Archive for the Forgotten Shows of My Nonage Category

Space: 1999 (When Past Future Becomes Past Past)

Posted in Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2017 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Martin Landau (b. 1928). Landau is one of those actors who’s worked constantly but sort of at a low profile, with periodic tent pole moments (usually one per decade) where he enjoyed greater limelight: Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), the series Mission: Impossible (1966-1973), Space: 1999 (1975-1977), Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He’s been in much more of course, but these are highlights.

Space: 1999 has fallen by the wayside I feel, but at the time when it was made it was culturally crucial. It filled a void, and was transitional in aesthetics. The American science fiction series Star Trek had ceased production in 1969. The original Star Wars film came out in 1977. Space: 1999 lives at the center to connect them and draws from much else besides. It was the brainchild of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, best known today as the creators of The Thunderbirds, and this show proved to be the culmination of their careers. Space: 1999 was the most expensive British series ever produced up until that point. Still, despite that, with its extensive use of miniature sets and flying model rockets, one can’t help seeing it as an exercise in their patented technique of “Supermarionation”, ironically cheesy looking by modern standards.

Converting this into a toy will be an easy matter

On the other hand, the look of the sets clearly draws from the realistic technological speculations of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The series is set on a lunar outpost called Moonbase Alpha; scenes in the Kubrick film had been set on a similar base. The environment on the tv show is similar. But the time frame on both 2001 and Space: 1999 in retrospect proves to have been laughably optimistic. The U.S. was in the process of cancelling its lunar exploration program just as the series was getting under way. By the time 1999 rolled around, manned space exploration had consisted of nothing but brief excursions into low earth orbit for a quarter century.

The show is much closer to fantasy than science fiction, anyway. The entire premise, that an explosion causes the moon to leave the earth’s orbit intact and begin sailing around the universe on a series of adventures is so implausible that the word implausible hardly seems sufficient. The fact that the heroes constantly encounter humanoid aliens is equally fantastic. While this also happened on Star Trek and Lost in Space, those shows are set farther in the future and much farther away from earth. In Space: 1999, the heroes leave the earth’s orbit and five minutes later begin encountering weirdness. This aspect of the show, to my mind, aligns it closer to something like Dr. Who, which was still going strong at the time in its original incarnation (with its fourth Doctor, Tom Baker). Like Dr. Who, Space: 1999 seems much more about magic than science. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is more than okay. Just go with it. After all, the characters sure seem to!

Hey! You! Get offa my cloud!

To bolster American ratings, ITC’s Sir Lew Grade insisted on the casting of husband-wife acting team Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, both fresh off the hot U.S. show Mission: Impossible as the leads Commander Koenig and Dr. Helena Russell. But while a logical move and a laudable instinct, that gesture was hardly sufficient to make Space:1999 a smash hit in the U.S. Among other things, as a syndicated program it would never get prime time slots here nor be vigorously hyped by networks. I seem to recall it airing on Sundays, probably somewhere around 6pm. I was between the ages of ten and 13 when it ran here — of course I watched it faithfully every week. But it distinctly lacked the flash that American network tv shows had. I remember tons of excitement about The Six Million Dollar Man, Starsky and Hutch, Happy Days, and Welcome Back Kotter. But excitement was not a word I would use for how we felt about Space: 1999. It was sort of…quietly in our lives. Part of that was marketing but part was also the show itself. The idea that Martin Landau and Barbara Bain would make an American hit show is the kind of amusing, but understandable miscalculation a British producer would make. Silly man! You can’t just hire a “recognizable, competent American acting professional” to carry your series! That’s how they do things in Britain! In America we are looking for gimmicks and phenomena. At that time the American audience was looking for the next Fonzie, the next Baretta…a Farrah Fawcett-Majors, an Incredible Hulk. By contrast, Space:1999 seemed very low-key and subdued. Lots of drab and dull people brooding and worrying all the time. Though undeniably beautiful, Bain in particular was a snooze-o-rama. Landau could occasionally get worked up and interesting. With Bain, it’s almost like you’re looking for some sort of knob on your TV to turn HER up.

Hello! We’re ready for our action figures!

In their second season, the show tried to address this somewhat, replacing the mildly amusing science officer (Barry Morse) with an alien woman (Catherine Schnell) and throwing in more humor and action. But that was both inorganic and insufficient. Expensive to produce, the show was cancelled.

We were delighted to discover the other day that the whole series is available to watch on Hulu, so I looked at some episodes after an interval of four decades. And it was a gas. From the melodramatic, disco-tinged theme music, to the bell-bottomed polyester uniforms, long hair and mustaches (we just don’t see our action heroes sporting those styles any more. It looks like they’re all getting ready to go dancing). Many of the props are hilariously antiquated and were wrong for a space station environment even at the time. Drinking out of a breakable glass? Writing on pieces of paper on clipboards? Clocks with faces and hands? And science fiction set design has gotten so much better, so much more specific since then. What does that unmarked button DO? There are all these vague buttons and flashing lights all over the place and it’s obvious their only function is atmosphere.

But yet again, much of it made me nostalgic. There are video screens and electronic monitors of one sort or another all over the place on the show, yet they are SEVENTIES screens and monitors and signals. They were the height of modernity at the time; now they look like my youth, when video tech was in its infancy. In its way it’s like looking at an old radio cabinet:

Landau was very dissatisfied with Space: 1999, particularly its second season, and was only too glad to be done with it. But, really, since the next phase of his career was characterized by stuff like Meteor (1979) and The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island (1981), perhaps he began to find himself a little homesick for Moonbase Alpha.

How the TV Movie “Centennial” Brought Me and My Wife Together

Posted in AMERICANA, Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Television, Westerns with tags , , , , , , on December 3, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of James Michener (1907-1997).

I am astounded to discover today that I hadn’t blogged about Centennial before. I feel like I must have posted something about it somewhere…but cannot find anything. So I guess I didn’t.

At any rate, when my wife and I were first dating, almost as a kind of test, or dare, or trial by fire, we binge watched this 26 1/2 hour long mini-series, which was based on Michener’s eponymous 1974 novel. It originally aired on NBC from October 1978 through February 1979. We had both watched the show with our families as kids, and long about 2011 had a kind of morbid curiosity about taking a second look. And it really was a kind of early pissing contest between us: “Do you have what it takes? I can sit through this if you can.” And we both could. I’m not saying that watching Centennial was what made us know we were right for each other. Let us say, rather, doing a LOT of things LIKE watching Centennial together CONSTANTLY was what made us know we were right for each other. We’re both that sick. And we both need a partner as compulsively sick as we are. If we start watching some thing that turns out to be 1,000 hours long and is cast completely with department store mannequins and sea lions — only a weak sister would turn back and not go all the way to the top of the mountain. And so after Centennial we were both like: “You know what? You’re all right. That was a lot of bad shit just now and you matched me — hour after hour, enduring  sore eyeballs and affronts to taste and dignity that would lay lesser mortals to waste.”

Like How the West Was One (1962), Centennial is a kind of super-western. Its broadcast (a year after the similarly epic Roots, and six months after Holocaust), was a major event, THE major television event of the season. Like all such projects, it is wildly uneven. Michener and his original writing are occasionally great (as well as occasionally embarrassing and occasionally incoherent) in the middlebrow tradition of Edna Ferber. But the direction is insipid in the network television tradition and the big name cast ranges from decent stage and film actors…to preposterous television ones…to still more ludicrous personalities like former football player Alex Karras.


The story cleaves to the template established by Roots…following several generations of characters over a couple of centuries, like a relay race, from the 1700s to the present day. Robert Conrad and Richard Chamberlain are a couple of trappers with cartoonish, vaudeville accents (French and Scots, respectively). Barbara Carerra is the squaw they split between them. Sally Kellerman as Conrad’s other wife (a German fraulein)  and Raymond Burr his financial backer and father in law.


Then Gregory Harrison enters as a Pennsylvania Dutch pioneer who ends up founding the fictional town of Centennial, Colorado. His young wife Stephanie Zimbalist dies right away. Coming west with them are Timothy Dalton (who later will become a major cattle rancher), scout Donald Pleasance (who’s practically wild himself) and army officer Chad Everett who is looking to build a fort. Everett becomes a major advocate for peace with the Indians, struggling with a bellicose general (Pernell Roberts) and an insane local militiaman (Richard Crenna) who massacres a bunch of women and children, as well as two of the Indian leaders (Stephen McHattie and Karion Salem) who happen to be the half-breed sons of Robert Conrad. The question of extermination becomes moot as the Indians are gradually done away with anyway.


Then we move to a big cattle drive headed up by Dennis Weaver. This episode has all the usual cowboy story elements—rustlers, ill weather, other privations. Many of the characters bond and will figure into the story later. The next episode features the inevitable battle between the cattlemen and the sheepmen. Michener seems determined to put every typical western theme (or cliché) into the tale, so next we have a story involving the law man (Brian Keith).  Anthony Zwerbe comes to town with his family as an itinerant actor and con man. They accidentally kill a passing rube and steal his $5000. We get a very nice story with a cat and mouse game between the sheriff and the son of the con artists (which eventually goes nowhere).


Then another nugget from the old western melodramas—an embezzling story involving rancher Timothy Dalton, and his subsequent suicide. Lynn Redgrave plays his resourceful wife.

Later, there’s a Depression story—did the Dust Bowl reach Colorado? Well, no matter. This story seems atypical for the region, but it has the usual clichés—a farmwife goes mad in the dust storm and kills her family. The dust storm is spectacular!


The mini-series wraps up with the stuff that begins Michener’s book (I also read the book)…Andy Griffith is a professor sent to research the history of Centennial; Robert Vaughn is a descendant of the con artists who finds a skeleton proving the murder that took place years ago; David Jansen is the heir of the big cattle ranch who runs against Vaughn in a state election for some weird position of resource conservator. Vaughn represents business and capitalism and “progress”; Jansen, to modern eyes, merely seems like a reactionary…a sort of right wing environmentalist and preservationist, who wants no change (and seems to be the hero). Endless, ENDLESS recaps of what came before mar the entire series and especially the last episode. Much fast forwarding is in order. Also Merle Haggard plays a famous country singer who lives in the town for some reason and keeps singing an original country song about Colorado.

Who’d I miss? Michael Ansara as (of course) a Native American. Cliff De Young is a cowboy. Mark Harmon is an idealistic young army officer. And Alex Karras is a lummox who grows potatoes. I think that’s most of them. Nah, I still missed a few.

Two things particularly amused us when we were watching the series. One is the framing device at the top of every episode that talks about all these fictional characters as though they are real, historical people. With very little effort you could probably gaslight some poor soul into thinking it’s a true story — it comes that close to being hoax-worthy. The other thing — whenever old frontier men dance in the story, it’s a sure sign that they’re a goner. They’ll kick their heels and flap their arms to the fiddle music, then clutch their hearts, gasp, and keel over: “Ack!”. It happens like three times in the series. So we got where we were like, “No! Don’t do it! Don’t dance, old man!”

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.

George Peppard is “Banacek”

Posted in Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Television with tags , , , , , on October 1, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the late George Peppard (1928-1994).

Peppard’s checkered acting career came in a series of well-known peaks and valleys, with the peaks occurring at rough ten year intervals. The better known and biggest high points for him came in the early to mid ’60s (Breakfast at Tiffany’s [1961], How the West Was Won [1962], The Carpetbaggers [1964]), and the early to mid ’80s (The A Team, 1983-1987).

The middle peak for Peppard, in the early to mid 70s, is less well remembered today, but was certainly on everyone’s radar in its day. In the middle of a desert of unsuccessful movies, unrealized projects, and firings came the television crime drama Banacek (1972-1974).

For aficionados of the genre, Banacek offers myriad pleasures, not the least of which is its self-consciously quirky but still perfunctory spin on a highly formulaic platform. The formula worked so often and so well, you can’t blame producers for sticking to it. For a while it was like a gold rush. Basically it was that you would take a gone-to-seed middle-aged star with good name recognition (either from the Hollywood studio era or the golden age of television), and make him (or in rare cases her) a detective. I won’t bother listing examples, the list would be too long. It seems like ALL the older stars tried tv series in the 1970s. It just occurred to me that you could get a whole book out of it!

On the cop shows, the titles were usually simply the character’s surnames. Sometimes it would be a WASPy/cracker name like Jim Rockford, but the hippest ones usually seemed to be ethnic. Irish (Madigan, Brannigan, McCoy, O’Hara) and Italian (Columbo, Toma, Baretta, Petrocelli) were especially popular. Kojak of course was Greek. Or they might have some other twist: Cannon was the FAT cop. Barnaby Jones was the OLD cop. Police Woman was the LADY cop. Ironside was the DISABLED cop. And then they would set it in a different American city, and make the setting a co-star. Often the series seemed to be at least partially ABOUT the setting. Columbo was ABOUT Los Angeles. McCloud was ABOUT New York. I can’t think of The Streets of San Francisco without thinking above all about pictures of the city. And then, lastly, there would be some different angle on the KIND of detective the hero was. Frequently, it could be quite preposterous but the audience wouldn’t seem to care. Quincy was a coroner (coroners don’t run around solving crimes. They really don’t). McMillan was the police commissioner of San Francisco! (I take it back. Big city police commissioners TOTALLY run around solving crimes! Not!)

So in cooking up Banacek for Peppard, it’s almost (almost?) like they went down a checklist of all of these different situational factors to come up with the premise. Banacek was a wealthy Polish-American playboy who lived on Beacon Hill in Boston and worked as an insurance investigator. It was presented as part of the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie, a spin-off of their highly successful Sunday Mystery Movie, which presented Columbo, McCloud and McMillan and Wife.

Other than Quincy and those other three shows, all of which ran for years, Banacek was the next most successful of the many new series that were tried in the context of this franchise, but it only ran for two years. And you don’t even really need to watch it to see why. For me, the weakest element is Banacek’s job. He is usually investigating suspicious thefts, as opposed to murders, and the stakes are his percentage of funds recovered on behalf of an insurance company. Funds he apparently doesn’t need, because he had a chauffeur, a fleet of cars, and a Beacon Hill townhouse. His stool pigeon is an antiques dealer! Forgive me if I’m not on the edge of my seat.

The other aspect may be a little subtler for those who didn’t live through the time. It has more to do with fashion, style and attitude. Study the photo above. Radiate a 60s energy? I think so. That look managed to coast a ways into the early 70s for sure. But at some point in the mid 70s there was a radical shift. Starsky and Hutch would be the coming thing in short order, making Banacek’s “Thomas Crowne” pretensions to hipness seem antiquated.

Why someone as WASPY as Peppard was cast as a Pole one can’t say, but because of it the show got high-marks for defying stereotypes. The more common depiction of the time was more like that of Max Gail’s Wojciechowicz on Barney Miller, large, muscle-headed and dumb. Whereas, Peppard always seemed large, muscle-headed and sophisticated! Go figure.

Bea Arthur is “Maude”

Posted in Broadway, Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Jews/ Show Biz, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the late Bea Arthur (Bernice Frankel, 1922-2009). Her sit-com Maude (1972-1978) was a big hit of course; I’m sure no one my age or older has forgotten it. And yet you will admit it has been largely overshadowed by her even bigger hit The Golden Girls (1985-1992). The Golden Girls is undeniably awesome — sit-com magic and ground-breaking in its way. Yet in retrospect Maude was even more ground-breaking (and personally it played a much larger role in my life. I was a kid when it came out. I’ve probably seen every Maude episode, but only a few Golden Girls episodes, as much as I enjoy it).

That scowl! That scarf!

That scowl! That scarf!

Maude was a spin off of the monster hit All in the Family (1971-1979), which will undoubtedly get a huge post here before long, it was a big influence on me. The character of Maude Findlay was introduced on an All in the Family episode in 1971. Maude was Edith Bunker’s liberal feminist cousin from suburban Westchester. Stage veteran Arthur made a splash as the latest of Archie Bunker’s foils and so was given her own show the following year.

with Zero Mostel in "Ulysses in Night Town". Note to the rest of the human race: you can go home now

with Zero Mostel in “Ulysses in Night Town”. Note to the rest of the human race: you can go home now

Arthur’s Broadway credits included Threepenny Opera (the cast recording is one of my favorite soundtrack albums), Mame and Fiddler on the Roof. I think of her as a giant. Not just because she was a very tall, stately woman but because she was a “big” performer. I study every performance of her’s intensely, and I often call her performances on Maude a master class in comedy acting. Her timing is exquisite — music. Her comic mask is a gift from God. Look at those eye-brows. She’s like a Muppet! I often think (like the best sit com actors) the joy is often in the reaction, the pause just before she speaks. You just know what she is about to say will be arch and cutting and funny. Comparing her to a drag performer is inevitable but perhaps a little unfortunate — I can’t imagine not hating such comparisons if I were a woman. But nonetheless she went for it. That GRANDIOSITY. She owns the space. She is a dynamo.


And on Maude she had just a terrific cast supporting her. Bill Macy (whose name made me much confused when William H. Macy came on the scene) plays Maude’s much shorter, noisier husband, Walter who owns an appliance store. It is Macy’s presence that brings a certain ethnic confusion to the show. Are the Findlays Jews or WASPs? Well, Maude has to be a WASP, I guess, she’s Edith’s cousin, but Arthur and Macy (not to mention all the writers and producers) are Jewish, and the Brooklyn raised Macy certainly doesn’t behave like a WASP. And we have the unambiguous WASPs next door to demonstrate that behavior, for contrast. There’s Arthur, played by Conrad Bain, who is hilarious here prior to his talents being wasted in the lame, inexplicable Different Strokes a few years later. And the always sexy Rue McLanahan plays Maude’s friend Vivian, who marries Arthur. McLanahan also came to the show via All in the Family, where she played a swinger in a notorious episode. And she also was a key member of the ensemble on The Golden Girls. Adrienne Barbeau played Maude’s sexually liberated daughter Carol. (Barbeau’s capacious mammaries were to become two of the biggest stars on the show). In the first season, Esther Rolle played the maid Florida, a sort of a post Civil Rights updating of the 50s character Beulah that put Maude’s theoretical liberalism to the test. Florida, in turn, got her own spin-off series Good Times, which we wrote about here. Rolle was replaced on Maude by Hermione Baddeley, as the rebellious, lazy Cockney Mrs. Naugatuck (who named herself after the town in Connecticut).


I don’t think I’m off the mark when I say Maude was more ground-breaking than The Golden Girls. The Golden Girls is awesome for capturing a demographic who’d only appeared at the fringes of most television, senior citizens, and exploring their perspectives and issues. But Maude brought to American living rooms serious hot button issues that had never been talked about such a forum, as well as some facts of life that had never been broached on television either. And since I was a very young child at the time, the show was my introduction to these topics as well. I think it’s quite accurate to say that (for better or worse)  I learned about such things as abortion, menopause, depression, psychiatry, vasectomies, feminism, extra-marital sex, infidelity, “working things out in a marriage” and much else from Maude. It was all done with an upper middle class sophistication which was a bit exotic to me with my working class upbringing and values. And I need hardly add that Maude has one of the best (funniest, hippest, catchiest) sit-com theme songs of all time. I’m sure to be singing it all day now.


Posted in Bob Hope, Comedy, Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Marx Brothers, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2016 by travsd


I first saw Groucho Marx on prime-time television, when he was still alive. This was years before I saw any Marx Brothers movie, but Groucho was a well known figure, and so when I saw him on this show, I perked up. The show was a 1976 Bob Hope special on NBC called (rather lamely) Joys. The unusual special was a sort of long-form sketch, mixing the popularity of Jaws with a whodunit murder mystery. As I recall, the premise was that a Great White Shark was killing all of the great comedians in Bob Hope’s swimming pool? Something like that. And six tv detectives were supposed to solve it: Mike Connors (Mannix), Angie Dickinson (Police Woman), David Janssen (Harry O.), Jim Hutton (Ellery Queen), Telly Savalas (Kojak), and Abe Vigoda (Barney Miller and Fish — that one was a stretch).

Further it boasted a cast of 50 comedians, or perhaps I should say “comedians”, presumably everyone going at the time….but remember: this is a Bob Hope special. The cast was spotty (ranging from the great to the grating), and typically square and surreal in the extreme, including (alphabetically): Don Adams, Jack Albertson, Marty Allen, Steve Allen, Desi Arnaz, Billy Barty (we’ll get back to him), Milton Berle, Foster Brooks, George Burns, Red Buttons, John Byner, Glenn Campbell, Jack Carter, Charo, Jerry Colonna, Scatman Crothers, Bill Dana, Phyllis Diller, Jamie Farr, George Gobel, Arte Johnson, Alan King, Don Knotts, Fred MacMurray, Dean Martin, Jan Murray, Wayne Newton, Vincent Price, Freddie Prinze, Don Rickles, Harry Ritz, Phil Silvers, Larry Storch, and Johnny Carson (who turned out to be the culprit — spoiler alert!). By the end there is a Holocaust-like pile of dead comedians in the swimming pool, and THAT disturbing image doesn’t soon leave you. It’s like a tv critic’s fantasy. Oh, yes — Rona Barrett is in it too.

My introduction to Groucho was quite sad. He had had several strokes by this point (he was just a few months away from death) and it was very difficult to understand his speech. He sat in a chair the entire time, sort of slurring his scripted lines, with canned laughter to smooth things over. Even more ignominiously, little person Billy Barty was cast as some of doppelganger to Groucho, wearing a pair of Groucho glasses and wiggling his cigar, like some sort of imp or homunculus who could run around causing the mischief that Groucho otherwise would.

I never missed any variety show, and this one never left my memory, mostly on the strength of it being my first exposure to the legendary Groucho and the sheer volume of stars. Imagine my excitement when I saw the other day that Gilbert Gottfried and Frank Santopadre had devoted a podcast to this show. And THEN imagine my DISAPPOINTMENT when I played the podcast and the show consisted of them mentioning that they heard from Steve Stoliar about this show, and gosh, they wondered what it was. How is that a show? They lost me after about five minutes. This is the age of the internet. Why do a show about something which you haven’t investigated yet but sounds quite fascinating? I may go back and listen to the rest of the show though. It’s about Irwin Allen, and I’m a huge Irwin Allen fan, as readers of this blog know from the many posts we’ve written about him. But that fact is probably not likely to make me any more a friendly listener than I was as regards the Joys non-show.

Grizzly Adams

Posted in AMERICANA, Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, OBITS, Television, Westerns with tags , , , , , , on January 16, 2016 by travsd

Grizzly B’ars Do the Durnedest Things

This post debuts today for obvious reasons: the passing yesterday of Dan Haggerty, best known for his screen role as Grizzly Adams.

First thing you should know off the bat: Grizzly Adams was a REAL GUY. I am also blogging about the real Adams, by virtue of his connection to circuses, his connection to western culture, and above all because (as I learned this morning) I AM RELATED TO HIM. (Hoo hoo!) Originally from Massachusetts, Adams became a California mountain man, where he — yes — caught and trained bears for circuses, exhibitions and zoos. Learn about him here. 

In 1972, author Charles E. Sellier Jr. wrote a novel (very) loosely based on Adams’ life, called The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. Two years later, it was turned into a feature film, starring Haggerty. A little context: environmentalism was VERY in during these years, not just as a political thing, but as a cultural one, and there was a substantial craze for it in pop culture, typified by the music of John Denver and earlier films like Robert Redford’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972), which Grizzly Adams greatly resembles, as well as later ones, such as The Adventures of the Wilderness Family (1975).

Let it be said right here and now that I was VERY much into this trend. Fueled largely by my father’s origins in rural Tennessee, I was very much into pioneer culture, which streamlined very nicely with environmentalism. (Jimmy Carter understood this very well and for a brief while during his honeymoon period, managed to symbolize this connection for Americans, being a Georgia farmer and all. But the energy crisis turned out to be a grizzly bear that Carter held by the ears. The people, unable to see beyond cars the size of PT boats and gas artificially priced cheap enough to fuel them, turned on him savagely, and decided to join Ronald Reagan for a big drunken, credit-card funded party that has lasted now for several decades. But really the fact that happened was just a matter of personality and leadership. Carter is and was a softy. If we ever get an environmentalist with the personality of Andrew Jackson — and not before then — there’ll be some action.But I’m here to tell you: wed the cause of environmentalism to the symbolism of the American pioneer, and then you’ve got something politically. Anything else sounds like a lot of college professors telling people what to do). At any rate, when I was a kid during the energy crisis for awhile our family had a pot belly stove and I chopped wood for it. And LIKED it. True story.

But I digress. Point is, I went to see movies like Grizzly Adams and The Wilderness Family and it fueled my imagination. The movie was such a big hit that it became a television series three years later, running one season (1977-1978). By that time, of course, I was 12 and 13, and well, Grizzly Adams, being a “family” show, it seemed like it was for babies. By then I was watching Saturday Night Live and cultivating my sneer. Haggerty looked like a lot of other large bearded men in circulation at the time: Kenny Rogers, Merlin Olsen, Victor French (the latter two from Little House on the Prairie). He was no thespian, to put it mildly. He looked the part and knew how to handle critters, and those were the job requirements. When I look at his dossier now though I have a lot more respect for the man: he was not just an actor and professional animal trainer, but also a stunt man, and a set builder. When you’ve been around show biz awhile, especially independent show biz, you grow to realize just how valuable a person who can wear all those hats is. (Now that I work with actors who are also things like costumers, make-up effects people, and the like. One person like that can be worth several actors who spend all their free time staring at the looking glass).

So, today let’s raise a glass of cool, clean water (unless you’re in Flint, Michigan) in honor of Dan Haggerty, who not only pulled his own weight, but who taught people to love and take care of the natural environment. I can’t think of a better legacy.




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