A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to chat with Drew Carey in conjunction with the upcoming DVD release of PBS’s “American Masters: Johnny Carson,” for which Carey was interviewed, and at some point in the conversation, we got to talking about the phenomenon of summer replacement series. In a world where cheesy, cheap-to-produce reality shows tend to fill the programming void while your favorite shows take their annual summer hiatus, we sometimes forget that there used to be a wealth of cheesy, cheap-to-produce variety shows.
Okay, so maybe they weren’t significantly more substantive in the long run, but here it is almost 40 years since the glory days of these programs – I speak of the ‘70s, of course – and they’re still remembered at least semi-fondly by those of us who lived through the era. Here’s a look back at some of the series that kept us relatively entertained during June, July, and August when I was a kid…
1. Make Your Own Kind of Music (NBC, 1971): Riding high on the soft-pop success of singles like “Close To You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun,” brother-and-sister duo The Carpenters were given their own variety show in the summer of ’71, although it’s one that occasionally slips under the radar for fans of the group due to the fact that their name wasn’t actually in the title. It’s also the sort of program that further cements the Carpenters’ reputation as being less than hip, what with guests like the Doodletown Pipers and Al Hirt, but let’s just remember that, in 2012, a heck of a lot more people still listen to the Carpenters than the Doodletown Pipers. All told, I think it’s fair to say that Karen and Richard had the last laugh.
2. The Helen Reddy Show (NBC, 1973): Yeah, yeah, she was woman, we heard her roar…but that’s really about all most people remember about Helen Reddy’s musical career anymore, though. (I’d almost forgotten about “Delta Dawn” ’til I started writing this piece, and I still can’t place “Angie Baby,” even though it was apparently also a #1 hit for her.) Nowadays, you’re more likely to have people think back to her gig as a very special guest star on “The Muppet Show,” or maybe her occasional stints as an actress, as seen in such ’70s classics as “Airport ’75″ and “Pete’s Dragon.” Oh, right, and that really was her saying “Helen Reddy, standing by” in that episode of “Family Guy.” But in ’73, Reddy got a boost in profile from Flip Wilson, who apparently had a hand in selecting her to serve as the summer replacement for his variety series.
3. The Bobby Darin Amusement Company (NBC, 1973): By the end of 1973, crooner Bobby Darin would be dead, his perpetually poor health finally getting the best of him (he died from complications during heart surgery), but in his final year, he took to the small screen for a summer variety series that continued to prove his versatility as a interpreter of popular song.
4. Tony Orlando & Dawn (NBC, 1974): Anyone who watched “The Sonny & Cher Show” in the ’70s likely barely missed a beat when they offered up their summer replacement. The swarthy Tony Orlando and his soulful singers Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson followed almost exactly the same format as Sonny and Cher, except that this time it was a duo of formidable women hurling insults at a mustachioed male. Otherwise, though, it was songs and comedy and guest stars, i.e. business as usual.
5. The Hudson Brothers (CBS, 1974): More children of the ’70s probably remember the Hudson Brothers for their Saturday morning series, The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show, but before that, they also had a shot at prime-time success. For better or worse, their time spent with the kiddies is what’s kept them in people’s memories more often than not. (Well, that and the song “So You Are A Star,” which is still just as great now as it ever was.)
6. The Manhattan Transfer (CBS, 1975): Best remembered by pop listeners for the 1981 song “The Boy from New York City,” the ’70s incarnation of the Manhattan Transfer were way, way more likely to pay tribute to jazz and vocal classics on their short-lived variety series. This was the sort of series that your parents and grandparents probably loved, but you probably wandered off to…well, to do just about anything else, really. Great singers, those folks, but they definitely didn’t play to the youngsters…
7. The Jacksons (CBS, 1976): Proof positive that “The Jacksons” was a long time ago: Janet and LaToya are only introduced as “the Jackson girls.” It wouldn’t be long before Michael’s success as a solo artist allowed him to extricate himself from his siblings and escape their gravitational pull at least a little bit (not that they wouldn’t perpetually drag him back in), but here they appear to still be having at least a little bit of fun together.
8. The Keane Brothers (CBS, 1977): Some teen idols make it and sometimes they don’t. You’d think that the mere accomplishment of getting your own TV show would put you in the former category, but be honest: have you ever heard of the Keane Brothers? I’m an obsessive pop-culture geek, and even I had to look them up.
9. Shields and Yarnell (CBS, 1977): It’s hard to say that mime really gets a bad rap, per se, because it really can be quite annoying when you’re all but assaulted on the street by a guy pretending to be trapped in a box, but it’s even harder to imagine that there was a time when mime actually warranted a place on the primetime line-up. Shields and Yarnell were such a big deal in the ’70s that they even hosted “The Muppet Show” and, more impressively, earned the cover of Dynamite Magazine. (Trust me, if you were a kid in the ’70s, this was a really big deal.) But it’s hard to imagine that too many people were bummed out when the summer of ’77 ended and “Shields and Yarnell” departed the airwaves.
10. The Starland Vocal Band (CBS, 1977): There are precisely two things that keep the Starland Vocal Band’s series worth mentioning 35 years after the fact: the fact that David Letterman was part of the cast and writing staff, if you can believe it, and this song, which is still recognized as a kitschy classic and, thanks to “Anchorman,” likely always will be.
Tags: Make Your Own Kind of Music, Shields and Yarnell, The Bobby Darin Amusement Company, The Carpenters, The Helen Reddy Show, The Hudson Brothers, The Jacksons, The Keane Brothers, The Light from the TV Shows, The Manhattan Transfer, The Starland Vocal Band, Tony Orlando and Dawn, Will Harris