Making It Up

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(Pictured: Red Skelton, 1970.)

I have mentioned here before that when we were kids, The Red Skelton Hour was one of the highlights of week. In the home video era, I have not sought out Red’s shows—in fact, Red kept them out of circulation for years to spite CBS for canceling him in 1970, and actually threatened to destroy the tapes at one point. Their long scarcity has something to do with why Skelton, for 30 years a giant of American comedy, someone who inspired the likes of Steve Martin and Richard Pryor, is largely forgotten today. But some late-60s episodes of his CBS show have recently been added to Amazon Prime, and I have watched a few.

Skelton considered himself his own best writer and an expert on what was funny, and he did not have much respect for the writers he employed. Our friend Wesley, who’s written a book on Red’s show, told me:

[W]riters for his show tended not to last long either on their own volition or on Red’s whims. In the spring of 1967, when his show came close to beating Bonanza as the number one show on TV, Red unceremoniously fired Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf, the men who contributed to I Love Lucy and would later work on The Carol Burnett Show, The Flip Wilson Show and Maude. Some slouches, eh? Anyway, the men talked to LA Times columnist Hal Humphreys frankly about Red’s tendency to use tried material rather than their new work and how the result was spotty at best, not to mention how many writers had revolved through the successful show. Irritated by what they said, Red decided he would get back at them by performing their last script word-for-word with no ad-libs, confident that the show would die. The final taping ran eight minutes over due to audience laughter.

Skelton’s disdain for scripts—or maybe it’s just a lack of discipline—is on full display in the episode of October 31, 1967. In “Hippie Days Are Here Again,” Red’s character, the hobo Freddie the Freeloader, meets a group of hippies in a park. There’s potential in the idea because Tim Conway is playing the hippie leader. Partway through the sketch, Red abandons the script entirely, breaking the fourth wall, talking to the backstage crew, and spouting non-sequiturs. Conway is a master of making it up on the fly, but Skelton’s ad libs are so insular that they leave Conway with nowhere to go. Red wants every laugh for himself, and he doesn’t care if his co-star never gets one.

Something similar happened on January 14, 1969. “The Best Thing to Get Out of Marriage Is to Get Out of Marriage” co-stars Audrey Meadows, famed for playing Alice Kramden on The Honeymooners, as Clara Appleby, the henpecking wife of Skelton’s recurring character George Appleby. Partway through, Skelton once again starts ad-libbing furiously. Meadows gets a laugh with a scripted zinger, but Skelton has to top her: “No wonder Ralph Kramden divorced you.”

Wesley again:

Guests soon learned this is how he operated, which is why most of CBS’s other big comedy stars like Lucille Ball didn’t do his show, precisely because he’d go off script and get irritated if you got more laughs than he did. Harvey Korman’s son Chris Korman told me Red banned his father from the show for getting laughs in one minor role and Red thought he was stealing the spotlight from him.

(The January 14, 1969, show is the one on which Red delivered his monologue about the Pledge of Allegiance, which became a middling radio hit a few months later.)

The Red Skelton Hour and The Carol Burnett Show overlapped on CBS for three seasons starting in 1967, and the differences are instructive. As Wesley wrote in his book, The Carol Burnett Show never saw itself as a vehicle for Carol alone. She was happy to give the laughs to others. Her cast broke character plenty, but instead of tossing the script and flailing for jokes, they always stayed close to the core of the sketch. And partly because of a reputation for making guests look good, Carol was able to get practically anyone she wanted to appear on her show.

A half-century removed from watching Red on Tuesday nights, I think that what younger me responded to was Red’s silliness, and that just ain’t funny to me any more. A half-century later, all I can say is “Red, thanks for the laughs when I was eight, but we’re done now.”

A Very Good Year

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(Pictured: Frank Sinatra talks with Walter Cronkite.) 

Maybe once a year I read a book so good I am literally sad that it ends. This year it was James Kaplan’s gigantic two-volume biography, Frank: The Voice (2010) and Sinatra: The Chairman (2015). If you choose to read it, pack a lunch: there’s something like 1800 pages between the two volumes. This week’s posts are all inspired by the book.  

By 1965, Frank Sinatra was firmly entrenched as America’s #1 pop star, Non-Elvis Division, his career revitalized since his Oscar for From Here to Eternity in 1954 and a string of classic albums. For Sinatra’s 50th birthday that year, CBS News planned a documentary on his life and career. Producer Don Hewitt very badly wanted him to sit for an interview with Walter Cronkite, but Sinatra famously hated reporters. Hewitt got him by telling Sinatra that if he spoke to Cronkite, he would be occupying “the same seat Dwight Eisenhower, Jack Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson sat in.” The appeal to Frank’s ego—that the special would treat him as if he were a president of the United States—was enough. Not only did he agree to the interview, he permitted the CBS crew to film him recording “It Was a Very Good Year.” And in fact, CBS News crews followed Sinatra around for six months.

CBS had done other profiles of serious artists, such as Pablo Casals and Isaac Stern. Sinatra believed his would be the same kind of reverent retrospective on the performer and his art. But in October, when Walter Cronkite came to Sinatra’s home to film the interview, there were fireworks. Cronkite asked about his hot temper. With anger flashing in his eyes, Frank insisted that he had grown “gentler” in recent years, a claim belied by a montage of newspaper headines about his confrontations with reporters and photographers. Then Cronkite asked about Sinatra’s Mafia connections, which caused Sinatra to bolt.

Hewitt followed him into a bedroom, where Sinatra claimed he’d been promised there would be no Mafia questions. Hewitt said he’d never agreed to that.

“I ought to kill you,” Sinatra said.

“With anyone else, that’s a figure of speech,” Hewitt said. “But you probably mean it.”

“I mean it,” Sinatra replied. Hewitt fled the house, and Sinatra withdrew his consent for the special. The New York Times explained that he “objects to stress on matters not related to his profession.”

Somehow, an agreement was reached, and Cronkite was permitted to ask about the mob, although what he got in response wasn’t much: “I do meet all kinds of people in the world because of the natural habitat from day to day in theatrical work and nightclub work, in concerts, wherever I might be, in restaurants, you meet all kinds of people. So there’s really not much to be said about that, and I think the less said the better, because it’s—there is no—there’s no answer.”

Sinatra (which you can see in its entirety here) aired on November 16, 1965, with a script written by Andy Rooney. In addition to the Cronkite interview and the studio footage, Sinatra sang several songs, including one at a prison (highlighted among his many charitable works), and was seen hanging out with family and friends in his favorite saloon. Afterward, TV critics panned the show as a puff piece for not asking hard questions about the Mafia or anything else, including his colorful love life, which currently starred Mia Farrow, 30 years his junior, who would soon become his third wife. Variety called it “an unmitigated rave for Frankie Goodfellow, star performer, tycoon with a heart of gold, family man (yet), and all around ball-haver.”

In December 1965, “It Was a Very Good Year” hit the radio, eventually reaching #25 on the Hot 100 and #1 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart—the very recording that Sinatra had made on the night CBS cameras were in the studio. And although Sinatra had been a pop star for 25 years by then, his greatest period of sustained singles chart success began with that song. In a 55-week period between June 1966 and June 1967, Sinatra would occupy the #1 spot on the Easy Listening chart for 22 weeks with five different singles: “Strangers in the Night,” “Summer Wind,” “That’s Life,” “Somethin’ Stupid,” and “The World We Knew.” Two of them, “Strangers in the Night” and “Somethin’ Stupid,” a duet with Nancy, would also go to #1 on the Hot 100. For a man who had just turned 50, it was indeed a very good year.

In the next installment: Sinatra’s life was filled with capers, none stranger than one that temporarily cost him $239,985.

Your Mother Should Know

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(Pictured: the King Sisters with some of the rest of the family.)

I cannot say how anybody else’s blogging process works, but mine frequently goes like this: I’ll see something and think, “Hmm, that might be interesting to write about.” Sometimes I follow through right away, but more often, I don’t, and the idea vanishes. When I do follow through, however, it’s often because I saw the same thing again in some other context a day or two later. And that is why you are reading this:

You need to be relatively elderly for the King Family to ring a bell. They came out of California in the 1930s as the Four King Sisters, who had been performing with other family members since they were children. In the late 30s, they were featured singers with Horace Heidt’s big band, and later with the band led by Alvino Rey, who was Louise King’s husband. Between 1941 and 1945, they charted a few singles under their own name, although the records tended to be competing versions of songs that were more popular by other artists. They also appeared in several movies. By 1953, the group had expanded beyond the sisters and was being billed as the King Family. In 1958, their album Imagination got a Grammy nomination for Best Performance by a Vocal Group or Chorus.

The King Sisters had appeared on Alvino Rey’s TV show as early as 1953. In 1963, Yvonne King pitched ABC on a variety series for the family. The network didn’t bite at first, but when a 1964 appearance on Hollywood Palace generated thousands of fan letters, ABC gave the King Family a special and eventually, a weekly series, beginning in January 1965. In its two seasons, The King Family Show would include 39 family members ranging in age from seven months to 79 years. Four of them spun off into a group called the Four King Cousins, who became regulars on the Kraft Summer Music Hall in 1966. (The show’s head writer was a guy named George Carlin; one episode included another up-and-comer named Richard Pryor. Read about it here.) The family’s 1967 Thanksgiving and Christmas specials were big hits, and were repeated annually for years thereafter. They got another brief weekly series in 1969, but their main presence on TV was in specials, which ran through 1974.

Apart from those hit singles in the early 40s, the Kings’ only other chart appearances came in 1965, when two albums made the Billboard chart on the strength of their TV show. The more successful, The King Family Show!, went to #34 in a 16-week run.

By the dawn of the disco era, the King Family was no longer the kind of thing that drew big network numbers, but they remained a popular concert attraction for a few years. They played Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985. Their last performance was at Yvonne King’s funeral in 2010. Marilyn King, the last of the original sisters, died in 2013. The Four King Cousins were still performing occasionally as recently as 2016.

The King Family dropped stones into the pop-music pond that are still creating ripples. King Cousin Tina Cole became a regular on My Three Sons toward the end of the 60s. Alyce King’s son, Lex De Azevedo, was a successful composer, arranger, and bandleader. (I first learned of him at the elevator-music station, where his orchestra provided custom music for the programming service we used.) Luise King’s grandsons, Win and Will Butler, are members of Arcade Fire. Several King Family specials have been released on DVD. The family has a website and a YouTube channel, as well as a presence on social media. Christmas With the King Family was revived by PBS in 2009, and is still being repeated annually on the GetTV diginet.

A half-century ago, if a comedian wanted an easy punch line lampooning A) square white-bread Americans or B) large families, the King Family was sitting right there. (Although as regards wholesomeness, all those brothers and sisters and cousins implied that the patriarchs and matriarchs of the King Family were horizontally bopping as enthusiastically as the hippies were.) Nevertheless, in the chaos of the late 60s, the King Family presented an oasis of old-fashioned entertainment, where rock ‘n’ roll lifestyles did not intrude and longhairs did not agitate for anarchy. Its appeal to the Silent Majority is easy to understand.

A clip from the 1965 premiere of The King Family Show, introduced by Bing Crosby, is here. A 1966 performance of “Yesterday” by the King Sisters is here. The Four King Cousins perform a 1969 medley keyed to the Beatles’ “Your Mother Should Know” here. The opening of the 1967 Christmas special is here.

Something Happening Here

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(Pictured: Mike Connors as Mannix.)

In 2014, I wrote about some of the musical acts that appeared on early episodes of the detective series Mannix. Here’s a bit of that.

The fourth episode, “The Many Deaths of St. Christopher,” aired on October 7, 1967. Joe Mannix meets a girl in a club called the Bad Scene, where a young singer with a guitar is performing—Neil Diamond, appearing as himself. In one sequence, Diamond performs “The Boat That I Row” and a song called “Raisin’ Cain,” which he has never formally recorded in all the years since. After a fight breaks out in the club and Mannix is knocked to the floor, Diamond walks over and says to him, “Hey man, you mind if I finish the set by myself?” In a second, shorter sequence, Diamond sings “Solitary Man.” On October 28, 1967, in “Warning: Live Blueberries,” an even-more-surprising act appears: in yet another club, the Buffalo Springfield play “Bluebird” through a better-than-five-minute scene, and come back later with a bit of “For What It’s Worth.” . . . Neither does a lip-synch; Diamond appears to be playing live, while the Springfield sing “Bluebird” live over a recorded backing track and do “For What It’s Worth” unplugged. . . .

Stephen Stills has been critical of the production of the Buffalo Springfield’s studio albums. He was referring to Mannix when he said, “The best sound we ever got was when we did this stupid TV show where we played just a little bit of a song and we were like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s the sound we’ve been looking for.'”

Mannix would occasionally deal with musicians throughout the remainder of the series’ run. (His secretary, Peggy, is a jazz fan, and at least a couple of episodes revolve around musicians she knows.) The opening episode of the eighth season (September 22, 1974) is called “Portrait in Blues,” and it has Mannix investigating repeated death threats against a rock musician played by Kim Milford. He and his partner in an acoustic duo are boosted by a famous local DJ. He’s got a girlfriend, and it is revealed partway through the episode that his partner has leukemia.

The episode is pretty terrible. Milford’s stringy, underfed-hippie vibes like the out-of-town boyfriend of the trashiest girl in your high-school class. His mildly baked performance isn’t the worst one in the episode, however, or even the second-worst. Larry Storch (!) is 20 years too old to be the DJ, and his “hip” patter, on mike and off, is painful. Future soap star Robin Millan plays Milford’s girlfriend with her own mildly baked affect. It looks like she was hired not because she could act, but because the part called for somebody who could look good in a towel and later, a skimpy evening dress. And you may see the ending coming before Mannix does.

The episode contains four songs written by Milford and the actor playing his singing partner, Bruce Scott. (Although Scott piled up a number of movie and TV credits from the 60s to the 80s, he’s pretty obscure; if he did any more music anywhere, I don’t know about it.) You can hear bits of all four here, including “Give a Little More Sunshine,” which is performed at least four times in the course of the episode. You can watch all of “Portrait in Blues,” here, at least until CBS gets it taken down—but beware; it’s the single worst episode of Mannix I can remember.

Kim Milford’s most famous credit, according to his IMDB bio, is the Mystery Science Theater 3000 favorite Laserblast!, although he was also in Corvette Summer with Mark Hamill. He was lead singer with Beck, Bogert and Appice for two months in 1972, hired to help the band fulfill its touring obligations before it could break up. He was fired after about a half-dozen shows, reportedly because his preening stage presence didn’t fit. He later fronted his own band, and had starring roles in touring company productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and The Rocky Horror Show. He also acted in and wrote music for some made-for-TV horror movies that incorporated rock music, produced by Don Kirshner. Milford died of complications after open heart surgery in 1988. He was 37.

(Note to Patrons: the traffic on my latest podcast episode, an interview with a guy who attended both of Wisconsin’s major 1970 rock festivals, Sound Storm and Iola, has been distinctly underwhelming. If you haven’t listened to it yet, please do. If you know somebody who might be interested in it, please tell them about it.)

Star-Spangled Nights

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(Pictured: Michael Conrad, Tina Louise, and Fred Grandy in a 1973 episode of Love American Style.)

The Decades Network does a binge every weekend, with continuous episodes of a single series. Last weekend, it was Love American Style, which anchored ABC’s legendary Friday night lineup of the early 70s, along with The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Room 222, and The Odd Couple.

(Digression: Love American Style premiered on Mondays in September 1969 and moved to Fridays in January 1970. That classic Friday lineup didn’t fall into place until September 1971, and it lasted two seasons. Other shows that ran on ABC Friday nights during Love American Style‘s heyday included The Flying Nun, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Here Come the Brides, Nanny and the Professor, and That Girl.)

We didn’t watch Love American Style at our house regularly. We either went off to bed around that time, or were watching or doing other things. But it was hard to miss, because ABC ran it on weekday afternoons between 1971 and 1974. If nothing else, its theme song would have been familiar because it frequently appeared in ABC promos.

(Digression: during the first season of Love American Style, the theme was performed by the Cowsills. After that, it was billed to the Charles Fox Singers, who were actually the Ron Hicklin Singers, who were among the busiest performers in Hollywood, doing advertising and radio jingles and studio backup gigs. They also provided all of the Partridge Family voices not belonging to Shirley Jones and David Cassidy. Charles Fox was the prolific composer of the theme music, and of dozens of other  pieces of music you know. The opening of the show, with its fireworks and heart-shaped graphics featuring head shots of the episodes’ stars, is one of the most iconic in all of 70s TV.)

Love American Style was an anthology series.  Apart from the Love American Style players, a handful of actors who appeared in short vignettes that often opened or closed the show, there was no regular cast. Each episode contained at least two and sometimes three separate stories. Nearly every familiar TV face of the 60s and 70s did a Love American Style at some point; the shows are also heavy on actors who appeared on other ABC shows of the time. Given that the stories ran maybe 20 minutes at the outside and were often shot on one set—and also considering how flimsy the plots sometimes were—it couldn’t have taken more than a day or two to make them. And so it must have been a fairly easy paycheck: any halfway decent Hollywood veteran could have done a Love American Style as easily as falling out of bed.

And in fact, falling out of bed was a Love American Style plot point. The show came along at the height of the sexual revolution, and it must have seemed pretty bold, at least to Mrs. and Mrs. Average American. Practically everybody’s horny, and practically everybody is gettin’ some, or they will be eventually. But looking at it from 50 years’ distance, it’s remarkably chaste. There’s lots of mistaken identity and unfortunate coincidences before people disappear under the covers. And as they do, the scene fades to black and we go to commercial.

Love American Style isn’t an easy thing to binge on. The laugh track is loud, the music cues can be obtrusive, the acting is often broad and silly, and stories based largely on embarrassment of some kind get tiresome after a while. Certain unspoken assumptions are in place for nearly every episode, and they look really sexist 50 years later. Men act as if women are an incomprehensible alien species to be placated by any means necessary. Women, whether married or single, are played as either befuddled and shy or slinky and tempting. (In one episode we saw, Sandra Dee played both, as a woman with two personalities.)

Watching a few episodes of one of the lightest of lightweight 70s TV shows isn’t the same as doing deep cultural anthropology, but it seemed to open a door or two. Beyond gender politics, Love American Style reveals a lot about how the early 7os looked: fashion, hairstyles, home decor, the cars we drove, etc. That stuff isn’t an exaggeration: it’s very much the way it really was.

Before the Sky Falls In

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(Pictured: last day of school hell yeah.)

Here’s more Life on Lockdown, in which we ramble around to whatever seems ramble-worthy.

If my local districts have stuck to their pre-plague calendars, school is getting out right about now. There is no feeling in adult life that’s analogous to the last-day-of-school feeling, except maybe for voluntarily quitting a job in favor of a better one. You walk out with mingled senses of relief, accomplishment, freedom, and expectation—especially the last two, when you’re a kid out of school. Three months stretch out in front of you rich with possibility. You realize that yes, you’ll probably have to work, either chores at home or hours for The Man in exchange for a paycheck, and that it won’t all be golden time. But some of it will be.

What kids are thinking this year, I don’t know. Their world has been gravely circumscribed by the plague. Some continue to work as usual—my nephew, for example, finishing his junior year in high school, has been working the grill at Culvers all through the pandemic and will continue to do so this summer. Others will find their summer plans scrubbed: no hangouts with friends, no music or Scout camp, no family vacation.

I see kids in my neighborhood, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs or trios, on skateboards or scooters or just walking along, and I wonder what they’re saying to themselves and to one another. Do they understand just how deep is the trouble we’re in?

I am torn about whether I want them to understand it. I have written previously about 1975, when between inflation and international tension and the energy crisis and the culture wars, it must have seemed to many adults that the nation was falling apart—but also how our parents did the worrying for us, and how my brothers and me, aged 15, 13, and 9, barely knew how bad it was. I don’t think it harmed us to be protected from the worst of it. And as it turned out, we survived it as a family, and as a nation. This crisis is vastly worse, however, and all of the potential outcomes seem terrible. Some kids know the score—the number of young people who have been involved in the recent protests against brutal policing is inspiring to geezers such as I. For the youngest kids, there will be a time when they’ll have to understand, but not yet. For now, let them have a little bit of carefree summer before the sky falls in.

On another subject:

Continue reading “Before the Sky Falls In”