inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #0 of 105: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 9 Jan 06 09:18
    

We're very pleased to introduce our next guest, Trav S.D.

Trav S.D. (Travis Stewart) is a performer, playwright and arts journalist.
In addition to writing/directing/producing shows like his hillbilly 
musical "House of Trash" (published by the NY Theater Experience) and 
the long-running American Vaudeville Theater, he writes for publications 
like Time Out New York, the Village Voice, Reason, and the New York Sun. 
He is, most recently, the author of "No Applause, Just Throw Money: The 
Book That Made Vaudeville Famous."

Our moderator for this conversation is Adam Gertsacov. Adam and Travis are
longtime chums who attended the Trinity Rep Conservatory together in
Providence, RI 20 years ago.

Adam is the most educated clown in America (barring certain elected
officials.) He wears many hats, including those of a professional clown, an
author and publisher, a P.T. Barnum impersonator, a flea circus impresario,
and the esteemed hat of the Clown Laureate of Greenbelt, Maryland. Adam is
the Festival Director for Bright Night Providence, Rhode Island's Largest
New Year's Eve Festival. Adam has also been a co-host of The WELL "Theatre"
conference since 1992.

Welcome, Travis and Adam!
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #1 of 105: It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Mon 9 Jan 06 10:22
    
Thank you Cynthia-- it's always a lot of fun to ask questions of people 
you like, but it's easy to not ask those questions, especially when it's 
somebody you've known for a long time. 

I also want to say, that, obviously, the topic of this book is near and 
dear to my heart, so I'm glad that a friend of mine  got to write this 
book!

I guess my first question for Travis is-- what drove you to write this 
book?  Was it an idea that you'd had for a while, was it something that 
you saw was lacking in vaudeville scholarship/history, were you strictly 
in it for the fame, fortune, and vast wads of cash that will now be likely 
thrown your way (not to mention the movie rights!  Think of it! We could 
get W.C. Fields to play W.C. Fields! -- (I believe that early  W.C. movies 
are now in the public domain)  

Anyway, what made you decide to write this book?
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #2 of 105: Travis Stewart (travis-stewart) Mon 9 Jan 06 11:07
    
The short answer is: "the publisher asked me to!" I was very, very
lucky. Denise Oswald, an editor at Faber & Faber had been to some of my
shows, and coincidentally, had also read about me in an Adam Gopnick
article in the New Yorker, and has ALSO read some articles I had
written for American Theater. And she sort of put that those things
together, and said "Do you have any ideas for a book?". Well it so
happened that I had a lot of ideas for a lot of books, and this one
seemed the most obvious to pitch, mostly because there aren't very many
books on the subject, and even fewer recent ones. But the fact that
the subject has always been near and dear to my own heart certainly
didn't hurt!
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #3 of 105: It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Mon 9 Jan 06 13:28
    
That sounds like an excellent reason!

Did you just say "How about a book about vaudeville?"  And then they 
acquiesced?  Or was there a little bit more give and take-- "We'll do your 
book about vaudeville, but it needs to talk about the future of 
vaudeville as well as the past"-- how much (if any) of the book comes from 
your take on it, and how much (if any) comes from the side of the 
publisher saying "We need a book like ______ in order to sell your book."

As you describe in your book vaudeville was a business (like publishing)
that has an artistic end product.  Asses in chairs, eyes on pages, amounts 
to pretty much the same thing.  
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #4 of 105: Travis Stewart (travis-stewart) Mon 9 Jan 06 15:17
    
The main thrust of how it was organized always came from me, with
thoughtful tweaks from their end. I have been a p.r. man myself for lo
these many years. That, combined with the fact that I have also been
starving for a good long while, have forced me into a mindset where I
generally have an eye on how to make something resonate with the
"consumer". That said, I am also of an iconoclastic enough disposition
to forever be turning over stones to find the creepy-crawlies that live
beneath. I have no interest in the tried and true, or the pure
"product". I write because I want to express myself -- otherwise I
would have gone  right into genre fiction and become Jackie Collins. Ye
Gods--half the populace don't even know what the word vaudeville
means! There go the sales to THAT demographic!  
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #5 of 105: It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Mon 9 Jan 06 21:01
    
Yes-- I like to say that I'm in the business of making popular theatre,
which isn't quite theatre, and definitely not popular!

Of course, if you could only convince the general public that vaudeville  
has a slimming effect -- Instant millionaire!

And when they come after you, wondering how vaudeville could 
possibly be slimming you can say this: 

"After all, I've been in vaudeville for years, and I'm on the edge of
starvation!"
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #6 of 105: Travis Stewart (travis-stewart) Tue 10 Jan 06 06:39
    
The real money is in celebrity infomercials. 
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #7 of 105: It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Tue 10 Jan 06 10:27
    
I think the real money is in sports-- I mean, a football player that never 
plays a game goes to practice, shows up once a week for a game,  and earns 
league minimum of a few hundred thousand a year-- maybe even more.

A Supernumerary at the opera shows up for rehearsals, shows up the day of 
the performance, and may be lucky to get $50 per show.

But enough about the opera-- we're here to talk about the lowbrow-- not 
the highbrow!

Travis, why don't you tell the nice people how you got involved in the 
holy mess that is vaudeville/variety entertainment.
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #8 of 105: Travis Stewart (travis-stewart) Tue 10 Jan 06 13:33
    
I started doing stand-up comedy in night clubs when I was 15 years
old. (I'll let you in on a dirty little secret...stand-up comedians,
sketch comics, singers, dancers, and musicians all have as great a
claim of carrying on the vaudeville tradition as any acrobat, magician,
clown or musical saw player. In fact, perhaps the former group has a
GREATER claim, because all the most successful vaudeville performers
were comedians and singers. So all this "new vaudeville" jazz can be a
little irritating sometimes. People are really talking about "new
circus" or "sideshow". "Oh, you're in vaudeville? What do you juggle?")
But, to get off my tirade, all the time I've been pursuing my "legit"
off-off-Broadway career, acting, writing in plays and so forth, show
business has been a sort of sideline. I worked as Tony Bennett's
assistant for awhile, then I worked as a fundraiser at Big Apple
Circus...where I did indeed find myself thrust up against an army of
new vaudevillians and became immersed in the sub-culture. I had been a
fan of classic comedy since my childhood, and I realized I had my own
thing to offer. I actually cooked up the name and look of "Trav S.D."
in the mid-80s when I was still doing stand-up. It wasn't til the early
to mid 90s that I started to trot it out and produce my own vaudeville
shows to boot. To be fair, I was hardly the first. Bindlestiff Family
Cirkus beat me by like a year (but there again, they are a circus),
Circus Amok, Coney Island USA, and many performance art venues were
putting on alternative variety shows prior to mine. My orientation is
sort of "classical television variety". My variety arts dream would be
TV--something like Berle of the Ed Sullivan show. That too much
information?
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #9 of 105: It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Tue 10 Jan 06 14:23
    
Nope!  Not nearly enough! (Although you haven't mentioned that you are a 
terrific crossdresser, just like Uncle Miltie!)

 I remember in those early 90's doing something for Mountebanks, which 
was your early company-- I'm thinking 1992 or so, at a little tiny space 
in the Lower East Side-- I believe it was de Nada underground or 
something.  (It was across from what wasn't yet (and isn't now) The Pink 
Pony.  I remember the ceiling was VERY Low.

And then I saw a weird 10 in 1 that you did when we did the show at 
the Bank just before I toured with the Bindles-- that must have been 
1998.

So what happened to the Mountebanks? I remember loving your publicity 
materials.

 Why isn't there a market for this old-fashioned Sid Caesar style shows?
Or is that the secret plan for world domination that your book actually 
represents?  Come on, you can tell us here!   (Cue suspenseful cello 
music)
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #10 of 105: Travis Stewart (travis-stewart) Tue 10 Jan 06 15:06
    
I worked at a couple of not-for-profit organizations in the nineties,
specifically Big Apple Circus, and Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. It
was like a crash-course in NFP business management. (I had previously
been your typical "artiste", who turned up his nose at businesslike
concepts like a balanced budget--or any sort of budget at all for that
matter--not to mention any kind of strategic planning, and so forth.)
Like any new convert I went bezerk. I became very much turned on by the
idea of the artist-as-entrepreneur...and for my model, I went to
theatrical history. The precious idea of separating "art" from your
dinner is quite a new one. Until the 20th century, theaters were run as
stock companies by "actor/managers"...essentially, the lead-actor, the
managing director, artistic director and sometimes a playwright, all
rolled into one. The name of my company comes from an even older
creature, whom I talk about some in my book...the Mountebank...the
travelling snake oil salesman...he does little tricks, he clowns, he
does a charming spiel...and then he takes your money! And of course, we
have our spiritual godfather of you and me both (and so many others)
P.T. Barnum  So, I was into this idea....of forming a company where the
artistic and management sides were sort of fused. I formed a board of
directors, I tried to fundraise, I designed all the marketing materials
myself. We produced my plays as well as vaudeville shows, a 'zine, 
and a travelling parody of a dime museum I called the New American
Lyceum which exhibited onjects like the Genuine Testicles of Napoleon,
and so forth. In time, the various sub-projects sort of strayed from
the central "Mountebanks" concept. The fundraising had been futile. The
vaudeville show and the plays seemed to get independent lives. Instead
of producing a 'zine, I started writing for magazines. Instead of the
Lyceum, I became p.r. man at the New-York Historical Society.
Mountebanks is not officially dead, though. I just need an organization
to help me run it! As to part two of your question, I'm not sure if
there is market or not for old school tv variety. I'd like the
opportunity to prove that there can be. I would CERTAINLY like the
opportunity to offer an alternative to "The Real Gilligan's Island"
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #11 of 105: It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Tue 10 Jan 06 15:38
    
And for a mild self-plug while we are at it (PT would have my head if I 
didn't)  Check out my website <http://www.ptbarnum.org>   I've been 
working on putting a P.T. Barnum show for a while now-- I'm in the process 
of moving, but once I get that together, that's my next thing-- remount (a 
bank) it.

So tell us a little bit about  how you researched the book.  What were 
your starting places?  Did you use primary sources, public libraries, etc.  
How did you go about getting all the info to support your ideas, 
suppositions, and theories about vaudeville?
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #12 of 105: Travis Stewart (travis-stewart) Wed 11 Jan 06 08:58
    
Well, what I think makes my book a little bit different than a lot of
others on the subject is that I am a writer and performer, as opposed
to an academic. My concern throughout the process was getting close to
the vaudeville managers and performers as human beings, and trying to
relate to them. A lot of scholarly writing on the subect leaves a bad
taste in my mouth because it seems to be coming out of this Marxist
cookie-cutter....vaudeville and performance as yet another agency of
imperialism and oppression. The thought may amuse you, but there are
people who look through the world through that very narrow, and I must
say, flawed lens. My one bad review to date was by a critic who
obviously hated my book because it didn't see the world from that
perspective. So anyway I felt like -- unlike an academic -- I would
have some insight into the motivations and behavior of the managers and
the performers, and that was what I concentrated on in my research.
What did they want? Who were they? Why did they become performers
instead of chicken farmers? And what I walked away with was an
awareness that vaudeville -- despite some imperfections -- above all
was instrument of opportunity to be celebrated. Those imperfections
were there, no doubt about it, but they were hardly the DOMINANT aspect
of the industry, the ONE thing that everybody needs to focus on. Its
positive aspects far outnumber the drawbacks...any balanced portrait
would paint both the positive and negative but in proper proportion. To
answer your question about where I got my information...yes, I used
sources both primary and secondary, hundreds of books, scrapbooks,
newspapes and magazines, clippings, pieces of correspondence, memoirs,
photographs. I conducted about a dozen interviews, listened to scores
of hours of old record albums, and watched scores of hours of old
movies. I did my research at the Library of Congress, the New York
Public Library Performing Arts Branch, the Hampden Booth Library and
probably a dozen other places. 
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #13 of 105: It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Wed 11 Jan 06 18:41
    
A couple of years ago, I had a similar thought and applied to Brown 
Univeristy for their PHD program.  My thought was that I could get a PHD 
in circus/sideshow history.  After all, how many theatre historians had 
performed in a sideshow?  Unfortunately, Don Wilmeth (popular culture 
professor) had picked that year to retire, so the perfect guy to help me 
on my path wasn't going to be there, and I didn't get in.

As it turned out, I'm not sad about it-- I wasn't sure that the academic 
life was for me-- I'd rather do great theatre than talk about why it 
should be good.  Still, I'm very interested in the history stuff, and 
thought it could inform my performance.

In the US, there is a definite split between the academic and the 
professional theatre-- personally I'd prefer to be on the professional 
side than the academic.

Travis, your book does have a lot of scholarship in it.  Was it hard to do 
the research?  was it enjoyable?  Was it strange for you to be wearing the 
scholar hat?
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #14 of 105: Trav S.D. (travis-stewart) Thu 12 Jan 06 07:24
    
Well, here's a funny story about that very split. In the beginning, I
was very timid. Because I was not a professional "scholar", I hadn't
spent ANY time among research collections, though I HAD of course read
hundreds of books and articles about my favorite subjects. It's a bit
intimidating. For good reason, archives of various types are almost
literally kept in an ivory tower. The research collections at the NY
Public Library for the Performing Arts are kept on the third floor and
have you enter a special gate and pass a security guard to get in. I
literally went there a half dozen times and CHICKENED OUT before
passing that gate to begin my research. I lost weeks that way! I'm a
very independent person, and while -- ironically -- that suits me
ideally to performing research, it also was initially a bar to my doing
that research because, again -- ironically -- using rare and special
collections means doing a LOT of communicating and interfacing with
librarians, pages, curators, etc. in order to get the materials you
need. It's not a thing where you can just look it up in the catalog and
just pull it off a shelf yourself. That's why you see so many
thank-yous in the back of non-fiction books. Scores of people
contribute work to that research process. Was it enjoyable? yes and no.
Yes, from the point of view of the material you get to examine--it
makes you feel like a king! And that far outweighs the negative aspect,
which for me is the straightjacket of being in a library. I'm sort of
antsy, restless person. In my ideal world, I would be looking at this
material in my underwear while eating a bowl of cereal while listening
to the Who at the same time. Being in the library for me is kind of
like being in church, a feeling of worship...but also somewhat
oppressive. 
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #15 of 105: Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Thu 12 Jan 06 12:28
    
The NY Times review of "No Applause -- Just Throw Money" (generally
good) can be read here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/16/books/16grim.html?ex=1137214800&en=95ecf1c03
b8fbca5&ei=5070

One of the things in the book I found interesting is that a typical
vaudeville show would place the very talented cheek-by-jowl with the
nearly inept. Great performers would follow or precede total bombs.
Aside from school talent shows, I can't think of another form of
American entertainment where that was typically true. 
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #16 of 105: lilac-deprived westerner (nanlev) Thu 12 Jan 06 14:38
    


Boy that's certainly been true in the vaudeville shows in which
I've participated, but it may be unique to that art form.

And that the worst acts were put at the end to clear the house,
rather than having your best act go on last.

Travis - what contemporary performers interest you ? I mean, from
those who are drawing from or carrying on a vaudeville tradition ?
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #17 of 105: It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Fri 13 Jan 06 06:16
    
I'd forgotten about Joe Frisco!  I wrote a book review of him for some New 
England Theatre Review or some such a few years ago.  Interesting 
character... he was illiterate, so had to adlib, since he couldn't write 
his material down.  <http://www.acmeclown.com/frisco.html> for the review.

The closest to "Truly talented combined with nearly inept" is 
summer-stock-- not acts, but actors -- and if you think about it, they 
were 100% modelling the vaudeville circuit-- but instead of short bits, 
they provide the complete show.
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #18 of 105: Rick Brown (danwest) Fri 13 Jan 06 07:40
    
Speaking of nearly inept...

I am about half way through the book, and am greatly charmed by it.
Kudos to the scholorship, and care you put into this history! I have a
few of minstral scripts, and instructions on blackface (how to make
cork, etc...). The language is enough to make a persons stomach turn
today, but context is everything. 

I was touched by the story about The Cherry Sisters. I wonder what
happened to them. Kind of like some of todays reality shows. Do you you
know if they continued after their 10 week run? I find their story
both sad and great. There HAD to be some self knowledge that they were
not good.

I am half tempted to do the research and write a play about them.  
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #19 of 105: Trav. S.D. (travis-stewart) Fri 13 Jan 06 07:55
    
My favorite performers may surprise you. The typical
acrobat/juggler/magician/clown/sideshow act of new vaudeville is not
really my thing, although I book those acts as a kind of "icing on the
cake". It wouldnt be vaudeville without them. But they're not my main
area of enthusiasm. I love comedians...for example, I think "Larry the
Cable Guy" is perfect for vaudeville...you can argue that he's an
offensive racist (I think he often is), but he also happens to be
playing an outrageous CHARACTER and that is very vaudevillian. I also
adore Dave Chapelle. To have them both on the same bill--THAT's a
vaudeville dialogue! I'm crazy about Amy Sedaris. And I often get
excited about street and subway performers. There's a bunch I havent
yet presented that I really want to...breakdancers, mariachi bands,
this one African-american guy with a surprising repertoire of British
invasion songs, a chinese fiddler, I'd love to get an Irish clog
dancer....I like folk traditions and cultural mix-up for sure
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #20 of 105: Trav.S.D. (travis-stewart) Fri 13 Jan 06 08:02
    
Several more responses:
JOE FRISCO: In addition to be a highly influential dancer, he is the
Oscar Wilde of show business. So many truly hilarious and witty (but
witty in a deapan American way) are attributed to him, you could fill a
book, and I hope someone does someday.
INEPT SIDE BY SIDE WITH TALENTED: To tweak the point, there WAS
quality control. I don't think you'd have inept performers in a big
time show (which is where you'd find the stars). You might have strange
ones, but not bad ones. However, at the various levels of small time,
you would certainly have talented people beside total turkeys.
CHERRY SISTERS: got more and more pathetic. They retired for a time
but when they ran out of money would stage come-backs of increasingly
pathetic scale...to the point where in the 1930s, it as just two of
them left, quite elderly on top of being as bad as they always were.
One can feel sorry for them, but from what I gather they were also sort
of Puritanical busy-bodies, the sort of provincial zealots who go
around judging the sinners around them...so don't weep too much for
them, Argentina!
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #21 of 105: Valdemar Francisco Zialcita (dextly) Fri 13 Jan 06 10:19
    
Coming in just a little late here, I have this book in hand and I am
loving it.  I have been fond of the old expression "It's great to be
back at the Palace," and here I am (Ch. 5) on the verge of finding out
the history behind the expression ....
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #22 of 105: Travis Stewart (travis-stewart) Fri 13 Jan 06 11:22
    
Thanks to all for the kind words about the book. Yes, it's very
strange that the meaning of a phrase so well known (i.e., "playing the
Palace") has become obscured, but it has. The strangest thing of all is
that it still exists and is a major, working Broadway theater -- and
no one knows about its incredible history, that it is not just A Palace
Theater, but THE Palace Theater! I recently had the opportunity to
speak there and addressed that very subject...an injustice that I hope
will be redressed in time. It ought to be way better known. 
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #23 of 105: It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Sat 14 Jan 06 05:31
    
In a plate of fish moment, I am in Philadelphia now, and went into a 
bookstore, and found the book "The Palace" which is a history of the 
Palace from 1913 to the 1960's (when the book was released) It's by 
Mariane Spitzer, who apparently was a press agent for the Palace at one 
point. 
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #24 of 105: lilac-deprived westerner (nanlev) Sat 14 Jan 06 08:56
    

great find !
  
inkwell.vue.263 : Travis Stewart, "No Applause, Just Throw Money"
permalink #25 of 105: It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Sat 14 Jan 06 23:48
    
Especially for $5!

Travis-- you did an event this weekend in Providence at Books on the 
Square... (which I missed because of my Philadelphia excursion)  How did 
it go?  Pleez to describe? (Yes, that's right folks, this topic comes 
complete with your very own Dutch dialect comedy!  Collect the set!
  

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