Archive for March, 2015

The Original Jobyna

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , on March 31, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of stage and screen actress Jobyna Howland (1880-1936)

Her unusual name was adapted from that of her father, Joby “Happy” Howland, who’d gained fame as the Drummer Boy of Shiloh, the youngest enlistee in the Civil War (11 when he enrolled). She began her career as a model (she was one of the original Gibson Girls) and found her way to the Broadway stage by 1904. Her two dozen or so Broadway credits included parts in such shows as McIntyre and Heath’s The Ham Tree (1905), the first edition of The Passing Show (1912), Ruggles of Red Gap (1915-1916), and the Eddie Cantor vehicle Kid Boots (1923-1925). Though she was beautiful, her height (six feet tall) caused her normally to be cast as mothers and dames (Margaret Dumont roles) even when she was quite young.

In 1918, she made her first film Her Only Way, with Norma Talmadge. Only two more silent roles would follow; talkies would be much kinder to her. The silent screen’s bigger Jobyna would be Jobyna Ralston, leading lady for Harold Lloyd among others, whom, legend has it was named after Howland. Then, when sound came in, Ralston dropped out of films, and Howland became Hollywood’s reigning Jobyna. She was a frequent foil to Wheeler and Woolsey (The Cuckoos, Dixiana and Hook, Line and Sinker, all 1930); was in the all star screen adaptation of Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime (1932) with Jack Oakie, Aileen MacMahon, Zasu Pitts, Louise Fazenda, and Gregory RatoffThe Cohens and Kellys in Trouble with Charlie Murray (1933), and the notorious pre-code bodice ripper The Story of Temple Drake (1933), written by William Faulkner. She died suddenly at age 56 of what is believed to have been a heart attack. Her brother Olin Howland was also a stage and screen actor.

To learn more about early film history 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 learn 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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Trav S.D. Does “Gilbert and Sullivan” (and more!)

Posted in Indie Theatre, ME, My Shows, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , on March 30, 2015 by travsd
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Friday April 3, 8pm, $10 suggested Donation
Barbes, 376 9th Street, Park Slope
Opera on Tap’s New Brew Series Presents:
SEX! COMEDY!  ECONOMICS!:
AN EVENING WITH TRAV S.D. (AND FRIENDS)
The Curse of the Rat King: 
Trav S.D. (libretto) and David Mallamud (music) have been collaborating on this campy comic opera since 2010. It is a post-modern mash-up of Universal horror films, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, the writings of Sigmund Freud, and numerous other elements. On the bill with him will be selections from Three Way, by Time Out New York and NY1’s David Cote (libretto) and Robert Paterson (music), which has been described as “a kind of NC-17 Il trittico”, and two works with lyrics by Untitled Theatre Company #61’s Edward EinhornThe Velvet Oratorio (music by Henry Akona) and Money Lab (music by Avner Finberg).
Featuring David Gordon, Seth Gilman, Anne Hiatt, David Macaluso, Cameron Russell, and Krista Wozniak with Christopher Berg tinkling the piano keys.

Barnum’s Best Bunkum #7: The Cardiff Giant

Posted in BUNKUM, Dime Museum and Side Show with tags , , , on March 25, 2015 by travsd

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2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of my theatre company Mountebanks. Throughout the year, I’ll be unleashing several activities to celebrate the theme of theatrical charlatanism. Case in point: March 27 & 28 I’ll be playing P.T. Barnum in UTC#61’s MoneyLab. On the run-up, this series of posts on some of Barnum’s most celebrated hoaxes.

Here is an example of Barnum at his most unprincipled, behaving in a way that anticipates the modern, monopolistic corporate ethos. Normally what we love and admire about Barnum is his imagination. In the case of the Cardiff Giant, Barnum essentially poached someone else’s idea. And yet the result was both entertaining and thought-provoking.

In 1869, the “petrified” remains of what appeared to be a ten foot tall man was discovered on the farm of one “Stub” Newell in upstate Cardiff, New York, not far from the Finger Lakes. A tent was erected, and admission was charged for viewings. People came from miles around to see the object. Unknown at the time, the “Giant” had been created at great trouble and expense by Newell’s cousin George Hull, who’d poured huge sums of money into the hoax, having had the stone for it brought all the way from Iowa, carved and distressed by experts, and then surreptitiously planted on Newell’s property where it would be “found” several months later. Despite the protests of scientists from every field who declared the thing a fake, a consortium of investors bought Newell and Hull out and began to exhibit the Giant in nearby Syracuse for even greater attention and profits. (The fact that the “Giant” was anatomically correct cannot have harmed ticket sales.)

As was his normal operating procedure when he heard about a good thing, Barnum tried to buy the Cardiff Giant from its present owners — who would not sell. Nothing daunted, Barnum had his own Cardiff Giant fabricated and began to exhibit it as the “real” one. Now he too was making huge amounts of money out of the Cardiff Giant. The proprietors of the original one attempted to sue him, but the judge ruled that since the first one had been a fake, there was no additional fraudulence in Barnum’s replica. Something seems kind of “off” about that ruling. This is why we say it is thought-provoking. What is a counterfeit of a counterfeit? Sounds like perfect fodder for Orson Welles’ F for Fake. 

At any rate, both Cardiff Giants were ten feet long and made of limestone. Hence, unlike many objects from 19th century museums and sideshows they were not easy to lose or in any way ephemeral. Which means…they still exist and you can still look at them. Hull’s original one resides at the Farmers Museum in Cooperstown, New York. I have seen it!

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Meanwhile, Barnum’s one is said to reside at Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum in the Detroit/ Ann Arbor area.

 

Barnum’s Best Bunkum #6: The Unicorn

Posted in Animal Acts, BUNKUM, Dime Museum and Side Show with tags , , , , , , on March 24, 2015 by travsd

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2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of my theatre company Mountebanks. Throughout the year, I’ll be unleashing several activities to celebrate the theme of theatrical charlatanism. Case in point: March 27 & 28 I’ll be playing P.T. Barnum in UTC#61’s MoneyLab. On the run-up, this series of posts on some of Barnum’s most celebrated hoaxes.

In 1871, P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, menagerie, Caravan and Circus presented an animal billed as the “Unicorn from Scripture”. At this stage, he’d done as much for 20 years. But here’s what patrons saw when they arrived:

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Even in Barnum’s day naturalists and other scholars had speculated for ages that ancient accounts of unicorns were actually referring to early European impressions of the rhinoceros. In the poster above, Barnum says what it actually is. Could he be faulted if audiences were dumb enough to show up expecting to see the mythological beast depicted in the picture at the top of this post?

Furthermore, it is all technically quite correct. “Unicorn” literally means “one horn.” That is all the word means. Which is what allowed the corporate descendant of Barnum’s organization to dare to pull this stunt as late as the 1980s:

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What folks saw at RBBB in the 1980s was a goat with one horn. Still, it’s technically correct. At the time there was a controversy and an uproar, and complaints about “fraud”, and so forth. I don’t know if there’s a sucker born every minute, but there are definitely 267 IDIOTS born every minute. As far as I am concerned, if you are buying tickets to a circus and don’t realize you are going to a SHOW, and then have the gall to complain at the efforts of the showfolk to ENTERTAIN you, you are a lower brute than any of the critters in the menagerie. If you come expecting to see the sort of mythological beast depicted in storybooks, and what’s more, expecting that to be GENUINE, there is a position available for you in the show. Here’s the last fellow we hired to fill the slot:

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Trav S.D. as P.T. Barnum in “The Art of Money-Getting”

Posted in BUNKUM, Indie Theatre, ME, My Shows, PLUGS with tags , , on March 23, 2015 by travsd
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March 27, 7pm & March 28, 11pm
HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue
Money Lab: An Economic Vaudeville
 This Friday and Saturday, Trav S.D. plays P.T. Barnum in The Art of Money Getting, a  monologue adapted from Barnum’s eponymous self-help book, directed by Carolyn Raship, accompanied by educational slide show. It’s all part of Untitled Theatre Company #61’s Money Lab: An Economic Vaudeville. Don’t miss it! Tickets and info here.
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Barnum’s Best Bunkum #5: The Circassian Beauties

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, BUNKUM, Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Women with tags , , on March 22, 2015 by travsd

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2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of my theatre company Mountebanks. Throughout the year, I’ll be unleashing several activities to celebrate the theme of theatrical charlatanism. Case in point: March 27 & 28 I’ll be playing P.T. Barnum in UTC#61’s MoneyLab. On the run-up, this series of posts on some of Barnum’s most celebrated hoaxes.

This is an interesting hybrid of previously existing Barnum schemes. Barnum had been a pioneer in sponsoring beauty contests; he had also been at the forefront of  (normally fake) ethnographical spectacle, i.e. exhibiting human beings as exotic, primitive foreigners.

The idea behind this particular one was that the Circassian people of the Northwest Caucasus, being the “purest” Caucasians (since they were close to the source) were the most perfect specimens of humanity, hence their women, the most beautiful. The women he presented were indeed all beautiful, dressed in revealing folk costumes, wore undeniably impressive frizzed up ‘fros, and had names with Zs in them like Zalumma Agra, Zuruby Hannum, Azela Pacha, Zribeda, and Zoledod. What none of them were, most likely, was Circassian.

This idea contains so many levels of wrongness (beyond the idea that one people might be more beautiful than another people, as well as the misrepresentation, which was just another day at the office for Barnum), it’s hard to sort them all out. Racism was (and is) often based in pseudo-science, even “positive” racism like this. The Circassians are fascinating — one of Europe’s few indigenous peoples (the Basques and Sami, a.k.a Lapps are some others). That is to say that the Circassians have lived in the Caucasus for thousands and thousands of years (most other Europeans  settled in their present locations during the Middle Ages, which is relatively recent). Though it’s true that most Europeans and their descendants in places like America and Australia can trace their origins (eventually) to the Caucasus (hence the word “Caucasian” to describe them), it’s a vast oversimplification to say that the Circassians and the majority of other Europeans are even the same ethnic group. For one thing, the native languages of the Circassians are completely unrelated to the Indo-European tongues spoken by the vast majority of Europeans. The language families likely had completely different origins, implying the divergence of the two peoples at such an ancient date it hardly makes sense to regard the western Europeans as having descended from the ancestors of contemporary Caucasians.

Yet Barnum can hardly be said to have invented the myth of Circassian beauty. The Turks were said to have prized Circassian women above all others as slaves. The legend of their beauty was exported to the English speaking world by the Crimean War (1853-1856). Ironically, at the very time of Barnum’s stunt, the Russians were committing a semi-genocide against the Circassians, forcibly ejecting them from their recently conquered territory (which had formerly belonged to the Ottomans). Most of the Circassians later returned to their ancestral lands when things cooled down. But their plight was not on Barnum’s agenda.

At any rate, like we say, most (probably all) of these women weren’t even Circassian anyway. They were just local chicks, given exotic-sounding names, cute peasant costumes, and wild hairdos. There were dozens of them. Just google “Circassian beauty” and you will find an endless number of photographs of them.

Barnum’s Best Bunkum #4: The Plowing Elephants

Posted in Animal Acts, BUNKUM with tags , , , , on March 21, 2015 by travsd

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2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of my theatre company Mountebanks. Throughout the year, I’ll be unleashing several activities to celebrate the theme of theatrical charlatanism. Case in point: March 27 & 28 I’ll be playing P.T. Barnum in UTC#61’s MoneyLab. On the run-up, this series of posts on some of Barnum’s most celebrated hoaxes.

One of Barnum’s crazier stunts: after the construction of his mansion Iranistan in the late 1840s, he brought in some elephants which he had workmen hitch to plows and pretend to plow fields behind the house. In doing so, his aims were more publicity oriented than agricultural. He lived within sight of the railroad which brought passengers from parts north to New York City. In his autobiography, Barnum wrote that his hope was that people would see the elephants and come to the conclusion that if his homestead was so fabulous, his American Museum must be many times more so. The gambit was nothing more than advertising. He freely admitted that the cost of feeding the elephants for outweighed their value as work animals. When he’d figured the stunt had played itself out, he sold the pachyderms to Van Amburgh’s circus.

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