Archive for Singers

The Courtney Sisters (featuring Florence, Georgie Jessel’s First Wife)

Posted in Sister Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by travsd

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August 11, 1892 was the birthday of Florence Courtney (Florence Grismer). With her sister Fay, she was one half of the vaudeville singing duo The Courtney Sisters. Joe Laurie, Jr. called them “one of the first great harmony sister acts”. Originally from Texas, the Grismer family moved to Missouri, and then finally to New York, where their mother pursued a career as a model and the daughters tried to break into show business.

They’re already making a noise in vaudeville by 1912; by that point they were already popular enough to feature on sheet music, like this immortal classic from that year:

In 1914, Florence married ragtime piano player Mike Bernard, a rake who had previously had an affair with Blossom Seeley, fathered children out of wedlock with a Ziegfeld girl, and was to marry two other times. Not surprisingly, they divorced two years later.

The Courtney Sisters made it all the way to Broadway, appearing in the shows The Little Whopper (1919), Blue Eyes (1921), and Snapshots of 1921. 

In 1919, Florence met and married Georgie Jessel.

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One gets Jessel’s side of their rocky romance in his typically self-serving autobiography So Help Me. The Courtney Sisters were big time when the Florence and Jessel got together, whereas Jessel was still kind of second tier. But that was the year his own career broke out as well. The way he paints it, everything conspired to undermine the marriage. First both husband and wife were too busy. Fay was against her sister’s marriage, afraid it would break up the act. Then Jessel was out of work and not bringing in dough. Then he was working again. Then there were affairs because they were apart. They separated almost immediately, then got a formal divorce in 1921. Then they got back together, then broke up again, then remarried in 1923.  Meanwhile, the Courtney Sisters had broken up; Florence appeared solo in five Broadway shows through 1925. Then she did retire from show business and became intensely religious, which further alienated Jessel. So they were frequently separated, she didn’t like to go out and party more, and had lost the “whoopie” energy that had attracted him in the first place. There were plenty of affairs. Still, they didn’t get divorced again until 1932. Perhaps out of spite she kept “forgiving him” which was pretty clearly what he didn’t want. He had begun seeing Norma Talmadge during their marriage; she was to be his second wife in 1934.

When Florence passed away in 1989, she had remarried; her surname was then Mayehoff.

To learn more about vaudeville, including acts like the Courtney Sisters, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

The Pickens Sisters: Singers of High Society

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Singers, Sister Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2017 by travsd

Jane Pickens (1908-1992) of the Pickens Sisters was born on this day. She’s chiefly on my radar because I’ve lived and recreated in Newport, Rhode island, where she was a longtime resident (summer and otherwise) and there is a theatre there named after her.

Jane was the musical leader and arranger of the trio that first included her sisters Grace and Helen. Grace later became the group’s manager, replaced by the fourth sister Patti. The girls were Southern belles from Georgia, taught to harmonize by their mother. Their father, a wealthy cotton broker, loved to accompany them on piano. In the early 1930s, they moved to New York’s Park Avenue and became involved in New York, Long Island and Newport Society. They often sang at private functions, with a specialty in what were then called “Negro Spirituals”. Fortunately, a search was on at the time to find female trios to compete with the popular Boswell Sisters. The Pickenses were spotted at a party and quickly landed both a radio deal and a recording contract.

Their radio shows ran from 1932 through 1936. They appeared in the 1933 Vitaphone short 20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang, and in the 1933 feature Sitting Pretty. Next came the Broadway revue Thumbs Up! (1934-1935). Jane sang solo in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936.

The group split up when several sisters left to get married. Patti married radio actor Bob Simmons, with whom she performed for a time as Pickens and Simmons. Jane, the most serious about music, studied at several prestigious schools, and continued her career as a solo. She appeared on Broadway three more times: in the revue Boys and Girls Together (1940-1941), as the title character in Regina, a musical adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1949), and the musical Music in the Air (1951). She also made several appearances on television variety shows through the mid 1950s, and even briefly had her own such series as a replacement in 1954.

Jane was married thrice, to T.J. Russell Clark (whom she divorced), stockbroker William Langley, and Walter Hoving (the head of Tiffany and Bonwit Teller, and father of the Met Museum’s Thomas Hoving). In 1972 she ran as the Republican against Ed Koch for a New York Congressional seat (unsuccessfully, of course). Newport’s Jane Pickens Theater, named after her, opened in 1974. She died in Newport in 1992. Patti, the youngest sister, was in the midst of plans to record a tribute album to her deceased sisters when she too passed away in 1995.

The Moylan Sisters: The Angels of the Airwaves

Posted in Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Sister Acts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2017 by travsd

July 16 was the birthday of Marianne Moylan (1930-90). Along with her sister Peggy Joan (1932-2002), she was part of the kiddie act The Moylan Sisters.

All of 7 and 5 when they made their debut on The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour, the girls were prized for their naturalness and purity. They sang beautifully and in nice harmony, but unlike most kiddie acts they were not precocious and show bizzy. They were real kids, not performing freaks. Their repertoire tells the tale; they did songs like “School Days”, “I Don’t Want  to Play in Your Yard” and “M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I-I.”  Billed as “The Cinderellas of Radio” and “The Angels of the Airwaves”, they also made records, live appearances and  several short films, including The Backyard Broadcast (1936), Starlets (1937), Toyland Casino (1937 — a Vitaphone, which is how I first learned of them), and World’s Fair Junior (1939). In 1939, they were given their own network radio show, which remained on the air through 1945. For a while the show was sponsored by Thrivo Dog Food. The Thrivo jingle which they sang was one of their most popular and well-known numbers. At one point, their show was the second most popular in the country, topped only by The Shadow.

The girls both seem to have retired from the business in the early 1950s. Born and raised in Sag Harbor, New York, the Irish Catholic children of an engraver at a watch factory. They attended school at the Academy of the Sacred Heart. Marianne married a local plumbing contractor in 1953 and became a homemaker, remaining in Sag Harbor. Peggy Joan married in 1955, also choosing the domestic life over a career. She moved to Maine for a time before returning to New York. Both women continued to sing in church after their professional retirement.

The act was parodied in the 1976 Broadway musical Annie as “The Boylan Sisters.”

For everything you need to to know about the variety arts, including kiddie acts, sister acts, and radio variety, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

Eighteen Broads 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”. 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 Brockwell (1875-1949)

This stage actress from Georgia started broke into films at Lubin Studios in 1913, was briefly as Nestor, then wound up at Keystone, where she supported the likes of Charlie Murray in his “Hogan” comedies, and Mack Swain in his his “Ambrose” series. After 1916 she retired from acting to manage the career of her daughter Gladys Brockwell, who became the bigger star.

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 Rhodes (Levita Axelrod, 1894-1988)

Started as child performer in vaudeville and melodramas in her native San Francisco, by age 17 was appearing in films for Kalem Studios. Later worked for Al Christie at Nestor and co-starred in the successful “Strand” Comedies with Jay Belasco, cousin of David Belasco. She also made comedy shorts with Joe Rock. She left movies in 1925 to be a singer.

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 Beck (1904-1979)

Prior to developing her fan dance and changing her name to Sally Rand, this performer had danced in vaudeville and nightclubs, and appeared in Al Christie comedies with Neal Burns under the name Billie Beck.

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

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