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.

Car 54, Where Are You: Muldoon and Toody: The Bert and Ernie of the NYPD

Car 54, Where Are You? aired on NBC beginning September of 1961. I was surprised to learn that there are only 60 episodes in this series. The show revolves around officers Gunther Toody, Badge 1432 (Joe E. Ross) and Francis Muldoon, Badge 723 (Fred Gwynne). Their patrol car is Car 54, and they are with the 53rd precinct in New York. Toody and Muldoon are complete opposites which is why they get along so well. Toody is short, extremely talkative and not overly bright.  He’s married to Lucille (Beatrice Pons), a bit of a loud, overbearing woman. Muldoon is tall, quiet and very smart. He’s a bachelor who lives with his mother (Ruth Masters) and two younger sisters.

Photo: imdb.com

Rounding out the large cast are officers Dave Anderson (Nipsey Russell), Omar Anderson (Ossie Davis), Kissel (Bruce Kirby), Nelson (Jim Gormley), Nicholson (Hank Garrett, O’Hara (Albert Henderson), Schnauser (Al Lewis), Steinmetz (Joe Warren), and Wallace (Frederick O’Neal), as well as Captain Block (Paul Reed), Sergeant Abrams ( Nathaniel Frey), Sylvia Schnauser (Charlotte Rae), and Claire Block (Patricia Bright).

A young Nipsey Russell Photo: yahoo.com

Nat Hiken (the creative force behind The Phil Silvers Show) created the series. He wrote many of the scripts and also directed several episodes, one of which he won an Emmy for. The show was nominated for three other Emmys. It was up for Outstanding Program Achievement in the Field of Humor in 1961 which went to The Bob Newhart Show (not that Bob Newhart show, this was a variety show hosted by Newhart) and for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy in both 1961 and 1962 but got beat out both years by Carl Reiner for The Dick Van Dyke Show.

As recounted in Martin Grams, Jr.’s book Car 54, Where Are You?, after visiting a New York police precinct house and noticing what a communal feel it had, unlike any of the depictions of police on television, Hiken came up with the idea for a police-themed situation comedy. He continued to do research by spending weeks in a precinct squad room during late 1960, getting a feel for how the officers talked and interacted amongst each other, members of the community, and even repeat offenders, who were often treated more like family than threats. Hiken enlisted the support of Eupolis Productions and then pitched the idea to Proctor & Gamble, who agreed to finance a pilot.

Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis were coworkers before they were relatives Photo: shoutfactorytv.com

According to Kliph Nesteroff in the definitive account of Joe E. Ross’ tawdry life off-screen, “King of Slobs: The Life of Joe E. Ross,” Hiken originally wanted to cast Jack Weston in the role of Gunther Toody (televisionheaven.co.uk says it was Jack Warden) and Mickey Shaughnessy as Francis Muldoon, but contract negotiations broke down with both, so he turned to Ross and Fred Gwynne as suitable replacements, though in Ross’ case he later regretted it.

John Strauss who had collaborated with Hiken on the theme song for The Phil Silvers Show, teamed up with Hiken once again for this theme. Strauss was married to Charlotte Rae, who appeared on the show. Strass was the composer, and Hiken wrote the lyrics. The familiar theme song is:

There’s a hold-up in the Bronx,

Brooklyn’s broken out in fights;

There’s a traffic jam in Harlem

That’s backed up to Jackson Heights.

There’s a scout troop short a child,

Khrushchev’s due at Idlewild,

Car 54, where are you?

The show was originally titled “The Snow Whites.” (Maybe because the sponsor made Chlorox bleach.) The show was given a great time slot on Sunday nights between Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Bonanza. The producers thought the working title would confuse viewers since the show followed Disney. Since the theme song was already written, the last line of the song became the show’s title.

Critics were split on the show. While many people praised the series, some reviewers considered it disrespectful. The Chicago Sun Times deemed it “a preposterous (and sometimes cruel) depiction of the policeman.” The Dallas Times Herald stated, “The humor might be there, all right, but not much of it was showing.” The Alabama Journal complained, “It is insulting to the law enforcement and to the general public.” However, many policemen liked the show and found it funny.

The show was filmed at Biograph Studios in the Bronx and on location. The cars were painted bright red and white which photographed perfectly. There is some controversy about the patrol cars. Some articles listed them as Savoys, some as Dodges. According to Martin Grams blog from May 4, 2012,  “On June 29, 1961, Arthur Hershkowitz signed the contract and during the first week of July, the following four automobiles were delivered to Eupolis Productions”: two 1961 Plymouth Belvederes, one Dodge Dart, and one Plymouth, all four-door sedans. Grams said “the cars were returned to the dealership and when the show was renewed for season two, the following cars were delivered”: two 1962 Plymouth Belvederes, three 1962 Plymouth Furys, one 1962 Dart 330, and a 1962 Chrysler New Yorker.  One article I read said that the large circular object on the dashboard between the officers was an auxiliary fan used before air conditioning was available.

Despite the success of Car 54, which placed 20th in the ratings for 1961-62, Hiken soon began to feel overwhelmed with his responsibilities.  Apparently, NBC wanted part ownership in the show in exchange for renewing it for season three, and Hiken would not agree to the deal. The show’s sponsor Proctor and Gamble tried to talk CBS into taking the show over, but there was no room on their schedule. Hiken was a bit burnt out with writing, directing, and overseeing the show and was exasperated with Ross who caused a lot of issues not remembering his lines, so Hiken ended the show and never worked on another series again.

Considering the short time that the show was on the air, there was a full slate of guest stars including Carl Ballantine, Tom Bosley, Wally Cox, Hugh Downs, Margaret Hamilton, Katherine Helmond, Hal Linden, Mitch Miller, Charles Nelson Reilly, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jean Stapleton.

The episodes are well written and similar to other sitcoms at the time.

Photo: shoutfactory.com

In one, Toody is feeling henpecked by Lucille, but musters the courage to become king of his castle after seeing a stirring performance of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”

In another, Muldoon shares a childhood experience when the kids at school called him “Horse Face.” Toody, trying to console him, says “Don’t worry Francis, kids just repeat what other people say” and later added “After all, Francis, everybody liked Black Beauty.”

One script has Toody working an undercover detail in Brooklyn with a female cop posing as his wife and a small boy as his child. When his wife’s sister spots him, the rumors begin.

Even though there were only 60 episodes, the show went into syndication in 1964. It was one of the staples on Nick at Nite in the 1980s, aired on Comedy Central in the 1990s, and a few years ago it could be seen on both MeTV and Decades. The show came out on DVD in 2011 and 2012.

Like any show that was even somewhat successful, the show had a film made based on the series in 1994. The big screen version starred John C. McGinley as Muldoon, David Johansen as Toody, Rosie O’Donnell as Toody’s wife Lucille and Fran Drescher as Velma Velor. Not surprisingly, it was a dud. One reviewer said it “was one of the worst movies to ever come out of Hollywood.”

One fun fact I learned doing research for this blog was that this show was William Faulkner’s favorite tv show. He hated television but visited a friend’s house weekly to watch the show.

Photo: amazon.com

This show debuted during the decade when merchandising was a big part of every show. There were at least six comic books based on the show. There was a board game, puppets of Toody and Muldoon, and a car model.

The show was funny in its prime, but I’m not sure it holds up as well today as other shows from the sixties. However, two seasons of DVDs is not a large investment, so check out an episode on youtube and see what you think.

Today We Take a Peek at the Future by Looking at the Past

Building on the popularity of The Flintstones, in 1962 ABC and Hanna-Barbera decided to debut another new animation show aimed at adults. Instead of the prehistoric past, this show would be set in the far-off future. It aired Sunday nights.  It was also the first show on ABC to air in color. It was The Jetsons. The Flintstones had been recorded in color, but the first two years it aired in black and white. However, it was up to the affiliates to decide if they wanted to broadcast both of these shows in color or black and white. Often they chose black and white because only 3% of the population had color televisions in 1962 which increased to 50% by 1972.

jetson2

Hoyt Curtin created the theme song. This show featured the typical 1950s sitcom plots. It was adult oriented and used a laugh track.

jetson17

The Jetsons live in Orbit City in the Skypad Apartments, high in the sky. George is a family man.  George is not Fred Flintstone.  However, he does get into many predicaments like Fred, and his boss fires him often.  George works for Spacely Space Sprockets, and his boss is Cosmo Spacely. Their competitor is Mr. Cogswell who runs Cogswell Cogs. Mr. Spacely is easily angered and hard to work for. He and George were childhood friends. George’s work computer was RUDI – Referential Universal Differential Indexer.  He has a human personality. George was voiced by George O’Hanlon. Mr. Spacely was voiced by Mel Blanc.

 

jetson10

George is married to Jane, a homemaker like Wilma.  Jane is a member of the Galaxy Women’s Historical Society.  Her favorite store is Mooning Dales.  Penny Singleton, the original Blondie of the movies, plays Jane.

 

They have two children, Judy, a 16-year-old, who attends Orbit High School and Elroy, 6, who attends the Little Dipper School.  Judy likes clothes, boys, and her diary, much like teens in the 1960s.  Elroy is quiet, easy going, and highly intelligent, and he studies space history, astrophysics, and star geometry. Janet Waldo was the voice of Judy, while Daws Butler provided the voices of Elroy and Spencer Cogswell.

 

Rosie is their robot maid and Astro is their dog. Rosie is an outdated robot, but the family loves her. She performs all the housework and does some parenting of Elroy. Surprisingly, Rosie was only in 2 of the 24 episodes that aired in 1962. Astro precedes Scooby Doo but talks like him and looks very much like a gray Scooby. Jean Vander Pyl and Don Messick from The Flintstones take on the voices of Rosie and Astro.

 

Two other characters who make appearances are George’s eccentric grandfather, Montague Jetson voiced by Howard Morris.  Stella/Petunia Spacely, Cosmo’s wife, is overbearing and snobby and she was voiced by Jean Vander Pyl.

 

In 1963, Morey Amsterdam and Pat Carroll sued H-B for breach of contract.  Apparently, they were signed to a 24-episode contract to voice George and Jane.  They were guaranteed $500 per episode. According to the network, they had to be replaced because of sponsor conflicts with their other shows, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Make Room for Daddy. I believe the suit was dropped; however, I couldn’t find proof of that.

 

The show did not get very good ratings.  Part of the problem was that so many people were watching it in black and white. Another problem is that it was up against Car 54, Where Are You and, ironically, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. After the first year, the network moved it to Saturday morning. In 1985, 41 episodes were made and 10 additional shows were created in 1987. It’s hard to believe, but those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s watched the same 24 episodes over and over since new ones weren’t made for 23 years after the debut.

Although it was only on the air in prime time for one year, marketing certainly did not suffer.  Many Jetson toys, games, and figures were sold.

 

The Jetsons endorsed Electrasol, Tums, and Radio Shack. Many comic books were based on the series. Gold Key printed 36 from 1963-1970, Charlton created 20 between 1970-1973, Harvey published 5 in 1992-1993, and Archie Comics produced 17 from 1995-1996.

In addition, two tv films, a tv special, and a movie were created.

The show was on Boomerang from 2000-2014 and again from 2016-2017. It was aired on The Cartoon Network from 1992-2004 and again in 2012. It is available now on Comcast’s video-on-demand service.

 

Many of the inventions the Jetsons used are currently being produced today. A flying car will most likely debut in 2018. There are several start-up companies developing jetpacks to allow people to fly. Robot butlers exist at some hotels (Japan and California). Holograms have existed for a few years. 3-D printers can make food, and our current drones are similar to the pods the Jetsons used. Smart watches were also shown on the series; in one episode a student in Elroy’s class watches a Flintstones episode on his watch instead of paying attention to the teacher. Although The Jetsons was set in 2062, they featured moving walkways and smart homes which we have used for some time.

 

What is so surprising about The Jetsons is its current popularity.  A Jetson big-screen film is in the works and, in August of 2017, ABC ordered a live-action sitcom of The Jetsons. It will be interesting to see if they rely on the same technology used in 1962 on the show or if they project into our future.

jetson1

While many of the popular shows from the early 1960s are only remembered by baby boomers, The Flintstones and The Jetsons are still well known to kids of every generation. They have truly survived the test of time. By this time next year, The Jetsons could once again be a hit television show. Like the Bewitched-I Dream of Jeannie debate, or the Mary Ann vs Ginger question, most people prefer watching the past or the future.  I am in The Jetsons camp, but enjoy watching Fred and Wilma from time to time also.  Next week we’ll look at my favorite adult animation show, and no, it’s not The Simpsons.