Archive for the Jugglers Category

Rebla: Funny Music Hall Juggler

Posted in Comedy, Jugglers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by travsd

Here’s another one for World Juggling Day. Thanks, Todd Robbins, for introducing me to this interesting artist. Albert Rebla, usually billed simply as “Rebla” (Albert James Stevens, 1880-1963) was a comedy juggler in English music hall who modeled his act very much on W.C. Fields’. British Pathe made a film short of his act in 1935; you can see sections of it on Youtube. The debt to Fields is observable in the body language. The casual, lackadaisical manner with which he manipulates the balls, as though he were just doing his job, is quite hysterical. His ability to juggle tight and small formations rapidly, and bounce balls off the floor, are also reminiscent of Fields. On the other hand, as Todd points out, his voice and patter show similarities to Joe Frisco. 

“Rebla” is of course his real first name “Albert”, reversed, minus the “t”. Rebla started out touring with the Agoust Family of Jugglers as a teenager. Originally from London, he worked with a succession of partners for years, one of whom had been as assistant to Chung Ling Soo. In addition to dates in the U.K. and on the Continent, he also appeared in American vaudeville. One finds references to him playing U.S. theatres during the teens, and Joe Laurie referred to him his book Vaudeville: From Honky Tonks to the Palace. 

In 1918 he co-produced and co-starred in a revue at the Shafterbury Theatre with Harry Lauder. he appeared in several silent films and early talkies in addition the Pathe short we mentioned, often as an actor (as opposed to simply doing a juggling turn). In 1939, he performed in an early television experiment. By the early 1940s he had moved to Australia, as many did, to work the Tivoli circuit. He died in Melbourne in 1963.

For more on the history of vaudeville and jugglers like Rebla,  consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold.

Darmody: Five Club Pioneer

Posted in Jugglers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by travsd

This year World Juggling Day, sponsored by the International Jugglers Association, falls on June 17. We take the opportunity to honor juggler James Darmody. From Boston, Darmody was a popular variety star throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is noted for being one of the first jugglers who could juggle five clubs (offering $1,000 to anyone who could match him). He is also known for juggling rifles (see illustration).

For more on the history of vaudeville, including jugglers like Darmody, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold.

The Definitive W.C. Fields Book?

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Comedians, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Jugglers, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , on January 29, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of one of America’s greatest stage and screen artists, W.C. Fields. Thus far, we have published over 130 articles about Fields on Travalanche. To read them go here. And for our full biographical essay on Fields, go here. 

I’d like to observe today by expending a few words of praise for part one of Arthur Wertheim’s two volume Fields biography W.C. Fields from Burlesque and Vaudeville to Broadway. I have read most if not all of the existing Fields biographies and so I am here to tell you that Wertheim does achieve something most difficult on such a heavily-covered topic: breaking new ground.  To clarify, the by-now familiar life trajectory is very much the same as the one we have come to internalize: the youth in Philadelphia; the rapid rise in show business from the Steel Pier in Atlantic City to the Crowned Heads of Europe as a vaudeville juggler; the romance and then break-up of his marriage with his wife Hattie. There are no new major events beyond those we have previously encountered. What is different here is in the texture and detail. Wertheim had unlimited access to Fields’ papers, and to rare photographic material from the collections of W.C. Fields’ Productions. He mined the correspondence for exchanges we’ve never encountered before, scores of them, resulting in a portrait of unprecedented, sometimes even painful, intimacy. (But also entertaining: Fields was a compulsive wordsmith in his private life as much as his public one. He had pet names for everyone, and an invariably interesting way of expressing himself). ALSO: Wertheim clearly spent a good deal of time in the Keith-Albee Collection at the University of Iowa, a pilgrimage I confess I would love to make some day. I’m not certain any previous Fields biographer has done this before (at least, I don’t recall these kinds of details emerging). What you get from the Keith-Albee records are not just the dates of where he was on the big time circuits at any given time, but the reports on his act by local theatre managers. It’s as close as we’re ever going to get to being there. And some of the new photos are eye-popping. A notable one depicts Fields in blackface** during his short stint as a minstrel. (Scarcely anyone in show business, black or white, was immune from engaging in the practice in those less enlightened times).

I will say this: it’s probably not the book for newbies. It’s more for die-hard fans and scholars. It was especially brave of Palgrave MacMillan (if logical and necessary) to put out volume one first, as it ends in 1915, with Fields’ movie and radio careers far in the future and even his Broadway career just beginning. When the rest of the biography comes out, I think it likely that more folks will go out and get this earlier volume, as readers become interested in the Great Man’s origins and beginnings. But as I as know a good chunk of the Travalanche readers are those very die-hard fans and scholars, without hesitation I give Wertheim’s book the very highest recommendation.

 **Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

This Monday: A Talk at the Morbid Anatomy Museum

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Dime Museum and Side Show, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Jugglers, ME, My Shows, PLUGS, Vaudeville etc., W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2016 by travsd

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Monday, December 12, 7pm: “W.C. Fields: From Dime Museums to the Jazz Age” an illustrated talk by Trav S.D., sponsored by Zelda Magazine 

A look at screen comedian W.C. Fields’ growth from humble sideshow and dime museum juggler to sketch comedian and one of the biggest stars of sophisticated Broadway revues like the Ziegfeld Follies, George White’ Sandals and Earl Carrol’s Vanities. Along the way meet the glittering stars he shared the limelight with like Louise Brooks, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers and Eddie Cantor. Admission: $8. Location: Morbid Anatomy Museum, 424 Third Avenue, 11215 Brooklyn NY. Tickets and information here. 

Tonight! Trav S.D. Speaks at the NYPL on W.C. Fields’ Vaudeville Days

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jugglers, Vaudeville etc., W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , on December 1, 2016 by travsd

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Thursday, December 1, 6:30pm: “W.C. Fields in Vaudeville”

Tonight! Trav S.D. talks about the great comedian’s early years in show business as a juggler in vaudeville and a revue comedian, and the many ways those experiences influenced his later motion pictures. The talk will be illustrated and will draw from the author’s research on the comedian for his blog Travalanche (travsd.wordpress.com) and his popular book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.

At the Mid-Manhattan Branch of NY Public Library, 455 Fifth Ave, Sixth Floor. FREE

W.C. Fields and Games (And How Fields Evolved from a Juggler to a Comedian)

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jugglers, Movies, Vaudeville etc., W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2016 by travsd

I’ve long been interested in bearing down on the process by which W.C. Fields evolved from one of vaudeville’s greatest jugglers into the screen comedian we all love today. It’s a little mysterious, right? I had a general sense that he began to work comedy business into the juggling, then did sketch comedy including several routines that later became incorporated into his films. But what hadn’t dawned on me until I began to parse it out was the extent to which these routines were related to his juggling — in essence they were an outgrowth of the juggling, combining his crazy, whimsical imagination with his almost superhuman physical dexterity. Though the content of Fields’ revue sketches began to diversify as years went on, in nearly every revue that he appeared he had at least one physical routine based around sports or games, and this was the tether back to his juggling career, and the thing for which he was best known prior to his films. In fact, so great was his association with gaming routines that he was sometimes compared to British music hall comedian Harry Tate and even accused of plagiarizing him, much as he (much more obviously) had appropriated aspects of the act of tramp juggler Harrigan during his earlier days. But, in addition to the physical dexterity required for these tricks they also form a theme, a kind of metaphor throughout his work. Almost every one of his movies features one of these old stage routines, or alludes to them.

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THE SHELL GAME

The shell game, a.k.a. “the old army game” is of course the traditional street con wherein the perpetrator manipulates three walnut half shells (or cups, or what have you) inviting onlookers to bet on which one is covering a pea he has shown to be under one of them. The game involves sleight of hand, and requires the same kind of dexterity required of a magician or juggler, combined with distracting patter. Fields had reportedly learned the the routine during his Philadelphia days at the knee of a character named Bill Daily, a.k.a “The Professor”, who was also his first manager. Initially the Professor’s confederate, he learned the routine himself and later claimed that if he were stranded in a town between vaudeville gigs, he could make a few bucks on the sidewalk at the shell game: “It’s the old army game! A child can play it! Five’ll getcha ten, ten’ll getcha twenty…” He alludes to the con of course in his film It’s the Old Army Game (1926) and actually demonstrates it in the talkie version of Poppy (1936).

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POOL

Fields’ pool routine is the mother of all that came afterwards. All his subsequent game-related sketches (leastways the ones employing balls) are variations on this one. Looking to expand beyond the juggling routines he had been doing onstage for about seven years, in 1903 he introduced a stage bit that involved a trick pool table, working every comic variation he could think of into the business, including funny pool cues, sections where he had difficulty threading a normal pool cue through his fingers, juggling style manipulations of balls and cues, and the wow finish, where all the balls went into all the pockets at the same time. The routine was so popular that it provided Fields’ entree to Broadway and films in the same year, 1915, when he was retired to do the bit in the Ziegfeld Follies and in his first comedy short Pool Sharks. Later, he would revive variations of the routine in his movies Fools for Luck (1928, his last silent film), Six of a Kind (1934), and Follow the Boys (1944). Regarded as a holy object, W.C. Fields’ pool table is now on permanent display at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles:

Fields' grandsons Alan and Rob and the pool table at the Magic Castle. Ron is one of the foremost and best of Fields' biographers

Fields’ grandsons Alan and Ron and the pool table at the Magic Castle. Ron is one of the foremost and best of Fields’ biographers

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GOLF

Given the size of a golf course as compared with a pool table, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Field’s golf routine originated onscreen as opposed to onstage. He first included a comical golf game in his second film His Lordship’s Dilemma (1915), not coming up with a stage version until 1918, when he introduced it at the Follies. He revived it the following year in Ziegfeld’s 9 O’Clock Revue, and then brought versions of it to several films: So’s Your Old Man (1926), The Golf Specialist (1930) The Dentist (1932), You’re Telling Me (1934), The Big Broadcast of 1938, and there is a brief office putting bit in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941). By my count, he performs this routine more than any other, and it is hence probably even better known than his pool playing business. In the unlikely event you’ve never seen it, as with the pool routine it involves endless preamble to ever teeing off, with crazy, twisted golf clubs, and an annoying caddy who causes endless interruptions.

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CARDS

I’m not aware of Fields doing any poker routines onstage, but after golf and pool it is the game he engages in the most onscreen. This clearly has to do with thematic elements associated with his character and the plots that revolve around him, and it is one of the few areas of overlap he has with the Marx Brothers. It is more an outgrowth of his “shell game” persona. Interestingly he does very little with sleight of hand type card tricks, crazy shuffling or card manipulation, although he undoubtedly either had those skills or could easily master them. I’m not sure why, although one plausible reason may be that, as an old vaudevillian, he had a great respect for specialties. Such business was outside his usual wheelhouse and he may have felt uncomfortable either A) dabbling in a skill of which he not an absolute, acknowledged master; and B) stepping on the toes of the magic crowd. But he is often depicted humorously as a cheating poker player (often playing with decks with large numbers of aces) in such films as The Potters (1927) Tillie and Gus (1933), Mississippi (1935), and My Little Chickadee (1940). 

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CROQUET

Yes — croquet! This may be one of Fields’ less famous routines, yet it was the second one he devised for the Ziegfeld Follies, and if you think about it, a perfect transition between pool and golf. He debuted it in the Follies of 1916, and revived it in the 9 O’Clock Revue (1919). The one movie you can see it (or some of it) in is Poppy (1936). Fields was in poor health when this film was shot — I bet we would have seen more if he’d been in better shape at the time.

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TENNIS

The fact that the tennis routine was never filmed is one of the great losses to W.C. Fields fans! He introduced it in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1917, even before his golf routine, and I can easily imagine how great it was given his skills as a juggler, which he undoubtedly integrated into the bit. You can see him juggle rubber balls off the floor in The Old Fashioned Way (1934).I’ll bet something on that order was in the routine, as well as business with rackets, and stuff with balls on strings (as he’d done in pool and croquet). Also, tennis was Fields’ main active, recreational sport in his personal life. He was reportedly a great player, when he was still fit enough to play. The reason why it didn’t make it to film should be obvious; he was old and sick during the bulk of his film career and not up to the physical challenge any more. I bet it was great.

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BASEBALL

This may be Fields’ most obscure routine. He devised it for George White’s Scandals of 1922, but it was considered too derivative of his other routines, particularly the tennis one. The usual business with funny bats and balls, crazy ways of hitting, etc. So, though he created and rehearsed it it didn’t make it to stage or screen. I’d still be curious to see it! In the end, the classic comedians most associated with physical baseball business would be Joe E. Brown and Buster Keaton. 

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MOTORING

This comes more under the heading of “recreation” than “sport”. W.C. Fields was a major automobile enthusiast. When on tour in the Ziegfeld Follies (at a time when most performers traveled by train), Fields prided himself on motoring from town to town in his open-air auto. Colleagues like Eddie Cantor and Fanny Brice later told hair-raising accounts of the experience of riding with him, as the half-cocked Fields drove down the highway at night at high speed. (On the other hand, consider the lightning quick reaction time and hand control Fields had). In the Follies of 1920, he premiered a sketch called “The Family Ford”, which featured comical business revolving around a family loading up their car for a vacation, a special breakaway car that fell apart at the end of the routine, like Harry Langdon’s. Funny car business winds up  in many of his movies. His segment (with Alison Skipworth) in If I Had a Million (1932) is about a brand new car that gets dinged up; It’s a Gift (1934) and The Bank Dick (1940) both have breakaway cars; both You’re Telling Me (1934) and The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) feature Fields chasing runaway tires down the street; and his last two features The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) feature crazy high speed car chases.

His last gaming business committed to film, as we said above, is the pool routine in Follow the Boys (1944). He had two years left to live at this point. By the time of his last film performance in Sensations of 1945 it was said that his eyesight was so bad he couldn’t see cue cards, so for sure he had also lost the physical dexterity that would enable to do the sort of things that had made him famous as a young man. He has a small bit of business in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, touching in its smallness, and so understated you may never notice how much physical control it required. It’s the scene where he stops off in an ice cream parlor, and has some difficulty delivering a cherry to his mouth with a pair of chopsticks. I find it touching because that was where he was at….his hands still had that control, but he could no longer be so physical with his old, ailing body. But if you’re clued in, you can see the young man in that bit, that same teenager who practiced with fruits and vegetables at his father’s Philadelphia produce stand.

 

 

 

 

Yesterday’s W.C. Fields History Walk

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Jugglers, Vaudeville etc., W.C. Fields with tags , , , , on November 20, 2016 by travsd

It was a lovely day in NYC for yesterday’s W.C. Fields History Walk, led by Kevin Fitzpatrick, which focused on the places where W.C. Fields lived, worked and recreated in the Broadway district. It’s all part of Fields Fest, our two-month celebration of Fields’ life and career. Here are some of the places we stopped.

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Trav S.D. and Kevin Fitzpatrick, prior to starting the tour in Shubert Alley.

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Fitzpatrick educates the throngs about the Great Man.

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This building was formerly the Hotel Markwell, the last place where Fields lived with his wife Harriet and infant son Claude in 1905 before the pressures of show business finally drove a wedge through the marriage. Today it is an assisted living facility.

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The Palace Theatre, the flagship of bigtime vaudeville, then and now. Fields appeared here on a bill with Sarah Bernhart in 1913 when he was still a juggler.

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The New Amsterdam Theatre, home to the Ziegfeld Follies, then and now. Fields appeared in the 1915, 1916, 1917, 1918, 1920, 1921 and 1925 editions of the Follies, as well as the 1919 edition of Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic and the 1920 edition of Ziegfeld’s Nine O’Clock Revue. Learn more about these and Fields’ other Broadway shows here. 

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The uptown facade of the Lyric Theatre, currently comprising the former Lyric and Apollo Theatres. The Apollo was the site of Fields’s smash hit show Poppy. 

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Formerly the Astor Hotel, where showfolk like Fields bent an elbow after the show.

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The Globe Theatre (now called the LuntFontanne), where Fields appeared in George White’s Scandals of 1922.

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Hammerstein’s Theatre, site of Fields’ last Broadway show Ballyhoo (1930). Today it is the Ed Sullivan Theatre, where The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is produced. If Fields had lived just two years longer, Sullivan could have presented him on his television show.

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This was just a cool stop along the way. I must have walked by here a thousand times without ever noticing it. Israel Miller was shoemaker to the stars at the turn of the last century. In 1929 a contest was held in which participants voted on the four most beloved American actresses. Statues of the winners (Ethel Barrymore, Marilyn Miller, Mary Pickford and Rosa Ponselle) were created by Alexander Stirling Calder (father of the better known modernist sculptor) and installed in the building’s facade.

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The tour stopped at Flute Midtown, site of Texas Guinan’s Speakeasy and former home of Wit’s End, where your correspondent rewarded himself with the house’s signature champagne cocktail, which is infused with ginger and known as the “Intime” in honor of Guinan’s club. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it! And anyway, we said a toast to W.C. Fields! For information about upcoming Fields Fest events go here.

Look for more on this tour in coming weeks on the Classic Movies and More web show, hosted by Rob Medaska. 

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