The backdrop for a couple of new books I just finished reading is CBS Television City in Hollywood. One is by Carol Burnett, the other is about the Smothers Brothers. In the mid-1960’s, they all worked at Television City, a huge, very cool building dripping with TV history. Built in 1950, Danny Kaye, Judy Garland, Jack Benny and many, many others created television shows there in addition to Carol Burnett and the Smothers.
We shot part of a news series there some years ago when San Francisco radio personality Don Bleu (Rick Kelleher of East Grand Forks) hosted a revised version of "The Gong Show." The series only lasted a season, but it got us in the door of Television City. Somebody must have messed up because we pretty much had the run of the place for five or six hours. If these walls could talk etc. etc.
Carol Burnett’s This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection is a collection of stories about her life and career culled from answers to questions she’s been asked by audience members of a stage show she does around the country, similar to the way she would open her CBS television show.
I’ve had close encounters with Burnett’s third and fourth television bananas, Tim Conway and Vicki Lawrence.
Mr. Conway walked past me at a very brisk clip at the Minneapolis Airport carrying a garmet bag and giving me a definite "Do not talk to me, I’m in a hurry" look. I didn’t talk to him. I learned later he’d been up all night hosting a local telethon in the Twin Cities.
My encounter with Ms. Lawrence was lengthier and much more pleasant. I interviewed her at the Spirit Lake Casino near Devils Lake a couple of years ago when she was appearing in her "Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two Woman Show" show. Miss Vicki can swear like a sailor, but I liked her immediately. She is a hoot! She had absolutely nothing but good things to say about Carol Burnett and company. Plus, I got the feeling she was being completely open and honest in our little conversation–rare in her line of work.
I met the Smothers Brothers in the green room of the Chester Fritz Auditorium. (I miss that green room. It’s now more of an office.) We talked mostly about "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." To say they pushed the envelop on television would be an understatement. They were "fired" from their show after its third season, supposedly for not delivering tapes of their shows in time for them to be "previewed" by network executives. Much more complicated than that, it had more to do with issues of censorship, politics and the times that were a-changin’. It was a very big deal at the time. Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour by David Bianculli lays it all out.
It’s clear that Tom enjoyed their fight with CBS and still loved talking about it years later. The brothers took the network to court and won! Tommy told me, "Keep the controversy going as long as possible." I showed them a form letter Ginny received from CBS after she’d written the network to protest the cancellation of their show. It reads in part, "We also wish to reaffirm our position that a broadcasat organization has a reponsibility to the public on matters of taste. Consequently, in our view a broadcaster is entitled to require reasonable procedures in order to exercise that responsibility in a medium that comes into the home and is seen by viewers of all ages." It was "signed" by Robert D. Wood, President CBS Television Network. The Smothers had never seen a copy of it before. They autographed it for us "We love you, too."
Later after their show at the Fritz, Ginny and I were invited to a party in their honor. We’d all had perhaps just a little too much Smothers Brothers wine. As we were leaving, Dick kissed Ginny’s hand. She’s never forgotten it. No controversy there, just charm.