Love Those Leftovers: Thanksgiving TV Shows from the 1950s & 1960s

Well, you made it. You drove for hours through storms or you dared the airport mobs. But you made it home in time for Thanksgiving. It was wonderful catching up with your relatives and old friends. And the food! Best meal ever!

But now what? That first great day is over. And you have quickly discovered that Uncle Bob snores like a super-sonic jet, Aunt Sue won’t stop talking about her gallbladder operation, your best friend from high school has the same kind of job as yours at twice the pay, and your sister’s kids are just precious….precious brats, that is. But you’re stuck with these people; all crammed into a too small house for the entire weekend because you can’t head home until Monday.

So what do you do? How will you survive? Well, that’s what the Public Domain is for! Just fire up the laptop and dash on over to the Internet Archive. You’ll be able to keep up your Thanksgiving good will and cheer as you watch some of the most popular entertainers from television’s past as they deal with their own holiday plans and disasters.

Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy

Starting out we have the first television appearance of a once hugely popular ventriloquist and his famous dummy. Edgar Bergen (1903-1978) was the son of Swedish immigrants. He taught himself ventriloquism using just a pamphlet when he was eleven. Later, Edgar commissioned a wood carver to make him a puppet based on an Irish newspaper boy he knew. Edgar’s first public appearance was at a church but he was soon a popular vaudeville performer. Then, on December 17, 1936, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy made a guest appearance on singer Rudy Vallee’s radio show. Their appearance was so successful that the next year they were given their own radio show. “The popularity of a ventriloquist on radio, when one could see neither the dummies nor his (the ventriloquist’s) skill, surprised and puzzled many critics, then and now”. But Edgar had created characters with such distinct personalities that people looked upon them as being almost real. Edgar’s radio show ran 1937 – 1956 and was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1990.

Over time, Edgar added other characters to Charlie “the highly precocious child (albeit in top hat, cape, and monocle)” such as slow-witted and shy Mortimer Snerd and man-hungry Effie Klinker. The radio show added fun stunts like the supposed feud with comedian W.C. Fields. One radio show got Edgar and Charlie in trouble with the FCC when girl-crazy Charlie flirted with sensuous actress Mae West and got a bit risqué by warning her, “Not so loud, Mae, not so loud! All my girlfriends are listening.” “Oh, yeah,” purred Mae, “You’re all wood and a yard long.” The public was outraged and the FCC ruled the exchange was indecent. But Charlie was perceived as more innocent than Mae. She was banned from NBC radio for almost 13 years.

Besides the radio show, Edgar and Charlie and the others also made some movies. They never had their own television show but they did make many quest appearances on other shows as well as doing several specials.

Our television show, Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy, is a 1950 Thanksgiving special from CBS television and sponsored by Coca-Cola. This was Edgar and his gang’s first ever appearance on TV. Edgar brings Charlie and Mortimer Snerd to the screen as well as a totally new and different character: Podine Puffington, a life-size Southern belle that Edgar shared a dance and flirtation with. Edgar says to Podine, “Tell me, could I see you again Thursday night?” Podine is demure, “No, sir. Not Thursday.” Edgar persists, “Well, why not?” “ ‘Cause I’m getting married,” trills Podine. Edgar is disappointed, “Oh. I see.” But Podine is not done, “How about Friday?”

The Thanksgiving special starts out with a short introduction by Edgar then a visit to Charlie McCarthy’s room. Edgar and Charlie discuss pilgrims and Edgar tells the story of the romantic triangle between Miles Standish, John Alden, and Priscilla Mullins. Despite interruptions from Charlie, Edgar starts the story, “Miles Standish is very famous. He went down in history.” Charlie is sympathetic, “Well, I flunked it myself.” A few minutes later, Edgar insists the story is interesting, “The story gets better as it goes along.” Charlie scoffs, “Well, it can’t get any worse.” Then Edgar gets confused by all the interruptions, “Now, where was I?” Charlie really does not care, “I don’t know. You were sitting there laying an egg.” Edgar still tries to continue, “Now we come to the best part of the story.” Charlie interrupts again, “The Finish!” Edgar finally gets to the end of the story, “He said, ‘I love you, Priscilla, but there will always be Miles between us.” Charlie is appalled at the pun, “Oh no, no, no! Oh no, no!” Edgar asks, “Don’t you get it?” “I don’t want it,” exclaims Charlie.

Edgar and Charlie get a visit from orchestra leader Ray Noble and a piano recital by Diana Lynn followed by an appearance by Edgar with Mortimer Snerd. The show ends with a skit set in Salem, Massachusetts, 300 years ago that has Edgar and Charlie McCarthy stuck in the stocks while Jim Backus makes a teeny tiny appearance and the Melomen Quartet plays some music. In old Salem, Edgar and Charlie are accused of witchcraft. The crowd yells loudly, “Burn them at the stake! Chop their heads off!” Charlie is unconcerned, “Well, what’ll it be, boys? Chops or steaks?” The Coca-Cola commercial is actually incorporated into the show.

I was never that impressed with Edgar Bergen when I was a kid. He was really not the best ventriloquist technically and  it was pretty easy to see his mouth move. But this Thanksgiving show was really rather cute and funny and Charlie McCarthy can be funnily snarky.

The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show

Our next offering is the November 22, 1951 Thanksgiving episode from The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show on CBS TV, sponsored by Carnation Evaporated Milk. Last week, I reviewed a Thanksgiving episode of The Burns and Allen Radio Show. George and Gracie were just as successful on television as they had been on radio. The show stayed pretty much the same with George and Gracie playing versions of themselves as married performers with their own show. Gracie was the mistress of “logical illogic” and repeatedly befuddled George, their announcer Harry Von Zell, their neighbors Blanche and Harry Morton, and everybody else who crossed her path. “Their situation comedy TV series was an immediate success and received Emmy Award nominations throughout its eight-year run.

Most of the show took place in George and Gracie’s house which was modeled on their real-life home. It was even set on the same street: the TV house was at 312 Maple Drive while their real-life home, that both George and Gracie lived in until their deaths, was at 720 North Maple Drive.

Gracie was as “meticulous in decorating her TV home” as she was in decorating her real life home. Throughout the entire run of the show, Gracie never appeared in the same outfit twice, in fact she often had as many as three costume changes. She wore an apron in the kitchen as a tribute to her real-life aunt. Gracie’s character is often seen cooking and preparing meals and she endorsed a vast array of cooking and baking products but, in real-life, she never cooked. She and George either ate out or had their meals prepared by their personal chef.

The “logical illogic” of her character sometimes befuddled Gracie as well as the other characters in the TV show. Because some of her lines made no sense, Gracie often had difficulty memorizing the scripts. Sometimes, the crew taped cue cards to the back of furniture and props to help Gracie out if she got stuck.

Our Burns and Allen episode shows the couple preparing for a Thanksgiving dinner. They have to go shopping early Thanksgiving morning but most of the groceries go to neighbor Blanche. Throughout the show, various characters stop by including: Joe from the drug store, announcer Harry Von Zell, and a young, newly married couple and are all befuddled by Gracie. There is also a scene at Blanche and Harry Morton’s house. Part of the story concerns Gracie confusing Linda Lee the new bride with Linda Lee the horse that Harry Morton bet on. Gracie thinks neighbor Harry Morton is seeing another woman and is unsure whether she should tell Blanche, “Say, Blanche. If you found out that Harry was running around with another woman, would you be upset?” Blanche is shocked, “Well, of course I would!” Gracie is relieved, “Well then I’m glad I didn’t tell you”. The commercials are worked right into the story, with announcer Harry Von Zell stopping guests to tell them all about Carnation Evaporated Milk and also a cookbook the show was selling.

A few years ago, I caught several Burns and Allen episodes on late night TV. One of the running gags was how George would often “break the fourth wall” and talk to the audience and how his character always knew what everyone was up to. At one time, the show gave George an unusual TV set that allowed him to spy on his wife and friends and keep track of what they were up to. I loved that gag which is, unfortunately not seen in this episode but several times George does actually step out of the house set to go over by a curtain and talk to the audience. During one of these breaks in “the fourth wall” George talks to the audience about Thanksgiving, “Well, Happy Thanksgiving. Tonight we’re having turkey. Tomorrow, cold turkey. The next day, cream turkey. Then turkey hash. Then turkey giblets. Then turkey croquets. Then turkey burgers. Then, naturally, after that we’ll have the leftovers. But I will enjoy tonight’s dinner. I haven’t had turkey for about three weeks now. That’s when we finished the one from last year.”

The Liberace Show

Our third Thanksgiving episode is from The Liberace Show. Wladziu Valentino Liberace (1919-1987) was the son of immigrants; his father from Italy, his mother from Poland. Liberace grew up in Wisconsin, USA. He started playing piano at age four and by age seven, he could memorize and play complicated pieces. At age eight, he met world famous Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski. In high school, Liberace played jazz piano with a school group and also performed in theaters, for local radio, and for dancing classes, weddings, and various clubs. By age 20, he played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

A few years later, Liberace began to move “away from straight classical performances and reinvented his act to one featuring ‘pop with a bit of the classics’ or as he also called it ‘classical music with the boring parts left out’.” His change to entertainer was highly successful. In 1944, Liberace made his first appearance at Las Vegas and ten years later he was racking in $50,000 a week in Las Vegas and millions more from public appearances and television.

Liberace “mostly bypassed radio” and went straight to a television career. His early TV guest appearances left him disappointed and wanting more – more time and more control. His own television show began on July 1, 1952. Each episode was only 15 minutes long and included Liberace joking and chatting with the audience as well as playing a couple of pieces of music. His show did not last long but his TV career did as he continued to make many appearances on various other shows and specials.

In our Thanksgiving episode from 1954, Liberace is dressed rather somberly. But as time went on, Liberace became more and more flamboyant. He believed in being entertaining in all kinds of ways and he made dramatic flourishes with his hands as he played piano and his clothing became more and more extravagant. He was nicknamed “The Glitter Man” and “Mr. Showmanship”.

As flashy and enjoyable as his shows were, his real-life was every bit the same. Liberace lived large and spent lavishly. One of his houses even had a piano-shaped swimming pool.

Liberace did have some bumps in his road to glittering happiness. His sexual orientation was of intense interest to many people although Liberace tried his best to remain publicly private. Twice, he took legal action when newspapers made too many allegations. After winning one such legal battle, Liberace is quoted as saying “I cried all the way to the bank”. Liberace even tried to keep the actual cause of his death private. The coroner claimed there was a  “deliberate attempt to hide the actual cause and death” and performed an autopsy. It was determined that the sparkling entertainer had died, on February 4, 1987, of cytomegalourus pneumonia as a result of AIDs.

In this short little Thanksgiving show, the stage is lightly decorated with pumpkins and haystacks as well as a live turkey around his grand piano. Liberace opens with a short musical number followed by two longer pieces. Liberace introduces the second musical number by talking about his show’s live turkey, “And when we think of Thanksgiving, what’s the first thing that comes to our minds? The turkey. And our turkey looks a little worried. I think the reason he looks so worried is that he can foresee his doom. And I think he knows that sooner or later he’s gonna wind up on that dinner table and I think he deserves a little, kind of farewell send off, kind of a serenade. So here is a number that was written in his honor: “The Turkey in the Straw” complete with variations and all the trimmings.”

Liberace introduces the third musical number with a monologue about his childhood Thanksgiving memories. “Thanksgiving season always makes me feel a little nostalgic. It reminds me of some of the childhood Thanksgivings we spent at my Grandmother’s home in northern Wisconsin. It was a very quaint little farmhouse and all the good things we had to eat where grown on her own land. And it’s such a wonderful place to visit at Thanksgiving time. It was harvest time and it kind of reminds me of a song that was popular then and still is today: “Shine on Harvest Moon”.” The commercials have all been cut out of this version of the show.

Calvin and the Colonel

Our last Thanksgiving offering is a black and white cartoon  called Calvin and the Colonel. This was an “animated cartoon television series in 1961 about Colonel Montgomery J. Klaxon, a shrewd fox, and Calvin T. Burnside, a dumb bear”. The series only lasted a year although it was re-run throughout the 1960s.

Movie and TV fans should be a bit cautious though. There is some controversy attached to this show. Calvin and the Colonel is an animated remake of Amos ‘n’ Andy. Amos ‘n’ Andy was originally a radio show about two African American characters that ran from the 1920s to the 1950s but the show was created by, written by, and voiced by two white men. Freeman Gordon played Amos Jones and Charles Correll played Andrew Hogg Brown. The radio show was hugely popular but the African American community was not so pleased with Amos ‘n’ Andy. The first sustained protest came in 1930 and was led by Bishop W.J. Walls of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church who called the radio show “crude, repetitious, and moronic”.

When Amos ’n’ Andy moved to TV, the two white stars had to give up their roles to African American men, although they did play with the idea of hiring black actors to mouth the dialogue while they actually continued to do the voices. The TV show only lasted from 1951 – 1953.

In 1961, Freeman Gordon and Charles Correll “attempted one last televised version, albeit in a ‘disguised’ version”. The Calvin and the Colonel prime time animated cartoon featured “anthropomorphic animals whose voices and situations were almost exactly those of Andy and the Kingfish (and adapting several of the original Amos ‘n’ Andy radio scripts).” It was supposed to be “less racially offensive’. The cartoon show only lasted one season but did find some popularity in syndication.

Our Thanksgiving episode of Calvin and the Colonel is not overtly offensive. The animation is somewhat simple and the so-called “Southern” accents are sometimes ridiculously broad but the story itself is not too bad. If you did not know the history of the show, then there is nothing to indicate that the fox and bear are anything other than just plain  stereotypically “Southern”.

The Colonel had invited all his relatives to Thanksgiving dinner at his house a year ago.  He is full of himself but not always correct in his word usage as he says, “Dear relatives and friends, in as much as I have heard various and nefarious rumors that my dear wife and my sweet sister-in-law Sue, that we have been drum-stickin’ and ham-hockin’ to excess at your various homes over the holidays, I hereby retaliate by inviting all 36 of you to our house one year from today for a big turkey and ham dinner on Thanksgiving!” But now, it’s time for Thanksgiving and he has no food and no money to buy food. The Colonel tries to find a way to keep the relatives away, “Put up the quarantine sign and hide under the bed again! I know they’re gonna be hungry but I don’t think even they will wade through the bubonic plague to get to the giblets”.

The Colonel and his friend Calvin try to scam some free food with disastrous results. The angry salesman tells the Colonel he has to return the free food but the Colonel tries to argue, “But why must we bring back the free food if the free food is free with the food freezer?” The salesman is adamant, “Because the free food is only free with the food freezer if you pay the full fee for the food freezer!” They do not get away with it and they are punished but they obviously did not learn their lesson.

All four of our Thanksgiving TV shows are very funny and FREE in the Public Domain at the Internet Archive. They are all in black and white. The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show is a bit grainy with some scratches and fuzziness in places but the video quality of the other three is pretty good. The audio quality of all our shows is nice and clear. All four of our shows will provide plenty of Thanksgiving fun as TV fans try to survive the holiday. Enjoy and Happy Holidays!

Please click this link to go to the Internet Archive and watch online or download Edgar Bergin with Charlie McCarthy Thanksgiving special.

Please click this link to go to the Internet Archive and watch online or download The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show Thanksgiving episode.

Please click this link to go to the Internet Archive and watch online or download The Liberace Show Thanksgiving episode.

Please click this link to go to the Internet Archive and watch online or download the Calvin and the Colonel Thanksgiving episode.

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