January 7, 2008
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.
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.
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. (Until
late 1956, we didn't have a TV set at all.)
"the old pea-picker," Ernie played up his southern accent
and clowned around with guests such as Charley Weaver, portrayed by
he was also a talented vocalist who had had a big hit in 1955 with
"Sixteen Tons." (Click the picture for a YouTube clip.)
When my mother first heard the impassioned climax of this song, she
remarked that she hadn't realized ol' Ern could sing so well.
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.
admired the fact that in the final five minutes of the show, after
the Hollywood tomfoolery was over, Ernie always finished with a
hymn. Other than Perry Como during the holidays, no other
variety show dared to do that. (Click the picture for another clip.)
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!"
over on CBS, Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operettas appeared several
times on the Sunday-afternoon anthology Omnibus.
The very first broadcast in 1952 included ten minutes of highlights
from The Mikado. A half-hour version of The Pirates
of Penzance was featured in the fourth season. (Click the
picture to see the kinescope.)
Ernie had attended the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. While
there, he performed in The Mikado. 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, which is set in Japan, using sets and costumes and everything.
show aired at 9:30 on Thursday, April 16, 1959. In his
down-home voice Ernie narrated the improbable story, and he also
played the comic lead, the hapless executioner Ko-Ko.
watched, enthralled. The New York Times wrote, "The
result was a delightful sampling of G&S, presented with
professional taste and style worthy of a major production. . .
. Mr. Ford certainly fooled those who might tend to think of him only
as a Peapicker."
production was such a success that another Gilbert and Sullivan
classic, H.M.S. Pinafore, was presented on January 14,
1960. Ernie played naval officer Sir Joseph Porter.
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
the time, we knew Groucho Marx mostly as the host of You Bet Your Life.
(Say the secret woid and win a hundred dollars.)
Coincidentally, this game show aired immediately after The Ford Show
at 10:00 pm on Thursdays.
the time, I had never seen a Marx Brothers movie. Now, in
hindsight, I realize that Groucho as the Lord High Executioner was
not that far removed from his movie persona.
the movies, he had to woo elderly Margaret Dumont while delivering
quips written in the 1920s by George S. Kaufman.
The Mikado, he had to woo elderly Helen Traubel while
delivering quips written 40 years earlier by William S. Gilbert.
flowers that bloom in the spring (tra-la)
Have nothing to do with the case.
got to take under my wing (tra-la)
most unattractive old thing (tra-la)
With a caricature of a face."
can watch portions of the kinescope of this program online. A
poor-quality condensation of the first half is here,
and Groucho's courtship of Traubel is here.
complained when Groucho's 15-year-old daughter Melinda (who had appeared
with him a few years earlier on You Bet Your Life) was cast as
Peep-Bo, one of the Japanese "three little girls from
school." Melinda was not trained in opera like the other
two "little girls." Actually, to me, her unaffected
singing voice sounds the way a naïve schoolgirl should sound.
later found that I was able to purchase the music featuring this
cast on an LP record. The recording is still available.
Click the picture at the right for a link to amazon.com, where you
can listen to excerpts.
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 enrolled in 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
today, I sometimes listen to recordings of these classics from the
Victorian era. Thanks, Tennessee Ernie, for introducing me to G&S!