Archive for December, 2015
Happy New Year! (in a few hours).
Below is my little pictorial recap of some high points from 2015, in the way of Thanksgiving to the Universe and to You. And below that some hints at our plans for 2016:
In January, I appeared on the Halli-Casser Jayne Show to talk about the great Sophie Tucker. Hear that broadcast here.
In April, Opera on Tap presented sections of The Curse of the Rat King, the opera I’ve written with composer David Malamud, at Barbes. Also in the program was work by David Cote, Robert Paterson, Edward Einhorn, Henry Akona and Avner Finberg
In April, I and an all-star downtown cast observed the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War by presenting sections of my play A House Divided at Dixon Place. Read all about it here.
June: 100th anniversary of W.C. Fields debut in the Ziegfeld Follies.
September: A short film I appeared in entitled Off-Road: The Continuing Adventures of Dorothy & Toto, was screened at the Coney Island Film Festival. The film was the brainchild of Michele Carlo and Laurence Desgaines.
In September, I shot my scenes in Derek Davidson’s short film Moving Pictures. Coming soon!
October: I appeared on Jim Melloan’s Truth and Freedom Show on Brooklyn Free Radio. Listen to it here.
November: Holding Court at Mardi Gras World in New Orleans
And while we’re on books: my own magnum opus No Applause, Just Throw Money, seems to be doing better than ever. Here are some pictorial fan tributes from far flung regions which we received this year:
WHAT’S ON THE DOCKET FOR 2016:
So many things! And much still being planned. But here are some things I can report:
- I’m beginning my artists’ residency at Coney Island USA. I’m still hammering out what my projects will be but know that vaudeville and ballyhoo are certain to be part of the recipe
- It is the 20th anniversary of the launching of my theatre company Mountebanks and the American Vaudeville Theatre. Look for a series of new vaudeville shows, time and place TBA!
- New books and other projects in the works! Stay tuned for announcements!
And these items on the calendar:
February 29: “Night of a Thousand Vaudevillians”: The second birthday of Travalanche (actually it’s the 8th birthday–Travalanche is a Leap Year Baby! That’s why the birthday is so special). Time and place TBA.
March 4-6: Trav appears at the Southern Sideshow Hootenanny, New Orleans
April: Trav S.D. in the UK?! (stay tuned!)
May 14: Trav S.D. weds the Mad Marchioness — at Coney Island
And more! more! more! Thanks for making 2015 possible! And thanks for making 2016 possible too! Have a great New Year!
I remain, yours,
Today is the birthday of Mike “King” Kelly (1857-1894).
Irish-American Kelly was one of the first sports stars to go on the vaudeville stage. Baseball right fielder, catcher and manager Kelly played for the Cincinnati Reds, the Chicago White Stockings, the Boston Beaneaters, the Boston Reds, the New York Giants, and Cincinnati Kelly’s Killers. Kelly first went on the vaudeville stage with the encouragement of Nat Goodwin when he was playing for various Boston teams in the late 1880s. Billed as “King Kelly, the Monarch of the Baseball Field”, he would make his appearance in ill-fitting, mismatched clothes. Critics and audiences praised him as a natural comedian. One of his acts was to recite a butchered version of “Casey at the Bat”.
In fact, vaudeville may be said to have been responsible for Kelly’s early death at age 36. He caught pneumonia while traveling by ferry to an engagement at the Imperial Theatre in Boston with the Gaiety Girls in November, 1894. But he lives on in the 1889 tin pan alley song about him “Slide, Kelly, Slide”. And there was a 1927 silent comedy film based on the song, directed by Eddie Sedgwick.
To learn more about vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
I knew TCM wouldn’t let me down! Tomorrow, they close out 2015 in the best way possible: a day of Marx Brothers films. (Followed by a Thin Man marathon, but you know where our heart lies). Just click on the links below for our essay on each film:
8:15am (EST) The Cocoanuts (1929)
10:00am (EST) A Day at the Races (1937)
12:00pm (EST) A Night at the Opera (1935)
2:00pm (EST) Animal Crackers (1930)
4:00pm (EST) Monkey Business (1931)
5:30pm (EST) Horse Feathers (1932)
6:45pm (EST) Duck Soup (1933)
The great cinematographer Haskell Wexler died yesterday at age 93. There will be a million appreciations of him today; I just thought I’d tip my hat to him about something quite small and personal.
Wexler shot dozens of classic and award-winning films, of course, but he may be best admired for the fictional film he directed in 1968, Medium Cool. Like most other film students, I was introduced to this sui generis artifact as part of my school curriculum at NYU. There are many ways to slice it up, many ways to admire it — aesthetically, politically, philosophically, culturally, technologically, historically. The latter aspect is one I especially love to sink my teeth into. Most people probably remember the film’s most obvious story element: the Chicago news reporter (Robert Forster) and the actual riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention. But then there’s a sub-plot…a young lady from West Virginia, played by Verna Bloom (today best remembered as Dean Wormer’s sexy wife in Animal House) and her little boy. The sophisticated big city reporter meets and romances this hillbilly lady and her semi-feral son, who later get entangled in all the chaos in the streets. It’s eloquent: the old America drowning in the new reality. But what I’ve always cherished about it is that the experience is very close to my family’s, and various scenes in the film ring familiar to me. My dad’s family were from the hills of Tennessee and came north with the post-war Great Migration. That huge movement of humans is normally written about in terms of the black experience — so many of our great musicians, for example, were part of the northern migration. But poor whites went north looking for work as well, and this might be the only time I’ve seen that aspect represented in a major film. The boy and her son are fish out of water in the north (much as my dad’s family were), and Medium Cool shows the awkwardness of the transplantation in many subtle little ways. It’s an odd thing to have chosen to have put in his film — I’d like to know what inspired it. But it’s always caused me to form a strong personal bond with a film that would have dazzled me anyway.
The sad passing of Meadowlark Lemon prompts this post, of course.
Meadowlark has easily got to be my first black hero, as I’m sure he was for millions of others of kids, and it was largely by virtue of the Hanna-Barbara Saturday morning cartoon show based on the legendary comedy basketball team The Harlem Globetrotters, of whom he was the star at the time. The show ran two years, from September 1970 through September 1972. It followed the trend of making Saturday morning cartoons out of EVERYBODY (The Three Stooges and the Beatles are other examples) and ran at the same time as some of my other favorite cartoons, such as Scooby Doo and Josie and the Pussycats, and other favorite live actions shows such as Lancelot Link Secret Chimp, Hot Dog, H.R. Pufnstuf and Lidsville. Those were heady times. We also loved to watch the ACTUAL Harlem Globetrotters on TV, accompanied of course by their theme song, a whistled version of my grandmother’s favorite song “Sweet Georgia Brown”.
The stars of the cartoon were Meadowlark and Curly Neal, their bus driver Granny and their dog Dribbles. Little did I know at the time that Meadowlark was voiced not by the actual Meadowlark, but legendary character actor Scatman Crothers. Another famous voice on the show was none other than the great Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, who played Bobby Joe Mason. At any rate, the show was groundbreaking for having an all-black cast, even if they were cartoons. And it was definitely my first introduction to the neighborhood Harlem, strange as that may be. (In time I learned that that historic neighborhood has much more going for it than comedy basketball).
I also had a coloring book based on this show — I must have liked it a lot. And I distinctly remember trying to do all the tricks the guys did on the show, such as this one:
To this day, I’m bored by any and all sports that don’t put comedy front and center, which is, like, all of them.
Rest in Peace, Meadowlark. That sure is a good name for an angel.
Another chunk of my family history clicked into place the other day, and it’s quite possible that I am close to the solution to a mystery. This gave me nice things to think about at Christmas; and today seemed a quiet, unobtrusive day on which to share it.
My family tree has filled out by leaps and bounds in the past year. I’ve followed some of the lines as far back as late Rome! But as we wrote about here and here the vexing mystery has continued to be my own patrineal line which vanishes into a mist around the year 1800. My great-great-great grandfather (William) Campbell Stewart was born in Tennessee around that time. The area was frontier then, only recently a state, and several fires subsequently destroyed records of the period. I’d hoped a DNA test I took a few months ago would provide clues. It actually provided many — but about other aspects of my background. But it wasn’t the type of test that can help with this particular question. In a few weeks I’m going to get a Y-DNA that looks specifically at paternal ancestry. If I can find common DNA with people who know their Stewart origins farther back in time, it’ll help me fill in the gaps.
But in the meantime, I have been impatient, and have sought to get closer to an answer from the facts that are available. A few days ago I thought I would see what clues I could get by looking at Campbell Stewart’s wife’s family, the Hales, which I know tons about. I’d done a little preliminary work on this before. For example, I thought zeroing in on the geography of the Hales could possibly be illuminating respecting that of the Stewarts. After all, for Campbell Stewart to meet and fall in love with Mary Hannah Hale, they had to have been in the same place, making it likely that their families were also in the same place. These Hales, originally from Baltimore, had been among the earliest pioneer settlers of Tennessee, going back to the 1770s.
I also knew that one or two of these Hales had been preachers. So I began to look at this angle. If a couple of Hales were religious to this extent, they probably all were — and so might be the families with whom they intermarried. And to my surprise, this avenue of exploration proved to be a bonanza. The Hales and their in-laws turned out to be pivotal religious figures in the area — they not only started the first Baptist churches in the region, they started the first churches in the region of any sort. In fact, they’re even all profiled in this book:
My great-great-great grandmother’s family seem to be at the hub of the religious foundations of the region (and other political and cultural foundations as well). Her brother Reverend Jeremiah Hale was the second Pastor at the Buffalo Creek Baptist Church (see below). He married a niece of Joseph Crouch, one of the founders of the church. Their sister Nancy Hale married a son of Reverend Caleb Witt, another founder and spiritual leader of the church (and more besides). And their brother James Franklin Hale married a daughter of Reverend Ephraim Moore, yet another of the church founders and leaders. Furthermore three of Jeremiah’s sons (Henry, Jesse, and Jeremiah) became notable southern preachers, as did two of James’s (Patrick Henry Clay Hale, and James Franklin Hale, Jr. They’re all profiled in this book.
So…I begin to think it at the very least probable that my great great great grandmother Mary Hannah Hale married someone from the same church. She either did that, or she’s a black sheep. And black sheep are by definition rare. So I have something to go on. And I actually have two very good (logical, at least) candidates for Campbell Stewart’s father, based on these clues.
And it’s all tied with a historical movement, one I hadn’t given much consideration to before, and one which begins to give my dad’s family the same sort of thematic shape that my mom’s has, which is kind of thrilling. Further, I discovered a sort of intellectual link between these two very different American religious cultures (Puritan New England and the Evangelical South) that helps illuminate American history for me. After all — Roger Williams of Rhode Island is considered the Founder of the Baptists. But I’ve never had a clear picture how we get from him (a New England Puritan, though a rebellious and independent one) to modern Baptists, who seem very different.
A pivotal figure in this shift is a gentleman by the name of Shubal Stearns (1706-1771). Stearns actually came from my mother’s part of the country, Eastern Connecticut, and was raised in the same faith as the Puritans, Congregationalism. Then, like so many at the time, he heard George Whitefield preach and became swept up in the “New Light” movement, also known as the Second Great Awakening. Stearns adopted many of Whitefield’s ideas, became a Baptist minister, and moved to Virginia and began to preach. This seems a pivotal moment to me; almost like the passing of a torch. New England remained religious, of course. But the FERVOR the Puritans had — that seems to have moved South and West.
Not so successful on the east coast, he moved inland, to Sandy Creek, North Carolina, where a large congregation grew. This Sandy Creek congregation is considered the Mother Church of the Southern Baptists. In 1771, two events (the Battle of Alamance, and the death of Stearns) combined to cause a mass Exodus of the Sandy Creek Congregation westward into what was to become Tennessee. The Battle of Alamance was a tax revolt, which some consider to be among the first stirrings of the American Revolution. The rebels essentially lost. One of these rebels, one James Stewart, was condemned for treason but pardoned.
There are one or more James Stewarts (or Stuarts) running round the Tennessee frontier from a very early date. That is to say, there are several references to men by this name but it’s hard to tell if it’s all the same man. But a man or men by this name was/were among the earliest settlers, and I make him Candidate #1 for my great-great-great-great grandfather. Some of the references: A “Captain” James Stewart or Stuart, surveyor, arrived in the area that is now Jonesborough, Tennessee sometime after 1768. His log cabin became the first tavern and inn in the area, and was named “Buckhorn” . The city of Jonesborough was officially founded in 1779. A surveyor named James Stuart is said to have been one of those who laid out the town, and was one of the first to buy land lots. My (5th) great grandfathers Robert Allison and John Hale (grandfather of Mary Hannah, Jeremiah, Nancy and James, mentioned above) and their families were also among those who settled the area at this early date, and there are court records from the region that mention a James Stuart along with Joseph Crouch and Caleb Witt, mentioned above). A James Stewart was one of the “Overmountain Men” at the Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780, along with John Hale, Robert Allison and Tidence Lane (another of the founders of the same church with Crouch and Witt. My 6th great uncle Nicholas Hale married his sister). James Stuart and Robert Allison were among those who set up the first law court in Jonesborough in 1787. And the following year, when another court was set up (there was much municipal confusion at the time, as there were several attempts to found a new state) James Stuart and Joseph Crouch were among the magistrates. (Crouch was also sheriff; he worked with Judge Andrew Jackson in that capacity for a few months). There are land grants for a man or men named James Stuart or Stewart in the region in 1782, 1784 and 1786. A grist mill was built on his property. And a James Stuart represented Washington County in the new state senate when it opened in 1796, and served as its Speaker from 1796-1799.
It’s the linking of this James Stewart with so many of my documented relatives which makes him a tempting candidate. But there is no document or even a reference that associates this man with my great-great-great grandfather. The only (possible) link of any sort is that my relative is named William Campbell Stewart, and General William Campbell was a hero of the Battle of King’s Mountain, in which James Stewart/Stuart fought.
But one aspect that troubles me about this admittedly promising avenue, is that it veers away from the premise we started with, the religious theory. The link here is the Battle of Alamance, and geography. While this James Stewart seems much involved with these other pioneer founders, I haven’t come across him in a religious context at all. And when I follow the churches, I find another Stewart, and he too seems another strong possibility.
Somewhere around 1779, some folks from the former Sandy Creek Congregation founded the Buffalo Ridge Baptist Church near Jonesborough. Among the founders were the above-mentioned Tidence Lane (the original pastor), Joseph Crouch, and Reverend Jonathan Mulkey (for whom another relative by marriage, Jonathan Mulkey Crouch is named). In 1785, Tidence Lane moved a little farther west and organized Bent Creek Church near Whitesburg in what was then Jefferson County. It was a log church, and was used for about a century. The above mentioned Caleb Witt became the pastor of Bent Creek after Tidence Lane died. Caleb and his brother Elijah had served in North Carolina in the Revolution under William Campbell. Those two and a third brother named Joseph were among first settlers in the area around Bent Creek. They started a foundry and machine shop; the area became known as Witt’s Foundry.
One of the members of Bent Creek Baptist Church was one Joseph Stewart. Born in Augusta County Virginia, he grew a large family in North Carolina, then moved them all to Washington County (later Tennessee) around 1779-1780. He lived there for three years, then moved to the Jefferson County and lived there from 1784 through at least 1796. Then, around 1800 he moved the family farther west to what was then Jackson County (later Overton County), where he became one of the founders of the Roaring River Baptist Church. (Overton County was named after Judge John Overton, a colleague of Andrew Jackson’s during his law days, and a relative by marriage).
A couple of Joseph’s sons became preachers. One of them was Benjamin Stewart, described as a preacher, farmer and surveyor. He was affiliated with the Roaring River Baptist Church as well as the Spring Creek Baptist Church, where he is mentioned many times in the minutes. Benjamin was said to have had twelve children, none of whose names are known. So he is Candidate #2 for Great-Great-Great-Great Grandpa. A few reasons I like him as the possible father of my ancestor: 1) the obvious religious connection; 2) he lived in Jefferson County, where the Hales had also moved, providing opportunity for a son of his to meet a Hale lass; 3) there is less “polish” here. William Campbell Stewart was illiterate. Whereas at least one of the James Stuarts appears to have been a lawyer (founded the court, is on many legal documents, and was in the state assembly), Benjamin Stewart was merely a preacher and a farmer and had a large brood of children. I find it more likely that he would have an illiterate child than that James Stuart would; and 4) For a time, Benjamin Stewart (and his brother) owned and worked land in Bledsoe County, Tennessee, which is further south and much closer to Lincoln County, where William Campbell Stewart eventually started his farm and raised a family.
These Stewarts don’t seem to have a connection to King’s Mountain or General William Campbell, but I decided that that’s a red herring anyway. William Campbell was a famous regional hero. Thus anyone at all might be inspired to name a child after him. It was an extremely common practice at the time. I have found scores of people in my family named after famous politicians and generals with whom they had no apparent connection other than admiration. Thus my family needn’t have served with Campbell at all (And even so? Benjamin Stewart’s first wife was named Sarah Davis — and many Davises fought in the Battle of King’s Mountain. Hedging my bets).
I’ve been drawn to this branch of the Stewart family for a long time. The founder of this particular American dynasty, Dr. John Stewart was married to the grand-daughter of the first Italian American — a Venetian, no less, which would make my carnivale and commedia loving heart leap for joy . And it would also make me related to General A.P. Stewart, another of his descendants.
Also intriguing though is the fact that at least one James Stuart (possibly the one who served in the state House) came from Augusta County, Virginia, the same place as Joseph Stewart’s family. It may be that they are ALL related (as I believe they are anyway deep in the middle ages). But as I say, I’m hoping the Y-DNA will shed some light.
Anyway, a little religious history for your Sunday.
ADDENDUM: March 21, 2016
I do believe I’ve finally solved this. It is not Benjamin Stewart who is William Campbell Stewart’s father, but John Stewart, his older brother. Months of going over and over this until names are retained in my head have paid off. Here’s the deal: John Stewart married one Margaret Copeland and that’s the name that paid off. The man who LED the settlement of the aforementioned Overton County area, and another key founder of the Roaring River Baptist Church was a man Stephen Calvin Copeland. Colonel Copeland fought in the Revolution as well as the War of 1812 (including the Creek War), which plays a role in solving this puzzle I believe.
A sister of Copeland’s named Mary married a gentleman named William Campbell Allen (1772-1859), who also went on to serve in the War of 1812/ Creek War. I believe that my great-great-great-grandfather is named after him and/or both are named after the Revolutionary War general.
I can’t find record of her yet (beyond the mention of her in someone’s family tree), but I believe Margaret Copeland is the cousin of these two Copeland siblings. More clues: Margaret Copeland’s mother, Sarah Ann Bilbrey, is the sister of my (4th) great grandfather Nathaniel Bilbrey. It was common for families to intermarry and migrate together in this way, so that really cemented it for me. Also, William Campbell Stewart named his first son “William Carroll Stewart” after William Carroll, whom like, Stephen Copeland was a regimental colonel from the area who led troops in the War of 1812 and the Creek War. “John Stewart” is listed in the muster roles of these battles (Benjamin,mentioned above, isn’t). The troops mustered out from Fayetteville, the area where William Campbell Stewart raised his family (and where many in the family remain to this day). And lastly, Campbell Stewart named his second son “James Calvin Stewart”. Calvin is also Stephen Copeland’s middle name. Also, in 1766 Joseph’s father Samuel Stewart sold his land in Virginia (before moving to North Carolina and then Tennessee) to a David Copeland. Back then families stayed together over many generations, intermarried, etc. I’ll continue to work to nail down the details, but I really do believe I have found it.
SECOND ADDENDUM: February 22, 2017
I have been working a bit on trying to sort out how my various ancestors came to Fayetteville, where they converged and stayed for several generations. In addition to the Stewarts other key names from my family tree who figure there are Patrick, Locker, Gray, Copeland, Campbell and Howell. They all seemed linked to another name, Koonce (with many variants in spelling), which is not in my family tree, but seems to be linked to everybody else. In the same area right near where my father spent his childhood, there is a Stewart Creek and a Stewart (Creek) Cemetery, Koonce Lane, Locker Spring, Howell Hill Road, Grays Lane, and a John Campbell Road.
Koonce Lane bisects Stewart Creek just south of Fayetteville. Seeing that on the map, I recalled having seen the name Koonce elsewhere in connection with early Tennessee Baptists. In the History of the Roaring River Baptist Church (see above), we see many of the names we’ve mentioned: Joseph Stewart (as well as Benjamin, Samuel et al), Stephen Copeland ( as well as John, James, etc), numerous Bilbreys, as well as one Jacob Coons. Several Koonces seems to figure in early Tennessee Baptist History. Christopher and Polly Koonce arrived in Tennessee around 1797, and held services at what became known as as Koonce’s Meeting House which later became Big Cedar Lick Church, which later became Mt. Olivet. Their progeny went on to found churches as far away as Texas.
In Fayetteville we come upon this information: in 1810 a man named Philip Koonce donated an acre of land for a church, near where Stewart Creek branches off of the Elk River. This same Philip Koonce appears on the same page of the 1830 and 1830 Fayetteville censuses as Elias Patrick, my (4th) great grandfather. (Elias’s granddaughter Margaret married James Calvin Stewart; they’re my great-great grandparents). (Interestingly the 1820 cenus spells the name “Coonce”, which is closer to the spelling in the History of the Roaring River Baptist Church). The church on the Koonce land was near land owned by Riley Gray and was remembered by a Mrs. Fenton Locker around 40 years later (again, these are all surnames in my family tree). The church was called Stewart Creek Baptist Church and sometimes Stewart Creek Meeting House. Nearby, as we said, is Stewart Creek Cemetery, presumably connected with the congregation. My (2nd) great aunt Mattie Stewart (1879-1896) is buried there, as are numerous Koonces, Patricks, Nichols, Poseys, and Lands (other relations). Interestingly, Mattie is the only one of my historic kin who is recorded as having been interred there. Her brother, my great-grandfather Virgil is elsewhere as are his siblings. Virgil is buried in Hunstville; most of his siblings are in newer, more modern cemeteries. My guess is that some of my older Stewarts are buried at Stewart Creek, but went unmarked and unrecorded. The earliest Baptist churches in the area where informal, with farmers acting as part time preachers. I came across a very snobbish rendering of the “first” Baptist church in Fayetteville in 1881. This of course, the first official one, using the resources and staff of the official organization. Complicating matters, there were schisms in the 19th century, with early churches splitting off from each other over matters of doctrine. The evidence is that my people were “Primitive”, “Foot Washing” Baptists, probably disreputable to old school mainline religionists. At any rate, while I may never come across definitive documentary proof that this is the story, I think I have enough clues to support my conclusions of a deductive basis.