Archive for the Variety Theatre Category

RIP Ringling Brothers, Part 2

Posted in Circus, OBITS with tags , on May 21, 2017 by travsd

Today, as we warned a few months ago, is the final performance ever of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus

The circus world will carry on. But RBBB was an institution, the only American arts organization I can think of that ranks with, say, Mount Rushmore, or the Statue of Liberty as an American monument. A living American monument. P.T. Barnum started presenting performers in 1835, when New York City was by our standards a village at the very bottom of Manhattan. There is no American theatre, and no American theatre artist or show biz performer who doesnt owe something to his enterprises. With my apologizes to my beloved Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, CT, to have his name wink out on marquees, as well as those of James A. Bailey and the Ringling Bros, is a dark day for America, and the world. No Barnum, no Broadway and no Hollywood. Fuck you, Seth MacFarlane and Ricky Gervais, for cheering about it online. The RBBB wasn’t an entity reducible to a single policy (however badly that policy needed to be changed or revisited). It was the mother of American show business.

For my recent address on the state of the American circus go here.

Eddie White: “I Thank You”

Posted in Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2017 by travsd

Eddie White (Michael Weintraub, 1898-1983) was born on May 18.

White comes to the attention of modern buffs almost entirely from his 1928 Vitaphone short called I Thank You, after his oft-repeated (by him) catchphrase. When you’ve seen a whole mess of Vitaphones, you easily lump them into categories. Some, like Burns and Allen, and Rose Marie, are folks we already know. Some, maybe most, are folks we don’t know and leave little impression. And a discrete handful are folks we don’t know and make a huge impression: a great act, big talent, a vivid or eccentric personality, sheer weirdness, or whatever. Those are everybody’s favorite Vitaphones and I think those end up being the ones we see for a reason; the screenings are almost always curated by the savvy Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project, who has the ears, eyes, nose, bones, brains, and guts of an old time vaudeville producer, which also means knowing what contemporary audiences will respond to.

At any rate, I Thank You is just such a short. Eddie White is one of the memorable ones. Tall, thin, and lanky, with a scrawny neck, enormous ears, and a high-pitched voice, you’d swear in watching the film that he was an adolescent, no more than about 15 years old. That was the impression I took away the first time I saw the film several years ago: that he was a precocious, talented teenager, probably from New York’s Lower East Side. The ethnic jokes and the crowd pleasing song set, featuring, “Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella (on a Rainy Day)”, “Get Out and Get Under the Moon” and the show-stopping “Mammy”, probably planted that idea. But I was off.

As we see from his birthday year, the young man was actually 30 when this Vitaphone came out. Its national release was probably the high point of his long career, which was mostly East Coast based, concentrated in Philadelphia, Atlantic City and New York. Born in South Philly, he debuted as a young man at the Old Norris Theatre in Norris, Pennsylvania and was using the stage handle “Eddie White” by 1920.

In the 20s he seemed an up-and-comer. He was a big time Keith’s act by mid-decade, one sees references to him playing important big time houses like New York’s Hippodrome.

He became associated with the famous 1932 song “Sam, You Made The Pants Too Long”, though Milton Berle had written the parody lyrics and Joe E. Lewis had the 1933 hit record. Vaudeville was dying around this time and the path of White’s career is hugely instructive about what the hustling performer did to fill the time with bookings. A small announcement in a 1936 issue of Billboard seems pivotal. The item describes White as a vaud vet who would now be officially turning his attention to night cubs. And thereafter he seemed to work pretty steadily as an m.c. and entertainer at night clubs and resorts, most especially the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, although one continues to find references to him playing dates farther afield in places like Pittsburgh and Ohio. Part of White’s legend is that he became a figure in the career of the Jersey-based burlesque comedians Abbott and Costello, when he saw them performing and put them on at the Steel Pier, where they first began to attract more widespread notice.

White produced and hosted a variety revue called The Zanities of 1943 in Philadelphia that got good notices. He headlined in the Palace Theatre revival in 1955. He retied from show biz in 1959.

I had the thrill of talking to White’s only child Jay Weintraub (b. 1933) the other day, and he helped add texture for White’s later years. He said the family moved to Chicago for three years, where White had a steady gig at a night club. He said his famous friends included Berle (who’d given him “Sam” to sing), Judy Garland, Red Buttons, Henny Youngman, and of course Abbott and Costello (Weintraub recounted an anecdote where Costello flew the family out to spend a few days with him in Hollywood). And he said the William Morris Agency tried unsuccessfully to book Eddie for the Ed Sullivan Show, but he was rejected for being too “ethnic” — he did a lot of Jewish dialect humor, which might not come across to wider audiences (and might have offended some others).

But mostly, says Weintraub, “He was a family man. His main interests were his brothers and my mother and me. He would go off and do his dates for a few days but then he would always come home.”

Most intriguingly, Mr. Weintraub mentions an enormous scrapbook of clippings in his possession and THIS would be the great resource of information on Eddie White. Hopefully some day an intrepid researcher will gain access to it and convey its contents to the wider public.

Special thanks to the one and only Mr. Chuck Prentiss for connecting me with Jay Weintraub!

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Tom Lewis: Worked with the Greats

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2017 by travsd

url

Tom Lewis (Thomas Lewis McGuire, 1867-1927) was born on May 17. Originally from New Brunswick, NJ, he was a comedian who played both in vaudeville and on Broadway, and later in silent films. He was in the original production of George M. Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones, and over a dozen other Broadway shows including The Passing Show of 1917, the original production of George S. Kaufman’s Helen of Troy, New York (1923), and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1924.

At the same time, he was a vaudeville staple. He was one of the fabled original ten to form the vaudeville union the White Rats.  Starting in 1912 he was teamed for a time with baseball player Turkey Mike Donlin in vaud. And he also played the Palace, the greatest vaudeville venue in the country.

Staring in 1920 he began appearing regularly in films, notably as Mr. Murphy in The Callahans and the Murphys with Marie Dressler and Polly Moran (1927), and as the first mate in Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr.  

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. For more on silent and slapstick comedy please see my 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

Florence Brady: Miles of Smiles

Posted in Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2017 by travsd

A few scraps on Florence Brady (Florence A. McAleer, ca. 1902- ca. 1943) We first learn of her in the 1920 Broadway show Her Family Tree, with Nora Bayes and Julius Tannen. She appeared in vaudeville throughout the 1920s with an act called “Miles of Smiles”. She was noted for her big personality, as funny as she was entertaining with a song. In 1926 he was featured in Earl Carroll’s Vanities.

In 1928, she recorded two Vitaphone shorts — the chief reason she is known by anyone today. A Cycle of Songs is the only that survives in complete form. She is terrific — she sings a very minstrel influenced set that includes  “Sunshine”, “Now That She’s Off My Hands”, climaxing with an animated version of “Here Comes the Show Boat”. Her other Vitaphone, Character Studies apparently included the numbers “There’ll Be Some Changes Made”, “I’m a Demon with the Ladies”, and “That’s My Weakness Now”, but the sound disk is lost as of this writing.

Somewhere in here Brady met and married another performer named Gilbert William “Gil” Wells (1893-1935). A little more is known about Wells. He also recorded a Vitaphone in 1928 which survives, entitled A Breeze from the South. In his act, the multi-talented sang, danced, played piano and clarinet, and told jokes between numbers. He was also prolific songwriter, known for tunes like “Insufficient Sweetie”, “Sadie Green, The Vamp of New Orleans” and “You May Be Fast (But Your Mama’s Gonna Slow You Down)”.

Brady and Wells started performing as a two-act around this time; I came across a notice of their performance in Flushing, Queens in 1930. They didn’t have much time together. He was dead in 1935 (and vaudeville was dead a few years before that). Brady reportedly died in the early 40s of cirrhosis of the liver.

 

To find out more about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

Oklahoma Bob Albright: Cowboy Tenor

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fuzzy Knight: That Cat’s Alright

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

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

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

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

Connie Russell: Third Generation Show Biz

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2017 by travsd

I first became aware of Connie Russell (1923-1990) when I saw her as the femme fatale in the extremely cool noir thriller Nightmare (1956) with Edward G. Robinson and Kevin McCarthy. I said, “Yowsa, who’s THAT?!” I was shocked next to learn that she only had a tiny handful of film credits, usually either as an extra or the singer in a cabaret or nightclub scene. Nightmare, her last role, was also her biggest and best.

Russell was third generation show biz. Her paternal grandparents were the vaudeville team of Glenroy and Russell. Her parents Tommy and Nina Russell also had a vaudeville team, and Connie first joined them onstage when she was only two years old. By the time she was 11, Russell was already a solo. By the time she was a teenager she was singing at nightclubs and such venues such as New York’s Paramount Theater.  At 14 she had a tiny role in the English film Melody and Romance; at 16, she signed with MGM. Unfortunately, they gave her little to do. She got to sing a number in Lady be Good (1941) but after that she mostly had uncredited walk-ons.

“Nightmare”

The bulk of her show biz resume consisted of an extremely robust recording career, live performance, and frequent radio tv appearances, including a stint as a regular on Garroway at Large (1949), and lots of guest shots on the variety shows of Ed Sullivan, Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle and Steve Allen. A part in the film Cruisin’ Down the River (1953) briefly revived the idea of a movie career, but Nightmare did not lead to other roles. She retired from show business in the early 1960s.

To find out more about  the history of vaudeville and variety entertainmentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

%d bloggers like this: