Wednesday, October 09, 2013

BOOK REVIEW! A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF VAUDEVILLE by Bernard Sobel, foreword by George Jessel (Citadel Press, 1961)

This book's obviously aimed at a breed that's not just dying, but died out at least a good forty years ago! I mean, I'm sure there are just about as many people out there who are nostalgic for the days of vaudeville as there are people nostalgic for sandpaper toilet tissue, but that didn't stop me from snatching this book up quite a while back. What actually had me parting with a particularly potent double-digit fee for this tome was the fact that A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF VAUDEVILLE featured not only a concise history of the form (dating back to just post-revolution France) but spilled plenty of ink on the main players on the Amerigan scene, and as you'd guess many of the talents who sharpened their talons on the big stage later made it to the big time and it's kinda nice seeing pictures of 'em back when they were nothing but upstart punks.

Of course for me the "big time" means Educational Pictures, and naturally many of the stars of the stage who later performed in front of the cameras are shown here during their days when their main claim to meat was traveling from town to town and honing their skills in front of people who probably didn't know that they were experiencing history in the making. And believe-you-me, for a kid who grew up with the culture of the past via tee-vee and family being pounded more'n the Golden Rule things like the Marx Brothers and Eddie Cantor were historical figures who had just as much star power in my growing up days as they did in my parents and grandparents', and that's no idle chatter!

Naturally the photos presented here (and there are more'n you can believe!) really wow the eyes, from a turn of the century Avon Comedy Four snap featuring longtime faves Smith and Dale to those of future Educational mainstays George Shelton (looking even more screwball than he did at that famed comedy studio), Willie Howard (back when he was teamed with brother Eugene who quit the act to become Willie's manager!), Bert Lahr, Tom Patricola and of course the fantastico Joe Cook, whose infamous Four Hawaiians routine (which he never performed!) is fondly remembered. Of course there are loads more from the Seven Little Foys and Jimmy Durante to future stripper Gypsy Rose Lee in these pages (not to mention a pre-HONEYMOONERS Pert Kelton), and I'm sure even the stodgiest of BLOG TO COMM readers who dare pick this up'll end up feeling like Joe Franklin after lending eyeballs to this collection of old timey pix!

Yes, some of the people spotted here from Fred Astaire to Lahr made it bigger'n most of the now forgottens pictured, but you kinda get the idea that maybe some of these oft-ignored acts were every bit as wowzer as the ones who happened to strike it humongous. If it weren't for the Educational and Columbia shorts some of these stars would probably be lost to all eternity, and for those who weren't lucky enough to score it big in the moom pitchers well...somehow I get the impression that they coulda been just as big as those who did if they only got that big break. That's why I'm thankful for small favors like surviving films and detailed recollections regarding such once-biggies like Bert Williams, a guy who made it humongous on the stage but who probably would have been all but forgotten today if it weren't for a sympathetic mention in W. C. Fields' autobio. Here's one of his two films which were made for the infamous (and by this time on the ropes)  film studio Biograph during their post-D.W. Griffith days: 

And if you have three-and-a-half million to spare, maybe you should be made aware that Joe Cook's legendary haunt Sleepless Hollow is now up for sale. Dunno if the gag furniture and guaranteed hole-in-one "miniature golf" course are still there (the infamous autographed piano and other items have been put up on the auction block long ago), but if you buy the place and suddenly a mystery panel pops up, boy will you be surprised!

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