Saturday, January 19, 2013

Danny Kaye at 100

There was a time when comedians were often expected not only to be funny, but to be able to sing and dance as well. Oh, even then there were plenty of comedians who couldn't carry a tune in a bucket and would trip over their own two feet if they tried to dance, but there was a remarkable number of comics who could sing and dance, and do both well. Among them were a number of legends, including Eddie Cantor,  Oliver Hardy, Bob Hope, Al Jolson, and Dean Martin. Among the greatest of these song and dance men was Danny Kaye. He was as funny as the best comics. He could sing as well as the best crooners. And he could dance as well as the best hoofers. What is more, Danny Kaye's talents did not end there. He was skilled in acting, improvisation, complex verse, and impersonation. He was as comfortable with classic music as he was popular songs. If ever there was a performer who could nearly do it all, it was Danny Kaye.  It was 100 years ago yesterday that Danny Kaye was born.

Danny Kaye was born David Daniel Kaminsky on 18 January 1913 in Brooklyn, New York. He displayed a gift for performing from a young age. While in grade school he was the class clown. His parents were also very supportive of his choice of career. Sadly, his mother would die just as Danny Kaye was entering his teens. As a result he left school when he was 13. He worked for a time for a radio station. He and his friend Lou Eisen formed a double act, performing at clubs and parties. Eventually they would find work in the Catskills. It was while working in the Catskills that he would assume his stage name. Initially he shortened his name to David Kamin before adopting the name "Danny Kaye." In the end his experiences in the Catskills convinced Danny Kaye that he wanted to make a living as a performer.

It was in 1935 that Danny Kaye made his film debut in the short "Moon Over Manhattan," produced by Educational Films. He went onto appear in other Educational Films shorts, such as "Dime a Dance" (1937), "Getting an Eyeful" (1938), "Cupid Takes a Holiday" (1938), and "Money or Your Life" (1938). In most of the shorts Danny Kaye played a madcap Russian immigrant named Nikolai Nikolaevich. In 1938 Danny Kaye went to England and performed there. While he did not go over very well with the English, he did make his television debut, in 30 minute BBC production entitled  Autumn Laughter.

Having returned to the United States, Mr. Kaye found work with Max Liebman, who at the time was directing the revue The Sunday Night Varieties. The Sunday Night Varieties did not prove successful, closing not long after it opened. Danny Kaye then returned to the Catskills. Despite the failure of The Sunday Night Varieties, Max Liebman decided to produce a revue on Broadway. It was then in 1939 that Danny Kaye made his debut on Broadway in The Straw Hat Revue, produced by Max Liebman. After working in the Catskills for a little over a decade, Danny Kaye's career was finally on the rise. It was tin 1941 that he appeared on Broadway again, this time in the musical comedy Lady in the Dark, which had a book by Moss Hart, music by Kurt Weil, and lyrics by Ira Gershwin. The show proved to be a resounding success. The success of Lady in the Dark would result in Danny Kaye being cast as the lead in the musical comedy Let's Face It!, which featured music by Cole Porter. It too proved to be a success.

With success on Broadway it would not be long before Hollywood would come calling. Comedian, singer, and dancer Eddie Cantor's star had waned in the Forties, to the point that Samuel Goldwyn wanted a young performer who could take his place. Mr. Goldwyn wanted someone like Mr. Cantor who could do nearly everything--tell jokes, sing, and dance. He found a more than suitable replacement in the form of Danny Kaye. For Danny Kaye's feature film debut, Eddie Cantor's stage production and film Whoopee! was adapted as the film Up in Arms (1944). In the film Danny Kaye played elevator operator and hypochondriac Danny Weems, who worked in a medical building so he can get free advice from the doctors and nurses there. Unfortunately, poor Danny finds himself drafted into the United States Army.

  Up in Arms would establish the sort of character that Danny Kaye would play in most of his films. It was a character similar to those played by Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd as far back as the Silent Era and, as might be expected, similar to those played by Eddie Cantor. The character was an everyman and milquestoast who would be forced into situations that required feats of courage. That is not to say that Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Eddie Cantor, and Danny Kaye essentially played the same characters, as there were noticeable differences. While Buster Keaton's characters faced  danger stone faced, Harold Lloyd's characters overcame adversity with old fashioned, American ingenuity, and Eddie Cantor's characters came out on top despite a host of fears and neuroses, Danny Kaye's characters possessed a manic quality rarely seen before or since. Rubber raced and capable of speaking very rapidly, Danny Kaye could take his characters from 0 to 70 in a matter of seconds. In some respects it can be argued Danny Kaye was the ultimate comic actor. He played timid souls like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, could sing and dance like Eddie Cantor and Bob Hope, and was capable of fast paced, sophisticated humour like Groucho Marx.

Arguably Danny Kaye was at the height of his popularity from the late Forties into the Fifties. It was during this period that he made the bulk of his feature films, in addition to appearing in other media. From 1945 to 1946 Danny Kaye had a weekly radio show on CBS, The Danny Kaye Show. The show proved extremely popular, but in the end Danny Kaye asked to be released from his contract. CBS granted his request on the conditions he did not do another regularly scheduled radio show for one year and limit his guest appearances on other radio shows. Mr. Kaye would also have a string of hit records starting in 1947, including "Civilization (Bongo, Bongo, Bongo)" and "The Woody Woodpecker Song."  He had a successful appearance at the London Palladium in 1948 and played a Royal Variety Performance in London later that same year. He hosted the 24th Academy Awards in 1952. In 1952 and 1953 he toured the country with is own show. From January to April in 1953 he appeared in a one man show simply titled Danny Kaye.

While Danny Kaye did a good deal, it would be for his movies that he would be best remembered. Following the success of Up in Arms, Danny Kaye would appear in a string of hit films. In Wonder Man (1945) played identical, but estranged twins, quiet bookworm Edwin Dingle and his late brother, nightclub performer Buster Dingle (who after being murdered comes back as a ghost). The Kid From Brooklyn (1946) was a remake of the 1936 Harold Lloyd film The Milky Way.  In the film Danny Kaye played a meek milkman who becomes a boxer. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) was based on the James Thurber short story of the same name. A Song is Born (1948) was a musical remake of Ball of Fire (1941).    Nineteen forty nine would see the release of one of Danny Kaye's most enduring films, The Inspector General. Loosely based on the play The Inspector General by Nikolai Gogol, Danny Kaye plays an illiterate refugee from a medicine show who turns a corrupt town on its head. In Danny Kaye's next film, On the Riviera (1951) Danny Kaye played another dual role, that of Jack Martin (an American cabaret entertainer working on the French Riviera) and Henri Duran (an industrialist).

The 1952 Hans Christian Anderson would mark a slight shift in Danny Kaye's career. Although a musical, it was of a more serious nature than the comedies that Mr. Kaye had made for most of his career. Hans Christian Anderson is perhaps best described as a film which tells the story (largely fictional) of Danish storyteller and poet Hans Christian Anderson (played by Danny Kaye) through his fairy tales (segments based on "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Little Mermaid," "Thumbelina," and "The Ugly Duckling" appear in the film). Hans Christian Anderson proved to be a hit worldwide. Danny Kaye's next film would be much more in line with the rest of his career. In Knock on Wood (1954) he played a none too sane ventriloquist who becomes involved with spies. The same year Danny Kaye appeared in White Christmas. Although the film remains one of Mr. Kaye's better known films, it is probably better considered a vehicle for Bing Crosby. In fact, White Christmas  was originally meant to reunited Holiday Inn co-stars Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Fred Astaire turned the project down after reading the screenplay. Donald O'Connor was then signed to the project, but had to back out of it due to illness. It was then that Danny Kaye was brought onto the film.

Nineteen fifty five would see the release of what many consider Danny Kaye's greatest film and what today is mostly likely his most popular film, The Court Jester. In some respects The Court Jester resembles the sort of parodies of various genres that Bob Hope often did. In the case of The Court Jester, it parodied the big budget, medieval epics of the era. Its budget reflected this fact. It cost $4 million to make, making the most expensive comedy made up to that time. While The Court Jester resembled the sort of expensive parodies that Bob Hope might make, it is arguably the purest Danny Kaye film of them all. Danny Kaye once more plays a manic milquetoast, Hubert Hawkins, a former carnival entertainer who serves as minstrel to a band of rebels led by The Black Fox. The Court Jester was filled with wordplay (the most memorable of which is probably the "Pellet with the poison's..." mnemonic) and the manic comedy for which Danny Kaye is known (particularly evident in the scenes in which Hawkins is hypnotised). Despite possibly being the quintessential Danny Kaye film and highly regarded today, The Court Jester bombed at the box office upon its initial release. Sadly, this marked the decline of his career. Merry Andrew (1958)--about a schoolteacher who discovers the joys of circus life), Me and the Colonel (1958--based on the play Jacobowsky und der Oberst by Franz Werfel), The Five Pennies (1959--a biography of clarinettist Red Nichols), On the Double (1961--in which an American G.I. is the exact double of a British general), and The Man From the Diner's Club (1963--in which a Diner's Club clerk mistakenly approves a mobster for a card) all did poorly at the box office.  Danny Kaye would appear in one more feature film in his career, as The Ragpicker in he Madwoman of Chaillot (1969).

Despite the fact that he no longer made movies, Danny Kaye's career was hardly over. In the early Sixties Mr. Kaye starred in various TV specials over the years.  From 1963 to 1967 Danny Kaye appeared in his own weekly variety show, The Danny Kaye Show, on CBS. He appeared on such shows as The Andy Williams Show, The Merv Griffith Show, The Jack Benny Programme, The Lucy Show, What's My Line, Rowan and Martin's Laugh In, and The Muppet Show. He appeared played a dramatic role in the 1981 television movie Skokie, and guest starred on the Eighties revival of The Twilight Zone and The Cosby Show. From 1949 to the end of his life, Danny Kaye was active as a spokesman for UNICEF.

It was on 3 March 1987 at the age of 74 that Danny Kaye died of a heart attack. It was only a little over a year after his guest appearance on The Cosby Show had aired. He left behind a career that consisted of some of the best comedy films ever made and an awarding variety show.

If Danny Kaye is remembered today it is because he was a singular performer. As stated earlier, he was a man of many talents, one who could not only be funny, but sing, dance, recite verse, and perform impersonations. What is more, he was not only a great comic actor, but also skilled as a dramatic actor, as his turns in The Five Pennies and Skokie readily demonstrate. The characters he played throughout his film career were also unique, unlike those played by any other comic actors--timid everymen with more than their fair share of neuroses, who could turn manic at any moment. While Danny Kaye did not make nearly as many films as such comic actors as Bob Hope or Abbott and Costello, then, he remains as memorable as they are because he was utterly unique. There was never a comic actor like Danny Kaye before him, and there probably never will be again.

Friday, January 18, 2013

121 Years Ago Oliver Hardy Was Born

If someone is asked to name the greatest comedy teams of all time, chances are very good that he or she will name "Abbot and Costello," "The Marx Brothers," "Hope and Crosby," and "The Three Stooges." Among the first comedy teams he or she might name, if not the very first, would be Laurel and Hardy.  Beginning in 1927 Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy would make a series of shorts and later feature films that established them as one of the most legendary comedy duos of all time. Indeed, the pair remain instantly recognisable 85 years after they first appeared as a team. Today it was 121 years ago that Oliver Hardy was born.

Oliver Hardy was born Norvell Hardy on 18 September 1892 in Harlem, Georgia. His father, Oliver Hardy, died when young Norvell Hardy was less than a year old. At some time during his youth he started referring to himself as "Oliver Norvell Hardy," taking his father's first name in tribute to him. Oliver Hardy  was interested in both music and theatre from a young age. By the time he was 8 he was singing in a travelling minstrel show. He would eventually display such talent for music that for a time he attended the Atlanta Conservatory of Music.

It was in 1910 that a cinema opened in Midgeville, Georgia, where Oliver Hardy and his family lived. Oliver Hardy took on the jobs of projectionist, ticket taker, janitor, and manager at the cinema. Watching the films at the movie theatre, he became convinced that he could act in motion pictures. It was in 1913 that a friend suggested he move to Florida to pursue a job acting in motion pictures. Once in Florida Oliver Hardy took jobs acting for films made by the the Lubin Manufacturing Company by day and performing vaudeville by night. It was in 1914, billed as O. N. Hardy, that he appeared in his first motion picture, the short subject, "Outwitting Dad." Afterwards he would be billed as "Babe Hardy," "Babe" being his nickname. With the short "An Expensive Visit" in 1915 he would be billed for the first time by the name by which he would be best known: "Oliver Hardy." He would continue being billed as "Babe Hardy" into the Twenties until, starting with the short "The Girl in the Limousine," he was forever after "Oliver Hardy."

Oliver Hardy would continue working for Lubin until 1915 when he went to work for the Vim Comedy Film Company. Mr. Hardy would make several films for Vim. Unfortunately, he also discovered that the company's owners,  Louis Burstein and Mark Dintenfass, were stealing from the payroll. Vim Comedy Film Company then went bankrupt and closed its doors in 1917. Oliver Hardy then worked briefly for King Bee Studios, who had bought out Vim, before moving to Los Angeles, California. It was there, in 1921, that Oliver Hardy first appeared in a film with Stan Laurel, although they were not yet a comedy team. In the short "The Lucky Dog," Oliver Hardy played a masked robber who confronts Stan Laurel. From 1918 to 1923 Oliver Hardy made films for Vitagraph.

In 1925 Oliver Hardy played the roles of the Tin Woodsman, Knight of the Garter, and a farmhand in The Wizard of Oz. It was also that year that he went to work for the studio that would make him famous, Hal Roach Studios. His first film for the studio was the short "Wild Papa." In his early days with Hal Roach, Oliver Hardy appeared in short subjects with Charley Chase, and in "Our Gang" shorts as well.  In fact, it was on the "Our Gang" short "Yes, Yes, Nanette" that Oliver Hardy would first work with Stan Laurel at Hal Roach Studios, although not as a comedy team. Along with Clarence Hennecke, Stan Laurel directed "Yes, Yes, Nanette." Mr. Laurel would also direct Mr. Hardy in the short subjects "Wandering Papas" and "Madame Mystery."

It was in 1927 that Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appeared as the leads in the short "Duck Soup (not to be confused with the Marx Brothers feature of the same name)." Following "Duck Soup" they would appear as the leads in the short subjects "Slipping Wives" "Love 'Em and Weep," and "With Love and Hisses." Leo McCarey, then the supervising director at Hal Roach Studios, realised that the combination of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy was a hit with audiences. It was then that Laurel and Hardy officially became a comedy team. While they had played other characters in "Duck Soup," "Slipping Wives" "Love 'Em and Weep," and "With Love and Hisses," thereafter they would primarily play the characters of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. With the 1927 short "Putting Pants on Philip," Laurel and Hardy made their debut as a comedy duo.

From the beginning Laurel and Hardy proved incredibly successful as a comedy team.  Starting out with silent films, Laurel and Hardy made the transition to talkies with the short "Unaccustomed As We Are" in 1929. In all Laurel and Hardy would make over 60 short subjects while at Hal Roach, not including those in which they made guest appearances (such as the Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts short "On the Loose"). Among these, "The Music Box" would be the first film to receive an Oscar for  Best Live Action Short Film (Comedy).  Given their success in short subjects, it was natural that Laurel and Hardy would move into feature films. They made their feature film debut in 1929 in one of the segments of MGM's The Hollywood Revue of 1929. It would be two years later that Laurel and Hardy would have their first starring roles in a feature film, Pardon Us for Hal Roach Studios.

Feature films would become increasingly more important in the film careers of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. As the Thirties progressed more and more cinemas were foregoing the traditional cinema programme in which short subjects and a newsreel would precede a feature film in favour of double bills. The demand for short subjects was then reduced. Laurel and Hardy would make their last short for Hal Roach in 1935, "Thicker Than Water." From that time forward they only made feature films for Hal Roach. In all they appeared in thirteen feature films while at the studio, including Pardon Us (1931), Pack Up Your Troubles (1932), The Devil's Brother (1933), Sons of the Desert (1933), Babes in Toyland (1934--reissued as March of the Wooden Soldiers), Bonnie Scotland (1935), The Bohemian Girl (1936), Our Relations (1936), Way Out West (1937), Swiss Miss (1938), Block-Heads (1938), A Chump at Oxford (1940), and Saps at Sea (1940).

Interestingly enough Oliver Hardy would appear in a film without Stan Laurel in the Thirties. In 1939 Stan Laurel was having a dispute with Hal Roach. As a result Mr. Roach teamed Oliver Hardy with Harry Langdon for the film Zenobia. Laurel and Hardy would also make a film outside Hal Roach Studios during the period.  The Flying Deuces (1939) was produced by Boris Morros Productions and released by RKO.

Laurel and Hardy left Hal Roach Studios in 1940. The Forties would see them make feature films for both 20th Century Fox and MGM. For 20th Century Fox they made Great Guns (1941), A-Haunting We Will Go (1942), Jitterbugs (1943), The Dancing Masters (1943), The Big Noise (1944), , and The Bullfighters (1945). At MGM they made Air Raid Wardens (1943) and Nothing But Trouble (1944).

Laurel and Hardy left the Hal Roach Studios in 1940. They moved onto 20 Century Fox, where they would make the films Great Guns (1941), A-Haunting We Will Go (1942), Air Raid Wardens (1943), Jitterbugs (1943), The Dancing Masters (1943), The Big Noise (1944), and The Bullfighters. They made  Nothing But Trouble (1944) for MGM.  In 1946 Laurel and Hardy retired from film. Oliver Hardy would then make two appearances on film without Stan Laurel. John Wayne wanted Oliver Hardy to play a role in The Fighting Kentuckian (1949). Mr. Hardy was reluctant to take the role, although he finally accepted it at Stan Laurel's insistence.  The following year Oliver Hardy had a cameo in Frank Capra's Riding High (1950).

This is not to say that Laurel and Hardy were dormant as a comedy team. The pair made three tours of the United Kingdom between 1947 and 1954. During the period they also visited Belgium, Denmark, France, and Switzerland. Laurel and Hardy had been wildly popular in Europe since the Thirties. While their films would be banned in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy during World War II, they would be re-released across Europe following the war. As a result the popularity of Laurel and Hardy, already popular before the war, soared in Europe. It was for that reason that Laurel and Hardy were invited to make a film in Europe by a consortium of the British, French, and Italian film industries.

Sadly, Laurel and Hardy's final feature film, Atoll K (1951--renamed Utopia in the United States and Robinson Crusoeland in the United Kingdom) would prove to be a less than pleasant experience for the duo. The film was only supposed to take twelve weeks to film, but in the end took a full year. Language barriers presented themselves in the making of the film, to the point that Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy would deliver their lines in English, while their co-stars would deliver their lines in their native tongue. The pair's health also suffered during the making of the film. Oliver Hardy not only had problems cardiac fibrillation, but also contracted the flu. Stan Laurel developed colitis, dysentery, and a prostate ulcer that required immediate surgery. Sadly, for all the trouble the film created, Atoll K would be a success in neither Europe nor North America.

Laurel and Hardy would continue their tours of the United Kingdom and Europe until 1954. In 1955 Laurel and Hardy had contracted with Hal Roach, Jr. to make a television series entitled  Laurel and Hardy's Fabulous Fables, which would based around classic children's stories. The series never materialised. on 25 April 1955 Stan Laurel suffered a stroke, from which he took some time to recover. On 14 September 1956 Oliver Hardy had a massive stroke from which he never recovered. On 7 August 1957 Oliver Hardy died from cerebral thrombosis. Stan Laurel was too ill to attend Oliver Hardy's funeral. He said, "Babe would understand." Stan Laurel was devastated by his comedy partner and friend's death, to the point that he refused to ever again perform on stage, on film, or on television. He would turn down a role in the comedy epic It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). Stan Laurel continued to associate with his many fans, answering fan mail and even talking to them on the phone (his number was actually listed in the phone book) and letting them visit him in his home. It was on 19 February 1965 that Stan Laurel had a heart attack. He died four days later at the age of 74.

Laurel and Hardy are often counted among the greatest of all comedy teams, and more often than not as the greatest comedy team of all time. The reason for their success perhaps rest in the fact that they were singular as a comedy team. Most double acts consisted of a straight man and a gag man, Bud Abbott to Lou Costello or Dick Smothers to Tom Smothers. In the case of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, however, it would seem that both men played the role of straight man or gag man at various times.

Given that neither Stan Laurel nor Oliver Hardy could be described as the straight man or gag man of the act, it should come as no surprise that Oliver Hardy was responsible for generating many of the laughs in their shorts and features. Perhaps no one was better at the slow burn than Oliver Hardy, something he almost always did after yet another one of Stanley's many mistakes. And while Oliver Hardy was a large man, he was surprisingly limber and athletic. For that reason he handled much of the team's physical comedy, from slipping on banana peels to falling out of everything from windows to boats. Ollie also had a number of idiosyncrasies. He often moved with exaggerated grace, whether it was opening a door or signing papers. And he often twiddled his tie when he was embarrassed or flirting. Here it must be pointed out that it was Ollie who always delivered the catchphrase most associated with Laurel and Hardy, "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!" The arrogant, stubborn, and often bombastic Ollie was a perfect match for the none too bright, child like Stanley. Together Laurel and Hardy created two of the funniest characters in film history. Laurel and Hardy were quite unlike their screen characters. In fact, it was Stan Laurel who came up with many of the ideas for their shorts and feature films, making many suggestions to directors. Oliver Hardy was more easy going and laid back, content to follow Stan Laurel's lead.

Of course, Oliver Hardy had a career beyond his long partnership with Stan Laurel. He made a number of comedy shorts before he and Stan Laurel became a team. In these comedy shorts Oliver Hardy demonstrated his talent as comic actor, well before he and Stan Laurel became partners. And while the vast majority of Oliver Hardy's career was spent in comedy, he gave an impressive dramatic performance in The Fighting Kentuckian. Had Oliver Hardy not become one half of possible the most famous comedy double act of all time, he might well have had a career as a dramatic actor.

One hundred and twenty one years after his birth and nearly ninety nine years after his first appearance on film, Oliver Hardy remains a household name. Even when someone does not recognise Oliver Hardy's name, they will usually recognise the comedy team Laurel and Hardy. Given the continued popularity of the team's shorts and feature films, it seems likely that people will still recognise the name of Oliver Hardy in another 121 years.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Tribute to Newton N. Minow on His Birthday

Although he may not be well known among the general public now, Newton N. Minow may well be the most famous chairman of the Federal Communications Commission of all time. Appointed as chairman of the FCC by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, it is estimated that Newton Minow was the subject of more column-inches of press coverage than any Federal official of the time except for the President himself.  Today he turned 87 years old.

Newton Minow has always been best known for the famous speech he made before the National Association of Broadcasters on 9 May 1961, forever known as "the Vast Wasteland Speech" after his reference to American television programming as "a vast wasteland." While "the Vast Wasteland Speech" may remain Mr. Minow's best known achievement, it is by no means his only achievement, nor is it even necessarily one of his achievements with the most far reaching impact.

Indeed, among Newton Minow's achievements as FCC chairman was fostering the All-Channel Receiver Act  of 1961. The All-Channel Receiver Act  of 1962 required all television sets to have UHF tuners (channels 14 to 83 at the time), allowing anyone with a TV to pick up UHF-band television stations. It was largely because of Newton Minow's hard work that Congress passed the All-Channel Receiver Act and President Kennedy signed it into law on 10 July 1962.

The passage of the All-Channel Receiver Act would have far reaching effects. By the Fifties the VHF band was largely tied up by the two major networks at the time, NBC and CBS. This left little room for growth with regards to the third network ABC, independent stations, or public stations. The passage of the All-Channel Receiver Act then made UHF based television stations more viable. In the wake of the All-Channel Receiver Act, ABC was able to expand until it was finally competitive with NBC and CBS. Passage of the All-Channel Receiver Act would also see the growth of independent stations, television stations not affiliated with any network. Relatively rare in the Fifties and the early Sixties, independent television stations would become common by the Seventies.

Passage of the All-Channel Receiver Act also permitted the spread of public television stations. While public television stations had existed in the United States since the late Forties, by the early Sixties they were still relatively few and far between. In 1960 there were only 44 public stations nationwide. The All-Channel Receiver Act having made broadcasting on the UHF band feasible, by 1969 there would be 175 public stations across the United States. It was on 5 October 1970 that the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) was founded, which encouraged the further growth of public stations.

Newton Minow would also have another achievement with far reaching consequences while he was chairman of the FCC. While Telstar was in development before Mr. Minow was appointed the FCC chairman, he would play a very important role in the history of communications satellites. It was on his first day of work that FCC Commissioner T.A.M. Craven (who had been Chief Engineer at the FCC from 1935 to 1937, a commissioner on FCC from 1937 to 1944, and would be again from 1956 to 1963) told Mr. Minow about communications satellites. Mr. Minow then learned everything he could about communications satellites. Thereafter he pushed through the licence for a test of Telstar that occurred in July 1962. He also campaigned for Congress to pass the Communications Satellite Act of 1962, the act that created COMSAT, a corporation partially owned by the U. S. government and partially owned by telecommunications companies that manages satellite communications services. Although controversial at the time, the Communications Satellite Act of 1962 was signed into law on 31 August 1962. This would not only create COMSAT, but would also lead to the formation of  the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (INTELSAT), an international consortium for the management of communications satellites.

In the end communications satellites would revolutionise the world. Among the first applications for communications satellites was their use in long distance telephony, making telephone calls to even the most remote places on the earth possible. As the Sixties progressed communications satellites would play a bigger and bigger role in television. Today they are nearly indispensable to the medium. Over the years communications satellites would be utilised for everything from military communications to the internet to radio.

While Newton Minow's support of the All-Channel Receiver Act and the development of communications satellites may have ultimately had more far reaching effects, it is the "Vast Wasteland" Speech for which he remains best known. Mr. Minow delivered the speech, officially titled "Television and the Public Interest," to the annual meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). Accustomed to past speeches from FCC chairmen that did little more than congratulate them on a job well done, the NAB were not prepared for what Mr. Minow had to say. At the time the media seized upon Mr. Minow's remark that anyone watching a station from the start of its day to its sign off at night would "...observe is a vast wasteland," leading many to believe that the speech was a condemnation of all television programming. In fact, Mr. Minow cited a number of programmes from television's past he considered to be of a high quality (Kraft Theatre, See It Now, and so on), as well as shows from the past season (The Twilight Zone, CBS Reports, and so on).  Rather than condemning broadcasters, Newton Minow was simply reminding broadcasters that they must serve the public interest and as a result they must do better. Indeed, the phrase "public interest" occurs no less than fifteen times in the speech.

Today, with a television landscape littered with exploitative reality shows, bland talent competition shows, and humourless sitcoms, it might seems as if the speech "Television and the Public Interest" had no impact at all. And while it might sometimes seem the case today, it certainly is not. The most immediate impact of the "Vast Wasteland" Speech was in the area of news and documentary production. By 1963 both NBC and CBS had expanded their evening newscasts from fifteen minutes to thirty minutes. ABC did so in 1967. In 1957 the three networks had produced no prime time documentaries. In 1962 the three networks produced nearly 400 prime time documentaries. While the networks would not continue prime time documentary production on such a level for very long, the prime time documentaries would lead to such news programmes as 60 Minutes and its imitators, programmes that have lasted to this day.

And while it might not seem to be the case today, "Television and the Public Interest" would have an impact on children's educational programming. At the time that Newton Minow made his speech in 1961, children's educational programming was a rarity on American television. Captain Kangaroo on CBS may have been the only notable educational programme on any of the networks at the time. The network's initial response was to incorporate educational content into the cartoons that they aired. In fact, the show Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales was created in direct response to the "Vast Wasteland" speech. Among the penguin Tennessee Tuxedo's friends was Phineas J. Whoopee, "the Man With All the Answers," who educated Tennessee (and hence viewers) on a number of topics. It debuted on CBS in 1963. That same season saw the debut of The Hector Heathcoate Show. Hector Heathcoate was a character who had made his debut in theatrical shorts made between 1958 and 1963, a patriot from the Revolutionary War who could travel through time and hence witness various historic events. The Hector Heathcoate Show was comprised of new shorts made for television, as well as older theatrical shorts.

While the networks would not continue incorporating educational elements into their cartoons, they would make attempts at children's educational programming throughout the Sixties and the Seventies. These efforts would include such programmes as The First Look (a short lived NBC news show for children), Exploring (a NBC show dedicated to science and the arts), Hot Dog (a NBC documentary series for children), The CBS Children's Film Festival, and The ABC Weekend Special, as well as shorter segments such as In the News and Schoolhouse Rock. It is perhaps not far fetched to consider that such children's educational programmes as Sesame Street and The Electric Company might have emerged because of the "Vast Wasteland" Speech. While children's educational programming once more seems to be a rarity on the broadcast networks, it must be pointed out that it is to be found on such cable channels as Nickelodeon, The Disney Channel, WAM, and so on. At any rate, there is much more children's programming on television now than there was in 1961.

It is true that some of Newton Minow's criticisms in the "Vast Wasteland" speech would go unanswered. The broadcast networks still rely all too much upon the Nielsen ratings, rather than a show's quality, to determine its survival. Advertisers still wield an enormous amount of clout with the networks. In the end, however, while some might insist that the "Vast Wasteland" speech was a failure, the evidence suggests otherwise. There is much more in the way of television news programmes, public affairs programmes, and educational programmes today than there was in 1961. Newton Minow's speech "Television and the Public Interest" was largely responsible for that.

Newton Minow's work in the communications field would not end with his departure as chairman of the FCC. He served on the board of governors of both National Educational Television and its successor the Public Broadcasting Service. From 1978 to 1980 he was Chairman of PBS. He also served as President and Chief Executive Officer of Carnegie Corporation, a foundation founded by Andrew Carnegie "to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding" and one of PBS's chief sponsors.

Newton Minow was only 34 when he became chairman of the FCC. At the time there were those who thought he was too young for the office. Despite this Newton N. Minow would become possibly the most famous FCC chairman and quite probably the most influential one as well. He was pivotal in the passage of the All-Channels Receiver Act, which required all television sets to have UHF receivers. This would in turn allow for the expansion of ABC, independent stations, and public stations by making broadcasting on the UHF band viable. He supported the the Communications Satellite Act of 1962 and INTELSAT, paving the way for the communications satellites that have proved so pivotal in the world ever since. Finally, he made the speech "Television and the Public Interest," encouraging broadcasters to strive for something better. This would result in expanded news coverage and more educational programming. Even though he was not a broadcaster himself, Newton N. Minow can then be counted along such people as William S. Paley and Pat Weaver as having shaped television as we know it today.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Conrad Bain Passes On

Conrad Bain, who played Maude's antagonist Dr. Arthur Harmon on Maude and Mr. Drummond on Diff'rent Strokes, died 14 January 2013 at the age of 89.

Conrad Bain was born 4 February 1923 in  Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. He studied at the Banff School of Fine Arts. During World War II he served in the Canadian Army where he attained the rank of sergeant. Following the war he moved to New York City where he attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He made his television debut in 1952 in an episode of Studio One. He made his debut on Broadway in 1956 in Sixth Finger in a Five Finger Glove. In the late Fifties he appeared in further productions on Broadway, such as Candide, a revival of Makropoulos Secret, and The Family Reunion.

In the Sixties Mr. Bain appeared on such shows as The Defenders, The Trials of O'Brien, N.Y.P.D., and Dark Shadows. He appeared in the films Madigan (1968), A Lovely Way to Die (1968), Star! (1968), Coogan's Bluff (1968), Last Summer (1969), Lovers and Other Strangers (1970), and I Never Sang for My Father (1970). On Broadway he appeared in Advise and Consent, Hot Spot, and The Cuban Thing.

In the Seventies Conrad Bain appeared on two hit TV shows. He was a regular on Maude, playing Dr. Arthur Harmon, Maude's next door neighbour with opposing views to her own. He was the star of Diff'rent Strokes. He also appeared on such shows as The Waverly Wonders, Grandpa Goes to Washington; The Facts of Life; Love Boat, and Hello, Larry. He appeared in the films Jump (1971), A New Leaf (1971), Bananas (1971), The Anderson Tapes (1971), Who Killed Mary Whats'ername? (1971), A Fan's Notes (1972),  Up the Sandbox (1972), A Pleasure Doing Business (1979), and C.H.O.M.P.S (1979). He appeared on Broadway in An Enemy of the People, Twigs, and Uncle Vanya.

In the Eighties Conrad Bain was a regular on the TV series Mr. President. He appeared in the film Post Cards From the Edge. In the Nineties he guest starred on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and appeared on Broadway in On Borrowed Time. He made his last appearance on screen in an episode of Unforgettable in 2011.

I was never a fan of the show Diff'rent Strokes, but I must admit that Conrad Bain did a good job of playing Mr. Drummond on the show. There was a sincerity about his performance on the show, as there was in nearly all of his performances. Indeed, it must be noted that Mr. Bain's two most famous roles, Arthur Harmon on Maude and Mr. Drummond on Diff'rent Strokes could not have been more different, yet he was convincing in both. His role on Maude was perhaps a difficult one to play, as he played Maude's opponent in numerous debates over various issues, which meant he had to match the impressive Bea Arthur note for note--not an easy task for any actor. Throughout his career Conrad Bain gave a number of impressive performances, from Chief of Staff Charlie Ross on Mr. President to the Madison Avenue Man in Coogan's Bluff.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Ned Wertimer R.I.P.

Ned Wertimer, perhaps best known for playing Ralph the doorman on The Jeffersons, died 2 January 2013 at the age of 89.

Ned Wertimer was born on 27 October 1923 in Buffalo, New York. During World War II he served as a pilot in the United States Navy. Following the war he attended Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. There he was a member of the Mask and Wig Club, the oldest all-male college musical comedy troupe in the United States.

Mr. Wertimer made his debut on Broadway in Texas, Li'l Darlin' in 1950. That same year he appeared on Broadway in The Live Wire. He made his television debut on an episode of Rocky King, Detective.  He made his film debut in 1958 in Let's Rock. On television he appeared on an episode of The Alcoa Hour. He also appeared on Broadway in The Disenchanted in 1959.

In the Sixties Ned Wertimer appeared on the shows Car 54, Where Are You?; The Second Hundred Years; He & She; The Hallmark Hall of Fame; Get Smart; That Girl; Hogan's Heroes; The Governor & J. J.; Gunsmoke; I Dream of Jeannie; The Good Guys; Mayberry R.F.D.; and The Bold Ones. He appeared in the films Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), The Impossible Years (1968), Some Kind of a Nut (1969), and C.C. and Company (1970).  On Broadway he appeared in The Family Way in 1965.

It was in 1975 that he was cast in his most famous role, that of Ralph Hart the doorman on The Jeffersons. Constantly seeking tips from the tenants of the apartment building in which the Jeffersons lived, Ralph would remain part of the show for nearly the entirety of its run. In the Seventies Ned Wertimer also appeared on such shows as Ironside, The Jimmy Stewart Show, Mary Tyler MooreThe New Dick Van Dyke Show, Love American Style, The Snoop Sisters, McMillan & Wife, Sanford & Son, All in the Family (as Ralph the Doorman), Lucas Tanner, Happy Days, WKRP in Cincinatti, and Mork & Mindy. He appeared in the films Bad Company (1972), Mame (1974), The Strongest Man in the World (1975), At Long Last Love (1975), The Pack (1977), and Hometown U.S.A. (1979).

From the Eighties into the Naughts Mr. Wertimer appeared on such shows as Harper Valley P.T.A., Simon & Simon, 227, and The Practice. He appeared in the film Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007).

As a character actor Ned Wertimer had the gift of appearing for only a few minutes and yet making the character he was playing memorable.  It was a talent  that he put to good use in his many guest appearances on TV shows and his appearances in movies over the years. Nowhere it was it more apparent than in his appearances on The Jeffersons. Ralph the Doorman appeared on screen for less time than some of the leads, yet he remains one of the most memorable characters. Only an actor with Ned Wertimer's singular talent could have made him so.