Archive for exhibition

The Ongoing Saga of the Hottentot Venus

Posted in African American Interest, Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2017 by travsd

First of all, we no longer say “Hottentot”. The proper name for this tribe of Southern African hunter-gatherers is Khoikhoi; Dutch colonists dubbed them “Hottentot” in mockery of their click-based language shortly after first encountering them in the 17th century. In the 19th century, when Africans were often exhibited in Europe and America as curiosities and “missing links”, khoikhoi were among the more popular examples, due to their small stature and the condition present in many of the females known as steatopygia, which refers to large accumulations of tissue in their buttocks and thighs.

More than one woman was exhibited by Europeans as a “Hottentot Venus”; the best known was a woman named Sarah (sometimes Sara or Saartje) Baartman (sometimes Bartman, Bartmann, or Baartment), ca. 1790-1815. Baartman was brought to London in 1810 by two unscrupulous men and exhibited as a freak on the stages of Picadilly for four years. In 1814 she was acquired by another man who brought her to Paris where she was exhibited by an animal trainer and examined by scientists from the Museum of Natural History. When she died in 1815 her body was dissected and a plaster cast was made of her body, and the results were on public display in Paris for over a century. Her remains were finally returned to South Africa for a proper burial in 2002.

In 1995 Suzan-Lori Parks fictionalized Baartman’s story and transferred its themes of racist colonial exploitation to her OBIE-winning play Venus. The Signature Rep has revived the work as part of their season devoted to Parks’ plays. Performances began this week, with an opening day announced for May 15. Tickets and more information are here at the Signature Theatre’s site. 

Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , on April 15, 2017 by travsd

Today is the birthday of the great American painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975).

Benton was the namesake and great grand-nephew of the five term Missouri Senator who was one of America’s prominent 19th century politicians, a Jacksonian Democrat and advocate for Manifest Destiny. The younger Benton was also the son of Colonel Maecenas Benton, a four term Missouri Congressman. Pressure must have been on follow a certain course in life (politics) but in spite of his name, Thomas Hart Benton followed his artistic bent with the encouragement of his mother, and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Académie Julian. In the spirit of his namesake, Benton’s vision was populist and patriotic, but in the spirit of his own times it also took a leftist turn and expressed a deep sympathy with the underdog. His visions were epic and heroic, but also questioning and thought-provoking. Rural America and history were frequent themes, but today we thought it especially fitting to share word about an exhibition we caught a couple of years ago at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, which we thought would be of especial interest to our readers. It was called American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood. 

The jumping off point for this study is Benton’s painting “Hollywood” painted in 1937 and 1938, initially on a commission for Life magazine. It depicts the shooting of the John Ford movie The Long Voyage Home based on O’Neil’s Sea Plays. He chose to concentrate on the apparatus behind the film.

As part of the project, he did this sketch entitled “Member of the Chorus” on the soundstage of a musical:

Benton also illustrated an edition of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). His image “The Departure of the Joads” was used on posters for John Ford’s 1940 film version:

The exhibition also covered the entirety of Benton’s career, relating his lifelong penchant for mythology to that of Hollywood. But there is much room for overlap. For example there’s his eponymous painting inspired by the 1954 film The Kentuckian, starring Burt Lancaster. If you didn’t know the backstory, it would simply seem a typical Benton scene:

Benton’s 1948 painting “Poker Night (From  A Streetcar Named Desire)” may well be one of his best known images. It was inspired by the Broadway version (the film didn’t come out until 1951), but movie producer David O. Selznick liked it so much he bought it for his wife.

As we all know, those with a penchant for mythologizing frequently also have an unfortunate bent for stereotype and demonization. When World War II arrived, Benton began depicting the Japanese enemy in less-than-human terms, exaggerating and misrepresenting their features, and doing the same with his depictions of African Americans, a tendency which paralleled Hollywood’s depictions of minorities on film. (While this section of the exhibition was certainly germane, it had less to do directly with Benton’s relationship to Hollywood. His problematic relationship to race is a topic for another day.) At any rate, those images are certainly available to look at online; no need to perpetuate them here today.

Show business was a subject Benton returned to throughout his life. In fact, he died while working on this mural, “The Sources of Country Music”, in 1975:

What’s Up at Coney

Posted in AMERICANA, Coney Island, Contemporary Variety, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, PLUGS, SOCIAL EVENTS with tags , , , , , , on March 13, 2017 by travsd

We all associate Coney Island with summer (it’s a beach and amusement park after all), but it may be a lesser known fact that there’s stuff happening at Coney Island USA all through the winter season as well. For example, most every Sunday Gary Dreifus presents his kid friendly Magic at Coney show. I was mightily entertained by Mr. Dreifus’s feats in yesterday’s show, as well as those of his special guests Magical Vince and Phil Crosson.  Here’s next week’s line-up:

The magic show takes place in the Coney Island Museum,  open on weekend throughout the winter. The museum has recently been spruced up with some new displays and wall text


Koo Koo the Bird Girl and her jolly friend (okay, he’s dressed like a jester, but I don’t know how jolly he is).



“Slapstick Used By Angelo the Midget at the Steeplechase Blowhole”

And now there is a whole new Hot Dog section of the museum featuring items like:


These stained glass windows are from the original Feltman’s Restaurant, birthplace of the hot dog

Thence (the real pull for the day) a special preview event for the new exhibition Five Cents to Dreamland: A Trip to Coney Island, created and curated by the New York Transit Museum. 

A 1998 sideshow banner by the one and only Marie Roberts!

A genuine vintage Strength-Tester mallet.


CIUSA Founder Dick Zigun (center): with Concetta Bencivenga, director of the NYTM; and John di Domenico, who serves on the boards of both organizations


Coney’s own Patrick Wall, Your Mix-Master


CIUSA board members James Fitzsimmons and Dr. Jeff Birnbaum, with Birnbaum’s son


Coney Island USA’s annual gala is happening in just two weeks, March 25! An all-star cast celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Mermaid Parade with a Corral Jubilee! Follow this magical portal for tickets and details! 


Windows on the Bowery, Part Two

Posted in Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, ME, My Shows, SOCIAL EVENTS with tags , , , , , , on September 23, 2016 by travsd


An excellent time was had by all assembled (I decree it) at last night’s celebration for the Windows on the Bowery exhibition at the historic HSBC bank on the lower Bowery in Chinatown. You may recall our coverage of Part One, the Cooper Union opening, from my earlier blog post.  As you may recall, because you are paying strict and close attention to every aspect of my life, I wrote two the panels, included in the show, and these are them:



But frankly all of the panels are terific and they really made me wish for a way-back machine so I could visit all the theatres, museums, and such like that used to thrive on the Bowery back in the day.  You want a clearer picture? You want to see the rest of them? GO THERE. I told you where it is at the top of the post.

Here are some candids I took at the event:

David Mulkins of the Bowery Residents Committee, principle mover, shaker and chief bottle washer of the project talks to Ralph Lewis of Peculiar Works Project (whom I learned last night lives in one of the historic buildings!)

David Mulkins of the Bowery Residents Committee, principle mover, shaker and chief bottle washer of the project talks to Ralph Lewis of Peculiar Works Project (whom I learned last night lives in one of the historic buildings!)

Mulkins addresses the adoring throngs

Mulkins addresses the adoring throngs

HSBC Bowery Branch staff, who have every reason to be proud of this civic minded project

HSBC Bowery Branch staff, who have every reason to be proud of this civic minded project

The word in the circle is "Success". Ain't it the truth, ain't it the truth?

The word in the circle is “Success”. Ain’t it the truth, ain’t it the truth?

Coney Island Comes to the Brooklyn Museum

Posted in Amusement Parks, BROOKLYN, Coney Island, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , on December 1, 2015 by travsd


Here’s irony for ya — the motive force behind Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008, the major exhibition of Coney Island inspired art now ensconced at the Brooklyn Museum through March 13, proves not to be our local museum itself, but the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. It’s been touring for the last several months, and now makes itself available to the tough but secretly sentimental audiences in Coney’s back yard. Tell the Warriors they can put away their brickbats — the new show is well worthy of America’s Playground.

The exhibition is exhaustive and instructively divided into historic periods: Down at Coney Isle: 1865-1894, The World’s Greatest Playground: 1895-1939, A Coney Island of the Mind: 1940-1962 and Requiem for a Dream: 1962-2008. One major positive aspect of the timeline is that it addresses a misconception inadvertently created by Ric Burns in his 1991 documentary film that Coney Island essentially ended (or began to decline) in 1911, the year that Dreamland, one of the three major amusement parks burned down. (I don’t have statistics in front of me, but I’m sure the attendance peak was in the 1940s. I’m sorry, but the attendance figures are the only yardstick that matter. There is no amusement professional who will EVER tell you anything different). On the other hand, to a minor extent it perpetuates the scurrilous canard that the closing of Astroland was the “end” of something. The only thing it was the ending of was Coney Island’s Shithole Period. Since the new version of Luna Park arrived in 2009, the place has been better and more exciting than at any time since I arrived here in 1987, and I go out there every season. But that misconception is so widespread, it’s going to be a job of work opening people’s eyes, and I wouldn’t expect this exhibition to be the platform for that.

At all events, the agenda here is art. Rarely in history has such a small patch of real estate inspired such a colorful and diverse lot of it. (A certain neighborhood in Bethlehem, perhaps?) This exhibition contains a nice cross section of the possibilities, over 140 works including paintings, photographs, quotations of texts by writers, posters, advertising ephemera, clips from motion pictures, and of course sideshow banners.

The exhibition’s first section is a reminder that the area once had a lot going for it as a natural landscape. William Merrit Chase’s 1886 Landscape near Coney Island depicts a bucolic scene with dunes, beach grass and a woman gathering berries — just like a real beach. A couple of genre paintings by Samuel S. Carr show the beach in transition, with just a hint of what is to come. Beach Scene (ca. 1879) captures a number of people on the beach dressed in what WE would consider formal clothes indeed. In the background is a group clustered around a puppet show. This is the era when the neighborhood was known primarily for hotels, but populist entertainment is already beginning to rear its head. Equally true of his Beach Scene with Acrobats, painted around the same time.

The sedate mood of the opening room quickly dissolves as you enter the next gallery. Here is an explosion of, well, everything. I don’t generally like to take snaps in the museum but I couldn’t resist this one…some piece of advertising art with caricatures of Mae West and Jimmy Durante:


Here’s a bunch of swell stuff I saw:

— Movie clips from The Gilded Lady (1935) Harold Lloyd’s Speedy (1928), King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928), Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), The Little Fugitive (1953), Coney Island USA (1951), The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), Weegee’s New York (1948, 1954), Annie Hall (1977), Enemies: A Love Story (1989), and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000)and some footage by Edison and others, including the notorious film of the electrocution of Topsy the Elephant.

— My favorite painting in the whole show, Leo McKay’s Steeplechase Park (1903-1906), a very large, bird’s eye panorama of the legendary amusement park. This alone was the worth the price of admission.

— Inevitably, several Reginald Marsh paintings and drawings. I don’t dig his work, but others do, and there’s no way you couldn’t include him in a show like this. To me, his depictions of humanity look like piles of dead zombies, and his pigments look like garbage water. Still, he was THERE and his paintings take you there, to such sights as the Wonderland Circus Sideshow, the Human Roulette Wheel, the Human Pool Tables, and a sideshow displaying Pip and Flip.

— Tons of great photos, by the likes of Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, Edward J. Kelty, Harvey Stein, Bruce Davidson, and the aforementioned WeeGee

— sideshow banners advertising Shackles the Great, Quinto the Human Octopus, and (by our own Marie Roberts) the Congress of Curious People

— circus posters for Barnum and Bailey, and Bostock’s Great Water Arena

— Pieces of the old Spookarama ride

Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo

— Paintings by Milton Avery, Ralph Fasanella, Red Grooms, Daze, and many others, including this one I really loved by Mort Kuntsler, showing another side of Coney Island:


I’m rarely tempted to buy exhibition catalogs, but I’m downright obligated to acquire this one, and I reckon you’ll feel the same.

Nearby this main exhibition, the Brooklyn Museum has installed two related shows of its own: Forever Coney: Photographs from the Brooklyn Museum Collection and Stephen Powers: Coney Island is Still Dreamland (to a Sea Gull).  If you’ve not been to the Brooklyn Museum in a while, now is a good time to go.

Big Fun in the Cemetery

Posted in Amusement Parks, AMUSEMENTS, BROOKLYN, Coney Island, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, ME, PLUGS with tags , , , , on September 8, 2014 by travsd

Yesterday we had a perfect late summer afternoon on our hands – -staying indoors was not an option. Luckily as we read on the indispensable blog Travalanche, nearby Green-wood Cemetery has just opened an exhibition in honor of one of their charges, William F. Mangels, a Coney Island ride and game designer and manufacturer.

Some may wonder at the propriety of Green-wood’s program of lectures, exhibitions, concerts and social events, but I think they’re fully appropriate. They are like extensions of the monuments themselves – -celebrations and remembrances of the lives of those who are interred there. People are frequently a bit illogical on this topic. If you believe in the existence of a soul, then you probably also believe in heaven…in which case, the souls aren’t HERE, are they? Just the mortal remains. This is a place to come and remember lives. If you think about it, a properly run cemetery ought to be a sort of biography park.

(The nicer photos below were taken by the Mad Marchioness. I am responsible for the ones that look like garbage.)


At any rate, Mangels was in the “Fun” business. He is said to have devised the mechanism that allows carousel horses to go up and down, and to have invented such rides as The Whip and The Tickler.  (See a short bio about him here at the Coney Island History Project). And so this wonderful exhibition:








William F. Mangels: Amusing the Masses at Coney Island will be up through October 26. More details here. 

After the exhibition we strolled the grounds as we love to do, and within a few yards of the chapel, encountered this:


Only silent film and comedy buffs would know why this would be of interest; in fact I wouldn’t have known to look for it if Ben Model hadn’t done a wonderful program here on the subject of Charles Inslee and others a few months back. (For my full article on Inslee, go here.). One thing confused me, though. Conventional dates for Inslee’s birth and death from most online sources say 1870-1922. Above, we see a discrepancy. Are there two Charles Inslees? Are the online sources wrong? Or this one? Send your cards and letters here.

The W.C. Fields Exhibit at NYPL

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Hollywood (History), Jugglers, Radio (Old Time Radio), Vaudeville etc., W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2010 by travsd

Lest there be any doubt of my devotion to a certain old school juggler/comedian/movie star, let it be known that I braved the 100-degree heat on Saturday to see that exhibition about his lifeW.C. Fields is a subject near and dear to my heart, and one about whom I have some knowledge, so you can believe me when I say the exhibition is thorough, entertaining, and full of fascinating material. The exhibition was curated and organized by staff members of the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, from their own collections. It’s a wonderful resource; the folks there were very helpful to me when I was researching my book.

Ensconced in the Vincent Astor Gallery of the Performing Arts branch of the NYPL (that’s the one in the lower level, in the back), the exhibition takes you, mostly through photos, video, documents and ephemera, from Fields’ early beginnings in Philadelphia to his sad death from alcohol-related causes in 1946.

Some of the cool stuff on view:

* A photo of his mother, who bore an unfortunate resemblance to the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland (in short, she looked like W.C. himself did in later years)

* Vaudeville programs from as early as 1898 (on one ad, he shares a bill with the Three Keatons)

* Photos of him in his early tramp juggler guise (see above)

* many of his personal papers and scrapbooks

* his personal letterhead from his vaudeville days, designed by himself (he was an avid — and very good — cartoonist in his early days)

* two video screens, one with scenes from his many silent films, one with scenes from his talkies and a Fields documentary (including hilarious, rare out-takes from Tales of Manhattan, one of his last performances)

* posters from his juggling performances all over the world (from as far away as South Africa), as well as his Broadway shows and movies

* personal correspondence concerning the principle heartbreak of his life, his estrangement from his wife Hattie and son Claude (testament to the fact that there was a heart beneath the crusty facade)

* correspondence with famous folks like H.L. Mencken, D.W. Griffith, William Saroyan, et al.

* a photo of him with Dorothy Parker which, for some reason, brought tears to my eyes

* pages of scripts and memos from flummoxed studio executives frustratedly trying to work with the difficult Fields on the pictures he was writing

* an old fashioned radio cabinet, playing audio samples of Fields on various radio shows

* quotes about Fields by others, and from his own autobiography

This is already a lot of course. What else could you include? Well….

I might have liked to have seen some artifacts (I can think of many possible ones: costumes, juggling materials, steamer trunk, type-writer, golf clubs, portable bar) but then one understands the added difficulty and expense in traveling such objects.

And I think the exhibition skirts rather superficially over the issue of Fields’ alcoholism, which was not only his main source of comedy, but his main source of tragedy, as well. It began to affect his health seriously in 1936, and made his life painful for another decade before killing him. It’s ugly stuff, but I think something is lost by sweeping it under the rug.

At any rate, you have another month to catch this otherwise terrific exhibition. For full info about when, where and how, go here.

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.


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