Saturday, August 06, 2011

Mae West: The Purity Police

It was 1912 when MAE WEST got her first major vaudeville break: a spot on the bill at Hammerstein's Victoria in mid-May. At last the scintillating singing comedienne could demonstrate that she was in a league with the top-tiered headliners often billed at "The Corner" such as Eva Tanguay, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Nora Bayes, and other notables.
• • Mae was close to her 19th birthday when she was invited back by Oscar Hammerstein for a weeklong booking that began in the month of August — — on 6 August 1912. She shared the stagebill with several acts — — including Fields and Carroll.
• • It was then that Mae West heard Fields and Carroll perform their jaunty rag "On the Mississippi" — — about 99 years ago on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street. Then "Mae West and Her Boys" sang a few rags and played the bones, minstrel style. Variety slammed their routine, suggesting she return to burlesque since she lacked the refinement necessary for top-drawer vaudeville. Instead Mae once again became a solo act, purchased new material, and kept on trouping.
• • Half of the team was a man five years older than Mae. Arthur Fields was also born in the month August — — on 6 August 1888 — — and he hailed from Philadelphia, where he started out in life as Abe Finkelstein. For years he toured with Harry Carroll. Scrappy little Arthur Fields was merely 11 years old when he turned pro, booking singing engagements in Utica, New York and then branching out to Coney Island. Around 1908 the ambitious baritone toured with Guy Brother's Minstrel Show, and helped assemble a vaudeville novelty "Weston, Fields, and Carroll." Four years later, the partnership had been paired down to Fields and Carroll. Arthur Fields had his first hit as a songwriter with "On the Mississippi" (1912); he had composed this ragtime music with Harry Carroll, but Ballard MacDonald supplied the lyrics.
• • When his wife's health necessitated a move from New York to Florida, the couple relocated to the sunbelt and settled in Hollywood in 1946. The tireless entertainer snagged his own radio gig over WKAT, Miami: "The Arthur Fields Program."
• • Sadly, in March 1953, he had a stroke and went under the care of the Littlefield Convalescent Home in Largo, Florida. Most unfortunately, the institution had a fire, which ended his life on 29 March 1953. He was 64 years old.
• • Mae West & Eugene O'Neill: Off-beat Links • •
• • The Edwin Forrest Theatre was renamed the Coronet when it was refurbished and reopened in December 1945. A few years later, this playhouse hosted the revival of Mae West's enormously successful Bowery classic. "Diamond Lil" met her public at the Coronet beginning on 5 February 1949.
• • Eventually, the Coronet became the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on 19 November 1959.
• • Eugene O'Neill was born in New York, NY on 16 October 1888 and introduced to the theatre world via the Provincetown Playhouse during the 1920s. The Pulitzer-winning "Beyond the Horizon" [published in 1920] was O'Neill's first important play.
• • Though Mae found O'Neill's outlook depressing, she was well aware of his enormous popularity and made sure to go and see his plays.
• • "Mae West was better suited to writing gritty realism than Eugene O'Neill," explains Frank Cullen in the book "Vaudeville, Old and New" [2007].
• • On Sunday afternoon, 14 August 2011 • •
• • "Mae West in Bohemia — — Gin, Sin, Censorship, and Eugene O'Neill"
• • Mae West's birthday is August 17th. Join us at 3:00 pm on Sunday afternoon, 14 August 2011. The title of this illustrated historical theme walk is "Mae West in Bohemia — — Gin, Sin, Censorship, and Eugene O'Neill." Rare vintage illustrations will show you how the buildings and blocks looked as these two theatre people saw them.
• • Where: This illustrated walking tour begins at 62 West Ninth Street, NYC (near Sixth Avenue). Come along and take a walk on the wild side next weekend.
• • Censorship and the Wales Padlock Law • •
• • During the 1920s in the Empire State, because law enforcement had the support of Governor Al Smith, a Roman Catholic, New York City's district attorney and the police department of New York City undertook a crackdown on "salacious plays." But, in reality, City Hall was after one individual: Mae West. Not only was she an actress, she also was daring enough to write plays like "The Drag" about homosexuals and drag queens.
• • Signed into law by the governor, in time for Mae's trial at Jefferson Market Court in early 1927, the Wales Padlock Law held writers and producers, but not actors, responsible for obscenity.
• • In Her Own Words • •
• • Mae West said: "Keep a diary and one day it'll keep you."
• • Quote, Unquote • •
• • Mae West was pursued by the censors both in her hometown of New York City and also out West in Hollywood.
• • Robert Rusie writes: The morality police, the arbiters of public taste, received a blow in March of 1930. A hung jury caused the judge to dismiss obscenity charges against Mae West's Pleasure Man. This is the same judge who broke a gavel, pounding to keep order and erase from the record a question by Miss West about how a police officer could tell if he were addressing a young lady or a man in drag. When the show was raided, police arrested 52 members of the cast, several of whom were men in drag. This resulted in an amendment to the "Wales Padlock Law" in New York. In the future, only the writers and producers — — and not the cast or crew of a show — — would be held responsible for material deemed obscene or immoral. ...
• • Source: Broadway 101: The History of the Great White Way written by Robert Rusie; this excerpt comes from his section 1930 — 1940, The Great Depression
• • By the Numbers • •
• • The Mae West Blog was started seven years ago in July 2004. You are reading the 2014th blog post. Unlike many blogs, which draw upon reprinted content from a newspaper or a magazine and/ or summaries, links, or photos, the mainstay of this blog is its fresh material focused on the life and career of Mae West, herself an American original.
• • Come up and see Mae every day online:
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• • Photo: • • Mae West • • on trial, 3 March 1927 • •
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