Archive for May, 2012

Ghost Line

Posted in Contemporary Variety, Dance, Vaudeville etc. with tags , on May 31, 2012 by travsd

Choreographer Cori Olinghouse and film-maker Shona Masarin want you to know about their terrific-looking new project Ghost Line: a 16mm experimental film that invokes the spaces of Vaudeville through a Dada/Surrealist perspective.

Inspired by ghost towns, silent era clown films, voguing, slapstick, and eccentric dance, the ghosted figures in Ghost Line conjure a vaudevillian past as traces – remnants; as if rising from the dust, transmitting signals of light and shadow.

For more info, check out their Kickstarter page here.

Nate Leipzig: Influential Illusionist

Posted in Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on May 31, 2012 by travsd

Today is the birthday of the great sleight-of-hand master Nate Leipzig (Nathan Leipziger, 1873-1939), His illusions are still studied and taught all over the world; just Google him and see. He was born in Sweden and spent his early childhood there. When he was about ten the family moved to Detroit. Not until he was 30 did he quit his day job and move to New York to break into show business. For a time he worked with the Berol Brothers, and called himself Nate Berol. He broke in as a solo at Proctor’s 5th Avenue and then worked the Keith Circuit. He seems to have met and studied under every major magician of his time. His autobiography is available to read for free online (and it’s short). Just go here.

To find out more about magicians like Nat Leipzig and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever books are sold.

Artie Shaw’s Nightmare

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Music with tags , , on May 23, 2012 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Artie Shaw, the Thinking Man’s Big Band Leader (1910-2004). The famously difficult Shaw went through 8 wives, including Lana Turner and Ava Gardner. Some insight into his character may be derived from the fact that he called his theme song (still one of his best known tunes) “Nightmare”.

Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves

Posted in Rock and Pop, Singers, Singing Comediennes, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , on May 20, 2012 by travsd

Today is Cher’s birthday! Her first #1 solo hit majorly captured my imagination when I was a kid, although I was naturally oblivious to the sexual aspects, which I learned to appreciate later. At any rate, any percieved relationship between the tone of my book No Applause and this song are purely intentional!

Why We Need Frank Capra

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, Hollywood (History) with tags , , on May 18, 2012 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Frank Capra. I know it’s not fashionable among the intelligentsia, but he’s one of my favorite directors — and precisely for the reasons that make him so unfashionable: he believes in the human spirit and he actually celebrates what’s right about America. I’m not very consistent on either score myself; I admire someone who can stick to his script.

I’ve been thinking about Capra a lot over the past year, mostly on account of two high-profile phenomena: Occupy Wall Street and the Republican primaries. Lately, it’s seemed like the political dialogue has gotten so polarized and hyperbolic that it feels like we are living a scenario being improvised by Lewis Carroll. Many have compared the financial crisis that started in 2008 to the Great Depression. I can’t speak to the economics, but culturally? Not on your Nelly. In the 1930s, there was a spirit abroad of pulling together, of everyone being in the same boat. The country may have been in dire straits financially, but there were prominent artists who took it upon themselves to speak to the nation’s ailing soul: John Steinbeck, Carl Sandburg, Woody Guthrie, and Capra, for example. The reason I’ve been thinking of Capra, in particular, was that he was a Republican.

“The devil!” shout my readers, “Have him drawn and quartered!”

Not so fast. There were once a lot of good things to be said for Republicans. For example, they were once the small government party. Capra was an Italian immigrant. His family was dirt poor. He came to America as an infant and with no other advantage but his brains and talent made a terrific life for himself. Meanwhile, starting in 1922, the folks back home in Italy were enjoying life with a nice, strong, healthy government — under Mussolini. (Oh, but that’s different, some say. No, not really. Mussolini began his political evolution as a socialist.) So Capra had no illusions about what terrific things the government was going to do for him.

Despite centuries of universal tyranny, abuse, incompetence and corruption by strong government, the phrase “small government” remains discredited in polite society — gives certain people the willies. And for good reason. For the past several decades, the most prominent people who go around spouting the phrase have been a pack of unprincipled scoundrels and liars. They have made “small government” the same kind of lie “socialism” became — a much shat-upon ideal more observed in the breach than in practice. Richard Nixon — he of the wiretaps and carpet bombing of Cambodia — he ran on it. Ronald Reagan — he of the hypertrophied military and world’s biggest deficit — he ran on it. George W. Bush — don’t get me started. And who did Republicans have to choose from in the most recent primary cycle? A rogues gallery of thugs, bullies, maniacs, zealots, flim-flam men, half-wits, and criminals who would have CURLED FRANK CAPRA’S HAIR. I’m not even talking about their policies. I’m talking about how they operate as people.

Listen to me: I come from a long line of small-town New England Republicans. I think the small businessperson is the holiest animal on earth (especially theatrical entrepreneurs). I also occasionally call myself a Christian. So it’s not as though the Republican party ought to have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO SAY TO ME.  Yet, though libertarian by both instinct and principle, I invariably hold my nose, compromise and vote Democrat. Why? While I disagree with many of their policies, at least I see at least a genteel pretense of decency there. And our political conversation has gotten so debased that the Republican party apparently has had no one better to offer than naked, frank, top-hat-wearing villains as candidates for the office of the President of the United States.

As for OWS:

After several decades of living in a culture in which CEOs take home 7 figure year end bonuses while letting thousands of workers go; where the financial wizards of Wall Street gamble with the futures of others and then lose, at no cost to themselves…it seems to me that the 1% are powerful enough (and ought to be gracious enough) to stand there like ladies and gentlemen and take a little criticism. (A very little, all things considered). Are the lives of the rich so sacrosanct that no one is allowed to even express disgruntlement at their God-like power? As far as the mainstream press and public have supported OWS, this has been what it is about. Are some of the protesters idiots, naifs, political and economic illiterates, rich kids, nut jobs, and horn-dogs looking for a party? Absolutely. And so are some of the people working on Wall Street.

Why the diatribe? Because like Frank Capra, I actually happen to believe in free enterprise.  And because like Frank Capra I also believe in fairness, goodness, decency, generosity and high ideals. Our entire national conversation today seems predicated on the premise that there’s an irreconcilable contradiction there and there isn’t. How about a little BALANCE? It shouldn’t be some kind of freaking heresy to say that “Greed is bad.” Nobody is saying pursuing the American dream of a nice, comfortable life is bad. Most of us aren’t even saying the profit motive is bad. It is GREED that is bad. Who conflated these things, who decided they were synonymous? The last time I checked, “greed” meant the excessive pursuit of wealth to the exclusion of all other human values. That’s what’s bad. Enriching yourself by throwing thousands of people out of work — that’s bad. (And it isn’t even remotely “socialism” to say so. It’s just common decency.) And just as it’s wrong to be that way, it’s equally wrong to accuse everyone who participates legitimately in the financial system of being that way, because they’re not. (Here’s one, and I wasn’t even particularly looking for him).

So I’ve been thinking of Capra. We associate him with the common man, the voice of the masses. But who are his heroes? Bankers (American Madness, It’s a Wonderful Life), an heir to a fortune (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), politicians (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, State of the Union ), and a Christian preacher (The Miracle Woman, with Barbara Stanwyck, which the Countess and I watched this morning). The question is not, should such people exist? If your answer is no, you need to move to some other planet, and much good luck to you there. The question is, at the end of the day, how should such people behave? How should a leader behave? How should you or I behave? Given the fact – – and it’s a fact — that the world is corrupt and horrible. Being decent and honorable and fair in such a world often (maybe always) takes bravery, idealism and self-sacrifice. Far from being above Capra’s kitschy, corny message movies, it appears to me, American leaders need to watch them again and again and again and again. And then, when they think they know how to behave,  they need to watch them a few more times.


Mary Hopkin: Those Were The Days

Posted in ME, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Rock and Pop, Television, TV variety, Women with tags , , on May 3, 2012 by travsd


Some confuse some aspects of what I do (whatever that is) with nostalgia. But since vaudeville and such-like perished decades before I was born, that can’t be right, can it? (I’m beginning to warm up to the architectural term neo-eclectic). At any rate, ACTUAL nostalgia for me would be something more like this song. Welsh singer Mary Hopkin (whose birthday it is) released the tune in 1968. It became a smash (#1 in the UK, #2 in the US), not least because it was produced by Paul McCartney, and because (I warn you) it is an ear worm. Which is why I know it. I was only three in 1968, but radio stations were still playing the hell out of it WELL into the 70s!

Last Night’s Theatre Museum Awards

Posted in Broadway, SOCIAL EVENTS with tags , , , on May 1, 2012 by travsd

The Countess and I donned  our finest threads and arrived at the Players Club just in time to miss dinner last night. The occasion? The 2012 Theatre Museum Awards for Excellence. Last night’s program was strong — it seems to me these awards are really beginning to fill an easily identifiable niche by bestowing them on people and institutions who’ve truly made important contributions to the art of the theatre, but mightn’t be otherwise recognized.

Helen Guditis, Theatre Museum Director

A key example of what I mean opened the program last night. Anyone who has spent a good deal of time in libraries reading about theatre history (like yours truly) knows the name Don B. Wilmeth. Not only did he edit the Cambridge Guide to Theatre, but he also wrote or edited numerous books and bibliographies on the history of popular theatre (including the various forms of variety theatre). He is a pivotal figure in the culture of respect that now surrounds popular theatre forms like circus, vaudeville, burlesque, etc. (Such a culture wasn’t always the case. Mid twentieth century attitudes were quite dismissive of it. I came across quotes from Arthur Miller, for example, that were quite disparaging on the topic. If you ask me, Miller’s plays could DO with a little injection of the tent show spirit). At any rate, much that you and I hold dear was at least partially made possible by Mr. Wilmeth’s crucial work, so it was wonderful to see him get this award. It was presented by NYU Tisch’s Laurence Maslon, himself an author, radio host, and PBS documentarian, and a former pupil of Wilmeth’s at Brown.


Next, Tina Howe presented a Distinguished Service to the Theatre Award to Theatre Communications Group. Executive Director Teresa Eyring accepted on behalf of the organization, which hopefully needs no introduction here. Howe spoke gratefully about how TCG has published many of her plays, thus keeping them in circulation. Since they also publish American Theatre, where I served a fellowship in 2001, they have also supported ME! Proof positive that they are indispensable.

Howe and Eyring

James J. Claffey, head of Local One (the stagehands union) gave a moving intro to Frederick O. Olsson, who was receiving the Career Achievement Award (Olsson is someone who made a truly rare jump from being a Broadway performer to being a Broadway carpenter, and eventually ended up being facilities Director for the Shubert Organization. Claffey also honored Olsson for his service during World War Two (he was a bomber pilot). Olsson gave a truly memorable acceptance speech from the podium — and he’s 92 years old!


Following this, an award was given to Stagedoor Manor, a children’s summer camp, by Richard Maltby (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Fosse). As it was last year, the event was hosted by the charming John Bolton.

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