Saturday, February 11, 2017

Colgate Comedy Hour: September 19, 1954 (Colgate-Palmolive/NBC-TV, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran us a quite interesting download from the Colgate Comedy Hour from September 19, 1954. The Colgate Comedy Hour was NBC’s attempt to come up with a rival to the immensely popular Toast of the Town, featuring Ed Sullivan (later The Ed Sullivan Show), on CBS on Sunday nights, and they threw some major star power onto the air to draw audiences: Eddie Cantor as host and two famous movie comedy teams, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. The show is a particular favorite for Martin and Lewis fans — a lot of people think they came off better on these shows than they did in their films — and since 2012 the nostalgia network RTV has been re-running all 28 of the extant Martin and Lewis Colgate Comedy Hour shows. By 1954 audiences for the Colgate Comedy Hour had fallen off and Eddie Cantor had fallen ill — he was hospitalized in 1953 and, while he recovered, he decided not to return to the show — and it had become much more of a variety program like Sullivan’s than a comedy show (though NBC used it to try out sketches for shows they were considering airing as independent comedy series). NBC also used the Colgate Comedy Hour as a weapon in their war with CBS over the future of color television in the early 1950’s; both networks had developed color technologies, but CBS’s was at least partly based on the old scanning-disc mechanical TV (the disc itself was invented and patented in 1885 by Paul Gottlieb Nipkow but its first use in transmitting pictures came in the 1920’s by British TV pioneer John Logie Baird) and therefore it was incompatible: you could only watch a CBS color TV program if you had a CBS color set, and if you had a CBS color set you couldn’t watch anything else on it.

NBC wanted to publicize that their color TV system was compatible — standard black-and-white TV’s would reproduce the color broadcasts in black-and-white and NBC color sets could still receive ordinary black-and-white broadcasts — and they picked the November 22, 1953 Colgate Comedy Hour as the first show they would broadcast in their color system. (Earlier they had used a Colgate Comedy Hour episode for their demonstration to members of the Federal Communications Commission, which had earlier approved CBS’s color system as the national standard but eventually reversed themselves and gave the prize to NBC.) As the Colgate Comedy Hour evolved it had become so much a variety show rather than a comedy show that in its last season NBC actually changed its name to Colgate Variety Hour, and even though the September 19, 1954 show was done before the name change it reflected the new format. Eddie Fisher hosted and the show was presented live from the Hollywood Bowl — apparently the first time anything from the Bowl had been televised. The guest list was pretty eclectic, representing what I call the “portmanteau” theory of entertainment that was still dominant them — the idea that the way to build a blockbuster audience was to include so many different acts that there would be something in the final program to appeal to every potential audience member, a far cry from the relentless “narrowcasting” philosophy that prevails today in which shows are carefully tailored to one and only one segment of the audience and the idea is if you put in any contrasting element, your target audience will be turned off and new audiences won’t be turned on.

Among the people who performed on this show were Peggy Lee, Louis Armstrong, Native American ballerina Maria Tallchief (performing with her partner, Frederick Franklin), classical violinist Mischa Elman (making what Fisher described as only his second TV appearance; ironically, Elman had pioneered a new entertainment medium 28 years earlier when he and accompanist Josef Bonime performed as one of the acts on the first presentation of the AT&T/Warner Bros. Vitaphone system for sound films on August 6, 1926 — and, as here, he performed a work by Dvorák) and world heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano. After a choral intro — Gordon Jenkins was the musical director and he was seen conducting his orchestra on screen — Eddie Fisher came out and did what was then his latest hit, “I Need You Now.” Then out came a comedy vocal group called The Vagabonds, and from their instrumentation — two guitars, accordion and bass — I was wondering if they were going to do either country or early rock ’n’ roll. No such luck; instead they introduced what they said was a medley of songs from the 1919 Hit Parade, including “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?,” “Hold You In My Arms Again,” “When You’re Smiling” and a Hawai’ian number during which one of the Vagabonds hiked up his pants, put a piece of cloth around his waist to simulate a hula skirt, and did an O.K. simulacrum of a hula (though I still think Eleanor Powell’s spectacular solo dance in the 1939 musical Honolulu is the best on-screen hula by a white person I’ve ever seen). Then Maria Tallchief and Frederick Franklin came out and danced to a waltz from the ballet Gaité Parisienne, and while Tallchief was clearly an excellent dancer the choreography didn’t do much to showcase her and the billowing skirt she wore made her look more like a Mexican folklórico dancer than a ballerina.

Then Peggy Lee came out and did what was introduced as a new song by Irving Berlin, “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me,” from his 1954 musical White Christmas which the show was more or less promoting. Though Lee wasn’t in the movie — the production, directed by Michael Curtiz for Paramount and the first film released in the studio’s wide-screen VistaVision process, starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen — Lee did record the song on the soundtrack album; since Clooney’s label, Columbia, refused to loan her out to Crosby’s, Decca, Lee, already a Decca artist, substituted for her on the record. On this version, even more than the one on the LP, Lee sounds more like Billie Holiday than usual; though one would never mistake one voice for the other, Lee ends virtually every line with the “dying fall,” the downward glissando that was a Holiday trademark. Then Lee goes into her super-fast version of the old Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart song “Lover” — the song that had put her on Decca in the first place when her previous label, Capitol, refused to let her record it at such a zippy tempo. (Later Lee went from Decca back to Capitol when Decca refused to let her record a cover of Little Willie John’s R&B hit “Fever” with just a bass-and-drums backing. Both times Lee was right and the record company “suits” were wrong: “Lover” and “Fever” were enormous hits for her.) Afterwards Eddie Fisher came back and did the title song from the musical Fanny, named after Marcel Pagnol’s plays about the lives of sailors and the girls who love them in Marseilles, France; it’s an intriguing song (the singer is telling his girlfriend that she can’t expect him to hang around indefinitely or commit to her because his true love is the sea) but Fisher’s square, straight-ahead phrasing really doesn’t put it over and frankly I couldn’t help but remember the similar contrast between Vic Damone’s stiff, stodgy 1949 hit record of the song “The Four Winds and the Seven Seas” and the vivid, evocative, dramatic masterpiece Mel Tormé made of the same song in his cover for Capitol. Anyway, right after Fisher’s amble through “Fanny” — actually a quite good song I’d like to hear someone revive — Mischa Elman was trotted out and, though I’d rather he’d have been accompanied by just a pianist instead of Gordon Jenkins’ orchestra, he played an item called “Slavonic Fantasy” by Dvorák as arranged by Fritz Kreisler. (I suspect Kreisler’s arrangement was as a piece for violin and piano and what we were hearing was re-arranged by Jenkins.)

Then Louis Armstrong got trotted out and we got to hear him do a brief intro of his theme song, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.” Alas, Armstrong too was accompanied by Jenkins’ orchestra (with which he’d made records for Decca, including the charming 1951 remake of his Hot Five hit “Big Butter and Egg Man” with Velma Middleton as second vocalist) instead of his own All-Stars band — Armstrong was just coming off the album Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy, a collection of 11 of Handy’s classic blues songs recorded by Armstrong and the All-Stars at the height of their powers, and one wishes the Colgate Comedy Hour producers would have let Louis and his band come out and play one of the tracks from the album to promote it. Instead someone had the idea to have Armstrong do one of his worst records, his excruciatingly unfunny parody of “The Whiffenpoof Song” as an attack on be-bop in general and Dizzy Gillespie in particular. (A few years after Louis recorded this, he and Dizzy actually met and became friends.) Fortunately the next song was “The Birth of the Blues,” with Armstrong and Fisher singing a vocal duet, Louis briefly playing trumpet behind Fisher, and performing so powerfully (even though he was off-mike for the opening notes of his trumpet solo) that for once in his life Eddie Fisher actually swung. (Armstrong had that effect on people; in 1960 he made an album with the hack revival band the Dukes of Dixieland, and on the closing chorus of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” he played a duet with the Dukes’ regular trumpeter, Frank Assunto, and raised Assunto so close to his level the record sounds like two Louis Armstrongs.)

After Armstrong’s set Eddie Fisher brought on boxing champion Rocky Marciano, who talks briefly about his most recent fight (with Ezzard Charles) and brings on his manager, Al Wild. Then Fisher returns to center stage for a performance of another Irving Berlin song used in White Christmas, “Count Your Blessings” — not surprisingly, Bing Crosby did it better but it’s still Fisher’s nicest singing on the whole show next to “The Birth of the Blues” — and the show ends with a spectacular finale called “Anything Can Happen at the Hollywood Bowl” that pays tribute to the eclecticism of the Bowl’s programming by bringing back all the previous performers: Elman, Lee (singing “Lover” again), Tallchief and Franklin (dancing the final can-can from Gaité Parisienne and making more of an impact than they did earlier with the waltz simply because it’s a more spectacular dance that gives Tallchief far more of a chance to sparkle), The Vagabonds (singing something called “Don’t Tell Them Where I Am,” Armstrong (playing a chorus of an unidentified blues and playing it beautifully, as usual) and Fisher taking the show out with a bit of his hit-making song, “Oh! My Papa!” At the end of his show Fisher takes a bottle of Coca-Cola, the green hourglass-shaped one that was still standard when this was made, and drinks it: an off-handed tribute to his own TV show, which Coke sponsored. This Colgate Comedy Hour is a souvenir of a bygone era in American entertainment and, despite a few lapses (notably gaps between what the people on it were capable of and what they were actually asked to do), it’s also loads of fun and a souvenir of a time when TV was still a relatively young medium and it hadn’t hardened into convention and cliché.