Archive for September, 2010

New York Burlesque Festival

Posted in Burlesk, Contemporary Variety, Women with tags on September 30, 2010 by travsd

This curvy little festival (opening today) seems to be coming up in the world. Highline Ballroom! B.B. King’s! Don’t get snooty, Countess! Remember you started out in the dives and toilets like the rest of us! To see what all the ruckus is about, go here.

To learn more about the roots of variety entertainmentconsult 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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Sullivan and Considine

Posted in Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Impresarios, Irish, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on September 29, 2010 by travsd

In 1889, an itinerant actor named John W. Considine (born this day in 1868) blew into Seattle and became a card-dealer at the Theatre Comique, a so-called box house. (Concert saloons were sometimes called box houses because the theatre boxes could be closed off for greater privacy).

Within a few months he was managing the People’s Theatre, where he began to make improvements to the presentation of the show. Unlike his Bible-thumping contemporaries on the East coast, he also supplemented his income by pimping, an important part of early variety entrepreneurship. The sign out front read “Come in and pick one out—they’re beautiful.” In the height of the Alaskan gold rush, his “box house” flourished. A lot of marks blew through town, and Considine was sure to get them both going and coming.

In 1894 the Seattle city fathers passed a law against selling liquor in theatres. Considine did what any self-respecting bar manager would do under the circumstances: he moved to Spokane. There he flourished with another People’s Theatre until 1897, when the local city government passed a law outlawing box-houses. Fortunately, they were now making a comeback in Seattle. He returned there and brought with him the exotic dancer Little Egypt (who’d made a splash at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair) to town, and made a big hit. With the profits, Sullivan began buying up saloons and other properties, including Edison’s Unique Theatre (a movie and vaudeville house), making him one of the very earliest exhibitors of silent films. On a trip to New York to book acts, he hooked up with Tammany Hall machine politician and sometime theatre producer Big Tim Sullivan. The two launched a new circuit, with theatres in Spokane, Portland, Bellingham, Everett in Washington, as well as Vancouver and Victoria, in Canada. These were now respectable theatres—Considine, like his predecessors, had left the saloons behind for the bigger profits available through legitimacy. The enterprise flourishsed untrammeled until 1902, when Alexander Pantages came to town and harried Considine with competetion for over a decade until bad luck hit, and the Sullivan and Considine chain was revealed to have been built upon a Ponzi scheme, each succeeding house bought by mortgaging an earlier one. All it took was one setback to start all the dominoes toppling. First, Big Tim Sullivan was declared legally insane in 1913. Then, the following year, the country experienced an economic downturn. Foreclosure proceedings were begun on Sullivan and Considine properties and the house of cards collapsed. Pantages and the Loew’s chain (which by that time was national) picked up Considine’s theatres for a song. Considine passed away in 1943.

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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All Hail, Ed Sullivan!

Posted in Impresarios, Irish, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on September 28, 2010 by travsd

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Ed Sullivan (born this day in 1901) is the primary preservationist of vaudeville and its aesthetics into the post-vaudeville era, keeping old school variety shows before the American public nearly four decades after the death of the circuits. Starting out as a boxer, then a sportswriter, in the 1920s he took over Walter Winchell’s theatre column at the New York Graphic, which later went over to the Daily News. This led naturally to a local radio talent show called Ed Sullivan Entertains in 1932, and was nationally broadcast by CBS 1942-1956. At the same time, Sullivan was hosting live post-vaudeville variety shows at New York’s big presentation houses, the Paramount Theatre, and Loew’s State. When television came along, it was only natural for him to bring this hosting experience to the small screen. Toast of the Town was launched in 1948. In 1955 it became The Ed Sullivan Show. Not only did it present hundreds of former vaudevillians (big and small) of every possibly discipline, but it also was instrumental it bringing countless post-vaudeville acts (notably most of the major rock and roll bands) to the national stage. Despite this, changing tastes led to the show’s cancellation in 1971. Sullivan was still producing specials as late as 1973. He passed away the following year. TV variety did not long outlive him.

To learn more about the roots of variety entertainmentconsult 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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George Raft: Light on his Feet

Posted in Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Dance, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2010 by travsd

Not-So-Tough Guy Raft Dancing with Carol Lombard

Like fellow Hollywood tough guy James Cagney, George Raft started out as a hoofer. And before that?  Let’s just call it research for his roles. Born this day in 1895 in Hell’s Kitchen, he dropped out of school at a young age and Drifted. He tried his hand as a professional boxer, a pool hustler (one of his partners was Billy Rose), and a taxi dancer (one of his colleagues was Rudolph Valentino). The latter occupation was led him into legitimate show business. A gifted dancer (Fred Astaire was a huge admirer), by the 1920s, he was playing major nightclubs like Texas Guinan’s El Fey Club and headlining Big Time vaudeville. A turn in the 1929 film Queen of the Night Clubs (loosely based on Guinan’s life) brought him to Hollywood. A role in 1932’s Scarface (and a reputation for a criminal past) established him as one of Hollywood’s top “gangsters”. In 1932 he gave Mae West her start as a film actress by recommending her for Night After Night . Raft was a top Hollywood star until the mid 1950s. He passed away in 1980.

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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Winsor McCay: Cartoonist in Vaudeville

Posted in PLUGS, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2010 by travsd

Born this day (according to some, including himself) circa 1867-1871, cartoonist Winsor McCay is much revered today for his highly whimsical, dreamlike comic strips like Little Nemo in Slumberland and Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend. More to the point here, starting in 1911, he toured vaudeville with short animated films using his characters like Gertie the Dinosaur and others. McCay would lecture and magically interact with the films. My friends from the Silent Clowns screening series have shown some of these — get on their list, and they’ll tip you off the next time it’s on one of their bills! After about 10 years of touring the circuits, McCay began to concentrate on editorial cartoons. He passed away in 1934.

Now here’s his creation “Gertie the Dinosaur” in a film from 1914. The titles are lines the cartoonist would have spoken to the animated film as part of his vaudeville act. The scenes at the end are a recap of the framing device that begins the film (available in a different youtube clip) in which fellow cartoonist George McManus bets him that he can’t make such a film.

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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Half Empty

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS with tags on September 22, 2010 by travsd

David Rakoff doesn’t ask that you be afraid; he just wants you to know that he is. The thrice-published author and frequent This American Life contributor has become not only a chronicler of quirky excesses, he is also perhaps the finest satirist of conspicuous consumption since Thorstein Veblen. Timid and retiring by nature, and a gay Canadian Jew by circumstance,  his usual modus operandi is to place himself in some situation that might be expected to frighten, annoy, or alienate him (frequently all three). The results of these experiments are richly rewarding, both because of the humorous culture clashes, but also because Rakoff is a gifted enough writer, and a big enough human being, to shade the experiences with nuance. He has that least fashionable of attributes, a moral compass. (“His parents raised him right,” I often think.)  Consequently, he can be as mean as a viper when he wants to be (with hilarious results), but only to the people, places and things that deserve it – usually some exponent or manifestation of one of the Seven Deadly Sins. He does not exclude himself from these unsparing analyses, which I like even more. In his previous books Fraud and Don’t Get Too Comfortable, he took us to Miami Beach, fashion shows in Paris, Loch Ness, an airline run by the Hooters restaurant chain, and a spiritual retreat run by action star Steven Seagal. That’s funny already, right?

In his new book Half Empty, the tone is at once more autobiographical and more somber. Though, flashes of the old Rakoff are still there. The most formally ambitious of the pieces, and the one most consonant with the tone of his past work is “A Capacity for Wonder: Three Expeditions”. Laid out as a triptych, the piece traces his immersion in three of America’s “constructed Edens”: Epcot Center, Hollywood and Salt Lake City, poking much fun at their cartoonish artifice before settling, Goldilocks-like, on a porridge more to his liking: Robert Smithson’s 1970 earthwork sculpture “Spiral Jetty”. But, for the most part, the book deals with issues of far greater moment than mere aesthetic distaste and inconvenience. The book’s opening lines, which may rank with those of Moby Dick and The Tale of Two Cities for pithiness, set the tone: “We were so happy. It was miserable.” His acid pen now records observations on September 11, the death of his therapist, his freakishly small size as a kid (4′ 10″ in tenth grade), the metaphysical torture of writing (like Dorothy Parker, he worries those mots justes, which is why we have to wait five years between books), and being fired from a Hollywood movie and replaced by Bronson Pinchot (his revenge came this year when a short film he co-wrote and appeared in won an Oscar). In this book he is more overtly political, more apt to give vent to his anger, and tends more to resort to the cussword over the much-deliberated word-pearl, as formerly was his wont.

In the last piece, we find out where this is all coming from. In “The Other Shoe”, we learn that the author, who’d written about his brushes with cancer in the past, has been revisited by the scourge, this time in a more virulent form. By now, the humor has evaporated almost entirely — the darkness that undergirds his brilliant comedy is exposed and naked and lies there pure for us to contemplate. His anger and his terror are no longer foibles, but the entire pulse of the universe, a raw nerve impervious to consolation. He is in a Vonnegut-like place now. The irony, though, is that the very existence of the book carries with it implied promise. Today we lose a job, can’t write a word, get bad news from the doctor. Tomorrow, as his own life has proven, we win an Oscar, publish a book, the cancer is in remission. And, while Rakoff might like to remind us that the day after tomorrow we will lose another job, get more writer’s block and get sick again….I would like to remind him that the day AFTER the day after tomorrow, etc, etc, ad infinitum, ad nauseam….

Half Empty was officially released yesterday, and Rakoff is out there hustling it even as we speak. Reason enough, say I, for optimism.

The Morning After (Seeing the Drunkard)

Posted in Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, Melodrama and Master Thespians with tags on September 21, 2010 by travsd

The old liturgical phrase hic transit gloria mundi in W.H. Smith’s 1844 The Drunkard becomes shortened to simply, “hic”. But while the glory does indeed pass away for young country squire Edward Middleton (Michael Hardart) through the various agencies of Satan, so, too do the degradations and indignities of his enslavement to the bottle, hence the subtitle, “the Fallen Saved.” This dramatization of a redemption, one involving a widespread social problem, makes this melodrama a highly significant artifact. The shadow of its influence runs from the explosion of copycat temperance plays in its immediate wake (including Ten Nights in a Bar-Room, in which I was pleased to play the villain in a 2007 production at the Waterfront Museum and Showboat Barge) to a never-ending spate of tv movies related to substance abuse — an important and healthy contemporary American genre, whatever its merits as art.

It’s by reviving plays like this that the Metropolitan Playhouse is gradually securing its position as an important cultural institution, I think. Having worked in, and been otherwise involved with, history museums for a good many years, I have had ample opportunity to observe how genre paintings can have duel functions as works of art and historical teaching tools. I think the Metropolitan is on the cutting edge of doing the same thing with theatre. Their production of The Drunkard is a case in point. On the one hand, they strive to serve the play artistically. Hardart has some definite technical challenges: a roller coaster emotional journey, plus inebriation plus delerium tremens to convey, and (as I have become accustomed to expect from him) he pulls it off beautifully. Likewise, Howard Thoresen is a riot as one of the most perversely evil villains conceived by the mind of man. (Thoresen’s character is not so much a mere villain as the very devil himself — ubiquitous, and going well out of his way to work evil just for its own sake).

The temptation (hah!) with plays like these, in fact the almost exclusive modern tradition, is to  play it for camp. (That’s what we did with Ten Nights). Director Frank Kuhn takes on a much harder job — the method usually employed at the Metropolitan. He grapples with how to make the play work on its own terms. Granted, titters are inevitable. Many period temperance songs are exhumed for context and presented as a framing device around the show. The lyrics to one begins “See a million drunkards, marching toward their doom!” There’s no way an audience won’t laugh at that. But for the most part, the show is played straight, even down to Thoresen’s Richard III-like villainous asides to the audience. And I think much is gained by doing it this way. When you catch yourself laughing at the innocence of another time, you suddenly feel cynical and dirty. I know I’m certainly not IN FAVOR OF people ruining their lives with booze. If the play’s message seems extreme and simplified, I’m equally certain that “sophistication” will not serve the cause of sobriety any better. And to truly convey the historical experience, it must be done straight-faced (with concessions to the melodramatic conventions intrinsic to the genre). If anything, you could really sell the message at the play’s core by turning up the heat on the sordid aspects. Remember that scene in the much later Come Back, Little Sheba where the drunken  Doc pursues his wife with an axe? Something like that. That would really get the message across, and I imagine, stifle titters before they even arise. At any rate, I enjoyed my can of soda during intermission very much.

The Drunkard s playing at Metropolitan Playhouse through October 17. Details here.

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