Archive for April, 2013

Reverend Gary Davis

Posted in African American Interest, Blues, Television, TV variety with tags , on April 30, 2013 by travsd



Today is the birthday of blues musician Reverend Gary Davis, a.k.a Blind Gary Davis, a.k.a Blind Reverend Gary Davis (1896-1972). (I don’t know if anyone called him the last name, I just thought it was funny). I prime exponent of the Peidmont blues style, his career began in the mid 1920s, and got a major boost during the folk and blues revival four decades later. Here he is from that latter phase, in a half-hour tv special recorded in 1967:

Chloris Leachman is “Phyllis”

Posted in Comedy, Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , on April 30, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the divine Chloris Leachman (b. 1926). Equally adept at comedy or drama, capable of grace and loveliness on the one hand (see above) or comical ugliness (as in her performances in Mel Brooks’ movies) on the other, her career, which began in the 1940s, continues to this day. She pops up in surprising places. Before she gained prominence in the films of Peter Bogdonavich, fo example, you could see her in the 1956 Mike Hammer noir classic Kiss Me Deadly, and as a whore in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

In the 70s she was best known to most Americans as the buttinsky, annoying landlady and friend Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. After five years on the show (1970-1975), Leachman followed in Valerie Harper’s footsteps by getting her own spin-off series, Phyllis. In the show, Phyllis, now widowed after the death of her always off-camera husband Lars, moves to San Francisco to live with her in-laws. (The father-in-law was one of my favorite character actors Henry Jones. I’ve been known to channel his distinctive vocal mannerisms from time to time). Unfortunately, though Harper’s show Rhoda managed to last five seasons, Phyllis was able to hang in there for only two. A shame, because I really loved it.

My favorite part was the theme song, one of the best and funniest in all television history. If you hang in ’til the end you’ll see why I say that.

I Love You, Alice B. Toklas

Posted in Comedy, Movies, Rock and Pop with tags , , on April 30, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967), most famous as secretary and companion to Gertrude Stein. Far more importantly, her name became a synonym for a certain type of elicit brownies, and thus became part of the title of one of my favorite crazy sixties comedies, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968). 

In the film, Peter Sellers plays Harold Fine, an uptight nebbish much modeled on the character of Woody Allen (whom Sellers had recently worked with in What’s New Pussycat and Casino Royale).


Harold accidentally eats some of the Toklas, drops out of straight society, shacks up with a hippie chick (Leigh Taylor Young) and pretty soon he looks like this:


Times have changed a GREAT deal. Much comedy is mined out of the idea that a man of the advanced age of THIRTY is behaving in a certain fashion…if people only knew what was coming. The trailer tells the tale:

And of course, the thing has to have an arc. Things get out of hand and Harold comes to his senses. Here is the hilarious party scene in which that happens, when the craziness around him has gone on too long and has simply gotten to be too much. After all, even his own parents are turning on:

I defy you to tell me it gets any better than this!

Grace McDaniels, the “Mule Faced Woman”

Posted in Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Professional Uglies with tags , , , , on April 30, 2013 by travsd


Despite what her unfortunate name suggested Grace McDaniels (1888-1958) did not resemble a mule. She was born in Numa, Iowa with a condition called Sturge-Weber Syndrome which by around age 30 had degenerated to such a point that she joined Harry Lewiston’s Circus as a freak (a designation she understandably objected to). In 1935 she joined F.W. Miller’s sideshow after winning an “ugliest woman” competition. Grace preferred “mule-faced” to “ugly” in her billing and was generally mortified by the attention she got from her condition. Audience members were known to scream or faint; some reported nightmares in the aftermath.  In early years she tried to cover her anomaly (which began as a wine colored birthmark) with make-up; later she wore a veil in public.  Raped by a carnival worker, she gave birth to a son she named Elmer, who grew up to be her manager. Elmer turned out to be cruel and abusive, stealing from Grace and her employers in order to cover gambling debts. This happened just as she was becoming more dependent, the growths on her face swelling to the point where she couldn’t speak. Eventually, the sideshows stopped hiring her. She died at age 70. Elmer died shortly thereafter of cirrhosis of the liver.

To find out about  the history of the variety arts, consult 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 check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


Tommy James, “Draggin’ the LIne”

Posted in Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , on April 29, 2013 by travsd


Today is Duke Ellington’s birthday, but I hope you’re not too disappointed to learn that I am much more excited about the fact that it is Tommy James’ birthday today (b.1947). Duke Ellington’s sister once came to one of my shows, but I’m not certain I could even identify any of Ellington’s music. But I had several 45s by Tommy James and the Shondells when I was a kid (on the Roulette label, a colorful story there). Very hard to choose which song to post today, out of several favorites….but since this one has been in my head for the past several days anyway, I guess this is fated to be it:

“Top Hat’ Takes It!

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History) with tags , , , , , on April 29, 2013 by travsd


Congratulations to Stewart Lane and Bonnie Comley, who received an Olivier Award last night for their production of the stage adaptation of the 1935 RKO movie Top Hat starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, with songs by Irving Berlin. I sure hope this show crosses the puddle!

The Day Daniel Day-Lewis Saw a G-G-Ghost!

Posted in Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Movies (Contemporary), The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the greatest actor of our time, Daniel Day-Lewis (b. 1957). I think he must unavoidably be aided in the self-possession that feeds his art by the fact that he is sort of modern-day royalty: his father was British poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, his maternal grandfather was the head of Ealing Studios, and his father-in-law was the late Arthur Miller. 

While Day-Lewis is associated with Method Acting, the fact is he had an old fashioned traditional training at the Bristol Old Vic and was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and is very much associated with classics and period dramas. And, as for the “Method” element, isn’t his level of immersion, especially for roles involving self-torture like My Left Foot (1989), a kind of showmanhip highly reminiscent of Lon Chaney?

And, as emotionally connected as he is capable of being, I think it his devotion to physical technique that sets him head and shoulders above everybody else. Think of his performance in The Gangs of New York (2002) where he is essentially channeling Robert DeNiro. Now: DeNiro is a real Method actor. And he’s famous for his physical devotion to roles, as well (most famously his weight gain and loss for Raging Bull). But do you think for an instant, he can master a foreign accent? (Well, okay he did Italian for The Godfather, Part Two. But, my point is, could he do a part as Daniel Day-Lewis, as Day-Lewis did one as DeNiro? I’m sorry — am I making your head explode?)

Furthermore, do you know the story of the last time Day-Lewis appeared on stage? In 1989 he was playing Hamlet at the National Theatre in London — and broke down weeping in performance because he saw the ghost of his own father. Now if we attribute this event to Method acting insanity, it is definitely the kind of weird-ass episode we can see happening to Marlon Brando or Rod Steiger. On the other hand…a ghost in a theatre? Oh, we have centuries of precedent for that.

And now, because you know you want it, a little scene involving the metaphor of a certain popular beverage from There Will Be Blood:

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