Archive for the Variety Arts (Defined) Category

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

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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. 

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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 amazon.com etc etc etc

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Variety Arts #26: Black Vaudeville

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

Pigmeat Markham

This post is one in a series that defines for the layman the various types of variety arts. For the full panoply go here. We present this edition in conjunction with Black History Month.

While mainstream vaudeville provided opportunities for many African Americans (see a long list of them here), 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 vaudevilleconsult 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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Variety Arts # 25: The Chop Suey Circuit

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

This post is one in a series that defines for the layman the various types of variety arts. For the full panoply go here.

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.

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Variety Arts #24: 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

This post is one in a series that defines for the layman the various types of variety arts. For the full panoply go here.

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 vaudevilleconsult 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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Variety Arts #23: Vaudeville Talkies

Posted in Hollywood (History), My Shows, PLUGS, Variety Arts (Defined), Vaudeville etc. with tags , on November 14, 2011 by travsd

This post is one in a series that defines for the layman the various types of variety arts. For the full panoply go here.

In 1926, live vaudeville was slammed with a new type of competition in the form of variety on the silver screen. Warner Brothers came out with Vitaphone that year, a means of syncing up sound recording with films. Experimental talking shorts (almost all starring top vaudevillians) followed. These little films were almost precisely analogous to a vaudeville act in length and format. Very often done in one single long shot with no edits (much like the earliest silent films), the film would simply depict the performer doing their act, as though it were for a live audience.

This innovation was a double edged sword. On the one hand, it was deadly competition for live vaudeville. Edward Albee declared Vitaphone to be on the “opposition list”, i.e. off limits to big time vaudeville acts, just as he had done earlier with radio. But the acts chose Vitaphone (or its competitor Fox Movietone) just the same.

On the other hand, films did vaudeville a service even as they were killing it: by preserving it. In addition to the original flood of Vitaphone shorts in the late 20s and early 30s, Warner Brothers did a series called Vitaphone Vaudeville from 1934-36 that captured small bills of 4-5 acts for distribution to cinemas. Between these two series and Fox Movietones, the studios (probably without meaning to) made it possible for us to sit down today and look at a record of many of the major and some of the minor acts of late vaudeville.

Since, 1991 The Vitaphone Project has made a Herculean effort to find and restore these old Vitaphones. Many of their efforts are now available as Warner Brothers re-releases on DVD, can be seen on Youtube (or on this blog), or in regular screenings curated by the Vitaphone Project’s Ron Hutchison at the Film Forum. For more on the Vitaphone Project go here.

And now some more exciting news. This week, the American Vaudeville Theatre and Travalanche, in collaboration with Vaudevisuals.com will be launching Vaudephone, our latter-day tribute to the original Vitaphone and MovieTone vaudeville series, revitalized for the Vimeo Age. Every week, look for a new Vaudephone segment starring a contemporary variety star. We launch tomorrow with our first guest, the terrific Poor Baby Bree. Please check it out!

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.

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Variety Arts #22: U.S.O.

Posted in Variety Arts (Defined), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on October 30, 2011 by travsd

This post is one in a series that defines for the layman the various types of variety arts. For the full panoply go here.

70 years ago today, the United Services Organization (U.S.O.) established its Camp Shows division. (Note that this was over two months before Pearl Harbor. It was already pretty clear where events were headed). Vaudeville had already died nearly a decade earlier. Its biggest stars now worked in films and or in radio; of the thousands of other performers, those who hadn’t prematurely retired were now hanging on by their thumbs. While it’s become well-known history that stars like Bob Hope, Al Jolson, Martha Raye, and practically everybody else began entertaining troops in our theatres of war in WWII, it’s probably lesser known that the U.S.O. employed countless out-of-work former vaudevillians: singers, dancers, comedians, acrobats, magicians, etc etc etc. By 1944, the U.S.O. had over 3,000 “clubs”, making it by far the largest vaudeville circuit that had ever existed.

For entertainers it was an artificial reprieve. Many of the vaudevillians who’d managed to hang on through the 1930s were finally forced to retire once the U.S.O. initially disbanded following World War Two. One of vaudeville’s countless “second deaths”.

Now, I’m the first to agree that the U.S.O. had a much more important mission than keeping a bunch of vaudevillians employed, and that was lightening up the lives of the troops, who have to do jobs and see things that most of us couldn’t possibly imagine. The U.S.O. is still doing that very same job right now in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hats off to them today!

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.

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Variety Arts #21: Varieta

Posted in Italian, Variety Arts (Defined) with tags , on October 10, 2011 by travsd

Still from Fellini's "Variety Lights" (1950)

This post is one in a series that defines for the layman the various types of variety arts. For the full panoply go here.

 Varieta, also known as the caffe-concerto, refers to Italian vaudeville. More modest in scope and less-well known than Black or Yiddish vaudeville (which we’ll be profiling here in months to come), the American version of this circuit began in New York’s and Hoboken’s Italian neighborhoods early in the twentieth century and continued on into 30s and 40s and in some ways continues in cafes, restaurants, social halls fraternal lodges, churches, and street fairs in the region. Two popular New Vaudevillians, Larry Pisoni of Pickle Family Circus, and Uncle Floyd Vivino, had grandparents who came up through varieta. As you can imagine, this type of show is heavily musical, rich in singers and musicians. I was fortunate to be able to present one of the kings of contemporary varieta, Marcantonio at one of my shows in 2006.

To learn more about the variety arts past and presentconsult 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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Variety Arts #20: Vaudeville

Posted in Variety Arts (Defined), Vaudeville etc. with tags on July 21, 2011 by travsd

This post is one in a series that defines for the layman the various types of variety arts, and to relate some of my own interactions therewith, all in anticipation of my upcoming show Trav S.D.’s American Vaudeville Theatre 15th Anniversary ExTRAVaganza.

When Groucho Marx and Charlie Chaplin were born, variety entertainment had been going on for decades in America, and like Harry Houdini, Milton Berle, Mae West, and countless others, these performers got their start on the vaudeville stage. From 1881 to 1932, vaudeville, (a nationwide system of theatre circuits specializing in variety entertainment) was at the heart of show business in the States. Its stars were America’s first stars in the modern sense, and it utterly dominated American popular culture. Writer and modern-day vaudevillian Trav S.D. chronicles vaudeville’s far-reaching impact in No Applause–Just Throw Money. He explores the many ways in which vaudeville’s story is the story of show business in America and documents the rich history and cultural legacy of our country’s only purely indigenous theatrical form, including its influence on everything from USO shows to Ed Sullivan to The Muppet Show and The Gong Show. More than a quaint historical curiosity, vaudeville is thriving today, and Trav S.D. pulls back the curtain on the vibrant subculture that exists across the United States–a vast grassroots network of fire-eaters, human blockheads, burlesque performers, and bad comics intent on taking vaudeville into its second century.

To learn more about the variety arts past and presentconsult 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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Variety Arts #19: Radio and Television

Posted in Radio, Television, TV variety, Variety Arts (Defined) with tags , , on July 21, 2011 by travsd

This post is one in a series that defines for the layman the various types of variety arts, and to relate some of my own interactions therewith, all in anticipation of my upcoming show Trav S.D.’s American Vaudeville Theatre 15th Anniversary ExTRAVaganza.

One of the points I make in No Applause is that vaudeville THE FORM didn’t die (at least in the 1930s), it just switched the medium of delivery. In other words, though people stopped going to the theatre, they still got plenty of vaudeville in their own living rooms through radio and television. This is certainly the means through which this correspondent fell in love with it in the 1970s.

On NBC’s maiden broadcast on November 14, 1926, listeners heard Will Rogers, Weber and Fields, Eddie Cantor, the Ben Bernie Orchestra and opera singer Mary Garden. Day in, day out, from here on in this was business as usual, with scores of vaudeville performers being booked to fill the air time. The following year, CBS was launched, increasing the demand for radio talent yet again. Audiences for the new product grew exponentially. 3 million houses already had radios in 1927. By the end of the 1930’s, the number had grown ten fold.

In the 30s, vaudeville stars like Cantor, Burns and Allen, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Ed Wynn, Fanny Brice, and all of the big band leaders of the day, became major radio stars. To enjoy them, you didn’t have to take your bathrobe off. You didn’t even have to get out of bed. Going to a vaudeville theatre to see stars is kind of illogical when all the vaudevillians are coming to you live through your own furniture.

Of course, as a sound-only medium, the dynamic was somewhat different. There’s that old joke — a true story — about tap dancing on radio. Clearly such acts as dancers, acrobats, mimes and animal acts made little sense on radio. Oddly, the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen became one of its greatest stars, even though you couldn’t see his dummies (or his lips). So radio became mostly a haven for comedians, actors, singers and musicians.

Then, a few years later, technology changed the game again, with a device that addressed the problem of the missing picture.

In 1947, Variety ran an ad which proclaiming “Vaudeville if Back! The Golden Era of Variety begins with the Premiere of Texaco Star Theatre on Television”. Milton Berle’s hit program was joined that year by Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town, the next year by The Admiral Broadway Revue starring Sid Caesar, and Cavalcade of Stars, featuring first Jack Carter, then Jackie Gleason. 1950 saw the debut of The Ken Murray Show; The Colgate Comedy Hour (with guest hosts such as Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope and Jimmy Durante); and The Four Star Revue (with Durante, Wynn, Danny Thomas, and Jack Carson as alternating hosts). The Red Skelton Show launched in 1951, the critically-acclaimed Red Buttons Show in 1952. The Tonight Show, starring Steve Allen, the son of two vaudevillians, began in 1954. In 1964, a variety show called The Hollywood Palace, specifically modeled on its Times Square namesake, debuted on ABC, and held its own in the ratings until it went off in 1970.

Some of the performances I saw on old Ed Sullivan shows on a recent trip to the Museum of Television and Radio (now called the Paley Center) in New York: comedy duo Wayne and Schuster; ukulele freak Tiny Tim; a star-studded Irving Berlin tribute; Maurice Chevalier; Sophie Tucker; Carl Sandburg reading poems; a Russian dance troupe; stars of the Metropolitan Opera (featuring Joan Sutherland); Bert Lahr; Smith and Dale; ballet dancers;  plate spinners; fire eaters; teeterboard tumblers; trick cyclists; trampoline artists; trained elephants, tigers, dogs; a Van Kliburn piano recital; Judy Garland singing Chaplin’s song “Smile”. When the Ed Sullivan show went off the air in 1972, vaudeville was said to have died its second death. But, we all know even that ain’t so, don’t we, readers?

To learn more about the variety arts past and presentconsult 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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Variety Arts #18: Chautauquas

Posted in Variety Arts (Defined) with tags on July 21, 2011 by travsd

Thanks be to the Countess for finding this photo

This post is one in a series that defines for the layman the various types of variety arts, and to relate some of my own interactions therewith, all in anticipation of my upcoming show Trav S.D.’s American Vaudeville Theatre 15th Anniversary ExTRAVaganza.

Chautauquas were a successor to the Lyceum movement of the 19th century, augmenting the usual menu of educational lectures and religious sermons with music, recitals of poetry and drama, humorous monologues and light entertainment. The first of these was the  institution at Chautauqua Lake, New York, founded 1874 (still extant). Other “Chautauquas” spread throughout the U.S. and peaked in popularity in the 1920s. The genteel nature of much early vaudeville stand-up comedy (as we now call it) can be gleaned by the fact that many monologists (such as the hunchbacked humorist Marshall P. Wilder, and thespian DeWolf Hopper) worked in both arenas. (Coincidentally, both gentlemen are pictured above, doing a parody of Romeo and Juliet. See the Countess’s Tumblr blog for more in this vein).

But the fare wasn’t all high brow. Animal acts and acrobats and the like could also be part of the mix. Many of Edgar Bergen’s early ventriloquism performances were at Chautauquas. There’s always a scale with poles of extremity, isn’t there? Just as vaudeville was more genteel and “proper” than burlesque and concert saloons, Chautaquas could boast to be moreso than vaudeville. At any rate, some of these institutions, like the original, remain around the country to edify and ennoble the American spirit.

To learn more about the variety arts past and presentconsult 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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