Archive for September, 2011

Stars of Vaudeville #365: Salerno

Posted in Jugglers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on September 30, 2011 by travsd

Adolph Behrend (a.k.a. “Salerno”, b. this day in 1869) is known for several things:

* He was one of the originators of the style known as “gentleman juggling”, in which the juggler wears a classy tuxedo and juggles ordinary household items. (A natural outgrowth of his origins. He began juggling his father’s woodworking tools in his shop back in Prussia as a teenager).

* He is also known as the creator of the “Salerno Ring”, a rig consisting of a pole balanced on the juggler’s head, with a ring at the top of it, in which a ball would be made to rotate. Think of the control required!

* He is the originator of the show bizzy gimmick of throwing illuminated objects in the dark. (In this case, he devised electric torches with colored lights that actually changed color in mid-air).

This influential vaudevillian passed away in 1946.

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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A Ph. D. in Happiness

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Stand Up with tags , on September 29, 2011 by travsd

Philosophers are kind of, by definition, gloomy. Just listing them makes me depressed: Nietzche, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Heidegger. Leibnitz is the single one who springs to mind who used reason to arrive at some kind of hopefulness – – and Voltaire burned him to a cinder in Candide. Voltaire of course was one of the greatest of comic writers. His breed too tends to be nasty — if not pessimistic, at least mean. I’m thinking of Swift, Rabelais, Cervantes, H.L. Menken et al. At any rate, these are the sorts of books I like to read for inspiration and amusement.

Now… look at the picture above.

Dr. Moore may come to us in the habiliments of the scholar, but something about the expression on his face betrays a certain…oh, I don’t know…light-hearted purpose-? Indeed, his expression is so striking that I felt it necessary to fold the cover back when reading it on the subway, for fear of the reaction it might have on the other passengers.

H’m…but who’s the miserable one here and who’s the one having the great time? “The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. “Get thee behind me, Satan,” said Jesus. “My television has spit all over it,” said John Belushi. Two out of three ain’t bad.

The wisdom Tommy Moore draws from the many famous comedians he has met as a journalist, comedy club owner and fellow comic are not the sort of profundities that wound us, or nag us forever like a tooth ache. They are mostly very practical take-aways — actually some very useful ones for professional performers. The philosophical bottom line he returns to time and again is something along the lines of “Don’t worry, be happy”. Which is easier said than done. That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. But for the professional comedian, it’s especially good advice, the kind of medicine I require and will hold my nose and take.

This is a very good gift book, I think, for certain people in your life. It is the sort of book that will be especially appreciated by someone having a difficult time of it and who needs a boost. (Mr. Moore himself once performed a comedy gig after having had several bones broken in a mugging. That’s what I’m talkin’ about!)  The book is best read in very small installments, a section at a time, rather than skimmed, if you want to get anything out of it. And if you want to get something out of it, here’s how.

The Book of Vaudeville (Not Mine)

Posted in Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , on September 28, 2011 by travsd

The Countess called my attention to this recent Canadian documentary The Book of Vaudeville  made by Winnipeg’s Farpoint Films. The story goes that in 1950, a local boy found a scrapbook in the rubble of the recently demolished Orpheum Theatre. The scrapbook now lives in the archives of the City of Winnipeg, where the film-makers located it and conceived the idea of using it as a springboard for a live vaudeville show starring a bunch of local actors. Only one of the participants, escape artist Dean Gunnarson is an actual, skilled vaudevillian. The others, for whatever reason, attempt to take on vaudeville acts requiring skills they do not possess: bird-calls, trick roller skating, sleight of hand, and, yes, singing. So there is a reality show aspect to the program. A couple of the participants drop out of the running, a couple of others fudge their assignments, and one of the neophytes does surprisingly well (not including Gunnarson, who actually knows what he is doing when he re-creates Houdini’s milk can escape).

Given the fact, that there are probably hundreds of people around (yes, still!) who do these kinds of acts professionally and do them well, when watching the film I couldn’t help wonder what the point was of watching these newbies fumble around in this undiscovered territory, sometimes with reverence, occasionally with what feels like gross disrespect. At 2 o’clock this morning — literally — it hit me.  What better way for the audience to learn what’s involved in this kind of entertainment? To watch an expert perform his act, and even to hear him talk about it, is not to get close to the difficulty of the undertaking. To watch people roughly similar to us in skill level flop…that’s a lesson in appreciation.

The film is available to watch on demand here. And here’s the trailer:

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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Stars of Vaudeville #364: Slivers Oakley

Posted in Circus, Clown, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on September 28, 2011 by travsd

Frank “Slivers” Oakley (b. either 1871 or 1885, I’ve seen both) has been called the greatest circus clown of his generation. In a 1960 interview, Buster Keaton placed him at the top of his list of his favorite clowns. Oakley’s most famous routine was a pantomime of a baseball game, in which he portrayed every player in the field — a routine Keaton paid tribute to in his 1928 film The Cameraman. Another famous (positively Dali-esque) routine had Slivers riding around a Hippodrome track on two giant lobsters.

He started out as a contortionist as a teenager, and became a clown a couple of years after that. From 1897-1907, he worked for a number of the top circuses, including Ringling Bros. and Forepaugh and Sells. At his top salary he was supposedly pulling in $1000 a week.

Around 1910, he decided he wanted to break into vaudeville. Aside from some dates on the giant stage of the Hippodrome in New York, he seems to have had a tough slog getting bookings and was relegated to the small time for the most part. When he tried to go back to Ringling, they punished him by offering him $75 a week, a far cry from his old salary.

In 1916, he took his own life — asphyxiation by gas. This was possibly because of the failing career, possibly because of an unrequited love he had for a young vaudeville actress, or possibly a combination of the two.

Some folks are raising money now for a feature length documentary about Slivers which they hope to complete in time for the Centennial of his death in 2016. To find out more (and even donate) go 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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The Verdict on Terra Nova

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Television with tags on September 27, 2011 by travsd

The Countess and I caught Terra Nova on Fox last night and were not precisely disappointed (not having had any expectations, after all) but were certainly reaffirmed in our low opinion of the state of what passes for mainstream popular culture these days.

The show should really be called Terra Antiqua. There ain’t nothin’ — I mean NOTHIN’ in it that isn’t completely threadbare. In fact, it’s easiest for me to tell you what it’s about in terms of telling you what it’s a mash-up of : Blade Runner meets Jurassic Park, with Lost and Land of the Lost thrown in for filler.

Essentially it’s about a family of time colonists from a dystopian earth future (one that owes every angle and scenic element to Ridley Scott…except for the one scene lifted from Soylent Green  ). They journey through a time rift back to 85 million B.C., where they live in a locked-down compound with other very good-looking time travelers. (All the ugly people have been left back on the polluted earth of 2148 A.D. to die a well-deserved death). The mom is a stereotypical doctor; the father is a stereotypical cop; they have two stereotypical teenagers (a rebellious son and a book-worm daughter) and a stereotypical cute five year old. Steven Lang plays the colony’s leader, a mysterious and tough-ass army general. (“Stand down!”, “Move it, move it, move it!”) There is not a line of dialogue, not a situation, not a moment in the entire show that is not predictable a beat or more before it occurs. And once it occurs, it is expressed in such a hackneyed manner that one blushes with embarrassment. (Many will take issue with me no doubt, for being so hard on it, since the general standard is so low. Well, mine isn’t).

Then, because having all the characters be boring isn’t boring enough, they make the situation more boring, by diluting the perfectly cool ideas of time travel and dinosaurs with the usual boring bullshit of machine gun toting bad guys and fire fights.

The dinosaurs? Yes, they’re cool, and one wishes them many hearty meals. We shan’t be watching again.

Trav S.D. at the Hudson Opera House

Posted in EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, ME, Music, My Shows, PLUGS, Vaudeville etc. with tags , on September 26, 2011 by travsd
Fritzi Scheff, in the act of making herself, vaudeville and opera obsolete all at the same time
Great news! I’m appearing at  the Hudson Opera House this coming Saturday (October 1) at 4pm, where I’ll be singing selections from all the great masterworks of the Western Musical canon. Why, my Figaro alone is worth the price of admission (it’s free).
No, no — the reality is, I’ll be giving a talk, entitled Opera and Vaudeville: A Surprising History of High Art on the Popular Stage. They had EVERYTHING in vaudeville folks, and if you think opera singing is any less of an amazing and spectacular human activity than juggling or fire eating, you don’t get out much. Furthermore, for a while (thanks in part to vaudeville and some of its more enlightened impresarios) it was vastly more popular with the masses a  century ago. Saturday, I’ll be discussing some of the impresarios who straddled both the opera and variety worlds, such as P.T. Barnum, Keith and Albee, Oscar Hammerstein I, Tony Pastor, and Ed Sullivan, as well as singers like Enrico Caruso, Lillian Russell, Fay Templeton, Nora Bayes, Trixie Friganza and many others.  I’ll also discuss current trends in “grass-roots” opera and the revival of artistic song in taverns — opera’s returning to the vaudeville stage, folks!
This one’s an eye (and ear) opener, and no mistake. The hitch is it’s upstate, so this little missive is really for the folks who live in the Hudson Valley or are willing to make a little day trip. Directions and more info on the event, are here at the Hudson Opera House’s web site. (hudsonoperahouse.org.) We hope to see you there!

Stars of Vaudeville #363: Ella Shields

Posted in British Music Hall, Drag and/or LGBT, Singing Comediennes, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , on September 26, 2011 by travsd

Ella Shields (born this day in 1879) was a male impersonator and a rare American export to the British music halls. A Baltimore native she started out in a sister act in American vaudeville in 1898. Billed as the Southern Nightingale, she crossed the puddle to try the halls in 1904. It wasn’t until six years later that she donned male drag (to fill in for an act that called in sick) and was such a hit that she stayed that way. It is speculated that Julie Andrews (whom she knew and performed with early in her career) based her character in Victor/ Victoria on Shields.

One of the major songs she was associated with was “Show Me the Way to Go Home”, well known to modern audiences as it is sung by the three main characters in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. (“How do those guys all happen to know that song?” I’ve always wondered.) But her most popular number, written especially for her in 1915 by her then-husband William Hargreaves was “Burlington Bertie from Bow”. And it was this number she was singing in 1952, when she was stricken onstage with a fatal heart attack. Here’s her singing that song:

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult 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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