Archive for June, 2011

Variety Arts #11: Revues

Posted in Broadway, Variety Arts (Defined) on June 30, 2011 by travsd

This post is one in a series that defines for the layman the various types of variety arts, and to relate some of my own interactions therewith, all in anticipation of my upcoming showTrav S.D.’s American Vaudeville Theatre 15th Anniversary ExTRAVaganza.

The great Broadway revues were lavish stage shows that combined elements of vaudeville and burlesque – and wrapped them in Broadway packaging. The vaudeville element was a bill of top variety acts from all fields. The burlesque element was a chorus of scantily clad pretty girls. The “Broadway” element was a rehearsed and choreographed program, distinguished by original scores by top composers, and original sketches by top comedy writers.

In 1907, Florenz Ziegfeld inaugurated his famous Follies, which established the Broadway revue formula. He’d copped the format from the stage show of the French Folies Bergere which since 1869 had incorporated elaborate tableaux of beautiful young women as framing devices around the traditional music hall talent. Initially created to showcase his wife, French chorine Anna Held, Zeigfeld’s Follies eventually came to star all the major performers of the day, as did its many imitators. Others which sprang up over the years included: the Passing Show series presented by the Shuberts (1912-34), George White’s Scandals (1919-39), Earl Carroll’s Vanities (the dirtiest of the bunch, 1923-31), the Greenwich Village Follies (1920-28), and Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revues (1921-24). All of these annual revues (and many other, “one shot” productions) employed the top vaudeville stars of the day.

To graduate to a Broadway Revue for many vaudevillians was the true measure of “making it”. Some stars continued to work both in vaudeville and revues at the same time, but many said “s’long” to the grind of the circuits for the greater prestige and remuneration to be had on the revue stage. The differences in working conditions were palpable. Even a big time vaudevillian was obligated to do two shows a day; the revues were strictly prime time. Also the revues were really a New York phenomenon. While some did tour, for the most part the performer could go to work right from his home, bypassing the bad food, harsh travel and dumpy accommodations that were part of the ordeal of traveling the vaudeville circuit.

Vaudevillians who made the jump: Leon Errol and Bert Williams (1911), Willie and Eugene Howard (1912), Ed Wynn (1914), W.C. Fields and Will Rogers (1915), and Eddie Cantor (1917). Women singers like Nora Bayes, Belle Baker, Eva Tanguay and Ruth Etting were in-and-out, switching vaudeville and revues like so many pairs of stockings.

Some stars were so big or so lucky, they built entire revues around themselves.

The series of revues Ed Wynn produced through the twenties and early thirties were his  highest realization as a performing artist. To this day, despite ample record of Wynn’s comic genius on film, radio and TV,  this string of Broadway smashes is regarded as the pinnacle of Wynn’s career. Each was based around the familiar character Wynn had been developing in vaudeville. Among the most successful of these tailor-made starring vehicles were Ed Wynn’s Carnival (1920), The Perfect Fool (1921), The Grab Bag (1924), Simple Simon (1930) and The Laugh Parade (1931).

Other high profile revues built around a single vaudeville star included Raymond Hitchcock’s successful Hitchy Koo series, the Marx Brothers 1924 hit I’ll Say She Is! and Frank Fay’s Fables, whichflopped.

In many ways these revues were better than vaudeville. No animal acts or acrobats to sit through…just the top singers and comedy stars, framed by beautiful women wearing opulent costumes. In fact, these revues drained off a lot of the top talent from vaudeville, and contributed to the prohibitive salary increases of many of the performers.

But the Great Depression was a harsh storm to weather. Although the vogue for revues outlasted vaudeville by a few years, by the end of the 1930s that, too had passed.

“Revue” is one of those theatre words with multiple meanings and applications, however. Certainly many other large scale, lavish revues were tried on Broadway in the years since that great heyday – and some succeeded. And of course, small scale revues have flourished at intimate venues all over the country right along. The satiric “sketch revue” has been a popular format in cabarets, small theatres and on television since the 1950s. When people, mostly ill-informed journalists, say to me “Saturday Night Live, isn’t that descended from vaudeville?” I usually say, “No, no, man, that’s a sketch revue. What are ya—new?

To learn more about the variety arts past and presentconsult 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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Jews on Broadway

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Jews/ Show Biz with tags , on June 30, 2011 by travsd

Stewart Lane must hear the same joke I do every time I mention the title of his new book Jews on Broadway to somebody: “Is there anybody else?” The answer is, of course there are, but there’s no denying that Jews have been not only hugely influential, but numerous in this field. At times the book seems awfully close to reading like a history of the American theatre in toto.

Wacko anti-Semites see this is as proof of a deliberate, century long cultural takeover. (I know — many of them find their way to this blog, using search terms like “so many Jews in show business”).  The irony of that mentality is mind-boggling, given that the first generation of Jews and other immigrants went into show business because they were poor and had nothing to lose, and most American WASPs considered entertainment and the arts beneath them both culturally and morally. The Jews have been successful in this field not only because of their prodigious creative talents, but because they got in on the ground floor. Ya snooze, ya lose, baby!

Lane makes this point by starting this story with its prologue, following the Yiddish theatre from its origins in Eastern Europe to the overcrowded, struggling Lower East Side. (The names of two Yiddish comedies made me laugh out loud: The Shmendrick and Two Kuni-Lemls.) It was the Yiddish Theatre and the likes of Jacob Adler and Boris Tomashefsky that would inspire a younger generation who would go on to found the Group Theatre and the Actor’s Studio, Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets, etc etc. (Did you know HARRY MORGAN [Dragnet, M*A*S*H] was in the Group Theatre? I’d be grateful for this book if only for that crazy piece of information!) At any rate, even a cursory familiarity with this theatrical movement will tell you that it was composed of idealists, artists and dreamers. The fact that some of them went to Hollywood and made a buck was a by-product of their integrity. Have you seen what most acting in Hollywood movies was like before they came on the scene? Facacta!

The vaudeville and musical comedy folks, however, were in it for material success, and they achieved it. The number of successful Jewish performers, songwriters, producers, playwrights and directors is legion and needs no recitation here. Lane covers all the biggies, with brief biographical sketches including the high (and low) points in their careers. The book is particularly valuable in its coverage of more recent decades, with information on contemporary professionals (including some interviews). This is material that hasn’t yet found its way into existing books and so has immediate utility. Because Lane is also a major producer (La Cage Aux Folles, Will Rogers Follies, among lots of others) there’s an element of insider autobiography to it. There’s a nice feeling of contuity from past to present that I find especially valuable, a celebration of, to cop a sentiment from Fiddler, “Tradition”.

And there are some interesting side trips. Anti-communism and the blacklist in the 1950s, which Lane speculates might have had partial motives of anti-semitism. The important  influence of the entertainers who performed in Catskills resorts on Broadway’s musical theatre. And serious playwrights from Odets to Arthur Miller to Mamet and Tony Kushner. And finally, in recent years, that inarguable measure of success in such shows as The Producers; Jewtopia; and My Mother’s Italian,  My Father’s Jewish and I’m in Therapy — irreverence. You know you’ve truly made it when you can afford to poke fun at yourself. But as Tovah Feldshuh points out in one of the book’s insightful interviews, self-deprecation has always been the source of the Jewish people’s humor. Thus, a big part, ironically, of their success in the theatre.

Blackstone, Jr.

Posted in Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change with tags , on June 30, 2011 by travsd

He's making that light bulb float -- he's not in a basement.

Harry Blackstone, Jr. (born this day in 1934) was the son of Harry Blackstone, one of the greatest magicians of the 20th century. After college and a stint in the Korean War, the younger Blackstone started performing in nightclubs and the like learning some of the tricks he’d been taught by his father as well as some he’d developed on his own. When his father died in 1965, Blackstone Jr. began to take on his mantle, incorporating some of his big, famous illusions. He became a familiar sight on television, and his own Broadway show in 1980. He died in 1997 from complications arising from pancreatic cancer.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult 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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Stars of the AVT #45: Ken Butler

Posted in American Vaudeville Theatre, BROOKLYN, Contemporary Variety, Music with tags , , on June 30, 2011 by travsd


This post is one of a series profiling the hundreds of performers I’ve presented through my American Vaudeville Theatrein celebration of its 15th anniversary. Don’t miss the American Vaudeville Theatre’s 15th Anniversary ExTRAVaganza in the New York International Fringe Festival this August!

Ken Butler is a LONG time Williamsburger. He moved to the neighborhood not long after moving to NYC from his native Portland in 1988, making him one of the first artists in the neighborhood and a Williamsburg pioneer. Now that all the artists are fleeing, he’ll also be one of the LAST to live there.

He is an iconoclast. I think of him as being representative of the performance art movement of the 1970s and 80s. A visual artist, he began making functional stringed musical instruments out of ordinary objects: snow shovels, brooms, even a toothbrush. And he plays them. Really well. Then he does stuff with effects boxes, delays, loppes and so forth so that he has several parts happening at the same time. He’s played with the likes of John Zorn and Laurie Anderson, been on the NBC Tonight Show, as well as MTV, PBS and CNN.

I first presented him as part of music festival I was hosting at the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center  in 1997, and again when I was producing and hosting Galapagos Floating Vaudeville in 2004. In 2007 I profiled him for an art show he did (conceptual works made of slot cars) for the Brooklyn Papers.

To learn more about vaudeville past and presentconsult 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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Trav S.D.’s Gallery of Grotesques #23

Posted in ME, My cartoons on June 29, 2011 by travsd

Trav S.D.’s Gallery of Grotesque’s #22

Posted in ME, My cartoons on June 29, 2011 by travsd

Pood #3

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, VISUAL ART with tags on June 29, 2011 by travsd

You’ve got to kill a lot of trees to make just one issue of Pood! (Pood-poets, feel free to use my Madison Avenue style advertising slogan. )

Yeah. Trees. The question is, what kind? Maybe the talking kind, like from The Wizard of Oz or H.R. Pufnstuf. The guy in a tree costume from Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms. Or maybe, like the tree branches on the head of the creature in Hans Rickheit’s Cochlea and Eustachia. (see above) My favorite moment in the current Pood is from that comic, when two masked girl-twins fight over a cupcake, only to learn that it contains a sleeping humanoid lizard embryo.

Pood is a mind-altering experience. To dig Pood is to dip into other realms, wearing only a fez , a codpiece and carpet slippers made of certain kinds of squash.

Sometimes (the nights when the shelter is closed), I like to snuggle up in a fresh copy of Pood over on parkbench #5  and read the ink impression it leaves on my thorax.

Pood doesn’t contain anti-oxidants.

I like to swallow Pood like a horse pill, and let its cool, menthol sensation spread like an oil slick around my diaphragm.

When the wind is just right, I like to ride it like a flying carpet. Whoops-a-daisy!

Put some Pood in your pillow as a tasty snack for later. Tastes like marshmallows!

Old women in babushkas like to congregate around the playground, shouting at the children: “Did ya get yer Pood? Did ya get yer Pood?”

Pood is furry and hops up and down (no, that’s a rabbit!)

Pood ain’t plastic; it’s Poooooooooooood-tastic!

Order your copy of Pood today! Here’s how.

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