Archive for I Love Lucy

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.

Pepito and Joanne: Clowning and Contorionism

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Dance, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2017 by travsd

OF PEPITO AND JOANNE

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Today is the birthday of Jose Escobar “Pepito” Perez (1896-1975). Originally from Barcelona, Pepito got his start as a clown in Spain in 1914. He came to the U.S. in 1922 and performed on the Keith and Orpheum circuits.

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In 1928 he met dancer and contortionist Margaret Janet Zetteler (or Zettler, 1908-2004) at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, when both were booked to perform before screenings of Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus. They teamed up, both onstage and off, and Zetteler’s name became Joanne Perez.

As vaudeville dried up they began performing at night clubs in the late 1930s an 1940s. Over the years, Pepito got various small roles on film and television, including several shots on I Love Lucy. They opened the Pepito and Joanne Academy of Dance, which Joanne continued to run for decades after Pepito passed away. Pepito also ran a charter fishing business.

The keeper of all things Pepito and Joanne is Melani Carty, who runs the Pepito and Joanna tribute website. The photos above are from that site. Check it out here.

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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On Karl Freund

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Silent Film, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , on January 16, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great cinematographer and movie director Karl Freund (1890-1969). A key figure of German Expressionism and its exportation to Hollywood, his name is usually associated with Gothic horror, having shot The Golem (1920), Metropolis (1927), Dracula (1931) and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and directed The Mummy (1932) and Mad Love (1935). He only directed a dozen pictures (with Mad Love being his last, and Moonlight and Pretzels being one of our favorites) but he was cinematographer on scores of films of all genres, including such classics as The Good Earth (1937) and Key Largo (1948). Having started in films in 1911, he can be said to have been one of the pioneers of the medium.

Freund also made his mark in the field of television, having devised the system of three camera switching still commonly used on sit coms, a technique he developed for I Love Lucy. Freund was director of photography on that show and on Our Miss Brooks until 1956, when he retired.

For more on early film history 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 amazon.com etc etc etc chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

I (Have Learned to) Love Lucy

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Sit Coms, Stars of Slapstick, Television, TV variety, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Lucille Ball (1911-1989). People older and younger than me know her primarily for and initially from her groundbreaking tv series I Love Lucy (1951-1957). But those just my age (or a hair older) got there through a more circuitous route…seeing her first in her later tv programs The Lucy Show (1962-68) and Here’s Lucy (1968-1974).

These colorful family shows were quite a bit different from I Love Lucy. The mature Lucy played a ditzy widow who worked for the hilariously irate Gale Gordon, her foil. In the show’s last incarnation her actual children played her screen children, giving the show a sort of contemporary flair. Lucy was an institution at that point, the only female equivalent of say, Bob Hope,(with whom she co-starred in films in the 60s) and she seemed it. Later in the mid 70s during the 50s nostalgia craze, they began showing reruns of I Love Lucy on our local tv station — a big event, and I watched every episode. But as I got older I lost my taste for her. As part of the process of working on Chain of Fools I began to rediscover my enthusiasm. Nearly every female colleague I know cites her as a major hero and influence.

Very early Lucy as a Goldwyn Girl

Lucy’s comedy pedigree is rather amazing — she had countless opportunities to learn from the best, and she did. Starting out as a model and Broadway chorus girl in shows like Earl Carroll’s Vanities she moved to Hollywood in 1933 where her progress was slow, but also inexorable. She was one of the Goldwyn Girls in Eddie Cantor’s Roman Scandals (1933). but she got a speaking part in the Three Stooges short Pigskin Parade the next year. She got bit parts in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies Roberta, Top Hat (both 1935) and Follow the Fleet (1936). Then she began to get decent parts: she was a notable part of the ensemble in Stage Door (1937), played opposite the Marx Brothers in Room Service (1938), and co-starred with Red Skelton in DuBarry was a Lady (1943).

Along the way she was also becoming a radio star on The Phil Baker Show and Jack Haley’s The Wonder Show. In 1948, she got their own radio show My Favorite Husband, which (with the addition real-life husband Desi Arnaz) was later adapted into the tv show I Love Lucy. The premise of the show is similar to The Honeymooners, but with the genders reversed. Lucy and her best friend, Ethel (Vivian Vance), sneak around enacting hare-brained schemes behind their husbands’ backs (Arnaz and vaudeville veteran William Frawley). In the end they’re always caught and “put back in their places,” making the show feel something less than progressive to modern sensibilities. It’s kind of like A Doll’s House meets Waiting for Godot. Nora never gets to escape. I think of I Love Lucy as the first of the existentialist sit-coms. Gilligan’s Island (1964-67) and Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971) both followed similar “Myth of Sisyphus” premises.

Lucy the housewife’s situation would be unbearably bleak if not for the slapstick skills of Lucy the clown. First there’s her comic mask, with her enormous, blank doe-eyes, framed by the maximum acceptable amount of make-up: drawn-on eyebrows in a perpetual state of surprise, eye-lashes conveyed as big splashes of black, and a mouth so covered in red, pink or orange it looks like she’s wearing a pair of wax lips. And of course her bright red wig, not perceptible of course until the shows began shooting in color. She had a small repertoire of broad, ritualistic, emotional reactions. For example, she was the most famous comedy crier since Stan Laurel. But she could also do shock, indignation, “crossness,” and her own laughter was infectious.

Add to this her slapstick skills. In her day she was routinely compared to Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Skelton, and Harpo Marx. She wasn’t subtle about encouraging the comparisons. She reprised the famous mirror scene from Duck Soup with Harpo on I Love Lucy in 1955; she dressed as the Little Tramp and did a Chaplin routine on The Lucy Show in 1963. The famous “Vitameatavegamin” (where Lucy gets progressively drunker while hawking a health tonic) is an obvious take on Red Skelton’s “Guzzler’s Gin” routine.

But her original slapstick was plenty impressive as well. Her most famous routine of all was the candy assembly line segment in the episode “Job Switching,” where she falls behind and winds up trying to hide all the chocolates that are backing up at her work station. Other favorites include “Lucy’s Italian Movie” (that’s the one where she gets into a big vat and stomps on grapes), and “L.A. at Last” where she dons a disguise so that she can meet William Holden and he, lighting her cigarette, accidentally sets her nose putty on fire.

After the mid 70s, she slowed her output somewhat. There were a couple of tv movies and occasional appearances on shows like the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast. She briefly tried to emerge from retirement in 1986 with the disastrous Life with Lucy, which was canceled after only half a dozen episodes. (Clips are available on Youtube and it’s somewhat painful; the elderly Lucy was simply out of touch with the sensibilities of modern audiences).

To learn more about slapstick comedy, including Lucille Ball, please check out 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

The Surprising Family History of Ida Lupino

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, British Music Hall, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , on February 4, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Ida Lupino (1918-1995). Most people know her strictly as a beautiful English-American noir dame, and as one of America’s first female film directors.  What is less commonly known about her is that she came from a long line of English music hall acrobat-comedians, stretching all the way back to the 18th century. Her father, Stanley was also in the music hall, as were her uncles Lupino Lane and Wallace Lane (who also became silent movie comedy stars). Following their advice, she too went into into the family line, but taking a slightly different route, studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and becoming a “legit” star of stage and screen starting in the early 30s. Her last film was My Boys are Good Boys (1978) with Lloyd Nolan and Ralph Meeker.

There’s more about the Lupinos in my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube. 

Now here’s Ida making a cameo on I Love Lucy (as so many stars did when Lucy jumped the shark and “went to Hollywood”):

To find out more about the variety arts 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. 

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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 amazon.com etc etc etc

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Tallulah Bankhead: No Shame

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Tallulah Bankhead (1902-1968). I’ve always felt a special connection to her because she comes from my family’s hometown of Hunstville, Alabama. There the connection stops: her father was the Speaker of the House (that’s the U.S. House) and she was the granddaughter and niece of Senators.

While she had been a professional actress on the New York stage from the age of sixteen, a London and NY stage star from the age of 21, and later a star of radio and film as well, history has unfairly (though understandably) remembered her mostly for her offstage lifestyle, her huge appetite for booze, drugs, and indiscriminate sex, and her ribald witticisms. As a mature actress, she created roles like Regina in The Little Foxes (1939), Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), and the newspaper lady in Alfred Hitchock’s Lifeboat (1944). Her performance as Amanda in a revival of Noel Coward’s Private Live’s ran nearly two years.

Her untold hundreds of quotable quotations are amply quoted elsewhere. Here, we just give her a shout-out, and present some clips from her appearance on I Love Lucy, which she was enough of a professional to consider sufficiently up to her standard of dignity:

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.

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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 amazon.com etc etc etc

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William Frawley: Fred Really Was in Vaudeville

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2010 by travsd

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Yes, I Love Lucy’s “Fred Mertz”, and “Uncle Bub” from those old My Three Sons episodes that they never rerun, was an old time vaudevillian, and I bet you’re not a bit surprised, especially if you’ve seen this.

Born in Iowa in 1887 (for some reason there is a high percentage of successful vaudevillians from Iowa), he worked the western wheels as a singer and light comedian with a succession of partners, first his brother Paul, then pianist Franz Rath, and then his wife Louise. By the mid-twenties he was a success on Broadway.

In 1933, he moved to Hollywood where he had a good run as a character actor before making a hit on the small screen. He passed away in 1966, deeply resentful that fellow vaudeville veteran William Demarest had replaced him on My Three Sons. Frawley’s birthday is today….Demarest’s is tomorrow! So stay tuned!

To learn about the roots of 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.

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And don’t miss my new 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

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

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