14 January 2007

Kicking A Hole In the Sky

A moment caught in time.

What appears to be at first glance an unremarkable group portrait, is actually a photograph with quite a story to tell. Click on the image to enlarge it, and odd details begin to emerge. What first seemed to be spectacles on the elder and middle boy turns out to instead be carefully applied theatrical make-up. The little fellow is dressed in pseudo Chinese costume, replete with faux braid attached to an ill-fitting skullcap. The costumes on the other two are intentionally shabby, but footwear on the boys --- which shouldn't be mismatched or torn, is.

What we're looking at is not so much a portrait but photographic documentation that accompanied a written report by child labor investigator Edward F. Brown, who visited this family on or about June 10th of 1910 at the Victoria Theater in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Notes jotted on the back of the photograph tell us more. "This picture shows 'The Four Novelty Grahams.' The father is 23 years of age. Willie Graham is 5 years of age, and Herbert Graham is 3 years of age. At 9PM, these children were performing on the stage. Four times daily they do a turn which lasts from 12 to 14 minutes. Herbert Graham, the youngest, was said by the Father to have commenced performing on the stage as an acrobat when he was 10 months of age. Willie, now 5, is said to be the youngest acrobat in the world. The mother of these boys was formerly a school teacher, and is now performing with this trio on the stage. The children are bright and strong, but have a playfulness about them which shows them to have forgotten the best years of childhood."

I suspect that by using the word "playfulness," the writer actually meant something else, for the remainder of the sentence certainly alludes to that fact. Perhaps the two boys kidded and chided the investigator --- parroting words and expressions they heard their parents use --- the lingo and slang of wizened vaudeville troupers. They certainly look rather world-weary for their young age, but there's also a lovely aura of defiance about the trio too --- unapologetic and proud.

Reaching a bit further back, we can see the elder Graham and his firstborn, Willie, circa 1906. A day's outing at the park at a time when families still did such things --- not as an isolated novelty, but as a community of families. Stripped of theatrical costuming and make-up, "Pa" Graham poses with Willie, held in place atop an old war cannon converted to a monument. We can suppose a bandstand wouldn't be far off, for public music seemed to be everywhere in the early part of the century. Music to be shared and mutually enjoyed --- not music shuttled through headphones, shutting the listener off from everyone and everything around them.

And the music itself? It might have been a concert rendition of a wildly popular tune of the day titled "Bedelia," or Victor Herbert's "Gypsy Love Song," a featured selection from the composer's "The Fortune Teller" of a few years earlier. The melody that would be most likely be affixed in the minds of the public, however, would have been the huge success of the day, titled "Love Me and the World is Mine."

Music, like few other things, firmly sets a sense of time and place in the way that words can't often do. Here then, is Sousa's Band performing "A Musical Joke on Bedelia," recorded in 1904, Gypsy Love Song,"in the form of a careful and loving musical re-creation of modern vintage, and finally a stirring 1906 vocalization of "Love Me and the World is Mine," unabashedly sentimental and expertly performed by Albert Campbell --- with the tune's famous chorus repeated twice, it's power undiminished these many lifetimes later.

"A Musical Joke on 'Bedelia'" (1904) Sousa's Band

"Gypsy Love Song" (1902) Modern Re-Creation

"Love Me and the World Is Mine" (1906)

"I care not for the stars that shine,
I dare not hope to e'r be thine,
I only know I love you ---
Love me, and the world is mine!"

Time passes. "The Novelty Four Grahams" are left intact and presumably unmolested by the well-meaning but income-threatening child labor investigator.

It's 1912, and the family is performing at the Lydia Margaret Theater in Wichita Falls, Texas. In addition to the usual acrobatics, a new and unusual angle has been added to their performance --- a comedic miniature boxing match enacted by Willie and Herbert. The "boxing contest" is the highlight of the act, warmly received by a public that is increasingly demanding speed, action and novelty in it's entertainment --- and performers like "The Novelty Four Grahams" evolved accordingly, for those that didn't couldn't survive via their chosen art. It's interesting to note that, featured at the bottom of the bill, is "Three Thousand Feet (of) Licensed Pictures." The movies had taken root, and the "Novelty Four Grahams" shared their bill with a form of entertainment which would, not soon --- but ultimately, destroy vaudeville.

Despite progress, sentiment still held reign in music, as evidenced by the success of 1913's "The Curse of an Aching Heart," ("The Moral Song With a Blessing") a tune perhaps best known today by it's rendition in the 1930 Laurel & Hardy three-reeler, "Blotto." Comedic in 1930, it was serious stuff in 1913 --- despite the oddly unsuitable photo of one of it's performers, Carrie Lilie, on the sheet music depicted at the right! Here's Will Oakland performing the tune in 1913, as if his life depended upon it --- and it very nearly was, for tunes such as this were slowly but surely being replaced by new forms of music that would take hold and morph into ragtime and jazz.

"The Curse of an Aching Heart" (1913)

We next see "The Four Novelty Grahams" in February of 1917 -- two months before America's entry into The Great War. The family's billing, as "Physical Culture Experts" indicates a lasting move away from acrobatics --- and into the realm of athletic exhibition. It's unlikely that acrobatic feats still didn't largely figure into their performance, however and also unlikely that at some point their act wouldn't have been musically accompanied by a piece titled "Nights of Gladness," dating from 1913.

If the title is unfamiliar, the music won't be. Used throughout the early sound era to accompany virtually any scene set within a run-down vaudeville house, or to indicate that the performance (or performer) on view is somewhat antiquated, there should be instant recognition among most readers. Here's an unusual 1926 recording of the 1913 composition, by the Utopia Salon Orchestra. Listen and see if you can't help but envision acrobats, feeble magicians and a bored audience!

"Nights of Gladness" (1913) 1926 Recording

Our view of the progress of the performing family fades here --- obliterated equally by time as well as the world events that shaped it. Great battles and even greater losses sweep by with the passing years, but at the end of it emerges victory of a sort, and a new decade of unprecedented change and prosperity.

We last left "The Novelty Four Grahams" in February of 1917, and we rejoin them in another February --- this one of 1924. Sweeping changes for the world, and while vastly smaller, no less far-reaching for the "Novelty Four Grahams" too, as detailed in the otherwise innocuous looking syndicated sports column reprinted to the right. Excerpts of the text reveal a surprise in the midst of a discussion about the rise of a young Georgia boxer nicknamed "Young Stribling" ---

"The Stribling family did circus stunts, trapeze and all that sort of thing all over the country for several years under the name of 'The Four Grahams.' Pa and Ma Stribling are expert acrobats and both fine physical specimens. William (Young) Stribling and his younger brother were both trained as acrobats. Pa and ma Stribling had an ambition for higher things than trapeze work for the youngsters. Financially higher than trapeze work, that is. So, when Willie was about two years old they got him a pair of baby boxing gloves and a kid punching bag."

"When the younger brother came along he was started on the boxing path too. For some years Willie and his kid brother assisted in The Four Grahams trapeze act. Then their boxing developed so that they could put on a very attractive exhibition bout. It was this exhibition stuff that developed young Stribling into a fighter. When 15, he went to his mother and said he wanted to try out his boxing in a real professional bout. He was fast and clever, and he made good from the star. He never has been hurt because the others can't hit him."

"He has perfect judgement of timing, developed in acrobatic work. He has speed. He has general strength and supple joints and muscles. And best of all, he has exactly the hand, wrist and forearm equipment needed for heavy hitting. Acrobatic work, trapeze and bar work, hand balancing and etc. have given him big, powerful hands with thick fingers, extremely thick wrists and powerful, heavy forearms. Stribling is five feet ten, weights 185, is fast, and likes to pull fancy stuff."

Above right, we see --- no longer the "Novelty Four Grahams," but the Stribling Family. Young William (no longer "Willie") on the left, our first view of "Ma" Stribling, former school-teacher and too busy or occupied elsewhere to have posed for a photo at the request of a child labor investigator in 1910, and "Pa" Stribling --- now older and a bit thicker about the middle, but still very much the head of the family's new act --- that of raising and promoting a professional boxer. The youngest of the family, the curious 3 year old boy in Chinese garb first seen in 1910, is following in his elder brother's footsteps too.

It's now 1928, and as William Stribling is months away from the greatest fight of his life --- pitted against Jack Sharkey in a February of 1929 bout set in Miami Beach, he poses with his younger brother --- the pair now billed as William "Young" Stribling and Herbert "Baby" Stribling.

Melodies like "Bedelia" and "Curse of an Aching Heart" seem a universe away from this bright, modern speedy world of 1928. The 3,000 feet of "licensed pictures" the boys once shared a vaudeville bill with have now begun to talk, and popular music is experimenting with vocal styles that wouldn't be possible were it not for the now standard electrical recording process.

"Miss Annabelle Lee" (1928) - "Whispering" Jack Smith

"If You Want the Rainbow" (1928) - Fannie Brice

The arrival of 1929 signaled a year for Wililam Stribling that would be, if not his best, then his biggest in terms of publicity and attention.

The day of William Stribling's bout with Jack Sharkey, sportswriters were at their florid best --- a reminder of the day when sportswriters were writers who wrote about sports, not merely personalities with negligible skills who manufactured ten second sound-bytes. The full page to the right, promoting the battle, makes for fine reading indeed, detailing "scenes and surroundings that are a strange contrast to the old days when prize fighting was a fugitive game in the South."

Some things do not change, however. The greater the hype and bally-hoo, the more a "non-event" is likely --- and such was the case with the Stribling/Sharkey bout, the dreary outcome (and loss for William) of which can be read about below left.

Although there would never again be the same aura of excitement surrounding the young boxer again as there was in February of 1929, both he and his family would continue to be key players, quite literally, in the world of the sport for the next few years. For the present at least, he'd mourn his loss briefly and then move on --- smiling for the cameras in publicity photos (awful segue alert!) bravely keeping his sunny side up on the lonesome road he currently trod.

Two renditions of a highly popular, somewhat somber tune of 1929, "The Lonesome Road." First, performed by Nathaniel Shilkret and the Victor Orchestra (with vocal by Gene Austin) and then, as performed by Cora Green, billed as "The Creole Singer" in a Vitaphone one-reel short subject of that year. Miss Green would, in time, reach greater fame in films originally manufactured for --- and exhibited to --- black audiences, but which are now receiving the long overdo attention and recognition they deserve. She can be seen featured in films of this nature such as "Swing!" (1939) and "Moon Over Harlem" (1939.)

"The Lonesome Road" (1929) - Shilkret, Austin & Orchestra

"The Lonesome Road" (1929) - "Cora Green, The Creole Singer"

And, as it could be heard in amusement parks, fairgrounds and carnivals throughout the country in 1929 --- and beyond, a mechanical rendition of "Sunny Side Up" that's as spirited as it is, I think, slightly creepy.

"Sunny Side Up" - (1929) Fairground Mechanical Roll

Boxers, and boxing were well represented in films throughout the 1920's, and their popularity remained with the arrival of talkies. Georges Carpentier was featured in the Warner Bros. Technicolor musical revue "The Show of Shows" in 1929, and again in the 1930 (also Technicolor) film version of the Broadway stage success, "Hold Everything."

While William Stribling was meeting with Jack Dempsey in 1930 (left), the United Artists' production of "Be Yourself" was in release throughout the country. Sporting a slight adjustment to her nose, the comedienne was as skillful as ever --- but the fever for musical films had begun to abate, and "Be Yourself" would largely fizzle at the box office of 1930 only to be rediscovered decades later and find itself entangled in a complicated web of ownership rights that keeps the film from wide distribution and proper presentation to this day.

In the film, night-club entertainer Brice discovers, supports and eventually falls in love with a "lay down boxer," beautifully played by Robert Armstrong. Among the film's numerous musical sequences (some of which are absent from the battered prints commonly traded today) are two which became minor popular music hits at the time of the film's release.

"Kicking A Hole in the Sky" is presented as a memorably surreal nightclub production number, having to do with the banishment of gloom, doom, temptation and evil from the earthly plane --- all set to a highly infectious jazz beat. In other words, a typical lovely up-tempo melody of the early talkie era.

This rendition is by Billy Barton and His Orchestra.

"Kicking A Hole in the Sky" - (1930)

The second selection offered here from "Be Yourself," is a Victor recording of 1930 vocalized by Miss Brice herself, entitled:

"Cooking Breakfast For the One I Love" (1930)

Contrary to what's printed in a widely lauded fairly recent book on early musicals, the portion of lyrics that detail the prepartion of oatmeal actually states "sprinkled with Lux" (dishwashing flakes) and not "sprinkled with lox." A bit of research, and this sloppy (albeit humorous) error could have been avoided. Brice may have been an ethnic comic, but there's a limit, after all!

But what of Young William Stribling?

We've not deserted him.

While personal details are vague during this period, there's no shortage of professional accounts, and we learn that in July of 1930, showcased as the Heavyweight Champion of the Old World, Stribling knocked-out Phil Scott, the Champion of Great Britain, in the second round in Wimbledon Stadium.

In 1931, Stribling fought Max Schmeling for the World Heavyweight Championship, but was stopped by a 15th round TKO delievered by Schmeling. Still, the former acrobat would earn $33,168 for this single event alone.

From July to November of 1932, Stribling fought seven times in Australia, winning six of his seven bouts, and in December of that year, he defeated Don McCorkindale in a Johannesburg, South Africa match. In 1933, Stribling's first notable bout for that year would be between him and Maxi Rosenbloom, where he defeated the future film comedian in ten rounds.

In the end, it would be not fist nor tightrope that would bring tragedy to the boxer so much as it would be a product of the technological age that grew and matured alongside Stribling, eventually pausing briefly to claim him and then proceed onward without ever looking back.

On March 2nd of 1933, Stribling was still aglow with the pride that accompanies any new father, and took to his motorcycle in order to visit his wife and new son at a Macon, Georgia hospital --- the pair still recuperating following what had been a difficult birth two weeks prior.

The motorcyclist was sideswiped by a passing automobile, both traveling at high speed. His pelvis crushed, his left foot severed, William Stribling would pass away in the morning hours of October 3rd of 1933 while in a period of unconsciousness. Present at his bedside when the end came were the most important members of the small world that traveled with him from vaudeville house stage-entrance to stadiums filled with thousands of cheering patrons, his parents and younger brother, Herbert.

To close this post --- a not entirely typical one for this blog, but one which I hope proved interesting if not precisely entertaining, a reprise of a tune featured earlier in this page.

Peformed by vaudevillian Mel Klee, excerpted from a 1930 Vitaphone short titled "The Prince of Wails" in a unique and heartfelt manner...

William Stribling was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1996.



Joe Thompson said...

Jeff: A nice story with a twist. I had come across the name Young Stribling many times in books about boxing and in "The Ring" magazine, which I started reading in the late 1960's and early 1970's, when it was still published by its founder, Nat Fleischer. Despite that, I had never known much about Stribling as a person. This is what happens to boxers to boxers who never win a title. Thank you for putting together another good story.

Joe Thompson ;0)

Anonymous said...

Fascinating, moving story.

And as for the "Be Yourself" ad -- you don't see copy like that anymore.

alexa757 said...

Jeff - you've got a real gift for recreating a whole world with music, words and pictures. Thanks for shining a light again into the past.

And I loved the Irish Coon song! (Something I never thought I'd hear!)

Jeff Cohen said...

This was a story that really wrote itself. Started out with just that first 1910 photo and no idea of who these people were, and the story unfolded - year by year - almost of it's own accord. Strange and satisfying, to say the least!

"Bedelia" has terrific lyrics, (the odd title notation really implies it's a "coon"-style song) but I couldn't find a straight vocal rendition, only parodies. I'm sure I'll turn up the genuine article one day.

BTW, "Bedelia" is given the glamor treatment in surviving Technicolor footage from MARCH OF TIME (1930), and was included in original release prints of BROADWAY TO HOLLYWOOD (1933) -- although absent (natch!) from TCM's print.

Many thanks for everyone's comments --- they're tremendously appreciated.


J. Theakston said...

Great article.

Anonymous said...

Have you heard Billy Murray singing "Bedelia" ? I think that was fairly "Straight", although with the appropriate Irish accent...

Jeff Cohen said...

Re: "Bedelia" -
In the Billy Murray rendition I've heard (there may be more than one, I suspect) the lyrics have been altered somewhat, resulting in what amounts to a gentle parody on the original. (The name "Chauncy Olcott" becomes "Chauncy Oil-cloth", etc.) I'll see what I can come up with.

Thanks for writing, Dan.


Anonymous said...

Touching story....really felt the way the times were back then....too many of us old movie and music fans glamorize the teens, 20s and 30s---I'll bet if we could go back there in a time machine, we might stick around for a day or so, but would hasten back to 2007...still wonderful stuff compared to what we have now..