February 28, 1949: Hey kids, What Time Is It?

Okay, you could be forgiven for answering “It’s Howdy Doody Time.”  Howdy was certainly a pop star of the puppet world. As were Kukla, Fran and Ollie.  But let’s talk importance.  Albert Einstein.  You’ve probably heard of him.  Which puppet show did he watch?  Not only did Einstein watch Time for Beany, he once excused himself from a conference of Nobel prize winners, telling them it was time for Beany.

Time for Beany arrived on the television scene on February 29, 1949, a couple of years after Howdy and Kukla.  The show’s  creator Bob Clampett pointed out that these shows featured puppets as puppets, appearing alongside humans.  He wanted to create a fantasy world that would let audiences lose themselves in the illusion that Beany and his friends were full-sized people and that Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent was ten feet tall.

In daily 15-minute episodes, Beany, Cecil and Uncle Captain Horatio Huffenpuff sailed the world aboard their ship Leakin’ Lena in search of adventure. A wild array of supporting characters included Carmen Dragon, Mouth Full of Teeth Keith, Hopalong Wong, Tear-along the Dotted Lion, Dinah Saur and the Red Skeleton.  Dishonest John and Dudley Nightshade provided villainy.  Stan Freberg and Daws Butler were the principal puppeteers and voices.

Time for Beany aired until 1955. An animated version, Beany and Cecil, followed during the 60s.


February 22, 1956: Not Your Typical Barbarian

You can pretty much be certain you’ve got a turkey on your hands when you’ve got actors such as Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead (Endora on Bewitched), and John Wayne (!) playing Mongolians, when the entire film is shot in one location in a desert in southern Utah (haven’t we seen that rock before?) and when you have such dialogue as:

“Joint by joint from the toe and fingertip upward shall you be cut to pieces, and each carrion piece, hour by hour and day by day, shall be cast to the dogs before your very eyes until they too shall be plucked out as morsels for the vultures . . . pilgrim.”

The Conqueror, released on February 22, 1956, was the epic story of a 12thconqueror century Mongol warlord who worked his way up the barbarian ladder to become the infamous Genghis Khan. Produced by Howard Hughes, it was meant to be his crowning cinematic masterpiece. The film cost $6 million to film in Cinemascope and Technicolor and is frequently ridiculed in the same breath as Plan 9 from Outer Space, another 50s flop which cost about $2.99 to make. Hughes spent another $12 million to buy back every single print of the film after its disastrous release.

The Conqueror not only destroyed RKO, the studio that made it, but wiped out a good number of the cast and crew. The shooting location turned out to be downwind from Yucca Flats, Nevada, where the government was merrily testing atomic bombs, and the cast and crew received far more than the recommended daily allowance of radioactive fallout. Nearly half of them, including Wayne, were later diagnosed with cancer (although Wayne also smoked six packs a day).

February 22, 1907: Hey Youse

sheldon_leonardThose who remember his screen appearances at all are most likely to recognize him as Nick, the surly bartender who gives George Bailey and Clarence the heave-ho in  It’s a Wonderful Life. As an actor, Sheldon Leonard, born on February 22, 1907, specialized in playing supporting characters, most often gangsters or or other tough guys with names like Pretty Willie, Lippy, Jumbo, Blackie, or, notably, Harry the Horse in the 1955 film of Guys and Dolls. He spoke with a thick New York accent, usually delivered from the side of his mouth.

His many appearances in movies and television spanned six decades. But it was as a producer and director that Sheldon Leonard really made his mark. He began a new career as a television producer in the early 50s and turned out a succession of hit series — The Danny Thomas Show (Make Room for Daddy), Gomer Pyle: USMC, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show (winner of 21 Emmys). He had another success in the mid 60s with I Spy, the first series to cast a black actor (Bill Cosby) as an equal co-star with a white actor in a dramatic role.  Leonard is also informally credited with having invented the spin-off,  the practice of using an episode of a series as a backdoor pilot for a new series.The character of Sheriff Andy Taylor was introduced in an episode of The Danny Thomas Show, which led to the series The Andy Griffith Show. 

Sheldon Leonard died in 1997.


February 11, 1960: Take This Job and Shove It

When the folks at NBC decided to censor Jack Paar’s water closet joke, they must have known the Tonight Show star would be angry. After all, Paar was principled, emotional and a bit unpredictable. But evidently they didn’t gauge the depth of his anger and were certainly unprepared for his reaction. On the night after the joke was cut, February 11, 1960, the Tonight Show went on air as usual. What followed, within minutes, was one of the most unexpected and abrupt goodbyes in the history of television. After his introduction, Paar walked on stage for the live broadcast, announced that he was quitting, and walked promptly off stage, leaving announcer Hugh Downs in charge of the program with nearly 90 minutes to finish.

And he meant it. Paar was gone for three weeks, not returning to the program until NBC apologized and agreed to let him tell the joke on air.


The Water Closet joke:

An English lady, while visiting Switzerland, was looking for a room, and she asked the schoolmaster if he could recommend any to her. He took her to see several rooms, and when everything was settled, the lady returned to her home to make the final preparations to move.  When she arrived home, the thought suddenly occurred to her that she had not seen a “W.C.” around the place. So she immediately wrote a note to the schoolmaster asking him if there were a “W.C.” around. The schoolmaster was a very poor student of English, so he asked the parish priest if he could help in the matter. Together they tried to discover the meaning of the letters “W.C.,” and the only solution they could find for the letters was “Wayside Chapel.” The schoolmaster then wrote to the English lady the following note:

Dear Madam:
I take great pleasure in informing you that the W.C. is situated nine miles from the house you occupy, in the center of a beautiful grove of pine trees surrounded by lovely grounds. It is capable of holding 229 people and it is open on Sunday and Thursday only. As there are a great number of people and they are expected during the summer months, I would suggest that you come early: although there is plenty of standing room as a rule. You will no doubt be glad to hear that a good number of people bring their lunch and make a day of it; while others who can afford to go by car arrive just in time. I would especially recommend that your ladyship go on Thursday when there is a musical accompaniment. It may interest you to know that my daughter was married in the W.C. and it was there that she met her husband. I can remember the rush there was for seats. There were ten people to a seat ordinarily occupied by one. It was wonderful to see the expression on their faces. The newest attraction is a bell donated by a wealthy resident of the district. It rings every time a person enters. A bazaar is to be held to provide plush seats for all the people, since they feel it is a long felt need. My wife is rather delicate, so she can’t attend regularly. I shall be delighted to reserve the best seat for you if you wish, where you will be seen by all. For the children, there is a special time and place so that they will not disturb the elders. Hoping to have been of service to you, I remain,
The Schoolmaster

February 3, 1938: He-e-e-y Abbott

Radio’s Kate Smith Hour was a mainstay during the 30s and 40s. On February 3, 1938, the comedy duo of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made their first radio outing on the program and became regular performers. They first performed their classic “Who’s on First?” the following month.

abbott-costelloThe former vaudevillians quickly became major stars in radio, followed by movies and television. They left the Kate Smith show after two years to star in their own radio program, as well as a Broadway revue, The Streets of Paris, and their first film, One Night in the Tropics, in which, although cast in supporting roles, they stole the show with several classic comedy routines and cemented their film careers.

buck-privatesUniversal Pictures signed them to a long-term contract. Their second film, Buck Privates, made them box-office stars and in the process saved Universal from bankruptcy. In most of their films, the plot was not much more than a framework that allowed them to reintroduce comedy routines they had first performed on stage. Universal also added glitzy production numbers to capitalize on the popularity of musical films, featuring such performers as the Andrews Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald, Martha Raye, Dick Powell and Ted Lewis and his Orchestra. The Andrews Sisters hits “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “I’ll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time” were both introduced in Buck Privates.

During the following years, Abbott and Costello “met” many other movie legends – Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man, Captain Kidd, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Mummy, the Killer (Boris Karloff).  And they traveled throughout the world (and beyond): in a Harem, in the Foreign Legion, Lost in Alaska, Mexican Hayride, Mars, and Africa Screams, which featured both Clyde Beatty and Frank Buck as themselves. They made a total of 36 films.

On television, they frequently hosted the Colgate Comedy Hour and had their own syndicated television program.

In the 1950s Abbott and Costello’s popularity waned, their place atop the comedy heap taken by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Another reason for the decline was overexposure. They were reluctant to introduce new material, and their familiar routines were glutting the movie and television markets, with two films a year, re-releases of most of their older films; their filmed television series and live TV appearances.

They dissolved their partnership in 1957, with Lou making sporadic appearances until his death in 1959.  Bud died in 1974.




January 23, 1957: Tossing Around a Pluto Platter

Fred Morrison and his future wife Lucille were fooling around on a California beach back in 1938 when Fred had a light bulb over your head eureka moment. The pair were tossing a cake pan back and forth when a bored bystander offered them a quarter for the cake pan. Fred started doing the math — it was pretty simple math — I sell a five-cent cake pan for a quarter and I get to hang out on the beach.

The Morrisons jumped right into their flying cake pan business, but before long a nasty war got in their way, including a stretch for Fred as a prisoner of war. It was the late 40s before he got back into the flying cake pan business. Cake pan prices had gone up but plastic was in, and so, in 1948, Morrison and a partner introduced a plastic disc they called “flyin saucer”to take advantage of the UFO craze.

Morrison designed a new model in 1955 called the “pluto platter,” and on January 23, 1957, he sold the rights to Wham-O. Later that year Wham-O added the name Frisbee. And eventually, the name pluto platter was put out of its misery.


Nothing in Moderation

He got his first job in television by showing up for an audition wearing apercydovetonsils barrel and shorts. From there his career took off during a ten-year period that carried him from obscurity to stardom, the ride getting steadily wilder and crazier. Although someone else held the title Mr. Television, Ernie Kovacs, born on January 23, 1919, certainly left his imprint on the medium.

Often referred to as television’s surrealist, the cigar-smoking, poker-playing Hungarian-American comedian could be counted on for the unusual if not the bizarre in any of his many television outings, including It’s Time for Ernie, his first network series; Ernie in Kovacsland; and The Ernie Kovacs Show, featuring characters such as poet Percy Dovetonsils, bumbling magician Matzoh Heppelwhite, Frenchman Pierre Ragout, and the Nairobi Trio. He also hosted the Tonight Show twice a week and had a short stint as a celebrity panelist on What’s My Line?, where he strove more for humor than insight. (When Henry J. Kaiser, the founder of the automobile company, was the program’s mystery guest, and the panel had established that the mystery guest’s name was synonymous with an automobile brand, Kovacs asked, “Are you – and this is just a wild guess – but are you Abraham Lincoln?”

Kovacs was at the peak of his career when he was killed in a late-night automobile accident on his way home from one of the many parties that had become part of his life in California. The inscription on his tombstone reads “Ernie Kovacs 1919 – 1962 — Nothing In Moderation.”

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: 


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.



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 18, 1966: You’re a Mean One

grinch-thumb-525x325-23201In 1957, the most infamous Christmas curmudgeon since Ebeneezer Scrooge made his debut in a picture book called How the Grinch Stole Christmas by the amazing Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel). It marked the first time an adult had been featured as the main character in a Seuss book and the first time a villain had starred. The book has remained a classic since then. Some conspiracy theorists suggest (and the doctor concurs) that the Grinch is Dr. Seuss himself. In the story, the Grinch complains that he has put up with the Whos’ Christmas celebrations for 53 years. Dr. Seuss was 53 when the book was written and published.

Several years later, on December 18, 1966, the furry misanthrope, now a sickly shade of green, was ready for prime time – television, that is. Chuck Jones of Warner Brothers cartoon fame brought the story to living room screens featuring Boris Karloff as narrator and Grinch. In addition to providing the story, Dr. Seuss created the lyrics for the songs featured in the animated special. (The songs were sung by Thurl Ravenscroft, who some will remember as the bass voice on Rosemary Clooney’s  “This Ole House” or Tony the Tiger – “They’re grrreat!”)

The word grinch has found its way into dictionaries as a person whose lack of enthusiasm or bad temper spoils or dampens the pleasure of others. “Noise, noise, noise, noise.”