Monthly Archives: May 2012

My Television Diary: 5/23/12

The Best of The Jimmy Dean Show (highlights, circa 1963), Time-Life Video

Apart from a handful of YouTube clips, and a pair of Best-Of DVDs, there’s very little in circulation from The Jimmy Dean Show. That’s a shame, because this humble little ABC variety series seems to have been pretty good.

It debuted in September 1963 and ran for three seasons. It might have lasted longer, had ABC’s programmers given it a fighting chance. It was moved from Thursdays at 9:00, to Thursdays at 10:00, to Fridays at 10:00, consigned to inevitable ratings defeat at the hands of Perry Mason, The Defenders and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. respectively.

Anyway, until Hee-Haw came along, The Jimmy Dean Show was the television home of mainstream country music in the 1960s. And unlike later variety shows like The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and The Johnny Cash Show, it seems to have been perfectly willing to keep the music virtually all country, all the time. This DVD includes fine performances by Eddy Arnold and series regular Molly Bee, and a terrific set from Buck Owens and the Buckaroos— reminding us what a great singer/songwriter Buck was, until… well… Hee-Haw. There’s also a delightful interlude with Homer & Jethro, and if you’re guessing from their names that they were just a hayseed Dr. Demento act, you couldn’t be more wrong.

The show did break from country TV tradition in one way, by showcasing mainstream comedians like Don Adams and Jackie Mason— and thankfully so, because as much as I love vintage country music, I find the country comedians (Rod Brasfield, Minnie Pearl, the Duke of Paducah) uniformly excruciating.

Reputation informs us that the reliable comedy highlight of The Jimmy Dean Show was Jim Henson’s early Muppet “Rowlf,” and his scenes in this DVD really bear that out. Yeah, I know— it’s a puppet and you’re not six years old anymore— but Rowlf is funny as hell.

As for Jimmy Dean himself, he’s agreeable and friendly, always slightly nervous but charmingly so. He fidgets at his necktie, as if he’s really not used to wearing one, which I can well imagine. He looks like a cross between James Dean and a non-psychotic Richard Speck, and his singing is better than adequate. (There’s also a noticeable scar over his left eyebrow, and I kept wondering how it got there.) But he’s a very likeable guy, and he had a very likeable show. I wish I could see more of it.

The material on this DVD is all taken from outstanding kinescopes, evidently from Jimmy’s estate.

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The Rosemary Clooney Show: Girl Singer: Songs from the Classic Television Series (highlights, 1956-1957); Concord Records

More or less right at the peak of her career, Rosemary Clooney did a syndicated TV series. It was shot on 35mm in Hollywood, and while it had certain limitations (second-rank guest stars and a lot of dead-on-arrival comedy bits), it could hardly have been better from a musical standpoint. Not only do you get Rosemary at her vocal peak (and looking gorgeous), there’s also harmonizing by the Hi-Los and the music of Nelson Riddle’s orchestra. The arrangements are all Riddle’s too.

The show is a little obscure, but it could still be found in scattered syndication right into the 1980s. Most of its 39 episodes can be found on the collectors’ circuit, transferred from Nth-generation VHS dubs, but they’re for die-hard fans only, as the quality of these bootlegs is pretty rough. Happily, the original 35mm elements survive in beautiful condition, and this Best-Of disc is a worthy tribute. Sound and image are both top-notch.

Admittedly, it’s a bit too much of a video valentine, as each clip is book-ended by modern-day interview footage of Clooney descendants and admirers, gushing at length about her. And gushing. And gushing. Not that I disagree with them, but I’d have gladly traded the bulk of that for another two or three songs.

It would also have been nice to see her working with a few of her guest stars. As I mentioned, most of them were ho-hum, but there were exceptions, like Buster Keaton, Boris Karloff and Julie London.

Rosemary’s career in the 1950s was hectic and productive, but it had to be put on hold during her frequent pregnancies. She was carrying son Gabriel during part of this series’ run, and you can see the evidence in a couple of the clips selected here. Suddenly she no longer appears in glamorous slim-waisted gowns, but in ballooning blouses— and only from the chest up.

Once production on young Gabriel was completed, she returned to the small screen in September 1957, starring in The Lux Show, airing in color on Wednesdays on NBC. Unfortunately for Rosemary, the dial was suddenly crowded with pop singers that season. Perry Como, Gisele Mackenzie, Nat King Cole, Guy Mitchell, Pat Boone, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Dinah Shore all had shows of their own (not to mention the amateur hours, guest shots and Lawrence Welk’s orchestra), and The Lux Show faded away the following spring. Unfortunately for us, it was aired live and very little of it’s in circulation today— and then only in grungy black-and-white kinescopes.

Anyway, this Best-Of from the syndicated Rosemary Clooney Show is a real treat, presenting twenty songs— ballads, show tunes and lots of swinging 1950s pop.

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The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn (August 2004)

Craig Kilborn had been a rising star on ESPN and Comedy Central when he was tapped to replace Tom Snyder on CBS’s The Late Late Show in 1999.

Essentially, the man who hired Kilborn had been David Letterman, whose Worldwide Pants produced the show. While today Letterman may be only a grumpy shadow of his former self, thirty years ago he was a real maverick. As always, being a TV maverick means that some critics like you, others scorn you, and millions of viewers find something else to watch— except for a number of intrigued new fans who stick around, tell their friends, and make a cult favorite out of you.

I was part of that cult from the summer of ’82 onward. I loved the playful eccentricity of the show, the freshness of the humor and the sense that anything might happen. The guests were people you never saw on talk shows— Hal Roach, Viva, Henry Morgan, Tom Waits, Harvey Pekar— and while the show fell into a certain routine after a while, it was always worth watching. And then, Dave jumped to CBS, and suddenly his show went very mainstream. Goodbye, Ka-Mar the Discount Magician… Hello Tom Cruise. It wasn’t a bad show at all, but I lost interest and stopped watching.

Throwaway bit in three.. two…one…

Anyway, Letterman’s clout at CBS is such that the hour after his show more or less belongs to him, and when Tom Snyder left The Late Late Show, Letterman hired Kilborn. In many ways this was a reincarnation of the original Late Night with David Letterman, but Los Angelesized and shrunk down to one-eighth scale.

Once again we got a host that many (or most) of us had never heard of, one who rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Kilborn’s humor was sharp and spontaneous, but it could also be mean. Whereas the young Letterman had an appealingly Midwestern innocence about him, Kilborn always seemed fully confident in himself, sometimes a bit too much so. Personally, I’ve always liked him, but that opinion was not unanimous.

What really won me over was the style of the comedy. It was like the good old days again. Fresh, different, quirky, sometimes edgy, sometimes silly, and no other show was serving up that flavor of humor.

“I say, young lady— wiggle it. Shake it prop-pah”

The show was set up like a regular late night talk show, but in a tiny studio seating maybe (maybe) 150 people. No band. No announcer, either— the guy introducing the show over the opening credits was Kilborn himself. There were famous guests now and then, but the emphasis seems to have been on fresh faces and beautiful faces (no Larry “Bud” Melman ever emerged from this show).

Kilborn always opened with a short monologue, then repaired to his desk for idle chatter before rolling ahead with “In the News,” which was basically¬† Weekend Update with an extra layer of sarcasm. I loved all of this. Between or after these segments, there’d be some sort of offbeat comedy bit, which could be absolutely anything. (One night a Kirstie Alley fat joke was swiftly condemned by a midget referee appearing out of nowhere who threw a flag on the play and penalized the host for being out of bounds.) I especially loved the visits from “Sebastian, the Asexual Icon,” a Morrisseyesque character spouting fey pronouncements (Kilborn in librarian glasses and a scarf), but I can’t articulate for you why this was funny. It just was— and I usually found Kilborn as compelling when rambling spontaneously as he was when doing scripted material.

As much as I enjoyed Kilborn’s stuff, I tended to wander away from the show for long periods. A great many of the guests were aimed at a younger demographic than mine, and I usually never knew (or cared) who the hell Akon, Oleta Adams or Shannyn Sossamon were. Some of those unknowns became conventionally famous later on (Danica Patrick, Anna Kournikova), but unlike the unique guests on Letterman’s old show, these people seldom had anything interesting to say.

I was shocked in the late summer of 2004 when Kilborn announced he was leaving the show. It wasn’t a case of being gracefully fired. He was in negotiations to renew his contract when he unexpectedly announced he’d rather move on instead. I hastily recorded some scraps of his last couple weeks of new shows. I wish I’d saved a hundred times as much.

He came back in 2010 for six weeks of a more-or-less doomed early evening talk show on some (but not all) Fox stations, and he’s popped up in a couple of movies, but for the most part he’s kept a very low profile since the end of The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn. He’d like to do a sitcom or something— if it can be done his way, producing or writing it himself— and every now and then something like this is tentatively announced, but somehow nothing comes of it.

Today a really fine talent is ensconced in a Hollywood Hills living room, watching a lot of basketball and waiting for the phone to ring with the right offer. I hope it does.

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Posted by on May 23, 2012 in My Television Diary


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My Television Diary: 5/16/12

The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (1:1, pilot), August 27, 1993

I never watched this tongue-in-cheek western during its run, but when it was slammed by the usual finger-waggling do-gooder watchdogs for being the most violent show on TV, I made a mental note to check it out. I’ve finally gotten around to watching the pilot episode, and it’s reasonably good fun. The violence is part shoot-’em-up and part Looney Tunes, really nothing that anyone should’ve gotten worked up over.

Bruce Campbell is appealing, and I loved his Evil Dead movies. But though he tries hard, he’s just not a very good actor. Fortunately, this show is such a circus that acting isn’t something it really needs a lot of. What it does need is non-stop action, and there’s plenty of it here. What it needs less of is the goofball comedy, which must have seemed pretty funny on paper but doesn’t translate to the screen too well.

What really got my attention was the supporting cast. Besides R. Lee Ermey, James Hong and John Astin in fairly substantial roles, you also get a few stars from TV westerns of the past: James Drury (The Virginian), Paul Brinegar (Rawhide), Robert Fuller (Laramie) and Stuart Whitman (Cimarron Strip). Also on hand is old Sierra Number 3, the same locomotive that starred in everything from Petticoat Junction to Casey Jones to Iron Horse. There’s even a Barnabas Collins wolf’s-head cane on display. I was less happy with the cast members who carried on into the regular series— Kelly Rutherford is terrific as a crafty saloon vixen, but Julius Carry is loudly annoying as Brisco’s inevitable black sidekick.

Anyway, this would be a better show if it took itself more seriously. It wants to be a rollicking good time, and it succeeds to a point, but you can’t build any suspense or dramatic tension when everything’s one big joke. Even so, its heart is in the right place, and I’ll probably watch a little more of this show.

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Night Court USA (untitled episode, date unknown), circa 1957

Some of you might suspect that I love anything and everything from the vintage era of television. Well, Exhibit One in my defense is Night Court USA.

The show’s premise is that you’re a spectator at an actual night court, in which an actual judge hears actual cases and passes judgment. That probably would be a good show, except that you don’t get that here. Instead, you get a Hollywood set dressed up as a courtroom, with Jay Jostyn playing a grumpy judge, and defendants who seem to have all been dropouts from the Ajax Acting School.

There are attempts at cinema verite, and those are superficially successful. Clerks wander back and forth around the courtroom, muttering to each other. The defendants’ dialogue sounds semi-improvised. But nothing deflates faster than a reality show that’s all phony. This one became a boring waste of time in its first sixty seconds, and stayed that way right down to the end.

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The Red Skelton Show (9:30, “Clem and the Beanstalk”), May 24, 1960

Like Lucille Ball, Red Skelton ended a long and legendary TV career in the early 1970s (let’s overlook the attempted comeback Life with Lucy for the moment). But while her reputation stayed aloft in the upper atmosphere of stardom for a generation or two, Skelton’s reputation began sinking the minute he left the air, and it’s been descending ever since.

The simple reason for this is that the best work of Lucy’s career has been in perpetual re-runs, while Skelton’s stuff has languished on the shelf. His weekly show had been done live right into the 1960s, and no one ever wanted a syndication package of kinescopes, so it’s gone largely unseen. What’s unseen doesn’t get written about. No buzz, no reputation.

Well, any comedian who could stay on the air for twenty years (on TV, not even counting radio) had to be pretty good, and Skelton was great. I selected this episode because of the guest stars (the irresistible duo of Peter Lorre and Mamie Van Doren), and it didn’t disappoint me. The script is very good, but the show works mainly because of Skelton himself. Jerry Lewis would have been just as good at the physical comedy, but not as good with the verbal stuff. Bob Hope would’ve done well with the verbal, but not with the physical. Jack Benny would have played everything too deliberately and Jackie Gleason would have made everything subordinate to his own performance.

Skelton makes it all work while keeping everything in perfect balance: the verbal, the physical, the pacing, the tone, and he keeps throwing in ad-libbed lines and bits of business to keep it all fresh. (In fact, everyone playing a scene with him eventually breaks into spontaneous laughter at some point, which is probably the most delightful thing of all.)

The centerpiece of the episode is a “Jack and the Beanstalk” tale, updated for the space race era of 1960. It all ends with a surprise cameo by Rod Serling, who’s there to deliver a pensive postscript a la The Twilight Zone— except that he’s laughing so hard that he can’t deliver his lines, and the show is running so short of time that it fades out all too soon. It’s wonderful stuff.

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Dallas (6:28, “Ewing Inferno”), May 6, 1983

I’m not articulate enough to sell anybody on the idea that Dallas is something better than a bloated soap opera. But it is.

Scoff if you want to. But when this show is firing on all cylinders, it’s highly compelling television. As usual, it’s telling half a dozen narratives simultaneously throughout Season Six, and that’s not an easy thing to do well. But as the season winds up to its finale, the individual narrative threads suddenly knit together, unexpectedly and beautifully, making it all seem inevitable. Then, all hell breaks loose.

The Sopranos beats Dallas cold in terms of dialogue and intimate character interaction. But not in terms of a story arc. That’s where modern television keeps falling down. Not just the run-of-the-mill shows, but the acclaimed ones the critics yammer on about— Big Love, Lost, Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire, you name it— they often shine in terms of dialogue, characterizations, concepts or individual scenes, but eventually the narrative makes a crash-landing. On the other hand, the writers and producers of Dallas really knew how to keep it flying— or at least they did for the 131 episodes I’ve seen of it so far.

Dallas is not the greatest show ever, and it has its faults. But I’m constantly in awe of how well it tells its story.



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My Television Diary: 5/6/12

I was out of town for most of the past week, and didn’t get to watch much of anything. Nothing vintage, anyway.

I spent a couple of evenings surfing the 2012 cable TV line-up. Having dropped almost everything from my own cable service, I’m not very familiar with what’s on the air these days. Fortunately, A&E was running marathons of two “reality” shows that won me over.

Duck Dynasty is a show I’d never heard of, about a family of very backwoodsy folks in Louisiana. I decided to try it for a few minutes, to see if it was as bad as I expected it to be. But in fact, it was hilarious and I’d love to see more. Less funny, yet inexplicably riveting was Storage Wars, about seven or eight fringies in Southern California who buy the contents of deadbeats’ storage units at auction, in hopes of selling the stuff for a profit later. I’m skeptical about how much “reality” there is in this show, as most of these units hold nothing but absolute crap except for one fabulously rare collectible tucked way in the back. The show’s real attraction is the mix of personalities among the guys bidding against each other, the most fascinating of them being the elderly hipster Barry Weiss. I’d watch him in anything.

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You Asked for It, 1951; exact date unknown

I wouldn’t risk a nickel on the public domain movies sold on DVD by Alpha Video, but Alpha also carries a large line of 1950s TV episodes, and the quality on these is pretty good. Alpha sells some rare episodes of You Asked for It, and as far as I can tell they’re all from the show’s first season, when it aired on DuMont. (The show then moved to ABC, which seems to have been more diligent about renewing its copyrights.)

Like all the others, this episode is a hodgepodge. It opens with a segment pitting an abacus against a modern, electric calculator (modern for 1951, that is— it’s bigger than a Thanksgiving turkey). A young gal in granny glasses operates the calculator, and the abacus is operated by an Asian guy who tells host Art Baker that he uses it all the time. Baker gives them both a sheet of formidable-looking addition and multiplication questions, produces a stopwatch, hollers “Go” and the race is on. In the end, the calculator does beat the abacus— by a mere six seconds.

The show closes with a surprisingly good assortment of card tricks performed by wrestler Gorgeous George, whose regular bouts on DuMont’s Wrestling from Columbia Park made him one of the tube’s biggest early stars. This appearance must be one of the medium’s earliest examples of craven cross-promotion, but it’s a treat, and George himself is oddly charming. Whereas the typical wrestler today adopts a hulking, knuckle-dragging Cro-Mag persona, George is quite the gentleman.

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The Outer Limits (1995 revival) (1:16, “Caught in the Act,” July 1, 1995)

I’d never seen anything of the 1990s Outer Limits revival, and I was curious to see how it compares to the original. The answer is “not very well,” though creator Leslie Stevens is credited as a “program consultant” (yeah, right)— as if the six credited producers, associate producers and executive producers on this thing weren’t enough.

Cannily, I selected an episode featuring Alyssa Milano, gambling that an hour of tedious Canadian science fiction might be offset by one of her trademark topless scenes. At least she delivered, playing a college student who suddenly becomes a nymphomaniac after a chunk of meteorite crashes through the ceiling of her dorm room.

But the episode doesn’t really work. Like Dead Man’s Gun (another 1990s Canadian-made series), the Outer Limits revival has all the potential in the world but falls down on execution. The actors never seem to be the characters they’re portraying. They’re just going through the motions and reciting lines, and superficially at that. The story sputters along without being very engrossing or believable, which is bad enough for any show, but it’s the kiss of death for science fiction. On the other hand, you do get to see Alyssa Milano topless, so I can’t complain.

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Town Hall Party, August 8, 1959

This show would probably be torturous for anyone who doesn’t care for 1950s country music. Fortunately for me, there’s no music I like better, and I can’t tell you how much I loved this broadcast!

With legions of transplanted Okies, Arkies and Texans in the area, Los Angeles became an unlikely hub of country music after World War II. Local radio shows nurtured a crop of promising country artists (Merle Travis and Tennessee Ernie Ford among them), and created a local scene that was rich and distinctive.

Cliffie Stone led the march from radio to television with Hometown Jamboree in late 1949. While it’s an obscure show today (apparently only two kinescopes survive and I’m dying to see them), it ran for a decade. Western swing bandleaders Tex Williams and Spade Cooley got shows of their own in the early 1950s, and August 1953 brought the most familiar of the local country TV shows, Town Hall Party.

It’s the most familiar mainly because it’s the one for which we have the most kinescopes. In Germany the acclaimed Bear Family label has issued a number of them on DVD. Like everything else from Bear Family, they’re pricy but impressive, with extensive liner notes.

This DVD presents one episode of Town Hall Party, essentially complete but with the commercials edited out. As usual, the show is a straightforward telecast of a live performance held at the old Compton Town Hall (now long gone). The cameras are simply spectators; announcer Jay Stewart (later of Let’s Make a Deal fame) seldom looks into a camera, and the performers never do.

I’m sure Bear Family selected this episode for DVD because the guest that week was Johnny Cash, newly free of Sun Records and still at his absolute creative peak. He performs two sets of about a half-dozen songs each, and the live audience (of several hundred at least, and possibly many more) goes wild for him.

But the line-up in this episode is a virtual Hall of Fame of 1950s California country. The legendary Joe Maphis backs up most of the vocalists on his trademark double-necked guitar. Among those vocalists are Skeets McDonald, Johnny Bond, Jeannie Sterling and Tex Ritter. It’s not all country and western, by the way. The blind pianist Jimmy Pruitt performs a blistering barrelhouse number, there’s a Southern gospel song by the dynamic Martha Carson, and a hot rockabilly song from Gordon Terry.

All of these are wonderfully well done, the pace is brisk and it’s all live. No retakes, no camera effects, and everything happens on a small stage. It’s happening on one hell of a sweltering evening, too. Most of the performers are visibly sweating up a storm, wiping their brows after each song and often in the midst of a song. (Cash wears a different outfit for his second set, apologizing that his “skin was leakin’ so much that I had to take that shirt, tie and coat off.”).

Occasionally the camera pans around the audience, which looks like it’s about as overheated as the performers are (note the shirtless tot). And yet, it really is a Town Hall party for the crowd, which cheers, howls and shrieks its appreciation throughout the show, especially for Johnny Cash.

Still, the times were changing. Hometown Jamboree would be off the air a few weeks later, and Town Hall Party itself would die in January 1961. The local country shows had all aired on Los Angeles’ independent stations, and were getting expensive to produce. It didn’t help that rock and roll was luring away younger viewers.

This trend wasn’t just an L.A. phenomenon, either. Springfield, Missouri’s Ozark Jubilee, which had been broadcast nationally on ABC throughout the latter half of the ’50s, went off the air about the same time, in 1960.

In my opinion, the disappearance of these local country TV shows coincided with a steep decline in country music itself. The Nashville sound took over, bringing in string sections and vocal choruses, banishing country’s honkytonk and hillbilly roots to the margins of the industry. Western music, which had been ubiquitous a decade earlier, essentially vanished. And in Los Angeles, the country music scene splintered and faded away. All that remain are 78s, a few kinescopes… and memories.


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