Archive for performer

Polly Bergen: Heard But Not Seen

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2017 by travsd

The late Polly Bergen (Nellie Burgin, 1930-2014) had a birthday of July 14.

I became really interested in her when I saw her entertaining performance in the 1975 tv movie Murder on Flight 502 and so I perked up and noticed her whenever I saw her in things subsequently. But here’s something that I think is worth mentioning and altogether not negligible: I had already seen her in many things previously without ever taking particular note of her. And this includes her Tony-nominated performance in the 2001 Broadway revival of Follies. (That was a special case; I was dragged to that. You might think I would like a show about a bunch of old Follies broads, and if I saw it today I might feel differently but probably not, for the simple reason that all Sondheim after A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum bores the absolute ever-loving shit out of me. There, I said it. Go ahead, be outraged. I am unmoved, either by your umbrage, or by Sondheim’s reputation for genius. I don’t care how many hits he has, I find him an untheatrical bore. So when I saw that production of Follies, I’m sure I spent the whole two hours looking at my watch, the ceiling, any place but the stage.)

“The Stooge” is the one in the middle

So there’s that. But I had also already seen her in her three movies with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, At War with the Army (1950), That’s My Boy (1951) and The Stooge (1952), as well as the original Cape Fear (1962), the western Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), the insane asylum melodrama The Caretakers (1963) with Joan Crawford, and the 1983 tv mini-series The Winds of War, again without ever particularly marking her existence.

But, as I say, I liked her Murder on Flight 502. And I have my theories as to why. She is given full reign to play a big personality in that film, a big cocky diva character with a lot of bark on her, very Elaine Stritch. And she makes an impression. No doubt her Follies performance had been in this vein but I wasn’t open to anything I was seeing. But I SAW her in this dopey tv disaster movie and then subsequently I noticed her, even if she wasn’t particularly doing anything flashy. For example, she is sexy but subdued in the 1964 comedy Kisses for My President, and yet I noted her and liked her in that. (TCM had been playing this screwball comedy about America’s first female chief executive the last few years because of a certain prominent democratic candidate whose initials are HRC. Something tells me they decide to mothball it now, the way early 60s assassination films like The Manchurian Candidate got shelved after the JFK assassination. TOO SOON! Bergen’s role in this film was why she was stunt-cast as Gena Davis’s mother on Commander-in-Chief, which ran 2005-2006). And I enjoyed her on The Sopranos as Tony’s father’s old girlfriend in a 2004 episode.

Still, I can’t be the only one who had trouble “seeing her”. Her movie career had had a couple of mild peaks at best, but had never ever really taken off. She’d had some moderately good roles and shots, but she was never able to break through to the other side, although she continued to work (especially in television) pretty much all her life.

Bergen with Woody Allen and Andy Williams on The Andy Williams Show, 1965

I think I have the key, though. Bergen was more an entertainer than an actress. Don’t get me wrong — her acting performances are fine, but with some exposure to the full performer, you can see that she reigned herself in as an actress. Originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, Bergen began singing professionally as a teenager in the big band era, on the radio and with local orchestras. She cut ten record albums in the 50s and 60s (a couple of them charted), and for one season (1957) she starred in her own NBC tv variety show The Polly Bergen Show, on which every week she sang her closing theme song “The Party’s Over”. It is worth noting that show won an Emmy for her 1958 performance as the title character — sad, smoky, cabaret singer — in the tv movie The Helen Morgan Story. At any rate, to see the full firecracker in action, go to Youtube. Lots of clips of Polly the Performer there. She was also a popular panelist on What’s My Line? for  couple of years. Singing and cutting up in patter is what she did best. Ain’t nothin’ wrong ’bout that.

For everything you need to to know about early show business, including cabaret and tv variety performers like Polly Bergen, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

Edwina Barry: World’s Oldest Vaudevillian

Posted in Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2017 by travsd

When Edwina Barry died in 1988 she was memorialized as the world’s oldest vaudevillian — 1o2 years old.

Born July 3, 1886, Anna Edwina Barry was the younger sister of Jimmy Barry, of the famous husband and wife vaudeville team Mr. and Mrs. Jimmy Barry. Orphaned at 14, she was married at age 20 to William Richards, who happened to be the brother of Mrs. Jimmy Barry, thus Edwina’s brother-in-law. He was a divorcee 14 years her senior. Edwina followed her brother into big time vaudeville. He seems to have given her a leg up in all sorts of ways. After touring with a production of Faust, around 1908 Edwina started her own vaudeville act “Edwina Barry and Company”, one of whose members was her husband (the Barry name was clearly more important than his when it came to branding the act). Their most popular sketch, penned by Jimmy Barry, seems to have been “The Homebreaker”, in which Edwina played a novice serving girl named “Dotty Plumdaffy”.

In 1916 she separated from Richards and toured as a solo, playing the U.S., Europe, Australia, South Africa and India. In 1920, while performing in the Philippines she married mentalist Fred Rochon, often billed as “Peerless Pendleton”. This shiftless personage seems to have led her a merry chase for the next three decades. He stole her money and deserted her repeatedly over their 28 year marriage. He abandoned her in Australia on one occasion. He burned down a hotel. And he may have had another wife (at the same time). But he must have woven a spell on Edwina. She abandoned her own act and became Rochon’s assistant in the mentalism act for a period of ten years. And every time he would take off she would pursue him and catch up with him. In 1948, after he had been gone some time, she finally obtained a divorce with desertion as grounds. Then she heard he may have gone to China and followed him there — just in time for the Communist takeover, which she narrowly escaped. From here she moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as a Navy librarian before retiring.

To learn more about vaudeville history including performers like Edwina Barry, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Frank Whitman: The Dancing Violinist

Posted in Music, Nuts and Eccentrics, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2017 by travsd

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Frank Whitman was often billed as  as “The Dancing Violinist”, “The Stepping Violinist”, “The Wizard of the Violin” and in 1926 his Loew’s Circuit billing was “The Fiddler of Infinite Surprises”. There are references to him performing his act as early as the mid 1890s; he seems to have retired or passed away around 1930.

In his performances, Whitman would bow the violin with various objects, including a bottle, and a horn which he simultaneously tooted. As his name suggests, he would dance while he fiddled. He also told jokes in his patter and for his big finish, bowed the violin through his legs in a most suggestive manner — we might think it more innocent if he weren’t leering and winking at us like a creep while he did it. His 1928 Vitaphone short Frank Whitman: That Surprising Fiddler, in which we can see him do all these things, is his main legacy today.

If he is the same “celebrated violinist” named Frank Whitman mentioned in the April 30, 1921 issue if Billboard, he was the half-brother of Charles A. Trexler, long time property manager for Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, and probably originally from Reading, Pennsylvania.

To learn more about vaudeville history including performers like Frank Whitman, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Benny’s Bride: The Elusive Mary Livingstone

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Radio (Old Time Radio), Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2017 by travsd

On this day was born was born the funny, if accidental, comedienne Mary Livingstone (Sadie Marcowitz, sometimes shortened to Marks, 1905-1983).

Livingstone grew up in Vancouver. The lore is that she met Jack Benny when Zeppo Marx brought him to a Passover seder at her family’s house circa 1919. For many years it was generally believed that Mary was a cousin of the Marx Brothers, probably on the strength of this episode and the similarity of their surnames (the Marx Bros occasionally spelled their last name “Marks” during their stage years), but it appears now not to have been the case. At any rate, she became something of a Benny groupie, purposefully crossing the comedian’s path many times until he began dating her. They married in 1927.

She appeared with him many times on the vaudeville stage, still under her given name at first. Her role in these years was more like the popular “Dumb Dora”, after the fashion of Gracie Allen.  In 1932, Benny got his own radio show, and Livingstone was to become part of his stock company, along with regulars Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Don Wilson, Kenny Baker (later replaced with Dennis Day), Phil Harris and many others. As such she became one of the best known personalities in the country. Her radio character was funny, acerbic and dry; she was perfect for Benny’s show.

Livingstone remained part of Benny’s radio cast until his show went off the air in 1955. She also made scores of appearances on television, on Benny’s program and others’ throughout the 1950s. The irony of this very public person’s life was that she was afflicted with stage fright, and was only able to perform through a great effort of will. Her joining Benny in vaudeville and on radio occurred in both cases because she was asked to fill emergency vacancies. She hadn’t sought a performing career at all. She retired in 1959, soon after Gracie Allen. Livingstone seems to have been a very tense, highly strung woman, not well liked. After hearing her performances, where she jovially banters with the top stars of the day, one is surprised to read that long-time colleagues and social friends like Lucille Ball and George Burns and Gracie Allen and even her adopted daughter Joan didn’t really like her, finding her cold, hard and distant. Her fans didn’t see her that way at all. She outlived Benny by nearly a decade, passing away in 1983.

To learn more about show business history, including vaudeville veterans like Mary Livingstone and Jack Benny, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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.

On the Acerbic Mary Wickes

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2017 by travsd

Beloved character actor Mary Wickes (Mary Wickenhauser, 1910-1995) was born on June 13. The gawky, wise-cracking Wickes was ubiquitous on screens big and small for half a century, usually playing maids, nuns, nurses and other no-nonsense types on the periphery of the main action but just close enough to see what was going on and make an exasperated and cutting joke about it.

I almost certainly first knew her from her regular role on the Sid and Marty Krofft kid’s show Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-1974). (Though she was also a regular on the sit com Doc around the same time too so it was probably both). Thus I was already a fan (without knowing it, perhaps) from about age eight. Wickes’ screen character aged extremely well. When she was young, because of her attitude and her crone-like drawl, she had always seemed older than she was. When she actually became older, she simply WAS.

Still, there was in evolution, if an incremental one. If you look at the photo at the top, when she was very young she was, if not pretty, at least pretty-adjacent. She was not in the Margaret Hamilton category as a type. Wickes was quite young when she began her career on Broadway. She is said to have been in the original production of Marc Connelly’s The Farmer Takes a Wife (1934), though, if she was, it was probably either as a walk-on or a replacement as she is not listed in the IBDB credits. She was in the original productions of two George S. Kaufman plays, Stage Door (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939-1941). The 1942 film version of the latter was her big screen Hollywood debut.

She had been in at least one film prior to The Man Who Came To Dinner, however. As a sometime member of Orson Welles’ and John Houseman’s Mercury Theatre, she had appeared in Welles’ legendary Too Much Johnson (1938). She also acted in the Mercury’s stage production of Danton’s Death (1938) and on radio with Mercury Theatre on the Air.

From 1942 until her death she was almost constantly on movie screens; starting in 1948 it was also true of television. Notable films include Now, Voyager (1942), On Moonlight Bay (1951), By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), The Actress (1953), White Christmas (1954), Cimarron (1960), The Music Man (1962), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), Postcards from the Edge (1990), and the Sister Act films (1992 and 1993). She also appears in comedies of Abbott and Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle, and Blondie. Lucille Ball LOVED her and used her in a dozen episodes of her various tv shows I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, and Here’s Lucy. She also appeared memorably on The Doris Day Show, Columbo, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, M*A*S*H and many other shows. Her last screen credit was a voice over in Disney’s animated The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).

For more on show business history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. For more on  film comedy, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

Joseph Hart: The Original Foxy Grandpa

Posted in Broadway, Impresarios, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2017 by travsd

Performer, producer and songwriter Joseph Hart (Joseph Hart Boudrow, 1861-1921) was born on June 8. Hart was the nephew of Josh Hart, who managed Boston’s Howard Athenaeum. Through his uncle, he played boy’s parts in productions at the Howard, leading to a career in the professional theatre.

Hart started out as an end man in minstrel shows (including Tony Pastor’s), singing, doing comedy routines and playing the banjo. For a time, he performed in Gilbert and Sullivan musicals. In 1888 he teamed up with Frederick Hallen, and for six years they toured in the musical comedies Later on and The Idea. After splitting with Hallen in 1894, Hart spent over a decade touring (and performing on Broadway) with a succession of his own starring vehicles. From our perspective, the most notable of these would be Foxy Grandpa (1902), based on a then-popular comic strip created by Carl E. Schultze. Here he is as the rascally old gentlemen:

Why I say his Foxy Grandpa characterization is most notable to us is that Hart made ten silent Biograph film shorts in 1902. Several of these are extant and can be viewed on Youtube. I had seen these little films years ago without knowing the backstory on the performer or the comic strip. 1902 is extremely early in film history; the films are only a couple of minutes long, and contain a single shot from a single angle, and were undoubtedly created to be watched on Nickelodeon machines (Mutoscopes, in this case — “Biograph” was originally the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company”). At any rate, you can watch Hart’s funny performances any time you like — knock yourself out!

In 1904, Hart also made a comedy called A European Rest Cure with Edwin S. Porter.

From 1892, Hart’s wife and co-star was the actress and singer Carrie de Mar. Hart also toured his own vaudeville revues (much as Weber and Fields did), in opposition to the circuit model being established by the big time managers at the same time. A number of color lithographs advertising his shows survive, telling us that some of the acts who performed in his shows were Elizabeth Murray, O’Brien & Havel, The Three Rosebuds, Frank Gardiner, Smith & Campbell, the Van Aukens, and Fleurette de Mar, Carrie’s sister, a dancer, billed simply as “Fleurette”. Many of his posters (see above, which dates from 1899), touts that he is “direct from Weber and Fields’ Music Hall”, although the credit isn’t mentioned in IBDB or in From the Bowery to Broadway, which is the definitive book on Weber and Fields. If I learn what the connection was, I’ll drop it in here.

For more on 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. For more on silent film, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

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