Archive for February, 2011

Buffalo Bill Cody

Posted in AMERICANA, Circus, Dime Museum and Side Show, Impresarios, Lariat Artists/ Wild West Shows, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Native American Interest with tags , , , , , , , on February 26, 2011 by travsd

William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody (born this day in 1846) was one of the greatest showmen of all time, second only perhaps to P.T. Barnum. He of course held many jobs before he went into show business: Indian scout, buffalo hunter, Pony Express rider, Union soldier, gold miner, etc etc, etc, but our main concern here is what he did in front of audiences.

In 1872, under the management of Ned Buntline (who’d previously enhanced his fame with a series of popular dime novels), Cody starred in a number of melodrama plays reenacting his western adventures, often co-starring the likes of Texas Jack Omohundro and Wild Bill Hickok. In 1883 he founded Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (to reinforce the feeling of realism in his entertainments he omitted the word “show” from its title. The large scale spectacle had elements of circus, rodeo, sideshow, and the Hollywood westerns that were to borrow so heavily from the staging of its reenactments of events like Custer’s Last Stand.

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Sharpshooters Annie Oakley and Frank Butler (subjects, along with Cody, of the Irving Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun) were among his famous performers, as was Sioux Chieftain Sitting Bull. A 1887 trip to London inspired Alan Moore to include Buffalo Bill’s “savages” among the suspects in his Jack the Ripper graphic novel From Hell. In 1893, he pitched his show outside the Chicago World’s Fair, having been denied participation in the fair itself. He drew as many customers as the fair did. It was this incarnation of the show that inspired young Chicago native Flo Ziegfeld to go into show business. Buffalo Bill later merged his show with that of Pawnee Bill; the concern went bankrupt in 1908. Cody passed away in 1917, long enough to have appeared in several films as himself.

But his legacies were many. There’s the town of Cody, Wyoming, which believe it or not is one of the places I went on my honeymoon! This is also the site of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, one of my favorite museums in the world.

And there is a direct link to vaudeville. In the wake of the success of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, countless imitators sprang up, among them Texas Jack and Colonel Zack Mulhall, both of whom employed a young rope twirler by the name of Will Rogers. He traveled with Mulhall’s outfit to New York City in 1905, and ended up staying, and bringing his talents to Keith’s Union Square, becoming one of the great vaudeville stars of the era.

To find out more about the history of American show business, please consult my critically acclaimed book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments.

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Betty Hutton: Ball of Energy

Posted in Broadway, Comediennes, Hollywood (History), Singing Comediennes, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2011 by travsd

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The late lamented Ms. Hutton (born this day in 1921) is doubly relevant to this site.: 1) As even many of her fans may not realize, she got her early start in vaudeville; and 2) so many of her classic movies are self-reflexively about show business.

Raised by her mother in an illegal (Prohibition-era) saloon in Battle Creek, Michigan, she made her show business debut singing for the customers. By the time she was a teenager she was performing in small time vaudeville in the Detroit area. By this time, the Big Time circuits were already dead, but there were other avenues of success and Hutton stumbled onto them very rapidly. By 1937, she was singing with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. By the 1940s she was already starring in Hollywood movies. Of particular note here are Incendiary Blond (1945, about Texas Guinan), The Perils of Pauline (1947, about silent film star Pearl White), Annie Get Your Gun (1950, about Annie Oakley, with songs by Irving Berlin — see today’s other post for a relevant article), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952, set in Ringling Bros. circus), and Somebody Loves Me (1952, about Blossom Seeley).

She played several dates at the Palace Theatre during its famous vaudeville revival in 1952. There followed a period of steep decline. After she broke her contract with Paramount Pictures over a dispute (she wanted her choreographer husband to get opportunities to direct), the movie roles vanished overnight. There were failed tv shows, some night club engagements…followed by alcoholism, drugs, a nervous breakdown, bankruptcy and suicide attempts.

She turned up in the 1970s washing dishes in a Catholic rectory in Rhode Island (through the agency of a clergyman who’d helped get her off booze). She later got a masters degree from a local college, and enjoyed some sporadic revival of attention in her final years. She passed away in 2007.

Check out this cool artifact, a 1977 interview with her on The Mike Douglas Show:

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please consult my critically acclaimed book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments.

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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 Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Ida Cox: The Uncrowned Queen of the Blues

Posted in African American Interest, Blues, Music, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , on February 25, 2011 by travsd

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Ida Cox (nee Prather, born this day in 1896) was a premiere exponent of the classic blues style, and a star of black vaudeville. A native Georgian, she started out in all-black minstrel troupes, which is where she met and married Adler Cox. From here she broke into vaudeville, at one point even managing her own traveling outfit, Ida Cox and Her Raisin’ Cain Company. Her recording career began in 1923, which is when she adopted the billing “The Uncrowned Queen of the Blues”.  (At certain times, she was also known as “The Sepia Mae West“). Her career lasted much longer than other stars of the classic blues style such as Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith and Ma Rainey, extending into the early 1940s. She retired in 1945 following a stroke. She made one last comeback recording in 1961, and finally passed away in 1967.

Here she is performing the “Four Day Creep”

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please consult my critically acclaimed book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments.

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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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The Great Caruso on the Vaudeville Stage

Posted in BROOKLYN, Classical, Italian, Music, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on February 25, 2011 by travsd

 

With the Gizmo That made Him Bookable in the States

The Great Caruso (born this day in 1873) was not only the greatest opera star of his age, but he was also the very first recording star — not just of opera, but of any sort. Already the king of Europe’s opera halls, in 1902 he made his first cylinders, becoming one of the first professional singers to do so. The popularity of his records made him an international sensation, which is why when he came to the U.S. on tour he not only played tony houses like the Metropolitan Opera, but he also took lucrative spots at top flight vaudeville houses like the  Palace.  The most famous Caruso vaudeville anecdote concerns stuttering dancer and comedian Joe Frisco, who once accosted the great tenor backstage: “Hey, Caruso, d-d-don’t d-d-do ‘Darktown Strutter’s Ball’. I’m using it for my f-f-finish.”

Unfortunately, his punishing workload took a huge toll on his body. He  died of a bewildering multiplicity of medical conditions in 1921.

By the way…New Yorkers might want to know that there is an Enrico Caruso Museum deep in the heart of Brooklyn. The collection looks authoritative and well worth the trip for the rabid fan. Viewings are Sundays and by appointment only. More info can be found here.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please consult my critically acclaimed book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments.

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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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The Vaudeville Show of Tomorrow

Posted in Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on February 24, 2011 by travsd

In the process of moving and sifting through drawers and boxes of files, the other day I came across this early draft for a jokey “chaser” in my book No Applause which we never used, and I hope you will find entertaining...

Before you close the book, I’d like to take this opportunity to offer up some speculation about a subject I know will be near and dear to our readers — and that’s The Vaudeville Show of Tomorrow. Having already exhausted Vaudeville Past and Present, it is only appropriate that we now direct our gaze ahead.

Ahem.

First, I think it’s only safe to assert that the vaudeville theatre of the future, that is the structure itself, will no longer be made of stone, brick, wood, or concrete, but molded plastic, the sort of material we already use in furniture. Grand coliseums of plastic will ascend far into the heavens, as far as the eye can see, capable of holding hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of happy vaudeville patrons. Needless to say, the vaudeville circuits will in future times encompass not only the seven continents of earth, but all the known planets of the solar system, the performers to arrive at their engagements through the agency of Rocket Power. In the future, animal acts will be replaced by animatronic robots, eliminating the unpredictable misbehavior of biological animals as well as the mistreatment of cruel trainers. Further, animatronics will permit a wider variety of species to present onstage than are currently available, including those now too stupid to train, too ferocious, or even those that are now extinct, such as dinosaurs. Cybernetics will permit more mellifluous singing acts, as built-in pitch correction wipes out vocal errors in judgment by merely human singing groups. Anabolic steroids and vitamin injections will ensure top of the line Strong Men and acrobats. The use of amphetamines and other stimulants will also help to create a new breed of tap dancer, tireless and faster than ever before. Already, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have used computers to solve complex juggling problems too intricate for the human mind alone to grasp. It boggles the mind to think what superhuman demonstrations the machine-men of tomorrow may unleash.

Audience reaction, too, may be modified and conditioned by the judicious spraying of nitrous oxide, onion juice, and other chemicals into the theatre through a system of atomizers, helping performers produce the desired emotional reaction whether certain audience members are in a mood to cooperate or not.

Yes, live entertainment certainly promises to hold many surprises in days to come. I only hope that our children and our children’s children fully appreciate the wonders they will undoubtedly behold — at the VAUDEVILLE SHOW OF TOMORROW.

 

To find out about  the real history of vaudeville, consult 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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James Reese Europe and His Orchestra

Posted in African American Interest, Marches, Music, Ragtime, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on February 22, 2011 by travsd

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“No inconsiderable part of our success was due to his wonderful playing…”

— Irene Castle

James Reese Europe (born today in 1880) can be thought of as the W.E.B. DuBois of American music, not just an accomplished musician, but a relentless teacher, theorist and advocate for the cause of widespread acceptance of African Americans as the equals of whites in the field of serious music.Europe had studied music seriously as a youngster in Washington, D.C., moved to New York, and quickly made a name for himself organizing bands for society parts, which is where he met Vernon and Irene Castle, who hired him to be their musical director.

Not surprisingly, the Europe Orchestra and their alumni were among the first African Americans to tread the vaudeville stage without the mask of burnt cork. Dressed in evening clothes, this crack ensemble of highly trained musicians infused their music with elements of ragtime and what was then coming to be known as jazz. Two of its more sophisticated alumni, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake (author of “I’m Just Wild About Harry”) would form their own team called the “Dixie Duo” and become Palace headliners themselves, in addition to creating the seminal Broadway show Shuffle Along. Others he collaborated with included Walker and Williams, Cole and Johnson, Will Marion Cook and Ernest Hogan.

When the U.S. entered the World War in 1918, Europe further distinguished himself by organizing an all-black regimental band. This patriotic group bravely entertained doughboys throughout the theatre of war until the armistice, at which point they returned home for a triumphant U.S. tour. It was on the last performance of that tour in 1919 that one of his own musicians, over some perceived slight, stabbed Europe to death.

For more on Europe’s incredible contributions, go here.

And here he is with his orchestra playing the Castle House Rag (named of course in honor of the dance team who helped put him on the map). The Castle House was the name of their dance school:

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please consult my critically acclaimed book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments.

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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 Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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George Fuller Golden: Big Cheese, White Rats

Posted in Irish, Stand Up, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on February 21, 2011 by travsd

This day in 1901, the White Rats  went on strike. The White Rats, as the vaudeville performers’ union was known, was founded by comedian and prize fighter George Fuller Golden. No one knows his birthday, so today’s as good as any (and better than most) for a tribute to him

Golden was one of the top stars of early American vaudeville. Joe Laurie, Jr. called him America’s first intellectual monologist. His voracious reading in the classics (especially poetry) and Biblical scripture combined with his natural Irish blarney to produce a popular series of stories about an imaginary friend named Casey whose adventures audiences followed with great delight. But Golden also had a serious side, a sense of fairplay and justice that was bound to get him into trouble in a high stakes game like vaudeville. Part boxer, part idealist, he was just the type of man to go down in a losing battle.

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In 1899, Golden had been the beneficiary of the services of the Water Rats, England’s music hall performers’ union, when his wife had fallen sick in London and he had gone without work for months. The Water Rats had paid his doctor’s bills and other expenses, and helped him and his wife get back to the States. Based on his experience, when the managers formed the monopolistic Vaudeville Managers Association, Golden knew just what to do. In short order, he organized a leadership committee to form the White Rats, enlisted a large dues-paying membership and started their own booking office. In early 1901, the performers, getting nowhere in negotiations with the managers, struck. The effort seemed successful for a time when Keith, Albee et al. pretended to capitulate, but it was all a ruse. Within weeks, the strike was broken.

The White Rats collapsed, and Golden became a laughing stock in the business, never working as a leader or an entertainer again, although he did publish one book about his experiences My Lady Vaudeville, still cherished by show biz buffs (and the source of the peculiar rodential swastika you see above). Golden died, a charity case, of tuberculosis in 1912.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please consult my critically acclaimed book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments.

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