Friday, February 19, 2021

Sounds of the City: A Seventies Radio Show

In the Seventies there was a revival of radio drama that lasted for much of the decade. The revival produced such memorable programs as NPR's Earplay and CBS Radio Mystery Theatre. One show that is not particularly remembered today would have an impact despite its short time on the air. Sounds of the City was a fifteen minute soap opera that centred on Black characters. It focused on an African American family from the South and their efforts to transition to life in the North.

Sounds of the City was creation of Byron Lewis, president of UniWorld Group Inc., a multicultural advertising agency. Founded in 1969, UniWorld Group Inc. first made its mark handling the promotional campaign for the movie Shaft (1971). Unfortunately, the Seventies were not a particularly good time for minority-owned advertising agencies, and by 1974 UniWorld Group Inc. was struggling. The agency was in real need of something that would improve their fortunes. Byron Lewis remembered how his family listened to soap operas such as Stella Dallas and Our Gal Sunday on the radio. He then came up with the idea of a Black radio soap opera, Sounds of the City.

A sponsor for Sounds of the City was found in Quaker Oats, who would remain a client of UniWorld Group Inc. even after the show went off the air. In course of  the run of Sounds of the City, both actors that were already famous and some that soon would be appeared on the show, including Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Robert Guillaume, and Adam Wade. Scripts were written by Shauneille Perry, who had already a career as a director of plays such as Black Girl and the author of the play Mio. The characters on Sound of the City ranged from a minister to a police officer to the head of a numbers racket.

Sounds of the City debuted on May 1 1974 on the Mutual Black Network. It ultimately lasted 39 weeks. While Sounds of the City did not last long, it was successful in saving UniWorld Group Inc. In fact, it was Sounds of the City that earned UniWorld Group Inc. its first million dollars. The advertising agency started producing television commercials in 1975, with its first being for Avon. As to Sounds of the City itself, Robert Guillaume was among its regular cast, playing the part of Calvin. Within a few years he would be playing Benson on Soap and later on the spinoff Benson. While Sounds of the City lasted only briefly, it did leave its mark.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Christopher Pennock Passes On

Christopher Pennock, who played various roles on Dark Shadows (including Leviathan leader Jeb Hawkes and astrologer Sebastian Shaw), died on February 12 at the age of 76. He had been diagnosed with melanoma last summer.

Christopher Pennock was born on June 7 1944 in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. He was an understudy for the part of Jack Hunter in the Broadway production The Rose Tattoo. In the late Sixties he appeared on Broadway in A Patriot for Me. He first appeared as Jeb Hawkes on Dark Shadows in 1970. Until the end of the run of the series, he played various characters in various timelines, including Cyrus Longwoth, Sebastian Shaw, and Gabriel Collins.

Mr. Pennock continued on Dark Shadows in the early Seventies. Later in the decade he appeared on the soap operad General Hospital and Days of Our Lives. He also guest starred on Cannon and the soap opera Somerset. He appeared in the TV movies The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer and The Women's Room. He appeared in the movie Night of Dark Shadows (1971), playing the role of Gabriel Collins. He also appeared in the movies Savages (1971), The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (1976), and California Suite (1978). He appeared on Broadway in Abelard and Heloise.

In the Eighties Christopher Pennock appeared on the soap operas The Young and the Restless and The Guiding Light. He guest starred on the TV shows The Love Boat, Strike Force, Tucker's Witch, Cagney & Lacey, The A-Team, Dynasty, Riptide, Hotel, Houston Knights, Simon & Simon, High Mountain Rangers, and Knot's Landing. He appeared in the movies Frances (1982), Basic Training (1985), and Caged in Paradise (1990).

In the Nineties Mr. Pennock guest starred on Melrose Place, Baywatch, and Silk Stalkings. He appeared in the movie Running Woman (1998). In the Naughts he appeared in the movies High (2009) and Legacy (2010). In the Teens he appeared in the movies Lost on Purpose (2013), Doctor Mabuse: Etiopomar (2014), A Journey to a Jorney (2016), and The Night-Time Winds (2017). He was a regular on the TV series Theatre Fantastique and High.

Mr. Pennock also wrote a series of comic books based on his experiences on Dark Shadows.

Christopher Pennock was an immensely talented actor capable of playing a wide variety of roles. On Dark Shadows alone he played the Leviathan leader Jeb Hawkes, the astrologer Sebastian Shaw, and the Dr. Jekyll inspired Cyrus Longworth and his Hyde inspired alter ego John Yaeger. In shows from The A-Team to Melrose Place, he played a wide variety of characters, from essentially good characters to outright villains. Throughout his career he displayed an enormous amount of talent.

Monday, February 15, 2021

St. Louis Blues (1958)

In 1958 African Americans had made considerable strides in Hollywood since its Golden Age. That having been said, movies with primarily Black casts were still rare. That alone makes St. Louis Blues (1958) remarkable. What makes it even more remarkable is that the movie featured some of the most famous Black performers of the time, including Nat King Cole, Earth Kitt, Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, Ruby Dee, Mahalia Jackson, and Ella Fitzgerald, among others.

The opening credits of St. Louis Blues state that it is based on the life and music of W. C. Handy. That having been said, viewers should take that statement with a grain of salt. Just as Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) departed considerably from the life of George M. Cohan and Stormy Weather (1943) departed considerably from the life of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (even with Mr. Robinson playing himself), so too does St. Louis Blues depart considerably from the life of W. C. Handy. While I won't go into detail about how the movie departs from Mr. Handy's life for fear of spoilers, I will point out that among other things, there was never anyone named Gogo Germaine (Earth Kitt) in Mr. Handy's life.

Of course, I am guessing some of you may be asking, "Who is Mr. Handy?" W. C. Handy was a composer and a musician who is often called "the Father of the Blues." While W. C. Handy did not invent the blues, he was the first composer to actually publish Delta blues compositions. Among his many songs are "Beale Street Blues," "St. Louis Blues," "Chantez Les Bas,"and "The Storybook Ball."

As mentioned earlier, St. Louis Blues has a remarkable cast. Even the young actor who plays William Christopher Handy is to be noted; he is none other than musician Billy Preston. Nat King Cole was at the height of his fame when he played W. C. Handy in St. Louis Blues. It was after Mr. Cole was cast that he visited W. C. Handy at the legendary composer's 84th birthday to discuss the film with him. Sadly, W. C. Handy died on March 28 1958, not long before the premiere of St. Louis Blues on April 10 1958 in St. Louis. While critics at the time dismissed Nat King Cole as W. C. Handy, I thought his performance was quite solid. 

Nat King Cole was not alone in giving a good performance in St. Louis Blues. Earth Kitt does a great job as Gogo Germaine, as does Ruby Dee as Mr. Handy's love interest Elizabeth. Many might find the casting of Pearl Bailey as W. C. Handy's Aunt Hagar unusual given she was only a year older than Nat King Cole, but she is entirely convincing in the role. Juano Hernandez gives a great performance as W. C. Handy's father, a Methodist minister who disapproves of his son playing secular music (something in the film that is based on fact). Cab Calloway does well in a largely unsympathetic role as a none-too-honest club owner.

As might be expected with such a cast, much of the appeal of St. Louis Blues is its music. There are performances from Nat King Cole, Eartha Kitt, Mahalia Jackson, and Pearl Bailey. And while many of the songs are those written by W. C. Handy, the soundtrack also includes such traditional works as "Open Up the Window" and "Hush the Wind." For those of you who may be wondering, I have to point out that while he is one of the cast, Cab Calloway does not perform any of the songs in St. Louis Blues. I am sure even Mr. Calloway's biggest fans won't be disappointed, however, given the number of great performers in the movie.

Of course, St. Louis Blues does not simply have a great cast and several good musical performances, it also has a good script. While it does depart considerably from W. C. Handy's life, the film's plot is engaging and gives the actors ample opportunity to flex their dramatic muscles.

St. Louis Blues did not perform particularly well at the box office. Sadly, today it is not as well remembered as other biopics. That having been said, it is well worth watching given its cast and its musical performances.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Happy Valentine's Day 2021

For reasons that should be obvious to anyone who knows me, Valentine's Day is not a particularly happy day for me. That having been said, it wasn't always that way and I have fond memories of Valentine's Days past. It is a nice day for individuals to celebrate with people they love. And while candy and roses are the traditional gifts for Valentine's Day, I also know that there are those who might prefer some cheesecake for the day. Here, then, are this year's Valentine's Day pinups.

First up is Peggy Castle from a photo spread in Look magazine in the Fifties. She's apparently resting after a busy day of playing Cupid!

Next up is Lynn Merrick, reminding people of the date!

Not a Valentine's Day pinup per se, but as a promotional photo of Debbie Reynolds for the movie I Love Melvin it does fit the holiday!

What better Valentine's Day gift could there be than Cyd Charisse?

Sue Carol wants a Valentine!

And finally, you can't have Valentine's Day without Ann Miler!

Happy Valentine's Day!