Archive for clown

Toto the Clown

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2013 by travsd

Neither the small Scotty dog from The Wizard of Oz, nor the rather embarrassing 70s’ rock band, nor the later Italian movie star, this Toto was a successful clown who conquered many kinds of stages, often performing with a dog named Whiskey. Born in 1888 in Switzerland, he came to the States during the First World War . He achieved the highest fame possible in his line during that era. 1918 was the peak for him in the U.S. — in that year he first played the Palace and began making comedy shorts for Hal Roach. The Roach shorts didn’t work out. Toto left the studio the following year, leaving a void that was filled by Stan Laurel. But he continued to play the Palace many times until its switch to feature films in 1932. In 1938, it was erroneously reported that he had died. He wrote the newspaper to complain. The following day he was dead. Never jump to conclusions!

To find out more about show business 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


Red Skelton: The Early Years

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Red Skelton, Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2013 by travsd


They really don’t make them remotely like Red Skelton any more. It’s not hard to analyze. As he would have been the first to admit, he was full of corny Indiana hokum. His humor was gentle and kind-hearted. The present age is cynical, hard-edged and unforgiving of anyone or anything that seems out of step. But if for no other reason but his comic versatility, he is an extremely interesting guy to study and to emulate. He may be the only person ever to nail just about ALL of the modern (and some of the ancient) forms of comedy: clowning, pantomime, stand-up, radio, movies, television — nailed them ALL. In some respects, he was like Chaplin, Lou Jacobs, Bob Hope, Fred Allen, and Milton Berle all rolled into one. Except…well, he was pretty corny.

He was born on this day in 1913. His father, an alcoholic circus clown, was dead before Red came into the world, so it fell to Ed Wynn, who gave a couple of free passes to newsboy Red during a local engagement, to introduce the boy to the theatre. At the age of ten he ran off to join a medicine show, and in rapid succession ended up working in nearly every kind of live show biz format then extant: riverboats, a Tom show (i.e., “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”), circus and burlesque. While working in burlesque he met the woman (16 year old girl, actually), who would be his comedy partner, wife, and later, business manager, Edna Marie Stillwell. Throughout the Depression, the pair worked dance marathons, nightclubs, what remained of vaudeville, and nightclubs. In the late 30s, Red started to make a hit and Edna quit performing in order to manage him. In ’37 he debuted on Rudy Vallee’s radio show. The following year he made his first films, including two Vitaphone shorts, one of which “Seeing Red” is a real eye opener on the vaudeville experience (Red hosts a mini vaud show).

17. Skelton0001

His career really took off in the 1940s, when he became MGM’s top comedy star (see my post on his comedies here), and had a hugely successful radio program, on which he created a constellation of crazy comic characters to rival Fred Allen’s. In the 50s, he conquered television, where he had one of the top rated variety shows until 1971, when, desperately out of fashion, he was summarily (and disrespectfully) canned. Red continued to perform live for another couple of decades, and passed away in 1997.

To learn more about Red Skelton and slapstick comedy, 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, and to find out more about  the history of vaudeville, in which Red also participated, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Larry Semon: Second Only to Chaplin?

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Larry Semon, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2013 by travsd

8. Semon0001

From the late teens through the late twenties, Larry Semon was one of the most successful silent comedians in the country, second only to Chaplin in popularity and salary. This despite a last name more appropriate for a porn star!

Born the son of a vaudeville magician named Zera the Great while touring in West Point, Mississippi in 1889, Semon participated in the act until he was 13, doing acrobatics and pantomime. His father’s dying wish, however, was that Larry honor his talent for drawing by going to art school, which he subsequently did. By his early twenties, Semon was a popular cartoonist for the NY Evening Sun. As we have seen in our description of Willie Hammerstein, famous cartoonists drawing cartoons onstage were occasionally considered a vaudeville viable act. In 1913, Semon made his vaudeville debut at the Fifth Avenue Theatre.

Semon had an inventive gag mind. It was only natural that the silent film industry would hire someone whose brain worked like his to write and direct comedies. Vitagraph snatched him up in 1916. By the next year, he’d convinced them to let him star. He was a weird looking clownish dude, and the gags he invented were enough to make him a big hit with audiences despite the fact that he was no actor. Successful shorts included Huns and Hyphens, Frauds and Frenzies and Bears and Badmen (they all had titles like that). Among his collaborators were director Norman Taurog, who was to be a director of awful Hollywood comedies for the next fifty years, and Stan Laurel.

Semon with a young Stan Laurel in “Frauds & Frenzies” (1918)

He amassed his own stock company, whose members included Oliver Hardy (still separate from Laurel), Frank “Fatty” Alexander, Spencer Bell, and leading lady Dorothy Dwan. 

Semon contends with an animated bee

Semon had a highly distinctive style, characterized by surreal, nonsensical, extravagant gags sometimes involving specially designed props or animation. In Chain of Fools, I made the case that he was an influence on Buster Keaton. He also did at least one “thrill comedy” prior to Harold Lloyd. Semon was big into spectacle and he can often be said to even top Mack Sennett in the large scale of his gags, which often involved the destruction of trains, planes and automobiles, and even entire buildings. He loved to blow things up with TNT. And he loved goo and mess: jam, glue, pie filling, ink, paint, flour, whipped cream. There’s usually a scene where one of those substances gets spilled all over a room. Critics then and now have found fault that he was repetitive, was uninterested in story or character, and didn’t do his own stunts, as most others, like Keaton and Lloyd did. But I have learned to really appreciate his comedies. In all justice he belongs near the top of the pantheon of silent comedy masters, and hopefully he’ll be restored to his rightful place in the public’s mind (at least the portion of the public that pays attention to silent comedy).

Semon never forgot the fundamental fact, as others sometimes did, that his only responsibility was to make people laugh

Semon’s ultimate undoing was features. When he tried the longer format in the mid-twenties he ran aground on his inability to sustain a story. (his most notorious is his 1925 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, which we described at length here). And he spent too much on his films, eventually resorting to putting up his own money to please the public. In 1928 he went bankrupt, had a nervous breakdown, and died of TB, in that order.

We are coming up on the centennial of Larry Semon’s debut as a comedy star, so expect to hear lots more from me on this topic. Meantime, there are a TON of his comedies on Youtube. Partake! But if you do, remember this: he’s great, but small doses are best. His comedies weren’t meant to be watched all at once.

To learn more about silent and slapstick film, including stars like Larry Semon, 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. To find out more about  the history of vaudevillein which Larry Semon also performed, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Oscar Willis, a.k.a. “Willio”

Posted in African American Interest, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Clown with tags , , , , on July 14, 2013 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Oscar Willis (Oscar Henry McLain, 1843-1881). Interestingly, though the above photograph of him is in wide circulation (and for good reason, it’s rather disturbing) the only place I was able to find any biographical information on him was in An Authentic History of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. B.P.O.E., indeed.

His father was an Irish immigrant who made a pile of money for himself as a hat manufacturer in Pittsburg. Oscar went against dad’s wishes to join a minstrel show at age 12 as a banjo player and “Ethopian Comedian.” Like most in his line he performed with dozens of outfits, including many which bore his own name: Willis and McAndrews’ Minstrels; Schoolcraft, Coe and Willis Minstrels; Duprez and Benedict’s Minstrels; Cairncross and Dixey’s Minstrels; and Haverly’s Mastodon Minstrels. At one point he performed at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, which is where this photo comes from. He died of T.B. whilst managing the Bismark Opera House in Bismark, Dakota Territory.

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.


And 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



Nat M. Wills: The Famous Tramp Comedian

Posted in Broadway, Clown, Comedy, Music, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2013 by travsd


Adapted from my liner notes to Nat M. Wills: The Famous Tramp Comedian, available to purchase at Archeophone Records here

Nat M. Wills was one of the most prominent in a long line of a now-extinct breed of performer known as “tramp comedians”. A leading star of vaudeville and musical comedy from the turn of the century until his untimely death in 1917, Wills was also among the first and biggest stars of what we now call comedy albums. A half century before Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby and Lenny Bruce were finding their way to people’s turntables, and 75 years before Weird Al Yankovic, Wills was laying down his distinctive act of funny monologues and song parodies on cylinder and disk, and Americans lapped it up.

The biggest surprise on these tracks for folks who’ve long read about Wills, or seen photos of his silly, toothless visage, is his characterization. One might reasonably expect this kind of character to sound something like America’s most famous modern iteration of the tramp tradition, Red Skelton’s Freddie the Freeloader, an ignorant naïf with little on his mind but the next stolen piece of pie. Tramps of Wills’ own time such as Bill “Old Hoss” Hooey and Bert Williams tended to affect a slow-witted mein that implied that their penury was the result of a deficiency of grey matter. Instead, Wills’ tramp has the air of a gentleman. The contrast between his costume and his manner of speaking must have been especially preposterous to audiences in live performance. Alan Dale, writing in the New York American in 1904, comments on this quirk: “In these days when comedians do dialect and dialect does them, the ‘unique and inimitable’ Mr. Wills is not ungrateful. He tells funny stories in English, as it is spoken, and he has a fund of lively spirits at his command…”

One explanation for the incongruity between the voice and the mask is that, in the welter of niche markets that was vaudeville, tramp garb (much like the less benign blackface) was a convention, a jumping-off-point, allowing for an infinite variety of interpretations. (Other examples included W.C. Fields, who first gained fame as a “tramp juggler”, and Joe Jackson, vaudeville’s top trick cyclist, also dressed as a tramp.) Offstage, Wills cut a dashing figure, not unlike that of Adolph Menjou. Onstage, dressed in the floppy shoes and dirty rags of a Bowery Bum, he kept his real voice. And yet there was a method to that madness.  In 1906, he told the Brooklyn Eagle, “My success as a stage tramp, perhaps, is due to the fact that I do not make this character repulsive, but give to it some of the attributes of humanity.”  In a 1908 interview with the Pittsburgh Leader, he went still further: “Some of the most charming gentlemen it has been my good fortune to meet were tramps…these men have been quick witted humorists, deep thinking philosophers and profound students. The funniest tramps I have seen were off the stage.”

Wills out of make-up

In an odd way, by diverging from the stereotype, Wills may have arrived at a characterization more realistic and more human.

Sadly, Wills was all too happy to embrace stereotype in certain other of his portrayals.

An unfortunate racial tone mars some of this material. Not only was such humor a much cherished staple of those less enlightened times, but Wills himself was a Son of the Reconstruction South, and a former minstrel. He leans into his “darkie” jokes pretty hard, and the effect can be somewhat jarring to modern ears.

But such material was a small portion of his output. In his eight years of recording, Wills preserved 26 separate routines, some of which he repeated at different times and in different formats. Archeophone’s recent release is essentially the entirety of his available work.

Early Years

Nat M. Wills was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia on July 11, 1873. In an era when facts about the private lives of performing artists are uniformly scarce, details about Wills’ beginnings are especially sketchy. In some places his real name is given as Edward MacGregor, in others it is Louis McGrath Wills. Birth records in Fredericksburg mention neither, although most sources give the latter name, including his hometown paper the Fredricksburg Daily Star, which also confirms that time and place for his birth.

In 1915, Wills told the New York Dramatic Mirror, “Years ago, I was a kid in Washington. The folks had lived in Fredericksburg,VA, and I was born there. But my parents died, and a youngster, I went to Washington to make my way.”

He began his working life in boyhood as a messenger and a printer’s assistant. Then, when still a child, he made his theatrical debut at Ford’s Opera House, with Minnie Palmer (one of the top soubrettes of the day) in a production entitled “My Sweetheart.” In the mid 1880s he appeared with Neil Burgess (brother-in-law of the famous Lotta Crabtree) in a played named “Vim”. Wills, displaying an early knack for broad comical delineations, portrayed a little girl.

It was in Washington, too, that Wills worked as an end man with the Ideal Minstrels. This was a valuable education. In minstrelsy he would have developed his comic timing, improvisational skills and the ability to convey character through a grotesque costume and mask. End man was the plum role in any minstrel company, requiring the corked up comedian to bounce jokes off “Mr. Interlocutor”, the straight man. Another Washingtonian, Al Jolson honed his own comic chops doing the very same job at around the same time. For better or worse, Wills’ experience as an end man informs many of the characterizations you can hear in these recordings.

Yet Wills’ time spent in the legitimate theater proved just as formative. In the 1890s he was a member of the stock company at San Francisco’s Grand Opera House under the management of Walter Morosco, where he appeared in countless “blood and guts melodramas”.  This, too, would have been exceptional training for the performer, an opportunity to play different roles every week. But even in legit fate decreed that Wills should be a clown. While playing the juvenile in a play called “The Block Game” at Washington’s Globe Theater in 1891, Wills was called upon to switch to a comic part when a performer was injured by a piece of falling equipment. The role called for Wills to outfit himself with blacked out teeth, stubble, and patched clothing. So successful was he in this, his first outing as a tramp that he would ever after be associated exclusively with the role.

The Happy Tramp

Wills discovered his new character at a fortuitous time. By the 1890s, the popularity of old-school melodrama was beginning to wane; the nation was flocking to a brand-new form of theater, one that would flourish for a mere handful of decades before it too went the way of the dinosaur: vaudeville. In the mid 1890s, just as the foundations for what were to become the national vaudeville circuits were being laid, Wills and his partner “Bony Dave” Halpin crisscrossed the country with an act entitled “The Tramp and the Policeman”. The team would engage in the typical two-man crosstalk, then climax the act with footwork: the very skinny Halpin performing a graceful dance which Wills would travesty in his clownish slap shoes. Halpin and Wills seem to have made a hit. When they played Halpin’s hometown of Kansas City in 1896, the Kansas City Star reported “an ovation and a bouquet of roses across the footlights.”

By 1898, Wills had thrown over Halpin to perform with his first wife, Mademoiselle Loretto, known as “The Society Belle”. The partnership proved to be short-lived, however. In 1900, they were booked to play the New York Roof when Loretto fell ill, forcing Wills to go solo as “The Happy Tramp.”  His topical monologue and songs were such a smash that he was held over for six weeks. (Loretto was to pass away four years later.)

On his own, Wills became one of the first headliners in what was only then coalescing into the vaudeville industry. Like all the best vaudevillians, he excelled at more than one skill. His act was an admixture of several elements which combined to create a magical, indefinable whole. A clown in appearance, Wills was also a beguiling story teller, an expert joke teller (quite a different skill), and a comical singer and dancer. The very breadth of such an act meant that you couldn’t lump it into a single category; you had to remember the unique performer with whom it was associated.

Then, in June 1900 Wills joined other headliners like George Fuller Golden and Montgomery and Stone in forming the White Rats, the vaudeville performers union, a precursor to today’s Equity. Wills was not only one of the first members but an officer in this path-breaking organization. In February of the following year, the performers went on strike to protest the creation of the United Box Office (UBO), a syndicate of top vaudeville managers which had begun to charge performers a fee for the privilege of being booked. In a matter of weeks the managers capitulated, only to reinstate the fee piecemeal over the next several months.

Perhaps as an outgrowth of these struggles with vaudeville management, we see Wills concentrating his efforts on musical comedies over the next few years, working with such producers as George Broadhurst and Charles Frohman in the oughts on such long-forgotten shows as A Million Dollars (1900), The Girl from Up There (1900), A Son of Rest (1903), The Duke of Duluth (1905), and A Lucky Dog (1907). He appeared in the latter show with leading lady May Harrison, who became his second wife in 1908. Wills’ performances were frequently the most beloved element in these productions. Alan Dale of the New York American wrote of his performance in A Son of Rest: “Wills is greeted by laughter the instant he appears…it is quite impossible to resist laughing at him.”

In a 1905 interview with the Chicago Sun-American, Wills claimed to have turned down an offer of $1200 to appear in vaudeville by top manager Percy Williams because he preferred to do musical comedy. However, by April of 1907 he succumbed to Williams’ offer with a seven week engagement at the Alhambra Theater in Harlem, followed by numerous tours as a headliner on the Keith-Orpheum circuit, the most important vaudeville chain in the country.

Before long, Wills was one of the highest paid “single” acts in vaudeville. The money was not all his to keep, however. To create one of the winningest acts in show business, he had hired early vaudeville’s top jokemeister James Madison (editor and publisher of vaudeville’s premier joke periodical Madison’s Budget) to beef up his topical stories with gags. And Vincent Bryan, a top vaudeville songwriter, penned many of Will’s popular musical parodies. Having these men and others on his payroll was expensive, but it also ensured his success.

“No entertainer on the American stage today is more popular with the public than Nat Wills” crowed the Victor Talking Machine Company when they released his most popular monolog on disk in 1909. Wills’ voice, a harsh but gentlemanly honk somewhat like the actor Joseph Cotten’s (with a little of “Froggy” from Our Gang mixed in), was particularly suited to the crude recording machinery of the time, which was indifferent to subtlety.  Such a star was Wills at the time that Victor crowed: The popularity of his cylinders and disks was such that he was still recording them just a few months before he died.

This is my probably my favorite Wills track

[ADDENDUM: Unlike the rest of the post, this little section isn’t in my liner notes for the record mentioned at the top. I discovered it subsequently and add had to share it. In 1911, Wills starred in a silent movie called Nat Wills as King of Kazam. These two pix are all I got:

We now return you to our regularly scheduled program:]

Highs and Lows

The years of Wills greatest success coincided with a succession of personal woes.  In 1909, Wills’ second wife May Harrison, passed away. The tabloids were soon reporting that his third wife would be plus-sized singer Trixie Friganza, but in May of the following year he married yet another vaudeville star, La Belle Titcomb, who was famous for singing French opera songs perched atop an immaculate white stallion.

Like Wills, Titcomb employed a stage handle. Her real name was either Nellie McNierney and Heloise McCency, depending on each source you believe, making her as French as a pint of Harp. Like Wills, Titcomb was a vaudevillian to the core. It is characteristic of them both that they turned their extended European honeymoon into a working vacation, performing at London’s top music halls before steaming back home.

But the honeymoon waned quickly. As Wills later joked in one of his routines “I should have married the horse”. An anecdote circulated that the morning after their wedding, while sitting at the breakfast table, Wills sat with a newspaper reading the comics page. Enraged, Titcomb heaved a plate of pancakes at his upraised paper, shouting “Say! Have I married one of these here bookworms?” On another occasion, witnesses claimed to have seen her push him through a dressing room door.

More troubles began to pile up. In January of 1914, a fire destroyed much of Wills upper west side home, including several valuable paintings. In May 1914 Titcomb sued Wills for divorce, claiming that he’d had an affair with a woman named May Day, a chorine whom he had met on the stage of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1913. Wills vehemently denied it, a somewhat disingenuous declaration given that a daughter was born to him and May two months later.  Meantime, Titcomb and 26 other creditors forced Wills to sue for bankruptcy. Many were shocked to learn that one of show business’s highest paid entertainers owed $17, 540 to a long list of creditors, one of whom was his estranged wife, from whom he’d borrowed money. As an ex-wife, Titcomb added to his woes by costing him $500 a week alimony – on top of the hundreds more he was said to routinely pay out to his writers.

Somehow, in the midst of all this, Wills managed to shine as a performer, perhaps more than ever. In June 1914, right in the thick of the worst troubles he would ever know, he performed at the Lambs’ Club’s annual star-studded benefit the Gambols, which inspired this account in the New York Dramatic Mirror: “Nat Wills was the real blown in the bottle, dyed in the wool, knock-down and drag-out hit of the ‘million dollar show’”.

In February 1913, the New York Telegraph wrote “As a single, no male entertainer in vaudeville has such a following or has achieved such a degree of success as Nat Wills.”

Wills was one of the very first performers booked for the newly opened Palace, the crown jewel of big time vaudeville theaters, in 1913. His engagement at the Follies occurred just a few months later, where he performed on a bill with Leon ErolFrank Tinney and Ann Pennington and sang If the Table at Rector’s Could Talk. His last three years were spent as the star comedian of revues produced by Charles Dillingham at New York’s most fabulous (and biggest) theater, the Hippodrome. The first of these shows Hip Hip Hooray was called by the New York Star “the greatest spectacle New York has ever seen”. Of his performance in 1917’s Cheer Up!, the New York Times wrote “Nat M. Wills succeeded better than any of his predecessors in defying the space of the Hippodrome.” Wills was no doubt helped in doing so by the box car he emerged from, which was pulled onstage by a real locomotive.

While the character he loved to play hopped freight trains, Wills’ offstage passion was automobiles.  It was this hobby which killed him on December 9, 1917. While working on his car in an enclosed garage on a freezing cold day, Wills suffocated from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Without any real evidence, some have succumbed to the temptation of claiming that the performer known as “the Happy Tramp” (whose last show was called Cheer Up!) was a suicide. And with his many problems – alimony, debt, an expensive act – Wills did have plenty of reasons for despondency.  In photos taken out of make-up in the months before he died, Wills looks a mighty old 44.  Yet, while his personal woes were great, there were thousands of  positive factors to buoy Wills’ spirits: his legions of fans. At the time of his death, he’d been a star for almost two decades. More than one obituary referred to him as “America’s Foremost Comedian.” Present at his funeral party were the show business royalty of the day, among them Charles Dillingham, Bert Williams, the Dolly Sisters, Mr. and Mrs. Pat Rooney and Fred Niblo. None of the dozens of obituaries published upon his death even suggests suicide. And while self-inflicted death by this means is fairly common nowadays, this was not the case in 1917, when automobiles were new and few people had ever heard of carbon monoxide poisoning. There is every reason to believe that his untimely demise was no more than what commentators called it at the time: “a tragic accident.”

At any rate, the loss was great. Not only to his friends, family and fans, but to posterity.

Wills was still young when he passed away. If he had lived out his natural life he might have participated in radio or talkies, in which case we’d have more to measure to him by, and Wills today might be as well known today as Al Jolson, Marie Dressler, or the Barrymores, all of whom were his contemporaries.

As it is, we must content ourselves with the extant early recordings, and the testimony of those who remembered him, as in this encomium published in the New York Journal American in 1938: “I wonder if I would roar today as I used to at Nat Wills, with his ridiculous tramp outfit and blacked-out teeth. He had me on the edge of hysteria several times—especially when he would look about furtively, edge over slowly, talking swiftly all the while, and reach down for what seemed a lost coin. And then, in utter disgust, quickly wipe his fingers on his trouser leg.”

It is this latter account which may help to explain Wills’ subsequent obscurity, for it sounds like nothing so much as the pantomime shenanigans of the most famous gentleman tramp of all, Charlie Chaplin. Whether the fame and fortune enjoyed by the little clown during the last four years of Wills’ life added to his despondency, we cannot know. But what is plain that in the public’s mind, Chaplin’s tramp has eclipsed all others for close to a century, Wills included. On the other hand, Wills’ art was as verbal as it was visual. While we can’t see for ourselves whether Wills bore any similarity to Chaplin we can observe a relationship with another rustic monologist who was just coming into his own at around the time Wills passed away: Will Rogers, who would then pass the torch to generations of joketellers. As for song parodyists, the legacy is smaller, but a close listen to the recordings will show the art of Alan Sherman and Weird Al Yankovic in embryo. How to order them? Go here. 

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. And for on clowning and tramp comedians like Nat M. Wills 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


Felix Adler: The King of Clowns

Posted in Circus, Clown with tags , , , , on June 17, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Felix Adler (Frank Bartlet Adler, 1895-1960). One of the twentieth century’s greatest circus clowns, he was with the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1914 through 1958, with brief interludes when he stayed away to serve in World War One, and to strike for better conditions. Distinguishing characteristics included a BIG butt (created with a couple of beach balls), a shiny rhinestone on his red clown nose, and an omnipresent piglet (which he would periodically replace as the circus toured through farm communities by trading them for younger ones when his current one got too large). Adler was known as the “King of Clowns”, played for many U.S. Presidents, and was the first American circus clown to appear on television. He also appeared in Cecil B. Demille’s 1952 film The Greatest Show on Earth. 

To find out about  the history of the variety artsconsult 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 book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


Marcel Perez a.k.a. “Tweedy”

Posted in Circus, Clown, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Latin American/ Spanish, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Variety Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2013 by travsd


One of the happy discoveries of Steve Massa’s new book Lame Brains and Lunatics is Marcel Perez (Manuel Fernandez Perez, 1884-1929). Well enough known in the silent era, Massa postulates that Perez’s present obscurity may stem from the fact that his screen name and identity changed so many times (he also changed nations and studios constantly, but that tended to be less of a problem back in the day, when the movie market was truly international.)

Born in Madrid, Perez moved to Paris in his youth and began performing in music halls, circuses and theatres. Like many clowns of the silent era, he was a small man: five feet tall, 125 lbs. His film career in Paris begins circa 1907 where he appeared in at least a couple of shorts for the Eclipse and Gaumont studios. Thus he was one of the earliest comedy stars. In 1910, he began working for Italy’s Ambrosio Company, writing and performing as Marcel Fabre, playing a character called Robinet in Europe, which was translated into Tweedledum in the United States (you see where it’s already getting confusing). World War I forced him to America in 1915, where he made at least one short for Universal’s Joker series, and then briefly went to Vim in 1916, where he was known as “Bungles”. He then became Tweedledum again for Eagle Films in 1916, then was known by the unlovely name of “Twede-Dan” at Jester starting in 1918. In 1921 he went over to Reelcraft where he became known as “Tweedy”. In 1922, a horrible accident involving a garden rake (which occurred during the filming of one of his comedies) resulted in the loss of a leg, and from this point, he becomes primarily a director of comedies and westerns, both shorts and features. He died of lung cancer in 1929. 



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