An anecdote-filled recollection of a bygone golden age He created Hee Haw, the number-one show on TV. He wrote and produced variety shows for Jackie Gleason, Andy Williams, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews, Sonny and Cher, and Perry Como. He invented the rock TV show Hullabaloo. He was the most popular producer of his time a time when variety television was king. With his writing/producing partner John Aylesworth, Frank Peppiatt developed dozens of TV shows but their career began on air in the initial days of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, alongside other talented newcomers like Norman Jewison and Arthur Hiller. Then came a call from New York to write for the Eydie Gorme/Steve Lawrence show in 1958, and quickly “A & P” became the most in-demand writing and producing team around. Peppiatt, a man who spent his life behind the scenes writing comedy and turning entertainers into household names, now recounts his own remarkable life story: a humble Canadian boy who grew up to create iconic American TV shows amid a cast of Hollywood celebrities. When Variety Was King captures the early days of TV with humour and spice.
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About the Author
Frank Peppiatt was the creator and executive producer of "Hee Haw" and was the writer for many well-known TV shows, such as "The Judy Garland Show," "The Sonny and Cher Show," and "The Steve Allen Show." He is on the CBC Comedy Wall of Fame and is the winner of numerous Emmys for his work in television. He passed away in November 2012, after finishing this memoir.
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When Variety was King
Memoir of a Tv Pioneer: Featuring Jackie Gleason, Sonny and Cher, Hee Haw, and More
By Frank Peppiatt, Tony Jenkins
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2013 Frank Peppiatt
All rights reserved.
AND AWAY WE GO!
It was the strangest Saturday of my life.
The year was 1965. The setting was New York. My partner, John Aylesworth, and I were writing a pop-music show we had created called Hullabaloo. It featured all the big hit makers of the '60s — the Rolling Stones, the Supremes, the Mamas & the Papas. I was 36, John 34, which made us older than most of the acts on our show, so we could play grown-up to some of the drug-addled talent that came through the door each week.
John was about five foot ten, with straight blondish hair, intense blue eyes and a wonderful laugh. He did marvelous impressions of almost anybody in show business, but he had two left feet and no sense of rhythm. I was six three and gangly, with curly brown hair, hazel eyes and a gap-toothed grin. I had trouble doing an impression of myself, but I had rhythm and plenty of it. John hated sports; I loved them. I was a worrier; John assumed everything would turn out just fine. We were complete opposites, and it worked for us.
On this cold Monday in January our agent, Lester Gottlieb, showed up unexpectedly at the Hullabaloo office. Lester was a born-and-bred New Yorker, from his snap-brim fedora down to his wingtip toes. His sharp gray eyes were constantly shifting, sizing up everything. He always looked like he'd just had a haircut. People would ask him, "You just had a haircut, Lester?" I think his wife gave him a trim every morning, or maybe he was having an affair with a lady barber. I don't know how much Lester made as an agent, but I'll bet he spent at least half of it on clothes. Every week he sported something new. Not a button out of place, not a crease that wasn't razor-sharp. He carried an umbrella, rain or shine; summer or winter, he had a tan. He looked much younger than his 40-odd years and he considered himself a ladies' man. The ladies, however, hadn't been informed.
He lunged his umbrella at us as if it were an épée and said, "How'd you guys like to take a train ride to Florida this Friday?"
John and I looked at him, slightly stunned.
"Is this some kind of joke, Lester?" John asked.
"No, not at all," Lester said. "Jackie Gleason has requested that the two of you come up with some great ideas for a big special for him."
"Okay, but why does Gleason want us?" I said.
"Because Jackie Gleason is the agency's biggest variety star and variety is king of TV land and Peppiatt and Aylesworth are the crown princes."
I laughed. "Crown princes? That's over the top, even for you, Lester."
"Is Mr. Gleason willing to pay a princely sum for our week?" John asked.
Lester took off his winter fedora and threw a big smile at us. "You take the train Friday, meet with Jackie Saturday afternoon and come back Saturday night."
"And?" John asked.
"And all expenses and $5,000!"
"Each?" John and I said as one.
"For the team, guys, for the team. That is damn good money for a day's work."
"One day?" I said. "Will the great ideas be slipped to us under our door by the Fairy-Great-Idea-Godmother?"
"Come on, you guys can do it. You've got a whole week."
"The so-called one day's work just flew out the window," John said as Lester put his fedora back on.
"I take it that's a yes?" Lester smiled and held out his hand.
"Yes," we both said, and shook on it.
"See you Friday morning at Penn Station. Ten-thirty sharp."
"Why the train?" I asked.
"We can meet in the club car and go over what you guys have written."
"Sounds good to me," I said, knowing full well Lester the Debonair was terrified of flying. What the hell, I thought, a train ride will be nice and relaxing.
Lester smiled again and buttoned up his dark blue cashmere topcoat. "Don't be late." He touched the brim of his fedora with the tip of his umbrella and sauntered out of the office.
"Well," John said in a perfect Stan Laurel impression, "this is another fine mess you've gotten us into, Ollie!"
We spent the week writing Hullabaloo during the day and racking our brains for Jackie Gleason each night. By Friday morning, just in time to leave, we had written up what we considered a few good ideas.
On the way to Penn Station I asked, more than once, "We're as ready as we're ever going to be, right?"
"It's great stuff!" John assured me.
"From your lips to Jackie's ear, Johnny," I grumbled.
Lester was waiting for us at the gate. "And away we go!" he shouted. His Jackie Gleason impression was very bad, but indeed away we went.
Over lunch in the club car we pitched our ideas to Lester.
"Those are good," he said.
"What happened to great?" John asked.
"Don't worry, boys, it's in the bag," Lester said, taking a pack of cards from his pocket. "Anyone up for some draw poker?"
The two anyones, John and I, drew cards for who would deal. I proceeded to rake in $118 from John and Lester, which I then raked out for drinks and dinner for the three of us.
Later, in my roomette, I tossed and turned, finally drifting off to sleep with visions of Ralph Kramden, his rolled-up fist menacing my face: "To the moon, Frankie, to the moon!"
I was awakened by the sound of a soft gong and a voice: "First call to breakfast." I was starving, so I didn't need a second call. I washed, shaved, got dressed, packed my small suitcase and went to the dining car. John and Lester were already seated, so I joined them and we all ordered breakfast.
"We'll be there in three hours," Lester said.
The idea of pitching comedy ideas so soon to the Great One himself set my stomach on fire. I canceled my order and spent the rest of the trip gnawing on my knuckles while Lester took a hundred bucks from John in gin rummy.
As we got off the train in Miami on Saturday, Sam Cohn came running across the platform. He looked scared to death and was tousled as usual. I think he sent his clothes to the cleaners to have them rumpled. There were the customary ink stains on his shirt, papers half falling out of his pockets, messed-up light brown hair, intelligent lively brown eyes and a beaming smile. He was Lester's boss but looked like his lackey. It was hard to believe that Sam was one of the most powerful men in show business. As the head of General Artists Corporation, a prestigious talent agency, he could make or break you. He ran the company with an iron — but slightly smudged — fist.
Sam rushed up to the three of us as we strolled down the platform. "What happened to you guys? You're late!"
"It couldn't be helped, Sam," Lester said.
"We weren't driving the goddamned train," John said with a grin.
"Anyway, what's the rush?" I said.
"Jackie's finished his golf game and he's waiting for us in the clubhouse. Just waiting. Don't you get it?"
"Get what?" John asked.
"He'll start drinking, and bye-bye meeting!"
"Jackie Gleason drinks?" I asked.
"Quit with the jokes, Frank," Sam said. "Come on, the car's right over there. Let's go!"
Now we were frantic. After a week of late-night work and the long train ride, Sam's "bye-bye meeting" put a scare in us. But we didn't have long to think about it. He made like an Indy 500 driver and soon pulled up to the clubhouse, tires squealing. Then he sent us ahead and went off to get himself a little less tousled.
Suddenly we came upon the biggest golf cart in the known golfing world.
"That's Jackie's," Lester said. "It's got a color TV, a full bar, and it's air-conditioned. Pretty snappy, eh?" His fingers lightly caressed the spotless white paint and blinding chrome trim.
"He could live in that," John said.
"Sometimes he does," Sam cracked as he caught up to us, tousled as ever. "The clubhouse is right in here." He motioned, opening the door for us, then started whispering. "Just follow me and smile. Jackie likes smiles."
We smiled as ordered and looked around. Everything was in rich red leather and expensive-looking dark polished wood, all of it floating on thick white wall-to-wall carpeting.
At the far end of the room, at a massive round table, sat Jackie, bigger than life. He was still wearing his golf clothes, a giant drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other. As we made our way over to him, Sam whispered that the man beside Jackie was the executive producer of Gleason Enterprises. He wore a very expensive Italian suit with a vest and glossy silk tie. I wondered if he played golf in that outfit. Sitting on Jackie's left were two other men who didn't rate Sam's whispered introduction.
"Would you care for a drink?" an African-American waiter dressed in red leather asked us before we sat down.
"Have a drink," Sam whispered. "Jackie likes it if you drink."
We ordered gin and tonics, and settled in across from Jackie and his gang. Here I was sitting opposite a man I'd admired and who'd made me laugh for years. He was Joe the Bartender, Reggie Van Gleason, the Poor Soul, and my favorite, Ralph Kramden, the New York bus driver. He wasn't making me laugh at that particular moment, though. His round, puffy face and crinkled blue eyes looked kind of mean and tired after his 18 grueling holes in an air-conditioned golf cart. But he was the Great One. Only a few years before, he was probably the biggest television star in America. "And away we go!" he'd shout, and light up America's Saturday nights for an hour. Right now he was sitting across from me in cashmere golfing clothes, his black hair neatly parted and slicked down. As he took a good solid pull on his drink, he glanced around the room. Then his eyes stopped glancing and looked directly at me. I guess he picked me because I was clutching a sheaf of papers full of possibly great ideas.
"Whatcha got, pal?" he growled.
Lester had explained to me that when Jackie called you "pal," it didn't mean he liked you or anything like that. He called everybody "pal" because he couldn't, or wouldn't, remember names. I wondered if he called his wife "pal." Anyway, I was Jackie's "pal" for the moment and he had asked for our best ideas. I shuffled a couple of papers and dived in.
"The Honeymooners as a two-hour musical!" I announced as confidently as I could. I looked up and everybody was nodding and smiling, even Jackie.
"We can take one of the best plots from a previous Honeymooners show, add singers and dancers, and give Jackie a song something like this ..." I pointed to John, who stood up and, in a perfect Ralph Kramden voice, sang:
To the moon, Alice, to the moon.
And soon, Alice, to the moon.
That's the name of the tune, Alice.
To the moon, Alice, and soon!
Jackie gave the ditty a bit of a laugh, which was a cue for everyone to do the same, only louder.
"And right in the middle of the show," I continued quickly, "Jackie and Art Carney do a song-and-dance duet about the importance of their jobs." I pointed to John again.
"Who is more important, the bus driver or the sewer worker?" John said. "In the end, Alice is called on to decide and she picks the sewer worker, to which Ralph Kramden chimes, 'To the moon, Alice!'"
"That could be hilarious!" Sam exclaimed. There were more nods and grins.
"Will there be a lot of rehearsals?" Jackie asked.
"Jackie doesn't like rehearsing," Sam whispered in my ear, without moving his lips.
"That's up to the director, Jackie," I explained.
And Sam jumped in. "You could learn the songs on your own time and let Barney Martin do the same rehearsing like on your regular show."
Jackie seemed to like that idea. We found out later that Barney Martin was an actor who did all the rehearsals — even the dress rehearsal — while Gleason watched through a video hookup in his dressing room. Jackie not only hated rehearsing, he refused to participate. Barney came out okay a few decades later, playing Jerry Seinfeld's father on the hit comedy Seinfeld. But back to the meeting.
"That sounds like a damned good idea, Jackie," Sam said.
"We'll want the June Taylor Dancers, right, pal?" Jackie said to no one in particular.
"That goes without saying, Jackie," Sam said.
"And you know what?" Jackie said.
"No, what?" John asked.
Jackie raised his hand as if to answer and briefly seemed frozen. Then his eyes closed and his head nodded forward. He was sound asleep.
John was about to say something, but Sam shushed him and whispered, "Jackie doesn't like being awakened."
I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Seven grown-up men watching a fat man sleep. He even started to snore as we all waited, afraid to wake the Great One. The red leather waiter arrived with the drinks, but Sam frantically waved him away. Sam then got up, tiptoed noiselessly on the thick white rug and took the still-burning cigarette out of Jackie's fingers, stubbed it out in the ashtray and tiptoed back to his seat. Why he tiptoed I'll never know. An elephant stampede couldn't make a noise on that rug.
Four or five minutes went by. They seemed like four or five hours. Finally, Jackie moved in his seat and his eyes popped open.
"And you know what?" he said.
"No, what?" John asked, just as he had before the nap.
"I'll get Oscar Hammerstein to do the words and I'll write the music."
"Great!" Lester almost shouted, and everyone else nodded and smiled.
"What else you got, pal?"
I didn't answer right away. I was still wondering why in hell Oscar Hammerstein would dump Richard Rodgers for his big chance to write a Honeymooners television show with Jackie Gleason. Stranger things have happened, I told myself.
"Jackie's waiting, Frank," Sam whispered, nudging me.
"Oh, sorry." I started shuffling papers again and finally found my place. "We'll send out hundreds of invitations to a golf match between Arnold Palmer and Jackie Gleason. And," I continued before anyone could interrupt, "moving alongside the golf game, we'll have a flatbed truck, decked out like a pool hall, complete with a full pool table and Minnesota Fats. Between golf holes, Jackie plays a pool match with Fats."
"Wow!" Sam said.
Everybody nodded and smiled again, even Gleason, who took a good slug of his drink and lit another cigarette. "I'll tell you what, pal."
"What?" John asked as Gleason's eyes fluttered shut. "What?" John repeated, an edge creeping into his voice.
"Shush," Sam whispered, just as the red leather waiter returned with the drinks. Sam waved him away again.
"Okay," the waiter murmured. "I'm gonna need more ice, anyway."
I jumped up and grabbed the two gin and tonics from the waiter's tray. At least it gave John and me something to do while we waited for Sleeping Beauty.
That wait lasted almost 10 minutes. Nobody made a move. Suddenly, Jackie coughed himself awake.
"What?" John asked again.
"The caddies are gonna be showgirls, really sexy ones!" Jackie said.
"What a show!" Sam said.
"And a beautiful showgirl racks the pool balls for me and Fats!"
"Yes!" the well-dressed exec shouted, slapping his hand on the table.
"And we'll get Bob Hope or Bing Crosby to announce the golf and trade lines with Jackie," Sam said to more nods and pumps.
Then my partner spoke up. "The pool game should be announced by Jackie's co-star in The Hustler, Mr. Paul Newman."
"Perfect!" Lester said. Everyone slapped their hands on the table and grunted approvingly.
"Paul Newman will never do it," I whispered to John.
"I know it, but I want in on this Let's Pretend game."
I laughed and slapped my hand on the table, too.
"Okay, pal ..." Jackie mumbled, then nodded off again.
The waiter, approaching again with a tray of drinks, did an immediate about-face and left. Sam did his tiptoe bit and removed another burning cigarette from Gleason's fingers.
Then the snappily dressed executive producer made a whispered announcement: "That's it, folks. Jackie doesn't like long meetings, so thank you all for a very successful meeting."
"But we have two more shows to present," John protested.
"Leave them here and I'll make sure Jackie sees them," Sam said. He patted me on the shoulder. "You guys did a great job and I'll be seeing you back in New York."
A sure kiss-off, if ever I heard one, I thought.
Lester motioned for us to get up and follow him. We floated out of the clubhouse on the thick white magic carpet, then took a taxi back to the station. The ride was much less scary than our trip with Sam.
"That was a sweet idea of yours, Johnny," Lester said.
"You mean Paul Newman?" I asked, incredulous.
"Yes, sir. Sweet."
"Are you kidding, Lester?" John said. "Do you really think Paul Newman, the big huge movie star, is going to stand outdoors on a moving platform and announce a pool game between Gleason and Fats?"
"Then why bring it up?"
"I thought the surprise might keep him awake."
"And it did, for about 12 seconds," I said.
Monday morning, John and I picked up on Hullabaloo where we had left off the week before, only now with greater appreciation of the acts we were writing for. No matter what they were smoking, snorting or shooting up, the rock stars of the '60s were down-to-earth, sober professionals compared to the Great One ... and a whole lot more fun.
Excerpted from When Variety was King by Frank Peppiatt, Tony Jenkins. Copyright © 2013 Frank Peppiatt. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 And Away We Go! 10
Chapter 2 Depression Without a Shrink 21
Chapter 3 Neither a Salesman nor a Lawyer Be 34
Chapter 4 Enslaved to the Ad Man 50
Chapter 5 From Ad Man to Superman 62
Chapter 6 Striptease at the Border 81
Chapter 7 Polio Clown 92
Chapter 8 Hurricane Wedding and Other Disasters 101
Chapter 9 I Take Manhattan and Manhattan Take Me 121
Chapter 10 Brown Christmas Bing Crosby 138
Chapter 11 White Christmas Perry Como 167
Chapter 12 Loss 182
Chapter 13 Judy! Judy! Judy! 194
Chapter 14 Hullabaloo and Sinatra Too 204
Chapter 15 Hurricane Marriage and Hee Haw Honeymoon 219
Chapter 16 Hee Having all the Way to the Bank 237
Chapter 17 Drowning in Money 251
Chapter 18 Depression with Shrink 271
Chapter 19 Canadian Sunset 289
I Remember John Aylesworth 294
What People are Saying About This
"Hilarious and entertaining. Frank Peppiatt has written a fascinating book about the golden age of television." —Norman Jewison, director, Agnes of God, The Hurricane, Moonstruck
"Full of Frank's comedic flair, including a hysterically funny portrait of a self-indulgent Jackie Gleason. I put the book down only to take it up again, and revel in the gigantic talent of my old pal, Frank Peppiatt." —Don Harron, actor/comedian
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