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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Stars of Vaudeville #237: Carl Ballantine

Posted in Comedy, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Sit Coms, Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on September 27, 2010 by travsd

When I was about four or five years old, my dad brought us to a company picnic that featured a funny magician and puppeteer to entertain the children. For some reason, I’ve always carried around a vague impression in the back of my head that the performer was Carl Ballantine. But it can’t have been, can it? A familiar face from TV working a company picnic at a factory in Southeastern Connecticut? On the other hand, Henny Youngman was never above taking a bar mitzvah date, over his entire career. A paycheck is a paycheck. Nem di gelt.

At any rate, Ballantine (born this day in 1922) came along a little too late for vaudeville proper, although his comedy magic act would have been perfect for it (just as it was perfect for the television variety which eventually showcased it). He started out doing serious magic in his native Chicago, but soon found that he got laughs by screwing up the tricks. His main live bookings were in nightclubs and presentation houses, before he began getting booked on tv’s top variety shows. Ballantine’s appeal lies in his brashness, the way he brusquely, cheerfully moves past every flub to the next trick, which will inevitably fail as well. There is something about this concept (which ranks with the great comic strips and the plays of the absurdists) that I think deserved a better pinnacle than Ballantine ever achieved. The modern industry can be a chilly, stupid brute, an unaccommodating  bureaucracy that may rank with the military in its famous ineptitude at matching the right person to the right job. Hence, Ballantine’s greatest success in terms of recognition, came for playing the part of “Gruber” on the sit-com Mchale’s Navy (1962-66), a fairly anonymous role that really anyone might have played. And he had a large number of guest shots on other sit-coms and tv dramas. He continued performing until 1977, and passed away less than a year ago.

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 #236: George Raft

Posted in Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Dance, Hollywood (History), 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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Stars of Vaudeville #235: Winsor McCay

Posted in PLUGS, Silent Film, 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.

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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Ocean County Bookfest

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, My Shows, PLUGS on September 25, 2010 by travsd

For all you Jersey-ites out there…I’ll be signing books, talking (and maybe even crooning) at the Ocean County Book Fest in Tom’s River today from 11am – 3pm. If I’m not enough of an attraction, I’m told May Pang, John Lennon’s girlfriend during his famous “Lost Weekend” period, as well as the staff of The Onion and dozens more will be on hand. For directions and more info, go here. And if you can’t make it, but still want to buy No Applause, go here.

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