Monday, June 27, 2011

Counting the days...

I can't wait. The shockingly talented folk at Pixar are finally making a movie (Brave) with a female protagonist. We are thrilled.

See the just released teaser trailer below:

What Caviglia Did On Her Summer Vacation!: An Introduction

As has been briefly mentioned here, and as everyone is both buzzing and complaining and celebrating about: this June is madness. Theater abounds. Nearly everyone I know is involved in something. People are having birthdays, Same Sex marriage is now legal in Gotham. I'm at work on various projects, some involving pictures, some involving words, some involving both. And then there's the constant business of keeping it all afloat, AKA paying the bills. So there's been little time to spare to write it all up and I'm vaguely overwhelmed with the task, truth be told. But, never on to shrug off a challenge, here I go!

The following posts are a much boozier, artier, gorier version of the typical "What I did with my summer vacation" essay. At left is a picture I drew at Jazz & Sketch last Thursday at the Society of Illustrators (two minute pose, lovely model). Here at The Cabinet, we refuse to be either bored or idle in this City of our Dreams!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Zombies & Penguins

Longtime Cabinet readers may remember a post way back in 2009 about artist Greg Stones, and his paintings of penguins and zombies and monsters and such. I love them.

Well, he now has two books, both available on his site and (bonus!) has YouTube clips previewing them.

The first is Goodbye, Penguin, which is a Ten Little Indians style story in which a group of fifteen penguins go for a walk, and about their various (mostly tragic) fates. I have watched this an embarrassing number of times. The one who is flattened by a snow man and the one who was abducted (which you can see at above) are my favorites. Watch it below:

His second book, is the aptly titled Zombies Hate Stuff, which is all about stuff zombies hate. Some of these things include hippies, cavemen, war reenactors and sharing.

Both of his books (and the rest of his art and prints) can be purchased here. Apropos of nothing in particular, I would like to point out that my birthday is one scant month away. In case you happened to be wondering.

Miss Saturn!

My delightful inamorato is posting a series of pieces on modern vaudevillians he has featured on the stage of his American Vaudeville Theatre in honor of its 15th anniversary and the attendant FringeNYC show celebrating this occasion.

Today's post is all about the lovely Miss Saturn, so I decided to pull a sketch I did a few years ago out of the archives.

Incipient Mermaidhood

The mermaids just won't stop!

This is nowhere near finished, I'll post it when it is. I'm snatching time to paint when I can amidst a ridiculously busy June. The first drawing is from life.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Dress, A Car, A Hat

I was raised Catholic and though not such a part of the modern church, saints reliquaries have always interested me.

(side note: honestly, at this point, I'm not entirely sure what it's all about these days now that it no longer seems to rule Europe or commission great art or give the younger sons of nobility something to do with themselves)

Back to reliquaries. If you don't know, they are containers of objects, often pertaining to saints. Maybe a finger bone, maybe a cup, perhaps a bell, oftentimes a hunk of the true cross, occasionally a skull. These items were (and by some, are) deemed holy. But, they are mostly a remnant of a culture that has long turned to dust, and other objects are of far greater interest to the public.

Which brings me to the sale of Debbie Reynolds's movie memorabilia this past weekend. Oftentimes when such sales are announced, and I look at the list of pieces to be sold, there's usually one or two truly exciting things, and the rest is far more ordinary. But this sale was the move equivalent of opening up the storerooms of the Vatican and selling off all the high Renaissance masterpieces. Looking at the list of items it seemed as if all of movie history was being sold off at once.

We're a strange species with a bent for mysticism and talismans. The biggest news from the sale was that Marilyn's iconic subway dress sold for approximately 5 million dollars. Of course, there are soulless rich people who snatch things up for investment purposes, but the level of excitement the sale of these dresses and objects has caused feels like religion. These pieces engender an ache, a longing, and remind us of feelings that might be something akin to holiness, or at least love.

It's a big cynical world, so oftentimes lacking in joy. Old movies whose stars are mostly gone from this earth, need to be preserved. Something like 90% of silent movies are lost to us forever. But, on a more positive note, the wonders of the internet have brought old and seemingly forgotten movies and stars to more delighted people than since they were first released. There are entire Tumblrs devoted to Howard Lloyd. Teenagers happily rave over pictures of Gloria Swanson and Myrna Loy.

It's not just me, is it? Wouldn't having Chaplin's bowler in one's living room seem magical? And, yes. That was one of the items for sale. And, no. I wasn't the buyer.

Above left is a dress Claudette Colbert wore in Cecil B. deMille's Cleopatra.

Laurel and Hardy's Model-T Ford

Cagney's costumes from Yankee Doodle Dandy

Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes coat (via Flickr)

Seemingly all the costumes from Singing in the Rain.

Also included: costumes from the 1938 Marie Antoinette, a 1922 Valentino matador costume, a box of jokes hand written by W.C. Fields, Planet of the Apes costumes, Elizabeth Taylor's costumes from Cleopatra and Raintree County, Mary Pickford's dress from Taming of the Shrew, Marilyn's "Little Rock" dress from Gentlemen prefer Blondes, the Santa suit from Miracle on 34th Street, an on and on and on. Sigh.

All photos unless otherwise noted are from

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sarah Porter: Lost Voices

I've been reading a great deal of young adult fantasy recently, as it's the kind of work I enjoyed when I was a girl, and I've been curious to see what's out there. Overall, I've found my reading enjoyable, but nothing has really captured my imagination or really rented out space in my consciousness. With the exception of Carrie Ryan's intelligently and beautifully written zombie novels, I've been left a little cold. Don't get me wrong - I did love The Hunger Game books, but I began to feel a little emotionally beaten up by them, and I know if I had read them when I was, say, twelve, they might have been too much. But perhaps I'm projecting. I think I might be more sensitive now, than when I was actually in middle school.

Which brings me to Sarah Porter's Lost Voices. As always, my disclaimer: Sarah is a friend. But the rave you are about to read is genuine.

In this first book of what I happily understand is a trilogy, she tells the story of a girl named Luce who lives in a coastal fishing community in Alaska. Her parents are dead, her mother died years before and her father was lost at sea. After a peripatetic life with her beloved vagabond father, she lives with a drunken, brutal uncle and life is grim indeed. After a possible death (or something like it), Luce finds herself in the sea, a mermaid, along with a tribe of other young girls, all of whom have had ugly lives and even uglier deaths. They do what mermaids traditionally have always done: they sing, and they lure ships to their doom. Luce finds a place for herself with her fellow mermaids, whose queen Catarina becomes her friend, mentor and, subsequently, inadvertent rival.

There were so many things in this book that really hit me at a deep level, and I'll likely go into some of them in embarrassing detail in this post. Here's the thing: Sarah is a poet. She just is. Her prose is evocative and gorgeous, and emotionally this story just cut me to the bone. I think she pretty much did everything right. Luce felt very much like a real girl to me. In so many books for young people, the protagonist is portrayed as "loner" or an "outsider", as this is the way so many young people feel even if this wasn't so much the case. It's a little bit of a pet peeve of mine that fictional characters recover from outsiderhood with such apparent ease, their former loneliness not leaving any scars or behavior patterns. They change circumstance, suddenly find friends and they actually, like, know how. Luce is so much more herself than many fictional characters.

In school, Luce is quiet and finds herself nearly paralyzed with social awkwardness. Upon becoming a mermaid this doesn't precisely change. She is thrilled to find herself accepted and embraced by a tribe of other girls. She also finds she has a particular talent for singing: the beautiful, alluring and deeply treacherous voice of the siren. But Luce isn't particularly used to playing with others - she's a good person, just used to being alone, which as I've so often learned to my chagrin, is much, much simpler. But that's not the way the world works: there are so many complicated social nuances, and among the teenage, social rules are strict and harsh - and these mermaids are perpetually teenaged, a horror movie concept if I've ever heard one.

There are so many interesting facets to this story, and Sarah has them all covered. So many of them have to do with the very nature of both mermaidhood and femaleness and the places in which these things overlap. Essentially, mermaids are killers, mass murderers. This is monstrous and horrifying from a human point of view, but mermaids are out of the world, it doesn't mean the same thing to them. But, still. And this forms a large part of Luce's impossible dilemma. She also asks, "Why only girls?". There's also the question of outsiderhood, and damage which lies at the heart of the story. When the terrifying mermaid Anais joins the tribe, Luce's fragile place within her new family is snatched from her. Anais is an amazing creation. She might be the most realistic mean girl I've ever encountered in fiction. Just reading about her sent bolts of anxiety through me in a very deep place I didn't think even existed within me anymore.

There's a very long history of monstrous females in myth and fairy tales. Baba Yaga, Lamia, Medusa, all the wicked mothers and witches and scheming servant girls in stories like The Juniper Tree and The Goose Girl, and, of course, the sirens themselves. And there's Anderson's The Little Mermaid, a story that as a child I found so sad it was almost unbearable. This book knows all of this, and is informed and enriched by these universal tales that form so much of who we are as a people. All these strange and sometimes evil and outsider women beginning with Eve. Luce is essentially a gentle soul who is thrust into the role of siren which is heady and confusing and upsetting and, all things considered, maybe not all it's been cracked up to be.

Sarah Porter also blogs at YA Outside the Lines, and a while ago she posted a great piece about dark subject matter in young adult fiction in which she writes:
Why would I feel the need to protect kids from an awareness of that human darkness with which they are perfectly familiar already, which haunts their imaginations and in some cases their lives?

Instead I felt responsible to be as honest as I could about the ways of getting through the darkness. Young teens are often in the process of confronting the worst aspects of humanity, and of struggling to come to terms with what it means to be a part of a species that perpetrates cruelty so routinely. Only by regarding that horror directly can they begin to withstand it.
I think she answers a certain kind of critic very well. I've started to write a bit about how I've gotten tired of dystopia, but maybe what I'm tired of is how manipulated into feeling awful I am by cheap narrative tricks. I'm totally okay with the darkness, but I want it to be earned. Lost Voices isn't a dystopian novel, but it is very dark, but it feels achingly and wonderfully real, I swear I could taste the salt water as I read.

Lost Voices's official release date is July 4th. BREAKING: Lost Voices is apparently available NOW.

Her lovely website is Sarah's Watery Den.

Below, the preview video created by her publishers (fancy!)

Mermaids of New York

Mermaids of New York is a new short film making the rounds which features the legendary and lovely Bambi the Mermaid, Dame Darcy (who will have an entire post devoted all to her, soon!) and other glitterey, finned cohorts. See a clip, below, featuring Bambi:

Dame Darcy sings a sea chanty, of which she has an entire album, which you can purchase here:

As an added bonus, Dame Darcy's lovely illustration, "Dolls plunder and pillage the ship. Then drown the pretty sailor lad." From her book Dollerium which can be purchased (totally worth it) here.

The Coney Island Mermaid Parade

Today is the day!

Out on the fair shores of Coney Island, along Surf Avenue and down the boardwalk is the yearly Mermaid Parade. As always brought to you by the lovely folk at Coney Island USA.

The yearly Mermaid Parade is pretty much alone in combining both family fun and toplessness (though, as my inamorato pointed out, there's also breastfeeding). It signifies and celebrates the official opening of the beach.

My first time out there it was a small, local affair. Now, it's grown to fairly gargantuan proportions and I think the best way of enjoying is is by participating. So, fair citizens, sew on some gils and attach those pasties firmly and enjoy next year's brouhaha, if it is too late to enjoy this one's. Did I mention that something like half a million people are projected to show up?

Of particular interest this year is one of the judges. You can see him below, pith helmet firmly on head, glasses at the ready.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Crest Fest Art Show

This weekend sees the opening of the Crest Hardware Art Show in Williamsburg. Sponsored by and situated in the Crest Hardware store, the show features works constructed from items commonly found in - you guessed it! - a hardware store.

The show kicks off tomorrow with the Crest Fest which will feature bands, DJs, beer and a sale of works by local artists. The proceeds will benefit the City Reliquary.

See at left this charming octopus made by Jude Ferencz. When I went and looked up the photo credit, I was happy to see the picture was taken by friend of The Cabinet, Theo Coloumbe of the Brooklyn Photo Studio. You can see more works from the exhibit here.

They are located here. In fact, it would really be beyond convenient to stop by this fest and then just run down the block and see a few offerings in The Brick's Comic Book Theater Festival (which I can't link to directly because of some egregious Flash usage, so facebook it is).

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Happy Bloomsday!

Raise a pint and crack open a modernist masterpiece and take a long walk and eschew punctuation!

The War Against Miss Winter

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I'm an avid reader of historical mysteries, perhaps the geekiest of genres (where's our Con??).

There are all kinds. The hard-boiled works of James Ellroy and Megan Abbott which usually aren't referred to as "historical mysteries" but are. The excellent, melancholic Maisie Dobbs books by Jacqueline Winspear, all about the repercussions of the First World War on both the living and the dead. And, the insanely popular vogue for mysteries set in New York at the turn of the last century, likely inspired by the success of (the over-rated) Alienist in the '90s.

Historical mysteries are difficult to write, as there are so many different elements. Is the mystery any good? Is the book well researched and accurate, does it wear its period lightly, or is the author subjecting you to gigantic info dumps. How about all the usual novelistic elements, such as style and character? I've read very, very few that manage to be effective at all three of the above aspects of historical mystery-making. Most often, as in Caleb Carr's two mysteries, and in Victoria Thompson's Gaslight series, it's the mystery that suffers most. And in Carr's books, his characterizations are laughably simple-minded. The historical aspects are clearly the draw, so they get the most attention.

Which brings me to The War Against Miss Winter, a mystery set in the New York City theater world in the months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It comes close to succeeding on all fronts, but falls a little short. The story is told by struggling actress, Rosie Winter, who has been supplementing her income (as so many of us must) by working as a file clerk for a private detective. When her employer is offed, Rosie is drawn into the mystery surrounding his family and a strange, reclusive playwright (no, not me). What's so interesting about this book is that the elements that are so often the weakest, are truly impressive. Her mystery is terrific. A true twisty, Christie-style stumper that plays fair with the readers. That is rare beyond rare. Also, first time novelist Kathryn Miller Haines is a playwright and actor, so her understanding of how the nuts and bolts of how theater works is better than in the average novelist.

Now for the not so great parts. In some ways, I am likely Haines biggest nightmare as a reader. Haines hails from Texas and lives in Pennsylvania. As far as I can tell, she has never lived in New York, and it shows. She also uses a 1940s style slang in a way that occasionally made me cringe. There was too much of it, and it felt a little forced. I grew up around people much older than me who had spent their whole lives on the island of Manhattan and the way people spoke, and the way the city was portrayed was off. The phrase "IRT" was never once mentioned, though that was the subway line Rosie lives on, and she talks about taking the subway lots. The theater Rosie winds up working for is clearly modeled after The Group Theater, but she places it on 14th Street, which just felt - wrong. Her description of the lobby of The Waldorf-Astoria made no sense if you've spent any actual time in the lobby. The city just never came alive as it does in Thompson's Gaslight series, for example, or the way Los Angeles in the 40s and 50s does in Ellroy's books.

Kathryn Miller Haines has three subsequent entries in her Rosie Winter series, and I'll likely try at least one more. Though the city isn't very compellingly drawn, and a couple of inexcusable anachronisms jumped out at me, the ability to write a complicated mystery is rare indeed.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Phylum: Mollusca Class: Cephalopoda Order: Octipoda Species: Argonautidae

Oh, internet!

I just discovered the remarkable picture archive belonging to the Réunion des Musées Nationaux. I (unsurprisingly) searched the term "mollusca", and the following are a few of the images of the incredibly charismatic (but shy) Argonaut Octopus I found.

The above painting is of the female Argonaut Octopus. Painted in 1839 by one Mrs. Jeannette Power.

The above is by an unknown artist from the 1551 book, "L'Histoire naturelle des estranges poissons marins"

I feel as if I'm in danger of falling into an internet wormhole with this collection, emerging days later gibbering nonsense, gassy-eyed and unshowered.

Happy 50th Birthday, Kim & Kelly Deal! (AAAGH!)

On June 10th, Kim and Kelly Deal of The Breeders turned 50. You heard, correctly: fifty. I suppose I have to get used to it, I mean, people who I never thought of as being all that much older than me turning ::gulp:: fifty.

Kelly Deal was basist of The Pixies, and I vividly remember seeing them years and years ago in (I think) Maxwells in Hoboken. And then a few years later saw them open up for U2 at The Garden and it seemed as if me and the friend I was with were the only ones who had any idea who they were back in the dawn of the 90s, and we stood by a railing and screamed "KIM DEAL!!" drunkenly at the stage. Ah, youth.

Kim went on to form The Breeders with Tanya Donnelly. For the band's second record, she brought in her identical twin, Kelly. Their birthday cake is hilarious. See at left the two fetuses in utero rendered in frosting.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Cicada Princess

It's beginning to seem as if everyone and their cousin has a kickstarter campaign of some sort or another, but this one particularly caught my imagination. Maybe I'm just obsessed with insect themed animation.

The Cicada Princess is an animated short currently in production. Like so much of the work that seems to interest me these days, it is not digital. It's old fashioned, meticulous stop motion animation and sculpture. Based on the children's book of the same title, the images are both charming and haunting. See their video below. Find their kickstarter page here.

Other Cabinets of Curiosities

A little over a week ago, the Inamorato and I made our way over to Proteus Gowanus which includes within its walls the Observatory (a gallery space) and the Morbid Anatomy Library. The library has a nice little collection (the emphasis on "little"), but didn't seem miles more thrilling than what I would expect to find in someone's home.

In the Observatory, I was happy to catch an alchemy themed group show (Curses! It just closed yesterday.). It was, again, small, but well curated (by Pam Grossman, author of Phantasmaphile), with pieces from the always prolific Molly Crabapple of Dr. Sketchy's fame, Ann McCoy (whose work I really love), and a pair of etchings by Ukrainian artist Marina Korenfeld - who is new to me and was glad to find out about (at left, her etching Abraxas).

Over all, though, the artwork in the Obsevatory aside, excitement felt a little thin on the ground. When I picture what I want Proteus Gowanus to look like in my head, the images are far more dense, grand and exciting.

Remember that blog post of mine from way back in 2009 in which I wrote about thoughts of Victorian interior decoration, and about how taxidermy frightens me and about how I'm frightened of a mad, lonely, little old lady-hood? Well, many, many things have changed since that post and I am altogether one hundred percent aesthetically attuned with the person with whom I share my domicile. I don't think there's anyone in this house who would get particularly upset by a taxidermied crocodile, say (except, of course, with worrying about where it would go). What I really need are picture frames. I mean, I now live in a house where the biggest problems are all book and paper related, which is how it should be. Or maybe we have possibly too many wigs. I am certain we will keep each other from any sort of Collyer-dom. If there are any exciting design additions to Cabinet Headquarters, I will be sure to share them.

A couple of weeks ago, the Times did a piece on a loft in Williamsburg that has been called by its owners, The House of Collection, and it's just lovely. Unlike some of the homes featured a couple of years ago, Paige Stevenson and Ahnika Meyer's loft looks airy and sunny and livable. And I am heartily jealous, though maybe I shouldn't be because the amount of work put into it over the past three decades is more than apparent.

I think it's clear that I like the spaces around me to be dense and busy. I'm a maximalist all the way, and one of the hardest things for me at my day job are the empty gray walls. I began this blog with the idea of it being a modern, digital Cabinet of Curiosities, and as I near my 400th post, I thought it would be a good idea to re-examine that mission. And upon reexamination, I think it still explains better than anything what I am striving to do here. The world, both past and present is full of so much interest and excitement that each of us are lucky if we get the chance to see or experience even the tiniest sliver of it.

Photo at right via

Monday, June 13, 2011

Puppets, Fairies and POP

I mentioned this spread this morning, so I thought I might as well provide a picture to go with it. Puppet wears Alexander McQueen. POP. 2007.

I haven't yet found another fashion magazine that was as relentlessly creative as POP was under Katie Grand. From the same issue, a fairy wears Yves Saint Laurent below.

Italian Vogue and the Myth of the Plus Sized Model

I've written before about how tired and sad I find the current incarnation of American Vogue, and about how I think it might be time for Mrs. Wintour to call it a day. American Vogue is mostly white washed (or appallingly racially insensitive), and filled with spread after spread of white girls leaping into the air in front of plain backgrounds. Mrs. Wintour - stop hiding Grace Coddington's light under a bushel!

Not so with Italian Vogue. This is greatly due to the latitude given to photographer Steven Meisel by editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani. Unlike in the American edition, the editors of Vogue Italia have gone to great lengths to feature a much wider variety of beautiful women than their compatriots in America.

Back in 2008 they came out with what they called the "Black Issue", featuring black models exclusively throughout the magazine - except, of course, in the advertisements, the faces in which were nearly all white, making for a telling juxtaposition. This generated a great deal of talk of steps in the right direction and of exceptionalism both. Over all, the issue was extraordinary and really showed up how narrowly beauty is still construed (Mrs. Prada, take note: I blame you for a lot of it). Also of note - the issue was a blockbuster. Particularly in the United States, it sold and sold and sold and back issues on ebay go for about $80. But, contrary to what naysayers predicted, the magazine has continued to be innovative in their art direction and choice of models, and the magazine, as a whole, is far mare integrated than the norm.

The June 2011 cover and feature spread of Vogue Italia feature what are referred to in the industry as "plus sized models". As most people with an even passing interest in the industry are aware, there has been a great deal of worry over rapidly shrinking models. Women such as Coco Rocha have spoken out about how they have been encouraged to "look anorexic". The problem is simple: models should be pretty much the same size as each other so that they can fit into the samples without much in the way of alterations. That's simple practicality. The question that no one seems to be able to answer is: why do the samples have to be so tiny? There has been a great deal of hand-wringing over the effect on young girls and their perceptions of themselves and unattainable standards. Which brings us to the world of plus size models.

Like all models, the plus sized ones are beautiful, tall and pretty much flawless. The average size is an American 10 or 12 for plus size models (but these aren't, as some of you might know, actual plus sizes), and they work mostly modeling larger sized clothes or for print advertisements for various products. Rarely will you see a plus-sized model in a mainstream fashion magazine. But this is slowly changing. Glamour Magazine has started featuring larger sized models in recent years, and a few other magazines have followed suit. And then the most maddening thing of all happened. People started hand-wringing over the fact that plus-sized models might lead young people to believe that unhealthy life-styles are okay.

This made me want to bang my head against my desk until I bled.

If there's one thing (well, one thing among many) I'd like to get through the world's thick, stupid head, it's that aesthetics and fashion are separate from obesity and ill-health. Plus sized models are fit and healthy (unless they have some sort of underlying health problem we don't know anything about as we don't know these people, but that goes for, like, everyone). The only realm in which these women are considered outsized is in the world of very high fashion. Because they cannot, just like all the rest of us, fit into tiny sample sizes. They are not obese, unhealthy, over-weight or anything other than professionally gorgeous. I am completely mystified how anyone could thing that the picture above left could lead any vulnerable young woman down the sad road to obesity and horror (there's much sarcasm here).

But the most upsetting thing is -the skinny women are awful because they encourage women to be anorexic. The larger models are awful because they encourage women to be fat. It's unwinnable and ghastly. Here's the truth people: Ladies, just like gentlemen, come in many shapes and sizes. Some are deemed fashionable, some are not. This is about aesthetics. Health is abut the state of one's insides, something that is unknowable from either a glance or a photograph.

Back to Steven Meisel's editorial. It's one of the sexiest I've ever seen, Meisel is a brilliant and creative photographer and the young women in the spread are gorgeous. It is telling that they are, for the most part, undressed. Katie Grand, when she was still heading up POP, managed to coerce designers into making large sizes for Beth Ditto and others, and teeny sized for marionettes in one of my favorite photo spreads ever. But she might have magic powers and I've never seen anyone else accomplish that feat (though one would think if she had the inclination la Wintour could make that happen, but, as we all know, she lacks the inclination).

Still more images of non-white women, larger sized women or (heavens!) larger sized non-white women is all to the good. Particularly with most designers not casting non-white models because they say they "don't fit in with their aesthetic" as white women are seen as unthreateningly neutral. There are always more frontiers to conquer, and one delightful mini-trend I've noticed - again in Vogue Italia, when researching this piece - is the use of older models. Forty-seven year old Kristen McMenamy graced the cover in May, and forty-one year old Stella Tennant did the same in March. Maybe things are starting to crack!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Jasper Jaxon at Dixon Place and a Minor Ode To the Forgotten Pinup Girls of Yore

It's sometimes a sad old world, isn't it?

Last month, 1959 Playboy Playmate (July if you're curious) and B-movie actress Yvette Vickers was found dead in her house by a neighbor. Now, don't get the wrong idea, there was no scandal per se, she died of heart failure at the age of 82 or so. The thing is, she's been dead for nearly a year the medical examiner said, as her body was actually mummified.

Which, in a startling segue, leads me to my inamorato (the man self-styled Trav S.D.) and his performance of The Ballad of Jasper Jaxon at Dixon Place. The performance was lovely, if I do say so. Jasper Jaxon is based on real life bank robber Elmer McCurdy, who upon his death in 1911 was over-embalmed and was displayed in various traveling side-shows and theater lobbies with various purposes until it was forgotten who this fellow had been or even that he was an actual mummified person and not just a prop. Like all great true American stories it is both tragic and hilarious.

Along with her Playmate of the Month fame, Miss Vickers had a pretty impressive monster movie career. She has the typical career of small roles in big pictures (her debut was in Sunset Boulevard!) and big roles in small pictures. Most well known for her role in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, she worked in television through the 1970s and appeared in other B horror movies, including Attack of the Giant Leeches, whose wonderful poster you can see below.

The Ballad of Jasper Jaxon is a long, rambling and extremely catchy song in the style of Woody Guthrie with definite shades of Bob Dylan. There's a certain species of Americana that seems to have fallen out of favor recently in our glittery techno present, and it's an awful shame mostly. In general, a sense of history is slowly being eroded. The internet in some ways both helps and hinders. There's such wonderful access to nearly everything, but the ease of finding whatever piece of whatever what puzzle one comes across, also serves to flatten it somewhat. The screen with which we view everything can decontextualize nearly everything until it's all just floating in a digital present.

Yvette Vickers cheerfully attended film festivals around the country in her old age. The fact that she could have disappeared for so long without anyone noticing breaks one's heart a little. The world is a lonely place for so many people, and one of my biggest fears, as it is for so many childless people, is that an end like that of Miss Vickers awaits us in the future. Both Yvette Vickers and the hapless crook Jasper Jaxon lived strange, picaresque and particularly American lives, only to wind up mummified, stuck in the parts of the newspapers designated for the weird and the uncanny, ready made to be turned, as all good American stories should be, into folk songs and B movies.

The Ballad of Jasper Jaxon will go on, no doubt and I will be sure to let you know of an recordings or return engagements.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Win Free Tickets to Five Things!

Well, one thing. And that one thing is Five Things.

Recession blues got you down? Have you been pining to see a show with comedy, romance and a song about Nathan Fillion? Want to see a delightful show in The Brick's Comic Book Theater Festival?

If so, today is your LUCKY DAY.

Just head over to my delightful inamorato's blog, and you can have the opportunity to win a pair.

My rave of Five Things is here.

Monday, June 6, 2011

"All there is to this Follies racket is to Be Cool and Look Hot"

Dixie Dugan: Show Girl In Hollywood

Oh, Alice White.

The only reason she's re-entered the public's consiousness is because she is the subject of seemingly dozens of utterly charming publicity stills from the late '20s and through the '30s. I have a strong suspicion that the vast majority of those who are won over by her adorableness have never seen any of her pictures.

A few weeks ago we emerged from Cabinet Headquarters and ventured over to Film Forum where we were lucky enough to catch the rarely screened 1930 flick, Show Girl in Hollywood. As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I have a particular fondness for the early sound musicals. Show Girl, like all of them, is a backstage musical, this one based on J.P. McEvoy's novel of the same name, featuring his show girl creation, Dixie Dugan.

The novel was serialized in Liberty Magazine in 1929, and as in its comic strip spin-off, the chorus girl protagonist was modeled after that most problematic and interesting Ziegfeld alum, Miss Louise Brooks. See below:

A first, silent Dixie Dugan flick, titled simply "Show Girl" was made in 1928, also starring Alice White. Prints exist, but it's not available on either DVD or online, unfortunately. The real question is: why was Louise Brooks never even considered to play the part which was based on her? The ways of Hollywood were and are still inexplicable. Show Girl was made by First National and Brooks was signed to Paramount (though she had been loaned out to First National before), and the studio wanted to promote their own version of Clara Bow, Alice White. The picture didn't do that well (neither did Ziegfeld's stage version of 1929 starring Ruby Keeler with songs by Gershwin), but a sequel was made a couple of years later once sound was introduced.

Back to Alice White. She is, inarguably, adorable. But she's not much of an actor. She mugs and is stilted. Her singing voice is dubbed and she's a barely adequate dancer. But, as mentioned previously, she's super adorable, a trait which has launched the career of many a starlet past and present. But, adorable does not a career make and Miss White's floundered as she became enmeshed in a tabloid sex scandal (also not uncommon among starlets past and present) and her career never recovered. One way in which she does differ from many starlets is that she was a girl with a college education who began her career working behind the camera. She was Erich Von Stroheim's script girl, but he eventually fired her. She then worked for Charlie Chaplin, who first put her in front of the camera, a goal I have a feeling she may have achieved via the Chaplin casting couch.

White made lots of silent comedies and then segued nicely into sound, but never really hit the big time. One can't help but wonder what the Dixie Dugan series would have been like had Louise Brooks (below right) starred. Alice White's gigantic peepers and baby-doll Brooklynese are charming enough, but Brooks had a great deal more force and charisma and was sexy as hell. And she was an actual Ziegfeld star, unlike Alice White who only performed on film.

This film itself is more interesting as historical curiosity than for its own merits. It's one of the only early talkies that shows the actual movie making process. In the film, Dixie befriends a fading silent screen star, played by Blanche Sweet, aging silent film star. Though, please mind, I use the phrase "aging" advisedly. Sweet's character is written and filmed as if she's on the verge of Norma Desmond-hood, but then she cries out with anguish, "I'm thirty-two years old!". In the screening I attended, this was not greeted by the audience with understanding and pity, but with great big gales of laughter.

As with Glorifying the American Girl, the last reel of Show Girl in Hollywood was shot in color, but in this instance all copies have been lost, and only black and white versions remain. Like in the Ziegfeld movie, there is s scene in which actual stars attend the premier of Dixie's movie. We are then treated to one of the strangest musical numbers I've ever seen (which is saying a lot, as I've seen some very strange musical numbers indeed). The song is called "Haywire" and in order to demonstrate "crazy" the filmmakers have chosen to include these bizarre dancing... figures. They look like homeless people possibly, or maybe the legendary Mole People who supposedly live below the streets of New York. It is so weird. You can see the whole sequence below:

All my caveats aside, I am beyond pleased to have gotten to see this curious picture on the big screen. And though one can't help but dream of a Brooks inhabited alternate reality version, it's a fascinating and entertaining curiosity.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Comic Book Theater Festival: Five Things

We seem to be going through a phase. And by "we", I don't actually mean "me". I mean people, or really, our culture seems to be going through a phase. We seem to be going through a phase in which in order for any sort of art to be taken seriously, awful things must happen in it. Even art for children! There is death and torture and apocalypse and dystopia of all stripes. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the gloom as much as the next person, but not, dear lord, to the exclusion of all else.

I am of the mind that qualities such as "charm" and "humor" and "good heartedness" are due for a comeback. I mean, they are certainly less plentiful than the gloomier ones, so doesn't that make them more valuable? Which brings me to Jillian Tully's play Five Things which is being presented as a part of the Brick's Comic Book Theater Festival. I saw it's premier performance yesterday afternoon and was thoroughly charmed by it.

On its surface, it's about terribly twee and simple things: a girl and her ukulele ode to Nathan Fillion, her genius, scientist cat who attempts to create a pair of opposable thumbs, a Fairy Dragmother, dates both bad and good, and tap dancing (done by the cat). But, like in Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat books, the glittery surface is just a way of engaging larger ideas: those of identity and growing up and of making a real connection to other human beings. As always, in the spirit of full disclosure, Jillian is a friend, and her mode of communication is as much tap dance and pictures as it is words. The comic book aspect of the play is done through thought bubbles and signage of sound effects and wears it all lightly and well. As someone who loves comic books, but has pretty much zero interest in Superheroes, this was likely my sort of Comic Book Theater Festival show. It's very funny and sweet and well worth an hour or two of your life. There is science and romance and tap dancing. How many shows can one say that about, really?

Five Things
The Brick, 575 Metropolitan Ave. Brooklyn, NYC
There are three more performances: Sun 6/5, 6:30pm, Fri 6/10, 7pm, Sun 6/12, 6pm
Purchase tickets here

Below, see Jillian doing research for her role:

Top photo: Ruby (Jillian Tully) and the Girl (Sarah Eliana Bisman), photo credit Beth Hommel

Bottom photo: Ruby (Jillian Tully) communes with a civilian cat, photo credit Beth Hommel

Glorifying The American Girl

Glorifying the American Girl, the 1929 film produced and supervised by Florenz Ziegfield himself, is about as close as any of us are going to get to seeing the Follies live. Which still, isn't very close.

I love the very early talkie musicals from the late twenties and very early thirties, when they were just figuring out the medium which, because of that incredible genius Busby Berkeley, got figured out pretty quickly. They're all backstage show biz tales, and that goes triple for Glorifying the American Girl. It's tells a simple story, but it's far more realistic than the ones told in Gold Diggers of 1933 or 42nd Street.

Ziegfeld star Mary Eaton plays aspiring singer and dancer Gloria Hughes who, as the film begins, works as a singer in a department store. Now, let me explain this archaic mode of employment. Gloria works behind the counter of the sheet music department, and when a customer wants to hear what a song they are interested in purchasing sounds like, she sings it, accompanied on piano by her wholesome boyfriend, Buddy. The sheet music industry at the time was huge, and deserves a post of its own for sure.

Back to Gloria. While attending a company picnic at which the management has provided variety entertainment, she meets tap dancer Miller of the vaudeville act of "Miller & Moody". After seeing her dance, he asks Gloria to become his partner. She does and goes off on tour, her avaricious harpy of a stage mother in tow. It's a grueling tour of five a day shows and one night stands - quite realistic in other words. It soon becomes clear that Miller has cycled through many, many Moodys over the years, and that he is something of a hack. A nasty, greedy piece of work, who hates other's success with a passion and expects sexual favors from his dance partners. After havong been on the road a good long while, Gloria is spotted by a Ziegfeld scout and she and Miller return to New York.

One of the things we found most exciting about this film here at Cabinet headquarters was its New York location shooting. There's a long sequence in which the streets around Grand Central are seen from driver's eye view and it's pretty amazing. I'm also pretty sure The New Amsterdam is played by The New Amsterdam. Florenz Ziegfels was at the peak of his glory when this film was shot and it shows. There's a sequence in which a crowd of luminaries are announced as the enter the theatre, including: Mayor Jimmy Walker, Noah Beery, Texas Guinan, Paramount head Adolph Zukor, and Mr. Ziegfeld himself, accompanied by his wife, Billie Burke.

We then get to watch about half an hour of a Ziegfeld spectacle. We see a long (very, very long) Eddie Cantor comedy routine, a song sung by Rudy Vallee (who I will love forever for his hilarious turn in Palm Beach Story), and Helen Morgan boozily sings a torch song from atop her piano. Make no mistake: these were the some of biggest stars alive at the time this movie was made. And there are girls. Girls and girls and more girls, wearing some of the most extraordinary costumes, and dancing and gliding across some of the most magnificent sets ever created. The Follies was both wonderful and boring. It wasn't particularly hip at the time - there were jazzier, younger, sexier and faster reviews. The Follies was an American institution, and one critic likened it to an achievement more on par with Ford's, one of automation, something to be admired, but fundamentally unsexy. In other words, it was a great deal like the sort of shows we now find in Las Vegas.

The film was written by chorus girl expert, J.P McEvoy. He was a screenwriter, short story writer and the creator of Dixie Dugan, a comic strip based on the most legendary of all chorus girls, Miss Louise Brooks. He will be featured in a post later this week. Needless to say, he knew the lay of this starry eyed though hard-bitten land well, and it shows.

And what of our heroine, Gloria? She becomes a great Ziegfeld star, of course. And in one of my favorite plot twists ever - she doesn't get the boy. Being a star is awfully time consuming, and though she weeps, no doubt everyone will be happier as things turned out. And in real life, Mary Eaton was a great Ziegfeld star, and is thus completely believable once she fufills her destiny. When Glorifying the American Girl was originally released in 1929, much of the final reel was in color, extraordinarily enough. Sadly, the versions currently available are in black and white only, and some footage was snipped post-Code because of some mild Show Girl nudity. But, all hail YouTube! Much of the color footage still exists, some of which can be seen below. Hopefully one day it will be reintegrated with the film (Martin Scorcese, are you listening, Sir?)

And what of Mary Eaton, our chorus girl heroine? From a family of show biz siblings, she is most well known today for being the sister of fellow Ziegfeld girl Doris Eaton, who became the oldest living Ziegfeld Girl prior to her death last year at the age of 106. Doris is the subject of Lauren Redniss's amazing pictorial-graphic-collage-biography, Century Girl, which is an absolutely must have for anyone with an even passing interest in Ziegfeld, chorus girls, American social history, show business, or anything at all, really. Mary was one of those complete entertainment packages that proliferated at the beginning of the last century: she could act, do light comedy, sing, tap and dance en pointe. He career wained with the fall of variety and she succumbed, like so many other talented performers both before and after, to alcoholism. She died of liver failure in 1948.

If you would like to see more of the lovely Mary Eaton, she was also featured in the early Marx Brothers film, Cocoanuts.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Gotham Girls Roller Derby!

No, those aren't the modern skaters pictured above, but that Life Magazine snap from the '30s was so terrific I couldn't resist posting it. The Inamorato and I have been attempting to enjoy a night of vicious and exciting roller derby, as it is some by the local Gotham Girls Roller Derby. Hopefully, tonight you will be able to see Mr. S.D. and myself sitting in the stands and munching popcorn as we watch Manhattan Mayhem battle the Queens of Pain.

Tonight. 8:30. Hunter College Sportsplex. Buy tix here.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Gilda Gray: Shimmy!

Gilda Gray was a vaudevillian, a chorus girl, a headliner in The Follies and at the Palace, and a movie star.

Now, of course, she's pretty much forgotten. Doing all this research on these former chorus girls and silent movie stars, there's one thing I'm finding particularly telling: at least half are mentioned as being "possibly the model for Norma Desmond". I picture Hollywood in the fifties being filled with strange and lovely aging goddesses who still live on cigarettes and gin. In some ways Gilda was one of them, but at heart, she was a trouper.

Born in Poland in 1901 (or thereabouts: to paraphrase Angela Carter, the birthdate of actresses is often a movable feast), her parents were killed when she was an infant, but she was luckily adopted out of the orphanage by a couple who moved with her to Milwaukee when she was 9 or 10 (or thereabouts: see above). She began her career singing and dancing in local saloons. She married when still in her early teens, had a son, got divorced and went on the road. She danced what was called (and is still called) The Shimmy. People went wild for her.

She went by a variety of names until none other than the great Sophie Tucker suggested she use the name "Gilda" because of her golden blonde hair. This was in 1919. She did, and it stuck. Gilda Gray is a far better theatrical moniker than Marianna Winchalaska, the name she was born with. She was a success in vaudeville, which led her to be hired by Florenz Ziegfeld, and in the Follies, she truly became a star. In 1923 she headed to Hollywood where she was immediately successful. Her movies were huge hits and she made lots of money, and like most true show biz success stories of the age, she was a world class workaholic.

In 1929, she lost most of her accumulated fortune in the crash, and couldn't get much movie work as her thick Polish accent was not deemed talkie friendly. So, she went back to vaudeville, where she got a booking at The Palace in New York at $3,500 a week in depression dollars. She also made some movies in England, one of which, Piccadilly, has been recently restored. I watched it a few weeks ago, and - it's not very good. In general, the English silents are pretty deadly, and this one is no exception. It's painfully slow-moving and Gilda isn't great in it. From what I gather, she was neither a great actress or a great dancer: what people came in droves to see was a pretty young woman shaking with orgasmic delight in an otherwise fairly staid world.

She had a heart attack in 1931, largely brought on by overwork. Any sort of comeback was hindered by poor health. She shot a few scenes, playing herself in The Great Ziegfeld in 1936, but her scenes were cut from the final film. She continued to perform in nightclubs when she could, got married and divorced a few times, and did some very admirable work during the war on behalf of Poland.

She died of a second heart attack in 1958, all but forgotten. The Motion Picture Relief Fund paid for her funeral.