Archive for the Singers Category

Stars of Vaudeville #1040: Mayer and Evans

Posted in Broadway, Dixieland & Early Jazz, Hollywood (History), Music, Singers, Singing Comediennes, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2017 by travsd

April 24 is the birthday of big band and jazz piano player Ray Mayer (Ray Maher, 1901-1949). Originally from Lexington, Nebraska, he started out in circuses and in some bands organized by trombonist and songwriter Larry Conley. In 1928, he teamed up with singer Edith Evans, whom he seems to have met while recording sides for Brunwsick Records. They were both high profile enough that they were able to play the Palace that year, and be featured in the Vitaphone shorts When East Meets West and  The Cowboy and the Girl, which is chiefly what they are known for today. The act is sort of like Blossom Seeley and Benny Fields, but if Fields were much more like Will Rogers — a gun-chewing, wisecracking country bloke in chaps. And the gag is that Evans is more urban and sophisticated. It’s a good act, but 1928 was a terrible time to start a vaudeville act. Vaudeville was dead by 1932. The following year, the pair got married and retired the act.

Evans appears to have left the business at this point, but Mayer worked steadily. He appeared in scores of films until his death, often B movie westerns, mostly bit parts. And he’s in half a dozen Broadway shows from 1940 through 1946, including the original production of Louisiana Purchase and Eddie Cantor’s Banjo Eyes. Mayer died in 1949 while on traveling to a performance. More about the pair can be learned at JazzAge20s.com

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 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

A Bombshell about Barbershop Quartets

Posted in AMERICANA, Singers with tags , , , , on April 11, 2017 by travsd

April 11 is National Barbershop Quartet Day.

It commemorates the day on which The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America was founded in 1938. And that date is significant. Because, I researched this quite some time ago and learned to my surprise — hold on to your straw boater — that barbershop quartets weren’t really a thing. Or, rather they weren’t a thing in the 1890s or whatever, at least by that name, or in those particular outfits. Yes, singing quartets like the Manhattan Four, or the Avon Comedy Four were all the rage in vaudeville and proto-vaudeville at that time, etc, featuring arrangements and part singing of the sort we associate with barbershop quartets. And the repertoire of barbershop quartets is certainly period appropriate, ya know, songs like “Sweet Adeline” and “Down by the Old Mill Stream”. But if you’d gone up to somebody in 1910 or something and said “Where can I see a barbershop quartet” you might have been sent to a barber shop with four chairs which offered nothing but haircuts, shaves, and hot towels, and that’s about the extent of it.

In reality, the barbershop quartet is an invented tradition, a codification of a thing that hadn’t really existed, at least in such a formal fashion and certainly not by the name. It’s one of the earliest examples of America’s penchant for nostalgia and it seems to have cropped up in the 20s and 30s precisely BECAUSE the earlier pre-Jazz style was now a thing of the past. There were other responses: around the same time Billy Rose launched a Gay 90s themed night club in New York, and a young Joe Franklin started a nostalgia program on radio. Also: barbershop quartets have always tended to be a social thing for amateur groups: glee clubs, college fraternities, lodges, and so forth are the kinds of people who generally organized and performed barbershop quartets. It hasn’t typically been the path to the hit parade by professional singers you might see in a nightclub or theatre.

The style is certainly influential though, and styles like doo wop, or groups like the Beach Boys owe this kind of part singing a great debt.

Lately, it’s come back into vogue again (I just saw a barbershop quartet at the Coney Island USA gala a couple of weeks ago), though now generally with an ironic, hipster twist. (I’ve also seen Jimmy Fallon do some barbershop quartet bits). I’ve been dying to work one into my vaudeville shows for years, and I think it may be easier these days what with many more of them now floating around.

To find out more about vaudeville past and present and other sundry arcane forms of entertainmentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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 amazon.com 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

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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

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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

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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: http://gaycitynews.nyc/mink-stole-christmas/

Stars of Vaudeville #1012: Norma Terris

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

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NORMA TERRIS: THE ORIGINAL MAGNOLIA

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.

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