Forgotten Shows of My Nonage #57: Sha Na Na

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Teresa Brewer joins the boys of Sha Na Na

Today is the birthday of Jon “Bowzer” Bauman (b. 1947), a fitting occasion I warrant to recall the syndicated variety show he starred in along with another dozen or so guys in the retro fifties camp nostalgia band Sha Na Na.

I was surprised to learn that Sha Na Na originally formed as an offshoot of Columbia University’s a capella singing society! At any rate, everybody knows (or should know) that Sha Na Na played Woodstock in 1969 (watch the film). In a way, they led the curve on the whole 50s nostalgia movement of the 1970s…and then they rode the back end of it as well. Sha Na Na was gigging at high profile rock venues and opening for major rock acts two years before the original stage production of Grease saw the light of day, four years before American Grafitti, and five years before Happy Days. The latter, of course, brought about a tidal wave of fifties nostalgia, which Sha Na Na was uniquely well poised to take advantage of. They were prominently visible in the 1978 film version of Grease, and they had their own syndicated variety show from 1977 to 1981. 

I adored the show. It was a veritable primer in early rock and roll history from the early 1950s through the early 60s. Not only did Sha Na Na cover most of the major hits of the era, but they also had some of the stars of the 50s on the show singing their own hits. The show also had comedy skits, although out of the dozen or so guys in the band, only a handful had memorable personalities: Bowzer, of course, the bass singer with the enormous mouth, Brooklyn accent, and propensity to flex his muscles; “Lenny”, who was overweight, had a beard and played the saxophone; “Santini” who had the bald, sunken-chested Mike Love thing going; and “Donny” who wore black shades and a striped shirt much like the character D-Day in Animal HouseBesides this, there were great comedians in the cast: the hilarious Kenneth Mars, Avery Shreiber, Soupy Sales, Pamela Myers (who launched every show, “Hey there all you greasers! It’s time for Sha Na na!”) and Jane Dulo, the hilarious old lady who harassed and insulted the greasers from her window.

By the 80s, interestingly the 50s thing had shifted from nostalgia to emulation, at least in mainstream pop culture. People were more attuned to artists like the Stray Cats, Chris Isaak, George Thoroughgood, and Neil Young’s Shocking Pinks, who were more into LIVING something now than RE-LIVING something that happened 20 or 30 years ago. These artists and a whole bunch of others (ranging from Springsteen and Beaver Brown to the Ramones and the Cramps) were inspired by the music of the past without feeling the need to slavishly re-create it. Sha Na Na still continues to play live gigs for older folks (although only a couple of the original members remain). Bizarrely, they are now an act for people who have nostalgia for an earlier age of nostalgia for yet an earlier age.

This clip blew my mind this morning. I’d forgotten how hokey this show was. They really poured it on!

To learn more about the history of show business (including tv variety)consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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To learn more about silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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