the mid-seventies, when every Tom, Dick and Harry was getting their own
musical-variety hour, Tony Orlando and Dawn plugged in like nobody else;
they actually made it past their initial summer tryout and onto the CBS Fall
1975 schedule, attracting an astounding 50 million viewers every week.
one-of-a-kind yet cornily mainstream trio chalked up a number of insanely
popular vaudeville-type songs (including “Tie a Yellow ‘Ribbon Round the Ole
Oak Tree,” which was the biggest-selling record of 1973).
Although this nightclubby group and their moon-spoon-June tunes could
never, ever top the charts today, they were planted firmly in the driver’s
seat – quite the spectacle at the time. This rush of fresh faces was not
only in the air but on the air; television was finally letting its
guard down and acknowledging that persons other than Caucasian existed on
this earth. Not to worry, though – Tony Orlando and Dawn won’t bite. They
serve up songs that both Grandma and Gidget can love.
Billing himself as a “Greekerican” (half Greek and half
Puerto Rican), Orlando will settle for nothing less than being the ultimate
showman, with a huge heart, a pound of ham and a Zorba-like lust for life
(this is in addition to his feathered hair, tight slacks and platform
shoes). What he lacks in talent he makes up for in pure nerve. He strives –
we appreciate (a photo of his appearance at The Republican National
Convention, doing “The Bump” with First Lady Betty Ford, caused a minor
media sensation in 1976).
one can ever accuse him of phoning it in. In fact, his passion is so
overwhelming that, in one unrehearsed instance, he bear-hugs Phyllis Diller
so tightly that her wig falls off.
African-American soul-sister sidekicks, the quiet-but-talented Joyce
Vincent-Wilson and the mouthy, funny Telma Hopkins, provide the backup, the
sass and the sexy. Not just window dressing, the gals can actually sing,
sometimes as just a duet, sometimes whether we want them to or not. They’re
almost always dressed alike, but they have two distinct personalities
(collected versus attitudinal). As guest-star Danny Thomas comments about
them, “They sure filet that soul.”
gals also appear in a running sketch called “Lou-Effie and Mo’reen,” in
which they give middle-America a taste of what out-of-touch comedy writers
think it’s like to live in the ghet-to (“We gotta buy Liquid Plumber by the
six pack!”). They also readily provide whatever “street” attitude that the
ethnic-but-showbizzy Orlando cannot.
comedy skits are about as funny as root canal (there are actually jokes
about exporting wheat to Russia!). The audience – starved for TV’s new
freedom of easy talk about sex, ride like eighth graders on every
double-entendre. And the seventies buzzwords that are sure to draw
groans from the crowd (Inflation! Pollution! Unemployment!) are only
mentioned as buzzwords – never dared explored. The audience is real, but
sweetened by deafening canned laughter and applause.
final ten minutes of each program, however, are what you will need to see.
That’s when Orlando gets all unrehearsed and improvisational on you, and he
shifts his act off the stage and into the studio audience, singing and
dancing with a thrilled, polyestered crowd of middle-class Americans (mostly
swooning housewives and clueless businessmen). Woe to the audience member
who may not feel “on” as
approaches them: “there are no cop outs here,” Tony warns the crowd.
Watch with reluctant joy as
chats it up with an elderly Jewish couple, celebrating their fiftieth
wedding anniversary (Tony must have performed at a lot of bar mitzvahs – he
knows the words to “Hava Nagila!”). If this isn’t feel-good television,
formula is borrowed directly from Sonny and Cher – cheese served as Tang.
Like Sonny, Orlando – with a wink to the audience -- is played for the fool
(he comes out dressed like a cowboy, then sings “I Shot The Sheriff”; he
dresses like a
Kung Fu master and sings “Kung Fu Fighting”). Like Cher to
Sonny, Dawn is there to take Orlando down a few pegs (“From the back,
[Orlando] looks like Marlo Thomas,” Telma observes.) The New Equality: now,
in this brave world of seventies’ prime time, ethnics can be one-dimensional
the sake of entertainment history, you’ll get a strong lesson in how the
once-mighty have fallen. No longer welcome on weekly television, watch the
likes of Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Joey Bishop and Danny
Thomas (all in tuxedos) lower themselves into some really bad sketches (“In
a world of troubles, this is what we really need,” Orlando muses about his
comedy-lovin’ guest stars). You’ll also see Jerry Lewis in rare, funny
form. And Jim Nabors, usually freaking us out by singing in a way that
Gomer Pyle never would, gladly appears in a sketch or two.
Bafflement comes in the form of a “salute” to Hee Haw, featuring some
guests from that series (watch in stunned amazement as the bumpkins are
solicited by prostitutes at
and Vine! Hey gang, welcome to the
Big City – and to the seventies!). Telma comments about the rubes,
“It’s nice to see corn that’s not being sent to
are also introduced to the “glamorous” Adrienne Barbeau, and to Alice
Cooper, who is announced as an “unbelievable special guest.”
Charming is the appearance of both Ted Knight (singing “Knock Three Times!”)
and Georgia Engel (“I know you’re Tony, but which one is Orlando and which
one is Dawn?”), as well as “Hammerin’” Hank Aaron, who doesn’t seem to know
why he’s there.
Sedaka, decked out in a seventies outfit that you will have to see to
believe, is even more amazed than the audience that he is actually
experiencing a comeback. And George Carlin does his monologue about nothing
(“Hot Water Heater? Hot water doesn’t need to be heated!” “Occasional
irregularity?” “Jumbo Shrimp?”)
However the funniest sketch is not here but on The Carol Burnett Show
(a DVD extra), in which Carol, Vicki Lawrence and Harvey Korman play Tony
Tallahassee and Dusk, singing, “Wrap Your Jammies Round The Old White Pine.”
you’re looking for true revelation, you’ll actually find it in
frequent-guest-star Freddie Prinze, Sr., the topical, edgy comedian who
befriended Orlando because they both seemed to think they looked like each
other. In a Tonight Show clip from 1976, you can literally see the
widening generational divide of show business: Prinze is 21 and Orlando is
31; Prinze is edgy and unsentimental, while
is just the opposite. Hip, hard-assed attitude versus old-world schmaltz.
rush of finally being able to bring up ethnic topics for comedy’s sake,
especially by ethnics themselves (previously taboo on television) is evident
in Prinze’s funny monologue. Describing himself as a Hungarican (Hungarian
and Puerto Rican), he says, “My parents met on a bus trying to pick each
other’s pockets.” And he could sing and dance too. He rocks out to the Kiki
Dee hit, “I’ve Got the Music in Me.”
Sadly, Prinze would be dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound within a
year. And the series itself would not last much longer as America and its
fickle taste moved on. Trying (lamely) to inject a hip vibe and more
sophisticated music (including disco!) into the show, the name is
inexplicably changed to The Rainbow Hour, and the magic is not
may be most amazing is how many different ways “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round
the Ole Oak Tree” may be served up, from a styling by Jackie Gleason to a
studio audience sing-a-long to a countrified version by Buck Owens and the
Buckaroos (in matching leisure suits).
would reappear on the cultural radar again in 1980, when yellow ribbons were
utilized during the Iranian hostage crisis. Now he plays to packed houses in
Branson, Missouri, perfect for his brand of audience interaction, most of
whom remember him from his glory days. The corn is still there, for sure,
and not exported to Russia.
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Posted: March 5, 2006.