Archive for March, 2011

Stars of Vaudeville #313: Jack Johnson

Posted in African American Interest, Sport & Recreation, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on March 31, 2011 by travsd

African American heavyweight champ Jack Johnson (born this day in 1878), whose life is the subject of the excellent 1970 bio pic The Great White Hope made frequent appearances in vaudeville, especially after his boxing career was finished following a prison sentence for violation of the Mann Act. In the years previous to his death he actually lectured at Hubert’s Museum, the legendary Times Square side show.  He was killed in a car wreck in 1946

To learn more about 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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Stars of Vaudeville #312: Ned Wayburn

Posted in Broadway, Dance, Impresarios, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2011 by travsd


Ned Wayburn (born this day in 1874) was known as  many things: the entrepreneur behind a string of vaudeville and dance schools; producer of vaudeville flash and kiddie acts; and choreographer for big budget Broadway shows, such as the Ziegfeld Follies. He’d started playing piano and singing in amateur theatricals in the Chicago area when a local theatre owner convinced him to go pro. He worked the circuits in the midwest, eventually moving to New York in the early years of the last century, where he found rapid success as a director, choreographer and producer.

If you want to find an absolute treasure trove of info about vaudeville, revues and early Broadway, check out his 1925 book The Art of Stage Dancing, available in its entirety free-of-charge here. (See my beloved Countess’s much more thorough appreciation here.) Wayburn passed away in 1942.

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

A Cultural “Pub Crawl”

Posted in Asian, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Indie Theatre, SOCIAL EVENTS with tags , , , , , on March 28, 2011 by travsd

The Countess and I had an edifiying Sunday afternoon following our matinee performance of the Tent Show Tetragrammaton. First we zipped down to Dixon Place for the World Theatre Day Celebration. This worthy annual event is organized by the International Theatre Institute (ITI), a project of the United Nations, and the Theatre Communications Group. We hung out with our pals Catherine Porter, Barry Rowell and Ralph Lewis of the Peculiar Works Project, and did our part for world peace by drinking glassfuls of red wine. (Wine and theatre  are old Greek traditions, springing from the head of a single  God. Unfortunately, war is also another Greek tradition, but at least it gets a separate God.) At any rate, to prove it really happened, here are some rather poor photographs:

Dixon Place Founder Ellie Covan welcomes the assembled.

 

Nicky Paraiso, curator of the Club at La MaMa, presents a proclamation

Amanda Feldman, general manager of the Lark Play Development Center, part of the NYC World Theatre Day Coalition

After we had our fill of international brotherhood, we took back to the frigid February streets (too bad it’s late March). Up the street (Chrystie Street, to be specific), we stopped into the Hendershot Gallery, where they just happened to be opening their new exhibition “Keep Out You Thieving Bastards”.  The show is composed of work by Minnesota-area artists, including photographers, painters, sculptors, installation artists, video artists etc etc. The biggest impressions on me were made by the photographers, notably Chris Larson’s series of eerie interiors of an abandoned house, inexplicably filled with ice — The Day After Tomorrow?

 

Chris Larson, Deep North (Bed) 2008 C-print mounted on aludibond 35 x 35 inches

I also enjoyed the work of Alec Soth, to wit:

 

Alec Soth, Jimmie’s Apartment, Memphis, Tennessee 2002 C-print 40 x 50 inches

More info on the exhibition is here.

Next we hied us up to St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery for the opening night of Vampire Cowboys new show The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G, as part of the Incubator Arts series.

Playwright Qui Nguyen is of course best known as an architect of superlative entertainments, chocolate ice cream-like head rushes of pure pleasure mixing comical fight sequences, genre parody, stereotype deconstruction and broad cultural satire. Lost in the shuffle of the success he’s enjoyed during the past several years is his origins as a more conventional, “earnest” playwright. His early play “Trial by Water” (though published and much produced) was nonetheless lambasted by critics in spite of his worthy intentions and the unimpeachable importance of the subject matter (the horrible ordeal experienced by several members of his family as they attempted to escape from Vietnam). In The Inexplicable Redemption, he revisits this material through the lens of where he’s at today both as a man and as an artist. A crazy-quilt collage more formally playful than perhaps anything he’s done, it confronts not only these real events, but also  the formal and moral struggles of playwriting.

The truth is, the Off-Off Broadway, “indie” theatre community, supposed last bastion of all that is pure in the realm of theatrical art, turns out at bottom to be just as commercial, mindless and superficial as Broadway, Hollywood and Madison Avenue. One gets all the positive reinforcement in the world for giving audiences metaphorical lap dances — for NOT challenging them, for merely entertaining them. To ask an audience to expand, learn, or grow the fuck up oddly tends to be interpreted as ineptitude…as though those aesthetic choices were some accidental failure in the construction of the jolly entertainment machine, instead of an intentional invitation to the audience to waken their sleeping hearts and brains. And this is the attitude nowadays not only of audiences and producers, but of the great majority of “critics”. I’ll be ranting a lot more on this subject in the days to follow, because I’m constantly on the horns of the same dilemma that Qui is talking about — as most of us in the end are, whether we choose to grapple with it or not. Should I say little or nothing with my work, and be popular? Or should I use this talent and this instrument to say something that really matters to me? My personal meal ticket and bete noir is vaudeville; I got a taste of Qui’s version in the lobby at St. Marks after the show:

NERVOUS, SWEATING SCHMUCK, TO HIS DATE:  Heh heh, most of his shows aren’t like this, they’re more like that opening scene. [The opening scene is an exhilarating Vampire Cowboys set piece of rice-hat-wearing Vietnamese shooting each other with machine guns, set to the Rolling Stones “Paint It, Black.”]

SCHMUCK SUBTEXT: I’m so sorry I brought you to this show that accidentally made you think!

I guess you can see what side I come down on in this war. This is likely to remain my favorite Qui Nguyen play — until he writes a better one.  It is personal, painful and risky, and in my book that’s always the type of work most worthy of support. And if this is already turning you off, (motherfuckers!), rest easy. Qui and director Robert Ross Parker do a bang up job of filling his main character’s journey with the usual mix of whiz-bang stagecraft, cool music and effects, martial arts, hysterical one liners and even a couple of original old school raps. Qui”s found a way to draw from both sides of his extremely inventive mind — and I hope he continues to pursue this “third path”. Because what he learns during this voyage of exploration will be of value to all of us.

To find out how to get tickets go here.

 

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Posted in Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, PLUGS, Women with tags on March 25, 2011 by travsd

Today is the 100th anniversary of one of the worst New York City disasters prior to Sept 11 — the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. There are much more horrible images of the event on the Internet, but this blog is not the place for them. The picture above I think does a proper job of showing the scale of the event, and why there was simply no escape for the victims. The disaster marked a turning point for the American labor movement, and rightly so. From here on in, the presumption of criminality would be laid at the feet of the bullies who would imprison their employees, rather than the employees themselves.

There is a play about the fire opening at 59e59 on April 14. Called Triangle, it specifically deals with the relationship between Big Tim Sullivan (crooked New York pol and sometime vaudeville impresario) and a reformer named Margaret Holland. I look forward to checking it out. All the info is here.

The Palace

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

Built on this day in 1913 as the flagship for the big time vaudeville circuit run by E.F. Albee and Martin Beck, manager of the Western Vaudeville Managers Association, the Palace was the perfect showplace for the biggest of big time vaudeville during the last two decades of its existence.

The Palace was a show business Mecca. All the top acts would play there: Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, the Marx Brothers, Nora Bayes, Smith and Dale, Frank Fay, Jack Benny…the list goes on and on. The Palace was a cherished showcase gig because the audience was full of bookers, scouts, agents, and fellow performers. Comedian Ed Lowry said opening day at the Palace was as exciting as the Kentucky Derby. The sidewalk out front, called the Palace “beach” was a popular hangout for industry professionals looking to network. For a vaudevillian, to have “played the Palace” was to have died and gone to heaven. Which is why that expression lives on in popular idiom, long after anyone even remembers what it used to mean.

Only a vaudevillian who has trod its stage can really tell you about it. Audiences can tell you about who they saw there and how they enjoyed them, but only a performer can describe the anxieties, the joys, the anticipation, and the exultation of a week’s engagement at the Palace. The walk through the iron gate on 47th Street through the courtyard to the stage door, was the cum laude walk to a show business diploma. A feeling of ecstasy came with the knowledge that this was the Palace, the epitome of the more than 15,000 vaudeville theatres in America, and the realization that you have been selected to play it. Of all the thousands upon thousands of vaudeville performers in the business, you are there. This was a dream fulfilled; this was the pinnacle of variety success.

Jack Haley

The Palace became the focal point of a new twentieth-century aesthetic of snazz, of pizazz, of (as Variety abbreviated it) “show biz”. It reigned supreme until vaudeville was no more. Most folks measure the death of vaudeville from the time the Palace played it’s last to-a-day in 1932. After that, various combinations of film and variety bills were tried for a number of years.  In the 1950s, there were successful vaudeville revivals there headlined by the likes of Judy Garland. And since the 1960s, it has been a legit Broadway house, buried inside a hotel, but as glorious and glamorous inside as ever. (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is currently playing there).

We are two years out from the Palace’s centennial, and I give you advance notice that I am planning big things in order to mark the occasion. Stay tuned!

To learn more about 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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Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Comedy, Hollywood (History) with tags , on March 23, 2011 by travsd

I’m on an unpleasable tear at the moment in the book sampling department. I feel like a cross between Goldilocks and Lizzie Borden, picking up books, reading a few words and then tossing them aside in violent disgust. First I tried a “humorous memoir” that was not only not funny but written by a person with an uninteresting life and nothing to say. Then a “burlesque mystery” — a paragraph or two of which was  all I needed to know it was too trivial to spend any time on. Hoping for something more serious, I picked up a book that came to me at my day job at the think tank, concerning a professor’s trip around the country holding a sort of impromptu Constitutional Convention with ordinary citizens. A worthy idea, given that the original Constitution was not created by a democratic process, but by a sort of public spirited, paternalistic high-jacking. But the book is written in that disposable, popular style that earmarks it as junk as far as I’m concerned — more a stunt than a book. The proper media for the project would have been radio or video, I think.

I didn’t like Another Fine Mess any better, but the milk train had to stop somewhere and I needed a blogpost today. Author Saul Austerlitz is a film critic with credits at the New York Times, Boston Globe et al, and granted, he is a better wordsmith than the other three authors I recently dabbled in but who will remain nameless. That said, the work falls far short of its ambitious subtitle “A History of American Film Comedy”.  In reality, the book is a collection of biographical essays on dozens of comic film artists from Chaplin to Judd Apatow, indiscriminately mixing in slapstick clowns, directors, and actors. Thus artists as disparate as Doris Day, Ernst Lubitsch, Buster Keaton, Richard Pryor and the Coen Brothers are all mixed in together. Which COULD be fine, if some effort were made to analyze themes in American comedy from a very high level and tie all these artists together in some context: sex? violence? race? class? None of that here, though. Just rather tired recaps of the careers of famous comedians and directors of comedies. In the cases of the twentieth century artists, the descriptions are nothing we haven’t seen before in many, many previous books. You might say a saving grace is the addition of more recent figures, like Christopher Guest, Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler, except for the salient fact that the writer, again, makes no effort to put them in a context, not even a performance context. While he might decry Sandler’s talents in relation to Jim Carey or Mike Myers (arguable), it would be far more useful in my opinion to discuss Sandler in relation to forbears — Jerry Lewis as an obvious example. The author talks about Lewis, of course…but there’s no intelligent way to talk about Martin & Lewis without relating them to Abbott & Costello in my view, and this is precisely what the author does not do. Each artist is presented in a silo, a vacuum. I fail to see in what way it is a “history”. Neither insightful nor original nor even fun (as one might hope a book about comedy ought to be — god forbid), this book is destined to collect dust on my shelf for a good, long time.

Sarah Vowell’s New Book

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Native American Interest, PLUGS, Radio (Old Time Radio), Women with tags , , on March 22, 2011 by travsd

True confession: I admit to being one of the unwashed throngs who worship Sarah Vowell like a rock star, and partially for what I consider to be the wrong reasons. Yes, I relate big time to her bratty, colloquial, slacker-esque style and tone — it is a generational thing. But that would availeth nothing (with me, at least) if she weren’t so smart, funny and deeply caring and curious about the world around her. The fact that we share a Cherokee heritage and a passion for American history seals the deal.

My good friend The Abominable Dr. Pinnock introduced me to her work, handing me a copy of The Wordy Shipmates, an investigation into the lives and philosophy of my Puritan forbears, a couple of years ago. I devoured it immediately, then went on to plow through Take the Canoli, The Partly Cloudly Patriot, and Assassination Vacation. Radio On is the only book of hers that I’ve disliked; a diary of her daily sessions listening to the radio, which I found almost unreadable.

Her new book Unfamiliar Fishes, about the American annexation of Hawaii, is being released today. Rest assured, I intend to gobble it up like a roasted pig at a luau, all covered in pineapples.

 

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