Archive for August, 2013

Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts

Posted in Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, TV variety with tags , , , on August 31, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Arthur Godfrey (1903-1983). Godfrey began as an announcer in radio around 1930 first in Baltimore, then in Washington, anchoring local shows, playing records, occasionally singing and playing the ukulele, even reading sentimental poems. He came to national attention in 1945 when his live coverage of President Roosevelt’s funeral was Broadcast coat to coast.

His first national radio show was Arthur Godfrey Time in 1945. The following year he launched the show he remains best known for Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, the CBS answer to Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour. The radio version of Talent Scouts ran from 1946 through 1956; the television ran from 1948 through 1958. After a brief interlude in which he battled lung cancer (one of his lung was removed), he fought his way back, returning to the radio version of his show, which stayed on the air until 1972.

Returning to television was not so easy however. Beloved for his warm, down-home, folksy personality,  it gradually came out that he was a backstage tyrant who had fired large numbers of his staff over the years. (Most famously he fired singer Julius La Rose ON THE AIR). This eventually damaged his once universal popularity. In his final decades he did the occasional movie role and tv special, but was never able to make a hoped-for come-back. He died in 1983.

Here he is hawking Lipton’s soup!

To learn more about the history of the variety arts, including radio and tv varietyconsult 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 please check out 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 Vaudeville of William Saroyan: “The Time of Your Life”

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Playwrights, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on August 31, 2013 by travsd
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Gene Kelly, center stage in the original Broadway production

Today is the birthday of William Saroyan (1908-1981), the literary equivalent of William Henry Johnson, Barnum’s “What is it?” Many have read Saroyan’s fiction. The work of his I am most familiar with however is his 1939 Pulitzer-Prize winning play The Time of Your Life. It is the damnedest animal. It’s both heartening and bewildering that it won the Pulitzer Prize. It is poetic and philosophical and endlessly fascinating, and yet it has no plot to speak of, it’s just this kind of dream experience that you drift into and then out of….like a patch of fog in the middle of San Francisco harbor. This dude Joe just sits around this bar “observing” a parade of dreamers and eccentrics who come in and out…much like a vaudeville show. Among them are a harmonica player, a piano player, a wild west cowboy, and a dancer who wishes he were a comedian instead (and tells the worst jokes in the world).

The original Broadway direction was produced and directed by Eddie Dowling, who also played Joe. The hoofer was played by Gene Kelly. Ten years later it was made into a movie by James Cagney (his brother was titular producer; Cagney played Joe). The cast included several vaudeville related types: Broderick Crawford, James Barton, and Paul Draper among them. (One weird thing is the character of Kitty, with whom Joe appears to have some romantic tension, is played by Cagney’s daughter Jeanne. Ick?)

At any rate, the beauty part is you can watch the whole thing for yourself right now if you so choose:

To learn 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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And please check out 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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Satan, Hold My Hand

Posted in Art Stars, Contemporary Variety, ME, Movies (Contemporary), SOCIAL EVENTS with tags , , , on August 31, 2013 by travsd
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Rev Jen, Face Boy and Jonathan Ames. Photo by the Duchess!

The Art Stars came out in profusion for last night’s world premiere of Satan, Hold My Hand at Anthology Film Archives. Written by the Sainted performance Goddess Rev Jen Miller, produced by Jonathan Ames (author of countless awesome books and creator of HBO’s Bored to Death) and directed by Courtney Fathom Sell, the film features burlesque stars Reina Terror and Scooter Pie as a couple of Catholic school girls bound to be sacrificial victims of a rock band helmed by Robert Prichard (The Toxic Avenger and proprietor of the legendary alt comedy club Surf Reality, 1995-2002). Their aim is to harness the unholy power of Satan (Faceboy, longtime star of Faceboyz Open Mic and star of lots of previous Rev Jen movies); Satan’s secretary is played by Janeanne Garofolo. Rounding out the cast, a gaggle of Art Stars familiar to devotees of Rev Jen’s long-running Anti-Slam: Hank Flynn, Pete Gerber, Angry Bob,  John King, Don Eng, et al.  And let us not forget Rev Jen, Jr, the most talented chihuahua in this or any land, including Mexico.

The movie was dedicated to the late Taylor Mead, and that was fitting, for the entire proceedings from soup to nuts seemed infused with his gonzo spirit, from the underground rawness of the movie’s assembly, to the absinthian cocktail of humor and anarchistic free-for-all, to the neo-Warholian constellation of bona fide “characters” who not only populated the film but the screening and the before and after festivities that book-ended it. We started at the before party, where we spent time with cast members and other notables: Jason Trachtenburg (his daughter Rachel wrote some of the music for the movie), Lisa Levy, Brer Brian Homa (who wrote the movie’s theme song), Michele Carlo and her boyfriend Larry Desgaines, C.C. John, Jennifer Glick, et al. The carousal was in high gear by the time of the showing…at one point during an impromptu Q & A, which was being run by cast member John King for some reason  (the Rev being too overcome with, um, “emotion”), a man in the row in front of me stood up and threw his shirt off, revealing his tattoos and an enormous beer belly. Did he start dancing? I think he may have started dancing. At any rate, by then it was like 1:30 in the morning.  That’s like 5am in Trav S.D. time.

Anyway hopefully it’ll be screening soon a theatre near you (or available in some electronic fashion). Here is the movie’s web site: http://satanhmh.tumblr.com/

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Stars of Vaudeville #221: Joan Blondell

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2013 by travsd

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Originally published in 2010

Joan Blondell was one of those vaudevillians whose career spanned so long those of us growing up in the 1970s knew her entirely from contemporary entertainment, little dreaming of the four distinguished decades that preceded. She was a regular on Here Come the Brides, and a guest star on shows like Starsky and Hutch, Fantasy IslandBonanza and many others, and in films like Grease (1978) and The Champ (1978). It never occurred to me to realize that my grandmother probably watched her in first run movies too – in 1930.

Rose Joan Blondell (born this day in 1906) was a second generation vaudevillian. Her father, Eddie was a vaudeville comedian and was in the 1903 stage play adaptation of the comic strip The Katzenjammer Kids. Her mother was also an actress. As with Buster Keaton, its rumored that Joan’s cradle was literally a steamer trunk. She made her stage debut in her infancy. She traveled the world with her performing family throughout her childhood, finally settling in Dallas, where she won the Miss Dallas pageant in 1926 (placing fourth for Miss America). The next year, she moved to New York to become an actress. The breakthrough was Penny Arcade, which with Al Jolson’s support, became the Warner Brothers film Sinner’s Holiday, which put both her and James Cagney on the map. She was in a zillion movies through the 30s, including classics like Public Enemy, Three on a Match, and Golddiggers of 1933. By the next decade the pace slowed down, but she never stopped working, and her presence is memorable in films as diverse as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and The Cincinnati Kid (1965). Her stock in trade was the wisecrack, delivered with a sly smirk and a twinkle in those huge baby blue eyes. But she could handle drama, too, and won a Golden Globe Award for her work in The Cincinnati Kid.

Her marital career was just as interesting as her professional one. Husbands included her sometime co-star, the multi-careered Dick Powell and controversial stage and screen producer Mike Todd, whom she once claimed hung her outside a window once by her ankles. Her younger sister, also in show business, was married to Cubby Broccoli, producer of the James Bond pictures. She died in 1979.

In commemoration of the day, we present this funny scene from the 1931 comedy Blonde Crazy. She knew how to take care of herself!

To learn 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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And please check out 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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Stars of Vaudeville #220: Fritzi Scheff

Posted in Broadway, German, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2013 by travsd

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Originally posted in 2010.

Fritzi Scheff (b. Fredericka Scheff Yarger on this day in 1879) was a prima donna in every sense of the word. A second generation grand opera singer from Vienna, a tour to the U.S. exposed her to the profitable world of light operetta and musical comedy, where she became a star in the early years of the twentieth century. When the Palace opened in 1913, she was among the class acts that Martin Beck brought there, and she continued to work the lucrative big time as long as the opportunities existed — through the 1920s, and a few years later in a revival at Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe. Having played the great halls of Europe and having come to the U.S. initially at the behest of the Metropolitan Opera, she was known in the business for being correspondingly demanding and haughty in the lowly precincts of vaudeville. For her last quarter century she didn’t have it to kick around any more. She passed away in 1954.

The clip below is very rare — Ms. Scheff didn’t make any records…this clip of her singing “Kiss Me Again” from Victor Herbert’s Mlle. Modiste (which she first introduced in 1905) was captured from a 1936 radio performance. Incidentally, the original Broadway performance of that show featured an obscure chorus boy named Mack Sennett:

To learn more about the history of show businessconsult 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 please check out 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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Stars of Vaudeville #486: Fred MacMurray

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Dixieland & Early Jazz, Hollywood (History), Movies, Music, Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2013 by travsd

Originally posted in 2012

Most people (over a certain age) know him as “Steve Douglas” from the tv show My Three Sons (1960-1972) and a star of silly Disney movies like The Shaggy Dog (1959), The Absent Minded Professor (1961) and Son of Flubber (1963). A lesser number (film buffs) know him as a major star of the classic Hollywood studio era of the 1930s and 1940s. But I’ll lay dollars to donuts that only a VERY few know that Fred MacMurray (1908-1991) got his start in the 1920s in  vaudeville as a saxophone player in a band called “The California Collegiates”.

The Wisconsin native enjoyed a long career. The other night the Countess and I enjoyed him (well watched him) in Irwin Allen’s 1978 disaster (I mean disaster movieThe Swarm. 

Now, here’s a clip I found that’s DOUBLY awesome. Not only is it very illuminating about Fred MacMurray the man….but also about Bob Hope, whom believe it or not, I have NEVER seen on a talk show PERIOD, let alone speak so warmly and candidly. A double testament to MacMurray:

To learn more about the history of show businessconsult 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 please check out 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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So Long, nytheatre.com

Posted in Indie Theatre, ME, OBITS with tags , , on August 29, 2013 by travsd

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I’ve had a lump in my throat for the past hour.

The word just came down that Martin and Rochelle Denton are retiring nytheatre.com on September 15. This pioneering web site didn’t provide me with my FIRST decent press attention as it has for so many (The New York Times wrote about my 1998 NYC Fringe show Misshapen Jack, The Nebraska Hunchback in three separate articles) but Martin did provide me with my first proper review, for my January 2000 production of House of Trash at HERE Arts Center. And the site has been there for this commentator and a thousand others like him day-in, day-out, ever since. Nytheatre.com has grown, expanded, multiplied, evolved — no one has stayed more on top of implementing the latest technology than Martin in making his site serve his readers to the fullest possible extent. Listings, reviews, blogs, podcasts, experiments with organization and interface…

But times have changed since Martin started this site back in the last century. In a weird way, the entire WORLD is now nytheatre.com. Martin got there first, but in a sense nowadays every user of the internet is a competitor. Going forward, Martin and Rochelle have wisely decided to devote their limited time to the expansion of Indie Theatre Now, whose mission I won’t presume to articulate for them (go there now to learn more). Indie Theatre Now is awesome, and every bit as indispensable as nytheatre.com, in fact more so in important ways (e.g., you can read our plays there!). So the Dentons and their important work aren’t going anywhere. And the old stuff will remain archived on nytheatre.com.

None of that prevents me from being sad, however, or rummaging around through old memories of my first encounters with the site and with the Dentons over 13 years ago. After all, I was so much thinner then…my hair was darker and I was in my early 30s. Oh, the vanity of actors!

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