Archive for Singers

Fifteen Famous Females Named “Billie”

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), Silent Film, Singers, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2017 by travsd

This non sequitur of a blogpost came about because I noticed that show business has given us more than one female performer with the unusual first name of “Billie”. We post it today because it happens to be the birthday of Billie Whitelaw. As a small child, I probably became aware of Billie Burke and Billie Hayes at around the same time and found it fascinating that a woman would have that name. It’s sort of a rare name for a female, right? I’ve never met one IRL.  As a kid I considered it the female equivalent of “A Boy named Sue”. At any rate, there seemed to be a sort of interesting cluster of them at the beginning of the last century; it seemed kind of fun to compare and contrast them. For example, there seems to be an abnormally high association of the name with fantasy and magic, and a few are pioneers in one way or another. Click on links to learn more about their fascinating stories.

Billie Bennett (Emily B. Haynie, 1874-1951)

This interesting actress will be getting her own post on Travalanche later this years, for she got her start acting in many Mack Sennett and Keystone comedy shorts with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, and Mabel Normand. In the 20s she was in some major silent features, including Robin Hood (1922) and Lady Windemere’s Fan (1925). Her career did not long outlast the advent of sound, but ironically her life began to be even more interesting at that point. It has been alleged that she became the madam of a “high class bordello” for studio execs and their guests, where many of the call girls were hired based on their their resemblances to major screen actresses of the day. Surely a partial inspiration for L.A. Confidential?

Billie Burke (Mary William Ethelbert Appleton Burke, 1884-1970)

Wife of Broadway producer Flo Ziegfeld, and star of stage and screen, most memorably as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. 

Billie Dove (Bertha Bohnny, 1903-1997)

Artist model, Ziegfeld girl, and major star of silent movies such as The Black Pirate (1926) with Douglas Fairbanks. She was a major sex symbol of her day, and is also famous for a three year affair with Howard Hughes. 

Billie Leonard

I’m anxious to dig out the facts on this lady, as almost nothing (dates of birth or death, birth name, or her early and late life) is available readily to hand. All I know is that she was in the Broadway show You Said It (1931) with Lou Holtz, and that she had a very intense year (1934-1935) of appearing in movie shorts, many of which I’ve seen, including the very early Bob Hope musical short Paree, Paree (1934), Soft Drinks and Sweet Music (1934) with Georgie Price and Sylvia Froos, and a couple of comedies with Shemp Howard and Roscoe Ates. If and when I learn more I will share it here.

Billie Bird (Berneice Bird Sowell, 1908-2002)

You mayn’t know the name but you know the face, right? I’ll be giving her her own post in a few months as she started out in vaaudeville. She later became a bit player in tv sit coms and John Hughes movies like Sixteen Candles (1984) and Home Alone (1990).

Billie Holiday (Eleanora Fagan, 1915-1959)

I am way overdue to do a post on this distinctive and tragic jazz singer who remains extremely influential to this day. She took her stage name from Billie Dove (above).

Billie Rogers (1917-2014)

Singer and jazz trumpet player — in fact, she was the first female to play in the brass section of a major jazz orchestra (Woody Herman’s). She later fronted her own bands.

Billie Mae Richards (Billie Mae Dinsmore, 1921-2010)

Actress and voice over performer best known for being the voice of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in Rankin-Bass specials!

Billie Whitelaw (1932-2014)

While American audiences know her best for playing the sinister Mrs. Baylock in the original 1976 version of The Omen, she was was major sex symbol in British films of the 1950s, and one of the principal stage collaborators of playwright Samuel Beckett. 

Billie Hayes (b. 1932) 

is of course Witchie-Poo!

Billie Jean Horton (Billie Jean Jones Eshliman, b. 1933)

Country singer from Louisiana who was married to Hank Williams and Johnny Horton (“The Battle of New Orleans”) and had an affair with Johnny Cash. 

Billie Jo Spears (Billie Jean Spears, 1937-2011)

Nashville singer best known for her 1975 #1 Country Hit “Blanket on the Ground”.

Billie Jean King (b. 1943)

Champion women’s tennis player and feminist icon. But we include her on this list mainly because she re-created her famous “Battle of the Sexes” feud with Bobby Riggs on The Odd Couple in 1974.

Billie Davis (Carol Hedges, b.1945)

English pop singer of the Swinging Sixties best known for her 1963 hit “Tell Him”. She is said to have taken her stage name from Billie Holiday and Sammy Davis Jr. 

Billie Lourd (b. 1992)

Like a lot of “old school” first names, Billie-for-Girls is in the midst of a strong comeback. There are numerous female Billies on TV and the internet at present, but for the sake of sanity I’ll only mention one timely and topical one. Billie Lourd is the daughter of the late Carrie Fisher and granddaughter of the late Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. She is a star of the tv show Scream Queens and the most recent Star Wars films.

To find out more about show business history consult 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

Florence Brady: Miles of Smiles

Posted in Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2017 by travsd

A few scraps on Florence Brady (Florence A. McAleer, ca. 1902- ca. 1943) We first learn of her in the 1920 Broadway show Her Family Tree, with Nora Bayes and Julius Tannen. She appeared in vaudeville throughout the 1920s with an act called “Miles of Smiles”. She was noted for her big personality, as funny as she was entertaining with a song. In 1926 he was featured in Earl Carroll’s Vanities.

In 1928, she recorded two Vitaphone shorts — the chief reason she is known by anyone today. A Cycle of Songs is the only that survives in complete form. She is terrific — she sings a very minstrel influenced set that includes  “Sunshine”, “Now That She’s Off My Hands”, climaxing with an animated version of “Here Comes the Show Boat”. Her other Vitaphone, Character Studies apparently included the numbers “There’ll Be Some Changes Made”, “I’m a Demon with the Ladies”, and “That’s My Weakness Now”, but the sound disk is lost as of this writing.

Somewhere in here Brady met and married another performer named Gilbert William “Gil” Wells (1893-1935). A little more is known about Wells. He also recorded a Vitaphone in 1928 which survives, entitled A Breeze from the South. In his act, the multi-talented sang, danced, played piano and clarinet, and told jokes between numbers. He was also prolific songwriter, known for tunes like “Insufficient Sweetie”, “Sadie Green, The Vamp of New Orleans” and “You May Be Fast (But Your Mama’s Gonna Slow You Down)”.

Brady and Wells started performing as a two-act around this time; I came across a notice of their performance in Flushing, Queens in 1930. They didn’t have much time together. He was dead in 1935 (and vaudeville was dead a few years before that). Brady reportedly died in the early 40s of cirrhosis of the liver.

 

To find out more about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

The Four Aristocrats and The Gotham Rhythm Boys

Posted in Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on May 8, 2017 by travsd

The Four Aristocrats were Bert Bennet, Eddie Lewis, Tom Miller, and Fred Weber. This vocalizing quartet played vaudeville in the 1920s and ’30s, and recorded frequently for the Victor and Banner labels. Occasionally, three of them would splinter off to perform as the Gotham Rhythm Boys — not to be confused with Paul Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys, who were Bing Crosby, Al Rinker and Harry Barris.  To confuse matters further, the Four Aristocrats made a Vitaphone in 1927; the Gotham Rhythm Boys made one in 1929, featuring songs like “My Wild Irish Rose” and “Alabamy Snow”.

To find out more about the  history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Charles Chaplin, Sr.: No Slouch Either!

Posted in British Music Hall, Charlie Chaplin, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2017 by travsd

Born on this date in 1863: Charles Chaplin the Elder: the father of his better known namesake, comedian and movie star Charlie Chaplin. It’s not as well known today that in his time the elder Chaplin was a fairly successful performer in his own right.

The son of a butcher, Charles Senior was still a teenager when he went on the stage. It is said that he met Charlie’s mother Hannah Hall (a.k.a. Lily Harley) while performing in a sketch called “Shamus O’Brien” in the early 1880s. In 1885 he married her, despite the fact that in the intervening months she had taken up with another man and given birth to a child. Chaplin gave the boy his surname; he became Sydney Chaplin. By ’87, Charles Senior had worked up a music hall act and began getting bookings in the halls, with a repertoire of sentimental and comical songs. In 1889, his son Charlie was born.

So far so good, eh? Unfortunately (for the family) not long after that, Chaplin’s career began to take off — and so did he. By 1890, he was popular enough to tour America (notably, he played the Union Square Theatre in New York — this was his own foray into American vaudeville. The following year he ran out on Hannah and the boys for good.

Chaplin was popular enough by this stage that his name and visaged graced the covers of the published sheet music of songs he had made popular, such as “The Girl Was Young and Pretty”, “Hi Diddle Diddle” and the comical, suggestive “Eh, Boys!”

It’s a well known story by now. While Charlie the elder was cavorting and carousing in music halls, living the carefree life, Hannah (also an entertainer, and by her son’s account a brilliant one, the one he took after) went slowly insane and couldn’t work. Chaplin offered no financial support, even when the two children were packed off to workhouses.

By the end of the decade (and the century) Chaplin had become an alcoholic and was no longer working himself. Significantly, this was the juncture when he first seems to take an interest in his namesake. In 1899, he got ten year old Charlie his first proper show business job by getting him into an act called The Eight Lancashire Lads. The younger Chaplin was about to embark on an incredible life’s journey; the older one was just ending his. By 1901, Charles Chaplin, Sr. was dead of cirrhosis of the liver.

But his mark is there for all to see in Charlie Chaplin’s life and art. An alcoholic, performing dad is something Charlie had in common with Buster Keaton. But there are contrasts. You could say that Joe Keaton’s drinking hurt his career, but it didn’t end his life. And Buster followed in his footsteps, becoming a problem boozer himself. Whereas the elder Chaplin ended both his life and career through alcohol abuse. And Charlie, Jr. only ever drank in cautious moderation. But I find it significant that he played hilarious comic drunks on stage and screen for decades. And there is also the subject of Chaplin’s relations with him. For a good long while, like his father, he put his work first and neglected his women (following periods of intense wooing). This cycle was only broken when he finally married Oona O’Neill, quite late in life, when he only worked occasionally and chose to devote all of his energy into family life…as though he were making up for lost time.

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 Revelers: A Popular Quintet

Posted in Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2017 by travsd

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The Revelers were a popular and influential vocal group of the Jazz Age. The act consisted of a vocal quartet plus a pianist. The quartet, originally known as The Shannon Four, began performing together in 1918. They added the pianist in 1925 and began calling themselves The Revelers. The line-up was:

Franklyn Baur (tenor, later replaced by Frank Luther, then James Melton)

Lewis James (tenor)

Elliot Shaw (baritone)

Wilfred Glen (bass)

Ed Smalle (piano, later replaced by Frank Black)

The group was popular in big time vaudeville, enjoyed several hit records, were popular on radio (1927-1931), and made two Vitaphone shorts in 1927, which is how I first came to know of them. Starting in the late ’20s they were also enormously popular on European stages. Their hits included “Baby Face”, “The Birth of the Blues”, “Dinah”, and “Old Man River.” For a group so fun and playful and so essentially “pop”, the members were seriously skilled singers: Baur was a third generation vocalist and principal tenor at the Park Avenue Baptist Church who also had a flourishing career and performed with numerous popular orchestra; Melton (one of his replacements) sang with the Metropolitan Opera; and Glen had a range of two and a half octaves and sang at Carnegie Hall.  The group also performed as “The Singing Sophomores” and “The Merrymakers”.

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

On the Real Klondike Kate

Posted in AMERICANA, Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2016 by travsd

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Klondike Kate (Kathleen Eloise Rockwell, 1873-1957) was a real person! She was the toast of Dawson, Yukon during the Gold Rush, performing in saloons, the Savoy Theatrical Company, and the Palace Grande Theatre, where her famous “Flame Dance” earned her as much as $750 a night in the boom town economy (the equivalent of over $21,000 in today’s money). She got involved romantically with Alexander Pantages, and helped bankroll his Seattle-based vaudeville circuit. Pantages proceeded to throw her over and marry another woman. Kate continued to perform in west coast vaudeville for a time in the early years of the 20th century, eventually retiring to Oregon.

Born in Junction City, Kansas, Kate grew up in North Dakota; Spokane, Washington; and Valparaiso, Chile. She moved to New York City at age 18, which is where she got her first experience as a chorus girl and dancer in Coney Island, and vaudeville houses throughout the city.

Ann Savage played a fictionalized version of her in the 1943 movie Klondike Kate. Mae West paid her homage in the title of Klondike Annie (1936), although her character’s story is quite different in that picture.

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.

EUGENE O’BRIEN: STAGE, SCREEN AND VAUDEVILLE

Posted in Broadway, Drag and/or LGBT, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 14, 2016 by travsd

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EUGENE O’BRIEN: STAGE, SCREEN AND VAUDEVILLE

Today is the birthday of Eugene O’Brien (Louis O’Brien, 1880-1966).

Originally from Boulder, Colorado, O’Brien studied first to be a doctor and a civil engineer before finally ignoring his parents’ wishes to go on stage. He sang with quartets in vaudeville and acted in stock companies before getting a part in the chorus of The Rollicking Girl (1905), a Charles Frohman production. Frohman gave him a much better role in The Builder of Bridges (1909), but it was his part opposite Ethel Barrymore in Trelawney of the Wells (1911) that put him on the map. His last show on Broadway was The Country Cousin (1917).

Meanwhile he’d begun to star in films starting in 1915. Throughout the end of the silent era, he was to be leading man to the likes of Mary Pickford, Norma Talmadge and Gloria Swanson in such hits as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), The Perfect Lover (1919) and Secrets (1924). When talkies came in, he retired entirely from acting, both stage and screen. He was only 47 at the time.

O’Brien was one of the top matinee idols of the late teens and twenties. He socialized with his beautiful co-stars, received tens of thousands of letters from adoring female fans, and was even sued once (unsuccessfully) for statutory rape. But all that availeth nothing — it was an open secret in Hollywood that O’Brien was gay. In retirement, he told a reporter he was “untroubled by girls, and was reveling in athletics, gardening, and most of all bachelorhood.”

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.

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