I remain fascinated by the TV variety shows of the Seventies, which basically offered viewers their last glimpse of the weird, anything-goes formula that had been around since vaudeville (today’s talent-competition shows are unbelievably mawkish and possess none of the pizzazz of the classic variety show — I have no patience for "inspirational" amateurs). So why not pay tribute to variety-show vet Lorene Yarnell, who died this week at the age of 66? (I’m passing on Patricia Neal, who will be better covered elsewhere).
Best known — by those who were around at the time — as half of the “Shields and Yarnell” mime duo, Yarnell started out as a dancer who had quite a lot of gigs on variety TV. She was one of the dancing girls on Shindig, The Dean Martin Show,and The Carol Burnett Show, among others. She danced in the movie Sweet Charity and was an all-around theatrical vet when she met street mime Robert Shields in 1972. The two met when they worked on “Fol-de-Rol,” a 1972 Krofft TV special, and became a couple both professionally and privately (they were married until 1986).
At the time S&Y were doing their act, an occasional mime might show up on a talk show or Ed Sullivan, but aside from the master, Marcel Marceau, it’s doubtful that any other mime act got as much attention and screen time as the husband and wife duo. And why was this? Well, it all comes down to one word: ROBOTS. Shields and Yarnell were simply the best fuckin’ robot duo on TV, in a time when Star Wars was about to hit big, and variety shows still had slots for “unusual” talents.
Thus, the pair became regulars on The Mac Davis Show and The Sonny and Cher Show (if my calculations are right, this was the jaw-dropping post-divorce Sonny and Cher show the couple were doing just to get back into starring gigs on TV). S&Y got a summer replacement show in 1977 — that phrase would no doubt need to be explained to anyone under 40, but at one time the networks cared enough about keeping viewership throughout the year that they brought on short-lived variety shows just for the summer months. The pair got the nod for a winter run in January of 1978 but were killed in the ratings by Laverne and Shirley, and from that point went back to doing guesting and stage gigs for the next decade.
In the Eighties, the couple broke up, and Yarnell went back to performing in the theater and acting on television (check out the Wonder Woman role below) and in the movies (Spaceballs). She reunited with Shields many times in the decades since their breakup, and it is indeed safe to say that no one incarnated a robot like those two did — I was initially sorta creeped out by what they were doing when I was younger (it was the not-blinking aspect, they never freaking blinked while playing “the Clinkers,” the robot husband and wife), then I grew to enjoy its sheer strangeness, and now I just think of it as part of a much simpler (and yes, more interestingly weird) time in TV history.
For a little Yarnell trip through variety TV, here’s her dancing behind Donna Lauren on a 1965 Shindig show (with Darlene Love in the backup singing group):
And continuing the go-go mood, here’s a slice from a 1969 show called What’s It All About, World? that I had never heard of before today. Here, Lorene dances to a number by Paul Revere and the Raiders:
Another segment from that show, which obviously was cued into the “nostalgia” vibe of the time. Host Dean Jones sings “The Roses of Success" with Lorene as one of the singer-dancers. Talk about yer Sixties time-trip:
Time-trip you say? What about Tony Randall singing a song about Calvin Coolidge with, again, Lorene Yarnell and Kathy Gale:
And just to truly mess with your head, consider a time when Eve Arden sang Jacques Brel on American television — now, as our society becomes more and more “multi-cultural” for real, the media does nothing to acknowledge music being made anywhere else in the world. For the sublime original by Jacques you can go here, but the Eve Arden version (backed, again, by Yarnell and Gale) is certainly a far weirder experience:
Here, Robert Shields looks back on his time with Yarnell (christ, he hasn’t aged much in 35 years!)
And yes, I have to include the robots. Actually there’s a marionettes bit that can’t be embedded, but here’s some of that Seventies robot stuff:
More robots. Yes, it was the body movement that made the bit, but that not-blinking business sold it.
S&Y do a little robotic turn for a local FM radio station:
And now we turn to some solo Yarnell, which is fascinating. She played the “evil superpowered ant queen” Formicida on The New Adventures of Wonder Woman. There is a hell of a lot of stunt work going on in this fight scene:
And evidently Formicida became Wonder Woman’s comedic sidekick at some point (can an Ant Queen be a comedic sidekick?):
This is the single strangest thing I found in connection with Yarnell’s name, a rather bizarre 1983 ad (which is apparently real) for a child abuse hotline:
Since the last clip is sorta bizarre, let me end on a mellower note with Shields and Yarnell guesting on The Muppet Show. It’s odd to hear Shields talking during their act, but it’s a nice mix of both his initial talent (mime) and hers (dance). And the felt folk too: