Archive for childhood

The 15 Most Impactful Movie Experiences of My Early Childhood

Posted in Hollywood (History), ME, Movies with tags , , , on July 13, 2017 by travsd

Apropos of very little aside from the fact that it’s kind of an interesting exercise, I thought I’d search my memories and create this little list of some of the first movies, and first major movies, I saw as a child. I remember most of the encounters quite vividly; young children are highly open to new experiences, so theoretically these movies shaped me in important ways. It’s pretty safe to say they have. It’s fun to try to identify what that is. There is a certain randomness in what one encounters, an element of chance as to what comes your way and is going to become part of your make-up. But I will also observe that, looking over the list, it’s instructive to note how strong a role the taste and judgment of my parents played; about a third of the movies were ones that they endorsed, recommended, praised, approved of, gushed over, and I came to echo their judgment, never wavering in my feelings afterward. Movies hit you on an emotional level. Nothing is more powerful than emotion. My parents also kept a fairly eagle eye on our viewing habits, meaning they exerted on influence on even the things they weren’t endorsing, i.e., they permitted them. Nowadays, kids watch every heinous thing that’s out there. My viewing diet was strictly films that were rated G or, occasionally (and this was pushing it), PG. There’s only one example of a crucial film I saw that was of dubious appropriateness, and that was fairly accidental.

You may be surprised at the relative lack of “comedy classics” on the list. One of the reasons I ended up becoming obsessed with the comedies of the 1920s-40s was that, though I had often heard about them during my childhood and they assumed a kind of legendary status, I didn’t actually have access until them until much later in my teenage years. (As an example of what it was like back then: when I was about 14, one day I saw in the TV Guide that Duck Soup was being played by Channel 56 in Boston, which was a hard channel for me to pull in from my home at the Rhode Island shore. So I first experienced Duck Soup in fragmentary bursts, alternating with snow, receiving mostly the audio portion, and lots of static as I constantly adjusted the rabbit ears. But I’ll always remember which two scenes managed to reach my brain from that experience: Harpo sticking his feet in Edgar Kennedy’s lemonade tank; and Harpo leaving Groucho behind in the motorcycle sidecar). At any rate, I will never lose that feeling of constantly playing catch-up in this department, despite my having seen more of these kinds of films than about 98% of the general public, and many times.  Similarly I didn’t encounter most of the horror classics of the ’30s and ’40s until much later although I certainly read about them in books as a kid.

The films are presented in no particular order, they’re just all movies I saw before I was about ten and made a big impact on me. They’re pretty much a grab bag of all genres. Greater even than my love of comedy comes an even earlier love, a love of movies.

  1. Dr. Zhivago (1965): This was the first contemporary movie I was ever taken to. I was an infant; my parents went to see it at the drive-in. I obviously have no recollection of the experience, but I’ll always feel a special connection to the movie for the reason that it was my first. My parents always spoke highly of the film. It is pretty great. I’ve watched it maybe three times in my adulthood, and once or twice as a kid. I’ll acknowledge that David Lean’s sprawl requires patience, but I’m willing to sit still for this movie periodically. As you’ll note, at least three of the films on this list are of epic length, and I’ve watched them since childhood. Consequently, I was conditioned quite young to tolerate long movie experiences, where the length was called for. At festivals, I’m glad to sit and watch movies for 12, 14 hours at a pop.
  2. The Wizard of Oz (1939): I’ve written about this film so many times there seems little new to say here, but I’ll say it again anyway. It was an annual viewing experience on commercial television from about the age of four. The first time I saw it, I burst it into tears when it was over and could not stop crying, it hit me that hard. I cried for such a long time my parents began to become alarmed. When I got a little older, I dreamed of marrying Judy Garland; she was my Platonic ideal of a “true love”. When I learned she was dead, I dreamed of putting roses on her grave. And while, as I say, there are few classic comedy films on this list, The Wizard of Oz contains MUCH comedy of the classic variety. As we’ve written, nearly every cast member and much of the creative team had been in vaudeville. That, and the character of Professor Marvel, influenced where I was to take the rest of my life, culminating in this.
  3. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) This was my first conscious experience of seeing a movie in a movie theatre, and it’s also the film of dubious appropriateness I spoke of earlier. My babysitter brought my sister and I to see it; she must have known my parents would not have approved, but she obviously just wanted to see the hit movie of the day. So you can not IMAGINE the impact this film had on me, who had never seen a movie in a cinema before: a tidal wave, a capsizing ship, people being burned, scalded, drowned, broken to bits. The copious use of profanity (still new at the time). I still think of it as my second favorite movie (behind The Wizard of Oz). I even named my first dog “Manny” after the character played by Jack Albertson. I blogged about the film a bit more at this post.  My childhood coincided with the great heyday of disaster movies and I became an aficionado of the genre. I would also include Towering Inferno, Earthquake, Airport 1975 and Hurricane on this list, but I don’t want to bog down the entire list with disaster movies. And my post about disaster impresario Irwin Allen is here.
  4. Day of the Dolphin (1973) The second movie in a cinema I saw was also not really for kids. (After a while my parents got wise, hence some of the children’s movies you’ll see below) This movie also made a huge impression. First the emotional impact, when the dolphins are to be set free at the end (I was seven at the time, I didn’t understand why it was happening, and the plot is so preposterous that as an adult one is still unsure), but also, on a purely visceral level, the colors and the textures. The color blue! The sky and the ocean. The sunlight. The undulation of waves in tanks and in the sea. These images etched themselves into my memory in a way I’ll never forget. I’ve blogged about this movie too, it’s here.
  5. The War of the Worlds (1953) This sci fi classic was probably the closest I got to old time horror as a kid. As I blogged here, it was close to the top of my list of favorites. It was shown periodically on TV as a kid, and it was so devastating, so apocalyptic. (That’s a theme through a great many of my favorite childhood films!) As with The Wizard of Oz, I loved the movie so much it pointed me to the original book, which I’ve read many times.
  6. The Ten Commandments (1956), I probably watched this Biblical epic annually every year of my childhood. I was a religious kid. It’s certainly my favorite religious movie. It doesn’t hurt any that it’s saturated with Cecil B. DeMille’s no-holds-barred spectacle and showmanship. I’m planning a full blogpost on this movie for next Easter/Passover season; meantime there’s my Chuck Heston post which talks a bit about it. Those images! Thousands of slaves building pyramids! The Plagues! The Parting of the Red Sea! The Burning Bush! The giving of the Tablets! To me, no other movie remotely captures the story of Moses as effectively as this one, in spite of some flash elements like having the smoldering Anne Baxter as Moses’ love interest! No regrets there! And, as with Wizard of Oz and War of the Worlds, my love of the movie drove me to the source literature. As a kid, I re-read the book of Exodus many times (I read the rest of the Bible too but not as much as Exodus). I was fortunate also in having my dad’s old Classic Comics Illustrated version of the story of Moses, which was very much akin to experiencing the film version.
  7. Gone with the Wind (1939) My experience of this classic film came slightly later than the others on this list, but it had the same kind of impact. It was shown for the first time on television with great fanfare in 1976, when I was ten years old. It aired over two evenings, and had been so hyped by my parents that my sister and I watched with enormous avidity. My father was from the South; we were steeped in the lore of the Lost Cause. And my mother was in it for the romance, obviously. My parents were both too young to have seen the film on its original release. The movie was such a blockbuster, it had been re-released to cinemas to 1942, 1947 and 1952, and they had obviously caught it during one of those tours. We’ve written about the problematic racial aspects of the film on other occasions, and will again. But, again, as in many of other favorite films, as a child we loved the spectacle: the burning of Atlanta, for example, and the image of the great pile of moaning, wounded me will always be haunting.
  8. Shane (1953) This was my dad’s favorite movie, and I got to see it once or twice as a kid when they played it on tv. I’m sure I’ve been asked a few times what my favorite western is (I’m been working on a long-term western project) and I’m sure I fumbled for an answer. But it hit me the other day — duh! This is it. In fact, it was that realization that led to me drawing up this list. This movie packs a heavy emotional impact at the end when Shane, whom everyone idolizes, says goodbye for good, and Joey keeps calling his name but he won’t turn back. That’s nightmarishly powerful to a kid. And that stark, empty wilderness on all sides of the farmhouse — the imagery is dreamlike. I know I’ll write more on this at some point.
  9. The Gold Rush (1925) This Chaplin masterpiece is the only classic comedy film I saw early enough in my life to have had the same kind of seismic impact as most of these other movies I’ve listed. I saw it at my school, and I’ll assume they screened it around the 50th anniversary when I was about ten? Although it feels like I was younger than that. I wrote about in my introduction to my book Chain of Fools, and in this blogpost here.
  10. Rumplestiltskin (1955) After getting wind of The Poseidon Adventure and Day of the Dolphin, my parents insisted we only attend rated G children’s matinees. So I vividly recall this one, as one of the earliest we saw. I’m pretty sure this was the version, which is in German, with dubbed dialogue. I can still remember the little person in the title role, and even the tune to the magical jingle he sang, and vividly recall his angry tantrum at the end.
  11. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) This, too, from our children’s cinema phase — and a first run movie, no less! With visual effects by Ray Harryhausen, there were MANY memorable visual takeaways from this. The most vivid impression on me was made by the Six Armed Goddess Kali, and a one-eyed Centaur. And, as with Day of the Dolphin, the blue, blue ocean.
  12. Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) Though I’m old enough to have seen this classic when it was first run at the cinema, I’m certain my first experience was a couple of years later on television. I became a devotee of Roald Dahl’s book as well. God, how I would love to play this character (in this version — Tim Burton’s remake isn’t worth talking about).
  13. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) — blogged about this powerful kid’s movie here.
  14. Haunts of the Very Rich (1972) — a tv movie of the week I guess I just happened to see, one that I found very powerful at my young age. It anticipates the arc of Lost three decades earlier, and was very excellent tv actors in key roles. I blogged about the film here. 
  15. The War of the Gargantuas (1966) Yes! The War of the Gargantuas! For some reason now lost to me, this Japanese monster movie was shown with great fanfare on prime time tv when I was in 2nd, 3rd or 4th grade (circa 1973 or 74). I seem to remember all the kids talking about it. The climax had these two giant monsters, the Green Gargantua and the Brown Gargantua, in mortal combat amongst the skyscrapers of Tokyo. I can conjure the image of their faces at a moment’s notice. Naturally many Godzilla, Mothra and Gamera movies would follow on weekend afternoons, but this was my first engagement with this type of movie.

I cut it off here artificially, of course. I’m already thinking of others. Must. Stop. I’m going away now! Thanks for reading!


Gene Kelly (the Five Kellys)

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Dance, Hollywood (History), Irish, Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2013 by travsd


Gene Kelly (born in Pittsburgh this  day in 1912) started out in a kid act with his four dancing brothers and sisters — The Five Kellys. Gene was the middle child.  Sometimes, when the booking called for it, the act would be comprised of a smaller “away team”, often pairing Gene with his brother Fred. They played local vaudeville and social gigs throughout the 1920s. Once they even got to go on as a disappointment act for the 7 Little Foys. In 1928, the family took over a dance school. Gene was the head teacher. He was a busy guy, teaching, attending college (majored in economics) and still performing. (he got to sub once for the Nicholas Brothers in a Cab Calloway revue in Altoona during these years). But the depression made the scarcity of regional show biz work even scarcer. Gene went to New York, auditioned, and there followed the legendary string of Broadway and Hollywood hits he is now known for. He was still acting into the mid-eighties, and passed away in 1996.

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.


Clifton Webb: Master of All Arts

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Dance, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2010 by travsd


Webb Parmalee Hollenbeck was a mama’s boy, and mama was a stage mother. A frustrated actress, Mrs. Hollenbeck pushed young Webb into dancing school at the age of seven. When the father objected, she pushed him, too – right out of the family. Thereafter, queries about Mr. Hollenbeck were answered: “We never speak of him, he didn’t care for the theatre.”

The boy she raised was a perfect man of the theatre. He was to become one of the top dancers in the business, a professional opera singer, and an academy award nominated actor (twice). At age 7 he made his professional debut at Carnegie Hall in a children’s play called The Brownies. He followed this with the lead in Oliver Twist, and a play called The Master of Carlton Hall. A remarkable person by any measure, he graduated from high school at age 13, then studied painting and opera. In 1911, he sang with the Aborn Opera Company in Boston. Parts in La BohemeMadame Butterfly, and Hansel and Gretel followed.

By the mid teens, Castle Mania was sweeping the land. As a trained dancer, Webb was in a position to take advantage of the craze. He teamed up with Bonnie Glass, and then Mae Murray, performing on the Keith circuit and in nightclubs, and teaching private classes at the Webb Dance Studio. After this, he would add eccentric dances to his more traditional ballroom repertoire, and he partnered with Mary Hay and Gloria Goodwin. By the late 20s, he was headlining at the Palace.

Throughout the twenties and thirties he starred in musical and straight plays in both New York and London, and had numerous roles silent films. But it wasn’t until he was 51 years old, when he was cast in the film Laura (1944) that he became the movie star that he is primarily known as today. He went on to star in the original version of The Razor’s Edge (1946), the popular “Mr. Belvedere” series (1948-51), Stars and Stripes Forever (1952, in which he portrayed John Philip Sousa), the original Titanic (1953) and many others, into the 1960s.

Here is a little televisual tribute to him prepared by Indianapolis broadcaster Reid Duffy (Webb was also from Indiana):

For more on the history of vaudeville consult 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


Judy Garland (the Gumm Sisters) and Vaudeville

Posted in Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Singers, Sister Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 10, 2010 by travsd
The Gumm Sisters: Little Frances is on the right

One of the two or three major factors that led your author to the subject of vaudeville was a childhood obsession with the film The Wizard of Oz. Almost all of the major cast members were vaudeville veterans: Bert LahrRay Bolger, Jack HaleyCharley Grapewin (Uncle Henry) and Singer’s Midgets. Judy Garland, 16 at the time of her casting, had spent ten of her 13 years in show business on the vaudeville stage.

This was possible because she was born in a vaudeville family and grew up in a vaudeville house. At the time of her birth in 1922, her father Frank Gumm, a singer, and her mother Ethel, a piano player, were managing (and performing at) the New Grand Theatre in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The couple had toured for years as “Jack and Virgina Lee, Sweet Southern Singers”, but settled down to raise their three daughters. It was natural for Mary Jane, Dorothy and Frances to join their parents onstage. Frances’ (Judy’s) debut came at age 3, when she sang 7 choruses of “Jingle Bells”, to wild acclaim.

The family formed an act out of the Gumm Sisters, with Ethel as manager. They toured for a couple of years, then, in 1927, made the Los Angeles area their new home base, in the obvious hope that they’d get into pictures. Their first big break was a 1928 booking in the Meglin Kiddie’s Review at Loew’s State Theatre. “Baby” Gumm was by now the star of the act and was doing solo numbers and a Fanny Brice impression by this point. The act played all over the west, did shots on radio and Vitaphone shorts.

George Jessel is credited with giving them their new stage name. At a 1931 booking at Detroit’s Oriental Theatre where he was M.C., the girls were mistakenly billed as the “Glum Singers”. Jessel noted that “Gumm” wasn’t much better, and suggested they take the last named of NY drama critic Robert Garland.

In 1934, “Frances” decided to become Judy, which she took from a favorite Hoagy Carmichael song. At this time, the Garland Sisters had a weekly gig at the Wilshire-Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles, which is where scouts from MGM spotted her. That year Louis B. Mayer announced, “We have just signed a baby Nora Bayes.”

This was an apt characterization, for, just like Bayes, Garland combined an incredible voice with an uncanny gift to carry the emotional content of a song. She “acted” the song. Such intensity must be incredibly draining; it no doubt contributed to Garland’s emotional problems later in life.

After a couple of years cooling the heels of her patent leather shoes at MGM, Garland began to get cast. Classics include the Andy Hardy series with Mickey Rooney (late 30s—early 40s), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Babes in Arms (1939), Strike Up the Band (1940), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Easter Parade (1948), A Star is Born (1954), and dozens more.

In 1951 she headlined the revival of two-a-day vaudeville at the Palace. Originally booked for 4 weeks, Garland and the show were held over by popular demand for 19 weeks.

Garland’s last years were characterized by breakdowns, failed marriages, drug problems, collapses, and cancelled engagements, eventually ending in her unfortunate death by drug overdose in 1969. But the memory of how she was at her peak continues to endear her to millions of devoted fans.

Distinguished Progeny: Judy’s daughters Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft carry on the Gumm family tradition to this day.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville including acts like the Gumm Sisters and Judy Garland, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


The Will Mastin Trio, featuring Sammy Davis, Jr.

Posted in African American Interest, Child Stars, Dance, Impressionists, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2009 by travsd

I think we can all agree that Sammy was one dynamite cat. You don’t get to be A-1 unless you got the moves and the pipes, baby – and Sammy swung from the moment he arrived on this crazy, spinning planet. (Alright, I’ll stop.)

He was born in Harlem at the height of its Renaissance in 1925. His father (Sammy Davis, Sr—duh!) danced in a troupe headed by a gentleman named Will Mastin. His mother split early…threw ‘em over for another vaudeville troupe.

When Sammy was 5,  Mastin and Sammy, Sr. put him into the act. This didn’t come out of the blue. Sammy, Jr. was a prodigy – he’d demonstrated his talent as a singer and dancer since he was a toddler. Mastin then added two other adults and called the act “4 and ½”. To avoid the unwanted attentions of the Gerry Society the child was sometimes billed as “Silent Sam, the Dancing Midget”. In Michigan a concerned woman complained to theatre management about the fact that a child was performing. Because of the woman’s intervention the Mastin act was canceled, and Sam and his dad slept on park benches, starving and freezing in the Michigan winter, for several days. Thank GOD that woman had the child’s welfare in mind!

By the age of about seven, Sammy was slipping into the role of meal-ticket for the act, which was now named “Will Mastin’s Gang, Featuring Little Sammy.” By now, he was getting film roles, dancing in an Ethel Waters short called Rufus Jones for President, and playing a small part in a film with Lita Grey and Charles Chaplin, Jr.  Gradually, Mastin cut out the chaff until it was just himself and the Sammy Davises: the Will Mastin Trio. The three wore the traditional spats, vests, derbies, carnations. The team worked steadily throughout the years, making a living. But stardom seemed destined never to come.

In 1940 in Detroit, there was a fateful meeting. The Will Mastin Trio was on the same bill with the Tommy Dorsey band. Dorsey’s singer was Frank Sinatra. This little acquaintance would pay off big, but not immediately. First Sammy did a little time in the Army, where the U.S. G.I.s proved their superiority to the Nazi enemy by calling Davis “nigger”, beating him up, and tricking him into drinking urine.

When Sammy returned to the States, the Will Mastin Trio was back in business and the gigs started to get better. In 1946 , Frank gave them their first big break, a date at New York’s Capitol Theatre. Sinatra began to groom him, give him advice. It was Sinatra who advised him to sing and do impressions in addition to the dancing that was already stopping the show.

Eddie Fisher, Cantor, and Davis

In 1954, Sammy lost his eye in a car crash, but even this did not stop him. Eddie Cantor was to become his second major guardian angel. It was Cantor who was behind Sammy’s well publicized conversion to Judaism (which sustained him through many trials); and it was Cantor who booked him several times on his tv program in 1955, ignoring hate mail and racist threats from lunatics with too much free time on their hands.

In 1956, Sammy starred in his first Broadway show Mr. Wonderful, which was one of the hits of the season. In 1959 he played Sporting Life in the film Porgy and Bess.

In 1960, the so-called “Rat Pack” was established with the film Oceans 11, a film project that allowed Davis, Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Dean Martin and Joey Bishop to film at Las Vegas casinos during the day, while performing onstage at night. Several similar projects followed through the mid-1960s. 1966 was his busiest year, appearing on Broadway in the lead of musical version of Clifford Odets Golden Boy, launching his own TV program The Sammy Davis Jr. Show and starring in his lead film role in A Man Called Adam.

Sammy was the only individual who managed to straddle the world of the old school show biz and that of the counterculture. This strange feat was possible because he was so young when he participated in the former, and so old when he attempted to do the latter.

The new Sammy arrived in 1968, with the film Salt and Pepper, which he and Peter Lawford shot in Swinging London, with the drugs, the chicks and the mod fashions. He and Lawford, both in their forties and greying, started to wear bell bottoms, beads, Nehru jackets, and sideburns. A 1970 sequel to Salt and Pepper called One More Time was directed by Jerry Lewis. In 1972, he appeared, peace sign and all, on the hit TV series All in the Family. The following year he actually hit the pop charts twice, with the songs “Mr. Bojangles” and “The Candy Man.”

I venture to say most people of my age got their first taste of tap dancing through Sammy’s television appearances during these years. Needless to say, tap was rated pretty square circa 1975. Unfortunately Sammy’s talent was matched by a show bizzy insincerity so pronounced that it became legendary. He laughed too hard at everyone else’s jokes, seemed to be having way too good a time, appeared to be everyone else’s best friend, and everyone was a genius. Of course, this might have been the drugs. At any rate, such qualities marred his syndicated talk show Sammy and Company (1975-77), and assured his ostracization in the post-Saturday Night Live era . His most visible projects in later years were the movies Cannonball Run 1 (1982) and Cannonball Run  2 (1984), which were done with other former members of the Rat Pack. Davis died of throat cancer in 1990.

To find out more about these variety artists and 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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