Archive for February, 2010

Molly Picon: Star of the Yiddish Theatre

Posted in Jews/ Show Biz, Stars of Vaudeville, 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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William Demarest and Estelle Colette: Vaudeville Days

Posted in Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, 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

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William Frawley: Fred Really Was in Vaudeville

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, 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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Victor Moore (and Emma Littlefield): “Change Your Act”

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, 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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Dave Apollon, “The World’s Greatest Mandolin Viruoso”

Posted in Folk (Ethnic), Music, Russian, Stars of Vaudeville, 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.

 

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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Lydia Thompson: Mother of Burlesque

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Burlesk, PLUGS, Women with tags , , , , , on February 19, 2010 by travsd

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Today is Lydia Thompson’s birthday. She had naught to do with vaud, so I don’t include her in my “Stars of Vaudeville” series. However many consider her the Mother of Burlesque, so it is fitting that we take our hats off to her today. Furthermore, I feel moved to do something I rarely do — plug some other resources besides No Applause! The best book I know about old-school burlesque (by far) is Horrible Prettiness:Burlesque and American Culture by Robert C. Allen.  Honestly, the book is so good and authoritative, that I actually (without looking at the dust jacket very carefully obviously) went around assuming that a woman had written it. It is a must read.


Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy (and Friends)

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2010 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the most successful ventriloquist in history (I think it’s safe to say) Edgar Bergen (1903-1978)

What makes a great artist great is not only great chops, but a great spirit. Bergen may not have been the best technical ventriloquist in the world but is deservedly the most famous because he created great characters and wrote great material. If he’d not been a ventriloquist he would have been remembered simply as a very funny comedian or joke writer. In reality, like all ventriloquists, he did a job more than twice as hard as the average comedian. He was both straight man and the character comedian in his act. These qualities also explain his tremendous success on radio, where excellence as a ventriloquist would have been superfluous and he was more of a voice-over comedian like Mel Blanc.

Born in Chicago in 1903, Bergen got his show business start feeding a furnace and sweeping up in a theatre. He then moved up to piano player and projectionist for silent films. By 8th grade he’d gotten so good at mimicking animals and people that someone told him “you must be a ventriloquist.” He had to look the word up in the dictionary.

The concept was interesting to him. He went to see the Great Lester (vaudeville’s premier ventriloquist) perform, and also bought a book: Hermann’s Wizard’s Manual, which divulged some of the trade secrets. A high school talent show precipitated the creation of Charlie McCarthy. With a performance coming up, Bergen drew a little picture of a newsboy and gave it to a woodcarver to work from. This first Charlie very different from the one we know. He was an Irish newsboy, more of street urchin. Bergen, who’d been about to flunk out of school, was nevertheless a hit in the school show. based on his promise as a performer, a sympathetic teacher helped him graduate.

Bergen started to work little theatres around Chicago, the Chautauqua circuit, churches, schools etc. He worked small time Orpheum (called Junior Orpheum) in winter. During summer, when theatres were closed he attended classes at northwestern university. One of their early bits had Edgar as a doctor finding Charlie sick on a park bench:

BERGEN: Charlie, you have a temperature of 102.

CHARLIE: If it makes 104, I’ll sell.

BERGEN: I’m going to paint your throat.

CHARLIE: Oh, so you’re a painter. I knew you weren’t a doctor.

BERGEN: I’m going to paint your throat with a silver nitrate solution. Open your mouth. (takes out a blue bottle and swab)

CHARLIE: Do I have to swallow the whole thing?

And so. Nearly everything that came out of Charlie’s mouth was a joke. By 1926 Bergen was doing a 15 minute turn at the Palace. The act was a big hit there, and a tour of the Keith circuit followed. In 1930, he did his first films, a series of Vitaphone shorts which essentially preserved some of the vaudeville bits.

Lucrative nightclub dates came next. When Bergen was booked at the Helen Morgan Club, he felt he needed something to revamp his act, to give it the sort of class that would reflect the nightclub environment. It was then that he changed Charlie’s outfit from a newsboy’s  to a top hat, tuxedo and  monacle. The nightclub dates were hugely popular. Bergen’s material could be quite racy but because he put it in the mouth of a dummy, he got away with it. Alfred Lunt and Lyne Fontanne were big fans, as was Cary Grant, who offered to manage him.

In 1936 Bergen debuted on Rudy Vallee’s radio show. the act was so successful that in 1937 he got his own show, the Chase and Sanborne Show, which ran for 20 years. Without a doubt their most popular guest was W.C. Fields, who made numerous “appearances” between 1938 and 1944.  The antagonistic relationship between Fields and Charlie was immortalized in the 1939 film You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.

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Another notorious guest was Mae West, who in caused a scandal in 1937 with her characterization of Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Other Bergen/McCarthy films included The Goldwyn Follies (1938), Song of the Open Road (1944), and I Remember Mama (1947 )which featured Bergen sans dummy.

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Other characters devised by Bergen over the years included Mortimer Snerd, Lars Lindquist, and two hens, Maisie and Matilda. He continued to appear in night clubs and on television in the 60s and 70s. The film which contains his last screen appearance The Muppet Movie (1979) is also, appropriately dedicated to him.

Could there have been a more appropriate screen farewell than this?

Could there have been a more appropriate screen farewell than this?

DISTINGUISHED PROGENY: Television and movie actress Candace Bergen of “Murphy Brown”, Carnal Knowledge, etc, is Edgar’s daughter.

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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