Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Very Merry MeTV Blogathon: Christmas with the Gillis Family

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to A Very Merry MeTV Blogathon, an event sponsored by The Classic Television Blog Association to promote MeTV’s stellar lineup of Yuletide programming airing from November 16th to December 25th (Christmas Day).  For a list of participating blogs and the shows and episodes covered, click here.

Since 1959, TV’s The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis has been making fans both old and new laugh uproariously at the misadventures of a bewildered teenager (played by Dwayne Hickman) as he stumbles and fumbles his way through this wacky thing we call life.  Many of Dobie Gillis’ episodes focused on the conflicts in his family (parents courtesy of Frank Faylen and Florida Friebus) and amongst his circle of friends; unconventional beatnik Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver), snooty millionaire Chatsworth Osborne, Jr. (Steve Franken)…and the two most important women in his life: greedy, grasping Thalia Menninger (Tuesday Weld) and plain, practical Zelda Gilroy (Sheila James Kuehl).

Dobie Gillis always had a bite to its humor…but it also possessed a strong sentimental streak—as Maynard would often say as he dabbed his wet eyes on the cut-off sleeve of his sweatshirt: “Gee, Dob…I’m gettin’ all misty.”  Nowhere is this more evident than in the four episodes the series telecast to celebrate the spirit of Christmas (one for each season).  Three of these installments will be included in MeTV’s holiday celebration of Yuletide and Thanksgiving programming from November 16-December 25, 2015.

The first time Dobie and his family invited us to spend Christmas occurs in the first season (natch), with “Deck the Halls”—which originally aired December 22, 1959.  (This episode didn’t make the MeTV Holiday Programming cut—if the poor quality print of the episode on the Shout! Factory Dobie set is any indication, it’s no surprise they nixed it—still, I thought we’d get it out of the way.)  We find the family patriarch, Herbert T. Gillis, sitting forlornly on Christmas Eve in a cell in what I like to call The Gray Bar Hotel…and even though the police chief (Jack Albertson) and presiding judge (Milton Frome) have told him he’s free to go, Mr. Gillis is determined to stay put until Christmas is over.

Herbert's fellow lockup denizen is played by Alan Carney, best remembered as one-half (the other being Wally Brown) of RKO's attempt to create an Abbott-and-Costello-type comedy team in the 1940s.

JUDGE: Gillis…be reasonable…look at it this way…you’re not really mad at me
JUDGE (clapping him on the back): Or the chief here…
JUDGE: You’re really mad at Christmas!
JUDGE: What was that?
HERBERT: I am not mad at Christmas…I am mad at people!  People at Christmas!

So who are these “people” with whom Mr. Gillis is frustrated?  Well, his wife Winifred is dithering over who should receive a Christmas card from the Gillis’ grocery store.  Son Dobie, in a rare burst of enthusiasm, offers to help out in the store…though soon revealing his motive for doing so is to cadge five bucks from his father so that he can get his girl a Christmas gift: baton-twirling lessons.  The Gillis’ elder son Davey (Darryl Hickman), home from college, also needs a little spending money for the holidays—fifty dollars in order to tip “the help” at an exclusive resort at which he’s vacationing with a college chum.  Mr. Gillis is even agitated at Dobie’s friend Maynard—though it doesn’t take much effort for Mr. Krebs to get on Herbert’s bad side—when he leaves an inflatable raft he bought at the Army-Navy Surplus (a gift for the senior Krebs) and it’s activated inside Gillis’ store.

Dwayne Hickman's brother Darryl in the second of his three outings as Dobie's older brother Davey.  Davey would later succumb to the same fate that befell such boob tube siblings as Chuck Cunningham, Eugene Barkley and Mike Douglas (not the talk show host...the older brother on My Three Sons).

But the individuals who really get on Herbert T.’s wick are his loyal grocery patrons—and having worked in customer service in the past, I sympathize with the man.  Mrs. Muller orders the same salami at Gillis’ Grocery every week of the year, but on Christmas she insists on having one gift-wrapped as a present for her sister-in-law in Detroit (the old dame really just wants to score some free wrapping paper).  Mrs. Kenney has ordered a gi-normous candy cane for her husband to commemorate the first Christmas the couple spent together long ago…only she paid $1.50 for it then, and can’t understand why the price is now $3.00 (to add insult to injury, Herbert even had to have it made special).  But it’s Mrs. Lapping (Verna Felton) who really takes the cake: she won’t need the turkey she bought for Christmas because she’ll be spending the holiday out-of-town with family…so she insists Gillis take back the bird he previously sold her.  She also contends that he’s short-changing her by refunding her the forty-nine-cents-a-pound she paid for the turkey in June (when they were on sale)—why, the sign outside says sixty-nine cents!  Mad as hell, and not willing to take it anymore, Mr. Gillis heaves the turkey through the store’s plate-glass window as a startled Mrs. Lapping begins to shout out loud for the police.

Herbert’s mind is made up: he’s going to channel his inner hermit during Christmas, because he’s fed up with humanity.  But he hadn’t counted on his family—Winnie, Dobie and Davey—showing up to be with him in jail on Christmas Eve; even though the boys had other plans, they insisted on cancelling them to help Winnie with the store.  Herbert realizes that Christmas is all about family, and quietly tells his clan they’re going home.  Later, while trimming the tree inside the grocery, the Gillises are serenaded outside by a group of carolers: the police chief, the judge, Mrs. Kenney and Mrs. Lapping.

In Season Two, Dobie Gillis reworked Charles Dickens’ classic short story A Christmas Carol into “Jangle Bells” (originally telecast December 20, 1960); in fact, the episode begins with Dobie, Zelda and Chatsworth re-enacting the story (Chatsworth is Scrooge, appropriately enough) in front of the class taught by the kids’ favorite schoolteacher, Leander Pomfritt (William Schallert) (“That, my young gluttons-for-punishment, was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol…forgive us, Charlie…”):

POMFRITT: Class, as you have seen…Dickens ingeniously employs ghostly spirits to show Ebenezer Scrooge just how lonely his future Christmases will be unless he changes his ways…now tell me—how would you describe the character of Scrooge at the beginning of the story?
ZELDA: A pitiful creature!
CHATSWORTH: A wretched clod
DOBIE: A miserable wreck…
MAYNARD (entering the classroom): You rang?!!

Honest to my grandma...it never gets old.
By the time Maynard takes off several layers of clothing, class is through for the day (Pomfritt: “Somewhere between the second muffler and the mackinaw”).  Once again, Maynard plays the fool—but Mr. P is going to give him some advice on how to turn it all around:

POMFRITT: Now look, Maynard my boy…has it ever occurred to you that perhaps you’re trying too hard to please everybody by being a clown…a Pagliacci?
MAYNARD: Polly-who?
POMFRITT: Pagliacci…he was a character in an…never mind…what I’m trying to say, Maynard, is that you don’t have to attract attention to yourself by being odd and different…why not just try to be one of the gang?
MAYNARD: How can I do that, Mr. Pomfritt?  I mean…they go out on dates…and they go to dances…and they throw parties and that…I couldn’t do none of them things…
POMFRITT: Who said you can’t?
MAYNARD: Me!  I just said it—didn’t you hear me?
POMFRITT: Maynard…I mean…what’s to prevent you from, say, uh…giving a party…inviting your friends over…giving them some refreshments?  Show them that you, Maynard G. Krebs, are just as good as the next fellow!
MAYNARD: Me?  Maynard G. Krebs throw a party?  Yeah…I could do it!  A swingin’ Christmas party, with popcorn…and a tree…and like (Sings) “Deck the Halls”…and bobbin’ for apples and settin’ off firecrackers…and…and…
POMFRITT: Firecrackers?  At Christmas?
MAYNARD: Yeah…that’s Halloween

So the groundwork on Maynard’s Yuletide bash is underway…but there’s one small problem.  His best friend, Dobie, has been invited to a shindig at Chatsworth’s (Chatsworth: “You know, we aristocratic Osbornes traditionally rub elbows with the peasantry once a year at this outing—something to do with democracy, or some such”) and while his loyalty is with Maynard, Zelda insists the two of them attend the Osborne soiree so that Dobie can make those all-important contacts.

ZELDA: Are you a scholar?  No…are you a businessman?  No…are you talented?  No…are you ever going to be a whopping success?
DOBIE (dejectedly): No…
ZELDA: Yes!  Because you have one hidden quality—people like you!
DOBIE: They do?
ZELDA: I do…and I’m highly perceptive!  Together we will turn Dobie Gillis—the formless blob of mediocrity—into Dobie Gillis…the whopping success!

This means Dobie is going to have to bail on Maynard’s rager, which is being held in his garage.  (Maynard: “I talked to my father…it’s the only part of the house he’ll let me have.”)  Dobie tries to break it gently to his pal, but Maynard is so jazzed about his party that he’s not really listening to anything his buddy is saying.  Dobie’s dilemma: friendship or establishing solid contacts for his future?  He asks his father what he should do, but Father Gillis is of no help, merely spouting forth empty platitudes and clichés.


Taking a nap before the Osborne affair, Dobie is visited by a ghost who looks strangely like Maynard.  As the Spirit of Christmas Past, the Maynard-like apparition shows his friend a distant memory of when they spent Christmas together when they were only four-years-old.  As the Spirit of Christmas Future, the ghost offers up a hilarious peek at Dobie’s future: he’s married to Zelda and the two of them are filthy, stinking rich.  The couple are seated at each end of a comically long dining table, and at one point in their conversation Zelda does her patented nose-wrinkle at Dobie, hoping he’ll reciprocate—but since he’s too far away to see it, she has to send their butler, Tremblay (David Bond), to the other end to nose-wrinkle.  (Actor Bond played “Tremblay” in several episodes of Dobie Gillis…though he was usually in the service of the Osbornes.)  Outside, a pathetic wretch (Maynard) scratches at the window and asks to come in…but the warped Dobie (who cares about nothing but money) has the butler send Maynard away.

Against his better judgement, Dobie goes with Zelda to the Christmas party…while lonely Maynard is forced to entertain himself in his garage…with only an alley cat for company.  Dobie keeps seeing Maynard’s miserable mug on the various party guests (he even see Maynard-as-Zelda, wearing a party dress) and finally decides he won’t sell his soul for a mess of pottage; Zelda also realizes she was wrong to advise Dobie not to go to Maynard’s wingding, and leaves with him.  The two of them—along with Mr. and Mrs. Gillis—turn up at Maynard’s…and then the throng from Chatsworth’s shows up as well.  “You observe how the Christmas spirit overwhelms the average citizen,” Chatsworth explains to Dobie.  “So you can imagine the shattering effect when it strikes an Osborne!”

“Jangle Bells” is probably my favorite of the Yuletide Dobie Gillises, only because I have a tendency to gravitate towards those episodes that feature the entire Dobie cast (I love the characters, and enjoy watching them interact).  There’s only a tiny hiccup: to promote his Capitol Records LP Dobie, Hickman warbles I Pass Your House…and let’s not beat about the bush: the man simply could not sing.  (Granted, this didn’t stop Shelley “Johnny Angel” Fabares…or Paul “My Dad” Petersen, now that I think about it.)  MeTV will air “Bells” on Sunday, November 29th at 5am EST…with an encore performance on Sunday, December 20th at 5:30am EST.

“Have Reindeer, Will Travel”—a punny title inspired by the TV western Have Gun – Will Travel—was Dobie Gillis’ third season Christmas show, originally telecast on December 19, 1961.  It features a simple premise: Maynard, in his capacity as treasurer, is transporting $55.78 raised by his fellow classmates for a school dance…which he proceeds to hand off to a little Mexican boy (Michael Davis) who’s barely eking out an existence shining shoes in the streets of Central City.  Now—I know what you’re thinking: for this episode to work, we have to believe that the students in Dobie and Zelda’s class at S. Peter Pryor Junior College have experienced temporary insanity in electing Maynard the Manchild treasurer.  I spotted this logical flaw right off the bat, but in their defense it is addressed in the episode:

WALTER: How much money do we have in the fund to spend on the dance?
DOBIE: Er…we’ll know the exact money as soon as the treasurer for the Christmas fund gets here…
WALTER: Who’s the treasurer?
DOBIE: Uh…Maynard G. Krebs…and now then…on…
WALTER: I move we get a new treasurer!
ZELDA: Dobie—you appointed Maynard to be treasurer?
DOBIE: Yes—by virtue of the power vested in me as chairman…
WALTER: Well, I move we get a new chairman!
(The group murmurs in agreement)
DOBIE: Now just a minute…
ZELDA: Yeah, just a darn minute…you kids ought to be ashamed of yourselves!  Now, look—we all voted to make Dobie chairman…now let’s stand behind him and back him up instead of picking on him!
DOBIE: That’s right—I’m doing my darndest to do a good job!
ZELDA: And you’re succeeding, Poopsie—you’re doing a fine job…
DOBIE: Thank you, Zelda…
ZELDA: So how come you pulled a lame brained stunt like appointing Maynard treasurer?
DOBIE: Because Maynard’s changed, that’s why!  Now that he’s a college man, he’s mature…grown-up…and resourceful…and self-reliant…and…am I really talking about…
ZELDA (finishing his sentence): Talking about our Maynard…no…

Maynard returns to a hearty welcome from his fellow matriculators…and that’s when they learn he doesn’t have the dough.  Now you and I—because we were not raised in a sitcom—would immediately ring up the gendarmes to have Mr. Krebs detained for theft…but the class gives Maynard a break on that score (Walter: “Of course he didn’t steal the money—he’s too stupid to be a crook”).  What goes unexplained is why Maynard won’t reveal to his best friend—or anyone else, for the matter—what’s happened to the missing cabbage; surely he shouldn’t be embarrassed that he was struck with a sudden case of altruism?  Dobie’s bright idea is for Maynard to secure a part-time job in order to earn the money needed to replace what’s missing…and the first person he thinks of who might employ young Krebs is a man not known for his unselfishness:

HERBERT: Look…he couldn’t carry fifty-five dollars and seventy-eight cents for the class dance across the street without losing it—and you want me to trust my hard-earned cash to him?  You gotta be kidding me…
MAYNARD: Yeah, Dob…you gotta be kidding…
DOBIE: Maynard…
WINNIE: Herbert, I’m ashamed of the way you’ve been talking about Maynard…
HERBERT: So am I—but with a lady present, it was the best I could do…
WINNIE: Dobie…as I understand it, Maynard has done something to let you down…and now he wants to make up for it…
DOBIE: That’s right, Mom…
WINNIE: Well then, Herbert—how can we possibly refuse to help him?
HERBERT: Easy!  (She gives him The Look) Winnie…I hope you understand what you’re letting us in for…it means that Maynard will be here in the store…with us…hour after hour…day after day…week after week…
WINNIE: I understand that perfectly and Dobie—isn’t there some other way that we could possibly help Maynard?

Maynard’s career as an associate with Gillis Mart is a brief one; he does a funny bit of physical comedy where he falls off a ladder and on top of Herbert, but what really tanks his career is that the same Latino shoeshine boy shows up to buy groceries with twelve dollars…and when the bill comes to $11.45, Maynard feels guilty that the little urchin will have nothing with which to purchase Christmas presents.  So he makes the groceries a present, but is oblivious to the fact that his supervisor is watching:

HERBERT: Maynard?!!
MAYNARD: Present…uh-oh…
HERBERT: What’s my name?
MAYNARD: Your name is Herbert T. Gillis, and you’re a veteran of WW2…
HERBERT: Right! Not J.P. Morgan…not John D. Rockefeller…not the Aga Khan…just plain, everyday Herbert T. Gillis…your former employer…

Bloodied but not bowed, Maynard finds another job—more suitable for a man Dobie describes as “a warm-hearted, lovable, human being.”

Like...ho ho ho!

Yes, Mr. Krebs gets a job as a department store Santa and demonstrates that he’s perfect for the job, particularly when he presents a little girl (Debbie Megowan) and her mother (Edith Loder) with some gifts (teddy bear, dollhouse) they don’t have to pay for.  (I think it goes without saying a person like that would be the most popular Santa ever—whether or not this comes out of Maynard’s paycheck is never addressed.)  On Maynard’s last day, Dobie and Zelda arrive to make sure the money doesn’t disappear a second time…and that’s when “Pepe” shows up.  Maynard hands him his paycheck even though the kid is clearly telling him “I don’t want your money” in Spanish (hey, nice to know I retained something from all that Spanish I took in college).  Maynard takes off in the store to elude his friends, and that’s when Dobie and Zelda encounter Pepe:

Maynard in Toyland.
DOBIE: Who are you?
ZELDA: What are you doing here?
PEPE: Por favor, señorita…no comprendo…
DOBIE: Wait…wait…did you see a thin fellow with a beard run past here?
(Pepe looks at him puzzledly)
ZELDA: Dobie, I think he only speaks Spanish…
DOBIE: Yeah…uh…el señor…skinny…avec le beard…?
ZELDA: I said Spanish—not gibberish

Fortunately for the purposes of quickly wrapping up the plot, Zelda speaks Spanish (“Pure Castilian—none of those regional dialects”) and she’s able to communicate with Pepe…bringing The Case of the Captured Coinage to an end.  Dobie, Zelda and Maynard wind up at the home of Pepe’s family, where his mother (Argentina Brunetti) explains that while the family may be down on their uppers they don’t need the class dance money.  Dobie insists that she take it: “I’m a very stubborn caballero—I don’t hear a word you say.”  The dance does go on as planned—it’s held in the same classroom where the kids were holding their meeting earlier, and the soiree is catered by Herbert T. Gillis, “your friendly neighborhood grocer.”  The Latino family also arrive, bringing with them musical instruments to play so that all those WASP kids can get down with their bad selves.  “Have Reindeer, Will Travel” airs tonight (November 17) on MeTV at 9pm EST.

By the time of the fourth and final Dobie Gillis Christmas caper—“Will the Real Santa Claus Please Come Down the Chimney?” (12/19/62)—the show had added a new character in Duncan “Dunky” Gillis, Dobie’s younger cousin.  (Dunky was played by Bobby Diamond, who did a pretty good job as the kid hero of the series Fury…but sadly, possessed none of Dwayne Hickman’s first-rate comedic timing.)  “Real Santa Claus” finds Dunky and his “Uncle Herbie” filled with the Christmas spirit as they sing “Deck the Halls” while trimming the tree.  But Winifred Gillis—the kindly, lovable mother who served as the series’ supportive center—has a simple message for the season: “Christmas? Bah humbug!”

How did the gentle, compassionate Mrs. G reach this sorry state?  Well, it all begins with Maynard as the show’s resident manchild stops by the grocery store:

WINNIE: …why don’t you tell us why you’re here before Mr. Gillis forgets he’s filled with holiday cheer…
MAYNARD: I brung you a letter from my mother…
WINNIE: Oh?  From your mother? (She takes a slip of paper from him)
MAYNARD: Or my father…I forget which…they both look alike
HERBERT: Winnie…you do me an injustice…with all this Christmas spirit in the world…forget… (Scoffs) I’m filled with holiday cheer!
WINNIE (after reading the note): Maynard is moving in with us!
HERBERT: I just got unfilled… (Threatening) Maynard…
WINNIE: His folks would like to know if we can take care of him while they’re visiting relatives in Cleveland…
MAYNARD: See how they love me?
HERBERT: They love you?
MAYNARD: Sure!  This is the first time they told me the name of a real place—always before they made ‘em up so I couldn’t find them…ain’t that heartwarmin’?
HERBERT: Oh, that’s just what it is, heartwarming—but you ain’t stayin’ here, boy…
MAYNARD: Name me one good reason…
HERBERT: Because I couldn’t stand to see you around the house…
MAYNARD: Name me two good reasons…
WINNIE: Herbert, dear…be generous…what would be so terrible about having Maynard around with us for a few days?  Joining in the family fun…eating with us…talking to us all day…and all night…Maynard, I just had a wonderful idea—why don’t you go to Cleveland with your folks?

Despite Mrs. Gillis’ reservations, Maynard ends up being a guest at the Gillises—and that’s when the episode’s plot is set into motion: Maynard—despite being free, white, and 21—still stubbornly clings to the belief that Santa Claus is real:

WINNIE: Maynard dear…we all believe in Santa Claus just as you do…we believe in him as a symbol, as a warm, wonderful example of goodness and kindness and goodwill to everyone…
MAYNARD: Santa believes in them things, too!
(Herbert rolls his eyes)
DUNKY: Let me take a stab at straightening the boy out…Maynard—you’ve seen the Santas in all the department stores, haven’t you?

I would hope so—he previously played one in “Have Reindeer, Will Travel”…

DUNKY: He’s just a man dressed in a Santa Claus suit—right?
MAYNARD: Right!  Didn’t you know that—a kid your age?  Dunky, the man in the suit is one of Santa’s helpers…I mean, Santa himself can’t be everywhere…so Santa’s helpers give kids laps to sit on…next question?

Maynard has an explanation for all the Santas on the street corners and in the movies, and for the Santa that showed up at school (Maynard knows that’s Dean Magruder, the major domo at S. Peter Pryor Junior College played on occasion by Raymond “Milburn Drysdale” Bailey).  But as for the real Saint Nick—well...

WINNIE: Then you have never seen the real Santa Claus—true?
MAYNARD: True!  But then I never seen the real Marshal Dillon, neither—and I know he’s real…of course…I’m not too sure about Chester…

Poor Dobie.  He's reduced to being the narrator of his own self-titled sitcom...and modeling terrible Christmas sweaters.
Despite his substantial lack of evidence for the existence of Kris Kringle, Maynard is unshakable in his faith—so much so that he arranges for a construction crew to come in and put in the pipes needed for a new automatic washer and dryer, because he knows Santa is going to bring that for Mrs. Gillis as a present.  (They also work upstairs on a surface suitable for Dobie’s new ping-pong table.)  Herbert is livid, and he wants to introduce Maynard to his pal Louis…short for Louisville Slugger.  But Dobie—who finally turns up in this episode, by the way—convinces his dad that a Plan B is in order.  Herbert will dress up as Santa, come down the chimney and plant Maynard in his lap.  After Maynard tells the old gent what he wants for Christmas, Mr. G will rip off the beard to reveal his true self…and Maynard will be so shocked he’ll stop with the Santa Claus nonsense.

For Herbert to play Santa, there must first be rehearsals down the Gillis chimney…

…well, that could have happened to anybody.  Herbert winds up stuck, and finds himself coughing up more dinero to make the chimney bigger and wider so his ruse to fool Maynard will be a success.  On Christmas Eve, Mr. G successfully navigates the new chimney and Maynard, clad in footy pajamas, hops up on his lap to tell him what he wants for Christmas:

MAYNARD: First…I want a ping-pong table for Dobie…he’s that fellow over there…the one who’s flabby and has a weak chin…I know he don’t look like much, but he’s my good and best buddy…and whatever will make him happy will make me happy, too…and then I want a brand-new sports jacket for Dunky…he’s the little one over there with the weak chin…I know he don’t look like much, too—but somebody he’s going to grow up and be as sweet and lovable and flabby as Dobie…
HERBERT: But what do you want for you?
MAYNARD: An automatic washer and an automatic dryer…
HERBERT: For you?
MAYNARD: No…for Mrs. G…sloshing around in those suds and dirty water all day, the poor old thing…
HERBERT: All right—I’ve got it all now…except…what do you want?
MAYNARD: A fishing rod…
HERBERT: A-ha!  A fishing rod!
MAYNARD: For Mr. G…you know him, don’t you?  He’s that loudmouthed fellow who’s all the time screamin’ and hollarin’…
HERBERT (interrupting): I know him, I know him…
MAYNARD: …but underneath that mean inside there’s a good outside…and maybe if he had a fishing rod he’d take a couple days off from work…and he wouldn’t be so mean no more…
HERBERT (quietly): You know…maybe you got a point there, Maynard…but what do you want?

Maynard wants for nothing, explaining:  “I’m one of them lucky fellows—I got everything I want!  I got the biggest ball of tinfoil in town…I got a petrified frog…and I got a stuffed owl, all paid for and clear!  I also got the best friends in the whole wide world…or anyplace else…so you can skip me this year—but you’re true blue for asking.”

Mr. Gillis is so taken aback that he just can’t shatter Maynard’s illusions—but his family presses him to do it, reminding him it’s for Maynard’s own good.  It doesn’t matter anyway—Maynard knew it was Mr. G the entire time…and as he snuggles into bed, he runs over to the window to see a silhouette of the jolly old guy hisself and his reindeer:

So why was Mrs. Gillis acting like a female Scrooge at the beginning of the episode?  Well, it turns out her husband spent so much money on the renovations to the home and chimney and the presents that he decided to cut his losses by allowing the neighborhood women to use Winnie’s new washer and dryer…for a nominal fee, of course.

“Will the Real Santa Claus Please Come Down the Chimney?” airs on MeTV Sunday, November 29th at 5:30am…with an encore performance on Sunday, December 20th at 5am.  It’s all part of the network’s A Very Merry TV, which will feature such TDOY favorites as The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Our Miss Brooks, Petticoat Junction and many, many more!

Friday, November 6, 2015

“I’m a nice guy/In spite of what you’ve heard…”

Well, it was a long time getting here—the screener was sent to my and Los Parentes Yesteryear’s old Athens address—but I found myself the recipient of a copy of the Time Life box set Mr. Warmth! Don Rickles: The Ultimate TV Collection, courtesy of Michael Krause at Foundry Communications.  This compendium—released on October 20th—contains the entire series run of CPO Sharkey (Seasons 1 and 2), and two collections of The Don Rickles TV Specials (Volumes 1 and 2).  Since I already had copies of three of these titles, I packed them up and sent them to members of the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful who are wild about Rickles.  But I hung onto The Don Rickles TV Specials, Volume 2 in order to give it a proper review.

Seeing this at the beginning brought back a flood of memories...

Like Volume 1, Volume 2 contains two specials originally telecast over CBS-TV back in the 1970s.  The odd thing is—the first, Mr. Warmth (01/18/75), doesn’t even rate a mention at the IMDb; I’m starting to have serious doubts about that reference site’s reliability, he said in a voice laced with sarcasm.  (It shouldn’t be mistaken for the 2007 HBO presentation Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, by the way.)  A few people have suggested that Warmth might have possibly been a pilot for a variety hour featuring the Merchant of Venom…and I have to say, I would have been on board with that if they would have allowed Rickles to just insult the audience for fifty minutes and then called it a wrap.

Your homework assignment: which of these celebrities were invited to the show because they also had series on CBS at the time of the telecast?
That’s the strongest part of Warmth: letting Rickles be Rickles.  The sketches really aren’t much to write home about; there’s a parody of lame sitcoms that features this guy:

That’s Ken Sansom as a psychiatrist—I mention Sansom only because there may be one or two of you who’ll remember Ken’s brief appearances as “Clarence Demarest” in a pair of Mayberry R.F.D. episodes (“Millie, the Best-Dressed Woman,” “Goober the Elder”)—who gives Don much-needed advice when our hero learns at his father’s funeral that his brother (Jim Connell) puts on women’s clothing and hangs around in bars, as the song goes.  Popular 50s vocalist and later Gong Show exhibitionist Jaye P. Morgan plays Don’s wife; she’s peculiarly introduced in the opening credits as simply “Morgan,” and I don’t know if she was going for some sort of “Garbo” thing or announcer George Fenneman’s mike got cut off at the “Jaye P.”

The best of the sketches—you can probably understand the appeal, me being an old-time radio fan and all—features Jack Klugman, Bob Newhart and Loretta Swit reading straight lines from a radio script and when it comes to Don’s part, he ad-libs something wacky and/or insulting…the gimmick is that Jack, Bob and Loretta must continue reading their straight script lines.  The oddest of the show’s sketches is set in an airport lounge, where Don plays a customer relations representative dealing with some really odd passengers…who include:

Charlie Callas…and I never thought I write this, but I didn’t laugh once at him…

Andrew “Grover” Leal fave Steve Landesberg—who laughed more than I did, though it was mostly at himself (very Carol Burnett Show of you, sir)…

…and Bill Saluga, the man who inspired the age-old unanswerable query: “Why did anyone ever think this guy was funny?”

That reminds me...I wonder if Stacia is caught up with her work?

Eventually someone had to call in the cops.
Don welcomes some big names to his special: he does a segment with John Wayne, who is supposed to be getting pointers in stand-up comedy from the host but utilizes the time to promote Brannigan (1975) instead.  And getting back to the old-time radio thing: there are some wonderful surviving broadcasts that demonstrate how hilarious Frank Sinatra could be at times.  By this point in the 1970s, however, The Chairman of the Bored was phoning it in.

Because the second special, Rickles (11/19/75), features a good portion of Don on location at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, I’d say it’s the stronger of the two telecasts on the set.  Don does a musical number at the beginning—his signature tune I’m a Nice Guy—and is joined on stage by other “nice guys”: Jack Palance, Bobby Riggs, Otto Preminger, Larry Linville & Loretta Swit (as their M*A*S*H characters, Majors Burns and Houlihan) and Bruce the Shark from Jaws.  (You have to see this to believe it, folks.)  A later portion of the show has Don welcoming Elliott Gould, James Caan and Michael Caine (all promoting Harry and Walter Go to New York) and an identified audience member for a funny bit of improv.  (Don also gives the legendary Joe Louis a shout-out; the Brown Bomber is sitting in the audience, enjoying the show.)

Don has a vision in which he's outside the Pearly Gates pleading his case to The Gatekeeper (Arthur Godfrey). Jack Klugman and Don Adams try to put in a good word for their pal.

There are also some genuine “What the…front yard?” moments in Rickles: for reasons unexplained, Don and guest Jack Klugman perform the Matthew Harrison Brady-Henry Drummond roles from Inherit the Wind.  It shows that Don wasn’t too shabby when it came to demonstrating his acting chops…but it also brings the proceedings to a screeching halt.  Rickles is pure Las Vegas cheesiness; Michele Lee and Don do a showy production number (along with the Argentinian Gauchos and the Royal Scots Guards) that Rickles describes in an intro to the special thusly: “She was a great lady…we marched downtown, singing, dancing…wow…and having the best time of our life…trying to get a drink someplace.  As soon as we got a drink, the parade ended.”

In a later vision, Don winds up in H-E-double-hockey-sticks...where he chats with His Excellency (Jose Ferrer).

Though the Mr. Warmth/Rickles sketches aren’t quite as well-written as those in the previous shows contained in The Don Rickles TV Specials, Volume 1, Volume 2 is choc-a-bloc with those wonderful moments that show biz aficionados eat with a spoon: the bonus features include elongated versions of some of the segments from Mr. Warmth, and a sincere tribute from Don to Jimmy Cagney (his Cagney’s not bad—I’ve seen worse), which allows him to belt out Yankee Doodle Dandy.  If you’re lying awake at night wondering: “I wonder if there’s a TV special that lets Don Rickles sing with Helen ‘I Am Woman’ Reddy?” then you will definitely want to put The Don Rickles TV Specials, Volume 2 in your shopping cart.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Number Twelve Looks Just Like You

It’s that time again, cartooners—when we roll a big honkin’ blogiversary cake out on the trolley so that every member-in-good-standing of the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful can have a slice while I wax nostalgic (which seems fitting, since this is a blog devoted to nostalgia) about what a long, strange trip it’s been in the many years since some sharpie at Salon Blogs sweet-talked me into signing a four-year lease back on November 4, 2003.  (“You have to move?  Oh, you can store that stuff over there—this place will never be torn down!”)

You know the origins story by heart, of course.  One of my dearest Internet chums, The Baby, mused out loud in a chat room one night that I should get me one of them newfangled blogs and I told her that I would as soon as I found out what the heck they were.  Though Baby planted the seed, it was migrant workers S.Z. and Scott C. at World O’Crap who really cultivated the soil of the entire blog project (this was a time when they were working for $1.10 an hour, waiting for sales of their hilarious book Better Living Through Bad Movies to make them filthy, stinking rich beyond their wildest dreams)—honest to my grandma, when I first began reading WO’C and said to myself: “How hard could this be?”  As it turned out, quite a lot—the first blog I authored crashed, burned, and vaporized itself in scattered smithereenies all over the Internet…prompting a second effort, which worked like a charm.  (All three individuals present at the birth of TDOY belong to my true Facebook friendage, by the way—they are among my oldest online compadres, and I cherish each and every one of them…as well as the many followers, fans and other devotees who have encouraged my behavior over these many years.)

Buy the book...so that they might continue to do the Lord's work.
This year’s blogiversary celebration is sort of clouded with a touch of solemnity…because while I had concocted all sorts of mahd schemes to beef up the content this year, I have fallen far, far short of my expressed goals.  (This will make the thirty-sixth post I’ve written in 2015.  I am a human dynamo.)  For example, I was particularly gung-ho about getting more of the old Salon Blogs material up at the Best (and Worst) of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear website…a project that quickly fell by the wayside once I was distracted by a shiny object.  I am thoroughly shamed, and at the risk of coming up with lame excuses as to why this is the case, I need to share with you some information that’s usually filed under “Personal stuff.”

You’ll remember back in July that the ‘rents and I were forced out of our Athens digs a month earlier by an evil landlord heckbent on screwing us over because he could, and that we wound up in nearby Pixley Winterville, a.k.a. “City of Marigolds.”  (I need to mention here that while our mailing address is Winterville, we’re actually situated out of that burg to an unincorporated area in nearby Oglethorpe County—which is why I never stop with the Green Acres references.)  The move took quite a bit out of us, due to the fact that Mom and Dad are no spring chickens and my rock-solid abs have the consistency of Cool Whip.  With the help of sisters Kat and Debbie, we were able to successfully complete the relocation…but the repositioning was not without its perils.

Mom started experiencing a bit of back trouble once the move was completed.  Then she started experiencing a lot of back trouble.  It would come and go, particularly since there would be days when I would order her to sit down and rest (what is it about old people that makes them so goddamn stubborn, anyway?)—she’d be okay for a day or two, and then she’d overdo and be right back where she was.  One Saturday morning, she went out to do a bunch of errands…and that was what buried the camel in a big straw stack.  She was experiencing shooting pains in both her legs, and suffering from downright agony in her back.

As stubborn as she was about not overdoing…she was downright bull-headed about seeking medical attention.  This kept up for several days, until I finally laid down the law: either she would allow Dad and I to take her to the emergency room, or I would call 911 for an ambulance and save Dad some driving.  She vehemently argued with me about this, and we agreed to a compromise—she would call her doctor in the morning for an appointment.  (I wasn’t very happy about the compromise, to be honest—the healthcare system in this country is a farce, and I knew it would be several days before she would be able to see him.)

The day of the appointment, the doc runs some tests—including an MRI.  The results reveal that Mom has been suffering from scoliosis; Doc says from the looks of things she’s had it most of her life.  (Mom is still bamfoozled that it took so long to diagnose this, seeing as how she unloaded trucks when she worked at Springmaid-Wamsutta and it never bothered her then.)  He then referred her to a specialist, where further examination reveals that there’s been slippage in her third and fourth vertebrae that’s brought about painful arthritis.  The nerves in the vertebrae area look like someone went at a circuit board with a pair of pinking shears; he had hoped physical therapy might alleviate the problem but it now looks as if surgery is the only way out.

So Mom shifts back into Stubborn Mode (though it’s really more like Denial).  She’s scared sh*tless about the surgery, which is understandable, but the only other alternative is how she’s getting around now: with a walker and a grimace of pain every time she overexerts herself (and as you’ve already guessed, it’s always too much).  We had a long talk about the surgery, and she gave me a glimpse into why she doesn’t want to hop up on the table; my mother has this complex where she’s convinced she’s the only one who can take care of my father.  “You don’t even know what pills he has to take each day,” she wailed.

“Look…I didn’t go to the best schools…but the one I did attend learned me pretty good about reading.  I think I could dope out what meds he needs,” was my reply.  As irony would have it, she’s at the doctor’s right now while you’re reading this and I hope they’re able to reach a quick decision as to when she’ll have this done.  Nothing hurts me more than seeing my mother hurt, and even though one of the doctors suggested she try to do a few things around the house to prevent from getting “stove up,” I don’t like seeing her in pain.  What really angers me is that she got so upset back in March of 2010 when I was at death’s door (well, not really—I was just helping the Girl Scouts move some cookies and I wandered into the wrong neighborhood) because I originally dismissed it as just a case of the flu.  (In case you’ve joined us in progress, it turned out to be a life-threatening calcium build-up…plus I had to have surgery to remove some too-mahs.)

With Mom out for most of this season, it fell upon me to answer the ad as chief cook and bottle washer; I’ve been preparing about 85% of the meals as well as running the dishwasher and tending to the laundry.  (We have cleaning people who come in every other week, thanks to Kat and Debbie…so that’s one chore off my plate.)  I also have had to do most of the errand-running, and that includes doing the weekly grocery shopping.  My friends—I do not exaggerate when I confess that I would rather chew off an arm and/or a leg than step foot inside a grocery store.  I hate it with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns.  But hey—sometimes all good men have to come to the aid of the party, if I learned nothing else from typing class.

Mom spends most of her time in her recliner—she’s unable to lie down in her bed, so she watches a good deal of late-night TV while snoozing off-and-on throughout the day.  As her only son, I feel it’s imperative I spend some time with her so I arrange for us to have some Mom-and-Ivan outings in the evenings; this past October I entertained her with many of the Universal horror movies I’ve collected over the years (if you recall from yesterday’s Dementia review).

So this is why the blog postings have been spotty of late—very spotty, to be frank.  In addition to TDOY and the reviews I write for ClassicFlix, I’m also in charge of the Radio Spirits blog…so you can imagine all of this eats up a lot of my free time.  I’m not complaining; I just felt you good people were entitled to know why the blog resembles a barren wasteland, and why the Doris Day(s) and Serial Saturdays features kind of came to a grinding halt—I just don’t have the available spare time to work on those as I would like.  I even missed out on writing a post about my natal anniversary in September—and I had the perfect title, “Fifty-two Pickup.”  (Crickets)

I wish I could say we’ve turned a corner here at the new Rancho Yesteryear…but for now, we’re continuing to take one day at a time.  I’m going to make a concerted effort to do some landscaping here in the meantime, with a goal of getting something up once a week…twice, if I’m feeling crazy.  In closing, I want to thank everyone for their patience and continued support of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  I’m having too much fun here to quit anytime soon.