Archive for the Stars of Vaudeville Category

Benny’s Bride: The Elusive Mary Livingstone

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Radio (Old Time Radio), Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2017 by travsd

On this day was born was born the funny, if accidental, comedienne Mary Livingstone (Sadie Marcowitz, sometimes shortened to Marks, 1905-1983).

Livingstone grew up in Vancouver. The lore is that she met Jack Benny when Zeppo Marx brought him to a Passover seder at her family’s house circa 1919. For many years it was generally believed that Mary was a cousin of the Marx Brothers, probably on the strength of this episode and the similarity of their surnames (the Marx Bros occasionally spelled their last name “Marks” during their stage years), but it appears now not to have been the case. At any rate, she became something of a Benny groupie, purposefully crossing the comedian’s path many times until he began dating her. They married in 1927.

She appeared with him many times on the vaudeville stage, still under her given name at first. Her role in these years was more like the popular “Dumb Dora”, after the fashion of Gracie Allen.  In 1932, Benny got his own radio show, and Livingstone was to become part of his stock company, along with regulars Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Don Wilson, Kenny Baker (later replaced with Dennis Day), Phil Harris and many others. As such she became one of the best known personalities in the country. Her radio character was funny, acerbic and dry; she was perfect for Benny’s show.

Livingstone remained part of Benny’s radio cast until his show went off the air in 1955. She also made scores of appearances on television, on Benny’s program and others’ throughout the 1950s. The irony of this very public person’s life was that she was afflicted with stage fright, and was only able to perform through a great effort of will. Her joining Benny in vaudeville and on radio occurred in both cases because she was asked to fill emergency vacancies. She hadn’t sought a performing career at all. She retired in 1959, soon after Gracie Allen. Livingstone seems to have been a very tense, highly strung woman, not well liked. After hearing her performances, where she jovially banters with the top stars of the day, one is surprised to read that long-time colleagues and social friends like Lucille Ball and George Burns and Gracie Allen and even her adopted daughter Joan didn’t really like her, finding her cold, hard and distant. Her fans didn’t see her that way at all. She outlived Benny by nearly a decade, passing away in 1983.

To learn more about show business history, including vaudeville veterans like Mary Livingstone and Jack Benny, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Helene Costello: Born with Summer; the Rest Was So Much Winter

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2017 by travsd

Helene Costello (1906-1957) was born the first day of summer, June 21. She is usually spoken of as part of a pair with her older sister Dolores Costello, also an actress. Both were daughters of the patriarchal thespian Maurice Costello. Dolores is best remembered today for having been married to John Barrymore, and for starring in The Magnificent Ambersons. Helene was married and divorced herself four times; her most famous husband was actor and director Lowell Sherman.

Dolores and Helene started out as child actresses in productions of their father’s, on the legit stage, in vaudeville and in silent movies. They appeared in the 1924 edition of George White’s Scandals together. Helene was voted a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1927. As talkies began to be phased in, she was in some notable landmark features, including the semi-talkie Lights of New York (1928), and the musical revue Your Show of Shows (1929), in which she performed a number with Dolores.

At this stage, she was poised for a great career in sound films, but a long list of personal problems (two divorces, a custody battle, money woes, and drug and alcohol problems) conspired to keep her away from the camera for the first half of the 1930s, crucial years to miss. By the time she attempted a return with a small role in Riffraff (1936) it was too late to regain momentum. There followed two more decades of the very same sorts of personal difficulties, and a single walk-on role in The Black Swan (1942). She died in a psychiatric hospital in 1957.

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

Rebla: Funny Music Hall Juggler

Posted in Comedy, Jugglers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by travsd

Here’s another one for World Juggling Day. Thanks, Todd Robbins, for introducing me to this interesting artist. Albert Rebla, usually billed simply as “Rebla” (Albert James Stevens, 1880-1963) was a comedy juggler in English music hall who modeled his act very much on W.C. Fields’. British Pathe made a film short of his act in 1935; you can see sections of it on Youtube. The debt to Fields is observable in the body language. The casual, lackadaisical manner with which he manipulates the balls, as though he were just doing his job, is quite hysterical. His ability to juggle tight and small formations rapidly, and bounce balls off the floor, are also reminiscent of Fields. On the other hand, as Todd points out, his voice and patter show similarities to Joe Frisco. 

“Rebla” is of course his real first name “Albert”, reversed, minus the “t”. Rebla started out touring with the Agoust Family of Jugglers as a teenager. Originally from London, he worked with a succession of partners for years, one of whom had been as assistant to Chung Ling Soo. In addition to dates in the U.K. and on the Continent, he also appeared in American vaudeville. One finds references to him playing U.S. theatres during the teens, and Joe Laurie referred to him his book Vaudeville: From Honky Tonks to the Palace. 

In 1918 he co-produced and co-starred in a revue at the Shafterbury Theatre with Harry Lauder. he appeared in several silent films and early talkies in addition the Pathe short we mentioned, often as an actor (as opposed to simply doing a juggling turn). In 1939, he performed in an early television experiment. By the early 1940s he had moved to Australia, as many did, to work the Tivoli circuit. He died in Melbourne in 1963.

For more on the history of vaudeville and jugglers like Rebla,  consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold.

Darmody: Five Club Pioneer

Posted in Jugglers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by travsd

This year World Juggling Day, sponsored by the International Jugglers Association, falls on June 17. We take the opportunity to honor juggler James Darmody. From Boston, Darmody was a popular variety star throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is noted for being one of the first jugglers who could juggle five clubs (offering $1,000 to anyone who could match him). He is also known for juggling rifles (see illustration).

For more on the history of vaudeville, including jugglers like Darmody, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold.

Joseph Hart: The Original Foxy Grandpa

Posted in Broadway, Impresarios, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2017 by travsd

Performer, producer and songwriter Joseph Hart (Joseph Hart Boudrow, 1861-1921) was born on June 8. Hart was the nephew of Josh Hart, who managed Boston’s Howard Athenaeum. Through his uncle, he played boy’s parts in productions at the Howard, leading to a career in the professional theatre.

Hart started out as an end man in minstrel shows (including Tony Pastor’s), singing, doing comedy routines and playing the banjo. For a time, he performed in Gilbert and Sullivan musicals. In 1888 he teamed up with Frederick Hallen, and for six years they toured in the musical comedies Later on and The Idea. After splitting with Hallen in 1894, Hart spent over a decade touring (and performing on Broadway) with a succession of his own starring vehicles. From our perspective, the most notable of these would be Foxy Grandpa (1902), based on a then-popular comic strip created by Carl E. Schultze. Here he is as the rascally old gentlemen:

Why I say his Foxy Grandpa characterization is most notable to us is that Hart made ten silent Biograph film shorts in 1902. Several of these are extant and can be viewed on Youtube. I had seen these little films years ago without knowing the backstory on the performer or the comic strip. 1902 is extremely early in film history; the films are only a couple of minutes long, and contain a single shot from a single angle, and were undoubtedly created to be watched on Nickelodeon machines (Mutoscopes, in this case — “Biograph” was originally the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company”). At any rate, you can watch Hart’s funny performances any time you like — knock yourself out!

In 1904, Hart also made a comedy called A European Rest Cure with Edwin S. Porter.

From 1892, Hart’s wife and co-star was the actress and singer Carrie de Mar. Hart also toured his own vaudeville revues (much as Weber and Fields did), in opposition to the circuit model being established by the big time managers at the same time. A number of color lithographs advertising his shows survive, telling us that some of the acts who performed in his shows were Elizabeth Murray, O’Brien & Havel, The Three Rosebuds, Frank Gardiner, Smith & Campbell, the Van Aukens, and Fleurette de Mar, Carrie’s sister, a dancer, billed simply as “Fleurette”. Many of his posters (see above, which dates from 1899), touts that he is “direct from Weber and Fields’ Music Hall”, although the credit isn’t mentioned in IBDB or in From the Bowery to Broadway, which is the definitive book on Weber and Fields. If I learn what the connection was, I’ll drop it in here.

For more on the history of 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. 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 amazon.com etc etc etc. 

The Ten Most Influential Vaudevillians Of All Time

Posted in Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on June 5, 2017 by travsd

In contrast with yesterday’s post, which reported who YOUR favorite vaudeville performers are, today we share a short list of those whom we deem to have cast the longest and widest shadows in terms of influence on the culture and on other performers. Many of these entertainers cast ripples that are still being felt today. We list them in no particular order. Just click on the links to learn more about the stars in question:

Weber and Fields: The mother of all comedy teams, they influenced acts as wide ranging as the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy and countless more. Plus, they went on to help found and shape the institution we now know as Broadway. PLUS, they were the first hugely successful Jews in American show business. Incalculably influential.

Lillian Russell: I had real difficulty deciding whom was the best female singing single to put here. Women were the biggest stars in vaudeville. There is a long chain of highly successful ones leading way back before vaudeville even existed. Where to cut it off? Who was most successful? Who was “Eve”? Two pre-vaudeville examples helped pave the way: Jenny Lind as the angelic type, who helped make it acceptable for “proper” ladies to attend the theater; and Lola Montez as the naughty type, who helped set the template for what stardom would be like. Lillian Russell merged aspects of both, and came along just as vaudeville was getting off the ground, and became Tony Pastor’s biggest star, and later starred with Weber and Fields. Her early advent, the scale of her stardom, and her colorful private life I think make her the most pivotal of the “singing comediennes.”

Al Jolson: People who know him only for The Jazz Singer don’t know the first thing about him. People seem to remember him only for wearing blackface today, but blackface was near universal in his day. If anything, he is the pivotal figure in transitioning American show biz into its POST minstrelsy period. Just about every male singer of the first third of the 20th century (and many who came afterwards) patterned themselves after his big-over-the-top show biz style. Top star of Broadway, movies, and radio, for decades he was the entertainer all others were measured by.

Walker and Williams: This seminal African American vaudeville team are responsible for so many firsts: first to be stars in white vaudeville, first on Broadway, first to make record albums and movies. They popularized the cakewalk among whites as well as blacks. Many African American performers patterned themselves after this successful team, and you can see their influence in white comedy teams as well. When George Walker died an early death, Bert Williams went on to further triumphs as an artist and was widely admired by peers and audiences of all colors, in spite of the prejudices of the times.

Houdini: The great magician and illusionist was not only influential among his peers in the invention of new tricks, stunts and escapes, but he was a towering innovator in the field of self-promotion, one of the reasons his name remains a household word to this day. Houdini was so influential in his time, he had scores of imitators and even imposters using close variations on his name (e.g. “Boudini”)!

Frank Fay:  The reason you don’t see Bob Hope or Jack Benny here is that, influential though they were, they both patterned themselves after Frank Fay, widely heralded as the first modern stand-up comedian and m.c. Fay’s humor seems to have been anchored to his own era; what has survived doesn’t seem to have weathered the passage of time well, or in a way that we can understand. Nor was he able to become a major movie star like many of his peers and acolytes. But in his time he was considered King. The monologue at the top of every late night comedy tv show can be traced back to the Great Faysie.

Eva Tanguay: Tanguay pushed the envelope in terms of content, becoming notorious for both her onstage and offstage behavior, but in a way that was also kind of crazy and funny. Performers like Mae West, Sophie Tucker and Texas Guinan owed a lot to her. Oddly, Tangay may be even more influential in our time than in hers. Countless modern stars take the path blazed by Tanguay; in her own time few performers dared.

Fred Karno: Karno is the man who trained and developed Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel and dozens of others who are lesser known today, and so his impact extended well beyond the vaudeville stage — it would come to reach millions through motion pictures. Further, his “Speechless Comedians” were widely imitated on the stages of the day.

Vernon and Irene Castle: Vaudeville’s premier dance team, they were a downright craze in the teens, not only popularizing individual dance steps, but making dance (esp. modern styles) socially acceptable in the first place. Thus they were at the center in a cultural revolution. There were entire product lines with their branding on them

Gus Edwards: Edwards was the premiere producer of vaudeville kiddie acts. Not only were his sketches and productions widely imitated on vaudeville stages, but the young people he presented in those acts grew up to become stars themselves, among them people like Eddie Cantor, Groucho Marx, George Jessel, Eleanor Powell, and dozens of others.

To learn more about vaudeville and all of these vaudevillians please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

The Top Ten Vaudevillians on Travalanche (Revisited)

Posted in Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on June 4, 2017 by travsd

These Guys Don’t Even Make the Top Thousand, But I’ve Been Hunting in Vain for a Use for This Cool Photo

On a sleepy Sunday four years ago, we did a little survey to see which vaudevillians were most popular on Travalanche; the results were posted here. Noticing that the standings had changed a bit, we decided to revisit the topic this morning.

Know that now as then, these aren’t the top ten posts on Travalanche overall: other content streams, such as sideshow freaks, and movie and tv stars are among the topics that often beat out many of these vaudevillians, although the top couple are also very near the top overall. The results, as last time, are heartening, perhaps even more so now — they seem to make a bit more sense. (If you compare the lists, you’ll see what I mean; these are now all names you’d expect to make the top ten). I feel I still have work to do in terms of raising awareness of these performers and the site itself, but…all in aa day’s work. Here, then, are YOUR top ten vaudeville performers on Travalanche at this writing:

  1. Charlie Chaplin: Never surprising and genuinely heartwarming to know he’s first in the hearts of fans. He was one of the biggest stars of all time; I’m glad to know he still is.
  2. Eddie Foy and the Seven Little Foys: As before, we’re certain that traffic is driven here through periodic television showings of the bio-pic starring Bob Hope, and the fact that Travalanche fills a niche in talking about this famous kiddie act. Most gratifying.
  3. Laurel and Hardy: Naturally! As with Chaplin, still popular through ongoing movie fame.
  4. Marx Brothers: But of course. They didn’t make the list last time but all the Marxfest blogging I did changed all that.
  5. Burns and Allen: A wonderful development; they hadn’t even made the list last time. Their standings have been helped along by the addition to my own posts of a newer post by Lauren Milberger, which ranks among our top 25. They deserve to rank this high for sure.
  6. The Four Cohans: Their high ranking here very similar to that of the Foys; and for the same reason. Frequent screenings of Yankee Doodle Dandy help to spread interest.
  7. Frank Fay: Practically invented the role of master of ceremonies and modern stand-up comedian
  8. Eva Tanguay: Still ranks surprisingly high. I had never even heard of her prior to researching my book No Applause. But she is often mentioned in the media; she was incredibly influential, and a highly entertaining person to talk about.
  9. Buster Keaton (and The Three Keatons): This is a wonderful development. They hadn’t made the list before and they deserve to be near the top, both because of Buster’s ongoing movie stardom, but because of the notoriety of the family act
  10. W.C. Fields: Naturally! And helped along by the Fields Fest blogging we did a few months ago.

To learn more about vaudeville and all of these vaudevillians please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

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