Archive for clown

Pepito and Joanne: Clowning and Contorionism

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Dance, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2017 by travsd

OF PEPITO AND JOANNE

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Today is the birthday of Jose Escobar “Pepito” Perez (1896-1975). Originally from Barcelona, Pepito got his start as a clown in Spain in 1914. He came to the U.S. in 1922 and performed on the Keith and Orpheum circuits.

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In 1928 he met dancer and contortionist Margaret Janet Zetteler (or Zettler, 1908-2004) at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, when both were booked to perform before screenings of Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus. They teamed up, both onstage and off, and Zetteler’s name became Joanne Perez.

As vaudeville dried up they began performing at night clubs in the late 1930s an 1940s. Over the years, Pepito got various small roles on film and television, including several shots on I Love Lucy. They opened the Pepito and Joanne Academy of Dance, which Joanne continued to run for decades after Pepito passed away. Pepito also ran a charter fishing business.

The keeper of all things Pepito and Joanne is Melani Carty, who runs the Pepito and Joanna tribute website. The photos above are from that site. Check it out here.

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.

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Barry Lubin Becomes the First Clown to Clown on Seven Continents

Posted in Circus, Clown, Contemporary Variety with tags , , , , on January 14, 2017 by travsd

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In the midst of so many horrible precedents, and history being made in so many undesirable ways, something truly amazing happened. The great Barry Lubin, best known as the Big Apple Circus’s “Grandma”, became the first clown in history to have performed on all 7 continents. I want to be able to claim that he was also the first professional clown to perform in Antarctica but I’m not certain if that’s true (hundreds of people go down there annually to work now, and thousands of tourists visit annually on cruises). But I’m certain Lubin’s the first clown of such major stature to do so. The word “wonder” gets thrown around too much in the circus game, but this for once is a novelty that will put a spring in my step for some time. Thanks, Barry! This is in the great Houdini tradition, just going out in the world and doing something plum amazing to give the public a boost — just when we needed it the most.

Repose en Paix, Pierre Étaix

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Frenchy, Movies (Contemporary), OBITS with tags , , , , , , on October 14, 2016 by travsd

Something fitting about Dario Fo and Pierre Etaix passing away within hours of each other. French clown, actor and comedy film-maker Etaix (1928-2016) was one of the happy discoveries I learned about when researching my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to YoutubeI seem to recall first hearing about the artist from Steve Massa, and there was a big screening of his films (which had long been unavailable) at the Film Forum a couple of years ago.

Etaix is often associated with Jacques Tati (for whom he assistant directed, and with whom he got his start) but his character and his style are very different. He was also in the Jerry Lewis movie The Day the Clown Cried (1972), which it looks like we’ll all finally get to see at some point in the not too distant future. Etaix had many more screen credits as an actor than as a director. He only directed a few films; most of them are available on Youtube. I watched ’em all. This one is probably my favorite, and how perfectly timed for Hallowe’en (there’s more than a little Hammer Horror parody in the fantasy sequences here–very well done) . The film is called Insomnia (1961).  Even so, I hope you sleep well, grand-père drôle!

Groucho Marx: Bouffon

Posted in Clown, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Marx Brothers with tags , , , , , , , on October 2, 2016 by travsd
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“No Matter what it is or who commenced it — I’m against it!”

Today is the birthday of Groucho Marx. I’ve done over a hundred blogposts on the Marx Brothers as a team; but very rarely focusing solely on my favorite comedian (okay, he vies for the top spot with a short list of others). This one was prompted by a query I got from a young comedian named Darius Emadi a few months ago. His question was quite simple, but so revolutionary and new and unprecedented, I was taken quite aback and thought about it for days. I have been planning this post ever since then.

The question was this: “Groucho Marx: Clown or Bouffon”? The answer is immediately apparent. No rumination required. Groucho is a bouffon. And that realization came as such a delightful thunderbolt. The idea of bouffon is the perfect frame for thinking and talking about Groucho. And yet this conceptual tool is so new that it’s only recently become available. And the misconception that Groucho is a clown in the conventional sense has driven so much that’s been so misguided, including his casting in films, and criticisms and appreciations by fans and writers.

I’ve written a bit about bouffon here and here. (I urge you to follow the links and explore. It will provide much background and insight and relieve me from having to remake the wheel here). Bouffon certainly grew out of clowning, much as Lucifer fell out of the choirs of heaven. It has much in common with that ancient art on the outside: exaggeration, costume, make-up and the goal of making people laugh. What it does not share with clown however, and this is crucial, is a need for SYMPATHY. In fact, bouffons are profoundly UN-sympathetic. It is what they are there for. They are nasty. They are the nasty parts of us made manifest. Groucho exists to confuse, lacerate, run rings around, fuck with, tweak, rattle, undermine and muss up the people around him. He exists to break things down, not build them up. The essence of his character is not to help people, and neither does he want nor deserve help. On those occasions in his early vehicles where he does assist the perfunctory ingenue or some stuffed shirt of a leading man, it is because it is part of the conventions of the format, which he subverts with every breath he draws. He has no “heart”. The attempts to impose one on his character in his later movies are like trying to graft an elephant’s trunk onto an octopus. This organ does not belong here! It is useless and irrelevant to this character. This is not to rail against goodness and emotion and altruism. My point is that everyone else has those. Some characters do not. Groucho does not. Thus Charlie Chaplin is a clown. Groucho Marx is a bouffon.

Mr. Emadi gave me great hope with his question by even asking it. By even thinking to ask it. By even knowing to ask it. Not for some egghead reason, though you’ll probably think so if you’re a complete philistine, as most people are. But, the fact remains that I myself am not a scholar. I have no degree, I am not affiliated with any institution, I contribute to no scholarly journals, I do not speak at symposia. I consider myself first and foremost a theatrical practitioner. Sometimes I write it, sometimes I direct it, sometimes I perform it, sometimes I produce it, sometimes I review it. And part of living that life, according to my philosophy, is mastering its history. So sometimes I write about it. That’s just part of the gig. I’ve always felt that way. Have you ever met a magician? I know quite a few of them. And one thing I’ve observed ACROSS THE BOARD is that they are absolute geeks about the history of their art form — back to EGYPT! — and they’ve always been that way.  And I really feel actors and comedians should aspire to the same level of awareness. They certainly used to. That was the vaudeville way. Sometime around the 1960s, I think many began to cut loose from the moorings.

And contemporary Hollywood has so much to do with that,I think, this severing ties with tradition. And it happened in the same time frame, when “the business” became disconnected from its mother art, the theatre, and when self-respect became secondary to the bottom-line — a bottom line in a culture where everyone is racing to the bottom. The kind of thing that’s always bothered me: brilliant comic geniuses like Steve Martin (a philosopher and art collector) and Robin Williams (a Julliard grad) churning out the worst crappy movies for decade after decade…and then throw the art form a bone when they do Waiting for Godot in private for two weeks at Lincoln Center with Bill Irwin. I feel like you have a responsibility to the public, man. A great quote from the late Edward Albee (thanks Yvonne Roen!): “Don’t GIVE the people what they want. TELL them what they want.” Be a leader — LEAD. Make the culture better. Don’t degrade yourself. Especially when you’re a Hollywood player with wealth, power and fame at your disposal.

So what I love about Emadi is not that he’s an egghead — he’s actually a stand-up comedian. And he’s also studying clown in France. It won’t ruin him. So did Sacha Baron Cohen, whom I also admire. And really ultimately, in their way, so did Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin. Know whereof you speak and speak it. Anything else is to be a worm. You know what Groucho was doing when he wasn’t lampooning academia in Horsefeathers? He was compulsively reading books.

Tonight! See “Old Hats” Streaming Online!

Posted in Broadway, Clown with tags , , , , , , on April 2, 2016 by travsd

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Tonight (April 2, 2016)!  BroadwayHD will be streaming live Signature Theatre’s production of Old Hats with Bill Irwin and David Shiner so you can see it from the convenience of your own home! And they also have several other shows on tap and on demand. I noticed the current production of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child ; that would be high on my list. This is an idea whose time has come and I think the possibilities are limitless.   Tonight’s show streams at 8pm at https://www.broadwayhd.com/.

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Harry Langdon and Joan Crawford in “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp”

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Harry Langdon, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 21, 2014 by travsd
Harry Langdon and --yes! -- Joan Crawford in "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp"

Harry Langdon and –yes! — Joan Crawford in “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp”

The Harry Langdon feature Tramp Tramp Tramp (1926) was released on this day, directed by Harry Edwards, written by Frank Capra, Arthur Ripley et al.

In this film, baby-man comedian Langdon plays the son of a shoemaker whose business is going under due to competition from big manufacturers. He leaves home to raise the rent, stepping accidentally into a 3,000-mile footrace mounted as a marketing scheme by one of those very companies. Thus, the title of the film, which references the old World War One song:

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The purse for the race: $25,000. To sweeten the pot, the billboard model Harry has been pining for (Joan Crawford, in one of her first featured roles) is the daughter of the head of the selfsame shoe company. It is she who gives him shoes to wear for the cross-country march. By the time we reach the end (and its climactic tornado scene) Harry has won the race, rescued the girl, married her, and become owner of her father’s shoe company.

There’s always at least one unbelievable, highly original predicament for Harry in his films. In Tramp, Tramp, Tramp he leaps over a fence to escape some sheep. (Other silent comedians flee lions; Langdon flees lambs.) The problem is, there’s nothing on the other side of the fence. He’s at the top of a cliff, with a 100-foot drop beneath his feet. What’s more, he doesn’t know it. He is preoccupied with freeing his sweater thread that’s snagged on a nail in the fence, not realizing that the thread is the only thing keeping him from falling to his death. It’s a one-of-a-kind type of predicament. This scene alone could have boosted word of mouth for Tramp, Tramp, Tramp.

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As for the young Crawford, it is interesting to see her at this early stage, before she had established the naughty persona of later silents like The Taxi Dancer (1927), Our Dancing Daughters (1928), and Our Modern Maidens (1929). Here, she is pretty much the standard silent comedy damsel. In fact, I’m certain the first time or two I saw Tramp, Tramp, Tramp I never recognized her as the later star of Mildred Pierce. Comedy was never Crawford’s forte to put it mildly, however hard work and professionalism were, and in this film she “does the job” as she always did. Later, however, when she had acquired a reputation for backstage looseness and sexual promiscuity, the title of this film became a punchline in describing her.Tramp, Tramp, Tramp indeed.

For more on silent and slapstick film history, including Harry Langdon’s Tramp Tramp Tramp, 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.

On the Great Grimaldi

Posted in Clown, Comedy with tags , , , , , on December 18, 2013 by travsd

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All honor and reverence to the spirit of Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) on this his birthday. Grimaldi expanded the part of “Clown” from the harlequinade portion of British pantomimes into a starring role. Indeed, he made be said to be the reason we call all clowns “clowns” today. Prior to him, the role was a character rather than an entire mode of performance. Some are said to still refer to clowns as “Joeys” today, although I’ve never heard anyone do that. Grimaldi was the biggest star of the London stage of his day, a sort of national treasure. Chaplin aspired to something like his eminence and respect when he himself became a famous clown (he may be said to have exceeded it).

As its Christmas season, expect to be hearing more about the British pantomimes hereabouts in the near future.

For more slapstick and clown history 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 amazon.com etc etc etc

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For more on the variety theateconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 

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