Archive for the German Category

The General Slocum Disaster and Its Impact on American Popular Culture

Posted in German, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on June 15, 2017 by travsd

June 15, 1904 was the day the P.S. General Slocum burned and sank. I write about this dark day today for two reasons: 1) I constantly encounter people — even well educated people — who have never heard of this, the worst disaster to befall New York City prior to 9/11; and 2) the event effected American culture, including popular culture, like my usual subject matter, which is vaudeville.

I myself had probably not heard of the event prior to reading about it in Luc Sante’s Low Life in the ’90s, but I owe my true understanding of it (details, context, impact) to my friend the historian Kathleen Hulser, curator of a centennial exhibition we had about it at the New-York Historical Society back in 2004. This is a Before-and-After story, so bear with me while I take you on a little journey:

Remove the Germans and the 4th of July starts to look a lot less festive

In the mid 19th century, one of the largest movements of immigration to the United States came from Germany (they were roughly neck and neck with the Irish). It’s pretty well known that German immigrants moved to many places in the U.S. , Pennsylvania, for example, and the cities and farms of the mid-west. Less well remembered today is that they once had a major footprint in New York City. Just as today there is a Chinatown, a Little Italy, a Harlem, and a zillion other ethnic neighborhoods, once upon a time, on the Lower East Side there was a Kleindeutschland — a Little Germany. The cultural contributions of the Germans who lived here are hiding in plain sight, they just became so assimilated, so American, we forget they are German. Many of them are culinary. The delicatessen is a German institution (not to mention a German word) as are so many things that one finds there, such as cold cuts and sausages. If you don’t find sausages particularly American recall that a German American named Charles Feltman adapted a certain kind of sausage into the frankfurter, the hot dog. The hamburger, too, comes from Germany (note the name), as do mustard and relish. The popularity in America of BEER is a result of the influence of the Germans. We nowadays associate St. Louis and Milwaukee with their German American breweries; NYC was once full of them as well. German Americans also helped Anglo Americans (the majority culture at the time) to cultivate a taste for music in their leisure time. Anglo American culture was still strongly Puritan in many ways; prior to the 19th century, the idea of going to a theatre or a pleasure garden for no other purpose but to hear a singer or a musician, or to acquire a musical instrument (e.g., the German American Steinway piano) and study it, was frowned upon. And there were influential Germans in show business: the Ringling Brothers of circus fame; and Koster and Bial the operators on NYC’s top concert saloon.

The kids who became Weber and Fields grew up around Germans on the Lower East Side and became the nation’s most popular, most influential vaudeville and Broadway comedians in the last quarter of the 19th century by imitating them. Many others followed in their footsteps, including Kolb and Dill, the Rogers Brothers, Sam Bernard, Cliff Gordon, James Budworth, Ford Sterling, Al Shean and a young Groucho Marx.  Stereotypical “Dutch” (German) comedy was a specialty, in the vein of blackface** or stock Irish characterizations.

Thus we begin to see that German culture was very visible in 19th century New York, very much part of the pulse and energy of the city. But it suffered a one-two punch.

The first was the General Slocum Disaster. Named after Union General and U.S. Congressman Henry Warner Slocum, the General Slocum was a local excursion vessel. On June 15, 1904, she was chartered by a local Lutheran church group from Little Germany to take them to their annual picnic on nearby Long Island. There were over 1,300 people on board, mostly women and children, as it was a Wednesday morning and the fathers were all at work. While the ship was in the middle of the East River, where the water was deep and the current strong, the ship caught fire. As usually happens with major disasters, multiple factors contributed to worsen events: flammable materials, strong winds, faulty safety equipment, and bad decisions by captain and crew. When it was all over, over 1,021 people — over 70% of those on board — had either burned or drowned to death. Of the 321 who survived, 28 were crew members.

The General Slocum Disaster is said to have literally devastated Kleindeutschland. We often use that phrase figuratively, to speak of emotional devastation, but here it can be taken literally. Hundreds of German American fathers had lost their entire families. Practically everyone in the community had lost someone — a friend, a relative, a neighbor, someone they knew on the street. The community dispersed. Many moved uptown to Yorkville, a migration that was already happening but was hastened by this horrific event. Kleindeutchland faded out of existence.

What was the second part of the “one-two punch” we spoke of earlier? World War One — another centennial now upon us. Anti-German sentiment ran strong, and so German Americans made the decision to assimilate and de-emphasize what was culturally unique about them. They and their contributions remained, but the Germans of America became much quieter about their identity, and Americans lost the habit of acknowledging or celebrating them in the way we celebrate other national groups who managed to maintain a strong identity (e.g., Italian Americans). World War Two enhanced that process even further, but the bulk of it had already happened in the early part of the 20th century. One of the casualties of this “burying” of German American culture, I think, was any awareness of the General Slocum Disaster. You saw those numbers, right? A thousand women and children killed? This is close to Titanic numbers and it happened within sight of Manhattan — people stood on shore and watched it happen.

The irony is that German Americans weren’t our enemies in the World Wars. By definition, they were part of THIS crazy quilt. They LEFT their native land because it wasn’t doing it for them!(In fact many had come to America to escape the reprisals following the Revolution of 1848, indicating that they were the farthest thing from fans of the “Reich”.  And many were German Jews, part of the first wave of Jewish immigrants to the U.S. Their cultural contributions deserve to be remembered. We have a whole section on Travalanche celebrating German American contributions to American popular culture: peruse it here.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

Max Asher: Early Dutch Comic of Stage and Screen

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Comedy, German, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2017 by travsd

May 5 is the birthday of Max Asher (1885-1957). Originally from the Oakland area, Asher got his start in vaudeville and stock companies where he perfected his “Dutch” (German) specialty, which was easily transferable to the silver screen. Multiple sources say he began working for Mack Sennett in 1912 although the record is slight. By 1913, he is already starring in comedies for Universal’s “Joker” label, usually playing characters named Max, Mike or Schultz. His co-stars in these early years included Harry McCoy, Louise Fazenda, Bobby Vernon and Gale Henry. In 1915 he was paired with the latter in a series of mystery parodies called “Lady Baffles and Detective Duck”.

By the late teens, Asher was mostly playing supporting parts at smaller independent studios in shorts and the occasional feature. His broad comedy style had been of the Ford SterlingFred Mace era; tastes were already shifting by the end of the decade. By the talkie era Asher’s a bit player; he’s in about a dozen sound films, including the first version of Show Boat (1929).

Asher’s career as an actor was over by 1934. He became a professional make-up artist for film and television for the rest of his career, and operated a beachside magic shop in Ocean Park, CA.

For more on slapstick comedy don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc. For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

William F. Mangels: Fun-Maker

Posted in Amusement Parks, BROOKLYN, Coney Island, German, Impresarios with tags , , , , , , , on February 2, 2017 by travsd


Today is the birthday of William F. Mangels (1867-1958). Born in Germany, Mangels moved to the U.S. in 1883 and became a bicycle repairman. His understanding of wheels, gears, chains, and sprockets let to work on carousels, which led to the formation of his own carousel manufacturing company. Mangels also invented his own original rides, such as “The Whip” and “The Tickler”. He also authored the book The Outdoor Amusement Industry: From Earliest Times to the Present. His headquarters was of course Coney Island. Go here for some pix and description on an exhibition about him we caught at Green-Wood Cemetery a few months back. But, confidentially, I think it’s pretty funny that a guy who made amusement park rides was named “Mangels”. Because…ya know.


Klinkhart’s Troupe of Midgets

Posted in Circus, German, Little People with tags , , , , , , on November 30, 2016 by travsd


I stumbled across this image the other day and got curious. I could only find a few facts: this troupe of little people was managed by German born Oscar Klinkhart (ca.1897-1975). They were with with the Al G. Barnes show between 1926 and 1931. According to some sources, they were later with Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus and got stranded near Riverside, California ca. 1936, where they founded one of the many legendary “Midgetville” communities. Later Klinkhart retired to Logsden, Orgeon.

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Illustrator Hy Mayer: On the Very First Bill at the Palace

Posted in German, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of illustrator, cartoonist and animator Henry “Hy” Mayer (1868-1954). Originally from Germany, Mayer began his career as an illustrator in Munich, then worked his way west to Paris, then London, then finally New York, moving to the U.S. in 1886. He illustrated several children’s books, became a political cartoonist for the New York Times in 1904, and chief cartoonist at Puck starting in 1914.

Starting in 1909 Mayer began contributing animations for films to Universal Studios, where he turned out several popular series for over a decade. From 1920 through 1926 he created the “Such is Life” Series for Film Book Offices of America (later to be part of RKO).

Like many cartoonists, Mayer also played big time vaudeville and revues. He was on the very first bill at the Palace in 1913, and was also featured in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1913. His personal appearances seem limited however. Much more often, his popular films would be incorporated into vaudeville bills as attractions themselves.

Mayer also designed many posters and programs for show like the Ziegfeld Follies, and art for sheet music covers.

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.

Louis Mann

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, German, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Louis Mann (1865-1931). Mann was a major figure of the Broadway stage from the turn of the last century almost until his death. Of German parentage, he started out in German language productions as a child actor; German characters would continue to be the mainstay of his career, both in drama and comedy. This is evidenced by the surnames of those characters on his IBDB page:  Hoch, Hofbrau, Blinker, Plittersdorf, Pfeiffer, Pumpernick, Schnitzler, Bauer, and Kraft. In 1903, he produced his own starring vehicle The Consul. Later that year and into 1904, he appeared in the Weber and Fields extravaganza Whoop-de-Doo. Shortly after after appearing with her in a revival tour of the play Incog in 1906 he married his co-star, the actress and soon to be playwright Clara Lipman, with whom he was to collaborate frequently over the rest of his career.

At any rate, though he was a major Broadway figure, German schtick was a mainstay of vaudeville, and Mann was known to grace the stage of the Palace at least a couple of times, in 1914 and 1925.  Ironically, his last performance turned out to be his only real movie role, as the martyr like immigrant father in the melodrama  The Sins of the Children (1930) with Robert Montgomery, Leila Hyams, Clara Blandick,  and Dell Henderson. 

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Doris Day: Keeper of the Flame

Posted in Broadway, German, Hollywood (History), Singers, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 3, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the (still kicking!) Doris Day (Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff).

Day came along too late for vaudeville, our usual stomping grounds (she was born in either 1922 or 1924, depending on the source). Instead, she came up through radio and big bands, which led to recording contracts and then films. But, that said, her films, especially her early ones, are part of the LORE of vaudeville, because so many of them are either celebrations of show business, or filtered through a nostalgic aesthetic that evokes the turn of the last century. To do a festival of these movies would be almost like having some kind of 2nd hand vaudeville festival. Note how many are named after Tin Pan Alley song titles.


Young Man with a Horn (1950)

A jazz picture loosely based on the story of Bix Beiderbecke, with Kirk Douglas as the musician, and Day as one of countless characters she would play named “Jo”.


Tea for Two (1950)

The script for this started out as No, No, Nanette, set in the 1920s, with Day as the titular socialite who bankrolls a Broadway production just so that she can star in it. Her frequent foil Billy deWolfe is the Broadway producer who two times her.


Lullaby of Broadway (1951)

An entertainer (Day) returns from abroad expecting her mother (Gladys George) to be the working Broadway actress her letters have claimed — only to learn that she is a broken down Greenwich Village singer, and the letters were written by her friends. Billy deWolfe and Cuddles Sakall round out the cast.


On Moonlight Bay (1951)

This one is not a show biz story, but has a turn of the century setting that you can’t help associating with things like Meet Me in St. Louis. Loosely based on Booth Tarkington’s Penrod stories.  The soporific Gordon McRea is once again Ms. Day’s co-star.


I’ll See You in My Dreams (1951)

The Gus Kahn story with Danny Thomas as Kahn and Doris Day as…Mrs. Kahn. Directed by Michael Curtiz. This was Warner Bros’ second biggest grossing film of the year.


April in Paris (1952)

Ray Bolger as a minor American diplomat who sends for Ethel Barrymore as part of a cultural exchange with France, and through a mix up gets a chorus girl named Ethel: Day, who sings the requisite menu of standards.


By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953)

The sequel to On Moonlight Bay. That poster is the best thing to happen to me all day.


Calamity Jane (1953)

Musical bio-pic of the titular cowgirl, with Howard Keel as Wild Bill Hickock. You can’t help but feel she is sort of doing Betty Hutton in Annie Get Your Gun (which is a higher level of pluckiness than even the Doris Day level of pluckiness — a sort of insane amount of pluckiness), but it’s hard not to like this movie — at least I do.


Lucky Me (1954)

An all-star Cinemascope musical about an out-of-luck, stranded  vaudeville troupe that schemes really hard to put on a show! With Day, Phil Silvers, Eddie Foy, Jr., Bob Cummings, and Nancy Walker (whose dad, we can’t help pointing out here, was in the team of Barton and Mann).


Young at Heart (1954)

Into the lives of three singing sisters (Day, Dorothy Malone, Dorothy Fraser) comes songwriter Gig Young and arranger Frank Sinatra. Do the math! There aren’t enough fellers to go around!


Love Me or Leave Me (1955)

This bio-pic about Ruth Etting and the Roaring Twenties has a lot going for it — great dramatic acting by Day as Etting, and James Cagney as her husband/manager/gangster Moe the Gimp (nominated for an Oscar), with Cameron Mitchell in third place as her second husband and accompanist Myrl Alderman. And lots of great singing by Day, of course.


Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962)

See my full post on this late Hollywood attempt to bring Broadway’s largest musical to the screen here. 

Starting in the mid 50s the show biz pics started to be replaced with rom-coms (often very light sex comedies by the standards of the day), heavy dramas, and thrillers. And then of course her tv show, which we are destined to blog about as well — but we’ll save that for next year, I think. Happy birthday, Doris!

To learn more about 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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