Monday, December 28, 2015

Eve on Demand

I'm pleased to see the success of The Warner Archive Collection and other efforts to bring older movies out of studio vaults and back into public view. For too long, fans have had to hope that the movies they want to see will turn up on TCM or other cable channels, or buy bootleg copies of dubious quality.

The Voice of the Turtle: Eve, Eleanor Parker, Ronald Reagan.
The folks at Warner, for example, have made it easier to see at least ten films featuring my beloved Eve Arden. They cover nearly the entirety of her career, from the likable comedy Having Wonderful Time (1938) to her quirky role as royalty in Under the Rainbow (1981).

My strongest recommendation, however, is for those of you who've never seen her memorable supporting performance in the charming romantic comedy The Voice of the Turtle (1947). If this film fails to turn up on your list of top ten Eve Arden movies, it's probably because you haven't seen it.

Take care of that first chance you get, OK? Then come back and tell me how much you loved it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Getting to Know Gene Rayburn

Adam Nedeff's The Matchless Gene Rayburn (BearManor Media, $32.95) is an amazingly detailed, authoritative biography of the man who, for all his other accomplishments, is best-
remembered as the zany host of one of TV's most popular game shows, Match Game. 

By Nedeff's account, Rayburn was often frustrated by the way Match Game overshadowed other aspects of his career, and how he was pigeonholed as a game show host. I think the man himself would be pleased by the amount of attention given in this book to his work as a radio disc jockey and announcer for The Tonight Show, as well as his Broadway performances. Nedeff says, "My hope for this book is that it makes that image on the TV screen a little more three-dimensional." I'd say that's a goal he fully accomplishes. Two important elements that help are the author's access to some of the late star's own reminiscences, and interviews with many people important to both his personal and professional life, including his daughter Lynne.

But if you want to know about Match Game (I certainly did), there's a lengthy and fascinating section devoted to that topic. I was interested to read about the sometimes-tense relationship between Rayburn, who had his own freewheeling, improvisational style as an emcee, and producer Mark Goodson, a purist who thought nothing should distract attention from the game itself. The show's long history, from its original, more staid version in the 1960s, to its revival as Match Game '73, and even the disastrous 1983-84 revival that welded it to Hollywood Squares in an hour-long version that quickly tanked, is covered in full. I found it great fun to learn about how those wacky Match Game questions were contrived, the trouble that arose from time to time with CBS censors, and the ways in which network scheduling unnecessarily shortened its run.

Nedeff is also the author of other books on game shows, including a biography of Quizmaster Bill Cullen, which I plan to investigate sooner rather than later. He also has a website, Game Show Utopia. 

P.S. No disclaimer today --  I bought my own copy at full price, and didn't even get any parting gifts.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Heeeeere' s Martha!

I'm thrilled to offer a first look at the cover for my book on marvelous Martha Raye, due from McFarland next spring. It's being published in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of her birth. I hope you'll give it a look.

Friday, December 11, 2015

"High" Praise

Would you believe this 1955 comedy starring the Bowery Boys was actually nominated for an Oscar, in the Best Original Screenplay category? It's true -- though with a caveat.

If you know the story behind this notorious goof, add a comment below.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Bringing Home the Bacon

Happy birthday to the late Lloyd Bacon (1889-1955), busy Hollywood director who helmed more than 100 films in the course of his long career. Film historians usually count 42nd Street and Marked Woman among his best and most important pictures, but I'm fond of a few Bacon features that aren't so acclaimed. While researching my book on Eve Arden, I saw his briskly paced melodrama A Child is Born (1940), which nicely illustrates the director's oft-quoted comment, "Some others may use motion pictures as a vehicle for a psychological study. I haven't that patience." That slightly self-deprecating quote, though it may sell some of his pictures short, expresses an important point that almost always stands out in this "impatient" director's films: the story moves. That quality is readily apparent in the two Lucille Ball comedies he directed, Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949) and The Fuller Brush Girl (1950), which came closer than almost any others in her movie career to showing the madcap, hilarious Lucy who would emerge on TV.

Want to learn more about Bacon's career? Here's a terrific overview of Bacon's busy career and distinctive directorial style.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Write Your Own Caption...

Here's a publicity still from "The Paul Lynde Show," which aired on ABC in the 1972-73 season. As suburban attorney Paul Simms, Paul just found out that his daughter and son-in-law (Jane Actman, John Calvin) are SAPs. Sure, you could do an online search for an episode synopsis, or find the episode on YouTube, but wouldn't it be more fun to just make up your own dialogue? Have at it!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Book Review: The Perils of Pamela

No one writes more knowledgeably or pleasurably about the beautiful starlets of 1960s movies than Tom Lisanti, as he proves once again with his newest book, Pamela Tiffin: Hollywood to Rome, 1961-1974 (McFarland, $39.95).

Tiffin had an odd career trajectory. A successful fashion model before she ever considered acting, she made her film debut with a bang in 1961. Stunningly beautiful but a completely unschooled actress, she was handed two prestigious assignments for which more established performers would have killed: a key role in Summer and Smoke, based on the acclaimed Tennessee Williams play, and the young female lead in One, Two, Three, where she would be directed by none other than Billy Wilder, and act opposite the great James Cagney. Yet despite acquitting herself well in both roles, she then began a frustrating struggle to avoid being shoved into films of lesser stature -- roles where fitting into a bikini was as important, if not more so, than her dramatic or comedic chops. Only five years after launching her motion picture career, she would walk away from Hollywood with few regrets, leaving unanswered the question of how successful she could have become with the right parts, and more careful career handling.

Lisanti, as his regular readers know, loves groovy 60s flicks like The Pleasure Seekers, and those who fell in love with Tiffin in these escapist escapades will find their fond appreciation shared by the author. Thanks to the author's valuable interviews with costars and colleagues, they'll also enjoy a revealing look behind the scenes. In later years, Tiffin began a second career in Italian films, and Lisanti's research into this aspect of her work is impressively detailed. He makes a convincing case for his argument that Tiffin, at her best, was "prettier than Raquel Welch, funnier than Jane Fonda, and more appealing than Ann-Margret." And who could resist that?

NOTE: I was provided a review copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Hot Ticket

Imagine that it's December 1970, and you've been offered free tickets to watch the taping of a new sitcom. You don't know much, if anything, about this show, called All in the Family, because it hasn't yet debuted on TV. Maybe you expect something similar to other popular CBS sitcoms of the day, such as My Three Sons, The Beverly Hillbillies, or Here's Lucy. Chances are, none of those quite prepared you for Norman Lear's show, which would soon make TV history.

I'd love to hop into a time machine, and be a fly on the wall of that studio. Were viewers intrigued? Shocked? Impressed? Appalled? One thing's for sure. This show was unlike anything most of them had ever seen on network television.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Ready for Close-Ups

Well, this is good news. One of my favorite TV history books of the past few years, Eddie Lucas' Close-Ups: Conversations with our TV Favorites, is now available as an eBook. Lucas' engaging book features lengthy, thorough interviews with some of the best-remembered stars from classic TV shows of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.

Among the shows represented are Leave it to Beaver, Hazel, The Waltons, and The Mothers-in-Law, just to name a few. The book has become even more valuable in the years since its original publication because several of the stars featured -- Peter Breck, Alice Ghostley, Lynn Borden -- have since passed away. I for one am glad their memories were captured by such a skilled and caring interviewer before the opportunity was lost.

Give it a look. I think you'll be glad you did.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Holiday Sale!

Check out this new catalog from McFarland, which comes with a 30% off coupon. Of course, to get the discount, you have to buy 2 books. But I've written five, so what's the problem? Happy shopping!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Remembering Emmaline

Marty Ingels and John Astin, flanking Emmaline.
Even on a show never overburdened with subtlety, Amanda Bellows was hardly a low-key character. But that was part of what made her appearances on I Dream of Jeannie so much fun.

Actress Emmaline Henry, born on this date in 1928, first came to public attention playing John Astin's wife in the short-lived ABC sitcom I'm Dickens...He's Fenster (which I covered in Lost Laughs of '50s and '60s Television). She played another sitcom spouse on Mickey Rooney's show in 1964. But it was the forceful, slightly spoiled, and comically frustrated Mrs. Bellows that would provide her most memorable TV role. She was cast in that recurring gig in Jeannie's second season, after playing an unrelated guest part in a previous episode.

Emmaline's television success was cut short when she died of cancer in 1979, only 50 years old. She had recently played Chrissy's boss on Three's Company, and it could have easily become another popular recurring role for the talented actress. But we weren't that fortunate, nor was she. It's nice to know that we can still enjoy her comic chops in reruns.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Joan Gives Him the Axe!

Strait-Jacket (1964) gets off to a shocking start when axe murderess Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford) gives the unkindest cut of all to her philandering husband and his younger mistress. Do you recognize the future TV star who, in one of his first professional appearances, plays this lopped-off Lothario? I'll give you a clue: he definitely didn't get paid Six Million Dollars to perform this uncredited bit part.

P.S. Even tawdry affairs were pretty genteel in 1964, wouldn't you say? Can you really make the most of your forbidden passion when you haven't even unbuckled your belt, and your lady is fully dressed? Maybe Lucy should've just given them a really stern warning...

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Chaplin's Odd Couple

Not a match made in heaven, you'd say? Indeed, Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin) may have bitten off more than he can chew when he ties the knot with brassy, less-than-classy Annabella Bonheur (Martha Raye). Much as he admires her healthy bank balance, Annabella's husband will soon learn that getting his hands on it is tougher than he expected.

But off-screen this was a true mutual admiration society. Chaplin thought Raye's facility for slapstick comedy in keeping with the great traditions of silent film days, while she regarded him, her co-star and director, as nothing less than a genius.

Audiences may not have quite been ready for the dark humor and pointed social commentary of Verdoux when it was released in 1947. Decades later, though, it's easy to admire Chaplin's skill as a filmmaker - and the comic gifts he spotlighted in one of Martha's best films.

Find out more in Martha Raye: Film and Television Clown.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Happy Anniversary, Lucy!

The early days of a TV empire.
Hard to believe it's time to commemorate the 64th anniversary of the classic of all TV classics, I Love Lucy. But in fact American audiences were introduced to Lucy, Ricky, Ethel, and Fred on October 15, 1951, when "The Girls Want to Go to a Nightclub" aired on CBS. Although not the first episode filmed, it was chosen as the best one to help the show find its audience.

Fittingly, anniversaries were the topic of that premiere episode, as the wives clash with their husbands on how to observe the Mertzes' 18 years of marriage. When the girls refuse to celebrate at the boxing ring, Lucy threatens to find escorts who will take her and Ethel somewhere more appealing. Ricky calls her bluff, and says he and Fred will also find dates for the evening. Thanks to some typical Lucy Ricardo scheming, the guys end up with their own wives in disguise, as a hillbilly gal and her Maw.

Not all critics warmed to this new situation comedy, but audiences embraced Lucy and her companions from Day One, and there's seemingly no end in sight to that love affair. Not all TV shows from the 1950s play well today, but you're a stronger character than I am if you can watch an episode of I Love Lucy sixty-odd years later and not crack a smile.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Gracie for President

In the 1930s and 1940s, George Burns and the staff of Burns and Allen (as their radio program was familiarly known) did a great job keeping the show in the public eye with a series of clever publicity stunts, among them a national search for Gracie's supposedly missing brother. One of their biggest brainstorms was Gracie's entry as a candidate in the presidential election of 1940, representing the Surprise Party. Not only did the popular radio star go on the campaign trail, delivering beguiling and bewildering speeches like no one else could, she even had what every candidate needs - a book outlining her political platform. How to Become President was published by the Gracie Allen Self-Delusion Institute.

Even though most listeners caught on that this was all in fun, Gracie did in fact receive thousands of write-in votes that year. Seventy-five years ago, she must have seemed like the nuttiest candidate in political history. Fast forward to 2015, and ... do I even need to say it? Sometimes we just don't know when we're well off.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"Let's All Go to the Lobby..."

"Let's all go to the lobby ... let's all go to the lobby..."

Moviegoers of a certain age will almost certainly know this little ditty, which for years exhorted theater customers to spend money at the refreshment stand. Produced in the 1950s (exact dates vary, according to the source), it was made by a company called Filmack Studios, and featured animation by Dave Fleischer, known for his association with Popeye cartoons.

But did you know this short was actually recognized by the National Film Registry in 2000? The National Film Preservation Board described it as "probably the best known 'snipe' or theatrical movie trailer ever produced."

And now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll go get a snack...

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Bea Benaderet: Stardom After 50

Bea and Gale Gordon on My Favorite Husband.
If I lived to be ninety or so, I might get around to researching and writing books about all the performers whose careers have caught my attention over the years. Somewhere fairly high up on that list would be the fine character actress Bea Benaderet (1906-1968), who did yeoman's work in radio's My Favorite Husband, television's The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show in the 1950s, as the voice of Betty Rubble on The Flintstones, and finally as the star of her own sitcom, Petticoat Junction. Those few credits, of course, scarcely scratch the surface of her resume, bursting with memorable radio and TV performances before her career was cut short by her death at the age of 62.

Always in demand for character roles, Benaderet claimed she was caught by surprise when, after playing Cousin Pearl on the first year of The Beverly Hillbillies, creator/producer Paul Henning offered her a show of her own. "It was entirely his idea," she told syndicated columnist Bob Thomas in a 1965 interview. During her second season on Petticoat Junction, she said, "Sometimes I think, 'Goodness, this business of appearing in every scene of the script is too much work.' But let a script come along in which I'm not in all the scenes, and I go, 'Grrrrr.'"

After Bea's death in 1968, Petticoat Junction was never quite the same, despite the addition of the capable June Lockhart as motherly Dr. Janet Craig. But there's still plenty of Bea to be seen and appreciated, and surely someone will get around to writing a book that pays her the tribute she deserves. Who knows, it might even be me.  

Monday, September 21, 2015

Raise the Flagg!

Happy birthday to Fannie Flagg, born on this date in 1944. Now a bestselling and critically acclaimed novelist, she remains, to my eyes, one of the funny ladies who frequently graced the bottom right corner spot on Match Game. She also played Dick Van Dyke's sister in his "New" sitcom of the 1970s, and was later best buddy to Barbara Eden in Harper Valley.

Although classic TV fell short of finding the perfect vehicle for her considerable talents, it's nice to know that bigger and better things lay in store once she took up writing. There's apt to be a big celebration today at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Pearl Anniversary for the Golden Girls

Rue, Bea, Estelle, and Betty laugh it up.
I have to admit it. I'm one of those fans of The Golden Girls. The ones who have seen every episode at least a dozen times, and still watch. I even belong to a Facebook group devoted entirely to sharing GG jokes, memes, and memories. If you say "linguine with ear salve," or "In what, Blanche? Dog years?" I know exactly what you mean, and which episode it's in.

So naturally I can't let the 30th anniversary of this modern classic go unobserved. One of the best memories of researching and writing my first book was interviewing the great Betty White, back when she was just a kid of 84 or so.

Although most of my books are about the stars, films, and shows of the 1930s through the 1960s, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for four ladies who, in my mind at least, are still enjoying their golden years in Miami. Happy anniversary!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Remembering Judy

I was sorry to hear of the death of Judy Carne, the talented British actress - dancer who became an American TV star in the 1960s. Although Laugh-In is the show for which she's best-known, many also recall her sitcom Love on a Rooftop, a charming romantic comedy co-starring Pete Duel.

Before researching Lost Laughs of '50s and '60s Television, I'd never seen Rooftop, which ABC canceled in 1967 after one year. I found it a likable and well-done show that deserved a longer run. It's a bit poignant to watch reruns, knowing what troubled (and in Duel's case, short) lives lay ahead for its stars. Carne probably made the right call when she fled the Hollywood scene awhile back, and I hope her later years spent in a small English town were peaceful and happy. RIP, Judy.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Acres and Acres

They're two of radio and TV's most recognizable character actors, but I'd be willing to bet many of you aren't familiar with the show they're performing here. Gale Gordon and Bea Benaderet played the starring roles in CBS' radio comedy Granby's Green Acres in the summer of 1950. The comedy was not picked up for a regular season run, and there it ended. At least, it ended until nearly 15 years later, when writer/producer Jay Sommers revived the concept for television, where Green Acres became much more successful.       

Gordon and Benaderet, of course, moved smoothly from their success as radio performers to being equally in demand on television. In fact, it was the popularity of Petticoat Junction, starring Benaderet, that prompted CBS to ask for another show from executive producer Paul Henning. Busy with Junction and The Beverly Hillbillies, he sought the help of Sommers, and together they concocted the idea of placing Green Acres in Hooterville.

Incidentally, Granby's Green Acres was followed on the CBS schedule that summer by Leave It to Joan, starring none other than our pal Joan Davis. See how neatly I did that?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Raye Day

Martha Raye (1916-1994) was born 99 years ago today. What better way to spend the day than putting the finishing touches on my book about her life and career?

It's been a privilege to learn about her storied life and career, and I'm looking forward to sharing the results with readers in 2016. Now, back to the manuscript!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Movie Mashup Idea

Rock Hudson and Barbara Stanwyck in "Sorry, Wrong Pillow."

I get these odd ideas sometimes...Did I mention that I'm doing final revisions on my new book, and that my brain is slightly fried?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Revise, Review, Rewrite

Ah, the joys of revision - how I hate them! I am on my (approximately) 93rd review of the manuscript for my Martha Raye book, due out next year. It used to be that I'd kill at least a couple of trees per book, printing out pages, making edits and corrections, rinse and repeat. Now I send those drafts to my Kindle, where I spend time looking for typos, missing data, and anything else that falls short of the perfection I hope to achieve. As I go, I scribble notes to myself (see above), and then take to the word processor yet again.

There is probably no such thing as a perfect book, and mine are certainly no exception to that rule. But rest assured I am chasing those imperfections with all my might, doing my best to deliver a book readers will enjoy. Wish me luck!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Rosy Prospects

Recognize our birthday girl there? Granted, it's a slightly out-of-date photo, but it just serves to illustrate how long Rose Marie (born August 15, 1923) has been entertaining audiences. Many fans, of course, think of her first and foremost as wisecracking Sally Rogers from The Dick Van Dyke Show (CBS, 1961-66). But her first show business success came in the late 1920s, when her fine singing voice won her a radio contract at the age of five. After that came nightclub engagements, movies, appearances on The Hollywood Squares and The Doris Day Show, and her happy marriage to trumpeter Bobby Guy, cut short by his death in 1964.

If you haven't done so, you should definitely read her fine autobiography Hold the Roses, published by the University Press of Kentucky in 2002. It's a great way to get better acquainted with this show business veteran who has given us all so many hours of pleasure. Happy birthday, Rose Marie!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Book Review: The Case of the Recommended Reading

It won't come as any surprise to readers of this blog that I'm an avid fan of the classic Perry Mason series, which aired on CBS from 1957 to 1966. So how could I resist Jim Davidson's The Perry Mason Book: A Comprehensive Guide to America's Favorite Defender of Justice? Published as an eBook, this is a massively comprehensive, detailed, and fascinating guide not only to Erle Stanley Gardner's books, but the television shows, movies, radio programs, comic books, and other incarnations of his acclaimed lawyer-detective.

Davidson could easily have filled a sizable tome with his own observations, critiques, and reviews of Perry's escapades, and it would have been well worth reading. But he has gone far beyond that, drawing on original interviews with many of the people associated with Perry Mason behind the scenes. His history of the series (and its follow-ups) draws on information gathered from producers, writers, actors, and others who were directly involved in its creation, resulting in details that could have been gathered no other way. Though Perry's creator passed away many years ago, Davidson has also drawn on Gardner's papers held at the University of Texas, as well as records kept by Paisano Productions, which brought Mason to TV.

I am perhaps breaking one of the cardinal rules of the professional book reviewer when I say I am publishing this blog entry before I have finished reading Davidson's book. But that is actually a compliment to its author. Not only is it so comprehensive (without being bloated) that it requires a substantial investment of time to fully appreciate, but it is exactly the type of TV history book that cries out to be read slowly, ideally in conjunction with viewing the series episodes. I've been gradually watching Perry Mason on DVD for quite some time now, at the rate of about one episode per week, and I'm sadly reaching the point where I soon will have seen the entire series. In recent weeks, my viewing has been greatly enhanced by snatching up Davidson's guide shortly after turning off the TV, enjoying all the behind-the-scenes stories that accompany his episode guide. Once I've seen The Case of the Final Fadeout, I might well start over again at Season One, with Jim Davidson's book at my side.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Cold Comfort

Ugh. It's early August, and I am tired of being hot. Fall is my favorite season, and right now it seems too far away. So to help myself, and others, "think cool," here's the coldest classic TV picture I could find. This is, of course, from "The Freezer," a popular first-season episode of I Love Lucy, first telecast on April 28, 1952. Think I'll go watch it now, in hopes of picking up just a little of the chill from the Ricardos' new walk-in freezer.

Popsicle, anyone?

Monday, July 27, 2015

Stump the Hardcore Lucy Fan? It Can't Be Done!

I've mentioned before that I do a daily trivia challenge on Facebook's Classic TV Lovers' Haven page. Although I try to cover a variety of shows and stars in my questions, about once a week or so I find myself asking about I Love Lucy. More than any other show included, this is the one that classic TV fans know backwards and forwards.

With 10,000 members in the group, it usually takes no more than five minutes -- often less -- for someone to correctly answer a Lucy query. These are a few I've tried recently:

1.  What's the name of the movie for which Lucy and Ethel perform a publicity stunt (seen above) atop the Empire State Building?

2.  According to Lucy Ricardo, whose personal habits include "scratching himself, and peeling bananas with his feet"?

3.  After Ricky Ricardo refuses to appear in his wife's play A Tree Grows in Havana, what does Lucy retitle her drama?

4.  What did Ricky Ricardo do after reading - and misunderstanding - Lucy's note that read "BUY CAN ALL PET"?

If you're interested enough to read this blog, I'm guessing that you won't have much trouble answering these either. But if you're stumped, drop me a note. It's always nice to hear from a fellow Lucy fanatic.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Birthday Carroll

Hard to believe it's time to wish this lovely and talented lady a happy 80th birthday! Born Carol Diahann Johnson in the Bronx on July 17, 1935, she went on to build an impressive career as an actress and singer. Classic TV fans know her as the elegant Dominique Deveraux on Dynasty, Whitley Gilbert's mom on A Different World, and always as the pioneering star of the 1968-71 sitcom Julia. You can pay her an online visit at her official website, where she regularly posts news of a still-burgeoning career.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Matchlessly Funny

Like several game shows of its era, Match Game flourished largely on the strength of its celebrity panel. When that group was carefully chosen, and working at full steam, the show was lively, spontaneous fun. Although the game was billed by announcer Johnny Olson as "star-studded," fame outside the daytime TV arena wasn't necessarily the key to success as a panelist.

One of Match Game's biggest draws was an actress and singer who was, before the show caught on, a pretty minor celebrity at best. Brett Somers (1924-2007), born 91 years ago today, was initially booked at the suggestion of her longtime husband, television star Jack Klugman. After cracking wise about his wife on early Match Game episodes, he suggested to producers that they bring her on for a week, so that she could have a chance to reply. That week-long booking turned into a nine-year gig, amusing audiences with the playful bickering between her and Charles Nelson Reilly.

Somers exhibited a great sense of humor about herself and her work, as shown in one of my all-time favorite exchanges on that show. The question, as read by host Gene Rayburn, began: "Sally had the most useless job in the world..." Before he could get any farther, Brett cut in with her weary reply, "No, she didn't."

You're missed, Miss Somers.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Blast from the TV Past

One of the most commented-on posts lately in Classic TV Lovers' Haven began with this impromptu photo I took of a page from a 1975 TV Guide. 

Evidently it sparked memories in quite a few people, who had fond recollections of the days when the long-running TV magazine came in a digest size. Back then, for you young folks, it included detailed listings for what would be playing over the coming week, customized for dozens of different cities. This one shows the channels in Atlanta, Georgia and surrounding cities (including Macon and Chattanooga, Tennessee), and a typical weekday afternoon filled with soap operas, game shows, and syndicated reruns of some favorite Baby Boomer shows.

Many who commented on my post remembered being excited by every year's Fall Preview issue of TV Guide, back when there was no Internet to track every detail of new and upcoming shows.

What would you have watched if you were in front of the TV set on this day in 1975? And if the answer to that is, "I wasn't born yet," please just keep it to yourself, OK?

Monday, June 29, 2015

It's Joan's Birthday -- Isn't It?

Wishing a very happy birthday to the late, great comedienne Joan Davis, born on this date in 1907. Or was it 1912? 

This is one time you'd do well not to rely on the Internet for a correct answer (excepting this blog, of course!) Both dates have been reported by multiple sources, so in researching Joan Davis: America's Queen of Film, Radio and Television Comedy, I was determined to give the definitive answer.

Thanks to the considerable help of my genealogist friend PD (who doesn't like her name bandied about online), I was able to obtain a copy of Joan's birth certificate. It provided a few surprises, including a given name that wasn't quite what I expected, a notation as to when and how it was legally amended, years after it was filed -- and a date ...

Well, for that part, please check out my fifth book, published in 2014. Too little is known about this gifted funny lady, who died much too young in 1961, and the book represents my best effort at filling that need. I hope you'll give it a look.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

When 86 Isn't Enough

The sad news of Dick Van Patten's death earlier this week, at the age of 86, was for me accompanied by a pleasant memory of making his acquaintance some years ago. When I was working on my biography of Shirley Booth, I was lucky enough to get an interview with actress Joyce Van Patten, who supported Miss Booth in two Broadway shows. After we had chatted for a little while, Miss Van Patten abruptly said, "You should talk to my brother Dickie." She promptly rattled off his phone number, and with some hesitation I called it later that day. That was how I met Dick Van Patten, who in our conversation seemed to me as nice as the dad he played on TV's Eight is Enough. Both Van Pattens willingly gave me terrific anecdotes about working with Shirley Booth, dating back to their years as child actors, substantially enriching my book.

One thing I remember clearly about Mr. Van Patten is the greeting on his answering machine. If you didn't succeed in reaching him immediately, you could at least listen to a joke he had recorded for his callers' entertainment. I wouldn't be surprised if people called him back from time to time just to hear the latest one, as recounted by a talented actor whose flair for comedy won him multiple roles with Mel Brooks.

By all indications, Dick Van Patten lived a rich, full life, both personally and professionally. I'm just one of many people who will remember him with respect and affection.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Up the Creek with Eve and Gale

Eve Arden (left) and Gale Storm, with Chick Chandler caught in the middle.
Okay, it's not the best movie you'll ever see. It's probably not even in the top ten. But how far wrong can you go with a movie that stars two of my favorite leading ladies, Eve Arden and Gale Storm?

The film in question would be Curtain Call at Cactus Creek, an amiable 1950 Western comedy that also stars Donald O'Connor, Vincent Price, and Walter Brennan. While Gale plays love interest to O'Connor, Eve is cast as a lady Price's character calls "a second-rate music hall performer who never had any talent." Her response? "With what I had a few years ago, I didn't need any talent!"

Like too many other movies from the golden age of Hollywood, this one hasn't yet had a full-fledged DVD release. However, if it doesn't turn up on one of the old movie channels, you can always find a copy here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Remembering Faith Domergue

If you've never seen Faith Domergue recoiling in horror from the advances of a bug-eyed monster or creepy interplanetary visitor, you just didn't watch enough 1950s sci-fi movies.
Always popular with the fellas: Faith Domergue in This Island Earth.
Born on this date in 1924, the beautiful actress was originally slated for bigger things in movies. Billionaire Howard Hughes met her in the 1940s, when she was a fresh new discovery at Warner Brothers, and bought out her contract at considerable expense. Much time and money went into the film that was supposed to establish her as a leading lady, but Vendetta (1950) was not a success. By the mid-1950s, Domergue still had enough name value to top the cast list of lower-budgeted films, and 1955 audiences saw the triptych that made her forever a scream queen: This Island Earth, It Came from Beneath the Sea, and Cult of the Cobra (the latter offering her a chance to do the menacing, for a change). Her career solid but unspectacular, she continued to act into the 1970s, and passed away in Santa Barbara on April 4, 1999.

For an interesting, in-depth interview with this intriguing actress, check out Tom Weaver's book I Was a Monster Movie Maker: Conversations with 22 SF and Horror Filmmakers

Friday, June 12, 2015

Ready to Match the Stars -- Again

"Matching" Brett Somers, Gene Rayburn, Charles Nelson Reilly
With major networks all but lost to reality TV, which has never held much interest for me, it's a happy circumstance that several digital channels have sprung up to serve viewers who still appreciate shows of the good old days. MeTV, Antenna TV, and others offer new chances to see shows that get little, if any, rerun play on local stations today -- Mayberry R.F.D, Perry Mason, Here's Lucy, and a good many more. This month, a new digital channel debuted for those of who still enjoy vintage game shows.

Buzzr fills its daily schedule with episodes of Match Game, Super Password, Family Feud, and even the original Let's Make a Deal, with "TV's big dealer, Monty Hall!" Of these, Match Game is my favorite, and Buzzr came along just as I was despairing of finding any more episodes on YouTube. I enjoy the amiable bickering of Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly, and it's always a good day for me when Betty White, Fannie Flagg, or Patty Duke Astin (as she was then known) is gracing the panel.

It does bother me a tiny bit when I see the type of advertisers that are, thus far, spending money to buy time on Buzzr. In just a few days, I've seen an awful lot of commercials for step-in bathtubs, medic alert bracelets, Medicare supplements, and burial insurance. Is someone, somewhere, trying to tell me something?

Monday, June 8, 2015

Joan's Birthday Cake

Born on this date in 1933, Joan Rivers managed the considerable feat of keeping her career going for more than 50 years. In the 1960s, she was a frequent guest on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, and even briefly had her own talk show. At the time of her death in 2014, she was as busy as ever, doing her level best to stay on the cutting edge of comedy -- or perhaps step a bit over that edge.

Naturally, her humor evolved over the years, as did audience standards. In 1969, Joan was asked to provide a few of her "favorite jokes" for a syndicated newspaper article. Here's a sample:

"I had no luck baking my husband Edgar a birthday cake. While it was in the oven, the candles melted."

"I was so fat as a child that whenever I played Post Office, they sent me bulk rate."

"I never realized how bad a cook I was until Betty Crocker heaved a rock through my kitchen window."

Pretty tame stuff, next to her 21st century jokes. But whether you prefer that kindler, gentler Joan, or the later one who dropped knife-edged gags about Anne Frank and various modern-day celebrities, there's no doubt that the former Joan Molinsky fought hard for her place in the show business sun. It's not likely we'll forget her soon.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Why We Remember

The recent passing of two veteran performers made me think about the generational divide between people my age (late-era Baby Boomers) and those who are younger. If you asked me to name three reasons to know Anne Meara (1929-2015), I might say, "Half of the Stiller and Meara comedy team ... Veronica on Archie Bunker's Place," and then what? Valerie Harper's pal on Rhoda? Star of Kate McShane? Panelist on Match Game? Give me a few more tries, and maybe I'd add, "Ben Stiller's mother." But it wouldn't be her claim to fame in my book, as it was seemingly was for many obituary writers in recent days. 

On the other hand, I will admit that, yes, mention the name of Betsy Palmer (1926-2015), who died last Friday, and I do get an image of her as Mrs. Voorhees in Friday the 13th (1980). But I also know her for a supporting role in Joan Crawford's Queen Bee (1955), as a panelist on game shows (notably I've Got a Secret), and for her role on the prime-time soap Knots Landing.

Maybe there's something to be said for actresses so versatile that no one of their roles stands out when their careers are assessed. And for surviving so long in a tough industry that you have multiple opportunities to redefine yourself as time passes. RIP, ladies. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Happy Birthday, Doll!

Actress Edna Skinner, born on this date in 1921, is probably best-known for playing Kay Addison, wry wife to her "doll" Roger on TV's Mister Ed. But those who enjoyed her work on that show may not realize that she also appeared in the original Broadway company of Oklahoma! (replacing Celeste Holm as Ado Annie), played Maggie, the cook, on Topper, and had a featured role in the classic film Friendly Persuasion.

The death of her co-star Larry Keating in 1963 eventually led to Skinner being written out of Mister Ed during her fourth year with the series. Though Kay Addison's recreational sport of choice seemed to be shopping, Skinner was cut from a different cloth. Retiring from acting at mid-life, Skinner reinvented herself as an expert on fly fishing, her hobby for many years. She and sister Ann (a former model) became regular contributors to Western Outdoors magazine, and were employed as experts in the field by sporting goods manufacturers.

Skinner died at home in North Bend, Oregon on August 8, 2003, at the age of 82. Though Mister Ed lasted until 1966, there seemed to be something missing from this classic show once the sophisticated sparring partners Kay and Roger Addison were no longer to be found next door.

Monday, May 18, 2015

"Bewitched" Book Casts Its Spell

It's not every vintage TV show for which I'd read an oversized, 600-page episode guide, that's for sure. But I happily did so in the case of Adam-Michael James' The Bewitched Continuum: The Ultimate Linear Guide to the Classic TV Series (Bright Horse Publishing, $29.95). As the author's introduction makes clear, this is not a book to consult for behind-the-scenes stories, or production histories. The focus is purely on the episodes themselves -- what's good, what's not so good, and how each one contributes to the show's legacy.

Several fun appendices crunch the numbers on various Bewitched tropes -- how many times Larry Tate actually fired Darrin, or threatened to, as well as the complete list of animals or objects Darrin was turned into over eight seasons. There's even a handy list of McMann & Tate clients and their products, and medical records for all the curious maladies and ailments suffered by Samantha, her family and friends.

I could (and will!) argue the author's list of ten Best and Worst episodes; I'd move at least one of his choices from one column to the other. But that's just part of the fun in such a book. Maybe we can debate it sometime in one of Darrin's favorite bars, with Dick Wilson slurring his comments as we go.

Whether you're watching Bewitched for the first time, or the umpteenth, this book is a lot of fun.

NOTE: I was provided a review copy in exchange for an honest and fair review.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

As the TV World Turns

Here's a fun little artifact I acquired recently, courtesy of eBay -- the October 1955 issue of a television fan magazine. On the cover are Liberace ("man of a million talents"), Fess Parker, then playing Davy Crockett in a serial on ABC's Disneyland, and comedians Groucho Marx (You Bet Your Life) and Martha Raye (The Martha Raye Show). 

I enjoyed seeing the photos and stories about some of the most popular performers in the mid-fifties. There's a layout featuring husband and wife Anne Jeffreys and Robert Sterling, of Topper fame, showing off their baby son Jeffreys Sterling. Of course, some of the articles remind us that the information imparted in these publications often needs to be taken with a grain of salt, or twelve. A profile of Betty White declares, "Betty Ought to Get Married!" -- glossing over the fact that the clean-cut star was in fact a two-time divorcee. TV World also assures us that actress Jean Hagen (Make Room for Daddy) "loves co-star Danny [Thomas] as a dear friend," and that "being a TV mom comes second nature" to her. In reality, a frustrated Hagen would quit the show only a few months later, forcing the writers to make Thomas' character a widower the following season. Thomas would admit years later in his autobiography that their working relationship was often bumpy.

If readers didn't think they were getting their 25 cents worth from TV World, they could always venture down the darker alleys of magazines like the infamous Confidential, whose articles that year were more along the lines of "Rory Calhoun -- But for the Grace of God, Still a Convict!" Me, I think I'll stick with Betty White and her quest to find the man who can give her "that tingle that means Mama had better be shopping for wedding announcements."

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Julia's Day

In honor of Mother's Day 2015, here's one of the coolest, classiest moms of vintage TV: Diahann Carroll, from the 1968-71 series Julia. For anyone who wasn't there, it may be difficult to understand that this gentle, charming comedy series was seen as ground-breaking in its day. But it starred an African-American actress as a lead character who wasn't a maid or a housekeeper, and back then that was still a novelty for network TV.

Miss Carroll played a widow whose husband had died in Vietnam. Julia was now raising Corey (played by Marc Copage, above) alone, while managing a successful career as a registered nurse. Despite network skepticism, audiences embraced the show. Julia was sometimes criticized for failing to depict the harsher realities of race relations in 20th century America. Yet it did offer viewers of all kinds the chance to visit a place where kindness and acceptance usually prevailed -- and perhaps that helped us picture making the real world a bit more like that.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Author Emerges in Public

I'm back! I had a great time visiting Reno, Nevada to speak at the annual History Symposium of the National Automobile Museum this past weekend.

The symposium covered the decade of the 1950s from an array of fascinating angles. I learned a little something about the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, restoring classic cars of the period, and more. For my part, I talked about those Women Who Made Television Funny, and the dramatic growth and development that took place in the television industry between 1950 and 1959.

Afterwards, at the book signing, I met some very nice people, including museum volunteer Lynne (pictured). I signed some books that are apparently destined to become birthday gifts in the not-too-distant future, so I hope you like them, Joe, Linda, etc. Jackie Frady and Barbara Clark were gracious hosts for all their symposium guests, and I was able to see a little bit of Reno in my time off. Now I guess it's time to get back to work -- another book due in a few months. Thanks, Reno!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Eve's Big Day

Happy birthday to one of my favorite performers. Born as Eunice Quedens on April 30, 1908, in Mill Valley, California, Eve was stagestruck from her youth. She went on to build an impressive career in theater, radio, film, and TV. Whether you know her from Our Miss Brooks, her Oscar-nominated turn in Mildred Pierce, or one of her other many credits, you aren't likely to forget this distinctive performer once you've encountered her. Though she left us in 1990, many of her best performances can still be enjoyed today.

Researching and writing a book about her professional accomplishments was a labor of love. I hope it encourages others to discover her, or check out some of her lesser-known credits. Some of my favorite Arden films include Stage Door, The Voice of the Turtle, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. And have you seen her feature film version of Our Miss Brooks? Does it finally turn her into Our Mrs. Boynton? Watch and see.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Judy! Judy! Judy!

Happy birthday to Judy Carne, born on this date in 1939. Best-known as the "Sock-It- To-Me Girl" on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, she previously starred opposite Pete Duel (both above) in the charming romantic comedy Love on a Rooftop, which aired from 1966 to 1967 on ABC-TV. (This show is the subject of a chapter in my book Lost Laughs of '50s and '60s Television).

As detailed in her outspoken memoir, Laughing on the Outside, Crying on the Inside, life itself had a way of socking it to Judy, and she's been out of public view for quite a few years. Whatever she's up to these days, I hope she's well and happy. She certainly seemed to be overdue for her turn at it.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Two from "A Majority of One"

Recognize this distinguished-looking couple? It's Gertrude Berg and Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who teamed up to star in the 1959-60 Broadway hit A Majority of One, by Leonard Spigelgass. Berg, known to radio and television audiences as the creator and star of The Goldbergs, played an American widow who becomes involved romantically with a Japanese man. She won a Tony for her performance in the show, which ran for more than 500 performances.

As for Hardwicke, who was Tony-nominated for his performance as well, Berg so enjoyed working with him that she wanted him for her co-star when she returned to series television in 1961. Can't quite remember that show? Refresh your memory with my book, Lost Laughs of '50s and '60s Television, which covers it and twenty-nine other sitcoms that are rarely revived today.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Go West, Miss Vance

Here's something you don't see every day -- TV's Ethel Mertz on the set of a Western drama. In 1959, with the cast of I Love Lucy playing those characters only in occasional hour-long episodes, Vivian Vance was ready for an opportunity to broaden her horizons. She was therefore pleased by the booking to play a guest role on NBC's The Deputy, which starred Allen Case (above) as the title character, Clay McCord.

As a regular player on one of TV's first top-rated shows, Miss Vance was likely unprepared for the level of fame that weekly coast-to-coast exposure could bring to an actor. While the professional success was gratifying, she feared that her years as frumpy, plain-spoken Ethel Mertz had so overshadowed her previous achievements in films and theater that she would be irrevocably typecast. As she told a reporter while working on The Deputy, "When my friends begin calling me Ethel instead of Vivian, it is time to make a radical change in style."

Unfortunately, her efforts to change things up met with limited success. Her friend Desi Arnaz cast her in a 1960 sitcom pilot, "Guestward Ho," but the network insisted on a different leading lady. So, with some hesitation, she accepted a lucrative offer in 1962 to be Lucille Ball's co-star on The Lucy Show. As it turned out, she never quite escaped the enduring identification as Lucy's sidekick. While she's fondly remembered for those performances, we'll never know what other types of roles she might have played.