"Comin' at Ya" was a variety series starring Ben Vereen, a dynamically talented performer who has borne more than his share of personal tragedy. As this was a summer replacement series, it was never meant to run longer than four episodes. As such, Vereen and his producers took some commendable risks, which likely would not have been taken in a programme intended for an open-ended run. Yet, despite the risk-taking and Vereen's phenomenal talent, there were some really stupid decisions made here.
Each of the four episodes had the same (bad) opening, in which Vereen beamed at the camera while an unseen announcer introduced him. Then Vereen did a grossly exaggerated double-take as the announcer conceded that perhaps we've never heard of Ben Vereen. The announcer then explained that Vereen had performed in 'Roots', 'Pippin' and 'Funny Lady'. National television audiences in 1975 were unlikely to be familiar with the Broadway musical 'Pippin' (even though it was the first Broadway musical to advertise on television, with a 60-second spot featuring Vereen), and the people who bought tickets to 'Funny Lady' were probably not there to see Vereen. As for 'Roots': Vereen is best known as a dancer, but his performance as Chicken George in 'Roots' proved his superlative talent as a dramatic actor. It's too bad that he did almost no dramatic acting in 'Comin' at Ya'. The upbeat theme song of this brief series was 'Magic to Do' by Steven Schwartz, the opening number from 'Pippin'.
Much of 'Comin' at Ya' was a bog-standard summer-replacement variety series: alternating dashes of indifferent music and bad comedy. In this case, most of the (bad) comedy was left to Vereen's supporting cast of repertory performers.
The first of these four episodes was by far the best, its highlight being Vereen's tribute to Bert Williams: this was the only time in the entire run of "Comin' at Ya" when Vereen displayed his dramatic abilities. Bert Williams (who died in 1922) was a singing comedian who starred in vaudeville and on Broadway, yet is now utterly forgotten. (Ironically, Williams - a light-skinned black man - was required to perform in blackface so that segregated audiences would know he was black!) The producers of "Comin' at Ya" were smart enough to realise that tv viewers in 1975 would have no idea who Bert Williams was, or why he was important. So, the solution was to dress up Arte Johnson as a 1920s stagehand sauntering across a stage set representing backstage at the New Amsterdam Theatre (where Williams co-starred with WC Fields and Eddie Cantor in the Ziegfeld Follies). In voice-over, Johnson reminisced about Bert Williams, mentioning WC Fields's comment about him: 'The funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew.'
This was the cue for Ben Vereen to come out onstage in an approximation of Bert Williams's stage costume, including blackface. I realise that modern audiences get very emotional about blackface, even (or especially?) when worn by an African-American performer. Speaking as a white viewer, I feel that Vereen's tribute to Williams was well-intended. He did a bit of 'darkie' material (accurately reflecting the material that Williams was required to perform) and sang Williams's famous (self-written) number 'Nobody', then joyously invited the (white) audience out for drinks ... only to break off and add mournfully 'For a moment there, I forgot my place.' Vereen's turn as Williams offended a lot of people, probably because it forced them to *think* about racism. A few years later, Ben Vereen performed this same Williams tribute at President Reagan's inaugural ball ... and, again, people made an easy accusation of racism without stopping to *think* about the content of Vereen's performance.
"Comin' at Ya" wisely featured Vereen in many dance numbers, backed by a trio of female dancers: two black and one white. As Vereen wanted audiences to know that he was a classically-trained dancer, each of the four episodes ended with Vereen singing a soulful ballad. During the last bars of his song, the white dancer entered behind him, and the two then performed an erotic pas de deux. Vereen's (unbilled) dance partner in these ballet numbers was an extremely attractive blonde, and their balletic couplings were sexually charged. I'm absolutely astounded that an American tv network in 1975 would dare show a black man and a blonde woman dancing together so sensually. As I say, this series was only scheduled to run for four episodes, so perhaps the producers felt more courageous than would have been the case with an open-ended programme.
Despite Vereen's phenomenal talent, there were some longueurs in this brief series, mostly in the very bad comedy skits. It would be nice to have a 90-minute compilation video of all the best bits from these four episodes, including all of Vereen's dance numbers. And I wish I knew the name of that very sexy blonde ballerina.
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