Archive for the Nuts and Eccentrics Category

Bob Burns (The Arkansas Traveler): Inventor of the Bazooka

Posted in Comedy, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Music, Nuts and Eccentrics, Radio (Old Time Radio), Stand Up, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2013 by travsd

bazooka_fToday is the birthday of Bob Burns (1890-1956). Burns was just an Arkansas teenager playing in local brass bands when he invented his own humorous looking trombone-like instrument out of plumbing supplies which he dubbed “the bazooka.” Decades later, when Burns and his instrument were famous, U.S. army personnel were to nickname their well-known hand-held anti-tank weapon the bazooka because of the resemblance. Burns himself served in World War One entertaining troops. Following the war, he toured in night clubs, carnivals and vaudeville as the Arkansas Traveler, telling folksy, homespun stories and playing tunes on his bazooka. From 1930 through the mid 1940s he was frequently in films and on the radio. The film appearances were initially walk-ons and cameos playing his bazooka, and the radio initially local. But in the mid 30s he broke through in a big way, when he became a regular on Kraft Music Hall with Paul Whiteman and then with Bing Crosby, and was also regularly on The Fleischmann Hour with Rudy Vallee. At that point he started getting lead roles in feature films, usually playing hillbilly characters. He also got his own nationally syndicated humor column which ran in 250 newspapers from 1936-1940). (The timing of this is interesting — he seems to have filled a gap left when Will Rogers passed away). In the forties he had his own starring radio series, The Arkansas Traveler (1941-1943) and The Bob Burns Shows (1943-1947). His last film was The Windjammer (1945). After this he made the occasional tv variety appearance, but for the most part he retired and lived on his investments. From 1936 through 1939 he was married to Judy Canova. 

Here’s a little slice of Burns from the WWII era:

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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And check out my new 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

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Mousie Garner: Substitute Stooge

Posted in Child Stars, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Music, Nuts and Eccentrics, Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Paul “Mousie” Garner (1909-2004). He started out in vaudeville at the age of four with his family’s act. As a young adult Garner was hired by Ted Healy as a substitute stooge in the early 30s when Healy and Moe/Larry/ Shemp were on the outs, and thus got a taste of the big time. Later he became a member of Spike Jones’ band. Ironically this presented him from becoming a legitimate member of the The Three Stooges; Garner was Larry and Moe’s first choice for a replacement when Shemp died in 1955. But Jones wouldn’t let Garner out of his contract, thus enabling the public to become acquainted with the prodigious talents of Joe Besser and Curly Joe De Rita, the fifth and sixth stooges, respectively. Garner finally got his chance in the 1970s, but only ever so briefly and not really. By then Moe and Larry were also dead, and the only “legitimate” stooge was De Rita, who’d only been with the team himself since the late 50s. This sad experiment was short lived.

Garner got plenty of work over the years as a character actor in walk-ons on sit-coms in the sixties, and guest shots on tv variety shows. His book: Mousie Garner: Autobiography of a Vaudeville Stooge is a great resource for information on the early years of show biz. His last credit (posthumous) is in The Onion Movie. 

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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And check out my new 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

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Peaches Browning: Famous for Being Famous

Posted in Nuts and Eccentrics, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on June 23, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Peaches Browning (Frances Belle Heenan, 1910-1956). In 1926 (do the math — she was 16), the young girl met (through a classified ad) and married (within weeks) real estate tycoon Edward “Daddy” Browning. Within a matter of months, an acrimonious divorce trial ensued which became one of the tabloid sensations of the era. Weird details came out. She wouldn’t consummate the marriage. He threw acid on her. He kept a live goose in their bedroom. When the smoke cleared, Peaches used her newfound fame to launch a lucrative vaudeville career. She married three more times.

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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And check out my new 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

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Herb Williams and His Breakaway Piano

Posted in Comedy, Music, Nuts and Eccentrics, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on May 22, 2013 by travsd

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Herb Williams’ (Herbert Schussler Billerbeck, 1884-1936) whole act revolved around a trick piano that fell apart like Harry Langdon’s automobile, but also was the source of many other surreal gags. Ironically, he was a legitimate, trained pianist (he studied at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music). His partners over the years included his first wife Hilda Woofus, his second wife Jean Halpin, and Tom Kennedy (a different one, I think, from the Keystone comedian). By the mid 20s Williams was a big time headliner, who played the Palace several times. Broadway appearances included Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1930 and The Farmer Takes a Wife (1934). He was just beginning to break into films when he passed away in 1936.

And now, here he is:

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new 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

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Vasco the Mad Musician

Posted in British Music Hall, Music, Nuts and Eccentrics, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on January 31, 2013 by travsd

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Vasco ( 1871-1925) was a British music hall entertainer known for his flamboyant showmanship (he would often drive around town in a car adorned with signs advertising his act). Billed as the Mad Musician, he could (and did) play 28 different musical instruments during his act, with a sprinkling of comedy and acrobatics in between. He acquired his musical skills at the British Army Academy, and toured with circuses and appeared in opera as well as music hall. He appeared in American vaudeville numerous times, starting with his first appearance at the Alhambra Theatre in 1897.

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.

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Alfred Latell: Animal Impressionist

Posted in Animal Acts, Nuts and Eccentrics, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2013 by travsd

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Alfred Latell (born Alfred Lee, ca. 1880s-1951) made a surprisingly good career for himself in vaudeville as an animal impressionist. Wearing elaborate, lifelike costumes, he  impersonated monkeys, bears, goats, cats, dogs, and birds (parrots and ostriches in particular). He publicized his long hours of studying the movements of the creatures so that he could get them just so.

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Under the costume

According to his granddaughter who was generous in getting in touch and helping with this post, “…he got in trouble with the law when he was a kid til a priest at local parish saw him do his acts on the street corner, so to keep it him out of a boys’ home he hired him for shows at the local churches.” He broke into the business professionally in 1902; within five years his peculiar act was beginning to be in demand.

His most popular character was Bonzo the Bull Pup (above), whom he presented all across the United States and abroad. He usually worked with a partner since his characters couldn’t talk. In the early 20s he headlined on the Keith circuit with his wife Mary Jane Vokes, who sang and danced and introduced his animal characters.

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By 1931, his wife/ partner was a lady named Lucille Lee a.k.a. “Sylvan Dell”, with whom he performed for the duration of his career. The act was so unique he was able to work it long past the existence of vaudeville. In the 30s and 40s, he kept it going by touring Australia, where vaudeville didn’t die until the 1950s or so. Amazingly there was also work for him in Broadway shows and movies…I can tell that he was usually cast as a pooch because on IBDB his character names are things like “Touser” and “Jasper”.

I find references to him performing as late as 1948 when he must have been well advanced in age. He obviously needed the work, and it must have been scarce by this point. According to his daughter, he was buried in a pauper’s (unmarked) grave in Park Ridge, Illinois in 1951. After he passed, his widow was so distraught, she threw out anything that reminded her of her husband, including his famous  dog suit. Fortunately, the family managed to save some photos including ones in this post which they were nice enough to share. Special thanks to Kimberly Albright. 

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.

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Professor Hutchings: the Lightning Calculator

Posted in Dime Museum and Side Show, Nuts and Eccentrics, Variety Theatre, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on January 7, 2013 by travsd

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Look real close at the right hand column: Prof. Hutchings is the featured act

Today is the birthday of “Professor” William S. Hutchings (1832-1911), billed in vaudeville and dime museums as the “Lightning Calculator”. Hutching was a math prodigy who began working at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum as the Boy Lightning Calculator. For 25 cents he then hawked a book by the same title that revealed his arithmetical secrets (read the text here). In 1881, he moved to Austin & Stone’s museum in Boston, where he was the star of the whole show: outside talker, lecturer and master of ceremonies for the vaudeville acts and freaks he presented therein. Boston native Fred Allen was a huge fan, and writes about him in his autobiography Much Ado About Me, saying that Hutchings was so famously loquacious that Harvard students would come to study his modes of speech. In 1904, Hutchings published his autobiography; he was with Austin & Stone’s until he passed away in 1911.

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult 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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For more on silent film don’t miss 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

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