Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Magical Magnetism of Yvonne Craig

About 15 years ago I went to a Hollywood Collector Show, which was not held in Hollywood but at the Beverly Garland Hotel in Burbank. Yvonne Craig was there and she was the celebrity I was most excited to meet. 

I believe our conversation went something like this:

Me: Ummm…Hi

Her: Hi! Are you having a good time at the show?

Me. Ummm…Hi

Her: Would you like me to sign a photo for you?

Me: Ummm…Hi

And so on. But I did get a signed photo that was proudly displayed for years on my office wall.

As every fan of good TV knows by now, Yvonne Craig passed away last week. We have a no-obits rule around here, but when Mitchell Hadley, one of the TV bloggers I most respect, describes her passing as news that “no classic television blog worth its weight could ignore,” I listen. So let’s call this a tribute as we did with the James Best piece.

Actually, a piece on Ms. Craig was roughed out several months ago. She was going to be one in a series of blogs on Comfort TV stars that were blessed with an exceptional magnetism that always drew your eye and captivated your attention. With these actors it wasn’t about the role they played, it was the charisma and personality they brought to it that made it special.

It’s a quality that is hard to define but you know it when you see it. James Garner and David Janssen had it. So do Kate Jackson and Diana Rigg. Craig, like Jackson and Rigg, could have coasted through a performance on her remarkable looks, especially when the script didn’t call for much more than a pretty face. But she never did. 

She appeared in memorable guest spots on more than 50 different shows, from westerns (Bronco, Wagon Train, The Big Valley) to sitcoms (McHale’s Navy, I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father). I can’t cover them all but here are some of the many highlights.

Yvonne Craig appeared in five episodes of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (actually six including the pilot but that was just a walk-on). Dwayne Hickman as Dobie played a dumb guy but in a smart way; he was very nimble with dialogue and needed a strong female presence to play off of, which he always had in regulars Tuesday Weld and Sheila Kuehl.

Playing five different one-episode crushes, Craig always made a formidable match for the love-struck Dobie. In “The Flying Millicans” she was Aphrodite, the toga-clad daughter of a fitness-obsessed family; in “Dobie’s Navy Blues” she was Myrna Lomax whom Dobie loved enough to almost join the Navy to please her father. Even in “Flow Gently, Sweet Money,” working with a character clearly derivative of Tuesday Weld’s money-hungry Thalia Menninger, she delivered delightfully cynical dialogue with aplomb. 

In the Star Trek episode “Whom Gods Destroy” she was Marta, the green-tinted Orion slave girl. People remember her seductive dance but not the dialogue around it, and that’s where Craig really created a haunting, (and haunted) schizoid casualty that joins Khan and Harry Mudd among the series’ most memorable guest characters. 

In The Wild, Wild West Craig played an assassin named Ecstasy (“The Night of the Grand Emir”), who was so alluring that after her intended victim survives he asks her out to dinner. As in Star Trek this was a role that made delightful use of her professional dance training.

Craig also played a rich girl turned beatnik in the appropriately named Mr. Lucky episode “Little Miss Wow,” the feisty daughter of a missing sailor in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and a meter maid on My Three Sons.

But it was her one-season appearance as Batgirl opposite Adam West and Burt Ward that still overshadows a lot of other fine work, a plight experienced by any actor fortunate enough to create an iconic character. 

The show really didn’t do right by her much of the time. In the third and final season of Batman the writing had slipped, most of the stories were no longer two-parters with cliffhangers, and poor Batgirl was usually captured far too quickly by chumps like Lord Fogg and Louis the Lilac.

And yet, every episode in which she appeared was a joy. Craig’s Batgirl was a carefree superhero, the antithesis of the dark and brooding caped crusaders of more recent films. She smiled and high-kicked through every fight, and radiated confidence each time she bounced into a room, head tilted back, hands on hips, ready for action.

I bought the Batman series blu-rays about three months ago and have been getting reacquainted with the show ever since. The third-season is coming up soon and I expect the experience of watching it will be bittersweet. But I will still be happy to see Batgirl again. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Despair is No Match for Champagne Music

I had a revelation while watching a 40 year-old episode of The Lawrence Welk Show. Which, to be clear, is not something I do very often. 

I grew up with the series, but like many in my generation it was against my will. How many of you also recall Sunday visits to the grandparents’ apartment, where conversation and card playing ceased the moment Welk raised his baton? To them The Lawrence Welk Show was one of the only good reasons to turn on the television. To me it was sappy music performed by sappy people who apparently wouldn’t stop smiling even if someone took a shot at them.

My appreciation for the music has grown since then, but that wasn’t the reason I recently spent a few moments watching Guy and Ralna, courtesy of PBS (which has been airing Welk reruns for years). I did it because there is a lot going on in the world right now, and much of it is not to my liking. Sometimes life in the 2010s is pretty lousy. And there was Lawrence Welk offering a respite, a temporary escape into simpler times. 

 That’s when I had my revelation – 40 years ago, my grandparents were doing the exact same thing.

From my current perspective the 1970s seem like a kinder, gentler time. But many seniors back then were convinced the world was going to hell. The popular music of the day was like a foreign language to them, and the nightly news brought stories of Vietnam War protests and Watergate and gas shortages and American hostages held in Iran, while a feckless government had no answer for what Ted Koppel called “terrorism in the Middle East.”

It was all a bit too much, so they watched Lawrence Welk. Here were tunes they recognized, performed in a style that harkened back to the entertainment of the 1940s – big bands, happy polkas, couples dancing together to songs with understandable lyrics. Everybody seemed so nice.

Say what you will about Welk’s refusal to change with the times, but he knew his audience. From local TV to the ABC network to first-run syndication, he stayed on television from 1951 to 1982.

And he didn’t completely ignore modern music – he just arranged it so it sounded like something Doris Day would have released when FDR was still in the Oval Office. The show’s infamously wholesome take on “One Toke Over the Line” has been watched nearly a million times on YouTube. 

That’s many more views than the clips of “Calcutta,” the instrumental that Welk took to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961. Take that, Chubby Checker.

If I feel nostalgic when I watch now, it’s as much for my grandmother’s traditional Russian cooking as for the show itself. But if you can get past the sight of all those ladies with the big round faces and pageant hair, and the guys wearing ties wide enough to land airplanes on, there was clearly a lot of talent in the cast.

The Lennon Sisters were the show’s biggest discovery, but there was also the wonderful Irish tenor Joe Feeney, peppy dancers Bobby and Cissy, the exquisite soprano voice of “Champagne Lady” Norma Zimmer, and the accordion wizardry of Myron Floren. Yes, I said accordion wizardry – it may be the most un-hip instrument ever, but Floren was its master and respect must be paid.

As proudly old-fashioned as it was, in its own way The Lawrence Welk Show could also be progressive. This was the first variety show to regularly feature an African-American in dancer Arthur Duncan. Welk was praised for that back in the day – today he’d probably be called a racist because the only black guy on the show is a tap dancer. With some people you just can’t win.

There was also a gorgeous Mexican singer billed as Anacani who performed songs in Spanish. I still remember her lovely version of "Eres tú," the song that should have won Eurovision in 1973. Another singer performed in a wheelchair. For its time, the show was inclusive.

Though I have recently achieved AARP eligibility, I’m not sure my fondness for The Lawrence Welk Show will continue to escalate.  But with the way the world is headed, I’m also not ruling out any return visits. If things don’t get better, I’ll meet you in front of the bandstand. Until then, Adios, Au Revoir, Auf Wiedersehen....Good Night.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Two-Part Episodes Revisited

In the Comfort TV era a “special two-part episode” was promoted as a big deal. Sometimes it actually turned out that way. Sometimes it didn’t.

As we explored back in March, there are good reasons to double the running time devoted to a story, such as character introductions and marriages, big-name guest stars and Emmy-bait scripts. But there were also times when the attempt to create something memorable only resulted in something twice as long.

Let’s take another look at some more two-parters from the Comfort TV era – 5 that worked, 5 that did not.

Good: Charlie’s Angels: “Angels in Paradise”
My first blog on this topic exposed “Terror on Skis” as a shameless cash grab padded into two episodes to justify a road trip to Vail, Colorado. But Charlie’s Angels could also deliver a first-rate two-part show. “Angels in Paradise,” the Hawaii-set adventure that introduced audiences to Cheryl Ladd, would be on any fan’s short list of the series’ very best moments. There’s a great jailbreak sequence, a charismatic adversary played by France Nuyen, and bikinis everywhere. 

Bad: The Dick Van Dyke Show: “I Do Not Choose to Run”/’The Making of a Councilman”
This season 5 story was sunk by its premise – Rob Petrie is recruited to run for a vacant city council position. It didn’t work because viewers of the previous four seasons knew Rob as an intelligent, eloquent, civic-minded gentleman who would probably make a great public servant. That didn’t serve the comedy, so he was presented as a dithering, uncertain candidate. Not buying it. 

Good: One Day at a Time: “J.C. and Julie”
The Norman Lear shows usually had a reliable sense of when to go two-part and when to keep it simple. One Day at a Time offered more than a dozen multi-part stories over its nine seasons. I’ve singled out “J.C. and Julie” because it pulls off a tricky concept – Julie joins a Christian youth group and annoys her family – in a way that is consistently funny without offending believers or non-believers.

Bad: Wonder Woman: “Mind-Stealers from Outer Space”
Yes, it delivers on the kitschy sci-fi promise of its B-movie title. There is an alien invasion story that leaves the fate of mankind in the hands of Dack Rambo, and flying saucer special effects that wouldn’t make the cut on Jason of Star Command. 
Wait – was this one in the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ category?
Like a lot of old cheese it can be fun if you meet it halfway, but any show that releases a two-part episode where the special guest star is Vincent Van Patten is just asking for trouble.

Good: That Girl: Mission Improbable
Unifit Sleepwear hires Ann Marie to go undercover as a seamstress at Sleeptight Fashions to find out who is stealing the company’s designs. She takes the job, despite the danger of discovery and the fact that she can’t sew. “Mission Improbable” justifies its two-part status as a clever genre departure from typical That Girl stories, and in the presence of such familiar comfort TV faces as Sandy Kenyon, Lou Jacobi and Avery Schreiber.

Bad: The Waltons: The Outrage
Some shows don’t know when to go away. By its ninth and final season, The Waltons had lost several beloved cast members but soldiered on, with World War II-era stories and a fake John-Boy (Robert Wightman) with the personality of an eggplant. The story in this season premiere two-parter focused on one of the family’s neighbors, a sure sign that writers had run out of ideas for the remaining Waltons.

Good: Bewitched: “My Friend Ben”/ “Samantha for the Defense”
A standard Bewitched set-up – Aunt Clara tries to summon an electrician but zaps up Benjamin Franklin instead – is elevated into the series’ best two-part outing on the strength of its shrewd scripts and guest star Fredd Wayne. Wayne takes a gimmick and gives it real depth – he captures Franklin’s wit and principles as well as the scientific curiosity and wonder that you’d expect to see in a man suddenly transported 200 years into the future. 

Bad: Diff’rent Strokes: The Hitchhikers
It’s customary for a sitcom to get serious every so often, especially in those “very special episodes” that inspire two-parters, but I doubt family audiences were all that pleased when Arnold and Kimberly are kidnapped by a mentally ill child molester.

Good: Battlestar: Galactica: “The Living Legend”
Remember, this is Comfort TV, so we’re celebrating the original series with Pa Cartwright and not the critically acclaimed but relentlessly grim remake. In “The Living Legend” the Galactica encounters the Pegasus, a long-lost starship with a legendary leader in Commander Cain (Lloyd Bridges). The philosophic sparring between Lloyd Bridges as Caine and Lorne Greene’s Adama provides a substantive counterpoint to the show’s signature action scenes. 

Bad: Starsky & Hutch: “Murder at Sea”
Aaron Spelling shows were never above cross-promotion, so here we have our two streetwise cops sailing on a thinly disguised variation of the Love Boat, in the undercover roles of entertainment directors Hack and Zack. It’s doubtful this adventure’s tired antics inspired anyone to spend more time on the Pacific Princess. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

The 20 Best Monkees Songs – and the 5 Worst

I love the music of The Monkees. Always have. 

I was too young for the series’ 1966-1968 prime time run, but when that ended The Monkees was moved to syndication on Saturday mornings, an unusual but effective programming strategy. That’s when I discovered them, right alongside Josie and the Pussycats and Kaptain Kool and the Kongs.

The songs were my favorite part of the show, and back then that was the only place where you could hear them. This was the early 1970s, when the original Monkees albums were out of print, and radio (even oldies stations) never played them because they were not a “real band.” Only dopes like Jann Wenner still hold that opinion.

Since my generation of Saturday morning Monkee fans couldn’t buy the records, and iTunes was still about 30 years away, we improvised by holding the microphones from our portable cassette tape players up to our TV speakers, and making our own Monkees tapes.

Given the generally poor state of my short-term and long-term memory, it’s surprising that I still remember being in the record department at Sears in 1972 and seeing something I had never seen before – an actual Monkees album. 

Sometime after that I picked up this import gem from Australia with 40 songs, plus amazing liner notes that told the full story of the band. 

It took MTV to finally reignite Monkee-mania with an episode marathon that aired on February 23, 1986. Its reception prompted a reunion tour (yes, I did get to see them live, and it was awesome even with out Mike Nesmith) and the re-release of all the band’s original albums, as well as the new top 20 hit “That was Then, This is Now.”

Today the reputation of The Monkees has been mostly restored, though they remain a glaring omission from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

These are my 20 favorite Monkees songs, in no particular order – along with 5 I’d rather forget.

I’m a Believer
This is not only one of the band’s most popular and successful songs (seven weeks at #1!), I think it belongs in the select company of the most perfect pop records ever made, alongside The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and “California Girls” by The Beach Boys. 

Last Train to Clarksville
It was about a soldier leaving for Vietnam, as most fans know by now. It’s fascinating to me that the first single from this manufactured band of TV goofballs not only tackled such a serious subject, but was also climbing the charts before the series even debuted. Personally I think “Clarksville” is slightly (just slightly!) overrated, but it was their first #1 hit and deserves to be here.

Mary, Mary
Given the master plan behind The Monkees machine it’s doubtful that Mike Nesmith’s songwriting played any role in his casting, but it became an essential element in the band’s evolution. That’s Glen Campbell playing the distinctive lead guitar riff on “Mary, Mary,” a song also covered by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Run DMC. 

Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)
I think this is their best pure bubblegum track. Those familiar with Monkees history know that original music producer Don Kirshner exerted dictatorial control over the band’s first two albums. Had Davy, Micky, Peter and Mike been the bystanders to their own careers that some critics alleged, all Monkees songs might have sounded like “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow).” Thankfully, sweets like this form only one part of their diverse catalog.  

Shades of Gray
The Monkees’ third album, Headquarters, was the first that gave the quartet control over their musical output. It produced no singles in the U.S., but this plaintive ballad would have been a worthy choice.

Daydream Believer
Another obvious pick, another #1 hit, and featuring Davy’s best vocal on a Monkees track (though if you prefer “She Hangs Out” I won’t argue the point). How many other bands could boast three lead singers as distinctive and as good as Davy, Micky and Mike?  

Randy Scouse Git
This is a Micky Dolenz composition that was a huge hit in England and throughout Europe, but it tanked in America. According to Dolenz, it was written the morning after a London party for The Monkees hosted by another popular quartet called The Beatles. 

Papa Gene’s Blues
“I have no more than I did before…but now I’ve got all that I need…for I love you and I know you love me.” Mike brought a country-folk flavor to the group both as a singer and songwriter. This is one of his first Monkees contributions, and one of his best. 

I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone
From “More of the Monkees,” this is the only Monkees song covered by the Sex Pistols – assuming there’s not a bootleg somewhere of Johnny Rotten singing “Valleri.” Micky’s delivery is not quite as aggressive, but there’s a lot more snarl in this track than anything else on the album.

Early Morning Blues and Greens
This “Headquarters” track is an acquired taste, as it lacks the irresistible hooks found in the band’s best-known songs. I find it reminiscent of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and it’s become a song I like more every time I hear it.

A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You
Neil Diamond, who wrote “I’m a Believer,” also penned this memorable single, which just missed becoming their third consecutive #1 hit. It stalled at #2 for two weeks, behind The Turtles’ “Happy Together.”

The Girl I Knew Somewhere
History tells us this is the first fully self-contained Monkees song. Mike wrote it, and the group played the instruments and performed all the vocals. Peter Tork plays a mean harpsichord on this top-40 classic. 

The Door Into Summer
The “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd.” album (1967) came closest to earning The Monkees some critical praise during their first go-round. Tracks like this one are a reason why.

What Am I Doing Hanging Round?
Mike showing his Texas roots again, on a track that has all the twangy qualities of one of his own compositions. However, this one was actually written by Michael Martin Murphy, later of “Wildfire” fame. As much as fans wanted then and now for the band to be taken seriously, it’s admirable how they rarely took themselves seriously, as evidenced by Micky hamming it up in the video for this song. 

I know “Pleasant Valley Sunday” was a hit, and I do like it, but if I’m being honest I prefer the song on the flip side of the single, which was written by The Monkees’ most prolific go-to songwriters, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. It’s also a nice reminder that Peter could sing too, when he wasn’t goofing around on novelty tracks like “Your Auntie Grizelda.”

Sometime in the Morning
The brilliant songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King contributed several songs to the Monkees’ music catalog – this tender ballad is my favorite, perhaps because they sang it to Rose Marie in the episode “Monkee Mother.” 

Ríu Chíu
Ríu Chíu is a Spanish Christmas carol that dates back to the 1500s. The Monkees a cappella version (performed on “The Christmas Show”) is mesmerizing in its beauty.

Aunties Municipal Court
By now you may have sensed that I am partial to Mike Nesmith compositions. Here's another one, but there’s not much Nashville to be found in the psychedelic arrangement and evocative beat poetry lyrics of “Aunties Municipal Court.” If you’re into great bass riffs, this has one worthy of McCartney. 

For Pete’s Sake
This is The Monkees’ “summer of love” song, not surprisingly co-written by the Monkee that most embraced the counterculture and peace and love movements of the era, Peter Tork. It was played over the closing credits of every episode in the series’ second and final season.

Nine Times Blue
There are versions of this Mike Nesmith song with Mike singing lead and Davy singing lead. I prefer the first one, though it’s interesting to compare the interpretations. 

My Five Worst:

Gonna Buy Me a Dog
Three minutes of Micky and Davy ad libbing and telling bad jokes. Fun if you’re in the right mood, but it’s hard to believe this earned a spot on their debut album while better songs like “All the King’s Men” didn’t make the cut.

Mommy and Daddy
It’s a toss-up between this song and “Zor and Zam” for the title of Micky’s most awkward stab at social commentary.

Can You Dig It
The movie Head had some memorable music moments, particularly “Circle Sky” and “The Porpoise Song,” but this was not one of them.

P.O. Box 9847
Proof that even Boyce and Hart could have an off day.

99 Pounds
The last original Monkees album was “Changes,” released in 1970. By then only Micky and Davy remained, but even with half a group the album isn’t all bad – sample “Ticket on a Ferry Ride” and “I Love You Better” if you’re curious. But on “99 Pounds,” Davy Jones tries to be Little Richard, and falls short. But then, Little Richard couldn’t do justice to “Forget That Girl” either.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Is There Still a Place in Comfort TV for Bill Cosby?

This blog has always been a haven to focus on positive subjects. If you want grim headlines and sad stories you have plenty of other places to find them.

But in the wake of the most recent revelations about Bill Cosby, and given his remarkable television career, the subject becomes the proverbial elephant in my room. This is not just another pop culture controversy like the newfound denigration of The Dukes of Hazzard, which is beyond ludicrous. There are much bigger questions here.

Bill Cosby is more than a classic TV star or a famous TV dad. Over a career that spans 50 years he has ascended to a place in the pantheon of the medium’s most important and beloved creative talents. And in less than one year, he has fallen from grace to a point where he is now a pariah. That doesn’t happen every day.

We are technically still in the “innocent until proven guilty” phase of the story. Several of his accusers are represented by publicity-obsessed ambulance chaser Gloria Allred, which damages their credibility by association, and model Janice Dickinson’s story seems to change every time she tells it. But there are valid reasons why Cosby has already been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion. This was not one incident or one lapse in judgment. If the allegations of any of his 40 accusers are to be believed, this once-beloved comedian orchestrated cruel and calculated acts of abuse that cannot be defended.

So how are we to square that persona with the man who costarred with Robert Culp in I Spy (1965-1968) and won three consecutive Best Actor Emmy Awards for his portrayal of Alexander Scott? Cosby was already a rising standup comic who had written and performed such brilliant routines as the ark-building conversation between the Lord and Noah (“What’s a cubit?”). With I Spy he became the first black man to play a lead role in a prime time network television series. 

This was just one year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act that banned discrimination. It was a significant moment in the evolution of television, and had it been tried with another actor it might not have worked; Cosby had a charisma, charm and approachability that made it easier for audiences to accept him as a full equal in his on-screen partnership with Culp. He made that happen, and we can’t take it away now.

The Electric Company (1971-1977) is a show I watch more often than any adult should. I love the still-funny sketches and catchy songs and wonderful cast, which for a time included Bill Cosby. In the 1970s he was a passionate advocate for the role that television could and should be playing in educating children and teaching them to be tolerant, and kind, and better citizens of the world. 

These objectives were also incorporated into Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, the animated series he co-created and hosted, while also voicing several characters. It was not only another success (in 2013 TV Guide selected it as the best cartoon series of the 1970s) it earned Cosby a Doctorate in Education.

And yet it’s possible that throughout this entire time, he was also drugging and molesting women. Does that mean everything he did on behalf of kids was a lie? And if he was sincere does it even matter?

The Cosby Show (1984-1992) was as groundbreaking in its own way as I Spy, and once again Cosby was not just a hired actor but also the creative force behind the series’ concept and development.

For the first time, a series was built around an affluent African-American family, without the caricature overtones of The Jeffersons. It was a harbinger of the post-racial culture we all hoped we were headed toward, but that recent news stories suggest is still a distant dream. The result was #1 Neilsen ratings, more Emmys and as celebrated a comedy series as television has ever produced. 

So what do we do with all of this?

First, we need to identify the extent to which Cosby’s behavior has tarnished the legacy of his work. We’ve faced this type of decision before, from Danny Bonaduce and Todd Bridges to Woody Allen and Robert Blake. Blake's reputation fared the worst – but if you think murder is where we draw the line, tell that to Vince Neil, or Snoop Dogg, or Teddy Kennedy.

The other factor in the Cobsy case is that we still don’t have any closure, in the form of a conviction or an unambiguous confession. This makes it easier for fans to stand by him, as they did with Lance Armstrong through a decade of doping denials. At this point, however, it’s hard to imagine Cosby’s reputation getting any worse no matter what happens next.

Thus, there are only two choices: we could expunge his shows, films and comedy routines from public broadcast, because his flaws as a human being were more significant than his talent and philanthropy.

Or, we put Cosby’s abuse in context by keeping the work accessible to those who wish to see it, while reminding present and future generations that this man who could be so funny and insightful was also capable of awful things.

I understand the sentiments of those who never want to watch his shows again. However, I also understand those who can separate the artist from the art and still appreciate the exceptional entertainment he provided for half a century. Besides, a lot of other people worked on those shows too. Why should their hard work be punished? 

None of us are the sum of all of our virtues or the sum of all of our sins, no matter how exceptional the virtue or how despicable the sin. For that reason, my tendency is to concur with the latter option. But if and when I watch Bill Cosby’s television work in the years to come, I will never fully watch it in the same way again.

Next week we’ll get back to more pleasant subjects.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Museum of Comfort TV Salutes: Freddy the Flute

Imagine a place where all of the instantly recognizable objects associated with classic television are on display. It doesn’t exist, so we’ll create it here, and pay tribute to many of our favorite Comfort TV things.

As with any museum, some exhibits are more popular with visitors than others. At the moment we’re seeing a lot of people coming in to check out the General Lee – not sure why.

Anyway, whenever I stop by I always pause to admire Joe Friday’s badge (best-looking shield in the country) and Emma Peel’s leather catsuits. But I won’t even waste a sideways glance on Freddy the Flute.

There, I said it. I hate Freddy the Flute, that little gold buzzkill on H.R. Pufnstuf

I grew up with the Sid & Marty Krofft shows and I love their remarkable puppetry and subversive sense of humor. But Pufnstuf, arguably their most successful creation, is the one I revisit the least – mostly because Freddy is so annoying.  

As a flute he was tolerable. He had a pleasant tone, and could play without someone blowing him, which I guess means he was able to finger himself. How's that for a sentence that doesn’t belong in a G-rated blog?

The trouble was that Freddy, like everything else on Living Island, could also talk. His voice was provided by Joan Gerber, but his squealing, high-pitched voice will remind most viewers of Mr. Bill, the oft-abused clay figure who appeared in several filmed shorts during the early days of Saturday Night Live.  

And just like Mr. Bill, Freddy was vulnerable to all manner of trouble. That resulted in non-stop whining every time he was captured by Witchiepoo, and constant cries of “Help! Help!” “Jimmy! Save Me!” and “Please let me go!” It should surprise no one that my favorite Pufnstuf episode is “Flute, Book and Candle,” in which Freddy fell into an evil mushroom patch and was turned into a mushroom. Because it finally forced him to shut up.

The crux of the problem is that I know I am supposed to be cheering for Jimmy and Freddy to escape the evil clutches of the witch. But I can’t. I root for Witchiepoo. Because Witchiepoo was a riot.

Let’s also remember that, as we learned from the show’s theme song, Freddy is the one responsible for Jimmy getting stuck on Living Island in the first place (“But the boat belonged to a kooky old witch, who had in mind the flute to snitch”). I recognize that can be interpreted as blaming the victim, but I can’t help it. H.R. Pufnstuf inverts my perception of right and wrong. Even Jimmy gets on my nerves sometimes. His best friend is a flute? Freud would have a ball with that one. 

Am I alone in my Freddy hate? Kellogg’s Cereal thought enough of him to offer a home version in 1970, complete with a movable mouth. These plastic Freddys were made in my hometown of Skokie, Illinois by the Toy Development Co. and came with a long sheet of assembly instructions that probably resulted in a lot of frustration-induced breakage. That may be why they go for so much money today. 

As for the original, it remained in the Krofft warehouse for decades. It was stolen in 1995, but after Marty Krofft offered a $10,000 reward for Freddy's safe return, the flute was dropped off anonymously at a Los Angeles television station. The reward was never claimed.

Now he’s here at the Museum. Sometimes we leave the display case open, in case Witchiepoo wants to make another attempt at flute-napping. Don’t tell Marty. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

From Hooterville: A Classic TV Dog Story

Sometimes you hear a story that makes you smile, and it continues to do so every time you think about it. This story does that for me. My guess is that many of my fellow classic TV lovers have heard it, but since it’s always nice to share happy remembrances, I hope they will indulge my telling it again.

In the second season of Petticoat Junction (a series long overdue for praise in this blog) a new character was introduced – a stray dog adopted into the Shady Rest Hotel by the youngest of Kate Bradley’s three daughters, Betty Jo. He was never given a name on the show but trainer Frank Inn, who discovered the dog at the Burbank Animal Shelter, called him Higgins. 

The dog was loved by everyone in the family except for gruff old Uncle Joe, played so memorably by gruff old Edgar Buchanan: “One thing we don’t need around this hotel is some flea-bitten hound eating us out of house and home.” Between takes, Buchanan was as fond of Higgins as the rest of the cast. 

Higgins remained a prominent presence for the remainder of the show’s seven seasons, and he astonished audiences with the remarkable and complex tasks he was trained to do. Whether running and jumping on cue, picking up objects and carrying them to a specific place, turning off lights or picking up phones, Higgins became known as “the one-take dog,” because he always got the scene right the first time.

When Petticoat Junction ended its run in 1970, Frank Inn had planned to let Higgins, then 10 years old, enjoy his retirement. But in 1974, the dog was cast as the star of a hugely successful family film that (according to IMDB) was made for $500,000 and grossed more than $39 million. From then on Higgins had a new name – Benji.

As coincidence would have it, Benji also featured Edgar Buchanan in a supporting role. Buchanan had not seen Higgins since Petticoat Junction was canceled three years earlier. On his first day of filming, as he stood on a porch that was part of a set, he wondered whether the dog would remember him. But as soon as Higgins spotted his friend, he ran toward him and took a flying leap into his arms. And even gruff old Edgar Buchanan couldn’t hold back the tears. 

As I said, just a nice story to make you smile. And perhaps to wonder what we ever did to deserve the pure and unconditional love we receive from dogs.