Archive for April, 2011

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.


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!

Ma Rainey: Assassinator of the Blues

Posted in African American Interest, Blues, Stars of Vaudeville, 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.


The Bowery: A History of Grit, Graft and Grandeur

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons with tags , , on April 25, 2011 by travsd

No street epitomizes New York’s disparities of class nor its capacity for reinvention more than the Bowery — and never more than now. Go there today and you will see luxury residential towers alongside charitable missions next to night clubs and restaurants, up the street from…a bunch of Chinese lamp stores? In its centuries-old history it has been an Indian footpath, a thoroughfare leading OUT of the city (which used to end at Wall Street ) and past the nearby farmland, an entertainment district having much in common  with Times Square and Coney Island, and, finally, for many years, America’s most famous Skid Row. And now today.

Nobody knows more about this area than Eric Ferrara, a local boy who went on to start the Lower East Side History Project, and whose earlier book is A Guide to Gangsters, Murderers and Weirdoes. Like that earlier effort, his new book The Bowery: A History of Grit, Graft and Grandeur is an uneasy cross between a guide book and a history.  It’s laid out and organized by address, taking you South to North, telling the interesting stories of each piece of real estate along the way. One might be tempted to tote the book around and take a self-guided walking tour, only there’s too much reading to do. By the same token, one would like to lie in bed and read the book, only then one would be frustrated by not being on site. The book will therefore work best for people who already intimately know the strip, and can picture the addresses as they sit and read. Or –and this is what I’ll probably end up doing — make a couple of trips to the Bowery, and reread the book a few times until both experiences are thoroughly blended in the Cuisinart of your mind.

The effort will be a pleasure for me personally. Ferrara covers so much that is relevant to my work, including many institutions I mentioned in No Applause, e.g.: Miner’s Bowery Theatre, Bunnell’s New American Museum, The Bowery Theatre (different from Miner’s), Tony Pastor’s Opera House, Worth’s Museum, and many others. Plus the Atlantic Beer Gardens, Steve Brodie’s saloon, McGurk’s Suicide Hall — it seems like every inch of the Bowery is legendary, and Ferrara has left no stone unturned in covering his beat. Rest assured my copy of this book will be dog-eared, heavily marked up, and probably stained with beer. I recommend you do the same.

Easter Parade — Not!

Posted in Hollywood (History) with tags , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2011 by travsd

Feeling all Eastery, and wanting to do some Easterish Easter thing on this Easterly Easter?

Well, then for God’s sake, DON’T watch Easter Parade, the 1948 Irving Berlin musical that has absolutely NOTHING to do with Easter, except for the fact that the beginning and ending scenes happen to be set on Easter Day. But in no way, shape or form is the movie about Easter or even an Easter Parade.  The film is a flimsy, craven excuse to make hay out of the titular song…and little else. It seems to me as though MGM’s famous Freed Unit simply dusted off some pre-existing script and shoe-horned it under the Easter Parade title. You could have attached it to any old song and called it any old title and made just as much sense. “Eatin’ a Hamburger”. “Walkin’ Down the Beach, Y’all”. “Look! What’s that Up in the Road Ahead?” All of these titles would have worked just as well.  It’s about this dance team, played by Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, which breaks up then gets back together. I think it would be an easy matter for me to get more  emotionally involved watching a test pattern or static. As a base, I intrinsically hate movies like this, but then to have them gyp you on the Easter angle — it downright galvanizes one, converting mere indifference into an active tizzy.


At that point there’s only one thing to do. Watch a REAL Easter movie. Might I suggest the 1971 Rankin-Bass television special Here Comes Peter Cottontail, featuring the voices of Danny Kaye, Vincent Price, Casey Kasem, and Paul Frees. Incidentally, the tale is based on the Thornton W. Burgess stories illustrated by my great-great uncle Harrison Cady, who will be profiled on this blog in a few weeks.

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