Archive for comedienne

Vivian Vance of “I Love Lucy”: Gave As Good As She Got

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Sit Coms, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2017 by travsd

Vivian Vance (Vivian Robert Jones, 1909-1979) has a birthday today. I wrote about Vance’s three I Love Lucy co-stars ages ago; there’s a reason I’m only getting around to her now. Her background was quite a bit different than Lucille Ball’s, Desi Arnaz’s or William Frawley’s. Though she did appear in Broadway musicals, unlike the others she was not a creature of vaudeville, night clubs, or dance chorus lines. She was studious, serious about her art.

She was originally from Cherryvale, Kansas, where one of her childhood friends was Louise Brooks. Later she moved to Independence and studied drama with William Inge and Anna Ingleman. Next came Albuquerque, and then finally, New York, where was able to study with Eva La Gallienne. 

Her first Broadway show was Music in the Air (1932-1933); she was in the vocal ensemble. Then came two Cole Porter hits. She was in the original production of Anything Goes (1934-1935) as Babe, and as Ethel Merman’s understudy in the lead part of Reno Sweeney. (See photo above; that is a good match for an understudy). She was also in Porter’s next show Red, Hot and Blue (1936-1937), also with Merman, as well as Bob Hope and Jimmy Durante. She replaced Kay Thompson in Hooray for What (1937), and continued to work steadily on Broadway throughout the next decade, culminating with a revival of The Cradle Will Rock in 1947.

“Hands off, Grandpa!”

She moved to Hollywood after that, getting one tv part and two small roles in movies before she was spotted in a play at La Jolla Playhouse and cast in I Love Lucy (1951-57). Typically this “fourth spot” in a two pair sit-com group dynamic is the weakest one, a “last but least role” (e.g. Joyce Randolph in The Honeymooners). But Vance was bursting with liveliness and personality. To this day she has a huge fan base; she’s certainly as beloved as any of the other three. (Well, to be fair, who’s going to bat for William Fawley?)

A smile to light up a room

There was a certain awkwardness to her casting, however. Lucy was only two years younger than she was; and Frawley was over 20 years older than she. To be named “Ethel” is like a code word for “frumpy friend”. Vance had a matronly appearance and was filling out at this point in her life. Many assumed she was of Frawley’s generation, an impression helped by the occasional allusions on the show to the pair’s “vaudeville days”. Vance’s sharp way with a line, and her hilarious dismissal of Fred’s wishes on most occasion was a key part of the show’s formula, and apparently rooted in some reality. The pair didn’t like each other. He was stung by her cracks about his age, so he decided to cast her as an inexperienced, untalented greenhorn, and berated her on that basis. At that point she had been in show business for 20 years, but Frawley had been performing for over 40. So she called him a dinosaur; he called her “a sack of hammers”. This was offscreen. They disliked each other so much, Vance turned down a chance to co-star in a sit-com with Frawley. She was that glad to be rid of him.

As so often happens to tv stars, the public forever closely associated Vance with the part of Ethel, and most of her work going forward was to be Lucy-based: The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1957-1960), The Lucy Show (1962-1968), Here’s Lucy (1968-1972), and Lucy Calls the President (1977), one of her last roles. But she did occasionally get other work. She was a semi-regular on The Red Skelton Hour (1960-1964), she’s in the Blake Edwards comedy The Great Race (1965), and The Great Houdini (1976), the made-for-tv bio pic starring Paul Michael Glaser of Starsky and Hutch. 

She was only 70 when she died of cancer.

Estelle Getty: Comedy’s Grandma Moses

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2017 by travsd

We’re in the midst of a Golden Girls Renaissance these days; it seems like entire cable networks are devoted to showing it in reruns. I’m sure this is why it occurred to me to do something on Estelle Getty (Estelle Scher, 1923-2008). When Golden Girls originally aired, I frankly wasn’t much inclined to look at a sit-com about a bunch of old ladies, much as I loved and respected some of the cast members. But in recent months, I chanced to tune into some of these tv marathons, and, discovered that, damn, the writing and acting on the show is so jaw-droppingly funny. And yes, it’s significant that the show’s about a previously overlooked demographic (female senior citizens), blah blah blah, but why waste your time if it isn’t very good? But it was very good.

Getty, people delight in pointing out, was actually younger than Bea Arthur, who played her daughter. But she was petite and compact, and earthy and urban in that first generation immigrant way, which gave one the impression that she was from an earlier generation. And her professional background was very old school. She is said to have gotten her start doing Yiddish theatre, and performing in Catskills resorts.

She was nearly 40 when she got her first big break, playing the mother in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy on Broadway (1982-1985). At the same time, she began to get small roles in movies like Tootsie (1982) and Mask (1985). The Golden Girls debuted in 1985; that show and its sequels and spin offs kept her employed for a decade. And Getty was pretty great on the show, although, I will say my comparison to Grandma Moses is apt in ways beyond her mere age. Like the famous folk painter, she was a “natural”. She worked in the role because she was perfect for it and she could deliver a funny line. By comparison, Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan were histrionic professionals, who could chew scenery and manufacture tears by the bucketful. (Betty White is also an actress but her character on the show, like Getty’s, was more of a joke machine). Getty could do this one thing, and people loved her so much she became a surprise star as a result of the series, even winning an Emmy in 1988. But, I think you’ll notice, in scenes that require depth and pathos, she was uncomfortable with it. She’d much rather bark a salty line.

Getty continued to do guest shots on television until the turn of the century, and was in a couple of notable movies. Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot (1992) with Sylvester Stalone has been excoriated by critics as one of the worst movies ever (it earned an astounding 4% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes). And she played Grandma Estelle in the modern family classic Stuart Little (1999). When she passed away, three days prior to her 85th birthday, she was finally reaching the age of her Golden Girls character, which she’d begun playing when she was only 62.

How Olive Borden Went From Being “The Joy Girl” to an Early Death on Skid Row

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2017 by travsd

Beautiful Olive Borden was born on Bastille Day, 1906 in Richmond, Virginia. Through her father, who passed away when she was an infant, she was a distant relative of Lizzie Borden. Borden and her struggling single mother moved to Los Angeles when she was a teenager so she could break into movies. It is said that she became a Mack Sennett Bathing Girl in 1922(when she was 15), although her first film credits are a series of Jack White comedies starring Lige Conley. In 1924 she was hired by Hal Roach for his comedy studio, where she was cast opposite comedy stars like Will Rogers and Charley Chase.

Things changed for her in a big way in 1925 when she was named one of that year’s WAMPAS Baby Stars and signed a contract with Fox.  As a star of Fox features she became a major box office attraction and one of the top paid actors in Hollywood. Notable films of this period include the comedy Fig Leaves (1926), directed by Howard Hawks, and co-starring George O’Brien and Phyllis Haver; and the John Ford western Three Bad Men (1926), also with O’Brien as well as Lou Tellegen. The comedy The Joy Girl (1927), directed by Allan Dwan, co-starring Marie Dressler, gave her her nickname.

Foreshadowing

Borden broke her contract with Fox in 1927 over a salary dispute, but continued to appear in pictures for other studios through the early days of talkies, although by the sound era most of her films are for minor independent studios. Her last film was the voodoo horror film Chloe, Love is Calling You (1934).

At this point she moved to New York and attempted a career on the stage and what was left of vaudeville, where she was able to work for a time. But opportunities in the theatre during the depths of the Great Depression were scarce. By the late 30s she had declared bankruptcy and began working a succession of menial jobs. She served as a WAC in World War II (and was even cited for bravery) but she returned to more of what she had left. Attempts to return to films failed. Troubled by alcoholism and other health problems, she was reduced to scrubbing floors at the Sunshine Mission, on Los Angeles’s Skid Row. She died there of pneumonia and other complications in 1947. She was only 41.

For more on early silent film comedy, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For everything you need to to know about vaudeville, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

Gertrude Niesen: Singer, Comedienne, Wrecker of Mansions

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Broadway, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2017 by travsd

Singer, actress and comedienne Gertrude Niesen (1911-1975) was born on this day.

Niesen started out as a child performer in vaudeville. She was trained for opera, but became a pop singer in big bands, in films, on radio and records, and was cast in the occasional Broadway show. Half Swedish, Half Russian, her exotic, vaguely “Eastern” beauty added to her appeal.

I became aware of her from her 1932 Vitaphone short Yacht Party, in which she sang with Roger Wolfe Kahn and his Orchestra, and Artie Shaw. 

In 1933, she became the first person to record the Kern-Harbach standard “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” from the musical Roberta. Often referred to as a “torch singer”, she was prized for her comic ability as much as her singing. She was a frequent radio guest throughout the 1930s and 40s on the shows of such stars as Rudy Vallee, Edgar Bergen and others.

With vaudeville all but wound down, in the early 30s one finds her performing in the big presentation houses that largely replaced it, like Loew’s State in NYC, the Orpheum in Los Angeles, or the various RKO houses.  She was on the bill at Radio City Music Hall’s Inaugural Spectacular in 1932. Broadway shows included the Lew Brown revue Calling All Stars (1934-1935), the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, and the biggest hit of her career, Harry Delmar’s Follow the Girls (1944-1946), in which she played a burlesque queen named Bubbles Lamarr. Co-starring Jackie Gleason, Follow the Girls played over 800 performances on Broadway, then went on tour. Niesen’s show stopping number was “I Wanna Get Married”.

Niesen appeared in a dozen films between 1932 and 1948, usually playing some version of herself singing in a night club. The last two are probably best known today: This is the Army (1943) with George Murphy, and The Babe Ruth Story (1948) with William Bendix. She also co-wrote the song “I Want to Make with the Happy Times, which was used in A Night at Earl Carroll’s (1940).

In the 1941 she became the owner of the Newport mansion Rosecliff, estimated to have been worth $2.5 million at the time but purchased by Niesen’s mother as a birthday present for $17,000 at auction. The Depression and wartime combined to make upkeep very problematic, which is how the family managed to acquire it for such a low price in the first place, and indirectly why they sold it off soon thereafter. In March 1942, with no caretaker having been hired for the winter, all the pipes froze and burst, flooding the house with lakes and waterfalls which in turn froze into great, thick sheets of ice. The Niesens resold the house not long after that. Both the purchase and the damage received national publicity.

In 1950, she starred in the west coast production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, taking the Carol Channing role. She also did lots of tv variety in the early days of television, singing on the programs of Ed Wynn, Milton Berle, Jack Carter, Paul Whiteman, and others. Her last tv credit is in 1951. The last recordings I can find from her are from 1953.

Last record

In 1943, Niesen married Chicago nightclub owner Al Greenfield, owner of The Black Orchid and other establishments. The couple were divorced but remarried in 1954, remaining married until Niesen’s death in 1975. Her death notices all mention a “long illness”. Given that her last professional activity seems to have happened around 1953, and that Greenfield sold The Black Orchid in 1956, reportedly to be with her, one speculates the illness, whatever it was, was very long.

For more on vaudeville, including performers like Gertrude Niesen, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

Benny’s Bride: The Elusive Mary Livingstone

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Radio (Old Time Radio), Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2017 by travsd

On this day was born was born the funny, if accidental, comedienne Mary Livingstone (Sadie Marcowitz, sometimes shortened to Marks, 1905-1983).

Livingstone grew up in Vancouver. The lore is that she met Jack Benny when Zeppo Marx brought him to a Passover seder at her family’s house circa 1919. For many years it was generally believed that Mary was a cousin of the Marx Brothers, probably on the strength of this episode and the similarity of their surnames (the Marx Bros occasionally spelled their last name “Marks” during their stage years), but it appears now not to have been the case. At any rate, she became something of a Benny groupie, purposefully crossing the comedian’s path many times until he began dating her. They married in 1927.

She appeared with him many times on the vaudeville stage, still under her given name at first. Her role in these years was more like the popular “Dumb Dora”, after the fashion of Gracie Allen.  In 1932, Benny got his own radio show, and Livingstone was to become part of his stock company, along with regulars Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Don Wilson, Kenny Baker (later replaced with Dennis Day), Phil Harris and many others. As such she became one of the best known personalities in the country. Her radio character was funny, acerbic and dry; she was perfect for Benny’s show.

Livingstone remained part of Benny’s radio cast until his show went off the air in 1955. She also made scores of appearances on television, on Benny’s program and others’ throughout the 1950s. The irony of this very public person’s life was that she was afflicted with stage fright, and was only able to perform through a great effort of will. Her joining Benny in vaudeville and on radio occurred in both cases because she was asked to fill emergency vacancies. She hadn’t sought a performing career at all. She retired in 1959, soon after Gracie Allen. Livingstone seems to have been a very tense, highly strung woman, not well liked. After hearing her performances, where she jovially banters with the top stars of the day, one is surprised to read that long-time colleagues and social friends like Lucille Ball and George Burns and Gracie Allen and even her adopted daughter Joan didn’t really like her, finding her cold, hard and distant. Her fans didn’t see her that way at all. She outlived Benny by nearly a decade, passing away in 1983.

To learn more about show business history, including vaudeville veterans like Mary Livingstone and Jack Benny, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

On the Acerbic Mary Wickes

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2017 by travsd

Beloved character actor Mary Wickes (Mary Wickenhauser, 1910-1995) was born on June 13. The gawky, wise-cracking Wickes was ubiquitous on screens big and small for half a century, usually playing maids, nuns, nurses and other no-nonsense types on the periphery of the main action but just close enough to see what was going on and make an exasperated and cutting joke about it.

I almost certainly first knew her from her regular role on the Sid and Marty Krofft kid’s show Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-1974). (Though she was also a regular on the sit com Doc around the same time too so it was probably both). Thus I was already a fan (without knowing it, perhaps) from about age eight. Wickes’ screen character aged extremely well. When she was young, because of her attitude and her crone-like drawl, she had always seemed older than she was. When she actually became older, she simply WAS.

Still, there was in evolution, if an incremental one. If you look at the photo at the top, when she was very young she was, if not pretty, at least pretty-adjacent. She was not in the Margaret Hamilton category as a type. Wickes was quite young when she began her career on Broadway. She is said to have been in the original production of Marc Connelly’s The Farmer Takes a Wife (1934), though, if she was, it was probably either as a walk-on or a replacement as she is not listed in the IBDB credits. She was in the original productions of two George S. Kaufman plays, Stage Door (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939-1941). The 1942 film version of the latter was her big screen Hollywood debut.

She had been in at least one film prior to The Man Who Came To Dinner, however. As a sometime member of Orson Welles’ and John Houseman’s Mercury Theatre, she had appeared in Welles’ legendary Too Much Johnson (1938). She also acted in the Mercury’s stage production of Danton’s Death (1938) and on radio with Mercury Theatre on the Air.

From 1942 until her death she was almost constantly on movie screens; starting in 1948 it was also true of television. Notable films include Now, Voyager (1942), On Moonlight Bay (1951), By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), The Actress (1953), White Christmas (1954), Cimarron (1960), The Music Man (1962), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), Postcards from the Edge (1990), and the Sister Act films (1992 and 1993). She also appears in comedies of Abbott and Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle, and Blondie. Lucille Ball LOVED her and used her in a dozen episodes of her various tv shows I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, and Here’s Lucy. She also appeared memorably on The Doris Day Show, Columbo, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, M*A*S*H and many other shows. Her last screen credit was a voice over in Disney’s animated The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).

For more on show business history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. For more on  film comedy, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

Florence Lake: Squeaky Voiced Mrs. Kennedy

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2016 by travsd

url

LAKE OF THE SQUEAKY VOICE. 

Today is the birthday of Florence Lake (Florence Silverlake, 1904-1980). Lake started out in 1910 in a vaudeville act called “Family Affair” with her parents and her brother Arthur. Arthur was later to gain fame in the part of Dagwood Bumstead in the screen and radio versions of the comic strip Blondie.

Like Arthur, Florence had an extreme comic character with a high pitched voice that served her well in films. She began getting movie roles in 1929, initially appearing in film shorts with the likes of Smith and Dale and Clark and McCullough. But in 1931 she began appearing as Edgar Kennedy’s wife in his series of RKO comedy shorts, a part she was to play through his death in 1948, becoming her best known film role. Throughout that period she also appeared in shorts and features of all sorts as well, comedies, musicals, dramas and westerns. From the ’50s through 1976, she continued to be in demand as a recognizable bit player on both film and television, most regularly on the tv version of Lassie, as Jenny the telephone operator from 1954 through 1962. Her last credit is an episode of Emergency! 

To learn more about comedy film history 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.

%d bloggers like this: