Archive for April, 2012

Al “Grandpa” Lewis: Perennial or Undead?

Posted in Comedy, Sit Coms, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2012 by travsd

Today is the birthday of “Grandpa” Al Lewis (Albert or Alexander Meister, 1923-2006). Among many other fake biographical tidbits, Lewis often gave out that he was born in 1910. Some have speculated that he did that so the public (and the television producers) wouldn’t know that he was actually one year younger than Yvonne de Carlo, who played his daughter Lily on The Munsters (1964-1966).

I postulate an added reason — it sorts of bolsters the credibility of the image he liked to project of an old time vaudeville and burlesque comic (and an advocate for social justice, i.e. it’s hard to have been involved with Sacco & Vanzetti if you weren’t old enough). In reality, vaudeville and burlesque were almost gone by the time he was old enough to have performed in them. (He also claimed to have gotten a Ph.D. in child psychology from Columbia, of which no record exists).  He undoubtedly did some live performing at whatever kind of venues were around in the 1940s — those great comic chops came from somewhere. But it’s not until the 1950s when he begins to show up in Broadway shows and on television that anything verifiable on Mr. Lewis emerges.

As Schnauser on “Car 54, Where Are You?”

Prior to his stint on The Munsters, he’d been on Bilko (1959) and Car 54, Where Are you? (1961-63), among other shows. His last film was in 2002.

My fellow New Yorkers remember his last years fondly — he was very prominent on the local scene, with his Italian restaurant Grandpa’s in the Village (customers were thrilled to see him there all the time, sitting at a table smoking his omnipresent cigar), his WBAI radio show and his candidacy for Governor of New York on the Green Party Ticket. When he passed away in 2006, he was not 95 as everyone thought, but 82.

Clips like the one below, though, are why I say to you that it is good to be alive on this earth:

To find out more about  the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube either!

Of Poseidon and the Adventure

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, disaster movies, Hollywood (History), Movies (Contemporary) with tags , on April 29, 2012 by travsd

I had a moving experience last night. The Countess and I went to Loews Jersey to see a double bill of A Night to Remember and The Poseidon Adventure. I’ll probably scribble a few notes about the former film here today or tomorrow, but in the meantime, a few remarks about the latter. It has always held a lot of meaning for me, being the first film I ever saw in a cinema (I was 7 when it came out). It turns 40 years old this year — rather a wake-up call. I’ll undoubtedly spill a bunch more on the topic this December when the actual anniversary rolls around, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share an article I wrote for Liberty magazine back in 2006 when the dreadful “remake” Poseidon came out:

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Let’s get one thing straight: Poseidon is in not a remake of the 1972 film The Poseidon Adventure. The only thing the two movies have in common is the situation of a luxury liner capsizing, compelling a group of passengers to make a dangerous climb to the upturned hull. If that is all that constitutes a remake, then all westerns are a remake of Gunfight at the OK Corral.

The other thing I must confess is that your reviewer is biased. I am a member of that rabid cult of Poseidon Adventure freaks who watch the film and re-read the novel on an annual basis with the reverence and regularity that some bestow on Christmas (make that New Year’s Eve).

Most of the critics who’ve trashed Wolfgang Petersen’s mislabeled remake have been fairly (or unfairly) dismissive of the original, an unfortunate lapse, because in every area where Poseidon fails, The Poseidon Adventure succeeds. There is no better way to talk about the poverty of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking – or of American culture in general – then to look at how low this ship has sunk in the intervening thirty-four years.

First, while it may be pulp, the film (and the book that inspired it), much like a lot of science fiction or the work of Ayn Rand (here comes the hate mail) is pulp that contains ideas.

That’s the quality that I think inspires such irrational devotion from its followers. A powerful metaphor is at work. A group of ordinary people are thrust into the unknown. Everything they’ve ever known has literally been turned upside-down. They can either stay where they are, cling to the past, and die…or they can make the difficult and painful climb up to life, which “always matters very much”. The terrain of their many layered journey resembles Dante’s Inferno in reverse. Furthermore, they are led by a vaguely Mephistophelean preacher (Gene Hackman) who spouts Christian heresies that most libertarians would recognize as equal parts Walt Whitman, Ayn Rand and Neitzsche. “Don’t pray to God,” he says at one point, “Pray to that part of God within you.” Unlike a Catholic priest (Arthur O’Connell) who elects to remain behind to die with the dead, the wounded and the weak-willed majority, Hackman’s credo is a variation of Poor Richard’s: “The Lord Helps Those Who Help Themselves.” What makes him very American, and what makes the film inspirational, is that Hackman’s preacher (unlike, say, a Rand character) doesn’t just want to save his own neck. He makes it a point of pride – a mania, really – to convince as many people as possible to join him. Then he proceeds to kick their asses, morally, spiritually and physically, in a word inspiring them to save themselves. It is a victory of reason over blind faith and a most generous, humane application of “selfishness.” Hackman’s character is a Christ-like anti-Christ, whose greatest sorrow is the loss of a fat old lady (Shelley Winters) whom he helped transform from a whining lump into the highest type of hero. In retrospect, I’m certain that the philosophy of this Darwinian Preacher character, whispered into my impressionable six-year old ear during a Saturday matinee, was my first step on the journey to libertarianism.

So: the original Poseidon Adventure, an inspirational, emotionally affecting suspense picture. Now let’s look at Poseidon. As we know from Das Boot and A Perfect Storm, Wolfgang Peterson is an expert at photographing sinking tubs and the people who drown in them. Unlike those more successful, earlier outings however, this time Peterson forgot to put any people on the boat. If you made a silent movie about rats trapped in an upside down model sailboat (say, Stuart Little’s) and the rats managed to scramble somehow to the top of the boat, the results would be exactly like Poseidon. It is as though Petersen decided to take the last five minutes of A Perfect Storm and expand it to two hours. It may very well be that Petersen has done his science homework and a capsized ocean liner only has minutes before it goes down. That would be all very well and good in a documentary. But a fiction film needs air pockets if we’re to form any attachment to the characters…and we ought to form attachments to the characters if the film is going to have any meaning…and a film should have meaning, shouldn’t it? Poseidon is a large screen video game, less important to us than the accompanying popcorn. We neither know nor care anything about the little band of anonymous ciphers who inhabit this story beyond their names and occupational and familial titles. They are no more important to us than the hundreds of extras who are ritually drowned, crushed, shattered, burned and electrocuted in this mildly violent ballet of death.

And the little we know, we don’t like. Josh Lucas is a cynical gambler and former Navy SEAL who resembles a catalog model. Kurt Russell is a former Mayor of New Yorkand former New Yorkfireman with a really good tan. Emmy Rossum is his pretty daughter who resembles a fashion model. There’s another 6 or 8 like this but it hardly matters; none of them are members of the human race as you or I know it. The original film was about a group of highly imperfect people, people you might not peg as survivors or team players, summoning the strength and the character to go on. They were played by such sex symbols as Shelly Winters, Jack Albertson, Red Buttons and Ernest Borgnine (Marty, for god’s sake). Along the way, you got to know these vulnerable people, like them, and consequently, root for them. Lately modern Hollywood repeatedly makes the mistake of thinking we want to root for invulnerable people, and I hope to God they’re wrong because the technical name for that philosophy is fascism. The modern hero is a vigilante on steroids dispatching dozens of bad guys with an AK-47 (or in the case of Poseidon it’s Josh Lucas leaping 100 feet through a burning oil slick into the water beneath in order to rig a special rescue device with a fire hose). But in my book, if the hero is superman the stakes are zero. And why on earth is Kurt Russell a former New York Mayor? It is as though the creators, perceiving that they could not write any characters we could like, opted to replace them with symbolic shorthand for concepts with high Q score. It scans more like a football playbook than what you would call a script. But, contrary to popular belief, you need a script. Without one, all sorts of moral questions go unasked. Stay or go? Live or die? Help the hopeless or save myself? At one point in Poseidon, Richard Dreyfus, as a gay millionaire, is forced to shake off a man who is clinging to his legs for dear life over a burning precipice. Once accomplished, this action, which would be traumatic for any person with a conscience, is never referred to in the film again. This is not good. In these treacherous times, the cinema – all culture – has a role to play in helping us process new realities, and in helping us as citizens of a presumably democratic nation to think and decide the questions of the day. Questions with life-and-death implications for all of us. In light of this, the question on everyone’s lips should not be, “Are we ready for Flight 93?” (we undoubtedly are), but “Are we still able to stomach Poseidon?” Me, I was puking over the rail.

My Grocery Store Used to be a Vaudeville House!

Posted in BROOKLYN, Three Stooges, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on April 25, 2012 by travsd

I just learned that my local grocery store used to be a vaudeville house! From the Sept. 18, 2008 New York Sun:

“The white terra-cotta-clad C-Town supermarket on the north side of 9th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues was, from 1914 to 1967, the RKO Prospect Theatre, which at first presented both vaudeville and films, then later only films. In 1922 comedian Ted Healy invited two fledgling Brooklyn-born performers, Moe and Shemp Howard, to join him onstage for some ad-libbed humor. The act continued at the Prospect under the name Ted Healy and His Stooges.”

Ah, that may be why I knocked over that large stack of cantaloupes. My steps were guided by spirits…

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. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released in September, 2012.

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Emerson and Baldwin: Vaudeville with a Vengeance

Posted in African American Interest, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Jugglers, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Nuts and Eccentrics, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on April 25, 2012 by travsd

Eddie Emerson (Edward William McQuaid) and Jerry Baldwin had a comedy/ magic/ juggling act from around 1907 until the demise of vaudeville in 1932. Billing themselves as “Emerson and Baldwin: Vaudeville with a Vengeance”, they threw everything but the kitchen sink into the act: Emerson did blackface and let himself get slapped around by Baldwin, Baldwin did close magic with cards, they both did club juggling, and a number of extravagant illusions such as a shattered plate that reconstituted itself when shot out of a gun, and a magical plant that grew up from the stage into the flies of the theatre. This act took them all the way to the Palace and all over the globe (they were also favorites in the U.K. and Australia). Their most lasting legacy was comedy magician Roy Benson, who was Eddie Emerson’s son but also seems to have been influenced by Baldwin. For more on these gents, go here.

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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Jack E. Leonard: Fatty Jackie Unveiled

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Stand Up, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2012 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Borscht belt funnyman Jack E. Leonard (Leonard Lebitsky, 1910-1973).

I discovered him absolutely backwards. He came to my attention as one of the stars (playing the duel roles of “Herman” and “Irving”) of one of my favorite movies The Fat Spy (1966), which will undoubtedly be a future post here all by itself. Later, I realized I had encountered him twice before: he has a cameo in Jerry Lewis’s The Disorderly Orderly (1964) as “Fatty Jackie”, and he is one of the voice-over actors in the 1974 animated television special Journey Back to Oz (posthumously released).

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Why I say it was backwards: Most people a bit older than me know him from television — he was constantly on variety and game shows in the 1950s and 60s, which was before my time! The rotund comedian in the funny hat and two-small suit made jokes about his weight and his bald head, but mostly he made them about the audience, who he referred to as his “opponents”.  He is considered by many to have been an influence on Don Rickles. 

Leonard had gotten his start in the twilight days of vaudeville (one of his partners was Buddy Howe), but truly came up in Catskills resorts and nightclubs, which eventually led to tv work.

To find out more about  the history of vaudeville, consult 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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Blanche Ring

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2012 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Blanche Ring (1871-1961), star of late variety, vaudeville and Broadway. A fifth generation member of a theatrical dynasty, she is much associated in her early years with Tony Pastor’s vaudeville house and the song “In the Good Old Summertime”. Her true heyday was the first decade of the 20th century, although her Broadway credits span 1902-1938. She dabbled a little in films, her most notable one being It’s the Old Army Game (1926) with W.C. Fields. Of her four husbands, the best known is Charles Winninger, who became a familiar Hollywood character actor in the 30s and 40s. Ring retired from performing in about 1940

Here she is singing her 1910 hit “Come Josephine In My Flying Machine”:

To find out more about  the history of vaudeville, consult 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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Belle Montrose: Steve Allen’s Legendary Vaudeville Mom

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Irish, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , on April 23, 2012 by travsd

Can’t put my finger on why I find the picture above kind of disturbing. Is it that it looks like Steve Allen has pulled a random elderly audience member up onstage and is making her do a routine that may give her a heart attack or break her hip? (It definitely kind of looks like he’s holding her up.)  Or is it that it seems vaguely Oedipal? (The woman with him is his mother Belle Montrose). Or is it both? Do I fear that Steve Allen has dragged his elderly mother on stage, dragging her through one of her old routines, placing her in grave danger of injury? Revenge for all of those nights he woke up in the middle of the night alone in strange hotel rooms (the lot of the latchkey vaudeville child)?

At any rate, today is the old dear’s birthday. Belle Montrose (b. Isabelle Donohue, 1886-1964) had a comedy act with her husband, singer and comedian Billy Allen, a.k.a Carroll Allen, a.k.a Carroll Abler. Their progeny, disc jockey, tv variety host and author Steve Allen was born in 1921; Billy died a year and a half later. Thenceforth, Belle and Steve lived with her extended family in Chicago, and she continued to perform in vaudeville with a succession of partners, one of whom was a teenage Milton Berle, who later called her the “funniest woman in vaudeville”. You can judge for yourself. The entirety of her act is quoted from memory by her son (who’d seen it hundreds of times) in his 1960 autobiography Mark It and Strike It. And she has roles in the Disney films The Absent Minded Professor (1961) and Son of Flubber (1963), both starring fellow former vaudevillian Fred MacMurray.

To find out more about  the history of vaudeville, consult 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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