Saturday, January 28, 2012

History in the Making: Clown Summit & Vaudephone

Christopher Lueck
(Photo: Jim Moore)
[post 236] 

James Agee once wrote a famous book called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which was about tenant farmers who were in fact guys but certainly not famous, so I was going to title this post Let Us Now Praise Three Guys Who Aren't Famous Either but Should Be for All the Cool Work They do Promoting and Chronicling Clowns and Variety Artists — but that title was already taken.

The three guys in question are Christopher Lueck, Jim Moore, and Trav S.D. One of them I've never met, one I met three or four times, and the other I've known for 33 years and even performed with in a circus. Problem is I can't remember which is which. Yeah, just kidding. (I won't be that senile for another month or two.)

So let's start with Christopher Lueck, host of New York's monthly Downtown Clown Revue, now in its fifth season, and creator of the new instructional DVD Learn Slapstick: Get Physically Funny. That should keep Christopher busy enough, but he is also the mastermind behind Clown Summit, a series of audio interviews with contemporary clowns now in its second year. Last year's lineup featured informative chats with Chuck Sidlow & Mitch Freddes, Michael Christensen, Barry Lubin, Avner Eisenberg (Avner The Eccentric), John Gilkey, and David Kaye (Silly Billy).

This year's cavalcade of stars, which can be heard starting the day after tomorrow, is equally stellar:

• Joe Dieffenbacher (Clown Conservatory)
• Sue Morrison (Institute of Canadian Clowning)
• Jesse Dryden (Circus Smirkus)
• Ronlin Foreman (Dell’ Arte School)
• Priscilla Mooseburger (Mooseburger Camp)
• Jango Edwards (Nouveau Clown Institute)

And it's all free! Just go to the Clown Summit web site to register and you will receive a link via e-mail to listen to the interviews, which will be available for streaming for 24 hours each — one a day from January 30th through February 4th. If you miss them, or want these as a part of your permanent collection, all the contents will be available afterwards on a reasonably priced CD or downloadable e-book. What's not to like?

Jim Moore
Next up are Jim Moore (not his real name) and Trav S.D., and their new collaboration, Vaudephone. Jim is an old friend whose work has appeared frequently on this blog. A former mime and street performer, Jim is a master photographer who has been documenting the eccentric arts for over three decades, most recently for his excellent Vaude_Visuals blog. Now that he's retired from his day job, he's put this work into high gear, if not overdrive. As I've joked more than once, if they hold a clown show in New York City and Jim's not there, does it still make a sound?

Trav S.D.
Trav S.D. is equally nuts. He actually thought the world needed yet another book on vaudeville, and then proceeded to write a best-seller on the subject, No Applause—Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous. I've read and enjoyed it and will be including it in my upcoming series of posts on variety theatre, tentatively slotted in for late 2010. (Okay, so I'm a little behind schedule.) He also does dozens of other things, as indicated by the subtitle to his encyclopedic blog. Travalanche: Being a web log for the observations of actor, author, cartoonist, comedian, critic, director, humorist, journalist, master of ceremonies, performance artist, playwright, producer, publicist, public speaker, songwriter, and variety booker Trav S.D. 

Vaudephone is producing video documentation of contemporary variety performance. Its name and its value both harken back to the old Warner Brothers Vitaphone film shorts of the early 30s that preserved some vintage vaudeville acts for posterity. Here's their intro:

The Vaudephone revives the old concept of Vitaphone vaudeville for the Vimeo age, presenting today’s hottest variety acts in a simple and attractive format for the discerning audience member from the convenience of your computer. Look here each Tuesday for a new installment from now through early 2012. 

Jim and Trav S.D. have been running around town shooting video of a wide variety of variety acts, placing the performers in a studio setting rather than in front of a live audience. What is lost in ambience and audience reaction is gained in proper lighting, crystal-clear audio, and optimal camera positioning. (It's very hard to get good video at a live show without extensive prep and some expensive equipment!)

Here's a more detailed explanation of the process from Trav S.D.:
"I've been going to Ron Hutchison's Vitaphone programs at the Film Forum for many many years. It occurred to me that there is a certain modular quality to them....something similar to the vaudeville bios I do on Travalanche and to the photo essays Jim does on Vaudevisuals. So it occurred to me that conceptually it would be a natural thing for us to collaborate on -- the joint content we create fits both of our blogs. I came up with the idea of distressing it to make it look like a Vitaphone and also came up with the semi-accurate format of the titles. I book all of the acts, determine the content, and coach them on the aesthetic we're going for (I've been producing vaudeville shows since 1995, so it's also a natural outgrowth of that.) I also secured theme music from Vince Giordano and (upcoming) Jerry Zucker, and also have a say in how the act is shot (i.e., framing composition -- there ain't much else!). Jim does all of the shooting, lighting, post-production, and works with a subcontractor on titles."

I can remember when we all discovered video in the 70s. We liked having copies of our shows (even if we all looked green and blurry), but no one appearing in a festival would let their work be videotaped by others, out of fear of their material being stolen. Now it seems everyone wants to be on YouTube, but often the production values are quite low and do a disservice to the performers. The growing Vaudephone archive remedies all that, so let's hope they continue to produce these nuggets well beyond "early 2012."

Good work, all three of you, and here are those links again:
Clown Summit

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