Say Jell-o to Don Wilson

As we continue with our “They Call Me Wilson” series, today we learn about the career of Don Wilson.  With 33 movie credits, he only starred in seven television shows, but if you were a fan of Jack Benny or Batman, you will recognize him immediately.

Photo: oldtimeradio.com

Wilson was born in 1900 in Nebraska. Not much is known about his early life, but in one interview in 1980, he mentioned he went to high school in Boulder, CO. He played football at the University of Colorado and was an excellent golfer.

Denver was also the place he began his radio career, singing on KFEL in 1923. Wilson talked about a group he was part of, the Columbia Trio, in Denver beginning in 1925; they played on the radio and appeared in clubs when they needed a late substitute. One of their clients for commercials was for Piggly Wiggly and the store brought the three musicians to California when the company decided to open up new stores in California and renamed them the Piggly Wiggly Trio.

By the end of the decade, he was working full time at station KFI and later at KHJ both in Los Angeles. In an interview later in his life, he said he bought a Packard from Earle C. Anthony, and the Cadillac sponsor Don Lee, who owned KFI did not take it kindly and fired Wilson.

Apparently, he couldn’t decide which direction he wanted his career to go. During the early thirties, he worked as a sportscaster and covered the opening of the 1932 Summer Olympics for NBC. He also announced five Rose Bowls. He was mentored by Ted Hussey and said he was the greatest sports announcer bar none as well as a generous and knowledgeable man.

He took on Broadway roles in 1932 and 1934. He also began radio announcing for programs in the mid-thirties, first working with Benny in 1934.

Being perhaps indecisive, he also had a hard time with his love life. His first marriage was to Lucy Saufley in 1927; in 1940, he divorced Saufley and he married Peggy Kent whose father was president of 20th Century Fox. In 1942, the same month his divorce became final , he married a Polish countess, Marusia Radunska and this relationship lasted seven years. When he married his fourth wife, Lois Corbett in 1950, he finally found a lifetime partner.

He would be a member of the Jack Benny television family for 31 years, but when he was hired, although it was as a permanent cast member, he was at least the fourth announcer in two years to work on the show. Wilson said he thinks he was chosen partly because he laughed at all the right lines. He said luckily, in person, Benny was much more generous with his salary than was portrayed on the show.

When Benny made the foray into television in 1950, Wilson went along and would continue to costar on the show until it ended in 1965.

The cast of The Jack Benny Show-Photo: tvtropes.com

Although Don was listed as announcer for the Benny show, like Harry Von Zell on Burns and Allen, he was really part of the cast. His good-natured, friendly manner and booming Midwestern voice made him a pleasant person who often took the brunt of jokes by Benny, often due to his 6 foot, 300-pound physique. Wilson’s wife Lois appeared as his wife on the show for fifteen years, so it was a family affair. She also acted on other radio shows.

Benny producer Irving Fein, said Don “was a great foil for Jack. He was the hearty announcer who tried to get the commercial on the air and Jack would try to thwart him. Sometimes Don would have the Sportsmen Quartet sneak in the commercial. Don would tell Jack the Sportsmen were going to do a song. Then they would sing a chorus of a song and the final chorus would be the commercial.” The first commercial Wilson pitched on the show was for General Tires. Jell-O, part of General Foods, sponsored the show for ten years, and Lucky Strike then took over for another fifteen years.

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His coworkers said he rarely misspoke his lines, but when he did, they took advantage of it. In an interview on speakingofradio.com, Don told a story that during one 1950 broadcast, he relayed a bunch of information and Jack asked him when he learned all that and Don said he read it in columnist Drew Pearson’s article, but he mistakenly said Dreer Pooson. Later during the murder-mystery story, Benny approached Frank Nelson and asked, “Pardon me, are you the doorman?” Instead of the written line, Nelson asked, “Well who do you think I am, Dreer Pooson?” That line got a lot of applause and laughter.

He said Benny was a quiet listener and preferred to stay in the background reacting to other actors. However, Wilson said that “when he was eventually on, he could top everybody. . . He wasn’t a one-liner comedian . . . he was a real thoroughbred professional, start to finish.  He always demanded the very, very best that he could possibly get and if ever there was an irreplaceable man, Jack Benny would be that man.”

Wilson with Jack Benny and Dennis Day–Photo: radiospirits.info

Don discussed how the show worked. He said “Jack’s philosophy was that the bigger he could make the supporting people, the bigger the Jack Benny Show became and the bigger Jack Benny therefore became.”  Wilson said he was thoughtful and generous and would not allow anything off-color in the show, so it was fit for family watching. He said in one episode, Benny sat off to one side and the cast spoke to him, but he didn’t actually utter a line until the last few minutes of the show. He said Jack often came up with the idea for a show but then turned it over to the writers and let them do their part.

He said some of his most enjoyable shows were when he traveled with Jack performing for military audiences. Jack would try to move the brass, so the enlisted men could have front-row seats.

Wilson did announcing work for a variety of programs in the heyday of radio. He worked with Bing Crosby, Fanny Brice, and Alan Young. He also worked for Chesterfield when they sponsored a show with Glenn Miller.  When Miller went into the war, Harry James took over that spot, and Don continued working with him.

Wilson said in the early years of television, they did two live presentations, one for the east coast and one for the west coast.  In between they would tweak lines and rehearse those changes. Eventually, the show was taped, so the cast did not have to do two live performances.

Radio Guide, in addition to other award groups, awarded Don the Announcer of the Year Award for fifteen years straight.

While on Benny’s show, Don also made several appearances on other television shows in the fifties and sixties. He showed up on Screen Directors Playhouse in 1955 and on The Red Skelton Show in 1959. He was a preacher on Death Valley Days in 1959.

Photo: radiospirits.com

In the sixties, he could be seen in the Mel-O-Toons in 1960 which presented short, five-minute stories often based on fairy tales. He was also on Harrigan and Son in 1961. His last role was after Jack Benny went off the air. He was Walter Klondike, a newscaster spoof on Walter Kronkite, on Batman in 1966.

Watch Batman Season 2 Episode 18 - Dizzoner the Penguin Online Now
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Don passed away due to a stroke in 1982.

I really enjoyed listening to several interviews with Don. He was so appreciative of his career and the people he was able to work with during his entertainment opportunities. Listening to someone who was able to get in on the beginning of radio and then do the same thing with television was very interesting and informative. I hope he realizes how much we all appreciated him.

The Phil Silvers Show: You May Never Get Rich, but You’ll Receive a Wealth of Humor

This month, we begin a new series, “We Salute You” and we will look at shows about the military. Our first series is The Phil Silvers Show a/k/a You’ll Never Get Rich.

Photo: nostalgiacentral.com

The sitcom debuted on CBS in 1955. The pilot was never aired, but the show was part of the television schedule until 1959, producing 143 episodes.

Nat Hiken created the series which ended up being nominated for Best Comedy Series every year it was on and winning that category in 1956, 1957, and 1958. In addition, Silvers won an Emmy for his performance, and Hiken won an Emmy for Best Director.

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Nat Hiken in the bowtie with Phil Silvers

In 1955, television was transitioning from New York to California. However, Hiken insisted on filming the series in New York. The earlier seasons were filmed at Dumont and later seasons moved to CBS studios in Chelsea, Manhattan.

The show was filmed like a play in front of a live audience. The cast members had to memorize the entire script. When Mike Todd guest starred in season two, he insisted that the show be filmed more like a movie. Takes were filmed out of sequence and multiple takes were allowed because there was no audience. The crew realized that this process was faster, cheaper, and easier for the actors, so the change was put in place permanently. The show was screened for the military though, and servicemen made responses that were used to make the show more realistic.

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Sergeant Ernie Bilko (Phil Silvers) is a con man. He runs a motor pool at a small US Army Camp, Fort Baxter in Roseville, Kansas. Colonel Hall (Paul Ford), who doesn’t trust Bilko, tries to stay on top of his schemes. Bilko tries to make money any way he can and is not above using the landing craft for midnight cruises, “borrowing” tanks, setting up poker games, and conniving with a local service station for spare parts for Jeep tires for his get-rich quick scams. Bilko has pulled the wool over Col Hall’s wife’s (Hope Sansberry) eyes and flatters her every chance he gets. Silvers said Bilko was so successful because “inside everyone is a con man wiggling to sneak out.”

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Although his men knew he could not be truly trusted, they were usually loyal to him and while he occasionally used them in a scheme, he typically made sure they were taken care of. Some of the situations Bilko found himself in included starting a mink farm, entering his platoon in a singing contest, investing in an ailing race horse, stealing a French chef’s family recipe, buying swampland, thinking there was uranium beneath Hall’s living room, and getting a hot racing tip but not being able to get his bet in on time.

For the fourth season, the camp moved from Kansas to Camp Fremont in California. The move was explained that Bilko orchestrated the new location because he learned there was a gold deposit near the abandoned army post. The primary reason for the geographical change was so stars could guest on the show because the camp was now said to be close to Hollywood. Some of these celebrities included Dean Martin, Mickey Rooney, Bing Crosby, Dorothy McGuire, and Lucille Ball.

Photo: DVDtalk.com
Bing Crosby visits the base

In addition to the stars who were said to come from Hollywood, guest stars on the show included Charlotte Rae, Fred Gwynne, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Lynde, Tom Poston, Dina Merrill, Alan Alda, Bea Arthur, and Tina Louise.

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I was surprised by the large cast that was featured on this show as opposed to Gomer Pyle, Hogan’s Heroes, or McHale’s Navy. Bilko’s comrades were Corporal Barbella (Harvey Lembeck) and Corporal Henshaw (Allan Melvin).

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Bilko with Barbella and Henshaw

The rest of the men included Corporal Sam Fender (Herbie Faye), Sergeant Grover (Jimmy Little), Privates Doberman (Maurice Gosfield), Zimmerman (Mickey Freeman), Kadowski (Karl Lukas), Gomez (Bernard Fein), Paparelli (Billy Sands), Mullen (Jack Healy), Fleischman (Maurice Brenner), Sugarman (Terry Carter) and Dillingham (Walter Cartier), as well as quartermaster Sergeant Pendelton (Ned Glass). Bilko even had a romantic interest in Sergeant Joan Hogan (Elisabeth Fraser).

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Because the series had so many secondary cast members, it became too expensive to maintain, and that was the primary reason it was canceled. I was surprised it did not affect the ratings because there were a lot of cast members to follow from week to week.

The show started out on Tuesday nights the first season. Its competition was The Legend of Wyatt Earp and Milton Berle.  The ratings at first were not good and Camel Cigarettes, the sponsor, considering withdrawing. The network moved the show so it didn’t need to compete with Berle’s second-half hour. The ratings skyrocketed. The second and third seasons, it continued on Tuesday nights but was up against Cheyenne both years and against The Big Surprise on the second season and The Eddie Fisher Show the third season. The Phil Silvers Show continued to be in the top 30 for season two but fell below those rankings in season three. Season four found the show on Friday nights up against Man with a Camera and M Squad.  I would have thought that season might have the weakest competition but the show never recovered its higher ratings. However, Friday nights many people were out, not home watching television.

Another downfall with such a large cast is the personality conflicts that might occur. Apparently, Phil Silvers did not get along with Maurice Gosfield. Gosfield had trouble remembering his lines which frustrated the other actors; however, he got the most fan mail which Silvers resented. In his memoir, Silvers discussed this issue and wrote that Gosfield “thought of himself as Cary Grant playing a short, plump man.”

Photo: pinterest.com
Gosfield as Doberman

Phil Silvers would play the same type of con man on many sitcoms later including The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan’s Island, The Lucy Show, and the movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

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After its cancellation, CBS sold the show to NBC which was a great move on NBC’s part. The network made a ton of money on the show’s syndication because reruns were run for decades.

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DC Comics published comic books based on the show as well. From 1957-1960 there were 16 issues of a Sergeant Bilko comic book and 11 issues of a Private Doberman comic book.

Photo: ebay.com

In 2009, the US Postal Service issued a set of stamps honoring early television programs. This show was commemorated with an image of Sergeant Bilko.

I remember the show being on the air a lot while I was growing up, but I rarely see it now. I am going to rely on a fellow blogger to sum up the show. In a recent blog on neatorama.com from February 14, 2019, the show was described as follows:

It is my opinion that THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW (aka YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH) remains the single most underrated sitcom in television history and that Phil Silvers remains the most underrated comedian in that medium. This is really saying something because the series has indeed received great acclaim over the years. Even so, Silvers is just not given his proper due for creating the Bilko character. But it is Phil Silvers, his facial expressions, his bugle-call barking of orders, his complete manipulation of everyone on the base, and his wild schemes to make money that never seem to get old no matter how much you watch the episodes on video. The show is a great testament to the talents of Phil Silvers. With its complex plotlines and quickfire dialogue it’s still a treat to watch Silvers’s monumental character. The most oft-said line in the series must be “but, Sarge! as Bilko launches into another diabolical and, ultimately, flawed scheme to make money and dodge work.”

Photo: philsilversshow.com

Bilko isn’t a bad guy; he’s just not trustworthy. As he himself likes to say, “All I ever wanted was an honest week’s pay for an honest day’s work.” Maybe in this politically correct world we live in, making fun of the military is a taboo. It’s too bad because all the critics loved this show. If you want to check it out for yourself, the series is on DVD, so it is available for a week-end of binge watching; you can purchase individual seasons or the complete series.

This Man Was Busy, Busy, Busy

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Most television viewers today would not recognize the name Billy De Wolfe, but if you played his voice for them, they would immediately know it as Professor Hinkle from Frosty the Snowman.  I remember Billy primarily from That Girl as Ann Marie’s drama coach, Jules Benedict.  I was amazed to see he only appeared in three episodes because he was such a strong character, I would have thought he was in at least 20 shows. He became known as the prim, pompous, and sarcastic stock character.

Billy was born William Andrew Jones in Massachusetts in 1907. His father was a bookbinder, and they moved back to his parents’ home country of Wales shortly after his birth, returning to the United States when he was nine years old. His parents hoped he would become a Baptist minister, but his dreams were grounded in acting. He started his entertainment career as an usher.  He then became a dancer with the Jimmy O’Connor band.  This led to his appearing on the vaudeville circuit where a theater manger offered him the use of his name, Billy De Wolfe. He traveled to London to perform for five years and returned to America in 1939.

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In 1942 he joined the US Navy where he became a Seaman 1st Class as a musician. Before he enlisted, he was offered a contract with Paramount, and he continued with them in 1944 when he left the Navy. His first movie Dixie was with Dorothy Lamour and Bing Crosby. He appeared in nine movies during the 1940s.

 

He loved old-fashioned musical comedies and had a chance to act with Doris Day and Gene Nelson in both Tea for Two and Lullaby of Broadway.  He and Doris would be friends for the rest of his life.  He gave her the nickname Clara Bixby because he said she looked more like a Clara than a Doris, and many of their friends referred to her as Clara.

 

He transitioned to theater and performed on the live stage in both Broadway and London.

 

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He then decided to try television where he became very successful. Above he appears on the Dick Van Dyke Show. He appeared on six shows before obtaining his first role as a regular on a sitcom.  During the late 1960s and early 1970s he would be cast in five different sitcoms.

 

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In 1966, he was part of the amazing cast of The Pruitts of South Hampton.  I have mentioned this show before in my blogs, and it is hard to believe that this incredible cast could not pull off a more successful show:  Phyllis Diller, Louis Nye, John Astin, Reginald Gardner, Paul Lynde, Gypsy Rose Lee, John McGiver, Richard Deacon, Marty Ingels, and De Wolfe. The series was based on a novel, House Party, by Patrick Dennis.  A wealthy family realizes it owes the IRS $10,000,000 in back taxes.  They want to keep the appearance that they still have plenty of money while living in a smaller home with one car and a butler.  One of the first shows to debut in color, it was cancelled after 30 episodes.

 

In 1966, De Wolfe also began the role of Jules Benedict on That Girl.  He played a sarcastic acting teacher who made it clear it was painful to work with these young actors who simply had no idea of how to act. But we also realized that he had a big heart that he did not want anyone to see. His last episode was in 1969.

 

In 1967, he took a role as radio station manager Roland Hutton Jr. on Good Morning, World.  Dave Lewis (Joby Baker) and Larry Clarke (Ronnie Schell) are small-time radio hosts Lewis and Clarke on the air from 6-10 am. Lewis is married and an introvert while Clarke is a swinging single. Also appearing on this show was a new comer, Goldie Hawn, who played the Lewises’ neighbor. The show only lasted a year. Several critics pointed out that De Wolfe was the funniest person on the show.

 

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In 1969, De Wolfe was able to stay employed for another 13 episodes on the series The Queen and I. He starred with Larry Storch.  They worked on an aging ocean liner, The Amsterdam Queen, which the owners were planning on selling for scrap. Duffy (Storch) wants to save the ship through any means possible, but Nelson (De Wolfe) doesn’t like or trust him, although he fails to ever catch him doing anything wrong.

 

Doris Day began her sitcom in 1968. For the 1970 season, she and her kids moved to San Francisco to live over an Italian restaurant, owned by the Palluccis (Kaye Ballard and Bernie Kopell). She hired her friend Billy to play Willard Jarvis, the bad-tempered neighbor who really was a peach when you got to know him.

During his years on the Doris Day Show, he also appeared on the Debbie Reynolds Show and Love American Style. He was also a regular on the talk show circuits, appearing many times on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and the Mike Douglas Show.

 

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Phoebe Murgatroyd was a famous commercial character. De Wolfe donned a hat and shawl (but kept his iconic mustache) to portray the romance expert who gave love life advice for this series of Ban Roll-On deodorant ads.

 

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Who realized in 1969 that an animation special, based on the song, “Frosty the Snowman,” would go on to become a beloved classic and would play a role in generations of kids celebrating Christmas. For almost 50 years, viewers have cried at Professor Hinkle’s nasty act of locking Frosty in a greenhouse to melt. While I look forward to Charlie Brown and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer every holiday, Frosty is my must-see every December.

In the early 1970s, Billy was diagnosed with lung cancer. He passed away in 1974, his friend Doris helping him through this tough time.

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Billy De Wolfe is another example of one of these great performers who could do it all.  He was a dancer. He appeared in many lucrative movies. He was successful on Broadway. When he decided to give television a try, he stayed employed with the medium until his death. And he left the legacy of Frosty the Snowman that has been a Christmas staple for almost 50 years. If you are searching for things to do this winter, add watching several episodes of Billy De Wolfe shows to your list and get to know this multi-talented man a bit better.

 

When She Tugged on Her Ear, She Tugged At Our Hearts

Today’s topic had me thinking about how much better things are in a group.  Roses are beautiful on their own but pair them with some complementary-colored blooms and everything comes alive.  Juicy watermelon is perfect on a hot, summer day, but combine it with berries, kiwi, and peaches, and all the tastes meld together. One book is a treasure on its own, but put ten together, and you have a library. There’s never a bad choice when deciding between vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry ice cream, but someone invented Neapolitan so you could get all three.

This works for our show this week as well.  Look at the work of Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence, and Lyle Waggoner and you will find gems, but put them together and you have a sparkling jewelry box full of wonderful things.

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These performers came together between 1967 and 1978 working on The Carol Burnett Show. Let’s see how that came to be.

Carol Burnett – Carol is a truly versatile performer; she acts, sings, does comedy, dances, has been on the stage, and has appeared on the big screen as well as the small screen. America has always had a love affair with her.

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She was born in Texas and moved to Hollywood with her grandmother. One of her first jobs was working as an usherette.  She received an anonymous gift of money that covered a year at UCLA where she majored in journalism. At one point she decided to switch her major to theater arts and English and planned to be a playwright. She gained some experience performing in several college productions. Her good luck continued when she received another gift – a $100 interest-free loan to move to New York City to try her hand at musical comedy.  She worked as a hat girl and began her acting career.  She married Don Saroyan in 1955. In 1959 she got her first big break, appearing in the Broadway show, Once Upon a Mattress for which she received a Tony nomination. Around this time, she became friends with Jim Nabors; he would be a life-long friend and her daughter’s godfather. When the Carol Burnett Show started, he became the first guest every season and was her good luck charm.

Soon after she began appearing on television and won her first Emmy in 1962 for her work on The Paul Winchell Show. This was also the year she and Don divorced. In 1963, she married Joe Hamilton, and they had three children. Lucille Ball had become a mentor to her, and they also remained friends for life.  Lucy sent her flowers every birthday.  On her birthday in 1989, Carol awoke to the news that Lucy had died.  She received her flowers later that day.

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She did several specials with Julie Andrews, Dolly Parton, and Beverly Sills. Carol had a clause that she could decide to do a permanent variety show which would expire in 1967. Carol decided to take advantage of the clause and do the variety show.  The network tried to talk her out of it because they said variety shows tended to be men’s territory.  They offered her a sitcom of her own, but luckily for us, she stuck to her guns.

In 1974, she went back to the stage to star with Rock Hudson in I Do I Do. In 1984 she and Joe divorced.  She would win her second Emmy for her work on Mad About You.

In 1995, she returned to Broadway to appear in Moon Over Buffalo which gained her a second Tony nomination.

Carol was the Grand Marshal for the 109th Rose Bowl Parade. She has written five books. She has remained close friends with many of her costars including her show cast, Jim Nabors, Betty White, Beverly Sills, Julie Andrews.

Not only did she help a young Vicki Lawrence, but other stars looked to her for help as well. Jim Carrey sent her his resume at age 10.

In 2001, Carol married again. Her current husband Brian Miller is a drummer for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Most recently she guest starred on several episodes of Hawaii Five-0.

Harvey Korman – Born in Chicago, Korman served in the US Navy during World War II. After the war, he studied at the Goodman School of Drama.  He attended classes at DePaul University and the Chicago Art Institute. During 1950, 1957, and 1958 he was part of the Peninsula Players in Fish Creek, Door County, Wisconsin.

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His first television role was on the Donna Reed Show in 1960. He also married that year and they had two children. He continued to act on television on such shows as Dr. Kildare, Perry Mason, Route 66, Jack Benny, Hazel, Here’s Lucy, and Gidget – 30 shows in all; he also appeared in many movies. You might recognize his voice if you watch The Flintstones; he played the role of the Great Gazoo. His first big break was on The Danny Kaye Show in 1963. With his expressive voice, he played a wide assortment of characters. In was due to his work on Danny Kaye, that Carol recruited him for her show in 1967.

In 1977, he made the tough decision to leave The Carol Burnett Show and star in his own vehicle, The Harvey Korman Show.  The show was about an out-of-work actor Harvey Kavanaugh who lived with his daughter. The critics thought Korman was wonderful in the show, but the show got very low ratings and was cancelled after six episodes. Then he was an out-of-work actor in real life. Dick Van Dyke had taken his place on the Carol Burnett Show so he could not return.

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After his show fizzled out, he went back to movies. In 1977 he divorced his first wife. In 1982 he remarried and had two more children.  Korman continued to make tv appearances on a variety of shows such as the Love Boat, Ellen, and ER. He also made movies. He is probably best known for two of his movies: Blazing Saddles and High Anxiety.  In 1983-84, he appeared in Mama’s Family with Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence. In 2008, he passed away from a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm that was diagnosed four months prior.

Tim Conway – Conway was born in Ohio and joined the Army, serving at a radio station. After the war, he studied at Bowling Green State University, majoring in tv and radio. He married in 1961 and they had 6 children.

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He was discovered by Rose Marie and became a regular on The Steve Allen Show. He earned even more fame when he joined the cast of McHale’s Navy in 1962. McHale’s Navy had two different formats.  I was surprised to learn that Joseph Heller (author of Catch-22) wrote one episode but removed himself from the credits when he had an argument with the producer. Conway became very close to Ernest Borgnine and considered him his mentor. Later the two of them would work together in SpongeBob Square Pants as old superheroes.

After McHale’s Navy, he was cast in Rango. A comedy/western, Conway played Rango. He was an inept Ranger, but his father was the head of the Texas Rangers, so he was moved to a very quiet post.  Unfortunately, a crime wave broke out after his arrival. The show lasted for 17 episodes.

Conway got his own show in 1970, but it never really worked and was cancelled after 12 episodes. He played an airline pilot who was not very good at flying. He and his partner owned a decrepit airplane and they were always fighting creditors, barely making a living.

He was on Carol Burnett throughout the years of her show, and in 1975 he became a regular. When the show ended, he kept busy with television shows, appearing in more than 50 shows including Newhart, Larry Sanders, Drew Carey, Ellen, Yes Dear, Hot in Cleveland, Laverne and Shirley, The Love Boat, Roseanne, and Ally McBeal. He also performed around the country with Harvey Korman and began making his Dorf videos. In 1984 he married his current wife.

 

Vicki Lawrence –  Vicki grew up in California. When Vicki Lawrence was 17, she wrote Carol a fan letter.  She was entered in a Miss Fireball contest, and someone told her she resembled Carol. She asked for some advice about her performance. Carol not only gave her advice – she drove all the way to watch the contest.  She told her they would talk about her career. A short time later, while Vicki was singing with the Young Americans, Carol offered the inexperienced girl a regular role on her show.

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Vicki was mentored by both Harvey Korman and Carol Burnett, and her talent blossomed during her years on the variety show. In 1974, she recorded the hit song “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.”

In 1983, she was offered her own show based on one of the Carol Burnett skits, Mama’s Family.

She hosted Win, Lose, or Draw and has appeared in stage performances. She spends most of her time now giving speeches for women’s groups and charities.

Lyle Waggoner – Born in Kansas City, Kansas, Waggoner was the heart throb of the show. He sold encyclopedias door to door. To jump start his career, he appeared in summer stock. He received roles in a lot of bad sci fi and beach party films. His career might have been different because he was in consideration for Batman, but the part went to Adam West. He was hired as the emcee of Carol’s show but progressed to being a part of the ensemble playing in a variety of skits. He left The Carol Burnett Show in 1973. He was offered a role in Wonder Woman in 1975. His career never picked up after that. He now runs a rental trailer company which is the largest one in Hollywood. He has been married more than fifty years, and he and his wife have two sons.

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The Carol Burnett Show

The show was the best and the last variety show to be on television. Carol wanted to develop her own cast. She handpicked her costars. She hired The Ernie Flatt Dancers to do all the choreography. The head male dancer for the run was Don Crichton.

Artie Malvin was the musical writer. Carol used a live 28-piece orchestra conducted by Harry Zimmerman for the first three years and Peter Matz for the final eight years. She had a guest star on every week, often a singer.  Some of the performers included Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Mel Torme, Perry Como, Lena Horne, The Carpenters, Sammy Davis Jr., and Ray Charles.  Steve Lawrence was on 25 times and Eydie Gorme performed 13. Unfortunately, when the show went into syndication, it became a half-hour show, and the musical numbers were cut.

Sonny and Cher taped next door and Carol often popped in on their taping and Sonny and Cher visited her show.

Some of Carol’s favorite guests included Bernadette Peters, Alan Alda, Roddy McDowell, Paul Lynde, Bob Newhart, Rita Hayworth, James Stewart, Gloria Swanson, Vincent Price, the Smothers Brothers, Donald O’Connor, Lucille Ball, Rock Hudson, Mickey Rooney, Betty White, and Nanette Fabray. The only guest star Carol was not able to book was Bette Davis.  She demanded too much money.

The Carol Burnett Show received 22 Emmy Awards during the 11 seasons it was on the air. Harvey Korman was nominated for six of those and won four. Lawrence also received five Emmy nominations and one win.

Bob Mackie was her favorite designer, and he designed all the costumes for The Carol Burnett Show. Typically, he had to design 60-70 outfits per week, adding up to 18,000 over the course of the show.

For the first 3-4 minutes of each show, Carol appeared in a Bob Mackie creation and took questions from the audience. Some of these are the funniest parts of the show.

The cast would rehearse every day, and they did two tapings on Friday.  If the first taping went fine and they got what they needed, they would let Tim Conway improvise on the second taping and many of his unrehearsed moments made it into the show.

The show aired on Monday nights up against Big Valley and I Spy. In Season 5, they were moved to Wednesday nights up against Adam-12 on one network and Bewitched and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father on the other. In 1972, they made their final move to Saturday nights. The final year they faced some stiff competition against The Love Boat.

Some of her favorite regular skits were Stella Toddler where Burnett played an older character who always seemed to get tripped, whacked by something, or knocked down; Mrs. Wiggins who was an inappropriately dressed and incompetent secretary to Mr. Tudball; a woman who watched commercials on tv —  a cast member showed an item each week that drove the woman crazy; Marion from Canoga Falls in “As the Stomach Turns”; Chiquita, Burnett’s imitation of Charo; Nora Desmond, a has-been silent film star and her butler Max; The Old Folks where Burnett and Korman talked on the porch reminiscing; and Shirley Dimple, based on Shirley Temple.

Carol loved the parodies they did of old movies.  Some of the original stars loved them, and some were quite unhappy with the comedies. Her favorite was “Went with the Wind” with Starlett O’Hara, Rat Butler, and Mr. Brashley. The curtain rod in the dress was conceived by Bob Mackie. Coming down the stairs, Starlett replies to Rat’s compliment on the dress, “Thank you.  I saw it in the window and couldn’t resist.” The dress is now at the Smithsonian Museum. She also liked “Pillow Squawk”, a Doris Day parody.

She was always complimentary about her entire cast. One of her quotes was “When you play tennis, it’s important to play with a better player because it makes your game better.  Well, Harvey made my game better. I miss him dreadfully. And Tim Conway, God bless him, is just genius when it comes to improvising, coming up with stuff that we never rehearsed.”

These compliments were returned by her costars. Harvey Korman was quoted as saying, “We were an ensemble, and Carol had the most incredible attitude. I’ve never worked with a star of that magnitude who was willing to give so much away.”

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Of course, everyone watches to see how Tim Conway makes Harvey Korman laugh during their skits.  Apparently, Tim had a knack for improving the scripts and throwing in lines and action that Korman didn’t anticipate. Here’s Tim Conway on Harvey Korman: “He was one of the brightest people I’ve ever met, but the man could not tie his own shoes . . .  I would put him on constantly . . . We were on an airplane and we refueled in Arizona. Taxing on the next runway, I said, ‘Harvey, I don’t know if the guy put the gas cap back on. It was on the wing and now it’s not.’ Harvey got worried. So, he got up and went to the pilot and said, ‘Your gas cap’s not on.’ The pilot just looked at him.  There is no gas cap.”

One of the memorable parts of the show is the opening and closing theme song.  She always ended the show with “I’m so glad we had this time together, just to have a laugh or sing a song. Seems we just get started, and before you know it, comes the time we have to say so long.” Then she tugged her ear. She would tug on her left ear which was a message to her grandmother that things were going well, and she missed her.

No matter how many years go by, the show remains a timeless comedy.  It has a balance of silliness and savvy. It’s hard to believe that the generations growing up in the 1980s and 1990s have never seen a variety show.  I love to catch reruns of this show.  I laugh out loud through the show.  Thank you, Carol for spending time with us. The show currently can be shown on Me TV at 10:00 pm with Mama’s Family airing at 8:00 pm.

Stars Who Jump From the Big Screen to the Small Screen Don’t Always Land on Their Feet

While it is not uncommon for stars to transition from television to movies–think about Robin Williams, Sally Field, Melissa McCarthy, and Tom Hanks–it is less likely to see stars move from the big screen to the small screen.  Jane Fonda has transitioned to television in Frankie and Grace and Fred MacMurray did it with My Three Sons.  For most stars, the move has not worked out very well. Let’s look at a few stars who tried to make the conversion.

That Wonderful Guy – Jack Lemmon (1949)

Neil Hamilton (best known as Commissioner Gordon on Batman) plays Franklin Westbrook, a conceited drama critic who dislikes almost everything. Jack Lemmon plays Harold, a Midwesterner who thinks working for Westbrook will help him become worldly and give a boost to his acting career. His girlfriend is played by his real wife Cynthia Stone. The episodes revolved around his romantic and business adventures in New York City.  Perhaps Westbrook panned the show because it was cancelled after three episodes.

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Heaven for Betsy – Jack Lemmon (1952)

Three years later, Lemmon gave it another try. In this show, Lemmon plays Peter Bell, a toy store buyer. His wife Cynthia again played his wife Betsy. The series was based on a sketch “The Couple Next Door” that Lemmon and his wife played regularly on the Frances Langford/Don Ameche Show. Each episode lasted 15 minutes, and it told about the newlyweds’ struggles in New York City. Instead of three episodes, this series lasted three months.

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Honestly Celeste – Celeste Holm (1954)

After playing Ado Annie in Oklahoma, Holm tried her hand at television. She plays Celeste Anders, a Minnesota college professor living in Manhattan, who is getting journalism experience working for the NY Express. Celeste wrote stories ranging from modern art to underprivileged families. She also dated the publisher’s son Bob Wallace, played by Scott McKay. After three months, she was sent back to school in Minnesota. What was most surprising about this failure was that Norman Lear (who would go on to create dozens of shows) and Larry Gelbart (who later created M*A*S*H) were both part of the writing staff.

 

Going My Way – Gene Kelly (1962)

Bridging television and movies, Gene Kelly redid Bing Crosby’s movie from 1944 for the small screen. Kelly is Father Chuck O’Malley, a progressive priest assigned to the slums of New York. Father Fitzgibbon played by Leo G. Carroll is a cantankerous, old priest. Dick York was his boyhood pal Tom Colwell who ran the community center. Mrs. Featherstone (Nydia Westman) played the rectory housekeeper. The list of guest stars on the show was very impressive, but after a year, the network told Kelly to keep going and cancelled the show.

 

The Bing Crosby Show – Bing Crosby (1964)

I guess Bing decided if Gene Kelly could enter television with his old movie, he might also give it a try. He plays Bing Collins a former singer. He is now an electrical engineer married to Ellie (Beverly Garland) with two daughters Janice (Carol Faylen), 15, and boy crazy and Joyce (Diane Sherry), 10, who had a high IQ. It lasted one season. Not surprisingly, this series also attracted a lot of big-name guest stars including Frankie Avalon, Jack Benny, Dennis Day, Joan Fontaine, and George Gobel. Apparently, Garland had a thing for engineers because she would marry aeronautical engineer Steve Douglas on My Three Sons.

 

Mickey – Mickey Rooney (1964)

Mickey plays Mickey Grady who leaves the Coast Guard to manage a posh hotel, Newport Arms in California, with his wife Nora (Emmaline Henry) and two young boys. His real son plays one of his sons on the show. Sammee Tong plays the hotel’s manager. The former supervisor has left a lot of problems for Mickey. The show was cancelled in January airing only 17 episodes.

 

One of the Boys – Mickey Rooney (1982)

After vowing never to work on television again, Rooney tried it again 18 years later. Now he plays 66-year-old Oliver Nugent, rescued from a nursing home by his grandson Adam Shields (Dana Carvey). Adam is a college student who takes him in. Adam’s roommate, Jonathan Burns (Nathan Lane) is not so happy about the situation. Oliver looks for a job and lands one singing in a restaurant. Also appearing in the cast was Scatman Crothers who sang with Oliver and had also left the nursing home.  A young Meg Ryan played Adam’s girlfriend Jane. The show debuted at 18th place in the ratings but by within a month it had dropped to 68th. Even with this cast, the show was cancelled after an unlucky 13 episodes.

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Jimmy Stewart Show – Jimmy Stewart (1971)

Jimmy Stewart jumped to the small screen with great anticipation and excitement by viewers. He  played anthropology professor Jim Howard. Howard teaches at Josiah Kessel College, started by his grandfather.  His house is full with his wife, his son Peter, Peter’s wife Wendy, and his grandson Jake. He also has a young son Teddy, who happens to be the same age as his grandson. His friend Luther Quince often stops by to eat and give advice. Jim talks to the audience during the show and wishes them love, peace, and laughter at the end of each episode. Even beloved Jimmy Stewart was unable to save this show which was cancelled after one season.

 

The Doris Day Show – Doris Day (1968)

Doris Day was the most successful actor moving from film to television. However, I think the reason she managed to keep her show on the air for five seasons was because she changed the format so often that CBS did not realize it was the same show.  In 1968, Day is Doris Martin, a widow with two kids. She moves from the city to Mill Valley, CA to live on her father’s ranch.

The second season she commutes to San Francisco after accepting a job as an executive secretary to Michael Nicholson (MacLean Stevenson), the editor of Today’s Magazine. Rose Marie was Myrna Gibbons and Denver Pyle again played her father Buck Webb.

In 1970, Doris and the kids move to an apartment over an Italian restaurant run by Kaye Ballard and Bernie Kopell. Billy De Wolfe was her neighbor. Now Doris is writing feature stories for the magazine.

When the show returned the next fall, Doris was single and a reporter for a magazine. Her new boss was Cy Bennett (John Dehner) and she had a boyfriend Peter Lawford but later her boyfriend turned into Patrick O’Neal. There was no restaurant.

By 1973, the network caught up with all the changes and cancelled the show.

 

It was interesting that so many actors failed in television when they were such celebrated movie stars. The radio stars seemed to have better luck making the transition. Jack Benny and Burns and Allen had long-lasting and popular shows. It’s hard to imagine actors like Ryan Gosling, Amy Adams, Julia Roberts, or Ben Affleck bombing on a television series today.

I think for now I will continue to choose to watch Pillow Talk, Move Over Darling, Harvey, The Philadelphia Story, Some Like It Hot, Singing in the Rain, and Hope and Crosby’s Road movies and set aside the television DVDs these stars appeared in.

Verrry Interrresting!

Occasionally, a show is so entrenched in the time and culture it debuts in, it becomes almost impossible to describe or understand away from its original setting. Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were nightclub comics who co-hosted a special called Laugh-In in 1967.  The name was a play on words based on the love-in’s and sit-in’s happening in the 1960s.  The special was so popular it was turned into a weekly series. I think of Laugh-In as Sesame Street for adults.  Both shows debuted in the late 60s and had a rapid-fire approach, continually moving on to the next segment so the viewer would not get bored. The show captured the counterculture movement and the lime green, turquoise, fuschia, deep orange, bright yellow, and paisley flowers kept our eyes moving as quickly as the jokes did. The show lasted six seasons.

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Regular cast members who went on to other careers included Ruth Buzzi, Gary Owens, Alan Sues, Arte Johnson, Henry Gibson, Lily Tomlin, Richard Dawson, Jo Anne Worley, Goldie Hawn, Judy Carne, Dave Madden, and Flip Wilson.

Numerous celebrities flocked to the show.  Movie stars that were reeled in included John Wayne, Jack Benny, Peter Lawford, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Charles Nelson Reilly, Debbie Reynolds, Rock Hudson, Jack Lemmon, Edward G. Robinson, Sally Field, Orson Welles, and Rita Hayworth.  Noted musicians included Sammy Davis Jr., Dinah Shore, Johnny Cash, Perry Como, Liberace, Bing Crosby, Cher, Rosemary Clooney, and Liza Minelli. Sports stars tackled the chore including Joe Namath, Wilt Chamberlin, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Howard Cosell.  Comedians who laughed their way on the show included Rich Little, Don Rickles, Bob Hope, Bob Newhart, Paul Lynde, and Carol Burnett. Classic tv stars who accepted starring roles were Tim Conway, Carl Reiner, Steve Allen, Jim Backus, Ernest Borgnine, Eve Arden, Andy Griffith, Desi Arnaz, and Wally Cox.

The format rarely changed from week to week.  Rowan and Martin opened each show with a dialogue; Rowan acted as the straight man, and Martin took on the gullible role. Then the regular cast, along with celebrities, danced against a psychedelic background, firing off one-liners and short gags. Comedy bits, taped segments, and sketches filled in the rest of the hour and always ended with Rowan telling Martin to “Say goodnight, Dick” and Dick replying, “Goodnight Dick.”

Some of the regular features were:

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The Cocktail Party where the cast stood around spouting politically and sexually suggestive jokes.

Letters to Laugh-In where the cast read letters.

ROWAN AND MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN,  Teresa Graves, Pamela Rodgers, 1969-1970.

It’s a Mod, Mod World where go-go dancers danced in bikinis with puns and word play phrases painted on their bodies.

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The Farkel Family about a group of red-headed, freckled family members.

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The Flying Fickel Finger of Fate Award where dubious achievements were celebrated.

Laugh-In Looks as the News was comparable to the Saturday Night Live news sketches of today.

New Talent Time showing various weird skills.

Many of the regular cast members had their own skits that were repeated during the series’ run:

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Judy Carne was always tricked into saying “Sock it to Me” which then caused her to get doused with water, fall through a trap door, or endure some other indignity. Sometimes celebrities ended up being the ones to say “Sock it to me,” the most famous being Richard Nixon when he was campaigning for president.

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Arte Johnson played Tyrone, an inappropriate senior citizen who tries to seduce geriatric Ruth Buzzi as Gladys, forcing her to eventually hit him with her purse.

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Henry Gibson came on stage holding an oversized paper flower, reciting poetry.

Lily Tomlin performed skits as Ernestine, a telephone operator or Edith Ann, a young girl sitting in a rocking chair. (Personal note:  When I was in 4th grade, I performed an Ernestine and an Edith Ann skit for our talent show.  Why a 9-year-old was watching Laugh-In and the school approved the skits, I can’t say, but I remember getting a lot of compliments.  And Lily Tomlin didn’t sue me for stealing her material!)

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Alan Sues portrayed Uncle Al, a children’s show host, who was short tempered and often in bad shape from his late partying nights.

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Flip Wilson was Geraldine.

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Jo Anne Worley would say “Bor-ing” in the midst of jokes.

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Goldie Hawn as the ditzy blonde.

The series also became known for some of its catch phrases including “Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls,” “You bet your sweet bippie,” “Beautiful downtown Burbank,” “Is that a chicken joke?,” “Sock it to me,” “Here come de judge,” and “Verrrry Interesting.”

The show was one of the highest rated shows in the late 1960s. It was in the top 4 of the top 40 shows for its entire run. It won Emmy and Golden Globe awards. The Nielsen polling determined it was the most-watched show in seasons 1 and 2.

The show had its own magazine for a year.  Trading cards were sold with catch phrases and images from the show. Several records were produced capturing the humor of the time.  There was even a set of View-master reels made, as well as lunch boxes and other memorabilia.

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Laugh-In debuted fifty years ago, but still feels new and edgy. Because the show has not been syndicated in re-runs, it is hard for the current generation to imagine how very different this show was from anything else that appeared on television before it.  The closest show to capturing any of its essence since then is Saturday Night Live.  This was a time when everything was changing: civil rights, Vietnam, women’s lib, the hippie lifestyle, psychoactive drugs, anti-authoritarianism, freedom of speech and assembly, and environmental concerns, especially littering and pollution.

The Generation Gap was a real concept in the 1960s but this show might have come as close as anything else to bridge that gap. Families sat down together to watch the show. Many of the phrases still have a life of their own decades later even thought decades of kids have never seen the show.  Plan your own little sit-in when you check out a couple of the you-tube videos to get a flavor of what the series was like.