Chic Johnson and Ole Olsen with Happy Kellams
Bill Hayes remembers...
FIRE-BALL FUN-FOR-ALL (1949)
Television remained experimental until September21st, 1948, the night the series called Texaco Star Theatre began, starring Milton Berle. That night there were very few television sets in the whole country. But the show was such a humungous success that all the sets on all the shelves in all the towns in America were bought up the next day. Cute little 10-inch Philcos and Emersons—pfft! All gone!Everyone suddenly was glued to a television set. People would turn their set on at home and sit there watching a snowy test pattern, waiting for some show to come on. Any show. Curious pedestrians, standing outside shop-windows and watching those crazy little boxes, were sometimes rewarded by seeing a wrestling match or an early, faded John Wayne movie.But the best of the best was Milton Berle, “Mr. Television,” who cavorted with manic energy through an hour every Tuesday night. And what do you know? When Uncle Miltie took his 13-week hiatus in the summer of 1949, he was replaced by Olsen and Johnson and their troop of stooges, vaudeville acts, clowns, singers, dancers… and ME.Buick, sponsor of our series, was touting their powerful new automotive engine called “The Fire-Ball.” So, Olsen and Johnson named their show The Fire-Ball Fun-For-All. We performed on Tuesday nights, from 8:00 to 9:00pm. I know it’s hard for people today to conceptualize, but that was LIVE television. Tape had not been invented yet, did not come into commercial use until about 1957.When a show is LIVE, things happen that are not supposed to happen. And audiences were not only turned on just by seeing television, they were doubly turned on by the anything-can-happen excitement of LIVE TV.Shows today have writers, producers, directors, set-designers, lighting specialists, prop men, costume designers and wardrobe assistants, make-up artists and hair designers, production assistants, experienced camera men, sound personnel with huge banks of mixing equipment, and on and on. Then we had none of the above. Olsen and Johnson did it all. They wrote the show (we had no scripts), directed the sketches, rented theatrical sets, brought costumes and props from their own huge barn/warehouse up in Carmel, NY, determined what music was to be done.Since there were no TV studios at that time, we performed the show as a theatrical variety show and the huge TV cameras caught as much of it as they could. Cameras in 1949 were not mobile, did not have zoom capability, were really just barely out of the experimental phase. In fact, in order for our cameras to work at all they had to be turned on a full 60 minutes before use and focused endlessly on test patterns or the resultant images would be wavy if not totally unrecognizable.The Fire-Ball Fun-For-All broadcasts emanated from The International Theatre at Columbus Circle (59th St. at 8th Ave.) in New York City. One entire section of seats was removed to make room for the big NBC staff orchestra and our Conductor Al Goodman. More seats were removed to create space for the cameras and to allow carpenters to build and enclose a control booth. Lyn Duddy wrote special material, Paul Van Loan wrote orchestrations, Dave Gould choreographed the first four shows, Donn Arden the next four.On Tuesday night, June 28th, 1949, I made my national television debut (on camera this time!), doing Olsen and Johnson stooge-bits and singing (in a 1908 Buick) “Shine On, Harvest Moon” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” to June Johnson. Staging Director Ezra Stone and Camera Director Frank Burns were wide-eyed if not frantic trying to figure out how to stage and shoot for those three immobile cameras, two in the pit, one in the balcony. We rehearsed 9:00am to 9:00pm every day, which meant we sat around a lot. Television was so new there was no union to demand five-minute breaks and fewer hours of sitting around and wasting time. I came to appreciate unions for the first time.I worked mostly with June Johnson in the musical numbers, sang mostly old-old favorites: “We’re Having a Heat Wave,” “In the Good Old Summer Time,” “By the Sea,” “Let’s Get Away from It All,” “Sweetheart of Sigma Chi,” “We’re Loyal to You, Illinois,” “How About You?,” “Always,” “Big, Wide, Wonderful World,” “Little Brown Gal.” In a big, long, special production of “Penthouse Serenade” I sang to the camera and to June’s sister Chickee Johnson.I was paid $75 a week. We did eight of our contracted 13 shows and then Milton Berle returned temporarily while we went back on the road. When we came back to do our final five, we were given a new musical conductor (Charley Sanford), a new vocal/choral/special material writer/arranger (Clay Warnick), and a new orchestrator (Irwin Kostal). These shows were done in September and October of 1949. Eddie Cline (former Keystone Kop) was now our staging director and Bob Sidney the choreographer.Our closing theme song had been “Tuesday’s the Night for a Party!,” written I think by Ole Olsen. When we came back to do our last five episodes the night had been switched to Thursdays, so our closing theme suddenly became “Thursday’s the Night for a Party!” We began to use more acts: Frank Cook, The Dancing Dunhills, Pallenberg and His Bears, Mata and Hari, Betty Bruce, Hal LeRoy. I sang “Cruising Down the River,” “School Days,” “You’ve Come a Long Way from St. Louis,” “My Wonderful One,” “Love Nest,” “I Was Made for New York,” “Ain’t She Sweet,” “Boston,” “Basin Street Blues,” “Darling, Not Without You,” and “Manhattan Symphony.”The final show of this series occurred on October 27, 1949. Mary, having become toxic during this pregnancy, was scheduled to have her labor induced the next day. Aware of this impending nativity, Chic Johnson—onstage, during the show—gave me a wild grin and said, “Hope it’s a boy!” Of course, that was before prospective parents were capable of knowing what gender their babies were going to be. Immediately following the show Mary and I rushed up to Women’s Hospital in Manhattan, she drank her glass of cod-liver oil and the next day—Friday, October 28th, 1949---gave birth to our first son.
As a “new baby” gift, Chic Johnson presented us with a prop from Hellzapoppin, an oversized white wicker perambulator/crib which had been used in a sketch where a bratty baby was played by Andy Ratousheff, one of the little people. So at least Billy had a place to sleep.