Thursday, April 22, 2010

Post-Beulah and Pre-Obama Sitcoms, Part One

Here are few ground rules. This will not be an examination of each and every situation comedy with African-Americans. I also will do my best to strike a middle ground between contemporary attitudes and times gone by.

I was born in 1963. We were one of the few African-American families in Rockland County, NY. I didn't live in fear of the KKK, nor did Nazis terrorize us. However, when someone dumped trash on our property, my father, dumped trash on the neighboring lawns, thus putting a stop to that. So, I know there was a possibility that we weren't exactly welcomed with open arms.

I didn't live in the times that my Cousin Sarah told me about. She worked for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, in the stamps division. A White woman wanted to hang up her coat. So, she not only removed a Black woman's coat from the rack, she wiped her feet on coat she had thrown on the floor.*

So, knowing that I didn't live in such times, I hoped for progress. In "Hollywood Shuffle" the actor portrays the actor that portrays "Batty Boy" is of the mind that a script that he doesn't die in is a good script. That is the only standard that he judges quality. As outlandish as this is, there is, of course, basis in fact. We were dropping like flies on TV and the movies! If we weren't dying, we were carted off to jail.

In comedy, the death of any character outside of a cartoon is usually, well, death, so in comedy, we stood a greater chance of survival and a lower arrest rate. "Beulah" was a comedy about a maid. On radio, she was portrayed, in a marvelous dose of sexism and racism by a White man, Mariln Hurt. When Hurt died, he was replaced by Bob Corley, another White actor. In a fit of sanity, the role of a Black maid was given to a woman of the proper ethnicity, Hattie McDaniel, which made her the first African-American woman to star in a radio comedy. She and Ethel Waters also portrayed Beulah on TV. The issue, was that she was playing a maid. This wouldn't be a problem, save for the fact that it was the ONLY show with a woman of color in the lead. Her boyfriend was a handyman. The message that could be gleaned was that was as high in society we could go. There is no shame in being a maid or a handyman, but if you turn on the TV, how would you feel if you saw someone that looked like you and they were always a maid or a manservant? The NAACP, who had earlier complained that a White man was playing Beulah on radio, to their credit, also took issue with this.

Taking the path of least resistance, Beulah was cancelled. I gather the stance taken was "the coloreds get a show and then they complain about it. Who needs the headache?" I was all set to lay into this show when I looked at a clip on YouTube and what did I see? Well, save the intro, Waters portrayed Beulah with dignity, grace and good comic timing. McQueen's credibility is undercut by her voice, but, all in all, I've seen worse.

It's an easy thing to look back nearly sixty years and look back with disdain and righteous indignation. In context, the clip I saw wasn't so bad.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Curiosity Shop

If you'd like to read about "The Curiosity Shop", go here. As a matter of fact, it would be better if you read that first, before you read this.

I'll wait.


Ah! You're back. Good, because I'm not a big fan of the Fleetwoods song that the Muzak guys put on these blogs.

If you'd like to see the opening credits they are here

If you'd like to Pam Ferdin, here she is with a garbage can lid.


This was, according to the Retroland article, a very busy show. Here are the shards of memory about this show:

The "Onomatopoeia" puppet was supposed to be a bird, as evinced by the song on the show:

"Onomatopoeia, Onomatopoeia!
It's a most exotic word.
Onomatopoeia, Onomatopoeia!
It's a most exotic bird."

There was a song about collective nouns. You know the ones; a pride of lions, a fesnyng (!) of ferrets and my personal favorite, a murder of crows. The two that I remember were "a giggle of girls" and "a bother of boys".

There were animated films. One regular feature was about a particularly bad inventor. One invention was "The Breakaway Suit". It fell off of him, leaving him in his underwear and hat.

One of the most ingenious cartoons was about aliens observing Earth and their ruminations on the intelligent life on the planet.

The cars.

After several minutes of false conclusions, the car door opened and out jumped the people. The aliens concluded that THAT race of foolish and frivolous beings couldn't possibly survive.

This show attracted no less than Ray Bradbury. It was an animated film with a poem about an entity called "The Groon".

This show also featured Don Herbert (Mr. Wizard), voice talent legends June Foray, Mel Blanc, Bob Holt and Don Messick and it was gone in a season or two. Dang.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Jack LaLanne's Eyesight is Really Good, Too

When I was in kindergarten, I would wait to be taken to school by my Mother. The TV would be on and I would see one of two things, Jack LaLanne or Captain Kangaroo.

Trivia aside: Why was Bob Keeshan's character called Captain Kangaroo? Answer at the end of this post.

Jack LaLanne's exercise show was on one day and my Mother was getting ready to take me to Mrs. (Phyllis, not Paula, the author) Danziger's class. I was sprawled across an armchair and LaLanne was going through an exercise and I was lazily kicking my leg in time to his counting.

"Come on", he said, "You can do better than that."

At this point, I got up and mimicked what he was doing.

"Ah, that's what I like to see.", said LaLanne.

At this point, I realized that LaLanne not only was quite fit, he was also gifted with amazing vision. To my great relief, the TV was in the living room and my bedroom had a door.

And now, Captain Kangaroo got his name becau...yes, who is it...please excuse me. Hey, that's my front door you just kicked in! I was just about to say that...his estate DOESN'T want it revealed? You can't...get your hands off...AAAAGH!

Sorry about that. The reason that he was called "Captain Kangaroo" was revealed on one of the earlier shows. He wore jackets that had big pockets, akin to a kangaroo's pouch.

Does anyone know a good handyman that can fix a door and a fra...


...which doesn't need repair and enhances my love of nature both day and night?

Vivat Keeshan!
Vivat Keeshan!


Thursday, April 8, 2010

"In the Past, Everyone Will Be Educated for Fifteen Minutes"

The fifteen minute show has been around for a long time; Hazel Scott had a fifteen-minute show on the Dumont network in 1950 and Doodles Weaver had "A Day With Doodles"

This reminiscence starts in the 70's and I'm home from school, because I am not feeling well. After watching the usual game shows, "Concentration" and "Jeopardy", I change the channel to the local PBS station (WNET) and try to catch the shows that aren't listed in "TV Guide". In these days, daytime programming for PBS seemed to consist of "Sesame Street", "Zoom", "The Electric Company" and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" (liked "Robert Troll", kept getting "Bob Dog"). For about two or three hours, the listings would stop and that is when these odd fifteen-minute shows would appear.

The titles I can recall are:

The Metric System - This was during the days of the big push. Soon, the United States would stop using the English System of measurement. Liters, grams and meters would take over, or, to quote Alice, "Goodbye, feet!". Only one band from New Orleans would foresee the inevitable future. My teacher, Mr. Silverberg express the concerns of many, wondering if the US would be able to retool the machinery and the minds of many. There was resistance and the conversion became more of an integration (we think nothing of buying a gallon of milk, as well as a 2-liter bottle of Mountain Dew). Perhaps Ronald Reagan made a record of the spread of...haw, haw, I laugh to think that people would be up in arms over such things.

Ah, yes, the show. The theme was in F and it was sung by two women. Here is what I can remember of the lyrics:

The Metric System,
The Metric System,
The Metric System!

So many reasons,
Can't list 'em!
That show the wisdom,
Of the Metric System.

The Metric System,
The Metric System,
The Metric System!

The show consisted of various sketches showed the joys of conversion from English to Metric, the new increments, working for the good of the state, division of labo...


There was even an in-house hero, a puppet named "Metric Man". I remember him defeating a villain because of the ease adding decimals. "I never could add fractions!", seethed the ne'er-do-well.

Anyone for a rousing chorus of "Decimal, Decimal Dancing Dot"? This show had a pretty small budget. In one scene, a professor type, with a lab coat spoke to a kid with a beanie. In one shot, the propeller is spinning. In a second, badly edited shot, the propeller is still, however, they didn't quite edit out the prof whacking the prop to start it spinning again. The effect makes it look as if he either has it in for the beanie, or worse, the boy wearing it.

What I cannot remember is the name of a shorter-lived program about the Metric System, with an even smaller budget and THEIR in-house hero was a live-action woman named "Meter Maid", complete with cape and cowl. When she appeared, her fanfare was the stereotypical six-note affair one hears before you hear someone say "Charge!(G-C-E-G-E-Geee!!, sung by three or four guys holding their noses.

Science is Discovery - The theme was sung by a chorus of kids and part of the backing was a small drum and a glockenspiel. This was similar in style to "Mr. Wizard", but I don't remember him having a kid assisting him in experiments. I remember none of the experiments, except one needed two balloons and this fellow put them on top of his head and yelled, "Mickey Mouse! I'm fairly sure this was in black and white.

A quick aside: all of our TV's were black and white. When we inherited my Aunt Teady's old set, I was so excited, because I knew her TV's tended to be bigger than ones we bought and they tended not to have handles on top of them. We turned it on was in black and white, too. I had no idea "Star Trek" was filmed in color, until my brother brought home a paperback, "Star Trek Lives!" or "The World of Star Trek" and I saw the photos on the covers. I loved "The Wizard of Oz", but as far as I was concerned, Dorothy went from a B&W Kansas to a B&W Oz. I followed Judy Garland down the Antique White road for many years until sometime in the 1980's.

The Letter People - This one can be seen on YouTube and there were 60 episodes; one for each letter of the...hmmm. In any case, the first part is the episode I remember. This episode had an obnoxious comic with an obnoxious laugh ("NNnneck-neck-neck") and obnoxious one-liners ("Where's your patience, son, in the waiting room?"). It seems that you can still buy Letter People stuff, but in wildly different designs and different songs. [Editor's note: I have corrected this link. While I do remember Miss I and her "itchy itch" "letterpeopleland" from YouTube corrected me and the change has been made.]

The only other show that I can recall was some show about English usage and I remember one scene that might as well have been written by Ernie Kovacs, as macabre as it was. A man was sitting behind a desk and he says, "What a day! I'm so tired I could shoot myself." Cut to a woman that said, "This is what's called a metaphor. This man is just explaining how tired he is". This was followed by an off-screen gunshot, her registering shock and a cut to the man's body on the floor. Once again, this is supposed to be a KID'S show!

I'll watch this, until "Big Blue Marble" or "Zoom" comes on...

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Kids from C.A.P.E.R.

In October, 2009, I read a blog entry on "The Kids from C.A.P.E.R. by TIME’s TV critic James Poniewozik. I remembered quite a bit of this show and I replied to his post. He, in turn, made a NEW entry in his blog here:

This is what I wrote, slightly revised, thanks to a page that didn't exist until recently, the wonderful "C.A.P.E.R Project" at

Before I go on at somewhat uncomfortable length about "The Kids from C.A.P.E.R.", I remember a small detail about "Ark II "; it featured a super-intelligent chimp named "Adam" (get it? get it?). Funnily, I remember one of his lines, "They no catch me! I run!"

Real smart monkey. Reeeeal smart.

In any case, as a fellow who watched this show regularly, C.A.P.E.R. stood for "Civilian Authority (for the) Protection (of) Everyone, Regardless", which was ALWAYS succeeded by a four-part sung "Ta-da" by the Kids, and an air-guitar/scat solo by P.T., which was usually truncated. This is the first version of the theme song. Later shows had a few different sequences, including all of them doing a sped up Can-Can.

Does it bother anyone else that three of the four of the Kids not only sing, but sing in double-tracked voices?

Two running gags were that if Bugs heard the word "bananas" he would go well...bananas. This happened every episode. "Doc" was brilliant and even though he was the one that the ladies liked, he was fairly unaware of his animal magnetism. Sometimes (I think), women would look into his eyes and strings would swell on the soundtrack and they'd go into some sort of love trance.

They solved crimes in their home town of "Northeastsouthweston" a name a shade too long for its sign, the "on" extended past the borders of the sign and they drove around in their truck, "The Big Bologna". Another regular character was a reporter that had an authoritative voice, yet lived with his mother. All episodes began with a segment with no dialog, just sight gags, a conceit that is certainly absent from current kids TV. And yes, like the Monkees, all of the episodes featured a song. I can recall "A Hero in the Movies" and "Riding a Rainbow".

Here are the episodes and what little I can recall from them:
"Dunga Gin" - A girl named Ginny with a penchant for DUNGArees. She also wanted to be a member of the Kids. All I can recall is that she danced with P.T. at the end of the ceremonious "Ta-daaaa". She's a better girl than I am. I mean that she..I'm a man and Kipling's line was...oh, skip it.

"The Postmonster General" - A villain. He was the only Black person I can remember from the show. He did have my favorite line of the show, "I've got to beat those kids to the punch. Or better yet, punch those kids to the beat! (singing) 'I'm so nasty, I'm so nasty'". Well, when I was twelve, I was a-laughin'.

"The Uncanny Nanny" - This one was about the town's favorite babysitter, Nanny Noony. She minded everyone, including the reporter (when Mother leaves town, she minds him). So beloved is she, the Kids have a song about her. As Doomsday sounds a bell note with his nose, they sing in a faux-operatic manner, "Sweet Nanny Noony/Nanny Noony is nice!" She, however, is tired of her perfect image and looks as if she is on the verge of snapping if someone else brings along another "sweet" child, she says that she doesn't know what she'll do. Nevertheless, someone does bring a boy to her, who is a brat. Fearing that she will do something horrible to him, the Kids find that he was not mistreated, but severely disciplined. She made him do chores, suspecting (rightly) that he was not just a brat, he just needed direction. Upon finding this out, the Kids reprise their song to her, over her protests:
Kids: (singing) "Sweeet Nanny Nooo-nee..."
NN: You've convinced me!
Doomsday: Not yet!
Kids: "Nanny Noony isssssssssss...."
NN: You've convinced me!
Doomsday: Not yet!
Kids: "Nice!"

From what I gleaned from the Internet Movie Database, some of the episodes were written by Romeo Muller, who also wrote for the "Jackson 5" cartoon show as well as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", which is to say that the gags held up pretty well, considering the benign neglect that '70s kid shows suffered from at the time.
Having re-watched "The Phantom of the Drive-In" on YouTube, I was annoyed by the laugh track and applause track, but the episode held up reasonably well (and I even remembered one of the last lines!), even though I wouldn't show it to a twelve year-old, for fear of boredom and, let's face it, there are better kid shows nowadays. Not all, but some are better. It was fairly obvious that Kirshner was trying to re-create the Monkees' success, but it was a better attempt of this formula than the "New Monkees" from what I have been able to glean, NM having left the air before I got a chance to watch it.

Like Mr. Memory of "39 Steps", this took a long time to remember, but I'm glad I got it off my chest.

So, whatever happened to the class of '76? (according to iMdb)

Steve Bonino (P.T.) didn't seem to do much acting past 1980, but did do some soundtrack work as recently as 2003, so I guess he could and can actually sing. He has a website:

Cosie Costa (Bugs): Acted as recently as 1996 on film. He also starred in the abominable series, "California Fever", which if I remember correctly featured a battle of the bands in one episode between "Four on the Floor" and "Rest Room"; you can guess who won. "Babylon 5" fans may remember him as "Abbut"

If you want to or must see a bit of "California Fever", go here: it's the episode I remember. The promo actually blows the ending, in which "Rest Room" loses the battle of the bands and are wheeled out of the club, which is astounding, seeing that no one unplugged their instruments and, hey, who builds stages on wheels that aren't in parades?

I remember too much! Must...bathe...unclean...

Biff Warren (Doomsday) - No credits past 1980 and if the iMdb is correct, passed away from AIDS in 1993, making a woman named Phyllis a widow. He was on "As the World Turns" as "Mark Stevens". Started singing at the age of 11.

John Lansing (Doc): The only "Kid" with a 2009 credit, albeit with a fourteen year gap before that. In a weird coincidence, he and Costa have both been on "Walker: Texas Ranger", in different episodes. He was "Anthony" on "Laverne and Shirley" for three episodes.

Star Wars and the Science Fiction Awards

I recall something called "The Science Fiction Awards", hosted by Dick Van Dyke. Being a fan of Dick Van Dyke in an era when you had to wait to see if Disney would re-release "Mary Poppins" or hope "The Dick Van Dyke Show" would be rerun, I tuned in. It contained one of the most surreal moments of my TV-watching childhood.

This show, which featured Heatwave singing "Boogie Nights", which Van Dyke announced as "Boojee Nights" by THE Heatwave, also featured a dance tribute to Star Wars. A flying saucer-ish light display descended from the rafters. Four dancers, dressed up as Tusken Raiders or Stormtroopers (can't remember which) came out, armed with fake rifles and broke into...a soft shoe routine. At the end of this, they all dropped to one knee extended one arm each and in came, to applause, R2D2. This started a short antiphonal section, in which the orchestra played the "Star Wars" theme, which R2D2 "sang" the last four notes.

That's all I can remember of this number, however that is NOT the most surreal moment. Kitschy, but not surreal.

Since I didn't produce this show, my guess is that someone didn't show up, or they mistimed the whole affair, but Dick Van Dyke came out after a few more awards were given out and said something along these lines:

"Folks, I hope you're having a good time tonight. The response has been tremendous and the phones have been ringin' off the hook, so we are going to show you the tribute to "Star Wars" again!"

Sure enough, that's what happened. They showed the same sequence AGAIN. I have never seen that done before or since.