Archive for February, 2012

Happy Birthday to Travalanche

Posted in My Shows, PLUGS, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on February 29, 2012 by travsd

Known for leaping

Hard to believe as it may seem (that is, for those who are paying attention), Travalanche turns four years old today. That’s right, she’s a Leap Year Baby, meaning she’s only one year old…that is, if you don’t actually count all the years that came between February 29, 2008 and the present day.

If you’re interested in such arcana, our first post is here.

At any rate, this Friday at 8pm we’ll be marking the occasion with an informal celebration in the backroom of Bar 82 (thanks, Patrice Miller). We’ll have screenings of several of our Vaudephone Shorts (thanks, Jim Moore), some live performance, and merch for sale, including copies of No Applause and “Playbills to Photoplays”and the two CDs from Archeophone Records for which I wrote the liner notes (“Nat M. Wills” and “Van & Schenck”).

But mostly please just come and help us celebrate! It won’t cost nothin’ but the drinks! Bar 82 is at 136 Second Ave, between 9th Street and St. Marks Place

Vaudephone #16: Solomon the Peculiarist

Posted in Contemporary Variety, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Vaudephones, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on February 29, 2012 by travsd

And now here’s the 16th installment in our Vaudephone series, Solomon the Peculiarist:

Vaudephone is a co-production of Travalanche/ the American Vaudeville Theatre, and

ALSO: please note the swell theme music, by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. Don’t miss Vince and his swingin’ band for dinner and dancing every Monday and Tuesday at the Edison Hotel!  (Details are here).

To find out 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.


Writing in Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS with tags , on February 28, 2012 by travsd

As will come as no surprise to those who know me even a little bit, in my youth I was never more inwardly arrogant than when sitting in a playwriting or screenwriting class. In theatre and film school I had several, and my attitude was always one of “Show me!” and “What have I got to learn from you, ya hack?” And then there’s always “If you’re so brilliant, how come you’re teaching this course, huh?”.

The truth is, I’m not real interested in the opinions of people who don’t impress me (why would I be?). The schmoes who typically resort to teaching (or cranking out “how to” books) seem scarcely a length ahead of me in this horse race, and I’m way in the back! And anyway I don’t want to be just “a playwright”. What’s the point of that? I am in pursuit of the highest reaches of excellence, and that requires inspiration. I don’t want to be taught screenwriting by the guy who wrote the TV movie about alcoholism. I want to be taught by Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder or Ben Hecht. (Or the modern equivalents: the Coen Brothers? Charlie Kaufman?) Instead, screenwriting class was always a lot of embarrassing anecdotes from sad sacks, e.g., “Always keep your pot of hot coffee real close to the typewriter!”

“Coffee pot? Typewriter???  Sheeeuuut.”

It’s been a while since I’ve sat in a classroom, so over the past several years I’ve reserved my sullen expressions and my eye-rolling for screenwriting books. Believe me, I’ve gone through them all, and they have all been pretty terrible. Unreadable, in fact. One skims them for information since they are written so poorly, but since they are written so poorly, why trust the information? If you can’t write a good book, I doubt you can write a good screenplay, and if you can’t write a good screenplay, what precisely do you have to teach me? And clearly the person has written this book because he or she has not sold scripts. (The exception would be William Goldman who published his wisdom on the subject, but he never clicked for me either).

And I need it to click for me. Thus far, it hasn’t quite. Many are the stabs I have taken at professional screen and television writing, and to date I have not found  myself crossing the line I want to cross, the line where I cease to be a playwright thinking first in dialogue and then trying to dream up pictures as an afterthought…..and become a screenwriter who can think and write in pictures. I am no stranger to pictures. I have taken art classes, can draw, love museums, and watch silent movies all the time. STILL, the pictures always end up taking a back seat for me. Can’t get my head around it. Thus, this quest for the key.

Joseph McBride’s Writing in Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless (pub date today) is the first book I have ever read that actually feels like it may do it for me.

First of all, the guy automatically has my respect. Among (many) other things, he wrote a terrific biography of John Ford which I had (coincidentally) read a year or two ago, as well as great books on Capra and Welles, and the seminal Hawks on Hawks. While his own artistic fame doesn’t stretch much beyond the screenplay for Rock and Roll High School and the short story that became Prom Night, he has that Bogdanovich-like insider knowledge of Hollywood cinema. He knows Hollywood movies inside and out, has sat at the feet of masters (and even acted in Orson Welles ill-fated The Other Side of the Wind). 

More than this, this is the first book on screenwriting I’ve encountered that is genuinely pleasurable to read. You know what that means? It means that one is induced to actually read it, thereby profiting from the wisdom of his experience, as well as that of the successful colleagues he interviews, and the past masters he has researched. He has a brain in his head and respects the cinema as an art form. He is not shy about citing (for example) Jean Renoir, but he is also very on top of what the industry is seeking right now, so the book has some very useful tips on mechanics.

And as rich and rewarding as it is to read, it’s above all a practical manual, taking you step-by-step through an assignment. McBride recommends making your first screenplay an adaptation of an existing work of literature so that you grapple with the difficult demands of screenplay form — which are hard enough — without getting too distracted by also having to invent your own plot and characters from scratch on top of it. Along the way, you watch him do his own adaptation of a very disturbing Jack London story about a guy who freezes to death.

In short, the book’s got me fired up, and I am going to try out his prescriptions, once I’m done with the book and the play that are next in the pipeline. I already have my work of literature to adapt all picked out! Anyone want to join me? Writing in Pictures is available here.


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.


Molly Picon

Posted in Jews/ Show Biz, Singers, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , on February 28, 2012 by travsd

Today is the birthday of the great Yiddish performer Molly Picon (for her full story go here). Here she is on record in 1931 singing “Yom Pom Pom”:

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.


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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