Archive for April, 2016

Stars of Vaudeville #979: Marjorie “Babe” Kane

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc., W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Marjorie “Babe” Kane (1909-1992), not to be confused with her contemporaries Marjorie Beebe, Babe London, or Helen Kane.  The Kane in question started out as a teenager in Chicago vaudeville and presentation houses in the Balaban and Katz chain. Her performance of the “Varsity Drag” in the 1928 Chicago edition of the hit Broadway musical Good News brought her to the attention of scouts. She went to Hollywood for a screen test and was hired by Paramount just as talkies were coming in.

Kane was one of those ones whose movie career was most impressive at the very beginning. She performed a number called “The Flipperty Flop” in the 1929 Paramount The Dance of Life, then went on to good roles in movies like the insane Erich Von Stroheim ventriloquism vehicle The Great Gabbo and Fanny Brice’s starring film Be Yourself! (1930). Here she is in Sunny Skies (1930) with Benny Rubin.


In 1920 she signed a five year contract with Mack Sennett, at whose studio she began to appear in comedy shorts with the likes of Andy Clyde, Bing Crosby and Edgar Kennedy. Nowadays she is perhaps best known for playing W.C. Fields’ daughter in the classic shorts The Dentist (1932) and The Pharmacist (1933). Unfortunately, Sennett went bankrupt shortly after this and the balance of her career consists mostly of bit parts and walk-ons. Notable films she appeared in during this period included Harry Langdon’s Counsel on de Fence (1934), Laurel and Hardy’s Swiss Miss (1938), Joe E. Brown’s The Gladiator (1938), Destry Rides Again (1939) and Life with Blondie, with Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake (1945). From 1940 through 1943, she appeared in Columbia shorts, supporting the Three Stooges, Slim Summerville and others. By the beginning of the 50s even the bit parts dried up, although she did return for one television walk-on in 1959. But for comedy fans, her role in The Dentist is more than enough to make her immortal.

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.


No Mexicans, No Cowboys (¡Que viva México!)

Posted in AMERICANA, CULTURE & POLITICS, Hollywood (History), Latin American/ Spanish, ME, My Family History, Westerns with tags , , , , on April 25, 2016 by travsd


“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bring those problems [to] us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

I don’t have to attribute this quote to anyone, do I? This candidate was dead to me before he even started, but once he uttered these risible remarks (and these ones were months ago, quite early in his campaign), anyone who ever had anything to do with him going forward were dead to me as well. This includes the Republican Party, which I usually have at least some good things to say about though I’ve never voted that way myself. And it includes the media which handed him his free megaphone.

The candidate’s statement is not only racist and race-baiting, but false on several fronts. To wit, the country of Mexico isn’t “sending” us anybody. The speaker makes it sound as though the situation were analogous to the Cuban prisoners Castro released in the direction of Florida as a kind of international practical joke, a sort of human hot-foot. No one is “sending” Mexicans in the direction of the United States. They, like people from the other 200+ nations on planet earth, come to America because in many ways it remains a desirable place to live and work, presumably more so than where they came from.

Secondly, look at the paragraph: it says nothing about the illegality of the immigration. He has a problem with Mexican immigration to the United States, period. He’s not talking about the political conundrum of how to solve a certain problem — he is simply issuing a blanket mischaracterization of the people who are involved. In other words, he’s not against illegal immigration; he’s against Mexicans, legal or illegal. He’s so against them he’s tarred them with the kind of sweeping lie that one associates with Goebbels. (Ironically, the speaker is from a relatively recent immigrant group himself. How easy it would be to tar the Germans in like fashion: “They send us their sado-masochists and their Jew-Killers, the monsters who raped and pillaged their way across France and Poland!”). And he ends with a rhetorical device that is right out of the Nazi playbook, he only “ASSUMES” some Mexicans are good people. But, this presidential candidate aside, German-Americans are not all to be characterized as Nazis. On the contrary, I have celebrated their contributions to American culture in print and in talks. Mexican-Americans deserve the same kind of shout out.

Today is the 170th anniversary of the start of the Mexican-American War.  I have ancestors who fought in that war, and others who fought in the war of Texas Independence and who otherwise pioneered former Mexican territory. And my research for the western book I’ve been working on made something abundantly clear that maybe hadn’t been, as some one who has spent his entire life on the northeast. The revelation I had was the extent to which America as a whole is culturally Mexican. Now, in an obvious way, Hollywood in particular has not done right by this group. I’ve watched hundreds of westerns over the last few years, and as you can imagine, positive portrayals of Mexicans are as rare as hen’s teeth. It’s very much in the tradition of blackface minstrelsy and other show business stereotypes: they’re either sinister or stupid. Even the films and tv shows that are meant to portray a Mexican in a good light, were patronizing and infantalizing, a kind of South-of-the-Border Uncle Tomisim. But for the most part it’s Speedy Gonzalez and Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. And as often as not, as in the latter case, it’s a white actor in brownface.


BUT, as I began to explore western American history something dawned on me with great force. That is, the degree to which American culture itself ABSORBED aspects of Mexican culture, in a manner much similar to the way it absorbed elements of African culture, and Native American culture, and to lesser extents, every single culture we have assimilated. Immigrants are Americanized. But it works in the other direction as well. And since one-third of America WAS Mexico…America IS Mexico to a certain extent, not just geographically but culturally. In light of that, to see the situation as “them” and “us” strikes me, like all racism, as a kind of madness, a social disease that prevents people from seeing what’s really there in front of them.

When I visited London about 20 years ago, I met a guy who asked me, sort of playfully, “Are you from Texas?” He was egging me on, teasing me, but his joke said something about the American image in the world. It’s not someone like me, a New England Yankee — hasn’t been, almost from the beginning. It’s a cowboy. Ronald Reagan. John Wayne. Marlboro Man. Cowboy hat.

Thanks for the tribute to Mexico, Ron!

Thanks for the tribute to Mexico, Ron!

Have you ever stopped to ask the important questions “Why COWS?” Because I am kind of a spacey guy (and because I was researching a book), I have. How did that insane mania for beef come about? Cows are not indigenous to this continent. And they didn’t come over with the English and wend their west from Massachusetts and Virginia. (A few were imported to the original English colonies but not many). The big herds of the west? The Spanish brought them. The cattle industry of the great Southwest began when that territory was still Mexico. The migration of Yanquis to participate in that industry is what resulted in the Annexation of Texas and the Mexican American War (1846), which brought the territory that is now Arizona, New Mexico, California, and parts of Colorado and Nevada into the union. That symbol of American power the cowboy hat evolved from the sombrero – in many early western movies it is still called by the latter name. The lasso, the bandana, chaps. The unparalleled popularity in the U.S. of a Spanish instrument known as the guitar!


Dance! Dance, You Unknowing Mexicans!

In other words, all of these things we have to think of as bedrock symbols of Americana (country music, rock and roll, ten gallon hats, fast food, the family barbecue), owe their existence to the influence of Mexican culture. The irony is that often a lot of the very people who have this apparent terror of the “Brown People” in our midst are dressed in Mexican-derived fashions, listening to music played on Mexican instruments, and gobbling a food staple that came to their door via Mexico. The ignorance and irony of that are mind-boggling.

And even if this were not the case? Drugs, crime, rapists? If I were Mexican, I’d be worried about the importation of those things from NORTH of the border. After all, we’ve been much more successful at invading THEM then they have at “invading” us.

As for the people of Mexico?

Today, I celebrate you, my friends!

I exalt your beautiful art!

I admire the beauty of your language!

I dance to your music!

I devour your food!

I celebrate YOU!

I welcome you!

This girl welcomes you!


Stars of Vaudeville #978: Kitty Gordon

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Singers, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of British-American actress Kitty Gordon (Constance Blades, 1878-1974). A star of musical comedy, started out touring the British provinces in 1901. Her first Broadway production was  Veronique (1904) , produced by Klaw and Erlanger. Five years later she moved to the states permanently. Among her notable shows were the Shubert revue La Belle Paree (1911) and the American premiere of Victor Herbert’s The Enchantress (1911-1912).

Her big vaudeville year appears to have been 1914, when she made a national tour of the Keith circuit, including the newly opened Palace. She seems to have been as prized for her looks as for her ability as a performer. In her book Vaudeville, Caroline Caffin notes “her luscious beauty and limpid voice and gowns of startling magnificence”. In her book The Palace, Marion Spitzer says she was “famous for her beautiful back” (a woman’s back was presumably a rare and exciting sight in public in the early 20th century, striking enough to rate a shout out).

Gordon did one last Broadway show, the Shubert revue A World of Pleasure (1915-1916) and then headed out to Hollywood to star in silent films for two years. Her last movie was Playthings of Passion (1919). Then it was back to vaudeville. In 1920, while performing a dramatic sketch at a Chicago vaudeville house, the prop gun she was using fire for real, shooting an acrobat who was standing in the wings. That’ll fix him for standing in the wings!

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.


Stars of Vaudeville #977: Louis Mann

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, German, Hollywood (History), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Louis Mann (1865-1931). Mann was a major figure of the Broadway stage from the turn of the last century almost until his death. Of German parentage, he started out in German language productions as a child actor; German characters would continue to be the mainstay of his career, both in drama and comedy. This is evidenced by the surnames of those characters on his IBDB page:  Hoch, Hofbrau, Blinker, Plittersdorf, Pfeiffer, Pumpernick, Schnitzler, Bauer, and Kraft. In 1903, he produced his own starring vehicle The Consul. Later that year and into 1904, he appeared in the Weber and Fields extravaganza Whoop-de-Doo. Shortly after after appearing with her in a revival tour of the play Incog in 1906 he married his co-star, the actress and soon to be playwright Clara Lipman, with whom he was to collaborate frequently over the rest of his career.

At any rate, though he was a major Broadway figure, German schtick was a mainstay of vaudeville, and Mann was known to grace the stage of the Palace at least a couple of times, in 1914 and 1925.  Ironically, his last performance turned out to be his only real movie role, as the martyr like immigrant father in the melodrama  The Sins of the Children (1930) with Robert Montgomery, Leila Hyams, Clara Blandick,  and Dell Henderson. 

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.


Doris Roberts in the Age of Crime and Murder

Posted in Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies, OBITS, Television, Women with tags , , , , on April 19, 2016 by travsd


Saddened to hear of the recent passing of Doris Roberts, and heartened to hear all the appreciation. She was of course best known in recent years for having been on Everybody Loves Raymond. But (in an almost identical bit of stunt casting to Jerry Stiller’s on Seinfeld) the reason she was cast was that she was already known. If people didn’t know her name, they knew her face, mostly from bit parts and commercials. She was the go-to face and voice of “New York lady”. She had been that my entire life, and had been acting in television for 15 years before I was born. Barefoot in the Park (1967) and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), I think of her in stuff like that. She represented a comical side to a part of New York that we all love: down-to-earth, honest to a fault, and often lower-middle-class. She was the perfect person to represent a contrast to a world that seemed to be going crazy in the late 1960s through the 1970s, with crime going through the roof and “weirdos roaming the streets!” Here are three films I thought of in that context:


No Way to Treat a Lady (1968)

Rod Steiger is an Odeipal serial killer with a thousand faces in this thriller. George Segal is the detective on his trail. Roberts is the sister of one of Steiger’s potential victims who thwarts him rather hilariously when she comes for a visit.


The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

Amazing to see Roberts in this seminal low-budget exploitation flick, which influenced everybody from John Waters to Francois Truffaut. And while she was known for her comic portrayals, Roberts is essentially “straight” in this one, inadvertently triggering a killing spree when she sets her psychotic friend up with a lonely hearts marriage service. The characters live in Alabama; wondering why a New York lady lives there is one of the film’s more savory pleasures. We are disappointed when Roberts leaves the narrative relatively early in the movie, as she always livens the screen with her presence. By this point, Roberts had been a professional actress for around 20 years and yet it seems light years before her later fame.


Little Murders (1971)

I’ve blogged my enthusiasm for this over the top gonzo satire written by Jules Feiffer and directed by Alan Arkin  here.  In this semi science fiction scenario, New York crime, especially gun violence, has reached levels of absurdity. Roberts and John Randolph play hero Elliott Gould’s parents in a scene written especially for the movie (i.e., it’s not from the stage play). The pair of them are chillingly aloof from their estranged son, barely seeming to have an emotional connection to him at all.

Watch these movies, and Doris Roberts’ performances in them. Every one a gem!

Frank Fontaine: A Record of Hilarity

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of comedian Frank Fontaine (1920-1978).

Fontaine was a favorite comedian of my brother’s, and I first developed an appreciation for this artist in the same way I cultivated one for many other comedians and musicians: my older two brothers left behind their record collection when they moved out of the house. And one of the records was this:


I must have listened to this exceedingly strange comedy record dozens and dozens of times trying to work out its mysteries. It was full of pops and scratches…my brother had clearly worn the album out himself.

As you can tell from the photos, Fontaine was not exactly a font of subtlety. He specialized in one particular character, a sort of brain-damaged, mentally challenged screwball. Originally from the Boston area, he began performing the character in amateur shows in the 1930s. Despite the strong visual impression you see on evidence in the pictures, he first gained show biz traction in radio. He won the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, and not long after that was booked for some small roles on The Jack Benny Program in 1950, returning several times through 11952. Then came television. His best known platform was The Jackie Gleason Show, where he played Crazy Guggenheim in the Joe the Bartender segments. To my eyes, his character looks like a sort of pre-cursor to many of Benny Hill’s,, with the addition of just a hint of pathos. Because, well, the guy’s not normal. 

The early fifties were sort of the height of his fame. He got some bit parts in movies, and he continued to work through the rest of his life appearing on tv variety shows, making live appearances and popular comedy records. He died at the age of 58 of a massive heart attack, altogether not such a surprising death for someone who put that much into his comedy.

For more on classic comedy see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc



Stars of Vaudeville #976: Madge Kennedy

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Madge Kennedy (1891-1987).

Kennedy might be a more appropriate entry in our Hall of Hams series, for she was not a rank and file, day-to-day vaudevillian. When she appeared at the Palace in 1929, it was as a well established star of stage and screen. She had a dozen starring Broadway parts from 1912 through 1932; and three dozen movie roles from 1917 to the end of the silent era.


Her best known early role was the title role in the Broadway smash Poppy opposite W.C. Fields which ran from September 1923 through June 1924. It was the show that put Fields on the map. Unfortunately when D.W. Griffith made the film version Sally of the Sawdust in 1925 he saw fit to recast Kennedy with his paramour Carol Dempster.


Radio kept her goung through the ’30s and ’40s. In the 50s she was in demand again on film and television, now reinvented as an “old lady”. I was delighted to learn this morning that she played the recurring part of Aunt Martha on Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963), in that hilarious repeating plot where the fussy, old-fashioned relative would come to visit the Cleavers, always cramping Beaver’s style. Alfred Hitchcock employed her many times on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1956-1961) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962) and in a small role in North by Northwest (1959). She has quite decent roles in The Catered Affair (1956) and Lust for Life (1956), and you can see her on screen as late as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), The Day of the Locust (1975) and Marathon Man (1976). I shall take care to take much more notice of her now in those roles now that I know that she was the original Poppy!

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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