Archive for the ACTS Category

Estelle Getty: Comedy’s Grandma Moses

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2017 by travsd

We’s in the midst of a Golden Girls Renaissance these days; it seems like entire cable networks are devoted to showing it in reruns. I’m sure this is why it occurred to me to do something on Estelle Getty (Estelle Scher, 1923-2008). When Golden Girls originally aired, I frankly wasn’t much inclined to look at a sit-com about a bunch of old ladies, much as I loved and respected some of the cast members. But in recent months, I chanced to tune into some of these tv marathons, and, discovered that, damn, the writing and acting on the show is so jaw-droppingly funny. And yes, it’s significant that the show’s about a previously overlooked demographic (female senior citizens), blah blah blah, but why waste your time if it isn’t very good? But it was very good.

Getty, people delight in pointing out, was actually younger than Bea Arthur, who played her daughter. But she was petite and compact, and earthy and urban in that first generation immigrant way, which gave one the impression that she was from an earlier generation. And her professional background was very old school. She is said to have gotten her start doing Yiddish theatre, and performing in Catskills resorts.

She was nearly 40 when she got her first big break, playing the mother in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy on Broadway (1982-1985). At the same time, she began to get small roles in movies like Tootsie (1982) and Mask (1985). The Golden Girls debuted in 1985; that show and its sequels and spin offs kept her employed for a decade. And Getty was pretty great on the show, although, I will say my comparison to Grandma Moses is apt in ways beyond her mere age. Like the famous folk painter, she was a “natural”. She worked in the role because she was perfect for it and she could deliver a funny line. By comparison, Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan were histrionic professionals, who could chew scenery and manufacture tears by the bucketful. (Betty White is also an actress but her character on the show, like Getty’s, was more of a joke machine). Getty could do this one thing, and people loved her so much she became a surprise star as a result of the series, even winning an Emmy in 1988. But, I think you’ll notice, in scenes that require depth and pathos, she was uncomfortable with it. She’d much rather bark a salty line.

Getty continued to do guest shots on television until the turn of the century, and was in a couple of notable movies. Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot (1992) with Sylvester Stalone has been excoriated by critics as one of the worst movies ever (it earned an astounding 4% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes). And she played Grandma Estelle in the modern family classic Stuart Little (1999). When she passed away, three days prior to her 85th birthday, she was finally reaching the age of her Golden Girls character, which she’d begun playing when she was only 62.

On Nazi Comedies

Posted in Comedy, CULTURE & POLITICS, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2017 by travsd

Good heavens — no! I don’t mean great comedies MADE by the Nazi film studios!  I apologize if I gave you that impression, although if it got you here then it was a good headline. No, no, I mean, great comedies at the EXPENSE of the Nazis, of course. There’s enough of such movies to make a mini sub-genre. And you know what? Now is the ideal time to revive it.  A substantial portion of the American populace think it’s okay to warm up to Fascism; an even bigger slice think it’s fine to be soft on it, or pretend they don’t see it. But Fascism, like dog shit, is pretty unmistakable. It looks and smells odious. Animals, in their innocence, roll around in it. The rest of humanity, inasmuch as they represent humanity, have a zero tolerance policy towards it. You’re supposed to say, “Jesus! Dog shit!” Then you put a clothes pin on your nose, don some gloves, scoop the plop into a bag, and remove it from your midst. It’s the only rational course to take when confronted with unrepentant, unchanging racists, bigots, and authoritarians in a country that’s supposed to be free. You do not “live with” dog poop, even in a society of maximum tolerance. “What’s that next to the coffee table?” “Oh, that’s just some of the dog’s poop. What are you gonna do, right?” And if it’s outside your power to move the thing? Well, if you can’t scoop the abomination up, you can try to shrink it where it sits until it doesn’t matter any more. You can belittle Fascists, make them feel and appear insignificant, expose them as weak and foolish clowns. Some of our greatest comedians have chosen to make that statement at various times. If you ask me, we can use more than a few new anti-Nazi comedies at this very moment. But until new ones are forthcoming, these are these evergreen classics to enrich us:

The Great Dictator (1940)

The claim that “the Three Stooges did it first” is not completely true — Charlie Chaplin had actually begun pre-production on his satirical masterwork in 1937, three years before the short You Nazty Spy was even a gleam in Jules White’s eye, even if the latter film did beat The Great Dictator into theatres by three months. Chaplin’s comedy was not only devastating and surprisingly accessible but brave. Among Hollywood professionals only he was both rich enough and popular enough to take such a risk at the time. And the mustache made it virtually obligatory. My full essay on The Great Dictator is here. 

You Nazty Spy (1940) and I’ll Never Heil Again (1940)

Like we say, the Three Stooges beat Chaplin into cinemas with their Nazi satire, no doubt emboldened to take the risk by Chaplin. Jews themselves, they were no doubt second to none in their personal outrage at what was happening in Europe. But, speaking of Nazty Spies…the techniques in You Nazty Spy (1940) and its sequel I’ll Never Heil Again (1940) are so similar to what Chaplin was doing in The Great Dictator, I find it hard to believe the Stooges didn’t somehow get wind of what he had planned. Things like the burlesques on proper names, and the use of a globe as a football (where Chaplin had used a globe as a dancing partner) seem awfully similar. Moe is the natural Hitler figure, Curly a curiously apt Goering, and as for Larry, they sort of shoehorn into a Goebbels/Ribbentrop hybrid. After these two comedies, the Stooges continued to make Nazis their villains, frequently having Nazi spies and saboteurs be the bad guys in their films through the end of the war. (Many others used that as a plot device as well: the East Side Kids/ Bowery Boys, Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope. If we jump down the “Nazi Spy comedy” rabbit hole, we’ll never get out. This post is more about comedians ridiculing actual Nazis in uniform).

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

This movie was a lot of firsts for me — my first Lubitsch film, my first Jack Benny film, probably my first Carole Lombard film. While today it’s probably Lubitsch’s best known comedy, and in some ways might seem uncharacteristic (it’s so specifically political), there are also ways in which it is right in line with his usual concerns: it’s set in Europe; and it’s about squabbling and adultery on the part of a married couple. I’m not the hugest Lubitsch fan, but this is probably my favorite of his films on account of the farcical perfection of it, and the fact that there is the political anchor to it. Benny and Lombard play a vain, sophisticated husband-and-wife acting team at a Warsaw theatre, just as the Nazis are occupying Poland. They use their acting skills (and their whole like-minded troupe) to deceive the Nazis and foil their plans. There is a poignancy in the film’s quotation of Shylock’s “Hath Not a Jew” speech, but also in the Hamlet quote used as the film’s title. Poland has just ceased to “Be”. Many of the film’s characters have their backs to the wall — they have no choice but to be brave and take risks. What have they got to lose?

Der Fuhrers Face (1943)

This Donald Duck Short won the Oscar for Best Animated Short that year. There were many shorts featuring the Disney characters volunteering to serve, fighting in the war, and helping with home defense. This one went for the propagandistic jugular, and helped popularize the eponymous song, to boot.

A Night in Casablanca (1946) 

After the conclusion of WWII there was a grace period of about a year when Nazi spies were still permissible fodder for Hollywood films. Thus we have Orson Welles’ The Stranger, Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious and the Marx Brothers’ A Night in Casablanca all released in 1946. This is the only exception we make to the “No Nazi Spy Comedies” rule. The photo above seems to have been a publicity still — no uniformed Nazis appear in the movie. For my full post on A Night in Casablanca, go here. 

INTERMISSION:

There followed a period of about 20 years when you don’t see Nazis in comedy, for two conflicting reasons, I think. On the one hand, for a while (the 1950s anyway) World War II was passe in movies. On the other hand, in the wake of the Nuremberg trials and all the revelations about the Holocaust, ironically, it was also “too soon” to joke about Nazis. The full extent of their evil was so great. Perhaps, many people thought, it would never be possible to laugh at them ever again.  But that would be to underestimate the power of bad taste.

Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971)

Context helps us understand the mind-bogglingly weird phenomenon of Hogan’s Heroes, the sixties’ sit-com set in a Nazi Germany POW camp. One, I think, is the success of the films Stalag 17 (1953) and The Great Escape (1963), which, mashed-together, add up to something like Hogan’s Heroes. The latter, released only two years before, put an almost cheerful, positive spin on the ordeal of Allied POWs in a German camp. The added twist on the show is that Colonel Hogan (Bob Crane) and his men are secretly spies who pretty much escape in and out of the camp at will to collect information and relay it back to their superiors via a secret radio. The fact that many of the cast members were Jewish Holocaust survivors (I’ve blogged about one, Robert Clary) was a kind of insurance against charges of callousness. And in the long run, maybe Hogan’s Heroes was almost cathartic, laughing at silly, ineffectual Nazis every week. The show remained on the air for six years — an extremely long time for a television sit com.

La Grand Vadrouille (Don’t Look Now…We’re Being Shot At) (1966)

For 40 years this unpretentious, enjoyable comedy was the most successful movie in France in terms of box office. And it’s a great movie; I just watched it for the first time this morning. How odd that Americans have never heard of it. It’s extremely popular throughout the world, regarded as a kind of classic. In fact, it’s so well made that I watched this French film on Youtube without English dubbing or subtitles and was able to follow it perfectly.  Its simple plot: RAF pilot Terry-Thomas and his crew are forced to bail over occupied Paris. Some locals (played by French stars Bouvril and Louis de Funes, and others) help them to evade the occupying Nazis through a string of subterfuges, involving lots of farce and slapstick. Again, the Nazis are presented as straw men, easy to fool, easy to bonk on the head, easy to hide from. If only ’twere ever thus!

The Producers (1967)

Dick Shawn’s Hippie Hitler, Kenneth Mars’ stormtrooper playwright, and songs like “Springtime for Hitler” are only some of the delightful outrages in Mel Brooks pathbreaking satire. And it wasn’t even the first time he went there (think of “Siegfried” in Get Smart, which Brooks had co-created with Buck Henry).

Which Way to the Front? (1969)

For better or worse, the years 1969-1972 were Jerry Lewis’s Nazi period, encompassing not only this comedy but his later notorious drama, the unreleased The Day the Clown Cried (1972). Until we see the latter we won’t know which is the worse film, although I think of Which Way to the Front? as being among this comedy auteur’s worst. Based on a story by the one and only Dick Miller, it concerns a 4F millionaire who decides he’ll fight the war anyway with his own private army of misfits (which also seems a twist on The Dirty Dozen, which was released at around the same time.) Lewis’s character masquerades as a Nazi general and makes it all the way to Hitler, who, for some reason, has a Beatles haircut. In fact every dude in the movie has hair that’s way too long, they wear the wrong clothes, and the interior sets are all decorated wrong. The only thing Lewis seems to have gotten right or cared about was the actual Nazi uniforms. It is a deeply weird and grating movie. Oh, and don’t worry — he doesn’t miss the opportunity to do his offensive “Japanese” routine.

Soft Beds, Hard Battles aka Undercovers Hero (1974)

This is too interesting a movie to be as obscure as it is. Perhaps it is the fact that the film has no less than TWO terrible titles. And the movie….needs work. I’m sure a lot of people watch it and write it off as terrible, but I found myself fairly riveted, and not just because of all the topless women running around. It’s one of those comedies where Peter Sellers plays several characters, and in this, one of them is Adolph Hitler. It’s made by the Boulting Brothers, who made earlier Sellers films like I’m All Right, Jack (1959) and There’s a Girl in My Soup (1970). Here, they seem like they’re trying to get topical and experimental. The scenario is a lot like Genet’s The Balcony, set in a French brothel, where all the call girls have been called upon by the Resistance to spy on (and sometimes bump off) their high-up Nazi clientele. For some reason that must have seemed clever at the time, but must also have dated the film instantly, a Richard Nixon impersonator is the narrator.  Oh, and don’t worry — Sellers doesn’t miss the opportunity to do his offensive “Japanese” routine, either.

To Be or Not to Be re-make (1983)

I have never been really sure why this film exists. There is some logic I guess, given Mel Brooks track record, of casting him in a remake of To Be or Not to Be, and the director Alan Johnson is the guy who choreographed “Springtime for Hitler”. But the original movie was perfect. Why remake it? This version doesn’t particularly recontextualize the story or reinvigorate it or put any new twist on it. Why make this picture in 1983? At the time, Poland was in the news because of the labor strikes and so forth, but this doesn’t particularly seem attached to that, or to anything really. It’s just a remake, almost like Gus Van Sandt’s 1998 Pyscho is a remake. Now, on the other hand — now would be an excellent time to remake this movie. It would indeed.

Champion Jack Dupree: Seminal Blues Man with a Coney Island Connection

Posted in Blues, Coney Island, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2017 by travsd

July 23 is one of the many possible birth dates given for boogie woogie, blues, and barrelhouse piano player William Thomas “Champion Jack” Dupree (circa 1909 – 1992).  Born and raised in New Orleans, Dupree was the son of a Congolese father and a mother who was mixed-blood African American and Cherokee. Orphaned at age eight, Dupree taught himself piano, and played in saloons and other establishments from  a young age. His stage name came from the fact that he was also a professional boxer in his younger years, and had won a Golden Gloves championship. (This may be one of the reasons for a speech impediment noticeable on some of his recordings, although there are also joking references to a cleft palate). Around 1940 he became part of the Chicago blues scene, although his career was interrupted by years of World War Two service, including two years as a Japanese prisoner. But after the war followed nearly five decades as a successful musician. He was an influence on Jerry Lee Lewis, and recorded with such major artists as The Band, Eric Clapton, John Mayall, and Mick Taylor. He co-wrote the song “Walkin’ the Blues”, covered by Willie Dixon, Otis Spann and many others.

This is our first entry in the blues section of Travalanche in quite some time, and we have a special reason for doing it. This year, Coney Island USA’s building on Surf Avenue turns 100 years old. The building began life as Child’s Restaurant, but for a time in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was a music venue known as the Blue Bird Casino, where, for a while the house musician was….Champion Jack Dupree. Thanks, Dick Zigun, for the historical tidbit! You’ll be hearing more about the colorful history of the Child’s Restaurant building anon.

 

Althea Henley: Almost a Star

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , on July 23, 2017 by travsd

Chorus girl and actress Althea Henley (Althea Heinley, 1911-1996) was born on this day. As a girl, Henley trained as a dancer in her native Allentown,Pennsylvania. Encouraged by a teacher and a local theatre promoter, she auditioned for a chorus part in a tab musical, and began touring the Publix vaudeville circuit in 1926. Ned Wayburn spotted her and put her in his touring revue New Buds of 1927, which then led to a chorus part in Ziegfeld’s touring production of Three Cheers with Will Rogers and Dorothy Stone. This led to small roles in Ziegfeld’s Show Girl (1929) on Broadway with Ruby Keeler, Jimmy Durante and Eddie Foy, Jr. Probably through Foy or Stone, she was then cast in 1930’s Ripples, featuring Foy and the Fred Stone family.

That is she, paired with Curly on the left

Scouted while she was appearing in Ripples, she was given a contract at Fox and moved to Hollywood — where she only got bit roles and chorus parts, although she did appear in notable movies. She’s in the chorus in Eddie Cantor’s The Kid from Spain (1932), as well as International House (1933), George White’s Scandals (1934), and Redheads on Parade (1935). In 1931 she co-starred with Mary Mulhern, Jack Pickford’s last wife in a stage production of Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime, but not much seems to have come of it.  In 1935 she signed with Columbia, where she had roles in three Three Stooges shorts: Three Little Beers (1935), Ants in the Pantry (1936) and Movie Maniacs (1936).  She then had a walk on role in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936).

In 1936, she got her first decent feature role in the British film Find the Lady with Jack Melford and George Sanders. While in London she married her second husband, British auto manufacturer Arthur Markham. Markham died of a brain tumor, but Henley remained in London through the war years, returning to the U.S. to marry Hollywood agent William J. Begg in 1947. 

For more on vaudeville including performers like Althea Henley,  see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

For National Moon Day: 33 Tin Pan Alley Songs About the Moon

Posted in Music, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2017 by travsd

It’s National Moon Day — commemorating that day in 1969 when “the Eagle [had] Landed.” Neil Armstrong took his historic stroll the following day. I seem to remember a quote from Orson Welles (although I can’t find it this morning) to the effect that we shouldn’t have done that (gone to the moon) because it would ruin all the songs. He kind of has a point. For tens of thousands of years, it was an object of mystery to humanity, and thus an inspiration to poets. When you’ve been there, it loses that — it’s just a ball of grey rock in the sky. It’ll probably be a filling station on the way to better places at some point. At bottom, I think this is why some people (like my late hillbilly grandmother) cling to the idea that the whole thing was a ruse, a conspiracy. It’s probably why Fundamentalism exist in general. You must admit that life without faeries and leprechauns and bigfoot is far more charmless and existentially hostile (and, to use a lunar metaphor from real life), barren.

But I digress. A little listicle of songs from the Tin Pan Alley Era that put the moon front and center. It’s strictly Tin Pan Alley, which to my mind winds down somewhere in the middle of the Great Depression. Thus, we leave off plenty of favorite standards from later years, much as I love them, like “How High the Moon” (1940); “Blue Moon of Kentucky” (1947) and “Fly Me to the Moon” (1954) and scores of others. Too new-fangled! NB: I’ll be enhancing this post as time goes on. I was originally going to profile only ten songs, but then I hit the mother lode and decided to include them all, so it’s very barebones at present. In time for next year’s Moon Day, I’ll include more info on all the songs. But right now, I gotta hit “publish” because this has been going on for too many hours! You may think you know ’em all, but I bet you don’t!

“My Sweetheart’s the Man in the Moon” (1892)

The vaudeville circuits were just being formed when James Thornton wrote this song for his wife Bonnie Thornton to perform.

“If the Man in the Moon Were a Coon” (1905)

For a little context, Fred Fisher wrote this song to take advantage of the then-current craze for “coon songs” , mashing it together with the evergreen vogue for “moon songs”. Which is not to excuse it, just to point out why something so heinous to our ears would exist in the first place.

“The Moon Has His Eyes On You” (1905)

Albert Von Tilzer (best known for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”) and Billy Johnson collaborated on this early moon song, which sounds a little paranoid if you ask me.

“Laughing Moon” (1908)

A ragtime instrumental by Joseph J. Kaiser. 

“Shine On, Harvest Moon” (1908)

One of the most popular songs of the vaudeville era, co-written by the then-married vaudeville team of Jack Norworth and Nora Bayes, and covered by countless others thereafter. It may well have launch the Tin Pan Alley craze for musical moons.

“There’s No Moon Like the Honeymoon” (1908) 

This lesser known tune was written by Edgar Malone and Al Gumble and popularized by Billy Murray and Ada Jones. 

“By the Light of the Silvery Moon” (1909)

Another massively covered Moon-Tune, written by Gus Edwards and Edward Madden. It got a new lease on life when it was made into a movie starring Doris Day in the 1950s.

“The Moon-Mad Moon” (1909)

Clarence J. Harvey and William J. Mullen

 

“On Moonlight Bay” (1912)

Ditto on all counts, including the Doris Day movie! Co-written by Edward Madden and Percy Wenrich. Madden seems to have had a thing about moons.

“I’ll Sit Right on the Moon and Keep My Eyes on You” (1912)

A hit for songwriter James V. Monaco. 

“Under the Summer Moon” (1914)

Check it out — “Leonard Marx” is of course Chico! He was known to dabble in songwriting from time to time. The song was introduced in the Marx Brothers tab musical vaudeville act “Home Again”

“Georgia Moon” (1914)

The first of several Southern-state based Moon tunes? By Jean C. Havez and Ted S. Barron.

 

“Moon Winks” (1915)

A ragtime instrumental by George Stevens. 

“Pale Yellow Moon” (1916)

By Fleta Jan Brown and Herbert Spencer. 

“Alabama Moon” (1917)

This popular tune by H. Will Callahan also inspired the answer song “Mississippi Moon by Jimmie Rodgers that same year

“When the Moon begins to Shine (Through the Pines of Caroline)” (1918)

By Will Hart and Ed Nelson.

“Jealous Moon” (1918)

By Harry D. Kerr and John S. Zamecnik. 

“Wishing Moon” (1919)

By Jack Frost and R. Henri Klickmann 

“Georgia Moonlight” (1920)

“Georgia Moon” wasn’t enough apparently. The craze for the moon in Southern states continues with this song by Roy Thornton, Helen Gillespie and Erwin R. Schmidt.

“Virginia Moonlight” (1920)

Harold B. Freeman jumps on the bandwagon.

“Dear Old Dixie Moon” (1920)

Harry D. Kerr and George J. Hayes

“Carolina Moon” (1924)

Joe Burke and Benny Davis. 

“Wait’ll Its Moonlight” (1925)

Bannister and Pinkard. 

“Get Out and Get Under the Moon”, 1928 

A popular one by Larry Shay, Charles Tobias, and William Jerome. There are versions by Helen Kane, Annette Hanshaw and Eddie White.

“Me and the Man in the Moon” (1928)

James V. Monaco and Edgar Leslie, popularized by Helen Kane.

“Blame it On the Moon” (1929)

Words and music by Phil Baxter. 

“Underneath the Harlem Moon”, 1932

By Mack Gordon and Harry Revel. 

 

“It’s Only a Paper Moon”, 1933

Originally written by the great songwriters Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg and Billy Rose for a planned Broadway show called The Great Magoo was to have been set in Coney Island.

“Blue Moon” (1934)

We’re pushing it to include this Rodgers and Hart classic. The style is post-Tin Pan Alley, I think, and it’s actually NEVER gone out of style. Covers of it pop up in every era. But since I’m included a couple of songs that follow it chronologically I feel obligated to include it.

“Moon Over Miami” (1935 )

By Joe Burke and Edgar Leslie, one of many tunes that was later turned into a Hollywood musical

“Me and the Moon” (1936)

Hirsch and Handman

Okay! I am done! Do you hear?! DONE!!! And if you dare suggest any missing songs I will come over to your house and beat you to death with a ukulele! You think I’m kidding? I AM NOT KIDDING!!!

For more on Tin Pan Alley and other vaudeville music, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

The Moylan Sisters: The Angels of the Airwaves

Posted in Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Sister Acts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2017 by travsd

July 16 was the birthday of Marianne Moylan (1930-90). Along with her sister Peggy Joan (1932-2002), she was part of the kiddie act The Moylan Sisters.

All of 7 and 5 when they made their debut on The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour, the girls were prized for their naturalness and purity. They sang beautifully and in nice harmony, but unlike most kiddie acts they were not precocious and show bizzy. They were real kids, not performing freaks. Their repertoire tells the tale; they did songs like “School Days”, “I Don’t Want  to Play in Your Yard” and “M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I-I.”  Billed as “The Cinderellas of Radio” and “The Angels of the Airwaves”, they also made records, live appearances and  several short films, including The Backyard Broadcast (1936), Starlets (1937), Toyland Casino (1937 — a Vitaphone, which is how I first learned of them), and World’s Fair Junior (1939). In 1939, they were given their own network radio show, which remained on the air through 1945. For a while the show was sponsored by Thrivo Dog Food. The Thrivo jingle which they sang was one of their most popular and well-known numbers. At one point, their show was the second most popular in the country, topped only by The Shadow.

The girls both seem to have retired from the business in the early 1950s. Born and raised in Sag Harbor, New York, the Irish Catholic children of an engraver at a watch factory. They attended school at the Academy of the Sacred Heart. Marianne married a local plumbing contractor in 1953 and became a homemaker, remaining in Sag Harbor. Peggy Joan married in 1955, also choosing the domestic life over a career. She moved to Maine for a time before returning to New York. Both women continued to sing in church after their professional retirement.

The act was parodied in the 1976 Broadway musical Annie as “The Boylan Sisters.”

For everything you need to to know about the variety arts, including kiddie acts, sister acts, and radio variety, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

On Donald Meek, Whose Characters Matched His Screen Name

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2017 by travsd

The great (small) character actor Donald Meek was born July 14, 1878. Don’t tell me you don’t know who he is! With that enormous chrome dome and his small statue (5’6″) he seemed almost like a cartoon character, say, Droopy. And so many of the movies he appeared in were classics. Statistically, some were bound to be — he made so many movies: over 120 in 16 years of talkies, which averages to almost 8 a year, or a movie every month and a half.

It is surprising to learn that he was born and raised in Glasgow; he became a world travelling trouper at quite a young age and worked to lose the accent. He started out as a child actor in local pantomimes and the like, and the legend of his early career is wonderful if true, although the many tidbits one comes across seem possibly contradictory: 1) that he acted with Sir Henry Irving by age eight; 2) that he toured Australia, India, South Africa and England in the title role in Little Lord Fauntleroy;  3) that, at age 14 he joined a troupe of acrobats called The Marvells as a top mounter; 4) that, when on tour in the U.S. he fell, breaking several bones; and that, when he recovered, he enlisted and fought for the U.S. in Cuba in the Spanish-American War, where he was not only wounded in action, but also caught a disease that caused his hair to fall out.

Much of this may be publicists’ puffery; I merely report it you because it is entertaining, and I would far rather be entertained than trouble to learn the truth of the matter. What is quite clear is that, starting in 1917 he was cast in the Broadway musical Going Up, and he was to work steadily on the Great White Way for the next 15 years. One of these shows Six Cylinder Love (1921-22) was made into a 1923 movie, Meek’s first screen credit and his only silent one. Another of them, The Potters (1923-24) was later made into a silent movie starring W.C. Fields, whom he would later appear in two films with.

As the liquor drummer Peacock in “Stagecoach”, with Thomas Mitchell as the predatory drunken doctor who dips into his samples

When talkies came in, he had a period of overlap, where he both acted on Broadway, and in films at Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone studio in Queens. It was during this period when he starred in a series of shorts called the Dr. Crabtree Mysteries. In 1933 he moved to Hollywood to concentrate solely on acting for films. Some of his well known pictures include: Mrs Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934) with Zasu Pitts and W.C. Fields; Top Hat (1935) with Fred and Ginger; Barbary Coast (1935) with Joel McCrea and Edward G. Robinson; Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935) with Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi; John Ford’s The Informer (1935), Stagecoach (1939) and Young Mr. Lincoln (1939); with Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935); Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You (1938); My Little Chickadee (1940) with W.C. Fields and Mae West; Jesse James (1939) and its sequel The Return of Frank James (1940); Air Raid Wardens (1943) with Laurel and Hardy; DuBarry Was a Lady (1943) with Red Skelton and others; and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical State Fair (1945) among, scores of others.

As you can see, he made himself useful in EVERY genre. Ordinarily, he played shy, nervous, bookish or officious types: ministers, book-keepers, robbery victims and the like, although it was occasionally effective when he went against type to be a villain, as in the Jesse James films or Air Raid Wardens. His character names tell the tale: “Mr. Frisbee”, “Justice of the Peace”, “Dr. Zimmer”, “Iradius P. Oglethorpe”, “Willoughby Wendling”, “Samuel Peacock”, “Adelbert Thistlebottom”, “Mittelmeyer”, “Professor Birdo”, “Captain Makepeace Liveright”, “Henry Cadwallader”, “Mr. Twiddle”. His last film, William Wellman’s Magic Town was released posthumously in 1947. Meek had passed away the previous year.

 For everything you need to to know about early show business, including possible former child acrobats like Donald Meek, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

 

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