Archive for character

Stars of Vaudeville #1039: Arthur Pat West

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2017 by travsd

April 19 is the birthday of Arthur Pat West (1888-1944).

Today West is best remembered among vaudeville fans for his 1929 Vitaphone short Ship Ahoy, in which the stout little man comes out in a sailor suit, does a rather rude comedy monologue and sings a couple of funny songs while pretending to play the guitar.

Originally from Paducah, Kentucky, West (sometimes billed just as Arthur or Pat) had been in a team called Arthur and Lucille West with his wife Lucille Harmon. In the ’20s, he was cast in a number of Broadway shows: the Fanchon and Marco musical revue Sun-Kist (1921), The Ziegfeld Follies of 1923Paradise Alley (1924), and Captain Jinks (1925-1926) with Joe E. Brown. 

After Ship Ahoy, West performed in at least one other Vitaphone Gates of Happiness (1930) and remained in Hollywood where he worked as an (often uncredited) bit player for the rest of his life. Initially, he was in Columbia comedy shorts and B movies, but he worked constantly and in the late ’30s through the ’40s he wound up in numerous classics, usually playing a bartender, waiter or similar kind of character. You can see him in Bringing Up Baby (1938), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Babes in Arms (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), The Great McGinty (1940), The Bank Dick (1940), Sullivan’s Travels (1940), Ball of Fire (1941), The Outlaw (1943), To Have and Have Not (1944), and Road to Utopia (1945), among dozens of other pictures. Keep an eye out for him!

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 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

Bob Hastings: From Christmasland to Character Man

Posted in Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2017 by travsd

Well, here’s a wonderful surprise: familiar character actor Bob Hastings (1925-2014) had an old school show biz background as a kiddie performer.

First: you recognize him, right? The first place I can be sure I saw him was in The Poseidon Adventure (1972). He has a small but memorable and highly visible part as the master of ceremonies of the New Year’s Party — he’s the guy who leads the count-down to midnight.

But he also played Lt. Carpenter on McHale’s Navy (1962-1966), which I watched in re-runs as a kid.

And he was also Kelsey the bartender, a recurring role, on All in the Family (1971-1976). These were pretty much his peak visibility years. He was also in several films during these years, like Disney’s The Boatniks (1970) and the Don Knotts movies The Love God (1969) and How to Frame a Figg (1971).

So I totally know who that guy is!  But then he turns up in a 1938 Vitaphone musical short called Toyland Casino as 13 year old Bobby Hastings in rustic highland clothes and sings “In the Gloaming”!

Hastings had started out on NBC children’s radio program Coast to Coast on a Bus with such fellow stars as Ann Blyth, Walter Tetley, and Jackie Kelk. After bomber service in World War II, he returned to radio, and perhaps his greatest stardom in the part of Archie in the radio version of Archie comics, which ran from 1945 to 1953.

Publicity still: Hastings as Archie

One of his first recurring tv roles was on Sgt. Bilko, establishing a recurring theme in his career: his characters were frequently in uniform. After the 1980s, most of his acting gigs were voice-overs for animated cartoon series. For example he voiced Batman’s Commissioner Gordon in the 1990s:

Bob Hastings passed away just a couple of years ago! Today is his birthday.

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 etc etc etc

Stars of Vaudeville #1024: Percy Helton

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2017 by travsd


Ubiquitous Hollywood character actor Percy Helton (Percy Alfred Michel, 1894-1971) was born on this day. We’ll get get into his movies anon, but few people probably know how charmed his career was in its early years.

Helton’s career began at the age of two in the vaudeville act of his father, British-born Alf Helton (real name William Alfred Michel). By age 12 he was on Broadway, appearing in Julie BonBon. He was in the original production of David Belasco’s The Return of Peter Grimm (1911) and the original production of George M. Cohan’s The Miracle Man (1914). And he was to be a familiar face on Broadway stages through 1942. Here is a clip I found from his theatre days:


Meanwhile in 1915 he began appearing in films. His first movie sounds too good to be true: In The Fairy and the Waif (1915), directed by Marie Hubert Frohman (wife of Gustave Frohman), he played the Waif to a Fairy played by Mary Miles Minter (later a chief suspect in the William Desmond Taylor murder). He appeared in another 5 silent movies through 1925 and then doesn’t return to Hollywood films until 1936, and THAT’S when he becomes the Percy Helton we all know and…”love”, I guess?

The leap, the important difference, was that now he was middle aged. He was a small guy. In fact he was playing children’s parts well past childhood. For example, in The Return of Peter Grimm, when he played “Little Willem”, he was 17 years old. And so he was a juvenile for as long as he could get away with it. But when he reached middle age, he became something of a grotesque, almost freakish in appearance. Short and rotund and yet stooped, nearly hunchbacked, he would have been a good person to play Marshall P. Wilder. Then that face: the venal, leering eyes, a Nixonian nose, and a toothy, drooling gash of a mouth. He was balding, and such hair as he possessed always seemed too long and unkempt.  And he had a high-pitched, scratchy voice not unlike that of the equally ubiquitous John Fiedler.

For such a unique and strange character, Helton’s uses in film ensembles appeared to be limitless. Who knew there would be so much need for seedy, nasty, cowardly little creeps in movies? Here’s something interesting: the first place I truly sat up and took note of him was in a screening at a film festival of the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955). When detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) gets fed up with Helton’s infuriating lack of cooperation, he slaps his face and crushes his fingers in a desk drawer until he complies. It’s a shocking, appalling scene, perhaps all the more so because a) it’s being done to this familiar person; and b) he pretty much deserves it.  But what I find especially interesting is, when I look at his credits, I had easily seen him in two dozen other movies prior to this. This one shocked me into taking note of who he was, so that I would always note him ever after.

He was especially sought after for westerns, usually as bank tellers, train conductors, hotel clerks, and that sort of thing. There’s no point in listing them — it’s dozens. Same with noir: he’s always, like, a pawn broker, or the manager of a fleabag hotel or something. He plays the drunken Santa who gets fired in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Jerry Lewis seemed to be a special fan: Helton appears in My Friend Irma (1949), The Stooge (1951), Sacred Stiff (1953), The Big Mouth (1967), and Lewis’s TV show. He also appears with Groucho Marx in A Girl in Every Port (1952), with Abbott and Costello in Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer Boris Karloff (1949) and numerous Bowery Boys comedies. Really, he was in pretty much everything. Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), A Star is Born (1954) White Christmas (1954) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) Jailhouse Rock (1957), The Music Man (1962), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). He’s even in the Monkees’ movie Head (1968). It’s worth a peek at his IMDB page, it’s quite impressive.

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

Of Flim-Flam and Falstaff: Fields as Fictional Character

Posted in BUNKUM, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , on November 4, 2016 by travsd



Over the past few decades the public has come to have a vague, simplistic and inaccurate image of the formerly-universally-beloved W.C. Fields — an image I call “the bobble-head on the bar” — a red cheeked and red-nosed inebriate leaning on a lamp-post, an American Silenus.

As far as I’m concerned, booze was the least imaginative and most uninteresting part of his act. The Fields I fell in love with is quite different — I think of him as the archetypal vaudevillian, with a steamer trunk crammed full of Dickens and Shakespeare, stickered on the outside with his far-flung ports of call: Berlin, Singapore, Sydney, Johannesburg, San Francisco. And then, in a manner that is one part P.T. Barnum and one part Mark Twain, he exaggerates his adventures, the places he’s been, the people he’s known, the superhuman deeds he has committed. “Why are you called ‘Honest John’?” he is asked…and out comes a long, rambling, impossible story that never actually answers the question. Like Falstaff (to whom critics often compared his character), he is not just a drunkard, but the drunkard as storyteller, a frightened little man who needs the steady diet of Dutch courage to transform himself into a make-believe super hero. He embodies the magic and tradition of American humbug. The irony of course is he spins his yarns off his REAL experiences. In an era when few human beings had traveled more than ten miles from their front door, he had lived a life of adventure, crossed seas and continents many times, had played to crowned heads in world capitals. It provided the raw material, but then he would transform that material into something miraculous, in much the same way as he would hold large numbers of balls, clubs or cigar boxes aloft in his early days as a vaudeville juggler.

But, like Falstaff, he seesaws betwixt bluster and deflation. He boasts of impossible skills and exploits but in every day life his character can scarcely accomplish anything. If not under the thumb of a controlling wife, his character is constantly on the run from creditors, the sheriff, process servers, the landlady. He is a physical coward. His ill-gotten gains are never gotten through the heroic methods of the highwayman, but through sneakery and subterfuge. He is a liar and cheat, not a pirate. He likes pretty women, but only as most men do – furtively, ineffectively, pathetically. He’s not a bold skirt chaser or a Lothario – more a guy who can’t resist a second look out the corner of his eye.

This double nature, this measurable difference between his real and presented self is both a rich mine of humor and a source of layers of complexity. There are always at least two “Fieldses” going on at any one time — again, just like juggling. This is what makes him three dimensional and eternal, and worthy of contemplation, an attribute which can’t be said to adhere to just any comedian. Helping re-educate the public about the genius of Fields is  my main mission in putting on Fields Fest this Fall, the 70th anniversary of his passing.

We’ll be blogging about comedian W.C. Fields all through November and December as part of our tribute to the comedian called Fields Fest. For a full list upcoming live Fields Fest events go here. 



Stars of Vaudeville #1007: Clem Bevans

Posted in Broadway, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2016 by travsd



Today is the birthday of character actor Clem Bevans (1879-1963). 

I’d undoubtedly seen Bevans in dozens of movies and tv shows, but didn’t finally become aware of him until a few months ago when the indomitable explorer Mr. Pinnock, sent me a link to a remarkable 1950 tv movie called Hurricane at Pilgrim Hill, produced by Hal Roach JrOriginally presented as an episode of Magnavox Theatre, the plot of this bizarre romantic comedy is based on a magazine story by James Charles Lynch. It concerns the culture clash when a Western codger comes to visit his granddaughter in an old Massachusetts town. When his fiance’s snooty family don’t approve of the marriage, the old man uses a Native American spell to conjure a hurricane that puts the boy’s father out of the way for a while. Then he rescues the guy and everyone kisses and makes up. It’s not exactly a “good” movie, but I was especially intrigued by Bevans’ performance, which I found oddly detailed, realistic and just plain weird. And so I investigated…

Bevans was born in Cozzadale, Ohio. He started out in vaudeville around the turn of the last century with a boy and girl act with Grace Emmett. From here he went onto burlesque, and three roles on Broadway, in the shows The Errand Boy (1904), Patsy in Politics (1907) and Monte Cristo Jr. (1919). He was 55 years old when he made his film debut in the 1935 remake of Way Down East. From here he worked constantly in film and television for the next 27 years. He amassed scores and scores of credits. Some notable films he appeared in include: Zenobia (1939), Dodge City (1939), Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), Sergeant York (1941), The Yearling (1946), The Paleface (1948), Portrait of Jennie (1948), and Harvey (1950), and the Disney miniseries Davy Crockett as well as the movie Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956). He was almost always typecast as a rural old geezer, but one notable departure was his casting as a Nazi in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942).

He was closely related (either the brother or cousin of, I’ve seen both online) of character actress Merie Earle, also always cast as an old codger, and when I show a photo, you’ll know her too in an instant:


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 #1006: Jimmy Conlin (Conlin and Glass, Etc)

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, Music, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2016 by travsd



Today is the birthday of funny looking comic character actor Jimmy Conlin (1884-1962).

Originally from Camden, NJ, Conlin studied piano at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music in his youth until the funds ran out. His show business education came in medicine shows. Around 1907 he married Philadelphia native Lillian G. Steele, his partner in the act Conlin and Steele. In 1910 they added Eddie Carr and became the trio Conlin, Steele and Carr. Unfortunately, both of Conlin and Steele’s children died and it placed stress on the marriage. The pair separated in 1915.

In 1916 Conlin partnered with Myrtle Glass in the act of Conlin and Glass; the couple married the following year. Conlin and Glass had a song, dance and comedy act that played the big time in the ’20s. Towards the end of the decade, they appeared in Vitaphones, such as the hilarious and still extant Sharps and Flats (1928) which gives us a nice record of their act, The Gladiator (1928, now lost), Zip! Boom! Bang! (1929, now lost), and A Tight Squeeze (1930), in which Conlin appeared without Glass. Glass appears to have retired around this time, and it’s a shame because she was a real talent, every bit Conlin’s equal. He played piano, she sang, and they both clowned around in a way that reminds me more of the Marx Brothers than anything else. Glass abuses Conlin, tears him to pieces essentially. I first saw Sharps and Flats at Film Forum and it made a deep impression on me, not just the team’s seemingly loose interplay, but the peanut gallery who keep chiming in from someplace behind the curtain. It’s that sort of loose, spontaneous atmosphere I always wanted to cultivate in my vaudeville shows.

I’d embed a clip of Sharps and Flats here but they always go dead on me. Instead why don’t you take a detour to Youtube (but come back!) You can see clips from Sharps and Flats here and here.

In 1933 (right around the time the national vaudeville circuits died for good), Conlin started appearing in bit parts in feature films, a field in which he worked steadily through the end of the 1950s. He looked a little like Koo-Koo the Bird Girl, plus he was smart, funny and gave good line readings, all of which made him especially useful in comedy ensembles. He’s in the Myrt and Marge movie (1933), Arizona Mahoney (1936) with Joe Cook, the all-star The Big Broadcast of 1938, $1000 a Touchdown (1939) with Joe E. Brown and Martha Raye, My Little Chickadee (1940) with W.C. Fields and Mae West, nearly every single Preston Sturges movie from 1940 through 1947, Jitterbugs with Laurel and Hardy (1943), Swing Shift Maisie with Ann Sothern (1943), Lost in a Harem (1944) with Abbott and Costello, It’s a Joke, Son (1947) with Kenny Delmar, The Jazz Singer remake (1952) with Danny Thomas,  The Seven Little Foys (1955) with Bob Hope, and The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock with Lou Costello (1959).

Glass passed away in 1945 (ironic, given that she was 13 years younger than Conlin). Conlin then married a woman named Dorothy Ryan, formerly of the team of Dorothy and Rosetta Ryan. The two performed together as late as 1960. Conlin died two years later.

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.

Florence Roberts: Granny for Hire

Posted in Broadway, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2016 by travsd


March 16 is the natal day of Florence Roberts (1861-1940). A stock player who began her career in New York and ran a company of her own in Philadelphia for 15 years, she eventually went into films where she became one of numerous dependable li’l ole ladies, her niche normally being those of the sweet, grandmotherly variety.

She made her first film shorts in 1917, but it wasn’t until the coming of sound that she began to experience some success. She appeared in the 1930 Mack Sennett short Grandma’s Girl alongside Andy Clyde and Marjorie Kane as (of course) Grandma. In the 1931 William Seiter comedy Too Many Cooks she plays Mother Cook, appearing with Bert Wheeler, Dorothy Lee and Roscoe Ates. She is Grandma in Her Majesty, Love (1931) with W.C. Fields, Marilyn Miller, Ben Lyon, Leon Errol, Ford Sterling and Chester Conklin. Perhaps her best remembered role today is Widow Peep (the Old Woman Who Lives in a Shoe) in Hal Roach’s version of Babes in Toyland (1934) with Laurel and Hardy. And she plays “Granny” in Fox’s series of “Jones” comedies from 1936 through 1940.

While I naturally stress the comedies, she appeared in many other notable movies, including Les Miserable (1935), The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940.)

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 etc etc etc. 

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