Archive for the Labor Day Category

Labor Day Post: On The White Rats, The Vaudeville Performers’ Union

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Irish, Labor Day, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on September 2, 2013 by travsd

Originally posted in 2011

In 1901, the White Rats  went on strike. The White Rats, as the vaudeville performers’ union was known, was founded by comedian and prize fighter George Fuller Golden. No one knows his birthday, so today’s as good as any (and better than most) for a tribute to him

Golden was one of the top stars of early American vaudeville. Joe Laurie, Jr. called him America’s first intellectual monologist. His voracious reading in the classics (especially poetry) and Biblical scripture combined with his natural Irish blarney to produce a popular series of stories about an imaginary friend named Casey whose adventures audiences followed with great delight. But Golden also had a serious side, a sense of fairplay and justice that was bound to get him into trouble in a high stakes game like vaudeville. Part boxer, part idealist, he was just the type of man to go down in a losing battle.

In 1899, Golden had been the beneficiary of the services of the Water Rats, England’s music hall performers’ union, when his wife had fallen sick in London and he had gone without work for months. The Water Rats had paid his doctor’s bills and other expenses, and helped him and his wife get back to the States. Based on his experience, when the managers formed the monopolistic Vaudeville Managers Association, Golden knew just what to do. In short order, he organized a leadership committee to form the White Rats, enlisted a large dues-paying membership and started their own booking office. In early 1901, the performers, getting nowhere in negotiations with the managers, struck. The effort seemed successful for a time when Keith, Albee et al. pretended to capitulate, but it was all a ruse. Within weeks, the strike was broken.

The White Rats collapsed, and Golden became a laughing stock in the business, never working as a leader or an entertainer again, although he did publish one book about his experiences My Lady Vaudeville, still cherished by show biz buffs (and the source of the peculiar rodential swastika you see above). Golden died, a charity case, of tuberculosis in 1912.

To learn more 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.

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Jerry All Day Tomorrow

Posted in Comedy, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Labor Day, Television with tags , on September 2, 2012 by travsd

Well, the bad, bad men took away Jerry’s annual telethon, but the good nice people of Antenna TV have made things right by promising an all day  “Jerry Lewis Labor Day Marathon” tomorrow starting at 5a ET. Can you stand it? I knew that you could.

Furthermore, the four films they are showing in rotation tomorrow are all “late Jerry”, seldom screened comedies, making tomorrow a rare opportunity for the rabid fan. On the schedule:

Three on a Couch (1966)
The Big Mouth (1967)
Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968)
Hook, Line and Sinker (1969)

Antenna TV is channel 166 for NYC Time Warner Cable customers; all others check local listings.

Stars of Vaudeville #348: Willie, West and McGinty

Posted in Comedy Teams, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Hollywood (History), Labor Day, Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on September 5, 2011 by travsd

Pic from “Vaudeville, Old and New”, Routledge Press

Lucky me, to have found a singularly appropriate vaudevillle act to present for LABOR DAY!

Willie, West and McGinty’s whole routine revolved around a construction work site. Known as “The Comedy Builders”, many regarded them as the funniest slapstick act in vaudeville (and beyond, for they were regular guests on Ed Sullivan through the end of the 1950s). In a poll of ten top show biz writers, seven included them on their dream vaudeville bills.

Now, you may say to yourself, “Surely I’ve seen this kind of thing before. What makes this act so special?” The difference in Willie, West & McGinty’s act lay in the smooth, non-stop flow of the gag choreography. It worked almost like a Rube Goldberg cartoon, one gag after another, until every single prop and situation onstage had been used for a gag. No hammer, nail, saw, board, shovel of dirt, ladder, window, brick, etc etc etc that made it onstage with Willie, West and McGinty would be left out of the mayhem. And like cartoon characters, the three men would bounce back after every gaffe and simply return to work and the inevitable mishap that was only seconds away.

The act went on for sixty years. By the end, the team was like Steven Wright’s account of George Washington’s hatchet — none of the original components remained. Over the team’s long life, there were two “Willies”, two “Wests” and three “McGinties”. They started out in British Music Hall in their native Lancashire around 1900. By the mid 20s, they were stars in large scale American vaud venues like the Palace and the Hippodrome. As vaudeville dried up, they could be found in presentation houses, circuses, and gigs like Billy Rose’s Aquacade at the 1939 World’s Fair , Olsen and Johnson’s Laffing Room Only (1944-45), and one of Judy Garland’s many vaudeville revivals (1951).

You might think that gagmeisters this expert would have been naturals for silent films, but oddly that seems never to have transpired. Ironically, they may have been too successful onstage to have made that leap. Also, the gentlemen began as acrobats — if you watch them in clips, they really aren’t actors or even clowns. They don’t really have characters. They’re sort of gag technicians, components in a very specific comedy machine.

Ironically, they did make a sound short in 1930 called Plastered which will give you the flavor of their act, viewable at this link here. I suspect there are several differences between this and their stage act. I’ve seen clips of them from the Ed Sullivan show and I remember the act as more swiftly-moving, big and economical. And naturally the stage version would have a simpler set and far fewer props to work with. (Interesting digression: note the use of Irving Berlin’s “Why Am I So Romantic?” on the soundtrack, written for the Marx Bros vehicle The Cocoanuts, released by Paramount the previous year). Other films the team appears in include The Big Broadcast of 1936 (also by Paramount) and Beautiful But Broke with Joan Davis (1944)

 The last of the team, Frank Crossley, Jr. (the second “McGinty”) passed away in 1997.

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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The Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon

Posted in Contemporary Variety, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Labor Day, Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on September 6, 2010 by travsd

It’s Labor Day, and you know what the means. No, not a three day weekend and the last barbecue of the summer. The annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon — right! When I was a kid I actually watched this on television every year, like a real holiday event, somewhat akin to tv coverage of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve. In point of fact, this annual event may well be the last actual television variety show. (Many people erroneously suggest Letterman or The Tonight Show or Saturday Night Live for that mantle. But the first two are merely talk shows, with occasional performances. And the latter one is a sketch comedy show with occasional monologues and music. And, while there is no end of television programming featuring all stand-up comedians, all singers, or all dancers, actual variety on a single program is scarce to nonexistent.) That said, the problem with Jerry’s program as a program (irrespective of its value as a fundraising tool) was and is, the long waits between actual entertainment. There’s lots of watching people answer telephones, and lots of gladhanding, and people presenting ceremonial checks, and cutaways to short films about children with muscular dystrophy, before 45 minutes later, you’d finally get a set by Fred Travalena. And after that wait, believe me, Fred Travalena never seemed so funny. Still, it was, and is, variety, and was a kind of formative experience for me, in that regard. And Jerry, problematic as he is (see my post on him here), sets an incredible example. Yes, he’s apparently trying to work off a lot of bad karma — on the other hand, never has an entertainer worked so hard on behalf of, or been more closely identified with a worthy charity. (He eclipses even Eddie Cantor, who founded the March of Dimes, and Danny Thomas, who founded the St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. ) At any rate, in between burgers and dogs, you might wanna pop in the house, and see who’s performing during the telethon once in awhile. Or, better yet, send ’em a check. Their address is here.

To learn about the roots of variety entertainmentconsult 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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