Archive finds faces that once graced TV

Preview: TV Land three-part series surprises with a good mix of voices and mostly honest history.

February 01, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The folks at TV Land want it known that there's more to life on their cable channel than reruns of Petticoat Junction. And the three-part history series, TV Land: African Americans in Television, is an important step in that direction.

The nonfiction series that starts tonight looks at African-Americans in network dramas, comedies and variety specials. Tonight's focus is on blacks in variety shows, a genre that flourished in the 1950s and '60s.

Not surprisingly for a cable channel that lives or dies off its video library, the clips from early TV are evocative. But what really carries the hour is the generally savvy mix of academic, industry and celebrity voices, starting with those of J. Fred MacDonald and Donald Bogle, authors of the two most definitive books on the history of African-Americans on television.

Sure, any show of this type has to include Diahann Carroll, Leslie Uggams, Debbie Allen, Garrett Morris and Chris Rock. And this series gets them. But TV Land also brings us the voices of such academics as MacDonald and Bogle, as well as civil rights leaders Kweisi Mfume and Julian Bond of the NAACP. The result is a program that not only tells the history, and mainly tells it well, but also explains some of the sociology that comes with it.

The story starts with The Billy Daniels Show, which debuted Oct. 5, 1952, and was canceled three months later by ABC. A less-informed TV special might gild images of this high-energy singer with words like "groundbreaking" to create a feel-good moment. Instead, TV Land places Daniels' show and ABC's commitment to black talent in their correct historical context: at the time, ABC was such a weak network it would try anything. Also, because it was such a sorry network, when Daniels didn't work as a novelty, ABC quickly dumped him.

As a result, The Billy Daniels Show often is forgotten, and many people think that NBC's The Nat "King" Cole Show was the first network series starring a black performer. Cole's show wasn't the first, but it was one of the most culturally important.

"When The Nat `King' Cole Show came on, black families across this nation found their way to whoever had the television set in the neighborhood and watched, because everybody took pride in that," Mfume says in an interview.

What most impressed me about the series is its comfort with ambiguity, and the ironies of history. It gives credit to the Jewish entertainer Eddie Cantor not only for launching a young Sammy Davis Jr. on The Eddie Cantor Comedy Theatre, but also for physically putting his arm around the young entertainer - despite objections from the sponsor and fans to this tableau of brotherhood. To his credit, Cantor kept bringing Davis on and embracing him. But MacDonald also points out that, to his discredit, Cantor performed in blackface throughout much of his career.

Along with the singers and dancers, the comics are all here, from Dick Gregory, Godfrey Cambridge and Richard Pryor in the early 1960s, to Flip Wilson, Arsenio Hall and Chris Rock more recently.

The hour's big emotional moment is the NBC special in 1990 that celebrated Sammy Davis Jr.'s 60th anniversary in show business just months before the entertainer died. It's hard not to be moved at the sight of the frail Davis rising from his seat of honor, putting on patent-leather tap shoes, and taking the stage one last time at the invitation of Gregory Hines for a challenge dance.

It needs to be said, though, that the narration by Ron Glass following that touching scene is the one moment of the hour when TV Land's commitment to good history goes kerflooey. "With him [Davis], passed the heydey of TV variety," Glass says. It's a line that would offer perfect emotional closure to the segment -- if only it were true.

Actually, TV variety peaked by the early 1970s. The last variety show to crack the Nielsen top 20 was The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour in 1973.

OK, so I can only give it a B+. By the standards of most cable TV history, African Americans in Variety is pretty fine stuff.

Series

What: TV Land: African Americans in Variety

When: 9 tonight

Where: TV Land

In brief: A solid start to Black History Month.

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