Saturday, January 12, 2013

Hit or Miss (1955 - 56)

*In the picture posting you’ll notice Melvin Berry, who appears first, Bill LaVallee, who appears fifth, and Cecile Morris who appears sixth are referred to by their last names only. That’s because the article associated with the picture includes some anecdotes about them. Note that the young lady with Melvin Berry is Elizabeth Cole, who we all now know as Elizabeth Ashley of Broadway and Feature Film fame.  NOTE:  Back when this feature first appeared in the paper in 1955 I spilled part of a Cherry Coke on this clipping.  You'll notice the stain on Cecile Morris's legs and dress.

Anyone remember a local Baton Rouge weekly show called HIT OR MISS? If you were born after the 50s or were a wee kid in the 50s, then there is a good chance you never came into contact with or ever heard of HIT OR MISS. This show was a local weekly ½ hour TV program that was the 1954-56 brain child of WBRZ’s producer-extraordinaire Bob Reed. Besides myself, there were some 34 performers associated with this show. From the list below there may be some omissions, but I’ve listed those that I remember, alphabetized by first name:

Ann Brown, Bill LaVallee, Bill Slatter, Bob Reed, Bobby Chachere, . Carol Hawes, Cecile Morris, Cy Holley, Dick Holler (“Abraham, Martin and John”), Dot Bourgeois (Donna Douglas), Earlene Morris, Eivie McGehee, Floy Dean Smith, Gerry Robichaux, JC Politz (Emcee), Jerry Leggio, Jimmie Sue Smith, Jimmy Clanton, Joe Dampf, Joey Pushka (Joey Patton, B’way director), Judy Langridge, Judy Womack, June Amy, Kay Anselmo, Liz Cole (Elizabeth
Ashley), Marilyn Bordelon, Maxine Jones, Melvin Berry, Michael Cooper, Mona Henderson, Pat Cotton, Ray McCullough, Rex Reed (film critic) and Soula O'Bannon.
Performing SHE BOOM, SHE BOOM at the East Louisiana State Hosptial for the Mentally Ill:  from left to right:  Bill LaVallee, Cecile Morris, Me, Melvin Berry

From the list above you’ll no doubt see some names that have long since gone on to bigger and greater career successes. And, of course, many are now deceased. If you know of some who should be on this list, then please let me know. On several previous posts I had promised to produce a HIT OR MISS post. Despite the now famous personalities involved the reason it has taken me so long to fulfill this promise is that I couldn’t think of any “news-worthy” items to share. We all had fun. We thoroughly enjoyed doing the shows, but I couldn’t think of anything that would be of interest

……until NOW.

First let me describe the program, its format and its origin. Many of you who are reading this may not be old enough (if you were even yet born back then) to remember a nationally syndicated weekly television program called YOUR HIT PARADE. Its premier broadcast aired in July of 1950. It ran for 9 years until it was discontinued in 1959. The Internet Movie Database offers the following description: “The format was to sing the seven top rated popular songs for the week; the songs were sung by the regular cast of vocalists.” This show’s regular vocalists were Dorothy Collins, Snooky Lanson, Russell Arms, Raymond Scott and Gisele McKenzie. A few years after it premiered another show similar in format emerged: The Lawrence Welk Show which was patterned after YOUR HIT PARADE.
From left to right standing:  Me, an unknown, Dick Holler, Carole Hawes;  from left to right seated:  unknown, Floy Dean Smith, Bill LaVallee, half-face unknown 

Both YHP and the Welk show were corny as hell, but nonetheless entertaining and engaging. Each musical number included appropriate sets, props, matching characters and a directed story-line appropriate to the lyrics. What’s very interesting about the success of each of these weekly offerings is that for several years after YOUR HIT PARADE was cancelled THE LAWRENCE WELK SHOW continued to run, appealing mainly to a much older audience. The demise of both YHP and HorM was mainly the result of a new popular genre making its debut ….....

ROCK AND ROLL. Need I say more?

YHP and HorM could not conceive of how to put R&R into compelling and entertaining production numbers. Lawrence Welk simply stuck with “oldies”, thus rendering its format perpetually current. Today Welk is in rerun on PBS. Unlike YHP and LWS our local HIT OR MISS endured for only 2 years .. 1955 – 1956. It too was patterned after YOUR HIT PARADE except that we would not use our own voices. We pantomimed. We would lip sync to the recordings of the current popular artists. Home audiences often assumed they were actually hearing our voices. On several occasions I was told that I sounded just like Frank Sinatra.   OK, now you have the background.

We became so popular that we started accepting invitations to various local and non-local and out-of-state venues to perform LIVE shows. We performed at the East Louisiana State Hospital in Jackson, at frequent Rotary Club events, and on several occasions we traveled to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. Many in the cast had individual talents .. singing, dancing, instrumentalizing, etc. So the road shows included both pantomime as well as live performances. We were well-received, drawing large crowds and garnering great reviews. It was rumored that Bill LaVallee, one of the HorM regulars and one of the funniest members of our coterie, was nearly committed when we performed at the state mental hospital in Jackson. I guess it could be said that sometimes we had TOO much fun. Anyway Bill is now, much like me, a frequent raconteur on face book.

And so it was that on one particular road engagement to Keesler AF Base we experienced an interesting adventure (or more accurately ‘misadventure’) on our return trip to Baton Rouge. We had decided to begin our Baton Rouge return trip later that day rather than staying over and leaving the following morning. There was no interstate highway system back then and our route included US-90 and several state roads. I was in a car with Bill LaVallee, Floy Dean Smith and Melvin Berry.  After riding at night for about an hour in a heavy rainstorm, we decided to pull into a small diner to get coffee and wait for the weather to improve. We enjoyed this break, but realized that the weather was obviously not going to let up. So we resumed our trip. I agreed to drive. Everyone quickly reboarded. I got behind the wheel and we were once again on our way.

The rain was not letting up and all the oncoming vehicles were splashing us unmercifully. The 3 passengers were all asleep and I was beginning to regret agreeing to drive. The strain was unrelenting. Eighteen wheelers would drench us and oncoming vehicles blew their horns for reasons I could not fathom. Then Bill awoke asking “Why is everyone blowing their horns?” “Hell if I know!” Then Bill, with great alarm, said “Jerry, we are in the oncoming lane. LOOK!”  He indicated to his right and we saw vehicles on our right driving westward as were we. But they were all on the OTHER SIDE of this divided highway. GULP! We were traveling WEST in the EASTbound lane of this divided highway.

As soon as I was able, I pulled off into a service station to our left. Bill had been keeping a mileage log of our trip and said “My God, we went 17 miles in the oncoming lane. We should be DEAD!” After composing ourselves, Bill then got behind the wheel ….. thank heavens. I was now barred from driving and was quite grateful and relieved. The rain had now let up and we, once back on the road in the PROPER lane, were able to figure out what had happened when we resumed our trip after our diner break 17 miles back. When I pulled onto the highway, the median strip in the rain looked like the OTHER side of the road. We had traveled 17 miles in the oncoming lane of this divided highway. We managed to get back safely to Baton Rouge and no one slept for the rest of the trip. We also marveled at the absence of a state police presence during that 17 mile “wrong-way” stretch. I guess they didn’t relish having to patrol in such a heavy downpour. It just wasn’t yet our time to shuffle off this mortal coil.
Seated from left to right:  Bob Reed, me, Melvin Berry, Dick Holler, Jimmie Sue Smith (I think), Joey Pushka (Patton);  Standing from right to left:  Mona Henderson, Judy Womack (I think), Bobby Chachere, the next 4 I'm not sure of, then Floydean Smith (standing behind Berry) and the others I don't know.