Archive for the Variety Arts (Defined) Category

Some Tales of Vaudeville Suicide, Despair and Murder

Posted in Hollywood (History), Variety Arts (Defined), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2017 by travsd

This one is by special request — a reader (some morbid soul) wanted to see more stories like a certain tragic one we posted a few days ago. Essentially this is just a round up of several tales of show business tragedies, mostly vaudeville, but I’ve added some Hollywood ones as well. Just click on the performer’s name to learn more.

Down and Out, Penniless, Forgotten: 

Tens of thousands of aspiring stage and screen performers found themselves in this predicament, but we mention a few notables who had been either at the top, or very successful, and spent their last days broke and alone: Stephen Foster, the Father of American Song died drunk, penniless, singing for his supper and owing back-rent for his Bowery hotel room (this was in the days before songwriters got royalties),  Eva Tanguay, at one point the “Queen of Vaudeville” and one of the highest paid entertainers in the country, died blind, bed-ridden, and broke; Clarice Vance, also a star, wound up homeless and eventually in an insane asylum; Agnes Ayres, a Paramount star, toppled from fame, eventually losing her child, and going mad; Johnny Arthur died a charity case; Leo Dryden spent his last days singing for coppers on street corners; Olive Borden was scrubbing floors on Skid Row when she died at age 41. However, the most extreme cases wound up as:


Nat M. Wills, “The Happy Tramp”, suffering money and romantic woes, may have been one of the first people to kill himself with automobile exhaust fumes. There is some ambiguity because it was not well known at the time that one could actually die that way. And his career was going just great at the time. In most cases, the facts were much clearer. The clown Slivers Oakley killed himself with gas when vaudeville didn’t pan out. Premiere monologist Charley Case shot himself in his hotel room. Legendary screen beauty Mary Nolan’s slow descent ended with an overdose of pills. Jenny Dolly of the Dolly Sisters, having lost her beauty in a car accident, hanged herself. Lou Tellegen stabbed himself when talkies killed his career. Paul McCullough of Clark and McCullough, chronically depressed, slit his own throat while sitting in a barber chair. Sideshow performer Waldo the Human Ostrich gassed himself when a love affair went sour. Gus Williams shot himself following a discouraging meeting with his agent; his Dutch specialty wasn’t giving him any traction. Actor John Bowers drowned himself over a career decline (some think this event was the model for the climax of A Star is Born). Fan dancer Faith Bacon, unable to find work, threw herself out a window. Silent screen comedienne Phyllis Haver had been tragically isolated for years when she took an overdose of sleeping pills in 1960.  And one of the greatest of all 20th century comedians Max Linder and his wife, despondent over failing health and career, each committed TRIPLE suicides by taking barbiturates, injecting morphine, and cutting themselves.

The above folks all have connections to vaudeville. We’ve also written about some purely Hollywood suicides, including Peg Entwistle (who jumped off the famous “Hollywood” sign); the “Mexican Spitfire” Lupe Velez, who took pills when she became pregnant out of wedlock; Clara Blandick (Aunt Em of The Wizard of Oz), who suffocated herself with a plastic bag in response to health problems; and Doodles Weaver who shot himself.

Syphillis and Other Diseases

Strange to think that we could get a whole category out of venereal disease, but in the days before penicillin it took a shocking number of lives — especially (it shouldn’t surprise you to learn) a high number in the theatrical community. It was a terrible way to go because it usually first manifested itself in madness. The afflicted person was normally put away for a few years before they finally gave up the ghost. At any rate; the risks were known at the time, so in a way, to die in this manner was a kind of a suicide. Those who went in this fashion included Scott Joplin; Maurice Barrymore; George Walker of Walker and Williams; Tony Hart of Harrigan and Hart; Bob Cole of Cole and Johnson; Harry Kernell of the Kernell Brothers; Ernest Hogan; and Joe Welch.

Mabel Normand died of TB at 37. Tuberculosis was also common in those days, although Normand was almost certainly weakened from her hard-partying life style. Fellow silent comedian Larry Semon also died of the disease, among other factors.

If we concede that alcoholism is a disease, the catalog of those whose lives were shortened, ended or harmed by that affliction would be too long to list but some prominent examples included W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, Lillian Roth, Leo Gorcey, Bert Williams and Jack Pickford. (and some of those also mentioned elsewhere on this page)


A few notable examples of stagefolk who died prematurely under bizarre or sudden circumstances. Blackface performer Artie Hall was killed when a theatre collapsed during the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Magician Ching Ling Foo died while performing the dangerous “bullet catch” stunt. Houdini died of peritonitis after some college students punched him in the stomach, rupturing his appendix. Drag performer Bert Savoy was struck by lightning. Cowboy star Buck Jones was killed in a terrible night club fire. Olive Thomas accidentally drank poison, resulting in a slow, painful hospital death. Rosetta Duncan of the Duncan Sisters died in a car crash, as did Bernard Gorcey. Marilyn Miller’s story is a double tragedy: first her husband Frank Carter died in a car accident, then she herself was killed in a botched hospital operation.


A few notable murders have found their way into these pages. There’s the famous William Desmond Taylor mystery. Most rule comedienne Thelma Todd’s death a murder (there are SUSPECTS and suspicious circumstances) although it’s possible it may have been an accident or suicide. Professor Backwards was famously killed by some inept robbers. Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer lost his life over a petty money dispute.

Fame and wealth are all well and good; but NO ONE escapes the ubiquitous pitfalls of life on Abattoir Earth!

For more on the history of vaudevilleconsult 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 silent film, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc. 



La Carpa, the Mexican Vaudeville

Posted in Latin American/ Spanish, Variety Arts (Defined) with tags , , , , , , on May 5, 2016 by travsd


Just a few days ago, we wrote a little appreciation of Mexican influence on American culture. Today being the holiday of  Cinco de Mayo we thought we would again celebrate a particular manifestation of Mexican culture, one that overlaps with the customary themes of this blog in a more obvious way, the Carpa, or Mexican tent show.

Carpa means “tent” in Spanish, and readers of this blog know that America has long been home to all manner of traveling tent shows, particularly during the 19th and earth 20th centuries. Black vaudeville, medicine shows, circuses, religious revivals, and the peculiar midwestern phenomenon known as the Toby Show are all examples. The Carpa sprang up in the years following the Mexican Revolution (ca. 1910-1920), reaching a peak during the 1920s and 1930s, and lasting into the 1940s. Its precursor was a tradition of presenting plays in the religious season between the Day of the Dead (November 1) and Christmas beginning in the 1870s.

The carpa promised family entertainment and usually featured clowns (often portraying certain stock characters, not unlike commedia), acrobats, magic, puppets, music, dance, and in later years, movies. They presented their shows all over Mexico, but also in the American Southwest. Famous shows included Carpa Valentina (a Russian circus family which had fled the Russian revolution and Civil War), Carpa Garcia (a large family concern whose territory included California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas), Carpa Azcapotzalco, Carpa Cubana, and Carpa Monsavias.

For much more on the carpa, this article provides much excellent flavor and detail.

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 books are sold.


On the Christmas Pantomime

Posted in British Music Hall, Clown, Comedy, Drag and/or LGBT, Variety Arts (Defined) with tags , , , , , , , on December 21, 2013 by travsd


A timely topic and one I warrant has been a source of confusion for many Americans  travelling abroad during the holidays. Pantomime is one of those theatrical terms, like burlesque, vaudeville, cabaret and many others, that possesses several forms and meanings. The kind we aim to discuss today is NOT the silent, French Marcel Marceau type. Nor is it the ancient Greco-Roman type (which I bet most of you don’t care about anyway, although I sure do!) Today we speak of the British Panto, which has long been an annual Christmas tradition in the UK, Ireland, Australia, and Canada.

As we have written about many stars of the Panto here (Joseph Grimaldi, Dan Leno, Little Tich,  the Hanlon-Lees, Lily Morris, Bert Errol, Wilkie Bard, Nellie Wallace, G.S. Melvin, Bessie Bonehill, Wee Georgie Wood, Ada Reeve, et al) we thought it high time we provided a little more detail about what it was (and is).

British Panto evolved ultimately from the commedia dell’arte, an Italian import that gave the world a rich pantheon of comical stock characters (Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon, etc etc). In England this evolved into the Harlequinade in the early 18th century, a silent form (spoken dialogue being illegal in all but a couple of licensed theatres) very much focused on a small handful of the original commedia characters, the lovers Harlequin and Columbine and their escape from Pantaloon). The Harlequinade was initially presented on a bill with such entertainments as opera and ballet.

As time wore on, the show began to incorporate magical transformations by Harlequin, in which the presentation shifted to the telling of a story from classical mythology, a fairy tale or nursery rhyme. Eventually the Harlequinade fell away completely in the 19th century, leaving only the fairy tale (Puss in Boots, Jack and the Beanstalk, etc etc). The modern Panto is very much NOT silent. But there are several other distinctive features that make the Panto a unique theatre form:

* Drag. The Panto makes much use of comedy drag in the form of the Pantomime Dame (a guy dressed as a woman), and the Principal Boy (a gal dressed as a guy)

* Audience participation. The audience is coached by the actors to shout certain traditional things, such as “He’s behind you!” when the hero doesn’t see the villain creep up.

* Double entendres. The Panto is a family entertainment as opposed to a children’s entertainment. While the kids watch the fairy tale, the actors often make downright obscene jokes, but told in an oblique way designed to go over the smaller kid’s heads.

* Panto animals. Since time immemorial, the inclusion of a couple of actors in a horse or cow costume has been de rigeur

* Celebrity guests. A feature of the modern panto, at least the big productions, is that well-known tv and movie stars will drop in and take part.

Yes, the panto continues to be a living, breathing thing. Here is a random poster for a contemporary British panto from a couple of years ago featuring one of my favorite comic performers Dame Edna:

dame edna everage dec 2011

No panto in the U.S., you ask? Well, we had very little theatre at all back when we were British colonies. There was some panto activity here in the 19th century (see my article here on George L. Fox) but it didn’t stick. But fairy tale theatre of a sort was all the rage in the late 19th/ early 20th century in the form of what were called “extravaganzas”. I’ll no doubt be treating of them in future.

For more on the variety theateconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 


For more slapstick and clown history don’t  miss 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



On the Brief, Transitory History of Wild West Shows

Posted in Lariat Artists/ Wild West Shows, Native American Interest, Variety Arts (Defined) with tags , , , , on November 20, 2013 by travsd


Here’s another post in honor of Native American Heritage Month. 

The Wild West Show was a unique and popular branch of popular entertainment, akin to the circus, the sideshow, the rodeo, the Indian medicine show, and the melodramas. It is the immediate precursor of the cinematic genre known as the western. The Wild West Show flourished at the of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. Its existence can be laid at the feet of the one and only William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who invented the form, took it to terrific heights, and was much imitated.

Cody was one of the greatest showmen of all time, second only perhaps to P.T. Barnum. He of course held many jobs before he went into show business: Indian scout, buffalo hunter, Pony Express rider, Union soldier, gold miner, etc etc, etc, but our main concern here is what he did in front of audiences.In 1872, under the management of Ned Buntline (who’d previously enhanced his fame with a series of popular dime novels), Cody starred in a number of melodrama plays reenacting his western adventures, often co-starring the likes of Texas Jack Omohundro and Wild Bill Hickok. In 1883 he founded Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (to reinforce the feeling of realism in his entertainments he omitted the word “show” from its title. Sharpshooters Annie Oakley and Frank Butler (subjects, along with Cody, of the Irving Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun) were among his famous performers, as was Sioux Chieftain Sitting Bull. 


Just as Cody kept scores of “cowboys” under his employee to re-enact buffalo hunts, cattle drives, stagecoach robberies and duels, so too did he hire scores, probably hundreds of Plains Indians (mostly Pawnee and Sioux), many of whom like Sitting Bull were essentially playing themselves in re-enactments of famous Indian battles like Custer’s Last Stand. It’s hard to know what to compare this to…the Coliseum of ancient Rome perhaps. Thousands of people watching a vanquished “enemy” play war games. The Natives were fed, clothed, boarded and paid, of course. But they can’t have been oblivious to the fact that it was an affront to their dignity. Arthur Kopit wrote the terrific play Indians about this subject, which Robert Altman made into the 1976 film Buffalo Bill and the Indians. The Wild West’s 1887 trip to London inspired Alan Moore to include Buffalo Bill’s “savages” among the suspects in his Jack the Ripper graphic novel From Hell. Chief Joseph and Geronimo were also among the famous Native American chiefs Cody employed.

In 1893, Cody pitched his show outside the Chicago World’s Fair, having been denied participation in the fair itself. He drew as many customers as the fair did. It was this incarnation of the show that inspired young Chicago native Flo Ziegfeld to go into show business.

The success of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West inspired countless competitors and imitators:

Pawnee Bill Wild West Show, 1898, Strobridge Litho. Co-500

The greatest of these was Gordon William Lillie, a.k.a Pawnee Bill, whom for some time Buffalo Bill regarded as something of a turncoat. Lillie became Pawnee Bill in 1883 when he was hired by Bufallo Bill’s Wild West to be a Pawnee interpreter. In 1886 he branched off into his own show with his wife May Manning, “The Champion Girl Horseback Shot of the West.” “Pawnee Bill’s Historic Wild West” flourished for over 20 years as Buffalo Bill’s principle competition until the two shows (which were both ailing) merged in 1908. The combined show went bankrupt a few months later.


The 101 Ranch Wild West Show, run by the Miller Brothers from their Ponca City, Oklahoma ranch, toured the US and Europe from 1907 through 1932. This show produced future western stars Tom Mix and Buck Jones


Then there were Texas Jack and Colonel Zack Mulhall, both of whom employed a young rope twirler by the name of Will Rogers (himself part Cherokee. “My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower,” he once quipped, “but they met the boat.”)

Other major players in the field included Doc Carver, Captain Jack Crawford, Buckskin Joe Hoyt, the Gabriel Brothers, Mexican Joe, the legendary outlaw Frank James and the Cole Brothers, and for a time even the major circus imprasario Adam Forepaugh dabbled in the field.

Here is some actual footage of the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West street parade down Fifth Avenue New York in 1902 taken by cameramen working for Thomas Edison. Ironically, this very technology would soon wipe out the Wild West show, and replaced it with something a bit more permanent: the Hollywood western.

But his legacies were many. There’s the town of Cody, Wyoming, which believe it or not is one of the places I went on my honeymoon! This is also the site of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, one of my favorite museums in the world.

native american heritage


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


And don’t miss 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


What Was “Black Vaudeville”?

Posted in African American Interest, Variety Arts (Defined), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2012 by travsd

Pigmeat Markham

While mainstream vaudeville provided opportunities for many African Americans, there were many limitations. African American acts were prohibited from headlining, they were numerically restricted (i.e., only one such act on the bill) and backstage they often had to use separate dressing rooms or none at all. In the Southern states, they couldn’t perform at the major theatres period, nor could black audiences patronize white theatres.

As a result, from a surprisingly early stage, an entire segregated entertainment industry arose. All-Black minstrel shows had been around since the 19th century (yes–minstrel shows, in which African Americans wore blackface and “impersonated” African Americans. It’s how blacks first broke into show business.) And African American book musicals and revues had been around since the turn of the century. In 1909, the first primarily black vaudeville circuit was established, the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA). This was an early incarnation that fizzled out. In 1921, a new version was established that was to provide employment for African American entertainers for about a decade. TOBA was often known as “Toby Time”, and, because of the poor condition of many of the houses, and the tough treatment of the acts by the management, it was often joked that the initials in T.O.B.A. stood for “Tough on Black Asses”.  Some of the artists the circuit employed included Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith (no relation),Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Leonard Reed, the Nicholas Brothers, the Will Mastin Trio (featuring a very young Sammy Davis, Jr.), Stepin Fetchit, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, “Pigmeat” Markham, “Moms” Mably, Stump and StumpyMantan Moreland, and the list goes on. In addition to the 45 theatres on the TOBA circuit (which was located in the South and Midwest), there were other, smaller all-black circuits in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. In addition to bricks-and-mortar vaudeville, travelling all black tent shows were a major factor in the rural areas. In the post vaudeville era, the national network of African American theatres became known as the “chitlin’ circuit”.

This significant underground cultural development went on largely unobserved by mainstream pop culture, until the 1950s, 60s and 70s when many of these acts began to be presented on television variety shows for the first time, changing American entertainment — and America — forever.

To this day, you can get a taste of something not too different from what audiences enjoyed on the black vaudeville circuits. It’s called Amateur Night at the Apollo. (Don’t let the name fool you)

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


What Was The Chop Suey Circuit?

Posted in Asian, Variety Arts (Defined), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on January 3, 2012 by travsd

The Chop Suey Circuit is the not-very-respectful nickname for the loose network of night clubs and supper clubs that flourished in the various Chinatowns of American metropolitan areas from the 193os through the 1950s. Generally owned by Asian Americans, they presented revues of Asian and Asian American entertainers, mostly for audiences of thrill seeking Caucasians. It was never a bona fide, organized circuit in the sense of the great burlesque and vaudeville wheels.

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.


What Is New Vaudeville?

Posted in Circus, Clown, Contemporary Variety, Jugglers, Variety Arts (Defined), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on December 5, 2011 by travsd

Avner the Eccentric

New Vaudeville is a term that nearly everyone ever associated with it disavows, and one that, for that matter, no longer obtains. The movement of artists it refers to mostly came to the fore in the 1970s and 1980s, although the roots extend back into the 1950s and 60s, and most of the artists in question remain active today. These artists were mostly circus-based acts (clowns and jugglers) and magicians, and baby boomers, who had a certain counter-cultural approach to their presentation that gently poked fun at performing tradition (or outright rejected it) even as it experimented with it. Artists and organizations typically associated with the mantle include The Flying Karamazov Brothers, Avner the Eccentric, Pickle Family Circus, Bill Irwin, Big Apple Circus, Harry Anderson and Paul Zaloom.

I’ve always found the label an egregious misnomer that mistakenly identifies vaudeville with its most outre factions and performers who are as much “circus” as they are “vaudeville”. Far more numerous (and successful) were the historical vaudevillians whose skill sets were identical to what we think of as musical comedy performers and stand-up comedians. But of course we never stopped having musical comedy performers and stand-up comedians so there was no reason to burden them with a brand name.

Still, there was definitely something interesting going on in pop culture at this time and there were a number of acts who achieved even greater success than those I just mentioned who seem related to them in sensibility. Artists I might include in this wider net are Jim Henson, Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman, Bette Midler, David Letterman, Doug Henning,Buster Pointdexter, etc etc etc  —  a long and much more variegated list of artists who were in dialogue with the past and injecting it with new life.  This artificial grouping stands out somewhat as a generation (and they are obviously no longer “New”) because they came along during the death throes of television variety (or immediately afterward) and yet predate the current environment, where the national variety scene (burlesque, vaudeville, circus and sideshow) is thriving to such an extent that it doesn’t have to label itself in reference to anything besides itself — it  simply is what it is.

To find out more about  the history of vaudeville, including new 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.


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