Madame Spivy: A Tropical Fish

This is the plea of a poor little tropical fish. It’s very sad and we must be very quiet, please.

Ladies and germs, it’s time once again to visit that celebrated lady of song, Madame Spivy LaVoe. To the uninitiated, allow me to get you up to speed:

Spivy (1906-1970) was 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.” You can read earlier posts about her here:

The Alley Cat

The Tarantella

Auntie’s Face

100% American Girls

Today we will focus on A Tropical Fish. As with the previously mentioned Alley Cat, this song was co-written by Spivy with Jill “Billy” Rainsford. Both songs were featured on the 1939 78 record album Seven Gay Sophisticated Songs By Spivy.

As with Auntie’s Face, Spivy begins this song with her trademark “It’s very sad and we must be very quiet” spoken intro before launching into the tune, which tells the story of a tropical fish writing a letter of complaint to Fiorello LaGuardia, the Mayor of New York City (1934-1945).

A Tropical Fish

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, the clerk and the trombone player,

The child on the street and the ultra-elite all write letters to the mayor.

La Guardia’s most conscientious – he tries to grant everyone’s wish

But they went him one better when he got a letter from somebody’s tropical fish.

 

Dear Mayor,” the letter began, “I’m writing as fish to man.

Our tank’s overheated and we’re being treated like common sardines in a can.

The way people watch us is quaint. Our privacy’s something what ain’t.

So be a good fella, my dear Fiorella and hear a poor fish’s complaint.

 

To be quite specific, the food is terrific.

We’re on the hay diet – you really should try it.

It tastes like the hook – gee, I wish we could cook.

The service is lousy – we have no back-housey.

And it’s some spot to be in with no pot to … cook in.

 

The innocent faunas are hiding in corners

Their love life is wearing with human eyes staring…

Why can’t we have covers like those birdcage lovers?

They’re hidden each night ‘til the morning sunlight

Then brought out to bath with no questions asked.

 

Dear Mayor, I’ve been very frank… but you don’t know life in a tank.

Believe me, it’s hellish and you wouldn’t relish to sleep in the water you drank.

Now here’s what we tropicals wish: Some bedrooms to give us ambish.

Less public relations and more comfort stations.

Yours truly,

A. Tropical Fish”

Lastly, here’s a syndicated article about Spivy that ran in newspapers across the country in late November, 1948. Note that her last name is mispelled “Devoe” with no mention of Bertha Levine.

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Mme. Spivy: 100% American Girls

“Our country is so fine, it will really be divine, when we get everyone but us to move away.”

Ladies and Gentleman, it is time once again to revisit that late great dynamic lady of song, Madame Spivy LaVoe (1906-1970), 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.” You can read earlier posts about her here: Madame Spivy’s Alley Cat, The Tarantella and Auntie’s Face.

Film Spivy Manchurian Candidate2Given the current political climate, it’s a perfect time to have a listen to 100% American Girls, a stinging satirical composition by Charlotte Kent which reminds us that nationalism, xenophobia and gentile racism have been marching hand-in-hand across this great land for generations. God Bless America.

The opening line addresses the “Daughters, Aunts, Mothers and Second Cousins of the War of 1812…” – a not-so-subtle swipe at the exclusive, ultra-white & conservative Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).

Grant Wood’s 1932 painting Daughters Of Revolution.

The line “You’re supposed to be keeping THOSE people out of Constitution Hall…” refers to the Washington DC concert hall owned by the DAR.  In 1939, they denied African-American singer Marian Anderson the opportunity to sing before an integrated audience, causing First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to resign her membership in protest. The Roosevelts then arranged for Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. The result was an historic performance before an integrated crowd of more than 75,000 people and a radio audience in the millions.

Some notes on other references in the song:

Westbrook Pegler was a columnist at the time who opposed labor unions and The New Deal.

Note that Consuela – the only ethnic name mentioned – is directed to be “the rabble,” or disorderly crowd.

Alfred M. Landon was the Republican presidential candidate in 1936 who lost to FDR in a landslide vote.

First Lady Dolley Madison was a world-renowned hostess who, according to lore, was the first to serve guests ice cream at the White House.

100% American Girls

Members of the Daughters, Aunts, Mothers and Second Cousins of the War of 1812, form into double file.

Stop twitching at that bunting Carrie and smile. Take off that feather boa, Mary Louise this is a parade, not a charade.

Vera, you go right back to Washington, you’re not supposed to be marching at all! You’re supposed to be keeping THOSE people out of Constitution Hall.

Please… you on the float there. Lord Calvin is sagging. Yankee Doodle is flat. Your powder is wet. And your Mayflower is dragging.

Oh thank God here’s George III. Alright Lizzie, stand right there and sneer.

Please Consuela, someone has to be the rabble. You throw the Boston tea right in this little box over here.

Remember the things we said we’d never abandon. Remember we’re still true to Alfred M. Landon.

Remember when the Bill of Rights…. HMMMM ….. tried to get fresh with me!

My Westbook Pegler ’tis of thee. Ah ha! The bugle! Formation girls:

Nelly pull your belly in – it’s for the U.S.A. We’ve got to be adorable today.

Oh aren’t you excited? And isn’t this a binge? Lets unfurl every curl in our lunatic fringe.

Tilly, Queenie, Magnolia, Hillaire… to arms!

Nelly pull your belly in and hold your chin up high. We’ll give the crowd a treat as we pass by.

The Pricker unit forward, the Bilbo club behind….And Bessie you keep waving what your grandpa signed.

All together now: Comb your hair for California, wash your neck for Io-way.

Our country is so fine, it will really be divine when we get everyone but us to move away.

Take a Benzedrine for old Virginia, where our daddies sniffed their snuff with dukes and earls.

We are for the human race, which is lovely (in its place). We’re 100% American Girls!

What? Do I see one of you lag when before you is marching the flag?

Did Washington crossing the Delaware say “Let’s call it off, boys – I’m not in the mood for rowing”?

Did Betsy Ross say “Fold up the banner girls –  I hate sewing”?

Hmmm. Really girls! Eyes up! Curls up and away!

Annie pull your fanny in  – it’s for the U.S.A. We’ve got to be adorable today.

When Valley Forge was icy and up to here in snow… did Dolly Madison say “No”?

Myrtle, Cissy, Prissy, Mamie – to arms!

Annie pull your fanny in  – it’s for the U.S.A. We’re 100% American Girls!

This song – along with Madame’s Lament – were the two Charlotte Kent compositions featured on Spivy’s 1947 album An Evening With Spivy. Kent had several songwriting credits in film and on Broadway throughout the 1930’s. In 1939, she contributed to the book & lyrics of the musical Sing For Your Supper along with John La Touche, another composer with whom Spivy collaborated. We will get to those recordings at a later date. Stay tuned!

1991: Homo Alone

In May of 1991, I completed my first professional theatre job – playing the Corwardly Lion in a national children’s theatre tour of The Wizard Of Oz. It was a whirlwind experience full of laughter, adventure and romance that ended as soon as I was dropped back into my parent’s house on Long Island. I felt just like Dorothy – unsure if what I had just experienced was real or a Technicolor® dream.

The Cowardly Lion on the road: Spring 1991. This photo is featured in Dee Michel’s 2018 book Friends of Dorothy: Why Gay Boys and Gay Men Love The Wizard of Oz.

While Dorothy may have felt that there was no place like home, if you think about it… the Lion, with his newfound courage, remained in the Emerald City.

I was determined to stay connected with New York City – my Emerald City – and continue my life as a working actor. I purchased a Long Island Railroad ticket for the month of June to ensure that I would go into the city to audition, search for a job and find a place to live.

The Wicked Witch from the tour had mentioned that her sister was curating an evening of performances called Homo Alone in the East Village on June 3rd. She suggested that I go see it and be sure to introduce myself.

So I hopped on the LIRR, a homo alone, to go see Homo Alone.

My own journal from the time reads:

Just went and saw 3 performers – somewhere between single-person one acts and stand-up comedy…. I’d love to do it. This journal would serve me well up there. Hmmm…

I then continued to write for 6 pages pining for the tour that had just ended and planning out my transition into NYC. But I remember how the performances that night made me feel: this was where I belonged, in a little theatre in the East Village, getting up in front of people with a notebook full of stories. To speak in my own voice with confidence and… yes, courage. To trust that what I have to say is unique and worth sharing and maybe even funny or touching or meaningful. Hopefully some combination of all those things.

By the following month, I had found a job and was sharing a leaky 5th floor walkup on East 6th street with Glinda The Good Witch. By the end of the summer, I had lost the job and Glinda turned out to be a clinically depressed nightmare person, but another tour loomed in the Fall and I was on my way. I had made the move to the big city and the life that I was looking for.

Fast forward to 1998: I read David Sedaris’s Naked and absolutely loved it, so I picked up his previous book Barrel Fever, which I had somehow missed. A fbarrel feverew pages into “Parade,” the first story in that collection, a light bulb started to flicker on: I know this story. How do I know this? I didn’t read this… I have heard this. Where did I hear this? Wait. This was the guy from Homo Alone. Back in 1991. That was David Sedaris reading onstage that night. 

I mean, how do you forget the tale of a guy who breaks up with his boyfriend Charlton Heston to start dating Mike Tyson and then one night after strenuous sex, he accidentally swallows Mike’s gold teeth?

Something like that stays with you.

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David Sedaris does the laundry in his Astor Place apartment on June 28, 1993 (Photo: David Corio/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

In 2017, when David’s selected diary entries were released in book form as Theft By Finding, the first thing I did was flip to June of 1991 to see if there was any mention of that night, but it skips from May 15th to June 22nd. It was interesting to read about this period of his life though: he had moved to NYC the previous October and worked at SantaLand in Macy’s that Christmas. In 1992 he would gain national exposure reading “The SantaLand Diaries” on NPR.

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Later in 2017, my partner Chris and I went to see David read at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a sold-out multi-night engagement. He is known for meeting and autographing books for every single person who is willing to wait in line to see him after his readings. This can take hours.

 

When it was my turn to get my book signed, I stepped up and launched into the statement I had waited 20 years to say: “In June of 1991 I saw you at some little place in the East Village in an evening of solo performances called Homo Alone and you read the story about Mike Tyson out of a notebook….”

He said “Oh. It wouldn’t have been a notebook.”

I redirected. “Uh… it might have been a notepad. Or some papers. I’m not sure but I always remembered that night.”

He didn’t. “You have a really good memory.” He said without looking up from signing my book.

I mean, what did I expect to happen? Was he supposed to throw his arms around me and exclaim “My GOD that was a magical night! Your laughter and applause meant so much to me! And here you are! My biggest fan! After all these years!”?

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And yes, my memory might be good, but it’s not GREAT, or I would have also remembered that “the little place” was The Club at LaMama and  another one of performers that night was Lisa Kron, who would go on to win two Tony Awards for the book and score of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

The third performer, Dominique Dibbell, has also had an impressive career. Kudos to Heidi Blackwell for collecting this trio.

I only know all this now because I unearthed the original program & promotional postcard from my mother’s basement this summer. And while I cannot say that I have a flawless memory bank, I will accept being called “A pack rat with decent recall.”

Note the “Thank You” to David’s partner Hugh Hamrick. According to Theft By Finding, they had only met three months prior. “This spring” David wrote, “I am, if I’m not mistaken, in love.” 29 years later, they are still together.

Had I unearthed this program sooner, I could have gone up to Lisa Kron at the 2015 preview of Fun Home that I attended – one of the most memorable Broadway experiences I ever had – where she and Alison Bechdel were sitting two rows in front of me. I could have said “I saw you with David Sedaris in 1991 and I don’t remember what you did but I know I really liked it and now I think you’re awesome!”

Lisa Kron with her two 2015 Tony awards for Best Book and Score of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

But I didn’t. And again, what is the anticipated reaction? What do we expect of people we admire when we reach out to them? When the shoe is on the other foot and someone mentions that they were moved by something that I did or wrote, I am grateful… but I don’t have a proper response other than to just say “Thank you.” It can easily become an awkward exchange, but the impulse is strong to make a connection with someone whose work motivates us and/or makes us feel something.

The next time I attend a David Sedaris reading, I will bring that old program along to show him and say; “I was at this show. You read Parade and I never forgot it. You inspired me to write. Thank you for all your work over the years.”

Maybe then I will get a different reaction. Then again, maybe not:

Madame Spivy: Auntie’s Face

“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 LaVoe (1906-1970), 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.

Spivy Promo pic

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.

spivey-evening-medSpivy 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.

Auntie’s Face

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!

lizzie arden

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.

Be sure to check back – more Spivy to come soon! (Update: Here)

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Spivy card

Armistead Maupin in Blueboy Magazine (1980)

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Back in the early aughts, an older friend of mine was preparing to move out of his NYC apartment and gifted me with a gay time capsule: a closet full of porn magazines dating back to the mid-1970’s. He had moved into this rent stabilized 5th floor walk-up in college and stayed there for 30 years. Roommates and boyfriends came and went – leaving a trail of old magazines in their wake. But my friend stayed in this spacious top floor railroad apartment in the last remaining tenement building on a stretch of East 59th street, with a living room facing the Queensboro Bridge. Why move? The landlord finally offered him a sizable cash settlement to leave, unaware that he was ready to depart NYC anyway. But it was a nice parting gift.

I, in turn was given a King’s Chamber of gay erotica: 7 file boxes full of near-pristine old smut.

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Shocker: porn is lucrative. For a few years I supplemented my income by selling them singly on eBay. The shrinking collection has now moved through 4 different apartments in the last dozen years. Unfortunately I did not have my friend’s tenacity (or luck) when it came to NYC real estate.

Torso cover 1980Recently I cracked the boxes open again and came across an article I thought was worth sharing. Yes, an article. As the old joke goes – I like these old porn mags for the articles. Well… the photo layouts are nice too, but… the articles do give a window into what gay life was like before the plague.

The September, 1980 issue of Blueboy Magazine was dedicated to the city of San Francisco – The Promised Land for gays. Presented below is an article titled The City That Dare Not Speak Its Name penned by Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin.

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Author Armistead Maupin at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Although this was written just before the AIDS epidemic blew the gay community sky high, San Francisco had already been through some shit, as Maupin mentions in his opening paragraph. The Zodiac Killer, Jonestown Massacre, Patty Hearst kidnapping, the murders of Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone… followed by Dan White’s acquittal…. I am unclear what “Decadence” he is referring to, but surely it was a bloodbath.

Maupin sensed that the press was sharpening its knives to criticize his beloved city. And he wasn’t wrong in his assessment. Like his Tales of the City series, the article is a love letter to San Francisco, capturing the time and place as nobody else could. It was the best of times… it was the worst of times….

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A couple of notes:  The mayor mentioned in the article is Dianne Feinstein, now the senior California senator. And the 30-inch girlfriend he refers to was Tamara De Treaux, basis for the main character in his novel Maybe The Moon.

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Armistead Maupin photographed in 1978 as part of Don Herron’s Tub Shots photo series.

In the spirit of “everything old is new again,” Maupin observes “…. some local lavender ward healers (that) propagate the Cult of the Politically Correct can grow tedious beyond belief, and I wonder, in my heart of hearts, whether the immeasurable joys of cocksucking are worth the price of being either political or correct.” Yes, he ultimately concludes that nobody embraces eccentricity as unconditionally and as joyously as do San Franciscans.

40 years later, I think those who love the city would agree… even if they do complain about all the human feces in the streets.

Jackie Old

The article concludes with a reference to a novel Maupin was working on: Jackie Old – a fictional piece about Jacqueline Onassis at age 70. Unfortunately she did not live to see 70 and this novella – initially published as a 5 part series in New West magazine –  would not get an official release until a 2014 Kindle edition. Even so, it is not included in his bibliographies.

Also featured in this mag is an extensive piece by another prominent gay San Franciscan:  the late great Randy Shilts, author of And The Band Played On. I will post this piece – What If They Gave A Backlash And Nobody Came? -if there is interest. Lemme know if you want it. (UPDATE: I posted it HERE)

Or…  I could post more photos of these guys:

Men of SF

A 60 Degrees Girl Group Christmas

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I have always loved Christmas music. I tend to listen to older music all year round, but when it comes to sharing music with the general public, this is the only time of year when Brenda Lee is considered cool. To combat the 60’s holiday tracks that are over-covered and overplayed, I am always searching for more obscure holiday recordings by girl groups and female vocalists that are not on radio or Spotify playlists.

60DegreesWhen I began hosting my internet radio show 60 Degrees back in 2008, it started an annual tradition of putting together a holiday program full of female 60’s singers and girl groups, interspersed with vintage commercials and sound clips from classic holiday movies and television shows. You can listen to the Halloween show here.

East Village Radio was a pirate radio station that went legit and switched to the internet, broadcasting from a storefront in New York’s Lower East Side. This first 60 Degrees holiday show debuted on December 22, 2008 and was repeated annually throughout the shows 5 year run. By 2012, the holiday programs had gained such a following that 60 Degrees was given an uninterrupted 16 hour marathon on Christmas Day.

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At the beginning of Part 2, I read a Christmas poem that I wrote about an incident from my childhood involving our tinsel-eating dog Sunshine, which has previously been posted here and also on The Good Men Project website. You can’t say I don’t recycle!

Other than my speedy vocal delivery (someone tell that guy to slow down) and some minor sound level issues, the show holds up pretty well. There are a few mis-statements that I wish I could fix:

  • I said that Maya Rudolph’s mother, the late great Minnie Riperton was not singing lead on The Gems tracks when she is.
  • I mis-pronounce the Meditation Singers as “The Mediation Singers” and would add that soul singer Laura Lee was a member of the group, having replaced Della Reese in the 1950’s.
  • Janice Orenstein sang There’s Always Tomorrow from the Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer soundtrack.

Gems MinnieMeditation SingersJanice Orenstein

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Part 1 Flirtaitons

  1. Donde Esta Santa Claus – Toni Stante
  2. Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas  – Carla Thomas
  3. My Boyfriend’s Coming Home For Christmas  – Toni Wine
  4. Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day – Brenda Lee
  5. White Christmas – Baby Washington
  6. Snowfall – Doris Day
  7. I Want A Boy For Christmas – The Del-Vetts
  8. You Better Be Good, World – Shirley Ellis
  9. Peace For Christmas  – Gigi Parker
  10. Christmas Calling  – Valerie Masters
  11. Christmas Time – Jan Bradley
  12. All I Want For Christmas Is You – Carla Thomas
  13. Christmas Is The Time To Be With Your Baby – The Orchids
  14. Christmas Time Is Here Again – The Flirtations
  15. O Holy Child – Dusty Springfield
  16. Sleigh Ride – Darlene Love wi/ The Brian Setzer Orchestra
  17. Deep in the Heart of Christmas Darlene Love wi/ The Brian Setzer Orchestra
  18. Christmastime For The Jews – Darlene Love
  19. Xmas (Baby Please Come Home) Live 2005 – Darlene Love

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Part 2: Suprems xmasbboard

  1. Wish You A Merry Christmas – Kim Weston
  2. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! – The Miracles (featuring Claudette Robinson)
  3. Oh Holy Night – The Supremes (featuring Florence Ballard)
  4. Won’t Be Long Before Christmas – The Supremes
  5. Blue Christmas – The Meditation Singers
  6. Blue Holiday – Aretha Franklin
  7. Love For Christmas  -The Gems
  8. Jing Jing A Ling – Honey & The Bees
  9. Silver Bells – Rachel Sweet
  10. Close Your Mouth (It’s Christmas) – The Free Design
  11. The Christmas Song – Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66
  12. I Don’t Intend to Spend Christmas Without You – Margo Guryan
  13. Happy New Year Baby – JoAnn Campbell
  14. Happy New Year Baby – The Sisters
  15. January First – Peggy March
  16. Happy New Year – Beverley
  17. Jingle Jingle Jingle – Burl Ives
  18. There’s Always Tomorrow – Janice Orenstein
  19. Auld Lang Syne – Honey & the Bees

I’ll be uploading other episodes of 60 Degrees in the future. I hope you enjoy them. Thanks for listening!Delvettes 45

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Madame Spivy’s Tarantella

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 LaVoe (1906-1970), 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 piano

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.”

Spivy 7 gay LP copy

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.

The Tarantella

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.

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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…

Click here for Auntie’s Face.

Click here for 100% American Girls

Click here to revisit The Alley Cat

Spivy Manchurian Candidate
No quill in her hat: Madame Spivy in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Madame Spivy’s Alley Cat

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 LaVoe (1906-1970), 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.”

Spivy cover2In 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.

Spivy's Roof

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.

Spivy Alley Cat copy

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 7gay copy

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.

(UPDATE: Click here for The Tarantella, here is Auntie’s Face and here for 100% American Girls)

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.