Monday, June 12, 2017

Sam Lovullo: 9/30/28 - 1/3/17

The passing of television producer Sam Lovullo back on January 3rd of this year (age 88) is something that I couldn't compose a blog entry about because of the impact he indirectly had on my own upbringing and life through a certain television program. I'm not going to say that his death impacted me in the way it did those that personally knew him (those in the entertainment business and his own family) but it was something I didn't want to write much about. If you're familiar with my blog entries about Hee Haw then you'll know how much I loved that program and how it was must-see television every Saturday, and later, Sunday, during the weekends in which I'd spend with my grandparents. Eventually I'd stop spending the weekends with them but I continued to watch Hee Haw any chance I could get at my own house (I have several siblings, two of them older than I, so a lot of the time I didn't "control" the second TV...but the times that I did I made it a point to catch Hee Haw!). Just this past Sunday night (June 11th) the episode of Hee Haw that aired on RFD-TV guest starred Bobby Goldsboro and The Oak Ridge Boys (from October 1978).

Born on September 30, 1928 Sam Lovullo became identified for most of his adult life as the driving force behind Hee Haw and as a result of being such a driving force it caused me to appreciate him even more. He didn't come off as a cynic or the kind of producer that distanced himself from the program's that carried his name. In Sam Lovullo I saw a television producer who was just as enthusiastic and a fan of the program as the viewers happened to be. In other words he wasn't a turn-off. Lovullo wrote about his professional career (with some backstage offerings added in) with the help of another author, Marc Eliot, in a book published in 1996 titled Life in the Kornfield: My 25 Years at Hee Haw.

The career of Sam Lovullo is often traced back to the CBS variety series, The Jonathan Winters Show, which aired for 2 seasons, 1967-1969. Several key people associated with Hee Haw were also involved in Jonathan Winter's program. Key people? None other than Hee Haw creators John Aylesworth and Frank Peppiatt. Lovullo happened to be an associate producer of Jonathan's program. In interviews and in the 1996 book, Lovullo stated that the ratings in the Southern states spiked whenever country music artists appeared on Jonathan's program and eventually this rating fact and the popularity of Laugh-In inspired the creation of Hee Haw in 1969. It hit the air this week on CBS in 1969 (actual debut being June 15, 1969). Sam Lovullo was not only the producer but he was also the casting director. This assignment gave him an even more hands-on approach to the show as it was Lovullo in charge of picking and choosing who was going to be part of the show's main cast (including the co-hosts, Buck Owens and Roy Clark).

The show had a summer run and after which it then went on hiatus. It returned later in the year as a mid-season replacement and was canceled once more in early 1970. Eventually, however, CBS picked the show up once more and added it to their 1970-1971 line-up. It was canceled one final time by CBS after the end of the 1970-1971 television season.

Not wanting to see the series end (and certain unemployment for almost all of it's staff...including the cast) Lovullo, more than anybody else connected with the show, believed the show could thrive in syndication...offering the show to local affiliates across the country to program during the local access time slot. The FCC had mandated that a certain time of the day were to be turned over to local affiliates to air local programming (Prime Time Access Rule) rather than every channel being consumed by national/network programming. This rule, instituted in 1970, aided the syndicated market in a big way...and first-run syndication broadcasts eventually became just as profitable and just as attractive to sponsors as network broadcasts. Interestingly, this FCC rule was repealed in 1996, the year Sam's Life in the Kornfield book hit the stores.

As history shows, Sam Lovullo remained a vital part of Hee Haw and he remained it's driving force throughout it's entire 22 years in syndication (1971-1993). The 1992-1993 season, however, was a compilation series of sketches and music performances to celebrate the program's Silver Anniversary. The final first-run episode of Hee Haw aired on May 30, 1992.

In addition to The Jonathan Winters Show and Hee Haw, Sam Lovullo produced several variety programs in his career. A majority of those were one-time specials rather than a series. One of those one-time specials starred John Wayne...the 1970 NBC special, Swing Out, Sweet Land. Lovullo happened to be the associate producer, technically. It was filled to the brim with all kinds of celebrities from all time periods...and those celebrities mostly all portrayed historical figures from all different time periods...and you can watch it on YouTube. Roy Clark is on the special as a banjo player for Andrew Jackson's inaugural ball.

Yet the most notable of Sam's non-Hee Haw efforts, which happened to be a weekly series, is Nashville Palace. The program aired in the early 1980s and it featured a lot of cross-over with the stars of Hee Haw but the Palace was a conventional variety series. In fact, Roy Clark hosted the first episode of Nashville Palace (airing October 24, 1981). The Palace series happened to be one of the last regularly scheduled, country music-oriented, variety programs on network television for more than a decade. It also aired prior to the 1983 launch of cable television's The Nashville Network, also known as TNN (1983-2000). Reruns of Hee Haw would air on TNN for four years (1993-1997).

From 2009 until 2011 Sam was the President of the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters organization. 

The Oklahoma Historical Society put together a salute to Hee Haw in 2014 (the 45th anniversary of it's 1969 debut) and a video retrospective/documentary was also put together. You can see that video by clicking HERE. As you could imagine Sam Lovullo is featured several times throughout the video clip.

TVLEGENDS, a YouTube channel, has a 10-part interview with Sam Lovullo. Some, if not all, of the segments have extremely low volume, you may need to adjust your device's volume. You can see part 1 by clicking HERE. You can access the rest of the clips once you're over on YouTube.

This book is something that I highly recommend. Although I do not think it is in print anymore it never hurts to check on-line auction sites. I purchased this book when it was 'hot off the presses' in 1996. At the time of the book's release Hee Haw had been airing in reruns on The Nashville Network since 1993 and Time Life had been offering a VHS called Hee Haw Laffs. TNN originally aired their reruns of Hee Haw on Saturday night at 7pm Eastern and they would re-air at 10pm. By the time the book hit the stores TNN had re-arranged it's Saturday night line-up and Hee Haw no longer aired at 7pm but it remained in the 10pm slot following The Statler Brothers Show. The Opryland Theme Park had also began staging a live production of the hour program called Hee Haw Live which featured recreations of sketches, characters, and imagery on a sound stage at the Opryland park. If I remember correctly the half hour program was broken into 2 segments: 30 minutes of comedy and 30 minutes of serious performances of country and gospel music. I think this production lasted a couple of seasons. Several of the show's longtime cast members (Lulu Roman, Grandpa Jones, George Lindsey, and Gunilla Hutton) appeared in this Opryland production in addition to several newcomers (one of them a guy named Jason Petty...who later became extremely popular as Hank Williams in the Lost Highway production). In the book Sam tells the story behind Hee Haw and it's massive popularity in first run syndication. A cast-member and selected guest star section is featured as is an exhaustive break-down of the behind the scenes crew. A lot of the information from the book is also covered in those TVLEGENDS YouTube video clips I earlier mentioned.