Sunday, July 31, 2016

Scictler's Manikins and the ostrich that laid a snake egg

Vaudeville manikins

Quality entertainment used to mean watching a fake ostrich lay an egg and then a fake snake hatch out of that egg. This would have been in the late 1800s or early 1900s. 

I've been reading Joe Laurie Jr.'s 1953 book Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonks to the Palace, which is less of a history of vaudeville than a 561-page catalog of vaudeville performers. It's a weird book that has never been reprinted since its original run.

In the chapter "Freaks and Odd Acts," Laurie writes: 
We loved Scictler's Manikins; [Scictler] had a juggler, three hobos, and an ostrich which laid an egg and a snake hatched out of it. One of the manikins made a quick change on the stage from a man into a woman. 
As I read the book, this act seemed particularly interesting and unusual to me. I wasn't the only one who thought so, because later in the book, someone had summarized the act in pencil on a blank page:

Feeling a kinship with this anonymous decades-old defiler of library books, I decided to look for more information about Scictler, for both of our sakes.

Unfortunately, Laurie must have misspelled the name, because "Scictler" isn't a real surname. The actual name of the act must have been something like Sichler or Schicter or Schickler. It's clear that Laurie—who was an old vaudevillian himself—wrote a number of names and titles from memory, sometimes phonetically. I've run across many misspelled names and titles in the book.

Vaudeville's mannequin acts ("manikin" was the preferred spelling in vaudeville) were jointed dolls that were manipulated with wires, kind of like marionettes. The manner of manipulation was a secret, so audiences enjoyed speculating about how the figures were made to move so realistically. 

Because of Laurie's misspelling, I couldn't find any images of, or even references to, Scictler's Manikins, but I've included a couple of photos of competing manikin acts. The photo at the top of this page shows Hunt's Manikins, and the photo below shows Jewell's Manikins. Sadly, neither of these competing manikin acts had an ostrich that laid a snake egg. 

The only new information I have to pass along is that Laurie misspelled Scictler's name. If you've come here because you read Laurie's 60+ year old, out-of-print book and were intrigued by Scictler's act and Googled his/her name, like I did, then this post is for you. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Judith "Judy" Reisman: From folksinger to anti-sex crusader

Judy Reisman and Friend

In 1990 when Cincinnati charged photographer Robert Mapplethorpe with obscenity over his art exhibit "The Perfect Moment," the prosecution called only one expert witness: the anti-Alfred Kinsey and anti-porn polemicist Judith Reisman. The defense objected, arguing that Reisman's only qualification for evaluating art was her early work as a songwriter. 

A songwriter?

Yes, Judith "Judy" Reisman—who has made a career of crusading against sex researcher Alfred Kinsey and, more recently, has served as a conservative commentator on WorldNetDaily—began as a "Kumbaya" folksinger in the overwhelmingly liberal urban-folk scene of the early-to-mid 1960s. 

In her post-music career, Reisman became laser focused on Kinsey, writing books with overheated titles such as Sexual Sabotage: How One Mad Scientist Unleashed a Plague of Corruption and Contagion on AmericaStolen Honor, Stolen Innocence: How America Was Betrayed by the Lies and Sexual Crimes of a Mad "Scientist"Kinsey: Crimes and Consequences; and Kinsey, Sex and Fraud: The Indoctrination of a People. She became active in abstinence-only programs, and Ronald Reagan's Justice Department gave Reisman $734,000 to study pornography (even though her credentials, critics say, are "practically cosmetic").

But her early folk songs and musical programs were much milder and less sex obsessed than her later work, celebrating things like art, ethnic and cultural diversity, and the Civil Rights Movement. Many articles about the Mapplethorpe obscenity case trivialize Reisman's songwriting career, but it actually was much more substantial than you might think. She collaborated with well-known folk artists, released a number of records, contributed to a number of children's television shows (mostly local ones), and was featured in the influential folk magazine Broadside

Her first record, An Appeal to Conscience, was released in 1965 and was dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement. It contained two songs, "For the Dignity of Man" (a salute to LBJ) and "Where Freedom Ends" (a salute to MLK). Reisman wrote "Where Freedom Ends" by herself, but on "For the Dignity of Man," she collaborated with folk veterans Stu Jamieson and Bill Cunningham. The record was the only release of CRM (presumably "Civil Rights Movement") Records.

In 1965 she also copyrighted several other original songs: "The Inconstant Lover," "Fishin'," "The Last Supper," "Warmth," "The Brazilian Fruit Vender," and "The German Psyche."

Reisman told the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle that her song "The Ballad of Annie Hayes" was named one of the best of 1965 by Les Claypool (the L.A. disc jockey, not the Primus bass player). The sheet music for the song appeared in the folk magazine Broadside, and although the article provided an address where readers could write for information about Reisman's album, New Sounds By Judy Reisman, no other information about this album appears online. "The Ballad of Annie Hayes" expressed Reisman's outrage over the real-life story of a 16-year-old Georgia girl who was raped and killed.

In 1966 Reisman performed 12 original folk songs on KPFK in Los Angeles, but thereafter, she moved to Milwaukee when her husband was offered a professorship at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

She continued to compose folk songs, and in 1967 copyrighted a song called "Judah Maccabee" and one called "Hazy Day," the latter of which featured music by Dick Hieronymus. (Her collaboration with Hieronymus is interesting. Hieronymus did quite a bit of session work with big-name artists in his career and participated in the 1973 session for John Lennon's "Since My Baby Left Me." He recorded a children's album, Songs of Meter Park, in 1976 with Jimmy Vann, and ironically—in the context of this blog post—cowrote the themes of the 1978 adult films I Am Always Ready and Love Airlines.)

While in Wisconsin, Reisman created musical segments for the children's television programs Children's Fair (a PBS show on channel 10 in Milwaukee) and Merry-Go-Round (an Ohio program).

In 1968, Reisman wrote The Great Adventure, a musical play for television. The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle described it as a "history of American minorities: the Jew, the Indian, and Negro." She also performed a program for the Milwaukee Public Museum, Strange But True, which concerned "problems with conservation." She continued to be featured on KPFK in Los Angeles, where she performed an original musical story that year, A History of the Jewish People

1969 saw the release of Reisman's Daytime Nighttime, a filmstrip with a 7" EP that was released by Scholastic Records to encourage art appreciation among children. The songs highlighted works of art with daytime or nighttime imagery by artists such as Henri Matisse, Joan MirĂ³, and Henri Rousseau. 

In the 1970s, on the strength of her work on Children's Fair and Merry-Go-Round, Reisman got a job writing musical segments for Captain Kangaroo. The gig came to an end, Reisman claims, when her "thoughtful tunes" proved to be no match for cartoon violence in capturing the attention of children. With seemingly nowhere else to go in her musical career, she went back to school to study communications and started on her path to becoming an anti-sex crusader with weird views such as blaming the Holocaust on homosexuals.

As for the Mapplethorpe case, Mapplethorpe won, and a 25-year retrospective on the obscenity trial in the Washington Post called the court battle "a PR disaster" for Cincinnati. David Mann, one of the City Council members at the time, said, "It kind of made us the laughing stock of sophisticated communities."