Archive for theatre

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.

Albert Carroll: Kind of a Drag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hall of Hams #113: Rex Harrison

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2017 by travsd

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Sir Rex Harrison, Inventor of Speak-Singing 

Today is the birthday of stage and screen Sir Rex Harrison (Reginald Harrison, 1908-1990). It’s safe to say that Harrison was the first serious English actor with whom I had any wide familiarity as a child, and I’m betting that’s true of many Americans of my age. He was frequently on television variety and talk shows throughout the 1970s (he was funny and also famous for his many marriages — six — as well as some notorious affairs). I imagine I encountered his films in roughly this order: Dr. Doolittle (1967), My Fair Lady (1964), Cleopatra (1963), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), Blithe Spirit (1945), Major Barbara (1941), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Ann and the King of Siam (1946) and, quite recently, Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours (1948). This leaves plenty I’ve yet to see; I’m particularly interested in Night Train to Munich (1940).

Harrison was certainly an early pathway to Shaw for me through My Fair Lady and Major Barbara. Onstage he’d also starred in Caesar and Cleopatra, Heartbreak House, and The Devil’s Disciple. I think of him as the consummate interpreter of Shaw, virtually his mouthpiece. For example, I’ve never seen him as Shaw’s Caesar (it’s Claude Rains in the 1945 film) yet I always picture the character as him when I read the play. Possibly partially because he played him in the 1963 blockbuster, but also because one comes to know and cherish Harrison’s delivery. It is a perfect match. Another stage performance of his I’d wish I’d seen is his Henry VIII in Maxwell Anderson’s Anne of the Thousand Days (1948) — it’s Richard Burton in the 1969 movie.

Harrison’s also the inventor of the technique of “speak-singing” which I confess I’ve always found frustrating. I’m the farthest thing from a musicals-Nazi, but often you hear the terrific melody the songwriters have written, and well, it feels a cheat not to hear it sung.

Originally from Lancashire, Harrison was educated in Liverpool College, where he began his career in the professional theatre in 1924. He first appeared in films and on the West End in 1930, and went to Hollywood in 1946.

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.

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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