William Katz: Learning from The Tonight Show, part 3

Bill Katz’s most recent post was “The importance of 1960.” His first two contributions to Power Line were “Learning from The Tonight Show” and “Learning from The Tonight Show, part 2.” This morning he returns to the subject of The Tonight Show:

I began this series by writing about The Tonight Show, where I was a talent coordinator during the Carson years. Two deaths in the last week bring me back to that time. It may seem odd to be recalling a TV show in the midst of all the grim news we face. However, there’s an old saying that Americans have two businesses, their own and show business. So, allow me to take a few moments out from advising world leaders. I hope you like these stories.
Joey Bishop has died at 89. He was our guest host many times, sharing that work with others like Bob Newhart, Jerry Lewis, Della Reese, and Joan Rivers. The obits noted that he had a poker face, was a charter member of Frank Sinatra’s “rat pack,” but was less flamboyant than the others. The obits were correct. Bishop had a quietness, even a shyness at times, that seemed out of place in a world of flashing marquees. You could easily see him selling toasters, or as assistant manager of a mid-price clothing store.
Joey often brought his brother Mel with him. Just before the taping, Mel would pull out a comb and fix Joey’s hair. No one was direct enough to ask whether Mel was an employee, or just liked to help his brother, but there was something touching about it. Mel, though, never appeared on camera.
Joey could miss details. Once, during a monologue, he mentioned Band-Aids. Fine product, but one of our sponsors was Curad, so saying Band-Aids was like saying “Merry Christmas” to Osama bin Laden. The producer had a mild fit, and the tape had to be edited. Joey was given a sponsor list.
On another night, Joey showed that his quietness wasn’t an act. During a commercial break he walked down front to talk to the audience. For some reason, a very tasteless man threw a coin at his feet, one of the most demeaning things you can do to an entertainer. Joey just looked at it, and calmly said, “Please don’t do that.” He never raised his voice or berated the guy, but the message got through. With some other comedians, there might have been blood.
The Tonight Show office was always flooded with stars. There were times when we felt like asking them to take a number and sit down. Some guests, though, were special. No, they weren’t always the most famous or glittering. They were usually the performers we staff members knew from our own youth. Imagine going to your first teenage party, hearing recordings of the hottest singer around, and then, years later, having that person walk into your office. There is no feeling quite like it. It happened with me several times — once with Teresa Brewer, who also passed on last week.
Teresa Brewer was a top singer of the early fifties. You could pass any juke box and hear her sing, “I don’t want a ricochet romance, I don’t want a ricochet love,” or “Put another nickel in, in the nickelodeon…” (For the young, a nickelodeon and a juke box were basically the same. They were floor-standing iPods with things called speakers, allowing you to hear music without earphones. You put a nickel in, and the machine played a record. A record was…oh, never mind. It’s like a CD with a heart and soul.)
Everyone knew Teresa Brewer’s tangy, bubbly voice. She came into my office one day when, after raising four children, she was getting back to her career. It’s wonderful when performers live up to their image, and she did. Teresa was everything a young kid would imagine her to be – warm, outgoing, a real human, with a smile that could melt anything Al Gore worries about. She liked to talk about her children rather than the music business. There were times during our meeting that I couldn’t believe it was her. Was this that voice I heard on the car radio before I was old enough to drive the Buick? Teresa never made it back to the top, but she did have a satisfying second career singing jazz and staying irresistible. Oh, by the way, The Tonight Show was based in New York when I spoke with her, and was about to move to L.A. I left the show, not wanting to move west, and they never did have her on.
On the subject of genuine, real humans, our producer assigned me to interview Frankie Avalon. I mightily resisted. I mean, this guy did beach movies and I was, well, a more intellectual type. I’d been an editor at The New York Times. I knew that Stravinsky wasn’t a deli owner. I didn’t fully accept rock ‘n roll. Someone in high school had to explain this fellow Presley to me, and I still don


Books to read from Power Line