Archive for October, 2010

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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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.

A Trip to Sleepy Hollow

Posted in EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Halloween, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Travel/ Tourism on October 26, 2010 by travsd

One of my favorite books as a child was my 1967 Grosset & Dunlap edition of the tales of Washington Irving, including the quintessential Halloween story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. In retrospect, I think this tale was very influential on me. It fed into all my later obsessions with humor, history and horror (and the connections amongst the three).The venal, sniveling anti-hero Ichabod Crane, who mooches meals, can barely ride a horse, is terrified of both physical confrontations and encounters with ghosts (but is cruel to his students), and who slyly insinuates himself into the home of his beloved Katrina Van Tassel (is it she whom he truly loves or the prospect of owning her father’s farm?). And the prankster Brom Bones, a countryside proto-Brownshirt with an oaf’s sense of right and wrong. And the atmosphere of the Hudson River Valley in autumn, so like my native New England. Walking outside on a cold, pitch-black night, shuffling through piles of dead leaves…that remains my idea of heaven…which is only one of the reasons why I love Halloween so much (its associations with hell notwithstanding).

I not only had a copy of the book of “Sleepy Hollow”, I also had a 45 rpm record of actors reading a truncated version of the tale (with sound effects of course). And I remember enjoying the animated Disney version of the story, which used to be shown periodically on The Wonderful World of Disney. (The much later Tim Burton movie, beautiful as it is to look at, is sort of irrelevant in relation to the actual tale). At any rate, this past weekend, I fulfilled a long-standing personal goal by heading out the actual Sleepy Hollow to take in the annual Halloween-related festivities. On my arm was the blogtista sometimes known as Caviglia. See her concurrent post for many more photos of our experience.

 

We started out at the Old Dutch Church, the oldest continuously operating house of worship in New York State. It dates from 1685 and is thus the same  “Old Dutch Church” that appears in Irving’s 1820 story. Being the independent souls that we are we abjured the Ipad tour they were offering and snooped around by ourselves.

In the adjacent Sleepy Hollow Cemetery we came upon Irving’s grave…

 

Gate to the Irving Family plot

 

Sadly (but not unexpectedly), the picturesque covered wooden bridge we have in our heads from countless illustrations and dramatizations is long gone. A very wide, very trafficky modern asphalt bridge is in its place. But this sign marks the spot:

Notice the two headless children

Coolest of all, in the Old Dutch Burying Ground, we saw the grave of Catriena Ecker Van Tessel, supposed model for Katrina Van Tassel. But its kind of hard to read in the photo, so we also include some Van Tassel descendants below:

Up the street is the Headless Horseman Diner. Where do you put your bacon and eggs when you have no head?

An added bonus (no accident) was that we were in town on the day of Sleepy Hollow’s local Halloween parade.

Good Lord...look who's at the HEAD of the parade...

To cap off our evening we had a choice of two activities. One was to see a local actor read “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” at the Old Dutch Church. But we figured, nah, we have no shortage of hams in our lives and careers (including your correspondent) who could and would be only too happy to interpret the tale at the drop of a tri-cornered hat. Much more to our liking was Horseman’s Hollow, the haunted house attraction at Philipsburg Manor. And an extremely wise choice it was! I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun. Designed by haunted house professional Lance Hallowell, the event makes full use of the Philipsburg Manor grounds, and plays off the actual history of the place to come up with genuinely evocative (and believably scary) environments. For example….the ghosts of mangled Revolutionary War soldiers….a coven of colonial-era witches worshiping the devil….a woman in a shawl and bonnet using butcher tools to flay her victim (and needle and thread to make a blanket out of human faces)….a corn maze diabolically calculated to thwart your inevitable second guessing, the better to startle you….people tied to stakes like scarecrows….this isn’t even half of it. The event employs close to fifty actors and all sorts of special effects, and climaxes with a bigger, scarier headless horseman than the one I snapped above at the parade. I was enjoying myself too much to take pictures, but Caviglia got some good coverage. Look for her pix here. I highly recommend this experience. And it only costs $20. You wouldn’t feel cheated if you paid twice that. You have one week left. For tickets and info go here.

Stars of Vaudeville #251: Billy Barty

Posted in Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Italian, Music, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on October 25, 2010 by travsd

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America’s most famous and respected little person (of the twentieth century) began his career as an even littler person. William John Bertanzetti was only three years old when a Hollywood talent scout spotted him standing on his head, a favorite tricks of his as a child. The fact that he was smart and agile, but resembled an infant, made him the perfect person to play certain specialty parts, particularly in comedies. He was like a special effect. That moment in an old black and white comedy when the baby reaches out of the carriage to beat someone over the head with a rattle – that was usually Billy Barty. His first role was in the 1927 silent Wedded Blisters.  He was in a scene that was cut out of the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business (1933), he played the baby that turns into a pig in Alice in Wonderland (1934), played Eddie Cantor in Roman Scandals (1934) after Eddie shrinks when staying in the steam room too long, and was also in Gold Diggers of 1933Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Midsummer Nights Dream (1935), wherein he played Mustard Seed).

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Perhaps because he was getting older, his father decided to put Billy into vaudeville. The year was 1935—hardly an auspicious time to do so. The act was called “Billy Barty and Sisters”, and featured Billy’s two average-sized sisters playing piano and violin ,while Billy played drums and did impressions. The family travelled around to gigs by car, and did so until Billy was old enough to go to college—1942.

Barty majored in journalism at school, got the degree and was even offered a job as a reporter, but the call (and probably the money) of show business was too great. The 3’9”, 80 lbs adult Barty began working night clubs. In 1952 he joined Spike Jones and His City Slickers, the comic novelty band for such records as “Der Fuehrer’s Face” and “Cocktails for Two”. Billy’s schtick with the band was similar to what he had done with his sisters, but now he had a wide audience on television, on records, and in live performances.

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He stayed with Jones for about ten years, and for the rest of his career concentred in acting in film and television. In the 60s, he was in films like Jumbo (1962) and the Elvis pictures Roustabout (64) and Harum Scarum (1965). In the 70s, he worked for Sid and Marty Krofft, on the popular children’s programs PufnstufThe BugaloosSigmund and the Sea Monsters and Dr. Shrinker. In the mid 70s, he went from playing bit parts to actual acting roles, in movies like Day of the Locust (1975) W.C. Fields and Me (1976) Foul Play (1978) Hardly Working (1981), to name just a few. He was very mindful of his position of responsibility as America’s best known little person, and did what he could to educate people about midgets and dwarves by founding The Little People of America in 1957, and The Billy Barty Foundation in 1975. He passed away in 2000.

Here’s a sample of how he functioned with the Spike Jones ensemble:

To find out more about show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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To learn about silent and slapstick comedy please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Why Elizabeth Hope Williams is Only One Degree of Separation from Flo Ziegfeld

Posted in Broadway, Vaudeville etc., Women on October 25, 2010 by travsd

Having written here about the still-going Foy family, and the Ming-Toy-Tully connection, I began to wonder if I might have a new budding series of posts about multi-generational show-biz families. Three, not two, of course, constitutes a series…but I now have my third. Friend and colleague Elizabeth Hope Williams (whom we’ll culminate with at the bottom of this post) is part of a performing family that stretches back over a century. Her helpful dad Bill supplied most of the research material that makes up this post.

Muriel, age 93, Ziegfeld mini-show for the benefit of Children's Hospital, Fontainebleau Hotel, Miami Beach

Minnie “Muriel” Harrison

It all begins with Elizabeth’s Great-Great Aunt Minnie, born Philadelphia on this day in 1896, who made her professional debut at age seven when she sang “Pony Boy”. At age nine, like many in these annals, she sang on one of the piers at Atlantic City. By her teens she is already in vaudeville in New York, with tab show producer Tim McMahon, and McIntyre and Heath’s sketch “The Ham Tree”. Starting in 1917, she’s in the chorus of big time revues like Miss 1917, and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918, 1919 and 1920. It was Ziegfeld who changed her name to “Muriel”, the name under which she performed in Broadway shows — at least one a year through 1931, including the major Ed Wynn smash Simple Simon.

In 1932, her benefactor Flo Ziegfeld died and Broadway was taking a major hit from the Great Depression. Muriel performed in night clubs, resorts and cruise ships for the next couple of decades. Starting in 1954, Minnie (now 58 years old) went to work as a receptionist at a Miami beach hotel, where she stayed for the next 27 years. At age 95, she was on the Sally Jessie Raphael show as one of the last living Ziegfeld girls. She passed away at age 102, at that time the oldest living Ziegfeld Girl.

Lorraine, back when she was Muriel II

Muriel “Lorraine” Harrison (later Williams)

Meanwhile, rewinding some, Minnie’s brother William found himself a wife named Pearle, who was so thrilled with Minnie’s career that she named her daughter Muriel and pushed her into show business. The daughter began performing as a small child  in Atlantic City. In 1930, at age 12 she was cast in the Charles Dillingham musical Josef Suss, spending in year in NYC leaving with her Aunt Muriel. During the Depression she helped support her family by performing in the Philadelphia Opera Ballet and on cruise ships. In her early twenties, tired of the show business life that had been imposed on her, she dropped out, and insisted on being called “Lorraine” thereafter. Her son is Bill.

Bill, circa 1971, directing a show at Andy’s, possibly “Alice in Wonderland”

William “Bill” Williams

Bill was not encouraged to be in theater; he discovered it on his own. He studied psychology and education in college, and started a summer theater for children called Andy’s Summer Playhouse in the aftermath of playing piano for a school production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” in 1970. The theatre just finished its 40th season and Bill calls it one of his proudest accomplishments. Bill studied acting after starting the theatre, which is where he met Elizabeth’s mother. He went on to teach theater at Trinity School for 27 years, directing over 60 productions. More on Bill can be found on his website and blog.

Elizabeth, "Willy Nilly", 2009

 

Elizabeth Hope Williams

I think the very talented Elizabeth Hope Williams came to our fold through the agency of Jeff Lewonczyk’s production of William Peter Blatty’s John Goldfarb, Please Come Home, which was in the 2007 New York International Fringe Festival. She was a key part of the ensemble in Piper McKenzie’s production of my play Willy Nilly in the 2009 Fringe (she performed the role of Daffodil). Most timely of all, she stars in this Lewonczyk-directed rock video of my friends The Electric Mess, in which yours truly also appears. I think her forbears would be very proud. You can get more info on Elizabeth here. Hire her, folks!

To find out more about show biz historyconsult 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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Oktoberfest

Posted in FOOD & DRINK CULTURE, German with tags on October 23, 2010 by travsd

This being New York, there are probably a dozen competing Oktoberfests going on around the city, but his one looks especially authentic — with its polka bands; blonde/ buxom/ braided waitresses;  rivers of amber stuff, and this sentence from their web site: “We have brought in the best sausages to NYC!” The festival is today and tomorrow; the details are here.

 

Stars of Vaudeville #250: Cissie Loftus

Posted in British Music Hall, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Singing Comediennes, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , on October 22, 2010 by travsd

Cecilia “Cissie” Loftus (born this day in 1876) was daughter of the equally famous music hall star Marie Loftus. She joined her mother onstage in her teens and was unique in her constant shifting back and forth among music hall, vaudeville, legit theatre and musical comedy. Like late Rome, she had two capitals: London and New York. In 1923 she moved to the U.S. permanently, continuing to play the Palace (as long as it lasted)  and Broadway shows (until 1941). She also appeared in many Hollywood films during her last dozen years, although none can be said to stand out in the mind as classics. Drugs and alcohol were a problem for her in her last couple of decades. They finally took her life 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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