Archive for theater

For National Siblings Day: Some Classic Show Biz Siblings

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sister Acts, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2017 by travsd

The Five Ames Sisters

It’s National Siblings Day, and to my shock I haven’t done a post yet on the countless classic show biz brothers and sisters who either had professional relationships or were in the same industry. Nepotism greases the wheels of show business. It shouldn’t surprise you that there are this many siblings in the highest echelons of entertainment. Uncharacteristically, I’m gonna go all Joe Laurie Jr on yer ass — this post will largely consist of lists of names; just click on the highlighted people to know more. Also, so as not to go crazy, I’m restricting this to the classic era: vaudeville and early motion pictures.

BROTHERS IN VAUDEVILLE

Notable vaudeville teams and acts where the members were all brothers included: The Six Brown Brothers, six brothers from Canada who were saxophone playing clowns; the acrobatic Hanlon Brothers, also six in number; the five Marx Brothers (although usually there were only four in the act at any given time); the melodious Mills Brothers (actually three brothers plus their father); the three virtually identical Ritz Brothers; the Wiere Brothers, also three in all; the Three Stooges, which usually contained at least two of the three Howard brothers: always Moe, and at various times Shemp or Curly); the three energetic Berry Brothers;  the three tap-dancing Condos Brothers; Willie and Eugene Howard (no relation to the Stooges); the wunderkind Nicholas Brothers; the Irish Kernell Brothers; the hilarious Russell Brothers (who were in drag); the Tutt Brothers of black vaudeville; the acrobalancing Rath Brothers; the Rogers Brothers, who copied Weber & Fields; and the gravity-defying Mosconi Brothers.

Al Jolson and Harry Jolson briefly performed in an act together, but later they became, fierce rivals, and later simply enemies, because Harry could hardly be called a rival to Al. Two of Grace Kelly’s uncles were in vaudeville, but separately: Walter C. Kelly was a monologist; George Kelly was an actor who wrote sketches for vaudeville before becoming a Broadway playwright.

And there are many, many more acrobatic brother acts, though it was a convention in circus and vaudeville for acrobats to call themselves “brothers” and “families”, when they weren’t technically related. Although they truly did, in a real sense adopt one another.

SISTERS IN VAUDEVILLE

Sister acts were also a major staple of vaudeville and early show business. The Seven Sutherland Sisters were like something out of a fairy tale — Snow White’s Dwarves mixed with Rapunzel. One of the most notorious of all vaudeville acts was the five Cherry Sisters (they dwindled in number as time went on), reputed to be the worst act ever. The five Barrison Sisters had a very naughty act. There were four Lane Sisters, although they tended to pair off into duos and later all went solo. There were also the Gale Quadruplets, although they were actually two sets of twin sisters. The four Whitman Sisters were stars of black vaudeville. Gracie Allen started out in an act with her sisters called The Four Colleens. The most famous sister trio is undoubtedly the Andrews Sisters.  Other trios included the Boswell Sisters, the Brox Sisters, and the Three X SistersThe Gumm Sisters were also a trio, the youngest of whom became Judy Garland. Singing sister duos were an entire vaudeville specialty: among the biggest were the Duncan Sisters, others included the Frazee Sisters, the Oakland Sisters, and the Williams Sisters. The Watson Sisters were unusual in being low comedians; the Ponselle Sisters were opera singers; the Cameron Sisters were balletic dancers. Twin sister acts included the Dolly Sisters (famous clothes horses), the French Twin Sisters and the Fairbanks Twins.   The Hilton Sisters were conjoined!

The Hovick Sisters had performed together in a kiddie act; they later became famous separately as Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc. 

BROTHERS AND SISTERS IN VAUDEVILLE

A couple of sister-and-brother acts spring to mind, both dance teams:  Fred and Adele Astaire, and Vilma and Buddy Ebsen.  Josie and George M. Cohan performed with their parents in the Four Cohans. Most common was for several brothers and sisters to be in larger family acts together (frequently Irish), such as the Seven Little Foys, the Five Kellys (featuring Gene Kelly), the O’Connor Family (featuring Donald O’Connor), the Quillans (featuring Eddie Quillan)The Four Fords;  the Lake family act (with Arthur Lake and Florence Lake);  and the Morris family act (including Chester Morris). Fanny Brice’s brother Lew Brice was also in vaudeville, although the two performed separately.

SILENT/SLAPSTICK COMEDY BROTHERS

An interesting phenomenon: when the top silent comedians made it big, They often found work for their brothers, some of whom made good for themselves, some of whom didn’t.

Charlie’s Chaplin’s older half-brother Sydney Chaplin is one of those who did make good. He actually taught Charlie much of what he knew and got him his job with Karno’s Speechless Comedies. A true talent in his own right, he was a star himself in the teens and twenties. Charlie’s other half-brother Wheeler Dryden also showed up at certain point, and made himself useful in the family business, though he was never a star. Likewise, Buster Keaton put his parents and and his brother Jingles and sister Louise into his films, not surprising, since they had performed in vaudeville together. Harold Lloyd put his brother Gaylord Lloyd into films, but he didn’t click. Lupino Lane and Stanley Lupino both came from the same family of British music hall clown/acrobats. Both starred in shorts at Educational Pictures, although the former fared better than the latter. And then there the brothers Parrott: Charles (better known as Charley Chase) and Paul, both prodigious talents both before and behind the camera. And then there are great comedy produce/director brothers Jack White and Jules White.

IMPRESARIOS OF STAGE AND SCREEN

Notable producing brothers include the Ringling Brothers of the circus world , the Shuberts; the Frohmans; the Lemaire brothers; the Warner Brothers; Jack and Harry Cohn of Columbia; the Schenck Brothers, and Cecil B. Demille and his brother, director/screenwriter/playwright William DeMille. Broadway comedian and producer Lew Fields’s three children Joseph, Herbert and Dorothy were important Broadway creators, sometimes collaborating; the Gershwin brothers were one of the great songwriting teams.

DRAMATIC ACTORS AND DIRECTORS 

Some famous acting siblings included John, Lionel and Ethyl Barrymore; Mary Pickford and her brother Jack; Lillian and Dorothy Gish; Wallace and Noah Beery; the Talmadge Sisters; Joan, Constance and Barbara Bennett; and Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine.

Director John Ford got into films because his brother Francis was a movie star. Director Raoul Walsh’s brother was the actor George Walsh. Dustin and William Farnum were both actors, and their brother Marshall, a director.

Okay, I have to post this now before the day’s half over. I’m certain I’ll be adding to it!

 

Stars of Vaudeville #1037: Charles Chaplin, Sr.

Posted in British Music Hall, Charlie Chaplin, Singers, 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 High Aspirations of The Princess Theatre

Posted in Broadway, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2017 by travsd

I’ve had the damnedest time locating an image, but this seems to be it, from the vantage of the Sixth Avenue elevated

On March 14, 1913, New York’s Princess Theatre opened for business. Aside from a couple of exceptions (e.g., the Palace, Niblo’s Garden) we don’t typically write about specific theatrical venues here except in passing. The lapse isn’t inadvertent. It simply isn’t my line. As a general rule, I have very little to say about buildings. But today we make an exception, both because this one had an interesting history, and because it was partially owned by my wife’s family!

The Princess Theatre was an outlier, both in terms of geography and in mission. It was located at 104-106 West 39th Street, off Sixth Ave, which is farther west than most (but not all) Broadway theatres, as well as a bit on the southerly side as the years passed (there also used to be plenty of theatres in the 30s, but gradually, as you know, 42nd Street became the approximate southern boundary.)

But beyond its relative remoteness, it was unusual in other ways. It was an early harbinger, both in size and in mission, of what came to be known as the Little Theatre Movement. At 299 seats it was far smaller than most other Broadway houses. The intimate scale was intentional. The venue was designed to present one-act dramas by a repertory company, a very early reaction to the commercialization of mainstream theatre certain people were already identifying, coming from an almost identical conceptual place as the later Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and Indie-Theatre Movements (the only difference being that the response was coming from the commercial theatre industry itself). The main players in the venture were producer F. Ray Comstock and the Shuberts, with actor-manager Holbrook Blinn and theatrical agent Bessie Marbury (to whom I happen to be distantly related;  Katherine Marbury is my 12th great grandmother; her sister was Rhode Island founder Anne Hutchinson).

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The first few years of the Princess were bumpy; the serious plays were not filling the seats. But the venture found success in the middle teens with a series of “thinking man’s musicals”, which have since become known as the Princess Theatre Musicals, with integrated songs, and books less crude than the standard fare of the day. Most of them were authored by the team of Jerome Kern, Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. The most successful of these was Oh, Boy! (1917) which ran for 463 performances.

In the 1920s, the theatre returned to its original mission of dramas. The best known plays from this period were Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1921, transferred from the Provincetown Playhouse) and the American premiere of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1922-1923). But it was a tough slog. In 1928, after only 15 years, it ceased to be the Princess Theatre.

Next came a quarter century of name changes, transfers of ownership, and new missions: it became the Lucille Laverne in ’28, the Assemble Theatre in ’29, was shuttered from ’29 to ’33, then became the Reo Theatre, a cinema, in ’33.

In 1934, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union acquired the space to use as a recreation hall. Normally, I bemoan such repurposing of precious theatre space, but this new ownership ironically resulted in the greatest theatrical success ever mounted in that location, the Depression Era labor revue Pins and Needles, which ran for 1,108 performances starting in 1937. The Princess was now the Labor Stage, and remained under that name for a decade. In 1947, the legendary Actors Studio was hatched in one of the theatre’s rehearsal spaces.

In 1947, it became Cinema Dante, which showed foreign movies; in 1948, the Little Met; and in 1952, Cinema Verdi. In 1955 it was torn down to make way for an office building. For more on the cinema years, and this theatre in general, see its entry at Cinema Treasures, a wonderful resource.

For all of its history, the Princess Theatre and its later incarnations seem to have been governed by moonbeams, a series of Noble Experiments. It is not atypical that the venture was short lived. But as I sometimes like to joke, the art of theatre would do okay if it weren’t for these damn audiences.

To find out more on theatre historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Stars of Vaudeville #1035: Guy Kibbee

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2017 by travsd

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Guy Kibbee (1882-1956) has a birthday today.

Character actor Kibbee became a professional performer at age 13 in his native El Paso, wracking up nearly 35 years of stage experience on showboats, and in stock companies and vaudeville before making his first film, a 1929 Vitaphone called For Sale directed by Bryan Foy, and starring Gregory Ratoff. He appeared in two Broadway plays, Torch Song and Marseilles, in 1930 before definitely making the move to Hollywood just before reaching the age of 50.

Those Pre-Code years at Warner Brothers covered him in glory: he was much in demand in racy comedies and musicals (and sometimes dramas), generally as a cheerfully lecherous moneybags, all leering eyes, flashing teeth, and shiny bald forehead. His skin seemed so ruddy from boozing it up you could detect it in films that were in black and white. His raspy voice further cemented the idea that this guy had done some hard partying. He’s in Blonde Crazy (1931), 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade (1933), Wonder Bar (1934), and Dames (1934), among many others during these years. Once the Code was in force, he proved his versatility in all sorts of pictures, such as westerns, costume epics, and dramas as well as comedies and musicals, generally playing avuncular authority figures like judges, army generals, politicians and the like. Important later films included Captain Blood (1935), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Our Town (1940), and two John Ford westerns Fort Apache and Three Godfathers, both 1948.

Top comedians he supported over the years included Bert Lahr (Flying High, 1931), Joe E. Brown (Fireman, Save My Child, 1932, Earthworm Tractors, 1936, and Riding on Air, 1937), Red Skelton (Whistling in Dixie, 1942), and Jack Benny (The Horn Blows at Midnight, 1945). He also supported Shirley Temple in Miss Annie Rooney (1942), and even had his own starring series of comedies for RKO as Scattergood Baines, six films produced between 1941 and 1943, a topic for its own blogpost someday no doubt. His younger brother Milton Kibbee became a bit player in films, as well.

 To find out more about show biz 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 comedy 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

Stars of Vaudeville #1033: Edmund Lowe

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 3, 2017 by travsd

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DASHING SCREEN STAR EDMUND LOWE GOT HIS START IN VAUDEVILLE. 

Today is the birthday of Edmund Lowe (1890-1971). The son of a California judge, Lowe considered careers in the ministry and the law before his love of language and elocution drew him to the theatre. He began his professional life in vaudeville, but was quickly hired as a member of the Oliver Morosco stock company. His Broadway career began in 1917 and encompassed a dozen shows over as many years. Today, he is best known for work as a film actor, which began in 1915 and includes such well-known movies as the original (silent) version of What Price Glory? (1926), The Cisco Kid (1931), Chandu the Magician (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Every Day’s a Holiday (1937), and his last film Heller in Pink Tights (1960), which was inspired in part by the life and Adah Isaacs Menken,

He was married to actress Lilyan Tashman from 1925 until her death in 1934.

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

 

 

Stars of Vaudeville #1031: Florence Roberts

Posted in Broadway, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by travsd

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ANOTHER FLORENCE ROBERTS

Today is the birthday of Florence Roberts (1871-1927). This is yet another Florence Roberts, quite a different one from the professional old lady we wrote about here. This Florence Roberts was a San Francisco based trouper in melodrama and vaudeville, known for her Shakespearean acting. Her one Broadway credit was a 1906 show called The Strength of the Weak. In 1912 she appeared in a film version of the stage sensation Sapho. The following year she appeared on a bill at the Palace Theatre, the very first week it was open. In the late teens she toured South Africa with a production of Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. She was the step-grandmother of actresses Joan, Barbara and Constance Bennett. 

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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Stars of Vaudeville #1030: Aida Overton Walker

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Dance, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by travsd

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Aida Overton Walker (1880-1914): singer, dancer, actor, choreographer, comedienne and “Queen of the Cakewalk”. Her birthday: today.

Born Ada Overton (she later embellished the spelling for professional reasons) in Greenwich Village, Overton was the daughter of a waiter and a seamstress. Her dancing talent was so evident from a young age that her parents provided her with formal training. She was only 15 when she joined John Isham’s Octoroons, an all-black minstrel show in 1895. In 1896-97 she was a member of the legendary Black Patti’s Troubadours.  In 1898, the comely chorine answered a call to model for an advertisement for Walker and Williams vaudeville revue at Koster and Bial’s. This led to her joining the show in the chorus, which then led to her being a featured performer with her partner Grace Halliday. Overton and Halliday performed as the Honolulu Belles in the first of the Walker and Williams musicals The Policy Players (1899).

That year, she also married George Walker and attained star status in the company, essentially becoming a third partner in the most celebrated African American act of the era. Overton was to choreograph all the Walker and Williams shows, as well as Cole and Johnson’s 1911 show Red Moon. The  Walkers became the most celebrated cakewalking couple in the country. Overton was to gain inroads into white society by teaching the dance at private functions. Meanwhile, she was in the process of becoming the top female African American stage performer of her day. In The Sons of Ham (1900) she made a hit with “Miss Hannah from Savanna”.  In Dahomey (1902) was the show that turned the decades-old cakewalk into a dance craze with whites as well; it toured as far as London, where the company gave a Command Performance for King Edward VII. Next came Abyssinia (1905) and Bandanna Land (1907). The latter show featured Overton’s tasteful, refined take on the Salome dance craze then sweeping the nation.

As Salome

As Salome

In 1909 George Walker collapsed while they were still performing Bandanna Land, incapacitated by late-stage syphilis. Overton took over his role in the show in addition to her own, an indication of the scope of her talents. Walker passed away in 1911,but Overton remained in the limelight. She appeared in and choreographed Cole and Johnson’s Red Moon (1909), co-starred with J.S. Dudley in the Smart Set Company’s production of His Honor the Barber (1910). And she toured Big Time Vaudeville. In 1912 she performed her Salome dance at the Victoria Theatre. The following she returned at the head of an entire troupe. She also donated her time organizing benefit shows charities.

When she died suddenly and mysteriously of kidney failure in 1914 it was mourned as a great loss throughout the African American community. She was only 34. Bert Williams would pass away only 8 years later.

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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