Archive for vaudeville

Benny’s Bride: The Elusive Mary Livingstone

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Radio (Old Time Radio), Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2017 by travsd

On this day was born was born the funny, if accidental, comedienne Mary Livingstone (Sadie Marcowitz, sometimes shortened to Marks, 1905-1983).

Livingstone grew up in Vancouver. The lore is that she met Jack Benny when Zeppo Marx brought him to a Passover seder at her house circa 1919. For many years it was generally believed that Mary was a cousin of the Marx Brothers, probably on the strength of this episode and the similarity of their surnames (the Marx Bros occasionally spelled their last name “Marks” during their stage years), but it appears now not to have been the case. At any rate, she became something of a Benny groupie, purposefully crossing the comedian’s path many times until he began dating her. They married in 1927.

She appeared with him many times on the vaudeville stage, still under her given name at first. Her role in these years was more like the popular “Dumb Dora”, after the fashion of the popular Gracie Allen.  In 1932, Benny got his own radio show, and Livingstone was to become part of his stock company, along with regulars Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Don Wilson, Kenny Baker (later replaced with Dennis Day), Phil Harris and many others. As such she became one of the best known personalities in the country. Her radio character was funny, acerbic and dry; she was perfect for Benny’s show.

Livingstone remained part of Benny’s radio cast until his show went off the air in 1955. She also made scores of appearances on television, on Benny’s program and others’ throughout the 1950s. The irony of this very public person’s life was that she was afflicted with stage fright, and was only able to perform through a great effort of will. Her joining Benny in vaudeville and on radio occurred in both cases because she was asked to fill emergency vacancies. She hadn’t sought a performing career at all. She retired in 1959, soon after Gracie Allen. Livingstone seems to have been a very tense, highly strung woman, not well liked. After hearing her performances, where she jovially banters with the top stars of the day, one is surprised to read that long-time colleagues and social friends like Lucille Ball and George Burns and Gracie Allen and even her adopted daughter Joan didn’t really like her, finding her cold, hard and distant. Her fans didn’t see her that way at all. She outlived Benny by nearly a decade, passing away in 1983.

To learn more about show business history, including vaudeville veterans like Mary Livingstone and Jack Benny, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Several Seminal Salomés and the History of the Dance of the Seven Veils

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Dance, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2017 by travsd

Salomé, by Pierre Bonnaud, 1900

Today is St. John’s Day, the traditional birthday for John the Baptist. Note the timing: just as Christmas is pinned close to the winter solstice, St. John’s Day falls right after the summer solstice. No accident! In America the only folks who still give it much attention are the voodoo practitioners of New Orleans; as a culture we’ve transferred the impulse for a summer holiday to the Fourth of July.

At any rate, we take the occasion to talk about a St. John related fad that swept through American pop culture, especially vaudeville, in the early 20th century: the Salomé craze. If you know your New Testament or your Josephus, you know the tale: how Herod’s wicked step-daughter Salomé did a naughty dance (The Dance of the Seven Veils) for daddy, then demanded and received the head of John the Baptist on a platter. The story was tailor made to be a kink in the Victorian moral armor, Biblical in origin yet titillating. It became a frequent subject for painters in the 19th century.

Beardsley illustration for Wilde’s “Salomé”

It finally made its way to the stage (almost) in 1892 with a play by Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s Salomé began rehearsals that year with Sarah Bernhardt as star but was banned by British censors. Something was in the air. The following year Little Egypt made her debut in the Streets of Cairo exhibition in the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. One used a Biblical justification, the other an anthropological one, but the bottom line was clear: whatever the rationale, people wanted to look at sexy dances. At any rate, Wilde’s Salomé was first published in France in 1893, then in England in 1894, both editions with provocative illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley. The first (private) British production was in 1905, but the ban for public productions was in place until 1931.

Alice Guszalewicz in the Strauss opera

But ya know how it is; if you want to create a market for something, forbid it. So, first buzz was created on the continent. In 1902, Max Reinhardt directed a version in Berlin in 1902. Richard Strauss saw this version, and was inspired to adapt it into an opera, which premiered in in 1905.  But the crucial leap to the popular stage came the following year.

Maud Allan

In 1906 Canadian-born modern dancer Maud Allen premiered her production Visions of Salomé in Vienna. It and she became a sensation. Billed as “The Salomé Dancer” she toured British music halls in 1908, playing 250 stands that year, and published her autobiography. This set off the craze.

Gertrude Hoffman

Gertrude Hoffman was the first to bring the Salomé dance to the American vaudeville stage in 1908, launching the local mania. Read my short squib on her here, and a much more robust post about the Brooklyn Public Library’s Gertrude Hoffman Collection by scholar/ librarian Ivy Marvel here. 

Mademoiselle Dazie

Mademoiselle Dazie was one of the first to imitate Hoffman’s Salomé act and present it on the vaudeville stage though we don’t have a picture of her in costume. Learn more about her here. 

Lotta Faust

Broadway star Lotta Faust was another who got in on the ground floor, touring vaudeville with a Salomé dance as early as 1908. We’ll be writing more about her in the coming months.

Julian Eltinge

Female impersonator Julian Eltinge also include a Salomé  number among his many drag specialties starting in 1908. Another female impersonator who did the Dance of the Seven Veils was British music hall performer Malcolm Scott.

Eva Tanguay

Though we don’t have a photo for it, Eva Tanguay’s 1909 Salomé  was said to have taken the whole thing up a notch, simulating orgasm, and further increasing her notoriety.

Aida Overton Walker

African American vaudevillian Aida Overton Walker toured with her Salomé act in 1911.

The Salomé  fad had wound down on stages by this point. But in later years, there were some notable films that kept the story out there:

Theda Bara

The 1918 film starring the notorious screen vamp Theda Bara is sadly lost — a tragedy for red-blooded heterosexual men everywhere!

Nazimova

The great Russian actress Alla Nazimova’s 1923 screen version was at once too retrograde (it was a long dead fad by the Jazz Age) and too modern (full of art deco design and contemporary dance — who wants a reinterpretation of this quintessential staple?) So it bombed at the box office, although it makes an interesting, if anomalous, artifact.

Kathryn Stanley

Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty Kathryn Stanley posed for this publicity still in 1926, although it doesn’t seem to be in support of a Sennett movie (seems to have been a local stage production). Too bad! A Mack Sennett spoof of the subgenre could have been a major hoot, although I’m sure it would have been deemed too blasphemous by religious groups. That John head needs to grow a beard though.

Salomé, Where She Danced (1945)

The 1945 film Salomé, Where She Danced, put Yvonne de Carlo on the map. And what a map! Va va voom!

Salomé (1953)

We sometimes forget that Rita Hayworth started out as a dancer. She reminds us and then some when she does the Dance of the Seven Veils in the 1953 Hollywood film.

Salomé’s Last Dance (1988)

Typically cray-cray Ken Russell version, complete with an Oscar Wilde framing device.

Salomé (2013)

I was lucky enough to see Al Pacino play Herod in Circle in the Square’s 1992 production of Wilde’s Salomé, with Twin Peaks’ Sheryl Lee as the title character. Pacino chewed up the scenery in the play, perhaps the first time the title character had been bumped from the center of her own vehicle. In 2013, he directed his own movie version and — same thing. Jessica Chastain is Salomé , but I had to hunt around for a bit for a photo where Pacino isn’t hogging the limelight!

My version! How could I not include it? In my 2008 revue No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Show That Made Vaudeville Famous at Theater for the New City I cast Leela Corman (best known as an illustrator and graphic novelist, but who is also an accomplished belly dancer) as Salomé, and Art Wallace as the cat-calling head of John the Baptist. And on that sacrilegious note, we end our post.

For more on the history of vaudeville, including fads and phenomena like the Salomé craze,  consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever titillating books are sold.

Darmody: Five Club Pioneer

Posted in Jugglers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by travsd

This year World Juggling Day, sponsored by the International Jugglers Association, falls on June 17. We take the opportunity to honor juggler James Darmody. From Boston, Darmody was a popular variety star throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is noted for being one of the first jugglers who could juggle five clubs (offering $1,000 to anyone who could match him). He is also known for juggling rifles (see illustration).

For more on the history of vaudeville, including jugglers like Darmody, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold.

Some Tales of Vaudeville Suicide, Despair and Murder

Posted in Hollywood (History), Variety Arts (Defined), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2017 by travsd

This one is by special request — a reader (some morbid soul) wanted to see more stories like a certain tragic one we posted a few days ago. Essentially this is just a round up of several tales of show business tragedies, mostly vaudeville, but I’ve added some Hollywood ones as well. Just click on the performer’s name to learn more.

Down and Out, Penniless, Forgotten: 

Tens of thousands of aspiring stage and screen performers found themselves in this predicament, but we mention a few notables who had been either at the top, or very successful, and spent their last days broke and alone: Stephen Foster, the Father of American Song died drunk, penniless, singing for his supper and owing back-rent for his Bowery hotel room (this was in the days before songwriters got royalties),  Eva Tanguay, at one point the “Queen of Vaudeville” and one of the highest paid entertainers in the country, died blind, bed-ridden, and broke; Clarice Vance, also a star, wound up homeless and eventually in an insane asylum; Agnes Ayres, a Paramount star, toppled from fame, eventually losing her child, and going mad; Johnny Arthur died a charity case; Leo Dryden spent his last days singing for coppers on street corners. However, the most extreme cases wound up as:

Suicides 

Nat M. Wills, “The Happy Tramp”, suffering money and romantic woes, may have been one of the first people to kill himself with automobile exhaust fumes. There is some ambiguity because it was not well known at the time that one could actually die that way. And his career was going just great at the time. In most cases, the facts were much clearer. The clown Slivers Oakley killed himself with gas when vaudeville didn’t pan out. Premiere monologist Charley Case shot himself in his hotel room. Legendary screen beauty Mary Nolan’s slow descent ended with an overdose of pills. Jenny Dolly of the Dolly Sisters, having lost her beauty in a car accident, hanged herself. Lou Tellegen stabbed himself when talkies killed his career. Paul McCullough of Clark and McCullough, chronically depressed, slit his own throat while sitting in a barber chair. Sideshow performer Waldo the Human Ostrich gassed himself when a love affair went sour. Actor John Bowers drowned himself over a career decline (some think this event was the model for the climax of A Star is Born). Silent screen comedienne Phyllis Haver had been tragically isolated for years when she took an overdose of sleeping pills in 1960.  And one of the greatest of all 20th century comedians Max Linder and his wife, despondent over failing health and career, each committed TRIPLE suicides by taking barbiturates, injecting morphine, and cutting themselves.

The above folks all have connections to vaudeville. We’ve also written about some purely Hollywood suicides, including Peg Entwistle (who jumped off the famous “Hollywood” sign); the “Mexican Spitfire” Lupe Velez, who took pills when she became pregnant out of wedlock; Clara Blandick (Aunt Em of The Wizard of Oz), who suffocated herself with a plastic bag in response to health problems; and Doodles Weaver who shot himself.

Syphillis and Other Diseases

Strange to think that we could get a whole category out of venereal disease, but in the days before penicillin it took a shocking number of lives — especially (it shouldn’t surprise you to learn) a high number in the theatrical community. It was a terrible way to go because it usually first manifested itself in madness. The afflicted person was normally put away for a few years before they finally gave up the ghost. At any rate; the risks were known at the time, so in a way, to die in this manner was a kind of a suicide. Those who went in this fashion included Scott Joplin; Maurice Barrymore; George Walker of Walker and Williams; Tony Hart of Harrigan and Hart; Bob Cole of Cole and Johnson; Harry Kernell of the Kernell Brothers; Ernest Hogan; and Joe Welch.

Mabel Normand died of TB at 37. Tuberculosis was also common in those days, although Normand was almost certainly weakened from her hard-partying life style. Fellow silent comedian Larry Semon also died of the disease, among other factors.

If we concede that alcoholism is a disease, the catalog of those whose lives were shortened, ended or harmed by that affliction would be too long to list but some prominent examples included W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, Lillian Roth, Leo Gorcey, Bert Williams and Jack Pickford. (and some of those also mentioned elsewhere on this page)

DISASTERS AND ACCIDENTS 

A few notable examples of stagefolk who died prematurely under bizarre or sudden circumstances. Blackface performer Artie Hall was killed when a theatre collapsed during the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Magician Ching Ling Foo died while performing the dangerous “bullet catch” stunt. Houdini died of peritonitis after some college students punched him in the stomach, rupturing his appendix. Drag performer Bert Savoy was struck by lightning. Cowboy star Buck Jones was killed in a terrible night club fire. Olive Thomas accidentally drank poison, resulting in a slow, painful hospital death. Rosetta Duncan of the Duncan Sisters died in a car crash, as did Bernard Gorcey. Marilyn Miller’s story is a double tragedy: first her husband Frank Carter died in a car accident, then she herself was killed in a botched hospital operation.

MURDER

A few notable murders have found their way into these pages. There’s the famous William Desmond Taylor mystery. Most rule comedienne Thelma Todd’s death a murder (there are SUSPECTS and suspicious circumstances) although it’s possible it may have been an accident or suicide. Professor Backwards was famously killed by some inept robbers. Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer lost his life over a petty money dispute.

Fame and wealth are all well and good; but NO ONE escapes the ubiquitous pitfalls of life on Abattoir Earth!

For more on the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold. For more on silent film, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

 

 

Leo Dryden: The Kipling of the Halls, Correspondent in Chaplin Break-Up

Posted in British Music Hall, Movies, Silent Film, Singers with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2017 by travsd

Born this day: Music Hall star Leo Dryden (George Dryden Wheeler, 1863-1939).

Dryden was quite a well known performer in his day, nicknamed “The Kipling of the Halls” on account of his repertoire of patriotic and sentimental ballads. There is also an extant cylinder recording of him singing his most popular song “The Miner’s Dream of Home” which he recorded in 1898. It has been used on the soundtracks of several films including The Ghosts of Berkeley Square (1947) and The Entertainer (1960). He also appeared in one silent movie The Lady of the Lake (1928).

Dryden would be pretty well known to music hall buffs to this day, but nowadays he’s best known for something else: breaking up Charlie Chaplin’s parents. While Chaplin was a small boy and his father Charles Chaplin Sr, a music hall performer himself, was out on the road, Chaplin’s mother Lily Harley had an affair with Dryden, resulting in a baby: Wheeler Dryden. Chaplin Sr. was a rake and a drunkard himself so he was probably only too glad for an excuse to be rid of his responsibilities; he left his wife and child. Dryden also took his own son away from Harley, and raised him himself. And Chaplin’s mother went slowly crazy. In later years, Wheeler Dryden looked up his famous half-brother and went to work for him. Meanwhile, with music hall dying out, Leo Dryden was out of work and was eventually reduced to singing for coppers in the streets — pretty much like something out of one of his own songs.

To find out more about vaudeville and music hall history and performers like Leo Dryden 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 silent comedy and the Chaplin family 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

The Ten Most Influential Vaudevillians Of All Time

Posted in Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on June 5, 2017 by travsd

In contrast with yesterday’s post, which reported who YOUR favorite vaudeville performers are, today we share a short list of those whom we deem to have cast the longest and widest shadows in terms of influence on the culture and on other performers. Many of these entertainers cast ripples that are still being felt today. We list them in no particular order. Just click on the links to learn more about the stars in question:

Weber and Fields: The mother of all comedy teams, they influenced acts as wide ranging as the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy and countless more. Plus, they went on to help found and shape the institution we now know as Broadway. PLUS, they were the first hugely successful Jews in American show business. Incalculably influential.

Lillian Russell: I had real difficulty deciding whom was the best female singing single to put here. Women were the biggest stars in vaudeville. There is a long chain of highly successful ones leading way back before vaudeville even existed. Where to cut it off? Who was most successful? Who was “Eve”? Two pre-vaudeville examples helped pave the way: Jenny Lind as the angelic type, who helped make it acceptable for “proper” ladies to attend the theater; and Lola Montez as the naughty type, who helped set the template for what stardom would be like. Lillian Russell merged aspects of both, and came along just as vaudeville was getting off the ground, and became Tony Pastor’s biggest star, and later starred with Weber and Fields. Her early advent, the scale of her stardom, and her colorful private life I think make her the most pivotal of the “singing comediennes.”

Al Jolson: People who know him only for The Jazz Singer don’t know the first thing about him. People seem to remember him only for wearing blackface today, but blackface was near universal in his day. If anything, he is the pivotal figure in transitioning American show biz into its POST minstrelsy period. Just about every male singer of the first third of the 20th century (and many who came afterwards) patterned themselves after his big-over-the-top show biz style. Top star of Broadway, movies, and radio, for decades he was the entertainer all others were measured by.

Walker and Williams: This seminal African American vaudeville team are responsible for so many firsts: first to be stars in white vaudeville, first on Broadway, first to make record albums and movies. They popularized the cakewalk among whites as well as blacks. Many African American performers patterned themselves after this successful team, and you can see their influence in white comedy teams as well. When George Walker died an early death, Bert Williams went on to further triumphs as an artist and was widely admired by peers and audiences of all colors, in spite of the prejudices of the times.

Houdini: The great magician and illusionist was not only influential among his peers in the invention of new tricks, stunts and escapes, but he was a towering innovator in the field of self-promotion, one of the reasons his name remains a household word to this day. Houdini was so influential in his time, he had scores of imitators and even imposters using close variations on his name (e.g. “Boudini”)!

Frank Fay:  The reason you don’t see Bob Hope or Jack Benny here is that, influential though they were, they both patterned themselves after Frank Fay, widely heralded as the first modern stand-up comedian and m.c. Fay’s humor seems to have been anchored to his own era; what has survived doesn’t seem to have weathered the passage of time well, or in a way that we can understand. Nor was he able to become a major movie star like many of his peers and acolytes. But in his time he was considered King. The monologue at the top of every late night comedy tv show can be traced back to the Great Faysie.

Eva Tanguay: Tanguay pushed the envelope in terms of content, becoming notorious for both her onstage and offstage behavior, but in a way that was also kind of crazy and funny. Performers like Mae West, Sophie Tucker and Texas Guinan owed a lot to her. Oddly, Tangay may be even more influential in our time than in hers. Countless modern stars take the path blazed by Tanguay; in her own time few performers dared.

Fred Karno: Karno is the man who trained and developed Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel and dozens of others who are lesser known today, and so his impact extended well beyond the vaudeville stage — it would come to reach millions through motion pictures. Further, his “Speechless Comedians” were widely imitated on the stages of the day.

Vernon and Irene Castle: Vaudeville’s premier dance team, they were a downright craze in the teens, not only popularizing individual dance steps, but making dance (esp. modern styles) socially acceptable in the first place. Thus they were at the center in a cultural revolution. There were entire product lines with their branding on them

Gus Edwards: Edwards was the premiere producer of vaudeville kiddie acts. Not only were his sketches and productions widely imitated on vaudeville stages, but the young people he presented in those acts grew up to become stars themselves, among them people like Eddie Cantor, Groucho Marx, George Jessel, Eleanor Powell, and dozens of others.

To learn more about vaudeville and all of these vaudevillians please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

The Top Ten Vaudevillians on Travalanche (Revisited)

Posted in Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on June 4, 2017 by travsd

These Guys Don’t Even Make the Top Thousand, But I’ve Been Hunting in Vain for a Use for This Cool Photo

On a sleepy Sunday four years ago, we did a little survey to see which vaudevillians were most popular on Travalanche; the results were posted here. Noticing that the standings had changed a bit, we decided to revisit the topic this morning.

Know that now as then, these aren’t the top ten posts on Travalanche overall: other content streams, such as sideshow freaks, and movie and tv stars are among the topics that often beat out many of these vaudevillians, although the top couple are also very near the top overall. The results, as last time, are heartening, perhaps even more so now — they seem to make a bit more sense. (If you compare the lists, you’ll see what I mean; these are now all names you’d expect to make the top ten). I feel I still have work to do in terms of raising awareness of these performers and the site itself, but…all in aa day’s work. Here, then, are YOUR top ten vaudeville performers on Travalanche at this writing:

  1. Charlie Chaplin: Never surprising and genuinely heartwarming to know he’s first in the hearts of fans. He was one of the biggest stars of all time; I’m glad to know he still is.
  2. Eddie Foy and the Seven Little Foys: As before, we’re certain that traffic is driven here through periodic television showings of the bio-pic starring Bob Hope, and the fact that Travalanche fills a niche in talking about this famous kiddie act. Most gratifying.
  3. Laurel and Hardy: Naturally! As with Chaplin, still popular through ongoing movie fame.
  4. Marx Brothers: But of course. They didn’t make the list last time but all the Marxfest blogging I did changed all that.
  5. Burns and Allen: A wonderful development; they hadn’t even made the list last time. Their standings have been helped along by the addition to my own posts of a newer post by Lauren Milberger, which ranks among our top 25. They deserve to rank this high for sure.
  6. The Four Cohans: Their high ranking here very similar to that of the Foys; and for the same reason. Frequent screenings of Yankee Doodle Dandy help to spread interest.
  7. Frank Fay: Practically invented the role of master of ceremonies and modern stand-up comedian
  8. Eva Tanguay: Still ranks surprisingly high. I had never even heard of her prior to researching my book No Applause. But she is often mentioned in the media; she was incredibly influential, and a highly entertaining person to talk about.
  9. Buster Keaton (and The Three Keatons): This is a wonderful development. They hadn’t made the list before and they deserve to be near the top, both because of Buster’s ongoing movie stardom, but because of the notoriety of the family act
  10. W.C. Fields: Naturally! And helped along by the Fields Fest blogging we did a few months ago.

To learn more about vaudeville and all of these vaudevillians please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

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