Archive for BROOKLYN

Magic at Coney: An Interview with Magician Gary Driefus

Posted in BROOKLYN, Coney Island, Contemporary Variety, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , on April 20, 2017 by travsd

Sundays at Noon, Gary Dreifus presents his long-running family-oriented magic show at Coney Island USA, featuring a different line-up  of expert illusionists every week. Today, Gary gives us the low-down on this popular show: 

When/ how/ why did you start performing magic?

My interest in magic began in the fourth grade.  I was assigned a “How To” book report and wound up at the 793.8 section of the library.  I took our Dunninger’s Encyclopedia of Magic and performed three effects from the book. I sucked, but it peaked my interest in magic.  Later that year, I witnessed my first live magic performance. I helped the magician take his livestock to the car and he showed me how to do a simple magic trick.  I was hooked! His name was Maurice Keshinova (sp?) and performed as Maurice the Great. He had been a vaudevillian magician and taught me several tricks.

During adolescence, I was a klutz.  My father suggested I renew my interest in magic to gain some dexterity and hand/eye coordination.  He owned a popular bakery in Midwood and a magic shop opened a block away. I had a few hours to kill between sweeping up and closing time at the bakery, so I would go and hang out at the magic store.  We were all young… the manager was Larry Scott (Youngstein), who now owns Havin’ a Party in Canarsie and is the local balloon distributor. Other kids who hung out there were Eric DeCamps, Levent (Cimkentli), Robert Baxt, Brian McGovern.

I graduated Brooklyn College with a degree in Education of the Speech and Hearing Handicapped.  My first job was as a Teacher of the Deaf in JHS 47; the city’s school for the deaf.  Since I was new teacher, they gave me the worst class in the school.  I made a deal with the students. Every day they behaved, I performed a magic trick.  The class became the best in the school and I was running out of material so I started teaching them magic. The “worst” class scored higher in math and reading scores than any other group in the school!

Throughout my professional career, I used magic to motivate, educate and entertain. I was also asked to teach a beginners (and subsequently an intermediate and advanced) magic class at Kingsborough Community College. It was in the late 1990’s that I came across a magic shop on Queens’s Boulevard in Elmhurst. The proprietor was Roger “Rogue” Quan, who asked if I could perform at one of his weekly magic shows.  I agreed, and was then asked if I could host the shows.  Thus began my career as magical host.  Met all the local performers and became friends with many of them.

In 2008, my program was eliminated by the city and I was laid-off.  A friend had a great idea to perform for restaurants and bars. We had contracts on Long Island and the Jersey shore. Unfortunately, we weren’t getting paid and had to run after EVERY penny! I parted ways with my partner and started teaching magic in local community centers.

How/ when did you come to be doing your regular Sunday shows at Coney Island USA?

In the summer of 2010 I was meeting with another magician at the Freak Bar in Coney Island. He introduced me to Patrick Wall, then the stage manager at Coney Island USA. I asked why there weren’t any regular magic shows at Sideshows by the Seashore.  I was told they had tried, but they never took off. I did some research and found that magic and magicians were an integral part of Coney Island. Coney Island was a beacon for magicians throughout the world. The local sideshows at Dreamland, Luna Park and Steeplechase Park, as well as the local dance halls and theaters were a proving ground for those performing artists looking to hone their skills. Luminaries such as Houdini, his brother Hardeen, Cary Grant, William “Bud” Abbott, Dai Vernon, Jean Hugard and Al Flosso were featured artists who went on to stardom around the world.

I drew up a proposal for a magic variety show and pitched it to Dick Zigun, the artistic director of CIUSA. I began on a Wednesday in September. We had eight acts for that first show… It was some time after midnight that we finished! The important lesson I learned was that performing artists have NO concept of time! Fifteen minutes maximum turned into a 40 minute set! The show was a HUGE success. Audience response was fantastic. Magic at Coney!!! continued as a monthly show, then twice per month the following season.

During the 2013 season, I was asked if we could perform during the off-season. Thus began the Sunday matinees.

What do you like about performing there?

Magic at Coney!!! belongs at the same venue where the last of the sideshows is performed. The Coney Island Museum makes a perfect backdrop, allowing for a mix of both old and new Coney Island.

Who are your heroes, mentors, models in the magic world?

I love watching Marc Salem perform.  I think he’s the top working mentalist today. I love watching Rocco perform. He brings magic to a whole new level. Bobby Torkova is fantastic as is Thomas Solomon. I enjoy working with ALL of the artists involved with Magic at Coney!!!  Each brings his or her own take to the art.

My biggest influences were probably the late Bob Cassidy, Kenton Knepper and Eugene Berger. Ken Weber gave me specific suggestions that changed and improved certain specific effects. Simon Lovell was an incredible performer who also helped me improve.

The entire Magic at Coney!!! project could not have succeeded without the support and dedication of a group of talented magicians.  The friendships I’ve made have been tight and everlasting, and I cannot thank them all enough.

Harvey Lembeck: High and Low

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2017 by travsd

Harvey Lembeck (1923-1982) was born on April 15.  Lembeck is a wonderful illustration of a transitional time in American show business. As with Gabe Dell of the Dead End Kids, there is surprising seriousness and depth to his artistry. Those who know only his most famous roles will probably guffaw to see me use those words (seriousness, depth) in association with him. But attention must be paid!

Transitional, I said. Lembeck was one of the last to come into his career in a very old school show biz kind of way, starting out as part of a dance act with his wife called The Dancing Carrolls. They performed at the 1939 New York Worlds Fair! If vaudeville were still around, they would have been in it. Then he served in World War Two, then prepared for a career in radio (he actually majored in it at NYU). Instead, right after graduation he got cast in the original Broadway production of Mr. Roberts in the part of Insigna. After this he was in both the stage and screen versions of Stalag 17, and several other Broadway and regional theatre productions. Theatre would always be an important part of his life.

Lembeck was a serious actor, but obviously something about his “authenticity” is what got him frequently cast, particularly in service comedies and the like — because they always have a guy from Brooklyn. (Lembeck was from Brooklyn — could there be any doubt?) So in 1955 he was cast as Barbella, Phil Silvers’ sidekick on Sgt. Bilko. Here he is with Silvers and co-star Allan Melvin:

That cushy gig lasted four years. For a tantalizing but brief time, Lembeck got good roles in all sorts of movies : he’s in the screen adaptation of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge (1962), the romantic melodrama Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), and the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), But as happens so often in the modern era, he got cast in that one role that became indelible and essentially swallowed up the rest of his career.

In 1963 he was cast as Eric Von Zipper in the movie Beach Party, with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. A loose parody of Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones, the comical character is the witless leader of an equally dumb biker gang. I’ve always been particularly amused by the fact that Lembeck was 40 years old — twice the age of the other kids at the beach –when he started playing this role. The bikers are the bad guys in all the beach party movies, and to my mind, the best thing about them. Lembeck only did this for three years, until the beach party movie craze died out, but it’s a LOT of movies, including also Bikini Beach (1964), Pajama Party (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965), and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966). In Chain of Fools I wrote a bit about these films as one of the last vestiges of classic comedy, for there is a continuity, including the frequent presence of Buster Keaton in the casts, and old time silent comedy directors like Norman Taurog at the helm. It’s why I mention Gabe Dell in this context: the Dead End Kids too were among the last classic comedy hold-outs, and like Lembeck, Dell was also a serious stage actor. (Lembeck later taught acting — his Harvey Lembeck Comedy Workshop in LA turned out such distinguished acolytes as John Ritter, John Larroquette and Robin Williams*.)

After the Beach Party films Lembeck continued to work steadily, but mostly in television guest shots, many of them referencing his beach party movie past. One notable exception is the 1969 comedy Hello Down There (a movie I saw a few times when I was a kid, and am dying to see again because I haven’t seen it since). He passed away on the set of Mork and Mindy in 1982, and I can’t think of a better place. He was working.

* Thanks for the reminder, John Smith.

To find out more about vaudeville and show biz 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

Last Night’s Town Hall in Brooklyn

Posted in BROOKLYN, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , , , on February 23, 2017 by travsd

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In recent days we’ve been seeing footage of Town Hall meetings across the country as congresspeople meet with their constituents to hear what they have to say about our first month of President 45. Most of the clips we’ve been seeing have been of angry people yelling at Republicans, over such things as cancelling Obamacare without having the promised replacement system ready to go. Last night, my congressperson, Representative Yvette Clarke, held her own meeting at the Union Temple in Brooklyn just a short walk from my house.

I gather it was a huge success. Arriving at the announced start time I was amazed to see that the line to get in stretched all the way around the block. And when I say “all the way around”, that’s just what I mean. 360 degrees. The back of the line reached almost to the front. Several hundred people (including me) were turned away. But in a democracy, that many people taking an interest is a good problem to have. My good friend Gabriele Schafer got there good and early though and here is what she reports:

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Panelists included representatives of Planned Parenthood New York, the NYCLU, SUNY Downstate Medical School, and the NYS Department of Health, as well as experts on climate change and civil rights/immigration law. On the environment, presenters cited how this kind of poll is consistent with the public’s attitude. On healthcare, the audience heard that 40+% of women in NY don’t get any prenatal care; but New York has and will continue to have “Obamacare”. SUNY Downstate Medical say that they provide healthcare to ALL comers. An NYCLU lawyer and a local immigration lawyer said that under the law you do not have to show nor carry ID; and that you can remain silent. The authorities may hold you and try to intimidate you but to remain silent may be considered a legitimate form of protest.
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In her own presentation, Clarke called Kellyanne Conway “Kellyanne ConArtist” to big cheers. Her mentions of Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Rudy Giuliani all garnered loud boos. The biggest cheer and standing ovation she got was when she used the term “act up”…. “I’m going to act up!” Clarke she said that it is vital that the public keep doing everything they can to resist and let their feelings known to their electeds, even though they may think it does no good, especially in blue districts. Elected officials need the cover, they need the motivation, and they need to be able to point to the discontent and groundswell behind them. More on last night’s event is here. 

 

The Coney Island Secession Movement!

Posted in Amusement Parks, BROOKLYN, Coney Island, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , , on February 13, 2017 by travsd

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Yesterday, after I posted my piece about the various contemporary secession movements (hint: none of them are in the middle of the country), Dick Zigun, Coney Island’s Unofficial Mayor protested that I had left out his own movement to make a separate nation of Coney Island. Tut tut tut! Never you fret!  In reality, I only wanted to set this proposal apart so that I could give it the serious consideration it deserves.

As you can see from the map above, Coney Island was once completely surrounded by water, hence its name. The stream on its north side was then partially filled in, giving the neighborhood its modern contours, outlined in white on the map. Zigun’s proposal would dig out those streams again to resume the physical separation, or build a Trumptastic wall. Actually, his entire program, laid out in the attached article, is approximately as coherent and sane and just as Trump’s plans for America.

Coney Island on its own could be the American Monaco. A People’s Playground for the People. Why, a separated Coney Island would be more American than America! Hot dogs for every meal! Middle aged men with pot bellies walking side-by-side with women in bikinis — and that’s in church! And everyone would have fun all the time, except the people on the other side of the tracks, who are all living in poverty!

And Dick has all the qualifications necessary to run a county by contemporary standards. A hat! A sash! A drum to beat! And a following among the biker community!  For Dick Zigun’s full proposal, which I fully endorse, go here. 

Born to Lead

Born to Lead

Tonight’s Protest at Cadman Plaza

Posted in BROOKLYN, CULTURE & POLITICS, Protests with tags , , , on January 28, 2017 by travsd

My first ever two-protest day, and my first 4 protest week, though that’s not as remarkable as it sounds. The Cheeto-in-Chief is working havoc on a thousand fronts, and both of today’s protests were close to my house, so no excuse for NOT going, really. Thousands gathered tonight outside the Federal Courthouse at Cadman Plaza to show support for the travelers who were detained as a result of Trump’s travel ban against Muslims. This in addition to the ones happening simultaneously at JFK, and other airports throughout the nation. The judge granted a  temporary stay. As the crowd chanted when we dispersed, “We’ll be back.” We may well have years of yelling ahead of us. Much pride in Brooklyn for showing up in such numbers, on such short notice!

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Grow a Spine, Schumer!

Posted in BROOKLYN, CULTURE & POLITICS, Protests with tags , , , on January 28, 2017 by travsd

“Watch what we do” was Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s boast in response to the public’s fears about the installation of America’s new fascist President — before proceeding to be intolerably accommodating to the new dictator in ways big and small, not the least of which has been his approval of several unacceptable cabinet appointments. In protest, the group #NotOneInch organized a picket outside Schumer’s house this afternoon. I and several dozen of my neighbors joined in. The gist was, “Stiffen your spine, Schumer.” If he’s the one leading a “resistance” he’s doing a mighty gelatinous job of it.

Folks were already gathering as I arrived. Note well the address in case you'd care to send your own message!

Folks were already gathering as I arrived. Note well the address on the awning in case you’d care to send your own message!

Hey, here's a guy with a backbone!

Hey, here’s a guy with a backbone!

As an insecure male, I was a little signing off on a slogan involving inches

As an insecure male, I was a little unhappy signing off on a slogan involving inches

 

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The gent in the center (back to us) was leading the chants. Passing cars honked their support and encouragement.

 

Say! This IS a big tent!

Say! This IS a big tent!

 

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We were already dispersing when the men in blue showed up, but their arrival did definitively expedite the matter. And anyway there’s something more time sensitive to protest today — the Muslim ban. Hundreds are going out to JFK airport to protest even as we write.

As for getting our message across to Senator Schumer: Brooklynites and other New Yorkers, please join us for the much larger “What the Fuck, Chuck?” rally at Grand Army Plaza planned for this coming Tuesday evening.

A New Book About Coney Island Theatres!

Posted in AMUSEMENTS, BOOKS & AUTHORS, BROOKLYN, Coney Island, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS with tags , , , , , on December 15, 2014 by travsd

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Thanks Tricia Vita and Jim Moore for tipping me off to this great new book about the theatres of Coney Island. I’ve long known about the work of Cezar Del Valle — he is THE go-to guy for Brooklyn theatre history. I’ve read his work and we’ve corresponded throughout the years but we’ve never met, so I was delighted to get the chance yesterday to attend his talk at 440 Gallery which is just a couple of blocks from my house. His illustrated slide show hit some of the high points of his fascinating new book, Brooklyn Theatre Index, Volume III: Coney Island, Including Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach. 

In which a different kind of history is made

In which a different kind of history is made

Del Valle is an extremely entertaining presenter. Too many historians have a tin ear for what’s interesting. Absolutely the opposite with Del Valle. I am posting this now because I KNOW that so many readers will either want this new book for themselves, or know someone who would like it for a holiday gift. It’s actually volume three of his series on Brooklyn theatres, but let’s face it, Coney Island’s history is special. It may not be well known but there were tons of theatre-theatres out in the amusement district back in the day: not just sideshows and restaurant floor shows and the like but also vaudeville and burlesque houses, cinemas and plain old playhouses. Scores of them. Did you know that Joe Franklin ran his own nostalgia cinema out there? Harpo Marx made his vaudeville debut? Cary Grant was a stilt-walker? And a hundred things like that.

Anything I could add to Tricia Vita’s glowing write-up would be superfluous, so here’s hers: http://amusingthezillion.com/2014/11/22/autumn-reading-the-brooklyn-theatre-index-of-coney-island-brighton-beach-manhattan-beach/

And like me, you’ll inevitably want to get columes I & II of Del Valle’s Brooklyn Theatre Index as well. Get it here: http://www.theatretalks.com/brooklyn-theatre-index.html

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