A pioneering photographer of the early cinema, James Abbe captured the spirit of entertainment in New York, Hollywood and Europe in the 1920s with his magically-lit portraits of the stars of screen and stage. A unique album of show business personalities, this book brings together Abbe’s iconic images of silent movie stars, his exuberant studies of revues at the Folies Bergere, and his fascinating record of early British cinema. Concluding with his reportage of the turbulent politics of the 1930s, Limelight encapsulates an era through one man’s brilliant career.
Born in Alfred, Maine, James Abbe’s boyhood took place in Portsmouth, Virginia. His family owned the most important bookstore in that maritime city. At its counter James sold his photographs of ship launchings and arrivals taken with an inexpensive camera. Saturated with the print culture of the period, Abbe realized that photography was underutilized as illustration in American periodicals. He began placing photo illustrations with magazines in 1916. In 1917 he moved to New York City.
A sociable, witty man, Abbe had little trouble placing photographs in periodicals, but his break into the world of theatrical photography took place when he made a number of memorable portraits of the Barrymore brothers on stage in costume during dress rehearsals for “The Jest” in 1919. Abbe became fascinated with the nascent movie industry. He did portrait photography for several New York based cinema groups, especially for D.W. Griffith, and became the third New York based camera artist (after Karl Struss & Frank Bangs) to venture to the West Coast and work as a lensman in Hollywood. He worked for Mack Sennett for several months, even directing a now-lost comic two reeler, and as a photographer for Photoplay for another several month stint. He was the first bicoastal entertainment photographer.
Abbe had a remarkable talent for inspiring trust in stars and Lillian Gish convinced him to come to Italy in 1923 to work as a lighting consultant and still photographer for “The White Sister.” He closed his Broadway studio, abandoned his wife and children, and moved to Italy. He spent the next period of his life in Europe, photographing movie and stage productions in Paris and London and working as a photojournalist. Several landmark photographs of Joseph Stalin in a trip into the Soviet Union during the late 1930s would make him a celebrity of news photography during the late 1930s. His book, I Photograph Russia, was one of the important volumes of early photojournalism. He signed his vintage prints with his last name in red crayon on the lower-left corner of his images. He used a credit stamp for publicity images. Despite the relatively short duration of his career on Broadway, he was one of the greatest portraitists of the great age of theatrical portrait photography.
Abbe’s theatrical work was one of three photographic specialties he cultivated during his career. He also became an expert movie still photographer in 1920 and an important photojournalist in the 1930s. Brought to New York by magazine publishers interested in his experiments for using photographs as illustrations for narratives, Abbe won overnight renown in 1919 for his stage portraits of performers in costume. Enhancing the available stage lighting with a battery of portable lamps, he made intensely vivid images suggestive of interrupted stories.
A few years ago I went to Frankfurt to visit magician Jeff Sheridan. He was working on some art collages and new magic illusions which were very amazing. Recently I spoke to him on the phone and he mentioned the Youtube video that he made in 2005. I have attached it below. Also, I created this slide show from photographs I have taken of Jeff Sheridan performing in Central Park and images taken from book covers and magazines where he was featured.
It was projected during Jeff’s performance at Monday Night Magic in 2005 which was hosted by Todd Robbins. During the past several decades, Jeff has made Frankfurt his home and during this time he has performed at the legendary variety club Tiger Palast as well as many private engagements (Mercedes, Deutsch bank, etc). He has created many pieces of art/collages during his time in Frankfurt as well as invent many new magic illusions for Milton Bradley Magic Works, Japanese company Tenyo, and Viking Magic.
How: To join in, please leave me a comment on this post and let me know which Buster film or Buster-related topic you want to cover! (Or feel free to send me a message). Please add one of my banners to your blog (see the original post at Silent-ology.com) to help spread the word about this event. During the blogathon itself, when you publish your post leave me a comment with the post’s link, or send me a message, whichever you prefer. Please mention my blog and the name of the event in your blogathon post (such as “This post is part of Sixth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-ology.”) Post whenever you have time during March 9 and 10th, no pressure! If you post before March 9 that’s fine too, just give me a head’s up.
What to write about: Anything and everything related to the brilliant Buster Keaton’s life and career. (Check out his filmography for some ideas.) Articles about his crew and the many wonderful actors who appeared in his films are welcome, too.
For ideas and inspiration, here’s the links to the First, Second,Third,Fourth and Fifth Buster Blogathons. Whew–we’ve got quite a library of Keaton essays going!
I’m also thrilled to share that this year the venerable International Buster Keaton Society is our blogathon’s official sponsor! Founded by Patricia Tobias in 1994, the Keaton Society (nicknamed the “Damfinos”) has worked tirelessly to help preserve Buster’s legacy and introduce him to new generations. From their website:
to foster and perpetuate appreciation and understanding of the life, career, and films of comedian/filmmaker Buster Keaton;
to advocate for historical accuracy about Keaton’s life and work;
to encourage dissemination of information about Keaton;
to endorse preservation and restoration of Keaton’s films and performances;
to do all of the above with a sense of humor that includes an ongoing awareness of the surreal and absurd joy with which Keaton made his films.
If anyone knows about the circus it is Karen E. Gersch. She has performed, created and directed circus and painted, drawn and illustrated it. Her work is beautiful and captures the whimsical nature of the circus soul. Here are a few choice examples of Karen’s work with her descriptive text.
The ‘Nickel’ in this oil painting, “Nickel Storms the Ring” was my teacher and mentor, Nina Krasavina, a star acrobat, aerialist ad the first woman clown ever to grace the ring of the Moscow Circus. After defecting to NYC in the mid-’70s with her husband, Gregory Fedin, they traveled with 3-ring circuses throughout the US and Canada. Nina and Grefory opened their own school, the Circus Arts Center, in an abandoned department store in Hoboken, which they ran for years, training many acts that had longtime professional careers.
“Gordoon”: acrylic on canvas portrait of Jeff Gordon, whose inventive and acrobatic routines made him a beloved and longtime featured performer with the Big Apple Circus, as well as Cirque du Soleil, Ringling Bros., Walt Disney World, and various NYC theatre productions.
“Kenny Raskin/New York Goofs”. Kenny is a physical comedian whose diverse and charming character work enlightens every stage, be it on Broadway, off-off-Broadway or Cirque du Soleil. He is someone I never tire of sketching; captured here during a New York Goofs engagement.
“Little Tich” and his Big Boots Dance was a headlining act of the English music halls in the early 1900s. Tich (Harry Relph) was only 4’6” tall, but left large footprints with his eccentric and energetic dance routines, combining balancing skills with acrobatics. The slender wooden boots he performed in were 28 inches long! Relph is considered the forerunner of all screen comedy.
Darja is a Latvian-born acrobat whose professional partners happen to be small dogs and a potpourri of cats. The setting for her act is a living room, complete with two dressers, a nightstand, and an oval carpet. The drawers glide open and cats climb gracefully out, then jump in an arc to her shoulders, where they run and balance along with her extended limbs, as she turns walkovers, handstands, cartwheels, and splits. A dog poses perfectly on her top hat while she executes back rolls and contortional poses.
Darja performs primarily in Russia and Europe, in circuses, cabarets, and theaters. Her animals travel with her – in carriers to the stage, but live uncaged in her hotel room, where they all share her bed. I know, because I had the room next door to her in Leipzig, Germany, and was serenaded by her Siamese and Egyptian cats, who sang gustily all night!
“Richard Hayes”, also a British Music Hall performer, was a noted juggler and silent, deadpan comedian, often billed as “The Laziest Juggler in the World”. His oversized head, languid manner, and slow-motion moves distinguished his ball juggling routines.
This is a very early pastel sketch of Hilary Chaplain (1990’s) from the CircuSundays Series I used to run. Hilary is one of the most prolifically funny and hardest working physical comediennes, whose recent work has delved deeply into emotional and historical elements. In particular, her current production “The Last Rat of Theresienstadt” which takes place in the “Ghetto town”/concentration camp of Theresienstadt during the Holocaust. Following a successful run in Europe, where she garnered top awards, the show will be presented at The Wild Project on November 13th and 14th.
“Senor and Friend”. Senor Wences began his career as an unsuccessful bullfighter before becoming a gifted ventriloquist. The Spanish performer was one of the highest-paid and most popular Vaudevillian acts in the world and appeared on the Ed Sullivan show throughout the ’50s and ’60s. Wences died at the age of 103 in Manhattan.
“Slava’s Snow Show”. I first saw Slava Polunin in Cirque du Soleil’s production of Alegria, back in the 80’s, and was delighted by his simplistic and organic clowning (finally oversized clown proboscis and makeup used well by the clowns who wore them!) His signature romantic imagery, the surreal environments and emotional physical work he creates were resurrected in his first “Snow Show” that appeared on Broadway. This drawing was one of many rendered from his second run in NYC at Union Square.
Born in Prague, Tomas Kubinek and his parents fled the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia and settled in Ontario, Canada, when he was only 3. He fell in love with circus and clowns, began performing as a child and has never stopped, regularly traversing the globe with his imaginative and eccentric solo shows.
“Waldo & Woodhead” (Paul Burke and Mark Keppel) were a couple of wild and zany guys, whose character-driven physical comedy and strong partner juggling made them a well known performing sensation around the globe. This painting, exhibited at several IJA Conventions, was sold three years ago.
For more information or to see other artwork, visit:
Wednesday, March 6 | Friday March 8 | Monday March 11
FREE + Open to public. First come, first served.
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, The CUNY Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10016
The fifth annual Segal Center Film Festival on Theatre and Performance (FTP). The program includes a roster of more than 25 features, shorts, and documentaries by artists from Argentina, Russia, Haiti, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, Japan, Romania, Australia, Chile, Poland, Belgium, France, the United States, and more. The festival takes place on Wednesday, March 6; Friday, March 8; and Monday, March 11 at The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, located at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, NYC, 365 Fifth Avenue, at 34th Street.
An annual event that showcases films drawn from the world of theatre and performance, the Segal Film Festival presents an international array of work from experimental, emerging, and established theatre artists and filmmakers. This festival is curated from a list nominations by theatre-makers, filmmakers, scholars, and arts professionals. Please visit the Segal Center at www.segalcenter.org for more.
“Look at these streets! Those rotten foul-headfreaks.
“Death to them…” This was what he imagined himself saying
After an Armageddon caused by the State’s geeks. from salon.
“I, in humility, say ‘It is the duty of the humor
“Of any given nation in times of high crisis to attack
“The ca-tastrophe that faces it in such a manner
“That they do not die before they get killed.”
“So I figure I’m going down to the banktomorrow
“With a couple of trucks and take out a few bales
of fifties – “Maybe a billion dollars – and I’m going to start
“A gigantic program over the television, over the radio
“In the newspapers, in the funny papers, call the people
“Who have anything to do with humour and I’m going
“To start a big, elongated eight month campaign
“Against the mother gasser of all time: THE BOMB.
“A great spear of humor against the bomb –
“Rippity-tib-zib-tib and a ring ding ding against the Bomb.
“All kinds, all ways, all slides, all sides against the Bomb.
“A great big, elongated program through the air,
“By the billboards, by little ones, by big ones
“Till eventually you mention H-Bomb to someone
“You say H-Bomb and they say Ha! and Ha! And Ha!
“And you’ll see that you’re laughed out of court.
In Buckley’s routine ‘The Flight of the Saucer’ he becomes
The Flying Saucer Commander Abba Dabba Foo,
Pleading with planet Earth to consider the consequences
Of opening a Pandora’s Box of nuclear goo.
Lord Buckley’s stage costume of a tan pith helmet,
Curly ended slippers hung with silver bells,
Black swallowtail coat and waxed moustache like Dali
Turned him into a Pied Piper leading America out of hell.
He railed against the spread of supermarkets saying,
“I wish I had the nerve to be a great thief.”
“We have gotta knock out the greed heads!”
To him consumer slavery beggared belief.
The needle-sharp points of his white moustache
Were like antennae seeking out the outrageous.
“There ain’t NO problem that LOVE can’t solve.” was his motto
And his emanations of wellbeing were contagious.
He believed that life was subject to divine intervention,
Proved by the flare of the senses in a kiss,
And his advice to every citizen of the world,
From two to toothless, was “Follow your bliss.”
“Once you catch the theme of the beam of the invisible edge
“Then, beloveds, you hit total simplicity,
“And all of the feral truths that carry on way beyond
“The parallel of your practiced credulity!”
After a night under the stars exploring inner space,
Aboard what he called ‘The Good Ship Lovely Soul Detonator’,
Buckley concluded that, “the sky showed a shifting, revealing infinity”
And that “one message came to me with great positivity:
“That there’s only one way to live. That is, live in a house of love.
“That’s right, the universe is a house of love
“You can’t walk out of a love house with a sword or a gun
“There’s none in there to come out with.
“You have to come with a flower.
“If attacked, defend yourself with a rose.
“There’s no other way to live –
“The stars beamed it into me – except by love.
“The star-flashed message stayed with me
And buoyed up my soul
“As I came down from the sky.”
He’d re-enter the world after a toke on God’s stash
Eager for the world to share in his high.
But Buckley’s great love wasn’t limited to human beings
As is evidenced by his party piece, God’s Own Drunk:
In which the man described as “a Fred Astaire of the tongue dance”
Speaks instead in mind-blowing grunts.
“I’d like to do a little creative wig bubble for you
“Called ‘God’s Own Drunk.”
“When asked to guard my brother-in-law’s illegal still
“My claim to be a non-drinker got sunk:
“That big old yellow moon was a hanging out there
“And God’s lanterns were hanging in the sky.
“My curiosity got the better of me and that yellow whiskey –
“That moonshine – went down like honeydew, and made me fly!
“I felt a revolution going through my body
“Like there was great neon signs a-goin’ up
“An’ sayin’ There’s a Great Life a Comin’ –
“Suddenly I’d fallen in love with everything
“In God’s sweet world that moved, lived, didn’tlive,
Animate, inanimate, black, blue, green, pink, and slam dunk!
Mountains, fountains, and golden double-good sunshine,
“I was in love with life, ‘cause I was DRUNK!!
“I wasn’t fallin’ down, slippin’ slidin’ drunk.
“I was GOD’S OWN DRUNK! A fearless man.”
And as a result Lord Buckley bonds with a bear
In an ecstatic, trans-species communication.
“I walked right on up to that bear, because
“I was God’s Own Drunk and I loved everything
“In this world. And he’s a sniffin’. He’s tryin’ to
“Smell some fear. But he can’t do because I’m
“God’s Own Drunk and I’m a fearless man.
“He expects me to do two things: flip or flee.
“I don’t do either. Hangs him up. I told him,
“I said, ‘I’m God’s Own Drunk and I love every hair
“’On your twenty-seven acre body.
“’I’m a fearless man!’ I reached up
“And took the bear by the hand.
“I said Mr. Bear, we’re both beasts when it
comes right down to it.”
“Took him right by his big, old, shaggy man island sized paw
“And said “You’re going to be my buddy, Buddy Bear.
“And pretty soon he started to sniff and snort.
“Tapped his foot. And he got up and started to do the Bear Dance.
“Two sniffs, three snorts, a half-turn and one grunt.
“We was dancin’ and a yellin’ and finally, my love –
“It upped and got so strong that I laid back on that sweet green hill
“With that big, old buddy Bear’s paw right in
mine and I went to sleep.”
In Buckley’s pantheistic world, “Everything isalive.
“Everything has an embodied soul. Everything is of worth.
“Everything is beautiful. Everything is God.
“Everything is you – and you’re the king of the earth.”
“The problem of humanity, of progress, is to be beautiful;
“To be more gracious, more sweet, more divine.
“And when you balance yourself, the truth is that the world’s a family –
“Then love will hit you. Love is swinging. Love is fine.”
Before Buckley finally stepped off the stage
He uttered a last benediction:
“It has been a most precious pleasure to have temporarily
“Strolled in the garden of your affection.”
For his re-routing American culture (and not paying police bribes)
Buckley had his cabaret licence withdrawn
Which meant that, thanks to the NYPD, he couldn’t work
And thus his end was undeservedly forlorn.
His sad fate led to a public campaign against the police
For their depriving him of his cabaret card:
They were seen as having destroyed a clown prince
And were roundly condemned as fucktards.
To Buckley the dives he worked in were, “atomic age cathedrals”
Built on the “seashores of Bohemia”
Where all malice was transcended with moral miracles in jive slang
And his advice to fans, “You have courage, great warrior!”
Joseph Jablonski, who took a trip with Buckley,
Described “the spirit of the sixties as preexisting
“In Lord Buckley’s aggressive, optimistic humour,
“Optimism being a colourless way of describing
“The brilliant dialectical gold rays the one and only
“Lord of Swing could direct to the blind apostles
“Of nineteen fifties-style miserabilism.”
Beside Lord Buckley, America was a fossil.
Was he mysteriously be-twinkled by timetraveling goblins
From the utopian sixties?
The tutelary spirit of idealistic and free-loving
Hippy, peacenik pixies?
Both Allen Ginsberg and Quincy Jones loved Buckley
For the purity of his attitude,
And for establishing the idiom for both rap and the Beats –
At their best, both quests for beatitude.
His daughter spoke of his saintliness,
And of his “insights into lives and souls.
“He had kindness and compassion and never put people down.
“I might look at someone and say ‘what an asshole’
“But my father would always soften my prejudice by saying,
“ ‘Well, he’s just not himself today’!
“Sure, he could identify the negative in people,
“Though to use it against them? – no way.”
“Did I say all?” asks Buckley in ‘Desolation Angels’
Just before dying, according to Kerouac
Who’s bewailing, “This modern America of crew-cuts
“And sullen faces in Pontiacs.”2
“No matter what people tell you,” said Robin Williams,
“Words and ideas can change the world. It’s true.
“There was an old crazy dude who used to live a long time ago.
“His name was Buckley. My Lord, my love goes with you.”
The deck may have been stacked against Buckley
In his card game with the cops
Yet his legacy’s avoided capture, and without his hip
There’d never have been any hip-hop.
He showed the mind could be expanded by
Words that give you a buzz and a blast
And prompt what he describes as “wig bubbles”,
Buckley’s hip phrase for thoughts.
Lord Buckley’s obituarist wrote that “The Lord of Flip Manor,
“Prophet of the Hip and Royal Holiness of the Far Out, has gone
“To his reward. It probably won’t be as swinging as his life,
“But Valhalla will have a hard time keeping him down.”
“It is difficult”, the writer adds, “for anyone who knew Buckley
“To think of him as dead and gone.
“It is more like he has been on an extended engagement in Reno
“And he can’t get back to town.”
When interviewed by Studs Terkel in Chicago
Shortly before Lord Buckley died,
Terkel was concerned that the audience
Who’d tuned in were fully prepared:
“Just remember,” Terkel said, “what he has to say makes sense
“In it’s own strange and unique way.”
“Take it easy but take it! That’s my sign off.”
Were Buckley’s last words after having his say. Lord Buckley
Lord Buckley is still audible through the aether
Where this mercurial comic’s vitalizing words
Are forever impregnated with his fairy-tale humor –
Mightier than both the pen, and the sword.
~ ~ ~
With grateful acknowledgments to Oliver Trager; David Amram; Jim Burns, ‘Beat Scene’; Albert Goldman; Wavy Gravy; Timothy White; Paul Krassner; Joseph Jablonski; City Lights Books; Jack Foley; Malcolm Ritchie; Ian A. Anderson; Chris Radant; Douglas Cruickshank, and to P. St. G. who first introduced me to this non pareil.
I first met Lyle in 1972 when I was in San Francisco doing an article for Crawdaddy Magazine. I was invited to his tattoo museum and shop and did some photographs. Then he invited me back to have dinner with him and some of his friends. It was great fun (I did get a tattoo) and he is a very funny dude. I went back in 2015 and visited him. (having not seen him since 1972!) and we met at his new shop at 841 Columbus Avenue. Went for a few drinks and had a blast.
I highly recommend that anyone interested in ‘Tattoo’ or sociology attend this special event.
Snap Wyatt was a prolific painter of huge circus banners primarily in the 1940’s and 50’s. He was known for his bold, cartoon-like style. His banners were painted with quick caricatures, and only the essential details of the performer were outlined in black to make them stand out. He said he could finish one in a day for about $85. bucks. The bright and colorful banners drew in the crowd with the mystery of what was inside the tent. Wyatt is considered to be among the top in his field. His banners today sell for thousands.
Sideshow banner painter Snap Wyatt and a handful of others including Fred Johnson, Tattoo Jack Cripe and Jack Sigler (now all deceased), brought art to the carnival midways of the 30’s through 60’s with their 10′ x10′ banners that waved outside the circus and carnival sideshows drawing the crowd to come inside.
Originally intended as silent talkers, the huge canvases played to a carnival attendees curiosity and directed them to walk right into the sideshow tent.
The banners portrayed the acts inside the tent and were an interesting combination of the bizarre and human oddities – from Major Debert Tiniest Man to the 643 pound Sweet Marie, Huey The Pretzel Boy to the Alligator Girl, Hydrocephalus Baby to The Penguin Boy.
Few considered the canvasses of sideshow banner painter Snap Wyatt and the other banner painters an art form at the time they were painted, yet today the mega-paintings are being bought almost as fast as they’re hung on an art gallery’s wall.
Snap Wyatt’s banners sell today for thousands. Snap Wyatt (1905-1984)
Why Only Art Can Save Us: Aesthetics and the Absence of Emergency
by Santiago Zabala
The state of emergency, according to thinkers such as Carl Schmidt, Walter Benjamin, and Giorgio Agamben, is at the heart of any theory of politics. But today the problem is not the crises that we do confront, which are often used by governments to legitimize themselves, but the ones that political realism stops us from recognizing as emergencies, from widespread surveillance to climate change to the systemic shocks of neoliberalism. We need a way of disrupting the existing order that can energize radical democratic action rather than reinforcing the status quo. In this provocative book, Santiago Zabala declares that in an age where the greatest emergency is the absence of an emergency, only contemporary art’s capacity to alter reality can save us.
Why Only Art Can Save Us advances a new aesthetics centered on the nature of the emergency that characterizes the twenty-first century. Zabala draws on Martin Heidegger’s distinction between works of art that rescue us from emergency and those that are rescuers into emergency. The former is a means of cultural politics, conservers of the status quo that conceal emergencies; the latter are disruptive events that thrust us into emergencies. Building on Arthur Danto, Jacques Rancière, and Gianni Vattimo, who made aesthetics more responsive to contemporary art, Zabala argues that works of art are not simply a means of elevating consumerism or contemplating beauty but are points of departure to change the world. Radical artists create works that disclose and demand active intervention in ongoing crises. Interpreting works of art that aim to propel us into absent emergencies, Zabala shows how art’s ability to create new realities is fundamental to the politics of radical democracy in the state of emergency that is the present.
“Santiago Zabala’s Why Only Art Can Save Us is a crucial publication for anyone concerned about the future and necessity of art in the twenty-first century. Its main claim is that the possibility of art lies in its aesthetics of emergency. Although we live in a time of social, political, and environmental emergencies, Zabala makes the convincing case that we tend to repress the emergencies we live in. The aesthetics of emergency discloses the concealment of emergency as the essential emergency, helping us to recover the sense of emergency. This aesthetics proposes a major shift in our understanding of art, which is less about representation than existence.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Christine Ross, author of The Past Is the Present; It’s the Future Too.
“Why Only Art Can Save Us examines art that is in touch with the contemporary world, a world that, however you assess such things, is surely in crisis.