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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Betty White's "Tired Blood" and John Wayne's Plea in Incredibly Strange Television

Posted By on Wed, Aug 8, 2012 at 7:30 AM

When I got promoted to "person in charge of the categories" at The Video Zone in Fresno in the early 1990s, I went mad with my newfound power and created a new section: Cult. (I'd actually wanted to call it Midnight, but the company that we bought our category stickers from didn't have any that said "Midnight," so "Cult" it was.) Since we now had a Cult section, I finally had the justification I needed to indulge in my love of compilation tapes, which were basically video mixtapes of old movie trailers and social guidance films and commercials and other ephemera, the kind of thing I'd been introduced to by USA's Night Flight. This was all waaaaaay before YouTube, so compilation tapes were the only way could watch this stuff.

I ordered Sleazemania!, Sleazemania Strikes Back, Sleazemania III: The Good, the Bad and the Sleazy, Rhino's Guide to Safe Sex ... y'know, the classics. They had one thing in common: Johnny Legend produced them. Not only is Johnny Legend still at it, he's bringing two new compilation series to the Roxie: Incredibly Strange Television on Monday, August 13 and Tuesday, August 14, and Shock and Noir on Wednesday, August 15.

Shock and Noir on Wednesday is comprised of "some of the strangest and most demented" episodes from the anthology shows Four Star Playhouse (1953 and 1955), GE Theater (1955, starring Ronald Reagan!) One Step Beyond (1960), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1962), and Thriller (1961). It looks like great stuff, but I'm more excited about Incredibly Strange Television.

The first night of Incredibly Strange Television on Tuesday is subtitled "The Birth (and near Death of TV Comedy," and the two 90-minute programs include plenty of firsts, such as the pilot episode of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950) and The Beverly Hillbillies (1962), as well as a failed attempt to bring Ozzie and Harriet back to television in the most excruciatingly 1970s way possible (1973, naturally).

But Incredibly Strange Television's Wednesday show is the high point of the series, with a title clearly designed to bring joy into the hearts of lifelong compilation-tape lovers such as myself: "TV in Acidland." Oh yeah, that's the stuff.

It's again divided up into two programs, and the first program, "In The Beginning..." looks at the evolution of mostly-live television from the 1940s through 1955, and through clips rather than full shows. Now, back then, celebrities would do commercials in the middle of their programs, and it was no big deal. In-show advertising by the stars is a phenomenon that's likely to return, particularly as the Internet and DVRs are making traditional commercials increasingly moribund, and who knows? We may yet again see Betty White doing a live commercial for Geritol, though she may not be able to hide her disgust at the taste as well as she does at 1:13.

Even Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, who were much bigger stars at the time than anybody remembers now, opened one of their shows using their sponsor Colgate-Palmolive's fine cleaning and hygiene products.

The second program, "The Modern Age," begins in 1955, the year that the status quo started to get worried. On You Bet Your Life, the now-obscure Lord Buckley (who was no spring chicken) demonstrates hip-speak to a baffled but still-riffing Groucho Marx.

Even more than jive talk, Elvis Presley was the symbol of a youth culture that was spinning out of the control of the olds. He made the variety show rounds in 1956, and while his appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show are the most famous, they're also atypical in that Ed actually treated Elvis with a modicum of respect. Milton Berle, not so much.

Though he's nowhere near as iconic today, in 1976 John Wayne was the symbol of rugged / individualistic / arch-conservative / right-wing America. In this Bicentennial PSA, he asks people to buy savings bonds, explaining that America was only able to do so many great things -- mostly couched in Manifest Destiny terms -- over the past two centuries because of the money "loaned" to the government by its citizens.  Who knew that John Wayne was a filthy socialist?

Once upon a time the Sunday comics were a major selling point of newspapers, with single strips taking up an entire page. But by the early 1980s both their popularity and size were shrinking, in spite of the fact that strips like "Little Orphan Annie" and "Garfield" were being turned into plays, movies, and television shows with varying degrees of success. Hence, this crudely animated PSA trying to lure the public back to the comics pages. (Brenda Starr being jealous of Annie's movie deal is somewhat ironic, considering how the Brenda Starr movie eventually turned out.)

Those are just seven-and-a-half minutes from the 165 total minutes of "TV in Acidland," not to mention the rest of Incredibly Strange Television and Shock and Noir. Go watch 'em all at the Roxie.


Sherilyn Connelly is a San Francisco-based writer. She also curates and hosts Bad Movie Night at The Dark Room, every Sunday at 8pm.

Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF (follow Sherilyn Connelly on Twitter at @sherilyn) and like us on Facebook.

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