Friday, February 23, 2018

When Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte Changed Television History

The sad fact is that throughout the Fifties and a good part of the Sixties, African Americans were largely absent from American television. There were a few exceptions. In the early part of the Fifties both Amos 'n' Andy and Beulah featured what many considered offensive stereotypes at the time. African Americans would appear as performers on variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show. There were also three short-lived variety shows hosted by black performers (The Hazel Scott Show, The Billy Daniels Show, and The Nat King Cole Show). That having been said with the exception of Louise Beavers and later Amanda Randolph as Danny's housekeeper Louise on Make Room for Daddy (also known as The Danny Thomas Show), African Americans were largely missing from American sitcoms and dramas in the Fifties. The excuse often given by the networks and sponsors was that they did not want to offend viewers in the South, although one has to suspect that institutionalised racism at both the networks and among the various sponsors played a large role as well.

Fortunately things began to improve as the Fifties became the Sixties. African Americans appeared as both guest stars and extras on such shows as Naked City, Bonanza, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and other shows. In 1965 I Spy made history as the first American television drama with an African American lead (Bill Cosby playing Alexander Scott). The following season several shows debuted that featured African Americans in regular roles, including Hogan's Heroes, Mission: Impossible, and Star Trek. Unfortunately, this did not mean that racism had entirely disappeared in the television industry or among its sponsors.

This brings us to Chrysler Corporation, whose brand Plymouth was set to sponsor a special hosted by Nancy Sinatra, then riding high from the success of her single "These Boots Are Made for Walking". According to television director Steve Binder, Nancy Sinatra pulled out of the special after getting a bigger deal from Royal Crown Cola. That special would eventually air as Movin' with Nancy on NBC on December 11 1967. In the meantime, Plymouth was left without a host for their special. Plymouth then hired Petula Clark, the famous British singer who had a string of hits in the Sixties, including "Downtown", "I Know a Place," and "My Love", among others. Greg Garrison, who directed The Dean Martin Show, was initially assigned to direct, but the director and the star did not mesh very well. It was then that Steve Binder, who had directed such specials as Here's Edie (with Edie Adams) and Lucy in London (with Lucille Ball) as well as various TV series, was brought in to direct the special.

Steve Binder was a huge fan of Harry Belafonte and so he booked him as a guest on Petula Clark's television special. Even the agent for Plymouth was pleased with Mr. Belafonte being on the special. Unfortunately, Mr. Binder then got a call from the Plymouth agent, saying that Doyle Lott, the advertising manager for Plymouth, did not want Harry Belafonte on the show. According to the agent, Doyle Lott had said that Mr. Belafonte had neither his own TV show any longer nor had he had any hits recently. That having been said, the agent also confided to Steve Binder that he thought in truth that Doyle Lott was racist and he didn't want a black man on the special.

Ultimately Steve Binder had to fly to Detroit and meet with the head of the Plymouth division of Chrysler Corporation. Fortunately the representative from Plymouth had a cooler head and, that as long as Petula Clark and Mr. Binder were happy, then Plymouth would not interfere with the special. For the time, at least, everything seemed fine with Doyle Lott as well.

Unfortunately, Doyle Lott's objection to Harry Belafonte being a guest on the special would not be the end of everything. Towards the end of the special Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte sang a duet of "On the Path of Glory", a song that she had written. Several takes were made of the performance and, during the final one, Miss Clark innocently took Mr. Belafonte by the arm. Petula Clark innocently taking Harry Belafonte by the arm immediately proved to be a source of controversy. Doyle Lott insisted that another take be used because of the "interracial touching".  According to Harry Belafonte at the time, Doyle Lott actually threatened to cancel the special because of the contact between the two stars, and the advertising agency Young & Rubicam demanded changes be made to the special even after taping had been completed.

Quite naturally, Steve Binder, as well as Petula Clark and her husband, Claude Wolff (who was executive producer on the special), disagreed with Doyle Lott and Young & Rubicam. To their credit, NBC phoned Steve Binder and let them know that they would back him. To make sure the special was not changed, however, Steve Binder, Petula Clark, and Claude Wolff insured that every other take of "On the Path of Glory" was destroyed, leaving only the one in which Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte touch.

Despite the reaction of both Doyle Lott and Young & Rubicam, Plymouth behaved as if they had no real objections to the special. Glenn E. White, Plymouth's general manager at Chrysler, issued a statement saying that any incident during taping "...resulted solely from the reaction of a single individual and by no means reflects the Plymouth division's attitude or policy on such matters." He added that Plymouth was very happy with the special. It was not long afterwards that Chrysler relieved Doyle Lott of his duties. Here it must be pointed out that the whole controversy made headlines in early 1968.

Petula aired on April 8 1968. Notably, there was no viewer outrage over "interracial touching". The special received positive notices from critics and also did well in the ratings. It finished 14th for the week in the Nielsens. Of course, the special also proved historic in that it was the first time in the history of American television that a white woman touched a black man on American television.

Although today Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte's duet of "On the Path of Glory" might not seem remarkable, it was a truly groundbreaking moment at the time. Over all the Seventies would be a better decade for African Americans on television, with dramas such as Get Christie Love! and Shaft featuring black leads, as well as several sitcoms that aired during the decade. While American television still had a long way to go, it had made considerable progress since the days of Amos 'n' Andy and Beulah.

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

The trouble that happens when the wrong people have power or think they have power.