Archive for the Variety Theatre Category

Stars of Vaudeville #1037: Charles Chaplin, Sr.

Posted in British Music Hall, Charlie Chaplin, Singers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2017 by travsd

Born on this date in 1863: Charles Chaplin the Elder: the father of his better known namesake, comedian and movie star Charlie Chaplin. It’s not as well known today that in his time the elder Chaplin was a fairly successful performer in his own right.

The son of a butcher, Charles Senior was still a teenager when he went on the stage. It is said that he met Charlie’s mother Hannah Hall (a.k.a. Lily Harley) while performing in a sketch called “Shamus O’Brien” in the early 1880s. In 1885 he married her, despite the fact that in the intervening months she had taken up with another man and given birth to a child. Chaplin gave the boy his surname; he became Sydney Chaplin. By ’87, Charles Senior had worked up a music hall act and began getting bookings in the halls, with a repertoire of sentimental and comical songs. In 1889, his son Charlie was born.

So far so good, eh? Unfortunately (for the family) not long after that, Chaplin’s career began to take off — and so did he. By 1890, he was popular enough to tour America (notably, he played the Union Square Theatre in New York — this was his own foray into American vaudeville. The following year he ran out on Hannah and the boys for good.

Chaplin was popular enough by this stage that his name and visaged graced the covers of the published sheet music of songs he had made popular, such as “The Girl Was Young and Pretty”, “Hi Diddle Diddle” and the comical, suggestive “Eh, Boys!”

It’s a well known story by now. While Charlie the elder was cavorting and carousing in music halls, living the carefree life, Hannah (also an entertainer, and by her son’s account a brilliant one, the one he took after) went slowly insane and couldn’t work. Chaplin offered no financial support, even when the two children were packed off to workhouses.

By the end of the decade (and the century) Chaplin had become an alcoholic and was no longer working himself. Significantly, this was the juncture when he first seems to take an interest in his namesake. In 1899, he got ten year old Charlie his first proper show business job by getting him into an act called The Eight Lancashire Lads. The younger Chaplin was about to embark on an incredible life’s journey; the older one was just ending his. By 1901, Charles Chaplin, Sr. was dead of cirrhosis of the liver.

But his mark is there for all to see in Charlie Chaplin’s life and art. An alcoholic, performing dad is something Charlie had in common with Buster Keaton. But there are contrasts. You could say that Joe Keaton’s drinking hurt his career, but it didn’t end his life. And Buster followed in his footsteps, becoming a problem boozer himself. Whereas the elder Chaplin ended both his life and career through alcohol abuse. And Charlie, Jr. only ever drank in cautious moderation. But I find it significant that he played hilarious comic drunks on stage and screen for decades. And there is also the subject of Chaplin’s relations with him. For a good long while, like his father, he put his work first and neglected his women (following periods of intense wooing). This cycle was only broken when he finally married Oona O’Neill, quite late in life, when he only worked occasionally and chose to devote all of his energy into family life…as though he were making up for lost time.

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  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

Frank Buck: Brought ‘Em Back Alive

Posted in Animal Acts, Circus, Hollywood (History) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2017 by travsd

March 17 isn’t just St. Patrick’s Day; it also happens to be the birthday of Frank Buck (1884-1950). What an interesting American character!

Born and raised in Texas, Buck started out his working life as a cowpuncher. At the age of 17 he traveled with a herd by rail to the stockyards in Chicago, and decided to remain in the big city. While working as a bellhop at the Virginia Hotel he met lady drama critic Amy Leslie, 29 years his senior, and the pair married. (The arrangement seems to have worked out for both of them — they remained hitched from 1901 to 1913).

In 1911, Buck took his winnings from a poker game and used it to finance an excursion to Brazil. While there, he trapped some exotic birds, which he brought back to New York and sold for lucrative sums. Trapping and caring for animals is something he had done for fun as a boy. Now he he began to do it in earnest. With the profits from the Brazil trip, he next went to Singapore, and then other parts of Asia, capturing all manner of creatures and bringing them back to sell in the U.S.

In 1923, he became on the the first directors of the San Diego Zoo, bringing to the table two Indian elephants, two orangutans, a leopard, two macaques, two langurs, two kangaroos, three flamingos, five cranes, and a python, all of which he had captured in the wild. After a few months, he was dismissed after repeated conflicts with the board of directors.

In 1930 he wrote his best selling book Bring ‘Em Back Alive, recounting his adventures. This was followed by a 1932 film and promotional radio show of the same name. Two other book-and-film projects followed: Wild Cargo (1932, book; 1934, film) and Fang and Claw (1935). He was to co-author five more books over the next decade.

In 1937, he starred in the B movie serial Jungle Menace, the only film in which he acted as a fictional character

In 1938, he and his creatures were the star attraction of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus. I love how the poster above stresses that the man himself, not just his animals, will be making a personal appearance.

The following year, he brought his animals to the 1939 World’s Fair.

The coming of World War Two prevented him from going out on expeditions during the 1940s but he continued to busy himself by writing more books, and appearing in numerous films as himself. The last of these was Abbott and Costello’s Africa Screams, which is, quite frankly, where I first heard of him and the reason why you are reading this blog post.

After his death in 1950, his fame continued to spread. In 1953, Bring ‘Em Back Alive was adapted into a Classics Illustrated comic book. In 1954, the Frank Buck Zoo opened in his home town of Gainesville, Texas. And in 1982 Bring ‘Em Back Alive became the inspiration for a tv series starring Bruce Boxleitner! Really, this is about as famous as an animal collector can possibly get.

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! 

 

Stars of Vaudeville #1036: Louise Beavers

Posted in African American Interest, Hollywood (History), Television, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2017 by travsd

Louise Beavers’ (1902-1962) birthday is today.

Originally from Cincinnati, Beavers moved to the Los Angeles area with her family at age 11. Her mother was a singing instructor. Through her, Beavers started singing in choirs and amateur concerts, eventually joining a group called “The Lady Minstrels” which played dates in vaudeville and presentation houses. In early adulthood she worked as a domestic to stars like Leatrice Joy and Lilyan Tashman, an irony given the large numbers of servants and house slaves she would play during her movie career. As was sadly common at the time, those sorts of characters were almost exclusively what she got to play.

Her first film work was as an extra in the 1927 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When talking films came in she instantly progressed to small speaking roles. She’s in Mary Pickford’s first talkie Coquette (1929), the lost classic Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929), with Mae West in She Done Him Wrong (1933), 42nd Street (1933), Bombshell (1933) and dozens of others.

In 1934 she attained the highlight of her career, co-starring with Claudette Colbert in the classic race drama Imitation of Life (1934). While she had ample chance to shine in that movie, and received plenty of good notices, it unfortunately didn’t lead to lots of similar work. She was instantly relegated back to the same sort of domestic roles in films like General Spanky (1936), No Time for Comedy (1940), Holiday Inn (1942), and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), although she did get a fine part in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) as the star player’s mother. In the 1950s she was a familiar face on television on shows such as Beulah (1952) and Make Room for Daddy (1953-1954).

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  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

Stars of Vaudeville #1035: Guy Kibbee

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2017 by travsd

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Guy Kibbee (1882-1956) has a birthday today.

Character actor Kibbee became a professional performer at age 13 in his native El Paso, wracking up nearly 35 years of stage experience on showboats, and in stock companies and vaudeville before making his first film, a 1929 Vitaphone called For Sale directed by Bryan Foy, and starring Gregory Ratoff. He appeared in two Broadway plays, Torch Song and Marseilles, in 1930 before definitely making the move to Hollywood just before reaching the age of 50.

Those Pre-Code years at Warner Brothers covered him in glory: he was much in demand in racy comedies and musicals (and sometimes dramas), generally as a cheerfully lecherous moneybags, all leering eyes, flashing teeth, and shiny bald forehead. His skin seemed so ruddy from boozing it up you could detect it in films that were in black and white. His raspy voice further cemented the idea that this guy had done some hard partying. He’s in Blonde Crazy (1931), 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade (1933), Wonder Bar (1934), and Dames (1934), among many others during these years. Once the Code was in force, he proved his versatility in all sorts of pictures, such as westerns, costume epics, and dramas as well as comedies and musicals, generally playing avuncular authority figures like judges, army generals, politicians and the like. Important later films included Captain Blood (1935), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Our Town (1940), and two John Ford westerns Fort Apache and Three Godfathers, both 1948.

Top comedians he supported over the years included Bert Lahr (Flying High, 1931), Joe E. Brown (Fireman, Save My Child, 1932, Earthworm Tractors, 1936, and Riding on Air, 1937), Red Skelton (Whistling in Dixie, 1942), and Jack Benny (The Horn Blows at Midnight, 1945). He also supported Shirley Temple in Miss Annie Rooney (1942), and even had his own starring series of comedies for RKO as Scattergood Baines, six films produced between 1941 and 1943, a topic for its own blogpost someday no doubt. His younger brother Milton Kibbee became a bit player in films, as well.

 To find out more about show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early 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

Killy Dwyer in “Not Show Business”

Posted in Art Stars, Contemporary Variety, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags , , , , , on March 5, 2017 by travsd

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I was so grateful Kelly “Killy” Dwyer flushed me out of my hiding place yesterday to come see the last performance of her work Not Show Business in the Frigid Festival at Under St. Marks. We’re longtime fans of Killy’s, not just as an artist but as a person; we love her so much we asked her to officiate at our wedding.  Little did we know that she was going through tough times then, which I only make bold to mention because she talks about it openly in her work.

What do we admire about her work? Well for one thing, she can’t be pigeon-holed. She’s a singer, comedienne, storyteller, musician, autobiographical performance artist. The word “collage” occurred to me looking at the stage yesterday, a piece built of cut-up fragments. In addition to the performance aspects, she was working with found objects (real physical items from her childhood) in this show, as well as video (home movies).

She is extremely bold and brave. I know this because I have been watching her for a long time and I catch quick glimpses of what’s behind the mask. She does a high wire act. Once you’re on the wire, there’s only one way to do it and that’s with the confidence that you can. But there’s that second before you step off. She doesn’t hide that second from anybody before she climbs up, but it’s there. She’s whistlin’ in the graveyard. She mines a lot of humor from mock insincerity in the show biz tradition (after she finished a song yesterday, she said, “Let’s hear it for that, huh?”) and that’s endearing. At the same time, she bares all, about her mistakes, about her foibles, and in particular (in this show) about struggles with mental illness. She switched up her meds six months ago because she was afraid she was losing her memory, and this show is all about memory. Hence the giant baby-jammies, and the box of keepsakes full of old photo albums and yearbooks and the projected home movies on stage.

Now, I have seen shows just like what I just have described that have been insufferable, and you have too. What sets Killy apart, aside from honesty that’s not bullshit, is a high level of craft that allows her to turn the mess of her life into art. She is a great legit singer in a very old school way (like, really, I don’t know, Doris Day or something) and that impression is reinforced by the fact that her physical raw material looks like the Ohio mom she probably would have been if there wasn’t an exploding genius inside fucking up her brain. (I know I’m not alone in that impression because she gets cast as moms all the time in TV commercials.) But in reality she is a feral free spirit, and that comes out in her songwriting and arranging which is modern and technological and would not be out of place at a party (unless you made a point of listening to the dark and funny lyrics). In the show I saw she sang a song about her high school romance with Jack Daniels (the kind that comes in a bottle), an abusive romance which resulted in her breaking her nose at her 18th birthday party. She blended the song and the story perfectly into a seamless performance although it was presumably performed spur of the moment as the result of an audience member choosing it by spinning a “Wheel of Destiny”.

Killy’s work is inspirational to me and it was heartening to see it at Under St. Marks, a space I have been coming back to for almost 20 years now, a place that has hung on to its mission of presenting such work when the whole city seems to be becoming a brothel of high-priced sell-outs. This is pure work. It’s kind of the only work that matters. Made me want to jump on up there and try to do a show just like it, and that’s the highest kind of praise I got.

BTW, Killy’s been doing a terrific prime-time radio show on Radio Free Brooklyn, Friday nights at 8pm. You should check it out!

Stars of Vaudeville #1034: George Shelton

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2017 by travsd

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GEORGE SHELTON: IT PAYS TO BE IGNORANT 

Today is the birthday of George Shelton (1884-1971), best remembered (when at all) as one of the panelists on the popular radio show It Pays to Be Ignorant. Born on New York’s Lower East Side, he started out playing tent shows in Iowa, served in World War One, then returned to play vaudeville solo for a time before teaming up with Tom Howard, his partner in vaudeville and numerous comedy shorts for Paramount and Educational pictures (1932-1936). He also appeared in shorts without Howard through 1938, and had bit parts in a couple of other movies through 1945. He was a regular on It Pays to Be Ignorant from 1942 through 1951. Among his other skills, he was known as a Bobby Clark impersonator, and even understudied and replaced him in some shows. His Broadway credits included The Governor’s Lady (1912-1913), Three of Hearts (1915), and Keep Moving (1934). He died in a tragic fire in 1971.

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on silent 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

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