Friday, January 29, 2010

Happy Birthday, Jack Wilson! (Sand Dance)

[post 061]


Long before Steve Martin's King Tut, there was this hysterical sand dance performed by Jack Wilson, born in Liverpool this day in 1894, and Joe Keppel, born in Ireland a year later. Along with a succession of Bettys, they formed the music-hall comedy act of Wilson, Keppel & Betty. This birthday salute is just an excuse to showcase their work, a delicious parody of an earlier craze for all things Egyptian, sparked by the 1922 discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, just as Martin's was inspired by the wildly popular 1978 U.S. tour of the Treasures of Tutankhamun.

Wilson and Keppel first performed together in New York in March 1919 as a comedy acrobatic and tap dancing act in vaudeville, and continued working together until 1963. Yep, that's 44 years together. Yikes! In 1928 they were joined in the act by Betty Knox, former stage partner of Jack Benny, who retired in 1941 to go into journalism, but was followed by something like seven other Bettys, beginning with Knox's own daughter, Patsy.

They toured internationally and, according to legend, were denounced by Goebbels as "bad for the morals of Nazi Youth" after a 1936 performance at Berlin's Wintergarden because they showed too much bare leg. Mussolini, on the other hand, was said to have had no problem enjoying the act. In 1950, they even shared the bill with Frank Sinatra when he headlined the London Palladium.

Along the way, their signature piece, the sand dance, became a cult favorite. Film historian Luke McKernan (see below) commented that "I worked at the National Film and Television Archive for a number of years, and I think this one piece of film was requested by the public more times than any other."

Like Anna Pavlova before them and Steve Martin decades later, Wilson & Keppel are all profile and angles and limbs, funnier than Pavlova and more skilled than Martin — and perhaps vice-versa. Their slender frames and straight faces are perfect for the mock-seriousness of the piece.

Here it is, their trademark sand dance, to the tune of Luigini's Ballet Egyptien, arranged for them by none other than Hoagy Carmichael.

And here's another version, courtesy of British Pathé. It's part of a 1933 variety show at the Trocadero Restaurant, and unfortunately they're in front of the curtain instead of their pyramid backdrop. It includes a cute little dance up and down the stairs.

As Cleopatra, Betty provided the sultriness with her Dance of the Seven Veils and gave the guys something to play off of. Here's my favorite bit from Cleopatra's Nightmare.

Last and perhaps least, one more cute novelty.

You can view a few more incidental clips on YouTube, and can read Luke McKernan's excellent history of the act (pdf download) by clicking here.

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