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Señor Wences: S’Alright

Posted in Television, TV variety, Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2017 by travsd

Born today in 1896 in Salamanca, Spain: the great ventriloquist Wenceslao Moreno, better known to American audiences as Señor Wences. After having written about a couple of thousand variety artists, actors and other performers over the past 8 years, it seems a shocking lapse that I haven’t written a proper post about this key 20th century performer until today. He fell through the cracks! I had initially made a very cursory post (he arrived in the U.S too late for American vaudeville, my initial focus here), and then afterwards I kept assuming I had done one, but I hadn’t yet. Today we redress the lapse.

Señor Wences was nearly 40 years old and a well-polished veteran of the music halls, cabarets and night clubs of Europe prior to his first arrival in the U.S. in the mid 1930s to perform at New York’s Club Chico. By this time, the American vaudeville circuits were dead, so the word “vaudevillian” when applied to him, while accurate, is true only in the broader sense. He played night clubs and resorts in the U.S.in his early years.

His best known character, Johnny (above) was created by drawing a face on his hand, and then attaching a body below it. A lot of humor was generated by the fast interchanges between himself and the character, as well as by his thick Spanish accent, and his treating of Johnny, with his falsetto voice, as a mischievous young child. In 1936 he created his second best known character, Pedro, essentially just a head in a box, when one of his dummies was destroyed on the way to a gig:

Another favorite bit had him answering a telephone and providing the voice at the other end. As you can see, his act was very original — he had great fun using all manner of offbeat props and “partners” that were quite different from the typical ventriloquism dummies, which probably becoming quite tiresome and “old hat” to audiences by the mid-20th century. He also did juggling and plate spinning.

His great boon was the advent of television in the late 1940s, and he started to become a familiar and regular sight on all the variety shows and talk shows: Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, and Jack Paar all had him as a guest, and his catchphrase: “S’alright? S’alright!” become universally known. He was still popular on tv in my own time, and I saw him places like The Mike Douglas Show, The Muppet Show, Late Night with David Letterman, and a very popular series of Parkay Margarine commercials.

Señor Wences was still performing well in the 1980s, and passed away in 1999 at the age of 103.

To find out more about vaudeville 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

Stars of Vaudeville #1038: Gene Carroll

Posted in Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2017 by travsd

The career of Gene Carroll (born this day in 1897) is a really good illustration of what happened to the average working vaudevillian after vaudeville went away. The younger brother of Broadway performer Albert Carroll, he was originally from Chicago, where he dropped out of school to participate in amateur nights. He partnered with Jack Grady in a Chicago based song and dance act in 1924.

Gene and Glenn

When Grady fell in 1929, Carroll teamed up with Cleveland based Glenn Rowell. Gene and Glenn performed in local vaudeville and on Cleveland radio through 1935. Their characters Jake and Lena were so popular that the show went national in 1934 and the team performed throughout the Northeast and Midwest through their breakup in 1943. Rowell left to do war related work; Carroll became a regular on Fibber McGee and Molly. 

In 1948, Carroll returned to Cleveland, where he was a staple of local television until his death in 1972, on such programs as Uncle Jake’s House, The Giant Tiger Amateur Hour and The Gene Carroll Show. He also ran a talent school. Carroll’s tv show ran posthumously until 1982, hosted by his widow. At one time, it was the longest running show on television.

To find out more about vaudeville 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

The Crazy Craft of Sid and Marty Krofft

Posted in Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2017 by travsd

Happy Birthday, Marty Krofft, the younger of the duo invariably known by their trade-name Sid and Marty Krofft. While these amazing television creators downright dominated the entirety of my childhood, coinciding almost exactly with the entire decade of the 1970s, it has been interesting to learn that they never ceased to be a going concern, even down to the present day, although Sid is now 87 and Marty now 79. They just were a tad less en vogue in ensuing decades, when entertainment began to get less weird — and I always mean “less weird” in a bad way.

For a country often thought of by Americans as dry, understated, calm, and sensible, Canada certainly has produced a lot of exceptionally trippy, spacey family entertainment: Doug Henning was from Winnipeg; the Kroffts and Cirque du Soleil come from Montreal. What’s the deal, eh? Been smoking the maple leaves?

Henning and Cirque have never been my cup of tea but the off-the-wall products of Sid and Marty Krofft have ALWAYS rung my bell. A good measure of the impact the team has had on my lives is the fact that I have ALREADY blogged about most of their shows and their stars (just follow the links for more). But, man, running down the full list of them is wild — since they average a show a year, it’s almost like scanning a list of all your childhood schoolteachers, grade by grade. To wit:

The Banana Splits (1968-70)

The Kroffts did not produce this groundbreaking and memorable series (it was Hanna-Barbera), but they did design the costumed characters (Fleegle, Blingo, Drooper and Snorky). The idea was that that they were a rock band quartet like the Beatles (who hadn’t yet broken up) but designed especially for young children (a concept not unlike the much later Teletubbies).  The show was also a natural refinement of the concept of The Monkees, which was aimed at older kids and ran from 1966 to 1968. In format, the show also borrowed a lot from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, lots of short black out sketches, songs and other segments, with rapid cross-cutting from one to the other — and a laugh-track. The voices were provided by Paul Winchell, Daws Butler, and Allan Melville (Snorky the elephant, much like Harpo Marx, didn’t speak but merely blew his trunk, which sounded like a bicycle horn). The monster success of this show is what allowed the Kroffts (who’d previously been known for their live shows at theme parks, world’s fairs, etc.) to begin producing on their own.

H.R. Pufnstuf (1969)

The show that started it all. A psychedelic feast in which young Jimmy (Jack Wild, from the recent hit Oliver!) gets blown off course in his little skiff in a storm and winds up on a magical island presided over by the titular character, the Mayor, who is clearly inspired by the song “Puff, the Magic Dragon”.  He was voiced by Lennie Weinrib. The villain of the piece is one Witchiepoo (Billie Hayes), clearly inspired by the Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West, but funnier, who wants to steal Jimmy’s talking magical flute, Freddy. Meanwhile, everything on this Living Island (e.g., the trees) talks. Most of them talk in the form of impersonations of class Hollywood stars like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, John Wayne and Mae West.

I believe the Kroffts when they insist that drugs played no role in this show’s creation. Only someone stupid, literal-minded and lacking in imagination can’t conceive that it was created otherwise. I might say that certainly drugs played a role in the popular aesthetics of the times and thus may have exerted an indirect influence. But something else to think about (the elephant in the room, really) was that color television was still a relatively new toy. What would be more natural in the early days for producers to test its limits with EXPLOSIONS of color?

H.R. Pufnstuf was so popular that in 1970 McDonald’s emulated it by introducing its full range of McDonaldland characters in commercials, most notoriously Mayor McCheese, an obvious rip-off of the title character in Pufnstuf. This was easily my first introduction to the concept of a lawsuit, as all tongues wagged about it at the time. As it happens, Paul Simon also sued the producers for stealing a portion of The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) for the show’s theme song — but that’s really just petty. It’s really just a couple of bars of a very simple melody which any child might invent at random on the kindergarten playground — it’s not exactly Mozart. But Simon won and apparently now gets official credit as one of the theme’s creators.

The Bugaloos (1970)

Speaking of theme songs, try and get the one to THIS show out of your head once you’ve heard it! I challenge you! The Bugaloos tends to fall through the cracks of people’s memories, I think the only recognizable star was the villainess, played by Martha Raye. The main characters were an English quartet of flying insects who were also a rock band — kind of a LITERAL “Beetles”, if you will. They lived inside a juke box! The visual effect of the Bugaloos flying through the air unavoidably evokes ancient cultural memories of storybook fairies. The Kroffts were the KINGS of visual symbolism and power in this way, very much plugged into fairy tales, but making them current.

Lidsville (1971)

Lidsville has wound up being almost as well remembered as Pufnstuf , I think because of its stars and because it went back to a formula more like the original. In this one, a now teenage Butch Patrick (who had played Eddie Munster) gets whisked away to a magical land of talking hats, ruled over by an evil magician named Hoodoo (Charles Nelson Reilly) who bore more than a slight resemblance to the popular Witchiepoo. The show had several memorable green screen effects sequences, including the magician’s growing top hat (which the boy falls in and down, in just the same way Alice had fallen down the Rabbit Hole into Wonderland), and the giant flying top hat Hoodoo flies around in, saucer style.

Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-1974)

Two full seasons of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters were produced, and it aired even longer. In conception, it represents a slight “sea change” if you will, from the earlier shows. It was less “psychedelic” than the previous ones, though it still had lots of humor. It was very much similar in conception to the typical tween literature of the time. Two brothers (Johnny Whitaker from Family Affair and Scott Kolden) have a secret clubhouse where they stow the ultimate secret — the existence of their friend, the good hearted sea monster Sigmund, played by little person Billy Barty in a typical Krofftian costume. The scenario has much in common with magical sit-coms of the ’60s like Mr. Ed, My Favorite Martian, My Mother the Car etc. The heroes have something exceptionally weird going on in their lives that no one else is privy to, necessitating lots of quick-thinking and fast-talking to devise explanations. Dogging their steps are Sigmund’s mean family — this element seems borrowed from Caspar the Friendly Ghost (Sigmund is nice; his family like to do pranks). The show would have been my first exposure to the perennial Mary Wickes, as a grouchy housekeeper. Margaret Hamilton played a nosey neighbor (conceptually similar to Bewitched’s Mrs. Kravitz). And Rip Taylor played Sigmund’s bumbling magical uncle, another concept seemingly borrowed from Bewitched. 

L-R, Will, Chaka, Holly

Land of the Lost (1974)

Another slight divergence for the team, Land of the Lost was an excursion into straight-up sci-fi fantasy, although still aimed at kids. It was a variation on the old Hollywood “Lost World” subgenre, where a small group of characters find themselves trapped in a “Land That Time Forgot” — full of dinosaurs. Will, Holly and their dad are white water rafting and somehow find themselves in this unknown pocket of the planet. They pass through a narrow gate of rocks, in a concept not unlike the path to Shangri La in Lost Horizon. But with the added twist that it is also a dimensional door — the family is clearly in some other part of the universe. (By the way, several top science fiction writers wrote for, or advised on the series). True to the genre, but not to paleontology, the dinosaurs here live side by side with humanoids as well as completely ahistorical creatures — in this case, the terrifying lizard-men the Sleeztaks. I never met anyone who wasn’t genuinely scared of these creatures as a child. I have no idea why, but it worked. They were nightmare stuff: full of vague malevolence, and nonverbal (aside from hissing) which put that at an even further distance. Another frequent antagonist was a Tyrannosarus Rex which would periodically attack the family’s cave, which was conveniently located at Tyrannosaurus mouth height. They repelled the beast with a log with one sharpened end, which they called “the fly swatter”. As you can glean perhaps, unlike the previous Krofft productions, humor shtick was non-existent on Land of the Lost. The one gentle element is the family’s friend/pet, a talking ape-boy named Cha-Ka. The girl who played Holly (Kathy Coleman) resembled Kim Richards, star of Disney movies like Escape to Witch Mountain in a general way; my memory has tended to lump them together. As I’m sure you’re aware, an obligatory ironic reboot feature film came out in 2009, starring Will Ferrell. 

The Lost Saucer (1975)

Yet another mini-subgenre, The Lost Saucer, Far-Out Space Nuts (below), and Filmation’s The Ghost Busters were all kid’s shows that briefly resurrected the careers of tv comedy stars. In this one, Gomer Pyle’s Jim Nabors and Laugh-In’s Ruth Buzzi are a couple of bumbling space aliens trying to find their way home, much like the family in Lost in Space, with the added inconvenience of an inadvertent child abduction in the mix.

Far Out Space Nuts (1975)

In this one, almost like a book end to The Lost Saucer, Gilligan’s Island’s Bob Denver and kid’s entertainer Chuck McCann are a couple of bumbling janitors who accidentally press a button and wind up in outer space. It’s almost like a different draft of the Lost Saucer idea and they just decided to them both.

The Krofft Super Show and The Krofft Superstar Hour (1976-1979)

At this stage it was almost like the Kroffts decided to go for broke and do every remaining kid’s show idea at the same time. The Krofft Super Show was a kind of anthology program consisting of separate 15 minute long mini-shows, hosted by the fictional glam rock band  Kaptain Kool and the Kongs (led by Michael Lembeck, son of Harvey Lembeck from the Frankie and Annette beach party movies). It seems at least partially inspired by The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show, which had premiered in 1974.

Kaptain Kool, Kongs

Later, when it became the Superstar Hour, Kaptain Kool and the Kongs were replaced with the Bay City Rollers, which was very good timing for the bubble gum band, as they’d only recently stopped having hit records. At a certain point, it was renamed yet again to The Bay City Rollers Hour. 

Bay City Rollers

At any rate this monster-mega-multi-show had several mini shows, to wit:

Electra Woman and Dyna Girl

Old school superheroes were very much back in during the 1970s, I think ultimately due to the syndicated success of the 60s show Batman with children. Hanna-Barbera launched Super Friends in 1973; Filmation launched Shazam! in 1974; the prime time Wonder Woman premiered on ABC in 1975. Electra Woman and Dyna Girl owed the most to the latter show; the title characters (played by Days of Our LivesDeidre Hall and Judy Strangis of Room 222) were lady reporters by day; high voltage superheroes when duty called. There was a reboot feature in 2016.

Dr. Shrinker

Damn, how I loved and LOVE this show. Jay Robinson played a mad scientist who (much like the villains in films like Dr. Cyclops and Attack of the Puppet People) shrinks a group of friends to the size of dolls for his evil experiments (a simple green screen effect). The leader of the kids was Ted Eccles — when I look at pictures of him, I’m like “Where do I know him from?” But the answer I think turns out to be,”From THIS! I know him from THIS!” Best of all (besides Robinson’s delicious over-the-top performance) is Dr. Shinker’s henchman, played by little person Billy Barty, who’d also played Sigmund the Sea Monster, now unobscured by the extravagant costume.

Wonderbug

Wow, this one was a fun one to unpack…so much had gotten mixed together in my memory. First the live action Wonderbug so much resembles Hanna-Barbera’s 1973 animated Speed Buggy ( a sort of Scooby Doo knock-off), which in turn one can’t help mixing up with the 1967 Japanese anime Speed Racer, which has quite a different concept but a very similar name. Of course the live action sentient bug car concept can be traced to Disney’s 1968 The Love Bug. Here, it’s a dune buggy nicknamed the Shlepcar. But when its magic horn is honked, it can do everything, including fly.

Bigfoot and Wildboy

This segment didn’t premiere until 1977 and I can’t help deducing that it owes its existence to the legendary Six Million Dollar Man episodes we wrote about here. Bigfoot was not only in the air, he was on the ground, on call, to help strangers in trouble. Wildboy was a kid he found and raised in the forest. Essentially, this was every kid’s fantasy — to be raised in the forest by Bigfoot. In reality, that would probably not be so great. Can you imagine? The irony…if you were raised in the forest, you couldn’t watch Saturday morning children’s television!

Magic Mongo

This one had a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Kids find a genie in a bottle, not unlike the concept of I Dream of Jeanie, but also similar to Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. The genie was played by Lennie Weinrib (who’d also played Pufnstuf) in some very uncool brown make-up.

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A major shift in the priorities of Sid and Marty Krofft occurred in 1976, but I was was just the right age to stay right with ’em. Essentially, they transitioned from producing children’s entertainment with puppetry and costumes, to family oriented prime time variety shows. The transition was initially very smart; they latched onto performers with heavy name recognition among their kid audience. In essence, they could build an audience that included both kids and adults. These included:

Donny and Marie (1976-79)

My sister and I were crazy about this show, which, after all starred a famous brother and sister. The entire Osmond family had been a constant presence on TV throughout the 1960s. They started scoring pop hits in the early 70s, with Donny, and later sister Marie branching off and having successful singles on their own. The songs were familiar to everybody, but of more moment to kids, Rankin-Bass had starred the Osmonds in their own animated series in 1972. This new show was very much modeled on Sonny and Cher, with songs and comedy skits, and one of the regular cast members was Paul Lynde. 

The Brady Hour (1977)

This one seemed savvier on paper than it actually played out. Like The Osmonds, the fictional Brady Kids had had their own animated kids series, which was produced by Filmation and ran from 1972 to 1973. And the original family sit com The Brady Bunch (1969-1974) was still in syndication and popular with kids. Furthermore that show had occasionally showcased the stars in comedy skits and musical numbers. So there is something logical in a producing sort of way about the creation of the show. In practice though, it seemed unfortunate. It seemed both desperate and desperately unhip — and I was only 12 at the time. They weren’t an actual musical group, nor were they comedians, nor were they even an actual family named Brady. What the fuck were they? What was this? Characteristically, Eve Plumb (Jan) was the only one with the dignity and class to sit this project out, spending these years pursuing real roles in tv movies and such. So in addition to everything else wrong with the show, there was the affront of being presented with Geri Reischl, a.k.a. “Fake Jan”, which was like getting a glass of Royal Crown Cola instead of Coke. We were like, “What do you take us for??? That ain’t Jan!” Cut us some slack, we were children. On the other hand, we are also the audience, and we took our attention elsewhere.

Pink Lady and Jeff (1980)

I wrote about this show in No Applause as “the ignominious death of the tv variety show”. “Comedian Jeff Altman and the Japanese singing duo Pink Lady (who didn’t speak English) were the theoretical draws to this program, which was memorably (even infamously) weird, but it wasn’t precisely “good”, even if it was fairly representative of its times.

Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters (1980)

This was just about where I was tuning out. These lovely country singers had their following, but this show was hardly calculated to appeal to the widest possible swath of the American public.  Grownups in my family liked it, but I had no use for it, and I doubt any other young people did either. Further, the Mandrells weren’t actors and comedians. Hardly a small point when it comes to carrying a tv variety series.

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They Kroffts had clearly been sliding for a couple of years but this is about where the magic appears to have definitively evaporated and they were no long clicking either with audiences or getting green lights from networks. Their last variety outing during this phase was a 1981 variety special starring Anson Williams (Potsy from Happy Days) and his wife.

This is the end of the Sid and Marty Krofft I grew up with. By the time they returned in the mid ’80s I was an adult and fairly uninterested in anything they were coming back with, although I was vaguely aware of some of it. For example, there was Pryor’s Place (1984), a children’s show starring Richard Pryor! From a certain perspective, in conception it’s not too different from Bill Cosby’s earlier show Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. But Pryor is SO associated with profanity, I never thought of the concept as anything other than a punchline.It’s like having a stripper jump out of the cake at a kid’s 8th birthday party.

But mostly the Kroffts seemed to have lost their voice at this stage; there wasn’t much focus to the things they were trying. There was a rock and wrestling show for kids in 1985; a variety special with Patti LaBelle that same year; and a syndicated political satire sketch show starring Fred Willard and a bunch of puppets called D.C. Follies (1987-1989).

In more recent years there have been the re-boot of Land of the Lost (2009) with Will Ferrell, a new series called Mutt and Stuff (2015) and the reboot of Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (2016)!

The Weirdness of the Lawrence Welk Show

Posted in AMERICANA, Music, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2014 by travsd

Today is the natal day of that unfathomable 20th century phenomenon known as Lawrence Welk (1903-1992).

When I was a kid, Welk was the gold standard for “Old People Music We Just Didn’t Understand.” It was a long list that also included the likes of Liberace, Doc Severinsen, Dinah Shore, Robert Goulet, Kate Smithand all of those embarrassing, nauseating guys from the Rat Pack. (I’ve since come to better appreciate Sinatra and Dean Martin).

But like I say, Welk, was the pinnacle, a well-spring of mystery. For example, what was that accent (we wondered)? “Wunnerful, wunnerful!”, “senk you, senk you,” “An’ now the luffly Lennon Sisterss!” and (as he counted off a number) “…a-one, an’ a two!”. He was supposedly American, but somehow he had that accent. The answer proves to be quite interesting. He was raised in a pocket of German immigrants in a remote area of North Dakota, a place so rural and isolated there was no need for anyone to learn English. Welk didn’t learn English until he went to school. Raised on a farm, he persuaded his father to buy him a mail order accordion, which he spent his entire youth paying off.

Upon reaching majority (the mid 1920s) he formed a local big band. There can be no more eye-opening illustration of the fact that “big band” and “swing” are not synonymous than Welk’s orchestra, which played light, pretty, tuneful, and very WHITE dance music with very little (if any) jazz to it. This would be the aesthetic he would cleave to until his dying day. In the 30s, as he gained a following in the mid-west (especially Chicago), his sound was dubbed “Champagne Music” (an idea reinforced by his use of a bubble machine on his tv show). It’s music for cotillions, where no one breaks a sweat when they dance.

The Lawrence Welk Show began on radio in 1949 and switched to television in 1951. I was delighted to watch a bit of it a few months ago at my mom’s senior citizen facility. I hadn’t watched it in 30 years. It’s just the most surreal thing. It was SO anachronistic when I was growing up. The show was on the air until 1982, you realize. Polkas, songs from the 1890s, novelty songs, and attempts at humor that would be considered too awkward and toothless for Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. All of the singers and musicians on the show looked like junior staffers from the Nixon Administration. This was a show for grandparents, and even they snickered at it.

Kids! Young people! Seeing is believing. And you really must watch some to get what I’m talking about. The clip of The Lawrence Welk Show’s closing credits below is from 1978!  Rock and roll was already kind of over by then, Elvis was in his grave already, but Lawrence Welk was still chugging along. Nothing gives me more delight than watching something like this nowadays. To revisit it is to sail into David Lynch territory:

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.

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And don’t  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

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The Brilliance of Bob Newhart

Posted in Comedy, Sit Coms, Stand Up, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , on September 5, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Bob Newhart (b. 1929). My period of maximum appreciation for his work is the slice right down the middle, that coincides with his first sit-com The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978), and I guess I’ll never know if that’s because that’s the section I grew up with or if it’s genuinely his best period. (I suspect the latter, however).

Newhart came to prominence with a stand-up act and a series of extremely successful comedy records in the 1960s. He had a number of routines he performed on the telephone, with the audience only hearing his end of the conversation. These bits are funny (after all, he’s Bob Newhart) but the media in its usual ignorance has always overpraised their uniqueness. Telephone shtick is a very COMMON comedy device. Shelly Berman always contended Newhart stole the routine from him, but I happen to know that it even predates Berman  — by decades. Georgie Jessel had a routine just like it in vaudeville as a teenager, a half century before. (And thanks, Jonathan Smith, for reminding me that the old bit “Cohen on the Telephone” goes back to 1906.)

At any rate, the first Bob Newhart show (produced by Mary Tyler Moore’s company MTM), is as far as I’m concerned a work of perfection. I am never anything but enveloped in pleasure when I watch any episode of that show, from its alternately punchy and melancholy theme music…to the interplay between the low-key, deadpan, unflappable Newhart and the nutty cast of character actors (Bill Dailey, Peter Bonerz, Marcia Wallace, plus the insane ones, Jack Riley, John Fiedler, Florida Friebus, et al)….plus the blood pressure raising hotness of Newhart’s television wife Suzanne Pleshette (by now it’s a sit-com axiom that schmucky comedian types always have impossibly hot wives). The premise (that he was a psychologist) was a chance for Newhart to expand the straight-man business he did on the telephone into a universe where everyone else was a joke-puller. His comic timing proved to be the best since Jack Benny’s and remains the gold standard among contemporary comedians. (When Ellen DeGeneres got her first sit-com Ellen 1994-1998, I used to think  of her delivery — in a good way — as Newhartesque”).

I must admit Newhart’s second show Newhart (1982-1990) never did anything for me. I felt (much like Harry Anderson’s Night Court) , it stretched too much for absurdity in a way that doesn’t suit the sit-com format. A good sit-com naturally needs to exaggerate for the sake of comedy (that’s the whole point) but to me it feels kind of “off” when characters and situations are self-consciously surreal (at any rate, if they’re such without any serious wit behind them.  I was never impressed by the writing on Newhart.) On his original show, Newhart’s laughs came mostly from the acting, not from inorganic (and fairly soggy) attempts at cleverness.

To learn 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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And please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Stars of Vaudeville #33: Milton Berle

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Milton Berle, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Stand Up, Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2013 by travsd

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Originally posted in 2010

This author’s first exposure to Milton Berle was in the 1970s, when he was principally one of a seemingly limitless crop of septigenarian, cigar-smoking comedians that still dominated television at that time. The disparity between Berle’s legend and the codger I saw onscreen had me scratching my head for years. THIS was Mr. Television? This dirty old man who was constantly apologizing for his Joe Miller-style jokes was once such a phenomenon that he quadrupled the sale of tv sets? Restaurants emptied out on Tuesdays because of this man?

The mystery was cleared up when I finally got around to actually watching kinescopes of his old shows, The Texaco Star Theatre. The answer is, that middle-aged Berle (as opposed to the elderly Berle) was a ball of fire. The man had so much energy, and was given to such crazy spontaneity that it seemed as though he would jump out of the tv screen. Hilarious, kinetic and uninhibited – the sort of comedian who would run into the audience, snatch a woman’s furcoat out of her hands, and put it on. It seems like ancient history to see Berle so young. And yet, at that point, Berle had already been in show business for over 40 years.

“My childhood ended at the age of 5, ” Berle said in his autobiography, but, in some ways, his childhood extended well into his middle age. He started out as a child performer; his domineering stage mother Sarah (a.k.a Sadie) was one to rival Ma Janis and the Mother of the Hovics. Sadie would be looking over Milton’s shoulder well into his reign as Mr. Television.

He was born Milton Berlinger in 1908. Berle started his show business career out strong by winning one of the ubiquitous Charlie Chaplin contests in the mid-teens. A little-known fact is that he soon had a silent film career himself, acting as a child extra in some of the major releases of the time, including the “Perils of Pauline” cliffhanger series, the comedies of John Bunny and Flora Finch, and films with two of the biggest stars of the day:  Mary Pickford and Mabel Normand. Some of the films he was in were classics, such as the Mark of Zorro, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and Tillie’s Punctured Romance, which featured Chaplin himself.

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

In the teens, he worked with kids acts like that of E.W. Wolf, one of countless Gus Edwards imitators. He worked principally in the Philadelphia area, to avoid New York’s greater scrutiny by the Gerry Society. In the act he did his first sketch comedy and worked up an Eddie Cantor impression that was to be one of his staples for many years.  His mother, who was not only pushy, but also sort of crazy and desperate, finagled him into Cantor’s dressing room once and forced him to do the impression. Cantor’s response was reportedly something like “that’s good, kid. So long.” Even more brazenly, she bullied their way past a stage manager at the Wintergarden and pushed Milton onstage during a Jolson performance. Through gritted teeth, Jolson permitted the obviously insane boy to do his Jolie impression and then dismissed him, all to the hearty amusement of the audience. Most perversely, when Milton was cast in a prominent revival of Floradora she made him start off his dance number on the wrong foot on opening night, screwing up the routine. She said it would get him “attention.” With attention like that, what’s so bad about obscurity?

In 1921, he teamed up with Elizabeth Kennedy, a talented Irish girl from Brooklyn. It was at this point that he changed his name to Berle, so that it would go better with Kennedy.Called “Broadway Bound”, their sketch was set in David Belasco’s office. Kennedy and Berle played kids who came to audition for Belasco, but, finding the office empty, while away their time demonstrating their talents. Berle did his Eddie Cantor impression. Kennedy did a Fanny Brice impression. Together, they did the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene. The act was very successful. After only a week, they were booked in slot number six at the Palace. More usually there were on third, so the could leave by 9:05 and satisfy the busybodies at the Gerry Society. They worked the Keith circuit for the next two years, until Berle got too tall, outgrowing the act.

Adolescence for performers is not only an awkward time, but strange. Berle’s mother demonstrated her eccentricity yet again by picking up girls for him. She’d sit the in the audience and strike up conversations with girls in their twenties, then bring them backstage to meet Milton, who was still a teenager. Then she would leave them alone. Berle’s theory was that this was her way of providing for an inevitable need of his while keeping him out of trouble. At the same time, she let him pal around with fellow kid performer Phil Silvers because “he’s a good boy”. Silvers brought him to meet his first prostitute.

No longer a “child” and not yet an adult, he struggled through the mid-1920s to find himself as a performer. He debuted as a single in 1924, singing, dancing, telling jokes, doing impressions, card tricks and even dabbling in drag. Whereas Kennedy and Berle were strictly big time Berle the solo had to go back to the small and work his back up.

By the late 20s, he was “Milton Berle, the Wayward Youth” and was quite a success. He’d discovered that supreme necessity of the vaudevillian: personality. For Berle, the gags may be hoary and stale, but a good comic could get over on the strength of his verve alone. He developed a brash quality that one associates with burlesque, although he never worked the girlie shows. He’d pick on people in the audience, ad lib, and get as close to risqué as he could without actually crossing the line. Berle later said he secretly patterned his walk, talk, tempo and flippancy on Ted Healy, one of his idols. When, late in its life, vaudeville evolved the role of master of ceremonies to helm the proceedings, Berle was one of the few naturally prepared to take on the job.

By the turn of the new decade, big things started coming his way. He did Rudy Vallee’s radio show. He did a Vitaphone short called Gags to Riches. Presciently, he did a closed circuit TV experiment with Trixie Frigenza.  In 1932, he got an opportunity to m.c. at the Palace, when Benny Rubin came down with appendicitis. He was a smash hit, staying on eight weeks. He had a similar gig at the Chicago Palace the following year. It was around this time that Walter Winchell, by now a columnist, famously dubbed him  “the Thief of Bad Gags”.

From here, he rapidly moved up into Broadway, radio, film and TV. Throughout, he took lucrative work in night clubs as vaudeville began to phase out.

He was featured in the 1932 edition of Earl Carroll’s Vanities, and subbed for Bert Lahr in the 1934 road tour of Life Begins at 8:40. In 1936, he did his first radio show the Gilette Original Community Sing. His first film was New Faces of 1937, and that year he also did one called Radio City Revels. Numerous films of comparable longevity followed throughout the 1940s. After having been passed over in favor of Bob Hope for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, Berle got to do the 1943 edition, which played 533 performances, longer than any other edition of the Follies.

Various radio formats were tried, with names like The Milton Berle ShowLet Yourself GoKiss and Make Up, and the Philip Morris Playhouse, before hitting the g spot in 1948 with the Texaco Star Theatre. In the following year, he did both a tv and a radio version of the show simultaneously, as well as a semi-autobiographical film called Always Leave Them Laughing. In 1950 the radio component was dropped, for, by that time, he was already  Mr. Television.

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His success was on such a scale that he and NBC optimistically signed a 30 year contract. Unfortunately, the party only lasted until 1955. by that time, Berle – and the audience’s attention span – were exhausted. They gave it another shot in the 1958-59 season with Kraft Music Hall but it didn’t strike a chord. His last show was Jackpot Bowling (1960-61). Oh, how the mighty had fallen!

His film and tv career was for the next forty years a history of cameos and guest shots.

In night clubs, of course, he was till king. And he cast a long shadow. One would have to include Henny YoungmanAlan King, Jan Murray, and many, many others as acolytes in the cult of Berle. And he continued to hold court at the Friar’s Club in New York right up until his death in 2002.

And now the Texaco Star Theatre:

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Teen Idol David Cassidy (and “The Partridge Family”)

Posted in Comedy, Rock and Pop, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of David Cassidy (b. 1950). Son of the actor Jack Cassidy and step-son of his wife, Shirley Jones, Cassidy co-starred with Jones on the hit series The Partridge Family (1970-1974).  Cassidy and Bobby Sherman were the big teen idols when I was in kindergarten and first grade. They were on all the girls’ lunchboxes, and my older female cousins had his poster in their rooms. Not bad for a guy who sang on a handful of hit singles and had halfway decent comic timing.

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The Partridge Family is one of the first prime time television shows I can remember watching, and two of their hit singles are among the first pop songs I remember from their actual times: “I Think I Love You” (1970) and “I Woke Up in Love This Morning” (1971). What’s odd to me is that they had two hits in between those two and they both charted higher than the latter…yet I don’t remember those other two songs at all. I just played them on Youtube, there are drab and mediocre things, forgettable. I still listen to the two I remember all the time: they are exciting, melodramatic, over the top. They remind me a lot of the New Romantic thing that happened about a decade later.

Older people must have been confused or frustrated by the fact that Shirley Jones, a Broadway and Hollywood star, was in the cast, yet very little use except nice harmonies was made of her singing skills. As must she have been (frustrated, that is). But this was the era of David Bowie, and no one was squarer than Shirley Jones, and all of the tv networks were aggressively courting the youth market. We just thought of her as likable tv mom, not too different from Florence Henderson.

The main draws on the show (other than Cassidy) were the funny ones: Dave Madden as the manager Ruben Kinkade (the show introduced me to the concept of a manager), and Danny Bonaduce, as the smart-mouthed laconic tween bassist Danny, surely a very bad influence on every American kid his own age or younger. By contrast, the younger children “Chris and Tracy” were almost like housepets or something, they rarely spoke any lines, and surely were in hardcore violation of child labor laws. And Susan Dey was an attractive 18 year old — not so interesting to me when I was between the ages of 5 and 9, although I’m pretty sure I was in the swing of things by 11.

Though the premise of the show was borrowed from the example of the real life band The Cowsills from my home state of Rhode Island, there’s a lot about the show that doesn’t ring true. The plots are usually the sit-com formula plots, and the show is about that aspect (fluffy, predictable entertainment) much more than creating any kind of believable reality that this is a musical household. They live in this suburban house with no character — does that sound like any rock or pop musicians you ever met? It’s like — are they squatting there? Is the real family in the basement, bound and gagged? On the other hand, their Mondrian-inspired school bus seems to hang together aesthetically. Based on my description, I seem to have elided from talking about the Partridge Family…to the Manson Family. But I’m okay with that if you are, baby!

At any rate, the show went off the air in 1974…the very instant when hippies riding around school buses ceased to be a thing. Cassidy became a solo act, and was briefly super huge, and continued to have hit records although especially in other countries. He’s had plenty of tv guest shots over the decades, but ironically both Dey and Bonaduce have been more visible.

P.S. Sadly, Cassidy’s recently announced his retirement due to early onset dementia. And to someone who remembers him when was 20, that is bloody terrifying.

Oh, the irony.

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