Bell Bottoms

Ah, bell bottoms, those monstrously impractical yet completely irresistible flared pants. This fashion statement came straight from the good old U.S. Navy. Supposedly, the reasoning behind them was that the flared opening made the trousers easier to jettison in case you fell overboard. Then, they could be filled with air to make a life preserver.

Whatever. In the 60’s, this look was declared to be cool, and cool it was. I got my first pair when I was nine years old. They were green striped, and instantly transformed me into the coolest thing in school.

The striped pants were a fixture in TV, the movies, and advertisements. But they pretty much disappeared early in the 70’s. But flare-legged jeans rolled on.

Obviously, bell-bottoms were still cool to wear by the later 70’s.

I had a pair of Levi’s Big Bells circa 1976. Man, those monsters completely covered my big feet.

The monstrous-sized bells have become passe, but flares continue to live on. The internet has stores that sell more bell bottoms and flares than you could possibly assimilate. They even teach you how to easily create your own from standard jeans.

Here’s to bell bottoms. Seeing a pair of big bells instantly takes you back at least thirty years.

Riding in the Rear Deck

By the time my first child was born in 1986, we had already purchased a baby seat for the car. It had become law here in Arkansas a couple of years earlier that children under the age of two would be strapped in.

But go back about twenty years (from 1986, that is), and the only protection small children had going down the highway was the sheer mass of the vehicles in which they were traveling.

Many of us Boomers fondly recall gas for less than thirty cents a gallon, and consequently drive economical cars today. My ride of choice to get to work (25 miles away) is a 1992 Toyota Tercel which has a new engine and gets 35-40 MPG. Four men at each corner could probably lift it off the ground.

But go back to JFK’s era, and cars were HUGE!

Like I have mentioned in previous columns, dad was on a Plymouth kick in the 60’s and early 70’s. We would go to the same car dealership in Neosho, Missouri every other year, and would once again be treated to new car smell on the drive home.

And the Furys that dad liked all had one thing in common: that sloping rear window that allowed a kid to lay there and soak up the sunshine. Or possibly the starlight, if we were driving back to Miami from Joplin on a Saturday night after dining in Mickey Mantle’s restaurant.

I used to lay back there and periodically roll down into the expansive back seat. It was great fun. And we would be speeding down I-44 at 75 MPH the whole time. No, it wasn’t child neglect. It was life in the 60’s.

I like to go to old car shows and marvel at the sheer size of the vintage vehicles. I sat in a 1950 Pontiac coupe recently. Though the car only had two doors, the back seat was the size of a single bed. No wonder drive-ins were so popular back then! ūüėČ The glove compartment alone was big enough to hold a twelve-pack of beer.

Times have changed in so many ways. Cars are smaller, more fuel-efficient, and laden with passive and active restraint devices. Babies and toddlers are cocooned in their own little worlds of safety in the back seat. But we Boomers remember when a kid’s place was the rear deck!

Lucky Tiger Hair Tonic

Today, I’m known as the bald guy. In fact, when I incorporated my website design business, it became known as The Bald Guy Enterprises, Inc.

But go back to circa 1968, and when I got spiffied up, my luxuriant blonde hair was coated in a generous slathering of Lucky Tiger Rose hair tonic.

It was called “tonic,” because the oils and other secret ingredients were advertised to be good for the scalp. In fact (though I don’t think the company ever claimed it), it was rumored to prevent baldness!

Trust me. That was not true.

But still, it was a great feeling, slicking your hair back and enjoying that tantalizing, manly scent.

In one of the most blatantly sexist product monikers ever produced, the name Lucky Tiger implied that the user would never again have to worry about a dearth of female companionship. The ads posted removed any subtlety. The message was clear: wear Lucky Tiger and get lucky, tiger!

I’m pleased to see that the product is still being produced in its original form by its original maker. When the Dry Look (the wethead is dead!) took over in the 60’s and 70’s, sales plummeted. But a fierce following kept the fortunate feline on store shelves, where it remains today.

And today, a head full of “greasy kid stuff” is now considered chic. And what could be better for the purpose than genuine Lucky Tiger?

When TV Stations Signed Off at Midnight

Are you wide awake at 3:00 AM? Are you staring at the ceiling? Is reading a book too much work? No problem, there is always something on the idiot box.

Nowadays, practically every TV station is a 24/7 affair. Even local stations run all night, selling the wee hours of the morning to infomercial producers. You can ease your insomnia by watching a long sales pitch for a George Foreman grill, a diet plan that is guaranteed to make you look like an anorexic, or a mattress that heats up, adjusts for different firmness, and lets your dogs out when they need to go.

But go back to our childhood years, and you can remember when the station would shut off the lights shortly after Johnny Carson (my Tonight Show host, perhaps you recall Jack Paar, or even Steve Allen) would say goodnight.

The signoffs I remember would commence with an announcement by a member of the station personnel thanking me for watching, and letting me know that the broadcast day was now coming to a close. I was invited to tune in at 6:00 AM tomorrow morning for a local country music show (I guess C&W fans were early risers). Then, the National Anthem was played, followed by a video of a jet fighter flying through the clouds while a poem called “High Flight” was recited. The poem went like this:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

Now don’t get me wrong. That is one seriously great poem. But what does it have to do with a station signing off?

Anyhow, the next thing you would see would be the Star Spangled Banner playing, followed by the Indian head test pattern, accompanied with a shrill, obnoxious shrieking sound.

Now THAT one I have figured out. It’s like when your company won’t leave and you flash the lights off and on to give them a nudge out the door. The shriek was telling you to turn the blasted TV off and go to bed like decent folks!

After a few minutes, the screen would turn to static, as the station shut the power to the transmitter off.

Color TV tuning bars

The next morning, about 5:45 AM, the color bar test pattern would appear. One of our three stations would announce what the colors were with a recorded voice every couple of minutes, so you could use your fine tuning, tint, and hue controls on your color TV to match them as well as your imagination would allow. After all, everybody knows what exact shade cyan is, right?

Anyhow, at about 5:57, the broadcast day would begin, with the playing of the National Anthem again, and some official-sounding announcements about power, frequency, and other technical data that was likely required by the FCC.

Tom Snyder goofed things up for local stations by beginning Tomorrow in 1973, a show that would extend signoff times by an hour for its NBC affiliates. Soon, other later-than-late shows appeared, and some stations decided to run all night, showing old movies and such in the off hours.

Cable changed everything, and in 1979, ESPN showed 24 hours of sports. Of course, some of the sports included badminton, spelling bees, and the immortal Australian Rules Football, but station signoffs dwindled faster than ever. Today, it’s rare that a station signs off.

The fact that we have 24/7 TV only adds to its place as an important part of our lives. I don’t see a whole lot good about that.

Maybe TNT could start signing off at midnight local time, with a reading of High Flight, of course. Hey, I think Law and Order rerun fans would survive.

Westerns on TV

Roy Rogers is riding tonight
Returning to our silver screen!
Comic book characters never grow old
Evergreen heroes whose stories are told
Oh the great sequined cowboy
Who sings of the plains
Of roundups, and rustlers, and home on the range!
Turn on the TV
Shut out the Light
Roy Rogers is riding tonight!

Thus sang Elton John on his 1973 album¬†Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Bernie Taupin, the writer of “Roy Rogers,” had fond memories of watching the golden western hero as a child, and so do most Boomers. Those old enough to recall the 50’s enjoyed his adventures on prime time TV, the rest of us got our weekday reruns.

The 1950’s, the first complete decade of TV, was wholly, totally, completely dominated by the genre of the western. In March, 1959, westerns held eight of the top ten spots of the Nielsen Ratings. Not only were there a multitude of series, but many low budget western films were aired to fill time that would otherwise be dead air, as the networks were not yet able to fill out schedules like they do today. No wonder that six shooters, holsters, spurs, and cowboy boots and hats were some of the largest selling toys of the era.

The Cisco Kid

The decade began with¬†Hopalong Cassidy,¬†The Lone Ranger,¬†Gene Autry, and¬†The Cisco Kid. Other shows that came along later during the Decade of the Western included¬†Roy Rogers, Annie Oakley, Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, Bronco, Johny Ringo, Tales of Wells Fargo, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train, Maverick, The Restless Gun, Wanted Dead or Alive, The Rifleman, Lawman, Rawhide, The Deputy, Laramie, The Rebel,¬†and¬†Bat Masterson.¬†That’s an amazing collection of horse operas!

Three other western shows spawned in the 50’s deserve special mention. The first is¬†Bonanza, which first aired on September 12, 1959. This show, a favorite of the Enderland household, lasted an impressive fourteen years, airing its last episode in 1973. The second is¬†Gunsmoke, which ran from 1955 to 1975, an amazing twenty years. Somehow, Miss Kitty stayed foxy throughout the whole run. But the longest running western you probably forgot about was¬†Death Valley Days. This show first aired in 1952, and lasted an astounding twenty-three years!

Syndicated during its entire run, the show had a number of formats. From 1952 to 1965, it followed the adventures of the Old Ranger, played by Stanley Andrews. Ronald Reagan took over as host in 65, stepping aside to run for governor of California. Robert Taylor took over, followed by Dale Robertson. Despite the fact that no new episodes were filmed after 1970, new footage was spliced in to create new shows. Merle Haggard narrated many of them.

The “new” episodes appeared under different show titles. These included¬†Frontier Adventure, The Pioneers, Trails West, Western Star Theatre,¬†and¬†Call of the West.

Cast of The High Chaparral

What you’ll remember best was the main advertiser: Twenty Mule Team Borax. That venerable team of mules trudging along in the hot desert sun was a part of nearly every episode. Boraxo, a hand soap, was also hawked vigorously in between action shots.

But back to the decade which spawned the series, specifically my own recollections.

I never saw many of the series which failed to score in syndication. But I did watch a lot of¬†Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Have Gun Will Travel,¬†and¬†The Rifleman. These shows all did well in syndication, and were viewable by 60’s brats on the idiot box after school.

The western genre continued to ride high throughout the 60’s.¬†The Virginian, The Big Valley, High Chaperral, Laredo, Daniel Boone¬†(not technically a western, but come on!), and the offbeat¬†The Wild Wild West¬†all aired with varying degrees of success during the turbulent Decade of Change. But as the 70’s rolled on, the number of new westerns began to dwindle. Only one series debuted and ran longer than a single season, Alias Smith and Jones. Amazingly, a single western series was released in the 80’s: ABC’s¬†Wildside. It died a quick six-episode death up against NBC’s must-see TV on Thursday night.

Westerns made a modest comeback in the 90’s.¬†Lonesome Dove¬†was a highly acclaimed miniseries that scored high on the Nielsens.¬†The Young Riders¬†(actually launched in 1989) had a good run, and so did¬†Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

But the decade of the western was without a doubt the 50’s. It’s highly unlikely that they will ever dominate network television again, but then again, network television will never dominate again like it did before cable and the internet.

No problem. That’s what our memory banks are for.

The Wizard of Oz on TV Every Year

Every year, this movie was shown on network television. It was a tradition in my home to watch it, one I look back on with a variety of emotions.

The primary feeling was TERROR! This movie scared the living daylights out of me. From the tornado scene (I lived in a town that was regularly nailed by twisters, I was scared to death of them) to the creepy trees with faces to the cackling witch to the ultimate terror: FLYING MONKEYS!

I don’t know what it was about those airborne apes that was so terrifying, but I had numerous nightmares about them. The depicted scene, where they are flying across that ominously darkening sky, was the one that frequently sent me running from the room to hide under my covers.

Of course, the Wizard of Oz being the truly great film that it was, it also compelled me to watch it and get frightened again year after year as it was broadcast annually, first on CBS, then on NBC from 1968 to 1975, then back to CBS again.

At presstime, the film is still shown annually on TNT, TCM, and TBS. But it no longer captures the public’s attention like it did in the 60’s, when we would talk about its next showing in school for weeks before the annual event, in the dead of winter.

Other movies were shown every year on network TV. Look for them in future columns. Today, the annual airing of a film that gets the most attention is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, which, ironically, didn’t get much attention until the early 1990’s. Once again, it’s shown on a cable channel instead of a network that would allow you to see it via an antenna.

But in the 1960’s, the three Big Boys in broadcasting were NBC, ABC, and CBS. And whoever held the rights to the Wizard of Oz was guaranteed a very nice majority share on the night it was aired.

Geez, I still have nightmares about those blasted monkeys . . .

The Little Network that Couldn’t

In television’s early days, the various players among the networks weren’t clearly defined as to who would be successful and who wouldn’t. The giants, NBC and CBS, were pretty much assured of success, since they had access to hordes of familiar radio talents. Things weren’t so clear-cut for fledgling ABC, which had begun business in 1943. They didn’t have the dedicated listener base that the big boys had.

Enter a fourth entity, one that I, and perhaps you, had never heard of before today: the DuMont Television Network.

DuMont Laboratories was founded in 1931 by Dr. Allen B. DuMont. He and his staff were responsible for lots of early technical innovations, including the first all-electronic consumer television set in 1938. The company’s television sets soon became the state of the art.

DuMont set up an experimental station in New York that year, and kept broadcasting throughout WWII, when CBS and NBC pulled the plugs on their similar installations.

The experimental station eventually became WABD, DuMont’s initials. He needed money, and cut a deal with Paramount Pictures for a 40% share of his network in exchange for $400,000. While it solved his cash flow problem, it ultimately doomed the little network that couldn’t.

When you’re small, and you don’t have radio talent to build on, you have to be innovative. DuMont Television certainly filled that bill. By 1949, they had three stations, in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh. They set out to fill their programming time by ignoring the way the big boys were doing it.

For instance, DuMont had few programs like Texaco Star Theater or the Colgate Comedy Hour. Allen by and large refused to give sponsors such power, which they frequently used by insisting programming be tweaked to suit them. Instead, he sold commercial time to many different advertisers, to give his writers maximum creative control.

DuMont also didn’t deliver kinescopes to affiliates in different time zones, to be shown after the original east coast showing, or force them to have their own regional networks. Instead, he hooked up his later midwest affiliates via cable, so they were able to show programming live.

This technical innovation cost lots of money. So there wasn’t a whole lot left over for developing shows. But the little network accomplished an impressive collection of shows and talent nonetheless.

There was Mary Kay and Johnny, a comedy which was the first to dare to show a married couple in the same bed. Poor Lucy and Ricky were still in twin beds years later. And there was Gillette’s Cavalcade of Stars (one of DuMont’s few shows run by a single sponsor), which was hosted by newly discovered Jackie Gleason. And there was Captain Video, a wildly popular kids’ science fiction show that was short on set enhancements but long on encouraging kids to use their imaginations.

DuMont’s affiliation with Paramount stung them when they tried to get two more station licenses in Boston and Cleveland. A gotcha in FCC regulations nixed the deal, due to the fact that two Paramount stations existed. The FCC limited licenses at the time to five per network, and considered the Paramount stations (actually DuMont competitors) to be DuMont-owned as well.

Another coffin nail was a 1948 FCC freeze on licenses, due to a flood of applications. When they finally did allow new applications for stations in 1952, it was very difficult to obtain any VHF licenses. Thus, many new DuMont affiliates were forced to use the new UHF band, which would not become freely accessible until the mid 1960’s, due to the FCC not requiring televisions to have UHF tuners until then.

DuMont held on as long as they could, but finally went under on August 4, 1956.

So here’s to the little network that might have been as familiar to us as NBC, CBS, or ABC, but which was doomed by bad fortune, a bad business decision, and governmental red tape.

The Late, Great Variety Show, Part 2

As we entered the 70’s, variety shows were stronger than ever. The Flip Wilson Show was one of my mom’s favorites. It was interesting that high-voltage Flip Wilson could host a show that my very conservative mother found entertaining. How conservative? She refused to watch Dean Martin or Johnny Carson because of their suggestive jokes.

The 70’s became known as the decade of disco, but variety shows also hit their peak then. For instance, among the celebrities hosting them that decade were the Carpenters, Tony Orlando and Dawn, Glen Campbell, the Captain and Tenille, Donny and Marie Osmond, Olivia Newton-John, Bobby Darin, Lynda Carter, Mac Davis, and Sha-Na-Na, among many others.

Indeed, it seemed that the natural progression after initially becoming a celebrity, or perhaps after seeing your star status begin to flicker just a bit, was to land a variety show.

As the 70’s drew to a close, the variety show was still a tried and true format. Barbara Mandrell, who was country when country wasn’t cool, had a hot series that began in 1980. It was followed by similar offerings by Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, and Dolly Parton. But when Dolly was introduced in 1987, it was the end of an era. The variety show had died a sudden death during the Brat Pack era of the 80’s.

What the heck happened, anyway? Why would a format that had proven successful since TV’s infancy, indeed, since RADIO’s infancy, suddenly go belly-up?

Some blame MTV. According to that theory, the ready availability of music videos simply caused audiences to lose interest in watching variety shows that gave their viewers intermittent musical interludes.

I don’t buy that. My own take is that cable TV in general was the culprit. A variety show was a hodgepodge of entertainment in a neat one-hour package. It was a must when there were three channels to watch on television. But when WTBS and ESPN showed up on people’s cable packages in the late 70’s, it was the initial death knell for variety shows. Within ten years, we could watch anything we wanted 24 hours a day. Network TV shows became much more focused in a desperate attempt to hold on to their audiences. Thus, today, primetime network TV is largely ignored by those who aren’t into crime dramas, medical dramas, or reality TV. Even sitcoms have nosedived in their numbers.

But go back to our youth, when the Big Three networks reigned supreme, and you could count on finding a variety show on any channel any night of the week.

The Late, Great Variety Show, Part 1

Don’t look now, but I have uncovered yet another phenomenon that was as common as the cold when we were kids, but which has disappeared as completely as 29-cent-a-gallon gasoline: the classic TV variety show.

We took variety shows for granted when we were growing up. If we weren’t watching Jackie Gleason, we were watching Red Skelton. But there were some that NOBODY missed: Sullivan and Dean Martin, of course, as well as Uncle Miltie and Your Show of Shows (for those old enough to remember the 50’s).

But, like so many things we took for granted, the TV schedule full of variety shows has passed from the scene.

Sullivan had a unique approach to variety. He would basically reproduce vaudeville. Thus, his shows would feature comedians and singers alongside circus acts. But most variety shows followed a different premise: lots of music interspersed with comedy.

Thus, most variety show hosts were comedic by nature. Sonny and Cher were singers, but their comedy came naturally with their barbs at each other. Carol Burnett was an actress who became more famous for her comedy thanks to hosting her own venerable variety show for an amazing eleven-year run.

Some variety shows used comedy sparingly. Lawrence Welk’s show was mostly musical (and a big hit among our grandfathers and grandmothers). Andy Williams’ show was mostly singing, ergo not one of my favorites. Julie Andrews had a show in the early 70’s that was all musical, as I recall.

But the ones I loved had lots of laughs. The Jackie Gleason I remember wasn’t Ralph Kramden standing in his black-and-white kitchen. No, he was the one who would say “How sweet it is” and “awa-aa-ay we go!” Interestingly, Gleason’s variety show work actually predated the Honeymooners. He had one of the DuMont network’s biggest hits beginning in 1950, Cavalcade of Stars. By the 60’s, he was back to hosting a show that my parents loved. I have snapshot memories of Crazy Guggenheim, the June Taylor Dancers, and of Gleason singing “A Man’s Home Is His Castle.”

Tune in tomorrow for more memories of the late, great variety show.

The Frito Bandito

“Aye, yai yai yai, I am the Frito Bandito!”

For many of us, when we hear the familiar verse to Cielito Lindo, those words pop into our heads. From 1967 until 1971, when he was done away with under pressure from a Mexican-American anti-defamation group, the Frito Bandito ruled the airwaves. He also sold a very large bunch of snack food.

I remember constantly hearing that song, and memorizing the lyrics.

His voice was that of the master of making cartoons talk, Mel Blanc. Mel, the man who provided voices for dozens of characters for Warner Bros.and Hanna-Barbera, was a natural for this gig.

Unfortunately, people took offense. The next thing you know, there were protests. And eventually, he was laid to rest.

While this piece could easily digress into social commentary, I won’t let that happen. However, I WILL replay those familiar lyrics in my mind whenever I hear that classic Spanish tune.