A Sorrowful Passing
Multiple autopsies for classic TV’s musical-variety genre have been performed. The cause of death is the subject of much debate and conjecture. The truth is, the causes are many and varied and knowing them doesn’t raise the dead. The classic TV musical-variety show has all but disappeared from even the infinite scroll of streaming media services.
One source defines musical-variety shows as, “an anthology of unrelated performances (be they musical, comedic, dramatic, etc.) by different performers.” Current efforts to make use of the format merge musical-variety and gameshow formats into shows such as American Idol and America’s Got Talent. These hybrid formats are proving successful, and echo some early TV attempt such as Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour and Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. They are somewhat distinct from a true musical-variety, however, in that a large part of the entertainment is based on the competition. The drama from the narrative of an amateur’s rise to fame, not the performances themselves, drives the show.
The same familial relationship exists between musical-variety, and current daytime and late-night talk shows. While these shows share many common elements, today’s chat shows rely on the informal interview with celebrities to generate much of their entertainment value. This makes them distinct from shows which rely solely on the artistic performances of the stars to provide entertainment throughout. The last real network effort to revive this format came in 2015-16 when NBC tried an 8-episode run of Best Time Ever starring Neil Patrick Harris.
However, many of the first, real, classic TV hit shows were of the musical-variety format. It was an was a natural progression for existing entertainers and producers; from vaudeville, to the radio musical-variety show, to the television musical-variety format. These shows trailblazed through TV entertainment in the late 1940’s and 50’s. Texaco Star Theatre made Milton Berle a household name in the late 1940’s. Perry Como, Ed Wynn, Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason and many lesser names were bringing music, comedy and entertainment to America before 1950.
A Demand for Variety
The decade of the 50’s exploded with musical-variety shows. Well over 100 musical-variety format shows appeared on the networks throughout the decade. These were supplemented by many “specials” or single episode programs, that used the musical-variety format. Many of the shows confirmed host’s existing stature as a star and were eponymous. Other titles highlighted the corporate sponsors in their names, such as Texaco, Colgate and Chevrolet bringing these brands into American living rooms.
Most shows introduced America to new and upcoming stars. These shows had a voracious appetite for guests to provide the entertainment Americans craved. Opportunity abounded for entertainers, both well-known and up-and-coming, and from diverse cultural backgrounds. This demand for “variety” on TV provided a unique, and currently missing, entertainment function; bringing disparate ideas, artistic genres, faces, and cultures together into American homes and introducing them to new audiences.
This juxtaposition of entertainers turned these early TV shows, often unintentionally, into refractions, not reflections, of American culture. They showed an incomplete or distorted image of America, but one that often revealed deeper truths.
A Moment of Truth
The clip above is from the December 11, 1960 airing of the Dinah Shore Show. Shore’s show was a consistent showcase for cross-cultural talent and helped bring many minority performers into the spotlight. This show brought together three superbly talented singers, Dinah Shore, Andy Williams, and Ella Fitzgerald to celebrate a unique American contribution to musical culture, the Blues. The show brings together singers unlikely to share a performance bill, Fitzgerald and Williams. This juxtaposition helps introduce the performers to wider audiences and build respect across cultures in America at a time when such understanding was desperately needed.
The show opened strongly with a medley of well-known blues songs. The pure vocal talent displayed on this difficult opening number is stunning. The live performance lasts about 8.5 minutes and incorporates several songs, key changes, rhythm shifts and performers’ movement around a complex set and lighting environment. It demonstrates very high production values and was certainly a challenge for directors, camera operators, set designers, lighting and sound personnel, as well as for the performers.
The sequence produces one cringe-worthy moment when viewed through the prism of over 60 years of civil rights history. At about 3:30 in the clip, the three stars are meant to join hands and move forward on the set together. The moment has the potential to be an inspiring moment, showing Americans, Black and White, joining hands to move forward through the power of song.
Unfortunately, Williams fails to join hands with Fitzgerald, and he and Shore move forward together, leaving Fitzgerald separated and momentarily grasping to join the group. The moment passes quickly as the professional of the performers push on.
Certainly, the moment may have been unintentional and the result of the pressure of the live performance. However, it is hard not to see this brief hesitation as a refraction of larger issues in America in 1960. The country was grasping to find a way to join hands, with not everyone sure if it should or wanted to.
A Death by Technology
In today’s unlimited entertainment environment, on-demand and streaming provide America with the opportunity to see all their favorites, all the time, uninterrupted. Viewer’s entertainment is curated solely by the individual, not by network or family gatekeepers. Within families, people seldom share the same entertainment stream. As a result, they don’t share cultural narratives, popular icons nor a sense of ascendant trends.
Today, there is no need to sit through an unknown act just to hear one you love. Programming targeted to narrow market segments offers little opportunity to place icons from different cultures together on a stage and have them perform, and find common ground, in American living rooms.