Thursday, January 27, 2011

The stars honor JFK: the pre-inaugural gala

I’ve already rhapsodized on this blog about my love of old variety shows. Well, since the rerun networks have no interest in letting us see these programs, which combined the very, very best and sometimes (often, in the later days) worst of American pop culture, and DVD collections do exist but they are few and far between, we have to turn to — where else? — YouTube.

Thus, I am happy to point you to a variety show that the American public got to see exactly once on NBC. The event was the pre-inaugural gala held before JFK took the oath of office, and was famously overseen by Frank Sinatra. The roster is loaded with A-list stars who wanted to honor the new, youthful president-elect.

The YT upload doesn’t list the guests in the order they appear, so here’s the actual order: Leonard Bernstein conducting, Ethel Merman, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh (performing a pretty bad approximation of a George-and-Gracie skit), Nat King Cole, Jimmy Durante, Harry Belafonte (bringing the show firmly into the Sixties with a terrific rendition of “John Henry”), Milton Berle/Bill Dana (his name Jose Jimenez!), Frank Sinatra (doing a Gallagher and Sheen variant with Berle, whoa baby).

The show ends with a very long bit of “special material” (I’m betting Sammy Cahn was the lyricist) that introduces all these other stars whose bits were presumably clipped by NBC: Gene Kelly, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, Joey Bishop, Alan King, Pat Suzuki, and Ella Fitzgerald. Frederic March reads a speech by Lincoln at the end, followed by “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” sung by Helen Traubel (they left that in and cut out Lady Ella and Louis and Keely???) and a thank-you speech by JFK (with interesting jokes about how deeply in debt the Democratic Party was). It’s extremely strange to see a show co-hosted by Sinatra that doesn’t include a solo number by Frank.

One footnote on the event: some rather obvious absences are the other Rat Packers (although, as noted, Bishop participates in the closing number and Lawford can be seen in the audience laughing at the Bill Dana bit). The story goes that Sammy got a call from Frank saying that he shouldn’t be a part of the proceedings because he had a white wife at the time (Sammy had been booed at the Democratic convention when he came out to sing). Either Dean Martin was so outraged he wouldn’t participate in the show as an act of solidarity with Sam — or he just wanted to stay home that evenin’….

Thanks to pal Jay Hopkins for passing this on.

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