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Leslie Uggams first attracted major attention on the 'Sing Along with Mitch'
show, where she stood out by virtue of being a young black woman surrounded
by several dozen middle-aged white men (chorus singers led by Mitch Miller,
who conducted as if he was scratching himself). What really made Leslie
Uggams a standout were her talent and vivacity, and she was soon a
headliner. During a recent visit to New York City, I saw the Broadway
musical 'Thoroughly Modern Millie', starring Uggams in the role played by
Carol Channing in the film version. Uggams does much better in this role
than Channing did; she's still a live-wire talent!
Leslie Uggams's variety show began and ended with Uggams singing her theme song: 'Put a Little Love in Your Heart'. In between were comedy skits and production numbers, the latter arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle with his usual brillliance. Uggams was aided by lanky comic Dennis Allen; one of the few comedians of his era who could do competent pratfalls.
A running feature of 'The Leslie Uggams Show' was 'Sugar Hill', depicting the travails of a family in a black working-class neighbourhood. Uggams played the wife, with Lincoln Kilpatrick as her husband and Lillian Hayman as her meddling mother. Johnny Brown was absolutely hilarious as Uggams's brother-in-law. I laughed helplessly at a daring gag in which Uggams explains to her sister (Allison Mills) the reason why black people should never make a phone call to "the PO-leece".
In 1969, it was still a novelty for an African-American to headline a variety show. Much of the material in this series emphasised Uggams's racial roots, such as a musical number in which she listened to two proto-rappers exchanging rhyming insults ("That don't rhyme, Frankenstein!" "Yes it do, Fu Manchu!"), leading Uggams to cut in with "Drop it there, Smoky Bear!". In another episode, the guest stars were Kaye Ballard and political impressionist David Frye. Imitating former vice president Hubert H. Humphrey, Frye introduced himself as "HHH", prompting Uggams to warn him that he'd better not introduce Kaye Ballard as "KKK". Ouch!
The weirdest episode of 'The Leslie Uggams Show' was the episode guest-starring half the cast of "Hogan's Heroes". This began with a prologue, featuring Bob Crane, Robert Clary, and Larry Hovis in character as the POWs from Stalag 13, planning an escape so they can guest-star on the Leslie Uggams Show (huh?). The escape is interrupted when Werner Klemperer and John Banner show up, in character as Nazi soldiers. Then they all perform for Uggams ... but their acts are very weird. Werner Klemperer, neglecting to mention that his father was a famous orchestra conductor, conducts an invisible choir who sing the name 'Werner Klemperer' over and over to the tune of Handel's 'Hallelujah' chorus. John Banner plays an invisible violin, then he sits on it. Robert Clary (a real-life concentration-camp prisoner) dances a hornpipe. Larry Hovis comes off best, performing a sketch in which he provides translations for a quarrelling French couple.
Despite this one strange episode, 'The Leslie Uggams Show' was a consistently entertaining variety programme, starring a dynamic and appealing performer.
Leslie Uggams was one of the finest young entertainers of her era and she deserved to have a great variety series. Unfortunately, this show was pretty much a stop gap after the powers that be at C.B.S. canceled the controversial "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" due to its content. Ms. Uggams was immediately thrown up as a sacrificial lamb and this almost ruined her career. I feel that one of the things that made it so short lived was the fact that it was seen as a stop gap measure to counteract the Smothers Brother's controversy. This show wasn't as controversial and didn't have the cutting edge satire that the Smothers were noted for. Too bad though, this seemed like a pretty interesting show and if it hadn't been for the circumstances that helped get this show on the on the air, I think it would have succeeded, especially due to the fact that Ms. Uggams was so talented. Luckily for her, her appearance on Roots helped to return her to some of the prominence she had before this show hit the air.
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