Friday, February 7, 2014

The Girl who made Vaudeville Famous

You all know by now how much I love the wacky and diverse nature of history, especially the stuff that makes up American History. So much of it is not really known or taught and damn is it interesting. At least to me but we've established over the years of this blog that I'm a little nutty when it comes to my history. You like it that way. You know you do.

Vaudeville, the precursor to the movies and the birthplace of stand of comedy. The form of enteraintment tha gave us people like Gypsy Rose Lee, Abbot and Costello (Who's on First is arguabley the greatest peice of sketch comedy in the history of comedy) and our blog topic Eva Tanguay.

Who is Eva Taguay you ask? (Well not really ask more like sit and ponder about it at your desks or ipads or whatever thingie-mahjigs you use to read my blog) Well, little Ms. Eva is know as the 'girl who made vaudeville famous' least she is because she said so.

Eva was born in 1878 in Quebec (those wacky Canucks!) Before she was 6 her family had moved from Canada to ya' do. While still a little girl, she developed a passion for performing. By the age of ten she was actually performing professionally  in a stage adaptation of Little Lord Fauntleroy. In 1901 she landed a spot in a Broadway show.  By 1905 she as a solo vaudeville act and a huge hit.

She actually had a passable voice, nothing to write home about, but she was an amazingly engaging performing as well as a whiz at marketing. Plus she had a tendecny to sing bawdy and suggestive songs. What can I say, sex sells, dirty birdies! Eva went on to have a long lasting career sometimes earning as much as 3,500 a week at the height of her fame. Adjusted for inflation that's roughly 85,000 now-a-days.

Aleister Crowley (Yeah, that Aleister Crowly, the one who founded the Golden Dawn and was a big old occultist ad sexual revolutionary) compared her to such music hall queens as Marie Lloyd and Yvette Guilbert. Mainly he liked her because she was a saucy minx who didn't really give a damn what people thought of her. She caused a row where ever she went with stories of kidnapping, stolen jewels, and throwing a stagehand down a flight of stairs (I myself had felt the need to toss a stagehand so she gets some sympathy from me on this one)

Her costumes were just as extravagant as her persona. In 1910 she appeared in a costume made entirely out of the newly minted Lincoln penny. She also wore a dress made of coral that weighed 45 pounds and one made of dollar bills. (Sound like anyone who know...Lady Gaga I'm looking at you girl) 

Eva retired from the stage in the 1930s, having lost millions in the crash of '29. She lost her sight to cataracts, which was reverseed thanks to surgery paid for by Sophie Tucker - her friend from the vaudeville days.

Eva died in 1947 at the age of 68 and is buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery. She was portrayed by Mitzi Gaynor in the 1953 Biopic "The I Don't Care Girl" which means it's pretty white-washed like Hollywood did of it's racy stuff in the 40s-60s.

Anywho...Eva was really a precursor to Madonna, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, as well as others who go against the grain. These stars aren't really doing anything that wasn't done in Vaudeville in the 1900s. Everything old is new again. 

This is a recording, it's grainy and hard to understand as it would have been a Victrola recording, of her most famous song 'I Don't Care' which was recorded in 1922. She performed it in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1909 after getting Old Ziggy to take it away from Sophie Tucker. 

Eva spent a lot of her own money on promotions like billboards and such (She was doing what Angelyne does before Angelyne was even a speck of pink on the California landscape) She also married several times and divorced just as many. Plus she had affairs, highly publicized affairs. Many believe this was all a ploy to keep her name in the papers and in the public's eyes (Hey Kim Kardashian...your tricks are old hat.)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

America the Beautiful...and the diverse

There's been lots of controversy about the Coca-Cola Company's recent Super Bowl commercial, "America is Beautiful". I'm sure you've seen it. The commercial is filled with clips from all over the country, starring everyday people in this big melting pot we call home. The controversy apparently comes from the fact the song is sung not entirely in English. Instead parts are sung in Spanish, Mandarin, Hindi, and other languages. (For the record I think it rocks because let's face it kiddos 1. America the Beautiful is NOT the National Anthem 2. Unless you are 100 percent belonging to a specific tribe of Native Americans, we're all children of immigrants and 3. It was just plain beautiful. So there) Because I like to the stir the (melting) pot a bit - see what I did there?? - the topic for today's blog is the woman who wrote America the Beautiful.  Katharine Lee Bates. 

Katharine was born August 12, 1859 in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and was the daughter of a Congregation pastor William Bates and Cornelia Frances Lee. Katharine was a smart cookie having graduated from Wellesly College in 1880. She went on to teach high school until 1893 (The same year Queen Liliu'okalani was overthrown remember?) before returning to Wellesly as an instructor.

She is well known for her children's books, travel books, and volumes of poetry. She also wrote the lyrics to America the Beautiful. She helped to popularize Mrs. Claus as well in a series of poems. One is called Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride. She contributed to periodicals like the Atlantic Monthly, The Congregationalist, and others. She was a lifelong, active Republican until 1924 when she switched parties to endorse John Davis instead of Woodrow Wilson. She spent the better part of her life as writer, teacher, and activist.

Bates died in Wellesly, Mass on September 28, 1929.

Now the 'controversial' part of her life. I put it in quotes because I know that in some circles it will be considered so. For me...not so much.

Bates never 'married' but lived with Katharine Coman, a history and political economy teacher and founder of the Wellesly College Economics department, for 25 years until Coman's death in 1915. That's right, dirty birdies, the writer of America the Beautiful was gay. Suddenly all the bologna about the song not being sung in English in the commercial doesn't seem as big of a deal does it? (Not that is was really that big of a deal)

So there go. Feel free to run out and tell some of those cranky-butt complainers and see what happens...oh...and sing when you do. (I'm voting for heads to explode. Because that's how I am)

Monday, February 3, 2014

America's 'Titanic'

We've all seen paddewheelers in the movies and TV, some have seem them at Disneyland, others I'm sure have read about them. There is nothing that can conjure up the pageantry of the Old South like a paddle-boat (I mean this statement in regards of accepted stereotypes. When someone thinks of Louisiana or Mark Twain one can't hep but think paddlewheeler. Just saying) There is one such ship that will go down in history, but I bet you've never heard of the American Titanic.
On April 27, 1865 the SS Sultana, a Mississippi side wheel steamboat, exploded and become America's biggest maritime disaster. The story however was mostly overshadowed by another national event...the death of John Wilkes Booth that happened only the day before.
On April 21 1865 the Sultana took off from New Orleans with a relatively small group of passengers. Many were Union soldiers who had recently been released from a Confederate Prison and were on their way home. There was also some livestock on board. Like you do.
In Vicksburg they stopped to do some repairs on the boiler system. They were pretty shoddy and more of a patch job then the repairs that were truly needed. Actually what was needed was an entirely new boiler. Now in Vicksburg the small contingent of about 100 passengers blossomed into about 2,000. People fought, bribed, and crowded their way onto the ship until it was nay bursting at the seams. The capacity for the boat was only around 375 so you can see that it was severely overcrowded. Also many of the soldiers were weak and sick from their incarceration.
About seven miles from Memphis the shoddily repaired boiler blew. The explosion flung passengers everywhere. Off the deck into the water. Into each other. It also torn a huge hole in a section of the deck. Hot coals were strewn everywhere from the explosion thus turning the wooden paddlewheeler into an inferno.
It took an hour for the closest ship to reach the Sultana. The remains of the ship sunk near modern day Marion. Many of the passengers actually died of hypothermia because the water was near freezing. Many bodies were never recovered.
So there you go. The story of America's Titanic. Not as newsworthy of course but only because it was overshadowed by old Johnny Booth getting his comeuppance.
In 1982 the wreckage from the Sultana was located...under a soybean field. The Mississippi River has changed a bit over the years.
There are several songs about the Sultana. Check out Cory Brennan's Sultana for a good one.
Until next time, maninis.