Archive for burlesque

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.”


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


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:



Here’s another one of Madame Marzella, circa 1896


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.

Don’t Bother With “The Black Crook”

Posted in Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE with tags , , , , , , , on September 20, 2016 by travsd


We expressed no little excitement here and here regarding the advent of a show calling itself The Black Crook at the Abrons Arts Center. Marketing materials strongly implied a revival, or revival of sorts, of the seminal production, long regarded as the Ur-show of American musical theatre. And by “implied”, I mean “used the word ‘revive'”.

But that’s not what it is. And now that I read the description more closely, I see that (as one does) I saw what I wanted to see in their p.r. materials: “With new text [and] new songs…a team of only eight actor/ musician/ dancers will perform the full 1866 musical and bring the biggest of all American spectacles into the tiniest of spaces.” This comes much nearer the truth than what I thought I was in for, but still won’t bear fact checking. It does indeed have new text and music, and only eight performers, but they scarcely do any of the rest of what that sentence promises.

I am sorry to report that the production is sort of an ANTI-Black Crook, an avant-garde theatrework that makes a stylistic choice to MOCK The Black Crook, its melodrama and its ballets. Such fragments from the original five and a hour show as they present or re-create drip with oleaginous attitudinizing, lack of conviction, and smarmy superiority. The relationship between this version and the original may be conjectured as roughly equivalent to that between The Beggars Opera and the Threepenny, but in this case with no apparent ideological motivation. It is merely, frankly, fucked with. A dubious honor for a 150th anniversary, but so be it. Such fragments of the original text as we get are wedged between an original “meta” story about the creation of the original show, with the small cast doubling as the author, producers, etc. Little effort is made to differentiate the two realities. In both planes, the actors wear the same clothes, act in the same style, move on the same set. Thus the two worlds bleed together, making what is already an irritating ordeal into a confusing one.

As for the “spectacle”? The first music doesn’t appear until 50 minutes into the show; the first song appears after that. Only a couple of songs are from the original show. And the principal thing we associate with The Black Crook…the ballet chorus? Well, the dancing is done by this cast of eight. Four of them are female. We have gotten very far away from both the spirit and the body of The Black Crook at this stage.

Naturally, I wasn’t expecting the real thing. The original show, as we said, was five and a half hours long and featured a cast of dozens. I expected a truncation, and certainly some scholarly substitution of missing material. The backstory idea I find tedious and commonplace, but if you must do it, I find myself offended by its self-conscious, apologetic approach about the very notion of how 19th century theatre was practiced. This is a self-hating production of The Black Crook if ever there was one, far more about the director’s apparently high self-regard than service to the play, the theatre, or the audience. Unfortunately, I’m not interested in how much smarter Mr. Joshua William Gelb is than the material he took the trouble to excavate. I am interested in the material itself.

There are positive things to say. The cast are extraordinarily talented, however warped and misused their gifts are in the service of this production. In addition to their polished, animated acting, most of them are highly skilled musicians, which is most impressive. One of the songs I heard was exquisitely beautiful. And the costumes, by Normandy Sherwood, are gorgeous. They are the best thing about the production, which is quite a statement to have to make.

I confess I left (at a sprint) during intermission. I would have left about five minutes into the show, once I knew what I’d let myself in for, but there was no way for me to gracefully slip out without causing a ruckus. But I find it inconceivable that the second act would somehow redeem the show, given the choices I suffered through in the first act. If you’re bursting with curiosity about The Black Crook, this is not the show to see. But if you must, you must. Do it here, but don’t let me know about it.

The Barrison Sisters: Don’t Call it Vaudeville

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Burlesk, Sister Acts, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2016 by travsd


I’ve dithered about this post for a long while, but ultimately decided it can’t go in my Stars of Vaudeville series, for the simple reason that there’s no way in hell that you could ever call this act “vaudeville”. The reason for the quandary: the word appears next to their name wherever it is rendered on the internet. In typical fashion, once an error like that gets out there in gets replicated ad infinitum, and then bounced around forever like a pinball in a machine.


Here’s the thing: the Danish born Barrison Sisters (Lona, Sophia, Inger, Olga and Gertrude) had a dirty act. Like many sister acts of their day, they performed cute musical numbers. But the Barrison Sisters were said to have discovered the path to success through sexy double entendres. Their most notorious routine is said to have consisted of the girls asking the audience “Do you want to see my pussy?” — at which point they would flip up their skirts to reveal kittens strapped to the front of their vajayjays. In the 1890s. Though the great vaudeville circuits were just in the process of being created the tone of the industry was already well established by Tony Pastor, Keith and Albee, F.F. Proctor, Sylvester Poli, Percy Williams and others. Vaudeville was clean. If you did an act of this description in vaaudeville you’d be shown the door before your act was even finished.

So this act can only be said to have been in vaudeville in the broadest, broadest possible use of the term. Perhaps as they might use it in some place like Paris or Moscow, to mean something equivalent to “varities”. In fact, it even sounded too dirty for 1890s burlesque to me. My guess would have been saloon variety, as it might be seen at Koster and Bial’s or on the Bowery or someplace, or your local wild west saloon. But then I went to my go-to reference for early burlesque, the must-own Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture, by Robert C. Allen. There, he mentions a strip act by Lona Barrison in burlesque, being reported on in the Police Gazette in 1896, in which she disrobed completely, which back then meant down to her underwear. And really that’s all you gotta know, friends. The Barrison Sisters were not vaudeville but burlesque, friends, and were even getting busted there. 

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Happy Birthday, Tempest Storm!

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Burlesk, Women with tags , , , on February 29, 2016 by travsd
This is the tamest picture of her I could find. Believe me -- I looked and looked and looked

This is the tamest picture of her I could find. Believe me — I looked and looked and looked. Oh, how I looked!

Today is the birthday of burlesque legend Tempest Storm (Annie Banks, b. 1928). We’ve waited so long to do a post on her because her proper birthday doesn’t roll around too often — she’s a leap year baby. And when I say baby, I mean baby!!

Originally from rural Georgia, already a twice divorced child-bride at 20, she decided to put her 44DD-25-35 measurements and fiery red hair to good use by becoming a burlesque performer. She debuted as Tempest Storm at the El Rey Club in Oakland, California around 1950 and went on to become one of the most famous of all burlesque dancers, through her nightclub appearances, pin-ups, movies, celebrity hook-ups (she was married to singer Herb Jeffries and had affairs with Elvis and JFK), and national press in places like Life Magazine.

She danced professionally until she was 67 years old, and still comes out to perform on occasion. You can see her in Leslie Zemeckis’s excellent film Behind the Burly Q. She’s the last of the living legends!


Stars of Vaudeville #939: Harry Jolson

Posted in Jews/ Show Biz, Singers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 12, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Harry Jolson (Hirsch Yoelson, 1882-1953). Born in Lithuania, the son of a cantor who would settle the family in Washington DC, Harry was the older brother of singer Al Jolson — who would go on to much greater fame in show business. But being older, it was Harry who ran away and went into vaudeville first.

Around the turn of the 20th century Al joined Harry in New York, where he was already beginning to take his first baby steps in show business. Harry and Al  teamed up in burlesque as “The Joelson Bros.” in an act called “The Hebrew and the Cadet.” Al’s voice was still changing and this is the point of his career where he whistled rather than sang (whistling would always be one of his distinctive trademarks). In 1901 the boys teamed team up with one Joe Palmer as  Jolson, Palmer and Jolson in a sketch called “A Little Bit of Everything”. Palmer was a former headliner who had written the lyrics to “In the Good Old Summertime”. He now had multiple sclerosis and was in a wheelchair. They boys dropped the “e” from their name because it wouldn’t fit on the business cards. Harry played a doctor, Al, a bellhop, and Palmer…the guy in the wheelchair. Al started using blackface at this time, and found that it liberated him so that he could really cut loose as a performer. The act was very successful. In 1905, they were contracted to play Tony Pastor’s but the act split up before the engagement started. Part of the boys’ obligation in the act was to clean, dress and otherwise babysit the infirm Palmer in their offstage moments. The boys had a falling out over who would take care of Palmer on a certain night. They never quite fully made up after this spat.

Now both Jolson brothers were working solo. By accident or by design the Jolson Brothers now cut up the continental U.S. into spheres of influence. While Harry worked the Keith and William Morris circuits in the east as “The Operatic Blackface Comedian”, Al worked Sullivan and Considine in the West as “the Blackface with the Grand Opera Voice”. Within a couple of years, Al became a major superstar, and after that the brothers’ rivalry became something of a joke. Harry was deemed to be no competition for Al, and what small crumbs he enjoyed tended to be crumbs from his brother’s table. While Al starred in Broadway shows and, later Hollywood films, Harry struggled on in vaudeville, often humiliatingly billed as “Al Jolson’s brother”. Here he is in a rare 1929 film clip with Lola Lane:

When vaudeville died, Harry became an agent for a while, representing Al and his wife Ruby Keeler for about seven years. When Al left him, his agency folded and he sold insurance and worked at an aircraft plant during World War Two. He was not mentioned at all in the Hollywood films The Al Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949). When Al died in 1950, Harry made a spoken word tribute record called “One More Song”, and also enjoyed some last limelight on radio and television (a show called You Asked for It, on which he sang Al’s “You Made Me Love You”). By these years though, he was failing. He passed away in 1953, three years after the brother who was a thorn in his side all those years.

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


A Great New Book About Lili St. Cyr

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Burlesk, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2015 by travsd


Burlesque being what it is, there aren’t many dancers who came up through its ranks during the classical era who broke through to mainstream fame. Lili St. Cyr was one of the few who did. I first truly became aware of her from watching Irving Klaw’s old burlesque films from the mid 1950s. But she also had some minor parts in several Hollywood films, was on the cover of magazines and was interviewed on television, wound up in Tin Pan Alley song lyrics, and was well known to all the show biz royalty of her day. While she did perform in New York sometimes, her main bases of operation were Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Montreal — people are apt to know her better in all three of those cities than in New York. So it has been a welcome experience learning more about her, for she was absolutely at the top of her field in the 1940s and 1950s (Gypsy Rose Lee had already moved on from burlesque by those years).

Leslie Zemeckis has written a rip-roaring new biography about this burlesque icon. And while it is expected subject matter from the woman responsible for Behind the Burly Q and Bound by Flesh, there are ways in which it feels like the author has struck out into new territory. Those documentary projects had an academic aspect. And while Zemeckis scored some excellent interviews for the new biography (including St. Cyr’s close relatives, ex-husbands, etc) there are ways in which Goddess of Love Incarnate feels novelistic…like the paperback bodice rippers and Hollywood tell-all books my working class mother use to devour (she would have loved this book). Zemeckis uses the omniscient narrator technique, imagining us privy to Lili’s thoughts and private conversations (but with footnotes so we know she didn’t just pluck these out of the air. They have their basis in truth).

But there is no word for it but juicy. I lost count of the men in her life a few pages after she began adulthood. Her lovers included Orson Welles, Yul Brynner, Victor Mature and several other famous gents. She married and divorced a half dozen times. None of her relationships lasted more than about three years. A workaholic, she seemed to give the men in her life something less than second place as a priority. They were around for comfort and company, but ultimately they were replaceable conveniences, no different from the maid who helped her change into her costume. This reflects the shifting nature of her childhood background, which contains some bombshells I won’t spoil for you by revealing here. Two of her sisters were also in burlesque; one of them married Harold Minsky. She and another sister were discovered by nightclub impresario Nils Granlund. (That’s always one of the questions, right? “How did you get into burlesque?” A common answer turns out to be: be beautiful, and some guy will spot you…and ask you to be in burlesque). And burlesque dancers — there’s lots in here about how she developed her classic routines.

And…as a major thread running through the whole book, the sad end we all know is coming: old age, the loss of her looks, poverty, obscurity, and drug addiction.

Speaking of addiction, I plowed straight through this baby like the show biz junkie I am. (I know that was an insensitive transition. I’m sorry, Lili). And I’m probably not the first person to suggest this — the story would make an excellent movie. Buy it now! You know you want to!

On Straight Men, Comedy Teams and Belated Props for Abbott and Costello

Posted in Abbott and Costello, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2015 by travsd


What with TCM showing several Abbott and Costello comedies tonight, I thought this might be a logical time to share some thoughts I’d been kicking around about the great movie comedy teams and the role of the straight man.

The genesis of this train of thought was a revelation I had the other day (probably an obvious fact to some of you) about what makes the Abbott and Costello movies unique and a way in which they excel (if perhaps don’t completely succeed). Their films are perhaps the most successful attempts to integrate a certain kind of old-style verbal two-man comedy act into a feature length narrative. This is simultaneously faint praise (when you come right down to it, there were very few other attempts) and high praise (what they attempted was darn nigh impossible.)

When I say the attempts were rare, I mean they were rarer than you think. I am talking about something very specific. There were many kinds of comedy teams in vaudeville and burlesque. One of the most common had its roots in the minstrel show. This was the comedy duo or double act which paired a sillier comic with a straight man or feeder, a guy whose job was to do the set ups for the punchlines delivered by the comic. The original straight man was the Interlocutor in minstrelsy; the End Men were the comics. In the two man act, the straight man became a specialty unto itself. The straight man is like the puppet master, the Power Behind the Throne, a magician who skillfully and selflessly directs the audience’s attention onto the comic, and (truth be known) even cues them when to laugh. Bud Abbott was considered the very best of this species of creature in burlesque. Both vaudeville and burlesque were full of these kind of two man acts, hundreds of them. But very few of them made it to movies. People often lump other comedy teams in with them and speak of them in similar terms, but I think it’s important to make some distinctions so that you can see what’s unique about Abbott and Costello.

Most of the successful and famous comedy teams in films were actually NOT of the type I am describing. Most don’t have a guy who is a simple “feeder”. He is not a straight man in that sense. You might more accurately call him the “straighter man” than the straight man. Both the members of such comedy teams are funny. They have distinct characters, and one of the pair is slightly less silly. But he’s not a feeder. In Laurel and Hardy that person is Oliver Hardy. In Wheeler and Woolsey that person is Bob Woolsey. In Hope and Crosby, that person is Bing. In Carney and Brown (heaven forfend) that person is Wally Brown. With Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly, it’s Thelma. And so on, through the years. In Laverne and Shirley, it’s Shirley. Both members of the team have fleshed out, funny characters. They are comic actors in stories, not just joke tellers. Yes, they deliver jokes, but not for their own sake, in a routine. The main thing is the story. Of necessity, one of the pair is slightly straighter, but in no sense is he or she just a feeder.

Integrating into a story a vaudeville team with their pre-established rhythm of pat routines is quite a different thing. Who are these kinds of teams, with this kind of straight man? There were hundreds back in the day, but because of this hurdle, very few made it into movies so you’ll only know a few of them. Jay Brennan of Savoy and Brennan was that kind of straight man. Accompanist Ted Shapiro played the role to Sophie Tucker. Bob Hope was straight man to a Dumb Dora character named Honey Chile (and later on tv to countless comedians). Frank Fay was straight man to his stooge, Patsy Kelly. Ted Healy was straight man to his Three Stooges (and I have a heretical theory that they would have made better movies together if he hadn’t dropped them).

Every ventriloquist plays the straight man to his dummy. Thus Edgar Bergen, in addition to his many other gifts, was one of the great straight men of all time. (NOTE: he’s in many movies. How many does he star in?).

George Burns and Gracie Allen were in films throughout the 1930s, but ALWAYS as parts of ensembles. They weren’t expected to carry a 90 minute or two-hour picture themselves, because no one could figure out what to do with George. In their last one Honolulu (1939), they separated the two completely. (The half-hour sit com format suited them best).

And the Marx Brothers had a great straight man. And contrary to what people usually say, it WASN’T Zeppo! Most of the time, Zeppo was more like a vestigal, underused juvenile. On only a couple of occasions on film is he a straight man in a comedy routine. More often, GROUCHO plays straight man to CHICO, in select scenes in their first six or seven pictures. But notice, once MGM began privileging plots over comedy, those sections of their films evaporated. And later of course, Groucho was straight man to his many contestants on You Bet Your Life. Basically all hosts of variety shows, talk shows and game shows play straight men to their guests.

In all these cases, the straight man is just feeding lines: “No, what IS black and white and red all over, Mr. Bones?”

Then there are two interesting vaudeville teams which lacked a straight man but were nonetheless dependent on artificial routines, thus making it just as hard to integrate them into a plot. Clark and McCullough were surrealists like the Marx Brothers. Interestingly, Paul McCullough was not a straight man, but a stooge, but since Bobby Clark was such a ham, the role wound up just as thankless. They never made it out of two reel comedy shorts as a team, and McCullough’s early suicide prevented possible future exploration. And then there are the Ritz Brothers, whose stock in trade was eccentric musical numbers. Like Burns and Allen they were usually employed best in large ensembles — how do you make them the heroes? They’re essentially a three headed insect!

And so we begin to see what Abbott and Costello (and their producers, writers, handlers) began to accomplish in their films: an integration, an uneasy grafting of such routines into plots. It’s imperfect. Properly speaking, neither member of the team actually has a character, just the faintest of pencil outlines. And normally the plot is non-comical and exceedingly dull. But it is a kind of stepping stone, and given the nature of the team and their experience (delivering five minute verbal comedy routines) kind of miraculous. Martin and Lewis took it a step further, treading a line somewhere between Abbott and Costello and the likes of Wheeler and Woolsey or Hope and Crosby. (They were helped along by the fact that their comedy routines weren’t based on verbal, dialogue based jokes but revolved around Lewis’s bizarre physical antics). But — and here’s what’s instructive — later, similar teams failed. Watch Allen and Rossi in The Last of the Secret Agents (1966) or Rowan and Martin in The Maltese Bippy (1969).

Credit where credit is due! I won’t concede what many seem to claim, that Abbott and Costello are somehow “geniuses”. But you do have to acknowledge that they got farther than just about anybody at solving a certain comedy/ story problem, and so deserve their cherished niche in the film comedy pantheon.

(I have a solution, a secret solution about how to solve the problem, by the way, but I prefer to try to demonstrate it in practice sometime rather than spill it here. Essentially, Shakespeare solved this 400 years ago. And if you think there’s not lowbrow comedy in Shakespeare, look again).

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