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Category: Vintage TV

TV Pumpkins

The history of television as portrayed on pumpkins. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Last year around this time I attended Roger Williams Park Zoo’s Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular which celebrated musical artists. This year’s theme was television, paying tribute to 75 years of broadcast entertainment. Being the serious couch potato that I am, and appreciating vintage television as I do, I decided to actually get off the couch, head down to Rhode Island, and see what was on the Zoo’s boob tube.




Twitch your nose at this: The Bewitched pumpkin. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Like last year, the professionally hand-carved pumpkins by Passion for Pumpkins of Oxford, MA were intricate and exquisite. The 5,000 illuminated pumpkins were sensory overload for my eyes. In the background, soundtracks to various television shows enhanced the effect.

The pumpkin displays were grouped by decade starting from the 1950’s through the 2000’s. As with last year’s musical theme, there were glaring (my opinion) omissions. No Simpsons pumpkin (yet there was a Futurama pumpkin!), no Friends, and no Brady Bunch pumpkin. Pumpkin blasphemy!



A pumpkin for Elvis. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Interestingly, Elvis was overtly MIA in last year’s display despite being a major musical icon, yet he was represented in this year’s television theme with an Aloha from Hawaii-carved pumpkin.

Then there were the noggin-scratching pumpkins like the Benny Hill pumpkin. Benny Hill? Really? The Benny Hill Show wasn’t even a US television show! The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude, The Bob Newhart Show, The Odd Couple, or Sanford and Son would’ve made more sense.


The Golden Girls pumpkin. Photo by Peter Skiera.

I’m a big fan of vintage so I especially appreciated The Twilight Zone, The Honeymooners, Bewitched, I Love Lucy, MASH, The Jeffersons, Cheers, Good Times, All In The Family, Batman, Star Trek, Mr. Ed, and The Golden Girls pumpkins (there was also a pumpkin dedicated exclusively to Betty White). There was even a Max Headroom pumpkin.


“…the professionally hand-carved pumpkins by Passion for Pumpkins of Oxford, MA were intricate and exquisite.”

This – is – Jeopardy! Photo by Peter Skiera.

Game shows and public television were also represented like the classy Jeopardy pumpkin and one each for Mr. Rogers and happy little tree painter, Bob Ross. However, I don’t remember seeing one for Wheel of Fortune or Sesame Street.




Yada, yada, yada. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Not surprisingly, the show with the most carved pumpkins was a show about nothing- Seinfeld. There was one each for Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer, and all very nicely done.

Television wouldn’t be television without commercials. I think it would have been fun if the display had sprinkled in some classic television commercial pumpkins like Coke, Life Cereal, Oscar Mayer Wiener, Alka Seltzer, and StarKist Tuna to name just a few.

I also wouldn’t have minded seeing a couple of “news pumpkins” like one for Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, or perhaps even Mike Wallace.

If you’re in R.I. or planning a trip this month, The Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence continues through the end of October. Tickets can only be purchased on line. For the more adventurous, there’s a zip line ride and illuminated swan boat rides. I’ve included a link to their site below as well as a link to my Instagram page so you can see more of my prodigious pumpkin pics. Happy Halloween.




Trivia: During the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular’s run, Passion for Pumpkins will go through 20,000 pumpkins to keep the displays looking fresh.




Now that’s what I call a pumpkin patch. Photo by Peter Skiera.




Links:

Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular

Recommended Stations Instagram page


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Album Spotlight: Mannix

Album Spotlight focuses on a specific (usually vintage) record or CD. Album Spotlights will pop-up randomly. There might be another Spotlight next month or 5 months from now. Like the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects the Album Spotlight!


Image courtesy of FETV.



January 26th marks the 5th anniversary of actor Mike Connors’ (aka Joe Mannix) passing at age 91. This year also marks the 55th Anniversary of the Mannix TV show. Accordingly, for this Album Spotlight, I look back on this extremely popular detective show and its music.

As mentioned, Mike Connors ably portrayed the lead character, private detective Joe Mannix. Connors was born in 1925 to Armenian parents. His original name was Krekor Ohanian, Jr, a name that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. His agent changed his last name to “Connors” and Columbia Pictures assigned “Mike” as his first name. Connors played basketball in high school, served in the Army in World War II, and graduated from law school with the intention of becoming an attorney like his father. However, a director friend of his basketball coach encouraged him to pursue a career in acting because of his voice and his facial expressions while playing basketball.

Connors appeared in numerous film and television roles that included such headliners as Joan Crawford, John Wayne, Robert Redford, Bette Davis, and Raymond Burr. However, it was Mannix that would be responsible for making him famous. The show debuted on Saturday night, September 16, 1967 on the CBS network. The first season had Mannix working for a high tech (i.e. lots of big computers), Los Angeles-based private detective agency called Intertec. Watching those early episodes today, the whole ultra-computerized thing looks silly. Perhaps it did back then as well, because Lucille Ball, President of production company Desi Lu, persuaded Paramount to dump Intertec in season two, making Mannix his own boss. This directly resulted in the show’s ratings really taking off.

Gail Fisher played Joe Mannix’s secretary, Peggy Fair. Still courtesy of FETV.



Being Fair

It was during this pivotal change that the character of Mannix’s personal secretary, Peggy Fair, was introduced. Played by actress Gail Fisher, it was a high-profile, prime time role for a woman of color, highly unusual for network television in 1968. That said, Mannix wasn’t known for tackling the issues of the day, although a few episodes dealt with Vietnam Veterans with PTSD, deaf and blindness, racism, and gambling.

Besides Connors and Fisher, there were some big-name stars who appeared on Mannix during its 8-year run. In fact, you’d be reading for a long time if I detailed the complete list of stars. Here are just a few names you’ll no doubt recognize (in no particular order): Neil Diamond, Diane Keaton, Vic Tayback, Tom Selleck, Ford Rainey, Rich Little, Martin Sheen, Lee Meriwether, Lou Rawls, William Shatner, John Ritter, Bill Bixby, Buffalo Springfield, Milton Berle, Claude Akins, Cloris Leachman, Burgess Meredith, Loretta Swit, and Vera Miles.


Mannix (seated) in The Brady Bunch living room. That’s John Ritter coming down the stairs behind him holding a gun. Still courtesy of FETV.

The Brady Connection

Robert Reed was another star appearing on Mannix in the recurring role of Lt. Adam Tobias whilst still starring in The Brady Bunch (also owned by Paramount). Christopher Knight (aka Peter Brady) and Eve Plumb (aka Jan Brady) each appeared separately in Mannix episodes as well. But wait, there’s more. There was at least a half dozen scenes from different Mannix episodes that took place on the set of the Brady house! In a November 1970 Mannix episode titled “Sunburst”, the crooks even drove a Plymouth Satellite wagon with a rear-facing third row seat, the same type of vehicle Mike and Carol Brady drove. An odd choice to say the least for a getaway car. Being the TV addict that I am, I couldn’t resist mentioning the Brady connection. I can hear the opening theme in my head now. Sing along with me…There’s a story / Of a detective named Mannix…

A model kit of Mannix’s 1967 Oldsmobile Toronado. eBay photo used with permission.


Dodge Fever

Speaking of Plymouth, the Chrysler Corporation furnished the cars featured in every Mannix episode after the first season. This suited Mike Connors just fine since he was a car collector in real life, owning a 1937 Bentley convertible and a Maserati Mexico. Conners even took race car driving lessons to prepare for the chase scenes in the show. The cars Mannix drove included customized 1968 and 1969 Dodge Dart GTS 340 convertibles (complete with an ultra-rare Motorola rotary dial car phone), 1970-73 Plymouth Cuda convertibles, a 1974 Dodge Challenger 360 coupe, and in the final season, a 1975 Chevrolet Camaro LT and 1975 Chevrolet Impala convertible. Many years later, Mannix’s ’68 Dodge Dart was found abandoned and rotting away in CA. It was completely restored, and in an episode of Drive, actor Mike Connors was reunited with his car and got to drive it again after more than 4 decades!

“…the Joe Mannix character was knocked unconscious 55 times, wounded by gunshots nearly 20 times, and viciously beaten more times than even Intertec’s computers could calculate.”

Make It Real

As to the reason behind Mannix’s popularity which continues to this day, with the notable exception of how often Mannix was shot and beat to a pulp, one reason was because Joe Mannix was a realistic character.  He wasn’t the suave, James Bond-like Peter Gunn, or the disheveled, cartoon-like Columbo. He was blue collar and down to earth. He showed his emotions. He made mistakes. He was relatable. In that sense, he was much like Mike Connors in real life. If you ever needed to hire a private detective, Mannix was the guy you’d want. In that episode of Drive I referenced in the previous paragraph, Connors said Mannix “was always believable. I think there was an honesty to it and I think that era was a great era of television. And I constantly get people saying they just don’t do shows like they used to.”

Another aspect to the realism was the fact that Connors insisted on performing almost all of his own stunts. If you’ve ever seen any Mannix episodes, you know there was a lot of action. Although he wasn’t “old”, at the age of 42, it must have been very physically demanding performing stunts for 8 years. In the pilot episode in which Mannix fights off a helicopter, Connors dislocated his shoulder and broke his wrist. As a bit of trivia, over the course of the series, the Joe Mannix character was knocked unconscious 55 times, wounded by gunshots nearly 20 times, and beaten up more times than even Intertec’s computers could calculate.

Mannix Gets Fired

With the exception of The Simpsons, television shows don’t last forever. When a television series is cancelled, it’s almost always due to a decline in ratings. Surprisingly, that wasn’t the case with MannixMannix ranked in the top 20, and all signs pointed to a new season in 1976. However, when ABC began airing old reruns of Mannix at night, CBS was not amused (ABC had a cozy relationship with Paramount who owned the rights to Mannix). When CBS found out, they promptly cancelled Mannix, fearing they’d lose their audience to a competing network. This incomprehensible decision strikes me as CBS cutting off its nose to spite its face. I’m equally stunned that ABC or NBC never picked up the highly-rated show. Such is the strange business of show business.

“Mannix” actor Mike Connors circa 2006. Photo licensed from depotphotos.com


Mannix earned Connors a Golden Globe Award, additional Golden Globe nominations, and several Prime time Emmy Award nominations. His final TV appearance was in a 2007 episode of Two and a Half Men. Connors died at the age of 91 on January 26, 2017 from complications of leukemia and was survived by his wife of 67 years and his daughter (his son died of heart failure 10 years earlier).

My Mannix soundtrack LP. Photo by Peter Skiera.


Setting Some Firsts

It’s worth noting that Mannix had a number of firsts. The show’s opening was unlike any detective show. It featured changing split screen sequences and the font of the text was similar to what was used by IBM. This was an intentional reference to Intertec’s computers.

Another first was the jump cut, pioneered by Mannix producer, Bruce Geller, which became a television industry standard. In one scene, Joe Mannix might be shaving in his bathroom, in the next, he’s getting into his car. Such cuts reserved time for more important scenes without confusing the viewer.

The Mannix opening theme was also a first for a detective show. Composer Lalo Schifrin, perhaps known best for his famous theme to Mission Impossible, wrote an unorthodox ¾-time waltz. As Morgan Ames wrote in her liner notes for the record, “Who else would have thought of using a waltz as a theme for a private detective? Anyone can tell you it doesn’t make sense- until you watch the credits at the beginning of the show and find yourself caught up.”

Ames (center) with Diana Krall and John Pizzarelli. Photo from morganames.com



The author of those liner notes, singer/songwriter/producer Morgan Ames, met Schifrin and sat in on the Mannix recording sessions. Ames has quite a background herself, having performed with the likes of Johnny Mathis, Whitney Houston, and Mariah Carey. Her songs have been recorded by singers such as Shirley Horne, Peggy Lee, and Roberta Flack. She’s also released several of her own CDs. I donned my detective’s fedora and tracked down Ames in cyberspace to get her reflections on the Mannix music 54 years later. “It certainly shows Lalo’s talent and range”, she wrote me in an email. “My personal favorite was Beyond The Shadow Of Today.” “[Schifrin] would have been aware of the importance of staying within certain parameters, shallow ones, to accommodate the medium and to keep the suits happy. He was one of several composers playing way beneath his weight, and getting successful because of it. So, he snuck in a lot of really nice writing and got away with it. He was not dismissed as one of those jazz guys. I also noticed his choice (my opinion), because Mannix was a manly-man, to use lots of brass in lower ranges, the kind a manly man could easily walk across the shot to and further the brand. He had a nice cue in 5/4 in there.” 

Peter: Were all session musicians used for the recording?

Morgan: It had to be a union session. The union prevailed in those days, especially when a session was related to TV or film. The most experienced players were union players. Lalo would have pulled from that pool because a lot of his stuff was hard. Heavy politics existed relative to orchestra contractors but nevertheless, the players were excellent. I’m pretty sure he would have been careful about that, like all the composers I knew.

Peter: What was Lalo like in the studio?

Morgan: My experience was that Lalo was easy and professional in the studio. Thus, the sessions went smoothly.

Peter: Where were the sessions recorded?

Morgan: I don’t remember but it was probably a sound stage in Hollywood or the valley.

Peter: What did you personally think of “Mannix”?

Morgan: My impression was that the show was written, produced and acted by men for men, with the occasional female, as were all shows in this genre. (Well, Girl From Uncle lasted a season or two, unsupported, but that was it).


Photo by Peter Skiera.



Mannix Extended

As a point of clarification, the 11 songs on this record are extended versions of the music taken from the series. If they hadn’t been extended, each song would’ve lasted under 90 seconds since that’s the way music for television usually works. Schifrin expanded on his original themes into proper songs in order to fill an entire album. More music? Yes please! Stand out tracks for me are The Girl Who Came In With The Tide, Beyond The Shadow Of Today, Turn Every Stone, and End Game. The music has a definite late 60s sound, which makes sense considering the music was recorded in 1968 and released in 1969. It isn’t the kind of dark, pensive music one would expect from a detective show. Like The Mannix character, the music is down to earth and isn’t afraid to show emotion. You don’t need to be a die-hard Mannix fan, or of the male gender, to appreciate the music.

My rare Mannix soundtrack CD.


There aren’t many TV shows that have the privilege of their own soundtrack release. Mannix actually had two. Lalo Schifrin re-recorded the soundtrack for CD in 1999 on his own record label, but the music is reinterpreted with an incongruous 90s sound and includes a “Mixdown” bonus track of the Mannix theme that is particularly painful to listen to. The original album was issued on CD by Collectors Choice back in 2008 but it’s long out of print and sells on eBay for outrageous money (i.e. north of $90!). The original 1969 soundtrack record on the Paramount label can be found used on eBay for more reasonable coin.

Image courtesy of FETV.


Besides listening to the music, if you’d like to watch Mannix, cable channel FETV airs two back-to-back episodes starting at 10pm ET every night. Mannix episodes are also available on DVD.

Like Mike Connors’ fans never hesitated to tell him, when it comes to detective shows, they don’t make them like they used to. Happy 55th Anniversary, Mannix.

Trivia: Mike Connors once described himself as a “frustrated song-and-dance man”. He played the trumpet and loved to sing. He never recorded an album but did perform a song live on The Mike Douglas Show.



My personal thanks to Morgan Ames for her time answering my questions.

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Links:

Morgan Ames’ website

FETV

Connors and the Dodge Dart

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