Monday, October 07, 2013

The Spice Of Life

I know Sid Caesar's writers--comedy legends like Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart--but after that, it's hard to think of famous behind-the-scenes names in the world of TV variety, as opposed to so many I can name who did sitcoms and dramas.  And yet, old-style prime time variety was a mainstay on television in the 50s, 60s and 70s, before it died in the age of MTV.

Which is why I checked out When Variety Was King, the memoir of Frank Peppiatt, a big name in the format, even though I'd never heard of him.  And it turned out to be an entertaining story about a guy who--at least in his own book--is pretty charming.

Peppiatt grew up in Toronto and Montreal during the Depression.  He loved movies and radio, and as soon as he graduated from college started in radio at the bottom, though his salesman father wanted him to do something more substantial.  Even when he became successful his father never really respected his choice.

He rose through the ranks and along the way met his writing and producing partner John Aylesworth.  They also got into the strange new world of TV.  The CBC was the only network in the country, and was willing to try out new things then, including giving these two writers their own variety show to star in.  It was a low-budget affair, but they made up in spirit what they lacked in dough.

They split up for a while because they couldn't find a job in Canada that paid them enough as a team, and both eventually found their way to New York, where the real money was.  Frank got a good job working for Steve Allen.  Unfortunately, Frank's wife, Marilyn, a former band singer, hated America, and so for years Frank worked in the Big Apple and would return to his wife and three daughters in Toronto when he could.  Eventually he convinced Marilyn to move to New York, where they bought a house in the suburbs that she spent so much time and money fixing up that it became her full-time job.

Frank and partner John teamed up again on a Bing Crosby special in 1959, which led to a lot of other work with big names, such as variety shows or specials starring Andy Williams, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland.  They were also hip enough to create the rock show Hullabaloo.

Frank's father always wondered what his son did.  Just write intros and cross-talk between songs?  Well, he and John wrote sketches too, but his main talent seemed to be as an idea man, creating situations that made whover was on the show that week look good.

While Frank loved his work, his marriage was faltering.  Eventually he and his wife separated, and later divorced.  She always claimed he left her penniless, but apparently she sold the house without his knowledge and took the kids back to Toronto, and then for years after he supported her.

The team kept working with big names, such as Julie Andrews, Jackie Gleason (a great talent but a big jerk) and Sonny and Cher.  But their biggest success was sort of a surprise.

It was the late 60s, and country music, though not that respected in show biz meccas Los Angeles and New York, was huge throughout the nation. So they created a summer replacement show for CBS called Hee Haw.  By now experienced producers, they shot it cheaply in Nashville by shooting all 13 episodes worth of one feature, striking the set, and going on the the next bit until they had enough to put together the entire season.

The show was a big hit, and was picked up for the regular season.  But then came the great country purge of '71, when CBS wanted to change its demographic and canceled all rural-themed shows.  Frank might have moved on, but he and some partners decided to put Hee Haw into syndication by putting up their own money and producing the show themselves.  This wasn't done. Syndication was almost always for programs that had already run on a network.

It was slow going at first as no one wanted to buy ads on a show that had been canceled.  But once the ratings came in, advertisers lined up, and Hee Haw lasted an amazing 23 seasons.

During this time, Frank married a woman named Valerie, who, like his first wife, seemed to spend all her time spending Frank's money on their house.  He worked on other shows, but after almost three decades in the business was burned out.  At one point, he went into his car and literally found himself unable to drive. He spent six months in a psychiatric institute and got himself straightened out.  One question he asked himself was why did three of the people closest to him--his father and two wives--not respect the work he did.

When he got out, he found his partner John had moved onto a new project without him. Frank continued working, including a variety show with Barbara Mandrell, but eased himself out of show business.  Perhaps just in time, as prime time variety was all but dead.  He also divorced Valerie, and later married a woman named Caroline.  That marriage is ongoing.

Frank presently resides in Canada.  He's got his daugthers and his grandkids.  There hasn't been a good variety program in prime time for decades.  Maybe it's time for a comeback.

PS  What's with editing these days? Someone should have noted it's "Jack Paar," not "Jack Parr," and "Kaye Ballard," not "Kay Ballard."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Editing no longer matters- the internet has made typos basically OJ

4:03 AM, October 07, 2013  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I leave behind plenty of typos on this blog, but if I were publishing a book I'd got over it with my editor enough times to make sure there are no mistakes.

1:21 PM, October 07, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Basically OJ? Orenthal James? Obsolete Judas?

1:51 PM, October 07, 2013  
Anonymous Anon 1 said...


1:21 PM, October 08, 2013  

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