Archive for November, 2016

Klinkhart’s Troupe of Midgets

Posted in Circus, German, Little People with tags , , , , , , on November 30, 2016 by travsd


I stumbled across this image the other day and got curious. I could only find a few facts: this troupe of little people was managed by German born Oscar Klinkhart (ca.1897-1975). They were with with the Al G. Barnes show between 1926 and 1931. According to some sources, they were later with Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus and got stranded near Riverside, California ca. 1936, where they founded one of the many legendary “Midgetville” communities. Later Klinkhart retired to Logsden, Orgeon.

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Trav S.D. Talks W.C. Fields on “Hear and Now”!

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, ME, My Shows, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , on November 30, 2016 by travsd
Photo by the one and only Killy Dwyer!

Photo by the one and only Killy Dwyer!

As part of Fields Fest, on November 17, your humble correspondent appeared on Rachel Cleary’s “Hear and Now” show on Radio Free Brooklyn to talk about the festival and the man at its center, stage and screen comedian W.C. Fields. Here’s the link to that historic exchange:

Come see me talk about Fields in person tomorrow night at the New York Public Library! 

W.C. Fields and Games (And How Fields Evolved from a Juggler to a Comedian)

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jugglers, Movies, Vaudeville etc., W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2016 by travsd

I’ve long been interested in bearing down on the process by which W.C. Fields evolved from one of vaudeville’s greatest jugglers into the screen comedian we all love today. It’s a little mysterious, right? I had a general sense that he began to work comedy business into the juggling, then did sketch comedy including several routines that later became incorporated into his films. But what hadn’t dawned on me until I began to parse it out was the extent to which these routines were related to his juggling — in essence they were an outgrowth of the juggling, combining his crazy, whimsical imagination with his almost superhuman physical dexterity. Though the content of Fields’ revue sketches began to diversify as years went on, in nearly every revue that he appeared he had at least one physical routine based around sports or games, and this was the tether back to his juggling career, and the thing for which he was best known prior to his films. In fact, so great was his association with gaming routines that he was sometimes compared to British music hall comedian Harry Tate and even accused of plagiarizing him, much as he (much more obviously) had appropriated aspects of the act of tramp juggler Harrigan during his earlier days. But, in addition to the physical dexterity required for these tricks they also form a theme, a kind of metaphor throughout his work. Almost every one of his movies features one of these old stage routines, or alludes to them.



The shell game, a.k.a. “the old army game” is of course the traditional street con wherein the perpetrator manipulates three walnut half shells (or cups, or what have you) inviting onlookers to bet on which one is covering a pea he has shown to be under one of them. The game involves sleight of hand, and requires the same kind of dexterity required of a magician or juggler, combined with distracting patter. Fields had reportedly learned the the routine during his Philadelphia days at the knee of a character named Bill Daily, a.k.a “The Professor”, who was also his first manager. Initially the Professor’s confederate, he learned the routine himself and later claimed that if he were stranded in a town between vaudeville gigs, he could make a few bucks on the sidewalk at the shell game: “It’s the old army game! A child can play it! Five’ll getcha ten, ten’ll getcha twenty…” He alludes to the con of course in his film It’s the Old Army Game (1926) and actually demonstrates it in the talkie version of Poppy (1936).



Fields’ pool routine is the mother of all that came afterwards. All his subsequent game-related sketches (leastways the ones employing balls) are variations on this one. Looking to expand beyond the juggling routines he had been doing onstage for about seven years, in 1903 he introduced a stage bit that involved a trick pool table, working every comic variation he could think of into the business, including funny pool cues, sections where he had difficulty threading a normal pool cue through his fingers, juggling style manipulations of balls and cues, and the wow finish, where all the balls went into all the pockets at the same time. The routine was so popular that it provided Fields’ entree to Broadway and films in the same year, 1915, when he was retired to do the bit in the Ziegfeld Follies and in his first comedy short Pool Sharks. Later, he would revive variations of the routine in his movies Fools for Luck (1928, his last silent film), Six of a Kind (1934), and Follow the Boys (1944). Regarded as a holy object, W.C. Fields’ pool table is now on permanent display at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles:

Fields' grandsons Alan and Rob and the pool table at the Magic Castle. Ron is one of the foremost and best of Fields' biographers

Fields’ grandsons Alan and Ron and the pool table at the Magic Castle. Ron is one of the foremost and best of Fields’ biographers



Given the size of a golf course as compared with a pool table, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Field’s golf routine originated onscreen as opposed to onstage. He first included a comical golf game in his second film His Lordship’s Dilemma (1915), not coming up with a stage version until 1918, when he introduced it at the Follies. He revived it the following year in Ziegfeld’s 9 O’Clock Revue, and then brought versions of it to several films: So’s Your Old Man (1926), The Golf Specialist (1930) The Dentist (1932), You’re Telling Me (1934), The Big Broadcast of 1938, and there is a brief office putting bit in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941). By my count, he performs this routine more than any other, and it is hence probably even better known than his pool playing business. In the unlikely event you’ve never seen it, as with the pool routine it involves endless preamble to ever teeing off, with crazy, twisted golf clubs, and an annoying caddy who causes endless interruptions.



I’m not aware of Fields doing any poker routines onstage, but after golf and pool it is the game he engages in the most onscreen. This clearly has to do with thematic elements associated with his character and the plots that revolve around him, and it is one of the few areas of overlap he has with the Marx Brothers. It is more an outgrowth of his “shell game” persona. Interestingly he does very little with sleight of hand type card tricks, crazy shuffling or card manipulation, although he undoubtedly either had those skills or could easily master them. I’m not sure why, although one plausible reason may be that, as an old vaudevillian, he had a great respect for specialties. Such business was outside his usual wheelhouse and he may have felt uncomfortable either A) dabbling in a skill of which he not an absolute, acknowledged master; and B) stepping on the toes of the magic crowd. But he is often depicted humorously as a cheating poker player (often playing with decks with large numbers of aces) in such films as The Potters (1927) Tillie and Gus (1933), Mississippi (1935), and My Little Chickadee (1940). 




Yes — croquet! This may be one of Fields’ less famous routines, yet it was the second one he devised for the Ziegfeld Follies, and if you think about it, a perfect transition between pool and golf. He debuted it in the Follies of 1916, and revived it in the 9 O’Clock Revue (1919). The one movie you can see it (or some of it) in is Poppy (1936). Fields was in poor health when this film was shot — I bet we would have seen more if he’d been in better shape at the time.




The fact that the tennis routine was never filmed is one of the great losses to W.C. Fields fans! He introduced it in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1917, even before his golf routine, and I can easily imagine how great it was given his skills as a juggler, which he undoubtedly integrated into the bit. You can see him juggle rubber balls off the floor in The Old Fashioned Way (1934).I’ll bet something on that order was in the routine, as well as business with rackets, and stuff with balls on strings (as he’d done in pool and croquet). Also, tennis was Fields’ main active, recreational sport in his personal life. He was reportedly a great player, when he was still fit enough to play. The reason why it didn’t make it to film should be obvious; he was old and sick during the bulk of his film career and not up to the physical challenge any more. I bet it was great.



This may be Fields’ most obscure routine. He devised it for George White’s Scandals of 1922, but it was considered too derivative of his other routines, particularly the tennis one. The usual business with funny bats and balls, crazy ways of hitting, etc. So, though he created and rehearsed it it didn’t make it to stage or screen. I’d still be curious to see it! In the end, the classic comedians most associated with physical baseball business would be Joe E. Brown and Buster Keaton. 



This comes more under the heading of “recreation” than “sport”. W.C. Fields was a major automobile enthusiast. When on tour in the Ziegfeld Follies (at a time when most performers traveled by train), Fields prided himself on motoring from town to town in his open-air auto. Colleagues like Eddie Cantor and Fanny Brice later told hair-raising accounts of the experience of riding with him, as the half-cocked Fields drove down the highway at night at high speed. (On the other hand, consider the lightning quick reaction time and hand control Fields had). In the Follies of 1920, he premiered a sketch called “The Family Ford”, which featured comical business revolving around a family loading up their car for a vacation, a special breakaway car that fell apart at the end of the routine, like Harry Langdon’s. Funny car business winds up  in many of his movies. His segment (with Alison Skipworth) in If I Had a Million (1932) is about a brand new car that gets dinged up; It’s a Gift (1934) and The Bank Dick (1940) both have breakaway cars; both You’re Telling Me (1934) and The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) feature Fields chasing runaway tires down the street; and his last two features The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) feature crazy high speed car chases.

His last gaming business committed to film, as we said above, is the pool routine in Follow the Boys (1944). He had two years left to live at this point. By the time of his last film performance in Sensations of 1945 it was said that his eyesight was so bad he couldn’t see cue cards, so for sure he had also lost the physical dexterity that would enable to do the sort of things that had made him famous as a young man. He has a small bit of business in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, touching in its smallness, and so understated you may never notice how much physical control it required. It’s the scene where he stops off in an ice cream parlor, and has some difficulty delivering a cherry to his mouth with a pair of chopsticks. I find it touching because that was where he was at….his hands still had that control, but he could no longer be so physical with his old, ailing body. But if you’re clued in, you can see the young man in that bit, that same teenager who practiced with fruits and vegetables at his father’s Philadelphia produce stand.





Thoughts on Tomorrow’s Hitchcock Films

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , on November 28, 2016 by travsd

Tomorrow on TCM, starting early and throughout the day, several films by Alfred Hitchcock (warning: we always include spoilers!)


6:00am (EST): Young and Innocent (1937)

I’m astonished I’d never seen or heard much about this film prior to first viewing it in 2007. It is right up there in quality with all Hitchcock’s better known products of the time. The plot: an innocent young man (Derrick De Marney) is accused of strangling a woman who has washed up on the beach. He is on the lam with the daughter of the constable (Nova Pilbeam), who doesn’t want to come along at first and keeps getting drawn into it. Of course they fall in love along the way, much as in the later 39 Steps . This film has one of the best, most dramatic opening scenes of any movie I’ve seen. It opens right at the peak of a heated argument between jealous husband (George Cuzon) and his wife (Pamela Carme). We see that their house is on the beach, and that the man is very twitchy. The next day the wife’s dead body washes up on shore, next to a raincoat belt. The hero is suspected and brought in. He steals his lawyer’s glasses as a disguise and escapes. Great scenes along the way: an awesomely staged mine collapse, and the terrific climactic scene: while the pair search for the twitchy man in hotel ballroom, there is a long tracking shot, and we see what the hero’s cannot — the drummer in the orchestra, wearing blackface, is the twitcher. In the end, he cooks his own goose by taking too many relaxants to cope with his nervousness as he spots the people who are seeking him. The drugs take effect and he starts getting spastic on the drums, then collapses. He is caught and the hero is cleared. A great movie.


7:15am (EST): The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

In certain ways, the first “Hitchcock” Hitchcock. It starts that run of highly stylized, easily identifiable spy films, full of danger, action and humor. You would say that that they were formulaic but for Hitchcock’s constant innovation and cleverness, and for the fact that that after turning out a bunch of them, he moved on to other themes. A couple (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) and their daughter (Nova Pilbeam) are vacationing in Switzerland. While the wife is dancing with a dashing acquaintance, he is shot. Before he dies, he whispers a message that something of vital national security is hidden in his room in the handle of a shaving brush. She sends her husband to get it. He does. But before the husband can get it to the authorities, the bad guys kidnap the daughter. As in the better known remake, rather than cooperate with the authorities, the couple decides to try to rescue the daughter on their own. A string of harrowing adventures ensue, with the husband getting trapped by the crooks (led by the unspeakably good Peter Lorre), too, then the climactic scene at Albert Hall, and then a painstakingly presented shoot out between the crooks and police at the very end.

As in the remake, Hitchcock ever so slightly hints that there is trouble in the marriage. Here the wife flirts with the dashing Louis Bernard and the husband seems almost a dope about it—almost a eunuch ripe for cuckolding, stupidly getting sloshed while the two dance, and only managing a fairly impotent prank (tying the wife’s knitting yarn to Bernard’s coat button) as a response. The effect is subtle—he doesn’t slam us over the head with it, but it is in the back of our minds. This sets the stage for the husband’s redemption through heroism. The silly fop becomes a man of action on behalf of his family. The role reversal extends to the extent that the wife is the sharpshooter who takes out the villain, foreshadowed at the beginning of the film, when the same man beats her in a skeet shooting contest at the resort.

8:45am (EST): Suspicion (1941)

A psychological thriller in the tradition of Rebecca, which had been released the previous year. Joan Fontaine, as a rich girl seemingly in the clutches of a ruthless, possibly murderous, manipulating gigolo (Cary Grant). They romance, and are married. Then she discovers that he has no money and also has an aversion to work. It seems like he is going to murder her. In the end, an inorganic tacked-on happy ending. He seems about to push her out of the car on a windy, beachcliff road (god, there must be a dozen of these in Hitchcock films), but then he doesn’t. They ride off happily in the convertible together. A moment’s reflection makes your realize well, sure, he isn’t a murderer, but isn’t he still a worthless danger to her happiness and well being?


10:30am (EST): Stage Fright (1950)

Not one of Hitchock’s more memorable efforts but a completely worthwhile film. The film shares the theme of dualism (relationship between the hero and the villain) that we find in Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, Frenzy and others. Jane Wyman plays an acting student. Her boyfriend runs to her and tells her he’s mistakenly implicated in a murder. His other lover, a famous actress played by Marlene Dietrich killed her husband and the man went back to hide evidence for her, only to be seen by the maid. Then he fled. Jane Wyman hides the guy out, and then in order to get evidence to free him, disguises herself as a maid and works in Dietrich’s house. So we have this great dichotomy: Dietrich is an actress, lying to police, pretending to be grieving, etc, and Wyman is an actress, living this false life as a maid. Furthermore, her father, who helps her with her scheme, is a smuggler—also living a double life. As happens frequently in Hitchcock movies, the cop becomes a love interest, and is a bit of a bungler. The best element of the film is the twist: it turns out the man really DID kill Dietrich’s husband—we have completely forgotten that we have simply taken his word for it that he didn’t. Dietrich didn’t even do it. So we have a psycho killer scene. One of the film’s flaws is that this could have been much scarier. We should have gotten more involved in this characters, liked him more (as in Shadow of a Doubt), etc, so we would feel that betrayal, and be completely knocked off our feet when he switches. Another flaw is that Wyman is somewhat bland and forgettable herself. This is what mars certain Hitchcock films from being much better: lackluster performances by Hollywood contract players.

i confess

12:30pm (EST): I Confess (1953)

Hitchcock made so many perfect films and so many classics that some of his more minor efforts sometimes get lost in the shuffle. Some, despite being terrific by any objective standard, have become undeservedly obscure. This is one of them.  It’s a perfectly gripping film with a first rate cast and a situation that anticipates the better known The Wrong Man. A priest hears a confession by a murderer (whom he knows) and is helpless to tell the truth when he himself is accused of the same murder. The cast is top of the line Hollywood, Montgomery Clift as the priest, Karl Malden as the detective, Anne Baxter as the friend (and a little more) of the priest. There is gorgeous and interesting photography of the architecture of Montreal, where it is laid. So why isn’t it first rate Hitchcock?

1) I think he gets waylaid by the exoticism of Quebec. I have to admit, I found it interesting—their different legal system, their different political system, different culture, etc. But I think it might take us out of it. I also think it is a miscalculation on Hitchcock’s part — assuming American audiences will be interested in another culture. What folly! He usually succeeds by giving us the Statue of Liberty, Golden Gate Bridge, Mt. Rushmore—imagery we are attached to. Here we’re in a foreign country, yet in the U.S. even Paris or Rome would be more recognizable and resonant (ironically) than Montreal.

2) Hitchcock was brought up Catholic, which may have been what interested him here. Yet, ironically, the film doesn’t seem personal enough. He should have done more of what he usually does so well—really establish that Catholicism, the context for that story, and set it in the U.S. to ground it in the familiar. In other words, put it in New York or Boston, maybe, among Irish and Italians, and have at least a couple of scenes that show what the priest is all about: weddings, funerals, last rites, visiting sick people, being a basketball coach with a youth group, supervising a soup kitchen, whatever it is. Either he’s a man who’s liked or or one’s who’s hated: we need to see that. Either one raises the stakes, but we have no sense of it in this picture. The story would also benefit from more mysticism: pictures of Christ, crosses, incense, candles, the church itself. There’s a little of it, but I’d really turn this aspect up Scorsese style as a way of showing the priest’s dilemma. Because, essentially the Priest only has a dilemma because he thinks God is watching. And we don’t see God watching.

3). The film might have been more of a classic if he had given more attention to the actual murderer. The actor in the role now does a fine job, but if his performance had really been extraordinary, it would have made the picture. Imagine if it had been Peter Lorre or somebody similar  giving a really unsettling, taunting, harrowing star turn.

2:15pm (EST): The Wrong Man (1956)

So many stars interact with Hitchcock the director, it’s interesting to see what happens when they cross paths. I would have preferred to have seen Henry Fonda as one of Hitchcock’s bumbling heroes in a double chase picture. (He’d be great, I imagine, as the Midwestern doctor in the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much). His Wrong Man role (an Italian musician) would have been better for someone more animated, and, well, (much as I love Fonda’s personality) a better actor. For example, as wrong as Paul Newman was for Torn Curtain, he would have been able to do something with the lead in The Wrong Man. He’d even worked in this super-realistic, black and white, semi-documentary style many times, even playing an Italian (as Fonda’s character is supposed to be) as Rocky Graciano in Somebody Up There Likes Me, which this film sort of looks like. It’s interesting to see Hitchcock do this realistic style, though, the result of his stripped down tv show, and (I think) studying Italian neo-realism.  He would visit the look again in Psycho. But Fonda can’t pull off an Italian OR a jazz musician, however, so he really is THE WRONG MAN. Aside from that, there isn’t much plot, just a straight rundown of an innocent guy mistaken for someone else, and a series of coincidences conspiring to incriminate him. They are just about to lock him up when they catch the real guy. The screenplay adaptation was by Maxwell Anderson.

4:15pm (EST) Strangers on a Train (1951)

Farley Granger from Rope, this time paired with perhaps Hitchcock’s biggest creep ever: Robert Walker. Thoroughly delicious. Here we return to that parallelism that informs Shadow of a Doubt and Spellbound. The two meet on the train: Walker mention he hates his father; Granger that he hates his wife. Walker proposes they exchange murders—that way police can’t trace killer, because the person concerned can have a good alibi. Granger thinks it’s only a joke. Then Walker really kills Granger’s wife. Granger is now implicated, just as though he had been the real murderer. Lots of cool stuff in this movie. One of my favorite bits is when there’s a crowd watching professional athlete Granger play tennis. The whole crowd’s heads go back and forth following the ball¼Walker’s face is creepily straight ahead, staring at Granger.

6:00pm (EST): Dial M for Murder (1954)

An amazingly stagebound adaptation of a stage play, originally  directed for 3-D. (Viewing it in that format  might make the experience somewhat more interesting.) A terrific cast: Grace Kelly as the intended murder victim who becomes an accused murderer when she kills the attacker with a handy pair of scissors. Ray Milland  is the cool, calculating husband who plots her demise and then her imprisonment, Bob Cummings as her American lover. There’s really only one other character—the inspector who solves the thing. It all feels much more Agatha Christie than Hitchcock, especially with its plot twist about the key at the end. The most Hitchockian elements are the atmosphere of sophistication and elegance, which reminds you of Rope, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, etc. This idea of a “perfect murder” reminds one of Rope, too, but also a million other plays and films. Milland’s scheme is amazingly thought out and elaborate, but as Cummings (whose character is conveniently a mystery writer) points out, reality always throws a monkey wrench into such plans, as happens here.

Fields Fest Continues with 3 Talks in 3 Boroughs

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, ME, My Shows, PLUGS, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 28, 2016 by travsd

Fields Fest continues this week into mid-December with three informative and entertaining talks shedding light into lesser known aspects of the early career of beloved screen comedian W.C. Fields, each one in a different borough of NYC for your convenience!



Thursday, December 1, 6:30pm: “W.C. Fields in Vaudeville”

Trav S.D. talks about the great comedian’s early years in show business as a juggler in vaudeville and a revue comedian, and the many ways those experiences influenced his later motion pictures. The talk will be illustrated and will draw from the author’s research on the comedian for his blog Travalanche ( and his popular book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous. At the Mid-Manhattan Branch of NY Public Library, 455 Fifth Ave, Sixth Floor. FREE


"Sally of the Sawdust" (1925)

“Sally of the Sawdust” (1925)

Saturday, December 10, 1:30pm: “W.C. Fields in Astoria: The Paramount Silents”

Many people know that W.C. Fields had one of the most distinctive speaking voices of the classic comedy era. What they may not realize is that prior to the advent of talking pictures, Fields was a SILENT comedy star. From 1924 through 1928 he appeared in ten Paramount features filmed at that studio’s Astoria Queens facility. In this illustrated talk author and lecturer Trav S.D. takes you up close to this lesser known stretch of the Great Man’s career, and shows how much of Fields’ silent work presaged his better known talkies. At Greater Astoria Historical Society, Queens:



Monday, December 12, 7pm: “W.C. Fields: From Dime Museums to the Jazz Age” an illustrated talk by Trav S.D., sponsored by Zelda Magazine

A look at screen comedian W.C. Fields’ growth from humble sideshow and dime museum juggler to sketch comedian and one of the biggest stars of sophisticated Broadway revues like the Ziegfeld Follies, George White’ Sandals and Earl Carrol’s Vanities. Along the way meet the glittering stars he shared the limelight with like Louise Brooks, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers and Eddie Cantor. Admission: $8. Location: Morbid Anatomy Museum, 424 Third Avenue, 11215 Brooklyn NY

Marilyn Miller and W.C. Fields in “Her Majesty Love”

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , on November 28, 2016 by travsd


Her Majesty, Love (1931) was W.C. Fields‘ first sound feature, though he is not the star — that honor falls to his old Follies colleague Marilyn Miller. However the plot structure is one that would become in most of his features. Based on a German film Ihre Majestat die Liebe which had been released only months earlier, the film casts Miller as a barmaid at a Berlin nightclub who falls in love with a wealthy young heir (Ben Lyon). Fields plays her father, a barber and former juggler to whom the boy’s appalled family, led by his snobbish brother (Ford Sterling) begins objecting the instant he starts doing tricks at the supper table. Another Fields Follies cohort Leon Errol is also in the cast as a rival for the girl, and Fields’ former screen partner Chester Conklin is in the film as well. Her Majesty, Love was the last of only three pre-code musical screen vehicles for Miller, the other two being Sally (1929) and Sunny (1930). Dissatisfied with the results, she returned to the stage, and died in a botched surgical operation only five years later. The reception to Fields’ performance in the film on the other hand assured of him a career in sound features.

Long available in vaults, Her Majesty, Love was finally released on DVD by Warner Brothers earlier this year. Get your copy here. 

Forgotten Shows of My Nonage #94: The New Odd Couple

Posted in African American Interest, Comedy, Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , on November 27, 2016 by travsd


I’ve touched on this subject once before, and had originally intended to do more two weeks ago (November 13) for all sorts of reasons. In fact, I probably would have hit it in two posts. November 13 is “Odd Couple Day” (the date was mentioned in the opening narration for the original television program as the date Felix Ungar’s wife throws him out). The original Odd Couple tv show was hugely influential on me, so please know that a post on that show is forthcoming! Also (not coincidentally, I’m sure) November 13th was the late Garry Marshall’s birthday. He passed away a few months ago, and it occurred to me at the time that, love him or hate him, Marshall was a comic auteur, and deserving of a blogpost about his legacy, which I had also intended for November 13.

Unfortunately, this year that date fell five days after Black Tuesday. I was still in a serious funk and in no mood to write about frivolous things like situation comedies and the pop geniuses who write them. So look for those planned posts about Marshall and the original Odd Couple series next November 13.

My spirits have now revived somewhat, and I find that I have space in my brain BOTH for helping save the country, and my usual pursuits. And we write about The New Odd Couple today because we learned that Ron Glass passed away a couple of days ago.


So! This potentially promising, but ultimately ill-conceived and indifferently executed experiment aired during my senior year in high school. As I’ve already more than hinted, I was an enormous fan of the original series starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, which ran from 1970 to 1975. The original series closed out just in time to focus on Marshall’s new project, the smash hit Happy Days, which then spawned Laverne and Shirley and Mork and Mindy.  So Marshall seemed like a veritable television Midas long about 1982. And you know what happened to Midas — he got too greedy.

Wearing a producer hat, you can identify all sorts of reasons why The New Odd Couple (1982-1983) ought be successful in theory.  1) It was already a proven property with Garry Marshall’s now gold-minting name attached to it. 2) African American sit-coms (mostly from the Norman Lear factory) were very popular at the time (Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons, That’s My Mama, What’s Happenin’ et al). and 3) It showcased two popular black sit com stars, Demond Wilson from Sanford and Son as Oscar; and Ron Glass of Barney Miller as Felix. And those two gents seemed pretty well cast. After all, Wilson’s previous character Lamont Sanford worked in a junkyard, a fitting association for Oscar. And Glass’s Barney Miller character Harris was kind of dapper and prissy, which would make him natural to step into Felix. And they were both funny guys.

This is totally the same kitchen

This is totally the same kitchen

Hence I tuned into this show with high hopes. But….the resulting product was too lazy. Even as a teenager, I could easily identify why I was dissatisfied with the show. The whole enterprise was transparently cynical. Yes, they cast black actors, but they didn’t rethink them as black characters. They just took old Odd Couple scripts, tweaked some of the lines, and filmed them with a new cast. They even used the same theme song, with a funkier arrangement. They hadn’t even bothered to give the show its own name. The irony is, the thing they were attempting was not unprecedented and it had been done with great success. It wasn’t even far away. Sanford and Son had been based on a British sitcom called Steptoe and Son. But, other than the basic situation, the entire set-up had been completely reimagined as a vehicle for Redd Foxx from the ground up. The writers weren’t black but Foxx had enough juice to inject his show with authentic touches. In The New Odd Couple the actors even seem to be wearing leftover costumes. And are asked to give the same line readings. On the same set. With the same inserts of an exterior of their apartment building. Check it out for yourself. There are some episodes on Youtube. (16 episodes were filmed; it ran for only one season),


Sorry this is not the best way to remember Ron Glass! He was excellent on Barney Miller! And also on the cult sci-fi western mash-up Firefly! And for the record, I am not a fan of the current Odd Couple reboot either, though it also stars two top notch comic actors. The best Marshall-produced Odd Couple reboot is of course Laverne and Shirley. The best overall? Perhaps, Perfect Strangers (1986-1993). Who cares about sloppy vs. neat? Why is that a necessary component? The true essential element is two mismatched friends with terrific chemistry.

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