Archive for English

On the Tiller Girls: Pioneers in Precision Dance

Posted in British Music Hall, Broadway, Dance with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2017 by travsd

British music theatre director John Tiller (1854-1925) was born on June 13. While skilled and trained in music and theatre arts since childhood, Tiller initially made his fortune in the family cotton business in Manchester until circumstances permitted him to pursue his theatrical interests more seriously around 1890. At that point, Tiller began presenting pantomimes and training young girls to perform in them at the professional level. He maintained a school for young performers much akin to the one Ned Wayburn would later start in America. As an outgrowth, he appears to have been a crucial innovator in the development of precision dance.

Now, it is often claimed that Tiller was the “inventor” of precision dance, but I doubt that, since images (photos, sketches paintings) of women in dance choruses arrayed in neat lines are readily available dating from many decades earlier than this. Another influence had to have been drill teams — believe it on not, male military drill teams were also popular on variety stages in the late 19th century. At any rate, Tiller seemed to have honed and refined the practice, demanding absolute uniformity in appearance and movement, becoming an early adapter of the kick-line and the feathered headdress, and apparently inventing the useful techniques of the dancers linking arms or holding each other’s waists in order to help coordinate and steady movement. He was also a pioneer in branding and promoting. His “Tiller Girls” were booked all over the world: Paris, London and the States, were booked for Broadway revues like the Ziegfeld Follies and George White’s Scandals, and were the inspiration for the Radio City Rockettes as well as the film routines of Busby Berkley. 

Tiller himself died in 1925 but various incarnations of The Tiller Girls have persisted and thrived with great popularity down to the present day.

For more on the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold

Walter Forde: The “British Harold Lloyd”

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2017 by travsd

April 21 is the natal day of British actor/ comedian/ director Walter Forde (Thomas Seymour Woolford, 1898-1984). Forde was the son of music hall comedian Tom Seymour, joining his father onstage as a child, where he learned to be an actor and physical comedian. In 1920, he wrote and starred in a series of British silent comedy two-reelers, playing a bungling character named “Walter”. The films were created in collaboration with his father, and Walter’s character often wore a straw boater and shared certain similarities in personality with Harold Lloyd. In 1923, Forde and his father tried their luck at Universal in the U.S. Forde only stayed a short time; Seymour remained in Hollywood. Forde went back to London and resumed the Walter series, directing several of them, and achieved even greater success in his home country. In 1928 he began directing features and phased out the Walter character by 1930.

Forde’s career as a director in the sound era is interesting, for it suggests a different path somebody like Lloyd might have gone down had they been so declined. Lloyd had co-directed many of his films; after retiring as an actor he produced a couple, but after that he pretty much left the business. What if he’d tried his hand at directing?  Among the slapstick comedy men, Forde’s post-silent career trajectory seems closest to somebody like George Stevens, who’d begun as cinematographer on Laurel and Hardy pictures, moved up to directing shorts for Hal Roach, and then moved up to feature film directing in all genres, not just comedy. Forde was a very different kind of director from Stevens, but like him, he was by no means restricted to screwball comedy; he also did work in other genres, especially mysteries, crime dramas, thrillers, etc. Two of his better known films today are The Ghost Train (1931 and later remade again by Forde in 1941) and Rome Express (1932). Much like Alfred Hitchcock, he worked in close collaboration with his wife Culley, a former continuity girl. In the post-war era he had difficulty getting films made; his last was Cardboard Cavalier (1949). He retired to Los Angeles for his net three and a half decades.

Many of his films, including some Walter comedies are available on Youtube; you should check ’em out!

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.

Charles Chaplin, Sr.: No Slouch Either!

Posted in British Music Hall, Charlie Chaplin, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2017 by travsd

Born on this date in 1863: Charles Chaplin the Elder: the father of his better known namesake, comedian and movie star Charlie Chaplin. It’s not as well known today that in his time the elder Chaplin was a fairly successful performer in his own right.

The son of a butcher, Charles Senior was still a teenager when he went on the stage. It is said that he met Charlie’s mother Hannah Hall (a.k.a. Lily Harley) while performing in a sketch called “Shamus O’Brien” in the early 1880s. In 1885 he married her, despite the fact that in the intervening months she had taken up with another man and given birth to a child. Chaplin gave the boy his surname; he became Sydney Chaplin. By ’87, Charles Senior had worked up a music hall act and began getting bookings in the halls, with a repertoire of sentimental and comical songs. In 1889, his son Charlie was born.

So far so good, eh? Unfortunately (for the family) not long after that, Chaplin’s career began to take off — and so did he. By 1890, he was popular enough to tour America (notably, he played the Union Square Theatre in New York — this was his own foray into American vaudeville. The following year he ran out on Hannah and the boys for good.

Chaplin was popular enough by this stage that his name and visaged graced the covers of the published sheet music of songs he had made popular, such as “The Girl Was Young and Pretty”, “Hi Diddle Diddle” and the comical, suggestive “Eh, Boys!”

It’s a well known story by now. While Charlie the elder was cavorting and carousing in music halls, living the carefree life, Hannah (also an entertainer, and by her son’s account a brilliant one, the one he took after) went slowly insane and couldn’t work. Chaplin offered no financial support, even when the two children were packed off to workhouses.

By the end of the decade (and the century) Chaplin had become an alcoholic and was no longer working himself. Significantly, this was the juncture when he first seems to take an interest in his namesake. In 1899, he got ten year old Charlie his first proper show business job by getting him into an act called The Eight Lancashire Lads. The younger Chaplin was about to embark on an incredible life’s journey; the older one was just ending his. By 1901, Charles Chaplin, Sr. was dead of cirrhosis of the liver.

But his mark is there for all to see in Charlie Chaplin’s life and art. An alcoholic, performing dad is something Charlie had in common with Buster Keaton. But there are contrasts. You could say that Joe Keaton’s drinking hurt his career, but it didn’t end his life. And Buster followed in his footsteps, becoming a problem boozer himself. Whereas the elder Chaplin ended both his life and career through alcohol abuse. And Charlie, Jr. only ever drank in cautious moderation. But I find it significant that he played hilarious comic drunks on stage and screen for decades. And there is also the subject of Chaplin’s relations with him. For a good long while, like his father, he put his work first and neglected his women (following periods of intense wooing). This cycle was only broken when he finally married Oona O’Neill, quite late in life, when he only worked occasionally and chose to devote all of his energy into family life…as though he were making up for lost time.

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 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

Geoffrey Kerr

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Stars of Vaudeville with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2017 by travsd
Kerr with Ruth Chatterton in his last film "Once a Lady" (1931)

Kerr with Ruth Chatterton in his last film “Once a Lady” (1931)

This is the natal day of Geoffrey Kerr (1895-1971). Kerr was the son of character actor Frederick Kerr, best known perhaps today for playing Frankenstein’s father in the 1931 film. Kerr was a stage name; their actual surname was Keen. 

The younger Kerr began acting in his father’s London stage and (silent) screen productions following his service in World War One. In 1920, the Kerrs (both father and son) came to New York to appear in the Broadway production of Just Suppose with Patricia Collinge and Leslie Howard. The younger Kerr was to remain a constant Broadway presence through 1934. It was during this period that he also played big time vaudeville, including the Palace, circa 1926.

He appeared in three American talkies in 1931: Once a Lady, The Runaround and Women Live Once. By this time he was also transitioning into being a writer. That same year he also wrote and appeared in the Broadway play London Calling. From the mid 1930s through late 1940s, he was a Hollywood screenwriter. In the 1950s, he wrote scripts for British television. His son (with actress June Walker) was the actor John Kerr (Tea and Sympathy, South Pacific).

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

Olga Nethersole: The British Bernhardt

Posted in Broadway, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2017 by travsd

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Olga Isabella Nethersole (1867-1951) birthday is today. The daughter of a London solicitor, Nethersole arrived on the professional stage in the English provinces in 1887, making her West End debut the following year. Roles for John Hare at the newly built Garrick Theatre brought her great fame. for the next several years she alternated seasons in London, Australia, New York and Paris, often self-producing. Plays she are associated with include Clyde Fitch’s Sapho (for which she was arrested in New York), Camille, The Second Mrs. Tanquray, and The Profligate. In 1913 and 1914, like many of the greatest divas of her age, she undertook a tour of high class, big time vaudeville including the Palace, where she was billed as “The British Bernhardt“. She served as nurse during the World War One years (1914-1918). For the rest of her life public health issues joined the theatre as her consuming passion. Though she lived well into the cinematic era, she never made a film.

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

Marie Loftus: The Sarah Bernhardt of the Music Halls

Posted in British Music Hall, Irish, Singers, Singing Comediennes, Stars of Vaudeville, Variety Theatre, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2016 by travsd

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 Marie Loftus (1857-1940) was known as the “Sarah Bernhardt of the Music Halls” . Born in Glasgow to Irish parents, she grew up near the Scotia Music Hall, which is where she began dancing as a young girl. As a singing single she first appeared at Brown’s Royal Music Hall by age 17. Within three years she had made it to London. Loftus possessed a stout, buxom figure which was of a sort very much in vogue with Victorian audiences at the time. Like many music hall singers, her repertoire contained suggestive material that some frowned upon. But she remained popular in her native Glasgow, even as she became a national star on the London stages, both in music hall and as a Principal Boy in Pantomime. Her fame became international when she began to tour American vaudeville and the halls of South Africa. By the 1890s she was earning 100 pounds a week. Her daughter Cissie Loftus (1876-1943) would prove just as famous.

To find out more about these variety artists and 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.

Eric Blore: From Broadway to the Bowery Boys

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the always hilarious Eric Blore (1887-1959).

Astounding to note that we haven’t done an appreciation of this stalwart comic actor until this late date. I think the proximity of his birthday to Christmas may have something to do with it (i.e., I’m normally consumed with last minute errands on this day of the year.) At any rate, today we are delighted to rectify the lapse.

Originally from Middlesex, Blore worked briefly as an insurance agent before he decided to go on the stage while on a trip to Australia (this detail has caused some people to believe he was actually Australian). His stage debut was in The Girl from Kay’s at the Spa Theatre, Bridlington in 1908. Five years later he made his West End debut in the revue All the Winners. He served for the duration in World War One, and then returned to the stage in 1919. He also contributed song lyrics to some of the shows in which he performed.

The character he developed for the stage became the same one we love him for in films: a sibilant, arch, uppercrust Englishman, normally cast as “gentleman’s gentlemen”, waiters, club men, and aristocrats. He was diminutive in stature, and his highly animated face allowed him to be bemused, quizzical, perturbed, flustered, or appalled in large strokes. He wasn’t employed for subtlety — you looked to him for his reactions. As he matured, he became bald, which added to the effect.

In 1923, he came to Broadway, appearing in Little Miss Bluebeard with Irene Bordoni. He was to work there constantly for a decade, through the original stage production of The Gay Divorce (1933) with Fred Astaire (foreshadowing of things to come), although he would return to Broadway one last time for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1943. 

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Blore with Edward Everett Horton in “The Gay Divorcee”. The screen is practically exploding with fey mannerisms

Although Blore appeared in one major silent film, the sadly lost original version of The Great Gatsby (1926), it was with the advent of talkies that he was launched into the phase of his career we continue to cherish him for. He joined the colony of English character actors who became indispensable in comedy ensembles (others included C. Aubrey Smith and Arthur Treacher). Blore had a bit part in Gold Diggers of 1933, appeared in five Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals (more than any other player but the two stars), and 11 “Lone Wolf” mysteries starring Warren William (1940-1947). Other movies he appeared in included Diamond Jim (1935), Seven Keys to Baldpate (1935), Laurel and Hardy’s Swiss Miss (1938), two 1941 Preston Sturges comedies (The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels), Hope and Crosby’s Road to Zanzibar (1941), The Shanghai Gesture (1941), and the Marx Brothers’ Love Happy (1949). Ironically, he is unseen in one of his best known roles — he supplied the voice of Mr. Toad in Walt Disney’s Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949). His last roles were in Fancy Pants (1950) with Bob Hope, and Bowery to Bagdad (1955) with the Bowery Boys.

Blore is also famous as the subject of a notorious, ironic news blunder. Writing in The New Yorker in 1959, critic Kenneth Tynan had erroneously referred to the actor as “the late Eric Blore”. (He might have been forgiven for doing so. Blore’s last film had been four years earlier, and since it was a Bowery Boys comedy, (i.e., a B picture) Tynan was scarcely likely to have seen it. Blore’s last mainstream credit had been nearly a decade earlier.) At any rate, by the time The New Yorker printed their apologetic correction a week later, Blore was already dead.

For more comedy film history 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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