Archive for March, 2010

Stars of Vaudeville #141: DeWolf Hopper

Posted in Broadway, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Sport & Recreation, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on March 30, 2010 by travsd

Today is the birthday of DeWolf Hopper (1858-1935), thespian most famous for his 10,000 vaudeville recitations of the poem Casey at the Bat (thus the person most responsible for its popularization…that is until the later Walt Disney cartoon with the voice of Jerry Colonna). Prior to this, he starred in over 30 Broadway shows, including comic roles in several Gilbert and Sullivan shows. The fifth of his six wives was Hedda Hopper, later to become a notorious Hollywood gossip columnist.

And guess what? You can actually hear a recording of DeWolf Hopper reciting Casey here. Play ball!

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 #140: Paul Whiteman

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Music, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on March 28, 2010 by travsd

PAUL WHITEMAN, “The King of Jazz”

There were so many people claiming to be Kings and Queens of Jazz in these years its surprising there weren’t some outright wars of succession. Though this portly gentleman used the title too, his last name was a much more accurate description of his style of music. To a purist, Whiteman’s vaudeville era music was only jazz if you think the soundtrack music to the Little Rascals is jazz. Sure, it’s a Big Band. Sure they’ve got a horn section. But it ain’t got a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Jazz-influenced pop music is what Whiteman and his various orchestras made, and for awhile he had the most popular band in the country. He also nurtured some of the greatest musicians and singers America produced in the teens and twenties, earning himself the affection nickname: “Pops.”

Born in Denver in 1890, Whiteman learned to play the violin as a child. His early professional experience did not hint at the direction his career was to take: positions with the Denver Symphony and San Francisco People’s Symphony; Navy bandmaster in World War I. In 1919 he formed his own orchestra specializing in a style he called “symphonic jazz” – that is, large scale orchestrated arrangements of jazz-like pop, but without the noisy and chaotic (and most would say thrilling) improvisation that had been the hallmark of Dixieland. His outfit was the perfect vessel to introduce George Gershwin’s experiments, such as “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” (George White’s Scandals, 1922) and “Rhapsody in Blue” (Aeolian Hall, 1924). Vaudeville provided steady work, and his bands were to play the Palace numerous times in the 20s. In 1925 they played the Hippodrome – one of the few acts to make sense in that cavernous venue. (The band returned in 1936 to supply the music for Billy Rose’s Jumbo).

His late twenties line-up included some legendary personnel. From 1927-29 the band included the great Bix Beiderbecke on cornet and the Dorsey Brothers (Tommy on trombone, Jimmy on clarinet and altso sax), soon to form their own organization.

Those years also the employment by Whiteman of the Rhythm Boys, a male singing trio consisting of Harry Barris, Al Rinker and Bing Crosby. They had been working the Fanchon and Marco circuit out of Los Angeles when Whiteman discovered them. The boys toured the country with the Whiteman orchestra, playing the Palace in 1928, and appearing in the 1930 film The King of Jazz. Then Whiteman sent the Rhythm Boys around the Keith Circuit with their own unit, along with a cardboard cut-out of Whiteman and a recording of him saying “Ladies and Gentleman, I take great pleasure in presenting to you the Rhythm Boys!” There was as much of “boys” as of “rhythm” to the singing group in these years (Bing was in his mid-twenties), and their constant fooling around on the job got them fired. This was of course one of those happy sackings, for Bing soon had his own CBS radio show, a lucrative recording career, and a movie contract with Paramount studios that led to countless classic pictures, an Oscar for best actor, and American immortality. Whiteman is now a footnote in Crosby’s career and not the other way around. Who knew?

There was still a lot of life left in Pops, too, including numerous radio programs, such as Kraft Music Hall and Paul Whiteman Presents; films, like Thanks a Million (1935), Strike Up the Band (1940), and Atlantic City (1944), and even television programs in the 1950s.

Pops died in 1967.

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 Vaudville #139: Frank Tinney

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Comedy, Vaudeville etc. with tags , on March 27, 2010 by travsd

Today is the birthday of vaudeville and Broadway comedian Frank Tinney (1878-1940). His shtick was to tell the corniest of jokes, implicating others (bandleaders, fellow performers, audience members) in the crime by dragging them onstage and making them the feeder. To make it more bizarre, he did this act in blackface (without accent) for most of his career. A drunkard and womanizer, his career ended in the 1920s after a scandal, else there might have been a cinematic record and he’d be better known today.

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 #138: Fred Karno

Posted in British Music Hall, Clown, Comedy, Silent Film, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on March 26, 2010 by travsd

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The Fred Karno Troup was the pre-eminent company of British Music Hall pantomimes. Karno’s most distinguished alumni included both the man who revolutionized the art of silent comedy (Charlie Chaplin) and the man who brought its techniques farthest into the sound era (Stan Laurel). Other notables from the company included Billie RitchieBilly ArmstrongBillie Reeves (everybody named Billy apparently), Alf Reeves (no relation), Jimmy Aubrey, Eric Campbell, Albert Austin, Fred Kitchen, and (very briefly) Vesta Tilley).

“The guv’nor”, as Karno was affectionately called by his colleagues, was one of the most powerful and influential figures in music hall history. He began with a humble trio of acrobats in 1888. Seven years later he presented his first panto sketch “Hilarity” which scored a big hit with audiences. By 1901, he had added three more sketches to the group’s repertoire. In the years 1904-1914, Karno’s violently comical knockabout really hit its stride with the public. Britain at that time was undergoing a modest social revolution, from an aristocracy to a more level and fluid social structure along the lines of what had been enjoyed in the United States. Karno’s rough housing scenarios usually had plots centered around trades people and working men, allowing such people in the audience to purge some of their pent up frustration at injustices in the workplace.

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One of his most successful sketches was called: “Mumming Birds”. It consisted of a vaudeville show within the vaudeville show, including members of the “audience” who would be played by Karno regulars out in the house itself. The centerpiece of the routine was a “drunk” who arrived late, causing a big commotion and calling a great deal of attention to himself. The part of the drunk was first played by Billie Ritchie (who later became a silent comedy star), and then later by Billie Reeves. The Chaplin connection was not a coincidence. Charlie followed his half-brother Sydney into the troupe in 1908, and rapidly became the company’s star, playing the lead role of the drunk. His understudy, a young man named Stanley Jefferson (better known to posterity as Stan Laurel) joined in 1910.

The troupe was so successful that Karno undertook an American tour in 1910. In an attempt to calibrate for American tastes, he replaced “Mumming Birds” with  “the Wow Wows”, a sketch especially conceived for Yanks, about secret societies (which were then very much in vogue among the Booboise), but the bit didn’t resonate.  They switched back to “Mumming Birds”, renamed “A Night in an English Music Hall” for the sake of American audiences. They started out with six weeks on the Percy Williams circuit, then did 20 weeks with Sullivan and Considine.

Karno’s salaries were pitifully small; actors stayed with him for the prestige. In their line, Karno’s comedians were known to be the best. Karno drilled his company for several hours a day for months on end, demanding that all of his actors have total command of their bodies, much as a ballet dancer or classical musician must be absolutely tops in his craft. Every actor had to be able to play every part in the show, so that any could substitute for any other in the event of an emergency. Apart from his natural talent and grace, Chaplin owed his superiority as a slapstick film clown (with Keaton his only serious rival) to his training with Karno. Chaplin also appropriated many Karno gags and situations for his films. The 1915 Essanay short A Night in the Show is essentially Chaplin’s drunken turn from “A Night in an English Music Hall.” Laurel, though not Chaplin’s equal, brought with him an indefatigable work ethic, and the technique that allowed him to always discover the funniest possible “take” for any given moment. From Karno both Chaplin and Laurel took the practice of injecting a touch of pathos into their comedy. These two most famous Karno alum went on to have nearly opposite experiences of show business success after they left the nest. The troupe itself did not long survive their departure.

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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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Richard West, Lissa Moira & the Seduction of Mind (x3)

Posted in Burlesk, Indie Theatre, PLUGS, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , , on March 25, 2010 by travsd

We Outlanders tend to move to NYC for one of two reasons: the making of fortunes or the search for excitement. Proximity to my storybook idea of Bohemia was and remains one of my personal goals (although I certainly wouldn’t turn down a fortune). The search for “Bohemia” of course has been elusive. The number of people who put art before every other consideration has been dwindling for decades — that is, if a larger number of such people ever really existed.  Still, I love places like Theater for the New City, LaMama and Le Living because they are like conduits to a time that inspires me. I often feel I was born 20 years too late. (This may surprise some people who assume I’d prefer the vaudeville era. But the truth is, my path to vaudeville and the past came through the neo vaudeville musical appreciation of 60s rock and folk musicians, and the camp explosion of the 1970s.)

At any rate, I met Richard West and Lissa Moira at TNC, which venue I’ve been flitting in and out of for the past four or five years. I’ve wanted to do something on them for ages, but haven’t been able to think what (mostly because I haven’t seen any of their shows). But this team of romantic and artistic partners has interested me a great deal.

West has copious street cred. When he name-drops, it’s names like Phil Ochs, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Tuli Kupferberg (of the Fugs), Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Taylor Meade, Quentin Crisp, Eric Bogosian, Patti Smith, Reno, Phoebe Legere and Laurie Anderson. A Lower East Side native, he also spent (or mis-spent) a good deal of his youth in San Francisco, where he organized theatre/readings/happenings and had a show on Pacifica Radio. He’s also a songwriter/musician.

Lissa, I hope West will concede, is the more eye-catching of the two. She generally seems to go around wearing a tiara and various other finery like an exiled countess. A child prodigy who graduated from high school at age 14, she joined an artist commune and participated in San Francisco street theatre in the late 70s. She co-wrote the mob-themed 2003 film Dead Canaries starring Charles Durning and Dan Lauria. She is also a talented collage-artist (she does all the artwork for their posters; that’s her work behind them in the photo above).

In the mid 90s they met and started working together. I read the script of their recent TNC show Who Murdered Love (a murder mystery that takes us into the world of dada) and frankly loved the combination of Hawksian dialogue and genuine avant-garde playfulness. Some reviewer wrote about the team’s “weakness for puns” — but it’s not a weakness when the puns (and other wordplay) are smart and funny as these are, so that reviewer was a dope. Moira and West seem to like to smash together Hollywood, burlesque, Tin Pan Alley and Gertrude Stein-like experimentation. The combination of course speaks to me a great deal. On the burlesquey side they’ve done a couple of racey sounding shows. Their biggest success was something called The Biggest Sex of the XX Century Sale, though their show Sexual PyschoBabble included a sketch by Ultra Violet (from Andy Warhol’s Factory).

Their current show Seduction of Mind (x3) opens tonight at Theater for the City. It’s bound to be a sui generis. For info and tickets go here.

Stars of Vaudeville #137: El Brendel

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Vaudeville etc. with tags on March 25, 2010 by travsd

El Brendel (1898-1964) mightn’t rate a mention in these annals at all but for the fact that he is the character responsible for the expression “Yumpin’ Yiminy” and that’s good enough for me. A Swedish dilect comedian, he was part of a team with his wife Flo Burt beginning in 1917. She sang, he told jokes and did crazy dancing. Brendel had bit parts in 50 films whenever anyone wanted a humorous Swede (and I guess that was pretty often) from 1926-56.

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 #136: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Posted in Comedy, Fatty Arbuckle, Hollywood (History), Silent Film, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on March 24, 2010 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (1887-1933).

Born in Smith Center, Kansas, Arbuckle moved with his family to Santa Ana, California the following year. His mother died when he was still a child, and his cruel and abusive father (who suspected Roscoe was not his child) deserted him soon thereafter. Arbuckle supported himself with a job at a hotel until a friend convinced him to enter an amateur singing contest. A talent scout noticed him and soon he was touring the west with Frank Bacon’s Stock Company. In 1904 he started working the Pantages circuit. The following year found him performing briefly with Leon Errol’s burlesque company out of Portland, Oregon.

He had been in films as early as 1909 (at the Selig Polyscope Company) but no one – including himself – had known what to do with him, so he went back to the theatre for a couple of years.

In 1913 he began working for Mack Sennett, and became a big star almost instantly. Sennett knew how to use him, casting him right away in such chestnuts as The Waiter’s Picnic and Help! Help! Hydrophobia! (both 1913). Arbuckle(now nicknamed against his wishes as “Fatty”)  specialized in lazy, seemingly retarded lummoxes and worthless sons, often attired in a small derby, crewneck jersey, too-short trousers and suspenders. It was Arbuckle who would take up the rube parts that might have been Fred Mace’s or Mack Sennett’s in earlier years. His big size was offset by pleasing features and a surprising physical grace. He was also easily the greatest of all the drag comedians to come out of Keystone, donning petticoats and skipping and gamboling like a six year old girl at the slightest provocation. Audiences found him hilarious, and they pretty much still do.

In 1917, the Schenck Brothers at Metro gave him his own company at Metro, the Comique Film Company, where his supporting players were Buster Keaton and Arbuckle’s nephew Al St. John. In 1920, Arbuckle left to make a series of features at Paramount, bequeathing Comique to Keaton.

The following year, in the wake of his completion of three features, Arbuckle let off a little steam, in the patented twenties Hollywood fashion – with a wild, sensational party. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards, one of the attendees Virginia Rappe, died.  Arbuckle was put on trial for the crime (if there was one), and, though acquitted, the country and the movie industry turned against him. He was blacklisted.

After trying unsuccessfully for many months to get movie work, Arbuckle took the only employment he could get: vaudeville. Alexander Pantages took a chance on him in 1924, booking him for his San Francisco Theatre. He also turned up at Loew’s State in New York in 1928. These dates were sporadic and Arbuckle didn’t go over well. Whether it was audience prejudice related to the scandal, or Arbuckle’s shaken confidence owing to same we will never know.

Gradually, Arbuckle worked his way back into the medium he knew something about.

By 1927 he was directing Marion Davies in the feature The Red Mill under the pseudonym William B. Goodrich. And by the early 30s, the blacklist was lifted. Arbuckle appeared in a series of popular sound shorts for Warner Brothers.

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And these were recently released on DVD! There’s only a half dozen of them, but they are quite funny. Most of them are roughly remakes and rehashes of the shorts he had done at Comique, now with the added benefit of getting to hear Roscoe talk. And you know what? He talks just like you think he would. His death by heart attack in 1933 was a true loss for comedy film. While I don’t think Arbuckle was any major auteur as a director, the things he could have gone on to do as a comedy star could have been quite great. But alas, it wasn’t to be. As with John BelushiJohn Candy and Chris Farley, Heaven appears to want to reclaim our big funny men before their time.

At any rate, now you can hear Roscoe speak! Here he is in the hilarious 1932 comedy In the Dough with Shemp Howard and Lionel Stander:

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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