Archive for the LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE Category

The High Aspirations of The Princess Theatre

Posted in Broadway, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2017 by travsd

I’ve had the damnedest time locating an image, but this seems to be it, from the vantage of the Sixth Avenue elevated

On March 14, 1913, New York’s Princess Theatre opened for business. Aside from a couple of exceptions (e.g., the Palace, Niblo’s Garden) we don’t typically write about specific theatrical venues here except in passing. The lapse isn’t inadvertent. It simply isn’t my line. As a general rule, I have very little to say about buildings. But today we make an exception, both because this one had an interesting history, and because it was partially owned by my wife’s family!

The Princess Theatre was an outlier, both in terms of geography and in mission. It was located at 104-106 West 39th Street, off Sixth Ave, which is farther west than most (but not all) Broadway theatres, as well as a bit on the southerly side as the years passed (there also used to be plenty of theatres in the 30s, but gradually, as you know, 42nd Street became the approximate southern boundary.)

But beyond its relative remoteness, it was unusual in other ways. It was an early harbinger, both in size and in mission, of what came to be known as the Little Theatre Movement. At 299 seats it was far smaller than most other Broadway houses. The intimate scale was intentional. The venue was designed to present one-act dramas by a repertory company, a very early reaction to the commercialization of mainstream theatre certain people were already identifying, coming from an almost identical conceptual place as the later Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and Indie-Theatre Movements (the only difference being that the response was coming from the commercial theatre industry itself). The main players in the venture were producer F. Ray Comstock and the Shuberts, with actor-manager Holbrook Blinn and theatrical agent Bessie Marbury (to whom I happen to be distantly related;  Katherine Marbury is my 12th great grandmother; her sister was Rhode Island founder Anne Hutchinson).

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The first few years of the Princess were bumpy; the serious plays were not filling the seats. But the venture found success in the middle teens with a series of “thinking man’s musicals”, which have since become known as the Princess Theatre Musicals, with integrated songs, and books less crude than the standard fare of the day. Most of them were authored by the team of Jerome Kern, Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. The most successful of these was Oh, Boy! (1917) which ran for 463 performances.

In the 1920s, the theatre returned to its original mission of dramas. The best known plays from this period were Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1921, transferred from the Provincetown Playhouse) and the American premiere of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1922-1923). But it was a tough slog. In 1928, after only 15 years, it ceased to be the Princess Theatre.

Next came a quarter century of name changes, transfers of ownership, and new missions: it became the Lucille Laverne in ’28, the Assemble Theatre in ’29, was shuttered from ’29 to ’33, then became the Reo Theatre, a cinema, in ’33.

In 1934, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union acquired the space to use as a recreation hall. Normally, I bemoan such repurposing of precious theatre space, but this new ownership ironically resulted in the greatest theatrical success ever mounted in that location, the Depression Era labor revue Pins and Needles, which ran for 1,108 performances starting in 1937. The Princess was now the Labor Stage, and remained under that name for a decade. In 1947, the legendary Actors Studio was hatched in one of the theatre’s rehearsal spaces.

In 1947, it became Cinema Dante, which showed foreign movies; in 1948, the Little Met; and in 1952, Cinema Verdi. In 1955 it was torn down to make way for an office building. For more on the cinema years, and this theatre in general, see its entry at Cinema Treasures, a wonderful resource.

For all of its history, the Princess Theatre and its later incarnations seem to have been governed by moonbeams, a series of Noble Experiments. It is not atypical that the venture was short lived. But as I sometimes like to joke, the art of theatre would do okay if it weren’t for these damn audiences.

To find out more on theatre historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Albert Carroll: Kind of a Drag

Posted in Broadway, Dance, Drag and/or LGBT, Impressionists with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2017 by travsd

Today’s as good a day as any to tell you about Albert Carroll, an extraordinarily talented and well-known guy in his day to have become so obscure in ours. Carroll was a Broadway actor,  dancer, impressionist, female impersonator, lyricist and choreographer. Sources differ as to his birth. IBDB gives ca. 1895-1956, and a 1900 Chicago census seems to bear this out. IMDB gives march 13, 1898 through 1970, although they might be conflating him with another Albert Carroll, possibly the New Orleans piano player, who was African American. To further confuse matters, our subject sometimes rendered his name as Albert J. Carroll.

I’ve gotten some info about his earliest years from F. Michael Moore’s book Drag! Male and Female Impersonators on Stage, Screen and Television. Moore says that Carroll staged an amateur revue in Chicago when he was 16, and that when he got to New York, he performed during interludes in silent movie screenings. About his private life, or how he came to New York I’ve so far found nothing. Since his earliest credits were all with the Neighborhood Playhouse we can make some deductions about he got his start on the stage. The Neighborhood Playhouse was founded in 1915 and had grown out of youth education programs at Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, which remains a center of theatrical activity to this day. Carroll’s first couple of shows with the company appear to have opened at the downtown theatre and then moved to the Maxine Elliott Theater on Broadway.  He’s about the right age to have been involved with Henry Street’s theatre programs in his late teens and young adulthood, and gotten involved with the company that way. His first professional credit was a show based around visiting British actress Gertrude Kingston in 1916. The next was a play called 39 East by Rachel Crothers in 1919, in which Carroll appeared with Henry Hull and Alison Skipworth. It was made into a silent film the following year with a much of the same cast, including Carroll.

For the next three decades Carroll was to be a star of Broadway, often with Neighborhood Playhouse productions, in over three dozen shows. He was a notable stand-out as performer, choreographer and lyricist in several editions of the revue called the Grand Street Follies, participating in the inaugural 1922 edition, as well as ones in annual editions from 1924 through 1929. Other revues he appeared in included The ’49ers (1922),  The Garrick Gaieties (1930), The Ziegfeld Follies (1931) and The Seven Lively Arts (1944). In these revues he was famous for impersonating famous actors and dancers, many or most of whom were female.  He did impressions of both John and Ethel Barrymore. He also did Pavlova, Irene Castle, Lynne Fontanne, Bea Lillie, Gertrude Lawrence, Laurette Taylor, Groucho Marx, and NYC Mayor Jimmy Walker.   Some photographs of him in character can be found of him on a blog called the Mouse Art Notebooks. He also contributed humor, poems and stories to the New Yorker between 1927 and 1930. He also acted in straight plays and comedies and even classics. His last known credits are musicals with the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 1946 and 1947. After this he appears to have returned to Chicago, where he passed away about a decade later.

Several sources say the great Southern novelist Thomas Wolfe disliked Carroll, whom he met in the 1920s through the Neighborhood Playhouse’s set and costume designer Aline Bernstein, who was Wolfe’s patron and lover. (He is said to have been uncomfortable with Carroll’s flamboyant and foppish personality, i.e. he was homophobic).

Another interesting tidbit: Carroll’s younger brother Eugene “Gene” Carroll had a vaudeville career, and hosted a local television show in Cleveland for decades.

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on silent  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Marie Wallace: From the Follies to the Film Colony

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Women with tags , , , , , , , on March 9, 2017 by travsd

She’s the One in the Middle

A few tidbits on Marie Wallace (1895-1961),whom I came across in Marjorie Farnsworth’s Ziegfeld Follies book. She was born in Massachusetts to parents who’d emigrated from Ireland, though the surname (if it’s her natural one) would indicate Scots-Irish descent. Circa 1912 she married a gent named David Shelley and gave birth to a son, also named David. This was a complicated time for her, given the fact that the same year she made her debut in the chorus of The Passing Show of 1912. If you’ll do the math, you’ll note that she was rather young — 17 — for both events. She also appeared in The Queen of the Movies (1914), Dance and Grow Thin (1917), Honey Girl (1920), and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1917, 1918, 1922, and 1923. Her sister Nancy Wallace was also in the Follies, and died in childbirth in 1919.

The publicity still above, from July 1922, bears the caption: “Heat Drives Follies Girls to Roof for Rehearsals. New York — Pearl Eaton, Marie Wallace and Leonore Baron, members of the Ziegfeld Follies Company, give pedestrians on the streets below a couple of eyes-full while they go through their daily rehearsals on the roof of the New Amsterdam Theater. The extreme heat made it necessary for the girls to be put through their paces in the open.” Pearl Eaton was the sister of (Doris Eaton, the Last Follies Girl), and Mary Eaton, from The Cocoanuts.

At some point during her decade-long theatrical career, Marie was either divorced from Mr. Shelley or he passed away, for in April, 1924 she married the popular songwriter Buddy DeSylva and retired from show business. Wallace is said to have been the inspiration for the song “Somebody Loves Me”, by DeSylva (with George Gershwin and Ballard MacDonald.)

DeSylva of course was a Broadway powerhouse. With the advent of talkies, he also became a Hollywood powerhouse, not just as a songwriter but as a producer and studio executive, and the balance of her life was spent on the west coast. Interestingly she appears in a 1929 Fox film short called Nertz, with Buddy, Paul Whiteman and NYC Mayor Jimmy Walker.

Buddy DeSylva passed away in 1950; Wallace survived him by 11 years. Her son David Shelly was the third husband of actress and big band singer Martha Stewart.  (Shelley’s and Stewart’s son, also named David Shelley, was a successful blues rock musician.)

To find out more about show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Hirschfeld, Cats, Algonquin

Posted in Broadway, SOCIAL EVENTS, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , on March 7, 2017 by travsd

The three words in the title of this post may SOUND like Speakeasy passwords, but they all came together in a semblance of sense yesterday. The fabled Algonquin Hotel acquired a couple of Al Hirschfeld caricatures of the original production of Cats, and there was a brief unveiling ceremony yesterday afternoon in the Blue Room (thus the impression you’ll get in some of the photos below that we are in an aquarium tank).

Your correspondent and David Leopold, director of the Al Hirschfeld Foundation, posing for the cover of our new record album

 

Jessica Hendy of the current “Cats” revival, with Hirschfeld’s caricature of Betty Buckley from the original production

Afterwards, colleagues and I repaired to the adjacent dining room to hatch plans regarding long-overdue memorials for deceased showfolk. With me were author Kevin Fitzpatrick of the Dorothy Parker Society and Michele Gouveia of the blog Tales of a Madcap Heiress. Every afternoon should be so pleasant!

KFitz and Cocktail

Stars of Vaudeville #1035: Guy Kibbee

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2017 by travsd

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Guy Kibbee (1882-1956) has a birthday today.

Character actor Kibbee became a professional performer at age 13 in his native El Paso, wracking up nearly 35 years of stage experience on showboats, and in stock companies and vaudeville before making his first film, a 1929 Vitaphone called For Sale directed by Bryan Foy, and starring Gregory Ratoff. He appeared in two Broadway plays, Torch Song and Marseilles, in 1930 before definitely making the move to Hollywood just before reaching the age of 50.

Those Pre-Code years at Warner Brothers covered him in glory: he was much in demand in racy comedies and musicals (and sometimes dramas), generally as a cheerfully lecherous moneybags, all leering eyes, flashing teeth, and shiny bald forehead. His skin seemed so ruddy from boozing it up you could detect it in films that were in black and white. His raspy voice further cemented the idea that this guy had done some hard partying. He’s in Blonde Crazy (1931), 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade (1933), Wonder Bar (1934), and Dames (1934), among many others during these years. Once the Code was in force, he proved his versatility in all sorts of pictures, such as westerns, costume epics, and dramas as well as comedies and musicals, generally playing avuncular authority figures like judges, army generals, politicians and the like. Important later films included Captain Blood (1935), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Our Town (1940), and two John Ford westerns Fort Apache and Three Godfathers, both 1948.

Top comedians he supported over the years included Bert Lahr (Flying High, 1931), Joe E. Brown (Fireman, Save My Child, 1932, Earthworm Tractors, 1936, and Riding on Air, 1937), Red Skelton (Whistling in Dixie, 1942), and Jack Benny (The Horn Blows at Midnight, 1945). He also supported Shirley Temple in Miss Annie Rooney (1942), and even had his own starring series of comedies for RKO as Scattergood Baines, six films produced between 1941 and 1943, a topic for its own blogpost someday no doubt. His younger brother Milton Kibbee became a bit player in films, as well.

 To find out more about show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early comedy film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Killy Dwyer in “Not Show Business”

Posted in Art Stars, Contemporary Variety, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags , , , , , on March 5, 2017 by travsd

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I was so grateful Kelly “Killy” Dwyer flushed me out of my hiding place yesterday to come see the last performance of her work Not Show Business in the Frigid Festival at Under St. Marks. We’re longtime fans of Killy’s, not just as an artist but as a person; we love her so much we asked her to officiate at our wedding.  Little did we know that she was going through tough times then, which I only make bold to mention because she talks about it openly in her work.

What do we admire about her work? Well for one thing, she can’t be pigeon-holed. She’s a singer, comedienne, storyteller, musician, autobiographical performance artist. The word “collage” occurred to me looking at the stage yesterday, a piece built of cut-up fragments. In addition to the performance aspects, she was working with found objects (real physical items from her childhood) in this show, as well as video (home movies).

She is extremely bold and brave. I know this because I have been watching her for a long time and I catch quick glimpses of what’s behind the mask. She does a high wire act. Once you’re on the wire, there’s only one way to do it and that’s with the confidence that you can. But there’s that second before you step off. She doesn’t hide that second from anybody before she climbs up, but it’s there. She’s whistlin’ in the graveyard. She mines a lot of humor from mock insincerity in the show biz tradition (after she finished a song yesterday, she said, “Let’s hear it for that, huh?”) and that’s endearing. At the same time, she bares all, about her mistakes, about her foibles, and in particular (in this show) about struggles with mental illness. She switched up her meds six months ago because she was afraid she was losing her memory, and this show is all about memory. Hence the giant baby-jammies, and the box of keepsakes full of old photo albums and yearbooks and the projected home movies on stage.

Now, I have seen shows just like what I just have described that have been insufferable, and you have too. What sets Killy apart, aside from honesty that’s not bullshit, is a high level of craft that allows her to turn the mess of her life into art. She is a great legit singer in a very old school way (like, really, I don’t know, Doris Day or something) and that impression is reinforced by the fact that her physical raw material looks like the Ohio mom she probably would have been if there wasn’t an exploding genius inside fucking up her brain. (I know I’m not alone in that impression because she gets cast as moms all the time in TV commercials.) But in reality she is a feral free spirit, and that comes out in her songwriting and arranging which is modern and technological and would not be out of place at a party (unless you made a point of listening to the dark and funny lyrics). In the show I saw she sang a song about her high school romance with Jack Daniels (the kind that comes in a bottle), an abusive romance which resulted in her breaking her nose at her 18th birthday party. She blended the song and the story perfectly into a seamless performance although it was presumably performed spur of the moment as the result of an audience member choosing it by spinning a “Wheel of Destiny”.

Killy’s work is inspirational to me and it was heartening to see it at Under St. Marks, a space I have been coming back to for almost 20 years now, a place that has hung on to its mission of presenting such work when the whole city seems to be becoming a brothel of high-priced sell-outs. This is pure work. It’s kind of the only work that matters. Made me want to jump on up there and try to do a show just like it, and that’s the highest kind of praise I got.

BTW, Killy’s been doing a terrific prime-time radio show on Radio Free Brooklyn, Friday nights at 8pm. You should check it out!

Hall of Hams #113: Rex Harrison

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2017 by travsd

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Sir Rex Harrison, Inventor of Speak-Singing 

Today is the birthday of stage and screen Sir Rex Harrison (Reginald Harrison, 1908-1990). It’s safe to say that Harrison was the first serious English actor with whom I had any wide familiarity as a child, and I’m betting that’s true of many Americans of my age. He was frequently on television variety and talk shows throughout the 1970s (he was funny and also famous for his many marriages — six — as well as some notorious affairs). I imagine I encountered his films in roughly this order: Dr. Doolittle (1967), My Fair Lady (1964), Cleopatra (1963), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), Blithe Spirit (1945), Major Barbara (1941), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Ann and the King of Siam (1946) and, quite recently, Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours (1948). This leaves plenty I’ve yet to see; I’m particularly interested in Night Train to Munich (1940).

Harrison was certainly an early pathway to Shaw for me through My Fair Lady and Major Barbara. Onstage he’d also starred in Caesar and Cleopatra, Heartbreak House, and The Devil’s Disciple. I think of him as the consummate interpreter of Shaw, virtually his mouthpiece. For example, I’ve never seen him as Shaw’s Caesar (it’s Claude Rains in the 1945 film) yet I always picture the character as him when I read the play. Possibly partially because he played him in the 1963 blockbuster, but also because one comes to know and cherish Harrison’s delivery. It is a perfect match. Another stage performance of his I’d wish I’d seen is his Henry VIII in Maxwell Anderson’s Anne of the Thousand Days (1948) — it’s Richard Burton in the 1969 movie.

Harrison’s also the inventor of the technique of “speak-singing” which I confess I’ve always found frustrating. I’m the farthest thing from a musicals-Nazi, but often you hear the terrific melody the songwriters have written, and well, it feels a cheat not to hear it sung.

Originally from Lancashire, Harrison was educated in Liverpool College, where he began his career in the professional theatre in 1924. He first appeared in films and on the West End in 1930, and went to Hollywood in 1946.

To find out more about show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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