Archive for November, 2010

Houdini: Art and Magic

Posted in EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Vaudeville etc. with tags , on November 30, 2010 by travsd

It takes a Houdini to crack the TSA-style high security gauntlet at the Jewish Museum — and the patience of a mystical swami to endure it without exploding like a Neil Simon character once  deadly weapons such as paper clips and sunglasses start to trip the alarm. I don’t possess such patience. After 7 or 8 attempts at the security gate, I finally made it into the lobby with the Countess and my kids and was summarily passed off to a reception desk where the clerk had the temerity to begin administering what I gradually realized was not an interrogation but a visitor’s services survey:

“And how do you like your experience so far?”

“Horrible!”

In the time honored Old Testament tradition I found myself shaking my fist at the heavens, “Why? O, God, why?”

I also let the ether know in no uncertain terms that NO mere museum exhibit could POSSIBLY be worth this inhuman ordeal.  And then of course it was.

Houdini: Art and Magic contains just about everything you could possibly want to see in an exhibition about the world’s greatest escape artist and one of vaudeville’s greatest showmen. You think I’m kidding? How about:

* One of his water torture tanks

* One of his milk cans from the milk can escape

* A Metamorphosis trunk

* A leather straitjacket (much harder to escape from than canvas)

* Numerous and diverse pairs of Houdini handcuffs

* Film footage of him performing escapes, as well as scenes from his brief career as a silent movie star

* Film footage from the Tony Curtis Houdini bio-pic, one of my favorite films as a child

* Photos spanning his career, including very early photos from childhood, as well as his circus and Coney Island days

* Gorgeous color lithographs

* Film of homages by Penn & Teller, David Blaine, Doug Henning, et al.

* Examples of spirit photos and coverage of Houdini’s debunking thereof

* Etc, etc

Of course, nothing is perfect. As museum curators so often are, the ones responsible for this exhibition prove to be too clever by half. The remarkable life and career of Houdini (which could fill ten full museums) apparently didn’t stimulate them enough, so the exhibition juxtaposes a bunch of crappy modern art inspired by Houdini next to the artifacts. I only saw one piece of original art ( a Joe Coleman painting) that I admired. The rest was on the order of “Cremaster” junk by the execrable Matthew Barney. My kid pointed to a row of several tables, each of which had a progressively smaller portion of a Houdini biography on it.

“What’s with that, dad?”

“I guess it thinks it’s supposed to be some sort of ‘art’, son,” I replied, thus helping to educate the next generation of art critics.

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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Burlesque

Posted in Burlesk, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Drag and/or LGBT, Hollywood (History), Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , , , on November 29, 2010 by travsd

Time was when the word “burlesque” on a marquee was the ultimate catnip for the red-blooded, heterosexual male. On good days I like to think I qualify as the latter, and so was more than a little curious to check out the new film by that name, despite the stink-cloud of bad reviews that preceded it, on the age-old critical theory that “Sometimes the plot is not so good, but on the other hand, ‘Look at that! Look at that!'”

It is my sad duty to report, gentlemen, that the film treacherously named Burlesque doesn’t even have that to offer. I suppose this will strike some observers as obvious (though to me it is by no means self-evident) that this is a film by and for people who like to look at the beauty of MEN. In a movie (I remind you) called Burlesque and featuring I grant you a dozen half-dressed women, that tyrant known by feminists as “the male gaze” is not only not catered to, it is completely ignored.

For clarification, the film does not take place in an actual burlesque club…it takes place in a modern night club CALLED Burlesque, a sort of theme-park style venue celebrating the fashions of Cabaret and Chicago, where a chorus line of dancers helmed by Cher (who now evokes Mae West circa Sextette)  and her gay, full-time choreographer (Stanley Tucci) lip syncs and does energetic, fast paced dance routines. It is the fast pace and the rock video style editing and direction that are the undoing of these passages, all vertigo-inducing hand-held camerawork, close-ups and rapid-fire montage, never pausing to contemplate the subject in the frame (the ostensible purpose of a girlie show, after all, is ogling). But that’s okay, there are no slow, sultry numbers anyway….only hyperkinetic, gymnastic, Broadway-style routines that seem like they were conceived on an overdose of Four Loko (with a Red Bull chaser). Then of course, show biz aspirant Christine Aguilera comes on the scene and introduces singing into the program — gospel, soulful belting, roughly as sexy and come-hither as a slow dance with Mahalia Jackson at the peak of her caterwaul.

The plot is a tissue of cliches lifted from the likes of Flashdance, Show Girls, Moulin Rouge and the above mentioned Fosse projects. Aguilera is our heroine, just off the bus from Iowa, where she apparently learned to sing and dance like this from the scarecrows. We watch with rapt attention as she works her way from waitress…to the star attraction of the night club! And then we watch with total indifference as she is forced to choose between a sensitive-looking, mascara-wearing metrosexual who tends bar, and an insensitive-looking, evil-capitalist metrosexual who wants to buy the bar. (There are only gays and metrosexuals in the entire film. Any wide shot of the club reveals 75-100 metrosexuals with moussed, gently tussled hair, and a day’s worth of highly calculated five o’clock shadow. It looks like a bodywash commercial on a metrosexual clone planet). At any rate, I would say it would be a fate worse than death for Aguilera’s character to wind up with the evil capitalist metrosexual…except for the fact that it would be equally unbearable if she wound up with the sensitive, bartending girly-man. And it would be great if she wound up with neither but for the fact that SHE would still be there.  Before I walked out of the film (about twenty minutes before the final credits) I began to fantasize about how great it would be if Roland Emmerich suddenly seized direction of the film from writer-director “Steve Antin” and this particular vision of Los Angeles was subjected to a series of twisters and volcanic eruptions before one last earthquake sent California sliding into the sizzling, boiling ocean. I’d pay an extra thirteen dollars for that.

Trixie Friganza: “My Little Bag o’ Tricks”

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Singing Comediennes, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , on November 29, 2010 by travsd

“My Little Bag O’ Tricks”,

“The way for a fat woman to do the shimmy is to walk fast and stop short.”

This plus size gal was a frequent headliner at the Palace during its heyday. Born Delia O’Callahan in 1870, She took her mother’s maiden name when she went into show biz, which was in the chorus of Pearl of Pekin in 1889. In the oughts, she started alternating vaudeville stints with starring roles in Broadway musicals and revues, singing and joking about her weight. Built like Marie Dressler, she would underline the fact with a succession of large, elaborate costumes. In the teens and twenties she concentrated on vaudeville; in the twenties and thirties she played character roles in films. In 1940, at age 70, she left her fortune to a convent, where she also went to live, much to the consternation of the sisters. She died 15 years later.

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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David Warfield: Professional Old Man

Posted in Broadway, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Stars of Vaudeville, The Hall of Hams, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , on November 28, 2010 by travsd

Born in San Francsico on this day in 1866, young David Wohlfet (later Warfield) started out as a kid performing in Barbary Coast variety saloons. He came to New York in 1890, becoming popular on the stage of the Casino theatre as well as Weber & Fields Music Hall. He was prized for his comical characterizations of kindly old men, and played several such parts for David Belasco, notably in The Return of Peter Grimm. He retired from the stage in 1923…and did not pass away until 1951. That is a lot of time to spend as a professional old man.

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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Vesta Victoria: Star of Two Continents

Posted in British Music Hall, Singing Comediennes, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , on November 26, 2010 by travsd

Born this day in 1873, Vesta Victoria was one of the most popular British music hall performers to cross the puddle. She’d started out performing with her parents in their own acts, billed as Baby Victoria. When she got too long in the tooth to use “baby” she adopted the name Vesta from a popular brand of matches. She started out with clog dances and impressions, then moved on to the singing of songs. Her rendition of “Daddy Wouldn’t By Me a Bow-Wow” became a huge national hit in 1892. The following year she came to the U.S. for very successful runs at Tony Pastor’s, and as Mike Shea’s in Buffalo. She made repeat visits in 1895-96, 1906 and 1907. She performed though the end of the First World War. Thereafter, her appearances grew less frequent. She passed away in 1951.

Now for your delectation, from 1912, here is “Look What Percy’s Picked Up in the Park”:

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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And don’t miss 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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Carrie Nation: Temperance Among the Tap Dancers

Posted in AMERICANA, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , on November 25, 2010 by travsd

CarrieNation

A little known fact: temperance fanatic Carrie Nation, best known for breaking up bar room kegs with hatchets, spent some of her last years lecturing from the vaudeville stage.

Born on this day in 1846, she opened a local branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Medicine Lodge, Kansas in 1889, and began her violent demonstrations soon thereafter. By the early twentieth century her notoriety was such that she could get bookings in vaudeville. As is almost invariably the case with such “non-entertaining” acts, she was not a hit with audiences. In 1909, someone threw an egg at her while she was on stage. What a waste. I’ve known many a gent who’d have been happy to catch the raw egg and plop it his whiskey with a bit of Worcestershire Sauce for an eye-opener! Ms. Nation passed away in 1911. Prohibition passed away in 1933 — right around the same time as vaudeville.

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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And don’t miss 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

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

Cardini: The Suave Deceiver

Posted in Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on November 24, 2010 by travsd

“The Suave Deceiver”

Not to be confused with our excellent contemporary Cardone (who I’m sure will wind up on this blog some one of these days), Cardini (Richard Valentine Pitchford, born today in 1894) is considered by many to be the father of modern card magic. So revered is he in fact, that I found no less than two web sites for him: one purported to be the “only authorized site” ; and another one which, on the other hand, looks far better and was created by Cardini’s grandson. You be the judge.

Cardini hailed from a Welsh mining village. It is said that he started doing card tricks during the First World War in order to keep his hands warm. This is also the reason given for the fact that he always wore gloves — and if you think about it, it is extremely rare for a magician to wear gloves when performing sleight of hand. Think of the difficulty involved. He developed his act and persona—the dashing, monacled, top hatted fellow — while touring Australia. By the mid 20s he was playing American vaudeville and a frequent hit at the Palace. His comical routine has him getting increasingly frustrated as objects (cards, ping pong balls, lit cigarettes) kept mysteriously materializing in his hands. In later years he was to take his act to night clubs, when vaudeville and music halls had gone the way of the dodo. He died in 1973.

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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