Archive for the Dance Category

Stars of Vaudeville #1032: Pepito and Joanne

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Dance, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on February 16, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Jose Escobar “Pepito” Perez (1896-1975). Originally from Barcelona, Pepito got his start as a clown in Spain in 1914. He came to the U.S. in 1922 and performed on the Keith and Orpheum circuits.

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In 1928 he met dancer and contortionist Margaret Janet Zetteler (or Zettler, 1908-2004) at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, when both were booked to perform before screenings of Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus. They teamed up, both onstage and off, and Zetteler’s name became Joanne Perez.

As vaudeville dried up they began performing at night clubs in the late 1930s an 1940s. Over the years, Pepito got various small roles on film and television, including several shots on I Love Lucy. They opened the Pepito and Joanne Academy of Dance, which Joanne continued to run for decades after Pepito passed away. Pepito also ran a charter fishing business.

The keep of all things Pepito and Joanne is Melani Carty, who runs the Pepito and Joanna tribute website. The photos above are from that site. Check it out here.

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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Stars of Vaudeville #1030: Aida Overton Walker

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Dance, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Aida Overton Walker (1880-1914). singer, dancer, actor, choreographer, comedienne and “Queen of the Cakewalk”.

Born Ada Overton (she later embellished the spelling for professional reasons) in Greenwich Village, Overton was the daughter of a waiter and a seamstress. Her dancing talent was so evident from a young age that her parents provided her with formal training. She was only 15 when she joined John Isham’s Octoroons, an all-black minstrel show in 1895. In 1896-97 she was a member of the legendary Black Patti’s Troubadours.  In 1898, the comely chorine answered a call to model for an advertisement for Walker and Williams vaudeville revue at Koster and Bial’s. This led to her joining the show in the chorus, which then led to her being a featured performer with her partner Grace Halliday. Overton and Halliday performed as the Honolulu Belles in the first of the Walker and Williams musicals The Policy Players (1899).

That year, she also married George Walker and attained star status in the company, essentially becoming a third partner in the most celebrated African American act of the era. Overton was to choreograph all the Walker and Williams shows, as well as Cole and Johnson’s 1911 show Red Moon. The  Walkers became the most celebrated cakewalking couple in the country. Overton was to gain inroads into white society by teaching the dance at private functions. Meanwhile, she was in the process of becoming the top female African American stage performer of her day. In The Sons of Ham (1900) she made a hit with “Miss Hannah from Savanna”.  In Dahomey (1902) was the show that turned the decades-old cakewalk into a dance craze with whites as well; it toured as far as London, where the company gave a Command Performance for King Edward VII. Next came Abyssinia (1905) and Bandanna Land (1907). The latter show featured Overton’s tasteful, refined take on the Salome dance craze then sweeping the nation.

As Salome

As Salome

In 1909 George Walker collapsed while they were still performing Bandanna Land, incapacitated by late-stage syphilis. Overton took over his role in the show in addition to her own, an indication of the scope of her talents. Walker passed away in 1911,but Overton remained in the limelight. She appeared in and choreographed Cole and Johnson’s Red Moon (1909), co-starred with J.S. Dudley in the Smart Set Company’s production of His Honor the Barber (1910). And she toured Big Time Vaudeville. In 1912 she performed her Salome dance at the Victoria Theatre. The following she returned at the head of an entire troupe. She also donated her time organizing benefit shows charities.

When she died suddenly and mysteriously of kidney failure in 1914 it was mourned as a great loss throughout the African American community. She was only 34. Bert Williams would pass away only 8 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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Stars of Vaudeville #1027: Ralph Riggs and Katherine Witchie

Posted in Broadway, Dance, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of dancer Ralph Riggs (1885-1951). With his wife Katherine Witchie (d. 1967) had an acrobatic dance act in vaudeville for many years. A description of their act from The Independent in 1917 says they presented “…Dance Divertisements, composing a wide range of dances from the modern steps to dainty classical numbers.” From Billboard, June 2, 1917, re their performance at the Majestic in Chicago: “Ralph Riggs and Katherine Witchie have a dancing number that is always worthy of he highest praise. Both are artists of real ability and their offering contains enough variety to keep the audience thoroughly interested.” A 1934 New Yorker piece calls them the “Inventors of the Adagio Dance.”

By 1911, they had broken onto Broadway in a show called The Entrantress. Other shows included All Aboard (1913), The Princess Pat (1915-1916), The Passing Show of 1919, Cinders (1923), Ed Wynn’s The Grab Bag (1924-1925), Nic Nax of 1926, and Oh, Ernest (1927). The latter was Witchie’s last show but Riggs went on to still greater glory in the original productions of Of Thee I Sing (1931-1934), Let ‘Em Eat Cake (1933-1934), The Farmer Takes a Wife (1934-1935), Parade (1935), Yokel Boy (1939-1940), Louisiana Purchase (1940-1941), Oklahoma! (1943-1948), and many others. He is also appeared in several musical film shorts in the 1930s, and many broadcast appearances during the earliest days of television.

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.

R.I.P. Mary Tyler Moore

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Dance, OBITS, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , on January 26, 2017 by travsd

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We would certainly be remiss if we didn’t lay down a few words in honor of the late Mary Tyler Moore.

As I tweeted yesterday, she influenced many of us not just as a comedienne but as an example and a role model. I’m a white working class male, and she influenced my world outlook immensely. The Mary Tyler Moore Show ran during highly impressionable years of my life (1971 through 1977, and thereafter in syndication). I knew it was seminal only in retrospect. Growing up watching her, I always took it for granted that it was the most natural thing in the world that a single woman should choose to pursue a career and that she should be respected in the workplace. Unlike Marlo Thomas in That Girl (1966-1971), there was no fiance constantly waiting the wings and her career goals weren’t pie in the sky. She dated men, and sometimes it was even hinted that they stayed the night.  But her career seemed to be her priority. She later backtracked some on this takeaway, but really that is the message her show sent.

Of course, that message is what most people celebrated yesterday, but now I want to talk about her as a comedian. She was a great one. I seem to recall her saying that her teacher in playing comic scenes was her old co-star Dick Van Dyke, and I started to watch her performances with that in mind, and you can see it. (Apart from her crying routines — the debt there is probably to Lucille Ball. And I have to say, of the two, I vastly prefer MTM’s more subtle and true comic performances over Lucy’s. Lucy only had a sledgehammer in her arsenal, Mary had a full tool kit.)

Recently, when watching 30 Rock I had the revelation that Tina Fey’s show is kind of a mash-up The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. On the one hand, it’s set behind the scenes at a tv comedy show; on the other hand it’s about a single, female tv producer. 30 Rock is way more absurd and surreal, but the core of the situation echoes those pioneering shows, and I would imagine it’s not accidental. Fey is a formidable comic architect, and quite encyclopedic in her knowledge of comedy.

Like Van Dyke, Moore was an incredible dancer; it’s kind of her jumping off point as a performer. It informs both their comedy — and it’s fairly insane that, apart from some variety show appearances, they didn’t co-star in a LOT of musicals. With their array of talents that could potentially have been amazing. But something interesting happened to Moore — and it happens to a lot of actors and comedians when they get very big. Moore wasn’t just a comedian, she became a producer. And with her husband Grant Tinker, she was responsible for a large number of hit tv shows: Phyllis, Rhoda, Lou Grant, The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, The White Shadow, Hill St. Blues, St. Elsewhere. When you are powerful, you acquire dignity and self-assurance. She was no longer young or fresh or goofy by the 1980s. She had gravitas and was even (as she was in Ordinary People) intimidating and scary. She tried many later tv series: The Mary Tyler Moore Hour (1979), Mary (1985-86), Annie McGuire (1988), New York News (1995). None flew, I think partially because you see the show business titan beneath the performer. It’s not uncommon — think of Bob Hope’s last movies.

She’d gone conservative in recent years, I hear. I wonder what she thought of the millions who attended the Women’s March on Sunday, so many of whom she influenced. She’s leaving us at another time of change, when even the mild gains women have made are under serious threat. I already get melancholy and nostalgic when I watch tv. Now there’ll be some added bittersweetness when I see this and think of more innocent times:

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Stars of Vaudeville #1017: Gae Foster

Posted in Broadway, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , on January 6, 2017 by travsd
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Gae Foster Girls in “All Girl Revue” (1940)

Gae Foster (born 1903) was from Bunker Hill, California. By age 17 she was already dancing with Fanchon and Marco in vaudeville and presentation houses. By 1925 she was assisting Fanchon in organizing dance choruses for cinema prologues. By 1928, while still working for Fanchon and Marco, she was sending out her own unit, Gae Foster’s Sweet Sixteen. By 1933 she was dance director at the Roxy Theater in New York, where she created the Roxyettes, a.k.a the Gae Foster Girls, similar to the Rockettes, but renowned for their tricks, performing routines on roller skates, pogo sticks, unicycles, and the like. The troupe performed in ten Hollywood films between 1938 and 1940. Foster also choreographed musical numbers for Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin (1938-1941), and the Betty Grable movie Pin-Up Girl (1944).

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.

Christmas in Italy!

Posted in Christmas, Classical, Dance, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Italian, Music with tags , , , on December 19, 2016 by travsd
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Photo by Annie Watt

We got a badly needed lift yesterday, as well as a much overdue dose of Christmas spirit, and a highly welcome injection of “red sauce” directly into our veins, at Cristina Fontanelli’s 13th Annual “Christmas in Italy” Presentation at the Washington Irving Campus Landmark Theater near Gramercy Park.

Host Ornella Fado of the NYC-TV show Brindiamo! launched the festivities with welcoming remarks and then the mic was passed to world-renowned soprano Fontanelli, founder and prime mover of this heartwarming holiday event, which combines the best of high and popular cultural traditions, ever since its inception. The first half consisted primarily of well-known operatic selections by Italian composers like Verdi, Puccini and Rossini, ending on “The Italian Street Song” from Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta. We could have listened to her heavenly singing voice all night, but she generously shared the stage, singing a duet with tenor Blake Friedman (Rossini’s “La Danza”); sharing the spotlight with pianist David Maiullo, and mandolin players John La Barbera, Barry Mitterhoff, and Jay Posipanko; and even turning the stage over to accordionist Angelo Coppola, whom she said she discovered playing on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx’s Little Italy.

That last detail was the kind of touch that particularly endeared her to me, and I believe to most of her audience. Don’t get me wrong — she has the kind of gift, and the kind of skill, that’s liable to make you feel like a piker no matter what you do in life. If you’re a plumber, you’ll say “I’m okay at my job — but I sure wish I was as good at plumbing as she is at singing.” On the other hand, she has this down to earth personality that seemed to shrink the large auditorium down to the size of a family kitchen. Her aunt was there; Fontanelli dedicated a song to her, and got us all to join her in “Happy Birthday”. She greeted old friends in the audience. She grieved for the loss of her mother, who passed away this year. There were hundreds of us in the audience, but the distance between us seemed very small.

And the second half of the show was even warmer and more family-oriented, for that’s when the Christmas part of the program kicked in and we got to hear The Christmas in Italy Choir sing their beautiful rendition of “Silent Night”, and to watch recitals by large numbers of adorable children from The Little Language Studio and the Jersey City Ballet, and to meet the winners of the Miss Italia USA Scholarship Program, and to enjoy Plu Sayampol and his dancers. And to see Santa Claus!

As I’ve been bragging to everybody lately I’m 2% Italian, and that 2% was fully on the ascendant yesterday evening. Afterwards, we rapidly decided what was for dinner. I had the spaghetti and meatballs; my wife had the chicken parmesan. The 14th Annual concert is already on our calendar for next year.

Tomorrow on TCM: Fred and Ginger Movies!

Posted in Comedy, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , on November 24, 2016 by travsd

Tomorrow on Turner Classic Movies: Most of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies:

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6:30am (EST): Roberta (1935)

The original Broadway stage production (with songs by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbachi) featured Bob Hope in his breakout role, the one that took him from vaudeville to stardom. It must have been galling to him not to have been cast in the film! In the film version Fred and Ginger share the limelight with Randolph Scott (who’s perfectly cast as a lumbering Midwestern football player) and Irene Dunn. It’s a perfect, magical 30s comedy. Fred is a bandleader stranded in France in want of a gig. Scott is just his friend, tagging along, but he suddenly remembers that his Aunt Minnie is the most sought-after dress-maker in Paris (under the name “Roberta”). They go and seek her patronage. She turns out to be a delightful character…having all these American virtues, appreciation for the down-to-earth, honesty, heartiness…but at the same time able to function in the glamorous world of Paris fashion. Irene Dunn plays her assistant and near-partner in the shop, definitely being groomed for succession. Rogers is masquerading as a French countess, but is really a singer and Astaire’s old flame. It’s obvious Scott and Dunn’s characters have chemistry but they’re slow in realizing it. Then Roberta dies, bringing Scott’s former fiancé, a gold-digger out of the woodwork, so now he’s confused. He and Dunn should be partners in the shop but now she’s mad at him. Then it turns out Dunn is a Russian princess! Somehow they all get together in the end. The awesome songs include “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (which is just kind of shoehorned in there) and “Lovely to Look At”.

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8:30am (EST): Follow the Fleet (1936)

Not as strong as most of the others. A weird idea…an innocent Hollywood movie about love affairs between sailors and the women who are infatuated with them. Sure, there are intimations of sex, but they are very sanitized, never sordid. It as though the whole thing were being touched with gloves on, viewed through goggles. Why choose a subject that you can’t REALLY do? Perhaps they thought they would titillate just as much as they could, which wasn’t very much. Astaire and Rogers are one couple (former dance partners, now he’s in the Navy and she works in a dance hall). The other couple is fellow sailor Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard (of Ozzie and Harriet) as Rogers’ sex starved sister, who actually gets to sing a couple of numbers. The film doesn’t have the strong farcical premise most of their good ones have, in fact it doesn’t seem to have much of a plot at all. Nor does it have the strong cast of character actors and comic relief, or the sparkling dialogue of their better ones. Ultimately the film even resorts to the Mickey and Judy plot device – putting on a show to save the family boat. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” is the most famous song from the score. Fred plays some jazz piano in addition to great dance numbers. Ginger gets a solo dance number in a segment that reminds one of Ruby Keeler.

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10:30am (EST): The Gay Divorcee (1934)

Fred and Ginger’s first starring vehicle, adapted from the Broadway show The Gay Divorce Astaire had appeared in the previous year. Contains songs by various songwriters, including Cole Porter’s gorgeous “Night and Day”, and a dance craze song called “The Continental”. The plot is farcical and actually quite dumb—has a million holes in it and is completely illogical, but who cares? It starts in Paris. Fred is a musical comedy star and his friend Edward Everett Horton a lawyer. He meets Ginger on the ship to London and accidentally rips her dress. he wants to see her again but she totally brushes him off. He finally finds her again in London and gets the same treatment. It turns out she is married and seeking a divorce. The lawyer arranges for Ginger to be seen meeting with a gigolo so there will be grounds for the divorce. She mistakes Fred for the gigolo. The film remains hugely entertaining for all the usual reasons, the performances (including these plus the delightful Eric Blore), the songs, the art deco art direction etc., etc, etc. It (like most of the Fred and Ginger musicals) was directed by Mark Sandrich, a former silent film director who was also the father of TV director Jay Sandrich.

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12:30pm (EST): Swing Time (1936)

Directed by George Stevens! The dancing and songs are so great in these films the fact that they are great light comedies is often overlooked. This one has Victor Moore and Eric Blore. Astaire is a dancer and gambler. He is about to get married but his friends sabotage the wedding. He hops a freight train to New York in his tuxedo with his pal Pops (Moore). He meets Ginger when she tries to abscond with his quarter at a cigarette machine. She turns out to be a dance instructor. He of course takes the class, pretends he can’t dance, and then shows off when the moment is right. They fall in love, but the outstanding fiancé is an issue. In the end she is about to marry Fred’s rival, a bandleader, but Fred sabotages the wedding using the same tricks his friends used on him. The film has the terrific songs “Pick Yourself Up” and “The Way You Look Tonight” (possibly the most beautiful and romantic song ever). There is one blackface number which is wonderfully staged but intrinsically heinous and tough to transcend.

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2:30pm (EST): Carefree (1938)

The plots of Fred and Ginger’s better films feel akin to screwball comedies. In this one Astaire is a shrink, Rogers his patient, the fiancé of his best friend (Ralph Bellamy)…but she falls in love with the doctor. In most of their films, Astaire is in love with Rogers while she plays hard to get; here it is a bit reversed. Some funny bits with Rogers running amok, first under an anesthetic, then under hypnosis. And Astaire is completely believable as a shrink—a different sort of role for him. I love Astaire’s diction and accent—though he’s from the midwest, he sounds urbane, New York, upper class. I note there’s almost always one or more nances and/or dopes in the cast…I’m guessing to make the somewhat fey dandy Astaire seem relatively macho by comparison as the hero. Here it is Franklin Pangborn as the nance, Ralph Bellamy as the dope. Also in the cast is an uncredited Hattie McDaniel. The Irving Berlin songs are perfectly wonderful, though none of them in this film were hits. The most interesting dance number has Astaire playing harmonica while he taps, then dancing with golf clubs and balls.

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4:00pm (EST): Shall We Dance? (1937)

Fred and Ginger once again abetted by Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore. Lots of great music by the Gershwins, including the classics “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and the sublime “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”. Lots of great dances in this. The plot casts Astaire as a ballet dancer named “Petrov” (who is really a down to earth American named Pete Peters who secretly wants to tap dance and is in love with Rogers night club star). As in all the films, Rogers plays hard to get, and the gist of the farce is that the press thinks they are married, but they are not. The plot starts in Paris, then shipboard (where there is a number in the art deco engine room, based around the rhythm of the pistons, as assisted by a convenient crew of ignominiously anonymous darkies), then finally they hit New York (where Rogers and Astaire do a great dance routine in the park on roller skates). Astaire gets to have much fun mixing ballet and tap. He also has a fun bit where he dances to a Victrola that winds down on him.

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6:00pm (EST): Top Hat (1935) 

They saved the best for last! The musicals of the 30s tend to transcend the usual disposableness that normally characterizes the genre, usually because of the beautiful art deco art direction, great ensemble casts of Broadway veterans, snappy (if light) scripts, and occasionally great songs. Top Hat is generally thought of as the best of the lot. Irving Berlin wrote a half dozen songs, two of which are complete classics, the brilliant “Cheek to Cheek” and the title song, which is really called “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails”. The script is good, well constructed farce and holds our attention, revolving around a mistaken identity. Rogers and Astaire fall in love (after she has complained about his tap dancing in the room over hers), but she mistakenly comes to believe he is the man who has married her friend (who is actually Edward Everertt Horton). The action is first laid in London, and then in a Venice that looks like one of the sets from The Wizard of Oz. The funniest part (surprise) is Eric Blore as the butler!

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