Archive for November, 2016

Klinkhart’s Troupe of Midgets

Posted in Circus, German, Little People with tags , , , , , , on November 30, 2016 by travsd

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I stumbled across this image the other day and got curious. I could only find a few facts: this troupe of little people was managed by German born Oscar Klinkhart (ca.1897-1975). They were with with the Al G. Barnes show between 1926 and 1931. According to some sources, they were later with Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus and got stranded near Riverside, California ca. 1936, where they founded one of the many legendary “Midgetville” communities. Later Klinkhart retired to Logsden, Orgeon.

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.

Trav S.D. Talks W.C. Fields on “Hear and Now”!

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, ME, My Shows, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , on November 30, 2016 by travsd
Photo by the one and only Killy Dwyer!

Photo by the one and only Killy Dwyer!

As part of Fields Fest, on November 17, your humble correspondent appeared on Rachel Cleary’s “Hear and Now” show on Radio Free Brooklyn to talk about the festival and the man at its center, stage and screen comedian W.C. Fields. Here’s the link to that historic exchange:

https://www.mixcloud.com/RadioFreeBrooklyn/hear-and-now-with-rachel-c-with-travsd/

Come see me talk about Fields in person tomorrow night at the New York Public Library! 

W.C. Fields and Games (And How Fields Evolved from a Juggler to a Comedian)

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jugglers, Movies, Vaudeville etc., W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2016 by travsd

I’ve long been interested in bearing down on the process by which W.C. Fields evolved from one of vaudeville’s greatest jugglers into the screen comedian we all love today. It’s a little mysterious, right? I had a general sense that he began to work comedy business into the juggling, then did sketch comedy including several routines that later became incorporated into his films. But what hadn’t dawned on me until I began to parse it out was the extent to which these routines were related to his juggling — in essence they were an outgrowth of the juggling, combining his crazy, whimsical imagination with his almost superhuman physical dexterity. Though the content of Fields’ revue sketches began to diversify as years went on, in nearly every revue that he appeared he had at least one physical routine based around sports or games, and this was the tether back to his juggling career, and the thing for which he was best known prior to his films. In fact, so great was his association with gaming routines that he was sometimes compared to British music hall comedian Harry Tate and even accused of plagiarizing him, much as he (much more obviously) had appropriated aspects of the act of tramp juggler Harrigan during his earlier days. But, in addition to the physical dexterity required for these tricks they also form a theme, a kind of metaphor throughout his work. Almost every one of his movies features one of these old stage routines, or alludes to them.

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THE SHELL GAME

The shell game, a.k.a. “the old army game” is of course the traditional street con wherein the perpetrator manipulates three walnut half shells (or cups, or what have you) inviting onlookers to bet on which one is covering a pea he has shown to be under one of them. The game involves sleight of hand, and requires the same kind of dexterity required of a magician or juggler, combined with distracting patter. Fields had reportedly learned the the routine during his Philadelphia days at the knee of a character named Bill Daily, a.k.a “The Professor”, who was also his first manager. Initially the Professor’s confederate, he learned the routine himself and later claimed that if he were stranded in a town between vaudeville gigs, he could make a few bucks on the sidewalk at the shell game: “It’s the old army game! A child can play it! Five’ll getcha ten, ten’ll getcha twenty…” He alludes to the con of course in his film It’s the Old Army Game (1926) and actually demonstrates it in the talkie version of Poppy (1936).

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POOL

Fields’ pool routine is the mother of all that came afterwards. All his subsequent game-related sketches (leastways the ones employing balls) are variations on this one. Looking to expand beyond the juggling routines he had been doing onstage for about seven years, in 1903 he introduced a stage bit that involved a trick pool table, working every comic variation he could think of into the business, including funny pool cues, sections where he had difficulty threading a normal pool cue through his fingers, juggling style manipulations of balls and cues, and the wow finish, where all the balls went into all the pockets at the same time. The routine was so popular that it provided Fields’ entree to Broadway and films in the same year, 1915, when he was retired to do the bit in the Ziegfeld Follies and in his first comedy short Pool Sharks. Later, he would revive variations of the routine in his movies Fools for Luck (1928, his last silent film), Six of a Kind (1934), and Follow the Boys (1944). Regarded as a holy object, W.C. Fields’ pool table is now on permanent display at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles:

Fields' grandsons Alan and Rob and the pool table at the Magic Castle. Ron is one of the foremost and best of Fields' biographers

Fields’ grandsons Alan and Ron and the pool table at the Magic Castle. Ron is one of the foremost and best of Fields’ biographers

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GOLF

Given the size of a golf course as compared with a pool table, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Field’s golf routine originated onscreen as opposed to onstage. He first included a comical golf game in his second film His Lordship’s Dilemma (1915), not coming up with a stage version until 1918, when he introduced it at the Follies. He revived it the following year in Ziegfeld’s 9 O’Clock Revue, and then brought versions of it to several films: So’s Your Old Man (1926), The Golf Specialist (1930) The Dentist (1932), You’re Telling Me (1934), The Big Broadcast of 1938, and there is a brief office putting bit in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941). By my count, he performs this routine more than any other, and it is hence probably even better known than his pool playing business. In the unlikely event you’ve never seen it, as with the pool routine it involves endless preamble to ever teeing off, with crazy, twisted golf clubs, and an annoying caddy who causes endless interruptions.

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CARDS

I’m not aware of Fields doing any poker routines onstage, but after golf and pool it is the game he engages in the most onscreen. This clearly has to do with thematic elements associated with his character and the plots that revolve around him, and it is one of the few areas of overlap he has with the Marx Brothers. It is more an outgrowth of his “shell game” persona. Interestingly he does very little with sleight of hand type card tricks, crazy shuffling or card manipulation, although he undoubtedly either had those skills or could easily master them. I’m not sure why, although one plausible reason may be that, as an old vaudevillian, he had a great respect for specialties. Such business was outside his usual wheelhouse and he may have felt uncomfortable either A) dabbling in a skill of which he not an absolute, acknowledged master; and B) stepping on the toes of the magic crowd. But he is often depicted humorously as a cheating poker player (often playing with decks with large numbers of aces) in such films as The Potters (1927) Tillie and Gus (1933), Mississippi (1935), and My Little Chickadee (1940). 

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CROQUET

Yes — croquet! This may be one of Fields’ less famous routines, yet it was the second one he devised for the Ziegfeld Follies, and if you think about it, a perfect transition between pool and golf. He debuted it in the Follies of 1916, and revived it in the 9 O’Clock Revue (1919). The one movie you can see it (or some of it) in is Poppy (1936). Fields was in poor health when this film was shot — I bet we would have seen more if he’d been in better shape at the time.

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TENNIS

The fact that the tennis routine was never filmed is one of the great losses to W.C. Fields fans! He introduced it in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1917, even before his golf routine, and I can easily imagine how great it was given his skills as a juggler, which he undoubtedly integrated into the bit. You can see him juggle rubber balls off the floor in The Old Fashioned Way (1934).I’ll bet something on that order was in the routine, as well as business with rackets, and stuff with balls on strings (as he’d done in pool and croquet). Also, tennis was Fields’ main active, recreational sport in his personal life. He was reportedly a great player, when he was still fit enough to play. The reason why it didn’t make it to film should be obvious; he was old and sick during the bulk of his film career and not up to the physical challenge any more. I bet it was great.

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BASEBALL

This may be Fields’ most obscure routine. He devised it for George White’s Scandals of 1922, but it was considered too derivative of his other routines, particularly the tennis one. The usual business with funny bats and balls, crazy ways of hitting, etc. So, though he created and rehearsed it it didn’t make it to stage or screen. I’d still be curious to see it! In the end, the classic comedians most associated with physical baseball business would be Joe E. Brown and Buster Keaton. 

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MOTORING

This comes more under the heading of “recreation” than “sport”. W.C. Fields was a major automobile enthusiast. When on tour in the Ziegfeld Follies (at a time when most performers traveled by train), Fields prided himself on motoring from town to town in his open-air auto. Colleagues like Eddie Cantor and Fanny Brice later told hair-raising accounts of the experience of riding with him, as the half-cocked Fields drove down the highway at night at high speed. (On the other hand, consider the lightning quick reaction time and hand control Fields had). In the Follies of 1920, he premiered a sketch called “The Family Ford”, which featured comical business revolving around a family loading up their car for a vacation, a special breakaway car that fell apart at the end of the routine, like Harry Langdon’s. Funny car business winds up  in many of his movies. His segment (with Alison Skipworth) in If I Had a Million (1932) is about a brand new car that gets dinged up; It’s a Gift (1934) and The Bank Dick (1940) both have breakaway cars; both You’re Telling Me (1934) and The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) feature Fields chasing runaway tires down the street; and his last two features The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) feature crazy high speed car chases.

His last gaming business committed to film, as we said above, is the pool routine in Follow the Boys (1944). He had two years left to live at this point. By the time of his last film performance in Sensations of 1945 it was said that his eyesight was so bad he couldn’t see cue cards, so for sure he had also lost the physical dexterity that would enable to do the sort of things that had made him famous as a young man. He has a small bit of business in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, touching in its smallness, and so understated you may never notice how much physical control it required. It’s the scene where he stops off in an ice cream parlor, and has some difficulty delivering a cherry to his mouth with a pair of chopsticks. I find it touching because that was where he was at….his hands still had that control, but he could no longer be so physical with his old, ailing body. But if you’re clued in, you can see the young man in that bit, that same teenager who practiced with fruits and vegetables at his father’s Philadelphia produce stand.

 

 

 

 

Fields Fest Continues with 3 Talks in 3 Boroughs

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, ME, My Shows, PLUGS, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 28, 2016 by travsd

Fields Fest continues this week into mid-December with three informative and entertaining talks shedding light into lesser known aspects of the early career of beloved screen comedian W.C. Fields, each one in a different borough of NYC for your convenience!

MANHATTAN

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Thursday, December 1, 6:30pm: “W.C. Fields in Vaudeville”

Trav S.D. talks about the great comedian’s early years in show business as a juggler in vaudeville and a revue comedian, and the many ways those experiences influenced his later motion pictures. The talk will be illustrated and will draw from the author’s research on the comedian for his blog Travalanche (travsd.wordpress.com) and his popular book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous. At the Mid-Manhattan Branch of NY Public Library, 455 Fifth Ave, Sixth Floor. FREE

QUEENS

"Sally of the Sawdust" (1925)

“Sally of the Sawdust” (1925)

Saturday, December 10, 1:30pm: “W.C. Fields in Astoria: The Paramount Silents”

Many people know that W.C. Fields had one of the most distinctive speaking voices of the classic comedy era. What they may not realize is that prior to the advent of talking pictures, Fields was a SILENT comedy star. From 1924 through 1928 he appeared in ten Paramount features filmed at that studio’s Astoria Queens facility. In this illustrated talk author and lecturer Trav S.D. takes you up close to this lesser known stretch of the Great Man’s career, and shows how much of Fields’ silent work presaged his better known talkies. At Greater Astoria Historical Society, Queens: www.astorialic.org

BROOKLYN

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Monday, December 12, 7pm: “W.C. Fields: From Dime Museums to the Jazz Age” an illustrated talk by Trav S.D., sponsored by Zelda Magazine

A look at screen comedian W.C. Fields’ growth from humble sideshow and dime museum juggler to sketch comedian and one of the biggest stars of sophisticated Broadway revues like the Ziegfeld Follies, George White’ Sandals and Earl Carrol’s Vanities. Along the way meet the glittering stars he shared the limelight with like Louise Brooks, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers and Eddie Cantor. Admission: $8. Location: Morbid Anatomy Museum, 424 Third Avenue, 11215 Brooklyn NY

Marilyn Miller and W.C. Fields in “Her Majesty Love”

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , on November 28, 2016 by travsd

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Her Majesty, Love (1931) was W.C. Fields‘ first sound feature, though he is not the star — that honor falls to his old Follies colleague Marilyn Miller. However the plot structure is one that would become in most of his features. Based on a German film Ihre Majestat die Liebe which had been released only months earlier, the film casts Miller as a barmaid at a Berlin nightclub who falls in love with a wealthy young heir (Ben Lyon). Fields plays her father, a barber and former juggler to whom the boy’s appalled family, led by his snobbish brother (Ford Sterling) begins objecting the instant he starts doing tricks at the supper table. Another Fields Follies cohort Leon Errol is also in the cast as a rival for the girl, and Fields’ former screen partner Chester Conklin is in the film as well. Her Majesty, Love was the last of only three pre-code musical screen vehicles for Miller, the other two being Sally (1929) and Sunny (1930). Dissatisfied with the results, she returned to the stage, and died in a botched surgical operation only five years later. The reception to Fields’ performance in the film on the other hand assured of him a career in sound features.

Long available in vaults, Her Majesty, Love was finally released on DVD by Warner Brothers earlier this year. Get your copy here. 

The New Odd Couple

Posted in African American Interest, Comedy, Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , on November 27, 2016 by travsd

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I’ve touched on this subject once before, and had originally intended to do more two weeks ago (November 13) for all sorts of reasons. In fact, I probably would have hit it in two posts. November 13 is “Odd Couple Day” (the date was mentioned in the opening narration for the original television program as the date Felix Ungar’s wife throws him out). The original Odd Couple tv show was hugely influential on me, so please know that a post on that show is forthcoming! Also (not coincidentally, I’m sure) November 13th was the late Garry Marshall’s birthday. He passed away a few months ago, and it occurred to me at the time that, love him or hate him, Marshall was a comic auteur, and deserving of a blogpost about his legacy, which I had also intended for November 13.

Unfortunately, this year that date fell five days after Black Tuesday. I was still in a serious funk and in no mood to write about frivolous things like situation comedies and the pop geniuses who write them. So look for those planned posts about Marshall and the original Odd Couple series next November 13.

My spirits have now revived somewhat, and I find that I have space in my brain BOTH for helping save the country, and my usual pursuits. And we write about The New Odd Couple today because we learned that Ron Glass passed away a couple of days ago.

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So! This potentially promising, but ultimately ill-conceived and indifferently executed experiment aired during my senior year in high school. As I’ve already more than hinted, I was an enormous fan of the original series starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, which ran from 1970 to 1975. The original series closed out just in time to focus on Marshall’s new project, the smash hit Happy Days, which then spawned Laverne and Shirley and Mork and Mindy.  So Marshall seemed like a veritable television Midas long about 1982. And you know what happened to Midas — he got too greedy.

Wearing a producer hat, you can identify all sorts of reasons why The New Odd Couple (1982-1983) ought be successful in theory.  1) It was already a proven property with Garry Marshall’s now gold-minting name attached to it. 2) African American sit-coms (mostly from the Norman Lear factory) were very popular at the time (Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons, That’s My Mama, What’s Happenin’ et al). and 3) It showcased two popular black sit com stars, Demond Wilson from Sanford and Son as Oscar; and Ron Glass of Barney Miller as Felix. And those two gents seemed pretty well cast. After all, Wilson’s previous character Lamont Sanford worked in a junkyard, a fitting association for Oscar. And Glass’s Barney Miller character Harris was kind of dapper and prissy, which would make him natural to step into Felix. And they were both funny guys.

This is totally the same kitchen

This is totally the same kitchen

Hence I tuned into this show with high hopes. But….the resulting product was too lazy. Even as a teenager, I could easily identify why I was dissatisfied with the show. The whole enterprise was transparently cynical. Yes, they cast black actors, but they didn’t rethink them as black characters. They just took old Odd Couple scripts, tweaked some of the lines, and filmed them with a new cast. They even used the same theme song, with a funkier arrangement. They hadn’t even bothered to give the show its own name. The irony is, the thing they were attempting was not unprecedented and it had been done with great success. It wasn’t even far away. Sanford and Son had been based on a British sitcom called Steptoe and Son. But, other than the basic situation, the entire set-up had been completely reimagined as a vehicle for Redd Foxx from the ground up. The writers weren’t black but Foxx had enough juice to inject his show with authentic touches. In The New Odd Couple the actors even seem to be wearing leftover costumes. And are asked to give the same line readings. On the same set. With the same inserts of an exterior of their apartment building. Check it out for yourself. There are some episodes on Youtube. (16 episodes were filmed; it ran for only one season),

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Sorry this is not the best way to remember Ron Glass! He was excellent on Barney Miller! And also on the cult sci-fi western mash-up Firefly! And for the record, I am not a fan of the current Odd Couple reboot either, though it also stars two top notch comic actors. The best Marshall-produced Odd Couple reboot is of course Laverne and Shirley. The best overall? Perhaps, Perfect Strangers (1986-1993). Who cares about sloppy vs. neat? Why is that a necessary component? The true essential element is two mismatched friends with terrific chemistry.

Florence Lake: Squeaky Voiced Mrs. Kennedy

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2016 by travsd

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LAKE OF THE SQUEAKY VOICE. 

Today is the birthday of Florence Lake (Florence Silverlake, 1904-1980). Lake started out in 1910 in a vaudeville act called “Family Affair” with her parents and her brother Arthur. Arthur was later to gain fame in the part of Dagwood Bumstead in the screen and radio versions of the comic strip Blondie.

Like Arthur, Florence had an extreme comic character with a high pitched voice that served her well in films. She began getting movie roles in 1929, initially appearing in film shorts with the likes of Smith and Dale and Clark and McCullough. But in 1931 she began appearing as Edgar Kennedy’s wife in his series of RKO comedy shorts, a part she was to play through his death in 1948, becoming her best known film role. Throughout that period she also appeared in shorts and features of all sorts as well, comedies, musicals, dramas and westerns. From the ’50s through 1976, she continued to be in demand as a recognizable bit player on both film and television, most regularly on the tv version of Lassie, as Jenny the telephone operator from 1954 through 1962. Her last credit is an episode of Emergency! 

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.

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