Waxing Nostalgic Over Classic TV

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.

He's Popeye the Sailor Man!

Popeye has always been a mother's best friend. When faced with her child's refusal to eat spinach or other green veggies, she can always resort to saying, "Don't you want to grow up strong like Popeye?"

Funny thing is, when Popeye was first introduced to the world in 1929 as a minor character in the E. C. Segar comic strip Thimble Theater, he didn't get strong from eating spinach. His super-human strength came from "rubbing the head of the rare Wiffle Hen."

Popeye hit the big-time in 1933 when Max Fleischer at Fleisher Studios began to produce a series of Popeye theatrical cartoons, which rivaled Mickey Mouse in popularity.

This video is the historical first appearance of Popeye in a Fleisher cartoon. It's actually a Betty Boop cartoon, although the sexy star of the Fleischer Studios only makes a brief appearance. It established the basic Popeye storyline -- Arch-enemy Bluto attacks Olive Oyl, Popeye eats spinach and saves the day. What makes the cartoon noteworthy, however, are some of the hilarious Fleischer sight gags. The cartoons would later introduce some characters that had not been present in the comic strip, "notably Peepeye, Pupeye, Pipeye, and Poopeye, Popeye's look-alike nephews."

Popeye later successfully made the jump to television cartoons, and in 1980, Robert Altman made a popular film version, starring Robin Williams.

The ubiquitous sailor man is one of those cultural icons that has conquered just about every form of media available, including movies, comic strips, comic books, theatrical cartoons, television cartoons, radio, and even video games. Not to mention of course, the countless number of merchandise that has carried his image.