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Señor Wences: S’Alright

Posted in Television, TV variety, Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2017 by travsd

Born today in 1896 in Salamanca, Spain: the great ventriloquist Wenceslao Moreno, better known to American audiences as Señor Wences. After having written about a couple of thousand variety artists, actors and other performers over the past 8 years, it seems a shocking lapse that I haven’t written a proper post about this key 20th century performer until today. He fell through the cracks! I had initially made a very cursory post (he arrived in the U.S too late for American vaudeville, my initial focus here), and then afterwards I kept assuming I had done one, but I hadn’t yet. Today we redress the lapse.

Señor Wences was nearly 40 years old and a well-polished veteran of the music halls, cabarets and night clubs of Europe prior to his first arrival in the U.S. in the mid 1930s to perform at New York’s Club Chico. By this time, the American vaudeville circuits were dead, so the word “vaudevillian” when applied to him, while accurate, is true only in the broader sense. He played night clubs and resorts in the U.S.in his early years.

His best known character, Johnny (above) was created by drawing a face on his hand, and then attaching a body below it. A lot of humor was generated by the fast interchanges between himself and the character, as well as by his thick Spanish accent, and his treating of Johnny, with his falsetto voice, as a mischievous young child. In 1936 he created his second best known character, Pedro, essentially just a head in a box, when one of his dummies was destroyed on the way to a gig:

Another favorite bit had him answering a telephone and providing the voice at the other end. As you can see, his act was very original — he had great fun using all manner of offbeat props and “partners” that were quite different from the typical ventriloquism dummies, which probably becoming quite tiresome and “old hat” to audiences by the mid-20th century. He also did juggling and plate spinning.

His great boon was the advent of television in the late 1940s, and he started to become a familiar and regular sight on all the variety shows and talk shows: Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, and Jack Paar all had him as a guest, and his catchphrase: “S’alright? S’alright!” become universally known. He was still popular on tv in my own time, and I saw him places like The Mike Douglas Show, The Muppet Show, Late Night with David Letterman, and a very popular series of Parkay Margarine commercials.

Señor Wences was still performing well in the 1980s, and passed away in 1999 at the age of 103.

To find out more about vaudeville history and performers like Senor Wencesconsult 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 early  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

Gene Carroll

Posted in Stars of Vaudeville, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2017 by travsd

The career of Gene Carroll (born this day in 1897) is a really good illustration of what happened to the average working vaudevillian after vaudeville went away. The younger brother of Broadway performer Albert Carroll, he was originally from Chicago, where he dropped out of school to participate in amateur nights. He partnered with Jack Grady in a Chicago based song and dance act in 1924.

Gene and Glenn

When Grady fell in 1929, Carroll teamed up with Cleveland based Glenn Rowell. Gene and Glenn performed in local vaudeville and on Cleveland radio through 1935. Their characters Jake and Lena were so popular that the show went national in 1934 and the team performed throughout the Northeast and Midwest through their breakup in 1943. Rowell left to do war related work; Carroll became a regular on Fibber McGee and Molly. 

In 1948, Carroll returned to Cleveland, where he was a staple of local television until his death in 1972, on such programs as Uncle Jake’s House, The Giant Tiger Amateur Hour and The Gene Carroll Show. He also ran a talent school. Carroll’s tv show ran posthumously until 1982, hosted by his widow. At one time, it was the longest running show on television.

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 early  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

The Crazy Craft of Sid and Marty Krofft

Posted in Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2017 by travsd

Happy Birthday, Marty Krofft, the younger of the duo invariably known by their trade-name Sid and Marty Krofft. While these amazing television creators downright dominated the entirety of my childhood, coinciding almost exactly with the entire decade of the 1970s, it has been interesting to learn that they never ceased to be a going concern, even down to the present day, although Sid is now 87 and Marty now 79. They just were a tad less en vogue in ensuing decades, when entertainment began to get less weird — and I always mean “less weird” in a bad way.

For a country often thought of by Americans as dry, understated, calm, and sensible, Canada certainly has produced a lot of exceptionally trippy, spacey family entertainment: Doug Henning was from Winnipeg; the Kroffts and Cirque du Soleil come from Montreal. What’s the deal, eh? Been smoking the maple leaves?

Henning and Cirque have never been my cup of tea but the off-the-wall products of Sid and Marty Krofft have ALWAYS rung my bell. A good measure of the impact the team has had on my lives is the fact that I have ALREADY blogged about most of their shows and their stars (just follow the links for more). But, man, running down the full list of them is wild — since they average a show a year, it’s almost like scanning a list of all your childhood schoolteachers, grade by grade. To wit:

The Banana Splits (1968-70)

The Kroffts did not produce this groundbreaking and memorable series (it was Hanna-Barbera), but they did design the costumed characters (Fleegle, Blingo, Drooper and Snorky). The idea was that that they were a rock band quartet like the Beatles (who hadn’t yet broken up) but designed especially for young children (a concept not unlike the much later Teletubbies).  The show was also a natural refinement of the concept of The Monkees, which was aimed at older kids and ran from 1966 to 1968. In format, the show also borrowed a lot from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, lots of short black out sketches, songs and other segments, with rapid cross-cutting from one to the other — and a laugh-track. The voices were provided by Paul Winchell, Daws Butler, and Allan Melville (Snorky the elephant, much like Harpo Marx, didn’t speak but merely blew his trunk, which sounded like a bicycle horn). The monster success of this show is what allowed the Kroffts (who’d previously been known for their live shows at theme parks, world’s fairs, etc.) to begin producing on their own.

H.R. Pufnstuf (1969)

The show that started it all. A psychedelic feast in which young Jimmy (Jack Wild, from the recent hit Oliver!) gets blown off course in his little skiff in a storm and winds up on a magical island presided over by the titular character, the Mayor, who is clearly inspired by the song “Puff, the Magic Dragon”.  He was voiced by Lennie Weinrib. The villain of the piece is one Witchiepoo (Billie Hayes), clearly inspired by the Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West, but funnier, who wants to steal Jimmy’s talking magical flute, Freddy. Meanwhile, everything on this Living Island (e.g., the trees) talks. Most of them talk in the form of impersonations of class Hollywood stars like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, John Wayne and Mae West.

I believe the Kroffts when they insist that drugs played no role in this show’s creation. Only someone stupid, literal-minded and lacking in imagination can’t conceive that it was created otherwise. I might say that certainly drugs played a role in the popular aesthetics of the times and thus may have exerted an indirect influence. But something else to think about (the elephant in the room, really) was that color television was still a relatively new toy. What would be more natural in the early days for producers to test its limits with EXPLOSIONS of color?

H.R. Pufnstuf was so popular that in 1970 McDonald’s emulated it by introducing its full range of McDonaldland characters in commercials, most notoriously Mayor McCheese, an obvious rip-off of the title character in Pufnstuf. This was easily my first introduction to the concept of a lawsuit, as all tongues wagged about it at the time. As it happens, Paul Simon also sued the producers for stealing a portion of The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) for the show’s theme song — but that’s really just petty. It’s really just a couple of bars of a very simple melody which any child might invent at random on the kindergarten playground — it’s not exactly Mozart. But Simon won and apparently now gets official credit as one of the theme’s creators.

The Bugaloos (1970)

Speaking of theme songs, try and get the one to THIS show out of your head once you’ve heard it! I challenge you! The Bugaloos tends to fall through the cracks of people’s memories, I think the only recognizable star was the villainess, played by Martha Raye. The main characters were an English quartet of flying insects who were also a rock band — kind of a LITERAL “Beetles”, if you will. They lived inside a juke box! The visual effect of the Bugaloos flying through the air unavoidably evokes ancient cultural memories of storybook fairies. The Kroffts were the KINGS of visual symbolism and power in this way, very much plugged into fairy tales, but making them current.

Lidsville (1971)

Lidsville has wound up being almost as well remembered as Pufnstuf , I think because of its stars and because it went back to a formula more like the original. In this one, a now teenage Butch Patrick (who had played Eddie Munster) gets whisked away to a magical land of talking hats, ruled over by an evil magician named Hoodoo (Charles Nelson Reilly) who bore more than a slight resemblance to the popular Witchiepoo. The show had several memorable green screen effects sequences, including the magician’s growing top hat (which the boy falls in and down, in just the same way Alice had fallen down the Rabbit Hole into Wonderland), and the giant flying top hat Hoodoo flies around in, saucer style.

Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-1974)

Two full seasons of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters were produced, and it aired even longer. In conception, it represents a slight “sea change” if you will, from the earlier shows. It was less “psychedelic” than the previous ones, though it still had lots of humor. It was very much similar in conception to the typical tween literature of the time. Two brothers (Johnny Whitaker from Family Affair and Scott Kolden) have a secret clubhouse where they stow the ultimate secret — the existence of their friend, the good hearted sea monster Sigmund, played by little person Billy Barty in a typical Krofftian costume. The scenario has much in common with magical sit-coms of the ’60s like Mr. Ed, My Favorite Martian, My Mother the Car etc. The heroes have something exceptionally weird going on in their lives that no one else is privy to, necessitating lots of quick-thinking and fast-talking to devise explanations. Dogging their steps are Sigmund’s mean family — this element seems borrowed from Caspar the Friendly Ghost (Sigmund is nice; his family like to do pranks). The show would have been my first exposure to the perennial Mary Wickes, as a grouchy housekeeper. Margaret Hamilton played a nosy neighbor (conceptually similar to Bewitched’s Mrs. Kravitz). And Rip Taylor played Sigmund’s bumbling magical uncle, another concept seemingly borrowed from Bewitched. 

L-R, Will, Chaka, Holly

Land of the Lost (1974)

Another slight divergence for the team, Land of the Lost was an excursion into straight-up sci-fi fantasy, although still aimed at kids. It was a variation on the old Hollywood “Lost World” subgenre, where a small group of characters find themselves trapped in a “Land That Time Forgot” — full of dinosaurs. Will, Holly and their dad are white water rafting and somehow find themselves in this unknown pocket of the planet. They pass through a narrow gate of rocks, in a concept not unlike the path to Shangri La in Lost Horizon. But with the added twist that it is also a dimensional door — the family is clearly in some other part of the universe. (By the way, several top science fiction writers wrote for, or advised on the series). True to the genre, but not to paleontology, the dinosaurs here live side by side with humanoids as well as completely ahistorical creatures — in this case, the terrifying lizard-men the Sleeztaks. I never met anyone who wasn’t genuinely scared of these creatures as a child. I have no idea why, but it worked. They were nightmare stuff: full of vague malevolence, and nonverbal (aside from hissing) which put that at an even further distance. Another frequent antagonist was a Tyrannosarus Rex which would periodically attack the family’s cave, which was conveniently located at Tyrannosaurus mouth height. They repelled the beast with a log with one sharpened end, which they called “the fly swatter”. As you can glean perhaps, unlike the previous Krofft productions, humor shtick was non-existent on Land of the Lost. The one gentle element is the family’s friend/pet, a talking ape-boy named Cha-Ka. The girl who played Holly (Kathy Coleman) resembled Kim Richards, star of Disney movies like Escape to Witch Mountain in a general way; my memory has tended to lump them together. As I’m sure you’re aware, an obligatory ironic reboot feature film came out in 2009, starring Will Ferrell. 

The Lost Saucer (1975)

Yet another mini-subgenre, The Lost Saucer, Far-Out Space Nuts (below), and Filmation’s The Ghost Busters were all kid’s shows that briefly resurrected the careers of tv comedy stars. In this one, Gomer Pyle’s Jim Nabors and Laugh-In’s Ruth Buzzi are a couple of bumbling space aliens trying to find their way home, much like the family in Lost in Space, with the added inconvenience of an inadvertent child abduction in the mix.

Far Out Space Nuts (1975)

In this one, almost like a book end to The Lost Saucer, Gilligan’s Island’s Bob Denver and kid’s entertainer Chuck McCann are a couple of bumbling janitors who accidentally press a button and wind up in outer space. It’s almost like a different draft of the Lost Saucer idea and they just decided to them both.

The Krofft Super Show and The Krofft Superstar Hour (1976-1979)

At this stage it was almost like the Kroffts decided to go for broke and do every remaining kid’s show idea at the same time. The Krofft Super Show was a kind of anthology program consisting of separate 15 minute long mini-shows, hosted by the fictional glam rock band  Kaptain Kool and the Kongs (led by Michael Lembeck, son of Harvey Lembeck from the Frankie and Annette beach party movies). It seems at least partially inspired by The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show, which had premiered in 1974.

Kaptain Kool, Kongs

Later, when it became the Superstar Hour, Kaptain Kool and the Kongs were replaced with the Bay City Rollers, which was very good timing for the bubble gum band, as they’d only recently stopped having hit records. At a certain point, it was renamed yet again to The Bay City Rollers Hour. 

Bay City Rollers

At any rate this monster-mega-multi-show had several mini shows, to wit:

Electra Woman and Dyna Girl

Old school superheroes were very much back in during the 1970s, I think ultimately due to the syndicated success of the 60s show Batman with children. Hanna-Barbera launched Super Friends in 1973; Filmation launched Shazam! in 1974; the prime time Wonder Woman premiered on ABC in 1975. Electra Woman and Dyna Girl owed the most to the latter show; the title characters (played by Days of Our LivesDeidre Hall and Judy Strangis of Room 222) were lady reporters by day; high voltage superheroes when duty called. There was a reboot feature in 2016.

Dr. Shrinker

Damn, how I loved and LOVE this show. Jay Robinson played a mad scientist who (much like the villains in films like Dr. Cyclops and Attack of the Puppet People) shrinks a group of friends to the size of dolls for his evil experiments (a simple green screen effect). The leader of the kids was Ted Eccles — when I look at pictures of him, I’m like “Where do I know him from?” But the answer I think turns out to be,”From THIS! I know him from THIS!” Best of all (besides Robinson’s delicious over-the-top performance) is Dr. Shinker’s henchman, played by little person Billy Barty, who’d also played Sigmund the Sea Monster, now unobscured by the extravagant costume.

Wonderbug

Wow, this one was a fun one to unpack…so much had gotten mixed together in my memory. First the live action Wonderbug so much resembles Hanna-Barbera’s 1973 animated Speed Buggy ( a sort of Scooby Doo knock-off), which in turn one can’t help mixing up with the 1967 Japanese anime Speed Racer, which has quite a different concept but a very similar name. Of course the live action sentient bug car concept can be traced to Disney’s 1968 The Love Bug. Here, it’s a dune buggy nicknamed the Shlepcar. But when its magic horn is honked, it can do everything, including fly.

Bigfoot and Wildboy

This segment didn’t premiere until 1977 and I can’t help deducing that it owes its existence to the legendary Six Million Dollar Man episodes we wrote about here. Bigfoot was not only in the air, he was on the ground, on call, to help strangers in trouble. Wildboy was a kid he found and raised in the forest. Essentially, this was every kid’s fantasy — to be raised in the forest by Bigfoot. In reality, that would probably not be so great. Can you imagine? The irony…if you were raised in the forest, you couldn’t watch Saturday morning children’s television!

Magic Mongo

This one had a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Kids find a genie in a bottle, not unlike the concept of I Dream of Jeanie, but also similar to Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. The genie was played by Lennie Weinrib (who’d also played Pufnstuf) in some very uncool brown make-up.

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A major shift in the priorities of Sid and Marty Krofft occurred in 1976, but I was was just the right age to stay right with ’em. Essentially, they transitioned from producing children’s entertainment with puppetry and costumes, to family oriented prime time variety shows. The transition was initially very smart; they latched onto performers with heavy name recognition among their kid audience. In essence, they could build an audience that included both kids and adults. These included:

Donny and Marie (1976-79)

My sister and I were crazy about this show, which, after all starred a famous brother and sister. The entire Osmond family had been a constant presence on TV throughout the 1960s. They started scoring pop hits in the early 70s, with Donny, and later sister Marie branching off and having successful singles on their own. The songs were familiar to everybody, but of more moment to kids, Rankin-Bass had starred the Osmonds in their own animated series in 1972. This new show was very much modeled on Sonny and Cher, with songs and comedy skits, and one of the regular cast members was Paul Lynde. 

The Brady Hour (1977)

This one seemed savvier on paper than it actually played out. Like The Osmonds, the fictional Brady Kids had had their own animated kids series, which was produced by Filmation and ran from 1972 to 1973. And the original family sit com The Brady Bunch (1969-1974) was still in syndication and popular with kids. Furthermore that show had occasionally showcased the stars in comedy skits and musical numbers. So there is something logical in a producing sort of way about the creation of the show. In practice though, it seemed unfortunate. It seemed both desperate and desperately unhip — and I was only 12 at the time. They weren’t an actual musical group, nor were they comedians, nor were they even an actual family named Brady. What the fuck were they? What was this? Characteristically, Eve Plumb (Jan) was the only one with the dignity and class to sit this project out, spending these years pursuing real roles in tv movies and such. So in addition to everything else wrong with the show, there was the affront of being presented with Geri Reischl, a.k.a. “Fake Jan”, which was like getting a glass of Royal Crown Cola instead of Coke. We were like, “What do you take us for??? That ain’t no Jan!” Cut us some slack, we were children. On the other hand, we are also the audience, and we took our attention elsewhere.

Pink Lady and Jeff (1980)

I wrote about this show in No Applause as “the ignominious death of the tv variety show”. “Comedian Jeff Altman and the Japanese singing duo Pink Lady (who didn’t speak English) were the theoretical draws to this program, which was memorably (even infamously) weird, but it wasn’t precisely “good”, even if it was fairly representative of its times.

Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters (1980)

This was just about where I was tuning out. These lovely country singers had their following, but this show was hardly calculated to appeal to the widest possible swath of the American public.  Grownups in my family liked it, but I had no use for it, and I doubt any other young people did either. Further, the Mandrells weren’t actors and comedians. Hardly a small point when it comes to carrying a tv variety series.

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The Kroffts had clearly been sliding for a couple of years but this is about where the magic appears to have definitively evaporated and they were no long clicking either with audiences or getting green lights from networks. Their last variety outing during this phase was a 1981 variety special starring Anson Williams (Potsy from Happy Days) and his wife.

This is the end of the Sid and Marty Krofft I grew up with. By the time they returned in the mid ’80s I was an adult and fairly uninterested in anything they were coming back with, although I was vaguely aware of some of it. For example, there was Pryor’s Place (1984), a children’s show starring Richard Pryor! From a certain perspective, in conception it’s not too different from Bill Cosby’s earlier show Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. But Pryor is SO associated with profanity, I never thought of the concept as anything other than a punchline.It’s like having a stripper jump out of the cake at a kid’s 8th birthday party.

But mostly the Kroffts seemed to have lost their voice at this stage; there wasn’t much focus to the things they were trying. There was a rock and wrestling show for kids in 1985; a variety special with Patti LaBelle that same year; and a syndicated political satire sketch show starring Fred Willard and a bunch of puppets called D.C. Follies (1987-1989).

In more recent years there have been the re-boot of Land of the Lost (2009) with Will Ferrell, a new series called Mutt and Stuff (2015) and the reboot of Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (2016)!

On “The Deputy Seraph”: The Marx Brothers Sit Com

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Marx Brothers, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , on May 27, 2014 by travsd

deputyseraph

In April 1959, the Marx Brothers shot a little bit of what was to have been a situation comedy called The Deputy Seraph. The concept sounds a bit like Touched by an Angel or Highway to Heaven,  but with even greater angelic interference. Chico and Harpo are angels whose job it is to go down to earth and manipulate people’s live by inhabiting their bodies and steering them in the right direction. Being Chico and Harpo, they tend to steer them in the wrong direction, thus situation comedy. Every third episode their supervisor, the Deputy Seraph (Groucho) steps in, kicks butt, and helps straighten out messes.

At any rate, the project didn’t get an further than the preliminary shooting stage because Chico didn’t pass the insurance physical. Which is ironic, because of the three, he was the one who most needed the money. He passed away two years later. I seldom lament the demise of this show as one of the great Comedy-Could-Have-Beens. The brothers were older of course but that could have been worked around; in the hands of the right film-makers anybody can be made to look good. Likewise their performances might have transcended the el cheapo look of the show; so many others did (and do). From the admittedly meager evidence the real issue would have been the material. (Incidentally, is it me or is The Deputy Seraph  one of the worst titles ever devised? I’m not saying the Marx Brothers weren’t capable of wordplay that bad, but at worst in the old days it would get lost in a barrage of much better jokes. Standing all alone like this as the title of a show is like shining a spotlight on a wart).

For more on comedy film history 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 etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500To 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.safe_image

The Weirdness of the Lawrence Welk Show

Posted in AMERICANA, Music, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2014 by travsd

Today is the natal day of that unfathomable 20th century phenomenon known as Lawrence Welk (1903-1992).

When I was a kid, Welk was the gold standard for “Old People Music We Just Didn’t Understand.” It was a long list that also included the likes of Liberace, Doc Severinsen, Dinah Shore, Robert Goulet, Kate Smithand all of those embarrassing, nauseating guys from the Rat Pack. (I’ve since come to better appreciate Sinatra and Dean Martin).

But like I say, Welk, was the pinnacle, a well-spring of mystery. For example, what was that accent (we wondered)? “Wunnerful, wunnerful!”, “senk you, senk you,” “An’ now the luffly Lennon Sisterss!” and (as he counted off a number) “…a-one, an’ a two!”. He was supposedly American, but somehow he had that accent. The answer proves to be quite interesting. He was raised in a pocket of German immigrants in a remote area of North Dakota, a place so rural and isolated there was no need for anyone to learn English. Welk didn’t learn English until he went to school. Raised on a farm, he persuaded his father to buy him a mail order accordion, which he spent his entire youth paying off.

Upon reaching majority (the mid 1920s) he formed a local big band. There can be no more eye-opening illustration of the fact that “big band” and “swing” are not synonymous than Welk’s orchestra, which played light, pretty, tuneful, and very WHITE dance music with very little (if any) jazz to it. This would be the aesthetic he would cleave to until his dying day. In the 30s, as he gained a following in the mid-west (especially Chicago), his sound was dubbed “Champagne Music” (an idea reinforced by his use of a bubble machine on his tv show). It’s music for cotillions, where no one breaks a sweat when they dance.

The Lawrence Welk Show began on radio in 1949 and switched to television in 1951. I was delighted to watch a bit of it a few months ago at my mom’s senior citizen facility. I hadn’t watched it in 30 years. It’s just the most surreal thing. It was SO anachronistic when I was growing up. The show was on the air until 1982, you realize. Polkas, songs from the 1890s, novelty songs, and attempts at humor that would be considered too awkward and toothless for Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. All of the singers and musicians on the show looked like junior staffers from the Nixon Administration. This was a show for grandparents, and even they snickered at it.

Kids! Young people! Seeing is believing. And you really must watch some to get what I’m talking about. The clip of The Lawrence Welk Show’s closing credits below is from 1978!  Rock and roll was already kind of over by then, Elvis was in his grave already, but Lawrence Welk was still chugging along. Nothing gives me more delight than watching something like this nowadays. To revisit it is to sail into David Lynch territory:

For more on show biz historyconsult 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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And don’t  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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The Brilliance of Bob Newhart

Posted in Comedy, Sit Coms, Stand Up, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , on September 5, 2013 by travsd

bob-newhart-show-suzanne-pleshette

Today is the birthday of Bob Newhart (b. 1929). My period of maximum appreciation for his work is the slice right down the middle, that coincides with his first sit-com The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978), and I guess I’ll never know if that’s because that’s the section I grew up with or if it’s genuinely his best period. (I suspect the latter, however).

Newhart came to prominence with a stand-up act and a series of extremely successful comedy records in the 1960s. He had a number of routines he performed on the telephone, with the audience only hearing his end of the conversation. These bits are funny (after all, he’s Bob Newhart) but the media in its usual ignorance has always overpraised their uniqueness. Telephone shtick is a very COMMON comedy device. Shelly Berman always contended Newhart stole the routine from him, but I happen to know that it even predates Berman  — by decades. Georgie Jessel had a routine just like it in vaudeville as a teenager, a half century before. (And thanks, Jonathan Smith, for reminding me that the old bit “Cohen on the Telephone” goes back to 1906.)

At any rate, the first Bob Newhart show (produced by Mary Tyler Moore’s company MTM), is as far as I’m concerned a work of perfection. I am never anything but enveloped in pleasure when I watch any episode of that show, from its alternately punchy and melancholy theme music…to the interplay between the low-key, deadpan, unflappable Newhart and the nutty cast of character actors (Bill Dailey, Peter Bonerz, Marcia Wallace, plus the insane ones, Jack Riley, John Fiedler, Florida Friebus, et al)….plus the blood pressure raising hotness of Newhart’s television wife Suzanne Pleshette (by now it’s a sit-com axiom that schmucky comedian types always have impossibly hot wives). The premise (that he was a psychologist) was a chance for Newhart to expand the straight-man business he did on the telephone into a universe where everyone else was a joke-puller. His comic timing proved to be the best since Jack Benny’s and remains the gold standard among contemporary comedians. (When Ellen DeGeneres got her first sit-com Ellen 1994-1998, I used to think  of her delivery — in a good way — as Newhartesque”).

I must admit Newhart’s second show Newhart (1982-1990) never did anything for me. I felt (much like Harry Anderson’s Night Court) , it stretched too much for absurdity in a way that doesn’t suit the sit-com format. A good sit-com naturally needs to exaggerate for the sake of comedy (that’s the whole point) but to me it feels kind of “off” when characters and situations are self-consciously surreal (at any rate, if they’re such without any serious wit behind them.  I was never impressed by the writing on Newhart.) On his original show, Newhart’s laughs came mostly from the acting, not from inorganic (and fairly soggy) attempts at cleverness.

To learn more about the history of show businessconsult 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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And 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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Larry Semon: Second Only to Chaplin?

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Larry Semon, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2013 by travsd

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From the late teens through the late twenties, Larry Semon was one of the most successful silent comedians in the country, second only to Chaplin in popularity and salary. This despite a last name more appropriate for a porn star!

Born the son of a vaudeville magician named Zera the Great while touring in West Point, Mississippi in 1889, Semon participated in the act until he was 13, doing acrobatics and pantomime. His father’s dying wish, however, was that Larry honor his talent for drawing by going to art school, which he subsequently did. By his early twenties, Semon was a popular cartoonist for the NY Evening Sun. As we have seen in our description of Willie Hammerstein, famous cartoonists drawing cartoons onstage were occasionally considered a vaudeville viable act. In 1913, Semon made his vaudeville debut at the Fifth Avenue Theatre.

Semon had an inventive gag mind. It was only natural that the silent film industry would hire someone whose brain worked like his to write and direct comedies. Vitagraph snatched him up in 1916. By the next year, he’d convinced them to let him star. He was a weird looking clownish dude, and the gags he invented were enough to make him a big hit with audiences despite the fact that he was no actor. Successful shorts included Huns and Hyphens, Frauds and Frenzies and Bears and Badmen (they all had titles like that). Among his collaborators were director Norman Taurog, who was to be a director of awful Hollywood comedies for the next fifty years, and Stan Laurel.

Semon with a young Stan Laurel in “Frauds & Frenzies” (1918)

He amassed his own stock company, whose members included Oliver Hardy (still separate from Laurel), Frank “Fatty” Alexander, Spencer Bell, and leading lady Dorothy Dwan. 

Semon contends with an animated bee

Semon had a highly distinctive style, characterized by surreal, nonsensical, extravagant gags sometimes involving specially designed props or animation. In Chain of Fools, I made the case that he was an influence on Buster Keaton. He also did at least one “thrill comedy” prior to Harold Lloyd. Semon was big into spectacle and he can often be said to even top Mack Sennett in the large scale of his gags, which often involved the destruction of trains, planes and automobiles, and even entire buildings. He loved to blow things up with TNT. And he loved goo and mess: jam, glue, pie filling, ink, paint, flour, whipped cream. There’s usually a scene where one of those substances gets spilled all over a room. Critics then and now have found fault that he was repetitive, was uninterested in story or character, and didn’t do his own stunts, as most others, like Keaton and Lloyd did. But I have learned to really appreciate his comedies. In all justice he belongs near the top of the pantheon of silent comedy masters, and hopefully he’ll be restored to his rightful place in the public’s mind (at least the portion of the public that pays attention to silent comedy).

Semon never forgot the fundamental fact, as others sometimes did, that his only responsibility was to make people laugh

Semon’s ultimate undoing was features. When he tried the longer format in the mid-twenties he ran aground on his inability to sustain a story. (his most notorious is his 1925 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, which we described at length here). And he spent too much on his films, eventually resorting to putting up his own money to please the public. In 1928 he went bankrupt, had a nervous breakdown, and died of TB, in that order.

We are coming up on the centennial of Larry Semon’s debut as a comedy star, so expect to hear lots more from me on this topic. Meantime, there are a TON of his comedies on Youtube. Partake! But if you do, remember this: he’s great, but small doses are best. His comedies weren’t meant to be watched all at once.

To learn more about silent and slapstick film, including stars like Larry Semon, 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. To find out more about  the history of vaudevillein which Larry Semon also performed, consult 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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