Last week, I took my nephew to see The Flying Karamazov Brothers. My wife chose it and hustled us out the door; I did not know what to expect.
One thing I gnaw at is the concept “entertainer” (bear with me as I back up). Looking at early talkies, I see that sound films were a resounding success in part because there was a stock of entertainers available—vaudevillians whose venues had already shrunk because of the (also resounding) success of movies as a whole. These vaudevillians weren’t just dancers, or singers, or comedians, or tragedians, though their skills generally encompassed one or more: their primary art lay in the interaction between those on stage and those in the audience. They knew how to keep people amused.
And that is an art, as much an art as that of the novelist or sculptor.
Last night, Turner Classic Movies ran a number of Marx Brothers films back-to-back, including Animal Crackers. Soon after Groucho’s Captain Spaulding appears, he performs a series of body motions—very funny and extremely graceful—that clearly had been created in front of a mirror and perfected before audiences. Having toured the Vaudeville circuit ad nauseam before moving to Broadway (their shows there providing the material for their early movies), the brothers had long since turned farce to art. Harpo didn’t just play at the harp, but played it, often calling professional concert harpist Mildred Dilling on the telephone for advice. The harp was just one aspect of a theatrical whole—an entertainment whole—but Harpo took it seriously. Just as he and his brothers did with every little piece of their act.
Settled into our seats, staring at stacks of cardboard boxes almost completely covering the stage, my nephew and I opened our copies of Playbill. I turned to the “Program Note,” which said it was by Paul Magid, “Director/Founder.” As I read, I perked up:
From the beginning… I have felt that what we were doing was a theatrical experiment. I had started by acting in Shakespearan plays and it was through his example (theatre guy, funny guy, serious guy, guy who does whatever it takes guy) that I formed the idea of the “Theatre of Everything.”… It has often been said that theatre is the queen of all the arts as it encompasses architecture, music, dance, poetry, acting, fashion, painting, pandering.
Ah! Someone who understands that performing is an art, an art encompassing quite a number of other arts, but an art in and of itself! This should be good, thought I.
And it was. Magid, as Dmitri, leads a team of four Karamazovs who take the art of juggling and incorporate it into the art of performing—also including in the entertainment the arts of comedy and music. Their skills in juggling and in music (Mark Ettinger, who plays Alexi, has quite the musical career, as do some of the others in the company), however great they may be, take second place to their broader art as entertainers. Unlike tap-dancer Savion Glover who, last time I saw him (just last year) actually tapped with his back to the audience at times, and pointed to his feet to draw audience attention to them to the exclusion of everything else, the Karamazovs understand that performing, at its best, includes everything on stage, and not just a particular skill or art. Glover is a brilliant artist—as a tap dancer. Magid and his troop are also brilliant artists, but (though they may be brilliant jugglers and musicians and comedians) their real art is entertainment.
Fred Astaire changed dance, first on Broadway and then in the movies, not so much because he was the best possible dancer but because he understood that his dancing worked best when incorporated into something that made use of the entire stage—and of the entire performer. Dance remained an important part of what he was doing, but only a part.
Sometimes, as Glover does, when we think of “art,” we want to strip “entertainment” away from it, concentrating on the thing in itself, on the particular skill. We even reach the point where we look down on the greater whole, especially if it includes entertainment. Salvador Dali still brings slight pursed lips to connoisseur faces, for he encapsulated his visual art in entertainment; Liberace, even had he been a better pianist than he was (and he was no slouch), would never be considered a ‘serious’ artist—he was too much the entertainer. Stephen King, perhaps the greatest novelist in English since Charles Dickens, is not much studied—he’s too much the storyteller, the entertainer.
We’ve really got it backwards. Instead of seeing entertainment as the lowest art, we should consider it the highest. After all, the entertainer has to do everything the ‘artiste’ does, but more. A real artist of entertainment has to be master of at least two skills, entertainment and something to build it around. Most of the best of entertainers have at least passing familiarity with even more.
An entertainer isn’t a ham masking slight skills with buffoonery but is someone who first focuses on making the audience pay attention and enjoy, wrapping that around another substantial skill and talent (be that juggling, or dancing, or musical virtuosity).
Magid should be better known than he is. He doesn’t even have his own entry on Wikipedia (though the Flying Karamazov Brothers company does). Like Groucho (to whom there’s a sly tribute in the act), like Astaire, he understands what it means to entertain. Like them, he does it well.
My nephew and I left the Minetta Lane Theatre completely satisfied, I nearing sixty, he approaching eleven. Entertainers who can reach us both are not simply doing their job, but are showing real art.