Archive for the STEAMPUNK/ VICTORIANA Category

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

Posted in BUNKUM, Dime Museum and Side Show, Little People, STEAMPUNK/ VICTORIANA 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!”

Where We At: Springtide Spectaculumps!

Posted in Circus, Contemporary Variety, Dime Museum and Side Show, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, ME, My Shows, PLUGS, STEAMPUNK/ VICTORIANA with tags , , , , , , on March 18, 2015 by travsd

And now…for my next trick!

The last twelvemonth was such a chain of large projects (4 of them) that there has been scant time for what you might call the NYC alt-performer’s DAILY SWIM. First there was Marxfest, then I’ll Say She Is, then Dead End Dummy, and then Horseplay.…Outside the context of those four projects, I don’t think I did any of the usual day in, day out type personal appearances, one offs and smaller scale thingies that usually season our calender.

For the next month or so, however, I will have no less than three such special events, and I dearly hope you’ll join me. Since the last of three has the most seats to fill, I’ll present it first and work backwards….


April 21, 7:30 PM, Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie Street


April, 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. To observe the occasion I​ will be presenting sections of my Civil War circus comedy A House Divided, written as companion piece to Kitsch (presented at Theater for the New City in 2009.) This unique variety presentation features clown bits, a “magic lantern slide show”, live music, farcical scenes from the play and circus and sideshow turns.

In the cast:

Trav SD​ as circus showman Romulus LeGuerre and his twin brother Remus, a committed Quaker!

Carolyn Raship​ (Illustrated Slides)

Dandy Darkly​ as your Gentleman Narrator!

Lewd Alfred Douglas​ as Castor and Pollux, two dashing and romantical young lads!

Jeff Seal​ performing a pantomime, twill make you laff til your sides ache!

Jenny Lee Mitchell​ as the divine Miss Greensleeves, love object and soprano

Jennifer Harder​, blowing her bugle and essaying multiple parts!

Justin R. G. Holcomb​ as Major Anderson

Robert Pinnock as the deformed creature “Murk”

the haunting cello of Becca Bernard

sideshow stunts by CARDONE

and introducing…“Abraham Lincoln”!

Stage Manager: Sarah Lahue​


Friday April 3, 8pm, $10 suggested Donation
Barbes, 376 9th Street, Park Slope
Opera on Tap’s New Brew Series Presents:
The Curse of the Rat King: Trav S.D. (libretto) and David Mallamud (music) have been collaborating on this campy comic opera since 2010. It is a post-modern mash-up of Universal horror films, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, the writings of Sigmund Freud, and numerous other elements. On the bill with him will be selections from Three Way, by David Cote (libretto) and Robert Paterson (music), which has been described as “a kind of NC-17 Il trittico”, and two works with lyrics by UTC#61’s Edward EinhornThe Velvet Oratorio (music by Henry Akona) and Money Lab (music by Avner Finberg).
The Curse of the Rat King
libretto: Trav SD
music: David Mallamud
Three Way
libretto: David Cote
music: Robert Paterson
The Velvet Oratorio
libretto: Edward Einhorn
music: Henry Akona
Money Lab
libretto: Edward Einhorn
music: Avner Finberg
Featuring David Gordon, Seth Gilman, Anne Hiatt, David Macaluso, Cameron Russell, and Krista Wozniak with Christopher Berg tinkling the piano keys.
March 27, 7pm & March 28, 11pm
HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue
Money Lab: An Economic Vaudeville
Trav S.D. plays P.T. Barnum in The Art of Money Getting, a  monologue adapted from Barnum’s eponymous self-help book, directed by Carolyn Raship, accompanied by educational slide show. It’s all part of Untitled Theatre Company #61’s Money Lab: An Economic VaudevilleI’ll be on the bill with some of my favorite downtown artists — don’t miss it!

On Culture and Anarchy

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, STEAMPUNK/ VICTORIANA with tags , , , on December 24, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the great Victorian poet, essayist and cultural critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888).

This year I read Culture and Anarchy (1867-1869) for the first time and I suspect I will be grappling with its contradictions for a long time to come. I don’t mean this as a criticism. All the best humanistic writing is self-contradictory, otherwise it wouldn’t be of the slightest interest.

The title may mislead the modern reader; Arnold has his own definitions of the words at play, and they may differ from your customary associations with them. By “Culture” he means not only arts and letters but something closer to “society” in the sense that political philosophers like Hobbes and Rousseau conceive it, in other words ALL human exchange, embracing polity, religion, morality, and behavior. Furthermore, for Arnold true culture has a certain character; it is about a perpetual striving toward the Good, “the best that has been thought and said”, and (to use a phrase he borrowed from Swift), a “Sweetness and Light”. By the same token, by “Anarchy” he isn’t referring to the political doctrine of anarchism but the tendency of people to “do as they like”, heedless of peer and public opinion and the general welfare. Arnold definitely favors one side, as you will glean from the fact that he chose a very positive sounding word for the first concept and a negative one for the second (as opposed to freedom, liberty, or the rights of the individual).

Victorian that he is, his thoughts are simultaneously what we think of as “conservative” and “liberal”. He definitely thinks of culture as a process towards happiness and truth. He never wants it to be hidebound, ossified, dogmatic, or rote. It was Arnold who coined the term “Philistine”.  Thus what Arnold advocates is the very essence of the liberal mind: active, inquiring, critical, reflective. Yet, the Victorian in him demands that this process be forever gauged  by consensus. I picture his conception as akin to peer review within the modern scientific community. Everyone must sign off on the revised outlook, else it probably isn’t true. We don’t just jettison commonly held beliefs; we must assume that they must be commonly held for a reason, if they have stood the test of time. One is forever working to perhaps slowly adjust what makes up the common body of ideas, but one is duty bound not to go rogue. The area where an illustration of this balanced outlook might be clearest is religion. Influenced by Spinoza, Arnold believed in the moral benefits of religion, without the supernatural aspects. Yet (this is important) he did not believe in what is called religious non-conformity. He did not believe in sects. He believed in working within one’s culture to bring invigorating movement toward truth and the good.

Arnold is also often considered the third great Victorian poet, after Tennyson and Browning. We leave you with “The Future”, published 1852:

The Future

A WANDERER is man from his birth.
He was born in a ship
On the breast of the river of Time;
Brimming with wonder and joy
He spreads out his arms to the light,
Rivets his gaze on the banks of the stream.

As what he sees is, so have his thoughts been.
Whether he wakes,
Where the snowy mountainous pass,
Echoing the screams of the eagles,
Hems in its gorges the bed
Of the new-born clear-flowing stream;
Whether he first sees light
Where the river in gleaming rings
Sluggishly winds through the plain;
Whether in sound of the swallowing sea –
As is the world on the banks,
So is the mind of the man.

Vainly does each, as he glides,
Fable and dream
Of the lands which the river of Time
Had left ere he woke on its breast,
Or shall reach when his eyes have been closed.
Only the tract where he sails
He wots of; only the thoughts,
Raised by the objects he passes, are his.

Who can see the green earth any more
As she was by the sources of Time?
Who imagines her fields as they lay
In the sunshine, unworn by the plough?
Who thinks as they thought,
The tribes who then roam’d on her breast,
Her vigorous, primitive sons?

What girl
Now reads in her bosom as clear
As Rebekah read, when she sate
At eve by the palm-shaded well?
Who guards in her breast
As deep, as pellucid a spring
Of feeling, as tranquil, as sure?

What bard,
At the height of his vision, can deem
Of God, of the world, of the soul,
With a plainness as near,
As flashing as Moses felt
When he lay in the night by his flock
On the starlit Arabian waste?
Can rise and obey
The beck of the Spirit like him?

This tract which the river of Time
Now flows through with us, is the plain.
Gone is the calm of its earlier shore.
Border’d by cities and hoarse
With a thousand cries is its stream.
And we on its breast, our minds
Are confused as the cries which we hear,
Changing and shot as the sights which we see.

And we say that repose has fled
For ever the course of the river of Time.
That cities will crowd to its edge
In a blacker, incessanter line;
That the din will be more on its banks,
Denser the trade on its stream,
Flatter the plain where it flows,
Fiercer the sun overhead.
That never will those on its breast
See an ennobling sight,
Drink of the feeling of quiet again.

But what was before us we know not,
And we know not what shall succeed.

Haply, the river of Time –
As it grows, as the towns on its marge
Fling their wavering lights
On a wider, statelier stream –
May acquire, if not the calm
Of its early mountainous shore,
Yet a solemn peace of its own.

And the width of the waters, the hush
Of the grey expanse where he floats,
Freshening its current and spotted with foam
As it draws to the Ocean, may strike
Peace to the soul of the man on its breast –
As the pale waste widens around him,
As the banks fade dimmer away,
As the stars come out, and the night-wind
Brings up the stream
Murmurs and scents of the infinite sea.

Aubrey Beardsley

Posted in STEAMPUNK/ VICTORIANA, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , on August 21, 2013 by travsd

Salome, with the head of John the Baptist

“If I am not grotesque, than I am nothing” — Beardsley

Today is the birthday of the great Art Nouveau illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898). A key member of the Aesthetic movement, he was a friend and colleague of Oscar Wilde, for whom he illustrated a published version of the play Salome that came out in 1894. Beardsley’s brief career moved with the speed of a comet. He’d become a professional in 1891, made the trip to Paris where he was influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec and Japanese prints in 1892, and was dead of tuberculosis in 1898. In between, an incredible body of highly original, highly distinctive illustrations. Even an amateur like me can recognize his style at a glance (even or unless it is the work of one of his countless imitators). Almost all done in black ink, they are full of feminine grace and simplicity, often incorporate abstraction, tend to forego three dimensional illusion, are relatively devoid of shading…and sometimes are quite obscene. On that note, we leave you with one of his illustrations for a volume of the plays of Aristophanes. I promise this will be the only fart cartoon you will ever see on Travalanche:


On Herman Melville

Posted in AMERICANA, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, STEAMPUNK/ VICTORIANA with tags , , , , on August 1, 2013 by travsd

Originally posted in 2011

This gentleman (born today in 1819) is one of my literary heroes.

A tribute to this is the fact that my interest in him survived an introduction to his great masterwork at the hands of an incompetent doofus in my senior year in high school, a supercilious oaf with the appropriate name of “Mr. Dick”. I detested this teacher so much that I dropped out of advanced placement English (and English, after theatre, was my favorite subject). But while Moby Dick has been tarnished at the hands of several film-makers, it proved to be impervious to the fumblings of Mr. Dick. I have re-read it periodically since then: my current copy is as well thumbed as Melville’s King James Bible and Shakespeare must have been. It’s long been my dream to play Ahab, at least in a radio adaptation if not in a stage version or (infinitely unlikely) a screen one.

The other Melville role I’ve been steadily, stealthily devising for myself is the title character(s) in his last novel The Confidence Man, a masterwork even more experimental and difficult than Moby Dick. I have worked up an adaptation of my own, which I first presented on the 150th anniversary of the book’s publishing, April Fool’s Day 2007 at Coney Island USA. I subsequently did a smaller reading at the Metropolitan Playhouse. I first discovered the book in the early 1990s, fortuitously at the height of my Barnum phase, and I, too, re-read that one periodically, as I continue to develop it for future production.

Melville’s career is one of the first to confront the perennial problem of the American artist, an internal struggle between the two American ideals, Democracy and Freedom. Give the People What They Want? Or To Thine Own Self Be True? Happy indeed is the individual for whom the two coincide, or who can strike a balance. Melville’s career was a sickening see-saw, and then a slide, between the ideals. His first works (Typee, Omoo, Mardi, Redburn and White-Jacket), purportedly based on his real adventures as a sailor in the South Seas, were for the most part successes. When he wrote in this mode, his books sold and he enjoyed some income from his work. It’s easy to see the appeal of these early works. They have aspects of travelogue, being among the first to take us to exotic, faraway corners of the globe. They have aspects of expose: as in Dana’s Ten Years Before the Mast we are shown the harsh cruelties inflicted on sailors by their officers, a fact of life Melville, an educated man from a good (if fallen) family, was especially sensitive to. They have aspects of autobiography of a man of action, a new concept in literature, replacing the outworn paradigm of the author as an armchair man of leisure.

Still, even early on, Melville reveals himself as an iconoclast and a thinker. He rails against the attempts of missionaries to convert the native islanders. He dares to find the half-naked Polynesian women beautiful. It was under the heady spell of Hawthorne that he wrote the brooding, metaphysical, highly experimental Moby Dick, a transitional work in that its setting, as in the previous half-dozen novels, is a ship at sea. (Interesting to note that his later novels Pierre, Israel Potter and The Confidence Man, and his many poems, almost all of which stray from nautical themes, were critical and popular failures. And what marked his revival? The posthumous 1924 publication of Billy Budd, Sailor). And yet the experimentalism of his later works were way ahead of their time, paving the way for the likes of Joyce, Kafka and O’Neill.

Lastly, Melville ranks I think with certain modern artists like Van Gogh and Orson Welles as being the kind of model who inspires me as an indie theatre artist. Yes, the more he pursued his individual vision, the less “commercial” he became, with the irony that just as he was creating his works of lasting genius, those today most prized by the public, he was scorned by the masses. The world expects you to kiss its ass. How much more satisfying it is to say, like Melville, “World, kiss mine!”

Today is Herman Melville’s birthday.

Here’s the always exhaustive O’Malley on the subject of Melville; why the post is practically as long as Moby Dick!:

And here is John Barrymore in the first cinematic adaptation of Moby Dick, the silent The Sea Beast (1926):

For more about silent film please check out: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


Of Queen Victoria and Vaudeville

Posted in ME, PLUGS, STEAMPUNK/ VICTORIANA with tags , , on May 24, 2013 by travsd


Rule, Britannia! Britannia, Rule the Waves!

That’s not how I feel necessarily…it’s just the music that goes with this picture.

Today is Queen Victoria’s Birthday (1819-1901). I thought I’d give the old gal a shout-out today because she plays such a large part in both of my books. What’s the  Monarch of the United Kingdom and the Empress of India got to do with vaudeville, music hall, theatre, and silent film comedy in the United States, you wonder? Ladies and gentleman, her shadow was wide and dark across the entire English-speaking world. There’s no way to talk about culture in America in the 19th and early 20th century without touching on her influence. Well you can, but you will be missing the boat…a little boat I like to call the H.M.S. Victoria. At any rate, it wasn’t until the 1960s really that the last vestiges of Victorianism truly went into retrograde. For a fuller explication, you’ll need to consult…

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


as well as my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


The Only Post You’ll Ever Need About L. Frank Baum

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Broadway, BUNKUM, Hollywood (History), ME, Movies, Playwrights, Silent Film, STEAMPUNK/ VICTORIANA with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2013 by travsd

For a time during my childhood, at an age far too old to have been healthy, I believed that Oz was a real place. This may be credited both to an unhappy childhood…and to the unparalleled imagination of Oz’s creator, L. Frank Baum, who was born on this day in 1856.

Baum’s first love was the theatre. While he worked in stores, raised poultry and did similar quotidian work to earn a living, as early as the late 1870s he was already acting in and writing plays in his native upstate New York. When a theatre he owned burned down in 1882, it was a setback to his ambitions, but he would return to them in a major way as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

In 1888, he moved his family to the Dakota territory, where he was a storekeeper and newspaper editor. This was literally the Wild West (about 15 years after the events in Deadwood) and from his experiences there, Baum would derive that bleak, wilderness flavor that informs Dorothy’s adventures in the first Oz book. It also is the time of our one serious black mark on Baum’s character. As editor of the local paper, he wrote approvingly, even  enthusiastically, of extermination of the local Sioux Indians. It is a clear example to me of why the artist, especially the fantasist, must never, EVER be involved in politics. Unable to separate abstractions in their head from flesh and blood reality, they help to perpetrate horrors and misery. Similar sentiments in the romantic western novels of the German writer Karl May for example, were to inspire Adolf Hitler only a few years later.  (The early rolls of the Fascist, Nazi and Communist parties were overflowing with artists just itching to apply their creative imaginations in the service of the state. Give such people paintbrushes; never power. But I digress massively.) Still, this episode, however heinous, appears isolated, and Baum was progressive in many more benign ways, especially in the cause of feminism.

After Baum’s business failed (as they always did), he and his family moved to Chicago in 1891, working for newspapers and trade journals.

In 1897, he brought out his first children’s book, Mother Goose in Prose, with illustrations by Maxfield ParrishThe Wonderful Wizard of Oz came out in 1900 and was such a smash hit Baum wrote thirteen sequels (and successors wrote scores more). Those who know only the 1939 MGM film, or only the first Oz book, can scarcely dream the fully realized complexity of the world Baum created. A world with a complete (if imaginary) geography, populated with dozens and dozens of characters as whimsical and original as the ones we know from the first book: Jack Pumpkinhead, the Wogglebug, Tik-Tok, Bellina, the Shaggy Man, Princess Ozma, and on and on and on. this is why it was possible for me (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) to get completely lost in that parallel universe of hot air balloons and humbug.

In 1903, a version of The Wizard of Oz was brought out as a Broadway musical. The content was completely different from that of the MGM film, but the performance of Fred Stone as the Scarecrow in that stage version was so memorable that it would later inspire Ray Bolger to become a dancer, and to dream of playing the part himself some day. The stage version was a major hit of its day, allowing Baum to finally realize his dream of success in the theatre.

In 1910 he branched out into cinema. Here are my notes on that first film version of The Wizard of Oz, which I jotted down a few years ago:

Crude, stage bound. Seems a lot like Melies. Painted stage sets. Lots of capering and frolicking. People in donkey and cow costumes. She meets the Scarecrow while still in Kansas? Oz looks tropical—sort of like the Nile region. The witch’s henchman are flying TOAD  men, rather than monkeys. Charming visually—Munchkin outfits look like Denslow’s ones from the book.

Baum actually moved to LA and  made movies for the remaining decade of life, even as was churning out children’s books at a prodigious rateHe passed away in 1919.

In 1925, silent film comedian Larry Semon made his own version of The Wizard of Oz.

Here are my notes on that:

Any resemblance between this film and L. Frank Baum book is purely coincidental. Despite the fact that the film opens with an old man reading from a book of The Wizard of Oz scarcely any story detail remains intact (although Semon’s nose does resemble Margaret Hamilton’s). In this film, the Wizard is a mere toady of a mean despot named “Emperor Kruel”. Oliver Hardy is in the film, although, amazingly, he is not the heavy. That role can be said to be played by Fatty Alexander, here cast as Uncle Henry, a mean bully! Will the heresies never cease? Farm hands Hardy and Semon are rivals for the affection of Dorothy, who is about to turn 18.

While we are anxiously awaiting the arrival of a plot, Semon runs afowl of a duck who spits animated white liquid in his face; and then a bunch of animated bees which sting his butt, but not before his fundament has been kicked by a mule, sending Semon flying into an enormous patch of cactuses that have mysteriously been transplanted to Kansas. (Semon anticipates Jerry Lewis by wearing inappropriate jewelry—in this case a large ring—that his character would never wear). 

There is a third farm hand played by an African-American whose SCREEN name is G. Howe Black”. You can imagine the kind of comedy this character generates. He is first discovered rolling his eyes and slurping a stolen watermelon. Later he will run through the skies as lightning keeps zapping his butt.

But we are ahead of ourselves. We learn in a flashback that Dorothy is not really related to Henry and Em, she was left on the doorstep as an infant (played by the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen on celluloid). A note in the basket says to open the attached envelope when she turns 18—she is clearly the lost Queen of Oz. Bad guys from Oz come to steal the note before she reads it. (They leave Oz in a tri-plane; arrive in Kansas in a biplane. Must be like heaven, when you leave, you lose a pair of wings.)

The tornado arrives by divine intervention bringing Hardy, Semon, Dorothy, Uncle Henry and the black guy to Oz.  Dorothy learns she is to be queen, but the bad guys show up. Semon hides by dressing as a Scarecrow. Hardy, the Tin Man. They are arrested, but only Semon and the black guy are thrown in the dungeon. Everyone else is perfectly happy about the situation. While Emperor Kruel schemes to marry Dorothy, our friends in the dungeon try to escape. The black guy dresses in a lion costume, thus completing the trilogy and fulfilling aesthetic mandate. The film’s best (or most original) sequence emerges…one I believe resuscitated by Abbott and Costello for Africa Screams. Semon and the costumed black guy (do you WANT me to call him G. Howe Black?) get amongst some real lions. Of course at a certain point Semon will think he is with his human friend and get very saucy and confident with an actual lion. Well…you had to be there.

Anyway, in the end, Prince Kynd (remember him?) has a sword fight and defeats Emperor Kruel, thus making all the other male characters in the plot superfluous.

EPILOGUE: The requisite Semon set piece on towers with the acrobatic swinging of stunt men. Semon’s character jumps onto an airplane just as the tower he is on is smashed by a cannon—this would go in ANY action film today. Back to the little girl’s dream. End.

As I’ve remarked in many placesmost of the principle cast members in the 1939 MGM version were vaudeville veterans: not only Bolger, but Judy GarlandJack Haley, Bert LahrCharley Grapewin and even Singers Midgets. Knowledge of this was without a doubt one of the major factors leading me to vaudeville as a principle area of exploration in my life’s work.  And of course there’s the seminal experience I describe here.

Imagine how thrilled I was a few months ago, when I learned I was related to L. Frank Baum! Over the moon! 

Not surprisingly I find myself drawn to people to whom Baum’s stories were important — it’s like a cult. The Countess owns his complete works, putting me to shame (I only had four of his books as a child, discovering the others years later when I got them for my children). (For the Countess’s much more relevant post, in which she talks about Baum’s actual writing, go here). The Brick’s Gyda Arber has said her childhood love for the movie was what led her into musical theatre. And Edward Einhorn, with whom I worked most recently on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, has actually written two Oz books of his own, thus trumping us all.  Info on how to get Einhorn’s books is here.

Don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult 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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