Archive for April, 2010

Banana Shpeel Opens Tonight

Posted in Circus, Clown, Vaudeville etc. with tags , on April 29, 2010 by travsd

Banana Shpeel, Cirque du Soleil’s vaudeville-themed show starring David Shiner opens tonight at the Beacon Theatre. While my deep-seated circus jingoism has heretofore kept me from attending any productions by this French-Canadian Elite Clown-Show with No Animals, I did see Shiner (with Bill Irwin and the Red Clay Ramblers) on Broadway in Fool Moon a few eons ago, which I enjoyed immensely. Furthermore, I appear in a documentary film produced by Cirque in connection with this show, which explores the history of vaudeville for the benefit of fans and audience. So my curiosity will likely outstrip my stubbornness in this case, and I may actually try to see it! How’s that for a ringing endorsement?

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult 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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I’m No Dummy

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Movies (Contemporary), Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , on April 27, 2010 by travsd

Of all the odd phenomena anthropologists study – cargo cults, tattoos and body piercing, cannibalism – one of the strangest, thus most deserving of scrutiny, is the fact that some humans like to take inanimate objects and make them talk like people, and other humans like to watch them.

Ventriloquism isn’t just some “show biz” thing, invented (along with teeter boards, plate spinning and musical saws) to add color to variety shows. Or rather, it dates from the time when variety shows were very hairy, monosyllabic and done around campfires. And this art form (for that’s what it is) has persisted through the centuries, down to modern times, when certain American vents have actually made fortunes, or at least very good livings.

It’s a story as old as mankind itself, though most people tend not to look at it that way. In I’m No Dummy: Sometimes You Just Need to Vent, film-maker Bryan W. Simon proves himself part of that mainstream by sticking to the modern leg of the story. And he does it well. His main tack is to shuttle back and forth between the present (the current crop of the country’s most successful ventriloquists) and the recent past (giants of radio and the golden age of TV), enlisting the former bunch to help interpret the significance of the latter. For show biz fans like me who are just a little too young for the salad days of tv variety, there are many savory nuggets here. For instance, while I certainly knew a little about Senor Wences and Paul Winchell from occasional tv appearances in their declining years (or, in the case of the latter, his cartoon voiceover work), it’s a different order of instruction to see their full evolution within the medium. (To be my age is to have thought for some years that Orson Welles was just the fat guy on The Merv Griffin Show—the one who wasn’t Victor Buono). More important was to learn tons about an important figure I knew nothing about (or knew without knowing): Jimmy Nelson, the guy who did the Nestle Quick ads with “Farfel” the dog in the 50s and 60s, a guy whom nearly every contemporary ventriloquist speaks about with reverence for having released an influential “how-to” ventriloquism record. If I can quibble a little, I found the order of introduction problematic. Edgar Bergen, like the vaudeville headliner that he was, comes last. The problem is, as the founder, the godfather, of modern ventriloquism and its most successful exponent, he should come first, to give us a true sense of his important place.

Of folks on the contemporary scene, several are presented but the film focuses on three. Jay Johnson, of course, who proved with his Broadway show The Two and Only that he was very much more than just “Chuck and Bob” from Soap. In addition to being a very funny comedian and a capable actor, he is an extremely skilled technical ventriloquist, shifting back and forth between personalities on a dime, and interestingly (as a lot of these guys are) he is an eloquent educator, as he speaks about the history and demands of his art form. (I had the pleasure and honor of interviewing him several years ago for Time Out New York. ) Even bigger than Johnson these days is Jeff Dunham, who fills huge auditoriums  and is a familiar sight on Comedy Central. As Dunham himself admits, his act puts more stress on the comedy than on the ventriloquism itself. The third person in the trilogy, previously unknown to me, Lynn Trefzger, has an act that’s too cutesy-pie for my taste, although she does have one killer bit where she makes a baby doll cry and fuss while an audience member is holding it. Her most valuable contribution is amazing however – film clips of her performing her act for family from age nine and up, an illuminating window onto a process we’ve often heard about anecdotally but never seen. (By the way she was already good at ventriloquism as a kid).

So what are the holes in the film? The end of the last paragraph points the way to one: the dark side of ventriloquism. Vents are among the hardest working and most talented people in show business –roughly worth as much as two other comedians plus a magician. Put another way, every vent is both Abbott and Costello, and also a master of misdirection such that you tend not to notice that Abbott is making his crazy partner talk. How do they develop this superhuman ability? By spending a lot of time ALONE.

As a once and future nerd myself I have little trouble declaring that all ventriloquists, magicians and jugglers are drawn from the ranks of the alienated. No youngster with a social life spends all their lives shut up in their bedrooms practicing – let alone some weird thing no one else is practicing. (Budding musicians and stand-up comedians get a pass; they get more opportunities to show off their skills so their obsessions don’t seem as pointless.) There are some hints in this direction. Nearly all the vents mention they were shy as kids. Their acts occasionally joke about the fact that ventriloquism is an odd thing to do. But it’s not just odd. Think of Anthony Hopkins in Magic, Cliff Robertson in that Twilight Zone episode. It’s not just odd, it’s dark. Every vent has a Jeckyl and Hyde thing going on; what they do uncomfortably skirts mental illness.  (And, still more intriguingly, primitive religion). Maybe I’m a sadist. I want to learn more about the pain driving these people.

Also, wholly missing from the film, is a discussion of the social significance of certain vents. While the African-American act Willy Tyler and Lester (a familiar sight on tv in the 1970s) appear in the film, there is no mention of the fact that the act was in any way ground-breaking. Likewise, the late Wayland Flowers and Madam, a hilarious, openly gay vent act from the same time period, is not mentioned at all. Tellingly, the one chunk of the film that talks about the need for the art form to stay “relevant” is anything but socially progressive. Jeff Dunham trots out a “dead terrorist” character, a skeletal Arab suicide bomber named Achmed. I’m a vaudevillian. For me, comedy and political incorrectness are as inseparable as, well, a vent and his dummy. But there IS a line. I draw it at boorish mobs howling at a foreign name and relishing the symbolic murder of an effigy. I would have liked at least a couple of the many historians and scholars who populate the film, or some of the vents themselves, to have asked the question: Is this okay? Is this therapy? Is this bloodlust? Is this racism? Just letting off steam? Dunham’s the one who’s dragged the conversation from show biz to politics, so I’m not just being a wet blanket for asking.

Three words: what the hell-?

Lastly, though it’s a cliché, I still would have liked to have seen the film capped off by looking at some genuine up and comers, just starting out. The film attempts to demonstrate ventriloquism’s relevance and vitality by showing Dunham perform for a crowd of 10,000. A more apt demonstration might have been to show some innovative young people in small comedy clubs, the actual future (as opposed to the present) of ventriloquism. If so, they might have caught some genuinely exciting work, like, oh, this.

And to find out even more about the variety artspast and presentconsultNo 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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Behind the Burly Q

Posted in Burlesk, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2010 by travsd

RUN, DO NOT WALK, TO SEE THIS MOVIE!!! It is the most thorough, balanced, rich and probing (sorry) documentary possible about the history of classical burlesque and it is only playing until Thursday at the Quad Cinema. I can’t say enough good things about it. It not only gives us a nice historic overview, from the form’s origins with Lydia Thompson and her British Blonds through it’s ironic death at the hands of the porn industry in the 1960s, but it also does an amazing job painting a detailed portrait of what that industry was. Director Leslie Zemeckis (wife of Robert) managed to secure interviews with dozens of key figures from back in day, including Dixie Evans, a mentor to hundreds in the new burlesque movement, and comedian Lee Stuart, whom Todd Robbins had first told me about ages ago. About half of these people died before the film was finished, making this film a very important document indeed. Backing up the talking heads is an astounding amount of archival footage and photo stills, much of which is very surprising to learn exists at all. And the film does a wonderful job of evoking subtleties and context — painting pictures of areas that were vague at least in my own imagination until clarified by this film. For example, burlesque shows, prior to Laguardia’s crackdown in New York in the late ’30s were elaborate stage shows, having much in common with Broadway revues and vaudeville. Pictures tell the story — chorus lines full of costumed pretties…circus balancing acts…comedy sketches…all in houses seating 1000+ patrons. For the first time we get a context in which to plug Abbott and Costello, who came not from vaudeville, but from burlesque (Costello’s daughter is one of the interviewees). Ever wonder why Alan Alda was so convincing in his indiscriminate pursuit of nurses in M*A*S*H? Perhaps because he grew up in burlesque theatres, where his father worked as a “tit singer”. And more, more, more! About Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand, Ann Corio, Lili St. Cyr, Tempest Storm, Blaze Starr, and on and on.

Following the screening Thursday night, there was a Q & A with Ms. Zemeckis (her hubby staying diplomatically in the background), her producers, and one of the artistes profiled in the film, a dancer by the name of April March. I was shocked not to see more of the current burlesque world out there (I only noticed Jo “Boobs” Weldon in the crowd). Ladies and gentlemen, you only have four days left! Do your homework and see this film!

And to find out even more about the variety arts past and presentconsultNo 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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Mickey Deems

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2010 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Mickey Deems. Too late for vaudeville proper, he helped perpetuate its style way longer than most people probably thought possible. I’d previously known him from my cast album of the 1963 production of the Cole Porter show Anything Goes (he played the same part I played in my high school production). But he is best known as the creator (with burlesque comedian Joey Faye) of the short (10-12 minute) comedy series Mack and Myer for Hire. Read a cool interview with him here.

To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult 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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Fifi D’Orsay: “Paris” By Way of Montreal

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Burlesk, Frenchy, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2010 by travsd

FifiDOrsay

Madamesoille Fifi was one of the last gals out of the gate with that old vaudeville spirit. Her character was a complete invention. Her name was Yvonne Lussier and she was from Montreal, not Paris as she liked to give out. She came to New York in 1924, where she auditioned for John Murray Anderson, producer of the Greenwich Village Follies, by singing “Yes, We Have No Bananas” in French. She claimed to have come straight from the Folies Bergere. Why not? Anderson named her “Fifi”. Shortly thereafter, Gallagher and Shean joined the show and Fifi became Gallagher’s apprentice – in love as well as in work. She was in his vaudeville act for two years, learning the ropes, but aslo functioning as his common-law wife. From there, she went on to a Herman Timberg sketch with Herman Berrens called “Ten Dollars a Lesson.” After this she worked solo, singing and telling jokes well into the thirties at the same times she was starring in movies for Twentieth-Century Fox, such as They Had to See Paris (1930), Those Three French Girls, and Young as You Feel (1931). Her last film was What a Way to Go! (1964). She continued to perform live through the 1970s, notably in the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies (1971).

To find out more about the variety artspast and presentconsultNo 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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A Clown Since Birth: The Early Stage Career of Charlie Chaplin

Posted in British Music Hall, Charlie Chaplin, Clown, Hollywood (History), Romani (Gypsy), Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2010 by travsd

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Born into unimaginable poverty and obscurity, by his mid-twenties Charlie Chaplin was one of the richest and most famous men in the world. One of capitalism’s great success stories, he was ejected from the United States (forty years after his arrival) for being a communist sympathizer. This was gross myopia on the part of the government, for, as his old colleague Stan Laurel liked to point out (a little too shrilly sometimes) Charlie was never anything more than a clown.

He was born to be in music hall. Both of his parents were performers, and there is evidence to support the theory that both were at least part Gypsy. His father, Charles Chaplin, Sr., had the most success, having reached the status of headliner and even touring the U.S. in 1890. His mother, performing under the name Lily Harley, had almost no success at all. Unfortunately for Charlie and his half brother Sydney, Charles Chaplin, Sr. was a drunkard and philanderer and he ran out on Lily when the boys were quite young. Lily gradually went insane, leaving the two boys to fend for themselves.

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Fortunately, Charlie was a prodigy. He could jig, sing and do impressions almost as soon as he was out of diapers. He claimed to have made his debut in an amateur night, singing “Jack Jones’ and being showered with coins. With Charles Senior’s help, he was hired by William Jackson for an act called 8 Lancashire Lads that had him doing clog dancing and mimicry in exchange for room and board and a tiny pittance. He was with this act for 2 ½ half years, until his mother pulled him out (for “health reasons”), evidence of her growing insanity. She had no other plan for feeding him.

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As his mother was placed in and out of institutions, and his brother went abroad for several months, Charlie learned to fend for himself on the streets. (In 1903 Mrs. Chaplin was permanently committed; she never regained even the brief periods of lucidity she had displayed in her declining years.) Between the ages of twelve and fourteen, Charlie worked full time in factories. When Sydney returned and discovered this pitiful state of affairs, he set to work managing Charlie, securing work for him in a play called Giddy Ostend at the London Hippodrome in 1900. Other boy parts followed. He played the lead in Horatio Alger’s From Rags to Riches. For three years he toured with a major production of  Sherlock Holmes.

Charlie in "Sherlock Holmes"

Charlie in “Sherlock Holmes”

Following a show with the promising title A Romance of Cockayne, Charlie began to be too old to play the childs’ roles. Out of necessity, he began to work burlesque, which was a bit of a comedown from the West End productions he had been in throughout his late childhood. Here he did his first sketch and solo comedy. With a group called The Ten Loonies, he played an inept plumber’s assistant in a sketch called “Repairs”. With a combination of naiveté and ingrained anti-Semitism, he amassed fake whiskers, “Jewish” clothes and jokes from Madison’s Budget and presented himself as “Sam Cohen, the Jewish Comedian”. Having no idea that the act was offensive, he proceeded to debut the act in a Jewish neighborhood, where he rapidly learned. With a group called Casey’s Court Circus, he performed an impersonation of famous electrical charlatan Dr. Walford Bodie.

Chaplin as Dr. Bodie

Chaplin as Dr. Bodie

At age 17, Sidney got a job with Fred Karno doing slapstick, mime, tumbling, juggling, singing, and dancing. He immediately set about trying to get Charlie hired as well, being aware of his rare gifts. Karno didn’t want to hire Charlie at first. He seemed to be too shy and “worthless for comedy”. When he was finally hired, no one in the troop liked him. He kept to himself most of the time, never socializing with the other performers. In his off hours, he preferred to endlessly practice the violin. But his gifts rapidly elevated him to the status of the company’s star, a state of affairs his fellow performers no doubt resented. As Stan Laurel once characterized him  “He was a shy, timid man who kept getting up the courage to do the most wonderful, adventurous things.”

Roy Export Ltd.

Roy Export Ltd.

By 1910 they had achieved such success that Karno essayed a tour of the U.S. “Mumming Birds” was renamed “A Night in an English Music Hall” for the benefit of American audiences. By the Karno troupe’s 2nd U.S. tour in 1912, Chaplin had become something of a sensation. Groucho Marx, for one recalls seeing him at this time and identifying him as the funniest comedian he had ever seen. In 1913, a scout for silent comedy film producer Mack Sennett, caught the act and an offer was made to Chaplin to join the Keystone company. The film industry was so young at this stage that Chaplin regarded the move as risky and deliberated for quite some time before finally giving his ascent. He joined Keystone in December 1913. For more on the next phase of Chaplin’s career go here. 

To find out more about Charlie Chaplin and vaudeville past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.  For Chaplin’s screen career don’t miss  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,

Miller and Lyles: Seminal African American Comedy Team

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2010 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Flournoy Miller, who, with partner Aubrey Lyles, formed the seminal African American comedy team Miller and Lyles. By seminal, I mean they were in on the ground floor — only Walker and Williams predate them. After early beginnings at the Pekin Theater Stock Company in Chicago (circa 1906-1909), they spent several years doing a crosstalk comedy act in vaudeville. Their act was one of a mere handful of African American acts to make it to the big time. While they followed the convention at the time of working in burnt cork, the characters were a couple of amusing hustlers as opposed to cheerful, childlike “darkies”. The act is said to have been a major influence on the Caucasian blackface team of Moran and Mack, as well as (more significantly) Amos ‘n’ Andy (both the radio and television version of which Miller later wrote for and helped produce). Apart from that, the team’s most lasting and important legacy was having written the book to the landmark Broadway smash Shuffle Along, with music by Sissle and Blake. Remember their names. They deserve to be remembered.

To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsultNo 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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