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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.

Stars of Vaudeville #1011: Chuck and Chuckles

Posted in African American Interest, Dance, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 6, 2016 by travsd

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THE LOWDOWN ON CHUCK AND CHUCKLES 

Today is the birthday of tap dancer Chuck Green (1919-1997). The Georgia native danced on street corners as a child, won third place in a contest at age six, moved to New York with a talent scout at age nine, and got signed by Nat Nazarro by age 12. This takes us almost to the end of the vaudeville era, but Green squeaked in just under the wire. He formed a duo with childhood friend James Walker initially calling themselves Shorty and Slim, but then Chuck and Chuckles. They played the Big Time, including the Biggest Time of all, the Palace. The team outlasted vaudeville by over a decade, playing nightclubs and huge presentation houses like Radio City Music Hall and the Paramount and Capitol Theatre, as well as the storied Apollo.

In 1944, Green had a breakdown, for which he was institutionalized for 15 years. When he was discharged, he performed again in clubs, at festivals and on television,enjoying a resurgence of interest in his work throughout the 1960s until his death.

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.

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