Archive for January, 2011

A Dangerous Woman

Posted in African American Interest, Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Burlesk, Drag and/or LGBT, Jews/ Show Biz, ME, Melodrama and Master Thespians, My Shows, Women with tags , , on January 31, 2011 by travsd

About ten years ago I started work on a play about Adah Isaacs Mencken, a woman whose life was so remarkable she scarcely needed to enhance it (as she so fancifully did whenever she  talked to the press). The play’s now in development for a production by a well-known downtown company later this year, so I was most excited when my agent told me one of her other writers (actually a husband-wife writing team) was releasing a book on the subject. Called A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves, and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Mencken, 1835-1868, America’s Original Superstar, this definitive new biography was written by Michael and Barbara Foster, with tomorrow as its pub date.

Mencken was one of the few public figures to boldly swim against the tide of Victorianism (though even she was a creature of her times). She is kind of bridge figure between Lola Montez (to be profiled here in a  couple of weeks) and Lotta Crabtree: the diva of her times, an early sex symbol, an important poet, a Bohemian, a wild west saloon star and a thousand things more. Theatrical from the cradle to the crave, there is an elusive quicksilver aspect to her identity. Of Creole New Orleans stock (hence part African American) she was at various times in her life also a Jew, a Confederate sympathizer, a dutiful Victorian wife, and a practical example of the Doctrine of Free Love. She was married five times. At least two of her husbands were famous: James Heenan, the champion bare-knuckle boxer of his day; and Robert Newell, better known as Orpheus C. Kerr, who along with Mark Twain and Artemus Ward (another of my pet subjects) was one of the fathers of American humor (she was friends with Twain and Ward, and just about every other literary figure of the time as well). Her lovers included Cuban poet Juan Clemente Zenea, Alexander Dumas, and Algernon Swinburne (to name just a few of the famous ones). She attempted suicide twice and died at the pitifully young age of 33 of consumption, with Longfellow at her bedside (a weird twist, since her mentor and intimate had been Whitman). On stage, she was most famous for her so-called Protean (male drag) roles, especially the lead character in an adaptation of Byron’s Mazeppa, which required her to do dangerous onstage stunts on horseback (a skill she acquired in her circus days). You can see perhaps why this material has been of interest to me.

I say the new book is definitive because it goes beyond the previous two efforts on the subject with which I am familiar: the cautious and rather soporific Enchanting Rebel: The Secret Life of Adan Isaacs Mencken by Alan Lesser (1947), and the much more pleasurable Mazeppa, the Lives, Loves, and Legends of Adah Isaacs Menken: A Biographical Quest by Wolf Mankowitz (1982). These two books magically fell into my hands I can’t remember how — which is the best way to discover something….makes it seem fated. But there are others, perhaps a half dozen, including one that was published just a few months ago. I’ll be reading these as I develop my play, so perhaps I should withhold final judgment on the book in question ’til then.  (I’ll then cheerfully ignore all the books  as I rewrite history for the sake of entertainment). What I especially like about A Dangerous Woman is the way the authors weave throughout little details and references to her by contemporaries that gives us a sense of the scale of her fame, an aspect that was missing from the previous books. Some highly interesting photographs are featured, including some scandalous semi-nude portraits that were done when she was in need of money; and a posthumous “spirit photograph”, a common scam of the Spiritualist era.

As with many figures of the 19th century (showfolk in particular), there are many gaps, and more murk, concerning hard and fast details. The authors succumb to the temptation of filling in the gaps with what unkind people might call “unsupported suppositions”.  As a playwright and critic by training (as opposed to an academic research slave), I don’t begrudge the Fosters this tactic one iota. In fact I delight in engaging in it all the time. What others call an “unsupported supposition” I might call a “logical conclusion”, especially where a single such assertion seems to answer many head-scratchers at once.  I do think, however, that you always want to stress the “logical” as opposed to the “conclusion”, for so often the real answer is “we just don’t know”, and you must constantly remind the reader of that truth. The authors would be well-served to tag more disclaimers to these murky bits, and not to present the truth of them as foregone, however logical they may be. That Adah was Jewish from birth, and was actively bi-sexual, at least in the modern sense are two among many of these. Both these theories make eminent sense. But the facts of the matter may be differently interpreted.

Anyway, judge for yourself. I promise you won’t be bored, that’s for sure. Check it out here.

The Tragicomic End of Professor Backwards

Posted in Comedy, Nuts and Eccentrics, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on January 29, 2011 by travsd

 

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Today is the birthday of James Edmondson, Sr., a.k.a Professor Backwards (1910-1976).  Edmondson was a comedian with a vaudeville nut act who possessed the rare ability able to write and spell backwards and/or upside down. In the television era he was a frequent guest on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Tonight Show and the Mike Douglas Show. 

A gang of moronic thugs apparently equated these occasional television appearances with great riches and tried to squeeze several thousand dollars of him. When he didn’t produce, they ended his life. This  unfortunate event prompted a classic bit of comedy on the “Weekend Update” segment of a then new television program called Saturday Night Live:

Chevy Chase: Professor Backwards, the entertainer who had the bizarre ability to speak backwards, was killed today in College Park, Georgia. Passersby apparently ignored the Professor’s cries of ‘Pleh! Pleh!'”

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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Joyeux Anniversaire, Colette

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Broadway, Burlesk, Dance, Frenchy, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , on January 28, 2011 by travsd

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Best known for her brilliant and fearless novels, and as the creator of Gigi, Colette (Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette) was born this day in 1873. From 1906 through 1912 she performed in Paris music halls, including the Moulin Rouge, an experience which informs her excellent novel The Vagabond. Colette was a dancer and mime in the music halls, and became notorious for a lewd onstage kiss with her female partner in 1907. Among the many other women the bi-sexual writer-performer is said to have romanced is Josephine Baker. Over the next several decades she wrote plays, ballets, opera libretti and some 50 novels. She passed away in 1954, and was given the first state funeral ever bestowed on a woman in France.

Here is a 1951 documentary about her, narrated by Cocteau:

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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For more on comedy history 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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The Continuing Story of Carla Rhodes

Posted in Contemporary Variety, Rock and Pop, Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry, Women with tags , on January 26, 2011 by travsd

I’ve already raved about Carla Rhodes’ vent act plenty, on this blog, in my Villager column, and by booking her for my own variety shows, fer the love o’ Mike. I’ve been tardy getting to her monthly full length rock show at Arlene’s Grocery, though. But ask anyone — I always make good…eventually.

Carla is the hippest ventriloquist around, but she’s still old school. She may be the rock ‘n’ roll vent but the rock she likes is of the dinosaur variety, as witnessed by her adopted Milton Glaser Bob Dylan poster (above), the Beatles reference in the title of her show (Bungalow Bill), her use of Mick and Keith as vent dummies, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (among others) on the pre-show CD. The most modern reference I detected in the show was her cover of a beautiful Daniel Johnston song, though she may have changed the lyrics. Needless to say, I approve of her taste, but it does rather cement her credentials as a nerd. I was already considered way out of step for listening to this kind of music in the early 80s. By my calculation, in chronological terms, the equivalent of Carla listening to this sort of music would be my listening to…Chuck Berry and Elvis. Which I also did, and do, but it still puts me in a minority among people my age and younger. If you think about it, listening to actual rock and roll nowadays is kind of rare. As my idiotic schoolmates used to say, with no shred of comprehension of the oxymoron they were spouting, “You can’t dance to it.” In the future, I suppose, all teenagers will be Galvanically wired to a central machine that will cause their hearts to beat and  legs to twitch in perfect rhythmic unison. That, by God, will be dancing.

At any rate, as I think I’ve just demonstrated, rock and roll is about alienation. And one of the few art forms even more about alienation is ventriloquism. Carla blends them both in the new show and while the mix isn’t seamless, the product is definitely promising. The whole thing purports to be about her leaving Her Old Kentucky Home (where the kids make cruel fun of her), and coming to the big city, where she encounters the likes of Mick and Keith, a rude New York pigeon named Herschel Ragbottom, and Cecil St. Claire, an old English music hall comedian and agent.

Carla, with that raspy Southern voice and no apparent self-consciousness, is, not surprisingly, a great rock and roll singer. (As she notes in the show, someone dubbed her “Shirley Temple on heroin”. Her cowgirl outfit seals the deal). That said, the show starts off slowly with some straight-ahead songs about not fitting in that could use an injection of something. An indication of what that something is can be seen in what is easily the best song in the show, “Under Bed Alligator”, which sounds like a 50’s novelty song, and because said Gator is one of Carla’s puppets. That sort of fun is missing in the earlier songs. And I don’t mean the songs need to be “light”. The “Under Bed Alligator” represents the singer’s fears and negative feelings but it still gets through to us because she’s made it come alive through the magic of theatre — effective music and puppetry. If she can find a way to make the entire show as magical as that number, she’ll have nailed it. As for the ventriloquism routines in the show — perfect-o, of course!

Carla and her three piece band the Extravaganzas will be returning to Arlene’s Grocery on February 20. Check ’em out!

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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Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera

Posted in AMERICANA, BROOKLYN, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES with tags , , on January 25, 2011 by travsd

Rockwell is terrific. It’s become too tedious to pretend he isn’t.

—-New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl writing in ArtNews

I’m with Schjeldahl. From time immemorial, Norman Rockwell has been held up by the Smart Set to be the gold standard in  kitsch. That was, of course, the era when any sort of representational art was suspect, or when at the very least (as with pop art) it was considered necessary to put quotes around your subject in order to broadcast a comforting irony. I hope we are a mature enough society to permit a realignment at this stage in our history.

Rockwell was a genre painter, a mode of art that goes back for centuries, depicting little scenes of home life, enhanced with dramatic action and symbolism. Historically, painting has always had a narrative dimension. Being a “writer” and a “director” were as much a part of the painter’s job as being an accurate draftsman. Cameras, both still and moving, called that all into question at least in museums and galleries, though the publishing world still had use for someone of Rockwell’s abilities during the first 2/3 of the twentieth century. Then, shifting demographics and a general trend towards cynicism seemed to discredit even that remaining vestige. And so “Norman Rockwell”, much like “vaudeville”, became an epithet.

But much has happened to rehabilitate, even elevate, Rockwell, in recent decades. No one ever had much bad to say about Rockwell’s technique; the critical success of the photorealists and hyper-realists in recent decades has now provided commentators with a context for talking about Rockwell’s art, even if that’s kind of bass ackwards. Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera (now at the Brooklyn Museum through April 10), uses that technique as the pathway in, unexpectedly opening the door to talking about the other aspects of his work.

The current exhibition concentrates on the latter half of Rockwell’s career , the period when he began relying on photographs to assist him in his painting. While his  professional life dates from 1912, he wouldn’t start using photos until twenty years later, and kind of sporadically until the early 1940s, when he began to lean on them quite heavily. The technique was, and is, quite common. And, as the exhibition shows by juxtaposing the photos with the actual works, it was not a process of slavish reproduction. Rockwell used the photographs as guides and inspirations merely. He made countless changes along the way. A good example is The Runaway (1957, pictured above). Some of the guide photos, for example, have the state cop wearing his motorcycle jacket, making him resemble (in the Countess’s words) a storm trooper. In his shirtsleeves, he looks like a dumpy, friendly local sheriff — the boy’s savior, rather than “the law”. Similarly, the soda jerk in most of the photos is a daffy kid in a paper hat. In the final version, he looks more than vaguely sinister, almost like a bartender. We subtly get an idea of what the boy is being rescued from.

Furthermore, the photographic process itself was an extension of his art — a manifestation of the directorial art, if you will, as he not only chooses the locations and the props, but works with his models to get the right facial expressions, sometimes requiring hundreds of takes. (The wall text charmingly reports how, when he got the expression he wanted from the subject of Girl with Black Eye [1953], he literally fell down on the floor laughing.) Photos of Rockwell at work with his subjects reinforce this idea. We see him coaching the actors in the movements and faces to make (much as Chaplin would do with his actors). He looks like one of the characters in his paintings. And to my mind, the fact that his models, while paid, were all amateurs, somewhat gives the lie to the tired old sop that his visions somehow “aren’t real.”  Are they idyllic and idealized? Of course. Nothing new about that. Art has always done that, and frankly I prefer it to do that, at least sometimes. Hollywood does that, Michaelangelo does that, Shakespeare does that. Are they overwhelmingly white? This is undeniably true, though Rockwell redeems himself as soon as he is free from the strictures of the Saturday Evening Post and begins doing a Civil Rights series for Look. (Not surprising from a man who had earlier painted FDR’s “Four Freedoms”).

At any rate, the old saw is “write what you know”. For the most part, Rockwell painted his friends and neighbors. With hindsight, I think, we can relieve him of the charge of being the proto-Fascist illustrator of an “official America”, which is what he is generally accused of, didn’t ask for, and doesn’t deserve. He is an artist with a comical, warm, often touching view of humanity who depicted the rural and small town people around him as he found them (or, rather, as he staged them). He wasn’t a crusader or a reformer, but neither, in all probability, are you. But the thousands of intimate little moments  captured in Rockwell’s  illustrations do, I think, say something positive about the human experience, and have contributed mightily to the general store of human happiness. At least, of mine.

Judge for yourself! It’s on view at the Brooklyn Museum through April 10. Details here. (And for another response to the same exhibition, see the Countess’s here.)

 

 

 

On D.W. Griffith

Posted in AMERICANA, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Silent Film with tags , , , , on January 22, 2011 by travsd

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D.W. Griffith (born today in 1875) is probably (with the possible exception of Chaplin) my favorite film director. I say this in full knowledge of his unfortunate racial attitudes, which were widely shared in his time (and which I obviously condemn). Shakespeare shared these attitudes too and many people call Shakespeare their favorite playwright. Griffith’s contributions to cinema are easily on a par with Shakespeare’s contributions to the drama or the English language. Neither artist is unique in their being superb craftsmen who possessed moral failings.

Griffith had been an aspiring playwright, with scanty success, until he was cast as an actor in 1907 in Edwin S. Porter’s Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest. When he lucked into his first directing assignment, he poured all that frustrated playwright energy into creating a new narrative art form, very nearly all by himself. The added bonus (for me, anyway) is that he arrives so early that he carried the entire basket of 19th century aesthetics with him (even as he also brings his 19th century morals).

I find his movies, from the very first to the very last, unspeakably gorgeous to watch (even though the later ones tend to come along with some unintentional comedy.) Most people only know The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), but there were hundreds before those two (because they were short) and almost two dozen after. Favorites of mine include A Corner in Wheat (1909, based on a Frank Norris novel), Enoch Arden (1911, based on a Tennyson poem), Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), Judith of Bethulia (1914), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), Sally of the Sawdust (starring W.C. Fields, 1925) and Abraham Lincoln (1930). In later years, Griffith, to whom Hollywood owed just about everything — couldn’t even get arrested as a director. He passed away in 1948.

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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Rosco Ates: Stuttered

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Music, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Westerns with tags , , , , , , , on January 20, 2011 by travsd

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Modern audiences will probably know Rosco Ates best as the stuttering husband of one of the Hilton Sisters in the movie Freaks.

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The stuttering wasn’t just some bizarre character choice — it was his vaudeville shtick. As a child he’d had a horrible, natural stutter, which he later overcame. He first went into vaudeville as a concert violinist, but he eventually learned that there was more money in being a stuttering comedian. He went into movies just as talkies were coming in, and found plenty of work, mostly in westerns. For many years, he was the comical sidekick to a singing cowboy named Eddie Dean. He also worked constantly in television, until his death in 1962.

Now here he is as the sidekick to Tex Ritter in the 1940 Monogram feature The Cowboy from Sundown :

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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