eastern Europeans, I think of the main trunk line of the Piper McKenzie oeuvre as consisting of two main categories:

1). Silent, humorous, lean and mean movement theatre pieces such as Bizarre Science Fantasy, The Perfect Girl, Sexadelic Cemetary, and MacBeth Without Words. The latter one wasn’t too funny. Except when all that blood fell out of that one guy’s mouth. These pieces seem to be admirable exercises in discipline, given the chatterbox nature of the company’s two principal artists Jeff Lewonczyk and Hope Cartelli. Nevertheless, I think a company should harness its assets. To me, the choice not to showcase Jeff’s often dazzling verbal flights is like a circus deciding to ground the Flying Wallendas. That said, the other category consists of:

2) Large-scale, bloated, Baroque (one might even say monstrous) musical comedy epics like The Adventures of Caveman Robot, Babylon Babylon, John Goldfarb Please Come Home (though that wasn’t officially Piper Mckenzie), and, yes, Willy Nilly. Mel Brooks has said his first draft of The Producers was four hours long. These works are kind of like that.  Often as delicious and rich as cheesecake. But who can eat an entire cheesecake?

In Craven Monkey Piper McKenzie’s have taken the best elements from each of these two categories and come up with something that, on its own terms, is perfect. The piece was cooked up for the Brick’s Fight Fest, a few months back. On one level, the show is one of the traditional Piper McKenzie humorous movement pieces; there is no dialogue, at least none in people-talk. The plot is a sort of mythological epic which seems to draw at least some of its inspiration from the anthropomorphized monkey-hero of the 16th century Chinese fable “Journey to the West”. Really helping to sell that effect are Julianne Kroboth’s costumes, which are I think the best she’s done – rooted in tradition, beautiful to look at, and practical for the actors to move in. And move they do, as each step on the monkey-hero’s journey is punctuated by scenes depicting what monkeys and men do best: humping and trying to kill each other. Like the late Michael Jackson, I’m a man of peace —  not a fighter. While I imagine the martial arts choreography of Qui Nguyen and Adam Swiderski was very good, I vastly preferred scenes like this:

But I haven’t gotten to the icing on the banana cake. Overlaying the whole piece is Jeff Lewonczyk’s hilarious narration (done in a pompous English accent), which mixes the narration of a myth with that of a nature documentary – and somehow it works so seamlessly we don’t even particularly notice the crazy marriage. Like, who’s narrating this thing? It’s as though God despite his Omniscience had the bland personality of Alistaire Cooke. It is a laugh riot, and many in the ensemble cast shine as well, including Hope Cartelli as a forbidding Goddess; Becky Byers magically flying through the air like an insect; Art Wallace as a Yoda-like hooded monkey-mentor; and Mateo Moreno, whose costume is so awesome I won’t spoil it for you.

Best of all — a nice sense of formal proportion. The thing is as long as it needs to be and no longer. Or to quote Leibniz, “the best of all possible worlds”.

For more info and tickets, tell your monkey to type here.

Stars of Vaudeville #122: William Frawley

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Sit Coms, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on February 26, 2010 by travsd

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Yes, I Love Lucy’s “Fred Mertz”, and “Uncle Bub” from those old My Three Sons episodes that they never rerun, was an old time vaudevillian, and I bet you’re not a bit surprised, especially if you’ve seen this.

Born in Iowa in 1887 (for some reason there is a high percentage of successful vaudevillians from Iowa), he worked the western wheels as a singer and light comedian with a succession of partners, first his brother Paul, then pianist Franz Rath, and then his wife Louise. By the mid-twenties he was a success on Broadway.

In 1933, he moved to Hollywood where he had a good run as a character actor before making a hit on the small screen. He passed away in 1966, deeply resentful that fellow vaudeville veteran William Demarest had replaced him on My Three Sons. Frawley’s birthday is today….Demarest’s is tomorrow! So stay tuned!

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

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Stars of Vaudeville #121: Victor Moore

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on February 24, 2010 by travsd

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Victor Moore and his wife Emma Littlefield appeared in vaudeville in a sketch called “Change Your Act”, about a vaudeville team that needed to change its act. Moore and Littlefield performed this act (without changing it) for 23 years! Pirandello, eat your heart out.

Born in Hammonton, New Jersey in 1876, as a teenager Moore started working in stock companies. He went into vaudeville in the 1890s, and performed “Change Your Act” (subtitled “or, Back to the Woods”) from 1902 through 1924.

George M. Cohan gave his career a boost when he cast him with Faye Templeton in 45 Minutes from Broadway in 1905. The following year he did The Talk of New York, then toured with Shorty McCabe, and Patsy on the Wing. But then the legit parts dried up and he returned to vaudeville for almost another 20 years.

He was a strange, thickset little man with an odd-shaped head, and a voice sort of like Jackie Coogan’s. By middle age, he could add a balding pate to this roster, and suddenly in the mid 1920s he found himself in great demand for the comic parts in musicals.These included: Easy Come Easy Go (1925); Oh, Kay! (1926); Funny Face (1927); Hold Everything (1928); Of Thee I Sing (1931); Anything Goes (1933); Leave it to Me (1938); Louisiana Purchase (1940); Nellie Bly (1946); and On Borrowed Time (1953). In between there were film roles, such as Swing Time (1936); Make Way for Tomorrow (1937); Louisiana Purchase (1941); and The Seven Year Itch (1955). He died in 1962.

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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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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Stars of Vaudeville #120: Dave Apollon, “The World’s Greatest Mandolin Viruoso”

Posted in Folk (Ethnic), Music, Russian, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on February 23, 2010 by travsd

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Vaudeville was about nothing if it was not about excess. Here was a man who ate, drank, slept and probably shat the mandolin. Well, somebody had to.

He was born in Kiev in 1897. He started out playing the violin as a child until the day his instructor drank too much vodka and sat on his fiddle. Apollon got himself a mandolin, taught himself to play, and more importantly, not to lay his instrument down on chairs anymore. By his teens he’d already formed his own orchestra, which played movie theatres, and had himself a little solo career.

The Revolution chased him out of Russia. In 1919, he moved to New York, and auditioned for the Palace. His “Gypsy Airs” were a big hit and he was signed by the Keith organization to a three year contract. His climb to the top was abetted by an unexpected asset—his accent. Whenever circumstances compelled him to talk onstage, his mangled English got big laughs. It served the same function as a comedian’s double-talk. Apollon was encouraged by influential people to develop this part of the act and before long he was a headliner at the Palace, and even—incredibly—Master of Ceremonies. Yakoff Smirnoff, eat your heart out.

In 1926 he hooked up with an out-of-work Fillipino string band. Apollon fobbed them off as “Russians” and they were his back-up band through the late 30s. After vaudeville faded, Apollon continued to work nightclubs and television, and to cut record albums with names like Mandolins, Mandolins, Mandolins and The Magic of the Mandolin. In 1972, he was cremated along with his very first mandolin, the one he had played as a boy back in Kiev.

Submitted for your delectation, some of his virtuoso strumulating:

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

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The Silent Clowns

Posted in PLUGS, Silent Film with tags on February 20, 2010 by travsd

Three cheers – silent ones of course – to the producers of the Silent Clowns film series. I’ve been attending screenings by this silent comedy exhibition project for well over a decade now. (I started bringing my son Cashel when he was little more than a toddler; now he has facial hair and beats me at arm wrestling.) My devotion stems from the fact that its organizers Ben Model, Bruce Lawton and Steve Massa (who’ve long since become friends and colleagues) are absolute connoisseurs, devoted to expanding and enriching the public’s appreciation of the art form they love so well. Understand: this is not a film series for the dilettante. This being New York, these gentlemen (rightly, I hope) assume you’ve long since already seen Modern Times, City Lights, The General and Safety Last. They therefore constantly invigorate our palates by exposing us to the work of lesser known comedians and lesser known works by the major ones, thus making helpless junkies of us their fans as we grow increasingly dependent on them for the thrills that come with each revelation. The three producers accompany the screenings with their own encyclopedic commentary, each of them expert in a different niche. Model is the accompanist (he studied with Lee Erwin, one of the biggest – and last – of the originals, as well as with film scholar William K. Everson, who wrote many of the seminal books on the subject.) Lawton is the projectionist and a preservationist; he’s the one who does the detective work, and I imagine the negotiating; you’ll see his name (and also Model’s) in the credits on many a silent comedy DVD nowadays. The third in the triumvirate, Massa, is also a film historian and writer, and a librarian at the NYPL performing arts branch. The three of them share behind-the-scenes anecdotes (and gossip) with us; point out interesting little details in the films; and spread their infectious enthusiasm. They also answer any questions. It really is the equivalent of a college course or adult education class PLUS a children’s program all mixed in one. It’s the only event in the city I’m aware of where grandparents, parents, teenagers and small children all seem equally engaged and, frankly, happy.

AND HOW MUCH DOES IT COST? Ten dollars for grown-ups, five dollars for kids. Clearly Model, Lawton, and Massa love silent film so much that, like Crazy Eddie, they have gone INSANE.

I didn’t come up with this post just because I felt like it. They are about to launch their new spring season “Jewels and Gems: Rare Prints from Private Collections”. Running on selected Sundays starting tomorrow through April 25, the series will feature such unjustly forgotten funny men as Ben Turpin, Snub Pollard, Lupino Lane, Billy Bevan and a pre-Hardy Stan Laurel. Don’t for a second let the academic-sounding title scare you. These are very funny films made by the top clowns of their day. Trust me, the old films are bewitching; once you get hooked, you won’t stop.

The Silent Clowns Film Series is now at the Arclight Theatre, 152 West 71st Street (between Broadway and Columbus). For info and tickets, go here.

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