Thursday, July 31, 2008


November 23, 1951 marked the television debut of The RCA Victor Show, a half-hour program that starred bass singer Ezio Pinza—an opera singer and Broadway star (South Pacific) who also found time to make a few movies at M-G-M, including Mr. Imperium (1951) and Tonight We Sing (1953). On this live half-hour series (sponsored by RCA Victor, natch) Pinza would chat (from his swanky penthouse apartment) with the television audience and do a musical number or two. He would then leave his bachelor’s digs long enough to run into that week’s guest star, who would return (to see his etchings, I’m guessing) back to Chez Ezio for a couple more songs (both separately and together) before Pinza closed the proceedings with one last solo number.

It certainly made for riveting television, no doubt—but before long, the show’s format received a little tinkering when RCA Victor introduced another individual into the mix as an “alternate-week” star: singer-comedian Dennis Day, who debuted on the program February 8, 1952. I’m sure Pinza was a nice guy but I’m pretty much going to close the chapter on him (he left after the first season anyway, only to reappear as a retired opera singer named Babbo Bonino in a short-lived NBC sitcom called Bonino a year later) because the episodes on the Mill Creek Essential Family Television: 150 Episodes set are called The Dennis Day Show, and not The Ezio Pinza Show. Or Bonino, for that matter. (Actually, the series wouldn’t go by “The Dennis Day Show” until the fall of 1953…but I’ll get to that in a minute.)

Day had established himself in radio beginning in 1939 as the new tenor on The Jack Benny Program, replacing Kenny Baker who—and I always thought this was one of life’s little ironies—jumped ship in the fall of 1939 to work for Benny’s “nemesis,” Fred Allen. Baker’s role on the Benny show was not only a singer but a sweet, naïve “kid” who didn’t have a lot upstairs. With the hiring of Dennis, Jack got not only a singer with a beautiful tenor voice but a first-rate mimic; among Day’s specialties were dead-on impressions of Ronald Coleman, Winston Churchill and Jerry Colonna, as well as radio personalities like Titus Moody (Parker Fennelly) and The Mad Russian (Bert Gordon). (Later, as a testament to his comedic talents, the writers transformed Day from a dunce to sort of a male Gracie Allen, whose illogical statements frequently drove Benny to the point of distraction.) Day’s talents also culminated in a “spin-off series” from the Benny program; a sitcom entitled A Day in the Life of Dennis Day which was heard for five seasons over NBC Radio beginning October 3, 1946.

When Day landed the RCA Victor gig (the Friday timeslot for the show didn’t interfere with his Benny appearances, both radio and TV), the format was very similar to a situation comedy: Dennis played himself, the singer on Jack’s program, who was continually browbeaten by his battleaxe of a mother (played by Verna Felton, who did double-duty as his ma on radio as well) to look for a career of his own. Kathy Phillips played his girlfriend Kathy, the only person who understood and was faithful to him. Well…at least until the fall of 1952, that is. That’s when the Day program underwent a slight revamping: he still remained a young bachelor anxious to make good in show business but had escaped from under his mother’s thumb and was living in a swanky apartment (apparently Den learned a few things from the departing Mr. Pinza) he couldn’t afford but he felt was necessary for his showbiz image. Minerva Urecal played his cantankerous landlady, Mrs. Pratt, and Fibber McGee & Molly veteran Cliff Arquette first trotted out his “Charley Weaver” characterization to play the apartment building’s janitor/jack-of-all-trades; he would later play Weaver on shows like The Tonight Show with Jack Paar, Hobby Lobby and The Hollywood Squares, as well as variety hours headed up by Jonathan Winters and Roy Rogers & Dale Evans. Also frequently seen on Day’s sitcom was future $64,000 Question host Hal March, and Dennis’ new main squeeze, Lois Sterling (Lois Butler), who had a kid sister named Susan (Jeri Lou James) that declared herself to be Dennis’ #1 fan.

In the 1953-54 season, Day’s show was officially christened The Dennis Day Show and was now a filmed series as opposed to live. (It is also from this time period from which the Day episodes on the Essential Family collection have been culled.) Once again, several of the show’s cast members were required to play musical chairs: Weaver continued on the show (and even gained a girlfriend in Lavinia, played by Ida Moore) and strangely enough, so did little Susan—but her sister got the ol’ heave-ho for a pair of girlfriends that frolicked in Day’s den of iniquity: Marion (Carol Richards) and later Peggy (Barbara Ruick). (Hal March was given his walking papers as well.)

The first of these episodes from the final season, “The Old Friend,” is the better of the two included with the Family set (plus it contains the original commercials): Dennis’ pal Gus (Harry O. Tyler) a talented (if slightly seedy) vaudevillian who served as Dennis’ showbiz mentor, can’t even get arrested in Hollywood—despite Dennis’ pleas to his agent (George “Joe McDoakes” O’Hanlon) to find the old duffer work. Seeing that Gus is living in a fleabag which he shares with a “comedy” team (the Benson Brothers) that painfully impersonate Martin & Lewis, Dennis gets his landlady Mrs. Pratt (played here by Martha Wentworth) to let Gus rent the room across the hall from him. Unfortunately, Gus’ friends (who have now switched to mimicking Groucho & Harpo Marx) have come along for the ride and start wrecking the joint; Dennis, fearful of hurting Gus’ feelings, dons drag as the landlady to tell them to amscray usterbay. Unfortunately, Charley gets the same idea—and also shows up in drag (still wearing his moustache!)…and then the real landlady arrives. (Dennis’ reaction to this turn of events is priceless: “Oy vey!”)

Naturally, like all well-behaved sitcoms, everything comes out in the wash at the end. I can’t, unfortunately, say the same thing about the second installment, “Party Pooper.” Dennis plays his ninety-year-old grandfather in this entry, a sort of Irish Spuds McKenzie (or perhaps that should be “O’Kenzie”) whom a gangster (Robert Strauss) suspects witnessed a payoff to a city commissioner…and such, throws a huge shindig until the time is right to knock off Gramps. Grandpappy Day, it turns out, didn’t see anything (his pupils were dilated at the time) but ends up outlasting Strauss and his friends at the fete, calling his hosts “party poopers.” While this episode is surely a testament to Day’s talent for mimicry, his pixyish old codger shtick gets very old (pardon the pun) very quickly, and the episode even melts into schmaltzy goo at the end with Day’s rendition of How are Things in Glocca Morra? Even the presence of Elisha Cook, Jr. can’t help this one.

I hate to admit that overall I was disappointed with The Dennis Day Show; its chief problem is that Dennis’ character is so thinly written that half the time he appears to be just a straight man for the supporting characters—there’s really nothing strong enough on which to build a series. Arquette (as Charley Weaver) is fun as always (despite having not a lot to work with); I always wondered if Charley ever met up with Lum ‘n’ Abner’s Ben Withers (Clarence Hartzell) since both men were so fond of talking about Mt. Idy. I guess what I’m saying is that a program produced by Paul Henning and written (in the early seasons) by OTR scribe Parke Levy (who later went on to create December Bride) should have a bit more going for it. (Henning noted in an interview with author-historian Jordan R. Young that the final season of Day’s show was in direct competition with the third season of I Love Lucy—so I suppose it’s not too hard to understand how this might affected morale some.) I still think Dennis’ best solo showcase was radio’s A Day in the Life of Dennis Day; I had a phone conversation with Radio Spirits’ Mark Tepper about the series and he seemed to agree that though the show didn’t break any new comedic ground it was a dependable sitcom that gave Dennis the necessary platform to sing and joke every week, backed by top-notch supporting actors like Bea Benaderet, Francis “Dink” Trout and John Brown.

No comments: