Archive for June, 2011

A Notch Above Vaudeville: The Great Broadway Revues

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

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 present, including Broadway revuesconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


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.: The Floating Light Bulb

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, including magicians like Blackstone and Blackstone Jr.,  consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments.

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.

Connections Between the Circus and Vaudeville

Posted in Circus, Variety Arts (Defined) with tags , , , , , on June 26, 2011 by travsd

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, the American 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 presentincluding circus and vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever books are sold.


Cole Porter’s Paris

Posted in Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Movies (Contemporary), Tin Pan Alley with tags , , , , on June 25, 2011 by travsd

Photo by John Quilty

Two elements attracted me to the Medicine Show Theatre’s revival of the 1928 musical Paris: its composer Cole Porter and singer/actress colleague Sarah Engelke. After seeing a performance last night, I can testify that those are still the two reasons anyone should see it.

Over the last few years, my research on vaudevillians has led to to a corresponding investigation into early Broadway and Hollywood as well. The original production of Paris, for example, starred Irene Bordoni, profiled here. Meanwhile, the Countess has been working on her own project about chorus girls. So we were both eager to see this show; it’s a crucial piece of the puzzle. I greedily (and unrealistically) want to see all these old pre-war musicals revived and just as Medicine Show has done it, with an uncompromising approach to the text. I vastly prefer these older shows to more modern musicals, with their inferior songs and witless books. Plus, it’s a public service to expose people to a major chunk of theatrical history that has essentially been wiped clean from the modern repertory for over half a century. (Medicine Show hasn’t dumbed down a thing. Two of Porter’s songs from the show include references to Peggy Hopkins Joyce. Do you know who she was? You will if you go here.)

The content of Paris does not bore nor disappoint, though it was standard enough fare for its time. It has a funny (if conventional), and farcical plot about a young Boston socialite (John Russell) who wants to marry a Parisian actress (Engelke), but must overcome the objections of his Puritanical mother (Barbara Vann, also the show’s director). In short order the tables turn, and the mother becomes the wild, carousing one, now the embarrassment to her son instead of the other way around. The book by Martin Brown (whose last Broadway show this was) serves the plot but does not sparkle; there are no quotable, Coward-like lines to chortle over on the way home from the theatre. The saving grace is the contribution of Porter, whose first big Broadway success this was, thanks to songs like “Let’s Do It”, and “Let’s Misbehave”. To their credit, the Medicine Show folks have used this opportunity to restore some original Porter songs cut from the original 1928 production, and some other obscure early Porter songs as well.

As for Engelke, I had no idea. She makes me ashamed to have ever been on stage. She has something going on the entire time, fills each moment with life, fills each beat with some angle of business, is determined never to bore us for a second, and doesn’t. Her “French accent” is surprisingly good. While it wouldn’t fool a diplomat, it’s good enough for the purposes of comedy. And, as will surprise no one, her singing voice is terrific. I hope she gets many more opportunities to display her multifarious talents on the boards; that would be something like justice.

Unfortunately she shines all the more in contrast with her surroundings. To be fair, musicals aren’t this company’s main thing. As they admit in their program notes, they began mounting them in the 1980s to pay bills when they couldn’t draw audiences for the work they actually cared about. The problem is, to do something well, it HAS to be your main thing, the thing you love most in the world, every detail must matter. The production as a whole is a  community theatre style cornucopia of dropped lines, leisurely entrances, shaky singing voices, and the damnedest collection of rummage-sale oddments for sets, costumes and props. On one side of the set, the Countess noted, was a birdcage full of garbage. At one point, the romantic lead tripped and fell down (and he wasn’t even dancing at the time)! Part of the problem must be that Vann, though one of the best in the cast for acting if not for singing, is also the director. There is definitely a sense of split focus and too-much-bitten-off, of no one at the helm. Symptoms of exhaustion are rampant. (Note: Vann is also the company’s artistic director and she’s been at it for 41 years. Doubtless she has a constituency of fans who’ll overlook the faults and loyally cheer the company on, and I consider such loyalty legitimate. As a latecomer to the party, I can’t help but come with a different perspective). Still, you won’t get many chances in your life to see this musical. The current production is up through the end of the month. For more details, go here.

Charlotte Greenwood: Long Legged Letty

Posted in Broadway, Comediennes, Comedy, Dance, Hollywood (History), Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2011 by travsd
I'd have two words to say to a performer that tall who could do this: you're hired

I’d have two words to say to a performer that tall who could do this: “You’re hired”

In 1943, Rodgers and Hammerstein created the role of Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! for stage veteran Charlotte Greenwood, a testament to her popularity on the stage over the previous four decades and in film for the previous dozen years. In fact, it was her busy film schedule that prevented her from taking the role of Aunt Eller on Broadway at the time, although she got to play her in the movie version a dozen years later.

Born on this day in 1890, Lottie Greenwood was the daughter of a mother who managed a theatrical hotel. No doubt it’s how the bug bit her. She was just a teen when she got her first chorus part in the Klaw and Erlanger show The White Cat, directed by Ned Wayburn in 1907. The next year she was in The Rogers Brothers in Panama. In 1908, the tall and gangly Greenwood teamed up in vaudeville with short, plump Eunice Burnham as The Fisher Sisters: Two Girls and a Piano. At first Greenwood tried to work against her natural attributes, self-conscious about her Olive Oyl like physiognomy. Gradually she learned that when she moved a certain herky-jerky way, she got laughs, and so she did, and this was the basis of her theatrical identity for the remainder of her career. After Burnham, her vaudeville partner was the equally short and plump Sydney Grant. The continued to work in vaudeville and Broadway revues. In 1913, she starred in Tik-Tok in Oz, L. Frank Baum’s sequel to his hot Broadway version of his book The Wizard of Oz. From 1914-22, she  starred in a series of successful musical farces called the Letty series (named after her character). In the talkie era, Greenwood went out to Hollywood, where she got to star opposite some of the greatest comedians of the era.  1931 was a particularly good year: she was in Bert Lahr’s debut film Flying HighEddie Cantor’s Palmy Days and Buster Keaton’s Parlor, Bedroom and Bath.

She continued to be popular on Broadway and in films through the 40s and 50s, retiring in about 1956. She passed away in 1978.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville including stars like Charlotte Greenwood, 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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