Archive for February, 2017

Zero Mostel: The High Brow’s Low Brow

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , on February 28, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great Zero Mostel (1915-1977).

It would be par for the course that such an eccentric actor and performer as Mostel would also have a highly idiosyncratic career in the bargain. He is best known his hot streak in the 1960s, encompassing the original Broadway production and film versions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, and the original film version of Mel Brooks The Producers. These iconic star turns, combined with one of his last roles, as a blacklisted comedian in The Front (1976) helped, I think, to cement a false if welcome image of Mostel as the traditional Jewish-American show biz creature, perhaps someone who had been in vaudeville and burlesque, and then later worked as a Catskills comedian. As it happened, Mostel had the right background for that: Jewish immigrant parents, and a childhood in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. And he was just that kind of a broad, physical comedian, with such a sure-fire repertoire of schtick, that one could be forgiven for thinking he had developed in those time honored schools of show biz. He certainly would have thrived there, with his uninhibited, scenery-chewing mania, his hilarious comic mask with those flashing, popping eyes, and his populist, earthy appeal.

But if you look at his birth year, he was just a little bit too young for vaudeville and burlesque. Technically, he could have performed there as a child or teenager, but as it happens, he didn’t. A precocious, intellectual child, he drifted into show business in the most unlikely way possible — as an art instructor. An accomplished painter himself, he gave gallery talks at New York City museums as part of a New Deal works program in the mid to late 1930s. He was so funny and entertaining, he began to be hired for private parties and other functions. This led to performances at cabarets and night clubs. By the early 40s, he was getting roles on Broadway and in Hollywood films (Dubarry Was a Lady).

Service in the army during World War II, and anti-Communist blacklisting in the early to mid ’50s were speed bumps in his career. A local tv show with Joey Faye in 1948 may have been the closest he ever got to real burlesque. In reality he was drawn to high-brow theatrical roles and Absurdism, including Brecht (The Good Woman of Setzuan on Broadway, 1957), Joyce (Ulysses in Nighttown, off-Broadway 1957-58, Broadway 1974), Beckett (Waiting for Godot, television, 1961), and Ionesco (Rhinoceros, Broadway, 1961, and film, 1974). These critically acclaimed turns helped catapult him into the comic tour de forces he is best known for.

It goes without saying to anyone familiar with his work that Mostel was a bundle of insane, animated energy, a performer of genius, but one of a particular type. He shone best as the untrammeled star of whatever he appeared in. But parts for his special talents — a mercurial Jewish zany in his late 50s — don’t come along every day. Many of his roles in the ’70s tended to hide his light under a bushel, shoehorning him into films in more conventional character parts. He died of an aortic aneurysm following a crash diet at the relatively young age of 62.

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.

Happy 100th Birthday to Jazz!

Posted in Contemporary Variety, Dixieland & Early Jazz, Music, PLUGS, SOCIAL EVENTS with tags , , , , , , on February 26, 2017 by travsd

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On Feb. 26, 1917, exactly 100 years ago, The Original Dixieland Jass Band (ODJB) made the first-ever commercial jazz recording,”Livery Stable Blues,” for the Victor Talking Machine Company. An instant hit, selling close to a million copies, the record paved the way toward establishing jazz as popular music and ushered in the Jazz Age. (Naturally, jazz itself had been developing and percolating for years, even decades prior to this, and took several years after this gain mainstream popularity, but today is without a doubt an important cultural benchmark).

The Grand St Stompers will celebrate this historic occasion, as well as paying homage to one of the members of ODJB, J. Russel Robinson, for his contribution to jazz and American popular music with an all-new show! Robinson was an American ragtime and jazz pianist and composer whose early hits included “Sapho Rag” and “Eccentric.” Known for his blues-influenced playing style, Robinson joined the Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1919. Among his hits for ODJB were composition such as “Margie,” “Singin’ the Blues,” and “Palesteena.” In 1977, Robinson’s “Singin’ the Blues,” a 1927 recording by Frankie Trumbauer and his Orchestra, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

The concert will start with a talk and antique gramophone presentation by MICHAEL CUMELLA (aka Phonograph DJ Mac), the host of WFMU Radio’s Antique Phonograph Music Program.

This night will be dedicated to the great Rich Conaty, who for 40 years, every Sunday night, spread joy to the lovers of hot jazz with his irreplaceable Big Broadcasts. Rich tragically left us in December. On the day of the concert, we will remember Rich and sign off the night with his trademark “Aloha.”

The Grand St. Stompers Octet:
Gordon Au – trumpet, arranger / Molly Ryan – vocals / Matt Koza – soprano sax, clarinet / Dan Block – tenor sax, clarinet / Jim Fryer – trombone / Dalton Ridenhour – piano / Rob Adkins – bass / Jay Lepley – drums

SUNDAY, FEB. 26 — 8PM
DROM
85 Avenue A (btwn 5th & 6th Sts, Manhattan, NY)

Sponsored by Wits End

TICKETS/INFO: NYHOTJAZZFEST.COM
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ADVANCE TICKETS:
General Admission – $10
Reserved Table Seating – $20
PRIME Reserved Table Seating – $25
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DOOR Price +$10 on all ticket levels

DOOR TICKETS:
General Admission – $20
Reserved Table Seating – $30
PRIME Reserved Table Seating – $35
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Once the ADVANCE ticket block is sold out, tickets will be available at the DOOR price.
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Presented by Hot Jazz Productions Inc & PM Music Enterprises (Peter Marcovicci)

The Feast of Fools is Upon Us

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES with tags , , , , on February 26, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great Romantic novelist, playwright, essayist, and political figure Victor Hugo (1802-1885). I have many future posts within me about this great artist; one unavoidably thinks about Les Misérables when engaging in mass protest and I have been engaging in a lot of those recently. In fact during the last one, the crowd broke into a song from the musical adaptation of Les Mis. But today, a different but related subject.

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Charles Laughton in the 1939 film version

If hard pressed, I would name as my favorite novel Notre Dame de Paris a.k.a. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I am very much interested in the Medieval and the grotesque aesthetic and and ritual and mass behavior and especially religious festivals. Here we are close to Mardi Gras and Carnival and April Fool’s Day and today I find myself disposed to talk about one of those which is central to Notre Dame …The Feast of Fools. You recall the scene, don’t you? When the rabble grab the poor, deformed Quasimodo, and mockingly crown him king for a day and cruelly parade him through the streets?

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The scene was based on actual French tradition usually held on or around January 1, The Feast of the Circumcision (eight days after Jesus’s celebrated birth day, i.e. Christmas). The symbolism of the Feast of the Circumcision was that that was the day on which Jesus’s blood was first shed, and thus the beginning of his symbolic redemption. And there is something of mockery even in the Jesus story. The idea of a common man, a humble man, born in a manger becoming the King of All Mankind, is intrinsically subversive — it is the triumph of the poor over the rich, of the powerless over the entrenched. And then Christ on the Cross was mocked by the soldiers, who made him wear a Crown of Thrones and hung a sign that said “King of the Jews”.

Breughel, "The Feast of Fools"

Breughel, “The Feast of Fools”

The Feast of Fools was a kind of ritual reenactment of this process. It was a turning of the world upon its head. The people had full reign for a day, to make disorder and do as they pleased. They generally made the least worthy person available King, or “Lord of Misrule” for a day. Some feel the holiday may have origins in the ancient Roman Feast of Calends. It was a way of letting off steam, a sort of gift to the people as the price of making them knuckle under and obey the authorities the rest of the year. But it could get out of hand. Blasphemies and all sorts of crimes and antisocial behavior occurred on that day. It was eventually quashed. But the beauty part of it is, it was a single day. Order was re-established the morning after, and all was forgiven.

Humankind at its worst

Humankind at its worst

Sound familiar? It does to me. It seems to me that millions of people have elected a television clown to the Presidency of the United States merely to “shake things up”. They apparently wanted someone to go to Washington to wreak havoc, to turn everything upside down, burn things down, somehow hurt whatever and whomever they felt was “oppressing” them. They are entertained by the fact that he is a fool, that he is offensive to those who revere our institutions. The present situation feels uncannily like a Feast of Fools scenario: there is some vandal sitting in the Oval Office with his feet on the desk, spraying graffiti all over the portraits. I am among the majority in the nation who are tearing their hair out, watching in great sorrow and anxiety while this goes on. There is a minority however who are nihilistically enjoying the destruction. It appears to be whatever they have longed for all their lives. They have hated those whom they deem to be “elites” and “experts” and “interlopers”. They were sold a bill of goods, of course. The very institutions that are now going up in flames (including our Constitutional liberties) were there for everyone to partake of and benefit from. The people who supported Trump will learn to their great pain in coming weeks and months that this was a bonehead play, like shooting holes in the bottom of the boat you’re in because you can’t stand the Captain or the food. And unlike the historic Feast of Fools, their little orgy can’t be rectified in a day or two. This nightmare, this hangover, will take years and years and years to clean up when the dust finally settles. If only the benighted people who brought this upon us had realized the folly of what they were doing, and had availed themselves of a thousand other democratic safety valves available to them far less drastic than crowning this clown our actual king. Small follies are foolishness; epic ones are tragedies.

5 “Lost Films” I Can Live Without Seeing

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , on February 26, 2017 by travsd

Well, this is more of a headline that a blogpost, I’m afraid. It seemed like a nice heretical stunt until I tried to draw up the list. I started with ten, and then realized I’d better make it five, and then had a hard time filling the five. Like you, no doubt, I rate any loss a tragedy and I have a lot of curiosity. There is a long list of silent films and early talkies and director’s cuts that I am extremely bummed about. These are just a few that I don’t lose any sleep over.

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Greed  director’s cut (1924)

Eric Von Stroheim’s original cut of his masterpiece was reportedly a gazillion hours long: eight? Then six? Then five? Then three? Producers kept asking for shorter versions until it was down to 2 hours, 2o minutes. And then unfortunately a janitor destroyed the cut footage. There’s a “restored” version that employs stills that’s about four hours. Some of the 12 people who saw the complete version hailed it as the greatest movie ever made. But the edited one remains near the top of the list anyway. Given that A) I’ve seen the general release edit and think it is a great masterpiece, and B) the average silent feature is about ONE hour long, I’m really content to imagine what the eight hours consisted of without having to sit through them. Eight hours is a long-ass silent movie.

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The Seagull or A Woman of the Sea (1926)

The only reason Edna Purviance was ever in films was that Chaplin’s scouts had spotted her in a cafe and he decided to try her out. Purviance was a secretary with no ambitions to become an actress. Still, from 1915 through 1923 she was Chaplin’s leading lady, and a memorable and important part of his classic pictures. After A Woman of Paris (1923), Chaplin’s ardor cooled. Purviance had long since ceased to be his paramour offscreen, and in his view she had gotten to be too mature for what he required in a leading lady onscreen. To ease her transition to Life After Chaplin, he commissioned Josef Von Sternberg to direct her in this feature, sometimes called The Seagull, or Seagulls or A Woman of the Sea. When Chaplin saw the rushes, her performance was apparently so embarrassing that he destroyed all of the footage. It must be noted that Chaplin directed by telling the actor every move to make, which often enabled him to work with neophytes, children or amateurs. Without Chaplin’s painstaking directorial style as a guide, Purviance was probably fairly lost. Yet she was charming in Chaplin’s movies. I have no morbid desire to see her limitations exposed.

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London After Midnight (1927)

Due to Lon Chaney’s iconic make-up this Tod Browning horror film used to rate high on my list of wanna-see lost films, and it remains there for many people. But I’ve now seen a reconstructed version made up of production stills, and was disappointed to learn that it has the exact same plot as the director’s later Mark of the Vampire (1935). It’s really a silly plot. But many of Browning’s films have extravagant, implausible stories. So, I’m not glad precisely that I can’t see the complete London After Midnight. I’m just kind of OK with it!

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The Magnificent Ambersons director’s cut (1942)

RKO messed with Orson Welles’ planned edit of his second feature when he was down in South America shooting It’s All True. Not only did the studio switch scenes around and cut it differently, but they tacked on a silly ending which Welles’ didn’t even shoot. But I am completely okay with that. I love the existing version of the film. Maybe Welles’ version would have been better, but maybe not. He did seem to have obscurantist, baroque instincts when it came to editing, which are what they are. It makes it rewarding to watch his films many times, as many of us love to do. But the first viewing of nearly all of his films tend to be confusing, and producers and audiences can be forgiven for not warming up to that. I’m totally okay with the existing version of Ambersons. It is by no means a given that Welles’ version would have been objectively “better”.

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Him (1974)

A gay pornographic film about Jesus. Yeah, no, I don’t ever need to see this.

Coney Island USA’s Spring Gala is One Month from Today!

Posted in BROOKLYN, Coney Island, Dime Museum and Side Show, PLUGS, SOCIAL EVENTS with tags , , , , on February 25, 2017 by travsd

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It’s International Commedia dell’Arte Day

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Italian, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, PLUGS with tags on February 25, 2017 by travsd

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February 25 is International Commedia dell’Arte Day! Commedia is the root of everything, and I’m thinking it’s no accident the planners hold this annual event so close to Carnival, the festival season of masks and mayhem. To learn more about it, I’ll connect you with a number of handy links. Nothing happening in New York or Washington (home of Faction of Fools, organizers) this year it appears, I’m afraid. The flagship event is being held in Sydney, although it looks like the Pazzi Lazzi Troupe is doing a free event in Boston:

http://www.incommedia.org/

https://www.commediadellarteday.org/default.asp

http://www.factionoffools.org/cdaday

http://foolsinprogress.com/international-commedia-dellarte-day-2017/

Of Folk and White Folk (Forward Back to Babylon)

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, CULTURE & POLITICS, My Family History with tags , , , , on February 24, 2017 by travsd

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I saw this bar graph on social media this morning and found it very telling. It explains a lot.  The chart shows Democrats and Republicans differing wildly in their perceptions of whether the Trump administration is “uniting” or “dividing” the nation. How can that be? They’re looking at the same phenomenon.

The answer, of course, is that the two factions don’t define the concepts the same way. One side acknowledges America’s diversity and asks whether the various components coexist in harmony and mutual respect. And that’s “unity”.  The other approach attempts to impose cultural uniformity by stifling dissent and punishing difference. And that’s their idea of “unity”. The liberal way attempts to achieve unity by rational agreement and consensus. The conservative way is to force compliance to an approved norm. One asks only, “Are you a person?” The other, “Are you a white, male, Christian heterosexual person of property?”

Theoretically, superficially, I am of the traditionally dominant culture. As we’ve blogged ad nauseam over the past couple of years, my American roots go back 400 years. Yet I find myself unutterably opposed to the Trumpian agenda. Not just for emotional reasons (so many of the people I love or have learned from don’t fit into the approved category), but for reasons of science and logic. I want the world to be a better place. You don’t create the conditions for that by limiting exposure to information, including the countless varieties and manifestations of human culture you get in a free and diverse society.

So the irony is, at the very time I’m discovering how “American” my pedigree is, I find myself far, far away from the contemporary American poster boy with similar roots. I’m about the roots themselves, and maintain that I remain truer to those roots than the millions of angry, red-faced people who go around waving flags and demanding conformity to their values. I am forever seeking out the old, the fecund and the folkish. I prefer that quality even over fealty to my own ethnic subculture. I have no use, for example, for most contemporary country music. I’m into TRADITIONAL music, rough hewn antique folk music, bluegrass, and country music from the golden age. I have no use for modern commercial rubbish, whether it comes from Nashville (a town founded by some of my ancestors) or the Bubble Gum Factory.  I likewise adore the stately old poetry of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer; I have no liking for modern language translations which boil out all the interesting parts of speech, leaving only the bare information. And if you tell me I’m not a Christian, Fundamentalist, I’ll have to spit in your eye. Then I’ll wipe off the spit and apologize because, ya know, I’m a Christian. 

And the beauty of the love of the traditional is that its qualities of richness are shared in common across cultures, national boundaries and religious divides. In plenty of ways I feel more of a kinship with an old black man in South Carolina, or the Italian peasants who lived across the street from me when I was growing up, than I do with some guy who has my last name and looks just like me, but thinks it’s duty as an American to remain ignorant of anyone or any way else. 

In recent months I’ve felt like I was really beginning to understand the ideological underpinnings of the American folk movement of the mid-twentieth century for the first time, and WHY there was such an uproar and feelings of betrayal when Dylan went electric and “commercial”. I’ve always had misgivings about corporate control of popular culture, especially mainstream Hollywood films since the 1980s (for their violence, materialism, and encouragement of conformism). And also the video experience, which happens alone, dispassionately, less empathetically. The danger becomes more apparent when you see corporate forces so closely allied with government power as they now are. In the age of corporate media, the message is disseminated from the top down. It is controlled and it is designed to condition spectators to conform. Whereas folk culture: rich, ancient and organic, is intrinsically subversive to those aims. It works from the bottom up. It is presented from many perspectives, it sings with many voices. You get the truth from all sides, you get eternal truths. There is precious little support for folk culture in America that operates outside the corporate cookie-cutter. With the promised shut down of the National Endowment for the Arts, there will be even less support (and that is by design). Trump aims at a monolithic autocracy that talks with one voice, the voice of white Christians. But we also know that white males are only 31% of the population, and white male, heterosexual, conservative Christians is some number substantially smaller than that.

But this attempt to force the other two thirds of the country to bend to their will is like trying to tie up a lion in pretty pink ribbon. It might hold for a minute, but no more. Then the lion is going to burst its bonds — and it will be complaining loudly. I’ve been saying this more and more. It’s likely to be a miserable time for artists, but a good time for art. Nothing motivates people to shout loudly like being told to shut up.

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