Archive for the Circus Category

Spotlight on The Last Great Circus Flyer doc & interview with director Philip Weyland

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Circus, Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , on October 23, 2015 by travsd


A new circus doc —

Originally posted on :

There’s something so inherently fascinating and magnetic the first time I heard the name The Last Great Circus Flyer. It’s one of the seven documentaries playing at TCFF I look forward to the most. The film focuses on Miguel Vazguez, who performed ‘the greatest feat in all of circus history’ during a Ringling performance in 1982. Vazquez’s “Quad’ was a premiere attraction at Ringling Bros., and the largest circuses in Europe until 1994, when, at the apex of his career, Vazquez unexpectedly quit flying.


Check out the trailer:

TCFF Screening Time(s): 
10/23/2015  (10:30 AM)  |  10/25/2015  (7:00 PM)

I had the privilege of chatting with director Philip Weyland about the genesis of the project, approacing Miguel about making it, his opinion about circus as a form of entertainment, and more!

THANK YOU Mr. Weyland for taking the time to share these wonderful and fascinating insights about your film.


Q: What motivated…

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Stars of Vaudeville #916: Bird Millman

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Circus, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , on October 20, 2015 by travsd


Today is the birthday of high-wire artiste Bird Millman (Jennadean Engleman, 1890-1940). Born in Colorado, she started out with her parents in small circus an act called the Millman Trio. By 1904, the family was playing Big Time vaudeville at such venues at Keith’s Union Square and Hammerstein’s Victoria. In time the act became built solely around Bird as the star, and other performers were hired in support. She was internationally famous, playing dates from the Palace in New York to the Wintergarten in Berlin. She was often praised for her grace, and words like “elf”, “fairy” and “sprite” were often used to describe her. In 1913 she became one of the stars of the Barnum and Bailey circus (which later merged with Ringling Bros).

Screen Shot 2014-05-18 at 6.49.22 PM

Off season she would play vaudeville and Broadway revues like Ziegfeld’s Follies and Frolics, and John Murray Anderson’s Greenwich Village Follies. Unfortunately she and her third husband lost their entire fortunes in the stock market crash in 1929. He husband (Joseph Francis O’Day) died shortly after that, and Millman retired to Colorado where she died ten years later.

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.


Tonight at Coney: Unicycles!

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, ACTS, Circus, Coney Island, Contemporary Variety, PLUGS with tags , , on September 4, 2015 by travsd


A Trip to the Shelburne Museum

Posted in AMERICANA, Circus, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, PLUGS, SOCIAL EVENTS, Travel, VISUAL ART with tags , , , on July 13, 2015 by travsd


Visiting the progeny in Burlington, Vermont over the weekend we were privileged to have the opportunity to spend some time at the nearby Shelburne Museum on Saturday. Founded by Electra Havemeyer Webb in 1947, it’s an enormous multi-acre complex, a sort of collection of collections, embracing Americana, folk art, history, circus and a dozen others disciplines calculated to tickle my antiquarian fancy. As the former employee of a certain New York art and historical institution, I’d heard of the Shelburne Museum before, but I’d had no idea of the scale. The immense grounds are part of the experience — it’s really more like an amusement park (in size, at any rate) than a museum. In our 2-3 hours we were only able to cover a small portion of the place.


The Round Barn. Lives up to its name, doesn’t it?


A working carousel!

Behind the carousel: the museum’s circus building, an entire structure devoted to circus collections. (Now we understand why the Big Apple Circus used to include Shelburne in their annual tour).


Here is the Kirk Bros Circus, 3500 wooden pieces carved between 1910 and 1956 by Edgar Kirk.

Nearby, the Arnold Circus Parade, comprised of 4,ooo pieces. This, in a long horse-shoe shaped hall containing dozens of photographs, lithographs, posters, and actual carousel horses, wagons and chariots.


We were especially enamored of this Spanish-American War era piece of carousel art depicting Uncle Sam giving the upstart Spain the beat-down William Randolph Hearst felt he so badly deserved. Enjoy the ride, children!

From Vermont Photo Mag

Nearby, the Beach Lodge, a TR style hunting resort full of safari trophies, including stuffed bears (including one that was reportedly bagged by Ms. Webb herself), moose, wapiti, mountain goats, and even a walrus. (Goo goo g’joob!)


Then a steam train, along with a 1915 private rail car called the Grand Isle, a sumptuous Gilded Age conveyance that has hosted many U.S. Presidents. Adjacent is a fully furnished period rail station.


This covered bridge (like all the dozens of historic buildings on the property) was transported to the Shelburne Museum from elsewhere. Looks like they forgot to move the river!


OK, this one was too much: The Ticonderoga, an entire 1906 paddle wheel steamship that used to service Lake Champlain. Every deck is accessible. On board is a 1925 Durant touring car and a Ford truck from around the same period.


Then, the A. Tuckaway General Store and Apothecary Shop!


Here’s what it looked like inside.


And who could forget the the Henry Tilton Lummus Straight Razor Collection? It was all we could do to drag the Mad Marchioness away! Don’t mind me! I’m just fond of turtlenecks from now on!


And a full supply of leeches! A. Tuckaway is proud to satisfy all your leech needs!

Then upstairs we encountered a dentist’s office, doctor’s office, and an optometrist’s shop, all appropriately barbaric and apt to make one appreciative that it is 2015.


In the Stagecoach Inn (circa 1787) we found a crazy thorough folk art collection full of wooden carvings, paintings (I saw a Grandma Moses), tavern signs, cigar store Indians, ship figureheads, weathervanes, duck decoys, snuff boxes, mugs, stoneware, quilts, glass canes, goblets, swan tureens, and of course the William Paley Trivet Collection 


This is Jack Tar. At night when it gets dark and you are snug in your bed he will waddle up the stairs and eat you.

And if that isn’t frightening enough, nearby is the Hall of Terrifying Dolls. Well, they don’t actually call it that, but the museum does house enough antique dolls, dollhouses, Victorian toys, automata, creepy clowns, gollywogs and drumming monkeys for approximately 1,100 horror movies.


After this, we had to screw our heads back on, so we headed over to the Museum’s Pizzagelli Center for Art and Education for the tasteful traveling exhibition American Moderns, 1910-1960: From O’Keefe to Rockwellorganized by own Brooklyn Museum. (Look familiar? That’s why!) It’ll be in Shelburne June 13 – September 13.

And a heads up to all circus freaks! Two circus shows at the Shelburne Museum this week! This Friday July 17: Night Circus: info and tickets here , and on Sunday July 19, a family event called Circus-Palooza, info and tickets for that here. 

Needless to say, not only do we want to go back and see the REST of this amazing, magical museum, but we also want to see the parts we ALREADY saw again and again and again. In fact, now we want to live there! Perhaps in a berth on the sumptuous Ticonderoga, where I can get a clear shot at the invading army of nocturnal ghost dolls before they come up the gangplank to try and kill us!

Joe Cook: Rain or Shine

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Broadway, Circus, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2015 by travsd


Okay, today is Louise Fazenda’s birthday; yesterday was Tom Howard’s.  I recently visited Joe Cook’s house and an exhibition about his life and career, and TCM played Rain or Shine a couple of weeks ago (I watched this past weekend). The stars are obviously aligned for a post about this movie.

Rain or Shine (1930) was the culmination of the career of a man many people thought was the top performer in show business. Today scarcely anyone remembers either Joe Cook or this movie or the Broadway show it was based on.  There is a lesson there of some sort. I don’t think Cook deserved his present obscurity; but you just don’t know what people will remember.


You can read my full article about Cook here. He was regarded as one of the most skilled performers in vaudeville and certainly one of its top stars. Interestingly, unlike most of the top performers, Cook’s core (non-comic) skills were not as a singer or a dancer (although he could do those things) but as an acrobat. He was an amazing juggler, he could walk a slackwire, he could walk up a ramp atop a large ball. He had about ten other similar skills and then on TOP of this he was a brilliant, very zany comedian, very surreal, not unlike Ed Wynn or Groucho Marx or Bobby Clark. He did monologues, but he also used funny props. From vaudeville he stepped into Broadway revues (Earl Carroll’s Vanities) in the 1920s, and from there into his own solo vehicle, designed to showcase all his talents. Rain or Shine ran on Broadway for almost the entirety of 1928.

Based on the strength of its stage success, Columbia acquired the show and cast members Cook, his stooge Dave Chasen, and Tom Howard  to appear in it, and assigned the studio’s best director Frank Capra to direct it (four years before the breakthrough It Happened One Night). A circus story with the usual circus plot (so as to showcase Cook’s unique skills) Rain or Shine reminds me a lot of Marilyn Miller’s Sunny or W.C. Fields’ Poppy.

The Obligatory Romantic Plot

The Obligatory Romantic Plot

Former silent comedy star Louise Fazenda plays a young lady who has inherited a circus from her father but business has taken a downturn. Cook plays the circus manager who vows to save the show for her. William Collier Jr is his rival for the girl (and the more successful one – Cook, being a “clown”, can’t get the girl by definition, he just gets pathos). Collier is the male ingenue. His character has money he can invest in  the show and he also wants to marry Miller.

For comic relief, Tom Howard plays a local businessman who comes demanding payment on bills and gets swindled by Cook into being a partner in the circus. (Cook does a lot of his patented “doubletalk” in the film). Dave Chasen was of course Cook’s stooge on stage and screen. In the film I find him to come across as a rather annoying unfunny semi-mute….but interesting as a historical curiosity. (not unlike Fred Sanborn, Ted Healy’s fourth stooge). With his mop of big curly hair he seems like a third rate Harpo Marx.


At all events, while the main circus plot is going on, a couple of ruthless guys at the circus plot a takeover and organize a strike.(none of the performers have been paid in weeks).  Other highlights of the film include a brawl, the titular rain storm, and a circus fire. They survive it all! (BTW, the show was originally a musical so there would have been songs as well, but these were cut from the film to accommodate changing tastes.) At the climax of the film, (a showcase for Cook’s famously diverse vaudeville skills) Cook fills in for all the other circus performers, doing their tricks, ball walking, slackwire, etc. Undeniably impressive.

Rain or Shine is an uneasy mix. Capra likes to craft real stories with “heart”…whereas Cook, Howard and Chasen are zanies. There is one scene where the tension is greatest, when there is an ebgagement dinner at Collier’s family’s mansion  and the plan is to impress his rich parents so our heroes can get money for the circus. But Cook and company embarrass her and tip their hand.  But the comedians are too crazy in the scene – it’s a bit of a vaudeville routine, and doesn’t accomplish what the scene is designed to because nothing real transpires. It’s funny but doesn’t serve the plot. It’s interesting because it’s the same sort of conundrum the Marx Brothers would face when they began to make pictures with MGM. An internal conflict between the surreal and the real.


I’m on the fence though about Cook’s thespians skills, and somehow he clearly didn’t click with movie audiences. He returned to Broadway and did a couple more  shows which did moderately well and didn’t return to films for five years, in a series of low budget shorts with Al Christie. And he also made a low-budget western called Arizona Mahoney and a bunch of additional Broadway shows, culminating n It Happened on Ice (1941), his last hoorah.

Rain or Shine is an interesting curio, and I’d been dying to see it for over a decade so was thrilled to get to finally watch it.

To find out 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.


To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


Tomorrow on TCM: A Rare Joe Cook Feature

Posted in Broadway, Circus, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jugglers, Movies, Nuts and Eccentrics, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on June 1, 2015 by travsd


Well, this old vaudeville lover is busting at the seams, and you orta be, too. Tomorrow at 10:15am (EST) TCM will be showing the 1930 film Rain or Shine, directed by Frank Capra and starring the great Joe Cook.

Almost unknown today, Cook was one of the top vaudeville and Broadway stars of the teens and twenties, easily a peer of the likes of the Marx Brothers, Ed Wynn and Bert Lahr. There’s not much film of him though, which is one reason why he has been less remembered. In addition to this feature, there are numerous comedy shorts for Education Pictures, and a 1936 western called Arizona Mahoney, which also features Buster Crabbe. The latter picture doesn’t give much sense of Cook’s crazily diverse range of skills. Rain or Shine, which is set in a circus, apparently does. So I can’t wait to see it. For more on vaudeville superman Cook, read my full autobiographical post here. 

To find out 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.


For more on early film comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc




A Jaunt to Lake Hopatcong and Environs

Posted in Circus, Travel, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on May 11, 2015 by travsd

With spring in full swing yesterday I finally took Kathy Biehl (our Margaret Dumont from I’ll Say She Is) up on her offer to show me around the former show biz resort of Lake Hopatcong. Folks who used to summer there included Lotta Crabtree, Joe Cook, Bert Lahr, and Bud Abbott. The main lure was the Lake Hopatcong Historical Museum which has special exhibitions on the folks who summered there, with a particular emphasis on the elusive Joe Cook. But there are some historical old theatres in the region, and some notable show biz domiciles as well. Here’s what we saw:


The Baker Theatre in Dover NJ was built as a combination cinema and vaudeville house in 1906. Learn more about it here. 


The Palace Theatre in Netcong, NJ was built in 1919 as a combination film and vaudeville house. Today it houses a children’s theatre called The Growing Stage. Learn more about the theatre here.


Joe Cook’s piano, the centerpiece of the Lake Hopatcong Historical Museum’s exhibition on the vaudeville, Broadway and film comedian. It is etched with the autographs of dozens of show business luminaries who attended parties at Cook’s house on the lake, whimsically known as “Sleepless Hollow”. We also went there! Check it out:


Because I have no class I also walked up the driveway and photographed the house itself:



In nearby Jefferson Township, one can find the former Alfred T. Ringling (of the Ringling Brothers) estate , finished in 1916. The 28 room manor in the photograph above is now a Franciscan monastary. The 1,000 acre estate (which used to double as a winter quarters for the circus) was ignominiously cut up in later years and is now full of public roads and houses.


Our last stop: the former vaudeville house and cinema called The Darress Theatre (built 1919) in Boonton, NJ. Kathy Biehl (who has performed there) assures me that it’s haunted, and I believe her!


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