Our friend Kurt Blumenau went down a rabbit hole the other day and into the history of the “more to come” bumpers shown during NBC’s Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. As I commented at Kurt’s post, it seems kind of quaint to think that NBC would have filled a local commercial break with music and a more-to-come slide instead of running a public service announcement or a network promo (or a commercial for some but-wait-there’s-more gadget, as they would today), but it was a different world.
Surely some NBC affiliates, late at night, had no commercial inventory of their own to run. They could have filled the time with their own public service announcements or promos, but in the days before compact video formats, running PSAs in particular (and filmed programs in general) was cumbersome. It required a piece of equipment called a film chain, which literally projected film into a TV camera. Stations would keep a reel of film with a bunch of PSAs on it, and load it up when needed. Or not.
Talk of late-night commercial breaks reminded me of a couple of stories from our days living and working radio in Macomb, Illinois. Macomb sat between Peoria and Quincy, about 70 highway miles from each, and we got TV stations from both. In the middle of the 80s, Quincy had only two stations, a CBS affiliate licensed to Hannibal, Missouri, across the Mississippi River, and an NBC affiliate. The Peoria stations did not attempt to sell advertising in Macomb, but the Quincy stations did. I never thought it made sense for Macomb businesses to buy Quincy TV. Putting your ad on a TV station 70 miles away meant that your money was being spent in part to reach people way the hell and gone over in Missouri, and they weren’t going to drive 140 miles to shop at your shoe store or muffler shop or whatever.
One especially popular package was “shop Macomb,” which would start with a short blurb encouraging viewers to visit Macomb, followed by three 15- or 20-second blurbs for individual Macomb businesses. (Many TV stations still sell this kind of community-specific package today.) As TV ads went, they were cheap to buy—but compared to radio ads, they cost a lot.
When The Mrs. was selling radio, some of her clients would occasionally pop for a shop-Macomb spot. One Saturday night, we were watching Saturday Night Live, and we noticed that the NBC affiliate didn’t have any local spots scheduled. They filled every local break with scratchy film-chain PSAs. That is, until the first break after SNL got over, right before sign-off, when they ran a shop-Macomb spot featuring one of her clients.
We have conflicting memories of her reaction to this. When I asked her about it the other night, she doesn’t remember being bothered. I remember it differently. Loosely translated, it was as follows: Why the #%!%@ didn’t they run that thing during Saturday Night Live instead of those $!@%ing PSAs, for #$% sake?
After Saturday Night Live each week, the Quincy NBC affiliate broadcast a news summary. It wasn’t a repeat of the late local news, which is what many stations do now in the wee hours of the morning before turning their airwaves over to infomercials. They’d put up a station identification slide and somebody, most likely the master-control engineer (the only person left in the building at midnight), would read five minutes of news, often just copy ripped from the AP or UPI wire. The broadcast would conclude with the weather forecast before the station played the National Anthem and went dark for the night. In the middle of the 1980s, that little low-tech news update seemed like such a quaint, small-town thing to do that I actually started to look forward to it a little.
Nowadays, technology makes it possible for even the tiniest stations in the middle of nowhere to look like big-time operations. Thirty-some years ago, they had to be what they were.
(Note to patrons: following this post, this blog is going on hiatus. Posting will resume in early December . . . unless somebody else dies before then.)
On November 21, 1970, “I Think I Love You” by the Partridge Family hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. But because Billboard was always a bit behind the street and is just one chart besides, the charts available at ARSA tell a more complete and accurate story.
The first station to list “I Think I Love You” was WLCY in Tampa, on a survey dated August 31. KREL in Corona, California, followed on September 2. The first city to go nuts over the record was Seattle, where KJR and KOL both debuted it on September 18. Two other major Top 40 stations, KFRC in San Francisco and KOIL in Omaha, charted it days before The Partridge Family debuted on ABC on September 25, 1970. So did KCPX in Salt Lake City, where it blasted to #1 in three weeks, on the chart dated October 6—before the record had even made the Hot 100. KJR moved it to #1 on its survey dated October 9.
“I Think I Love You” debuted on the October 10 Hot 100 at #75 (the same week WRIG in Wausau, Wisconsin, charted it at #1) and slow-cooked for the rest of the month, going from #75 to #60 to #41. But on October 31, it vaulted into the Top 40 at #17, then went to #7, #4, and finally #1. Its reach across the country was fast, and massive: WLS and WCFL in Chicago both charted it at #1 for the week of November 2. By November 21, it had also reached #1 in Seattle, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Vancouver, Houston, Detroit, Akron, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Memphis, Winnipeg, Syracuse, Miami, San Diego, Boston, Fort Wayne, Flint, Grand Rapids, Toronto, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Fresno, Hartford, and Columbus (where WCOL would make it the #1 song for all of 1970, as would KOL in Seattle). It topped charts in smaller cities too, from Altoona, Pennsylvania, to Muncie, Indiana.
“I Think I Love You” would spend three weeks at #1 and six additional weeks in the Top 10 after that before going 11-15-22-25 and out. During its last week on the Hot 100, February 13, 1971, “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted” debuted at #57, and another rocket ride began.
The Partridge Family was must-see-TV at my house; both my brother and I bought Partridge records and other swag in 1971, the year we turned 11 and 9—solidly in the Partridge demographic. I needn’t rehash my adult fondness for the family’s music: played by members of the Wrecking Crew and with vocals by the top session singers in Hollywood, it was far better-made than it needed to be. Neither do I need to revisit its place in the mythology of this blog: “I Think I Love You” was one of the 45s I got for Christmas in 1970.
And on November 21, 2017, 47 years to the day since “I Think I Love You” hit #1, David Cassidy died.
Any online obituary you choose to read will sketch the outlines of Cassidy’s career, so I’m not going to do it here. One thing I will do is suggest you listen to his 1990 Top 40 return, “Lyin’ to Myself,” which is clearly an artifact of its time but worth four minutes nevertheless. I’ll say instead that 47 years after it exploded into American popular culture like a polyester-and-puka-shell bomb, David Cassidy’s Keith-Partridge early-70s young-man cool endures. Who wouldn’t want to look like him, dress like him, or sing like him? I did. And I do.
About that other thing . . . .
(Pictured: L to R, Margot Chapman, Jon Carroll, Taffy Danoff, and Bill Danoff of the Starland Vocal Band.)
The limited-run summer variety series was a staple of 70s TV. Networks signed various performers to appear in four- or six-episode shows to burn off airtime in the season when viewership was the lowest. A sure-fire way to draw eyeballs was to surround a popular singer with a company of actors. Since many of the summer series were a half-hour long, all it took to make an episode was two or three songs linked with a handful of comedy bits.
In the summer of 1976, the Starland Vocal Band took “Afternoon Delight” to #1. The next winter, they won two Grammys, including Best New Artist. So in the summer of 1977, CBS gave them a six-week variety show. The Starland Vocal Band Show premiered on Sunday, July 31, tucked between Rhoda and the CBS Sunday Night Movie. Each episode features several performances by the group, shot in various places: a club in Washington, DC (the group’s hometown), a concert at Pepperdine University, an outdoor stage in Great Falls, Montana, and a recording studio in Los Angeles. Other recurring bits have the group attending a Renaissance fair, and exploring an abandoned amusement park in surreal video bits.
Linking all of these are comedy segments, often performed by a young man who functioned as the program’s host: David Letterman. (Some of Letterman’s stuff, collected here, will remind you of bits he would do in years to come.) Also in the cast is Jeff Altman, who plays several recurring characters including Billy Carter and a nature-show host; he and Letterman do a recurring bit in which Letterman interviews a character played by Altman and ends up punching him in the stomach. The show also includes brief segments by political humorist Mark Russell taped at a Washington hotel with the members of the group in the audience, and scattered appearances by Firesign Theater veterans Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman.
So The Starland Vocal Band Show was not the traditional Hollywood soundstage variety show. That doesn’t mean it worked, though. A regular viewer would quickly learn the difference between “recurring” and “repetitive.” The opening and closing credits are exactly the same pieces of tape each week. The musical numbers come from the same four venues. Some of the recurring comedy bits, and many of the jokes, land with a thud. Proctor and Bergman’s stuff seems particularly toothless given their background, and while Russell could be razor-sharp (as on his long-running series of PBS comedy specials), he’s fairly tame on this show. Letterman is always watchable, but he had a lot of clunkers to dismiss, in the same way he would for the rest of his network TV career: with an expression, an inflection, or a throwaway line that makes clear how dumb something is, just as the viewer is having the same thought. In 2015, group member Jon Carroll told USA Today, “It wasn’t all bad. It was mostly bad.”
I watched all six episodes, which are available at YouTube and linked in the Jon Carroll interview above. The producers missed a bet by not featuring Margot Chapman and Taffy Danoff more than they did, because Margot has some acting chops and Taffy is gorgeous. But there is one moment that blew me away: in the final episode, aired September 5, 1977, the group performed a stunning acapella version of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.”
Given its oddball comedic tone, the surreal amusement park videos, and some weird linking bits featuring a squawking goose and the group watching a video monitor in the middle of a hayfield, it’s clear that the show was aimed at a sophisticated viewing audience—young, urban, hip. The problem with that is the Starland Vocal Band itself. Some of their songs are almost comically bland, and at one venue, Taffy and Margot wear long dresses like something from Little House on the Prairie. Their rock songs sound OK, but rockin’ or not, they tend to come off pretty square. If CBS hoped to capture the young, urban, hip crowd that stayed up late for Saturday Night Live, The Starland Vocal Band Show wasn’t going to get much of it.
(Pictured: Adam West with Burt Ward and Julie Newmar at the launch of the Batman DVD series, 2014.)
I think I’ve written before how Batman, which premiered in the middle of my kindergarten year, was the first TV program I ever loved. At my tender age, I took it at face value, spending many a Thursday worrying about the predicament into which Batman and Robin were stuck at the end of Wednesday night’s episode. It wasn’t until I watched it again in adulthood that I saw past the storylines to the sendups—the way the camera tilted when showing each villain’s lair, the hilariously detailed labels on every piece of equipment in the Batcave, and the famous onomatopoetic fight scenes. I noticed how as Commissioner Gordon, Neil Hamilton would occasionally break the fourth wall, but also how Adam West never did.
West, who died over the weekend at the age of 88, played Batman absolutely straight, and it turned out to be one of the great performances in all of television. West’s Batman bridged the many different ways one could watch the show: straight, as we kindergartners did; campy, as our older brothers and sisters could; or as a satire on pop-culture crimefighters, as many adults could. In the middle of the roiling late 60s, his hopeless squareness (and that of his alter ego, Millionaire Bruce Wayne) would have run against every conception of what was cool—but it fit so perfectly into the world that the show was creating that it came out cool, too.
The single clip that best sums up the appeal of both West’s performance and Batman itself comes not from the TV show, but from the movie made between the first and second seasons, in which Batman is continually thwarted while trying to dispose of a bomb. Even if you’ve never seen the show, you get a great deal of insight into the character West played from the way he reacts to the various obstacles put in his way. And it’s not just the way he reacts, but also the way he acts. He never breaks character, never allows himself to appear exasperated or fearful, but keeps trying to find a way out of his predicament in a scene that lasts over a minute-and-a-half. And, most important to his character’s integrity, he never breaks the fourth wall.
Since the Batman movie franchise was launched in 1989, Batman has always been the Dark Knight, a tormented figure doing a job he’d rather not be doing in a city where nobody would choose to live. Fans of the comic books tend to prefer the Dark Knight (and many of them who had read the series before 1966 hated the TV Batman). Warner Brothers, which owns DC Comics, naturally preferred him too. (It’s been reported that Warner Brothers kept 20th Century Fox, which produced the TV show, from releasing it on DVD for a long time.) Although I’d never seen him described as such before the weekend, Adam West’s Batman was the Bright Knight. Active philanthropist and pillar of the community Bruce Wayne loved and served his day-glo, go-go metropolis, and so did his Batman.
When I bought the first season of Batman on DVD, I was surprised to find that I simply didn’t enjoy it—that the plots were repetitive and some of the performances were painful to watch. But that doesn’t change how I felt about it 50 years ago. Neither does it affect the brilliance of the character Adam West created. For those of us who were the right age in 1966 (and during the 1970s, when Batman was frequently seen on after-school TV), Adam West will always be our Batman, and that day-glo, go-go metropolis will always be our Gotham City.
(Note to patrons: because I have a lot of June posts to draw from, posting will be heavier than usual at One Day in Your Life this month. Sign up over there to get them e-mailed to you, or look for the latest posts linked in the right-hand column of this blog.)
(Before we begin: there’s a new post at One Day in Your Life today.)
The video embedded above represents the most enjoyable half-hour I’ve spent in a long time. It collects 38 vintage K-Tel ads, mostly from the US, a few from Canada, and a couple from the UK, spanning the early 70s to the early 80s.
K-Tel ads shilled albums featuring “original hits, original stars” to distinguish them from knockoff albums of sound-alikes by the Sound Effects or the Countdown Singers. Albums generally cost from $3.99 to $5.99, with another buck or two if you wanted an 8-track or cassette, although K-Tel also marketed two-disc sets that often went for $9.99. K-Tel would release a new compilation every few months, mostly with songs that had recently been hits, although they often included a song or two that went back a year or two, and sometimes a minor hit or a never-was to fill out the track list.
During their 70s heyday, the albums generally contained 20 songs (sometimes more), a number often featured in the compilation title, such as 20 Explosive Hits or 20 Dynamic Hits, 10 to a side. If you bought a K-Tel album, and I have a lot of them, it was always caveat emptor: K-Tel was famous for making their own edits to shorten songs, snipping intros or hacking out entire verses. (I can still remember the clanging disappointment I felt when I heard their edit of Sugarloaf’s “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You” on the 1975 release Disco Mania.) They did this less as time went on, until by the 1980s you could count on getting lots of full-length versions.
K-Tel did not sell only compilations of recent hits. There’s no one my age who doesn’t remember the ubiquitous Goofy Greats collection of novelty songs. An album of 50 kids’ songs (“Old MacDonald,” “London Bridge,” etc.) sounds positively hellish. A polka compilation featured such famous names as Frankie Yankovic, Myron Floren, and the Six Fat Dutchmen, and there were collections of country hits, rock ‘n’ roll oldies, and even metal.
Watching 38 K-Tel ads in a row reveals how cheaply made they were. The same announcer is on most of them—not a mellifluous radio voice but a shouting hard-seller of the kind you’d hear on a car dealership or dragstrip ad. The spots are tightly edited, usually, to cram as much information as possible into 30 or 60 seconds. The graphics are simple, often just the names of featured artists appearing with a snippet of their songs or scrolling by in an endless list, and sometimes both. Artist names are sometimes misspelled—Dianna Ross, Steelers Wheel, Alvin Bishop, Roy Clarke, and Dotty West, to name a few. The ad for 50 Children’s Favorites features a skeevy-looking bearded dude and a nightmarish giant rabbit. The oldies album Girls Girls Girls, made up of songs with girls’ names, is advertised with a bizarre spot in which a middle-aged man lying in bed is teased by visions of pretty young women, but they disappear before he can get to them. Some of the women are beautiful in a distinctly 70s way, although the talent budget did not buy gifted performers: the girl in the spot for Right On! dances without actually moving her feet.
It occurs to me that K-Tel’s oldies compilations might have represented my first exposure to stars of the 50s—Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and such. The ads would have been all over after-school TV in the early 70s, when we came home to watch Gilligan’s Island or The Flintstones. I would have taken from them that such people were important—important enough to be on a K-Tel album like more familiar artists from the radio. It seems reasonable to think that the ads may have planted a seed for something I would recognize in later years when I finally heard “Tutti Frutti,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “Great Balls of Fire” for real.
So take a half-hour and watch the video, which was compiled by a YouTuber called FredFlix. After you’re done, explore the other compilations on the FredFlix channel—it’s a remarkable trove of vintage TV with lots of stuff I haven’t seen anywhere else.
(I did not realize until I started researching this post that our friend HERC has a site devoted to K-Tel compilations. If you will excuse me now, I’m going over there to get lost for a few hours.)
After The Mrs. and I got our first VCR, in 1984, we started building a library of M*A*S*H episodes, taped off the air. So we’re fans from way back. In recent months, we have been watching the last few seasons of the show on MeTV. Not long ago, we reached the end, and I have thoughts.
—One of my main complaints with later seasons of M*A*S*H is that its characters speak in a hyper-jokey, pun-laced patois that makes me want to throw heavy objects at the TV. This phenomenon only lasts a couple of seasons, thank the gods—although it makes me sad to note that they are the seasons in which the esteemed Ken Levine and David Isaacs were running the show.
—I have never been fond of the Winchester character, but it occurs to me that my wisecrack in a post about the show last fall, referring to David Ogden Stiers as Yoko Ono, is unfair to him. The problem with the character is not the actor, but the writers. It takes them more than two seasons before they even attempt to humanize Winchester—but they never allow him to be consistently human. For every episode in which he displays a depth of character, there’s another one in which he’s the pompous cartoon he was at the very beginning. He grows less than any other character on the show apart from Frank Burns—the one-dimensional character he was intended to improve upon.
—Winchester is not the only character who’s written inconsistently; the show frequently loses its grip on other major characters, too. Hawkeye goes from sophisticate to sophomore and back episode by episode; Margaret is alternately a wise counselor and a shrewish prude. By the end of the series, B. J. is essentially a cipher; he’s supposed to be Hawkeye’s best friend, but by the end of the show, they occupy the same space without ever seeming to connect. Klinger and Potter have much better chemistry.
—The first three seasons of M*A*S*H remain laugh-out-loud funny to me, even after having watched some episodes literally dozens of times. As comedy, the later seasons suffer dreadfully in comparison. The jokes are mostly either tired or toothless, and in that context, wacky hijinx seem forced. But as drama, the late seasons far outclass the early ones. The show’s ongoing commentary on the insanity of war works better at the end than at the beginning. Late in its run, M*A*S*H was a dramedy before the word had been coined; the laugh track, which is remarkably obtrusive during the first half-dozen seasons, is entirely gone by the end.
—MeTV did not include the final episode, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” in its repeat cycle, so the series ended with “As Time Goes By,” an episode in which Margaret and Hawkeye clash over what should be in a 4077th time capsule. Although the episode contains a couple of satisfying fan-service callbacks to Radar and Henry Blake, it sputters to a close on a weak joke from the B-plot, which is a fine metaphor for the last couple of seasons.
—Today is the 34th anniversary of the original broadcast of “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen”: a grave disappointment, with all of the show’s late-season faults blown up to quintuple length. The plotline involving Hawkeye’s nervous breakdown had me fulminating at the TV that night in 1983, and I still hate it passionately, as a betrayal of the character we spent 11 years getting to know. Much of the episode is spent on dead ends (Winchester and his Korean musicians, Klinger and his Korean wife) before we finally get to what everyone wants to see—these people saying goodbye to one another. There’s a brilliant 60-minute episode in there somewhere, but it was buried by a creative team that worked too hard to blow people’s minds and not hard enough on making an entertaining episode. I haven’t seen “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” since the night it was broadcast, and I can’t imagine sitting through it again.
Despite all I’ve said here, the last half of M*A*S*H is generally better than I remembered. Although I’ll never love it as much as I do the first half, most episodes are worth watching; only a few are complete failures. The final verdict is that whenever you happen to happen upon it, any random episode of M*A*S*H is likely better than most ways you could spend a half-hour watching TV.