Once there were a ton of them, television variety shows. Shows like “The Dean Martin Show” and “The Andy Williams Show” with big names and big production numbers. Then, suddenly, they were gone. It was almost as if television executives had all gotten together to set the price of gasoline or something.
Much is riding on a new television variety show coming to NBC this fall called “Best Time Ever” starring Neil Patrick Harris. If anyone can revive variety on television NPH can. He certainly can do everything else.
Believe it or not, I’m (just barely) old enough to remember a time when live variety shows used to tour the region. We’re talking the ’50s and ’60s here, boys and girls. But the shows were really something.
The biggest I ever saw was one starring singing cowboy Gene Autry at the North Dakota Agriculture College (now NDSU) fieldhouse in Fargo. It’s hard to underestimate what a big star the future owner of what would become the California Angels was at the time. The movies and television had made him famous. He came onstage to thunderous applause on his horse, Champion. But not before sidekick and opening act Pat Buttram warmed up the audience.
In a joke I’ve remembered for more than six decades and which I have stolen and actually use to this day when I emcee events, Buttram said something like this: “There’s a woman here tonight. She’s in the lobby. Her name is Helen Hunt, and she has found a set of car keys. Naturally, she would like to see them returned to their owner. So, if you have lost a set of car keys, go to Helen Hunt for ’em.”
Except for that joke and Gene’s entrance, I don’t remember much about the rest of the show. But for six decades now, I’ve heard stories about the infamous after-party connected to it. The story certainly has legs. Supposedly, it was a party that went on for days! But that’s another story for another blog.
I remember being lifted on my dad’s shoulders to get a better look at the variety acts that were part of what I remember as a “home builder’s show” somewhere in the area. Crookston, Minn., maybe. The audience was standing. There was no seating.
It featured the dancer Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates, who had indeed lost a leg in a cotton gin accident at the age of 12. Famous in his day for his 22 appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” he closed his well-received act that day by saying something like, “If I’d known you were going to like me this much, I would have cut off the other leg.”
The show starred the wonderful folk singer Burl Ives. At least I think it did. Years later, I interviewed Ives for a television news story. I asked him if he remembered the show. He said he didn’t, but he did remember Bates’ act. If it wasn’t Ives who I saw, someone had ripped off virtually his entire act because he came out carrying a guitar and a stool, sat down center stage and sang “Scarlet Ribbons” and “Jimmy Crack Corn.”
I have a very, very vague memory of seeing what could only be called a minstrel show, yes, a minstrel show, in the Hillsboro (N.D.) High School gym. Even then, I thought it was strange. Perhaps a dozen or so performers, apparently in black face, were seated in a row. Heavy on banjos and tambourines, after each performer did a turn, he (I don’t remember any females in the show) and the rest of the cast would move down a seat from stage left to stage right.
A lot of jokes were told. I don’t remember any of them. It’s probably just as well. In the new book “Huck Finn’s America,” Andrew Levy writes that even though Mark Twain, among others, was a big fan early in his life, minstrel shows were flat out racist. Young as I was, I remember thinking even at the time, what an odd piece of work this is!
Even WDAY radio and television personalities toured with a stage show decades ago. Again, I saw it in the high school gym. A young Lee Stewart, who in real life sold advertising for the stations, sang big band arrangements, wonderfully. Program Director Ken Kennedy emceed the show and closed it with a stand-up routine, in character as Ole Anderson.
Just like on television, there was music, comedy and even magic. I remember all of it, and I remember it as being good. Really good.