Sunday, January 18, 2015

Don Harron: 1924-2015

Canadian born actor, writer, emcee, humorist, comedian Don Harron has passed away at the age of 90. His death happened yesterday January 17, 2015. Born in September 1924, Harron became popular in the early 1950s in his native country as Charlie Farquharson, a rustic philosopher-type prone to malaprops, one that had an opinion on anything. After the news broke of his death there have been hundreds of memorial pages that have popped up on-line...most of them originating in Canada...and some of the sites use the same biography but this is typical and nothing to complain about. After someone in the celebrity world passes away, an official memorial press release is issued and then bloggers, reporters, and media sites pick up on the press release and share it on their sites with their audiences. After more than a decade and a half as a Canadian celebrity on radio and television, Don became one of the original members of the television program, Hee Haw, when it debuted on CBS in the summer of 1969. After it's summer run, it returned as a mid-season replacement late in 1969 and it continued production of new episodes through early 1971. It was canceled by CBS in 1971 during the Rural Purge (the nickname given to the network's decision to drop any television programs that had massive appeal with rural America and, or, older audiences).

During the program's hiatus Don continued his association with the show because decisions had been made that the program would remain in production for the syndicated market and so by the fall of 1971 Hee Haw returned as a syndicated program. The irony is the local affiliates across the country, mostly affiliates of CBS, decided to continue airing the program in it's usual time-slot (Saturday evenings at 6pm Central, 7pm Eastern) as if it never had been canceled. If you check out some of my Hee Haw blogs you'll learn about the program's life span and it's production methods. Don wrote his own dialogue for the K-O-R-N segments.

For me, Don will always be Charlie Farquharson (last name pronounced, simply, as 'Fark-uh-son'). Before I decided to lower the price of my monthly cable bill, I used to get RFD-TV as part of one of the channel packages. I hadn't seen Hee Haw for nearly half a year and so I miss seeing the program and awaiting Charlie's newscasts. In the picture off to the right, in character as Charlie, Don makes one of his familiar funny facial expressions after reading a rather bizarre story...made more bizarre by the malaprops used in the story's description. The secret to Charlie's hold on a television viewer, in my opinion, was all in the comic timing. His delivery of the latest shenanigans taking place in Kornfield Kounty, that's the fictional place Hee Haw was set in, for example, or, his delivery of the latest divorce, marriage, or death happening in an assortment of fictional small towns...that delivery was breezy, up-tempo, and peppered with just enough innuendo to cause one to say to themselves "did he really say that??". The K-O-R-N routine was always funny and it's at it's hysterical best when Charlie hastily segues from one story to the other to the other, filling each of them with some sort of malapropism. One of my favorite one-liners from one of his 'broadcasts' is the time he reported on a cheapskate at a local bar. A waitress carrying a tray of glasses walked by and she tripped on something. Charlie looks at the camera and says of the cheapskate: "that's the first time the drinks were on him! Hyuck, hyuck, hyuck!!". That last part is my attempt at spelling out Charlie's big laugh.

The collage below is clickable.

As mentioned, Don Harron continued his appearances on Hee Haw throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. He left the series at the end of the 1985-1986 television season as part of a sweeping overhaul of the cast. One of the program's co-hosts, Buck Owens, also left the series in early 1986.

I have taken some looks at several reports that originated in Canada and on one site there's video footage of Don in his early years.  You can also search YouTube and other video hosting sites to see footage of Don Harron.

Here are 2 sites that offer reports on Don Harron's death. You'll find out that there happened to be much more to Don Harron's career than his portrayal of Charlie.

Bellingham Herald

Broadway World

Here is a memorial story that appeared on-line several hours ago. You will see Don in his regular clothes, as himself, and of course you'll see him as Charlie...

Don Harron: 1924-2015

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Little Jimmy Dickens: 1920-2015

As those of you that are fans of classic country music or those that follow the Grand Ole Opry you no doubt have heard the news of Little Jimmy Dickens passing away at the age of 94 a couple of days ago (January 2). I've known of Little Jimmy Dickens for as long as I can remember...and I remember a lot of entertaining Opry segments throughout the 1990s and beyond that Dickens hosted. I'd estimate it being the mid 1980's as the time I first heard of Little Jimmy Dickens.

My grandparent's had attended one of his concerts at a local county fair and had told me about it...then I seen him on an episode of a country music program. His death marks the ending of an era at the Grand Ole Opry, too.

He had been the last surviving link to some historical performances and events that took place in the Opry's history post-1945 (having joined in 1948). Among members of the Opry, specifically those artists in the generation immediately following Dickens, include only Jean Sheppard (she's the only member currently on the roster that arrived in the 1950s). Jeannie Seely, Bill Anderson, Jim Ed Brown, and Connie Smith make up the next generation of Opry performers (artists that had their first major impact in the 1960s).

One of the funniest phrases that he liked to use before performing a ballad was something like this: "Thank ya, thank ya very much ladies and gentleman, we're gonna do this number for ya right now...I know you all haven't heard happened to be the flip-side of a flop record...". If a woman happened to be snapping pictures he'd often tell the audience that there's no need to take any pictures of him...he'd be glad to sit on their night-stands in person. The joke that seemed to always get the loudest laughs is the one he'd tell about the whisper.

Little Jimmy's Opry membership comes with an asterisk...having 2 separate runs. There's the first run, lasting 9 years, 1948-1957. Those are considered the golden era performances. In a move that may have seemed shocking at the time Little Jimmy departed the Opry, in 1957, and joined a competitor, the Philip Morris Country Music Show. This association lasted maybe a couple of years but an immediate return to the Opry wasn't forthcoming.

He eventually came back to the Opry in 1975 and remained a member up until his death. His last performance/appearance happened to be a day after his 94th birthday last month. 

He became a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1983.

As an artist Little Jimmy Dickens often gets painted as a novelty performer. This was basically due to his tendency to record ditties and sing-a-longs (not all of them humorous) but because not enough of his ballads and recitations received widespread acclaim or proper exposure he became noted as a comical artist. His performing style...especially in his early years on through the latter half of the 1980s...featured a physically bouncy delivery and frenetic guitar playing. His famed grin and eye winks, short stature, Nudie suits, and cowboy hat attributed to this notion that he was a 'novelty act'; but, audio and video footage also proves that he could deliver ballads and recitations like no other.

Little Jimmy Dickens was seemingly in great health on up through the early part of this decade. You could always count on seeing/hearing him at the Opry each weekend. In 2008 the Opry celebrated the 60th Anniversary of Little Jimmy's Opry induction (purists, though, reminded everyone that for 18 of those 60 years he wasn't a member of the Opry). He had suffered a light stroke several years earlier but suffered a further stroke on December 25, 2014 and died of a heart attack on January 2, 2015 at the age of 94 (he turned 94 on December 19th last year).

Sales spikes of several CD's on Little Jimmy Dickens have predictably appeared. The 16 Biggest Hits compilation is currently the #1 CD in the Classic Country/Nashville Sound category and ranked #31 among Today's Country (!). You can purchase it either in CD format or as an Mp3. The digital copy is ranked #85 among all digital purchases in Country Music. You can buy it HERE.

I happen to recommend a different collection. The Essential Little Jimmy Dickens is a 40 song collection and it captures the essence of Little Jimmy in various stages of his recording career (up through the mid '70s at least). The collection closes with an obscure truck driver's recitation, "The Preacherman" (from 1976). You can buy that Mp3 HERE. It's heavy on the novelty songs...but there are a lot of up-tempo non-comical songs on that collection that just can't be found hardly anywhere.

Those are collections you can get on a budget...however, if you so desire, you can invest in the career overview box set called Out Behind the Barn...

Amazon states that there are only 2 left in stock and so here's the LINK to the collection. The box set contains all of his Columbia Records recordings during a 9-year span, 1957-1966, and it includes a 48 page booklet.

Neither of the products I've given a link to contain his recitation of "You've Been Quite a Doll, Raggedy Ann". If you want that track you'll have to purchase it separately (that is, if you can find it on Mp3!). I've come across it on an out of stock CD, the I'm Little, But I'm Loud: The Little Jimmy Dickens Collection. It can also be found on a CD, available through the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, called Country Gold. You can read more HERE. There is an emotional video of Little Jimmy performing the song on an episode of a classic country music television can be seen on YouTube. I didn't embed the video because of the nature of videos being removed without notice. I didn't want to have a blank video box on this tribute post in case the upload becomes unavailable at a later date. If you search YouTube for "Little Jimmy Dickens + Raggedy Ann" you're most likely going to find the clip I'm referring to.

Some notable Little Jimmy recordings... "Hillbilly Fever", "Out Behind the Barn", "Life Turned Her That Way", "We Could", "A Death in the Family", "Country Music Lover", "Sleepin' at the Foot of the Bed", "Take an Old Cold Tater and Wait", "Country Boy", "I'm Little but I'm Loud", "Me and My Big Loud Mouth"...and in the obscure department he recorded "Farewell Party" years before Gene Watson.

Little Jimmy's biggest hit happened to be "May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose", a surprise hit single in 1965 that reached #1 and crossed over to the pop Top-20 (explaining the reason a national audience, perhaps, only knew of Little Jimmy for that one song).

The fans of classic country music and those that made their journey to the Grand Ole Opry certainly knew of Little Jimmy Dickens for much more than 1 novelty recording. In later years he became popular for his comical pairings with Brad Paisley on the CMA awards and on CD.

James Cecil "Little Jimmy" Dickens

December 19, 1920 - January 2, 2015

Monday, December 22, 2014

Jack Benny at 40...Situations and Conversations... you hear anything? Silence...that's one of the more unusual punchlines in all of comedy. Jack Benny used silence to great advantage...and he also used characterization to great advantage too.

Do you remember the first time you heard of Jack Benny? Are you among those that discovered him in the decades after his death? Did you witness his career first hand and do you remember the time he had a weekly television series? Are you among the age group that remembers hearing Jack Benny on radio each Sunday night at 7? Going further back, do you know of anybody that remembers Jack Benny as a performer in Vaudeville? This week marks something sad in American comedy...something that happened 40 years ago this week on December 26, 1974. That is the day the physical world lost Jack Benny at the age of 80. His television and radio programs, movies, magazine articles and books about him, and a host of documentaries about his life and career have kept him 'alive' in the time since. I became aware of Jack Benny through my grandfather. I used to spend the weekends with my grandparent's and every Sunday morning on the local PBS station my grandfather would be up watching reruns of Jack's program. I'd watch out of curiosity, at first, but even at that young of an age I had some sort of an attachment to classic TV and I still can't easily explain the reason for it.

Do you have a favorite cast member? Excluding it's star, Jack Benny, which other cast member ranks high on your list? Jack had a small regular cast and a large recurring/ensemble cast made up of character actors and actresses. The main cast during much of it's radio run during it's golden period happened to be: Jack Benny, Mary Livingstone, Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson, Don Wilson, Dennis Day, and Phil Harris. Some of the ensemble cast included the likes of: Mel Blanc, Frank Nelson, Artie Auerbach, Sam Hearn, Benny Rubin, Verna Felton, Bea Benaderet, Sara Berner, Joseph Kearns, Sheldon Leonard, Barbara Pepper, among others. Phil Harris left the radio cast in 1952 (after 16 seasons) and his spot was taken over by Bob Crosby for the remaining 3 seasons of the radio program. Bob later appeared, infrequently, on Jack's television program. One of his most notable episodes being the one guest starring Humphrey Bogart.

Do you have a favorite comic device? Jack's on-air cheapskate character became so believable that some felt he truly did have a moat, alligators, falling knives, a vault, and a security guard in his basement protecting the fortune. It also helped that Jack embellished and played up this character trait in numerous personal appearances on talk shows and on other comedian's programs (such as Burns and Allen, The Fred Allen Show, and The Red Skelton Show).

In one radio episode it's revealed that Jack loves money so much he kept a stack of Confederate money in his vault just in case there's another Civil War. Jack remarks to himself, as he's eying his millions, that if the South would've won he'd have been a billionaire.

Are you familiar with the running gag of his age being 39? It stopped at 39...and a lot of blogs and other fan-created offerings include "39" somewhere in their tributes and salutes as an in-joke. In my blog title I chose to use "40" because this marks the 40th anniversary of his 1974 death.

Did you know that he really didn't live right next door to Ronald and Benita Colman? On radio the couple made several visits and portrayed themselves as living right next door to Jack...he was always inviting himself to their upper-class dinners or their other high society gatherings. Even on episodes that didn't feature Ronald and Benita, in person, Jack often referred to them as his next door neighbors and counted them among his most loyal friends (comments like that brought in huge laughs due to Jack's obliviousness to the Colman's real feelings.)

As you can tell these are comical situations...requiring the zero use of one-liners or actual joke telling to induce laughter. It's been said that Jack's radio format featured the first known use of the elements that make up a conventional sitcom (an abbreviation for situation comedy).

I have several books about Jack's life and career. The oldest one is the book that his manger, Irving Fein, wrote entitled, Jack Benny: An Intimate Biography, published in 1976...

One of the ironies of life are critics. One of the funniest things, to me, are the consistent criticisms by those that read whatever it happens to be pertaining to Jack Benny and then proceed to criticize some publication for either being overly critical and negative or being glossed over and positive. Such polarizing feelings are largely because of how passionate one happens to be about Jack's career. Having said that it must be brought up that the authors of the books are not exactly movie or television critics. In the case of Irving Fein, he happened to be Jack's manager and therefore his style of storytelling and his recollections are largely going to center around his personal, first-hand experiences dealing with Jack and the Hollywood establishment and his recollections are going to be business-oriented but at the same time relay information about Jack's career, too. The book has a photograph section...and yes, some of the photo's I've not seen become available on-line and so this book continues to be the only place to find some of these images. I wrote a book review in January 2004 on Amazon and if you're interested in reading it here's the LINK. That must have been several weeks or months after I had purchased the book.

After the 1975 book, the second oldest is the book that Joan Benny authored titled Sunday Nights at Seven: The Jack Benny Story. This particular book came along in 1990. I got my hands on a copy much later than that. I got onto the internet for the first time in 2002 and so I arrived to the on-line world nearly 10 years after it's explosion in popularity in the mid-late '90s. One of the first places I became a member of happened to be an on-line auction site. One of the first items I purchased was this 1990 half biography/half memoir. Joan Benny (daughter of Jack and Mary) wrote a majority of this book but it includes pages of memories and recollections from her father...meant for an autobiography that never materialized during Jack's lifetime. The book is entertaining, revealing, and in some places very opinionated. Some of the more intimate among Jack's circle of celebrity friends had some disagreements with some of the depictions of Mary, as seen through Joan's remembrances, and some felt the story didn't do much to bolster Jack's legacy but those familiar with the book all seemed to agree that the greatest parts of the book are the passages from Jack Benny circa the early 1960s. The title comes from Jack's long-running time slot on radio. 

This rare, one of a kind book is something I often mention during moments like this when I salute Jack Benny but I don't believe I've ever posted an image of it on-line before!?! It's been in my possession for probably as long as the other books...since the mid 2000s. This one is a great reference book. It's called Jack Benny: The Radio and Television Work. It's publication year is 1991 and it's by The Museum of Television and Radio. This may not be a book that's entirely appreciated by the masses but it's great for those like myself who like to read about Jack's radio and television appearances and learn about specific air-dates, network affiliation, sponsors, cast line-ups, and guest stars. I snapped a picture of the back of the book, too. On page 128 the famed mock feud with Fred Allen is dissected, nearly episode by episode, starting in the mid '30s and going forward. The book is broken into various sections and segments...presumably each section being written by a member of the Museum at the time of the book's publication. There are fabulous pictures of Jack and the rest of the gang from the radio and television years. The book has a passage from William S. Paley (former CBS President), Robert Batscha (Museum President), and a Foreword by Larry Gelbart (comedy writer primarily known for M*A*S*H).

As a kid the thing that stood out the most for me is that among the Jack Benny cast was Mel Blanc (voice of many cartoon characters...Bugs Bunny being the most popular).

Mel Blanc, in character as Professor LeBlanc, is filled with annoyance and extreme hostility and contempt for Jack's expertise (?) at the violin. Professor LeBlanc and Jack had a signature comic routine built around a violin lesson. In the routine Jack would play a series of notes, half good, and the Professor would sing comical insults about Jack's playing. Here's one I made up...if you are familiar with the melody sing-a-long with LeBlanc: "Tune the strings a little higher -- You're no Heifetz I'm no Liar". Professor LeBlanc is just one of the many characters that Mel Blanc portrayed on Jack's radio and television programs. Aside from the Professor, one of Mel's most famous characters is Sy, a Mexican from Tijuana. In the comic routine Jack and Sy exchanged greetings...actually, Jack did most of the talking while Mel's character delivered one word responses. As usual, Jack played the straight man to Mel's antics. In fact, while known for being a comedic icon, Jack often played the straight man during many of the sketches and monologues. He didn't deliver rapid fire jokes or tell one-liners or delve into topical humor. Jack's humor is rooted in situations and conversations...hmmm, let's see...doesn't the phrase 'Situations and Conversations' sound like a great title for a seminar on Jack Benny??. No? Okay'll remain part of the blog entry's title.

On radio and later, on TV, Mel Blanc made annual appearances during the Christmas episodes. Often cast as a sales clerk, Mel's character at the start of the episode is happy, calm, pleasant, and eager to help any customer. Jack purchases a gift...simple enough...but here's where the comedy comes in: Jack constantly changes his mind over what to buy a cast member for Christmas (usually announcer Don Wilson). Each time he visits Mel he either exchanges a gift for something else or he's forgotten to sign the gift card or he's written something on a gift card that he has since changed his mind about. Each and every time Mel has to catch the delivery man and retrieve the gift, Jack makes his changes, and off it goes to the delivery room once more...ready to be mailed out. Moments later, Jack would make another visit to Mel's counter. Visibly angered and near tears, Mel already prepares himself for Jack's inevitable wish to change something about the gift...and off he goes to the delivery room to try and catch the delivery driver before the truck takes off.

This remains one of several must-see memorials that aired following Jack's death 40 years ago. This one is hosted by Charles Kuralt and it features many appearances of Jack's radio and TV co-stars and peers.

Kelsey Grammer hosted a nice tribute to Jack in 1995...

Jack Benny and Frank Nelson bicker and converse about an upcoming airplane flight. Given that the routine takes place later in the episode, for those that hadn't seen the beginning, you aren't going to get the joke that Frank delivers near the end of his scene...

In the collage below there's Jack and character actor Charlie Cantor. He played various dimwit characters on Jack's radio and television programs; earlier he portrayed Socrates Mulligan in the original version of Allen's Alley on Fred Allen's radio program; most famously portrayed Clifton Finnegan on Duffy's Tavern. In the photo in the top right is Dennis Day (the program's tenor singer). Then it's the program's long-time announcer, Don Wilson, and next to Don is the orchestra leader, Phil Harris. Phil has a second appearance in the bottom row featuring his wife, Alice Faye. Lastly there's Jack and the Colman's reading over a script.

Amidst those highly entertaining figures that became associated with Jack Benny there is one cast member that you couldn't do a salute to Jack Benny without having this person mentioned somewhere...and that person is Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. For pretty much the length of the Jack Benny run on American entertainment, both on radio and on TV from the early 1930s through the early 1970s, Rochester typically had his share of on-air time and later, screen time...often poking fun at his boss' reputation for being cheap and refusing to purchase a modern-day car. Rochester acted as Jack's butler, chauffeur, cook, and tended to the outside chores (gardening, mowing the yard, etc. etc.). I believe Rochester also as in charge of keeping Jack's various pets fed: Carmichael the Polar Bear and Polly the Parrot (both voiced by Mel Blanc) and the alligators in the basement. Rochester always had a comical zinger to deliver and his scenes often ended with those. His exposure increased more and more in the television years as the setting became much more of a traditional, domesticated sitcom. On radio, since the Rochester character worked at Jack's house, he wasn't written to be a part a part of Jack's celebrity world and the only times Rochester would be heard interacting with Dennis Day or Phil Harris, for example, is if they visited Jack's house. The program had a show-within-a-show format. Scenes involving Rochester took place at Jack's house.

"Okay Boss...Pay Up..."
This by no means is meant to be a career retrospective or a life story of Jack Benny. If you are interested in his career, check out the various books that I made mention of and above all else check out the actual radio and television programs that Jack Benny starred in. His radio programs ran on radio for 23 years, 1932-1955. His television programs ran on TV for 15 years, 1950-1965. After this, Jack made several special one hour programs throughout the rest of the decade and into the early part of the 1970s before he became too ill to perform. Notable products attached to his program through the decades: Chevrolet, General Tire, Jell-O, Grape Nuts/Grape Nuts Flakes, Lucky Strike.

Jack Benny died on December 26, 1974 at the age of 80 due to complications from Pancreatic Cancer. He was buried on December 29, 1974...ironically on a Sunday...
Jack Benny: 1894-1974