The recent brouhaha over exposing Michelangelo’s David to impressionable Florida public school children reminded me of the classic sculpture’s 1998 appearance on Robin Byrd‘s Men For Men. For those outside of Manhattan, this was a late night cable TV show featuring strippers and adult film entertainers that aired nearly every night of the week. Apparently, poor Dave had fallen on hard times and was shaking his marbles for cash on 8th Avenue. At least that was the way it appeared on my public access show, Bri-Guy’s Media Surf.
I have written about Media Surf in the past – it ran on Manhattan Neighborhood Network from 1997-2007. In the early years, I created short segments using stop-motion with my video camera. Most featured a portly salt shaker named Maria. After a while I grew tired of the time consuming technique. David’s striptease was one of the last that I created.
/\ /\ I’m leaving this here to show how ridiculous YouTube is. /\ /\
I wanted to utilize my set of David refrigerator magnets on a red metal background. It had to be metal for the magnetic properties, and the red would emulate the lurid background on Robin’s show. I was still trying to figure out how to execute this when I came home one day to find that the apartment doors in my building had been re-painted glossy red. Perfect! I propped my door open, set up my camera tripod and went about creating the frame-by-frame striptease. Luckily I lived on the top floor and was uninterrupted by puzzled neighbors wondering what the hell I was doing.
In the version that aired 25 years ago, David was dancing to Madonna’s “Erotica” – a song that every third performer on Robin Byrd’s show seemed to use at the time. Unfortunately, Madge and Warner Brothers Music are most intolerant of the unauthorized use of their recordings. Rather than risk having the video removed from social media platforms, I switched it out. David now shimmies to Man Parrish / Man 2 Man’s “Male Stripper,” a much better choice of song that I wish I had used in the first place.
I was planning to use a clip of Robin’s generic “Lie back, get comfortable” guest introduction and then cut to David’s performance. It was pure luck that I happened to be recording her show one night when she introduced a guest named “David.” Sometimes the stars align to help create a classic piece of work. 😉
When I was a child in the 1970’s, one of my favorite pastimes was playing my parents’ old discarded 45s on my Fisher Price record player. One single that received considerable airplay was a Christmas record by Augie Rios called “Ol’ Fatso,” which featured a sassy child giving Santa Claus a hard time with the repetitive chorus of “Don’t care who you are Ol’ Fatso / keep those reindeer off the roof.” What was not to love?
The flip side of this blue Metro 45 with the lion on the label was another Christmas song: “¿Dónde Está Santa Claus?” I would later learn that this was actually the “a” side of the record. At that age, I had to rely upon my own underdeveloped musical tastes to figure out which side was the hit. For this reason, I am still partial to Dusty Springfield’s self-penned b-side “Something Special” over the faux-Spector bombast of “Stay Awhile.”
As you can imagine, the rather un-PC “Ol Fatso” does not get covered a whole lot. Or at all. “¿Dónde Está Santa Claus?” on the other hand, has some other versions that have become favorites of mine.
Toni Stante (aka Antoinette Binastante) released a version on the Parkway label in 1965. This single has been the highlight of my Girl Group Christmas playlist for many years.
Later in the 60’s, The Thomas Sisters recorded what is now my favorite version. It is harder to find, though: It’s not on Spotify and keeps getting removed from YouTube. We’ll see how long this link remains active:
But back to the original version and our titular question: ¿Dónde Está Augie Rios?
Augustine Rios was born in 1946, the son of Puerto Rican immigrant factory workers living in New York City. He began performing at a young age and had made some local television appearances before being cast as Lena Horne’s little brother in the 1957 Broadway musical Jamaica, which also starred Ricardo Montalbon and Ossie Davis. The role was originally only a few lines but Augie was such a standout in the out of town performances that it was expanded. By the time they hit Broadway, he was sixth on the cast list among the well established stars.
Augie had been in Jamaica for over a year when he cut his first single for Metro records. “¿Dónde Está Santa Claus? was co-written by his manager, George Scheck and released just before Christmas, 1958.
Jamaica continued its run on Broadway for a year and a half, closing in April of 1959. Despite having a hit record and making television appearances during the run of the show, the press noted that Augie had never missed a performance.
In December of 1959, Augie appeared as “Shorty” alongside Carol Lawrence and Howard Keel in the Broadway musical Saratoga, an adaption of the Edna Furber novel Saratoga Trunk with music & lyrics by Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer. Although Cecil Beaton did win a Tony award for costume design, the show was not a success and closed in April of 1960.
Meanwhile, Augie had two follow-up singles released on Metro in 1959, followed by another bilingual Christmas single on MGM in 1960: “Felice Navidades (Merry Christmas To All)”:
Augie continued to work in theatrical productions on tour and in summer stock. He also made numerous television appearances. By 1963, he was performing with his own vocal group, Augie Rios and the Notations. They released a single on Shelley Records followed by two additional solo singles credited to Augie in 1964. Of course there have also been numerous reissues of his original Christmas classic single through the years.
Back in the early 2000’s, I came across an internet post about Augie Rios on a 1950’s music website. Augie himself had responded in the comments section, thanking everyone for their continued interest and also giving an update on what he had been up to in recent years – retired from his post-performance career and still living in the tri-state area. Unfortunately, the website is long gone, so I cannot locate details. There is also this video on YouTube, which seems to memorialize him in 2019 with a home audio recording and photo montage of his life.
It’s hard to believe that the Laurel & Hardy holiday classic March of the Wooden Soldiers debuted 88 years ago. Originally released as Babes In Toyland on Nov. 30, 1934, the holiday perennial was based on Victor Herbert’s popular 1903 operetta. The film came out of Hal Roach studios and was co-directed by Gus Meins and Charles Rogers.
Here’s the trailer:
I originally posted this celebration of the film on the 85th Anniversary. Here is an updated version:
10 Things You May Not Know About March of The Wooden Soldiers
1) In addition to Babes In Toyland, the film was also re-released under several different titles, including Laurel and Hardy in Toyland and Revenge Is Sweet.
2) Although the 1934 film includes many of the characters in the original operetta, the plot is almost completely different. Six musical numbers from the original stage score are featured: “Toyland”, “Never Mind Bo-Peep”, “Castle in Spain”, “Go to Sleep (Slumber Deep)” and the instrumental “March of the Toys”. Additionally, an instrumental version of “I Can’t Do The Sum” is used to underscore many scenes.
3) The villainous Silas Barnaby was played by 22 year old Henry Kleinbach. He later changed his name to Henry Brandon and appeared in over 100 films throughout his 60 year career.
Brandon played essentially the same character as an opera impresario who torments poor, poor Alfalfa in Our Gang Follies of 1938.
20 years later he was Acacious Page in Auntie Mame.
Another fun fact: Brandon’s partner for the last 25+ years of his life was Mark Herron, who was briefly married to Judy Garland.
Bill Cassara and Richard S. Greene recently published a book about him.
You can also find out more about Henry Brandon here
4) Our Gang (aka The Little Rascals) also filmed at Hal Roach studios. Several of the kids appear as schoolchildren in Toyland, although not dressed in their Our Gang costumes as in this photo atop Mother Peep’s Shoe-house.
One of the most popular Our Gang / Little Rascals shorts, Mama’s Little Pirate was filmed the same year and has an extended sequence shot in the caves of Bogeyland. Gus Meins directed both films.
Another Our Gang connection: two graduates of the silent era, Johnny Downs and Jean Darling appear as Little Boy Blue and Curly Locks:
5) Felix Knight played romantic lead Tom Tom and fell in love with co-star Alice Moore, who played the Queen of Hearts. They were married the following year.
Knight also appeared with Laurel and Hardy in their 1936 film – The Bohemian Girl:
6) Marie Wilson makes an early film appearance as Mary Quite Contrary. Her later work in film, radio and television (most notably My Friend Irma) garnered her three stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.
7) Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf? An instrumental version of this song is used to underscore scenes with the Three Little Pigs. However, the song is not from the Babes In Toyland operetta – it was originally featured in the 1933 Disney short Three Little Pigs and (surprisingly) has been covered by everyone from Barbra Streisand to LL Cool J.
8) About those pigs…. Elmer, the kidnapped pig was played by a little person – 2′ 11″ Angelo Rossito.
The two other pigs were played by child actors:
Payne B. Johnson played Jiggs. As of 2022, he is the last surviving major player from the film.
And THIS little piggy…. was a porn star! Willie was played by Edward Earle Marsh, later a Broadway performer known as Edward Earle. He then reinvented himself as Zebedy Colt, a gay cabaret singer and porn star who appeared in both gay and straight movies through the 1970’s & 80’s.
Someone needs to write a book about this guy.
9) The film became a broadcast television staple on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day in the early 1960’s. I grew up watching the film on NYC’s WPIX Channel 11, which continues to air the film to this day. In 1990 they switched to the colorized version, and in 2018, due to viewer requests, they began airing restored black and white and colorized versions at different times during the day.
Some may remember a shorter version of the film airing on television years ago. A 73 minute version that had fallen into public domain was broadcast for a few years in the 1980’s, with the opening “Toyland” song sequence trimmed and the “Go to Sleep (Slumber Deep)” number cut completely. Any restored prints or colorized versions of the film run at the original 79 minute length.
If it isn’t broadcast in your area, you can watch the full movie here:
10) Bearing in mind that the source material is the original operetta and not this film, there have been numerous wildly different versions of Babes In Toyland:
Between 1950 and 1960, there were three television productions broadcast during Christmas seasons, including one featuring Barbara Cook and Dennis Day in 1955.
Walt Disney’s Technicolor™ 1961 film version starred Annette Funicello and Ray Bolger.
A 1986 made-for-television version featured Drew Barrymore, Keanu Reeves and “a royal legion of tacky trolls” with only two songs from the Victor Herbert score, a new plot, and new songs by Leslie Bricusse.
An 1997 animated film version, with a new plot and only one of the original songs, featured the voices of Christopher Plummer and Lacey Chabert.
These other versions come and go, but none feature Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee… a gay wedding… nightmare-inducing pig masks … a monkey dressed as a Mickey Mouse knockoff… or poorly costumed Bogeymen with visible zippers and padding.
Join me in wishing a happy 88th birthday to a Hollywood holiday classic!
I was recently perusing an old issue of Blueboy magazine (as one does) when I found an in-depth review of Bette Midler’s 1979 LP Thighs and Whispers. Single-monikered reviewer Dallas certainly had strong feelings about the album. The review is quite a roller coaster ride, describing different aspects of the LP as “a knock-out”, “third-rate disco,” “disco at its finest,” “gives the impression that she has no taste,” “borders on genius,” and many breathless adjectives of adulation and despair.
Bette had been going full steam throughout the late 70’s. This was her third studio LP released in three years, plus the live double album Live At Last, a concert special on HBO, and her TV special Ol Red Hair Is Back, which won Bette her first Emmy award.
I should probably take Dallas’s advice to smoke a joint and listen to the song “Hurricane” again, because unfortunately my weed-free opinion is that the track is utterly forgettable.
Bette spoke about Thighs and Whispers during a 2021 interview with Jim Farber in Parade Magazine. Reflecting on her career, she admitted that she had recorded “some stinkers.” Of the song “Married Men,” she joked; “Please, God, shoot me now!”
She also mentioned the song “My Knight In Black Leather,” saying “Save me! That was the label saying, ‘You have to record this.’”
Bette has been using “My Knight In Black Leather” as a punchline for decades – not just in interviews but also during her live shows. Reflecting on her career back in 1987, she told an interviewer that she had no regrets:
“I’d do it all over again, just as I did.”
“What about ‘My Knight In Black Leather?'”
“Well,” she said, “that’s the exception. That’s one thing I don’t think I would do again.”
In defense of the song: it was not supposed to be taken seriously. Should it have been a single? Probably not, but they were trying to get a hit record by tapping into that “Village People *wink-wink, nudge-nudge* we-know-it’s-gay-but-Middle-America-doesn’t” disco energy.
Mister D, head of the BootlegBetty fansite is fond of the LP: “…great album, great cover, great orchestrations, and one cut, ‘Cradle Days’ which I thought is probably her greatest vocals on an album.”
Thighs and Whispers was considered a commercial failure, but ultimately, it was water under the bridge. The film The Rose was released the following month, earning Bette a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination. The accompanying soundtrack LP (for those keeping track, that’s 6 albums released in three years) placed her firmly in rock and roll territory. It should be noted that one of the highlights of The Rose – the song “Stay With Me” – was written by Jerry Ragavoy, composer of… “My Knight in Black Leather.”
With an eye towards the 1980’s and the rise of New Wave music, Bette told an interviewer “I think I should jump on every musical bandwagon and really drive people mad, just irritate them to shit so they say ‘She’s such a cow – she’ll jump on any musical bandwagon.’ Why not? I’ll bleach my hair and rip my clothes. I think it’s fun. I’m getting silly in my old age.” This would have to wait 4 years until her next studio album: 1983’s No Frills.
On October 8, 2016, Bette was the special guest at a Forest Hills Stadium show called Nile Rogers’ FOLD (Freak Out Let’s Dance) Festival – a show also featuring his group Chic, The Village People and Earth, Wind, and Fire. Given the theme, I thought Bette might dust off a song from her disco period – 1976’s Strangers In The Night, perhaps. But she didn’t. Her set consisted of her classics: “Friends,” “Do You Want To Dance,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” and “Wind Beneath My Wings.” Her final song was a nice surprise: “Route 66,” which she said she had never sung before and had just learned the day before.
This issue of Blueboy also features a full page ad for Elton John’s foray into disco,Victim of Love, which was released the same month as Thighs and Whispers. The album is widely considered to be the low point of his career.
Amy Sedaris is the queen of Instagram – her offbeat posts highlight the weirdly funny and/or oddly sweet. I am just one of her million+ followers. If you need a daily pick-me-up – and who doesn’t at this point? – check out her feed.
A couple of months ago, she posted this:
This clip has more than 300k views, 23,436 likes and 897 comments…. but apparently I’m the only one who doesn’t just click the heart, post “LOL” and move on. No. I’m the gay porn nerd spewing info that the general population really does not give a shit about, pointing out that it’s Eric Manchester & Billy London admiring Dean Chasson’s talents in Head Of The Class (1988). Music by Costello Presley!
The comment garnered no “likes” or “responses” – it just dissipated into the air like a public fart as crickets chirped in the distance. Whoooo cares?
I know I’m not the only one interested in finding out more about these videos. Amy Sedaris reposted this clip from Instagram user @homomacabre, whose followers also care about the minutia. His posts highlight the kitsch of old gay porn, with acting thinner than the flimsy sets, not to mention the tacky period clothes and hairstyles. And then there’s the music of Costello Presley.
I wanted to do a blog post about the mysterious synth-pop wizard who scored several dozen gay porn films in the 80’s and early 90’s, but have not successfully uncovered any info about him, including his true identity. I am not alone in my appreciation of Costello Presley: There are multiple soundcloud files and a reddit post with a filmography of approximately 40 titles that feature his music. A porn-adjacent friend of mine does not remember his real name, but assures me that Mr. Presley has left the building.
In 2017, synth band Parralox did a faithful cover of Costello Presley’s “Animal Reaction” from William Higgins’ Class of ’69.
In addition to Head of the Class, another Scott Masters/Catalina video in the Costello Presley oeuvre is John Travis’s Powerline (1989), which also starred Eric Manchester. This film features one of my favorite unintentionally funny scenes from that era.
I purchased a VHS copy of Powerline while on spring break from college. I had gone into New York City to see a Broadway show with some school friends and was about to head back to Long Island. I couldn’t manage to break away from the group and go into a porn shop, so I said my goodbyes at Penn Station and headed down to the train platform. Once the coast was clear, I ran back up to 8th avenue and went into the first smut shop I could find.
I made my way over to the video racks as a stripper in a silver bikini and stilettoes danced on the stairs to the upper level, beckoning shoppers to partake of something more tangible. I grabbed Powerline and headed to the register. With a $39.99 price tag, it was more than I would normally pay for a porn videocassette but my train was leaving in 5 minutes.
All the “acting” scenes are priceless but this one is my favorite, featuring gay-for-pay cover model Tom Steele as the cable guy with Lou Cass and Troy Ramsey as the couple from downstairs who catch him jerking off on the roof.
Porn legend and uber music fan Lou Cass was a frequent guest on The Robin Byrd Show in the early 90’s when he was dancing in New York. The Bay Area resident still has a strong social media presence and occasionally releases his own music. This is one of several versions of Pat Benatar/Nick Gilder’s “Rated X” that he has recorded through the years:
If and when I find out more information about Costello Presley, I will be sure to update the post.
Ladies and Gentleman, it is time once again to revisit that late, great dynamic lady of song, Madame Spivy LeVoe (1906-1971), also known simply as Spivy. A lesbian entertainer, nightclub owner and character actress, Spivy has been described as “The Female Noel Coward” – to which I add “…. if he had been born in Brooklyn as Bertha Levine.”
Our latest offering is one of her signature songs: “I Brought Culture to Buffalo in the 90’s”. Curiously, on the recording Spivy introduces the song as “Intimate Memories of Buffalo In The 90’s.” This is the fourth side we have profiled from her 1939 album Seven Gay Sophisticated Songs. The lyrics were written by Everett Marcy, who also co-wrote (with Spivy) “Why Don’t You,” another song from the album. Marcy also had a few Broadway writing credits including New Faces of 1936.
The music is credited to Prince Paul Chavchavadze (1899-1971), a writer, translator, and deposed Georgian royal living in New York City. And with that nugget of information, I have to say… whenever I look into the eclectic array of international bohemians associated with Spivy, I am reminded of the party scene at the beginning of Auntie Mame. This is also a fitting scenario considering Spivy later played Mother Burnside in the Broadway production.
Oscar Wilde plays a part in the lyrics of the song, as a guest in the home of our fictional hostess. It should be noted that he did conduct several lecture tours across the U.S., including speaking engagements in Buffalo. One of the topics was “The Decorative Arts.”
I Brought Culture to Buffalo In the 90’s
I Brought Culture to Buffalo in the 90’s. When Wilde was there, he visited my home I showed him all the glories I’d bought so cheap in Greece and all the wonders I’d brought home from Rome. He was spellbound at the splendor of my whatnot and the cigar butt Papa got from General Grant. He couldn’t tear his eyes from my bay window and the maidenhair beneath the rubber plants.
I Brought Culture to Buffalo in the 90’s – the year I took the iron dog off our lawn. In its place I put a Venus in a nightie and a rather naughty but authentic faun. I completely reproduced the Versailles garden though the Erie claimed they had the right of way. I swore I’d die before a tie was laid to desecrate Versailles. I made Buffalo the place it is today.
I was the first to have a Turkish corner though plenty followed suit, you may be sure. I produced a pageant based on Jackie Horner and the deficit was given to the poor. I Brought Culture to Buffalo in the 90’s. I made the natives conscious of the nude. In my dining room I put “Boy Extracting Thorn From Foot” and my guests that winter scarcely touched their food.
The season that I gave my talks on yoga was one I felt I never could surpass. I had a negligee cut like a toga and all my candelabra piped for gas. I Brought Culture to Buffalo in the 90’s. When Wilde was there, he visited my home. Filled with all the treasures of the ages and a nugget Uncle Nate had sent from Nome.
I showed him all the house right through the garret and said “What one thing does it still require?” When Oscar looked at me, I could not bear it. “A match,” he said, “Madame, a match to set the goddamn place on fire!”
Rita Moreno is having a great season, with an acclaimed documentary and an appearance in Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, which she also executive produced. She celebrated her 90th birthday while making countless appearances on news and talk shows promoting these projects. In sharp contrast, though, the passing of fellow Shark Girl Yvonne Wilder on November 24th seems to have gone relatively unnoticed.
She was still known as Yvonne Othon when she played Consuelo in the 1961 film. Born in the Bronx in 1937 with Cuban/Puerto Rican ancestry, she attended New York’s High School of Performing Arts and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London before getting cast in the West End production of West Side Story alongside George Chikiris. According to her website, she would go on to play Anita for over 1,500 performances on Broadway and stages around the world.
Throughout the 1960’s Wilder was partnered professionally with Jack Colvin (1934-2004). As Colvin & Wilder, they were one of the most successful comedy duos of the decade, with appearances across the U.S. on stage and television, including The Dean Martin Show, The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show, culminating in their farewell appearance at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Over 30 years, Wilder racked up dozens of television appearances on shows including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Room 222, The Partridge Family, and 227. She was Archie’s girlfriend on Archie Bunker’s Place and co-starred in the sitcom Operation Petticoat with John Astin, Adam West and 19-year-old Jamie Lee Curtis.
Wilder is perhaps best remembered for her role as Aurora De La Hoya, housekeeper for Glenda & Ira Parks (Goldie Hawn & Charles Grodin) in Neil Simon’s Seems Like Old Times (1980).
One of Wilder’s final roles before retiring was as the grandmother of the Olsen twins on Full House. She then focused on her work as a watercolor artist and sculptor. Her work was shown at the Santa Monica Art Institute and can be viewed on her website.
Adios, Ms. Wilder. Thank you for all your fine work. And for the chicken pepperoni.
“She was once like Whistler’s Mother – now they whistle when she passes.”
Ladies and Gentleman, it is time once again to revisit that late great dynamic lady of song, Madame Spivy LeVoe (1906-1971), also known simply as Spivy. A lesbian entertainer, nightclub owner and character actress, Spivy has been described as “The Female Noel Coward” – to which I add “…. if he was born Bertha Levine in Brooklyn.” You can see earlier posts about her here and here.
Since my last Spivy post, I was thrilled to see that she had been profiled on Dennis Dermody’s Cinemaniac website, and even happier to see that, after a little nudge, I was given some credit for all the “borrowed” photos, video and large portions of my previous posts. Bless his heart, I’m sure it was just an oversight.
Moving on… today we will be listening to Auntie’s Face, a song written by Broadway actor and fellow nightclub performer Guy Moneypenny. Spivy’s recording was featured on her 1949 album An Evening With Spivy.
Spivy had something of a catchphrase that she would use to introduce a song: A solemn pronouncement that “This is VERY sad and we must be VERY quiet, please.” She would then launch into a number that was anything but either of those things. At least four of her recordings contain this introduction – one can imagine that it was a playful way to get the attention of a noisy nightclub audience.
We all have strange relatives… but let me tell you about my Aunt Grace.
She’s a MAD thing. This is very sad and we must be very quiet, please.
This is the tragedy of poor Aunt Grace – how she became a complete disgrace
It all began when she lifted her face and decided to be young and gay.
Since she’s become a rejuvenated case, the whole house suffers from her madcap pace
There’s no longer any quiet in the whole damn place
So we lift our eyes to heaven and pray.
Please God make Auntie’s face fall. For we’ve all got our backs to the wall.
Her reputation’s battered. Our principals are shattered. She hasn’t any moral code at all.
Her breath now reeks of bathtub gin. Goes out nights in search of sin.
We wake up in the morning to find her coming in… from an all night brawl.
We’re all in such a dither, for heaven knows she’s coarse.
When she brings the milkman with her – wait ‘til you hear this one – why must she bring his horse?
Please God make Auntie’s face fall. For nothing is sacred at all.
We caught her teaching Granny to manipulate her fanny in a rhumba with a cashmere shawl.
And just last night they phoned from the jail – it seems they’re holding Auntie ‘til we fork up the bail
They found her on Broadway singing Love For Sale. Yes they did! And the price was small.
She steals cigars from brother. She’s thrown away her glasses.
She was once like Whistler’s Mother – now they whistle when she passes.
She thinks she’s the belle of the ball. We’re afraid that she’s going on call
Dear God we beg your pardon but to hell with Lizzie Arden
If you’ve any mercy left at all… please God make Auntie’s face fall!
Some of Spivy’s other recordings contain obscure references that require a little research and explanation. Not so with Auntie’s Face: Cole Porter’s song Love For Sale is still a well-known standard. The line “To Hell with Lizzie Arden” is a reference to cosmetics queen Elizabeth Arden, whose beauty product empire still stands. And who isn’t familiar with Whistler’s Mother? Furthermore… a song about plastic surgery certainly rings truer today than it did 70 years ago. It may come as a shock to fans of the Real Housewives that the first facelift procedures took place in the early 1900’s.
Ladies and Gentleman, I’d like to reintroduce you to someone you should know (if you saw my earlier post about her): the late, great Madame Spivy LeVoe (1906-1971), also known simply as Spivy. A lesbian entertainer, nightclub owner and character actress, Spivy has been described as “The Female Noel Coward” – to which I add “…. if he was born Bertha Levine in Brooklyn.”
Spivy owned a chic NYC piano bar called Spivy’s Roof, which was on the top floor of a building that still stands at the corner of Fifty-Seventh Street & Lexington Avenue. Notable performers through its 11 year existence included Mabel Mercer, Thelma Carpenter and Martha Raye as well as early performances by Liberace and Paul Lynde.
Here is Paul Lynde talking about Spivy on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, April 30, 1976:
“I played another club – Spivy’s Roof. Do you remember Spivy’s? It was a penthouse club and it was very, very “in” when it was hot. Well… I closed it. I closed Spivy’s. I really did. I was the last person to perform there and as I said it was up on top of the roof. And Spivy and I would be sitting back in the corner all alone and we’d hear the elevator and she’d say “Get your props, you’re on!” And I would get my props out… and it was just the elevator man… he was lonely and wanted to talk to us…. or the landlord trying to collect the rent.
“It was just incredible and you know Spivy… when we did have people, like on the weekend… I would announce her after I was through and she’d run in the john and lock herself in there until the club closed. She never would come on. She would as soon as the club closed … and Judy Garland and Martha Raye and Judy Holliday… they used to come in and Spivy would entertain all night long for them…. but she would not for the audience.
“Finally one night I went to work and the piano was down on the sidewalk under the canopy so I knew it was over.”
I previously posted her song The Alley Cat. Today we have The Tarantella – both such short recordings that they fit on the same side of a 78 record as part of her 1939 album Seven Gay Sophisticated Songs. This is one of the few compositions credited solely to Spivy.
Oh she did the tarantella with a colorful umbrella and in her hat, she wore a quill. She dressed up like a fella in a suit of real bright yellow just to give the audience a thrill. She would prance in her dance with the chance that her pants wouldn’t stand the strain. She would fall into splits ‘til the folks lost their wits and cried “Again! Another refrain!”
Her coattails she would swish up and they said she shocked the bishop But the bishop said “Oh no.” She may be slightly vicious but her footwear is delicious, why it makes me shout “Bravo!” I shall not leave this place until three times more at least she will Do the tarantella with that colorful umbrella and in her hat, that darling quill.
Oh she did the tarantella with a colorful umbrella and in her hat, she wore a quill. She dressed up like a fella in a suit of real bright yellow just to give the audience a thrill. She would prance in her dance with the chance that her pants wouldn’t stand the strain. She would fall into splits ‘til the folks lost their wits and cried “Again! Another refrain!”
Her coattails she would swish up and they said she shocked the bishop But the bishop said “Oh no.” She may be slightly vicious but her footwear is delicious, why it makes me shout “Bravo!” I shall not leave this place until three times more at least she will Do the tarantella with that colorful umbrella and in her hat, that goddamn quill.
That goddamn quill. It always surprises me to hear swearing on a 78 record. Even light swearing. It’s not as if she dropped an F-bomb. But we are so used to the sanitized Hollywood version of the 1930’s that it is easy to forget that curse words were not invented in the 1960’s. It’s not the last expletive that we will hear from Madame Spivy, as future posts will show…
Ladies and Gentleman, I’d like to introduce you to a long lost lady of song that you should know: the late, great Madame Spivy LeVoe (1906-1971), also known simply as Spivy. A lesbian entertainer, nightclub owner and character actress, Spivy has been described as “The Female Noel Coward” – to which I would add “…. if he was born Bertha Levine in Brooklyn.”
In the 1930’s, the former Ms. Levine entertained as a singer/pianist in the back room at Tony’s, a Fifty-Second Street speakeasy and celebrity hot spot. In 1939, the New York Times wrote that “Spivy’s material, witty, acid, and tragicomic, is better than most of the essays one hears about town, and her delivery is that of a sophisticated artist on her own grounds. She knows the value of surprise in punching a line, she uses understatement unerringly, and her piano accompaniment is superb.”
Spivy opened her own chic piano bar, Spivy’s Roof, in the summer of 1940 on the top floor of a building at the corner of Fifty-Seventh Street & Lexington Avenue. Notable performers through its 11 year existence included Mabel Mercer, Thelma Carpenter and Martha Raye as well as early performances by Liberace and Paul Lynde. Spivy’s Roof makes an appearance in the seminal book Gay New York and pops up in several memoirs and biographies of performers, artists and notable society personalities of that era.
Writer Ignacio Schwartz fondly recalls visits to Spivy’s Roof when he was a Holden Caulfield-esque 16 year old boarding school student seeking adventure in New York. The whole article is worth a read, but here’s an excerpt:
She was a plump lady (one writer said that she was “squat like a bulldog.”) She wore her hair in a tight pompadour with a white streak down the middle. She would place a tall glass of what was probably chilled gin on the piano before her. During her time on stage, she would drain a couple, but her singing — her low, throaty voice — would always be perfect.
The one (song) I remember best of all is The Alley Cat. I cannot for the life of me remember more than a couple of lines of Hamlet that I was taught in that Prussian military school. I still have trouble remembering which novels were written by the Brontë sisters and the ones that came from the pen of Jane Austen. But to this day I can recite most of the words of The Alley Cat, along with the intonations, the riffs (and the pauses for laughs) exactly as it has been tricked away in my memory-bag for the last fifty years.
“The Alley Cat”, which Spivy co-wrote with Jill Rainsford, was a staple from her live show and recorded for her 78 album Seven Gay Sophisticated Songs (1939).
Here’s a video that I put together with lyrics included:
The Alley Cat
On the 14th floor of a walk-up flat, I used to keep an alley cat. Each night I’d walk him down the stair, and waited while he got the air. He grew up fast and developed a yen, no sooner was he in than he was out again. I hated to spoil his fun, but I knew what must be done.
So I called the cat and he staggered home, with a ragged ear and a broken dome But I knew he felt like hell that day, so I spoke to him this way: Is it worth it? For that momentary something to yowl around til neighbors call the cops? Is it worth it? For that momentary something to have nine hundred kittens call you “Pop”?
You’ve been an awful wild cat – you should welcome a vacation. Just to sit around and brood and think about your operation. I’ll give you one more night out to complete your education Then the sheltered life is good enough for you.
I took him to the vet and had his profile bobbed, and when he sat down he said, ‘Hell, I’ve been robbed!’ He went out that night but came right home to bed, and the look on his face was a scream as he said: “Well, you’ve done it. Now the operation’s over, I’ll never be the same, it seems so strange, but you’ve done it. Now the operation’s over, no longer will I take chances with the mange.
I had so many wives, I didn’t know where I was at. But since my change of scenery all the girl cats holler ‘Scat!’ I pass them by and hear them cry; ‘There goes that pansy cat.’ But the sheltered life is good enough for me.”
Spivy recorded approximately 15 of her most popular songs. Some she co-wrote with Rainsford, others with lyricist John LaTouche. None of these recordings – originally issued on 78 record albums between 1939-1949 – were ever reissued in any format. I am slowly uploading them to YouTube and will dole them out along with other Spivy tidbits in the near future.
In the meantime, if you are so inclined, check out the Queer Music Heritage website , which has a lot of information on Spivy, although the site is rather antiquated and some browsers won’t support it…. If you choose to heed the “unsecure site” warnings and avoid it… then the sheltered life is good enough for you.