Archive for the Drag and/or LGBT Category

Buffoon Men: Classic Hollywood Comedians and Queered Masculinity

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Comedians, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Drag and/or LGBT with tags , , , on February 25, 2015 by travsd

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It’s long been an observation of mine that our greatest (male) film comedians have as one of the chief quivers in their arsenals the ability to go into “female.” What I refer to is distinct from full-on drag, which plenty of them engage in as well. I’m talking about a momentary “quotation” of female behavior, usually employed as a strategy to wriggle out of a thorny situation, usually to confuse, confound, irritate or otherwise muddle an adversary. Chaplin does it in practically every movie; Groucho does it in the early Marx Brothers pictures (especially Monkey Business). But really they all do it.

In light of this observation, and because I have been working so closely with Theatre Askew for the past several months, I was delighted to stumble on Buffoon Men: Classic Hollywood Comedians and Queered Masculinity. Queer studies is not synonymous with LGBT…it is broad enough to include everything remotely gender-ambiguous. It’s not about being gay in other words, but bending the definition of traditional gender roles, in this case exploding traditional notions of masculinity. In this context I can’t help but remember how my father (a fan of westerns) couldn’t bear Woody Allen or Bob Hope, or many of the other “cowardly” comedians. These comedians are men who dare not to be “men”. The very notion, to some, is subversive and threatening.

The existence of this book is the most eloquent explanation I think for where somebody like me and Theatre Askew overlap, for the comedians Scott Balcerzak treats of are all my heroes: Eddie Cantor, Wheeler and Woolsey, Jack Benny, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott & Costello, Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope, and even W.C. Fields! Each hits a different slant: with Fields, it’s the neutered state of middle age; with Cantor, the different conception of the male role within Jewish culture; with Laurel and Hardy, it’s the skirting of homosexuality implied by their close friendship.

It’s an academic tome, thus something of a turgid read. It has its thesis, and sets out to prove it, drip by drip and drop by drop. I found it an enjoyable skim, but it’s main audience I think will be fellow academics with theses of their own to prove. The book is a fine resource of original observations and examples. It’s a courageous take on some much-beloved Sacred Cows, and it’s full of undeniable truth.

Busby Berkley Dreams: Tribute to the Music of Stephin Merritt

Posted in Burlesk, Contemporary Variety, Drag and/or LGBT, PLUGS with tags , , , on January 15, 2015 by travsd

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Bring a Dead Star Back to Life!

Posted in Drag and/or LGBT, Indie Theatre, Melodrama and Master Thespians, My Shows, PLUGS with tags , , , on January 8, 2015 by travsd

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Not this one! The one above, Miss Molly Pope, is the very definition of ALIVE, which is why she was cast as the most electrifying star of the 19th century, the one and only Adah Isaacs Menken (1835-1868)

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Hubba hubba, right?

If Menken had been born a few decades later she might have been in burlesque, vaudeville, and dare we say films, and she’d be much more widely known today. But she wasn’t, so she ain’t. But as you’ll glean from my new play Horseplay, or the Fickle Mistress: A Protean Picaresque (opening at LaMama’s Ellen Stewart Theater in just over a month), her legacy in American show business, public relations and sex in the public sphere is wide and broad. And when we say “broad”, we mean “what a broad!” (Sorry)

Anyway, the wonderful folks at Theatre Askew are producing this labor of love. They want to tell you how YOU can help make a good show even better. Please listen to what they have to say. They may even disarm you as they did me, and give you a chuckle in the bargain. It’s all right chere: http://igg.me/p/horseplay-or-the-fickle-mistress/x/9511043

Gary Beeber: The “Mona” Series

Posted in Drag and/or LGBT, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, PLUGS, VISUAL ART with tags , , , on January 8, 2015 by travsd

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You’ve no doubt heard the name Gary Beeber here many a time. He co-produced the edition of Angie Pontani’s Burlesque-a-pades I got to direct, was the long-time producer of Gotham Burlesque, and has made many cool documentaries, most famously this one about Dirty Martini. But his main gig has always been photography. The Houston Center for Photography has just put on an online exhibition of Gary’s photos of NYC transgendered nightlife personality Mona Marlow. See that exhibition here and more Gary Beeber photos here.

“Nefertitty in Space” and Why Lola Rock’N’Rolla is Our Favorite Film-maker

Posted in African American Interest/ Blackface/ Minstrelsy, CAMP, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Drag and/or LGBT, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2014 by travsd

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I don’t think it’s too much to say that Lola Rock’N’Rolla is now my favorite film-maker. The Mad Marchioness and I attended the world premiere of Lola’s new opus Nefertitty in Space at Anthology Film Archives on Monday, and only just now am I recovering from the onslaught of camp excellence, let alone the excitement of seeing so much burlesque, drag and variety royalty all in one place: Hovey Burgess, Murray Hill, World Famous Bob, Gal Friday, Albert Cadabra, David Bishop, Legs Malone etc etc etc not to mention the film’s star The Maine Attraction who sat behind us with her highly supportive mom.

Maine falls on top of me with her drink

Maine almost falls on top of me with her drink

“I just wanna be John Waters!” Lola declared at the end of the festivities…and we do indeed need someone to fill that niche now, have needed that for TEN BLOODY YEARS, because that is when Waters made his last friggin’ movie (his most recent planned film project, a Christmas movie called Fruitcake died in the oven back in 2008). But there is so much of her own that Lola brings to the table that I think calling her the heir to John Waters would be selling her short (as much as we need an heir to John Waters). For one, her love of genre seems wider, deeper and more ambitious than Waters, who has always been pretty strictly focused on exploitation films. In a manner that reminds me of the Kuchar Brothers, her “B movies” attempt big budget spectacle, and she dares pay homage to classics with reach beyond cult aficionados.

Her first film Dragzilla (2002) is like an opening salvo in a campaign to conquer the underground, one cardboard building at a time:

Then there is her zombie send-up Night of the Living Gay (2006):

And who could forget I Was a Tranny Werewolf (2009):

Whereas Waters is a genius of effect, and certainly a genius of comedy, there is something to be said for the focused messaging of Lola’s films. Like Waters, she is a gay film-maker. In her films she frequently returns to the theme of queer people and other outsiders as monsters, and ridicules that representation, which in the end amounts to a simultaneous catharsis, exorcism and celebration.

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In the Nefertitty series, she ups the ante by helping us do the same thing about race. In these blaxploitation send-ups, burlesque star The Maine Attraction plays the titular ‘titty, a foul-mouthed, street-wise ghetto chic SOMETHING. Is she even a cop or a private eye like Pam Grier’s characters? I don’t think so. I think she’s just herself: Nerfertitty, a blaxploitation heroine qua blaxploitation heroine (I said “heroine”, not “heroin”).

Now, this is a genre ripe for parody. In fact even when it was originally in full-bloom, the classics of the genre were usually smart self-parodies, 1972’s Blacula being the supreme example. Mel Brooks went there early with Blazing Saddles (1974), although he flinched from going all out (originally the film was to have starred Richard Pryor — that would have been a VERY different movie). Then Keenan Ivory Wayans went there for real in I’m Gonna Get You Sucka (1988), Quentin Tarantino produced a loving tongue-in-cheek homage in Jackie Brown (1997), and Scott Sanders created a dead-on formal spoof in Black Dynamite (2009). (Judging by that time-table it looks like the world wants a blaxploitation satire flick every ten years).

The original Nefertitty joint came out in 2011:

Several things about Nefertitty set it apart. One is context. This is a Lola Rocknrolla film. We know there’s more to it than a stand-alone goof because we have her whole body of work to look at, and it’s plain from the way she tells the story. There is no pussyfooting here. The film-maker and her actors jump with both feet into stereotype (both black and white) like it was a swimming pool full of champagne. But there is something else at work. Blaxploitation has always been a complicated genre (as have many previous forms of American show business). At best it’s an unresolveable question. Yes those historical films back in the early ’70s did emphatically NOT depict a lot of black doctors, statesmen, philosophers and rocket scientists, but instead a bunch of pimps, hookers, junkies and drug dealers (and, the brothers and sisters who bust them). But on the other hand, the form was chic, its stars were admired and set the fashions throughout the show biz world for the entire decade. For better or worse, people EMULATED these films. And this was the first time in history black Americans had a widespread cinematic format in which to take chances, stretch their legs, and just BE….as opposed to playing menials, servants and sidekicks in a “white story”. And though blaxploitation films were the farthest thing from a representative “black story”, they were a mainstream forum for black acting, black music, and black culture in general. There is a certain palpable joy and liberated energy in these movies. (We watched Shaft, Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem and the Blacula films on TCM just a few weeks ago, so it’s all fresh in my head.) As Nerfertitty, Maine Anders broadcasts that exhilarating feeling of “owning it” that is the whole performance style. Then she compounds that feeling with the giddy gas of getting to send it up, all done with a wicked, mischievous gleam in her eye worthy of Arlecchino.

The other major stereotype in blaxploitation films is, duh, whites, invariably rendered as uptight assholes, clueless idiots, white collar criminals, shifty public officials, wanna-be fascists, and sometimes wanna-be blacks. Playing it this way was a stroke of genius on the parts of producers (apart from any intentional character defamation they may have engaged in): it struck the perfect balance between manipulating the resentments of black audiences, and stoking the sublimated guilt feelings of white ones. Lola goes here big time in both Nefertitty films. In fact, the big plague infecting the ghetto in the first Nefertitty is an insidious cocaine that turns the user into an albino honky. And here is Anders as an ofay police captain in Nefertitty in Space (like Eddie Murphy or Martin Lawrence she plays multiple characters in both films):

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Second is that, as always (and this is something that Lola can definitely be said to have inherited from Waters, and others such as Russ Meyers) she turns the heat WAY the hell up on the playing style. Here too (I’m assuming) she’s a conscious heir to the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which developed an entire playing style along these lines (and Lola has also done theatre, a show called Homo: The Musical.) This isn’t mere acting; this is PERFORMANCE. This is SHOW BIZ. It’s a movie as a “movie”, with no reality beyond the line-by-line, shot-by-shot immediate need to entertain and engage the audience. If your attention flags while watching this movie, you have issues and you probably need to check in someplace where they give you a pill and a plastic cup of water twice a day.

And, as always, Lola smashes in other genres and brings her insane imagination to bear, which takes this far, far beyond the realm of mere blaxploitation spoof, because no blaxploitation flick ever did anything as weird or as outre as smashing together blaxploitation with gay camp with Star Wars, as she does in Nefertitty in Space, in which the villain is the World Famous Bob as a floating, topless, tassled torso, who uses her breasts as a “white sabre”, shooting a ray that turns her victims into valley-girl talkin’ crackers. It’s clever casting indeed to give a gal named ‘titty an arch nemesis like World Famous Bob, whose pendulous jugs are the Eighth and Ninth Wonders of the World.

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At all events, here’s the trailer to the new film. It’s just about to make the rounds on the festival circuit and I’ll warrant it’ll soon be available online as well. Bottom line: all hail Lola Rock’N’Roller, whose movies put the spring back in my step big time.

Dr. Sketchy’s Returns Tomorrow: with Sammy Tramp!

Posted in Burlesk, Drag and/or LGBT, PLUGS, VISUAL ART with tags , , on November 21, 2014 by travsd

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Francis Leon: Minstrelsy’s Greatest Female Impersonator

Posted in African American Interest/ Blackface/ Minstrelsy, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Drag and/or LGBT, Variety Theatre with tags , , , , , , on November 21, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Francis Leon (Francis Patrick Glassey, b. 1844). Eventually billed simply as “Leon” or “The Only Leon”, he was the foremost female impersonator in blackface minstrelsy.

Let it be known that the category of the “wench” was universally popular in minstrel shows — every comedian did drag, just like every comedian did blackface in the 19th century: if you didn’t, what good were you? But Leon was different from those lowbrow clowns. He was a hardcore female impersonator in the modern, vaudeville sense. He upped the ante, by being as convincing as humanly possible in his portrayals. It was no longer necessarily about comedy, it was about beauty and histrionic ability.

He went into show biz in his early teens. Because of his training as a boy soprano in church choirs he was able to mimic prima donnas, making him a novelty in minstrel shows. Rather than laying on burnt cork, he often portrayed “high yellow” dames, i.e. mulattoes. It’s said that there were as many as 300 dresses in his wardrobe, some of them costing as much as $400 — and astounding sum in those days. He presented refined opera and ballet and was renowned for the sensitivity accuracy of his representation of the fairer sex. In 1864 he formed his own troupe. Within a decade every minstrel company in the country had a Leon impersonator. The last historical reference to him is in San Francisco in 1883. Where and when he died remains unknown.

To learn more about the history of variety theatreconsult 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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