Archive for the Acrobats and Daredevils Category

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. 

Spotlight on The Last Great Circus Flyer doc & interview with director Philip Weyland

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Circus, Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , on October 23, 2015 by travsd

A new circus doc —

FlixChatter Film Blog

There’s something so inherently fascinating and magnetic the first time I heard the name The Last Great Circus Flyer. It’s one of the seven documentaries playing at TCFF I look forward to the most. The film focuses on Miguel Vazguez, who performed ‘the greatest feat in all of circus history’ during a Ringling performance in 1982. Vazquez’s “Quad’ was a premiere attraction at Ringling Bros., and the largest circuses in Europe until 1994, when, at the apex of his career, Vazquez unexpectedly quit flying.

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Check out the trailer:


TCFF Screening Time(s): 
10/23/2015  (10:30 AM)  |  10/25/2015  (7:00 PM)


I had the privilege of chatting with director Philip Weyland about the genesis of the project, approacing Miguel about making it, his opinion about circus as a form of entertainment, and more!

THANK YOU Mr. Weyland for taking the time to share these wonderful and fascinating insights about your film.

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Q: What motivated…

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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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