My mother and I were reluctant to admit it, but on Thursday nights, while my father was still at his dealership selling Chevrolets, we liked to watch The Ford Show on television.
Henry Ford's car company was our competition. If my father traded for a used Ford, he jokingly refused to say the dirty word. He'd spell it out, F-O-R-D.
But in this case The Ford Show referred not only to the sponsor, the Ford Motor Company, but also to the star, Tennessee Ernie Ford. The baritone from Bristol got his start on gospel radio. From 1956 to 1961 he hosted a half-hour variety show on NBC. It was in color, though Mother and I watched in black and white.
The final line of the song I owe my soul to the company sto made no sense to me until my mother explained. She grew up near the southeastern Ohio coal mines. The workers lived in a "company town" and bought their groceries on credit from a "company store" operated by their employer. Their wages were applied to their accumulated debt at the store. If they owed more than they earned, they might never see a paycheck, and they had no choice but to keep working.
Then he'd promise to see us the next week, "if the Good Lord's willin' and the creek don't rise. Good night, and bless your little pea-pickin' hearts!"
Ford had attended the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. While there, he performed in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operetta The Mikado, which is set in Japan. So when his TV show planned to do a Mikado skit as a medley of three songs, and the sketch continued to grow, Ernie suggested that they expand it to the full half-hour. They could do a condensed version of the whole operetta, with sets and costumes and everything.
And fifteen weeks later, on Friday, April 29, 1960, The Mikado returned in a bigger production on NBC's prestigious Bell Telephone Hour, with Donald Voorhees conducting the Bell Telephone Orchestra. The operetta was introduced by G&S veteran Martyn Green, who had adapted it for a one-hour time slot. The cast featured Wagnerian operatic soprano Helen Traubel in the role of Katisha, and Ko-Ko was played by the one, the only Groucho!
You can watch portions of the kinescope of this program online, including Groucho's "little list" here and his courtship of Traubel here. A poor-quality condensation of the first half of the program is here.
Having been exposed to Gilbert & Sullivan through these television productions, I bought a book of 14 songs to play on my new Baldwin organ. When I got to college five years later, I found that Oberlin had regular productions of the operettas, and I attended Patience and The Mikado and Ruddigore and The Gondoliers and Iolanthe.
Even today, I sometimes listen to recordings of these classics from the Victorian era. Thanks, Tennessee Ernie, for introducing me to G&S!