Waxing Nostalgic Over Classic TV

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Day Miss America Got Naked

"You think all Miss Americas are 'Miss America?' I mean, c'mon!"

Vanessa Williams, the beautiful star of ABC's Ugly Betty, made history twice as Miss America 1984. First, she was the first African-American woman to win the crown, and then 10 months later became the first winner to be forced to resign her title amidst scandal.

And what a scandal it was. Naked pictures of her had surfaced; pictures that had been taken two years earlier and sold to Penthouse magazine without her authorization. Miss America naked? America couldn't handle the disconnect. Our sweet little innocent symbol of all that is good and pure - naked? It was surely one of the signs of the Apocalypse!

Interestingly, Hugh Hefner had turned down the chance to publish the photos in Playboy, saying that "because they would be the source of considerable embarrassment to her, we decided not to publish them." Bob Guccione had no such qualms, however, and published the photos in the September 1984 issue of Penthouse, where she appeared on the cover alongside George Burns (the first man, by the way, to ever appear on the magazine's cover).

Although it was a very traumatic episode in the young life of Ms. Williams, Guccione's prediction that the notoriety would actually be beneficial for her career turned out to be true, as she went on to become one of America's favorite singers and carved out a very successful career as a Broadway, film, and television star.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Real McCoys Hit the Road

-"What is it, Luke?"
-"I believe it's a foreigner! Just keep calm."

One of the most popular shows on TV when I was a kid was the story of the McCoy family. When Uncle Ben died and left his desolate California farm to the McCoys, the whole clan piled into their old jalopy and made the long journey west to start a new life. Grandpa McCoy, along with his grandson Luke and new bride Kate, as well as Luke's little sister Hassie and younger brother, Little Luke, sometimes struggled but their strong family bonds always got them through the tough times.

The Real McCoys ran from 1957 to 1962 on ABC and was in the Top 10 every year. When it got a new name (The McCoys) and a new network (CBS), the audience drifted away and the show was cancelled after the 1963 season, replaced in the hearts of Americans by another backwoods family who had moved to California, The Beverly Hillbillies. While the two shows did share some similarities, the McCoys showed us more heart than the Clampetts, who were just plain silly.

Walter Brennan, of course, was already a big time movie star when he took the role of Grandpa, the crotchety but loving patriarch of the family. Richard Crenna, who played Luke, had already made a name for himself as Walter Denton, the clumsy high school student on Our Miss Brooks, and went on to have an outstanding career as a film and television actor before dying in 2003 of heart failure at the age of 76. Kathleen Nolan played the part of Kate and also went on to have a very productive acting career, appearing just this year in an episode of Cold Case. She also made a name for herself as the first woman president of the Screen Actors Guild (1975-1979).

The video above is Part 1 of the very first episode of The Real McCoys, broadcast October 3, 1957. (Check the related videos for Parts 2 and 3.) The first three seasons of the show are now available on DVD from Amazon.com.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Tom Waits Visits Fernwood

"I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy."

When Barth Gimble and Tom Waits get together, you can only imagine what wackiness might ensue.

This very funny video from 1977 is a clip from one of my all-time favorite shows, Fernwood 2Nite, a spinoff from the very popular Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman show. Both shows were created by Norman Lear. Barth Gimble was played by the brilliant Martin Mull, with his very funny announcer, Jerry Hubbard, played by Fred Willard.

Fernwood 2Nite was a talk show set in the fictional town of Fernwood, Ohio. It looked like your basic community access cable channel, and was known for its parade of unusual guests. On this particular night, Tom Waits' van just happened to break down on the way to a gig in Toledo, so he dropped by the set to sing a song and chat with Barth and sidekick Jerry.

Tom Waits, of course, is not your typical singer, but he's always been one of my favorites. A critic once said that his voice sounds "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months and then taken outside and run over with a car." I think that's pretty accurate.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Mork & Mindy & Dave

"Losing your Rolls Royce is a concept. Getting it back is reality!"

Every celebrity caught a break somewhere along the line that catapulted him (or her) into orbit. For Robin Williams, that break came in the form of a naive and charming alien being from the planet Ork. From 1978 to 1982, Americans must-see TV included a weekly visit with Mork & Mindyfrom Boulder, Colorado. In the show, Williams was allowed to use the mad improvisational skills that would later catapult him to stardom. The show caught fire in the U.S. and produced such memorable catchphrases as "Nanoo, Nanoo," the official Orkan greeting, and "Shazbot," a colorful Orkan curse word.

Mork first appeared on the scene during season five of the popular "Happy Days" show, when he threatened to take Richie Cunningham back to his planet with him. Luckily for all concerned, the whole thing turned out to be a dream. But audiences were entranced by the little fellow, and before you could say "Nanoo, Nanoo," he had his own spin-off.

In the video above, you'll discover another superstar-in-waiting (Hint: It's David Letterman) in a very rare acting role, playing the part of someone who pretty closely resembled est cult leader Werner Erhard, who was all the rage at the time.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Honeymooners: Bang! Zoom! To the Moon!

"You know what the sink is? That's my Adventureland!"

Although Ralph Kramden would occasionally threaten to send his wife Alice to the moon, we knew that he was just being cranky, and that by the end of the show would be laying a big wet one on her, in that strange 50's kind of way, where you only saw the back of his head.

The Honeymooners was a true television phenomenon, one of the handful of 50s sitcoms that manages to maintain its humor 50 years later. The show ran on CBS from 1955-1956. (These 39 episodes are commonly referred to as the Classic 39). It had its origins on Jackie Gleason's Calvacade of Stars variety show in 1951 and returned to run from 1966-1970 as part of The Jackie Gleason Show, but with a new Alice and a new Trixie.

The relationship between Ralph and Alice was at the heart of the show, with Alice playing the long-suffering wife to Ralph's blustery "I'm the King of My Castle" husband. Alice was no wallflower, though. She wasn't afraid to go toe-to-toe with Ralph if she thought he was being a jerk. Her special weapon was sarcasm, and she employed it with the skill of a master.

They lived a spartan existence in a very drab apartment, and the fact that the show was in black-and-white just added to that perception. Ralph, however, was always coming up with money-making schemes to supplement his bus driver's salary. But we always knew his schemes were doomed to failure, and that Alice would be there for him when he came crashing back to reality.

Jackie Gleason was the star of the show, but it was Art Carney who, as the funniest second banana in the business, gave the show its pazzaz. Their relationship was often rocky, but you knew that they'd be best pals forever.

A few years later, in 1960, The Honeymooners would inspire the animated Flintstones, a popular but pale imitation of the original.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Sex Kitten and the Spider

"We're not expecting rainbow-colored skies...."

It was perhaps the most sensational celebrity trial of the '70s.

She was the wispy, sexy French sex kitten; a successful singer and actress who had captured the hearts of Americans after marrying crooner Andy Williams. Their annual Williams Family Christmas specials were always among NBC's most popular shows. He was the young, handsome Olympic and professional skiing sensation; a babe magnet who enjoyed living the good life.

The marriage to Andy Williams fell apart and they divorced in 1975. Sometime later, Claudine Longet met and fell in love with Spider Sabich. They lived together in bliss among the other celebrities in Aspen, Colorado. They seemed to be the perfect couple. But on March 21, 1976, something went horribly wrong when Longet shot and killed Sabich in the bathroom of their Aspen home.

She said it was a tragic accident. The gun went off as he was showing her how to use it. Apparently the jury believed her, because they acquitted her of felony manslaughter charges, finding her guilty of only a misdemeanor criminal negligence charge. She paid a small fine and served 30 days in the hootch.

The trial result didn't sit well with a lot of folks. Forensic results had shown that Savich was bending over and facing away from her when he was shot. He was also at least 6 feet away from the gun. This seemed to contradict her story. Add to that the fact that her sensational diary was not allowed into evidence because the police had obtained it without a warrant; a diary which would have painted a picture of a relationship on the rocks, not the loving relationship described at the trial.

After the criminal trial, she was sued civilly by the Sabich family. The case was settled out of court, with Longet paying a large amount of money to Spider's family.

Claudine Longet never performed again after the trial. Today she lives quietly in Aspen with husband Ron Austin, who had been her attorney at the Trial of the Decade.

(The video above is Claudine Longet singing "Nothing to Lose" from Peter Seller's 1968 film, The Party.)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Where Were You When the President Was Shot?

"From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official...President Kennedy died at 1pm, Central Standard Time."

It happened 45 years ago today. If you're above a certain age, you almost certainly remember that dark day in Dallas, Texas, when President John F. Kennedy was killed. It all began when a soap opera was interrupted with a news bulletin that he had been shot.

I was playing soccer with my 8th-grade classmates when someone came running out of the school with the news. We all went back into the school and listened as the radio reports were broadcast over the intercom system and our teacher wiped away her tears.

After his death was confirmed, we were all sent home a couple of hours early. Later, I had to fold 80 newspapers with each one blaring ASSASSIN KILLS KENNEDY, a headline that was printed, for the first time in the paper's history, in bright red type.

As I made my rounds on my bicycle, delivering the devastating news to my neighbors, I felt dazed by the day's events, like I was in some kind of surreal dream. It was a day much like 9/11, in the sense that you knew the world would never be the same again.

Where were you when the president was shot?

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Beatles Invasion of America

"Ladies and Gentlemen...The Beatles!"

Beatlemania is one of those things that you really had to live through to truly understand and appreciate. When the Fab Four crossed the pond and landed in New York for the first time, it was almost something akin to the moon landing which would command the world's attention a scant five years later.

With their hit single " I Want to Hold Your Hand" having sold one million copies in just 10 days, the lads were primed to take America by storm. When their plane landed at the newly-named John F. Kennedy airport, a crowd of 3000 screaming young people (mostly girls), greeted them like royalty. Coming just months after JFK's assassination, Beatlemania proved to be a welcome respite for Americans who had been severely traumatized.

Their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (see above video), America's most popular variety show, was seen by an astounding 74 million people, fully one-half of the U.S. population at the time. Talk about must-see TV. After that first American TV appearance, the boys embarked on a hugely successful tour of the U.S. and the rest, as they say, is history.

If you're looking for a memento of this historic television event, Sofa has put together an amazing 2-disc DVD which includes all four complete Sullivan shows that the Beatles appeared on in 1964 and 1965, including all the other acts and even the commercials.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tiny Tim Tiptoes Through the Tulips!

"Knee deep in flowers we'll stray, we'll keep the showers away..."

Travel back in time to the late 60's and witness a genuine show-business break. When Herbert Butros Khaury (hey, didn't he used to head up the UN?) decided to change his name to Tiny Tim, little did he know what big things were in store for him.

When he appeared on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In (above), singing his signature tune, Tiptoe Through the Tulips, it was indeed his big break. He went on to appear on Ed Sullivan and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, among others. In fact, when the 37-year-old crooner got married on The Tonight Show to the lovely Miss Vicki (17-year-old Victoria May Budinger), it generated one of their largest audiences ever (40 million). The couple got divorced three years later, but not before they produced a daughter, Tulip Victoria, in 1971.

The Timster was definitely one-of-a-kind. Most folks weren't quite sure what to make of him. Was he putting everybody on? Was it a big joke? Or was he just an eccentric entertainer? Although his novelty act wore off after a few years and his star dimmed, he continued to perform until the very end.

In September of 1996, while playing at a ukelele festival, Tiny Tim suffered a serious heart attack. His doctor warned him that he could die if he continued to perform. Two months later, ignoring his doctor's advice, he took to the stage at the Women's Club of Minneapolis, started singing "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" and suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 64 years old.

In the video below, Tiny sings a duet with his beloved Miss Vicki from a 1971 television show. You'll notice that when he sang in his natural baritone voice, instead of his falsetto, he was actually quite good.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Sad Tale of Jessica Savitch

"I'm Jessica Savitch in New York..."

Back in the late '70s and early '80s, Jessica Savitch was TV's golden girl, a pioneer for women in the world of television news. She had risen quickly to become the anchor of the weekend edition of NBC Nightly News and was the host for the acclaimed PBS Frontline program.

However, her somewhat bizarre personal life and addiction to drugs and alcohol caused her career to collapse. In October 1983, she appeared on her NBC newscast in an obviously impaired state (see above video), and 20 days later, as she rode with her dog Chewy in the backseat of a car driven by her friend Martin Fischbein, they both drowned when the car ran off the road and into a canal.

In the video below, Savitch is interviewed by David Letterman in 1982, about a year before her death. She was promoting her new autobiography, Anchorwoman.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Tom Snyder's World

Fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the pictures, now, as they fly through the air.

That's how Tom Snyder would start off every Tomorrow Show on NBC. He ruled late late night from 1973-1982 with his unique style of interviews and conversations.

For me, Johnny Carson was great, but just the appetizer to Tom Snyder's entree. The success of his show was due, in great part, not only to the notable guests he booked (John Lennon, KISS, Ayn Rand, Johnny Rotten, Charles Manson), but to his willingness to talk about subjects that had been considered previously taboo - group marriage, suicide, male prostitution, rock-music groupies and film censorship, to name just a few.

I remember being pretty upset when NBC announced that his show had been cancelled to make room for a young new comedian named David Letterman, a guy who's done pretty well for himself. In fact, it was Letterman's production company who, in 1995, hired Tom Snyder to host The Late Late Show, following Letterman on CBS.

In the video above, Snyder is at his probing best in a one-on-one interview with the great John Lennon. Check the related YouTube videos for the rest of the five-part interview.

Tom Snyder died at age 71 on July 29, 2007 of leukemia.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Beaver Fever

What was it that has made Leave It To Beaver one of the truly classic TV sitcoms? From 1957-63, Americans were glued to their sets every week to see what kind of trouble Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver would get into this time.

It was different from some of the other family shows of the time, in that the 2 boys, Beaver and his older brother Wally, were really the stars of the show, and the parents were the supporting players.

It's often been said that the show presented an idealized version of the American family, and that certainly is true to an extent, but looking back on my childhood, it wasn't really all that different, in many respects, than what happened within the Cleaver household in Mayfield. Except that my mom never wore pearls and high heels when she was vacuuming.

But as is usually the case, it was the writing that was really responsible for the success of the show. It was funny, crisp, and had a certain realism that made the dialogue ring true and allowed viewers to identify with it.

The writers were also very successful in creating some truly memorable supporting characters, particularly the kiss-ass Eddie Haskell. June Cleaver, of course, saw right through Eddie, and I think there's a good chance that her acerbic "Hello, Eddie" became the model for Seinfeld's "Hello, Newman" many years later. But I could be wrong about that.

The video above is a Good Morning America 50th anniversary reunion special with the surviving cast members.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Sonny and Cher: The Beat Went On

Cheryl LaPierre and Salvadore Bono met at an L.A. coffee shop in 1962. She was only 16, he was 27. Together they would go on to become one of the most popular singing duos in American pop music history.

For awhile, they called themselves Caesar and Cleo. When that didn't catch on, they changed their name to Sonny and Cher. They became an overnight sensation in 1965 with their megahit, I Got You Babe, and parlayed that success with several more hits.

By the late 60's, their softer pop music sound was crowded out by the emerging psychedelic rock scene. But in 1971, with the debut of The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour on CBS, they found themselves on top again, sitting pretty in the Top 10.

Unfortunately, their marriage fell apart in 1974, and so did their hit show. But the show returned in 1976, even though they were no longer married. Low ratings, though, doomed the show by the end of the following year.

Sonny went on to do some acting, and then successfully ran for a seat in the US House of Representives in 1994, where he remained until he was tragically killed in a skiing accident in 1998. Cher went on to a very successful solo singing career.

In the above video, Sonny and Cher sing I Got You Babe with daughter Chastity at the end of one of their shows from the early '70s. The moving video below is from 1987, when the two were reunited on the Letterman show after many years.

Monday, November 3, 2008

John Belushi: What Might Have Been

When Saturday Night Live debuted in 1975, a daring new kind of comedy was introduced to Americans, and they ate it up. The star of those early SNL years turned out to be John Belushi, a wild, manic, comedic genius.

Belushi started out with the highly popular Second City comedy troupe in Chicago, and then landed a role in the stage production of National Lampoon's Lemmings. Lorne Michaels was putting SNL together and was encouraged to hire Belushi, even though Belushi made it clear that he thought television was "shit."

For me, watching Belushi create so many memorable characters on SNL ("The Samurai" was my favorite) was a revelation, in that it showed that comedy didn't have to be presented within narrow borders. It could be revolutionary. The fact that parents everywhere didn't get it made it even better.

Belushi's manic TV persona was matched by his manic personal life, and he burned out much too young at the age of 33. You have to wonder how far he would have gone had he lived; how many more characters were lurking inside his head.

Above is the historical first audition tape that Belushi did for Saturday Night Live.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Odd Life (and Death?) of Andy Kaufman

The guy was one of a kind. One part stand-up comic, two parts performance artist, you either got Andy Kaufman or you didn't. I remember the first time I saw him, lip synching to the Mighty Mouse theme on the very first episode of Saturday Night Live (1975). I found myself laughing without really knowing why.

When he came to my college campus, I found that I wasn't watching a show as much as experiencing an event. Whether it was his passion for wrestling women onstage or taking the entire audience out for milk and cookies, the excitement of an Andy Kaufman show came from never knowing what would happen next.

He had a lifetime obsession with Elvis, and when he would transform himself from his "foreign man" character into an eerily accurate impression of Elvis, it left audiences breathless. The wide variety of characters he created showed off his creative side, but it was his ability to create scenarios which left the audience wondering what was real and what was not that was his real genius.

The video above is a classic example. It's from the night he appeared on the popular late-night comedy show Fridays. In the middle of a sketch about some friends in a restaurant who keep sneaking out to smoke a joint, he announces that "I can't play stoned," and refuses to continue. His fellow castmates appear stunned, and after he dumps a drink on Michael Richards, a brawl ensues. Was it real, or was it a set-up? Kaufman never really did set the record straight, although most people seem to think it was a practical joke that not everyone was aware of beforehand.

Of course, the problem with being known as someone who was always playing with reality was that, even when you announce that you have lung cancer, some people won't believe you. To this day, there are people who think that his death was an elaborate joke and he'll reappear, like Jesus Christ, in a spectacular Second Coming. Although his longtime friend and partner Bob Zmuda confirms that he did indeed die in 1984, he says Kaufman "tinkered with the idea" of faking his death.

Jim Carrey did a brilliant job portraying Kaufman in the 1999 film, Man on the Moon. He captured his complexity and his spirit. It's one of my favorite films.

So who knows, maybe Andy will come back, arm-in-arm with Elvis. Would that be cool or what?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Houston, The Eagle Has Landed!

There are few events in life that stay with you for the rest of your life. They become a part of you. You remember every detail. One such moment occurred when a human being stepped foot on the moon on July 20, 1969.

The magnitude of the event was such that the world became one, united in the belief that anything was possible in life. Television became more than an electronic device; it transformed itself into a magical instrument with the ability to stop time as billions of eyes focused on a single image.

Although Americans were justifiably proud that they had put the first man on the moon, when Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the moon's surface the world celebrated the fact that a man, a citizen of the world, had accomplished such a daring feat.

It was, undoubtably, one of the most dramatic moments in history, but there was unseen drama as well, as Armstrong struggled to land the lunar module on the moon before he ran out of gas. Anxiously searching for a smooth place to land, he finally found the perfect spot with only seconds to spare.

One of the enduring legacies of Apollo 11 is the saying that, "If they can land a man on the moon, certainly they can (fill in the blank.)" Few events since have generated such a significant level of hope, imagination, and courage.

In the nearly 40 years since the first moon landing, many books and movies have been made about the Apollo program. The video below is the trailer for Ron Howard's excellent 2007 documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon. Tom Hanks' excellent 12-hour 1998 miniseries, From the Earth to the Moon, is also available on DVD.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

From Japan With Love

Back in the 70's, the hottest thing on four legs in Japan was Mei and Kei, aka Pink Lady. At one point, these 2 very sexy young women put together an amazing streak of nine consecutive million-dollar singles, primarily of the disco variety.

In 1980, after enjoying some moderate success in the US market, they teamed up with comedian Jeff Altman for what NBC hoped would prove to be a winning combination. But alas, Pink Lady & Jeff was yanked from the schedule after only six weeks, and is fondly remembered today, by many, as possibly the worst show of all time.

The problem was that the girls didn't really speak English, so they were struggling through many of their performances phonetically. But I think it's one of those shows that was so bad that it was actually good, in a campy kind of way, which is why I've proudly included the show in my DVD library. The show included some big-time comic performers such as Sid Caeser, and the girls were certainly fun to watch, so I actually enjoyed it.

The duo disbanded in 1981, but have reunited periodically for concert performances. I saw them here in Japan a couple of years ago. Although they're now in their early 50's, they still put on a hell of a show.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Pat Paulsen for President

As the American presidential campaign finally comes to a close on election day next week, we would be wise to remember a candidate who may never have actually won, but was very good at running. In fact, in ran in 1968, 1972, 1980, 1988, 1992, and 1996. As those campaigns ground on, Pat Paulsen became the comic relief, when a good laugh was sorely needed. His deadpan comic delivery allowed him to be funny and to also make the occasional serious point.

Paulsen began his quest for the presidency on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968, where his weekly editorials had become very popular. He actually managed to get on the ballot several times, and garnered more than his share of protest votes. His humble opinion of himself was that he "just a common, ordinary, simple savior of America's destiny," and he would silence any criticism from his opponents with a simple, "picky, picky, picky."

The video above is Paulsen announcing his bid for the Presidency (or begging to be drafted) in 1988. It's from the Smothers Brothers 20th Anniversary Reunion Show.

Paulsen died of cancer in 1997 at the age of 69.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Nixon Plays Checkers

The American election is now just days away, and all the brouhaha about Sarah Palin's $150,000 shopping spree for clothes and accessories has stirred echoes of Richard Nixon's 1952 "Checkers" speech. That was the famous speech where Nixon, the Vice-Presidential nominee with Dwight Eisenhower, attempted to show that he and his wife Pat lived a modest lifestyle by insisting that Pat didn't wear a mink coat, she wore a "respectable Republican cloth coat." Apparently life has gotten better for Republicans since 1952.

Nixon had been accused of accepting some illegal campaign contributions, and when it appeared that Eisenhower might be prepared to drop him from the ticket, Nixon went on TV and appealed directly to the public. He would let the public decide if he should remain on the Republican ticket. It was one of the first times that the young medium of television had been used in such a way.

And damned if it didn't work. Pulling on the nation's heartstrings by talking about Checkers, the cocker spaniel that he had been given as a present and was loved by his kids, he declared that "regardless of what they say about it, we're gonna keep him." He then looked directly into the camera and asked Americans to "wire and write the Republican National Committee whether you think I should stay on, or whether I should get off." Faced with the support of the people, Eisenhower had little choice but to let him stay on the ticket.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Say the Secret Word and Win $100!

Groucho Marx made a name for himself as the smart-ass brother in a series of wacky movies in the 30's, in which he starred with his 3 brothers, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo.

But starting in 1947, he introduced himself to a new generation with a radio show called You Bet Your Life. It was basically a quiz show, but listeners tuned in more to hear Groucho crack wise with the contestants than for the Q and A. The show became a TV show on NBC in 1950 and was broadcast on both radio and TV through 1960.

The pre-quiz conversation had the look of a completely improvised chat, but in fact much of it was scripted. Of course, Groucho was free to stray from the script and often did.

In one legendary ad-lib, Groucho is said to have asked a woman why she had so many children. She replied it was because she loved children, to which Groucho replied "And I like a good cigar, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while." Unfortunately, it appears that the story is just an urban legend. Groucho himself has denied that he ever said it. Too bad, because it's a pretty funny line.

The show had several later incarnations, but Groucho's show is the one people remember. Groucho Marx died in 1977 at the age of 87.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Opie and Richie Live Again!

Election day is coming soon, and emotions are running high. But no matter who you support, if you're a nostalgia buff, I think you'll enjoy this remarkable video.

Ron Howard is a big-time Hollywood director, but in our hearts he'll always be little Opie Taylor from Mayberry, USA or maybe Richie Cunningham from Happy Days. In Scene One of this video, the 54-year-old Howard once more plays the part of Opie, meeting the 82-year-old Andy Griffith down at the fishing hole to talk politics. In Scene Two, he puts on his Richie sweater and talks up Obama with The Fonz himself, 62-year-old Henry Winkler. It's all a little weird but very moving at the same time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I Am Mr. Ed!

Mr. Ed was a talking horse. That's something you don't see every day. Except, of course, if you were a fan of the Francis movies in the 50's, which chronicled the adventures of a talking mule.

The hit show ran on CBS from 1961-1966. Mr. Ed lived on a farm with Wilbur Post (Alan Young) and his wife Carol (Connie Hines). Alan Young was chosen for the role on a very scientific basis, because the producer thought "he seemed like a guy a horse would talk to."

Unfortunately for Wilbur, Mr. Ed refused to talk to anyone except him, causing him to appear to be crazy on more than one occassion. My theory was always that Mr. Ed didn't really talk at all, and that his voice was only in Wilbur's head. In other words, Wilbur really was crazy. But I had a hard time convincing other people of my hypothesis.

There has always been a lot of speculation about how they made Mr. Ed's mouth move, in an age before computer simulation. Most people seem to think that peanut butter or a similar substance was placed in his mouth, causing it to move as he attempted to remove it. Others claim that at least on some occassions, a string can be seen moving his mouth (the "marionette theory"). Or it could just be that they were lucky enough to actually find a talking horse.

By the way, in case you're in need of a conversation starter at your next party, Mr. Ed's real name was Bamboo Harvester, and the man who did his voice was Allan Lane, who preferred to remain anonymous, his name never appearing in the credits.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Mysterious Death of Dorothy Kilgallen

Dorothy Kilgallen was well-known to Americans in the 50's and early 60's from her weekly Sunday night appearances on the popular What's My Line? game show panel. In this video, her colleagues on the panel say good-bye to her just days after her death on November 8, 1965.

Officially, her death was listed as "undetermined." However, New York City police were on record as saying that she died from an "ingestion of a lethal combination of alchohol and barbituates."

But Dorothy Kilgallen was more than just a panelist on a TV game show. She was also a respected New York journalist who had been investigating the JFK assassination and had written articles questioning the official accounts of the killing of the president.

Shortly before her death, she had interviewed Jack Ruby, the killer of Lee Harvey Oswald and had come back home telling friends that she "had discovered something that was going to break the whole JFK assassination mystery wide open." When she was found dead in her bed, the notes she had made on the JFK case were nowhere to be found.

Her death bore an eerie similarity to Marilyn Monroe's death 3 years earlier, and raised just as many questions. Whether she really did have some earth-shattering new evidence about the assassination, or was just engaging in a journalist's braggadocio, I guess we'll never know. But she was a fascinating figure.

Lee Israel wrote a 1980 book about her mysterious death called Kilgallen.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Obituary: Edie Adams (1927-2008)

Long before Bill Clinton made cigars sexy, Edie Adams did the same with a long-running series of TV commercials for Muriel Cigars, beginning in the late 50's. Her sultry voice asking men, "Why don't you pick one up and smoke it sometime?" along with her request, "Hey, big spender, spend a little dime with me," assured her place in TV commercial history.

An accomplished singer and Broadway and movie actress, she got her start in show business in 1951 as the straight man for Ernie Kovacs, the wildly innovative comic genius from the early days of television. They proved to be such a great team that they got married 3 years later, and remained married until Kovacks was killed in a car accident in 1962.

The video below is Edie Adams crooning "That's All." She sang it on the very last episode of "I Love Lucy" in 1957, and the fact that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz filed for divorce the very next day made it a rather poignant (and ironic) tribute.

The Smothers Brothers

The Smothers Brothers have been entertaining audiences with their unique brand of folk music and comedy since the 60's. They made history in 1967 with The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a show that pushed the envelope of political satire during a turbulent time.

The show ended when CBS, after repeated censorship battles with The Brothers, abruptly cancelled the show in mid-season in 1969. Tom and Dick had the last laugh, though, as they successfully sued CBS for breach of contract and the show won an Emmy award that year.

Maureen Muldaur's fascinating 2002 documentary, "Smothered," chronicles The Brothers' censorship struggles with CBS.

In the above video, The Brothers are doing some of their trademark schtick in a performance from the mid-80's. In the video below, Tommy Smothers, now 71, accepts a long-overdue Emmy Award for his writing on the 1967 Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

It's Howdy Doody Time!

One of my first TV memories is that of a wooden marionette named Howdy Doody. I think that was probably the reason that I begged my folks to buy one of those new TV thingies. At a time when TV was just beginning to become a fixture in American homes, kids across the country would stop whatever they were doing and be transported into another world.

The show began in 1947 and ran until 1960. A revival of the show appeared in 1976 and produced 130 episodes. Characters like Clarabell the Clown, Heidi Doody (Howdy's sister), Mayor Phineas T. Bluster, Dilly Dally, Princess Summerfall Winterspring, and Flub-a-Dub became instant friends with America's tykes. But it was Buffalo Bob Smith who held the whole thing together, and the 40 kids or so who made up the "peanut gallery" were the envy of every child limited to watching it on the box.

On the final show, it was Clarabell the Clown who stole the show when he said "Goodbye, kids" as tears rolled down his face. It was the first time he had spoken in the show's 13-year run.

Chuck Barris Had a Big Gong!

Chuck Barris was the successful producer of 2 blockbuster game shows in the 60's, The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, but it was only after he became the quirky host of a quirky talent show called The Gong Show in 1976 that Americans got to know him.

What they didn't know about him, at least according to his memoir, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, was that he was moonlighting as an assassin for the CIA. Whether you believe him or not, the memoir, originally published in 1984, was a very entertaining book and was made into a successful filmin 2002 by George Clooney.

The Gong Show, however, was a real cultural phenomenon. Its unique personalites, like Jaye P. Morgan, Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, and The Unknown Comic kept viewers laughing, and more than a little confused. Throw in a pack of very strange entertainers, and Barris had created a show that couldn't help but succeed.

In the above video from 1976, you may recognize the 2 performers. One is Paul Reubens, who went on to fame and fortune as Pee Wee Herman, and the other is Laurie Metcalf, who was Roseanne Barr's sister on her hit sitcom.

Death of a Poet

(Video from Jim Morrison: The Severed Garden)

Jim Morrison was found dead in the bathtub of his Paris apartment on July 3, 1971. The legendary lead singer of The Doors and poet extraordinaire was only 27 years old. Incredibly, his death was ruled to be natural causes, and no autopsy was ever performed.

Fast forward to July 2007. Out of the shadows steps one Mr. Sam Bennett, the then-manager of the fabled Parisian nightclub, Rock 'n' Roll Circus. Bennett claims that he knows how Jim Morrison really died - he was there. According to Bennett, Morrison died of a heroin overdose in the toilet of his nightclub. His body was then moved from the club to his apartment in order to cover up the truth. The startling revelations may lead the French police to re-open the investigation into his death.

However he died, Morrison was certainly a most remarkable man who died much too young. His death was the third in a tragic trilogy of rock legend deaths, Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin having died the previous year. Their deaths spotlighted the excesses that can accompany stardom, and put a damper on the party that had begun a few years earlier with the Summer of Love.

Like his music, his poetry was remarkable. In The Severed Garden, he seemed to perhaps foresee his own fate when he wrote...

Do you know how pale and wanton thrillful
Comes death on a strange hour
Unannounced, unplanned for
Like a scaring over-friendly guest you've
Brought to bed

R.I.P. James Douglas Morrison

Fizzies Are Back!

It's amazing how much fun you can have when you're a kid with really simple things. Like Fizzies. Throw a tablet into a glass of water, and watch with delight as it dissolves and becomes a delicious fruit drink. I was able to re-create that thrill to a lesser degree, later in life, whenever I had to down a glass of Alka-Seltzer after a night of drinking too much.

Incredibly popular in the 50's and 60's, Fizzies came in 7 different flavors and cost only 19 cents for 8 tablets. You just can't find bargains like that anymore.

Of course, that particular childhood pasttime came to a screeching halt when it was discovered that Fizzies used cyclamates, which turned out to cause cancer in lab rats and was banned in 1968. As a result, the company went out of business and Fizzies was no more.

But Fizzies are back! They made a triumphant return in 2006. And like just about everything else, you can now buy Fizzies Drink Tabletsat Amazon.com. Life is good again.

Marjoe Gortner: Miracle Boy Preacher

(Videos from the film Marjoe)

Marjoe Gortner burst onto the national scene in 1948 when he was only 4, as the world's youngest preacher. His natural talent for memorization and acting served him well, and his parents took full advantage of it by promoting him as the "miracle child." They even arranged for him to perform a wedding ceremony, an act that garnered a ton of publicity for the boy wonder.

They took the act on the road and cleaned up, generating millions of dollars. But when his father absconded with the family's money when Marjoe was a teenager, he left the ministry for the hippie life in San Francisco. A number of years later, in need of cash, he once again took up preaching, and became very successful.

But it was all an act. In a remarkable 1972 documentary called Marjoe, he mixed footage of his preaching and faith healing with backstage interviews in which he revealed the slick secrets of his profession. He explained that he looked at what he did as entertainment, and it was his job to deliver his best performance. The film won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Marjoe would later go into acting, and do rather well in both TV and film. His last appearance was in the 1995 film Wild Bill, where he played, naturally, a preacher.

I've Got a Secret!

My favorite TV game show when I was a kid was I've Got a Secret. There was a certain thrill in knowing a contestant's secret while the panel didn't. It gave me a sense of superiority.

The original show ran from 1952 through 1967. Garry Moore was the host for most of those years, although Steve Allen took over for Moore in 1964. The panel included Bill Cullen, Betsy Palmer, Bess Myerson, and Henry Morgan. I always like Henry because he had attitude.

The show was produced by Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, who were the reigning kings of television game shows, in an era when game shows were much more popular than they are today. In fact, the most popular shows were on in prime time.

They took another of their very popular game shows, What's My Line? and turned it into I've Got a Secret. They were essentially the same show. On Line, the panelists tried to guess the contestant's job, and on Secret, the panelists tried to guess the contestant's secret.

This is a very interesting video, because it's the first time I've ever seen William "Fred Mertz" Frawley out of character. He's a celebrity contestant, and on the show he told the world his secret, which was that he used to be a woman.

Just kidding.

Oddly, the show ended abruptly, seemingly without warning, when Steve Allen announced at the end of the show, "Say, that wraps up I've Got a Secret for tonight, as a matter of fact, it wraps up I've Got a Secret. Uh, this is our fifteenth and final season on the air and this of course is our final program."

Bang! Bang!

Nancy Sinatra never made it to the heights that her famous father did, but in her day, she was hot. She also taught American women how to wear a mini-skirt to best effect.

She had plenty of hits, and this is one of my favorites, Bang Bang. The song was written by Sonny Bono of Sonny and Cher fame in 1966. Cher recorded the song as a single and made it into a megahit, selling over 3 million copies in the US.

Allan Sherman, the Nut

The first album I ever bought was My Son, The Nut, a 1963 song parody album by Allan Sherman. It included a song called Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh, a young boy's letter to his parents from camp, sung to the tune of Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours. The song was a huge hit.

Allan Sherman was the "Weird Al" Yankovic of the 60's. Although he started out in the 50's as a game show producer, his friends convinced him to record some of the parody songs that he had been performing at parties. His first album, My Son, the Folk Singer, was so successful that he recorded a series of equally successful parody albums.

He became a celebrity practically overnight, and his star shown brightly for a few years, with TV appearances and even a book. But his fame faded almost as quickly as it had appeared, and his later albums were not well-received. Some thought that the country was not in the mood for his style of comedy following JFK's assassination.

He died of emphysema a few days short of his 49th birthday, but while he was here, he was pretty damn entertaining.

The 50's Quiz Show Scandals

Americans were shocked to discover, in the 1950's, that their favorite TV quiz shows were fixed. Producers of highly popular shows like The 64,000 Question and Twenty-One had conspired with sponsors to rig the shows by adjusting the difficulty of the questions or by actually giving the answers to the contestants they had decided should win. It was their attempt to make the show more "dramatic," thus ensuring that viewers would continue to watch.

It all hit the fan, though, when a handful of contestants spilled the beans. The shows were cancelled; grand jury and congressional investigations followed. No one was actually convicted of cheating, however, because oddly enough, it wasn't technically illegal to rig a quiz show at the time. Congress corrected that oversight after the scandals broke. Some participants were convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, though, and others had their professional reputations ruined.

The most notable case was that of Charles Van Doren and Herb Stempel. They competed against each other on Twenty-One. When Stempel was forced to lose, he became the first former contestant to blow the whistle. Van Doren, a respected professor at Columbia University, eventually confessed that he had been "deeply involved in a deception." The story was brilliantly told in the 1994 film Quiz Show.

After the scandals, quiz shows disappeared completely from television for about 10 years, and when they returned, there were strict limits imposed on how much money could be won.

Like I said, Americans were shocked to discover that they had been duped, but they soon changed the channel and started watching professional wrestling.

Ding Dong School is in Session

I'm going to go on a scary journey now, way back to my very earliest memories of sitting in front of our new TV, a 4-year-old boy mesmerized by the light and shadows. The object of my attention was named Miss Frances and she taught me the ways of the world on Ding Dong School. There she was, talking right to me and nobody else (well, maybe my little brother). It was like she could actually see me.

Her real name was Dr. Frances Horwich, and she was a pretty smart cookie. She actually pioneered the technique of talking directly to children, a technique later made popular by Fred Rogers and the folks at Sesame Street. She did hawk her wares (as in the video), but she was very careful about the sorts of things she endorsed, not wanting to push anything she considered harmful to children.

Ding Dong School opened its doors in Chicago, but soon began to be broadcast nationally by NBC starting in 1952. At one point, the show was said to have attracted 95% of the pre-school market. In 1954, Miss Frances moved to New York City, where she supervised all of NBC's children's shows. The show was cancelled by NBC in 1956 and a new game show called The Price is Right took its place - a show that hasn't done too badly.

Miss Frances also wrote a very successful series of Ding Dong School books. She died in Arizona in 2001 at the age of 94.