Tangents on Tanguay

The seminal aesthetic event of my life was a television viewing of The Wizard of Oz when I was five or six years old that left me inarticulate, inconsolable, bawling. I’ve never been able to put my finger on just why the film had this effect on me. We didn’t even have a color tv. But I found it devastatingly moving and I’ve been seeking that feeling ever since. Certain experiences have come close. Silent films and early talkies usually succeed. Sometimes the winning quality seems to be the pictorial artifice that dominated the era’s sensibilities. Just as often though the transcendent moment seems to emerge from the very opposite – the truth of the document. For example, cylinder recordings of the voices of P.T. Barnum, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, usually less than a minute long, have shaken me to the core. I had an experience like this over the weekend in seeing Eva Tanguay’s 1917 film The Wild Girl at Cornell’s Cinema department.

The bulk of the rarely screened film (concerning a gypsy girl who’s secretly an heiress) was beautiful, but that’s not what won me over. The remarkable part was a brief prologue where we see Tanguay as Tanguay, sporting a number of her famous outfits, like the “flags of the world” dress, and the “tree branch outfit” represented in my book No Applause (the subtitle of which, The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, is copped from Tanguay’s own tagline). While Tanguay’s career stretched into the 1920s, her heyday was the aughts and teens. I hadn’t been aware that there was any footage available of the great Tanguay demonstrating her vaudeville act. As with those audio recordings of great 19th century figures, it was an impossible surprise, a real-life impression of something you thought you’d always have to imagine. Such impressions, once made, never leave you. It was an incredible experience.

The screening of The Wild Girl was actually the second part of a two-part Tanguay program put on by Cornell. The first part was a “progress report” on a theatrical work-in-progress about Tanguay being devised by local musician Mary Brett Lorson, backed up by her band the Soubrettes. It was a novel presentation, much like throwing noodles and every other soup ingredient up against a wall to see what will stick. Commencing  with the 1922 recording of Tanguay’s signature song “I Don’t Care”, the piece went on to include several original pieces of music by Lorson, documentary readings of writings by and about Tanguay (including an amazing encomium by no less than Aleister Crowley), interpretive dances by Ashley Kirsner, projected still photos of Tanguay, and clips from The Wild Girl. My reaction to all this is one Lorson would perhaps never expect. Never having heard her music before, I found it far and away the strongest element in the piece: heartfelt, inventive, tuneful, and above all achingly melancholy. One piece seems to work a variation on Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” but filtered through an avant-garde sensibility that reminds me a little of Phillip Glass. I am so enthusiastic about Lorson’s music, that I am going to buy whatever CDs she has available, including a CD of these pieces as soon as she produces it.

However: I am less certain that there is a theatre piece here. Unless she is planning some arid deconstructionist collage full of smashed together “found bits”, I think the documentary readings belong in a documentary. The dances, I’m sorry to say, don’t belong anywhere in particular. And, as Lorson herself admitted in the post-show Q & A, her musical compositions actually pre-date her idea of attaching them to Tanguay (whom her great-grandmother had designed some of those amazing costumes for). Tanguay was a compelling character. I’m not so sure her life makes an compelling play. Whereas I can think of at least three really great stories to tell about Sophie Tucker, I can’t really think of a single one from the life of Tanguay so gripping that it justifies a theatre piece. My feeling is, just make a concept album out of this material. The strongest element in Lorson’s presentation was Lorson and her music. No need to hitch it to Tanguay.

Another notable takeaway from the event though is the exciting news that a biography on Tanguay by writer Andrew Erdman is forthcoming. I and colleagues had often talked about this glaring void in the show biz bio canon. Good or bad, this book will fill a niche, and will be welcomed with open arms by the small fraternity who care about the now-obscure star. Erdman was present at the program, taking part in the readings, and humorously fielding questions during the Q & A.

There was a galling aspect to the remarks during the closing session, however. Lorson made the remark that she’d “read a couple of books on vaudeville and they only made a couple of mentions of Tanguay.” I happen to know of a vaudeville book that not only spends several pages on Tanguay, but is partially named after her tagline. It is a book that is in most libraries and bookstores in the country, received three raves in the New York Times, as well as the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Variety, Entertainment Weekly and about 60 other publications, as well as having been covered on two NPR shows, WNYC, WOR, etc. Unless she did her research in the caves of Tora Bora, I don’t know how the book can have escaped her attention.

Furthermore this wonderful book, published in 2005, calls Eva Tanguay “the first rock-and-roller” and compares her to Janis Joplin and Tina Turner (page 132). A recent Slate article by Jody Rosen uses this idea as its thesis. Whether he got the brilliant idea himself, or he got it out of a certain book will no doubt remain an infuriating mystery. But it does gall to sit there and have some other writer praised for an idea you not only had, but PUBLISHED four years earlier. I accuse no one of anything. Ideas do bubble up through the zeitgeist. It is however a matter of record that the flag was already planted at the Pole in 2005. And one does become suspicious when one Googles “Eva Tanguay” and sees my squib on her on this blog as entry #5 (just below Rosen’s far more recent Slate piece). Lorson never Googled “Eva Tanguay”?

Does this all sound self-serving, that I’m trying to make it all about me? Quite so. And you know who would have approved? Her initials are “E.T.”

To learn more about the roots of variety entertainment, for the LOVE OF GOD consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever the very best books are sold.

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14 comments

  1. this weekend, site of the Eva Tanquay’s
    “Wild Girl”: production;’ — Fine Art & Collectables —Froh Heim
    Far Hills, New Jersey Call for specifics – 201-317-0007

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  2. Very interesting reading. To introduce myself, I’ve been researching Tanguay’s life since 1980 and wrote the following in Boston Rock magazine on August 26, 1985 (as part of an interview with German punk rocker Nina Hagen):

    “Hagen is a hoyden yet more than a hoyden. Going backwards down this century’s hoyden line, we find Cyndi Lauper, Bette Midler, Betty Hutton, Mae West and, starting it off, Eva Tanguay (1878-1947). Tanguay, before burning out, was a horrible singer and, from reports, not a much better dancer, but was the first to admit her shortcomings and sustained a massive following by exploiting and satirizing her public image. Eva Tanguay may have been the first entertainer of the neurotic modern age.”

    Kudos to both of you for rediscovering the many attractions of Eva Tanguay and vaudeville. The times finally seem to be coming back around to their long-lost charms.

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    • Ah, Wes you beat us all! In 1980 I can assure you I hadnt even heard of Eva Tanguay, but was plenty fond of Mae West. nice to make your acquaintance!

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  3. We will be conducting an art auction at Froh Heim (site of Eva’s Wild Girl 1916-17) in late April (2010) and that might be a good time to vist us where silent movie history was made. How might I reach out to Ben Model; as you indicate he might be interested? You could send me a note to PO Box 971 Far Hills NJ 07931; with phone contacts– to discuss arrangements. Jim Spada

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  4. Hi, Mr. Spada. The print I saw at Cornell belonged to MOMA. They only loan to not-for-profit cultural institutions, schools and the like. Although if you just want to screen the film and it is for research purposes, you could request a viewing from the MOMA folks. If you’re looking to buy your own copy, like you said, it’s very rare, but there may be a copy in private hands. You might reach out to my friend Ben Model, who makes his living screening silent films — he may be able to give you some good leads: silentclowns.com. As for your kind offer to come see the house — I’d love to! It would make a wonderful story for my blog!

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  5. Great reading all about Eva Tanguay,– the “first rock star”;
    My family’s estate in Far Hills, NJ– FROH HEIM; is happy to have been the host
    “set” for a big part of Eva’s 1916-17 silent film- The Wild Girl.
    How could I get a viewing; or a copy the The Wild Girl– I know it is a rare film of the silent era; I did see it at MOMA NYC; on the occasion of the Mansions in May– 2008– which raised almost a million $$$ for a good cause. Would love to hear from you; even Andrew Erdman– and invite you to my home in Far Hills to visit where silent film history had been made a hundred years ago. Kind Regards Jim Spada

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  6. Hi Trav — it’s Jody here, the author of the Tanguay piece. I’m an admirer of your book, which I read and enjoyed. Of course my Tanguay piece drew on your book. It also drew on hundreds of other things I’ve read over the years about Tanguay and vaudeville and turn-of-the-century popular music in general, both secondary and primary sources. (For instance, I looked at just everything Tanguay-related available at the NYPL for the Performing Arts, a resource with which I’m sure you’re familiar.)

    As for the insinuation that I pilfered your work — it’s ridiculous, and I resent it. Cite an offending passage, and we can compare notes. I have a long record of interest in and publications about the music of this period. Do a little Googling before you start slinging accusations, ok? This stuff is not new to me.

    The shame of it is: those of us interested in this fascinating, important too-often-overlooked popular culture should be encouraging each other’s efforts, not acting proprietary about it. You don’t have a monopoly on Eva Tanguay; nor do I. In fact, my article was my little pipsqueak’s attempt to get her more widely noticed. She warrants a major place in the American pop music canon — this was the point my piece made ad naseum.

    If you want to talk more reach me at my email address. And again: thanks for your great book!

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    • Fence mended! And for the record, folks, his article is WAY better researched than anything I ever wrote on the subject! Thanks for reaching out, Jody, and apologies for the tone. As might be evident, the aspect of the subject matter that speaks to me most is naked, craven competition and throwing biscuits at people. Your measured and gentlemanly response is my lesson in humility for the day (I sometimes get several).

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