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SIGHTS : Touching Photographs Capture Vaudeville in Its Dying Days : An exhibit of the work of George Mann takes viewers behind the scenes of a bygone era.

July 08, 1993|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ronald Reagan, looking like a twentysomething pretty-boy in a swimsuit, is draped on a chaise lounge, in the lap of leisure. Jane Wyman sits up next to the future President, looking alert, as if she's plotting their social calendar.

Broderick Crawford, long before his role as a gruff, jowly purveyor of justice in the TV series "Highway Patrol," pals around with a surprisingly hale-looking Lon Chaney Jr. The Three Stooges, in their off-hours, mug for the camera, flanking the lovely Barbara Bradford--the beauty and the knuckleheads.

These are a few of the more eye-catching, star-gazing scenes we see in "Backstage with George Mann," the fascinating photography exhibit at the Classic Carrot. But, much as it takes delight in scenes of celebrities in their younger days, the show also has a deeper resonance, both historically and visually.

Mann's photographs, besides being credible artworks in their own right, add up to a touching chronicle of the vaudeville era in its waning days of the late 1930s. The more brash entertainments of cinema and Broadway show biz were taking the place of cane-spinning, schticky revues.

These images amount to a kind of requiem for a long-lost medium that played a critical role in the evolution of American culture. It was an era when show biz was really show biz, live and onstage, without lofty artistic pretensions. Vaudeville was all about the work ethic of putting on a show and leaving 'em laughing.

And it's that message that comes across in these behind-the-scenes shots.

Women dancers prepare to hit the stage with their work clothes on--wild plumage, spangles and parrots. The banality of surreality comes across in "Elephant," in which a pachyderm matter-of-factly pokes its head in an unfazed woman's dressing room. All in a day's work.

That the exhibit even came about was a kind of blissful accident. Bay Area-based photographer and curator Diane Woods discovered a cachet of Mann's untouched negatives and recognized their potential.

Mann, who died in 1977, was part of the vaudevillian duo Barto and Mann, along with Dewey Barto, which headlined in the revue, "Hellzapoppin." Mann was also an avid shuttersmith, with a camera ever at the ready.

Varying degrees of artfulness are found among the images, from candid shots to more carefully wrought compositions. For the most part, though, they are more than just casual snapshots--however casual Mann's original instinct was.

It's doubtful that Mann ever imagined that his private reserve of images would one day amount to an exhibition, let alone one with the kind of wistful potency it now has. From our info-glutted, entertainment-doused perspective, this strange lost world of elephants, jokesters and plumed ladies seems downright appealing.

Eye on the World: Over at Jaffe's Camera, photographer Greg Cooper is showing humane images of Third World experience, the most poignant of which contrast the resilient joy of children with oppressive conditions. In "Masai Boy," a young boy holds up a craft artifact proudly, against a telling backdrop of a hut with cracking mud wall.

Outdoor Pleasantries: Bill Hughes calls his current show of paintings at the Buenaventura Gallery "Water Music," with apologies to Handel, but his perfectly pleasant, perfectly innocuous scenes of harbor and landscape life lack any of the requisite abstract qualities of music. It's in one eye and out the other.

In the outer galley, there are other, more musical, paintings worth seeing.

Carlisle Cooper's intriguingly odd "The Prince" depicts its royal subject smudged and smeared, in an obvious nod to Francis Bacon. Lynda Wigen's "Cock-a-Doodle-Blue" is a funky, homespun quirk of a painting, with poultry a swim in dripping, blobby, generally unfinished painterly business.

Watercolor Music: Ojai-based Robert Wolfe is a deft watercolorist who usually manages to produce interesting images even when training his eye on the usual watercolor subjects of harborscapes and pastoral settings.

As evidenced by the work at his Doubletree Inn exhibition, Wolfe is fond of his town, as are most of his Ojai peers. Bart's Books and Libbey Park make appearances, as does the downtown arcade, presented as a rhythmic dance of arches and shadows.

Where Wolfe's work gains strength is when objective detachment and almost-voyeuristic observation underscores the scenery. At times, it's as if he's peering at his subjects through a telephoto lens from across the street.

Wolfe's art works best when it's rounded in the idea that attitude lines the road to invention.

* WHERE AND WHEN

* "Backstage with George Mann," through the end of July at the Classic Carrot, 1847 E. Main St., Ventura.

* "Water Music," paintings by Bill Hughes at the Buenaventura Gallery, 700 E. Santa Clara Ave., Ventura.

* Watercolors by Robert Wolfe at the Doubletree Inn, 2055 E. Harbor Blvd., Ventura.

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