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"The Dean Martin Show" was, perhaps, the most thoroughly enjoyable variety
series of the sixties, due, in large part, to it's legendary host. Dean
Martin refused to take things seriously, on-camera, and his relaxed,
flippant attitude seemed to bring out the very best qualities of his guests.
Certainly it made his show the 'in' place for virtually every major
performer of the era, and while Ed Sullivan might have been able to boast
more 'debuts' of up-and-coming stars, where else would you find Orson Welles
performing magic, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart singing, or the Golddiggers
bumping and grinding while Martin would sing "All I need is a room
Politically correct? Absolutely not! But at a time of political and social upheaval, a ghastly war, and a nation in turmoil, Martin's show was a 'safe harbor', where the tuxedo-clad host smoked on-camera, joked about his drinking, large family, and inability to read cue cards, and encouraged his viewers to "keep those cards and letters coming in". For a member of the elite 'Rat Pack', Dean Martin seemed eminently accessible, family-friendly (even at his naughtiest), and without malice towards anyone.
Despite the spontaneous 'look', there was a basic structure to "The Dean Martin Show". After the opening bars of "Everybody Loves Somebody", Martin would stumble down a flight of steps (eventually switching to sliding down a fireman's pole), and sing a bouncy pop standard, tell a few jokes, and introduce his guests. Each musical guest did a solo number, then a duet with Dean, each non-singer would chat and do a skit. At the halfway point of the show, Martin would adjourn to his 'music room', peeking into a doorway where an unscheduled guest would make a cameo...he never knew who would be behind the door, and the surprise was a show highlight. Then he'd launch himself onto Ken Lane's piano to knock off a few song parodies, then sing a romantic standard. Each program would finish with a big production number, closing with Martin thanking his guests, and the audience, with a smile.
The formula was irresistible, and Martin, who actually did knock the Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" out of Number 1 on the Pop Charts in 1964 with 'Everybody Loves Somebody", was unbelievably popular, nation-wide. Certainly, to everyone who worked with him, he was as laid-back and friendly as his on screen persona (even his ex-partner, Jerry Lewis, called him the most "gifted" performer he ever knew), and NBC, appreciating his contributions, gave him, in 1967, the most lucrative contract an entertainer had ever received from the network, to that time.
When Dean Martin's series finally faded, it was more because of the overall decline of the variety show concept than of any failure on his part; restructuring his show into a comedy 'roast', producer Greg Garrison found a new format that allowed the entertainer several more years as an NBC 'staple'.
While Martin's last years would be haunted by the tragedy of his son's untimely death (Dean Paul Martin, an Air Force pilot, would perish in an airplane crash, in 1987), for nearly two decades, Dean Martin was, undeniably, one of television's greatest stars.
At one time the most suggestive show on television, Dean's show not only commented on other variety shows (a form in decline even in the mid-sixties) but continued in spinoff form with the later 'roast' format, a homage to the Friars' Club affairs of society page legend. Dean was able to use his own singing, joking and acting in a situation that could lampoon the past, push the envelope in risk and still seem like good, semi-clean fun. Spontaneity (in short supply after the invention of videotape) was literally forced on the actors and crew by doing (consciously or not) what Jackie Gleason did or didn't do - he showed up minutes before airtime knowing the sketch but totally unrehearsed with the other players. Whatever happened, happened. When it was on the money, it was a high point in midcentury comedy.
One Take Dino is what the man was known as. I'm surprised it took him
so long to find his proper niche as host and lead performer of one of
the last and most popular variety shows ever. If Dean Martin wanted it
and was still with us today, he'd probably still have that variety show
which morphed into the roasts. He was that popular.
Martin was legendary for doing everything in one take and whether he missed the lines on the cue cards, he just kept on going and grinning. It was part of the charm of the show. But Dean wanted to get out on the links for some golf or a little serious imbibing. What was important in life.
The Dean Martin Show was one of the last television variety shows and one of the best. That format is gone now, performing nowadays just doesn't lend itself to that kind of format and that's a pity. The only time you really see it is on those telethons that Jerry Lewis, Dean's erstwhile partner is the master of. Lewis had a variety show also, but it never got the popularity of Dino's.
The best talent in the world appeared on that show. Where else could you have a variety show that would first feature Orson Welles doing a speech from Falstaff and then a trio number with Dean Martin and James Stewart? Those are priceless moments.
Back in the day Dean's equivalent would be Bing Crosby's Kraft Music Hall on radio. Bing had the first hour long variety show when Kraft Music Hall debuted in 1936. Stars from film and the legitimate stage as well as musical performers all vied to appear on Kraft. Like Dino on television, Bing was so relaxed and informal he put them all at ease and they performed some really silly skits quite charmingly.
On the liner notes to one of his albums Bing said of Dean Martin that while he had the reputation of being a relaxed and natural performer, this lasagna lover from Steubenville made him look like a Prussian drillmaster. Truer words were never written and with such affection.
When the variety show morphed into the roasts I remember the critics were savage in their condemnation. The humor was juvenile, puerile, in bad taste and terribly politically incorrect. Yet the best in show business continued to appear on them. Today DVDs and VHSs of them are big sellers.
I do miss variety shows like we had back when I was a lad. But we'd have to have people like Dean Martin to host them and perform. They're not common things we find now.
But if you want it to happen, keep those cards and letters coming in. Somewhere Dean Martin will appreciate it.
"The Dean Martin Show," which ran on NBC for nine seasons starting in
September 1965, always seemed less like a variety show than a subtle
of the format. In that sense, it was almost a forerunner of David
Letterman's show which pokes fun at the conventional TV talk show by
maintaining a slightly subversive air. Martin, of course, was legendary
his casual, spontaneous persona, and everything about his variety show
seemed casual and spontaneous, no doubt due to the star's refusal to
rehearse. It was obvious that Martin was reading most of his lines from
cards since he even made jokes about doing so. The sloppy, slightly
unprofessional atmosphere that permeated many of his movies at this time,
worked on television, making "The Dean Martin Show" one of the more
interesting variety shows of the era.
The first episode is available on videocassette in a black-and-white version. Frank Sinatra sings the title track from his Grammy winning "September of My Years" album, Joey Heatherton does a bump and grind, Diahann Carroll warbles a tune, Bob Newhart does a comedy routine, and Dino croons a few bars of "Everybody Loves Somebody" and also performs his hit, "Houston." It's a reasonably pleasant time capsule from a bygone era, and nothing more.
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