Archive for the Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing Category

Tal Henry and His North Carolinians

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2017 by travsd

July 10 is the birthday of big band leader Tal Henry (Talmadge Allen Henry, 1898-1967). Born in Georgia, Henry didn’t became a North Carolinian himself until he moved to Eton College, Burlington, N.C. to follow up on his earlier studies at the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music.

In 1919 he moved to Greensboro and played violin in a band led by Frank Hood. Henry took over the act in 1924, renaming it Tal Henry and His North Carolinians. The first several years of the orchestra’s existence were spent as the house band at Greensboro’s O’Henry Hotel. In time they managed to secure bookings in hotel ballrooms all over the country, as well as vaudeville engagements, radio spots, recording contracts, and,in 1928 two Vitaphone shorts. By the ’30s, they were a nationally known concern, with hit records, regular national radio broadcasts from the New Yorker Hotel, and coverage in national magazines.

By 1938, several years into the Great Depression, the expense of maintaining a full orchestra grew too great and the North Carolinians disbanded. This early break-up of the act may be one of the reasons Henry’s band is less well known today, whereas the ones who were able to press on into the 40s or beyond, like the Dorsey Brothers (who’d played with Henry on occasion), or Kay Kyser (Henry’s exact contemporary, and a fellow North Carolinian) continue to be known today. Henry worked as an agent and manager for a few years, and then led bands for U.S. Army Special Services during World War Two. After the war, he returned to North Carolina, where he continued to work as a violinist. A biography of Henry written by his daughter-in-law, was published in 2008.

For more on the vaudeville history, including big bands like Tal Henry and His North Carolinians, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

Gertrude Niesen: Singer, Comedienne, Wrecker of Mansions

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Broadway, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2017 by travsd

Singer, actress and comedienne Gertrude Niesen (1911-1975) was born on this day.

Niesen started out as a child performer in vaudeville. She was trained for opera, but became a pop singer in big bands, in films, on radio and records, and was cast in the occasional Broadway show. Half Swedish, Half Russian, her exotic, vaguely “Eastern” beauty added to her appeal.

I became aware of her from her 1932 Vitaphone short Yacht Party, in which she sang with Roger Wolfe Kahn and his Orchestra, and Artie Shaw. 

In 1933, she became the first person to record the Kern-Harbach standard “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” from the musical Roberta. Often referred to as a “torch singer”, she was prized for her comic ability as much as her singing. She was a frequent radio guest throughout the 1930s and 40s on the shows of such stars as Rudy Vallee, Edgar Bergen and others.

With vaudeville all but wound down, in the early 30s one finds her performing in the big presentation houses that largely replaced it, like Loew’s State in NYC, the Orpheum in Los Angeles, or the various RKO houses.  She was on the bill at Radio City Music Hall’s Inaugural Spectacular in 1932. Broadway shows included the Lew Brown revue Calling All Stars (1934-1935), the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, and the biggest hit of her career, Harry Delmar’s Follow the Girls (1944-1946), in which she played a burlesque queen named Bubbles Lamarr. Co-starring Jackie Gleason, Follow the Girls played over 800 performances on Broadway, then went on tour. Niesen’s show stopping number was “I Wanna Get Married”.

Niesen appeared in a dozen films between 1932 and 1948, usually playing some version of herself singing in a night club. The last two are probably best known today: This is the Army (1943) with George Murphy, and The Babe Ruth Story (1948) with William Bendix. She also co-wrote the song “I Want to Make with the Happy Times, which was used in A Night at Earl Carroll’s (1940).

In the 1941 she became the owner of the Newport mansion Rosecliff, estimated to have been worth $2.5 million at the time but purchased by Niesen’s mother as a birthday present for $17,000 at auction. The Depression and wartime combined to make upkeep very problematic, which is how the family managed to acquire it for such a low price in the first place, and indirectly why they sold it off soon thereafter. In March 1942, with no caretaker having been hired for the winter, all the pipes froze and burst, flooding the house with lakes and waterfalls which in turn froze into great, thick sheets of ice. The Niesens resold the house not long after that. Both the purchase and the damage received national publicity.

In 1950, she starred in the west coast production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, taking the Carol Channing role. She also did lots of tv variety in the early days of television, singing on the programs of Ed Wynn, Milton Berle, Jack Carter, Paul Whiteman, and others. Her last tv credit is in 1951. The last recordings I can find from her are from 1953.

Last record

In 1943, Niesen married Chicago nightclub owner Al Greenfield, owner of The Black Orchid and other establishments. The couple were divorced but remarried in 1954, remaining married until Niesen’s death in 1975. Her death notices all mention a “long illness”. Given that her last professional activity seems to have happened around 1953, and that Greenfield sold The Black Orchid in 1956, reportedly to be with her, one speculates the illness, whatever it was, was very long.

For more on vaudeville, including performers like Gertrude Niesen, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

The Lane Sisters

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Sister Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Rosemary Lane (Rosemary Mullican, 1913-1974), one of a brood of performing sisters  known as the Lane Sisters. Writing about them is a bit of a tangle, as they all had separate solo careers in addition to working together, and the line up in the group changed over time, but I shall make the attempt.

Five daughters were born to dentist Lorenzo Mullican: Leotabel (Leota), Martha, Dorothy (Lola),  Rosemary and Priscilla. Martha was the only one who did not perform or join the act. The girls were raised in Indianola, Iowa and encouraged to sing and learn musical instruments by their mother, a frustrated performer. Lola is said to have played piano in a local movie house by the time she was 12.

The older two girls got their start in Gus Edwards’ vaudeville act , and later appeared in the Greenwich Village Follies. Edwards was the one who changed their professional name to Lane. The two older girls began to get parts in Broadway shows in 1928 and 1929. Lola would prove to be the more successful; she went to Hollywood and began to get cast in films in 1929. Leota’s career would proved to lag far behind those of the other three.

The younger two sisters made their professional debut in 1930 as part of the vaudeville show accompanying a film Lola was appearing in called Good News, at the Paramount Theater in Des Moines. By 1932, the mother had moved to New York with the younger daughters and gotten them jobs singing with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. The girls’ parents divorced the following year. Rosemary and Priscilla appeared regularly on Waring’s radio show, becoming stars in their own right. Soon they were signed to movie contracts, even as their older sister Lola continued to act in films. This culminated in a projected vehicle for the four of them. Unfortunately, the studio didn’t think much of the acting ability of the oldest sister Leota, so her part was played by the actress Gale Page. Page and the Lane Sisters appeared together in three movies: Four Daughters (1938), Four Wives (1939), and Four Mothers (1941).

As for their separate lives and careers:

Priscilla Lane, a gifted comedienne, would prove the biggest movie star. Her career, which lasted from 1937 to 1948, included leading roles in such well known films as Alfred Hitchock’s Saboteur (1942), Jack Benny’s The Meanest Man in the World (1943), and Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). She ended her film career on a high note with the gritty noir film Bodyguard (1948).

Rosemary Lane’s film career was not negligible either. She starred in over two dozen movies, including Gold Diggers in Paris (1938), The Oklahoma Kid (1939) and The Boys from Syracuse (1940). Her last film was Sing Me a Song of Texas (1945). 

Lola Lane married five times. Her famous husbands included Lew Ayers and Roland West. Her film career lasted from 1929 through 1946. She starred in dozens of movies, mostly B pictures. She is best known for having played the pin-up character of Torchy Blane, and for having inspired the character of Superman’s Lois Lane. Her last film was Deadline at Dawn, penned by Clifford Odets. 

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


Paul Specht

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of big band leader Paul Specht (1895-1954). Much like Paul Whiteman, his contemporary and competitor, though he often used the word “jazz” to describe his work, his was both a pre-swing sound, and a post-New Orleans one. It was mainstream dance music in a predominantly white culture which had only just emerged from Victorianism. It was fun, it was even sometimes peppy, but never “low-down”, “dirty”, “feverish” or some of the other adjectives  that are often used to describe other forms of jazz.

But it was wildly popular, especially during the 1920s and 30s. In addition to live performances in ball rooms, night clubs and big-time vaudeville, Specht’s bands recorded for Columbia records, and had shows on ABC radio with The Three X Sisters. He even played the 1929 inaugural of President Herbert Hoover.  Originally from Pennsylvania, Specht started his career in 1916 and led bands through the 1940s. In later years he worked as an arranger in the broadcast industry.

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


Much Ado About Kabibble

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , on January 19, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the one and only Merwyn Bogue (1908-1994), better known by his professional name Ish Kabibble.

What a mysterious thing is this Ish Kabibble — old time show biz buffs know him from appearances on Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor’s radio and tv shows, and the occasional cameo in a movie. A dim, vaguely foreign character with a pudding bowl haircut like Moe Howard of the Three Stooges, he was both a character comedian and a cornet player in  Kay Kiser’s band. Most people I think could be forgiven for assuming that he was Jewish, or at least from New York City.

NEVER ASSUME! Bogue is a Scottish surname; he was from western Pennsylvania, and attended college in West Virginia. The origin of his persona goes something like this:

There is a Yiddish phrase, “Nisht gefidlt”, which means “it doesn’t matter to me”. Out of this (apparently), the nonsense phrase “Ische ga bibble” may have evolved, to which tradition has ascribed the meaning, ‘I should worry?”, which became one of Bogue’s catch phrases.

In 1913, songwriter Sam Lewis came out with the popular song “Ische Gabibble” based on the phrase.

Then in 1914 Harry Hershfield debuted his comic strip Abie the Agent, starring the character Abe Kabibble. (Thus explaining that remark of Chico Marx’s when he meets Rosco W. Chandler in Animal Crackers — “You’re not Abe Kabibble?”)

In 1931, Bogue started performing with Kiser’s band. One of his specialty numbers was the song “Ische Gabibble”, out of which arose his character and his role as comical sidekick to bandleader Kay Kiser in nightclubs, and on radio and film. He played the role until the early 1950s, when he retired and went in the real estate business. I’ll eat my hat if he was not an influence on Andy Kauffman. 

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.


The Tragic End of Russ Columbo

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Hollywood (History), Italian, Movies, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Russ Columbo (Ruggiero Eugienio di Rodolpho Colombo, 1908-1934). One of 12 children born to Italian immigrants in Camden, New Jersey, Columbo was already playing violin professionally in bands in vaudeville houses and nightclubs by the age of 13 (1921).


By the late twenties, he was a member of Gus Arnheim’s orchestra, one of the top dance bands in the country, and taking the occasional lead vocal. He can be seen with Arnheim’s band in two early Vitaphone films, released in 1927 and 1928. Interestingly he can also be seen (but not heard) in the 1929 silent film The Wolf Song, with Gary Cooper and Lupe Velez.

Columbo’s career truly took off when songwriter Con Conrad became his manager. Conrad landed Columbo his own nationwide radio show at NBC in 1931, and his crooning made him one of the top heart throbs of the day, usually mentioned in the same breath with Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee. His theme song was “You Call it Madness, But I Call it Love”. He is also associated with two songs he co-wrote with Conrad, “Prisoner of Love” and “Too Beautiful for Words”. As the 30s rolled on, Columbo was having success in Hollywood as well. Often he played himself in nightclub scenes, but he also has a role in the all-star Broadway Thru a Keyhole (1933), and had top billing in the 1934 film Wake Up and Dream, his last, with a familiar plot about a love triangle amongst vaudevillians.


Unfortunately it was all cut short in 1934, by what seems to have been a freak accident…but sounds awfully suspicious to me! He was visiting a friend named Lansing Brown, when Brown claims to have lit a match too near an old fashioned dueling pistol, which discharged, shooting Columbo, who was across the room, in the forehead. It may well be true — but if I were a juror at this trial, I would definitely be scowling.

There is a “James Dean” aspect to Columbo’s sad death. He was so young (26) and was really at the top, with higher heights about to happen. He was slated to star in a film adaptation of the musical Show Boat next, and his current girlfriend was Carole Lombard.

But, no, no you go ahead and keep your guns! I can see why you want to play with them! Hours of enjoyment!

I found a terrific, much fuller blogpost about Columbo’s life and career (and death) at read it here. 

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.


Meyer Davis

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Music, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2015 by travsd


Bandleader Meyer Davis (1893-1976) was from the Washington, D.C. area.  He started out with a musical quintet in high school (after the school band rejected him — his specialty was the popular music of the day: dance music). He was studying to be a lawyer when his band was hired by the New Willard Hotel in 1914. Thereafter he became not just a bandleader but a musical entrepreneur. From 1916 through 1930 he managed a resort called Chevy Chase Lake, and he owned a couple of night clubs. But he had many versions of the Meyer Davis Orchestra on deck to work at hotels, dance halls, supper clubs, amusements parts and the like.


Vaudeville also hired his orchestras, and he played at Keith’s in Washington D.C. and the Palace in New York City. At his peak, Davis was managing up to 80 bands. He also cut record albums, stretching from the Jazz Age into the rock and roll era — he even made a “Twist” record!

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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