Archive for August, 2011

Princess Pee Wee: Like Something from a Fairy Tale

Posted in African American Interest, Dance, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Little People, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , on August 31, 2011 by travsd

Princess Pee Wee with Harold Lloyd and the Giant from “Why Worry?”

No one knows when she was born or when she died; her name is something out of a fairy tale; she may or may not have been an inhabitant of Lilliput village in Coney Island’s Dreamland for a time. You really can’t much closer to being an actual legend than this.

Only a handful of facts about Princess Pee Wee are known. Her given name was Harriet Elizabeth Thompson. She stood about a yard tall. In the mid twenties she was part of the Whitman Sisters’ company, where for a time she was partnered with Willie Bryant. (The dance number called for her to dash in and out and under Bryant’s legs, a number that was later appropriated for a Shirley TempleBill Robinson film). In 1936 she appeared in the film The Music Goes ‘Round, starring Harry Richman. After this, I’m afraid the poor little thing appears to have slipped through the cracks.

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.

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Willie Bryant: Pee Wee and the Palace

Posted in African American Interest, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on August 30, 2011 by travsd

Legendary dancer/ emcee/ bandleader Willie Bryant was born on this day in New Orleans in 1908. He was still a teenager when he was hired for a Whitman Sisters revue, not only dancing with the sisters themselves, but, notoriously with the midget dancer Princess Pee Wee. A year later, he teamed up with Leonard Reed, and the two scaled the heights of vaudeville, getting as far as the Palace, before racism brought them down. (Both light-skinned, they had been able to “pass” until it was noticed that they were playing black vaudeville in their downtime). In 1934 he was with Bessie Smith in a show called the Chocolate Revue. From there, he went on to lead big bands in the 30s and 40s, to host radio shows, and to even host TV’s first all-black variety show Uptown Jubilee in CBS in 1949. During the 50s he was a frequent emcee at the Apollo Theatre. He passed away in 1964.

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.

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The Legendary Fink’s Mules

Posted in Animal Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2011 by travsd

Thanks to the memories of most of the vaudevillians and vaudeville fans who survived into the late 20th century, Fink’s Mules is an act that has become not only legendary, but proverbial. They worked their way into the public mind as the perfect opening or closing act on a vaudeville bill. Now: readers of No Applause know that those were the least desirable slots on the bill for most types of acts. To be a singer, dancer, comedian or actor in the opening and closing spot was not only an indignity but a trial to be overcome. But for an animal act? For an animal act, opening or closing on a BIG TIME bill was the highest to which the act could aspire. Fink’s Mules, which also included monkeys, dogs and ponies (viz, canines above) always made a big stir, and for all the reasons you can imagine. Mules are stubborn and independent beasts, well known to do precisely NOT what they are told, all the while kicking their hind legs and emitting what is undoubtedly the most retarded-sounding of all animal cries. Audience members (who or may not have been stooges) were invited onstage to attempt to ride the contrary critters. The ten-minute act was a staple of the biggest big time venues, such as the Palace and the Hippodrome through the late nineteen-teens and twenties.

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.

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Maud Allan: The Original Salome Dancer

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Burlesk, Dance, Drag and/or LGBT, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2011 by travsd

Maud Allan as Salome, with the head of John the Baptist

There is some uncertainty about the birthdate of Maud Allan, although some sources give August 27, 1873. She is most famous for having conceived, devised and performed an influential dance interpretation of Salome, inspired by Oscar Wilde’s play, beginning in 1906. By 1908,  the dance was so wildly popular it spawned scores of imitators both in London and in American vaudeville. For more on those many Salomes go here.

Canadian born Beulah Maude Durrant (her real name) studied in Berlin to be a concert pianist and was later driven from her adopted city San Francisco when her brother was tried and found guilty of a notorious murder. Around the turn of the century she published one of the first sex manuals before becoming an interpretive dancer. In 1918, she was involved in a sensational libel suit with many echoes of the Wilde trial, when she sued a British Member of Parliament for accusing her publicly of lesbianism and various other practices. (She was, in fact, a lesbian). Her last three decades were spent as a dance teacher. She passed away in Los Angeles in 1956.

To learn more about vaudeville and performers like Maud Allanconsult 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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A Sunnier Day at Coney

Posted in Amusement Parks, BROOKLYN, Coney Island, Contemporary Variety, Dime Museum and Side Show with tags , , on August 27, 2011 by travsd

Photo by Cashel Stewart. That's younger son Charlie on the right.

With Coney Island being evacuated, and my own show now officially closed, time now for a few words if you please about our own trip out to Coney Island earlier this week. Orange Day at Luna Park drew us out there, a two-for-one special on four hour wrist bands, which quickly had us coming out ahead after a few spins by the boys. They also got their first peek at the Scream Zone, and took a ride on the Screaming Eagle (no one was about to get on the Sling Shot). My favorite rides are at Deno’s (the titular Wonder Wheel and the Tilt-a-Whirl, which officially is only a kiddie ride, but to quote Tanguay: “I Don’t Care”).

We also went through the Ghost Hole (vastly superior to the Spookarama, although I’m not sure I need to see diarreah pouring out of a man’s ass), as well as the seedy, ghetto “Bump Your Ass Off” which has a surprising amount of strict rules for an institution run by guys wearing prison do-rags.

Then, the event I’d been waiting for — the sideshow. I’d skipped seeing it last year and it was late in the season, but I wanted to see what changes (if any) had been made in the face of the recent transformations out there. As it turns out, almost none! Except for Insectivora, the cast was entirely new to me, but other than that the show is pretty much its same, dependable self. (Interestingly Insectivora didn’t eat any insects, but she has widened her repertoire, including not only fire-eating, but a charming and funny medicine show style magic act that doubles as an advertisement for the beer on sale at the Freak Bar.) Princess Pat (a.k.a. Mrs. Dick Zigun, an actual Nigerian Princess) did a charming straight jacket escape, doing it the way I like it done (i.e., making it look hard, however she couldn’t resist the urge to simultaneously dance to the peppy music that was playing at the same time). Serpentina is the best snake charmer I’ve seen out there, mostly because somehow or other they’d gotten her albino python partner in a perky mood — maybe it was the punk music that was playing. But the creature was definitely moving around on his own and that added a feeling of danger that isn’t always there. At the end of her act, she sticks out her tongue — which happens to be forked. I hope she doesn’t alarm any Fundamentalists in the audience. The one bona fide “freak” was Nati the Patchwork Girl and I loved her. What her real backstory is, I don’t know, but she says in her patter that she was stitched together from pieces — her face may well be some sort of surgical restoration. But I like how the metaphor extends to her costume and even has a connection to The Wizard of Oz. She is funny, sweet, and clearly very smart, radiating a positive spirit that feels like someone is holding your hand. You feel far from uncomfortable. And furthermore, she lies on a bed of nails. Now, that’s uncomfortable.

Back out on the midway, we ran into our old friend Miss Saturn who was entertaining the throngs in Luna Park. And guess who couldn’t resist getting into the act?

Photo by Cashel Stewart

At any rate, it’s shuttered today on what should be one of the busiest days of the season. It shouldn’t happen to a dog!

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