Sunday, September 27, 2020

ABC Stage 67

ABC STAGE 67 premiered with a lot of advance press in the fall of 1966 but didn't last beyond one season. Shifting time slots undoubtedly played a part but the real problem was the same as with any anthology series--Some episodes were great, others not so much. 

Another reason was that some of the announced episodes that sounded very promising ended up  not materializing at all, such as a tribute to Mike Nichols, then riding high for directing the Broadway play, LUV.

The Mike Nichols show was announced as being the premiere but as it got closer, a one-hour comedy called THE LOVE SONG OF BARNEY KEMPENSKI (originally planned as BERT KEMPENSKI's NEW YORK) took its place. Written by Murray Schisgal, ironically the author of LUV, it starred Alan Arkin, who had, himself, just scored in the feature film, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING. A combination of absurdist comedy and New York City travelogue, Arkin is a charming delight throughout, flitting from one thing to another, often seeming to be aware that an audience is watching. You can find it on YouTube. 

 So the show was off to a good start. Another episode featured an all-new musical comedy adaptation of the venerable play, THE CANTERVILLE GHOST. The A-list cast included Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Sir Michael Redgrave, Frankie Howerd (in his only appearance for American TV, I believe), GILLIGAN'S ISLAND's Natalie Schafer, Tippy Walker (from THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT) and Peter Noone, Herman from Herman's Hermits! The book and music was by the folks who had created FIDDLER ON THE ROOF! 

Sounds good, doesn't it? VARIETY called it "spiritless" and "soggy" and "a waste of a considerable amount of good talent." I'd have to agree with all of that. It didn't help that they attempted to make the whole thing campy for no apparent reason.  THE CANTERVILLE GHOST, too, is available for your verdict on YouTube. 

 I haven't watched it yet but RODGERS AND HART TODAY shows up in two parts on YouTube. Originally advertised as showcasing the most popular modern singers of 1966--including Nancy Wilson and Tony Bennett--interpreting the composing duo's classic numbers, it looks as though someone informed the producers that those folks--wonderful as they were--really weren't the most popular singers of 1966. In its final form, the vintage Broadway songs are sung by The Supremes, the Mamas and the Papas, Bobby Darin, and Petula Clark, who arguably WERE amongst the most popular singers of their day. 

 There's one intriguing episode that does NOT seem to be currently viewable anywhere. Sci-fi writer Robert Sheckley was also popular at that time, having written the hit movie THE 10TH VICTIM, then in theaters. ABC STAGE 67 hired him to write THE DIE-OFF, described in ads as "a new hair-rising, original drama." Retitled THE PEOPLE TRAP prior to airing, it told the story of a near-future America described as, "a time of great shortages of air and food and land and housing. Conception of children must be approved by the Pregnancy Police. A history teacher and his wife (Stuart Whitman and Vera Miles) face the consequences of an "unlicensed pregnancy." 

Described as "cameo performances," there were reportedly appearances by this diverse cast of co-stars--Cesar Romero, Connie Stevens, Pearl Bailey, Mort Sahl, Jackie Robinson (!) Michael Rennie, Estelle Winwood, Betty Furness, Mercedes McCambridge! 

 Other episodes of ABC STAGE 67 included Rick Nelson and Joanie Sommers interpreting the music of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, a story in which Anthony Perkins lives in a department store, and Truman Capote's CHRISTMAS MEMORY, perhaps the best-remembered one of all. 

But again, as with all anthologies, inconsistency is the enemy, and the series, unique as it was, ended.  

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