Archive for June, 2010

Joan Davis: Began as “Toy Comedienne”

Posted in Child Stars, Comediennes, Comedy, Radio (Old Time Radio), Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2010 by travsd

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Is your correspondent a sexist?

I fear as much when I  realize that I think of I Married Joan as that tv show where Jim Backus plays some woman’s husband. Somehow, Joan Davis had become a footnote in her own show.

Oh, it’s not strictly my fault. Jim Backus (Mr. Magoo…Mr. Howell…James Dean’s dad in Rebel Without a Cause) is as awesome as it is possible for awesome to get. And, while I’ve only ever seen an episode or two of I Married Joan, it is perhaps not unfair to say that she trails somewhat behind Lucille Ball and Gracie Allen in making an impression. Yet her resume is so impressive, it’s definitely got me wanting to take a proper look at her body of work… and thus may this guilty (or at least, abashed) soul be redeemed. (Though to be fair to myself, I’ve seen some of the movies she made and she left…no impression).

Davis started out (like so many) in amateur contests at age 6 in her native St. Paul. Soon she was booked on the Pantages circuit, where she worked as the “Toy Comedienne” until puberty took its toll, and she retired briefly to finish high school. After a brief stint working in a  department store, she returned to the biz, eventually teaming up with (and marrying) baggy pants comic Si Wills. By the early 30s they had a child and vaudeville had dried up, so they moved to Hollywood. Her first break was in a Mack Sennett picture with Myra Keaton and the Sons of the Pioneers. She continue to make films for the next 20 years or so, with Abbott and Costello and Eddie Cantor among her many co-stars.

Here she is performing “Olga from the Volga” in Thin Ice (1937):

The Joan Davis Show began on CBS radio in 1945; the name changed to I Married Joan in 1949. It moved to television in 1952, where it ran until 1955.  She died of a heart attack in 1961. She was only 53 years old.

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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Polly Moran: Female Slapstick Pioneer

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2010 by travsd

Polly Moran is probably best known today for a series of comedies she co-starred in with Marie Dressler in the late twenties and early thirties. In the years before this she was a key member of Mack Sennett’s onscreen stock company, which will give you some idea of her brand of comedy: physical and not by any means highbrow. Her first decade and a half in show business had been spent doing a music hall style act in vaudeville, and she returned to vaud periodically over the years. After Dressler’s death, Moran’s career waned, although she did play bit parts sporadically in lesser pictures. She had a nice part opposite Tracy and Hepburn in Adam’s Rib in 1949. She passed away three years later at age 69.

To find out more about 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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M.B. Leavitt

Posted in Burlesk, Impresarios, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on June 25, 2010 by travsd

Here’s a bloke I wish I’d given more attention to in No Applause. He was a pioneer whose career was roughly contemporary with Tony Pastor’s, (post-Civil War era) and claims to have used the term “vaudeville” to describe his variety shows before Pastor. The sorts of vaudevilles he put together, though, were the full-show, self-contained touring units that became superseded by the more modern circuits that were assembled towards the end of the century.

Leavitt is better known for his contributions to the field of burlesque. It was he who, inspired by the success of Lydia Thompson and her British Blonds, decided to wed the concept of an all-girl show to the format of a minstrel show — and for a time that was the shape burlesque took. He was instrumental in the creation of the burlesque wheels, and he often had as many as eight or more burlesque and vaudeville shows touring at a time.

He was also a successful manager. Among his discoveries were F.F. Proctor, Alexander Herrman, and Harry Kellar.

The last thing to know about Leavitt (other than that today is his birthday) is that he wrote an invaluable historical document, the gazillion page, soporific 50 Years in Theatrical Management. I was thrilled beyond measure to crack open a copy at the New York Public Library Performing Arts branch, not because of its contents, but because of the title page, which Leavitt himself had inscribed to Sophie Tucker. It looks like Sophie never even glanced at the contents, and the truth of the matter is, vaudeville fans, I scarcely did either.  I have to confess that temperamentally I have way more in common with show tramps like Sophie than the suffering souls who wade through back copies of yellowing periodicals. I wanna go! I wanna step out, chil’run! I wanna shimmy! Hot-cha-cha-cha — whoopie! ….sorry.

To find out more about 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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Jack Dempsey: Hay Maker

Posted in Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Sport & Recreation, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on June 24, 2010 by travsd

Dempsey fools around with Houdini

Unlike Jake LaMotta, who only worked in night clubs when he was way, way down (remember Raging Bull?), World Champion Jack Dempsey played three years in vaudeville when he  — and it — were at the very top of the world. Colorado native Dempsey ran away from home at 16 and rode the rails as a hobo, earning his way by picking fights in saloons and mining camps. With Doc Kearns as his manager, he took the title in 1919 at age 24 and spent much of the early to mid twenties fighting exhibition matches, acting in silent movies and playing big time Keith vaudeville, usually performing comedy sketches and crosstalk with his wife and manager as partners. He finally lost his title in 1926.  After a failed re-match the following year, Dempsey restricted himself to exhibition matches and running his New York restaurant. He passed away in 1983 at age 87.

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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Banned in Boston: Memoirs of a Stripper

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Burlesk with tags , , , on June 23, 2010 by travsd

One of the interesting takeaways from the new documentary Behind the Burley Q was the central place Boston (that Puritan city) had in the era of classic burlesque, particularly at the legendary Old Howard. In Banned in Boston, Lillian Kiernan Brown (a.k.a Lilyann Rose) recounts her brief career as a Beantown-based ecdysiast, which began when she was unconscionably young and ended in a Boston courtroom a scant three years later.   While Brown has worked as a journalist, and she does throw in some historical context (the book mostly takes place in the years 1947-50), it reads more like primary source material, and thus is a fascinating, honest, and illuminating peep into the business during its heyday.

While young Lilyann was stepping into the shoes of her mother and three aunts (all burlesque dancers) and often professed to want to be a “star”, she comes across as too nice and naive to have made a go of it in such a shark-infested business, hence her willingness to retire at the request of the authorities and her family — rather than steamroll over them as more obsessed showfolk tend to do. But she matured quickly. When she started the business she still thought babies came from kissing…by the end, jealous rivals were calling her names I won’t repeat on this blog. Along the way, her admirers ranged from young congressman John F. Kennedy to mob boss Raymond Patriarca, and she shared stages with the likes of Robert Goulet and Totie Fields, not to mention her mentor Sally Keith. It’s a real window into a small corner of that exotic, far-off time. Reading it makes one feel, well…like a voyeur.

To find out more about the history of the variety arts, 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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Herman Timberg: Pivotal in the Career of the Marx Bros.

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Music, Stars of Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2010 by travsd

Herman Timberg (born on this day in 1892) is best known today for a pivotal sketch he wrote for the Marx Brothers (variously titled “On the Mezzanine Floor”, “On the Mezzanine” and “On the Balcony”). He got his start in vaudeville in the Gus Edwards revue “School Days”, later formed a duo with his brother Sammy, best known as the musical maestro behind the Fleischer cartoons of the 30s and 40s, e.g., Popeye, Betty Boop, Superman etc., and eventually became a sort of vaudeville Renaissance man: songwriter, sketch writer, dialect comedian, and musician (piano and violin). He also wrote for the likes of Clark and McCullough and many others. His son Herbert was also popular in vaudeville and films under the name “Tim Herbert” (he formed a sort of loose team with Pat Rooney, Jr.) Herman passed away in 1952.

Courtesy Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project, here is a still — appropriately set in a vaudeville booking office — from Timberg’s 1929 Paramount short I Came First.

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Also, some frames from his 1931 long-lost Technicolor MGM short, AMBITIOUS PEOPLE. 6 minutes in black and white was discovered in Australia earlier this year.

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To learn more about the Vitaphone Project and their efforts to restore films like this, go to: http://www.vitaphoneproject.com/

For more cool facts on the Timbergs, check out Timberg Alley.

To find out more about the the history of vaudeville and artists like Herman Timberg, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

Charlie Murray: Played “Hogan” and “Patrick Kelly”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2010 by travsd

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Charlie Murray hailed from Indiana but became known in Hollywood for playing a direct-from-Ireland Irishman. Born on this day in 1872, he started off in circuses and then performed as one half of the vaudeville comedy team Mack and Murray. In 1912 he started acting in silent pictures, first for Biograph, then for Mack Sennett, where angry fathers and similar characters were his specialty (initially he was billed simply as “Hogan”). 1925 was a sort of turning point: not only did he play the title character in the silent version of The Wizard of Oz, but he also starred in the first in a series called The Cohens and the Kellys that was to last well into the sound era (he was of course a Kelly). For a guy who made a couple of hundred pictures he is sadly obscure today. His son Charlie Murray, Jr. was also a character actor.

For more on the history of silent and slapstick comedy, including great comic actors like Charlie Murray, don’t miss my 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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To find out more about 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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