January 20, 1961: To Air Is Human

Here’s an idea for a television game show: Get four contestants – makebikini them celebrities – have them stick their heads through a life-sized illustration of a famous scene or a song lyric and then take turns asking the host yes/no questions and try to figure out what scene they’re a part of.  Just for insurance, get a big star to be the host. Sound like a winner?

The scenario played out for the first time on CBS at 9:30 pm EST on January 20, 1961, the evening of the inauguration on John F. Kennedy. The program was called You’re in the Picture. The guest celebrities were Pat Harrington Jr., Pat Carroll, Jan Sterling, and Arthur Treacher. The host was Jackie Gleason, who’d been around television for a while hosting his own variety shows and a little number called The Honeymooners. That first episode was also the last episode.

Talk about a bomb. “The biggest bomb in history” said Jackie Gleason, adding that it “would make the H-Bomb look like a two-inch salute.” Time later called it proof that the 1960-61 TV season was the worst in the history of U.S. network television.

The following week, instead of the game show, the broadcast consisted of Gleason sitting in a chair on a bare stage, delivering a lengthy apology for the previous week’s show and a post-mortem noting that more than 300 combined years’ worth of show business experience had been involved in the flop. He ended his commentary by saying “I don’t know what we’ll do, but I’ll be back.”

Gleason’s half-hour apology got much better reviews than the game show, and Gleason returned to finish his series commitment by changing the program’s name to The Jackie Gleason Show and the format to a talk/interview show.

However, he continued without the program’s original sponsor Kellogg’s which pulled out after Gleason, during his apology, referred to the cup of coffee he was sipping as Chock Full O’Booze.

 

Born January 20, 1922, Ray Anthony became a successful band leader during the 1950s, despite composing “The Bunny Hop.”

 

It seems only fair:  During a 1982 concert in Des Moines, Iowa, heavy-metal musician Ozzy Osbourne was bitten by a bat as he tried to bite the bat’s head off as part of the evening’s entertainment.  Osbourne was hospitalized and treated for rabies, living on to further entertain us.  History does not record the fate of the bat.

 

On January 20, 2001, Donald Rumsfeld became the oldest Secretary of State in U.S. history.  And possibly the most senile.  Exactly two years later he declared: 

 

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January 19, 1944: Patriotism and Prosmiscuity

miracleA movie released for national distribution back on January 19, 1944, depicted the predicament of a young woman named Trudy Kockenlocker. It’s seen today as a rather tame screwball comedy — and a good one at that, listed by the American Film Institute as #54 on it’s list of all-time best comedies. Yet it’s a wonder it was ever released.

Miracle at Morgan’s Creek starred Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken and was directed by Preston Sturges. It tells how Trudy wakes up one morning after a farewell party for a group of soldiers to discover that, while drunk, she married one of them whose name she can’t remember. A short time later, she discovers she is pregnant.

Well, didn’t the alarms go off at the Hays Office, that noble outfit charged with protecting Americans from perversion through diligent censorship. The script was sent to the office in 1942, and Paramount quickly received a seven-page catalog of complaints, starting with the fact that Trudy was drunk and working its way up to the possible comparison of Trudy’s dilemma with the virgin birth of Jesus. When the Hays Office had finished its snipping, only ten pages of the script remained in tact. The War Department weighed in about the conduct of the departing soldiers. A pastor in the film who delivers the moral warning against mixing patriotism with promiscuity got the hook as well.

The film was finally released, the Hays Office was bombarded with complaints, including one critic’s suggestion that the office had been “raped in its sleep” for allowing the film to be released, (evidently, Sturges had somehow forgotten to share the film’s ending with the Hays Office). and it became Paramount’s highest-grossing film of the year. It also won an Oscar for Best Screenplay.

January 19, 1953

A lot of folks would spin the channel to CBS in 1953 to catch  another birth, this one a tad less controversial as Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky (Ricky Ricardo Jr.) – 71.7% of all television sets in the United States were tuned into the I Love Lucy program. On the same day, Lucy gave birth to a nonfictional son, Desi Arnaz Jr.

 

 

January 18, 1948: The Kid’s Got Talent?

As the program began, the spinning of a wheel would determine the contestants’ order of appearance. As the wheel spun, Ted Mack would chant the magic words: “Round and round she goes, and where she stops nobody knows.” It was January 18, 1948, and The Original Amateur Hour, episode number one, was on the air. And each week, we would be informed how many episodes had aired. The final broadcast in 1970 was number 1,651.

Ted Mack brought the Amateur Hour to television from radio where it amateurhourhad been a fixture for over a decade under the command of Major Edward Bowes. Mack’s television version was one of only six shows to appear on all four major TV networks – ABC, CBS, NBC, and DuMont. (the others were The Arthur Murray Party; Down You Go; The Ernie Kovacs Show; Pantomime Quiz; and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet).

Contestants were often singers and other musicians, although acts included jugglers, tap dancers, baton twirlers, and such. The television audience voted for their favorites by postcard or by calling JUdson 6-7000. Winners returned for another appearance, and three-time winners became eligible for the annual championship and the chance to win a $2000 scholarship.

During 22 years on television, you might guess that the program would discover a throng of celebrities, but you’d be wrong. Gladys Knight, Ann-Margret, Irene Cara, and Tanya Tucker were a few of the handful of future stars. Pat Boone was a winner, but his appearances caused a bit of a tempest in a TV pot. After his winning appearances, it was discovered that he had appeared on the rival program Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, and was therefore not an “amateur” singer. He was booted from the program, but his fame was already a given, and within a few years he was hosting his own variety show The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom (and Ted Mack was never a guest).

Elvis Presley, on the other hand, was turned down for the show.

 

 

January 6, 1993: Swinger in Chief

Legendary jazz trumpeter John Birks Gillespie, who was born in 1917 and died on January 6, 1993, was instantly recognizable by his beret and horn-rimmed glasses, his bent horn and puffed cheeks. “Dizzy” was known for his bebop improvisation and scat singing. What he wasn’t known for was being President of the United States, although he might have had things gone a little differently back in 1964.

“Dizzy for President” badges began to appear in 1963 although Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater didn’t feel all that threatened by a Dizzy candidacy. What started as a joke and a bit of fundraising for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) gathered a pretty good head of steam before the money ran out. But what a presidency he offered.

He wrote and performed his own campaign song: “Your politics ought to be a groovier thing, so get a good president who’s willing to swing. Vote Dizzy! Vote Dizzy!” He promised, if elected, to work for civil rights and equal opportunity in the workplace. To make certain employers were blind to race, he would have job applicants where sheets over their heads to hide their skin color.

He planned to change the name of the White House to the Blues House.

He even went so far as to name his dream cabinet. Miles Davis would be director the the CIA, Louis Armstrong Minister of Agriculture. Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Woody Herman, Peggy Lee, and Count Basie would all have positions in his administration. Drummer Max Roach wanted to be Secretary of War, but Dizzy said no, because there wouldn’t be one.

If Only He’d Carried a Trumpet Up San Juan Hill

Although he was not a swinging prez, Teddy Roosevelt who died on rooseveltJanuary 6, 1919, was a president of many firsts – and mosts and onlys. Taking office in 1901 at the age of 42, he was our youngest president. (In 1904, he became the first president elected to a term in his own right after having ascended to the presidency from the Vice-Presidency upon the death of his predecessor.) In 1902, he became the first president to ride in an automobile, and in 1905, the first to submerge in a submarine. He was also the first to fly in an airplane. He was the first American to win a Nobel Peace Prize (1906) and one of only three Presidents to ever win it.

Roosevelt was probably the only president to carry a big stick, which may have given him the confidence to be the only president never to use the word “I” in an inaugural address. He was the only one-eyed president, after losing the sight in one eye in a 1904 boxing match with a professional fighter. Though not the only military hero who became president, he was the only one to lead a charge up San Juan Hill.

And he was the only president named after an animal – the teddy bear – although two later presidents were named after plants.

 

 

January 2, 1920: Here Come the Commies, Build That Wall

It was 1920 and America was gripped with fear. The country was under siege by moral perverts bent on destroying goodness, virtue and the American way of life. Spawned by the Russian Revolution of a few years earlier, the Red Menace was upon us.

Where was an American hero who would do something — build a wall, perhaps, to keep out the Bolsheviks, anarchists and labor militants not to mention Mexican rapists and murderers? U. S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer stepped to the fore. On this day in 1920, he dispatched federal agents to pool halls, restaurants and private homes in thirty-five American cities (sanctuary cities?) to round up some six thousand radicals. No warrant? No problem. Civil liberties were meant for true Americans.

“The nation owes a debt of gratitude to A. Mitchell Palmer,” said the New York Herald. “And now let there be no mawkish sentimentality about these rascals, no prattling of the sacred right of free speech from parlor socialists and others of that ilk.”

The near hysteria subsided in a few months when Palmer’s “imminent revolution” was a no-show, but ethnic profiling and guilt by innuendo had been let out of the bag. Perhaps, they would wither and die here? Or perhaps not. Among the army of federal agents unleashed by Palmer was a 24-year-old staunch anti-Communist fanatic named J. Edgar Hoover.

They’re Not Folk, They’re Fellow Travelers

The Weavers burst onto the popular music scene in 1950.  The group, founded in 1948 by Pete Seeger along with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, brought a hard-driving string-band style to a mix of traditional folk songs from around the world, blues, gospel music, children’s songs, labor songs, and American ballads. Their recording of “Goodnight Irene,” held the Billboard #1 spot for 13 weeks that summer.

The Weavers went on to sell millions of copies of songs such as “Midnight Special” and “On Top of Old Smoky” at the height of their popularity. Then as fast as their careers had skyrocketed, they were nearly destroyed by the Return of the Red Scare, this installment brought to us by the jovial Joe McCarthy. When it became known that Seeger and Hays had openly embraced the pacifism, internationalism and pro-labor sympathies of the Communist Party during the 1930s, the backlash was swift and brutal. Planned television shows were canceled, the group was placed under FBI surveillance, and Seeger and Hays were called to testify before McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. The Weavers lost their recording contract with Decca in 1951, and by 1953, they were barred from television and radio and unable to book concert venues. They soon disbanded.

The Weavers enjoyed a comeback in the late 1950s, but the group never shook its right-wing persecutors. Even as late as January 2, 1962, with anti-communist passion declining, their politics were used against them, On that afternoon they were told that a scheduled appearance on The Jack Paar Show would be canceled if they didn’t sign an oath of political loyalty. Every member of the group refused to sign.

Lee Hays died in 1981 shortly after a reunion brought the wandering minstrels back together for a picnic that led to a triumphant return to Carnegie Hall on November 28, 1980, the group’s last ever performance. Pete Seeger never stopped singing until his death in 2014. Ronnie Gilbert died in 2015, Fred Hellerman in 2016.

“If you can exist, and stay the course — not a course of blind obstinacy and faulty conception — but one of decency and good sense, you can outlast your enemies with your honor and integrity intact.” Fred Hellerman, accepting a Grammy Lifetime Achievement  Award for the Weavers in 2006

 ♦

barry-goldwaterIt’s a great country, where anybody can grow up to be president … except me. – Barry Goldwater, born January 2, 1909 (died 1998)

 

December 31, 1920: Don’t Go Near the Indians

rexallenIt was 1949 and executives at Republic Pictures had a brainstorm – let’s take that nice clean-cut guy hanging around the studio and make him a cowboy – maybe even a singing cowboy – he’ll be a God-fearing American hero of the Wild West, wearing a white Stetson hat; he’ll love his faithful horse (platonic, of course); and maybe he could have a loyal sidekick who shares his adventures. We’ll call him the Arizona Cowboy (Arizona isn’t already taken, is it?)

And so Rex Allen, born December 31, 1920, came to a silver screen near you,  joining such singing cowboys as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. His horse was Koko, and his comic relief sidekick was Buddy Ebsen (later Slim Pickens). He rode out of the West just as the West was losing interest for moviegoers. He did get a quick 19 movies in the can (and a comic book) before the genre played out. And in 1954, he starred in Hollywood’s last singing western. Then, like other cowboy stars, he rode into the sunset and onto TV in a series called Frontier Doctor.

Allen had written and recorded a number of the songs featured in his movies. He continued recording, and in 1961, had a hot country single with a song called “Don’t Go Near The Indians,” featuring the Merry Melody Singers. The song told the story of a young man who disobeys his father’s titular advice and develops a relationship (platonic, of course) with a beautiful Indian maiden named Nova Lee. The father reveals a deep dark secret out of the past: his biological son was killed by an Indian during one of those skirmishes between the white man and a nearby tribe. In retaliation, he kidnapped an Indian baby and raised him as his son who grew up to be you-know-who. And there’s another jaw-dropping secret: Nova Lee is the boy’s biological sister! (But poppa, it’s purely platonic; our kids won’t be imbeciles.) They don’t write them like that anymore.

Rex Allen turned in his spurs in 1999 at the age of 79.

 

 

December 26, 1921: Hi, Ho, Stevarino

Although Steve Allen, born December 26, 1921, was a musician, composer, actor, comedian, and writer, he is best known for his career in television. He first gained national steve-allenattention as a guest host on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts and then became the first host of The Tonight Show, initiating the format that television talk shows would follow from then on.

Moving from late night to prime time television, he hosted numerous game and variety shows, most notably The Steve Allen Show, going head to head with Ed Sullivan and Maverick on Sunday evenings. It was there he developed the man on the street interviews which featured Don Knotts, Tom Poston and Louis Nye among others.

Allen was a comedy writer and author of more than 50 books, both fiction and nonfiction, including Dumbth, a commentary on the American educational system, and Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, and Morality.

Allen was also a pianist and a prolific composer, writing over 14,000 songs, some of which were recorded by Perry Como, Margaret Whiting, Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme, Les Brown, and Oscar Peterson. He won a Grammy in 1963 for best jazz composition, with his song The Gravy Waltz. He also wrote lyrics for the standards “Picnic” and “South Rampart Street Parade.” He once won a bet with Frankie Laine that he could write 50 songs a day for a week. His output of songs has never been equaled.

He died in 2000.

 

December 25, 1914: Over There

Just after midnight on December 25, 1914, British, French and Russian troops at European battle fronts were stunned as German joyeauxtroops ceased firing and began to sing Christmas carols — in some cases, even backed up by oompah bands.

World War I had begun five months earlier and would continue for another devastating four years. This spontaneous Christmas truce continued through the night and into daylight when many of the German soldiers emerged from their trenches and called out “Merry Christmas” in their enemies’ native tongues. Finally, Allied soldiers, seeing that the Germans were unarmed, climbed out of their trenches as well. Men from both sides ventured through the so-called No Man’s Land to shake hands with the enemy. The men exchanged small presents and sang carols and songs. In one case, soldiers played an international soccer game.

It was, of course, short-lived as both sides went back to their business of killing each other.  (This true story is told in the 2005 French film Joyeux Noel.)

On Christmas Day in 1941 Bing Crosby introduced a new Christmas song on his weekly NBC radio program. The song, written by Jewish composer and lyricist Irving Berlin, went on to become the gold standard of Christmas music — the top-selling Christmas single ever and the top-selling single of any kind for another 55 years.

The success of “White Christmas” came as no surprise to Berlin, who was already a musical legend. He modestly called it “the best song I ever wrote…the best song anybody ever wrote.” Although Berlin did not celebrate Christmas, it was a day that did hold special meaning to him: his infant son died on December 25, 1928. That perhaps explains some of the ambiguous emotional strength of the song.

 

December 24, 1843: What a Delightful Boy

Published in 1843, it’s the figgy pudding of Christmas stories.  Don’t go until you get some.  Just one tasty scene for your merriness:

(Scrooge has been visited by the three ghosts on Christmas Eve, and he awakens the following morning.)

“I don’t know what day of the month it is!” said Scrooge. “I don’t know how long I’ve been alastair-sim-as-scrooge-at-windowamong the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here!”

He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer, ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding, hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!

Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; golden sunlight; heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh glorious, glorious!

“What’s today?” cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.

“Eh?” returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.

“What’s today, my fine fellow?” said Scrooge.

“Today!” replied the boy. “Why, Christmas Day.”

“It’s Christmas Day!” said Scrooge to himself. “I haven’t missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can. Hallo, my fine fellow?”

“Hallo!” returned the boy.

“Do you know the Poulterer’s, in the next street but one, at the corner?” Scrooge inquired.

“I should hope I did,” replied the lad.

“An intelligent boy!” said Scrooge. “A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there? Not the little prize Turkey, the big one?”

“What, the one as big as me?” returned the boy.

“What a delightful boy!” said Scrooge. “It’s a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck!”

“It’s hanging there now,” replied the boy.

“Is it?” said Scrooge. “Go and buy it.”

“Walk-er!” exclaimed the boy.

“No, no,” said Scrooge, “I am in earnest. Go and buy it, and tell ’em to bring it here, that I may give them the direction where to take it. Come back with the man, and I’ll give you a shilling. Come back with him in less than five minutes, and I’ll give you half-a-crown!”

The boy was off like a shot. He must have had a steady hand at a trigger who could have got a shot off half so fast.

“I’ll send it to Bob Cratchit’s!” whispered Scrooge, rubbing his hand, and splitting with a laugh. “He shan’t know who sends it. It’s twice the size of Tiny Tim. Joe Miller never made such a joke as sending it to Bob’s will be!”

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December 23, 2009: Kids Say the Darnedest Things

Reality television reached new heights in October of 2009, as viewers around the world were tethered to their sets by the saga of the “Balloon Boy.” It started shortly before noon when Richard Heene, a Fort Collins, Colorado, handyman, dabbling scientist and father of three boys, called the Federal Aviation Administration to report that a large balloon that had been tied in his family’s backyard  had gotten loose and taken flight. Heene was certain his six-year-old son Falcon had crawled aboard the craft before its takeoff. Heene also phoned a local TV station, requesting a helicopter to track the balloon, and his wife Mayumi called 911.

The homemade dirigible was soon being pursued by two Colorado National Guard helicopters and by search-and-rescue personnel, as well as reporters, on the ground. A runway at Denver International Airport was shut down as the balloon traveled into its flight path. The runaway blimp finally touched down in a Colorado field after a joyride of some 50 miles. Rescue officials quickly discovered the balloon was empty, prompting fears that poor little Falcon Heene had plummeted from on high during the flight. A ground search was initiated. But later that afternoon, Richard Heene made an oops! statement that the boy had been found safe at home, where he supposedly had been hiding.

Conspiracy theorists came out of the woodwork all afternoon and into the evening, voicing their suspicions that the entire incident had hoax written all over it. Then dear little blabbermouth Falcon Heene told his parents during a live interview on CNN: “You guys said we did this for the show.”

In November, Richard Heene pleaded guilty to a felony charge of attempting to influence a public official to initiate a search-and-rescue mission which in turn would attract media attention, frowned on in Colorado; Mayumi Heene pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of making a false report. Falcon Heene pleaded guilty to being a sniveling six-year-old dupe (permissible under Colorado law). They confessed that they staged the incident in an attempt to get their own reality TV show, having gotten the entertainment bug when previously appearing on a program, called “Wife Swap.”

On December 23, 2009, the Heenes were sentenced to perform community service not involving flying objects, and ordered to pay $36,000 in restitution for the search effort. Falcon, it is rumored, will have his own reality TV show, “Throw In Your Parents.”

 

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