Archive for December, 2010

Sylvester Poli: Sloppy Seconds

Posted in Dime Museum and Side Show, Impresarios, Italian, Vaudeville etc. with tags , on December 31, 2010 by travsd


Sylvester Poli (born on this day in 1859), was an Italian sculptor of wax figures who immigrated to the U.S. to work at New York’s Eden Musee in 1881. (Like Vincent Price’s House of Wax this was one of those “educational” institutions that edified the public with lifelike representations of famous murderers and historical tyrants.) Within the decade, Poli was ready to branch out on his own, opening his first dime museum in Toronto. Soon the variety shows he presented as an added attraction were more popular than the wax exhibitions. In 1892 he moved to New Haven. His first theatre space there had been a free-and-easy concert saloon run by two refugees from the Kickapoo Medicine Shows. Poli cleaned the place up, switching it over to High Class Vaudeville (although at first he was not averse to presenting a dog-faced man, Siamese twins and a giantess. Old habits die hard.) Poli’s New Haven became the base for a vaudeville empire that would extend throughout New England and New York State. Connecticut in particular became Poli’s stomping grounds, with theaters at Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport and Waterbury.

Poli was characterized by many of his contemporaries as a skinflint, who (despite a quiet dignity and famous good manners) would apparently respond to most monetary requests by whining. Yet, though he didn’t pay big time salaries, his theatre often featured big time talent because acts would take a Poli date at the last minute if they hadn’t gotten anything better. The proximity to New York made it convenient for such last minute jaunts. As a consequence, Poli could never advertise specific artists in advance, yet at the same time, audiences knew they could always expect to see a fine caliber of performer at his theatres. It was at Poli’s Hartford house, for example that a young Sophie Tucker had seen and been inspired by the likes of Willie and Eugene Howard and the Empire City Quartette – big names at the time. Poli’s New Haven, with its clique of inebriated Yale men was notorious for rowdyism. This mob of young worthies once erupted into a show-stopping riot during a Mae West performance necessitating a call to the police. On another occasion, a pack of these mugs so annoyed Joe Keaton that he picked up Buster and threw him at them, clobbering three and breaking the nose of one. Buster, who was used to being a missile, was unhurt. If nothing else, Poli’s Yale audience demonstrated that the sins of the old variety hadn’t had as much to do with class as everyone thought it did. In vaudeville’s last years, Loew and Fox bought most of Poli’s houses for their movie theatre chains, and Poli retired a rich man. He passed away in 1937.

See you next year!

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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Jules Feiffer’s “Backing Into Forward”

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, Hollywood (History), VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , on December 30, 2010 by travsd

I had the privilege of working with Feiffer for several months in 2003 when the New-York Historical Society put on an exhibition called Julez Rulez and I was the p.r. director.  This was a singular thrill for me. I’d known his work since I was a kid — his illustrations for the book The Phantom Tollbooth, and later his long-running comic strip, which I first read in our local alt-weekly the Providence New Paper; and his movie Popeye, which came out when I was 14 (I went as Robin Williams as Popeye for Halloween).  I first saw Carnal Knowledge when I was about 20, and had certainly continued to follow his strip in the Village Voice when I moved to NYC a couple of years later. By the time I met him I was writing regularly for the Voice myself, but he had long since left it following a salary dispute. Feiffer was among a small cadre of Cold War era liberals I truly admired, intellectually honest rebels against Eisenhower era conformity and the absurdities of war and militarism. It was the daring of people like him (and Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, et al) during a time when it really mattered that laid the groundwork for the brief explosion of free-thinking that became the 1960s. The exhibition, and conversations with him, had gained me some insight into what drove Feiffer’s antinomianism. His new autobiography Backing into Forward added immeasurably to the picture.

Feiffer was born into a Depression era Bronx Jewish family straight out of Odets: a weak, jobless father, and an overbearing, smothering mother who was the primary breadwinner (a clothing designer). A shy, outwardly compliant child, Jules was also brilliant enough to note and carefully catalog the cruel, often nonsensical injustices committed by those in authority. It is the anti-authoritarianism that assures that he won’t follow his older sister (who is as overbearing as his mother) into full-blown communism, and will make him a pathbreaker for the spirit of the age. Rest-assured that he is of the left. The fact that a cousin of his becomes famous first (and embodies the worst his times have to offer by being the right hand of Joseph McCarthy himself) almost certainly seals the deal. That cousin — held up by certain aunts and uncles  as an example for him to follow — is Roy Cohn. On some level, Feiffer must have considered it a point of family honor to even the scales out some. During the Korean War, Feiffer (who had been part of Will Eisner’s staff on the Sunday comic strip The Spirit for six years) was drafted. With its typical wisdom, the army initially assigned him far away from a drawing board, and only through a Herculean effort was Feiffer able to garner a more appropriate post. The army, as so many fellow satirists of his generation (Vonnegut, Heller, et al) would learn, exists primarily to crush the human spirit, not only that of the enemy, but that of the very people it conscripts to make up its personnel. Obedience is its only mandate, and as an organization it is willing to commit no end of calumnies and absurdities in order to accomplish that goal. Burning with indignation, Feiffer developed Munro, a comic strip about a small child who is drafted into the army.

Munro wouldn’t make him famous, but the indignation did. In 1956, he walked into the offices of the brand-new Village Voice and offered up his services. As a free-wheeling start-up they gladly accepted, giving him plenty of scope to do as he pleased — but no pay (at first). Feiffer rightfully spills much ink in praise of his editor at the Voice, now my colleague at the Villager, Jerry Tallmer. (Off-off Broadway should erect a monument to Tallmer. It wouldn’t exist without him. He is a majorly important cultural figure in this city who deserves a lot more recognition). Feiffer’s early strips, full of relationship stuff, anxiety and psycholanalysis, caught on like wildfire, and were definitely a widespread influence on many, including the young Woody Allen (a claim that Feiffer is uncharacteristically too modest to make for himself, but the chronology bears it out). As the 60s ground on, his work grew more political. Again, it is impossible to imagine Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury, or any of a thousand other comedians, cartoonists, etc, without Feiffer’s example. After the Voice, Playboy (then a brand new magazine) was to become a national platform for Feiffer’s art.

Nichols and May were exact contemporaries of Feiffer, and covering much the same ground that he was. A love of theatre, and an ambitious nature, inspired him to write his first play Little Murders, which flopped on its Broadway debut in 1967, but was a huge hit when it was staged by Alan Arkin two years later in the wake of the shooting violence that had engulfed the country. (He’d been inspired by the Kennedy assassination and the University of Texas shootings of 1966 to create a sort of universal sniper world for his dark comedy. People hadn’t bought it in ’68. After Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Andy Warhol, George Wallace (and later Kent State) etc etc, people were buying it. In 1971, Arkin made a movie version starring most of the original cast (Elliot Gould, Donald Sutherland, Vincent Gardenia, Arkin himself, et al). It is WELL worth watching and deserves to be far better known.

Feiffer’s career crested with Carnal Knowledge, released that same year, directed by Mike Nichols at the peak of his powers following The Graduate and Catch-22; and starring Jack Nicholson (then the most talked-about actor in Hollywood in the wake of Easy Rider and Five Easy pieces) and Art Garfunkle (also much buzzed-about at the time, as this was one of his first projects after breaking up with Paul Simon). Carnal Knowledge does for sex what Little Murders does for violence — a relentless, shocking, uncompromising satire. George S. Kauffman once said that satire was “what closes on Saturday night”, but this was the era when audiences were allowing themselves to try new things. Deep Throat, for example, would be released the following year.

While Feiffer’s powers as a cartoonist never wavered (indeed, haven’t to this day), as a playwright and screenwriter, despite numerous attempts, he was never again to enjoy the same kind of success he had in the late 1960s/ early 1970s. The  most notable project of the later years was 1980’s Popeye. On paper this should have been a dream project. Feiffer had the subject matter down cold. He invariably lists E.C. Segar among his main influences. He cut his teeth on the old school strips and he had written one of the first books about comic history  (1965’s The Great Comic Book Heroes). He knew the Popeye characters inside and out. And his collaborators included songwriter Harry Nilsson, one of the top pop musical artists of the 1970s, and director Robert Altman, who was not only a friend of Feiffer’s, but a philosophical soulmate whose works, like Feiffer’s, satirized sex, American culture and the military (M*A*S*H being the supreme example). But Altman is famously not a friend to screenwriters. Half of Feiffer’s script was never filmed. Of what did wind up on the screen, most was undermined by Altman’s extremely scattershot direction, cluttered by physical business and a tendency to only occasionally focus the camera on the person who was actually speaking. (I am a huge fan of Altman, by the way. It just happens that Popeye was one of his worst movies. And the fault was Altman’s, not Feiffer’s by any stretch. I would really love to read the original script. And, better yet, see it made!)

In later years, Feiffer reinvented himself yet again as a children’s book author. (Indeed, at the time I knew him, my kids had as great a connection to him as I did, through works like Bark, George and The House Across the Street. My son Cashel was going to P.S. 87 at the same time as Jules’ daughter Julie, and I used to run into him or his wife Jenny during pick-up/ drop-off, strengthening the kid connection.)

And while Jules’ daughter Halley is now getting famous in her own right (mostly as an actress), Jules himself has hardly passed the baton, book-form lifetime stock-taking notwithstanding. He always seems to have a million irons in the fire — plays, movies, cartoons, personal appearances…and books. Which brings us to this one. Feiffer is that rare visual artist who writes as well as he draws. While the idea of having him do his entire autobiography as a multi-panel strip (the form his afterword takes) is tantalizing, it would no doubt take him much longer to do it. Anyway, with no pictures or dramatic characters for him to hide behind, the voice of the actual Feiffer is allowed to emerge. It is an angry voice, which won’t surprise those who know him and his work. Humorous notes in the book are sporadic and generally pointedly critical, giving us a glimpse at the engine that drives his comedy. Like the former Freudian that he was, he spends nearly half the book on his formative years, expressing a good deal of rancor on certain relatives, above all his mother. A particularly delicious moment has him returning to his old high school to give a graduation speech in which he advises the young people not to listen to their elders. The scowls on the faces of his old principal and teachers must have been one the high points of his life. I bet he wishes he could give such a talk to the soldiers as they graduate from basic training!

He writes about his first girlfriend, who introduced him to modern dance–the origin of the tens of thousands of dancing figures in his comic strip, the very keystone of his art. I wish he’d written more about this. He often talks about the influence of dance on his work in person, as well as his admiration for the art of Fred Astaire. It’s rather impossible to imagine Feiffer himself dancing, but he dances beautifully on the page. I think this is a key to the man himself, who is reserved and diplomatic as a person, but takes no prisoners as an artist.

As often happens in autobiographies, he skims hurriedly over the most recent decades, which is unfortunate. Politically he has been fighting a rear-guard action for decades, of course, but he has been fighting, and his satire is just as biting as ever. I wouldn’t mind hearing him bash Reagan/ Bush I/ Bush II a good deal more. And, as there often is in such books, there is some personal material that is less illuminating and might be of less interest to the general reader.

But, here’s the deal. I’m the kind of person who reads biographies to glean life lessons above all. And I admire the hell out of Feiffer. He is uncompromising to a fault, even to where it has held back his career. He only did one advertisement—hated how it felt and vowed never to do it again. He pushes back in artistic disagreements even where it’s in his financial interest to “go along with the program.” This is the life story of a man who NEVER goes along with the program. It will always enjoy a privileged spot on my shelf.

James J. Morton: Vaudeville’s First M.C.

Posted in Comedy, Stand Up, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2010 by travsd

The Blessed Lamb (above) was born this day, but so was James J. Morton, vaudeville’s first Master of Ceremonies. Born on Christmas day in Boston in 1861 he started out in a two act with his wife Maude Revel in the 1890s. She would sing–or start to sing–and his job was to “direct” her, which he did comically, of course. Eventually he became a monologist and this segued easily into introducing other acts. (Back in the day they didn’t use an m.c., just a title card with the act’s name written on it, which the stage manager would put on easel). Morton’s forte was nonsense, in the form of improvised monologues and silly songs. In the Jazz Age, his rambling style was deemed too slow and old-fashioned and he faded from the scene, making room for the likes of Frank Fay, Jack Benny and Bob Hope. He passed away in 1938.

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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And don’t  miss my new book Chainof 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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Ann Pennington and Her “Black Bottom”

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Dance, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , on December 23, 2010 by travsd

This pint-sized Jazz Age terpsichorean, famed for her renditions of the Black Bottom and the Charleston, and for her ability to tap, was born on this day in 1893. She started out in amateur shows in New Jersey, gradually moving up to vaudeville. A part in a Raymond Hitchcock show in 1911 brought her to New York, which was to remain her permanent home base thereafter. She was to be on Broadway every single year for over two decades, for the most part shuttling back and forth between the Ziegfeld Follies and George White’s Scandals, but also starring in other revues as well. When the Depression took a big bite out of Broadway she continued to dance in whatever clubs and presentation houses she could. Her last Broadway part was in 1943. By the mid 40s, her career was pretty much over. At one point, she was said to have amassed two million dollars. During her last years, she was living on welfare in a Times Square hotel. She passed away in 1971.

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 Downtown Clown Revue

Posted in Clown, Contemporary Variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on December 22, 2010 by travsd

Joel Jeske and Grandma (Barry Lubin) cut up. Photo by Jim Moore

Well, after five years, I finally got my carcass over to see the Downtown Clown Revue. One might assume (and one would be wrong) that I would be a monthly habitue, clowns constituting one of the strongest pillars in the New Vaudeville edifice, rickety as that might be. But my deep, dirty secret is, as with any artistic discipline, I have no intrinsic love of clowns or clowning per se, only certain masters of the form —  a short list of folks whom I praise in print or present on stage whenever I can. The reality is I have no particular affection for red noses, big shoes, face paint, or seltzer bottles. Comedy can be accomplished with or without those all-too-familiar accouterments. It is the laughter — not the props, the trappings or, frankly, a grab-bag of familiar and revered techniques — that is the bottom line, as far as I’m concerned.

Further, as I’ve already alienated some in the burlesque community by saying, as a vaudeville-lover I have a really hard time watching several of the same kind of act all in a row. I don’t want to see 10 burlesque dancers in succession, or 10 stand-up comedians, or 10 banjo players. Even if every one of them is brilliant, it is still too much of a good thing. Several clowns in a row would be no different, and this is probably why I haven’t hurried to see the Revue.

Here, it must be clarified though, that the Downtown Clown Revue is really an industry night. It’s not really designed for the general public. It much resembles Monday Night Magic. It exists so clowns can check out other clowns, and those other clowns can try out new material in front of their clown colleagues, and clown bookers and die-hard clown fans can keep on top of the latest in clowning, and, finally, so all the clowns can network with each other. It is a small, very close-knit clique. Supportive, insider laughter seeps through the auditorium like  topical lubricant. For anyone who’s ever been to any kind of theatre school — the atmosphere is very much like that.

While Dixon Place was full on Monday night, there were familiar faces from every phase of my New York life, giving the evening a slightly hallucinatory quality. There was Matt Mitler, who I’d first seen in the late ‘8os when we performed on a bill together at the Home for Contemporary Theatre and Art. There was Deborah Kaufman whom I first met in the mid ’90s when I worked at Big Apple Circus. Peter Strauss, one of the first acts I ever presented with my American Vaudeville Theatre at Todo Con Nada in 1996. Zero Boy and Hovey Burgess, whom I first met through the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus from around the same time. Parallel Exit’s Mark Lonergan NYC Fringe 1998. Carol Lee Sirugo from a recent ex-girlfriend’s brilliant commedia play. And new friends like Jeff Seal, a frequent collaborator of Audrey Crabtree, Vaudevisuals photographer Jim Moore, and Amy Harlib, whom I presented in my show at Bowery Poetry Club only last week. Kind of like what the Palace audience must have been like!

Producer/ host Christopher Lueck is a glib, glad-handing presence in a tuxedo, full of bluster and good cheer. Monday’s performance (Show #51) consisted of  a succession of original and commissioned works ranging for the most part from weak to interesting but not-comical. I won’t name names or otherwise violate my reason for being there by reviewing these first four acts. It was “work-in-progress” — one can and must respect that. It is no doubt useful to the clowns to have an audience to try out their new material on. The non-clown audience member, however, can only come to the conclusion that clowning is like trumpet playing. I don’t need to be present at the rehearsals.

Which bring us  to our climax…the salvation of the evening arrived.  If every Downtown Clown Revue features at least one performance of this caliber, it is more than worth attending regularly. The headliner was the incomparable Joel Jeske, a clown both skilled and inspired — an absolutely masterful performer. On this particular occasion we got an even better surprise. He ended up playing straight man to a disruptive audience member, Barry Lubin’s Grandma. It’s been my habit to dis the latter after trips to the BAC, but I never appreciated his artistry more than on this night. After seeing numerous performers struggle and thrash, it was illuminating to see someone utterly in control, and I understood for the first time in this context the meaning of the phrase “He makes it look easy”. For the most part he trotted out his usual bag of tricks, but the joyous part was his interplay with Jeske, a minimalist extraordinaire. The simple set up: Jeske sang some Christmas songs on the uke, constantly being interrupted by Grandma. That was all. And it was like experiencing a couple of great jazz musicians. Perfectly in the moment, perfectly in sync. They could have kept it up for hours and never bored me. To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, the Who, and an old movie: often what we appreciate most in live performance is “the singer, not the song.”

For info on the next Downtown Clown Revue, go here. And for another take on the same evening by my beloved Countess, go here.

Paul Winchell (and Jerry Mahoney!)

Posted in Stars of Vaudeville, Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , , , on December 21, 2010 by travsd

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Timing is everything. Having been born in the mid 1960s, I initially only knew Paul Winchell’s voice, instantly recognizable on children’s programs (most of them animated) such as The Banana Splits, The Hair Bear Bunch, Dastardly and Muttley and Their Flying Machines, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch, and the many Winnie the Pooh specials in which he did the voice of Tigger. Little did I dream that decades previously he had been one of the most beloved and emulated ventriloquists in the land, and the star (with his wooden partner Jerry Mahoney) of his own children’s tv shows.

Winchell was too young for classic vaudeville. Born on this day in 1922, he’d taken up ventriloquism as a child when laid up with polio. At age 15, he debuted on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour and was such a hit that he was booked to tour with Bowes’ traveling road show for five years. In 1949, he was booked for Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Townthe first of countless appearances by Winchell and Mahoney in the Second Coming of vaudeville. He had a couple of shows his own, The Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney Show (1950-56) and Winchell-Mahoney Time (1965-68).  An excellent entree into Mahoney’s pathbreaking work during these years can be found in the documentary I’m No Dummy, reviewed here. And in the ensuing decades, he would also act on countless tv shows, and do voice over work until close to the end of his life. A frustrated doctor (money troubles had prevented him from getting a degree) he also is credited with patents for several medical inventions, including a design for an artificial heart! Winchell passed away in 2005.

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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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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Charley Grapewin: Specialized in Crackers

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Broadway, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Stars of Vaudeville, The Hall of Hams, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on December 20, 2010 by travsd

Like fellow Wizard of Oz stars Judy Garland, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger (and others connected with the project), Charley Grapewin (Uncle Henry) was a veteran of vaudeville. Born on this day in 1869, he left home at age ten to join the circus as an acrobat, where he performed on the trapeze, the high wire, and on roller skates. After about a decade, he moved into acting on the melodrama stage and in vaudeville, usually in short plays of his own devising. He was in films as early as the year 1900 (to give you some perspective, the first projected exhibition had been in 1896 — he came along early). By the twenties, having invested his money wisely (and riding the boom), he became a millionaire and retired. Then he lost everything in the crash, prompting a move back to the screen and an entire second career. Beloved for his authentic-seeming, folksy quality, Grapewin worked constantly as a character actor in the 30s and 40s in many pictures that have remained classics, not just The Wizard of Oz but Tobacco Road, The Grapes of Wrath, The Good Earth,  The Petrified Forest, Alice Adams, Judge Priest, and scores of others. His last role was in 1951; he passed away five 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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To learn more about slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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