Archive for January, 2016

Jules Bledsoe

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Classical, Music, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2016 by travsd

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Jules Bledsoe (Julius Lorenzo Cobb Bledsoe, 1897-1943), was an operatic baritone, one of the first African Americans to gain acclaim on the American stage. Much like Paul Robeson, in addition to having been a trained singer, he was also distinguished academically in other subjects. He was his class valedictorian at Bishop College in 1918; he studied medicine at Columbia University from 1920 to 1924. Sol Hurok presented him in his first professional concert at Aeolian Hall in 1924. While he went on to star in operas like Aida and Boris Godunov, he is best known for having been the first “Joe” in the original 1927 production of Show Boat. Like many big stars of the 20s, he also played big time vaudeville, including the Palace.

To learn more about  old school show biz especially 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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This Kid Loves “Chain of Fools” — You Will, Too!

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, ME with tags , on January 31, 2016 by travsd

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A reader sent me this picture today, and it made my day. It seems to symbolize where I am at the moment. It’s a New Year, I’m starting my second half-century, getting married soon, just started a new phase of my working life at Coney Island USA and NYC Community Media, am launching a new official web site this week (thanks, Noah Diamond!), my youngest son is about to start college, and the older one is about to begin his life as an adult. That’s a lot of change — a little scary, but mostly just kind of thrilling, much like the roller coaster metaphor we often use to describe life. Anyway babies are symbols of optimism. And babies who are smart enough to read my books make me most hopeful of all. This isn’t my kid but I may need to carry this picture around.

At any rate, if you haven’t already bought and read Chain of Foolsyou really ought to be ashamed of yourself, being outclassed by an infant. Catch up with the child here. 

Sam Hague: Pioneer Producer of African Americans on Stage

Posted in African American Interest, Impresarios with tags , , , , on January 31, 2016 by travsd
Identified as Sam Hague on the wonderful "Minstrel Banjo" web site

Identified as Sam Hague on the wonderful “Minstrel Banjo” web site (click for link)

Sam Hague (1828-1901), was one of the first impresarios to present African American performers onstage in the United States. A native of Sheffield, England, Hague started out as a clog dancer. He embarked on his first tour of the U.S. with his performing brothers Thomas and William in 1850. Tim Hayes was one of the people he performed with early in his career. He first toured the U.S. with conventional (whites in blackface**) minstrel companies under the Hague banner. In 1866 he premiered his revolutionary creation, Sam Hague’s Slave Troupe of Georgia Minstrels, featuring actual African American performers (and a somewhat unfortunate name). He brought the troupe to England to build up its reputation and to prove the efficacy of the proposition before bringing the company before American audiences. His black and racially mixed casts did prove successful and were emulated by later competitors like George Primrose and Billy West. Hague’s company was bought by Charles Callender. 

To learn more about old school show biz including minstrelsyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

Who’s This “Zit” When He’s at Home?

Posted in Broadway, Jews/ Show Biz, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Charles F. “Zit” Zittel (1877- 1943) Long forgotten today, during the vaudeville era, Zit was thought of as one of the principal competitors of Variety.

Around 1907 Zit launched a vaudeville column in the New York Evening Telegram called “Hitting Headliners on the Head”, which later went over to the Evening Mail and then the New York Evening Journal, a Hearst paper. One of the distinctive features of his column was a “racing chart” modeled on those used at the track for horse races, showing the standings for the top vaudevillians. He was also known for reporting only positive aspects of any show he saw. He didn’t believe in negative reviews. Undoubtedly this was a factor in one of his other notable accomplishments: being a pioneer in theatrical advertising.

Zit’s first publishing venture had been Golf magazine. In 1920, he founded Zit’s Weekly, his all show biz paper, for which he remains best known today, mostly because of it’s unusual name. When vaudeville died in the early ’30s, the paper (much like Variety) concentrated on radio and movies.

Zit also dabbled in show business himself. He had tried his hand at acting in small roles in Henry E. Dixey productions, like Adonis. He contributed some songs to the 1910 Broadway show The Yankee Girl. He was Eva Tanguay’s first manager, often credited with her success. And he also experimented with motion picture exhibition early his career, showing silent pictures in department store chains.  In the 1920 he was one of the owners of the Central Park Casino, now known as Tavern on the Green.

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. And 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

Paul Newman: The Westerns

Posted in Hollywood (History), Westerns with tags , , on January 26, 2016 by travsd

Today is the birthday of baby-blue eyed, Method acting, cinematic charmer Paul Newman (1925-2008). We thought we would mark the day with a look at several of his western pictures:

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The Left Handed Gun (1958) 

Arthur Penn’s directorial debut, shot with all the gloomy seriousness of late 50s black and white.  Newman plays a very “methody” (i.e. Strasbergian) Billy the Kid.  He’s sort of a moody misunderstood youth — Hamlet with more resolve.  Having been in some trouble in Texas (shot some guys for insulting his mother!) he takes up with a cow punching outfit outside Lincoln, New Mexico. His boss becomes a father figure. Doesn’t believe in guns, teaches him how to read. The surrogate father is assassinated by a quartet of crooks in the pay of a rival beef baron, one of whom is the sheriff. Billy makes it a point of hunting them down for revenge. Doing so takes him deeper and deeper into trouble. After killing a couple of them he goes into hiding for awhile, where he gets to become friends with Pat Garrett (John Dehner). At some point he violates a general amnesty by killing another of the guys, getting back into trouble. Then he alienates Garrett by killing the last one on his wedding day (and also despoiling the bride). Garrett becomes sheriff just to pursue him. Billy decides to go completely bad. In the end, he allows Garrett to shoot him just to end it all

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Hud (1962)

No, no, not the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development! A modern western, directed by Martin Ritt, based on a Larry McMurtry novel, adapted by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. (who also wrote The Cowboys, Hombre and other westerns). It stars Newman as the wild son of a rancher played by Melvin Douglas. Hud’s in his thirties and he works hard at the ranch, but he also womanizes (often with married women), drinks, fights, and otherwise stirs up hornet’s nests. When the herd comes down with hoof and mouth disease, Hud tries to convince his father to sell them before it is known for sure. Other characters include the sultry but shabby maid played by Patricia O’Neil and Hud’s well-behaved nephew, played by Brandon DeWilde, the kid from Shane. The film is unique in that Hud has very few redeeming qualities — and by the end of the picture he still hasn’t acquired any!

"Outrage" is right!

“Outrage” is right! Hey, buddy — which way to Chi Omega?

The Outrage (1964)

A remake of Rashomon starring Newman, Lawrence Harvey, Claire Bloom, William Shatner, Edward G. Robinson and Howard Da Silva. An arty, self conscious, New Wave inspired attempt to replicate the success of The Magnificent Seven (also based on Kurasawa), but this one cleaves too closely to he original. Shatner as as preacher and Da Silva as a prospector bump into con man Robinson and pass along testimony related by various other characters at a trial for a Mexican bandit. Each has a different pov on the same events. Newman in serious brown face in a pretty heinous portrayal of a dark skinned person — not his last. To wit:

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Hombre (1966)

Directed by Martin Ritt; Elmore Leonard wrote the novel on which it is based. It’s a progressive western with Paul Newman as an Apache halfbreed who has chosen the Native American lifestyle despite a white father of some power and importance. When we first meet him he has long hair and is rounding up wild horses. But then he learns his father has died and he has inherited a boarding house from him. He cleans up and dresses “white”, then takes an ill-fated stagecoach ride that has certain echoes of Stagecoach: a motley collection of folks, including  Martin Balsam as the stage driver (he makes a much more convincing Mexican than Eli Wallach — or Newman, for that matter), Frederick March as a snooty Federal Indian agent, his wife, a couple of young newlyweds, the landlady from the boarding house, and Richard Boone as a very suspicious individual. Unlike Stagecoach, however, here the enemy is not the Apache, but the whites. It turns out March has embezzled thousands from the tribe and he is running off with his booty. And it also turns out that Richard Boone is the leader of a gang of thieves. It ends up with all of the characters trapped in the desert, a bunch of shooting, and a boring standoff. In the end, Newman, whom the entire cast has pretty much dissed for being a lowly Indian, dies a heroic death rescuing the Indian agent’s wife. Somehow we don’t much care. The most compelling and entertaining character in the film is Boone, at his villainous best. He takes an almost sensuous pleasure in his villainy. But the film suffers from a rambling, talky, claustrophobic feeling , which is not surprising since Ritt came out of tv dramas.

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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) 

Directed by George Roy Hill. This is probably the western film I have watched more times than any other — perhaps a dozen times. It appealed to me a lot when I was younger but its limitations have become apparent to me, and now it seems more a triumph of style over substance. Why are these two guys our heroes? They are bank robbers, and – ? H’m. Well, they are funny and charming and they are nice to each other. Is that enough?

The film seems to take a page from Bonnie and Clyde, right down to the brutal end of the heroes we’ve come to love so well throughout the picture. But Bonnie and Clyde is more complex. In the latter film, we see circumstances draw them into their spree, the characters seem caught up in a whirlwind they cannot control. Further, there is this populist undercurrent. It is the Great Depression, Bonnie and Clyde are common people, and there is a certain Robin Hood aspect, they do odd little good deeds along the way.

By contrast, Butch (Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) seem to do their crimes because they are bored. Our regard for them seems the result of sleight of hand. Early on, there is a David and Goliath type scene where Butch takes on his gigantic henchman (Ted Cassidy) who is leading a mutiny. Butch fights dirty and secures his leadership of the gang. We like him because he is smart and he has bested a larger opponent. But he is still the leader of a gang of robbers.

Butch and Sundance also have a Jules et Jim style ménage a trois with a schoolteacher played by Kathryn Ross, who says at one point “There’s one thing I won’t do. I won’t watch you die.”  Which is typical of the dialogue in this film. William Goldman’s screenplay is a series of catchphrases strung together. The film is highly influential in this regard. It points the way to most modern action movies. The whole thing is done with smoke and mirrors and shorthand, but no real people. So the gang robs a couple of trains and gets the company mad at them. The company sends a relentless posse after them. A lengthy chase scene in which the boys are incapable of shaking the posse no matter how hard they try, repeatedly asking “Who are those guys?” until they are trapped on a cliff and take a spectacular fall into the gorge below. Then they flee to South America with Kathryn Ross in tow. After a brief period of boredom they become payroll guards and revert to becoming bank robbers again. Until the fatal day when they are trapped in a courtyard and fight it out to the death. It is a very effective movie and very enjoyable. But when you analyze it, you realize there is nothing there but a fun ride. But…well, it is fun or I wouldn’t have watched it a dozen times.

Released in an era when the typical western star (i.e. John Wayne) was an ancient crotchety dinosaur, seeing the young Redford sporting a groovy new mustache, long hair and groovy threads that made him look like a member of the Byrds, the film was if nothing else, a stylistic pivot point for the western genre.

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The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)

This is a very interesting artifact, very much of a piece with the other new westerns of its time, despite being directed by John Huston, a creature of the classic studio era. Like Jeremiah Johnson and Little Big Man and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, it plays with the idea of the tall tale and the opposite idea that this story just might be true.  Texas Hanging Judge Roy Bean was a real historical figure, but he was also the stuff of legend.  (Like those aforementioned movies, Roy Beans gives its legendary story a tragic dimension. There is this idea of a flaw in the American character leading to unhappiness. For the most part Bean plays like a silly comedy, but there’s more to it. Also like other movies of the time, such as The King of Marvin Gardens or The Last Detail, it feels plotless and randomly episodic — experimental. Usually such films were rooted in verite though, whereas this one is outlandish.

We also see that, in the wake of Butch Cassidy, Newman got the mistaken idea that he had a flair for comedy. That film also showcases Newman as another western legend, also wearing a derby hat. In this one, they blatantly copy the Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head sequence, with a montage scene cut to a terrible song called Honeysuckle, Molasses and Honey sung by Andy Williams. Fast forward over this! Newman plays Judge Bean, “the Only Law West of the Pecos”. A wanted bank robber, he walks out of the desert into a godforsaken frontier saloon one day, and is attacked by all the dirty people within. They cold cock him, drag him from a horse and leave him for dead. A girl gives him a gun and he returns to kill everyone in the bar. (The first tall tale of the film: he single handedly kills about 20 people). He finds a law book on the table, and sets himself up to be a judge. His main character trait is an obsession with the actress Lillie Langtry. He names the bar “The Jersey Lily”  in her honor, and calls the town that will grow there Langtry.

Bean’s idea of justice is cruel and capricious. He shoots and hangs bad guys. He makes a bunch of low-lifes his marshals, and a bunch of prostitutes their wives. This is the core of his new town. John Huston himself plays Grizzly Adams, who gives Bean a big, beer drinking grizzly bear, who becomes his best friend. Stacy Keach plays a hilarious character called Bad Bob, a flamboyant albino who comes to town to cause trouble, and whom Bean literally shoots a hole through. Roddy McDowell plays a back east lawyer who ends up taking over the whole town. With some more shaping, this could have been a better movie. When we start to get interested it’s too late in the picture. The real meat of it should be Bean’s relationship with the Mexican girl who becomes his wife (Jacquelyn Bisset). He is an eccentric, too weird and ornery to show love. But then the girl dies in his arms from childbirth just as he has gotten back from a misguided quest to see Lily Langtry perform. Obsessed with someone he doesn’t even know, he has lost the only woman he’ll ever love who’s right in front of him. The last act happens 20 years later — 1919. The town is now an oil boom town run by McDowell. His daughter (Victoria Principal) is the ward of Bean’s bartender Ned Beatty. But McDowell is forcing them out. Bean returns and blows up the whole town, returning it to desert. In the end, his bar becomes a museum, and Langtry (Ava Gardner) finally comes to visit.

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Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bulls History Lesson (1976)

Not really a western but examines the myth of the west. Though Robert Altman is one of my favorite directors, I’ve always disliked this movie. It is unworthy of the Arthur Kopit play on which is it is based, it is unworthy of the life and legend of Buffalo Bill, and it is unworthy of Altman’s own best efforts. Everything is wrong about it, except the art direction, which is top notch. Hard to know where to begin, there’s so much wrong with it. It starts out promising, with a certain presentationalism: credits that look like a 19th century handbill and a re-creation of a frontier massacre that is revealed to be just show biz. But then that trope is abandoned, it becomes a rambling, discursive, boring “fly on the wall” look at the plotless proceedings. As Kopit did, Altman might have made a nice statement by keeping it within that frame. Here, when we have scenes of the show within the show they are actually quite boring, apparently purposefully shot so as not to impress. Similarly, another potential framing devise, the storytelling of Ned Buntline (Burt Lancaster) is just a part of the tapestry, whereas it could have been the main presentational touchstone.

But of course hatred of show biz is Altman’s apparent point, and I guess that left him with him an insoluble conundrum. His real target of course is show business in general, and mythologizing, and the whitewashing of our historical brutalities. But in doing so, Altman makes a sort of unjust scapegoat out of Buffalo Bill, commiting a historical revisionism as egregious as the worst Hollywood westerns but for different reasons. The real Buffalo Bill was actually a person of real accomplishments. He wasn’t all vanity and myth. Not only was he an actual Indian scout, soldier, etc etc etc, but I hold that the building of his Wild West show  was a genuine accomplishment. He wasn’t just some stupid clown, and his show wasn’t just some dumb piece of jingoism. But Altman has to make them so in order to make his satire work. And so, the greatest spectacle of its age is belittled.

GRANTED, now, the treatment of the Indians by Buffalo Bill’s wild west was racist (using the modern standard), but the phenomenon was more complex than that, as Kopit showed in his play. Buffalo Bill had great respect for the Indians and was saddened by what they were reduced to. Altman’s take on the whole issue is simplistic, small-minded, self-congratulatory, obvious, smug, irritating, and not very funny. Even so, even granted you wanted to make a big target of Buffalo Bill, Newman’s performance here leaves much to be desired. It’s not the slightest bit comical. Think of Richard Mulligan as Custer in Little Big Man. This kind of vanity can be really funny. Newman isn’t. Nor is anyone else in the film. Joel Grey’s far-fetched malapropisms. A gaggle of annoying opera singers.

But if Newman is not funny, neither is his character sympathetic. He is heinous, and he is our main character and we are forced to spend two hours with him. It’s hell. Furthermore, the whole thing is so claustrophobic, it adds to the boredom and irritation. Altman seems to be doing his “microcosm” thing, as he had done with the army hospital in M*A*S*H, and the small town in McCabe and Mrs Miller. But even in those films he opened it up some, In MASH they go to Tokyo; in McCabe, McCabe visits other towns. Here we never leave this small penned in camp, making it feel sort of like those filmed versions of plays he directed in the 80s. Which is ironic because this movie is about the impact Buffalo Bill’s show had on the public. Yet we never see touring, we never see Buffalo Bill’s Wild West have any influence.

The whole movie is really about Bill’s troubles with Sitting Bull, a genuine Sioux chief who is here treated like crap because he doesn’t conform to the needed stereotype of a war chief for the benefit of a show. He gives Bill all kinds of flack, or rather his much more impressive interpreter (who never interprets) Halsey (Will Sampson) does. There is the injustice of President Cleveland (Pat McCormack) not even listening to Sitting Bull’s request (even though Sitting Bull is under the impression that he has summoned the president there with a dream).

The only interesting scene in the movie occurs one hour and fifty minutes into it, when Sitting Bull’s ghost appears to Bill, who has an effective monologue. And there is an eloquent scene at the end where we witness the rather fascist spectacle of a fake fight between Bill and Halsey (who now plays Sitting Bull in the show). But it’s too little, too late. The movie is one of Altman’s worst in my view, ranking with Quintet (which also stars Newman!)

Happy birthday, Paul Newman!  Come to think of it, this post was rather a dubious present! But I loved you in Towering Inferno!

Trav’s Big Snow Adventure

Posted in ME with tags , , , on January 24, 2016 by travsd

Being snowed in today and all, I took the opportunity to do a little busy work, and wound up entering all my year’s expense receipts into a spreadsheet in preparation for my tax return. For 14 hours. Towards the end, there was a real danger of my turning into something like Jack Nicholson in The Shining:

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And so I just had to step outside, even at the risk of winding up like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining:

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And I had wrapped up my work at the perfect moment. The blizzard was over, but the world hadn’t begun moving yet. And I especially love this city when it’s quiet and there’s no one around, at night, at dawn, or after a big storm. And I also needed to get out there while the snow is still pretty and not yet the big slushy mess it’s predicted to become tomorrow.

Piled up in front of the door

Piled up in front of the door

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A little bird captured my departure from our window

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I went into Prospect Park, but ironically it was less interesting than the streets. I did take this picture in virgin park snow though:

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And there was a predictably small number of hearty souls abroad. I saw a couple of kids having an adventure (10:30 at night after a blizzard. Good for those parents — I mean it! Such adventures are what my entire childhood was about!). I saw numerous young couples having romantic strolls, a couple of folks walking very happy dogs.  And the reassuring presence of the authorities. Do the math! I saw about a dozen people in my entire neighborhood! For the heck of it I went my local grocery, where I was the only customer. Most luxurious.

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Back to my own front door

Back to my own front door

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“Time to write a blog post”

Last Night at Sardi’s

Posted in Broadway, SOCIAL EVENTS, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , on January 22, 2016 by travsd

We had a great time last night at the Actor’s Fund’s tribute in honor of Broadway Producers Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley in the upstairs event space at Sardi’s. The event culminated in the unveiling of a new caricature of the couple for Sardi’s legendary wall. The Mad Marchioness and I took a few snaps.

Broadway star and Actor's Fund Chairman Brian Stokes Mitchell presents the caricature to Stewart Lane

Broadway star and Actor’s Fund Chairman Brian Stokes Mitchell presents the caricature to Stewart Lane

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Lane and Comley

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Lane and tap dance aristocrat Maurice Hines

Lane and tap dance aristocrat Maurice Hines

And we couldn’t help noticing some of our other friends:

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