Archive for the Impresarios Category

William F. Mangels: Fun-Maker

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


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.


George Spoor: The S in Essanay

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


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 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


 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: The Man Who First Tied 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


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.


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


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.


Sam Hague: Pioneer Producer of African Americans on Stage

Posted in African American Interest, Impresarios with tags , , , , on January 31, 2016 by travsd
Identified as Sam Hague on the wonderful "Minstrel Banjo" web site

Identified as Sam Hague on the wonderful “Minstrel Banjo” web site (click for link)

Sam Hague (1828-1901), was one of the first impresarios to present African American performers onstage in the United States. A native of Sheffield, England, Hague started out as a clog dancer. He embarked on his first tour of the U.S. with his performing brothers Thomas and William in 1850. Tim Hayes was one of the people he performed with early in his career. He first toured the U.S. with conventional (whites in blackface) minstrel companies under the Hague banner. In 1866 he premiered his revolutionary creation, Sam Hague’s Slave Troupe of Georgia Minstrels, featuring actual African American performers (and a somewhat unfortunate name). He brought the troupe to England to build up its reputation and to prove the efficacy of the proposition before bringing the company before American audiences. His black and racially mixed casts did prove successful and were emulated by later competitors like George Primrose and Billy West. Hague’s company was bought by Charles Callender. 

To learn more about old school show biz including minstrelsyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


On the Real Grizzly Adams

Posted in AMERICANA, Animal Acts, BUNKUM, Circus, Dime Museum and Side Show, Impresarios with tags , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2016 by travsd


I came across this delightful information yesterday when writing up my eulogy of Dan Haggerty of tv’s The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.  As I wrote yesterday, the character was based on a real gent, whose given name was John Adams (1812-1860). Surprisingly, he turns out to be one of those Adamses, i.e. the same family that gave us Presidents John and John Quincy, maltster and revolutionary Samuel, ambassador Charles Francis, historian/writer/ philosophers Henry and Brooks, and U.S. Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis (III).

Originally from Medway, Massachusetts, Adams began his working life as a shoemaker, learning skills like sewing and leather working that would later be of much use when he became a mountain man. In 1833 he began working as an animal trapper and trainer for a group of menagerie showmen, catching live bears and other creatures in the Northern New England states of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. Sometime before 1836 he was mauled by a tiger, and retired for a time to raise a family, returning to the trade of shoemaker.

In 1849 he went west for the California Gold Rush. When nothing panned out he became a mountain man, hunting and trapping for a living. In 1853, he captured his first grizzly, named her Lady Washington and trained her to earn her keep as a pack animal. He trapped and trained several more bears and other animals over the next few years, and performed shows as he traveled from place to place throughout the western wilderness.  (One of my most prized possessions is an autographed copy of a novel by none other than Lionel Barrymore. The novel is called Mr. Cantonwine: A Moral Tale, and it is almost certainly inspired by this phase of Adams’ career.) In 1856, he opened the Mountaineer Museum in San Francisco, containing a menagerie of live specimens, as well as taxidermically preserved beasts and other curios. With backing from others he expanded the enterprise under the name the Pacific Museum, while performing with various circuses during the same period.. One of his partners, James H. Hittell, took down notes from Adams’ stories and published it under the title, The Adventures of James Capen Adams, Mountaineer and Grizzly Bear Hunter of California. Mysteriously, Adams had given Hittel his brother’s name, James Capen Adams, as his own. He had also styled himself William Adams for a time. Like many such frontier characters, Adams was given to a certain amount of flim-flam and hucksterism — something of a far cry from how he was depicted in the tv show. (John Huston’s interpretation in The life and Times of Judge Roy Bean was probably closer to the mark).

In 1860, Adams went into partnership with P.T. Barnum and brought his whole operation to New York City. He exhibited under canvas on Broadway for several weeks, and then traveled in New England with a circus. He died in late 1860, apparently from illness related to injuries he had received years earlier… from grizzlies.

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