Archive for August, 2015

Charlie Chaplin in “His New Profession”

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Hollywood (History), Silent Film with tags , , , , on August 31, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin comedy short His New Profession (1914).

This film is quite distinct from His New Job, Chaplin’s first film for Essanay a few months later. In this, Charlie is busy minding his own business in the park when a young Charley Chase (then still billed as Charles Parrott), runs up and hires to be a home health aid to his invalid uncle (Jess Dandy) so that he can go cavorting around with his girlfriend (Peggy Page). The job consists mostly of pushing the old crank around in his wheelchair, presaging some of the comic fun he will later have with Eric Campbell in The Cure. 

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Naturally, they wind up on a pier. There they encounter a blind man. When both the unfortunates are napping, Charlie steals the coins out of the blind man’s tin cup, so that he can go drinking at the bar, surely one of his lowest onscreen acts. Eventually of course the story winds up with all of them on the pier, and lots of harrowing fisticuffs.

To learn more about silent and slapstick comedy 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 find out 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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Groucho Marx on Vaudeville

Posted in Comedy Teams, Marx Brothers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on August 31, 2015 by travsd

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Friend Noah Diamond just returned from a Marx Brothers fact finding mission at the Smithsonian, and brought back this 1925 quote from Groucho neither of us knows what to do with, but is to good to waste, so we stick it here, all on it’s own like a sore thumb. Noah’s got more to report. Look for that here or somewhere in a few days. Now Groucho:

“There is only one school for entertainers in the world, and that is vaudeville. The legitimate actor and the musical comedy actor never learn the secret of entertaining an audience like the vaudeville actor does. The reason is that the reaction of an audience in vaudeville is instant. They tell you as soon as you speak a line in vaudeville just how good you are or how bad you are, and if you are really good that is the only way you will ever come to know it, too, for the agent and the booking office will keep it a dark secret from you in all their conversation. They not only tell you instantly, but they keep on telling you all through your act, in a kind of free and unrestrained way that teaches you something about the reactions of an audience. That is what the legitimate actor misses. Sometimes he misses it so badly that he even thinks he is good when he is rotten and he never really knows how he stands. There is a lot of hokum about audiences in Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House and in legitimate theatres, but in vaudeville everything is on the dead level and you cannot get away with fake stuff a minute. I suppose that is the reason why all the comedians in musical shows these days, and most of the other principals, come from vaudeville.”

Which is why we need it back — badly!

For more on vaudeville historyconsult 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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One Last, Lost Beatles Album

Posted in Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , on August 31, 2015 by travsd

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This is a little mental fantasy project I’ve been working on since I was a teenager, which no self respecting Beatles nerd should be a stranger to: a speculation about what a NEXT Beatles album would have/ could have been like. The proceeding has nothing to do with reality or logic. In the end, it is a soup I’ve decided could be made with some ingredients left in the cupboard. Some of it involves cleaning up and improving existing tracks with technology and adding more production elements; others envision entirely new recordings. All of them are songs that originated in the years 1968-1970 when they were still a group. Note: it’s not envisioned as a cohesive concept album, but something more like the late Hey Jude album….a collection of oddments.

JOHN SONGS

Across the Universe: Granted, this one has been released on many different albums in several different versions — but John was not satisfied with any of them, and I agree. There is something missing from every version that’s been released. In one interview, Lennon said with palpable bitterness that McCartney should have offered more help with it (which is quite an admission) and indeed McCartney does seem to have blown this one off. And likewise George Martin seems to have done little on its behalf as well. It’s a potentially gorgeous song. It seems like Lennon felt it should have a minimum of orchestral assistance, so it has very little (except in the slapped-on Phil Spector version), but in the end, it needs something. More exotic instrumentation? Existing versions have things like light sitar and harp — maybe something besides a guitar as the primary instrument?

Child of Nature: This one is so beautiful and would sit so well on an album alongside “Across the Universe” – -it was obviously written during the same burst of inspiration during the 1968 Indian sojourn. The tune was so good that Lennon later revived it for “Jealous Guy” on the Imagine album, but I vastly prefer this version. My instinct is that the unrestrained gushing and hippie like exultation in the lyrics later embarrassed Lennon’s more cynical side.

What’s the New Mary JaneThis hilarious experimental weirdie was finally released in its somewhat unfinished state on Anthology. I feel like it could use George Martin’s touch: some tightening up and the addition of things like strings and horns and woodwinds would bring it closer to such more palatable released psychedelic fare as “I Am the Walrus” and “It’s All Too Much“.

Give Me Some Truth: Lennon eventually finished this tune and put it on the Imagine album. But he started it during the Get Back sessions. The finished version is a typically terrific Lennon word blizzard of left wing paranoia. You can hear him thrash it out in early stages with the other Beatles here:

Watching Rainbows: This one also dates from the Get Back sessions, and eventually made it onto Let it Be, in altered, truncated form as part of the song “I’ve Got a Feeling”. The original version of the song stands up though. It’s basically a great two chord sixties jam reminiscent of Dylan’s “Quinn the Eskimo”:

PAUL SONGS

Come and Get It: Well, obviously. McCartney briefly intended it for Abbey Road, but quickly reassigned it for Badfinger to perform for the Magic Christian soundtrack. I include it with reservations — it’s so lightweight — but it actually seems much in sync thematically with other stuff of his on Abbey Road, especially “You Never Give Me Your Money”

Another Day: This, which became McCartney’s first solo single, was famously dismissed by Lennon: “It’s just another song“, but I’ve always contended that the main problem with the solo track is lackluster production. Thematically it evokes past successes like “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby” and “She’s Leaving Home”. It begs for the George Martin treatment. ALSO! ye Gods – – I heard this for the first time this morning, an early version during the Get Back sessions. His original approach on piano, as opposed to guitar, is WAY better! It gives the song a gravitas the eventual version lacks, and reminds me a little of his middle-8 for “A Day in the Life”. It starts at about 2:48:

Teddy Boy: Yeah, this one has always been a tough pill to swallow, with it’s child’s point of view, singsong melody, and references to “mommy”. The version on McCartney is underproduced. The original “Get Back” version which was released on Anthology is marred by the other Beatles overtly making fun of it, and dragging their heels in every way possible. But two really great things about the Anthology version tantalize. One is Harrison’s playful lead guitar, very evocative of Abbey Road. And the other is McCartney whistling the melody towards the end. To be completely salvaged it still needs more — perhaps Lennon attacking the lyrics and beating them into respectability with some darkness, or adding a new middle 8.

Junk: This one (also released on McCartney) needs just a very little to put it over. Something similar to the horns at the end of “Mother Nature’s Son” would fill it out a little.

Suicide: One of the best parts of the McCartney album is about 2 or 3 seconds long. It’s a snatch of a song McCartney wrote when he was a teenager at around the same time he wrote “When I’m 64”. Like the latter song, it’s McCartney revealing his genius for putting on a pre-rock style and besting previous generations at their own game. Because it’s so far from the Beatles style I guess it was never considered for one of their albums, but from the perspective of 2015 it seems no more out of place than all the other crazy genres they fooled around with on the White Album, e.g. “Good Night”. The word is that McCartney was trying to sell the song to Sinatra – -who, frankly, was an idiot for not recording this great song by the hottest composer of his era. It would have been interesting on a Beatles album, to say the least:

Back to the Commonwealth: I’ve loved this one since I was a teenager — it seems like the very essence of what they were trying to do on Get Back….it’s in the vein of “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, and apparently eventually evolved into the song “Get Back”, which is quite a journey. The lyrics sound almost finished in the recording, and McCartney’s Elvis impression is very funny. With its political commentary, this song would have lived quite harmoniously side by side with Lennon’s “Give Me Some Truth”.

Back Seat of My Car: This is a case where the existing, released solo version (on Ram) is an acknowledged pop masterpiece. But McCartney did introduce the tune during the Get Back sessions, and frankly it’s a better song than any of the ones that finally made the cut on Let it Be. It is at least intriguing to speculate what the other Beatles would have brought to it.

GEORGE SONGS: 

Not Guilty: Ironically the Beatles recorded over 100 takes of this song for the White Album, and it was slated for inclusion, but cut at the last moment. George released a solo version in 1978, and the original track was eventually released on Anthology. Harrison and McCartney are in top form musically on the track — I listen to it all the time. The lyrics are dreadful of course, but the words to dozens of released Harrison songs are dreadful, so that’s not a deal breaker. Despite all the work they put into it, I do feel like it still needs just a little something, a little George Martin touch, to put it completely over. Strings?

Sour Milk Sea: Some dope made a hilarious remark in the comments section under one of the Youtube clips of the Beatles demo of this song: “I like the Jackie Lomax version”. All real Beatle fans will know why that is a hilarious comment. Yes, this was released as a single performed by the singer Jackie Lomax. But Jackie Lomax was just a guy picked by Harrison as a stand-in for himself, much as McCartney had picked Badfinger to perform “Come and Get It”. They were trying to cultivate artists for their new record label Apple. But not only did Harrison write and produce the song, but the musicians on the track are Harrison, McCartney, Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton! It comes SO close to being a Beatle record. So you see, there is no “Jackie Lomax version”. It is George Harrison’s version, with Lomax as one of his instruments. Anyway, I really love the Lomax single anyway (and listen to it all the time). BUT, I much prefer the way Harrison sings the song on his demos — there is an eerie, bending lilt to his voice. And Lennon (who doesn’t play on the Lomax one) brings an old fashion Chuck Berry kind of energy to it.

All Things Must Pass: There’s a reason this became the title track of Harrison’s first solo album: it’s an awesome song. (If you think about it, it has a lot in common with McCartney’s song “Let it Be”, which may be one reason why the Beatles didn’t see this song, which was introduced during the “Get Back” sessions, all the way through to the end.) BUT! The Beatles came tantalizingly close to getting their own version up and running, and the part I love best about it is their harmony singing on the chorus, done is a sort of old-timey gospel arrangement reminiscent of The Band. Also Billy Preston’s piano playing adds a lot:

Circles: Like many Harrison songs, this one is so delicate and ephemeral that it scarcely makes an impression the first time around. But after a couple of plays it can begin to haunt. Its metaphysical themes make a great match with a lot of the other songs on this theoretical album. He eventually released a fully produced version on his terrible album Gone Troppo.  His 1968 demo exists; the voices of Lennon and McCartney would have added a lot.

RINGO SONG

It Don’t Come Easy: There’s got to be a Ringo song! And this one was recorded in February 1970, when the group was technically still together, and was produced by Harrison, with Harrison and Starr as the core line-up (they also co-wrote it). The released version also included Klaus Voormann, Stephen Stills and Badfinger. Here’s an interesting artifact: a version with Harrison doing a guide vocal for the shakier Ringo to work off of. Listen for the background singers going “Hare Krishna!”, later buried in the mix:

The Battle of Brooklyn Redux

Posted in AMERICANA, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Independence Day, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE with tags , , , , on August 31, 2015 by travsd

As we’ve blogged about previously, many of my ancestors fought in the American Revolution and one of the major battles was fought right in my neighborhood.  Making it virtually mandatory for me to attend yesterday’s memorial event for the Battle of Brooklyn at Green-wood Cemetery.

Herewith a little photo spread on what we saw:

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Scotland's in the house!

            Scotland’s in the house!

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                 The Parade Begins!

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Friend Gyda Arber marches with a DAR contingent

Friend Gyda Arber marches with a DAR contingent

 

Stars of Vaudeville #898: L. Wolfe Gilbert

Posted in Music, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on August 31, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Tin Pan Alley songwriter L. Wolfe Gilbert (1886-1970). Born in Odessa, he moved to the U.S. in his youth and broke into vaudeville in the first decade of the twentieth century as part of a singing quartet. While performing in Coney Island he was spotted by English producer Albert Decourville and brought over to Britain to tour music halls as part of the Ragtime Octet. In 1912, he co-authored (with Lewis Muir) one of my favorite vaudeville era songs “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee”. This song was recorded and performed by nearly every singer of the era, and but Gilbert on top. In 1917 he played a week at the Palace with his then-partner Anatole Friedland. Other songs from Gilbert’s catalog include “Down Yonder”, “Ramona”, and “Jeannine, I Dream of Lillac Time”. His later decades were spent working in film, radio and television and he was a director of ASCAP from 1941 through 1944.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult 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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Stars of Vaudeville #897: Edwin J. Burke

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Playwrights, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on August 30, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Edwin J. Burke (1889-1944). We cast a wide net betimes for our Stars of Vaudeville series. Only rarely do playwrights make it here, but some do, and some have.

Burke studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and initially worked as a stage actor and director before trying his hand at writing for vaudeville. Before he was done, he wrote 250 one act plays and sketches for the vaudeville stage, some of them making it as far as the Palace. His first full length play This Thing Called Love was such a success that in 1928 he began to work in Hollywood. He is best known today for having written several Shirley Temple films, and for his Oscar winning screenplay for Bad Girl (1931).

For more on vaudeville historyconsult 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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The Perils of Moonshine

Posted in AMERICANA, ME, My Family History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2015 by travsd
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My great-grandfather Virgil is second from the left. His brother Charles, whose grave we visited in 2000 (below) is second from the right.

The theme of this Sunday’s sermon is Temperance.

If you’re one of the two people who’ve been closely following this earth-shattering series of posts on my lineage, so far we’ve covered big hunks of American history from Plymouth Rock through the Civil War. As we move to the next generation, we start to come tantalizingly close to stuff we know much more about personally.

Casting our gaze backwards at our family histories (at least in mine) it feels like the grey fuzzy horizon between the known and the purely imagined is our great grandparents, whom we’ve heard a lot about from older family members but will always remain frustratingly just out of reach, for in most cases they have already passed from the scene before we’re born or when we’re still very young. In my case, the ones I know about the best, as it happens, are my father’s paternal grandparents, Virgil and Lusilla (“Silla”) Stewart. (Silla died when I was 9 months old, my only great grandparent whose life overlapped with mine),

I thought this would be a little, if illustrative post about how families can rise and fall within the span of two generations, but it turns out to have a juicy story, an actual news item embedded within it, so this turned out to be a rewarding period to explore (and I’ll be examining these years some more from another angle, which we’ll get to).

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Virgil A. Stewart was born in Lincoln County, Tennessee in 1875. One question that springs immediately to mind: is there any sort of relationship with the (once) famous Virgil A. Stewart who foiled a band of river pirates and slave insurrectionists led by one John Murrell and wrote a popular pamphlet about it? These events, which happened 40 years before my great grandfather’s birth were extremely well known in the the region. Mark Twain refers to them in both Tom Sawyer and Life on the Mississippi. My multi-part question is: is my Virgil named after the previous Virgil? And, if so, was he related to him? After all, 40 years is a long time. Was the name still well known unless one was related to him? And Virgil’s grandparents, we know, were illiterate, through I don’t know if his parents were. (Ironically, my patrilineal line prior to 1800 remains one of the major mysteries of my exploration. I’ve followed hundreds of other back hundreds of years but this one remains a welter of competing, unproven theories.)

Moonshining operation in Virginia (not the Patricks)

Moonshining operation in Virginia (not the Patricks)

At any rate, Virgil was raised on his father James’s small farm. Then, when he was 13 years old, his father died. Though he had two older teenage brothers, and some older brothers-in-law, he was adopted by his mother’s family, the Patricks. And this is where the story heats up. According to family lore related to me by my father, these Patricks were a wild, ornery, feuding bunch — and moonshiners. I had spent a good bit of time trying to find any corroboration on that — and then finally found it. One story, anyway.

In 1892, when Virgil was about 17, two of his cousins, Thomas Eliphas “Lifus” Patrick and Andrew Jackson Patrick, and two of their employees (James Norris Epps and Morgan Petty), were involved in an ambush of, and shoot-out, with federal revenuers at the headwaters of Stewart Creek, a melee in which Lifus, and some of the revenuers were killed. The Patricks were farmers and they also ran a legal destillery. (Whiskey making remains big in the area. Jack Daniels is made in nearby Lynchburg). But in addition to their legal still, they apparently ran an illegal one on the side. This was reported to the authorities and thus the confrontation. Andrew and his two cohorts were given a highly publicized trial in Nashville.  The judge at their trial was none other than future President of the United States William Howard Taft.

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Please, Your Honor! Surely there is goodness and mercy in that large, large heart of yours?

In spite of their obvious guilt, they were acquitted.

The reason why seems plain enough to me. It has to do with another aspect of the period that we’ll deal with another post: Reconstruction, and local opposition to it. The defeated southerners HATED the federal government. As a consequence, there was almost an ideological component to making and selling illegal booze, not unlike the revolutionary cast some have given to the distribution of illegal drugs since the 1960s. There is no question that the Patricks were such people. One of his brothers was named after James Buchanan, the Southern-sympathizing democrat president who preceded Lincoln. Another of their brothers was named “General Forrest“, after General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (although he was named this in 1862, several years prior to the Klan’s formation). Anyway, you can see why this serious topic will require its own post. Suffice it to say that in their time and in their context, criminals like the Patricks were considered dashing heroes by some people.

Tennessee Women's Christian Temperance Movement members and gents from a local sheriff's department show off a confiscated still. 1920s. From this excellent exhibition

Tennessee Women’s Christian Temperance Movement members and gents from a local sheriff’s department show off a confiscated still. 1920s. From this excellent exhibition

Interestingly, though, I don’t think Virgil Stewart was one of those people. By all accounts, Virgil was a complete, utter teetotaling Baptist. There is a lot of context for this. The radical temperance movement that would eventually lead to national Prohibition was gathering steam during the Progressive Era in the late 19th century. It was largely religious in character. In fact, Tennessee had passed the first Temperance law in the nation in 1838, making the sale of liquor punishable by fine, though it was poorly enforced and replaced with a more permissive law in 1846 that made the sale legal again, with restrictions. But the Temperance movement grew apace. The Tennessee Temperance Alliance was formed in 1885. By 1907, most counties had banned alcohol. By 1909, almost a decade before national Prohibition, the ban was statewide.

So, this was going on. To what extent Virgil had a personal motivation in wanting to distance himself from his criminal family can only be surmised. But it wasn’t just self interest. Virgil wasn’t just allied with a movement. In practice, he never drank, smoke nor swore, and he strongly disapproved of those that did those things. And the reality of his influence remains palpable. A decade ago I visited Huntsville and met many of his descendants. In contrast with my father (who drank, smoke and swore in profusion), his cousins, uncles and aunts came across as extremely clean-living people — people who lived, breathed and practiced what they preached (except they didn’t preach). My grandmother, though of rougher stock, was also like that. My grandfather (Virgil’s son) was less so — we’ll return to him shortly.

Some time prior to 1900, Virgil, all or most of his adult siblings, and his mother, all moved to the next county south, Madison County, Alabama, near Huntsville. The story my dad told was that an uncle set Virgil up in life: gave him a handful of needful items with which to establish himself (an ax, a rifle, a mule, a wagon, some seed? something like that). And Virgil went on to prosper, graduating from farming to real estate.

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I’d need to do more research to learn to what extent he dealt in land. Did he make that a business? or did he just sell off valuable farmland during boom times? I have a picture book of the history of Huntsville and, man, the early twentieth century in Huntsville was an era of giddy growth: textile factories, hotels, office buildings, newspapers, banks, all being established. Every year for several decades something new and impressive went up. If you already owned land, you probably wouldn’t need to do much to make a killing. Virgil moved the entire (large) family off the farm to a big house in Huntsville full of modern conveniences. He owned one of the first automobiles in town. In the 1920s, he went to a spa in Arizona to treat his rheumatism. It is said that his younger children “wanted for nothing”, knew nothing of farming (as opposed to the older kids), and enjoyed rich kid things like bicycles (still a luxury item in those years). His wife Silla had a maid, and a piano she played at family gatherings.

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This is me with the youngest of Virgil’s kids, Margie, circa 2000. Margie was one of a set of twins; I also met her twin sister Mabel. The grave contains Virgil’s brother Charles Stewart. I got a kid by that name. See how that works?

And then Virgil set his large brood of children up in businesses of their own or in excellent positions. Several went into the family business of real estate. The most successful of this generation Florence “Sis” Stewart (who never married) managed a chain of Kress department stores (in addition to doing well in real estate).  Others in the family had stores of their own, with initial backing from their father. The black sheep in the family seems to have been my grandfather’s younger brother Earl. He married a a divorcee named Bessie and they scandalized the family by doing things like drinking beer. They ended up moving to New Mexico — I’m assuming to get away from everyone else. Did they lead me grandfather astray? That’s a romantic theory. Everyone worshipped Virgil and Silla — my grandfather no less. But as I wrote about in this earlier post, my grandfaher, who had a good job at the Alabama Power Company (in the height of the depression) was discharged for drinking whiskey on the job.

I’m not sure if this happened before or after Virgil died. (He died of pneumonia in 1938. It is said that he caught it while supervising the digging of the grave of his father-in-law Green Hale). At any rate, there was clearly no sympathy from the family for my grandfather. He was thrown into abject poverty, becoming a tenant farmer (a sharecropper), raising cotton under starvation conditions. Living with his brood (including my father) in a leaky shack. (Read more about that here).

I find the tale instructive, and as I said at the top of this post, illustrative. As I’ve sifted through hundreds of lives, scores of generations, it’s a common thing to find quite wealthy and powerful people, even aristocracy…followed only a couple of generations later by ignorant, illiterate peasants who don’t even know where they came from. There are many ways that can happen. This is one of them. My text for today.

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