Some time ago, Michael Whitney, an actor in my plays Columbia, the Germ of the Ocean and Kitsch decided he was “Pirate Mike” and began to tend bar at Iggy’s Keltic Lounge on Ludlow Street, not far from my old stomping grounds at Nada, Piano Store, Collective: Unconscious etc etc. During our epic spree (see parts one, two, three and four) the other night, Tom Bibla and I stopped there to refresh and investigate. While I don’t recall anything specifically Irish about it, it was a lounge, and in his role as barkeep, Pirate Mike is as energetic and theatrical (and generous) as one would expect.Anyway, it’s Friday. You should go there.
Archive for April, 2010
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.
Some family came to town the other night and surprised me by wanting to go up to Sylvia’s in Harlem for soul food. I hadn’t been there since I first moved to NYC [mmmmphhhh] years ago and was interested in going back to see if anything had changed and it hadn’t (with the exception of a few more pale faces on the streets and in the eatery). My second surprise was the affordability. I naturally assumed this internationally famous restaurant would have prohibitive prices, but not so. Strictly medium priced. We had no trouble getting a table without a reservation (this was a Wednesday night) and the staff was extremely nice, a basic amenity lacking in about 75% of my New York dining experiences (although I usually eat at hot dog stands and the various incarnations of “Famous Rays”).
Of the cuisine: I had the meatloaf, topped with red sauce (a new experience for me), mashed potatoes and green beans, with a Sugar Hill beer. (Theme beers are now the common denominator in American restaurants. The following night at the Indian restaurant, I drank a “Taj Mahal”). Little Bailey declared her chicken fingers “the best meal [she’d] ever eaten in a restaurant” — until the following evening when the buttered chicken at the Indian place supplanted it. Tyler seemed both excited and confused by the concept of chicken and waffles on the same plate. Austin, the youngest of the bunch, hardly touched his whiting at all (the fact that no one quite seemed to know what whiting was can’t have helped his appetite). And Brandon was ironically cavalier about the ribs, in light of the fact that that (and its famous BBQ sauce) was probably the one dish at our table that people actually travel miles to eat. I didn’t notice what my ex-brother-in-law Craig got, except he did share his collard greens with me, and that he got a piece of that vegetable stuck in his teeth. In short, the joint is kid-friendly, the food is great and I’ll be going back soon with the next shipment of visiting relatives. Death to Applebees!
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.
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 present, consultNo Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
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 present, consultNo Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
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 present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
Having seen Pete Macnamara’s jazz photos, rubbed elbows with a murder of magicians, and beheld the boxing at Gleason’s gym, we had but one more scheduled appointment on our Saturday Odyssey: Vaudeville Nouveau, up at the Workshop Theatre Company. I’ve known the show’s producer/hosts Nelson Lugo and Richard Kent Green since they roped me, Joe Franklin and journalist Meg Ryan (no relation to the Hollywood actress) into being a panel of judges for the Golden Stiletto Awards at the Slipper Room. Nelson’s an affable chap, hard to hate even if his bag of tricks is a little hoary. Richard’s shtick is performing uke songs in a straw boater and giving out free cosmetics in raffles. At Vaudeville Nouveau they transcend the limitations of a charmless space by presenting solid bills of interesting performers.
The show started on a high note with Misty Lux, who pleasantly surprised me by offering something newish, grafting a burlesque turn onto a sideshow stunt, building from a fan-dance into some glass-walking. That’s what I’m talking about! It’s when people start working those niches and angles to stand out in a crowded field that you start to get the feeling that the variety arts are alive and well and could maybe stay that way. Brava, Misty, for a boffo turn! Also, on the bill was one Schaffer the Darklord, whose shtick is that he is a bespectacled, very white looking hip hop artiste. I got the feeling that some of his lyrics may have been funny, but the sound was so loud and mixed so poorly I couldn’t make anything out, except the chorus to one of the songs, which was, and I quote, “Goddamn it!”. The consistently excellent (and omnipresent) Nasty Canasta performed as well. I have never seen her do the same thing twice, and it’s always funny and clever. This time she started with her back to the audience, turned around to reveal that she was wearing Groucho glasses, and then stripped to reveal that her breasts and cooch were ALSO wearing Groucho glasses. I won’t tell you what she did for a topper, but I will reveal that it involved one of those pairs of Groucho glasses and the cigarette she was smoking. By this time, I was quite pooped from my twelve hour spectacle junket, and so I slipped out during intermission. I was saddened to see Chris McDaniel waiting to go on and that I would miss him. He’s the top western lariat artist in these parts and would be on the short list of acts I would recommend to ANY booker, north, south, east, or west. But Chris assured me that he’d be performing an act I’d already seen and I had his blessings to go home and crawl into bed. And so I did.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consultNo Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.