Archive for July, 2010

Stars of Vaudeville #205: Kolb and Dill

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Comedy Teams, German, Hollywood (History), Silent Film, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on July 31, 2010 by travsd

You’ve undoubtedly seen  Clarence Kolb (born this day in 1874) more than once in your movie watching history without knowing it.  He was a popular character actor in films of the 30s and 40s, including Carefree with Astaire and Rogers, His Girl Friday with Cary Grant and Hellzapoppin with Olsen and Johnson, as well as a regular on the television show My Little Margie. Before that though, he was one half of the team Kolb and Dill, among the top Weber and Fields copy-cat acts of their day. Kolb and his partner Max Dill grew up together in Cleveland, where they began performing together as boys. So excellent were they at doing Weber and Fields type schtick they were hired by the famous team to play themselves in the west coast tour of their 1901 show Fiddle-Dee-Dee. Thereafter, they were San Francisco based. They enjoyed success for many years in the theatre. During the silent era they made a few comedies, but didn’t click with audiences. When talkies happened, Kolb got work, Dill didn’t. Dill passed away in 1949, Kolb in 1964.

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.


A Fish Out of Agua

Posted in Art Stars, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Indie Theatre, Latin American/ Spanish, Women with tags , , on July 30, 2010 by travsd

First: note well — an urgent call to action follows this review. If you like what you read here, please follow the requested steps!

Michele Carlo is a Spanish onion — red on the outside, and composed of many layers. (Oh my God, she’s gonna kill me for that!) When I first knew her in the Surf Reality heyday she was strictly Carmen Mofongo, spiritual grand-daughter of Carmen Miranda, and distant cousin perhaps of Carmelita Tropicana, complete with outlandish hats custom designed for her by her then-hubby. I booked her in that guise many a time back in the day.

Then suddenly one day — a new layer. She shifted gears majorly a few years ago, and started presenting evenings of curated story telling called “It Came from New York”. In contrast to the cartoony, stereotype take-off Carmen Mofungo, Michele allowed herself to project herself as herself, in three dimensions, telling true-life tales that were often funny, sometimes poignant, and always  vivid, taking us to the Bronx of her youth like Melville takes us to the South Seas, or John Updike to WASP suburbia.

And now she’s taken a bunch of those narratives and woven them into a book, FISH OUT OF AGUA: My life on neither side of the (subway) tracks, from Citadel Press. But she’s done more than string together a bunch of eloquent, entertaining anecdotes, as pleasing as that would be. Instead, she sticks to the theme announced by the book’s title like a creative lifeline, making the sum of her related adventures add up. A bespeckled, persimmon-haired and artistic Puerto Rican with a taste for Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, New Wave and Heavy Metal, Carlo was simultaneously blessed and cursed with several levels of alienation. To fellow Puerto Ricans, she was an outsider because of her Irish-looking attributes. When she gets lost at the Puerto Rican Day parade, the organizers yell into the P.A.: “Will the family who brought the little redheaded white girl please come to the bandstand to pick her up?” She depicts her life as a string of such moments, causing her plenty of pain (but usually providing stories that can be funny from a distance in retrospect).

I say she has been blessed as well as cursed because, to be such an outcast, to be continually forced to try to make yourself understood across endless gulfs, while it may suck on a daily basis, has to be very good for the artistic muscles. As a consequence, Michele has gotten to be very good with language. She speaks white, she speaks black, she speaks red, she speaks hoodlum, she speaks Christian, she speaks artist, etc etc. This makes her book very universal and very accessible.

Also, she writes with an unflinching, devastating honesty. Many may claim to be doing that, but my alarm bells tend to go off when the artist paints herself as a victim — seems like partial, skewed truth at best. Michele has far more wisdom than that. It is the wisdom of that Wise Fool Curly Howard, whose frequent defense was: “I’m a victim of circumstance!” Plenty of people made her life a hell, but she’s always big enough to step into their shoes and see that those people had problems of their own. Life is a chain of people knocking each other over like dominoes. So she’s the red domino. What’s that make her–special? Well, yeah, she clearly was and is — endowed with brains, talent and a heart, when all of those things are in short in supply, whether you’re in a tough school in the Bronx or a Manhattan ad agency.

Her journey is an amazing one, from the Bronx childhood where she hung out with kids with names like Nikki Boom-Boom and Janey the Waste…to her time at the School for Visual Arts (where one of her teacher’s was Mad Magazine’s Harvey Kurtzman!)…to the beginnings of her performing career at Surf Reality (very cool to see the performance comedy scene of the ’90s immortalized in a book. Let’s have more–much more of that!) And the stories are amazing. The boy who gives her her first kiss is gunned down in the streets a week later. She gets into a horrible car accident on the way to her father’s funeral and delivers the eulogy with her face sewn shut. Her kid brother accidentally destroys a $10,000 copy of Playboy he found in their father’s closet. And on and on.

Now, then: the call to action. If you feel disposed to buy this book given all that I’ve told you, a very good time to do it would be between 11am and 12pm today. That’s right, between 11am and 12pm today. On Sorry for all that pressure,but through some technical detail no one understands, if Michel sells a certain number at that hour, it will improve the book’s ranking and boost sales.

The book is officially released August 1 (Sunday), but that won’t prevent you from being able to order it today. Also, there are a couple of book/ signing events:

FREE drinks & snacks; including Michele’s world-famous Triple X Coquito
Powerhouse Arena, 37 Main Street, DUMBO, Brooklyn

Hosted by H.R. Britton, with FREE drinks & snacks; including, again, Michele’s world-famous Triple X Coquito
Lower East Side Tenement Museum, 97 Orchard Street, off Delancey Street

Martin Beck

Posted in Broadway, German, Impresarios, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on July 30, 2010 by travsd

Once upon a time, a young Czech performer named Martin Beck had been touring the Americas with a German singing and juggling troupe. Stranded by his company in Chicago, he took a job as a waiter in music halls, working his way up to bartender, and finally to booker. (Because of this trajectory he was sometimes referred derogatorily as “Two Beers” Beck.) By the late 90s, Beck was managing Schiller’s Vaudeville, a touring company, which brought him out to San Francisco, where he next began to manage the Orpheum theatre for Morris Meyerfeld, playing Albee to his Keith. (This same Orpheum is immortalized in the 1899 Frank Norris novel McTeague. It, and every other San Francisco theatre, would be destroyed in the great 1906 earthquake). Under the Orpheum rubric, Beck and Meyerfeld  began snatching up theatres throughout the west at a rate that rivaled F.F.  Proctor.

Beck’s technique was to partner with local businessmen in theatres for each market. These collaborators would have important inside knowledge about the best local contractors, how to go about getting necessary permits, and what palms would need to be greased to move the enterprise forward.

Beck was an unusual character among the vaudeville managers. In a field dominated by predictable men of reserve, Beck managed to become one of the most successful despite an erratic, volatile personality. He was simultaneously known for being insulting and cruel to those under him, and for his openness and generosity. The perfect example merging those two traits was an occasion when he learned an acrobatic trio booked for his circuit had accepted the low sum of $175 for a week at one of his theatres. Beck proceeded to publicly deride the act, insisting that they ought to be ashamed of themselves and not take less than $350. No act on his circuit was going to go around like a bunch of bums.

Beck’s other major eccentricity was that he had highbrow pretensions. One of the best bookers in the business, the owl-like, multilingual Beck also stubbornly insisted on booking opera singers, classical musicians, and ballet dancers, even if sometimes he was the only one in the audience who appreciated them. He considered it his responsibility to educate the audience.

He also had a fine instinct for crowd-pleasing, however, as evidenced by two of his early major discoveries: Harry Houdini and W.C. Fields. In 1899, Houdini and his wife Bess were just barely eking out a living in circuses and dime museums when Beck booked him for the Orpheum circuit. Under Beck’s management, Houdini went from being a fairly run-of-the-mill magician to the Handcuff King, vaudeville’s premier escape artist, loved by audiences for his uncanny ability to work his way out of handcuffs, shackles, knotted ropes, straight-jackets, locked trunks, bank vaults, and jail cells. In a matter of months, Houdini’s weekly salary went from $25 to $250 (and ere long would be ten times that).

The following year, a young W.C. Fields was still bumbling around small time vaudeville and burlesque. In 1900, Fields was one of any number of “tramp jugglers”, silent clownish entertainers in hobo garb who worked the circuits, keeping as many household objects aloft as they knew how. One of the best in the business, Fields would juggle hats, cigar boxes – anything he could get his hands on. Beck took him onto the Orpheum at almost twice his current salary and shipped him out to San Francisco, where he performed on a bill with the magician Howard Thurston and Mr. and Mrs. Sydney Drew. Fields’ Orpheum travels brought him also to Denver, Omaha and Kansas City – evidence of Beck’s reach even at that early stage.

When the big time vaudeville managers formed a combine (the Vaudeville Managers Association, or VMA, Beck would end up running the entire western half of the country for something like a dozen years, from his office in Chicago.  But long about 1912, he took a mind to expand. He worked up plans for a grand new Chicago theatre called the Palace, that would act as an anchor for the Orpheum circuit, but Beck also decided to build an entire new circuit in the East. His flagship for that circuit, also to be called the Palace, could only be located in one place. Exploiting a loophole in the VMA agreement with Hammerstein to keep out of Times Square (Beck was only part of the Western Vaudeville Managers Association), he set about building a grand new vaudeville temple right up the street from Hammerstein’s Victoria.

E.F. Albee was beside himself with rage at this threat to his own hegemony. The audaciousness of this incursion was akin to Proctor’s pre-emptive actions in the 1890s. But just as he had with Proctor, Albee kept enough wits about him to definitively brake (and break) Beck. He let Beck’s hubris get the best of him. The highfalutin Beck (who reportedly spoke 6 or 7 languages) would travel to Europe frequently to personally book high level acts. While he was away in France negotiating with Sarah Bernhardt for his new Palace, Albee took the opportunity to buy up every other house Beck had intended to comprise his Eastern wheel, including certain Percy Williams properties in Florida. Beck returned to find himself over a barrel. For reasons that an accountant would probably understand best, he preferred to own the Williams theatres, which Albee sold to him, on the condition that the Keith organization would now have a majority stake in the Palace. Beck would still be a major shareholder, and would be in charge of all the booking. Beck took the deal.

Beck went on to become an important producer of Broadway shows, and even had his own theatre, the Martin Beck, which was renamed the Al Hirschfeld in 2003. He died in 1940.

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.


Stars of Vaudeville #204: William Powell

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Vaudeville etc. with tags on July 29, 2010 by travsd

William Powell (born this day in 1892) was no “star” of vaudeville, but he did do some time there during his years of struggle from the time of his graduation from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1912, to his discovery by Hollywood ten years later. Can his vaudeville training have anything to do with his sparkling personality, expert timing and expertise in filling out a tuxedo, in those scores and scores of Hollywood classics? We think it could!

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.


Stars of Vaudeville #203: Anna Eva Fay (and Progeny)

Posted in Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , on July 28, 2010 by travsd

Anna Eva Fay represents the full flowering of the OTHER branch of the tree that starts with the “spirit cabinet” Spirtualists the Davenport Brothers. The spirit cabinet was a stunt wherein the medium would have his hands and feet tied, be placed amongst a bunch of objects like a bell, chains, a handkerchief, a chalk and slate, and so forth, and then, in the dark, the “spirits” would ring the bell, write on the slate etc. etc. One branch of this tree fed into professional magic. Harry Kellar had apprenticed with the Davenports; Houdini had learned their techniques and turned them on their head. But Fay claimed to REALLY be a medium. In other words, she claimed she really could communicate with the dead, read minds, and tell the future. This branch of the legacy is every bit as tenacious and vital today as stage magic.Now, as then, there are millions of believers.

Born circa 1855 in Southington Ohio as Anna Eliza Heathman, her “gifts” were noticed and encouraged when still a child. (This was in the wake of the Fox Sisters phenomenon, which began in 1848 and started the entire Spiritualism craze). Her first husband Henry Cummings Melville Fay was exposed as a charlatan, but somehow she transcended his reputation (and her own later exposures) and remained sought-after by the public. By the mid 1870s she was performing professionally in theatres both in the U.S. and in London. In the 1890s, this transitioned naturally into vaudeville. For a time, her son John was part of the act. In 1898, he married one Anna Norman, renamed her “Eva” and taught her his mother’s act, becoming her principal rival. At one point in 1906, Anna Eva was performing her act at Keith’s while Eva and John were performing theirs over at Hammerstein’s Victoria. Two years later, John was dead — he  shot himself in the face while playing with a loaded pistol. Eva continued to perform as “Mrs. Eva Fay”. Anna Eva finally moved into the Beyond in 1927; Eva followed her there in 1931. She went by automobile.

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.


Balaban & Katz

Posted in Hollywood (History), Impresarios, Jews/ Show Biz, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2010 by travsd

I bet you didn’t know Hollywood star Bob Balaban has a connection to vaudeville. His father Elmer was one of the 7 Balaban brothers, most of whom were Chicago-based theatre owners. The pioneer was Bob’s uncle Abe, a vaudeville singer who leased a Nickelodeon in 1908 in partnership with his older brother Barney. They pioneered the movies-plus-vaudeville combination that was to find its full flowering in the 20s-30s-40s. Their initial enterprise was so successful, the following year they built the 600-seat Circle Theatre. In 1914 they partnered with Sam Katz, another Chicago theatre owner. In 1916 the combined organization built the 2000 seat Central Park Theatre. Throughout the 1920s, Balaban and Katz grew into a huge chain. Abe Katz retired in 1929 at the age of 40, a rich man. In 1936, barney became President of Paramount Pictures, where he remained for nearly three decades. Sam Katz was to become VP at MGM, and Bob Balaban’s grandmother’s second husband. The Balaban-Katz chain folded in 1970. For more info, go here.


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.


The Fields Exhibit at NYPL

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Hollywood (History), Jugglers, Radio (Old Time Radio), Vaudeville etc., W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2010 by travsd

Lest there be any doubt of my devotion to a certain old school juggler/comedian/movie star, let it be known that I braved the 100-degree heat on Saturday to see that exhibition about his lifeW.C. Fields is a subject near and dear to my heart, and one about whom I have some knowledge, so you can believe me when I say the exhibition is thorough, entertaining, and full of fascinating material. The exhibition was curated and organized by staff members of the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, from their own collections. It’s a wonderful resource; the folks there were very helpful to me when I was researching my book.

Ensconced in the Vincent Astor Gallery of the Performing Arts branch of the NYPL (that’s the one in the lower level, in the back), the exhibition takes you, mostly through photos, video, documents and ephemera, from Fields’ early beginnings in Philadelphia to his sad death from alcohol-related causes in 1946.

Some of the cool stuff on view:

* A photo of his mother, who bore an unfortunate resemblance to the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland (in short, she looked like W.C. himself did in later years)

* Vaudeville programs from as early as 1898 (on one ad, he shares a bill with the Three Keatons)

* Photos of him in his early tramp juggler guise (see above)

* many of his personal papers and scrapbooks

* his personal letterhead from his vaudeville days, designed by himself (he was an avid — and very good — cartoonist in his early days)

* two video screens, one with scenes from his many silent films, one with scenes from his talkies and a Fields documentary (including hilarious, rare out-takes from Tales of Manhattan, one of his last performances)

* posters from his juggling performances all over the world (from as far away as South Africa), as well as his Broadway shows and movies

* personal correspondence concerning the principle heartbreak of his life, his estrangement from his wife Hattie and son Claude (testament to the fact that there was a heart beneath the crusty facade)

* correspondence with famous folks like H.L. Mencken, D.W. Griffith, William Saroyan, et al.

* a photo of him with Dorothy Parker which, for some reason, brought tears to my eyes

* pages of scripts and memos from flummoxed studio executives frustratedly trying to work with the difficult Fields on the pictures he was writing

* an old fashioned radio cabinet, playing audio samples of Fields on various radio shows

* quotes about Fields by others, and from his own autobiography

This is already a lot of course. What else could you include? Well….

I might have liked to have seen some artifacts (I can think of many possible ones: costumes, juggling materials, steamer trunk, type-writer, golf clubs, portable bar) but then one understands the added difficulty and expense in traveling such objects.

And I think the exhibition skirts rather superficially over the issue of Fields’ alcoholism, which was not only his main source of comedy, but his main source of tragedy, as well. It began to affect his health seriously in 1936, and made his life painful for another decade before killing him. It’s ugly stuff, but I think something is lost by sweeping it under the rug.

At any rate, you have another month to catch this otherwise terrific exhibition. For full info about when, where and how, go here.

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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