Archive for the Impresarios Category

Irwin Allen: Mover of Worlds

Posted in CAMP, disaster movies, Hollywood (History), Impresarios, Movies, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2017 by travsd

It’s shocking to me to realize that I haven’t done a proper tribute to visionary producer/ director Irwin Allen (1916-1991) prior to now. Allen’s film and television productions dominated my entire childhood, influenced and inspired the hell out of me. Though he has been virtually synonymous with the genre he brought into being, the disaster movie, since the 1970s, he actually made his mark in many genres, across both film and tv, making his mark in science fiction/ fantasy, and nature documentaries, and he even played a significant role in the later career of the Marx Brothers. He is at the center of so much that I love. He was an old school impresario, the principal heir to Cecil B. DeMille, and yet there are undeniable similarities to William Castle, Roger Corman, and even Ed Wood. Somehow he was both Big Budget and Low Budget, sometimes at the same time.

Allen’s origins are surprising, yet they make a great deal of sense. Originally, he went to City College, then transferred to the Columbia School of Journalism. Though he had to drop out due to financial difficulties (it was the Great Depression) his education allowed him to get a job editing a magazine in Los Angeles in the late 30s. This led to his making his mark in celebrity journalism, a natural springboard for the remainder of his career — stars would always be central to his oeuvre. From 1941 through 1952 he produced The Irwin Allen Show on local Hollywood radio, later renamed Hollywood Merry-Go-Round. He also had a syndicated newspaper column under the latter name, as well as a television edition, which ran from 1949 through 1951, with no less than Steve Allen as the announcer. This got him in on the ground floor of the new medium. He also ran an advertising agency, a very useful muscle for the career on which he was about to embark. He became an expert at assembling all the necessary pieces to make deals happen: signing authors, stars, and properties that could attract backers.

To break into movies he served a brief apprenticeship with a gent named Irving Cummings, first with a 1950 noir thriller called Where Danger Lives with Robert Mitchum, Claude Rains, and Faith Domergue. But next comes the Marx Brothers connection! For Allen was involved in Groucho’s last two starring vehicles and the last film to contain all three Marx Brothers. He co-produced Double Dynamite (1951) and A Girl in Every Port (1952) with Cummings. And he produced The Story of Mankind (1957), featuring Groucho, Harpo and Chico, and dozens of other stars — we’ll return to that one in a second.

Note the killer eel

But first — nature documentaries?! Yes, nature documentaries. Believe it or not, he won an Oscar for his 1952 adaptation of Rachel Carson’s book The Sea Around Us. In 1956, he made The Animal World. But even in these purportedly educational films, Allen’s hacky instincts were already coming to the fore. Both films relied extensively on stock footage (hence the comparison to Ed Wood above). The Sea Around Us was full of sensationalism, including an extended bloody sequence of whales being slaughtered. And The Animal World featured a nine minute stop-motion dinosaur section animated by Ray Harryhausen. But something else is notable. The Sea Around Us establishes Allen’s fascination with the power and majesty and terror of the oceans and nature in general, a theme he would return to again and again.

We next come to the brief phase when Allen was most overtly like DeMille. As we blogged here, The Story of Mankind has echoes of DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, which had been released the year before with an all-star cast, including some actors in common (e..g., Vincent Price). Yet it was done on the cheap, with huge portions of the film consisting of obvious stock footage from previous Biblical and Roman epics. In 1959 he made The Big Circus, an obvious rip-off of DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. 

Next comes his sci-fi fantasy phase (presaged by that Harryhausen section in The Animal World). In 1960 he remade the 1925 classic The Lost World (based on the Conan Doyle novel), starring Michael Rennie, Claude Rains and Jill St. John. Then came Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) with Walter Pidgeon, Joan Fontaine, Peter Lorre, Barbara Eden, Michael Ansara and Frankie Avalon (with theme song sung by Avalon). Then Jules Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962), again, loaded with stars: Red Buttons, Fabian, Eden again, Lorre again, Cedrick Hardwicke, Herbert Marshall, Reginald Owen, Henry Daniell and Billy Gilbert. 

He next moved into television where he was able to keep old school sci-fi vital long after it had wilted at the box office. The best remembered of these shows was the classic Lost in Space (1965-1968), probably what he is best remembered for (after his disaster movies) due to its big success in syndication. But there was also the tv version of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968), The Time Tunnel (1966-1967), Land of the Giants (1968-1970), and City Beneath the Sea (1971, a pilot for an unsold series). During the sixties at least, Allen was actually a much more successful producer of tv science fiction than Gene Roddenberry.

A very tall disaster

In the 1970s, he shifted gears and enjoyed his biggest success. As I blogged here, The Poseidon Adventure (1972) was the first film I ever saw in a cinema. It made a major impact on me and remains one of my favorite films. Seen from the perspective of time, Allen’s producing of this film at this juncture, and the fashion in which he did it, is not unlike William Castle’s decision to make Rosemary’s Baby in 1969. He saw that cinema was changing, and he disciplined himself to create a big-budget blockbuster that spoke to those changes (although, without a doubt 20th Century Fox had a major hand in keeping Allen to that discipline). His next film 1974’s The Towering Inferno (which I blogged about here) extended the magic yet again on an even larger scale, although it does contain some warning signs that he would revert to form as soon as was given the opportunity.

But next — a forgotten gem, but one I haven’t forgotten, because I was a big fan of it. In 1975 and 1976 he produced his next TV series The Swiss Family Robinson starring Adam 12’s Martin Milner, Cameron Mitchell, a young Helen Hunt, and Willie Aames (who would soon go on to bigger stardom in Eight is Enough). The Swiss Family Robinson had been the obvious inspiration for Lost in Space. The new version went back to the original children’s classic and was excellent family entertainment.  Ditto his 1978 minseries The Return of Captain Nemo, with Jose Ferrer in the title role. If Allen’s career had ended here it would have ended on a high note.

“I want the letters on the logo to resemble the cracking wall of a dam!”

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on your point of view), his career did NOT end there. The terrific financial success of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno gave Allen lots of power and influence. Not just because of his own films, but many imitations showed he was the inventor of a sure-fire genre. Earthquake (1974) rivaled Towering Inferno at the box office, and several sequels to 1970’s Airport were clearly made in response to the phenomenon. Even Roger Corman got in on the action with Avalanche (1978).

And now suddenly Allen had all of the power of DeMille, but was still imbued with many of the bottom feedings instincts of Corman, Castle and Wood. He chose to exercise his newfound power by making the campy dreck with which his name has been associated ever since. He made eight more disaster films in four years. Five of them were for television — with television budgets and production values. He may have been inspired to transfer the genre to TV by the 1974 telefilm Hurricane, which for years I assumed was an Allen production, but was not. But Allen followed its template anyway with Flood! (1976), Fire! (1977), Hanging by a Thread (1979), The Night the Bridge Fell Down (1979), and Cave-in! (1979).

And he made three more films for theatrical release. Because he had directed the action sequences of Poseidon and Inferno he made the grave error of thinking he ought to direct now as well as produce. He decided to helm The Swarm (1978) and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) himself, and great sprawling, hilarious messes they are.

The Swarm was clearly a response to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), but Allen was clearly out of his element. Spielberg, a cinematic genius, had now set the bar of quality impossibly high. (Although Spielberg and Allen shared one important thing in common: an appreciation for the genius of composer John Williams. Williams had written the music for Lost in Space, Land of the Giants, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno prior to beginning his long association with Spielberg). At all events, compared to New Hollywood mavericks like Spielberg, Allen now seemed by comparison old-fashioned, irrelevant, and quite simply, stinky. He got someone else to direct his volcano movie When Time Ran Out (1980), but that one was no less a sprawling, hilarious mess than his other two recent pictures.

Allen was not yet through, however. In 1981 and 1982, he produced the series Code Red about a family of Los Angeles fire fighters, close to the disaster genre, but also close to the procedurals (e.g., Emergency!) that were then still popular.

The Lion and the Unicorn. Beau Bridges as the latter; Ernest Borgnine as the former.

In 1985 he produced his astoundingly awful all-star mini-series version of Alice in Wonderland, a masterpiece of terribleness, not to be believed. It has about 100 recognizable names in it — some of them respected ones. Even the name “Irwin Allen’s Alice in Wonderland” makes me laugh heartily. It’s like something from SCTV. It’s a certainty that I’ll be blogging further in much more depth about this debacle and all of the Allen projects I have not yet done posts about. Maybe I’ll get to some of them later today.

Allen’s last credit was the highly uncharacteristic Outrage (1986), a tv movie about a lawyer having to defend an unsympathetic client.  After this, health problems prevented further output.

I joke, as everybody does, about Allen’s foibles and missteps, but where I may differ from most (ill-informed) others is in my level of overall respect. For he did leave a legacy. Obviously, the disaster movie has made a comeback in the last couple of decades. Frankly I don’t like any of them as much as I like Allen’s, including Allen’s bad ones, although they certainly owe him a debt. Roland Emmerich is his most obvious heir, both in terms of special effects, and in terms of cramming your vehicle with stars. I think anyone in the stunt or special effects field can tell you how groundbreaking and influential he was. They had to solve new problems to make films like Poseidon and Inferno — I’m sure they are still using solutions devised by Allen’s team. And as a promoter and producer he is to be idolized. Frankly, it’s how it’s done. I admire his ballyhoo to no end.

 

 

Joseph Hart: The Original Foxy Grandpa

Posted in Broadway, Impresarios, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2017 by travsd

Performer, producer and songwriter Joseph Hart (Joseph Hart Boudrow, 1861-1921) was born on June 8. Hart was the nephew of Josh Hart, who managed Boston’s Howard Athenaeum. Through his uncle, he played boy’s parts in productions at the Howard, leading to a career in the professional theatre.

Hart started out as an end man in minstrel** shows (including Tony Pastor’s), singing, doing comedy routines and playing the banjo. For a time, he performed in Gilbert and Sullivan musicals. In 1888 he teamed up with Frederick Hallen, and for six years they toured in the musical comedies Later on and The Idea. After splitting with Hallen in 1894, Hart spent over a decade touring (and performing on Broadway) with a succession of his own starring vehicles. From our perspective, the most notable of these would be Foxy Grandpa (1902), based on a then-popular comic strip created by Carl E. Schultze. Here he is as the rascally old gentlemen:

Why I say his Foxy Grandpa characterization is most notable to us is that Hart made ten silent Biograph film shorts in 1902. Several of these are extant and can be viewed on Youtube. I had seen these little films years ago without knowing the backstory on the performer or the comic strip. 1902 is extremely early in film history; the films are only a couple of minutes long, and contain a single shot from a single angle, and were undoubtedly created to be watched on Nickelodeon machines (Mutoscopes, in this case — “Biograph” was originally the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company”). At any rate, you can watch Hart’s funny performances any time you like — knock yourself out!

In 1904, Hart also made a comedy called A European Rest Cure with Edwin S. Porter.

From 1892, Hart’s wife and co-star was the actress and singer Carrie de Mar. Hart also toured his own vaudeville revues (much as Weber and Fields did), in opposition to the circuit model being established by the big time managers at the same time. A number of color lithographs advertising his shows survive, telling us that some of the acts who performed in his shows were Elizabeth Murray, O’Brien & Havel, The Three Rosebuds, Frank Gardiner, Smith & Campbell, the Van Aukens, and Fleurette de Mar, Carrie’s sister, a dancer, billed simply as “Fleurette”. Many of his posters (see above, which dates from 1899), touts that he is “direct from Weber and Fields’ Music Hall”, although the credit isn’t mentioned in IBDB or in From the Bowery to Broadway, which is the definitive book on Weber and Fields. If I learn what the connection was, I’ll drop it in here.

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

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

William F. Mangels: Fun-Maker

Posted in Amusement Parks, BROOKLYN, Coney Island, German, Impresarios with tags , , , , , , , on February 2, 2017 by travsd

16426076_1450961141602893_9067821743461155061_n

Today is the birthday of William F. Mangels (1867-1958). Born in Germany, Mangels moved to the U.S. in 1883 and became a bicycle repairman. His understanding of wheels, gears, chains, and sprockets let to work on carousels, which led to the formation of his own carousel manufacturing company. Mangels also invented his own original rides, such as “The Whip” and “The Tickler”. He also authored the book The Outdoor Amusement Industry: From Earliest Times to the Present. His headquarters was of course Coney Island. Go here for some pix and description on an exhibition about him we caught at Green-Wood Cemetery a few months back. But, confidentially, I think it’s pretty funny that a guy who made amusement park rides was named “Mangels”. Because…ya know.

2014_0916_426242_1_lead

George Spoor: The S in Essanay

Posted in Hollywood (History), Impresarios, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , on December 18, 2016 by travsd

george_kirke_spoor_-_mar_1919_mpw

Today is the birthday of George Kirke Spoor (1872-1953).

Starting in 1894, Chicago-based Spoor was among the very earliest of motion picture exhibitors in the world. His first device, the Magiscope, created with inventor Edward Hill Amet, put him in direct competition with Edison and the Lumière brothers. Spoor and Amet are also credited with creating the first newsreels, some of them real, like footage of President McKinley’s inauguration in 1897, and some of them faked, like Battle of San Juan Hill in 1898. In 1899, he renamed his device the Kinodrome and showed films in vaudeville theatres in Chicago, New Orleans, St Louis and Kansas City and expanded from there. These early pictures were all about five minutes long, the perfect length for a vaudeville bill. From the turn of the century through the death of vaudeville in 1932, films were an integral part of the vaudeville experience. Eventually the films simply took over. In 1907, Spoor would partner with Broncho Billy Anderson to found Essanay Studios, most famous for producing the films of Charlie Chaplin in 1915. In the 1920s, he helped invent one of the cinema’s first widescreen processes, known as “Natural Vision”. His last film as producer (uncredited) was Danger Lights (1930), with Robert Armstrong, Jean Arthur and Hugh Herbert.

For more on early film history 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

Why the World Needs More John Housemans

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Impresarios, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Melodrama and Master Thespians with tags , , , , , on September 22, 2016 by travsd

sjff_04_img1512

 Today is the birthday of that great theatrical man John Houseman (1902-1988). We’ve already done a biographical post on him (read that here), and we’ve done one on his late career television show The Paper Chase (read about it here).

Earlier this year I chanced to read the first volume of his three part memoir, Run Through, which he wrote in the 1970s. I found the book both inspirational and consoling. How heartening it is to know that, even for the greatest theatrical geniuses of the age, working on these now legendary productions, life was still feast-or-famine, precarious, on top of the world one minute, broke as a hobo the next, always surfing the miserable yet exhilarating metaphysical tsunami of risk — risking your reputation, your very SELF, repeatedly on the altar of the public’s approval. When looked at this way, is there any doubt that the theatre begins NOT with storytelling, but with human sacrifice? At the volcano’s mouth, at the stake, in the coliseum? It’s not just “putting on a show” — it’s KILLING yourself to put on a show, trying to make something important that will make a memorable impression on the audience, will make some kind of alchemical change in their heads. What a rush. Clearly he felt the same way, although perhaps to a less pathological degree than his partner Orson Welles. 

My other take away from this book is how badly the theatre needs more Housemans. Indie theater in particular has more than its share of wanna-be Welleses. Everyone can’t play the coddled genius in this life; someone has to pay the baby food bills. Much rarer and arguably more necessary than aspiring geniuses are willing, hard working business managers. The elephant in the room when discussing Welles, yet rarely brought up, is the fact that the “charmed” phase of his career ended when he alienated Houseman. With Houseman out of the picture, Welles’ life became a struggle instead of the cakewalk it had always been until that point.

Houseman spent his young adulthood toiling behind desks in a series of responsible positions which even he found dreary (he traded grain until the stock market crash). But it taught him worldly skills and discipline. What made Houseman even rarer, of course, was that he was such a highly cultured businessman. In fact most people today think of him primarily as an actor. He was also an accomplished writer, dramaturg and director in addition to being a producer, and was well cultivated in ALL of the arts. Thus, when it was his task to raise money for a project, he was a full creative partner and collaborator. He was necessary to the art; he wasn’t just a bean-counter in some compartmentalized department (as I’ve often witnessed in larger arts organizations). He knew whereof he spoke. Thus I say and say again:  The best thing that could happen to the arts in this country would be to start churning out far fewer Wellses, and many more Housemans. WAH! I WANT MY HOUSEMAN!

Augustin Daly: First Man to Tie a Damsel to Railroad Tracks

Posted in Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Broadway, Impresarios, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Playwrights with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2016 by travsd

daily_john_augustin

Today is the birthday of pivotal American playwright, producer, and critic Augustin Daly (1838-1899).

The son of a North Carolina sea captain, Daly moved to New York as a young child with his mother and brother when his father died at sea. The family were inveterate theatre goers paving the way for Daly’s lifelong association. He began his professional career as a critic starting in 1859. He began adapting and writing plays at around the same time.

Daly was to become one of the most prolific and influential American theatre artists of all time. Though dismissed by later generations, I believe time will give him his due. Though not a great literary man, he was hugely influential on the craft of the stage itself. His main modus operandi was to gobble up existing properties (foreign hits, Shakespeare, and novels) and adapt them — a method which I believe strongly presages the later working methods of Hollywood. His productions were known for their heightened realism (for the time), for spectacular special effects (also anticipating Hollywood), and for establishing rituals of what we now think of as melodrama.

His adaptation of the German play Leah the Forsaken (1862) was his first success. Under the Gaslight (1867) remains his best known original play — it purported to bring audiences to gritty urban realms and introduced the soon-to-be-overused device of a villain tying a heroine to railroad tracks. (This invention would outlive Daly in earnest by at least a couple of decades in the movies.  But people were still sending it up as comedy as late as Dudley Do-Right cartoons in the 1960s.

imgres

Mack Sennett’s parody of the ritual, 1914, a sure fire sign it was already old hat by then

A Flash of Lightning (1868) was the follow up to Gaslight. In 1870 he produced Bronson Howard’s successful Saratoga. Horizon (1871) was an adaptation of a Bret Harte story set in the wild west. His Dickens adaptations included Pickwick Papers (1868) and Oliver Twist (1874). His numerous Shakespeare adaptations were criticized by Shaw and others for the audacious manner in which Daly cut passages and scenes and switched things around. 

Starting in 1869, he managed his own stock company based at the Fifth Avenue Theatre. He was to build his own Broadway house a decade later and another theatre in London in 1893. At various times his company included Ada Rehan, Maurice Barrymore, John Drew Jr, Tyrone Power Sr (father of the Hollywood actor), Maude Adams, Isadora Duncan, and Fanny Davenport. He continued working until his death in 1899; the shadow he cast (though the public has forgotten him)remains to this day.

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

J.H. Haverly: Maker of a Minstrel Mastodon

Posted in African American Interest, Impresarios with tags , , , , , , , on June 30, 2016 by travsd

Haverly's_United_Mastodon_Minstrels

Today is the birthday of American minstrelsy entrepreneur J.H. Haverly (1837-1901). Haverly was one of the first minstrelsy producers who was not a performer himself. He was strictly a businessman in the Keith and Albee mold, rather than someone who came up through the ranks. His aim was to make a buck, and he found innovative ways to do so (within the parameters of show biz conventions of the day, which were by modern standards unambiguously racist).

As a minstrelsy producer, Haverly made a couple of important contributions. First, in the 1870s  he greatly increased the scale of the minstrel show, which is the rationale for including the otherwise bizarre word “Mastodon” in the name of his company “Haverly’s United Mastodon Minstrels”. Previous minstrel companies tended to be performing quartets or sextets. Haverly merged several troupes together, forming a troupe of “40 — count ’em! — 40” entertainers (an advertising formulation burlesque would later borrow from the minstrel show.) Secondly, from 1878 to 1882 he was one of the first impresarios to present all-black minstrel shows. In an era when the norm was white performers who donned blackface** to impersonate African Americans, Haverly acquired Charles Callender’s Original Georgia Minstrels and presented them with the same heft he brought to the Mastodon company, billing them as Haverly’s Colored Minstrels. Companies like this provided a crucial bridge between the era when African Americans were banned completely from the American stage…and when they became some of America’s greatest stars.

Managing the two huge companies grew to be too much for Haverly. Overextended, he sold the second company to Broadway producer Charles Frohman and his brother Gustave. Haverly also owned several theatres in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

We post this at a fortuitous time for fans of New York and show biz history. In just a few days (July 5), the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors officially launches their project Windows on the Bowery with an exhibition at Cooper Union. Stay tuned for nuch more on this exciting project, in which I am proud to say I had a hand.

For more on show business historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

%d bloggers like this: