Friday was a very long day. I took the Acela into New York for an evening of musical theater and then a late-late-late night bus ride back. Earlier this autumn I picked up one of the last few remaining face value tix for a Friday night performance of Young Frankenstein, currently in previews at the Hilton Theatre. Was pretty excited to get the tick (er, ticket) because hey, Mel Brooks and his creative team did a good job out with The Producers; hey, Andrea Martin is in it; hey, Sutton Foster too; and hey, Young Frankenstein was a funny film to begin with so if it gets the Producers treatment and goes all bigtime and stuff, I can boast and brag that I saw it before you did neener neener neener (with the exception of katre and some Seattle people, apparently.)
By the way, I finally discovered the beauty and glory that is the Acela train's Quiet Car. No cellphone conversations, no loud yammering, no screaming kids, just blessed quietness, all politely and quietly enforced. I mean, the loudest noises in the car, besides station announcements, were tiny things such as someone went rustling through a bag or an occasional "hrumph" from the older businessman seated next to me (he had a throat-clearing tic, apparently, or he just constantly did not like what he was reading.) All in all well worth the C-note you gotta drop for Business Class. I'm not sure if the Quiet Car only exists on the Express trains; there certainly wasn't one the last time I rode biz class on the Acela's local service, sitting in the Kiddie Business Class car and stopping at every station stop, it felt like, in Connecticut.
I arrived in NYC with the express intent of visiting the Museum of Television and Radio first, then dinner at a favorite restaurant, and then the show. It was a one-man trip, a solo venture, and I was glad to enjoy my solitude in the midst of the most crowdedest city in this time zone. And while I handily accomplished all three tasks, hooray hooray, I was not prepared for the insane humidity. God damn! The rain I was ready for but the humidity played hopscotch with my internal thermostat. I waited for my E train on the 42nd Street platform, amazed at the humid blech that hung over everything, in October, even! Whenever the A express stopped on the other side of the platform, I rushed over and hung out by the open doors of the blessedly air-conditioned train, then hustled back over to the E side. When I got to 53rd and emerged from the underground into the rain, my hair was already soaked and I hadn't even been aboveground yet.
Luckily 25 W. 52nd was a quick walk, and I dried myself off in the austere and quiet lobby of the Museum of Television and Radio (now named the Paley Center for Media, after broadcast exec William S. Paley.) I paid my $10.00 admission, endured my first "Have you been here before?" lecture of the day and whisked my way upstairs to their collections library. The MTR has a zillion (I counted) bits of radio recordings and video and kinescopes from the early days of television all the way up to the present. You can watch shows presented as part of a series (such as a retrospective of how teenagers were portrayed on TV through the decades) in a screening room with a bunch of other people, or select shows from that catalogue of zillions and watch at your own private screening carrel. For a museum devoted to television, it is surprisingly sedate, dignified and counts among its staff people who look and sound as if they would have been news anchors in years gone by. Considering that the place is named after the executive who made CBS the "Tiffany Network" that it was, it's quite apt.
I selected two programs from their vast archive after a few furtive searches ("DuMont" and "Monsanto" yielded nothing in the 'Network' search... perhaps I was searching wrong): the only episode of the Sandy Becker kids' morning program that they had, and Fred Allen's television debut, as one of the rotating hosts of the Colgate Comedy Hour in 1950. Once the reference clerk located the programs and cued them up, I was given a printout and sent downstairs to the viewing room, a large, darkened area filled with carrels, TV screens and headsets. Some were single-seaters, others could hold two or more folks. The place was eerily quiet but frequently punctuated by a bit of laughter emanating from one corner of the room or another. I asked the viewing room attendant if he felt odd working all day in a quiet environment with a laugh or two just popping up every now and then. He replied "You get used to it, I guess."
After sitting down at a console and punching in a program code, I was treated to Sandy Becker's kids program. Becker was a children's television innovator, starting first as a morning show cartoon introducer and then getting more and more creative with outlandish characters such as the dimwitter Norton Nork and Hambone, the guy in my icon who wore a drum major's uniform, pith helmet with giant 6-foot plume, coke-bottle glasses and strutted around to his own theme tune (while the word "HAMBONE" flashed on the screen; see my clever re-creation?) before writing a beatnik-style rhyme on a blackboard such as "Cut your grass so the ants can pass!" (Soupy Sales did a similar blackboard slogan gag on his show called "Soupy Sez") I'd seen clips of his on highlight reels and in brief Internet clips, but never a show as it was regularly presented, and I was eager to see that.
Turns out the program the MTR had was an early program of his, in the cartoon-introducing days, but even so I could tell this fellow really knew how to keep kids entertained on TV. It was undated in the listing but it was clear that it was in April and that Easter was coming soon. Becker carried the entire live program himself, which amazed me. You try staying on for 90 minutes or however long your kids' morning show is. First Sandy appeared in person making sure everybody's having a good morning even though "if you haven't looked out the window yet, I'm afraid to say there's clouds overhead and it looks like it's going to be quite bluey-bluey today." (He would often use slang or switch to a silly voice in the middle of a conversation, which I guess kept the kids happy.) Then in flew two parakeets who perched on his fingers, chirped at him in conversation, and knew how to bob up and down when Becker recited "Hickory dickory dock." They then went over to their own perch on the set. Becker, who mostly worked off ad-libs, said that the birds didn't want to wake up that morning, and admonished one accordingly: "Why look at the bags under your eyes! Where were you last night? ... Oh, now, don't ask me that same question. I'll take away your birdseed." A little subversive there for kiddies, methinks!
Becker then leapt into a live commercial for a brand of cookies, and it was here I realized just how amazingly shameless the hard sell to kids was back in the Good Old Days. Becker was an incredibly effective pitchman, speaking to the kids with his rich baritone voice, always very friendly, always very cordial with almost a hipster bit to it, and with pure advertising rhetoric. "Of course the best cookies are the cookies Mom makes, right? Oh, of course. But sometimes Mom has so much to do, doesn't she? It takes a lot of time to make cookies, and Mom does so many other nice things for you in the day that sometimes she's so tired, and you want to make sure she gets her rest, right? Right! That's why we're so lucky that Brick Oven Cookies are here, because they use the very best ingredients that Mom would use: the very best milk, the very best butter, all that wonderful stuff. And there's so many flavors to choose from so if you can't make up your mind, play it safe and get yourself a bag of each. Everybody loves Brick Oven Cookies and boy, are they going fast, so take it from me -- you better buy two bags."
Amazingly shameless and pitched right at the kiddie sensibility. Wowie zowie. But he's such an amiable pitchman with such a personal tone that he really brings it off. Then comes the kicker: to show how good the cookies are, he feeds them to the birds. Of course, it's pretty obvious he's feeding the birds their own favorite treats, but boy oh boy, look at them go, they just can't wait to have a bite of these delicious Brick Oven Cookies and man, you're going to love them too. He never speaks down to the kids. Never cloying. Never patronizing. He found just the right level to speak with them.
Next he brings out some pictures that kids had sent in. If you got your picture on the show, you'd win a toy. Sandy makes sure to ease disappointment casually and, again, in working with another kid show cliche, manages to accomplish it without sounding condescending or patronizing. "Now don't pout and go 'Aw, he didn't show mine this time!' because let me tell you, we get so many pictures and they're all just so darned good, it's very difficult for us to choose which ones to show on TV. So keep drawing and keep sending them in, because we enjoy each and every one of them."
One girl's picture of a house won her a Revlon doll. "I am seven years old and I am glad to be sick at home all week," Sandy read. "You're glad to be sick at home all week? Well that's strange -- oh, I bet you're glad to be sick at home so you can watch the show, right? But you better get well soon, or you'll have too much schoolwork to make up when you get back to school." Another boy drew a cartoon, and a dandy one at that, and on the back he wrote "If you use mine please give my prize to my sister who is five years old. She would like a Revlon doll."
Well! This display of kindness really won Sandy over. "Well James, that's a kind gesture you've made here, wanting your prize to go to your sister. I know your sister will be very grateful, and you keep that generous attitude up, son, that's what makes a good person out of you. And just because you were so thoughtful and generous, I'll tell you what I'm going to do: I'm going to send your sister a Revlon doll, and I'm gonna send you... an Ideal Rocket Car from the Ideal Toy Company. That's right. I'm gonna send your sister the doll and send you a rocket car. Yes, sir, James, you're going to get a rocket car, too. Whether you want it or not!"
That last bit was said jokingly, and I loved it. Becker then segued into the "weather room upstairs", in which the puppet Jingle Dingle resided. After a lengthy shot of a weathervane drawing while Becker improvised -- remember, he's carrying the entire show here, so he has to get to the puppet set and ready the puppets -- we cut to Jingle Dingle, who kind of looks like a Potato Head character with a bell dangling off his hat. Supposedly the bell jingles, giving him his name, but for the sake of TV audio it doesn't.
Becker was able to effortlessly switch between his voice and Jingle Dingle's, which is a nasal but friendly kind of character voice. Together they discussed the fate of another character, Geeba Geeba, who apparently was involved in a long running storyline about being held in customs when the show returned from South America (the show went to South America?) because nobody could tell whether or not Geeba Geeba was a vegetable or not.
After a lengthy argument over Geeba Geeba's vegetableness, up comes Marvin Mouse, another puppet and another Becker voice. Now he's operating both puppets and juggling three voices at the same time: Marvin, Jingle and his own, and it's pretty darn amazing all things considered. Marvin, who speaks with a high-pitched Brooklyn accent, apparently has a running schtick in which he wants Jingle Dingle to appoint him to the post of "Thermometa Inspecta", but Jingle Dingle will have none of it. The two puppets show another kids' drawing, this time a dungeon by a kid named Raoul. It's got a fireplace and axes on the walls and stuff. They don't quite know what to make of it until Marvin reads the back: "A madman's cellar. Yeah! A madman all right, you gotta be a madman to live in a cellar like that. Anyone who lives in a place like that, they're gonna lose their marbles, that's for sure!" Raoul gets a Sandy Becker Cartoon Drawing Kit, presumably so he can learn to draw less gruesome subjects.
Then Jingle Dingle, Marvin and Sandy call a little girl in New York who's sick with scarlet fever. There's business involving Jingle Dingle putting on an old-fashioned operator headset, and then they make the call. The TV presents it as a one-way conversation; you don't hear the kid's voice but there's really no doubt in my mind that they were actually talking to the kid. Jingle Dingle tells her that she's a brave girl and is gonna get better, "uh huh, yes, oh yes I'll tell him that, and did the doctor stop by today? Yes, and what did he say? Oh, good, good! You'll get better in no time, just wait and see. Just do everything the doctor tells you and you'll be right as rain before you know it! Wh-- what? Oh, you want to speak to Marvin?"
"Naturally!" Marvin says. "Everybody loves ta speak with me!" So Marvin goes over to the headset and has a chat. "Hello dere! Well it's nice ta speak witcha too. What's that ya got, anyway? Scarlet fever? What kinda fever is that? Is there also a blue fever or a poiple fever?"
"No," Jingle intervenes as Sandy realizes he's painted himself into a corner and has to improvise his way out without scaring the little girl or the kids watching, "It's called scarlet fever and it's, well it's a fever that you sometimes get... but then it goes away and you feel better!"
"Well dat's okay," Marvin says with bragodocio. "You gonna get better real soon, y'hear me? Or else I'm gonna come over there and take care of dat scarlet fever personally! Okay honey! Okay! Good bye now! You wanna say good-bye, Jingle Dingle?" "Goodbye, darlin!"
Honestly, that kind of personal interaction was quite touching. Nowadays a segment like that would've been milked for all the sentiment it was worth, but Sandy knew what the kid wanted: She wanted to be cheered up by speaking to her favorite TV characters, and that's what he gave her. Hope she got better.
Another lengthy shot of the weathervane picture and we're back to Sandy on the set, and there's more business about Geeba Geeba and whether he's a vegetable or not, and then we learn he's accidentally been shipped to the Ricky-Ticky Weather Observatory in New Zealand (Richard Ticky, proprietor) and that's about as far as the program got before the museum's copy went out (the MTR has a lot of partial programs; better than nothing) and frankly I was a bit relieved as I'd seen all I wanted to see -- a snapshot of the fellow working at his craft on a normal show on a normal day. And besides, 50 years after the fact, I really had no vested interest in Geeba Geeba's vegetableness or lack thereof.
Next was Fred Allen's television debut on the Colgate Comedy Hour. Allen was one of the most popular radio comedians of his time, amazingly literate and one of the best ad-libbers in the business. Allen's most remembered for his mock feud with comedian Jack Benny, which actually hadn't been planned: after a child violinist played "Flight of the Bumblebee" on Allen's show as part of his Amateur segment, Allen mentioned that the performance ought to put a certain adult violinist to shame. He knew Benny would be listening and thought he'd get a kick out of a little ref. Benny did, and on his next show he included a boast that he could so play "the Bee" and the feud took off from there. The two didn't even initially bother to get together to discuss what angles to take on the feud; they merely stayed in their own shows, throwing barbed asides at one another. Once they got together to plot and scheme, things really took off. Benny parodied Allen's Town Hall Tonight show with his own "Clown Hall Tonight"; Allen actually pantsed Benny in front of a studio audience. Allen, master of the ad-lib, quipped that Benny "couldn't ad-lib a belch after a Hungarian dinner." Benny, who could ad-lib but kept his on-air persona relying on his "kids in the hall" for comedy material, would eventually snap back "You wouldn't say that if I had my writers in the room with me!"
However, Allen's brand of erudite, sardonic satire waned in popularity after World War II, especially as more mundane crowd-pleasing programs began to eclipse him. Allen's own radio show was done in by "Stop The Music", a big giveaway radio game show (game shows took over the industry in the 40s and 50s much like reality TV did in the late 90s.) Allen didn't care too much for television; he is the one who indeed coined the much-paraphrased line (which I'm probably paraphrasing it here) "I have discovered why television is a medium: because it isn't well-done" but nevertheless he trooped on, trying to recapture whatever he could on this new not-well-done medium.
The first episode of Allen's turn on the Colgate Hour (the show's hosts rotated weekly from Allen to Eddie Cantor to Martin & Lewis) has its funny parts. Allen gives it a good try, but it's clear his is not a face for television. The show introduces him in song as "the man with the satchels under his eyes." Second, his was not the style of zany comedy that the audiences of the 50s were demanding now that Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis had burst on the scene.
Still, Allen gets in a few good gags during his introductory monologue, including a nice wry bit: "In case you were wondering, that elaborate opening number you just saw up there was actually the last few minutes of Jerry Lester's program, which just goes to show you that our show picks up where others leave off." (Lester hosted a variety show on the Dumont network.)
A random gentleman wanders onstage to congratulate Allen on his "return to entertainment", claiming "when your radio show went off the air I very much missed you, and now I am so glad that you are back in business."
"That's kind of you to say, sir," Allen says. "Who are you?"
"I'm from the Internal Revenue Service," the man replies.
"Wait, wait," Allen says, holding out a mannequin hand as the man begins to leave. "I believe you forgot this. You had it in my pocket." A nice topper and a sight gag, at that.
Later, Allen was lectured by a Joke Tester, who claimed that his jokes cannot be used for television unless they are thoroughly tested by a panel of experts. ("Do you know the slogan 'Good to the last drop'?" one expert asks. "Well, I was the one who tasted the last drop!") Allen's befuddlement at the panel, who claim all he really needs to be successful in television comedy is a bottle of seltzer and a pie ("I hear over on Milton Berle's program they use so many of these, they've got a full-time baker backstage," Allen quips) really echoed his major pet peeves with the entertainment indusry.
First, there's jabs at the network bureaucracy with which Allen constantly fought during his radio days. He detested useless vice-presidents who insisted on putting their fingers in his pie and censors who kept him from, say, making a Depression-era joke about Henry Ford putting car handles on the doors of banks "so they can't be closed again." The censors weren't upset with a bank holiday joke; they were concerned that the Ford Motor Company would get upset -- and Ford wasn't even a sponsor.
Second, there's a jab at the "zany" television comedy which Allen found distasteful. This is a bit odd, since Allen's original vaudeville act employed a lot of silly gimmicks, though most of them were satire on vaudeville itself. Billed as "The World's Worst Juggler" (or "Freddy Allen And His Misses"), Allen was often introduced with an announcement such as "Mr. Allen is quite deaf. If you wish to laugh and applaud, please do so loudly." Sometiems he'd bring out a pair of giant clapping hands "to save wear and tear on the audience." He'd announce that he'd roll a giant hoop "all around the stage", then roll a giant hoop off stage left, only to have a stagehand roll a much smaller hoop back out at him from stage right. He'd shamelessly milk the patriotic sentiment during his bows by projecting images of Lincoln and Washington on a screen behind him; those who got the joke laughed, others just applauded anyway. It wasn't as zany as Martin & Lewis, but it certainly was a goof. (The goof extended beyond the stage; once when his act died, Allen sent out black-bordered funeral notices to the local papers.)
The variety show also featured a musical number involving a quartet who proclaimed they were the backbone of television: A boxer, a wrestler, a baseball player, and a roller derby girl. The initial joke I got, knowing that those shows often did form the backbone of a broadcast day, and I bet Allen had a hand in devising it.
The song and the "comedy tester" sketch involved a feeding-hand-biter type of satire that had a Stan Freberg feel to it; if anything, I guess Freberg would be the natural successor to Fred Allen's corporate and commercial satire. Allen's famous 1946 "Radio Mikado", a Gilbert & Sullivan piss-take on commercial radio, began with "If you want to know who we are / We're the hucksters of radio / We're vice-presidents and clerks / Confidentially, we're all jerks" and had to be heavily revised per order of outraged NBC brass only minutes before airtime.
Finally there was a revival of Allen's Alley, his most popular radio feature. In it, Allen and his radio partner (and wife in real life) Portland Hoffa would take a "stroll down Allen's Alley" to interview its residents on an important question of the day. The residents of Allen's Alley varied, but often included Southern gentleman Senator Claghorn, who only drank from Dixie cups and who would never watch a baseball game unless a southpaw was pitching; Titus Moody, a laconic New England farmer; Mrs. Nussbaum, a housewife prone to malaprops with a Yiddish tinge and always with the language switching she was; Falstaff Openshaw, a Shakespearean poet whose compositions bordered on the inane, and Ajax O'Cassidy, a fightin' Irishman. Some of the ethnic portrayals may (and often do) sound a bit offensive, but Allen always seemed to use their ethnicity sympathetically, and thus the characters represented four uniquely American viewpoints on a subject as opposed to merely being fodder for ethnic jokes. Stereotypes still lingered; one cringes when Ajax answers the door with "Who is it? Who wants t'fight?"
The television version of Allen's Alley was, well, dismal. Allen had been encouraged to bring about a televised version, but somehow along the way the idea of using puppets for the residents had been brought up and they went with it; thus Claghorn, Moody and Nussbaum were represented by a trio of rather rudimentary papier-mache puppets with mouths that kind of worked and, as somehow it was necessary to show the entire body of the character, barely-controllable arms. Without the benefit of Portland, who is absent from the show, Allen gamely goes through the motions of talking with the characters, but it's a mess. Claghorn's audio is off for most of his segment, the puppets hardly move, and honestly there was never any need to see the Allen's Alley characters. They were purely audio inventions, best suited for the mind's eye. The only good line in the segment is Titus Moody's complaint about television: "I don't want a piece of furniture sittin' in my livin room, lookin at me and makin remarks!" (Another famous Allen-ism, to be sure.)
Another partial copy, the program mercifully went out as Mrs. Nussbaum was going through her motions, if you could call it that. Still, it was interesting to see Fred Allen onstage doing his thing -- on radio, he could stand as he wished, scowl when he needed to and whatnot (radio affords its performers such luxuries; Garrison Keillor often performs with his back to the audience on A Prairie Home Companion when he feels uncomfortable) yet with television, he had to always be physically "on" while the cameras were as well. Allen was no stranger to the moving image; he appeared in several films and all, but watching him perform on TV was still something I'm glad I was able to see, however awkward it was.
I had to cut my time at the museum short for dinner. I still had some time left; your $10.00 admission allows you an hour's worth of viewing though they gave me nearly two (must've been a slow day) but I'd seen all I could see at that point. I'd definitely return with the list of flops I'd been working on.
Bidding Sandy and Fred adieu, I stepped back outside into the humidity, ambled over to a 6 train, and rumbled down to the 20s for some food.