The Rise and Fall and Rise of the LP

The music aficionados among you may have noticed how the LP record has been making a comeback of sorts in recent years. I’ve personally seen evidence of this at my local Barnes & Noble music department, which has cleared out rows of CD shelves to make room for new pressings of both classic LPs and new recordings by top artists. How ironic: a slice of our popular culture is taking a deliberate technological step backwards, forsaking mp3 players and CDs, in favor of the humble, grooved (and groovy) LP record.

It behooves us, therefore (or, at least, it behooves me), to review the history of the LP. Here then, is a very truncated version:

Like most modern inventions, the long-playing record is part of an evolution, in which improvements, both big and small, took place as part of an ongoing timeline.  We’ve all been taught since childhood to look to Thomas Edison and his 1877 invention. By the early 1880s, Edison had hit upon the idea of using hard wax cylinders to record and play sounds, voices, and music. The cylinders, played at 160 rpm, had their limitations–not the least of which was their short playing time of about two minutes–but proved popular with the public.

Edison was not without his competitors. Other inventors began introducing their own formats of playing back sound and music, including on disk records. “Gramophone” was actually the name given to the first flat recording disks, invented by Emile Berliner in 1889, and necessary improvements led to the formation of the Victor Talking Machine Company. A decade later, 10-inch and 12-inch discs appeared on the market, with the 12-inch records still only able to play about four minutes of music. Edison responded with a new, improved cylinder that could play for about the same time.

Disks that could play longer, at 78 rpm, were initially developed to accompany motion picture films, serving as a their soundtracks, before sound was integrated onto the film itself. When music 78s were sold to the public, longer classical pieces and pop song collections had to be sold as multi-disk packages, with the record sleeves bound together to create a book-like “album”–a term that we still use today.

In September of 1931, RCA Victor introduced the first long-laying 33 1/3 records for home use,  as described in this ad for a disk-changing player. Both 10-inch and 12-inch records were offered, usually for light classical and popular music, and the 12-inch disks boasted a 15-minute capacity on each side (the first release was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, performed by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra).

But there was a catch. Turntables that accommodated both the 78 and 33 1/3 playing speeds, or special adaptors offered for other players, were expensive, especially during the Depression. Record sales began plunging. RCA was also sluggish in producing and marketing new titles, and ceased production of the LP format altogether before mid-decade.

Now comes the part of the story that you probably haven’t heard. One of the greatest of modern day inventors, who has been relegated to virtual obscurity for the past 70 years, can be credited with inventing stereo for records and films in the 1930s. His name was Alan Blumlein, a London-born audio engineer who, while working for EMI in 1931, first proposed and developed a “binaural” recording system for records and film , in which sound could be separated into two distinct audio channels. In 1933, he cut the first stereo disk, containing two such channels, and received its patent that year. The following year, working at the brand new EMI studios on Abbey Road in London, Blumlein and his team continued their experimental work.

Blumlein’s team demonstrates stereo’s potential for films (you can see this clip on YouTube).

By the following year, however, EMI shelved further work on stereo, citing its limited commercial potential(!). Blumlein, being the genius he was, then went to work on the fledgling medium of television. In 1936, EMI presented the world’s first electronic TV system, which was chosen by the BBC over the groundbreaking but inferior mechanical system developed by the legendary John Logie Baird.

At the outbreak of World War II, Blumlein turned his attention to the highly secret development of radar for the RAF, where he pioneered a technology called H2S, enabling bombers to find their targets through thick cloud cover. Unfortunately, during a 1942 flight intended to continue testing the H2S system, Blumlein’s plane crashed in Scotland, killing all onboard. The top secret nature of his work even prevented his own obituary from being printed in newspapers at the time. He was only 38.

The war years saw continued of dominance by 78 rpm records, but in June of 1948, Columbia records held a well-publicized press conference in New York to announce the new long-playing, 33 1/3 rpm record, capable of holding over twenty minutes of music on each side. This new, improved version of the original LP helped spur a tremendous resurgence of record sales throughout he U.S. between 1948 and 1958.  And, Blumlein’s invention of stereo was revived in the mid-’50s in the U.K. and U.S., by both big American record companies (RCA), and small (Remington Records), and Decca Records in the U.K.  Ironically, these companies began to record high-end music, such as classical symphonies, on stereo tape. Before long, it was stereo reel-to-reel tapes, first released by RCA in 1954, that began to attract the attention of audiophiles. For some time, it looked as if stereo tapes would be the next Big Thing. It would be another three years before stereo records would finally hit the mass market.

In December of 1957, the first public demonstration of a stereo record for consumers took place, at the Times Auditorium in New York City. The disk, produced by Audio Fidelity Records, presented the Dukes of Dixieland on side A, while side B offered railroad sound effects. The accompanying publicity campaign spurred other labels to play catch-up in their pursuit of mass producing their own stereo releases.  March of 1958 saw the first major stereo releases on records, including Johnny Puleo and his Harmonica Gang, Vol. 1, and Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra.

And, yes, that’s the short version. We haven’t even gotten to the arrival of the CD, which we will…soon!

 

 

Halloween with Abbott & Costello

In honor of Halloween and all things spooky, I thought I’d pay tribute to a pair of classic Abbott & Costello films that combine fright and laughter with great results: Hold That Ghost and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello enjoyed tremendous popularity throughout the 1940s, especially during the war years. They first teamed in 1936, and quickly made their presence known in burlesque (using only clean material, of course), and then on radio, where they gained nationwide fame in 1938 as regulars on The Kate Smith Hour. By 1940, they had signed with Universal Studios, first as supporting players in the comedy One Night in the Tropics (starring Bob Cummings and Alan Jones). Their career skyrocketed the following year with their first, and probably best, film, Buck Privates. In fact, they made no fewer than four films in 1941, with Hold That Ghost filmed immediately after Buck Privates. However, the success of Buck Privates prompted Universal to order a second military-themed feature, In The Navy, as a follow-up. Bud and Lou also took on the Air Force later in the year with Keep ‘Em Flying (by the way, it’s interesting that they added their hand and foot prints to the cement in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on December 8 of that year, the day after the Pearl Harbor attack!)

Hold That Ghost, directed by Arthur Lubin and released on August 6, gives us Bud and Lou maintaining a high level of energy throughout, but also features the wonderful Joan Davis as Lou’s comic foil. This was her first film as a freelancer after spending time under contract to Fox, and it’s a shame that she and Lou didn’t appear together again on film. Here, she plays Camille Brewster, a radio actress specializing in opening a murder mystery series with her blood-curdling scream each week.

The bulk of Hold That Ghost has Bud, Lou, and Davis–along with Richard Carlson and Evelyn Ankers, in fine supporting roles–stranded in an old, dilapidated inn overnight, due to a rainstorm. The inn was left to Chuck (Bud) and Ferdie (Lou) in the will of a gangster (long story, don’t ask), who had also hid a fortune in cash somewhere on the premises. Rival bad guys also enter the picture in search of the loot, and one of them is found murdered, as if the guests weren’t jittery enough. Just about every room of the building gives Lou and/or Davis cause for fright, screams, and fainting.

Highlights include a hilarious comic tango between the two of them to keep the others entertained over dinner. The sight of tall, lanky Davis and pudgy Costello mixing it up on their impromptu dance floor is priceless. At one point, Lou sends her falling butt-first into a wash bucket on the floor. The bucket was specially built to suit her measurements, enabling it to firmly stay put after she got up and continued her dance.

The two also share the “candle scene,” in which a horrified and speechless Lou watches a candle glide on its own across their table and float upwards as Davis fails to see a thing.

 

In 1948, Bud & Lou again mixed laughs with frights in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, directed by Charles Barton. Universal Studios owned the film rights not only to Frankenstein, but also to Dracula and the Wolfman. So, why not have all three monsters in one film to terrify the comic duo? That’s just what

happened, with Bela Lugosi playing Dracula for the first time on film since his 1931 starring role in the original Dracula. Lon Chaney reprised his most famous role, as the troubled Lawrence Talbot, a.k.a. the Wolfman. And Glenn Strange, who had stepped into the Frankenstein monster’s oversized shoes before, was signed to repeat the role here as well. Add a couple of beautiful women — one innocent (Joan an insurance investigator), one sinister (Sandra, in cohoots with the Count, who puts her under his spell)–and all of the elements are present to create a clever mix of comedy and horror. One reason why the film works so well is that the monsters are played straight (and scary), not as comic parodies of themselves. The laughs are wisely left to Bud and Lou.

The plot has the team as shipping clerks in Florida, who receive crates containing the remains of both the original Dracula and the Frankenstein monster, destined for display at a wax museum, McDougal’s House of Horrors. Lawrence Talbot phones them from London, warning them not to open the crates, which would allow Dracula to revive the monster. But during his call to Lou, a full moon sends Talbot into his tortuous transformation into the growling Wolfman, causing Lou to hang up.

Plot machinations have them all converging on Dracula’s castle, where the Count and Sandra plan to put Lou’s brain into the monster’s head. At one point, Lou pleads to the monster, “Don’t let ’em do it to you, Frankie. I’ve had this brain for thirty years and it hasn’t worked right yet!”

Glenn Strange required several retakes due to his laughing as Lou discovers a third hand.

Bud and Talbot’s attempt to rescue Lou culminate in a frantic chase through the castle–at which point, of course, Talbot succumbs once again to the full moon. The team soon find themselves opening one door to find Frankenstein headed their way, and then running to open another door to witness Dracula and the Wolfman engaged in hand-to-hand combat with each other.

The boys look cornered, until…?

The stirring, urgent music score enhances the mood, as the team eventually receive help in vanquishing all of the monsters for good. Rowing away from the castle dock to safety, they hear a disembodied voice (Vincent Price) say, “I was hoping to get in on the excitement. Allow me to introduce myself, I’m the Invisible Man.” Bud and Lou dive into the water and let their fight-or-flight responses opt for flight!

Other comedians of classic-era Hollywood made efforts to combine horror and comedy; Bud and Lou themselves later starred in Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, but these films don’t measure up to the two we’re honoring today. If you’ve somehow managed to miss either Hold That Ghost or Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, seek them out, even after Halloween has come and gone.

Thanks to David C. Tucker, author of Joan Davis: America’s Queen of Film, Radio, and Television Comedy for his help with today’s blog.

Until next week…

 

 

 

Little-known Britcoms Worth Seeking Out

Anyone who knows me is familiar with my fondness for British sitcoms. The genre inspired me to write Best of the Britcoms, which was originally published in 1999. Several years later, I updated portions of the text and added seven new chapters, covering programs I had discovered since the original edition hit the bookstore shelves. The revised edition was published in 2010.

There have been still more terrific sitcoms to cross the Atlantic since that revised edition, so I’d like to offer a new list of favorites that I’ve discovered since then (plus one or two that I found just before it went to print). Unfortunately, the flow of high-quality Britcoms on PBS and cable networks has slowed to a trickle in recent years, so I’d advise seeking out these shows on YouTube, Netflix, or any number of other sources–not to mention a good ol’ DVD box set. You may not even need to purchase it–check your local library, which just might have several series on disc waiting for you.

l. to r. : Dougal, Ted, Mrs. Doyle, Father Jack (who can walk, but is usually too inebriated to do so, and prefers being pushed around in a wheelchair).

Father Ted (1995-1998)- A daringly irreverent sitcom by American standards (it was literally “banned in Boston” by the local PBS station, due to protests by Catholic groups), Father Ted features a trio of Irish priests: Father Ted Crilly (Dermot Morgan), his cheerfully imbecilic young colleague Father Dougal McGuire (Ardal O’Hanlon), and the elderly, perpetually inebriated, foul-mouthed Father Jack Hackett (Frank Kelly). They have been exiled to remote Craggy Island, but where they have a knack for indulging in various schemes that can be decidedly less than holy, and which tend to result in the priests inadvertently humiliating themselves in front of their parishoners.

Dougal and Ted rehearse their awful song, “My Lovely Horse,” for entry in the Eurovision Song Contest.

They also have an accident-prone housekeeper, Mrs. Doyle (Pauline McLynn) whose personal mission in life is to serve tea to the residents and their visitors at every opportunity, even after repeated refusals. The series boasts surreal blackout gags, ludicrous dialogue, and an anything-goes comic sensibility that treats many sacred institutions as fair game. But the comedy here is too absurd to cause real offense to anyone with a sense of humor.

The Kumars at No. 42 (2001-2006)- A brilliantly inventive combination of sitcom and talk show, each episode opens in the suburban home of the (fictional) wealthy Indian immigrant Kumar family. The parents have had a full-size TV studio built in their backyard to accommodate adult son Sanjeev’s desire to host his own talk show. In a typical episode, a real-life

Mr. and Mrs. Kumar, Sanjeev, and feisty grandmother Ummi.

British or American celebrity enters the front door of the house, meets the family, and chats for a while before being whisked into the adjoining studio, where an audience of 300 waits for the talk show to begin(guests have included Minnie Driver, Chevy Chase, Donny Osmond, Twiggy, Daniel Radcliffe, and Boy George).

With guest Tom Jones.

The episode continues with Sanjeev interviewing the guest as the Kumar family sits on the studio sofa, peppering the guest with off-the-wall questions, while occasionally tossing casual insults at Sanjeev. This show is a hoot!

Outnumbered (2007-2014)- This series, a sort of Modern Family before Modern Family, follows the day-to-day life of an average married couple, Pete and Sue Brockman (Hugh Dennis, Claire Skinner) and their young children. It is a comedy of amazing realism, due mostly to the fact that the child actors were encouraged to improvise much of their dialogue, rather than follow the script word for word. The three kids, Jake (Tyger Drew-Honey), Ben (Daniel Roche), and Karen (scene-stealer Ramona Marquez), range in ages 6-12 at the series premiere, and keep their chronically exhausted parents forever on their toes with an onslaught of embarrassing or hard-to-answer questions, and frequent refusals to eat their dinner. Their rapport with each other is so natural, you’d swear that you’re eavesdropping on a real (and very funny) family.

This sequential series of cast photos (left to right) shows how the children grew into young adults in the seven years between the series first season and its last. There was sometimes a gap of two years in between seasons (punctuated by Christmas specials), and some fans of the show were shocked, and not especially pleased, to see the precocious kids all grown up in the later seasons.

The IT Crowd (2006-2010)- Just as The Big Bang Theory in the U.S. made science geeks lovable, The IT Crowd did so in the U.K. But the members of this tech support team, whose office is relegated to the basement of a large London corporate headquarters, spend as little time troubleshooting computer problems as possible.

Katherine Parkinson, Richard Ayoade, Chris O’Dowd.

Roy (Chris O’Dowd) answers most inquiries with his standard reply, “Did you try turning the computer on and off again?” in hopes of dismissing confused office workers. Moss (Richard Ayoade) has a twisted sense of logic that can be interpreted as either brilliance or stupidity (usually stupidity).  Jen (Katherine Parkinson) is technically their boss, but spends more time trying to avert or solve crises between them and the rest of the employees, as well as the company’s insane CEO.

Moss somehow fails to notice an office fire.

And when they do try to solve problems, things always go from bad to worse, proving that they’re not nearly as brilliant as their job description implies. Graham Linehan, co-creator of Father Ted, again gives us characters who manage to get themselves deeper and deeper into absurd situations–both at work and elsewhere–that never end well.

Miranda (2009-2013)- Comedian Miranda Hart plays a more socially and physically awkward version of herself in this daffy sitcom, which she created and co-wrote. She runs a gift shop cluttered with novelty items

l. to r.: Sarah Hadland, Patricia Hodge, Miranda Hart, Tom Ellis.

that amuse her to no end, even if most of her customers leave empty-handed. Her best friend/employee, Stevie (Sarah Hadland), is a petite blonde who shares the same warped, childlike wavelength as Miranda, and, despite their frequent spats, the two remain loyal to each other above all else.

Mother is not known for her subtlety.

Miranda’s meddlesome mother (Patricia Hodge) is forever trying to find her a potential husband, even though Miranda has a hopeless crush on Gary (Tom Ellis), the owner of the restaurant next door. In time, their friendship blossoms into a romantic relationship. In each Miranda episode, Hart breaks the “fourth wall” (a topic of one of my earlier blogs) to speak directly to us, nearly as much as she speaks to the other characters within the scene.  And, best of all, her propensity for taking pratfalls and indulging in other bits of physical comedy–including untold instances in which she inadvertently humiliates herself in public at the worst possible moment– keep the show energetic and hilariously funny.

So, do yourself a favor and look for these programs. You won’t be disappointed.

Until next week…

The Funniest Writer You’ve Never Heard Of

I haven’t come across a great many writers in my life who actually make me laugh out loud when I read their work, although I’m sure there are several I just haven’t read yet who would send me into fits of laughter with their words.

I’ve already singled out Neil Simon in a previous post as my comedy writing hero, but his work is really meant to be performed, and his words spoken aloud, rather than read (although the comic brilliance of his dialogue can also be appreciated when seen on the printed page, which is how I first became familiar with many of his plays).

Another favorite is S.J. Perelman, whose comic essays and short stories in The New Yorker and other magazines throughout the 1930s and ’40s have been collected and published in book form for decades. His absurdist puns and wordplay can also be found in the screenplays he co-wrote for two Marx Brothers films, Monkey Business and Horsefeathers.

S.J. Perelman

Having already committed every line of those films to memory, I searched for and found a collection of Perelman’s written pieces in my high school library during my senior year. I sat down and was soon cackling loudly like an idiot as I read. I almost got thrown out for disturbing my fellow students, who were desperately trying to sleep.

So, as a writer myself, I’ve always aspired to write dialogue like Neil Simon, and prose like S.J. Perelman. Not much to ask, is it? I’ve got such a long way to go, and I’ll likely never get there, but I haven’t given up yet. The joy (and frustration) lies in the effort.

I now add to this short list the name Stephen Leacock. Why doesn’t that name ring a bell, you wonder? Why haven’t you seen him interviewed on TV, perhaps as a guest on a late-night talk show? To begin with, he died in 1944. And, he was Canadian (not that either factor is reason to relegate him to obscurity).

Leacock was born in England in 1869, but his family moved to Ontario when he was six. He spent much of his adult life as an academic, receiving a doctorate in political science and political economy at the University of Chicago, and spent many years as chair of the Department of Economic and Political Science at McGill University in Montreal. He began writing humorous fiction pieces to supplement his income, and in the early 20th century, became one of the most popular humorists in the English-speaking world.

I first became aware of his existence as I read an interview with Jack Benny for The Marx Brothers Scrapbook in the early 1970s, back when I was trying to satisfy my voracious appetite for all things Marx Brothers. While reminiscing about briefly touring with the brothers during their vaudeville days, Benny included this story:

“I would often pass Groucho’s dressing room. Sometimes I’d hear him laughing so I assumed he had company. Well, each time I passed I would hear him laugh and this went on in a couple of cities but I recall it started in Winnipeg. I became curious and the next time I passed and heard him laughing I knocked on his door. I figured that if he was laughing he couldn’t have a dame in there. So I go in and there he is alone reading a book. So I said, ‘How can you sit here alone and laugh at a book?’ ‘Well, Jack,’ he said, ‘I’m reading one of the funniest humorists I have ever come across. A fellow named Stephen Leacock. I’ve got with me the first book he wrote, titled Nonsense Novels, which you should read because once you do you’ll never stop wanting to read Leacock.’ I read the book and from then on I read every humorous book Leacock ever wrote. Groucho was right. He is the funniest humorist I have ever read. Sure there are others, Twain, Benchley, Perelman. But whoever I’ve liked they have always been second to Leacock. Groucho didn’t realize it but he made a big contribution to my life because ever since that time in his dressing room I’ve been reading Leacock. It’s a shame more people don’t know of him.”

For some reason, even I failed to pursue this writer, who had received such praise from two of the world’s greatest comedians. But his name stayed with me, if only in the deepest recesses of my mind.

Recently, while at my local library’s book sale, what did I happen to find but a 2005 reprinting of Nonsense Novels (originally published in 1911). It’s a collection of ten short stories, each story parodying a different style of fiction: the ghost story, detective story, shipwreck story, etc. and I couldn’t wait to read it.

My verdict? Groucho was right. Jack Benny was right. Leacock’s absurdly comical stories, his wordplay, and his talent for leading the reader to think a sentence is going one way before suddenly jumping in another direction–much like Perelman–had me nearly choking with laughter (and in public, too). Sure, there are a few words and phrases referring to everyday life of over a hundred years ago that aren’t as familiar to us now, but other than that, the book could have been written in the present day, by a writer who doesn’t pull his comedic punches. He demonstrates how you have to be quite clever to write something quite silly, which he does with wonderful consistency (I won’t attempt to quote just a sentence or two here, out of context; that wouldn’t do his writing justice).

Leacock isn’t easy to find on library or store bookshelves these days, but I did find a few collections of his work listed on Amazon.com.  Nonsense Novels was actually his second publication, the first being Literary Lapses in 1910, a collection of pieces he had written for various Canadian and American magazines. There is still a lot of his comic genius to discover–for me, and I hope for you too!

Until next week…

From The Goldbergs to The Goldbergs

Yes, it’s true, many television viewers of the Jewish persuasion tend to partake in the curious pastime of gleefully identifying the actors on any given program who happen to be Jewish; pointing them out, and beaming with pride, as if we had some influence on their success. I don’t know where all of this pride comes from. Personally, I’m more interested in looking at the history of Jewish TV characters, because in doing so, we can see their existence as a deliberate creative decision by a writer, rather than celebrating an actor’s ethnic identity by mere chance of birth or upbringing.

So, for no compelling reason, I recently began going through my mental Rolodex (or, for you younger readers, my mental data base), expecting to recall a pitifully small number of Jewish characters–i.e. lead or supporting regular characters–scattered throughout the TV dramas and comedies of the past 70 years. After all, Jews make up only about 2% of the U.S. population, so why expect any higher proportion of them in our TV shows? It could be argued that, because of the preponderance of Jewish writers, directors, and producers working in television, we’d see far more Jewish characters than we do. That’s never been the case, however, for a myriad of reasons I won’t go into here.

But I’ve managed to remember several characters who may have slipped through the cracks; some wore their ethnic identity on their sleeves, while others pretty much just happened to be Jewish, and never made much mention or fuss about it–just like in real life. So, here’s the list (you’ll notice I’m deliberately leaving out people like Jerry Seinfeld, who played himself on his show. What was he going to do, suddenly portray himself as a Mormon?).

The Goldbergs – This light comedy series, featuring a Jewish family living in a Bronx tenement, had been a radio favorite for twenty years before making the move to TV in 1949. Star Gertrude Berg wrote every episode herself, totaling about 10,000 scripts in all.

Room 222 -Principal Seymour Kaufman (Michael Constantine), the harried principal of L.A.’s fictional Walt Whitman High School, oversaw the various crises among students and teachers from his somewhat world-weary perspective.

Bridget Loves Bernie – Most critics and viewers hated the stereotypical portrayals of Irish (Bridget’s) and Jewish (Bernie’s) families, despite the strong cast. It was a product of its time, premiering shortly after Norman Lear’s All in the Family changed sitcom history forever.

Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern.
  • Rhoda – Mary Richards’ friend on The Mary Tyler Moore Show got her own spinoff in 1974, becoming the first Jewish lead character since Molly Goldberg herself.

Barney Miller – The even-tempered Barney (Hal Linden) and his aging colleague, Detective Phil Fish (Abe Vigoda), added a subtle dash of Jewish attitude to the detective squad of New York’s 13th precinct.

The Wonder Years – WASPy Kevin Arnold had a best friend in Paul, who sometimes had to opt out of play time to do his Hebrew school homework, and whose bar mitzvah was the focal point of one episode.

Hill Street Blues – Down & dirty undercover cop Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz), known to subdue fleeing suspects by biting them into submission, often had to interrupt his arrests and paperwork to field phone calls from his complaining and protective mother. On the other end of the spectrum, Lt. Henry Goldblume (Joe Spano) specialized in hostage negotiation.

Cagney & Lacey – Television’s first female detective team worked under their boss, Lt. Samuels (Al Waxman) and alongside Desk Sgt. Coleman (Harvey Atkin). In one curious but amusing scene during the show’s run, Samuels and Coleman are seen having a brief chat solely in Yiddish, without the benefit of translation.

L.A. Law – In a season 2 episode, Stuart Markowitz (Michael Tucker)  overhears the hostess of a party spewing anti-Semitic remarks about him and Jews in general. He interrupts to ask, “Has a Jew ever done anything to you personally to fill you with such hatred? When the woman says no, he walks over to her china cabinet and topples it to the floor, replying, “Now one has.”

Brooklyn Bridge – A multi-generational Brooklyn family in the 1950s sought to balance Old-World and contemporary American lifestyles in this series by Gary David Goldberg (Family Ties).

Taxi – Judd Hirsch basically plays Judd Hirsch in just about everything he does; here in the guise of New York cab driver Alex Rieger.

Northern Exposure – Young New York doctor Joel Fleishman (Rob Morrow) was “sentenced” to serve as town doctor in remote Cicely, Alaska, to pay off the state’s student loan for his med school tuition. His fish-out-of-water experience included cultural clashes of various kinds with the locals.

The Nanny – Oy, vey, talk about brash, loud, clichéd New York Jews, i.e. nanny Fran Fine and her frequently visiting–and kibitzing– mother and grandmother. But it was co-created by its star, Fran Drescher, who knew of what she spoke.

Law & Order – Grouchy District Attorney Adam Schiff (Steven Hill, who refused to stay late on the set when the Sabbath approached on Friday nights) spent his brief scenes with his subordinates grousing about avoiding negative headlines and striking plea deals.

The West Wing – Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) often offered their perspectives on past atrocities and current world events, as only they could.

Will & Grace – Returning to the air after eleven years, neurotic Jewish New Yorker Grace Adler (Debra Messing) was/is prone to wondering if her upbringing was responsible for some of her issues in adulthood.

Warehouse 13 – This engaging and quirky sci-fi series featured Artie Nielsen (Saul Rubinek), as caretaker of historic artifacts with supernatural powers, and who had earlier in life as a spy changed his name from Weisfelt.

The Goldbergs – Coming full-circle in a way, this is a different Goldberg family than that of the early days of network TV, this sitcom wanders back and forth throughout the 1980s in suburban Philadelphia, as seen through the eyes of the youngest family member, Adam (Sean Giambrone), who must deal with a mom who literally, and physically, suffocates him and his siblings with love.

What is the point of this list? I’ve been wondering that myself. But I’m a pop culture historian (it says so on my homepage), and I thought, with the new TV season here, it would be a good time to take a look at this ever-so-thin slice of television history.

Until next week…

 

The Father of Television

The new TV season is finally here. Once again, it’s time to welcome new episodes of returning favorites, and mercilessly judge the worthiness of new programs scrambling for our attention. In my mind, it’s also a good time to honor the Father of Television, Scotsman John Logie Baird.

While several key individuals can be credited for contributing their genius to help make TV a reality, Baird was the first to successfully send live, recognizable images through the air from a transmitter to a receiver. He gave the first of his public demonstrations in March and April of 1925, in London’s Selfridges department store. The images were merely moving silhouettes (generated mechanically by what was known as a Nipkow disk, the technical details of which we won’t get into here), but they captivated the public and made headlines around the world.

A few months later, as Baird continued his experiments, using ventriloquist dummies (his favorite was named Stooky Bill) to act as his subjects in front of his “televisor,” he decided that he wanted to see a live person’s image on the receiver. Working in an upstairs loft on Frith Street in the Soho section of London, he stopped downstairs to ask a young office clerk, William Taynton, to take part in the experiment. Taynton readily agreed, and, sitting at the televisor, became the first person ever to appear on a TV screen–even though his image only traveled the length of Baird’s laboratory.

Baird’s business partner, Oliver Hutchinson, in the first-known photo of a televised moving image.

By early 1926, word of Baird’s successful experiments spread around the world. In January of that year, the New York Times announced, “John L. Baird, who has perfected television after years of research, has been giving practical demonstrations here [in London].” A few days later, he demonstrated his apparatus for members of the Royal Institution, and for the press.

Baird continued with his work, even as others, mostly in the U.S. and Germany, did the same to improve on the basic workings of the Nipkow disk. For every advancement achieved by others, Baird raised the stakes still higher.

Secretary of Commerce (and future President) Herbert Hoover takes part in the famous experiment.

A landmark television transmission via telephone lines between Washington, D.C. and New York on April 27, 1927, covered a 230-mile distance. Only a month later, Baird successfully sent a television signal (also via phone lines) from London to Glasgow, Scotland, a distance of 438 miles.  In February of 1928, Baird even set up and successfully achieved the world’s first overseas television transmission, from the London area to Hartsdale, New York, with several witnesses and reporters present on both sides of the Atlantic. The images were fuzzy, of course, but the experiment was nonetheless a success, thirty-four years before the launch of the Telstar communications satellite.

Baird’s achievements continued. In July of 1928, he unveiled perhaps the most astounding of his many innovations of the time, when he demonstrated what we would today refer to as a video disc. His creation involved creating a double groove in a phonograph record; one to reproduce sound, and another to carry moving images in synchronization with that sound. He dubbed the invention “phonovision,” but didn’t pursue it to any great degree at the time. Some fifty years later, video discs became commercially available and actually played in a manner similar to phonograph records, before laser technology made compact discs and digital video discs possible.

Meanwhile, American inventor Philo Farnsworth demonstrated his own apparatus for the public in 1928, which incorporated an electronic means of transmitting TV images. He continued refining it and eliminating the  motor generator, thus creating the first all-electronic TV camera. This would eventually render the Nipkow disc, even with ongoing modifications, obsolete.

In 1936, the BBC, after several rounds of comparison between an electronic system developed by EMI, and Baird’s mechanical system, chose the advanced EMI system. The same year, Germany debuted its own electronic TV system in time for the notorious Berlin Olympic Games.

There’s more to Baird’s story, of course, and it’s worth exploring further. You can read more details about Baird’s “firsts” in my book For the First Time on Television, available on Amazon.com.

Enjoy the new TV season!

 

America’s First Sitcom

With the new TV season almost here, offering fresh episodes of new sitcoms and returning favorites, it behooves us (well, it behooves me, anyway) to take a look at the first original sitcom to appear on prime time TV, Mary Kay and Johnny.

The series premiered on the Dumont network in November of 1949, starring real-life married couple Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns, two young New York stage actors. Mary Kay heard of a job opening at DuMont studios (located in the basement of Wanamaker’s department store in Herald Square in Manhattan), in search of a hostess/model for a 15-minute fashion program, sponsored by dress manufacturer Jay Jossel. After displaying the fine points of each outfit, Mary Kay would make a quick change as a short film was shown. But Jossel eventually realized that most TVs at the time were situated in bars, whose clientele were not very receptive to watching fashion shows on the tube. Jossel was about to give up his sponsorship of the time slot when Johnny asked if he could take it over to try a radio-style situation comedy show, starring himself and Mary Kay. Jossel agreed.

On November 18, 1947, Mary Kay and Johnny premiered. Johnny wrote each episode, but he was the first to admit that he was not a professional writer. However, by adapting the couple’s real-life experiences living in a small apartment in Greenwich Village into comic plotlines, he brought a realistic, natural feel to the show. The fictional version of Mary Kay was a perky, enthusiastic screwball, with Johnny as a strait-laced bank teller having to get her out of various minor crises from week to week.

Johnny became the de facto producer/director as well as sole writer, literally calling the shots from the control room on the air. When he was on camera, a technical director sat at the control board to switch shots between the two studio cameras. And, due to the shoestring budget, the furniture for the set consisted of pieces borrowed from Wanamaker’s window displays.

After the show had been on for half a year, Mary Kay became pregnant with the couple’s first child, so Johnny simply wrote it into their scripts, making her the first pregnant female character in TV history. And, while it is often mentioned how Lucy and Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy had to sleep in separate beds, Mary Kay and Johnny shared a bed on the show–three years before I Love Lucy debuted–and yet our civilization managed to keep from crumbling to the ground.

A new sponsor and a switch to NBC brought a bigger budget to the show, which found a new home at the Rockefeller Center studios. It also expanded to a half-hour, and while Johnny was aided by a small writing staff, he found that only he could capture the couple’s real-life stories just right for the show. The writing chores became strenuous for him, but he was also able to call upon many of his actor friends to take supporting roles on the show, including Jack Gilford, James Whitmore, and Howard Morris, soon to become one of Sid Caesar’s comic foils.

The Stearns’ son, Christopher, was born on December 19, 1949, only a half-hour before airtime, for which Johnny crafted an episode of himself pacing nervously in the hospital waiting room. Mary Kay missed only two episodes due to Christopher’s birth, and even the baby appeared in his first episode when he was less than two weeks old.

The program continued to make changes in time slots, networks, and running time, until it finally ended its run in March of 1950, mostly due to Johnny’s exhaustion. He and Mary Kay remained married a total of fifty-five years, until his death in 2001.

Mary Kay and Johnny interviewed in 1999.

The first several months of Mary Kay and Johnny were recorded on kinescopes, but in 1975, the vast majority of all DuMont programs were destroyed–dumped into the East River–to make room in the storage warehouse of DuMont’s corporate successor, Metromedia. A single complete episode of the program still exists today, at the Paley Center for Media in Los Angeles–a most unfortunate fate for a program of such historic significance.

You can learn still more about the show and the DuMont network in my book For the First Time on Television, available at its publisher’s web site, www.BearManorMedia.com, and Amazon.com (if prodded, I might be convinced to do a future post about the DuMont network and its brief but fascinating history).

Until next week…

 

A Thumbnail History of “The Odd Couple”

In my previous post, we took a look at sitcoms that were given new life after their original runs ended. I deliberately left out one series that has been given several lives, The Odd Couple. This is because the full life of The Odd Couple reaches back over fifty years, and has seen so many incarnations on stage, screen, and TV, it deserves its own blog at the very least–if not a full-length book (don’t think I haven’t considered it). So, here’s a much-abbreviated history of what is arguably the most successful American comic creation of the past half-century. It’s a play close to my heart, and one that I memorized back in high school, just for my love and reverence for Neil Simon’s brilliantly hilarious dialogue (I know a few of his other plays by heart as well. He’s my comedy hero).

Danny and Neil.

The original play was based on  Simon’s older brother Danny–a top comedy writer and teacher for decades–and agent Roy Gerber. In the early 1960s, both had been divorced, with alimony and child support to consider. They decided to move in together to help cut down on expenses. They also ventured on double dates, some of which Danny insisted on hosting and cooking for, again to save money. But their differing personalities–Danny being partial to keeping the apartment neat and clean, and Gerber indifferent about arriving home on time for dinner–caused more than a few heated squabbles. Encouraged by Neil to turn their clashing habits into a play, Danny tried, but couldn’t get past page fifteen or so, and offered Neil to take over. Neil gave Danny a small percentage of the royalties (totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years), but no story credit, which perturbed Danny to a considerable degree.

The play, starring Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney as Felix, opened at the Plymouth Theatre in New York on March 10, 1965. During the casting process, Matthau expressed his desire to play Felix, considering the role would be more of a stretch for him than playing Oscar, but Simon and director Mike Nichols refused his request. He held out hope that at some point later in the run the two lead actors might get to switch roles, but that never happened.

Carney as Felix, with the Pigeon Sisters (Monica Evans and Carole Shelley).

The play received rave reviews, following Simon’s previous smash hit, Barefoot in the Park (also directed by Nichols, and starring Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley). Ticket sales for The Odd Couple allowed the show to recoup the initial investment after only 29 performances. Paramount Pictures, eager to film Barefoot in the Park, plus whatever play Simon would write next, bought the film rights to both plays after Simon gave the studio only a one-sentence description of The Odd Couple. He would later regret agreeing to the deal.

In October, seven months after opening night, Art Carney left the production due to depression and nervous exhaustion, and/or a worsening drinking problem stemming form his failing marriage. He was let out of his contract, replaced by Eddie Bracken. Matthau left the play in November to film The Fortune Cookie, directed by Billy Wilder and co-starring none other than the future film version of Felix, Jack Lemmon. Who replaced Matthau as Oscar on Broadway?  None other than the future TV version of Oscar, Jack Klugman. Matthau intended to return to the play, but suffered a heart attack during the filming of The Fortune Cookie. Klugman was asked to stay on for another year, but quit three months later in a salary dispute. Pat Hingle then took over as Oscar. The original Broadway run ran a total of 964 performances.

The film version of the show retained the original stage dialogue nearly word for word. One of the few outdoor scenes was shot at Shea Stadium, just before a Mets-Pirates game. The production crew was given a half-hour to film the scene. The script called for the Mets to make a triple-play, just as Oscar gets called to the phone to answer a question from Felix about that night’s dinner. Oscar misses the play, and is not pleased. Pirates star Roberto Clemente was asked to hit into the triple-play, but he refused. Bill Mazeroski agreed. The scene required two takes for the last-place Mets to execute a perfect triple-play for the camera.

It’s no small feat that the span of time between The Odd Couple opening on Broadway, the release of the film, and the premiere episode of the TV series was only 5 1/2 years. Unfortunately for Simon, by agreeing to sell the film and TV rights to Paramount years earlier (after listening to bad advice from his business manager), he didn’t earn a penny from the profits of the TV series.

The program, starring Klugman and Tony Randall, debuted on September 25, 1970 on ABC (coincidentally on the same night the network premiered an all-black sitcom version of Barefoot in the Park). Originally filmed with a laugh track added to each episode, the stars hated the results, and demanded that the series be filmed before a live audience, which it was beginning in the second season. In addition, they were also among the first sitcom stars to participate in the writing sessions. With an ever-constant demand for stories, some of the more far-fetched plots stemmed from Randall’s interest in opera and ballet, and Klugman’s fondness for horse racing. The series ran for five seasons before its cancellation in 1975.

A second TV version, with an all-black cast, premiered in 1982. Demond Wilson (Sanford and Son) starred as Oscar, and Ron Glass (Barney Miller) as Felix. The series lasted only thirteen episodes.

In the early 1980s, Joan Rivers and Nancy Walker pleaded with Simon to write a female version of The Odd Couple, imagining themselves playing the leads. After some reluctance, he agreed to listen to the two actresses read the original play out loud, after which he agreed to adapt it for female versions of the characters. Ultimately, Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers became Olive and Florence, starring in the show on Broadway in 1985. It received mostly disappointing reviews, but ran for 295 performances.

Thirty years after the film version delighted audiences, Simon wrote the film sequel, The Odd Couple II, in 1998 (beware any film that includes a Roman numeral in the title). The project reunited Lemmon and Matthau, with the story of Felix’s daughter marrying Oscar’s son, and the two leads making a disastrous effort to get to the wedding. It was panned by critics, and was a failure at the box office.

A more successful revival of the original play came to Broadway in October of 2005 for a limited run, starring Nathan Lane as Oscar and Matthew Broderick as Felix, with Brad Garrett (Everybody Loves Raymond) as Murray the cop. Lane and Broderick were hot on the heels of their run in Mel Brooks’ Tony Award-laden The Producers, so their reunion in The Odd Couple resulted in the new production breaking Broadway advance ticket sales records at the time. It ran for 249 performances.

In 2015, yet another TV version appeared, starring Matthew Perry as Oscar and Thomas Lennon (Reno 911) as Felix.

The updated version was enjoyable in its own way, but it didn’t bear much resemblance to the play, film, or the Klugman-Randall version, but it did run for three seasons of 13 episodes each.

Have we seen the last revival of The Odd Couple? Odds are, not yet!

Sitcoms Redux

One of the new TV series already receiving a good deal of hype this fall isn’t a new series at all. Will & Grace, which ran for eight seasons and won multiple Emmys before leaving the air in 2006, will return for a 16-episode run on September 28, starring the original cast. Beyond this season, NBC has ordered a tenth season, to consist of thirteen more episodes.

This is certainly not the first time a popular program has been resurrected after its initial run. Throughout TV history, a great many series have returned to the airwaves with new episodes after their original runs had ended (we’re not counting spin-offs or one-shot reunion movies). But the vast majority of these have been dramas; very few sitcoms have fared well in their attempts at a second life. Will & Grace has a good chance, thanks to having its core cast returning, plus the fact that it was still riding high in popularity when it left the air over a decade ago (has it really been that long?)

So let’s take a look at the sitcoms that returned to the air years–and even decades–after their original runs. We begin way back in the early years of network TV.

Gleason as Riley, before “The Great One” found his footing as a sketch comedy genius.

 

The first network program to re-appear on TV screens after the conclusion of its initial run was The Life of Riley. This early sitcom was first a popular radio series starring William Bendix as bumbling family man Chester Riley. When it was decided to move the series to TV in 1949, Bendix found himself too busy with movie commitments to continue as the star. Up & coming comedian Jackie Gleason replaced Bendix, but the show didn’t have much life to it, and was canceled in March of 1950.

It was then revived in January of 1953, with Bendix back in the lead, along with an entirely new cast. The show enjoyed five more years on the air, ending in 1958 (I wonder whatever happened to Jackie Gleason during that time).

 

The Munsters, a genuinely well-written and wonderfully acted sitcom (yes, you read that right), lasted for two seasons, from 1964-66.

It reappeared twenty-two years later in syndication as The Musters Today, with a new cast, including John Schuck (McMillan & Wife) as Herman, and Lee Meriwether (Barnaby Jones) as Lily.

The New Munsters, in and out of make-up.

It was doomed for comparison with the far more clever, and even charming, original version, but the revival still produced a total of 72 episodes, which was two more than the original series.

A year after The Munsters premiered, another quality sitcom, Gidget, following the life of California surfer teen Frances “Gidget” Lawrence (Sally Field), lasted only a single season in 1965-’66.

 

It reappeared as a syndicated show in 1986, and renamed The New Gidget. This revamp, like The Munsters Today, starred an entirely new cast, with Gidget as an adult mom, running her own travel agency. Here, though, it’s her teenage niece who caused most of the problems, but any similarity between this bland remake and the original series lies solely in the title. It did, however, manage to run forty-four episodes.

More recently, the daffy sitcom Arrested Development, following the trials and tribulations of the wealthy but dysfunctional Bluth family, enjoyed three seasons on Fox between 2003-’06. It gained a strong cult following, as well as several Emmy awards, but low overall ratings caused its cancellation. Seven years later, a groundbreaking deal between the producers and the online streaming service Netflix led to a new, 15-episode season, for which all of the episodes debuted on May 23, 2013. It has also been confirmed that a fifth season, comprising seventeen episodes, is coming in 2018.

You may be wondering, “What about The Odd Couple? Wasn’t that revived, too?” Yes, it was–several times. But I’ll be giving the history of The Odd Couple it’s own posting very soon.

And, I’ll have more interesting TV history to come, as the new season looms on the horizon.

Until next week…

 

 

 

TV Likes, Dislikes, Pet Peeves, & Pets!

With the new TV season just around the corner, I’ll have a number of TV-related postings in the coming weeks, mostly with a historical bent. For now, I thought I’d just jot down a few random things I see and hear on TV these days that either make me laugh, or make me livid.

Dislike: I’ve griped about this before, but the overuse of the word “iconic” in today’s popular culture bothers me to no end. It seems that everyone, from news reporters, to TV documentaries, to reality show hosts, insist on using this adjective for just about everything they deem to be “really good.” Doesn’t anyone know how to use a thesaurus anymore? Please, throw a few synonyms for “iconic” into the mix once in a while. How about “famous,” or “legendary,” or “classic,” or “highly-revered”? Don’t be so lazy, fellow English-speakers! Make an effort! Try another word on occasion! You’re too laconic if you keep using iconic!

Like: Any funny commercial with dogs. From the Subaru family of yellow labs out for their drives, to the Running of the Bulldogs–if done well, these become instant classics.

Dislike: Why is it that when TV parents refer to each other in front of their offspring, they almost invariably say, “What your father is trying to tell you…” or “Your mother thinks we should clean the house” instead of just “What Dad is trying to tell you…” or “Mom thinks we should clean the house”? Is there some fear that viewers might mistake the parents and children as belonging to the same generation? This doesn’t occur only on older shows, it’s still very prevalent today (and yes, even on my beloved Modern Family). Really, writers, just have them say “Mom” and “Dad.”

Like: Ancient Aliens. Don’t laugh. I’ve been a firm believer in the Ancient Alien theory since I was about 14, after seeing the mid-’70s Chariots of the Gods feature documentary in the theatre.

Since then, many discoveries around the world have revealed fascinating evidence of beings from elsewhere in the universe visiting Earth, possibly dating back tens of thousands of years. Ancient Aliens, airing Friday nights on the History Channel, is a well-produced series with gorgeous cinematography, literate and persuasive narration, and a roster of authors/researchers/archeologists who present a compelling case for the theory. Even while offering mind-blowing evidence, the show allows for the kinds of questions a well-meaning skeptic would ask, then presents its argument in support of the theory. It is not interested in presenting a 50/50 balance, nor does it need to. It has a theory to present, and it does so with great conviction. There are those who claim to have debunked the theory, its proponents, and the program itself, but I have no doubts (at some point in the coming months, I’ll write a posting about its compelling cousin series, The Mystery of Oak Island. Ask me about it sometime).

Dislike: Pharmaceutical commercials. Low-hanging fruit, perhaps. But something must have happened, or some legislation must have been passed a few years ago, to allow for the current tsunami of pharmaceutical commercials on television. They seem to comprise almost half of all commercials on the air these days. You know them–the first ten seconds sing the praises of a drug that could improve your life dramatically if you suffer from such-and-such an ailment. The next forty seconds warn you how the drug can cause a myriad of horrifying side-effects, including death (all while running scenes of people living life to the fullest, romping on the beach, or riding on rollercoasters), with the final ten seconds telling us again how wonderful the drug is. It’s enough to make me miss the good old days when we were besieged by a jumble of ads for cars, McDonald’s, Alka-Seltzer, and more cars.

Like:  Cat Deeley. You may have never seen So You Think You Can Dance, the summer series dancing competition on Fox. This is not a reality competition that wastes viewers’ time with auditions of hopelessly clumsy dancers who resemble bulls in china shops. These are talented young people (even though I can never match their dances to the storylines they claim to tell through their movement).

As host, Cat Deeley–tall, blonde, and British–has received multiple Emmy-nominations, and has a wonderfully natural and spontaneous chemistry with the judges and competitors, for whom she takes on a big-sister role–celebrating their victories, and consoling them in defeat with a warm embrace. Since the show is produced each summer, she even hosts a July 4th bar-be-que at her home for the dancers and program staff. In an era where nary a word spoken on the air seems truly off-the-cuff, Deeley is refreshingly real and appealing–unless she’s a better actress than Meryl Streep.

The same can be said for Erin Andrews on Dancing with the Stars, a program that has taken its lumps from the critics (and a grumbling portion of the public), but Andrews, as co-host with Tom Bergeron, can hold her own on live TV with a quip or response to an unforeseen on-air glitch. And, being a former contestant herself, she knows what the celebrity dancers are going through during their rigorous rehearsals. Anyone who doesn’t like either of these ladies is no friend of mine.

That’s all I’ve got at the moment. The upcoming television season will provide further opportunities for observations, criticism, and praise in this space, so please visit again! And leave a comment or two!