Archive for February, 2013

Adam Forepaugh

Posted in Circus, Impresarios with tags , , , , on February 28, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great circus impresario (and Barnum competitor) Adam Forepaugh. (1831-1890).

Forepaugh made his initial fortune selling horses to the U.S. government during the Civil War. He then found himself in the circus business when the Tom King Excelsior Circus found itself unable to pay for the 44 horses they’d purchased. Forepaugh took partial possession of the show. He then bough up several other circuses and changed their names to variants on his own. In 1869, Forepaugh’s became the first circus to put the menagerie under a separate tent so that patrons too proper to come to the circus itself would at least buy tickets to the zoo. That would soon become an industry-wide practice. Throughout the ’70s and 80s’ Forepaugh ran neck and neck with Barnum for supremacy in the big top line, battling him for territory all across the country. Their most famous squabble was over who had the more authentic White Elephant. (Barnum’s was real, but splotchy. Forepaugh’s was faked, but whiter). In ’89, Forepaugh sold his circus performers to James A. Bailey and his train cars to the Ringling Brothers. Thus, in a way, Forepaugh indirectly merged with his rival when it all became one show in 1919. By then, he’s been dead for almost 30 years.

And now, look at this darn poster. Do you believe those old-fashioned cars could do all that? I sure do!

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To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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The Mysterious Dizzy Daniels

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , on February 28, 2013 by travsd

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One of the things I think is distinct about my new book Chain of Fools is that it brings the history of silent comedy all the way up to the present day. And you may be asking yourself, “Now just who the hell is making silent comedy in the present day?”

Well, here’s just one of hundreds. Montreal based comedian Dizzy Daniels is one of the folks I interviewed for my last chapter in Chain of Fools. He’s a little tight-lipped about who he really is, but there are plenty of pictures to look at on his web site here.

And he sent me this clip the other day with the following explanatory text and link:

The Four-Eyed Bandit: WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE!!
 
Outtakes taken from the first version of A SELF-MADE FAILURE shot on Super 8, starring “Dizzy” Daniels. After shooting 80 minutes of footage everything was scrapped, and re-shot in 16MM, with all new actors. Some of these scenes were never re-shot for the feature length version of the film.
https://vimeo.com/60379344

For more information on the history of silent and slapstick comedy past present and future, see Chain of Fools:  Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube available at Bear Manor Media, and also through Amazon.com and wherever nutty books are sold.  

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Forgotten Shows of My Nonage #31: Season 6, SNL

Posted in Comedy, Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Stand Up, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , on February 28, 2013 by travsd

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Today is Gilbert Gottfried’s birthday. In honor of the day, a little post about…not a forgotten show, but a forgotten season of a well known show, season six of Saturday Night Live, the first season without the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players.

The cast of the notorious Jean Doumanian season (which was swallowed up by history for reasons we’ll get to) included Gilbert, Joe Piscopo, Denny Dillon, my fellow Rhode Islander Charles Rocket (who was positioned as “the new Chevy Chase“), Gail Mathius, and Ann Risley. Also during this season Eddie Murphy, still a teenager, was hired as an adjunct cast member.

Now this cast was a blip. Almost no one alive seems to remember it, and meeting someone who does creates an instant bond. It’s like, “Oh, you also fought at Iwo Jima? We are forever brothers!”  There are a couple of reasons why I’m among them. One is that I was a sophomore in high school. Enough said on that score, right? And this 14 year old thought Gail Mathius was the cat’s pajama’s, hoo boy! But here’s the main thing. My buddy Steve had the first video-cassette recorder any of  us had ever seen. The school had video tape machines, but they were black and white and reel to reel. This was color, and easy to use cassette. I don’t even know what format it was. It wasn’t VHS or Beta or videodisc, it was some prototypical format. His dad had borrowed the thing from his top secret job. Steve only had one tape, and he taped two things….which my buddies and I watched over and over and over for weeks and weeks and weeks at a time. I consequently have these two things burned into my memory for all time. One is the Roger Moore-James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me. The other is the premier episode of season 6 of SNL, hosted by Elliot Gould.

And it’s a good thing I have it committed to memory. It’s like spy stuff. That stuff ain’t anywhere and you’ll never SEE that stuff anywhere. It’s like Song of the South, man, it’s like the Star Wars Christmas special — that shit is buried. That whole season was so dreadful they fired the entire cast except Piscopo and Murphy as well as the entire writing staff after 13 episodes. Charlie Rocket had gotten fired even earlier for saying “fuck” on the air. I remember watching that one live as well. My sister was having a party; we all heard him say it. So…very few people have seen this notorious baker’s dozen of SNL episodes.

But check it out: this dude got access somehow and recaps that whole first episode on his blogpost here. It’s where I got the screen shot at the top of this post. All hail, Existential Weightlifting! I remember Gottfried’s contributions to this episode very well, especially that skit with Denny Dillon: “So! Vots it All About, vith Pinky and Leo Vaxman!” We used to do impressions of that.

Also, throwing in his two cents on Gottfried’s contributions to SNL is Howard Stern in the clip below. Stern clearly shows that he cares, and that he admires Gottfried, but I think he’s being a little hard on him. I really think no one could have transcended that second season. There was comedy-power Kryptonite under the stage for those 13 episodes:

To learn more about show biz history (including tv variety), 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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And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , on February 28, 2013 by travsd

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We are in the midst of almost daily Civil War 150th anniversaries these days and savvy producers from Steven Spielberg to Bill O’Reilly are marking the occasion with commemorative projects of one sort or another. It’s inevitable that one of these would be a comedy, and the good news is, 150 years out, it is no longer “too soon”. (Laugh all you want, but 60 years was still too soon, judging by the public’s response to Buster Keaton’s 1927 The General). Anyway, Wendy Jo Cohen’s smart new mockumentary The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek doesn’t poke fun of our country’s greatest tragedy per se (how could you?), but at the much more rewarding target of documentary makers — a genre she knows intimately well from having been producing them for 15 years.

The film aspires to be “Spinal Tap meets Ken and Ric Burns’ The Civil War” and, as someone who chuckled profusely and knowingly throughout, I can attest that it almost gets there. (I might also throw in Woody Allen’s Zelig and F Troop for that matter).  The Christopher Guest element consists not just in the fact that this is a parody, but it also embraces his favorite comic trope of spending 90 minutes in the company of maladroits and misfits. The tale follows the ups and downs of the 13th Rhode Island (even the name of the infantry unit is a joke) and its heroes: a dandyish, homosexual company commander; a Chinese laundryman with the unfortunate name of General Li (which occasions much confusion, this being the Civil War and all); a nerdy black drummer boy who is a genius inventor (shades of Urkel); and a one-legged prostitute. Never heard of them? That’s the joke that fuels this spoof: though these four people won this Civil War battle their deeds have gone unsung because they don’t look like American heroes have traditionally looked, i.e. male, straight and white.

The concept is inspired because it allows Cohen (credited on the web site as “Grace Burns”) to be an equal opportunity satirist, aiming her buckshot at both types of historical talking heads: the war-loving, flag-waving, curmudgeonly old white guy we associate with the History Channel; and the identity-based deconstructionists and revisionists, best represented in the film as a type by a feminist African American woman wearing a head scarf.

Now: this is nothing if not an “in” joke. This is comedy for people who watch history documentaries, people! I’d like to have been in on the pitch sessions:

“And the market for this film is…?”

“Grandparents!”

But I guess you know I am right square dead center in the middle of the target audience for this movie so I enjoyed it mightily. Glancing at her IMDB entry, the bulk of Cohen’s credits over the past 15 years has been as a producer of military documentaries, so it is not surprising that she scores biggest at the technical level. It simply looks like it is supposed to look, and I am a stickler for such things, so trust me when I say it is phenomenal. In this kind of comedy art direction and prop and costume design bear an unusually large chunk of the burden, and I would say that this stuff was 95% of the way there. (The weakest link were the fabricated letters, i.e. facsimiles of 19th century correspondence. As in the Burns’ Civil War film, there are a lot of them, and all in close-up. They were fairly half-assed, but it’s possible that that’s an intentional joke). But Cohen gets so much RIGHT…the rooms in which she shoots her talking heads, the lighting in those rooms, the choice of the narrator, the sound effects. She even elicited big guffaws from me from certain camera movements!

And all that is predictable, given her professional background. She’d BETTER get that stuff right! The big surprise is how funny and how outlandish her writing is. Not just in the details of the story as I described above, which you will observe gets pretty politically incorrect, but in the framing devices with the “historians.” One of them, for example, is clearly a prostitute delivering her expert advice while turning tricks. In another scene, we revisit the site of the former battlefield (which is now a parking lot) and re-envision the battle, juxtaposing the cannon sounds with SUVs driving around looking for a place to park. Practically every shot has something funny going on.

The one aspect that stops the film short of hitting the coveted “Guest-esque” mark is unfortunately, the acting. Nearly everyone in the film is well cast in terms of type, but virtually none of them hit that sweet spot one so badly wants in a comedy of this type. This kind of thing calls for a high wire act that only masters of improvisation can pull off: you must be able to play an off-kilter character, but one who is in dead earnest, never for an instant betraying that they know what they’re doing is supposed to be funny. They can have a funny voice, a funny face, a funny hat, a funny hairpiece and say funny things. But the actors need to be playing strong intentions and they have to be absolutely serious about them. It calls for hard core pros, the kind of people who do this sort of thing all the time so that it comes naturally. I didn’t get that vibe from this film; nearly every actor tips his hand in one way or another. The star of this film is strictly Cohen, but ideally some of these talking heads would have (and should have) walked away with it. (Another cool option that would have been totally sweet would have been to stick a couple of actual historians in the movie).

At any rate, that said, I recommend it highly to the readers of this blog and it opens tomorrow March 1 at the Quad Cinema here in New York and will be playing through the next week. Furthermore, it features the talents of several peeps readers of this blog may know, including Dirty Martini, Bianca Leigh, Raquel Cion, Richard Kent Green, Tim Cusack, Bob Laine and Christopher “Kit” Lucas. At least those are the ones I know!

For show times and info at the Quad Cinema go here. And for the movies excellent web site go to http://www.pussywillowcreek.com/

John Steinbeck: Tom Joad’s Speech

Posted in AMERICANA, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Crackers, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, Hollywood (History), ME, Movies, My Family History with tags , , , on February 27, 2013 by travsd

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A good day for writers! Today is the birthday of John Steinbeck (1902-1968). Ever since high school The Grapes of Wrath has been one of my favorite books (and also one of my favorite movies). It’s not a perfect work of literature, by any stretch, but I’ve always related this Depression era saga of displaced Oklahoma farm families to my father’s family’s ordeal as Tennessee sharecroppers. And as the Okies went west in search of a better life, my father’s family joined the Great Migration and came north. My mind’s eye pictures the family squeezed into a similar rusty old open-air Tin Lizzie, stuffed with wool blankets, wash tubs, a ration of soda crackers — and far too many humans to be safe on the highway — and I don’t imagine I’m far off the mark.

God, I love this scene in John Ford’s movie version (adapted by Nunnaly Johnson). I couldnt find an online clip. But here’s a transcription. Tom Joad’s little monologue feels Shakespearean to me. Shot in the shadows, Joad seems one part Jesus and one part something scary, threatening and ominous. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t for a second go in for socialism, or the government’s use of force to redistribute wealth. What I like, towards the bottom, is Tom’s use of the personal pronoun “I” — his personal resolve to right the wrongs he describes. The Whitmanesque idea of the individual as a manifestation of the collective soul (or as Emerson termed it, the Over-Soul) is what it’s about.

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Tom: I been thinking about us, too, about our people living like pigs and good rich land layin’ fallow. Or maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin’. And I been wonderin’ if all our folks got together and yelled…

Ma: Oh, Tommy, they’d drag you out and cut you down just like they done to Casey.

Tom: They’d drag me anyways. Sooner or later they’d get me for one thing if not for another. Until then…

Ma: Tommy, you’re not aimin’ to kill nobody.

Tom: No, Ma, not that. That ain’t it. It’s just, well as long as I’m an outlaw anyways… maybe I can do somethin’… maybe I can just find out somethin’, just scrounge around and maybe find out what it is that’s wrong and see if they ain’t somethin’ that can be done about it. I ain’t thought it out all clear, Ma. I can’t. I don’t know enough.

Ma: How am I gonna know about ya, Tommy? Why they could kill ya and I’d never know. They could hurt ya. How am I gonna know?

Tom: Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then…

Ma: Then what, Tom?

Tom: Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.

Ma: I don’t understand it, Tom.

Tom: Me, neither, Ma, but – just somethin’ I been thinkin’ about.

On Longfellow

Posted in AMERICANA, BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , on February 27, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). Longfellow is woefully out of favor today, a state of affairs that would have shocked most Americans as recently as the 1950s. Until that time he was thought of as both our national poet as well as our founding one. The enhanced reputations of Whitman in the first case, and Poe in the second (along with others), have served to undermine Longfellow’s claims to both. We have gone from a state of affairs in which, within living memory, every American schoolchild knew some Longfellow, to one in which his name is virtually unknown. I think this is a doleful development.

Having just spent a good deal of time with him (after a lifelong glancing acquaintance) I am well aware of his limitations. I read his complete works after spending a month reading Byron, and to a modern sensibility it felt like a distinct step down. Byron is full of lightning flashes; he comes from a place of passion, with an imagination so fertile he transcends formal strictures. By comparison, in Longfellow, the takeaway is the regularity of the rhythm and rhyme and the effect can be plodding. He is never morbid like Poe, or immoderate like Whitman. His works seems to lack forcefulness and freedom. A number of his exertions strike the modern reader as childlike, unsophisticated, dishing out bromides, commonplaces and clichés.

The major poet he seems to me to resemble most is Tennyson (and he had been accused by some critics of plagiarizing him). But there were important differences. The mid 19th century saw the birth of modern nationalism. Tennyson was the poet laureate of a great empire, the court poet of Queen Victoria, and the official, anointed heir of all those interred in the South Transept at Westminster. Longfellow on the other hand wrote as an obscure professor in an upstart backwater of the same culture. He saw what America needed (a national poet), became one, and maintained that position until well after his death. But much like Eugene O’Neill who did the same thing for American drama several decades later, Longfellow’s genius was more in the aspiration than the fulfillment.

This is not to say he was without virtues, and characteristically American ones. The first is his productivity. Seeing a void, he proceeded to fill it and fill it and fill it, as though he were burdened with the task not only of being America’s poet, but ALL of its poets. For him, not a quill, but a grindstone. He was ambitious and he understood scale; he was most daring in that he dared at all. He made mountains. If they are Appalachians rather than Rockies, he made them. They still stand. They are there. His other virtue is good old fashioned Yankee craftsmanship. And what’s a Yankee got to do with passion, anyway? Like the yeoman or the shopkeeper, he gets up at dawn and WORKS. There is no fever in his brain. He is not dashing off, sword in hand, to liberate Greece from the Ottomans. He is erecting a stone wall. Discipline is what he admired; he once wrote that his great unseen effort lay in making poetry that was apparently simple. And simplicity was the virtue he prized above all things. (I don’t know why I keep thinking of dramatists except that it’s my natural frame of reference, but this instinct on Longfellow’s part reminds me of Ibsen, too, who was a natural poet, but through a great effort of will MADE himself write simply). In the democratic spirit, Longfellow wrote for readers, not critics, and if the critics were too thick to perceive the accomplishment, that’s as may be. His hero, as we glean from his 1840 poem is “The Village Blacksmith” who simply goes about his work all day, come what may.

It seems to me that most modern criticism of Longfellow is rather beside the point. His mission was to write on native themes, to give epic importance to American stories. Nowadays his poems like Evangeline (1847 – a romance epic set amongst the Arcadians, or as we call them today Cajuns), The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), and “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” (from Tales of a Wayside Inn, 1863) are put down for their “mythology” and their “bad history” or in the case of The Song of Hiawatha (1855), “bad anthropology”.  It seems to me criticisms on this basis are rather beside the point. These are POEMS. Mythological truth is a different kind of truth, but a valid one. It seems to me we kill that spirit much to our peril. The modern attitude seems to be “Santa Claus doesn’t exist, so why waste your time?” Which is so over-simplified as to be false. Myths exist metaphorically. Santa Claus KIND OF exists. Of course he does. We all summon him into existence by a collective force of will. The 19th century mind was much more sophisticated about this sort of thing than we are. I suppose the objection might be made that school kids used to learn to recite Longfellow as history as much as poetry. Well, sure. Then supplement them with footnotes, disclaimers, a concordance. But don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Because right now, you know what poetry the kids are getting? Nada. Nothing. I’m not saying no schoolchild in America is ever exposed to poetry. But I do have a strong sense that they aren’t all learning and retaining a national poetry in common, which is quite a different thing. Go ask the nearest kid to recite a poem, any poem. Ask them if they can identify Longfellow. Teachers don’t teach him any more because of some misguided notion that he is “simple” or simplistic”. That was once seen as a virtue. And at rate, that’s what makes him especially appropriate for children.

I shot an arrow into the air

It fell to earth, I know not where

 

Or this

Listen, my children, and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere

 

Or this

By the shores of Gitchee-Gumee

By the shining Big-Sea-Water

 

Is the last one (from The Song of Hiawatha) problematic? Absolutely. In the same way that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is. The guy meant well, but couldn’t transcend the historical attitudes of his own times. Which is why it ought to be taught, explained, and discussed.

At any rate, I summoned those little snatches from memory, which is kind of my whole point. Do you know what’s filling the voids in the heads of American schoolchildren? Do you?

Lionel the Lion-Faced Man

Posted in Circus, Coney Island, Dime Museum and Side Show, Hairy People, Human Anomalies (Freaks) with tags , , on February 27, 2013 by travsd

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Stephan Bibrowski (1891–1932) was better known as Lionel the Lion-faced Boy (later “Man”), owing to a rare condition called hypertrichosis which caused his entire body to be covered in long, silky hair. Born in Warsaw, Poland with an inch of fur covering his body, Stephan was essentially sold off to an impresario named Sedlmayer at the age of four. Sedlmayer sent Stephan to boarding school for a time. This cultivation would later pay off – Bibrowski’s reputation (and his act) were enhanced by his learned intelligence, his obvious exposure to literature, and the fact that he spoke five languages. On the other hand, Sedlmayer also gave him his stage name (and an appropriate backstory concerning his pregnant mother’s traumatic encounter with a lion) and began exhibiting him around Europe. By this time, his facial hair was eight inches long; elsewhere on his body, it was closer to four.

In 1901 (when he was 10), Lionel traveled to the United States to appear with Barnum & Bailey as a replacement for the recently retired Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy. During his five years with the circus he learned tumbling skills from the acrobats, enhancing his act. In 1907 he returned to Berlin for a time where he was featured at the Passage-Panoptikum wax museum. Starting in about 1913 he made his homebase New York, performing for 15 years with Coney Island’s Dreamland Circus sideshow. In 1928 he returned to Germany, his adopted country, to retire from show business. He died, reportedly of a heart attack, four years later.

To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable 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.

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