Waxing Nostalgic Over Classic TV

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?