Today is the birthday of late funny-man/ impressionist Fred Travalena (1942-2009). Travalena was someone I recall seeing constantly in the 1970s on programs like the Merv Griffin Show and The Tonight Show, his perky, peppy presence a half tic hipper perhaps than the paleolithic Rich Little (Little’s repertoire seemed to consist entirely of 1940s movie stars; Travalena at least did Lennon and McCartney.) But still SNL with its edge (and its facial prosthetics) seemed to wipe this old school type thing off the map overnight.
Travalena was only 33 in 1975. Why didn’t he, too, try a hip, youth oriented variety show? The short answer is that he did, he did! And frankly I was vastly much more aware of it at the time than I was of Saturday Night Live when it premiered just a few months later (mostly because the latter show was on after my bed time). Travalena’s show (which he shared with a couple of dozen other cast regulars) was called Keep on Truckin’ and I was a big fan of it. Despite the fact that I remember it so well, it has been a JOB OF WORK excavating stuff about it. Written record there is some, but trying to find any visual record was an Odyssey…I finally tracked down that promotional photo above from a copy of the Lakeland Ledger, a local Florida newspaper. That was the only pic online. Why? Because far from keeping on trucking, the show only ran from July 12 through August 2, 1975, a total of four episodes.
Like SNL, Keep on Truckin’ was an attempt to recapture the same kind of youth-oriented appeal that Laugh-In had had in the late 60s, early 70s. (Note the R. Crumb inspired title). But whereas SNL appealed mostly to young adults, college students, people who listened to FM radio and long-playing rock records and comedy albums, Keep on Truckin’ followed the Laugh-In format a bit too slavishly, and retained all the phony glitz and showbiz one associated with prime time variety shows. The cast was an unaccountable hodgepodge ranging from established celebrities to later-to-be-established semi-celebrities. In addition to Travalena, the show had Dick van Dyke, Billy Crystal, Mike Lookinland of The Brady Bunch, Anson Williams and Scott Baio (both soon to be famous from Happy Days), Jack Riley from The Bob Newhart Show, Wayland Flowers and Madam, Gailard Sartain from Hee Haw, Didi Conn, soon to gain her greatest fame in Grease, Charles Fleischer later of Welcome Back, Kotter and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?; tall toothy Rhonda Bates (later a regular on CPO Sharkey), Marion Ramsey (later of Police Academy movies) and about ten others. Amazingly enough, the host was to have been Rod Serling, but he died shortly before the first episode.
My clearest memory of the show was a regular sketch they did that was a parody of the popular cop show S.W.A.T. Called S.C.A.T. (Special Comedy and Tactics), it was a squad of police officers who used classic comedy to catch crooks. One of them was a Groucho impressionist; one of them was Charlie Chaplin, which is why I remember this bit so well. It was some of my first exposure to references to classic comedians.
At any rate, it’s less than a blip now. Fat chance finding clips of it online. But it really happened, I swear! (I considered posting a clip of Travalena instead, but frankly every clip I found was too revolting).
To find out more about show business past and present (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. And for more on classic comedy see Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube