Last week I saw the wonderful New Vaudevillean Bill Irwin perform as an opening act for the showing of a charming Buster Keaton film, The Cameraman, at Town Hall. It was really heartwarming to see the children in the audience respond with such delight to both Irwin and Keaton.
By happy coincidence, while watching an old Johnny Carson episode last night, I came across George Carl, a truly funny clown who was a great influence on Irwin. Carl, who was born in Ohio, and seventy years old in this 1986 performance, is a joy to watch.
Thanks to YouTuber Funnystuffcollector
“The Banana Man” was a popular vaudeville variety act, first created by a performer named Adolph Proper (stage name A. Robins) who reached his height in the 1930s. Later the act was taken over by several other performers, one of whom, Sammy Levine, you can see in the video above.
Whenever I see an act like this, or any novelty circus act, I am simultaneously filled with feelings of wonder and horror—wonder, at the cleverness and impossibility of the act, and horror to think of the hours, ingenuity, blood, sweat, and tears that went into perfecting this one ridiculous 7-minute act. ( It took The Banana Man two hours just to load all his props for a single performance.) In a way, it’s kind of depressing to me to think how much energy it took to produce something so silly.
And yet I would not be ashamed at all to say that I’m greatly entertained by this act; and that this 7-minute triviality, perfectly honed, was able to take its creator around the world and provide him an excellent living. But by 1969, with vaudeville dead, Levine trotted out the act on, of all places, The Captain Kangaroo Show.
We are a very peculiar species.
You can read more about the Banana Man here.
Thanks to the folks on the Genii Forum, especially Bill Mullins, who first brought The Banana Man to the forum’s attention. And thanks to YouTuber Dave Powers for the clip.
(Remember that Twilight Zone episode with Burgess Meredith?)
I thought it would be fun to talk a little—but not too much!—about what I’ve been reading in the last few months. I seem to go in four month cycles with reading—four months on avidly reading, and then four months off when I don’t want to read at all. Since this seems to be my four months on…
A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle–a very fine writer in my opinion. This is the first novel in a trilogy about the life of Dublin-born Henry Smart, IRA gun runner, explosives expert, and lover. Doyle writes with great lyricism and imagination, and each scene is brought vividly to life, both visually and aurally. The fictional character Henry Smart has interactions with the real-life Irish Republican Army figures of Michael Collins, James Connelly, and Ernst O’Malley, and Doyle describes the passion, cynicism, and double-dealing that goes into the making of a revolution and a revolutionary.
Last year I read Doyle’s second book in the trilogy, Oh Play That Thing! and also greatly enjoyed that book. It has the disillusioned Henry jumping ship to the United States where he manages to land a job working as the bodyguard of Louis Armstrong. It sounds improbable, but somehow Doyle makes it all sing, and the book itself is a jazzy improvisation of plot and character that Doyle brings to a stunning conclusion.
The Secret Miracle, edited by Daniel Alarcon, is an excellent set of interviews with contemporary authors, focusing on the writers’ work strategies. The book is organized by question, so that all the interviewees’ answers are recorded as if they were in conversation with each other. The authors interviewed include Stephen King, Jennifer Egan, Paul Auster, Michael Chabon, Edwidge Danticat, Roddy Doyle, Allegra Goodman, Jonathan Letham, Haruki Murakami, and many others, so you expect an absorbing read, and it is. They answer questions about their influences, how they prepare to write a novel, their work habits, how they go about revision, how long it takes them to write a draft, whether they draw on real life for their characters or not, who they allow to read their drafts, how they know when they’ve reached a final draft, and so on.
It’s the kind of book about the arts that I really enjoy reading—experts at their craft talking about what they really do. The most comforting part for anyone hoping to learn more about writing from such a book is the wide diversity of habits, styles, and practices that are described. Each author, Machado-like, has carved out his or her own path.
No Applause—Just Throw Money by Trav S. D. (Yes!) is a chatty, informative book about the creation and evolution of vaudeville. The author neatly explains the rise of vaudeville as the standardization and rehabilitation of the other forms of variety entertainments that had played across America at one time or another since the country’s inception. The lecture hall, the dime museum, the circus, the minstrel show, the medicine show were the sometimes measly but ubiquitous entertainments criss-crossing the country. After women got the right to vote, the theater entrepreneurs understood that they could make more money by sanitizing the previously primarily male enclaves of variety entertainment. So vaudeville provided entertainment to men, women, and children, and at the same time provided a venue for the audience to see themselves on stage in the form of immigrant singers and comedians.
The formula of variety family entertainment made huge stars of many, and the same formula was put to work with the advent of television, which catered to the same audience. The new medium eventually killed off vaudeville. The likes of Ed Sullivan and Saturday Night Live were the direct descendants of that format. The book also does a nice job talking about some of the well-known vaudevillians—George M. Cohan, Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker—and some of the lesser known personalities, such as comedians Weber and Fields, and tap dancer Joe Frisco who were also huge stars in their time. Some great insight here on what it is to take an act, hone it to perfection, and perform it hundreds or even thousands (six a day!) of times a year.
And in the Magic Department we have The Chicago Surprise by Whit (“Pop”) Haydn. I first read Whit’s monograph detailing his unique handling of the classic card routine “Chicago Opener” quite a while ago, but it’s a booklet that I keep going back to. First of all, it’s a damn good trick, and as my skill at card magic improves, I want to make sure I’ve got it right. But even more importantly, it details a whole theory of performance magic
Briefly, the plot is this: a spectator chooses any card from an ordinary red-backed deck and it turns out to be the one card in the pack with a blue back. The blue-backed card is placed face down on the table. The magician then gives the spectator another choice of cards—offering the spectator a chance to change to another card if so desired. The card is lost in the deck, but when the spectator names the chosen card, the face-down blue-backed card is turned over to reveal that it is the same one that the spectator chose.
What is so valuable about Whit’s booklet is that it’s not just a description of a trick, but the outlining of a whole philosophy of magic, his now famous “dilemma” theory. Haydn holds nothing back, and the routine is there with a complete script, and with some great tips about the use of the major sleights involved: the palm, the DL and the CF. But in addition, Whit tells you why he constructed the routine the way he did, and his explanation yields great insight into audience perception and psychology. What with an included bonus routine for the Brainwave Deck, this is a must for any card worker.
And in progress: Arthur Phillips’s first novel, Prague; C. Wright Mills’s survey and critique of marxisms, The Marxists; The inventive Swedish magician Tomas Blomberg’s compilation of eclectic conjuring effects, Blomberg Laboratories; Michelle Alexander’s description of the new era of oppression for African-Americans through the criminal injustice system, The New Jim Crow; and a very interesting nuts and bolts book about writing, Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon. I hope to report on all of these at another time. Until then, happy reading!