Archive for October, 2011

Ethel Waters

Posted in African American Interest, Hollywood (History), Singers, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags on October 31, 2011 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Ethel Waters (full bio here) Here she is singing “Am I Blue” from the 1929 film On With the Show:

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.


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.


Fanny Brice

Posted in Broadway, Comediennes, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Singing Comediennes, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on October 30, 2011 by travsd

Today is the birthday of the great Fanny Brice (for the full bio on her go here).

And now here’s Fanny singing “When a Man Loves a Woman” (not the Percy Sledge one) from the 1930 film Be Yourself:

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.


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.


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:


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).


– 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.

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