Pioneers of Primetime


The PBS documentary Pioneers of Primetime traces the beginnings of TV’s juggernaut. It’s populated by triple-threat talking heads, like Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope, Red Skelton, and Milton Berle. Simply by telling the stories of their careers, these performers explain how vaudeville of the 1920s was replaced by radio in the 1930s, only to be displaced by TV in the late 1940s. Then TV ate the world.

Combining personal stories with some historical commentary, the documentary covers both the personal and the epic sides of this media evolution. Hope, who succeeded in each new form, says it’s “just a matter of picking the right material and knowing what the audience will go for.” Even in his interview, where is he elderly and frail, he mugs for the camera, claims you always need an audience, and lays down his punch line: “In fact, I have to put an applause machine in my bedroom before I can get up.”

Hope’s comedy illustrates how early TV returned to vaudeville for its content. One sketch included in the documentary is a drag bit featuring him and Berle in outrageous wigs, talking about which performers they’d like to see on TV, for instance, Bob Hope. When he says his boyfriend is going to buy him “a new 10-inch screen,” Berle laughs: “It’ll be like being there in person.” The comment speaks both to TV’s ability to convey “liveness,” and the way early variety shows put vaudeville acts on-stage in front of audiences.

The term “vaudeville” was first used to describe “a series of satirical songs” in 15th century Europe. Variety revue became all the rage in America in the early 20th century. The program’s engaging footage of early vaudeville makes it seem almost like a circus: jugglers, acrobats, singing, dancing, comedy, you name it performed for people from all classes. Buddy Ebsen observes that vaudeville “produced a feeling of well-being and friendliness in people.” Here you can see the roots of modern stand-up comedy, as well as stock gestures and structures of feeling that seem very different.

Radio gets shorter shrift, but Pioneers does show how vaudeville stars scrambled to adapt. Slapstick maven Red Skelton recalls different sketches that would work for different media. Footage of his physical comedy for TV would make Jim Carrey run for cover, and his radio jokes demonstrate how he inspired listeners to create their own pictures through his words.

The voiceover argues that radio formed a “deep connection with the American people” because it gave them hope and comfort during the Depression. Radio became “part of the family,” as TV would become later. The documentary shows that when people listened to their radios, they would gather around to look at it. So when TV came along, it was like radio with pictures, or like sitting in the audience at a vaudeville show.

The live variety shows (usually without storylines, a series of vaudeville acts) carried early TV until the classic sitcoms like I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners hit. The documentary’s cogent account of this transition between TV genres positions Lucille Ball, savvy businesswoman, as the one who started the practice of filming in front of a live audience for later broadcast and for syndication.

Sometimes the voiceover commentary is both trite and grandiose, proclaiming that vaudeville stars were “born to perform” and “their destiny was to make [TV] entertaining for the masses.” The voiceover intones, “The role of a pioneer… is to open a new frontier for others to take advantage of.” Oh, and the cast of The Honeymooners was “quite simply the perfect ensemble” and most people probably had no idea Grace Allen wasn’t stupid. Sigh.

But the documentary is repeatedly saved by the stars’ testimony. Several talking heads discuss vaudeville as a subset of American race relations at the time: black performers could perform on stage, but they couldn’t walk through the whites-only stage door. Davis says the entertainment world gave him a respite from segregation, because “show people” were different. Davis notes, “When you stepped out of that protected world, that’s when you were in trouble. So we had no desire to step in there.”

In extended interviews included on the DVD extras, Donald O’Connor and others recall what it was like to make a living on the circuit, and that many performers came from performing families, so they literally grew up in this world. Rose Marie recounts six to seven shows a day as a child. She jokes, “I started when I was three years old. I didn’t do too much before then, I just sorta hung around the house.” Steve Allen talks about growing up the son of a vaudeville comedy team; the voiceover dubs his mother, Belle Montrose, the “funniest woman in vaudeville.” In one of her bits, which Allen performs with her on TV, she wanders onto stage as if she’s not supposed to be there and is absent-mindedly interrupting the proceedings. When Allen asks what she does for a living, she says, “Oh… I’m a holy roller!”

When the performers talk about their long runs on TV, some two decades or more, their eyes mist up as they remember their glory days. That can get a little maudlin and boring. More interesting are their comments on the competition that developed in TV. While vaudeville acts could be the same for years (because different audiences saw them every day), TV has to be new each week. The creative demands exhausted even the crack team of writers Sid Caesar hired for Your Show of Shows — Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Neil Simon among them, what Caesar calls “the finest writing team ever assembled.” They could only keep it going for four years.

Pioneers of Primetime provides an illustrated oral history of early 20th century mass performance forms. While it would not be rigorous or insightful enough to make researchers in the field happy, the documentary does offer a mainstream account of why TV history matters. It starts and ends with the holy rollers, baby.