Archive for February, 2012

Blondin

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Frenchy with tags , , on February 28, 2012 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Charles Blondin (1824-1897) who did a tightrope walk over the gorge at Niagara, not once, but many times, and with many variations (on stilts, blindfolded, carrying a man on his back, and pausing in the middle to do things like cook an omelette or stand a chair). He was in every way to precursor to this man.

To find out more about  the history of variety entertainmentconsult 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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Weegee: Murder is My Business

Posted in Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Coney Island, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES with tags , , , , on February 27, 2012 by travsd

"Hold Up Man Killed", 1941, Weegee, Int'l Center of Photography

Sometimes Weegee seems too good to be true….just when the world needed an intrepid and unflinching freelance crime photographer to document the seamier side of New York in the 193os and 40s, it got one. He even looks like he’s from central casting, with the fedora, and the omnipresent cigar sticking out of his mouth.

The International Center of Photography’s Weegee Archive has an amazing collection of 20,000 prints, as well as magazines and newspapers containing the photographer’s work, and some of his documentary films. The Countess and I (and a couple of unaccountably bored teenagers) poked our nose into their new exhibition Weegee: Murder Is My Business last week. A picture’s worth a thousand words,. so here are some of my fleeting impressions as I passed transfixed through the gallery:

bound-up body stuffed in a steamer trunk in Red Hook

perp walk of a scar-faced hoodlum

story on the The “Mad Dog Killers”

a hundred faces peeping out of tenement windows to rubberneck at a body collapsed on the steps of a candy store

table in the evidence room piled high with policy sacks

“Killing Over a Glass of Warm Beer”

midget arrested in a vice bust. Is he the same guy as “Shorty, the Bowery Cherub”, referred to in another photo?

ice-encrusted Bravest at a firebug’s blaze

a woman laughing gleefully over the corpse of an accident victim

punk dropped in his tracks on the roof near the pigeon coop

kids cavort at the East Side killing of a longshoreman

If you are a writer of a certain type of  fiction and having writers’ block, I highly recommend you step over to the ICP and see this show. You’ll get material enough for a hundred books.

In addition to the dozens of photographic prints and clippings from newspapers and magazines, there are touchscreens with slideshows of still more images; a scale replica of Weegee’s apartment (recreated from his own photos), examples of the kinds of cameras he would have used, and a couple of his motion picture films, including a most enjoyable study of a day at Coney Island in 1948.

If you are hyper-squeamish, I’d advise you steer clear of the ICP’s basement and take in one of their other fine temporary exhibitions. To everyone else, I highly recommend the Weegee show. It’s up through September. More info here.

Billy Kersands

Posted in African American Interest, Comedy, Dance, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on February 27, 2012 by travsd

This post is one of a series honoring Black History Month.

Perhaps he doesn’t look it, but this man was as important in his own way as W.E.B. DuBois. Well…maybe not.

Billy Kersands (c. 1842-1915) was a star of minstrelsy from the 1860s until his death. He was one of minstrelsy’s biggest personalities and one of the very few people who was popular in both black and white minstrel shows. The reason why may be quickly gleaned by the expression on his face in that portrait. He looks extremely funny; he doesn’t look terribly dignified.

He was best known and remembered for the size of his mouth, which he would fill with things like billiard balls and saucers for the amusement of the assembled throngs. On the other hand, he is also well revered as a master of early forms of the soft shoe and the buck-and-wing. Dancer, comedian, singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, and acrobat. This was one well-rounded superman of the theatre, but he grew increasingly controversial as the demeaning stereotypes he embodied became less and less accepted.

He refrained from going into vaudeville (and its greater financial rewards) because he said he had all the money he needed and he was simply more comfortable on the minstrel stage (which was all but gone by the time he passed away anyway). As the Jazz Age marched on, bona fide minstrel men, and then blackface, grew rarer and rarer. And Mr. Kersands was a man of the 19th century.

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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Robert Alda: “Tit Singer”

Posted in Broadway, Burlesk, Hollywood (History), Italian, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on February 26, 2012 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Robert Alda (Alfonso Giuseppe Giovanni Roberto D’Abruzzo, 1914-1986). He started out as a singer and dancer in vaudeville, then moved to burlesque when vaudeville tanked. His son Alan Alda relates many funny (and disturbing) anecdotes of what the life was like in Leslie Zemeckis’s documentary Behind the Burley Q. His big break was playing George Gershwin in the 1945 bio-pic Rhapsody in Blue. Always a lacklustre screen presence, he nevertheless worked steadily if somewhat unmemorably in film and television for the rest of his life. His Broadway career had more high points, with leads in Guys and Dolls, The Owl and the Pussycat, and What Makes Sammy Run? among others.

But, most importantly, he is the star of The Devil’s Hand ! (1962) , in which a beautiful witch plucks him from the crowd seemingly at random and gets him to abandon his fiance and sell his soul to the devil God Gamba through the agency of a voodoo cult run by the guy who played Commissioner Gordon on Batman. Here, why don’t  I just show you?

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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And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Jackie Gleason: The Great One

Posted in BROOKLYN, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Irish, Jackie Gleason, Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2012 by travsd

Today is the birthday of The Great One, Mr. Jackie Gleason. The fact that that title was bestowed upon him by Orson Welles will give some indication of how highly his artistry was regarded in some quarters during his life.

My appreciation for him took many years to blossom. As a kid I found Ralph Kramden too scary to be funny; I didn’t dig The Honeymooners at all. “To the moon, Alice” is a bit much for me; I came from a home where the frustrated working slob often made good on such threats, and the results didn’t resemble humor. And let’s face it — Gleason, with those pop-eyes, the raspy voice and the mountainous girth, is a scary-looking dude.

But neither Jackie nor Ralph are like that, you eventually learn. No anecdotes of real life domestic violence mar Gleason’s biographies (even though he did plenty of scrapping in the streets and pool halls). And Ralph, though frightening in his rages, is ultimately Alice’s vassal, a sort of wayward and blustering child. I still have to regard it as a fairy tale fantasy, of course, but with exposure to the show, Gleason’s gifts become apparent, his comic timing, his give-and-take with the other performers, the 3 dimensional shadings of the character, and his abilities as a dramatic actor. And a little research reveals this is only the tip of the ice berg: there were his dramatic performance in films, and his incredible work in television variety: he was a hilarious host, a top flight sketch comedian, and even a terrific straight man. He also loved music (he wrote the memorable Honeymooners theme).

Born this day in 1916, he grew up in Bushwick (memories of which informed the set of The Honeymooners). And now that I think of it, the apartments of my friends who live in Bushwick today look pretty much the same. He started out attending shows at his local vaudeville theatre (where he would later host the amateur night) and when vaudeville petered out, began to work in nightclubs and burlesque (sidelining as a boxer and a bar bouncer when he couldnt get gigs). His first shot at films in the early forties went nowhere, but things gradually picked up with high profile gigs at Slapsie Maxies, a tour with Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin, several Broadway shows and a season substituting for William Bendix on the television version of the popular radio show The Life of Riley (1949-50).

He was the centerpiece of several tv variety shows in the 50s and 60s, in which (much like Red Skelton) he essayed a wide variety of popular characters: Reginald Van Gleason, The Poor Soul, Joe the Bartender, and others. The Honeymooners also began as a series of short sketches on his variety shows (and later returned to that format in the years following its single season as a half-hour sit com.) He got some juicy prestige roles in dramatic films in the early 60s (The Hustler, Requiem for a Heavyweight), some way-out roles in the late sixties (Skidoo, Don’t Drink the Water) and finally got his long sought after movie star status in old age, starting with Smokey and the Bandit in 1977. His last role was Nothing in Common with Tom Hanks in 1986, the year before he died.

Perhaps nothing in his remarkable life compares to the occasion in 1973 when (Gleason claimed) President Richard M. Nixon took him to a special morgue beneath the White House and showed him the bodies of several dead space aliens. “And away we go”,  indeed.

Here he is as the Loudmouth Charlie Bratton in a clip with Art Carney:

To find out more about  the history of variety entertainmentconsult 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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And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

 

Dusty Fletcher: “Open the Door, Richard”

Posted in African American Interest, Comedy, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on February 25, 2012 by travsd

This post is one of a series honoring Black History Month.

Clinton “Dusty” Fletcher (1897-1954) is best known for the comedy routine, song and film “Open the Door, Richard”, which Bob Dylan further immortalized by making it the refrain of one of the songs on The Basement Tapes (which for some mysterious reason is called  “Open the Door, Homer” even though he sings it as “Richard”). He started out in black vaudeville and appeared in prominent black revues all through the 20s and 30s, with such performers as Mamie Smith, Tim Moore, Moms Mabley, Ethel Waters, et al, and appeared in the occasional motion picture as well, such as the famous short “Rufus Jones for President”. But here’s his most famous turn:

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 Great Lafayette

Posted in Animal Acts, German, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on February 24, 2012 by travsd

Today is the birthday of The Great Lafayette (Siegmund Neuberger, 1872-1911) one of vaudeville’s few literal martyrs.  He moved to the U.S. from his native Munich at age 19 and began his career as one of the many imitators of Ching Ling Foo. His early act had elements of Grand Giugnol (his sawing a woman in half smacks of The Mad Magician“) and he gradually built up to an enormous set piece illusions, the most famous of which was “The Lion’s Bride”, which used a live menagerie, including the King of Beasts, who at the act’s climax, magically transformed into Lafayette. It all went up in smoke on May 9, 1911 during his act, when the set caught fire killing the magician, most of his animals, and 11 audience members. The irony is that he had ordered all the backstage doors locked so no one could steal his secrets.

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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