Archive for December, 2013

New Year’s Eve with Jack Benny

Posted in Comedy, Jack Benny, Radio (Old Time Radio), Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , on December 31, 2013 by travsd

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We’re ringing out the old year with a slew of old timey New Year’s episodes…and this is the last of ’em!

Here is a New Year’s Eve episodes from the Jack Benny Program. From the radio show from 1938:

For more on the immortal Benny see my full article here. 

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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Magic

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , , on December 31, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Sir Anthony Hopkins (b. 1937). I can’t believe I didn’t get it together to do a post on him today for my Hall of Hams — but it’s on the calendar to do so for next year. Meantime, I thought of an excellent thing to celebrate. While he’d been in a ton of tv movies and historical costume dramas by this stage, it wasn’t until 1978’s Magic that Hopkins began to come into his own as a Hollywood movie star. Always creepy, and  a bit Asperger-y, Hopkins was perfectly cast as the demented ventriloquist in this horror thriller, directed by Richard Attenborough. Now the “Psychotic Ventriloquist” plot was already a well established genre even by 1978 — viz, those Twilight Zone episodesMagic turned things up a notch by merging it with slasher type horror, which was just beginning to come into its own. Hopkin’s character “Corky” is driven to do very bad things by his ventriloquist dummy “Fats”. And look — he even comes between Corky and his love interest Ann-Margaret (literally!)

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Magic had one of the best trailers of all time. Indeed, it was one of the very first poems I ever learned by heart. That says something about me, or our culture, or both.

Guy Lombardo’s Last New Year’s Eve

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, New Year's Eve, Television with tags , , on December 31, 2013 by travsd

Photo of Guy Lombardo

We’re ringing out the old year with a slew of old timey New Year’s episodes:

You never know what you’ve got til it’s gone!

Big band leader Guy Lombardo began doing his annual New Year’s Eve broadcasts with his Royal Canadians in 1929 (the first couple of decades were on radio of course). My life intersected with this tradition by about a dozen years, but of course I was only staying up past midnight during the last couple, I imagine…’75, ’76, ’77…And of course in those years, the only choice for a kid my age would have been Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve. It’s what we did, with our snacks and soda, while the parents went out and rang in the New Year by getting dangerously blitzed. If we accidentally turned the dial to Guy Lombardo, no doubt the bunch of us would have made throw-up noises. But if I’d known ’76 into ’77 was going to be his last year, I might have been more respectful. At any rate, I’m glad I can watch it now!

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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Tim Considine: Lightning Bolt

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Tim Considine (b. 1940).

Why is HE here today? My friends, people like him are the very reason this blog exists! I discovered a serendipitous synchronicity when I stumbled across his biography, a cross-generational connection that ties the now and the us to the then and the them.

When I was a kid I knew Considine from 20 year old episodes of the Mickey Mouse Club they used to run on local television. (The ’70s being majorly overshadowed by ’50s nostalgia). Considine starred in two regular series they ran on the program, The Hardy Boys (one of countless filmed versions of the popular book series), and Spin and Marty, about a couple of teenagers’ adventures on a dude ranch. Both of these shows within a show had an interesting format; the episodes were only 15 minutes long, a good model perhaps for web tv. I really loved both of these shows; I recall re-enacting episodes on the playground.

Considine had also starred in the 1959 Disney movie The Shaggy Dog — although like everyone my age, I only knew the 1976 sequel The Shaggy D.A. I’m sure I didn’t discover The Shaggy Dog until well after that. Apparently, he was also the oldest son in My Three Sons during its first five years, although in my area they only re-ran the later ones, when the equation had gone from Mike-Robby-Chip to Robby-Chip-Ernie, the oldest son mysteriously vanishing off the face of the earth never to be heard from again.

So that’s Tim Considine. He was like the All-American boy. Look at that crew cut and striped shirt! Like most young actors, Considine hit a brick wall in his career as an adult. One of his last roles was The Soldier Who Gets Slapped by George C. Scott in Patton. 

So what’s the Lightning Bolt! Well, it’s a doozy for show biz buffs. In No Applause and in this blogpost and this one I wrote about the epic battle for supremacy by Pacific Northwest vaudeville managers Alexander Pantages and John Considine of the Sullivan and Considine Circuit. The hilarious outcome of that long-running feud was that Pantages’ daughter married Considine’s son. Tim Considine is one of the products of that marriage. This is exactly what it would look like if you rewrote Rome and Juliet with a happy ending. Anyway, I thought that was pretty amazing — this particular history isn’t so ancient, and I love stories that bring that home.

Here’s a clip from that show I loved so much as a kid, Spin and Marty:

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 Problem with Jeff Lynne

Posted in Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , , on December 30, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of producer/songwriter/ performer Jeff Lynne (b. 1947) best known for his project Electric Light Orchestra (1970-1986), and for producing chart-topping records by George Harrison (1987), Roy Orbison (1988), Tom Petty (1989) each solo, and then all together (with Bob Dylan) as the Traveling Wilburies (1989-1990)…as well as the Beatles Anthology reunion tracks (1994).

I liked E.L.O. well enough when I was a kid, at least up through the Xanadu mishigas (1980), but have really never listened to them since. My taste changed (I acquired some!) and listening to his music became basically something I would never do, at least on purpose. But recently, I have been cautiously revisiting the 70s, for a couple of reasons. One: I am doing some autobiographical writing, and music can be like a wormhole for visiting other time periods. And two, over the past several years I have been confronting my bugbears and prejudices (e.g., Broadway, disco etc) in order to be more fair in my criticisms. “Why don’t I like something?” is a question worth asking. Sometimes it tells you something about art; very often it tells you something about yourself.

So, a few months back I posted as a status: “[I’m] Listening to Electric Light Orchestra…and I’m okay with that.” Ha! Many, perhaps most, readers immediately get why I make the apology. But some were like, “Why wouldn’t it be okay?” So as not to step on toes I backed away from the answer at the time — but I’ll spill a little ink on it today. I’m sure it won’t spoil Lynne’s birthday way up there in his mansion!

First let’s talk about what’s cool about his music. I knew briefly when I was a kid I guess (but forgot later), that “Electric Light Orchestra” wasn’t just a name. The band included an entire string section of its own, with all those violin and cellos and so forth arranged by Lynne. So that’s undeniably impressive. At the time, the band claimed in doing so to be taking pop music “beyond the Beatles”. But I don’t think Lynne’s compositions are anywhere near up to the level of Lennon and McCartney, nor are his orchestrations up to the level of George Martin, so no, not really. But it’s still impressive.

And in going back and listening to their singles, I admit I like many of them a lot (especially ones from the mid 70s), although it must be admitted, I regard them as guilty pleasures.

The pinnacle for me is the 1975 single “Evil Woman” — which Lynne reportedly wrote in just a few minutes (isn’t that always the way?). It’s a much more soulful-sounding record than almost anything he’s done before or since, — there’s an attitude to it that’s very cocky and funky, and there are little touches (like the cowbell, and that cheesy little riff on the clavinet) that make it sound like THE anthem of 1975…just as much at home on the dance floor as background music for Starsky and Hutch.

After this, on my list of personal favorites, I would probably put the 1977 single “Turn to Stone”, because of its energy and its very catchy melody and a mood which manages to be melancholy and kind of frenetic at the same time. Is this what it’s like when you’re sad but also on cocaine? I also really like a million things about the haunting, moody “Livin’ Thing” (1976), which I would either tie with “Turn to Stone” or make third, because I’m all hierarchical like that. But already with these two tunes, we get impinging elements, the myriad touches Lynne adds which take us away from the relative balance of tunes like “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic” a couple of years before.

Mainly the issue is excess. This is what makes nearly all of his tunes cross the line into kitsch. When he hits upon some pleasing element he beats it to death. He loves bells and whistles and gimmicks and toys, and one isn’t enough, he’ll cram twelve of them into the same song. Some of these elements (auto-correct for harmonies, synthesizers, voices distorted into robot sounds) are best used sparingly if at all, EVER. In short, he has no taste.

Later, when he went for a stripped down rockabilly thing (“Don’t Bring Me Down”, “Hold On Tight”, and that late 80s, early 90s stuff) he gets so anal and squeaky clean in the production that it winds up about as much like true rock and roll as a player piano mechanically essaying the works of Jerry Lee Lewis.

As a songwriter he has a way with a hook and a melody, and that’s why one (even me) might be tempted to listen to him. But even then, his songs often seem assembled from other people’s songs. They feel like amalgamations of gimmicks and techniques lifted from everything and everywhere.”Telephone Line” for example (1977), which got credit at the time for being innovative and is undeniably performed well,  but steals all its ideas from songs like Harry Nilsson’s “One” and Todd Rundgren’s “Hello, It’s Me” (for that matter, there are a million goddamn telephone songs).

Also, Jeff Lynne bears an unfortunate resemblance to tv painting teacher Bob Ross. Interestingly, Lynne’s music is a sort of sonic equivalent to Ross’s painting:

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ELO songs have come to be characterized as guilty pleasures; they tend to get used ironically in films, when wants to generate emotions, but with just a hint of edge or light mockery: “Showdown” was used in King Pin (1996), “Livin’ Thing” was in Boogie Nights (1997), and “Mr. Blue Sky” in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). These movies more than anything probably brought this music back onto my radar. “Oh, yeah. I kind of like that!”

What’s on my turntable? Electric Light Orchestra. But sh! Don’t tell anybody (and I skip over two thirds of the songs).

At any rate, here’s the one single of their’s I can pretty much sign off on with no reservations whatsoever:

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 Rehabilitation of Davy Jones

Posted in Comedy, Rock and Pop, Sit Coms, Television with tags , on December 30, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the late Davy Jones (1945-2012). Having already written posts about Messers Nesmith, Tork, and Dolenz, and the Monkees overall, I guess it is time to bite the bullet and do one on Jones. There’s a reason he comes dead last; it’s not a mistake. I’ve never been what you would call a fan of his (never having been a twelve year old girl). But that’s not the only reason. I know plenty of former twelve year old girls who never dug Davy’s thing either. Davy was “cute” in a way that a grown man should never be “cute”. It was fine so long as he was a teenage boy, but even then it grated somewhat. “Cute” like Frankie Avalon? Sure. But cute like a chipmunk? I’d rather not!

Here’s a thing, though. I think both the Beatles and the Monkees and their handlers overlooked something important when their careers took a certain turn in the late 60s. As they were striving for “legitimacy” as “artists”, they absolutely forgot about the fact that their initial mission was a lot broader — to be entertainers. The Beatles had made two very cool musical films A Hard Day’s Night and Help! in 1964 and 1965; the Monkees sit-com ran from 1966 through 1968. Since then — a void, an unfilled niche in the entertainment business for musical comedians in farcical narratives for going on a half century. To me, that’s crazy. People LOVED that stuff.

Most people who hate Jones feel that way because he’s not a rock and roller. But of course…though rock and roll was the context, the Monkees were more of a pop band (and more of a singing group then they were a “band” if it comes to that). With some perspective, Jones’ more old-fashioned show biz orientation becomes kind of interesting. His background had been in stage musicals (Oliver!) and he brought a sort of Anthony Newley like quality into the mix — which you must admit is unique in the context of a sixties musical group. Furthermore, he could act better than the others, and he could dance. In other words, he was a well-rounded entertainer, which in the scheme of things hardly makes his contribution illegitimate.

As for the songs he sings on: I surprised myself when he passed away last year. I began sharing clips of some Davy singles I felt were the exception (in that I liked them) – -and there were a surprising number of them.

The stuff I can’t stand are of course the gloppy, syrupy, treacly songs. In a couple of cases I think the tunes could have been saved by another Monkee taking the lead. “I Wanna Be Free” actually was originally cut with Dolenz on lead vocal, and that version is WAY better. I think “Daydream Believer” would have been vastly better as a showcase for Nesmith — I simply don’t believe that baby-faced Jones ever had anything to do with a “shaving razor”. There’s a bunch of tunes like this, intended to cater to teenyboppers, which is fine I guess if you ARE one, but if you’re not, they are hard to stomach. The speak-sung “The Day We Fall in Love” is probably the most egregious. Others include “I’ll Be True To You” and “When Love Comes (Knocking at Your Door)”. Bleccch!

But there are mess of tunes he does that I actually like a lot. Not surprisingly these include the Harry Nilsson-penned neo-vaudeville tunes “Cuddly Toy” and “Daddy’s Song”. But there are also a number of other songs, usually psychedelic ones, or ones involving an element of humor, that I love to listen to, Including “She Hangs Out”, “Star Collector”, “Laugh”, “I Can’t Get Her Off My Mind”, “Forget That Girl” and the very spacy, “Early Morning Blues and Greens”:

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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Skeeter Davis, “The End of the World”

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, Crackers, Music with tags , , , , on December 30, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Skeeter Davis (Mary Frances Penick, 1931-2004). Her unflattering nickname (short for mosquito) came from her grandfather; “Davis” comes from the fact that she started out as one half of the country duo the Davis Sisters with Betty Jack Davis. The two girls met in high school while growing up in Kentucky, and had scored a couple of songs on the country charts in the early 50s, until Betty Jack was killed in a car accident in 1953. Skeeter temporarily retired from the music industry, but returned in the late 50s and began having country hits. By the early 60s she was crossing over onto the pop charts. Her biggest hit, “The End of the World” was released in 1962, and went all the way to #2 on the pop charts in 1963.

I think this record is absolute perfection on every level, just one of those occasions when a collection of magic ingredients fall into place. The lyrics (by Sylvia Dee) blow me away every time. At the risk of ridicule, they remind me of a Shakespeare soliloquy, this painstaking litany of simple images taken from nature, each an illustration in the girl’s argument that her heartbreak is the most important tragedy in the world — because from her limited perspective, it is. Shakespeare’s writing in Romeo and Juliet and many of the comedies takes just this tack. If you’re young, you wind up feeling her heartache; if you’re older, you just feel for her, and want to tell her things really will be okay after a while. Davis’s regional accent reinforces the feeling of sweetness and innocence. “The end” becomes “Tha ind” and “cause” becomes “cowse” — makes it sound as though her world is very small indeed. (Ironically, she was 31 when the song was recorded, though you’d swear she was 15).

Produced by Chet Atkins with Floyd Cramer playing those stately piano arpeggios, the dignified, relentless simplicity of the arrangement never lets up, never tips over into bathos or kitsch. Even Atkins’ employment of that sure-fire weep trigger the peddle steel guitar is just enough, it’s just a touch and never crosses the line into “too much.” There must have been a billion tears shed during slow dances while this tune was playing.

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

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

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