Archive for December, 2015

A New Year’s Message from Trav S.D.

Posted in ME, My Shows, New Year's Eve with tags , , on December 31, 2015 by travsd

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:

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January 2015, at the Algonquin Hotel with Kevin Fitzpatrick for his new book launch

 

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In January, I appeared on the Halli-Casser Jayne Show to talk about the great Sophie Tucker. Hear that broadcast here. 

 

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Mark St. Cyr, Everett Quinton and Molly Pope in “Horse Play”

In February and March: the all star production of my play Horse Play, or The Fickle Mistress, produced by Theatre Askew at La Mama. The New York Times covered it here and here.

 

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In March I played P.T.Barnum in my adaptation of his The Art of Money Gettingdesigned and directed by Carolyn Raship, in UTC #61’s Money Lab at HERE Arts Center. 

 

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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

 

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“A House Divided” illustration by Carolyn Raship

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. 

 

with Penny Arcade, after her performance of "Longing Lasts Longer" at Joe's Pub

May: with Penny Arcade, after her performance of “Longing Lasts Longer” at Joe’s Pub

 

The Fields Fest Committee, including two of W.C. Fields grand kids, Harriet and Ronald

With the Fields Fest Committee, including two of W.C. Fields‘ grand kids, Harriet and Ronald

June: 100th anniversary of W.C. Fields debut in the Ziegfeld Follies.

 

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In July: My blog Travalanche passed one million page views

 

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Late July-early August: shot my scenes in the horror movie The Moose Head Over the Mantel, soon to be released by Inappropriate Films!

 

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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.

 

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In September, I shot my scenes in Derek Davidson’s short film Moving Pictures. Coming soon!

 

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September: consulted on The Striptease, Jonny Porkpie’s burlesque silent movie tribute at The Slipper Room

 

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October: I appeared on Jim Melloan’s Truth and Freedom Show on Brooklyn Free Radio. Listen to it here. 

 

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November: Holding Court at Mardi Gras World in New Orleans

 

December: with Molly Crabapple, at the launch for her new book "Drawing Blood"

December: with Molly Crabapple, at the launch for her new book “Drawing Blood”

 

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: 

January: The launch of my new web site; and my appearance on Jennifer Harder’s radio show on Brooklyn Free Radio

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

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May 28 through July 3: our hit NYC Fringe revival of the Marx Brothers’ I’ll Say She Is returns for a new full length run at at the Connelly Theatre! Get all the details here. 

And more! more! more! Thanks for making 2015 possible! And thanks for making 2016 possible too! Have a great New Year!

I remain, yours,

 

Trav S.D.

Stars of Vaudeville #933: Mike “King” Kelly

Posted in Comedy, Irish, Sport & Recreation, Stand Up, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on December 31, 2015 by travsd

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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 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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All Day Tomorrow on TCM: The Marx Brothers

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Movies, PLUGS with tags , , , on December 30, 2015 by travsd

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:

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8:15am (EST) The Cocoanuts (1929)

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10:00am (EST) A Day at the Races (1937)

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12:00pm (EST) A Night at the Opera (1935)

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2:00pm (EST) Animal Crackers (1930)

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4:00pm (EST) Monkey Business (1931)

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5:30pm (EST) Horse Feathers (1932)

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6:45pm (EST) Duck Soup (1933)

One Reason (Among Dozens) I’ll Always Love “Medium Cool”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, OBITS with tags , , , , on December 28, 2015 by travsd

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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.

Forgotten Shows of My Nonage #89: The Harlem Globetrotters Cartoon

Posted in Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, OBITS, Sport & Recreation, Television with tags , , , , , , on December 28, 2015 by travsd

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The sad passing of Meadowlark Lemon prompts this post, of course.

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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:

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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.

Tomorrow: “A Night at the Opera” and “Gold Diggers of 1933”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , on December 26, 2015 by travsd

Tomorrow morning, Turner Classic Movies presents two classic musical films of the 1930s:

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6:00am (EST): A Night at the Opera (1935)

A Night at the Opera usually presents a bit of a problem for most hardcore Marx Brothers fans. Why? Because it is extremely good. And yet it is good at the expense of the Marx Brothers. People who cite it as their favorite Marx Brothers film tend to be movie buffs or lovers of musicals but not Marx Brothers fans per se. If backed into a corner, I would have to concede that it is their best movie (best constructed, most crowd pleasing among general audiences), but not my favorite one.

That’s a strange and rare thing to have to say, but then the Marx Brothers are unlike almost any other movie stars. Their modus operandi had always been contrariness, anarchy, exploding conventions and conventionality with TNT. But after Duck SoupParamount and the Marx Brothers parted ways, forcing the team to seek a new home and a new situation. They found one at the most prestigious studio of the 1930s, MGM, and they found themselves in a direct working relation with production head “boy genius” Irving Thalberg. It was Thalberg who talked them into a new formula in an attempt to increase audiences (in affect, adding the factions of the population that didn’t care for crazy comedy) by beefing up the romantic sub-plot, making the Marx Brothers’ characters somewhat more realistic, and integrating them into the plot, giving them motivations, feelings, and points of view.

Anyone with any understanding of what is unique, special, interesting and in the long run successful about the Marx Brothers is that they are ABOVE and AGAINST those conventions. What they do best is skate along the top of a plot and shoot holes in it with both barrels. They are magnificent wild beasts. Now Thalberg would begin the process of taming them.  The Marx Bros have been enlisted in the service of the status quo. They have been domesticated. The revolt is over.

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Case in point: an opera house is indeed a good place to set the Marx Brothers loose, and, granted, the film is not without their patented irreverence. Groucho complains when a taxi driver gets him too close to the opera, because he “almost heard” it. And the three brothers’ disruption of a production of Il Trovatore at the climax is not just exhilarating, but one of the classic scenes in all comedy film. In this scene they do at an opera what they had done at a football game in Horse Feathers. Yet, the movie overall undermines the undermining, essentially taking the stance ultimately that we ought to care about the institution of opera and the two young aspiring opera singers who are our romantic leads, Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle. In other words, the sort of dangerous critique (or at least the disrespect of authority—including the very form of the musical they are in) that had been the voice of the Marx Brothers in all their Paramount comedies is now gone. The Marx Brothers have sold out and become the enemy.

Most ominously, the film begins the process of de-fanging Groucho. In previous films, his diatribes were breath-taking and unanswerable. When he has the floor, others are essentially powerless. Usually, Margaret Dumont and the other characters would stand there politely, dazed, uncomprehending with stupid smiles on their faces while Groucho insulted them. Sometimes they would vaguely get the idea that they were being put down and utter a lame protest, but not in such a way that Groucho could ever be derailed. But starting with A Night at the Opera, Groucho would be of lowly status. Here he is a  shady, fly-by-night talent agent whose influence over Margaret Dumont’s philanthropist is always precarious and threatened by a rival (Sig Ruman). His insults are now acknowledged and countered, and worse — suffered through. When Groucho talks, everyone around him is irritated. They sigh and make faces. At one point in the film, the door is barred to Groucho and he is thrown down the stairs. UNACCEPTABLE! The theory, I imagine, is that he is our hero and we are to feel sympathy for him. But that’s not how it works. If we are going to begin to regard this character logically as a human being, why would we feel sympathy for him? He is a swindler and a rogue. If he is an unsuccessful one, all the more contemptible. No, we must never go down this road. Besides, Groucho’s motivation is never mere money. If anything (if we must reduce the least rational force on earth to logic) his motivation is power, the power that comes from the joy of gaslighting and confounding everyone. Somebody whose motivation is money-grubbing is not a hero, but a villain. (But I imagine Hollywood producers might not look at life that way. Hence…so much that is so very wrong…)

Still there is quite a lot of the old Marx Brothers in the script, partly because no one could yet bear to part with their old voices, and partly because the authors were Kaufman and Ryskind, authors of their foundation vehicles The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, with uncredited contributions by the legendary Al Boasberg. Everyone loves the opening scene in the restaurant where we first meet Driftwood (Groucho) and Mrs. Claypool (Dumont). They love the “sanity clause” scene between Groucho and Chico. I love the bit where Chico and Harpo, disguised as famous aviators in long joke-shop beards are forced to give a radio speech. And as I said, the final scene of the film is absolutely wonderful.

I have never been a fan of the allegedly hilarious stateroom sequence, perhaps the most famous scene in the film. It doesn’t work at all for me. In this scene, the world is crazier the Marx Brothers are: all they do is react sarcastically to something that is happening to them. Filling a room to the ceiling with innocent strangers is something the Marx Brothers are supposed to do to OTHER people.

You’ve heard me be hard on it, but the reality is this film grows on me all the time. It helps to try to watch it as that theoretical “movie buff” or “musicals fan” and take a broader view. The film is visually much more beautiful to look at than any of their Paramounts, and the music is admittedly wonderful — I never think of this movie without thinking of the music, not just the opera excerpts but the popular songs like “Alone” (by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown) and “Cosi Cosa”. And yet…we miss the lack of Kalmar and Ruby. Where’s a crazy song for Groucho? The absence is felt…and most symbolic. While I can’t bring myself to care about the young lovers or their career aspirations, there are those several classic comedy scenes to redeem A Night at the Opera

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8:00am (EST) Gold Diggers of 1933

Is it possible for a movie to be more pleasurable than this one? I can think of a few ties, but more than this? I can’t imagine it. Sequel to the now lost Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929), co-directed by Mervyn Leroy and Busby Berkley (musical numbers), and produced by Warner Brothers in much the same style as 42nd Street, which had been released just a couple of months earlier, and with much of the same cast (Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Ned Sparks, Ginger Rogers, and Guy Kibee). Sparks plays a producer who needs cash to put on a musical about the Depression (1933 was the very worst year of that worldwide financial disaster). Songwriter and juvenile Powell turns out to be a Boston Blueblood and underwrites the show — which (thanks to Berkley’s amazing staging) turns out to better than anyone’s wildest fantasies of a live stage show could ever be. Unfortunately Powell’s conservative brother and trustee (Warren William) and family lawyer (Kibee) want to break up his romance with Keeler. As they try to do so, gold-diggers Joan Blondell and Aline McMahon kick into action and eventually get both fuddy duddies to marry them. And a pre-Astaire Ginger Rogers is yet another gold digger. Happy ending, roll credits.

Don’t stop and think about it — it’ll spoil the picture! There’s ugliness underneath the beauty. On the whole it’s the sort of plot I might hate if not for the visual and verbal 1930s charm. After all, there are unpleasant names for girls who manipulate men for their money. Oh yeah! “Gold Digger” is one of them! But somehow when these gold diggers say it and do it it doesn’t seem so bad. After all, it’s the Depression and a girl’s gotta eat. And the guys are smiling, aren’t they? “We’re in the Money”, indeed.

Century of Slapstick #96: A Submarine Pirate

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on December 26, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the Syd Chaplin  comedy A Submarine Pirate (1915).

A major hit in its day and still one of the the best known comedies of its star Syd Chaplin (Charlie’s brother) who made it for Mack Sennett shortly after Charlie himself had gone over to Esssanay. It was Sennett’s biggest hot of the year. Very topical stuff in its day (the World War One era). Syd’s a waiter who overhears an inventor’s plan to use a submarine to get to an undersea treasure. He disguises himself as an admiral and worms his way into the expedition.

For more on comedy 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 etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500To 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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