California’s Coyote Jesters
NOTES FROM ABOVE GROUND
By Honey van Blossom
(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste)
California’s radio, film and television comedies grew out of vaudeville, which largely grew out of earlier European traditions and paralleled the jester traditions in Native American, Middle-Eastern, Asian and African oral literature. Vaudeville, like baseball, was a vehicle of assimilation to American life, and then that amalgamated new American vision spread to the rest of the world.
Within the vaudevillian traditions has always been a sub-category of humor: the coyote jester. The coyote marches to his own drummer. He is difficult. He takes no shit and construes shit broadly.
The art of jesters and fools appeared in hieroglyphics in Egypt’s 5th Dynasty about 2500 BC and surfaced in Tarot cards. Roaming gypsies introduced tarot cards to Europe at the time of the Renaissance, and appeared throughout medieval history. The Harlequin on stage was an acrobatic trickster wearing a black domino mask and carrying a bat or noisy slapstick with which he frequently spanked his victims. That was the origin of the term “slapstick.”
The fool in Tarot cards symbolized a chance to live in the present moment. The fool represents the spirit of adventure and infinite possibility. Clowns and jesters also played an important role in the religions and lives of Asian societies. Clowns in ancient Greece were bald headed and padded to appear larger than normal. They performed as secondary figures in farces and mimes parodying the actions of more serious characters and at times threw nuts at the spectators. The Roman mime clown wore a pointed hat and a patchwork colorful robe.
A large portion of America’s population growth from 1870 was immigrant, largely European: Irish-Catholic, Jewish from many countries and Protestant. “Up until World War I, vaudeville was a theater of assimilation – assimilation to America, to the industrial city with its frantic pace, to one’s fellow migrants and immigrants, and to the opportunities for individual success…” (W.H. Williams, ‘Twas Only An Irisman’s Dream)
Before 1880, Chinese actors performed in acrobatic troupes, expositions and community theaters either to maintain community connections or as displays to curious Americans of foreign culture, stereotyped as “yellow face.” As with “blackface,” which was performed in minstrel shows in California from its beginning as a state to parody African-Americans, yellow face dialect, makeup, posture and costuming marked Asians as inferior. Lee Tung Foo was the first Chinese American – born in Watsonville in an immigrant family – to enter vaudeville in 1905 as a singer. Lee’s brother Harry performed with the Chung Hwa Comedy Four.
Kanfer calls vaudeville the most democratic popular art in American history. “To get onstage, all you needed was chutzpah and moxie.”
Stefan Kanfer, in his “Vaudeville’s Brief, Shining Moment,” explains, “The word ‘vaudeville’ derives from the French vau-de-vire, referring to the Valley of theVire in Normandy, where itinerant singers amused the crowds with double-entendre-packed songs. The tradition soon crossed the pond and by the mid-nineteenth century had become even trashier.” The roots of vaudeville were traveling circuses, dime museums, in the 1840s the minstrel shows, Dutch minstrels and comedians, jugglers, sellers of miracle elixirs (as in the Wizard of Oz), “wild west shows,” and Yiddish theater.
Yiddish Theater – its graduates include Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni – was from its early Purim performance origins, serious. Playwright Jacob Gordin who tried to raise the level of the Yiddish stage in New York at the turn of the twentieth century, sneered at Yiddish vaudeville as “the tail of the theatrical business, with disgusting shows, demoralizing recitations, vulgar witticisms, emetic beer, and debauchery.”
England’s music hall performances entered American vaudeville in 1910. The English music hall started out in British taverns at roughly the same time as the American concert saloon in the 1850s. Towards the end of the century, producers built large theatres especially for variety entertainments and at that point the music hall bore more of a resemblance to American vaudeville.
British music hall originated in saloon bars within public houses (a public house or “pub” is a public house) in the 1830s. The music hall built upon the wider tradition of English satirical theater beginning with Shakespeare (and thus based on earlier writing) married to the Italian commedia dell’arte and its stock characters of Harlequin (A buffoon usually masked, dressed in multicolored, diamond-patterned tights, Pantalone (A foolish old man, the butt and accomplice of the clown) and Pulcinello (“Punch.”) Crafty and vicious, his mode of defense is to pretend to be too stupid to know what’s going on.) The fool, or court jester, acts like a child and has simplicity of the heart. (Woody Allen resurrected the jester in Play It Again Sam and turned him into a Jewish vaudevillian in a medieval court.) Music Hall rested on very old models that tap into what must be an almost universal idea of the disruptive wise fool.
The Fred Karno Troupe was the pre-eminent music hall entertainment group in England. In the years 1904-1914, Karno’s violently comical knockabout became more successful. Britain at that time was undergoing a modest social revolution from an aristocracy to a more level and fluid social structure. Karno’s scenarios usually featured trades people and working men.
One of Karno’s most successful sketches was called: “Mumming Birds.” The centerpiece of the routine was a “drunk” who arrived late, causing a big commotion and calling a great deal of attention to his role. Charlie Chaplin followed his half-brother Sydney into the troupe in 1908, and rapidly became the company’s star, playing the lead role of the drunk. His understudy, a young man named Stanley Jefferson (Stan Laurel, later “Laurel” in “Laurel and Hardy”) joined in 1910.
The mythical character Nasreddin Hoca is a parallel to the European jester. Hoja appears in thousands of stories as a philosopher but often, he is a fool or the butt of a joke. “Hoja” is embraced by Albanian, Arabic, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Chinese, Greek, Hindi, Kurdish, Italian, Judeo-Spanish, Persian, Romanian, Russian, Turkish, Urdu and Uzbeki cultures. He appears in Swahili and Indonesian Culture. In some places he is “Abunwas.” In China, he is a Uygur figure. Although he was purportedly a real person born in various real cities at various times, Hoja’s audience is so widespread and so much a part of religions and traditions that he had to have ancient roots. Following is an example of a Hoja story.
Hoja was riding his donkey across a bridge when a passerby called out to him that he was cruel to weight the poor donkey like that. So Hoja got off his donkey and walked alongside him. Another passerby called out, “Hoja! That is stupid!” So Hoja bent down and put the donkey on his back and they both toppled into the river. This isn’t a real knee slapper — except to Turks, Uygurs, Arabs, etc., but the moral of the story is that you cannot direct your actions according to what others tell you.
In a separate parallel tradition, Africans brought to this country the animal trickster from their traditions that turned into Bre’r Rabbit (a syncope of “Brother Rabbit”) in the Uncle Remus stories. The rabbit trickster appears in West, Central and Southern Africa. In Akan traditions, he is the spider Anansi.
Indians in the Americas also had traditions of fools and jesters. Cortez found them in Montezuma’s court. “Heyoka” jesters appear in almost every North American Indian society. Heyoka were contrarians, often speaking and walking backwards. They acted in ridiculous and obscene ways, especially in religious societies. His pranks were to show people ways they could start being smarter.
Silent film comedy in California drew from Vaudeville and music hall for its memes. It was a cyclorama of pratfalls, pies-in-the-face, drunks, letches, cross-dressing, madly careening cars, beer carts and shopping carts cascading down hillsides, a live turkey, moving heavy objects up stairs, pantomime, frequent dunking in various liquid, beds sliding around a hotel room when a train passes by, drunks, and preposterous situations. Among the first film comedians were the Keystone Cops, spawned by Irish-Canadian Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin (from England) and his cartoon heir Bugs Bunny (Bugs didn’t write his own material and he was a Warner Brothers creation, so native born.), Stan Laurel (from England) and Oliver Hardy (born in Georgia), Buster Keaton (from Kansas), and Harold Lloyd (from Nebraska).
The Marx Brothers (Born in a New York City Jewish-immigrant family), bad tempered cross-dressing Milton Berle (Born into a Jewish immigrant family in Harlem), clown and pretend-drunk Red Skelton (Irish, from Indiana), abrasive and sentimental Jackie Gleason (Born in an Irish-immigrant family in Brooklyn), and “sketch comics” Sid Cesar (The youngest of three born in a Jewish immigrant family in Yonkers), Imogene Coca (Spanish-descent, from Philadelphia), Jack Benny (“Your money or your life!” Pause. Pause. “Well.”) (Born in a Polish-Jewish immigrant family in Chicago) Bob Hope (from England) and George Burns (From a Romanian-Jewish family in New York City) all grew routines out of vaudeville as pressed into service in films, into radio, and then into television.
Irish-Canadian Mack Sennett failed as an actor in burlesque and musical comedy. He joined the American Biograph Company in New York City in 1908 as an actor and there learned film craft from D.W. Griffith. By 1910 Scenett was scenarist and director of many of productions of the American Biograph Company. He became production chief of Biograph’s new comedy studio in California, the Keystone Film Comedy in Edendale, then just outside the city limits but reached by street car from 1904.
Sennett saw Chaplin in one of his American tours and lured him to Edendale. In September 1913, Chaplin signed his first film contract with the Keystone studio at 1712 Allesandro, now Glendale Boulevard.
The Marx Brothers, renamed Groucho, Gummo, Zeppo, Chico and Harpo partly because of a comic strip about a private eye called “Sherlock-o” – started from New York City as a vaudevillian singing group called “The Four Nightingales.” After a particularly awful performance in Nacogdoches, Texas, Julius (Groucho) cracked jokes on stage for his own amusement. The audience roared.
The Cocoanuts (1929, about the beginning of “talkies”) was the Marx Brothers first feature-length film, produced for Paramount Pictures. Paramount (1912) is the fifth oldest surviving film studio in the world after Gaumont Film Company (1895), Pathé (1896), Nordisk Film, (1906), and Universal Studios. It is the last major film studio still headquartered in the Hollywood district of Los Angeles. Guided tours of Paramount include a glance at Lucille Ball’s private bungalow.
The scene is the Hotel de Cocoanut, a resort hotel, in Florida during the 1920s land boom. In real life, 1920s Florida developments were often scams — fake developments often “built” (not really built) right in the Everglades. “Mr. Hammer” (Groucho) runs the place. Chico and Harpo arrive with empty luggage, which they plan to fill by robbing and conning the guests.
Hammer tries to sell Chico (Leonard Marx, playing as always an Italian), land. The humor is in the delivery and timing. Groucho had divergent strabismus so one of his eyes seemed to look to one side as if contemplating how bizarre Chico is whereas the other eye looked straight ahead as if seriously contemplating what his brother might mean.
“Hammer: No, that’s the stockyard. Now, all along here, this is the river front. And all along the river…all along the river, those are all levies.
Chico: That’s the Jewish neighborhood?
Hammer: (pause) Well, we’ll Passover that…You’re a peach, boy. Now, here is a little peninsula, and, eh, here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland.
Chico:Why a duck?
Hammer:I’m alright, how are you? I say, here is a little peninsula, and here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland.
Chico: Alright, why a duck?
Hammer: (pause) I’m not playing ‘Ask Me Another,’ I say that’s a viaduct.
Chico: Alright! Why a duck? Why that…why a duck? Why a no chicken?
Hammer: Well, I don’t know why a no chicken; I’m a stranger here myself. All I know is that it’s a viaduct. You try to cross over there a chicken and you’ll find out why a duck.
Chico: When I go someplace I just…
Hammer: (interrupts) It’s…It’s deep water, that’s why a duck. It’s deep water.
Chico: That’s why a duck…
Hammer: Look…look, suppose you were out horseback riding and you came to that stream and you wanted to ford over…You couldn’t make it, it’s too deep!
Chico: Well, why do you want with a Ford if you gotta horse?
Hammer: Well, I’m sorry the matter ever came up. All I know is that it’s a viaduct.
Chico: Now look, alright, I catch ona why a horse, why a chicken, why a this, why a that…I no catch ona why a duck.
Hammer: I was only fooling…I was only fooling. They’re gonna build a tunnel there in the morning. Now is that clear to you?
Chico: Yes, everything excepta why a duck.”
Steve Allen’s parents were a vaudeville duo — Milton Berle called Isabelle Allen (Irish-American) “the funniest woman in vaudeville.” He punctuated his The Steve Allen Show (1950-1952) and the panel game show What’s My Line? with bursts of hysterical high-pitched laughter at his own jokes – but he looked normal. Allen wore regular glasses. He didn’t have a painted-on moustache or wear a flat hat or put on clown make-up or even smoke a big cigar. That he looked normal and didn’t make faces made him dead funny.
Steve Martin is another normal looking comedian. In fact, he looks like a handsome clean-cut guy from Orange County unless he puts on rabbit ears or that stupid fake arrow-through-the head. His serious role in the mystical Grand Canyon (1991) as a Hollywood producer of violent action films so effectively reveals shallowness encased in the head of a brilliant man that the viewer is left with the suspicion Martin plays his self. In the same year, however, he wrote the romantic comic fantasy L.A. Story. Once again, Martin appears as a normal man, albeit a Los Angeles normal man with a zany joyous side.
Martin, in Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life (“A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.”) writes about his first encounter with comedy.
My father wanted to be an actor and my mother hated the Texas heat, so in 1950, when I was five years old, our family moved from Waco to Hollywood. To maintain family ties, we motored between Texas and California several times over the next few years. On these road trips, I was introduced to comedy. As evening closed around us, my father would turn on the car radio, and with my sister, Melinda, and me nestled in the backseat, we would listen to Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello, the hilarious but now exiled Amos ‘n’ Andy, and the delight that was The Jack Benny Program. These were only voices, heard but unseen, yet they were vivid and vital characters in our imaginations. We laughed out loud as our tubby Nash Airflyte glided down the isolated Southwestern highways. Listening to comedy was one of the few things our family did together.”
Television Sit-coms followed the radio programs. I Love Lucy was the best among them because of Lucille Ball’s bravery and foolishness. She submerged her physical beauty to emerge, for the time, as Everywoman. Buster Keaton mentored Lucille Ball in her role as Lucy. Carl Reiner developed the Dick Van Dyke show with Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke in 1961. Moore played a normal person, which she probably is. Dick Van Dyke eked out more falling down and falling over things performances, drawn from vaudeville.
Richard Pryor, and Robin Williams created their own humor, layered lavishly on the earlier comedies, e.g., Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), which took the cross-dressing motif to a new plateau of preposterous hilarity. Pryor stand-up acting (possibly) as if he was on LSD is built on the drunkenness vaudeville theme, which was never funny. Robin Williams’ stand-up routine as a man on an acid trip with iridescent lights coming off his arms brought the theme of intoxication to a new dimension.
A subcategory of California film jesters starts with Chaplin’s The Little Tramp, who resembles the character of Coyote in Native American storytelling. Mary Austin called the coyote “the Charlie Chaplin of the plains,” referring to the Southwest plains and to Chaplin in his role as The Tramp. She was the first to recognize the similarity between coyote and The Little Tramp.
Chaplin created The Tramp by accident at the Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio in Edendale, an historic district northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The Selig-Polychrome and Sennett studios were located in a four-block stretch of Allesandro Street (Now Glendale Boulevard, Allesandro was named after the husband of Ramona in Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (1886)) between Berkeley Avenue and Duane Street. The studios employed together over 1,000 people, including actors, plumbers, carpenters and cameramen.
Between them, on the route of the former Los Angeles Ostrich Farm Railway (constructed in 1886), was the first Walt Disney studio (1929 to 1939), now a Gelson’s on Hyperion.
Edendale became one great big background set for Sennett’s comedies: car chases by the Keystone cops through its streets, frequent dunking of actors in Echo Park Lake, “mashers” near bushes in Echo Park, many pratfalls, and the Keystone Cops slipping and sliding their automobiles on streets that had been prepared with slathers of soap.
Coy Watson, Jr.’s The Keystone Kid describes the world of pioneer filmmaking from the point of a child who grew up in the heart of Edendale – his family’s first house was a one room shack at 2221 Berkeley Avenue and occupied the back of the Sennett studio property. Sennett offered to buy the Coy shack and corral. Coy Watson, Sr. turned him down. Sennett offered him a job. Coy Sr. rented himself and his horse, acted as both hero and villain, managed the donkeys, horses and the lion, and invented the wind blowing engine and the piano wire suspension system used to float actors over what was then “Sennett Hill” and is now topped by a gated community. Coy, Jr.’s first role was playing a baby. He was Fatty Arbuckle’s baby in a picture called Fatty’s Gift. He was a happy baby and they needed a crying baby, so Arbuckle had to growl at him and scare him until he cried. Hard to see why that – or the film that Coy describes later was supposed to be funny:
“ From 1912 to 1926, Edendale’s streets must have been the background for more comedies than any other streets anywhere!
“I remember one funny scene with a couple of bearded tumblers dressed as painters in baggy overalls and big shoes. While crossing the street in a funny little truck, they were hit by the police wagon and spun around. As their ladders were thrown in the air – pulled out of the scene by piano wires – they did some forward and backward flip-flops. Buckets of whitewash flew through the air, landing all over a surprised gathering of nicely dressed music lovers, who stood on the corner enjoying the sounds of a uniformed, four-piece German band.”
Chaplin’s touching film The Kid (1921) features seven-year old Jackie Coogan (Uncle Fester in the Addams Family, 1966) as his adopted son and sidekick. The child’s life begins in a charity hospital. His mother is unwed. The Tramp’s fight to save the little boy from an orphanage is reminiscent of Chaplin’s own time in an orphanage during an episode of Hannah Chaplin’s mental illness, which is rather lightly treated in the movie Chaplin (1992) with Robert Downey, Jr. as Chaplin and Geraldine Chaplin playing her grandmother.
Chaplin filmed a portion of The Kid in the oldest part of Los Angeles near the plaza, by then a seedy part of the city. (Although Edendale was outside of the City limits in 1914, the Sennett Studio was only three miles away from the Plaza.) In 1926, Christine Sterling began a campaign to rescue the Plaza-Olvera area, and as a result of that campaign, the tourist Olvera Street was created
Audiences first saw Chaplin in Auto Races at Venice (1914), although Chaplin created him for an earlier film, Mabel’s Predicament for the Sennett studios. The movie portrays The Tramp as a spectator who keeps getting in the way of the camera and interferes with the race. He wears baggy pants, a tight coat, a small bowler hat, too-large shoes, and a painted-on moustache.
The Tramp was usually the victim of circumstance and coincidence, but sometimes the results worked in his favor. Chaplin invented The Tramp, drawing on his training as an English music hall performer.
In Modern Times Chaplin picks up a red flag that falls off a truck and starts to wave it at the truck in an attempt to return it, and by doing so, unknowingly and inadvertently becomes the leader of a group of protesting workers, and ends up in jail because of it. While in jail he accidentally eats “nose powder,” which causes him to not return to his jail cell; but when he eventually does, he fights off some jail breakers attempting to escape, thus saving the life of the warden. Because of this, the warden offers to let him go, but the Tramp would rather stay in jail because it is better than the outside world.
In a 1933 interview in Woman’s Home Companion, Chaplin said:
“A hotel set was built for Mabel Normand‘s picture Mabel’s Strange Predicament and I was hurriedly told to put on a funny make-up. This time I went to the wardrobe and got a pair of baggy pants, a tight coat, a small derby hat and a large pair of shoes. I wanted the clothes to be a mass of contradictions, knowing pictorially the figure would be vividly outlined on the screen. To add a comic touch, I wore a small mustache that would not hide my expression. My appearance got an enthusiastic response from everyone, including Mr. Sennett. The clothes seemed to imbue me with the spirit of the character. He actually became a man with a soul—a point of view. I defined to Mr. Sennett the type of person he was. He wears an air of romantic hunger, forever seeking romance, but his feet won’t let him.”
A Film Johnnie was also filmed in 1914. (A “stage-door Johnny” is an Americanism for a man who often goes to a theater or waits at a stage door to court an actress.) Both of these films are annoying slapstick involving a great many falls and senseless brutality. Sennett ground out sometimes two comedies a day, and his actors did all their own stunts. Mabel Normand stars in the second film as “the Keystone girl,” that Charlie follows to the Keystone Studio. Comic actor Fatty Arbuckle – whose career was to be ruined after he was falsely charged with rape – makes a cameo appearance.
Film slapstick hurt. Physical comedians aren’t built from rubber. Kanfer, in Ball of Fire, describes Lucille Ball’s many injuries from falling and from walking splayfooted to play a drunk. When she abruptly falls out a door in The Long Long Trailer (1953) as a startled result of her various machinations to store rocks in the trailer, she – for just one intense instant – sees her imminent comeuppance for her foolishness. Ball later wrote she wasn’t funny. What she was, she said, was brave. All of the physical film comedians were brave.
Observers sometimes called Lucille Ball “the female Charlie Chaplin.” As Frances Gray remarks, Ball’s characters are not at all like The Tramp. The little man had an essential integrity denied Lucy, Gray observes. The essence of Chaplin is that he is his own man. He is downtrodden “but he knows who he is and avoids social or economic thrall to another individual. The essence of Chaplin is that he is his own man. Lucy isn’t her own woman. Her triumphs are always partial, her power fragmented, her defeats always sanctioned by the narrative.”
Only a few California jokesters fall within the coyote/Chaplin subcategory: Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers especially Harpo, Jeff Bridges as “the Dude” in The Big Lebowski (1998), and Robin Williams.
California’s enormous legacy of humor literature began long before film comedy – and had nothing at all to do with its vaudeville/burlesque/music hall roots — with the first people’s Trickster, Coyote. Coyote brings mischief into a perfect world but his role is, rather, to mediate between the order and disorder of human life.
Coyote in his Trickster role explodes rational thinking through the art of surprise. He does not behave well. California’s Indians lived orderly, predictable and communal lives but Coyote is childlike, he interferes with order and does things his way. His way makes no sense – as life then and now sometimes makes no sense and takes us by surprise.
In one Karuk story – one of the many prankster stories — Coyote goes into a sweathouse and eats up everything in it, and the people have to chase him but he rolls into a hollow tree and peels back his foreskin. “And they stopped, the ones who were chasing him, they looked, they said, ‘What’s that?’” But by then he is far away.
In another Karuk story, collected by Herbert W. Luthin in Surviving Through the Days, the Trickster becomes so disruptive the people tie him up an bind his mouth so he can’t do or say anything more,
In other stories, however, Coyote has a serious role. Nonetheless, Indian humor emerges from those stories as well.
In a Southern Pomo story, in the earliest beginning, the darkness was thick and deep. There was no light. The animals ran here and there, always bumping into each other. The birds flew here and there, but continually knocked against each other.
Hawk and Coyote thought a long time about the darkness. Then Coyote felt his way into a swamp and found a large number of dry Tule reeds. He made a ball of them. He gave the ball to Hawk, with some flints, and Hawk flew up into the sky, where he touched off the Tule reeds and sent the bundle whirling around the world. But still the nights were dark, so Coyote made another bundle of Tule reeds, and Hawk flew into the air with them, and touched them off with the flints. But these reeds were damp and did not burn so well. That is why the moon does not give so much light as the sun.
Mark Twain, sometimes called the father of American humor, began the written literature of California humor. From Mark Twain’s Roughing It (1886):
“Along about an hour after breakfast we saw the first prairie dog villages, the first antelope, and the first wolf. If I remember rightly, this latter was the regular coyote (pronounced ky-o-te) of the farther deserts. And if it was, he was not a pretty creature or respectable either, for I got well acquainted with his race afterward, and can speak with confidence.
“The coyote is a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolf skin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face, with slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth. He has a general slinking expression all over. The coyote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry. He is always poor, out of luck, and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him, and even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede. He is so spiritless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it. And he is so homely! — so scrawny, and ribby, and coarse-haired, and pitiful.
“When he sees you he lifts his lip and lets a flash of his teeth out, and then turns a little out of the course he was pursuing, depresses his head a bit, and strikes a long, soft-footed trot through the sagebrush, glancing over his shoulder at you, from time to time, till he is about out of easy pistol range, and then he stops and takes a deliberate survey of you; he will trot fifty yards and stop again- another fifty and stop again; and finally the gray of his gliding body blends with the gray of the sagebrush, and he disappears. All this is when you make no demonstration against him; but if you do, he develops a livelier interest in his journey, and instantly electrifies his heels and puts such a deal of real estate between himself and your weapon that by the time you have raised the hammer you see that you need a Minie rifle, and by the time you have got him in line you need a rifled cannon, and by the time you have ‘drawn a bead’ on him you see well enough that nothing but an unusually long-winded streak of lightning could reach him where he is now.”
Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner — created for Warner Brothers (Warner Brothers Studios is in Burbank) in 1948 — are a duo of characters from the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series of cartoons. In the cartoons, the coyote repeatedly attempts to catch and subsequently eat the Road Runner, a fast-running ground bird, but is never successful. From 1952 to 1963, The Coyote appears as an occasional antagonist of Bugs Bunny, who was a version of Chaplin.
The Music Box Steps is a set of outdoor public stairs in the Silver Lake District a short distance from Sunset Boulevard between Descanso Drive and North Vendome Street. A tiny triangular park is between North Vendome and North Reno Street. The park’s name is the Laurel and Hardy Park. The park is 1.8 miles from the former Keystone studio. If you follow Sunset to the Vista Vintage Theater (opened in 1923), you’ll come across the location for D. W. Griffith’s The Fall of Babylon, part of his movie Intolerance (1916)
The team of Laurel and Hardy filmed The Music Box on the stairs in 1931. It’s a brief story about Laurel and Hardy transport of a piano purchased Mrs. Theodore von Schwartzenhoffen for Professor von Swartzenhoffen, M.D., A.D. DDS FLD FFF and F. Stan and Ollie push the piano up the steep steps – after which it rolls back down the street again. They find no one at home and push the piano into the house and make a shambles of it. The professor erupts in Germanic rage. He hates pianos.
The stairway is a piece of Los Angeles land use planning. In the 1920s, real estate developments in Silver Lake and in Echo Park – as in other areas in Los Angeles – needed access to the electric railway lines. Before the triumph of the automobile, the steep hills here made development unattractive without a way for residents to reach the Sunset Line and the line that ran along Allesandro (before it was a street), so they could get downtown, which was then the business center and source of jobs.
The developers deeded land for municipal stairways to the City. The public also has common law rights to use those stairways.
The Music Box Stairs is a stripped down version of an early Charlie Chaplin film, My Musical Career (1914), when Chaplin first made films for the Sennett Studio — parts of which appear in another film, A Film Johnnie. The public stairways weren’t built until almost ten years later, and they use wooden stairs attached to a house.
A nostalgia comedy walk starts at Thriftee Storage on Glendale Boulevard. The only reminder of the golden age of comedy is a photograph inside one of the buildings that shows a Chaplin impersonator. For years, an obelisk stood at the wrong place — at the site of the Selig-Polychrome Studio – declaring that place was the beginning of film comedy in Southern California. Hollywood Heritage, Inc. is attempting to get the plaque (the obelisk disintegrated) moved to the complex of Public Storage, Inc., which contains the sound stage and natatorium for the Sennett Studio. Follow Allesandro to the public stairway where the Stooges filmed “An Ache in Every Stake” (1941), located between the incredibly long stairway that constitutes Loma Vista Place and Fair View Oak View Terrace. Go back down to Allesandro to Earl Street and take the Earl Street stairs to Glendale Boulevard. Head in the general direction of Glendale (the city) and stop at the shopping mall, which sits on the former site of Tom Mixes “Mixville.” Go down Glendale until it becomes Rowena. Don’t go up the steep hill that leads to Atwater Village, although there is a good mural of a Red Car in the tiny Red Car Park. Don’t head down Fletcher Drive, although if you like, you can climb a steep hill with the remains of the concrete pediments for the former Red Car viaduct and walk along the former easement for the Red Car. After “talkies,” the studios could not film in that area because of the clackety-clack of the trolleys – they no longer exist in Los Angeles but may still exist in Uruguay.
When you reach Hyperion, you can go up and over the Hyperion Bridge, which the Disney animators drove over to reach the “Disney commissary,” the Tam O’Shanter Inn, still there, more or less. The Hyperion Bridge features in a mad cartoon drive in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), which is in part homage to Disney and in part an eccentric interpretation of the end of the Red Car and the beginning of LA’s traffic jams.
The city built public stairways so that commuters could walk from their hillside developments to reach the trolleys. One of those stairways starts at the back of the former Sennett studios. In real life the Red Car both transported actors, cameramen, set builders and materials to Edendale during silent film days, but its frequent clacking along the tracks was to mean the studios had to move to quieter locations after the invention of sound movies.
Go back to Hyperion and head in the direction of Sunset. Stop at the Gelson’s and go inside. On the wall is a photo of the Walt Disney Studio when it stood at that place. Behind the parking lot on Griffith Park Boulevard stand the cottages the animators used as models for the homes of the Seven Dwarfs. On nearby Lyric and St. George are Roy and Walt Disney’s former Tudor-style houses.
Continue on Hyperion to Sunset and walk back towards downtown to the Laurel and Hardy stairs near Sunset and Parkman.
The Big Lebowski (1998, A Cohen Brothers film) is about “the Dude,” roughed up by two thugs that believe his wife owes them money. After one of the thugs urinates on his rug, both they and Lebowski realize they have attacked the wrong Lebowski. The Dude was a hippie who stands against nihilism.
“The Dude: Let me explain something to you. Um, I am not ‘Mr. Lebowski.’ You’re Mr. Lebowski. I’m the Dude. So that’s what you call me. You know, that or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.”
In the film, the audience meets The Dude at Ralphs, a grocery store not far from his Venice Bungalow at 609 Venezia Avenue. The neon-illuminated bowling alley at 5227 Santa Monica Boulevard was demolished in 2002. The Lebowski mansion is at 905 Loma Vista Hills, Beverly Hills, and it is the famous Greystone Manor, built in 1927 by oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny.
California’s film comedy drew from African, European, Asian and Middle Eastern sources, which had ancient origins. All cultures have a trickster or fool, a ridiculous figure. California comedy did not tap the Native American comedic traditions, which were philosophical and spiritual, but which had a similar character.
California chewed up, digested, and evolved comedy from the world’s past. That comedy mashed together the past into a new visual, literary and oral art that drew Americans together in a new assimilative voice that has flown across borders back into the rest of the world.
Chaplin (1992) starring Robert Downey, Jr.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XnMiICAIM7Y. (Retrieved January 5, 2015). This clip shows the action at the Mack Sennett studio in Edendale.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ayUjkSvdrug. (Retrieved December 22, 2014.) This is The Music Box.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBOENAmW31o (Retrieved December 22, 2014). This is the Chaplin film shot through the Sennett Studio showing Chaplin moving a piano upstairs to the wrong address.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDohPrPvnz4 . A Film Johnnie. (Retrieved December 22, 2014).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMneroBlKho. Harold Lloyd plays a newly married man who sets out to buy groceries and wins a live turkey. He boards an electric car. The turkey causes a lot of trouble and they’re thrown off. He then buys a car and ends up driving a motorcycle cop into Echo Park Lake. This film reflects the change from trolley use to the triumph of the automobile in Los Angeles.
http://historicechopark.org/id30.html. This site from the Echo Park Historic Society lists many of the public stairways in Echo Park.
William Bright, A Coyote Reader (1993)
Wynne Dubray, Journey of A Lakota Elder: A Memoir Written to Inspire Women of Color (2012)
http://www.thenoodlebowl.com/jesters/pages/cont_namerica.html. American Indian jesters (Retrieved 1/15/2015).
Charles Fleming, Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles. (2010).
Frances Gray, Women and Laughter (1994)
Katherine Berry Judson, Myths and Legends of California and the Old Southwest. (1912). http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/ca/mlcal.txt. Online version.
Steven Kanfer, A Summer World: The Attempt to Build a Jewish Eden in the Catskills, from the Days of the Ghetto to the Rise and Decline of the Borscht Belt (1998)
______, Groucho (2000)
_______, Ball of Fire (2003)
________, “Vaudeville’s Brief, Shining Moment,” City Journal, Spring 2005, http://www.city-journal.org/html/15_2_urbanities-vaudeville.html. (Retrieved January 8, 2015)
Nigey Lennon, When Sam Clemens Roughed It (1991)
Herbert W. Luthin (editor), et al, Surviving Through the Days: Translations of Native California Stories and Songs. (2002).
Steve Martin, Born Standing Up (2007)
Joyce Milton, Tramp: the Life of Charles Chaplin (1998).
Krystyn R. Moon, Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performances 1850s-1920s (2005)
Cristina Ferreira Pinto, “The Animal Ttrickster – an Essential Character in African Tales.” http://www.degois.pt/visualizador/curriculum.jsp?key=6031164038218874. (Retrieved 1/15/201)
Robert C. Toll, Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth Century America (1974)
L. Trout, Native American Literature: An Anthology (1999)
Coy Watson, Jr., The Keystone Kid (2001)
W.H. Williams, “’Twas Only an Irisman’s Dream: The Image of Ireland and the Irish in American Popular Song Lyrics, 1800-1920
Big Lebowski locations. http://curbed.com/archives/2013/03/06/on-films-15th-anniversary-architecture-of-the-big-lebowski.php.
Olvera Street. Some of the buildings are background in early
Paramount Studios, Los Angeles http://www.paramountstudiotour.com.
Warner Brothers Studios, Burbank http://vipstudiotour.warnerbros.com.