Archive for the AMUSEMENTS Category

Benny’s Bride: The Elusive Mary Livingstone

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Radio (Old Time Radio), Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2017 by travsd

On this day was born was born the funny, if accidental, comedienne Mary Livingstone (Sadie Marcowitz, sometimes shortened to Marks, 1905-1983).

Livingstone grew up in Vancouver. The lore is that she met Jack Benny when Zeppo Marx brought him to a Passover seder at her family’s house circa 1919. For many years it was generally believed that Mary was a cousin of the Marx Brothers, probably on the strength of this episode and the similarity of their surnames (the Marx Bros occasionally spelled their last name “Marks” during their stage years), but it appears now not to have been the case. At any rate, she became something of a Benny groupie, purposefully crossing the comedian’s path many times until he began dating her. They married in 1927.

She appeared with him many times on the vaudeville stage, still under her given name at first. Her role in these years was more like the popular “Dumb Dora”, after the fashion of Gracie Allen.  In 1932, Benny got his own radio show, and Livingstone was to become part of his stock company, along with regulars Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Don Wilson, Kenny Baker (later replaced with Dennis Day), Phil Harris and many others. As such she became one of the best known personalities in the country. Her radio character was funny, acerbic and dry; she was perfect for Benny’s show.

Livingstone remained part of Benny’s radio cast until his show went off the air in 1955. She also made scores of appearances on television, on Benny’s program and others’ throughout the 1950s. The irony of this very public person’s life was that she was afflicted with stage fright, and was only able to perform through a great effort of will. Her joining Benny in vaudeville and on radio occurred in both cases because she was asked to fill emergency vacancies. She hadn’t sought a performing career at all. She retired in 1959, soon after Gracie Allen. Livingstone seems to have been a very tense, highly strung woman, not well liked. After hearing her performances, where she jovially banters with the top stars of the day, one is surprised to read that long-time colleagues and social friends like Lucille Ball and George Burns and Gracie Allen and even her adopted daughter Joan didn’t really like her, finding her cold, hard and distant. Her fans didn’t see her that way at all. She outlived Benny by nearly a decade, passing away in 1983.

To learn more about show business history, including vaudeville veterans like Mary Livingstone and Jack Benny, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Several Seminal Salomés and the History of the Dance of the Seven Veils

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Dance, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2017 by travsd

Salomé, by Pierre Bonnaud, 1900

Today is St. John’s Day, the traditional birthday for John the Baptist. Note the timing: just as Christmas is pinned close to the winter solstice, St. John’s Day falls right after the summer solstice. No accident! In America the only folks who still give it much attention are the voodoo practitioners of New Orleans; as a culture we’ve transferred the impulse for a summer holiday to the Fourth of July.

At any rate, we take the occasion to talk about a St. John related fad that swept through American pop culture, especially vaudeville, in the early 20th century: the Salomé craze. If you know your New Testament or your Josephus, you know the tale: how Herod’s wicked step-daughter Salomé did a naughty dance (The Dance of the Seven Veils) for daddy, then demanded and received the head of John the Baptist on a platter. The story was tailor made to be a kink in the Victorian moral armor, Biblical in origin yet titillating. It became a frequent subject for painters in the 19th century.

Beardsley illustration for Wilde’s “Salomé”

It finally made its way to the stage (almost) in 1892 with a play by Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s Salomé began rehearsals that year with Sarah Bernhardt as star but was banned by British censors. Something was in the air. The following year Little Egypt made her debut in the Streets of Cairo exhibition in the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. One used a Biblical justification, the other an anthropological one, but the bottom line was clear: whatever the rationale, people wanted to look at sexy dances. At any rate, Wilde’s Salomé was first published in France in 1893, then in England in 1894, both editions with provocative illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley. The first (private) British production was in 1905, but the ban for public productions was in place until 1931.

Alice Guszalewicz in the Strauss opera

But ya know how it is; if you want to create a market for something, forbid it. So, first buzz was created on the continent. In 1902, Max Reinhardt directed a version in Berlin in 1902. Richard Strauss saw this version, and was inspired to adapt it into an opera, which premiered in in 1905.  But the crucial leap to the popular stage came the following year.

Maud Allan

In 1906 Canadian-born modern dancer Maud Allen premiered her production Visions of Salomé in Vienna. It and she became a sensation. Billed as “The Salomé Dancer” she toured British music halls in 1908, playing 250 stands that year, and published her autobiography. This set off the craze.

Gertrude Hoffman

Gertrude Hoffman was the first to bring the Salomé dance to the American vaudeville stage in 1908, launching the local mania. Read my short squib on her here, and a much more robust post about the Brooklyn Public Library’s Gertrude Hoffman Collection by scholar/ librarian Ivy Marvel here. 

Mademoiselle Dazie

Mademoiselle Dazie was one of the first to imitate Hoffman’s Salomé act and present it on the vaudeville stage though we don’t have a picture of her in costume. Learn more about her here. 

Lotta Faust

Broadway star Lotta Faust was another who got in on the ground floor, touring vaudeville with a Salomé dance as early as 1908. We’ll be writing more about her in the coming months.

Julian Eltinge

Female impersonator Julian Eltinge also include a Salomé  number among his many drag specialties starting in 1908. Another female impersonator who did the Dance of the Seven Veils was British music hall performer Malcolm Scott.

Eva Tanguay

Though we don’t have a photo for it, Eva Tanguay’s 1909 Salomé  was said to have taken the whole thing up a notch, simulating orgasm, and further increasing her notoriety.

Aida Overton Walker

African American vaudevillian Aida Overton Walker toured with her Salomé act in 1911.

The Salomé  fad had wound down on stages by this point. But in later years, there were some notable films that kept the story out there:

Theda Bara

The 1918 film starring the notorious screen vamp Theda Bara is sadly lost — a tragedy for red-blooded heterosexual men everywhere!

Nazimova

The great Russian actress Alla Nazimova’s 1923 screen version was at once too retrograde (it was a long dead fad by the Jazz Age) and too modern (full of art deco design and contemporary dance — who wants a reinterpretation of this quintessential staple?) So it bombed at the box office, although it makes an interesting, if anomalous, artifact.

Kathryn Stanley

Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty Kathryn Stanley posed for this publicity still in 1926, although it doesn’t seem to be in support of a Sennett movie (seems to have been a local stage production). Too bad! A Mack Sennett spoof of the subgenre could have been a major hoot, although I’m sure it would have been deemed too blasphemous by religious groups. That John head needs to grow a beard though.

Salomé, Where She Danced (1945)

The 1945 film Salomé, Where She Danced, put Yvonne de Carlo on the map. And what a map! Va va voom!

Salomé (1953)

We sometimes forget that Rita Hayworth started out as a dancer. She reminds us and then some when she does the Dance of the Seven Veils in the 1953 Hollywood film.

Salomé’s Last Dance (1988)

Typically cray-cray Ken Russell version, complete with an Oscar Wilde framing device.

Salomé (2013)

I was lucky enough to see Al Pacino play Herod in Circle in the Square’s 1992 production of Wilde’s Salomé, with Twin Peaks’ Sheryl Lee as the title character. Pacino chewed up the scenery in the play, perhaps the first time the title character had been bumped from the center of her own vehicle. In 2013, he directed his own movie version and — same thing. Jessica Chastain is Salomé , but I had to hunt around for a bit for a photo where Pacino isn’t hogging the limelight!

My version! How could I not include it? In my 2008 revue No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Show That Made Vaudeville Famous at Theater for the New City I cast Leela Corman (best known as an illustrator and graphic novelist, but who is also an accomplished belly dancer) as Salomé, and Art Wallace as the cat-calling head of John the Baptist. And on that sacrilegious note, we end our post.

For more on the history of vaudeville, including fads and phenomena like the Salomé craze,  consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever titillating books are sold.

Helene Costello: Born with Summer; the Rest Was So Much Winter

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2017 by travsd

Helene Costello (1906-1957) was born the first day of summer, June 21. She is usually spoken of as part of a pair with her older sister Dolores Costello, also an actress. Both were daughters of the patriarchal thespian Maurice Costello. Dolores is best remembered today for having been married to John Barrymore, and for starring in The Magnificent Ambersons. Helene was married and divorced herself four times; her most famous husband was actor and director Lowell Sherman.

Dolores and Helene started out as child actresses in productions of their father’s, on the legit stage, in vaudeville and in silent movies. They appeared in the 1924 edition of George White’s Scandals together. Helene was voted a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1927. As talkies began to be phased in, she was in some notable landmark features, including the semi-talkie Lights of New York (1928), and the musical revue Your Show of Shows (1929), in which she performed a number with Dolores.

At this stage, she was poised for a great career in sound films, but a long list of personal problems (two divorces, a custody battle, money woes, and drug and alcohol problems) conspired to keep her away from the camera for the first half of the 1930s, crucial years to miss. By the time she attempted a return with a small role in Riffraff (1936) it was too late to regain momentum. There followed two more decades of the very same sorts of personal difficulties, and a single walk-on role in The Black Swan (1942). She died in a psychiatric hospital in 1957.

For more on the history of show business consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold. For more on early film, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

Six Tall Towers of Coney

Posted in Amusement Parks, AMUSEMENTS, Brooklyn, Coney Island with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2017 by travsd

I don’t want to weird you out too much, but I essentially wrote this post while I was asleep last night. I laid the whole thing out in a dream state. Granted, I’d been reading about the subject before going to bed. Feel free not to read anything Freudian into it.

I’ve been working a bit at Coney Island lately and my interest in its history has consequently stepped up. I’m beginning to get a much better understanding of the geography of where the old  parks, pavilions and hotels were located. For those new to the historic layout of Coney — it has never been a single amusement park, like Disney World or Six Flags. In true American fashion, it has always been a neighborhood containing several different amusement parks in competition with each other. We’ll be blogging much more about that and other aspects of Coney Island in the near future.

At any rate, I found it interesting that towers have always been a major feature out there, sometimes as observation structures, sometimes as rides, sometimes as frames for dazzling lighting displays. It seems as though at any given time, there’s always at least one. Here they are!

The Iron Tower:  Never mind what the postcard says, most sources call it the Iron Tower. It was moved to its location, on what is now the grounds of the New York Aquarium, following the Philadelphia Centennial in 1877. It was 300 feet tall (for reference; that’s twice as tall as the Wonder Wheel). Patrons could get to the top on steam powered elevators and see for 30 miles around. Unfortunately the Iron Tower was destroyed in the 1911 Dreamland fire. That will be a recurring theme in this post! The Iron Tower was the tallest structure in the State of New York until the advent of the Beacon Tower (see below)

The Electric Tower: A scant 200 feet tall, The Electric Tower was the centerpiece of Luna Park when it opened for business in 1903. Impressive enough in the daytime, its real selling point was the 20,000 electric lights which illuminated it at night. This, at a time when the use of electric lighting for such purposes was still brand new (Broadway was just getting in on the act at the same time). And to tell you the truth, this would still be an impressive spectacle in our own day. Luna Park was destroyed by fires in 1944.

The Beacon Tower: I said “competition” and I meant it. When Dreamland Amusement Park opened in 1904, its centerpiece the Beacon Tower was both taller (375 ft) than the Iron Tower AND brilliantly illuminated at night like the Electric Tower. But the light which burns brightest often burns the briefest. The Beacon Tower was destined to live a much short life than either of the other two. It was destroyed in the 1911 Dreamland fire after just seven years of existence.

The Airship Tower: I can’t find the height or the date this one was built. It definitely went up some time between 1897 (when the first Steeplechase Park was built; that’s where it was located) and 1905 when it turns up on surviving postcards. The Airship Tower rotated and featured a blimp ride! It was destroyed by the Steeplechase fire in 1907. Steeplechase Park was rebuilt the following year and remained open through 1964.

Parachute Jump:  Now we come to the only one left standing! The 250 foot tall Parachute Jump was a highlight of the 1939 Worlds’ Fair in Queens. It was then purchased by the Tilyous of Steeplechase Park and moved there in 1941, becoming THE iconic Coney Island ride of the 1940s. No longer used as a ride, today it is gloriously lit up at night much as the Electric and Beacon Towers had been back in the day

The Astro Tower: Ironically the last of the big Coney Island amusement towers to be built is no longer standing. The 270 foot tall Astro Tower was erected in the center of Astroland Amusement Park in 1964. It was part of our lives here in New York for decades. I myself took that slow elevator ride to the top at least a couple of times. The Astro Tower remained up until 2013, when it began to sway precipitously, freaking everyone out. It was dismantled immediately.

And now I throw down the gauntlet! I know for certain that new towers are coming to Coney Island, but unfortunately they will be big ticket residential towers. Someone with dough should build something spectacular out there for The People! Something like this 700 foot Tower Globe but not a swindle! (Read its remarkable story here):

Rebla: Funny Music Hall Juggler

Posted in Comedy, Jugglers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by travsd

Here’s another one for World Juggling Day. Thanks, Todd Robbins, for introducing me to this interesting artist. Albert Rebla, usually billed simply as “Rebla” (Albert James Stevens, 1880-1963) was a comedy juggler in English music hall who modeled his act very much on W.C. Fields’. British Pathe made a film short of his act in 1935; you can see sections of it on Youtube. The debt to Fields is observable in the body language. The casual, lackadaisical manner with which he manipulates the balls, as though he were just doing his job, is quite hysterical. His ability to juggle tight and small formations rapidly, and bounce balls off the floor, are also reminiscent of Fields. On the other hand, as Todd points out, his voice and patter show similarities to Joe Frisco. 

“Rebla” is of course his real first name “Albert”, reversed, minus the “t”. Rebla started out touring with the Agoust Family of Jugglers as a teenager. Originally from London, he worked with a succession of partners for years, one of whom had been as assistant to Chung Ling Soo. In addition to dates in the U.K. and on the Continent, he also appeared in American vaudeville. One finds references to him playing U.S. theatres during the teens, and Joe Laurie referred to him his book Vaudeville: From Honky Tonks to the Palace. 

In 1918 he co-produced and co-starred in a revue at the Shafterbury Theatre with Harry Lauder. he appeared in several silent films and early talkies in addition the Pathe short we mentioned, often as an actor (as opposed to simply doing a juggling turn). In 1939, he performed in an early television experiment. By the early 1940s he had moved to Australia, as many did, to work the Tivoli circuit. He died in Melbourne in 1963.

For more on the history of vaudeville and jugglers like Rebla,  consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold.

Darmody: Five Club Pioneer

Posted in Jugglers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by travsd

This year World Juggling Day, sponsored by the International Jugglers Association, falls on June 17. We take the opportunity to honor juggler James Darmody. From Boston, Darmody was a popular variety star throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is noted for being one of the first jugglers who could juggle five clubs (offering $1,000 to anyone who could match him). He is also known for juggling rifles (see illustration).

For more on the history of vaudeville, including jugglers like Darmody, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold.

The General Slocum Disaster and Its Impact on American Popular Culture

Posted in German, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on June 15, 2017 by travsd

June 15, 1904 was the day the P.S. General Slocum burned and sank. I write about this dark day today for two reasons: 1) I constantly encounter people — even well educated people — who have never heard of this, the worst disaster to befall New York City prior to 9/11; and 2) the event effected American culture, including popular culture, like my usual subject matter, which is vaudeville.

I myself had probably not heard of the event prior to reading about it in Luc Sante’s Low Life in the ’90s, but I owe my true understanding of it (details, context, impact) to my friend the historian Kathleen Hulser, curator of a centennial exhibition we had about it at the New-York Historical Society back in 2004. This is a Before-and-After story, so bear with me while I take you on a little journey:

Remove the Germans and the 4th of July starts to look a lot less festive

In the mid 19th century, one of the largest movements of immigration to the United States came from Germany (they were roughly neck and neck with the Irish). It’s pretty well known that German immigrants moved to many places in the U.S. , Pennsylvania, for example, and the cities and farms of the mid-west. Less well remembered today is that they once had a major footprint in New York City. Just as today there is a Chinatown, a Little Italy, a Harlem, and a zillion other ethnic neighborhoods, once upon a time, on the Lower East Side there was a Kleindeutschland — a Little Germany. The cultural contributions of the Germans who lived here are hiding in plain sight, they just became so assimilated, so American, we forget they are German. Many of them are culinary. The delicatessen is a German institution (not to mention a German word) as are so many things that one finds there, such as cold cuts and sausages. If you don’t find sausages particularly American recall that a German American named Charles Feltman adapted a certain kind of sausage into the frankfurter, the hot dog. The hamburger, too, comes from Germany (note the name), as do mustard and relish. The popularity in America of BEER is a result of the influence of the Germans. We nowadays associate St. Louis and Milwaukee with their German American breweries; NYC was once full of them as well. German Americans also helped Anglo Americans (the majority culture at the time) to cultivate a taste for music in their leisure time. Anglo American culture was still strongly Puritan in many ways; prior to the 19th century, the idea of going to a theatre or a pleasure garden for no other purpose but to hear a singer or a musician, or to acquire a musical instrument (e.g., the German American Steinway piano) and study it, was frowned upon. And there were influential Germans in show business: the Ringling Brothers of circus fame; and Koster and Bial the operators on NYC’s top concert saloon.

The kids who became Weber and Fields grew up around Germans on the Lower East Side and became the nation’s most popular, most influential vaudeville and Broadway comedians in the last quarter of the 19th century by imitating them. Many others followed in their footsteps, including Kolb and Dill, the Rogers Brothers, Sam Bernard, Cliff Gordon, James Budworth, Ford Sterling, Al Shean and a young Groucho Marx.  Stereotypical “Dutch” (German) comedy was a specialty, in the vein of blackface or stock Irish characterizations.

Thus we begin to see that German culture was very visible in 19th century New York, very much part of the pulse and energy of the city. But it suffered a one-two punch.

The first was the General Slocum Disaster. Named after Union General and U.S. Congressman Henry Warner Slocum, the General Slocum was a local excursion vessel. On June 15, 1904, she was chartered by a local Lutheran church group from Little Germany to take them to their annual picnic on nearby Long Island. There were over 1,300 people on board, mostly women and children, as it was a Wednesday morning and the fathers were all at work. While the ship was in the middle of the East River, where the water was deep and the current strong, the ship caught fire. As usually happens with major disasters, multiple factors contributed to worsen events: flammable materials, strong winds, faulty safety equipment, and bad decisions by captain and crew. When it was all over, over 1,021 people — over 70% of those on board — had either burned or drowned to death. Of the 321 who survived, 28 were crew members.

The General Slocum Disaster is said to have literally devastated Kleindeutschland. We often use that phrase figuratively, to speak of emotional devastation, but here it can be taken literally. Hundreds of German American fathers had lost their entire families. Practically everyone in the community had lost someone — a friend, a relative, a neighbor, someone they knew on the street. The community dispersed. Many moved uptown to Yorkville, a migration that was already happening but was hastened by this horrific event. Kleindeutchland faded out of existence.

What was the second part of the “one-two punch” we spoke of earlier? World War One — another centennial now upon us. Anti-German sentiment ran strong, and so German Americans made the decision to assimilate and de-emphasize what was culturally unique about them. They and their contributions remained, but the Germans of America became much quieter about their identity, and Americans lost the habit of acknowledging or celebrating them in the way we celebrate other national groups who managed to maintain a strong identity (e.g., Italian Americans). World War Two enhanced that process even further, but the bulk of it had already happened in the early part of the 20th century. One of the casualties of this “burying” of German American culture, I think, was any awareness of the General Slocum Disaster. You saw those numbers, right? A thousand women and children killed? This is close to Titanic numbers and it happened within sight of Manhattan — people stood on shore and watched it happen.

The irony is that German Americans weren’t our enemies in the World Wars. By definition, they were part of THIS crazy quilt. They LEFT their native land because it wasn’t doing it for them!(In fact many had come to America to escape the reprisals following the Revolution of 1848, indicating that they were the farthest thing from fans of the “Reich”.  And many were German Jews, part of the first wave of Jewish immigrants to the U.S. Their cultural contributions deserve to be remembered. We have a whole section on Travalanche celebrating German American contributions to American popular culture: peruse it here.

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