Archive for September, 2011

Salerno: Creator of the Salerno Ring

Posted in Jugglers, Stars of Vaudeville, 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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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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Slivers Oakley: Sad Clown

Posted in Circus, Clown, Stars of Vaudeville, 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.

On Male Impersonator Ella Shields

Posted in British Music Hall, Drag and/or LGBT, Singing Comediennes, Stars of Vaudeville, 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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Of Boxing and the Big Time

Posted in Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Hollywood (History), Sport & Recreation, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on September 22, 2011 by travsd

Has Very Little To Do With This Article

Sometimes when you’re relentlessly researching a particular topic, odd little sub-themes will start to emerge, accumulations of facts that you don’t quite know what to do with. A couple of these emerged when I was working on No Applause, and didn’t wind up in the book because they were blind alleys. No place to put them. They didn’t fit in the book, they’re not compelling enough for books in and of themselves, and I have no idea who’d publish them as articles. But they’re still interesting. I guess they’ll wind up as blog posts.

One of these little sub-topics has emerged over the past few months as a result of a play I’m writing, and from working on this very blog. It’s the historical relationship between the American theatre and boxing.

It’s really not a new thing. Ancient Roman arenas, for example, much like our own Madison Square Garden, presented all sorts of spectacle from sports resembling boxing and wrestling (and much bloodier combat) to trained animals and acrobats to exhibitions of dancing and related theatrical productions (the ancient equivalent of Disney on Ice).

Naturally,  the theatre/saloon culture that emerged in the U.S. in the 19th century presented a similar mix. In entertainment strips like New York’s Bowery, exhibitions of bare-knuckle boxing (the only kind they had back then) happened right in the back room of the corner bar, alongside the cock-fights, clog dancers, Irish fiddlers and sultry, singing waiter girls. One of the most popular sheets in 19th century New York was the New York Clipper, which covered both theatrical and sports news, including boxing. It was this intermixture that allowed the then-champ John C. Heenan to meet his lover and wife (briefly) Adah Isaacs Menken. The very earliest well-known American boxers like John L. Sullivan and Gentleman Jim Corbett came out of this saloon scene.

But the scene was changing rapidly. Both boxing and variety were to get a considerable cleaning up. Boxing was to get a whole new set of gentlemanly rules, courtesy the Marquess of Queensberry, although to theatre fans, the man remains a villain. It was his intolerable insults that drove Oscar Wilde to a self-destructive doom. On the variety side, saloons were replaced with vaudeville, although this platform remained curiously hospitable to boxers too. When boxers achieved fame in the ring, they could pursue lucrative second careers as monologists, talking about their experiences and even becoming half-assed stand-up comedians. In the vaudeville era, almost all the top boxers did this: not only Sullivan and Corbett but Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, and  Max Baer. Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom was too late for vaud so he went straight into films and started his own night club.

Others had started out as boxers, but went on to find greater fame and success in vaudeville and show business. Among these: George Fuller Golden, Rags Ragland, and George Raft. Ed Sullivan had been a boxer, then a sports writer, then a columnist, then a variety show producer. Marty Forkin had been a boxing manager and promoter but found greater success managing his wife Rae Samuels and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. And a sometime Irish puglist and bouncer named “Battling Jack” was the father of a performer named Mae West.

I’ve always found it telling that the big three silent film comedians all made comedy boxing pictures. It’s a tailor made comic situation: a small, frightened man in the ring with a killer. Charlie Chaplin played a referee in Keystone’s The Knockout (1914), but he got to be the center of a hilarious boxing set piece in his Essanay film The Champion the following year. And of course, there’s the classic boxing scene climax in City Lights (1931), probably best known of all. Buster Keaton’s entry in the sweepstakes is Battling Butler (1926), one of his least distinguished features and (if I recall correctly) one his biggest box office hits. Harold Lloyd’s key boxing film comes in the talkie era, the hilarious and unjustly overlooked 1936 comedy The Milky Way (later remade by Danny Kaye as The Kid from Brooklyn in 1946). (Another intriguing “might have been” is Bert Lahr’s 1929 stage hit Hold Everything. Unfortunately they recast Joe E. Brown in Lahr’s role when they filmed it in 1930. But can you imagine Lahr as a prizefighter? The mere thought has me in hysterics).

Lastly I just want to mention a couple of my favorite boxing dramas. Obviously there are a hundred boxing movies; I’d like to plug three that are such perfect classics that everyone ought to see them:

1931’s The Champ stars Wallace Beery (himself a former silent comedian) and Jackie Cooper in what is essentially a boxing world adaptation of Chaplin’s The Kid (with a much more tragic ending). The story has that streamlined simplicity that all the best films of the era have (King Kong springs to mind as another example). This is one of the few movies that never fails to make me bawl.

Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy (1937) technically speaking has its most perfect realization as a stage play. Odets’ strength is as a writer of dialogue. Formally, his plays tend to be messy. But Golden Boy, the tale of a young man forced to choose between classical music and the ring, and the corruption that warps his decision, is easily his best structured work. The 1939 film with William Holden and Lee J. Cobb has too many writers, who of course, messed it up, but it still packs a punch.

Lastly, there’s Rod Serling’s1956 teleplay Requiem for a Heavyweight. Serling is one of my favorite American dramatists, whose medium just happened to be television. (I appreciate his work far more than that of the vastly over-rated Arthur Miller, for example, whose bland, conventional morality and tepid style make him seem like a transplant from some non-existent foreign country: decaffeinated America). In Requiem, Serling, who’d been a boxer himself in the army, basically hijacks Death of a Salesman and transplants it to the seedy underworld of professional boxing. The result is far more compelling, because whereas Willy Loman is an unlikeable jerk, one actually feels pity for the washed up boxer Mountain McClintock (Jack Palance). If you can, see the more compact television version. The 1962 film version, while it has its virtues, pads and dilutes the story to deleterious effect.

That’s all for now. Me for the locker room.

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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Bessie McCoy: Woman of the “Yama Yama Man:

Posted in Dance, Irish, Singing Comediennes, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 22, 2011 by travsd

Bessie McCoy (1888-1931) is best known today (if at all) for her hit 1908 song “Yama Yama Man”. It was Irene Castle’s childhood impersonation of McCoy singing this tune in front of McCoy’s mother at a country club party (and the subsequent encouragement by her) that inspired Castle to go into show business, and her mother to allow her to take dancing lessons.

McCoy’s mother was a vaudevillian herself, one half of the husband and wife act McCoy and McEvoy, a pair of Irish clog dancers. As soon as they were old enough Bessie and her sister Nellie got into the act. The two sisters performed as a duo for a number of years before Bessie broke off on her own around 1904. In addition to her steady work in vaudeville, she was featured in a number of Broadway shows from 1904 through 1920, including numerous editions of Ziegfeld’s Follies and Midnight Frolics.

From 1912 through 1916 she took a break from the business while married to the famous war correspondent Richard Harding Davis, renowned for his heroic coverage of the Boer War, the Spanish-American War and World War I. After Davis’s death (reportedly from strain suffered at the front) she returned briefly to show business, then moved to France where she died in 1931. The Time magazine obit from that week reported that it was complications after an “emergency operation”.

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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