Archive for February, 2014

Lady of Burlesque

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Burlesk, Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , on February 28, 2014 by travsd


Today is the birthday of film director William Wellman (1896-1975). Responsible for many masterpieces, today we celebrate one we thought would be of especial interest to our readers: 1943’s Lady of Burlesque.

Based on Gypsy Rose Lee’s surprisingly well written first book The G String Murders (1941), the brilliance of this story is that it straddles (Nyah! That’s what I said! “Straddles!”) murder mysteries and backstage soap opera, with the added twist that it gives us one of our few glimpses into period burlesque by Hollywood.

And there is big irony here. Gypsy had left burlesque in 1937 to come to Hollywood as an actress. There was a hue and cry and outrage by the public. The studios backpeddled and did what they could to shovel her striptease past under the rug. They only stuck her in a few pictures, and they made Gypsy go by her given name, Louise Hovick. And then United Artists goes and makes this picture which is TOTALLY about burlesque! (The other irony is that by 1943 the burlesque industry, i.e., the circuits and the New York showplace theatres was for all intents and purposes already dead).

Granted, we don’t see anybody get naked. Barbara Stanwyck plays the Gypsy stand-in, and she’s terrific in it. Her leading man Michael O’Shea is a big dud, but another saving grace is the presence of real life burlesque comic Pinky Lee in the cast. As a mystery, it’s so-so, the joy is in the journey, it’s just full of great little details and relationships and characterizations that bring this historical scene back to life. For most contemporary variety performers it’s really the dream. That huge theatre, and we’re the only show in it! Those huge dressing rooms!

But the police raids, not so much.

To learn more about show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Buster Keaton in “Parlor, Bedroom and Bath”

Posted in Buster Keaton, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , on February 28, 2014 by travsd


Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Buster Keaton talkie Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931). Directed by Eddie Sedgwick, the film was adapted from a sophisticated Broadway farce that had earlier been made as a silent with Eugene Pallette. This one puts Keaton alongside Cliff Edwards, Reginald Denny, and Charlotte Greenwood, with a lot of claptrap about Keaton’s bumbling character masquerading as the world’s greatest lover. As  John Lennon said about The Beatles movie Help!, “It’s like having clams in a movie about frogs.” We regret to say that it belongs in the “deservedly forgotten” pile; its interest is more historical than pleasurable. Also: it was filmed at Buster’s house!

For more on silent and slapstick comedy 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 etc etc etc


To learn more about show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.



The Silent Clowns Celebrate Chaplin!

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, PLUGS, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on February 28, 2014 by travsd


This month and next our favorite silent comedy screening series The Silent Clowns will be celebrating Charlie Chaplin’s 100 years in pictures by highlighting some of the greatest films of his early years. Tomorrow at 2:30pm, a very rare treat: they’ll be showing the 1914 silent comedy feature Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914), directed by Mack Sennett and starring Chaplin, Marie Dressler, Mabel Normand and Mack Swain. 

The film is of great historical importance; it is the first feature length slapstick comedy. Slapstick comedy features wouldn’t be a regular fact of life for the most part until the 1920s; in the the early days of the teens, they were all shorts.

The film is an adaptation of Dressler’s stage hit of 1910-12 called Tillie’s Nightmare. The story plays upon her image as an ugly duckling. Dressler plays a blushing milkmaid of 50 who is swept off her feet by a conniving con man and gigolo (Chaplin) who has fallen in love with the large pile of cash her father (Swain) has saved up. Normand plays Chaplin’s comely confederate. The narrative is quite sturdy, marred only perhaps by Sennett’s penchant for directing all of his actors to hit each other or fall on the ground every five seconds.

Also on the bill, the more typical 1914 short comedy Gentleman of Nerve. In this one, the Keystone stock company (Chaplin, Normand, Swain and Chester Conklin) fool around at a real live auto race, a fairly typical quasi-docu-improvisational comedy for its day.

The screening is at the New York Public Library’s Lincoln Center, performing arts branch (Bruno Walter auditorium). For directions and other info go to

Century of Slapstick #27: Between Showers

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on February 28, 2014 by travsd


Today marks the 100th anniversary of the release date of the Keystone comedy Between Showers. This funny silent comedy short is one of only a couple where two of my favorite comedy stars Charlie Chaplin and Ford Sterling can be seen side by side, literally duking it out. (Sterling was about to leave the studio; Chaplin had just come on.) The two men squabble over who gets to help a young lady over a mud puddle. To settle the dispute, we have Keystone Kop  Chester Conklin, who isn’t very helpful. I guess the title is supposed to imply that it has recently rained, but it also suggests to me that Charlie hasn’t bathed recently.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy 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 etc etc etc


To learn more about show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.



Tonight: A Rare Chance to See Lunt and Fontanne

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies with tags , , , , , on February 27, 2014 by travsd


Tonight at 11pm E.S.T. on Turner Classic Movies, a rare chance to see Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in their co-starring 1931 vehicle The Guardsman. The famous theatrical couple made very few film and television appearances; this is in fact the only film they ever made together. It is based on the stage play Testor, which the two had appeared in together in 1924. To add to the “meta”, the story concerns….a romantically involved stage couple! Go here for more on Alfred Lunt; here for more on Lynn Fontanne.

To learn more about show biz historyconsult 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 my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


Save the Friends of the Loew’s!

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , , on February 27, 2014 by travsd


The Friends of the Loew’s (Jersey City) deserve better than this.  They’re getting railroaded by a bunch of crummy pols. Jersey City wants to sell the Loew’s Theatre in Journal Square to a for-profit operator. You know just what a for-profit company is going to book there — a lot of crap that can go into ANY venue, ignoring the unique, specific historic character of this venue. I’m absolutely in favor of commerce in show business, but you know what? Any company that deserves to profit from this theatre should have taken the RISK that resulted in its revival. The risks — and the blood, sweat and tears, were all taken on by the Friends of the Loews. They — and no one else — saved this gorgeous old movie house and made it a vital, living theatre again.  There needs to be a better way to solve the theatre’s problems.

Here’s the message I found in my in-box this morning:

“Dear Friends,

We’ve gotten a lot of worried inquiries about what’s going on with Jersey City and the Loew’s, but have held off putting out a general statement because we hoped the bad things that seemed to be happening were really just a misunderstanding.

But unfortunately, things just keep getting worse. So we have no choice now but to spread the word about what the City is trying to do. We ask you to read on, and pass it on to your friends.

A few months ago, aides to Mayor Steven M. Fulop began to enter the Theatre without giving any notice to Friends of the Loew’s, brushing past our staff and volunteers or coming at times when we were not present at all, to give tours to “experts” and prospective management companies. In the process, City workers and their “guests” felt free to operate and play with FOL-owned equipment, including our projectors and stage lighting.

Then the City announced it would solicit proposals from for-profit companies to replace FOL in running the Loew’s.

And just today, we found out that the Fulop Administration is refusing to go forward with five critical safety and fire-code repair projects that the City is in partnership with FOL to carry out, using grant funds FOL received from Hudson County – a grant that must be used before it expires this Summer.

The problem is that in several meetings, Mayor Fulop has told us he feels FOL hasn’t earned the right to be the guardians and managers of the Loew’s. Ironically, this may be the only thing Fulop is willing to be seen as having in common with his predecessor, who tried to divert attention away from all that the City has not done for the Loew’s by suggesting FOL hadn’t done enough.

But Mayor Fulop goes even further. He doesn’t think FOL has accomplished anything significant since advocating to save the Loew’s more than two decades ago. When we assured him that was not true and tried to explain how we’ve worked to make up for the City’s failure to keep its commitments, he became annoyed and wanted to know why we were trying to paint the City as being at fault in the past. This seemed an astonishing reaction from a new Mayor who had spent the past eight years as the opposition member of the City Council, complaining that he could not get the support of the old mayor for any initiative, and saying that virtually everything the City did then was wrong.

Because Mayor Fulop doesn’t understand what FOL does and why, he doesn’t value it, and even thinks he “owes” it to Jersey City to reduce us to what effectively will be a meaningless role. He’ll let us have 20 dates a year to put on shows, but goes on to say he won’t “hamper” a new operator of the Loew’s by telling them what to do, so he can’t even give us a guess when those 20 dates might be. Nor does he explain how we will be able to pay for those events, since like most arts center managements, FOL relies on funding raised by the whole operation – which we will be removed from if the Mayor has his way. Of course, our mission is to preserve and operate the Loew’s as an iconic local landmark and an arts center for our community, not just put on a few shows. However, the Mayor doesn’t seem to understand this. But Mayor Fulop does confidently predict his “experts” in the City will pick an outside, for-profit entity to replace us that can “guarantee” the success of the Loew’s.

Actually, the Mayor has it backwards: It is FOL that has always been the guarantee for the Loew’s in the face of major building problems, little funding, and the City’s lack of vision and inability or unwillingness to keep its commitments to support its own building.

We STILL hope to find a way to make Mayor Fulop understand this and work together with FOL. But in light of what he has said about us, it is important to make sure our patrons, supporters and the public understand what FOL HAS DONE and IS DOING, and how we are working to move forward despite the lack of promised support and cooperation from the City.


Let’s begin by remembering what FOL had to do just to get the Loew’s open again. We’ve put together a gallery of “Before & After” photos that dramatically document the work FOL did through the extraordinary efforts of our volunteers to reopen the Loew’s. We hope you’ll take a few moments to have a look here.

As you can see, by the time we had convinced Jersey City that the Loew’s should be saved, not torn down as City policy had called for, the Theatre had been closed for seven years and was completely unusable. Nothing in it worked: circuits were shorted and light fixtures were missing; pipes were cracked and radiators burst; the old stage lighting didn’t work, the stage rigging didn’t move, there were no curtains and the screen had been slashed; the stage itself was literally covered in garbage; the dressing rooms were in ruins; the projection booth had been gutted; the organ had been removed; the auditorium was divided into a multiplex with ugly, sheet-rock walls; seats were worn out and covered in mold; paint was peeling everywhere; and everything was filthy.

The City bought the Loew’s knowing it would take at least $4 million just to get it open and minimally operational again. But the City didn’t want to spend the money, and initially had planned to “mothball” the Loew’s – meaning in practical terms the Theatre would stay closed and be forgotten. Instead, FOL helped the Jersey City Economic Development Corporation win a $1 million state preservation grant and managed to persuade the reluctant City to provide the required match. JCEDC, not FOL, was given responsibility for spending the $2 million on new boilers and exterior repairs that would “stabilize” the Loew’s – i.e., stave off further decay.

But this was nowhere near enough to get the Loew’s open again. The City was supposed to work with JCEDC to form steering committees and make blue-ribbon plans to raise the rest of the money needed to reopen the Loew’s – but never did any of this. And in a Catch-22, the City said it wouldn’t give another dime of City money until the Loew’s was reopened, something there was just no funding to do.

It was FOL – which at the time had no responsibility or authority for the Loew’s — that provided the way out of this dead end by creating a unique program of volunteer labor and raising our own money for supplies to make the extensive repairs for which the City was refusing to pay.

We think our photos show this was not just a little sweeping and patching up, as City officials have sometimes tried to insinuate. It was bootstrapping and sweat equity on a grand scale, an extraordinary investment by FOL and our volunteers of civic spirit, resources and money into a building the City owned but wasn’t willing to take care of.

Ironically, during one of the recent “tours” of the Loew’s, a representative of one of the companies the City is hoping to replace FOL with remarked that the Loew’s is in much better condition than the Loew’s Kings in Brooklyn (which is undergoing a restoration that needed $90 million, mostly from New York City), and a Mayoral aide happily agreed that our Loew’s is “really in pretty good shape.” The reason Fulop’s aide could say this IS FOL and what we’ve accomplished so far.

Friends of the Loew’s not only enabled the Theatre to reopen for limited events and has maintained it ever since, we demonstrated the dedication, determination, resourcefulness, organizing ability, reliability, professionalism and community roots that are needed to ensure the success of the restoration and sustained operation of the Loew’s.

But our work to reopen the Loew’s is far from being the only reason FOL is the real guarantee for the Loew’s. In a follow-up message, we’ll talk about how we’ve been able to keep the Loew’s open for ten years despite the fact that the City has failed to provide the support it promised and acknowledged as being necessary for anyone to try to operate the Loew’s.

Stay tuned for more messages, and in the meantime please help spread this one around.”

John Strausbaugh on “The Village” Today at Jefferson Mkt

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, PLUGS with tags , , , on February 27, 2014 by travsd


John Strausbaugh was the editor of the now-defunct The New York Press, when it was, for my money, the most exciting publication in New York City. Nowadays he free-lances, does interesting video segments for the New York Times, and writes books, such as his latest The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues, a History of Greenwich Village. He’ll be speaking on that topic today at 6:30pm at the Jefferson Market branch of the New York Public Library. More details here:

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