Archive for cabaret

Polly Bergen: Heard But Not Seen

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2017 by travsd

The late Polly Bergen (Nellie Burgin, 1930-2014) had a birthday of July 14.

I became really interested in her when I saw her entertaining performance in the 1975 tv movie Murder on Flight 502 and so I perked up and noticed her whenever I saw her in things subsequently. But here’s something that I think is worth mentioning and altogether not negligible: I had already seen her in many things previously without ever taking particular note of her. And this includes her Tony-nominated performance in the 2001 Broadway revival of Follies. (That was a special case; I was dragged to that. You might think I would like a show about a bunch of old Follies broads, and if I saw it today I might feel differently but probably not, for the simple reason that all Sondheim after A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum bores the absolute ever-loving shit out of me. There, I said it. Go ahead, be outraged. I am unmoved, either by your umbrage, or by Sondheim’s reputation for genius. I don’t care how many hits he has, I find him an untheatrical bore. So when I saw that production of Follies, I’m sure I spent the whole two hours looking at my watch, the ceiling, any place but the stage.)

“The Stooge” is the one in the middle

So there’s that. But I had also already seen her in her three movies with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, At War with the Army (1950), That’s My Boy (1951) and The Stooge (1952), as well as the original Cape Fear (1962), the western Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), the insane asylum melodrama The Caretakers (1963) with Joan Crawford, and the 1983 tv mini-series The Winds of War, again without ever particularly marking her existence.

But, as I say, I liked her Murder on Flight 502. And I have my theories as to why. She is given full reign to play a big personality in that film, a big cocky diva character with a lot of bark on her, very Elaine Stritch. And she makes an impression. No doubt her Follies performance had been in this vein but I wasn’t open to anything I was seeing. But I SAW her in this dopey tv disaster movie and then subsequently I noticed her, even if she wasn’t particularly doing anything flashy. For example, she is sexy but subdued in the 1964 comedy Kisses for My President, and yet I noted her and liked her in that. (TCM had been playing this screwball comedy about America’s first female chief executive the last few years because of a certain prominent democratic candidate whose initials are HRC. Something tells me they decide to mothball it now, the way early 60s assassination films like The Manchurian Candidate got shelved after the JFK assassination. TOO SOON! Bergen’s role in this film was why she was stunt-cast as Gena Davis’s mother on Commander-in-Chief, which ran 2005-2006). And I enjoyed her on The Sopranos as Tony’s father’s old girlfriend in a 2004 episode.

Still, I can’t be the only one who had trouble “seeing her”. Her movie career had had a couple of mild peaks at best, but had never ever really taken off. She’d had some moderately good roles and shots, but she was never able to break through to the other side, although she continued to work (especially in television) pretty much all her life.

Bergen with Woody Allen and Andy Williams on The Andy Williams Show, 1965

I think I have the key, though. Bergen was more an entertainer than an actress. Don’t get me wrong — her acting performances are fine, but with some exposure to the full performer, you can see that she reigned herself in as an actress. Originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, Bergen began singing professionally as a teenager in the big band era, on the radio and with local orchestras. She cut ten record albums in the 50s and 60s (a couple of them charted), and for one season (1957) she starred in her own NBC tv variety show The Polly Bergen Show, on which every week she sang her closing theme song “The Party’s Over”. It is worth noting that show won an Emmy for her 1958 performance as the title character — sad, smoky, cabaret singer — in the tv movie The Helen Morgan Story. At any rate, to see the full firecracker in action, go to Youtube. Lots of clips of Polly the Performer there. She was also a popular panelist on What’s My Line? for  couple of years. Singing and cutting up in patter is what she did best. Ain’t nothin’ wrong ’bout that.

For everything you need to to know about early show business, including cabaret and tv variety performers like Polly Bergen, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

“Mad Jenny’s Weimar Girls” is Back Tomorrow Night!

Posted in Contemporary Variety, Indie Theatre, PLUGS, Women with tags , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2017 by travsd

Tomorrow night: run, don’t walk, to see Mad Jenny’s Weimar Girls at the Slipper Room! It’s your last chance, at least during the present run, and the Slipper Room is the perfect, magical venue for this absinthean elixir of a show.

I have watched Mad Jenny (Jenny Lee Mitchell) marinate this delectable suaerbraten over a period of several months and it’s just gotten richer and more rewarding as she continues to develop it. Ostensibly a revival of Weimar Era Berlin cabaret, she’s tweaked what once might have been Hitler patter into Trump patter with disconcertingly little strain. We live in scary times. But the beauty of her show, and the beauty of the environment: you begin to understand escapism, even if she’s constantly making sure you don’t forget.

She’s also got a full band behind her now (trombone, piano, drums and bass, I think?) and Jenny herself plays clarinet. And (much like Company XIV, another favorite outfit of mine) she’s found a way to integrate neo-burlesque in a way that is true to her historical vision, elevating popular art to something that seems very elevated indeed (literally, in the case of Miss Ekaterina’s aerial act). Faux Germanic Jenny sings throughout, sometimes drawing from the historic songbag (Brecht/ Weill and Mischa Spoliansky mostly) and sometimes she twists modern stuff like Blondie or the Eurythmics into a post-modern pretzel. Jenny is a world class clown and mime herself, so she has her own physical bits that accompany the songs, and on some of the numbers she accompanies her talented terpsichoreans. My favorite thematic numbers in the show were something called Milk Maids, devised by Djahari Clark, which seemed like one part Von Trapp Family, one part Russ Meyer; and another number that evoked silent German Expressionist horror films. Tomorrow I imagine she’ll have more of the same, and I hope she (metaphorically) kicks Donald Trump Jr good and hard in the balls. “Ve must vip you mit ze riding crawp, Dawnald, Ja?”

Tickets and info here. 



Gaby Deslys

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Dance, Frenchy, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Gaby Deslys (Marie Elise Gabrielle Claire, 1881-1920). Originally from Marseilles, she became the toast of the cabarets and musical halls of Paris in the early years of the 20th century, and one of the world’s first sex symbols. Her stage name was initially Gabrielle Des Lys (Gabrille of the Lillies), later shortened to Gaby Deslys. In 1905, she conquered London as well (largely on the strength of the sensation she caused with her sleeveless gown. In 1909 her notoriety grew when she became the mistress of King Manuel II of Portugal; the scandal resulted in a revolution in his country a few months later.

In 1910, she cut a couple of records in Vienna:

The following year, thanks to the enterprise of Lee Shubert, Deslys conquered America. She appeared in the 1911 Shubert Shows The Revue of Revues and Vera Violetta (with Al Jolson) before undertaking a major vaudeville tour. The balance of her career essentially had her juggling major engagements in the three great show biz capitals of Paris, London and New York. She also had roles in five French and British films between 1914 and 1920. She died in 1920 following surgery for a throat infection.

To learn 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.


And please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


Anita Berber: Woman of Weimar

Posted in Dance, German, Movies, Variety Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on June 10, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Anita Berber (1899-1928), the epitome of decadent Berlin cabaret during the Weimar years. Berber began dancing in cabarets in 1916, and appearing in films two years later. She scandalized the public by dancing and modelling nude, being openly bi-sexual (one of her lovers was alleged to have been Marlene Deitrich), engaging in S & M, and imbibing cocaine, opium, morphine, heroin and her own personal cocktail of cholorform, ether and flower petals mixed in a bowl and inhaled. (Oh, yes, and lots and lots of alcohol, of course).

She was famous for prowling the nightclubs dressed only in a sable coat (nothing underneath), a pet monkey in tow, and wearing a brooch she kept filled with cocaine, so her stash was never very far. Her lifestyle finally caught up with her in 1928, when she collapsed onstage while performing in Beirut (which was then a very different sort of city than it is today).

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


And check out my new

Raquel Meller: The Embodiment of Old Spain

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Latin American/ Spanish, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , on March 10, 2013 by travsd

Raquel Meller 2[1]

Today is the birthday of Raquel Meller (1888-1962). Born Francisca Romana Marques Lopez, she became a star of Spanish cabaret and music hall when still a teenager. In 1919, she began to conquer the rest of Europe, with appearances in Paris, then London, and starring roles in European silent films (the most famous of these would be Carmen in 1926). In 1926, she embarked on a highly successful tour of American vaudeville and starred in two Fox Movietone talking shorts. Critics were transported by her singing; she seemed to be a sort of embodiment of the spirit of Old Spain. Bernhardt, Chaplin and George Jean Nathan were among her influential fans. Civil War in Span and the Second World War resulted in many displacements for her. She retired from performing in 1946.

Here she is singing Jose Padilla’s “La Violetera”, a piece of music Chaplin loved so much he essentially plundered it for his soundtrack to City Lights

To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


Naro and Zita Lockford: French Adagio Act

Posted in Broadway, Dance, Frenchy, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on December 12, 2012 by travsd

Naro and Zita Lockford were a French brother-sister adagio act who came over to the U.S. in the early 20s from the Folies Bergere. In 1922 the two appeared in the Broadway show The Rose of Stamboul, and for at least the next four years they were a big time vaudeville staple. In 1928, Naro was telling the papers that Zita has retired and returned to France. He soldiered on with larger, more elaborate acts, at least until midway through the 1930s.

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.


Variety Entertainment in Night Clubs and Resorts

Posted in Broadway, Variety Arts (Defined), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on July 21, 2011 by travsd


A  new kind of venue entered the competition for patronage during the later years of vaudeville. With the concert saloon virtually extinct since the turn of the century, and always ill-regarded, a niche opened up for a new sort of venue, the night club.

One of the protoypes for this new idea in the U.S., I think, has to be the roof garden. These combination restaurant/ performance venues, ensconced atop Broadway theatres, have their roots in an even older form, the beer garden, brought to the U.S. by German immigrants. In contrast with saloons, they were much more refined, and even family-oriented. Alcohol was consumed, but so was food, and the entertainment provided less inclined to be of a “low caliber”. In old New York, these were clustered in lower Manhattan, in the region around the Bowery.

In the late 19th century, as fabulous Broadway venues were being constructed full of amazing new amenities, one of the new innovations was an additional venue on the roof so that entertainments could take place after hours, or during the summer (because indoor theatres were usually closed during those months in the days before air conditioning). The kind of entertainment offered in roof gardens tended to be vaudeville shows and revues. Hammerstein’s short-lived Olympia (built 1895) was one of the first; his Victoria (built 1898) had one that proved to be more lasting. Other theatres that featured a roof garden included the New Amsterdam, where Ziegfeld presented his Midnight Frolics, the Casino (the first), the Republic, the Century, et al.

The other type of venue that fed into the genesis of the night club is the Parisian style cabaret. In 1911 Jesse Lasky built his own version of the Parisian Folies Bergere in Times Square, where the likes of Olga Petrova and Mae West found early employment. (The building, renamed the Helen Hayes Theatre, still stands today).

The dance craze started by the Castles (1912), the advent of jazz (1915) and then Prohibition (1919) added to the allure of this exciting resurrection of the old saloon idea. Harlem, Times Square and Greenwich Village all became club hubs. Jimmy Durante, Texas Guinan, and Helen Morgan are all more famous for the time they spent running speakeasy floor shows than for their time on the vaudeville stage. Many (probably most) of vaudeville’s singers, dancers and musicians, and some of the stand-up comedians and two-acts found lucrative work in these joints in the 20s, eventually making them less available to the formerly exclusive precincts of vaudeville.

In Manhattan, the swanky night club scene flourished until the 1940s or 50s, after which it was gradually supplanted by countless tiny cabarets.

In a related phenomenon, resort hotels booked live variety talent, before, during and after the vaudeville years. In the Catskill mountains, a constellation of large hotels and campgrounds catered to the vacationing needs of New York’s voluminous Jewish population. In the salad days of the so-called “Borscht Belt”, there were 500 hotels in the region, notably: Brown’s, the Concord, and Grossinger’s. In addition to the top headliners from the Palace like Milton Berle and Phil Silvers, a few years later you might see Henny Youngman, Jerry Lewis, Alan King, Danny Kaye, Joey Bishop, Red Buttons, or Jackie Gleason. All are performers but a single remove from vaudeville. Obviously, these venues were much more family-oriented than night club, food predominating over alcohol as the patrons’ chosen poison.

Outside of the Catskills, Miami, Atlantic City and Las Vegas have all been lucrative havens for the variety entertainer. An ossified form of vaudeville lives on in all of these sunset metropolises. As well as cruise ships! Don’t get me started on cruise ships! (Really, don’t. I have nothing to say about them!)

To learn more about the variety arts past and presentincluding night club and resort entertainment, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever  books are sold.


%d bloggers like this: