Icon Restoration: Hazel Scott

Written By: Greg Howell - Jan• 17•20

Hazel Scott was an early pioneer in entertainment. She not only fought for equality in the industry, but demanded it. Her vocal and celebrated fight against segregation and unfair treatment of black entertainers established her as a leading civil rights trailblazer from New York to Hollywood.

The early 1950s were a unique time in the development of television history and the presence of actors of color on network TV. Most often referenced, of course, is the controversial Amos ‘n Andy show, which was a big hit on CBS, and the show was a giant in syndication until its removal from television in 1966. The all-black cast, which included Alvin Childress, Spencer Williams, Jr. Johnny Lee, and Ernestine Wade, delivered a bigger weekly national audience than I Love Lucy‘s early broadcasts in the fall of 1951.

Also on CBS, The Jack Benny Program co-starred Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. His role became the second most popular character on the Benny show, behind Jack Benny himself.

But that was only several of the African-American actors making an impression on television in those first few years of the 1950s. Ethel Waters and Butterfly McQueen gave ABC one of the network’s few hits, with Beulah. Hattie McDaniel filled in for a time in the title role, as well. ABC, also in 1952, broadcast “The Billy Daniels Show,” starring the successful singer famous for his million-selling, 1950 hit, “That Old Black Magic.”

And there was Hazel Scott, the iconic powerhouse and civil rights leader that forged a dynamic path through the entertainment industry. She could not be bullied nor persuaded by money to capitulate to racial stereotypes or unfair treatment. She remarkably stood her ground, and she won her battles.

Prior to coming to television, Miss Scott was one of the most significant entertainers in the business. Considered amongst the greatest jazz entertainers of the era, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra. She famously refused to play any arena that was segregated. Upon arrival to discover that a venue was separated by the color of their skin, she turned on her heels and walked away. And her legendary performances led to a long and successful recording career, and ultimately landed her in Hollywood.

By the early 1940s, Hazel Scott had her own radio show, appeared at every top club in New York and beyond, and appeared on Broadway too. She then appeared in 5 motion pictures, always insisting that she was never portrayed as a subservient, and never playing a stereotype. During her final film, with Mae West, she again stood her ground with the director over racial stereotypes. Upon discovering all other African-American women were being forced to wear dirty aprons for a musical number, she famously said to the director, “No black woman would see her man off to war wearing a dirty apron.” Hazel went on strike. Finally, the director capitulated, after three days, and dressed the women in bright floral patterns; however, studio head Harry Cohn was furious over the additional costs due to the 3-day delay during the project, and promised that Hazel would not work in films again. And she didn’t.

Nothing stopped Hazel, and she returned to New York and continued her successful concert hall performances and recording career. It was during this time she met and married Adam Clayton Powell, the first black NY state congressman, fierce civil rights activist, and, from 1945 – 1971, the United States congressman (D) for New York. Scott also landed by on radio, hosting again her own radio program.

In 1950, buoyed by the success of her radio show, the unflappable Scott premiered The Hazel Scott Show on TV in early April. On the DuMont network, the show was so popular it quickly graduated from 1 night a week to 3 nights a week. With her greater national fame, however, came the inevitable resistance, and she was named a communist by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC). Against many’s concerns and requests for her to ignore, she voluntarily appeared before the committee, chastising them for destroying innocent lives and careers. A week later in late September, her show was cancelled after a 6 month run and excellent ratings. Hazel Scott had to move to Paris as an expatriate. Fortunately, she found renewed success, hosting and entertaining in Paris concert halls, as well as a growing group of entertainers also ruined by the HUAC.

In 1953, both Beulah and Amos n’ Andy were cancelled, with both still enjoying very high ratings. The long drought of no black entertainers or actors on television would last well into the sixties, with the occasional exception of guest appearances on white hosted variety shows, and the short run of Nat King Cole in 1956. Rochester from The Jack Benny Show would be the sole African-American on national TV until the mid-1960s.

Sources: https://www.wnyc.org/people/hazel-scott/ and https://blackthen.com/hazel-scott-first-african-american-woman-to-host-u-s-network-television-series/ and an excellent YouTube documentary:

Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Breakdown, November 13, 1955

Written By: Greg Howell - Jun• 09•18

The master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, puts his genius stamp all over this remarkable episode, The Breakdown, from early in the first season of 1955. Gripping, chilling, terrorizing, and psychologically horrifying and suffocating, this episode represents a notable leap forward in television production. No need to catch the closing credits! There is no doubt whom is directing this half-hour production.

As a work of art, Hitchcock creates a canvas that is as still as a frozen lake, yet as emotionally gripping and unforgiving as an erupting volcano. Hitchcock’s use of perspective and inaction envelopes an unforgiving character that emerges, in its complete  horror, as relatable to the viewers’ core, base humanity! It is a momentous achievement in any medium.

In 1955, no previous television dramatic production had utilized the wide spectrum and vivid language of film. Hitchcock delivers a masterwork to the small screen utilizing maximum effect of cinematography, sound, and editing. The utter stillness of the plot, the quick, barbed editing of the film, and the complete lack of melodrama elevate this episode (and series) so far into the stratosphere that all other dramatic television shows are exposed for their B-picture qualities.

Joseph Cotton stars as an elitist businessman that is so cold, he fires a long-time, loyal employee, then hangs up on him when he begins to cry. Leaving from Florida to New York in his luxury covertible, he wrecks into an inbound tractor. The remainder of the nightmarish episodes plays on our psychology of fear – essentially the fear of being buried alive or being erroneously identified as dead, and the fear of helplessness.

This episode, #7 in the new series, is decades ahead of its time;  delivering  new possibilities for television production, essentially proving that the small screen is equally capable of delivering cinema-quality entertainment.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and the 1980’s reboot ran for 14 seasons and produced 438 episodes, a whopping 304 HOURS of television! His opening and closing monologues and series graphics are hallmarks of great television iconography.

Weekly, he offered up dark and humorous anecdotes ridiculing himself, television, Hollywood, or just life in general. He once opined, ” Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to darkest Hollywood. Night brings a stillness to the jungle. It is so quiet, you can hear a name drop.”  At closing, he once dryly commented, ” I hope you’ll join us again next week, when we will present you with another story of gripping, spine-tingling suspense, and three boring commercials to take the edge off of it.” With 2 dozen Emmy nominations, the long-running, groundbreaking show won 3 trophies. Surprisingly, Hitchcock lost the award for his two directorial nominations. The show also won the 1958 Golden Globe for Television Achievement.

Roots, January 23 – 30, 1977

Written By: Greg Howell - May• 21•18

Roots is the dramatic television event that truly changed America. Overnight, a national dialog was created regarding the historical treatment of African Americans, and America had to face, head-on, the horrible truth about the American past and their ancestors.

ABC’s nervousness about the miniseries Roots was essentially financial. Suspecting the series would bomb and displace the newly crowned #1 network, ABC rethought the plan to run Roots weekly. All other miniseries, such as successful Rich Man Poor Man series, had run weekly, but ABC decided to run the series for 8 consecutive nights, just prior to the start of February ratings sweeps. ABC’s nervousness stemmed from the series’ portrayal of positive, black characters and their heroic survival despite cruelty from white, often brutal antagonists. The epic miniseries traced the life of enslaved Africans to America, beginning with Kunta Kinte in the mid 1700’s, concluding in the post-civil war era with his ancestors.

As Americans tuned into the show in record numbers, each day seemed to bring new light to the plight of civil rights and equality. Each day for white Americans was a time of evaluation, shame, humility, and ultimately, spiritual growth and national healing. Roots was the rare drama that actually changed perspectives. Classrooms across the country stopped scheduled lectures and discussed the previous nights episode. People discussed the show at their workplace, as well in their churches. And, of course, the media followed suit.

ABC earned the highest ratings in history at the time, and held the top 8 places in the national ratings Top Ten list. Later in the year, Roots won 37 Emmy Award nominations and took home 9 trophies. The concluding episode garnered 71% share of viewers, and was the highest American television audience of all time. Roots held that distinction for another 6 years, until the final episode of M*A*S*H aired in 1983.

While a few critics dismissed the event as soap opera, Roots aspired to greatness and significance, and it succeeded. The miniseries was based on author Alex Haley’s popular book of the same name. The epic concluded in 1979 with Roots II.

Maya Angelou perhaps summed Roots up the best, as noted in Time Magazine in 2016:

‘The book and the series both gave audiences an experience that wasn’t quite so much artistic as it was introspective. They gave audiences a question to answer, as she put it: “Admitting all that has gone before, admitting our duplicity, our complicity and our greed, what do we, all Americans, do next?”’

Quincy Jones produced the epic soundtrack, and it was released in 1977 following the success of the mini-series. It peaked on the Billboard Top 200 at #21 on April 2, 1977.

At this point in television, this seemed to be the breakout moment many had been calling for in television. Roots followed the great successes of the acclaimed and highly rated drama, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and the comedies Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, The Flip Wilson Show and Good Times. A fresh new wave seemed to be on the horizon with What’s Happening, 221, Amen, The Cosby Show, A Different World, Martin, In Living Color, and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, to name a few of the greatest successes; however, the movement cooled after the turn of the century, and only recently showed signs of new momentum.

 

Sources:

Museum of Broadcast Communications

The Rerun Is Born: October 20, 1952

Written By: Greg Howell - May• 13•18

ILOVELUCYAt the end of the 1951-52 television season, I Love Lucy had skyrocketed to the top of the ratings chart. In just its first season, 39 hilarious episodes were broadcast, each building on an audience that was breaking records. Like almost all other television shows, each broadcast was “watch it or miss it.” Even telefilms were most often limited to one run each. But in late spring, 1952, all of this was about to change.

The most notable rerun prior to Lucy was The Lone Ranger, who just months before (and after 78 consecutive weeks of televising new episodes), ceased production  during contract disputes with star Clayton Moore.  Over the summer, between finding a replacement for Moore to launch new shows for its third season in the fall of ’52, ABC rebroadcast The Lone Ranger telefilms. While these predate Lucy by a couple months, the ratings were only mediocre and the reruns produced little fanfare or notice.  No one seemed to notice that the shows were reruns, which speaks volumes about the quality of the Lone Ranger show.

Simultaneously, As I Love Lucy ended the first season,  the blockbuster show prepared to leave the air, like all other network shows, for the summer. In Lucy’s time slot, My Little Margie would run until the new fall season. It appeared, however, that the nation’s top show would not return in the fall, as Lucille Ball discovered she was pregnant.

In a landmark decision, producer and series creater Jess Oppenheimer decided to write her pregnancy into the show. This created a number of problems, the most significant was that Lucy would not be able to film enough episodes for the season’s full run. Suddenly it dawned on Oppenheimer that Lucy existed on film, as it was not produced live as other television shows of the era. Those beautiful black and white prints and high production values were about to come in very handy. Oppenheimer realized he could pad out the season with re-broadcast of some of the first season shows, particularly the earlier ones that many fans had missed.

Several techniques are employed, including the cast creating new footage as a “flashback” technique, and other times the rerun being introduced by the announcer Roy Rowan as an audience requested repeat. Even the flashback technique is influential, creating a device used in many television shows to come (probably the most notable being The Dick Van Dyke Show).

On October 20, 1952, just 6 episodes into the new second season, I Love Lucy reran “The Quiz Show”, the fifth episode from Season 1. Ultimately, 9 episodes were rerun during the 1952-53 season. The remarkable popularity of these repeat broadcasts changed the way the entire industry viewed programming. It was no longer a one shot deal. In fact, the popularity of re-running I Love Lucy on CBS broadcasts kept the show out of syndication until the the fall of 1967! CBS purchased the show from Desilu in 1957 and reran Lucy exclusively on CBS until it was offered to local stations via syndication. The show proved so popular in reruns, that CBS kept it on the prime time schedule for 2 full seasons after the show ended production in spring of 1957, then moved the show to daytime through the summer of 1967.  CBS finally replaced I Love Lucy reruns with, of course, reruns of The Lucy Show, which was nearing its primetime run (1962-1968.)  I Love Lucy has run endlessly in syndication, and in the 1970’s in large urban markets, it was commonplace for  Lucy episodes to air 5 times a day.  Today, all of I Love Lucy‘s episodes are available on DVD and recently released on BluRay.

 

 

THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE & HARRIET: Ricky the Drummer, April 10, 1957

Written By: Greg Howell - May• 12•18

Ozexh5Ricky Nelson had pleaded for months with his father Ozzie to let him sing on their television show. Ozzie Nelson, the famous bandleader leader in the swing era, was thoroughly knowledgeable of the music industry. Ultimately, he decided it was smart business to market the character Ricky Nelson as a rock and roll singer. With his father’s aid, Ricky selected some of the best side men in the business, including guitarist James Burton. In the studio and with Ozzie at the helm, Rick cut a Fat’s Domino number, I’m Walkin’, and the episode was timed with the official release of the record.

According to the official Rick Nelson website, I’m Walkin’ sold over a million copies the first week after the show aired. Rick Nelson’s music “videos” on the subsequent episodes regularly pushed him to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, and for a number of years, Nelson was outselling Elvis Presley. In total, from 1957 – 1966, Rick placed 18 hit singles in the Top Ten. The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet scored big as well, adding ten million teenage viewers to the show.

It is no coincidence that just 5 months later American Bandstand became a national sensation when it premiered on ABC, the same network that aired Ozzie & Harriet. Rick Nelson’s massive success on the show excited the network about the current teen music industry. ABC was ready to rock and roll, indeed, after the April 10 episode of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet.

Of course, steering clear of the Elvis Presley controversy (while also stealing a page from The Steve Allen Show) young Rick Nelson is clothed in black tie and tuxedo, and his “Elvis” moves are tamed considerably; but, this is nothing more than expected for a conservative 1950’s television show trying to avoid casting Rick with the dangerous, rebellious degenerate label fueling the public condemnation of Elvis Presley.