Archive for June, 2011

Variety Arts #11: Revues

Posted in Broadway, Variety Arts (Defined) with tags , , , , , , , 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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The Bubble of Solace

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, VISUAL ART with tags , , , on June 28, 2011 by travsd

I don’t have enough fingers or toes to count the number of times I have worked with Jeff Lewonczyk, writer/director of The Bubble of Solace, which is now playing in the Brick’s Comic Book Theatre Festival. Any pretence of objectivity must therefore be dropped. Though, truth to tell, it should always be dropped, for there is no such thing as an objective critic. The idea should be flushed down the toilet. Not only do critics inevitably bring their own prejudices to bear, but also their own knowledge, or lack thereof. Most critics are little better than audience members themselves; what they ought to be is informed interpreters of work, midwifes of appreciation. This requires as much of a familiarity with the work of the artists about whom one is writing as it does about art itself. And this is why most New York critics are so ill-equipped for the job they attempt. It is as though they are reviewing a show of paintings on Governor’s Island from a vantage point in Battery Park. Me, I don’t have that problem. I’m down in the dumpster with the other rats. Digressed enough? Yes? To the matter at hand then:

Not that his work was exactly dismal before (see a little recap here), but The Bubble of Solace represents a great leap forward for Mr. L. He’s taken a big risk in getting real and being serious and, in my eyes, the gamble was hugely successful. While on occasion he has hit serious notes before, we associate him more with surreal comedy and a tendency to flee rather than confront harshness. In the current work he not only puts that tendency aside, he examines it rather unmercifully. The play’s anti-hero A.J. (Roger Nasser) is a sort of Marty with Asperger’s, a sad-sack owner of a comic book store as desolate as the video shop in Be Kind Rewind. As unlovable as he is unloved, A.J. goes to almost heroic exertions to shut out the many people who try to reach out to him: his mother (Esther Crow), his best (only) friend (Gavin Starr Kendall); a possible new friend (Melissa Roth); and a professor who offers him salvation (Fred Backus). Nasser plays A.J. with the stubbornness of a mule, without a kink in his armor for us to like or relate to. (Yes, a mule wearing armor. The beauty of having your own blog is you get to mix metaphors until the cows come home. But to return to our review:) Nasser seems to be consciously subverting the tendency of audiences to find him lovable. In Bubble he reveals that he can glower with the best of silverbacks, tapping into an unsuspected well of anger. But we don’t have a bad time; our interest comes from the tension in waiting to see what will make A.J. crack. Cruelly, Lewonczyk leaves his transformation for the last possible second.

The irony is, none of the people in A.J.’s life are speaking to him from across a wide gulf. They are all like him to one degree or another; this is nerd-land. His mom (warmly and sympathetically played by Crow) is a twitchy, bespectacled failed folk singer; Kendall’s character is likable but has an obnoxious, spastic compulsion to make childish sex jokes; Backus’s professor is a half-nerd who admits his whole life has been a struggle not to become like A.J. Even Roth’s sex-shop babe one imagines to be an outcast (do you remember all the nice nicknames they had in high school for sexual girls?)

Lest the proceedings get too grim, Lewonczyk has livened them with some of his patented “theatre for people who hate theatre”. Some excellent original comics (the ones A.J. is supposed to be reading) are projected onto the wall; and Crow gets to sing a nice folk song at one point, with lyrics by Jeff and tune by Esther’s husband and Electric Mess guitarist Dan Crow.

I don’t know how consciously the author intends it, if he intends it all, or even if I’m on the right planet,  but it seems to me that A.J. is a pretty apt metaphor for the predicament of certain of our more vehement indie theatre artists, stubbornly clinging to their arcane, obscure products in the middle of an empty store,  insanely digging in like a tick when well-meaning supporters suggest helpful compromises. Spending a lifetime amongst supposed vehicles of entertainment to the exclusion of all else, only being miserable for the effort (as opposed to rich, successful, and popular), and then doubling down on the misery. Just a thought. And if the analogy holds (and even it doesn’t), I can’t help wonder…what’s in that box of possibility A.J. opens at the end? What’s next?

The production has two more performances. Get tickets here.

What We Saw on Saturday

Posted in Art Stars, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Drag and/or LGBT, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Horror (Mostly Gothic), Indie Theatre, Rock and Pop, Singers with tags , , , , , , , on June 27, 2011 by travsd

The Countess and I had a rather a pleasant run of good experiences on Saturday.

It all started with (wait for it) Nosedive Productions‘ production of the Blood Brothers Present Freaks from the Morgue in Endtimes Productions’ Vignettes for the Apocalypse V. You got all that? Good, because I ain’t typing it again. I’ve lost count…this is either the third or fourth “Blood Brothers” show I’ve seen and reported on — and by far the best. The caliber of scripts was very high. Mac Rogers’ “Final Girl”  — about a serial killer who feeds live, paralyzed meth whores to the starving stock on his pig farm — was my favorite. I also enjoyed Brian Silliman’s two entries (which were illuminating about how much can be accomplished in a play with little or no dialogue), as well as those of Nose Dive stalwarts Stephanie “Queen of Gore” Cox-Williams and James Comtois. More than the other playwrights on the bill, the latter two seemed to be writing specifically for the Guignol, the scripts devised specifically for their unsettling effects (not surprising, since Cox-Williams is the lady who devises them and Comtois’s been at this genre a while now). The horror effects are the best the group has ever done, and they are present in greater abundance than ever before — a much welcome development. Cox-Williams starts the show off with a bang with “Bad Samaritan”, treating us to arterial spurts, severed limbs and decapitation before we even have our coats off. Then it’s off to the races through the whole show, each of the tales bearing close resemblance to stories we have read about in tabloids…but never thought we’d see. As always, the show is hilariously hosted by Pete Boisvert and Patrick Shearer, who chew the scenery along with the flesh of their victims.

After this, we swung by nearby Gallery 151, where we witnessed horrors of another sort…paintings by rapper Fab 5 Freddie. The show can roughly be broken down in thirds: one third, paintings of boxing matches, with the boxers’ trunks covered in rhinestones; one third, paintings of pole dancing ho’s; and one third paintings of graffiti tags. I call them “paintings” because the artist and the curators do: in reality they are photographic prints onto canvas. If you happen to already be directly in front of the gallery (as we were), you can step inside and be in and out in two minutes. Otherwise, don’t trouble yourself.

Of much more interest is a window exhibition at NYU’s Jack H. Skirball Center curated by my friend David Leopold. Its a series of blow-ups of caricatures by Al Hirschfeld, drawn from the many productions of Eugene O’Neill plays he’d attended over — get this —  70+ years. (The first are from the mid 1920s, the last from the late 1990s.) How is that possible? Well, I got to meet Mr. Hirschfeld in the early 90s when he inscribed a bunch of books for an event I was working on, and I’m here to tell you, he was still drawing and he was still sharp as a tack into his 90s. And he started young. So that’s how! At any rate, the pictures are charming, and you get to see his impressions of historic plays like Anna Christie, Ah, Wilderness, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Iceman Cometh, etc etc, with Hirschfeld’s witty eye capturing the likes of Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst and dozens of others, in his patented economic style.

From here, we zipped over to the Duplex for another incredible show by the terrific Tammy Faye Starlite. In Chelsea Madchen, the character comedienne portrays the late bohemian chanteuse Nico, having her cake and eating it too by doing serious, accurate covers of her tunes, then doing a broader comic take in mock interview sections with MTV rock journalist and former Rolling Stone editor Kurt Loder. To add to the magic of the evening, she bantered with Danny Fields, who happened to be in the audience. Fields was a regular of Warhol’s Factory, an early supporter of the Velvet Undergound, a publicist for the Doors, and the guy who discovered the MC5, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and the Ramones. It must have been a weird experience for him to watch this ribald impression of Nico, whom he actually knew.

The band was quite incredible — they did the rather tricky feat of approximating the Velvet Underground’s sound (any musician will tell you how hard that is), and then playing in more conventional later styles. Of course, it wasn’t perfect — this band was more in tune than the Velvets ever were, and Tammy’s voice is not quite as masculine and definitely not as shaky as the real Nico’s. It was cool to actually be able to hear and understand the lyrics of many of the songs from the notoriously murky Banana Album. The show included Nico’s three songs off that record, three off Chelsea Girl (the title track, an early song by Jackson Browne, and Dylan’s “I’ll Keep it With Mine.”) She also did the Door’s “The End”, Bowie’s “Heroes”, and a version of “My Funny Valentine”. The latter is off her last record from the mid-80s, Camera Obscura. At any rate, it was a pleasure to catch this perfect set by the versatile Starlite, who also does Mick Jagger in a Stones cover group called the Mike Hunt Band, as well as her famous stints as a potty mouthed Christian country singer from Nashville. Somewhere underneath the layers, I believe, is a real girl from the Upper West Side, but I dare you to try and find her!

Well, as I said at the beginning this was Saturday and the news about the gay marriage law had just broke…and we were at the Duplex and about ten feet away from Stonewall so, as you can imagine, a festive atmosphere prevailed out on the streets when we got back outside. To cap it all off, Michael Musto walked by. We’d only just seen him the other night at the Emperor’s New Codpiece. Proof enough that the Countess and I do know how to be in the right place at the right time.

Stars of Vaudeville #182: Helen Keller

Posted in Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , on June 27, 2011 by travsd

Keller and Sullivan. Sullivan, I guess, was the “feeder”

(originally posted June 27, 2010)

Yes, Helen Keller was in vaudeville, and, no, she didn’t do Helen Keller jokes. She and her teacher Annie Sullivan had done the Chautauqua lecture circuit for many years when a sudden crunch for cash made them finally accede to the vaudeville offers they’d been turning down since Keller had become famous. The act premiered at the New York Palace in February 1920 and was sufficiently successful to keep them on the road for a few years. Part of the act included fielding questions from the audience. Some of the questions were pre-prepared with equally canned answers, to wit:

Question: Can you feel moonshine?

Answer: No, but I can smell it.

The act sounds awfully close to a freak show routine, but then, isn’t it all a freak show? There’s an interesting article on the subject here.

ADDENDUM 6/27/11

AND! opening this Friday in Horse Trade’s Mini-Fridge Festival, is The Star of Happiness: Helen Keller on Vaudeville, a one woman show by Michelle-Leona Godin, Ph.D. The show looks very interesting although the author appears confused about her prepositions, Ph.D notwithstanding. Her use of “on” makes sense when you use it in the sense of “commenting on” (understood), i.e., “Helen Keller on the subject of vaudeville.” But in some of her written materials she seems to use “on” where “in” is the appropriate usage, i.e.” performing on (understood) vaudeville”. We only use “on” in broadcasting, as in “I was on The Love Boat” or “I was on Letterman. Otherwise, it’s “I was IN vaudeville”, or (when speaking about a specific house), “I was AT the Palace”. I can only think of two explanations for her use of “on”. 1) She is an academic, and she is doing some kind of Foucault-like word game to either make us think or drive us crazy or both; or 2) English is not her native language; or 3) both. At any rate, if you are as curious as I am, go see it. Details are here.

To find out more about 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.

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Variety Arts #10: Circus

Posted in Circus, Variety Arts (Defined) with tags , on June 26, 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 show Trav S.D.’s American Vaudeville Theatre 15th Anniversary ExTRAVaganza.

Acrobats, jugglers, and animals acts are common to both the circus and vaudeville, but here’s the difference between the two forms of theatre: in the circus such performers are royalty; in the vaudeville of yore they were second and third class citizens. This is a distinction that’s been blurred since the 1970s, when the first wave of so-called New Vaudevillians came in — acts that were far more evocative of and representative of, the circus than vaudeville. (Non-verbal clowns might be considered an exception. Some were stars in vaudeville, certainly — but just as certainly they are not unique to, or representative of, vaudeville.)

At bottom, circus is about horses. The word (remember your Greek and Latin) means circle — it refers to that ring, which is just the right size for horses (often bearing trick riders) to run around and around and around. A related concept is the hippodrome (roughly “horse track”). The ancient circus was different from the modern in that the spectacle often involved entertainments more akin to “sport”: races, for example, and brutal fights to the death.

The modern circus is usually traced to one Philip Astley, who began presenting equestrian entertainments in a ring in England in the late 18th century. The novelty was brought to the U.S. by one Bill Rickets, and later enhanced (into the kind of show modern audiences would recognize) by folks like the talking clown Dan Rice, P.T. Barnum and others in the 19th century. Unlike its European cousin which ensconces itself in permanent circus buildings, the American circus is itinerant. Like the medicine show and the showboat, our version of circus is about traveling, historically in tents,  bringing magic and wonder wherever it is needed.

While circus (like all live entertainment) was certainly once more prevalent in American society, it is a testament to its power and resilience that it remains a part of our lives to this day. Vaudeville, which placed its chips on a different model depending on a physical infrastructure (the theatre chains) went the way of the dodo. (It needn’t have been so, by the way. In the early days, folks like M.B. Leavitt, Weber and Fields and Tony Pastor crossed the country with touring vaudeville companies. Come to think of it, there’s no reason such an idea couldn’t be revived).

Some circus stars, like clown/ trick rider Poodles Hanneford (whose dynasty still performs today in circus) became vaudeville stars. More often, lots of vaudevillians got their start in circuses and worked their way up the show biz ranks, gradually abandoning their circus skills, usually to be comedians. Examples include Clark and McCullough, and Joe E. Brown. To find lots of others, see the links to the clowns, acrobats,  and jugglers categories on this blog. Also see the circus category for more on circus, including especially my little rant on circus aesthetics here.

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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