I’m a Writer? I’m a Writer!

This month we have been learning about some unique stories about television writing. I thought it would be fun to wind up the series learning a little bit more about what goes on inside the writers’ room and how you might get there.

Review: The Dick Van Dyke Show, “The Curious Thing About Women” | This Was  Television
Dick Van Dyke Show Photo: thiswastelevision.com

Since watching The Dick Van Dyke Show, I have always thought how much fun it would be to be part of a writers’ group for a successful comedy. Nothing I have ever read about the cons of the writing life—late nights, severe writers’ block, procrastination, writers’ arguments–has ever made me question whether this would be an amazing job or not.

So, what exactly is a writers’ room? It’s an office where writers of a television show get together to brainstorm the stories that make it on the air. Depending on the show, you can have two to twenty people in the room. There are other people in addition to writers who pop in and out. A script coordinator, staff writer, story editor, executive story editor, producer, and supervising producer are all positions that might be sitting in on a writing session. Writers’ assistants can take notes, do research, and then there are runners who make copies, get lunch and coffee, and schedule calls.

Just like police officers, doctors, or funeral directors, writers have a lingo all their own. So, let’s take a look at a few of these expressions. A bottle episode takes place in one location and often depends more on dialogue. A Gilligan cut is just what you might guess. It goes back to the show Gilligan’s Island which often showed a contrast in action: one character says Gilligan says nothing in the world will get him to climb that tree and the next scene shows him in the tree. A face heel is where a good guy is now revealed to be a bad guy. A Frankenstein draft is one that is made up of a variety of parts—multiple writers work on the script and then it is unified. A gorilla is a joke or scene that the audience will remember long after the episode is over.

Sitcom Writers Talk Shop: Behind the Scenes with Carl Reiner, Norman Lear,  and Other Geniuses of TV Comedy (9781538109182): Finn, Paula, Asner, Ed,  Kane, Carol: Books - Amazon.com

If you are interested in television writers, there is a great book by Paula Finn called Sitcom Writers Talk Shop. (It’s available on amazon.com and at most of your favorite book stores) Her dad, Herb Finn, was a television writer and, for all of you who think Ralph Kramden and Fred Flintstone seem similar, her dad Herb, wrote for both shows.

She has some great interviews in the book. If you read the book, you’ll learn a lot about the highs and lows of television writing. James L. Brooks–who wrote for Room 222, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, and The Simpsons—had some great insights.

James L. Brooks looks back at the making of his unforgettable films | EW.com
James L. Brooks Photo: ew.com

When asked about how you know you’re in the zone, he responded that “you hear your characters talking to you, and you’re taking dictation.” When asked about how it feels to work with a partner you get paired with, he said that you know you are a good team when “you don’t have an absolute sense of who does what.” When asked what was the best way to learn the craft of comedy, he said, “That’s obvious: It’s just doing it.” My favorite answer to a question of his was when he was asked if he could have found fulfillment doing a different job, he said, “I can’t imagine having done anything else. I never had the ambition to be a writer because it seemed impossible.” He went on to say that it’s a common feeling for writers that you do it for years and years and then suddenly, “somebody asks you what you do for a living, you can say ‘a writer’ without your voice catching or rising. Because it’s just an amazing thing.”

If you are a fan of MasterClass, you know they have a lot of great learning opportunities. One of their courses about writing for television is taught by Shonda Rimes. The MasterClass staff put together five tips for succeeding in a writers’ room. I would take it a step further and say they were five tips for succeeding in life. They are:

  1. Be useful.
  2. Be respectful.
  3. Be brave.
  4. Be collaborative.
  5. Be flexible.

So, if after reading this blog, you too think it would be fun to be part of the writers’ room, what is the best way to do it? Often writers start as assistants. You’re able to make contacts and see how the job is done from the inside. Of course, writing scripts and more scripts and more scripts until someone decides one of them is just what they need is another option. Many aspiring writers find agents who can try to sell the work for them.

Humor (and Hard Work) Inside 'The Big Bang Theory's Writer's Room
The Writers’ Room – The Big Bang Theory Photo: tvinsider.com

Sharing your work with as many people as possible is always a great way to get your name out there. Writer/Producer Lee Goldberg gave this advice in a post from November 2020: “The first thing you have to do is learn your craft. Take classes, preferably taught by people who have had some success as TV writers. There’s another reason to take a TV writing course besides learning the basics of the craft. If you’re the least bit likable, you’ll make a few friends among the other classmates. This is good, because you’ll have other people you can show your work to. This is also good because somebody in the class may sell his or her first script before you do, and suddenly, you’ll have a friend in the business.”

My best piece of advice if you want to be a comedy writer is to keep a journal. I cannot tell you how many times when I was researching television writers, they said some of their best shows came from real life. And during the years of researching for my blog, I have read quotes by many family members who said they often saw their private family life on the screen. There are some things you just can’t make up. Those situations can often become the basis of a television script. There are as many different paths to becoming a writer as there are writers in the industry.

WHAT IS A WRITERS ROOM?. 5 key points | by Filmarket Hub | Filmarket Hub |  Medium
Photo: medium.com

I wanted to end with a bit of inspiration that I received from James Brooks in Paula Finn’s book that he took from someone else, which is how writers work all the time. Anyway, I always struggle when trying to explain why pop culture is so important and why I choose to write about it. I often feel that I have to over-defend writing about television. His quote: “I forget who said it, but somebody terrific: The purpose of popular culture is to let people know they’re not alone.” Thanks to all of you for being not alone with me!

Sisters at Heart: A Gift to Bewitched and Its Fans

This month we are looking at stories about some unique television writers. Today we are looking at a large group of writers who were lucky enough to write an episode for Bewitched.

Photo: wikipedia.com

In 1969, Marcella Saunders, a young teacher at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles realized that her freshmen students were not able to read the short stories and poetry in their textbooks. She decided to try to teach them about writing using a television series. Her students were fans of Bewitched, Room 222, and Julia so she contacted the studios for each program. Bewitched was the only show to respond to her.

Saunders was able to meet with star Elizabeth Montgomery and her husband William Asher who produced and directed the show. She said most students at the school were unable to read, write, or comprehend at a high school level; 44% of students read at a third-grade level and less than 1% were at their ninth-grade level.

elizabeth-montgomery-bewitched
Photo: closerweekly.com

The Bewitched cast and crew invited the 26-member class to visit the set of Bewitched, and they paid for the transportation of the class from school to the studio. The students were impressed with their tour and decided to collaborate on a teleplay for the show with their teachers’ supervision. They wrote a script titled “Sisters at Heart” and presented it gift-wrapped to Montgomery and Asher. Montgomery and Asher were impressed with the quality of the script. Elizabeth said, “We’ve had bad scripts submitted by professional writers that weren’t as well written or creative.”

Barbara Avedon - Alchetron, The Free Social Encyclopedia
Barbara Avedon
Photo: alchetron.com

Asher said the script only needed a little bit of reworking and asked Barbara Avedon if she would work with the class. Avedon, who had written for a variety of shows including The Ann Sothern Show, The Donna Reed Show, Bewitched, and Cagney and Lacey, agreed. She visited the school and described the scene she entered upon: “I was horrified. Locker doors were hanging off their hinges. There wasn’t a blade of grass in sight.”

Avedon said that she explained that they had to expand the script to fit a full half-hour. She promised the kids that no changes would be made without their approval. To work with industry requirements, the final script credited the teleplay to Avedon and Asher and the story to the students who were all listed in alphabetical order. Asher produced and directed the episode.

The class was able to attend a production and rehearsal meeting. The State of California gave the high school a grant to allow students to participate in the filming and post-production work. Screen Gems, along with Montgomery and Asher individually, also contributed to the funding. Two additional trips were planned, allowing fifty students to visit the set. Asher sent 30 copies of the script to be used in classrooms.

Saunders considered the project a great success. She said kids who thought they could not write were now writing three pages of script. One of Dick Sargent’s favorite memories of the show was one of the high school students who was given the role of assistant director. At one point, the kid screamed “Quiet on the set.”

The show became the thirteenth episode of season seven; it aired December 24, 1970 and was rerun around Christmas 1971. Montgomery introduced the episode by telling viewers that it “evoked the true spirit of Christmas . . . conceived in the image of innocence and filled with truth.”

Photo: pinterest.com

So, what was the episode about? The concept is that Tabitha’s (Erin Murphy) friend, Lisa Wilson (Venetta Rogers), was visiting. Lisa is African American and Tabitha is Caucasian. Tabitha is excited that they get to spend a few days together and says they will be sisters. Lisa’s father Keith (Don Marshall) works with Darrin (Dick Sargent) at McMann and Tate. Darrin fails to land a million-dollar advertising account with a toy company owned by Mr. Brockway (Parley Baer) because Brockway is racist and when he stopped by the house, he assumed Lisa was Darrin’s daughter and his wife was Lisa’s mother Dorothy (Janee Michelle) because Lisa mentioned her father worked at the agency.

Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) takes the girls to the park and when they announce they are sisters, another kid tells them they can’t be sisters because they have different skin colors. Tabitha creates a spell so that both girls have spots in the other’s skin tone. When Samantha finds the girls, she tells Tabitha to reverse the spell. She can’t, and Sam realizes that Tabitha wants the spots to remain subconsciously so they can be sisters. She explains to the girls that their appearance does not prevent them from being sisters, so Tabitha is able to reverse the spell before Lisa’s parents arrive.

In the meantime, Mr. Brockway tells Larry Tate (David White) that he wants Darrin removed from the account. When Darrin and Sam host a Christmas party that Lisa’s parents are at, everyone is introduced and Mr. Brockway realizes Darrin is married to Samantha. Mr. Brockway says to put Darrin back on the account, but when Larry learns he originally removed him because he thought he was married to a black woman, Larry tells him they don’t want his business. To teach Brockway a lesson, Samantha puts a spell on him so he sees everyone, himself included, with black skin. Realizing how unfair he has been, Mr. Brockway returns to the Stephens to apologize and is invited to Christmas dinner, which is an integrated turkey, white and dark meat.

Elizabeth And Husband William Asher - Elizabeth Montgomery Photo (7716361)  - Fanpop
Photo: fanpop.com

Montgomery always mentioned this episode as her favorite. Of course, the entire series was about overcoming prejudice but it was witches who were stereotyped. The episode received The Governor’s Award at the Emmy Awards in 1971.

I love this story at so many levels. How great that a teacher cared enough about her students to think outside the box to help them learn to read and write, and that Montgomery and Asher cared enough about the kids to give them such an amazing opportunity. I would love to know if any of those students ended up writing for a living. What a fun experience! And what a great Christmas message. 

Mel Tormé Jazzed Up a Few TV Scripts

76 Mel torme ideas | music, great american songbook, jazz
Photo: pinterest.com

We are in the midst of our blog series about unique television writers. If I mention the name Mel Tormé to you, you probably think exceptional musician, composer, and singer. You might specifically mention “The Christmas Song” which he composed the music and cowrote the lyrics for. (His cowriter was Bob Wells.)

If I say think writing, you might be able to recall that he wrote several musical biographies including Traps- The Drum Wonder: The Life of Buddy Rich, The Other Side of the Rainbow: Behind the Scenes on the Judy Garland Television Series, or My Singing Teachers. You might have even read his autobiography It Wasn’t All Velvet or Wynner, a novel he wrote in 1978.

However, I’m guessing most of you don’t realize that he also tried his hand at writing scripts for television.

Melvin Tormé was born in Chicago in 1925. He was a child prodigy and first performed professionally at age 4 with the Coon Sanders Orchestra, singing “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” at a local restaurant.

He played drums in the drum and bugle corps of his grade school, Shakespeare Elementary. From 1933-1941 he had roles in several radio programs including “The Romance of Helen Trent” and “Jack Armstrong, All American Boy.” He wrote his first song at age 13. At age 16, his song, “Lament to Love” was a hit for Harry James.

Mel Torme & The Mel-Tones at Singers.com - Vocal Harmony A Cappella Group
The Mel-Tones Photo: singers.com

Tormé graduated from Hyde Park High School. Shortly after, he was a singer and drummer with a band led by Chico Marx from 1942-1943. In 1944, he formed Mel Tormé and His Mel-Tones.

Tormé took his stint in the Army, and when he was discharged in 1946, he returned to the entertainment business. He was nicknamed “The Velvet Frog” by DJ Fred Robbins when he sang at the Copacabana. He always hated the nickname.

During the fifties, he had a radio program, “Mel Tormé Time,” and he recorded a variety of albums. He primarily performed jazz but he loved classical music as well, preferring Delius and Grainger. He wrote more than 250 songs. In the sixties, he strayed into pop music.

Mel had his first television appearance as an actor in 1960 on Dan Raven. He showed up on a few different series including The Lucy Show. In the 1980s, he made nine appearances on Night Court and found a new generation of fans.

Mel Torme & Harry Anderson, Night Court (1991) | Movie stars, Harry  anderson, Singer
On Night Court Photo: pinterest.com

During his career, he tried marriage four times, but the first three ended in divorce. In 1996 he suffered from a stroke that ended his musical career. Three years later, he passed away.

No doubt, he had a full and successful career. He had a multitude of skills he experimented with during his professional life. I would like to spend some time looking at part of his career that is not well known. He did help with the writing for a brief time when The Judy Garland Show was on the air. In the late sixties he continued writing for the small screen.

In 1967, Mel wrote his first television script. His first successful episode was for the 1967 show Run for Your Life. It’s not a well-remembered show, but it aired from 1965-1968. It was about a successful lawyer Paul Bryan (Ben Gazzara) who learns he is terminally ill with two years to live. He decides to accomplish everything on his bucket list, and each week he talks about the people he meets and the places he visits.

The Frozen Image
The Frozen Image Photo: run4.us

Mel not only wrote the script for “The Frozen Image,” but he starred in the episode as well. The premise is that a married Las Vegas singer (Diana Burke) who doesn’t want to get old, hires Paul as her manager.

He must have enjoyed it because the next year, he wrote a script for The Virginian called “The Handy Man.” The long-running show was on the air from 1962-1971 and was set in Wyoming in the late 1800s.

In this episode, a legal fight over a strip of land between the Shiloh and Bowden ranch turns nasty. The Bowdens think Shiloh has hired a gunfighter who turns out to be a handyman.

The Virginian" The Handy Man (TV Episode 1968) - IMDb
The Handyman Photo: imdb.com

In 1974, Tormé scripted another story, this time for Mannix. From 1967-1975, Mannix solved a variety of cases. Originally working for a company, he starts his own business with secretary/friend Peggy Fair, whose husband, a policeman, had been killed. They also work with a police department contact, Tobias. Mel’s story, “Portrait in Blues,” features a couple of musicians, one of whom is almost electrocuted while performing.

Mannix" Portrait in Blues (TV Episode 1974) - IMDb
Portrait in Blues Photo: imdb.com

The last television project Mel worked on as a writer was a made-for-television movie called The Christmas Songs in 1979. With cowriter Thomas V. Grasso, Mel penned the script and starred in the movie with Richard Basehart, Billy Davis, Jr., Jo Ann Greer, Les Brown and His Band of Renown, Rich Little, Marilyn McCoo, Maureen McGovern, Sons of the Pioneers, Roy Rogers, and George Shearing. I could not find much about this movie, so if anyone remembers watching it or knows anything more about it, please let me know.

With all the success that he had in the music industry, I was amazed to learn Mel wrote for television. I stumbled across it by accident when I was researching Mannix and decided to learn a little more about his writing career. I could not find any other information about his writing career. I did reach out to his son Steve March-Tormé . He said that he had not realized that his father wrote television scripts but said, “I’m not surprised. He tried his hand at a lot of areas of the business and was almost always very successful at them. Very bright guy.” Steve’s stepfather, Hal March, was another celebrated television writer and star. (For more about Steve March-Tormé , see his website, stevemarchtorme.com.)

It’s been a lot of fun to learn more about Mel Tormé’s television writing career. As someone who only knew him for his musical skills, it was fun to see another side of the performer. As someone who has always thought it would be fun to write for a sitcom, kudos to him for trying something new and succeeding. Hopefully, he is an inspiration to some of us who think we have to settle for the space we are in now to reach out and try something entirely different–and to remember that the success is in the trying.

Jay Sommers Figured Out the Formula for Good Writing

I thought it might be fun to look at some unique aspects of writing for sitcoms in this blog series. This month we’ll take a look at a variety of writing subjects.

To begin this series, I wanted to learn a bit about a classic sitcom writer, and Jay Sommers came to mind immediately. He wrote more than 400 scripts.

Sommers was born in 1917 in New York City. Before veering into comedy, he attended the City College of New York and studied the not-so-funny topic of chemistry. Apparently, he had good chemistry with his girlfriend’s father who thought he was pretty funny. The dad was an executive with Bristol Myers and the company sponsored many radio shows.

Photo: rusc.com

In 1940 his relationship with his then girlfriend’s dad led to Sommers receiving an offer to write for Milton Berle’s radio show. Jay did not keep the girl, but he kept the career. He would go on to write for a variety of radio shows including The Alan Young Show, Eddie Cantor, Spike Jones, Lum and Abner, and Red Skelton.

In 1950 he became the producer, director, and writer for a show called Granby’s Green Acres. It only ran for two months, but it would inspire him to create Green Acres for television a decade later. The show was based on a book by S.J. Perelman titled Acres and Pains. The premise of the show was that a wealthy banker wants to become a farmer, so he and his wife move to the country. The banker was played by Gale Gordon and his wife was Bea Benardaret.

Gordon and Benardaret Photo: wikiwand.com

Sommers’ first job as a writer on television was for The Peter Lind Hayes Show in 1950; the episode starred Gloria Swanson. In 1951 he wrote for the Colgate Comedy Hour, along with an episode of the Buster Keaton Show.

1953 brought him recognition for an episode of Our Miss Brooks (“Clay City Chaperone”). He became busier in 1954 writing for My Friend Irma, The Red Skelton Hour, and The Great Gildersleeve.

In the late fifties, he contributed to Blondie, Bachelor Father, and The Donna Reed Show.

Sommers really came into his own as a writer in the sixties. Along with a few screenplays, he wrote for The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Jim Backus Show, Dennis the Menace, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Grindl.

Sommers enjoyed the most lucrative part of his career from 1964 to 1970, working on Petticoat Junction and Green Acres. Paul Henning had created The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction for CBS. In 1965, the network asked Henning to come up with a new sitcom and said he did not have to film a pilot or give a pitch; they trusted him to develop whatever he wanted. Sommers suggested a television version of his old radio show, Granby’s Green Acres. With Gale Gordon and Bea Benardaret already committed to other shows, the hunt began for two new stars for Green Acres.

Tom Lester, last-surviving 'Green Acres' cast member, dies at 81 - National  | Globalnews.ca
Photo: globalnews.com Cast of Green Acres

In the television show starring Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert, the banker is replaced by an attorney. Oliver Wendell Douglas and his wife Lisa leave glamorous Manhattan and move to a run-down farm in Hooterville. Lisa considers their handyman Eb their son and they bond with all the neighbors including Fred and Doris Ziffel and their pet pig Arnold, general store owner and postmaster Sam Drucker, and the folks from Petticoat Junction.

During an interview with the Television Academy, Paul Henning said his contribution was casting, and he let Jay do most of the writing and producing. The show resulted in 170 episodes and was canceled in 1971 when CBS decided to do a “rural purge” and get rid of any shows that fit that theme.

In another Television Academy interview with Richard L. Bare, who directed Green Acres, he said that he was the only director, Jay was the only producer, and that Jay and Dick Chevillat did all the writing. He said that the only other person on staff was a secretary. And, he said things worked out great. He said today there are way too many people on the set and it gets confusing. 

More Hooterville favorites Photo: sitcomsonline.com

Jay continued writing in the seventies, but he did not write a lot. His shows that decade included Hot L Baltimore, Good Times, Ball Four, Alice, and Hello Larry.

Jay passed away in 1985 in Los Angeles from a heart ailment. It was very hard to find much personal information about Jay and no photos. I do know that at some point he married Barbara and they had several children. So sad that we don’t know a lot about some of the people who contributed so much to the golden age of television.

Jay Sommers left us much too early. He came out of a chemistry background, proving you don’t have to teach someone to be funny. He wrote for some of my favorite shows including The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, and Bachelor Father.

Photo: findagrave.com

Sommers worked on three of the most iconic television sitcoms in the 1960s: The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres. If you have been with me for a while, you know I never really cared for The Beverly Hillbillies. I really enjoy Petticoat Junction and I think it’s well written, but I think Green Acres was one of the best-written sitcoms on television. It’s not easy to write about quirky characters without them seeming unbelievable, but Jay did it. He created characters we fell in love with and truly liked. He produced and wrote brilliant scripts week after week for more than five years. They were clever, witty, and sophisticated without being over the top. His grave marker sums it up, “WRITER.” Thank you, Jay Sommers for introducing us to the good folks in Hooterville.

Arthur: Entertaining All of Us for 25 Years

Photo: arthur wiki-fandom.com

In 1996, one of my all-time favorite kids’ shows debuted. I admit I could only take so much Sesame Street, Caillou made me want to cover my ears with a blanket after 10 minutes, and don’t get me started on Teletubbies; I could not even make it through the theme song. However, one show I never get tired of is Arthur. I may or may not have been known to watch it even when I am the only one home.

Arthur was a 30-minute show, which consisted of two 11-minute stories with a live-action segment in between. The series was based on the books authored by Marc Brown. The series was developed by Kathy Waugh for PBS, and it’s produced by WGBH. Each show began with Arthur talking to the audience about a situation which is then explored in the story. We get to know Arthur, his family, and his friends intimately.

In a Scholastic interview, Brown said the character Arthur was born when his son Tolon asked for a bedtime story about a weird animal. He started going through the alphabet and an aardvark was the first animal that popped into his head. Tolon is now a producer on the show.

Photo: pinterest.com

The themes are the same ones that kids have to deal with in real life, some big and some small. During the 25 years that it has been on television, the show has covered bed wetting, dyslexia, cancer, autism, sibling rivalry, cheating in school, watching scary movies, divorce, fear of the dark, getting sick, and so many others. In a 2019 episode, Mr. Ratburn, Arthur’s teacher, marries a same-sex partner and Alabama Public Television declined to show the episode.

The series is fun to watch and presents issues kids deal with in a realistic, yet humorous light. Kids and parents can relate to the stories and characters. When Marc Brown described Arthur, he elaborated that “He is an eight-year-old aardvark who is navigating the mud puddles of life. You know, as we all are really. We all have obstacles and it’s how we handle them, and if Arthur can show kids that you can get through problems, solve problems, that’s really a good message for kids, it gives them confidence.” He added, “It’s a good message Arthur has, right, believe in yourself.”

What animal is Arthur? - How To Discuss
Photo: howtodiscuss.com

Arthur Read, age 8, lives with his mother Jane, father David, younger sister DW (Doris Winifred), and his baby sister Kate. His Grandma Thora is also around a lot as is his dog Pal. (Except for one episode, DW always wears a pink dress.)

His best friend is Buster. Some of his other friends include Francine, Muffy, Binky Barnes, Prunella, Sue Ellen, and The Brain. Even though the characters are all animals, they live in human homes and live life like most humans do. They live in Elmwood, which is a suburb of Pittsburgh. Brown grew up in Erie, PA and based many of the stories on his grade school life.

Arthur: PBS children's show to come to an end after 25 years
Photo: usatoday.com

I won’t get into the actors who provide voices for the various characters because there were many; some characters had more than five people playing them over the years. One interesting fact about that though is that DW was always voiced by a male.

I am not sure why but the first season of Arthur cost $12 million to create which is astounding to me. I tried to find more details about the reasons behind the big price tag, but I came up empty.

Photo: medium.com

One of the most memorable things about the show is the catchy theme song. Written by Judy Henderson and Jerry de Villiers Jr., “Believe In Yourself” was originally recorded by Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers for the show.

The show featured a lot of guest stars over the years. Some of the more fun episodes included Fred Rogers as himself visiting Elwood City, Art Garfunkel as a singing moose, Yo-Yo Ma as a music rival, Alex Trebek as Alex Lebek, game show host, Michelle Kwan teaching Francine to skate, Larry King interviewing Arthur, and The Backstreet Boys in concert.

Photo: imdb.com

I truly just picked four of my favorite PBS kids’ shows to learn about this month, but it turns out they were all the longest-running shows on the network. Arthur is the longest-running animated series for kids and is second in animation overall to The Simpsons. The show received a Peabody Award and four Emmy Awards for Outstanding Children’s Animated Program.

Photo: theguardian.com

Last month the last episode of Arthur aired. While I’m sad to see it end, it surely had a great run. My boys read Arthur books and watched the show, my grandkids are reading the books and watching the show, and I’m hoping that my great-grandkids will enjoy the books and reruns of the show.

One of my favorite Arthur books and episodes was aired during Season 1 and is “Arthur’s Chicken Pox.” I think it’s one of my favorites because it is truly an ordinary but delightful look at an everyday event. I remember getting chicken pox at about Arthur’s age.

Thank you Marc Brown for creating such an eclectic group of characters and so many enjoyable stories and moments, and thank you PBS for recognizing what a great series it could be and funding it for two and a half decades.

 

 

 

Add Some Color to Your Life with Reading Rainbow

Reading Rainbow was an American 30-minute children’s series that was broadcast on PBS. The show began in 1983. Producing 155 episodes, the series aired new episodes until 2006 and then showed reruns until 2009.

How Reading Rainbow Inspired Me
Photo: bookriot.com

The show was developed to encourage children to read. Twila Liggett created the show with Cecily Truett Lancit and Larry Lancit of Lancit Media Productions. Lynne Ganek, Tony Buttino, and host LeVar Burton were also part of the creative team. The group met with Fred Rogers, Joan Ganz Cooney, and The Electric Company crew to explore ways to make television more engaging to fans. During an interview in 2003, Burton said “I think reading is part of the birthright of the human being. It’s just such an integral part of the human experience—that connection with the written word.”

Many educators found that during the summer, children lost a lot of their reading abilities because they were watching “uneducational” television and not reading. The producers of the show wanted to air a new program during the summer months that would keep kids excited about reading even when they weren’t in school. It was a great goal, but the show was often threatened with cancellation due to a lack of funding.

The show received more than 200 awards including a Peabody Award. Ten of its twenty-six Emmys were for Outstanding Children’s Series. It was the third-longest children’s show on the air right after, you guessed it, Mister Rogers and Sesame St.

LeVar Burton Asks Fans to Help Bring Back 'Reading Rainbow' | The Takeaway  | WNYC Studios
Photo: WNYC Studio.com

A topic was introduced in each episode and then a featured children’s book was read, often narrated by a celebrity. After the story, Burton visited places relating to the theme of the day. The show ended with book suggestions for kids to read. In an Esquire interview in 2019, Burton discussed why listening to books is so important: “It gives you the opportunity to, without the mechanism of reading, engage immediately in your imagination. When you’re reading, you’re multitasking. You’re reading and making the movie in your head. When you’re listening to storytelling, there’s no activity, there’s no multitasking—you’re indeed in your imagination as you’re engaged with the content of the story. It’s a shortcut for visualization.”

Steve Horelick was the composer of the theme song with Dennis Neil Kleinman and Janet Weir writing lyrics. The show had three versions of the song with the third version sung by Chaka Khan.

There are a lot of great stars who showed up to read to kids, including Ruth Buzzy, Julia Child, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Kermit the Frog, Peter Falk, Jane Goodall, and Run D-M-C.

Margret Aldrich in wrote an article in 2014, and she chose the top ten books from the series. It’s a great place to start if you want to find a couple of books to read to your child.

To Be A Drum read by James Earl Jones - YouTube
James Earl Jones Photo: youtube.com
  1. All the Colors of the Race by Arnold Adoff, read by Maya Angelou.
  2. Sunken Treasure by Gail Gibbons, read by Robert Morse
  3. On the Day You Were Born by Debra Frasier, read by Patrick Stewart.
  4. Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, read by Tyne Daly.
  5. Animal Café by John Stadler, read by Martin Short.
  6. The Magic Schoolbus Inside the Earth by Joanna Cole, read by Keshia Knight Pulliam.
  7. Paul Bunyan by Steven Kellogg, read by Buddy Ebsen
  8. Arthur’s Eyes by Marc Brown, read by Bill Cosby.
  9. Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema, read by James Earl Jones.
  10. Abiyoyo by Pete Seeger and Michael Hays, read by Pete Seeger.

So, why was the show canceled? According to John Grant, who is in charge of content at WNED Buffalo, the show’s home station, “The show’s run is ending because no one—not the station, not PBS, not the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—will put up the several hundred thousand dollars needed to renew the show’s broadcast rights.” And, just like that, the last chapter was closed for good.

Burton Calls On 'Star Trek' Fans To Bring 'Reading Rainbow' To The Next  Generation | KRWG
Photo: npr.org

Reading Rainbow was an essential motivation for kids to read. However, adults have to realize that they also have to make time for reading. Let’s allow Levar to have the last word. In that Esquire interview, he also talked about why all of us need to read:

“You need to make the time. You have time to eat; you have time to sleep; you have time to love. I think reading for pleasure is an act of self-care, genuinely. I really do, especially in today’s world. You’ve gotta turn off the news; you’ve got to create some escape time in your imagination. You have to feed yourself, people! Otherwise, we have a tendency to get locked into the circumstances of life, and less engaged in the solution aspect of ourselves. It’s really critical for us to read for pleasure. One of the miracles of the modern era is that on my iPad, and consequently, because of the Cloud, on my phone, I carry a library of reading material. I mean, literally a library. It’s so available. We just have to shift our awareness a degree in that direction.”

I Can Tell You How to Get to Sesame Street

In 1966 Joan Ganz Cooney and Carnegie VP Lloyd Morrisett had a goal to create a new television show for kids. Apparently, they were at a dinner party when Morrisett was telling Cooney that one morning he found his three-year-old sitting in front of the television watching the test pattern. He wondered if the “boob tube” could ever actually teach kids anything. After a couple of years of research, they created the Children’s Television Workshop. An $8 million grant from funding from several corporations (Carnegie Foundation, Ford Foundation, for Corporation Public Broadcasting and the US federal government) was given to the Workshop to develop the show.

Sesame Street announces new special tackling racism | EW.com
Photo: entertainmentweekly.com

The show debuted in November of 1969. I don’t remember much about the show, but I can tell you as a third grader I was incensed that we were forced to watch a show for toddlers. However, the show received high ratings and was lauded a success. (By 2019 there were more than 150 versions of the show produced in 70 different languages.)

Jim Henson - The Muppet Master — Carol Burnett with Gonzo and Kermit, The  Muppet...
Carol as asparagus Photo: tumblr.com

Carol Burnett appeared on the first episode. She said, “I didn’t know anything about it when they asked me to be on. All I knew was that Jim Henson was involved and I thought he was a genius—I’d have gone skydiving with him if he’d asked. But it was a marvelous show. I kept going back for more. I think one time I was an asparagus.”

The show adopted a fast-moving style that incorporated action, humor, color, and music. They tried to match preschoolers’ attention spans. Humans often interacted with puppets in the style of Fred Rogers.

Sesame Street dealt with a lot of controversial issues and life situations that affected kids. In 1982, Will Lee who played Mr. Hooper passed away, and the show had to deal with his absence. The episode discussed death and avoided saying Mr. Hooper died in a hospital, so kids did not equate hospitals with death. Fans consistently rate this episode as one of the most moving and memorable ones that they watched.

The Late Movies: Saying Goodbye to Mr. Hooper | Mental Floss
Mr. Hooper Photo: mentalfloss.com

The show was always sensitive to ensuring they had a variety of ethnicities and genders represented in the series. In 1970 the show was banned in Mississippi by the State Commission for Educational Television. An anonymous committee member said that it was because of the diverse and integrated cast. After a statewide protest, they finally reversed their decision three weeks later.

In 1981 the federal government withdrew its funding from the show. Sesame St. developed new revenue resources from books, product licensing, and magazine production.

The show began to struggle a bit in the 1990s, competing with a variety of shows for ratings. In 1999, Elmo was given his own segment, “Elmo’s World.”

The Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo | Sesame Workshop
Elmo Photo: sesameworkshop.com

In 2009, the show received an Outstanding Achievement Emmy for its four decades on the air. As of 2018 the show had won 189 Emmys overall (and 11 Grammy awards), more than any other children’s show.

In 2019, the series celebrated fifty years on television, having produced more than 4500 episodes, 2 movies (Follow that Bird and The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland), 200 videos, and 180 albums.

Cooney credited the show’s high quality to Harvard professors Gerald Lesser and Edward L. Palmer. Lesser designed the educational objectives for the show while Palmer did the formative research and bridged the gap between producers and researchers.

Of course, the show would not be what it was without Jim Henson. Cooney met Henson in Boston; he was reluctant to join the show but agreed to bypass his performance fees for full ownership of the Muppets, splitting revenue from them 50/50 with CTW.

It seems like some fun facts would be in order:

In 2004 the Cookie Monster said his name had previously been Sid.

Kermit retired in 2001.

Big Bird Has 4,000 Feathers: 21 Fun Facts About Sesame Street That Will  Blow Your Mind
With Jimmy Fallon Photo: parade.com

Big Bird is 8’2” tall.

Oscar the Grouch was inspired by a combination of a two men Henson interacted with. One was a mean waiter and the other was a restaurant director at Oscar’s Tavern in Manhattan.

Carol Spinney who played Bird took his voice from a cab driver who used to transport him to the set.

The stripes on Bert and Ernie’s shirts are deliberate: Ernie’s horizontal ones appear more relaxed while Bert’s vertical ones make him appear uptight.

Sesame Street | History, Characters, & Facts | Britannica
Photo: Briticannica.com

Big Bird’s teddy bear is named Radar, for Radar on M*A*S*H who slept with a teddy bear.

The 847th episode, which was broadcast in 1976, featured Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West. Kids were so scared that the episode never aired again.

And of course, the answer to the question everyone wants to know. How do you get to Sesame Street? Take the R or V train to Steinway St. Stay on the back of the train and then walk west on 34th Ave. three blocks to 36th St. Turn left. The entrance to Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens is half way between 34th and 35th Aves.

It’s hard to measure the impact the show has had on decades of children. A 1996 survey found that 95% of American preschoolers had watched the show by the time that they were 3 years old. In 2018, 86 million Americans reported watching the show as a child. As of 2001, more than 1000 research studies had been conducted regarding the effect of the show on American culture.

Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch... - The Walton Freeze | Facebook
Photo: facebook.com

While I was not thrilled to watch the show as a third grader, I did spend many hours watching the show with my children and appreciated the quality that went into every script. And, in answer to Lloyd Morrisett, can television ever teach kids anything worthwhile? Absolutely!

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: PBS: Purposefully Brilliant Programming, Part 1

We are taking a look at some of the classic kids’ shows on PBS (or Purposefully Brilliant Programming as I am referring to it) in March. It seemed fitting to start with one of the shows that many of us grew up with:  Mister Rogers.

Mr. Rogers and the importance of social and emotional learning | TheHill
Photo: thehill.com

Fred Rogers was born in Pennsylvania in 1928. Fred’s youth was far from ideal. He was shy and overweight, which he was bullied about. He also spent much of his time alone because he had asthma which kept him out of school a lot of the time. He turned to his stuffed animals to create a more friendly world for himself.

In high school, he blossomed. He was president of the student council, editor of the yearbook, in the National Honor Society, and made a variety of friends including several football players.

Live and lively, early days of 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' began with a  'Corner' | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Childrens Corner with Joanne Photo: pittsburghpostgazette.com

He enrolled in Rollins College and graduated in 1951 with a music degree. He started his television career in New York but returned to Pittsburgh in 1953 to be the program developer for NET, now PBS, at WQED. While pursuing his television career, he also attended Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, graduating with a degree in divinity in 1962. He became a Presbyterian minister the following year and also attended the University of Pittsburgh graduate school for child development.

He met his wife Joanne in college, and they were married in 1952 and made a great team for life, raising two boys.

One of the shows he worked on at WQED was Children’s Corner.  Many of the puppets who showed up later on his show were created for this series. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto offered Rogers his own show, a 15-minute black and white children’s program. He moved to Canada and appeared on the show from 1963-1967. When the show was cancelled, he acquired the rights to the show.

Places | Mister Rogers' Neighborhood
Photo: misterrogers.org

In 1968 he returned to Pittsburgh, and the show became part of WQED’s schedule. The program focused on children’s emotional and physical concerns and covered a lot of important topics including dealing with death, sibling rivalry, the effects of divorce, prejudice, and other life issues.

Mr. Rogers Red Cardigan Sweater - Iconic on Mr. Fred Rogers 
© 2019 McFeely-Rogers Foundation All Rights Reserved.
Photo: expressnews.com

In 1970, NET became PBS, and the show was retitled Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and broadcast nationally. Fred began each episode by changing into one of his iconic cardigans while singing the ever-popular theme song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” He then did a small monologue about the day’s topic.  His website, misterrogers.org explains this daily ritual: “That seemingly simple routine is part of a larger message and an invitation. The message: I care about you, no matter who you are and no matter what you can or cannot do. The invitation: Let’s spend this time together. We’ll build a relationship and talk and imagine and sing about things that matter to you.”

Fred produced the show, wrote the scripts, hosted the show, and composed the music. Between 1968 and 2001, more than 1000 episodes were created.

On the website misterrogers.org, we are introduced to the characters who live in the neighborhood of Make Believe.

Daniel the Striped Tiger: This shy, gentle tiger is equal parts timid and brave.

King Friday XIII: The rule of the Neighborhood of Make Believe can be demanding, but he cares deeply for his subjects.

5 behind-the-scenes secrets of 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' | Pittsburgh  is Kidsburgh
Photo: kidsburgh.org

Lady Elaine Fairchilde: She’s mischievous and a bit of a troublemaker, but she’s also brave, sassy, and ready to speak up.

Henrietta the Pussycat: A lovable pussycat all dressed up in fancy dresses and hats.

X the Owl: A fun-loving, easygoing relaxed sort of owl who loves to learn.

Fred described his puppets by saying, “The authority of the king, the shyness of Daniel Tiger, the adolescence of X the Owl, the mischievousness of Lady Elaine Fairchilde, we all have lots of facets to who we are, and it’s fun to be able to express them.”

I found a fitting story about why this show was so exceptional. Robert Bianco stopped by the set to do an article for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. He wrote: “Years ago, I spent a day on the set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The scene they were shooting was simple. Fred Rogers was supposed to sit at a table, drink a glass of juice and then move on to another part of the set. When he finished shooting the scene, however, Rogers realized he couldn’t finish the juice in the time allotted. So, he asked for another, non-see-through glass, so children wouldn’t see him leaving a half-filled glass on the table.

The director objected, saying kids would never notice, and it wouldn’t make any difference if they did. But Rogers said wasting juice sent the wrong message to his audience, and then simply repeated his request, patiently but firmly, and in a tone that made it clear he would not change his mind. He got his glass.

There’s a lot of Fred Rogers boiled down in that story: his attention to detail, his dedication to the work, his sense of responsibility for its effects, his moral authority, his willingness to exercise power, and his skill at doing so graciously.”

Mister Rogers gave children the possibilities of who they could become. He opened up new worlds they might not have encountered. He wanted to inspire kids to think big.

Two years after ending the show, Fred died from stomach cancer in 2003.

8 things to know about Mister Rogers from the story that inspired the Tom  Hanks movie | CNN
Photo: cnn.com

Rogers became known for his optimistic and caring attitude. He was one of the most-requested commencement speakers in the country, visiting more than 150 schools. Most of his lectures were about television programming, education, his view of the world, how to make the world a better place, and how children were affected by issues, as well as his continual quest for more knowledge.

Fred received more than 40 major awards, including a Peabody in 1992, a Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 1997, induction into the Television Hall of Fame in 1999, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, and was featured on the Forever stamp in 2018.

Many museums have featured a Fred Rogers temporary or permanent exhibit. The Smithsonian Institution contains a collection of Rogers items from the show, including one of his red sweaters.

A 7000-pound, 11-foot high, Mister Rogers oversees the North Shore Neighborhood in Pittsburgh.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood' Trailer: Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers - The  New York Times
Tom Hanks Version Photo: NYtimes.com

In 2019, Fred’s life moved to the big screen with the debut of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, with Tom Hanks portraying Rogers.

Tom captured the essence of Fred perfectly, but he knew he was under a lot of pressure to do so. There were thousands of kids who knew Fred intimately because they spent time with him every afternoon. Tom told the following story:

“I was on an elevator and a man got on and said, ‘Mr. Hanks, how is filming going? Are you enjoying your time here in Pittsburgh?’ I said ‘Very much, and I must say, Pittsburgh is a great city.’ He said ‘Thank you, I have to agree.’ And then before I got off at my floor, he said ‘You know, we take Mister Rogers very seriously in Pittsburgh.’ I said, ‘I am aware of that.’ The entire town knew we were filming a movie about Mister Rogers . I think we got a proper amount of props from the people of the city—as well as some expectations.”

Fred’s wife was brought into the movie production for her blessing which she gave. She had two important things she wanted to come through in the movie. One was how funny Fred was. If you read his speeches, you can hear his wit and humor. She also wanted to make sure that he was not treated as a saint. Her theory was that he had been put on a pedestal above everyone else. She said people might tell her, “I can’t do that but I admire him. I would love to do it.” Her response to them and to us is “Well you can do it. I’m convinced that there are lots of Fred Rogerses out there.”  And of course, that was Fred’s goal; he wanted us to all believe we could make a difference.

Why Mr. Rogers Is Having A Big Moment In Education : NPR Ed : NPR
Photo: npr.org

One of my favorite Fred Rogers stories was about his car. The “story” says Fred’s Chevy Impala was parked near the TV station in Pittsburgh when a thief took it and drove off. Fred filed a police report and it got out on the news. Within two days the vehicle was returned to the exact spot with a note left on the dashboard that said, “If I’d known it was yours, I never would have taken it.” There are some questions about whether this is a true story or not.  In 1980, the New York Times did in fact report the story. In reality, Fred was babysitting for his grandson when it was stolen. The thief realized whose car it was because he found some papers in the car and he did return the car and left it parked in front of Fred’s home. As writers, details get embellished, so I like the inaccurate version better, but either way, the point is the same.  We should all try to be the type of people that would make thieves feel bad about stealing our cars.

During one of his interviews, Fred was asked about productive people he had been exposed to and he said “The thing I remember best about successful people I’ve met all through the years is their obvious delight in what they’re doing . . . and it seems to have very little to do with worldy success. They just love what they’re doing, and they love it in front of others.” We need a few more successful people in this world, and more Fred Rogers to inspire the next generation. So put on your sweater, go talk to some kids, and show others you care.

Howard Morris: The Hamlet of Animation

After learning about Your Show of Shows and the stars of the show, I turned my attention to the cast members. Carl Reiner and Howard Morris were the two actors who were most involved with the skits. Reiner had a long and successful career, and we’ll look at his life in more detail later, but today I would like to concentrate on Howard Morris. 

Howard Morris Theatre Credits and Profile
Photo: abouttheartist.com

Most people recognize Morris as Ernest T Bass from The Andy Griffith Show. While I have a great appreciation for the series and the well-written scripts and delightful characters of Mayberry, I was never a big fan of Ernest T or the Darling family. They seemed to be a bit too over the top for me and diminished the reality of Mayberry.

J. Mark Powell on Twitter: "Howard Morris, better known as Mayberry's  rock-throwing Ernest T. Bass on @AndyGriffithShw, was born 101 years ago  today.… https://t.co/AwvE2WMBvR"
Ernest T Bass Photo: twitter.com

So, when I began to learn more about Morris who first became known to television fans for his work on Your Show of Shows, I was amazed at how versatile an actor he was and how much he accomplished during his career. 

Howard Morris was born in The Bronx in 1919. He later received a scholarship to attend New York University as a drama major, planning to work as a classically trained Shakespeare actor. During WWII he became first sergeant in the US Army Special Services unit. The group was based in Honolulu and entertained troops throughout the Pacific. Maurice Evans (who played Samantha’s father on Bewitched among other roles); Carl Reiner (whom we all know and love); and Werner Klemperer (Col Klink on Hogan’s Heroes) were all part of this unit.

In 1945 he married Mary Helen McGowan. While they were married until 1958; he had four other marriages during his life.

When Morris got the offer to appear in Sid Caesar’s new show, he was able to work with Reiner again. This was his first television or movie appearance, but it would not be his last.

Howard Morris - Net Worth, Bio, Wife, Children, Death, Biography - Famous  People Today
With Reiner and Caeser Photo: famouspeopletoday.com

One of the sketches from the show was a take on This is Your Life, the Ralph Edwards show. Morris said it was his favorite skit from the series. David Margolick wrote in the New Yorker in 2014 that “Though the competition is stiff, many feel that this sketch is the funniest that Your Show of Shows ever did . . . that night nearly sixty years ago, the show produced what is probably the longest and loudest burst of laughter—genuine laughter, neither piped in nor prompted—in the history of television.”

Morris moved to Hollywood in 1961. In the 1960s he began his multi-talented career of television actor, movie actor, director, and animation voice-over star. Unbelievably, he would rely on the quartet of skills the rest of his professional life, excelling in all of them.

Howard Morris (Ernest T. Bass) on The Lucy Show - Sitcoms Online Photo  Galleries
On The Lucy Show Photo: sitcomsonline.com

As a television actor, he appeared in a variety of series including The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Twilight Zone, The Lucy Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Love American Style, The Bob Newhart Show, Fantasy Island, Trapper John MD, The Love Boat, and Murder She Wrote.

Although he is known for his role of Ernest T Bass on The Andy Griffith Show, he was only made five appearances as that character on the show. Aaron Rubens sent him the script that introduced Ernest to Morris to look over and “fix.” Morris fell in love with the character. He said the show had a terrific cast, and they were wonderful people to work with. He said fans loved Ernest because he did whatever he felt like doing including spontaneously bad behavior choices that everyone wanted to make.

As a movie star, he appeared in several films throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Some of the highlights were The Nutty Professor; With Six You Get Eggroll; High Anxiety; The History of the World, Part I; and Splash.

On The Many Faces (and Voices) of Howard Morris – (Travalanche)
Photo: travalanche.com

Not content with just acting in films, Morris became interested in directing early in his career. He began his directing career in the sixties and continued through the eighties. His first directing job was on The Bill Dana Show. He was very busy in the sixties and seventies, directing episodes of Gomer Pyle, USMC; The Dick Van Dyke Show; The Andy Griffith Show; The Patty Duke Show; the pilot of Get Smart; Bewitched; Love American Style; Hogan’s Heroes, and The Love Boat among others. He also directed for the big screen. You’ll see directing credits in his name for Who’s Minding the Mint?, With Six You Get Eggroll, and Don’t Drink the Water.

During an interview with the television academy, he said he loved directing Hogan’s Heroes. Robert Clary became one of his best friends for life. He also loved Klemperer. He said working on With Six You Get Eggroll was a wonderful experience. He said Doris Day just had a natural talent, and Brian Keith was a great guy. He felt being an actor allowed him to be a better director. He understood what the process was for the cast and was able to help them. He knew he could not teach them to act.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for a classically trained Shakespeare actor is that he had the most success in the animation world. I could not begin to list all his credits here, or you would still be reading next week when the new blog comes out. Beginning with Krazy Kat in 1962, he would go on to provide voices for more than fifty series. You will hear his voice in The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Mr. Magoo, The Magilla Gorilla Show, The Atom Ant Show, Duck Tales, a variety of Archie series, and Garfield and Friends.

Howard Morris voiced more than 100 characters on The Flintstones
Photo: metv.com

In a Television Academy interview, he admitted that he accepted voice-over work because he needed the money. It also appealed to him because you did not have to worry about wardrobe or make-up. He said the actors sat in the room together recording the show at the same time which allowed them to relate to each other better than today when everyone records by himself.

In 1962, he married Dolores Wylie and they were together until 1977. I read several sources that listed him being married five times but could not find confirmation of the other marriages, although one cite mentioned two other spouses, Judith and Kathleen and noted that he was married to one of his spouses twice. They all ended in divorce.

In 2005 Morris died from congestive heart failure. Carl Reiner was one of the people who gave a eulogy at his funeral.

The Andy Griffith Show" My Fair Ernest T. Bass (TV Episode 1964) - IMDb
Photo: imdb.com

Howard Morris had a very long and prolific career. About the only genre he did not act in was Shakespearean drama, which is what he trained for. I was curious about whether he enjoyed his comedic career, or if he was disappointed that he did not work more in drama.

During his Television Academy interview, when asked what advice he would give someone thinking about entering the acting or directing profession, he replied “to avoid it and shun every opportunity because it was too hard.” He certainly deserves to be remembered for more than being Ernest T Bass even though he is a much-loved character. Morris said he would like to be remembered as a guy that was able to reveal certain things of humor and reality to the public and for his great gratitude for the fans who have always been there.” Well said. And, well done.

Sid Caesar: The Ultimate Comedian

This month’s blogs are dedicated to Your Show of Shows and the stars who made the show such a success. Last week we learned about the career of Imogene Coca, and today it’s Sid Caesar’s turn.

Sid Caesar - Wikipedia
Photo: wikipedia.com

Sid Caesar was born in Yonkers, New York, the youngest of three boys. His parents ran a 24-hour luncheonette. Sid grew up waiting on tables which allowed him to study the accents and mannerisms of a wide range of people and ethnicities. His brother David loved comedy sketches, and the brothers worked on comedy routines together.

At the young age of 14, Caesar traveled to the Catskill Mountains, playing saxophone with the Swingtime Six. Occasionally he performed sketches with his collected accents.

After graduating from high school in 1939, Caesar struck out on his own, pursuing a career in music. He landed in Manhattan where he worked as an usher and a doorman at the Capitol Theater. He played sax at the Vacationland Hotel, a resort also in the Catskills. He was able to audit clarinet and saxophone classes at Julliard.

After a few months, he decided to enlist in the US Coast Guard. He was stationed in Brooklyn, and he played in military revues and shows.

In 1942 Caesar met Florence Levy at the Avon Lodge in the Catskills. They were married the following year and had three children. In November of 2009, Greg Crosby wrote about an interview with the Caesars in the Tolucan Times. He quoted Florence, “I thought he would be just a nice boyfriend for the summer. He was cute looking and tall, over six feet . . . I was in my last year at Hunter College; we were still dating when Sid went into the service, the Coast Guard. Luckily, he was stationed in New York, so we were able to continue seeing each other, even though my parents weren’t too happy about it. They never thought he would amount to anything, that he’d never have a real career or make any money. But we were married one year after we met, in July of 1943.” They would remain married until her death in 2010.

After joining the musicians’ union, Sid played with several well-known bands, including Benny Goodman.

Sid Caesar Wiki, Wife, Career, Net worth and Death children, House,
With wife Florence Levy
Photo: hollywoodmagazine.com

While in the Coast Guard, he was able to collaborate with Vernon Duke, the composer of “Autumn in New York,” “April in Paris,” and “Taking a Chance on Love.” He and Duke put together a show called “Tars and Spars.” Max Liebman, future director of Your Show of Shows, was also part of the show, although not part of the military. Liebman asked Sid to do a few stand-up bits between songs and when the show toured nationally, Sid continued these routines.

Caesar left the service in 1945. He and his wife moved to Hollywood. In 1946, Sid was able to reprise his role in the film version Tars and Spars with Columbia Pictures.

Eventually, he returned to New York and accepted the offer of opening act for Joe E. Lewis at the Copacabana. He also received a contract with the William Morris Agency. He was able to perform in a Broadway show, “Make Mine Manhattan.”

In the fall of 1948, Sid made an appearance on Milton Berle’s popular show, Texaco Star Theater. The following year, he and Liebman met with Pat Weaver, VP of television at NBC. The meeting resulted in the Admiral Broadway Revue with Imogene Coca. It was very successful but Admiral could not keep up with the demand for new television sets so it pulled the sponsorship and the show was canceled after 26 weeks.

Sid Caesar's “Your Show of Shows,” the Best TV Has Ever Offered – Once upon  a screen…
Photo: onceuponascreen.com

In 1950, Weaver, Liebman, and Company created Your Show of Shows. It started life as a second half of the Saturday Night Review but became its own 90-minute program in 1951. In 1954, a 160 episodes later, it ended so Coca and Caesar could both have their own shows.

Sid’s show was called Caesar’s Hour, a one-hour show with Howard Morris and Carl Reiner from Your Show of Shows as well as Bea Arthur and Nanette Fabray. The show was not a success. In 1958, Sid tried again with Sid Caesar Invites You.

In the sixties, Caesar took stage roles, as well as big and small-screen parts. He had several specials on television, starred on Broadway in “Little Me,” which got him a Tony award nomination. He also was part of the ensemble of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, a huge success that earned six Academy award nominations.

Sid appeared in a few television shows during his career but only a handful. A couple of those include That Girl, Love American Style, Laugh In, Vega$, and The Love Boat.

THAT GIRL - TV SHOW PHOTO #E-13 - MARLO THOMAS + SID CAESAR | eBay
That Girl Photo: ebay.com

Caesar didn’t write his own material. He often performed long sketches, 10-15 minutes. He relied on body language, accents, and facial expressions. Larry Gelbart called him a “pure TV comedian.” Fabray said he always stayed in character, “he was so totally in the scene he never lost it.” He was able to pantomime many different types of characters: a tire, a gumball machine, a lion, a punching bag, a telephone, an infant, a piano, even a bottle of seltzer. Neil Simon said that “Sid would make it [a sketch] ten times funnier than what we wrote.”

Many of his favorite comic sketches were parodies of films including gangster, western, and spy movies. Gerald Nachman wrote Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. He said, “the Caesar shows were the crème de la crème of fifties television, studded with satire and their sketches sharper, edgier, more sophisticated than the other variety shows.” Historian Susan Murphy agreed, describing Sid as “best known as one of the most intelligent and provocative innovators of television comedy.”

Unfortunately, like many comedians, Caesar had some demons of his own. His stardom ended quickly. He had no interest in the movies. He was using pills and alcohol to help relieve the pressures of headlining and producing a weekly show. In 1977, Caesar blacked out during a stage performance of “The Last of the Red-Hot Lovers” in Canada and gave up alcohol immediately. He discussed his substance abuse to alcohol and sleeping pills in his two autobiographies, Where Have I Been? And Caesar’s Hours. He said at his worst, he “had been downing eight Tuinals and a quart of Scotch a day.”

Later in his career, Sid came back to the movies. He was in Silent Movie and History of the World, Part I with Mel Brooks; Airport 1975, and Grease and Grease 2, playing Coach Calhoun.

Grease (1978) starring John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard  Channing, Jeff Conaway, Barry Pearl, Michael Tucci, Kelly Ward, Didi Conn,  Jamie Donnelly, Di… | John travolta, Grease john travolta, John lennon  beatles
From Grease with John Travolta Photo: pinterest.com

In 1983, Caesar hosted Saturday Night Live and received a standing ovation. In 1996, The Writers Guild of America, West gathered Sid and his writers from Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour for a two-hour panel discussion which was broadcast on PBS.

Sid passed away in 2014 after an illness. He left behind an amazing career and a legacy of actors and comedians he inspired. I’ll let his friends have the last word since they knew him so well. Carl Reiner commented at the time that “he was the ultimate, he was the very best sketch artist and comedian that ever existed.” Mel Brooks agreed and said “Sid Caesar was a giant, maybe the best comedian who ever practiced the trade. And I was privileged to be one of his writers and one of his friends.”

We were all privileged to watch a master at work. Thank you for the many memorable moments and teaching us what funny honestly looks like.