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