Archive for dancer

Dorothy Stone: Broadway Legatee

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2017 by travsd

Stage and screen performer Dorothy Stone came into the world on June 3, 1905. The daughter of Broadway and vaudeville legend Fred Stone (the original Scarecrow in the Broadway version of The Wizard of Oz), Dorothy managed to crawl past her dad’s large shadow, but only just barely. Most of her Broadway credits were either shows that she appeared in with her dad, or shows in which she replaced the original star. The first Fred Stone shows she appeared in were Stepping Stones (1923), Criss Cross (1926), and Three Cheers (1928; Will Rogers replaced his friend Fred prior to opening when the latter was injured in a plane crash).

By 1930 the elder Stone had recovered and Dorothy appeared with both her parents as well as her younger sister Paula and Charles Collins, in Ripples (1930), an updated version of Rip Van Winkle. Collins became her dance partner; the two were married in 1931. Other “family affairs” included Smiling Faces (1932) with Fred and Paula; Sea Legs (1937), with Collins; a revival of You Can’t Take It With You (1945) with Fred and Collins; and The Red Mill (1945) with Collins; and the film shorts Shave it with Music (1932) with Fred and Collins, and Paree Paree (1934) with Collins and Bob Hope; A Radio Hook-up (1938) with Collins; and Latin High-Hattin’ (1938) with Collins.

As a replacement, she went in for Ruby Keeler in Show Girl (1929), and Marilyn Miller in As Thousands Cheer (1933), and got glowing notices in both cases, although these seem to have been her only outings without either a father or a husband around to team up with. Apart from one very special exception…

In 1936 she starred in the interesting horror movie Revolt of the Zombies, which we wrote about in this post about zombie films. That film, as well as the aforementioned Paree Paree, which is one of Bob Hope’s very first screen credits, is what she is best known for today. I managed to watch both films somehow without realizing that Dorothy was Fred Stone’s daughter.

Another frequent co-star of Dorothy Stone’s was Eddie Foy, Jr, who appeared with her in Show Girl, Ripples, Smiles, and The Red Mill. Foy’s dad was of course a contemporary of Fred Stone’s; this close connection is almost like yet another family connection. In addition to Paula, a third Stone sister Carol had a successful career on stage, and in film and television, one that was a bit more independent and longer lasting. While Collins managed to land some minor roles throughout the decades, Dorothy Stone’s last credits were in the late 1940s, scarcely outlasting the career of her dad. She died in 1974.

To learn more about vaudeville, show business, and Fred Stone, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever illuminating books are sold.

Leonard Sillman: The Man Behind “New Faces”

Posted in Broadway, Dance, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2017 by travsd

Several years ago I acquired a box of old theatre books that someone was discarding. Tucked in the pages of one of them, presumably as a bookmark, was a xeroxed program for a show called New Faces of 1952. This was my first awareness of Leonard Sillman (1908-1982).

I’m not a collector; in fact I actively try NOT to collect (however, books do seem to accumulate). But I understand why others  collect. There is a magic to stuff. Facts that you hear or read about feel theoretical. But when you can put your hands on something it becomes real. Here was a real old theatre program left by someone who had attended a Broadway show full on then-unknowns, “unknowns” among whom were Mel Brooks, Paul Lynde, Eartha Kitt, Alice Ghostley, Robert Clary, Carol Lawrence and Ronny Graham. “What a wonderful thing, I thought. Vaudeville was long dead in 1952, but Broadway still had this mechanism for introducing talent to the public in the form of these revues.”

The man responsible for the New Faces series, and much else, actually had a vaudeville background. He was 14 when he moved from his native Detroit to come to New York to love with an aunt and study dance with Ned Wayburn. He was only 16 when he replaced Fred Astaire in the road company of Lady Be Good. He performed in vaudeville for a bit with Frances Gershwin, sister of George and Ira, for a partner. He also appeared in three Broadway shows: Loud Speaker (1927), Merry-Go-Round (1927), and Polly (1929).

Then he headed out to Hollywood where he taught dance to movie performers, Ruby Keeler among them, and got bits parts in three films in 1933: Whistling in the Dark, Goldie Gets Along and Bombshell. It was there in 1933 that he also produced his first theatrical production Lo and Behold at the Pasadena Playhouse, featuring Eve Arden, Tyrone Power, Kay Thompson and Mr. Silliman’s own sister June Carroll. And Sillman performed in the show himself as well, as he often did throughout the years.

Sillman at Work

Lo and Behold was such a hit that he was able to bring it to Broadway under the title New Faces of 1934, and with new cast members, including Henry Fonda and Imogene Coca, with staging by Elsie Janis. The timing of this development is interesting. As we wrote here, the great Broadway revue series of the early 20th century were in their death throes when the Depression hit. Their aesthetics were old-fashioned; and the scale of the spectacle was becoming cost-prohibitive. This was like a passing of the torch. While Sillman himself was a dancer, and his shows certainly featured song and dance numbers, they didn’t have huge, expensive kickline choruses. Smart, sophisticated sketches, initially written by Sillman himself were the meat of it. Sillman was to create, produce and direct numerous such revues, many of them under the New Faces banner, through 1968! Some other “new faces” he introduced to Broadway included Van Johnson (1936), Irwin Corey (1943), Billie Hayes, Maggie Smith (both 1956), right down to Madeline Kahn and Robert Klein (both 1968). There was also a a film version, New Faces of 1937, with Milton Berle, Joe Penner, Parkyakarkus, Bert Gordon, and Harriet Hilliard, a radio version (1948), and a 1954 television version of New Faces of 1952. 

In addition to his revues, Sillman also produced and directed book musicals and straight plays, most of which weren’t as successful as his revues. His last Broadway credit as producer was a 1970 revival of Hay Fever featuring Sam Waterston and Shirley Booth that ran three weeks. Leonard Sillman had a good eye for talent.

To find out more about  the history of vaudeville and variety entertainmentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

The Ups and Downs of Lina Basquette

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Child Stars, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2017 by travsd

Lina Basquette (Lena Copeland Baskette) was born on April 19, 1907. Basquette was a star of stage and screen through several different phases, but is perhaps best remembered today for her eight marriages, most notably the first one, to Sam Warner of Warner Brothers, with much ensuing personal drama.

Basquette was the child of an ambitious stage mother. Her life took a sharp turn at the tender age of eight when she was spotted dancing in her father’s drug store by a rep from RCA Victor, who hired her to dance in the company’s exhibit at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915. This led to a film contract with Universal Pictures, and she began starring (at age nine) in a series of films called Lena Baskette Featurettes. Her mother embraced the new life; the father did not. He committed suicide and her mother married choreographer and dance director Ernest Belcher. (Dancer/choreographer Marge Champion is the daughter of Belcher and Gladys Baskette and the half-sister of Lina Basquette).

Film work seemed to dry up an the end of the decade, so her dance skills were put to use on Broadway in a succession of shows. She appeared in John Murray Anderson’s Jack and Jill (1923), Charles Dillingham’s Nifties of 1923, The Ziegfeld Follies of 1924 and 1925, and Rufus LeMaire’s Affairs (1927).

Meanwhile in 1925, she had married movie mogul Sam Warner, who famously died on the eve of the opening of his seminal project The Jazz Singer (1927). There followed a bizarre custody battle between Basquette and the Warner family over her daughter (whom the Warners wanted to raise as one of their own in the Jewish faith, and probably by someone who wasn’t a famous Siren) which lasted many years.

The Godless Girl, 1929

In 1927, Basquette returned to films. In 1928 she was voted one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars. The biggest hit of this period (and her career) was Cecil B. DeMille’s semi-talkie The Godless Girl (1929). Her film career lasted until 1943, but her battles with the Warners resulted in a loss of star billing in the talkie era. Her parts got much smaller, sometimes even bit roles, and often in B movies. At the same time, she was making live appearances in night clubs.

In 1943, she was raped and robbed by an off-duty soldier whom she had picked up while hitchhiking. This traumatic event seems to have prompted a major life change for her. She took her savings, bought a farm in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania, and reinvented herself as one of the nation’s top breeders of Great Danes! In addition to raising and breeding purebred dogs, she wrote books on the subject and judged shows with the American Kennel Club, an involvement that lasted until the end of her life.

In 1991, she released her memoir Lina: DeMille’s Godless Girl, and emerged from retirement after 48 years to appear in the film Paradise Park. She passed away in 1994.

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

Beverly and Betty Mae Crane: Hal Roach’s Twin “Talking Titles”

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Comedy, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , on April 11, 2017 by travsd

Twin sisters Beverly and Betty Mae Crane were born 100 years ago today on April 11, 1917.

Originally from Salt Lake City, the sisters were talented dancers who were hired by Hal Roach to speak the opening title credits to some of his shorts, including those starring Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, Our Gang and The Boyfriends, from 1930 to 1931. This charming innovation is very characteristic of the earliest days of sound, as much “theatre” as it is cinema. I find something so charming about the films of this era; there was a lot of creativity during this time of transition. I love the Warner Brothers credits too where they introduce all the actors at the beginning with their names and those of their characters, as in a theatre program. With the art deco backdrops and the ballet costumes, and the fact that girls spoke in unison, the whole presentation is quite magical — there is something very “Oz” about it.

The girls worked for Roach between the ages of 13 and 14. Afterwards, they continued to work professionally. They danced and played bit parts in movies from 1932 to 1934. They were in the cast of Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’ on Broadway (1938-1941). They dance in the Vitaphone short All Girl Revue (1940). By 1941, Beverly had retired and married an air force officer. Betty Mae continued to dance professionally, initially with the Ernest Belcher dancers.

Betty Mae died in 1983; Beverly in 2006.

For more on classic 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

Albert Carroll: Kind of a Drag

Posted in Broadway, Dance, Drag and/or LGBT, Impressionists with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2017 by travsd

Today’s as good a day as any to tell you about Albert Carroll, an extraordinarily talented and well-known guy in his day to have become so obscure in ours. Carroll was a Broadway actor,  dancer, impressionist, female impersonator, lyricist and choreographer. Sources differ as to his birth. IBDB gives ca. 1895-1956, and a 1900 Chicago census seems to bear this out. IMDB gives march 13, 1898 through 1970, although they might be conflating him with another Albert Carroll, possibly the New Orleans piano player, who was African American. To further confuse matters, our subject sometimes rendered his name as Albert J. Carroll.

I’ve gotten some info about his earliest years from F. Michael Moore’s book Drag! Male and Female Impersonators on Stage, Screen and Television. Moore says that Carroll staged an amateur revue in Chicago when he was 16, and that when he got to New York, he performed during interludes in silent movie screenings. About his private life, or how he came to New York I’ve so far found nothing. Since his earliest credits were all with the Neighborhood Playhouse we can make some deductions about he got his start on the stage. The Neighborhood Playhouse was founded in 1915 and had grown out of youth education programs at Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, which remains a center of theatrical activity to this day. Carroll’s first couple of shows with the company appear to have opened at the downtown theatre and then moved to the Maxine Elliott Theater on Broadway.  He’s about the right age to have been involved with Henry Street’s theatre programs in his late teens and young adulthood, and gotten involved with the company that way. His first professional credit was a show based around visiting British actress Gertrude Kingston in 1916. The next was a play called 39 East by Rachel Crothers in 1919, in which Carroll appeared with Henry Hull and Alison Skipworth. It was made into a silent film the following year with a much of the same cast, including Carroll.

For the next three decades Carroll was to be a star of Broadway, often with Neighborhood Playhouse productions, in over three dozen shows. He was a notable stand-out as performer, choreographer and lyricist in several editions of the revue called the Grand Street Follies, participating in the inaugural 1922 edition, as well as ones in annual editions from 1924 through 1929. Other revues he appeared in included The ’49ers (1922),  The Garrick Gaieties (1930), The Ziegfeld Follies (1931) and The Seven Lively Arts (1944). In these revues he was famous for impersonating famous actors and dancers, many or most of whom were female.  He did impressions of both John and Ethel Barrymore. He also did Pavlova, Irene Castle, Lynne Fontanne, Bea Lillie, Gertrude Lawrence, Laurette Taylor, Groucho Marx, and NYC Mayor Jimmy Walker.   Some photographs of him in character can be found of him on a blog called the Mouse Art Notebooks. He also contributed humor, poems and stories to the New Yorker between 1927 and 1930. He also acted in straight plays and comedies and even classics. His last known credits are musicals with the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 1946 and 1947. After this he appears to have returned to Chicago, where he passed away about a decade later.

Several sources say the great Southern novelist Thomas Wolfe disliked Carroll, whom he met in the 1920s through the Neighborhood Playhouse’s set and costume designer Aline Bernstein, who was Wolfe’s patron and lover. (He is said to have been uncomfortable with Carroll’s flamboyant and foppish personality, i.e. he was homophobic).

Another interesting tidbit: Carroll’s younger brother Eugene “Gene” Carroll had a vaudeville career, and hosted a local television show in Cleveland for decades.

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

Aida Overton Walker: Queen of the Cakewalk

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Dance, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by travsd

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Aida Overton Walker (1880-1914): singer, dancer, actor, choreographer, comedienne and “Queen of the Cakewalk”. Her birthday: today.

Born Ada Overton (she later embellished the spelling for professional reasons) in Greenwich Village, Overton was the daughter of a waiter and a seamstress. Her dancing talent was so evident from a young age that her parents provided her with formal training. She was only 15 when she joined John Isham’s Octoroons, an all-black minstrel show in 1895. In 1896-97 she was a member of the legendary Black Patti’s Troubadours.  In 1898, the comely chorine answered a call to model for an advertisement for Walker and Williams vaudeville revue at Koster and Bial’s. This led to her joining the show in the chorus, which then led to her being a featured performer with her partner Grace Halliday. Overton and Halliday performed as the Honolulu Belles in the first of the Walker and Williams musicals The Policy Players (1899).

That year, she also married George Walker and attained star status in the company, essentially becoming a third partner in the most celebrated African American act of the era. Overton was to choreograph all the Walker and Williams shows, as well as Cole and Johnson’s 1911 show Red Moon. The  Walkers became the most celebrated cakewalking couple in the country. Overton was to gain inroads into white society by teaching the dance at private functions. Meanwhile, she was in the process of becoming the top female African American stage performer of her day. In The Sons of Ham (1900) she made a hit with “Miss Hannah from Savanna”.  In Dahomey (1902) was the show that turned the decades-old cakewalk into a dance craze with whites as well; it toured as far as London, where the company gave a Command Performance for King Edward VII. Next came Abyssinia (1905) and Bandanna Land (1907). The latter show featured Overton’s tasteful, refined take on the Salome dance craze then sweeping the nation.

As Salome

As Salome

In 1909 George Walker collapsed while they were still performing Bandanna Land, incapacitated by late-stage syphilis. Overton took over his role in the show in addition to her own, an indication of the scope of her talents. Walker passed away in 1911,but Overton remained in the limelight. She appeared in and choreographed Cole and Johnson’s Red Moon (1909), co-starred with J.S. Dudley in the Smart Set Company’s production of His Honor the Barber (1910). And she toured Big Time Vaudeville. In 1912 she performed her Salome dance at the Victoria Theatre. The following she returned at the head of an entire troupe. She also donated her time organizing benefit shows charities.

When she died suddenly and mysteriously of kidney failure in 1914 it was mourned as a great loss throughout the African American community. She was only 34. Bert Williams would pass away only 8 years later.

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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Ralph Riggs and Katherine Witchie: Acrobatic Dancers

Posted in Broadway, Dance, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by travsd

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RALPH RIGGS AND KATHERINE WITCHIE WERE A DANCE TEAM. 

Today is the birthday of Ralph Riggs (1885-1951). With his wife Katherine Witchie (d. 1967) Riggs had an acrobatic dance act in vaudeville for many years. A description of their act from The Independent in 1917 says they presented “…Dance Divertisements, composing a wide range of dances from the modern steps to dainty classical numbers.” From Billboard, June 2, 1917, re their performance at the Majestic in Chicago: “Ralph Riggs and Katherine Witchie have a dancing number that is always worthy of he highest praise. Both are artists of real ability and their offering contains enough variety to keep the audience thoroughly interested.” A 1934 New Yorker piece calls them the “Inventors of the Adagio Dance.”

By 1911, they had broken onto Broadway in a show called The Entrantress. Other shows included All Aboard (1913), The Princess Pat (1915-1916), The Passing Show of 1919, Cinders (1923), Ed Wynn’s The Grab Bag (1924-1925), Nic Nax of 1926, and Oh, Ernest (1927). The latter was Witchie’s last show but Riggs went on to still greater glory in the original productions of Of Thee I Sing (1931-1934), Let ‘Em Eat Cake (1933-1934), The Farmer Takes a Wife (1934-1935), Parade (1935), Yokel Boy (1939-1940), Louisiana Purchase (1940-1941), Oklahoma! (1943-1948), and many others. He is also appeared in several musical film shorts in the 1930s, and many broadcast appearances during the earliest days of television.

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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