Archive for entertainer

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.

Edwina Barry: World’s Oldest Vaudevillian

Posted in Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2017 by travsd

When Edwina Barry died in 1988 she was memorialized as the world’s oldest vaudevillian — 1o2 years old.

Born July 3, 1886, Anna Edwina Barry was the younger sister of Jimmy Barry, of the famous husband and wife vaudeville team Mr. and Mrs. Jimmy Barry. Orphaned at 14, she was married at age 20 to William Richards, who happened to be the brother of Mrs. Jimmy Barry, thus Edwina’s brother-in-law. He was a divorcee 14 years her senior. Edwina followed her brother into big time vaudeville. He seems to have given her a leg up in all sorts of ways. After touring with a production of Faust, around 1908 Edwina started her own vaudeville act “Edwina Barry and Company”, one of whose members was her husband (the Barry name was clearly more important than his when it came to branding the act). Their most popular sketch, penned by Jimmy Barry, seems to have been “The Homebreaker”, in which Edwina played a novice serving girl named “Dotty Plumdaffy”.

In 1916 she separated from Richards and toured as a solo, playing the U.S., Europe, Australia, South Africa and India. In 1920, while performing in the Philippines she married mentalist Fred Rochon, often billed as “Peerless Pendleton”. This shiftless personage seems to have led her a merry chase for the next three decades. He stole her money and deserted her repeatedly over their 28 year marriage. He abandoned her in Australia on one occasion. He burned down a hotel. And he may have had another wife (at the same time). But he must have woven a spell on Edwina. She abandoned her own act and became Rochon’s assistant in the mentalism act for a period of ten years. And every time he would take off she would pursue him and catch up with him. In 1948, after he had been gone some time, she finally obtained a divorce with desertion as grounds. Then she heard he may have gone to China and followed him there — just in time for the Communist takeover, which she narrowly escaped. From here she moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as a Navy librarian before retiring.

To learn more about vaudeville history including performers like Edwina Barry, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Frank Whitman: The Dancing Violinist

Posted in Music, Nuts and Eccentrics, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2017 by travsd

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Frank Whitman was often billed as  as “The Dancing Violinist”, “The Stepping Violinist”, “The Wizard of the Violin” and in 1926 his Loew’s Circuit billing was “The Fiddler of Infinite Surprises”. There are references to him performing his act as early as the mid 1890s; he seems to have retired or passed away around 1930.

In his performances, Whitman would bow the violin with various objects, including a bottle, and a horn which he simultaneously tooted. As his name suggests, he would dance while he fiddled. He also told jokes in his patter and for his big finish, bowed the violin through his legs in a most suggestive manner — we might think it more innocent if he weren’t leering and winking at us like a creep while he did it. His 1928 Vitaphone short Frank Whitman: That Surprising Fiddler, in which we can see him do all these things, is his main legacy today.

If he is the same “celebrated violinist” named Frank Whitman mentioned in the April 30, 1921 issue if Billboard, he was the half-brother of Charles A. Trexler, long time property manager for Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, and probably originally from Reading, Pennsylvania.

To learn more about vaudeville history including performers like Frank Whitman, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Rebla: Funny Music Hall Juggler

Posted in Comedy, Jugglers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by travsd

Here’s another one for World Juggling Day. Thanks, Todd Robbins, for introducing me to this interesting artist. Albert Rebla, usually billed simply as “Rebla” (Albert James Stevens, 1880-1963) was a comedy juggler in English music hall who modeled his act very much on W.C. Fields’. British Pathe made a film short of his act in 1935; you can see sections of it on Youtube. The debt to Fields is observable in the body language. The casual, lackadaisical manner with which he manipulates the balls, as though he were just doing his job, is quite hysterical. His ability to juggle tight and small formations rapidly, and bounce balls off the floor, are also reminiscent of Fields. On the other hand, as Todd points out, his voice and patter show similarities to Joe Frisco. 

“Rebla” is of course his real first name “Albert”, reversed, minus the “t”. Rebla started out touring with the Agoust Family of Jugglers as a teenager. Originally from London, he worked with a succession of partners for years, one of whom had been as assistant to Chung Ling Soo. In addition to dates in the U.K. and on the Continent, he also appeared in American vaudeville. One finds references to him playing U.S. theatres during the teens, and Joe Laurie referred to him his book Vaudeville: From Honky Tonks to the Palace. 

In 1918 he co-produced and co-starred in a revue at the Shafterbury Theatre with Harry Lauder. he appeared in several silent films and early talkies in addition the Pathe short we mentioned, often as an actor (as opposed to simply doing a juggling turn). In 1939, he performed in an early television experiment. By the early 1940s he had moved to Australia, as many did, to work the Tivoli circuit. He died in Melbourne in 1963.

For more on the history of vaudeville and jugglers like Rebla,  consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold.

Joseph Hart: The Original Foxy Grandpa

Posted in Broadway, Impresarios, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2017 by travsd

Performer, producer and songwriter Joseph Hart (Joseph Hart Boudrow, 1861-1921) was born on June 8. Hart was the nephew of Josh Hart, who managed Boston’s Howard Athenaeum. Through his uncle, he played boy’s parts in productions at the Howard, leading to a career in the professional theatre.

Hart started out as an end man in minstrel** shows (including Tony Pastor’s), singing, doing comedy routines and playing the banjo. For a time, he performed in Gilbert and Sullivan musicals. In 1888 he teamed up with Frederick Hallen, and for six years they toured in the musical comedies Later on and The Idea. After splitting with Hallen in 1894, Hart spent over a decade touring (and performing on Broadway) with a succession of his own starring vehicles. From our perspective, the most notable of these would be Foxy Grandpa (1902), based on a then-popular comic strip created by Carl E. Schultze. Here he is as the rascally old gentlemen:

Why I say his Foxy Grandpa characterization is most notable to us is that Hart made ten silent Biograph film shorts in 1902. Several of these are extant and can be viewed on Youtube. I had seen these little films years ago without knowing the backstory on the performer or the comic strip. 1902 is extremely early in film history; the films are only a couple of minutes long, and contain a single shot from a single angle, and were undoubtedly created to be watched on Nickelodeon machines (Mutoscopes, in this case — “Biograph” was originally the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company”). At any rate, you can watch Hart’s funny performances any time you like — knock yourself out!

In 1904, Hart also made a comedy called A European Rest Cure with Edwin S. Porter.

From 1892, Hart’s wife and co-star was the actress and singer Carrie de Mar. Hart also toured his own vaudeville revues (much as Weber and Fields did), in opposition to the circuit model being established by the big time managers at the same time. A number of color lithographs advertising his shows survive, telling us that some of the acts who performed in his shows were Elizabeth Murray, O’Brien & Havel, The Three Rosebuds, Frank Gardiner, Smith & Campbell, the Van Aukens, and Fleurette de Mar, Carrie’s sister, a dancer, billed simply as “Fleurette”. Many of his posters (see above, which dates from 1899), touts that he is “direct from Weber and Fields’ Music Hall”, although the credit isn’t mentioned in IBDB or in From the Bowery to Broadway, which is the definitive book on Weber and Fields. If I learn what the connection was, I’ll drop it in here.

For more on the history of vaudeville, consult 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 film, 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. 

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

Leo Dryden: The Kipling of the Halls, Correspondent in Chaplin Break-Up

Posted in British Music Hall, Movies, Silent Film, Singers with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2017 by travsd

Born this day: Music Hall star Leo Dryden (George Dryden Wheeler, 1863-1939).

Dryden was quite a well known performer in his day, nicknamed “The Kipling of the Halls” on account of his repertoire of patriotic and sentimental ballads. There is also an extant cylinder recording of him singing his most popular song “The Miner’s Dream of Home” which he recorded in 1898. It has been used on the soundtracks of several films including The Ghosts of Berkeley Square (1947) and The Entertainer (1960). He also appeared in one silent movie The Lady of the Lake (1928).

Dryden would be pretty well known to music hall buffs to this day, but nowadays he’s best known for something else: breaking up Charlie Chaplin’s parents. While Chaplin was a small boy and his father Charles Chaplin Sr, a music hall performer himself, was out on the road, Chaplin’s mother Lily Harley had an affair with Dryden, resulting in a baby: Wheeler Dryden. Chaplin Sr. was a rake and a drunkard himself so he was probably only too glad for an excuse to be rid of his responsibilities; he left his wife and child. Dryden also took his own son away from Harley, and raised him himself. And Chaplin’s mother went slowly crazy. In later years, Wheeler Dryden looked up his famous half-brother and went to work for him. Meanwhile, with music hall dying out, Leo Dryden was out of work and was eventually reduced to singing for coppers in the streets — pretty much like something out of one of his own songs.

To find out more about vaudeville and music hall history and performers like Leo Dryden consult 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 comedy and the Chaplin family 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

Eddie White: “I Thank You”

Posted in Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2017 by travsd

Eddie White (Michael Weintraub, 1898-1983) was born on May 18.

White comes to the attention of modern buffs almost entirely from his 1928 Vitaphone short called I Thank You, after his oft-repeated (by him) catchphrase. When you’ve seen a whole mess of Vitaphones, you easily lump them into categories. Some, like Burns and Allen, and Rose Marie, are folks we already know. Some, maybe most, are folks we don’t know and leave little impression. And a discrete handful are folks we don’t know and make a huge impression: a great act, big talent, a vivid or eccentric personality, sheer weirdness, or whatever. Those are everybody’s favorite Vitaphones and I think those end up being the ones we see for a reason; the screenings are almost always curated by the savvy Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project, who has the ears, eyes, nose, bones, brains, and guts of an old time vaudeville producer, which also means knowing what contemporary audiences will respond to.

At any rate, I Thank You is just such a short. Eddie White is one of the memorable ones. Tall, thin, and lanky, with a scrawny neck, enormous ears, and a high-pitched voice, you’d swear in watching the film that he was an adolescent, no more than about 15 years old. That was the impression I took away the first time I saw the film several years ago: that he was a precocious, talented teenager, probably from New York’s Lower East Side. The ethnic jokes and the crowd pleasing song set, featuring, “Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella (on a Rainy Day)”, “Get Out and Get Under the Moon” and the show-stopping “Mammy”, probably planted that idea. But I was off.

As we see from his birthday year, the young man was actually 30 when this Vitaphone came out. Its national release was probably the high point of his long career, which was mostly East Coast based, concentrated in Philadelphia, Atlantic City and New York. Born in South Philly, he debuted as a young man at the Old Norris Theatre in Norris, Pennsylvania and was using the stage handle “Eddie White” by 1920.

In the 20s he seemed an up-and-comer. He was a big time Keith’s act by mid-decade, one sees references to him playing important big time houses like New York’s Hippodrome.

He became associated with the famous 1932 song “Sam, You Made The Pants Too Long”, though Milton Berle had written the parody lyrics and Joe E. Lewis had the 1933 hit record. Vaudeville was dying around this time and the path of White’s career is hugely instructive about what the hustling performer did to fill the time with bookings. A small announcement in a 1936 issue of Billboard seems pivotal. The item describes White as a vaud vet who would now be officially turning his attention to night cubs. And thereafter he seemed to work pretty steadily as an m.c. and entertainer at night clubs and resorts, most especially the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, although one continues to find references to him playing dates farther afield in places like Pittsburgh and Ohio. Part of White’s legend is that he became a figure in the career of the Jersey-based burlesque comedians Abbott and Costello, when he saw them performing and put them on at the Steel Pier, where they first began to attract more widespread notice.

White produced and hosted a variety revue called The Zanities of 1943 in Philadelphia that got good notices. He headlined in the Palace Theatre revival in 1955. He retied from show biz in 1959.

I had the thrill of talking to White’s only child Jay Weintraub (b. 1933) the other day, and he helped add texture for White’s later years. He said the family moved to Chicago for three years, where White had a steady gig at a night club. He said his famous friends included Berle (who’d given him “Sam” to sing), Judy Garland, Red Buttons, Henny Youngman, and of course Abbott and Costello (Weintraub recounted an anecdote where Costello flew the family out to spend a few days with him in Hollywood). And he said the William Morris Agency tried unsuccessfully to book Eddie for the Ed Sullivan Show, but he was rejected for being too “ethnic” — he did a lot of Jewish dialect humor, which might not come across to wider audiences (and might have offended some others).

But mostly, says Weintraub, “He was a family man. His main interests were his brothers and my mother and me. He would go off and do his dates for a few days but then he would always come home.”

Most intriguingly, Mr. Weintraub mentions an enormous scrapbook of clippings in his possession and THIS would be the great resource of information on Eddie White. Hopefully some day an intrepid researcher will gain access to it and convey its contents to the wider public.

Special thanks to the one and only Mr. Chuck Prentiss for connecting me with Jay Weintraub!

To find out more 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.

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