Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Morey Amsterdam Show: Season 2, Episode 1 (DuMont TV, April 21, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles a curious TV item he’d downloaded from the season two premiere of The Morey Amsterdam Show, aired April 21, 1949 on the short-lived and really quirky DuMont network. Morey Amsterdam was the pint-sized Jewish comedian best known for his supporting role as Buddy Sorrell, one of Rob Petrie’s (Dick Van Dyke) compadres in the writing room of the fictitious “Allan Brady Show” on the real Dick Van Dyke Show in the early 1960’s (a series created by Carl Reiner based on his memories of working in the writing room of Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows alongside Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart and Neil Simon!). Before that he was a nightclub MC and he got to do this show, first on the CBS radio network, then for the first year on CBS-TV and for its second and third years on DuMont, playing a nightclub MC with two sidekicks who later went on to much more important careers: Art Carney as Newton the Waiter (the character had been called “Charlie” on the CBS version, also played by Carney, and several times during this show Amsterdam slips up and calls Carney “Charlie” instead of “Newton”) and future author Jacqueline Susann as a cigarette girl with a surprisingly good deadpan sense of humor. (The show was produced by Susann’s husband, Irving Mansfield, who promoted her so energetically — first as a performer and then as a writer — that the hype itself became the subject of a film, She’s So Fabulous!, with Bette Midler playing Susann.) It’s the sort of show that’s funny but nowhere near as funny as the writers thought it was (Amsterdam gets the writing credit himself — though it’s highly likely he had help — and David B. Lewis managed traffic, oops, I mean directed). Amsterdam is funny, all right, but he’s clearly sucking off the bones of better, funnier Jewish comedians, including Groucho Marx in his opening monologue (Charles was startled that the conventions of TV variety shows, including the comedian/host’s opening monologue, were already in place as early as 1949) and Jack Benny in his schtick of playing an instrument terribly. Benny became famous for, among other things, his deliberately rotten violin playing (that he could genuinely handle the instrument became obvious on one of his shows in which he’s shown finger-picking notes on the fretboard, and we have Joe Venuti’s testimony that Benny was an excellent jazz violinist who could give Venuti a run for his money in jam sessions), so Amsterdam decided to go him one better — or at least two sizes bigger — and deliberately badly play a cello. (He, too, is shown finger-picking on the fretboard and thereby giving away that he could really handle the instrument.)

The musical content of the show is supplied by a band led by jazz pianist Johnny Guarnieri (who had played with Artie Shaw’s band and, as a member of the Gramercy 5 — the band-within-a-band Shaw formed to compete with the Benny Goodman Trio and Quartet — he became the first musician to record a jazz solo on harpsichord), who as he has to back Amsterdam in a not-especially-funny novelty song called “Yuk-a-Puk” has a bored look on his face that certainly makes me think he was saying to himself, “Gee, I wish I was back playing with Artie Shaw instead of having to do this shit.” (Yuk-a-Puk” went nowhere but other songs with equally silly nonsense lyrics, like “Mairzy Doats” and “The Hut-Sut Song,” were hits in the late 1940’s, in those dog years for music between the end of the big bands and the rise of rock ’n’ roll.) Also we get a vocal from Vic Damone on Cole Porter’s song “So in Love” from Kiss Me, Kate — Damone, here as in his later appearances on TV and film, shows off a really nice crooner’s voice but is utterly clueless about phrasing; opportunities to use rubato and syncopation a singer like Frank Sinatra would have grabbed in a song like this go sailing by the oblivious Damone. (I recall my late roommate/client John hearing me play Mel Tormé’s version of the song “The Four Winds and the Seven Seas” and informing me that it was Vic Damone who’d had the hit on that song originally; it was utterly impossible for me to imagine Damone singing that song as well as Tormé, who was a master of phrasing.) The show was appealing in a certain dorky way — the scene with Susann was genuinely hilarious (she plays a woman who’s taken to a baseball game and is clueless about what’s going on; she can’t understand why all those people are torturing that poor defenseless ball, including hitting it with a stick and throwing it around the field) and Amsterdam proved a worthy straight-man for her, but in the rest of it he’s pretty overwhelming and it’s easy to see how he worked better as a sideman on The Dick Van Dyke Show than as a lead performer.

The show also featured commercials for DuMont’s own line of TV sets — ironic since you had to own a DuMont set to be able to watch this show at all! The company had been founded by experimental TV researcher Allan B. DuMont, who had decided that the future of TV broadcasting lay in the ultra-high-frequency, or UHF, band (channels 14 to 83, for those of you who weren’t around in the days before cable when the number of available channels was strictly limited to what could be broadcast over the air) rather than the very-high-frequency or VHF, band (channels 2 to 13) the major broadcasting players, RCA (parent company of NBC) and CBS, were using. So DuMont made sets that could only tune in to UHF channels — which meant you could only watch DuMont shows if you had a DuMont set and you couldn’t watch NBC, CBS or ABC shows if you only had a DuMont set. Not surprisingly, DuMont’s TV enterprise went out of business in 1955 and the sets became very expensive pieces of useless furniture — at least until the FCC started granting more UHF broadcasting licenses in the early 1960’s and in the late 1960’s mandated that TV manufacturers had to start making sets that could receive both VHF and UHF bands with equal quality. The fact that so few DuMont programs survive (apparently there was a warehouse full of them until the early 1970’s, when it was emptied and most of the surviving kinescopes were dumped into the sea) has just added to the quirky allure of the network and its legend — though DuMont deserves credit for being the only company to film Charlie Parker performing live (with Dizzy Gillespie and a pickup band on Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House” for a 1952 awards show hosted by Earl Wilson, who’s also seen in a cameo here), a clip whose rediscovery and first public showing in San Francisco in 1976 was a galvanic event for jazz fans. (Later two other clips of Parker performing “Celebrity” and “Ballade” were discovered, but they were post-synched to Parker’s records rather than him performing in real time.)