Uncle Sam Wants You

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(Pictured: silent film stars Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin appear at a Liberty Loan drive during World War I.)

If you are of a certain age, you remember savings bonds. You may have owned one, or been given one as a gift. A savings bond was essentially a loan of money from a purchasing citizen (your grandmother, for example) to the federal government. Upon maturity, the bond could be cashed in for the amount of the principal plus interest. This kind of citizen funding had a long history in America, going back to the Revolution and the Civil War.

Sales of bonds during the world wars were frequently promoted by celebrities, especially movie stars. In the postwar era, without the urgency of a war to spark sales, the government continued to rely on celebrities to create interest, although these latter-day endorsements were of a somewhat different sort. Mr. Ed, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best produced special episodes designed to promote bond sales. They were not intended for broadcast; they were more likely to be shown at school assemblies and other civic presentations. They were usually short, although Father Knows Best did a full-length episode in which the Andersons subject their kids to 24 hours under totalitarian rule designed to show them the importance of investing in freedom, or something like that.

As the 1980s began, the American economy, struggling with the oil shocks and the end of the post-World War II economic boom, was in turmoil amid inflation and budget deficits. And so the U.S. government started promoting savings bond sales again. As in the 1950s and early 60s, several popular sitcoms produced special short episodes encouraging people to buy bonds through the Payroll Savings Plan, in which a portion of your paycheck was deducted to buy bonds. Cheers, Taxi, Benson, and WKRP in Cincinnati all made such episodes.

The WKRP episode, titled “A Sure Thing,” is dated 1980; “Uncle Sam Malone” is dated 1983. Where the bond drives during the World Wars stressed the patriotic aspects of buying them, the focus was now entirely on what buying bonds could do for you. The basic premise of each episode is largely the same: one or more characters is skeptical about buying bonds through the Payroll Savings Plan, but the rest of the cast persuades them of its awesomeness. (In the Cheers episode, Diane and Carla are skeptics; at WKRP, it’s Herb and Johnny.) The Cheers episode is actually funny, or at least it benefits from the presence of a live audience (or a laugh track). In the WKRP episode, the jokes, such as they are, fall flat, especially without the benefit of audience laughter. Both episodes require a lot of exposition; the Cheers episode leavens it with jokes, but the WKRP episode drones on and on. The WKRP episode ends with Johnny Fever in the studio playing “For the Love of Money” by the O’Jays. One online writer speculates that permission for the song must have cost a bundle; I wonder if it was maybe a public-service freebie, just like the rest of the production.

My usual half-assed research process has not uncovered the Taxi or Benson episodes online. This kind of long-form public service announcement soon fell out of fashion, although the casts of television programs would continue to make shorter PSAs for various causes now and then, and still do, occasionally.

You can still buy savings bonds today, although you can’t tuck them into a grandchild’s birthday card. Paper bonds were discontinued in 2012; they’re entirely digital now. When the government can run on deficit spending forever, borrowing money directly from citizens who give money explicitly for that purpose is superfluous. The Payroll Savings Plan still exists too, but if you have a 401K, you’re probably not interested. Diane Chambers was excited about a seven-percent rate of return; series EE bonds issued between now and April 2022 are guaranteed to double in value after 30 years, but the annual interest rate is one-tenth of one percent, so if you cash out before then, you’ll get practically nothing.

The Internet may have poisoned discourse and made many of our fellow citizens functionally insane, but it has also helped preserve this sort of ephemera to remember. So we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.

The Prize Movie and Other Tales of Local TV

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(Pictured: an elephant watching TV. Mouse over or click the image to read the original Getty Images caption, which is a journey.)

I wrote a few weeks ago how back in the day, before cable and streamers and YouTube, we watched whatever was on broadcast TV. I thought of it again the other morning after going down a rabbit hole involving The Prize Movie With Ione, which ran on WLS-TV in Chicago on weekday mornings from 1967 til 1975. A 1993 Chicago magazine article described it as “a live, low-budget comedy/variety/game show and fitness program with a call-in talk feature” that also featured heavily edited old movies. Its host, Ione Citrin, was up for anything—wearing odd costumes, ad-libbing with phone callers participating in contests, and/or doing calisthenics. In Chicago at that time, you had maybe six channels to choose from, and if you weren’t interested in watching Concentration on one of them or a sitcom rerun on another, Ione was a pleasant companion while you did chores, wrangled your pre-school kids, or sat on your couch smoking cigarettes.

The Prize Movie With Ione throws back to a bygone era in television: when local stations employed personalities who were not necessarily associated with the news department. They frequently hosted a movie in the morning or afternoon, and clowned around during breaks, as Ione did. Actor Tim Conway and future voice-over titan Ernie Anderson gained fame in the same role on a local station in Cleveland. (The Whose Line Is It Anyway pitchman routine, so hilariously done by Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie, is a direct parody.)

Many stations aired local afternoon shows for kids. On WISC-TV here in Madison, ventriloquist Howie Olson hosted Circus 3 with sidekick Cowboy Eddie. At WKOW, Marsh Shapiro was Marshall the Marshal. (Shapiro was a sort of Renaissance man; in addition to the TV kids’ show, his main job was news director at WKOW Radio. He also anchored sports on TV and founded the Nitty Gritty, a popular local restaurant, besides.)

WKOW employed two other personalities who are remembered by a few elderly viewers today. Big John Schermerhorn (always “Big John,” never just “John”) started as a sports anchor, but was better known as the host of a locally produced polka show called Dairyland Jubilee that aired statewide, and for hosting the station’s annual March of Dimes telethon, before his death in 1974. Luella Mortenson went back even further, hosting local homemaker shows practically from the station’s first days on the air in 1953.

Local personalities would often be tasked with hosting Dialing for Dollars. Dialing for Dollars was actually a franchised feature licensed to local TV markets, although I suspect that many stations ran similar features without coughing up a franchise fee. A name and number would be drawn from submitted entries, and sometimes directly from the local phone book. The host would place a call to the number, and the person answering had to come up with a secret word announced at the beginning of the show, or the amount in a cash jackpot. If they got it right, they won. If not, the jackpot increased and rolled over to the next day. It made for compelling TV in an era when we could be compelled for less than it takes today. At my house, during summer noontimes, we would wait for the phone to ring, even though we didn’t expect it to.

Dialing for Dollars and programs like it began disappearing in the 1970s, a victim of changing times. (The Prize Movie With Ione went off the air in 1975 partly because WLS-TV needed to air a new ABC network show called Good Morning America.) Locally produced programming cost money where taking a network feed did not; it became more important to spend personnel budget on newscasts, which were flagship programs and frequently made money in crates. After that, if a station needed a “personality” for something, the job often fell to the weatherman (who was not necessarily a trained meteorologist, as most TV weather people are today). Frequently, he (and occcasionally, she) became the one who hosted the telethons, made public appearances, and participated in station stunts.

Every TV market in the country had its local personalities in the era when such a thing was popular. Let’s hear about the ones you remember.

A Summer With the Big Three

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(Pictured: Gina Lollobrigida in 1968. Va va va voom, as they said back then.)

There’s a list at Wikipedia that shows weekly TV ratings from 1948 through 2014. The page shows the top-rated show of most weeks and links to a source with a more detailed list. Alas, a lot of the links go to paywalled sites (which renders the page less than completely useful as a research tool), but as a high-level look at what we were watching over time, it’s pretty interesting.

In 1977, the TV season ended in April. (The May ratings sweeps that extended the season did not exist yet.) In any summer, until the new season began in September, the vast majority of primetime network programming would be reruns. Sometimes, popular episodes of the top shows would be similarly popular in reruns—with no home video or streaming, reruns were the only place to catch episodes you missed—but oddballs would often break through, too. The 1977 summer ratings winners were quite the smorgasbord. Some observations follow:

—Before the wide availability of premium cable and the advent of home video, network television was the only place to see Hollywood movies once they left theaters. (Few were important enough to get theatrical re-releases.) The network TV debuts of Gone With the Wind in 1976 and The Godfather in 1977 were enormous cultural events, but lesser theatrical films regularly drew big numbers, sometimes big enough to win the week. In the summer of 1977, the weekly ratings were topped at various times by High Plains Drifter, The Cheyenne Social Club, The Scalphunters, Breakout, and Buona Sera Mrs. Campbell—three westerns, an adventure set in Mexico, and, oddly, a 1968 Italian comedy starring Gina Lollobrigida. (The latter looks to have won almost by default during one of the lowest-rated weeks of the entire summer.) Theatrical movies would never again win as many summer weeks as they did in 1977.

—Muhammad Ali was at the peak of his boxing fame in 1977 and was a big-enough TV star to win the ratings. In May, he won a unanimous decision over Alfredo Evangelista, a fight so dreadful—Ali out of shape and barely trying, Evangelista basically a tomato can—that Howard Cosell apologized to the ABC audience during the broadcast for having shown it. Nevertheless, it drew 17.7 million viewers to rate #1. In September, Ali would have the #1 show on TV again, winning his last successful title defense against Earnie Shavers, a fight Shavers very nearly won.

—Although a lot is made every year about the terrible ratings for the baseball All-Star Game, NBA Finals, and World Series when compared to past years, such games still tend to rate well compared to the other stuff on network TV in any given week. (This year, the All Star Game ranked third for the week, behind two NBA Finals games.) So it was in the 70s, when the All-Star Game was routinely the #1 show of the week, as it was in 1977.

Charlie’s Angels had premiered in the fall of 1976, but it didn’t reach #1 in the weekly ratings until the summer of 1977, when it was the most-watched show of the week seven times. Its 1977 season premiere in September also won the ratings race, but it would hit #1 only one more time, with its 1979 season premiere.

—The oddest show to top the ratings in the summer of 1977 was Man From Atlantis starring Patrick Duffy. The show had premiered in the spring as a series of TV movies. The fourth movie was #1 for the week of June 20, 1977—a first-run program bobbing to the top in a sea of reruns. The movies were successful enough that Man From Atlantis was permitted to dock on NBC’s regular fall schedule, but it soon sank without a trace.

Somebody else will have to do a scholarly examination of ratings and trends—I’m just poking through the wreckage of the 1970s looking for shiny stuff. So there are completely different posts I could write. For example, in 1975, reruns of All in the Family were #1 in most weeks, just as the first-run episodes had been during the regular season. Stuff that barely registers today was must-see TV: in 1975, 1976, and 1978, the Miss Universe pageant was the #1 show the week it was broadcast, beating even the All-Star Game in 1975.

In a gazillion-channel universe, with cable and streamers and YouTube, you go looking for something to watch and you generally find it. In the three-channel universe, we watched whatever was on, and if that turned out to be two hours of Gina Lollobrigida, then hell yeah.

Watch this space for more summer-of-1977 content later this week. Also: a new Sidepiece went out this morning. Check your spam filter. 

What I Learned From 70s TV

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(Pictured: Buddy Ebsen, star of Barnaby Jones, 1976.)

We learn a lot about life based on the media we consume, and it’s been true for almost 100 years. When Paul Henried put two cigarettes in his mouth, lit them both, and handed one to Bette Davis in the 1942 movie Now Voyager, a whole generation of men took notice. Television brought role models into every home: teenagers learned how to dress and talk and move from other teens on TV; millions of aspiring rock musicians were born the night the Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show. Suburban kids who have never met a Black person adopt the look and speech patterns of rappers. Young athletes spike the ball and flip the bat like the pros do. Grown-ass adults internalize what they see on TV as the “right” way to behave, until they’re acting like reality show divas, or electing one president.

I am a child of the 1970s, and like everyone else, I was shaped by what I saw on TV growing up. I was less overt about it than many; apart from briefly wishing I could be cool like Keith Partridge, I didn’t set out to imitate anyone specifically. But I did learn some life lessons, especially from watching cop shows. The trouble is that now, decades later, when I rewatch those same shows, like Hawaii Five-O, Mannix, and Barnaby Jones, I find that many of the lessons I learned from them are untrue.

For example, there’s a lot less diabolical laughter than I was taught to expect. Real-life villains don’t waste time laughing about their plans; they just go off and be bad. Related: in real life, people tend to laugh at jokes, or things that are clearly funny. On 70s TV, it was common for people to react to disappointment or surprise by laughing uncontrollably, which you just don’t see on your average day.

There is also a lot less slow-acting poison being administered on the average day. Your boss never comes to you at 10AM (laughing diabolically) and says he poisoned your coffee, and that if you want the antidote, you’ll have to finish your project by the end of the day. Related: 70s TV cop shows taught us that it is very easy to put poison in somebody’s beverage, and that they will drink it without noticing anything and fall over stone dead within a couple of minutes. Sadly, this is not true in real life, however convenient it might be.

There is also a lot less truth serum and hypnosis being used in real life than I expected. Practically nobody is faking his or her own death, and real-life plastic surgeons aren’t nearly as skillful as the ones on TV.

I expected a lot more people to have hidden caches of diamonds, and/or to be sucked into quicksand.

In my adult life I have learned, contrary to what I saw on cop shows, that if you punch a guy in the face once, you probably won’t kill him. Also, a person who is knocked out cold or diagnosed with a concussion will not be able to return to normal activities within minutes or hours. Joe Mannix could do it—repeatedly—but not you or me.

In the real world, as opposed to the world of 70s TV cop shows, a car that goes off the road and down into a ditch or ravine will not automatically explode like Hiroshima.

One other thing I have learned from watching 70s TV cop shows in the new millennium that I didn’t know back then: apparently, none of these shows had anybody on staff whose job it was to say, “this script sucks and we shouldn’t do it.”

Continue reading “What I Learned From 70s TV”

Fab Funny

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(Pictured: the Beatles pose with their cartoon selves in November 1964.)

I have written occasionally over the years about the Beatles’ 1960s cartoon series. The most extensive history of the project I’ve seen to date is in the new book Fab Fools: The Last Ever Untold Beatles Story by Jem Roberts, which discusses the Beatles as comedians, in the context of British comedy on radio, TV, and film from the 50s to the new millennium.

Producer Al Brodax of King Features made a deal with Brian Epstein for an animated series the day after the Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show. The scripts were written by showbiz veterans whose credits, among other things, included scripts for Gilligan’s Island and jokes for Milton Berle. Although a detailed bible was written explaining how to animate each Beatle to express his character, the look of the animation is fairly cheap; King Features, which had made Casper the Friendly Ghost and Popeye cartoons, farmed out the work, and sharp-eyed viewers would occasionally notice that various Beatles were sometimes missing various extremities. (Roberts says, “the animators always insisted on reshooting sequences with missing heads, no matter what the cost.”) Actual Beatles songs were used, although the wrong Beatle was sometimes shown singing, and songs were abruptly edited.

The Beatles wanted only to sign a contract and cash the checks; they were not interested in providing the voices for their animated selves. But it’s possible that ABC, the network buying the show, might not have wanted them. As natives of Liverpool, they had a very specific accent that sounded foreign even in their own country; there’d been talk of captioning A Hard Day’s Night to make them more understandable. ABC also feared that American viewers would find Liverpudlian accents unintelligible. So Brodax turned to English comic actor Lance Percival to do the voices of Paul and Ringo. When Paul first saw the show, he didn’t recognize what was supposed to be his voice; nevertheless, the Paul and Ringo voices are closer to the originals than those of John and George. Veteran voice actor Paul Frees, who had done radio drama, Disney cartoons, and The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, didn’t capture either man, and didn’t really try. Roberts says, “Harrison ended up with a strange kind of squeaky, Irish-cum-Mexican brogue, while Lennon’s famous tones were replaced with Frees’ stab at a Rex Harrison impersonation.… the complete misunderstanding of what made John John to this day utterly undoes all the things the animators strove to get right.”

Epstein hated what Brodax and King Features had wrought (although in later years, John and George had kind words for it). He intervened directly with British TV channels to keep it off the air in the UK. It was a hit in the States, however, from its premiere in September 1965. No new episodes were produced after 1967, although the show ran on ABC until 1969. It aired on local channels after that, on MTV in the 80s, and eventually in Britain.

(By 1967, the Beatles’ more psychedelic sound and look didn’t fit the TV mold anymore. It did, however, transfer to the big screen: Yellow Submarine, produced by Brodax with a larger budget and a better voice cast, fulfilled the Beatles’ three-picture deal with United Artists in 1968.)

Today, episodes of The Beatles can be found at YouTube and Dailymotion, although they come and go. Apple owns the rights to the series, but Roberts says it’s filled with “staggeringly crass and offensive cultural and racial depictions throughout,” and suggests that the series would generate complaints today “from those of a Chinese background—and Japanese, Italian, German, Romany, Native American, Hispanic, Indian, British, Extra-Terrestrial … and so on.” While a restored release is high on the wishlist of many Beatles fans, it seems unlikely.

Fab Fools is a great idea for a book; part of what made the Beatles so appealing was their sense of humor. Their humor came from some very specific inspirations in post-World War II Britain, however, and an American reader who knows little about the place and the period will get lost now and then. Similarly, there is much about the comedians and the humor that inspired the Beatles that does not translate; an American reader sometimes just isn’t going to understand why some stuff is supposed to funny. (Also, what’s funny when it’s performed on stage frequently loses something on the page.) Nevertheless, Beatles-as-comedians is a unique angle, and the book is worth your time.

Groovin’ All Week With You

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(Pictured: Donny Most, Ron Howard, and Henry Winkler on Happy Days, 1974.)

It’s well-known that Happy Days started in 1972 as an unsold pilot that was broadcast as an episode of Love American Style. Ron Howard was cast in American Graffiti as a result of the pilot, and after the success of the movie, ABC decided to pick up the show after all. It premiered on January 15, 1974, at a moment in American pop culture when the kids who had grown up in the hot car/jukebox/drive-in world of the late 50s and early 60s were pushing 30, and thereby ripe for a show that capitalized on their fond memories of those days.

Happy Days was not the same show at the beginning that it was at the end. Although it was always a sitcom and never a dramedy, it was at first intended to be an character-oriented portrayal of the trials Richie Cunningham and his high-school friends faced growing up. The first season of 16 episodes was fairly successful, placing at #16 in the ratings for the entire year. But in the fall of 1974, in the same timeslot and with the same approach, the show fell out of the Top 30 and was in danger of cancellation. It survived, however, finishing at #46 for the season, after executive producer Garry Marshall made some mid-season changes. The show started filming in front of a live audience. and a raucous episode about Fonzie accidentally marrying a stripper pointed the way forward. In the third season, with a greater focus on Fonzie, Happy Days became broader, louder—more “sitcommy”—and one of the most popular shows of the 70s. It made #1 in the weekly ratings for the first time during March 1976 and ended at #11 for the year.

During its first two seasons, Happy Days used Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” as its theme song, and as the first season ended, the song returned to the Top 40 for a single week (May 25, 1974). Starting in the fall of 1975, the show got a new theme song, written by prolific TV and movie composers Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel and recorded by the duo of Truett Pratt and Jerry McClain. Pratt and McClain had a band called Brother Love, which had recorded one album, although most of their work lately had been making commercial jingles. They got the gig through producer Michael Omartian, who had been in a band with McClain a decade before.

As Happy Days was rising in the ratings during the spring of 1976, the new theme—a much better version of the song than the one used on TV—was released as a single. The first listing for “Happy Days” at ARSA was at KHJ in Los Angeles in March, and it hit the Hot 100 on April 3. Before April was out, it was on the air everywhere. While it recorded only a single local #1, at WRAW in Reading, Pennsylvania (in mid-May), it became a Top-10 hit in dozens of cities between April and July. It spent the weeks of June 5 and June 12, 1976, at #5 on the Hot 100; in Cash Box, it peaked at #6. It would place at #76 on the Cash Box Top 100 of 1976; oddly, it didn’t make Billboard‘s Top 100 of the year, thanks to a relatively short chart run.

Although Happy Days didn’t win the weekly ratings race even once during the summer 1976 rerun season, having its theme song on the radio all summer could not have hurt it one bit. And when the new TV season began in September, Happy Days was unstoppable. For the 1976-77 season, Happy Days and its spinoff, Laverne and Shirley, would finish #1 and #2 in the season-long ratings while airing back-to-back on Tuesday nights. For the ’77-’78 season, they would swap places at the top, still airing back-to-back, each drawing better than a 30-percent share of the audience, between 20 and 25 million viewers each week. (Between October 1977 and March 1978, one show or the other was #1 in the ratings every week but two: Christmas week, when reruns lost out to The Bob Hope All Star Christmas Comedy Special, and two weeks later, when Super Bowl XII beat all comers, as Super Bowls do.)

On the radio in the summer of 1976, “Happy Days” was both nostalgic and right on time. Decades later, it’s purely nostalgic, and for more than one reason. There’s just nothing like it anymore. It’s not just that nobody pays attention to TV themes nowadays. The major-key joyfulness of “Happy Days” is out of style, too. But on a sunny spring day, on the highway with the car windows down, you can hardly do better.