Category Archives: Television

TV’s forgotten funnyman

Introduced in the late 1940’s, network television entered its first “golden age” in the early 1950’s, as the young medium began developing its own stars. Because of countless reruns, and through the magic of kinescope footage, many of those performers are still well know to this day. But unlike Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason and Milton Berle, a man by the name of Tim Moore remains almost forgotten, despite appearing in a classic sit-com, and his status as the first African-American male to star on a network television series. There are two main reasons why Moore has been relegated to obscurity. First, Tim Moore has been deceased for over 50 years, and second, almost none of his work is currently shown on commercial television….Moore’s sitcom, “Amos and Andy” has not been available in syndication since 1966, and thus Moore’s brilliant portrayal as George “Kingfish” Stevens is now a faint baby boomer memory.

Born Harry Roscoe Moore in Rock Island, Illinois on December 9, 1887, Tim Moore entered show business at the age of 10, dancing in a vaudeville act known as “Cora Miskel and Her Gold Dust Twins.” Over the next few years, Moore drifted between jobs, working for circuses, medicine shows and race tracks, even becoming a boxer under the name “Kid Klondike.” By the 1920’s, Moore had returned to the stage full-time, performing comedy in various shows that had brief Broadway runs. In addition to becoming an established comedian, Moore dabbled in writing material for other performers, including W.C. Fields. Tim’s first major success was as the star comedian in the hit musical revue, “Blackbirds of 1928,” which also featured famed dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Moore repeated this role in several later “Blackbird” revues, the 1939 version introducing Lena Horne as the principle singing star. In the early 1940’s, Tim Moore established himself as one of the top comics working Harlem’s Apollo Theater, taking time out to accept dramatic roles on radio. As television gained a foothold in America in the late 1940’s, Moore was an occasional guest on Ed Sullivan’s variety show, then known as “Toast of the Town.” It can easily be said that despite his obvious talents, being an African American denied him any significant mainstream success. Nearing the age of 60, Moore left show business and settled in his home town of Rock Island, working a night shift at the Servus Rubber Company. At this point, Moore had no reason to suspect that his biggest role was still ahead of him.

At the start of the 1950’s, “Amos and Andy” had already been on radio for almost 25 years. Created, written and performed by Charles Correll and Freeman Godsen, the show debuted in 1926 on Chicago radio station WGN, under the name “Sam and Henry.” Although both were white, Correll and Godsen’s program followed the day to day lives of “a couple of colored characters,” with Godsen and Correll providing all of the voices. The show quickly became popular in the Chicago area, and when WGN showed no interest in allowing Godsen and Correll to syndicate the program, the duo moved on to station WMAQ. The two soon developed a similar version of their WGN show, which began on March 19, 1928, renamed “Amos and Andy.”

In its original format, “Amos and Andy” was a weekday, 15 minute show that featured a slowly moving storyline, much like a soap opera. Amos Jones and Andrew H. Brown, a pair of Georgia farm workers, had moved to Chicago, where they founded the Fresh Air Taxi Company. While Amos drove the company’s only cab, Andy was usually hanging out with the man who eventually became the show’s dominant character, George “Kingfish” Stevens. The “Kingfish” was the leader of the “Mystic Knights of the Sea” lodge, and was usually trying to lure Andy into some kind of dubious get-rich-quick enterprise, unless he was trying to trick Andy directly. Andy’s dialogue was handled by Charles Correll, while Freeman Godsen spoke both Amos’s and Kingfish’s lines. During “Amos and Andy’s” original radio run, Godsen and Correll portrayed over 170 different characters, only using outside actors for female roles. “Amos and Andy” was an immediate hit in 1928, both in Chicago and throughout the nation, thanks to a syndication deal that distributed the program to over 70 stations. The show’s success attracted the attention of the NBC network, which placed “Amos and Andy” on its Monday through Friday schedule on August 19, 1929. At this time, the show’s central characters were relocated to New York City’s Harlem, where Andy became involved with a beautician named Madam Queen. The story arc concerning Andy and Madam Queen’s romance, and subsequent fallout was heard by over 40 million nightly listeners during 1931 and 1932.

It’s impossible to discuss “Amos and Andy” without mentioning the controversial aspects of the program. There is no doubt that much of “Amos and Andy’s” humor relied on racial stereotyping, particularly in terms of what was described as “crude, repetitious and moronic dialogue.” Godsen and Correll didn’t help matters by disguising themselves as African Americans in publicity photos, and making the regrettable decision to appear in blackface for a 1930 motion picture version of the show, called “Check and Double Check.” Despite objections to “Amos and Andy” by various Black groups, the show was remained the top rated radio program for several years, perhaps due to the lack of political or financial clout by the African American community in the 1930’s.

In 1951, Godsen and Correll partnered with CBS to bring “Amos and Andy” to television by way of a weekly 30 minute sitcom. Not wanting to repeat the mistake putting Godsen and Correll in blackface, the show went with an entirely African American cast, a television first. Alvin Childress and Spencer Williams Jr. were given the title roles, while Tim Moore was lured out of retirement to play the “Kingfish.” “Amos and Andy” made its network television debut on June 28, 1951. Although the show pulled very good ratings, African American groups did not like the TV version of the show any more than they did the radio show, and began protesting against the show beginning with the very first episodes. “Amos and Andy’s” principle sponsor, Blatz Beer, withdrew its advertising from the program in 1953, and so “Amos and Andy” was canceled after two seasons and 70 episodes. The show enjoyed a second life in reruns, but pressure from the NAACP resulted in CBS withdrawing it from circulation in 1966…”Amos and Andy” has not appeared regularly on television since.

Regardless on how one feels about the content of “Amos and Andy,” there is no doubting Tim Moore’s excellent, over the top performance as the “Kingfish.” With his loud baritone voice, and priceless facial expressions, Moore was equally effective playing the scheming con-man with Andy, as he was being the henpecked husband with his wife Sapphire, played by Ernestine Wade. Special mention should be given to Johnny Lee for his hilarious portrayal of the shifty lawyer, Algonquin J. Calhoun. I would like to see Tim Moore receive his due as a comic actor.

Note: In discussing Tim Moore’s career as a prizefighter, some sources have listed boxing greats Jack Johnson and Sam Langford among his opponents. This is probably because Moore’s ring name, “Kid Klondike” is similar to another fighter known as “Klondike,” who actually did meet Langford and Johnson. That fighter’s real name was John Haines. Haines/ “Klondike” first faced Jack Johnson in 1900 when Moore was still 12.

Trivia: “Amos and Andy’s” main writers were Bob Mosher and Joe Connelly, who are best known as the creators of “Leave it to Beaver.”

Dick Clark and American Bandstand

Baby boomers lost another icon last month with the death of Dick Clark. Although his credits are numerous, including “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve,” “$100,000 Pyramid,” and “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes,” it was Clark himself who acknowledged that the foundation of his successful career was built on his longtime association with “American Bandstand.” It was through “Bandstand” that Dick Clark became one of television’s most familiar faces and an important player in the world of popular music. With Dick Clark as its host for over 30 years, “American Bandstand” became a slice of Americana.

“American Bandstand” debuted as “Bandstand” on local Philadelphia station WFIL-TV Channel 6 in September 1952. The show’s title is an obvious clue that the program predates the rock and roll era, as the term “Bandstand” suggests more of a link to Jimmy Dorsey than to Chuck Berry. It was the show’s original host, Bob Horn, who very early on changed “Bandstand’s” format from presenting short musical films to one that featured young people dancing. Airing Monday through Friday, the 90 minute show became a huge afternoon hit among Philadelphia area teenagers, many who would attempt to be one of the lucky 200 kids who would be admitted into the studio to dance on the show. With rock and roll becoming the dominate form of music in the mid-1950’s, “Bandstand” was poised to soar to new heights, but it would do so without Bob Horn…a well publicized DUI, and subsequent sex scandal resulted in his dismissal. Waiting in the wings was a 26 year old disc-jockey named Dick Clark. On July 9, 1956, Clark became the permanent host of “Bandstand”, a position he held until the show ended in 1989.

Dick Clark proved to be the perfect host for “Bandstand.” His clean cut looks and congenial personality helped make rock & roll seem less threatening to adults when presented on “Bandstand,” and most parents had little problem with their kids tuning into Clark on a regular basis. On August 5, 1957, ABC Television added the program to its afternoon schedule, giving it the now familiar name “American Bandstand.” Now having a national audience of 20 million, Dick Clark was able to lure most of rock & rolls biggest names to the show’s Philadelphia studios, as it soon became clear that exposure on “American Bandstand” could go a long way in making a record a hit, or a singer a star. The Coasters, the Drifters, Connie Francis, Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Fats Domino are just a few of the hundreds of acts that stopped by “Bandstand” to lip-sync their latest releases. Although “American Bandstand” was usually a reflection of what was already popular in teenage culture, occasionally the show would take a proactive role. In 1960, Clark noticed a very enthusiastic response an obscure Hank Ballard song was getting whenever it was played on his show, and how much the kids seemed to love doing the dance that was suggested by the record. Clark arranged to have the song, called “The Twist,” covered by a local singer named Ernest Evans, and heavily promoted it on “American Bandstand.” Both the record and the accompanying dance was a national craze, and Evans, renamed Chubby Checker, became a major star.

In the early 1960’s, “American Bandstand” began to undergo several major changes. In 1963, the show was moved from its weekday slot to Saturday afternoons, and in February of 1964, “Bandstand” left Philadelphia, and moved to ABC Television Center in Los Angeles. By now, “American Bandstand” was no longer done live, as the show would tape six weeks worth of shows over a weekend, allowing Dick Clark to pursue other business interests, including putting together live concert tours that featured many of the stars that appeared on “American Bandstand.” Through Beatlemania, psychedelic rock, Motown, disco and hip-hop, “American Bandstand” was always there to support it, lasting until October 7, 1989.

Although Dick Clark was called “America’s oldest teenager,” I never thought the nickname was accurate. Clark never tried to act, dress or speak like a high-school student, but instead seemed more like a mature older brother, genuinely interested in the opinions of the young people he often interviewed on his show during his rate-a-record installments. Clark and “American Bandstand” should also be credited for allowing the show to feature a completely interracial environment, both on the stage and on the dance floor, which was unique, especially during the pre-civil rights 1950’s. But my fondest memories of Dick Clark will always be in terms of his personality. Unlike other television hosts of the 1950’s and ‘60’s (Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Dean Martin come to mind), Clark treated rock & roll music, its artists, and its fans with respect, and for that alone we should be grateful.

Trivia: In 1965, one of the acts featured on Dick Clark’s “Caravan of Stars” concert tour was the singing duo, Paul and Paula, best known for their hit record, “Hey Paula.” Midway through the tour, “Paul” (Ray Hildebrand) decided to leave act, leaving “Paula’ (Jill Jackson) without a singing partner. Always the trooper, Dick Clark himself stepped in, and performed as “Paul” for all of the remaining shows.

The Lone Ranger will ride again

It seems that Hollywood will never get tired of producing films based on characters from popular fiction. Superman, Batman, Zorro and Sherlock Holmes have all received plenty of screen time in both television and motion pictures in recent years, sometimes with very profitable results. Joining the list in 2013 will be one of the all-time greatest western heroes, as Walt Disney Pictures will release “The Lone Ranger,” just in time for the 80th anniversary of the masked man’s creation. The intriguing aspect of the upcoming film is the casting of Johnny Depp as Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s Indian companion. With Armie Hammer playing the title role, “The Lone Ranger” has just recently started shooting, ten years after the project was first announced. Moving from Columbia to Walt Disney Pictures in 2007, “The Lone Ranger” is expected to cost $215 million to make.

The Lone Ranger originated as a radio show, created by Fran Striker, premiering on Detroit radio station WXYZ on January 30, 1933. Although the program was a western aimed at children, “The Lone Ranger” soon became popular among adults as well, and was successful enough to be picked up by network radio, eventually landing a spot on ABC radio, and lasting until 1954. It was on radio where the most of the Lone Ranger’s most familiar elements were introduced, including the “William Tell Overture” as his theme, silver bullets, and his horse Silver. His trusted friend Tonto was added to the show during its 11th episode, primarily to give the Ranger someone with whom to talk. Seven different actors portrayed the Lone Ranger on radio, most notably Earle Graser (1933-1941) and Brace Beemer (1941-1954). As the Lone Ranger’s persona became established, a back story was created to explain the masked man’s origin. In this backstory, the Lone Ranger was a Texas Ranger named Reid who survived an ambush by the Butch Cavendish gang, an attack that claimed the lives of five other Rangers, including Reid’s brother Dan. Reid is found barely alive by an Indian named Tonto, and after being nursed back to health by his new friend, donned a mask, vowing to devote his life to fighting for law and order.

By the 1940’s, the Lone Ranger had branched out to other forms of media, including newspaper comic strips, children’s picture books and Saturday afternoon matinee serials. But it was on TV where the Lone Ranger made his biggest impact, as the Lone Ranger television show made its network debut on ABC in 1949. Both Clayton Moore as the Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto gained national fame in their roles, and the two remained closely indentified with their characters the rest of their lives.

The Lone Ranger television series lasted eight seasons, filming 221 episodes, but despite its obvious success, it was always considered a children’s show, never receiving the acclaim given to the so-called “adult” westerns, such as “Gunsmoke,” “Maverick,” and “Have Gun Will Travel.” Reruns of “The Lone Ranger” were part of CBS’s Saturday afternoon schedule for several years, and an animated version of the series also appeared on CBS during the mid 1960’s. Finally, in 1981, the masked man was brought to the big screen when Universal Pictures released “The Legend of the Lone Ranger,” with Klinton Spilsbury playing the lead role. Not only was the film a financial disaster, but also a public relations nightmare, as the producers were granted a court order that prevented Clayton Moore from making public appearances in the Lone Ranger costume he helped make famous. The film was subjected to additional ridicule when it was discovered that Spilsbury’s lines were dubbed by another actor. Eventually, Moore won a lawsuit that allowed him to continue wearing the mask.

The upcoming version of “The Lone Ranger” has not been without its problems, changing studios, producers and writers several times before production began a few weeks ago. The fact that Johnny Depp is playing Tonto would lead one to believe that the movie could have a less than serious tone. Although the film is months away from being released, I already have one complaint. Publicity photos showing Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger reveal an entirely new look. The Lone Ranger’s traditional light blue outfit has been replaced with what looks like a navy blue blazer. If the Lone Ranger can’t catch an outlaw wearing those clothes, he’ll at least have no problem getting into the Friars’ Club.

Note: Due to a contract dispute, Clayton Moore did not play the Ranger during the third season of “The Lone Ranger.” Producers, thinking that the Ranger’s unique outfit made the role easily transferrable, replaced Moore with John Hart, but the public wasn’t fooled, and Moore was brought back, but not before Hart had completed 52 episodes.

Trivia: “The Green Hornet,” introduced on radio in 1936, was actually a spinoff of “The Lone Ranger.” It was explained that Britt Reid (the Green Hornet) was the grandson of Dan Reid, the brother of the Lone Ranger who was killed during the Cavendish gang ambush. The ABC television version of the Hornet made no mention of the Lone Ranger connection. The 1966-67 series featured Van Williams as Britt Reid/The Green Hornet and martial arts legend Bruce Lee as Kato. Lee once joked that he got the part because he was the only Asian in Hollywood that could pronounce “Britt Reid.”

Channel 44, UHF, and Bay Area TV’s Great Leap Forward

I know from personal experience that most young people are not interested in hearing about the early days of television, and the prehistoric technology Baby Boomers had to endure during our formative years. But I think it’s okay for us to remind ourselves of the remarkable journey we’ve traveled over the past 50 years, moving from the horror of black and white sets, the depravity of few channels, and the humiliation of having family members stand on the roof to hold the antenna in place, to today’s color, high definition big screens and hundreds of channels available through cable. Although the many changes we’ve witnessed did not occur overnight, one significant step took place in 1968, with the debut of KBHK 44, and the invasion of the UHF channels.

UHF (ultra high frequency) is a form of broadcasting that has different characteristics than the much more familiar VHF (very high frequency). I won’t bother to go into the details of the technology involved, as it’s kind of complicated, and the Daley Planet’s science editor is on vacation. The point is that in the early days of television, VHS became the established form of viewing, as those stations, operating on channels 2 through 13, were available on all TV sets. UHF stations could only be accessed by turning to the UHF channel (located between 2 and 13), and then dialing in the channels (14 through 83), much like you would with a radio. The problem was that many television sets sold in the 1950’s did not include UHF tuning knobs, or the special loop antenna also required for UHF viewing. Saddled with these handicaps, very few UHF stations existed in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, and for television enthusiasts like me, my viewing was usually limited to channels 2, 4, 5 and 7 (when did Channel 9 ever have cartoons?). But in 1961, Congress passed the “All-Channel Receiver Act” which allowed the FCC to require that all television sets manufactured and sold in the U.S. after 1964 would have to include UHF tuners, meaning that the potential size of the UHF audience would no doubt increase every passing year. All that was needed was some UHF stations.

Operating a VHF station in Honolulu since 1958, the Henry J. Kaiser Company saw the “All-Channel Receiver Act” as an opportunity expand its broadcast holdings on the U.S. mainland, opening six stations between 1965 and 1968. In late 1967 came the formal announcement that KBHK (Kaiser Broadcasting/ Harry J. Kaiser ) Channel 44 would begin operations on January 2, 1968, becoming San Francisco’s first commercial UHF station, and the second one in the Bay Area (San Jose’s Channel 36 signed on in October of 1967). Releasing its programming schedule weeks before the first broadcast, Channel 44 relied heavily on reruns, old movies and afternoon kids shows. But in addition to shows like “Hazel,” “Dobie Gillis,” and “The Honeymooners,” the new station would feature some ambitious sports coverage, including the first ever color broadcast of a San Francisco Warriors- Los Angeles Lakers basketball game, live from the Cow Palace on KBHK’s opening night, plus 25 regular season games involving the Oakland A’s, who would begin there first year on the West Coast in April of 1968. On January 2, 1968, at 5:55 pm, Channel 44 hit the airwaves with an invocation by Rev. James C. Brown, followed at 6 pm by its first ever entertainment offering, “The Little Rascals.”

Unfortunately, the Daley family was not participating in any of the fun. Our black and white set, purchased during the Truman Administration, did not have UHF capability, and, in fact, didn’t receive channels 5 or 7 too well either. Our only access to KBHK 44, Channel 36 or KEMO 20, which debuted in April of 1968, was through a portable Sony TV, which was a gift given to my sports writer father by the Oakland Raiders. Although the Sony was equipped with a UHF tuner, it only had a three-inch screen, making the family viewing experience quite pathetic. There was special equipment available that could give any old set UHF capacity, but my parents were not big enough fans of “The Little Rascals” or “Hazel” to spend the money, so my first season of watching Oakland A’s, American League baseball on television was much like peering through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars.

Happily, the Daley’s finally got a color TV set, courtesy of the San Francisco Warriors (you didn’t think we’d actually buy one, did you?), in the late fall of 1968. In less than one year, the number of television channels available to me had doubled. As I remember, each of the UHF channels had something unique to offer. Kemo 20 featured Saturday night horror films as well as Oakland Oaks (of the ABA) basketball. Channel 36’s early days is fondly remembered by all-night movies hosted by Jay Brown of Spartan Dodge, home of the “Price-Slasher.” Briefly there was a channel 38, which included an interview show hosted by Giants’ centerfielder Willie Mays. Then there was Channel 32, which, despite being a San Francisco station, whose listings appeared faithfully in the daily TV logs, did not seem to be available to anybody, which was very frustrating whenever they carried a Raiders pre-season game.

But KBHK 44 was definitely the Bay Area king of UHF, as their variety of programming was far superior to their UHF rivals, and at a par with the independent giant, KTVU 2. Aside from Major League Baseball and NBA, Channel 44 had pro-wrestling from Philadelphia, a syndicated variety show hosted by Steve Allen, a home grown kid’s show host called Sgt. Sacto (played by Mike Cleary), and Don Sherwood, who attempted, unsuccessfully, to shift his persona as the “World’s Greatest Disc-Jockey” from radio to television. But my favorite Channel 44 moment occurred on July 21, 1969 when Neil Armstrong stepped out of the “Eagle” and became the first human being to walk on the Moon. Every television station was tuned to Armstrong, except KBHK 44…they were running Mr. Ed.

It was the proliferation of UHF stations that ultimately led to the transition to cable. In 1970, Ted Turner purchased the failing Channel 17 in Atlanta, using the station to show Atlanta Braves baseball games along with wrestling and countless reruns. Uplinked to satellite in 1975, Turner’s WTBS became the first “superstation,” and along with HBO, among the first to be carried nationally. Specialty networks, devoted strictly to news, sports, weather or movies, a concept first tried on UHF, were formed to build a string of networks we now know as basic cable. One company, News Corporation, was able to combine various UHF stations it had acquired over the years, as the foundation of a fourth major network, Fox.

Note: Operating the UHF knob was an acquired skill. In 1969, Channel 36 carried a Saturday night Oakland Raiders- Miami Dolphins game, which my family watched in black and white, only to learn later that if the dial had been moved one more centimeter, we would have had color.

The Unforgettable Eddie Haskell

“Leave it to Beaver” is undoubtedly one of the most beloved sitcoms in the annals of television. Although the program focused on the lives of Ward and June Cleaver, along with their two sons Wally and Beaver, the show’s most memorable character was not any of the four principals. Despite the wholesome nature of “Leave it to Beaver,” it was a two-faced weasel named Eddie Haskell who became the figure most remembered from the series. Played to perfection by Ken Osmond, just the name Eddie Haskell has become a term for insincere politeness, which he used to ingratiate himself with grownups, masking his true personality. Although equipped with several negative traits, Eddie was actually more complex, and the writers of “Leave it to Beaver” took great pains to flush out Eddie’s true nature over the course of the show’s run.

“Leave it to Beaver” debuted on October 4, 1957 on CBS, moving to ABC the following year, racking up six seasons in total. The fifth episode, titled “New Neighbors,” saw Beaver (Jerry Mathers) receive a kiss from the lady next door after he delivered a housewarming gift. The script called for someone to convince Beaver that the kiss would put him at odds with the woman’s husband, so the part of Eddie Haskell was created. Eddie, introduced as a friend of Wally’s (Tony Dow), was originally intended to be seen in one episode, but the writers quickly realized his questionable ways made him the perfect counterweight to the all-American Wally. Where Wally was handsome, athletic, honest, hardworking and modest, Eddie Haskell was average looking, not particularly good at sports, vain, conniving and somewhat of a slacker. After “New Neighbors,” Eddie Haskell became a fixture on “Leave it to Beaver”, remaining with the show for the duration of the series. Eddie’s behavior pattern was established as early as his debut episode. Upon entering the Cleaver household, he would shower June Cleaver (Barbara Billingsly) with countless compliments regarding her appearance, only to revert to his real personality once out of earshot of any grownups. Initially, June seemed appreciative of Eddie’s good manners, but Ward (Hugh Beaumont) seemed a bit suspicious, once commenting that Eddie was so polite, it was “almost un-American.” Eventually, both Cleaver parents were on to Eddie, but the Haskell boy never deviated from what would become his signature “good evening Mrs. Cleaver…my, your hair looks great today.”

Since Eddie Haskell knew better than to tangle with Wally, it was young Theodore (Beaver) who received much of Eddie’s abuse, which usually came in the form of bad advice or deliberate misinformation. In “Beaver and Chuey” Beaver befriends a young Mexican boy who knows no English. Eddie teaches Beaver a few words of Spanish, which Beaver repeats to Chuey. The resulting phrase, “You have the face of a pig,” almost sets off an international incident. In “Beaver’s Library Book,” Beaver loses the book he checked out with his dad’s library card, and is convinced by Eddie that Ward will end up in jail if the book is not returned. “Beaver the Sheepdog” saw Beaver on the receiving end of insults from a female classmate. Eddie advises Beaver to fight fire with fire, which results in Beaver reducing his tormentor to tears. Eddie usually paid for his crimes, as demonstrated in “Wally’s Weekend Job” where Eddie, jealous that Wally has secured a job at an ice-cream parlor, calls the shop and sets Wally up for a bogus delivery. Wally, in a rare fit of anger, hunts down Eddie and pours melted ice-cream under his clothes. On two other occasions, “The Hypnotist” and “A Night in the Woods,” Eddie’s attempts to run from Wally result in him taking a spill on a wet lawn, and ending up on a ledge after falling over a cliff.

Aside from being deviant, Eddie Haskell’s most prevalent characteristic was his constant braggadocio. Although Eddie was obviously a middle-class resident of Mayfield, he claimed his clothes were imported, his family’s groceries were delivered, and he planned to attend M.I.T. after high school. Once, when June invited Eddie to join the Cleavers for a roast beef dinner, Eddie declined, stating that his family was having squab. Eddie was also the master of the putdown, and though his target was usually Beaver, he did manage to zing Mrs. Cleaver a few times in somewhat roundabout fashion. In telling June how nice her hair looked, Eddie added, “My mother says you must all of your time in the beauty shop.” While complementing June on her spotless kitchen, Eddie, again, quoted his mother, who speculated that the clean kitchen was probably the result of June never doing any work in it.

As obnoxious as Eddie Haskell could sometimes be, viewers of “Leave it to Beaver” learned there was another side of him, and from time to time, Eddie himself would try to explain his behavior. Once, he described to Wally an incident in kindergarten where he was sent to school with a home permanent. At that point Eddie made a decision to “make the other guy feel like a goon first. Then, you don’t feel like so much of a goon.” In “Eddie Spends the Night,” he reveals to Wally and Beaver his fear of being alone, pointing out that pretending to be a big-shot doesn’t work when there is no one around. Probably Eddie Haskell’s most revealing moment of self evaluation came during an episode called “One of the Boys,” where he admitted that he really didn’t measure up too well when compared to Wally, saying, “If I don’t make a noise like a brass band, no one would ever notice me.” Eddie Haskell was a valuable asset to the writers of “Leave it to Beaver,” as many of the later season’s storylines focused on Eddie getting involved in situations that never would have worked if applied to Wally’s character. In Season 5, Eddie drops out of school, and in the sixth and final season, he leaves his parents and takes an apartment. On both occasions, Wally secretly fixes the situation, allowing Eddie to save face.

When, in 1999, TV Guide published its list of the Greatest TV Characters of All-Time, Eddie Haskell was ranked #20. Why is Eddie remembered as much if not more than any of the Cleavers? Well, despite his many flaws, Eddie rocked! His sharp wit and brash façade added a wildcard element to “Leave it to Beaver,” which would have been quite dull without him. Eddie also, at times, seemed to be the only character dialed in to modern culture, making reference to such figures as Nikita Kruschev, Peter Lawford, Tony Curtis and Cassius Clay. Although Wally knew Eddie Haskell could be a creep, he never ended the friendship, probably because he would have missed Eddie’s sense of humor, and Eddie’s colorful way of addressing his friends as “Sam” or “Gertrude.” Eventually, even Ward and June Cleaver came to appreciate Eddie Haskell, to the point where Ward said the unthinkable….in “Wally’s Play” Ward, noticing how Eddie relished being the center of attention after performing in a school play, remarked, “You know, sometimes it wouldn’t hurt if Wally was a bit like Eddie.” Fat chance, as Wally once pointed out to Beaver, “A guy like Eddie Haskell only comes around once every couple of hundred years.”

Remembering Davy Jones and The Monkees

Besides leaving a large hole in the heart of every woman between the ages 50 and 60, the death of Davy Jones brings to mind one of the most unique stories in the annals of show business. Although the phenomenon known as the Monkees only last a few years in terms of hit records, television ratings and Tiger Beat magazine covers, their impact and legacy has remained intact to this day. Elements of the Monkees’ TV show can still be found in MTV music videos, and the blurring of reality and fiction used by the program was repeated with great success during the eight year run of “Seinfeld.” But the greatest achievement of Jones and company was becoming one of most successful rock and roll bands of their era, which was quite a feat considering that it happened at a time when groups like the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Beach Boys were all at the top of their game, and even more remarkable in that the Monkees were not even a real group…at first.

Inspired by the Beatles’ first film, “A Hard Days Night,” filmmakers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider went to work developing a television show all about a rock and roll group. After selling the concept to Screen Gems, Rafelson and Schneider went about trying to cast the show. Originally, they considered using an existing group, the Lovin’ Spoonful, but the Spoonful was already with a record label, which would have prevented Screen Gems from marketing the music expected to be generated from the show. In September of 1965, entertainment trade papers began announcing open auditions to fill the roles of an aspiring rock band. Reportedly, England’s Davy Jones, a 20 year old actor/singer with Broadway experience was already on board. Eventually the producers settled on two musicians, Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork, and another actor, former child star Mickey Dolenz. Various songwriters were recruited to supply the group’s music, which would be featured throughout what would be a 30 minute sitcom. The “group” was named the Monkees, and made its NBC debut on September 12, 1966. The Monkees’ first record, “Last Train to Clarksville,” featured during the initial broadcast, became a monster hit, as did their first Colgems album, simply called “The Monkees.” Although not yet a functioning band, the four men did provide the vocals heard on all of their records. Quickly, the television show and its related music, were huge hits.

Looking back, it’s easy to pick out the several components that made “The Monkees” a success. The four stars had distinct personalities, with Mike being the smart one, Peter the fool, Mickey the wiseass and Davy the cute one. The program’s comedy was fast paced, with a definitive zany Marx Brothers feel to it. Of course, the Monkees music was the most pleasant surprise. Some of pop music’s most talented songwriters contributed some of the era’s best songs, including Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart (“Last Train to Clarksville”), Carole King (“Pleasant Valley Sunday”), Neil Diamond (“I’m a Believer’) and the Kingston Trio’s John Stuart, who penned Davy Jones’s signature tune, “Daydream Believer.” Although Mickey Dolenz was brought in based on his acting, it was his singing voice, according to Mike Nesmith, that gave the Monkees a distinctive sound. Finally, the Monkees popularity coincided with the garage-band boom that was happening at that time. In the mid-sixties, most dances, sock-hops, and junior high or high school parties included live music provided by a local band. The premise of the Monkees’ television show was that it was a comical look at a struggling rock group, which many young people could relate to. If you were a girl, you wanted to marry a Monkee, but if you were guy, perhaps you could be a Monkee.

The amazing part of the Monkees’ story is the fact that, through necessity, they actually became a real band. Once their records began flying off the shelves, the idea of putting together a concert tour was inevitable. And so in December of 1966, after only knowing each other for a few months, and with Nesmith and Tork being the only two real musicians, the four Monkees made their live debut in Hawaii, performing reasonable versions of their hit records. However, Monkeemania did have its detractors, as critics were quick to point out that the Monkees did not play any instruments on their best selling albums, and, prior to their multi-city concert tour, were not a functioning band. Mickey Dolenz was particularly singled out, as his lack of formal training, and subsequent subpar drumming made him an easy target.

Like most teenybopper fads, Monkeemania started to fade after about 18 months, and NBC canceled the series in early 1968. Still under contract with Screen Gems, Dolenz, Jones, Nesmith and Tork continued touring and recording as the Monkees, but without the power of a primetime television show as a promotional tool, the records stopped selling and the concerts were often sparsely attended. In 1969, Peter Tork quit the group, and Michael Nesmith exited the following year. By 1971, the Monkees had officially broken up, but Saturday morning reruns and later MTV showings of the series kept the group in our consciousness. Starting as early as the mid-1970’s, Davy Jones began appearing as a nostalgia act. Over the last 25 years Jones participated in several full and partial Monkee reunions, as getting all four together for a tour was never easy, as the Monkees, almost predictably, developed love/hate relationships among each other. Apparently, the Monkees weren’t too busy singing, to put one another down.

Of course, the death of Davy Jones at age 66 now makes any future Monkee reunions impossible…I suddenly feel a bit old.

Notes: Originally, Davy Jones was cast as the Monkees drummer, but his small stature made him hard to see behind a full set of drums. Jones was reassigned to his familiar upfront role as a singer/percussionist.

Great Moments in Lip Syncing

Recently, the entertainment world was rocked by yet another lip syncing controversy. It seems that on the November 3, 2011 edition of “X Factor,” contestant Leroy Bell’s vocals could be heard before he even positioned his microphone in front of his mouth. The next day, the Fox network admitted that lip syncing was allowed during “X Factor’s” ensemble numbers, but insisted that “all survivor songs are performed live, with a backing track.” Nevertheless, “X Factor” immediately became the recipient of a lot of anger from viewers who felt the hit show was being a bit deceitful in its presentation. Although “X Factor” producers claim that having group sing a longs prerecorded is also standard procedure on “American Idol,” “X-Factor” has officially become part of an exclusive list of lip syncing scandals that have soiled the music industry over the past several years. Although lip syncing is a long accepted practice in presenting music in rock videos or in films, concert goers and viewers of live television variety shows expect the singing to be done live on the spot. Despite this, Ashlee Simpson, Britney Spears, Michael Jackson and Milli Vanilli have all either been caught or have been accused of performing live shows with the aid of prerecorded accompaniment.

Those who have been enjoying the ongoing feud between Elton John and Madonna might remember that the root of their dustup had to do with John’s unhappiness with Madonna earning a Q Award nomination in 2004 for “Best Live Act.” “Anyone who lip syncs onstage when people are paying more than $100 a ticket should be shot” complained Elton about Madonna, further saying “Madonna, the best live act? Since when is lip syncing live?” Just the other day, John had this message for Madonna in regards to her halftime appearance at this weekend’s Super Bowl…”Make sure you lip sync good.”

Although lip syncing is largely associated with rock and roll, the practice goes back over 80 years, to the early days of talking motion pictures. Producers of films like “The Wizard of Oz” realized it made logical sense to prerecord the singing sequences, allowing people like Judy Garland to concentrate on her movements and facial expressions without having to worry about her vocals. Movie lip syncing also made it possible for John Wayne, Lauren Bacall and Audrey Hepburn to have singing roles in a few of their films, since the songs they were mouthing to did not feature their own actual voices.

Television, in its beginning, was mostly a live medium. Ed Sullivan, Milton Berle and Steve Allen’s Tonight Show all featured live performances by the top recording artists of the day. By the mid 1950’s, rock and roll became popular, particularly among teenagers, and several weekday, afterschool TV shows devoted to the new music began to pop up all over the country, most notably “American Bandstand.” These rock and roll dance programs operated on small budgets, and could not afford the expense of providing the resources necessary to allow any of the musical guests to perform their hit records live. Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” would, for over 30 years, be the epicenter for lip syncing, and the practice spread to other shows like “Lloyd Thaxton” and “Where the Action Is.” Even prime time popular music shows like “Shindig” and “Hullabaloo” relied mostly on lip syncing, and it’s safe to say that the vast majority of rock and roll presented on television throughout the 1960’s were not legitimate live performances. This brings me to my favorite moment in lip syncing history.

In 1967, Noel Walker produced a novelty record called “I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman”, which was composed by the British songwriting team Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway. The tune, which is comprised mostly of whistling done by Walker himself, was released under the pseudonym “Whistling Jack Smith.” Surprisingly, the tune became a hit in the spring of 1967, which led to an entire album of whistling selections, as well as requests for “Smith” to perform the number on various television variety shows. Since “Whistling Jack Smith” did not really exist, an actor named Billy Moeller was hired, not only to pose for the album cover, but to appear on live television, pretending to be the phenomenal whistler responsible for the tune’s success. Watching Moeller 45 years later giving his all while lip syncing “I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman” is an experience in itself, especially when you consider that Moeller, before this, had never even whistled for a taxi. Milli Vanilli would have been proud.

Notes: The Ed Sullivan Show had no set policy regarding the practice of lip syncing. The Beatles performed completely live during their appearances, while the Rolling Stones prerecorded their instrumental tracks, with Mick Jagger doing a live vocal. Several other rock and roll acts were allowed lip sync, including the Mamas and Papas, with Cass Elliot shouting “cue the tape” just as they started to “sing” “Creeque Alley.”

Trivia: Speaking of well known whistling performances, the theme to the “Andy Griffith Show” (The Fishin’ Hole) was performed by the song’s co-composer, Earl Hagen. The whistling heard during the theme to “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” was done by John O’Neill, who was also an accomplished singer and trumpeter.

The Worst TV Show Ever?

It’s natural to engage in discussions regarding which programs deserve consideration as the best show of all time. Although the Daily Planet is always willing to participate in that conversation, we find the search to discover television’s all-time worst program just as intriguing. Of course, determining what qualifies as bad television usually depends on what kind of criteria is being applied. Terrible scripts, bad acting, poor production values and ridiculous storylines can all contribute to making any program a candidate for worst show of all-time, a list that includes such turkeys as “Supertrain” (NBC 1979), “Your in the Picture” (CBS 1960), “The Brady Bunch Hour” (ABC 1976) and “My Mother the Car” (NBC 1965). But if the benchmark is lack of longevity, scathing reviews and extremely negative audience reaction, then the dubious honor of TV’s worst show ever could very well be “Turn-On,” which came and went very quickly in February, 1969.

In terms of ratings, ABC was a distant third to NBC and CBS throughout the late 1960’s, placing only three shows in the Neilson Ratings top 20 during the three seasons prior to the spring of 1969. The running gag was that if the U.S. government was really serious about ending the war in Viet Nam, they would place it on ABC’s primetime schedule, because then it would be over in 13 weeks. Badly in need of a hit, ABC turned to the production team of Ed Friendly and George Schlatter, the two men who had created the wildly successful sketch comedy show, “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” for NBC. Friendly and Schlatter newest project, another comedy variety show called “Turn-On,” had already been rejected by CBS and NBC, but ABC, noting “Turn-On’s” similarities to “Laugh-In,” went ahead and penciled “Turn-On” onto its spring 1969 lineup. Although criticized as being an obvious rip-off of “Laugh-In,” “Turn-On had an entirely different look to it. Unlike “Laugh-In,” “Turn-On” did not attempt to simulate a live production, as most of its comic sequences were filmed and contained no laugh track. “Turn-On” was also without a permanent host, as its unique premise was that it was being produced by a computer, which was not the case. But the biggest departure from “Laugh-In,” or any other 1969 comedy came in the form of “Turn-On’s” content. Most of the humor revolved around sex. On Wednesday, February 5, 1969, “Turn-On” made its debut on ABC at 8:30 pm, with Tim Conway as guest host.

“Turn-On” was comprised of roughly two dozen skits, visual images and quickly executed political messages. One segment depicted a beautiful woman about to face a firing squad, with the commander explaining to the girl “this time, it’s we who have a final request.” Another sequence featured comic actor Chuck McCann ripping up and eating an adult men’s magazine. It was material like that caused Cleveland’s ABC affiliate to stop the showing of “Turn-On” 11 minutes into the program. ABC’s switchboard was lit up with hundreds of calls from viewers complaining about the show. The following day, “Turn-On” was savaged by terrible reviews from coast to coast, with some critics calling it offensive, while others just thought it was lousy. Although a second show, to be guest hosted by Robert Culp had already been filmed for a February 12th showing, ABC canceled “Turn-On” after its one and only episode. Because “Turn-On” did not even make it through its only telecast in some cities, and was not even aired in places like Denver, Portland and Seattle, it definitely earns the distinction as having the shortest run it network television history.

As far as “Turn-On” being the worst TV show of all time in terms of quality, that will always be a matter of opinion. As always, readers are invited to submit their own candidates for “worst television show ever.”

Notes: Because of the negative reaction to “Turn-On,” ABC became a bit gun-shy in terms of airing programs that could potentially be considered too provocative or controversial. It was this kind of caution that caused them to reject a sitcom that featured a bigoted lout as its main character. That program, which became “All in the Family,” was a monster hit for CBS.

Remembering the Original “Divorce Court”

One of the most popular forms of reality television continues to be the “judge shows,” those afternoon court programs that feature ordinary people having their petty disputes settled by the likes of Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown and Judge Mathis. Although “The People’s Court” with Judge Joseph Wapner was the first reality court show that did not use actors when it debuted in 1981, many baby boomers might remember that the forerunner to all of these shows was the longtime syndicated favorite, “Divorce Court,” which began in 1957.

“Divorce Court” was an early example of a program that blurred the line between fiction and reality. “Divorce Court” was a 30 minute show that took place entirely within what looked like a real courtroom. Each week, viewers were presented with two litigants involved in a divorce proceeding, the plaintiff, the person initiating the divorce, and the defendant, the individual who was either seeking a reconciliation, or merely contesting the grounds. From 1957 to 1969, all of the “Divorce Court” cases were decided by the first great TV Judge, the Honorable Voltaire Perkins. Although viewers were advised that what was seen on “Divorce Court” were reenactments of actual divorce cases presented by actors, the presence of Judge Perkins made the show very believable, to the point where I’ll bet a large segment of the audience thought everything was real (probably the same people who send hate mail to soap opera villains).

Although most of the “Divorce Court” dramatizations revolved around typical marital problems, such as infidelity, desertion, mental cruelty and physical abuse, the program often contained twists, turns and surprise revelations, usually uncovered by the crack questioning of one of the attorneys. A few of stories have stood the test of time, at least in my memory. There was the case of the woman who sought a divorce from her second husband due to his apparent cheating. The man contested the allegations, despite a mountain of evidence, which included lipstick on the collar, love notes found in pants pockets and unexplained phone calls received late at night. Fortunately, the husband’s stepdaughter cracked on the witness stand, confessing to planting the evidence, hoping a divorce would spark reconciliation between her mother and real father. Another situation involved the poor man whose wife could not let go of the memory of her deceased first husband. Spouse number two’s divorce was granted when the woman insisted that her beloved number one would soon come back from the grave. Then there was the lady who complained that her mate was secretly a Nazi, which became apparent to everyone in the courtroom when the gentleman broke into a Hitler-like tirade. No matter the nature of the case, two things could always be counted on to happen every week. First, Judge Perkins’s rulings would always be fair, and second, sometime during the show, the proceedings would be interrupted by some secretary barging into the courtroom, needing the Judge’s signature, so that the program could segue to a commercial.

What gave “Divorce Court” an air of authenticity was that many of the performers were from the legal profession, including the show’s attorneys, a group comprised of eight lawyers who handled all of the program’s cases for a $250 per episode fee. Unlike a pure television drama, “Divorce Court” was primarily improvised, with each day’s attorneys given a booklet providing whatever facts producers needed to be brought out during that day’s session. The most unique aspect of the show was that Judge Perkins’s rulings were made on the spot, and not decided in advance. Perkins himself, while not a real judge, was a practicing attorney with a law degree from USC, as well as an actor. The fact that Voltaire Perkins was not really a judge was a shock to me, although I should have figured it out when he started showing up in films like “Frankenstein’s Daughter” and “Blood of Dracula.” Perkins left “Divorce Court” in 1969, and passed away in 1977 at the age of 83.

“Divorce Court” is presently still on the air, although the show has undergone some changes. Instead of using actors, the current version of the program relies on real couples who have recently filed for divorce. Lynn Toler, a former judge in Cleveland Heights, Ohio occupies the bench on the modern day “Divorce Court,” a position she has held since 2006. Although Toler’s credentials may dwarf those her 1957 to 1969 counterpart, I still prefer Voltaire Perkins over Toler, as well as any of the other TV judges. Back when I still believed Perkins to be a real judge, I always kept my fingers crossed whenever a vacancy on the United States Supreme Court would occur…I still think they could have used him.

The Rise and Demise of Laugh Tracks

For most Baby Boomers, television laugh tracks were at one time as much a part of the viewing experience as a black and white picture with bad reception. What is surprising is not that laugh tracks have almost completely faded away, but that it has happened with little fanfare. Surely, something that played such a significant part in TV history deserves some kind of acknowledgement, if not a decent burial.

 

For our confused younger readers, laugh tracks (or canned laughter) were audio recordings of audience laughter which were inserted onto the soundtrack of television shows, either to enhance the response of a live audience (known as sweetening) or used to provide all of the guffaws for comedy programs produced without any audience at all. The first use of the laugh track dates back to the age of radio, where its origin came about almost by accident. Bing Crosby was the first performer who taped broadcasts of his popular radio show, allowing his producers to edit portions of the show prior to its airing. One week in 1946, a hillbilly comic named Bob Burns was drawing enormous laughs while doing his routine, some of which needed to be edited out due to time considerations. A few weeks later, when another comic sequence was not getting much of a response, a scriptwriter came up with the idea of recycling the earlier laughs, which had been preserved on tape, and over dubbing them onto the current show. This was the beginning of the laugh track.

 

It was only a matter of time before producers figured out that canned laughter could be used as a substitute for a real audience. In the early days of television, shows that were not broadcast live were filmed using the single-camera technique, a system which could not be used with an audience present. When a program was performed live in front of an audience, the spectators would not always respond in ways that the producers and performers had hoped. It was CBS sound engineer Charles Douglass became the first true master of the laugh track, as he became an expert at reworking the soundtracks of various shows, adding, subtracting, stretching or reducing laughs when needed, as well as recording laughs from various sources, building a virtual laugh library. (The Red Skelton Show was a favorite of Douglass for gathering chuckles, as Skelton always included a pantomime segment, which contained no dialogue to edit out) As sitcoms began to dominate the network airways by the late 1950’s, laugh tracks became increasingly common, almost making the live audience obsolete. One of the few holdouts was Lucille Ball, as “I Love Lucy” continued to film in front of actual people throughout the decade. It was Lucy’s co-star, husband Desi Arnaz who decided to forgo laugh tracks, feeling that Miss Ball worked best in front of a crowd.

 

The 1960’s became the heyday of the laugh track, as almost all of the top sitcoms put the process to work. “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Leave it to Beaver,” and “The Donna Reed Show” all relied on canned laughter to simulate the existence of a live audience, even through location footage made it hard to believe that the audience was somehow present during outdoor filming. Although many of the laughs were supplied from Charles Douglass’s database, different shows had distinct tracks. “Ozzie and Harriet” used the same laugh over and over again for over ten years, while “Amos and Andy” relied on a looped soundtrack, where the “audience” could be heard talking among itself between laughs, with the words “oh yeah” being heard roughly every 20 seconds.

 

By the late 1960’s, some shows experimented with airing television comedies without the use of an added laugh track. The producers of “Hogan’s Heroes” had two different test audiences view the same episode of their program, one with a laugh track, one without…the audience overwhelmingly preferred the version that included the laughs. Charles Schulz was asked by CBS to include a laugh track on “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” but he refused. Even the Monkees stopped using canned laughter during the second and final season of their show, but the laugh track still dominated the television landscape by the end of the decade, branching out to cartoons (The Flintstones), game shows (Hollywood Squares), and even comedy variety shows (Laugh-In). But, starting in 1970, things began to change.

 

Making its debut in 1970, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was filmed in front of a live audience, as was “All in the Family,” which premiered in 1971. The tremendous success of both programs started a new trend towards real audiences, putting the long term future of laugh tracks in question. As the 1970’s rolled along, an increased number of sitcoms went the live audience route, a tipping point coming in 1976 when “Happy Days,” in its third season, switched from using laugh tracks to filming before a live audience. Since M.A.S.H. was filmed in the traditional single camera style, which made a live audience impractical, producer Larry Gelbart convinced CBS to limit the use of canned laughter on most episodes.

 

By the 1980’s and 90’s, laugh tracks had become less common, as more sitcoms either relied on live audiences (“Cheers,” “Seinfeld,” Friends”) or tried the unique approach of having neither a live audience or a laugh track (actually, “The Simpsons” was among the first shows to do this, although you can’t really call it a sitcom). Currently, “The Office,” “The Middle,” “Modern Family,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” are examples of going without laughs of any kind. “How I Met Your Mother” is not filmed in front of a live audience, but the completed film is shown to a live group, and the resulting laughter is included on the soundtrack when the program reaches television. As of this writing, use of the laugh track is currently limited to enhancing audience reactions, and is rarely used as a complete audience substitute. Since the laugh track is now 65 years old, maybe its retirement is appropriate.

 

Trivia: One episode of “The Twilight Zone” included a laugh track. “Cavender is Coming,” which aired in May 25, 1962, featured Carol Burnett playing a comic role. Because CBS was considering using this particular “Twilight Zone” installment as the basis for a series, canned laughter was employed to give it a sitcom look.

 

Note: Laughter and applause are not the only sounds that networks edit onto their broadcasts. In 2000, it was revealed that CBS Sports, during its golf telecasts, had been piping in the sounds of chirping birds, usually heard when the hushed crowd would be watching someone putt. Apparently this practice came to light when a viewer, watching a golf tourney that was being held in Michigan, noticed that the bird he heard singing was a species indigenous to a region in Texas (yes, golf fans are sometimes bird experts). CBS was forced to admit that birdcalls were dubbed in to provide “ambient sound.” At least, whenever a professional golfer would miss a putt, they didn’t resort to the laugh track.

 

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