Sunday, August 21, 2011

Revisiting Borrah Minevitch





In April of 2009 I wrote a blog called Borrah Minevitch And His Harmonica Rascals, and included a number of Youtube videos.  Sadly, I discovered earlier this week that most of those links are no longer active.


Luckily, there are other video clips available, and so today a reprise of that blog with new embedded videos.


As I’ve cautioned before, sometimes the links I post end up in the great bit-bucket in the sky.  If you see something you want, better to get it while you can.


Specialty acts were commonplace in the early days of show business, when high visibility meant working steadily in Vaudeville.    After all, you could hone an act over the years, and perform it basically unchanged for decades, and never run out of audiences.


Of course, movies and television destroyed that.


In one short appearance a specialty act could `burn’ their entire repertoire in front of a national audience.


But while it lasted, particularly during the heyday of Vaudeville up to the early days of television, specialty acts were in great demand.


One of the best was Borrah Minevitch and his Harmonica Rascals, although today some of his antics might not be considered politically correct. 


Minevitch, who was born in Kiev, Russia immigrated to the United States at the age of 8, and studied piano and violin, but he fell in love with the harmonica.


In 1925 (at the age of 20) he came up with the idea of a `specialty act’; he hired a dozen or so young boys, taught them the basics of the harmonica, dressed them in formal attire, and formed a `harmonica orchestra’.


Within a year, the Harmonica Rascals were one of the hottest acts in Vaudeville.


When sound came to the movies, Minevitch (who was a consummate promoter) worked his ensemble into a dozen shorts and some feature films.   His act featured physical comedy, along with harmonica musical antics.

An early appearance of the Harmonica Rascals was in One In A Million, a Sonja Henie musical comedy from 1936.  Here you’ll hear them play the title song to the movie, in a medley with Ravel’s Bolero, and the classic Lime House Blues.



Another big screen appearance came in 1942 as Borrah and is rascals played `Always In My Heart’ from the movie of the same name.



One of his best short films came in 1942, with Borrah Minevitch’s Harmonica School.   We’ve a couple of clips from that film.

Harmonica School  1943

Borrah Minevitch - Dave Doucette - Carl Ford - Ben Burley - Ernie Morris - Hugh 'Pud' McCaskey - Sammy Ross - Etto Manieri - Pat Marquis - Frank Marquis - Bill McBride





The Internet Archive also has several classic 78 recordings of Borrah Minevitch and his rascals performing:


Hungarian Rhapsody #2


Hora Staccato

La Violetera

Hayseed rag


Minevitch would retire in 1947, and die suddenly of a heart attack in 1955.   He paved the way, of course, for other Harmonica specialty acts that would follow – most notably the Harmonicats.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Indomitable Dr. Christian





For the past 50 years, `good’ doctors have nearly always been portrayed on TV and in the Movies as being young, brash, and irreverent.


Older TV doctors . . . with the notable exception of Marcus Welby  . . .  have generally been portrayed as being stodgy, behind the times, and sometimes even dangerous.


But for 17 years – starting in 1937 -  arguably the most famous and beloved `doctor’ in America was kindly Dr. Paul Christian, portrayed first on the radio, and then in the movies and on TV by veteran Danish born actor Jean Hersholt.


Already an established  character actor in Hollywood – with his first American movie roles coming in silent films as far back as 1915 – Hersholt was cast as Dr.John Luke in the movie The Country Doctor, loosely based on Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe, the doctor who delivered and cared for the most famous babies in the world - the Dionne Quintuplets of Ontario, Canada.


Up until May of 1934, no set of quints had ever survived infancy, and the so the Dionne Quintuplets were a global sensation.  The Canadian government – concerned over the parents ability to care for and raise these babies – made them wards of the Crown making Dr. Dafoe and two other's their legal guardian.


A special nursery was built, and thousands of tourists each day were allowed to view the quints at play from an observation gallery.  The Dionne quintuplets quickly became a major tourist attraction, and their likenesses – along with Dr. Dafoe’s – were used in advertising of everything from Karo syrup to Quaker Oats.

Despite the money and fame, life for the Dionne Quintuplets would prove more of a sad melodrama than a fairy tale.

Hollywood, recognizing the possibilities, cast the quints in 4 movies over the next few years.  The first, The Country Doctor - starring 49 year-old Jean Hersholt – strongly identified him in the public’s mind as the perfect `country doctor’.


Hersholt would make two sequels (Reunion 1936 and Five of A Kind 1938) and wanted to bring the character to radio, but was unable to obtain the rights.  Instead, he created his own Dr. Paul Christian – who lived in worked in the small mid-western town of River’s End.


While technically a soap opera (it was broadcast on Sunday Afternoons on the CBS radio network), don’t let that put you off.  Each episode is a self contained story, and the show was a charming blend of drama, gentle humor, and 1930s Americana.

And quite unusually, by the 1940s, most of the scripts were submitted by loyal listeners ( sometimes polished by the writing staff) which – beginning in 1942 – resulted in an annual script-writing competition.


Top prize was $2000 (big money back then) and several runners up received $500. Among the many winners were Rod Serling and Earl  Hamner, Jr..


The Internet Archive has 175 episodes of the Doctor Christian radio series – including the first episode which introduced the series.


Dr. Christian 175 Eps



When a movie star ends up starring in a successful radio series it only makes sense to produce a Hollywood feature as well.   And Jean Hersholt played Dr. Christian in 6 movies over a three year period.


  • Meet Dr. Christian (1939)
  • Remedy for Riches (1940)
  • The Courageous Dr. Christian (1940)
  • Dr. Christian Meets the Women (1940)
  • Melody for Three (1941)
  • They Meet Again (1941)

So far, four of these movies have shown up on the Internet Archive.

Dr. Christian Meets The Women (1940)

Courageous Dr. Christian, The (1940)

Melody for Three (1941)

They Meet Again (1941)

The movies often shifted easily between drama and comedy, and the last entry They Meet Again was clearly the weakest entry in the lot. The radio series would continue another 9 years, however.


Jean Hersholt would appear one last time on screen as Dr. Christian in the opening episode of the 1956 ZIV TV series sequel called Dr. Christian – starring the subject of last week’s blog – MacDonald Carey as elderly Paul Christian’s nephew Mark who took over his practice.


Hersholt died shortly after that appearance from cancer, but is well remembered for his many movie roles (including Shirley Temple’s grandfather in Heidi), his work translating the works of Hans Christian Anderson into English, his radio series, and his humanitarian work in Hollywood.


The Academy Awards, in recognition of Hersholt’s work for 18 years as president of the Motion Picture Relief Fund, periodically awards the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

Past recipients have included Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, Elizabeth Taylor, Danny Kaye, and Oprah Winfrey.


All in all, not a bad way to be remembered.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Locking Up Early TV Syndication






Although the major networks provided most of the prime-time programming schedule to the growing array of TV stations during the 1950s, syndicated TV shows were a big business as well. Local stations were desperate for content to air beyond the traditional evening `prime’ time slot.


Ziv Television Programs, Inc., founded by Frederick Ziv in 1948, was probably the most prolific and successful of the independent TV producers, churning out hundreds of hours of programming every year.


The ZIV studios stock in trade were half hour, mostly male-oriented adventure dramas. As episodes were usually filmed over 3 or 4 days, and at a cost of under $40,000 an episode, it proved to be a profitable formula.

Many ZIV shows were highly successful, like Highway Patrol (1955-59), Bat Masterson (1958-61), I Led Three Lives (1953-56), The Cisco Kid (1949-56), Men Into Space (1959-60), Science Fiction Theatre (1955-57), Ripcord (1961-63), and Sea Hunt (1958-61), and are fondly remembered by the baby boom generation.


Other Ziv shows are less well remembered – like The Man Called X (1956-57) and Bold Venture (1959-60) -  which were attempts to rework successful radio dramas of the past.


Most of these syndicated shows featured decent production values, fast paced scripts, and personable stars. They also provided ample work for a generation of soon-to-be famous TV actors just learning their craft.


One of the lesser known shows was called Lock Up - which ran for two years and 78 episodes between 1959 and 1961 - and it starred MacDonald Carey as real-life Philadelphia defense attorney Herbert L. Maris.


The scripts were supposedly based on Maris’s files, although a certain amount of literary license can be assumed to have been employed. The style is reminiscent of other procedural police & crime dramas of the era, with the story told in a straight forward – almost documentary style.


Stretching credulity a bit, MacDonald Carey’s character almost always teams up with police detective Weston, played by John Doucette, to prove his client’s innocence.

The Internet Archive has more than 40 episodes of Lock Up available for viewing or download.

To see the current offerings select  THIS LINK.

While enjoyable enough in their own right, episodes of Lock Up provide us with fascinating glimpses at early TV appearances by Joe Flynn, Robert Conrad, Mary Tyler Moore, Gavin Macleod and many others.


You’ll also find established actors like John Carradine, Buddy Epsen, and Lon Chaney, Jr. showing up in guest roles.


MacDonald Carey had been a modestly successful radio, movie, stage and TV actor prior to this series. 

He appeared in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Suddenly, It’s Spring (1947), and a series of `B’ western movies in the 1950s  including The Great Missouri Raid (1951), Outlaw Territory (1953), and Man or Gun (1958)). 

While perhaps best known for playing the role of Tom Horton on Days of our Lives for 3 decades, he was also one of the most familiar faces on TV for several decades appearing on everything from Murder, She Wrote and Fantasy Island to Burke’s Law and The Outer Limits.

MacDonald Carey died in 1994 of Lung Cancer.


As a tribute, the soap opera Days of Our Lives continued to use his famous voice over during the opening of each show even after his passing.


As for the production company ZIV, they began producing shows for network clients in the mid-1950s (West Point,Tombstone Territory, Bat Masterson, Men into Space, & The Man and the Challenge), but their heyday was nearly over.


In 1960 United Artists bought flagging ZIV Tv productions for $20 million dollars and renamed it Ziv-United Artists. By 1962, the company had phased out Ziv entirely, and changed its name to United Artists Television.


And so ended an era.