Archive for March, 2012

Eddie Quillan: “The Rising Generation”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on March 31, 2012 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Eddie Quillan (1907-1990). Quillan was a man with many show biz lives. 1) He started out with his parents and siblings in the family vaudeville act “The Rising Generation”, starting age seven. 2) In 1922 the whole family took screen tests for Mack Sennett. Eddie was the only one who got the call. He co-starred in about two dozen comedies for Sennett through the 20s, often as a sort of imitation Harry Langdon. 3) He graduated to good roles in major pictures in the late 20s and 30s, including Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940 — he played the no goodnik brother-in-law Connie who runs off on Rose-of-Sharon when she gets pregnant), 4) A “B” movie career in the 40s. 5) A series of comedy shorts for Columbia, teamed with Wally Vernon, produced by Jules White (1948-1956), 5) bit roles in films through the 60s, including several Don Knotts pictures, 6) tons of appearances on television from the late 50s through the late 80s. It is a certainty that you have seen his face many times!

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. Also please keep a look out for Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies From Nickelodeon to Youtube, coming out in September 2012


Joseph Cawthorn: A Star for More Than a Night

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, German, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2012 by travsd

Cawthorn in Elsie Janis’s 1911 “A Star for a Night”

Today is the birthday of Hollywood character actor Joseph Cawthorn (1868-1949). His film career ran from 1927 through 1942, and he had prominent roles in such films as the Fairbanks-Pickford version of The Taming of the Shrew (1929, the first talkie for both stars); Dixiana with Wheeler and Woolsey (1930); one of the scariest horror movies of all time White Zombie (1932); Gold Diggers of 1935; and the bio-pics The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and Lillian Russell (1941).

Born into a family of minstrel show performers he came into the business at age three as a “pick”, toured the U.S. and England, as a child, then went into vaudeville his brother with a blackface** two-act in the early 1880s, singing, dancing and doing comedy cross-talk. Mid-decade he went into burlesque where he thrived for over a decade. Both vaudeville and burlesque experience added a “Dutch” (German) characterization to his repertoire, and it was to become a mainstage of both his stage and screen careers.

From 1898 through 1922 he was a major star of Broadway. Victor Herbert’s The Fortune Teller (1898), the extravaganza Mother Goose (1903), and a stage adaption of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo (1908). The stage work dried up for him in the twenties, and that’s what sent him west.

Here’s a little musical snippet from the 1934 movie Sweet Adeline, in which he and his co-stars sing Kern and Hammerstein’s “Twas Not So Long Ago”

To learn more about the roots 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.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

The Gertrude Hoffman Collection

Posted in Burlesk, Dance, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , on March 26, 2012 by travsd

We are pleased to have as our guest blogger today, Ivy Marvel of the Brooklyn Public Library. More about her and the excellent work she does in her own words below.

One of my more enjoyable job duties as a librarian and archivist in Brooklyn Public Library’s local history division, the Brooklyn Collection, is writing about our lesser known collections in our blog, Brooklynology.  One such hidden gem is the Gertrude Hoffman Collection, three boxes stuffed with photographs, scrapbooks, programs, and newspaper clippings documenting the professional life of the dancer, who is best known for introducing the Salome dance and the Ballet Russes to American audiences.  I’ve already written about Gertrude’s fascinating exploits as an comedic impressionist, dancer, and scandalous outlaw-for-the-arts here and here, but in those blog posts I made only a passing mention of the famous dance troupe Hoffman formed during her later years in showbiz, the Gertrude Hoffman Girls.  Although I lack Trav’s encyclopedic knowledge of the history of vaudeville, I can share some rare images and ephemera from our collection of the world-touring dance ensemble.

Comprised of up to 18 dancers, the troupe was active through the 1920s and 30s, performing on stages in the U.S.and abroad, most notably at the famous Moulin Rouge in Paris.  During a stint at that club in June 1925, a Parisbureau reporter for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper wrote that the Hoffman Girls “make up almost the entire show at the Moulin Rouge Music Hall.  Beside the Gertrude Hoffman girls, the various Tiller choruses in New York shows would be skimmed milk, for the American group here not only can dance as well but apparently have been through every athletic course known to Macfadden.  They fence, they are trapeze acrobats, they are ballet dancers, and they each have a distinctly excellent specialty.”  A month later, the Eagle supplied this drawing of the various feats of the Hoffman Girls as they prepared for the opening of their “Artists and Models” show at Oscar Hammerstein’s Winter Garden in Manhattan.

And feats they were.  In addition to precision-timed dance routines and fencing demonstrations, the Hoffman Girls’ accomplishments on the stage included something called “webbing”, which I assume refers to the aerial gymnastics of the sort pictured here, in this shot of the original troupe at a dress rehearsal for Ziegfeld’s Follies:

Gertrude Hoffman certainly put her performers through the ropes.  We are lucky to have in our collection several fascinating images from the troupe’s rehearsals in 1938.  Here you can see Hoffman herself (in a sweater and braids) intervening to arrange her dances poses just so, and stepping in herself at times to demonstrate the technique she demanded of her girls.

It should also be noted that during their time performing at the Moulin Rouge, the Hoffman Girls captured the fancy of no less a personage than French surrealist poet Paul Eluard, who wrote an ode to their prowess that included the stirring lines, “You trade love for the thrills of a swordflash/And welling laughter for the promise of dawn./Your dances are the frightening gulf of my dreams/And I sink and my fall makes eternal my life…”

Another, infinitely more obscure writer – a Ms. Mable Clifford of Brooklyn– submitted her own poem on the Hoffman Girls to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper in January of 1934:

Scandalous though they may have been onstage, the Hoffman Girls seemed to have no trouble finding their audience.  As this image of the girls cavorting on a beach demonstrates, the spectacle of 18 lovely, talented Gertrude Hoffman Girls couldn’t help but draw a crowd wherever they went.

There is much, much more to share from the Gertrude Hoffman collection – too much to share here!  Anyone who would like to see the materials in person, or any of the other items in our collection – which includes maps, prints, newspapers, photographs, and ephemera from Brooklyn’s past – are welcome to visit us at Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch or follow us on Twitter @Brooklynology!

Olive Thomas: Patron Saint of Chorus Girls

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Women with tags , , on March 24, 2012 by cavigliathecountess

This is one in a series of posts in observation of Women’s History Month. It is written by our special guest blogger The Countess.

When a girl dies young it leaves a perpetual question mark over her life asking what might have been. For various reasons, Olive Thomas has always been a particularly interesting question mark to me. She was young (but exactly how young is open to conjecture as, to paraphrase Angela Carter, the date of an actress’s birth is often a movable feast), beautiful and had a useful talent for seizing the main chance, holding on, and turning it to her advantage.

Her early life reads like something out of a Dreiser novel. She was born in a depressing, blighted mill-town near Pittsburgh sometime between 1892 and 1898 (most sources seem to split the difference) as Oliva (or Oliveretta) Duffy. Her father died when she was a small child, thrusting the family into brutal poverty in a time and place when the phrase “brutal poverty” really, really meant something. She dropped out of school by 14, got work behind the counter of a department store, and was married to Bernard Thomas by 16. At some point, she left her husband and moved to New York City where she had relatives and got work in a Harlem department store. She charged her husband with cruelty, received a divorce, kept his Anglo name, and never went back.

Penrhyn Stanlaws’s painting of Olive. “Between Poses”, 1915.

In 1914 things took a dramatic turn. Legendary illustrator Howard Chandler Christy ran a contest for “The Most Beautiful Girl in New York”. Olive saw the advertisement, ditched work, and won. Or so the story goes. There has been some noise that she met him via a more typical casting call, and the contest was a magazine publicity stunt. Almost immediately, she became a popular and well-paid artist’s model. William Haskell Coffin painted her for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post . She often posed for Harrison Fisher, who arranged a meeting with Florenz Ziegfeld who immediately hired her for the 1915 edition of the Follies. Thomas, however, later claimed she arranged the meeting with the impresario herself. Either way, Flo was smitten, and her career was pretty much made.

Ollie by Raphael Kirchner. For the Follies.

She was featured on the main stage of the New Amsterdam for a season, and then was moved to the much racier Midnight Frolic. Legend has it that she carried on an affair with Mr. Ziegfeld, inciting the wrath of his wife, Billie Burke. Angering Glinda, the Good Witch, is never, ever a good idea! This (to use a cliché) meteoric rise has always made me wonder: what was it like and what (or whom) did she have to do? Who did she have to sleep with? Flo, almost certainly. And likely Fisher or Christy. Or maybe not. Was this most glorified of Ziegfeld girls that beautiful? What was life as a chorus girl in 1915 like? Birth control was problematic, tampons hadn’t been invented, and Victorian morality was still the norm. Rumors abound that Olive started posing naked for the lens whilst still back in her backwater in Pennsylvania (possibly pimped out by her sailor brothers, who pocketed her earnings), and one wonders if this helped precipitate her dash for the big city. From what one has read about NYC poverty in the nineteen-teens, what wouldn’t one do to escape if one had the looks and the opportunity? Starving genteelly, honor intact, holds few charms outside of fiction if one doesn’t particularly trust in the Kingdom of Heaven. Aggressively well-read (and upper middle class) Louise Brooks sneered at her fellow chorus girls saying they “…thought Ravel and Debussy was a French bicycle act.” Thomas would doubtlessly have been one of those girls. But, as most people who worked with Thomas would attest, she may have been uneducated, but she was far from stupid.

Ollie in the Frolic.

Much like Louise Brooks would be ten years later, she was swept up by the incipient café society, the Condé Nast crowd of newspaper magnates, socialites and politicians who (according to rumor) bought Olive jewelry worth tens of thousands of 1915 dollars. She wore the most elegant costumes the Follies had to offer. She was covered with balloons in the Midnight Frolic which wealthy industrialists and socialites would pop with their cigars. It must have been unbelievably exciting for her – she was less than two years out of her depressed Pennsylvania town. Movies came next, acting in some serial shorts and making a splash. Wonderfully, the people at the Serial Squadron have posted Ollie’s film debut, one of the few of her films that survive. She was at the peak of her Follies fame and she’s just stunning.

She met Jack Pickford sometime in 1916. He was Mary’s bad boy little brother, and from everything I’ve read about him, he seemed like a pretty nasty piece of work. They secretly eloped in October of ’16 (actor Thomas Meighan was the only witness). They had various reasons for keeping it a secret: she thought it would be damaging to her film career if it was perceived that she had traded on the Pickford name, she knew Ziegfeld would be angry and she wasn’t ready to burn that bridge, and his family was opposed. In her autobiography, Mary Pickford wrote that Olive came from “a different world”, i.e. musical comedy, and that they were both just badly behaved children and should wait. I’m pretty sure the phrase “from a different world” is likely code for “that Irish whore”, but maybe I’m wrong. Some people have posited that she opposed the marriage to protect Olive, who though far from innocent, was at this point just a hard working starlet and had never gotten into any real trouble, while Jack was bad, bad news.

She was quickly signed by Thomas Ince, and made increasingly more important films, becoming a star, and all without any help from the Pickford name or family. She and Jack were often separated by their shooting schedules, and then by his Navy service. They publicly acknowledged the marriage in ’17. Their marriage was characterized by fights, break-ups, lavish gifts sent in apology, infidelity and drinking. They were young, beautiful, rich and famous in a world that had no real scandal machine. It was so early that no one had died yet, it was all seen as good fun and the worst excesses were hidden from the public or glossed over.

Jack Pickford

In his films, Jack mostly played handsome college boys. Olive was a little more interesting. Louise Brooks and Clara Bow may have been the quintessential flappers, but Olive was the first. She mostly played sexy, yet innocent baby vamps (and a surprising number of jewel thieves). Very few of her films survive, and the only one that’s easily available is her last, The Flapper (1920). In it, Olive is shockingly natural. She still has her Irish good looks, but she appears a little heavy to modern eyes and maybe I’m wrong, but I think you can see her hard living on her face.  She looks far older that she did in her film debut just three years earlier. Her car crashes became something of a running joke in the press (not funny: running over a 9 year old boy, who survived). She and Jack managed to get some time together, renting a house in Great Neck for the summer. The war was over and Jack received a General (as opposed to an Honorable) Discharge from the service. His family connections prevented him from being thrown in jail for pandering (“introducing” pretty girls to officers in exchange for receiving lighter duties) and drug dealing (Jack was a morphine addict like many veterans. The difference was, Jack didn’t become addicted after receiving injuries, just, you know, for fun).

Ince’s company folded due to financial problems and she was quickly snapped up by the Selznick Pictures Company where she was paid $3000 a week, an astronomical sum in 1918. In many of the interviews she made during her film career, she talked about one day wanting to direct. It’s since become a cliché, but it was a far from typical goal for a starlet in pre-1920 films. Her coworkers tell of a voracious curiosity about the mechanics of filmmaking. She made everyone tell her how things worked: how to shoot a scene, how to operate the camera, what about the lights, etc. She was foul mouthed, hard drinking and uneducated, but also bright and ambitious, i.e. much like many film directors (and, lord knows, studio heads) of the era. It’s this more than anything that makes me wonder where her career might have wound up had she lived.

Ollie and Jack on the boat to France.

Ollie and Jack decided they needed a second honeymoon in 1920 after all their fighting and time apart, so off they went to Paris. (I will take this time to issue a warning to my readers: if the phrase “syphilitic junky” can be used to accurately describe the person you are married to, THIS IS NOT A MARRIAGE YOU WANT TO BE IN!) According to reports, Jack and Olive’s time in Paris was spent mostly in their usual pursuits of drinking and fighting. On September 9th, after a night of drinking and drugging in the shady dives of Montparnasse, Olive went into their hotel bathroom and downed a bottle of mercury belonging to Jack, used to treat his chronic syphilis. It was an ugly death, and its exact causes are still in dispute. Murder, suicide or accident? My vote is for accident. The label of the mercury bottle was in French, it was on a shelf near headache medication, and Olive was likely wasted. It would have been very easy to grab the wrong bottle and quaff it down before realizing what it was. The only possible motives for suicide that people have put forth are that maybe she had caught Jack’s syphilis, or maybe she was distraught over her failing marriage. The thing is, until then, Olive hadn’t seemed to have a suicidal bone in her body. She was all survival and ambition, she was no little girl lost. And saying it was murder is just silly. She and Jack’s marriage was stormy, but forcing her to drink poison seems awfully unlikely.

“Momories of Olive” by Alberto Vargas

Her body was brought back to New York, and she was interred in the Pickford vault in Woodlawn Cemetery. My all-time favorite murder victim, William Desmond Taylor, spoke at her service. Like many Follies girls, Olive had been painted by Alberto Vargas. After her death, Flo Ziegfield commissioned a posthumous portrait. What Billie Burke thought of him having a naked portrait of his dead mistress hanging in his office for the remainder of his life is unrecorded, but one may imagine. Over the next 80 years she was mostly forgotten, interest in her reviving over the past few years due to a Hugh Hefner financed documentary and the Eastman House’s restoration of The Flapper. But the story doesn’t end there – according to many reports, Olive’s ghost haunts the New Amsterdam Theater, no doubt bored at having to watch performance after performance of Mary Poppins.

Olive, haunting. By Caviglia.

This post was first published in a slightly different version by Caviglia’s Cabinet of Curiosities.

Houdini’s Birthday

Posted in Jews/ Show Biz, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Silent Film, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on March 24, 2012 by travsd

Today is the great Houdini’s birthday! For my full biographical essay on him go here. And see him do his rope escape below:

To learn more about the roots 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.


Milbourne Christopher

Posted in Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change with tags , on March 23, 2012 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the great Milbourne Christopher (1914-1984). During his nearly 60 years as a magician, he racked up many accomplishments: President of the Society of American Magicians, star of two full-length Broadway magic shows, producer and star of 10 national television programs (including the very first, in 1957, in which he caught a bullet in his teeth), performances before Presidents and potentates in 72 countries and a massive collection of magic memorabilia, which was auctioned off last year.

And his ultimate legacy I think will be what came out of his pen. he is reputed to have written an astounding 10,000 published articles about magic in his lifetime. And more important still are his books. Walk into almost any library and you are sure to find at least one of his 23 tomes, among them: The Illustrated History of Magic, Christopher Milbourne’s Magic Book, Panorama of Magic, and Houdini: the Untold Story.

Like Houdini and the Amazing Randi, he was also a famous debunker, and wrote extensively uncovering the tricks of false psychics and mediums.

To learn more about the roots 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.


The Russell Brothers: “The Irish Serving Girls”

Posted in Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Broadway, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Drag and/or LGBT, Irish, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2012 by travsd

Since their birthdays are unknown, I’ve saved this post for St. Patrick’s Day.

The Russell Brothers, John (1856-1925) and James (1859-1914), were a pair of Irish-American brothers who cooked up a comedy two act known as “The Irish Serving Girls.”

They had begun in Lower East Side variety saloons as one of the typical Irish acts of the day, doing knockabout comedy, jokes, a little minstrelsy**, sentimental songs, and clog dancing. Drag was usually one of the specialties such acts would trot out to keep audiences engaged; Tony Hart of Harrigan and Hart, for example was well loved for his comical dames. The Russell Brothers were such a hit with their drag personae that they simply ended up specializing. Their gossipy, mean Irish chambermaids became their permanent characters.

Weber and Fields (whom they’d gotten to know while performing together at Tony Pastor’s) loved the Russell Brothers so much that in the 1890s they hired them to head up their 2nd vaudeville touring unit. In the new century, they became sought after as a stand-alone act on the just-forming vaudeville circuits, and even starred in some Broadway shows.

In the new century, the team was bedeviled by the complaints of Irish anti-defamation groups for their portrayals. (Interestingly the complaints were not so much about their portraits of Irish people, which were mainstream enough as heinous as they were. But the outcry was more about how they depicted Irish women. ) Towards the end, they switched to playing Swedish women, which was no doubt just as objectionable but had no large organized constituency to protest. After James died, one of the replacements John hired was none other than Bert Savoy — that was how the legendary drag artist got his start. After Savoy left the act to form a new team with Jay Brennan, John Russell hung his skirts up for good.

To learn more about the roots 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.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

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