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HOT SPRINGS--A couple of films from the ongoing Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival have colonized my mind; both evoke the shadowlands from just before I was born, when television was still in its infancy.

I was born in late 1958; one of my father's stories was about watching the 1958 Colts and Giants NFL Championship Game on a coin-operated television set in a hospital waiting room while the doctors were attending to some minor ailment that had afflicted his newborn son. The game was tied at the end of regulation and he was out of quarters. He never saw his favorite player, quarterback Johnny Unitas, take the Colts 80 yards in 13 plays for the game-winning score.

It was my fault my father didn't see the end of what they still call the greatest game ever played.

Anyway, I am old enough to remember being excited about the advent of color television; I have memories of that smeary, static blizzard of gray. By the time I was old enough to notice, people like Mike Wallace and George Gobel had established themselves as people who dwelt in the TV.

I had no curiosity as to how they came to be there. Some people were on TV, most of us weren't, and that was how things were. I may have something to say about Mike Wallace is Here, a documentary by Avi Belkin, sometime in the near future. It's an extraordinarily well-edited work that explores a well-curated public persona of a complex and troubled man. I was familiar with Wallace's career and various critiques of it; he'd shilled for cigarettes and worked as an actor, which contribute to what many consider to be his problematic journalistic legacy.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Belkin's movie, it didn't change my mind about the man or the reporter. Wallace probably tried the best he could. Sometimes he made mistakes. Sometimes he displayed real courage. He's a compelling subject for a filmmaker.

George Gobel, on the other hand, was not someone I'd ever thought about. While he'd been a real star before I was born, I remember him as one of those curious celebrity types who seemed to constantly pop up as a guest star. He was a bumbling schoolteacher in a Daniel Boone episode; he played characters on Death Valley Days and F Troop. But usually he played himself. Johnny Carson had him on the Tonight Show 56 times; he was a panelist on Hollywood Squares 285 times.

He was in a class with people like Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly and Charlie Weaver, who wasn't a real person but a character created by an erstwhile nightclub pianist named Cliff Arquette. They seemed to exist merely to populate the surreal universe that was network television programming in the '60s, '70s and '80s. I couldn't tell you what made any of them famous. George Gobel was just someone on TV, a pleasant presence.

I know better these days. Arquette was a talented performer who invented the prosthetic mask that allowed him to convincingly play elderly Weaver when he was barely out of his 20s; he's also the grandfather of a lot of show-business Arquettes. Lynde and Reilly were talented comedians who were part of an interesting '60s-'70s American TV phenomenon, the campy, snarky, barely closeted male homosexual. (Other examples included Alan Sues, recently deceased Rip Taylor and Liberace, who throughout his life insisted he was not gay and who testified, in his 1959 libel suit against the U.K.'s Daily Mirror, "I am against the practice because it offends convention and it offends society.")

And Gobel was, among other things, an immensely talented musician.

That's how he started out, in 1933, as Little Georgie Gobel, a 13-year old soprano on the National Barn Dance broadcast by Chicago radio station WLS-AM. Sears, Roebuck & Co. had started the radio station, whose call letters stood for "World's Largest Store," as a way to connect to the rural audience that mail-ordered their products. Gobel, who was discovered singing in the choir of a Chicago Episcopal church, specialized in cowboy ballads and "Danny Boy."

World War II interrupted Gobel's career as a country singer, and after a stint as an Oklahoma-based Air Force bomber instructor, he resumed his career with the intention of incorporating comedy into his act. When Loudon Wainwright Jr. profiled Gobel for Life magazine in 1954, he suggested that Gobel mainly used his guitar as a stage prop, having re-invented himself as a gentle, observational comedian, a kind of prototype Bob Newhart.

Gobel is one of the subjects in Andrew Hunt's Funny You Never Knew, which also re-discovers the groundbreaking comedic work of Martha Raye and Imogene Coca. (I thought of Martha Raye mainly as an underrated singer, which she was. Now that I'm better educated, I will stand upon Carol Burnett's coffee table in muddy Topsiders and proclaim Coca's genius, and Ms. Burnett will probably climb up there with me.)

Hunt's film, probably best received as an argument for a limited-run documentary series on '50s comedians (a project that the director admits he'd like to do), observes most television in the '50s was broadcast live and was meant to be seen once, in the moment, by audiences tuning in at home. Before videotape, the only way of preserving these shows was by shooting a studio monitor with a 16mm film camera. (These kinescopes, as they were called, were primarily for affiliated stations to broadcast later. Some artists and producers were far-sighted enough to archive these kinescopes, others--including almost the entire archive of the DuMont Television Network--have been lost.)

By the '60s, when I started paying attention, Gobel may well have been living off his residual fame and engendered good will. But he wasn't just a mild little man in a crewcut; he had a ferocious talent he'd spent years honing. Seems they all did, in those grainy old days.

But maybe there was a little log-rolling among celebrity pals. A decade before Gobel showed up on Daniel Boone, he had young Fess Parker as a guest on his variety show. Parker sang an aria from Rigoletto.

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Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@arkansasonline.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

Editorial on 10/22/2019

Print Headline: PHILIP MARTIN: The people in the TV

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