Archive for the Comedians Category

Jackie Vernon: The Offbeat Comic Who Played Frosty the Snowman

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2017 by travsd

HAPPY BOITHDAY!

Like most people my age and younger, I have always known Jackie Vernon (Ralph Verrone, 1924-1987) for one thing: his voice-over performance as the title character in Rankin-Bass’s 1969 Christmas special Frosty the Snowman. He makes an impression in the role; even as a kid I noticed the heavy New York accent and the fact that the performer’s line readings seemed rather non-actorly.

It turns out Vernon was a highly influential night club comic who started out in strip joints in the 1950s and worked his way up to Vegas, tv variety and talk shows, and a series of popular albums, like A Wet Bird Never Flies at Night (1964), A Man and His Watermelon (1967), The Day My Rocking Horse Died (1969), and Sex is Not Hazardous to Your Health (1972).

This is decades before Gallagher, and just as inexplicable

The titles of these albums give some indication of his sense of humor, which was full of non sequitur and strangeness. Before he was a comedian he was a trumpet player, and he often carried one onstage with him, just as Jack Benny and Henny Youngman carried violins. Like them, he would seldom play his instrument, and if he did, it was bad. I find it SO perfect that the concept is “updated” to a trumpet, though, the hippest instrument of the be bop era. Appropriately, there is also something avant-garde about his material, which was downbeat, deadpan, and monotonic in a way that anticipated Steven Wright. Short and fat, he described himself as someone who liked to spend parties in the coat room, and go to bus stations and pretend he was going places. Many of his routines were built around the concepts of travel and vacations. His most popular ones were presented as “slideshows”; he would pretend to use the clicker and narrate the images, but things would always be quietly, matter-of-factly, wrong. The tour  guide would sink in quicksand; the Grand Canyon would be closed. His hometown was on a one way street; if you missed it, you had to go all the way around the world to get back. (I did a similar slideshow routine once as a teenager; I’m wondering retrospectively if I’d been inspired by a tv appearance of Vernon. Don’t worry — mine had a distinctive, highly original twist).

Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin and Merv Griffin were all fans and booked him repeatedly. In the ’60s he was especially popular at hip clubs like the Hungry i in San Francisco and the Blue Angel in New York. He was often on Hollywood Squares. But other than Frosty, he wasn’t often employed as an actor. He has a small role in Jimmy Breslin’s mafia comedy The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971), an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1975), he does a bit of stand-up in Amazon Women in the Moon (1987)….but he does have a starring role in one film, and I cannot wait to watch it. It’s a 1983 horror movie called Microwave Massacre. I intend to watch it within hours.

To find out more about show business historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Stars of Vaudeville #1037: Charles Chaplin, Sr.

Posted in British Music Hall, Charlie Chaplin, Singers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2017 by travsd

Born on this date in 1863: Charles Chaplin the Elder: the father of his better known namesake, comedian and movie star Charlie Chaplin. It’s not as well known today that in his time the elder Chaplin was a fairly successful performer in his own right.

The son of a butcher, Charles Senior was still a teenager when he went on the stage. It is said that he met Charlie’s mother Hannah Hall (a.k.a. Lily Harley) while performing in a sketch called “Shamus O’Brien” in the early 1880s. In 1885 he married her, despite the fact that in the intervening months she had taken up with another man and given birth to a child. Chaplin gave the boy his surname; he became Sydney Chaplin. By ’87, Charles Senior had worked up a music hall act and began getting bookings in the halls, with a repertoire of sentimental and comical songs. In 1889, his son Charlie was born.

So far so good, eh? Unfortunately (for the family) not long after that, Chaplin’s career began to take off — and so did he. By 1890, he was popular enough to tour America (notably, he played the Union Square Theatre in New York — this was his own foray into American vaudeville. The following year he ran out on Hannah and the boys for good.

Chaplin was popular enough by this stage that his name and visaged graced the covers of the published sheet music of songs he had made popular, such as “The Girl Was Young and Pretty”, “Hi Diddle Diddle” and the comical, suggestive “Eh, Boys!”

It’s a well known story by now. While Charlie the elder was cavorting and carousing in music halls, living the carefree life, Hannah (also an entertainer, and by her son’s account a brilliant one, the one he took after) went slowly insane and couldn’t work. Chaplin offered no financial support, even when the two children were packed off to workhouses.

By the end of the decade (and the century) Chaplin had become an alcoholic and was no longer working himself. Significantly, this was the juncture when he first seems to take an interest in his namesake. In 1899, he got ten year old Charlie his first proper show business job by getting him into an act called The Eight Lancashire Lads. The younger Chaplin was about to embark on an incredible life’s journey; the older one was just ending his. By 1901, Charles Chaplin, Sr. was dead of cirrhosis of the liver.

But his mark is there for all to see in Charlie Chaplin’s life and art. An alcoholic, performing dad is something Charlie had in common with Buster Keaton. But there are contrasts. You could say that Joe Keaton’s drinking hurt his career, but it didn’t end his life. And Buster followed in his footsteps, becoming a problem boozer himself. Whereas the elder Chaplin ended both his life and career through alcohol abuse. And Charlie, Jr. only ever drank in cautious moderation. But I find it significant that he played hilarious comic drunks on stage and screen for decades. And there is also the subject of Chaplin’s relations with him. For a good long while, like his father, he put his work first and neglected his women (following periods of intense wooing). This cycle was only broken when he finally married Oona O’Neill, quite late in life, when he only worked occasionally and chose to devote all of his energy into family life…as though he were making up for lost time.

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Of Billie Thomas and Buckwheat

Posted in African American Interest, Child Stars, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2017 by travsd

Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas was born on this day in 1931.

Thomas was all of three years old when he began to appear in Hal Roach’s Our Gang (Little Rascals) comedy shorts in 1934.

It wasn’t until 1935 that he began playing Buckwheat, a character previously played by Carlena Beard (Stymie’s sister) and Willie Mae Walton. Buckwheat was pretty clearly an attempt by Roach and his creative team to re-create the popularity of the previous Our Gang character Farina, who’d been with the series from 1922 through 1931, both by being gender-ambiguous, and by being identified with breakfast food.

Starting with the 1936 feature General Spanky, which was set during the Civil War, Buckwheat started to be attired more as a traditional “pickaninny” character and became more overtly male. Thomas remained with the series until it ended in 1944.

He later retired from show business and served in the army during the Cold War. He passed away in 1980, the same year as Farina.

Ironically, one year after he died, Eddie Murphy began portraying him on Saturday Night Live, the recurring bit becoming one of his most popular and enduring routines. The joke was that the adult Buckwheat spoke in the same adorable, childish speech impediment that he had possessed as a toddler. “O-Tay!” had been the real Buckwheat’s catchphrase; it also became Murphy’s. The success of the character proved problematic. The initial joke had been the absurdity of Buckwheat still talking the same way as a man in his 40s. But its wide popularity resulted in something else. The Our Gang franchise had been progressive in its own time for treating its African American characters as equals or near-equals as the white kids. The African American performers in the films were among the most popular, and certainly they were among America’s earliest black stars, and among the best paid black actors in their day. But that doesn’t mean that the characters weren’t relatively racist by later standards.

As a one-off, Murphy’s initial Buckwheat turn might have been read as naughty satire in the old National Lampoon/ SNL mode, and even at that it would have been a debatable gambit. But the popularity of the routine occasioned an uncritical resurrection of the character. It seemed to become too popular with white people, and for all the wrong reasons. Remember when Dave Chapelle quit his Comedy Central show, saying that he discovered that he was getting the wrong kind of laughter? Well, Buckwheat was getting the wrong kind of laughter. I was in high school at the time, and I can assure you — some of the white kids were laughing at Murphy’s Buckwheat the wrong way. Rather than being a satirist making fun of a black man humiliating himself for the entertainment of whites, he he had merely become the black man humiliating himself for the entertainment of whites. For some, that’s a difficult distinction to perceive, but it’s a crucially important one to make and be aware of. You “love” Buckwheat, huh? Do you “love” Billie Thomas? His family? Anybody black, when they’re not wearing overalls and saying “O-tay”? What is it, who is it you love, and why?

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. For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc.

Tomorrow: The Silent Clowns Presents the Greatest Silent Comedy Feature You’ve Never Seen

Posted in AMERICANA, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2017 by travsd

Tomorrow, March 11, 2017 at 2:30pm, at Lincoln Center Library, the Silent Clowns Film Series will present the hilarious Raymond Griffith feature Hands Up! (1926).

Griffith’s stock has been rising in recent years, thanks largely to screenings like this, and most aficionados today rank him as something like “the 5th or 6th genius of silent comedy”, somewhere just behind Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon. Of those I just mentioned Griffith has the most in common, I suppose, with Lloyd, in being less clown-like, more of a comic actor, although his character is very different from Lloyd’s. (For more on Griffith, read my full tribute).

At any rate, my provocative title presumes you’ve already seen every feature by Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon. Hands Up! (1926) is close to them in quality. It is considered Griffith’s finest and best known film. It is a Civil War comedy told from the point of view of the South — released an entire year before Keaton’s The General.  Griffith plays a dashing Confederate spy on a mission to steal Yankee gold. Along the way, he constantly gets into fixes and coolly extricates himself from each one. Its most famous sequence has Griffith up against a wall in front of a firing squad. He gets himself out of the pickle by throwing dinner plates into the air at the crucial second, which his executioners are then obliged to shoot at, thinking they are clay pigeons.  The father of both of his love interests (he is equally in love with two sisters) is played by Mack Swain, in his first role after The Gold Rush.

Full details at the Silent Clowns web site. 

For more on silent and slapstick comedy film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Stars of Vaudeville #1034: George Shelton

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2017 by travsd

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GEORGE SHELTON: IT PAYS TO BE IGNORANT 

Today is the birthday of George Shelton (1884-1971), best remembered (when at all) as one of the panelists on the popular radio show It Pays to Be Ignorant. Born on New York’s Lower East Side, he started out playing tent shows in Iowa, served in World War One, then returned to play vaudeville solo for a time before teaming up with Tom Howard, his partner in vaudeville and numerous comedy shorts for Paramount and Educational pictures (1932-1936). He also appeared in shorts without Howard through 1938, and had bit parts in a couple of other movies through 1945. He was a regular on It Pays to Be Ignorant from 1942 through 1951. Among his other skills, he was known as a Bobby Clark impersonator, and even understudied and replaced him in some shows. His Broadway credits included The Governor’s Lady (1912-1913), Three of Hearts (1915), and Keep Moving (1934). He died in a tragic fire in 1971.

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on silent film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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.

R.I.P. Professor Irwin Corey: Dead at 102

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, OBITS, Stand Up with tags , , , on February 7, 2017 by travsd

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There’s been lots of chatter on social media since last night and I finally got definitive word from Bob Greenberg: Professor Irwin Corey has passed away at age 102.  Those old enough to remember him from tv, may justifiably ask, “Professor Irwin Corey is still alive???” But here in New York he remained very much present and visible in at least two of the circles I run with. The subset of the comedy community that respects its old timers knows him well, of course. As does the progressive activist community. Irwin was very active well past the century mark, still going out, still being “public” amongst those two groups, attending their dinners and functions and parties and meetings, interacting with people, cherishing the limelight. And, as always happens when you approach and then pass 100, he’s gotten more press than usual in the local papers in recent years.

Irwin’s schtick was very vaudeville: he affected the distracted, disheveled look of the academic intellectual much popularized by Einstein: ill fitting clothes and long, messy hair. He was a kook who would spout nonsense, confusing the convulsed audience while purporting to enlighten them. He started this bit at night clubs and cabarets in the ’40s. In the ’60s, he caught on with the counterculture and tv. By the ’70s, since he was so well recognized, he got lots of bit parts in movies.

At the same time, he was extremely left wing, a radical of the type that had become quite rare in America by the turn of the 21st century. He surely must have been flipping out these last few weeks.

Bob Greenberg, who was his good friend, posted this message last night:

“Irwin passed away at 6:27 PM tonight in his home. He had just eaten Vanilla Ice Cream Swirl followed by Egg Drop Soup. (The Ice Cream didn’t satisfy him so he sent his son out to get the soup.) After the soup he complained that the covers were too heavy on his feet. (This was odd since he usually complained that there wasn’t enough covering him.) His Nurse adjusted them and when she looked up he was gone. “

Farewell to the “World’s Foremost Authority”.

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