Archive for August, 2016

On Chaplin’s Other Half Brother

Posted in Broadway, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Wheeler Dryden (George Dryden Wheeler, Jr, 1892-1957). It was tempting to include him in both my Stars of Vaudeville and Stars of Slapstick series, but Dryden was admittedly minor in both fields, and I decided to go with the best headline!

Dryden was Charlie Chaplin’s half-brother, born to their mother Hannah Hill (a.k.a Lily Harley) when the comedian was three years old. The chronology of events appears to go something like this:

  1. In 1885, music hall performers Charles Chaplin, Sr.and Hannah Hill marry. Hill came into the marriage with the infant Sydney, whose father may have been a man named Sydney Hawkes
  2. 1889, Charlie Chaplin is born
  3. 1890, Charles Chaplin, Sr. has a successful vaudeville tour of America, leaving Hannah alone with the children
  4. 1891, Hannah becomes involved with music hall performer Leo Dryden and Hannah separates from Chaplin (or vice versa)
  5. 1892, Wheeler Dryden born

Charles Chaplin, Sr. never divorced Hill, and Leo took custody of the infant Wheeler, removing her from the care of the unstable woman. From here she began to spiral into the mental illness that would overshadow Charlie Chaplin’s life.  A single mother, abandoned by several men, and one of her children taken away.

Like everyone else in the family, Wheeler Dryden became a vaudeville performer. In 1915, after his two half brothers became famous, his father told him the news of his real mother. He started reaching out to Charlie and Sydney at that time, although it took him two years to finally get a reply from them. He joined them in America in 1918.

Dryden enjoyed some small initial success in Hollywood, appearing in the dramas Tom’s Little Star (1919) and False Women (1921), the kid’s movie Penrod (1921) and the Stan Laurel comedy Mud and Sand (1922).

After this, he focused on Broadway, where he appeared in ten plays between 1925 and 1939.  In 1928, he adapted and co-directed the feature A Little Bit of Fluff starring Sydney Chaplin. In 1938 he married Alice Chapple, a dancer at radio City Music Hall. Their son Spencer Dryden was one of the original members of Jefferson Airplane, and was later a member of New Riders of the Purple Sage and other bands (he was a drummer).

Over the next decade-plus he was to be a key member of Chaplin’s creative team. He was assistant director and did some voiceover work on The Great Dictator (1940). He was associate director and played a bit role in Monsieur Verdoux (1947). And he had a slightly larger speaking role as a doctor, and acted as Chaplin’s personal assistant on Limelight (1952).

At this stage, when Chaplin began his exile in Europe, Dryden remained in Hollywood to oversee his interests in America. At this stage, he alone of the three brothers seems to have inherited his mother’s stress-triggered mental illness, living in seclusion and growing paranoid and detached from reality. Although it might be more accurate to say he was all TOO connected to reality. He was being harassed by the FBI at the time, after all.  He passed away in 1957.

To learn more about comedy film history don’t miss my 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. For still 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.

The Genius of George Herriman

Posted in African American Interest, AMERICANA, VISUAL ART with tags , , on August 22, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great George Herriman (1880-1944). I almost just called Krazy Kat the greatest comic strip of all time — surely no strip has ever been greater — but in a world that has also included Little Nemo and Thimble Theatre/ early Popeye, I hesitate to be so rash.

If I were African American, I would claim Herriman’s place in that pantheon of their greatest geniuses, like Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Bert Williams, Zora Neal Hurston, August Wilson, etc etc. Few seem to, perhaps because it is not well known that he was of Creole/ mixed-race ancestry (he was originally from New Orleans), and he kept his ethnic identity a secret during his lifetime (it wasn’t widely known until 1970). But clearly the complex cultural mash-up (white, black, Cuban, possibly Native American) that went into the forming the individual known as George Herriman enriched his art a great deal.

My first exposure to his work (I think) came through his illustrations for Don Marquis’s jazzy free-verse thingy archy & mehitabel. That he managed to make the latter character quite distinct from his most famous cartoon cat was a triumph by itself. Krazy Kat ran from 1913 through Herriman’s death in 1944, although he had been a professional cartoonist since the turn of the century. Prior to that, he had worked as a sideshow talker on Coney Island!

Krazy Kat is full of wonderful contradictions: steeped in Americana yet the most sophisticated strip ever, a work of modern art; simple in structure yet dense in detail. It is set in Coconino County in Arizona’s Monument Valley, where Herriman loved to spend his time. Already an otherworldly landscape, Herriman stylized it even further so that it literally seemed like another planet. Cactus plants, mesas and rock formations, adobe buildings, and above all uncluttered wide open spaces extending beyond the horizon turn it into a dreamscape, not unlike the sort one finds in the surreal visions of Salvador Dali. 

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And while this world is populated with all manner of kooky creatures, we are primarily concerned with just three: the titular feline, a slinky, sassy, funky and gender-ambiguous jazz age creation; Ignatz Mouse, the object of his/her affections whose only reciprocation is to bean bricks off of Krazy Kat’s head (the strip’s central ritual); and Offissa Pupp, who locks Ignatz in jail for the brick-beanings (the strip’s secondary ritual). The repetition of this cycle (against the stark landscape) reminds me a lot of Beckett and Godot…only it was created decades earlier. It is effortlessly existential. It is the dance of life.

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On top of that simple framework, like so much colorful papier macher, goes Herriman’s dialogue, which is absolutely unique, and to my mind makes him as much of a literary genius as he is a visual one. The characters speak some weird, hybrid patois, constructed out of various American and foreign regionalisms, slang, and whimsical spellings. Surely, Herriman’s own New Orleans origins can be heard in that voice, but some of it is just out his own gonzo head. His writing is both poetic and folkish, a highly wrought tapestry of language that to my mind makes some scholastic-minded aspirant like, say, Anthony Burgess seem like a piker.

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The dialogue (and the cycle of events described above) make it tempting to want to “do” something with Krazy Kat. Ya know, like ya do. Most of the major comic strips have been turned into plays and movies and animated shorts. The attempt was made more than once with Krazy Kat, and one simply has to come to the conclusion that — NO. Just no. I realized with some resignation the other day that even if these attempts had been good (they are not) they would still be bad, because they would always be wrong. Krazy Kat is so good because it is the ultimate expression of the comic strip medium. It is made FOR this medium. It is built out of the shape of its panels. The humor often refers directly to the shape of the layout itself. It occurred to me yesterday…of COURSE I don’t WANT to see what’s in the blackness beyond that horizon and therefore we CANNOT move through that space. It is imperative that we don’t! An animated version of Krazy Kat is kind of like a record album of somebody narrating an illuminated manuscript. It doesn’t CONVEY.

And this makes me a little sad because it means Krazy Kat will always be a bit obscure, known only to the people who do things like read books and go to museums. The numbers of people who once knew Krazy Kat from the newspaper’s funny pages will soon dwindle to nothing. Yet the strip was never popular with the masses, even in its heyday. It may well be just as popular today as it ever was. And that’s just Krazy.

R.I.P. Arthur Hiller

Posted in Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Movies with tags , , , , , on August 17, 2016 by travsd

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Just heard that Arthur Hiller has passed away at the age of 92. I had been planning a post on this interesting director for a while. It occurred to me a few months ago that certain of his films add up to a case for him as a comic auteur of sorts. Two of his films, The Out of Towners (1970) and The In Laws (1979) are among the funniest feature films of modern times — I have laughed so hard at both of those movies I gave myself bellyaches. And The Hospital (1971) is one of my favorite satires/ black comedies; and a worthy warm-up for screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s next outing in the genre, Network. I’ve never been crazy about Silver Streak (1976) but it has to be acknowledged that it was one of the most SUCCESSFUL comedies of its day, is very expertly made, and forever altered the screen careers of both Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. Nearly as successful was his 80’s comedy Outrageous Fortune (1987) with Shelly Long and Bette Midler. The common denominator among many of his best comedies was interplay between two top notch comedy co-stars. Also worth mentioning in the comedy context are his earlier collaboration with Chayefsky, The Americanization of Emily (1964), Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite (1971), and that strange, factually challenged bio-pic of one of the screen’s greatest comedians W.C. Fields and Me (1976). And earlier oddments like Popi (1969) with frequent collaborator Alan Arkin and The Tiger Makes Out (1967) with Eli Wallach as a guy who’s trying to pick out a woman to kidnap.

He maybe hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves because there is a hit or miss quality to his career overall. It seems like lightning only struck for him occasionally. His biggest success of all was of course the smash hit weepie Love Story (1970), which now seems more of a dated curiosity than a perennial classic. The seventies proved to be his truly solid decade. After that, for the most part he was seriously off his game. One thinks of Author! Author! (1982) as the nadir of Al Pacino’s career prior to his comeback a few years later. There followed lots of other weak outings like Romantic Comedy (1983); The Lonely Guy (1984), which was the first true signal to me of how disappointing Steve Martin’s career was going to be; and the — well, unfortunate — See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989). And we’ll not speak ill of the dead by talking about the movies that came after.

But at his height, as we say, very few film-makers ever made me laugh as hard as he did in a small handful of comedies.  I can’t think of a better way to celebrate his life than by watching those films right now! And maybe checking out some of his interesting films I still haven’t seen…

Troll Museum Resurrection!

Posted in Art Stars, SOCIAL EVENTS, VISUAL ART, Women with tags , , , , , , on August 17, 2016 by travsd

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Great fun last night at the Chinatown Soup gallery for the gala opening of the one-week re-appearance of Rev Jen’s Troll Museum. The Museum (which contains more trolls than you will find any place outside their natural Scandinavian stomping grounds) was formerly ensconced in Rev Jen’s pad, but both she and the trolls were evicted a few weeks ago. They need your support; an easy and pleasurable way to do it is to swing by the gallery on Lower Orchard Street and make a donation or buy some of Rev Jen’s art. Here’s some of what and whom we saw last night. All art is by the cosmically brilliant Rev Jen:

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Old friend and long-time supporter CC John is the guy with the brewski. He took most of the photos and videos of my American Vaudeville Theatre’s earliest years

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Porno Jim was there with his pooch in a bag, Bowie

 

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Pay the toll to the troll!

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Portrait of the Artist as Out of Con-TROLL. Though I’ve known and occasionally worked with her for going on 20 years these pictures we took last night are the only photos I know of that contain us both. We decided to make them count. ALL POWER TO THE REV!

 

Davy Crockett, Man of Letters

Posted in AMERICANA, Asian, BUNKUM with tags , , , , , , on August 17, 2016 by travsd
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Portrait of Crockett by John Gadsby Chapman

Today is the birthday of Davy Crockett (1786-1836).

Because he has been so heavily mythologized I think there has been an unfortunate tendency to regard this important American figure as a total “folk hero”, like Johnny Appleseed (also a real guy), or perhaps more like, say, Mike Fink or Pecos Bill. One hears of exploits like wrestling bears and contemplates the costume which has since become so iconic and arrives at a verdict of “unreality” even when so many of the historical things he did (served in Congress, died defending the Alamo) are a matter of record.

Last year I chanced to read his 1834 memoir A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, Written by Himself (ironically co-written with fellow Congressman Thomas Chilton.) I was drawn to the book by two opposite but related impulses. One is that I am working on a piece of writing inspired by the American tradition of humbug and Tall Tales, a theme I have been seriously exploring for a couple of decades now. But the second attraction was the facts. I am related to Crockett (through his great-grandmother, who was a Stewart) and (by marriage) to his first wife Polly Finley. And he lived where my family lived (Eastern and Middle Tennessee) and fought in the same battles in the Creek War and War of 1812. I thought I might pick up useful details, and I indeed did.

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But I found myself especially impressed with the book as a founding American cultural document of sorts. Crockett is like a missing link in American politics, and a pioneer in letters. In this highly entertaining book I heard a VOICE, a voice that I feel must have influenced everybody from Mark Twain to Abraham Lincoln to Will Rogers. Crockett’s voice is humorous, earthy, folkish, steeped in the hilarious, outlandish metaphors and hyperbole of the frontier. It manages to be both boastful and honest “Always be sure you are right, then go ahead” was his motto).

I say “missing link” because Benjamin Franklin had been our first politician to walk around in a coonskin cap and fringe jacket, although he did that in Paris and purely for a calculated effect. Crockett would become one of our first national political figures to make a virtue out of being rustic, paving the way for all those “log cabin” presidential candidates who came in his wake. If he had lived longer, I have little doubt, his national ambitions would have continued to bear fruit. Interestingly. his arch-nemesis was Andrew Jackson, also from Tennessee. He hated Jackson’s Indian removal policy and his autocratic tendencies. This hurt him at home politically.When Crockett was voted out of Congress in 1835, he went to Texas to take part in the Revolution, which is where he met his end. (“The voters can go to hell; I’m going to Texas” I’ve tweaked that a little but that’s essentially whet he said). Had he not died, it’s likely he would have been right there with Stephen Austin and Sam Houston as one of the founders of the Republic, and then the State, of Texas.

In the Narrative, Crockett plays both Ned Buntline and Buffalo Bill. It’s this tooting of his own horn that makes him so American. His early childhood was uncommonly hard: indentured servitude, farm labor, starvation and more than one incident of running away from home to go on long distance cattle drives — all before adulthood. He made a legend for himself as a bear hunter (the amount of bears he claims to have killed can’t help but strike you as gross) and an Indian fighter, and his leadership and manly prowess was what propelled him to success in local politics despite his lack of formal education (he was sent to school but played hooky for a long stretch, a phase of life one can’t help associating with Huckleberry Finn). His tales of the difficulty of courting his wife (over the objections of her mother) are quite touching.

The success of the book and his martyrdom at the Alamo led to dime novels and stage plays about him, then movies, and finally the tv show, which truly cemented the legend. Surely, people think to themselves, this guy can’t have been real. But he WAS.

Fess Parker: American Icon

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Fess Parker (1924-2010 — how did I not notice that he died so recently?)

I would have been thrilled as a child to have known that I am distantly related to this film and tv actor through my grandmother Flora Parker. He is best known for playing frontiersmen such as Davy Crockett (1955-56), Daniel Boone (1964-1970) and the dad in Old Yeller (1957). Though these were all before my time, they were still shown frequently on tv when I was a kid, and I was encouraged to embrace them (and did). Our family has strong historical connections to Crockett (whom I’ll be blogging about some more tomorrow) and Boone, and like the hero of Old Yeller I am named “Travis”.

Given his rustic and rough-hewn persona, one is surprised to learn that at the time Parker began finding employment as a movie extra in 1951 he was working on a master’s degree in theatre history. His undergrad major at the University of Texas had been in history, a background that would stand him in good stead when he began to be cast in westerns and frontier stories. His Texas accent and imposing height (6′ 6″) were even bigger assets.

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Parker’s progress was rapid. Based on his appearance in several minor roles in westerns and guest appearances on television, Walt Disney himself cast Parker as Davy Crockett in the titular mini-series in 1956, which was so popular it set off a national craze for coonskin caps among American schoolchildren. The kid in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom sports one in homage to that fad.

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Parker and coon-clad fans

Parker and coon-clad fans

 

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Sure! He won’t grow up to be a tower shooter or anything!

It was during his time as a contract player for Disney that he appeared in Old Yeller, but he grew dissatisfied with being typecast and with repeatedly being asked to take small, non-starring roles, so he left Disney in 1958.

One of his notable roles during this period was the title part in a 1962 series based on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This is wonderfully fortuitous casting. If Parker’s acting chops aren’t up to Jimmy Stewart’s, he is without a doubt the right type to a T. (Interestingly, Davy Crockett had been a Congressman. The concept of playing a simple, honest country man who must confront the cynical sophisticates in Washington was not a new one to Parker).

Parker as Daniel Boone. Notice the difference?

Parker as Daniel Boone. Notice the difference?

Ironically, his next iconic role was to be so similar to his first one that he may just as well have remained working for Disney. In 1964 he was cast as the title character in the series Daniel Boone, attired in nearly the same costume, and put in the same setting, log cabins in the Tennessee/Kentucky frontier. I was in the first grade when the series went off the air in 1970; I still remember the theme song after all that time. It was a very popular show, as its six year run testifies.

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But by 1970, tastes were rapidly changing. In the late Vietnam era, westerns were dying faster than the buffalo. Parker would have to reinvent himself if he wanted to remain in the game. Astoundingly, he turned down a perfect chance to do just that. In 1970 he was the first choice to play the title character in McCloud, the NBC police drama about the culture clash that arises when a New Mexico marshal is loaned to the New York City police department. Along with Columbo and McMillan and Wife it was one of the shows presented in rotation on the NBC Sunday Mystery series, which would prove a blockbuster success, and the role of McCloud would have been perfect for Parker, casting him as a rustic type thrust into the modern world. But Parker passed, and the role went to Dennis Weaver, who had earlier achieved stardom on Gunsmoke. 

In 1974, he made a pilot for The Fess Parker Show, in which he played the harried dad of “three feisty daughters.” It was not picked up. He retired from show business after that. He went on to found the Fess Parker Winery (and Coonskin Cap Store), which was used as a location in the movie Sideways. And he invented that new soft drink: “Fess Up” (kiddin’!)

R.I.P. Fyvush Finkel

Posted in Broadway, Jews/ Show Biz, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, OBITS, Television with tags , , , on August 15, 2016 by travsd

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Was saddened yesterday to hear that Fyvush Finkel has passed at age 93. When a show biz figure dies at that age it is not unusual to be  surprised to learn that they are still alive, for they have often been infirm and retired and out of the limelight for decades.But Fyvush was still going strong, after 80+ years in show business. In fact, he had done a one man show at the Metropolitan Room just five months ago. I was lucky enough to get to interview him  at that time for The VillagerI found him to be funny, sweet, sharp and and an absolute hog for attention. He was just what you’d expect and want him to be. May we all be so lively and full of fun when it is five minutes ’til midnight! The article from back in March is here.

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