Archive for Vitaphone

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.

Tal Henry and His North Carolinians

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2017 by travsd

July 10 is the birthday of big band leader Tal Henry (Talmadge Allen Henry, 1898-1967). Born in Georgia, Henry didn’t became a North Carolinian himself until he moved to Eton College, Burlington, N.C. to follow up on his earlier studies at the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music.

In 1919 he moved to Greensboro and played violin in a band led by Frank Hood. Henry took over the act in 1924, renaming it Tal Henry and His North Carolinians. The first several years of the orchestra’s existence were spent as the house band at Greensboro’s O’Henry Hotel. In time they managed to secure bookings in hotel ballrooms all over the country, as well as vaudeville engagements, radio spots, recording contracts, and,in 1928 two Vitaphone shorts. By the ’30s, they were a nationally known concern, with hit records, regular national radio broadcasts from the New Yorker Hotel, and coverage in national magazines.

By 1938, several years into the Great Depression, the expense of maintaining a full orchestra grew too great and the North Carolinians disbanded. This early break-up of the act may be one of the reasons Henry’s band is less well known today, whereas the ones who were able to press on into the 40s or beyond, like the Dorsey Brothers (who’d played with Henry on occasion), or Kay Kyser (Henry’s exact contemporary, and a fellow North Carolinian) continue to be known today. Henry worked as an agent and manager for a few years, and then led bands for U.S. Army Special Services during World War Two. After the war, he returned to North Carolina, where he continued to work as a violinist. A biography of Henry written by his daughter-in-law, was published in 2008.

For more on the vaudeville history, including big bands like Tal Henry and His North Carolinians, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

The Mystery of Hazel Green

Posted in African American Interest, Dixieland & Early Jazz, Hollywood (History), Movies, Music, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , on July 3, 2017 by travsd

There is a gent on IMDB who speculates that the Hazel Green in the 1927 Vitaphone Hazel Green & Company is the granddaughter of Confederate General John Stuart Williams and was born on July 3, 1892. Williams, who later became a U.S. Senator and the Founder of Naples, Florida, was from Kentucky. Early in the war, when still a Colonel, he participated in futile efforts to prevent a Union takeover of his home state, which included a minor action in the community of Hazel Green.  The writer claims that the singer is named after this military action,  that he “once read a bio of her”, and that she got the job due to “producers romancing antebellum times.” The fact that one of the songs in her set is “Just a Bird’s Eye View (of My Old Kentucky Home)” is possible support of that idea.

And yet I’m doubtful. I can’t find corroboration anywhere and it sounds like a stretch. Why would you name a child after one of your defeats? Among other things. And there is the fact that Hazel Green looks like she may be African American, as do a couple of her musicians. Her performance and the set are jazzy (it includes a very peppy, uptempo version of “Ain’t She Sweet”). Green tap dances in the film, along with a guest named Joe Lacurta. And one of the few references I can find to a singer named Hazel Green says she briefly formed a duo with blues pioneer Bessie Smith in 1918. Show biz was almost entirely segregated in those days; while not impossible, a black-and-white singing duo would have been rarer than rare. It would have meant that the white singer was willing to forego the better salaries and conditions of mainstream show business in order to perform in black vaudeville with Smith, which would be saintly but also highly unlikely. So the Hazel Green who sang with Bessie Smith etc had to have been at least partially black herself.

And then there’s this, taken from a book, which says she and her mother, one “Ma” Green choreographed a show at the Southland club in Boston, with Blanche Calloway (Cab Calloway’s sister) and a 14 piece band supplying the music in 1937.

Also, in the Bassically Speaking: An Oral History of George Duvivier, the musician’s mother Ismay Duvivier speaks of her own show business days and says this: “We all worked on the T.O.B.A. circuit…For a while I traveled with Ma Green and her daughter. That was a small combo…Normally there was about twelve girls in a [chorus] line, but there was one big production that required much more…” She also mentions a date in Baltimore (see below for the significance of that).

And we note that black artists were indeed represented in the Vitaphones. Hazel Green & Company is Vitaphone #2112. Just a couple of weeks earlier, the company had recorded Vitaphone #2009: Carolynne Snowden and Company “Colored Syncopation”. 

In short, the Hazel Green in the first paragraph does not sound much like the Hazel Green in the subsequent paragraphs. And yet there is a possible third way. I found this reference to Williams’ step-son Colonel A.W. Hamilton fathering children with Williams’ mulatto cook in the 1870s. This practice may have been rooted in the family culture. Williams was married twice, but there was a period of a dozen years between the death of his first wife, and his marriage to his second one. During this period, he owned upwards of 50 slaves. And it’s well documented that master-slave relationships and forced concubinage existed during those times. So it’s possible that Hazel Green is BOTH a descendant of Williams AND part African American. This is the wildest speculation on my part; I’m just trying to reconcile some seemingly contradictory puzzle pieces with logic. I’ve come across very little information on the woman, and would obviously welcome more.

But little pieces do help fill it in and contribute to this case. In the 1927 Vitaphone we see Green leading a quintet of musicians. I found an ad for her for performing in Baltimore with a “company of five” in 1922. Seems like the same woman. And the collaboration with Bessie Smith was also in Baltimore. So THAT seems like the same woman. This January 1923 ad for an engagement at Poli’s Bridgeport describes her act (“Hazel Green and Her Band”) as a “Riot of Color” — a possible allusion to the race of the performers, lending authenticity of the jazz, which was common in advertising at the time:

I find other references to the band playing in Pittsburgh, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Toronto, Brooklyn and New York City. The act is sometimes billed as “Hazel Green and Her Boys” or “Hazel Green and Her Beau Brummels”. All of these references pre-date the Vitaphone release. Oddly, I can find no references to her after it. Did she retire? Die? Change her name? Again, wild speculation, but I found a reference to a Hazel Green who was born in 1929 to a mother named Hazel Williams Green and a father named Dewey Green. Could Hazel Williams Green be our singer, given all that we wrote above? The timing would be right (many female performers retired to start families), as would the maiden name, though, granted, its a common one. At any rate, we put this out there in case anyone has the true facts — we’d be only too glad to have the record clarified and corrected so folks can learn the truth about this interesting and entertaining singer and bandleader.

You can see clips from Hazel’s Vitaphone on Youtube. In addition to the numbers already mentioned, the group also performed “That’s Why I Love You” and “I’ve Grown So Lonely.”

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

 

 

Frank Whitman: The Dancing Violinist

Posted in Music, Nuts and Eccentrics, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2017 by travsd

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Frank Whitman was often billed as  as “The Dancing Violinist”, “The Stepping Violinist”, “The Wizard of the Violin” and in 1926 his Loew’s Circuit billing was “The Fiddler of Infinite Surprises”. There are references to him performing his act as early as the mid 1890s; he seems to have retired or passed away around 1930.

In his performances, Whitman would bow the violin with various objects, including a bottle, and a horn which he simultaneously tooted. As his name suggests, he would dance while he fiddled. He also told jokes in his patter and for his big finish, bowed the violin through his legs in a most suggestive manner — we might think it more innocent if he weren’t leering and winking at us like a creep while he did it. His 1928 Vitaphone short Frank Whitman: That Surprising Fiddler, in which we can see him do all these things, is his main legacy today.

If he is the same “celebrated violinist” named Frank Whitman mentioned in the April 30, 1921 issue if Billboard, he was the half-brother of Charles A. Trexler, long time property manager for Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, and probably originally from Reading, Pennsylvania.

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

Shaw and Lee: A Crazy Vaudeville Two Act That Lasted for Decades

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2017 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Al Shaw (Albert Schutzman, 1902-1985), one-half of the legendary vaudeville team of Shaw and Lee. I’ve uncovered next to zero about their early years in vaudeville, although it’s known that they were good friends with Burns and Allen, who threw them jobs in later years, and whose act bore certain similarities to their own, at least with regard to originality and cleverness. They were far better than most vaudeville two-acts. Shaw was born in Poland; his partner Sam Lee (Sam Levy, 1891-1980) was from Newark.

An error appears on IBDB, BTW: they have Sam Lee as appearing with Cohan and Harris’ Minstrels on Broadway in 1909; the writers have confused him with another Sam Lee from minstrel days. But Shaw and Lee did appear in the 1927 show The Five O’Clock Girl, with songs by Kalmar and Ruby, book by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson, and a cast that included Oscar Shaw (no relation) and Mary Eaton (known to Marx Brothers fans from The Cocoanuts), and Pert Kelton.  Lee appeared without Shaw in The Scarlet Fox (1928), as a Chinese magician named Ling Foo Loo, a clear parody of Ching Ling Foo and Chung Ling Soo. The team also appeared in the 1929 revue Pleasure Bound and the 1931 show The Gang’s All Here. In 1930, they joined Phil Baker, with whom they had worked in Pleasure Bound, on his radio show, and later became regulars on Jack Oakie’s radio program.

But by 1928, they were already prominent enough to be recorded for a Vitaphone short.  Today their notoriety largely rests on that film, ironically named The Beau Brummels, for it is a record of an amazing vaudeville act, both antique and ulta-modern in its deadpan oddness. The pair sing silly songs and exchange strange banter, all the while standing stiffly and awkwardly immobile. Occasionally one or the other will look at his partner with a worried expression. Sometimes they move in unison like dancers. At this writing, you can see it on Youtube. I hesitate to include a link, since they’re always taking things off Youtube and the links go dead on me. But it is worth watching, many many times. They are fascinating and hysterical.

What is anomalous about Shaw and Lee was that they somehow managed to have what amounted to a vaudeville career decades after the death of vaudeville. Almost no one else managed to do this. When you google then, there are reviews for shows at presentation houses (the closest thing left to vaudeville) through the late 1940s. They remained a team. They appeared in one more Vitaphone, called Going Places, in 1930. They appear as as a vaudeville comedy act (essentially themselves) in several films: Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934), King of Burlesque (1936), In Paris, AWOL (1936) and The King and the Chorus Girl (1937), Hollywood Varieties (1950) and in the Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom vehicle Skipalong Rosenbloom (1951). They also did a little tv, including a shot on Ed Wynn’s variety show.

And — another rarity — they were often cast as extras and bit players as a pair. As such they appear in the 1933 short Hunting Trouble with Walter Catlett and Louise Fazenda; they appear as piano movers in the 1934 Joseph Santley film Young and Beautiful, , as moving men in Ready, Willing and Able (1937), and as thugs in The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939). This is pretty unique, but I can think of something semi-modern to compare it to for a reference. Remember when Cheech and Chong played burglars in the Martin Scorsese comedy After Hours (1985)? A very similar idea. Shaw and Lee’s last movie roles were as repairmen in the 1958 George Gobel comedy I Married a Woman. 

I’m hoping to tease out more about the earlier and later phases of the lives and careers of the incredible team of Shaw and Lee. Lee’s birthday is in next month; perhaps I’ll have some more material to add by then. Today is going to be a very busy blogging day.

To learn more about vaudeville two-acts like Shaw and Lee, 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.

 

Eddie White: “I Thank You”

Posted in Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2017 by travsd

Eddie White (Michael Weintraub, 1898-1983) was born on May 18.

White comes to the attention of modern buffs almost entirely from his 1928 Vitaphone short called I Thank You, after his oft-repeated (by him) catchphrase. When you’ve seen a whole mess of Vitaphones, you easily lump them into categories. Some, like Burns and Allen, and Rose Marie, are folks we already know. Some, maybe most, are folks we don’t know and leave little impression. And a discrete handful are folks we don’t know and make a huge impression: a great act, big talent, a vivid or eccentric personality, sheer weirdness, or whatever. Those are everybody’s favorite Vitaphones and I think those end up being the ones we see for a reason; the screenings are almost always curated by the savvy Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project, who has the ears, eyes, nose, bones, brains, and guts of an old time vaudeville producer, which also means knowing what contemporary audiences will respond to.

At any rate, I Thank You is just such a short. Eddie White is one of the memorable ones. Tall, thin, and lanky, with a scrawny neck, enormous ears, and a high-pitched voice, you’d swear in watching the film that he was an adolescent, no more than about 15 years old. That was the impression I took away the first time I saw the film several years ago: that he was a precocious, talented teenager, probably from New York’s Lower East Side. The ethnic jokes and the crowd pleasing song set, featuring, “Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella (on a Rainy Day)”, “Get Out and Get Under the Moon” and the show-stopping “Mammy”, probably planted that idea. But I was off.

As we see from his birthday year, the young man was actually 30 when this Vitaphone came out. Its national release was probably the high point of his long career, which was mostly East Coast based, concentrated in Philadelphia, Atlantic City and New York. Born in South Philly, he debuted as a young man at the Old Norris Theatre in Norris, Pennsylvania and was using the stage handle “Eddie White” by 1920.

In the 20s he seemed an up-and-comer. He was a big time Keith’s act by mid-decade, one sees references to him playing important big time houses like New York’s Hippodrome.

He became associated with the famous 1932 song “Sam, You Made The Pants Too Long”, though Milton Berle had written the parody lyrics and Joe E. Lewis had the 1933 hit record. Vaudeville was dying around this time and the path of White’s career is hugely instructive about what the hustling performer did to fill the time with bookings. A small announcement in a 1936 issue of Billboard seems pivotal. The item describes White as a vaud vet who would now be officially turning his attention to night cubs. And thereafter he seemed to work pretty steadily as an m.c. and entertainer at night clubs and resorts, most especially the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, although one continues to find references to him playing dates farther afield in places like Pittsburgh and Ohio. Part of White’s legend is that he became a figure in the career of the Jersey-based burlesque comedians Abbott and Costello, when he saw them performing and put them on at the Steel Pier, where they first began to attract more widespread notice.

White produced and hosted a variety revue called The Zanities of 1943 in Philadelphia that got good notices. He headlined in the Palace Theatre revival in 1955. He retied from show biz in 1959.

I had the thrill of talking to White’s only child Jay Weintraub (b. 1933) the other day, and he helped add texture for White’s later years. He said the family moved to Chicago for three years, where White had a steady gig at a night club. He said his famous friends included Berle (who’d given him “Sam” to sing), Judy Garland, Red Buttons, Henny Youngman, and of course Abbott and Costello (Weintraub recounted an anecdote where Costello flew the family out to spend a few days with him in Hollywood). And he said the William Morris Agency tried unsuccessfully to book Eddie for the Ed Sullivan Show, but he was rejected for being too “ethnic” — he did a lot of Jewish dialect humor, which might not come across to wider audiences (and might have offended some others).

But mostly, says Weintraub, “He was a family man. His main interests were his brothers and my mother and me. He would go off and do his dates for a few days but then he would always come home.”

Most intriguingly, Mr. Weintraub mentions an enormous scrapbook of clippings in his possession and THIS would be the great resource of information on Eddie White. Hopefully some day an intrepid researcher will gain access to it and convey its contents to the wider public.

Special thanks to the one and only Mr. Chuck Prentiss for connecting me with Jay Weintraub!

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.

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.

 

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