Saturday, 14 November 2009

Nanowrimo Take 2: Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula

For those of you who missed it, last week I wrote a post about National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo, an annual event in which I am currently participating. NaNoWriMo is essentially a month long, writing project in which participants try to write a 50,000 word novel in only thirty day. Here I must point out that while it is still called "National Novel Writing Month," it has been international in scope for years now.

Whether one has written before or whether they have never written in his or her life, I think we can all agree that writing a 50,000 word novel in thirty days is a challenge. And it is particularly challenging if one began NaNoWriMo with only the concept of a novel, but only a few ideas on the plot, as I have. With no plot outline to go by, I have found the plot of my novel growing organically as I write. Surprisingly, what I have written so far appears somewhat cogent and I have not found any plot holes. Of course, over the course of the next two weeks, I cannot guarantee it will stay that way!

Of course, if I had thought of it before November 1, I simply would have looked to my idol Lester Dent (creator of pulp magazine hero Doc Savage) for advice. During his many years of writing, Mr. Dent developed and wrote down a master plot formula for any 6000 word pulp story. Given that most of the Doc Savage novels also follow this master plot formula, I would say it would work for short novels as well! Anyhow, Lester Dent's Master Plot Formula is as follows:
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This is a formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. It has worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words.

No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell.

The business of building stories seems not much different from the business of building anything else.

Here's how it starts:

1. A DIFFERENT MURDER METHOD FOR VILLAIN TO USE
2. A DIFFERENT THING FOR VILLAIN TO BE SEEKING
3. A DIFFERENT LOCALE
4. A MENACE WHICH IS TO HANG LIKE A CLOUD OVER HERO

One of these DIFFERENT things would be nice, two better, three swell. It may help if they are fully in mind before tackling the rest.

A different murder method could be--different. Thinking of shooting, knifing, hydrocyanic, garroting, poison needles, scorpions, a few others, and writing them on paper gets them where they may suggest something. Scorpions and their poison bite? Maybe mosquitos or flies treated with deadly germs?

If the victims are killed by ordinary methods, but found under strange and identical circumstances each time, it might serve, the reader of course not knowing until the end, that the method of murder is ordinary. Scribes who have their villain's victims found with butterflies, spiders or bats stamped on them could conceivably be flirting with this gag.

Probably it won't do a lot of good to be too odd, fanciful or grotesque with murder methods.

The different thing for the villain to be after might be something other than jewels, the stolen bank loot, the pearls, or some other old ones.

Here, again one might get too bizarre.

Unique locale? Easy. Selecting one that fits in with the murder method and the treasure--thing that villain wants--makes it simpler, and it's also nice to use a familiar one, a place where you've lived or worked. So many pulpateers don't. It sometimes saves embarrassment to know nearly as much about the locale as the editor, or enough to fool him.

Here's a nifty much used in faking local color. For a story laid in Egypt, say, author finds a book titled "Conversational Egyptian Easily Learned," or something like that. He wants a character to ask in Egyptian, "What's the matter?" He looks in the book and finds, "El khabar, eyh?" To keep the reader from getting dizzy, it's perhaps wise to make it clear in some fashion, just what that means. Occasionally the text will tell this, or someone can repeat it in English. But it's a doubtful move to stop and tell the reader in so many words the English translation.

The writer learns they have palm trees in Egypt. He looks in the book, finds the Egyptian for palm trees, and uses that. This kids editors and readers into thinking he knows something about Egypt.

Here's the second installment of the master plot.

Divide the 6000 word yarn into four 1500 word parts. In each 1500 word part, put the following:

FIRST 1500 WORDS

1. First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved--something the hero has to cope with.
2. The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)
3. Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action.
4. Hero's endevours land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words.
5. Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.

SO FAR: Does it have SUSPENSE? Is there a MENACE to the hero? Does everything happen logically?

At this point, it might help to recall that action should do something besides advance the hero over the scenery. Suppose the hero has learned the dastards of villains have seized somebody named Eloise, who can explain the secret of what is behind all these sinister events. The hero corners villains, they fight, and villains get away. Not so hot.

Hero should accomplish something with his tearing around, if only to rescue Eloise, and surprise! Eloise is a ring-tailed monkey. The hero counts the rings on Eloise's tail, if nothing better comes to mind. They're not real. The rings are painted there. Why?

SECOND 1500 WORDS

1. Shovel more grief onto the hero.
2. Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to:
3. Another physical conflict.
4. A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words.

NOW: Does second part have SUSPENSE? Does the MENACE grow like a black cloud? Is the hero getting it in the neck? Is the second part logical?

DON'T TELL ABOUT IT! Show how the thing looked. This is one of the secrets of writing; never tell the reader--show him. (He trembles, roving eyes, slackened jaw, and such.) MAKE THE READER SEE HIM.

When writing, it helps to get at least one minor surprise to the printed page. It is reasonable to to expect these minor surprises to sort of inveigle the reader into keeping on. They need not be such profound efforts. One method of accomplishing one now and then is to be gently misleading. Hero is examining the murder room. The door behind him begins slowly to open. He does not see it. He conducts his examination blissfully. Door eases open, wider and wider, until--surprise! The glass pane falls out of the big window across the room. It must have fallen slowly, and air blowing into the room caused the door to open. Then what the heck made the pane fall so slowly? More mystery.

Characterizing a story actor consists of giving him some things which make him stick in the reader's mind. TAG HIM.

BUILD YOUR PLOTS SO THAT ACTION CAN BE CONTINUOUS.


THIRD 1500 WORDS

1. Shovel the grief onto the hero.
2. Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain or somebody in:
3. A physical conflict.
4. A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the 1500 words.

DOES: It still have SUSPENSE? The MENACE getting blacker? The hero finds himself in a hell of a fix? It all happen logically?

These outlines or master formulas are only something to make you certain of inserting some physical conflict, and some genuine plot twists, with a little suspense and menace thrown in. Without them, there is no pulp story.

These physical conflicts in each part might be DIFFERENT, too. If one fight is with fists, that can take care of the pugilism until next the next yarn. Same for poison gas and swords. There may, naturally, be exceptions. A hero with a peculiar punch, or a quick draw, might use it more than once.

The idea is to avoid monotony.

ACTION: Vivid, swift, no words wasted. Create suspense, make the reader see and feel the action.

ATMOSPHERE: Hear, smell, see, feel and taste.

DESCRIPTION: Trees, wind, scenery and water.

THE SECRET OF ALL WRITING IS TO MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT.
FOURTH 1500 WORDS

1. Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.
2. Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the DIFFERENT murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist.)
3. The hero extricates himself using HIS OWN SKILL, training or brawn.
4. The mysteries remaining--one big one held over to this point will help grip interest--are cleared up in course of final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand.
5. Final twist, a big surprise, (This can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the "Treasure" be a dud, etc.)
6. The snapper, the punch line to end it.

HAS: The SUSPENSE held out to the last line? The MENACE held out to the last? Everything been explained? It all happen logically? Is the Punch Line enough to leave the reader with that WARM FEELING? Did God kill the villain? Or the hero?
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For those who are interested, several copies of his master plot formula can be found at the Lester B. Dent Collection, part of the Western Historical Manuscript Collection--Columbia, at the University of Missouri. The collection was donated to the University by Norma Dent on February 8 and 18, 1985. An addition to the collection was made by W. Ryerson Johnson (American pulp writer who also wrote on Doc Savage) on January 23, 1991.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Grace Kelly 's Eightieth Birthday

It was on this day in 1929 that Her Serene Highness, the Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Had Grace Kelly was still alive today, she would be 80 years old. Regardless of her age were she alive, for many of her fans and admirers (myself included), Grace Kelly remains one of the most beautiful women to ever live. It might seem surprising, given her fame and her many fans, that Grace Kelly's career was relatively brief. On Broadway she only appeared in two plays. Beyond appearances on talk shows, news programmes, and variety shows, Grace only made appearances in around forty episodes of television shows. And while it would be film that would bring her fame, Grace only appeared in eleven movies. She began her acting career in 1948 and it ended in 1956 with her marriage to Ranier III, Prince of Monaco.

That Grace Kelly became one of the most famous stars of all time might seem remarkable, even given her incredible beauty, except when one considers that talent ran in her family. Two of her uncles, brothers to ther father, would both achieve fame before Grace was even born. Her uncle, Walter C. Kelly, was a very well known vaudeville comedian who toured for years as "the Virginia Judge (even if his roots were planted firmly above the Mason-Dixon Line). Not only did he appear frequently on Broadway, but he was on the silver screen before his niece Grace was even born. He made his last film appearance in 1936 in the film The Tugboat Princess. Sadly, he would die in 1939 from injuries sustained in an automobile accident, not unlike his most famous niece. Her uncle George had also worked in vaudeville as an actor and a writer of sketches, before going on to fame as a playwright on Broadway. George even won the Pulitzer Prize for his play Craig's Wife in 1925. Many of his plays would be adapted as motion pictures and teleplays. Grace's father, John B. Kelly, was an accomplished oarsmen who had went to the Olympics in both 1920 and 1924.

Grace Kelly started acting while very young. She appeared in productions at both the prestigious convent school Ravenhill Academy and the private Stevens School. She also performed with the the Old Academy Players in East Falls in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, appearing as in the lead in a play called Don't Feed the Animals when she was twelve. After graduating from high school, Grace attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. Her acting career began in 1948 with roles on the stage. By 1949 Grace had made her debut on Broadway, appearing in August Strindberg's The Father. She would make only make one other appearance on Broadway, in the play To Be Continued in 1952.

Grace Kelly made her debut on television in 1948 in an episode of the series Actor's Studio. She would go onto appear in around forty more episodic television series, including Big Town, The Clock, Hallmark Hall of Fame, Lights Out, Robert Montgomery Presents, Suspense, and Studio One. She made her film debut in a small role in the film Fourteen Hours in 1951. Although brief, Grace would go onto a film career that even other big name stars might envy. Her second film would be the classic High Noon, in which she played the Quaker wife of Marshall Will Kane, played by screen legend Gary Cooper. In 1954 Grace would appear as the lead in her first film with Alfred Hitchcock, Dial M for Murder. She would collaborate with the Master of Suspense in two more classic films (Rear Window and To Catch a Thief), arguably the most famous of the director's cool blondes in the process. Grace also appeared in other classics, including The Bridges at Toko-Ri, The Country Girl, and High Society. Grace Kelly won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for The Country Girl, as well as other awards.

In 1955 when Grace was part of the United States' delegation to the Cannes Film Festival. While there she was invited to take part in a photo shoot at the Palace of Monaco with Prince Rainier III. It would be the beginning of the end of her film career. When Prince Rainier toured of the United States later that year, he proposed marriage to Grace. The two were married in April 1956. As it would not be considered fitting for a Princess of Monaco to act in movies, Grace never acted in films again. Hitchcock offered the lead role of Marnie to her, and Grace was eager to work with her old friend again, but public outcry from the people of Monaco put a stop to any such plans. In 1966 she narrated the ABC television movie Poppies Are Also Flowers. Herbert Ross tried to lure her out of retirement for his 1977 movie The Turning Point, to no avail. That same year Grace performed a series of poetry readings and  provided narration for both the documentary The Children of Theatre Street and ABC's television movie Poppies Are Also Flowers.

It was on September 13, 1982, that Grace Kelly suffered a stroke while driving.with her daughter Stephanie back from the family's vacation home Roc Agel to Monaco. As a result her car went down the embankment of a mountain and crashed into a tree at the bottom, before landing on a pile of rocks. Grace was unconscious, but still alive when she was taken from the wreckage. Sadly, she would die the following day from the injuries she sustained in the crash. Her daughter Stephanie was also severely injured, to the point that she was still in hospital the day her mother's funeral was held.

It has been twenty seven years since Grace Kelly died. It has been fifty three years since she last starred in a motion picture (High Society in 1952), and yet Grace still holds the imagination of millions people around the world. In 1993 she became the first American actress to ever appear on a United States postage stamp. In 1995 Grace ranked #5 on Empire magazine's list of 100 Sexiest Stars in film history. She was also named 12th Greatest Movie Star of all time by Premiere magazine and was #13 in the American Film Institute's list of 50 Greatest Screen Legends. According to Turner Classic Movies (TCM), she was "the most glamourous woman of the 20th Century." In honour of her 80th birthday, TCM had dedicated the month of November to her.

In many respects it is difficult to gauge the appeal of Grace Kelly. There can be no doubt that she was beautiful. Possessed of blonde tresses and bright blue eyes, she had a face that could have sculpted with utmost precision. And although Grace Kelly is not often mentioned in the same class as such bombshells as Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe, she had an excellent figure--her measurements were 34-24-35. While Grace was undoubtedly beautiful, it would seem that her appeal goes far beyond her beauty. After all there have been numerous actresses of nearly equal beauty and many of them with more extensive careers than Grace had, yet none of them are nearly as popular or as beloved as she is. I rather suspect Grace's enduring popularity is not due to the fact that she was incredibly beautiful, but rather that she was so much more than a pretty face. Grace Kelly was incredibly talented. In her films she played a variety of roles, from washed up, alcoholic actor Frank Elgin distinctly un-glamourous wife  in The Country Girl to the ultra-glamourous (and very cunning) Francine in To Catch a Thief. It must also be pointed out that Grace generally played women who were strong and self confidant, yet to some degree vulnerable. In The Country Girl Georgie Elgin is nearly the only thing that holds has-been actor Frank together. In High Noon, as Amy, Grace Kelly evinces a quiet strength, even as her husband, Marshall Will Kane, must take part in the violence which she adamantly opposes.

While it is difficult to put the appeal of Grace Kelly into words, I must say that I have loved her since the first time I ever saw her in a movie. Even as a young child, Grace Kelly numbered among my favourite movie stars of all time. I have no doubt that in the beginning much of it was because she was incredibly beautiful. Indeed, while I know there are those who would argue for Marilyn Monroe, for me it has always been Grace Kelly is the epitome of blondeness. As I grew older I would realise that Grace was much more than a beautiful, cool blonde, and that only made me love her more. The characters she played were not simply beautiful women. It was a rare thing for Grace Kelly to appear in a film only as window dressing. Many, perhaps most, of the characters Grace played were intelligent and often more than a match for any man. In Rear Window Lisa Fremont was not simply a socialite who was Jeff's girlfriend. She is also his fellow amateur detective in finding out what happened in one of the apartments across from him. Not only is Lisa as bright as Jeff, she is also brave, even putting her life at risk to solve the mystery. In To Catch a Thief it would appear that Francine was more intelligent than jewel thief John Robie. The combination of blonde beauty and natural intelligence that many of Grace's characters possessed made her much more appealing than many other actresses would be for me.

To this day, decades after I first saw Grace Kelly in a movie, I must confess that I still love her. I do not think I am alone in this. As evinced by the many tributes to her all across the internet, Grace Kelly still has a large and very fervent following. And I think this is due to much more than her unbelievable beauty and her fashion sense. Grace Kelly possessed intelligence, charm, and wit to spare and played characters who had such as well. It is for that reason that, despite her short career, she has remained in people's hearts while others have been forgotten.


Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Sesame Street Turns 40

It was on this date in 1969 that the longest running children's show in American history debuted. Sesame Street wasn't the first educational children's show, but it was revolutionary. Unlike previous children's shows, Sesame Street relied on twelve to twenty second spots in a fast moving, distinct visual style to educate children. It was also revolutionary in that each episode had its own structure, dedicated to a particular letter and a number of the day. In many ways it was different from anything that had come before.

The beginnings of Sesame Street go back to 1966, at a dinner party given by television producer Joan Ganz Cooney, then working at WDNT (an educational television station in New Jersey), with Lloyd Morrisett of the Carnegie Institute in attendance. The Carnegie Institute having donated millions of dollars in grants to organisations dedicated to children's education, discussion soon turned to the use of television as an educational tool for children. It was then a few days later that Cooney, her boss at WDNT Lewis Freedman, and Morrisett met at his office to discuss the use of television to educate children. Ultimately, the Carnegie Institute financed a study conducted by Joan Ganz Cooney that was entitled "Television for Preschool Education." The study outlined how television could be used as a tool for educating inner city preschool children. The focus was made upon inner city children from low income families as it had been learned that they are generally prepared for school. Cooney thought that public television could fill the gap in getting such children prepared for school. She also thought that through high production values and the latest in television production, they could reach the widest audience possible. Part and parcel of her concept was the idea of a show that could be appreciated by parents as well as their children. She suggested the use of some humour to appeal to adults and the appearance of celebrities to accomplish this end.

Because of Cooney's study, the Carnegie Institute awarded her an $8 million grant with which she founded the Children's Television Workshop in 1968 with the goal of creating a new children's show. Lloyd Morriesett and Joan Ganz Cooney were also able to procure more funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Ford Foundation, and the federal government. A production team was formed, headed by David Connell (a veteran of Captain Kangaroo) and including Jon Stone (another veteran of Captain Kangaroo), and Samuel Gibbon (another veteran of Captain Kangaroo). In preparation for the show, seminars were held, involving professionals in education and child development, to determine which educational content should be emphasised on the show. It would by way of these seminars that Jim Henson and his Muppets would become involved with Sesame Street. Stone, who had previously worked with Henson, thought that if the show was to have puppets, it would have to be using Henson's talents.

Ultimately, the show would centre on an inner city street, in keeping with the producers' goals of educating inner city children. Several titles were considered, and in the end the production team settled on the one they disliked the least--Sesame Street. Even then there was concern that it would be too difficult for children to pronounce.

The producers created five test episodes, not intended for broadcast, to gauge if the show could be easily understood by children. These episodes were shown to children in 60 households throughout Philadelphia in July 1969. It was largely through the results of these test episodes, in which it was learned the children paid more attention to the Muppets than the scenes on the street itself, that characters who would interact with the human on the street were created, such as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

Sesame Street would simply not be unique among children's shows in 1969 in its urban setting or the fast paced means with which it presented educational concepts, but also in that it may have been the first public show promoted by a commercial network. On November 8, 1969, two days before its debut, a special financed by Xerox promoting the series aired on NBC. Entitled The Way to Sesame Street, the thirty minute preview was taped only a day before it aired. On Nobemeber 10, 1969 Sesame Street debuted with exceedingly high ratings for a public show. It earned a 3.3 Nielsen rating. It also received some sterling reviews. This is not to say the show did not have its detractors. At the time there were those who were critical of the show's rapid fire pace. The show was also criticised in some quarters for its integrated cast and featuring strong, single women as characters.

Sesame Street has changed over the years, particularly with regards to its cast. While Jim Henson created Muppet characters specifically for the show (Grover, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Oscar Grouch), early in the show established Muppets such as Kermit the Frog, Rowf, and a few others appeared. They were gradually phased out. Over the years other Muppet characters have come and gone from Sesame Street. It must be stressed that contrary to popular belief, one of these is not Grover. He never "died" nor did he ever leave the show. One of the most popular, and perhaps controversial Muppet characters on the show is Elmo. Elmo was not one of the original characters on the show, but he is not exactly as recent a creation as many believe. The characters dates back to around 1972, appearing as "Baby Monster." Essentially an extra Muppet, nothing special emerged from the character until 1985 when puppeteer Kevin Clash turned Baby Monster into Elmo. The character has since become one of the most popular characters with the younger set. As to adults, while many of them worry that Grover is dead, they sometimes wish Elmo was dead.

Over the years many puppeteers have worked on Sesame Street. Indeed, it might come as a surprise to some that the chief architects behind The Muppets, Jim Henson and Frank Oz, actually worked on the show for literally years. That having been said,  the puppeteer most closely associated with the show is probably Carol Spinney, who has played Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and Bruno nearly since the show's beginning (indeed, he is still working on the show).

As might be expected, the human cast of Sesame Street has changed over the years, although there has been a good deal of consistently as well. Mr. Hooper (played by Will Lee) ran Hooper's Store, the candy store on the street. He was with the show from the beginning until his death in 1982. It was because of his death that Sesame Street aired a landmark episode which dealt with the passing of Mr. Hooper as a means of educating children about death and dying. Music teacher Bob Johnson (played by Bob McGrath) has been with the show from its inception and has remained with the show ever since. Susan Robinson (played by Loretta Long) has also remained with the show from the beginning, although she has appeared less frequently since the Nineties. Other human characters have included the librarian Linda (played by Linda Bove from 1972 to 2003), teenager and later partner in The Fix-It Shop Maria (played by Sonia Manzano from 1972 to the present), and Mr. Hooper's successor David (played by Northern Calloway from 1972 to 1989).

Sesame Street has changed over the years. One change has been the amount of merchandising for the show. In its earliest years there was virtually no merchandising. This changed primarily due to a need to finance the series. Dependent on the Federal government for much of its money, in 1978 CTW found itself in the uncomfortable situation of having to wait on a cheque from the Department of Education until the last day CTW's fiscal year. As mentioned above, there have been changes in its cast (at one point Native composer and singer Buffy Sainte-Marie was part of the cast) and Muppets have come and gone. Spanish words and phrases were occasionally used on the show as early as the Seventies. By 1991 a new segment was introduced called "the Spanish Word of the Day." With the introduction of Linda (who was deaf) sign language started to be included on the show as well. It was very early in its history that Sesame Street went international, with co-productions now existing in 140 countries. Nineteen eighty saw the debut of Sesame Street Live, a touring, live, stage production of the show.

Sesame Street would have a huge impact on pop culture over the years, even in its early years. Big Bird appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969, on The Flip Wilson Show in 1970, and in movies ranging from The Muppet Movie to his own movie (Sesame Street Presents Follow That Bird from 1985). Oscar the Grouch has appeared on shows from The Simpsons to Scrubs. The show has actually produced hit songs. Ernie's song "Rubber Duckie" actually reached the top 40 for many weeks in 1971. "Bein' Green," sang by Kermit the Frog on the show, has been recorded many times by many artists, including Van Morrison and Ray Charles. The key phrase from the song, "it's not easy being green," has entered the pop culture vocabulary. Sesame Street has been parodied numerous times, in everything from The Simpsons to the supernatural horror series Angel (in the episode "Smile Time").

Such was the popularity of Sesame Street in its early years that, at a time when PBS stations were a rarity, commercial stations would actually air the show without commercial interruption. This was the case with KRCG in Jefferson City, who aired it for many years following Captain Kangaroo. This is how I first watched Sesame Street. Airing at 9:00 AM, I could not watch it when school was in session, but I watched it loyally in the summer. Like most kids I had my favourite characters: Grover, Ernie, and Bert (here I must stress I don't count Kermit and Rowlf as Sesame Street characters).  I can't say that I learned a great deal from the show, but I have seen its impact on generations following my own. My nephews,  my nieces, all learned their ABC's and 123's from the show. My best friend's daughter has even learned a few words of Spanish from it!

Sesame Street is currently the longest running children's show in American television history, a record that will probably never be broken. Its debut forty years ago marked a pivotal point in American broadcast television. Prior to Sesame Street educational shows (such as Captain Kangaroo,  a bit of a forerunner to the show) were few and far between. The success of Sesame Street insured that there would be more educational shows not only on public television, but on commercial television. Even shows from other nations, ranging from the UK's Rainbow to Australia's Bananas in Pyjamas largely owe their existence to Sesame Street. In its forty years of existence, Sesame Street has changed television forever.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

The Dean Martin Show

Today the variety show format is nearly unknown on American television. Saturday Night Live on NBC remains the sole survivor of the format, although it has traditionally concentrated on skit comedy much more than most variety shows. There was a time when variety shows were plentiful in the prime time line ups of the networks. In fact, there was a time when some of the biggest names of entertainment had their own variety shows. Judy Garland, Danny Kaye, Frank Sinatra, and many others had turns as hosts of their own variety shows. Among the most successful of them all was Dean Martin.

The Dean Martin Show debuted on NBC on September 16, 1965. While the show was often raked over the coals by critics, it proved to be a hit with viewers. Not only did The Dean Martin Show prove to be a hit in its first season, but it performed consistently well in the ratings for every season it was on. The series lasted for nine years, until May 1974. Afterwards the series had a bit of an afterlife in the form of spinoff specials entitled The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts. The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts would continue until 1984.

Dean Martin was no stranger to television or to variety shows when The Dean Martin Show debuted in 1965. In fact, with former comedy partner Jerry Lewis, he was one of the guests on the debut show of a variety series called Toast of the Town on June 20, 1948; it would later become better known as The Ed Sullivan Show. Both with and without Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin had appeared on such shows as The Jack Carter Show, The Jack Benny Programme, The Steve Allan Show, The Perry Como Show, and many others. Neither was Dean Martin a stranger to hosting variety shows. Martin and Lewis had served among the rotating hosts on The Colgate Comedy Hour from its debut on NBC on September 10, 1950 to the show's demise in 1955. In 1964 Dean Martin was the guest host of ABC's variety show The Hollywood Palace twice. It was on one of The Hollywood Palace shows which Martin hosted that The Rolling Stones made their first appearance on American television (Martin's jokes at The Stones' expense has since become the stuff of legend).

It might then seem curious to know that in 1965 Dean Martin was not particularly fond of the idea of doing a regularly scheduled television show. The reason was simply that Martin felt that a television series would prevent him from accepting offers for movies and nightclub performances. When NBC then approached Martin about the prospect of doing a variety show, he demanded terms so outrageous that he was sure the network would turn him down. Quite simply, Dean Martin demanded an exorbitantly high salary, that he be required only to show up for the actual taping of the show, and the show be taped on Sundays. Much to Martin's surprise, NBC accepted his terms.

The Dean Martin Show debuted in the fall of 1965 to a strong start. Its original format was very basic. Dean Martin and pianist Ken Lane were the series' only regulars. While Dean acted as host and sang a few songs, much of the show was filled with big name stars. It was very soon that the ratings for The Dean Martin Show began to falter. Having made a very big investment in the success of the series, NBC brought Greg Garrison in as the show's producer and director. Garrison was a television veteran who had directed such series as The Kate Smith Hour, The Milton Berle Show, and Meet Corliss Archer. In conjunction with musical director Lee Hale, Garrison set about revising the format of The Dean Martin Show. Martin's role on the show was increased, while the number of guest was decreased. Both Garrison and Hale worked hard to make Dean Martin more comfortable with the show. In fact, it was not unusual for Garrison to overbook guests should there be a need to replace them. Garrison and Hale's strategy worked. The Dean Martin Show climbed back to the top of the ratings. By 1967 the show was so successful that Dean Martin received from NBC what may have been the most lucrative contract up to that time.

From that time forward the format of The Dean Martin Show would only change a little over the years. Each show would begin with the strains of Dean Martin's 1964 hit "Everybody Loves Somebody." Dean would then enter by  stumble down a flight of stairs, which was soon switched to him sliding down a fireman's pole. Dean would sing a song, tell a few jokes, and introduce his guests. For the next hour there would be more songs (if a singer was the guest on that week's show, he or she would usually perform a solo number and later a duet with Dean), skits, and chat. The Dean Martin Show did have a few regular segments. At some point in the show Dean Martin would retire to his music room, whereupon there would be a knock on The Closet door. The individual in The Closet was always a celebrity guest and most of the time Martin had no idea who would be (this was done to keep his reactions spontaneous). Among the guests who emerged from The Closet were Jack Benny, Johnny Carson, Jimmy Durante,  Red Skelton, Flip Wilson,  and many others. The Closet was conceived when Garrison needed a means for Martin's uncle, comedian Leonard Barr, to make a surprise visit to the show. In another regular segment, drawn from Martin's nighclub act, Dean Martin would start singing a standard which would invariably end in a gag. The show generally ended with a production number with Martin's guests, often in the form of a musical sketch.

For the show Dean Martin adopted the persona he had created after he had parted ways with Jerry Lewis--that of a drunken, slightly lazy, womanising playboy. This worked well with the atmosphere of the show, which was relaxed, affable, and unpretentious. Although the show was always taped, it very much seemed like a live show. Much of this was due to the fact that Dean Martin had demanded that he be present only for the taping of the show. For only two days The Dean Martin Show would occupy Studio 4 at NBC in Burbank. Saturday would be occupied by rehearsals and blocking the camera setups, with musical director Lee Hale standing in for Martin. On Sunday the show was taped. Although Martin memorised his scripts beforehand, he most often read from cue cards. If he flubbed a line, he simply made a joke and went on. There were no retakes, so that every error Martin made when straight onto tape.

As with many variety shows of the era, The Dean Martin Show did not air in the summer. There were no reruns. As a result, over the years the production crew behind the show would produce various summer replacements which would fill the timeslot of The Dean Martin Show. In 1966 The Dean Martin Summer Show (which didn't feature Martin at all) was hosted by comedy team Rowan and Martin, who would go onto host Rowan and Martin's Laugh In. In 1967 The Dean Martin Summer Show  was renamed The Dean Martin Summer Show Starring Your Host Vic Damone. It was in during the 1967-1968 that it was decided the summer show should be a salute to the Thirties. The title for the 1968 summer series was inspired by the classic Busby Berkley musical The Golddiggers of 1933--Dean Martin Presents The Golddiggers. It proved successful enough to return for the 1969 summer season. For the 1970 summer season the show was moved to England and entitled The Golddiggers in London. In 1972 the summer replacement starred Bobby Darin in Dean Martin Presents The Bobby Darin Amusement Company. For 1973 the summer replacement series focused on country music, with the title of Dean Martin Presents Music Comedy. During the 1974 summer season, the show's time slot was filled by The Dean Martin Comedy World, which featured comics from all around the world.

The Dean Martin Show only changed a little over the years, but it did change.One of the changes to the show would come about because of its most successful summer replacement series. As mentioned above, it was in during the 1967-1968 that it was decided the summer show should be a tribute to the Thirties, executed as if network television existed at the time. It was Greg Garrison who had initially thought of the Thirties motif. It was Lee Hale who thought of the name The Golddiggers for the troupe of dancers and singers who would star in the show. Garrison and Hale then hired twelve women on the basis of their talent, attractiveness, and wholesomeness who would form the troupe. The Golddiggers made their debut on The Dean Martin Show during the 1967-1968 season. In addition to their own summer replacement series, The Golddiggers continued to appear on The Dean Martin Show and even appeared on other programmes (as well as appearing in Bob Hope's USO shows). In 1970 Greg Garrison and Nathan Hale picked four of The Golddiggers to peform as The Dingaling Sisters on The Dean Martin Show. In 1971 The Golddiggers were spun off into their own weekly syndicated show, Chevrolet Presents The Golddiggers. It ran for two seasons. Afterwards The Golddiggers did not appear on The Dean Martin Show, although The Dingaling Sisters continued to appear on the show until 1973.

It was in 1970, just as The Dingaling Sisters were formed, that a regular stable of comics was developed for The Dean Martin Show to help with its skits. Among the comics who regularly appeared on the series were Charles Nelson Reilly, Dom DeLuise, Nipsey Russell, Rodney Dangerfield, and others.

As hard as it is to believe today, The Dean Martin Show was for a time controversial. As the Sixties became the Seventies, the show increasingly became the target of feminists, who felt that the series promoted attitudes which objectified women. Garrison and Hale toned down many of the more sexist comments. Unfortunately, it was about that time that the ratings began to fall.

It was then in the fall of 1973 that The Dean Martin Show moved from the Thursday night timeslot it had held for its entire history to Friday nights. It also marked a major change in its format. Retitled The Dean Martin Comedy Hour, the show now featured a nearly half hour long "roast" segment patterned after the Friar's Club roasts, in which famous celebrities were roasted. A greater emphasis was placed on skits and a new country music segment was introduced. It was to no avail. The ratings did not improve. After nine years The Dean Martin Show was coming to an end. The roast segments had proven popular enough that they would be spun off into a series of specials, The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast, which would continue until 1974.

Today it is easy to take The Dean Martin Show for granted as another celebrity variety show. It must be kept in mind, however, that in 1965 Dean Martin was a major star. He had a extraordinarily successful recording career, so much so that his hit "Everybody Loves Somebody" actually knocked The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" out of the top spot on the American music charts. As an actor he had appeared in such films as Rio Bravo, Toys in the Attic, and What a Way to Go. As a both a successful movie star and recording star, Martin was then able to attract top flight talent. Many big name guests appeared on the show over the years. Cyd Charisse, Bing Crosby, Van Johnson, Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Mickey Rooney, John Wayne, and Orson Welles all appeared on the show, many of them multiple times. As might be expected, fellow Rat Packers also appeared on the show, including Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, and Angie Dickinson.

The Dean Martin Show is part of my fondest childhood memories as one of those shows my family watched regularly. It formed part of our Thursday night ritual. Dad would cook popcorn (in a skillet--this was in the days before microwave ovens were common and he apparently did not believe in Jiffy Pop) and we would settle down to watch The Dean Martin Show. While I know that much of the humour must have went over my head, I did find the show very funny as a child. And even though my tastes ran to The Beatles, The Who, and The Monkees (that much has not changed), even then I enjoyed Dean Martin's singing. He was the first crooner and the first member of the Rat Pack of whom I became a fan. I watched the show until the very end, even though I thought in the final seasons that the roasts took something away from the show has it had been.

Apparently I was not alone in my love of The Dean Martin Show. Other big stars had tried their hands at variety shows before Dean Martin. Judy Garland had made a failed attempt at a variety show. Fellow Rat Packer had tried no less than twice. Dean Martin succeeded. And it must be kept in mind that for the nine years that The Dean Martin Show aired, he continued to appear in movies and in nightclubs, and he continued to record. In the end he proved to be one of the few major stars who actually produced a lasting, classic, television, variety show.