Archive for the Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing Category

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.


The Williams Sisters

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Child Stars, Music, Singers, Sister Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2014 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Hannah Williams (1911-1973). Along with her older sister Dorothy, she began performing in a singing dancing kiddie duo in the vaudeville theatres around their native Scranton in the late nineteen teens. By the mid 1920s they were fronting the Scranton Sirens, Charley Straight and Ben Pollack Orchestras in night clubs and dance halls, and being featured in George White’s Scandals of 1924.

Hannah was featured as a solo in  the Billy Rose revue Sweet and Low (1930) , and then married a succession of very public husbands; band leader Roger Wolfe Kahn (1931-1933), boxer Jack Dempsey (1933-1943) and an actor named Thomas J. Monaghan (1950-1951). She made one Vitaphone short The Audition (1933), then retired from performing, although she did occasionally appear in radio and was in the 1937 Broadway show Hooray for What but cut from the show  before it opened. Dorothy replaced Hannah in Sweet and Low when she left to marry Kahn (his father the famous impresario Otto Kahn didn’t want his son married to a showgirl). Dorothy was briefly married to the jazz cornetist Jimmy McPartland. 

Thanks to the Keep it Swinging blog for some of this info!

The Williams Sisters made very few records, but here’s one of them:

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.



Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Music, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , on July 6, 2014 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Merv Griffin (1925-2007).

When I was a kid Merv represented the summit of bad show biz to me. His syndicated talk show came on in the afternoon after school where I grew up. I probably watched it every weekday for ten years. In retrospect, I saw a lot of historic television on The Merv Griffin Show, for which I’m now grateful. But at the time, when I was in high school, compared to the SNL and SCTV guys whom I revered, the host seemed clueless and phony. There was a kitsch overlay to the program that was not leagues away from the aesthetic of Liberace. Merv liked to be cute and pixie-ish. Old ladies loved him. To us (teenagers) he seemed dumb. He never seemed to “get” anything or anybody.

I had no idea (if such a thing matters) that he was one of the wealthiest men in show business. Everyone knew that in addition to his daily talk show he created and produced Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, his name was at the end of every broadcast, but I don’t think I ever came to the conclusion that he was actually ON THE BALL, which he surely must have been.


Among the things that I hated at the time (but I’m now grateful for) was that his smorgasbord of guests included older musical performers, singers of the big band generation like Rosemary Clooney, etc — which means that I can say that I have memories of their performances (even if I didn’t care for them at the time). Griffin himself was a singer from the radio/ big band days (he occasionally trotted it out on the show) and in his early days he fronted for Freddy Martin and His Orchestra, scoring a 1950 #1 hit record with”I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” .

The sync is off on this clip but it’ll give you the general idea. Merv steps in at at about :40.

He had small roles in a number of movies, and then began subbing successfully as guest host on The Tonight Show and others in the early 60s. He launched his own show in 1965. For the first few years his sidekick was Arthur Treacher, but Treacher left in 1970, before I ever started watching.


I think the general attitude among young people was that Merv was a joke, but you couldn’t deny that he was important.

The first place I ever became aware of Ronald ReaganThe Merv Griffin Show. He and Nancy were guests early in Reagan’s 1980 Presidential campaign. Merv always had old movie stars on the show, so it makes a great deal of sense that he had the Reagans on. (For some perspective for young people — I’d never heard of or seen ANY of Ronald Reagan’s movies before he became President. I’d never even heard of him. But older people knew him well). Nancy and Merv were besties, and I think there’s little doubt that appearances like this, in which the otherwise scary Reagan came off as funny and charming, played a role in his getting elected.

And it was up there with The Tonight Show where new stars and up-and-comers HAD to make an appearance. Steve Martin in 1979:

And I distinctly remember seeing A Flock of Seagulls on the show in the early 1980s. Merv asked the group’s leader Michael Score “What’s the difference between punk and new wave?” and Score said something like “New wave happened when the punk bands learned to play their instruments” and Merv looked at the camera and said “Ouch!”

Merv put his talk show to bed in 1985, and concentrated on running his empire, which grew to include real estate, hotels and the like. His last creation was Merv Griffin’s Crosswords which began airing in 2007, shortly before he died.

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.


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