Archive for October, 2011

Variety Arts #22: U.S.O.

Posted in Variety Arts (Defined), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on October 30, 2011 by travsd

This post is one in a series that defines for the layman the various types of variety arts. For the full panoply go here.

70 years ago today, the United Services Organization (U.S.O.) established its Camp Shows division. (Note that this was over two months before Pearl Harbor. It was already pretty clear where events were headed). Vaudeville had already died nearly a decade earlier. Its biggest stars now worked in films and or in radio; of the thousands of other performers, those who hadn’t prematurely retired were now hanging on by their thumbs. While it’s become well-known history that stars like Bob Hope, Al Jolson, Martha Raye, and practically everybody else began entertaining troops in our theatres of war in WWII, it’s probably lesser known that the U.S.O. employed countless out-of-work former vaudevillians: singers, dancers, comedians, acrobats, magicians, etc etc etc. By 1944, the U.S.O. had over 3,000 “clubs”, making it by far the largest vaudeville circuit that had ever existed.

For entertainers it was an artificial reprieve. Many of the vaudevillians who’d managed to hang on through the 1930s were finally forced to retire once the U.S.O. initially disbanded following World War Two. One of vaudeville’s countless “second deaths”.

Now, I’m the first to agree that the U.S.O. had a much more important mission than keeping a bunch of vaudevillians employed, and that was lightening up the lives of the troops, who have to do jobs and see things that most of us couldn’t possibly imagine. The U.S.O. is still doing that very same job right now in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hats off to them today!

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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Jack Pearl Redux

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, German, Hollywood (History), Radio (Old Time Radio), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on October 29, 2011 by travsd

My last post about Jack Pearl (here) was perfunctory to say the least, so I thought I would try to do him a little more justice today. Born Jacob Perlman this day in 1895, he is best known for the national catchphrase “Vas You Dere, Charlie?”, which he uttered as the “Dutch” character Baron Munchausen on radio and in films throughout the 1930s. (This way to an audio clip) . A Lower East Side native, he’d gotten his start in one of Gus Edwards kiddie acts, before working with a succession of partners and working his way up to vaudeville and Broadway revues. Once his radio show was canceled, he found he was too closely identified with a fad that had passed and he found it hard to get work. There were a handful of stage, film and TV roles, but they were few and far between. He passed away in 1982.

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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Fitz James O’Brien: Forgotten Gothic

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Halloween, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Horror (Mostly Gothic) with tags , , , , , , on October 27, 2011 by travsd

I became aware of Fitz James O’Brien rather recently, while doing research for my new play about Adah Isaacs Menken. He and she both were part of the literary scene around Walt Whitman at Pfaff’s tavern on the eve of the Civil War. O’Brien wrote tales of horror and proto-sci-fi in the vein of Poe, but with a less flowery style that presages Ambrose Bierce and others. A lot of these stories are set in New York and give a really nice flavor of what life was like there in the ante-bellum years. Unfortunately O’Brien was killed in 1862 in one of the earliest skirmishes of the Civil War, so we’ll never know what sort of writer he might have blossomed into. I have had a chance to peruse some of his tales, though, and what he did produce is highly enjoyable. Here are some capsule impressions.

* In The Wondersmith, a quartet of evil gypsies hatches a plot to commit mass murder by placing diabolical manikins (i.e., “miniature men”) under everyone’s Christmas tree disguised as children’s toys. Through some magical process they have inspirited the little dolls with “souls”, but these souls only seem to have one thought: kill, kill, kill. Their modus operandi is to stab with tiny poisoned swords. (This reminds me of Todd Browning’s film The Devil Doll. Ever seen it? Lionel Barrymore goes underground in drag dressed as an old French woman to get his revenge on the bankers who framed him). At any rate the gypsies’ plan goes awry when they get drunk and fall asleep, and the manikins break free and murder them. Thus proving the old adage that not only does crime not pay, it actually costs.

* In The Child Who Loved a Grave we get echoes of Gray’s Elegy, of Wordsworth and of Poe. The morbid fascination with graveyards and the dead or doomed child. A little boy’s parents are always drunk and quarreling, so he seeks peace and solace in the nice, quiet graveyard next door. He is drawn to hang out around one particular marker, which becomes his “friend”. Unfortunately some authorities come and exhume the corpse which turns out to be some little Prince whose remains must be brought back to Europe. The little boy is so despondent, he dies. They bury him in his favorite grave.

* The Golden Ingot. Feels almost like a fairy tale; I’d be surprised if he didn’t cop this from some place. A doctor is called to go see a man who is troubled with exhaustion. The doctor goes and learns that the man is an alchemist (or thinks he is, and is crazy). Every day he works hard, turning an ingot of base metal into gold. He has made hundreds of the things and is convinced that his daughter has stolen them from him, since she cannot produce them. In reality, there is but one true ingot of gold, which the daughter has been slipping into his experiments every day in order to make him believe he is a success. When he learns the truth, the alchemist of course dies.

* What Was It? A Mystery. Some folks live in a rooming house that is supposed to be haunted. One evening our hero is disturbed in his bed when someone jumps on him in the dark and tries to strangle him. He manages to subdue his assailant and when he gets the gaslight on, realizes to his horror that the creature is entirely invisible. He and others manage to tie the beast up. They never quite figure out what to do with it and it starves to death.

* The Diamond Lens: a young man is so obsessed with microscopy that he wants to build the perfect microscope, one that will allow him to see farther into the mini-verse (I just made that word up) than anyone has ever seen before. He consults a fortune teller who brokers a conversation with a medieval scientist, who tells him he must make a lens out of a 140 karat diamond. Coincidentally, his house mate later drunkenly informs him that he possesses a 140 karat diamond himself. Nothing to do of course but bump him off with an overdose of laudanum. The anti-hero gets his diamond, makes his lens, constructs his microscope, and when he looks at a drop of water under his lens he sees…a tiny forest full of flowering trees, inhabited by a single tiny girl, the most beautiful girl in the world. He of course falls in love with the girl and is driven mad by the fact that she and he exist on different planes and can never be together. In the end she dies, and there is nothing left but for him to go to an insane asylum to deal with his grief.

Want some more? You know you do! Go here. Most of the links seem to be bad, but it makes a nice jumping off point…a lot of the stories are available elsewhere on the net, and most others are available to order from your favorite book store.

H.R. Wakefield, Teller of Ghostly Tales

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Halloween, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Horror (Mostly Gothic), Indie Theatre, ME, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , , on October 27, 2011 by travsd

H. Russell Wakefield (1890-1964) was an English fiction writer known mostly as a master of the ghost story. His published works include They Return at Evening (1928), Old Man’s Beard: Fifteen Disturbing Tales (1929), Imagine a Man in a Box (1931), Ghost Stories (1932), A Ghostly Company (1935), The Clock Strikes Twelve: Tales of the Supernatural (1940), and Strayers from Sheol (1961). His best known stories are “The Red Lodge”, “The Thirteenth Hole at Duncaster”, “Blind Man’s Buff”, “‘Look Up There!’” and “‘He Cometh and He Passeth By!’”

And he might well have rated inclusion in this series (in fact, I’m sure he does) but that’s not why I’m writing today. I’ll be reading an adaptation of Wakefield’s story “Ghost Hunt” in Ghost Stories Live at Bar 82 this sunday. The story has been tweaked a little by the show’s organizer Russell Atwood, as well as myself, and it is directed by the highly smart cookie Patrice Miller.

Here’s all the dope:

GHOST STORIES LIVE!

You’re invited to the PREMIERE of a unique new LIVE show combining FACT, FICTION, & PHANTASMAGORIA

On Sunday October 30th, a brave assembly of actors, artists, writers, and puppets take the stage in the Backroom of Bar 82 and bear witness to being HAUNTED!

3 Tales of GHOSTS: One Classic, One New, One TRUE!

… GHOST STORIES LIVE!, the first of a new series of unique events premieres on Sunday October 30th, LIVE on stage in the Backroom performance space of Bar 82, 136 Second Avenue (near Saint Marks Place) in the East Village, with two shows at 8 P.M. and 10:30 to MIDNIGHT (Admission: $5 early show, $10 LATE SHOW).

Featuring:

– horror writer, Amy Grech (THE BLANKET OF WHITE) reading her NEW ghost story, “Rampart.”

-actor Trav S. D. performing in a dramatization of H. R. Wakefield’s CLASSIC story, “GHOST HUNT.”

-award-winning mystery writer S. J. Rozan (GHOST HERO) discussing the tradition of the Chinese Ghost Story.

-Blake Thompson relating in conversation his TRUE experiences growing up in a house haunted by the ghost of its former landlord.

-artist and performer Anastacia Goodin reading from PHANTASMAGORIA by Lewis Carroll (Canto II: Hys Fyve Rules).

And hosted by SidMarty Lovecraft puppet “Pugsley” the Fiendly Ghost

Produced by mystery writer Russell Atwood (LOSERS LIVE LONGER).

Plus much more: MUSIC….ghostly ART & PHOTO EXHIBIT….SPECIAL creature feature FX….BOOK SIGNINGS…and the RIDDLE OF THE 13 GHOSTS contest!!!!

This will be just the first in a every-other month event, the next GHOST STORIES LIVE! will be in December.

On “Spurs”, The Story That Gave Us Todd Browning’s “Freaks”

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Halloween, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Human Anomalies (Freaks) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2011 by travsd

If you watch the documentary extras on the DVD of Todd Browning’s Freaks you will find that one of the talking heads is our old buddy Todd Robbins. Todd is there of course because he is an expert on freak shows, but diehard Browning fans will be especially amused by his presence by dint of the fact that the story that film was based on was written by a man named…Tod Robbins (lacking only a “d” for “deformed”, “deranged” and “disgusting”).

We use the term “based on” loosely. “Spurs” is an illuminating story mostly because of what it says about Browning. Aside from the presence of an angry midget (is there anything more politically incorrect than an angry midget?), freaks really aren’t the emphasis of the story. All of that stuff — ALL of it — the pinheads, the armless/legless people, the Hilton Sisters — are the result of Browning’s own obsessions and predilections.

The 1923 tale is a lot cleaner/ sparer. It follows what I call “The Hop Frog Arc”. In the Edgar Allan Poe story “Hop Frog” the title character is an ugly hunchbacked dwarf employed as a court jester, scorned and laughed at by the beautiful nobility. His rage builds. Then he collapses the roof on them and burns them all to cinders in a fire. That is essentially the arc of both Freaks and “Spurs”, although in the film the angry party is a mob acting on behalf of the midget; in “Spurs”, the midget (along with his diabolical dog) are quite competent to take care of the revenge themselves. In “Spurs”, the greedy bride is not punished by being maimed and mutilated and made into a freak herself as in the film. She is essentially “piggy-backed” to death. (There is a nodding visual reference to it in the film). A cruel remark by the woman that she could carry her little husband the length of France inspires him to force her to do just that, allowing her little food or sleep, just carrying him around all day, every day like a pony, while he prods her along with his riding crop.  Somehow its not the most terrifying story in the world, although evil midgets and hell hounds are pretty scary. But one can certainly think of more horrible punishments — which is precisely what Todd Browning did.

At any rate, you can read the original tale here.

On the Perennial Visits of “The Bat”

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Halloween, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2011 by travsd

One game I love to play is what I call “vertical analysis” — essentially tracing some narrative property through its various media iterations, e.g., book, stage-play, silent movie, radio play, studio-era talkie, recent re-make. (Vertical analysis is a really boring name; that’s okay, I don’t really call it that anyway). It usually happens accidentally. You bump into one version, then another, until you eventually find the need to tie them all together. This happened over the last few months with Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Bat.

The phenomenon of The Bat went on for forty years (and in some important ways which we’ll get to, continues). The wellspring was the smash hit 1920 Broadway play, co-written with Avery Hopwood, which ran for two years. The vehicle is often described as a play of the “old dark house” variety, which only obtains if you are talking about an actual old dark house and not the James Whale film, which is in fact a film in the Mary Roberts Rinehart tradition and not the other way around. Rinehart was primarily a novelist, often paired in discussion with Agatha Christie. The plot of The Bat is somewhat based on her 1907 novel The Circular Staircase, with the addition of several wonderful elements.

Chiefly, it is extraordinarily fun. It is a machine for delivering theatrical pleasure. It is as much a comedy as it is a mystery, and then it has an overlay of horror with early scenes intimating the existence of ghosts, and characters consulting a Ouija board. The whole thing happens at night, in a large rented mansion (with secret rooms and passageways), with servants, a police inspector, and suspects — lots of suspects. And the lights keep going off. And the culprit is a mysterious criminal who has been eluding police for months and calls himself The Bat. The plot, with all its twists and turns, is beyond convoluted. The only logic that drives it is theatrical effect. It is ripping good fun, although dated and sufficiently influential that a lot of its innovations now play like cliche. It is just the right stuff for community theatre and school productions, which is primarily where it continues to be revived.

In 1926, it was made into a silent film by the director Roland West. West, although not prolific, deserves to be far better known nowadays. (His main claim to fame today is an unfortunate one. We’ll get to that in a minute.) West is a stunning visual stylist, and he brought to the first cinematic version of The Bat elements that would forever redefine it. Essentially, he brought out the horror element. Images of full moons, flying bats, and the Gothic manor stay in the mind, as does (especially) the costumed figure of the Bat, which would prove to be influential in a manner we shall reveal shortly.

Also in 1926, this novelization arrived. We are beginning to get incestuous. As we have seen the play was already based on The Circular Staircase. To capitalize on the play and film, a new book was produced called The Bat. In one article I read the author claims that this novelization was written by Stephen Vincent Benet, but I find that frankly hard to credit. Benet was a brilliant poet. The Bat novel is hackwork. I’ve not read Rinehart’s other novels, so I can’t speak to whether it’s all hackwork, but this book struck me as junk. It also makes the mistake of removing the “unity of time and space” that makes the play and film effective. Events are made to play out over many days, often in daylight, making it more of a cop story, and, while retaining the plot points, diffusing their interest.

Brief digression: of the many copycats that The Bat spawned, the most notable might be The Gorilla, in which a criminal dressed as a gorilla terrorizes a bunch of people in an old dark house. (There is a reason real criminals don’t do such things in real life. What a ridiculous waste of time and effort!) The first movie version came out in 1927, with remakes in 1930 and 1939. (The latter version is the only one I’ve seen. It features Bela Lugosi, the Ritz Brothers and Patsy Kelly, and now makes a good deal more sense now that I’ve seen The Bat).

In 1930, West remade The Bat as a talkie called The Bat Whispers. I think this is the best of any of the versions, mixing West’s stunning visual elements with the entertaining dialogue from the play. Certain aspects of the film are a knock out.

But people don’t remember West today and there’s a very good reason. His career ended suddenly in 1935, and for reasons that seem like something from one of his own movies. West’s mistress and business partner was Thelma Todd, known to comedy fans from her films with the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy , Charley Chase and many others. Many people speculated that Todd’s death from carbon monoxide poisoning was a murder (there were signs of a roughing-up) and the prime suspect was West. It is rumored that he confessed on his deathbed to his friend Chester Morris (who starred in The Bat Whispers), and the fact that he does retire shortly after the event does seem peculiar.

In 1939, The Bat exerted an influence that would cast its longest shadow. This is when Bob Kane and Bill Finger smashed together visual elements from West’s film (chiefly the Bat’s costume and the bat signal) with The Shadow to create Batman. As fans know, in the early days the Caped Crusader was referred to as “The Batman”, not just “Batman”. Here’s why. Of course, in Batman the relationship is flipped. The costumed character is no longer the villain, but a vigilante hero, but the look and the concept, in case it isn’t completely obvious, is lifted whole cloth from The Bat. (The bat signal above is from The Bat not one of the early Batman iterations)

NOW. I find it inconceivable that there isn’t at least one radio adaptation of The Bat (probably several) but I haven’t turned up any evidence yet. (There is as yet no radio-drama equivalent to IBDB and IMDB, although there ought to be). We know The Bat lends itself to the audio form, because in 1933 a record album of someone narrating the novel version was released, making it one of the very first “books on tape”. There were also several television adaptations, including one in 1953 and one in 1960. The play was revived twice on Broadway, in 1937 and 1953, both times unsuccessfully.

The last major iteration of The Bat came in the form of a 1959 film starring Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead. You might think this would be a recipe for magic, but unfortunately not. It is the same year as The Tingler and The House on Haunted Hill, and there is a similar William Castle flavor to the low-budget, late black and white proceedings. (Moorhead flubs her lines at several points and it stays in the film). But this version seems much more based on the novel than the play or previous films. It lacks all atmospherics…the requisite dark shadows. It’s worth watching once if you are curious, but expect to be bored.

And then-?

Well, that’s it. Aside from amateur productions, no one seems to have seen fit to revive this old warhorse in 52 years, after it had enjoyed several decades of almost constant popularity. Certainly later movies like Murder by Death and Clue have maintained the tradition. But ultimately I think the true culprit has been Batman, who has supplanted the Bat’s image, taken it over. In essence, the old arch criminal has been rehabilitated.

The First Vampire Story

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Halloween, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2011 by travsd

I first encountered the name Dr. John Polidori in the 1973 television movie Frankenstein: The True Story. I was eight years old at the time and this film was one of the few times I have been truly terrified by a horror film. The film, which now plays as by turns dull and preposterous (I watched it again not too long ago), implies that it is relating true events, mostly because it cleaves more closely to Mary Shelley’s novel than most versions. When I was a kid, I fell for it.

One way it deviates, however, is the insertion of Polidori (played by the incomparable James Mason) which is a sly wink to fans of Gothic horror. In the film, he is made the teacher and mentor of Victor Frankenstein. In real life, he was Byron’s personal physician, and one of the four people in attendance at the famous party where Frankenstein was first hatched (including Byron himself and of course the Shelleys, who were not yet married).

It’s interesting to me that the legendary retreat is generally only spoken of in connection with Frankenstein, because it also happened to be significant in the evolution of the myth that gave birth to Dracula. The idea for The Vampyre came from Byron himself, although he never produced more than fragments. It was Polidori who wrote it up into a story, which was published without his knowledge (under Byron’s name at first) in 1819. This makes it the first vampire tale; the seed of an entire genre. Among the many elements it introduces is the notion of the vampire as a suave seducer with unmistakable sexual overtones (as opposed to the ugly grotesque Nosferatu image). It is said that Polidori based the undead character Lord Ruthven on Byron himself.

It is a short story, and frankly a much better read than Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula, which is a structural mess and owes its great permanent success to a long line of playwrights and screenwriters who took the story and imposed a shape on it. I found all sorts of elements fascinating (over and beyond its effectiveness as a tale — I found the end quite chilling).  I found the story to be an illuminating link between the English Romantics and Poe (who arrives on the scene about a decade after this story). I have read and re-read Poe’s whole body of work since I was a teenager, and often wondered about his Gothic precursors and influences. He seems to project a mental Europe over the American landscape; he was definitely drinking a different kool-aid than James Fenimore Cooper, for example. Also, The Vampyre takes us closer, I feel, to the folk material that gave birth to this legend. A lot of the action is laid in Greece, for example, at a time when Greece was considered the same kind of decayed, mysterious backwater as Transylvania.

At any rate, the full text of the story is here, for your dining and dancing pleasure.

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