Archive for August, 2010

Stars of Vaudeville #221: Joan Blondell

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , on August 30, 2010 by travsd

Joan Blondell was one of those vaudevillians whose career spanned so long those of us growing up in the 1970s knew her entirely from contemporary entertainment, little dreaming of the four distinguished decades that preceded. She was a regular on Here Come the Brides, and a guest star on shows like Starsky and Hutch, Fantasy Island, Bonanza and many others, and in films like Grease (1978) and The Champ (1978). It never occurred to me to realize that my grandmother probably watched her in first run movies too – in 1930.

Rose Joan Blondell (born this day in 1906) was a second generation vaudevillian. Her father, Eddie was a vaudeville comedian and was in the 1903 stage play adaptation of the comic strip The Katzenjammer Kids. Her mother was also an actress. As with Buster Keaton, its rumored that Joan’s cradle was literally a steamer trunk. She made her stage debut in her infancy. She traveled the world with her performing family throughout her childhood, finally settling in Dallas, where she won the Miss Dallas pageant in 1926 (placing fourth for Miss America). The next year, she moved to New York to become an actress. The breakthrough was Penny Arcade, which with Al Jolson’s support, became the Warner Brothers film Sinner’s Holiday, which put both her and James Cagney on the map. She was in a zillion movies through the 30s, including classics like Public Enemy, Three on a Match, andGolddiggers of 1933. By the next decade the pace slowed down, but she never stopped working, and her presence is memorable in films as diverse as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and The Cincinnati Kid (1965). Her stock in trade was the wisecrack, delivered with a sly smirk and a twinkle in those huge baby blue eyes. But she could handle drama, too, and won a Golden Globe Award for her work in The Cincinnati Kid.

Her marital career was just as interesting as her professional one. Husbands included her sometime co-star, the multi-careered Dick Powell and controversial stage and screen producer Mike Todd, whom she once claimed hung her outside a window once by her ankles. Her younger sister, also in show business, was married to Cubby Broccoli, producer of the James Bond pictures. She died in 1979.

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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Stars of Vaudeville #220: Fritzi Scheff

Posted in Classical, German, Music, Singers, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags on August 30, 2010 by travsd

Fritzi Scheff (b. Fredericka Scheff Yarger on this day in 1879) was a prima donna in every sense of the word. A second generation grand opera singer from Vienna, a tour to the U.S. exposed her to the profitable world of light operetta and musical comedy, where she became a star in the early years of the twentieth century. When the Palace opened in 1913, she was among the class acts that Martin Beck brought there, and she continued to work the lucrative big time as long as the opportunities existed — through the 1920s, and a few years later in a revival at Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe. Having played the great halls of Europe and having come to the U.S. initially at the behest of the Metropolitan Opera, she was known in the business for being correspondingly demanding and haughty in the lowly precincts of vaudeville. For her last quarter century she didn’t have it to kick around any more. She passed away in 1954.

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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Stars of Vaudeville #219: Donald O’Connor

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Child Stars, Circus, Dance, Hollywood (History), Irish, Vaudeville etc. on August 28, 2010 by travsd

He was born in 1925, and raised in “the O’Connor Family—the Royal Family of Vaudeville”. Theirs’ was a family act, consisting of singing, dancing and acrobatics. The O’Connors started out in the circus. His father was an Irish dancer, comedian and acrobat who had been with Ringling Brothers. His mother was a tightrope walker and bareback rider. Donald was their 7th child. He was first onstage at 3 days old, although at that point his act consisted of laying on top of a piano. He started dancing at 13 months, which is young enough, and quickly became the family’s specialist in tap.

O’Connor’s father died onstage when the boy was a year old. Usually that’s just a figure of speech, but in this case it was literally true. Donald’s oldest brother Jack came back into the act at that point, bringing his wife and child with him. The family worked the Loews, Gus Sun, and Franchon and Marco circuits. There were so many of them that they hired their own railroad car.

At age 12, Donald was discovered for the movies by Paramount and his life changed forever. He appeared in the 1938 film Sing You Sinners! In the 40s he was cultivated by the studio as one of the era’s token teenagers, and placed in a group called the Jivin’ Jacks and Jills, with whom he appeared in 14 films. By the late 40s, he was best known as the star of the “Frances the Talking Mule” series, a concept so bad it was revived by television a decade later as Mr. Ed. In 1952, O’Connor was tapped (ha!) by Gene Kelly for his most famous role in Singin’ in the Rain, wherein he performed his comic masterpiece of dancing, the much loved “Make ‘Em Laugh” number. Subsequent films included: Call Me Madam (1953) and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954).He passed away in 2003.

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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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

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 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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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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Stars of Vaudeville #218: Gene Kelly

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Dance, Hollywood (History), Irish, Vaudeville etc. on August 23, 2010 by travsd

Gene Kelly (born in Pittsburgh this  day in 1912) started out in a kid act with his four dancing brothers and sisters — The Five Kellys. Gene was the middle child.  Sometimes, when the booking called for it, the act would be comprised of a smaller “away team”, often pairing Gene with his brother Fred. They played local vaudeville and social gigs throughout the 1920s. Once they even got to go on as a disappointment act for the 7 Little Foys. In 1928, the family took over a dance school. Gene was the head teacher. He was a busy guy, teaching, attending college (majored in economics) and still performing. (he got to sub once for the Nicholas Brothers in a Cab Calloway revue in Altoona during these years). But the depression made the scarcity of regional show biz work even scarcer. Gene went to New York, auditioned, and there followed the legendary string of Broadway and Hollywood hits he is now known for. He was still acting into the mid-eighties, and passed away in 1996.

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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