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Making Sense of All That 'Voodoo'

January 17, 2008 By:
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Stefan Kanfer. The name may not ring any bells, although it should, especially if you're a lover of books and magazines. That's because Kanfer, who, for 20 years, was a more than dependable staple at Time magazine, has also been turning out a steady stream of more than dependable volumes of biography, history and social criticism on a wealth of subjects, while also contributing to a boatload of other major magazines and journals.

Not to put too fine a point on it, he's been made a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library, and few have been more deserving of such stature.

As for those many fine books, most of them -- though not all -- deal with some facet of the American entertainment industry over the course of the 20th century. His first work, A Journal of the Plague Years, was a look at how McCarthyism and the hearings held by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, better known as HUAC, led to the blacklisting of certain screenwriters and directors.

Since then, he's looked at the creation of the Catskills as a vacation paradise (in A Summer World: The Attempt to Build a Jewish Eden in the Catskills, From the Days of the Ghetto to the Rise and Decline of the Borscht Belt); film animation (in Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America from Betty Boop to Toy Story); the life and death of the Yiddish Theater on New York's Lower East Side (in Stardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy and Meshugas of the Yiddish Theater in America); in addition to biographies of Groucho Marx (Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx) and Lucille Ball (Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball).

In between, there were several novels written, along with a history of the de Beers diamond-mining business (The Last Empire: de Beers, Diamonds and the World).

'The Promised City'

With all this literary history behind him, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to discover that his most recent book is something of a hodge-podge, though a pleasant enough one, drawn from all of the various entertainment strands he's mined over his long and productive writing career.

The only element of the project that's a bit ham-fisted is the title: The Voodoo That They Did So Well (the book's been published by the inestimably courageous Chicago firm of Ivan R. Dee). Kanfer's choice of title is, of course, a variation on the Cole Porter lyric "Do Do That Voodoo That You Do So Well," from the song "You Do Something to Me." But it doesn't quite have the right zip to it, nor does it trip off the tongue in quite the same manner that the Porter song always does.

In this book's nearly 200 pages, Kanfer attempts a breezy history of -- according to the subtitle -- The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage. In eight chapters, which sometimes read like extended magazine articles stitched loosely together to form a manuscript, he considers the life that Mozart's most famous librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, led in Manhattan; vaudeville's "brief, shining moment"; Irving Berlin's long, long career in popular music, both its ups and downs; the Yiddish Theater; the brothers Gershwin and their deep influence on popular culture and the Broadway stage; Cole Porter's career as lyricist and composer; Richard Rodgers brilliant compositions but miserable personal life; and the dominance of Stephen Sondheim in musical theater over the last four decades or so.

Kanfer explains that he took up the project because, no matter how bright he finds young people to be these days (since he's also done lots of teaching at various venues), they have "a surprising incuriosity about popular history -- just the sort of subject youth out to find compelling." We all know the reasons, he insists. It stems from the proliferation of technological distractions taking up the majority of these youngsters' time, as well as their hard and fast allegiance to rock, hip-hop and grunge over all other forms of musical expression.

Most of these young people also seem to be totally clueless about the vibrancy and true diversity of Manhattan's past. "In part this fault lies with the metropolis itself," suggests Kanfer. "The wrecking ball is so active that old neighborhoods turn into unrecognizable locales, and once-hallowed institutions become as obsolete as the corner candy store and the phone booth. Way back in 1898, John Jay Chapman noted, 'The present in New York is so powerful that the past is lost.' More than a hundred years later the same situation pertains -- and amounts to a cultural tragedy. For the past is not prologue, it is often an epic drama unto itself."

The underlying thread that links these disparate seeming pieces is the sense that the artistic triumphs portrayed here cannot be understood without taking into account the effect New York had upon these various artists -- and vice versa. As Kanfer writes: "In re-examining the lives and careers in this book, I was struck once again by the city's permanently abrasive quality, its hyperthyroid tempo -- and its continual welcome to the gifted. For the young and for immigrants especially, New York was, and remains, the Promised City. When T.S. Eliot heard someone remark that old writers 'are remote from us because we know so much more than they did,' he replied, 'Precisely, and they are that which we know.' The figures in The Voodoo That They Did So Well not only defined themselves in the borough of Manhattan, they defined Manhattan itself. And as the following pages show, in the process they helped us, their enthusiastic audience, define ourselves."

Having read a great deal in the history of the various entertainment forms Kanfer considers, I didn't find a great deal that was brand-new here. But I took this book to be a swift, undemanding introduction to show biz shenanigans in 20th-century New York. If readers approach it that way, it can be a very pleasant little diversion, well-crafted, with a lot of information packed into some neatly arranged small spaces.

For me, the most rewarding chapter was on vaudeville, not because I didn't know much about the subject, but because I had never read Kanfer on the topic, so it was fun to see him maneuver his way around the material.

Here he is on the origins of vaudeville: "The word 'vaudeville' derives from the French vau-de-vire, referring to the Valley of the Vire in Normandy, where itinerant singers amused the crowds with double entendre-packed songs. The tradition soon crossed the pond and by the mid-19th century had become even trashier. ...

"... [V]audeville performers [were on] the bottom tier of show business, at a time when legitimate theater folk drew suspicion. 'Respectable' hotels and restaurants barred vaudevillians. The rooming houses and cafeterias that did admit them were always on the wrong side of the tracks. Even in more relaxed New York City, reformers began closing in during the last two decades of the 19th century.

"And then came an unexpected moral turnaround, as profound as the change in Victorian society from loose to upright. ... [V]audeville received the thorough laundering it needed in 1881, when Tony Pastor, owner of a Fourteenth Street New York music hall, made the calculation that Walt Disney repeated some 50 years later: a theater that excluded women and children curtailed its income by at least 67 percent. ...

"All performers had to clean up their acts before they dared step upon the stage. Obscenity, vulgarity and irreverence became taboo. ... Those who ignored the new rules wound up in burlesque."

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