Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Mae West: Williams in Williamsburg

MAE WEST was enthralled by the talented Bert Williams [1874 — 1922].  She even learned to imitate him performing his theme song "Nobody."  Several biographers have remarked that Mae had also mastered the timing and gestures Williams used to dramatize the lyrics, to which he added his own sarcasm.
• • It was in February 1906 that "Abyssinia," with its score co-written by George Walker and Bert Williams, premiered at the Majestic Theater (at 5 Columbus Circle), a well-appointed Broadway playhouse with more than 1350 seats. The lavish production even included live camels. Since this exotic musical comedy was another smash hit for the duo, Bert Williams got a chance to record several of these songs. 
• • Mae West the Mimic • •
• • While it is possible that 13-year-old Mae memorized this popular showtune from sheet music, there was only one way to perfect the nuances of an actor's phrasing, timing, and movements in the early 1900s — — by watching him onstage at least a few times.  How did a girl from a blue-collar household get a ticket often enough to be able to hone this impersonation or others? [Little Mae also copied Eddie Foy and Eva Tanguay, etc.]
• • Instead of answering this important question, biographers have wandered afield.
• • For instance, Jill Watts wondered how Jack West finagled this opportunity. Jill Watts wrote: "[Mae] maintained that somehow her father was introduced to Williams. (Perhaps it was through their common love of boxing; Williams was an avid fan.) One of her most treasured, and seemingly traumatic, childhood memories was the night her father arrived home and announced: 'Mae, I have a surprise for you. Bert Williams is here. I've brought him home' . . ." [page 14 in "Mae West, An Icon in Black and White"].  After referring to Mae's account of this incident, Watts leaves it there, unfortunately.
• • Charlotte Chandler's retelling of this incident falters, too.  Failing to examine the method by which Mae perfected her mimicry (or how a child gained access to theatre seats), Chandler adds to a fan's bewilderment.
• • In an interview with Charlotte Chandler, Mae supposedly described meeting Bert Williams when she was a child. Little Mae was so enchanted by him that she had learnt his theme song "Nobody" along with copying the superb timing and gestures Williams used to dramatize the sad words. This was unusual for Mae, who never liked anything downbeat. Knowing how much his daughter idolized the star, Mae's father made his acquaintance and invited him home in 1903. Unfortunately, Mae did not recognize the mocha-skinned West Indian entertainer without his blackface make-up and ran into her room crying, "It's not him!" To convince her, Bert Williams started to sing, whereupon Mae emerged from her bedroom and happily sat down to supper with Bert Williams and her family. . . . [Source: Charlotte Chandler, The Ultimate Seduction, Doubleday, 1984.]
• • How delightful it was to read a more insightful account about a young Mae West working on her impressions of Bert Williams, and how her father provided ongoing access to stage stars, in "Mae West's New York, 1899 — 1970."  Hint:  "Abyssinia" was booked in Williamsburg, Brooklyn the week of May 7th, 1906.  Anyway, it is an intriguing heap of research and maybe it will be out shortly. 
• • On Saturday, 8 May 1926 • •
• • Unflattering comments about Mae West's play "Sex" (the phrase "street sweepings" was in the description) were printed in The New Yorker, issue dated for Saturday, 8 May 1926.  Aww. Somebody was not swayed by all that free beer Mae was pouring backstage. Tch.
• • On Tuesday, 8 May 1934 • •
• • Tuesday, 8 May 1934 Mae West recorded the ending of "My Old Flame."  This collaboration between New York City lyricist Sam Coslow and composer Arthur Johnson was created for the motion picture "Belle of the Nineties." Backed by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, Mae archived her performance in the recording studio. The Duke himself was on the piano.
• • On Saturday, 8 May 1937 • •
• • "Buxom Mae West Gives Trial Deposition" • •
• • An article by an Associated Press reporter that was published on Saturday, 8 May 1937 (in numerous newspapers) provided a Technicolor glimpse of the drama surrounding Mae West's "forgotten" 1911 trip to the altar.
• • A Los Angeles AP stringer wrote: Buxom Mae West, colorfully attired in a typical Hollywood outfit of lounging-pajamas, gave a deposition today preliminary to trial of the suit of Frank Wallace, who claims she is his wife.
• • AP noted: Miss West gave the deposition behind closed doors in the office of A. M. Blount, counsel for Frank Wallace. She was dressed in blue lounging pajamas, blue silk sandals, white hat, and carried a white handbag. ...
• • On Monday, 8 May 1961 • •
• • The work week started well. It was on Monday, 8 May 1961 that Mae signed a contract to perform the play "Sextette" at the Edgewater Beach Playhouse. Her salary was pegged at $5,500 per week and she would also share in 33 1/3 (gross) of the box office.
• • In Her Own Words • •
• • Mae West said: "I never loved another person the way I loved myself."
• • Mae West said: "All discarded lovers should be given a second chance, but with somebody else."
• • Quote, Unquote • •
• • An interview with Chuck McCann mentioned Mae West.
• • Chuck McCann portrayed W. C. Fields in the TV movie "Mae West."
• • Billy Ingram wrote: Turns out Chuck and his wife were friends with Mae West and he shares stories of the immortal comedienne and how she had a mini-comeback in the 1970s thanks to his wife Betty, a former agent and Vice President at the William Morris Agency. ...
• • Source: Interview: "TV Party with Billy Ingram"; on 8 May 2007
• • By the Numbers • •
• • The Mae West Blog was started seven years ago in July 2004. You are reading the 2294th 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: http://MaeWest.blogspot.com/

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• • Mae West 1906 dinner guest • •
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