Archive for music hall

Stars of Vaudeville #1037: Charles Chaplin, Sr.

Posted in British Music Hall, Charlie Chaplin, Singers, 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 etc etc etc

Stars of Vaudeville #1008: Marie Loftus

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


 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.

Stars of Vaudeville #978: Kitty Gordon

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Singers, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of British-American actress Kitty Gordon (Constance Blades, 1878-1974). A star of musical comedy, started out touring the British provinces in 1901. Her first Broadway production was  Veronique (1904) , produced by Klaw and Erlanger. Five years later she moved to the states permanently. Among her notable shows were the Shubert revue La Belle Paree (1911) and the American premiere of Victor Herbert’s The Enchantress (1911-1912).

Her big vaudeville year appears to have been 1914, when she made a national tour of the Keith circuit, including the newly opened Palace. She seems to have been as prized for her looks as for her ability as a performer. In her book Vaudeville, Caroline Caffin notes “her luscious beauty and limpid voice and gowns of startling magnificence”. In her book The Palace, Marion Spitzer says she was “famous for her beautiful back” (a woman’s back was presumably a rare and exciting sight in public in the early 20th century, striking enough to rate a shout out).

Gordon did one last Broadway show, the Shubert revue A World of Pleasure (1915-1916) and then headed out to Hollywood to star in silent films for two years. Her last movie was Playthings of Passion (1919). Then it was back to vaudeville. In 1920, while performing a dramatic sketch at a Chicago vaudeville house, the prop gun she was using fire for real, shooting an acrobat who was standing in the wings. That’ll fix him for standing in the wings!

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Stars of Vaudeville #974: Robert Chisholm

Posted in Singers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2016 by travsd
with Jeanette MacDonald

with Jeanette MacDonald

Today is the birthday of Robert Chisholm (William Leslie Chisholm, 1894-1960). Australian born Chisholm was the son of a Melbourne bootmaker, whose Christian name he took as his professional one. He served as an ambulance driver in WWI; from here ho migrated to the military division that put on camp shows, and from here to professional theatre. He appears to have received some training as a singer and musician in his childhood, for his progress in show business was rapid and he was given a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music. For almost four decades, Chisholm went were the jobs were, and this meant dividing his time between opera, musical theatre, vaudeville, music hall, film, recording, and constant shuttling between the West End, Broadway, Hollywood, Sidney and provincial tours of the English speaking world.

It was Eddie Darling who spotted Chisholm for the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit on a scouting tour; Chisholm made big time tours in the States almost every year between 1926 and the death of the two-a-day at the Palace in 1932. Between 1928 and 1951, he has 20 major Broadway credits. (Here’s an interesting one: he was MacHeath in the first American production of Threepenny Opera in 1933. It only played a week). He was also in the original Broadway productions of On the Town and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Though he was tried in Hollywood, he only really has a proper role appears in one major film: The Lottery Bride (1930) with Jeanette MacDonald, Joe E. Brown, Zasu Pitts, and Harry Gribbon. Later he appeared in an early experimental television production called Father O’Flynn (1935). His role in It Happened in Hollywood (1937) was just a walk-on. Circa 1960, he retired to his home country.

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Stars of Vaudeville #932: Lew Grade

Posted in British Music Hall, Dance, Impresarios, Jews/ Show Biz, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2015 by travsd


There is something not entirely inappropriate about Christmas also being the birthday of Baron Lew Grade (Lev Winogradsky, 1906-1998). After all, the British TV mogul headed up the Independent Television Company (ITC) which brought us The Muppets (not to mention The Prisoner, Thunderbirds, and Space 1999). Before he was a producer, Grade was a show biz agent (see the big cigar?) and before that? Before that, my friends, Grade was a hoofer in music hall and vaudeville.

Ukrainian by birth, Grade grew up in London’s working class East End. At the age of 20, he won a nationwide dance contest (judged by Fred Astaire) and went professional. Billed as “The Man With the Musical Feet” he danced on British stages for eight years, before he developed water on the knee and sought work behind the scenes. His first partner was Joe Collins, father of Joan and Jackie Collins.

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Hall of Hams #98: Elsa Lanchester

Posted in British Music Hall, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, The Hall of Hams, Women with tags , , , , , , on October 28, 2015 by travsd

While it’s unfair to REDUCE her to this role, as many do, it IS the one which put her on the map, and, well, Halloween is 3 days away

Today is the birthday of the great Elsa Lanchester (1902-1986). Lanchester was still a going concern in my youth (Murder by Death, Willard and all those Disney movies) hence it took me a little time to put that stout older English lady together with her most iconic role (see above).

Va Va Voom, Elsa Lanchester!

Va Va Voom, Elsa Lanchester!

She was gorgeous and somewhat wild looking in her youth. Look at this (below). Damn! THIS was the person to play Eva Tanguay, Mitzi Gaynor be damned! (Well, not damned, just fired from The I Don’t Care Girl)


True to form, Lanchester actually WAS wild. She was born of bohemian, socialist, unmarried (on principle) parents, and got her start singing in avant-garde cabarets and night clubs in the late teens and twenties. In 1927 she met fellow cast member Charles Laughton in a play called Mr. Prohack. They married two years later, and maintained a loving, if typically unconventional) relationship (Laughton was gay). The pair played opposite each other from time to time on both stage and screen (e.g., The Private Life of Henry VIII, 1933, and Tales of Manhattan, 1942). Her role in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) was small, but prominent, and her image in the role was to become one of the most iconic in all of Hollywood cinema. Other notable roles included parts in The Bishop’s Wife (1947), The Inspector General (1949), Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and Bell, Book and Candle (1958). Then there were those Disney movies I mentioned: Mary Poppins (1964), That Darn Cat! (1965), and Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968). Her last movie was the terrible, completely incoherent “comedy” Die Laughing (1980) starring Robbie Benson. (I don’t know why we watched this one a few months ago, but we did…or some of it).


She also recorded several popular records of bawdy music hall songs, and penned two autobiographical books. And now, again, because Halloween —


Stars of Vaudeville #913: Flanagan and Allen

Posted in British Music Hall, Comedians, Comedy, Singers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2015 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Bud Flanagan (Chaim Reuben Weintrop, 1896-1968) of the British music hall team of Flanagan and Allen. 

A few years ago, someone slipped me a couple of CDs of this quirky duo and I absolutely fell in love. I find them hilarious and yet sentimental in an inexplicable way that only the English could pull off. They have this dry, quiet, understated and sweet manner, and sing these sleepy, sleepy nostalgic songs like “Underneath the Arches”, “Run, Rabbit, Rabbit” and “The Umbrella Man”, a tune I loved so much I got David Gochfeld and Michael Townsend Wright to perform it in my vaudeville show a few years back.

Flanagan’s an Irish name but it was just a stage name. His parents were actually Polish Jews who came to London as refugees fleeing a program (they actually they thought they’d bought tickets for New York. He left home as a teenager to work on ships, and wound up America, which is where he first broke into vaudeville on the small time, touring Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, as well. World War One brought him back to the Mother Country. He teamed up with Chesney Allen in 1926. The pair were also part of a sextet, called The Crazy Gang.  Flangan and Allen appeared in music hall, radio and films until 1945, when Allen retired. Flanagan continued performing as a solo until his death.

And here, because I love it so, “The Umbrella Man”:

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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