30 October 2007

A Ghost that Walked

In February of 1928, theater audiences in Kansas City, Missouri were visited by old friends whom they once knew as a family of entertainers --- but folly, fate and whim had long since broken this family apart.

While Eddie Foy could be seen upon the stage, his eldest son Bryan was in Hollywood --- working feverishly to refine and adapt the new Vitaphone talking picture process in his role of notable film director --- and Foy's remaining six children could be seen and heard as mechanical shadows on the talking picture screen in early Vitaphone output --- this at a time when the process was finding its way and beginning to emerge from its infancy and fast gaining confidence.

Two years earlier, in 1926, the sad and not entirely unfamiliar plight of the Foy Family was thought interesting enough to warrant exposure in print via a syndicated news story:

"Eddie Foy, for fifty years the most celebrated clown on the American stage, and the proudest father in the profession, is watching with tear-dimmed old eyes the fall of the curtain on his greatest production."

"For more than twenty years his success in the theatre has shared the laurels with his fame as the devoted daddy of the Seven Little Foys. But now, harmony no longer reigns in the famous Foy family. The seven little Foys, old enough to fly from the nest, have flown... and the flight of the Foy children is tinged with bitterness and the once concordant clan is a house divided against itself."

The events of 1928 --- both on the Kansas City stage and on the Vitaphone screen --- will be visited in this entry but, to be best understood, other places and earlier days must first be visited.

Born Edwin Fitzgerald Foy to Irish immigrants Richard and Eileen Hennessy Fitzgerald Foy in the New York City of 1856, Eddie Foy is believed to have first professionally performed before an audience a mere four years after the end of the Civil War --- at a benefit performance for the Chicago Newsboy's Home in 1869 at the age of fifteen. His performance was striking enough to result in numerous offers for similar engagements, and the next seven years were spent learning his art and honing his talent. In 1876, Foy was engaged by Chicago's "Cosmopolitan Vanities" and by 1878 the performer had teamed with a partner named Thompson to tour the then still wild central West of America with Emerson's Minstrels in which Foy participated in blackface sketches, songs and acrobatic dances.

It was during this touring period of the West that Foy is thought to have formed friendship with the legendary Doc Holiday, to have encountered Wyatt Earp and to have been present --- or at least nearby, when the altercation at the OK Corral took place!

Perhaps seeking the comparatively normal confines of big city theaters, Foy departed Emerson's Minstrels and returned to the variety stage after having played in nearly every major United States city. Foy's popularity led to his engagement with the Kelly & Mason Co. and a role in "The Tigers," a vehicle with which he toured the country.

In the years that would follow, Foy would be included in the casts of some of the most successful and elaborate musical comedies that toured the States and abroad, including "An Arabian Girl & 40 Thieves," "Jack in the Box," "Over the Garden Wall," "Ali Baba," "Off the Earth," "The Earl and the Girl," "Cinderella," "Sinbad the Sailor," "The Strange Adventures of Miss Brown," and "Hotel Topsy Turvy," which had a run of over 150 nights at New York City's Herald Square Theater.

During this period of rising fame, Foy would be twice wed to actresses --- Rose Howland in 1879 and Lola Sefton in 1886, and twice widowed. In 1896, he'd wed yet again --- to Madeline Morando, "a famous danseuse from Italy" and it would be with Madeline that his famous offspring would arrive:

Bryan in 1896, Charley in 1898, Mary in 1901, Madeline in 1903, Eddie Jr. and Richard in 1905, and Irving in 1908.

On December 30th of 1903, events of that day would forever link the senior Foy name with a catastrophe that would receive global attention. The setting was Chicago's Iroquois Theater, "the newest, the largest and as far as human power could make it, the safest theater in Chicago," where Foy was appearing in "Mr. Bluebeard," the theater's premiere dramatic production.

The second-act of "Mr. Bluebeard" had just gotten underway at 3:15PM, with a matinee audience of 1,900 comfortably caught up in the musical comedy. We'll allow contemporary newspaper accounts to take up the narrative here...

"The accounts of the origin of the fire are conflicting, but the best reason given is that an electric wire near the lower part of a piece of drop scenery suddenly broke and was grounded. The fire spread rapidly toward the front of the stage, causing the members of the chorus, who were then engaged in the performance, to flee to the wings with screams of terror. The fire in itself up to this time was not serious and possibly could have been checked had not the asbestos curtain failed to work."

The gauzy scenery quickly nourished the small flame into full blown fire which spread upwards and outward instantaneously. As the audience nearly rose as one from all parts of the theater to hasten for exits, Foy rushed to the front of the stage with the flames roaring above his head. As burning embers fell about him, he yelled out to the audience --- pleading with them above the din not to give way to panic. The comedian, in his tights, smock and wig, stood a grotesque figure amid the blazing scenery and his appearance apparently arrested for a moment the mad scramble for doors. He urged the orchestra to play and eight girls on the stage, at his direction, went into a dance. Foy cried out for the asbestos curtain to be lowered. It descended about halfway and then stuck --- creating a workable flue through which a strong draft was moving, aided by the doors thrown open in the front of the theater and behind the stage.

"With a roar and in a bound, the flames shot through the opening over the heads of the people on the first floor, and reaching clear up to those in the first balcony, caught them and burned them to death where they sat. Immediately following this rush of flames there came an explosion which lifted the entire roof of the theater from its walls, shattering the great skylight into fragments."

"It is believed that the explosion was caused by the flames coming in contact with the gas reservoirs of the theater, causing them to burst. Will J. Davis, manager of the theater, said after the catastrophe that if the people had remained in their seats and had not been excited by the cries of 'fire!' not a single life would have been lost. This is, however, contradicted by the statements of firemen who found numbers of dead people sitting in their seats, their faces directed toward the stage as if the performance was still going on."

The death toll would reach 602, marking the event as the most fatal single building fire in U.S. history --- a distinction as yet mercifully unmatched.

When the fire started, Foy entrusted his son Bryan, then aged six, to the care of a stage hand, and when he at last was forced to leave the stage he rushed out into the frigid Chicago streets via the stage door --- frantic and uncertain whether or not the boy had been carried out to safety. He found the future film director safe with the stagehand he had deposited him with.

As the 20th Century slowly gathered momentum, Foy enjoyed a near continual string of Broadway successes and road tours as he raised his growing family in nearby New Rochelle, New York. "Piff! Paff! Pouf!" in 1904/05, "The Earl and the Girl" in 1905/06, "The Orchid" in1908, "Mr. Hamlet of Broadway" in 1909, "Up and Down Broadway" in 1910 and "Over the River" in 1911.

Here, Billy Murray performs the melancholy and decidedly odd melody Foy introduced in 1904's "Piff! Paff! Pouf!," a composition which bemoans every performer's greatest fear --- the show that closes:

"The Ghost That Never Walked" (1904)

Serviceable though Murray's vocal is, it lacks the characteristics that made Foy so unique and memorable. Slight of frame and build and incredibly agile, it was --- however, Foy's expressive face and voice that so delighted audiences. Naturally prone to talking from one side of his mouth, Foy possessed an unusual speech impediment of sorts that resulted in a softly sibilant "sh" sound to be attached to his words. "Let's go to the store" would emerge as "Letsh go to the shtore," and this oddity fast became his trademark --- one unique among performers of his day, but one which would later turn up with some regularity almost exclusively (curiously!) among sportscasters and country-western singers, where it's presumably a cultivated affectation.

By 1910 Foy had hit upon the idea of forming an equally unique trademark --- one that would result in the formation of what would become a wildly successful performing gimmick --- Eddie Foy and the Seven Little Foys, and by 1913 the act had not only caught on but flourished, with a near unending stream of bookings ahead that would last nearly a decade.

So popular were the troupe of father and children that they'd be featured in a 1915 two reel Sennett/Keystone short subject that would play in theaters around the country for the next three years.

Titled "A Favorite Fool," (the survival status of the film is unknown at this writing) it was described thus in a 1915 press release:

"Foy is a 'Son-of-Rest' on a farm when the Widow Wallop's Circus strikes town. He knows naught of the seven little Wallops when he proposes marriage to the widow and is accepted. Romance is assailed by the knowledge of the family he has acquired and he runs away. Later, he learns that a browbeating ringmaster who has ousted the widow from the show is a villain and that the show really belongs to her. Then he returns with the papers proving ownership, casts the ringmaster into a lion's cage and takes possession. A tornado releases the villain and he cuts the ropes that hold up the tent, which falls on Eddie Foy, the Seven Little Foys, and Polly Moran. They poke their heads through the rain-soaked canvas and the curtain falls on one of Mack Sennett's most laughable farcer, 'A Favorite Fool.'"

Foy is also thought to have appeared in the 1918 Sennett/Paramount two-reeler "His Wife's Friend," but all period mentions of the film detail the performers only as including Charlie Murray, Wayland Trask and Myrtle Lind suggesting Foy's contribution would have been limited to an unbilled cameo if indeed he appeared in the film at all. Certainly, the unexpected early death of his wife Madeline in June of 1918 (pneumonia) casts serious doubt.

The Fort Wayne News and Sentinel editorial page thought enough of her passing to allow this unusual and passionate entry:

"We note in the press dispatches an account of the death of Mrs. Eddie Foy. Prior to her marriage to the accomplished Foy, this estimable woman was an Italian dancer. It is not recalled that this paper ever heard of Mrs. Foy before the announcement of her death, yet in the short account of her life carried by news services announcing her demise, there is that which awakens a genuine feeling of respect. Yet, no tribute is paid her beyond the simple statement that she married Eddie Foy in 1895, was still married to him at the time of her death, and was the mother of his eleven children."

"There is something about that statement that is so completely at variance with the usual record of stage marriages that it rather gets us. An Italian dancer marries a comic opera star and stays married to him until her death twenty-three years later! Amazing! And she bears him eleven children! Marvelous! So cynical have we become concerning stage marriages that we are prone to look upon them as no more genuine than stage money, and in reality a sort of concealment cloak for liaisons. Yet, here we have this whole theory upset by a couple from whom we would least expect it. No doubt those who were familiar with the rough clownishness of the Eddie Foy of the stage smiled and shrugged their shoulders when they heard years ago that he had married an Italian dancer, coolly calculating that such a union would endure anywhere from three to six months."

"Yet, it endured until death did them part, and that they lived happily and lovingly together we have eleven testimonials that cannot lightly be set aside. For those who do not love do not hold such evidence of love."

"There are many of us, perhaps, who have never particularly cared for the rough horseplay of Eddie Foy, but if in future it is again our fortune to see him on the stage, it is possible that we shall view him differently, and in his capers and antics detect a merit we had not seen before and never would have seen but for this story of his married life."

"After all, it is the Human and the Real that make their appeal to our sympathies, and if upon the program of each theatrical performance we attended the life of each actor appeared, we may be sure that many a stage "villain" would be greeted with salvos of applause and many a "hero" hissed and hooted."

A 1919 press announcement carried details of additional film involvement that appears to have evaporated, stating that the Foys would trek to Denver, Colorado to begin making a series of two-reel comedies to be known as "Foy Fun Films" in collaboration with newspaper cartoonist George McManus, and that Foy had signed a contract with the National Film Corporation for the pictures, which would be directed by Albert W. Hale.

As the 1920's dawned, vaudeville theaters, the railway lines and hotels would be primary lodging for the successful family as they toured the country in a number of routines that would tie song, dance and comedy to a topical theme. Titles of such routines included "Making Movies," "The High Cost of Living," and "Slum Where in New York."

In April of 1922, news services announced that "Bryan Foy, son of Eddie Foy, is no longer one of the 'Seven Little Foys.' Bryan has a bent for writing and is now at the Fox studio in Hollywood turning out a laugh now and then."

In time, Bryan would continue to turn out more than laughs, and more than now and then --- and, ultimately, the laughs would be heard coming from the screen as well as the audience.

News of Eddie Foy's marriage to one Marie Reilly in January of 1923 reached newspaper readers via a series of light-hearted items in lieu of formal announcements ("Foy Family Under New Management") or upbeat human interest feature stories, but beneath the surface there would be growing resentment towards the new bride on the part of his children that would have a devastating effect upon the family both privately and professionally.

The Foy Family, as celebrities of their day, were both courted by and exploited by the press in ways that haven't changed at all with the passage of time, save for methods employed.

As reported in a feature story about the family's difficulties: "When Eddie Foy announced to his children that he had married pretty, young Marie Reilly, of Dallas, Texas, this information was greeted with a lack of enthusiasm which amounted to mutiny."

Mutiny indeed. By 1924, the Foy children departed the family act and struck out on their own, neatly deserting their father professionally and forming their own vaudeville act which was frequently billed as "The Foy Family: Chips Off the Old Block," leaving no doubt as to precisely which block they emanated.

To be fair, Foy's advancing age (68 at the time of this marriage) and frail health suggested the time had come for retirement, but such notions were wholly repugnant to the performer and he gamely attempted to find work as a "single" (often to no avail) when not plugging self-penned scripts at producer offices. Worse fortune quickly followed, when (through a convoluted series of legal events) the elder Foy's funds and home were legally granted to his children and (if the bulk of reports are to be believed) both he and his wife were ousted from the family home altogether and left near penniless --- living in a small modest old house across town from the home he had built and raised his family in.

As with all matters of this sort, there is the truth as it is known, and the truth as it really was. We'll never know the precise details -- and nor should we, I suppose. What can't be denied however was that Foy and his wife were left in considerably reduced circumstances while his children lived comfortably and securely.

A 1926 feature story is especially revealing and, for all the melodramatic tone, does appear to largely ring true.

"'It's to the grave together,' sang Eddie Foy and the Seven Little Foys in one of America's most famous vaudeville acts. 'It's to the grave together and we don't give a damn how we get there.'"

"But the little Foys got tired. Papa Foy will be 82 years old in March. There are only a few more years to go with him at best. But, youth is impatient and the little Foys could not wait those years. They bolted from his company, left him to shift for himself and sought their fortunes in various lines of show work, taking with them only the name which he had glorified."

"'The Foy Family,' the four younger children call themselves on the vaudeville circuit. But the title is a misnomer. There is no longer a Foy Family. There are only fragments, torn apart, scattered in self interest, of the group that for fifteen years amused all America on the vaudeville boards. Charles, the second of the little Foys, is in vaudeville by himself, and two others, Bryan and Richard, are in the movie business in Hollywood."

"Eddie Jr., Mary, Madeline and Irving, the younger four, are home. Their big house on Weyman Avenue (in New Rochelle, NY) is valued at more than $50,000.00 . Its great drawing rooms and red tiled fireplace and its commodious kitchen were built for a large family at Christmas time. The place welcomes all comers --- except for Eddie Foy, with whose money it was built."

"The earnings of Eddie Foy's 57 years on the stage have all gone into the hands of the Seven Little Foys, and Eddie must get along as best as he could. The mother of the little Foys traveled with the company while her children were growing up. Eddie Foy deeded all the property to her because he believed that she would take better care of it than he could. When she died, no will was found, and New York law gave the estate to the children with only a life interest for the father. The children moved into the big house leaving only a little old frame house for Eddie and his new wife, which they refused to accept."

"A year ago, in 1925, Eddie made one last venture for the favor of Broadway. He opened in a play called "The Casey Girl," in which he had provided roles for all his children. After a tryout in the provinces, the play closed and Eddie had lost $18,000. The children scattered to various new vaudeville engagements and Eddie went back to the little old frame house he initially shunned."

"After 57 years, the American public had turned him down. Everybody knew it but Eddie. The walls of his little house are plastered with reminders of his past glories. Eddie finds that he must keep his faith in his past triumphs if he is to live out the years that remain to him. He receives visitors with pitiful eagerness. They provide an audience for the famous Foy humor, the old time Foy grin, whose laugh-provoking power ha drawn thousands to the theaters in America and abroad. 'I'll get back on Broadway,' he says, 'I've still got my fare.' And the absurd corner of his mouth twists upward in the old grin though his eyes peer wistfully out from their network of wrinkles."

"Eddie Foy is afraid that something will be said to hurt his children. 'There's been no trouble. They have a right to the money under the law, and I want them to have it. I'll get along somehow."

"Every morning he goes into New York City. The taxi drivers at the New Rochelle station and the ticket seller are used to the sight of the shabby old brown overcoat on the hunched little man who climbs aboard the city train and alights again in the late afternoon. At the Lamb's Club, where he has been a member for 31 years, kindly men from the legitimate and the variety theater stop a moment to chat with him. He makes appointments with producers and stars, and proffers the script of the play in which he hopes to return to the footlights."

"But ever night he turns toward home again, his head drooping, his shoulders slumped. If he meets an acquaintance, the old Foy grin flashes across his face and he is once more the harlequin, giving life the laugh, refusing to let the song die on his lips."

"His young children in the big house are very busy these days, with the multitudinous engagements of successful variety artists home from tour. 'No,' says Madeline, 'there hasn't been any trouble with Papa. It's that woman. He's all right. Yes, he has plenty to live on, and they have that cute house, really nicer than this, easy to keep warm.' She glances about the octagonal drawing room with its grand piano and its luxurious trifles. 'Sometimes we send him some money, but we won't let that woman get a cent if we can help it.'"

"The present Mrs. Foy has nothing to say, except that she loves Eddie, and means to stick to him. 'Of course,' echoes her husband, the grin flickering about his lips. "Marie will stick. But she'll be repaid. I'm not a has-been yet. I'll be back on Broadway yet, and how the people will laugh. Oh, how they will laugh."

Fate would allow Foy to hear that laughter once again. Remarkably, he embarked on a stage comeback in early 1928 in a comedic feature sketch entitled "The Fallen Star," which was warmly received by audiences despite their attention being swiftly diverted by talking pictures in other theaters --- talking pictures that included two Vitaphone shorts featuring his six children titled "Foys for Joys" (which parodied talking pictures) and "Chips Off the Old Block," which may be seen on the newly released three-disc DVD release of "The Jazz Singer."

Future entertainment and radio figure Goodman Ace (then dramatic critic of the Kansas City Journal-Post) obtained what would be the comedian's last interview --- Foy succumbing to a fatal heart attack the following morning in his hotel room. This beautifully written piece is offered here largely intact:

"'Quit the shtage? Who? Me? Shay, I'll fall over into the orchestra pit firsht!'"

"Eddie Foy drew himself to some height as he made that boast in that famous "shishing" way he had of talking. I had just asked him if this were his farewell tour. Something within him seemed to glow all over. He threw his head back, cocked it to one side, winked his eye determinedly and hurled a challenge at death."

"That was at 8:30 o'clock. At 10 o'clock I saw him again, although he didn't see me --- ambling slowly over to the hotel clerk. A long overcoat which came almost to his neck and seemed to weigh down his shoulders, and a derby which sat straight up on his scraggy head, lent pathos to the figure."

"The clerk called out some friendly greeting. Eddie Foy's hand pointed shakily to something in his box behind the clerk's desk. 'I'm a shick man tonight,' he quavered. 'What's the trouble Mr. Foy?' the clerk asked. 'Gashtritish,' was the reply, and he moved away slowly. I followed him with my eyes until the elevator carried him away to his last night's sleep. Away from the theater he seemed a broken old man, a pitiful contrast to the star of Broadway who had only an hour or so before had shaken his head and decried the present day stage."

"'No sir, young man, the stage today is going backward. There are no plays. There are no players. I could walk on into any musical comedy today, unrehearsed, without any preparation, and make any of the so-called stars take a back seat.' He recalled name after name - stars of his day - play after play - hits of his day - and they seemed to come out and surround him as he spoke of them. And Eddie Foy, huddled in his corner of the dressing room before the make-up table, surrounded by these ghosts of another day, seemed like a king; king of his memories."

"He slipped quietly and slowly into an old faded pair of trousers, a clumsy pair of shoes, an old, soiled blue shirt, and as a finishing touch placed a battered straw hat on a corner of his head and looked at himself reflectively in the mirror. He was made up for the old stage doorman part he was playing at the Orpheum - a sketch called 'The Fallen Star,' in which an old doorman who once knew the applause of Broadway gives friendly advice to a young quarrelsome dancing team. 'I like it better than anything I have ever done,' Eddie Said after a moment. 'I could go on doing it for the rest of my life.'"

"And so, it has come to pass that Eddie got his wish - he played the sketch the rest of his life. We both agreed the little vaudeville act, while not as pretentious as the glittering musical plays in which Eddie made Broadway laugh for 50 years, was till a most suitable vehicle for this famous stage character - we both agreed it was the sort of thing that would carry on - even as Eddie carried on for so many years."

"'Why isn't there a legitimate theater opening tonight in this town?' he almost shouted in his cry against the stage and its present condition. 'Here you have a town of more than 500,000 people and not a single big stage show they can go to see. Where are they all --- all your people tonight --- in the movies! Ten cent theater goers, that's what we have today.'"

"'He had risen. His battered old straw hat had slipped down over his eyes. His hands were raised in a trembling gesture. He voice shook and his eyes were wet. He towered over me as if daring me to defend my generation. He waited a moment and I turned my head away."

"'But I bow out gracefully,' he said in restrained calm, after a minute or two. 'I bow out - I bow out - I bow out,' he mumbled it to himself as he reseated himself in his make-up chair and forced that famous grin of his into action, as if apologizing for his sudden outburst. It was then that I asked him if this really was a farewell tour."

"He sat up, pushed the old hat back on a corner of his head and looked over at me in defiance. 'Quit the shtage? Who? Me? Shay, I'll fall over dead into the orchestra pit firsht.'"

"And now Eddie Foy is dead. His challenge made in that little dressing room was heard and accepted. But Eddie had his way. He did not quit the stage. He was there and bowed out - bowed out gracefully - the Fallen Star."

Foy's death received global notice and countless heartfelt press eulogies by columnists who recalled the comedian as he was in another - happier - day, and of the sheer delight afforded by seeing the elder Foy accompanied by his seven small charges engage in a whirlwind performance of skilled comedy, song and dance --- all set to a gentle tempo that had long since been replaced by jazz. The actor's funeral and burial was a suitably elaborate and widely attended affair, but among those present were the seven who mattered most, his children --- all of whom would eventually share the same burial plot, along with their mother, in New Rochelle, New York as death gradually claimed the children.

In viewing the Foy children's one intact Vitaphone short (the other one is still awaiting discovery of its sound disc element) "Chips Off the Old Block," it's beautifully simple to sense that beyond the pedestrian comedy and music of this much abbreviated rendition of their stage performance is an incredible amount of history and talent --- although perhaps not much of the enthusiasm that there once was in an earlier day --- but these are performers who, quite literally, had spent a lifetime upon the stage, and it shows.

Despite what can most charitably be described as plain looks, Madeline and Mary may first strike the viewer as a hoot ripe for derision when they break into their introductory melody "I Just Roll Along," joined by brother Richard (who bore the most striking resemblance to his father) behind them providing musical accompaniment on the ukulele, but when they begin their dance, and the full orchestra joins in, the invisible spark that differentiates professionals from amateurs suddenly ignites and within those now antiquated vocal harmonies, steps and mannerisms a decade of work upon the vaudeville stage can be not just seen, but palpably felt.

Joined by siblings Charles, Eddie Jr. and Irving for a fast bit of nonsense ranging from wheezy old jokes, acrobatics, specialty dancing, melody ("Bye Bye, Pretty Baby" and a bit of "Miss Annabelle Lee") and two unexpected bizarre and surreal elements provided by the use of grotesque false teeth sported by Eddie and a gruesome recital by Madeline, it's all over before it seems to have barely begun and you're left not quite knowing what you've seen except that you'd like to have seen more or that it lasted longer --- and, generally speaking, that's not typical of the great bulk of Vitaphone shorts of this period.

Following a flurry of activity as the 20's closed and the 30's dawned, Charles would go it alone in vaudeville before entering theater management as would Richard, Eddie Jr. would make his mark upon the stage (Ziegfeld's "Show Girl" in 1929,) while Madeline, Mary and Irving would continue on the vaudeville stage until the early 1930's, using the old reliable "Chips Off the Old Block" billing. However, the fact that something seemed missing with only half the siblings present didn't escape audiences or reviewers.

As described in a Madison, Wisconsin review from early June of 1931 of the vaudeville bill at the RKO Orpheum:

"BERT NAGLE: Ideal act for kids and grown-ups. Something different. Human animals cavorting about the stage and in the aisles. Good dancing. Good act. Big hand from audience. ROXY LA ROCCA: Harpist. Old Timer. Good. Uses all the old classical standbys, but relieves act by considerable clowning and audience-appeal stuff. Good hand from audience. MADELINE, IRVING AND MARY FOY: Three of the seven grownup children of the famous Eddie Foy. Outside of sentimental appeal to old vaude goers, act offers very little. They make you feel comfortable and at ease, because they are so at home on the stage. Fair hand from audience."

When you've spent a lifetime upon the stage, and you're losing applause to animal impersonations and harpists, the time has come to -- as the Senior Foy once said -- to bow out, bow out, bow out. And, professionals that they were, they did.

All of these long ago events, names, places, resentments, squabbles and displays of the human condition matter little today, and even less in the grand scheme of things --- but, they ought not be forgotten either, especially when this family managed to individually and collectively entertain countless numbers of our ancestors. To visit the Foy Family is to visit our past and to re-live past pleasures and resurrect the ghosts that surround us all --- unseen, unfelt but with us nonetheless.

A 1928 78rpm disc recording by vocalist Harry Richman contained two songs which, in an odd way, touch upon two aspects of this family saga. Upon one side is "I Just Roll Along" the melody featured in the Foy children's 1928 Vitaphone short subject, and on the other, in high contrast, the theme song for the MGM Lon Chaney feature "Laugh Clown Laugh" the lyrics of which seem to neatly encapsulate the elder Foy's fall from fame and sad demise. This is one instance where Richman's always over the top performance seems not only fitting, but utterly and precisely right. A bravura performance.

"I Just Roll Along" (1928) Harry Richman

"Laugh Clown Laugh" (1928) Harry Richman

There's something tragic yet heartening in learning that the big, finely appointed New Rochelle home with grand piano, octagonal drawing room and "luxurious trifles" that caused so much unnecessary heartache is no more --- and that marking its former site is the Eddie Foy Park, upon which can be found this plaque --- dedicated to the entertainer by his children.

Until Next Time!

Random Pages from a Family History

18 February 1928

February 1924


San Antonio, Texas - March 1918

Alberta Lea, Minnesota
January 1929

San Antonio, Texas
March 1927

February 1923

Iroquois Theater Fire in Progress
December 30th, 1903

Stage of the Iroquois Theater - Aftermath
December 1903

January 1916

LaCrosse, Wisconsin
April 1922

The Family Foy
Right to Left:
Irving, Richard, Madeline, Mary, Richard, Eddie Jr., Charles, Bryan and E.F. Sr.

Eddie Foy's Dancing Shoes

Sheet Music - Theme Song for "Laugh Clown Laugh" (1928)

Rest after Toil, Peace after Pain
The Foy Family - Together Forever
Holy Sepulchre Cemetery - New Rochelle, N.Y.


22 October 2007

"Sweeping the Clouds Away"

The first anniversary of this blog arrives on October 24th, and I couldn't let the occasion pass without prefacing this entry with a few personal thoughts and observations.

First and foremost, is my gratitude to you --- the reader. Your support and encouragement speaks volumes for the topics discussed here, proving what I always felt from the first --- that the films and personalities of the early sound motion picture era could be, and are, as much a topic of interest as the silent era that preceded it and the "Golden Era" of Hollywood that would follow it.

Although the number of visitors to these pages is a source of immense satisfaction, I can't say as I'm wholly surprised that --- as of this writing --- over 40,000 individuals have found their way here either to be informed or entertained, or to discover a chapter in film history that had been largely relegated to the shadows and odd corners in decades past.

It's a credit to the artists and creative minds behind the material in these pages that I've noted visitors from just about every country on earth --- and have been contacted by students, archivists, researchers, private collectors, and surviving relatives of numerous long deceased and sadly forgotten entertainers who have had fragments of their career revived, examined and celebrated here. No matter the purpose of their writing, the one constant element is their surprise and gratitude in finding information they couldn't find elsewhere --- the small human facts that bridge the insurmountable distance between the past and present. Invariably, I close my replies with "Thank you for taking the time to write." In this instance, thank you for taking the time to read.

Perhaps some day the information gathered here will find its way to a publisher's desk and be given the chance to survive far longer and reach further than this tentative electronic medium allows. Then too, someone may decide to pull the plug on this venture tomorrow. Whatever the case, it's my pleasure to aid these distant voices, names and titles in doing what they were created to do --- and still yearn to do --- to entertain.

The DVD release of Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer," the sales ranking of which is doubtless dropping the jaws of studio heads (and doubtless prompting inquiries of "why haven't we thought of releasing this stuff before?") may well serve to spearhead future DVD release of material that didn't previously seem to warrant attention. As always, money talks --- and if there's money to be made, well... you know how it goes.

There's little additional praise I can add to the uniformly glowing reviews (discounting the inane opinion piece disguised as a review published in the increasingly impotent "Entertainment Weekly") the 3-disc DVD package has received, except to make a special point of applauding the efforts of George Feltenstein of Warner Home Video, without whom the project likely never would have developed and evolved into the loving tribute to the birth of the sound film that it is.

Although most copies of the DVD package (including my own) contain two maddening but ultimately small errors in the form of one reel of "The Jazz Singer" being out-of-sync with the accompanying Vitaphone audio (some may argue ruining one of film film's most exhilarating and memorable sequences --- Jolson's first return home to visit his parents) and one of the surviving Technicolor reels from Warner Bros.' 1929 "Gold Diggers of Broadway" (which contained the "Tip Toe thru the Tulips" number) being swapped for a pretty but leaden ballet sequence from MGM's 1930 "The Rogue Song," I urge all outraged parties to consider what we felt our chances were of seeing any of this material, so beautifully presented, a mere ten years ago. In all, these errors (unusual for Warner Home Video and likely to be remedied by the company) are the merest of speed-bumps on a monumental first step forward toward re-introduction of this vintage material.

From "The Romance of Al Jolson," a syndicated feature story that appeared in newspapers in November of 1927:

"After his first hardships in New York, Jolson got what he has described as a precarious foothold in vaudeville of the smallest time. "

"'I recall how I came to black up vividly,' said Jolson recently. 'While I was unable to employ a regular dresser, I had an old Southern Negro with me occasionally. One night, this old semi-dresser of mine said to me while I was playing in a little theater in Brooklyn, 'Boss, if your skin be black, they always laugh.' It was a good idea and I thought I would try it. I got some burnt cork and blacked up and rehearsed before the old man. When I got through, he gave me a chuckle and said, 'Mister Jolson, you just as funny as me.' I had some friends even in those days, and some of them got me a chance in the spot on the Colonial bill in New York. I had a tryout and they put me on.'"

"Jolson in black face was an overnight hit, and from the November days of 1910 he was uniformly successful."

"Uniformly successful" also aptly describes "The Jazz Singer" itself. Indeed, one can find the film nearly in continual release across the States from it's 1927 arrival well into the mid-1930's, in advertisements heralding "By Audience Request" or serving as the centerpiece in anniversary celebrations for theaters marking the passage of years since their installation of talking picture equipment.

Here's Jolson in pure, undiluted and gimmick-free form, performing "Avalon," from the 1920 stage production "Sinbad." Utterly unique. The supreme vocalist of another day --- one we can't re-visit and one we can only attempt to understand.

"Avalon" (1920)

Only Jolson would have the audacity to swipe the hit song from the 1930 Technicolor musical "Hold Everything!" (a lost film) and make it all his own --- and, more to the point, only Jolson would have succeeded so wildly as he did --- and does.

"When the Little Red Roses Get the Blues for You" (1930)

"Blue River" was a 1927 tune that lent itself to a myriad of interpretations --- from the soulful, to the gleeful, to the realm of the washboard and banjo. Al Jolson's rendition is a little bit of all and a lot of the Jolson bravura that required the melody --- no matter what it's nature, to adapt to him --- rather than the other way around.

"Blue River" (1927) Al Jolson

A few additional renditions of the same melody are offered here as well, each a gem in its own right. The plaintive bittersweet spin by Sophie Tucker, the richly orchestrated thumping dance arrangement by Jean Goldkette & His Orchestra, and the always spot-on and damn near perfect vocal group, The Revelers.

"Blue River" (1927) Sophie Tucker

"Blue River" (1927) Jean Goldkette & His Orchestra

"Blue River" (1927) The Revelers

The Revelers (seen here circa early 1926) --- who, we're told in a syndicated news item from May of 1930, "literally revel in work."

"The quartet, organized in 1918 as 'The Shannon Four,' have since masqueraded under more than a dozen titles, have appeared on 16 commercial radio programs, and at one time appeared on national radio networks for four hours a week while its members also did solo work on other radio programs."

"Today, these four men and the accompanist may be heard as the Palmolive Revelers and the Raleigh Rovers, while as soloists the individual members are appearing from time to time on the Atwater Kent, General Motors, Mobil Oil, Victor RCA and other programs."

"Three of the four singers have remained together from the start and only once has the accompanist been changed. The members of the original Shannon Four came to New York more than 12 years ago, each seeking a musical education and a career. They were introduced to one another when the Victor company organized them into a quartet to make popular recordings."

"Irish songs were very popular then and hence the name of the Shannon Four was adopted. The group then included Charles Hart (first tenor,) Lewis James (second tenor,) Elliott Shaw (baritone,) and Wilfred Glenn (bass.) For more than six years they continued to make recordings without appearing before a visible audience, and the technique required in the recording studios helped them considerably when they appeared for the first time on the air in an improvised Westinghouse studio at Newark nearly nine years ago."

"Even in the sunny days of the phonograph, their popularity was so great that numerous offers made it necessary for them to change their name frequently. In addition to the name of the Shannon Four, they were also the Victor Revelers, the Singing Sophomores and the Brunswick Merrymakers. Then, on the radio, you may have heard them as the Blue Ribbon Quartet, the Reading Revelers, Imperial Imps, Pennsylvania Keystoners, Everready Revelers, Landay Revelers, Wrigley Quartet, Dodge Quartet and the Seiberling Singers."

"About five years ago, Charles Hart left the quartet to do individual work and Franklyn Baur took his place as first tenor. Ed Smalle joined the group as accompanist and arranger. Baur stayed with the quartet less than a year, and James Melton, a southern youngster with a rich melodious voice, took his place, while two years later, Frank Black, accomplished pianist, composer and arranger, joined the group. Hence, the Revelers now are Melton, James, Shaw, Glenn and Black."

"Not until four summers ago did the Revelers see an audience professionally. Until then, all their work had been confined to recording and broadcasting. A British theatrical manager induced them to appear in concert in Great Britain, and they sang several times before the Prince of Wales and Princess Mary. They went back to London the next year, and the following year visited Paris and Berlin. A similar trip was made last year, and the quartet is as popular abroad as in this country."

From a 1930 press release for the currently quite lost RKO part-Technicolor musical film "Hit the Deck":

"Bigger and better - to borrow an ancient and often abused movie slogan - briefly describes Radio Pictures' version of the popular stage success 'Hit the Deck.'"

"Although the musical comedy established box office records throughout the United States, the stage offering could only suggest the immense scope, color and narrative value of 'Hit the Deck' in its present celluloid form."

"The 'Hallelujah' song is an example of what is meant. It was a solo on the stage. In Radio Pictures' interpretation it becomes a lengthy sequence - a Negro spiritualist meeting which involved 100 vocalist, dancers and players, and introduces to film fans the colorful Marguerita Padula, a singer whose voice has a startling range of four octaves! This same parallel may be expected in other comparisons of the old and new 'Hit the Deck.'"

"More than a million dollars and three months time were spent in making the film. Elaborate sets which required an army of workmen many weeks to build, a chorus of 189 trained dancers and a unit stock company of 300 selected players - were on constant call. Three sets were built at an approximate cost of $200,000 involving 300 men working in three shifts for five weeks. This included an exact replica of the forward deck of the U.S.S. West Virginia. The deck was completely equipped with cabins, bridge, gangways, a revolving gun turret, and four new model 14-inch naval guns."

"The guns were designed to support the weight of 30 chorus girls - 15 on each - and had a revolving angle of 90 degrees, and an elevation of 25 degrees. The battleship sequence and several of the coffee shop sequences were photographed in Technicolor." No prints --- Technicolor or monochrome --- are known to have survived for "Hit the Deck," making it yet another one of those tantalizing "what if?" or "if only!" films that pock mark film study of the 1928-1930 period.

While existing photos indicate a production of a somewhat more modest scale than the one described by RKO publicists, the reality of "Hit the Deck" is still undeniably impressive, and one longs for a glimpse of those (somewhat) mammoth sets framing the music which has long since outlived the stage show and film which initially introduced it. With such music, and such visual magnificence, even the oftentimes overwhelming presence of Jack Oakie would be more than forgiven, and welcomed.

Two selections from "Hit the Deck." Nat Shilkret leads the Victor Orchestra in "Hallelujah," (sadly sans four-octave singer Marguerita Padula) and the chirpy "Sometimes I'm Happy," is handled by Roger Wolfe Kahn & His Orchestra with Franklyn Baur providing the vocal here too. Interestingly, these two selections were paired on the same 78rpm disc, providing a mighty powerful musical wallop for a half buck!

"Hallelujah" (1927) and "Sometimes I'm Happy" (1927)

(Technicolor Sequence)
LONG SHOT - Chorus of Paramount Publix boys:
"Trumpeter, what is the call you play?
Trumpeter, is it the Reveille?
Call them east, call them west,
Call them loud and clear!
From the least to the best,
Everyone is here, so let's go - get together,
And let's show spirit and let nobody queer it!
We admit it's a bit of a crusade,
When a revue's made...
Try to be somewhat different.
New tunes, sentimental and blue tunes,
Bright stars that are not overnight stars,
And a crowd who'll be proud,
If new friends they have made,
When you've seen

So begins the remarkable pre-title opening sequence of the 1930 musical revue "Paramount on Parade," one of the most elusive all the surviving early all-star screen revues --- that despite the fact it has been largely restored (carefully cobbled together from extant picture and sound elements) but with the frustrating status of a "screening by appointment only" archive gem. To be sure, "Paramount on Parade" can be viewed in any number of smeary bootleg Beta-to VHS-to DVD dubs which can be readily found on internet auction sites (and in eye-straining pixilated clips on YouTube) but even these stem from miserable, highly mangled, murk and blur source prints that once played regularly on Public Television and early cable venues. Here then, an original highly detailed dialogue script serves dual roles as a curiosity and reference tool, allowing us a glimpse of the content of "Paramount on Parade" as it originally appeared to audiences in early 1930. (Note: The length of "reels," as listed in the dialogue script, appears to vary from just over five to ten-or-so minutes.)

Following the title cards (also originally in Technicolor, which explains the odd looking ill-suited replacement main titles on most surviving prints that lift music from the final reel as accompanying audio) the multi-hued format continues in a lengthy but breathless visual montage of jump-cut close-ups suggesting all the elements of the production being put together: Brocades - Hands cutting cloth - Woman at sewing machine - Hands pinning a costume on a girl - A page of sheet music - A violinist - A cornetist - Piano keyboard - Drums - A trombonist - A violnist - Legs of dancing girls - Feet of dancing girls - Choreographer David Bennett - A tapestry curtain.

Then, as the camera trucks back and forth, in and out, and captures the dancers from overhead, a dance number ensues with the lyrics:

"Backbone! They say they're the backbone!
That's so, but without us there's no show.
With our kicks and our tricks, we'll prove it to you,
We're the legs of this revue!"

At this point, the scene switches to the footage which opens the truncated version of the film, the entrance of Leon Errol, Jack Oakie and Skeets Gallagher, who serve as Masters of Ceremony for the revue. It would appear that this footage was also originally in Technicolor, as it comprises the last quarter of the film's first reel.

The second reel of "Paramount on Parade" consists of the Lillian Roth & Buddy Rogers number "Anytime's the Time to Fall in Love," and the third reel is that of the film detective parody featuring Jack Oakie, Clive Brook, William Powell, Eugene Pallette, and Warner Oland.

Reel Four begins with a bit of comedic dialogue between Skeets Gallagher and dialect comedian Harry Green, and concludes with the Maurice Chevalier & Evelyn Brent modern spin on the French Apache dance.

Reel Five opens in monochrome for a brief scene of Maurice Chevalier welcoming vocalist Nino Martini at an ocean liner gangplank, before fading out and into a Technicolor sequence in which Martin sings "Torno Sorrento" ("Come Back to Sorrento") as a gondolier guiding a boat containing David Newell and an unbilled young lady. Newell also figures in the next sequence in the reel, a comedic hospital sketch (with Leon Errol, Jean Arthur, and Phillips Holmes) which serves to introduce Jack Oakie and Zelma O'Neill in "I'm in Training For You."

The film's sixth reel opens with the concluding half of "I'm In Training For You," before morphing into the Technicolor "Carmen" parody, which opens with a chorus from the Bizet opera featuring Kay Francis as the title figure --- who is first seen framed in the arms of her dancing partner. Following this straight rendition, a mysterious toreador enters --- cape held over his face, followed by a chorus of similarly costumed males.

"Who is he?" murmurs the crowd as they gather about the cloaked figure. "Yes, who are you?" asks Carmen/Francis as she slinks over to the toreador. The cloak drops: "Huh? What a question!" bleats Harry Green --- and the disappointment on Kay Francis' regal visage can only be imagined as Harry Green sings "I'm Isador, the Toreador!" So concludes reel six.

Reel seven consists entirely of Ruth Chatterton's "My Marine," (with Fredric March) while the film's eighth reel is split between Chevalier's "All I Want Is Just One Girl" park sketch and Mitzi Green's reprise of the tune in impersonations of Chavalier and Charles Mack of "The Two Black Crows."

The ninth reel of "Paramount on Parade" is divided between Helen Kane's "Boop-oop-a-doop" classroom sequence (also featuring Mitzi Green) and Dennis King's Technicolor rendition of "Nichavo," which opens in a highly melodramatic vein with a costumed King at the gallows, attended by a hangman -- standing before a bloodthirsty crowd: "People of Paris! Shall I not speak before I die? Death is a little thing, for love is eternal. I have been given a greater thing than life, and I am content to hang!"

The camera cuts to the unexpected sight of Skeets Gallagher climbing over the courtyard fence: "Hey! Hey! Wait a minute, will you? You can't hang Dennis King now!" "Oh, hello, Skeets! What are you doing here?" asks King. Gallagher replies, "I've got some good news for you. I'm going to have you sing for the Paramount revue." Film Director Ludwig Berger ("The Vagabond King," "Playboy of Paris") enters the scene as Gallagher continues: "Dr. Berger, you can't hang Denny now! Will you have the Dolly Twins take the rope of his neck, and make it snappy please!"

"Skeets, You can't talk to my director like that, old man," protests Dennis King, and Berger adds "What's the idea of interfering? Now, I've been trying to hang this man for eight weeks, and just as I'm about to see him swing and get rid of him, you come and interrupt? Why?"

Gallagher responds, "Ludwig, I agree with you, but this is for - he must sing for the Paramount Revue. You understand?" The attending crowd murmurs angrily. "I think I'm losing!" exclaims Gallagher. Dennis King steps in, "Gentlemen, gentlemen! One moment please. Now, apparently I am the object of this little argument, hmm? And, inasmuch as I am going to die anyhow, surely it doesn't matter if I sing before or after my death. Anyhow, nichavo!"

"Pray, nay, what is this nichavo?" asks Gallagher. "Ah, you see what a clever star I have?," beams Berger, "He now speaks Russian! What does it mean, Denny?" Dennis King laughs, and responds "Well, nichavo is a Russian word! In English it means 'nothing matters,' or 'what the......" Berger and King cut off the expletive by calling out "Orchestra! Please!," and the remainder of the reel presents King's vocal rendition of "Nichavo" in Technicolor close-up.

The tenth reel of "Paramount on Parade" consists of a bit of amateur magic by Skeets Gallagher which serves as intro for Abe Lyman's Orchestra and Nancy Carroll's "Dancing to Save Your Sole," and the first half of the 11th reel begins in monochrome --- setting the scene for the second Technicolor half, "Let Us Drink to the Girl of My Dreams."

The prismatic sequence opens with a view of Gary Cooper, Richard Alrlen, James Hall, David Newell and Phillips Holmes in a richly furnished Plantation house study --- as seen through an ornate picture frame --- clad in hunting garb, and about to propose toasts. Arlen toasts to Lady Luck, and Hall to Sporting Pluck --- but Cooper gently protests such toasts: "You all seem to favor sport and chance, but I prefer a toast to sweet romance. Say there, Tom, Dick and Jim, fill your glasses to the brim! Let us drink to the girl of our dreams!"

The trio continues the melody as they exit the study and enter the grand foyer of the mansion, positioning themselves to gaze upwards at a curving staircase, down which glide Fay Wray, Mary Brian and Jean Arthur. Brian picks up the melody: "Say there, strong flaming youth, won't you tell us all the truth, are we really the girls of your dreams?" Wray continues, "Do you find your mistake in the morn when you awake, are we really the girls of your dreams?" Mary Brian pairs with Gary Cooper, Fay Wray with Richard Arlen, and that leaves Jean Arthur to ask "If you say what you mean, and you mean what you say, to convince us there's always a way, so it seems," as she pairs with James Hall.

A series of close-ups of the three couples in loving poses fill the screen, as Mary Brian again asks "Would you care if we knew, all the rest you've told that to? Are we really the girls of your dreams?" Convincing seems beside-the-point, as the three couples dance to an orchestral reprise of the melody before the girls slowly retreat up the stairway and the boys return to the study where they resume the poses they held when the scene began --- and the camera pulls back to reveal the trio again returned to the confines of a picture frame.

The final solo star-turn place on the program, in the film's 12th reel, belongs to Clara Bow whose contribution to the revue was filmed well after everything else had been shot, owing to what the press described as a bout of illness. The reel concludes with the first portion of a clever comedic sketch called "Impulses," in which we see guests assembled at a cocktail party (which includes George Bancroft, Kay Francis, Jane Keithley, and William Austin) engaging in the polite and dull sort of banter one still encounters at these affairs --- where forced enthusiasm and revelry is the order of the day.

As reel 13 begins, Bancroft addresses the audience: "Now of course, I don't know how you feel about it, but my impulse was not to conduct myself as I did. There's an idea. Now, if everybody there had followed impulses, I imagine the party would have been somewhat different." And, as you can surmise if you've not seen this sketch, indeed it is!

The second half of "Paramount On Parade"'s 13th and final reel --- originally in Technicolor, belongs to Maurice Chevalier and "Sweeping the Clouds Away."

A recent casual and decidedly non-scientific poll conducted in these pages revealed that "Paramount on Parade" is the one restored but unavailable early musical film which readers would most like to see on DVD, no matter how imperfect the existing UCLA restoration is. It is hoped that someone, somewhere, in position to make such things happen, is listening.

"Paramount on Parade" Medley (1930)
"All I Want is Just One Girl" (1930) - Gus Arnheim & His Orchestra
"Anytime's the Time to Fall in Love" (1930) - Casa Loma Orchestra
"Sweeping the Clouds Away" (1930) - Maurice Chevalier

At the same time that the 1928 F.B.O. production "Coney Island" was in general release around the country (and more on this lost film below,) a tragic and no-less melodramatic real-life event at New York City's famed amusement park were being reported via wire services in August of that year.

In the midst of a blistering and lengthy heat-wave, with temperatures along the Eastern seaboard wavering between 90 and 102 degrees, a reported 800 to 900,000 people were seeking the modicum of relief available at the seaside resort on Saturday, the 4th of August --- packing the beaches, boardwalks, bathing pavilions and amusement venues.

Late in the afternoon as the crowd reached a peak, for many arrived late with the expectation of making a night of it, unexpectedly, the sky began to darken --- a hot wind was whipped up, and within moments a tremendous electrical storm was underway, sending down pouring rain and hail in torrential sheets of precipitation. Acting almost as one --- and all with one thought --- the masses of people all made a mad dash for either temporary shelter wherever it could be found or for the subway entrances that serviced the long stretch of sea and sand from Coney Island, to Brighton Beach, to Rockaway Beach. The combination of sea-water, lightning, rain slicked surfaces and hundreds of thousands of people crowded into small areas would prove fatal for a variety of reasons --- collectively and individually.

As reported via the Associated Press: "Mrs. Edna Connors, 37, of Coney Island, was wading at Coney when the storm broke. Bystanders said there was a vivid lightning flash which seemed to play about the woman's head. She fell without a cry and was carried to a pavilion. A physician said the bolt apparently has struck her full in the face and she had died instantly."

"A throng that police estimated between 800,000 and 900,000 fled in a milling mob for shelter as rain and hail began to fall. Among the jostling crowd that headed for the elevated railway platform at Brighton Beach, near Coney Island, were Gertrude Neldenberg, 16, and her mother. The two were near the edge of the platform when the girl fell, or was pushed to the tracks and rolled against the third rail. Men held back the frantic mother while a train dispatcher shut off the power. The girl was dead when a physician arrived."

"At Rockaway Beach, the high wind and pounding hail ripped a light wire from its pole. Patrolman Arthur Fash, 52, picked up the loose end to carry it out of a busy boulevard and the heavy voltage passed thru his body. He died before an ambulance came. Lightning struck a three-story frame house at Coney Island, but six families escaped injury."

From press material for the 1928 film "Coney Island":

"No expense has been spared to make 'Coney Island' the finest amusement park story ever to have been filmed, FBO Studio officials claim. The picture has been directed by that veteran of the megaphone, Ralph Ince, and stars Lois Wilson and Lucilla Mendez. "

"Those who have journeyed to New York and seen 'Coney Island' will recognize many of the famous old landmarks oath international resort. Ince traveled 3,000 miles to get actual pictures of the midsummer crowds. One of the largest and fastest riding devices known in this country, 'The Giant Dipper,' known to thousands, was taken over to two days and nights that the proper atmosphere might be obtained and a truthful picture be presented to the people who have not had the opportunity of seeing the great playground."

"During the filming of the fight scenes, everyone but actual actors and employees of the studio were banned from the ride. For two whole days and nights, cameras ground their monotonous chants, flaming arc lights flickered, assistant directors, actors and employees scurried about that the work might be accomplished and the resort visitors might resume their rides."

Improbable though the plot line of "Coney Island" reads, it doubtless afforded views of the park that would elevate the status of this lost film to that of an invaluable record of all that is gone and sorely missed from the famous stretch of sand and surf:

"Tammany Burke, young owner of a giant roller coaster, is fighting heavy odds against a syndicate led by financial baron Hughey Cooper. Assisted by his sweetheart, Joan, and her father, Jingles Wellman, formerly a clown, Burke prepares for a sabotage of his machine by syndicate hirelings. In the midst of a great battle, the riot squad arrives to arrest the troublemakers, and Burke and his sweetheart are left in happy possession of their roller coaster."

It's interesting to note that today, when so many audience members are irked by movie trailers that seem to take special pains to reveal key plot points and neatly encapsulate every scene and line of dialogue that might possibly leave something to enjoy in seeing the film proper, that "Coney Island" --- like countless other films of the period --- were frequently publicized by having virtually their entire scenario serialized in newspapers over the space of several days (usually a week, sometimes even more) leaving little to the imagination of the prospective ticket-buyer other than perhaps the final reel of the film --- if even that! An example of the serialization of FBO's 1928 "Coney Island" can be viewed at right.

One Vitaphone film which received the Serialization-as-Publicity treatment was also perhaps the most unlikely candidate for such treatment --- the 1929 musical revue "Show of Shows."

Playwright, free-lance screenwriter and press agent Willard Keefe was called upon to create some sort of workable newspaper serialization for "Show of Shows," and in a rather remarkable but needless flight of fancy, Keefe fabricated a fictional story and set of characters which he then had interact with the creative and artistic personnel of the revue, frequently placing his characters on the set of the various production numbers contained in the revue, as they were being filmed and engaging in conversation with the revue's performers. The result is oftentimes as delightful as it is surreal (Chester Morris and a fictional character inspect the standing set for the "Celestial Fantasy" number) and disorienting. Naturally, I thought this concept unusual enough to warrant inclusion of all entries I could locate --- out of what seems to have originally been twelve or thirteen. They can be found at the conclusion of this entry should you care to browse one or few or all.

To accompany your journey into this alternate reality, a magnificent orchestral medley from "Show of Shows" is offered here, during which the spirited and clever arrangement utilizes nearly all of the film's melodies --- including two which appear to have never been commercially recorded for the 78rpm home market: "Singing in the Bathtub," "The Only Song I Know," "Your Love Is All I Crave," "Lady Luck," and "One Hour of Love."

Medley - "Show of Shows" (1929)

Paramount's 1929 part-Technicolor "Redskin," (advertised as "Mostly Color" in some plain speaking newspapers) is a joy to behold in its new DVD incarnation, as an inclusion in the hefty "Treasures III" American Film Archive set. If there's one sour note in the film's otherwise pristine presentation, it would be that only three reels of the nine reel feature are offered with the original synchronized music and effects track --- the remaining discs deemed lost in the printed and on-screen liner notes.

If the online database for audio holdings at The Vitaphone Project website is accurate, it would appear that four additional reels could have been married to their original soundtrack. Serviceable though the carefully arranged new piano score is for "Redskin," it strikes me as being dramatically at odds with the lush visuals and late-1920's setting --- a time at which a lone piano accompaniment would seem as much a product of a much earlier day as a 1912 Biograph split-reel offering.

Heard on the synchronized soundtrack of "Redskin" is vocalist Helen Clark (pictured left,) at the time a Victor recording artist but whose career stretched back to the early 1900's.

To conclude this entry, we can listen to Helen Clark circa 1911 warbling the title tune from the stage production of "So Long Letty," which would reach the talking picture screen one year after "Redskin," and two renditions of the theme song for the 1929 "mostly in color" Richard Dix photoplay --- one by Ben Selivin & His Orchestra (with vocal by Mildred Hunt) and the other by Bert Lown's band, with the familiar Irving Kaufman warbling the lyrics.

"So Long Letty" (1911) Helen Clark
"Redskin" (1929) Vocal by Mildred Hunt
"Redskin" (1929) Vocal by Irving Kaufman

Until Next Time!

Vitaphone Anniversary
Kingston, New York 1928

Vitaphone Anniversary & Easter Week
Mason City, Iowa - 1929

Clearly the Safe Choice for Theaters - 1928

How Much Sound is Too Much Sound?
August, 1928

Stock Graphic for Halloween Theater Celebration
New Castle, Pennsylvania - 1930

"Paramount on Parade" Retail Tie-in
June 1930

"Redskin" (1929) - Sheet Music Graphic

"Show of Shows" Fanciful Serialization
Late 1929 - Installment 1

(Warners' Publicity Dept. Misidentifies Alice White in photo!)

Installment 2

Installment 3

Installment 5

Installment 6

Installment 7

Installment 10

Installment 11

"From Shakespeare to Jazz"
Ad for "Show of Shows"
Fresno, California - February 1930

Doubtless lured by "The Romance of Al Jolson"
News Oddity - April 1927

"Must you sing of days gone by?

Must you always sigh?
Tell me why your song is sad --
Never glad --
Do you hold the memory of a vanished dream?"
Lyrics - "Blue River" (1927)