Book Review by Bob Boden
The task of assembling most of the living titans of variety television to share their experience, anecdotes, memories, and predictions is monumental at best, but thanks to the tireless research and in-depth interviews of the authors, FADE UP: “26” THE MOVERS AND SHAKERS OF VARIETY TELEVISION, by Steve Binder and Mary Beth Leidman, is a brisk and entertaining read that triggers many memories and insights for producers in all genres.
As a television genre, variety dates back to the earliest transitions from radio, and has endured through the decades, though inconsistently. This book takes you from the pioneer days of Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen through the eras of weekly series starring Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Andy Williams, Perry Como and Carol Burnett, as well as paying homage to the specials headlined by the likes of Bob Hope, Mitzi Gaynor, Bette Midler, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand.
The modern era of variety, dominated by Saturday Night Live, America’s Funniest Home Videos, The Kennedy Center Honors, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, numerous late night talk shows and the legacy awards shows, also comes alive in vivid detail, as told by those who made it and witnessed it first-hand.
Stories of the groundbreaking and controversial turning points of the genre, including The Smothers Brothers, The T.A.M.I. Show, The Elvis Presley Comeback Special, Laugh-In and The Petula Clark/Harry Belafonte Special are peppered through the candid (and sometimes rambling) recollections of the producers and directors who were there, including Ellen Brown, Ken Ehrlich, Spike Jones, Jr., Nigel Lythgoe, Lorne Michaels, Don Mischer, George Schlatter, and most notably, co-author Steve Binder, whose contributions to variety TV are truly impressive.
This esteemed roster has collectively won almost 100 Emmy® Awards; they laid the foundation for one of the cornerstones of classic and contemporary television. Sadly missing from this vibrant exposé is the late Dwight Hemion, former directorial partner of Gary Smith, whose spectacular talent and style were honored by numerous contributors to this book.
Courtesy of this veritable “Who’s Who?” of variety television, one fascinating story follows another in this comprehensive tribute to an art form sometimes labeled irrelevant in today’s television landscape. Significant attention is paid to reality-competition shows that feature musical performances, which have in many ways inherited the elements and popularity from their ancestors, the traditional variety shows of days gone by.
Most recently (and perhaps ironically), there has been a recent resurgence of interest in resurrecting the classic variety form, with mixed results. But variety, in whatever form it takes, is here to stay, and will continue to evolve in the multi-platform universe. Thanks to these visionary men and women who helped lay the groundwork, there is much to review and emulate.
FADE UP is a thoroughly enjoyable trip down memory lane for all fans of the genre, and a tremendously valuable master class for those who want to learn about how the business evolved. If I were forced to find a negative about this fascinating book, it would be the lament of an audience member at an awards show who is enthralled by an emotional acceptance speech, only to hear that person played off the stage. I wish there was more to share.
- You can purchase Fade Up at Amazon or Kendall Hunt Publishing