Archive for Philadelphia

Eddie White: “I Thank You”

Posted in Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2017 by travsd

Eddie White (Michael Weintraub, 1898-1983) was born on May 18.

White comes to the attention of modern buffs almost entirely from his 1928 Vitaphone short called I Thank You, after his oft-repeated (by him) catchphrase. When you’ve seen a whole mess of Vitaphones, you easily lump them into categories. Some, like Burns and Allen, and Rose Marie, are folks we already know. Some, maybe most, are folks we don’t know and leave little impression. And a discrete handful are folks we don’t know and make a huge impression: a great act, big talent, a vivid or eccentric personality, sheer weirdness, or whatever. Those are everybody’s favorite Vitaphones and I think those end up being the ones we see for a reason; the screenings are almost always curated by the savvy Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project, who has the ears, eyes, nose, bones, brains, and guts of an old time vaudeville producer, which also means knowing what contemporary audiences will respond to.

At any rate, I Thank You is just such a short. Eddie White is one of the memorable ones. Tall, thin, and lanky, with a scrawny neck, enormous ears, and a high-pitched voice, you’d swear in watching the film that he was an adolescent, no more than about 15 years old. That was the impression I took away the first time I saw the film several years ago: that he was a precocious, talented teenager, probably from New York’s Lower East Side. The ethnic jokes and the crowd pleasing song set, featuring, “Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella (on a Rainy Day)”, “Get Out and Get Under the Moon” and the show-stopping “Mammy”, probably planted that idea. But I was off.

As we see from his birthday year, the young man was actually 30 when this Vitaphone came out. Its national release was probably the high point of his long career, which was mostly East Coast based, concentrated in Philadelphia, Atlantic City and New York. Born in South Philly, he debuted as a young man at the Old Norris Theatre in Norris, Pennsylvania and was using the stage handle “Eddie White” by 1920.

In the 20s he seemed an up-and-comer. He was a big time Keith’s act by mid-decade, one sees references to him playing important big time houses like New York’s Hippodrome.

He became associated with the famous 1932 song “Sam, You Made The Pants Too Long”, though Milton Berle had written the parody lyrics and Joe E. Lewis had the 1933 hit record. Vaudeville was dying around this time and the path of White’s career is hugely instructive about what the hustling performer did to fill the time with bookings. A small announcement in a 1936 issue of Billboard seems pivotal. The item describes White as a vaud vet who would now be officially turning his attention to night cubs. And thereafter he seemed to work pretty steadily as an m.c. and entertainer at night clubs and resorts, most especially the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, although one continues to find references to him playing dates farther afield in places like Pittsburgh and Ohio. Part of White’s legend is that he became a figure in the career of the Jersey-based burlesque comedians Abbott and Costello, when he saw them performing and put them on at the Steel Pier, where they first began to attract more widespread notice.

White produced and hosted a variety revue called The Zanities of 1943 in Philadelphia that got good notices. He headlined in the Palace Theatre revival in 1955. He retied from show biz in 1959.

I had the thrill of talking to White’s only child Jay Weintraub (b. 1933) the other day, and he helped add texture for White’s later years. He said the family moved to Chicago for three years, where White had a steady gig at a night club. He said his famous friends included Berle (who’d given him “Sam” to sing), Judy Garland, Red Buttons, Henny Youngman, and of course Abbott and Costello (Weintraub recounted an anecdote where Costello flew the family out to spend a few days with him in Hollywood). And he said the William Morris Agency tried unsuccessfully to book Eddie for the Ed Sullivan Show, but he was rejected for being too “ethnic” — he did a lot of Jewish dialect humor, which might not come across to wider audiences (and might have offended some others).

But mostly, says Weintraub, “He was a family man. His main interests were his brothers and my mother and me. He would go off and do his dates for a few days but then he would always come home.”

Most intriguingly, Mr. Weintraub mentions an enormous scrapbook of clippings in his possession and THIS would be the great resource of information on Eddie White. Hopefully some day an intrepid researcher will gain access to it and convey its contents to the wider public.

Special thanks to the one and only Mr. Chuck Prentiss for connecting me with Jay Weintraub!

To find out more about  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.

The Truth about W.C. Fields and Philadelphia

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , on December 12, 2016 by travsd

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A little post occasioned by the fact (blogged about earlier) that today is the birthday of Pennsylvania. As you may have noticed, we have been intensely focused of late on a certain famous Pennsylvanian, comedian W.C. Fields. If people only know a few things about Fields (and they generally do — only know a few things, that is –) it’s that: a) he (or his character, or both) were closely associated with alcohol; b) he (or his character) hated children and dogs; and c) that he (or his character) hated Philadelphia.

It’s amazing how a legend grows in the modern era. These, most famous (supposed) aspects of his character, seem to me to have been most solidly hammered home by Fields’ radio work, and thereafter by word of mouth, passed down by parents and grandparents and great-grandparents who remembered the radio work…to younger generations who were never exposed to it!

As for these legendary traits: Yes, Fields was a boozer in real life. But in the movies, you only see that REALLY stressed a few times, mostly his later films (after that had become a staple of his radio comedy). In the earlier pictures, it’s alluded to from time to time, in a scene or two, but never the focus — the Hays Code wouldn’t allow it.

I have no idea where the dogs thing comes from.

As for kids, in the movies, he feuds a couple of times with Baby Leroy, and is generally tortured by children in most of the films. But it is an odd impulse to frame it as HIM disliking THEM. They are presented as monstrous. His character is merely reacting as would any rational person who wasn’t a mindless dolt. Are you supposed to LIKE people who are screaming at you, throwing things at you, insulting you? As it happens, in real life, he loved his son and his grandchildren, was perfectly and appropriately doting on babies, as everybody else is.

In which he gets to know his grandson during the small amount of time he has left. For more family photos like this, go to www.wcfields.com

In which he gets to know his grandson during the small amount of time he has left — like a normal person. For more family photos like this, go to http://www.wcfields.com

And so we come to the last unaccountable thing, his supposed hatred of his hometown Philadelphia. For most of my life I have regarded that as something of a head-scratcher. He is reputed to have disliked the place; I just never understood: a) why that was supposed to be funny. Kind of “arch” of him, okay, but out and out funny?; and b) if he hated it, why? The real life answer is, he didn’t hate it particularly (or at least completely), nor did he hate ON it with frequency, if at all, beyond a single quip or two. There is in particular a single quote, a quote so famous it has practically swallowed the man up. It seems to have metastasized like Tulip Mania. People know it and laugh at it, but I’m like “Whatever”.  It’s just a kind of disparaging comment, the sort of thing any entertainer who has seen the world might make about his provincial birthplace.

Is Philly provincial? In his vaudeville days, Fields had played New York, London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna, and had been to far flung places like Australia and South Africa. And let’s not forget other great American cosmopolitan cities like San Francisco and Chicago.But Philadelphia is also a great American city. Have you been there? It’s not just tremendous, it’s tremendous culturally. In Fields’ day it was known as the Birthplace of Vaudeville, and it had been FULL of theatres since long before Fields’ time. So, what’s to disparage? Well, Philadelphia had been founded by Quakers. Much like Puritan Boston, it was a place where saloons closed early, and where the culture was traditional and conservative, even as recently as Fields’ time. Fields family hadn’t approved of the theatre (most families of the time, the 1890s, wouldn’t have). So, to a certain degree, it left a bad taste in his mouth.

There is an anecdote I came across in one of his biographies, in which he was a teenager just starting out, and a church social wouldn’t let him juggle cigar boxes, because they once contained the Devil’s Weed, and so he stole all the umbrellas out of the umbrella stand on his way out the door. That is an illustration of why he might have disliked the culture of Philadelphia without being a public demonstration of that.

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Philly, 1890s. Yep — lotta churches

And so he made (and didn’t make) some famous jokes. The first was his fictitious epitaph, which he cooked up for Vanity Fair magazine in 1925: “Here lies W. C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia.” It’s often misquoted with variations. It is not his actual epitaph. His tombstone just has his name and the years of his life inscribed on it. As for the other joke? He is NEVER known to have uttered the other famous remark often misattributed to him, “that [he] spent a week there one night.”

I have just re-watched ALL of his movies in preparation for Fields Fest. The only references in his films to Philadelphia sound more like fond reminiscences, usually in connection with the “Cauhauxin Hose Glee Club” or the “Tehachapi Glee Club”.  No jokes about how he hates Philadelphia. At the end of My Little Chickadee he does say, “I’d like to see Paris before I die. Philadelphia will do!” The joke is that Paris the greatest city in the world, and that Philadelphia is far from being Paris. That’s a pretty mild insult.

And Fields’ comments for Gene Fowler’s famous biography of him are likewise just fond memories.  I have only listened to some of his radio appearances, and I have not encountered Philadelphia references there either, but it’s possible that the radio work is the source of the legend, as I have not heard all of it.

In real life? For a time, his wife and child lived with his parents and extended family in Philadelphia and Fields returned to the town periodically to visit them between theatrical bookings. It wasn’t as though he fled never return to again. Afterwards? He was a star of Broadway and movies, a creature of New York and then Hollywood. Why would ANYONE leave those luxurious enclaves? No particular animus. Just the one dig. Philadelphia remains proud of him anyway.

I Want My Mütter

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Dime Museum and Side Show, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Travel/ Tourism with tags , , , on April 23, 2014 by travsd

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I and progeny had a great time over Easter weekend, with a day trip down to Philadelphia and a pilgrimage to a place I’d long wanted to visit, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum.

Founded in 1863, the Mütter offers a rare chance to have a museum experience not unlike the kind Americans enjoyed in the mid-19th century — a bit sensational. The saving grace, and the reason that it continues to thrive to the present day (with this era’s pesky “academic standards”) is that the Mütter’s exhibitions are of genuine scientific (and nowadays also historical) value. You get to learn something, and it’s also smashing good entertainment.

The Mütter is a medical museum. Its displays are made up almost entirely of representations of human anomalies, pathologies, disorders, diseases, deformations and deviations. In a word: freaks. As an introductory feint we are presented with slides containing actual segments of Albert Einstein’s brain, sliced as thin as prosciutto. That’s about as healthy as we get, and it’s fairly hilarious in a Barnumesque way. Who’s to say those aren’t pieces of a dog’s brain? I mean, can you see the astrophysics going on inside? Almost all the rest of the museum is made up of bones and complete skeletons, specimens in glass jars, photographs, and wax or plaster models.

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For our phrenological edification, there are the Hyrtl Skulls, scores of former human heads arrayed on a grid, helpfully labelled as to their former identities, ranging from “Girolamo Zini, Rope Walker“, to a denizen of Ancient Egypt. One, full of pits and holes as though it were made of chalk, suffered from “syphilitic necrosis”. (Soldiers, take care where you spend your leave pay!) Nearby, we find a horn that once grew out of the forehead of Madame Dimanche. The skeleton of a 7′ 6″ giant stands next to that of a dwarf, across from a wax bust of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins. H’m…what else. Ovarian cysts the size of basketballs. An enlarged colon about the size of a fairly terrifying moray eel. The skeleton of Harry Eastlack, an osssified man who suffered from the rare condition  fibrodysplasia ossificans. The alien-like skeleton of a hydrocephalic six year old with a head the size of a medicine ball. And man-made strangeness: Peruvian skulls with trepanation holes, a woman’s ribcage warped by corsets. Many jars containing the remains of lucky little souls who never got past the starting gate. The most extreme one I saw was a pair of conjoined twins, each of whom had a cleft palate.

A special exhibition Bodies at War shows bones shattered by bullets and balls during the Civil War. Grimm’s Anatomy illustrates famous fairy tales with relevant body parts (Hansel’s finger, a lock of Rapunzel’s hair).

And, just in case David Cronenberg shows up, there are dozens of surgical instruments on view. Scalpels, shears, bone cutters. A tooth key, for twisting out stubborn molars. Ouch!

The museum has strict rules about behavior: no photos, no touching, no lying on the floor (which I guess means no fainting). It’s physically small and well attended with the enthusiastically curious. Inevitably, one encounters teenage girls giggling, screaming and running away from the display cases.  Perplexing to me were the number of small children I saw there with parents. Don’t get me wrong. Starting when I was about ten years old I was seriously gung-ho for this kind of thing and have never waned in my enthusiasm since. But for little ones? The place is kind of a nightmare factory.

Is there something sick about a fascination with such stuff? I asked myself this as I toured the Mütter, and quickly answered it. Tragedy, comedy and freak shows have one major component in common. Human beings become interested when things go “wrong”, when they encounter something they don’t see every day. This is why it’s often said that the line between comedy and tragedy is razor thin. For the most part, the exhibitions at the Mütter Museum evoke our pity and our compassion. This room is the record of a LOT of human suffering. The sick person would be someone who could look on it with indifference and NOT be interested.

Learn more here http://muttermuseum.org/

David Brenner’s First Appearance on the Tonight Show (R.I.P.)

Posted in Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, OBITS, Stand Up, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , on March 16, 2014 by travsd

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Just got the sad news that the all-too-young David Brenner has passed away. Brenner’s stand-up style was brash and urban as befits a street kid from Philadelphia. (Although his body language and delivery always reminded me of that of his good friend Joan Rivers; I’ve always assumed the two influenced each other.)  Brenner actually started out making television documentaries before going into stand-up. The historic clip below records his first appearance on The Tonight Show in 1971. He would go on to appear on the show over 150 more times.

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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For more on comedy 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 amazon.com etc etc etc

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