Saturday, January 31, 2009

"What is Truth?"

One of the the greatest poetic litanies of the Beat Generation came not from Kerouac, Burroughs nor Ginsberg, but from the mind of Hollywood hack writer Mel Welles:

Now there's a race for space,
We can cough blood on the moon soon;
Tomorrow is dragsville, cats,
Tomorrow is a king-size drag.

Check out this quasi-bohemian para-Voraxical clip from the 1958 teenybopper exploitation flick "High School Confidential". That's Phillipa Fallon as the beatnik chick, and Jackie "Uncle Fester" Coogan poundin' the eighty-eights and staring at her rear end.

View: Phillipa Fallon - High School Drag

Above: The audience at a Voraxium show, bummed by the utter lack of commercial entertainment potential.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Wacky Dust

According to Wikipedia:

When the Spaniards conquered South America, they at first ignored aboriginal claims that the coca leaf gave them strength and energy, and declared the practice of chewing it the work of The Devil. But after discovering that these claims were true, they legalized and taxed the leaf, taking 10% off the value of each crop. In 1569, Nicolás Monardes described the practice of the natives of chewing a mixture of tobacco and coca leaves to induce "great contentment".

The opium poppy was cultivated in lower Mesopotamia as long ago as 3400 BC.[4] The chemical analysis of opium in the 19th century revealed that most of its activity could be ascribed to two ingredients, codeine and morphine. The Bayer pharmaceutical company would name the substance "heroin", probably from the word heroisch, German for heroic, because in field studies people using the medicine felt "heroic". From 1898 through to 1910 heroin was marketed as a non-addictive morphine substitute and cough suppressant. As with aspirin, Bayer lost some of its trademark rights to heroin under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles following the German defeat in World War I.

But Heavens to Betsy, Birdy, why on Earth would anyone mess with dangerous illicit drugs when Dry Tobacco Snuff is perfectly legal, healthier for you, and supports the hard-workin' farmin' man?

Listen: Chick Webb & Ella Fitzgerald - Wacky Dust (1938)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Morey Amsterdam Show

One of the great lost programs of early Television is The Morey Amsterdam Show, which ran from from 1948 to 1950 on the CBS and Dumont networks. Only a few fragments of these shows are known to exist today, because most of the kinescopes were destroyed.

The program was a showcase for Vaudeville/Burlesque veteran Morey Amsterdam to host a variety show as the emcee at a fictional New York City nightclub, the "Golden Goose Cafe" ("Silver Swan Cafe" in later episodes). Art Carney, Vic Damone and Jacqueline Susann made regular appearances.

Although probably best known as Buddy Sorrell on The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s and a frequent panelist on Match Game in the 1970s, Morey's real glory came in the 1920s and 1930s, where he worked as am actor, comedian and cellist in many theatres and venues, including a speakeasy run by Al Capone. He was sometimes billed as "The Human Joke Machine" because of his inexhaustible repertoire and ability to improvise.

View: Partial episode of The Morey Amsterdam Show, circa 1949

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Nightclubs of Northern Kentucky

In the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th, Northern Kentucky (the Newport area) was the nation's mecca for casinos, strip clubs, porno theatres, illicit gambling, liquor stores, taverns, burlesque halls, pervy private clubs, disreputable cabarets and piano bars, sleazy country clubs, speakeasies, opium dens, brothels, mobster hangouts, seedy bookstores and no-tell motels.

Though not quite as transcendentally amoral as the Weimar Republic, the glory days of Northern Kentucky were a heady and dizzying hell-ride through the underbelly of America's underbelly. Even celebs like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Joey Bishop came to Kentucky to party during Newport's heyday.

Unfortunately, the forces of purity, piousness and clean living began to put the pressure on, and eventually the party was over. The mob packed up their tommy guns, the showgirls packed up their feather boas, and the action all moved out West to a little nothing spot in the desert called Las Vegas. By the 1970s, Newport was no longer known as "Sin City" and Kentucky's reputation for decadent libertinism was dead.

But as Bruce Springsteen once said, "Everything that dies, one day comes back". We're absolutely certain of it.

Postcards shown, top to bottom:

  • Glenn Schmidt's, 18 E. 5th St., Newport, KY
  • Club Alexandria, 2124 Alexandria Pike, Newport, KY
  • The Silver Slipper, 613 Monmouth Street, Newport, KY
  • Jai Alai, 804 York St., Newport, KY (back of card reads "Delightful Piano cocktail Lounge. Our delicious drinks are made for the Connoisseur, priced for the average person. Your favorite music at Cocktail Hour and nightly from 7 P.M. 'til 5 A.M.")
  • Tuesday, January 27, 2009

    Mary Wigman

    Mary Wigman (1886 – 1973) was a pioneer of modern and expressionist dance in Germany.

    She studied under the noted occultist dancer Rudolf Laban and Professor Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, inventor of Eurhythmics, the music-and-movement educational technique (which Annie Lennox named her new wave band after in the early 1980s).

    According to Wikipedia:

    Mary Wigman's choreographies often employed non-Western instrumentation: fifes, bells, gongs, and drums from India, Thailand, Africa, and China. However, the primary musical accompaniment for her most well known dances was percussion, which contrasted greatly with her use of silence. Mary would often employ masks in her pieces, influenced again by non-western/tribal motifs, as well as ecstatic spinning. Her choreography was also inspirational to communist dance troupes in the 1930s in New York City.

    What interests us most about Wigman, however, is the film clip of her "Witch Dance" routine, which must be seen to be believed:

    View: Mary Wigman's Witch Dance

    Monday, January 26, 2009


    The song "Tangerine" originally began as a 1941 show tune by Victor Schertzinger and Johnny Mercer, for the film The Fleet's In. Although sharing the title of the 1928 Paramount film starring Clara Bow and Jack Oakie, this The Fleet's In was not a remake; it was a film version of the 1933 stage play Sailor, Beware.

    I haven't seen the film in question, so I don't know how in-context the song is with its lyrics that are clearly and plainly about a promiscuous woman whose reknown is global:

    Tangerine, she is all they claim
    With her eyes of night and lips as bright as flame
    Tangerine, when she dances by,
    Senoritas stare and caballeros sigh
    And I've seen toasts to Tangerine
    Raised in every bar across the Argentine!

    There have been a number of strippers and burlesque performers who have taken on the Tangerine persona over the years, some overtly referencing the song. There was also, if memory serves me correctly, a comedienne using the Tangerine name who worked with Rudy Ray Moore in the 60s and 70s.

    (Image from the Los Angeles Times, 1957.)

    View: The Squadronaires - Tangerine (1942)

    View: Lennie Tristano - Tangerine (1965)

    View: Beegie Adair - Tangerine (2008)

    Sunday, January 25, 2009

    Irene Dunne

    Most know Irene Dunne for her long string of successful films in the 1930s and 1940s such as I Remember Mama, Magnificent Obsession, Life With Father and Love Affair (in which you can see her singing "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" - see the link below).

    Our concern here, however, is Irene's true glory years before selling out to Hollywood. After graduating from Loretta Academy in Kentucky, she went to Chicago and studied at Florenz Ziegfeld's Musical College, earning a diploma there in 1919. She'd originally set out to be a teacher but ended up being lured by an offer to play the lead in a 1920 road show of Irene.

    She spent the 1920s working onstage nonstop, in productions like The Clinging Vine, Yours Truly and our personal favorite, Luckee Girl. It was a risque story about life in Paris and Irene got to sing lead on many numbers, such as "I Hate You", "Chiffon", and "A Flat in Montmartre". Unfortunately, the show closed on Broadway after only 81 performances.

    In 1929 she was with Ziegfeld's production of Show Boat, and that's when a Hollywood talent scout spotted her talent and brought the o the West Coast. Though she went on to do many impressive films, it's a shame there isn't more to document her raw early years with Ziegfeld.

    View: Irene Dunne sings "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"

    Saturday, January 24, 2009

    Vesta Tilley

    Lest anyone think that Drag Kings are a contemporary phenomenon, consider the case of Vesta Tilley, real name Matilda Powles.

    Born in 1864 into a showbiz family, she began appearing onstage at the age of three. At the age of six, she played her first male character, "Pocket Sims Reeves", which was a parody of operatic vocalist Sims Reeves. By the age of eleven she was performing under the pseudonym Vesta Tilley.

    The humor of her name is lost in modern times, as Vesta was the brand name of a very popular kind of matches, to the extent that many people in the 19th century referred to matches simply as "Vestas".

    As Vesta grew up, she began to prefer playing male parts, saying that "I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy", and eventually came to portray them exclusively. Although ostensibly her crossdressing was a theatrical device, she also made publicity appearances in public in full male drag and never breaking character. She was especially popular with women who saw her as a symbol of emancipation, and enjoyed her musical repertoire which almost always deconstructed gender roles in a playful way.

    During World War I, Vesta and her husband contributed aggressively to the war effort, performing constantly for soldiers in hospitals and selling war bonds. Unfortunately, this led in turn to Vesta's showbiz demise: after the war, they were both commended for their charitable and humanitarian efforts, and her husband was knighted in 1919. Shortly thereafter he became a successful politician, and Matilda retired from Vaudeville at the age of 56.

    Listen: Vesta Tilley - Following in Father's Footsteps

    Friday, January 23, 2009

    The Lupino Family

    Henry William George Lupino, better known to audiences as Lupino Lane, was born in London in 1892. He entered showbiz practically right out of the gate: at the age of four he appeared in a benefit variety show with Vesta Tilley, and soon thereafter performed as "Nipper" at the London Pavilion.

    By 1924 he was in the Ziegfeld Follies, and in 1925 played in The Mikado on Broadway. His biggest claim to fame, however, was playing the character of Bill Snibson in the musical Twenty to One and its sequel Me and my Girl, the latter of which spawned the massive hit song "Lambeth Walk". Lupino Lane directed Me and my Girl as well as starring in it, for 1550 performances until 1940.

    Lane invested his fortune he'd made from Me and my Girl and put it into restoring London's abandoned Gaiety Theatre, which had become a crumbling shell because of World War II bombings and years of neglect. Unfortunately, the task of renovating the enormous building exhausted his funds, and he failed to secure sufficient financial backing to finish it. He was forced to sell the unfinished building in 1950, and it was subsequently demolished in 1956.

    Defeated and depressed, Lupino Lane died at the age of 67 in 1959.

    Prior to Lane, there were centuries of showbiz performers in his family tree, most of them named George: Georgius Lupino was born in the 1500s and was an Italian puppeteer. George William Luppino, born 1632, was a singer, poet and puppeteer. George Charles Luppino, born 1661, was also a puppeteer. George Charles Luppino II, born 1683, was a dancer billed as "The Motion Master of Long Acre". George Richard Eastcourt Luppino was a dancer and apprentice to John Rich, founder of English Pantomime. Samuel George Lupino, born 1766, was a dancer and acrobat. George Hook Lupino was adopted into the Lupino family and became a dancer. He had 16 children, at least 10 of whom went on to careers in theatre, dance and vaudeville. George Lupino, born in 1853, performed in Drury Lane pantomimes of the 1890s.

    This last George Lupino had a son named Stanley Lupino (1893–1942) who had quite a successful career in showbiz. His stage career included Phi-Phi (1922) and From Dover Street to Dixie (1923) at the London Pavilion, and at the Gaiety Theatre he did Love Lies (1929), Hold my Hand (1932), and Sporting Love (1934). His film career included a remake of Love Lies for the screen (1933), Happy (1933), You Made Me Love You (1933), Honeymoon for Three (1935) and Lucky to Me (1939).

    Stanley's daughter, Ida Lupino, born in 1918, went on to a career of her own in film. She worked on film noir, quasi-noir, and proto-noir films such as The Light That Failed (1938), They Drive by Night (1940), Road House (1948), Not Wanted (1949), Outrage (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1952), The Hitch-Hiker (1953), The Big Knife (1955) and While the City Sleeps (1956). Some of these she also directed, making history as an early female film director and certainly the first female director of noir film.

    For the next twenty years, Ida descended into mainstream television, working on shows such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, Have Gun Will Travel, The Donna Reed Show, Columbo, Gilligan's Island, 77 Sunset Strip, The Streets of San Francisco, The Investigators, Switch, Ellery Queen, The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, Barnaby Jones, Medical Center, Family Affair, Mod Squad, Wild Wild West, The Rifleman, Bracken's World, Batman, Sam Benedict, Police Woman, Bonanza, The Untouchables, The Fugitive, Charlie's Angels, and Bewitched.

    In 1975 she had a small part as Mrs. Emma Preston in the gloriously horrendous cult film The Devil's Rain with William Shatner, Ernest Borgnine, Eddie Albert, John Travolta and Anton LaVey.

    She retired in 1978 and died in 1995.

    Thursday, January 22, 2009

    Berlin Operetta

    I found this passage in Peter Jelavich's book Berlin Cabaret to be particularly illuminating, especially as regards our own mission statement:

    Although the old tradition of popular musical farces had died in the 1870s, the turn of the century saw the emergence of Berlin operetta. This new genre was quite literally an offspring of the variety show. The first Berlin operettas, composed by Paul Lincke (1866-1946), were one-act works that provided part of an evening's entertainment at the Apollotheater, a Vaudeville hall. His first hit was Frau Luna, which premiered on May 1, 1899. The audience was attracted not only by the liveliness of Lincke's music but also by the humor and the plot. The script, written by Heinrich Bolton-Baeckers, called for a group of Berliners to fly to the moon.

    This not only allowed a revival of some of the Berlin character-types that had died along with the musical farces, but it also gave the set designers opportunity to create eye-catching decors. Moreover, the work adopted Vaudeville's propensity to feature production numbers with women in tights and outlandish costumes. The success of this combination induced Linke to compose a string of popular works (most notably Berliner Luft, 1904). Other composers and scriptwriters followed suit, as they cranked out a number of spectacular, evening-length "production number operettas".

    Wednesday, January 21, 2009

    Dolores Vallecita

    Who was Dolores Vallecita? That's what I'd like to know. Here's what I do know:

    The Library of Congress photo archives includes the above photo of her in 1906, and the University of Washington library collection includes the below photo of her captioned "Dolores Vallecita, Vaudeville Entertainer".

    There are references that mention her trained-leopard circus act being performed in a number of venues, including Coney Island's Luna Park.

    Apparently she sometimes did her act as simply "Vallecita", and other times "Mademoiselle Vallecita". (Mademoiselle? According to an article index for Bandwagon magazine, Vallecita was from Spain.)

    A book by Joe Laurie, Jr. called Vaudeville From The Honky Tonks To The Palace mentions her in passing:

    But there were really some swell cat acts, like Adgie & Her Lions. She once put mirrors around the big cage to make the setting prettier, and it did, but she didn't rehearse the lions with the mirrors, so when they got into the cage and got a gander at themselves in the glass, they went wild. They had to remove the mirrors before the act could go on. There were Marck's Lions, Bert Nelson and His Lioness, Princess Pat, a very fierce animal (if she had been at that door in Germantown instead of the other one, I wouldn't be writing you now), Arnaldo's Leopard and Panthers, Furtell's Jungle Lions, Richard Herman's Jungle Kings, Dolores Vallecita's Leopards, and Captain Proske's Tigers. When me and Aggie worked on a bill with anything bigger than white mice, we called it "nervous weeks."

    I'm intrigued by Dolores, and must know more....

    Tuesday, January 20, 2009

    Olga Desmond

    Olga Desmond was a Prussian dancer and actress born in 1891, infamous in her day for being one of the first to promote nudity onstage in theatre and dance.

    In 1908 she caused a scandal in St. Petersburg, Russia with her fully nude performances entitled Olga Desmond’s Evenings of Beauty. In the Russian press, Desmond defended her right to appear naked:

    "Call it daring or bold, or however you want to describe my appearance on the stage, but this requires art, and it (art) is my only deity, before whom I bow and for which I am prepared to make all possible sacrifices. I decided to break the centuries-old heavy chains, created by people themselves. When I go out on stage completely naked, I am not ashamed, I am not embarrassed, because I come out before the public just as I am, loving all that is beautiful and graceful. There was never a case when my appearance before the public evoked any cynical observations or dirty ideas."

    When asked by a St. Petersburg reporter whether a dance costume would interfere with her expressions of her art onstage, Olga replied: "To be completely graceful in a costume or even in a tricot is unthinkable. And I decided to throw off this needless yoke."

    Male nudity was even rarer in nude dance routines in those days, but early in her career she would often perform nude with a man named Adolf Salge, one of many men in her life over the years.

    She appeared in a handful of German motion pictures, including 1915's Seifenblasen(Soap Bubbles), 1918's Der Mut zur Sünde (The Courage for sin), and 1919's Maria's Sonntagsgewand (Maria’s Sunday clothes).

    By 1922 she was a successful and respected University ballet teacher in Berlin, who pushed the envelope of the school's rules by conducting classes with her students in the tiniest bikinis possible. Her most prodigious student was Hertha Feist, who went on to become a member of Rudolf von Laban's dance ensemble.

    In 1937, for reasons not clear, Olga attempted suicide. She survived, however, and lived on until 1964. Although her illustrious and brave stage career is all but forgotten, her book Rhythmographik is still studied by many European dance enthusiasts even today.

    Monday, January 19, 2009

    Venom and Eternity

    Venom and Eternity is an avant-garde film by Isadore Isou, the crazed genius behind the Letterist movement in France. Although the Letterists had their theoretical roots in Dada and Surrealism and adored Tristan Tzara, they also sought to distance themselves from those previous art movements for some more daring and edgy, and yet also more all-encompassing. Isou and the Lettrists applied their theories to all areas of art and culture, most notably in poetry, film, novels, photography, architecture, painting and sociopolitics.

    As Isou himself says in the film:

    I believe firstly that the cinema is too rich. It is obese. It has reached its limits, its maximum. With the first movement of widening which it will outline, the cinema will burst! Under the blow of a congestion, this greased pig will tear into a thousand pieces. I announce the destruction of the cinema, the first apocalyptic sign of disjunction, of rupture, of this corpulent and bloated organization which calls itself film.

    It's generally known by the name "Venom and Eternity" but the film's true title is Traité de bave et d’éternité, which translates literally as "Treatise of Saliva and Eternity".

    View: Venom and Eternity

    Sunday, January 18, 2009

    Lale Andersen

    Lale Andersen (real name Liese-Lotte Helene Berta Bunnenberg) was born in 1905 and produced a rich oeuvre of recordings that span from 1930s cabaret-chanteuse-torch songs to 1960s schlager-pop-balladry.

    In 1929 she acted in productions at the Deutsches Theatre and studied acting at their Schauspielschule. She also performed onstage at the Schauspielhaus Zürich, Kabarett Simpl, and Kabarett der Komiker.

    In 1939 she recorded the song "Lili Marleen", based on a 1915 poem by Hans Leip, and achieved superstardom on the song's success. Unfortunately, it also put her within the radar of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who ordered the record to be banned because it was too sad and demoralizing to Nazi troops. In truth, the Nazi soldiers adored the song along with Allied soldiers alike, and ultimately the song was too popular for Goebbels to supress - even Erwin Rommel of the Nazi Afrika Corps came out in favor of it. Nevertheless, Andersen was watched very closely by the Nazis during this time, and her cabaret appearances were tightly controlled and monitored.

    After the war, Andersen found a new generation of fans in a new synthesis of American and German pop styles, known as "Schlager", with hits like "Jonny". But it's her early recordings we admire most, such as this tasty rendition of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's "Moritat von Macki Messer" (a song which gradually, over the course of decades, morphed into the song you may know as "Mack the Knife").

    Listen: Lale Andersen - Moritat von Macki Messer

    Above: a statue in honor of Andersen, on the island of Langeoog, where she is buried.

    Saturday, January 17, 2009

    Weg Zum Nachbarn

    Weg Zum Nachbarn is a short film by Lutz Mommartz, 1968.

    View it here.

    Friday, January 16, 2009

    Cabaret of the Nameless

    Kabarett der Namenlosen, or Cabaret of the Nameless, was one of the wildest and most taste-defying venues of the great Weimar Republic circa 1926 to 1932. And they also just happen to be a key part of understanding our own metachronistic aesthetic in Catclaw and especially The Voraxium.

    The Cabaret's artistic director and emcee, Erwin Lowinsky (under the pseudonym "Elow") sought out some of the worst and weirdest aspiring entertainers in Europe, and booked at them at his show, telling them that this was their "big break" and that many a performer at Kabarett der Namenlosen went on to great showbiz success. He told them that the audience was filled with talent scouts, Broadway executives, record label reps, etc.

    It was all a lie.

    The truth was, the entire cabaret was designed to deliberately showcase these raw talents in a freak-show context, totally unbeknownst to the hapless performers. Think of it as if American Idol contestants ended up being submitted to a tacky and jeering Gong Show treatment.

    As Mel Gordon's Voluptuous Panic puts it:

    Typically, the clueless entertainers try to imitate the work of established Cabaret personalities, and proceed to humiliate themselves completely in their numbing attempts. While audience members drunkenly interrupt and boo the wretched losers, Elow unctuously takes the part of a kindly uncle or philanthropist and encourages the amateurs to ignore the vicious Philistines and continue their rotten singing, juggling, storytelling, impersonations, or poetry recitals.

    And as Erich Kästner wrote in 1929:

    The more incompentent and ignorant the poor artist-to-be is, the more welcome he is to the producer. And the more hospitably Elow's public accepts him. For the whole point here in the Cabaret of the Nameless is to laugh oneself silly at stupid and pathological human beings.... the ancient Romans turned their thumbs down when the vanquished was to be dealt the death blow. Here, they scream: "Keep him up there, Elow! He's soooo good!! Let him start over from the beginning!"

    So does this mean we look upon our own performers with equal derision? Absolutely not; just the opposite. We take an all-inclusive view of the concept of "entertainment"; one that steps back and takes into account the whole of existence, and with this comes a greater willingness to embrace so-called "difficult" music and theatre.

    To put it more plainly and also more arrogantly, we transcended long ago the average citizen's limited views on what is "good" and "bad", because we're looking at a bigger picture - the big picture.

    If were we able to go back in time and visit Kabarett der Namenlosen, we would be thrilled to have the chance to rescue these performers from their situation and bring them back to here and now, where we would give them the star treatment they truly deserved, utterly devoid of condescention and irony.

    Thursday, January 15, 2009

    The Comedian Harmonists

    In 1927, an out-of-work actor in Berlin named Harry Frommermann created a vocal harmony group called the Comedian Harmonists that produced some of the strangest and most idiosyncratically alluring music ever recorded. These six men (five vocalists and one pianist) took Europe by storm and were the most popular pre-war European act, releasing scores of recordings and at least a dozen films during their short but bright comet of a career.

    The rise of Hitler and the Nazis spelled the end of the group, as half of them were Jewish. They were forced to flee to other countries, soon disbanding.

    Although their music sounds bizarre today to some modern ears to the point of eliciting laughter, the Comedian Harmonists weren't necessarily "comedy" as we understand the term in America today. German humor is, for linguistic reasons, constructed differently to English-language humor, although the fact they chose an English-language indicates a predisposition towards more "modern" and British influences, as opposed to if they'd used the actual German word "Komödie".

    Listen: Comedian Harmonists - Perpetuum Mobile

    Listen: Comedian Harmonists - Schnappi

    Listen: Comedian Harmonists - Mein Kleiner Gruner Kaktus

    Wednesday, January 14, 2009

    Ruth Etting

    Why Ruth Etting is cooler than you:

    1. She ran away from home at seventeen and went to art school in Chicago.

    2. She got a job as costume designer for the showgirls at the Marigold Gardens and ended up becoming a showgirl herself.

    3. She married the infamous gangster "Moe the Gimp" in 1922.

    4. She became part of the Ziegfeld Follies in 1927.

    5. In 1938 Moe shot and wounded Etting's boyfriend Myrl Alderman, and was charged with kidnapping and attempted murder. On appeal he was released after only a year in prison.

    6. Her film credits include 1929's Blue Songs, 1933's Roman Scandals and 1935's An Old Spanish Onion.

    7. Doris Day played Ruth in a highly whitewashed film biopic called Love Me or Leave Me in 1955.

    Listen: Ruth Etting - Thinking of You

    Tuesday, January 13, 2009


    This is The Voraxium's official blog documenting disassociated fragments that, individually and collectively, point towards a new philosophy of theatre - that of Voraxica.