Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mae West: Doin' the Grizzly Bear

MAE WEST sang "Doin' the Grizzly Bear" in vaudeville and finally got to record it in 1973 — — on a rock and roll album, no less.
• • At a time when animal dances [the bunny hop, the chicken scratch, the turkey trot, etc.] were in vogue, the "Bear Dance" came into its own in San Francisco and gradually moved east. By the early 1900s, these lumbering "Hug up close to your baby" moves were being done on Staten Island ferries. The fad spread through cafe society all the way to The Great White Way.
• • "The Grizzly Bear" made its Broadway debut in the musical "Over the River" [1910] via the song "Everybody's Doin' it Now," which repeated a catchy phrase: "It's a Bear!"
• • Supposedly, in 1910, Sophie Tucker was arrested for her performance of the Grizzly Bear and also for singing the suggestive song "The Angle Worm Wiggle."
• • The Ziegfeld Follies of 1911 featured the Bear Dance performed by Fannie Brice.
• • Cashing in on the craze, several composers put together their own variation of it — — including Irving Berlin [11 May 1888 — 22 September 1989], who wrote the lyrics for "The Dance of the Grizzly Bear," partnering with George Botsford, who published the music in 1912. Since Sophie Tucker appeared on their song sheet, naturally she introduced their version to her vast vaudeville audience.
• • Deliberately rough and clumsy, the dance imitated the motions of a trained bear. Imagine taking a very heavy step to the side, like a grizzly might, while executing a decided bending of the upper part of the body from one side to the other, hilariously ungraceful and undignified.
• • Though we're not sure how many variations Mae West sang and performed onstage, a backlash by the Dance Police only served to keep The Bear quite popular.
• • For example, written in a dance card from the Exposition Park dancing pavilion in Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania on 22 July 1913 was a warning that the Bear Dance and Turkey Trot would not be tolerated. Which made doing this "forbidden dance" even more fun.
• • According to Peter Blecha in his 2004 book Taboo Tunes: A History of Banned Bands & Censored Songs: "Around 1913 a number of New York City–based dance instructors — — who had been quite successfully promoting old-school waltzes and schottisches — — felt their livelihood was being threatened enough to come together and call for bans on new dances (as well as the halting of further publication of ragtime sheet music). And in time the censors enjoyed a few successes: A number of new dances — — including the faddish “animal dances” (like the bunny hug, the turkey trot, the kangaroo hop, the camel walk, the lame duck, the chicken scratch, the raccoon, and the grizzly bear) and even the exotic tango — — were formally outlawed by municipal morality codes enacted in various American cities." [Source: Chapter 2, “BEAT CRAZY,” pp.18 — 22.]
• • No, Mae West was not dissuaded by the shame-on-you crowd, and neither was Sophie Tucker, whose version is below.
• • • • "The Dance of the Grizzly Bear" [an excerpt] • • • •
• • Lyrics: Irving Berlin; Music: George Botsford
• • • • Out in San Francisco where the weather’s fair, They have a dance out there
• • • • They call the “Grizzly Bear,” All your other lovin’ dances don’t compare
• • • • Not so coony, But a little more than spoony
• • • • Talk about yo’ bears that Teddy Roosevelt shot, They couldn’t class with what
• • • • Old San Francisco’s got, Listen my honey, do
• • • • And I will show to you, The dance of the grizzly Bear
• • • • [chorus:]
• • • • Hug up close to your baby, Throw your shoulders t’ward the ceilin’
• • • • Lawdy, lawdy, what a feelin’, Snug up close to your lady
• • • • Close your eyes and do some nappin’, Something nice is gwine to happen
• • • • Hug up close to your baby, Sway me everywhere
• • • • Show your darlin’ beau just how you go to Buffalo, Doin’ the grizzly bear . . . .
• • All we have to say is: "It's a Bear!"

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• • Photo: • • Mae West • • 1912 song sheet • •
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