Archive for January, 2017

What the F**k, Chuck?

Posted in BROOKLYN, CULTURE & POLITICS, Protests with tags , , , , on January 31, 2017 by travsd

I feared for attendance at tonight’s planned “What the F**k, Chuck?” rally at Grand Army Plaza, as Senator Schumer has now vowed to take a hard line and promised to block Trump’s remaining appointments (thus sapping the ostensible reason for the rally), and also it snowed and got a lot colder here in New York. But don’t underestimate the impatience of Brooklyn with the accommodating, flaccid postures Schumer’s taken a lot of the time thus far. Over 5,000 people turned out tonight to send him the message that we expect him to behave like a true opposition leader, or he can expect a serious fight in the next Democratic primary for his Senate seat. After a rally in the Plaza, we marched around the corner and made a big, festive stink outside his apartment building, Brooklyn style.

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At this point we started to march out of the Plaza

At this point we started to march out of the Plaza

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Here we'd turned onto Prospect Park West

Here we’d turned onto Prospect Park West

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Looking back towards the Plaza

Looking back towards the Plaza

 

What this photo fails to capture is that the box was being worn on a woman's head

What this photo fails to capture is that the box was being worn on a woman’s head like a hat

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The Hungry March Band  looking particularly pagan and hellish from their perch in Prospect Park -- they were playing "Which Side Are You On, Chuck?"

The Hungry March Band looking particularly pagan and hellish from their perch in Prospect Park — they were playing “Which Side Are You On, Chuck?”

Here's where I left, I'd been out for two hours and my fingers were too cold to work the phone any more. As you can see, the crowd stretches about three city blocks, all the way back to the arch. People were still arriving as I left

Here’s where I left. I’d been out for two hours and my fingers were too cold to work the phone any more. As you can see, the crowd stretches about three city blocks, all the way back to the arch. People were still arriving as I left

Tomorrow: The Ten Foot Rat Cabaret

Posted in Comedy, Contemporary Variety, PLUGS with tags , on January 31, 2017 by travsd

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Stars of Vaudeville #1024: Percy Helton

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on January 31, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of ubiquitous Hollywood character actor Percy Helton (Percy Alfred Michel, 1894-1971). We’ll get get into his movies anon, but few people probably know how charmed his career was in its early years.

Helton’s career began at the age of two in the vaudeville act of his father, British-born Alf Helton (real name William Alfred Michel). By age 12 he was on Broadway, appearing in Julie BonBon. He was in the original production of David Belasco’s The Return of Peter Grimm (1911) and the original production of George M. Cohan’s The Miracle Man (1914). And he was to be a familiar face on Broadway stages through 1942. Here is a clip I found from his theatre days:

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Meanwhile in 1915 he began appearing in films. His first movie sounds too good to be true: In The Fairy and the Waif (1915), directed by Marie Hubert Frohman (wife of Gustave Frohman), he played the Waif to a Fairy played by Mary Miles Minter (later a chief suspect in the William Desmond Taylor murder). He appeared in another 5 silent movies through 1925 and then doesn’t return to Hollywood films until 1936, and THAT’S when he becomes the Percy Helton we all know and…”love”, I guess?

The leap, the important difference, was that now he was middle aged. He was a small guy. In fact he was playing children’s parts well past childhood. For example, in The Return of Peter Grimm, when he played “Little Willem”, he was 17 years old. And so he was a juvenile for as long as he could get away with it. But when he reached middle age, he became something of a grotesque, almost freakish in appearance. Short and rotund and yet stooped, nearly hunchbacked, he would have been a good person to play Marshall P. Wilder. Then that face: the venal, leering eyes, a Nixonian nose, and a toothy, drooling gash of a mouth. He was balding, and such hair as he possessed always seemed too long and unkempt.  And he had a high-pitched, scratchy voice not unlike that of the equally ubiquitous John Fiedler.

For such a unique and strange character, Helton’s uses in film ensembles appeared to be limitless. Who knew there would be so much need for seedy, nasty, cowardly little creeps in movies? Here’s something interesting: the first place I truly sat up and took note of him was in a screening at a film festival of the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955). When detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) gets fed up with Helton’s infuriating lack of cooperation, he slaps his face and crushes his fingers in a desk drawer until he complies. It’s a shocking, appalling scene, perhaps all the more so because a) it’s being done to this familiar person; and b) he pretty much deserves it.  But what I find especially interesting is, when I look at his credits, I had easily seen him in two dozen other movies prior to this. This one shocked me into taking note of who he was, so that I would always note him ever after.

He was especially sought after for westerns, usually as bank tellers, train conductors, hotel clerks, and that sort of thing. There’s no point in listing them — it’s dozens. Same with noir: he’s always, like, a pawn broker, or the manager of a fleabag hotel or something. He plays the drunken Santa who gets fired in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Jerry Lewis seemed to be a special fan: Helton appears in My Friend Irma (1949), The Stooge (1951), Sacred Stiff (1953), The Big Mouth (1967), and Lewis’s TV show. He also appears with Groucho Marx in A Girl in Every Port (1952), with Abbott and Costello in Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer Boris Karloff (1949) and numerous Bowery Boys comedies. Really, he was in pretty much everything. Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), A Star is Born (1954) White Christmas (1954) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) Jailhouse Rock (1957), The Music Man (1962), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). He’s even in the Monkees’ movie Head (1968). It’s worth a peek at his IMDB page, it’s quite impressive.

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

Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in NYC 1952-1965

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , on January 30, 2017 by travsd
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John Cohen, “Red Grooms Transporting Artwork to Reuben Gallery, New York, 1960”

I found everything to love about the Grey Art Gallery’s current exhibition Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City 1952-1965. It’s not the world’s most exciting title for an exhibition, but on the other hand, it doesn’t lie. A moment’s contemplation will conjure the excitement: those were years of enormous ferment in New York, artistic, political and social. This exhibition curated by Melissa Rachleff,  clinical associate professor in NYU’s Steinhardt School, samples work from 14 different artist-run galleries, including works by Robert Rauschenberg, Red Grooms, Romare Bearden, Aldo Tambellini, et al.

For me the show is just as engaging as history as it is art. It’s a period in time I’ve always envied, when the ice was beginning to melt, and some refreshing anarchy was being unleashed across all disciplines. Abstract Expressionism was still ascendant; Pop Art had yet to explode. A political consciousness was emerging. The struggle for civil rights and third world liberation are alluded to here and there; and my over-arching takeaway from the show was a feeling of Cold War terror, although my own heightened anxiety level at the moment might have made me especially sensitive to the jitters informing a lot of the work. A feeling of “Fuck it, we’re all going to die.” But it’s also interesting because it is not yet “the Sixties”. The escalation of the Vietnam War and the youth-driven opposition to it were in the future. The Black Panthers had yet to come into existence. Be bop and Lou Reed are overlapping. That’s the New York I always wanted to move to. Dark and cold and gritty and cynical but bursting with creativity and still working toward building a future of some kind. I bet they were hoping for a better one than this.

A poster for Sam Goodman’s Doom Show evoked that energy. My favorite work in the show is probably Stanley Fisher’s “Untitled (Help)”, 1959-1964. A collage with cut-out advertising photos, pin-up girls and swimsuit models, covered with paint and graffiti, spelling the words “peace” and love” and — most prominently — “HELP”. Hints at Pop Art, commercialism, being overwhelmed by darkness and fear. Any wonder it spoke to me this week?

It’s open through April 1. More info is here. 

Rally Against Hate Tonight on the Lower East Side

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, Protests with tags , , on January 30, 2017 by travsd

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Stars of Slapstick #225: Elise Cavanna

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, VISUAL ART, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , on January 30, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Elise Cavanna (Elise Seeds, 1902-1963).

Originally from Philadelphia, Cavanna took art classes at the Pennsylvania Academy before studying dance with Isadora Duncan. She performed in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1925 where she befriended both W.C. Fields and Louise Brooks, fortuitous connections in both cases. After appearing in her second and last Broadway show Morals (1925-26) with Mischa Auer, Wheeler Dryden, and Edward Van Sloan, she got a part in the Louise Brooks film Love ’em and Leave ’em (1926), and It’s the Old Army Game (1926) with both Fields and Brooks.

Fields relished Cavanna’s comic physicality. She was tall and thin, with crazy, long limbs, not worlds away from Charlotte Greenwood. He put her to great use in his classic shorts The Dentist (1932), The Pharmacist (1933) and The Barber Shop (1933), and she also has a bit part in You’re Telling Me (1934). Her appearances in the Fields comedies is what she is best remembered for today.

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Cavanna worked steadily throughout the 1930s, sometimes with minor speaking parts, more usually in bit roles. She is in short subjects with great comic stars like Ned Sparks and Walter Catlett, she has a small role in Wheeler and Woolsey’s Hips, Hips Hooray (1934), and she has a fairly decent part in I Met My Love Again (1938) with Joan Bennett and Henry Fonda. In 1939 she parted ways with the film business, although she did return on one occasion to take a walk-on in the movie Ziegfeld Follies (1945) for old times sake.

By then, she was deep into a completely different life. In 1932 Cavanna married Merle Armitage, a man who was at the center of the arts scene in Los Angeles. Armitage was a collector, arts patron, book designer, writer, publisher, and administrator with the WPA. From the time of her marriage, Cavanna’s social set became artists as opposed to the movie colony. She began to paint again, and exhibited her work professionally. This is what she looked like in her other life:

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For more on slapstick comedy 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 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.

Scenes at the Battery Park Protest

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, Protests with tags , , , , , , , on January 29, 2017 by travsd

Thousands gathered at Battery Park today to protest Trump’s Muslim Ban — a location obviously chosen for its symbolic value, across the harbor from the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, right next to the Museum of the American Indian, and the oldest part of New York City. In a nation of immigrants, New York is the city of immigrants. Governor Cuomo said it best earlier today: New York may be the most diverse place in the world. We are FIERCELY proud of this. And this town is the site of the worst terrorist attacks in the country’s history! But New Yorkers all know so many people from so many different backgrounds, we know better than to judge any individual based on where they come from. We’ve seen the best and the worst of everybody, and it never comes down to what country they come from, or how they worship, or what their color is.

I arrived too late to get a good spot — the crowd stretched from the water, all the way back to Bowling Green. I couldn’t get close to the speakers, couldn’t even hear them, and am frankly foot sore (this was my fifth demonstration this week). I also didn’t realize a march was forthcoming; if I’d remembered there was to be a march, I’d have stayed longer, footsoreness or footsoreness! But I’m safely home now, watching it on TV. Wonderful to see the actions taking place across the nation. The New York bunch is at the courthouse at Foley Square as I write this.

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