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Vaudevisuals Bookshelf – “The Great Nadar”

THE GREAT NADAR – The Man Behind the Camera

by Adam Begley

“The most astonishing expression of vitality.”  Baudelaire

Exuberant, agitated, impetuous, horrified by tedium and relentlessly and infectiously gregarious. – The Great Nadar by Adam Begley

A recent French biography begins, Who doesn’t know Nadar? In France, that’s a rhetorical question. Of all of the legendary figures who thrived in mid-19th-century Paris—a cohort that includes Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Gustave Courbet, and Alexandre DumasNadar was perhaps the most innovative, the most restless, the most modern.

The first great portrait photographer, a pioneering balloonist, the first person to take an aerial photograph, and the prime mover behind the first airmail service, Nadar was one of the original celebrity artist-entrepreneurs. A kind of 19th-century Andy Warhol, he knew everyone worth knowing and photographed them all, conferring on posterity psychologically compelling portraits of Manet, Sarah Bernhardt, Delacroix, Daumier and countless others—a priceless panorama of Parisian celebrity.

Born Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, he adopted the pseudonym Nadar as a young bohemian, when he was a budding writer and cartoonist. Later he affixed the name Nadar to the façade of his opulent photographic studio in giant script, the illuminated letters ten feet tall, the whole sign fifty feet long, a garish red beacon on the boulevard. Nadar became known to all of Europe and even across the Atlantic when he launched “The Giant,” a gas balloon the size of a twelve-story building, the largest of its time. With his daring exploits aboard his humongous balloon (including a catastrophic crash that made headlines around the world), he gave his friend Jules Verne the model for one of his most dynamic heroes.

The Great Nadar is a brilliant, lavishly illustrated biography of a larger-than-life figure, a visionary whose outsized talent and canny self-promotion put him way ahead of his time.

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Vaudevisuals Bookshelf – “My Brain on Fire” – Leonard Pitt

While visiting San Francisco I met up with Leonard Pitt. A former student of Etienne Decroux, prolific writer, performer, teacher and collector of all things ‘Paris’. He gave me a copy of one of his books  ‘My Brain on Fire’ and I can’t recommend it enough. Wonderful reading!

This is Leonard Pitt’s story of growing up the misfit in Detroit in the 1940s and 50s. In a later age he would have been put on Ritalin and paraded before psychiatrists because he couldn’t pay attention in school. In 1962, at the end of a misguided foray towards a career in advertising he took the ultimate cure, a trip to Paris. He thought it would only be a visit. He stayed seven years. There in the City of Light, Leonard’s mind exploded. And it hasn’t stopped since.

Studying mime with master Etienne Decroux and living in Paris were the university he never knew. This inspiration unleashed a voracious appetite to understand the “why” of things. He asked a simple question, “Why did the ballet go up?” While building a theatre career performing and teaching, he embarked on a quest to study the origins of the ballet, the history of early American popular music, the pre-Socratic philosophers, early modern science, the European witch hunt, the history of Paris, and more. To his unschooled mind it all fits together. Who would see a historical arc between Louis XIV and Elvis Presley? Leonard does. And he’ll tell you about it.

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“What makes reading Pitt’s book so enjoyable is not only following the intellectual leaps he makes between his many and varied topics of interest. It is also seeing the creative connections among apparently unrelated subjects such as Louis XIV, Elvis Presley, and the Hula Hoop. From start to finish, Pitt’s memoir is a lively autodidactic romp through a life well-lived in both mind and body.”—Kirkus

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Leonard Pitt is an actor and author. He has written two books on Paris, Walks Through Lost Paris and Paris Postcards: The Golden Age, plus A Small Moment of Great Illumination, Searching for Valentine Greatrakes the Master Healer. He currently teaches physical theater in Berkeley. He has performed and taught around the world and lives in Berkeley, California.

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Vaudevisuals Bookshelf – “Notes on a Cowardly Lion”

Notes on a Cowardly Lion by John Lahr

Back Cover

First published in 1969, Notes on a Cowardly Lion has established itself as one of the best-ever show business biographies. Drawing on his father’s recollections and on the memories of those who worked with him, John Lahr brilliantly examines the history of modern American show business through the long and glorious career of his father–the raucous low-comic star of burlesque, vaudeville, the Broadway revue and musical, Hollywood movies, and the legitimate stage. Here in rich detail is Lahr evolving from low–dialect comic to Ziegfeld Follies sophisticate, hamming it up with the Scarecrow and Tin Woodsman on the set of The Wizard of Oz, and debuting Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in America, which Kenneth Tynan called “one of the most noble performances I have ever seen.” In the examination of Bert Lahr’s chronic insecurity and self-absorption, the breakdown of his first marriage, and the affectionate arm’s length he kept between himself and his adoring second family, John Lahr’s book also brings the reader closer than any other theater biography to the private torment of a great funny man.

This edition of the book includes the award-winning essay “The Lion and Me,” John Lahr’s intimate reflections on family life with his distant, brooding, but lovable father. A first-class stylist, John Lahr takes the reader beyond the magic of show business to a dazzling examination of how a performing self is constructed and staged before the paying customers. Both as theater history and biography, Lahr’s book is superb.

“A book-length love letter. To open it is to enter a life, to participate in a sensibility and, perhaps most important, to laugh. Uproariously.”

Stefan Kanfer, Life

“Endlessly fascinating, excellent. . . . A work of literature, a work of history, a subtle psychological study.”

Richard Schickel, Harper’s Magazine

“This is a biography of the late Bert Lahr, that clown-comedian who played everything from burlesque to Aristophanes and Shakespeare, by his son, who is one of that rare species, an authentic theater critic. . . . John Lahr is frank and objective about his father. He sees that Bert was wildly funny on the stage and unhappy off. He was a haphazard father, a selfish lover, a thoughtless husband (his wife cherished him), a hypochondriac and a ruthless ‘professional.’ The past becomes present in this biography so that we come to know and understand the actor as clearly as the man. The book abounds in anecdotes that smack of the footlight world and its fascinating fauna. John Lahr is an honorable as well as a talented writer on the theater.”

Harold Clurman, New York Times Book Review

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Vaudevisuals Bookshelf – “How Sweet It Is” – Jackie Gleason

This is one ‘helluva’ funny book!

 Inside book jacket flaps.

Back Cover of the book.

This book is great! If you like The Honeymooners and any of Jackie Gleason’s TV Specials over the years you will enjoy reading these stories about his wonderful life. There is one that I remember very well. When he stayed at the St. Regis Hotel he frequented the in-house King Cole Bar   and sat next to  Salvador Dali. This drinking companion ended up drawing an album cover for his music album “The Romantic Moods of Jackie Gleason“.

The rest of the book is equally hysterical and so enjoyable!

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Vaudevisuals Bookshelf – “Growing Up with Chico”

Growing Up with ChicoGROWING UP WITH CHICO – by Maxine Marx

Maxine Marx’s book about her experience as part of the family that gave us the Marx Brothers is deservedly well-known and much loved by classic movie fans.  Her anecdotes are funny, loving and revealing.  In some ways, the book doesn’t feel as though it were written by someone in such close proximity to these famous characters, but this jives with her description of the brothers’ closeness.  Even the immediate family came after the brothers, and nothing and nobody came between them.  Except maybe money.  
I enjoyed the tidbit describing Sam “Frenchie” Marx’s gentle nature, which has a lot to say about women in the Marx family.  Walking home after viewing The Scarlet Letter at the movies, young Maxine asked her grandpa “why they had put the A on the lady’s dress.”  “Pshaw,” he replied.  “Pshaw.”  After a bit, he added, “Don’t tell der Mamma vhat you saw, yah?”
I knew very little about Chico although he was always my favorite performer in all the movies what with the finger shooting and the  “Attsa boy, make a big slam! Make a big, big slam!”  Now I am in awe of  tough little Betty Marx for putting up with all his shenanigans.  Still, Chico manages to come across as charismatic.   I’m glad the mafia didn’t whack him after all.
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Vaudevisuals Bookshelf – “Jean Cocteau – A Life”

Jean Cocteau - A Life

This passionate and monumental biography reassesses the life and legacy of one of the most significant cultural figures of the twentieth century.

Unevenly respected, easily hated, almost always suspected of being inferior to his reputation, Jean Cocteau has often been thought of as a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. In this landmark biography, Claude Arnaud thoroughly contests this characterization, as he celebrates Cocteau’s “fragile genius—a combination almost unlivable in art” but in his case so fertile.

Arnaud narrates the life of this legendary French novelist, poet, playwright, director, filmmaker, and designer who, as a young man, pretended to be a sort of a god, but who died as a humble and exhausted craftsman. His moving and compassionate account examines the nature of Cocteau’s chameleon-like genius, his romantic attachments, his controversial politics, and his intimate involvement with many of the century’s leading artistic lights, including Picasso, Proust, Hemingway, Stravinsky, and Tennessee Williams. Already published to great critical acclaim in France, Arnaud’s penetrating and deeply researched work reveals a uniquely gifted artist while offering a magnificent cultural history of the twentieth century.

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Claude Arnaud is a writer and recipient of the 2006 Prix Femina Essai. He lives in Paris, France. Lauren Elkin is a lecturer in English and comparative literature at the American University of Paris. Charlotte Mandell is an award-winning translator of more than thirty books.
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Vaudevisuals Bookshelf – “I Celebrate Myself” by Allen Ginsburg

I Celebarate Myself by Allen Ginsburg

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In the first biography of Ginsberg since his death in 1997 and the only one to cover the entire span of his life, Ginsberg’s archivist Bill Morgan draws on his deep knowledge of Ginsberg’s largely unpublished private journals to give readers an unparalleled and finely detailed portrait of one of America’s most famous poets. Morgan sheds new light on some of the pivotal aspects of Ginsberg’s life, including the poet’s associations with other members of the Beat Generation, his complex relationship with his lifelong partner, Peter Orlovsky, his involvement with Tibetan Buddhism, and above all his genius for living.

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From Publisher’s Weekly

It has become almost a cliché for biographers to speculate about their subjects’ psychosexual oddities. But speculation is not necessary when the subject is Allen Ginsberg, because the legendary beat poet and countercultural figure proudly proclaimed his psychosexual oddities, from his youthful incestuous impulses toward his father and brother to his little-requited infatuations with beat golden boys like Neal Cassady and his later eye for young male acolytes. Indeed, Ginsberg meticulously documented all his doings and feelings, and Morgan, his archivist and bibliographer, relies on that trove. Morgan does little to shape the material; each chapter, bluntly titled with the calendar year, simply recounts 365 days’ worth of parties, debauches, quarrels and breakups, drug experimentation, all-night debates about literature and philosophy, dead-end jobs, knock-about travels, psychoanalysis, ecstatic Blakean visions, depressed funks, homicides committed by friends, jazz, poetry readings and Ginsberg’s contemporary ruminations on all the above. The disorganized, onrushing flow of experience is occasionally eye-glazing, and Morgan offers disappointingly little interpretation of Ginsberg’s poems. But Ginsberg and his gang— Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassady et al.—are such vibrant, compelling characters that this mere straightforward chronicle of their lives approaches, as they intended, a fair imitation of art.

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This is not just the best Ginsberg biography, but the best biography of ANY of the Beats. From it you will learn an immense amount about how Ginsberg’s life intersected with those of Kerouac, Burroughs, Corso, Holmes, Hunckle, etc. Bill Morgan tracks Ginsberg’s personal and poetic development in amazing detail. One example: his meetings with William Carlos Williams are described with a specificity that I have not seen anywhere in Williams’ scholarship. I was constantly asking, “How did he get this fact?” It’s one of the great biographies of the last 20 years. OUTSTANDING WORK!
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Vaudevisuals Bookshelf – “Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism

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“A “heroic” biography of John Cage and his “awakening through Zen Buddhism”—“a kind of love story” about a brilliant American pioneer of the creative arts who transformed himself and his culture”  The New York Times

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Composer John Cage sought the silence of a mind at peace with itself—and found it in Zen Buddhism, a spiritual path that changed both his music and his view of the universe. “Remarkably researched, exquisitely written,” Where the Heart Beats weaves together “a great many threads of cultural history” (Maria Popova, Brain Pickings) to illuminate Cage’s struggle to accept himself and his relationship with choreographer Merce Cunningham. Freed to be his own man, Cage originated exciting experiments that set him at the epicenter of a new avant-garde forming in the 1950s. Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, Allan Kaprow, Morton Feldman, and Leo Castelli were among those influenced by his ‘teaching’ and ‘preaching.’ Where the Heart Beats shows the blossoming of Zen in the very heart of American culture.

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Great book about a great artist and his personal stories of compassion and insight.

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The Vaudevisuals Bookshelf – Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence

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Born Julius Marx in 1890, the brilliant comic actor who would later be known as Groucho was the most verbal of the famed comedy team, the Marx Brothers, his broad slapstick portrayals elevated by ingenious wordplay and double entendre. In his spirited biography of this beloved American iconoclast, Lee Siegel views the life of Groucho through the lens of his work on stage, screen, and television. The author uncovers the roots of the performer’s outrageous intellectual acuity and hilarious insolence toward convention and authority in Groucho’s early upbringing and Marx family dynamics.
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 “Lee Siegel’s brilliant analysis of the glorious, scary, beyond-funny humor of Groucho and his brothers made me feel as if I were watching their movies for the first time. In this hugely enjoyable and stimulating book, Siegel shows how Groucho became an impossibility: an immortal comedian.”—Ian Frazier, author of Great Plains and On the Rez
Ian Frazier
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 “Spirited and revealing . . . An astute psychological profile of the man whose biting, nihilistic comedy broke so many barriers.”
John McMurtrie, San Francisco Chronicle
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Groucho Marx with Margret Dumont
Groucho Marx with Margaret Dumont in “The Cocoanuts” from 1929.
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Great article by Lee Siegel in the Wall Street Journal here!
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American Circus Circus Clown Comedy Dance Exhibit Juggling Magic Performing Arts Photography Sideshow Tent Show Variety Arts

SHOWHISTORY.COM – A Unique Image Archive

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This is the mast head for SHOWHISTORY.COM website. A very unique place for those interested in odd, unique and offbeat memorabilia.

Here is a comment by the website manager:

“Membership is $25 a year and allows you access to all of the materials, photos, letterheads, etc.– including multi-page items, such as the largest collection of sideshow pitchbooks ever gathered together– currently 65 scanned and online, and more than 60 more to be added.  Currently we have about 1200 images online and plan on adding about 2000 more items per year until the growing collection has been fully digitized.”
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“The origin of this undertaking emerged in casual conversation outside The Sarasota Showman’s Club one February evening sometime in 2001. The Showhistory.com website first debuted on February 11, 2002.  The plan then, as now, was to engage in the enormous task of listing every novelty, variety, sideshow and freakshow performer who ever crossed the lot, creaked the boards of dime museum or bally, saw sun glint in the eyes of an audience in some small town, waiting for the sound of nickels and dimes clacking into a metal box.”
 
“Finally expanding to more than a thousand pages of material and hundreds of images, the site was unfortunately mainly inactive after 2006.”
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“In October 2014 the site was redesigned and relaunched in a slightly different form– as an online image archive available on a subscription basis.  While now you must pay to access the full contents of the site, including our expanding archive of online images (over 1000 at launch), we plan on preserving and re-introducing all of the earlier material, and presenting a large quantity of free-access material.”
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ShowHistory.com plans on eventually making available online for members all of the 11,000-plus item archive of photos, pitchcards, handbills and ephemera in the area of sideshow, novelty and variety, vaudeville, burlesque, dime museums, carnivals, and outdoor show business in general.  The earliest item in the collection dates from 1609, and the archive continues to expand to include items from present-day performers and exhibits.”
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Showhistory.com wishes to chronicle the lost, fading and future scene on the fringes of the American amusement business– in biography, history, photographs, and whatever else we can find.  Collect the stories before they disappear, push and pull together the conflicting sources in books and memoribilia so that they can coexist in one place.”
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In the next post I have ready to go up I have ‘borrowed’ some text from Showhistory.com to help illustrate the life of Clarence Dale.
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Hope you have the inclination to JOIN…it is certainly worth the fee and it helps support the work they are doing on the site.
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