Archive for August, 2010

The Return of William Castle

Posted in BUNKUM, Hollywood (History), Impressionists with tags on August 27, 2010 by travsd

I believe in a  quality you might call “magical ballyhoo” — a tradition of marketing that is whimsical, poetical, prankish, and itself theatrical. In most senses, P.T. Barnum can be considered the inventor of this art form, although, like many great inventors, all he really did was synthesize many existing ideas and practices and present it in new packaging. While we love to go around saying that such hype is the coin of the realm today, few — very few — practice it in the true spirit I am talking about. Typically, it’s more a corporate, unimaginative shoving of something down our throats. True showmen have been surprisingly rare in Hollywood, for example. A few names spring to mind: Cecil B. De Mille, Mike Todd, Orson Welles. But, when it comes to ballyhoo, true ballyhoo, none can hold a candle to low-budget horror genius William Castle. As they do every so often, New York’s holy temple of repertory cinema the Film Forum is doing a retrospective of his works (h’m….that sounds inappropriately pretentious. Let’s just say, “showing a bunch of his movies”). Watching Castle’s films on home video is like what Audrey Hepburn’s character in Charade said of smoking filtered cigarettes, “It’s like drinking coffee through a veil.” You need to be in a theatre, not just because one always needs to be with other screaming, laughing people at such experiences, but because Castle’s films come with hilarious gimmicks, such as “Emergo”, his gambit for The House on Haunted Hill, which consists of a skeleton that rolls toward the audience on a fishing wire, and “Percepto”, the “electric shock” in the seats that accompanies The Tingler. 13 Ghosts provides special “ghost viewers” that allows you to see the titular phantoms (one of which, as I recall, is a headless lion tamer). The very best of these shockers feature one of my favorite actors, the great Vincent Price, at the very peak of his form, relishing every moment of Gothic melodrama like a poisoned bon-bon. 15 of these gems will be shown today through September 6, in double and even triple features.  For full details and schedule, go here…if you dare!

Master Juba: Father of Tap

Posted in African American Interest, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Dance, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2010 by travsd

William Henry Lane (a.k.a Master Juba) came along way too early to be in my “Stars of Vaudeville” series, but a good chunk of the vaudeville experience would have been impossible without him. Juba, you see, invented the sort of dancing that became tap. And it was by way of just the sort of artistic miscegenation that distinguishes the best American expression. Lane was born in Providence, R.I. (yay!) in 1825 and moved to the Five Points section of New York where close proximity to the Irish caused him to emulate their style of dancing (jigs, clogs, etc). Inflecting it with African moves inherited from his own ancestors he naturally merged the two, creating something  new and compelling. He began performing in saloons and minstrel shows, rapidly growing famous thereby. Charles Dickens actually checked out his act when he came to New York; you can read his “review” in his book American Notes. The British loved Juba. So much so in fact, when Juba visited the city during a minstrel show tour, he simply stayed. As Josephine Baker when she adopted Paris as her own 80 years later, you’d be crazy not to stay in a place where they treat you like a king, rather than stay in one where you’re considered closer to cattle than to men.  But he only breathed that heady air for four years. He died in 1852 at age 27.

To find out more about Master Juba and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever edifying books are sold.

 

Klaw and Erlanger

Posted in Impresarios, Vaudeville etc. on August 25, 2010 by travsd

Klaw

The pioneers of theatrical monopoly were Marc Klaw and Abraham Lincoln Erlanger. With evil-sounding names like “Klaw and Erlanger”, they just had to be villains. Erlanger (who decorated his offices with portraits and busts of his hero Napoleon Bonaparte) had once been employed as an agent, p.r. man and manager. Klaw had been a drama critic, a lawyer for the Frohman Brothers, and a theatrical booking agent. In 1896 they formed “the Syndicate” with four other producers, in an attempt to obtain the monopoly on legit theater throughout the United States. Any producer who wanted to put on a play, and any theatre manager who wanted to book one, had to go through them, for they owned most of the theatres as well as the booking exchange that supplied the circuit with shows. In essence, by pooling their resources, the producers of the Syndicate had come up with an uber-circuit for the legitimate stage.

In 1907, they teamed up with their old adversaries the Shuberts and William Morris to form the U.S. Amusement Company, a major vaudeville circuit that would rival the then-dominant and recently established United Booking Office, headed by Keith and Albee. The wheels were set in motion, negotiations begun with acts, and so forth, but the enterprise was to last for only a few months. When it came to pure ruthlessness, even Keith and Albee couldn’t hold a candle to their Mephistophelean mentors, Klaw and Erlanger. Their next lesson would cost them plenty. The syndicate had never intended to set up a rival circuit in the first place. Their only aim the whole time had been to get Keith to buy them out, which he did, for $1 million. A costly lesson in competitive economics.

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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Rags Ragland: Bouncer, Boxer, Burlesque Banana

Posted in Burlesk, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2010 by travsd

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Rags Ragland (born John Lee Morgan Beauregard Ragland on this day in 1905) was a Minsky’s burlesque comedian who was often a foil to Phil Silvers. A former boxer and truck driver, he often played big, dumb galoots. In the early 40s he was a familiar face in MGM comedies, but it all came crashing to a halt when he returned from boozing it up with Orson Welles in Mexico during his It’s All True phase and collapsed during a rehearsal. He died several days later of alcohol related kidney failure. The year was 1946; Rags was only 41.

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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Jean Bedini: Juggler, Gave Eddie Cantor His Start

Posted in African American Interest, Burlesk, Impresarios, Jugglers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2010 by travsd

Best known today as a footnote in the career of Eddie Cantor, Jean Bedini (ca. 1880-1955) began his career as a juggler who was teamed up with Roy Arthur shortly after the turn of the last century. Bedini was the only actual juggler in the act, Arthur was just a blackface** stooge who brought him props. (Cantor, an old neighbor of Arthur’s, was later brought in as yet another blackface stooge, and was eventually fired for upstaging Bedini, the star). Bedini later became a producer of burlesque revues on the Columbia Wheel, and is credited with giving boosts to the careers of Clark and McCullough, Joe Cook, Ted Healy, and George White (he of the Scandals). Bedini was still producing in the early 1940s, and still performing for years after that.

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

****Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

Alexander Pantages

Posted in Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Impresarios, Vaudeville etc. with tags on August 19, 2010 by travsd

It’s two-a-day for Keith, and three-a-day for Loew;

Pantages plays us four-a-day, besides the supper show.

— from On Your Toes, 1936, Larry Hart

Born Pericles Pantages on a Greek island in 1871, this important vaudeville manager was later to significantly change his first name from that of the enlightened father of democracy to that of western civilization’s first imperialist conqueror: Alexander. In his late childhood, Pantages started working on freighters, becoming stranded at age 12 in Panama. He gradually worked his way north, and found himself in Alaska in time for the gold rush. Instead of prospecting, he swept barroom floors, which he had noticed contained large amounts of spilled gold dust. In this way, Pantages probably found more gold than 95% of the prospectors. Soon, Pantages, like Considine, had worked his way up to pimp, selling the services of one Klondike Kate. After stealing Kate’s hard earned money, he opened his first theater in Nome, where he was able to fetch $12.50 a ticket — VERY high for those days, but commensurate with prices in a boomtown economy. As the boom subsided and the miners left, Pantages relocated to Seattle, where his first move was to open a combination fruit store and shoeshine parlor across the street from a Sullivan and Considine house. In a few months he opened his first Seattle theatre, the Crystal, in a narrow storefront. He set up a few benches and showed movies alongside vaudeville acts, performing all the work himself, from booking the entertainment, to running the projector, to ripping tickets, to (his special expertise) sweeping the floor.

By 1904, he was able to build his first Pantages theatre, and from here a fierce battle with the chain of Sullivan and Considine began. Pantages began to build dozens more theatres, competing directly with every Sullivan and Considine house, eventually conquering the entire Pacific Northwest. Around the time of the stock market, Pantages sold out to RKO, and was shortly thereafter convicted of statutory rape. Upon emerging from jail in 1933 he tried to revive his vaudeville empire, but the cards were against him. He died three years later.

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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Gus Hill’s Novelties

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Burlesk, German, Impresarios, Jugglers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , on August 18, 2010 by travsd

Born in 1858, young Gustave Metz renamed himself after Harry Hill’s saloon when he went into show business. He was a wrestler, juggler and Indian club twirler back in the day, billed as the “Champion Clubman of the World”. Like many a successful performer, he later directed his earnings toward producing, producing vaudeville and burlesque revues (often called “Gus Hill’s Novelties”), musical comedies, minstrel shows ** and dramas from the 1880s through the 1920s. He was also one of the founders of the Columbia wheel, burlesque’s premiere circuit. In later years he was well known for tab shows based on popular comic strips like Mutt and Jeff, the Yellow Kid, and Happy Hooligan. Weber and Fields, Montgomery and Stone, Eddie Cantor and Billy Reeves are all artists who can be said to have been discovered or nursed along by Gus Hill. He passed away in 1937.

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.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

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