Archive for the AMERICANA Category

R.I.P. Glen Travis Campbell

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, Crackers, OBITS, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , on August 8, 2017 by travsd

R.I.P. Glen Campbell, who passed away today at the age of 81, and let me tell you something, that ages ME, because well do I remember our family gathered to watch The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour when Campbell was a fairly young man in his mid to late 30s. Campbell’s tv variety show carried more political significance than most folks probably realize. It debuted on CBS in 1968, to replace the abruptly cancelled The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Begone, troublesome, controversial satire; make way, for light, wholesome, apolitical all-American fun!

I don’t think Campbell was conservative particularly, he just liked to pick and grin and give everybody a good time. In fact, that was sort of his comic persona, such as it was, on his own tv show, and when he appeared on other people’s variety shows, and in his rare film appearances as in True Grit (1969). He liked to play that he was dumb, cheerful, a little goofy. If he’d been a better actor he’d have been PERFECT for the character of Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (1969). I’d be shocked if the character wasn’t somehow BASED on his persona. (Ye Gods, Nilson’s version of “Everybody’s Talkin'”, the movie’s theme song, backed by the Wrecking Crew, of which Campbell had been a member, SOUNDS like Campbell!)

wit Ray Charles on The Goodtime Hour

Anyway, the point is that he was an Arkansas hillbilly, All-American, the same stock of people as my dad’s family. Not only do we have many a Campbell in our family tree; but Glen Campbell’s middle name — like mine — was Travis.  (And my grandfather’s name was Glenn!) 1968 was a moment of sea change, when the country turned away from Kennedy-Johnson era activism and towards Richard Nixon. The right-wing hell we have been living in ever since can be traced at least as far back as that. I don’t blame Campbell for it; like I said he wasn’t a political guy (he was a registered Democrat who supported both parties and swung more Republican in later years).

On the other hand, it’s the company you keep. Here he was with the Duke in “True Grit”. He also teamed up with neo-con Clint Eastwood a decade later in “Every Which You Can”

But damn I love his music. I particularly love “Witchita Lineman” (1968). My friend Frank Cwiklik used it for his stage adaptation of Quicksand which I acted in back somewhere around the turn of the century, and MAN I grew to loving hearing that song every night, its surprising melodic turns, and that voice of Campbell’s ringing out clear as a bell. My oldest brother, a bit of an obsessive compulsive, had a major thing for “Rhinestone Cowboy” (1975) — I must have heard that one a thousand times. And I must have heard “Southern Nights” (1977) almost that many times strictly from radio plays.  “Gentle On My Mind” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix (both 1967), and “Galveston” (1968) are all great too, if less flashy.

But above all I associate him with youth: apple-cheeked, red-blooded, tow-headed health and vigor. For God’s sake, he’d even been a substitute Beach Boy! I think that’s why so many of us were so shocked a few years back when stories broke about his Alzheimer’s. Photographs of the grizzled and confused old man, no longer cheerful, in fact, now kind of snappish and nasty. The Glen Campbell everybody first knew and loved died quite a while back, I think. It’ll always be bittersweet to look at those older clips and listen to the older records. But it always is anyway.

Willi Carlisle: There Ain’t No More

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, Music, PLUGS with tags , , , , on June 30, 2017 by travsd

You’ve got one chance left to see the amazing Willi Carlisle in his solo show There Ain’t No More! Death of a Folksinger before he blows town for parts north (Maine and New Hampshire, I understand). In an age when even our “folksingers” tend to be narcissistic careerists, Carlisle is traditional beyond your great-grandfather’s wildest dreams, dedicating himself to the Voice of the People rather than road maps of his own navel. He is a kind of folk music superman, both scholar and showman. He plays fiddle, banjo, guitar, harmonica (while he plays guitar, using a harp-holder like Dylan and others), and accordion (or some kind of sub-accordion squeeze-box, which is impressive enough). He sings like an angel. And he dazzles with tricks — he can dance while he plays, and even does crazy juggling tricks with his banjo without missing a chord during the tune. He’s also a first rate poet, story teller, and actor, with a presence more than a little like Victor Buono.

That said, There Ain’t No More is strongest as a concert, by several orders of magnitude. The production has ambitions beyond this, but the other theatrical elements (script and direction, in that order) lag far behind Carlisle’s pure, honest and exuberant brilliance as a musical performer. He’s well worth seeing on the strength of that alone, in spite of some Brechtian aspirations that lard the overall evening down. But Carlisle himself makes me extremely hopeful. 40, 50 and 60 years ago, New York city was full of hundreds, maybe thousands of performers like him, devoted to keeping the old cultural folkways of the past alive.  But then the weathervane changed direction and everyone began penning their own songs. I ran an open mike night for two years and I can tell you that while the performers are often great (this is New York, after all) their songs are frequently dreadful. In my 30 years of living here and paying attention, he’s the first guy I’ve come across who’s making it about the FOLK. (For a couple of related essays about what I think that is, go here and here).

Carlisle is playing at Ryan’s Daughter on the Upper East Side tonight. For my recent Chelsea Now article about him and his work go here. 

James Montgomery Flagg: Lived Up To His Name

Posted in AMERICANA, Silent Film, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2017 by travsd

Illustrator James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) was born on June 18. Flagg’s best known work (above) is especially timely — the Uncle Sam/ “I Want You” poster was created one century ago as part of the World War One recruitment drive. It’s so well known and so frequently parodied I used it as the inspiration for a publicity still around the time I was launching my American Vaudeville Theatre around 20 years ago.

Photo by Joseph Silva

Flagg designed a slue of patriotic pictures during the Great War. I liked his rendering of Columbia encouraging Victory Gardens so much I acquired the fridge magnet version:

My wife (herself an illustrator) and myself took in many of his works during our recent pilgrimage to the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport. RI. 

There are other good connections to this blog. For example, from 1903 through 1907, Flagg drew the comic strip Nervy Nat for Judge magazine. Nervy Nat is a tramp character of the sort that was popular at the time, and paved the way in some sense sense for Chaplin’s screen character a decade later

There is a 1904 comedy short called Nervy Nat Kisses the Bride produced by Edison, directed by Edwin S. Porter, and starring Arthur Byron and Evelyn Nesbit, which is clearly inspired by the strip. It is available to watch on Youtube.

Flagg is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. I have visited his marker! (I am not obsessed or anything. I was visiting ALL the stars. Have more to go, too).

Flagg was a prodigy. Originally from Pelham Manor, New York, he was already publishing magazine illustrations by age 12. He attended the Art Students League from 1894 through 1898, after which he studied for a couple of years in London and Paris before returning the the States to pursue his professional career. At one point he was the highest paid illustrator in America. One of his favorite models was Mabel Normand! He also painted portraits of prominent people like Ethyl Barrymore and Mark Twain.

Andy Griffith: Good Cracker

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2017 by travsd

Andy Griffith was born on June 1, 1926. Look at that face! It seems strange to exist in a world without him. He and his best known character seem like Benjamin Franklin or something, part of the bedrock of America. While he occasionally played villains (in fact, his best known role, apart from Andy Taylor, was a villain), Griffith seemed to radiate decency, a good heart, and sound judgment — our fantasy of what we’d love a small town sheriff to be. (As opposed to the dude who catches you in his speed trap, glares at you impassively through his sunglasses, chucks you in a cell when you can’t pay his “fine” and then kicks the shit out of you while calling you a “Yankee”).

Griffith defied the Southern stereotype in all sorts of ways. Born and bred in rural Mt Airy, North Carolina (on the Virginia border) he discovered singing, acting and playing musical instruments when in high school and was strongly encouraged by some wise teachers in those pursuits. Later he attended the University of North Carolina. Something clicked into place when I read that he appeared for several years in one of Paul Green’s historical pageants called The Lost Colony. I have yet to blog about Green, an interesting figure whom I learned about through my studies of the Group Theatre. Green’s play The House of Connelly was the Group Theatre’s first production. It was one of the things I was thinking about when I named my play House of Trash. 

In the 50s, Griffith first gained widespread notice as a comedy monologist and storyteller in nightclubs. His 1953 comedy record What It Was, Was Football became a popular seller.

This led to him being cast as the lead in the tv, Broadway and film versions of Ira Levin’s No Time for Sergeants (tv and stage versions were 1955; film was 1958). His character in the story was a cheerful rube and bumpkin, which formed much of the basis for the Andy Griffith spin-off series Gomer Pyle, USMC. 

In 1957, he enjoyed what ought to have been a cinematic breakthrough. He was cast as the lead in Elia Kazan’s amazing film A Face in the Crowd. Written by Budd Schulberg, it’s a political story about a seemingly affable good old boy named Lonesome Rhodes who becomes enormously popular on records, television and in films as a folk singer…but then becomes power mad, not just for success in show business but for political office. He’s a crazy demagogue using the power of television just as Huey Long had used radio a couple of decades earlier. It seems clearly inspired by the phenomenon of Elvis Presley, who had no such political designs, but might have been a formidable and damaging force if he had. This dystopian vision would see a later incarnation in the 1968 acid nightmare Wild in the Streets. And then, in 2016, the nightmare became true when a ruthless tv reality star became President of the United States, which is why interest in A Face in the Crowd has been increasing over the last several months, just as copies of The Origins of Totalitarianism have been flying off the shelves.

Anyway, Griffith is incredible in it, just an explosion of raw, animal power. People didn’t know what to make of the film at the time; reviews were mixed. In some ways it might have seemed a career killer for Griffith to play a character so similar to himself, and yet so ugly. (For another example, there’s Milton Berle’s 1949 Always Leave Them Laughing, where Berle’s character is a total jerk who seems oddly like…Milton Berle).

Griffith’s electric performance did not lead to a stellar movie career, but Griffith did come to dominate television for three and a half decades. He had a guest shot on Danny Thomas’s Make Room for Daddy in 1960 in which he played a southern sheriff. This led to his own series, (produced by Thomas and Sheldon Leonard), The Andy Griffith Show, which ran from 1960 through 1968 (Griffith left in 1967).

This show (in re-runs) was a major staple in my home when I was growing up. It’s mesmerizing, not just for the terrific writing and acting, but for its level of FANTASY. In a way, it is just as unreal a TV show as Bewitched or I Dream of Jeanie. It takes place in an idyllic Southern town called Mayberry, North Carolina, clearly based on Griffith’s home town of Mt. Airy. But while it takes place in contemporary times (the 1960s) the town’s quiet, isolated nature feels as though it were happening in much earlier times, decades earlier. People seem to spend all day sitting on porches in rocking chairs, swatting flies, catching fish, having picnics. Most episodes, a stranger will drive into town, stirrin’ up trouble of one kind or another, interrupting the placid stillness of this rural Shangri La.

The only kind of people who DON’T drive up, or live there to begin with, are BLACK people. And this would be exceedingly odd in a North Carolina town, would it not? Furthermore, the entire show aired during the Civil Rights Era, when interracial strife was happening throughout the country. The omission is glaring; it speaks volumes. But the creators of the show were on the horns of a dilemma. More than one actually. This was a time of transition. America was ostensibly past the era of overt, intentional racism in entertainment, the ridiculing of African Americans, the hiring of actors like Stepin Fetchit or Mantan Moreland to be the butt of jokes. And Griffith was a liberal; that wouldn’t have been his style anyway. (He later campaigned for Barack Obama). But, unless you did a period show, there’d be NO WAY to include African Americans without talking about the changes going on in the country (as in later shows like I’ll Fly Away or In The Heat of the Night). And that was far beyond what anyone in tv was ready for at that stage. It wasn’t until the advent of All in the Family (1971) that that line would be crossed. And yet you couldn’t NOT talk about it either! How do you show black people in a Southern town without showing racists? That would be even more of a fantasy! So the solution seemed to be to set the show in an alternate universe where there were NO black people in North Carolina. The unintentional (I think) by-product ends up being just as racist in the long run. The producers didn’t just avoid controversy — they wrote black people out of the story of America. There’s something Orwellian about it.

Griffith said in later years that he was embarrassed about his acting in the first couple of seasons of the show, which hearkened back to the country rube he had played in No Time for Sergeants. But eventually he found his stride, which was, as sheriff, was to be the straight man in a town full of crazies. He kept his cool, and let everyone else in town be the nitwits. In this, he set a template that would be riffed on in many a later show: such as the titular character in Barney Miller, or Alex Reiger in Taxi. The job is to be the sensible guy, who solves everyone else’s problem’s. His genius comedy partner was Don Knotts, whom he’d worked with in No Time for Sergeants. As Deputy Barney Fife, Knotts job was to go overboard, and LOSE his head, and the chemistry and the acting between them was stellar. Other characters included Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier), his son Opie (Ron Howard, who became one of Hollywood’s top film directors), Floyd the barber (Hoard McNear), Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), Goober (George Lindsey), County Clerk, Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson), Otis the town drunk (Hal Smith), Emmet the handyman (Paul Hartman) and the crazy hillbilly Ernest T. Bass (Howard Morris) and many others. It all adds up to something like Our Town. But we regret that it exists in a parallel universe that only includes Anglo-Saxons. Which I guess means it’s not YOUR town?

Griffith left the show early and very much on purpose so that he could pursue other projects. Other series were tried, and failed. He was in a lot of memorable tv movies, though. He’s in the notorious anti-drug film Go Ask Alice (1973). He played a cop who actually solves crimes in Winter Kill (1974). When he was cast in movies for cinematic release, they tended to cast him as parodies of himself, as in Hearts of the West (1975) and Rustlers Rhapsody (1985). And of course, he became the highly visible pitchman for Ritz Crackers, inspiring the title for this post. We thought that campaign was hilarious when it came out, both for how it played on Griffith’s persona, but also became of the lameness of the slogan. But ya know what? We did imitations of it incessantly — and that is what advertising is all about.

Then, amazingly, his career got another burst of wind when he played a small town southern lawyer in Matlock (1986-1995). This show aired precisely when I was watching very little tv. To this date I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an entire episode. Although, my former brother-in-law, who was a musician in the L.A. area, was hired to play guitar in the background on one episode, and got to chat with the gracious Griffith, who played guitar himself — as if you didn’t know.

Griffith passed away in 2012. His last screen credit was in 2009.

Oklahoma Bob Albright: Cowboy Tenor

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, Crackers, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2017 by travsd

That’s him, fairly far down the billing and at Poli’s (the local Connecticut circuit) no less. His act, the ad says, is “characteristic”. Even his hype is unenthusiastic! But that’s unfair, he also played the big time Keith circuit and was well known from record albums and radio

I’ve only managed to gather a few scraps about cowboy singer Oklahoma Bob Albright, who has managed to rise from beyond the grave thanks to his 1929 Vitaphone short Oklahoma Bob Albright and His Rodeo Do Flappers. I find references to him in newspapers from the mid teens through 1952. He is described in old reviews as “magnetic” and “good natured”, with an act that consisted of singing, uke playing and storytelling. Author Timothy E. Wise, in his book Yodeling and Meaning in American Music, postulates that Albright may have influenced Jimmie Rodgers and other country singers by introducing yodeling into Appalachian style music in tunes like “Alpine” Blues” and others.

You see references to him on the Keith Circuit in the teens, but later he seems closely associated with the Pantages Circuit, and later even appears to have managed a Pantages theatre in the Los Angeles area with his father and brother. He was married to Murtle King, daughter of nickelodeon magnate John H. King. When vaudeville died, Albright did lots and lots of radio at least through the 1930s. He appears to have been alive at least through 1952 (I saw a contemporary reference to him that year in Billboard),

I’ve not seen the Vitaphone short, but just about every reference to it I’ve seen uses words like “disturbing”, “uncomfortable” and “un-p.c.”. Now I’m mighty curious!

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

 

Fuzzy Knight: That Cat’s Alright

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Music, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2017 by travsd

Probably best remembered today as a western sidekick in B movies, John “Fuzzy” Knight (1901-1976) came to acting through show biz. Surprisingly he started out as  LAW STUDENT (!) at the West Virginia University  and then got waylaid by his love of music. He was a cheerleader at WVU, co-wrote school songs and pep songs (some of which are still in use), and started his own band, in which he played drums. Knight also sang and played several instruments besides the drums, including the bass and the squeezebox. He later played with larger bands and performed in vaudeville, as well. The trail led to Broadway and such shows as Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1927 and Ned Wayburn’s Gambols (1929).

Next came Hollywood starting in 1929. Initially he was in all kinds of pictures at the major studios, but by the mid 1930s they were all almost entirely westerns. The Cowboy and the Lady (1938) and Union Pacific (1939) were major prestige studio pictures and he had good roles in both. In 1940 he was voted one of the top ten western stars as a box office draw. In the 40s and 50 it was mostly B pictures, sometimes as many as a dozen in a single year. Particularly in the earlier films, he sometimes sang in the movies as well. His career lasted until 1967.

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.

Photos from American Vaudeville WWI Tribute/ Metropolitan Playhouse Gala

Posted in American Vaudeville Theatre, AMERICANA, ME, My Shows, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on April 27, 2017 by travsd

April 2017 marks the centennial anniversary of America’s involvement in World War One. April also just so happens to be the time of year when one of our favorite theatres, the Metropolitan Playhouse has their annual fundraising gala. And this year marks their 25th anniversary. On Tuesday April 25 my American Vaudeville Theatre presented their commemorative tribute to 1917…and so doing paid tribute to the Metropolitan besides. Here are some pix of the evening. Few were taken of the actual performance, folks have been sharing a bunch of the before and after.

Yours truly, the M.C., and the post-show ritual

BEN MODEL, one of the nation’s premier silent film accompanists, educators and exhibitors. It was our good fortune to have him at the piano

CHRIS ROZZI and PETER DANIEL STRAUS as Weber and Fields

Parisian chanteuse GAY MARSHALL surrounded by admirers

The cast of Marion Craig Wentworth’s one act play WAR BRIDES (L-R): Morgan Zipf-Meister, Victoria Miller, Amy Overman, Alyssa Simon

victoria

Victoria Miller, whose very NAME signifies Victory for the Allies! 

JONATHAN “HAPPY” SMITH sang English music hall songs

Then we showed Charlie Chaplin’s WWI propaganda film THE BOND, with BEN MODEL at the piano

LORINNE LAMPERT, at the finale of her big George M. Cohan number

Thanks to all who made the night a big success.

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