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!
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?
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!
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.
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!
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!"
Travis Stewart (travis-stewart) Tue 10 Jan 06 06:39
The real money is in celebrity infomercials.
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.
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?
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)
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"
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 ?
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.
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.
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
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!
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 ....
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.
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.
lilac-deprived westerner (nanlev) Sat 14 Jan 06 08:56
great find !
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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