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Boomer TV Variety Shows: the 1970s (Part 3)

As the 1960s carried on, popularity in TV variety shows began to wane. The last of the very popular variety shows that began in the 1960s was The Carol Burnett Show (1967-78). Some don’t even count this program as a variety show since the format relied heavily on the resident comedy troupe of Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner (replaced by Tim Conway when Waggoner left in ’75). Guest stars were included in the skits, but seemed secondary to the comedy.

Several of the immensely popular TV variety shows of the previous two decades ended their run as the 1960s became the ’70s. Among them, Hollywood Palace folded up the tent in 1970 and the king of the variety hill, The Ed Sullivan Show, ended in 1971. Nonetheless, there were a few practitioners attempting to keep the format alive. Among those that achieved some measure of success were:

The Flip Wilson Show (1970-74)
Though Nat King Cole had become the first African-American to host a TV variety show more than a decade earlier, comedian Flip Wilson, unlike Cole, was able to garner advertising sponsors. Was it because of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 or was the society actually changing? In any case, most people Mister Boomer knew watched because Wilson was funny. His recurring character, Geraldine Jones, was a hit in Mister B’s home, as well as boomer homes across the country.

The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour (1971-74, The Sonny & Cher Show ’76-77)
Husband and wife duo Sonny Bono and Cher opened each show, in its earliest incarnation, by singing their hit, The Beat Goes On, and ended each episode with I Got You Babe. In between, the mostly musical variety included guest stars and comedy skits.

Aside from the hit songs, the show was known for the Bob Mackie fashion gowns that Cher wore each week. The show was canceled when the couple announced their divorce in 1974, and their time slot was given to The Tony Orlando & Dawn Rainbow Hour. Cher was given her own show for a year (Cher, 1975-76). The couple reunited for The Sonny & Cher Show in the 1976-77 season.

Donny & Marie (1976-79)
Standouts from The Osmond Brothers and veterans of dozens of TV variety shows, singing siblings Donny and Marie were given a show of their own in 1976 when Fred Silverman, then president of ABC, saw them co-host on The Mike Douglas Show. They became, for the time, the youngest TV variety show hosts, at 18 and 16, respectively.

Another favorite of Mister Boomer’s mother, the show featured an ongoing musical skit of “I’m a little bit country; I’m a little bit rock ‘n roll,” where Marie would sing a country song, while Donny tried something in the pop-rock milieu.

Captain and Tennille Show (1976-77)
The Captain, Daryl Dragon, and his wife, Toni Tennille, spent years as backup singers for Elton John and Neil Sedaka. In the 1970s, they toured with the Beach Boys, where it is said Mike Love gave Dragon his nickname. This husband and wife duo had their first hit on their own in 1974 with Love will Keep Us Together. It was awarded a Grammy as Record of the Year in 1975. One year later, the couple was given a TV variety show. After the first season, they asked to be released from their contract in order to concentrate on their music and touring career.

As far as Mister Boomer is concerned, Captain and Tennille hold the record for one of the most insipid recordings ever made: Muskrat Love (1976), which they performed on the show. It was a cover first put out by America (1973), and one has to ask, why? Other than that, the show is remembered for its performance regulars, Shields and Yarnell, a husband and wife mime duo. Shields and Yarnell were spun off from the show and given their own short-lived variety program in 1977.

As the1970s progressed, TV audiences had grown tired of the variety show format. Even The Carol Burnett Show experienced a downward viewership. The heyday of TV variety shows had come to an end.

Did you have a favorite ’70s TV variety show, boomers?

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Boomer-Era Variety Shows: the 1960s (Part 2)

The old saying goes that if you want to succeed at something, copy someone who was already successful at it. The immense popularity of TV variety shows in the 1950s spawned a whole new crop in the 1960s, with the formula for variety left relatively intact. One sea change was that rock ‘n roll acts, which had started to appear in ’50s variety shows, became a larger part of the mix of traditional acts such as jugglers, comedians, pop singers and opera singers.

Here are some of the popular TV variety shows of the 1960s:

The Andy Williams Show (1962-67, then 1969-71)
Starting off as a summer replacement show from 1959-62, Williams was finally given his own fall-season slot. For the most part, the program stuck to the variety format, though it did weigh heavily on musical acts. Andy Williams would open each show with his signature song, Moon River, and would often have another number. Williams was a pretty conservative guy and wasn’t interested in booking rock acts. Instead, he favored pop crooners with wholesome images like himself: Johnny Mathis, Engelbert Humperdinck, Dionne Warwick and Petula Clark, for instance. His namesake program is best remembered for introducing the world to The Osmond Brothers.

When his show was brought back in 1969, the world had radically changed. The program was rebranded with a hipper image for Andy Williams (check out his neckerchiefs!) and along with it, popular rock ‘n roll acts were booked.

The Hollywood Palace (1964-70)
This show took its name from the theater where it was filmed in Los Angeles. Like so many other variety programs, Palace had a rotating series of guest hosts. However, chief among them — the host with the most appearances — was Bing Crosby. This was a testament to its attempt to appeal to an older demographic. Mister Boomer remembers the show as tremendously popular with his parents. It was on every Saturday night, in glorious black & white on the Boomer household’s TV. To Mister Boomer, it was on par with watching Lawrence Welk at his grandmother’s house. Watching a guy keep plates spinning on sticks was pretty much squaresville as far as Mister B was concerned. At least Ed Sullivan was a weird character a kid could imitate at school. Despite old-people leanings, the show featured the first U.S. TV appearance of The Rolling Stones in 1964.

The Dean Martin Show (1965-74)
Dean Martin had been a host of TV variety shows with his comedian stage partner, Jerry Lewis, since the 1940s. In the 1960s, Martin hosted various variety shows alone many times until he was given a show of his own. There were different incarnations of names and a couple of different TV networks involved, but his Rat Pack, drink-in-hand, cigarette-smoking, tuxedo-wearing persona was always front and center.

In 1968, he introduced a female group of singers and dancers called The Golddiggers. They quickly became TV audience favorites and Martin made them the official dancers for the show. The group opened each episode, dressed in sparkly Folies-style leotards, introducing Dean Martin. The troupe was made up entirely of young women. They could sing and dance, but were also used as actors in sketches, often interacting with celebrity guests. While Mister Boomer’s mother enjoyed Dean Martin’s singing, his father especially liked The Golddiggers. That meant the show was always going to be viewed on the Boomer family TV.

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967-69)
While one variety show leaned toward music, others leaned toward comedy. Seeming to be, on the surface, a folk-singing comedy duo, the Smothers Brothers — Tom and Dick — used their show as a platform for topical, biting satire. They fearlessly bashed the Vietnam war, politics, sexuality and religion — all the taboo subjects that TV had for the most part avoided during the tumultuous decade up to that point.

Though the program was big on satirical comedy, and introduced the world to comedian Pat Paulsen, top musical acts of the decade were also featured. Included in the list of luminaries were The Who, Buffalo Springfield, The Doors, Simon and Garfunkel, the Hollies, the Temptations, Glen Campbell and many more. Where Hollywood Palace and The Andy Williams Show catered to boomers’ parents, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour became a TV variety show voice of a new generation.

It is commonly thought that the brothers’ show was cancelled because of their political leanings, but that is not entirely the case. In fact, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour had been renewed for the 1970 season. The brothers fought constant battles with CBS over censoring acts, sketches or parts of sketches, but it wasn’t until Tommy Smothers began lobbying against censorship to the FCC that CBS executives fired them. The brothers filed a breach of contract lawsuit and won compensation for the year of programs that never were.

The changing cultural scene that exploded in the late 1960s made its presence known on TV in several ways, including comedy and music. Perhaps chief among them was the rising influence and importance of rock ‘n roll in the culture. When acts appeared on TV variety shows, slowly but surely, the previous generation was put on notice that the Boomer Generation was shaking their windows and rattling their walls.

What variety shows did your family watch on TV in the 1960s, boomers?

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Boomer-Era Variety Shows: the 1950s (Part 1)

World War II ended and by 1947, television caught on in a big way as individual stations appeared in the largest cities. Within four years, a couple of dozen stations had grown to hundreds. The adaptation of TV by the public is still on record as the quickest rise of any technology — faster than indoor plumbing, home electricity, radio, the telephone and even the smartphone. There were just over 100,000 TV sets in the country by 1947, but by 1950, 8 million sets had been purchased — a rise from less than one percent to 88 percent of homes owning a TV.

Of course, the correlation to the Baby Boom was no accident as more couples were married, started families, bought homes and moved to the suburbs. As TV stations began to broadcast 20 hours per day, the race was on to capture the most viewers, especially in the post-dinner hours, the prime time when parents and their children might gather around the household TV.

Networks and local stations turned to Vaudeville traditions for programming inspiration. Vaudeville was a form of live variety entertainment that began in the 1880s. Vaudeville shows mixed singing, dancing, comedy, magic, acrobatics and sketch performances live on stage. By the 1930s, it saw a precipitous decline in attendance due to the Depression, the spread of movies and widespread embrace of radio in the home. As the public taste for entertainment shifted, many Vaudeville performers made the transition first to radio programs, then on to TV.

The first hour-long musical variety show broadcast regularly on network TV was Hour Glass, airing from 1947 to 1948. It pioneered the live commercial that became the standard for variety shows that followed. The show featured performers — many of whom had been Vaudeville performers — that included Dennis Day, Bert Lahr and Peggy Lee, among others. It also marked the first time a radio performer — ventriloquist Edgar Bergen — appeared on TV.

It seemed like various forces were all in alignment for variety shows on TV: expanding audience, at-the-ready supply of performers and willing sponsors. Yet there was another important factor to the explosion of TV variety shows in the late 1940s and into the ’50s, and that was: the music. The American Federation of Musicians controlled the market for live musicians, and TV was a live performance venue in the early days. At the dawn of television broadcasting, the question of what and how to pay performers was brought to the forefront, as it had when silent movies transitioned into “talkies.” Various music unions had contracts in place for film appearances of musicians, but TV was a whole new — and potentially lucrative — landscape. Consequently, as music publishers sought license fees for their music and musicians, the AFM banned live music on TV until 1948. The TV industry acquiesced to the demands of the music unions as ASCAP, the company known for managing music licensing fees, charged three times the fee for a TV appearance than was charged for a film appearance.

There were other ways the TV industry struggled with how to present music. The burgeoning industry was struggling with what role it should play in the culture at large, a debate that was very much in the public realm and even on the minds of Congressional legislators. As a result, operas and classical concerts were broadcast in the 1940s and early ’50s. Variety shows took their cue from these early broadcasts, and regularly included operatic and classical music stars in their programming, alongside pop music and jazz. To further control the “live” appearance of singers, lip-synching was heavily employed to avoid any variations in the performance of a singer from the expectations of the audience. At the same time, if a show could avoid paying for live musicians, all the better for their bottom line.

Here are a few of the influential variety shows that appeared along with the Baby Boom:

Toast of the Town / The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-71)
The longest-running variety show in the history of television, Toast of the Town was renamed The Ed Sullivan Show in its ninth season. Initially, Ed Sullivan was not the show’s host as guest hosts acted as emcee, and introduced the acts. The first show was hosted by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

There is probably not a boomer who was over the age of 7 by the early ’60s who doesn’t remember The Beatles appearing on Ed Sullivan. The man had an uncanny knack for picking acts that were on the verge of breaking out. Famous (or infamous) icons of the Boomer Era who appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show included Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five, The Righteous Brothers, Peter and Gordon, The Byrds, The Mama and the Papas, The Doors, James Brown, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Herman’s Hermits, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Tom Jones, Janis Joplin, The Jackson 5 and many, many more.

Unlike a lot of the variety shows on TV, Sullivan wanted his musical acts to perform live, not just lip-synch. That led to some interesting disagreements with lyrics deemed questionable for TV when the Rolling Stones and The Doors appeared, as most boomers recall. Sullivan also featured classical music, opera, jazz, dance, jugglers, comedians and a crazy little puppet mouse, Topo Gigio, that was a favorite of Mister Boomer’s grandmother … And that is the story of The Ed Sullivan Show in a nutshell, that the show was popular with every member of the family because Sullivan booked acts that could please everyone.

Texaco Star Theater (1948-56)
This comedy-variety show started out as a radio show in 1938. Like Ed Sullivan, the show had a series of guest hosts, but when Milton Berle hosted, the show’s ratings skyrocketed and he was made the permanent emcee. Texaco Star Theater is best remembered as the show that earned Berle his “Mr. Television” nickname.

The Colgate Comedy Hour (1950-55)
A show with “comedy” in its name should have the best comedians of the day, and this show did. Hosts included Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Bob Hope, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, among others. As a musical-variety show, hosts also included Donald O’Conner, Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor, and a bevy of stars our parents remember better than boomers do. Like Texaco Star Theater, a single sponsor — Colgate — commanded the commercials throughout the program. Commercials were performed live like other shows, often by the stars themselves.

Your Show of Shows (1950-54)
More than just another variety show, some say this one was the most influential of them all. Featuring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, the show had a writing pool of Neil Simon, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, among others. It was the first show to feature an ongoing comedy sketch, “The Hickenloopers.” Some say every comedy show that followed owed a debt to Your Show of Shows. Carl Reiner stated that The Dick Van Dyke Show was inspired by the show.

The Nat King Cole Show (1956-57)
Featuring the first African-American TV series host, the show aired without a sponsor. Advertisers feared they would upset their customers in the South, so NBC aired it anyway, footing the bill. Nat King Cole was an immensely popular singer, but 1950s white America wasn’t at all sure they wanted to see a black man host a TV show. The star ended the show himself in its second season, when no sponsor could be found.

Mister Boomer remembers his family tuning in as Mr. Cole opened each show at his piano, singing a song.

Of course, there were many other variety shows aired in the first complete decade of the Baby Boom. Families gathered around the TV each week to laugh, be entertained and maybe get a little highbrow culture as the flickering black and white images of our boomer youth appeared on a tiny screen.

Were you old enough to watch variety shows in the 1950s, boomers? Which were your family’s favorites?

Next up: Variety Shows in the 1960s

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