Friday, February 2, 2024

The Late Great Chita Rivera

Dancer and actress Chita Rivera, who played the original Anita in the Broadway production of West Side Story, died on January 30 2024 at the age of 91.

Chita Rivera was born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero in Washington, DC on January 23 1933. Her father was a clarinettist and saxophonist of Puerto Rican descent. Her father died of cancer when she was only seven years old. As a little girl she was very active and a bit of a tomboy. Her mother then enrolled her in dance class. She was 14 years old when she won a scholarship The School of American Ballet in New York City. She auditioned for Jerome Robbins when she was still a teenager. In 1952 he hired as the principal dancer in the road company of Call Me Madam. She initially went by Conchita del Rivero. She later shortened it to Chita Rivero, then decided Chita Rivera sounded better.

Chita Rivera made her debut on Broadway as a dancer in Guys and Dolls. In the Fifties she also performed on Broadway in Can-Can, Seventh Heaven, and Mr. Wonderful. It was in 1957 that she originated the role of Anita in West Side Story. In 1960 she played Rose Grant in Bye Bye Birdie and continued to play the role into the early Sixties.

In the Sixties Chita Rivera appeared on Broadway in Bajour. In the Seventies she starred as Velma Kelly in Chicago. In the Eighties she reprised the role of Rose in Bring Back Birdie and appeared on Broadway in Merlin, The Rink, and Jerry's Girls. In the Seventies Chita Rivera appeared in Kiss of the Spider Woman. In the Naughts she had her own show on Broadway, Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, and she also appeared in the musical Nine. In the Teens she appeared in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and The Visit.

Chita Rivera also appeared frequently on television. In the Fifties she appeared on such variety and talk shows as Frankie Laine Time, Tonight!, Caesar's Hour, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, The Voice of Firestone, Sunday Night at the Palladium, The Revlon Revue, and The Ed Sullivan Show. In the Sixties she made her television acting debut in an episode of The Outer Limits in 1964. She appeared on such talk and variety shows as The Judy Garland Show, Blackpool Night Out, Juke Box Jury, On Broadway Tonight, The Entertainers, ABC's Nightlife, The Dean Martin Show, The Garry Moore Show, Las Vegas, Gypsy, The Woody Woodbury Show, The Hollywood Palace, The John Gary Show, That's Life, The Joey Bishop Show, and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

In the Seventies Miss Rivera appeared in the TV movies The Marcus-Nelson Murders and Once Upon a Brothers Grimm. She was a regular on The New Dick Van Dyke Show. She guest starred on Captain Kangaroo. She appeared on such talk and variety shows as The Carol Burnett Show, Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell, Dinah!, Sammy and Company, The Mike Douglas Show, Be My Guest, The Bobby Vinton Show, The Chuck Barris Rah-Rah Show, The Jim Nabors Show, The Merv Griffin Show, and De Mike Burstyn Show.

In the Eighties Chita Rivera appeared on the daytime soap opera One Life to Live. In the Nineties she was a guest voice on Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child. In the Naughts she guest starred on Will & Grace. She was also a guest voice on Dora the Explorer In the late Teens and early Twenties she was a regular on the streaming series Stars in the House. From the Eighties to the Teens, Chita Rivera continued to regularly appear on a variety of talk shows.

Chita Rivera made her film debut in Sweet Charity in 1969. She later appeared in Chicago (2002), Kalamazo? (2006), and tick...tick...BOOM! (2021).

Chita Rivera was an incredible dancer. She was extremely flexible, and could actually touch the back of her head with her foot. She was also a great singer, gifted with a powerful, emotive voice. With such talent she originated some of the most iconic moments on Broadway, from "America" in West Side Story to "All That Jazz" in Chicago. Of course, she was also a very good actress. She held her own with Martin Landau and Sally Kellerman in the Outer Limits episode "The Bellero Shield." She also gave a good performance as Nickie in the film version of Sweet Charity. Chita Rivera was an incredible talent.

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Godspeed Melanie

Singer/songwriter Melanie Safka, best known simply by her first name "Melanie," died on January 23 2024 at the age of 76. She was best known for such songs as "Brand New Key," "What Have They Done to My Song Ma," and her cover of The Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday.

Melanie was born on February 3 1947 in Queens in New York City. She was only four years old when she sang on the radio show Live Like a Millionaire. Her family moved to Long Branch, New Jersey, she attended Long Branch High School. After running away to California, she returned to New Jersey where she attended Red Bank High School in Red Bank, New Jersey.

Before she even graduated high school she performed at The Inkwell, a coffee house in Long Branch. After graduating from high school she studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. She started performing at folk music clubs in Greenwich Village in New York City. She signed with Columbia Records and released two singles on the label, "Beautiful People" in 1967 and "Garden City" in 1968. Neither charted. She then signed with Buddah Records. Her first several singles on the label would not chart in the United States, although "Bo Bo's Party" went to no. 33 on the Belgian singles chart. Her first album, Born to Be, was released in November 1968.

In 1969 she performed at the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair. The experience inspired her song "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)," which turned out to be her first hit. It reached no. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. She followed "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" with "Peace Will Come (According to Plan)," which reached no. 32 on the Billboard Hot 100. Her biggest hit, "Brand New Key," was released in October 1971. It hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the Canadian singles chart. It went to no. 4 in the United Kingdom. It was also in 1971 that she left Buddah Records, and formed her own label, Neighbourhood Records.

Melanie would only have two more singles reach the Billboard Hot 100, "Ring the Living Bell," which reached no. 31 on the Hot 100 in 1972, and "Bitter Bad," which peaked at no. 36 on the Hot 100 in 1973. While Melanie no longer hit the charts, she maintained a loyal following and continued to record and perform for the rest of her life. In all she released over thirty studio albums. Prior to her death she had been in the studio recording cover songs for what would be her 32nd album.

Melanie was certainly a pioneer for independent recording artists, having founded her own label in 1971. And while she was not often recognized for her contributions to music in the early Seventies, she would have an impact on future recording artists. Her voice was surely unique, blending the delicacy of Joan Baez with the sheer power of Janis Joplin. Melanie also defied genre. Her biggest hit, "Brand New Key," evoked Tin Pan Alley in the Thirties. "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" was more straight-forward folk rock. Her music explored the human condition, from lost love to being weary of the world. And her songs, even when they were on serious subjects, often had a sense of humour. Melanie was certainly in a class all her own.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Black History Month 2024 on Turner Classic Movies

Harry Belafonte in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

February is Black History Month, so Turner Classic Movies has a marathon of Black themed movies from February 2 through February 4 2024. It starts on February 2 at 8:00 PM Eastern/7:00 PM Central with The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974). In my humble opinion, you should try to watch as many of these movies as possible, but given many of us don't have that much time to spare, here are my choices of what to watch during the marathon. All times are Central.

Friday, February 2:
7:00 PM The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)

Saturday, February 3:
5:15 AM Paul Robeson: Portrait of an Artist (1979)
6:00 AM The Emperor Jones (1933)
9:00 AM Oscar Micheaux: The Superhero of Black Filmmaking (2021)
10:30 AM Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
2:30 PM A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
5:00 PM In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Sunday, February 4:
1:45 AM The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)
3:15 AM Greased Lightning (1977)
7:00 AM Gordon Parks: Moments without Proper Names (1988)
8:00 AM The Learning Tree (1969)
1:00 PM Sergeant Rutledge (1960)
3:00 PM Sounder (1972)
7:00 PM Bird (1988)

Monday, January 29, 2024

How Did The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour Survive the Rural Purge?

The 1970-1971 American television season will always be remembered as the season of the Rural Purge. The Rural Purge was a mass cancellation of shows whose audiences were considered too rural, too old, or both. All three networks cancelled shows that appealed to rural or older audiences, but by far CBS cancelled the most. In fact, two of the shows they cancelled (Mayberry R.F.D. and Hee Haw) still number among the highest rated shows ever cancelled. Among the shows that would have seemed to have appealed to rural audiences that somehow survived was The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. In fact, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour was lower rated than some of the rural shows that CBS did cancel. It only came in at no. 35 in  the Nielsen ratings for the year. The question is then, "How did The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour survive the Rural Purge when higher rated shows did not?"

The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour was essentially a spin-off of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The Summer Brothers Smothers Show was a summer replacement series for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour that aired during the summer of 1968. It was hosted by rising pop country star Glen Campbell, whose hits "Witchita Lineman" and "Galveston" had a great deal of crossover appeal. Both songs had hit the Billboard Hot 100 ("Witchita Lineman" making it all the way to no. 3 on the chart). The Summer Brothers Smothers Show proved successful enough that Glen Campbell was given his own variety show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, which debuted on January 29 1969. The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour proved successful in its first two seasons. It ranked no. 15 in its first season and no. 20 in its second season. For its third season, the 1970-1971 season, its ratings dropped. As mentioned above, it only came in at no. 35 for the season.

Of course, it was during the 1970-1971 season that the Rural Purge took place. The Rural Purge largely emerged from two events. The first was the institution of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulation known as the Prime Time Access Rule, which would take effect starting with the 1971-1972 season. The rule came about because the FCC thought that the American broadcast networks controlled too much programming on television and was meant to increase competition on local TV stations. Among other things, the Prime Time Access Rule decreased how much the networks could program each night. As a result, the networks had to cancel many more shows than they ever had before.

The second event was a change in programming strategy on the part of CBS. Since the 1950s ABC had sought viewers in the key demographic of 18-49 years old. Starting in the early Sixties, NBC also started seeking viewers in the key demographic of 18-49 years old. Throughout the Sixties, CBS had continued to focus on the over-all number of viewers of any given show. It was in 1969 that Robert Wood became the new president of CBS. It was Robert Wood and his Vice President in Charge of Programming, Fred Silverman, who shifted CBS's programming strategy from capturing the largest total audience to capturing viewers who were between 18 and 49 and living in urban areas. For the 1970-1971 season CBS then decided to cancel shows not based on how many viewers were watching those shows, but who was watching those shows. As a result, shows that appealed to rural viewers, older viewers, or both were cancelled. Long-running and sometimes even high-rated shows were cancelled, including The Beverly Hillbillies, The Ed Sullivan Show, Green Acres, Hee Haw, Lassie, and Mayberry R.F.D.

Curiously, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour was not among the shows that was cancelled. On the surface, at least, it would seem that The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour would largely appeal to a rural audience. After all, its host was a country music star and the show had featured its share of country singers as guests, including Johnny Cash, Roy Clark, Waylon Jennings, Buck Owens, and Mel Tillis. Unfortunately, I was unable to find the Nielsen ratings for The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour for the 1970-1971 season, let alone a breakdown of its demographics during the season. That having been said, it seems possible that The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour appealed to a younger and less rural audience than Hee Haw or Mayberry R.F.D.

That this could have been possible is borne out by an article on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour in the October 10 1970 issue of Billboard. The article states, "The Campbell audience is broad. They range from young adults to middle-aged and older." If The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour did appeal to younger viewers, much of it might have been due to the musical guests on the show. While Hee Haw exclusively featured country music singers as guests, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour featured rock and pop artists who would appeal to younger viewers. During its first season alone Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, The Vogues, Nancy Sinatra, The Righteous Brothers, and The Association appeared on the show. In addition to these musical guests, The Glen Campbell Hour also featured the promotional films for The Beatles' songs "Get Back" and "Don't Let Me Down." Among the guests on the third season of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour (the 1970-1971 season) were The 5th Dimension, The Osmonds, The Supremes, Jackie DeShannon, Sunday's Child, Sonny & Cher, and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It is possible that in featuring rock and pop artists, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour may have appealed to a younger, more urban audience than other shows with rural appeal.

Of course, some might point out that The Johnny Cash Show, which also featured rock and pop artists, was cancelled during the 1970-1971 season by ABC. Indeed, if anything, The Johnny Cash Show featured bigger rock and pop artists than The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. Among the guests on The Johnny Cash Show throughout its run were The Cowsills, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, The Guess Who, Lulu, Joni Mitchell, Linda Rondstandt, Dusty Springfield, and others. It can also be pointed out that The Ed Sullivan Show also featured rock and pop acts clear into its final season, and yet it was among the first victims of the Rural Purge. While the rock and pop acts on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour probably helped the show get a younger audience than other shows with rural appeal (or other variety shows, for that matter), it may not have been the only reason its audience may have been slightly younger.

Indeed, much of the reason for the survival of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour may have been its star. Glen Campbell was a country music star, but he was one with a good deal of crossover appeal. In 1967 his single "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" peaked at no. 26 on the Billboard Hot 100. As mentioned earlier, "Wichita Lineman" hit no. 3 on the chart. "Galveston" went to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. What is more, Glen Campbell had several other singles that would reach the top forty of the Billboard Hot 100 in the years 1967 to 1970.  Much of the reason Glen Campbell's appeal went beyond country music listeners is that he was not a traditional country music singer. His music has often been described as "pop country," and even counted as "easy listening."

Beyond Glen Campbell and the music guests on his show, another reason The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour may have appealed to a young audience is the show's comedy sketches. Among the writers on the show were ones who had written for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, including Cecil Tuck, Steve Martin, and Rob Reiner. While the humour on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour tended to be apolitical, unlike The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, it may well have appealed to a younger crowd than the comedy routines on other variety shows, much less the countryfied humour on Hee Haw or Mayberry R.F.D.

Regardless, while The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour survived the Rural Purge, it lasted only one more season. For its fourth season CBS moved The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour from Sunday night to Tuesday night. While the show came in at no. 37 for the season, it was ultimately cancelled. Although sometimes counted as a victim of the Rural Purge, it was cancelled well after the Rural Purge had unfolded during the 1970-1971 season. While it is possible that the The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour had lost whatever young people in its audience it had, it also seems possible that the cancellation was due to the fact that Glen Campbell was no longer the hot commodity in 1972 that he had been in 1969. While the show was on the air, his last single to hit the Billboard Hot 100 was a cover of Dionne Warwick's "I Say a Little Prayer" in 1971, which only went to no. 81 on the chart. This, coupled with a new time slot, may have resulted in its slight drop in the ratings for its fourth season. The lone survivor of the Rural Purge at CBS, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, aired its last episode on June 13 1972.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

The Late Great Laurie Johnson

Composer Laurie Johnson, who wrote the theme for the TV show The Avengers starting with its fourth series, and scored the movie Dr. Strangelove (1964), died January 16 2024 at the age of 96.

Laurence Johnson was born on February 7 1927 in Hampstead. He studied at the Royal College of Music. He served for four years in the British Army in the Coldstream Guards, in which he played French horn. The first movie he scored was The Moonraker (1958). In the late Fifties he also scored the movies Girls at Sea (1958), No Trees in the Street (1959), Tiger Bay (1959), Operation Bullshine (1959), and Werner Von Braun (1960). He also composed music for the TV series No Hiding Place. In 1960 he began recording music for the KPM Music Library, much of which would still be used years later on such shows as Ren and Stimpy and SpongeBob SquarePants. Some of the music he composed for the library would also be released as albums, including The New Big Sound of the Laurie Johnson Orchestra (1963), The Big New Sound Strikes Again (1965), and the Two Cities Suite (1966).

In the Sixties Laurie Johnson composed the theme for the TV series The Avengers starting with its fourth series (the first featuring Diana Rigg). It would be used all subsequent series of The Avengers, as well as the sequel show The New Avengers. He composed the theme for the British version of This is Your Life ("Gala Performance"). On television he also composed music for the show Top Secret and an episode of ITV Play of the Week. He scored the movies Spare the Rod (1961), What a Whopper (1961), Siege of the Saxons (1963), Bitter Harvest (1963), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), The Beauty Jungle (1964), First Men in the Moon (1964), East of Sudan (1964), You Must Be Joking! (1965), Hot Millions (1968), and And Soon the Darkness (1970).

In the Seventies he composed music for the shows Shirley's World, Jason King, The Wide World of Mystery, Thriller, The New Avengers, and The Professionals. He composed music for the movies The Firechasers (1971), The Belstone Fox (1973), Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974), Diagnosis: Murder (1974), The Maids (1975), It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet (1976), and Tvingad att leva (1980). In the Eighties he composed music for It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987). He also composed music for the TV movies A Hazard of Hearts and A Ghost in Monte Carlo. In the Nineties he composed music for the TV movie Duel of Hearts.

Laurie Johnson also composed music for the theatre, including the productions Lock Up Your Daughters (1959), Pieces of Eight (1959), and The Four Musketeers (1967). He also composed a good deal of orchestral and band music, much of which would be re-issued over the years.

Laurie Johnson was one of the most prominent English composers and bandleaders of the latter half of the 20th Century. His theme for Top Secret even reached the British record charts. The theme to The Avengers remains one of the greatest themes to a television show ever composed. And Laurie Johnson was nothing if not prolific. For The Avengers alone he composed around 50 hours of music. To this day his music can be heard on everything from Mr. Robot to Antique Road Trip. Few composers ever saw the success Laurie Johnson did.