Sunday, February 5, 2017

Gordie Tapp: 1922-2016

On December 18, 2016 the entertainment/comedy world lost the talents of Gordie Tapp at the age of 94. Born Gordon Tapp on June 4, 1922 in London, Ontario, Canada he became a starring attraction on Canadian television in the mid 1950s but before that he had a lengthy career on Canadian radio. He hosted a radio series titled What's on Tapp? as early as 1946. Another series, Main Street Jamboree, hit CHML radio in November 1952 (hosted by Tapp) and it moved to television via CHCH in 1954. A lot of the technical information comes from research easily obtained on any social media biography site but to distinguish my memorial blog posts from the numerous tribute blogs out there in cyberspace I tend to personalize the blog posts with my own commentary and remembrances...so that it doesn't come off as a list of credits. I'd say the series that made him a superstar in Canada happened to be a program called Country Hoedown which hit the air in 1956 on CBC television. In the previous programs Gordie often appeared as a rural character named 'Cousin Clem'. Gordie hosted Country Hoedown for a period of 9 years (10 television seasons) from 1956 to 1965. A couple of titans in Canadian entertainment, Tommy Hunter and Gordon Lightfoot, were members of the cast during the course of the 10 season run. Eventually Tommy Hunter became the legendary emcee of his own self-titled program (which crossed over into America in the 1980s via The Nashville Network) and Gordon Lightfoot became a hugely successful pop singer in both Canada and the United States. Tommy began his program on radio in 1960 and it moved to television in 1965.

Are you looking for some irony? Tommy's self-titled series replaced Gordie's Country Hoedown on the CBC schedule.

From there Gordie's next accomplishment came along in the most uncertain of fashions in the summer of 1969...not on Canadian television but on American television. CBS had recently canceled a controversial series hosted by The Smothers Brothers. That series remained on the CBS schedule, in reruns, until June 8, 1969. All during this chaotic time a series designed to be a country music/rural America answer to Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and Lawrence Welk was in the works. After the Smothers Brothers program received it's abrupt cancellation in April of 1969 (several weeks after it had been picked up for another season, 1969-1970) the producers/writers of this upcoming series had at least 2 months in order to be ready to hit the air on June 15, 1969. In this short span of time everything had to be taped in batches and then edited together (music performances, cast and guest introductions, comedy sketches, etc.). That summer series, titled Hee Haw, ran on CBS from June 15, 1969 until September 7, 1969.

Gordie Tapp happened to be tapped as one of the program's writers and stars from the beginning. The program's creators, Frank Peppiatt and John Ayelsworth, were Canadians. The program's production company happened to be named Yongesteet Productions, named after a street in Toronto. Another of the main cast-members and one of it's writers, Don Harron, had a career that nearly mirrored that of Gordie Tapp. He and Gordie happened to be Canadian entertainment legends prior to their association with Hee Haw. In the meantime, after the summer run of Hee Haw ended on September 7, 1969, all of the cast members and it's co-hosts (Roy Clark and Buck Owens) thought they were finished with the series and it would fade away in the memories of television viewers by the fall and be remembered by almost nobody...but not so fast. CBS picked up the series as a mid-season replacement and more episodes had to be constructed by it's next air-date: December 17, 1969. This second run of Hee Haw on the CBS schedule ended on April 8, 1970.

CBS then picked the series up for a more conventional fall debut. On September 15, 1970 the series returned for a third season on CBS. By this time the unique Hee Haw production method had become a fixture. The production of the series was constructed in bits and pieces from material recorded during 2 production periods per year. In the summer production cycle the cast and crew gathered together to tape enough material for the first 13 episodes of the season. In the fall this practice was repeated and viola there you'd have the 26 episodes needed (plus the 26 repeats) to complete a 52 week calendar year. The series aired what turned out to be it's final episode on the national CBS schedule on February 23, 1971. Later in the year CBS canceled all of it's rural programs. Once again the cast and crew of the series didn't know the future of the program and like times past some of the cast opted to move on to other things. Behind the scenes, however, the series producer, Sam Lovullo, embarked on attempting to sell the program in syndication. The series gained a list of local television affiliates and advertisers and by the fall of 1971 Hee Haw, once again, hit the air. This fourth season (it's debut in first-run syndication) began on September 18, 1971 and the series eventually became the #1 nationally syndicated program on television and in it's peak it aired on more than 250 local television stations across the United States. The series made the Canadian legends, Gordie Tapp and Don Harron, major stars on American television. The syndicated run of Hee Haw ran uninterrupted for 21 more seasons...airing it's final first-run episode on May 30, 1992...and Gordie happened to be a cast-member from start to finish.

Gordie Tapp, Junior Samples, Grandpa Jones, Lulu Roman

In these earliest of episodes Gordie appeared as Cousin Clem in both one-liner material and as a member of The Culhanes, a recurring sketch featuring Gordie, Grandpa Jones, Lulu Roman, and Junior Samples. The premise of the sketch, a spoof of radio soap operas complete with organ intro and off-camera announcer, happened to center around each character having a conversation but each family member spoke a line at a time...and in monotone...for example...

Cousin Clem: "How's the weather outside, Cousin Grandpa?".
Cousin Grandpa: "Awful...it's terrible...".
Cousin Lulu: "Cousin Junior wants a flea collar...".
Cousin Junior: "That's right...it's raining cats and dogs.".

At the conclusion of the sketch and the utterance of an intentionally bad, but sometimes clever one-liner, you'd hear the sting of the organ and everyone would take turns looking at the family member that said the bad joke before the fade out to another sketch or to a commercial break. 

In addition to the Cousin Clem role he had another recurring character, Samuel B. Sternwheeler (visually a Mark Twain spoof). In this guise he'd walk out of the door of a house and deliver brief editorials about life and his thoughts on everything he witnessed in his day to day life. He'd deliver the messages in a better-than-you condescending tone, typically ending with a bad one-liner, upon at which time he was punished for the joke by getting hit over the head, or on the side of the head, with a rubber chicken. This character would later morph into Col. Daddy in a series of sketches also starring Marianne Rogers as his spoiled rich daughter. Those particular sketches aired in the late '70s and into the mid '80s. Eventually Gordie's character no longer appeared in the sketches but was referenced to by his spoiled daughter in almost every sketch.

One couldn't properly recap the career of Gordie Tapp without spotlighting the lovable loser, Laverne Nagger. This character became one of Gordie's most popular on Hee Haw. A lot of the charm of the sketch tended to be his rude one-liners and of course the sparring with his wife, Ida Lee, played by Roni Stoneman, happened to be the highlight of the sketch. The sparring, or nagging, is actually the inspiration for the character's last names. Each one constantly nagged at the other over bills, money, her family, his drinking, etc. This sketch, in it's earliest incarnation, had a very dark overtone but was comical and combative at the same time. Ida Lee typically hit Laverne with a rolling pin or threatened to throw her iron at him many times during an argument. Each sketch began the same: you'd hear a dreary guitar note and then Ida Lee screams "Laverne!!!" usually because he's either asleep in his bowl of food or in a daze with an ever present moonshine jug in hand. The couple lived in a shack and in later episodes they're joined by a son, Elrod, played by Kenny Price and in later installments Ida Lee's mother appears in the sketches (played by one of the program's backup singers, Wendy Suits).

Gordie and Archie Campbell (another of the show's main writers) popularized the sketch referred to as "Pffft...You Was Gone!". Each sketch included a performance of the aforementioned song starting off with the lyrics "where, oh where, are you tonight...". Gordie often appeared ith his back to the camera, sometimes he'd appear asleep with a hat over his face, or he'd be standing in profile looking at Archie as he sang the opening verse. As the song reached it's chorus Archie would elbow Gordie who would then jolt into action and join Archie in the singing of the song's chorus. As the series became increasingly popular a lot of the country music and non-country music guest stars wanted to sing the song and so usually 2 sketches appeared per show. In the first half hour Archie or Gordie would be joined by one of the special guests and in the second half hour another guest star would perform the sketch with either Archie or Gordie. In the 1980s George Lindsey often performed the sketch with one of the guest stars that week.

Another of Gordie's long running characters happened to be Mr. Gordon...the owner of the Kornfield Kounty General Store. For this character Gordie essentially played himself. The sketch, in it's earliest incarnation, comically exaggerated the frugality of rural customers and it often created opportunities to do consumer/retail industry jokes but it didn't really take off, in my opinion, until Gailard Sartain joined the series and the subsequent creation of the Maynard character. The friction that existed between the stern and serious Mr. Gordon and the overly anxious and eager to please, but usually clumsy and moronic, Maynard, created a comical dynamic lacking in the earlier sketches.

In the 1980s some of the long established cast members were passing away and it impacted some of the sketches that Gordie appeared in. Junior Samples died in 1983 and The Culhanes added Mike Snider in the role once played by Junior. After the 1985-1986 season came to a close the producers let go most of it's cast (including Buck Owens, Don Harron, and Roni Stoneman among many others); both Archie Campbell and Kenny Price died in 1987. In 1989 Gordie no longer was credited as one of the show's writers and several other long-time writers for the series like Bud Wingard and Barry Adleman ceased writing for the series in 1989. Gordie, however, remained on the series and even appeared in a new sketch which also starred Phil Campbell (one of Archie's sons). This sketch featured the duo as a pair of police. The sketch title happened to be Kornfield Kops. Steve Campbell, another son of Archie, became one of the new writers in 1989.

In 1990 Gordie was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.

In mid 1991 another cast shake-up happened which resulted in everyone but a handful of long-time regulars remaining under contract. Gordie happened to be among those that returned to the series later that year to tape episodes in an urban setting and with hardly any rural, rustic decor in sight. These urban episodes began airing in January 1992...and the backlash happened almost immediately. The jokes/one-liners remained intentionally bad and corny but the graphics and set designs changed big time. I think if the setting remained rural and everyone continued appearing in the cornfield and the haystacks remained prominent the 1992 episodes may have gone over a little bit better...but it's hard to tell...

After Hee Haw ended production Gordie settled into a post-Hee Haw life as did everybody else connected to the series. He remained active and in 1998 received the Order of Canada for humanitarian efforts. In 1999 he received the Order of Ontario. He often appeared at Hee Haw events/reunions and remained one of the biggest supporters of the series and spoke highly of it and seemed grateful for it's impact on his life and career. Reruns of Hee Haw aired on The Nashville Network during a four year period (1993-1997). After the reruns became property of RFD-TV in 2008 several surviving cast-members delivered commercials promoting the reruns.

On January 6, 2012 RFD-TV aired a tribute to the series called "Salute to the Kornfield" in which it's producers attempted to reunite every surviving cast-member of the series. They succeeded in rounding up the core surviving members of the cast and they even enlisted the talents of Barbi Benton, a cast-member for several years in the 1970s, but she departed the series for a Hollywood career. Gordie happened to tape a commercial for RFD during the Salute festivities. It used to be on YouTube but it's been removed. There happened to be well over 500 episodes of Hee Haw...and for some reason or another obituary and memorial sites have mistakenly credited him with appearing in 90 episodes. As a series regular from start to finish Gordie appeared in every episode.

A photo from it's final rural-themed season, 1990-1991. Gordie, George Lindsey, Gailard Sartain, and Minnie Pearl stand in front of one of the props, a southern house used as a background set for the various country music performances that took place during this point in the show's history. He published his life story in 2007 and portions of it can be read on-line. It's called What's on Tapp?: The Gordie Tapp Story.

Gordie had been married to a woman named Constance (often referred to by her middle name, Helen) for more than 70 years at the time of his death in December 2016. As it's likely to happen in marriages that last so long once a spouse passes away the surviving spouse often follows soon after and that's just what happened several days ago. His widow passed away on January 29, 2017 at the age of 94.

The Canadian news organization, CBC, did a great look back at Gordie's career and I'm providing the link HERE. It's a fascinating memorial and includes a lot of inside information that only those that worked in Canadian television and radio could share and that's how I'd like to conclude this blog entry on Gordie Tapp and his impact on Canadian television but especially here in America through his involvement in Hee Haw.

Gordie Tapp: 1922-2016

Monday, November 7, 2016

Return of the Caped Crusaders review...

Holy return to the mid '60s!!! Sort of...

I purchased my copy of Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders back on November 1st at a local retail store. In my August blog entry promoting the upcoming release of the DVD I mentioned I'd return and provide my comments about the animated movie and there are going to be spoilers a-plenty so I'm giving fair notice ahead of time.

So many people have remarked on the movie that a lot of information is out there by now but from my perspective I'd like to add that it's an entertaining movie and I particularly liked the clever opening sequence of having freeze frame snap shots of classic comic book covers. There have been some grumblings, though, as it pertains to the vocals. I didn't find anything particularly terrible. To a general audience, in which cartoon watching isn't perhaps part of a routine television habit, you are probably not aware that Adam West has lent his voice to a number of animated projects over the decades. His voice, obviously, has a deeper resonance to it than it did back in the mid '60s due to age...but he can still deliver the kind of lines you've come to expect from the mid '60s Batman and that vocal is still identifiable as 'Adam West'. The reading of the lines are a bit slower but you can't help that. The story makes up for it because of it's overall plot centering on a duplicator ray...and the effects of a drug administered by Catwoman...and the unexpected turns that the story takes.

Given the vocal performers include three from the mid '60s live-action series (Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar) and the designs are on-model from the TV series, the writers used the visuals and phrases from the TV series as a launching point for a story that you'd never see in the actual mid '60s TV series.  There's one scene in which they find aluminum foil...leading the duo to deduce that the criminals are hiding out in a warehouse which houses frozen TV dinners...and they find themselves strapped to a giant sized TV dinner in a death trap mirroring the kinds of cliffhanger scenes of the live action mid '60 TV series.

I made mention of a duplicator ray...it comes into play during a scene in which a group of scientists are experimenting with it's capabilities. One of the scientists uses a variation of the phrase "but in the wrong hands it could prove dangerous" and on cue The Joker, Penguin, Riddler, and Catwoman enter the facility to steal the device.

The villains take the device but you don't see them use it that much and the reason for that is because of the major plot twist in the story. Catwoman drugs Batman...but, at first, he feels as if he's summoned up enough will power to not fall prey to her clutches and he proudly states that her plans to control his mind have come to an end. However, in the ensuing 10 to 20 minutes that follow, it's clear that neither Batman nor his alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, are behaving normal. Standing on the sidelines, as they happened to be in the mid '60s TV series, are the likes of Alfred, Aunt Harriet, Commissioner Gordon, and Chief O'Hara.

In one of the elements that parodies the mid '60s TV series, Aunt Harriet enters Bruce's study in one scene...which happened to be an absolute no-no in the live action '60s series.

The closest Aunt Harriet came to actually entering the study on the TV series happened to be in a couple of episodes. In one episode the beeping of the Batphone leads her to almost open the door of the study...at which point Alfred prevents her from doing by alerting her that 'Master Bruce' has some delicate hi-fi equipment causing the beeping sounds and it wouldn't be a good idea to go in. In another episode Aunt Harriet leads a group of women from a social club on a tour of the Manor and is nearly about to open the study's door when Joker, from a hideout, freezes time using a "magic box" he invented. He froze time and caused it to go in reverse...unknowingly preventing Aunt Harriet and her entourage from entering Bruce's study and discovering the secret. In this animated movie Aunt Harriet enters the study and sees the Batphone and the bust of Shakespeare but before she can find out it's hidden device for the bat-poles a hand enters the scene and pulls her from the Shakespeare bust. It's Bruce...acting highly suspicious. This sets up the scene in which Bruce fires Alfred for letting Aunt Harriet come so close to learning about his and Dick's double lives as the Caped Crusaders.

Things really get bizarre as Batman leaves Robin stranded. Later, Dick confronts Bruce and asks about the short temper and the unbelievable firing of Alfred. Shoing no emotion Bruce leads Dick over to the manor's front door and tells him if he sympathizes so much ith Alfred he can go live with him "on skid row" and ith that, Bruce shuts the front door leaving the youthful ward on the front porch.

In another scene Batman appears, after several days of being in seclusion, and demands that Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara remove their uniforms because they've long been a disgrace to the police force. Robin deduces that Catwoman's drug was actually designed to work on Batman very slowly and he's become evil. Not only that but she's been double-crossing Joker, Penguin, and the Riddler who believe she's too soft on Batman and they punish her by sending her into orbit. It's in this part of the story that it's revealed that Batman himself has the duplicator ray and he goes about making evil duplicates of himself which take over Gotham City. As an evil Batman he has no resistance to Catwoman and the pair become flirtatious. One of the highlight scenes takes place during a prison break! All sorts of villains, mostly all of them created for the mid '60s series, have non-speaking cameo appearances. Villains seen but not heard: Egghead, King Tut, Siren, Bookworm, Louie the Lilac, and others.

Eventually it's Alfred to the rescue who reveals the reason why he appeared out of the blue to attempt to rescue Batman from a life of crime. Once the spell is broken the duplicate Batmen dissolve into various piles of powder. This is a reference to the 1966 live-action movie based on the TV series. In the live action movie the four villains turn members of the United Nations (referred to in the movie as United World) into dehydrated powder.

I suggest all fans of the classic Batman live-action series purchase this DVD! I've not given a scene by scene breakdown of the film...I merely highlighted some of the scenes and not in chronological order, either...but the animated movie is entertaining. The mannerisms of the villains are all spot-on. The Joker prancing around in a state of glee...but only once does he say "this is delicious!!"...the voice actor captured the essence of Cesar Romero in much of the delivery. The Penguin offers his usual cantankerous attitude, desires of being the intellectual leader, utilizing his umbrella gas, and the trademark squawking but it's not necessarily an attempt to mimic Burgess Meredith's natural speaking voice which is, interestingly, what makes the live-action portrayal so memorable. The vocalization of The Penguin sounds something like that of Ted Knight's version in the Filmation cartoons of the late '60s. The Riddler, on the other hand, is amazing thanks to the spot-on vocal delivery. The voice actor captured the style of Frank Gorshin so much that it enhances the dialogue. The voice actors for Joker, Penguin, and Riddler managed to replicate the giggles and laughs accurately. Julie Newmar, to my ears, sounds just as she did in the mid '60s TV series. I don't agree with others that say her voice has aged. Catwoman sounded to me like the same flirtatious character from the TV series. If I happened to be writing this on Amazon's site I'd conclude by saying that this is definitely 5-star entertainment!! You can click the link below and read other comments from consumers...

AMAZON

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Jean Shepard: 1933-2016

The news broke a couple of hours ago of the death of Jean Shepard at the age of 82 due to Parkinson's Disease. If you're not familiar at all with her music/career then seek out Amazon or YouTube. In some circles of country music she became known as the Queen of Honky Tonk Music and some referred to her as The Honky Tonk Heroine (which, incidentally, became the name of a retrospective collection of her Capitol Records recordings in 1995). Discovered by Hank Thompson (himself a legendary country music artist), Shepard released her first single in 1953 titled "Crying Steel Guitar Waltz". The title alone should tell anyone reading that she preferred country music in it's most basic, purest form and that what became known as traditional country music in the '90s and beyond was labeled Honky Tonk in the '40s and '50s.

She found early success as a duet partner with Ferlin Husky in 1953 on "A Dear John Letter", a massive #1 country hit and a Top-10 pop crossover hit. They followed it up with "Forgive Me, John", and that became a Top-10 country hit and a Top-30 pop hit. Having been born in November of 1933, Shepard was still a teenager at the time of her first national success. In the '40s she had been a member of the Melody Ranch Girls, a group described as an all-girl band, formed in 1948. A 1996 box set from Bear Family, The Melody Ranch Girl, is a must-have if you happen to be a hardcore fan.

The impact year in the earlier part of Jean Shepard's career happened to be 1955. This is the year in which she became noticed for her solo recordings. She had issued 6 solo recordings during a 2 year span (1953-1955). As mentioned earlier her first solo recording was "Crying Steel Guitar Waltz" but 1953 was dominated by her 2 duet recordings with Ferlin Husky. In fact, none of the 6 solo recordings Capitol issued on Shepard made the national charts. The commercial turning point came in 1955...and the release of her version of "A Satisfied Mind". This is the perfect opportunity to explain some things about country music recordings of the era. In the '40s, '50s, and even into the early '60s it wasn't uncommon for country artists to record and release the same song in the same year. This kind of thing wouldn't be tolerated in today's music climate and is frowned upon by music critics and consumers largely because fans have come to feel that songs belong to only one singer or one group and that nobody else should attempt to record something that another singer has recorded. I don't share that opinion but millions of people do...

"A Satisfied Mind", in 1955, became a smash hit for three different country music artists in 1955. The biggest hit came from Porter Wagoner and his version hit #1; Red and Betty Foley took the song to #3; and Jean Shepard took the song to #4. The b-side, "Take Possession", charted at #13. Shepard's follow-up, "Beautiful Lies", also hit #4 and it's b-side, "I Thought of You", hit #10. In addition to her commercial impact that year she also became a performer on the Ozark Jubilee. The increased visibility enabled her to become one of the very few female country music performers on national television. She appeared on the series for several seasons.

Ironically, after having 4 consecutive Top-10 country hits in 1955, it would be 8 more single releases before she returned to the charts. She hit 2 more times (once late in 1958 and again early in 1959) but then entered another long string of non-charted releases. This non-chart activity can be traced to the choice of material. Her love of traditional country music at it's most purest didn't earn a lot of praise from the critics, DJ's, and fans of the style of country music being pushed in the late '50s and early '60s...that style being labeled The Nashville Sound. None of the single releases from mid 1959 through 1963 reached the charts. As I like to point out, though, a charted single means a song has become a commercial success but only because it's been played on radio...if a song isn't being played on radio then it obviously runs the risk of not being discovered by record buyers and therefore it isn't going to have the chance of becoming a "commercial hit". In other words don't let chart inactivity fool you into the belief that a recording "must not be good" if it doesn't make the charts".

The commercial fortunes turned around in Shepard's career in 1964 in a big time way. She released one of her signature songs in "Second Fiddle To An Old Guitar" and this recording hit the Top-10. This set in motion a string of single releases that consistently placed in the Top-50 of the country music charts (many of them peaking in the Top-20). By far the most commercially successful of her career is the 1964-1974 decade. She and Ray Pillow released a couple of hit duet recordings in 1966: "I'll Take the Dog" and "Mister Do-It Yourself".

Some of the songs she performed at the Opry on many weekends happened to come from the 1964-1974 time period: "Second Fiddle To An Old Guitar", "Slippin' Away", "Seven Lonely Days", and "The Tips of My Fingers". In addition to those songs she could also be seen/heard performing "A Satisfied Mind", "Under Your Spell Again", and I heard her perform "Twice the Lovin' In Half the Time" at least once on the Opry, if I remember correctly, but the songs I previously mentioned are the ones she performed much more regularly.

She had become a member of the Grand Ole Opry in November 1955. This is even more notable because she became the first female member of the Opry (in November 2015) to reach 60 years of membership. I'd say she appeared regularly at the Opry for at least 58 of those 60 years...slightly decreasing her appearances due to health reasons...but she did return to celebrate her 60th anniversary as an Opry member and then she officially retired.

In 2011 she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame some 58 years after having had her first success. A long overdue election to say the least but, at least, she was around to enjoy the honor.

Jean Shepard: November 21, 1933 - September 25, 2016