Saturday, 20 May 2006

Freddie Garrity R.I.P.

Freddie Garrity, leader of the British invasion band Freddie and the Dreamers, died on May 19th at the age of 69. He had suffered with emphysema and systemic sclerosis for many years.

Freddie Garrity started playing in various skiffle groups around Manchester while also working as a milkman. In 1959 he was playing with a skiffle band called The Kingfishers, which eventually evolved into Freddie and the Dreamers. The band differed from many of the contemporaries in incorporating a good deal of comedy into their act. For a while the group remained simply a part time profession for its members, until at last they passed an audition at the BBC in 1963. Their first single, a remake of James Ray's, "If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody," reached number three on the British charts. They were the first band to break the British charts that were not managed by Beatles manager Brian Epstein and the first band to do so that did not come from Liverpool.

Until 1966 Freddie and the Dreamers had a string of hits in the UK: "I'm Telling You Now," "Over You," and "Thou Shalt Not Steal." Like many British bands at the time, they eventually broke through in the United States. "I'm Telling You Now" became a top ten hit on the Billboard charts. Freddie and the Dreamers appeared on such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show, Hullabaloo, and Shindig. In the United States nearly as much attention was paid to Freddie's onstage antics as to the band's music. The odd dance he did on stage, swinging his arms and legs out from his sides, was dubbed "the Freddie" by Garrity. The group wrote a song around the dance called "Do the Freddie," which became a top ten hit in the United States. For a brief time the Freddie was the nation's latest dance craze.

Always a bit of a novelty act, eventually the novelty of Freddie and the Dreamers would overtake their talent as musicians. In 1966 they released an album of nothing but Disney songs. Their final album, Oliver in the Underworld, was directed squarely at children. As Freddie and the Dreamers became more and more a novelty act, their popularity declined even more.

Freddie and the Dreamers appeared in the films Seaside Swingers (AKA Everyday's a Holiday, Just For You, and Cuckoo Patrol. Freddie Garrity would later become the host of the children's show Little Big Time.

I am truly saddened by Freddie Garrity's passing. I always enjoyed their songs, particularly "A Little You," which numbers among my favourite British Invasion songs of all time. I always thought it a shame that they were always considered more of a novelty act than a serious rock band. Granted, their onstage antics could be silly, but they were also capable musicians who produced some good, bouncy pop rock songs.They definitely deserve to be remembered for more than the Freddie.

Thursday, 18 May 2006

The End of Network Movies

Like the other networks, CBS has recently announced its lineup for the fall. They have made only a few changes to their schedule, but perhaps the biggest is the cancellation of the CBS Sunday Night Movie. It was the last regularly scheduled night for movies on any of the networks. For the first time since 1961, none of the networks will have a regularly scheduled night for films.

It was in 1961 that NBC debuted the first regularly scheduled movies on network television, Saturday Night at the Movies. Prior to that time, the Hollywood studios would not let the networks have any films made prior to the late Forties. As a result, none of the networks showed movies with any sort of regularity. Saturday Night at the Movies was revolutionary in that NBC showed recently made films each week ("recently made" being defined as films made in the last seven to ten years...). It proved extremely successful, to the point that both CBS and ABC followed suit with nights of their own dedicated to movies. At one point in the Sixties and Seventies, the networks might have as many as three nights of week when they showed films.

Sadly, with the advent of such premium cable channels as HBO and Showtime, the development of video cassettes, and the invention of the DVD, the network movie programmes started to slip in the ratings. Why watch movies on network television (which are often cut for content and to allow them to run in a specified time) when one can watch them on HBO, VHS, or DVD? As a result, the network's movie programmes dropped in the ratings. NBC and ABC both cancelled their movie franchises. Eventually, CBS was the only network left with a night dedicated to showing the movies.

Personally, I am saddened by CBS's cancellation of their movie franchise. Even after the advent of premium movie channels, VHS, DVD, and so on, I would still watch movies on the networks. In recent years CBS's movies were often aimed at older women, so I didn't watch it nearly as often as I once did. But I would tune in whenever they showed a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation or one of the movies based on the Jesse Stone novels. I honestly think that the cancellation of the CBS Sunday Night Movie leaves a big hole in network schedules. Even with such developments in the past thirty years as premium movie channels and DVDs, I think there is a place for network movie programmes.

Wednesday, 17 May 2006

Two Fifties Pop Culture Figures Pass On

Two figures from Fifties pop culture have passed on. One was Frankie Thomas, who played the lead in Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, which ran from 1950 to 1955. The son of actors Frank M. Thomas and Mona Fruns, he started acting as a child. He made his debut in 1932, at the age of 11. By 1934 he moved from Broadway to Hollywood, appearing in his first film, Wednesday's Child. He played the lead role of Tim Tyler in the serial Tim Tyler's Luck in 1937. He also played the role of Ted Nickerson in Warner Brothers' series of Nancy Drew movies in the Thirties.

Thomas also appeared in such movies as Boys Town, Flying Cadets, and The Major and The Minor. In the late Forties his career shifted from movies to television. He appeared in the series A Woman to Remember and One Man's Family. It was in 1950 that he received his best known role, that of Tom Corbett. He beat out such actors as Jack Lemmon for the part. Based on Robert Heinlen's nove Space Cadet, the series was very successful. It produced such merchandise as comics and novelisations, and lasted five years on network television. One of the more interesting features of the series was its slang, some of which made its way into American speech of the time. There were such phrases as "spaceman's luck" and "cut your jets." Following Tom Corbett, Space Cadet Thomas found it increasingly difficult to find acting jobs. He switched careers to being an expert on bridges and writing mystery novels.

Thomas died at the age of 85. At his request, his was buried in the uniform he wore as Tom Corbett.

The other pop culture figure from the Fifties who has died recently was Lew Anderson. Anderson was the last person to play Clarabell the Clown on The Howdy Doody Show. Anderson was a musician and bandleader. Before and after playing Clarabell he made his living playing with various bands. It was Anderson who closed the show's final episode in 1960. Mute for the series' entire run, Clarabell the Clown finally spoke the words, "Goodbye, kids." Anderson died at the age of 84.

Sunday, 14 May 2006

And Now a Word From Our Sponsor....

I think it is safe to say that the average American pays very little attention to television commercials (called "adverts" elsewhere in the English speaking world). Indeed, commercials are often a signal to go to the refrigerator for a snack, use the restroom, or do anything else that might take viewers away from the TV for a few minutes. When we record programmes on VCRs or DVRs, we often fast forward over the commercials. I daresay the average American tends to view commercials simply as the price we pay for network television.

Despite the average American's seeming indifference to commercials, they have been around for nearly 85 years. The first radio commercial aired on WEAF in New York in 1922. It was essentially a ten minute spiel by a representative of the Queensboro Corporation about homes in an apartment complex in Jackson Heights, New York. By 1926 music was incorporated into commericals, as General Mills introduced the "Wheaties jingle" in an ad aired on Christmas Eve of that year--the first commercial jingle in American radio history. Of course, network television would be patterned after the same format as network radio. As a result, when regular network television broadcasts began in the late Forties, commercials were part and parcel of the new medium.

The commericals of the Forties and Fifties sometimes look positively primitive by today's standards. On The Milton Berle Show, Texaco was advertised by service station attendances singing the Texaco jingle. Old Gold cigarettes were advertised with a dancing cigarette pack. Ads for Anacin simulated the symptoms of a headache by portraying it as a hammer inside the skull. Starting in 1955 a little pixie named Happy Hotpoint (played by a young Mary Tyler Moore) pushed Hotpoint's appliances.

I wasn't yet born when these commercials aired, so I know them only from TV retrospectives. On the other hand, I do have a clear memory of the commercials that aired when I was a very young child. Indeed, I don't know if the Sixties were some kind of Golden Age for TV commericals or if I was just a very impressionable child, but I seem to recall commercials from that era better than any other. One that still stands out in my mind are the commercials for Ajax laundry detergent that aired for much of the decade. It featured a knight in shining armour on a white charger who would zap clothes clean with his lance. To this day I can still picture that commercial in my head. Who knows? Maybe it started my whole fascination with the Middle Ages....

Another commercial from the Sixties I remember well was also for a laundry product. At that time Colgate put out a product called "Action," essentially packets of bleach which one would drop in his or her washer. The commercials involved an arm that would burst from the top of the washer holding a box of Action. Colgate stopped making Action long ago, but I can still remember those commercials.

Of course, I don't just remember laundry commercials from my childhood. I can also remember ads for men's cologne. In those days cologne manufacturers seemed convinced that their products could make any man irresitable to women (if only this was true...). I remember the commercials for Yardley Black Label (one of the sponsors of The Monkees) fairly well. The commercials generally featured men in some stereotypically masculine pursuit (parachuting, surfing, and so on). Inevitably, a girl would enter the picture, who would pass up one of the fellows for the other (the one who used Yardley Black Label, of course). I seem to recally that their slogan was something like "Some men have it, some men don't..." I remember the ads for Hai Karate even better. Some poor bloke would slap some Hai Karate on his face. Afterwards, he would have to use the martial arts to fight off the hordes of screaming women...

In those days characters from television shows would often appear in their programme's sponsor's commercials. On The Beverly Hillbillies it would not be unusual to see Jed and Granny in commercials for Kelloggs Corn Flakes. The Monkees also appeared in commercials for Kellogg cereals, as well as those for Yardley Black Label. And while cartoon character Joe Camel generated a lot of controversy in the Nineties, in the Sixties there was no outcry when Fred and Barney of The Flintstones pushed Winston cigarettes... Eventually the practice of TV characters pitching products would cease, although I am not sure why. I do suspect that the FCC probably frowned upon it.

Of course, sponsors would develop their own characters for commercials. Ready to eat breakfast cereals were often pitched by cartoon characters, ranging from Tony the Tiger (spokesman for Kelloggs Frosted Flakes) to Cap'n Crunch (spokesman for the cereal of the same name). Among the most memorable TV commercial characters was Mr. Whipple (played by Dick Wilson), a grocer who constantly urged his customers, "Please don't squeeze the Charmin." Naturally, he would wind up squeezing a package of the toilet paper himself. Madge the Manucurist (played by Jan Miner) persuaded her patrons that Palmolive dish soap "softens the hands." Mrs. Olson was a middle aged woman (presumably of Swedish descent) who made a habit of visiting young housewives to encourage them to use Folger's Coffee. Commercials featuring her lasted until 1985.

As I said earlier, I don't remember too many commercials since the Sixties. I don't know if they simply do not "make 'em like they used to" or if, as an adult, I am simply less impressionable. The only commercial I can recall fairly well from the Seventies is the classic Coca-Cola "Hilltop" ad, in which a group of young people sang, "I'd like to teach the world to sing..." Like most people I remember Apple's "1984" commercial advertising the introduction of the Macintosh. The commercial aired during the Super Bowl that year. It featured an auditorium filled with people watching an individual (presumably Big Brother) talk about the anniversary of the "Information Purification Directives" on a gigantic screen. A woman then entered the auditorium and hurled a sledgehammer at the screen, shattering it. The commercial was impressive, even if I never did become a fan of Macs.

Some commercials I remember simply because they were just plain bad. In 1989 a company called LifeCall started running commercials for their medical alarm systems. The commercial featured an elderly woman named Mrs. Fletcher who had fallen in her bathroom. She cried into the pendant which would alert a dispatcher to her predicament, "I've fallen and I can't get up!" While portraying what is a very serious and dangerous situation for the elderly, the actress who played Mrs. Fletcher had very little talent and as a result the commercial came off as camp. The phrase "I've fallen and I can't get up" soon entered American idiom of the time.

Fortunately, most commercials are a far sight better than the ones for Lifecall. One of my favourites aired during the 2000 Super Bowl (the Rams won!). It was an ad for Electronic Data System (EDS) which portratyed a group of cowboys who herd cats. Hundreds of cats. The commercial featured such scenes as the cats being herded across streams, being retrieved from trees, and so on. One cowboy, showing off his scratches from the felines, pointed out that cat herding is dangerous work. Another was shown rolling up a ball of yarn. The commercial was one of the funniest I've ever seen. I cracked up laughing every time I saw it.

There aren't too many recent commercials that have impressed me quite as much. I do enjoy the General Electric (GE) commercial in which an elephant in a rain forrest does the soft shoe to Singin' in the Rain. As a Gene Kelly fan I think it is hilarious. I also love the Mastercard commercial which is also a take off on McGiver. I was never a big fan of the show, but I find the commercial very funny.

Commercials have been part of the American landscape for nearly 85 years now. And regardless of the fact that most of us tend to use them as an opportunity to grab a snack or use the restroom, there is no sign that we will ever see television without them. And while we might miss many of those commercials, I have little doubt that there will be those we will remember. And even enjoy, whether we want to or not.