Happy Ollie Days!!
I posted this in 2021 for the first time, and loved the video so much that I thought it deserves repeating on this anniversary day and being made a bonus posting this year. I've posted a lot of Kukla, Fran & Ollie videos (and will post some more this holiday season), but this is unique for them, and offers an absolutely fascinating (and very funny) look into the early days of television.
A big thanks to fellow Kukla, Fran & Ollie afficionado Nell Minow for passing along this wonderful and offbeat, very early episode from the show than ran 74 years ago today, December 5, 1949.
Kukla, Fran & Ollie went on the air nationally earlier that year – it premiered locally a few months before that -- and TV was in such an very early stage that every time a new station joined the network the show saluted them. But so many new stations had begun joining that the show hadn’t been able to salute them all. So, they decided to do a full pageant in their honor. It wasn’t just to salute the stations, though, but also fill them in about who all the Kuklapolitan characters are and how this television thing works, including the operation of cameras and the commercial possibilities (sponsored as it is by RCA Victor). The whole thing is funny, charming, odd and a fascinating look at the early days of TV. Especially as each of the characters sings a different song about television. (Also, though intended for viewers at the time, it’s also a great way for people today to learn who each of the Kuklapolitans are.)
For all the character introductions, I was sorry that they didn’t have my fave, Cecil Bill on. Though that’s sort of fitting, because he only appeared occasionally, which was much of his charm. Also, a little Cecil Bill goes a long way. That’s because Cecil Bill was sort of nuts and spoke in a “ta toi toi toi” language that only Fran Allison and the Kuklapolitans can understand. However, you do hear Cecil Bill at the 10:20 mark, and they reference him later (at 22:00), acknowledging the challenge some people might have with him.
The songs are a joy. Nell notes particularly loving Beulah Witch’s where she gives the phone number for stations to call if they have a problem with the signal. It all builds to a joyous finale led by Ollie that includes a very funny self-referential joke about puppet shows and Fran being as goofy as I’ve seen her on the show.
What also bears repeating from earlier posts about Kukla, Fran & Ollie is that the show is almost-fully ad-libbed. Burr Tillstrom, its creator (doing all the puppetry and voices), would go through a general run-down with Fran Allison of what was planned and the musical numbers (which of course had to be written…), but that was largely it. (How ad-libbed was it? And one point in a sequence with Beulah Witch, if you listen closely you’ll hear Tillstrom crack himself up before quickly catching himself. And Fran plays right along without skipping a beat – including moments later when Beulah screws up saying “Indianapolis” and Fran again just plays along without skipping a beat) And the show was 30 minutes long – and daily. And also, this wasn’t a daytime show just for the kiddies, but ran at night. (The time and schedule fluctuated over the many years they were on.)
I should note that Ms. Minow’s appreciation of Kukla, Frank & Ollie comes from a well-grounded foundation. The show was done in Chicago, and as I mentioned the other day, her father Newton Minow (later the FCC Chairman under JFK) was Burr Tillstrom’s attorney. Further, when she and her dad were visiting the show’s set one day, a newspaper reporter happened to be there doing a story on it. Seeing a little girl around, the reporter asked Nell what she wanted to be when she grew up. To which she answered, “A Kuklapolitan.” That made it into the article. And the happy news is that it’s my contention that Nell achieved her goal.
We have a longer version of the Fest today. Bear with me a bit and let me explain. I've posted this all before and I find it a fun story of sorts to repeat.
When the movie musical Scrooge was released in 1970, I remember reading an article about the film's composer-lyricist-screenwriter (and executive producer) Leslie Bricusse (who earlier had teamed with Anthony Newley to write the stage musicals Stop the World - I Want to Get Off and The Roar of the Greasepaint - the Smell of the Crowd, and the next year would write the score to the movie musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). In the piece, Bricusse said that they'd done research and discovered that among all the Christmas carols written, there had never been one actually titled, "A Christmas Carol." So, he wrote one, which begins the film over the wonderful opening credits by the great artist, Ronald Searle (who also did the credits for, among other films, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.)
I mention all this, though, for a specific reason. Bear with me.
Here's that song first, however, and those wonderful opening credits.
As I said, I mentioned all of that above for another reason entirely.
It's that as good a film as Scrooge is, Bricusse's research staff was lousy. Because 14 years before, in 1956, there was a live TV musical version of A Christmas Carol that was called The Stingiest Man in Town and starred the legendary film actor, best known as playing Sherlock Holmes, Basil Rathbone as Scrooge. And the very first song in the show was called -- yes, you guessed it -- "A Christmas Carol."
The music for the show was written by Fred Spielman, with lyrics by Janice Torre. It's not remotely distinguished or memorable, but has quite a few very nice things in it. And there, right at the top, first thing, is a song, "A Christmas Carol." A live musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol on American television doesn't seem like a terribly challenging thing to track down for a research staff working on a movie musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol.
So, continuing our holiday theme of unknown Christmas songs from musicals, here is the earlier song, "A Christmas Carol," sung by The Four Lads. It's short, less than a minute, but whatever its length the name of the song is "A Christmas Carol." That the researchers couldn't find. But we think you fine folks deserve better... Which is why this also isn't the end of the post here. Because there's another one coming. And it's a joy. But here's that other song first --
Note: Though the person posting this put up a screen shot that say's "A Christmas Carol," it is from The Stingiest Man in Town.
And yes, there's more...
In 1959, which is only 11 years before the movie musical Scrooge was made (and three years after the TV musical above), the wonderful Tom Lehrer released his classic comedy album, An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer -- which included a song titled...yes, you guessed it -- "A Christmas Carol."
And again, Tom Lehrer was not remotely an unknown entertainer and songwriter. It fact, as popular as An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer was when it was released, he was probably around the height of his popularity in 1970 when the film Scrooge hit the theaters. His huge hit album, That Was the Year That Was had been released in 1965, only five years before Scrooge. So, how on earth those researchers missed these two songs -- and for all I know there are more, and even high-profile ones -- I have no idea.
Happily, we have this song to enjoy, as well...
And we'll end our Thanksgiving Fest with Jack Benny. Which is always a good place to land on.
I'm a big fan of Jack Benny, and have been since a kid. Perhaps I got it from my Grandma Rose who loved Benny, and I remember watching his TV show with her when little. Later, when I was at a senior at Northwestern I finally had built up enough contacts to figure out how to get access to their great radio archive -- it was like entering a wonderful, wall-to-wall recordings of old radio programs, and I was able to tape record a bunch of old Benny shows for my collection, which I still have. They're gems.
It turns out that my friend and reader of these pages, Eric Boardman -- an all-around talented fellow and Second City alum -- is quite the fan, as well. He sent me the following several months back, about the Jack Benny Show's Thanksgiving special on November 30, 1952 --
"It's no secret, I am obsessed with the Jack Benny radio show. Each night I listen to an episode on my phone as I fall asleep. (Do you conk out with a smile on your kisser?)
"Yes, I know Thanksgiving is long over, but this particular program will bring joy to any season. Today's sitcom staffers should study the construction. And everybody else should howl with laughter---and marvel at the gags radio encourages. Benny's writers are constantly surprising us with 'visual" images' And Mr. Benny generously shares the jokes with his crackerjack cast. (Thanks always to the Sportsman Quartet for making cigarette commercials satisfying.) 'The Lucky Strike Program with Jack Benny' is high art, maybe the highest of the genre.
As we continue our Thanksgiving Fest, here's a wonderful scene from an episode of The West Wing. We're going to have a bunch of The West Wing today, because Aaron Sorkin seemed to love doing Thanksgiving shows, and they were great. This here is the Butterball Hotline scene --
It's that time o' year, and so today, we'll have our annual festival of sorts of Thanksgiving related pieces -- from songs to videos to old radio shows. And this is a good place to start.
And I think it's near-impossible on Thanksgiving to not celebrate with this classic by Stan Freberg, from his great Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America.
Here is his version of how Thanksgiving actually came about.
It begins with the local mayor decided a bit of self-promotion would help him if he threw a big gala and invited some Indians to show what a great guy he was. Which leads to a Freberg gem, "Take an Indian to Lunch."
And once the holiday event was decided upon, things didn't go as smoothly as plans would hope.
A couple of weeks ago, I posted here a very funny "challenge" of sorts that John Oliver made on Last Week Tonight to help make the Puteketeke the "Bird of the Century" in a contest held in New Zealand by the organization Forest & Bird. It was a stunt that even by Oliver's own admission was "alarmingly aggressive”.
On Sunday, he dealt with the results. And not surprisingly, it was a treat.
Unfortunately, the show only makes its Main Story available online. However -- good news -- I recorded the Bird of the Century story off my TV using my mobile phone. The sound is a bit tinny, but it's perfectly clear. I thought of recording again, but...well, no matter how small it is, holding a mobile phone reasonably steady for eight minutes just one time is more than enough for this.
(How much is that? The video was too large to embed on this site. It was 1.3 gigabyte, and the limit is 1 GB. However, I was able to compress it a little, and I think the quality is still just about as good. But it took a long time and then to encode for the site. But I digress. And compress...)
By the way, just to reiterate -- as I noted in the earlier article, before putting this effort into operation, the Last Week Tonight people contacted Bird & Forest to let them know they wanted to do something (they didn't say what...) and asked if the organization was okay with that. They were, so they were aware that the show was going to do something. And it's important to know, too, that Forest & Bird particularly appreciated the worldwide attention that they got from the stunt, and also that they raise money off of this event. And...well, let's just say that they did fine this year.
Of course, it's also worth making clear (which it likely is to most people) that this isn't an official national contest with any actual, substantive meaning. And further, that any bird organization in New Zealand or anywhere in the world can have their own Bird of the Century contest if the way.
And in the end, the Puteketeke is an impressive-looking bird. With, as John Oliver notes, a name that's so much fun to say.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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