Archive for June, 2016

Tap Dancing Around “Cagney”

Posted in Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Dance, Hollywood (History), Irish, Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2016 by travsd


For weeks the subway and tv ads for the musical Cagney have been unavoidable. I had a chance to see it a few weeks back; my review is in the current Chelsea Now (read it here).

A couple of afterthoughts I wanted to add. I mention the bio-pic genre in the review. Having seen scores of them I think I’m fairly expert on the topic (see my monster three part blogpost series which begins here). It seemed too much of a digression to include in the review, but some examples of musical bio-pics that work better as art by focusing on an aspect of the story (rather trying to tell every goddamn thing) include Walk the Line (2005), which concentrates on Johnny Cash’s efforts to win the heart of June Carter by kicking drugs; and (more to the purpose) Gypsy (1959 stage; 1962 movie), which focuses on Gypsy Rose Lee’s problematic relationship with her domineering stage mother.

That said, one important aspect of Cagney’s life that got short shrift in this musical (another tangent) was his relationship with the most important person in his life, his wife and former stage partner Willie. I can’t imagine telling Cagney’s story WITHOUT making it about that relationship. It was the most important one in his life personally, professionally and even politically, and she was there with him as his primary confidante and adviser from the Alpha to the Omega. But in this musical, she is introduced and then forgotten, becoming no more than (as the Mad Marchioness and I like to joke about June Lockhart on Lost in Space) “The Woman Who Performs the Important Function of Bringing the Sandwiches”.

For my biographical essay on Cagney the vaudevillian go here. For my review on the new musical go here. 

Hall of Hams #102: Walter Hampden

Posted in Hollywood (History), LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the great stage and screen actor Walter Hampden (Walter Hampden Dougherty, 1879-1955).

For better or worse, Hampden is probably best known today for the meta, self-referential in-joke that begins All About Eve (1950) — he is the long-winded, aging thespian who presents Anne Baxter her award. Well over a half century later Hampden (a star in his own day) is sadly obscure in our time, just the sort of character we take pleasure in bringing back out into the light.

In New York’s Players Club, there is an enormous portrait of Hampden as Cyrano. When I first started researching No Applause about 15 years ago, I (rightly) appalled the club’s curator by having only the sketchiest notion of whom Hampden was. I am a creature of the television age. But in the theatre, Hampden was BEYOND somebody. He was president of the Players Club for 27 years. He is depicted as Cyrano in his portrait because he had played the character of Broadway FIVE TIMES; he was the American actor most closely identified with the role prior to Jose Ferrer. He played Hamlet on Broadway THREE times (he’s second only to John Barrymore as Broadway’s most notable American Hamlet). In 1920 he began producing and directing most of the plays in which he starred. In 1925 he acquired one of New York’s most important vaudeville houses, the Colonial Theatre, and operated it for six years as Hampden’s Theatre, presenting several classics by Shakespeare and Ibsen and others, as well as Cyrano. (He’d earned his authority on Ibsen touring with Nazimova early in his career in 1907). Hampden’s last stage role was in the original production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in 1953.

There is much more to his stage career– nearly 50 years of legendary performances. But we live in the media age! And unfortunately Hampden came to films late in his career, and played mostly supporting roles, so he is not remembered as the great star that he was. But for those with eyes to see you can check out his work in such classics as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), They Died with Their Boots On (1941), Sabrina (1954), and The Silver Chalice (1954).

Hampden was the brother of the painter Paul Dougherty. 

For more on show business historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


J.H. Haverly: Maker of a Minstrel Mastodon

Posted in African American Interest, Impresarios with tags , , , , , , , on June 30, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of American minstrelsy entrepreneur J.H. Haverly (1837-1901). Haverly was one of the first minstrelsy producers who was not a performer himself. He was strictly a businessman in the Keith and Albee mold, rather than someone who came up through the ranks. His aim was to make a buck, and he found innovative ways to do so (within the parameters of show biz conventions of the day, which were by modern standards unambiguously racist).

As a minstrelsy producer, Haverly made a couple of important contributions. First, in the 1870s  he greatly increased the scale of the minstrel show, which is the rationale for including the otherwise bizarre word “Mastodon” in the name of his company “Haverly’s United Mastodon Minstrels”. Previous minstrel companies tended to be performing quartets or sextets. Haverly merged several troupes together, forming a troupe of “40 — count ’em! — 40” entertainers (an advertising formulation burlesque would later borrow from the minstrel show.) Secondly, from 1878 to 1882 he was one of the first impresarios to present all-black minstrel shows. In an era when the norm was white performers who donned blackface to impersonate African Americans, Haverly acquired Charles Callender’s Original Georgia Minstrels and presented them with the same heft he brought to the Mastodon company, billing them as Haverly’s Colored Minstrels. Companies like this provided a crucial bridge between the era when African Americans were banned completely from the American stage…and when they became some of America’s greatest stars.

Managing the two huge companies grew to be too much for Haverly. Overextended, he sold the second company to Broadway producer Charles Frohman and his brother Gustave. Haverly also owned several theatres in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

We post this at a fortuitous time for fans of New York and show biz history. In just a few days (July 5), the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors officially launches their project Windows on the Bowery with an exhibition at Cooper Union. Stay tuned for nuch more on this exciting project, in which I am proud to say I had a hand.

For more on show business historyconsult 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 #992: Odette Myrtil

Posted in Frenchy, Hollywood (History), Music, Singers, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Odette Myrtil (Odette Quignard, 1898-1978).

Odette (that was often her entire billing) was a second generation stage performer. She was born in Paris and attended a boarding school in Brussels, where she studied voice and violin. By age 13, she was already playing professionally, and for the next several years she divided her time between European variety halls and stage revues. In 1916 her career took off when she starred in one of London’s biggest stage hits of the World War One era The Bing Boys Are Here.

Success came to her in America in 1923 when she played the Palace, a venue to which she returned many times over the ensuing decade. The following year she appeared in The Vogues of 1924. Her Broadway career reached its pinnacle when she starred in The Cat and the Fiddle (1931-1932), with songs by Jerome Kern and which played for nearly a year during the depths of the Great Depression. She next went out to Hollywood where she played bit roles and small supporting parts for a couple of decades. You can see her in such films as Dodsworth (1936), Kitty Foyle (1940), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), The Palm Beach Story (1942), Rhapsody in Blue (1945), The Fighting Kentuckian (1949), Strangers on a Train (1951), and The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954). In 1959 she returned to Broadway one last time to appear in the musical Saratoga. 

For more on Odette: go here. 

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.


On a Post-USA America

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , , , on June 26, 2016 by travsd


This post has germinating for a long time; Britain’s recent step backwards in voting to leave the E.U. has moved it to the top of the pile. It grows out of some previous posts, including this one about Mexico and Mexican immigration, this one about the American flag and patriotism, and this one about Magna Carta, but many more besides.

The inspiration for this radical fantasy may have come to me in the late 90s or so, when I saw a facsimile of a 100 year old newspaper (probably Pulitzer’s New York World or Hearst’s New York Journal) which playfully purported to be a paper from 100 years in the future. It was one of those sci-fi visions which posited a sky full of hot air balloons and pedestrian bridges connecting all the skyscrapers on upper floors. Like this:


But what really caught my eye was that the writer envisioned a late 20th century U.S. that had grown far larger in the number of states it had incorporated: 70? 80? 100? And that these additional states included the countries of Latin America. Now, this was a frivolous entertainment article hatched during the McKinley/Roosevelt era. Its underlying assumptions would undoubtedly smack of Imperialism to us. They were probably picturing some sort of “Hawaii annexation” model, and probably one in which the newly incorporated territories now spoke English.

But it does suggest other possibilities. My Modest Proposal would be for a more politically integrated western hemisphere, something on the model of the European Union, and which would build on the international cooperation begun with FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy, the Organization of American States, JFK’s Alliance for Progress, NAFTA & CAFTA, and the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America. The idea would thus be more like a merger than a hostile takeover. But it would also build on the ever-evolving architecture of human rights guarantees the U.S. has been instrumental in developing since its inception as well as the increasing liberalization in the governments of our southern neighbors in recent decades. At the same time, it would be a sort of tabula rasa, without the baggage of past failures. Its founding documents would include language declaring the political equality and human rights of all people without regard for gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual preference. In this (utopian) vision, America’s influence would be limited to ensuring human rights for all citizens in the new greater polity. It would not be about cultural dominance. It would be about culture exchange. Spanish states would remain Spanish. Certain territories with presently troublesome statuses, such as Quebec and Puerto Rico, would have an opportunity for long-sought independence and equality among nations, but within the structure of the super-state. My radical vision is the opposite of Trump’s: it presumes open borders amongst the states, with a concomitant end to the disastrous Drug War. Decriminalization of the drug industry would take gangs and gang violence from South (and North) of the border out of the proposed equation. The new entity would not be the “U.S.A.”, but something “post-American” and pan-American.

For reference, here’s a little on the history of America’s close relationships with many of its southern neighbors. I think you will find much of it (as I did) eye-opening:


Puerto Rico — The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since the Spanish-American war (1898) and have been in a kind of political limbo ever since. For years, polls and plebescites had revealed the Puerto Rican people to be sort of evenly divided three ways amongst a desire for 1) independence, 2) American statehood, or 3) the status quo. The most recent referendum in November 2012 found Puerto Ricans 62% in favor of U.S. statehood. The ball has been in America’s court since then. But propositions to vote on the issue in both houses of Congress died in committee in 2014. Puerto Rico’s recent debt problems may make such discussions problematic at the moment.


Cuba — Prior to Castro’s calamitous revolution of 1959, no American neighbor was ever closer to the U.S. than Cuba. In the 19th century there were no less than four major movements towards incorporating the then-Spanish island into the U.S. (as had earlier happened with Florida, Spanish Louisiana and 40% of Mexico). President Polk, who’d presided over the Mexican-American war and also settled the Oregon question, attempted to buy Cuba in 1848. The Spanish did not want to sell. Six years later, Franklin Pierce tried once again, upping the price substantially. His secret plan, called the Ostend Manifesto, proved a political embarrassment for him, and it was dropped. (The year was 1854, it was clearly a plan to add another slave state to the U.S. and shift the balance of power). In 1859 a bill was introduced in to the Senate to purchase Cuba, with much the same agenda by Louisiana Senator John Slidell. In 1898, William McKinley , in an effort to peacefully solve the tensions with Spain, offered to buy Cuba once again, this time offering three times the amount Polk had. Spain once again refused, and so a war was fought to separate Cuba from her mother country.

Cuba was a U.S. territory from 1898 to 1902, and was then given independence, although America again occupied the country from 1906 to 1909, in 1912, and 1917 to 1922, and had a special treaty with them allowing U.S. dominance through 1934, and the U.S. has maintained a military base at Guantanamo Bay to this day.  A close relationship between the countries existed until 1959. The much discussed “51st state” then became a satellite of the Soviet empire, a mere 90 miles from our border. Recent developments give hope for the future of freedom in that country.


Hispaniola, home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic — the Dominican Republic was first considered for U.S. statehood in 1870, but Congress voted down the proposal. Small peace-keeping actions were fought there in 1903, 1904 and 1914, and America occupied the country from 1916 to 1924. U.S. troops were also sent there in 1965 to prevent a communist takeover of the sort that had roiled Cuba.

Haiti — The troubled history of this nation is a tragic illustration of the two-faced nature of America’s own founding. The American Revolution inspired the French Revolution, which in turn inspired the slave revolt in that nation’s island colony (1791-1804). America (which had its own slave economy) tended to support the status quo in the conflict, despite the fact that the entire explosion was essentially started by the words “All Men Are Created Equal”. It was many decades before the U.S. recognized Haitian independence or their government. The nation remained poor and full of turmoil. America occupied it from 1914 through 1934. America intervened there again following a coup in the early 1990s. Disaster relief following the 2010 earthquake increased the U.S. presence there yet again. It is frequently written about as a nation in bad need of international administration.


MexicoGeneral Winfield Scott got all the way to Mexico City during our war with Mexico, effectively conquering the entire country. Annexing all of Mexico was contemplated at the time (1848), but American leaders decided to settle for the 40% of Mexican territory that was either sparsely settled, or contained a substantial number of American settlers. America played a major role in the Mexican revolution (1910-1920), and the two countries (with Canada) have enjoyed unprecedentedly close relations since the signing of NAFTA in 1994.

Nicaragua — The U.S. got involved in a Nicaraguan civil conflict in 1909, and occupied the country from 1912 through 1933. And of course the U.S. covertly backed the contras vs. the Sandanistas in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan. The U.S. also gave military support to El Salvador to prevent a communist takeover at the same time.

Honduras — American troops intervened in Honduras (mostly to protect American business interests) in 1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, 1924 and 1925. A coup in 2009 has increased violence in the country substantially.

Panama — The creation of the nation of Panama was of course an American project, engineered by Teddy Roosevelt so that he could achieve his long-sought canal. Essentially he backed the secession of the Panamanian province from Columbia. But the way had been paved for this eventuality since an 1846 treaty. The Panama Canal Zone was American through 1979. Ten years later, the U.S. fought a small war there to depose dictator Manuel Noriega.

Venezuela — The U.S nearly fought a war with Germany, Britain and Italy in 1902-1903 to prevent a takeover of Venezuela by those countries for the collection of debts. The peace terms were dictated by the U.S. on behalf of Venezuela.

Chile — you could write a novel.

As for our neighbors to the north, both the American Revolution and the War of 1812 included attempts to take over Canadian territory; a war was nearly fought with England and Canada in the 1840 concerning America’s northwest boundary; the Quebecois have occasionally debated leaving Canada to join the U.S., and Newfoundland had a referendum concerning joining its southern neighbor in 1948. But so much is gained by choosing cooperation over conflict.

Racism and Imperialism undoubtedly underlay much of this history (although it must be said that in many cases, American troops occupied the countries to quell violence that was killing local citizens — essentially a  humanitarian mission, as complicated as that is). Looked at it from another perspective, it seems to me that, conversely, racism is precisely what has kept these Southern neighbors OUT of the United States, a nation that began as a collection of English colonies, but whose Founding documents stipulate nothing of the kind, which is why and how America is today a diverse country of immigrants from every nation on earth. The world ought to be increasingly more politically and economically integrated. The way of Trump and Brexit is to stand athwart history yelling, “Stop!” At best their disastrous prescriptions will prove temporary, I feel. When the results are in and the policies are shown to be failures, the main trend of history will resume and the upshot will be in the direction of more, not less, political progress and integration.

R.I.P. Bill Cunningham

Posted in OBITS with tags , , , , , on June 26, 2016 by travsd


Just heard the news that yesterday New York Times society photographer Bill Cunningham succumbed yesterday to the stroke which had felled him a few days earlier. He was 87, still riding around town on on his bicycle, still peddling from pillar to post taking snaps. My dealings with him were mostly about 15 years ago when I was p.r. director at New-York Historical Society. I found him to be  a unique combination of a boy and a gentleman, always cheerful, pleasant, polite, humble, and apt to make everyone in the room feel like a celeb. He was that most self-contradictory of creatures, a democratic papparazzo, in the employ of one of the most powerful publications in the world. Because of this, he had the rare ability to make New York City feel like a small town. Everybody, from the largest New York institutions to the smallest not-for-profits has their Bill Cunningham testimony. Everybody knew him — and he made everybody feel like royalty. For more on this extraordinary character I highly recommend the film Bill Cunningham’s New York. 

Stars of Vaudeville #991: Jack Whiting

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Singers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Jack Whiting (Albert Draper Whiting Jr., 1901-1961).

Originally from Philadelphia, Whiting enjoyed great success as a male juvenile on Broadway in the 1920s. One his more notable successes was Hold Everything (1928-1929) with Bert Lahr. He worked steadily on Broadway between 1922 and 1954. Whiting played the Palace during his (and the theatre’s) heyday in the 1920s, and was also one of the last acts to play there in the early to mid 30s, when it was no longer a vaunted two-a-day but a grind of several shows per, the only way to make it pay during the Depression.

He also gave a smattering of film and tv performances from the ’30s through the ’50s, though the stage remained his principal stomping ground. His first film was Top Speed (1930) with Joe E. Brown. Ironically he did not appear in the film version with Hold Everything that that also starred Brown (Lahr was passed over for the role he created). Other notable films included The Life of the Party with Winnie Lightner (1930), and  Give Me a Sailor with Bob Hope, Martha Raye and Betty Grable (1938).

He was married to Anna Beth Sully (ex wife of Douglas Fairbanks) and thus was the stepfather of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

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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