Saturday, November 24, 2007

It’s good to be the Queen

So Mom makes a trip to Target (pronounced TAR-ZHAY) to secure a copy of Ratatouille for my niece for Christmas…and upon noticing that it had taken up temporary residence on the kitchen counter, I glanced at it casually, curious as to why the DVD case seemed smaller than regulation. As it turns out, she’s picked up a Blu-Ray disc by mistake, and when I informed her of this, she responded with a word that rhymes with “wit.”

My father maintains that she never used words like that until she got into retail. But that’s a story for another day.

This will necessitate a trip back to Target, and if you know me well enough by now, you also know that I rarely walk by the dollar section without looking to see if they have some cheap DVDs. Which they have—Laughing Gravy at In the notes that he picked up a few goodies: a pair of discs with some Davey & Goliath adventures (“Garsh, Davey…”), and two other DVDs, Classic Television: 1960’s Blooper Bonanza and Classic Television: Game Show Classics. All four of these discs are manufactured by a Michigan-based outfit called PC Treasures. I picked up the bloopers and game shows DVDs, but opted out of the Davey & Goliath collections; if I wanted to hear Claymation figures proselytizing about religion I would have supported Gumby’s ambition to join the priesthood.

The bloopers disc is fun; though most of its humor depends on your tolerance for watching actors repeatedly blow their lines, and unfortunately the words that follow (most of which rhyme with “wit”) have been bleeped out. There are three shows that are represented here: Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Star Trek and McHale’s Navy—the first two apparently culled from “stag reels,” those collections that are shown at cast parties, Christmas gatherings, etc. I liked the McHale’s Navy bloopers segment the best, particularly because when Joe Flynn flubs a line, he invariably refers to someone as a “horse’s ass.” Most of these scenes have Archie Andrews’ own Bob Hastings at Flynn’s side, and when Flynn hurls this epithet Hastings registers genuine shock—I don’t know if he’s staying in character (as Lt. Elroy Carpenter) or if he’s genuinely surprised that Flynn uses that kind of language. The funniest Flynn boner has him drinking what appears to be wine out of a glass, then remarking: “That was a good year for that shit.” (Well, it made me laugh fit to beat the band…parts of it, anyway.)

But the really sweet deal is the Game Show Classics DVD, which contains six programs from the 1950s. Two of the shows, a February 5, 1956 telecast of What’s My Line? and a February 8, 1956 presentation of I’ve Got a Secret, share a commonality in that Desi Arnaz appears on both programs—he and Lucy were heavily plugging their MGM film Forever, Darling (1956) at the time. Desi fills in for vacationing Bennett Cerf on the Line telecast, and the show was a real treat for your humble narrator because my comedy idol Fred Allen was still working as one of its panelists (unfortunately, Allen would pass away about a little more than a month later). The first guest isn’t technically the mystery guest (that honor belongs to Kim Novak, plugging the heck out of Picnic [1956]), but the panel is blindfolded anyway because they would no doubt recognize British foreign correspondent Randolph Churchill, son of former Prime Minster Winston. It’s Allen who guesses Randy’s identity, mentioning that the two met previously (Allen: “He may not remember—no one ever remembers meeting me...”) when radio’s The Big Show was engaged in its jaunt around Europe during its final season. (In one of his famous “letters,” Allen once mused to a friend about the competitiveness between panelists Arlene Francis and Dorothy Kilgallen on Line, remarking “they really want to win this thing.” He also tagged Cerf with the memorable description: “a tweed wastebasket.”)

On Secret, Desi again makes a guest appearance but it’s Lucy who’s the guest panelist, and both provide a great deal of laughter—particularly when Lucy has to guess (along with Bill Cullen, Henry Morgan and Jayne Meadows) what Desi’s “secret” is. In one of television’s more remarkable displays of ingenuity, the Cuban bandleader’s skeleton in the cupboard is that “he loves Lucy,” which probably required the program’s creative element to do a lot of skulling. (It reminds me of Monty Woolley’s legendary Secret appearance, in which his “secret” was that he slept with his beard outside the bedcovers. When asked why, Woolley responded: “As a matter of fact, I don’t. That’s merely the secret they decided upon for me.”) It might just be me, but I sensed a bit of tenseness between the Arnazes, maybe a foreshadowing of their marital troubles to come. Both of these shows, by the way, are watchable but are not in the best visual quality (they’re hideously washed-out, as if someone set the dial on the klieg lights to “German POW camp”); the Secret telecast, however, is available on an Alpha DVD release that’s in considerably better shape.

The other programs on this disc include Tic Tac Dough, To Tell the Truth (with panelists Betsy Palmer, Don Ameche, Kitty Carlisle and columnist Hy Gardner) and Twenty-One, best remembered as the program ensnarled in the great “quiz show scandals” of the 1950s and wonderfully documented (the authenticity is amazing) in Robert Redford’s 1994 film Quiz Show. In watching this telecast, it appeared to me that both its contestants were aware that the fix was in; their attempts to convey anguish and dismay at the difficulty of having to dig through their mental Rolodexes for the answers were laughable and pathetic, to say the least. But I’ve saved the best program for last: the jaw-droppingly awful Queen for a Day, a telecast that I’m guessing is from 1958 (since there’s a plug for Paramount Pictures’ Desire Under the Elms).

Now, when I say “awful”—I don’t mean from a competence standpoint; the program is professionally produced and packaged to a glistening sheen. I mean awful in a content sense. I was familiar with the program (though this is the first example I’ve watched) and its premise: five women with hard-luck stories compete for the show’s title, aided and abetted by down-home host Jack Bailey (who reminded me so much of Tennessee Ernie Ford—even though Bailey hailed from Hampton, Iowa—I kept expecting him to look into the camera and intone: “Martha White’s Self-Risin’ Flour…it’s pea-pickin’ good!”), by requesting some small service or item to make their pathetic lives a little cheerier.

To give you an example of how the show worked, let’s use the contestants from the telecast on the DVD:

· Dorothy Lacy – Wants building material and four mattresses to build two sets of bunk beds for her four girls (the family lives in a trailer).
· Rose Ann Burns – Wants a hospital gurney so that her polio-stricken son can go outside for some fresh air, and a transistor radio to brighten his drab existence. (Host Bailey mistakenly thinks the contestant wants a “Guernsey”…as in cow.)
· Ruth Klakowski (sp?) – Lost her husband in a hunting accident (he was killed by his best friend) and is stranded in California with her two little girls. Wants to learn a trade in a beauty school because she can’t find work and hopes to move back to Toledo.
· Marsha Moore – Pregnant wife who requests “stock” for the grocery store run by she and her husband (it’s apparently uncontaminated by groceries). Bailey asks her if either of them had any previous experience in the grocery bidness and when she answers “no,” cracks: “That’s what I figured.” (In his defense, he does a quick whip-round among the show’s crew and raises about five bucks to help her out.)
· Mildred Rogers – Her eighteen-year-old son has been sidelined with rheumatic fever and needs an encyclopedia to help him with his studies so he can graduate this year. She also requests that his room be renovated because it’s a pretty dismal affair—though “he don’t never complain,” she assures Bailey.

The audience decides on who will be coronated through the time-honored “applause meter,” and Klakowski wins with a 7.5 (followed by Rogers with a 6 and Burns to show with a 5—Moore and Lacy wind up with scores of 3.5 and 2, respectively). Queen Ruth then gets enough loot to fill up a small warehouse: an automatic ironer, china dishes, a dryer, a hot water heater, a sewing machine, a dinette set, a stove, a freezer chest—the works! The show also lards up Her Majesty with a Las Vegas vacation, dinner and dancing, a visit to the Paramount Studios, etc. and, of course, her two children get in on the action with gifts of dresses, Betsy Wetsy dolls…and a puppy! And what do the remaining four women who have stooped to debase themselves on national TV receive? Bupkis! (Well, that’s not entirely true—they make do with some perfume, a box of Dash detergent, cheap Rubbermaid kitchenware and a steam-and-drive iron from Hoover.) I truly felt sorry for the remaining quartet of these miserable souls; as a famous spinach-eating sailor once observed, “This is embarrasking…”

Queen’s origins were in radio (it was originally titled Queen for Today), premiering over Mutual on April 30, 1945…and not, incidentally, with Bailey as the master of ceremonies, but Dud (Dudley) Williamson, who was one of the fathers present at the show’s birth. According to Jim Cox’s invaluable reference The Great Audience Participation Shows, Williamson (who also hosted the popular What’s the Name of That Song?) passed away in 1948, but Cox doesn’t make clear whether Bailey either took over the show from that point or had landed the Queen job before Williamson's demise. (Nevertheless, I can’t recommend Jim’s book highly enough: it is essential for the shelf of any OTR, classic television or game-show fan.) Bailey, whose jack-of-all-trades (no pun intended) resume included stints as a carnival barker and providing the voices of Donald Duck and Goofy in Disney cartoons, had by that time established a reputation as a talented M.C., hosting radio series like Meet the Missus and Stop That Villain. (He also replaced Ralph Edwards in the TV version of Truth or Consequences in May 1954, and would remain with the show until its cancellation in the fall of 1956.)

The radio Queen would sign off on June 10. 1957, but the TV version (which premiered over NBC on January 3, 1956) would soldier on until October 2, 1964 (having jumped to ABC in September 1960), meaning that this sentimental sap-fest (a precursor to the "reality" shows of today, since you really can't call it a game or a quiz show) was on the air for close to twenty years. The TV version was unusual in that it had a forty-five minute format—which is easily explained because when you factor in all the commercials and plugs the show had to do to get that entire largess, you barely had fifteen minutes left to hear the contestants pleading and begging. In addition, Queen would feature a mini-fashion show of bodacious models showing off the wardrobe that day’s winner would wear, with commentary by Jeanne Cagney Morrison (a one-time actress who, as you’ve probably guessed, was the sister of the better-known Jimmy). Jeanne has quite a bit of airtime in this 1958 episode, talking about her four brothers and noticeably keeping a bun in the oven; a future nephew/niece for brother James. There were quite a few notables and would-be celebrities who also appeared on Queen; two of the models were Marilyn Burtis (who appeared on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life when the duck wasn’t working properly) and Jolene Brand (who appeared on many of Ernie Kovacs’ shows) and one of the “contestant escorts” was Grace Lee Whitney, many years before she achieved cult status as Yeoman Janice Rand on Star Trek.

Queen for a Day later achieved a bit of notoriety as one of the programs listed in Bart Andrews’ 1980 tome The Worst TV Shows Ever, though again, it’s due more to its questionable taste than incompetence. When the show first premiered on NBC, The New York Times’ television critic Jack Gould famously asked: “What hath Sarnoff wrought?” (Gould was referring to Robert Sarnoff, president of NBC’s parent company RCA at the time.) Even Queen producer Howard Blake later admitted that “Queen was vulgar and sleazy and filled with bathos and bad taste. That’s why it was so successful: it was exactly what the public wanted.”

This YouTube clip will give you an example of Queen for a Day’s awfulness. And until next time, “I’d like to make EV-ery woman queen for EV-ery day!”


CresceNet said...
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Sam said...

Which Tar-Zey was it you went to? Because if they have more dollar DVDs at the Victory Drive location, I am so on it like Maple Syryp on a Waffle.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

I went to the Savannah Mall TAE-ZHAY, because until you told me there was one on Victory Drive I was not aware of its existence.

Bobh said...

I picked up a number of the dollar TV DVDs at Target. The 1960s bloopers disc is good for the money, but there are longer versions of both the "Laugh-In" and "Star Trek" bloopers, both of which have been available for years. The mostly out-of-print Catcom had one such collection and included all three series plus others like "M*A*S*H" and "Gunsmoke." However, the "McHale's Navy" bloopers on the dollar disc is the longest collection that I've seen to date.

The game shows disc appears to be either short printed or, possibly, in very high demand as I visited three Target stores in my area (suburban Philadelphia) and found only a single copy. "Queen for a Day" was jaw dropping; I felt bad for the women who did not win. It must have been incredibly sad for them to be sitting onstage after seeing all of the prizes the winner took away.

The "Davey and Goliath" DVDs are, surprise, not public domain but are actually licensed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

A couple of other "finds" in the dollar bin was six episodes of "The Adventures of Long John Silver" with Robert Newton in one of his last roles. This was Australia's very first tlevision production, filmed in color using much of the same cast and production crew from the film "Long John Silver" a/k/a "Long John Silver's Return to Treasure Island," which, in turn, was a sequel to the Disney film "Treasure Island."

The other find was a two episode disc of the the short lived martial arts series "The Master" with Lee Van Cleef and the Van Patten kid who was "Salami" in "The White Shadow." Mystery Science Theater 3000 used to lampoon this series with some regularity and now here it is in the "do it yourself (DIY)" version. Also included is the Sonny Chiba martial arts classic "The Street Fighter" in a widescreen version (probably ported over from an old laser disc).

Good stuff for a buck!


Stacia said...

I love reading your entries. They always bring back memories (Tennessee Ernie Ford!). Now that I know Target has a dollar DVD bin, I'll check them out. Walgreen's used to have some great stuff in their bargain bin, but I think I cleaned them out of everything good.

For the poster above, you can get "The Street Fighter" and a few other Sonny Chiba movies in one of those 50 DVD sets that are so cheap. Last year I bought about 8 of those sets for $10 each or so.