Category Archives: TV

Welcome to Korea

mash_title-card_cropped(Pictured: the rarely seen title card that opens the first episode of M*A*S*H.)

We own the first six seasons of M*A*S*H on DVD, but that hasn’t stopped us from developing a new dinner-hour habit these last few weeks: watching M*A*S*H repeats on MeTV. They’re edited (MeTV’s own edits, it looks like, and not the familiar syndication versions) and the commercial breaks are interminable, but as something you can turn on and pay attention to with half an ear while eating dinner and discussing the day with your spouse, you can’t beat ’em.

M*A*S*H was so omnipresent on TV for so long, 11 seasons on the air and an eternal life in syndication, that it takes some effort to imagine it as a new show, back there in the fall of 1972. That fall, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and Mission Impossible were still on the air, and Dean Martin and Julie Andrews starred in variety shows. Most of the new fall premieres that year quickly vanished from history. Who remembers Anna and the King or The Sandy Duncan Show—which bracketed M*A*S*H on Sunday nights that first season—or The Little People, or Banyon, which premiered on other networks? Three new shows that fall would earn the status of television classic: M*A*S*H, The Waltons, and The Bob Newhart Show; The Rookies had a successful run for several years, and Kung Fu would become a cult favorite. I haven’t done the research to determine what sort of batting average that is, but it strikes me as decent.

M*A*S*H is based on the 1970 Robert Altman film, and when the series begins, its Altmanesque roots are perceptible. The M*A*S*H pilot, about a fundraising raffle to send the surgeons’ houseboy to college in America, is remarkably vulgar for 1972 (and on Sunday night to boot), as if the new frankness of the movies at the dawn of the 70s was finally making inroads into TV. M*A*S*H would never again be so gleefully transgressive, however, and whatever Altman influence the show had at first quickly faded.

At the beginning of Season 3, a new group of writers came aboard, and while they continued to sand off the show’s rougher edges, they also added a character that felt like a retroactive nod to Altman: Captain Calvin Spalding, played by Loudon Wainwright III.

The Spalding character, seen in three episodes, was another surgeon at the 4077th, but his main dramatic function was to sing songs that commented on the action of the episodes in which he appeared. “North Korean Blues” is seen and heard in the episode “Rainbow Bridge.” The episode “There Is Nothing Like a Nurse,” in which all female personnel are evacuated from the unit, features an untitled song containing the refrain, “I wonder if they miss us / Now wouldn’t that be funny / Now that we’re without them / We can hardly stand ourselves.” That same episode is framed by “Unrequited to the Nth Degree,” which would appear on a Wainwright album in 1975. “There Is Nothing Like a Nurse” ends with Spalding, Hawkeye, Trapper, and other members of the cast singing the song while dancing across the compound. For his last appearance, in the episode “Big Mac,” Wainwright wrote “Five Gold Stars” on demand, in two hours. (In 2008, he told an interviewer that the experience taught him he could be “a songslinger for hire.”)

Wainwright has told various interviewers over the years that he doesn’t know why he was never called back for further appearances (but he appreciates the royalty checks that continue to come his way). It strikes me that the Spalding character wouldn’t have been a good fit with the less jaded tone of the series after Harry Morgan and Mike Farrell replaced McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers for Season 4—and maybe that’s what executive producers Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart thought, too.

The end of Season 3 marks the point after which M*A*S*H is never the same. The first two Morgan/Farrell seasons, with Larry Linville still in the cast as Frank Burns, are fine. But in Season 6, with David Ogden Stiers joining the cast as Yoko Ono, I start losing interest, and in the final seasons, when the show is frequently drowning in sanctimony, I can’t watch at all.

MeTV is somewhere in the fourth season now, so we’ll be watching at dinnertime for a while yet.

(Rebooted from a 2012 post at Popdose, but largely new.)

I Think I Love You Still

(Pictured: A still from The Partridge Family shows Laurie wearing a chastity belt, apparently.)

We recently passed the anniversary of the debut of The Partridge Family in 1970. In 2010, I wrote a 40th anniversary tribute for Popdose. Here’s a reboot.

In September 1970, I was 10 years old, with the taste of a 10-year-old kid. And so my first favorite songs were light and happy and catchy and easy to sing. And that made me, and people like me, the prime target for The Partridge Family. For many boys of the ’70s, Shirley Jones would become their first MILF, and for many girls, David Cassidy would be their first celebrity love.

Years later, much of the music featured on the show still sounds mighty good, because many of their songs were written by the biggest cats in pop. The Partridge Family’s recordings were made by the group of Los Angeles session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. Most of the voices were provided by the Ron Hicklin Singers, heard on hundreds of hit songs, movie soundtracks, TV themes, commercials, and radio jingles.

In honor of the anniversary, here’s one fan’s top five Partridge Family songs. Turn up your speakers until you can smell the polyester.

Continue reading →

Here Come the Beagles

TheBeagles-TVLP600In 1965, ABC launched The Beatles, a cartoon series based on the most famous musical group in the world. Because no good idea ever goes without being imitated, a series called The Beagles premiered on CBS 50 years ago this weekend, on September 10, 1966. It centered around two singing dogs and their manager, who came up with crazy schemes to make them famous. Although the songs performed in each episode bore a striking resemblance to Beatles tunes, the characters of Stringer and Tubby were not modeled after real Beatles. (Stringer’s speaking voice may remind you a little of Bing Crosby.)

In 1960, New York ad men W. Watts “Buck” Biggers and Chet Stover created the cartoon series King Leonardo and His Short Subjects to sell cereal for General Mills. With its success, they left Dancer Fitzgerald Sample and formed Total TeleVision with Treadwell Covington, another ad man, and Joe Harris, a character designer and storyboard artist. Over the next several years, Total TeleVision created anthology shows featuring several different cartoon elements. Underdog, Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, and The Beagles all appeared on network schedules, but each included episodes of The World of Commander McBragg, Klondike Cat, Tooter Turtle, and/or Go-Go Gophers, as well as King Leonardo. They were animated by Gamma Productions (which also did the various Rocky and Bullwinkle shows at the same time), and had a look that was cheap, but distinctive. Like other Total TeleVision shows, The Beagles featured the voice talents of Kenny Delmar, a veteran radio actor who had played Senator Claghorne with Fred Allen in the 40s; Allen Swift, who had been a voice actor and writer on Howdy Doody; and Sandy Becker, another veteran of old-time radio and 1950s TV.

The Beagles ran for two years, one season on CBS and one on ABC, before going off the air in 1968. For a long time, the original masters of the show were believed lost, although Biggers told an interviewer in 2007 that nine episodes (which is all that were made) still existed, but not in complete form. They would have to be reassembled from pieces before they could be reissued. As of 2007, the rights to the show were owned by Lorne Michaels’ company, Broadway Video.

In 1967, the Harmony label, a Columbia subsidiary, released 10 songs on Here Come the Beagles (pictured above). As you might expect, it’s pretty rare. (In 1995, the songs were reissued along with songs by another made-for-TV group, the Banana Splits, but in a thousand-copy limited edition.) The identities of the musicians who performed as the Beagles are long lost. The songs were arranged by Charles Fox, who would go on to score dozens of movies and TV shows. It’s possible that Fox sang on them, although that’s unclear. The four principals in Total TeleVision are credited as songwriters. Biggers died in 2013; his obituary indicates that he wrote the songs and shared the credits with his three partners.

The show’s main theme, “Looking for the Beagles,” has an oddly downcast lyric for such a silly show: “Lookin’ for the Beagles / Not where rich men go / Rich is for the regals / Woe is all the Beagles know.” Many of the Beagles’ songs sound like straight-up garage rock, such as “Humpty Dumpty,” heard in this existing clip from the show. Some add a flute, which seems a little incongruous, as on “I’d Join the Foreign Legion,” which you can hear in the clip here. But the gem among the Beagles’ songs is “Thanks to the Man in the Moon,” on which the anonymous lead singer nails his John Lennon impression. Any resemblance to “This Boy” or “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” is almost certainly intentional. You can hear some of it, and see a toy commercial from 1966 to boot, in this clip.

Whoever they were, the musicians behind the Beagles (thanks to the songwriting talents of Buck Biggers) managed to channel the sound of the British Invasion and the Beatles themselves into a handful of well-crafted pop tunes. And whoever they were, they would likely be surprised to learn that a half-century later, a few people are still listening to them.

(Based on a 2008 post, but mostly new.)

Good Vibrations From 1971

(Pictured: one incarnation of the Beach Boys. L to R: Bruce Johnston, Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, and Mike Love, circa 1971.)

In July 1971, the Beach Boys, Ike and Tina Turner, and several new young stars headlined a two-night stand in New York City’s Central Park, part of a regular concert series sponsored for many summers by Schaefer Brewing Company. Both nights were filmed and then edited into a concert special called Good Vibrations From Central Park. (The TV crew shot from different vantage points each night, so when the producers put the show together, it looked like they had twice the camera coverage.) An hour of concert highlights was broadcast on ABC 45 years ago tonight, on August 19, 1971.

The TV show opened with the Beach Boys doing “Good Vibrations,” although I am pretty sure that at Central Park itself, Boz Scaggs went on first. Good Vibrations From Central Park was the first national TV appearance for Boz and his band, doing their lone hit to date, “We Were Always Sweethearts.” It had reached #61 on the Hot 100 in May, and was the opening track on Moments, Boz’s second album. Boz may have played other songs that night, but only one got on TV, befitting an opening act.

Kate Taylor went on next. James Taylor’s sister, who billed herself as “Sister Kate,” had released her debut album in January, featuring many of the same musicians who appeared on Carole King’s Tapestry, including King herself. Her song choices were impeccable: two by King from Tapestry (“Where You Lead” and “Home Again”), two from Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection (“Ballad of a Well-Known Gun” and “Country Comfort”), plus her brother James’ “You Can Close Your Eyes,” and “Handbags and Gladrags,” which was made famous by Rod Stewart. Any of those would have been better than the performance the producers opted to show, the R&B song “Barefootin'” which was not on Taylor’s album. Although she was enthusiastic as hell, she yelled more than she sang, and I wonder if she was having trouble with the stage monitors.

Next on the bill was Carly Simon, also making her first national TV appearance. Carly turned 26 in the summer of 1971, and she was already a showbiz veteran, having recorded two albums with her sister Lucy as the Simon Sisters, in 1964 and 1969. She came onstage in Central Park with the confidence of someone who knows she’s a star already and is going to be a bigger one, and she’s smokin’ hot besides. The broadcast featured “Anticipation,” which wouldn’t be a hit for six months, and “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be,” which was on the radio at the time. (If you watch the video, you’ll easily spot a couple of famous spectators at the show.)

Ike and Tina Turner took the stage next, although they followed the Beach Boys on the concert broadcast. They were shown doing “Good Lovin’,” their recent hit “Proud Mary,” and a version of “Higher and Higher.” Then it was time for the headliners. The Beach Boys’ part of the program opened with “Heroes and Villains.”  Next, either because it was on the set list or the producers edited the show that way, came a decent-but-ultimately pointless version of Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” sung by Mike Love. They had jammed on the song with the Grateful Dead earlier in the year, but it’s doubtful that people would have turned on a Beach Boys TV show at the height of summer to hear it. In fact, if you tuned in for the sun-splashed classics from the 60s, you didn’t hear many, just “Good Vibrations” and “I Get Around.”

Good Vibrations in Central Park was one of the forerunners of the concert shows that proliferated on TV within the next couple of years, including Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and The Midnight Special. It has never had a DVD release, as far as I can tell.

Batman: Hello and Goodbye

(Inasmuch as this is a music blog, the following post is off-topic. Inasmuch as this blog is a sort of memoir, this post is squarely on-topic.)

Fifty years ago today, I was not quite six years old and in kindergarten at Lincoln School. Fifty years ago tonight (or thereabouts), I fell into the first pop-culture phenomenon I ever participated in directly.

On Wednesday, January 12, 1966, Batman premiered on ABC-TV. I don’t know if I was watching that night, but if not, it wouldn’t be long before I was part of the throng of viewers sweating out the cliffhanger every week. By spring, it would be so popular with kids that my kindergarten teacher asked us to stop bringing Batman stuff to show and tell.

(I had, for some reason, an official Batman wastebasket, although I don’t think I took it to show and tell. It’s still in service today, in the little-used upstairs bathroom of Mom and Dad’s house.)

To adult viewers, Batman was a campy satire on superhero comics; teenagers got the added spice of contemporary pop-culture references. But six-year-olds could take it absolutely straight, and I did. I spent many a Thursday contemplating the horrible fix facing Batman and Robin at the hands of some villain and fearing they might not make it out.

I have revisited Batman occasionally over the years. The show ran in syndication on local stations throughout the 70s, turned up on Nick at Nite during that channel’s heyday in the late 80s and early 90s, and aired on various other cable channels thereafter. Some channel high up on our satellite dish ran it briefly within the last four or five years, and I watched a lot of episodes then.

When the first season came out on DVD last year, I picked it up, and I have been working my way through the series again. Adam West’s parody of upright whitebread American manhood is hilarious, but the best member of the cast is Neil Hamilton, who is never better as Commissioner Gordon than when, in the middle of some speech about Batman’s heroism, he breaks the fourth wall with a look that says, “This is ridiculous, but let’s just go with it.” As Alfred, Alan Napier is the most likable member of the cast. On the other hand, Burt Ward plays Robin with over-the-top gosh-yes sincerity, and without the self-awareness of West, Napier, and Hamilton, can be pretty annoying. Stafford Repp (Chief O’Hara) and Madge Blake (Aunt Harriet) have the most thankless roles in TV; O’Hara sucks at his job and Harriet is oblivious to everything.

Of the four major villains, Frank Gorshin as the Riddler is the best; he conjures up genuine menace while being funny at the same time. The rest—the Joker, the Penguin, and Catwoman—are fine, although everything you have read about Cesar Romero’s disinterest in playing the Joker comes through on-screen even in the first season. Of the minor villains, the one that made the biggest impression on six-year-old me was Mr. Freeze. I couldn’t figure out how somebody could live only at 50 below zero, and I found him pretty scary. (I was freaked out by False Face, too. Not when I was six—a couple of weeks ago when I watched his episode again.)

The fun in watching Batman now is in playing spot-the-stars: for example, a smoking hot pre-fame Jill St. John appears in the very first episode broadcast. A procession of 60s starlets and Hollywood bit players rolls by as various molls and henchmen. I have yet to see any of the famous wall-climbing cameos (Jerry Lewis, Dick Clark, Don Ho, and others; see all of them here), which were reportedly arranged without contracts and thus became one of the obstacles to the DVD release. But the show doesn’t hold my attention beyond that. I find myself fiddling with my phone and looking at the DVD display to see how much time is left in each episode.

I wanted to like the newly restored and unedited Batman, just as I did when I was six. But I don’t, not really. I haven’t put away all of my childish things, but I’m going to bid goodbye to this one.

Take Me to the Mardi Gras

(Pictured: Mardi Gras revelers in New Orleans in the 70s. Saturday Night Live entered this maelstrom in 1977 and the result became a lost episode.) 

In the flush of success during the show’s second season, NBC and Lorne Michaels decided to take SNL on the road to New Orleans for Mardi Gras—and the result was a near-disaster. The show aired in prime time on Sunday, February 20, 1977. Sketches were to be broadcast from various locations around the city, but security was minimal, and crazed crowds put the actors at risk; a parade that was intended to make up a major part of the the broadcast never arrived at the designated location. The show ran hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget and was never repeated. (It’s an extra on the Season 2 DVD set, however.)

The seams of Saturday Night Live, which were often visible during the early years, never stuck out more than they do in this episode. You can hear performers talking to people off-camera, and at one point, guest Penny Marshall gets put on the air before she’s ready, panicked, without a clear idea of what she’s supposed to do. In the show’s opening, the Meters are billed as a musical guest, but they never appear. The centerpiece of the show was supposed to be Buck Henry and Jane Curtin covering the annual Bacchus parade, but they find themselves having to fill time as the parade fails to arrive; at one point late in the broadcast, they’re seen reading “Weekend Update” stories off 3-by-5 cards, which were apparently being handwritten by a couple of writers just out of camera range. They’re also frequently startled by flying Mardi Gras beads, although they do a masterful job of keeping their composure.

I must have watched this episode when it was originally broadcast; by the spring of 1977, Saturday Night Live was something nobody my age dared to miss. It was never part of the post-NBC syndication package. In the intervening years, reporters seeking tapes of it have been rebuffed, and few cast members would even comment on it. It had gone as far down the memory hole as anything in SNL‘s history—but that’s as much for the generally poor quality as for the visible chaos. Apart from a few Buck-and-Jane wisecracks, nothing is very funny.

The show does contain one interesting bit of comedic history, however. In one sketch, Dan Aykroyd as Tom Snyder interviews a guy outside a topless bar who is played by Murray, and who is clearly Carl Spackler, the groundskeeper in Caddyshack. It’s widely believed this character’s first appearance on SNL came in 1978 (in “Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber”), but there’s no mistaking him a year earlier.

An excellent recent retrospective on SNL‘s New Orleans episode is here.

(This post concludes our series of Saturday Night Live reboots for the 40th anniversary of the first show, which was yesterday.)

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