Archive for revue

Albert Carroll: Kind of a Drag

Posted in Broadway, Dance, Drag and/or LGBT, Impressionists with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2017 by travsd

Today’s as good a day as any to tell you about Albert Carroll, an extraordinarily talented and well-known guy in his day to have become so obscure in ours. Carroll was a Broadway actor,  dancer, impressionist, female impersonator, lyricist and choreographer. Sources differ as to his birth. IBDB gives ca. 1895-1956, and a 1900 Chicago census seems to bear this out. IMDB gives march 13, 1898 through 1970, although they might be conflating him with another Albert Carroll, possibly the New Orleans piano player, who was African American. To further confuse matters, our subject sometimes rendered his name as Albert J. Carroll.

I’ve gotten some info about his earliest years from F. Michael Moore’s book Drag! Male and Female Impersonators on Stage, Screen and Television. Moore says that Carroll staged an amateur revue in Chicago when he was 16, and that when he got to New York, he performed during interludes in silent movie screenings. About his private life, or how he came to New York I’ve so far found nothing. Since his earliest credits were all with the Neighborhood Playhouse we can make some deductions about he got his start on the stage. The Neighborhood Playhouse was founded in 1915 and had grown out of youth education programs at Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, which remains a center of theatrical activity to this day. Carroll’s first couple of shows with the company appear to have opened at the downtown theatre and then moved to the Maxine Elliott Theater on Broadway.  He’s about the right age to have been involved with Henry Street’s theatre programs in his late teens and young adulthood, and gotten involved with the company that way. His first professional credit was a show based around visiting British actress Gertrude Kingston in 1916. The next was a play called 39 East by Rachel Crothers in 1919, in which Carroll appeared with Henry Hull and Alison Skipworth. It was made into a silent film the following year with a much of the same cast, including Carroll.

For the next three decades Carroll was to be a star of Broadway, often with Neighborhood Playhouse productions, in over three dozen shows. He was a notable stand-out as performer, choreographer and lyricist in several editions of the revue called the Grand Street Follies, participating in the inaugural 1922 edition, as well as ones in annual editions from 1924 through 1929. Other revues he appeared in included The ’49ers (1922),  The Garrick Gaieties (1930), The Ziegfeld Follies (1931) and The Seven Lively Arts (1944). In these revues he was famous for impersonating famous actors and dancers, many or most of whom were female.  He did impressions of both John and Ethel Barrymore. He also did Pavlova, Irene Castle, Lynne Fontanne, Bea Lillie, Gertrude Lawrence, Laurette Taylor, Groucho Marx, and NYC Mayor Jimmy Walker.   Some photographs of him in character can be found of him on a blog called the Mouse Art Notebooks. He also contributed humor, poems and stories to the New Yorker between 1927 and 1930. He also acted in straight plays and comedies and even classics. His last known credits are musicals with the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 1946 and 1947. After this he appears to have returned to Chicago, where he passed away about a decade later.

Several sources say the great Southern novelist Thomas Wolfe disliked Carroll, whom he met in the 1920s through the Neighborhood Playhouse’s set and costume designer Aline Bernstein, who was Wolfe’s patron and lover. (He is said to have been uncomfortable with Carroll’s flamboyant and foppish personality, i.e. he was homophobic).

Another interesting tidbit: Carroll’s younger brother Eugene “Gene” Carroll had a vaudeville career, and hosted a local television show in Cleveland for decades.

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on silent  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

W.C. Fields and Broadway

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jugglers, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , on November 18, 2016 by travsd

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We’ll be blogging about comedian W.C. Fields all through November and December as part of our tribute to the comedian called Fields Fest.  For a full list upcoming live Fields Fest events go here. 

With Kevin Fitzpatick giving his Fields Fest Walking Tour tomorrow, which takes visitors to destinations in the NYC theatre district significant to the life of W.C. Fields, it seemed a good time to post this piece on Fields’ time in the legit theatre.

Fields’ career can roughly be broken down into three phases:

  • Nearly 20 years as a juggler in vaudeville (circa 1895-1915) with a couple of forays into book shows in burlesque
  • 15 years as a Broadway star (1915-1930), with occasional vaudeville dates and silent films
  • 15 years as a star of talking pictures (1930-1945), with radio work supplanting live theatre after 1936

The Broadway period laid crucial groundwork for his Hollywood movies. Fields became a prolific and hilarious comedy sketch writer during his stage years. Nearly all of the sketches he wrote and performed in Broadway revues were incorporated into his films.

The Ziegfeld Follies of  1915 was a crucial turning point in Fields’ career; the dream of every vaudevillian. But it was not (as is sometimes claimed) his first structured stage show, or even his first Broadway show.

In the late 1890s (a time when burlesque was very different), as a juggler he’d taken part in the olio of a show called The Monte Carlo Girls, which played Troy, NY and then moved to Miner’s Bowery Theatre. In 1899, he appeared with Murphy and Gibson’s Minstrels in Atlantic City, and. Irwin’s Burlesquers in Cincinnati. These shows differed from vaudeville in that they consisted of a single, rehearsed company, who did the same show, in the same order from night to night. Fields was still a semi-mute tramp juggler at this stage.

His Broadway debut came in The Ham Tree (1905), a vehicle for the blackface minstrel team of McIntyre and Heath. Fields got to speak his first lines in this show, playing a funny detective named Sherlock Baffles, in addition to his juggling specialty. He was well received in the role. After out of town tryouts the show opened at Klaw and Erlanger’s New York Theatre in 1905 and toured through 1907.

In 1914, Fields got a terrific break (briefly) when he was given a slot in the seminal Broadway show Watch Your Step. This was Irving Berlin’s first Broadway show, and was a showcase for the talents of the dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle. The all-star cast also included Frank Tinney, Harry Kelly, Elizabeth Murray, and Charles King. Unfortunately, Fields was fired after a single performance. Not for cause, just for time. This was extremely common in Broadway shows, especially ones with a variety component. When ya run long, ya gotta cut. Still it must have been a major disappointment when this show went on to be a major hit. Fields’ consolation came the following year, when his Broadway career truly began.

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Ziegfeld Follies of 1915

Fields first stint in the Follies was more tentative than his participation in subsequent editions. It was essentially an on-the-job audition. Plenty of performers were tried in the Follies and then let go for a wide variety of reasons. But Fields was a hit, and somehow his contributions fit right into Flo Ziegfeld’s revue format.  In his inaugural year, Fields was able to do his trick pool table routine he’d been developing in vaudeville for years. But, as he was a newbie, the turn was incorporated into a sketch starring Ed Wynn, a Follies veteran. An occurrence during a performance of this sketch one night became a legendary show biz anecdote. As part of the action, Wynn crept under the pool table and started making faces at the audience. For this crime, one night Fields is reputed to have cracked Wynn over the head with a pool cue and knocked him out cold.  Fields proved he was able to hold his own in the 1915 Follies, not only with Wynn, but also the likes of Bert Williams, Leon Errol, Ina Claire, Bernard Granville, Mae Murray, the Oakland Sisters, Olive Thomas, and the dance team of Ann Pennington and George White (the latter of whom would go on to employ Fields in his own revue a few years later). Shorty Blanche was hired to be Fields’ valet this year;  in a few years time he would graduate to performing with Fields in the sketches. Last year I attended a wonderful celebration of the centennial of this landmark of the life of W.C. Fields; read all about it here.

Ziegfeld Follies of 1916

Having proven himself in the previous edition, Fields was given much more to do in 1916. He was in many more comedy sketches, and got to demonstrate a versatility that perhaps even his modern fans would not suspect he was capable of. In comedy sketches, he played Hamlet and Teddy Roosevelt, and did a funny routine with Bert Williams  and Sam Hardy (who later worked with Fields on his film Man on the Flying Trapeze). He was even in a musical number called “Njinsky” with Fanny Brice and others. In what was to become a Fields staple in revues, he did another sports-related comedy sketch, supplanting the pool routine with one about croquet (in later years he would also do ones on golf, tennis and baseball).  Fields’ co-stars in this edition included Ina Claire, Bernard Granville, Marion Davies (with whom he would appear 8 years later in Janice Meredith), Bird Millman, Ann Pennington, and Frances White. 

Ziegfeld Follies of 1917

This is fondly remembered as perhaps the best year of the Follies ever, at least for comedy fans. It was the debut year for both Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers, and Fanny Brice, one of the Follies’ earliest stars, returned. Fields became fast friends with all of them. Cantor was the youngest of the bunch; Fields mentored him and roomed with him went the company went on the road. Also in this edition, Fields appeared in two sketches with Walter Catlett, later to become a beloved Hollywood character actor himself: “A Game of Tennis” and “One of the Six Best Cellars”.  Also in the show were Bert Williams, the Fairbanks Twins, Carl Hyson, and Lilyan Tashman.

Cast of 1918 Follies

Cast of 1918 Follies

Ziegfeld Follies of 1918

This edition of the Follies is famous for being the one in which Fields introduced his routine “A Game of Golf”, which he later incorporated into so many of his movies (“Stand clear, and keep your eye on the ball!”). This is also the edition during which Fields met chorus girl Bessie Poole, who would become his longtime companion for years. Lillian Lorraine, who’d been an early star of the Follies from 1909 through 1912, returned. Also in the show were Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, Savoy and Brennan, the Fairbanks Twins, Ann Pennington, Joe Frisco, Marilyn Miller, Bee Palmer, Harry Kelly, Martha Mansfield, Billie Ritchie, and, in the chorus, Doris Eaton, later to become famous as the Last Ziegfeld Girl.

Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic (1919)

Fields had planned a foreign tour in 1919 so he didn’t participate in the Follies that year. But then the tour fell through. To full his schedule, he played several of Ziegfeld’s more informal cabaret revues instead. The Midnight Frolic was a sophisticated show staged in the rooftop club atop the New Amsterdam Theatre.  In this production, Fields introduced a sketch called “The Family Ford”, about all the tribulations of a family trying to load the car up for an outing. Also in the show were Fanny Brice, Frances White, Ted Lewis, Doris Eaton, Martha Mansfield, Chic Sale, and Savoy and Brennan.

Ziegfeld Nine O’Clock Revue (1920)

This was a supper show, for which Fields revived his golf and croquet sketches.  Will Rogers and Savoy and Brennan were in the cast.

Ziegfeld Girls of 1920

In this revue, Fields was joined by Fanny Brice, Lillian Lorraine, the Cameron Sisters, and others.

Ziegfeld Follies of 1920

In this edition, Fields brought “The Family Ford” to the big time. Also in the cast were Fanny Brice. Ray Dooley, Jack Donohue, Bernard Granville, Moran and Mack, Van and Schenck, Charles Winninger and both Doris and Mary Eaton.

Ziegfeld Follies of 1921

Fields introduced his sketch “Off to the Country” here; it was all about a family trying to get onto a subway car while loaded down with fishing poles and other recreational gear.  He also appeared in a Camille parody with Fields as John Barrymore, Fanny Brice as Ethel, and Raymond Hitchcock as Lionel.  He also played the referee in a spoof of the Dempsey-Carpentier fight with Fanny Brice and Ray Dooley as the boxers. Brice was the undisputed star of this edition — it’s the one in which she sang “My Man” and “Second Hand Rose”. Also in this one:Van and Schenck, and Doris and Mary Eaton

George White’s Scandals (1922)

Fields jumped ship and went over to the competition this year. he enjoyed much more creative freedom in George White’s revue, as White was also in the show himself and didn’t supervise the other acts as closely as Ziegfeld had.  Fields introduced a baseball routine (it was cut for being a rehash of his tennis routine) a radio sketch, and a sketch mixing his previous automobile and subway routines. Also in the cast: Dolores Costello, Winnie Lightner (and her sister Thea), and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.

Poppy (1923-1924)

This book musical written by Dorothy Donnelly and starring Madge Kennedy as the titular New England heiress, was a pivotal show for Fields. It was with Poppy that he introduced the florid-tongued, top-hatted 19th century mountebank, Eustace McGargle, the lovable snake oil salesman — the character we would see so often in his later movies. Already a star of vaudeville and revues, Poppy now brought Fields to the attention of serious and important critics like Alexander Woolcott, George Jean Nathan and Robert Sherwood. Walter Winchell had a small part in the ensemble!

The Comic Supplement (1925):

This show of sketches by J.P. McEvoy (with additional material by Fields) provided the OTHER piece of the puzzle we would see in Fields’ movies, that of the irascible, hen-pecked domestic dad. It included a drug store sketch that became the movie short The Pharmacist, as well as a sketch called “The Back Porch” that was incorporated into It’s a Gift., Betty Compson was in this show. Ziegfeld produced this legendary show, but he closed it out of town before it reached New York. But the silver lining was:

Ziegfeld Follies of 1925

Fields brought the best of the Comic Supplement material into the ’25 edition of the Follies and became the hit of the show, which needed the comedy material badly.  Also in this edition were Louise Brooks, with whom Fields would soon co-star in The Old Army Game.  The show also featured Chaz Chase and Vivienne Segal.

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Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1928)

When Fields’s second attempt at a silent career went bust he needed stage work.  he was not a fan of the Vanities (a cut-rate and more sensational and sexy version of the Follies and Scandals) but he couldn’t turn down the large amount of money he was offered for appearing.  The upside was that out of this show came some of his best sketches: “The Stolen Bonds”, which became the basis for the film short The Fatal Glass of Beer,  “An Episode at the Dentists” (which became the film short The Dentist) as well as  sketches entitled, “My School Days Are Over”, “The Caledonian Express”, “Fido the Beautiful Dog”.  The legendary “Canary Trial” emerged from this production, when Fields was called into court to stand trial for a murdered bird, allegedly killed during the Dentist Sketch. He gave the proceedings all the seriousness they deserved. Also in this show were Louise Brooks, Joe Frisco, Ray Dooley, Lillian Roth (soon to be featured in films like The Love Parade, Animal Crackers and Madam Satan) and Barto and Mann.

Show Boat (1930)

Fields had been intended for Cap’n Andy in the original Broadway production of this classic, but was unavailable. He as able to have his cake and eat it too by later playing the part regionally for a few weeks, at the St. Louis Municipal Opera.

Ballyhoo (1930)

This show, produced by Arthur Hammerstein, has the dubious distinction of being the only Broadway show W.C. Fields was in that tanked. Not because it was bad, but because it hit the boards at the height of the Great Depression. Fields played a promoter  by the name of Q.Q. Quale, and got to do some juggling. This show marked the end of Fields’ 30+ stage career. For the next 15 years it would be just film and radio — for which we should be glad, since they allow us who weren’t around at the time of his stage career, to experience him!

 

 

 

Stars of Vaudeville #1013: Nita Naldi

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2016 by travsd

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NITA NALDI: A VAMP FROM VAUDEVILLE

Today is the birthday of Nita Naldi (Mary Dooley, 1894-1961).

Naldi was the child of working class Irish parents in New York City. When her (then single) mother died in 1915, she was forced to care for her two younger siblings. Fortunately her extraordinary beauty made it easier than it might have been. She worked as an artists’ model and then broke into a vaudeville in a two-act with her brother Frank. This led to chorus parts in Follow the Girl (1918), The Passing Show of 1918 and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918 and 1919. This in turn lead to acting roles in plays, the biggest of which was aptly named Opportunity (1920).

From here she went into films, essentially starting out at the top, opposite John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920). She was to become of Hollywood’s top silent era vamps, starring in such notable films as Blood and Sand (1922), The Ten Commandments (1923), Cobra (1924), and Alfred Hitchcock’s second film The Mountain Eagle (1926). She was a frequent co-star of Rudolph Valentino and his wife Natacha Rambova.

It was during this heyday that she she sat for this famous illustration by Alberto Vargas:

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Starting in the late 20s she spent several years in Europe and married her longtime lover the millionaire J. Searle Barclay. By 1931 this had fizzled out. The pair separated, she came home, filed for bankruptcy and starred in two short-lived Broadway shows Firebird (1932) and Queer People (1934). At this stage, it was widely held that she was no longer a beauty; she had gained weight since her film stardom. But she continued to perform. She appeared in an off-Broadway revue with Mae Murray in 1942, had a role in the 1952 Broadway show In Any Language, and coached Carol Channing for The Vamp (1955).

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Guest Book Review By Cheryl Rice

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Impresarios, Jews/ Show Biz, Women with tags , , , , , , , on August 14, 2015 by travsd

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So much for labor saving! One of the happy benefits of having written a popular book (and now a popular blog) is that I have accrued pen pals all over this great land of ours. Hudson Valley Poet Cheryl Rice has been among the most valued for many a long year now. She suggested a review of this book and I lobbed the task back to her….and of course what do I want to do after reading the review? Read the book, of course! And so I say “so much for labor saving”. You can read Cheryl Rice at her own blog here: http://flyingmonkeyprods.blogspot.com/

By the way – – she didn’t format it like this, that’s just how it turned out after I cut and pasted it. And, ya know what? I like it better this way! She’s a poet, so read the review like a poem! 

 

What little impression among the general public remains of Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.,

(Broadway’s legendary producer of a century ago) often consists of half-naked showgirls, old-

fashioned limelight stages, and creaky old ballads. But Cynthia and Sara Brideson’s new

biography, Ziegfeld and His Follies (2015: University of Kentucky Press), quickly reminded me

of a grand opera. The scope of Ziegfeld’s dramatic life as covered in this new book is both wide

and finely detailed. From his earliest attempt at carnival barking, in defiance of Ziegfeld Sr.’s

classical music leanings and school, through his greatest stage triumphs (the Follies of course,

but other productions, too, including the still performed musical Show Boat), to his death as a

financially ruined man, each act of the drama , each supporting player is in place. The elaborate

costumes, the soft blue and pink lights that Ziegfeld favored, even the behind-the-scenes scandals,

are fully envisioned.

 

The Brideson sisters have succeeded brilliantly with an intimidating subject under

challenging circumstances. All of Ziegfeld’s contemporaries are long departed. Probably the last

person on earth to have known him, his daughter Patricia, passed away in 2008. Last of the

Ziegfeld Girls, Doris Eaton Travis, who made her debut in the Follies at the age of 16 in 1918,

died in 2010 at the age of 106. Much information is drawn from books in my own

collection—autobiographies by Eddie Cantor and Billie Burke among others. These often

contradictory (and understandably whitewashed) accounts are skillfully supplemented by

newspaper and magazine articles of the time, and personal letters exchanged between Ziegfeld

and Burke, husband and wife for eighteen years. The Bridesons also make use of a goldmine of

telegrams, which Ziegfeld used the way other bosses might use Post-Its. These additions add

dimension and texture to what otherwise could have become a self-serving rehash that disclosed

more about the author than the subject.

 

Contradictions, rather than being rationalized or omitted, are allowed to stand, creating a

three-dimensional portrait of a man who was unknowable to most in his own time. A devoted

father and husband, Ziegfeld regularly seems to have, Pygmalion style, fallen in love with many

of the stars he created, with varied results. The generosity of the Ziegfelds to their Hastings, New

York neighbors contrasts with Flo’s disregard for songwriters and other laborers, often paying

them late or not at all for services provided. The impeccable dresser was as comfortable in the

saddle as the boudoir. And the mystery of the source of his gift, his exquisite taste, remains just

that. Some influences are obvious—a love for spectacle, the ability to not just imitate but

improve upon what he saw on other stages, the subtle lessons in style from his first wife, Parisian

actress Anna Held. By the time he and second wife Burke set up their home together, he seems to

have been a fully formed Glorifier, of himself as well as American Girls (and one Guy, if one

counts early star Sandow).

 

In the end, as his style of musical theater began to pass into history, Ziegfeld could

perhaps have found the strength for one last flourish, despite ill health, if the Stock Market crash

of ’29 hadn’t put the final nail in his financial coffin. In this book, Ziegfeld’s demise plays out

with as much power as any Greek tragedy. I found myself tearing up about this man who has

been dead for 83 years, despised by some, revered by others, appreciated by most for the

imperfect genius he was.

 

What fascinates me about theater and vaudeville of the early 1900s is the shadowy traces

left behind. Like Ziegfeld himself, we are left with just wisps of silk, grainy black-and-white

photos, and hazy memories sometimes filtered through ghostwriters or defiant survivors

(Patricia’s memoir being a notable exception). This is all we have to use to get at what it was all

really, really like. I believe that Cynthia and Sara Brideson’s account has succeeded in coming

closer to the actual essence of Ziegfeld and his times than anything else I’ve ever read. I can

smell the anticipation of the audience in the New Amsterdam before the curtain goes up on

opening night, feel a feather from Marilyn Miller’s expensive costume graze my cheek as she

pushes past, taking care not to offend her. Like Ziegfeld, the Brideson sisters have pulled bits

and pieces from disparate sources and put on a show as worthy of the Great Glorifier as might be

possible. All the beauty, yes, and the injuries too, of Broadway’s early days can be found in the

pages of Ziegfeld and His Follies. I can’t see how we’ll get any closer, short of time travel.

An All-Star Comedy Cast in “International House” (1933)

Posted in Asian, Burns and Allen, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2014 by travsd

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The presence of W.C. Fields is one of the highlights of the terrific all-star Paramount comedy International House (1933), directed by Eddie Sutherland.

I’ve probably seen this one two dozen times, and will no doubt watch it many more. It’s essentially a revue film showcasing many musical and comedy stars, spliced together with a parody of MGM’s Grand Hotel, which had been released the previous year. It’s all set at the titular International House hotel in Wuhu, China, where VIPS from all over the globe have come to see a demonstration of a new invention called a “radioscope”, which is essentially a prototype of television.

The flustered hotel manager is of course Franklin Pangborn; the hotel doctor and nurse are George Burns and Gracie Allen. Guests include W.C. Fields as a professor/explorer/ inventor not unlike Groucho’s Captain Spalding in Animal Crackers, Peggy Hopkins Joyce (as herself), Stuart Erwin and Bela Lugosi as an evil Russian spy. The radioscope itself is the devise that enables the revue portion. As the assembled parties watch, the device tunes into various parts of the globe where it just happens to capture great variety acts, among them, Cab Calloway, Rudy Vallee, Baby Rose Marie and Stoopnagle and Budd. There’s never a dull moment in this movie; there’s never time for one.

The most unfortunate aspect of the film of course is attitude towards the Chinese, which ranges (in the typical mode of the time) from stereotype to ignoring them completely. Anyway that’s how they used to make Hollywood movies. When we emulate them today, let’s choose only the good parts.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy 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 amazon.com etc etc etc

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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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Stars of Vaudeville #17: Beatrice Lillie

Posted in British Music Hall, Comediennes, Comedy, Singing Comediennes, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2013 by travsd

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Bea Lillie was one of the most beloved performers in show business history, adored by both her fans and colleagues alike. She appeared at a glance to be very proper and British but could be as undignified, fun-loving and insane as the lowest of low comedians, such as Milton Berle and Bert Lahr, both of whom she worked with. A good example of this ability was her favorite stunt of gyrating her neck so that her pearls would spin round and round hula hoop style.

This very “British” British subject was actually Canadian — born in Toronto on this day in 1894. She took piano and acting lessons as a child. In 1913, she moved to England, where she made her stage debut at Chatham’s Music Hall the following year. Also in 1914 she appeared in Andre Charlot’s revue Not Likely, beginning a relationship that was to last for over a decade. In 1920 she married Sir Robert Peel, the last in a long line of Robert Peels stretching back at least as far as the time of Cromwell.

She made her triumphant return to North America with Charlot’s Revue of 1924, which played at the Times Square Theatre, as did the 1925 version. In 1927, she toured the Orpheum circuit, but was not so well received by the rubes of the American west. She debuted at the Palace the following year, and made subsequent appearances over the next few years. Her long professional relationship with Noel Coward began in 1928 with This Year of Grace, and continued with the Third Little Show, (1931), where she sang “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”.

Her entire song repertoire was comic, and her style was such that songwriters penned special material just to hear it come out of her mouth. She had much in common with her friend Fanny Brice. As with Brice, Lillie’s energy and character seemed focused on mockery of the role of the women singer – a parody of how women singers normally behave. Typical numbers included “Snoops, the Lawyer” and “There Are Faeries in the Bottom of My Garden”. In the recorded version of the last number, she would extend the songs highest note, which comes at a dramatically climactic point in each verse, a ridiculous length of time to build comic tension. There is little doubt that a variety of funny faces accompanied such moments in a Lillie performance.

When vaudeville evaporated she was big enough to star in musicals and films for the next several decades. Stage hits included Walk a Little Faster in London with Bobby Clarke in 1932, The Show’s On with Bert Lahr in 1936, a 1952 tour of An Evening with Beatrice Lillie, the 1957 revival of the Ziegfeld Follies, and High Spirits, a 1964 musical version of Coward’s Blythe Spirit. Film highlights included 1930’s Are You Here? and Thoroughly Modern Millie. She died in 1989.

Now here she is on the Ed Sullivan Show doing one of my favorite songs from her repertoire “There are Faeries at the Bottom of My Garden”

To find out 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.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Earl Carroll, Lord of the Vanities

Posted in Broadway, Burlesk, Hollywood (History), Impresarios with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2012 by travsd

September 16 is the birthday of the great Broadway impresario Earl Carroll (1892-1948), best known for his series of revues Earl Carroll’s Vanities , which ran from 1923 through 1940. His first theatrical credits were as songwriter, with contributions for shows such as the Passing Show of 1912 and Ziegfeld Follies of 1913. Soon he was contributing books and complete songbooks to a long list of shows that have long since been forgotten. It wasn’t until 1923 that  his career began to take off, when he produced the smash-hit play play White Cargo (with its lusty miscegenation plot) and launched the first edition of the Vanities. 

By the 1920s, Ziegfeld’s Follies were beginning to seem old hat. Carroll offered Broadway audiences near-nudity…sometimes complete nudity, and his racy show became the new thing. In addition to the Vanities  he produced two editions of Earl Carroll’s Sketchbook (1929 and 1935), and Murder at the Vanities (1934), a murder mystery that was also made into a movie.  He also built several theatres that bore his name: one in New York in 1922, that was replaced by another in 1931; and one in Hollywood in 1938, which is also where his last film was set A Night at Earl Carroll’s (1940).

Sadly, his career was cut short in 1948 when he and his wife were killed in an airplane crash.

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.

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