A little over a year ago, I wrote a piece about the early days of television that I titled Did Rock and Roll Kill Your Hit Parade? I’m not sure I actually provided much of an answer at that time, but that’s just one of many questions that are covered in an outstanding new book by Andrew Lee Fielding, The Lucky Strike Papers.
As you might guess from the secondary title of the book, Journeys Through My Mother’s Television Past, Fielding has a unique perspective, and he also has an insider’s access to many of the people and materials from the early TV era. But don’t make the assumption that this is just a sentimental tribute to his mother, even though his affection for her memory – and pride in her career – are obvious. It is instead a treasure trove of early TV history.
Sue Bennett was a featured singer on several early TV shows in addition the one in the title, The Lucky Strike Hit Parade (Your Hit Parade). Her son – who is a professional journalist with features in some of the biggest Eastern newspapers – has spent many years crafting what is obviously a labor of love.
Beginning with his own childhood memories and drawing on those of his mother, he also had access to some of her memorabilia and gradually added more from various sources. In addition he found that his mother’s name allowed him to interview many early TV personalities – including some pretty big names – in their retirement years. Merv Griffin, Morey Amsterdam, Arthur Penn, and many of the stars of Your Hit Parade are among those who took time to reminisce.
The result is a rich history of the early days of TV, complete with lots of pictures and trivia, and a number of delicious inside stories — some that will surprise you, even if you think you might remember a lot about an era when DuMont was both a TV network and a manufacturer of television sets.
Suzanne (Benjamin) Fielding, performing as Sue Bennett, was never a major singing star but she was a featured singer on several early TV shows, and along the way garnered quite a bit of respect for her musical talent. (Song sample here.*) She was also an eyewitness to the early history of television.
In the late 1940’s, TV was still very new to the American public, and those new-fangled TV sets were few and far between. In a poll taken in 1949, over 56% of respondents had never even seen a TV, and they were so expensive – with prices up to $1000, a year’s salary at that time – they were often only found in places like bars. But people were fascinated by TV, and over the next few years prices started coming down and the private ownership of sets skyrocketed, even though it was still a major purchase for most families.
Young Sue Bennett, fresh from college and with a desire to sing professionally, began to appear on some of those early programs originating in New York, including one hosted by bandleader Vincent Lopez. An even bigger name provided her first starring opportunity when bandleader and entertainer Kay Kyser brought his College Of Musical Knowledge to TV and she became one of the main singers. He’d been a huge star for years, and his orchestra and comedy bits were customer favorites, especially his routines with comedy sidekick, Ish Kabibble (whose real name was Merwyn Bogue). One of the interesting inside facts in the book that came to light via the author’s later interviews, is that Kyser and Bogue were not on speaking terms offstage for some of their time together.
Sue’s career included singing on some other shows too, but it was her time spent on Your Hit Parade that provides much of the material for the book. The TV program was modeled on the successful radio version, but with an important difference. As the top ten tunes were performed by the singers each week, they also acted out a little mini-play or story about the song. TV historians have called it the forerunner to MTV.
Sue was not one of the main stars – names such as “Snooky” Lanson and Dorothy Collins come to mind – but in the early days of the program she was one of the featured singers, often performing solos. She was also part of the group singing and sometimes filled in for Dorothy in the Lucky Strike “bullseye” that opened the show.
But again, the book is not really about Sue as much as it is about early TV, and it contains an amazing amount of information that includes not only facts and trivia, but also backstage gossip and examples of professional jealousy and feuds that were still alive even in retirement. Early TV was a fascinating world, and reading about it is the next best thing to having been there.
*Sound sample courtesy of Lost Gold Entertainment, Inc
Book available at Amazon and other sellers.