Archive for April, 2011

Another Cool One Opening at Last Rites Tonight

Posted in EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, PLUGS with tags , , on April 30, 2011 by travsd

For an exhibition preview and all the information go here.

The New York Variety Arts Theatre

Posted in Contemporary Variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on April 29, 2011 by travsd

Thanks to Jim Moore I now know that I am only two degrees of separation from Sarah Bernhardt.

Everyone in New York’s variety artsscene and its many subsets knows who Jim Moore is. He showed up one day, like the shoe-maker’s elf, to make all of our lives a lot easier. A photographer and videographer, through his web site Vaudevisuals he has been meticulously chronicling all the vaudeville, burlesque, circus, sideshow etc activity in New York now for many months. This is already a hugely valuable record.

While this is wonderful, he is not actually an elf, unfortunately. And it turns out he has been making Herculean efforts to keep the performing arts traditions alive and before the public for a very long time. Recently, he told me about an attempt he and some partners made about thirty years ago to create an organization called “The New York Variety Arts Theatre”.

Here’s the poop, people. Jim studied film production at NYU. In an effort to be a better director, he studied mime with some fairly distinguished teachers. In the late 70s, he was performing a lot, based out of a space called the Hudson Street Studio. (He also had a public access variety tv variety show, which featured people like Paul Zaloom and my old buddy David Jenness. How I’d love to see that!) At any rate, at certain point Jim and his cohorts began to organize a not-for-profit, whose mission was to be training, preservation and the production of variety shows. A big benefit was held at Theatre of the Open Eye, featuring Joe Smith of Smith and Dale, who was 92 at the time. Jim had gotten to know Joe following his presentation at a big popular entertainment conference held at Lincoln Center. He actually did his Dr. Kronkite sketch!

And Joe Smith is what links me (uh, and a thousand other people as the Countess points out), through Jim Moore, to Bernhardt. Smith and Dale had performed together on the same bill with Bernhardt at the Palace). Believe it…or not.

The sad news is, Jim’s long-dreamed of variety arts preservation organization never came to pass. There was dissension in the ranks, and the parties went their separate ways.  Jim was ahead of his time in that enterprise. But guess what? He is in the RIGHT place at the RIGHT time, right now. Hats off, and three cheers to him.

To learn about 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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The Bleeding House

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , on April 28, 2011 by travsd

As a genre hybrid, The Bleeding House couldn’t be more calculated to bum me out. It is, of all things, an “artistic” slasher movie. It starts out promising…a family of four at dinner time, some ugly secret from their past keeping them isolated  and unhappy. But everything goes to pot (for us as well as the family) when a mysterious stranger (Patrick Breen) shows up asking for assistance. Not only is this character named “Nick”, but he is a walking Xerox of  every Southern Gothic cliche known to man, right down to his all-white suit and his front porch logorrhea. Anyone who lets him in the front door and doesn’t phone the police (and also the Golden Turkey awards) deserves the night of hell they are about to experience. But we sure don’t.

By the time he reveals himself as a serial killer, we are already wishing there were another serial killer around to finish him off. Luckily, there is. In fact, the movie has no less than three, possibly four soulless murderers walking around. Eventually, the worst of the bunch, the family’s young daughter (Alexandra Chando) shuts our soliloquizing slasher up for good, but not before we are forced to watch — in sick, loving detail — as he drains her parents of blood and puts it in mason jars, slits her brother’s throat, and shoots two dim-witted local policemen. To say I found the experience unpleasant is to bless it with faint criticism. It is a thing no one should witness. It makes me want to run out and see The Sound of Music just to scrub my mind.

The Bleeding House was the second film I saw in the Tribeca Film Festival.

Herbert Spencer

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, STEAMPUNK/ VICTORIANA with tags , , , , , , , on April 27, 2011 by travsd

One of the most famous men of the 19th century, Herbert Spencer (born this day in 1820) is now almost completely unknown  outside of academic circles. I became interested in him not long after my Barnum phase began, in the early 1990s. After acquiring Spencer’s complete works in a London bookshop,  I fused the two together in a sort of Frankensteinian philosophy of my own and made it the underpinning for my theatre company Mountebanks.

Spencer is one of the few philosophers ever to be famous in his own time, perhaps the only one to sell more than a million copies of his works while he still breathed, and was considered by some of his contemporaries to be the modern equivalent of Aristotle.

Spencer’s Synthetic Philosophy was an attempt to follow Comte in the creation of a single universal unifying philosophical theory, in Spencer’s case  one based on empirical science. Its touchstone was evolution, although he took most of his understanding of the evolutionary process from Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (as did George Bernard Shaw) rather than Darwin. Spencer had begun his work earlier than Darwin (or at least before The Origin of Species was published), but he grudgingly included some aspects of Darwin’s theory into his own. It was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase “Survival of the Fittest”. He is often mistakenly labeled a Social Darwinist, although Spencer most definitely gave altruism as important a place in his scheme as he did competition. In both cases, however, laizzez-faire was his watchword. The state mustn’t interfere in transactions among individuals, except where coercion was employed by one individual against another. He hoped for a day when the state  wouldn’t be necessary at all.

Spencer differed from Comte’s Positivism in that he was a nuts-and-bolts empiricist. At various times he had worked as a civil engineer and as an editor on The Economist. He proved his various points in the Synthetic Philosophy, from geology, through biology, through anthropology, through sociology (which he helped invent), through psychology, through ethics, using real data. And yet his main conclusion (the “other shoe”, as it were) a belief in Universal Progress, strikes the modern observer as  every bit as faith-based and wishful as the very Victorian religious dogmas he set out to discredit. His theory was that all systems in the universe move from a state of simplicity and homogeneity, to one of complexity and heterogeneity. In other words, definite long term evolutionary progress. This he felt was true of species (from the uni-cell organism all the way up to man), to human societies (from the primitive to the civilized).

Today, those who are not total barking yahoos tend to think along strict Darwinian lines on the subject of evolution. Evolution is a random process. There are times when the physically stronger line or that possessing some other useful trait will win out over the more intelligent, for example. Or, as in the case of humankind, examples where the less cerebral (let us say) may win the evolutionary foot race, simply by virtue of reproducing at a much higher rate. We live in a time when the dystopian vision is so much more vivid and tangible than the City of Tomorrow. The future to us now looks more like Mad Max and Idiocracy. It’s hard to see us ever arriving at Shangri-La when we are quite clearly devolving, to use a concept borrowed from a certain Akron, Ohio new wave band with flower pots on their heads.

It’s not so illogical to observe then that 20th century thinkers jumped very easily from Spencer’s willful blind scientific utopianism, to the willful blind scientific utopianism of the socialists, despite the fact that they rapidly swept Spencer under the carpet the instant he died in 1903, which is why you never heard of him. (If Spencer is mentioned at all today, he is invariably castigated as the official apologist for the likes of Morgan , Rockefeller, Carnegie, Gould, Fiske, etc. In reality, he was a sort of anarchist, and an outspoken critic of both imperialism and militarism.  And ironically, many socialists and social scientists were to build on Spencer’s work — his materialistic belief in the positive evolution of society, and his reliance on data to back it up.)

Anyway, we should know after this awful century that all utopianisms are discredited. And yet if we can’t at least hope the human race will eventually improve, why show up to anything, you know what I mean?

Spencer was also highly influential on literature. The work of Jack London in particular is steeped in Spencer’s influence, as is that of Spencer’s close friend (some thought they would get married) George Elliot. I also detect his influence, along with the likes of Bergson and Neitzsche, in the works of Eugene O’Neill. He was a towering giant of his time. We are all in a sense his children; bastardly ones, I think, in our ignorance of the lineage.

Artemus Ward

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, BUNKUM, STEAMPUNK/ VICTORIANA with tags , on April 26, 2011 by travsd

Portland Maine has produced three national geniuses, which is a lot for a city of its size: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Ford, and the writer Artemus Ward.

Ward, born this day in 1834, was the alter ego of Charles Farrar Browne. I discovered him when I was still in my teens (just how, I can’t remember — the local library must have had his books.) In my young adulthood I managed to secure an edition of his complete works published in the 1860s, a book I treasure past all measure.

Ward was a friend and contemporary of Mark Twain , and in his lifetime was indeed more popular than Twain. Ward (not Twain) was Lincoln’s favorite humorist. Lincoln read Ward’s story “Outrage in Utiky” to his cabinet (much to their distress ) before presenting them with the Emancipation Proclamation. Ward was also briefly the love interest of Adah Isaacs Mencken,  about whom you will be hearing a lot more from me during the next few months.

Ward started writing these funny pieces when he worked for the Cleveland Plain Dealer,  in the form of badly misspelled, dialect- and slang-heavy letters to the editor from an imaginary traveling showman largely inspired by P.T. Barnum, but with more of a western, frontier flavor. (Viz, the title of that story he read to Lincoln. “Utiky” is of course “Uttica”. That gives you something of the flavor).  I love these pieces so much I have adapted them into various theatre pieces which I have presented over the years (I did a bunch last year for example at Dixon Place). I also adapted one of Ward’s longer monologues “Artmeus Ward Among the Mormons” and pitched it to Ohio theatres with Bryan Enk as the star (when he has a mustache, Enk somewhat resembles some pictures I’ve seen of Ward, and he also can do the Ohio accent, coming, as he does, from Ohio. But none of the Ohio theatres took the bait).

Anyway, as he grew in popularity, Ward took to the lecture stage, and the character in his pieces changed somewhat from the itinerant showman to something more like himself. Ward became something like an early stand up comedian or performance artist. His physical appearance was said to help with his comical delivery — he was very tall, very thin, and very strange. I imagine his delivery to have been something like the comedian Steven Wright’s. He was enjoying a SMASH tour of England in 1867 when he succumbed to tuberculosis at the very young age of 33. Oh, the things he would have accomplished if he hadn’t been stolen away!

Stars of Vaudeville #320: Edgar Kennedy

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Silent Film, Vaudeville etc. with tags , on April 26, 2011 by travsd

Kennedy, matching Chico and Harpo bit for bit, in what may be his most famous scene

Hollywood comedy character actor Edgar Kennedy (born this day in 1890) is most famous for his so-called “slow burn” reaction, although for the life of me, I can’t see what’s so “slow” about it. When frustrated as a comic foil he seems to catapult into total rage, seething with hypertension, so worked up he wrings his hat and violently rubs his face and bald head. The only thing that’s slow in coming is the inevitable total explosion, the fit of actual violence. By that time the volcano has been threatening to erupt for what seems like a century.

Born in the greater San Francisco area, Kennedy began his career as a pugilist (once claiming to have fought Jack Dempsey). From here, he worked as a singer in vaudeville, musical comedy and light opera. Thence, to Los Angeles and the pictures, and he arrived early, beginning his career in 1911. From 1914 he worked with Mack Sennett at Keystone, working with the likes of Chaplin and Arbuckle. In the 20s he was at Hal Roach, where he worked with Laurel and Hardy and Charley Chase. He remained in demand as an ensemble comedian in the sound era, working with the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup and Wheeler and Woolsey in Diplomaniacs, and many others. Later he even had his own series of comedy shorts. He passed away in 1948.

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 #319: Ma Rainey

Posted in African American Interest, Blues, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , on April 26, 2011 by travsd

The mother of the Blues was born Gertrude Prodgett this day in 1886. She started singing professionally in tent shows in her early teens. The blues started creeping into her repertoire around 1902. A couple of years later she married fellow performer Pa Rainey and became his Ma. Together they were Rainey and Rainey — Assassinators of the Blues. For a number of years they ran with an outfit called the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, until Ma signed a record deal in 1923, became a star, and worked the black vaudeville circuits. She retired to her hometown in Georgia in 1925, running two theatres there until she passed away four years later.

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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