Archive for the Broadway Category

Tom Lewis: Worked with the Greats

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2017 by travsd

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Tom Lewis (Thomas Lewis McGuire, 1867-1927) was born on May 17. Originally from New Brunswick, NJ, he was a comedian who played both in vaudeville and on Broadway, and later in silent films. He was in the original production of George M. Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones, and over a dozen other Broadway shows including The Passing Show of 1917, the original production of George S. Kaufman’s Helen of Troy, New York (1923), and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1924.

At the same time, he was a vaudeville staple. He was one of the fabled original ten to form the vaudeville union the White Rats.  Starting in 1912 he was teamed for a time with baseball player Turkey Mike Donlin in vaud. And he also played the Palace, the greatest vaudeville venue in the country.

Staring in 1920 he began appearing regularly in films, notably as Mr. Murphy in The Callahans and the Murphys with Marie Dressler and Polly Moran (1927), and as the first mate in Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr.  

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. For more on silent and slapstick comedy please see my 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

Billie Dove: Follies Girl

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2017 by travsd

Silent film star Billie Dove (Bertha Bohnny 1903-1997) was born on this day. Born to Swiss immigrant parents in New York City, the stunningly beautiful teenager began her working life as a model to artists like Charles Dana Gibson and James Montgomery Flagg. She was also said to have worked as an extra on the Mabel Normand picture Joan of Plattsburg (1918), although she is not visible in the finished picture. In 1919, she was hired as a replacement for the Ziegfeld Follies during the infamous strike; she was also cast as a replacement in the Marilyn Miller show Sally, also produced by Ziegfeld.

With Fairbanks in “The Black Pirate” (1926)

She moved to Hollywood right after this, where she was a star for just over a decade. Her first proper role was in the screen adaptation of George M. Cohan’s Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford (1921) starring Sam Hardy. Interestingly, though her time as an actual chorus girl was brief, she would PORTRAY a chorus girl on screen so often that it became a big part of of her Jazz Age image, in movies like At the Stage Door (1921), Polly of the Follies (1922), An Affair of the Follies (1927), The Heart of a Follies Girl (1928), and her very last film Blondie of the Follies (1932). Among her other notable pictures were, The Black Pirate (1926), opposite Douglas Fairbanks, and Kid Boots (1926), Eddie Cantor’s screen debut, an adaptation of his Ziegfeld-produced Broadway show featuring Cantor and Clara Bow. Billie Dove also was known for co-starring in numerous westerns with the likes of Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, and others.

Dove had a three year romance with Howard Hughes, who’d produced several of her films. In 1933 she retired from the screen to marry oil tycoon Robert Alan Kenaston. After a 30 year absence from the screen she stepped before the camera one last time for a cameo in the Charlton Heston vehicle Diamond Head (1963). Singer Billie Holiday is said to have taken the first part of her stage name from Billie Dove’s.

For more on silent film, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com 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.

Fuzzy Knight: That Cat’s Alright

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Music, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2017 by travsd

Probably best remembered today as a western sidekick in B movies, John “Fuzzy” Knight (1901-1976) came to acting through show biz. Surprisingly he started out as  LAW STUDENT (!) at the West Virginia University  and then got waylaid by his love of music. He was a cheerleader at WVU, co-wrote school songs and pep songs (some of which are still in use), and started his own band, in which he played drums. Knight also sang and played several instruments besides the drums, including the bass and the squeezebox. He later played with larger bands and performed in vaudeville, as well. The trail led to Broadway and such shows as Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1927 and Ned Wayburn’s Gambols (1929).

Next came Hollywood starting in 1929. Initially he was in all kinds of pictures at the major studios, but by the mid 1930s they were all almost entirely westerns. The Cowboy and the Lady (1938) and Union Pacific (1939) were major prestige studio pictures and he had good roles in both. In 1940 he was voted one of the top ten western stars as a box office draw. In the 40s and 50 it was mostly B pictures, sometimes as many as a dozen in a single year. Particularly in the earlier films, he sometimes sang in the movies as well. His career lasted until 1967.

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.

Leonard Sillman: The Man Behind “New Faces”

Posted in Broadway, Dance, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2017 by travsd

Several years ago I acquired a box of old theatre books that someone was discarding. Tucked in the pages of one of them, presumably as a bookmark, was a xeroxed program for a show called New Faces of 1952. This was my first awareness of Leonard Sillman (1908-1982).

I’m not a collector; in fact I actively try NOT to collect (however, books do seem to accumulate). But I understand why others  collect. There is a magic to stuff. Facts that you hear or read about feel theoretical. But when you can put your hands on something it becomes real. Here was a real old theatre program left by someone who had attended a Broadway show full on then-unknowns, “unknowns” among whom were Mel Brooks, Paul Lynde, Eartha Kitt, Alice Ghostley, Robert Clary, Carol Lawrence and Ronny Graham. “What a wonderful thing, I thought. Vaudeville was long dead in 1952, but Broadway still had this mechanism for introducing talent to the public in the form of these revues.”

The man responsible for the New Faces series, and much else, actually had a vaudeville background. He was 14 when he moved from his native Detroit to come to New York to love with an aunt and study dance with Ned Wayburn. He was only 16 when he replaced Fred Astaire in the road company of Lady Be Good. He performed in vaudeville for a bit with Frances Gershwin, sister of George and Ira, for a partner. He also appeared in three Broadway shows: Loud Speaker (1927), Merry-Go-Round (1927), and Polly (1929).

Then he headed out to Hollywood where he taught dance to movie performers, Ruby Keeler among them, and got bits parts in three films in 1933: Whistling in the Dark, Goldie Gets Along and Bombshell. It was there in 1933 that he also produced his first theatrical production Lo and Behold at the Pasadena Playhouse, featuring Eve Arden, Tyrone Power, Kay Thompson and Mr. Silliman’s own sister June Carroll. And Sillman performed in the show himself as well, as he often did throughout the years.

Sillman at Work

Lo and Behold was such a hit that he was able to bring it to Broadway under the title New Faces of 1934, and with new cast members, including Henry Fonda and Imogene Coca, with staging by Elsie Janis. The timing of this development is interesting. As we wrote here, the great Broadway revue series of the early 20th century were in their death throes when the Depression hit. Their aesthetics were old-fashioned; and the scale of the spectacle was becoming cost-prohibitive. This was like a passing of the torch. While Sillman himself was a dancer, and his shows certainly featured song and dance numbers, they didn’t have huge, expensive kickline choruses. Smart, sophisticated sketches, initially written by Sillman himself were the meat of it. Sillman was to create, produce and direct numerous such revues, many of them under the New Faces banner, through 1968! Some other “new faces” he introduced to Broadway included Van Johnson (1936), Irwin Corey (1943), Billie Hayes, Maggie Smith (both 1956), right down to Madeline Kahn and Robert Klein (both 1968). There was also a a film version, New Faces of 1937, with Milton Berle, Joe Penner, Parkyakarkus, Bert Gordon, and Harriet Hilliard, a radio version (1948), and a 1954 television version of New Faces of 1952. 

In addition to his revues, Sillman also produced and directed book musicals and straight plays, most of which weren’t as successful as his revues. His last Broadway credit as producer was a 1970 revival of Hay Fever featuring Sam Waterston and Shirley Booth that ran three weeks. Leonard Sillman had a good eye for talent.

To find out more about  the history of vaudeville and 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.

“Dead End” at the Axis Company

Posted in Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2017 by travsd

Last night, we got to check out Axis Company’s exciting revival of Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End. I’d gotten to see a portion in rehearsal for my feature about the show in Chelsea NowIt whetted my appetite for more.

This was the twelfth Axis show I’ve either seen or written about over the past 17 years, the others being: Frankenstein, Woyzeck, the American premiere of Sarah Kane’s Crave (which featured Debbie Harry!), Hospital, Seven in One Blow, A Glance at New YorkEdgar Oliver’s East 10th Street: Self-Portrait with Empty Housetrinity 5:29, Down There and Evening 1910. And there are several others of their’s I’ve kicked myself for missing, including more than one show about Houdini. The company has come to be one of those in NYC whose work I know the best. I never set out to make that happen, and sometimes, a few years pass between my visits. But artistic director’s Randy Sharp’s combination of passions (an apparent obsession with oddball, often murderous, American history mixed with an aesthetic of avant-garde modernism and a love of technology) is close enough to mine, though parallel, to constantly intrigue me.

Dead End is a wonderful example of how she works. The original play was the height of realism for its time, considered documentary-like, and was produced by the Group Theatre, the original American cult of Stanislawski’s Method. While it possesses some antiquated elements like stock characters and situations, hangovers and conventions from the melodrama era which folks in the 30s either didn’t see or didn’t mind since they were so close to it, Dead End was originally laid out to be very “here and now”, anchored to its own time (the 1930s) and a very particular place (the slums of the East Side of Manhattan).

Sharp’s instinct in the current production is to abstract and universalize the setting. Probably drab and grey to begin with when they originally mounted it on Broadway, Sharp and her designers have dialed the entire color scheme all the way up to black: every set piece, costume, and prop (including things like newspapers, dollar bills and a shine box). The dock pilings which are a major element of the setting (a gang of poor kids hangs out there, jumping off it occasionally to swim in the polluted East River) is represented by three highly stylized (simplified) black cylinder shapes. This hellish scenography transplants the story to some more timeless place that adds existential juice to the play’s title: Dead End as No Exit, or “the neighborhood” as The Village in The Prisoner. The kids in the gang wear hood-like head pieces which resemble early aviation helmets, or perhaps something a medieval monk or nun might wear.  These kids (Emily Kratter, Jon McCormick, Regina Betancourt, and Lynn  Mancinelli) are at once the element that anchors us the most to the purported time and place (the slang, the accents), but they are also formalized into a chorus, often chanting lines in unison, or underscoring the action with percussive sounds, literally “banging a can”. The resetting of the production into limbo makes certain lines pop as being as much “now” as “then”. A character’s monologue about the neighborhood being disrupted when a fancy high rise was recently put up in their midst could have been written yesterday.

Disruption seems to be the leitmotif overall: The entire cast remains onstage for the duration, edgily roiling and twitching with discontent and agida. There is nothing to do and nowhere to go — even for those who’ve left, like the gangster Babyface Martin (a terrifying Brian Barnhart) and the cripple Gimpty, who studied six years to be an architect (George Demas). Both have returned to the birthplace of their misery as though they’d been tethered there with bungee chords. Tommy, the leader of the gang (McCormick), is wanted for a crime, but insists on hanging around the neighborhood, unable or unwilling to flee even if it means freedom. Trapped like animals in a cage, the characters devour each other, squabble, demean, and cut each other up (both literally and figuratively). Some have visions and express hope, but there’s no agit-prop here, no magic recipe to make it all go away. It’s what makes the play modern, easily adaptable to Sharp’s aesthetic, and relatable to our own experience.

“Life sucks and then you die”? Something like that. But somehow people do go on, and, as Camus might say, I guess that’s the point. And the SHOW doesn’t suck! You should see it. It’s up through May 20: here’s the Axis web site for more info and tix. 

 

The Once and Future Clyde Fitch

Posted in Broadway, Playwrights with tags , , , , , , on May 2, 2017 by travsd

Broadway Playwright Clyde Fitch (1865-1909) was born on this day.

Much like his contemporary Oscar Wilde, with whom he is said to have had an affair, Fitch established a reputation as a dandy and personality while still in college. An Elmira, New York native, Fitch had gone to Amherst, where he was highly regarded for his acting in amateur theatricals. Fitch’s devotion to dandyism manifested itself strongly in his very first play Beau Brummell (1890), commissioned by Richard Mansfield as a starring vehicle. The play is an apt illustration of Fitch’s success and cultural impact as a playwright: not only was was it revived on Broadway many times, but it was adapted into Hollywood films in 1913, 1924, and 1954. It is largely through these films that most Americans have framed any idea at all of the eponymous Restoration dandy, whose name became idiomatic for a well-dressed, sissified swell. Many of Fitch’s plays ended up having that kind of longevity and reach, becoming better remembered with the wider public than the playwright himself.

Fitch wrote over 60 plays: 36 original, and 26 adaptations (21 from foreign plays, 5 from novels). Fitch’s second play The Masked Ball (1892), produced by Charles Frohman, co-starred Maude Adams and John Drew, Jr, initiating what would become a popular professional pairing. Other notable works: Bohemia (1896, adapted from the same source as Puccinni’s La Boheme, which premiered the same year); Nathan Hale (1899); Barbara Frietchie (1899, the reputed source of the first half of Barbara Stanwyck’s stage name); Sapho (1900, a naughty vehicle for Olga Nethersole); Captain Jinks of the Horse Marine (1901, breakthrough vehicle for Ethel Barrymore); The Girl with the Green Eyes (1902), Major Andre (1903), The Woman in the Case (1905, starring Blanche Walsh and later made into films in 1916, 1922 and 1923); an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905); and the posthumously produced The City (1909), among dozens of others.

Eat your heart out, Lena Dunham!

Clyde Fitch died of a burst appendix while traveling in France after quacks had convinced him not to have it operated on. One of the ironies of being a catalyst for change is that the transformed world no longer recognizes or appreciates how it got there. And change in the 20th century was lightening fast. Pretty quickly Fitch’s name became shorthand for “old-fashioned”: e.g., “That went out with Clyde Fitch”. It is used that way for comic purposes in the movie All About Eve, for example. And yet he was one of the key people who forged our conception of Broadway as we now know it.

The beauty part is that which has been changed can be changed again. Largely through the efforts of critic Leonard Jacobs Clyde Fitch’s name lives again in the 21st Century. Jacobs’ influential web site The Clyde Fitch Report covers the nexus between art and politics. It also includes this wonderful, deeper tribute to Fitch. And who’d have dreamt Clyde Fitch’s mustache would be revived in the 21st century? His plays, too, deserve, such enthusiastic revival.

I have visited Fitch’s grave at Woodlawn Cemetery (blogged about that visit here). It is an enormous, ostentatious thing, commissioned by his mother, whom Fitch was very close to. His father, an army officer, was less keen on the theatre.  People who are not keen on the theatre get chilly treatment here on Travalanche.

Mayer and Evans: The Cowboy and the Girl

Posted in Broadway, Dixieland & Early Jazz, Hollywood (History), Music, Singers, Singing Comediennes, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2017 by travsd

April 24 is the birthday of big band and jazz piano player Ray Mayer (Ray Maher, 1901-1949). Originally from Lexington, Nebraska, he started out in circuses and in some bands organized by trombonist and songwriter Larry Conley. In 1928, he teamed up with singer Edith Evans, whom he seems to have met while recording sides for Brunwsick Records. They were both high profile enough that they were able to play the Palace that year, and be featured in the Vitaphone shorts When East Meets West and  The Cowboy and the Girl, which is chiefly what they are known for today. The act is sort of like Blossom Seeley and Benny Fields, but if Fields were much more like Will Rogers — a gun-chewing, wisecracking country bloke in chaps. And the gag is that Evans is more urban and sophisticated. It’s a good act, but 1928 was a terrible time to start a vaudeville act. Vaudeville was dead by 1932. The following year, the pair got married and retired the act.

Evans appears to have left the business at this point, but Mayer worked steadily. He appeared in scores of films until his death, often B movie westerns, mostly bit parts. And he’s in half a dozen Broadway shows from 1940 through 1946, including the original production of Louisiana Purchase and Eddie Cantor’s Banjo Eyes. Mayer died in 1949 while on traveling to a performance. More about the pair can be learned at JazzAge20s.com

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 early  film please see my 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

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