On the Peculiar Historical Phenomenon of Donny and Marie

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Alright now, this morning we’ve had posts on Redd Foxx, Tim Moore and Uncle Remus…Now to shift all the way to the other end of the color spectrum. For today is Donny Osmond’s birthday (b.1957). And while I cringe to observe it, I suppose there is a point in mentioning here the variety show Osmond had in the late 70s with his sister Marie, television variety being a necessary chapter in the history of vaudeville.

For some background on the whole Osmond family phenomenon, including the pop hits of Donny and Marie go here.

Donny and Marie aired from 1976 to 1979. My sister and I (being a brother and a sister) were quite into the show, at least when it started. The kids sang their hits and performed in comedy sketches. There was a regular feature in which the pair switched off singing medleys of country and rock and roll classics, that I remember. By the time I hit adolescence, I was growing by leaps and bounds and fare like Donny and Marie began to seem pretty silly and embarrassing to me, though I’m pretty sure I stuck with it throughout its run. It’s weird to go back and watch these shows now; my perspective has shifted yet again. The Donny and Marie of the 70s are now young enough to be my children, so I don’t feel the same degree of revulsion that I would have had a couple of decades ago. Their bag, of course, was that they were Mormon and clean-cut, part of the Nixon and post-Nixon era backlash against the counterculture that formed one of the threads of American pop culture at the time. I recall in one sketch, the big joke was that Donny as Rhett Butler said to Marie, “Frankly, Scarlet I don’t give a …darn.” (Because Mormons aren’t supposed to swear). Ugh. Paul Lynde, a regular on the show, reportedly hated the gig because “he didn’t like children”. I suspect that it was because he didn’t like these children.

The weirdest element of Donny and Marie as an act was, as a boy/girl duo, they often did songs with romantic content, which was just, ew, ick. This was later alluded to on a sketch on Saturday Night Live, when Julia Louis-Dreyfus played a pregnant Marie, Gary Kroeger played Donny, and they, well, started humping onstage.

Goin_Coconuts_Official_Movie_Poster

At any rate, Donny and Marie was one of the very last of the true prime-time television variety shows. It bears investigation if only on that score. I imagine its existence explains that of The Brady Bunch Variety Hour around the same time. The show led to Donny and Marie being the spokespeople for Hawaiian Punch from 1978 to 1982. Hawaii was also the setting for the pair’s terrible, notorious motion picture Goin’ Coconuts (1978). Directed by Howard Morris, it features top comic actors like Herb Edelman, Kenneth Mars, and Ted Cassidy (in his final role). It is of course cringe-inducing, and explains whatever questions anyone may have about why these cute kids didn’t have staying power. They may have been great singers and dancers, but actors and comedians they were not.

To find out more about show biz past and present (including television variety like “Donny and Marie”)consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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