Archive for the Singers Category

Stars of Vaudeville #1037: Charles Chaplin, Sr.

Posted in British Music Hall, Charlie Chaplin, Singers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2017 by travsd

Born on this date in 1863: Charles Chaplin the Elder: the father of his better known namesake, comedian and movie star Charlie Chaplin. It’s not as well known today that in his time the elder Chaplin was a fairly successful performer in his own right.

The son of a butcher, Charles Senior was still a teenager when he went on the stage. It is said that he met Charlie’s mother Hannah Hall (a.k.a. Lily Harley) while performing in a sketch called “Shamus O’Brien” in the early 1880s. In 1885 he married her, despite the fact that in the intervening months she had taken up with another man and given birth to a child. Chaplin gave the boy his surname; he became Sydney Chaplin. By ’87, Charles Senior had worked up a music hall act and began getting bookings in the halls, with a repertoire of sentimental and comical songs. In 1889, his son Charlie was born.

So far so good, eh? Unfortunately (for the family) not long after that, Chaplin’s career began to take off — and so did he. By 1890, he was popular enough to tour America (notably, he played the Union Square Theatre in New York — this was his own foray into American vaudeville. The following year he ran out on Hannah and the boys for good.

Chaplin was popular enough by this stage that his name and visaged graced the covers of the published sheet music of songs he had made popular, such as “The Girl Was Young and Pretty”, “Hi Diddle Diddle” and the comical, suggestive “Eh, Boys!”

It’s a well known story by now. While Charlie the elder was cavorting and carousing in music halls, living the carefree life, Hannah (also an entertainer, and by her son’s account a brilliant one, the one he took after) went slowly insane and couldn’t work. Chaplin offered no financial support, even when the two children were packed off to workhouses.

By the end of the decade (and the century) Chaplin had become an alcoholic and was no longer working himself. Significantly, this was the juncture when he first seems to take an interest in his namesake. In 1899, he got ten year old Charlie his first proper show business job by getting him into an act called The Eight Lancashire Lads. The younger Chaplin was about to embark on an incredible life’s journey; the older one was just ending his. By 1901, Charles Chaplin, Sr. was dead of cirrhosis of the liver.

But his mark is there for all to see in Charlie Chaplin’s life and art. An alcoholic, performing dad is something Charlie had in common with Buster Keaton. But there are contrasts. You could say that Joe Keaton’s drinking hurt his career, but it didn’t end his life. And Buster followed in his footsteps, becoming a problem boozer himself. Whereas the elder Chaplin ended both his life and career through alcohol abuse. And Charlie, Jr. only ever drank in cautious moderation. But I find it significant that he played hilarious comic drunks on stage and screen for decades. And there is also the subject of Chaplin’s relations with him. For a good long while, like his father, he put his work first and neglected his women (following periods of intense wooing). This cycle was only broken when he finally married Oona O’Neill, quite late in life, when he only worked occasionally and chose to devote all of his energy into family life…as though he were making up for lost time.

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc

Stars of Vaudeville #1019: The Revelers

Posted in Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2017 by travsd


The Revelers were a popular and influential vocal group of the Jazz Age. The act consisted of a vocal quartet plus a pianist. The quartet, originally known as The Shannon Four, began performing together in 1918. They added the pianist in 1925 and began calling themselves The Revelers. The line-up was:

Franklyn Baur (tenor, later replaced by Frank Luther, then James Melton)

Lewis James (tenor)

Elliot Shaw (baritone)

Wilfred Glen (bass)

Ed Smalle (piano, later replaced by Frank Black)

The group was popular in big time vaudeville, enjoyed several hit records, were popular on radio (1927-1931), and made two Vitaphone shorts in 1927, which is how I first came to know of them. Starting in the late ’20s they were also enormously popular on European stages. Their hits included “Baby Face”, “The Birth of the Blues”, “Dinah”, and “Old Man River.” For a group so fun and playful and so essentially “pop”, the members were seriously skilled singers: Baur was a third generation vocalist and principal tenor at the Park Avenue Baptist Church who also had a flourishing career and performed with numerous popular orchestra; Melton (one of his replacements) sang with the Metropolitan Opera; and Glen had a range of two and a half octaves and sang at Carnegie Hall.  The group also performed as “The Singing Sophomores” and “The Merrymakers”.

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

Stars of Vaudeville #1015: Klondike Kate

Posted in AMERICANA, Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Singers, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2016 by travsd


Klondike Kate (Kathleen Eloise Rockwell, 1873-1957) was a real person! She was the toast of Dawson, Yukon during the Gold Rush, performing in saloons, the Savoy Theatrical Company, and the Palace Grande Theatre, where her famous “Flame Dance” earned her as much as $750 a night in the boom town economy (the equivalent of over $21,000 in today’s money). She got involved romantically with Alexander Pantages, and helped bankroll his Seattle-based vaudeville circuit. Pantages proceeded to throw her over and marry another woman. Kate continued to perform in west coast vaudeville for a time in the early years of the 20th century, eventually retiring to Oregon.

Born in Junction City, Kansas, Kate grew up in North Dakota; Spokane, Washington; and Valparaiso, Chile. She moved to New York City at age 18, which is where she got her first experience as a chorus girl and dancer in Coney Island, and vaudeville houses throughout the city.

Ann Savage played a fictionalized version of her in the 1943 movie Klondike Kate. Mae West paid her homage in the title of Klondike Annie (1936), although her character’s story is quite different in that picture.

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.

Mink Stole: It’s Merry Christmas, Dammit

Posted in Christmas, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Singers, Singing Comediennes, Women with tags , , on December 11, 2016 by travsd


Three Christmas Cheers for Dreamland Diva Mink Stole!

We had the great good fortune to see her Holiday Cabaret It’s Merry Christmas, Dammit at the Cutting Room last night and want to sing its praises.

The actual set was almost identical to the one we caught two years ago (read about that one here). With these noticeable differences:

  • Last time was at the Laurie Beechman. This version was at the much larger, swankier Cutting Room, giving the whole thing an honest to God concert feel, with an elevated stage, a better sound system, and a much larger audience — and even so, they packed ’em in last night. To paraphrase W.C. Fields, the audience had to clap up and down instead of sideways.
  • What an interesting, sobering experiment, to watch the same performer do the same show on either side of the catastrophic 2016 election. There is no escape from the dreaded Orange Taint: you go places, you run into friends, and you metaphorically or literally HOLD each other as tight as you can and share your fears and worries and anger and little accidental words of encouragement which you both quickly shoot down because the scale of the horribleness is too vast to be adequately confronted no matter WHAT happens. So….a lot of her show was like that. The set list and some of the patter was the same, but Mink kvetched and beat her chest and worried aloud about the state of the world and we joined her, and nothing has ever felt so WEIMAR. It’s like we were huddled in one of those Berlin night spots with the clock running out and goons roaming the streets just waiting for their cue to kick our heads in. It gave momentousness to her performance. Not that she was strident or self-importantly “political”. She was just honest and down-to-earth, and that’s one of her greatest assets as a performer. You feel like you know her, like she’s talking to you. In one way it’s consoling. In another way….what’s more terrifying than knowing that the hundreds of people in the room are also terrified?
  • Speaking of Weimar, I think I noticed a lot more vibrato in her performance, a bit of the old Lotte Lenya, and I loved it
  • There was a different bass player this time, and this one needs to CALM. DOWN. It’s too much to claim he was upstaging the singer, but…he came close. I was aware of the bass playing the entire time; it sounded like John Entwhistle or something. It didn’t bug me precisely. He seems a capable musician, but, yeah the dude was pulling focus.
  • Mink, please tell John to finally make FRUITCAKE, and to give you a nice, big part because you’re awesome. Oh, but I bet you’ve already done that. In just those words!
  • Read Scott Stiffler’s terrific profile/interview with Mink Stole in Gay City News, in which she talks about the Christmas show and much else, here:

Stars of Vaudeville #1012: Norma Terris

Posted in Broadway, Impressionists, Singers, Singing Comediennes, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2016 by travsd



Today is the birthday of Norma Terris (Norma Allison, 1904-1989).

Originally from Kansas, Terris started out in vaudeville performing singing celebrity impressions, an act that sounds not unlike that of Elsie Janis. I see it claimed in various places that she was featured in the Ziegfeld Follies, however my own Follies resources (bills for each year) and IBDB don’t reflect that. She may have been a replacement, or toured with the show. However, she was definitely featured doing her impersonation specialty in two Shubert revues A Night in Paris (1926) and A Night in Spain (1927). This lead to her best known theatrical credit: she was the original Magnolia and Kim in the first productions of Show Boat (1927-1929 and 1932). She was tried in two Hollywood features, Married in Hollywood (1929) and Cameo Kirby (1930), but apparently she did not click in pictures; when films were made of Show Boat in 1929 and 1936, she was passed over.

She starred in a couple more short-lived Broadway shows (her last was in 1938), then sang for ten seasons with the Municipal Opera Company in St. Louis. After this she retired to Connecticut with her husband. Ironically, it is her activity during this “retirement” for which she may be best known today, for she became heavily involved, both as a singer and a benefactor, with the Goodspeed Opera Company, which named one of its theatre buildings in her honor.

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.

Gay’s Paree

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Frenchy, Singers, Women with tags , , , , , on November 10, 2016 by travsd


Yesterday was one of America’s darkest days, and like many of you all I spent most of it immobilized, prostrate, occasionally mustering the energy to rail or theorize or eulogize or diagnose or plan or marvel or worry aloud or curse or console someone. When the day started I couldn’t image moving a muscle, possibly for days. But I had committed myself to seeing someone’s show weeks ago, and having had to postpone a couple of times, and this being the last night of the run, I dragged my butt to the club to see it.

As it happens (as she informed us halfway through the set) the performer was in the same boat; in shock and had to drag her ass there. Of course she was. It’s not commonly known, but that’s just about the hardest thing a performer has to do: rise to the occasion, put her heart into it, even when (for whatever reason) she doesn’t feel like it. People think show folks have it easy, but that is one area where they don’t. When you’re sick as a dog — you go on. When you’re in the middle of a breakup — you go on. When a loved one has died — you go on. Last night at Pangea, with America in ashes at our feet, Gay Marshall went on.

And if I had to see a show that night, this was a good one to see. Not just because Gay’s a highly professional singer with a winning personality (we’ll get to that) but because of the show’s content.  One is tempted to call her a Woman Without a Country, but really she’s a Woman with Two Countries. And I’m glad the other one is France. There’s only a couple of nation-sized shoulders out there America can REALLY cry on, and one of them is France’s. Lafayette? Franklin and Jefferson and Adams in Paris? The Statue of Liberty? The World Wars? “Je Suis Charlie”? We’ve bled and cried and been there for each other many a time. And the people of Paris understand the concept of a liberty loving nation being taken over by hostile Right Wing Forces. Yesterday, my friend Alyssa Simon shared this famous photo of “The Weeping Frenchman”, taken in 1940 as the French army was being disbanded at Marseilles and the Nazis were marching in. This is how many of us are feeling:


So, if anything, I had a fear of being overwhelmed by TOO much feeling, a sort of “La Marseillaise”-in-Casablanca moment and it would be unbearable. But, nah, the show was touching and romantic and moving and light and even irreverent. She loves her adopted second country, but not blindly. She has enough detachment to kvetch about the homesickness she had for America while she was there, and her exasperation at Parisian snobbery.  And, ya know how it is: I’m mourning my country at the moment, but I’m not exactly crazy about it right now either. So this was kind of perfect.

Gay’s backstory is that she’s a Cleveland native who had been singing a French repertoire for a while (Edith Piaf a specialty) and she went over to Paris to study the language, fell in love (with a man and with the city) and just stayed. She starred in the French production of Cats, playing Grizabella (the one who sings “Memories”, the Betty Buckley role, which is funny, because unbidden, I would have volunteered that Gay reminds me a bit of Betty Buckley even if I didn’t know that). And it seems like she has sung everywhere else in Paris:  from L’Olympia to the Folies Bergère to the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées to events in the Louvre to a sidewalk on a bridge over the Seine (just so she could say she did). And her show is presented as a travelogue. She has little wooden toy Eiffel Towers and Notre Dame Cathedrals etc and takes us on a musical tour of the city, interspersed with funny, vivid anecdotes about her experiences there.

Like many a French entertainer, she sports a cocked chapeau, a gesture that reminds us of what Americans are inclined to forget (if most of them even ever knew): despite our stereotype of the French as serious and sad intellectuals, as I wrote in both No Applause and Chain of Fools not only are they capable of having fun — as far as western culture is concerned they kind of INVENTED it. (Vaudeville, burlesque, cabaret — the very WORDS we use for show biz are French, because that is where show biz COMES from). So, though some of her numbers are sentimental and melancholy, some are just funny. She opens her set with one of these; “Another Song About Paris” by Dave Frishberg, the only totally English language song in her set. (Most of her numbers are French songs, half of which she’ll sing in the original, completing the song in her own English translations — a wonderfully vaudevillian technique, it makes the material accessible for those of us who love the culture but don’t have the language. It’s just good horse sense to meet us halfway).

Of the half dozen or so singers I’ve seen at Pangea over the past year of so, Marshall is the most technically accomplished, I think, negotiating some pretty tricky ground with seeming effortlessness.  At times it was as though she were pouring herself out to us like table wine. Numbers in the set included the boogie-woogie flavored “Les Grands Boulevards” (a number she first copped off an old Yves Montand record — phonetically — when she was ten years old); the funny “J’Suis Snob” by Jimmy Walter and Boris Vian; the patriotic medley “Les Grognards/La Colombe/Sons Of”, and ending her set on the heartfelt and timely plea for love “Quand On n’a Que L’amour” by Jacquel Brel, Eric Blau and Mort Shuman (it shouldn’t surprise you to know there were several Jacques Brel songs in the set). Then for an encore, the much more upbeat “Mon manège à moi”, also associated with Piaf, by Norbert Glanzberg and Jean Constanin. 

Sadly the present run is done, but I’m told a new show is coming up in the spring, and when it does, I’ll spread the word. As for my little vacation in the City of Light last night:  je ne regrette rien.

Stars of Vaudeville #1009: Lewis and Dody

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Music, Singers, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 25, 2016 by travsd



Today is the birthday of Sam Lewis (1885-1959), today best remembered as a tin pan alley songwriter, who co-wrote such classics as “How You Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?”, “My Mammy”, and “Sitting on Top of the World”. At a certain point he was partnered with a guy named Jack Altman, but for most of his career he was teamed with dialect comedian Sam Dody. Lewis and Dody were also billed as The Harmony Boys and The Two Sams.  They starred in a show called Hello, America on the Columbia Burlesque wheel in 1918. In vaudeville they introduced the Bert Kalmar and Harry Puck songs “Kiss Me (I’ve Never Been Kissed Before)” and “Where Did You Get That Girl?”(both 1913)  and the 1917 patriotic number “Homeward Bound” by Johnson and Goetz.  They are best known for a single novelty song “Hello Hello Hello”, which became their signature. They played the Palace with their act in the mid 1920s.

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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