Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tales From The Disembodied Head





Narrator Frank Gallop



Several times over the past 18 months I’ve featured radio shows from one of the best remembered of the Horror genre – Lights Out.   In The Horror Of It All (Oct 2008)  I wrote of the history of the show, from its inception with Wyllis Cooper, to the Arch Obler period, and provided links to more than a dozen episodes. 


Arch Oboler and Tommy Cook (ca.) 1936

Arch Oboler and Tommy Cook (ca.) 1936


Lights Out was still popular radio fare more than a decade after it was introduced, and so it quite naturally became one of the earliest TV shows as well.


In 1946, NBC produced 4 Lights Out TV specials, and while a critical success, NBC did not launch it as a regular series until 1949.   The show was modestly successful, and ran until 1952.

These tales of horror were live productions (like most early TV), and suffered from low budgets, non-existent special effects, and the limitations of `stage bound’ productions. 


Still, the writing was often pretty good, and we get intriguing looks at a great many young actors and actresses (and some old pros) as they plied their craft in this fledgling medium.


While radio’s `Theater of the Mind’ was probably a better venue for the horror genre,  Lights Out on TV still managed to chill spines for three seasons.  Here then are a half dozen episodes from The Internet Archive, of Lights Out.


Lights Out - I Spy
Lights Out - Season 4, Episode 8 - 15th October 1951


Lights Out - Strange Legacy
Lights Out - Season 3, Episode 26 - 19th February 1951


Lights Out - The Faceless Man
Lights Out - Season 3, Episode 50 - 6th August 1951


Lights Out - The Mad Dullaghen
Lights Out - Season 3, Episode 32 - 2nd April 1951


Lights Out - The Man with the Watch
Lights Out - Season 3, Episode 51 - 13th August 1951


Lights Out - The Passage Beyond
Lights Out - Season 3, Episode 44 - 25th June 1951

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Little Shameless Promotion






While I try to keep this blog on-topic, today I intend to stray a bit, although hopefully you’ll find something entertaining and interesting herein.


I belong to a truly talented family.  Sadly, I’m easily identified as the one without any discernable talent.


But my daughter and my brother make up for this regrettable genetic oversight.


You’ll find a link to my brother’s blog - Have Banjo Will Travel - on my sidebar.  Jim lives in Thailand now (and loves it!), and travels over the world as an entertainer (managing to stay one step ahead of music critics for nearly 3 decades!). 


His blog is both an entertainer’s diary, and a terrific introduction to Thailand.  


Jim has also met, and worked with, hundreds of entertainers over the years, and many of his essays involve stars from the golden age of TV, radio, and movies.  


A sample of his show from YouTube.



You can find more about brother Jim at his website  http://www.jimcoston.com/



My daughter, Misty, is an artist, and has recently created a gallery of her work on the Internet.   Her paintings are intriguing and unique, and most importantly  . . .  for sale. 


A couple of small samples, but please, follow this link to view her gallery (click on the small pictures to enlarge) l'art de Mistie (MMC).






I’m putting a link in my sidebar to her website, so that you can return often.  Use the Email link on her site if you see something you are interested in.


As for me, most of you probably are aware that I have another blog -  Avian Flu Diary -  which covers emerging infectious diseases, public health, and preparedness issues.    


The nearly 4,500 posts I’ve written on those subjects may not show talent . . but they do show persistence.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Piecing Together Ernie Kovacs





While I remember Ernie Kovacs from my childhood, those memories are faint, and in truth, there is no way that a six-year-old child could have appreciated the genius that was Ernie Kovacs.  


I was fortunate enough in the 1970s to work as a paramedic with a guy named Bob Boller – who was 20 years my senior.  At the station house (in between calls) we caught part of a PBS series which aired in 1977 on Kovacs, during which he regaled me with his memories of the Kovacs show.  


That started a bit of a love affair for me with the mad genius of early TV.


For you see, Ernie was a television pioneer.  So much so, that much of what he did first – in the 1950s – has been copied again, and again to the point that it almost seems clich├ęd today.   But when Ernie did them, they were fresh and new.


Innovative, funny, irreverent, even dangerous  . . . all describe the Kovacs style.  And although much admired by TV critics, often his shows failed to attract mainstream audiences. 


They were, quite frankly, 15 years ahead of their time.


Which makes it doubly sad that we’ve hundreds of hours of far less important programming that has been preserved, but precious little of Ernie Kovacs.


I wish I could simply point you to a repository of Kovacs videos, and tell you to drink your fill.  But, alas, what we have left (and available online) are mostly scraps.  Video snippets from his shows hosted on places like Google, Daily Motion,  YouTube, and Bing.


There is, however, a 2-DVD set of that PBS series on Ernie Kovacs available on Amazon.  And if today’s blog whets that appetite, you might consider it worth the expenditure.


But back to Ernie’s career.   


He started out as a disc jockey back in the 1940’s on Trenton New Jersey’s WTTM radio, which led to his being tapped to host the first a ground breaking `morning show’ in a major market on TV;  WPTZ’s Three To Get Ready (1950) out of Philadelphia. 

The `Three’ stood for Channel 3, and the 90 minute show relied heavily on Kovac’s improvisational and ad lib’ing skills. 


At the time, no one believed anyone would watch TV at 7am.  Except Ernie, of course.   The show was successful, and served as partial inspiration for NBC to launch their TODAY Show in 1954.


This morning show ran until 1952, and there Ernie began honing some of the camera trick, blackout skits, and outrageous humor that he would become famous for.  


What would follow would be a series of highly imaginative TV shows and specials that strayed from the comfortable sit-coms and variety shows of the day, and as such, were usually not highly rated.

Kovacs worked without a studio audience, or canned laughter, most of the time.  The reason being much of his humor depended upon the `camera tricks’ that a studio audience would only be able to see on the monitors. 


A selected list of his works (from the TV Museum Bio) includes:




1951               It's Time for Ernie
1951               Ernie in Kovacsland
1952-53, 1956 The Ernie Kovacs Show (first titled                           Kovacs Unlimited)
1960-61          Silents Please (host)



1957          Festival of Magic (host)
1961          Private Eye, Private Eye (host)
1961-1962 The Ernie Kovacs Special


Operation Mad Ball, 1957; Bell, Book and Candle, 1958; It Happened to Jane, 1958; Our Man In Havana, 1959; Wake Me When It's Over, 1960; Strangers When We Meet, 1960; Pepe, 1960; North to Alaska, 1960; Five Golden Hours, 1961; Sail a Crooked Ship, 1961; Cry for Happy, 1961.



The familiar opening to Ernie’s shows of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s featured the rinky-tink piano tune, Oriental Blues, which was pretty much a rip off of George Gershwin’s "Rialto Ripples Rag".



Everyone who remembers Ernie thinks immediately of The Nairobi Trio as being quintessentially Kovacs.  Three improbable apes wearing derby hats pantomiming, as if part of some surrealistic music box, to Robert Maxwell's "Solfeggio".

A recurring bit, it was obvious that it was Ernie on the receiving end of the drummer, and the piano playing ape was often Ernie’s wife, Edie Adams.  But the third member of the `trio’ was usually a guest, who went unnamed.


Word has it that Frank Sinatra and Jack Lemmon (both fans and friends of Ernie) donned the ape suit for this routine.




The `blackout sketch’, which Laugh In would copy, and use to great effect a decade later, was part and parcel of the Kovacs style.   One such example comes from one of Kovac’s ABC monthly specials back in 1961.   

The music?   It’s not Bobby Darin, but it is `Mack The Knife’


Sort of.




Here we have Ernie and Edie `Elephant hunting’.




Much of Kovac’s work revolved around music, as seen in his famous `Kitchen symphony’.   The song is Cherokee, the big band number made famous by Charlie Barnet, which morphs into Bali Hai, then back.




Much of Kovac’s humor was character driven, and like Jackie Gleason and Sid Caesar, he had a `stable’ of characters that he often used.  These included Wolfgang von Sauerbraten,  Mr. Question Man, Auntie Gruesome (host of a horror show), magician Matzoh Heppelwhite, and most famously, TV poet Percy Dovetonsils.





A search of YouTube and Google Videos will turn up dozens of these rare, and delightful clips. 


To get started, you can try this link.


Kovacs died in 1962 in a car wreck, leaving his wife Edie with a massive IRS debt (Kovacs was notorious for not paying income taxes).  She managed, over the years, to pay off those debts, partly as a spokesmodel for Muriel Cigars.  


An ad from 1965, shows some of her efforts:




We lost Edie in 2008, but over the past 40 years she had done a lot to archive and restore the legacy of early TV and Ernie Kovac’s work.

She consented to a 10-part interview in 1999, with the Archive of American Television.


That 5-hour interview can be viewed here.


Ahead of his time, underappreciated by the masses, and never a huge ratings success while he was alive, Ernie Kovacs was nonetheless selected in 1989 by People Weekly as one of the 25 top Television stars of the first 50 years of the medium.

An honor that was well deserved.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

But First, These Important Announcements . . .





Commercial television in the United States was paid for by . . . what else? . . .  commercials.   While the bane of viewer’s existence when they first aired, looking back, commercials of the 1950s and 1960s today have a certain simplistic, and nostalgic, appeal.


And in their defense, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, we saw far fewer commercial minutes per hour than we see today.  


Roughly half as many.


In fact, many of the old classic TV shows from the early 1970s were `whittled' down’ to make room for more commercials when they re-aired in the 1980s and 1990s.  


A little more than a year ago I highlighted about 30 minutes worth of classic commercials in a blog entitled  And Now A Word From Our Sponsor, followed a few months later by another selection of early TV advertisements in And Now, Another Word From Our Sponsor . . .


Today we take another look at early TV commercials with three examples from the Prelinger Archives on The Internet Archive.


First a 25 minute compilation of ads, most of which I remember well from my childhood.   Mostly from the 1960s, but a few are older.   The fashions, hairstyles, and music reflect the era in which they were made.


First the link, then a few notes about some of the ads.



Television Commercials (1950s-1960s) - Various


The corny cornflakes ad that starts this round off capitalizes on the `folk music’ mania of the 1960s, with a jingle that `borrows’ heavily from Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land.


The jingle for the Alka-Seltzer ad that follows  (No Matter What Shape, by the T-Bones) hit #3 on the pop charts in 1965!   Six years later, Coke would snag pop-music gold with I’d Like To Teach The World to Sing, which went to #1 in the UK and #7 in the U.S. in 1971.


Speaking of music, the music playing in the back of the Colt .45 commercials is Solfeggio, famously used by Ernie Kovacs in his classic Nairobi Trio skit.


The Nairobi Trio


And of course, the Noxzema Shaving cream commercials used a former #1 hit, David Rose’s The Stripper, as background while Swedish Model Gunilla Knutson urged men to `Take it off . . .take it all off . . .”  between the years 1966 and 1973.


Sharp-eyed viewers will recognize Charlotte Rae being interviewed in the shower in the last commercial for oil heat.   Unlike a lot of `famous’ personalities you see in older commercials, Charlotte was already well established both on Broadway and on TV when she did this 1964 bit.

While most today remember her as housemother Edna Garrett in the 80s sitcom, The Facts of Life,  those of an older generation remember her as Sylvia Schnauser on Car 54 Where Are You?  along with dozens of other TV roles.





Classic Television Commercials (Part IV) - Various


Many of the early `live’ TV shows of the 1950s worked commercials into the body of the show, with the `stars’ doing the pitchman’s job.  The Fibber McGee and Molly radio show raised this ploy to a near-art-form and managed to work in a mid-episode reference to Johnson’s Wax in every show.

This next group of commercials starts out with a long, but funny example from the old Gary Moore Show. That’s sidekick Durwood Kirby as the Viking, and Gary comes in in pigtails at the end. 


I’ve not identified the actress in the skit, although on poster on the Internet Archive believes it to be Denise Lor. 


The Maxwell House commercial has radio and TV announcer, and sometimes actor, Rex Marshall (Suspense 1949-1953) and (Ellery Queen 1950-1951) extolling the virtues of instant coffee `flavor buds’.


This collection ends with three classic (and clever) beer commercials; Hamms, Black Label, and Rheingold.  




Classic Television Commercials (Part V) – Various


Our last stop today starts out with a couple of beer commercials, first for Budweiser and then an elaborate stop-action marionette commercial for Ballantine Ale.


The Arthur Godfrey bit is long, but illustrative of the work of one of the great pitchmen of the 1950s.  Poking gentle fun at the sponsors (but not the products!), Godfrey’s homespun narratives sold more soup and tea than the sponsor could ever have hoped.


Godfrey was, during the 1950s, on the radio and TV more hours a week (he had 2 weekly shows, and a daily 90-minute morning show at one point) than anyone else in the country.   For a more complete rundown on Arthur Godfrey’s Career, you might wish to explore  My Man (Arthur) Godfrey.


The last two commercials go together like . . . well, like Ritz crackers and peanut butter.


Hopefully some of these advertisements will have brought back a memory or two, and perhaps a smile as you remember a simpler time.


One when commercials only took up about 8 minutes of every hour of broadcast time, instead of 16.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Playing It Forward






When I began collecting OTR (Old Time Radio) shows in earnest, about 15 years ago, my Internet connection was via turtle-slow 14.4K USR Sportster modem.  The phone lines where I lived often couldn’t even support that meager speed, and so downloading radio shows seemed to take forever.


Back then, it could almost take an hour to download a 30 minute show.


It took me more than a month of downloading to fill my first CD with about 100 shows (50 hours).  Today, with my broadband connection, I can download a CD’s worth of OTR in well under an hour.


I confess, the acquisition of these shows became a bit of a compulsion for me (much as collecting old TV shows has become for me today). I have well over 150 CDs filled with OTR programming, with somewhere around 10,000 shows. 


The best source of OTR back then was through USENET newsgroups, or by joining a Yahoo group that made - and distributed CDs - of old time shows.   I belonged to one such group that, over a period of years, enabled me to greatly expand my collection.  


About six times a year I’d get a package with 2 or 3 CDs of shows.  My job was to make a copy for myself (within 48 hours) and mail it on to the next person on the enclosed `distro list’.   


By `seeding’ a distro with a half dozen copies, which were then sent out with the instructions to copy and forward, a collector could share a portion of their collection with hundreds of other people in a matter of a few weeks.


These distros were always free (except the cost of disks and postage), and producing them was  a labor of love by all involved.  For the price of disks and stamps you could save yourself months of downloading. 


It was a heckuva bargain, and I’m very grateful to their efforts.


Over the years I’ve made dozens of copies of `sampler’ CD’s, or CDs of specific shows or genres, and have sent them to friends around the world as well.  One year, everyone at my dentist’s office got a Christmas CD of OTR shows, and I made nearly 100 OTR CDs for members of a Hurricane Tracking forum I belonged to back in 2004.


Much of my collection was acquired piecemeal over the Internet and was badly disorganized, with CDs often containing a few episodes of a dozen or more different shows.  All of my Jack Benny episodes, for instance, were strewn across a half dozen discs, intermingled with other shows.


Recently I spent a good deal of time consolidating and organizing my collection, and have winnowed it down to 25 well organized DVD data disks.    


Now, all of my Boston Blackies are in one directory, as are all of my Sealtest Shows, and Burns and Allen, along with scores of other shows.  


My old CDs are not headed for the junk heap, however.  Disorganized or not, they are filled with thousands of hours of terrific OTR.   So, as not to waste them, I’ve decided to spread them around.


I’ve taken about 3 dozen CDs of the `best of’ OTR  to give to a local rehab/nursing home to become a part of their audio/video library.   I’ve also provided them with a dozen DVDs of public domain TV shows as well.


The rest I’m dividing up between my sister, her two (grown) sons, and their (teenage) children.  I’m delighted to say, all of them have expressed interest in OTR, and my nephews are becoming avid fans.


Collecting OTR has never been easier, with faster download speeds and websites like Tennessee Bills OTR ,  The Internet Archive,  and Free OTR Shows providing repositories with 100’s of gigs of free shows.   


Collecting these fascinating and entertaining glimpses of our past is a great hobby.  But as you increase your collection, I would urge you to consider making some copies for friends, relatives, or those residing in nursing homes, rehab centers, or  hospitals.   


Not everyone has easy access to the Internet or the savvy required to download and burn CDs of shows.


You’ll find, I believe, that the pleasure you get from listening to these shows is magnified many-fold when you decide to play it forward.  


Those old enough to remember OTR when it was new will likely appreciate the return visit, and those who are younger may well find it every bit as enthralling as you and I do.


OTR is a historic treasure.  A nostalgic electronic echo of the past well worth preserving, and sharing with others.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Novel Detective Series




Of all of the franchise detective series emanating from the 1920s and 1930s, few have been as successful across as wide a range of media as that of Ellery Queen.


Created in 1928 by a pair of cousins living in Brooklyn, Ellery Queen is both the name of a fictional detective and a pseudonym for the pair who wrote very popular mystery novels and short stories for more than 4 decades.


The two, Daniel Nathan, alias Frederic Dannay (October 20, 1905–September 3, 1982) and Manford (Emanuel) Lepofsky, alias Manfred Bennington Lee (January 11, 1905–April 3, 1971) parlayed Ellery Queen into a series of movies, four TV series, and several radio series making him perhaps America’s best known fictional detective.


The Ellery Queen novels, beginning with The Roman Hat Mystery (1929) all featured the same formula.   An unusual crime, copious suspects, complex clues, and a `Challenge to the Reader’ towards the end of the book, where Ellery declares that all of the clues needed to solve the mystery had been revealed.


And indeed, they had.  


The cousins were careful to play fair with the reader, providing all of the necessary information for them to solve the mystery before revealing the answer.


One of the earliest Ellery Queen movies was The Mandarin Mystery, which is available on The Internet Archive.  


Produced by the king of the serials - Nat Levine, for Republic pictures - this 1936 `locked room’ mystery strays a bit from the source novel , THE CHINESE ORANGE MYSTERY but fares reasonably well for a short (53 minute) B movie.




The Mandarin Mystery - Nat Levine, Victor Zobel
This adaptation of an Ellery Queen mystery concerns the theft of a rare Chinese stamp (the Mandarin of the title), which takes place in a hotel with several shifty characters and an hysterical manager (the priceless Franklin Pangborn). The mystery, such as it is, concerns both the stamp theft and two murders, and shows Ellery and his father the Inspector as a team rubbing together just enough to solve the case.


The Ellery Queen movies of the 1940s, starring Ralph Bellamy and then William Gargan, while still `B’ movies, are probably more watchable today.  


While I’ve not found them on public domain sites, you may catch them on one of the classic movie channels.


Enemy Agents Meet Ellery Queen (1942) William Gargan

A Desperate Chance for Ellery Queen (1942) William Gargan

A Close Call for Ellery Queen (1942) William Gargan

Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring (1941) Ralph Bellamy

Ellery Queen and the Perfect Crime (1941) Ralph Bellamy

Ellery Queen's Penthouse Mystery (1941) Ralph Bellamy

Ellery Queen, Master Detective (1940) Ralph Bellamy


From 1939 to 1948, The  Adventures of Ellery Queen appeared on radio, hop scotching across all three radio networks (CBS (1939-1940), NBC (1940-44), CBS (1945-47), NBC (1947), then finally ABC (1947-48)).



The Internet Archive has sizable number of old Ellery Queen radio plays, although the quality (and accurate identification) of these shows vary considerably.    


It’s an interesting, but mixed bag.


Some of these episodes feature (albeit minor) celebrity `armchair detectives’ who listen along with the audience and attempt to solve the mystery before Ellery does the ending summation.


The Ellery Queen `Minute Mysteries’ were not part of the 1940s run, but rather a short (1 minute) audience participation mystery run in the 1970s.


In 1950 Ellery Queen moved to Television, in a live show on the short-lived DuMont Network.   It was broadcast from 1950 to 1954, but moved to ABC for season’s 2 – 4.  


The original star, Richard Hart died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 35, during the first season.  He was replaced by Lee Bowman for the rest of the series' run.


Like most early `live’ TV shows, the production values are scant, and these are little more than filmed `stage bound’ radio plays.  While primitive, these are pioneering first steps in televised drama and have nostalgic, historic, and hopefully entertainment value.


These four examples come from the Internet Archive.   The picture and sound quality are regrettably less than stellar.  Comments are by the uploaders.


The Adventures of Ellery Queen - The Hanging Acrobat - DuMont Network - Irving and Norman Pincus

This is an episode of the DuMont Network's "The Adventures of Ellery Queen" (1950-54). This ran on the DuMont Network before moving to the ABC. The series was also shown in Australia, where it played on Channel 2 on Thursdays at 9pm throughout 1957. The actor who plays Ellery, Richard Hart, died part way through the series and was replaced by Lee Bowman. About 50 episodes were made over its two runs but only a small amount survive...


'The Adventures of Ellery Queen' - Man who enjoyed death (1951)
Episode "Man who enjoyed death" of DuMont's "The Adventures of Ellery Queen", originally broadcast "live" on 3/29/1951. Featuring Lee Bowman as 'Ellery Queen' and Florenz Ames as 'Inspector Richard



'The Adventures of Ellery Queen' - Murder to Music (1951)
Episode "Murder to Music" of DuMont's "The Adventures of Ellery Queen", originally broadcast "live" on 11/08/1951. Featuring Lee Bowman as 'Ellery Queen' and Florenz Ames as 'Inspector Richard Queen'. 'Kaiser Frazer' commercials presented by Rex Marshall. NOTE! To avoid undue distraction, I've cut off the badly distorted upper part of the frame.


'The Adventures of Ellery Queen' - Buck fever (1952)
Episode "Buck fever" of "The Adventures of Ellery Queen", originally broadcast "live" on 10/01/1952 on ABC. Featuring Lee Bowman as 'Ellery Queen' and Florenz Ames as 'Inspector Richard Queen'.



Sadly, very few episodes remain of this early series.


There have been three more TV series based on Ellery Queen. 


The second was  British series produced by Lew Grade’s ITC network (as Brits well know, the BBC didn’t produced everything!).

A third series, entitled The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen, ran on NBC during the 1958-59 television season. 

And perhaps best remembered is the (NBC again) Universal Television production of Ellery Queen starring Jim Hutton, which aired in 1975-76.   



In addition to the books, movies, radio plays, and mystery magazine that sprang from the collaboration of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee, `Ellery Queen’ was also a noted writer on the history of detective fiction.


One such tome, available online, is The Detective Short Story A Bibliography (1942).


For aficionados of `who dunnits’, Ellery Queen leaves an important, and well remembered legacy.