Wednesday, May 27, 2009

"Treasure Chest" West

Burlesque stripper Evelyn "Treasure Chest" West was born in Elroy, KY (Adair County) as Amy Mae Coomer. Although she worked small jobs like circus sideshows and did some performing in bit parts for films like Rhythm on the River (1940) and Birth of the Blues (1941), it wasn't until after World War II that her career really took off as a stripper, working San Francisco clubs and posing for Bunny Yeager.

According to Wikipedia:

Evelyn West was also an ardent publicity seeker. She tried to legally change her name to Evelyn "$50,000 Treasure Chest" West at the Menard County Circuit Court, threw a tomato at rival Anita Ekberg, appeared at nudist weddings, charged with indecent exposure, threatened legal action against contemporaries Tempest Storm and Jane Russell, and openly criticized Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield.

Evelyn also occasionally returned to her home state to perform in the delightfully sleazy drink-dens of Newport, KY during its "Sin City" days.

According to an article in the February 1956 issue of the men's magazine Sir!, West invested $5,000 in a plan her boyfriend Steven Vitko had for building an experimental flying saucer for the U.S. Government. He never built the flying saucer, nor repaid the investment, so she sued in 1952 to recover the money. Sir! Magazine doesn't say whether she won or lost the suit.

She lived a tranquil live in her final years in a modest home in Florida, and was reportedly an avid eBay seller.

View: Evelyn West film footage

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Alessandro Moreschi

Alessandro Moreschi (November 11, 1858 - April 21, 1922) was the most famous castrato singer of the late 19th century, and the only castrato of the classic bel canto tradition to make solo sound recordings.

Wikipedia says:

A castrato is a man with a singing voice equivalent to that of a soprano, mezzo-soprano, or contralto voice produced either by castration of the singer before puberty or one who, because of an endocrinological condition, never reaches sexual maturity. Castrati should not be confused with eunuchs, who are castrated after puberty and do not share the physical characteristics of someone castrated before puberty.

Castration before puberty (or in its early stages) prevents a boy's larynx from being transformed by the normal physiological events of puberty. As a result, the vocal range of prepubescence (shared by both sexes) is largely retained, and the voice develops into adulthood in a unique way. As the castrato's body grew, his lack of testosterone meant that his epiphyses (bone-joints) did not harden in the normal manner. Thus the limbs of the castrati often grew unusually long, as did the bones of their ribs. This, combined with intensive training, gave them unrivalled lung-power and breath capacity. Operating through small, child-sized vocal cords, their voices were also extraordinarily flexible, and quite different from the equivalent adult female voice, as well as higher vocal ranges of the uncastrated adult male (see soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, sopranist, countertenor and contralto). Listening to the only surviving recordings of a castrato (see below), one can hear that the lower part of the voice sounds like a "super-high" tenor, with a more falsetto-like upper register above that.

In the 1720s and 1730s, at the height of the craze for these artificially-preserved voices, it has been estimated that upwards of 4000 boys were castrated annually in the service of art.

The Catholic Church's involvement in the castrato phenomenon has long been controversial, and there have recently been calls for it to issue an official apology for its role. As early as 1748, Pope Benedict XIV tried to ban castrati from churches, but such was their popularity at the time that he realised that doing so might result in a drastic decline in church attendance.

Listen: Alessandro Moreschi - Oremus Pro Pontefice (1904)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Julians Acrobats Troupe

Circa-1903 film footage of this obscure acrobatic performance group has been making the rounds on YouTube lately, thanks to the efforts of Palace of Variety.

The Edison catalog describes the short film like this:

These famous European acrobats are shown in their wonderful feats of balancing and high-class acrobatic work. This troupe commands the highest salary ever paid to a company of gymnasts, and the sensational work they perform gives proof that theirs is justly the most celebrated in the world. The photography is beautifully sharp and distinct, and the subject most entertaining.

What little we know about these amazing performers is assembled here for your perusal.

View: Julians Troupe Acrobats (film one)