Archive for October, 2016

Scenes of the Houdini Museum (on the 90th Anniversary of His Death)

Posted in EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Halloween, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on October 31, 2016 by travsd

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90 years ago this very night, Harry Houdini shuffled off this moral coil. I happened to find myself near the Houdini Museum today, so I popped in to remember him (it’s located in the Fantasma Magic Shop, across the street from Penn Station.) Here are some snaps I took:

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This bust, modelled from life, was removed from Houdini's grave monument in Queens

This bust, modeled from life, was removed from Houdini’s grave monument in Queens

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For more on Houdini, magic, and vaudeville consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous

Vampires, Ghosts and Witches Among My Relations

Posted in Halloween, Horror (Mostly Gothic), ME, My Family History with tags , , , , , , , , on October 31, 2016 by travsd

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Happy Halloween!

Today we continue our series of family background posts by relating some relatives with a spooky connection. I’m not really close kin to most of these characters, but I’ll lay death’s heads to door-knockers I’m closer than most. So if I happen to get menaced by actual Halloween monsters this year, I am hoping I can drop the names of these supernatural relations to talk my way out of it. (Although I hasten to point out that in just about every example below, it was a less a case of someone being a monster than an example of ignorant, paranoid relatives, neighbors and strangers terrifying themselves, pointing at someone or something else and screaming “Monster!” — which is essentially the story of mankind.)

VAMPIRES

Actually both of these famous Rhode island vampires I’ll be discussing are closer to “nosferatu” than they are conventional vamps as codified in films, i.e. they were “plague-bringers” as opposed to “blood-suckers” . But just as undead, baby, just as undead! Both of these legendary tales are lain in the town of Exeter, which is about 15 minutes from the house where I grew up. (As it happens, my parents are buried in Exeter, although in different graveyards from the legendary creatures)

Why such an inoffensive little stretch of road as Exeter would be home to the walking undead at first seems mysterious, but scholars have been working on this a while, and I found this 2012 article from Smithsonian to be most illuminating.

It turns out 19th century New England “vampires” (especially Rhode Island vampires) are a thing. The scholar in the article has identified upwards of 80 cases similar to what you’ll find described below. The participants most likely never used the word “vampire” — that terminology was imposed by outsiders and the press in describing the strange goings on. It’s a phenomenon not unlike the witch hysteria of a century and more earlier, although with a different set of contributing factors, which are these:

Consumption. The microbes that cause the horrors of tuberculosis were unknown at the time. People saw their friends and neighbors wasting away, feverish, fatigued, pale, sweating and red-eyed. They drew conclusions about the cause that were within their own belief system, which was steeped in…

Superstition. Naturally rural folk are more more prone to be superstitious, but there was a particular reason for those of Rhode Island to be even more superstitious. An ironic one. Rhode Island had been founded as a refuge for dissenters, with complete religious freedom. In the early years it was no less a religious place than the surrounding colonies, just with far less official oversight about personal belief. Providence became the birthplace of the Baptist church; Portsmouth and Newport were havens for Quakers and Anabaptists. But that also meant that folks were also allowed to worship NOTHING. Unlike most of New England, Rhode Islanders were not required to attend church, let alone a certain church. In time, a situation existed where the vast majority attended NO church. This left room for a vacuum of sorts. While many modern people make a false assumption which equates religion with superstition intrinsically, Protestantism (in the period after the witch trials, at least) was theoretically about reason, regarding superstitious beliefs as false and unenlightened. In Rhode Island, however, all bets were off.

A couple of potential sources for the ritual practices mentioned below exist. One, is (as a newspaper quoted a local man of the time as saying) that the beliefs came from local Indian Tribes. Another (and I find this one especially compelling given the time line) is a “mysterious foreign quack” who appeared in the town of Willington (Northeastern Connecticut) in 1784, and whose ungodly prescriptions were condemned in the pages of the Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer.

Thanks to Rory Raven for having first introduced us to these local legends during our walking tour a couple of years ago. These are just two of the most famous cases of the so-called New England vampires. I’m likely to be related to others, but I haven’t looked into their coffins yet.

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SARAH TILLINGHAST

I am one of the thousands descended from Pardon Tillinghast, one of Rhode Island’s earliest settlers and an important minister at the famous Baptist Church of Providence. And so too is the family in question:

In 1799, Rhode Island farmer Stukely Tillinghast had a dream that half the trees in his orchard had failed. Like Joseph in the Old Testament, this dream was taken to be a portent; even more would be read into it later…after he lost half his family. Sometime after the dream, Tillinghast’s 19 year old daughter Sarah contracted consumption and died. Shortly thereafter a son James also came down with the disease. But (undoubtedly in a delirium) he also made the nettlesome claim that the recently deceased Sarah had visited him in the night. And you can see where that might cause trouble. James died. Then four other of the Tillinghast children (of a total of 11) also became ill and died — after claiming that the dead Sarah had also appeared to them. And this happened to some of their neighbors, as well. By the time Tillinghast’s wife Honor came down with consumption and claimed to be seeing her dead children, the farmer decided something must be done. (He was a Yankee farmer — it took him a while to get off his butt).

We don’t know where Stukely got the idea, nor even how true it is, we only know the lore. And according to the story, he exhumed the coffins of his recently dead children and Sarah’s was found to be curiously…well-preserved. In comparison with the remains of the others, there was a troubling lack of decomposition. And (this is the oft quoted detail I find hard to give any credence to) “the heart was full of fresh blood”. Oh, yes — did I mention that Stukely cut the heart out of his own daughter’s corpse?  And then, as someone told him to do, he then burned it, to make Sarah’s spirit go away. And as the story goes, Honor recovered after this measure was taken, and there were no more illnesses or deaths.

The family is buried at Rhode Island Historical Cemetery #14. Stukeley’s headstone has been removed, and the children have stones with no writing on them, but you can find Honor’s, which is marked only with “H.T.” Go to this link and a man will take you right there. 

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MERCY BROWN 

This next story happened in the same town of Exeter almost a century later. Almost everyone who tells these stories has a weird, infuriating tendency to either gloss over or ignore what I take to be a highly significant fact: same thing, happened twice, same town. Naturally these two stories are far more related to one another than people tend to stress. I hardly think it is a coincidence that a second outbreak of the same hysteria occurred in the same tiny town as the initial one. I’d go so far as to speculate that the 1892 incident was inspired by surviving local stories of the 1799 one.

Yes — 1892. One might think that that is very, very late for something of this nature to be happening in the civilized Northeastern United States. But then, yeah…no. Guess what? Where I live (New York City) scarcely a year goes by that one doesn’t read in the paper about some superstition-based murder, often linked to voodoo, or Santeria. I cast no aspersion against those fascinating religions, especially in light of the bloody lapses of those who practice my own faith. (Conversion by the sword, anyone?) I’m just referencing a parallel, similar phenomenon — there are still people around who believe in evil spirits that much.

And as for the “civilized Northeastern United States” — here’s a little known fact. In the late 19th and early 20th century, New England’s population outside the cities had drastically declined. Evidence of that is still with us. Walk through any New England forested area and before long you will run into a stone wall.  (Don’t run too hard!) You also see stone walls surrounding houses and farms, of course, but how mysterious to find them in the middle of the woods. The explanation is that those wooded areas were once farms, which subsequently were abandoned, became overgrown and reverted to nature. Population in the area was lost due to westward migration and the Civil War. And while immigration later increased American population overall, rural New England was not where most of the newcomers settled, at least not for a long time.

It’s gradually dawned on me that an unlikely reporter on this phenomenon is H.P. Lovecraft. For the longest time I would read his stories and not go along for the ride because I couldn’t imagine the New England countryside being as eerily secluded as he describes it. But it seems that in his time it was, after all.  This makes for an interesting parallelism between the European and American Romanticisms. The Europeans had their ruins; and we too, after a fashion, had ours.

So Exeter, Rhode Island, a backwater to begin with, was an even worse one at the time of which I write. Its population in the 1820s had been well over 2,000. By the 1890s it was down to only about 900. This is why I’m pretty comfortable speculating that I’m related to this family of Browns. Brown is a much more common name than Tillinghast, but like the latter family, it is also the name of one of the founding families of Rhode Island (who started Brown University and much else). I am related to these Browns; and I find it likely that so are the Browns of Exeter, a town with so little population influx prior to the late 20th century.

The Keep, where the corpse was kept at the Exeter cemetery prior to Mercy's examination

The Keep, where the corpse was kept at the Exeter cemetery prior to Mercy’s examination

The Brown story is remarkably similar to that of the Tillinghasts. It began with Mary the mother‘s death by consumption in 1883, followed by the death of a daughter, also named Mary, six months later. Then nine years passed. Mercy came down with consumption and passed away in 1892. Her older brother Edwin came down with it a few months later, and that’s when the hysteria broke out this time. In this case, the community demanded an exhumation. Mercy’s father George Brown didn’t believe in the superstition and agreed to it only reluctantly. In an interesting and modern, if somewhat illogical, twist, a physician was called to examine Mercy’s body. He noted that her hair and fingernails had continued to grow after death. (Though that happens to most bodies). Be that as it may, Mercy’s heart was cut out, burned, mixed with medicinal herbs and put into a potion for Edwin to drink to ward off the bad spirits. He died anyway.

1892 is essentially the modern era. The difference between this case and most of the earlier New England vampire cases is that this one was widely reported. Newspaper men from the Providence Journal were on the scene and papers carried the story around the world. Soon the 20th century would dawn: movies, radio, television. Even rural places like Exeter began to have some dim awareness that such things as vampires were not real. And perhaps the wide reporting on the Brown incident was something of an embarrassment. So no similar incidents followed. Because of this, Mercy Brown is often known as the “Last New England Vampire.”

H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Shunned House appears to draw from both the Tillinghast and the Brown incidents, and some of have speculated that news of the Mercy Brown story had also reached Bram Stoker, whose Dracula was first published in 1897, just five years later.  And there are those later tales of New England vampires, Dark Shadows and Salem’s Lot to chew on…

GHOSTS

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THE OLD ARNOLD ESTATE (A.K.A. THE CONJURING HOUSE) 

This house was the real-life basis for the 2013 horror film The Conjuring. I’m going to bore you by sticking closer to the known facts than the film, books about the topic, and lots of what you will find online will tell you; my main source for the factier facts is this investigative web site.  Also, most accounts of the story start with the haunting (1970-1980) and work backwards and keep it vague. I’m going to go chronologically and try to be a little more specific.

What I know is that the Old Arnold Estate was built in Harrisville, Rhode Island in 1736. Harrisville is part of Burrillville, and adjacent to my mother’s hometown of Putnam, Connecticut. Many, many generations of Arnolds lived on the farm. And tragedies happened to at least three members of the family, although not all of it happened on the property. A Susan Arnold hung herself in the house in 1866. 11 year old Prudence Arnold was raped and murdered (throat slit) by farmhand William Knowles in 1848 (this happened across the state line in Massachusetts). And an Edwin Arnold was found frozen to death on the nearby property of Smith Aldrich after a night of carousing at the pub.

Then there is the case of the Arnold’s next door neighbor Bathsheba Sherman (1812-1885). If you squint at the photo above, which was taken on the Arnold estate, some have speculated that the woman in the center foreground is Bathsheba. Bathsheba was the daughter of Ephraim Thayer and Hannah Taft, and the wife of Judson Sherman. She had four children, only one of whom lived past early childhood. About Bathsheba there is much lore, most of it of recent vintage: that she was secretive, evil, mean, a witch, a Satanist, and that she killed a baby by driving a knitting needle into the back of its skull. There doesn’t seem to be evidence for any of this. When she died, she was given the usual Christian burial next to her husband, although it seems as though some puddingheads decided to vandalize her grave marker:

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At any rate in 1970, a nice modern American family named the Perrons acquired the Old Arnold Estate and, by their testimony, things began to happen. Objects, including beds, levitated. Voices and noises were heard. A woman in a grey dress appeared and said “Get out!” People were slapped and pinched by unseen forces. And one of the family was stabbed by an invisible needle which drew blood. Who you gonna call? Why Ed and Lorraine Warren, of course, America’s most famous psychic investigators, and the folks who also cleaned up the cobwebs at the Amityville Horror House. The Perrons and the Warrens seem to have decided many things about whom those spirits may have been and then decided to tell the world. Andrea Perron wrote her three volume account House of Darkness, House of Light. And Hollywood made The Conjuring, which turned into an entire multi-million dollar franchise.

What’s my connection to all this? Well, as I mention above, my mom is from just a few miles away and I am related to all of those families historically connected with the house and the area: the Arnolds, the Shermans, the Thayers, the Tafts, and even the Aldriches. all of them are names in my family tree. All of them, it seems, but the Perrons and the Warrens — and that’s okay by me.

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59 Church Street, Charleston, said to be haunted by Ladd

DR. JOSEPH BROWN LADD

My great-great-great grandmother Almira Kirtland Ladd of New London was one of a hugely prolific clan of New England Ladds. These Ladds were fruitful and multiplied. Many of them were famous (I’ve written about some, and I’ll write about others). And, it turns out, my first crush in high school was also one of them! And, so too was Dr. Joseph Brown Ladd (1764-1786). Ladd was born in Newport, Rhode Island but through a curious set of circumstances he would go on to become one of the most famous ghosts of Charleston, South Carolina.  (Only yesterday I read of another Rhode Island family with a foothold in Charleston, the Hazards, founders of the village of Peace Dale. A likely explanation for a social corridor between the two distant locations is the slave trade, which flourished in both locations in the 18th centuries, though I hasten to point out that the Hazards would come to be prominent slavery opponents in the 19th century. But this is a digression!)

Ladd apprenticed to a local Rhode Island physician at age 15. By 1783 he was a doctor himself, and moved to Charleston with references from Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene, one of the most prominent Rhode Islanders of the time. (The war had ended just a weeks before Ladd made the move) But, when Ladd relocated to Charleston left something behind. He loved a young lady of Newport named “Amanda” (or so he calls her in his writings). He pursued her with all the fervor of youth. The love was not requited (largely through the interposition of Amanda’s unscrupulous guardian), and Ladd’s reputation was besmirched, so moved to Charleston. But he could not forget her. He wrote numerous poetic epistles to her which he called “The Letters of Arouet to Amanda.”

Ladd was well-liked and successful in Charleston. Unfortunately his easy progress got on the nerves of one of the first friends he’d made there, a man named Charles Isaacs who’d saved him from a robbery when he first arrived in town. In the intervening months, Isaacs decided Ladd was getting too big for his britches. It came to head one evening after the two met following a performance of Richard III at a Charleston theatre. The men quarreled over an actress in the play. Isaacs made unkind insinuations and then insulted Ladd publicly. To save his reputation, Ladd was forced to duel. In the exchange his kneecap was shattered, a wound that was painful, possibly crippling but also maybe survivable. But it is said that he refused treatment and died a few days letter in his rooms at 59 Church Street.

Today his spirit is said to haunt both the Church Street address and Philadelphia Alley, also known as Dueler’s Alley, where the fatal contretemps went down. Ladd is known as the “Whistling Ghost” or the “Whistling Doctor” after his lifelong habit of whistling. Because of the sad affair with Amanda, his is thought to be a mournful spirit, forever walking the earth in sadness.

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GHOSTS IN THE TOWER OF LONDON

This is a bit farther back, but the connections are just as real. It’s well known that the former fortification and prison is reputed to be haunted by the ghosts of the unhappy souls who were locked away and executed there by their enlightened monarchs. As a descendant of Royal Stewarts and other nobility I am related to many of the famous ones, including King Henry VI; the “Two Little Princes” killed by Richard III (Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury); Queen Ann Boleyn; Margaret de la Pole, Countess of Salisbury; Lady Jane Grey; and Lady Arabella Stuart. It must be crowded there, what with the bunch of them roaming the halls and moaning and sobbing and playing ninepins with their heads or whatever they are said to do. Learn more about the specifics here. 

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THE WHITE LADY

There are too many ghosts nicknamed “The White Lady” in the world to count. This one is said to reside at Highlow Hall in Heathersage, Derbyshire, where my (15th) great grandmother Elizabeth Eyre (1470-1495) is from. Highlow Hall was the ancestral home of the Eyres from 1340 to 1842.

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WITCHES 

Sir Thomas De Ashton (born circa 1403)

Sir Thomas is unique in history for having been licensed to practice sorcery or something like it. In 1446, he was given special dispensation by King Henry VI, to transmute precious metals, i.e. practice alchemy, often considered a dark art in those times. The document states that the King’s subjects are forbidden to molest Ashton for flouting God and the natural order in this way. I imagine he was counting on getting some of that gold for himself.

Alice Young (ca. 1600-1647)

A distant relation, Alice (also rendered as “Alse” or “Achsah”) Young was the first person executed for witchcraft in Colonial America, at least in the written record. Young was born in England, and moved to Windsor, CT sometime prior to her daughter Alice’s birth in 1640. She was hung for witchcraft in Hartford’s Meeting House Square in 1647. This was nearly a half century before the witch hysteria in Salem. Learn a (very) little more about her here. 

Alice Young Beamon (1640-1708)

Accused of witchcraft in Springfield, Massachusetts circa 1677, and acquitted.

Alice Ireod Lake (1616-1651)

My (10th) great grandmother, who claimed to have seen her dead baby come back to haunt her was accused of witchcraft, compounded by the crimes of pre-marital sex and attempted abortion. She was executed at Dorchester; follow the link above for more on her.

Robert Williams (1607-1693)

My (9th) great grandfather twice over (I am descended from two separate lines leading from him, one from each of his daughters, both converging in my maternal grandmother’s line, the Cadys). He was the first accused witch I discovered in the family tree, although very little is known about him. (Though he’s mentioned in many books, including one that used to be on my shelf, Drawing Down the Moon). Williams was accused and acquitted in 1669, but convicted and punished for lying. These events took place 23 years before the Salem trials.

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Susanna North Martin (1621-1692)

I wished I known about this one on our recent trip to Salem, I would have done more fact-finding with respect to her. Oh, well, all the more reason to go back! I hadn’t found her earlier because she’s not a direct relationship…she was the mother-in-law of my (9th) great grandfather James Hadlock (his second wife — after my own 9th great grandmother had died — was Abigail Martin. Still a relation, if by marriage!). This is through my maternal grandfather’s line, the Herindeens.

Susanna had first been accused of witchcraft (and of giving birth to a bastard and an IMP) in 1669. Her husband died in 1686, leaving her poor and unprotected at the time of the witch hysteria. She was 71 years old when she stood in the docks, and was not about to take any shit. Among other things, they accused of her of changing herself into a cat, jumping through a window and strangling a man while he slept. Cats aren’t generally known for their strangling abilities. but sense was not on anybody’s agenda. They also accused her of changing into many other animals, including a black hog. By all accounts she was a tiny woman. I’m sure there were many times when she would have LIKED to have been able to transform herself into a nice large, intimidating hog.

By all accounts, she laughed at her accusers, called their bluff, and never caved in as so many did to the fiction that was going on all around her. Further, she quoted the Bible in her defense. But to no avail. They hanged her in July of 1692. Read more about the brave old gal here. 

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Sarah Good (1653-1692)

Likewise, I only discovered this one recently. Sarah Good was one of the most famous of the Salem “witches” and one of the first three accused. I am related to her by marriage. She was one of the village cranks: homeless, in debt, angry, and just in general an inconvenient person to have around, one of the explanations for her having been one of the first accused. Read more about her at the link above.

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Okay, that about wraps it up! And speaking of which, “Aren’t you related to any mummies?” you may well ask, “I mean, after all, you have vampires, ghosts and witches, surely there’s a line or two that leads back to Imhotep!” Undoubtedly, but it’s four thousand years back. Give me time, give me time!

Four of the Three Musketeers: A Valuable New Book About the Marx Brothers

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Marx Brothers, PLUGS with tags , , , on October 26, 2016 by travsd

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I was too busy getting married on October 15 to notice the big news that THIS masterwork had finally come out. Rob Bader provided a privileged few of us with some memories to last a life time at Marxfest…like a comedy star Columbo he ran down some answers to questions that most of us figured would be forever lost to time. Now it looks like his big book has hit the stores. Trust me, if you’re a fan, this won’t just be the kind of book that comes out once in a blue moon — this book contains original research that, for a fan, is once-in-a-lifetime. Valuable, valuable contributions to the study of the Marx Brothers, vaudeville and early 20th century theatre in general. This is one I can’t wait to read. Get it here: https://www.amazon.com/Four-Three-Musketeers-Brothers-Stage/dp/0810134160

In Which I Get My Witch from “The Witch”

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , on October 26, 2016 by travsd

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Last year, when I read the terrific nonfiction book The Witches: Salem 1692, my over-riding takeaway was that I’d love to write a horror screenplay that worked off the mindset and belief system of the people who testified at the witch trials, the people who actually believed in witches. Almost all witch movies tend to be silly toothless comedies (Hocus Pocus, The Witches of Eastwick) or tedious stories of Satanism from the 60s and 70s (usually made by AIP, Hammer or the Italians) where the payoff at the end of 90s minutes of boredom is that the nice people one has suspected all along are in the basement dressed in cowls and chanting in Latin. To date my favorite witch movies have been The Wizard of Oz (the villainess in which is so archetypal and comes to us so young it triggers nightmares in the lizard brain), I Married a Witch (which though it is technically a screwball comedy manages to evoke a dark, dream-like and Halloweeny atmosphere) and above all Haxan, which is the only movie heretofore that features the terrifying imagery that I want, but has the drawback of being a silent Scandinavian documentary nearly a century old.

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The imagery in Haxan, like the testimony in Stacy Schiff’s book, is drawn from primary sources…and what people back then said they saw, or thought they saw is terrifying: baby killings, bathing in blood, levitation, hags in the forest, visitations from demons disguised as animals. I very much thought I’d like to see a period movie where people believed these things could happen because they were true. But it turns out I don’t have to write this movie. Robert Eggers made it last year. A few days ago we watched his debut feature, The Witch, and I am extraordinarily impressed — I can’t imagine that it’s not a movie I’ll watch annually for the rest of my life. Not just because it accomplishes what I’ve just described, but for a long list of reasons beyond that. On a personal level it hits my sweet spot. It’s set in the Massachusetts of 1630; characters refer to “the plantation” which we may assume to be Plymouth, though it is never thus specified. Just as one of our scariest ghost stories also happens to be a Yuletide yarn (A Christmas Carol), this scary witch tale has thematic connections to Thanksgiving. As someone with deep ancestral connections to the Pilgrims, it speaks to me.

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But so much more than this, because if the director had done a lousy, cursory job I wouldn’t give two hoots about the movie. Eggers’ film is awe-inspiring. Everything about it. His background is as a production designer for theatre and film, and he has brought to the table here a level of careful research and attention to detail that is rare and glorious to behold, from the rich, Jacobean language of the screenplay; to the thick Yorkshire accents of the principal characters, to the religious, social and moral attitudes of those characters; to the design and architecture of every building, household object, and costume. Shot in the wilds of Ontario, it’s one of the few films I’ve seen that truly makes you feel like you are in the isolated frontier of 17th century America, a time when ten miles from the Atlantic ocean may as well have been the Amazon rain-forest.

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While the experience is never less than gripping, the plot is simple: the head of a Puritan family (Ralph Ineson) runs afoul of the authorities over a matter of doctrine. Rather than change his beliefs, he moves his small family (wife and five young children) outside the plantation stockade and starts a farm in the distant wilderness. Almost immediately, horrible bad luck starts to strike in wave after wave, most of it apparently centered around the family’s oldest daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy). According to their belief system, Satan and witchery are afoot, and while the daughter appears the most obvious suspect, the father bears a certain amount of blame for the family’s misfortunes himself. I won’t reveal who the titular witch is, or what forms the horned one takes, but just know that, as in powerful classics such as The Exorcist and The Omen, the devil and his minions do prove to be quite real. And several audacious, unthinkable things happen all in a row. Most directors would be afraid to “go there” — Eggers goes there again and again, and with total effectiveness, because we believe it.

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At any rate, Eggers knows how to do horror as well as he knows how to do history and we await his next movie with keen anticipation. I am delighted to read this morning that it is a remake of Nosferatu. 

One Week from Today: W.C. Fields for President!

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Indie Theatre, PLUGS, SOCIAL EVENTS, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , on October 25, 2016 by travsd

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Tuesday, November 1, 7:00pm: W.C. Fields for President!

You may not have heard, but we’re in the middle of a Presidential election season! Well, not the middle so much as near the end of a process that has been going on for about a year and a half. And after all that winnowing, all that thinning of a very large pack, the American people in their wisdom managed to select two candidates whom large numbers of their fellow Americans just can’t stand!

It’s time to take a break from all the madness. Which is why I hope you’ll join us one week from today for W.C. Fields for President, a mock campaign event starring the eponymous screen comedian, as played by Glen Heroy of PBS’s CircusW.C. Fields for President is based on the humor book Fields for President, which was written by the comedian and published just in time for the 1940 Presidential election. The original edition looked like this:

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Then it was republished in the early 1970s, just when Fields’ popularity was experiencing a resurgence. In the mid ’80s I got a copy of that edition, and it was highly influential on me. My edition looks like this:

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And, lastly, just a few weeks ago it was recently re-released with a new forward by Dick Cavett). Ultimately that (and the current election) are what precipitate next Tuesday’s event. Every shelf should have one. Buy your copy here. 

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Here’s me and W.C.’s only granddaughter Dr. Harriet Fields at our planning meeting a few weeks back (a.k.a Through the Looking Glass):

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The present show was adapted from the book, and is directed by me, Trav S.D. It stars Glen Heroy of PBS’s Circus and will feature special guests, including Lauren Milberger, as Gracie Allen (who also ran a comedy Presidential campaign in 1940). 

Our event is going to be held at the Lambs — the historic theatrical club, of which one of the most famous members just happened to be…W.C. Fields. Here is Heroy rehearsing at the Lambs, only yesterday:

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And by rehearsing, I mean playing pool. The Lambs is located at  3 West 51st Street, 5th floor. A suggested donation of $10 supports The Lambs Foundation. Attendance is limited, please RSVP to Kevin Fitzpatrick, kevin [AT ]fitzpatrickauthor.com.  Again, it takes place Tuesday, November 1 at 7pm.

W.C. Fields for President is part of Fields Fest, a festival of talks, screenings, walking tours and other events celebrating the life and career of W.C. Fields. For more on Fields Fest and some of our other events, go here. Fields Fest is our follow up to the highly successful Marxfest, which took place in May of 2014. 

90 Years Ago Today: W.C. Fields in “So’s Your Old Man”

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , on October 25, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the release date of the 1926 silent feature So’s Your Old Man (1926) starring W.C. Fields and directed by Gregory La Cava. If you’ve already seen the 1934 talkie You’re Telling Methen you’ve practically seen So’s Your Old Man — the latter is a remake of the former. The film was based on a story called Mr. Bisbee’s Princess by Julian Leonard Street and revives his famous golf routine, which Fields had devised for sketches in Broadway revues, and had filmed in his 1930 short The Golf Specialist. (To my mind, the vehicle also has more than a little in common with George Kelly’s The Show Off).

Chaos on the links

Chaos on the links

In the film, Fields plays a crackpot inventor named Sam Bisbee who has a lot riding on the sale of his latest invention, a shatterproof windshield. In the remake, it is punctureless tires. I’ve always thought this switch is eloquent about the two different kinds of movie, silent vs. talkie. A brick being thrown at a window and the resulting breakage is highly visual: perfect for silent comedy. A tire exploding is highly auditory; great for talkies. (Yes, glass breaking make a great noise, too. But a pop followed by a hiss is probably funnier). When Bisbee’s big presentation to auto executives goes awry, he is ready to call it quits but he is bailed out by a stranger whose life he touched, enabling his daughter to marry into the snobby family of her beau (Buddy Rogers).

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If you love W.C. Fields, make ready for Fields Fest, opening in New York one week from today. Get all the details here!

Stars of Vaudeville #1009: Lewis and Dody

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Music, Singers, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 25, 2016 by travsd

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LEWIS AND DODY

Today is the birthday of Sam Lewis (1885-1959), today best remembered as a tin pan alley songwriter, who co-wrote such classics as “How You Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?”, “My Mammy”, and “Sitting on Top of the World”. At a certain point he was partnered with a guy named Jack Altman, but for most of his career he was teamed with dialect comedian Sam Dody. Lewis and Dody were also billed as The Harmony Boys and The Two Sams.  They starred in a show called Hello, America on the Columbia Burlesque wheel in 1918. In vaudeville they introduced the Bert Kalmar and Harry Puck songs “Kiss Me (I’ve Never Been Kissed Before)” and “Where Did You Get That Girl?”(both 1913)  and the 1917 patriotic number “Homeward Bound” by Johnson and Goetz.  They are best known for a single novelty song “Hello Hello Hello”, which became their signature. They played the Palace with their act in the mid 1920s.

For more on vaudeville 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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