“Pioneers” Bring Us Back to Late Night

Tonight, while you’re waiting for Dave, Jay, Jimmy, Conan and Craig to finally return to late night, flip on over to PBS at 8 p.m. for a blast of classic TV. Pioneers of Television (PBS, 8 p.m.) is a continuation on a series which premiered a couple of seasons ago. Tonight, classic sitcoms are celebrated, with the focus on five of the best: I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Make Room For Daddy, The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Let’s hope tonight’s first of four new specials are better than the first batch of Pioneer offerings. Those did feature some precious interviews, including the last sit down with comedy legend Red Skelton, but the focus of the series was all over the map.
What was unforgettable, however, was the 2005 Television Critics Association press conference hyping that first series. True TV legends were on hand, with some having to be wheeled to the stage. Carl Reiner, Rose Marie (Sally from The Dick Van Dyke Show), William Asher (director on I Love Lucy and Bewitched) and Sid Caesar were in the house, but the two who stole the show were Mickey Rooney and Red Buttons.
Rooney, as usual, treated the session as his own private salute. Buttons, bless him, treated it as a roast of Mickey Rooney.
Every time the Mick would try to blow up his own balloon, Buttons was there to prick it. Each time Rooney meandered with stories about Judy Garland or how he and Anne Miller reinvented Broadway with Sugar Babes, Buttons, well, took the Mickey out of him. When Mick asked his current (and eighth wife to stand up and take a bow, Buttons urged Rooney to be even more expansive and ask his girlfriend to stand up, too. When Mick went on and on about the early days of showbusiness, Buttons asked him to talk about his old school chum, Abe Lincoln.
You could tell Rooney—only a year or two Button’s senior–was getting steamed. Finally, Buttons seemed to take pity and started to pay tribute to his old pal. He talked about how the two of them were in the army together. How the Mick—now warming to the praise–was a war hero. “He saved the life of every member of our platoon,” said Buttons. Pause. “He killed the cook!”
The house rocked with laughter. Buttons, who has since passed away, shoulda got a dinner.
The TCA session for tonight’s series of specials wasn’t quite as memorable, although one story from the post-conference cocktail session stands out. On hand that night last July were several players from the world of late night TV, including Dick Cavett, Ed McMahon, frequent late show guests Betty White and Tim Conway and ‘70s variety show host Tony Orlando (above). Missing from the panel were late night legends Merv Griffin and Joey Bishop. Too bad, both passed away soon after. (Perhaps the ghosts of late night TV had something to do with Dave, Jay and everybody gettingh back to work tonight.)
Cavett, like Rooney before him, tried to hog most of the session. There were moments when Buttons was missed, specially when Cavett was trying to cover himself in glory for being on Nixon’s enemies list.
I remember waiting patiently after the session for Cavett to finish up with a pretty young TV reporter who was quizzing him on camera. When she finally moved on the 70-year-old Cavett turned to me and said, “I think I may have had a shot.” The man does have wit and charm.
Afterwards, I moved into a small scrum around Orlando, kind of the forgotten man in this lineup. With backup singers Dawn, the dude was one of those ‘70s pop icons, part of the spandex and glitter parade which included Sonny & Cher.
Orlando started talking about a big event in Hollywood that was one of those make or break moments for him. Frank Sinatra has organized a lavish dinner salute to 50 years of Hollywood or whatever and all the A-list stars were there—people like Liz Taylor, Lucille Ball, John Wayne, etc.
Sinatra spotted up and coming singer Orlando and asked him where he was sitting. Orlando walked “Mr. Sinatra” to the back of the hall and pointed out his name tag in some darkened corner. “Bring that over here,” said Frank.
Sinatra walked Orlando up to the head table, where he was sitting. There, sitting in the seat next to Sinatra, was Don Rickles.
“Rickles—go trade places with Orlando,” barked Sinatra.
“Right away, Frank,” said Rickles, who clearly had seen what happened to people who stood up to Sinatra. Discretion is the better part of comedy.
Just like that, Orlando had a seat at the power table. Sinatra explained that the night was an opportunity to give somebody’s career a big boost, and he decided it was Orlando’s turn. Rickles? He didn’t want to wind up staring at the inside of a trunk.
Hopefully, the stories will be as good tonight on Pioneers of Television.

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