Saturday, July 12, 2014


Yesterday my buddy John McElwee posted a gorgeous vintage newspaper ad from the pre-Chico era of The Marx Brothers in vaudeville on his terrific blog, asking "if there are any earlier newspaper ads with Marx imagery."  I've not seen originals, of course, but have plumbed the depths of newspaper databases, mainly for my own entertainment but also with one eye toward a possible Marx tome.  Here's a sampling of what emerged:

This is from the Atlanta Constitution of Valentine's Day 1909; a mere 105 years ago, when the three Marxes were the Four Nightingales.  That's Gummo, Lou Levy, Groucho and Harpo in the lower right photo.  

Just ten months earlier they were two Marxes (sans Harpo) and Three Nightingales, here advertised in the Fitchburg (NY) Sentinel of  April 16, 1908.  Apparently, and despite the legend, comedy was a fixture of their act early on, hence the sub-billing as "The Merry Funsters"... or is it "Punsters"?  (Probably not; no Chico yet.)

The titles listed at top were not acts, but the ditties to be featured in the "illustrated songs" portion.  (If not for that last one, I would've been at a complete loss.)

In Harpo Speaks, the "silent" brother's massive autobiography, an otherwise forgotten vaudevillian named Mons Herbert makes a cameo appearance.  Mr. Herbert was evidently prone to wager his meager salary at the card table, which delighted Harpo as the poor fellow had a habit of tipping the quality of his hand by the number of gold teeth he'd flash.  Onstage, according to Harpo, Herbert "blew up a turkey until music came out of its ass."  This, as you can see, is barely hinted at in an ad for Waterloo Iowa's Orpheum bill of March 14, 1911.  (Note too that in this early stage Fun in Hi Skool was also tltled "Skool Goils and Boiz.")

As is well known among Marxologists, Groucho - Julius, actually - was the first of the brothers to appear on stage.  One of his earliest gigs was in support of Lily Seville in something called The Lady and the Tiger.  This ad is from the San Antonio Gazette of January 6, 1906. Although their act is touted as "direct from Paris," Miss Seville and 15-year-old Master Marx are listed among the extra attractions at bottom, just before the illustrated songs and "Kinetograph Views," a pretentious term for "flickers."

My own favorite discovery comes from much later, when the Four Marx Brothers that we're used to seeing traveled to England in May 1922 - a journey that got them blackballed from big time vaudeville because they didn't clear it through the Keith-Orpheum booking office, which itself led indirectly to I'll Say She Is and Broadway stardom. has yielded the brothers' passport photos.  Chico and Groucho are each accompanied by the missus (evidently wives didn't get their own passports in 1922), while bachelors Zeppo and Harpo - the latter looking like he'd been out all night partying before sitting for his picture - are solo.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Revisiting HOOTENANNY in Detail

When it comes to popular culture, I tend to go in cycles.  After completing two books back-to-back about Harry Langdon and Charlie Chaplin, I put aside silent comedy for a spell and went back (or ahead) to the folk era, my first musical love, which naturally led into TV's HOOTENANNY.

Better Living Through Television has visited this series before, and it wouldn't take an analyst too long to discern my fascination with it.  Apart from being one of my earliest TV memories, the music is catchy, the artists are among my favorites in popular music, and it was really the first music series aimed at teens and young adults.  The audience, after all, were undergraduates.  Anyway, in the years since, I've traded audio and video with other collectors.  Having mastered enough of Audacity to speed-correct the digital copies of my dad's audio tapes of the show, as well as combine them with those of a fellow enthusiast, I've been listening to the results while driving to and from work/church/etc.  The more I listen, the more I want to share them with the world.

So now comes a new blog: THE HOOTENANNY CHRONICLES. In this I'll be detailing all 43 episodes, backed up with (mostly) audio clips and a few legal YouTube videos, courtesy of current rights holders.  Its purpose is to settle once and for all the program's legacy.  Was it strictly a showcase for meaningless pap? Did it ever try to say something culturally or politically important (a key component of folk music)?  Did Pete Seeger over-react to Allen & Grier's "Work Song" (a.k.a. "Counterman") when he labeled them "the most tasteless folk act I have ever seen"?

Over the coming months, I'll be addressing those and other questions.  Feel free to check in from time-to-time.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

So Long, Shirley

Shirley Temple, who passed away at age 85 this past Monday, was twice a showbiz phenomenon.  The first reign has been pretty well covered by the obits: in the space of two years (1933-34) she shot like a rocket from "leading lady" of Educational Pictures' execrable "Baby Burlesk" one-reelers to number one box office attraction in the country, then held that position for four years straight.

Picture Play, 1934
Her second rise is less well-covered.  In 1957, National Telefilm Associates (NTA), looking to build its own syndication network, leased a block of pre-'48 features from 20th Century-Fox, including four of Shirley's: Captain January, Wee Willie Winkie, Heidi and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.  These were extracted from the main package and offered as "The Shirley Temple Film Festival" to national advertisers.  Ideal Toys immediately signed on for one-third of the package.  Reaction was so solid, NTA immediately added Poor Little Rich Girl and Little Miss Broadway to the lineup.  By mid-1961, all of Shirley's Fox product was on the air, and local stations would keep the "Temple Film Festival" active into the 1970s.

My own experience was on Metromedia's WNEW-5 in New York City.  In my preadolescence, Shirley graced Saturday afternoons as reliably as did Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall on Sundays for channel 5's "East Side Comedy" hour.

Ken Films' releases were worth buying for the covers alone!
          Like any red-blooded youth, I developed a crush on the dimpled darling, albeit aware that it not only transcended distance but time as well.  The closest I could get to everyday company with Shirley was via Ken Films' 8mm releases of four Baby Burlesk titles.  The genuine Shirley Temple was by then engaged in her second vocation with the United Nations and was about to become - most unexpectedly - an empathetic torch carrier for sufferers of breast cancer.

When her films first tallied up huge ratings and grosses in the late fifties, she signed on for a fairy tale program, Shirley Temple's Storybook, broadcast in color on NBC.  Several of the tapes survive and were released to DVD in recent years, but as forshadowed by this 1958 TV GUIDE cover, it's the original, Depression-era Shirley that still gets the glory... and likely always will.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Unfortunate Timing for TV Guide

It must've been a shock when viewers, consulting TV Guide for December 4, 1963, got an eyeful of this listing for The Kennedy Awards.  The President, who'd been shot and killed in Dallas on November 22, had been scheduled to appear on this live broadcast of the awards named for his late elder brother.

Needless to say, this was one show that didn't go on, local Metromedia stations subbing it with movies from their libraries.  The issue in which this listing appeared went on sale the Thursday following the national - indeed, global - tragedy.  If nothing else, it was a sobering lesson to a still-grieving public on how far in advance the listings section of the Guide went to press.

The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination this weekend is, naturally, being marked with various tributes, news specials and documentaries.  Many will focus on the man, others on the event.  Hopefully time will be taken as well to speak of the masterful job television did in covering that horrific day and its aftermath.  At least one hard-boiled TV critic, on the day the Kennedy Awards were to have aired, took time to toss a bouquet to the medium that set aside its "vast wasteland" for four days and united a planet in sorrow and tried to expedite its first steps toward healing.

A few weeks later, TV Guide would more than atone for its unintended gaffe with a commemorative issue recounting everything that had transpired before our eyes.

(A prior BLTT post looks at some of the programming that had been originally scheduled that weekend.)

Saturday, November 09, 2013

The post-theatrical life of the Mutual-Chaplin Specials

Poised to ship upon receipt of orders, the good folks at BearManor Media have just published my latest book: CHAPLIN’S VINTAGE YEAR: The History of the Mutual-Chaplin Specials.  Silent comedy aficionados need no introduction to this subject.  For casual viewers: these are twelve 2-reel comedies produced by Chaplin during 1916-17 that, quite frankly, have been viewed by more eyes than any other cinematic work.  Consider (at risk of morbidity): cemeteries are choked with millions who didn’t live to see The Sound of Music, much less Star Wars or Harry Potter, yet queued up at their local nickelodeon box office, dimes in hand, just to watch these films, often more than once. 

During their first release cycle between 1916-18, they grossed $3.3 million when admissions were, on average, .10-.15 cents.  They came around again, with new prints each time, in 1919, 1923, 1927, 1932 (with music and sound courtesy of the Van Beuren studio’s Gene Rodemich and Winston Sharples), 1941 (in two “streamlined” feature compilations of six shorts each) and beyond, right up to today.  Search “Chaplin Mutual” on YouTube; you’ll find them.  CHAPLIN’S VINTAGE YEAR covers not only the making of those dozen gems, but their selling (and re-selling) as well, into the 21st century, and the restoration and Blu-ray release that is coming next year. 

Naturally, that history includes television.  There’s a bit more that can be told on that subject, for which this blog is the perfect forum.

In March 1941, RKO Radio Pictures, which had acquired the Chaplin Specials from its former shorts supplier the Van Beuren Corporation, sold the negatives to Guaranteed Pictures Inc.  Guaranteed had been formed in 1928 by Samuel Goldstein and Mortimer Sikawitt, and mainly distributed independent features, mostly foreign-made.  Four years after its founding, the company financed the first Yiddish-language talking feature, Joseph in the Land of Egypt.  It was mainly a labor of love, yet hit big among its target audience, especially in Poland.

Typical low-budget Commonwealth fare.
Eager to get into the non-theatrical business, by 1937 Goldstein and Sikawitt (who’d soon change his name to Mort Sackett) founded Commonweath Pictures Corporation for 16mm road show distribution and home movie sales.  They bought up theatrical films, mostly low-budget scraps from dead studios or independent productions that had been released by United Artists and RKO.  Naturally, after Guaranteed acquired the Chaplin Specials, Commonwealth was assigned non-theatrical rights.  In 1947, the company branched into TV with Commonwealth Film and Television, simply licensing its properties for the home screen.

Guaranteed had issued their two feature compilations in April and August of 1941; limited releases to be sure, but all enormously successful.  In early 1943, Commonwealth took the two 6-short features and reworked them into three 4-short featurettes for non-theatrical release, and also made each individual short available. 

Like every other buyer of the Mutual Chaplins, though, Guaranteed needed to aggressively assert its legal ownership of the titles, as hundreds of stray prints were still floating around for sale or lease.  In January 1942, action was brought against the Movie Parade Theater in Los Angeles for unauthorized showing of a Mutual short.  Theater owner Edward Kohn was forced to pony up $3,500 in damages for screening his own 16mm print of one film!

Notice in the May 6, 1941 issue of FILM DAILY.
Unfortunately, no one seems to have told Goldstein, Sackett or their lawyer that copyrights needed to be renewed after 28 years.  The Van Beuren versions were never registered, despite the synchronizing of music and sound that effectively turned them into “new works.”  Consequently the Mutual-Chaplins slipped into the public domain in the mid-1940s, and there was little that Guaranteed or Commonwealth could do about it, not that they didn’t try.

Mort Sackett tries to assert his no-longer-applicable rights to the Mutual-Chaplins in 1959.
Luckily, Commonwealth was a major TV distributor, thanks mostly to their prodigious cartoon library, and it helped that they had the best-looking elements on the Chaplin subjects.  It doubly helped that they never bothered making dupe or 16mm negatives, striking 16mm prints straight off the original 35mm pre-print materials.  Naturally this came at a cost to their eventual preservation, but that was nobody’s concern in the late 1940s. 

TV distribution of the Chaplins began around 1950.  In November of that year, Goldstein died in a horrific crash on the Long Island Railroad, and it was the beginning of the end for Commonwealth and Guaranteed.  Three years later, Goldstein’s heirs would (unsuccessfully) sue for control of the companies, claiming Sackett and his wife (who served as treasurer) were intentionally mismanaging in order to lower share value.  In truth, Sackett was just incompetent; “one of those bullying, cigar-chewing types,” according to film preservationist David Shepard, who met him in the 1960s.  Before cashing out at the end of that decade, all Commonwealth properties would wind up in public domain hell.  You’ve seen their titles over and over in the dollar bin: The Flying Deuces, Pot o’ Gold, Second Chorus, ad infinitum.

Chaplin’s history on early TV was rather spotty.  He was a big hit in Los Angeles, but owing to the legal and political allegations then hounding him, veterans and women’s groups in other cities, including New York, forced his films from the air.  By the end of the decade that opposition began to recede and the Little Tramp gradually made his way back to the tube.  
 In 1963, New York City’s WOR-TV licensed the three Commonwealth compilations for their Million Dollar Movie program, and held those rights for at least three years.  The individual shorts turned up on public television.  By 1972, of course, all was forgiven and Chaplin returned to the U.S. in triumph to receive a special Academy Award.

Eventually Blackhawk Films bought the surviving Commonwealth elements, which is another story, covered in detail in CHAPLIN’S VINTAGE YEAR.