During a recent fit of channel surfing, I landed on an episode of America’s Got Talent. I watch it sporadically but have grown tired of the competition format: The Voice, Dancing with the Stars, and the like, complete with clever patter by emcees and judges between performances.
AGT’s talent offerings that night included a tiny girl singer, a magician, a dance troupe, a male singer accompanying himself on the guitar, and a Gong Show-worthy act by a guy in a bug suit wriggling into butterflydom. It finally dawned on me that America’s Got Talent is as close as we come in the 21st century to the many variety shows populating the airwaves during my childhood.
In the dusty corners of my brain I found scraps of black-and-white TV shows of this genre from the 50’s. I remember Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca in all manner of comedy sketches on Your Show of Shows. Milton Berle presented guests and sold gasoline on the Texaco Star Theater, while Dinah Shore urged viewers to “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet” on her show. There was Jimmy Durante, of large nose fame, beginning every show with “Inka Dinka Doo” and finishing with: “Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” We watched Jackie Gleason as the Poor Soul and Ralph Kramden, with the June Taylor Dancers opening his show; and my dad laughed at the Clem Kadiddlehopper character made famous by Red Skelton. I still associate the McGuire Sisters with Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.
These programs from the first “Golden Age of TV” brought a vaudeville-like combination of sketch comedy and musical numbers to the screen, as did the variety shows I remember more clearly from the 60’s and 70’s.
One of my favorites from this more “modern” era was Carol Burnett’s show. For eleven years the star and her very able cohorts, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner, and Tim Conway, succeeded in cracking up viewers – and each other – in skits spoofing film classics such as Gone with the Wind.
Political parody began appearing on TV screens in the form of Laugh-In and Saturday Night Live. My favorite of this new crop had to be The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. I remember the music – and Cher’s hairdos and outfits – more than the sketches, although the dialogue between the stars was entertainingly-clever in and of itself. Lots of us felt “hip” and “with it” while enjoying the weekly signoff: “I Got You, Babe,” their small child in tow.
A couple of other shows separated themselves from the variety pack with their “rural” theme. I was not such a fan of Hee Haw, but the music-and-sketch show enjoyed many years of popularity with viewers.
However, the Scott Family tuned in every Saturday night to the Midwestern Hayride. This fairly local show from Cincinnati, eventually broadcast nationally, featured singers Bonnie Lou and Kenny Price, the “Round Mound of Sound.” I recall the singing duo of Helen and Billy Scott and the Minnie Pearl-ish character of Sally Flowers. My favorite performers were the Midwesterners who square danced their way into my heart.
I reserve special mention for The Lawrence Welk Show. The all-music program featured the “big band” sound and Mr. Welk himself occasionally dancing with ladies from the audience. There were bubbles, tap dancing, and numbers on the piano and accordion. What I waited for, however, was the beautiful musical blend of the Lennon Sisters. Some four decades later, at my parents’ request when they stayed with me for a while, my Saturday night TV screen filled with the PBS rebroadcasts of Lawrence Welk and his Champagne Lady.
For me, however, the ultimate variety show was also the longest-running one: The Ed Sullivan Show, broadcast on CBS for 23 years. Originally Toast of the Town, the format of the hour-long Sunday night show was straight forward. A newspaper columnist, Sullivan could not sing or dance, but he recognized talent. Each week he worked to assemble the best and the brightest entertainers of the moment.
A typical show might include a comic, an opera singer or ballerina, an acrobat or trapeze artists, an actor performing a monologue from a Broadway play, a popular recording artist. As host and emcee, Sullivan introduced them all – often quite stiffly – and sometimes even greeted famous guests sitting in the audience.
During my River Road years, I did not always appreciate an aria or classical piano solo, but I watched for my favorites like Senor Wences, the ventriloquist who exchanged “S-awrights” with the dummy’s head he kept in a box. There was also the guy whose talent became the metaphor for my entire adult life when he succeeded in spinning all his dinner plates at one time.
I am not sure I actually remember Elvis Presley in his first appearance on the Sullivan show, when he was supposedly shown only from the waist up to protect the viewing public from his hip gyrations.
But I clearly recall the much-heralded American debut of the Beatles. That is, I saw the Fab Four; I heard only screaming girls as the Brits sang “She Loves You.” My father’s comment on their performance: “They need a haircut.”
Realistically, I understand that America’s Got Talent is about it nowadays when it comes to variety shows. But in my heart, I know it will never match Ed Sullivan’s “really big shew.”
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.