October 17th, 2007

Spike Dancing The Hula

careful with those jokes, boys, they're antiques

I've noticed a curious callous on the side of my left index finger, just below the second knuckle. I couldn't figure out how in the world I could have gotten such a callous, until last night when I reached for the freshly opened two-liter bottle of soda on my computer desk, grabbing it by the neck for to take a healthy swig.

(I go through so much Diets Coke and Pepper that buying it by the two liter is cheaper than buying it by the six-pack. And I only swig out of my own bottles. Anything stored in public spaces gets poured into a glass in a most genteel and seemly fashion. Honest.)

I had a night of vaudeville last night and I was happy to have it. To celebrate the 80th anniversary of the release of The Jazz Singer and the first feature-length "talkie", TCM played the film and then followed up with an hour and a half of ancient Vitaphone shorts from Warner Bros. The shorts, all filmed with sound around 1929, weren't actual storytelling motion pictures, but of actual vaudeville acts which performed around the country then. Wowee!

I hadn't realized there were such abundant records of vaudeville, which has since passed into legend as one of the truly great American forms of entertainment. Yes, England had its music halls which featured a variety of billed acts just like American variety theater, but there was something about the American vaudevillian's itinerant lifestyle that gave the artform a unique image almost romantic in its nostalgia: enterainers schlepping from town to town, often bringing with their entire worldly possessions in one case, performing in horribly maintaned theaters to indifferent -- or worse, hostile -- audiences, sleeping in fleabag hotels and receiving numerous bedbug bites (a bedbug often feeds in three bites clustered around the same spot on the body, which became known as "Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner"), honing their act, perfecting their craft, and all the while hoping to Be Noticed and move from one of the small-time circuits to the Big Time, performing in the Keith's chain of theatres or, dare we dream, the biggest of all Big Time prizes, the sign that you'd finally Made It, playing the Palace in New York City. The Palace! The acts were wide and varied, from two-man comedy teams to singers both comic and serious to dancers to acrobats, jugglers, revue companies, and of course, trained animals.

The genre spawned its own slang. Some of the more colorful phrases are still in use today: "the big time", "second banana", "bombed", "schtick", "knocked 'em dead", "went over", "headliner" and, in the case of poor amateur acts, "getting the hook."

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This was not high art. Heck, some of it wasn't even particularly good. But you must know by now that I'm a sucker for entertainment for entertainment's sake, as well as any evidence of how generations before mine enjoyed their particular kinds of entertainment, and it was all the more fascinating to me since I realized I wasn't watching the cream of the crop. Sure, the acts I saw must've been well-known in their time; they were definitely good enough to be deemed worthy of filming, but they never broke into the new Big Time (films and radio) as far as I know. These were the acting stiffs, the very same who schlepped from city to city, performing these same routines over and over again to a new audience every few weeks. These weren't recreations or parodies of routines that we'd see years later on television; this was the real thing, baby. This was vaudeville! God, it was fascinating!

There are a few groups that are dedicated to restoring the Vitaphone shorts, some of which are available online if you know where to look, and I suggest you do. If only to see the lady with the cello suddenly stop her song and, with a crazed comic look on her face, frantically pound a maniacal boom-tiddy-boom-tiddy-boom-tiddy-boom beat on the darn thing with her bow, then continue on as if nothing had happened. She must've been a gas to hang out with on the train.
Make Mine Moxie

can't claim this one is mine but it is so needed in these troubled times

Not sure the source of this one (a local news scribe? a bloggin' pundit?) but here, via email:
Our Father, who art in Fenway,
Baseball be thy game.
Thy kingdom come, playoffs need to be won
On Earth, then on to the Cask 'n' Flagon.
Give us this day a perfect Papi
And forgive us our errors
As we forgive those like Eric Gagne.
And lead us not into desperation
But deliver us from any losses
For thine is the power
And the glory
To beat the Indians
Forever and ever...
The Yankees suck.
Amen.