Happy Valentine’s Day from the Littlest Lovers: Tom Thumb & Lavinia Warren

Posted in BUNKUM, Dime Museum and Side Show, Little People, STEAMPUNK/ VICTORIANA, Valentine's Day with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by travsd


“There’s someone for everybody” goes the old matchmaker’s expression, and perhaps no words rang truer on February 9, 1863, the day that professional little person Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) married Lavinia Warren at Grace Church, New York. (I believe that’s Lavinia’s sister Minnie Warren as Maid of Honor; and Commodore Nutt as Best Man). This little stunt, the “Fairy Wedding” by the press, lightened people’s hearts during the depths of the Civil War. We present it to you in the same spirit today.


It wasn’t just a publicity stunt, however; the two were a real couple. But even so, their boss P.T. Barnum was probably not too unhappy when the big event resulted in coverage like this:


“I love you completely, my own, my all. But above all, I love this front page coverage in Harpers!”

Tomorrow: Rally To Revive CHARAS

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, Indie Theatre, Protests, Valentine's Day with tags , , , on February 13, 2017 by travsd


Secession Talk on Lincoln’s Birthday

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, Lincoln's Birthday with tags , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by travsd


Today is the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln.

How sad Lincoln would be to know that 152 years after his death, the country would still be divided, and for reasons not too different from those of his own time. The dynamic is different now of course. Today we find ourselves in a situation not unlike what might have occurred if the Confederacy had won the Civil War, or if, through some electoral fluke, some Southern fire-eater had become President of the United States. So extreme are Trump’s views, plans, and (so-called) policies that millions of Americans, in fact a majority of them, are incensed at the direction the country is taking. And (for the most part, half-jokingly) once again many people talk about secession. For, as in the past, superficially at least, the nation’s political divisions appear to concentrate along sectional lines, with the largest dissatisfaction with Trump occurring on the West and Northeast coasts.

This isn’t the first Northeast secession movement, by the way. New England Federalists were very strong for secession, culminating in the party’s Hartford Convention in 1814. They wanted to end the War of 1812, they were against trade embargoes, they were unhappy with the addition of Western territories through their opponent Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, and they wanted to repeal the 3/5 representation clause in the Constitution, which they felt gave undue political weight to the South. Moderates carried the day, of course, else today we’d be talking about a very different Civil War. At any rate, now folks in the Blue States are hopping mad. All by itself, for example, California has a GDP equivalent to that of France, and yet it finds itself bowing to the political will and inclinations of Mississippi.

And so we have proposals such as the Calexit, and a similar one in the Pacific Northwest, and my personal favorite, a New England Independence Campaign (I might improve upon that proposal just a tad by including Eastern New York, including NYC, Long Island and parts of the Hudson River valley. New York was part of the short-lived Dominion of New England during the years 1686 to 1689.). Then there’s the most all-encompassing plan, which would include all of those regions and attach them to Canada, thusly:


You may look at the above and say, “What about Washington, DC?” If you do, you’ve probably never lived in the Northeast. People who’ve lived in New York or Boston or Philadelphia don’t need Washington. It’s never really felt like our capitol. In fact, New York City briefly WAS the American capitol. Washington was built where no city existed in order to placate the South. So: West Virginia and Arkansas, Washington is our gift to you.

There is a larger problem, however, and I hope you’re ahead of me here. Our crazy plan would leave some very good friends out in the cold, in particular cities like Chicago, New Orleans, the Twin Cities, Austin etc etc etc, scores of them. More than this — I have friends in every Red State who live in the RED part of their state, who would be left high and dry from such a plan. You could say, “Join us in our new Blue country!” But that wouldn’t really be an answer.

Our divisions are only sectional in the crudest of possible terms. They emerge only when we cut the nation into majority voting blocs. But there are dissenting minorities in each bloc. And as I wrote about a bit in this earlier post, this has ALWAYS been true. It was also true during the Civil War and the Jim Crow era.  The Blue States have always contained plenty of racists; and the Red States don’t just contain many good people, which is just a kind of platitude, but they also contain people who are working against racism and other social ills, just as in historical times they contained people who were working against slavery and Jim Crow. Some southern regions and towns protested involvement in the Civil War. Some states were about equally divided on this issue (Eastern Tennessee, like West Virginia, was pro-Union). When I was researching my grandmother’s home town, Monteagle, Tennessee, I learned about the Highlander Folk School, an activist training center for labor and Civil Rights founded during the Great Depression. It still exists as the Highlander Research and Education Center.  As politically progressive a place as you can imagine, located in the Smokey Mountains. Or Atticus Finch, the hero of Harper Lee’s Alabama novel To Kill a Mockingbird, based on her real-life father.

I think most of us are just letting off steam when we joke and daydream about getting our revenge through secession. But mere territorial solutions are NEVER the answer. Look at Israel and Palestine or India and Pakistan. Making a boundary, building a wall won’t prevent violence where people are existentially divided. And pinning the whole burden of change on others prevents you from doing the work on yourself that needs doing. Where intolerance exists, somehow, to steal a phrase from Rodgers and Hammerstein, they’ve got to be taught. The prospect is so hard I don’t even want to think about it. Cutting and running is a lot easier. But I’ve been to Kansas. I love Kansas, you know? I don’t want a divorce. I want to figure this thing out and mend the heart of America.

A Series of Posts for Black History Month

Posted in African American Interest, CULTURE & POLITICS, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, ME, My Family History with tags , , , on February 1, 2017 by travsd


February is Black History Month.

This year it arrives at a time of deep sadness. The Black Lives Matter movement was picking up momentum last year, but with the election of X%$FR#@ to the Presidency, as always seems to happen, that movement has been overtaken by a tsunami of “greater priorities”, becoming just one of a seeming thousand fronts people of conscience need to do battle on. Justice for the black community ought to remain a priority even as injustice for all becomes the general law.

I have done close to 450 posts on subjects relating to African Americans, beginning with profiles on scores of black vaudeville performers, jazz and blues musicians, the problematic issue of blackface minstrelsy, numerous black writers and more. Over the last couple of years, I have done an increasing number of pieces on race relations and pieces on African American history, spurred on by revelations by my own family’s past…and present. I have black nieces and nephews; they deserve every opportunity and advantage I’ve had, and frankly more.

The African American Interest section of Travalanche is here.  Also, there is a search function in the right hand section of this blog; enter keywords like names or “black” + “vaudeville” to narrow in on specific subjects. And below are some links to past posts I thought might be of special interest today. We’ll be adding several new pieces as the month goes on:

In Which I Learn My Family is Not Unsullied by America’s Original Sin 

A Post Touching on Indentured Servitude, Slavery & Labor

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Juneteenth Message (on the Stars and Bars) 

Slavery and Racism in the North 

The Civil War Never Ended 

Black Vaudeville

A Bert Williams Feature

More on the Import of the Bert Williams Feature 

Zora Neal Hurston 

Reviving the Genius of Zora Neal Hurston 

Let America Be America Again

A Gallery of Great Blues Artists

The Meaning of Dr. Martin Luther King 

Amiri Baraka

The Black Panthers 

Richard Pryor

Crash Course in August Wilson 

Daughters of the Dust 

A Black Lives Matter Protest

Godspeed, Obama 

Thoughts on MLK Day (On the Eve of Attempted Counter-Revolution)

Posted in African American Interest, CULTURE & POLITICS, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, ME, My Family History with tags , , , on January 16, 2017 by travsd


Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The day has added meaning this year. There are only three days left in the administration of our first black President; he is being replaced by a successor who embraces the fact that he is endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, and has nominated several cabinet officers and advisers who openly espouse racism. This holiday should never be about lip service in the best of times, but this year I urgently feel that contemplation and conversation are in order. Clearly large numbers of Americans have got some other notion of what America is about.

I well remember when this holiday was instituted, for I had to hear my father’s loud complaints as it was debated in Congress from 1979 through 1983, which coincided with my time in high school. Rest assured that hatred of African Americans motivated these tirades, but there were other aspects of his animus that come closer to thought than passion and are thus easier to confront and deal with. Since we’ve just learned to our horror that millions of Americans continue to be hamstrung by these ancient prejudices, indeed they seem to be crawling out of the woodwork, and we’re looking at the continued prospect of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and much else (the most recent affront has been the President-elect’s insulting of Civil Rights icon Congressman John Lewis) it is clear that a civics lesson is in order.

White People, you are not the only people on earth. You are not the only people whose voices matter. You are not the only people who have UNALIENABLE RIGHTS, which the Declaration tells us were “Endowed by our Creator.” This means voting rights and equal treatment under the law are owed to everybody, not because it now says so on a piece of paper but because that is how it is. Humans are all the same, and are all due the same legal and moral and political considerations. This was denied for centuries by some who held all the power, but the injustice of that has been partially redressed in some measure by the law of the land, thanks to leaders like King.

To a good chunk of America, the above paragraph seems painfully obvious, but I can tell you from experience, to another chunk of America it is not. Those people see things a different way. We heard an articulation of it the other day, ironically enough from Dr. Ben Carson as he was he being vetted by a Congressional committee for the position of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. When asked about housing discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community, his reply was “No one gets special rights.” A reply which has added irony given the fact that Dr. Carson is black and the Trumps were found guilty in the 1970s of discriminating against African Americans in property rentals.  “No special rights”. The world has been governed by that convenient logic for ages. If subject to the end result of that logic, Dr. Carson himself could legally have been denied the opportunity to get the education that made him a great doctor, and may well make him a cabinet secretary.

Somehow, in the minds of some people, the rights theoretically enjoyed by all Americans, become “special” when the attempt is made to extend them to those who have been denied them. The only thing that makes this mindset possible is if you are denying humanity to the people you are demonizing. You are only seeing them in the light of the aspect that sets them apart.  And so there’s this attitude on the part of some white people, “What’s this got to do with me? Why do we ALL need to celebrate a holiday honoring this black man, and the granting of civil rights to this one group of people?”

We’ll get to the justice aspect of it shortly, but even before that, there’s a selfish reason to honor the day. What all Americans (actually, all people everywhere) owe to the Civil Rights movement is the fulfillment and validation of the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Without the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Right Act, those documents, which we’ve always claimed to live by, are nothing but meaningless hypocrisy, potentially as blind and deaf to the rights of all Americans as they had historically been to those with dark skin. King and his colleagues and followers forced the nation to recognize the truth of its own gospel and start living it. They did so by exercising their First Amendment rights to pressure political leaders to change laws. And there were powerful people every step along the way (including the highest levels of government and law enforcement) who tried to stop them, using every dirty trick at their disposal. But King succeeded anyway, and in doing so demonstrated to Americans the efficacy of their own system, and unmasked the un-American nature and tactics of those who tried to prevent that. Wiretaps, extortion, police dogs, water hoses, billy clubs, bombings, arson, murder. That’s the stuff of Tyranny, which theoretically America is supposed to be against.

And even if it weren’t about the broader promise. What if it were just about the rights of a single minority, what of it? The ancestors of white Americans kidnapped the ancestors of black Americans, shipped them en mass like cattle to another continent, enslaved them for over two centuries, then grudgingly freed them into a condition of despised second-class citizenship, where they remained for another century or more, and they’re owed nothing for that? Not even an apology? Not even the occasional celebration of their contributions? Not even a jingle in a public service announcement encouraging their children to succeed? I mean, what the hell?

I hate saying “their”; it’s awfully reminiscent of “You People”. But given a situation where some people demonize African Americans into some group enjoying “special rights”, it becomes necessary to point out that in a just world such a group has something — something positive — coming to them.

Legally, that’s a thorny problem, in the sense of reparations. Oprah is a billionaire, and some Italian immigrant who got here two minutes ago never had anything to do with slavery. But those of us whose ancestors kept slaves have a personal responsibility of some sort. If not a legal one, a spiritual one, a moral one. If you believe in inherited gifts and legacies and privileges than you also inherit responsibilities. I’ve come to feel it keenly, like a fire I’ve been standing very close to, or an injury when the anesthesia wears off. It is a dawning. “Holy Christ — what have I been sleeping through?!” On a legal level, something like a Federal holiday is the very least we can do as a nation. It’s about as minor and painless as it gets. But STILL there are millions of people who have a problem with as little as THAT. They don’t just have a problem with it. They seethe with anger, they get red in the face about it. Yell at the TV about it. Something about this symbolic gesture alienates them. It sounds laughably obvious, but the media shies from saying it outright: the only reason people would react this way is if they hate black people and/or they don’t recognize a responsibility.

But if you are white and you live in America, you DO have responsibility. First, because you enjoy privileges you don’t even know about, or won’t acknowledge. Cops and neighborhood patrols tend not to kill you outright for walking in the wrong neighborhood or having a broken tail light. Employers are more likely to consider you for a position. There are statistics on this stuff. It happens to be factual — whether you live in a mansion or a trailer park. You may not be rich, White Person, but you’re still not getting called “nigger” or getting snuffed in your jail cell for mouthing off to a traffic officer.

The second reason you have responsibility is that, as we said above, the odds are extremely good that you have a literal duty. The reason I’ve been harping on this for two years is that I’ve done my family history. I’ve found plenty to be proud of. And plenty NOT to be proud of. As we wrote here, many of my ancestors and relatives owned slaves. Some of my relatives fought for the Confederacy ; some rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest. At the time the first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee in the wake the Civil War, my great-great grandparents lived one county over, in Fayetteville, where 100% of the residents had voted for secession.  My relative Alfred Holt Colquitt was a Governor of Georgia who fought against Reconstruction. My (5th) great Uncle William Rufus Devane King, founded Selma, site of the famous 1965 march; The Edmund Pettus Bridge, which freedom marchers walked over, was named after another distant relative, a Confederate General, a Grand Wizard of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. During the time of the Second Klan in the early 20th century, my great-grandfather Virgil Stewart lived in Huntsville, Alabama, where lynchings occurred, as they did throughout the south. The Scottsboro Boys were railroaded 40 minutes from his house.

It’s too much to hope that I don’t have relatives among the red-faced, hate-filled visages you see in old tv clips screaming at Civil Rights marchers. But the odds are very great that it’s too much to hope that YOU don’t have such relatives either. I grew up in New England, where I heard racist talk that would curl your hair. Here in New York City my wife and I heard a cop refer to the visiting President Obama as a “nigger”. See my post here regarding the North’s culpability in slavery and high participation in the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. There are sins in our collective past that have to be atoned for, debts that need to be paid. If you think this doesn’t apply to you, you are so very wrong.

History tells us that there is no limit to the bestial acts people will stoop to when the law gives them permission. We now face the terrifying prospect of leaders who want to make laws granting such permission. They want to single out and penalize entire groups of people based on who they are. My understanding of America, and of justice, and morality, compels me to struggle against that effort however I can. The fact that we’re even in this predicament is the greatest indication there could possibly be that this holiday is extremely necessary indeed.





2016 Wrap-Up

Posted in ME, My Shows, New Year's Eve with tags on January 1, 2017 by travsd

Happy New Year! Below, our annual pictorial recap of the year that was, here in Travyland. And boy would I like to turn the clock back a year!



Was thrilled to be on the very first episode of Jennifer Harder’s Radio Free Brooklyn show Blonde Thunder Presents. Hear it here. 



AVT 20th anniversary show and benefit show for I’ll Say She Is at the Slipper Room. More here.


Premiere of Derek Davidson’s film Moving Pictures., in which I played a small role


Launch of my new web site What? You’ve never seen it? Well, we opened soft, as they say in the business, but Noah Diamond did a beautiful job on its design, and it’s a useful place for me to point folks to. Please check it out!

Gimme a Thrill, Noah Diamond’s book on the history of I’ll Say She Is n which I am generously featured, is released. 

May/ June:


I’ll Say She Is revival (of which I was one of the co-producers) at the Connelly Theatre


In July, we profiled our 1,000th vaudevillian in our Stars of Vaudeville series here on Travalanche


Windows on the Bowery launch event at Cooper Union. I contributed text to some of the historical markers that were hung as part of this project, organized by the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors

with Brian Gari, Eddie Cantor's grandson at launch event for "Windows on the Bowery"

with Brian Gari, Eddie Cantor’s grandson at launch event for “Windows on the Bowery”


w/ Charli Ouda in "The Iron Heel", South Oxford Space

w/ Charli Ouda in “The Iron Heel”, South Oxford Space

July through September I acted (and played banjo) in UTC #61’s revival of Jack London’s The Iron Heel (July through September)



Married the Mad Marchioness, Part One!



with Dr. Lisa

A guest on the Radio Free Brooklyn program Dr. Lisa Gives a Sh*t. Listen to it here.


A guest on the Between the Liner Notes podcast with Matthew Billy. Listen to it here. 


with Killy Dwyer, officiant

Married the Mad Marchioness, Part Two (Slipper Room vaudeville show). Full spread here. 



L-R, Lauren Milberger, Trav S.D., Kita St. Cyr, Glen Heroy

Fields Fest: We presented our adaptation W.C. Fields for President at the Lambs. 


I appeared as the Narrator in Peculiar Works’ Project’s presentation of America’s oldest play Androboros


Appeared on Rachel Cleary’s Radio Free Brooklyn program Hear and Now to talk about Fields Fest


Fields Fest: Times Square History Walk with Kevin Fitzpatrick and appearance on web tv program Classic Movies and More


with Dr. Harriet Fields, WC Fields’ only grandaughter

Fields Fest: Screening of The Bank Dick at the Cinema Arts Center

with Austin Pendleton following his Christmas show at Pangea

With Austin Pendleton following his Christmas show at Pangea


Fields Fest: Trav speaks at NYPL on WC Fields and Vaudeville


Fields Fest: Trav speaks at Greater Astoria Historical Society on W.C. Fields silent movies for Paramount


Santa Claus Conquers the Martians at the Kraine Theatre



Presentation of Man on the Flying Trapeze at Metrograph

In addition, we are especially proud of improvements we have made to Travalanche this year, broadening and deepening the content, adding pieces on politics, society, American history, and some memoir. At the same time, we have not abandoned our usual content streams of vaudeville, classic comedy, show biz, etc.

There are (were) big plans on all fronts for 2017. Typically we announce such things at this time, but because of political developments (and some personal ones) we prefer not to announce anything specific, at least for the nonce. Instead I will simply thank you for your interest and support over the past year, and wish you a safe and healthy twelvemonth to come.



New Year’s Eve in the Movies

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), New Year's Eve with tags , on December 31, 2016 by travsd

In honor of the day, some favorite movies featuring New Year’s Eve scenes. This holiday is often used to mark extreme or catastrophic change in the life of the characters or their environment — a theme for us to contemplate this year in particular when the clock strikes midnight.

the gold rush_new year's eve

The Gold Rush (1925)

Shame on you if you don’t know this movie or this scene. Led on by the supercilious dance hall girl Georgia (Georgia Hale) lone prospector Charlie Chaplin prepares for what he thinks will be a delightful New Year’s party with Georgia and a few friends. He sleeps and dreams a magical time, but awakens to find himself alone and stood up. Warning: don’t watch if you’re alone and depressed!


Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Something about the early Technicolor adds to the eeriness of this, one of the creepiest of classic studio era horror films. The opening scenes depict feisty girl reporter Glenda Farrell making her way through the crowded New York City streets on New Year’s Eve, clogged with carnivalesque revelers. Holidays are always interesting in older films — what people wear, the different ways they celebrated. Farrell’s journey will lead her to a corpse, and eventually to mad wax sculptor Lionel Atwill. 


Every Day’s a Holiday (1937)

Mae West loved to celebrate the period of her early childhood, the gay ’90s, in her films.  Something about the era symbolized relative freedom to her, I think: saloons and bawdy houses and crooked politicians. That’s the milieu of her last true starring film Every Day’s a Holiday, set in Tammany era NYC, with crucial scenes taking place on New Year’s Eve 1900 — just when the city and nation were poised to go from horses and buggies to automobiles.


Sunset Boulevard (1950)

One of the most touching scenes in Billy Wilder’s masterpiece has William Holden briefly escaping from the virtual tomb he has been inhabiting with former silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) to the relative joy and vitality of a proper New Year’s Eve party at a friend’s house, full of youth and music, and a much more appropriate girlfriend. The moment is a poignant blip, a last chance, a fleeting glimpse into a happy life he’ll never get to have.


The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

At age seven this was my introduction to New Years’s Eve, the first place I heard “Auld Lang Syne”, witnessed a countdown to midnight, saw grownups with noise-makers and party hats. It’s part of the mysterious magic of this film (which is still one of my favorites) that the moment of disaster strikes just at midnight: it’s a new year and everything turns upside down. Celebration turns to tragedy in the blink of an eye. It’s part of the peculiar dream logic and symbolism of movies, and it works extraordinarily well.


Jaws the Revenge (1987)

This is  a most entertainingly terrible movie which has only recently become a new classic around my house. (I never bothered with it when it came out.) It’s predicated on the concept that now-deceased Amity Island Police Chief Brody’s wife Ellen’s most irrational fears are TRUE — that a sentient, malevolent, psychic shark has designs on her family for some reason, and that you get killed every time you are crazy enough to go into the water. That her son managed to become a MARINE BIOLOGIST given such a family dynamic is one of the film’s countless delightful head-scratchers. Lorraine Gary is the film’s star, Roy Scheider having long since decided he had far better things to do. At any rate, the film starts around Christmas (her other son is killed by a shark while people on shore sing Christmas carols), and so the family travels to the Bahamas to forget it all (wouldn’t you choose someplace far INLAND?) At any rate, the New Year’s Eve scene in this film is memorable for being one of tent pole WTF moments, where you go…”H’m, we seem to have lost the narrative thread here.” As Gary and Michael Caine dance and romance each other and talk, and various other characters move around the party and talk, and you’re like, “Wasn’t this supposed to be a thing about sharks?” Oh, but it will be, for Bruce the Shark soon swims the thousand or more miles to the Bahamas from New England just to have another go at this particular family. New Year, same old killer shark!


Boogie Nights (1997)

Much like Mae West’s Every Day’s a Holiday, P.T. Anderson’s porn-industry portrait features a scene on a historically significant New Year’s Eve, in this case not a century demarcation but an important change of decades. The coming of the ’80s (and home video) will mean the end of porn theatres, and the end of the time when the industry had some claims to professionalism. Soon any amateur could grab a video camera and make their own porn and the industry would be glutted. The death of the old era is symbolized by a tragedy at the party — but I won’t spoil it, in the unlikely event you’ve not seen this terrific movie.


New Year’s Eve (2011)

Let’s get one thing straight: New Year’s Eve is a nearly unwatchable trough of expensive garbage. You can just hear Garry Marshall saying, “Ya like good lookin’ young people? I’ll give ya 28 good lookin’ young people — plus Robert de Niro!” I watched a good hunk of this rubbish for the first time last year, and there was one aspect I found very interesting, however. Its structure…of constant cross-cutting between over-expository scenes of diverse people bustling around in anticipation of some major event….feels EXACTLY like the opening act of a DISASTER MOVIE. This feeling is enhanced by the fact that it’s set in New York…TIMES SQUARE, to be precise. A major terrorist target. And I LOVE disaster movies . So I so badly want this to be a disaster movie, to re-cut it, so that instead of a midnight countdown, the climax will be a gigantic wall of water coming from the Hudson River, or a bunch of mid-town skyscrapers toppling like dominoes. And the fact that this DOESN’T happen, in particular, to all these beautiful Caucasian cipher-people, is a total let down.  Roland Emmerich, please step in and give us a new third act for this movie.

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