Monday, May 29, 2006

Every Saturday Night! (Part 2)

Hootenanny made its bow on ABC-TV on April 6, 1963. It was a 30-minute show; a fast-track replacement for Fess Parker's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a sitcom with neither the wit nor the drawing power of the 1939 Capra film. Hosted by Jack Linkletter (son of Art), Hootenanny was a traveling folk music jamboree, taped at various college campuses across the nation, with students serving as the "studio audience." With the NY Times' Jack Gould labeling it "the hit of the Spring" and the April 13 segment pulling more viewers than the debut, ABC quickly planned to slot Hootenanny into its fall lineup. As the ratings continued to climb, the network opted to expand the show to an hour come September... and a craze was born. Any record label with more than three folk acts signed to it released compilation albums with "Hootenanny" in the title; there may not be a thrift store in all America without at least one of these in its bins. (Labels with fewer than three folk acts simply released "Hootenanny with..." albums.) Two "Hootenanny" magazines were launched: one authorized by ABC and edited by Linda Solomon, the other edited by the Times' music critic (and future Bob Dylan biographer) Robert Shelton. FM radio, then on the rise, made its earliest bread-and-butter by programming folk music.

And what of the TV show? Did it really capture the folk scene in all its earthy splendor? Well, yes and no. To be sure, the emphasis was on the slick and Commercial. Capable as he was, host Linkletter (whose job, according to a producer, was to "report on the proceedings, as if he was covering a sporting event") couldn't help but rub some people the wrong way, especially when his introductions were made over some of the songs. The Limeliters, who are remembered in TV circles as the first group to perform "Things go better with Coca-Cola" in a commercial, headlined 7 of the first 13 segments. Others were toplined by such acts as The Journeymen (fronted by a clean-cut "Papa" John Phillips), The Chad Mitchell Trio (who performed their satirical "John Birch Society," and Pete Seeger's anti-war "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and sang with Africa's Miriam Makeba), and Theodore Bikel (whose specialty was Russian and Israeli material). Some traditional (Ethnic) artists were included, such as Bikel, Josh White, his son and Leon Bibb. And the show welcomed many who were equally embraced at the Newport Folk Festival: Judy Collins, The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, Flatt & Scruggs, Bob Gibson, Ian & Sylvia, Oscar Brand, The New Lost City Ramblers, Carolyn Hester and Doc Watson, to name a few.

The cameras loved to move around and among the students, capturing them singing along or listening raptuously (and somehow always finding a really attractive co-ed in the process). And there was the clapping. The students were always clapping along, especially to uptempo numbers. One musician told me, "Folk audiences hadn't done that before the advent of Hootenanny... it was really annoying."

Another annoying aspect for artists was the editorial viewpoint of the producers. Not so much in censoring topical or anti-war songs, as that was tolerated - particularly in the case of The Mitchell Trio, who were permitted to sing some (but not all) of the protest and satiric material that wasn't getting radioplay. Rather, songs were edited for time - so that the space between commercials was filled with "complete" performances. Other songs had their "hells" and "damns" removed from the lyrics, and when Judy Collins was handed a revised lyric to "Anathea" - one which changed the song's villian to a "righteous" man - she refused to sign for future appearances and advocated an artistic - rather than political - boycott.

When the show expanded to an hour, ABC brass decided it would be wise to invite Seeger to appear... provided he sign a loyalty oath. Naturally Seeger refused to be singled out for this treatment, and when his manager made the story public, artists that had originally appeared on the 30-minute version refused to return. That left the network with a longer running time for a dwindling talent pool. To compensate, jazz and country & western musicians were added, and a spot was set aside for stand-up comedians (Bill Cosby made his network TV debut on Hootenanny and Woody Allen was a particular favorite).

Hootenanny continued to draw an audience... for awhile. Scheduled against The Jackie Gleason Show, it managed to keep The Great One out of the Top 20 Nielsens for the first half of the season. But it wasn't long before repetition began to creep in. The New Christy Minstrels, The Serendipity Singers (who were discovered by the show's talent coordinator, Fred Weintraub) and The Brothers Four - Commercials all - each appeared on eight segments. Certain songs kept turning up: The Brothers Four and The New Christy Minstrels each did "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore." The Wanderers 3 opened a show with "Roll Along," as did the Travelers 3. The Chad Mitchell Trio and The Brothers Four each closed a show with "Four Strong Winds." And so on.

Finally, the death knell for Hootenanny - and the entire folk craze - was sounded on February 9, 1964, when The Beatles invaded via The Ed Sullivan Show. That was the turning point in popular music. College audiences may not have immediately embraced the British Invasion, but musicians sure did. It wasn't long before folkies like John Phillips, Cass Elliot, Gene Clark, John Sebastian, Barry McGuire, Carly Simon and Jerry Yester - all of whom had appeared on the show - would discover the joys (and sorrows) of rock stardom. And Hootenanny would give way to Shindig on ABC in the fall of '64.

Yet the music does continue. Bruce Springsteen is touring now in support of an album of Pete Seeger covers. Folk Alley ( keeps a 24-hour stream of acoustic music going through listener support. The World Folk Music Association ( aspires to keep folk traditions alive throughout the globe... yet when they put on their annual fund-raising concert, it's The Kingston Trios and The Limeliters and The Brothers Fours to which they turn for the crowd. And it's a crowd consisting of more than a few who remember - and still miss - Hootenanny.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Every Saturday Night! (Part 1)

The war between the folkies goes on.

There's a telling moment in Christopher Guest's film A Mighty Wind. At a cocktail party, Jerry Palter (Michael McKean) of The Folksmen - a Kingston Trioesque group - chats with an unnamed black blues singer (Bill Cobbs) about how sad it is that only "commercial junk" acts like The New Main Street Singers (a cheerfully cheesy bunch patterened after The Serendipity Singers and The Back Porch Majority) get all the money. The blues singer turns away with a disgusted stare at the camera... and we know it's because he considers Palter's group and the Main Streeters to be two sides of the same coin... which they are, of course.

In the early 1960's, when the nationwide populatrity of folk music reached a pinnacle, there were several factions - or "folk-tions" - taking very specific sides as to what did and did not constitute "folk music." It was much like the simplistic division between "red" and "blue" states. In this case, you had the Ethnics - the purists, if you will - who saw folk music as a tradition to be handed down from our forefathers (and mothers). This tradition consisted of homemade songs from across the nation: the love and death songs of the Southern hills, the labor songs of the Eastern cities, the Dust Bowl ballads of the Southwest farms, the cowboy songs of the Western plains. Then you had the Commercials - the singers and groups that took the Ethnics' music and dressed it up for mass audience appeal (and thus financial gain). Neither side liked the other very much; Ethnics supporters carped that the Commercials were a bunch of phonies ("pholk music" became a favorite put-down), while fans of the Commercials charged back that the Ethnics were boring and/or not terribly pleasing to the discerning ear.

Caught in the forefront of this battle was ABC-TV's Hootenanny. The series only lasted a year-and-a-half, but it sure created a lot of controversy. At the time, it was criticized by upper-echelon music critics for presenting the worst of "pholk" (even as television critics hailed the show for its mobility and emphasis on youth). The series hoisted its own petard, of course, by banning Pete Seeger and his former group, The Weavers outright, because of their affiliation with leftist causes. That may have been within the network's, or the producers', or the sponsors' right... but it would have been nice if someone had been honest about it. Instead, each kept passing the buck, blaming one or both of the others for the decision.

It was also within the right of folk artists to refuse to appear on the show because of this policy... and many of them did, including big guns like Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez, The Kingston Trio and Bob Dylan. Most accused the Hootenanny bigwigs of continuing the 1950's policy of blacklisting and said so - loudly - to the press when announcing their decision to boycott the show. Funny thing, though: Seeger and The Weavers couldn't get on NBC's Tonight Show or CBS's Ed Sullivan for the same reason, but nobody ever pointed that out. It was almost as if Hootenanny was being condemned for everybody's sins... or at least for being called Hootenanny, a term reportedly coined by Seeger and his guru, Woody Guthrie.

Because Hootenanny has been considered for so long a "lost" show - it was captured on videotape, and it was then network policy to reuse tape until it wore out - nearly all that's been written about it has been the blacklist and the boycott, and any attempt to summarize the actual content is always from the viewpoint of the Ethnics. I had a little more tangible evidence at my disposal while growing up; my dad had audiotaped several episodes. Today, it's a somewhat different story... thanks to advertising agency policy, Hootenanny (and many another "lost" show) was kinescoped pretty much every week, even the summer reruns. A few of these kines have slipped into the hands of collectors, stock footage houses, and even libraries.

About 15 of the 43 Hootenanny shows can at least be viewed... and that's enough, I think, to get a feel for what the show was actually like... which I plan to write about next week.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Sunday with "Mister Four"

Now here's what I call honesty in advertising!

Critics have often scolded parents for using TV as a babysitter... it's been a long, long time since television actually promoted the idea. This ad, for New York City's channel 4 (later to become WNBC), appeared in TV Guide in January 1954.

Some observations: Since it trumpets WNBT's Sunday morning schedule, it's interesting that the ad is targeting "Pop." Presumably "Mom" would be inclined toward neither sleeping in nor tuning in, but rather getting the family dressed, out the door and off to church.

The footnote, inviting pop "and mom" to also watch, is a cute touch. A wise parent would certainly have done so, as I suspect none of these shows were as trustworthy as, say, Sesame Street or even Captain Kangaroo. The Magic Clown, for example, was basically 15-minutes of remedial magic tricks in front of a juvenile audience, during which the Clown spent a good portion hawking Bonimo's Turkish Taffy - as thorough a tooth-decayer as was ever marketed to moppets.

Finally, the whole slate was an attempt at counter-programming; the other NYC stations were airing traditional Sunday fare, such as The Christophers, Lamp Unto My Feet, Look Up and Live, Church in the Home and so forth. If I track down a Metro New York TV Guide from January 1955, I'll let you know if it paid off.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

"This Is Your Life, Bebe Daniels Lyon!"

John McElwee's Monday Glamour Starter this week was Bebe Daniels - check it out here: I had no clue that she was one of the first actresses to head her own production unit at a major studio - even Mary Pickford had to co-found a film company (United Artists) to get that kind of power. That was one aspect not covered in Bebe's appearance as This Is Your Life's principal subject on September 29, 1954.

Popular and long-lasting as it was, This Is Your Life wasn't everyone's cup of mocha. For one thing, its attempts at sentiment were never subtle, and too often crossed the line into bathos. For another, Ralph Edwards wasn't all that warm a host - he was a miserable ad-libber, and would get very jittery if a guest spot was running long or if something wasn't going as planned. Just watch the infamous Laurel & Hardy segment for a splendid example of Edwards' angst. It's proof positive that Oliver Hardy was indeed the dignified gentleman everyone said he was. Anybody else would have knocked Edwards into the next soundstage after one fat joke too many. (The L&H episode is the first one on This Is Your Life - The Ultimate Collection, a DVD box set released exactly one year ago.)

TV Guide ran an article about the making of the Daniels segment in a November 1954 issue. The piece explains that the unsung heroine of This Is Your Life is Jan Boehme (rhymes with "came"), whose job it was to learn all about the "principal subject" and line up all the surprise guests. The article tells us that Bebe and her husband Ben Lyon were enjoying an extended vacation in Hollywood - they'd moved to England in 1936 - while staying at the home of Louella Parsons. TV Guide's writer was impressed, but gave Edwards the accolade: "Any man who can pursuade Louella Parsons to hold out on her readers for 60 days is a man to be reckoned with." It was Boehme's job to meet with Ben Lyon (which led to some awkward moments when Bebe's friends spotted Ben with this strange woman in various Hollywood restaurants), and to speak with him by telephone (which led to some awkward moments when Bebe would answer it).

Still, the surprise came off perfectly, as it almost always did on Edwards' show. Bebe was stunned and immediately protested, "Ralph, I've been away so long, no one will remember me!" "Are you kidding?" Edwards replied, and the studio audience chimed in with a further round of applause.

Hal Roach, Harold Lloyd, Cecil B. DeMille (pre-filmed, since he was in Egypt shooting The Ten Commandments the night of the show) and of course Ben and Louella were there to celebrate Bebe's years of movie and radio stardom. But her life during World War II, when she was the first woman to land on the beach at Normandy shortly after D-Day, and made voice transcriptions of the wounded men, which she sent to their families, was also covered - and, of course, this was the moment when sentiment ran unchecked. One of the guests was a woman who'd lost two sons in the war; Bebe had recorded the eldest son, speaking of how his brother had perished, and it was the last time this mother would hear his voice. Both women wept as Edwards assured them "there isn't a mother in the world who doesn't understand" the gift of Bebe's recording in the midst of tragedy. One could argue that it was cruel exploitation to revisit this heartbreak so publicly. Then again, the mother, Mrs. Preston B. Scott, did come on the show willingly. In fact, she'd interrupted a vacation to appear.

Bebe's own mother, Phyllis Daniels, was there, as were her two children, Barbara and Richard Lyon, flown in from London. All-in-all it was another successful This Is Your Life - but Jan Boehme wasn't watching. According to TV Guide, "she was on her phone again, talking to one of the key people involved in the November 24 show. Mr. (Alexander Graham) Bell's heirs should write this girl a thank-you note."

Monday, May 01, 2006

Color TV: When and What was Yours?

No question about it: 1964 was the true start of the color TV revolution. To be sure, NBC’s “compatible color” had been around since 1953, but most of us had just paid off our black & white sets and were in no hurry to replace them for the sake of three or four color programs per week. By ’64, it was a different story. Color movies were airing several nights weekly on nearly all the networks, and color programming was finally on the rise. Later that year, Bonanza – a show specifically designed to sell color sets – reached the top of the Nielsen chart.

This free TV Guide supplement from September 1963, which consisted of half advertising, displays the models that were enticing buyers to finally consign that old 12-inch B&W set to the junk heap (or perhaps the bedroom). Make sure you read carefully before you buy.

RCA, claiming to have “perfected” color TV, tells us that “improved modern circuitry eliminates more than 200 of the hand-soldered, hand-wired connections that can come loose or cause trouble.” On the other hand, Zenith assures us “There are no printed circuits, no production shortcuts. Zenith’s specially designed color circuitry is hand wired with the same extra care that makes Zenith America’s largest selling black and white TV.”

Hmmm. This could be difficult. Maybe our best bet is to go with the Silvertone, so we can rely on that 90-days of free Sears service and one year of free parts. Then again, General Electric says their circuit boards are guaranteed for life.

Oh, well, big decisions like color television aren’t supposed to be easy. My family finally settled on a Zenith – five years later. When and what was your first color TV?