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.

With Flip Wilson, What You See is What You Get

As we continue with the “They Call Me Wilson” blog series, today we take a look at a comedian who was a household name in the seventies but might not be well known today—Flip Wilson.

Flip Wilson was known best for his character of Geraldine and his catch phrase, “Here Comes de Judge.” In 1972, Time magazine heralded him “TV’s first black superstar.”

Photo: pinterest.com

Born Clerow Wilson Jr. in 1933 in New Jersey, Flip had nine brothers and sisters. His father, a handyman, was unable to find work during the Depression. His mother abandoned the family when Flip was only seven. His father was forced to place most of his children in foster homes. Flip said his happiest childhood memory was when he was in reform school. One of his teachers gave him the first birthday present he ever remembered–a box of Cracker Jacks and a can of shoe polish.

When he was sixteen, Flip lied about his age, joining the US Air Force. His outgoing personality and comedic demeanor made him popular with his barrack mates. It was at this time, he got the nickname “Flip” because his friends said he re-enacted outlandish stories in various dialects. Often he would use mock-Shakespearean phrases and one day a friend replied to one of them, “He flippeth his lid.” One of his superiors encouraged him to take some typing courses and do some studying.

After being discharged in 1954, he went to work as a bellhop at the Manor Plaza Hotel in San Francisco. He invented an inebriated character skit which he performed between acts in the nightclub there.

Eventually he wrote new material and began touring nightclubs throughout the US. He became a regular at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.

In 1957, Wilson married Lavenia “Peaches” Wilson and they divorced ten years later.

One night when Redd Foxx was a guest on the Tonight Show in 1965, Johnny Carson asked him who he thought was the funniest comedian around, and Redd said “Flip Wilson.” Carson booked Flip to appear on the show and so did Ed Sullivan. Again, his warm and friendly personality was mentioned. Richard Pryor once told Wilson that “You’re the only performer that I’ve ever seen who goes on the stage and the audience hopes that you like them.”

In 1968 he appeared on the Jerry Lewis Show, and in 1969 you could see him on Love American Style. During this time, he made his first of fourteen appearances on Laugh In.

Photo: amazon.com

In 1970, Flip was awarded a Grammy for his album, The Devil Made Me Buy this Dress. It was a great year for him and he received his own variety series also, The Flip Wilson Show on NBC. He would perform comedy sketches and featured many African American celebrities including The Supremes, The Jackson Five, Redd Foxx, and Bill Russell. George Carlin made frequent appearances in front of the camera with him and wrote for the show behind the camera.

The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress [Vinyl]

Wilson would often show up as Reverend Leroy, the pastor of the “Church of What’s Happening Now.”

Photo: youtube.com

He also took on the persona of sassy Geraldine whose boyfriend was “Killer.” She often said “The devil made me do it” and “What you see is what you get.”

Photo: pinterest.com

Unlike many comedians in the seventies, Flip stayed away from politics and social satire. A lot of his stories involved black characters viewing historic events from a different perspective. Some critics praised him for his choice and others said he was “defusing his blackness.” Wilson’s response to these critics was that “funny is not a color. . . my main point is to be funny; if I can slip a message in there, fine.” One contemporary said he was a rare comic in that he told stories that didn’t make black people feel angry or make white people feel guilty.

During his four years on the show, Wilson had high ratings; the show received eleven Emmy Award nominations, winning two; he also won the Golden Globe’s Best Actor in a Television Series. Wilson ended the show while it still was receiving raving reviews. By 1972, he was making a million dollars a year.

Time-Magazine-1972-January-31-Comedian-Flip-Wilson

During the run of his show, he accepted a role on one other television show—Here’s Lucy in 1971. After his show went off the air, he could be seen in The Six Million Dollar Man in 1976 and Insight in 1978. He also appeared on the big screen in several movies.

Flip took some time off in the seventies to care for his children. Having four children with his common-law wife Blonell Pitman, he received full custody of them in 1979. In that same year, he married Tuanchai “Cookie” MacKenzie and had a fifth child, but they divorced in 1984.

During the 1980s and 1990s, he continued to be offered roles in television. He was on The Love Boat in 1981, in 227 in 1988 and 1989, in American Playhouse in 1990, and on The Drew Carey Show in 1996 and 1998.

Wilson with Gladys Knight, Kristoff St. John, Jaleel White, and Fran Robinson–Photo: pinterest.com

In 1985, he tackled a regular series again, starring in Charlie and Co. with Gladys Knight. Flip portrayed Charlie who worked for the Division of Highways and Gladys his wife Diana, a school teacher. The middle-class family raised their three children—16-year-old Junior, 15-year-old Lauren, and 9-year-old Robert–on the South side of Chicago.  The show was cancelled after only 18 episodes.

In 1998, Wilson died from liver cancer.

Photo: pinterest.com

Dying at 65 cut Wilson’s career short, especially because he took off so much time to raise his kids, so they would have a different type of childhood than he did. However, he achieved what he set out to. He was a self-made millionaire, a man who performed the type of comedy he chose, and a good father who raised his children to have a better life than he did. You could not ask for a better definition of success.