Archive for juggler

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.

Darmody: Five Club Pioneer

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

This year World Juggling Day, sponsored by the International Jugglers Association, falls on June 17. We take the opportunity to honor juggler James Darmody. From Boston, Darmody was a popular variety star throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is noted for being one of the first jugglers who could juggle five clubs (offering $1,000 to anyone who could match him). He is also known for juggling rifles (see illustration).

For more on the history of vaudeville, including jugglers like Darmody, 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.

W.C. Fields and Broadway

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jugglers, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , on November 18, 2016 by travsd

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With Kevin Fitzpatick giving his Fields Fest Walking Tour tomorrow, which takes visitors to destinations in the NYC theatre district significant to the life of W.C. Fields, it seemed a good time to post this piece on Fields’ time in the legit theatre.

Fields’ career can roughly be broken down into three phases:

  • Nearly 20 years as a juggler in vaudeville (circa 1895-1915) with a couple of forays into book shows in burlesque
  • 15 years as a Broadway star (1915-1930), with occasional vaudeville dates and silent films
  • 15 years as a star of talking pictures (1930-1945), with radio work supplanting live theatre after 1936

The Broadway period laid crucial groundwork for his Hollywood movies. Fields became a prolific and hilarious comedy sketch writer during his stage years. Nearly all of the sketches he wrote and performed in Broadway revues were incorporated into his films.

The Ziegfeld Follies of  1915 was a crucial turning point in Fields’ career; the dream of every vaudevillian. But it was not (as is sometimes claimed) his first structured stage show, or even his first Broadway show.

In the late 1890s (a time when burlesque was very different), as a juggler he’d taken part in the olio of a show called The Monte Carlo Girls, which played Troy, NY and then moved to Miner’s Bowery Theatre. In 1899, he appeared with Murphy and Gibson’s Minstrels in Atlantic City, and. Irwin’s Burlesquers in Cincinnati. These shows differed from vaudeville in that they consisted of a single, rehearsed company, who did the same show, in the same order from night to night. Fields was still a semi-mute tramp juggler at this stage.

His Broadway debut came in The Ham Tree (1905), a vehicle for the blackface minstrel team of McIntyre and Heath. Fields got to speak his first lines in this show, playing a funny detective named Sherlock Baffles, in addition to his juggling specialty. He was well received in the role. After out of town tryouts the show opened at Klaw and Erlanger’s New York Theatre in 1905 and toured through 1907.

In 1914, Fields got a terrific break (briefly) when he was given a slot in the seminal Broadway show Watch Your Step. This was Irving Berlin’s first Broadway show, and was a showcase for the talents of the dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle. The all-star cast also included Frank Tinney, Harry Kelly, Elizabeth Murray, and Charles King. Unfortunately, Fields was fired after a single performance. Not for cause, just for time. This was extremely common in Broadway shows, especially ones with a variety component. When ya run long, ya gotta cut. Still it must have been a major disappointment when this show went on to be a major hit. Fields’ consolation came the following year, when his Broadway career truly began.

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Ziegfeld Follies of 1915

Fields first stint in the Follies was more tentative than his participation in subsequent editions. It was essentially an on-the-job audition. Plenty of performers were tried in the Follies and then let go for a wide variety of reasons. But Fields was a hit, and somehow his contributions fit right into Flo Ziegfeld’s revue format.  In his inaugural year, Fields was able to do his trick pool table routine he’d been developing in vaudeville for years. But, as he was a newbie, the turn was incorporated into a sketch starring Ed Wynn, a Follies veteran. An occurrence during a performance of this sketch one night became a legendary show biz anecdote. As part of the action, Wynn crept under the pool table and started making faces at the audience. For this crime, one night Fields is reputed to have cracked Wynn over the head with a pool cue and knocked him out cold.  Fields proved he was able to hold his own in the 1915 Follies, not only with Wynn, but also the likes of Bert Williams, Leon Errol, Ina Claire, Bernard Granville, Mae Murray, the Oakland Sisters, Olive Thomas, and the dance team of Ann Pennington and George White (the latter of whom would go on to employ Fields in his own revue a few years later). Shorty Blanche was hired to be Fields’ valet this year;  in a few years time he would graduate to performing with Fields in the sketches. Last year I attended a wonderful celebration of the centennial of this landmark of the life of W.C. Fields; read all about it here.

Ziegfeld Follies of 1916

Having proven himself in the previous edition, Fields was given much more to do in 1916. He was in many more comedy sketches, and got to demonstrate a versatility that perhaps even his modern fans would not suspect he was capable of. In comedy sketches, he played Hamlet and Teddy Roosevelt, and did a funny routine with Bert Williams  and Sam Hardy (who later worked with Fields on his film Man on the Flying Trapeze). He was even in a musical number called “Njinsky” with Fanny Brice and others. In what was to become a Fields staple in revues, he did another sports-related comedy sketch, supplanting the pool routine with one about croquet (in later years he would also do ones on golf, tennis and baseball).  Fields’ co-stars in this edition included Ina Claire, Bernard Granville, Marion Davies (with whom he would appear 8 years later in Janice Meredith), Bird Millman, Ann Pennington, and Frances White. 

Ziegfeld Follies of 1917

This is fondly remembered as perhaps the best year of the Follies ever, at least for comedy fans. It was the debut year for both Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers, and Fanny Brice, one of the Follies’ earliest stars, returned. Fields became fast friends with all of them. Cantor was the youngest of the bunch; Fields mentored him and roomed with him went the company went on the road. Also in this edition, Fields appeared in two sketches with Walter Catlett, later to become a beloved Hollywood character actor himself: “A Game of Tennis” and “One of the Six Best Cellars”.  Also in the show were Bert Williams, the Fairbanks Twins, Carl Hyson, and Lilyan Tashman.

Cast of 1918 Follies

Cast of 1918 Follies

Ziegfeld Follies of 1918

This edition of the Follies is famous for being the one in which Fields introduced his routine “A Game of Golf”, which he later incorporated into so many of his movies (“Stand clear, and keep your eye on the ball!”). This is also the edition during which Fields met chorus girl Bessie Poole, who would become his longtime companion for years. Lillian Lorraine, who’d been an early star of the Follies from 1909 through 1912, returned. Also in the show were Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, Savoy and Brennan, the Fairbanks Twins, Ann Pennington, Joe Frisco, Marilyn Miller, Bee Palmer, Harry Kelly, Martha Mansfield, Billie Ritchie, and, in the chorus, Doris Eaton, later to become famous as the Last Ziegfeld Girl.

Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic (1919)

Fields had planned a foreign tour in 1919 so he didn’t participate in the Follies that year. But then the tour fell through. To full his schedule, he played several of Ziegfeld’s more informal cabaret revues instead. The Midnight Frolic was a sophisticated show staged in the rooftop club atop the New Amsterdam Theatre.  In this production, Fields introduced a sketch called “The Family Ford”, about all the tribulations of a family trying to load the car up for an outing. Also in the show were Fanny Brice, Frances White, Ted Lewis, Doris Eaton, Martha Mansfield, Chic Sale, and Savoy and Brennan.

Ziegfeld Nine O’Clock Revue (1920)

This was a supper show, for which Fields revived his golf and croquet sketches.  Will Rogers and Savoy and Brennan were in the cast.

Ziegfeld Girls of 1920

In this revue, Fields was joined by Fanny Brice, Lillian Lorraine, the Cameron Sisters, and others.

Ziegfeld Follies of 1920

In this edition, Fields brought “The Family Ford” to the big time. Also in the cast were Fanny Brice. Ray Dooley, Jack Donohue, Bernard Granville, Moran and Mack, Van and Schenck, Charles Winninger and both Doris and Mary Eaton.

Ziegfeld Follies of 1921

Fields introduced his sketch “Off to the Country” here; it was all about a family trying to get onto a subway car while loaded down with fishing poles and other recreational gear.  He also appeared in a Camille parody with Fields as John Barrymore, Fanny Brice as Ethel, and Raymond Hitchcock as Lionel.  He also played the referee in a spoof of the Dempsey-Carpentier fight with Fanny Brice and Ray Dooley as the boxers. Brice was the undisputed star of this edition — it’s the one in which she sang “My Man” and “Second Hand Rose”. Also in this one:Van and Schenck, and Doris and Mary Eaton

George White’s Scandals (1922)

Fields jumped ship and went over to the competition this year. he enjoyed much more creative freedom in George White’s revue, as White was also in the show himself and didn’t supervise the other acts as closely as Ziegfeld had.  Fields introduced a baseball routine (it was cut for being a rehash of his tennis routine) a radio sketch, and a sketch mixing his previous automobile and subway routines. Also in the cast: Dolores Costello, Winnie Lightner (and her sister Thea), and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.

Poppy (1923-1924)

This book musical written by Dorothy Donnelly and starring Madge Kennedy as the titular New England heiress, was a pivotal show for Fields. It was with Poppy that he introduced the florid-tongued, top-hatted 19th century mountebank, Eustace McGargle, the lovable snake oil salesman — the character we would see so often in his later movies. Already a star of vaudeville and revues, Poppy now brought Fields to the attention of serious and important critics like Alexander Woolcott, George Jean Nathan and Robert Sherwood. Walter Winchell had a small part in the ensemble!

The Comic Supplement (1925):

This show of sketches by J.P. McEvoy (with additional material by Fields) provided the OTHER piece of the puzzle we would see in Fields’ movies, that of the irascible, hen-pecked domestic dad. It included a drug store sketch that became the movie short The Pharmacist, as well as a sketch called “The Back Porch” that was incorporated into It’s a Gift., Betty Compson was in this show. Ziegfeld produced this legendary show, but he closed it out of town before it reached New York. But the silver lining was:

Ziegfeld Follies of 1925

Fields brought the best of the Comic Supplement material into the ’25 edition of the Follies and became the hit of the show, which needed the comedy material badly.  Also in this edition were Louise Brooks, with whom Fields would soon co-star in The Old Army Game.  The show also featured Chaz Chase and Vivienne Segal.

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Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1928)

When Fields’s second attempt at a silent career went bust he needed stage work.  he was not a fan of the Vanities (a cut-rate and more sensational and sexy version of the Follies and Scandals) but he couldn’t turn down the large amount of money he was offered for appearing.  The upside was that out of this show came some of his best sketches: “The Stolen Bonds”, which became the basis for the film short The Fatal Glass of Beer,  “An Episode at the Dentists” (which became the film short The Dentist) as well as  sketches entitled, “My School Days Are Over”, “The Caledonian Express”, “Fido the Beautiful Dog”.  The legendary “Canary Trial” emerged from this production, when Fields was called into court to stand trial for a murdered bird, allegedly killed during the Dentist Sketch. He gave the proceedings all the seriousness they deserved. Also in this show were Louise Brooks, Joe Frisco, Ray Dooley, Lillian Roth (soon to be featured in films like The Love Parade, Animal Crackers and Madam Satan) and Barto and Mann.

Show Boat (1930)

Fields had been intended for Cap’n Andy in the original Broadway production of this classic, but was unavailable. He as able to have his cake and eat it too by later playing the part regionally for a few weeks, at the St. Louis Municipal Opera.

Ballyhoo (1930)

This show, produced by Arthur Hammerstein, has the dubious distinction of being the only Broadway show W.C. Fields was in that tanked. Not because it was bad, but because it hit the boards at the height of the Great Depression. Fields played a promoter  by the name of Q.Q. Quale, and got to do some juggling. This show marked the end of Fields’ 30+ stage career. For the next 15 years it would be just film and radio — for which we should be glad, since they allow us who weren’t around at the time of his stage career, to experience him!

 

 

 

Fields Fest Begins Today!

Posted in Comedy, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, ME, My Shows, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , on November 1, 2016 by travsd

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December 25, 2016 will mark the 70th anniversary of the passing from our plane of the great stage and screen comedian W.C. Fields. To mark the occasion we have organized Fields Fest, a festival of talks, screening and other events to celebrate the life and career of the Great Man. Fields Fest is our follow up to the highly successful Marxfest, which took place in May of 2014. 

Here’s some of what we have planned. Stay tuned for updates!  Two additional events are in the works besides what’s below:

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Tuesday, November 1, 7:00pm: Launch event at the Lambs: W.C. Fields for President

Did you know that in addition to being one of the most popular American entertainers of the 20th century, W.C. Fields was also a proud member of The Lambs? The clubhouse will once again be filled with the stories and charm so often on display from Fields during a special night on Tuesday, Nov. 1, at 7 p.m. The team behind the upcoming stage show W.C. Fields For President (based on the humor book Fields for President, recently re-released with a new forward by Dick Cavett) will present a night devoted to the showman’s legacy. The event will bring to The Lambs actor-circus performer Glen Heroy, star of the one-man show, and its writer-director, the mountebank Trav S.D. (author of No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous), and Lauren Milberger, as Gracie Allen!. A suggested donation of $10 supports The Lambs Foundation. 3 West 51st Street. www.the-lambs.org. Attendance is limited, RSVP to Kevin Fitzpatrick, kevin [AT ]fitzpatrickauthor.com.

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Thursday, November 17, 7:00pm: Hear and Now with Rachel Cleary

Trav S.D. and Glen Heroy (of W.C. Fields for President) will appear on Rachel Cleary’s Radio Free Brooklyn show. Listen to it here: http://radiofreebrooklyn.com/show/hear-and-now-with-rachel-c/

Fields and his comedy cohorts from the Ziegfeld Follies

Fields and his comedy cohorts from the Ziegfeld Follies

Saturday, Nov. 19, 1:00-3:00 PM: W.C. Fields History Walk
Walk in the footsteps of W.C. Fields and see where he lived, worked, and socialized. This two-hour walk is led by Kevin C. Fitzpatrick, author of The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide (Globe Pequot) and Under the Table: A Dorothy Parker Cocktail Guide (Lyons Press). See more than a dozen locations associated with his life and times in a spirited walk. Meeting point: in front of the Shubert Theatre, Shubert Alley (44th Street between 7th and 8th avenues). The walk will encompass approximately 25 blocks, so wear comfortable shoes. The walk is open to the public. Kids, strollers, and dogs welcome. Buy tickets in advance by emailing Kevin: kevin [at] fitzpatrickauthor (dot) com. Tickets are $20.00 each.

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Tuesday, November 22, 7:30pm: The Bank Dick (1940)

The classic Fields film, introduced by Dr. Harriet Fields, W.C.’s only granddaughter and global health activist, at the Cinema Arts Center, Huntington Long Island: www.cinemaartscentre.org

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Young Fields in his days as a vaudeville tramp juggler

Thursday, December 1, 6:30pm: “W.C. Fields in Vaudeville”

Trav S.D. talks about the great comedian’s early years in show business as a juggler in vaudeville and a revue comedian, and the many ways those experiences influenced his later motion pictures. The talk will be illustrated and will draw from the author’s research on the comedian for his blog Travalanche (travsd.wordpress.com) and his popular book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous. At the Mid-Manhattan Branch of NY Public Library, 455 Fifth Ave, Sixth Floor. FREE

"Sally of the Sawdust" (1925)

“Sally of the Sawdust” (1925)

Saturday, December 10, 1:30pm: “W.C. Fields in Astoria: The Paramount Silents”

Many people know that W.C. Fields had one of the most distinctive speaking voices of the classic comedy era. What they may not realize is that prior to the advent of talking pictures, Fields was a SILENT comedy star. From 1924 through 1928 he appeared in ten Paramount features filmed at that studio’s Astoria Queens facility. In this illustrated talk author and lecturer Trav S.D. takes you up close to this lesser known stretch of the Great Man’s career, and shows how much of Fields’ silent work presaged his better known talkies. At Greater Astoria Historical Society, Queens: www.astorialic.org

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Monday, December 12, 7pm: “W.C. Fields: From Dime Museums to the Jazz Age” an illustrated talk by Trav S.D., sponsored by Zelda Magazine 

A look at screen comedian W.C. Fields’ growth from humble sideshow and dime museum juggler to sketch comedian and one of the biggest stars of sophisticated Broadway revues like the Ziegfeld Follies, George White’ Sandals and Earl Carrol’s Vanities. Along the way meet the glittering stars he shared the limelight with like Louise Brooks, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers and Eddie Cantor. Admission: $8. Location: Morbid Anatomy Museum, 424 Third Avenue, 11215 Brooklyn NY

Sunday, December 25, 4pm: W.C. Fields Memorial Pub Crawl

The culminating event of Fields Fest, in honor of the 70th anniversary of the day in which The Great Man met the Man in the Bright Night Gown. Location TBA

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Thursday, December 29, 7:00: The Man on the Flying Trapeze

A screening of Field’s often overlooked 1935 Paramount classic The Man on the Flying Trapeze at Metrograph. Celebrity guest speaker TBA.

Sylvester Schaffer

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, German, Jugglers, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Music, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Sylvester Schaffer (1885-1949). Schaffer was a second generation star of the Berlin variety stage. His father was the Austrian-Bohemian juggler and painter George Sylvester Schaffer. Schaffer fils had both those skills, and was also a magician, lightning sketch artist, musician, acrobat and trick rider. He was often called as the “one man variety show”.

Shaffer’s public persona was not unlike Houdini’s, and like the American escape artist Schaffer was also considered a dashing sex symbol and starred in a series of silent adventure movies during the 1920s. Also like Houdini, Schaffer was an international star, and he toured American vaudeville many times in the teens and twenties, including the greatest venue of all, the Palace, where he presented a lavish stage show with ten elaborate sets.

When Hitler came to power Schaffer fled Germany and settled into semi-retirement in Los Angeles, concentrating on visual art and music studies for his remaining years.

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult 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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Larry Weeks: Bridge Between Old Vaudeville and the New

Posted in Contemporary Variety, Jugglers, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on September 24, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great juggler Lester “Larry” Weeks (b. 1919). Weeks is one of the very few bridges between the original vaudeville business and the phenomenon of “New Vaudeville” that emerged decades later. As a kid he grew up attended (and later performing in) local vaudeville theatres in the Bronx. His big shot came in Irving Berlin’s Broadway show and movie This is the Army, a rally-the-home-front extravaganza during World War II in which Weeks had a show-stopping number juggling potatoes while on K.P.

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After the war he continued to tour with the USO and then played nightclubs and put on special shows in New York City schools. From 1966 to 1979, he produced the quarterly Big Apple Convention, which featured full-on vaudeville shows, lectures by magicians, film clips of old acts, and vendor tables selling magic equipment. This of course is the link to New Vaudeville and the present. The Big Apple shows were an opportunity for younger generations of performers to meet old timers and learn from them, and to ply their trade before new audiences, some of whom might be inspired to carry on the tradition themselves — just as Larry had been back in the 1920s.

From what I understand he’s still with us. Check out the Daily News‘ coverage of his 90th birthday four years ago here. 

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.

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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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Sr. Antonio Blitz: Magical Moravian

Posted in Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, British Music Hall, Jugglers, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2013 by travsd

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Signor Antonio Blitz (1810-1877) was a magician, juggler, ventriloquist and bird handler. Born in England on June 21, 1810, he began his professional career at age 13 in Germany. Then he returned to tour the British Isles, generally giving out that he was a Moravian, in order to enhance his exoticism. He first came to the U.S. in 1834, performing that year in Niblo’s Garden. He continued to perform throughout North America thereafter. His tricks included bullet catching, plate spinning, “the automaton trumpeter” and “the never-failing egg sack”. He is said to have used a great deal of humor in his act. In 1872 he published his autobiography, Fifty Years in the Magic Circle. 

To find out about  the history of vaudeville and variety, including performers like Antonio Blitz, consult 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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