Archive for May, 2011

T-Bone Walker

Posted in African American Interest, Blues, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on May 28, 2011 by travsd

A true bridge between the old world and the new. To the extent that most contemporary people are familar with T-Bone Walker (born this day in 1910) it’s probably as an electric bluesman, an influence on B.B. King and Chuck Berry, and an inductee into the Blues and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. But he also has a vaudeville pedigree. After singing on the streets of Dallas as a child, he performed in medicine shows and black vaudeville. For a time he sang, danced and played with Ida Cox; after that he performed with Ma Rainey. Some claim that he is the first electric guitar player. His real name is Aaron Thibeaux Walker. Pronounce “Thibeaux” the French way and you’ll see how he came to be known as T-Bone. He passed away in 1975.

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.


George Formby, Jr. and His Banjolele

Posted in British Music Hall, Music, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on May 26, 2011 by travsd

George Formby, Jr (born today in 1904) was a star of the English Music Hall who specialized in comic songs to his own banjolele (ukulele-banjo) accompaniment. He was the son of popular music hall star George Formby, a favorite of Charlie Chaplin’s. When his father passed away in 1921, the younger Formby started performing his material and became an even greater star, aided by the popularity of his Gramophone records and appearances in motion pictures. Look! Here’s one now:

The highly inflential musician and comedian died of a heart attack in 1961 — and from the speed of his playing it’s not hard to see why.

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.


Charles Winninger: The Original Cap’n Andy

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2011 by travsd

The Countess and I are forever pointing to the screen and shouting “That guy!” when we see someone whose face we recognize from a million places but whose name we don’t know. Well, Charles Winninger (born today in 1884) is a “That Guy” — and how.

In fact, we just saw him, playing the implausible “Pop” Gallagher in 1941’s Ziegfeld Girl alongside Judy Garland. He plays her washed up old vaudeville dad who somehow ISN’T Ed Gallagher but somehow stars with the real Al Shean as Gallagher and Shean in the Ziegfeld Follies. You can also see him playing Cap’n Andy (the role he created on Broadway) in the 1936 version of Showboat, in 1930’s Soup to Nuts with Ted Healy and the Three Stooges, in Every Day’s a Holiday with Mae West (1937), Destry Rides Again (1939), and State Fair (1945). He played many down at the heels showmen and vaudevillians in countless other movies, and even reprised the role in a much-beloved episode of I Love Lucy, where he played Fred’s (William Frawley) old vaudeville partner.

These show biz roles came naturally to him. He grew up singing, dancing, joking and tumbling in the family vaudeville act the Winninger Family Novelty Company. When the parents dropped out, he continued on with his brothers for several years after that. In the early years they played showboats, vaudeville theatres, medicine shows, and even the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. At 26, he began working with Lew Fields company where he specialized in Dutch comedy roles. Several revues followed in the Jazz Age: the Cohan Revues of 1916 and 1981, the Shubert Passing Show of 1919, Ziegfeld’s Follies and Frolics both in 1920. In the twenties, he moved on to book musicals like No, No, Nanette (1925) and Showboat (1927). His last four decades were spent in Hollywood. He passed away in 1969.

To learn more about performers like Charles Winninger 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.


The Ernie Kovacs Collection

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Ernie Kovacs, Television, TV variety with tags , , on May 25, 2011 by travsd

My review of the new DVD boxed set The Ernie Kovacs Collection for The Villager/ Downtown Express conglomeration of pennysavers is here. The collection is most exhaustive, but one wonderful artifact that wasn’t included in the collection deserved mention here. Shortly before he died in 1962, television’s most innovative comedian co-starred with the cinema’s most innovative comedian Buster Keaton in a pilot for a show called Medicine Man.  The show cast Ernie as a fast-talking, cigar smoking snake oil salesman, and Buster as his Indian companion. (Keaton had done the Indian before, in his short The Paleface as well as a movie version of Li’l Abner. He’d also gotten his start as a child in medicine shows). I’ve seen the pilot at the Paley Center. It is surpisingly lame given the talent involved, but then Kovacs and Keaton were just two hired guns on this thing, not the creators. As the collection’s curator Ben Model points out, the two geniuses would have inevitably worked out brilliant physical bits as the series went on if it had ever been picked up. Anyway, both the collection and Medicine Show are both worth watching if you’re as morbidly curious as I am. By the way, that’s not Buster Keaton in the picture above — it’s Kovacs’ beautiful wife and co-star Edie Adams.

What Were Medicine Shows?

Posted in Native American Interest, Variety Arts (Defined), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on May 25, 2011 by travsd

Medicine shows were primarily a rural form of entertainment, operating out of the backs of wagons (and later, trucks) in the Mid-west and Southeast United States, although its roots go back as far as Medieval times. These small operations would travel around hawking patent medicine cures, tonics, elixirs, and lineaments with a pitch usually made by a “Doctor” (invariably one with dubious or nonexistent credentials).

The medicine shows (and their medicines) were often linked to Indian tribes to give their folk remedies an imagined legitamcy. Kickapoo Indian Sagwa was the most famous of these, although there were countless others.

This old gent is getting taken to the cleaners, although he’s probably glad to get the alcohol in the bottle. How much would you care to wager that the character in the head-dress is not actually Native American?

To lure the townsfolk, a small company would present a basic variety show, featuring skills like magic, juggling, short skits and music. As you can imagine, life traveling with such shows was brutal and hard — exposure to weather, very little money. Buster Keaton’s parents Joe and Myra started out with such outfits, and so did Buster, who was born as they were traveling with one. I have been to the site — Piqa, Kansas, a bleak, desolate spot one suspects is not far from the farm of Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. George Walker and Bert Williams were nearly lynched while traveling with a medicine show through the south when the local denizens decided that their clothes were too fancy.

Harry Houdini, Harry Langdon, Joe Cook and Red Skelton are just some of the other performers who got their start with such shows. Percy Williams, who’d started out as an actor in melodramas, made his fortune as a medicine man, and eventually owned a chain of vaudeville theatres.

Live medicine shows went out with the banning of patent medicine in the early to mid 20th century. But every time you listen to radio or watch television and get a commercial for a pharmaceutical company you’re getting the modern electronic equivalent.

I’ve done medicine show bits many times over the years. Trav S.D.’s Health and Wealth Elixir made its appearance at my Nada shows in ’96 and ’99 and at The Brick in ’06; and we’ve also taken  the liberty of hawking Moxie in ’02 and at Collective: Unconscious in ’07. I stand firm by my belief in the Moxie product, but the show itself took a bath. Look for more from me like this in the near future!

Your Humble Correspondent, Nada, 1996

To learn more about the variety arts past and present, including medicine shows, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


In Defense of the Monkees

Posted in Music, PLUGS, Rock and Pop, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , on May 25, 2011 by travsd

The Copycats, the folks who brought you the recent tribute to Love, are devoting this evening’s presentation to the Monkees.

I have a deep emotional attachment to the Pre-Fab Four. Their debut album, left behind by my older brothers, was one of my favorite records to play and play and play as a kid, and their tv show was (and is) one of my favorite tv shows. Scoff if you will, but a  mutual appreciation for the Monkees is among the things that binds me to my very best friends, including the Abominable Dr. Pinnock, who introduced me to all of their later albums as well as rarities like their 1969 television special.

The criticisms are real well known. “They aren’t really a rock group.” “They’re a corporate product”. “They don’t really play their instruments”. And here are my answers:

It’s ALL a corporate product. If you know about it, the chances are about 98% that that knowledge has flown to you on the whirl-i-gig of show business.

Yes, the Monkees were created by television producers. The guys they hired needed to be likable comic actors and believable as musicians. If anything, in reality, the producers achieved MORE credibility than they needed to have done. Two of the four (Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork) had actual street cred as musicians, and one of them (Nesmith) was a first class pop songwriter who penned many of the group’s lasting hits, as well as others for himself as a solo artist, and other pop singers as well (such as Linda Rondtadt). Tork’s songs were also great — “For Pete’s Sake”, his best, became the closing theme music for the show. Dolenz also wrote a couple of excellent songs, notable “Randy Scouse Git”. Even Davy Jones wrote songs, although he would have to be a distant fourth in a ranking of his abilities as a writer.

Some of the Monkees don’t play instruments? On a lot of their records, none of them plays instruments? So what? Neither does Elvis.

Do you dislike the idea of auditions for a band? Well…Johnny Rotten auditioned for the Sex Pistols. Ringo Starr was hired to be the drummer of the Beatles when they got a record contract — it’s show biz. It’s all show biz, and it’s all a consumer product, including all those rock artists who provide you with the illusion of aloofness and integrity. This realization, some think, is what drove Kurt Cobain to suicide. Bob Dylan of course constantly tries to subvert this trap by periodically being as uncommercial as possible. More often than not, though, he does what he does in order to get paid.

Some people, I suppose, don’t like the Monkee’s music, and that’s legitimate (taste being subjective), but I am strongly not in that camp. Even the most indie of indie artists has to admit that there are times — indeed many times — when a collaborative, corporate product comes together and works…Hollywood movies, Broadway shows, etc. A lot of it, yes, a majority of it, is crap. But sometimes the elements click. If you asked me “Could you hire a bunch of professional songwriters from the Brill Building, and a bunch of studio musicians, and come up with great records?” I would have answered unequivocally, no! But here is the exception that proves the rule.

After the Monkees of course, came the Archies and the Banana Splits, and if the Copycats do tributes to those “groups” I will be truly impressed. In the meantime, they are playing cover versions of the Monkees’ oeuvre tonight at Otto’s Shrunken Head. Details here.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , on May 25, 2011 by travsd

Today is the birthday of America’s greatest philosopher/essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. His Transcendentalist writings were a major influence on my Mountebanks Manifesto. I used a quote from “The American Scholar” on the frontispiece: “Free should the scholar be — free and brave.” (Though in some versions I juxtaposed it with the motto of the title characters of W.S. Gilbert’s The Mountebanks: “Heroism Without Risk” — essentially the opposite sentiment).

My original paperback of Emerson collected works became was dog-eared, marked up and eventually fell apart. My second copy is also marked-up. Here, for your contemplation, are some favorite passages I’ve highlighted over the years:


* “Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string”

* “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.”

* “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.

* “I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me.”

* “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think…you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it…but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

* “For nonconformity, the world whips you with its displeasure.”

* “To be great is to be misunderstood.”

* “A great man is coming to eat at my house. I do not wish to please him; I wish that he should wish to please me.”

* “The Scipionism of Scipio is precisely that part he could not borrow. Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare.”

* “Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”

FROM “NATURE” (1836)

* “Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyph to those inquiries he would put”.

* “We are taught by great actions that the universe is the property of every individual in it.”

* “A work of art is an abstract or epitome of the world…Art [is] a nature passed through the alembic of man.”

* “‘Every scripture is to be interpreted by the same spirit which gave it forth’ — is the fundamental law of criticism.”

FROM “FATE” (1860)

* “How shall I live? We are incompetent to solve the times”.


I have also been influenced by Emerson’s more mystical writings such as “The Transcendentalist” (1842) and “The Over-Soul” (1841). These essays have inspired a song-cycle I have been working on for a number of years (and will no doubt take many more years to emerge). It is a sort of mash-up of Emerson and George Harrison. I am hoping to record it in federal prison so that it can be produced by Phil Spector. Think of the echoey, “live” sound! And it should be easy to find a harmonica player there.

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