Archive for the Acrobats and Daredevils Category

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.

 

Circus Amok 2016!

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Bearded Ladies, Circus, Comedy, Contemporary Variety, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Dime Museum and Side Show, Jugglers, PLUGS, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on September 12, 2016 by travsd

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We were fortunate to catch opening day of Circus Amok’s 2016 touring season yesterday at the Abrons Arts Center. It’s a more stripped down, lean and mean show this year, with a smaller cast and fewer sets, elaborate masks, or costumes (and, I believe, a shorter show).

I hope I won’t get in trouble by saying I liked it BETTER. This kind of cut-to-the-chase brevity, simplicity, and economy is a vaudeville VIRTUE, and that’s what I saw yesterday. One act in particular, mixing opera and two performers playing the same accordion, was a BOFFO vaudeville turn. Another act — the sight of artistic director, star, m.c. and woman-with-a-beard Jennifer Miller escaping from a straightjacket to the tune of the old disco hit “I Will Survive” — made me weep at the sheer beauty of it, even though I’d seen it many times before! And weeping is vaudeville (it certainly isn’t burlesque, sideshow or circus). And yesterday WAS September 11 — I imagine I was subconsciously mining every particle of pleasure out of the show I possibly could. I enjoyed it that much. And that’s vaudeville, too. It was either vaudeville or sunstroke. (The concrete outdoor amphitheater at Abrons is like sitting at the focal point of a solar panel.)

But cooler weather is upon us! And Circus Amok will be playing (for free!) at a public park near you (if you live in New York City) through September 18. The full schedule is here.

And now some more pictures!

This very funny ringer did walkaround. It says something about New York that it took me a second to make her as a clown. I've seen crazy people on the street with this much powder or white cream on their face at least 3 dozen times

This very funny ringer did walkaround. It says something about New York that it took me a second to make her for a clown. I’ve seen crazy people on the street with this much powder or white cream on their face at least 3 dozen times. Anyway, she got the whole crowd to yell and scream, which is very fun, because you couldn’t help picturing what people on the sidewalk must have thought as they were walking by

Balancing the ladder on her chin was plenty impressive, but I couldn't resist wishing a little person would appear and clamber up the ladder and jump onto that nearby balcony

Balancing the ladder on her chin was plenty impressive, but I couldn’t resist wishing a little person would appear and clamber up that ladder and jump onto that nearby balcony

No lions were harmed during the production of this circus

No lions were harmed during the production of this circus

Berta Beeson: Cross Dressing Tightrope Walker

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Circus, Drag and/or LGBT, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 2, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Berta Beeson (Herbert “Slats” Beeson, 1899-1969). Billed as the Julian Eltinge of the Wire, Beeson was a cross-dressing tightrope walker. It is not known whether Beeson was gay, straight, trans, or what — it is only known that he dressed up like a woman to do a highwire act.

Originally from Summitville, Indiana, Beeson started out working at his local vaudeville house. He debuted with the Sells-Floto circus in 1917 as “Mademoiselle Beeson, Marvelous High Wire Venus.” When Bird Millman retired from Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey in 1925, Beeson was her replacement. He retired from performing 11 years later, but continued to work for the circus as an advance man. Check it out: there’s an entire blog devoted to Berta Beeson. Read it here. 

To learn more about  old school show biz especially vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Sylvester Schaffer

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, German, Jugglers, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Music, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Sylvester Schaffer (1885-1949). Schaffer was a second generation star of the Berlin variety stage. His father was the Austrian-Bohemian juggler and painter George Sylvester Schaffer. Schaffer fils had both those skills, and was also a magician, lightning sketch artist, musician, acrobat and trick rider. He was often called as the “one man variety show”.

Shaffer’s public persona was not unlike Houdini’s, and like the American escape artist Schaffer was also considered a dashing sex symbol and starred in a series of silent adventure movies during the 1920s. Also like Houdini, Schaffer was an international star, and he toured American vaudeville many times in the teens and twenties, including the greatest venue of all, the Palace, where he presented a lavish stage show with ten elaborate sets.

When Hitler came to power Schaffer fled Germany and settled into semi-retirement in Los Angeles, concentrating on visual art and music studies for his remaining years.

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Big Apple Circus: Grand Tour

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, AMUSEMENTS, Animal Acts, Circus, Clown, Contemporary Variety, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS with tags , , , , , , , on December 14, 2015 by travsd

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I’ve been attending the Big Apple Circus nearly every season for 20 years now…and lately every time I go I feel like the show I’ve just seen was the best ever. I’ve wondered aloud whether current artistic director Guilliaume Dufresnoy is one of the reasons I love it so much more now than I did in the ’90s. Now that I’ve seen several editions generated under his watch by various creators and directors I think I can say with some confidence that, yes, Guilliame has something to do with it. I simply prefer the aesthetics of the BAC as it is today….every artistic choice, from the music, to the script, to the costume design, to the scenery and lighting, all speak to me a great deal more than it used to. The show is rendered with more discretion, taste, and (ironically) more tradition. (The acts themselves have always been great of course. Their scouts go to Monte Carlo and other showcases and bring back some of the best circus acts in the world. I’ve never had any complaints about the jewels at BAC; I just never dug the settings).

We were proud to see our homeboys from Parallel Exit sign on to create this show (with Mark Lonergan as director, and Joel Jeske as writer/creator, and director of the clown bits). Downtown representin’! (Except they’ve also performed at the New Victory; they’ve enjoyed legit success for a while now). If you doubt my objectivity, you needn’t. If anything, as someone who also presents vaudeville, I have incentive NOT to be complimentary, and for that matter I have certainly written downright savage reviews of shows containing friends. So you’ll get fair dealing here.

And you can believe me when I say the show is flipping awesome, and I’ll probably go back to see it a second time (maybe on New Year’s Eve; it’s our favorite way to ring in the new year). This year’s show is lean and mean and moves along briskly — so efficiently and economically that perhaps for the first time at a circus I never looked at my watch. As I’ve written here many times, circus isn’t at the top of my list for theatrical forms. My orientation is vaudeville, and ya know what an acrobat is in vaudeville? The opening act. In the circus, acrobats comprise the bulk of the show — even more so now that larger animals are being pushed out. (I have very politically incorrect opinions on that subject, btw). The current show is not only well-curated and full of fast-paced acts, but (as should surprise no one who’s familiar with Parallel Exit’s work) chock full of fast and funny clowning by the duo of Joel Jeske (“Mr. Joel”) and Brent McBeth, (also of Parallel Exit, here billed as “Skip”). The theme of the show is a Grand Tour in the great age of travel (early twentieth century), so the pair are frequently cast as waiters, flight attendants, baggage handlers and so forth. Jeske’s precision, focus and bag of tricks are to die for. As with many great comedians (Oliver Hardy is my favorite example), you love him more for doing what’s expected, rather than surprises. The man is steeped in the ritual of comedy. Favorite moments included a slop act through a porthole, in which Mr. Joel gets doused with bucket after bucket of water — no matter how he tries to avoid it. And then there was a great game of musical chairs. Mr. Joel has rigged it to win, and he still loses. Also he and McBeth do a musical number, the old song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” — this might be the very first time I’ve witnessed singing in the Big Apple Circus, and it was highly welcome.

As was the dancing — the whole cast performed a Charleston in the charivari and in a closing number. As for the acts: Italy’s Chiara Anastasini performed a beautifully lit hula hoop act — the metal hoops acquiring a slinky-like visual effect the more and more she added. Alexander Koblikov juggled in a sailor suit, at one point keeping the impressive number of ten balls (by my count) in the air. International atmosphere was brought by China’s Energy Trio, an acrobalance outfit who looked very young; and the Zuma Zuma African Acrobats. The Belarussian Dosov Troupe did a fairly standard teeterboard act. Muscovite Sergey Akimov did a graceful, beautiful flight on aerial straps (with no safety wire or net from what I could tell).

Jenny Vidbel brought her critters back; dogs for the first act and horses for the second. The dogs fared better (my favorite gag was when they did a restaurant routine, the clown-waiters brought over some wine, and the dog covered his eyes with his paws when he didn’t like the vintage.) Dogs are smart and funny and you get the sense that they are actually performing. Horses are tougher. Originally the entire raison d’etre for the American circus, horses are not very bright and can only learn the simplest of tricks. Their presence under the big top (I feel) is best justified when it’s about the riders. So in this respect, I miss Katja Schumman’s outfit (and even so — the only time I have REALLY been excited watching equestrians has been at the Moscow Circus or at a western rodeo.) But for very small children, for whom the presence of horses is enough — they have horses. I would be more excited by giraffes (Barnum used to have ’em) but at least they have horses.

Lastly — the show closes the first half (as always) with their most exciting act, in this case, the Dominquez Brothers on The Wheel of Wonder (as opposed to the Wonder Wheel) . This act all by itself is worth the price of admission — and I made a lot of noises (yelps, cries, nervous laughter) as these two guys did their death-defying thing on this cray-cray apparatus. Can’t describe it , looks like this:

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As I say, a great show and it flew by. We hope to catch it again before they blow town for their annual tour. Tickets and info here. 

Bird Millman: Sprite of the High Wire

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Circus, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of high-wire artiste Bird Millman (Jennadean Engleman, 1890-1940). Born in Colorado, she started out with her parents in small circus an act called the Millman Trio. By 1904, the family was playing Big Time vaudeville at such venues at Keith’s Union Square and Hammerstein’s Victoria. In time the act became built solely around Bird as the star, and other performers were hired in support. She was internationally famous, playing dates from the Palace in New York to the Wintergarten in Berlin. She was often praised for her grace, and words like “elf”, “fairy” and “sprite” were often used to describe her. In 1913 she became one of the stars of the Barnum and Bailey circus (which later merged with Ringling Bros).

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Off season she would play vaudeville and Broadway revues like Ziegfeld’s Follies and Frolics, and John Murray Anderson’s Greenwich Village Follies. Unfortunately she and her third husband lost their entire fortunes in the stock market crash in 1929. He husband (Joseph Francis O’Day) died shortly after that, and Millman retired to Colorado where she died ten years later.

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.

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Joe Cook: Rain or Shine

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Broadway, Circus, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2015 by travsd

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Okay, today is Louise Fazenda’s birthday; yesterday was Tom Howard’s.  I recently visited Joe Cook’s house and an exhibition about his life and career, and TCM played Rain or Shine a couple of weeks ago (I watched this past weekend). The stars are obviously aligned for a post about this movie.

Rain or Shine (1930) was the culmination of the career of a man many people thought was the top performer in show business. Today scarcely anyone remembers either Joe Cook or this movie or the Broadway show it was based on.  There is a lesson there of some sort. I don’t think Cook deserved his present obscurity; but you just don’t know what people will remember.

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You can read my full article about Cook here. He was regarded as one of the most skilled performers in vaudeville and certainly one of its top stars. Interestingly, unlike most of the top performers, Cook’s core (non-comic) skills were not as a singer or a dancer (although he could do those things) but as an acrobat. He was an amazing juggler, he could walk a slackwire, he could walk up a ramp atop a large ball. He had about ten other similar skills and then on TOP of this he was a brilliant, very zany comedian, very surreal, not unlike Ed Wynn or Groucho Marx or Bobby Clark. He did monologues, but he also used funny props. From vaudeville he stepped into Broadway revues (Earl Carroll’s Vanities) in the 1920s, and from there into his own solo vehicle, designed to showcase all his talents. Rain or Shine ran on Broadway for almost the entirety of 1928.

Based on the strength of its stage success, Columbia acquired the show and cast members Cook, his stooge Dave Chasen, and Tom Howard  to appear in it, and assigned the studio’s best director Frank Capra to direct it (four years before the breakthrough It Happened One Night). A circus story with the usual circus plot (so as to showcase Cook’s unique skills) Rain or Shine reminds me a lot of Marilyn Miller’s Sunny or W.C. Fields’ Poppy.

The Obligatory Romantic Plot

The Obligatory Romantic Plot

Former silent comedy star Louise Fazenda plays a young lady who has inherited a circus from her father but business has taken a downturn. Cook plays the circus manager who vows to save the show for her. William Collier Jr is his rival for the girl (and the more successful one – Cook, being a “clown”, can’t get the girl by definition, he just gets pathos). Collier is the male ingenue. His character has money he can invest in  the show and he also wants to marry Miller.

For comic relief, Tom Howard plays a local businessman who comes demanding payment on bills and gets swindled by Cook into being a partner in the circus. (Cook does a lot of his patented “doubletalk” in the film). Dave Chasen was of course Cook’s stooge on stage and screen. In the film I find him to come across as a rather annoying unfunny semi-mute….but interesting as a historical curiosity. (not unlike Fred Sanborn, Ted Healy’s fourth stooge). With his mop of big curly hair he seems like a third rate Harpo Marx.

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At all events, while the main circus plot is going on, a couple of ruthless guys at the circus plot a takeover and organize a strike.(none of the performers have been paid in weeks).  Other highlights of the film include a brawl, the titular rain storm, and a circus fire. They survive it all! (BTW, the show was originally a musical so there would have been songs as well, but these were cut from the film to accommodate changing tastes.) At the climax of the film, (a showcase for Cook’s famously diverse vaudeville skills) Cook fills in for all the other circus performers, doing their tricks, ball walking, slackwire, etc. Undeniably impressive.

Rain or Shine is an uneasy mix. Capra likes to craft real stories with “heart”…whereas Cook, Howard and Chasen are zanies. There is one scene where the tension is greatest, when there is an ebgagement dinner at Collier’s family’s mansion  and the plan is to impress his rich parents so our heroes can get money for the circus. But Cook and company embarrass her and tip their hand.  But the comedians are too crazy in the scene – it’s a bit of a vaudeville routine, and doesn’t accomplish what the scene is designed to because nothing real transpires. It’s funny but doesn’t serve the plot. It’s interesting because it’s the same sort of conundrum the Marx Brothers would face when they began to make pictures with MGM. An internal conflict between the surreal and the real.

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I’m on the fence though about Cook’s thespians skills, and somehow he clearly didn’t click with movie audiences. He returned to Broadway and did a couple more  shows which did moderately well and didn’t return to films for five years, in a series of low budget shorts with Al Christie. And he also made a low-budget western called Arizona Mahoney and a bunch of additional Broadway shows, culminating n It Happened on Ice (1941), his last hoorah.

Rain or Shine is an interesting curio, and I’d been dying to see it for over a decade so was thrilled to get to finally watch it.

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new 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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