Imogene Coca: Born to Perform

After learning about Your Show of Shows last week, we are going to take a closer look at some of the forces behind the award-winning show. We begin with Imogene Coca.

Imogene Coca - IMDb
Photo: imdb.com

Imogene Coca was born Emogeane Coca in 1908. Her father was a violinist and vaudeville orchestra conductor, and her mother was a dancer and magician’s assistant.

Emogeane Fernández Coca (1908 - 2001) - Genealogy
Photo: geni.com

She began appearing in vaudeville as a child acrobat. She also took piano, dance, and voice lessons as a child. She was drawn to dance and studied ballet and moved from Philadelphia to New York to become a dancer while still a teenager. Her first job was in the chorus of a Broadway musical, “When You Smile.” For a few decades, she appeared in stage musical revues, cabaret, summer stock, and movies.

In 1935, Coca married Bob Burton. They were married until 1955 when he passed away.

Coca discussed her early career: “I never thought of myself in comedy at all. I loved going to the theater and seeing people wearing beautiful clothes come down the staircase and start to dance. I wanted to play St. Joan.”

In her forties, Coca decided to add comedian to her slate of talents, and she was a natural. In 1948 she appeared on Buzzy Wuzzy on television. If you have never heard of it, don’t feel bad. I thought it might be a kid’s show. ABC was trying to develop its network, with all of its five stations. Jerry Bergen a comedian wanted to try a variety series. This 15-minute-long show lasted only four weeks.

She might not have had an illustrious beginning, but tv was good to Imogene. For fifty years, she would appear on tv, including six shows as a regular cast member.

The Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris Special (TV  Special 1967) - IMDb
Photo: imdb.com with Caesar, Reiner and Morris

In 1950 she joined the cast of Your Show of Shows, becoming a household name. She was nominated for five Emmys on the show. She won the award in 1952 and lost the other years to Gertrude Berg, Lucille Ball, Red Skelton, and Eve Arden. When discussing the chemistry that she and Caesar had, Imogene said “Two people couldn’t be less alike than Sid and myself. But we kind of know what the other one’s going to do. We pick up each other’s vibes.”

A born comedian, Life magazine described her as taking “people or situations suspended in their own precarious balance between dignity and absurdity, and pushing them over the cliff with one single, pointed gesture.” A critic at the time, said she was not the typical, loud, brash comedian and was “a timid woman who, when aroused, can beat a tiger to death with a feather.”

Pin on Imogene
Photo: imdb.com Cast members

Your Show of Shows was a great success and everyone tuned in Saturday nights to catch the latest show. Fans loved the ongoing skits such as Coca and Caesar playing the bickering couple, the Hickenloopers or a Bavarian town clock that had real life figures and broke down whenever it chimed the hour.

Many viewers mentioned the parodies the show did of movies. These were similar to the ones the Carol Burnett Show also did so well. Two of the scenes that came up often in viewers’ memories were the scene spoofing On the Waterfront when Marlon Brando tells his brother “I could have been a contender” and the parody of From Here to Eternity when Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster have a romantic moment on the beach. In Your Show of Shows version, the couple is continually hit with waves until they almost drown.

Comedy Legend Imogene Coca: I'm Cuckoo for Coca | The Scott Rollins Film  and TV Trivia Blog
From Here to Obscurity parody Photo: scottrollinsfilmandtvtriviablog

When the network chose to break up the Caesar-Coca team and give them their own shows, Coca had her own show, but it only lasted a year. For the rest of the fifties, she appeared primarily on drama shows which often aired plays.

In 1960, Imogene tried marriage a second time. She wed King Donovan and they would be together until his death in 1987.

From 1963-64, she joined the cast of Grindl which also lasted only one season. Coca played Grindl. She was an employee of the Foster Temporary Service, and she worked for Anson Foster (Jim Millhollin). Grindl accepts and completes a variety of jobs including babysitter, bank teller, and theater ticket taker. Most of the assignments get her involved in some type of crime or mystery. The show was on Sunday nights between Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Bonanza which was a great spot, but it also competed with the popular Ed Sullivan Show.

Grindl - DVD PLANET STORE
Grindl Photo: dvdplanetstore.com

In 1966-1967, she jumped into another new sitcom, It’s About Time. This wacky show was created by Sherwood Schwartz and also starred Jim Millhollin. The premise is that two astronauts who were traveling faster than light end up in prehistoric Earth time and when they are unable to return, make friends with the locals living there. This show preceded The Ed Sullivan Show but then ended up competing with Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.

1966-67 Television Season 50th Anniversary: It's About Time (part 3 of 3) -  YouTube
It’s About Time Photo: youtube.com

During the seventies, she appeared on many shows, including Bewitched, Night Gallery, The Brady Bunch, and Love American Style.

Her busy career didn’t flounder in the eighties. She continued to guest star on shows including Trapper John, MD and Mama’s Family. She appeared in an episode of Moonlighting which produced her sixth Emmy nomination. She would lose to Shirley Knight for thirtysomething.

She was in movies off and on through the decades and perhaps is best known for her role of Aunt Edna in National Lampoon’s Vacation.

National Lampoon's Vacation – IFC Center
Aunt Edna in National Lampoon’s Vacation Photo: ifccenter.com

Of course, during these decades she also continued to appear on many variety and game shows. You will spot her in reruns of The Carol Burnett Show, The George Gobel Show, and Bob Hope and Dean Martin specials among other shows. She also did not ignore her early love of Broadway. She received a Tony Award nomination for “On the Twentieth Century.”

The Brady Bunch: Jan's Aunt Jenny | The Very Special Blog
On the Brady Bunch Photo: theveryspecialblog.com

In 1988 at age 80, Coca received the Lifetime Achievement Award in Comedy; her male counterpart receiving the award that year was George Burns. She was also honored in 1995 with the Women in Film Lucy Award, named for Lucille Ball.

Coca finished her career voicing characters for children’s programming. Sadly, she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. She passed away at home in 2001. When he heard of her passing, Sid Caesar said, “All the wonderful times we shared together meant the world to me.”

Greatest Women in Comedy - Legacy.com
Photo: legacy.com

Imogene Coca was truly a special person. She had several different careers rolled into one. It’s hard to imagine that she did not begin comedy until her forties because she was one of the best. I’m sad that at the end of her life she was not able to retain the beautiful memories she gave us during her professional life. Thank you for creating a lifetime of special moments that you left for us.

Mr. Hospitality: Mike Douglas Hosted 30,000 Guests

For the month of July we are taking a look at some of the innovative talk shows of the past. With only three channels to choose from in the sixties, almost everyone tuned into The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.  However, talk shows were also popular during the day.

The Mike Douglas Show began in Cleveland, Ohio in 1961. It had light banter with guests and featured musical performers daily, although more serious interviews were also conducted from time to time.  In 1963, the show was expanded to Pittsburgh, Boston, Baltimore, and San Francisco.

In 1965, the show moved to Philadelphia and went into national syndication that same year. One final move was made in 1978 when it relocated to Hollywood. For 1980, Douglas handed the show over to John Davidson to host. It went through some changes and replaced about one-third of the staff, but the ratings continued to plummet and it was officially cancelled in November of 1981 with more than 6000 shows and 30,000 guests.

Douglas was born in Chicago in 1925 and became a teenage singer, entertaining on the radio and in supper clubs. He sang a lot of big band numbers and became the staff singer at WKY in Oklahoma City before joining the Navy in WWII. He had two hits in the fifties, “Old Lamplighter” and “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” but his career was not going anywhere, so he decided to turn to television.

Photo: eyesofageneration.com

Douglas had a different celebrity co-host every week, and they interviewed a variety of entertainers. The show was very popular and had high ratings.  Douglas had a fun personality .  In 1976, Match Game received higher ratings, so Douglas made an unscheduled appearance on the game show to congratulate Gene Rayburn on having the number 1 daytime show on the air.

Photo: muppetwikifandom.com

I could literally fill pages with the guest stars and musical performers who appeared on the show. Some of the more interesting ones included two-year-old Tiger Woods who showed off his golf swing for Bob Hope and James Stewart.

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Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope and a very young Tiger Woods Photo: pinterest.com

A Who’s Who listing of guests also included Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, George Burns, Sid Caesar, Angela Davis, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Alfred Hitchcock, Malcom X, Mother Teresa, the Muppets, Ralph Nader, Richard Nixon, Vincent Price, and John Wayne.

The “Supreme” music guests Photo: pinterest.com

A variety of musical genres were represented with performers including ABBA, The Beach Boys, The Bee Gees, James Brown, Ray Charles, Cher, Sam Cooke, Electric Light Orchestra, Marvin Gaye, Genesis, The Jacksons, Jefferson Airplane, Elton John, John Lennon with Yoko Ono, The Mills Brothers, The Rolling Stones, Sly and the Family Stone, The Supremes, and Frank Zappa.

With Gene Simmons and Cher Photo: vintage.com

Critics also liked the show. It received its first Emmy in 1967 and would go on to win four more.

Tom Kelly, who co-authored with Douglas on his memoir, revealed why he thought Mike was so successful: “One big key to his great success was he had his ego in check. He always let the guest have the limelight. He was a fine performer. He could sing, he could do comedy, he did it all, but he always gave the guest the spotlight.”

Photo: wikipedia.com

I can remember my mother watching Mike Douglas most days while I played with my toys.  Here we are sixty years later and afternoon talk shows like Ellen DeGeneres and Kelly Clarkson are still going strong thanks to pioneers like Mike Douglas who showed us the classy way to be a host.

When Things Were Rotten: No “Happily Ever After” for this Tale

This month’s series is “Living in the Past: Timeless Comedies.” For our first blog, we travel back to the 12th century to Sherwood Forest to a time When Things Were Rotten. After viewing one episode of this show, you knew it could only have been created by the comic legend Mel Brooks. In this case, he had the help of John Boni and Norman Stiles.

Photo: nostalgiacentral.com

Debuting in 1975 on ABC, Brooks considered what life would have been truly like if the legend was just hype, and Robin and his Merry Men were just a bunch of buffoons. The series has many of the traits found in Brooks’ Blazing Saddles or Monty Python episodes.

Reading the list of brilliant cast members, this show seems like one that should have been a huge hit, but in reality, it only lasted for thirteen episodes. Based on its brief airing, perhaps Robert Klein was wise to turn down the role of Robin. Dick Gautier, who worked with Brooks on Get Smart, agreed to take on the role of the heroic leader. Henry Polic II played the Sheriff of Nottingham who always got taken in by the gang. Ron Rifkin is Prince John. Misty Rowe, known best for her Hee-Haw performances, is Maid Marian. The Merry Men were indeed merry, being made up of Bernie Kopell, Dick Van Patten, Richard Dimitri (who had a dual role as identical twin brothers), and David Sabin.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

Of course, in this parody, slapstick is involved in every episode. The sight gags were always described as hilarious, and every script was full of great one-liners. It was definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. For example, at times the sheriff was said to be barking mad and he would literally bark. In one episode, the “barking” sheriff asks Bertram to hang up some banners and a cutaway scene shows a husband, wife and two children on a wall saying, “Hi, we’re the Banners.” Another example is Richard the-Lion-Hearted coming ashore after the Crusades to be met by an umpire, yelling “Safe,” at which point the sheriff shouts, “Kill the umpire.” The humor came fast and furious at a rapid-fire pace. Brooks described the construction of the show by saying: “We took great liberties, and the writing was very crazy and funny.”

Photo: imdb.com

Unlike some parodies, the production of the show was high quality with lavish costumes and sets. Every episode featured a well-known guest star. Dudley Moore appeared as a piano-playing sheik named Achmed Muhammad Ben Gazzara. Other stars included Carl Ballantine, John Byner, Sid Caesar, Paul Williams, and Mel Brooks himself. Brooks said his favorite episode was “The French Disconnection” starring Caesar as a French ambassador.

Photo: imdb.com

The theme song was written by Lee Adams and Charles Strouse who had done the well-known theme for All in the Family as well as many composing for many popular musicals. The lyrics were:

“Once upon a time when things were rotten,
Not just food, but also kings were rotten.
Everybody kicked the peasants,
Things were bad and that ain’t good,
Then came Robin Hood (Ba-bahh!)

“Soon a band of merry men he’d gotten,
They wore outfits made of plain green cotton,
Helping victims was their business.
Boy oh boy was business good —
Good for Robin Hood!

“They laughed, they loved, they fought, they drank,
They jumped a lot of fences.
They robbed the rich, gave to the poor —
Except what they kept for expenses!

“So when other legends are forgotten
We’ll remember back when things were rotten.
Yay for Robin Hood!”

When Things Were Rotten was definitely a product of its time. Like Laugh-In or even Sesame Street, viewers had no time to reflect on a comment. Things moved at a frenetic pace. One of the New York Times critics, John O’Connor, timed the gags and noted there was a new one every fifteen seconds.

Photo: imdb.com

The critics gave the series great reviews and mentioned its inventiveness and quick humor. The ratings never backed up the praise however. Brooks had a different perspective. In an interview with Frank DeCaro in the New York Times (7-19-2013), Brooks discussed the show’s ending. “The show was canceled, Mr. Brooks said, not because it failed to find an audience — ‘The ratings weren’t bad,’ he insisted — but because, as a one-camera show, shot like a film, it just cost too much to produce. ‘I was very happy with When Things Were Rotten,’ he said. “We were on our way to doing 36 episodes, and then someone at Paramount called and said, ‘Mel, could you do it as a three-camera show?’ I said, ‘You mean like “I Love Lucy”? Are you crazy?’” When the network pulled the plug, Mr. Brooks remembers, friends offered their condolences. ‘Everybody said, ‘I’m sorry it didn’t work.’ I said: ‘It did work. It was just too expensive.’”

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The same reason many viewers might still appreciate the show today is also one of the factors of its demise. The show depended on fans knowing a lot of pop culture knowledge. People who love cultural history would have a blast watching the show, but the younger generations whom don’t have that database in the brain might feel disconnected.

Photo: imdb.com

Of course, the television schedule always has a lot of sway about whether a show is a hit or a flop. This show was on Wednesday nights. Its competition was Tony Orlando and Dawn and Little House on the Prairie. While Tony Orlando and Dawn was on its last legs and would not return in 1976, Little House on the Prairie was very popular. This was the second season for the show which had a huge audience; the show would continue until 1983.

Photo: nytimes.com
Comedy legend Mel Brooks

The show might have ended, but Brooks could not let the concept go. In 1993, his film, Robin Hood: Men in Tights would continue the concept. In this version, Cary Elwes as Robin leads his men, but if you look closely, you might think The Abbot (Dick Van Patten) resembles Friar Tuck in When Things Were Rotten.

Photo: imdb.com

One interesting technological advancement is that a show like this typically would never have been released on DVD because of its short run. Now, however, manufactured-on-demand makes the show available on Amazon. It’s the perfect length for a week-end marathon. You might realize that When Things Were Rotten, they were also pretty good and funny.

Love and the Funny Show

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There was something magical about the Friday evening television schedule from 1971-1973.  Anyone who was born in the late 1950s or early 1960s can remember sitting down in front of the television at 7 pm (central time) for the Brady Bunch and staying put through The Partridge Family, Room 222, The Odd Couple, and Love, American Style.  Sitting through an entire evening of shows was almost unheard of back then, but we binge watched every Friday night. While the boys were divided between Marcia Brady and Laurie Partridge, every girl of that age had was in love with Keith Partridge.  Watching an episode of The Partridge Family today makes me feel 10 again. For the next five weeks, I’m taking a look at each of the shows that made this schedule so enjoyable.

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Today we begin with Love, American Style. This show was an iconic 1970s show. Like Laugh In, the clothing, furnishings, and vocabulary do not make it timeless. But it was a lot of fun. This fast-paced anthology show featured two to four mini episodes each week, and between them were quick skits, often featuring a brass bed. Each smaller episode is titled “Love and the _______.”

A troupe of players was featured on each show for the in-between skits. These regulars included William Callaway, Buzz Cooper, Phyllis Davis, Mary Grover, James Hampton, Stuart Margolin, Lynn Marta, Barbara Minkus, and Tracy Reed. Margolin went on to a regular role in The Rockford Files; Tracy Reed was featured in McCloud and Knot’s Landing; Phyllis Davis was part of the cast of Vega$ and Magnum PI, and James Hampton will be familiar if you watched The Doris Day Show or F-Troop. Both Reed and Davis were featured on Love Boat episodes which had a similar format to Love, American Style.

The show had a memorable and catchy theme song. Written by Arnold Margolin, the first year it was performed by The Cowsills.  You will see a lot of overlap between these five Friday night shows, and music is one of those cross-overs. The Partridge Family was based on the life of The Cowsills.

During the second and subsequent years that Love, American Style was on the air, the theme song was performed by the Ron Hicklin Group. The Ron Hicklin Group could be heard in a variety of motion pictures and commercials, and they also appeared on recordings with stars such as Paul Revere and the Raiders and Cher. John and Tom Bahler, brothers who sang under The Charles Fox Singers were also part of this group. The group provided television theme song recordings including Batman, That Girl, Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley. They also did the singing for The Partridge Family theme and songs performed on the show as well as the Brady Bunch kids. Ron retired in the early 2000s, and Tom does a variety of things. He is also known for writing Bobby Sherman’s hit, “Julie Do You Love Me?”. John married Janet Lennon, one of the Lennon sisters who performed on The Lawrence Welk Show. He currently lives in Branson and conducts the “new” Lawrence Welk orchestra.

hicklin singers

The snappy melody was set to the following words:

Love, Love, Love

Love, American Style,
Truer than the Red, White and Blue.
Love, American Style,
That’s me and you.

And on a star-spangled night my love,

My love come to me.
You can rest you head on my shoulder.
Out by the dawn’s early light, my love
I will defend your right to try.

Love, American Style,
That’s me and you.

Paramount Television developed the show. The executive producer of the show was Arnold Margolin, Stuart’s brother. There were 53 different directors during the four-year run. The series received Emmy nominations for Outstanding Comedy Series in 1970 and 1971; Best Music Composition in 1971, 1972, and 1973, winning in 1973; and winning the Emmy in 1970 for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics.

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Many people wrote for the show, but Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson received the most credits. One of the writers, Peggy Elliott, was interviewed by the Huffington Post in May of 2013, and she talked about her time writing for the show.

“But the show I loved writing the most, was Love, American Style. For every other show, I was writing for characters created out of someone else’s head. Sure, we could create the occasional guest-star role, and we had been told to make every role, no matter how small, a real person. ‘Think of the actor who’s playing that delivery boy,’ I can hear Billy Persky, the co-creator or That Girl, say: ‘This is a big break for him — it’s the biggest role he’s had so far. Give him something to work with.’

But with Love, American Style, every character was our very own; every situation came out of our heads. Each segment of the hour the show ran each week was a one-act play created entirely by us. Added to the attraction was the fact that we could say and do things that were taboo on every other TV show in the early ‘70s. Arnold Margolin, co-creator of the show with Jim Parker, told me recently that the creative side of the network wanted the show to be more daring, while the censors kept their red pencils ready. There was a full-time position on the show just to run interference.

We must have put both sides through the hoops with one episode we wrote: ‘Love and The Hand-Maiden.’ A young guy was dating a centerfold model. As their relationship developed, he discovered that she had no problem with shedding her clothes, but she always kept her hands covered — with artful poses in magazines, and with gloves in real life. He became obsessed with seeing her hands and came up with one ruse after another to get her to take off her gloves. We had a ball writing it, with one double-entendre after another.”

If you were a star of any kind in the early 1970s, you most likely were on Love, American Style.  The show produced 108 episodes, and those shows featured 1112 different actors. Some of the famous names showing up in the credits include Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Phyllis Diller, Arte Johnson, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Regis Philbin, Burt Reynolds, Sonny and Cher, Flip Wilson, and Jo Anne Worley. Karen Valentine from Room 222, Ann B Davis and Robert Reed from The Brady Bunch, and both Jack Klugman and Tony Randall from The Odd Couple show up along the way.

Brad Duke wrote a biography about Harrison Ford and he said Ford had fond memories of appearing on Love, American Style. “He recalled that he had been given little time to prepare his wardrobe for the role of a philosophical hippie in the November 1969 episode, “Love and the Former Marriage.” He appeared on set with long hair and a beard thinking they were appropriate for the role. He was surprised when he was told he needed a haircut and trim than given a navy blue dress shirt and vinyl burgundy jeans with a large belt. They even had a scarf with a little ring to put around my neck. And I thought, someone has made a mistake here. So, rather than argue with the wardrobe people, I put on the clothes and went to find the producer. I walked on the set and he was pointed out.  I tapped his shoulder and when he turned around he had on the same clothes I did. He was a hippie producer I guess. At least the check went through, and I got paid.”

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The best way to get a good understanding of what the show was like is to look at a couple of the episodes.

January 23, 1970: Love and the Big Night

Starring Ann Elder, Buddy Lester, Frank Maxwell, Julie Newmar, and Tony Randall, this episode was often listed as a favorite. Randall is a married businessman who escorts his voluptuous secretary (Newmar) to her apartment after a late night at the office. Eager to get home to his wife, Randall hurriedly tries to open a stubborn jar of mayonnaise and winds up covered with mayo. Newmar cleans his suit, but while it’s drying, it’s stolen. After a series of amusing mishaps, Randall finally gets back to his own apartment and creeps into bed with his wife–only to find out she’s not there.

February 25, 1972: Love and the Television Set

It starred Harold Gould, Marion Ross, Ron Howard, and Anson Williams. Reading this list of names might give you a hint about what happened to this episode after it aired. Garry Marshall had written a pilot about a 1950s family that did not sell.  He turned it into an episode for Love, American Style. George Lucas caught the episode and was impressed with Ron Howard and offered him a role in his new movie American Graffiti about 1950s teens. The movie was so popular, that the network decided to put Marshall’s pilot in the fall line-up as Happy Days. Harold Gould’s role was given to Tom Bosley for the series. When Love, American Style went into syndication, this episode was retitled “Love and the Happy Days.”

October 22, 1970: Love and the Bashful Groom

This is the episode I recall when I think of the series. When I watched it originally, I was staying overnight at my grandparents’ house and my grandmother was shocked at the “vulgarity.” It really seems quite tame today, but back then it probably was unexpected. She would approve of Tom Bahler marrying Janet Lennon though because I watched Lawrence Welk with her and my grandfather whenever I was at their house.

In this episode, Paul Petersen, Christopher Stone, Meredith MacRae, Jeff Donnell, and Dick Wilson are featured. Harold (Petersen) and Linda (MacRae) are getting married. He learns that she grew up in a nudist colony and is not comfortable being naked for his wedding.  After a soul-searching talk with his best friend, and realizing he loves Linda enough to be uncomfortable, he decides to go through with the ceremony.  He gets to the church a bit late and walks in, only to see that everyone else is dressed in their Sunday best. His bride informs him that they always dress up for weddings. One of the congregation members says something like “Let’s not make him uncomfortable,” and they all begin to undress.  Of course, you see nothing improper, only clothes flying. This was probably not the best episode to “expose” my grandmother to as a first glimpse of the show.

The show lasted for four years and was cancelled in 1973. In 1985, a reboot was created, but it was on in the mornings and only lasted a few months.  The show was on at the same time as everyone’s favorite game show, The Price is Right. For the 1998 fall season, a pilot was created for prime time, but it was never ordered. While doing my research for this blog, I noticed that there was a Love, American Style project in production, so we may see it resurface again.  I’m not sure I would want to watch a 2019 or 2020 version of the show though. It was such a product of its time, and I fear what a current version would be like after seeing the reboot of Match Game which has been airing the past year or so.

Let’s all write to Antenna TV and Me TV to see if they will make the original 1971 television schedule happen, and we can watch these original shows again, reliving the excitement we experienced the first time around.

Next week we get to know The Odd Couple.