Friday, August 22, 2014

Summer Nose-talgia #36: "Laverne & Shirley" & Cindy & Penny

For fans of physical comedy and all the hilarity that it can bring, almost no series have come along to rival all-time classic I Love Lucy's domination of that category...except Laverne & Shirley.  The series debuted on ABC in 1976, a spin-off from the popular Happy Days, and in our memories the two series are forever linked in TV history.  During the years -- from around 1976 - 1979 -- when these two shows topped the ratings charts they were literally unbeatable.  Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams -- who's celebrating her 67th birthday today -- made the show a hit.

Laverne & Shirley debuted in January of 1976 and immediately settled in as a hit, nestled comfortably behind similarly top-rated Happy Days and sharing a Garry Marshall production company ethos which made the two shows into a near-seamless one hour of bright family comedy.  Because it seldom happens these days, it's almost shocking that by the time Laverne & Shirley ended its network run in 1983 it had amassed 178 episodes.  (Happy Days similarly got up to 255 episodes; it began two years earlier and went an additional year beyond.)  Both shows have enjoyed a long life in syndication and with their release on DVD it's become clear that the affection in which they are both held is justified. (Review of Season 3 release here and also here, Season 4 release here, Season 5 release here.)

Perhaps Laverne & Shirley didn't have the political punch or menopausal mirth of Maude, nor the raucous high school smart aleck sass of Welcome Back, Kotter, nor the urban comedy flavor of The Jeffersons, but what the two titular ladies did have was impeccable comic timing, the never-ending courage to get in there and try anything, and a wonderful depiction of female friendship. Unfortunately late in the run this relationship seemed to have unraveled off-screen in real-life and ultimately led to the show's end, but while it lasted it was a true partnership of equals.  I always thought they had a better friendship than Lucy and Ethel, the latter always relegated to being the frumpy sidekick to Lucy, whereas Laverne and Shirley really did it all arm-in-arm together.  For instance, this wonderful sequence -- one of their best -- from the Season 2 episode "Guinea Pigs" where sleep and food-deprived Laverne and Shirley won't miss their fancy party:

We can't ignore the terrific supporting cast of Laverne & Shirley including Michael McKean and David Lander as Lenny and Squiggy, those two offbeat and off-kilter pals and neighbors of the girls.  Before Kramer on Seinfeld made entering a room into a tour-de-force moment to savor, Lenny and Squiggy never failed to amuse with their own trademark arrivals.  Phil Foster as Laverne's father Frank, Eddie Mekka as Shirley's sometime boyfriend Carmine and show-biz veteran Betty Garrett as the girls' landlady (and later Laverne's stepmother) Edna Babish added to the goings-on which happened around Laverne and Shirley's apartment, or Frank's pizza parlor, or the Shotz Brewery where they worked.  Listen to what Garrett had to say about Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall:

Nothing says it better than watching some Laverne & Shirley!

"Laverne & Shirley Meet Fabian" -- shades of when Lucy and Ethel broke into Cornel Wilde's hotel room but very great in its own way!  From Season 3:

From Season 4, "Supermarket Sweep" (this is in 3 segments):

"Fat City Holiday" from Season 5:

"The Diner" from Season 5, one of the favorite Laverne & Shirley episodes featuring the famous "Betty, please" bit which is discussed by Penny Marshall in this 2013 interview, click here:

How about the 1995 Laverne & Shirley Reunion special which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the series:

Fans still adore Laverne & Shirley -- like these dedicated folks at the LAVERNE & SHIRLEY place and other site which are listed there -- and you can count us in their number.  Cindy Williams reminisced about the series a couple of years ago in an interview available here and a few months ago in Parade magazine here, and here's another interview with Penny Marshall about her 2012 autobiography about her life and multifaceted Hollywood career.  (Phil Foster passed away in 1985, Betty Garrett in 2011.)

In 2012 Laverne & Shirley was honored with a TV Land Fan Favorite Award -- well deserved!

(If the 3rd video doesn't work, please click here.)

 In case your funny bone hasn't been sufficiently tickled yet, here's a compilation video of sixty or so Laverne & Shirley clips to enjoy -- it's wonderful.

Happy Birthday to Cindy Williams today, and thank goodness for Laverne & Shirley!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Summer Nose-talgia #35: Bill Irwin & "The Regard of Flight"

If thirty years ago qualifies something for nostalgia -- and it probably does for a lot of people -- and Mondays call for a special kind of awesome, then today's Nose-talgia entry is a perfect fit!  Brilliant actor, comedian, clown, dancer -- everything! -- Bill Irwin's magnificently hilarious theatrical piece "The Regard of Flight" aired as a PBS Great Performances back in 1983.

If you're not familiar with Bill Irwin then you haven't been paying attention to American entertainment for the past several decades.  From motion pictures to television to Broadway, Bill Irwin has not only been a commercial success but more importantly has remained one of the leading artistic forces in this country. His background lies in traditional clowning but like many clowns and comics he also is a skilled dramatic actor of uncommon talent and sophistication.  Lest you doubt his acting cred, from 2005:

And a few years earlier on the Tony Awards show:

But what we want to bring to you today is his brilliant "The Regard of Flight"; I saw it onstage in Los Angeles right around the time it aired on PBS and it absolutely changed my life.  If you haven't seen it at all, you will be charmed.  If you have you've probably have not seen it in a long time and you will adore it all over again!  M.C. O'Connor co-stars as the critic and Doug Skinner is the musical maestro.  (Visit his website here.)

PBS followed it with his "Clown Bagatelles" -- video quality not as good but still wonderful to watch!

I've been a fan of Bill Irwin for over thirty years and did a longer post on him a year of so ago here at The Flaming Nose.  I'm still in love!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Summer Nose-talgia #34: Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, The Little Rascals' Little Tenor!

Everybody of a certain age remembers growing up with The Little Rascals constantly playing on afterschool TV right alongside The Three Stooges and classic cartoon favorites.  Back when children's shows were mostly local in origin various regional hosts would happily present the then twenty to thirty-year-old popular theatrical shorts to a whole new generation of fans.  The timeless antics of the rambunctious and genuinely hilarious child performers assembled by producer Hal Roach never failed to amuse and would continue to do so today if they were running anywhere (which I don't think they are) though some of the shorts are available on Hulu (click here). ( BTW, The Little Rascals are what these shorts were called on TV, originally known as Our Gang).

The Little Rascals favorite stalwart Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer was born on August 7, 1927.  One of the most popular characters of the troupe, Alfalfa was an ardent heartthrob and serenading romeo, singing his heart out -- mostly off-key -- to his beloved Darla.  The amusing scrapes and shenanigans of the Rascals surely reminded movie-going audiences the first time around in the 1930s of their own childhoods at a more innocent time.  When they became a TV staple decades later they were a fascinating look backwards at a time that the kiddy audiences had no direct knowledge of  -- and the shorts were not originally produced as children's entertainment anyway but designed as general comedy material -- but could relate to through the timeless quality of the humor.

Ah, if only real life could always be as uncomplicated and fun as the exciting onscreen existence of The Little Rascals.  That real life for Carl Switzer found him still continuing to work in Hollywood after the Rascals shorts wound down in 1940, but the once-adorable little boy Switzer was now an awkward teenager with a reputation as somewhat of a troublemaker and wild child on sets.  Even so, he was still talented and continued to land roles in features, other short subjects and later on TV series, though he also became sought-after for his off-screen second career skills as a dog-breeder and a hunting guide to the stars.

A not-too-successful marriage in 1954 didn't boost Switzer's happiness quotient much, and even more unhappily his successful canine businesses ultimately resulted in a much-discussed attack on Switzer which ended in his death on January 21, 1959 at the age of 31.  Still the subject of a lot of controversy -- the judge ruled "Justifiable Homicide" during the trial of Switzer's killer -- the violent shooting of a man who would forever be known as the innocent little Alfalfa was a shocker.

The mysterious murder has been covered in some detail on several websites, including an account on The Crime Library (click here), a great story by fellow actor Eddie Deezen on Neatorama (click here), this one from Frank's Reel Reviews (click here), and this page as part of a Little Rascals tribute site (click here).  In terms of more general info, there is a nice overview page on Our Gang available by clicking here, TCM ran an Our Gang tribute at one time and there is a nice article available by clicking here, an article debunking the Our Gang curse here on, one about the curse here, and you can get a great overview by visiting the Our Gang Wikia by clicking here.

We'll revisit Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer with a couple of clips of his comedy moments, then an episode from his later career on TV's Science Fiction Theatre from 1955, and finally an episode from the terrific E! network show from 1998 Mysteries and Scandals, hosted by A.J. Benza, on Switzer's life and untimely death. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Summer Nose-talgia #33: "One Step Beyond" & Pippo the Clown! Scary!

People always get a few shows mixed up in their memories.  Lots of folks conflate episodes of Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond, Thriller and The Outer Limits, especially the first two because they were (mostly) half-hours and shared a lot of actors.

Whereas Twilight Zone had writer Rod Serling's acerbic gloomy presence looming over its introductions to the dramatic delights to come, One Step Beyond had the far more gentle John Newland -- he directed most of the episodes -- to lead us into what were very often touted as real-life stories of the supernatural.  Genre fans will also note that Newland directed the very good "Errand of Mercy" episode of Star Trek: TOS in 1967.

Despite decent syndicated exposure One Step Beyond never quite achieved the high visibility and genuine cult status of Twilight Zone, but those of us who watched both found ourselves loving quite a few of the episodes.  They were a little nuttier than Twilight Zone, often had an international flair -- not a TZ trait at all -- and then there was that frisson of authenticity that often made them genuinely spooky.

One of the most memorable episodes perfectly combined a straight-up creepy subject matter -- a clown! -- with a gritty urban sensibility which honestly could have come from the Twilight Zone.  You can understand why people think this might be a TZ except if it were it would certainly end up in "best of" marathons on holidays and would be better known.

Christopher Dark & Yvette Mimieux

Shaughnessy as Pippo

Shaughnessy as himself

From 1960,  it's called "The Clown" and stars an 18 year-old Yvette Mimieux in one of her first acting roles; her big break in The Time Machine would come later that same year.  Veteran actor Mickey Shaughnessy played the clown named Pippo, and actor Christopher Dark (a very frequent guest star on TV until his death in 1971 at the age of 51) played Yvette's hot-tempered husband.  There's a short history of clowns at the beginning of the episode, and it's interesting to note that the name Pippo is a traditional clown name used over the years by various performers (even after this episode!).  Enjoy!