Wednesday, 27 June 2012

There He Is

Game show emcee Tom Kennedy once called him “the guy that taught all of us about this business of hosting.” Kennedy made the statement in 1983 but by that time, it had been about two decades since any TV giveaway quiz had been hosted by the man he was talking about, Bert Parks.

Parks made his name in radio in New York, as did people like Bill Cullen, Gene Rayburn, Bud Collyer and Art Fleming. And while all of them had high-profile game show gigs in the 1960s—along with others such as Allen Ludden, Merv Griffin and Peter Marshall—Parks wasn’t among them. Even Dennis James, another pioneer from late ‘40s television, still appeared on camera to give away an Amana Radarange to some lucky contestant. Parks, instead, settled for the job that brought him his biggest fame—hosting the Miss America pageant. His somewhat flamboyant emceeing mien was a natural fit for something based on fashion, musical numbers and fake royalty (until he was fired after 1979). For viewers, once a year of that was fine. But five times a week? Evidently the 1965 audience had seen and heard enough of his somewhat overwrought and campy manner to hosting.

But Parks was a fixture on 1950s television sets at various times of the day. And before that on radio, he used his dramatic build-up style of announcing to pull away Fred Allen’s audience on “Stop the Music.” Let’s pass on a couple of pieces on Mr. Parks. First, let’s go to July 1, 1951, when Parks’ career was at its peak. This is from The American Weekly, a Sunday newspaper magazine supplement.

How Bert Parks Got Into Television
TWENTY years ago people were saying commercial radio was in its infancy, and so was Bert Parks, practically. He was 16 when he won a radio singing contest in his home town, Atlanta, Ga., and landed a job announcing, at $7 a week, at station [W]GST.
When he was 18 he heard that Columbia Broadcasting System was preparing to audition announcers in New York. Applicants were supposed to be over 21, have two years of college to their credit and a fair knowledge of foreign languages.
“My score was zero minus on all counts,” he recalled the other day. “But, I went to New York, lost out on the audition test, went back to Atlanta $50 a week. Seems like I’ve been talking into microphones and telephones ever since.”
THERE was one interlude, however, that kept Bert Parks quiet. He joined the Army in World War II, rose to the rank of captain on Gen. Joseph Stilwell’s staff and was sent behind the Japanese lines with a wire recorder as his chief weapon.
“I wasn’t to be seen or heard for three weeks,” Parks said. “I made up my mind that if and when I got back to New York I’d make up for it.”
A few months after his discharge he did start making up for his enforced silence.
Bud Collyer, an announcer friend, persuaded the producer of a new quiz show, “Break the Bank,” to let Bert act as master of ceremonies for one performance. After that one trial, Bert Parks had a steady job on the show.
When “Stop the Music” went on the air over the American Broadcasting Company chain three years ago, it seemed only natural for Parks to take over the MC and telephoning chores there, too, and he has been with the sensationally successful program since.
Came television and Parks was ready and equipped. He had good looks, a good voice and poise along with experience gained by acting as straight man and singer on Eddie Cantor’s radio show and master of ceremonies for Xavier Cugat.
The young man who had been muted for three weeks in the Pacific during the war found himself one of the busiest talkers in the world.
He had his “Stop the Music” radio show Sunday nights, sponsored by Old Gold Cigarettes and Admiral Corp., over ABC, and the same sponsors kept him busy Thursday nights over ABC-TV.
“Two years ago,” Parks said, “when ‘Stop the Music’ first went on television, we tried to telecast the regular radio program but it didn’t work. You can’t sacrifice sound for sight on radio so we started separate shows.
“At first, on TV, to introduce a song having to do with bubbles, for example, we’d blow bubbles from a clay pipe. Then we hired writers to think up sketches that would integrate our songs. They gave me more things to do, like clowning, dancing and comedy. Then the ham in me came out.”
“Those two hour-long shows should have kept the average young man busy, but Bert Parks proved he wasn’t average.
His first big radio program, the quiz show called, “Break the Bank,” had convinced observers that he would be the perfect MC for the NBC-TV version of the show on Wednesday nights. With his thick black, glossy hair and a white-tooth smile, he was a living, breathing and talking advertisement for Ipana toothpaste and Vitalis hair tonic, products of Bristol-Myers, sponsor of “Break the Bank.”
The program still left him with some idle hours during the daytime, he thought, and when General Foods decided, he should have his own daytime program he agreed wholeheartedly. And so The Bert Parks Show was staged over NBC-TV three afternoons a week; 30 minutes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On this one he didn’t have to give anything away, except his energy, his singing, talking and dancing talents.
Bert Parks has given away more than $2,500,000 in cash and merchandise on his quiz shows, radio and TV, to people who have been able to recognize and identify mystery melodies and answer other questions. But the only thing he ever won for himself was the singing contest in Atlanta at 16.
HE CAME close, however, last year when he went to a charity ball where an expensive automobile was raffled off. Instead of tickets, keys were sold at the door; the winner to be the holder of the key that unlocked the car. Parks was approaching the auto with his own key when a lady said:
“Try my key, for luck.”
She won.
Parks was thinking about the incident the other evening while driving from New York to his home in Greenwich, Conn., where he gets to spend two days a week with Mrs. Annette Parks, the pretty wife; two-year-old Annette Parks, equally pretty, and twin sons, Jeffrey and Joel, five years old.
A motorcycle cop drew alongside, motioned him to the curb and wrote out a summons for speeding. Then the policeman wanted to know what Parks did.
“I’m in radio and television,” Parks said.
“That so?” the cop asked, remounting his motorcycle. “Selling many?”
When he got home Bert Parks was still talking (to himself), saying something to the effect that he had given away more radio and television sets than the cop had ever seen.

TV’s grumpiest columnist found Parks an easy target, stating that the Parks daytime show was a perfect example of what was wrong with television. But even he couldn’t dislike the man. This is from September 25, 1951.

Radio In Review
The Expansive Bert Parks
I can spot a trend as well as the next fellow, I keep telling myself, and the trend I have spotted—stand back, men, this is dynamite—is Bert Parks.
Bert Parks on Stop The Music. Bert Parks on Break The Bank. Bert Parks on a thrice-weekly afternoon show which is aptly named the Bert Parks show.
Some years ago the trend was Arthur Godfrey. Arthur Godfrey Time. Arthur Godfrey and His Friends. Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. Fears were expressed, during this phase of Mr. Godfrey’s expanding economy, that he eventually would engulf all the Columbia Broadcasting System.
I was looking forward with some alarm to reviewing Young Dr. Godfrey, Our Gal Godfrey, Godfrey Goes A-Shopping and the rest of them. But the Godfrey expansion was finally halted conceivably by the antitrust laws. Now we have the Bert Parks menace.
This has got to be stopped. I can’t be looking at Bert Parks all the time. My blood pressure is high enough as it is. Where Mr. Godfrey confines himself to one network, Mr. Parks is generously distributed over two, NBC and ABC.
This seems only fair. Mr. Parks, who also emcees the Macy parade from time to time just to keep from perishing of inactivity, is a personable, high-voltage operator with a grin you can read by.
He originally sprang into prominence by giving away Cadillacs, mink coats and a 12 year's supplies of shaving cream on Stop The Music.
You might think this is easy, but it isn’t. Parks can give away $20,000 with a flourish that no one else has ever quite matched. It's too bad, I keep thinking, that Parks wasn’t born a Rockefeller. Then all those millions could have been distributed in full sight of all of us on television.
Parks would have passed the moola around in bundles of $1,000 bills while buzzers sounded, lights flashed and Betty Ann Grove sang Millionaires Are Hard to Find in the background.
But let's stop woolgathering. Somewhere during his charitable activities, it was discovered that Parks had a distinct flair for comedy, a passable voice and, after taxes, a $40,000 personality, which is quite a lot of personality in the surtax brackets.
This led to the afternoon show, an enterprise in which Parks doesn’t give away so much as a can of sardines. His hand wanders absently to his pockets now and then, but then he remembers and gets back to business.
THE AFTERNOON show is a very pleasant half-hour, and certainly an ambitious one for afternoon TV. It is awash with gimmicks and elaborate song cues. And it is so strikingly informal that, as a gesture of respect, you ought to remove your shoes while watching it.
In the middle of a song, We Joined The Navy To See The World, Parks and his sidekick, Bobby Sherwood, a reformed band-leader, will arrange to have a near-sighted admiral walk overboard—“We lose more admirals”—and then go right on with the song.
It’s a prank, really, rather than comedy but then TV comedy is getting awfully prankish.
On the Parks show, they play the pranks on one another, Parks shooting arrows at Sherwood, Sherwood shooting them back. One of the chief victims is Betty Ann Grove, one of the fairly permanent members of Parks’ entourage, who has been asked to do everything except ride elephants to put a song across.
She’s a remarkably good-natured and terribly agile girl and so far has escaped serious injury, though I wouldn’t gamble a farthing on her if I were an insurance company.
Like Parks, she is talented in all directions—songs, dances, gags—and, I expect, she could run the roulette tables in an emergency, too.
My only complaint about Parks—and, for that matter, about his show—is that he is occasionally overwhelmed by his own cuteness.
Come to think of it, the whole industry is obsessed with that word “cute”—everything’s got to be cute now—and I wish they’d cut it out and grow up.
After all, television is five years old now. It’s a big boy.

A dozen years later, columnist Jay Fredericks bemoaned Parks’ demeanour on audience participation shows “in which fat ladies from Brooklyn or Cedar Rapids, Iowa, take part.” But he announced he was tearing up his membership in his self-instituted “Keep Bert Parks Off Television” club because “on the Johnny Carson show, Bert Parks served as a master of ceremonies on what must have been one of the wildest, most confused and unintentionally funniest half-hour segments ever seen on television — the premiere of the multi-million-dollar extravaganza ‘Cleopatra.’”

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that Carson publicly urged his audience to demand Parks’ reinstatement after sponsors got him fired from the Miss America pageant.

It can be argued Parks made the pageant what it was, and that it was never really the same when he left. It was first televised in 1954 on ABC, then the way-behind-in-third-place network (out of four). The hosts were Bess Meyerson and network news vice-president John Daly, also the host of “What’s My Line.” One can’t picture anything but a polite, demure broadcast from the two of them. Parks was added the following year as a master of ceremonies, bringing his overly-earnest, somewhat campy attitude to the mix. Until the day he died, virtually every news story about the pageant telecast included a chunk of space about Parks, even during his years of exile.

Bert Parks may have taught some game-show legends about hosting, but when the giveaway programme industry moved onward and left him behind, he became a TV icon instead.

1 comment:

  1. The staff for "WKRP in Cincinnati" used Parks' smarminess to its advantage immediately after his firing as Miss America Pageant host, when they cast him as Herb Tarlek's grifter father. Ironically, given the glut of reality shows on prime-time TV today, Parks' style would have been right at home as MC on most of those efforts in a way he wasn't for game shows by the late 1950s, when TV decided they wanted host who actually seemed sincere and weren't just piling it on to the point you knew they couldn't be serious.