Archive for acts

The Ten Most Influential Vaudevillians Of All Time

Posted in Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on June 5, 2017 by travsd

In contrast with yesterday’s post, which reported who YOUR favorite vaudeville performers are, today we share a short list of those whom we deem to have cast the longest and widest shadows in terms of influence on the culture and on other performers. Many of these entertainers cast ripples that are still being felt today. We list them in no particular order. Just click on the links to learn more about the stars in question:

Weber and Fields: The mother of all comedy teams, they influenced acts as wide ranging as the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy and countless more. Plus, they went on to help found and shape the institution we now know as Broadway. PLUS, they were the first hugely successful Jews in American show business. Incalculably influential.

Lillian Russell: I had real difficulty deciding whom was the best female singing single to put here. Women were the biggest stars in vaudeville. There is a long chain of highly successful ones leading way back before vaudeville even existed. Where to cut it off? Who was most successful? Who was “Eve”? Two pre-vaudeville examples helped pave the way: Jenny Lind as the angelic type, who helped make it acceptable for “proper” ladies to attend the theater; and Lola Montez as the naughty type, who helped set the template for what stardom would be like. Lillian Russell merged aspects of both, and came along just as vaudeville was getting off the ground, and became Tony Pastor’s biggest star, and later starred with Weber and Fields. Her early advent, the scale of her stardom, and her colorful private life I think make her the most pivotal of the “singing comediennes.”

Al Jolson: People who know him only for The Jazz Singer don’t know the first thing about him. People seem to remember him only for wearing blackface today, but blackface was near universal in his day. If anything, he is the pivotal figure in transitioning American show biz into its POST minstrelsy period. Just about every male singer of the first third of the 20th century (and many who came afterwards) patterned themselves after his big-over-the-top show biz style. Top star of Broadway, movies, and radio, for decades he was the entertainer all others were measured by.

Walker and Williams: This seminal African American vaudeville team are responsible for so many firsts: first to be stars in white vaudeville, first on Broadway, first to make record albums and movies. They popularized the cakewalk among whites as well as blacks. Many African American performers patterned themselves after this successful team, and you can see their influence in white comedy teams as well. When George Walker died an early death, Bert Williams went on to further triumphs as an artist and was widely admired by peers and audiences of all colors, in spite of the prejudices of the times.

Houdini: The great magician and illusionist was not only influential among his peers in the invention of new tricks, stunts and escapes, but he was a towering innovator in the field of self-promotion, one of the reasons his name remains a household word to this day. Houdini was so influential in his time, he had scores of imitators and even imposters using close variations on his name (e.g. “Boudini”)!

Frank Fay:  The reason you don’t see Bob Hope or Jack Benny here is that, influential though they were, they both patterned themselves after Frank Fay, widely heralded as the first modern stand-up comedian and m.c. Fay’s humor seems to have been anchored to his own era; what has survived doesn’t seem to have weathered the passage of time well, or in a way that we can understand. Nor was he able to become a major movie star like many of his peers and acolytes. But in his time he was considered King. The monologue at the top of every late night comedy tv show can be traced back to the Great Faysie.

Eva Tanguay: Tanguay pushed the envelope in terms of content, becoming notorious for both her onstage and offstage behavior, but in a way that was also kind of crazy and funny. Performers like Mae West, Sophie Tucker and Texas Guinan owed a lot to her. Oddly, Tangay may be even more influential in our time than in hers. Countless modern stars take the path blazed by Tanguay; in her own time few performers dared.

Fred Karno: Karno is the man who trained and developed Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel and dozens of others who are lesser known today, and so his impact extended well beyond the vaudeville stage — it would come to reach millions through motion pictures. Further, his “Speechless Comedians” were widely imitated on the stages of the day.

Vernon and Irene Castle: Vaudeville’s premier dance team, they were a downright craze in the teens, not only popularizing individual dance steps, but making dance (esp. modern styles) socially acceptable in the first place. Thus they were at the center in a cultural revolution. There were entire product lines with their branding on them

Gus Edwards: Edwards was the premiere producer of vaudeville kiddie acts. Not only were his sketches and productions widely imitated on vaudeville stages, but the young people he presented in those acts grew up to become stars themselves, among them people like Eddie Cantor, Groucho Marx, George Jessel, Eleanor Powell, and dozens of others.

To learn more about vaudeville and all of these vaudevillians please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

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 Comedians. 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 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 Minskys of burlesque; the Shuberts; the Frohmans; and the Lemaire brothers of Broadway; 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!

 

Charles Chaplin, Sr.: No Slouch Either!

Posted in British Music Hall, Charlie Chaplin, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, 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.

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:

charles-demuth-vaudeville-bird-woman

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.

My 50 Favorite Vaudevillians

Posted in Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on July 7, 2015 by travsd

Hammerstein's Victoria Theatre, c.1908

To misappropriate Ko-Ko: “I’ve got a little listicle.”

There’s nothing objective about this list. It’s not THE top vaudevillians, but MY top vaudevillians, my favorites, and you will notice a distinct prejudice in favor of comedians, with a few singing singles, musicians, and thespians sprinkled in there. And an almost complete disinterest in the likes of dancers, acrobats, nut acts and magicians. Sorry! At any rate, not many of those make my top 50.

Also: the standings of some of them (practically all of them) are freely enhanced by their POST-vaudeville, or EXTRA-vaudeville work. And, also some folks have made the list although I know them almost entirely only by reputation, but I simply love what I KNOW about them (how could I not include Harrigan and Hart or Tony Pastor)?

The rank is in order of highest to lowest. (in other words, #1 is my top pick, so I’m afraid the list unfolds anti-climactically)

And it’s completely unscientific — I could shift names around all day like cards in a poker hand. After the first three dozen or so, the order is quite random.

Now, you undoubtedly have your own list. Feel free to tell me yours but don’t dare criticize mine. It’s entirely subjective, like all matters of taste, and I’m quite entitled not to give a crap or care about the people you worship. And if you presume to explain these people to me, who they are, what they do, or why they should or shouldn’t be on my list, your comments will be thrown in the trash unread (I was about to say gleefully, but indifferently would be more accurate). Why all the pre-emptive mishigas? I’ve been to more than one barn dance in my time.

Follow the links below to learn more about each artist. And feel free to use the search function of the blog to learn about the other 900 or so vaudevillians we’ve profiled on Travalanche.

1. Weber & Fields

2. Karno’s Speechless Comedians (featuring Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel et al)

3. The Marx Brothers

4. W.C. Fields

5. Will Rogers

6. Mae West

7. Walker and Williams/ Bert Williams

8. Harrigan and Hart

9. Burns and Allen

10. Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy

11. Ed Wynn

12. Fanny Brice

13. Eddie Cantor

14. Jack Benny

15. Bob Hope

16. Fred Allen

17. Smith and Dale

18. Gallagher and Shean

19. Clayton, Jackson and Durante

20. The Three Keatons

21. Savoy and Brennan

22. Joe Frisco

23. Clark and McCullough

24. Beatrice Lillie

25. Bert Lahr (and Mercedes)

26. Ted Healy and His Stooges

27. Frank Fay (with Patsy Kelly)

28. Milton Berle

29. Olsen and Johnson

30. Joe E. Brown

31. Sophie Tucker

32. Eva Tanguay

33. Al Jolson

34. The 4 Cohans

35. Houdini

36. John Philip Sousa and Band

37. Ma Rainey

38. Mamie Smith

39. Bessie Smith

40. Irving Berlin 

41. Enrico Caruso

42. Various Barrymores

43. Nazimova

44. Sarah Bernhardt

45. Olga Petrova

46. Paul Whiteman Orchestra (and the Rhythm Boys)

47. The Gumm Sisters (w/ Judy Garland)

48. Scott Joplin (actually move him up to about #25, I just don’t feel like re-typing)

49. Tony Pastor

50. Ching Ling Foo/ Chung Ling Soo ( a tie)

To learn out more about vaudeville consult 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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Pride Week: On Some Queer Vaudevillians

Posted in Drag and/or LGBT, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2015 by travsd

 

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Savoy & Brennan, the Grandmothers of Them All

In celebration of Pride Weekend (now upon us) and today’s Supreme Court decision in favor of same sex marriage, a quick mini-post to connect you quickly to posts on Travalanche about some well-known queer vaudevillians. Just click on the links below to learn more about each act:

Nazimova

Savoy and Brennan

Clifton Webb 

George Kelly

Karyl Norman

Rae Bourbon

Bothwell Browne

Edgar Allan Woolf

Paul Swan

Ella Wesner

Annie Hindle

Tommy Martelle

Vardaman

The above list contains folks we are pretty certain had same-sex proclivities. But of course, the realm of drag is much more ambiguous: the list of drag performers who were either sexually “straight” or we-just-don’t-know is much, much longer, but I think we can all agree that the gender bending nature of cross-dressing qualifies them for the broader category of “queer”. We’ve a whole section on drag on Travalanche, you can browse through it here (a lot of the film clip links are now dead – -I need to do some house cleaning soon).

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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