Performers: Spike Jones and the City Slickers, Liberace, Jim Backus, Billy Eckstine, Hugh Herbert
Studio: Infinity Entertainment (3 DVDs & 1 CD)
Video: 4:3 B&W
Audio: DD mono
Extras: 2 1945 NBC pilot radio shows, 1960 Interview on Person To Person, Spike as “leonard Burnside” on The Ed Sullivan Show, Weird Al Yankovic discussing Jone’s influence on himself, Interviews with Spike’s musicians and family members, Joe Siracusa’s “Spike-Bites”
Length: 2 3/4 hours (DVD), 45 min. (CD)
There had been other musical cutups before Spike Jones, but he pulled out all the stops in his parodies of both popular and classical music, and influenced such later figures as Ernie Kovacs, Frank Zappa, Weird Al Yankovic and Stan Freberg. There’s been a number of CDs available of classic Spike Jones musical parodies, but nothing much in the video area. Now here are four hours worth of his live TV specials in l951 and 52, plus the first hearing of two pilot radio series made for NBC which were never broadcast. (In some ways I found those the highlights of the set – they didn’t sound as dated – in fact the sound was quite up-to-date except for the commercials for war bonds.)
The image quality varies greatly; they are all kinescopes – shot on 16mm right off a small TV tube. The first TV show is pretty primitive, especially the titles and commercials. And the integration into the show of not only the commercials but the actual sponsoring people is something to behold. It was similar to the shameless sponsor-coddling of the radio shows of the period. An occasional shot is of absolutely nothing happening – just a blank curtain – or else something totally out of focus. This was live TV, remember!
In the late 1940s Spike toured the country with his Musical Depreciation Revue. He had a company of 40 people: musicians, acrobats, dancers, jugglers, singers and comedians – who traveled via two Pullman sleepers and baggage car. His musical maxim was “They write ‘em and I wreck ‘em!” His wife Helen Grayco frequently did straight vocals. It is surprising to see Liberace allowed to perform a fairly straight (for him) version of Fallas’ Fire Dance, followed by a soupy vocal of September Song – assisted by brother George on violin. (My youthful sampling of show biz was performing a Liberace parody – and winning a competition doing it at a county fair.)
There are four TV shows from 1951 and 52: Two Colgate Comedy Hour specials and two All Star Revues. Jones wielded either a pistol or a toilet plunger as his baton, and his City Slickers played upon such nonstandard instruments as flit guns, jews harps, bird calls, banjos, and punctuated their performances with sneezes, hiccups, snores and belches. Spike took occasional solo stints at his tuned cowbells, and a vertical assembly of noisemaking gadgets which we beat with his drumsticks. He was always chewing gum, and strangely never looks into the camera – always off to the side on right or left. Some of the acts he brings in, such as the female tap dancer and trapeze duo, seem absolutely bizarre, and he engages in some politically-incorrect-today bits such as a midget running around and long-legged models singing introductions to various parts of the show. In the middle of one show Dave Garroway – a huge TV personality at the time – stumbles onto the set, makes a rather dumb statement, and then disappears.
I was primed to see some excerpts from Jone’s superb extended-length parody “Spike Jones Murders Carmen.” but it never happened. There were plenty of repeats of some of his classic numbers, such as All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth, The Poet and Peasant Overture, Cocktails for Two, and Holiday for Strings. Some of the other Spike classics performed include Glow Worm, Hawaiian War Chant, Laura, and You Always Hurt the One You Love.” One of the funniest bits for me was the handsome woman in the strapless gown whiling away her time knitting while seated behind her concert harp during most of a show. Finally, when Spike announces Holiday for Strings she jumps into action, playing long and drawn-out introductory glissandos on her harp while smoking a cigar. Spike as “Leonard Burnside” is also a kick.
The 4-disc package is great fun and makes up magnificently for the previous lack of Spike’s musical mayhem on DVD.
– John Sunier