Archive for the TV variety Category

Jackie Vernon: The Offbeat Comic Who Played Frosty the Snowman

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2017 by travsd

HAPPY BOITHDAY!

Like most people my age and younger, I have always known Jackie Vernon (Ralph Verrone, 1924-1987) for one thing: his voice-over performance as the title character in Rankin-Bass’s 1969 Christmas special Frosty the Snowman. He makes an impression in the role; even as a kid I noticed the heavy New York accent and the fact that the performer’s line readings seemed rather non-actorly.

It turns out Vernon was a highly influential night club comic who started out in strip joints in the 1950s and worked his way up to Vegas, tv variety and talk shows, and a series of popular albums, like A Wet Bird Never Flies at Night (1964), A Man and His Watermelon (1967), The Day My Rocking Horse Died (1969), and Sex is Not Hazardous to Your Health (1972).

This is decades before Gallagher, and just as inexplicable

The titles of these albums give some indication of his sense of humor, which was full of non sequitur and strangeness. Before he was a comedian he was a trumpet player, and he often carried one onstage with him, just as Jack Benny and Henny Youngman carried violins. Like them, he would seldom play his instrument, and if he did, it was bad. I find it SO perfect that the concept is “updated” to a trumpet, though, the hippest instrument of the be bop era. Appropriately, there is also something avant-garde about his material, which was downbeat, deadpan, and monotonic in a way that anticipated Steven Wright. Short and fat, he described himself as someone who liked to spend parties in the coat room, and go to bus stations and pretend he was going places. Many of his routines were built around the concepts of travel and vacations. His most popular ones were presented as “slideshows”; he would pretend to use the clicker and narrate the images, but things would always be quietly, matter-of-factly, wrong. The tour  guide would sink in quicksand; the Grand Canyon would be closed. His hometown was on a one way street; if you missed it, you had to go all the way around the world to get back. (I did a similar slideshow routine once as a teenager; I’m wondering retrospectively if I’d been inspired by a tv appearance of Vernon. Don’t worry — mine had a distinctive, highly original twist).

Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin and Merv Griffin were all fans and booked him repeatedly. In the ’60s he was especially popular at hip clubs like the Hungry i in San Francisco and the Blue Angel in New York. He was often on Hollywood Squares. But other than Frosty, he wasn’t often employed as an actor. He has a small role in Jimmy Breslin’s mafia comedy The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971), an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1975), he does a bit of stand-up in Amazon Women in the Moon (1987)….but he does have a starring role in one film, and I cannot wait to watch it. It’s a 1983 horror movie called Microwave Massacre. I intend to watch it within hours.

To find out more about show business historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Of Billie Thomas and Buckwheat

Posted in African American Interest, Child Stars, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2017 by travsd

Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas was born on this day in 1931.

Thomas was all of three years old when he began to appear in Hal Roach’s Our Gang (Little Rascals) comedy shorts in 1934.

It wasn’t until 1935 that he began playing Buckwheat, a character previously played by Carlena Beard (Stymie’s sister) and Willie Mae Walton. Buckwheat was pretty clearly an attempt by Roach and his creative team to re-create the popularity of the previous Our Gang character Farina, who’d been with the series from 1922 through 1931, both by being gender-ambiguous, and by being identified with breakfast food.

Starting with the 1936 feature General Spanky, which was set during the Civil War, Buckwheat started to be attired more as a traditional “pickaninny” character and became more overtly male. Thomas remained with the series until it ended in 1944.

He later retired from show business and served in the army during the Cold War. He passed away in 1980, the same year as Farina.

Ironically, one year after he died, Eddie Murphy began portraying him on Saturday Night Live, the recurring bit becoming one of his most popular and enduring routines. The joke was that the adult Buckwheat spoke in the same adorable, childish speech impediment that he had possessed as a toddler. “O-Tay!” had been the real Buckwheat’s catchphrase; it also became Murphy’s. The success of the character proved problematic. The initial joke had been the absurdity of Buckwheat still talking the same way as a man in his 40s. But its wide popularity resulted in something else. The Our Gang franchise had been progressive in its own time for treating its African American characters as equals or near-equals as the white kids. The African American performers in the films were among the most popular, and certainly they were among America’s earliest black stars, and among the best paid black actors in their day. But that doesn’t mean that the characters weren’t relatively racist by later standards.

As a one-off, Murphy’s initial Buckwheat turn might have been read as naughty satire in the old National Lampoon/ SNL mode, and even at that it would have been a debatable gambit. But the popularity of the routine occasioned an uncritical resurrection of the character. It seemed to become too popular with white people, and for all the wrong reasons. Remember when Dave Chapelle quit his Comedy Central show, saying that he discovered that he was getting the wrong kind of laughter? Well, Buckwheat was getting the wrong kind of laughter. I was in high school at the time, and I can assure you — some of the white kids were laughing at Murphy’s Buckwheat the wrong way. Rather than being a satirist making fun of a black man humiliating himself for the entertainment of whites, he he had merely become the black man humiliating himself for the entertainment of whites. For some, that’s a difficult distinction to perceive, but it’s a crucially important one to make and be aware of. You “love” Buckwheat, huh? Do you “love” Billie Thomas? His family? Anybody black, when they’re not wearing overalls and saying “O-tay”? What is it, who is it you love, and why?

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc.

Why SNL of Late is NOT All That

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by travsd
"I'll get back to you later", indeed

“I’ll get back to you later”, indeed

Sometimes the difference between comedy and satire can seem slight, but when the latter is properly done, you can drive a truck through the gulf. Satire is comedy made by an angry moralist. The greatest of satirists, Jonathan Swift, was an Anglican clergyman. You see something that is wrong, you take aim, you shoot at it, hopefully you hit it, but you MUST DRAW BLOOD.

So I’m worried about SNL. It succeeds as I would hope sometimes, but only sometimes, and what’s worse, more often, its aims seem ambiguous. They make the administration figures of fun, which is fine, but too often I feel the fun is too much fun, or their fun is beside the point. The danger in doing that is in normalizing these monstrous figures. The mere presence of Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer was more than enough last week — it was a hilarious stunt, audacious and shocking, and hit those insecure pigs right where they live by having it rubbed in their face by a woman. But that was last week. Now we’re used to her — she’s cute and lovable, even when she’s angry, she can’t help herself. So there must be something else, something pointed. It can’t be about gum-chewing or whatever. That’s a mere wacky foible and the message it sends is that Spicer is like any other SNL targeted pol, Jimmy Carter, for example. For the most part I felt there was a real danger of Spicer being the HERO of that sketch, that it’s now becoming exciting and lovable to watch him tear it up. The only part of that sketch that I felt had any real impact was the end…it felt quite powerful when he was herding the reporters around the room like a sheepdog. That is a comic, satirical image with a point: funny but also scary. I had the same criticism about the Kellyanne Conway sketch, it was glamorizing, not a take-down. The sketches with Baldwin as Trump are usually much more on point, although there is a danger there as well, about it being about funny faces or something.

Lorne Michaels is mercenary. He’ll triangulate if he can. If he thinks he can get Trump viewers as well as anti-Trump viewers by steering some toothless middle ground he will do it. But you can’t just do it to do it, you must DRAW BLOOD. If you do not, as when Kate McKinnon appeared for a brief second as Jeff Sessions, it becomes business as usual. Sessions becomes that hilarious guy we laugh at on Saturday nights who deprives blacks of voting rights. It’s worse than nothing not to go for the jugular vein in political satire. It can never be a case of “Hey, isn’t what’s going on in America right now kinda offbeat and FUNNY?” This is a life or death situation. The only legitimate goal is to END THIS ADMINISTRATION. There is no “wacky” here. Some Mexican mom just got yanked from her kids last night, maybe next door to your house. I’m obviously not saying the sketches shouldn’t be funny, but they must be on point, and they must reduce the target to ashes or we are doing the administration’s work for them. 

Frank Fontaine: A Record of Hilarity

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of comedian Frank Fontaine (1920-1978).

Fontaine was a favorite comedian of my brother’s, and I first developed an appreciation for this artist in the same way I cultivated one for many other comedians and musicians: my older two brothers left behind their record collection when they moved out of the house. And one of the records was this:

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I must have listened to this exceedingly strange comedy record dozens and dozens of times trying to work out its mysteries. It was full of pops and scratches…my brother had clearly worn the album out himself.

As you can tell from the photos, Fontaine was not exactly a font of subtlety. He specialized in one particular character, a sort of brain-damaged, mentally challenged screwball. Originally from the Boston area, he began performing the character in amateur shows in the 1930s. Despite the strong visual impression you see on evidence in the pictures, he first gained show biz traction in radio. He won the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, and not long after that was booked for some small roles on The Jack Benny Program in 1950, returning several times through 11952. Then came television. His best known platform was The Jackie Gleason Show, where he played Crazy Guggenheim in the Joe the Bartender segments. To my eyes, his character looks like a sort of pre-cursor to many of Benny Hill’s,, with the addition of just a hint of pathos. Because, well, the guy’s not normal. 

The early fifties were sort of the height of his fame. He got some bit parts in movies, and he continued to work through the rest of his life appearing on tv variety shows, making live appearances and popular comedy records. He died at the age of 58 of a massive heart attack, altogether not such a surprising death for someone who put that much into his comedy.

For more on classic comedy see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Forgotten Shows of My Nonage #91: Joys

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

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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.

Much Ado About Kabibble

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , on January 19, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the one and only Merwyn Bogue (1908-1994), better known by his professional name Ish Kabibble.

What a mysterious thing is this Ish Kabibble — old time show biz buffs know him from appearances on Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor’s radio and tv shows, and the occasional cameo in a movie. A dim, vaguely foreign character with a pudding bowl haircut like Moe Howard of the Three Stooges, he was both a character comedian and a cornet player in  Kay Kiser’s band. Most people I think could be forgiven for assuming that he was Jewish, or at least from New York City.

NEVER ASSUME! Bogue is a Scottish surname; he was from western Pennsylvania, and attended college in West Virginia. The origin of his persona goes something like this:

There is a Yiddish phrase, “Nisht gefidlt”, which means “it doesn’t matter to me”. Out of this (apparently), the nonsense phrase “Ische ga bibble” may have evolved, to which tradition has ascribed the meaning, ‘I should worry?”, which became one of Bogue’s catch phrases.

In 1913, songwriter Sam Lewis came out with the popular song “Ische Gabibble” based on the phrase.

Then in 1914 Harry Hershfield debuted his comic strip Abie the Agent, starring the character Abe Kabibble. (Thus explaining that remark of Chico Marx’s when he meets Rosco W. Chandler in Animal Crackers — “You’re not Abe Kabibble?”)

In 1931, Bogue started performing with Kiser’s band. One of his specialty numbers was the song “Ische Gabibble”, out of which arose his character and his role as comical sidekick to bandleader Kay Kiser in nightclubs, and on radio and film. He played the role until the early 1950s, when he retired and went in the real estate business. I’ll eat my hat if he was not an influence on Andy Kauffman. 

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult 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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The Vaudeville of David Bowie

Posted in Drag and/or LGBT, Music, OBITS, Rock and Pop, Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 16, 2016 by travsd

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I have found that there are certain cultural figures who loom so large (at least in my personal world) that I can’t just do a single definitive blog entry on them as I have tried to do with many vaudeville and screen stars. Maybe the passage of time has made the older ones digestible — there can be a summation. But there are certain artists closer in time to us that I have regarded as mountains too big to scale and so I’ve either sort of nibbled at them in partial posts that take on some aspect of their legacy, or I’ve just blown it off with an intention to take it on down the road. David Bowie was one of these.

Think about this: words are actually, literally inadequate to describe what he was. The best I can come up with is “cultural figure”. It doesn’t do to say what someone was by making a list, does it? “Pop star” is grossly inadequate — Bowie distinguished himself in many other fields, in many other ways, in far too great a degree. And he affected the world in some ways  that don’t precisely have to do with a career or an art practice, but more with human culture, such as redefining the way people see gender in modern society. And so you get into a list. But a list is “less than”.

It’s taken me a few days of rumination to figure out what facet of this amazing person I want to talk about, but you know what it is and probably knew already even if I didn’t. Bowie occupied the absolute apex of what it is possible to achieve in show business as a high art. Show biz is normally thought of as populist. It is famous for pandering and the lowest common denominator. Except when it isnt that. All its greatest practitioners were innovators with higher aspirations, even hidden motives, with symbolisms and significances and ripples way beyond what the mass audience might be able to articulate even if they sense it with their lizard brains.

This may shock many of my close friends, but I knew Bowie almost entirely from his presence in the mass culture: his hit singles, television appearances, movie roles, and (in this case definitely not to be sneezed at) photos in the press. Believe it or not I’ve only spent substantial time with two or three of his LPs. But glam has been a major area of exploration for me of late and so I am destined to explore his whole body of recorded work going forward.

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But glam seems the essence of what he was, and in a way it is the summit of what show business can be in the modern era. It is significant to me that glam emerged during the television era — and the color television era, at that. In this context, I have two strong associations of Bowie — television variety in the early 70s, and music videos in the early 80s. I was addicted to both of these televisual formats when they thrived. I miss them terribly, and today we have no proper substitute. Late-night talk shows and SNL do not fill the void left by the former. Youtube does not fill the void left by the latter. The eyes of America all need to be pointing in the same direction for these formats to happen. And while plenty of people watch late night TV, the format is not the same. Above all, modern variety television, such as it is, is visually barren and unimaginative. It’s always some monochromatic, muted, industrial landscape, with exposed theatrical lights and house grids, with predictable dry ice effects. This is without getting into how boring most of the acts are, both visually and in terms of what they have to say.

What glam brought to television in the early 70s (and what television brought to glam) is the rediscovery that performance has a VISUAL component and this is one of many things that ties it back to vaudeville. “In show business,” Sophie Tucker said, “Clothes matter”. Or as my pen pal James Taylor of Shocked and Amazed wrote to me the other day “Always dress better than your audience”. The picture at the top of this post is my favorite ever visual incarnation of Bowie — it’s from the MTV video for his 1984 single “Blue Jean”. (I tried to find a photo that showed my favorite aspect of this costume, the fact that he was wearing genie shoes with curled-up toes. You know, these kinda Hush Puppies:)

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People WATCHED Bowie as much as they listened to him. He reincarnated himself not just with every album, every tour or every appearance, but every time he walked out the door. This is how it was in vaudeville. Eva Tanguay was the queen of this, but really it was the coin of the realm, especially among female performers, who were the biggest stars. By contrast, men were a bore. In fact, you can say that for visual flair in costume in variety entertainment, men don’t catch up to women until the 1960s. The Beatles’ matching suits were an initial factor (followed with even greater flair by the Mods), but this aspect of rock and pop seemed to fall apart in the late 60s, when “nature” seemed to be the ruling principle for a time. No one got all dressed up to flop around in the mud at Woodstock.

Glam restored the element of style in show biz and brought it to unprecedented heights. Drag, dandyism, and theatre in general were major influences on pop during this era. Theatre was one of Bowie’s NUMEROUS interests. He had actually opened for Marc Bolan and Tyrannousaurus Rex (before they became T.Rex) as a goddamn MIME. Now that’s purely visual. No sound at all! The albums of Bowie and many of his contemporaries were operas, with stories and characters. In 1982, Bowie even starred as the title character in a BBC TV production of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal.  That’s all very laudable (in fact, I drool at the idea of a pop star doing that), but Bowie brought the same sensibility to his appearances in variety television.

Add to that, there was an element of freak show to Bowie’s act: he had those strange eyes (one had been damaged in a fist fight), his androgyny and his well-publicized bisexuality, which was almost unheard of at the time. When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was The Book of Lists. One of the lists was a list of all the famous bisexuals, which included Bowie, Elton John, Janis Joplin, and Bessie Smith, as I recall. About a dozen names. Nowadays, such a list would be the size of the phone book, I imagine, especially if we include all those who, like Bowie, merely experimented in same sex love. But barring even whispers of the bedroom, make-up and nail polish on men in the early 70s was a very daring choice. Still is, actually, but when Bowie did it, it had not previously been done in mainstream show biz, aside from female impersonators and comedians.

"Can ya hear me, Majah Tom?"

“Can ya hear me, Majah Tom?”

Glam and variety television were a glorious mash-up of past, present and future. Future? Most of the glam artists were obsessed with rockets and space travel, both in subject matter for songs, but often in how the performers looked, as well. I think of them wearing silver space suits all the time, and plastic and synthetics, and platform shoes and padded gloves. At the same time, they’d raid the consignment shop for old hats and suits, and feather boas, and women’s coats. Camp and nostalgia were major elements. Young stars like Bowie would interact with old stars from the 1930s. Bowie was a trailblazer even as he drew from the past. He was there to take charge of passed torches. In 1977 he did that famous Christmas duet with Bing Crosby, “Peace on Earth/ The Little Drummer Boy“). That was variety television at its best. (The result was later released as a single). That was Bing’s last tv appearance (posthumous, in fact). Then in 1978, Bowie appeared with Marlene Dietrich in the film Just a Gigolo, which proved to be her last movie. And while Bowie obviously started out in rock (and emulated the usual rock and roll heroes, especially in the beginning) I read recently that one of his greatest influences as a singer was the very old school Anthony Newley, which is a validation of a quality I’d always perceived in his music. There are certain vocal things he does that sound a LOT like Anthony Newley.

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A lot of my friends who are just a little bit younger than me have been very broken up by his passing. I think, being younger, their pathway in to him was quite a bit different from mine. My first awareness of him came with his hit 1975 singles “Fame” and “Golden Years”. I really loved both songs, and actually spent time trying to break them down and decipher them. To me at the age of ten, they both sounded strange and a little scary, and were quite different from other songs on the radio. And as I began to explore FM radio a little later, it seems to me I heard  “Space Oddity” and “Changes” in rotation quite a lot.  But the context was listening to him on the radio, usually top 40 radio, and seeing him occasionally on television. My first Bowie album was “Let’s Dance”, the most commercial thing he ever did. And then I saw nearly every movie he did in the 80s in the cinema: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), The Hunger (1983), Absolute Beginners (1986), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). (Ironically I didn’t see Labyrinth until this year). And I have seen almost all of his other movies by this point. Which means that I have experienced him much more as a movie star than as what he is to many people — a genius creator of rock concept albums.

He was so influential on younger generations of musicians, New Wave, New Romanticism — he is like the towering giant who lords over that stuff. I think many younger people discovered him that way first, that was their pathway in, and they’ll always see him that way. Something close to the way I look at Elvis and the Beatles, part of the firmament of the world before I was born. It’s a kind of trauma that I can fully understand. My pathway in, though, was show business, and my sadness is tinged with nostalgia. And how I miss catching appearances like this one, with another glamorous master of television variety and vaudeville values, Cher:

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