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)

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/

Last Night’s Town Hall in Brooklyn

Posted in BROOKLYN, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , , , on February 23, 2017 by travsd

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In recent days we’ve been seeing footage of Town Hall meetings across the country as congresspeople meet with their constituents to hear what they have to say about our first month of President 45. Most of the clips we’ve been seeing have been of angry people yelling at Republicans, over such things as cancelling Obamacare without having the promised replacement system ready to go. Last night, my congressperson, Representative Yvette Clarke, held her own meeting at the Union Temple in Brooklyn just a short walk from my house.

I gather it was a huge success. Arriving at the announced start time I was amazed to see that the line to get in stretched all the way around the block. And when I say “all the way around”, that’s just what I mean. 360 degrees. The back of the line reached almost to the front. Several hundred people (including me) were turned away. But in a democracy, that many people taking an interest is a good problem to have. My good friend Gabriele Schafer got there good and early though and here is what she reports:

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Panelists included representatives of Planned Parenthood New York, the NYCLU, SUNY Downstate Medical School, and the NYS Department of Health, as well as experts on climate change and civil rights/immigration law. On the environment, presenters cited how this kind of poll is consistent with the public’s attitude. On healthcare, the audience heard that 40+% of women in NY don’t get any prenatal care; but New York has and will continue to have “Obamacare”. SUNY Downstate Medical say that they provide healthcare to ALL comers. An NYCLU lawyer and a local immigration lawyer said that under the law you do not have to show nor carry ID; and that you can remain silent. The authorities may hold you and try to intimidate you but to remain silent may be considered a legitimate form of protest.
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In her own presentation, Clarke called Kellyanne Conway “Kellyanne ConArtist” to big cheers. Her mentions of Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Rudy Giuliani all garnered loud boos. The biggest cheer and standing ovation she got was when she used the term “act up”…. “I’m going to act up!” Clarke she said that it is vital that the public keep doing everything they can to resist and let their feelings known to their electeds, even though they may think it does no good, especially in blue districts. Elected officials need the cover, they need the motivation, and they need to be able to point to the discontent and groundswell behind them. More on last night’s event is here. 

 

Help Charles Lane Make His New Web Series

Posted in African American Interest, Movies, Movies (Contemporary), PLUGS with tags , , , , , , on February 21, 2017 by travsd

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No one is happier than this commentator to see actor/director Charles Lane re-emerging from wherever he’s been for the past 20 years. Lane’s day in the sun was 1989-1993, when he had an extremely promising, very interesting run. His debut silent feature Sidewalk Stories put him on the map as the “Black Chaplin“, and today it’s not only an incredible record of a very different NYC (the one I moved to, in fact, so it makes me nostalgic) but to a time when film-makers were putting that much heart and humanity into their work. There is zero commercialism in his film, just integrity and craft, and at the time, that was still enough to make people take notice. I wrote about the film here when its was restored and shown at Tribeca Film Festival back in 2014. I found the film transformational.

The success of Sidewalk Stories landed Lane a gig directing a film for Touchstone in 1991; British comedian Lenny Henry’s American debut entitled True Identity. I saw it when it came out, and it seemed to make a lot of sense for both Lane and Henry conceptually. It’s very high concept; not unlike Tootsie. A black actor puts on white make-up so he can escape from the mob. It has echoes of Godfrey Cambridge in Watermelon Man, and presages the Wayans Brothers in White Chicks. Both Lane and Henry did fine work, but the script itself was pretty lacklustre (Touchstone is Disney after all, so this potentially explosive concept was at best timidly explored). And Henry didn’t click as a star in the states. Lane himself also appeared in the film, and was quite funny. In 1993, he was the comic relief in Mario Van Peebles’s interesting all-black western Posse. That year he also directed an episode of American Masters called Hallelujiah, with a cast that included James Earl Jones, Keith David, Ruth Brown, Isaac Hayes and others.

On the face of it, he seemed to be a guy who was going places, but after this he vanished,emerging only recently with the renewed interest in Sidewalk Stories. I’ve come across no commentary as to why. People do get discouraged in this business, even people as talented and promising as Lane. And I can imagine the sort of projects that typically get offered to African American artists being insulting in any number of ways. And that could add to the discouragement. All I know is I am glad to have him back. We need art right now, especially art with Lane’s sensibility. He’s just launched this Kickstarter for a new web series called Please Date Me Now. I don’t have a pot to piss in at the moment; all I can do is endorse his talent and the idea that he deserves your backing. Learn all about the project here.

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