Archive for November, 2012

Stars of Vaudeville # 528: Brownie McGhee

Posted in African American Interest, American Folk/ Country/ Western, Blues, Broadway, Music, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on November 30, 2012 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Walter Brown “Brownie” McGhee (1915-1996). A native of Knoxville, TN he learned guitar as a child at the hands of his father, a professional musician, and his uncle, who built him his own gitty box out of scraps. In his early twenties he became a professional musician himself, travelling with carnivals and tent shows like the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, a seminal black vaudeville touring outfit. In the late 30s, he came under the wing of Blind Boy Fuller. When the latter passed away in 1940, McGhee inherited not only his Piedmont blues style, but his harmonica player Sonny Terry. McGhee and Terry were to perform on and off as a team through the end of the 1970s. In the 40s their base was New York City, where they bunked with Leadbelly, all three of them recording and performing with Woody Guthrie as the Headline Singers. Even as they were essaying the purer, rural folk-blues style, though, they were also recording hot jump-blues dance records, at least early on. In 1955, McGhee was cast in the original Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (probably through the influence of Burl Ives). The folk and blues revival of the late 50s and 60s kept McGhee and Terry busier than ever. In later years, McGhee was even cast in a number of Hollywood films, such as Steve Martin’s The Jerk (1979) and the 1987 thriller Angel Heart. He continued playing until right before he died in 1996.

Now here are Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry performing a medley of “Red River Blues” and “Crow Jane”:

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, 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, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.


Ricky Jay

Posted in Broadway, Contemporary Variety, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Movies, Movies (Contemporary), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on November 30, 2012 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Ricky Jay (b. 1948). I don’t know if he’s the coolest man alive (it’s tempting to call him that but he’s got competition) but I think I can say without qualification that he has the perfect life.  In fact, he’s done so many amazing things that his Wikipedia entry downplays (scarcely mentions) the accomplishment I (and I’m certain many of my friends and colleagues) revere him most for, his 1986 book Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women. Note the timing of that book. Before it, a handful of ex-hippie “new vaudeville” performers. After it, an explosion of sideshow, circus, vaudeville and related variety forms. I’m just sayin’

Jay is not only a world class magician, mind reader and card thrower (and a scholar/ author/ lecturer thereof) he is also a movie and television star (Deadwood, Boogie Nights, Tomorrow Never Dies, etc) and a pal of David Mamet, who directed three of his one-man shows and has put him in several of his movies.

This clip gives a nice insight into two facets of this latter-day Renaissance man, as he gives a history lesson even as he performs virtuoso feats of misdirection:

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, 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, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.


Film Footage of Mark Twain

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , on November 30, 2012 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Samuel Clemens, a.k.a Mark Twain (1835-1910). Huckleberry Finn was one of my favorite books as a child; I quote the passages about the Duke and the Dauphin extensively in my book No Applause. But this morning, a distinctly non-literary thrill. A few months before he died, Twain was photographed gallyvanting around his Connecticut estate by a crew working for the Edison company. Here is the footage they shot (unfortunately preceded by a commercial):

Swift/ Gulliver’s Travels

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Hollywood (History), Movies, VISUAL ART with tags , on November 30, 2012 by travsd

6a00d8341c192953ef0133f52a1c8f970b-500wiToday is the birthday of Jonathan Swift (1667-1754). Not to trivialize one of the great literary satirists of all time, but I’m going to honor him today by posting a cartoon. (I’ve reams more to say about him, and for that matter Voltaire, whom we wrote about a few days ago), but, after all, this is only a blog.

Anyway, have you ever seen the Max Flesicher Gulliver’s Travels (1939)? It’s really just as good as Disney’s early features, even if (as most cinematic versions seem to) it only covers one of the four sections of Swift’s book:

Lee Morse: T’Aint No Sin to Take Off Your Skin

Posted in Music, Singers, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , on November 30, 2012 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Star of Vaudeville #393: Lee Morse (for the full skinny on this quirky singer go here). In honor of the day we present her recording of the irresistible tune “T’Aint No Sin (To Take Off Your Skin and Dance Around in Your Bones)” written by the great Edgar Leslie, and clearly inspired by the acquisition of a rhyming dictionary.

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, 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, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.


Ann Corio: This Was Burlesque

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Burlesk, Italian, Women with tags , on November 29, 2012 by travsd

Today is the birthday of the legendary burlesque performer Ann Corio (1909-1999). In the 30s she was one of the top paid Minsky stars, earning $1000 a week plus a percentage of the house. After the final crackdown in New York, she moved to Hollywood where she became a pin-up model and a star of a chain of B movies with the best titles ever: Swamp Woman (1941), Jungle Siren (1942), Sarong Girl (1943), and The Sultan’s Daughter (1944).

No Woman is an Island

Her name remains very well known today thanks to her Broadway show and book This Was Burlesque, various incarnations of which existed from 1965 through 1985. Here’s a clip from one of the editions:


To find out more about the variety arts past and present, 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, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.


My Final Column

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, ME with tags , , , , on November 29, 2012 by travsd

Only known photo of me as critic!

Writing this morning (since it’s already in print) to announce that my column in the current edition of Chelsea Now/ the Villager/ Downtown Express  is my last one. Thus ends not just a chapter (a four year long one, I’m horrified to realize) but also, I believe, an entire book of the multi-volume edition entitled Trav S.D.

I never set out to be an arts journalist. In fact, even theatre has been a bit of a detour for me. While it’s always been a major activity of my life since I was about 11 years old, I was also a teenage film-maker, and a childhood television addict to the tune of six hours a day. I’ve always considered theatre important as the wellspring, an ancient art form that remains important as Research & Development for the modern media which it spawned — those ones that, thanks to technology, actually reach large numbers of people. Going forward, I intend to devote more time and energy to reaching people through those media (It’s what my new book is about, and it is what I majored in at college). I also intend to continue making theatre (perhaps more than ever) but with a vastly different methodology and orientation than I’ve used in the past.

I came to this town with a sort of inferiority complex about the small amount of theatre I’d seen, which was restricted primarily to a few dozen productions at my local regional theatre, Trinity Rep in Providence. So, when I moved here I was eager to see a large amount of live theatre. And now I have. I’m terrified to count how many shows I’ve seen. Hundreds and hundreds, certainly, although most of them have been far, far out of the mainstream. Thus, my experience has been in no way definitive; it would be the farthest thing from the truth to say that I’ve seen “everything,” as much as I’ve seen.

Frankly, I feel at once glutted and dissatisfied, as though I had been eating potato chips for 25 years. As a theatre-goer, I must tell you, I am in a bad way. My ideal experience of spectatorship these days is sitting on the sofa with my girlfriend in my underwear watching 6 back-to-back episodes of American Horror Story (as occurred last night). Any theatre experience I encounter has to compete with that, has to overcome the effort it takes for me to drag my ass to a theatre at the end of a work day at my day job, and then to kill time during the interval between work and the theatre. I assure you that that invariably puts me in a bad mood before I even walk in the door to your show. I don’t like lines, I don’t like crowds, I don’t like claustrophobic, uncomfortable seating that compares unfavorably with that of a Greyhound bus. I really don’t like feeling trapped, like I can’t come and go as I please. If the show happens to be a successful one (which I try to avoid), I can’t stand the sycophantic, false, reactions of the people around me. It used to be rare for me to flee a show at intermission. Recently, I have been leaving EVERY show I attend by that point…that is, if I can’t gracefully do so PRIOR to intermission.

It remains to be seen whether I absolutely hate the theatre period, or whether I am merely sick of it, and need a long vacation (a malady I believe common to critics). But it’s definitely not fair to artists (I suppose) to have such a tough audience. (Conversely, I think artists should be preparing to meet the standards of such a tough audience. But personally, as a member of that prospective audience, I can no longer handle the torture).

So, I’ve dropped the column. But that’s just part of the reason why. My editor suggested I keep writing it, and not bother reviewing any shows. Well, there are a few reasons why I don’t want to keep doing that.

One is, grinding the column out is itself a kind of torture. It’s very hard to think of new things to say about the same companies and artists over and over again, however much I may love them. And frankly, carrying the whole scene around in my head all the time is kind of exhausting. I literally do pay close attention to what is going on. I look at every press release, notice, invitation. I find that it takes up time and attention and focus away from stuff I would rather be (and ought to be) doing, namely my own art and career.

Now: if the pay were sufficient to incentivize me, that would be one thing. Initially (13 years ago, when I began free-lancing as an arts journalist professionally), it was. In recent years, the income has gone down to a pittance, so the main appeal (of the column, and in small part my blog) has been the perk of seeing lots of free shows. I think I have just expressed why that aspect is no longer a perk. So it is now just a lot of work I no longer like for very little money.

Little money and less opportunity (and thus dwindling hope, and that in a career that had  been to me only a sideline to begin with). The past decade plus has seen work in print journalism evaporate. The gradual death of the field has actually been a lot like watching vaudeville die. I’m assuming my experience has been typical, maybe it’s not.

I started out scribbling for David Cote in the late 90s for his ‘zine Off and the early editions of the Fringe publication Propaganda. 

In 1999, I got my first professional credit as an arts journalist writing about Hourglass Group’s production of Mae West’s Sex for American Theatre. This led to a fellowship at the magazine in 2001, where I lived the dream on several exciting assignments, covering stories in Nashville and San Francisco, interviewing Jules Feiffer, and covering the biggest local story of the day, September 11. (You think there’s not a theatre angle to 9-11? Ask the people at 3LD). Some of my American Theatre clips are here. 

In 2000, I got my first assignment for the Village Voice. The check was so large that when I heard the amount I had to put my head down on my desk and couldn’t talk to anyone for half an hour. I was hyperventilating. It was nearly a week’s salary at my day job. I wrote 30 pieces for the Voice, many of which I’m proud of, in particular one about protest theatre surrounding the 2004 Republican National Convention, and an interview with Judith Malina and the late Hanon Raznikov, and several pieces on the changing (dying) theatre scene on the Lower East Side (most, but not all, of my Voice clips are here). 

In 2001, thanks to David Cote, I also started to write regular reviews for Time Out New York (he’s been the theatre editor there for many years). I wrote close to 100 pieces for them during the oughts. Some of them are archived at 

For a brief while, at the beginning of the last decade, the internet was a bonanza of work for writers, and I got lots of assignments writing for Theatremania and Citysearch and lots of now defunct entities. Then the internet crashed as a paying proposition, a harbinger of things to come.

Also starting in 2000, I wrote several pieces for Reason magazine, which led to a piece about me in the New Yorker, which then led to my book No Applause, which came out in 2005. No Applause got glowing reviews in the New York Times (three times), the New YorkerThe Washington Post on and on and on…which you might think would lead to greater money and opportunity as a free-lancer. But you’d be wrong.

There were some bright spots after that (e.g., a few pieces for the New York Sun), but mostly what happened was the word count and the pay kept going down at my reliable magazines, and then the opportunities to wind up in the print edition at all kept dwindling, and then long about 2008-2009 the responses to my pitches kept coming back negative.

To pick up the slack there were other consolations.  In 2000, I had become the first person (besides Martin Denton of course) to write for This would lead eventually to my hosting the Indie Theatre Now podcast, where I interviewed over 250 indie theatre artists between 2006 and 2009. In 2009 we even produced two television specials. This was a wonderful experience.

In 2008, I launched Travalanche. And in January 2009 thanks to the Villager’s arts editor Scott Stiffler, I realized a long-standing dream by getting my own column. Since that paper’s other main theatre writer was the Voice’s former theatre critic Jerry Tallmer (the man who coined the phrase “off-off Broadway”) I was very pleased to be there. Nothing but thanks to the folks at the Community Media family of papers. They are not the source of my ennui.

Ironically, the peak of my career as a scribbler came this year. THIS YEAR, friends, in case you missed it (and I’m afraid many of you did), I cracked the New York Times, and that has got to be the high point. Having that on my resume permanently going forward no doubt puts a spring in my step. But NOTE WELL. That piece arose from the writing on my blog, and it’s about theatre history. And if you follow this blog at all, you’re aware that my true love is the wider world of show business. I love the freedom of the blog so I’ll keep that up. If future magazine or blog writing assignments result as an outgrowth, fine. And I’m not saying I’ll never ever cover indie theatre again; I’m supposed to see something tonight, in fact.  But I don’t see it being my focus anymore, unless they start equipping the critic’s section with Roman     couches and mini-bars, and for that matter, move the theatre into my actual living room.

For those remaining few we haven’t grievously wounded with our rejection: don’t worry, we’re not hanging up our rock and roll shoes by any stretch. We have BIG PLANS for next year…bigger than ever, in fact. So we hope you’ll stay tuned. And most importantly now:



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