Archive for review

Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Comediennes, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), PLUGS, Women with tags , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2017 by travsd

Some things are just self-evident; one of these verities is that if Steve Massa has something to say, we want to hear it, and I’m pretty sure our readers do too, whether it’s in person at the Silent Clowns Film Series he co-produces with Bruce Lawton and Ben Model; or the blog entries he writes that illuminate the collections of the New York Public Library’s Performing Arts division, where he works; or his great books like Lamebrains and Lunatics and his biography of screen comedian Marcel Perez.

I couldn’t have been more excited when I first heard he was working on his new book Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy. For many reasons. One is that there’s a serious void in that area, both in terms of scholarship and in published material. Two, is that I knew that there was a serious story out there worth telling, largely because of Massa’s previous work in this area, along with his Silent Clowns cohorts. My own post on the topic owes much to their tutelage (as does plenty of content on this site, for that matter). Figures he and they have championed like Alice Howell and Alberta Vaughn mightn’t even made it to my radar if not for those guys. Third, I knew that he’s got terrific access to important collections and he’s like a kid in a candy store when let loose in archives others have barely even looked at. Enthusiasm breeds discovery. And, lastly, because he’s extremely good at capturing the personalities of performers, of making their work as comedians and artists come alive on the page, which is one of the hardest jobs of a critic.

So, I was anticipating all that, and he didn’t let me down. What I did NOT expect is the size of the haul he would come back with in his fishing net. I’m not sure what I assumed; I guess that it would be a book that focused on one area of information (female funny ladies) he had already made us aware of, but with more depth. In other words, it would mostly contain new information about artists who were already familiar to me. But it’s much more than that. The book introduces the reader to scores of other actresses and comediennes of the silent era that I swear I’ve not previously encountered anywhere else, in addition to all the well-known names. It’s over 600 pages long. The scholarship in this book is important; maybe even revolutionary. It’s the kind of book that is destined to eventually give birth to hundreds of other books and articles and scholarly papers. It’s going to be an important reference not just to silent cinema and comedy scholars and enthusiasts, but for feminists and women’s studies authors as well — maybe them above all, but hopefully not. My hope would be that in the long run it’s going to help rewrite the entire narrative of silent comedy history more completely, and increase our understanding of what went down a century ago. I tend to think of Melissa McCarthy as a revolutionary screen figure, but she had many comedy grandmothers whose tombs have long been covered up by the shifting sands of time. Massa’s brought them back into the light.

Further, he’s broken the book down into useful categories, for there were many different kinds of comedy actresses: some were slapstick stars themselves, some were leading ladies to comedians, some specialized in stereotypical ensemble characters, some were mere visual jokes, some were there to be sex objects. And some were auteurs who produced and directed their own films (ironically it was easier for women to do that in the silent era than in later times). I’m not going to bore you by listing a lot of unfamiliar names here.  But I will be one of the ones who brings some of those names to you in the coming months and years, as I begin to follow Massa’s map and discover the work of these comediennes myself and form my own impressions. The book will also help enhance and correct many of my existing posts based on older sources which I know will not be authoritative as Steve’s. But don’t wait around for my tardy, second hand accounts. You owe it to yourself — NOW — to get your hands on the mother lode, familiarize yourself with its contents, and keep it at the ready for future reference. Buy Slapstick Divas now. Get it here at Bear Manor Media.

Three Cheers for “Four of the Three Musketeers”

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Comedy Teams, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers with tags , , , , on June 29, 2017 by travsd

We’d been drooling to get our mitts on Robert S. Bader’s Four of the Three Muskeers: The Marx Brothers On Stage, ever since we heard it was in the works back at Marxfest in 2014. It was published back in October; apologies for only just now getting to it.

The book is everything that was advertised — it makes all previous books on the Marx Brothers look incomplete, introductory, and incorrect. It’s not the hugest shock that books like this one and Arthur Wertheim’s recent W.C. Fields from Burlesque and Vaudeville to Broadway are only just coming out now, over a century after the acts got their start, and decades and decades after they passed on to Vaudeville Valhalla. Only 21st century information culture could make both the research and the market possible. For Marx Brothers fans, the rewards and the punishments of most previous accounts have been the same thing: first-person testimony from the comedians themselves, who were first, last and always entertaining storytellers, but the most unreliable of unreliable narrators. It makes for great entertainment and cocktail party conversation, but plenty of frustration for the people who would like to know what really happened.

As for the facts, it ain’t ever gonna get better than Bader’s book. He’s spent most of his life with his nose buried in primary sources on this topic. He discovered the location of Groucho’s first audition. He uncovered the fact that one of Groucho’s first colleagues may have been the perpetrator of a grisly murder! We learn that one of the most most famous Marx Brothers anecdotes (how they came to become a comedy act when the audience ran out of the theatre to look at a runaway mule) was actually TWO anecdotes (the two incidents happened on separate occasions.) Countless revelations on that order are presented. For the first time ever we get to see the evolution of the vaudeville act in bite sized increments with minute detail as to the venue and the city and what the performances consisted of.  Let the buyer beware though: this is not the gateway drug. For an introductory book for the casual movie fan, I would still probably recommend Joe Adamson’s Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo, which may be much hazier and out-of-date with regard to facts, but is the most entertaining cocktail to quaff on its effervescent topic. Bader’s book is for the junkie, the obsessed fan who is at the end of his rope in the strung-out need to know more. There are countless countless rewards in this book for that readership.

And I’d also add, for those interested in the wider topic of vaudeville, this book delivers many dividends, as well. As the name implies, the book is concentrated on the Marx Brothers of the vaudeville and Broadway years. It touches a little on the movies towards the end, but the focus is on the early years. There are many passages on the machinations of the U.B.O. (United Box Office), and the jostling of the various circuits for prominence, and relations between vaudeville managers and labor (the acts). The book gives a real feel for the cockamamie way the team came up, which was very different from someone like W.C. Fields who went right to the big time in a clear, easy to digest manner. Because of poor management and bad decisions by their mother Minnie, the brothers spent long years toiling near the bottom of the smallest small time. Groucho, in particular suffered — he’d made the big time quite early as a child star, but Minnie’s insistence on creating a family act meant starting at the bottom again. And the team was also banned from the big time Keith circuit for long periods, until they got so big in small time chains like Pantages, that even the notoriously cantankerous E.F. Albee couldn’t justify banning them, despite their flagrant indifference to his many rules. Some of the sections of the business end of “The Business” contain more detail than even rabid Marx Brothers fans will want or require, but scholars (even casual pseudo-scholars like me) will be grateful that Bader worked that stuff out and published it. It’ll be a useful thing to lay one’s hands on again and again, as will this entire book be.

Special thanks to Noah Diamond. 

“Three Way” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Posted in BROOKLYN, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags , , , , , , on June 19, 2017 by travsd

In “Safe Word”, Eliza Bonet and Matthew Trevino demonstrate that you can’t keep a good man down

Just a few words of laudation for Three Way by composer Robert Paterson and librettist David Cote, staged by John Hoomes, co-produced by American Opera Projects and others, which we caught at the Brooklyn Academy of Music yesterday. Pride Month was the perfect occasion on which to experience this sex-positive triptych of operatic one acts. I’d heard snippets at our Opera on Tap evening a couple of years ago, but this was the NYC premiere of the whole musky magilla, the entire libidinous libretto, from soup to nut-sack.

The title is of course a bit of wordplay referring not just to a multi-partner sex encounter, but also to the fact that the show consists of a bill containing three separate but related works. In the best comic opera tradition, each seemed to draw from and engage with popular culture. The Companion is a science fiction tale about a busy woman (Danielle Pastin) and her dissatisfaction with her love robot (Samuel Levine), emerging with a life-lesson that would not be out of place on Fantasy Island. The SM thriller Safe Word comes with an O. Henry twist and musical passages that occasionally summoned the spirit of Bernard Herrmann. Masquerade most obviously evokes Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, while also (to my mind) conjuring Elizabethan comedy (it’s about strangers pairing off at an orgy). And the anthology format, each with racy, funny, sex themes — how could it not make those of us of a certain age to think of Love American Style?

Inevitably, Three Way’s “edge” will shock people more in the hinterlands than in NYC, the jaded Belly of the Beast. (I imagine a domme dungeon, a swingers club, and sex with a mechanical surrogate all happening a stone’s throw from BAM, even at the very moment the show was happening. I once went to an art opening where a woman named “The Countess” beat a man’s testicles with a metal rod and no one looked up from their champagne). But the carefully wrought storytelling and generous, open and inquiring spirit of the work, its depth of character and its wit, are the farthest thing from quotidian and much to be prized. Three Way put me in a good mood, and while not as enjoyable as sex itself, at least it put sex into an opera. Those of us who have experienced operas without sex can attest to how valuable that is.

BTW! The show is a co-production of the Nashville Opera, which presented it earlier this year at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (a venue I got to a visit when I covered the Nashville scene for American Theatre magazine about fifteen years ago). The producers and artists are looking to make a cast album down in Nashville and now have a kickstarter campaign under way to raise the necessary funds. Help ’em out here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/amodrecordings/three-way-nashville-opera-original-cast-album/

“Dead End” at the Axis Company

Posted in Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2017 by travsd

Last night, we got to check out Axis Company’s exciting revival of Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End. I’d gotten to see a portion in rehearsal for my feature about the show in Chelsea NowIt whetted my appetite for more.

This was the twelfth Axis show I’ve either seen or written about over the past 17 years, the others being: Frankenstein, Woyzeck, the American premiere of Sarah Kane’s Crave (which featured Debbie Harry!), Hospital, Seven in One Blow, A Glance at New YorkEdgar Oliver’s East 10th Street: Self-Portrait with Empty Housetrinity 5:29, Down There and Evening 1910. And there are several others of their’s I’ve kicked myself for missing, including more than one show about Houdini. The company has come to be one of those in NYC whose work I know the best. I never set out to make that happen, and sometimes, a few years pass between my visits. But artistic director’s Randy Sharp’s combination of passions (an apparent obsession with oddball, often murderous, American history mixed with an aesthetic of avant-garde modernism and a love of technology) is close enough to mine, though parallel, to constantly intrigue me.

Dead End is a wonderful example of how she works. The original play was the height of realism for its time, considered documentary-like, and was produced by the Group Theatre, the original American cult of Stanislawski’s Method. While it possesses some antiquated elements like stock characters and situations, hangovers and conventions from the melodrama era which folks in the 30s either didn’t see or didn’t mind since they were so close to it, Dead End was originally laid out to be very “here and now”, anchored to its own time (the 1930s) and a very particular place (the slums of the East Side of Manhattan).

Sharp’s instinct in the current production is to abstract and universalize the setting. Probably drab and grey to begin with when they originally mounted it on Broadway, Sharp and her designers have dialed the entire color scheme all the way up to black: every set piece, costume, and prop (including things like newspapers, dollar bills and a shine box). The dock pilings which are a major element of the setting (a gang of poor kids hangs out there, jumping off it occasionally to swim in the polluted East River) is represented by three highly stylized (simplified) black cylinder shapes. This hellish scenography transplants the story to some more timeless place that adds existential juice to the play’s title: Dead End as No Exit, or “the neighborhood” as The Village in The Prisoner. The kids in the gang wear hood-like head pieces which resemble early aviation helmets, or perhaps something a medieval monk or nun might wear.  These kids (Emily Kratter, Jon McCormick, Regina Betancourt, and Lynn  Mancinelli) are at once the element that anchors us the most to the purported time and place (the slang, the accents), but they are also formalized into a chorus, often chanting lines in unison, or underscoring the action with percussive sounds, literally “banging a can”. The resetting of the production into limbo makes certain lines pop as being as much “now” as “then”. A character’s monologue about the neighborhood being disrupted when a fancy high rise was recently put up in their midst could have been written yesterday.

Disruption seems to be the leitmotif overall: The entire cast remains onstage for the duration, edgily roiling and twitching with discontent and agida. There is nothing to do and nowhere to go — even for those who’ve left, like the gangster Babyface Martin (a terrifying Brian Barnhart) and the cripple Gimpty, who studied six years to be an architect (George Demas). Both have returned to the birthplace of their misery as though they’d been tethered there with bungee chords. Tommy, the leader of the gang (McCormick), is wanted for a crime, but insists on hanging around the neighborhood, unable or unwilling to flee even if it means freedom. Trapped like animals in a cage, the characters devour each other, squabble, demean, and cut each other up (both literally and figuratively). Some have visions and express hope, but there’s no agit-prop here, no magic recipe to make it all go away. It’s what makes the play modern, easily adaptable to Sharp’s aesthetic, and relatable to our own experience.

“Life sucks and then you die”? Something like that. But somehow people do go on, and, as Camus might say, I guess that’s the point. And the SHOW doesn’t suck! You should see it. It’s up through May 20: here’s the Axis web site for more info and tix. 

 

Milberger on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Jews/ Show Biz, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2017 by travsd

We enjoyed the pilot of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel a great deal — in fact, enough to write our own review. But we knew someone who could write a better one: multi-talented actress, comedienne, screenwriter/playwright, podcast host, comedy scholar and Gracie Allen expert Lauren Milberger.  Her Gracie Allen guest post here five years ago is in our all-time top 25! I just knew she’d have great things to say about the new show, and she did. I turn you now over to her:

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel: A Woman in Redux

Many people would consider the modern Golden Age of Comedy to be the 1950s and 60s, when what we know today as stand-up became all the rage and television was in its infancy. When the comedy from vaudeville finally had its eyes back again (after years of being in the dark with radio) and was able to take its experience to mint legends for the ages. Television turned night club raconteurs into instant celebrities, thanks to the likes of Jack Paar, Ed Sullivan and soon – the king of them all – Johnny Carson. But except for Lucille Ball, how many women from this era have seen their strengths and struggles dramatized, their stories told? For all the plays, films and TV based on Neil Simon, Mel Brooks or Carl Reiner’s fond memories of the 1950’s classic sketch show Your Show of Shows (and later Caesar’s Hour), sporting a writing staff that included most of the comedy legends for the latter part of 20th century (Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, etc.), where are the stories solely about Lucille Kallen or Selma Diamond? Where are the lavish odes to Madelyn Pugg, who wrote most of I Love Lucy’s classic episodes and who was given the moniker of “Girl Writer” because of the oddity of such a thing at the time?  Because for every Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Alan King, Bob Newhart and Richard Pryor, there was a Joan Rivers, a Moms Mabley and an Elaine May. Today, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are household names, but the female narrative of comedy they came from seems mostly forgotten or glossed over. That was until Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino gave us the new Amazon pilot The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Written and directed by Sherman-Palladino, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel tells the story of Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), whom we first meet at her wedding reception, doing stand-up (unbeknownst to herself) and regaling her family and friends with the cleaned up version of her 1950’s teen life at Bryn Mawr College. Four years later, Midge has two kids and the seemingly perfect New York Upper-West Side Jewish life of 1958, and one would assume to find her spending her nights in Greenwich Village trying her hand at stand-up comedy. However, this is 1958 after all, and Midge is just a “housewife” making brisket, worried about keeping her figure and beauty for her husband – all while having time to prepare the perfect Yom Kippur break -fast for the Rabbi and for her family. It’s only when a family crisis (which I won’t give away) sends Midge’s “happy life” into upheaval that she finally discovers that she is the talented stand-up in the family, not her wannabe husband. A talent that, based on the synopsis, will take Midge all the way to Johnny Carson’s couch – the pinnacle and seminal moment for stand-ups of her generations.

Within the short pilot, Sherman-Palladino is able to establish Midge as a smart, confident and funny female who knows what she wants, even if it took her 26 years to know that she, as a woman, could achieve it. Midge belongs in the company of other Sherman-Palladino heroines: a witty, fast-talking brunette you want to root for. What the pilot also does well is establish the obstacles Midge will be up against in her upward rise to fame. The fact that Midge didn’t even expect herself to go into comedy, that it was her husband’s job, is a red flag on its own; but what the pilot does best for a layman of this era is to establish this pre-feminist environment Midge will have to push against to succeed. Midge, for example, keeps a journal of all of her measurements, something she has done since she was a child, and even goes so far as to hide her night beauty regiments from her husband to make him believe she wakes up with perfect hair and make-up – behavior that appears to have been passed down from her own mother who in the pilot worries her baby granddaughter has too big of a head and bemuses that her daughter is officially done wearing sleeveless dresses. Even Midge’s own father blames her for her husband’s failings – something that even shocks Midge. Sherman-Palladino’s music choices, as with Gilmore Girls, do a wonderful job to establish mood, tone, and style of the time period. Paired with the vibrant colors and sets of 1958 New York City, it all makes the audience feel like they’ve stepped back in time.  What you ultimately get with Mrs. Maisel is the fast, witty dialogue of Gilmore Girls mixed with the epic scope and social commentary of Mad Men, and a comedy history lesson to boot.

Along the way Midge meets Gilmore Girls alum Alex Borstein who plays a hardened (West) Village bartender Susie at the comedy club “The Gaslight Cafe “ – which appears to be a fictitious stand-in for “The Bitter End”. Susie sees the rare comic talent in Midge, comparing her to Mort Sahl (an icon in his day). Finally at one point Susie tells an unsure Midge, “I don’t mind being alone. I just do not want to be insignificant. Do you? Don’t you want to do something no one else can do? Be remembered  as something other than a wife… a housewife…” – a universal question women, hell, humans ask themselves. It resonates with Midge as it did me and it pushes Midge to take the first steps to go after her own dreams with as much gusto as she put into making a brisket or we can only imagine she put into getting back in her Rabbi’s good graces. It’s fitting that what will one day became one of most important day in Midge’s life takes place on Yom Kippur. It is a day of atonement of sins, yes, but is also a day of starting over. Of re-birth. Of having your sins forgiven and wiping the slate. (In fact, she literally ends the day wearing wearing someone else’s shoes)

Also making an appearance are The Kingston Trio and, in a more substantial role, Lenny Bruce himself (played wonderfully by Luke Kirby), establishing that there are rules to this world (which includes being arrested for indecency) and that being innovative means sometimes you have to break these rules.  Every actor in the pilot is a knockout, led by the adorably charming Rachel Brosnahan as Midge, and (as Sherman-Palladino always does) casting stalwart actors such as Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle as Midge’s parents.

For me, what really struck home this piece in my heart was not just that it was about a woman who will pioneer comedy, but that this is the story of a Jewish woman in comedy. See, a short time ago I had a revelation. And hear me out, here. It may sound crazy… but… as a Jewish woman I feel unrepresented within the comic Jewish narrative. No seriously I do. Think about it… 99.9% of what we know as the traditional comic Jewish persona is male driven. And I don’t just mean this in the sense that this narrative is mostly populated by men. What I talking about is the ideas or tropes that are usually identified as the classic heritage of Jewish comedy, or voice, comes from the point of view of a strictly male narrative. The style, the attributes, what consolidates a comic Jewish stereotype – from Alan King to Woody Allen to Jerry Seinfeld. And yes, this is a history that stems all the way from the ethnic comedy of vaudeville to the dining rooms of the Catskills “Borscht Belt,” so of course it comes from a male dominated society.  But for me it was a persona I had adopted as my own, that I thought I was a part of. It wasn’t until I saw more of myself in the works of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson (Broad City) and of Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh-McKenna (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) writing actual Jewish women that I started to notice it more: I wasn’t represented. Where I had previously thought I saw myself in the worlds of Allen and Seinfeld, and even Aaron Sorkin to a degree, I only had to take a step back to see that alongside their “Jewish avatars” were mostly goyisha women.  And that when any token Jewish women actually appeared, they were nags or annoying stereotypes with funny voices for laughs.  And yes, to a non-New Yorker, Midge has a funny voice, but what her voice is in so many ways authentic. Here is a familiar, confident, Jewish woman I recognize. And this is a good thing not just for seeing myself represented in the narrative, but also for what it does to the public at large. To show that we aren’t just jokes and nagging mothers in a punch-line. Or bad dates their mother sets them up with. We are also part of this heritage of comedy. And I think there is no better person than Amy Sherman-Palladino (whose own father was a comedian during this era) to use her own Jewish voice to tell us all about Mrs. Maisel and how she made it to the top of comedy. So I recommend you watch this pilot and vote for it to be picked up for series (or else it won’t, that’s how Amazon works) And if the male in your life or the ones reading this still aren’t sold on  “Mad Men/ PunchLine for chicks” … just tell ‘em there are also tits in it. 😉

 

Carrie Welton: A Novel

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS with tags , , , , on February 11, 2017 by travsd

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It may be beyond the capacity of younger people to imagine, but there was a time within living memory when New England’s smaller cities (towns like Worcester, Providence, Hartford, Waterbury and Bridgeport) were nationally renowned and sources of regional pride. Founded in the early colonial period, they boomed with the coming of the industrial revolution in the 19th century and flourished until the mid-2oth. Waterbury, for example was the “Brass Capital of America” and for a time the products of the Waterbury Watch Company were considered the finest in the world.

We mention Waterbury in particular because it’s the setting of Charles Monagan’s novel Carrie WeltonThe title intrigued me, with its echoes of Sister Carrie and Daisy Miller and the like, as did the cover image, which turns out to be based on an actual portrait of the real-life Caroline Welton by Abraham Archibald Anderson at the Mattatuck Museum.  Welton (1842-1884) was one of Waterbury’s most prominent citizens during the city’s heyday. Intriguing monuments to her still exist there, such as the family mansion Rose Hill, and a fountain in the town green featuring a statue of Welton’s prized black stallion “Knight”, paid for with funds from her will which stipulated they be used for just that purpose. The lore about the statue in Waterbury must be prodigious, for it is impossible to look at the statue without wondering, “Why would someone erect a statue to a horse that had kicked their father to death?”. For Knight had done just that. Carrie must have hated her father very much — but why? It’s the sort of thing that might inspire speculative fiction.

And that is what Monagan gives us, an imaginative filling-in of those mysterious gaps that nag and vex (but give us so much pleasure). It is known that Welton was a painter and moved in artistic circles (she studied with the Hudson River school painters William and James MacDouglas Hart, and knew their sister Julie Hart Beers (Kempson). It is known that she was a major early supporter of the ASPCA, giving them around $250,000 over the course of her life, which would amount to roughly $7 million in today’s money. And it is known that she died in a blizzard while climbing Long’s Peak in the Rocky Mountains — a highly unusual death for a woman in 1884, it must be noted. Particularly a society woman. Hers was also the first recorded death on that mountain; she was one of its earliest climbers.

But it is the private life that intrigues us and the meat of Monagan’s novel gives us well-researched and vividly-rendered guesses as to its nature. The story is told from the perspective of Welton’s neighbor, the real-life Frederick Kingsbury (1823-1910). Living across the street from the Weltons, the Kingsburys have a front row seat at the drama; it is sort of like Bewitched told from the point of view of the Kravitzes. It’s just close enough to give us a better idea than anyone else what is going on behind the walls of that house…but just far away enough not to have the whole story, which keeps us on the hook for the duration. The book is organized in three sections; the first (and best, I think) tells of the tumultuous teenage years. The second imagines her time in New York and Boston, where to my great delight she hangs out at Pfaff’s and encounters the likes of Whitman and Ada Clare (this gave me great delight because these people and places also played a role in my play Horse Play; there must be something in the zeitgeist).  Carrie witnesses the Civil War draft riots and has adventures in Five Points and even gets poisoned in an opium den! And the third part concerns her return to Waterbury, the death of her father, and her mysterious behavior afterwards.

I found it an enormously pleasurable read. Stylistically it is evocative of American realists like Howells, Crane, Wharton, James, Tarkington, and Dreiser. I thought of them all at one point or another while reading this book. Interestingly, though, most of the tale is laid in the 1850s and 60s, when the predominating literary style was Romanticism. The transference is welcome though; the heavier, more ponderous metaphysical style of the ’50s would be a very different, far less welcome book. Necessarily, Monagan’s style is more modern that even the period realists I mentioned, accomplishing in 300 pages what might have taken James twice as long to do. The strategy has its bonuses. While greater restraint, and more cultural reticence toward “sharing” and “getting things out in the open” in the manner of James might feel more period appropriate, the contemporary reader is grateful for the faster ride. And yet, while the writing is lean, there’s a lot there. I confess I tried to skim it, as one often does when reviewing books, but I found I couldn’t, and for two reasons. The first is that his writing is so spare and economical that you simply miss vital points if you try to plow through, and you become quickly disoriented. The second is that I was enjoying it too much.

Above all, the book strikes me as a loving valentine to to the author’s native city. And nostalgia for that time we never got to know, that era of seemingly unbounded growth, when essentially the whole country was getting in on the ground floor of Something Big. Frederick Kingsbury founded Waterbury’s first bank! As in, before him, there was NO bank! If you could scrape together the capital and had some ideas, it was possible to FOUND something, to make an empire of brass. As opposed to the American years of our lifetimes, which have been characterized by decay and decline and the boarding of storefront windows. I often think: sometimes the past can be as pleasant a fantasy as science fiction. But at the same time, Monagan reminds us, beneath the gilt and finery, there was also unhappiness. Therein likes the difference between a Realist and a Romantic.

The book is available here.

Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Jews/ Show Biz, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2017 by travsd

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It undoubtedly speaks to my present state of mind that I wasn’t crazy about Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled The Fuhrer. Someone recommended it to me online just knowing I’d love it, and the title certainly sounds like the kind of thing I’d really go for, for a multiplicity of reasons. But the title mis-sells it. I was expecting and hoping for a real-life story perhaps mixing elements of To Be or Not to Be, I am a Camera, and Schindler’s List, featuring real-life derring-do and heroism by a cabaret performer deep in the heart of the Third Reich…

Instead, the book’s subject turns out to be an American flim-flam artist, vaudeville manager and impresario from Troy, New York named Freeman Bernstein. His “hustle” of Hitler consisted of selling him a few tons of scrap metal under the premise that it was a shipment of nickel, much in demand as Germany was preparing for war. Even as a swindle this strikes me as rather contemptible, lacking whimsy or creativity, just kind of a bottom-feeding theft. I’m glad it happened to Nazis, but if it happened to anyone else I’d say, “Clap that dude in irons and bring him bad food.” Further, the book, in the tradition of its subject, keeps you on the hook for over 300 pages before finally delivering its underwhelming story. It is preceded by pages of lore about the guy’s show biz career running amusement parks and small time vaudeville houses, and crossing paths with the occasional person of note, such as Mae West, to whom he once tried to sell some fake jewels. (It’s not so easy to sell fake diamonds to Diamond Lil).

The book is a labor of love by Bernstein’s great-nephew Walter Shapiro and has the flavor of family anecdote, a long, winding bar-room story at long last set down on paper. I’m going to hang on to it for awhile and perhaps mine it later for vaudeville lore. But at the moment I am much less interested in vaudevillians per se than in VAUDEVILLIANS WHO TOPPLE NAZIS, know’m sayin’?

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