Archive for October, 2010

R.I.P. Houdini

Posted in Halloween, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Vaudeville etc. with tags on October 31, 2010 by travsd

This is the grave of Harry Houdini, located in the Machpelah Cemetary in Queens. He died 84 years years ago this very night, and even now, every Halloween certain people are said to take out their Ouija boards and attempt to contact him on this day. Debunker that he was, something tells me that even if his spirit roamed the earth, he would refuse to communicate. Either way, I confess to a wishful semi-belief in ghosts, and I’ll be watching out for him tonight. It’s the only way to spend Halloween!

 

To learn 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 #252: Ray Dooley

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Comediennes, Hollywood (History), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on October 30, 2010 by travsd

Ray Dooley (born this day in 1896) is best known today as a review comedienne who, by virtue of her diminutive height, often played babies and bratty children. From Raymond HItchcock’s Hitchy-Koo of 1918, she went on to five editions of the Ziegfeld Follies as well as the 1928 Earl Carroll’s Vanities, often performing opposite W.C. Fields. She started out as a child performer in her father’s minstrel act, and went on to perform in various vaudeville acts by herself or teamed with her brother Gordon, or her husband Eddie Dowling, whom she married in 1919. She was to co-star in Broadway with Dowling in the shows Sidewalks of New York (1927), Thumbs Up (1934-35) and Hopes the Thing (1948), and the Hollywood film Honeymoon Lane (1931). She was to die in relative obscurity in 1984.

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 Banished Children of Eve

Posted in African American Interest, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, Irish on October 29, 2010 by travsd

Superlative stagecraft aplenty in the Irish Rep’s adaptation of  Peter Quinn’s novel about New York’s Civil War Draft Riots. Ciaran O’Reilly’s direction abounds in clever, eye-catching touches….from its swiveling cylinder of movable, curved stage flats…to backlight and silhouette to suggest rioting masses and a blazing city….to a moving pageant-like charivari of Lower East Side denizens that opens and closes our peek into this world. And the performances are largely terrific, notably the versatile  David Lansbury as a drunken Irish minstrel man, Patrice Johnson as a feisty West Indian fishwife, and Malcolm Gets, who tickles the ivories and supplies a lovely Irish tenor in the role of songwriter Stephen  Foster, then at the very end of his life.

Moreover, the cross-section of characters and the story arc are just right to communicate this historical episode. There are two plots: in one, an interracial couple plan their escape to Canada and attempt to protect their adopted African American child; in the other, a second-generation Irishman woos a pretty colleen, ostensibly as part of a plot to rob her native-born boss (and of course falls in love with her, disrupting his plans). The weak link in the chain is the dialogue, penned by playwright Kelly Younger. It’s crude, clumsy stuff, all “on-the-nose”, and telegraphed blather, 50% exposition and 50% message. The worst written character (as is often the case in such well-meaning didactic exercises) is the nativist villain of the piece (Graeme Malcolm) who seems to have nothing better to do in life than to wander on and offstage at inopportune times and say racist things. If it’s meant to be a twist on the old melodrama, the style of the production doesn’t match it. I think it shows all the signs of being too much like the new melodrama, the stuff of made-for-tv movies.

Still, I think this would be a very good educational show for young people to see. Yes, it might be controversial (the N word is used, along with “mick” and “paddy”) but it would be an excellent way for them to learn about the past struggles of the downtrodden, and to start thinking about what the latter-day analogues might be.  (In say…Arizona, for example?)

Winston Churchill: Walking With Destiny

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, Movies (Contemporary), PLUGS with tags on October 29, 2010 by travsd

The greatest leader of the 20th century was no American President, but the man who single-handedly kept the Axis Powers from taking over the entire world from 1940 to 1941, when Continental Europe, Asia and most of the colonial dominions were under the thumb of Germany, Italy and Japan. England and the Americas remained, and the U.S. wouldn’t declare war until Pearl Harbor. In a very real sense, all of us owe our freedom to this man, who recognized and fought the evils of Nazism from the very beginning and continued his fight against totalitarianism in the age of the Iron Curtain (a term he coined).That he did so, and did so with such vehemence, when so many dismissed him as a crank, and then led the ingrates who scorned him to victory, makes him the very definition, in my view, of a leader.

A new documentary called Winston Churchill: Walking with Destiny is opening today at the Quad Cinema. Churchill’s granddaughter will be speaking after the 7 and 9:25 shows tonight. The film’s editor Nimrod Erez will do Q & A for some of the shows after the weekend. How I wish I could be there! But I will try to catch the film during the run. Schedule, direction and ticket info here.

 

Murder at the Tremont Theatre

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, PLUGS on October 28, 2010 by travsd

Frank Cullen, the author of Vaudeville: Old and New, the one contemporary book I would place above mine as the ultimate vaudeville resource (and that’s because it’s a reference book–a damned thorough one at that), has now branched out into the realm of historical mystery fiction. He sets his tale in Boston, his native town (which is where his American Vaudeville Museum was based for many years), in the year 1908. By then, Boston-based vaudeville managers Keith and Albee are the kings of a national chain, and Cullen’s book is a vivid picture of what life was like on that chain, from the theatrical boarding house, to the luxury suite of a star, to the dressing room, to the back office, to the stage. No one knows Boston or vaudeville like Frank Cullen, so expect a rich tapestry of detail. And murder? Well, this is a new rub, and lovers of old black and whites know there is no better setting for a nice Gothic murder than a gaslit theatre. Frank’s history is better than his mystery, but in the fashion of old vaudeville, he’s working on the act.  His next vaudeville mystery starring the Porridge Sisters, entitled Mystery at the Old Howard, has already been announced.

 

On the Bowery

Posted in Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES on October 28, 2010 by travsd

Opening tonight — at Whole Foods, of all places, is a new exhibition about the colorful history of the Bowery put on by Eric Farrara of the Lower East Side History Project (see my review of one of his books here) and also the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors (for whom I’ll be making some appearances in upcoming months). The opening starts at 7pm, and further info is here.

The Halloween Plays

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Halloween, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Indie Theatre on October 27, 2010 by travsd

I will not libel so pleasurable an evening as “The Halloween Plays” by calling it “monstrous”, but I will say the two halves have precious little to do with one another and it’s a stretch to say that either of them have much to do with Halloween. Purportedly a collaboration between two Brooklyn-based companies, neo-Baroque dance troupe Company XIV (see my article on them here) and Brave New World Repertory Theatre, in reality, the event is more like two completely different productions cobbled together to form a single bill.

Company XIV’s piece, entitled Denouement: A Murderous Masquerade, is their usual mesmerizing, gorgeous work, full of glittering 17th century costumes and beautiful (but well-trained) decadents inhabiting choreographer Austin McCormick’s poetic visual fantasies. While masks and murder do bring us within screaming distance of Halloween, these elements are really suborned to the primary theme of thwarted romance, making this work seem more fitting for Valentine’s Day.

Brave New World’s short play Too Much Candy is the evening’s low point. Really just a comedy sketch of the sort one used to see at so many mid-town showcases (when one still found oneself at those), the play trots out for the umpteenth time the old conceit of the guy on the psychiatrist’s couch who turns out to be a character from a fairy tale. In this case, it turns out to be Hansel, hence his problematic relationship with candy (and the play’s title). The witch in Hansel and Gretel (and the cruel mother or step-mother, depending on which version you read) are among the most horrifying characters in children’s literature. The play acknowledges this by swerving into some heavy beats that the jokey framework just won’t bear. The experience is nether fish nor fowl, but it did give me a nagging sweet tooth.

Fortunately, that was satisfied by the last play in the evening, Greg Kotis’s Salsa. Now this play, too, is more of  a comedy sketch than a one act play. Why do producers insist on clouding the difference between the two? A comedy sketch, expertly conceived, is a perfectly legitimate and wonderful thing — and Salsa qualifies. It sets up its one joke, and pursues it relentlessly. Two guys (Kevin Hogan and Sean Patterson) meet in a diner, and discuss their heretofore fruitless quests for “the hot”, that is, a japeno sauce that is spicy enough to even register on their jaded taste buds. One of them produces a bottle of blue hot sauce — which turns out to be the product of a bizarre Mayan God. (Spoilers aplenty here but I can’t help it, I tell you!) The sketch is just about perfectly written, directed and acted. A true Halloween confection, even if this one, too, feels like another holiday. Say,  Cinco de Mayo. Ay, Dios Mio.

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