Alfred Latell: Animal Imitator, Continued

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: So last week’s Deitchian pre-Valentine’s Day post (From My Sweetie which can be found here) touched on Alfred Latell, and today I make good on the promise to add to an earlier Latell post of mine (here), to be featured this week. My interest in Alfred Latell, born of the card I purchased shown below, helped to inspire Kim’s animal impersonator-themed Valentine this year, egged on by the fact that I had just recently acquired this publicity photo of Latell – the best and virtually only one I have seen of him not in costume. So today I endeavor to dig a little deeper into the Alfred Latell story, hoping not repeating myself while offering a fairly fulsome tale for those of you just tuning in.

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Pams-Pictorama.com collection

 

Alfred Latell was a vaudeville performer with an animal act which evidence shows took off in about 1902 and ran into the early 1940’s – arguably the 1950’s in Australia it seems. Latell went to great lengths to rig up elaborate animal costumes, with moving parts such as a tail, ears or even a ridge of fur on his back. My favorite fact is that he would sit outside at night in his cat suit, watching felines in the backyard, learning how to ape their ways. This is how I see him in my mind when I consider him, outside at night in his cat suit, watching and hearing a kitty chorus on a back fence somewhere, making mental notes about them.

Dogs were a challenge he relished; he felt they were the closest to humans and his Bonzo dog appears to be the one he was best known for later in life. Latell didn’t speak in his act, perhaps the costumes precluded it, although evidently he did bird imitations when clad in an early bird suit. He always had a partner who would do the talking, and that partner was first wife one and then, Sylvan Dell, wife number two. He and Ms. Dell are shown together below in photos I found via Google and on the site referenced below.

Pausing for a moment, I reflect on Bonzo Dog and his copyright. As I think most of you probably know, Bonzo is a British comics invention by George Studdy in 1922. Born at a similar time as the likes of Felix the Cat, Bonzo comics set off a merchandise boom, first in Britain and then, much like Felix, making its way around the world. I happily own several Bonzo toys (yep, and some of those can be found featured in posts here and here), but clearly the copyright wasn’t being guarded so carefully that Alfred Latell couldn’t cheerfully make a name for himself with this act and bearing the Bonzo Dog name.

This photo bears an interesting newspaper article, glued to the back of the photo which talks about his act. It mentions Sylvan Dell and also the other acts on the bill including Pablo South America’s most famous magician and The Three Chocolateers, one of the fastest colored dance teams ever seen in Seattle. Something referred to as human pretzels rounded out the fare. As you can see from the back of the photo, shown below, this comes to us almost exactly 85 years ago to the day, February 27, 1934.

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Fellow blogger Travelanche has a post about Latell (which can be found at Alfred Latell Animal Impresssionist) which contains more biographical information and the Travelanche author corresponded with Latell’s family. (The family also contacted me after my prior post, asking if I had information beyond what I had posted.) My favorite image on that post is of an 8×10 publicity photo of Latell as Bonzo, autographed to Duke Ellington, with the inscription, To Duke Ellington, The master of Rythm may you never lead a Dog’s life, Latell 1931. The photo above with Sylvan Dell is signed by both Dell and Latell and also inscribed to Duke Ellington, To Duke Ellington, Wishing you much happiness and continued success Sincerely Sylvan Dell with Al Latell, also dated 1931.

Sadly, ultimately Alfred Latell appears to have died a pauper and was buried in an unmarked grave. The above referenced post says his widow was so distraught…she threw out anything that reminded her of her husband, including his famous dog suit. So much for my secret hope and dream of finding the dog suit some day.

I see that my original post is frequently read, evidence that people are searching the internet for information on him. As far as I can tell, Alfred Latell’s available credits are all for stage work; sadly I can find no evidence of him on film, although his career certainly covers a period when he could have been recorded. Hopefully a movie or other film appearance will turn up eventually so we can see him in action. (Of course, I will add that I am also very anxious to find an image of Latell in his cat suit as well.) For now, I add another, albeit thin, page to the story and lore of Alfred Latell, the great animal impersonator.

 

Ratters and Mousers

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: Sadly there are no tracks on what this photo is about. I know only that it comes from Great Britain. The image has a cut out quality, as if the negative had the background trimmed away before printing – a few drawn lines added after the fact and I’m not sure I’ve seen that exact process before. I do want this velvety cat costume for my own and wish I was getting a better look at it. (I constantly search without success for early cat costumes, as evidenced in Kim’s Alias the Cat.) I am, as I have stated as recently as yesterday’s post, a sucker for a nice pair of cat ears and a tail. (That post can be found here. Also an alert to regular readers that I will be exploring animal imitators and in particular Alfred Latell – whose popular post can be found here – further in the near future.)

The seller pegs this card as a version of Dick Whittington and his cat which seems like a fair enough guess. The Dick Whittington story is based on a ballad from the 1600’s where Whittington sells said cat to a town that is rat-infested for the obvious denouement. As per the internet, I understand that Dick Whittington is a real historic person, but no evidence about the cat’s ratting prowess – or as Wikipedia says, that he even owned one. (We, here at the cat loving Pictorama, will assume he did.)

The reality of rodent extermination by our cats is a difficult and unpleasant one. While it is at least an unconscious hope that our darling kitties will keep the mouse and (gasp) rat population down in our abodes, you frankly do not look forward to them bringing you the carcass, or leaving it for your approval. At best it would perhaps happen behind-the-scenes somehow. There is something distinctly disturbing about seeing your loving cat, who sleeps with you perhaps at night, with a dead or struggling animal in its mouth. My sister used to find mouse heads (yes, oddly just the heads she reported) lined up on the staircase as a sort of totemic gift from her cat Milkbone, an especially good mousing tuxedo. Loren had a very old house and she made peace with the mouse part parade, ultimately embracing and applauding Milkbone’s enthusiasm for her job rather than be run over by rodents. Most of us remain conflicted at best.

Growing up at the beach as small children we were frequently cautioned about water rats there, residing in the jetties. Large enough to kill a cat my mother would say and that they would leap if cornered. (We were also warned away from approaching the feral colonies of cats that also lived in the same jetties, tough enough to co-exist with the rats and not to be toyed with, beyond domestication even in my mother’s kindhearted opinion.) Our home was perched on a river and our cats, while mostly interested in the catching of small shrews more than mice, occasionally took a water rat on. The smell of the resident outdoor cats helped to keep them at bay. However, when the cats became indoor critters the exploding rat population became more of an issue.

Mom was right – those outsized water rats are much bigger than their city counterparts, as are country mice and shrews. When I first moved to Manhattan I thought the rats I saw in the street were large mice – and some of the mice I encountered in the restaurant I worked in seemed no bigger than large spiders. Meanwhile, if I have not made it clear, I am absolutely standing-on-a-chair-screaming (like a cartoon character) scared of mice and rats – I understand it is not rational. Therefore, in self-defense I acquired a cat as soon as possible upon arrival in New York City; Otto, the first in a long line of my feral tuxedo cats. To my knowledge she never got anything larger than a water bug and most of my NY mousie (and ratty) encounters took place either outside (think subway tracks, restaurant kitchens) or at the Met – yep, suffice it to say it is a very old building in the midst of Central Park. I have long believed that, like the Hermitage, they should house cats to patrol their basement.

As I write this Cookie is playing with a favorite bright green (otherwise) life-like mouse toy, tossing it about wildly, practicing her craft in hopes of one day employing it. We here at Deitch Studio continue to hope otherwise.

 

Babes

 

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: I have a dim but distinct memory of being about ten years old, sitting on the floor of my bedroom during the holidays and frowning my way through part of Babes in Toyland on television, which some adult (mom, dad, grandmother most likely candidates) had told me I would like. I didn’t. It wasn’t funny and the singing interested me not at all. Somewhat ambivalent on the subject of Laurel and Hardy to begin with, this was especially thin fare in my mind. And that, somewhat uninformed opinion, would remain my response to inquiries on the subject (should they arise – rarely, but occasionally they did) for the next more than four decades – until Christmas Eve of 2018 when I was in front of my television, disinclined to get up and do what needed to be done on the holiday front, and with a dearth of alternate television viewing options. I noted the TCM jolly up next listing box with a small frisson of annoyance, and then settled back on our generous couch where Cookie was already installed – she likes television. After a few minutes Kim joined us.

I had known the 1934 Hal Roach film originally under the alternate re-issue title of March of the Wooden Soldiers, although I am too old for that first partial viewing to have been colorized. I am vaguely aware that such a thing exists. Evidently it was originally issued in sepiatone and this was a nice black and white copy. Based on the 1903 operetta Babes in Toyland the film culls out six songs by Victor Herbert, and for someone whose musical sweet spot is somewhere between 1920 and 1939 I loved the music this time around.

In case you too have been avoiding it all these years, the plot is as simple as can be – a widow facing the cruel choice between being forced from her home because she can’t make a mortgage payment, or sacrifice her daughter to the evil holder of this debt. The best part of the film however is that the whole thing takes place in Toyland and there is all sorts of wonderful cavorting around in animal costumes. I love the appearance of the 3 Little Pigs, an apparent nod to a 1930’s Walt Disney – but of course it is the “fiddle” playing cat (the fiddle being a cello does give a good look here and doesn’t prevent the cat from leaping up and running around) and the bizarre rendition of an early Mickey Mouse which held me in thrall! I almost fell off the couch. (This number in the film can be seen on Youtube here.)

Many of you film fans will know this, but this outsized fiddling cat does a spirited chase of Mickey Mouse through Toyland’s town square early in the film, although they begin and end the number, as buddies – as shown in my photo here. They reappear for the spectacular finale, Mickey in a nightshirt this time and let me tell you, I wouldn’t mind finding the right still from that part of the film to add to my collection. Meanwhile, animal suited performers with the whiff of their vaudeville days of glory still clinging to them, captured performing like this in the first few decades of film, are much sought after by me. (My post dedicated to animal impersonator Alfred Latell, which can be found here, is one of the most popular – there will be a follow-up to it in a future post. Sadly there doesn’t seem to be known film of him performing.)

The other dramatic point in the film is the love interest being accused of having taken one of the 3 Little Pigs – sausage links were planted in his house! As mentioned above, the close of the film is a wild chase through Toyland by the evil mortgage holder and his army from Boogeyland. (The boogeymen are said to be a combination of animal and human and, in my opinion, must have informed the design of the Morlocks in the 1960 The Time Machine.) The boogeymen are eventually conquered by the out-sized, wooden soldiers of the alternate title. More great eye kicks in the form of the now night-shirted 3 Little Pigs, Mickey and fiddling Cat, are a glory at the end of the film. (Again, just the finale, can be found here – really though, might as well watch the whole film!)

I sheepishly admit that it is my dubious, multi-tasking habit to have my iPad with me while lazing in front of the television and in this case, the closing credits had not rolled before I had miraculously secured this original still off of eBay. The fiddling cat was played by an uncredited Pete Gordon – I can find no evidence as to how much time he did performing in an animal suit, however as he was born in 1887 my vaudeville conjecture could be a valid theory. The real kick in the head is that Mickey Mouse in the film was played by a monkey! Once you know this it makes perfect sense – the size being too small for a child who would have had to have been very agile for the part. That was one well trained little fellow though! The monkey is uncredited and Mickey is mostly noted as playing himself, if credited at all.

The remaining, burning question for me was about Walt Disney’s feelings on the subject of Mickey and the 3 Pigs and whether or not the rights for these were compensated. My trusty iPad had an internet reply to this inquiry immediately. According to several sources, it turns out that in Mickey’s nascent youth (he was about 8 years old at the time) Disney had not yet developed his litigious copyright mania, nor was his studio the behemoth it ultimately became – Hal Roach would have held the clout in those days. In addition to Mickey’s appearance, the Disney number, Whose Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? does an instrumental turn and was of course very much a Disney property. Walt, who was evidently friendly with Laurel and Hardy as well as Roach, must have seen the characters’ feature in this film as promotion for his properties, rather than a threat.

Happily for me, it was the best hour and 46 minutes of television viewing I was to stumble across over the holidays and this jolly photo added to my collection is my great memento.

Dress up Hijinx

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: It is hard for me to resist an interesting Halloween card. This one hails, at least most recently, from Pennsylvania. It is unused and therefore not dated, the seller places it at 1907-1912 which seems like a fair estimate. These folks put some real effort into their dress up play. For me at least the prize for best costume is tied between the polar bear critter being ridden by someone who looks like Miss Muffet, and that extraordinary black bird creature to the right. He is terrifying in just the right costume way. They do look as if they could be putting on a play rather than dressing for Halloween, although the storyline is far from self-evident. The season looks right for late October, but we can’t know for sure. (One wonders if eight copies were made of this photo postcard, one for each person – and if so, could others possibly turn up? Such things have happened to me before. See my post Cat Chair Photo Sleuth.)

Perhaps my interest in such cards has to do with the idea that I somehow always dreamed I would have the opportunity to participate in this kind of dress up. As a child I had certain ideas about what I thought adulthood would hold for me that I now realize were a bit strange – largely the product of reading a certain kind of early novel and many old movies. For example, I assumed that I would move to a city where I would eat in nightclubs that had live dance bands and served dinner to people in evening clothes. (Oddly, with my new job and Dizzy’s jazz club, I am belatedly achieving that in a sense, although no dancing and evening gowns would be an exaggeration.) I thought I would drink water glass size mixed drinks that seem to be generically referred to as cocktails (certainly don’t do that), and that I would go to dress-up parties with everyone in wonderful costumes.

Now, I didn’t necessarily think all these things would happen at the same time. I did think the costume parties would be when I was younger and the dinner dancing in gowns would come later. As it happens, I can only remember one interesting costume affair I attended as an adult. It was an opening for a Robert Crumb exhibit at a huge gallery and about half of us were in costume. I was wearing a turn-of-the-century velvet coat, a long black dress and a witches hat. It was an interesting evening – lots of people, food and drink. My date and I went in different directions immediately and I flirted with all sorts of people – must have been the witch costume at work. I seem to remember being disappointed that I didn’t see Kim there – we were just friends at the time, but I always looked for him at gatherings such as this. I guess part of me knew before the we caught up with us. And that, on the other hand, is the sort of the splendid thing you can’t possibly imagine when you are a kid thinking about what it will be like to be grown up.

 

Moo Marvelous

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Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: For some reason it seems that there have always been folks who were willing to put on a costume and join forces to portray a four legged critter. It is easier to find references to people, usually kids like these, in pageants playing horses, although Christmas pageants would probably need cows like this one too. Obviously, there are jokes and references aplenty to playing the back end of a horse – as well as one rather entertaining description of actually doing it which I found online. To me this costume looks like a well executed homemade one. I suspect for comfort sake however, the boy we see leading the duo probably lucked out.

This is a photograph, not a photo postcard although about the same size, and it has the black bits of paper on the back that show it was in an album. There was something written on the back that starts with cow, but is now obscured. It is hard to say but my guess is the late 1930’s or early 1940’s for this photo, but I am open to suggestions.

I have a well documented affection for animal costumes. For my money, the film of The Dancing Pig 1907 is the very best example of the genre. However, I will always perk up at the sight of a good animal costume or mask in play. I recently published a Pictorama Post on a book I bought years ago, How to Put on a Circus, and it was chock-a-block full of step-by-step instructions for constructing a myriad of animal costumes at home. This clearly required that you were at least a very capable seamstress, comfortable wielding a hammer and nails, and not a stranger to other somewhat esoteric crafting skills so building those costumes is likely to remain a pipe dream for us here at Pictorama.

Alfred Latell, also a blog post of the same name based on an early photo postcard, rose to fame in vaudeville as a one-man version of a dog and poking around on the internet leads me to believe that, perhaps for obvious reasons, vaudevillians most frequently embraced solo portrayals of even the largest animals. However, recently Kim and I watched the film Varieties on Parade 1951 (a shout out to friend Bruce Simon who sent it our way) and there is a hot five minutes where two guys dance in a horse costume. They are remarkably light on their feet and for me, worth the price of admission right there. Bring on more dancing animals I say!