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

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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. 

Walter Hampden: A Player of Players

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

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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.

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J.H. Haverly: Maker of a Minstrel Mastodon

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

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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.

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Odette: International Variety Star

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

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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.

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R.I.P. Bill Cunningham

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

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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. 

Jack Whiting: The Life of the Party

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

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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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I’ll Say She Is — Getting Great Notices!

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Indie Theatre, Marx Brothers, ME, My Shows, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , on June 20, 2016 by travsd

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A little more than midway through our announced run of  I’ll Say She Is, our revival of the lost 1924 Marx Brothers Broadway musical, notices have begun to pile up and it’s a most exciting general vote of approval!

Fresh off the presses is Neil Genzlinger’s rave in the New York Times just out today! Read it here. 

Then there is the Adam Gopnick essay in The New Yorker which hit a few weeks back. I’d long known Gopnick to be an aficionado of classic comedy — we spent a good deal of time together when he wrote this piece about new burlesque in which I was featured back in 2002. The I’ll Say She Is piece is here.

Then there were the two major preview features, one in the Wall Street Journal and one in Jewish Week.

And there’s a bunch more! See the full round-up here. 

Also, New Yorkers, be sure to watch On Stage on NY-1 this Wednesday. A little birdie told me David Cote’s review will air then (and I believe online afterwards as they normally do). Can’t wait!

Tickets are nearly sold out for the remainder of the run, but some remain: to get them go here. 

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