O, Pioneers!

February 25, 2011

Amanda Randolph

PBS has been running  a series of documentaries under the title “Pioneers of Television.” We have watched three of them — on westerns, detective shows, and sitcoms — and found them informative and entertaining. Being the quarrelsome type, however, I question the use of the term “pioneers” — at least with respect to sitcoms, which were the topic of Monday night’s broadcast.

The program included segments on Jackie Gleason – specifically on the one full season of “The Honeymooners,” Lucille Ball, Andy Griffith, Danny Thomas, and Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. I can’t argue with the stature of those performers nor with the contributions all of them made to the development of TV comedy. But while there were some general references to the fact that situation comedies originated on radio, I don’t understand how a documentary about sitcoms can ignore Gertrude Berg.

Gertrude Berg

I had a similar complaint — and wrote about it here — when the US Postal Service released a series of stamps honoring “pioneers” of television and didn’t include Gertrude Berg. I won’t repeat that post here, but Berg started her show — most widely known as “The Goldbergs” — on radio in 1929 and moved it to television in 1949. She owned, produced, and wrote the show, and she played the main character. Although it was a comedy, the show had very serious overtones, and it was the first show of its kind to introduce general audiences to the family lives of American Jews. That’s not a pioneer?

While I was watching that program Monday night, I spotted an actress named Amanda Randolph in a still from the Danny Thomas show. She played Louise, the wisecracking maid to the “Williams” family. By that time, Amanda Randolph had been an entertainer for more than 30 years — as a piano player and then as an actress in radio and movies. She was the first black actor to star in a regularly scheduled television show — “The Laytons” — which ran for a couple of months on the old Dumont network in 1948. She later had a recurring role as Ramona Smith – the mother of Sapphire Stevens – on the television version of “Amos  ‘n’ Andy” — the first TV show with an all-black cast, and the last one for many years. That’s not a pioneer?

Lillian Randolph

Amanda Randolph was the older sister of Lillian Randolph, another groundbreaking black actor and singer. She started working in radio in the mid 1930s and became a mainstay in that medium and in television and films. She had a recurring role in the radio, television, and movie versions of the popular comedy “The Great Gildersleeve,” and she played Madame Queen — girlfriend of Andy Brown — in the radio and TV versions of “Amos ‘n’ Andy.”

Lillian Randolph may be best remembered now for the role of Annie in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Somebody at PBS doesn’t remember, but I do.

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DANNY THOMAS

Danny Thomas used to do a monologue about a man who got a flat tire and then discovered that he had no jack in his car. He had no choice but to walk to a gas station that was miles away, and the routine consisted of this guy muttering to himself as he trudges along the road. Already annoyed, he makes himself angrier by imagining how the garage owner will try to take advantage of him. He is so furious by the time he reaches the station that he verbally attacks the unwitting mechanic, telling him what he can do with his jack. Some people could tell that story in a few sentences; Thomas could make it last ten minutes. That was the genius of the saloon comic whose talent and know-how made him a television mogul.

Thomas was a popular guy in our house, not only because he was funny but because he had Lebanese parents. My mother’s parents were from Lebanon, and when Thomas became a national figure, he was the only one who shared that heritage. The Lebanese were once regarded in our country as exotic, so much so that my mother told me that her parents instructed her to say she was French if anyone should ask. Danny Thomas with his broad popularity and his frequent acknowledgement of his background provided a chance to wave the flag.

The story has been told often enough about how Thomas, when it appeared that he might never succeed as an entertainer, promised St. Jude that if his fortunes changed he would build a shrine to the saint. Even St. Jude might have forgiven someone for dismissing a vow made in desperation, but Thomas stuck to his word and, in the process, made himself one of the heroes of 20th century America.

When Thomas first launched a campaign to raise money for his project, the backbone of the drive then as now was the Arab-American community, including several of my mother’s Lebanese cousins. My parents attended fundraising events, including one at which Thomas and his wife, Rose Marie, appeared.

 

MARLO THOMAS

I figured that tenuous connection was better than nothing when I had an opportunity last year to share a meal with Marlo Thomas, one of Danny Thomas’s three children. I needn’t have bothered. She is a gracious and open woman who doesn’t require pandering. She and her siblings are also their father’s successors as heroes, making an extraordinary commitment to generating support for the hospital he founded. Although it has been operating since 1962, the mission of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital – to treat children with catastrophic pediatric diseases regardless of their families’ ability to pay – seems more like a dream than a reality The hospital has operating costs in the neighborhood of $1.5 million a day. Someone who joined us at dinner asked Marlo about covering that nut. “How do you do it?” he said. And she answered: “We do it.” I have often thought about that answer; it reveals a combination of determination and confidence that I have encountered in leaders of other charitable enterprises.

Marlo Thomas, on her own, has had a remarkable career. She is a talented dramatic and comic actress, and her TV series “That Girl” was a benchmark in prime time representation of independent women. Her project “Free to be You and Me” — a record album, a TV special, and a book — broke new ground in eliminating the image of the helpless or subservient female that infected traditional children’s literature and entertainment.

She has recently published her sixth book, “Growing Up Laughing.” This book alternately recounts her childhood and adolesence in the Thomas household — which was frequently extended to include the likes of Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, and Jan Murray — and her conversations with contemporary comics about the origins of their own funny bones. Jerry Seinfeld, Kathy  Griffith, Whoopi Goldberg, Don Rickles, Chris Rock, and Robin Williams are among them. The observations of these modern performers supplement the wisdom that Marlo Thomas gleaned from her exposure to the wits of her dad’s generation. The book is entertaining and full of insights about both the inspiration and the discipline of comedians.

JERRY SEINFELD

I particularly liked Jerry Seinfeld’s explanation of his  remark that comedy doesn’t belong on the arts pages, but on the sports pages:

One of the things that drew me to comedy was that it’s a simple world. It doesn’t require the interpretation of any critic to tell you whether something is good or not good. If the audience is laughing, the guy’s good. If they’re not laughing, he’s not good. Period. And that’s the analogy to sports: You can talk all you want about how two teams played in a game. But we all know who won at the end. There’s no debate. It doesn’t require any perception. … Standup comedy doesn’t require value judgments. If you get laughs, you work; if you don’t get laughs, you don’t work. It’s all about the score.

Sheet music to "So Long, Oolong"

When Patricia T. O’Conner, author of popular books on English usage, visited the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC this week, the segment was introduced by a vocal of the song “Three Little Words,” which made me think of Harry Ruby. Ruby and his longtime colleague, Bert Kalmar, wrote that song in 1930 for what would now be considered an offensive movie.

The film was “Check and Double Check” — the only movie made by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll in their blackface roles as Amos Jones and Andrew H. Brown — characters they made famous with their long-running radio series, “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” The song didn’t get small-time treatment in the film; it was performed by Bing Crosby and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

The song also lent its name to the title of the 1950 film biography of  Ruby and Kalman.

HARRY RUBY

Harry Ruby first came to my attention when  I was a kid, and he made a guest appearance on the Danny Thomas television show, “Make Room for Daddy.” Ruby sang another song he had written with Kalman, one that — some might say mercifully — is not as well known as “Three Little Words.” The 1920 tune was “So Long, Oolong. How Long Ya’ Gonna be Gone,” which had racist overtones, as did so many Tin Pan Alley songs written in that era.

The song is about a Japanese girl named Ming Toy, whose boyfriend left for what was supposed to be a short spell but turned into a long spell. Hence the chorus: So long, Oolong, how long ya’ gonna be gone?”

BARBRA STREISAND

Ruby and Kalman were prolific, and some of their work was much more sophisticated than the Oolong affair. For example, they wrote “My Honey’s Lovin’ Arms,” which got a signature performance many years later in “The Barbra Streisand Album.” The pair also wrote “Who’s Sorry Now?” “Nevertheless (I’m in Love with You),” “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” and the Betty Boop theme, “I Wanna be Loved by You,” among others.

As talented and productive as Ruby was as a songwriter, though, what I like best about him is that he always  wanted to be a baseball player. He tried, unsuccessfully to make it into the pros, and he never missed a chance in later life to get close to the game. His devotion to the sport is the source of one of the great baseball anecdotes.

LOU GEHRIG

Ruby seized an opportunity to appear in “Elmer the Great,” a sports movie starring the comedian Joe E. Brown, who was also a devotee of baseball. The movie was shot at the old Wrigley Field, a minor league park in Los Angeles. One of the scenes called for an player, to be portrayed by Ruby, to drop a ball hit to him in the outfield. Ruby walked off the set, insisting that he wouldn’t drop a ball on purpose for any amount of money. Later, when Brown and Ruby happened to be in the company of Lou Gehrig, Brown told that story, figuring that Ruby would be embarrassed. Gehrig, with a straight face, said it was the greatest baseball story he had ever heard


 

DANNY THOMAS

DANNY THOMAS

The Los Angeles Times is reporting today that of the 71 scripted pilots that are contending for spots on the broadcast schedules of five TV networks, 33 are half-hour comedies. The television industry evidently thinks we need a good laugh. How many good laughs we’ll actually get remains to be seen. The kind of writing that has characterized shows like “Taxi,” “Seinfeld,” “Frasier,” and “The Bob Newhart Show,” is hard to come by, and many television series are obvious at best and vacuous at worst. I wonder if folks more than 50 years from now will enjoy re-runs of “Surviving Suburbia” the way they do re-runs of “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners.” In fact, I wonder if folks next week will watch an original episode of “Suburbia.” Chuck Barney, writing in the San Jose Mercury News, said it for me: It’s not that this is a horrible show or even the worse sit-com on ABC. “It’s just that it has no real reason for being. It’s a series that looks and feels like hundreds of other sit-coms, with the same kind of tone, the same forced one-liners and the same ridiculously annoying laugh track.”

Why has television comedy declined so much? It might have something to do with the form. A couple of playwrights have told me that they wouldn’t write sit-coms no matter how much it paid, because they refuse to force a story into a shape predetermined by the schedule of commercials. I wonder if it also has to do with the backgrounds of the producers, writers, and actors, many of whom have grown up in television. I was talking with Marlo Thomas last week about her upcoming appearance at the George Street Playhouse, and that naturally evoked some conversation and even more memories of her father. Danny Thomas had a genius for humor, but he also had a chance to refine his technique in nightclubs, on the radio, and in movies before he ever went before a television camera. He understood comedy – understood that it had to have structure, consistency, and an underlying sympathy – all of which were factors in the success of his own show, “Make Room for Daddy,” and in “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Andy Griffith Show,” which he later produced.

marlo

MARLO THOMAS

Marlo Thomas – who has her own package of insights when it comes to entertaining people – opens at George Street next week in Arthur Laurents’ new play, “New Year’s Eve.” She told me her father used to say, “Do you know what I would have been if I hadn’t been a comedian? A pain in the ass.”  “And I think he really meant that in the deepest sense,” she said. “He would have had no outlet. He would have been a butcher driving everybody crazy trying to make jokes about the lamb chops.”  That compulsion to be a storyteller – as opposed to the compulsion to fill a half-hour time slot at the expense of some nearly bankrupt auto manufacturer – may have been more at work in those who created television programming during the medium’s first three decades than it is now.