Archive for comedian

Harvey Lembeck: High and Low

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2017 by travsd

Harvey Lembeck (1923-1982) was born on April 15.  Lembeck is a wonderful illustration of a transitional time in American show business. As with Gabe Dell of the Dead End Kids, there is surprising seriousness and depth to his artistry. Those who know only his most famous roles will probably guffaw to see me use those words (seriousness, depth) in association with him. But attention must be paid!

Transitional, I said. Lembeck was one of the last to come into his career in a very old school show biz kind of way, starting out as part of a dance act with his wife called The Dancing Carrolls. They performed at the 1939 New York Worlds Fair! If vaudeville were still around, they would have been in it. Then he served in World War Two, then prepared for a career in radio (he actually majored in it at NYU). Instead, right after graduation he got cast in the original Broadway production of Mr. Roberts in the part of Insigna. After this he was in both the stage and screen versions of Stalag 17, and several other Broadway and regional theatre productions. Theatre would always be an important part of his life.

Lembeck was a serious actor, but obviously something about his “authenticity” is what got him frequently cast, particularly in service comedies and the like — because they always have a guy from Brooklyn. (Lembeck was from Brooklyn — could there be any doubt?) So in 1955 he was cast as Barbella, Phil Silvers’ sidekick on Sgt. Bilko. Here he is with Silvers and co-star Allan Melvin:

That cushy gig lasted four years. For a tantalizing but brief time, Lembeck got good roles in all sorts of movies : he’s in the screen adaptation of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge (1962), the romantic melodrama Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), and the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), But as happens so often in the modern era, he got cast in that one role that became indelible and essentially swallowed up the rest of his career.

In 1963 he was cast as Eric Von Zipper in the movie Beach Party, with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. A loose parody of Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones, the comical character is the witless leader of an equally dumb biker gang. I’ve always been particularly amused by the fact that Lembeck was 40 years old — twice the age of the other kids at the beach –when he started playing this role. The bikers are the bad guys in all the beach party movies, and to my mind, the best thing about them. Lembeck only did this for three years, until the beach party movie craze died out, but it’s a LOT of movies, including also Bikini Beach (1964), Pajama Party (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965), and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966). In Chain of Fools I wrote a bit about these films as one of the last vestiges of classic comedy, for there is a continuity, including the frequent presence of Buster Keaton in the casts, and old time silent comedy directors like Norman Taurog at the helm. It’s why I mention Gabe Dell in this context: the Dead End Kids too were among the last classic comedy hold-outs, and like Lembeck, Dell was also a serious stage actor. (Lembeck later taught acting — his Harvey Lembeck Comedy Workshop in LA turned out such distinguished acolytes as John Ritter, John Larroquette and Robin Williams*.)

After the Beach Party films Lembeck continued to work steadily, but mostly in television guest shots, many of them referencing his beach party movie past. One notable exception is the 1969 comedy Hello Down There (a movie I saw a few times when I was a kid, and am dying to see again because I haven’t seen it since). He passed away on the set of Mork and Mindy in 1982, and I can’t think of a better place. He was working.

* Thanks for the reminder, John Smith.

To find out more about vaudeville and show biz 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 amazon.com etc etc etc

Jackie Vernon: The Offbeat Comic Who Played Frosty the Snowman

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2017 by travsd

HAPPY BOITHDAY!

Like most people my age and younger, I have always known Jackie Vernon (Ralph Verrone, 1924-1987) for one thing: his voice-over performance as the title character in Rankin-Bass’s 1969 Christmas special Frosty the Snowman. He makes an impression in the role; even as a kid I noticed the heavy New York accent and the fact that the performer’s line readings seemed rather non-actorly.

It turns out Vernon was a highly influential night club comic who started out in strip joints in the 1950s and worked his way up to Vegas, tv variety and talk shows, and a series of popular albums, like A Wet Bird Never Flies at Night (1964), A Man and His Watermelon (1967), The Day My Rocking Horse Died (1969), and Sex is Not Hazardous to Your Health (1972).

This is decades before Gallagher, and just as inexplicable

The titles of these albums give some indication of his sense of humor, which was full of non sequitur and strangeness. Before he was a comedian he was a trumpet player, and he often carried one onstage with him, just as Jack Benny and Henny Youngman carried violins. Like them, he would seldom play his instrument, and if he did, it was bad. I find it SO perfect that the concept is “updated” to a trumpet, though, the hippest instrument of the be bop era. Appropriately, there is also something avant-garde about his material, which was downbeat, deadpan, and monotonic in a way that anticipated Steven Wright. Short and fat, he described himself as someone who liked to spend parties in the coat room, and go to bus stations and pretend he was going places. Many of his routines were built around the concepts of travel and vacations. His most popular ones were presented as “slideshows”; he would pretend to use the clicker and narrate the images, but things would always be quietly, matter-of-factly, wrong. The tour  guide would sink in quicksand; the Grand Canyon would be closed. His hometown was on a one way street; if you missed it, you had to go all the way around the world to get back. (I did a similar slideshow routine once as a teenager; I’m wondering retrospectively if I’d been inspired by a tv appearance of Vernon. Don’t worry — mine had a distinctive, highly original twist).

Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin and Merv Griffin were all fans and booked him repeatedly. In the ’60s he was especially popular at hip clubs like the Hungry i in San Francisco and the Blue Angel in New York. He was often on Hollywood Squares. But other than Frosty, he wasn’t often employed as an actor. He has a small role in Jimmy Breslin’s mafia comedy The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971), an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1975), he does a bit of stand-up in Amazon Women in the Moon (1987)….but he does have a starring role in one film, and I cannot wait to watch it. It’s a 1983 horror movie called Microwave Massacre. I intend to watch it within hours.

To find out more about show business 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 amazon.com etc etc etc

Of Billie Thomas and Buckwheat

Posted in African American Interest, Child Stars, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2017 by travsd

Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas was born on this day in 1931.

Thomas was all of three years old when he began to appear in Hal Roach’s Our Gang (Little Rascals) comedy shorts in 1934.

It wasn’t until 1935 that he began playing Buckwheat, a character previously played by Carlena Beard (Stymie’s sister) and Willie Mae Walton. Buckwheat was pretty clearly an attempt by Roach and his creative team to re-create the popularity of the previous Our Gang character Farina, who’d been with the series from 1922 through 1931, both by being gender-ambiguous, and by being identified with breakfast food.

Starting with the 1936 feature General Spanky, which was set during the Civil War, Buckwheat started to be attired more as a traditional “pickaninny” character and became more overtly male. Thomas remained with the series until it ended in 1944.

He later retired from show business and served in the army during the Cold War. He passed away in 1980, the same year as Farina.

Ironically, one year after he died, Eddie Murphy began portraying him on Saturday Night Live, the recurring bit becoming one of his most popular and enduring routines. The joke was that the adult Buckwheat spoke in the same adorable, childish speech impediment that he had possessed as a toddler. “O-Tay!” had been the real Buckwheat’s catchphrase; it also became Murphy’s. The success of the character proved problematic. The initial joke had been the absurdity of Buckwheat still talking the same way as a man in his 40s. But its wide popularity resulted in something else. The Our Gang franchise had been progressive in its own time for treating its African American characters as equals or near-equals as the white kids. The African American performers in the films were among the most popular, and certainly they were among America’s earliest black stars, and among the best paid black actors in their day. But that doesn’t mean that the characters weren’t relatively racist by later standards.

As a one-off, Murphy’s initial Buckwheat turn might have been read as naughty satire in the old National Lampoon/ SNL mode, and even at that it would have been a debatable gambit. But the popularity of the routine occasioned an uncritical resurrection of the character. It seemed to become too popular with white people, and for all the wrong reasons. Remember when Dave Chapelle quit his Comedy Central show, saying that he discovered that he was getting the wrong kind of laughter? Well, Buckwheat was getting the wrong kind of laughter. I was in high school at the time, and I can assure you — some of the white kids were laughing at Murphy’s Buckwheat the wrong way. Rather than being a satirist making fun of a black man humiliating himself for the entertainment of whites, he he had merely become the black man humiliating himself for the entertainment of whites. For some, that’s a difficult distinction to perceive, but it’s a crucially important one to make and be aware of. You “love” Buckwheat, huh? Do you “love” Billie Thomas? His family? Anybody black, when they’re not wearing overalls and saying “O-tay”? What is it, who is it you love, and why?

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. For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my 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.

Stars of Vaudeville #1034: George Shelton

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2017 by travsd

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GEORGE SHELTON: IT PAYS TO BE IGNORANT 

Today is the birthday of George Shelton (1884-1971), best remembered (when at all) as one of the panelists on the popular radio show It Pays to Be Ignorant. Born on New York’s Lower East Side, he started out playing tent shows in Iowa, served in World War One, then returned to play vaudeville solo for a time before teaming up with Tom Howard, his partner in vaudeville and numerous comedy shorts for Paramount and Educational pictures (1932-1936). He also appeared in shorts without Howard through 1938, and had bit parts in a couple of other movies through 1945. He was a regular on It Pays to Be Ignorant from 1942 through 1951. Among his other skills, he was known as a Bobby Clark impersonator, and even understudied and replaced him in some shows. His Broadway credits included The Governor’s Lady (1912-1913), Three of Hearts (1915), and Keep Moving (1934). He died in a tragic fire in 1971.

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 silent 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 amazon.com etc etc etc

Zero Mostel: The High Brow’s Low Brow

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , on February 28, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great Zero Mostel (1915-1977).

It would be par for the course that such an eccentric actor and performer as Mostel would also have a highly idiosyncratic career in the bargain. He is best known his hot streak in the 1960s, encompassing the original Broadway production and film versions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, and the original film version of Mel Brooks The Producers. These iconic star turns, combined with one of his last roles, as a blacklisted comedian in The Front (1976) helped, I think, to cement a false if welcome image of Mostel as the traditional Jewish-American show biz creature, perhaps someone who had been in vaudeville and burlesque, and then later worked as a Catskills comedian. As it happened, Mostel had the right background for that: Jewish immigrant parents, and a childhood in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. And he was just that kind of a broad, physical comedian, with such a sure-fire repertoire of schtick, that one could be forgiven for thinking he had developed in those time honored schools of show biz. He certainly would have thrived there, with his uninhibited, scenery-chewing mania, his hilarious comic mask with those flashing, popping eyes, and his populist, earthy appeal.

But if you look at his birth year, he was just a little bit too young for vaudeville and burlesque. Technically, he could have performed there as a child or teenager, but as it happens, he didn’t. A precocious, intellectual child, he drifted into show business in the most unlikely way possible — as an art instructor. An accomplished painter himself, he gave gallery talks at New York City museums as part of a New Deal works program in the mid to late 1930s. He was so funny and entertaining, he began to be hired for private parties and other functions. This led to performances at cabarets and night clubs. By the early 40s, he was getting roles on Broadway and in Hollywood films (Dubarry Was a Lady).

Service in the army during World War II, and anti-Communist blacklisting in the early to mid ’50s were speed bumps in his career. A local tv show with Joey Faye in 1948 may have been the closest he ever got to real burlesque. In reality he was drawn to high-brow theatrical roles and Absurdism, including Brecht (The Good Woman of Setzuan on Broadway, 1957), Joyce (Ulysses in Nighttown, off-Broadway 1957-58, Broadway 1974), Beckett (Waiting for Godot, television, 1961), and Ionesco (Rhinoceros, Broadway, 1961, and film, 1974). These critically acclaimed turns helped catapult him into the comic tour de forces he is best known for.

It goes without saying to anyone familiar with his work that Mostel was a bundle of insane, animated energy, a performer of genius, but one of a particular type. He shone best as the untrammeled star of whatever he appeared in. But parts for his special talents — a mercurial Jewish zany in his late 50s — don’t come along every day. Many of his roles in the ’70s tended to hide his light under a bushel, shoehorning him into films in more conventional character parts. He died of an aortic aneurysm following a crash diet at the relatively young age of 62.

For more on slapstick comedy 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 amazon.com etc etc etc. For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

R.I.P. Professor Irwin Corey: Dead at 102

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, OBITS, Stand Up with tags , , , on February 7, 2017 by travsd

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There’s been lots of chatter on social media since last night and I finally got definitive word from Bob Greenberg: Professor Irwin Corey has passed away at age 102.  Those old enough to remember him from tv, may justifiably ask, “Professor Irwin Corey is still alive???” But here in New York he remained very much present and visible in at least two of the circles I run with. The subset of the comedy community that respects its old timers knows him well, of course. As does the progressive activist community. Irwin was very active well past the century mark, still going out, still being “public” amongst those two groups, attending their dinners and functions and parties and meetings, interacting with people, cherishing the limelight. And, as always happens when you approach and then pass 100, he’s gotten more press than usual in the local papers in recent years.

Irwin’s schtick was very vaudeville: he affected the distracted, disheveled look of the academic intellectual much popularized by Einstein: ill fitting clothes and long, messy hair. He was a kook who would spout nonsense, confusing the convulsed audience while purporting to enlighten them. He started this bit at night clubs and cabarets in the ’40s. In the ’60s, he caught on with the counterculture and tv. By the ’70s, since he was so well recognized, he got lots of bit parts in movies.

At the same time, he was extremely left wing, a radical of the type that had become quite rare in America by the turn of the 21st century. He surely must have been flipping out these last few weeks.

Bob Greenberg, who was his good friend, posted this message last night:

“Irwin passed away at 6:27 PM tonight in his home. He had just eaten Vanilla Ice Cream Swirl followed by Egg Drop Soup. (The Ice Cream didn’t satisfy him so he sent his son out to get the soup.) After the soup he complained that the covers were too heavy on his feet. (This was odd since he usually complained that there wasn’t enough covering him.) His Nurse adjusted them and when she looked up he was gone. “

Farewell to the “World’s Foremost Authority”.

Stars of Vaudeville #1025: Jack Waldron

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Stand Up, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2017 by travsd

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Brooklyn’s own Jack Waldron (Jack Kestenbaum, 1893-1969) was born on this day. In vaudeville days, Waldron was a comic, singer and dancer with a team called Lockett and Waldron; he later worked with a succession of others partners including Betty Winslow, Myrtle Young, Emma Haig, and Harry Carroll; and was also briefly teamed with Shemp Howard in 1925.

Waldron had spots in four Broadway shows in the twenties: Flossie (1924), The Great Temptations (1926), Hello, Daddy (1928), and Woof Woof (1929-1930). He made two Vitaphone picture shorts: A Breath of Broadway (1928), and Radio and Relatives (1940). Throughout the 30s and 40s, he was mostly a night club comic and m.c., prized for his one-liners. As such he was highly influential; some have gone so far as to claim him as the first stand-up comedian, although the same claim has also been made about many earlier performers. Jack E. Leonard claimed to have patterned his rapid-fire insult style after Waldron, quoting him as saying to a heckler, “Let’s play horse. I’ll be the front end, and you just be yourself!”

In 1948 Waldron did The Ed Sullivan Show, his one tv spot. and then three Broadway shows in the 50s: Pal Joey (1952-53), The Pajama Game (1954-56), and The Vamp (1955). In 1961, the Sobels included him in their A Pictorial History of Vaudeville. And in 1969 he became Shepherd (president) of the Lambs, a post he held until he died.

You can see him in action in his Vitaphone A Breath of Broadway 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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