Archive for the AMERICANA Category

Though I Didn’t Come From Vaudeville, I Did Come from This

Posted in AMERICANA, Blues, Comedy, ME, Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2017 by travsd

Providence, 1950. The only thing different in 1970 or 1980 were the cars.

One of the questions I have been frequently asked in the context of having written No Applause is “Did you have relatives in vaudeville?” and my usual answer is along the lines of , “No, other than myself, I have no connection to show business.” But that’s not quite true. My brother Larr Anderson is a musician and I’m certain a good portion of my love of show business rubbed off on me from him. He’s best described as a raconteur — always full of hilarious stories of his experiences (old ones and new ones), and jokes he heard from other performers while working in clubs and bars. It was glamorous and exciting to me as a kid, and his stubborn pursuit of his own dreams was an undoubted model for my pursuit of mine.

I’m from Rhode Island; our local cultural center was Providence, and with the fullness of time I can see how its local show biz culture influenced me as a teenager. In the ’70s, Providence, like most small New England cities, was trapped in the past, if only for economic reasons. The industries that had made these towns hum early in the 20th century had fled. New things were not being built; sometimes at night the streets looked deserted. In some ways, it could be depressing, but it also gave a town like Providence a kind of funky retro chic. It looked trapped in the 1940s or ’50s. Its largest landmark (now called 111 Westminster) was an art deco skyscraper built in 1928, colloquially known as “the Superman Building” because it resembled the one George Reeves flew over in the ’50s television show. It was a gritty noir town, full of diners and lunch counters and dive bars and mafia hoodlums.

Talking Heads, prior to being joined by Jerry Harrison of the Modern Lovers

Some of its aesthetic crept into New Wave music, I think. Local artists throve on vintage culture; old threads from consignment shops, and self-consciously kitschy home decor. The best known exponent of this culture is The Talking Heads, three of whose members met at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and played locally as “The Artistics” in 1973 before moving to NYC.

Also from the RISD scene in the ’70s was Charles Rocket, best known today for being fired from Saturday Night Live in 1981 for uttering the word “fuck” on national television. (This despite his being the most popular cast member of the first season following the departure of the original cast; he was touted as the “new Chevy Chase“.) Rocket later had prominent roles in films like Dances with Wolves and Dumb and Dumber. He originally fronted and played accordion in a Providence band called The Fabulous Motels. Rocket’s frequent partner in crime was a painter and performer named Dan Gosch. (The two were known for staging protest publicity stunts at the State House dressed as super heroes.) Gosch painted a locally famous mural of weird faces at a bar/restaurant called Leo’s, where I later worked my way through theatre school as a dishwasher.

Another hugely influential local phenomenon was a band called The Young Adults. My best friend’s cousin Ed “Bumpsy” Vallee was its guitarist, and another of their line-up Thom Enright was a close friend and frequent band-mate of my brother’s, so I got to hear The Young Adults’ satirical set a lot, and their funny songs like “A Power Tool is Not a Toy”, “Fallen Arches” (about an explosion at McDonald’s) and their best known song “Complex World” (which later became the title of their 1992 movie),  definitely influenced me as a songwriter. Their best known member David Hansen (a.k.a. “Sport Fisher” — for whom a sandwich at Leo’s was named) left shortly after the band started to gain some momentum and formed Cool it Reba (named after a remark frequently uttered by Soupy Sales) in New York. The other key member was a character named Rudy Cheeks, probably the biggest local star, a hustler who not only fronted The Young Adults but wrote a funny column in the New Paper (later known as The Providence Phoenix) called “Phillipe and Jorge’s Cool, Cool World” and screened B movies while making wisecracks into a microphone, decades before Mystery Science Theatre. Rudy writes about his memories of how all these players (Talking Heads, Fabulous Motels, Young Adults and others) overlapped and interacted here. 

Martin Mull is also a comedy/musician who came out of the RISD scene (he studied to be a painter), and whose path crossed many of those on this page, although he quickly moved to Boston, and then the world, after graduating. There’s a great article about his early years here.

Another key artist to emerge from this scene (possibly even better known in some quarters than David Byrne and Talking Heads) is Brenda Bennett, of Vanity 6 a.k.a. Apollonia 6, one of Prince’s many side projects, whose day in the sun was the mid 80s. The attached article mentions two of my brother’s pals and bandmates Phil Green and the aforementioned Thom Enright as key people she met and played with early in her career. Enright had also played with Beaver Brown, which achieved mainstream success in the mid 80s with the song “On the Dark Side” and the Eddie and Cruisers soundtrack. To my amazement, the article also mentions that her brother, along with the above mentioned Ed Vallee of The Young Adults were in the band Universal Rhundle together. My brother had mentioned this band to me when I was a kid. It became the inspiration for this play of mine.

Roomful of Blues 001

My brother is a drummer who has been playing professionally since he was 11 years old. We wrote a little about here about how he knew folksinger Patrick Sky in his younger years (Sky started a coffeehouse in our hometown). He played in all kinds of bands over the years, but the strongest thread was his participation in the blues revival of the 1980s. Roomful of Blues is one of the best known local bands in that movement; they were formed in Westerly, Rhode Island, where I was born. My brother has sat in with them and played in many bands with their guitarist Chris Vachon, including his current one Li’l Shaky and the Tremors (see bottom of this post for an important update!) Roomful’s bassist Preston Hubbard also played with the better known Texas band Fabulous Thunderbirds, which was part of the same national movement. My brother also played in a trio with Duke Robillard, best known as a member of the original Blues Brothers line-up before quitting in disgust (or being fired for mouthing off, depending upon who tells it).

As a kid, I was often taken to bars and clubs to see my brother play (things were more relaxed then) and once I even got to hang out in a recording studio and watch him and his friends record a single. But for the most part, in my little seaside hometown, I was far from the action. The above-mentioned New Paper was one of my lifelines. It was the equivalent of our local Village VoiceIn addition to Rudy’s column, it carried Doug Allen’s deadpan comic strip Steven and, unless I misremember, also Feiffer, Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead, David Lynch’s Angriest Dog in the World and Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer — although some of this may be bleeding into my memories of my first days in New York and the Voice itself. The New Paper featured left wing writing on local politics and reviews and ads for local bands like (in addition to those named and others I will name) Throwing Muses and Steve Smith and the Nakeds.

Another of my lifelines was Brown University’s fm radio station WBRU. They played mostly dinosaur rock, but I especially lived for the weekly show of one “Dr. Oldie, the Dean of the University of Musical Perversity”, who spun mostly singles from the 1950s, often very obscure and strange ones, not the usual hits. I learned to my shock just now that he is the same guy as John Peck…aka, The Mad Peck, the co-author/illustrator (with the fascinating Les Daniels) of the seminal, groundbreaking book Comix: A History of Comic Books in America, as well as the famous Providence poster:

A terrific article in the Providence Journal here about Peck and his interactions with many of the above-named players.

The local band (outside of my brother’s influence) I followed most closely was the neo-psychedelic outfit Plan 9, whom I got to know from my friend Colin Cheer, who took guitar lessons from their leader, a scary-looking dude, with a wild, frizzy mane of hair named Eric Stumpo (yeah I know that’s bad grammar — fuck you). Through Plan 9’s influence, I discovered ’60s garage rock of the proto-punk variety…not to mention the film for which the band was named, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. Colin introduced me to all the punk music going up until that time 1982-3-4. But I liked 60s’ garage rock more, which is why I remain well versed in punk only up until the early 80s…I know very little of what came after. Colin, me, and our friend Alex Nagle briefly had a band called the Happy Machines. I played drums on a make-shift kit made up of my brother’s castoffs. We only played a couple of gigs — we chased most of the audience away. But Alex later joined Plan 9, which was quite a step up. We weren’t close but Colin was a big influence on me when I was about 17. One cold winter night we spent the entire evening running around the streets of Providence. He took photos; I wrote a play based on some characters I witnessed. Dysfunctional Theatre presented it a few years ago, I call it The Big Donut. Later I slept on Colin’s sofa in Boston on one of my first attempts to leave the nest when I was about 19. (I have one very cool anecdote of that experience, but that one I may have to fictionalize that one).

The Arcade in Providence, the oldest mall in America and the improbable, but actual, location of Periwinkle’s Comedy Club

One other Providence name I want to drop. Janeane Garofolo did her first stand up dates at Periwinkles Comedy Club in the Providence Arcade when she was a student at Providence College in the mid ’80s. I’m almost exactly the same age and performed there at around the same time. When I saw this mentioned in the book We Killed a light dawned: “Ah!” I think we may have performed on at least one bill together.

At any rate, working on this piece has been a revelation for me…comedy and music are the most important parts of show business to me (even better when they’re mixed), and I am also pretty obsessed with vintage pop culture. It’s pretty clear that I am a product of Providence, that the roots of No Applause are in the culture of Providence, and my gateway to that was my brother Larr.

And, now after all that lead up, an old fashioned plug. My brother’s band Li’l Shaky and the Tremors, led by Chris Vachon of Roomful, has a new album called Aftershock, released by Alligator Records. Guest artists on the record include Brenda Bennett of Vanity 6 and Ed Vallee of the Young Adults! It features ten vintage rhythm and blues covers and is a great illustration of what these guys have been doing all their lives. You can get it here and I hope you do!

What’s Up at Coney

Posted in AMERICANA, Coney Island, Contemporary Variety, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, PLUGS, SOCIAL EVENTS with tags , , , , , , on March 13, 2017 by travsd

We all associate Coney Island with summer (it’s a beach and amusement park after all), but it may be a lesser known fact that there’s stuff happening at Coney Island USA all through the winter season as well. For example, most every Sunday Gary Dreifus presents his kid friendly Magic at Coney show. I was mightily entertained by Mr. Dreifus’s feats in yesterday’s show, as well as those of his special guests Magical Vince and Phil Crosson.  Here’s next week’s line-up:

The magic show takes place in the Coney Island Museum,  open on weekend throughout the winter. The museum has recently been spruced up with some new displays and wall text

 

Koo Koo the Bird Girl and her jolly friend (okay, he’s dressed like a jester, but I don’t know how jolly he is).

 

 

“Slapstick Used By Angelo the Midget at the Steeplechase Blowhole”

And now there is a whole new Hot Dog section of the museum featuring items like:

 

These stained glass windows are from the original Feltman’s Restaurant, birthplace of the hot dog

Thence (the real pull for the day) a special preview event for the new exhibition Five Cents to Dreamland: A Trip to Coney Island, created and curated by the New York Transit Museum. 

A 1998 sideshow banner by the one and only Marie Roberts!

A genuine vintage Strength-Tester mallet.

 

CIUSA Founder Dick Zigun (center): with Concetta Bencivenga, director of the NYTM; and John di Domenico, who serves on the boards of both organizations

 

Coney’s own Patrick Wall, Your Mix-Master

 

CIUSA board members James Fitzsimmons and Dr. Jeff Birnbaum, with Birnbaum’s son

 

Coney Island USA’s annual gala is happening in just two weeks, March 25! An all-star cast celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Mermaid Parade with a Corral Jubilee! Follow this magical portal for tickets and details! 

 

Tomorrow: The Silent Clowns Presents the Greatest Silent Comedy Feature You’ve Never Seen

Posted in AMERICANA, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2017 by travsd

Tomorrow, March 11, 2017 at 2:30pm, at Lincoln Center Library, the Silent Clowns Film Series will present the hilarious Raymond Griffith feature Hands Up! (1926).

Griffith’s stock has been rising in recent years, thanks largely to screenings like this, and most aficionados today rank him as something like “the 5th or 6th genius of silent comedy”, somewhere just behind Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon. Of those I just mentioned Griffith has the most in common, I suppose, with Lloyd, in being less clown-like, more of a comic actor, although his character is very different from Lloyd’s. (For more on Griffith, read my full tribute).

At any rate, my provocative title presumes you’ve already seen every feature by Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon. Hands Up! (1926) is close to them in quality. It is considered Griffith’s finest and best known film. It is a Civil War comedy told from the point of view of the South — released an entire year before Keaton’s The General.  Griffith plays a dashing Confederate spy on a mission to steal Yankee gold. Along the way, he constantly gets into fixes and coolly extricates himself from each one. Its most famous sequence has Griffith up against a wall in front of a firing squad. He gets himself out of the pickle by throwing dinner plates into the air at the crucial second, which his executioners are then obliged to shoot at, thinking they are clay pigeons.  The father of both of his love interests (he is equally in love with two sisters) is played by Mack Swain, in his first role after The Gold Rush.

Full details at the Silent Clowns web site. 

For more on silent and slapstick comedy 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

Of Folk and White Folk (Forward Back to Babylon)

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, CULTURE & POLITICS, My Family History with tags , , , , on February 24, 2017 by travsd

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I saw this bar graph on social media this morning and found it very telling. It explains a lot.  The chart shows Democrats and Republicans differing wildly in their perceptions of whether the Trump administration is “uniting” or “dividing” the nation. How can that be? They’re looking at the same phenomenon.

The answer, of course, is that the two factions don’t define the concepts the same way. One side acknowledges America’s diversity and asks whether the various components coexist in harmony and mutual respect. And that’s “unity”.  The other approach attempts to impose cultural uniformity by stifling dissent and punishing difference. And that’s their idea of “unity”. The liberal way attempts to achieve unity by rational agreement and consensus. The conservative way is to force compliance to an approved norm. One asks only, “Are you a person?” The other, “Are you a white, male, Christian heterosexual person of property?”

Theoretically, superficially, I am of the traditionally dominant culture. As we’ve blogged ad nauseam over the past couple of years, my American roots go back 400 years. Yet I find myself unutterably opposed to the Trumpian agenda. Not just for emotional reasons (so many of the people I love or have learned from don’t fit into the approved category), but for reasons of science and logic. I want the world to be a better place. You don’t create the conditions for that by limiting exposure to information, including the countless varieties and manifestations of human culture you get in a free and diverse society.

So the irony is, at the very time I’m discovering how “American” my pedigree is, I find myself far, far away from the contemporary American poster boy with similar roots. I’m about the roots themselves, and maintain that I remain truer to those roots than the millions of angry, red-faced people who go around waving flags and demanding conformity to their values. I am forever seeking out the old, the fecund and the folkish. I prefer that quality even over fealty to my own ethnic subculture. I have no use, for example, for most contemporary country music. I’m into TRADITIONAL music, rough hewn antique folk music, bluegrass, and country music from the golden age. I have no use for modern commercial rubbish, whether it comes from Nashville (a town founded by some of my ancestors) or the Bubble Gum Factory.  I likewise adore the stately old poetry of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer; I have no liking for modern language translations which boil out all the interesting parts of speech, leaving only the bare information. And if you tell me I’m not a Christian, Fundamentalist, I’ll have to spit in your eye. Then I’ll wipe off the spit and apologize because, ya know, I’m a Christian. 

And the beauty of the love of the traditional is that its qualities of richness are shared in common across cultures, national boundaries and religious divides. In plenty of ways I feel more of a kinship with an old black man in South Carolina, or the Italian peasants who lived across the street from me when I was growing up, than I do with some guy who has my last name and looks just like me, but thinks it’s duty as an American to remain ignorant of anyone or any way else. 

In recent months I’ve felt like I was really beginning to understand the ideological underpinnings of the American folk movement of the mid-twentieth century for the first time, and WHY there was such an uproar and feelings of betrayal when Dylan went electric and “commercial”. I’ve always had misgivings about corporate control of popular culture, especially mainstream Hollywood films since the 1980s (for their violence, materialism, and encouragement of conformism). And also the video experience, which happens alone, dispassionately, less empathetically. The danger becomes more apparent when you see corporate forces so closely allied with government power as they now are. In the age of corporate media, the message is disseminated from the top down. It is controlled and it is designed to condition spectators to conform. Whereas folk culture: rich, ancient and organic, is intrinsically subversive to those aims. It works from the bottom up. It is presented from many perspectives, it sings with many voices. You get the truth from all sides, you get eternal truths. There is precious little support for folk culture in America that operates outside the corporate cookie-cutter. With the promised shut down of the National Endowment for the Arts, there will be even less support (and that is by design). Trump aims at a monolithic autocracy that talks with one voice, the voice of white Christians. But we also know that white males are only 31% of the population, and white male, heterosexual, conservative Christians is some number substantially smaller than that.

But this attempt to force the other two thirds of the country to bend to their will is like trying to tie up a lion in pretty pink ribbon. It might hold for a minute, but no more. Then the lion is going to burst its bonds — and it will be complaining loudly. I’ve been saying this more and more. It’s likely to be a miserable time for artists, but a good time for art. Nothing motivates people to shout loudly like being told to shut up.

Humbuggery & Hat Tricks: How 400 Years of American Con Culture Paved the Way for Trump

Posted in AMERICANA, BUNKUM, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , , , on February 21, 2017 by travsd
"The Duke", who was nothing of the sort, from Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn"

“The Duke”, who was nothing of the sort, from Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”

In November, 2016 America elected a reality television star and periodically bankrupt heir to a real estate fortune to the most powerful office in the world, purportedly on the strength of his blunt honesty and business acumen. Yet during the 2016 Presidential campaign, non-partisan fact-checkers determined that Donald Trump lied 75-85% of the time (the average for a politician, including all his rivals in the 2016 primaries and general election, is about 25%). When not lying outright, the remainder of Trump’s discourse tends to live in the realm of the quasi-lie, peppering his speech with boasts, and hyperbolic, easily refutable rebuttals on the order of “I’m the least racist person you’ve ever met.”

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Trump’s mendacity is palpable, in fact, brazenly unhidden, and yet close to 62 million Americans chose him to be the man who will steer the United States for the next four years. They literally put their lives in his hands. This, in an age when it is unprecedentedly easy to catch a public figure in a dishonest statement; the history of everything up to about five seconds ago is available online. Trump says he respects Mexicans? The footage of him disrespecting Mexicans is a click away for anyone to see.

Many of us were and continue to be astounded by the fact that any adult American, let alone millions of them, would give credence to anything this man says. But perhaps we shouldn’t be.

"Ten beads, huh? Will you take seven?"

“Ten beads, huh? Will you take seven?”

America’s traditional relationship to such bunkum as Trump routinely spouts hasn’t been exactly critical. In point of fact, “admiring” tends to be the more apt descriptor. For better or worse, ever since Peter Minuit bought Manhattan from the Indians for a handful of trinkets, the Art of the Swindle has been a beloved American tradition. It’s a national archetype of sorts, one that cuts across nearly every field of human endeavor. We don’t just tolerate but embrace quack doctors, fraudulent preachers, crackpot inventors, patent medicine salesmen, sham artists, tabloid reporters, used car dealers, and cheating politicians.

Not that similar characters haven’t always been present in every nation, particularly in recent years as the globe becomes increasingly Americanized, but perhaps nowhere so pervasively, so cheerfully, as the United States. The question is why? Why here? Why us?

I’ve made a study of such characters, even going so far as to name my theatre company, formed in 1995, “Mountebanks”. A mountebank is a con artist. The term dates to Medieval times when hucksters would “mount the bench” at fairs and open air markets to sell their miracle cures using nothing but the magic of their oratory. He is the ancestor of the television commercial. I believe a combination of factors came together to make America the ideal habitat for this tradition:

Burt Lancaster as "Elmer Gantry"

Burt Lancaster as “Elmer Gantry”

PROTESTANTISM: America privileges the subjective over the objective, the individual “testimony” rather than the “official authority”. This has its roots in the invention of the printing press, which lead to widespread literacy, which lead to Protestantism, which lead to a culture of ever-dividing sects. In relatively unpopulated (or depopulated) early America, this process was metastasized. In early America, if you felt differently from your local religious authorities, all you had to do was move away and start a new town or colony or camp or cult where you could worship as you chose. The ultimate culmination of this is the evangelical tradition of “testifyin’”– personal revelations, faith healing, and latter-day miracles. Ironically, in the end, within the subculture there is social pressure to believe the individual who testifies. No testimony can be false. This tradition extends beyond religion. Our scientific heroes are the independent descendants of the heretical Galileo, not the pettifogging bureaucrats of The Academy. We love individuals, eccentrics and mavericks.

"Who am I to sell you medicine? Why, CLARK STANLEY, of course! Says so, right on the flyer!"

“Who am I to sell you medicine? Why, CLARK STANLEY, of course! Says so, right on the flyer!”

DEMOCRACY: A related phenomenon is America’s leveling democratic tendency, again starting with Protestantism. It began with breaking with the Pope, then Kings, then “politicians and fat cats”, and lately, it’s been ALL government or expertise of any sort: scientists, journalists, and the like are all under suspicion. At the same time (on the positive side) we have this social mobility…it is well known that anyone from any walk of life can apply himself and become a scientist, clergyman, lawyer or what have you. Of course, in the past, such people, if not educated, were at least self-educated (such as scientific inventors or lawyers, like, say, Abraham Lincoln). In the Information Age, the leap has been that even THAT is not required. “My opinion is as good as anyone else’s”. The ironic result has been an erosion in the belief in authority. The practical trouble with that is, in our complex society we frequently require the services of people with skill and knowledge we don’t have, people who can do things like draw up a contract or diagnose an illness. Ironically a skeptical disbelief in legitimate authority makes us vulnerable to those who claim to possess the knowledge we need, but actually don’t.

Davy Crockett -- once wrassled a b'ar

Davy Crockett — once wrassled a b’ar

THE FRONTIER: This has become less a factor since the mid 20 th century, but it played a crucial role during our culture’s formative years. Geographical isolation, with no long-distance communication was a fact of life for most Americans. This was a condition most of Europe had not known for several centuries, and it resulted in an echo of a phenomenon that had appeared in Europe in ancient and Medieval times: the generation of native “tall tales” and folk tales. The land was Terra Incognita. In fact, often enough true reports would appear far-fetched. There was nothing like the rattlesnake or the grizzly bear or the giant redwood in the Old Country. People would return from their travels and return with incredible sounding stories. If one’s story were not incredible, it was a simple matter to make it so with scant fear of fact checking.

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CAPITALISM AND COMMODIFICATION: This factor, too, was an outgrowth of Protestantism, by way of the Calvinist Work Ethic, resulting in the gradual erosion of Christian social prejudice against the profit motive. Social permission to make a buck, and the competitive environment in which that happened resulted in a great leap forward in the art of salesmanship. Grandiose claims on behalf of products were made through a variety of media. The Industrial Revolution increased the scale and pace of this process even further. There was now much unprecedented temptation and incentive to lie, or at least “puff” and exaggerate. The boast on behalf of your product may be thought of as “acquisition by other means”: dreamstuff as literal money in the bank. Further, the constant competition for consumer dollars resulted in incentive to pursue, niche, novelty in order to stand out from competitors. People who got in on the ground floor of innovative new products made fortunes. But it has always been impossible to tell in advance what the Next Big Thing would be. The important thing is the CLAIM. “I’m telling you– put your money in ostrich farms. You can’t lose!”

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INVENTION: Another factor is an idea identified by author Neil Harris in his book Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum which he calls “the Operational Aesthetic”. Because of the technological and informational boom in America (made possible by all sorts of factors), there came an ironic tendency to trust jargon-spouting self-made experts. Literal “miracles” seemed to be happening every day: inventions like the hot-air balloon, electricity, etc etc etc. This left room for all manner of crackpots and quacks to exploit the credence of people who’d come to cease being shocked at ANY new discovery that might come along, whether it was psychic healing, or miracle tonics, or a race of people with two heads, or what have you. You wouldn’t even need to be “ignorant” per se to have such a weak spot. Rich people were taken in by charlatans all the time. ALSO: ironically (also from Harris) our cult of truth makes us vulnerable to lies. Americans are junkies for “facts”, not just from journalism, but also (in the 19th century) lectures; self improvement; entertainment that purports to be derive from fact (folk ballads, films, plays, performance art, and the like). Ironically the mania for truth makes it possible to more easily disguise falsehoods by cloaking them in the trusted language of fact. The ultimate fruit of that is Fake News.

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“Greatest Show on Earth”, eh? How do you back that up? How do you confirm or deny it?

THE CONSTITUTION: A certain amount of wiggle room for embellishment is baked right into our law. The First Amendment gives such wide scope, such “permission” in our speech. Not that there weren’t charlatans and false advertisers back in Europe, but never so MANY of them. America has a whole CULTURE of them. One reason why there may be or may not have been fewer of them in Europe may be the chilling effect of their laws. You can’t just get away with “saying things” there. There are ways in which the First Amendment is analogous to the Second Amendment, in how Americans stretch and test and abuse it. To egregiously oversimplify, the former invites us to be a nation of liars just as the latter invites us to be a nation of murderers. Just as America is the first universally armed people, we are the first universally self-expressive people (whether its testifying in church, writing letters to the editor and politicians, or composing handbills and posters for your business).

And so we come to the 21 st century, which seems to have increased these formerly manageable tendencies to a potentially fatal degree. It’s one thing to lose a single paycheck to a shell game operator at the county fair once a year. It’s quite another to hand over the earth to a guy who promises the moon, has no intention or means of delivering it, and really only wants to plunder the earth anyway. That this crime against humanity is happening with cooperation of countless men and women who really ought to know better is no less appalling. Our only hope lies on the old Latin legal aphorism Caveat Emptor: “Let the Buyer Beware.” Believe nothing Trump or his minions tell you. Try to get the real facts to as many people as you can in an effort to remove him from office. And start shopping for a replacement.

Stars of Vaudeville #1026: Max Terhune

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by travsd

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MAX TERHUNE: WESTERN VENTRILOQUIST

Today is the birthday of Max Terhune (1891-1973). Originally from Indiana, Terhune was a ventriloquist, whistler, animal imitator, juggler and magician in the last days of vaudeville (early 1930s), occasionally performing with the Hoosier Hot Shots. But the most astounding thing he was, was a movie actor. Friendships with guys like Kermit Maynard (Ken’s younger brother) and Gene Autry got Terhune picture work, notably in the Republic and Monagram western serials  The Three Mesquiteers and The Range Busters. 

These films were where I first became aware of Terhune, and not just aware, but entranced, dumbfounded, slack-jawed. For in these movies, he is never to be seen without his ventriloquial dummy “Elmer”. The reality in which this situation takes place is MOST ambiguous, to say the least. Is Terhune’s cowboy character also an amateur ventriloquist? A professional one? Is it just completely meta, and he is just an actor, not a cowboy? Or is it the opposite, as it often seems? In other words is Elmer a sentient entity with his own action and volition, an actual character? I’ve seen episodes where Elmer gets kidnapped and cries for help with no ventriloquist around! (Warning: do not watch if that is your idea of nightmarish horror). The other characters talk directly to Elmer, laugh at his jokes, and never acknowledge that Terhune is the ventriloquist making him talk (except for the occasional films where Terhune plays a literal ventriloquist).

Terhune continued to be featured in B movie westerns through 1949, usually with the character name “Lullaby” or “Alibi”. Through the first half of the ’50s he got some work in TV westerns and bit parts in films (his last was Giant, 1954). After this, he continued to perform ventriloquism and magic live for a number of year in Hollywood area venues like the Magic Castle and the Corriganville Movie Ranch. 

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.

A Kind of Theatre I Bet You Never Knew About

Posted in AMERICANA, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on February 9, 2017 by travsd

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Here’s an irony for you: I love to learn, but am not so interested in teaching. Because of what I do, this attitude on my part confounds people all the time, but it’s true: I look upon the writing of my two books, and this blog, and preparing talks as learning experiences, and I just share what I learn as I go. The pleasure for me is not in the sharing but in the greedy acquisition of the information as I write something. I’m happy to share…but I really hate being asked questions, for example, and a teacher should never hate that. At any rate, one of the happiest outcomes of my having written No Applause is that every so often I’ll hear from somebody who wants to share something with me, which then I naturally pass on to to other people. But the cool part for me is getting the surprise in the first place. For me, Christmas is kind of spread throughout the year, with presents from strangers that are highly targeted to my interests and things that give me pleasure. Now that I think on it, I don’t know what the hell I have to complain about.

Anyway, the other day I heard from a nice lady named Roberta Wilkes from Kansas City, Kansas, who is one of the last living practitioners of an extinct form of American entertainment known as tent repertoire theatre. I, like a few of my readers knew of a certain subset of this kind of theatre, known as the Toby Show. I saw a documentary about Toby Shows about 20 years ago; they were a series of plays and skits starring a sort of folk hero, a red-headed rube named Toby. I mentioned the form briefly in No Applause, and several years earlier had named the main character in my play House of Trash Toby in honor of the tradition. But Ms.Wilkes wrote to inform me that the tent shows were much more wide-ranging than just the Toby Shows. They presented the entire repertoire of stock melodramas and farces, the kinds of fare you would also get at brick and mortar theatres as well as show boats, stuff like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Up in Mabel’s Room, complemented by vaudeville style performances: songs and dances and whatever entertaining skills could be brought to bear. From the mid 19th century through about 1980 entire companies traveled with these shows, presenting them in large circus-like tents, mostly through the rural midwest although sometimes as far east as Tennessee and Kentucky.  This form may indeed be one of the last survivals of something organically connected to old time vaudeville. I’ll let Ms. Wilkes take it from here:

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“[it was a] form of travelling theatre that was – in my opinion – a very “American” form of theatre that was popular from the time of the Civil War until the late 1970s.    Of course, it had started its decline before that!

In any event, vaudeville was a part of this type of production.   Plays with vaudeville between the acts.  Typically shows played a town for a week or so – with a different play each night – then jumping to the next town.   In the winter – a form of circle stock was sometimes used.

I was born in 1942 to a family of troupers in tent rep.   My father had been in such troupes for a decade or so before that – my mother was younger and started in about 1940, I think.   My father played heavies in the plays, but was also the piano player – playing for the specialties.  My mother was an ingenue and a talented dancer/singer/comedienne.

I trouped with my parents until I was 8 – at that time my mother became ill and died.  I trouped with my father for two more summers, but then he took a job with the Black Hills Passion Play in South Dakota – and my sister and I went to live with my maternal grandparents.  When I was 18 years old I went out for another season – as leading lady on the then quite decrepit Sun Players Show.   By then there were just 3 or so of these shows left – that was 1960.

There are very few of us left who were born into this business and actually trouped.  Most of us are members of the National Society for Preservation of Tent, Repertoire and Folk Theatre.   I know – quite a mouthful!   This little group meets annually in April at The Theatre Museum located in Mount Pleasant, Iowa – which is a little gem of a museum dedicated to this type of theatre.  It contains a wonderful research library…

…As a child I played Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.   I also did specialties from the time I was 3.  Although my day job is as a lawyer I have continued my involvement in theatre in many ways.  I am also a pianist and have written rag time compositions.”

Watch her in action here:

Ms. Wilkes also wrote the book you see pictured at the top of this post, a charming little fictionalization based on her personal experiences on the road, and what it might be like to do it again sometime in the present day. Best of all it has some amazing family photos from the trouping days. Get your copy of One More Season: Trouping with the Laberta Stock Company One Last Time here.

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