Friday, September 15, 2023

The Short, But Spectacular Career of Freddie Prinze

Freddie Prinze remains best remembered for the classic sitcom Chico and the Man. It seems likely that he would be remembered much more had his life been longer. He was extraordinarily talented, and one can only guess at what he may have achieved beyond his hit show.

Freddie Prinze was born Frederick Karl Pruetzel on June 22 1954 in New York City. His father was a German immigrant who had migrated to the United States in 1934. His mother was Puerto Rican. As a child he had difficulty gaining and retaining weight, so his mother enrolled him in ballet classes. He attended  the High School of Performing Arts where he continued to study ballet and take drama classes. It was while he was attending the High School of Performing Arts that he discovered his talent for stand-up comedy. He dropped out of school in his senior year to become a stand-up comedian.

Freddie Prinze worked at various comedy clubs around New York City, among them Catch a Rising Star and The Improv. It was during this period that he adopted "Freddie Prinze" as his stage name. It was in December 1973 that his star really began to rise, with appearances on The Tonight Starring Johnny Carson, Jack Paar Tonite, and The Merv Griffin Show. In June 1974 he appeared on The Midnight Special.

It was in 1974 that he was cast as Chico Rodriguez on the situation comedy Chico and the Man. The show starred Freddie Prinze as Chico, a young Mexican who went to work for elderly garage owner Ed Brown (Jack Albertson), referred to by Chico as "the Man." Ed Brown's garage was located in a Chicano neighbourhood in East Los Angeles, making it the very first show in the United States to set in a Mexican American community. Following the top-rated Sanford and Son on Friday night, Chico and the Man proved to be a hit, ranking no. 3 in the Nielsen ratings during its first season. The show continued to do well in its second and third seasons as well.

While Freddie Prinze was appearing on Chico and the Man, he continued to appear on variety shows on talk shows as well. He appeared on such shows and television specials as Tonight Starring Johnny Carson, The Mike Douglas Show, The Dean Martin Comedy World, The Flip Wilson Special, The Smothers Brothers Show, Cher, American Bandstand, Sammy and Company, The Rich Little Show, Dinah!, Tony Orlando and Dawn, Van Dyke and Company, and various Dean Martin Roasts. He also appeared on the game shows The $25,000 Pyramid and The Hollywood Squares. In 1976 he appeared in the TV movie The Million Dollar Rip-Off, playing an electronics expert named Muff Kovak who masterminds a transit heist. It was also at this time that his comedy album, Looking Good, was released.

Sadly, Freddie Prinze had coped with depression his entire life. His depression would intensify after his wife filed for divorce. On January 29 1977 he talked on the phone with his wife. His manager, Marvin "Dusty" Snyder, visited him later and it was during that visit that Mr. Prinze pointed a gun to his own head and shot himself. At the time Freddie Prinze's death was ruled a suicide, although in a lawsuit against the Crown Life Insurance Company by his mother, wife, and son, his death was ruled as being accidental and medication induced. There was later  $1 million settlement out of court against his psychiatrist and doctor to end a malpractice suit alleging that they allowed Freddie Prinze to buy a gun and overprescribed him the sedative Quaalude.

Freddie Prinze was in many ways a pioneer in American television. While today we might debate a Puerto Rican playing a Mexican on a sitcom, at the time Chico and the Man was the only regularly scheduled show on which Latinos appeared and possibly the first since the cancellation of the classic Western The High Chaparral in 1971. What is more, he was great as the character. NBC appreciated him enough that they signed him to a five year contract at $6 million. Had Freddie Prinze not died so young, it seems fairly certain that his career may have well reached even greater heights.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

"Back to Black" by Amy Winehouse

Today Amy Winehouse would have turned 40. Sadly, she died on July 23 2011 at the age of 27. She was an extremely talented singer and songwriter whose music drew from the girl groups of the Sixties, rhythm and blues, soul, and jazz. Her biggest hit in the United States was "Rehab," but my favourite Amy Winehouse song has always been "Back to Black," from the album of the same name. While it remains one of Amy Winehouse's best known tracks, it did not even reach the Billboard Hot 100.

The lyrics drew upon Amy Wineehouse's failed relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil. He had left her for an ex-girlfriend. Musically, "Back to Black" drew upon the sound of the girl groups of the Sixties, particularly The Shangri-Las." As far as I am concerned, it remains one of her most powerful songs.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

NBC Follies: A Long Forgotten Variety Show

The Seventies were not a good time for variety shows. While several aired during the decade, hits were few and far between. Many aired only for a matter of months, and, in some cases, weeks. One of the variety shows in the Seventies that did not last long was NBC Follies, which debuted fifty years ago today.

NBC Follies originated with John Hamlin, then NBC's vice president of nighttime programming. Although often described as drawing inspiration from vaudeville, it would be more accurate to say that it was inspired by such Broadway revues as George White's Scandals, Earl Carroll's Vanities, and, the most famous of them all, the Ziegfeld Follies. The show even included a bevy of showgirls who would perform throughout the show. Indeed, it was from Ziegfeld Follies that NBC Follies took its name. Sammy Davis Jr. is also often described as the show's regular host and Mickey Rooney as a part-time host, but it would be more accurate to describe them as the stars of Ziegfeld Follies. Neither of them introduced acts or sketches, but they did sing and perform in sketches.

NBC Follies first aired as a television special on February 8 1973. In addition to Sammy Davis Jr. and Mickey Rooney, that special also featured John Davidson, Andy Griffith, and Connie Stevens. That special proved successful enough that NBC added NBC Follies to its fall schedule. Like the initial special,  the regular run of  NBC Follies  would feature some fairly big name guests. In addition to Sammy Davis Jr. and Mickey Rooney, the first episode featured Diahann Carroll, Jerry Lewis, and the Smothers Brothers. Further episodes featured such stars as Michael Landon, Milton Berle, Jack Cassidy, Don Addams, Richard Crenna, Ernest Borgnine, and Peter Lawford. The announcer on the show was Johnny Olson, the long-time announcer of such shows as To Tell the Truth, What's My Line?, Match Game, and The Price is Right.

Not only were the guests on the show at the top of their professions, but so too were the writers. Howard Albrecht had written for The Jonathan Winters Show and The Bobby Darin Show. George Foster had written for The Perry Como Show, The Bing Crosby Show, and The Garry Moore Show. Among Jack Raymond's credits were Mister Peepers, Petticoat Junction, and The Andy Griffith Show. Sol Weinstein wrote for The Jerry Lester Show and The Bobby Darin Show. The show's musical director and composer of its theme, "It's Follies Time," was also of note. Harper MacKay had composed the scores for such movies as Alice Through the Looking Glass (1966) and Cry Uncle (1971). On television he had serves as the music director or music supervisor on such TV specials as The Julie Andrews Show and Portrait of Petula.

The initial reviews for NBC Follies were positive enough. Variety appreciated that the show had a good pace and praised Sammy Davis Jr. and Mickey Rooney, although the publication expressed doubts that the show could succeed on a weekly basis. The New York Times referred to NBC Follies as "pleasantly and attractively entertaining." That having been said, The New York Times had changed its tune by November 18 1973. In the article "A TV Season That Died," the paper referred to NBC Follies as "...the worst variety program to ever have aborted in prime time."

With largely positive reviews in the beginning, it must have seemed to NBC that NBC Follies was poised for success. After all, each week featured big name stars and it aired on Thursday night at 10:00, following Ironside. It was the time slot formerly occupied by the hit Dean Martin Show, which had moved to Friday night. Unfortunately, the time slot would prove to be less than ideal. It aired opposite The CBS Thursday Night Movie on CBS. In the 1973-1974 season The CBS Thursday Night Movie regularly aired recent hit movies, including Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), Bullitt (1968), and The Graduate (1967). The competition on ABC was also stiff. Then in its second season, the crime drama The Streets of San Francisco would rank no. 22 in the Nielsen ratings for the 1973-1974 season.

Between The CBS Thursday Night Movie on CBS and Streets of San Francisco on ABC, NBC Follies found itself trounced in the ratings. In November NBC tried to give the show a boost by changing its title to Sammy Davis Jr. Starring in NBC Follies, to no avail. NBC Follies continued to do badly in the ratings and NBC ultimately cancelled the show. The last episode aired on December 27 1973. NBC Follies didn't even survive into 1974.

Today NBC Follies is largely forgotten except by television historians and fans of Sammy Davis Jr. and Mickey Rooney. The initial special is available on YouTube, but only in black and white, and the debut episode is available on YouTube as well, but other than that it is not available on streaming. Given it only lasted 13 episodes, it is doubtful it ever will appear on any streaming platforms. Regardless, NBC Follies is worth remembering, if only as one of the many novelties to air on network television in the Seventies and the only real attempt to bring a revue similar to Ziegfeld Follies to television.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

It Turns Out Threads Isn't Much of a Twitter Killer

When Threads launched on July 5 2023, many media outlets referred to it as a "Twitter killer." I had some serious doubts about this, as there were too many things about Threads that I figured most users would not like, such as the lack of a reverse chronological feed, lack of a web interface, the inability to use hashtags, and the fact that one has to have an Instagram to even use it, among other things. Now I do have to note that Meta (the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and Threads) have corrected many of these things. Regardless, it seems my doubts about Threads being a "Twitter killer" have proven to be correct.

Threads started out seeming as if it would be a roaring success. By July 7, two days after its launch, it had 44 million daily active users. Unfortunately for Meta, according to data from marketing intelligence company Sensor Tower, Threads ended July with only 8 million daily active users. That is a drop of about 82%. This can be contrasted to Twitter (which owner Elon Musk recently rebranded to "X"), which has 249 million daily active users as of this month according to Apptopia. As unhappy as people are with Twitter (I refuse to call it "X") under Elon Musk, it would seem that they don't care much for Threads either.

As to why Threads experienced such a massive drop in daily active users, I have to think part of it is that it did not have a reverse chronological feed. While Threads began rolling out a reverse chronological feed (called "Following") in late July, it may have been too little, too late for many users. In my experience most people looking for a microblogging service, such as Twitter or Mastodon, want their feeds in reverse chronological order. They do not want their feeds dictated by an algorithm. Twitter has an algorithm dictated feed (called "For You"), but I don't know anyone who actually uses it. Many users who joined Threads may have stopped using the service as soon as they realized it didn't have a reverse chronological feed.

Another objection many users may have had to Threads is the lack of a web interface. While Threads recently added a web interface in late August, again, it may have been a case of too little, too late. Now I don't know how many people prefer using microblogging services on the web as opposed to using them on a phone app, but I think enough people prefer using mircroblogging services on the web to make a difference. While I might check my various microblogging services on my phone, I much prefer to do any actual posting on the web. Again, many users may have given up on Threads when they realized there was no way to access it on the web.

While Threads has a reverse chronological feed now and a web interface as well, according to reports I have read recently, one still cannot use hashtags on the service. Supposedly, the ability to use hashtags is one of those features that will eventually come to Threads, but many users may not want to wait that long. Hashtags can be found on virtually every other microblogging service, and even Facebook and Instagram (curiously, both apps are also put out by Meta). Users have been using hashtags for years. They may have deserted Threads when they realized they could not use hashtags on the service.

As if losing a huge number of daily active users in less than a month weren't bad enough, there are also some things about Threads that might discourage many potential users from using the app. Chief among these is the fact that one has to have an Instagram account to even use it. One even logs into Threads with their Instagram user name and password. Indeed, Instagram and Threads are so intertwined that if one deletes their Threads account, one's Instagram account is deleted as well, and vice versa. Now I know there are probably many who don't have Instagram accounts, and many of those probably don't want to open one just to use Threads.

Another, more serious hurdle for many adopting Threads is, quite simply, privacy concerns. Threads is apparently even more invasive with regards to privacy than even Facebook and Instagram. Threads collects data on users' health and fitness, browsing history, purchases, contacts, and so on. Apparently, Threads is still unavailable in the European Union because it doesn't comply with the EU's regulations regarding privacy. I would think there would be many who would not use Threads precisely because of the privacy concerns. I know it is why I haven't opened a Threads account. While any app knowing my browsing history wouldn't bother me, I see no reason why they should have access to purchases I have made, my contacts, and especially my health.

Of course, beyond anything else, much of the reason Threads may have experienced such a precipitous drop in users is simply that there are such a large number of Twitter alternatives out there now. There's Bluesky, Hive Social, Mastodon, Post, Spill, Spoutible, and probably some I haven't even heard of. Many users may have simply tried out Threads and decided they liked another Twitter alternative better instead. Indeed, beyond privacy concerns and objections to Threads's lack of features, another reason I didn't join Threads is that I am already on Spoutible and Mastodon. Indeed, Spoutible has become my favourite social media service of late.

In the end, Threads has clearly not turned out to be the "Twitter killer" the media, for whatever reason, thought it would be. I think this can be marked up to a number of missteps Meta made along the way, from the initial lack of a reverse chronological feed to the apparently still current inability to use hashtags on the service. Users accustomed to Twitter probably want many of the features that microblogging service has. When a particular microblogging service doesn't have them, they will simply find another microblogging service to use. And, right now, there are plenty to choose from.