TCMFF 2017 Special Presentations, Part 4: The Great Nickelodeon Show
June 27, 2017
Welcome to my final piece (I promise) on TCMFF 2017's Special Presentations! If you'd like to catch up on my previous musings, here they are: This is Cinerama, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and Republic Preserved.
Glancing over the program I received when I walked into The Great Nickelodeon Show, I could tell this would be an event unlike any other I'd attended at TCMFF. I mean, right off the bat, there's the fact that this showcase entwined multiple live performances in the proceedings to recreate a bygone era; to my knowledge, this hasn't occurred before...but don't quote me on that. (To be fair, past Special Presentations have included some type of live and/or throwback touch, including The Donovan Affair (1929) at TCMFF 2013 and Return of the Dream Machine at TCMFF 2015, but not to this extent, in my opinion.)
As I learned from the pamphlet, the Nickelodeon's heyday ran roughly from 1904 through the start of WWI, which provided those in charge of the evening's program over a decade's worth of content to choose from - between the shorts and songs, the dates ranged from 1906 to 1913. (There was no date listed for the narration of President William McKinley's assassination, and since that occurred in 1901, it could easily have been from the same year). As noted in the guide, Nickelodeons varied in design and substance. Venues ranged from chic to dingy, and programs were mostly arranged rather spontaneously by individual theater owners, which meant they could run "clean" artsy movies, rely on the talents of musicians from a brothel, or the like - whatever they had at their disposal, really. The one goal most owners strove for? Crowd-pleasing, versatile entertainment that could attract as large an audience as possible.
A Nickelodeon, circa 1910.
With their vast assortment of skills, the Nickelodeon Show's five main performers certainly fit the bill. Frederick Hodges manned the piano and was credited as music director; Sebastian Boswell III demonstrated....well, I'll get to that below; Sean Sharp sang two numbers and served as the graphics director; Lori Leigh Gieleghem lent her voice to some bizarre, 110% entertaining period songs (as did Sean); and Greg Tiede provided some powerful recitation. Besides their era-centric dress, the attention to details - both in the format of the show and also the authentic content the entertainment provided - was exceptional. While versions of this act tour, meaning these gentlemen and lady are undoubtedly familiar with the material and structure of the performance, the routine as a whole nonetheless still unfolded in what felt like a rather spontaneous manner - and I say that in a positive manner, because it seemed more in line with the way in which actual Nickelodeon shows flowed. While sitting comfortably in a standard 2017 movie theater where we'd watched other titles during the fest barred me from fully transporting myself back to the Nickelodeon days, the stars of the evening certainly did their best to create as genuine an atmosphere as they could, complete with silent shorts and comical glass slides that supplemented the live action in front of us. (Also, if I took a time machine back to the Nickelodeon days, odds are I'd probably land in one of the dingy venues, so I'm fine with this 2017 iteration!)
Some surprises? Aside from the shorts, which included early classics such as Lois Weber's Suspense (1913) and George Méliès' The Kingdom of Fairies (1906), and live musical numbers, both of which I knew were staples of the Nickelodeon, I had no idea audiences of the era were also treated to oratorical bits, magic wonders, and sing-a-longs.
Lori Leigh Gieleghem in the spotlight at The Great Nickelodeon Show. (Picture by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner)
In fact, the show began with the aforementioned live narration...of the assassination of President McKinley and the Execution of Leon Czolgosz, accompanied by some borderline disturbing film footage of an electric chair. I was thoroughly intrigued by this selection, and while I found it a rather somber way to start the evening, Greg Tiede's commanding, partially chilling narration impressed. Quite the provocative way to kick off the event, right?
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sebastian Boswell III astonished/unnerved/slightly horrified audience members, myself included, with his act, which involved hammering a nail into his nose and then pulling it out. Yes, put plainly, that is what transpired. Boswell almost called upon one of my seat mates to be his assistant, but when she declined another willing helper, Karie, was chosen. Her comfort on stage, along with her eagerness and inquisitiveness in assisting Boswell, made it almost seem that her selection was prearranged, but in the end, I don't think that was the case. Now, I've watched those Breaking the Magician's Code TV specials. I know this isn't real. An explanation must exist for this ploy, but boy, did Boswell make it look and (stressfully) sound genuine - my near constant squirming in my seat and several audible stupefied reactions from audience members prove as much. Seriously, when it was over, I was more than a bit relieved.
Sebastian Boswell III explaining his trick to the audience, with volunteer assistant Karie. (Picture by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner)
In the music department, a couple of amusing, exceedingly odd songs from the period, including "The Chicken Rag" and "On a Monkey Honeymoon," were playfully accompanied by slow transitioning stills on the screen matching the lyrics' absurdity, produced recently and re-created by modern day actors, where applicable. I find stuff like this riotous, and for the most part, the images + the words just tipped the whole thing over the edge for me. I mean, we're talking lines like:
"Chick, chick, chick, chick
Come do the chicken rag
Chick, chick, chick, chick
Don't let your footlets drag
Flap your wings and wiggle
Behave don't dare to giggle
Come and dance, come and prance"
(Can you guess which song this is from?)
Sean Sharp doing "The Chicken Rag." (Picture by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner)
Just in case you wanted to know what "The Chicken Rag" sheet music looked like.
"You are my lovey dovey, I am your honey boy,
My little tootsie wootsie, you fill my heart with joy
And when the wedding's over,
We'll go where we can spoon
Monkey shines and monkey kisses with my little monkey missus
On a monkey honey moon."
(Also pretty self-explanatory as to which song these lyrics come from.)
Gotta give some recognition to "On a Monkey Honeymoon" too.
The audience was encouraged to sing-a-long during each chorus, something I've encountered before at screenings at the Old Town Music Hall and UCLA Film and Television Archive. While some hesitated at first, by the second or third choral round it sounded like most of the audience joined in the fun - yes, even me - and lost themselves in the proceedings.
Ultimately, I'd say that audience immersion - the sing-a-longs, the magic act - and the authenticity the performers maintained helped immensely in bringing The Great Nickelodeon Show to life. That's no small feat, especially in 2017.
Did you attend the program? If so, what were your favorite moments?