Archive for comedian

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

Films of Fields #29: It’s a Gift

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , on December 12, 2016 by travsd

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

W.C. Fields’ comedy It’s a Gift (1934) is today one of the best known and loved films from Fields’s Paramount period. Based on several stage sketches from Fields’ Broadway years (strung together into a slim modicum of a plot), the film casts him as Harold Bissonette, a long-suffering husband, father and grocer who decides to pull up stakes and start a California orange grove. Many of the film’s most famous scenes revolve around the theme of Fields the Martyr. In one, he (unsuccessfully) tries to prevent the blind man Mr. Muckle (Charles Sellon) from destroying his shop. In another he tries to sleep on his back porch and is constantly being awakened and interrupted,a bit he’d also used in the silent It’s the Old Army Game. Of course Baby Leroy is present to add to his torture, as is Kathleen Howard, playing one of a long line of Fields’s shrewish wives. Norman McLeod directed.

Silent Partners: Other Harpos

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2016 by travsd
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Harpo with Lucille Ball from the famous “I Love Lucy” episode, which is absolutely the first place I ever saw him

Today is Harpo Marx’s birthday (for more on the great silent clown, see my biographical post on the Marx Brothers). Today’s post has been germinating for a long time. It grew out of lots of contemplation I did during Marxfest and the Fringe Production of I’ll Say She Is. It occurred to me that he was the most original of the Marx Brothers. I think his grandfather, a magician, may have been an influence, but I’ve never come across mention of others — specific performers he watched and emulated in his earliest years. But I did think of a very few contemporaries who come kind of close to him in conception, and a few characters who came later who echo in some way the Harpo idea (just click on link for more information):

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Dave Chasen

Before starting his famous Hollywood restaurant, Dave Chasen was the stooge to vaudeville and Broadway clown/comedian Joe Cook. Chasen wasn’t silent, he limited himself to a few phrases, uttered exuberantly in his thick Russian accent. But something about his personality reminds me the most of Harpo. He is “the cheerful idiot”, with a smile and a wave. You can see him do his thing in both of Cook’s features, Rain or Shine (1930) and Arizona Mahoney (1936).

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Paul McCullough

Clark and McCullough were the vaudeville and screen team who came closest in conception to the Marx Brothers: surreal, grotesque, clown-like and even a little scary. Unlike the Marx Bros. or Dave Chasen, there was nothing “ethnic” about them — they were a couple of midwestern kids whose earliest days were spent in the circus and burlesque. The cigar smoking, leering and wisecracking Clark was most similar to Groucho; McCullough was his stooge. Like Chasen, he wasn’t silent per se, but he rarely spoke, and usually just made a lot of idiotic faces and laughed his raspy laugh. He also always seemed to wear very large coats which seemed to swallow him up, another trait I associate with Harpo. Clark and McCullough made many comedy shorts for RKO in the early ’30s. You can catch some of them on Youtube.

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Fred Sanborn

Stage and screen comedian Ted Healy employed many stooges over the years beyond the three who became famous for their Columbia comedy shorts. Fred Sanborn appeared in vaudeville and Broadway revues with Healy and the others, playing a character who was more like Chaplin than Harpo. He was more silent than Chasen or McCullough. We never heard him utter a sound. But he was not a mute; he would just whisper into the other character’s ears. Unlike Harpo, Chasen or McCullough he also wasn’t idiotic or crazy — more winsome and poetic. You can see him with Healy and the Three Stooges in their 1930 vehicle Soup to Nuts. He left the act shortly after that film to focus on music.

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Gideon the Cat

This character in the 1940 Disney film Pinnochio is mute, apart from three hiccups voiced by Mel Blanc. (His partner, the fox Honest John was portrayed by Walter Catlett)  The character is very much in the tradition of the idiotic, mute stooge, and reminds me more of McCullough perhaps more than some of the others.

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Snork

This character from the Sid and Marty Kroft children’s  show The Banana Splits (1968-1970), was the silent member of the psychedelically costumed quartet. The other three were played by popular voice-over actors Paul Winchell, Daws Butler and Allan Melvin). Snork was a hairy elephant whose “voice” was a bicycle horn (not unlike Harpo’s taxi horn).

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Teller

This guy — am I right? The “smaller, quieter half” of comedy/magic duo Penn and Teller is unique among stage mutes by not being stupid, broad, or crazy. Instead, he is cool, poised, sleek and intelligent — in fact, in the act he often seems to be the brains of the duo. He strikes me as more in the tradition of Buster Keaton, his silence an effect of economy and stripping-down. It’s almost as if he can’t be bothered to talk, or perhaps he might well decide to talk some day if there were ever anything worth saying, and so far there hasn’t been.

If you’ve thoughts about other similar silent partners in a talking universe, I’d be interested to hear!

For more on silent comedians please see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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