Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Before He Tripped on the Ottoman

In television, when your boss publicly gives you a hearty endorsement, it means you can expect to start looking for a new job. And that was the case with Dick Van Dyke.

Before he went on to TV immortality in his ‘60s sitcom, before he danced and sang his way to stardom in “Bye Bye Birdie” on Broadway, Dick Van Dyke was handed his big break in show business—the thankless task of trying to put a dent in the ratings of the “Today Show.”

Tomorrow, May 8th, Van Dyke will be the special guest of Stu Shostak on “Stu’s Show.” You can tune in HERE at 4 p.m. Pacific time and hear it. They’ll be talking about Dick’s early career, before he fell over an ottoman in front of Mary Tyler Moore (or stepped around it, depending on the show). It’s interesting stuff you don’t hear him asked about in interviews and worth a listen. Here’s a little bit of what you may hear about.

Van Dyke had been a radio announcer back home in Danville, Illinois. Legends: Georgians Who Lived Impossible Dreams by Gene Asher reveals Van Dyke and Phil Erickson formed a duo called “The Merry Mutes.” They appeared with Nancy Andrews in at least one club in Los Angeles in 1948 and mimed to 78s. The act migrated to Atlanta at a time that local television needed to fill hours with homegrown talent. Van Dyke and Erickson ended up on Atlanta TV. The act split up in 1954 and Van Dyke moved on to New Orleans on the NBC affiliate where he replaced something called “Maggie & Me” with a ten-minute daily show (the following five minutes were taken up by a puppet called Mr. Bingle). He debuted November 29, 1954. But he wasn’t in New Orleans past June. CBS wanted him. And the network had two instant assignments. One was to guest star on the premiere of “Frankie Laine Time.” The other was to replace Jack Paar on “The Morning Show.”

Considering the Paar style people are familiar with today, one wouldn’t think he’d be a good choice for a morning show host. About the only person least likely is Walter Cronkite, and that’s who Paar replaced as the host of the two-hour morning show in August 1954. He didn’t stay long. Toward the end of the following May, Paar heard the network wanted news and kiddie entertainment on his show. He asked CBS bosses if it were true, then asked for his release when he got a “yes.” Paar was moved to a 15-minute afternoon show on July 4th. Taking over that morning was Van Dyke, who was officially handed the job two weeks later. Paar had actually left the show on June 17th; to fill the two-week breach, John Henry Faulk was brought in to host.

Van Dyke got raves—for his work on the Frankie Laine show. Here’s a snippet of a review from INS columnist Jack O’Brian, dated July 18, 1955.

Dick Van Dyke on last night's Godfrey summer sub premiere was a fresh breath of imaginative creativeness in the dull rut of TV comedy . . . Dick uses what you might call comedy of observation, utilizing such targets as new cars and your pet dog to perceptive impressionistic success . . . He's one of the newly-arrived “civilized” comedians, wearing a Brooks suit, a college student’s demeanor and an intelligently lunatic attitude toward modern fuss and foibles . . . As TV entertainment, it was a purely straight variety show whose loose ends tie together tidily but aside from Dick Van Dyke, nary a new nor especially nifty notion in the hour.

As for the “Morning Show,” we’ll let Paul Murphy of the Hutchinson News-Herald sum it up. He wrote on August 10th:

One thing I keep wondering, watching Dick Van Dyke handle the Morning Show on Channel 12.
He keeps grinning all the time. But what's so funny?
It's a shame, really, that friend Van Dyke can't fine more material for hilarity on the early effort, because when he has appeared in more favorable surroundings, he has proved himself a very funny person.
His show continues as a harmless enough thing to have turned on while shaving, especially if you can't see the TV set from the bathroom washstand.
But nothing very exciting ever happens.
Watching the Baird puppets perform Monday night on Studio zone brought back with a wham the realization of just how much better the old, original Morning Show used to be.
While Morning Show may not live up to everything we'd like from it, one would do well to keep in mind that NBC's completing Today, which shows up only on the relatively few UHF-equipped sets receiving channel 16, features a monkey as one of its major stars.
So cheer up — things could be worse.

Van Dyke was in trouble. He had the misfortune of being hired only a few weeks before a new boss was brought in to produce morning programming on CBS—Lou Cowan, the man who created “The $64,000 Question” and eventually took the fall for the network, as president, in the Quiz Show scandal. New management in broadcasting means only one thing. Change. And change is what happened. Robert L. Skolsky’s column of September 29th revealed:

HAVING FAILED in all previous efforts to buck Dave Garroway successfully during early morning hours, the Columbia Broadcasting System, is taking an entirely new approach to the 7 to 9 a.m. viewing period.
Monday, the Morning Show will be revamped once more with the emphasis going back to news, sports and special events. Dick Van Dyke will serve as program host while Walter Cronkite again takes over the news end.
However, the big project is a new kiddie show that will be carried weekdays by the network from 8 to 9 a.m. The program, is titled Captain Kangaroo and it is designed specifically for pre-school-age youngsters.

Cowan wanted instant ratings. He knew that the predecessor to the Captain, “Tinker’s Workshop” on WABC, was doubling the combined ratings of Garroway and the Morning Show.

But if Cowan had decided Van Dyke, the ratings sieve he didn’t hire, was going to be pushed out, he didn’t let on. In fact, he spoke to the Associated Press, forecasting the Captain would be “a very big hit,” then praised his other morning star.

Cowan has high hopes for the morning show conducted by Dick Van Dyke, a young fellow from Danville, Ill., who has been in New York just three months. “Dick sees things with a fresh eye,” Cowan says. “He’s approaching the show with the hope of showing people there are wonderful things in life besides all the disaster news. He says, in effect, on his morning program that this is a new day and each day is different from any other in history.”

That vote of confidence was given on December 9th. Exactly one month later, the “fresh eye” became a black one. The New York Times announced the one-two punch that Will Rogers, Jr. was being hired to host a revamped-once-more morning programme. Van Dyke, said the paper, “is expected to be retained by CBS for another program now under development.” Cowan bubbled over about Rogers, who had filled in for a vacationing Garroway a year earlier, to the United Press on January 19th:

“I think he is one of the coming personalities of TV,” said Cowan. “He has a very human quality. He has done a couple of movies and a little television, before this. “What I like best about him, I think, is the live, warm interest he has in people. He’s not going to be a performer, he’s going to be himself.”

What about Van Dyke? Nary a mention of him in the story. That’s broadcasting, Dick.

Rogers officially replaced him on February 20, 1956. The network found work for Van Dyke, though. Perhaps someone discovered he had hosted a kids show in Atlanta. The New York Times reported on May 11, 1956 that Van Dyke would host “Cartoon Theatre” on Wednesday nights from 7:30 to 8 p.m. starting June 13th. The idea looked perfect on paper. CBS had just bought Terrytoons and needed to do something with the 1,100 animated films it now owned. Cartoons equalled big money; syndicators were rolling in cash after selling old animated shorts to stations. The idea of combining live action and animation on TV was novel. But it just didn’t work. Charlotte Summers of Billboard panned the show in the magazine’s June 30th issue:

“CBS Cartoon Theater,” which spotlights Paul Terry’s cartoons, may appeal to some children, but it’s questionable whether parents will consider it good fare for their young’uns. Featuring Heckle and Jeckle (magpies), Gandy Goose, Dinky Duck and Little Roquefort (a mouse), all who sound delightful enough, writer Bill Gammie involved them in situations which, in addition to being unimaginative, called for padded cells, gory doctors, Charlie Addams sets and Frankenstein characters. Violence of one sort or another seemed to be the keynote of “Cartoon Theater’s” second show.
Since CBS is obviously going after its opposition’s audience (Disneyland), it might be wiser to take a closer look at the audience composition figures when selecting the cartoons and come up with a basic formula for a better balanced show. Another problem is Dick Van Dyke, a personable enough young man perhaps for other emsee chores, but certainly not for this one. Van Dyke is ill at ease, strained and appeared to be thoroly [sic] uncomfortable. A personality like Fran Allison’s is needed here with more play between the animated stars and the emsee to establish identification. In short, the show needs lots of work to make the grade.

“Cartoon Theatre” ended September 5th. Van Dyke puttered around guest starring before an O’Brian story on November 30 revealed he would be one of four panellists on a new “give away” show by replacing Herb Shriner. It was called “Nothing But the Truth.” The debut show was set for December 18, 1956. The following week, the show changed its name to “To Tell the Truth.” Van Dyke appeared on seven shows before being replaced by Hy Gardner. If it was any consolation to him, Hildy Parks was gone the same day (her spot was taken a few shows later by Kitty Carlisle). Van Dyke packed up and left CBS for ABC where he entertained moms on a live, half-hour daytime show called “Mother’s Day” starting October 13, 1958. He rung in the New Year and then found himself without a show after January 2nd. The boyish Van Dyke was replaced with the boyish Merv Griffin and a game that launched Griffin’s TV empire: “Play Your Hunch.”

TV success seemed to elude Van Dyke, so off he went to Broadway. And he found it there, with a smash performance in “Bye-Bye Birdie,” starting in 1960. That led to another shot at the small screen in a starring vehicle that’s still considered one of the best TV comedies of all time.

You’ve no doubt seen Van Dyke’s sitcom. But you may not have seen him on “To Tell the Truth.” Here he is in the pilot episode of “Nothing But the Truth.” The announcer is Bern Bennett and the theme song is Dolf Van der Linden’s “Peter Pan,” both of which were kept when the show changed names after one week. But the host isn’t Bud Collyer. It’s someone who also went on to much bigger things.


  1. There have been a number of performers over the years who even network suits could recognized as having talent, but somehow the right vehicle to showcase that talent's never found, and they end up (if they're on TV) as being that semi-familiar face that shows up as a guest star in dozens of shows, but whose name you never remember. Dick was lucky Sheldon Leonard convinced Carl Reiner the script he wrote for himself fit Van Dyke better (and Disney would show a few years later that, yes, Dick could interact successfully with cartoon animals. Just not Paul Terry's).

  2. Here's some CBS Cartoon Theater action with Mr. Van Dyke: