James Montgomery Flagg: Lived Up To His Name

Posted in AMERICANA, Silent Film, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2017 by travsd

Illustrator James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) was born on June 18. Flagg’s best known work (above) is especially timely — the Uncle Sam/ “I Want You” poster was created one century ago as part of the World War One recruitment drive. It’s so well known and so frequently parodied I used it as the inspiration for a publicity still around the time I was launching my American Vaudeville Theatre around 20 years ago.

Photo by Joseph Silva

Flagg designed a slue of patriotic pictures during the Great War. I liked his rendering of Columbia encouraging Victory Gardens so much I acquired the fridge magnet version:

My wife (herself an illustrator) and myself took in many of his works during our recent pilgrimage to the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport. RI. 

There are other good connections to this blog. For example, from 1903 through 1907, Flagg drew the comic strip Nervy Nat for Judge magazine. Nervy Nat is a tramp character of the sort that was popular at the time, and paved the way in some sense sense for Chaplin’s screen character a decade later

There is a 1904 comedy short called Nervy Nat Kisses the Bride produced by Edison, directed by Edwin S. Porter, and starring Arthur Byron and Evelyn Nesbit, which is clearly inspired by the strip. It is available to watch on Youtube.

Flagg is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. I have visited his marker! (I am not obsessed or anything. I was visiting ALL the stars. Have more to go, too).

Flagg was a prodigy. Originally from Pelham Manor, New York, he was already publishing magazine illustrations by age 12. He attended the Art Students League from 1894 through 1898, after which he studied for a couple of years in London and Paris before returning the the States to pursue his professional career. At one point he was the highest paid illustrator in America. One of his favorite models was Mabel Normand! He also painted portraits of prominent people like Ethyl Barrymore and Mark Twain.

Rebla: Funny Music Hall Juggler

Posted in Comedy, Jugglers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by travsd

Here’s another one for World Juggling Day. Thanks, Todd Robbins, for introducing me to this interesting artist. Albert Rebla, usually billed simply as “Rebla” (Albert James Stevens, 1880-1963) was a comedy juggler in English music hall who modeled his act very much on W.C. Fields’. British Pathe made a film short of his act in 1935; you can see sections of it on Youtube. The debt to Fields is observable in the body language. The casual, lackadaisical manner with which he manipulates the balls, as though he were just doing his job, is quite hysterical. His ability to juggle tight and small formations rapidly, and bounce balls off the floor, are also reminiscent of Fields. On the other hand, as Todd points out, his voice and patter show similarities to Joe Frisco. 

“Rebla” is of course his real first name “Albert”, reversed, minus the “t”. Rebla started out touring with the Agoust Family of Jugglers as a teenager. Originally from London, he worked with a succession of partners for years, one of whom had been as assistant to Chung Ling Soo. In addition to dates in the U.K. and on the Continent, he also appeared in American vaudeville. One finds references to him playing U.S. theatres during the teens, and Joe Laurie referred to him his book Vaudeville: From Honky Tonks to the Palace. 

In 1918 he co-produced and co-starred in a revue at the Shafterbury Theatre with Harry Lauder. he appeared in several silent films and early talkies in addition the Pathe short we mentioned, often as an actor (as opposed to simply doing a juggling turn). In 1939, he performed in an early television experiment. By the early 1940s he had moved to Australia, as many did, to work the Tivoli circuit. He died in Melbourne in 1963.

For more on the history of vaudeville and jugglers like Rebla,  consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold.

Darmody: Five Club Pioneer

Posted in Jugglers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by travsd

This year World Juggling Day, sponsored by the International Jugglers Association, falls on June 17. We take the opportunity to honor juggler James Darmody. From Boston, Darmody was a popular variety star throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is noted for being one of the first jugglers who could juggle five clubs (offering $1,000 to anyone who could match him). He is also known for juggling rifles (see illustration).

For more on the history of vaudeville, including jugglers like Darmody, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold.

The General Slocum Disaster and Its Impact on American Popular Culture

Posted in German, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on June 15, 2017 by travsd

June 15, 1904 was the day the P.S. General Slocum burned and sank. I write about this dark day today for two reasons: 1) I constantly encounter people — even well educated people — who have never heard of this, the worst disaster to befall New York City prior to 9/11; and 2) the event effected American culture, including popular culture, like my usual subject matter, which is vaudeville.

I myself had probably not heard of the event prior to reading about it in Luc Sante’s Low Life in the ’90s, but I owe my true understanding of it (details, context, impact) to my friend the historian Kathleen Hulser, curator of a centennial exhibition we had about it at the New-York Historical Society back in 2004. This is a Before-and-After story, so bear with me while I take you on a little journey:

Remove the Germans and the 4th of July starts to look a lot less festive

In the mid 19th century, one of the largest movements of immigration to the United States came from Germany (they were roughly neck and neck with the Irish). It’s pretty well known that German immigrants moved to many places in the U.S. , Pennsylvania, for example, and the cities and farms of the mid-west. Less well remembered today is that they once had a major footprint in New York City. Just as today there is a Chinatown, a Little Italy, a Harlem, and a zillion other ethnic neighborhoods, once upon a time, on the Lower East Side there was a Kleindeutschland — a Little Germany. The cultural contributions of the Germans who lived here are hiding in plain sight, they just became so assimilated, so American, we forget they are German. Many of them are culinary. The delicatessen is a German institution (not to mention a German word) as are so many things that one finds there, such as cold cuts and sausages. If you don’t find sausages particularly American recall that a German American named Charles Feltman adapted a certain kind of sausage into the frankfurter, the hot dog. The hamburger, too, comes from Germany (note the name), as do mustard and relish. The popularity in America of BEER is a result of the influence of the Germans. We nowadays associate St. Louis and Milwaukee with their German American breweries; NYC was once full of them as well. German Americans also helped Anglo Americans (the majority culture at the time) to cultivate a taste for music in their leisure time. Anglo American culture was still strongly Puritan in many ways; prior to the 19th century, the idea of going to a theatre or a pleasure garden for no other purpose but to hear a singer or a musician, or to acquire a musical instrument (e.g., the German American Steinway piano) and study it, was frowned upon. And there were influential Germans in show business: the Ringling Brothers of circus fame; and Koster and Bial the operators on NYC’s top concert saloon.

The kids who became Weber and Fields grew up around Germans on the Lower East Side and became the nation’s most popular, most influential vaudeville and Broadway comedians in the last quarter of the 19th century by imitating them. Many others followed in their footsteps, including Kolb and Dill, the Rogers Brothers, Sam Bernard, Cliff Gordon, James Budworth, Ford Sterling, Al Shean and a young Groucho Marx.  Stereotypical “Dutch” (German) comedy was a specialty, in the vein of blackface or stock Irish characterizations.

Thus we begin to see that German culture was very visible in 19th century New York, very much part of the pulse and energy of the city. But it suffered a one-two punch.

The first was the General Slocum Disaster. Named after Union General and U.S. Congressman Henry Warner Slocum, the General Slocum was a local excursion vessel. On June 15, 1904, she was chartered by a local Lutheran church group from Little Germany to take them to their annual picnic on nearby Long Island. There were over 1,300 people on board, mostly women and children, as it was a Wednesday morning and the fathers were all at work. While the ship was in the middle of the East River, where the water was deep and the current strong, the ship caught fire. As usually happens with major disasters, multiple factors contributed to worsen events: flammable materials, strong winds, faulty safety equipment, and bad decisions by captain and crew. When it was all over, over 1,021 people — over 70% of those on board — had either burned or drowned to death. Of the 321 who survived, 28 were crew members.

The General Slocum Disaster is said to have literally devastated Kleindeutschland. We often use that phrase figuratively, to speak of emotional devastation, but here it can be taken literally. Hundreds of German American fathers had lost their entire families. Practically everyone in the community had lost someone — a friend, a relative, a neighbor, someone they knew on the street. The community dispersed. Many moved uptown to Yorkville, a migration that was already happening but was hastened by this horrific event. Kleindeutchland faded out of existence.

What was the second part of the “one-two punch” we spoke of earlier? World War One — another centennial now upon us. Anti-German sentiment ran strong, and so German Americans made the decision to assimilate and de-emphasize what was culturally unique about them. They and their contributions remained, but the Germans of America became much quieter about their identity, and Americans lost the habit of acknowledging or celebrating them in the way we celebrate other national groups who managed to maintain a strong identity (e.g., Italian Americans). World War Two enhanced that process even further, but the bulk of it had already happened in the early part of the 20th century. One of the casualties of this “burying” of German American culture, I think, was any awareness of the General Slocum Disaster. You saw those numbers, right? A thousand women and children killed? This is close to Titanic numbers and it happened within sight of Manhattan — people stood on shore and watched it happen.

The irony is that German Americans weren’t our enemies in the World Wars. By definition, they were part of THIS crazy quilt. They LEFT their native land because it wasn’t doing it for them!(In fact many had come to America to escape the reprisals following the Revolution of 1848, indicating that they were the farthest thing from fans of the “Reich”.  And many were German Jews, part of the first wave of Jewish immigrants to the U.S. Their cultural contributions deserve to be remembered. We have a whole section on Travalanche celebrating German American contributions to American popular culture: peruse it here.

On the Acerbic Mary Wickes

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2017 by travsd

Beloved character actor Mary Wickes (Mary Wickenhauser, 1910-1995) was born on June 13. The gawky, wise-cracking Wickes was ubiquitous on screens big and small for half a century, usually playing maids, nuns, nurses and other no-nonsense types on the periphery of the main action but just close enough to see what was going on and make an exasperated and cutting joke about it.

I almost certainly first knew her from her regular role on the Sid and Marty Krofft kid’s show Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-1974). (Though she was also a regular on the sit com Doc around the same time too so it was probably both). Thus I was already a fan (without knowing it, perhaps) from about age eight. Wickes’ screen character aged extremely well. When she was young, because of her attitude and her crone-like drawl, she had always seemed older than she was. When she actually became older, she simply WAS.

Still, there was in evolution, if an incremental one. If you look at the photo at the top, when she was very young she was, if not pretty, at least pretty-adjacent. She was not in the Margaret Hamilton category as a type. Wickes was quite young when she began her career on Broadway. She is said to have been in the original production of Marc Connelly’s The Farmer Takes a Wife (1934), though, if she was, it was probably either as a walk-on or a replacement as she is not listed in the IBDB credits. She was in the original productions of two George S. Kaufman plays, Stage Door (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939-1941). The 1942 film version of the latter was her big screen Hollywood debut.

She had been in at least one film prior to The Man Who Came To Dinner, however. As a sometime member of Orson Welles’ and John Houseman’s Mercury Theatre, she had appeared in Welles’ legendary Too Much Johnson (1938). She also acted in the Mercury’s stage production of Danton’s Death (1938) and on radio with Mercury Theatre on the Air.

From 1942 until her death she was almost constantly on movie screens; starting in 1948 it was also true of television. Notable films include Now, Voyager (1942), On Moonlight Bay (1951), By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), The Actress (1953), White Christmas (1954), Cimarron (1960), The Music Man (1962), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), Postcards from the Edge (1990), and the Sister Act films (1992 and 1993). She also appears in comedies of Abbott and Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle, and Blondie. Lucille Ball LOVED her and used her in a dozen episodes of her various tv shows I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, and Here’s Lucy. She also appeared memorably on The Doris Day Show, Columbo, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, M*A*S*H and many other shows. Her last screen credit was a voice over in Disney’s animated The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).

For more on show business history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. For more on  film comedy, 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. 

On the Tiller Girls: Pioneers in Precision Dance

Posted in British Music Hall, Broadway, Dance with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2017 by travsd

British music theatre director John Tiller (1854-1925) was born on June 13. While skilled and trained in music and theatre arts since childhood, Tiller initially made his fortune in the family cotton business in Manchester until circumstances permitted him to pursue his theatrical interests more seriously around 1890. At that point, Tiller began presenting pantomimes and training young girls to perform in them at the professional level. He maintained a school for young performers much akin to the one Ned Wayburn would later start in America. As an outgrowth, he appears to have been a crucial innovator in the development of precision dance.

Now, it is often claimed that Tiller was the “inventor” of precision dance, but I doubt that, since images (photos, sketches paintings) of women in dance choruses arrayed in neat lines are readily available dating from many decades earlier than this. Another influence had to have been drill teams — believe it on not, male military drill teams were also popular on variety stages in the late 19th century. At any rate, Tiller seemed to have honed and refined the practice, demanding absolute uniformity in appearance and movement, becoming an early adapter of the kick-line and the feathered headdress, and apparently inventing the useful techniques of the dancers linking arms or holding each other’s waists in order to help coordinate and steady movement. He was also a pioneer in branding and promoting. His “Tiller Girls” were booked all over the world: Paris, London and the States, were booked for Broadway revues like the Ziegfeld Follies and George White’s Scandals, and were the inspiration for the Radio City Rockettes as well as the film routines of Busby Berkley. 

Tiller himself died in 1925 but various incarnations of The Tiller Girls have persisted and thrived with great popularity down to the present day.

For more on the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold

100 Years Ago Today: Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers Debut in The Follies

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Eddie Cantor, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2017 by travsd

100 years ago today, the 1917 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Why is this worth noting? Because this was the edition during which Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers both joined the show for the first time, and they were both to be regulars for many editions thereafter. The Follies, as it did for so many, made stars of them both. Also in this legendary edition were W.C. Fields, Bert Williams, Fanny Brice, Walter Catlett, Marie Wallace, Lilyan Tashman, Peggy Hopkins, Dorothy Dickson and Carl Hyson, the Fairbanks Twins, et al. Staged by Ned Wayburn, sets by Joseph Urban, costumes by Lady Duff-Gordon, and about a dozen top playwrights and songwriters in the mix as well.  Some considered it the greatest edition of The Follies ever. W.C. Fields did his lawn tennis sketch (one of the few of his sporting routines never to make it film). Rogers did his folksy monologues and rope tricks for a Broadway audience for the first time. Fanny Brice did her “Egyptian” number, and sang and danced a duet with Cantor. Cantor also did sketches with Bert Williams.  Can you imagine such a show?

For more on vaudeville performers like Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers and everyone else on this pageconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold

 

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