Archive for Ed Sullivan

Señor Wences: S’Alright

Posted in Television, TV variety, Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2017 by travsd

Born today in 1896 in Salamanca, Spain: the great ventriloquist Wenceslao Moreno, better known to American audiences as Señor Wences. After having written about a couple of thousand variety artists, actors and other performers over the past 8 years, it seems a shocking lapse that I haven’t written a proper post about this key 20th century performer until today. He fell through the cracks! I had initially made a very cursory post (he arrived in the U.S too late for American vaudeville, my initial focus here), and then afterwards I kept assuming I had done one, but I hadn’t yet. Today we redress the lapse.

Señor Wences was nearly 40 years old and a well-polished veteran of the music halls, cabarets and night clubs of Europe prior to his first arrival in the U.S. in the mid 1930s to perform at New York’s Club Chico. By this time, the American vaudeville circuits were dead, so the word “vaudevillian” when applied to him, while accurate, is true only in the broader sense. He played night clubs and resorts in the his early years.

His best known character, Johnny (above) was created by drawing a face on his hand, and then attaching a body below it. A lot of humor was generated by the fast interchanges between himself and the character, as well as by his thick Spanish accent, and his treating of Johnny, with his falsetto voice, as a mischievous young child. In 1936 he created his second best known character, Pedro, essentially just a head in a box, when one of his dummies was destroyed on the way to a gig:

Another favorite bit had him answering a telephone and providing the voice at the other end. As you can see, his act was very original — he had great fun using all manner of offbeat props and “partners” that were quite different from the typical ventriloquism dummies, which probably becoming quite tiresome and “old hat” to audiences by the mid-20th century. He also did juggling and plate spinning.

His great boon was the advent of television in the late 1940s, and he started to become a familiar and regular sight on all the variety shows and talk shows: Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, and Jack Paar all had him as a guest, and his catchphrase: “S’alright? S’alright!” become universally known. He was still popular on tv in my own time, and I saw him places like The Mike Douglas Show, The Muppet Show, Late Night with David Letterman, and a very popular series of Parkay Margarine commercials.

Señor Wences was still performing well in the 1980s, and passed away in 1999 at the age of 103.

To find out more about vaudeville history and performers like Senor Wencesconsult 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 etc etc etc

Gary Puckett and the Union Gap

Posted in Music, Rock and Pop, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , on October 17, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Gary Puckett (b. 1942).  A native of the Pacific Northwest, his band was originally known as the Outcasts when he formed it in 1966. By the following year under the management of Dick Badger, they donned the familiar Civil War army outfits and called themselves the Union Gap (a play on the name of a town in Washington State and the Union Army). Their window of success was short but intense: a half dozen top 15 singles in less than two years, three of them in the top five: “Woman, Woman” (Nov. 67, #4), “Young Girl” (March 68, #2) “Lady Willpower” (June 68, #2), “Over You” (Sept 68, #7), “Don’t Give In To Him” (March, 69, #15) and “This Girl is a Woman Now” (Aug 69, #9).

There were two keys to their success. One was Puckett’s powerful, legit type voice — he was a much better singer than most rock or pop groups at the time could boast of. In fact, when I was a kid, listening to the songs as oldies on am radio without hearing an attribution, I generally assumed I was listening to someone like Tom Jones or Engelbert Humperdink. The other element was was the epic, lush production given to the numbers by CBS records producer Jerry Fuller (except for their last hit “This Girl is a Woman Now”). Then, the same old story — hubris. They broke with Fuller in ’69, lost the sound that made them popular, and immediately began falling off the charts. The various members continued to make music, but very rapidly became — much like their outfits — exponents of nostalgia.

Worth talking about is their most lasting and notorious hit, “Young Girl”, a pedophilia power ballad whose content is so unmistakable that even unreflective people will stop and say, “Hey, isn’t this song kinda weird?” But it’s so damn catchy. Here they are performing it on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1968.

To find out more about show business past and present (including television variety), consult 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


Ed Sullivan: Carrying the Torch

Posted in Impresarios, Irish, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on September 28, 2013 by travsd


Originally posted in 2010

Ed Sullivan (born this day in 1901) is the primary preservationist of vaudeville and its aesthetics into the post-vaudeville era, keeping old school variety shows before the American public nearly four decades after the death of the circuits. Starting out as a boxer, then a sportswriter, in the 1920s he took over Walter Winchell’s theatre column at the New York Graphic, which later went over to the Daily News. This led naturally to a local radio talent show called Ed Sullivan Entertains in 1932, and was nationally broadcast by CBS 1942-1956. At the same time, Sullivan was hosting live post-vaudeville variety shows at New York’s big presentation houses, the Paramount Theatre, and Loew’s State. 

When television came along, it was only natural for him to bring this hosting experience to the small screen. Toast of the Town was launched in 1948. In 1955 it became The Ed Sullivan Show. Not only did it present hundreds of former vaudevillians (big and small) of every possibly discipline, but it also was instrumental it bringing countless post-vaudeville acts (notably most of the major rock and roll bands) to the national stage. Despite this, changing tastes led to the show’s cancellation in 1971. Sullivan was still producing specials as late as 1973. He passed away the following year. TV variety did not long outlive him.

Here’s a full episode, shot at the Stardust in Las Vegas in 1961:

To find out more about vaudeville 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


Last Night’s Theatre Museum Benefit

Posted in American Vaudeville Theatre, Broadway, Contemporary Variety, Indie Theatre, ME, My Shows, SOCIAL EVENTS, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2013 by travsd
Stewart F. Lane & Bonnie Comley of the Theatre Museum Board, and the Palace Theatre

Stewart F. Lane & Bonnie Comley

Last night’s benefit for the Theatre Museum at the Players Club was a humdinger, and no mistake. Hats off to Mr. Broadway Stewart F. Lane (of the Palace Theatre, and Chair of the Theatre Museum), and producer/ actress (and Theatre Museum board member) Bonnie Comley, for making it a huge success.

The place was hopping! Check it out, look who’s on Joe Franklin’s arm but Marilyn Sokol, from Foul Play, The Front, The Goodbye Girl and Can’t Stop the Music, which, coincidentally, the Duchess and I had watched only a few weeks ago.


The event began with a moving tribute to Helen Guditis, the late founder and head of the Theatre Museum, and the source of my involvement with the organization in the first place. Her presence of course was the one element missing last night, but it was nice to see so many of her family there.

This tribute was followed by a special award to Emerson College, and then it was on to the 100th anniversary tribute to the Palace Theatre, produced and organized by me, which came off better than my fondest hopes thanks to the excellence of the performers.

I palaver about the Palace

I palaver about the Palace

Then I turned the mic over to Master of Ceremonies Todd Robbins, who was at his polished and sure-footed best:


And then on to the acts:

Rodeo Roper Chris McDaniel, whose act recollected the great Will Rogers (coincidentally the Will Rogers Follies had been ensconced at the Palace back in the 90s)

Chris McDaniel photo by Rob Rich © 2013 516-676-3939

Adorable young Ariella Pizza sang Frances White’s “Mississippi Song” and tap danced:

Ariela Pizza photo by Rob Rich © 2013 516-676-3939

Then Joe Franklin came out and gave some hilarious reminiscences of Eddie Cantor (whom he wrote for as a teenager) and other memories of the Palace.

This was followed by a surprise visit by Will Jordan, the popular impressionist from the 1950s and 60s, most famous for his uncanny and highly influential Ed Sullivan, which he has done in countless movies. He, too, shared his show biz memories.

will jordan

That”s how he looks now; here’s archival clip of his act from his heyday:

Following these gentlemen, our favorite waif in the world Poor Baby Bree came out to sing, accompnaied as always by Franklin Bruno:

Poor Baby Bree photo by Rob Rich © 2013 516-676-3939

Then juggling clowns/ musicians Rod Kimball and Andy Sapora of the Flying Karamazov Brothers came out and cut up:


The incomparable Rebecca Joy Fletcher performed her Yiddish cabaret songs:


Lastly Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project showed a montage of clips of some of the great Palace stars, as well as the 1929 Burns and Allen Vitaphone short Lamb Chops. It was nice to hear their ghosts mingling with those of the Booth Brothers and the other thespians spirits in the old townhouse.

Poster - Vitaphone frame

At any rate this was a killer bill, and these people all donated their services. I thank them all from the bottom of my heart.

For more photo coverage of last night’s event, see:

Beatrice Lillie: Low Comedy and Lady Peel

Posted in British Music Hall, Comediennes, Comedy, Singing Comediennes, Stars of Vaudeville, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2013 by travsd


Bea Lillie was one of the most beloved performers in show business history, adored by both her fans and colleagues alike. She appeared at a glance to be very proper and British but could be as undignified, fun-loving and insane as the lowest of low comedians, such as Milton Berle and Bert Lahr, both of whom she worked with. A good example of this ability was her favorite stunt of gyrating her neck so that her pearls would spin round and round hula hoop style.

This very “British” British subject was actually Canadian — born in Toronto on this day in 1894. She took piano and acting lessons as a child. In 1913, she moved to England, where she made her stage debut at Chatham’s Music Hall the following year. Also in 1914 she appeared in Andre Charlot’s revue Not Likely, beginning a relationship that was to last for over a decade. In 1920 she married Sir Robert Peel, the last in a long line of Robert Peels stretching back at least as far as the time of Cromwell.

She made her triumphant return to North America with Charlot’s Revue of 1924, which played at the Times Square Theatre, as did the 1925 version. In 1927, she toured the Orpheum circuit, but was not so well received by the rubes of the American west. She debuted at the Palace the following year, and made subsequent appearances over the next few years. Her long professional relationship with Noel Coward began in 1928 with This Year of Grace, and continued with the Third Little Show, (1931), where she sang “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”.

Her entire song repertoire was comic, and her style was such that songwriters penned special material just to hear it come out of her mouth. She had much in common with her friend Fanny Brice. As with Brice, Lillie’s energy and character seemed focused on mockery of the role of the women singer – a parody of how women singers normally behave. Typical numbers included “Snoops, the Lawyer” and “There Are Faeries in the Bottom of My Garden”. In the recorded version of the last number, she would extend the songs highest note, which comes at a dramatically climactic point in each verse, a ridiculous length of time to build comic tension. There is little doubt that a variety of funny faces accompanied such moments in a Lillie performance.

When vaudeville evaporated she was big enough to star in musicals and films for the next several decades. Stage hits included Walk a Little Faster in London with Bobby Clarke in 1932, The Show’s On with Bert Lahr in 1936, a 1952 tour of An Evening with Beatrice Lillie, the 1957 revival of the Ziegfeld Follies, and High Spirits, a 1964 musical version of Coward’s Blythe Spirit. Film highlights included 1930’s Are You Here? and Thoroughly Modern Millie. She died in 1989.

Now here she is on the Ed Sullivan Show doing one of my favorite songs from her repertoire “There are Faeries at the Bottom of My Garden”

To find out 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.


For more on silent 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


Elvis Presley, Vaudevillian

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, Blues, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Music, Rock and Pop, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , on January 8, 2013 by travsd

None too subtly, Steve Allen is telling us how loud and obnoxious and ridiculous he thinks Elvis’s music is.

Well today’s the King’s birthday (1935-1977). Early celebrity deaths don’t usually make me sad, but Elvis’s does, because it was so senseless and preventable and he could have kept going to do some really amazing things. So odd to find myself thinking of him as “young” when he died, but nowadays (now that I’m older than he was then), I do.

My old friend Sheila O’Malley’s the real Elvis expert — she’s down south now doing research for a book, and she’s been blogging about it here. She’s been to Memphis and to Tupelo, etc etc, and I’m just as envious as I can be. Living vicariously through her ain’t bad though!

But I do have some random personal observations and connections to make, though. This one’s gonna ramble!

My dad was the same age as Elvis and from the same state, Tennessee, cotton country. He was absolutely of the same culture, and I always thought it’s given me some insight into the way Elvis was, being so close to that culture but not of it. The main, overriding takeaway is this quality of humbleness — not just humility, but humbleness, a sort of self-denigration in interpersonal relations, born inevitably out of the famous Southern manners, but filtered through hairshirt Christianity, medieval ideas of class, and an unquestioning belief in authority, combining to make a cocktail that is quite literally suicidal. The symptoms are a naive belief that authority figures and others whom he trusted were looking out for him. There’s his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, whom we’ll write about later as one of the great flim flam men and impresarios of all time, but who also sabotaged Elvis’s career during the 1960s by selecting songs and motion picture projects that weren’t worthy of him, and then put him on punishing tour schedules that later killed him. Then there are the doctors who wrote all those prescriptions to pep him up and then calm him down. There were all those relatives and hangers-on whom he considered his responsibility, who were willing to leech off him without trying to save him. The man was apparently putty in the hands of the stronger wills around him – – a kind of savant.


But as a product, he was second to none, his image is seared into our collective consciousness like that of Christ into the Sacred Shroud of Turin. This was one of the great vaudeville acts of the 20th century. For my money, the best chronicle of Elvis’s life is two volume biography by Peter GuralnickLast Train to Memphis and Careless Love. It’s very vividly rendered. I really loved reading about the early days of his career. No one knew what to do with him. He was packaged as a hillbilly act, because he was a hillbilly, and the southern show biz apparatus was all about that: the Grand Ole Opry, Louisiana Hayride, etc. But there was the black aspect of what he did, which meant that he would eventually cross over into something completely new on a national scale. My favorite Elvis record of all is the disc of his early Sun sessions, which somehow plays like a concept album, the song selection and the arrangements are all of a piece. I always associate it mentally with Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding and John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band (Lennon’s first solo album), records so simple, sparse and intimate, they are about as haunting and personal as you can get.


The second phase is of course that national stardom that Colonel Parker was so instrumental in bringing about. There was the new, more commercial sound of the early RCA singles. When I was a kid, my best friend’s mom had these as 45s, and my buddy and me used to listen to them over and over again and write down the lyrics and envision that we would have a rock band of our own. It is so weird to think now that those records, “Hound Dog”, and “Heartbreak Hotel”, etc, were only 20 years old at the time.  And there are all those classic television appearances on tv variety shows — here of course is where the VAUDEVILLE comes in. Elvis was a phenomenon, he was treated as a creature, a monster or freak of some sort. TV, like the vaudeville it grew out of, was very polite, very middle class. Elvis looked like what he had been, a hillbilly truck driver, the grease monkey who fixes your car. And then he sang all this suggestive, sexual music. Yet Ed Sullivan was impressed with how polite he was. Steve Allen defanged him entirely, forcing him to sing “Hound Dog” to a literal hound dog (see above).

In the beginning his movies had a kind of integrity (Love Me Tender, Kid Creole and  Jailhouse Rock are prime examples, and Viva Las Vegas is probably the most electrifying screen musical ever made), but in the sixties the quality control was for shit, and the product was in serious disrepair.


Still, there’s something to be said for late Elvis, 70s Elvis. That buddy I mentioned and me were very much into that incarnation (mostly because his parents were fans. You could tell his dad was of that generation and held onto it, he wore Elvis sideburns). We loved the white jumpsuit Elvis, with the karate and the cape and the scarves and the wrap around sunglasses. He seemed like a superhero, and I always put him mentally into a triumvirate with Evel Knievel and the Fonz. I think there was a tremendous amount of showmanship in those concerts (the ones that killed him). It seems like a combination of a great concert and a car wreck…Elvis singing and dancing, and also (hopped up on pills) telling jokes and stories, backed up by this huge band and a chorus of back up singers.

My mom, though she was of the Sinatra generation, also loved Elvis, so there was that reinforcement. But she didn’t play his records. Why not? A remembered conversation will reveal it.

DAD: Elvis Presley was the devil.

MOM: (affectionately, not understanding) He was a devil, alright!

DAD: (glaring, meaningfully) Not A devil; THE devil. Know what I mean?

And that’s just what they said about Eva Tanguay.

Here’s his legendary 1956 performance on the Ed Sullivan Show:

To find out more about the variety arts past and present (including tv variety)consult 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 Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.


Hoofer Leonard Reed and the Champ Mr. Joe Louis Do a Two Act

Posted in African American Interest, Comedy, Dance, Sport & Recreation, Television, TV variety with tags , , on January 7, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Star of Vaudeville #101, the great dancer Leonard Reed (for my full bio on the inventor of the shim sham shimmy, go here). I have no clips of him dancing, but in this segment from the Ed Sullivan show you can see something rarer: Reed doing a comedy cross-talk act with boxer Joe Louis:

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.


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