Archive for July, 2016

More Than Munchkins: An Illustrated History of Performing Little People

Posted in BROOKLYN, Dime Museum and Side Show, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Little People, ME, My Shows with tags , , , , , on July 27, 2016 by travsd

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Today happens to be the birthday of both Fleming W. Ackerman (a.k.a “Colonel Speck”) and Major Edward Newell (a.k.a. “General Grant, Jr.”). (Click on the links to learn more about these illustrious Little People.

If the odds of a Little Person being born are small, and the odds of a performing Little Person even smaller, think how small the odds of TWO performing Little People being born on the same day! Seems to me an auspicious time to announce here my upcoming talk at the Morbid Anatomy Museum, entitled More Than Munchkins: An Illustrated History of Performing Little People. 

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For centuries Little People have been a mainstay of popular entertainment. In this illustrated talk, I will trace the historical ups and downs of very short-statured entertainers from medieval times through the era of P.T. Barnum and dime museums, to side shows and circuses, to vaudeville, to movies and television. Along the way, we trace the evolution of the Little Person’s image in popular culture, from one of cruel derision in the age of the court jester…to one of glamour, as personified by sex symbol and Emmy-winning actor Peter Dinklage…to a virtual return to carny days on reality tv.

The talk will take place Monday August 22, 2016 at 7pm at the Morbid Anatomy Museum, 424 Third Ave, Brooklyn. Tickets are $8

More info and tickets are here: http://morbidanatomymuseum.org/event/more-than-munchkins-a-history-of-performing-little-people-an-illustrated-lecture-with-trav-s-d/

Your Guide to Gildersleeve

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television with tags , , , , , , on July 25, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of radio and screen comedian and voice-over artist Harold “Hal” Peary (1908-1985)

Peary is best known for creating the popular radio character Throckmorton Gildersleeve on the Fibber McGee and Molly Show in 1939. The big blowhard was so popular he got his own spin-off radio show from 1941 to 1957 (though Peary left in ’50) and he starred as Gildersleeve in several movies. You know Peary’s work whether you know his name or not — after the various incarnations of Gildersleeve went off the air he was a constant presence as a character actor on tv sit coms and a voice over actor for cartoons for decades. And I swear he was at least a partial inspiration for Don Messick’s characterization as Scooby Doo (that deep throated horse whinny type thing he does). At any rate, the fad for Gildersleeve movies was short. Here’s my take on the handful that got made.

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The Great Gildersleeve (1942)

Peary’s breakout starring picture (though he’d been in a couple of Fibber McGee and Molly pictures). He was a huge star in radio with this character, but frankly it’s a bit strange and underwhelming to see him in movies. He looks appropriate with his ample girth, toothy smile, and vanity in groom and dress, but his voice is just so good and strange and over the top that the visuals still don’t come up the mark. He’s more of a voice than a full fledged character. Gildersleeve has traits…he’s pretentious and gets flustered…but he’s not a person.

Add to this the fact that, like so many movies of the period, the scripts are just disposably weak. Peary carries over all his signature catch phrases from radio (“You’re a harrrrrrd man”, and “Everything always happens to me”, etc as well as his friend Peavy the druggist’s”I wouldn’t say that”). By the time this film premiered , Fibber McGee and Molly mysteriously don’t exist. Gildersleeve is guardian of his nephew Leroy and his teenage niece Margie, with frequent visits from his Aunt Emma and the steadying presence of Amanda Randolph as the maid.

In this, the first of the series, a scrawny crone wants to marry Gildersleeve but he rejects her. Her brother the Judge (another regular character) is going to take away custody of the kids as revenge. The kids have a plan:  they mount a huge popularity p.r. campaign. At the same time, the governor of their (unidentified) state is sick and ends up convalescing at Gildersleeve’s house. Gildersleeve becomes so popular in town the judge can’t very well take the kids away. Also the judge is humiliated when he plays practical jokes on the governor, thinking he is an imposter. All in all, this is a sit com episode stretched past its limits to fill the big screen.

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Gildersleeve’s Bad Day (1943)

Maybe the weakest of the four Gildersleeve films. It stretches credibility to the breaking point. Gildersleeve is called for jury duty (along with all his other friends. This town is so small, why aren’t they always on jury duty?) Some crooks attempt to bribe Gildersleeve but he doesn’t receive their message. Then it turns out Gildersleeve is the lone holdout on the jury so it seems like a mistrial is expected anyway. (There is a lengthy segment, the most implausible part, where the judge makes Gildersleeve feed and house the jury at his own home while they deliberate). Meanwhile the kids keep trying to get a message to him. Then the crooks rob the judge in order to pay Gildersleeve for the seemingly faked verdict. Then Gildersleeve mistakes the cash for a donation to the “canteen” to raise money for the soldiers (this is the middle of WWII). Gildersleeve gives the money to the judge. Then the crooks steal it again. At the same time, Gildersleeve is trying to steal it himself so can return it to the judge. And then he is caught. The crooks kidnap him in a cop car, but he flips the two way radio on so the authorities can hear the truth about the crime. Zany? Wacky? Nah, sleepy.

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Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943)

Well that was quick! The shark has already jumped after only two films. This one violates the sit-com’s situation by transplanting the entire cast to the night clubs and hotels of New York City. Gildersleeve follows Margie’s fiancé to NYC to keep tabs on him, because he thinks he’s playing around. So he follows Peavy to a druggists convention in the big city. Unfortunately he gets tangled up with women, incriminating himself (he has a fiancé of his own). One of the women Gildersleeve keeps running into is Billie Burke, the dotty (as always) present of a pharmaceutical supply company. Another is a gold digging woman who thinks he’s rich (because he’s pretending to be). Some mishigas happens with a fur coat, Then the kids and his fiancé show up, causing a brouhaha. And it turns out that the boyfriend wasn’t even screwing around. There is one funny bit with Gildersleeve encountering Jack Norton as a drunk on a window ledge.

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Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944)

This is the first one I saw in the series and it’s my favorite. Because it is a spook comedy and it has a gorilla. It’s kind of less boring than the other three. It starts out with Peary as two of Gildersleeve’s ghostly ancestors, who set up the story. Then they disappear and never come back, causing me to scratch my head about the title. It’s straight up formula stuff. Gildersleeve is running for water commissioner, making it important that he not appear insane. Unfortunately a gorilla comes into his kitchen one night….and he keeps seeing things no one else does. The trail leads him to a haunted house where mad scientists are experimenting on an invisibility drug. Their two subjects are the gorilla and a beautiful burlesque chick. There is also a beautiful French maid. Ooh la la, I hardly know which way to turn! Of course all the other cast members show up (including Nick Stewart as the obligatory terrified black chauffeur) and they all have to spend the night in the haunted house because because there is a bad thunderstorm. Eventually….the truth comes out so they don’t have to bring Gildersleeve to an insane asylum.

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That was the end of the Gildersleeve films, but the character thrived for another 13 years on radio. Peary left the series in 1950. After that, it was the occasional TV guest appearance — folks my age may remember his as Mr. Goodbody on the “Amateur Night” episode of The Brady Bunch!

To learn out more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Alison Skipworth: Frequent Foil of Fields

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, The Hall of Hams, Women with tags , , , , , , on July 25, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Alison Skipworth (Alison Mary Elliot Margaret Groom, 1863-1952).

London born Skipworth was best known for playing big-boned, hearty grand dames in Hollywood, most notably opposite W.C. Fields in four films: If I Had a Million (1932), Tillie and Gus (1933), Alice in Wonderland (1933 — they appear in separate scenes in that one), and Six of a Kind (1934). Other notable films she appeared in include the murder mystery Raffles (1930) with Ronald Colman, Night After Night (1932) with George Raft and Mae West, The Casino Murder Case (1935), The Devil is a Woman (1935), Becky Sharp (1935) and Satan Met a Lady (1936).

Given her distinctive countenance in these later films it is surprising to learn that when she began her career she was considered a great beauty. She started out at a Gaiety Girl in the eponymous West End revue at Daly’s Theatre in 1894. Working as an artist’s model for painter Frank Markham Skipworth led to their marriage. Alison Skipworth appeared in musical comedies and classics in London, New York and on tour from the 1890s through the end of the 1920s. While she had made a half dozen films during the silent era, she made the definitive move to Hollywood after her husband died in 1929. Her last film was Ladies in Distress (1938) with Polly Moran.

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

William Gillette: The Original Sherlock Holmes

Posted in Broadway, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Playwrights, Silent Film, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , on July 24, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of playwright-actor-director-producer William Gillette (William Hooker Gillette, 1853-1937). I am proud to say that I am distantly related to this important man of the American stage a couple of different ways, the most salient way through our mutual relative Rev. Thomas Hooker, the founder of Hartford, CT,  where Gillette was born.

Much like Joseph Jefferson (who made a career of playing Rip Van Winkle), Gillette is best known to theatre buffs for playing a single role from literature; he originated the first stage characterization of Sherlock Holmes. Prior to Basil Rathbone, Gillette’s name was synonymous with Holmes’. Now that there has been an explosion of film and television adaptations, the unthinkable has happened — the character is no longer automatically associated with Rathbone either! But Gillette was the first to play the character on stage, and performed as Holmes more than 1,300 times between 1899 and 1932, and also performed Holmes on film (his only movie as actor, 1916) and radio.  (Footnote:, the character of “Billy Buttons” was played by a young Charlie Chaplin during the hit London run of the play — that notable connection was one of the first places I ever heard about Gillette.) Here he is in that role:

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Gillette would have been a notable figure in American theatrical history even if his career had not been associated with the galvanizing character of Holmes. In addition to his innate talent as an actor, which was legendary, he was fortunate in his birth. His father was the influential U.S. Senator and activist  Francis Gillette. William was helped in his early career by family friend Mark Twain, who secured a role for him in a Boston production of The Gilded Age in 1875. Against his father’s wishes, Gillette had been acting in stock companies since 1873; his father’s death in 1878 removed that element of tension from his life. I am VERY interested to learn that Gillette wrote an unproduced play called The Twins of Siam in 1879 — surely it is about the conjoined twins of Siam who worked for P.T. Barnum! Interestingly, Twain had also written a story inspired by these twins This must be looked into.

In 1879, he debuted his play The Professor in Columbus, Ohio. In 1881, Daniel and Gustave Frohman brought it to New York, where it was a moderate success and his career was assured. That year he also helped Frances Hodgson Burnett (Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess, The Secret Garden) adapt her story Esmerelda for the stage. In 1887 he wrote and starred in his Civil War drama Held by the Enemy, which was such a hit in New York that Charles Frohman helped him transfer it to London, where it was the first American show with an American author and star to gain widespread approval from the English public.

In 1887, Gillette adapted H. Rider Haggard’s science fiction novel She for the stage. (This is the same source for Merian C. Cooper’s eponymous 1935 film, made as a follow up to his King Kong pictures.) In 1893, he wrote a nine-scene patriotic pageant for the Barnum and Bailey Circus called The War of the American Revolution. In 1894, there was his farce Too Much Johnson, also legendary, for it was the source for Orson Welles’ first film, made in 1938 for a stage production and now lost). In 1895, his play Secret Service became another smash. The American production starred Maurice Barrymore; the London production starred Gillette and further cemented his reputation with the British public.

It was after this that he was hired to adapt Holmes for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with Charles Frohman as intermediary. You will note that Gillette had already been in the theatre for over a quarter of a century by this point. Holmes was a cash machine, and without a doubt it would dominate his life going forward. But it wasn’t all that Gillette did, even in his remaining decades. In 1903 he starred as the title character in the American premiere of J.M. Barrie’s The Admiral Crichton. There were countless other premieres and revivals of his own plays on Broadway over the next three decades. Starting in 1915, silent films began to be made of his plays: Esmerelda (1915), starring Mary PickfordSherlock Holmes (1916) starring Gillette himself, Secret Service (1919), Too Much Johnson (1919), and Held by the Enemy (1920). A talkie version of Secret Service starring Richard Dix was released in 1931.

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We haven’t even touched on Gillette the actor. Contemporary descriptions of him remind me of my feelings about Patrick McGoohan. He was said to be mesmerizing, that he could compel your attention with the tiniest and most minimal of gestures. But it was also said that he was also somewhat affectless, that it wasn’t about “romance” or “heart”. I was thrilled to see the recent screening of his 1916 screen version on TCM. That event was nothing short of miraculous. Not only had the long-lost film been discovered, but it had been discovered (in a French archive) in 2014 — just in time for the film’s centennial! While it was thrilling to watch the actual Gillette in action, something I had assumed I’d never get to do, the crudity of the production made it difficult to properly make any sort of fair assessment. 1916 was still early in film history. The Birth of a Nation had been released only a few months before, and the director of this version of Sherlock Holmes was no D.W. Griffith. Most of the film is shot from wide angles, making it hard to see actors faces, at least on TV — it would be much better to see it screened in a theatre (here’s hoping!). And Gillette was 63 at this stage, although he would continue to play the part for almost another two decades. Gillette’s adaptation is also not QUITE what fans of the Holmes’ fiction and movies are expecting. It’s very “drawing room”…it contains much less of Holmes the intellect, sniffing the universe like a bloodhound perceiving what the rest of us poor mortals can’t. He is much more the conventional “inspector”. STILL! Gillette is the first guy to wear the deerstalker and cape, the first to smoke the Meerschaum, and abstractly scrape his violin while he thinks. And, as I think we’ve amply demonstrated, he is significant for so much more besides.

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

Leonore Ulric: Belasco’s Beauty

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 21, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Leonore Ulric (1892-1970). Ulric was a creature of both stage and screen, zigzagging between both throughout her entire career. She began with midwestern stock companies in Milwaukee, Grand Rapids and Chicago. In the early to mid teens she starred in numerous silent films for Essanay Studios, based out of Chicago. From there she went on to be a Broadway star for David Belasco. And from there, an actress in talking films, in such films as Camille (1936) and Notorious (1946).  And from there back to the stage. She appeared at the Palace and other big time vaudeville venues in the late 1920s.

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

Janet Reade: Wife of Two Pat Rooneys

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Singing Comediennes, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 21, 2016 by travsd

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The Wife of Two Pat Rooneys. 

Today is the birthday of Janet Reade (Helen Dorothy Rulton, 1910-1943). Beginning as a chorus girl for Flo Ziegfeld, her lucky break was a featured part in Ballyhoo of 1930. This led to a string of Vitaphone musical comedy shorts and appearances in big time vaudeville houses like the Palace through the mid 30s. In 1935 she married vaudeville dancer Pat Rooney Jr. She raised more than a few eyebrows when she divorced him in 1942 to marry his father Pat Rooney, Sr. She died the following year of a liver ailment.

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

Augustin Daly: First Man to Tie a Damsel to Railroad Tracks

Posted in Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Broadway, Impresarios, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Playwrights with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of pivotal American playwright, producer, and critic Augustin Daly (1838-1899).

The son of a North Carolina sea captain, Daly moved to New York as a young child with his mother and brother when his father died at sea. The family were inveterate theatre goers paving the way for Daly’s lifelong association. He began his professional career as a critic starting in 1859. He began adapting and writing plays at around the same time.

Daly was to become one of the most prolific and influential American theatre artists of all time. Though dismissed by later generations, I believe time will give him his due. Though not a great literary man, he was hugely influential on the craft of the stage itself. His main modus operandi was to gobble up existing properties (foreign hits, Shakespeare, and novels) and adapt them — a method which I believe strongly presages the later working methods of Hollywood. His productions were known for their heightened realism (for the time), for spectacular special effects (also anticipating Hollywood), and for establishing rituals of what we now think of as melodrama.

His adaptation of the German play Leah the Forsaken (1862) was his first success. Under the Gaslight (1867) remains his best known original play — it purported to bring audiences to gritty urban realms and introduced the soon-to-be-overused device of a villain tying a heroine to railroad tracks. (This invention would outlive Daly in earnest by at least a couple of decades in the movies.  But people were still sending it up as comedy as late as Dudley Do-Right cartoons in the 1960s.

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Mack Sennett’s parody of the ritual, 1914, a sure fire sign it was already old hat by then

A Flash of Lightning (1868) was the follow up to Gaslight. In 1870 he produced Bronson Howard’s successful Saratoga. Horizon (1871) was an adaptation of a Bret Harte story set in the wild west. His Dickens adaptations included Pickwick Papers (1868) and Oliver Twist (1874). His numerous Shakespeare adaptations were criticized by Shaw and others for the audacious manner in which Daly cut passages and scenes and switched things around. 

Starting in 1869, he managed his own stock company based at the Fifth Avenue Theatre. He was to build his own Broadway house a decade later and another theatre in London in 1893. At various times his company included Ada Rehan, Maurice Barrymore, John Drew Jr, Tyrone Power Sr (father of the Hollywood actor), Maude Adams, Isadora Duncan, and Fanny Davenport. He continued working until his death in 1899; the shadow he cast (though the public has forgotten him)remains to this day.

For more on show biz 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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