Retro Radio Hour – Winter Wonderland

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Can’t wait to perform in this on Friday!

Bygone Theatre

Retro Radio Hour – Winter Wonderlandis just around the corner! This is the 7th in our radio series, another fun-filled evening of vintage radio plays, oldies music, magic & a Christmas sale all in support of our mainstage season. The show is playing at the Imperial Pub, 54 Dundas St. E (Yonge & Dundas) Friday November 27th; doors open at 8pm. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the door.

This month’s show features…

Elizabeth Stuart-Morris – Bygone’s Chair
Elizabeth makes her Bygone performance debut this week. Come see the lovely lady who’s been hard at work behind the scenes. You may have seen her in other performances in Toronto, like the recent Summerworks production of Seams.

Leete Stetson – Bygone’s Vice Chair & Past Performer
Leete has been a part of Bygone since its beginning. He starred as Tony in Dial M For…

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Vintage Style Icons

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Today while wasting time on Pinterest I got to thinking about the problems with so many of the “style boards” you find on there; they are very obviously not made for Canadian winters. For those of us that love vintage looks, it can be especially disheartening to browse through gorgeous outfits knowing that you couldn’t stand them for more than about 30 seconds outside; those pretty dresses don’t keep you warm.

So I decided to throw together a few style boards of my own, all inspired by Golden Age actresses but made for us Canadians, with pants instead of dresses and all prices in CAD. More to come, enjoy!

Style Icon - Katharine HepburnStyle Icon - Marilyn MonroeStyle Icon -Audrey Hepburn

Hollywood’s Original Blonde Bombshell, Jean Harlow

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As anyone who knows me is well aware, I am a big fan of genealogy and have taken it upon myself to be my family’s family historian. While tracing some branches this evening I came across a fun little tidbit; I am very distantly related to Harlean Harlow Carpenter, more commonly known by her stage name, Jean Harlow.

Harlean and I are both descendants of Michael Korns Sr. (1793-1877), my Great x6 Grandfather; this makes her my 4th cousin, 3 times removed – pretty close, right? Anyway, while this counts for basically nothing, I still got to looking into this tragic figure’s brief life story and thought I’d do a mini tribute to a very distant cousin who died far too soon.

Jean Harlow

Jean Harlow

Harlean Harlow Carpenter was born in Kansas City, Missouri on March 3, 1911 to the successful dentist, Mont Clair Carpenter (1877-1974) and his wife, Jean Poe Harlow. “Mother Jean” was extremely overbearing and protective, and instilled in “Baby” the idea that she owed her mother everything; “she was always all mine”, the woman is quoted as saying.

Mother Jean & Baby, 1934

Mother Jean & Baby, 1934

In typical “stage mom” fashion, Mother Jean moved to Hollywood with Baby in 1923, hoping to start a film career. When she realized that, at 34, she was too old, she began to push her daughter to pursue the spotlight instead. Baby attended the Hollywood School for Girls and met a host of wealthy friends including Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and the man who was to become her first husband, Chuck McGrew.

In 1927, at age 16, Jean Harlow married Chuck McGrew, an heir to a large fortune that he received when he turned 21, just 2 months after they wed. The young couple had plenty of money and plenty of time as neither of them worked. Rumours spread that they both drank heavily, and in 1929 they divorced. This would be the first of many heartaches in the young starlet’s life.

After getting a series of small film roles, Harlow was spotted by actor James Hall, who was working on a Howard Hughes feature, Hell’s Angels. The film needed an actress to replace Greta Nissen, whose Norwegian accent was undesirable. Hall recommended Harlow for a test and she got the part.

Hughes signed Harlow to a five-year, $100-per-week contract on October 24, 1929, and when Hell’s Angels premiered in 1930 it made Harlow an international star. While critics were unimpressed with her talent, Variety Magazine summed it up best when they wrote, “It doesn’t matter what degree of talent she possesses … nobody ever starved possessing what she’s got.” Around this time, Harlow met the man who would become her second husband, MGM Executive Paul Bern.

Jean Harlow and husband Paul Berns

Jean Harlow and husband Paul Bern

The young star was rising fast, gaining larger and larger roles and becoming an increasingly popular icon. Hughes’ publicists capitalized on her hair colour, coining the term “platinum blonde”, and young women across the country scrambled to mimic the starlet’s signature look. By this point Harlow and Bern were romantically involved, and the MGM exec managed to convince his studio to buy her contract from Hughes. In 1932, just after Harlow’s 21st birthday, she was signed to MGM studios; she and Bern were married soon after.

With MGM Jean Harlow got superior roles and was given the chance to show off her humour, rather than just her good looks. Sadly, in 1932, while shooting the feature Red Dust, her husband of only 2 months was found shot to death in their home. Rumours swirled that Bern had been murdered, possibly by Harlow herself, but the death was eventually ruled a suicide. In recent years stories have emerged that suggest Bern was in fact murdered, but by a former lover.

Following the untimely death of her husband, Harlow began an indiscreet affair with boxer Max Baer, who, while separated from his wife Dorothy Dunbar, was still married. Wanting to avoid further scandal, studio execs arranged a marriage between Harlow and her friend, cinematographer Harold Rosson. The pair quietly divorced 8 months later.

It was in 1934 that Harlow met the “love of her life”, fellow actor William Powell. The pair were reportedly engaged for nearly 2 years, but never had the chance to wed.

William Powell and Jean Harlow

William Powell and Jean Harlow

Over the course of several months in 1937, Harlow’s health was in obvious decline. The scarlet fever she contracted at age 15 may have played a part in her eventual death from kidney failure. As they had during her life, rumours plagued Harlow’s death, with stories claiming that she had died from anything from alcoholism to a botched abortion, and that her mother, a Christian Scientist, had refused to allow her daughter the proper medical care. Harlow was buried in a private room of a mausoleum in Glendale, made of multi-coloured marble and purchased by William Powell for $25 000. She was buried in the gown she wore in Libeled Lady with a white gardenia in her hand and a note from William Powell which read, “Goodnight, my dearest darling”.

Harlow in Libeled Lady

Harlow in Libeled Lady

While I’ve been reading about Harlow tonight, I can’t help but fixate on the fact that I am now the same age she was when she died. In her 26 years on earth, Jean Harlow earned more than 40 film credits (appearing in 6 films with Clark Gable), was the first actress to grace the cover of Life magazine, became the original “blonde bombshell” (inspiration for Marilyn Monroe), was married 3 times, endured the violent and untimely death of her husband and finally slipped away in a slow and painful death. Harlean lived more of a life in her 26 years than I think most people do in 80.

While I found an amusingly similar photo of me from 2012, I unfortunately do not share any of Harlow's sex appeal or stellar looks.

While I found an amusingly similar photo of me from 2012, I unfortunately do not share any of Harlow’s sex appeal or stellar looks.

Was she happy? Who knows. She had fortune and fame, and as far as the world knows she had finally found love with William Powell, though who’s to say whether that would’ve lasted had she not died so young. Harlow is a tragic example of what has now essentially become a modern day archetype; the young star who lives fast, plays hard and dies young. We tend to glamourize this idea with the concept of “die young and leave a beautiful corpse”, which is really sick when you think of it. How many people had done half what she did at 26? If I died tomorrow, my obit wouldn’t be anywhere near as entertaining. So who knows what she could have done if she’d lived twice that long? Three times that? The world of entertainment can be brutal and exhausting and you can easily find yourself living your life only for others. The problem with that is, in the end, it’s your life, not theirs, and if you die with things left unsaid or undone, there’s no one who can change that for you.

So a bit of a positive end for once, some words of encouragement. Go out there and do what you want to do. Tell people you love them. Take a risk, try something new. Live the life you want because you may not have any choice over how long you’re here, but you do get to choose what you do with the time you’ve got.

-E.

Mental Illness In The Arts

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I recently read a beautifully composed and poignant article by Shon Arieh-Lerer who I had the pleasure of meeting during the 2014 NYC Fringe when I saw his comedy show, His Majesty the Baby. Apparently, in addition to being very funny, Shon has an insightful view on the “Sad Clown myth”. As he explains in his article;

“…it was wrong and premature to apply the Sad Clown myth to Williams. He did not just commit suicide because he was depressed; he actually suffered from a horrifying disease whose symptoms are pulled from the dark playbooks of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia, and schizophrenia…The Sad Clown myth is false and destructive. It promotes a worldview that understands humor as a form of escape from a bleak reality that will inevitably triumph in the end.”

He goes further to address the unnecessary hardships comedians (and really, any artists in general) may endure when the idea that their talent springs from their illness is reinforced; “When you’re told that you’re funny because you’re mentally ill, you have a strong incentive not to seek help”.

Shon’s article makes an important point, and one that I hope people will read and give some serious thought to; it certainly got me thinking. Because in addition to these assumptions that mental illness can be a cause of, perhaps even the cause of one’s creative talent, it is also often assumed that it is an almost convenient affliction, one that they use as an excuse to dodge responsibility, or to gain sympathy. It seems that, to many, the stigma surrounding mental illness is supported by the misconception that, deep down, the sufferer has control over it, and can use the symptoms to foster creative ideas and when that fails, to throw a fit and escape any blame; it is “all in their head”, after-all.

…to many, the stigma surrounding mental illness is supported by the misconception that, deep down, the sufferer has control over it.

I’ll use my own case as an example. I have been diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety with agoraphobia, a diagnosis that I received several years ago and have been undergoing treatment for since. It’s not generally something you go shouting in the streets, because despite all the happy ads that encourage you not to stigmatize the mentally ill, when there is something wrong that doesn’t create a clearly visible change in people, many are inclined to believe it somehow isn’t “real”. This is especially difficult when you work in the arts like I do; how can you work in theatre if you can’t go outside? How could you act onstage if you have anxiety? How can you smile and schmooze at fundraisers if you have depression? These are the questions that are seldom asked to your face, but instead whispered behind your back; well obviously she’s making it up, exaggerating it at least. I’ll answer this in the simplest terms I can; mental illness is not who you are. It is not the fundamental aspect of your personality. It is exactly what the name describes, an illness. And just as you would never say that a paraplegic’s personality is that they are paralyzed, you should not say that someone who has depression is simply a “sad person”, or that someone with an anxiety disorder is just “high-strung”; when you’re talking about actual mental illness these are just unfortunate factors the people have to deal with. It is something they are afflicted with, it is not who they are. And when they are able to overcome that anxiety and get onstage, or put on a smile to do their job, despite feeling awful inside, that is not something that should be used to criticize or discredit them, but rather the opposite. That’s just one step they’re taking on their way back to who they really are.

Mental illness is not who you are. It is not the fundamental aspect of your personality. It is exactly what the name describes, an illness.

While the arts community on a whole likes to think of itself as a very liberal, accepting group, I have been disheartened to find many small-minded and critical people near the top. In an instance that I won’t go into detail on now (because of pending legal action) I found myself shocked when reading a formal response, one vowed to be truthful, that stated quite clearly that I did not and could not have a disability because they, a) had not seen any example of it and, b) I could not possibly have agoraphobia since I traveled to NYC to produce a show this past summer (I encourage you to research agoraphobia if on reading that you are at first inclined to agree). My claim of discrimination could not stand not because they had not acted in a discriminatory way, but because apparently I simply do not have a disability (a producer and an ex-actor would know better than the psychiatrist and host of other professionals I’ve seen, I’m sure).

Just as Shon so simply puts in his article, “when you’re told that you’re funny because you’re mentally ill, you have a strong incentive not to seek help” so can be said for the struggle to beat your affliction; when your success in overcoming the symptoms is used as fodder to support a claim that you “don’t really have a problem” or that it’s “all in your head” you begin to question the point in trying. If you can’t overcome all the time, and the times when you do only turn more people against you, what’s the point in trying at all? It can become much easier to let the illness win.

…when your success in overcoming the symptoms is used as fodder to support a claim that you “don’t really have a problem” or that it’s “all in your head”…it can become much easier to let the illness win.

To go back to the questions that no one is directly asking, how do I do it? With difficulty. That’s the simplest and most honest way I can describe it. I love the theatre, and I am naturally an outgoing and enthusiastic person, it just so happens that for my adult life my brain chemistry has thought otherwise. And while I can’t speak for others, I suspect many of them in similar situations would say the same. There are famous cases of performers who suffer from near crippling stage fright (Barbra Streisand comes to mind) and yet still manage successful careers; does that mean that she does it without difficulty, or that anyone with the same problem can “get over it” if they “want to” or “try hard enough”? Of course not. And it should go without saying that every case is different.

For me, the greatest challenge with anxiety is its unpredictability. Some sufferers have consistent thoughts and fears, such as the worry that they will be trapped on a subway and run out of air. While there is a part of them that knows that not to be true, another part of their brain is telling their body that it will happen, and so comes the racing heart, shortness of breath and all the other fun symptoms. In my case, I have almost never had those accompanying thoughts, and so for years I had severe panic attacks without knowing what they were. Sudden dizziness, nausea, and impromptu blackouts had me being tested for things like diabetes or a heart problem. It wasn’t until a few years later that I finally had a doctor put their finger on it, and start to treat the actual issue.

So what to do? As a sufferer, do you give up and give in, knowing you’ll be miserable but not called a liar? Or do you keep trying, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, and always trying to block out not just the negative voices in your head but the ones around you, suspicious of your ever move? That’s the issue I’ve been struggling with a lot lately, and as I can’t answer it for myself I won’t try to for anyone else. But I will say this; try giving people the benefit of a doubt. It takes a really messed-up person to fake having any mental illness, and I’ve gotta say, even in that case I suspect it just means they have another one. There is nothing fun, or easy, or helpful about admitting you have an anxiety disorder, or suffer from depression. In fact, it almost always leaves you regretting speaking up, at least in my experience. The only reason I have in the past was the hope that our anti-discrimination laws would protect me where common-decency and kindness might not; maybe they can fire you for not showing up for work, or for not having a “fun” attitude, but they can’t get rid of you for an illness that is legitimately beyond your control. Or so I thought – we’ll see how that one goes.

There is nothing fun, or easy, or helpful about admitting you have an anxiety disorder, or suffer from depression.

At any rate, I’m saying this now in hopes that someone will read this and give a second thought to the critical glances and whispers, that instead of accusingly gossiping behind someone’s back they will actually go up to that person, if they want to know, and say, “how do you do it?”. Maybe that way they will actually gain some insight, and maybe even empathy. As a final thought, again, try not to let someone’s hobbies or career influence what you think they can or cannot be afflicted with. Doctors can catch colds. Comedians can be depressed. Singers can have anxiety. Just because the symptoms of a person’s illness seems contrary to their personality or career doesn’t make it less real, it likely just makes it that much harder for them to deal with. Mental illness isn’t who you are, it’s what stops you from being all you can be, and we shouldn’t be judging or assuming or criticizing those who have it, we should be trying to help find a way to get them back on track.

-E.

Read Shon’s poignant article, “Robin Williams’ Lewy Body Dementia Diagnosis Should Finally Crush the “Sad Clown” Myth”, in its entirety on Slate.com.

Knock ‘Em Dead! – The Vaudeville Origins of Theatre Slang

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My latest post for Bygone Theatre.

Bygone Theatre

Chances are, if you’re not a vintage theatre lover like we are, you don’t know too much about Vaudeville. You’ve likely heard the term thrown around and maybe have a vague image of some old-timey song and dance, cheesy jokes and bad acts being pulled offstage with a hook. You likely know more about Vaudeville from Looney Toons than from the real thing. While Vaudeville may be (sadly) dead, its influence is still alive and well with thanks to the many theatre slang terms the style coined. How many of them do you recognize?

Bugs Bunny gets "the hook".Bugs Bunny gets “the hook”

Corny Material
Unsophisticated, simple, sentimental, cheesy; all of these describe what many people thought of the humour that came from the small-town country performers in the circuit. Originally the phrase was “stuck in the corn” but as with most slang, it was shortened, becoming the “corny” phrase we know today.

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