(Pictured: Aerosmith on The Midnight Special.)
If you read this blog regularly, you are probably old enough to remember when TV stations signed off the air at night, although you don’t have to be all that old. It was the early 90s before 24/7 operation became the norm in most places across the country. Before that, it didn’t make economic sense to stay on all night, given the difficulty of selling advertising in that time slot and the perception that the audiences would be tiny.
But how tiny were they, really? In 1972, producer Burt Sugarman realized that half of the people watching TV late at night watched Johnny Carson on NBC, and surely not all of them wanted to turn off their TVs when the show was over. Sugarman pitched NBC on a late-night music show featuring the best acts he could get, but NBC turned it down. So Sugarman taped a pilot, sold the show to Chevrolet, and bought the airtime himself. The August 19, 1972, broadcast of what Sugarman christened The Midnight Special was a hit and caused NBC to take a second look. In February 1973, the show began its regular run, Friday nights at 1AM Eastern.
Over the next eight years, nearly everybody who was anybody appeared on the show. None of the solo Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or the Who ever appeared, but the show welcomed a wide variety of acts nonetheless, including some who were not your typical TV fodder, from Black Oak Arkansas to King Crimson to Aerosmith (in 1974, two years before they became major stars) to AC/DC (in 1978). Country, R&B, and disco acts also appeared, as did standup comics including Andy Kaufman, George Carlin, and Freddie Prinze. Most performances were recorded live at NBC in Burbank, although some were taped elsewhere, most famously David Bowie’s 1980 Floor Show, his last performance as Ziggy Stardust, recorded in London and aired in November 1973. Most acts performed live, although sometimes they sang live to recorded backing tracks, and every now and then somebody would lip-sync. Acts were not discouraged from changing things up or stretching them out, as the Edgar Winter Group did on “Frankenstein,” which runs nine mind-blowing minutes. Fleetwood Mac’s extended “Rhiannon,” in which Stevie Nicks transforms into a rock goddess, is also an all-timer.
It wasn’t just the artists who were encouraged to experiment: if you watch the “Frankenstein” video, you’ll see that the director got into the act, too. Some of the directors’ choices don’t look so great now. They frequently filled the screen with head shots of performers, and if a band had multiple members, they often called for a split-screen head shot, as when Orleans did “Dance With Me” in 1975. The close head shots were often unflattering. Many performers wore no TV makeup, and many of the top bands of the 70s had members who were dumpy-looking and/or poorly groomed. The close head shots could be frustrating. In the case of Orleans, the three singers are shown close up, but the poor drummer bangs away anonymously in a wide shot. (I keep thinking of his mom, staying up late, excited to see him on TV, and then seeing that.) In this performance by Heart, the camera focuses on Ann Wilson and ignores Nancy Wilson completely.
Any TV show from the 70s is going to feature fashions that are hilarious now, and The Midnight Special is no exception. Aretha Franklin performed “Respect” in a dress that made her look like a half-plucked Big Bird. Todd Rundgren opted for a rather unfortunate butterfly costume to perform “Hello It’s Me.” (In their defense, of course, we all wore stuff back then that seemed like a good idea at the time.)
It wasn’t MTV that killed The Midnight Special; it was the changing landscapes of popular music and television, and the fragmenting of the audience. Beginning in the fall of 1980, the show featured many more country and light pop acts than rock stars, along with movie clips and celebrity profiles, as producers flailed around trying to find a formula that would stay relevant. In the end, going for mass appeal was no longer the way to score big ratings, even after midnight. On March 27, 1981, the final original episode of The Midnight Special aired on NBC. It was replaced in May by another underrated television classic, SCTV Network 90.
Clips from The Midnight Special are valuable not just to fans but to students of history. The show preserves a lot of the most popular and influential music ever made (and some of its most ephemeral, too) in its natural habitat. Historians don’t often have the luxury of seeing the past exactly as it was.
(Rebooted from a post originally appearing in 2008.)
There is nothing on television more reliably entertaining than the 70s incarnation of Match Game. Find it on cable (or put in a DVD—a set exists, and I own it) and you’re guaranteed a good time for however long you watch. Watch it for the hilarious interactions among the panelists (there was an open bar backstage to keep everybody loose), the smutty questions and smuttier answers, the eye-burning orange set, the average people dropped into this goofy maelstrom as contestants, or the quick wit of host Gene Rayburn, who knew that no matter what happened, the producers intended to keep the cameras rolling, and it would be up to him to make something out of it.
Rayburn’s ability to make entertainment out of Match Game‘s chaos was no accident. He is considered a pioneer of the modern morning radio show format, having dominated the ratings in New York City during the late 1940s with two different partners, Jack Lescoulie and Dee Finch. He was appearing on TV by the early 50s, and hosted the original Match Game beginning in 1962, along with other game shows. In addition to his TV work, he remained on radio throughout the 60s and 70s, hosting segments on NBC’s weekend Monitor service.
But my intended focus in this post is not on the show or on Rayburn. It’s on what might be the single best part of Match Game: its theme music. The Match Game theme was developed by Score Productions, a company whose contributions to television history should be much more celebrated than they are. Score has been providing theme music since 1963, for soap operas, news and sports shows, and especially for game shows.
The best-known composer who worked for Score is probably Charles Fox, who wrote or co-wrote themes for Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, The Love Boat, Love American Style, and other shows, as well as Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” Before I started researching this post, I guessed that the Match Game theme was by synthesizer wizard Edd Kalehoff, who famously wrote and performed a number of TV themes that are still making him big money today, including The Price Is Right. But the Match Game theme is actually the creation of Score Productions founder Robert Israel. The theme even has a name—“The Midnight Four.”
(Edd Kalehoff is best seen in this fabulous 1970s commercial for Schaefer Beer. Until 2011, he was married to Andrea McArdle, the onetime child actress who became famous playing Little Orphan Annie on Broadway in the late 70s. You cannot imagine how thrilled I was, in the course of researching this post, to find a connection to someone as far removed from its original premise as Andrea McArdle. Welcome to my thought process, everybody.)
When ABC revived Match Game a couple of years ago with Alec Baldwin as host, its decision to keep “The Midnight Four” was a smart one. It’s one of the most recognizable and evocative themes in any program genre. The rest of the modern Match Game revival fails to live up to its 70s predecessor, but the music remains undeniably great.
(Pictured: a courtroom photo from the final episode of Seinfeld. It is the official position of this blog that the finale is the single worst episode of the series, but that’s a subject we’re not getting into today. Neither are we getting into the subject I thought we’d get into when I started writing, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.)
Twenty years ago tonight, the final episode of Seinfeld aired on NBC.
Seinfeld didn’t make an impact on me until it had been on for two or three years. But like millions of other people, I got hooked on it, and I’d still rank it as an all-time favorite, even though I don’t watch it regularly anymore. My sense of it is that it’s not particularly dated, except for the baseball references that few outside of New York are going to get (Paul O’Neill, Danny Tartabull), and the way it depicts a world where landline telephones still rule. There’s a 1991 episode in which Jerry is shown with a car phone, but cellphones are not part of the Seinfeld universe, and the show aired at practically the last moment when such a thing looked normal.
When I started writing this post, I intended to segue here to a reboot of something I wrote for WNEW.com about the music of Seinfeld, but then I decided I could just link to the damn thing (which I have already reposted here once) and spend the balance of my time today on other items, TV-related and otherwise.
A decade before WKRP in Cincinnati, there was another sitcom about a radio station. Good Morning World ran for a single season on CBS starting in the fall of 1967. Antenna TV is running it on weekends.
The show had a tremendous pedigree derived largely from The Dick Van Dyke Show, which had gone off the air the year before: it was executive-produced by Carl Reiner and Sheldon Leonard and created by Dick Van Dyke writers Bill Persky and Sam Denoff. Reiner and longtime Dick Van Dyke director John Rich directed some episodes. Episodes were scripted by some big names, including Rick Mittleman, Bernie Orenstein and Saul Turteltaub, and James L. Brooks. Dave Grusin wrote the music. Like its predecessor, Good Morning World was filmed in front of a live audience.
The show stars Joby Baker and Ronnie Schell as Dave Lewis and Larry Clarke, morning DJs at a small station in Los Angeles. Baker worked in movies and TV from the late 50s to the early 80s, including appearances in the Elvis movie Girl Happy and Gidget Goes to Rome. Schell had been playing Duke Slater on Gomer Pyle USMC and has a face most fans of vintage TV would recognize. Billy de Wolfe plays the supercilious and bumbling station owner Roland B. Hutton, Jr. Lewis’ wife, Linda, is played by Julie Parrish. The inevitable neighbor, Sandy, is played by Goldie Hawn, in her first TV role at the age of 21.
The show is divided between wacky hijinx at the station and wacky hijinx at the Lewis house. On the air, Lewis and Clarke are more silly than funny; the producers decided not to mention real singers or songs, and the invented ones destroy any illusion that theirs is a real radio show. De Wolfe is the funniest member of the cast: Hutton wants to be in control of every situation but they often blow up in his face. The domestic scenes could have been used on The Dick Van Dyke Show almost exactly as written. Parrish does a good job in what’s mostly a thankless part, plus she looks great. Goldie is exactly who you’d expect her to be as a second banana.
While Joby Baker looks the way people in 1967 probably expected a DJ to look, he’s just not a very good actor. The character of Clarke was supposedly created especially for Ronnie Schell after his run on Gomer Pyle, where Sheldon Leonard was co-executive-producer, but Schell plays him with essentially one note. In the end, the characters of Lewis and Clarke are too much alike. It would have been better if the two leads presented more of a contrast, if wacky Clarke were balanced by a more sardonic Lewis, for example.
The show had problems from the start. Persky and Denoff were dividing time between Good Morning World and their more successful series, That Girl; Baker had trouble remembering lines; Parrish had health problems during filming. As for Goldie Hawn, Carl Reiner would later say, “George Schlatter ‘borrowed’ her for Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and never gave her back to us.” So despite its solid-gold antecedents and unique setting, Good Morning World (which took its title from a phrase used by New York DJ William B. Williams, and for which he received a screen credit) lasted just 26 episodes.
Should you watch it? Sure. You might find a laugh or two along the way, and contemplating the distance between 50 years ago and now can be interesting. (Or maybe it’s just me who likes to do that.)
Related: We watch a lot of vintage TV at our house, but mostly on MeTV. The channel puts me in mind of Nick at Nite in its late 80s incarnation, or TV Land when it positioned itself as a museum of television, instead of the schizophrenic mess it is now. MeTV’s presentation says, yes, these shows are vintage, but you don’t have to think of yourself as old; let’s just have fun watching. Antenna TV, on the other hand, seems ossified. Its presentation, featuring voiceover guy Shadoe Stevens, is sleepy. And the way Antenna TV split-screens the closing credits of one program over the introduction of the next one is maddening if you consider theme songs and credits to be among of the pleasures of vintage TV.
If atmosphere matters—and on vintage TV channels, I’d argue that it does—it’s easy to understand why MeTV is the more successful of the two. In fact, MeTV is more successful than lots of other, more famous channels. In 2017, it out-rated MTV, BET, E!, Comedy Central, ESPN2, and NFL Network.
Our friend Kurt Blumenau went down a rabbit hole the other day and into the history of the “more to come” bumpers shown during NBC’s Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. As I commented at Kurt’s post, it seems kind of quaint to think that NBC would have filled a local commercial break with music and a more-to-come slide instead of running a public service announcement or a network promo (or a commercial for some but-wait-there’s-more gadget, as they would today), but it was a different world.
Surely some NBC affiliates, late at night, had no commercial inventory of their own to run. They could have filled the time with their own public service announcements or promos, but in the days before compact video formats, running PSAs in particular (and filmed programs in general) was cumbersome. It required a piece of equipment called a film chain, which literally projected film into a TV camera. Stations would keep a reel of film with a bunch of PSAs on it, and load it up when needed. Or not.
Talk of late-night commercial breaks reminded me of a couple of stories from our days living and working radio in Macomb, Illinois. Macomb sat between Peoria and Quincy, about 70 highway miles from each, and we got TV stations from both. In the middle of the 80s, Quincy had only two stations, a CBS affiliate licensed to Hannibal, Missouri, across the Mississippi River, and an NBC affiliate. The Peoria stations did not attempt to sell advertising in Macomb, but the Quincy stations did. I never thought it made sense for Macomb businesses to buy Quincy TV. Putting your ad on a TV station 70 miles away meant that your money was being spent in part to reach people way the hell and gone over in Missouri, and they weren’t going to drive 140 miles to shop at your shoe store or muffler shop or whatever.
One especially popular package was “shop Macomb,” which would start with a short blurb encouraging viewers to visit Macomb, followed by three 15- or 20-second blurbs for individual Macomb businesses. (Many TV stations still sell this kind of community-specific package today.) As TV ads went, they were cheap to buy—but compared to radio ads, they cost a lot.
When The Mrs. was selling radio, some of her clients would occasionally pop for a shop-Macomb spot. One Saturday night, we were watching Saturday Night Live, and we noticed that the NBC affiliate didn’t have any local spots scheduled. They filled every local break with scratchy film-chain PSAs. That is, until the first break after SNL got over, right before sign-off, when they ran a shop-Macomb spot featuring one of her clients.
We have conflicting memories of her reaction to this. When I asked her about it the other night, she doesn’t remember being bothered. I remember it differently. Loosely translated, it was as follows: Why the #%!%@ didn’t they run that thing during Saturday Night Live instead of those $!@%ing PSAs, for #$% sake?
After Saturday Night Live each week, the Quincy NBC affiliate broadcast a news summary. It wasn’t a repeat of the late local news, which is what many stations do now in the wee hours of the morning before turning their airwaves over to infomercials. They’d put up a station identification slide and somebody, most likely the master-control engineer (the only person left in the building at midnight), would read five minutes of news, often just copy ripped from the AP or UPI wire. The broadcast would conclude with the weather forecast before the station played the National Anthem and went dark for the night. In the middle of the 1980s, that little low-tech news update seemed like such a quaint, small-town thing to do that I actually started to look forward to it a little.
Nowadays, technology makes it possible for even the tiniest stations in the middle of nowhere to look like big-time operations. Thirty-some years ago, they had to be what they were.