Archive for July, 2011

Three Cheers for the Countess!

Posted in American Vaudeville Theatre, ME, Vaudeville etc., Women on July 21, 2011 by travsd

As we head into the home stretch of our brief run in the New York International Fringe Festival, I just wanted to pause a moment and extend my heartfelt appreciation to the Countess, known to most government authorities as Carolyn Raship. Folks who peruse the program and marketing materials for our little one-horse show will note that she is listed as “Consulting Director”. “What does that mean?” you may wonder. Well, we made it up. As anyone can tell you, it’s deuced hard to direct yourself on stage. Some manage, but this correspondent has enough trouble holding the reins on his own part, let alone standing outside himself and seeing the big picture. As she did with my Tetragrammaton earlier this year, Carolyn generously stepped in and brought her expertise (greater than mine) to the task of moving bodies around artfully through space. You can see her hand especially in the “Crime of the Rhyme” sketch in the show, as well as the “One Ball Juggler” bit, and other solo bits I do. She was also the director of Sarah Engelke’s “Strega Nona” routine, performed in the show last week.

More palpably perhaps, she has busied herself with an amazing series of portraits of many of the acts in our show, which you can see at her swell new Tumblr blog here (if you haven’t already). This series has really added up to something, I feel. In short, it has legs. What the creature is or where it will walk on those legs, no one knows, but something beautiful, useful, and full of potential seems to have been loosed on the world. Let’s all keep our eye on it and hope that it doesn’t bite.

The Countess, in case it wasn’t plain, is my every happiness. I love her way more than vaudeville.

R.I.P. Jerry Lieber

Posted in Broadway, Music, Rock and Pop, Tin Pan Alley with tags , , , , , on July 21, 2011 by travsd

I was saddened to hear yesterday (August 22, 2011) of the passing of Jerry Lieber. I had gotten to speak to him once on the phone back when I was working for Tony Bennett. He was, of course, trying to sell Tony a song. I thought, how sad and odd, that a songwriter of this stature still has to travel around, hat in hand, and hawk his songs. At the time, Tony wasn’t even hot (this was a year or so before his big comeback in the 90s). As it happens, Jerry would have his own big comeback that decade, when Smokey Joe’s Cafe became a hit show on Broadway. (This, too, is strange and unnatural. That one of America’s top songwriters, and one so very much in the Tin Pan Alley tradition, doesn’t get a Broadway show for forty years — and when he does, it is with forty year old songs. Something symptomatic there, something unhealthy).

At any rate, if you wrote out a list of famous songs by Jerry Lieber with his pal Mike Stoller, it would, without exageration, be about as long as your arm. Lieber was the lyricist, and one could argue, the more significant and distinctive contributor to the team. Because one notable aspect about their work is the enormous range, both in terms of emotional content and of subject matter, in their songs. On the one hand, the lyrics to “Spanish Harlem” were so beautiful that Lenny Bruce once quoted them in his act as proof that rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t so bad. On the other hand, they wrote dozens of humorous songs, songs so gimmicky that they were of the type that ordinarily define “one hit wonders”, yet they had dozens of hits with them, usually(but not always) with their principle mouthpieces The Coasters: “Little Egypt”, “Along Came Jones” (about the star of B movie westerns), “Poison Ivy”, “Love Potion #9”, “Yakety Yak”, “Searchin'” (with its references to Charlie Chan and Bulldog Drummond), “Charlie Brown”, “Three Cool Cats”, “Alligator Wine” (as sung by Screamin Jay Hawkins) etc etc.

Lieber had that rare gift to be able to convey slapstick lyrically, planting hilarious images in the head with only words. From “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”:

“From behind the counter there came a man,

A chef hat on his head and a knife in his hand.

He grabbed me by the collar and he began to shout:

‘You’d better eat up all your beans and get right on out!'”

I’m also very fond of the punchline to “Love Potion #9”:

“But when I kissed a cop down at 23rd and Vine,

He broke my little bottle of Love Potion #9″

The team also had a major association with Elvis Presley, and as so often happens, success proved a kind of undoing. Elvis’s first major national hit was “Hound Dog”, a song the team had written for Big Mama Thornton in 1953. Soon they were supplying songs for his movies that also became hits, songs at once funny and cool, hence perfect for the King: “Jailhouse Rock”, “You’re So Square (Baby I Don’t Care)”, “Bossa Nova Baby”, etc etc etc. As the machine ground on through the sixties however, the product began to descend into hackwork and exhaustion showed: “Girls! Girls! Girls”, “King Creole”, etc.

Their original heyday had a couple of last gasps. “D.W. Washburn” was a minor hit for the Monkees in 1968. The following year, Peggy Lee had a hit with “Is That All There Is?” (later the theme song of our own Miss Astrid). A little known fact, the team (who were also top producers in the 50s and 60s) produced Stealers Wheels’ 1972 hit “Stuck in the Middle With You” (later memorably revived by Quentin Tarantino for Reservoir Dogs). And, though I’m not seeing this in a lot of the obituaries, the revival for Lieber and Stoller came quite early. When I was a kid in the 1970s, Sha Na Na and the ABC hit sit-com Happy Days were actually huge cultural forces, dominating the television airwaves. At any rate, they were certainly the avenues by which I came to know the team’s music. And thereafter their music became principally about nostalgia. (Another example — the title song of Rob Reiner’s film Stand By Me). At any rate, you can learn more about Mr. Leiber here. If there’s a rock and roll heaven…

Swayne’s Rats and Cats

Posted in Animal Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on July 21, 2011 by travsd

swainsratsandcats

Swayne’s Rats and Cats (sometimes spelled Swain’s, sometimes remembered as Nelson’s) was a notorious animal act of late vaudeville, late enough that it was fondly recalled by many major twentieth century stars in their anecdotes. One finds accounts of the act in the writings and utterances of George Burns, Groucho Marx, Fred Allen, June Havoc, and Mousie Garner, et al. At the climax of the act the rats, dressed as little jockeys, would ride the cats around a little racetrack. Several have told the story in which Fanny Brice retired to find a rat in her dressing room, and screamed for Swayne (or Nelson, as the case may be) who entered, looked at the rat, and said “That’s not one of mine!” According to Groucho, however, a year later that civilian rat had become the star of the act.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, including animal acts like Swayne’s Rats and Cats, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments.

 

What Was Vaudeville?

Posted in Variety Arts (Defined), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on July 21, 2011 by travsd

When Groucho Marx and Charlie Chaplin were born, variety entertainment had been going on for decades in America, and like Harry Houdini, Milton Berle, Mae West, and countless others, these performers got their start on the vaudeville stage. From 1881 to 1932, vaudeville, (a nationwide system of theatre circuits specializing in variety entertainment) was at the heart of show business in the United States. Its stars were America’s first stars in the modern sense, and it utterly dominated American popular culture. Writer and modern-day vaudevillian Trav S.D. chronicles vaudeville’s far-reaching impact in No Applause–Just Throw Money. He explores the many ways in which vaudeville’s story is the story of show business in America and documents the rich history and cultural legacy of our country’s only purely indigenous theatrical form, including its influence on everything from USO shows to Ed Sullivan to The Muppet Show and The Gong Show. More than a quaint historical curiosity, vaudeville is thriving today, and Trav S.D. pulls back the curtain on the vibrant subculture that exists across the United States–a vast grassroots network of fire-eaters, human blockheads, burlesque performers, and bad comics intent on taking vaudeville into its second century.

To learn more about the vaudeville and 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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Helen Broderick: Crawford and Broderick

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 21, 2011 by travsd

The mother of Broderick Crawford, and herself a familiar sight in Hollywood films of the 1930s and 40s, Helen Broderick’s claim to vaudeville lay in her 15 year membership in the team of Crawford and Broderick (her partner and husband was Broderick Crawford’s father). Born August 11, 1891, she was cast in the very first Ziegfeld Follies in 1907 (you do the math; she was very young). The 20s saw her seguing from vaudeville into Broadway stardom in shows like 50 Million Frenchmen and The Bandwagon. This transitioned nicely into a Hollywood career that often paired with Victor Moore, often in Astaire and Rogers musicals. Her last film was in 1946; she passed away in 1959.

Here she is with William Gaxton in Olsen and Johnson’s Fifty Million Frenchmen:

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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Variety Shows on Radio and Television

Posted in Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, TV variety, Variety Arts (Defined) with tags , , , , , , , on July 21, 2011 by travsd

One of the points I make in No Applause is that vaudeville THE FORM didn’t die (at least in the 1930s), it just switched the medium of delivery. In other words, though people stopped going to the theatre, they still got plenty of vaudeville in their own living rooms through radio and television. This is certainly the means through which this correspondent fell in love with it in the 1970s.

On NBC’s maiden broadcast on November 14, 1926, listeners heard Will Rogers, Weber and Fields, Eddie Cantor, the Ben Bernie Orchestra and opera singer Mary Garden. Day in, day out, from here on in this was business as usual, with scores of vaudeville performers being booked to fill the air time. The following year, CBS was launched, increasing the demand for radio talent yet again. Audiences for the new product grew exponentially. 3 million houses already had radios in 1927. By the end of the 1930’s, the number had grown ten fold.

In the 30s, vaudeville stars like Cantor, Burns and Allen, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Ed Wynn, Fanny Brice, and all of the big band leaders of the day, became major radio stars. To enjoy them, you didn’t have to take your bathrobe off. You didn’t even have to get out of bed. Going to a vaudeville theatre to see stars is kind of illogical when all the vaudevillians are coming to you live through your own furniture.

Of course, as a sound-only medium, the dynamic was somewhat different. There’s that old joke — a true story — about tap dancing on radio. Clearly such acts as dancers, acrobats, mimes and animal acts made little sense on radio. Oddly, the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen became one of its greatest stars, even though you couldn’t see his dummies (or his lips). So radio became mostly a haven for comedians, actors, singers and musicians.

Then, a few years later, technology changed the game again, with a device that addressed the problem of the missing picture.

In 1947, Variety ran an ad which proclaiming “Vaudeville if Back! The Golden Era of Variety begins with the Premiere of Texaco Star Theatre on Television”. Milton Berle’s hit program was joined that year by Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town, the next year by The Admiral Broadway Revue starring Sid Caesar, and Cavalcade of Stars, featuring first Jack Carter, then Jackie Gleason. 1950 saw the debut of The Ken Murray Show; The Colgate Comedy Hour (with guest hosts such as Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope and Jimmy Durante); and The Four Star Revue (with Durante, Wynn, Danny Thomas, and Jack Carson as alternating hosts). The Red Skelton Show launched in 1951, the critically-acclaimed Red Buttons Show in 1952. The Tonight Show, starring Steve Allen, the son of two vaudevillians, began in 1954. In 1964, a variety show called The Hollywood Palace, specifically modeled on its Times Square namesake, debuted on ABC, and held its own in the ratings until it went off in 1970.

Some of the performances I saw on old Ed Sullivan shows on a recent trip to the Museum of Television and Radio (now called the Paley Center) in New York: comedy duo Wayne and Schuster; ukulele freak Tiny Tim; a star-studded Irving Berlin tribute; Maurice Chevalier; Sophie Tucker; Carl Sandburg reading poems; a Russian dance troupe; stars of the Metropolitan Opera (featuring Joan Sutherland); Bert Lahr; Smith and Dale; ballet dancers;  plate spinners; fire eaters; teeterboard tumblers; trick cyclists; trampoline artists; trained elephants, tigers, dogs; a Van Kliburn piano recital; Judy Garland singing Chaplin’s song “Smile”. When the Ed Sullivan show went off the air in 1972, vaudeville was said to have died its second death. But, we all know even that ain’t so, don’t we, readers?

To learn more about variety shows on radio and televisionconsult 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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The Chautauqua Circuit

Posted in Variety Arts (Defined) with tags , , , , , on July 21, 2011 by travsd

Thanks be to the Countess for finding this photo

Chautauquas were a successor to the Lyceum movement of the 19th century, augmenting the usual menu of educational lectures and religious sermons with music, recitals of poetry and drama, humorous monologues and light entertainment. The first of these was the  institution at Chautauqua Lake, New York, founded 1874 (still extant). Other “Chautauquas” spread throughout the U.S. and peaked in popularity in the 1920s. The genteel nature of much early vaudeville stand-up comedy (as we now call it) can be gleaned by the fact that many monologists (such as the hunchbacked humorist Marshall P. Wilder, and thespian DeWolf Hopper) worked in both arenas. (Coincidentally, both gentlemen are pictured above, doing a parody of Romeo and Juliet. See the Countess’s Tumblr blog for more in this vein).

But the fare wasn’t all high brow. Animal acts and acrobats and the like could also be part of the mix. Many of Edgar Bergen’s early ventriloquism performances were at Chautauquas. There’s always a scale with poles of extremity, isn’t there? Just as vaudeville was more genteel and “proper” than burlesque and concert saloons, Chautaquas could boast to be moreso than vaudeville. At any rate, some of these institutions, like the original, remain around the country to edify and ennoble the American spirit.

To learn more about chautauquas and 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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