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For National Siblings Day: Some Classic Show Biz Siblings

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sister Acts, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2017 by travsd

The Five Ames Sisters

It’s National Siblings Day, and to my shock I haven’t done a post yet on the countless classic show biz brothers and sisters who either had professional relationships or were in the same industry. Nepotism greases the wheels of show business. It shouldn’t surprise you that there are this many siblings in the highest echelons of entertainment. Uncharacteristically, I’m gonna go all Joe Laurie Jr on yer ass — this post will largely consist of lists of names; just click on the highlighted people to know more. Also, so as not to go crazy, I’m restricting this to the classic era: vaudeville and early motion pictures.

BROTHERS IN VAUDEVILLE

Notable vaudeville teams and acts where the members were all brothers included: The Six Brown Brothers, six brothers from Canada who were saxophone playing clowns; the acrobatic Hanlon Brothers, also six in number; the five Marx Brothers (although usually there were only four in the act at any given time); the melodious Mills Brothers (actually three brothers plus their father); the three virtually identical Ritz Brothers; the Wiere Brothers, also three in all; the Three Stooges, which usually contained at least two of the three Howard brothers: always Moe, and at various times Shemp or Curly); the three energetic Berry Brothers;  the three tap-dancing Condos Brothers; Willie and Eugene Howard (no relation to the Stooges); the wunderkind Nicholas Brothers; the Irish Kernell Brothers; the hilarious Russell Brothers (who were in drag); the Tutt Brothers of black vaudeville; the acrobalancing Rath Brothers; the Rogers Brothers, who copied Weber & Fields; and the gravity-defying Mosconi Brothers.

Al Jolson and Harry Jolson briefly performed in an act together, but later they became, fierce rivals, and later simply enemies, because Harry could hardly be called a rival to Al. Two of Grace Kelly’s uncles were in vaudeville, but separately: Walter C. Kelly was a monologist; George Kelly was an actor who wrote sketches for vaudeville before becoming a Broadway playwright.

And there are many, many more acrobatic brother acts, though it was a convention in circus and vaudeville for acrobats to call themselves “brothers” and “families”, when they weren’t technically related. Although they truly did, in a real sense adopt one another.

SISTERS IN VAUDEVILLE

Sister acts were also a major staple of vaudeville and early show business. The Seven Sutherland Sisters were like something out of a fairy tale — Snow White’s Dwarves mixed with Rapunzel. One of the most notorious of all vaudeville acts was the five Cherry Sisters (they dwindled in number as time went on), reputed to be the worst act ever. The five Barrison Sisters had a very naughty act. There were four Lane Sisters, although they tended to pair off into duos and later all went solo. There were also the Gale Quadruplets, although they were actually two sets of twin sisters. The four Whitman Sisters were stars of black vaudeville. Gracie Allen started out in an act with her sisters called The Four Colleens. The most famous sister trio is undoubtedly the Andrews Sisters.  Other trios included the Boswell Sisters, the Brox Sisters, and the Three X SistersThe Gumm Sisters were also a trio, the youngest of whom became Judy Garland. Singing sister duos were an entire vaudeville specialty: among the biggest were the Duncan Sisters, others included the Frazee Sisters, the Oakland Sisters, and the Williams Sisters. The Watson Sisters were unusual in being low comedians; the Ponselle Sisters were opera singers; the Cameron Sisters were balletic dancers. Twin sister acts included the Dolly Sisters (famous clothes horses), the French Twin Sisters and the Fairbanks Twins.   The Hilton Sisters were conjoined!

The Hovick Sisters had performed together in a kiddie act; they later became famous separately as Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc. 

BROTHERS AND SISTERS IN VAUDEVILLE

A couple of sister-and-brother acts spring to mind, both dance teams:  Fred and Adele Astaire, and Vilma and Buddy Ebsen.  Josie and George M. Cohan performed with their parents in the Four Cohans. Most common was for several brothers and sisters to be in larger family acts together (frequently Irish), such as the Seven Little Foys, the Five Kellys (featuring Gene Kelly), the O’Connor Family (featuring Donald O’Connor), the Quillans (featuring Eddie Quillan)The Four Fords;  the Lake family act (with Arthur Lake and Florence Lake);  and the Morris family act (including Chester Morris). Fanny Brice’s brother Lew Brice was also in vaudeville, although the two performed separately.

SILENT/SLAPSTICK COMEDY BROTHERS

An interesting phenomenon: when the top silent comedians made it big, They often found work for their brothers, some of whom made good for themselves, some of whom didn’t.

Charlie’s Chaplin’s older half-brother Sydney Chaplin is one of those who did make good. He actually taught Charlie much of what he knew and got him his job with Karno’s Speechless Comedies. A true talent in his own right, he was a star himself in the teens and twenties. Charlie’s other half-brother Wheeler Dryden also showed up at certain point, and made himself useful in the family business, though he was never a star. Likewise, Buster Keaton put his parents and and his brother Jingles and sister Louise into his films, not surprising, since they had performed in vaudeville together. Harold Lloyd put his brother Gaylord Lloyd into films, but he didn’t click. Lupino Lane and Stanley Lupino both came from the same family of British music hall clown/acrobats. Both starred in shorts at Educational Pictures, although the former fared better than the latter. And then there the brothers Parrott: Charles (better known as Charley Chase) and Paul, both prodigious talents both before and behind the camera. And then there are great comedy produce/director brothers Jack White and Jules White.

IMPRESARIOS OF STAGE AND SCREEN

Notable producing brothers include the Ringling Brothers of the circus world , the Shuberts; the Frohmans; the Lemaire brothers; the Warner Brothers; Jack and Harry Cohn of Columbia; the Schenck Brothers, and Cecil B. Demille and his brother, director/screenwriter/playwright William DeMille. Broadway comedian and producer Lew Fields’s three children Joseph, Herbert and Dorothy were important Broadway creators, sometimes collaborating; the Gershwin brothers were one of the great songwriting teams.

DRAMATIC ACTORS AND DIRECTORS 

Some famous acting siblings included John, Lionel and Ethyl Barrymore; Mary Pickford and her brother Jack; Lillian and Dorothy Gish; Wallace and Noah Beery; the Talmadge Sisters; Joan, Constance and Barbara Bennett; and Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine.

Director John Ford got into films because his brother Francis was a movie star. Director Raoul Walsh’s brother was the actor George Walsh. Dustin and William Farnum were both actors, and their brother Marshall, a director.

Okay, I have to post this now before the day’s half over. I’m certain I’ll be adding to it!

 

Stars of Vaudeville #1037: Charles Chaplin, Sr.

Posted in British Music Hall, Charlie Chaplin, Singers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2017 by travsd

Born on this date in 1863: Charles Chaplin the Elder: the father of his better known namesake, comedian and movie star Charlie Chaplin. It’s not as well known today that in his time the elder Chaplin was a fairly successful performer in his own right.

The son of a butcher, Charles Senior was still a teenager when he went on the stage. It is said that he met Charlie’s mother Hannah Hall (a.k.a. Lily Harley) while performing in a sketch called “Shamus O’Brien” in the early 1880s. In 1885 he married her, despite the fact that in the intervening months she had taken up with another man and given birth to a child. Chaplin gave the boy his surname; he became Sydney Chaplin. By ’87, Charles Senior had worked up a music hall act and began getting bookings in the halls, with a repertoire of sentimental and comical songs. In 1889, his son Charlie was born.

So far so good, eh? Unfortunately (for the family) not long after that, Chaplin’s career began to take off — and so did he. By 1890, he was popular enough to tour America (notably, he played the Union Square Theatre in New York — this was his own foray into American vaudeville. The following year he ran out on Hannah and the boys for good.

Chaplin was popular enough by this stage that his name and visaged graced the covers of the published sheet music of songs he had made popular, such as “The Girl Was Young and Pretty”, “Hi Diddle Diddle” and the comical, suggestive “Eh, Boys!”

It’s a well known story by now. While Charlie the elder was cavorting and carousing in music halls, living the carefree life, Hannah (also an entertainer, and by her son’s account a brilliant one, the one he took after) went slowly insane and couldn’t work. Chaplin offered no financial support, even when the two children were packed off to workhouses.

By the end of the decade (and the century) Chaplin had become an alcoholic and was no longer working himself. Significantly, this was the juncture when he first seems to take an interest in his namesake. In 1899, he got ten year old Charlie his first proper show business job by getting him into an act called The Eight Lancashire Lads. The younger Chaplin was about to embark on an incredible life’s journey; the older one was just ending his. By 1901, Charles Chaplin, Sr. was dead of cirrhosis of the liver.

But his mark is there for all to see in Charlie Chaplin’s life and art. An alcoholic, performing dad is something Charlie had in common with Buster Keaton. But there are contrasts. You could say that Joe Keaton’s drinking hurt his career, but it didn’t end his life. And Buster followed in his footsteps, becoming a problem boozer himself. Whereas the elder Chaplin ended both his life and career through alcohol abuse. And Charlie, Jr. only ever drank in cautious moderation. But I find it significant that he played hilarious comic drunks on stage and screen for decades. And there is also the subject of Chaplin’s relations with him. For a good long while, like his father, he put his work first and neglected his women (following periods of intense wooing). This cycle was only broken when he finally married Oona O’Neill, quite late in life, when he only worked occasionally and chose to devote all of his energy into family life…as though he were making up for lost time.

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 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

Frank Buck: Brought ‘Em Back Alive

Posted in Animal Acts, Circus, Hollywood (History) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2017 by travsd

March 17 isn’t just St. Patrick’s Day; it also happens to be the birthday of Frank Buck (1884-1950). What an interesting American character!

Born and raised in Texas, Buck started out his working life as a cowpuncher. At the age of 17 he traveled with a herd by rail to the stockyards in Chicago, and decided to remain in the big city. While working as a bellhop at the Virginia Hotel he met lady drama critic Amy Leslie, 29 years his senior, and the pair married. (The arrangement seems to have worked out for both of them — they remained hitched from 1901 to 1913).

In 1911, Buck took his winnings from a poker game and used it to finance an excursion to Brazil. While there, he trapped some exotic birds, which he brought back to New York and sold for lucrative sums. Trapping and caring for animals is something he had done for fun as a boy. Now he he began to do it in earnest. With the profits from the Brazil trip, he next went to Singapore, and then other parts of Asia, capturing all manner of creatures and bringing them back to sell in the U.S.

In 1923, he became on the the first directors of the San Diego Zoo, bringing to the table two Indian elephants, two orangutans, a leopard, two macaques, two langurs, two kangaroos, three flamingos, five cranes, and a python, all of which he had captured in the wild. After a few months, he was dismissed after repeated conflicts with the board of directors.

In 1930 he wrote his best selling book Bring ‘Em Back Alive, recounting his adventures. This was followed by a 1932 film and promotional radio show of the same name. Two other book-and-film projects followed: Wild Cargo (1932, book; 1934, film) and Fang and Claw (1935). He was to co-author five more books over the next decade.

In 1937, he starred in the B movie serial Jungle Menace, the only film in which he acted as a fictional character

In 1938, he and his creatures were the star attraction of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus. I love how the poster above stresses that the man himself, not just his animals, will be making a personal appearance.

The following year, he brought his animals to the 1939 World’s Fair.

The coming of World War Two prevented him from going out on expeditions during the 1940s but he continued to busy himself by writing more books, and appearing in numerous films as himself. The last of these was Abbott and Costello’s Africa Screams, which is, quite frankly, where I first heard of him and the reason why you are reading this blog post.

After his death in 1950, his fame continued to spread. In 1953, Bring ‘Em Back Alive was adapted into a Classics Illustrated comic book. In 1954, the Frank Buck Zoo opened in his home town of Gainesville, Texas. And in 1982 Bring ‘Em Back Alive became the inspiration for a tv series starring Bruce Boxleitner! Really, this is about as famous as an animal collector can possibly get.

Stars of Vaudeville #1018: Techow’s Cats

Posted in Animal Acts, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2017 by travsd

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Herr George Techow of Hamburg, Germany toured the Keith Circuit and circuses such as Hagenbeck-Wallace, with a collection of trained house cats who could walk on their front feet, jump through hoops of fire, and jump over each other on a tightrope. One was even dressed as a little clown. He gave a lot of interviews early in the 20th century chiefly because the public was interested in his secrets, it being so difficult to train a cat.

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.

Stars of Vaudeville #1017: Gae Foster

Posted in Broadway, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2017 by travsd
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Gae Foster Girls in “All Girl Revue” (1940)

Gae Foster (born 1903) was from Bunker Hill, California. By age 17 she was already dancing with Fanchon and Marco in vaudeville and presentation houses. By 1925 she was assisting Fanchon in organizing dance choruses for cinema prologues. By 1928, while still working for Fanchon and Marco, she was sending out her own unit, Gae Foster’s Sweet Sixteen. By 1933 she was dance director at the Roxy Theater in New York, where she created the Roxyettes, a.k.a the Gae Foster Girls, similar to the Rockettes, but renowned for their tricks, performing routines on roller skates, pogo sticks, unicycles, and the like. The troupe performed in ten Hollywood films between 1938 and 1940. Foster also choreographed musical numbers for Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin (1938-1941), and the Betty Grable movie Pin-Up Girl (1944).

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 National Bird Day: The Bird Acts of Vaudeville

Posted in Animal Acts, Burlesk, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2017 by travsd
Rosa Naynon and Her Cockatoos, circa 1907

Rosa Naynon and Her Cockatoos, circa 1907

I’m informed that it’s National Bird Day, which raises the interesting question, “Is it National BIRD Day? Or NATIONAL BIRD Day?” i.e., a day to celebrate all of our avian friends, or just a day to sing the praises of the bald eagle? Well, I know it’s the former, but it does remind me of the old Bob and Ray routine wherein the announcers mistake ground HOG meat for GROUNDHOG meat.

At any rate, I’m sure the intention of today’s observation is supposed to be about naturalism or preservation or something, but I am going to subvert it entirely by celebrating the working beast,the birds who sing for their supper strictly for human entertainment. In his book Vaudeville, Joe Laurie, Jr had this to day about bird acts:

“There were a lot of cockatoo acts (they were easy to train): Swain’s Cockatoo’s, Merle’s Cockatoo’s, Marzella’s, Lamont’s, and Wallace’s. They walked the wire, rang bells, put out a fire in a toy house, etc. Very entertaining. There were Marcelle’s Birds, Camilla’s Pigeons, Conrad’s Pigeons, and of course Olympia DesVall’s was the best bird act of them all. There was also Torcat’s and Flora D’Alizas Educated Roosters, followed by Kurtis’s Educated Roosters.”

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Watercolorist Charles Demuth painted this unidentified “Vaudeville Bird Woman” in 1917:

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Birds were an integral part of C.A. Wright’s Traveling Tent Show. 

Burlesque dancer Yvette Dare worked with macaws and parrots who were trained to undress her to music:

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Dare.

Here’s another one of Madame Marzella, circa 1896

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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.

Stars of Slapstick #223: Florence Lake

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2016 by travsd

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LAKE OF THE SQUEAKY VOICE. 

Today is the birthday of Florence Lake (Florence Silverlake, 1904-1980). Lake started out in 1910 in a vaudeville act called “Family Affair” with her parents and her brother Arthur. Arthur was later to gain fame in the part of Dagwood Bumstead in the screen and radio versions of the comic strip Blondie.

Like Arthur, Florence had an extreme comic character with a high pitched voice that served her well in films. She began getting movie roles in 1929, initially appearing in film shorts with the likes of Smith and Dale and Clark and McCullough. But in 1931 she began appearing as Edgar Kennedy’s wife in his series of RKO comedy shorts, a part she was to play through his death in 1948, becoming her best known film role. Throughout that period she also appeared in shorts and features of all sorts as well, comedies, musicals, dramas and westerns. From the ’50s through 1976, she continued to be in demand as a recognizable bit player on both film and television, most regularly on the tv version of Lassie, as Jenny the telephone operator from 1954 through 1962. Her last credit is an episode of Emergency! 

To learn more about comedy film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc.

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