Saturday, May 21, 2016

Robots of vaudeville: the "automatic" and mechanical minstrels of the 1900s


A Variety ad for Byron Monzello's Mechanical Minstrels

Vaudeville's so-called "automatic" or "mechanical" minstrels were dummy acts. The minstrel part of the dummies' act—the singing and joke telling—was provided by phonograph recordings. These automatic or mechanical minstrels, which appeared in vaudeville in the 1900s and possibly even earlier, were kind of like a low-tech precursor to the animatronic characters that later featured in places like Chuck E. Cheese, Showbiz Pizza, and Disneyland.

I first read about the automatic minstrels in the books of Joe Laurie Jr., a former vaudevillian who wrote or cowrote two histories of vaudeville in the mid-20th century: Show Biz: From Vaude to Video (1951) and Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonks to the Palace (1953).
Gane's Manhattan Theatre

In these books, Laurie mentions a couple of automatic minstrel acts. In Show Biz: From Vaude to Video, he says that "William Gane introduced the first (and last) All-Automatic Minstrels at the Manhattan Theatre in 1908." Laurie describes the act thusly: "Outside of one live interlocutor, all the minstrels were dummies with gramophones concealed inside, telling jokes and singing songs upon cue."

In Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonks to the Palace, Laurie elaborates a bit further on Gane's act: 
"The Automatic Minstrels ... played at Gane's Manhattan Theatre (where Macy's is now). This one had a live interlocutor; the rest were dummies, whose jokes and songs were done via phonographs. Didn't do so good."
In the same book, Laurie describes an additional automatic minstrel act, despite his previous book's claim that Gane's minstrels were the only one of their kind. This other act is identified as Monzello, "a minstrel show with dummies on the stage and the gags done via phonograph." Laurie added, "Kinda crude but a novelty."

Monzello was actually Byron Monzello. The 1908 ad for Monzello's Mechanichal [sic] Minstrels at the top of this page describes the act as "ten life size mechanical figures; three live principals and two assistants." The ad also describes the dummies: "They have false teeth, false hair, the mouth opens, and closes, they get up, sit down, bow, the heads turn, shake hands, make gestures." The ad claims that the dummies "talk any language." A photo of the minstrels is included, but it's too dark to reveal many details.


Also in 1908, Variety printed a letter from Byron (misspelled as "Bryon"), who wrote in reply to a review of Gane's act that Variety had published in a previous issue. Monzello's letter read:
I see in Variety (August 22) under "New Acts" a review on "William Gane's Automatic Minstrels'" at the Manhattan Theatre, New York. This is a direct steal of my act. I will furnish affidavits I originated "The Mechanical Minstrels" in September, 1904, at Indianapolis. Not then satisfied with results, I continued experimenting until September, 1906, when my act was completed, but other business matters prevented me placing it in vaudeville. 
Enclosed you will find correspondence from prominent managers showing the act has been played at Riverview Park, and in existence over one year.
Despite Monzello's claim of being the first to create a mechanical minstrel act, earlier mentions of similar acts can be found in late-19th century newspapers. The phonograph was invented in 1877, so it's possible that these early mechanical minstrel acts incorporated phonograph recordings too.

Even if it's true that Gane stole Monzello's act, vaudevillians stole each others acts, jokes, catchphrases, skits, and gimmicks constantly. In those days, a performer could steal another performer's act wholesale and take it to another part of the country without anyone easily finding out. In Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonks to the Palace, Laurie gives a number of examples of well-know television and movie personalities of the post-vaudeville era who "borrowed" from earlier vaudeville performers. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Meat Puppets: Two unpublished drawings




I was obsessed with the Meat Puppets in high school. For five years, I listened to Meat Puppets II daily. It became a ritual. To this day, it's an album that I know inside out like no other. I even submitted a proposal to the 33 1/3 series to write a book about Meat Puppets II, but I was rejected. I have at least three entertaining stories that I could tell about my encounters with the Meat Puppets over the years, but today I'm only sharing a couple of Meat Puppets drawings. 

I ran across the above drawing a few weeks ago. In fact, I forgot that I even had it, but I rediscovered it while randomly perusing my vinyl. Tucked away in the sleeve of my copy of the Meat Puppets' first album was this ballpoint-pen-and-ink drawing on notebook paper. I received it long ago after writing a fan letter to the Meat Puppets. This drawing was their reply. No note—just this drawing.

The drawing most likely was made by Cris Kirkwood, the Meat Puppets' bassist. It looks like his style. Both Cris and Curt Kirkwood are visual artists. Curt painted many of the Meat Puppets' album covers, and Cris has an art website now where you can buy his drawings and watercolor paintings. Original drummer Derrick Bostrom is an excellent writer who has a website called Bostworld.

When the Meat Puppets played at the Cabaret Metro in Chicago on the Huevos tour, I asked Cris to autograph my copy of the promotional 12" of "I Am a Machine." He drew a picture on the reverse of the picture sleeve, and his creation is shown at right.

The cartoon shows a piglike creature with a speech bubble that says, "Wipe!" After Cris signed my 12", he handed it to me and said, "As in 'don't forget to.'" Good advice. 


Friday, April 1, 2016

Actor/singer/songwriter Richard Harris gets a pale ale


Harris Pale Ale

I spent a couple of weeks in Ireland recently and made a point to sample some of the island's craft beers. The craft beer scene in the United States has been exploding for years now, to the extent that my hometown—Bloomington, Indiana—has five breweries, and practically every Indiana town of any size has at least one brewery of its own. Ireland hasn't reached that level of craft beer intensity yet, but Cork, Dublin, Kildare, Limerick, and some other Irish localities have joined in the fun.

Richard Harris, 1985
I spent most of my time in Limerick, which recently gained its first brewery in a long time, Treaty City Brewing Co. Only one Treaty City beer is available as of this writing: Harris Pale Ale, which is named after Limerick hell-raiser Richard Harris, the actor, singer, and songwriter. The beer's label is cool, and the brewery's mission ("Laying siege to bland tasteless beer since 2014!") is admirable.

This is a music blog, so I'll mention that Harris has a fairly extensive discography that includes the Camelot soundtrack, a rendition of "MacArthur Park," and an album—The Yard Went On Forever—that was written, arranged, and produced by Jimmy Webb. He won a Grammy for his 1973 spoken-word album Jonathan Livingston Seagull and a Golden Globe for Best Actor for his role in Camelot. In 2008, Raven Records in Australia released an excellent Richard Harris anthology, Man of Words Man of Music: The Anthology 1968–1974.

Treaty City's Harris Pale Ale is an IPA with cascade hops and caramel malts that claims to put the hops out front but is only moderately hoppy in comparison to American IPAs. Nevertheless, it’s a good beer and a great start for a new brewery, so I’ll be interested to see what they come up with next. Many Irish pubs offer only the standards—Guinness, Smithwick’s, Carlsberg, Tiger, Budweiser, Heineken, etc.—but if you ask and they have Treaty City in bottles, it's a welcome alternative to all those watery beers. Although Treaty City markets itself as Limerick's first brewery, Limerick actually had a number of breweries in the 1700s and 1800s, as described in this article in The Old Limerick Journal.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

When was Victor Young born?


Victor Young with niece Bobbie Hill Fromberg

Wikipedia and many other sources report that Victor Young was born in 1900, and it appears that no amount of evidence to the contrary will change it. I've tried to correct the date on Wikipedia, but it always reverts to 1900.

Further adding to the misinformation is Young's grave marker, which shows his birth year as 1901.

Young was a composer, conductor, arranger, and violinist who won an Oscar in 1956 for his score of Around the World in 80 Days. Some of his well-known compositions include "When I Fall in Love," "Love Letters," "Stella By Starlight," "My Foolish Heart," "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You," "Street of Dreams," "Sweet Sue, Just You," and "Johnny Guitar." In all instances, Young composed the music and various lyricists wrote the words. He received 22 Academy Award nominations in his lifetime and even charted several pop hits, the biggest of which was his Top 10 rendition of "The High and the Mighty" in 1954.

When I worked on the 2006 Victor Young CD Cinema Rhapsodies: The Musical Genius of Victor Young, I had the opportunity to talk to Young's niece, Bobbie Hill Fromberg. Young never had children of his own, so he and Bobbie were close.

Fromberg told me that she had researched her family's history and discovered from US Census records that Young falsified his birthdate in the early days of his career. He was born August 8, 1899, but gave his birth year as 1900, presumably to avoid the perception that he had been born in an earlier century. The liner notes of Cinema Rhapsodies set the record straight: "Albert Victor Young was born to a Polish family in a tenement district of Chicago on August 8, 1899, not 1900 as widely reported."

Six years later, in 2012, Albert Haim of the Bix Beiderbecke discussion forum Bixography, posted a message about Young's birth year, which continued to be a topic of speculation. Haim referenced the US Census data as well as Young's birth certificate: 
Birth Certificate - Cook County IL. Name: Victor Young; birth date Aug 8, 1899; birth place Chicago, Cook, IL
Fromberg herself weighed in on the topic on the Bixography forum and explained the incorrect date on Young's grave marker: 
I come from a family that never told the truth about their birth years. Victor was born on August 8, 1899 (I discovered from the 1900 Chicago census) 

My Mom made herself 6 years younger than she really was and both of their plaques [her mother's and Victor's] at Hollywood Forever Cemetery where they are buried facing each other in a mausoleum have incorrect years on them. 
So there you have it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The #1 Elvis hit that Elvis hated




It was the last Top 10 pop hit that Elvis Presley had during his lifetime. Critics heralded it as Elvis's great return to rock 'n' roll. It became a #1 pop hit in Cash Box and a Top 40 country hit on the Billboard country chart. But Elvis hated it and performed it only a couple of times. The song? The 1972 hit "Burning Love." 

Producer Felton Jarvis pushed Elvis to record "Burning Love," a song that recently had appeared as an album cut on an LP by R&B great Arthur Alexander. Elvis didn't like the song and didn't want to record it but cut it anyway at Jarvis's urging.

Mark P. Bernardo, in his book Elvis Presley: Memphis, says that Presley at that time was moving away from rock toward "bittersweet, melancholy ballads" because of his breakup with Priscilla, so he wasn't inclined to record rockers such as "Burning Love." But people close to Elvis said that Elvis's dislike of the song involved more than just its rock orientation.

For example, "Memphis Mafia" member Jerry Schilling said, "Elvis—who had close to a photographic memory when it came to books, scripts, lyrics—always insisted that he needed a lyric sheet to perform 'Burning Love.'"

"Elvis didn't want to record 'Burning Love,' didn't like it when he had recorded it, and sang it as rarely as possible afterwards," wrote Paul Simpson in The Rough Guide to Elvis.

Why was Elvis so unenthusiastic about this song that had revived his commercial fortunes? If you watch a lyric video of the song, I think it's pretty easy to see why. I like this song, but it sounds like it was written in five minutes. The lyrics have no logical order—you could rearrange the lines randomly without significantly altering the meaning, because most of them restate the same thought in different ways. The rhyme scheme is almost nonexistent, and it's hard to tell where the singer is supposed to put the stresses. In Elvis' version, you can hear on a few lines where he struggles to fit the line to the rhythm of the song. The song also weirdly repeats the word "flaming."


"Burning Love" was written by Nashville songwriter Dennis Linde, who recorded a version of it himself. Linde's voice, on his version, reminds me a bit of Loudon Wainwright, but some people think he sounds like John Fogerty. You might expect the songwriter's version to be definitive, but even Linde seems to struggle with where to place the stresses on some lines. (Listen to the "it's hard to breathe" line, for example.)

Whatever Elvis thought about the song, it was enthusiastically hailed by fans as a return to his rock 'n' roll sound, and the "hunk o' hunk o' burnin' love" refrain recalled Elvis's 1959 hit "A Big Hunk O' Love." And in this live performance, Elvis appears to perform the song in its entirety without lyric sheets or teleprompters.



Friday, January 22, 2016

"Roll Them Roly Boly Eyes": Eddie Leonard and the song that "started the decline of vaudeville"


"Roll Them Roly Boly Eyes" is the song that "started the decline of vaudeville," according to Joe Laurie Jr.'s 1953 book Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonks to the Palace. This song is almost completely forgotten today but used to be very well known.


The Knickerbocker
The song was the title tune of John Cort's successful 1919 musical Roly Boly Eyes. The January 31, 1920, issue of The Independent described this musical as the "fascinating, tuneful, dancingest, altogether different musical comedy success" with a "snap, tuneful score and cast of New York favorites." It opened at Broadway's Knickerbocker Theatre on September 25, 1919, and ran through the end of the year, after which Cort took it on the road. 

"Roly Boly" is sometimes spelled "Roley Boley" (as it is throughout Laurie's book), possibly because the actress May Boley was in the cast of the show. But the sheet music and other materials from the original run of the show spell it "Roly Boly." The song title of "Roll Them Roly Boly Eyes" varies from source to source too; It is variously listed as "Roll Them Roly Boly Eyes," "Roll Dem Roly Boly Eyes," and "Roll Those Roly Boly Eyes."


Cort's musical was written to showcase the talents of Eddie Leonard, a blackface minstrel performer who composed the song "Roly Boly Eyes" as well as the most famous song in the show, "Ida Sweet as Apple Cider," the latter of which predated the show. "Ida" has been recorded by Eddie Cantor (who also performed in blackface in his vaudeville days), Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Bill Haley, and many other big-name artists.

Leonard's blackface act was considered old fashioned even in 1919, but he was so successful that he wore a diamond-studded belt that was adorned with real diamonds and looked after by a guard.

The video at the bottom of this article contains the only audio recording of Leonard I've found. In it, he sings "Ida" in dialect with frequent interjections of "wa-wa-wa" and "oh-oh-oh" and "doodly doo." 

Leonard's oddball vocal style was frequently imitated by other performers. Al Schacht, the "Clown Prince of Baseball," did a vaudeville act with fellow baseball player Nick Altrock that is said to be the first act to feature "baseball clowning," and their grand finale was an impression of Leonard singing "Roly Boly Eyes." Billy Jones and Ernest Hare cut a record for Brunswick in 1922, "Eddie Leonard Blues," that references "Ida" and "Roly Boly Eyes" and imitates Leonard's vocal stylings. The California Ramblers recorded "Eddie Leonard Blues" for Vocalion. Ray Bolger (the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz) did a brief impression of Leonard in this 1953 television performance. (The Leonard part begins at 2:06.) Bolger adds Leonard's trademark "wa-wa-wa."

Roly Boly Eyes was the apex of Leonard's career. Critics hailed it as one of his finest performances, and the songs lived on for decades. Leonard reprised "Roly Boly" and "Ida" in his starring role in the 1929 film Melody Lane, but the film was so poorly received that it ruined his prospects for a post-vaudeville life in Hollywood. Author Richard Barrios, in his book A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film, described Melody Lane as "a fiasco, the first mammy picture to engender outright hostility from audiences as well as critics." Afterward, Leonard appeared in only one more film, playing himself (in blackface) in the 1940 Bing Crosby movie If I Had My Way.

Blackface minstrelsy endured, in a diminishing capacity, in Hollywood films until the early 1950s, particularly in the films of Al Jolson. In 1952, Teresa Brewer had a pop hit with a non-novelty remake of "Roll Them Roly Boly Eyes" that doesn't make any reference to Leonard's vocal mannerisms. By the time Brewer recorded her version of the song, things had come full circle; nostalgia for old songs and styles led to fads for honky-tonk piano albums and albums of "songs mom and dad used to sing."

I started reading about Leonard because I wanted to find out why Laurie called "Roll Them Roly Boly Eyes" the song that "started the decline of vaudeville," and I didn't find the answer. Very little has been written about Leonard. The Wikipedia article about him is unusually brief. Even Laurie, who mentions Leonard in passing a couple of times in his history of vaudeville, completely omits Leonard from the chapter on blackface performers. Leonard published a memoir in 1934, What a Life: I'm Telling You, that probably would be a good source of information, but it's long out of print and expensive to buy from rare-book dealers. I can speculate on why Laurie wrote what he wrote, though.

I'm guessing that Leonard was one of the last high-profile purveyors of old-style blackface minstrelsy and that his gimmicky performance of "Roll Them Roly Boly Eyes" was easy to imitate and mock. History, generally speaking, does not pay much respect to novelty songs. When Leonard's 1929 film Melody Lane flopped miserably, minstrelsy was already in decline, and Leonard—unlike Jolson—was strongly associated with vaudeville, not Hollywood. It's not hard to imagine that this goofy song, performed in a goofy way by a comical vaudeville performer with an antiquated style, could become a symbol of the decline of vaudeville. It's probably unfair of Laurie to say that "Roll Them Roly Boly Eyes" started the decline of vaudeville, but it was certainly a prominent emblem of vaudeville in its dying days.

An etymological note: "Roly boly" isn't a nonsense phrase. It comes from the Dutch word rollebol (roll + ball), which was absorbed into English as a name for a bowling-type ball game called "roly boly" or "roily bolly." 



Friday, January 15, 2016

Junior Brown's "Better Call Saul" 5-inch flexi disc


I used to think that Bob Odenkirk was an underdog who didn't get his due, back when his Mr. Show partner, David Cross, was enjoying a surge of popularity from his first standup comedy album and his role in Arrested Development. That has changed dramatically in the last couple of years as Odenkirk has rocketed to fame for his part in the television series Breaking Bad and his starring role in the spinoff Better Call Saul, which had the highest-rated debut in cable television history.


The nonplaying side of the flexi-disc
What does all this have to do with music, you ask? The first season of Better Call Saul was released November 10, 2015, in a Blu-ray collector's edition that features a lenticular cover and a 5" card-backed flexi disc. The flexi disc, pictured above, is one-sided and contains Junior Brown's recording of the song "Better Call Saul." The flip side has an image of a bowl of red gelatin (at right). 

This card-backed single plays at 33 1/3 RPM in order to fit the nearly three minutes of music onto a 5" disc. A black-vinyl 7" version was released as a Record Store Day exclusive, and a limited edition 7" version on yellow and red splatter vinyl was produced in an edition of 100 as a promotional item but later sold exclusively at New York Comic Con 2015, according to a commenter on discogs.com. (A 6" Saul Goodman figure was also sold as a NYCC exclusive, so that's plausible.) The B-side of the 7" release has a second version of "Better Call Saul" that isn't included on the flexi disc.


The "Better Call Saul" flexi has the Madison Gate Records logo but no catalog number. (The 7" is numbered SL9-2014.) Madison Gate is Sony Pictures' label for soundtracks and other film- and television-related recordings. 

The flexi also has the logo of Spacelab9, which released the 7" vinyl of "Better Call Saul" as well as picture disc and vinyl LPs related to Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, My Little Pony, Adventure Time, etc., many of which are sold exclusively through specific retailers. The Adventure Time picture disc, for example, was sold only through Hot Topic.

The 5" card-backed "Better Call Saul" flexi is a pretty cool retro artifact that recalls the old Mad Magazine and cereal box records from the '50s and '60s. I'm sure that I'll never play my copy, because the song is readily available elsewhere and the flexi is probably pretty noisy, but I enjoyed looking at it.