Archive for November, 2011

Some Scotsmen in Vaudeville

Posted in Silent Film, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 30, 2011 by travsd

Alreet, shet yer yap!

Maybe St. Andrew’s Day isn’t near as popular as St. Patrick’s, but somewhere under all this greasepaint there lies a card-carryin’, kilt-wearin’ member of the Stewart clan and ye ought to knaw where his fealty lies! In honor of the day of our patron Saint, some tributes to a few favorite Scotsmen:

Sir Harry Lauder

Believe it or not, one of the top five vaudeville acts of all time, up there with Houdini and Eva Tanguay, was this token Scotsman with bushy eyebrows, who came on stage in full kilt regalia and sang sentimental songs in a thick burr. His biggest hit was a song called “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’”. To modern eyes and ears he seems a Warner Brothers cartoon’s idea of a Scotsman. Ah, but perhaps we have it backwards—maybe Warner Bros. got their idea of a “Scotsman” from him.

He was born in Edinburgh in 1870 and got his first working experience in a coal mine. But a coal mine is no place for canaries. He made his debut 1882, in Arbroath. Today Arbroath, tomorrow the world! He debuted in London in 1900, and quickly became one of the most sought after entertainers in music hall, touring also Australia and South Africa before reaching American shores in 1907. His debut at the New York Theater was so successful, the audience held him over an hour.

Americans loved Lauder so much he toured the country 25 times. (His last was 1934). In an era when 17 minutes was a long time for an act to be on a vaudeville stage, Lauder usually did an hour fifteen, slaughtering the throngs with songs like “Wee Hoose ‘Mang the Heather” and “It’s a’ Roon the Toon”. His success extended to a very lucrative recording career (1902-1933) and numerous films, including several early talkie experiments. He was knighted in 1919 for his work entertaining troops. His last radio broadcast was in 1942, but  retired officially in 1949. He died the following year.

Will Fyffe

American vaudeville’s second favorite Scotsman was Will Fyffe (1885-1947), who broke into English music hall around 1916, and made numerous appearances at New York’s Palace Theatre in the late 1920s. His last appearance in the States was in Earl Carroll’s Vanitiesin 1932 (the last edition). He appeared in numerous talkies from 1930 until his death (reportedly by falling out a window) in 1947.

Jimmy Finlayson

I’ll be writing much more about Jimmy Finlayson (1887-1953) in the coming months, both here and in my new book Chain of Fools. Finlayson (known as “Fin” to the fans who revere him) is best known today as the comic foil to Laurel and Hardy, although he appeared in many other films, often as the star. His career spanned both the silent and sound eras. He got his start at Mack Sennett’s Keystone, but enjoyed greater success on the Hal Roach lot. He is best loved for his highly individualistic double-take, which involved the squinting of one eye in a suspicious manner while his head perked up in surprise. His influence is strongly felt today on The Simpsons, both in the person of “Groundskeeper Willie”, but also in Homer’s famous exclamation  “D’Oh!” — another borrowing from Fin. He is seldom identified as the Scotman he is in his pictures — he simply speaks in that unmistakable burr, just another matter-of-fact immigrant to American shores.

Dingus McDollar

Patron and star of the American Vaudeville Theatre 15th Anniversary ExTRAVaganza last August. (a.k.a Josh Hartung).  Stripped of all other ethnic stereotypes, we were forced to resort to “Scotch-face”.

Happy St. Andrew’s Day!

To find out more about these variety artists and 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.


The Three X Sisters

Posted in Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Sister Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 30, 2011 by travsd

The Three X Sisters were actually The Hamilton Sisters and Fordyce (i.e., Jessie Fordyce) who were later renamed to add glamor and mystery to their radio careers. Pearl Hamilton (1900-1978) started out in the late teens and early twenties in old school (non-stripping) burlesque. She teamed up with her sister Violet (1908-1983) and their friend Jessie in 1924. Their radio debut was in 1927. They were also in demand for cartoon voice overs during the 1930s. They gradually broke up the late 1930s, early 1940s. Pearl and Violet continued to pursue separate careers for a while. Little is known of what happened to Jessie.

The clip below is from their peak, around 1935:

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.


Lee Morse: Pyrotechnic Showmanship

Posted in Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , on November 30, 2011 by travsd

Lee Morse (born Lena Corinne Taylor on this day in 1897) was a big time vaudeville singer and star of Broadway revues in the 1920s. She was the daughter of a preacher; her four older brothers formed a professional quartet; her younger brother Glen was Senator from Idaho for a time (known as “The Singing Senator” for his earlier career as a singer). She was married and pregnant by age 16 but still strove to enter show business. She began working local small time in the Pacific Northwest, accompanying herself on guitar. The tide changed when she was booked for a Kolb and Dill revue in 1920. Many such engagements followed, such as Raymond Hitchcock’s Hitchykoo series, and Artists and Models with Frank Fay. The peak of her career was 1924-30, where her pyrotechnic if gimmicky showmanship made her a star of vaudeville, numerous recordings, and some Vitaphone shorts. After this, vaudeville declined, and drinking got in the way of her career. For a time, her husband and accompanist was Bob Downey, a cousin of Morton Downey Sr (a popular singer and father of the briefly notorious tv talk show host). Morse and Downey tried to start a nightclub in Texas in the 30s but it burned down. They moved to Rochester, where the marriage broke up. Morse remained in the area and continued to perform locally until her death in 1954.

Now here she is singing the timeless classic “I Like Pie, I Like Cake”:

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.


Lou Tellegen: Blind Youth

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, The Hall of Hams, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2011 by travsd

Lou Tellegen (born this day in 1881) is sadly most famous today for his Hollywood Babylon style suicide. Surrounded by scrapbooks and memoribilia, he stabbed himself to death in 1934. Sad to imagine he thought he had nothing to look forward to; he certainly had an amazing life to look back on. A Dutch native, he (briefly) married a Countess at age 21, then worked for a time at a number of odd jobs, including prize fighter and trapeze artist. In 1913 he established himself as an actor in London by contriving to star in a production of The Picture of Dorian Gray. His main claim to vaudeville fame was his performance opposite Sarah Bernhardt during her famous 1913-14 U.S. vaudeville tour. This gave him a toehold in the States, where he remained for the rest of his life. He starred in silent films, Broadway plays, toured his own dramatic vaudeville sketch “Blind Youth” and had several marriages. His descent began with the emergence of talkies; another casualty of progress.

Learn more about Tellegen in this little mini doc:

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.



For more on silent film don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


America’s Parade

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , on November 23, 2011 by travsd

Every year at this time, I break out my copy of this handy Life Magazine coffee table book chronicling the history of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.The book is a souvenir from when we had an exhibition  about the parade at New-York Historical Society back in 2001.

The book is an invaluable tonic to swallow in preparation for actually viewing the parade, which really can only be done properly in person. Non-New Yorkers might refer to their television sets, but I must tell you the difference between the experiences is one of apples and oranges. The televised parade is, to me, like fingernails on a chalkboard: all hideous, moronic, superficial chatter delivered by bubble-headed pseudo-celebrities, interlaced with unbearable, plastic, lip-synced Broadway show-tunes (which in reality are commercials for current hit shows), intertwined with innumerable parade baloons and floats that are commercials for tv cartoons, feature films, toys and breakfast cereals….intercut every five minutes, it feels like, with three minutes of actual television commercials.

The live experience is so much nicer, if only because it is so much less a barrage of aggressive, predatory marketing overkill. Much remains in the parade that is charming and pure…not just the marching bands that come from all over the country….not just the army of clowns (many of whom are friends and acquaintances of this reporter), but because there still remain dozens, scores of balloons and floats that pre-date the shameless commercial prostitution that now dominates.

Adam Auslander, Dick Monday, and Hillary Chaplain, the former and latter of whom have performed with my American Vaudeville Theatre. Here, they are Macy's Clowns. From the book "America's Parade"

If there is one name I hope you take away from this post, it is Tony Sarg. Sarg was a puppeteer and illustrator, and he became the parade’s first designer in those early years of the 1920s and 30s. Having no precedent for such an event, he drew solely from one place, nowadays unthinkable: his own imagination. It’s always been a given that the overall parade exists to promote Macy’s. But in the early days there were no marketing tie-ins. The balloons and floats existed only to be admired in and of themselves. This tradition went on at least until the 50s. When you see a balloon or a float that is just a clown, an elf, a fireman, a dog….and not Mickey Mouse, Spiderman or the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee…that’s what I’m talking about.

I like to think that, just like this parade, America has a purer foundation, some remnants of integrity that aren’t somehow calculated and harnessed to shill for some faceless, soulless, inhuman corporation. But perhaps that, too, is a balloon over-ripe for bursting.

The Land of the Pilgrims

Posted in AMERICANA, BOOKS & AUTHORS, CULTURE & POLITICS on November 23, 2011 by travsd

Here’s a charming if problematic object to contemplate this Thanksgiving Day: my 1925 copy of “The Land of the Pilgrims” by one Jay Earle Thomson, Principal of School #3, Jersey City, NJ. This is just the type of strange book, acquired from yard sales and the like, that I used to while away my summer days reading, forever warping my character and making me generally unfit for contemporary society.

The pleasures of this odd book are manifold. One, from a modern perspective, it is difficult to tell just what sort of textbook it is supposed to be. It dates from those holistic days when your teacher was just your teacher. He or she might teach you many things, some practical, some factual, some moral, and so on. It was before the god-awful assembly-line modern education system, where each subject is a different specialized branch of human knowledge with no apparent relationship to any other. “The Land of the Pilgrims” starts out as a history book, laying out the facts of the English settlers coming to the Plymouth colony in 1620. Then it becomes a sort of travel guide to modern Plymouth, pointing out all the places the historical tourist can visit. Finally, it re-prints the entire text of “The Courtship of Miles Standish”, along with a short biography of that poem’s author, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. History, English, geography, and what to do on your vacation, all rolled into one course. Oh, and elocution, for it recommends memorizing and reciting certain passages of prescribed doggerel.

I call the book “problematic” because it cheerfully embellishes on the known facts in a way that is at once charming and disturbing. There is a distinct effort to paint a Homeric gloss on the story that those of us who are products of a modern history education find easy to see through and somewhat difficult to stomach. If Miles Standish takes a search party out into the woods, the men are inevitably described as “fearless”. The description of the English village from which the Pilgrims originally hailed is the pretty sort of picture one imagines might be painted before a lady’s gardening society, stressing how neat and proper it all is, as though to say, “Even though it’s only England, it is the most lovely and picturesque and proper little village in all of England, as only the village our ancestors came from CAN be!” The concerted effort to mythologize the events, to make of this band of 100 travelers the most noble group in the history of the world is palpable. And to modern eyes, a bit perplexing. Yes, it took bravery, yes, it was indescribably hard…but why can’t they have been (as they undoubtedly were) ORDINARY brave people undergoing hardships? And, as might be expected, the portrait of relations with the Indians is a bit tough to swallow. Periodically, we read an account of the settlers stealing corn from the natives, feeling bad about it, and promising to pay them for it later. The account ends before the promised repayment, and also before the Indians are finally wiped out in King Philips War a few decades later. Sometimes history is in what you leave out.

Most delightful of all, the book is inexplicably full of staged photographs depicting the events of 1620. They were clearly produced especially for the book, 300 years after the events pictured, but nowhere is there a disclaimer saying the people in the photograph are modern actors. On the one hand, it feels kind of neat, just as in the historical films of D.W. Griffith–as though you were looking at an actual photo of an impossibly long-ago era. On the other hand, a naive or uneducated person would have no reason to suspect that that wasn’t actually the case! Anyway, here are some of my favorites (just click on them to enlarge):

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Houdini Tonight!

Posted in Hollywood (History), Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on November 21, 2011 by travsd

Far be it from me to turn this blog into TV Guide, but sometimes I just gotta alert the public to developments of vaudevillian interest! Tonight at 10pm (EST) TCM is showing one of my favorite childhood movies, the 1953 Houdini bio-pic starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh.

Like most Hollywood bio-pics this one is light on facts, and is often downright misleading, but somehow captures both the soul of its subject and his milieu. As the poster implies, the heart of the picture is the love story between Houdini and his beloved Bess, nicely playing off of Curtis and Leigh’s real life off screen marriage. I was about to call it a magical picture, but just stopped myself. But you know what? It is, so never mind!

ALERT! This movie is NOT, repeat NOT currently Netflixable. So seize this rare opportunity to see it!

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