Archive for pantomime

On the Tiller Girls: Pioneers in Precision Dance

Posted in British Music Hall, Broadway, Dance with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2017 by travsd

British music theatre director John Tiller (1854-1925) was born on June 13. While skilled and trained in music and theatre arts since childhood, Tiller initially made his fortune in the family cotton business in Manchester until circumstances permitted him to pursue his theatrical interests more seriously around 1890. At that point, Tiller began presenting pantomimes and training young girls to perform in them at the professional level. He maintained a school for young performers much akin to the one Ned Wayburn would later start in America. As an outgrowth, he appears to have been a crucial innovator in the development of precision dance.

Now, it is often claimed that Tiller was the “inventor” of precision dance, but I doubt that, since images (photos, sketches paintings) of women in dance choruses arrayed in neat lines are readily available dating from many decades earlier than this. Another influence had to have been drill teams — believe it on not, male military drill teams were also popular on variety stages in the late 19th century. At any rate, Tiller seemed to have honed and refined the practice, demanding absolute uniformity in appearance and movement, becoming an early adapter of the kick-line and the feathered headdress, and apparently inventing the useful techniques of the dancers linking arms or holding each other’s waists in order to help coordinate and steady movement. He was also a pioneer in branding and promoting. His “Tiller Girls” were booked all over the world: Paris, London and the States, were booked for Broadway revues like the Ziegfeld Follies and George White’s Scandals, and were the inspiration for the Radio City Rockettes as well as the film routines of Busby Berkley. 

Tiller himself died in 1925 but various incarnations of The Tiller Girls have persisted and thrived with great popularity down to the present day.

For more on the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold

Shields and Yarnell: Prime Time Mimes

Posted in Clown, Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , on March 21, 2014 by travsd


Is there any sentiment quite so universal as the American detestation of mimes? I don’t mean Hollywood comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Harpo Marx or Buster Keaton, of course. People love them. I mean the artsy, Parisian, busking variety who “walk against the wind” and “scream inside a shrinking box” and “tug invisible ropes”. No audience member I’ve ever seen has seemed “wide-eyed with wonder” at such mortifying spectacles, as they are theoretically supposed to be. Usually they’re more bug-eyed with disbelief and indignation. There are few pleas in our criminal justice system offering acceptable grounds for murder; mime is one of them.

So, how, HOW was there ever a variety show green-lighted starring street mimes Robert Shields and Lorene Yarnell? On coast to coast, national television? I’ve never encountered anyone who could answer this question for me. And yet such a phenomenon did occur. After numerous appearances on The Tonight Show, Sonny and Cher, and Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert, Shields and Yarnell got their own CBS variety program in 1977. The fact is usually spoken of in hushed whispers, using the same tone we use when talking about ghost experiences or personal tales of alien abduction: “I’m not sure this thing really happened, and yet it seemed so VIVID at the time.”

But the proof is real; here’s a clip. Their thing was mostly a robot routine, and after all, it was the age when “doing the robot” was a thing. Perhaps that is why this thing accidentally happened:

For more on variety history (including tv variety)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 and slapstick film history 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



On the Christmas Pantomime

Posted in British Music Hall, Clown, Comedy, Drag and/or LGBT, Variety Arts (Defined) with tags , , , , , , , on December 21, 2013 by travsd


A timely topic and one I warrant has been a source of confusion for many Americans  travelling abroad during the holidays. Pantomime is one of those theatrical terms, like burlesque, vaudeville, cabaret and many others, that possesses several forms and meanings. The kind we aim to discuss today is NOT the silent, French Marcel Marceau type. Nor is it the ancient Greco-Roman type (which I bet most of you don’t care about anyway, although I sure do!) Today we speak of the British Panto, which has long been an annual Christmas tradition in the UK, Ireland, Australia, and Canada.

As we have written about many stars of the Panto here (Joseph Grimaldi, Dan Leno, Little Tich,  the Hanlon-Lees, Lily Morris, Bert Errol, Wilkie Bard, Nellie Wallace, G.S. Melvin, Bessie Bonehill, Wee Georgie Wood, Ada Reeve, et al) we thought it high time we provided a little more detail about what it was (and is).

British Panto evolved ultimately from the commedia dell’arte, an Italian import that gave the world a rich pantheon of comical stock characters (Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon, etc etc). In England this evolved into the Harlequinade in the early 18th century, a silent form (spoken dialogue being illegal in all but a couple of licensed theatres) very much focused on a small handful of the original commedia characters, the lovers Harlequin and Columbine and their escape from Pantaloon). The Harlequinade was initially presented on a bill with such entertainments as opera and ballet.

As time wore on, the show began to incorporate magical transformations by Harlequin, in which the presentation shifted to the telling of a story from classical mythology, a fairy tale or nursery rhyme. Eventually the Harlequinade fell away completely in the 19th century, leaving only the fairy tale (Puss in Boots, Jack and the Beanstalk, etc etc). The modern Panto is very much NOT silent. But there are several other distinctive features that make the Panto a unique theatre form:

* Drag. The Panto makes much use of comedy drag in the form of the Pantomime Dame (a guy dressed as a woman), and the Principal Boy (a gal dressed as a guy)

* Audience participation. The audience is coached by the actors to shout certain traditional things, such as “He’s behind you!” when the hero doesn’t see the villain creep up.

* Double entendres. The Panto is a family entertainment as opposed to a children’s entertainment. While the kids watch the fairy tale, the actors often make downright obscene jokes, but told in an oblique way designed to go over the smaller kid’s heads.

* Panto animals. Since time immemorial, the inclusion of a couple of actors in a horse or cow costume has been de rigeur

* Celebrity guests. A feature of the modern panto, at least the big productions, is that well-known tv and movie stars will drop in and take part.

Yes, the panto continues to be a living, breathing thing. Here is a random poster for a contemporary British panto from a couple of years ago featuring one of my favorite comic performers Dame Edna:

dame edna everage dec 2011

No panto in the U.S., you ask? Well, we had very little theatre at all back when we were British colonies. There was some panto activity here in the 19th century (see my article here on George L. Fox) but it didn’t stick. But fairy tale theatre of a sort was all the rage in the late 19th/ early 20th century in the form of what were called “extravaganzas”. I’ll no doubt be treating of them in future.

For more on the variety theateconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 


For more slapstick and clown 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 etc etc etc



On the Great Grimaldi

Posted in Clown, Comedy with tags , , , , , on December 18, 2013 by travsd


All honor and reverence to the spirit of Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) on this his birthday. Grimaldi expanded the part of “Clown” from the harlequinade portion of British pantomimes into a starring role. Indeed, he made be said to be the reason we call all clowns “clowns” today. Prior to him, the role was a character rather than an entire mode of performance. Some are said to still refer to clowns as “Joeys” today, although I’ve never heard anyone do that. Grimaldi was the biggest star of the London stage of his day, a sort of national treasure. Chaplin aspired to something like his eminence and respect when he himself became a famous clown (he may be said to have exceeded it).

As its Christmas season, expect to be hearing more about the British pantomimes hereabouts in the near future.

For more slapstick and clown 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 etc etc etc


For more on the variety theateconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 



Forging the Comedy Film: The Screen Career of Charlie Chaplin

Posted in British Music Hall, Charlie Chaplin, Clown, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Romani (Gypsy), Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2013 by travsd

3. Charlie, Mabel, Roscoe0001

Continued from our previous post on Chaplin’s early stage years. 

When he started at Keystone Studios in December 1913, Charlie Chaplin  faced a number of the same hurdles he had encountered during his time on the stage with Fred Karno. His colleagues regarded him as an outsider, “not a team player”. His comedy style was regarded as “too slow”. But, as at Karno, his methods were rapidly validated (and his personality quickly tolerated) when the audience fell for him in a big way. Within weeks of his starting, there was a national craze for Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character, with his too-tight clothes, oversized shoes, little moustache, and derby hat and cane. There were songs about Charlie Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin dolls, and Charlie Chaplin “contests” with prizes for the best Charlie Chaplin imitation (which is how both Milton Berle and Bob Hope both got their start). Everyone else at Keystone (even stars like Mabel Normand and Fatty Arbuckle) quickly became a supporting player for Charlie.

After 35 shorts with the Keystone company, Chaplin was made an offer at the Essanay company, at a substantially higher salary than Sennet was willing to pay.  Chaplin’s artistry continued to develop during his year at Essanay, turning out fifteen shorts, with a sixteenth patched together from studio out-takes after he had left, a sure sign of his box-office wizardry.

Charlie’s material and artistic progress were rapid.  In 1916, he inked a deal with the Mutual Company at the unprecedented salary of  $10,000 a week. (consider: at the time, this sum would have been a good middle-class salary for an entire year’s work). The year 1916-17 was to be his most creative period, with the greatest output. Over the course of this contract, Charlie executed twelve perfect comedy shorts, as remarkable to watch today as they were revolutionary then. These films (The Floorwalker, The Rink, The PawnshopThe CureOne a.m.The FiremanThe Vagabond, The AdventurerEasy StreetThe Immigrant, Behind the Screen) remain unsurpassed classics of the silent short comedy form.


His ambition and his price tag grew apace. With each new contract, he set a new record. His 1917 deal was for 8 pictures over 18 months for a total of $1 million. A lesser artist would have taken the money and ran, pumping out the product on schedule and moved on to the next juicy deal. As it turns out, such a policy would have been penny-wise but pound foolish. Chaplin took five years to finish this contract, and while some of them were flops, some were hits on an unprecedented scale, becoming cinematic classics which are no doubt continuing to enrich his estate. The First National films tended to be longer than the previous ones, but the better stories justified the length. With A Dog’s Life (1917) he established the template for most of his features—the Little Tramp meets a buddy (in this case a pooch) with whom he shares a series of life’s ups and downs. The next film Shoulder Arms (1917) was groundbreaking for being the first war comedy. Daring for its time, it was an instant hit, and a popular favorite for the soldiers overseas.

1919 was characterized by growing pains for Chaplin, each of his releases flopping for different reasons, although both of the films are charming in retrospect. In Sunnyside his artistic ambition erred on the side of self-consciousness. The film found the Little Tramp cavorting with fauns and fairies in a fantasy sequence closer in spirit to an amateur ballet company’s conception of “art” than the output of a master comedian. In A Day’s Pleasure, the pendulum swung the other way, casting Charlie in a highly conventional situation comedy of the sort Harold Lloyd was much better at. He hit his stride again with his next picture by revisiting the formula he had worked so successfully in A Dog’s LifeThe Kid is in many ways his best movie – revolutionary for its successful use of high pathos in contrast to his comedy, and broke all sorts of box office records when it was released in 1921. It was also his first “feature length” film, although somewhat short by today’s standards.


By now, he was years late to finish his First National contract and was eager to start making films for United Artists, which he had founded in 1919 with Douglas FairbanksMary Pickford and D.W. Griffith. In rapid order, he released The Idle ClassPay Day and The Pilgrim a series of straightforward comedy shorts,to finish out the contract.

Chaplin astonished audiences yet again with his first United Artists feature. A Woman of Paris (1923) broke new ground in three ways: it was a drama; Chaplin was not the star (in fact he only made a cameo appearance); and it employed a much more realistic style of acting than any previous Hollywood dramatic film. In its day it was considered a great screen achievement—one of the greatest films up until that point. Its melodramatic story was a sort of cross between the real life story of gold-digging party girl Peggy Hopkins Joyce and Our Lady of the Camillias. Charlie’s return to the screen as the tramp (after a four year absence) was equally innovative.


In The Gold Rush (1925), he created an “epic” comedy set against the backdrop of the Alaska gold rush, and suggested by the real life story of the ill-fated Donner Party, who, snowed in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1847, resorted to cannibalism. The grim subject matter, unprecedented in a comedy, made for a rich movie-going experience, and it is among Chaplin’s best films.

The Circus (1928) is sort of a “lame duck” film, released in the last year silence was to dominate cinemas. It broke little new ground. By the following year, talkies were king, and suddenly cinemas were full of…well, nearly every other vaudevillians in this book. Silents didn’t have much use for the Marx Brothers, Jolson, Clark & McCuloughEddie Cantor, Bill Robinson, Paul Whiteman, Mae West, W.C. Fields, Joe E. Brown, etc etc etc, but the talkies sure did. Suddenly, after 15 years on top, Chaplin was at a disadvantage. Keaton, Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy all made the plunge into talkies, with varying degrees of success. Chaplin didn’t take his artistry as a pantomime so lightly. He believed in the craft he had learned at the hand of Fred Karno, the age-old art of English pantomime. It was his special field of endeavor, in which he was king, in the same way that Houdini was king of escapes, and Bill Robinson the king of tap, and Will Rogers the lariat king. He therefore stuck to his guns.

city lights

City Lights (1931) may be regarded as the first “neo-classical” silent film. It is a silent film (with music and sound effects by Chaplin) released three years after the death of silence. Audiences were enchanted by his story of the blind flower girl and the tramp who loves her. Chaplin had triumphed by maintaining his integrity in the face of radical change. Even more astoundingly, he achieved the same feat again with the release of Modern Times (1936), nearly a decade after the advent of sound. With this film, he demonstrated a higher degree of social engagement, clearly critiquing certain aspects of life in America at the height of the depression – poverty, soul deadening work on an assembly line, repressive police, etc. This film, too, was a hit, as was the song that came from it, appropriate for the times, though characteristically Victorian in its sentimentalism.

Smile though your heart is aching,

Smile, even though it’s breaking.

When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by.

If you smile through your far and sorrow

Smile and then maybe tomorrow

You’ll see the sun come shining through for you.


For years, Chaplin had toyed with the idea of doing a film on Napoleon, but the French director Abel Gance had beat him to it with the definitive film in 1928. Fortunately for Chaplin (and unfortunately for the world) there was a contemporary tyrant running amuck in the 1930s who conveniently sported a Charlie Chaplin moustache. In the naïve world of the 1930s, laughter seemed an effective weapon against Hitler. What was he but a big dope, a boor with idiotic theories and preposterous plans to take over the world? This was what much of the civilized world thought of him in the 30s, but by 1941, when The Great Dictator was released, Hitler had taken over almost all of Europe (including Abel Gance’s France) and was daily raining bombs and terror on the last remaining unconquered European territory: England. In retrospect, Chaplin’s Hitler satire seems too mild in the face of the Nazis’ unimaginable atrocities. But, when it was released, the great fear was that it would be too controversial —  a substantial portion of the country had no qualms with Nazism. Nevertheless, The Great Dictator ended up being Chaplin’s biggest grossing film up until that point. A lot of the box office may have been driven by curiosity; it was Chaplin’s first talkie. Ironically, the most eloquent portion of the film, and the most characteristic of Chaplin was completely silent. Chaplin, as Adenoid Hinkel, the demented dictator, does a beautiful, romantic dance with a globe, which was ingeniously painted on a balloon so that it could sail high into the air, and then float slowly back to his waiting arms. Based on this sequence it is impossible not to come to the conclusion that if Chaplin had wanted to, he could have continued to make silent films.

Unfortunately, the tide began to turn against Chaplin shortly thereafter. His anti-Nazism was unfortunately tied to a pro-Soviet tendency. Just prior to the war he spoke at many rallies, urging American  involvement to relieve the Russians who were heroically fighting Germany at that point. Throughout the war, he vociferously defended them as our allies, and, after the war, when the Soviets drew their iron curtain across Europe, he was unable to see the writing on the wall.


In 1947 he broke new ground for the last time. Having realized too late his naiveté in The Great Dictator he appeared to attempt to make up for it in Monsieur Verdoux, the first black comedy ever to be produced in Hollywood. The tale is a sort of modern retelling of the Bluebeard legend, which Charlie adapted at the suggestion of Orson Welles. The allusions to Nazi atrocities in the film (in particular, the depiction of a crematorium) are unmistakable. American audiences hated the film. Charlie’s lovable tramp is nowhere in evidence in the film; instead “Charles Chaplin” plays a serial killer – one who very eloquently defends his bloodthirsty crimes. This was not the sort of thing moms could take their children to. Adding fuel to the flame was Charlie’s dismal record as a husband. Over the years he had deflowered, married and divorced a seemingly endless parade of teenage girls (and been involved with god knows how many others). A blind eye could be turned toward this tendency so long as he kept America laughing in an old-fashioned, wholesome way. Now, however, it seemed to occur America all at once that Charlie was a pervert, a red, and a sicko. His star fell very fast indeed.


He had one more American film, the 1952 Limelight which revisited his music hall origins, and co-starred Buster Keaton, but unfortunately dwelt again on the issues of death and suicide. Having recently married the 18-old Oona O’Neill (against her father Eugene O’Neill’s wishes), Charlie was a true anathema in the U.S. After a trip abroad in 1952, he was informed to gain re-entry into the country he would have to undergo an interrogation by the Immigration Department to “answer charges of a political nature and of moral turpitude.” Charlie refused on principle and selected instead a life in exile. He was to live the remainder of his life with Oona and his large brood of children in Switzerland. Cut off from the audience that had formerly sustained him, he made only two more movies, both fairly atrocious: A King in New York (1957) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967). Charlie passed away in 1977. Like something out one of his own black comedies, grave robbers stole his remains shortly thereafter,though they were later caught.

For more on Charlie Chaplin and silent screen comedy  please check out 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. To find out about  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.


The Hanlon Brothers

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, British Music Hall, Circus, Comedy, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on March 3, 2013 by travsd

Among the most influential figures in circus and variety history were the Hanlon Brothers, an English troupe whose nucleus originally consisted of six acrobatic siblings. Three of them had started as tumblers in their childhood, apprenticed to one “Professor” John Lees. As such they made their performing debut in 1847. (For this reason, the troupe is sometimes referred to as the Hanlon-Lees). In time, the act would include three more brothers plus various others, and would add the then-new spectacle of aerial acrobatics (i.e., trapeze), which they called by the catchy name “zampillaërostation”.

In 1878, at the urging of one of their members, a French juggler named Henri Agoust, the brothers began to present original pantomimes that enlarged upon the tradition of startling stage effects (trap doors and the like) by incorporating the Hanlons’ acrobatic abilities. Their original spectacles were a sui generis; they rapidly deviated from the usual commedia cast of characters, but continued to be referred to as pantomimes for lack of a better term. Various incarnations of the troupe performed these full length stage shows in England, France and America through 1911, after which they played stripped-down excerpts in American vaudeville, and some iteration of the troupe was playing in Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus as late as 1945. The Hanlons were extremely influential; numerous other comedy-acrobatic acts adapted their surprising techniques. Echoes of their work would make it to the silver screen most markedly in the work of Buster Keaton, many of whose gags, such as the balancing ladder stunt in Cops (1922) and the leap through a window with a quick-change of costume in mid-air from Sherlock, Jr. (1924) were lifted whole-cloth from the Hanlons.

For more information on the history of silent and slapstick comedy past present and future, see Chain of Fools:  Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube available at Bear Manor Media, and also through and wherever nutty books are sold.


And 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. 



Bessie Bonehill: Principal Boy and Beyond

Posted in British Music Hall, Drag and/or LGBT, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 17, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Bessie Bonehill (1855-1902). Bonehill was a British music hall singing comedienne and drag king, who started out in provincial West Bromwich before conquering, London, New York, and then farther-flung realms. She started off as principal boy in pantomime, which is where she perfected her male impersonation. She first came to the U.S. to play Tony Pastor’s in 1889 and moved here in 1891. Her vaudeville career was so successful that she was able to buy a 600 acre estate on Long Island. Her travels took her all over the wild west and to South Africa but she was forced to flee that country due to the Boer War.  She died in England in 1902 while visiting home.

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. 


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 etc etc etc


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