On the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of The Palace Theatre, the Theatre Museum presented its 2013 Awards for Excellence with cocktails, dinner and full vaudeville show. The museum, chartered in 2003, is “the only non-profit established exclusively in order to preserve, protect, and educate the public about the history, artifacts, and workings of American theater.” Surprised to learn of their existence? So was I. (Top photo: Trav S.D., The Palace Theatre, Todd Robbins)
In addition to annual award recognition, the virtual coalition, in the process of reorganizing after its founder’s passing, has mounted exhibitions, taught theater skills, and reached out to schools. 2013 honorees include founder Helen Guditis (Distinguished Service to the Theatre Award) and Emerson College (Theatre Arts Education Award). Albert Guditis accepted the award for his sister from Chairman of the Board, Stewart Lane, with the kind of stories that make one want to have known the lady. Melia Bensussen, Chair of the Performing Arts Department, articulately and graciously accepted for Emerson. This award was presented by board members Bonnie Comley and Joseph Benincasa.
Albert Guditis, Melia Bensussen
“Built in 1913 as the flagship for the big time vaudeville circuit, the Palace Theatre was the perfect showplace for the biggest of big time vaudeville during the last two decades of its existence. All the top acts would play there: Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, the Marx Brothers, Nora Bayes, Smith and Dale, Jack Benny…the list goes on and on. The Palace was a cherished showcase gig because the audience was full of bookers, scouts, agents, and fellow performers. Comedian Ed Lowry said opening day at the Palace was as exciting as the Kentucky Derby.” Trav S.D.
Todd Robbins, nationally renowned sideshow artist/actor/historian/ragtime pianist and bon vivant, introduced the evening’s performers with style, ba-dump-dump lines and appreciation. For the curious and fascinated, Robbins, himself no slouch as a performer, currently produces/hosts Strange for Hire: The Oddest Acts Money Can Buy on West 42nd Street.
Highlights of the evening include: The priceless anecdotes of broadcast legend, Joe Franklin, who got his start at 17 writing for vaudeville icon Eddie Cantor. “I go back to the days when The Dead Sea was only sick.” Franklin, who keeps the history of early show biz alive, is quick and funny with memories and payoff lines. “Thank you, Joe, I hope you get to be as old as those jokes,” warmly quips Robbins.
Wild West performer Chris McDaniels who looks like Buffalo Bill Cody, demonstrates “multiple cracking”,” a whip in each hand, moving from one crack to another without stopping. Whips sail across the stage with the audible control and variation of tap dancers as well as slicing the end off rods of pasta placed in precarious positions. Singing “Give a Man Enough Rope” from The Will Rogers Follies in which he was featured, McDaniels makes lassos obey his command, jumps in and out of a moving vertical ring as tall as he is (The Texas Skip), and manages forty feet of circling rope which occupies the entire stage. He’s as charming as he is skilled and possesses a lovely voice.
Chris McDaniels, Poor Baby Bree
“One of the great things about vaudeville when it came to singers is that they didn’t sing, they performed,” says Robbins introducing Poor Baby Bree. The artist, who specializes in “obscure comic and pathetic songs of the vaudeville era” appears dressed in Lillian Gish-like patchwork rags. Her rendition of “A Lemon in the Garden of Love” A million peaches round me/yet I would like to know/Why I picked a lemon in the garden of love/Where they say only peaches grow is filled with attractive vibrato tapering off to small sobs. A second number, describing a privileged kid envying the janitor’s child, is equally fun and quirky though less understandable due to a facial expression that reconfigures her lips.
Ron Hutchinson, whose Vitaphone Project finds and restores shellac soundtrack discs that accompanied early 1926-1930 Vitaphone (and other) talkie shorts and features, screened a cavalcade short of vaudeville denizens like Milton Berle, Helen Morgan, W.C. Fields, George Jessel, Bert Williams, Ethel Barrymore, and so on…likely used as a catalog of then $5.00 films that might be purchased by theaters who had evolved from live entertainment to movie houses. And a 1929 short of George Burns and Gracie Allen performing Lambchops which embodied innocent humor at its best. “You’re so smart, name three kinds of nuts.” “Walnuts, chestnuts, and forget-me-nuts.”
I close with the last lines from the Burns and Allen act: “Do you like to love?” “No.” “Do you like to kiss?” “No.” “What do you like?” “Lambchops.”
Photo Credit: Rob Rich
The 2013 Theatre Museum Awards
Celebrate the 100th Anniversary of The Palace Theatre with
A Vaudeville Tribute
Organized and Produced by Trav S.D. (his wonderful blog) and The American Vaudeville Theatre
Host: Todd Robbins
Featuring: Chris McDaniels, Ariela Pizza, Joe Franklin, Will Jordan, Poor Baby Bree,
Rod Kimball & Andy Sapora from The Flying Karamazov Brothers,
Rebecca Joy Fletcher; Ron Hutchinson and films from The Vitaphone Project
The Theatre Museum
The Player’s Club
16 Gramercy Park South
Monday June 3, 2013