Cold! Jeez. Eighty last week, thirty this week. Bitter grainy blowing snow, gazebo-lifting winds. April hates us and doesn’t care who knows it.
Hey, kids! It's everyone's favorite slo-load feature, Frame Grab Theater. Inasmuch as I have a point, it’s this: in these old shows you can find telling details of the time, or odd details that gain weight when supplemented by information the shows don’t provide. I watch these on my Mac, with a browser window open, and the minute something seems peculiar or different, it’s off to Google. You could call this Video Archeology, I suppose, but you’d sound like a pretentious bore trying to justify his love of lightweight visual ephemera. Luckily, that’s me! So let’s begin.
It's the host, reduced down to abstract elements. They move around, and Lo, His Face Was Made Known Unto Us:
It's Mister Creosote! No, of course not. It's the nation's beloved naughty grandpa:
You know him; you love him. (Even if you saw some of the later movies.) Julius "Groucho" Marx, a stage and film comedian who saw his career revived with that staple of Fifties TV, the game show. "You Bet Your Life," available on DVD, contained no actual wagering of one's existence; in fact, the game show portion was just an excuse to let Groucho interview ordinary folk, with varying degrees of skill, and deploy the occasional joke when the moment presented itself. The show sometimes paired ordinary folk with famous figures, although many of those names are unfamiliar to people today.
This fellow gave me a grin. Abe Lincoln as an Amish axe murderer:
You know he’s one of those guys – cheerful, abstemious, weird as a sun-stroked mongoose, and probably a devotee of some peculiar dietary regime.
He turned around to show the letters on his jacket:
World’s Champion Hitchhiker. Hmm. I scrubbed back to find his name – Devon Smith. I googed, and was rewarded: he ended up as wonderfully crazy as he began, making robots from recycled material. Photographs are here; a Pittsburg Gazette profile published a few years before his death is here. (He made it into the 21st century, I’m happy to say.)
The contestants came in pairs, usually unrelated. In this case, obviously unrelated:
She was introduced as Gladys Bentley. She said she was a singer and piano player.
Indeed she was.
What made me curious about this fellow?
Not much, at first: Prof. Charles Camp, U of C-Berkeley, a paleontologist. Then he mentioned he was working with Irwin Allen on a movie. "Who?" asked Groucho. The professor repeated the name, and mentioned his sole movie credit thus far, a nature film. Allen was doing something on dinosaurs next. I googled Charles Camp and Paleontology, and lo: he was not only the "father of paleontology," he was a North Dakotan by birth - and, it appears, either someone who may or may not have renounced athiesm on his deathbed in 1975 - a proposition debated on this 2002 website message board.
He also collected stereographs, and forgive me for a moment of sheer internet love here, but I almost wept with pleasure when I discovered that his collection is online.
Let's continue. Who's this?
You don't know? Neither did I. He doesn't seem surprised, but a trifle disappointed nevertheless. We'll come back to him.
Some of the shows have commercials intact, if they appeared in the program with Groucho's narration. He wasn't very good at reading ad copy, but it's amusing to hear him describe the virtues of Nash automotive technology. Dig this shot from the ad:
Bogey at One o'clock!
Let's return to the show. One of the more interesting guests was a fellow who was possessed by the spirit of Bugs Bunny:
Just kidding. Big man. Big life. I didn't know this: one of Tarzan's parents was Jewish. I also don't know of any other Groucho Marx guest who appeared on the cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." But I'll bet there's others.
The sponsors vary - and most are still around. Nash autos were absorbed into AMC, of course, but you can still find Pepsodent, and you can still buy this:
I include that for the packaging enthusiasts in the audience. The ad also noted this guarantee:
At the risk of being too impressed by all these old details, I find the picture above quite telling. And fascinating. And tellingly fascinating! Sorry; it's late. Point is, that's the Lever House in New York, a famous piece of modern architecture that was reproduced all across the nation in some form or another. It still stands, and modernists still make pilgrimages to the site. To put the building in the ad must have meant that people across the country knew the building, or would once the ad campaign made the point. You can see pictures here. We’ve seen so many lackluster knockoffs that the modern eye doesn’t immediately grasp its virtues. If I had my way, I would have built it elsewhere, but it is where it is, and it is what it is. Which is almost perfect.
Okay, one more guest.
A college professor and author. He was born in 1922; he got a degree at the University of Minnesota; his last book was published in 1990. He's still alive as of today. He's Mark Harris, and he wrote "Bang the Drum Slowly."
They changed the credits from year to year. One year they put Groucho into famous paintings:
Looks like a mug shot from an idealized Iowa jail. At least they assumed people would know the Grant Wood picture. Nowadays I fear half the boomers would think this was a reference to the opening credits of "Green Acres."
Oh, right. This guy:
Harry Ruby. Songwriter extraordinaire and a screenwriter, an unusual combination. By the time this show came along in 1956, his work was mostly over, but people still remembered his songs.
Let's end with one of them, eh? Here's Helen Kane, with "I Want To Be Loved By You." She's Betty Boop, obviously, the voice of the sweet, smart flirty woman of the years between the wars.
New Money and new Quirk, of course. See you tomorrow!
Oh, right. You hardcore Groucho fans are already irritated I haven't mentioned his cool & mostly-unflappable announcer, George Fenneman.
He agrees, but he's used to it.