Archive for April, 2014

Eve Arden: At the Circus

Posted in Circus, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Movies, Women with tags , , , on April 30, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the much beloved Eve Arden (1908-1990). We’ve written a little about some of her notable projects such as Our Miss Brooks (here and here) and The Mothers in Law (here). Today, since we are on the eve (ha! Get it? Eve?!) of Marxfest, I thought it appropriate to give a shout-out to her role in the 1939 Marx Brothers comedy At the Circus. 

The film is one of the team’s weaker vehicles (though there are a good half dozen even weaker than this one) so Arden is a welcome presence. She plays one of the villains of the piece, a daredevil acrobat named Peerless Pauline. Groucho attempts to romance her in order to retrieve some stolen loot so he can save Kenny Baker’s circus, but Pauline lures him into following her onto the ceiling in suction cup shoes. Kinky!  And she leaves him dangling there, helpless and screaming. This is why fans don’t dig the late Marx brothers pictures. Groucho should never be seen as helpless or at anyone’s mercy. EVER. On the plus side, Eve Arden was actually kind of foxy at age 28. Look at those stems. Who knew?

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy 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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To find out 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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TRANS Formative

Posted in Contemporary Variety, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Singers with tags , , on April 29, 2014 by travsd
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Tammy Fay Starlight as Nico, with co-host Eric Schmalenberger: Sonny and Cher for the 21st century. Photo by the Mad Marchioness

The Mad Marchioness and I had a date night last evening, the first in ages that was any farther than a block from our home thanks to that miserable winter and lots of projects that kept us occupied. After the fabulous (and historic) Musty Suffer DVD launch event at Anthology Film Archives, we grabbed a bite at Noho Star and went over to Joe’s Pub to see (and hear) an event called TRANS Formative – Songs that Propelled Us: A Benefit for Joe’s Pub New York Voices Commissioning Program and the Ali Forney Center.  Let’s see you put THAT on a tee shirt! 

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In addition to raising money for good causes, the event was a showcase for the students of Barbara Maier Gustern, one of New York’s most beloved singing instructors and one of those rare figures who bridges seemingly ALL branches of New York’s highly diverse show biz community: downtown, uptown, cabaret, musical theatre, pop, rock, avant-garde, drag. Her showcases (I’ve  been to a couple over the years) are astounding and joyous in this regard. I’m someone who loves bridges and hates walls, and I try to achieve the same kind of eclecticism in assembling my own vaudeville bills. A show ought to be regarded as an opportunity to expose people to new things. In Barbara’s case that’s just how it works out. Everybody loves her, so everybody takes her class, and so when she produces a showcase, we get a glimpse of every conceivable human pattern.

The show was hosted by Eric Schmalenberger (chap in a tutu who does bird calls!) and one of our favorite performers, Tammy Fay Starlite here in her Nico guise (she sang “I’ll Keep it With Mine”, with a voice unavoidably better than Nico’s). I took what notes I could about the rest:

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Machine Dazzle did an interesting, moving self-penned vocalized poem. That’s him pictured above

* Natti Vogel brought a whole band with back-up singers and a horn section and they were completely amazing

Danny Backer sang the Harold Arlen standard “Come Rain or Come Shine” in a husky, bluesy voice and blew a horn solo. He’s a class act and you can catch him at Le Cirque on May 5

Louisa Bradshaw, star of recent Marilyn Monroe musical Siren’s Heart sang an original tune more in a contemporary pop vein

* Gender bending star Miss Guy  sang the rock inflected “Don’t Stop”

* Russian-American radio and tv personality Oleg Frish  came out in an amazing flowered blazer and sang “I Wish You Love” with an enthusiasm only someone from foreign shores could bring. You can catch him at the Metropolitan Room on May 11 & 18

* Argentinian singer Sofia Rei , accompanied by an incredible guitarist, sang a tune from her country

Seth Bedford sang the funny “My Fetish is Vanilla” 

* I was particularly keen on the Mephistophelean David F. Slone Esq who did a Weimar sounding version of “It Was a Very Good Year” with Matt Dallow on accordion. That was my cup of tea, and within spitting distance of my own passions and proclivities. He’s currently in Lissa Moira’s Nicholas Nickleby adaptation at Theater for the New City through May 4. 

I wish we’d had a printed program in hand. It was waxing late so the Marchioness and I ducked out during the set of the Bulgarian trio, but now I look at the ads, and I see that I probably missed some folks I would have liked to have stayed for. Ah, me.

It’s great fun watching all of these highly diverse performers stream by and try to find the common thread. What do they have in common? What characterizes Barbara’s “school”? I noted a couple of things. My theatrical brain of course latches onto costumes. They all put great care into this element, no matter what style, they all put effort into visual presentation.  And how they sing? Barbara seems to have a lot of success helping people get out of their own way. They all seemed rather free and confident and the sounds appeared to come out of them rather effortlessly, without impediments or blocks. Undoubtedly they all put in a great deal of preparation, but on stage, it was all performance. In short they looked and sounded great. 




This Week: Trav, Dick Cavett, Penny Arcade and Harpo’s Son, etc!

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Marx Brothers, ME, My Shows, PLUGS with tags , , , , , on April 29, 2014 by travsd

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Yeah, baby! Marxfest launches this week and there’s so much to tell about!

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Tomorrow, April 30 at 3pm, listen to me, talk-show legend Dick Cavett, Harpo’s son Bill Marx and my Marxfest cohorts Noah Diamond and Kevin Fitzpatrick on the Halli Casser-Jayne Show. We’ll be talking up Marxfest of course, and the four (actually five) crazy brothers who inspired this month long tribute. We are honored to have Messers. Cavett and Marx as participants in the festival. Want to learn more? Don’t be a fink, just follow this link:

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/thehallicasserjayneshow/2014/04/30/the-marx-brothers-with-dick-cavett-friends

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Also tomorrow, the new edition of Time Out New York hits the stands. In it will be a short piece plugging my program this Friday:

May 2, 7:30pm
From Angels to Anarchists: The Evolution of the Marx Bros
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It’s a matter of published record that Harpo Marx first joined his family on stage at Henderson’s Music Hall, just a few dozen yards from Coney Island USA. What a lot of people don’t know is that the Marx Brothers’ family act initially started out as a SINGING group called the Four Nightingales. In From Angels to Anarchists, I will talk about how the act evolved from young Groucho’s initial outings as a child performer, through the act’s many iterations, until they finally became the mad-cap, no-holds-barred comedy team the world knows and loves. Along the way there will be performances of some of the act’s early material, and scatological details about Harpo’s debut at Henderson’s. The talk will have a performance component as well, three of the songs from the early Marx Brothers repertoire sung by Sarah Moskowitz!
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STICK AROUND AFTERWARDS, BECAUSE RIGHT AFTER ME, COMES THE ONE AND ONLY PENNY ARCADE! THAT IS A DOUBLE HEADER NOT TO BE MISSED, IF I SAY SO MYSELF AND I JUST DID!  And there is a discount for buying tickets to both so please do!
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What else?

You can learn more about Marxfest in this terrific Indie Theatre Now podcast featuring myself, Noah Diamond and Jonny Porkpie in conversation with the illimitable Martin Denton:

http://www.nytheatrecast.com/pcast/nythpod438.mp3

And check out our great recent coverage in The New York Times and Newsday.  

For the complete scoop on Marxfest, visit Marxfest.com

Charlie Chaplin in “By the Sea”

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date  of the Charlie Chaplin Essanay comedy By the Sea (1915).

One doesn’t often get a chance to say this, but this is one of Chaplin’s lazier efforts.Having just made The Tramp and A Jitney Elopement one might expect his next film to have maintained the same level of care and plotting. But By the Sea is kind of a throwback to his Sennett days — a bunch of comedians fooling around on a beach. Bud Jamison is the heavy, Edna Purviance is the girl, and Snub Pollard, in the midst of his brief tenure at Essanay, is the ice cream vendor.

As opposed to the overall picture, individual bits and routines stand out and are memorable. Charlie performs his famous flea routine (not fully elaborated for public consumption until 1952’s Limelight). Charlie slips on his own banana peel. Charlie and a guy are eating ice cream cones, getting ice cream on each other as they gesticulate. And the final shot, of five people sitting on a bench and tipping backwards, is visually striking, if (literally)  forced. On the other hand, you know what? We’re on a beach in 1915, and that’s always the place to be.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy 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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To find out 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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Fearless Flo Honored Today

Posted in EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, PLUGS, Silent Film, SOCIAL EVENTS, Women with tags , , , , , on April 27, 2014 by travsd

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Today at 2pm, Green-wood Cemetery celebrates the life and career of silent film sensation Florence LaBadie on her 126th birthday. Appearing in over 180 films over the course of her short life, LaBadie was a stunningly beautiful actress who enjoyed tremendous fame in her day. A tragic car accident in 1917 cut her life short at the age of 29, and she was buried at Green-Wood shortly thereafter. Mysteriously, neither a gravestone nor a monument was ever placed at her burial site and her resting place has remained unmarked for nearly a century. Now, with the help of Green-Wood, Ned Thanhouser and Thanhouser Company Film Preservation, loyal LaBadie fans and film historians, “Fearless Flo” will finally receive a proper grave marker. Today’s event features  a dedication ceremony at her final resting place, featuring remarks on Flo’s life and the silent film era, and live music by professional accompanist Ben Model. A reception will follow in Green-Wood’s Historic Chapel.

This is a free event. More info is here: https://www.green-wood.com/event/2-p-m-honoring-fearless-flo/

Carol Burnett (The Eunice Sketches)

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Crackers, Sit Coms, Television, TV variety, Women with tags , , , , on April 26, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the popular American comedienne Carol Burnett. I was chiefly a fan of her variety show (1967-1977) during its last leg, when she was truly the reigning queen of American comedy. She ended the show at just the right time. Saturday Night Live, which started two years earlier, was fatal to it, instantly making it seem obsolete. Burnett is a show biz creature who got her start on Broadway. Her instincts aren’t satirical; she just wants to make people happy. I lost my taste for her show when SNL came on the scene, and really haven’t enjoyed The Carol Burnett Show since.

BUT (and this a big but). I’ve always loved her masterpiece creation, and can’t say enough good things about it. While Burnett is often compared to Lucille Ball, there are ways she resembles a much greater artist than Lucy, and that’s Jackie Gleason. Like Gleason, Burnett used her variety show as a platform for sketches that allowed her opportunities to showcase her skills as a comedic actress. To my mind the “Family” sketches on Burnett’s show have much in common with The Honeymooners, which likewise had started as a series of sketches on a variety show. Eunice is Burnett’s crowning achievement, absolutely ranking with Lucy Ricardo, Ralph Kramden, Barney Fife, or Felix Ungar — all of which I consider brilliant pieces of comic acting. (TV doesn’t get enough respect as far as these things go). Like those other examples, not only was she side-splittingly funny in the role, but she always reached for (and attained) notes of pathos. Ultimately, I think this turned her head, and she wound up going in other directions (cheesy tv movie dramas and such) which changed her career trajectory. She did do one TV movie as Eunice in 1982, but if she had been so inclined, she could have spun it off her variety show as a series and it would have been one of the greatest sit-coms of all time.

As it happened, it did turn into a highly successful tv series, only without Burnett. Scene stealing co-star Vickie Lawrence had a hit with Mama’s Family from 1983 to 1990. The success of that show rested on the audience’s affection for Lawrence’s performance. The show itself was dreadful. It needed the magical chemistry of Burnett, Lawrence and Harvey Korman, and The Carol Burnett Show writers. Unfortunately Burnett divorced her husband Joe Hamilton in 1984. He had been her producer and owned all the characters. So that is the last the world has seen of Eunice. “The law,” said Mr. Bumble, “is a ass.”

For more on silent and slapstick comedy 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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To find out about  the history of variety (including television 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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Dorothy Sebastian: Chorus Girl, Comic Co-Star

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Dorothy Sebastian (1903-1957).

Originally a Broadway chorus girl and pal of Louise Brooks, Sebastian was in the 1924 edition of George White’s Scandals before breaking into films in 1925, where she was frequent co-star of Joan Crawford and Anita Page. Our main (only) reason for including her in our Star of Slapstick series is her relationship with Buster Keaton. The two had already been romantically involved when Keaton cast her opposite him in 1929’s Spite Marriage, his last silent film. This movie contains the famous routine where Keaton must deal with Sebastian’s drunken, inert body and put her in bed. She also appears briefly in Keaton’s first talkie Free and Easy (1930) and co-stars in his Educational short Allez Oop (1934).

Sebastian was married to William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy) from 1930 to 1936, which is undoubtedly why she and Keaton never took their relationship any farther, but they obviously hit it off and remained friends through the years. She was arrested for drunk driving in 1938 after leaving a party at Keaton’s house, somewhat tawdry proof that they remained socially friendly.

Sebastian’s contract with MGM ended in 1932. After that it was B pictures and bit parts through 1948. The Miracle of the Bells was her last picture.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy 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. To find out 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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