Tom Snyder Brought Us Tomorrow Tonight

As we continue learning about popular talk shows of the past, today we look at one that was on really, really late: Tomorrow with Tom Snyder.

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Photo: postindependent.com

Often labeled as The Tomorrow Show, this program was on NBC from 1973-1982. After the light chatting and exchange of humorous stories on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, you could hear Snyder having in-depth conversations with his guests. He was not afraid to ask the hard-hitting questions and do a bit of interrogation with the person in the chair across from him.

This was back when everyone smoked on television. Turn on Match Game and you see smoke rising from almost every celebrity’s cubicle, catch an episode of The Andy Griffith Show and you might see Andy puffing away, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble advertised cigarettes, and the quintessential memory of Tom Snyder is him sitting in the chair, with a cigarette.

Photo: pinterest.com

Dan Aykroyd did a great impression of him on several Saturday Night Live episodes. Snyder’s catch phrase was “Fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the pictures, now, as they fly through the air.” Snyder was easy and tough to portray. He did not have the humor of Carson, the intelligence of Paar or the wit of Steve Allen, but his enthusiasm was contagious. His lack of polished and prepared questions often led to some incredible celebrity insights.

Dan Akroyd’s version of Snyder Photo: pinterest.com

You never knew what you were in for when you turned on this show. Perhaps it was an interview with Harlan Elison, Elvis Costello, John Lennon, Ayn Rand, Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols, Kiss with an obviously drunk Ace Frehley being corralled by the rest of the band members, or one of the most disturbing, Charles Manson.

Trying to Interview Charles Manson Photo: rollingstone.com

One of the most fun shows was his interview with Disney animator Ward Kimball discussing his full-size and toy train collections. I wish I could see the show from April 4, 1978 when he interviewed George Fenneman, Harry von Zell, Don Wilson, and John Reed King, several of the most amazing announcers ever. (I have done blogs on Fenneman, von Zell with the Burns and Allen Show, and Wilson; I was not familiar with King but he hosted a lot of television and radio games shows, but I’m sorry to say I did not recognize any of the titles.)

A few other shows that looked interesting included his interview with Alfred Hitchcock about his fifty-year film career; his discussion with producer-creator Gene Roddenberry, actors DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig and convention organizer Al Schuster about Star Trek; and his talk with singers Ella Mae Morse, Margaret Whiting, Lina Romay, and Kay Starr about life in the big-band era.

With favorite guest John Lennon Photo: wikipedia.com

Snyder often cited his most embarrassing moment of the show as his interview with Meat Loaf, whose real name is Marvin Lee Aday. Snyder said for the first ten minutes of the interview, he referred to the singer as “Meatball.”

When the ratings began to decline, the network opted to put David Letterman in the 1:30 EST slot and offered Snyder the 2:30 spot which he declined.

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Kiss Photo: fanpop.com

I’m not sure if it was Snyder’s call or the network’s but he never had an original theme song. He started with “Love’s Theme” by the Love Unlimited Orchestra, used Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” for a time, and later used “Love is the Message” by T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia).

Snyder was born in 1936 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Although he had a life-long love of radio, his plan was to study medicine. Eventually, he switched his major to journalism and was hired as a radio reporter at WRIT in Milwaukee.

In the 1960s Snyder transitioned to television, and one of his jobs was where else but Cleveland, Ohio. (If you read all my blogs this month, you’ll see Mike Douglas and Phil Donahue also started tv careers in Ohio.)

In 1970, Snyder moved to Los Angeles from Philadelphia to anchor the 6 pm newscast. He continued to broadcast the news along with the Tomorrow show. When the show was cancelled, he moved back to New York to continue his news career with ABC. He finished his career with ABC back in Los Angeles where he returned in 1985.

5 Tom Snyder Clips That Will Make You Wish We Still Had "The Tomorrow Show"  - Legacy.com
Photo: legacy.com

Don’t get me wrong—I love Jimmy Fallon, and he has some fascinating guests, but I miss real conversations because it’s hard to get to true portrayals of someone in a ten-minute chat. I don’t know if viewers would be willing to sit through an hour-long interview these days; everyone wants the quick clips, but it’s like forgoing reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to read the cliff notes. You might get the highlights but you miss the small pleasures and the “aha moments.” I guess I miss “aha moments.”

The Secret Word is George Fenneman

I am cheating just a bit with this post. During this Oddly Wonderful series, I think I can push the envelope enough. You Bet Your Life was a very different type of game show. If ever there was a person who personifies oddly wonderful it was Groucho. But I really wanted an excuse to write about George Fenneman.

George Fenneman is best remembered for his role on Groucho Marx’s quiz show, You Bet Your Life which began on radio in 1947 and transitioned to television in 1950. The show went off the air in 1961, the year I was born. Obviously, I don’t remember the original show, but I saw it in reruns and always had a crush on George; I think it was his smile that always got me.

Photo: imdb.com

George was born in Beijing (then Peking), China in 1919. His father was in the importing/exporting business. When he was not quite one, his parents moved to San Francisco where he grew up. After high school, he attended San Francisco State College. He graduated in 1942 with a degree in speech and drama. He took a job with a local radio station KGO for a short time. He married his college sweetheart Peggy Clifford in 1943 and they would stay married until George died. The couple had two daughters and a son.

Photo: collectors.com

Poor eyesight and asthma prevented Fenneman from military action in World War II, but he was able to become a broadcast correspondent for the War of Information. In 1946 he was back in California, in the radio industry again. One of the shows he announced for was Gunsmoke. After the episode concluded, he would introduce Matt Dillon (William Conrad) to discuss the sponsor’s products which often was cigarettes such as L&M or Chesterfield.

Some of the other radio shows he announced for included The Orson Welles Show, The Eddie Albert Show, and the Hedda Hopper Show.

Photo: aveleyman.com

He and Peggy were neighbors of Christian Nyby. In 1951, Nyby was hired as director for the film, The Thing from Another World. George joined the cast as in the minor role of Dr. Redding who has an important scene at the end of the film. It took 27 takes for him to get the speech right, and he realized he was better suited for radio. However, he would appear in two additional films, the little-known Mystery Lake in 1953 and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1967. While his voice was part of several other films, most notably in the original Ocean’s 11 as the man talking on the phone to Sheriff Wimmer.

Jack Webb had worked on broadcasts with George during the war. He hired Fenneman as announcer for his radio show, Pat Novak, For Hire. When Dragnet aired the same year, Jack took George with him. George, along with Hal Gibney took on the role of narrator for the show. They both continued with the show in 1951 when it moved to television. Dragnet was off the air for a number of years and returned to television in 1967. Fenneman was again hired as narrator with John Stephenson for that version. George was the one who was heard saying, “The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” Stephenson handled the closing narration. Fenneman was also cast as a news reporter in a variety of shows including Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Name of the Game, and on Batman in 1966 in the episode, “The Yegg Foes in Gotham.”

Photo: pinterest.at
On Batman

In addition to appearing on Groucho’s show on television, Fenneman was the host or announcer for several other shows. He emceed two games shows during his time with Groucho: Anybody Can Play in 1958 and Your Surprise Package in 1961. In 1963, He hosted a show on ABC titled Your Funny, Funny Films which was a cousin to the later Candid Camera and America’s Funniest Home Videos.

He was usually an unseen announcer on The Ed Sullivan Show, but in 1964, the night the Beatles were on the show for the second time, he did a spot on the air for Lipton Tea. From 1978-1982 he hosted a show on PBS, Talk About Pictures. In this show, Life magazine photographer Leigh Weiner and George interviewed respected photographers and looked at their best photos.

Photo: pinterest.com
With Leigh Weiner on PBS

He also was the voice for Home Savings & Loan commercials from the late 1960s until his death from emphysema in 1997. He also acted as announcer for shows such as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Donny and Marie, The Jim Nabors Show, and The Life of Riley.

Photo: hollywoodphotographs.com
With Martin and Lewis

In 1993, The Simpsons aired an episode that spoofed Dragnet, and Fenneman can be heard on the show delivering his famous line about names being changed to protect the innocent.

Despite his large cannon of work as an announcer and emcee, Fenneman became a household celebrity when he went to work for Groucho on You Bet Your Life. One day George was standing on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. Robert Dwan, who had hired him at KGO Radio, came up and told him he was holding an audition for a new show for Groucho. Fenneman went up against thirty other announcers and won the job which paid $55 a week. He was hired just to do commercials. At some point, Groucho decided he should also be scorekeeper, as well as his straight man.

Photo: usawoopro.blogspot.com

When discussing Groucho, George said, “I have to say he was unique, and he was fearless. It was a great privilege to work with him for 15 years and to be his friend for 30.” After Fenneman’s death, Peggy did an interview for an article by Lawrence Van Gelder for the NY Times in June of 1997. She said that George was always a fan of Groucho and the Marx Brothers. She remembered them often going to the Golden Gate Theater when they were in college. They went to watch the Marx Brothers rehearse future movie scenes for comic timing. She remembered watching scenes from A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races.

Groucho, known for his quick wit and acid tongue, found an agreeable and attractive man in Fenneman. When viewers queried George whether the show was scripted or ad-libbed, he always said yes. Actually, it was about 50/50.  Groucho was fed some lines from the interviews with the contestants, but he never met them ahead of time and was given the freedom to interject whatever comments he chose.

Photo: mptvimages.com

George often took the brunt of Groucho’s humor. One time he had to inhale helium, one day he came down from the ceiling when the secret word was said in place of the usual duck, or he would be questioned about something on the show. For example, one evening each of the contestants was a very attractive woman and Groucho made it seem that Fenneman had set that up on purpose. One contestant mistakenly referred to George as Mr. Fidderman, and Groucho called him out to discuss his double life.

Photo: popflock.com

George never knew what Groucho had in store for him. Often Marx would summon George from behind the curtain, and he always looked uncomfortable which was quite genuine. But Groucho had great affection and appreciation for him, calling him the perfect straight man.

At times on the show, George could also be quite funny, but he knew his main role was straight man, and he usually toed that line carefully.

George and Groucho remained friends long after the show was cancelled. They often got together before Groucho’s death in 1977 at age 87. Groucho never lost his sense of humor. At one of their last visits, Groucho was in very frail health. Helping Groucho get across the room, George lifted him out of his wheelchair and carried him. He had his arms around his torso and began to shimmy him across the floor. Groucho’s rasping voice said, “Fenneman, you always were a lousy dancer.”

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

Although the shows have never been released in a chronological DVD collection, they are available. The programs were recorded in full and then edited to the desired length. On MP3 discs, some of the unedited tapes are available which provide a very different perspective than the aired show.

There are a few announcers still well known in the business. I think of Rod Roddy, Johnny Gilbert or Johnny Olson who have game show fame, but it is a career that is being phased out. There is something charming about watching the former announcers for shows promoting products and interacting with the stars. Harry Von Zell from the Gracie Allen and George Burns Show comes to mind or Don Wilson from the Jack Benny Show. Like rotary phones, transistor radios, and Polaroid cameras, they are fondly remembered from a slower and less technological period in history.

With this series being Oddly Wonderful, I am stretching it a bit by focusing on George. In our definition of oddly wonderful, he was definitely the wonderful.