Thursday, July 19, 2012

Saturtainment: Sha Na Na (1977)

In the 70's, it seemed like everyone and his brother was getting a variety show. Today, they're getting talk shows, but it's pretty much the same.

Sha Na Na, a 10-man ensemble, had their first big break at Woodstock in 1969, then made the rounds of guest appearances on other variety shows, appearing with Flip Wilson and Andy Williams, among others. In 1977, Pierre Cossette, better known for having produced a myriad of awards shows, such as the Oscars & Emmys, decided to take a chance on producing a weekly series. The end result was Sha Na Na getting 4 years worth of fun with a weekly comedy-variety show that rode the tidal wave of nostalgia that started with George Lucas' "American Graffitti", and continued with Happy Days & Laverne & Shirley.

Everyone has their favorites among the band members, and a large number of posters on YouTube favor Johnny Contardo, who covered the Reflections' "(Just Like) Romeo & Juliet", The Tymes' "So Much in Love", and the Platters' "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes", just to name a few. However, it was Bowzer (Jon Bauman) who was being posited as the star of the show. He opened most episodes, and closed them all with his signature tag line, "Grease for peace". After the series, Bauman shed the grease and tried his hand at being a game show host, after having appeared in character on Match Game, Password Plus, and Celebrity Charades, among others. However, both of his game shows, The Pop 'N' Rocker Game & The Match Game-Hollywood Squares Hour, which launched within weeks of each other in 1983, were cancelled in a year's time. From there, Bauman signed on with VH1 as one of their first on-air talents, and began doing voice work at Hanna-Barbera on a few projects. These days, he's gone back to the grease and his Bowzer persona, but the years have not been kind, as a recent Time-Life informercial reveals. Once skinny as a rail, Bauman has packed on the pounds since leaving VH1.

Saxophonist Lennie Baker made a guest appearance on the 1979 revival of Make Me Laugh, but my memory is hazy on whether or not any of the others got to spin off on their own during the series' run. Their only other movie appearance, aside from the "Woodstock" feature film, was in 1978's "Grease", in which they appeared as Johnny Casino & the Gamblers. Subsequently, the band, with Contardo on vocals, covered the theme from "Grease" during season 2.

Not every classic oldie was done straight. In some cases, songs were used to build some comedy sketches, such as the one in the video following shortly. To help the boys have an understanding of television comedy, veterans Avery Schreiber (ex-My Mother The Car) and Soupy Sales were part of the repertory company. Schreiber, who had his own series with long-time partner Jack Burns and had been a Saturday morning foil for the Harlem Globetrotters, left after 1 season, presumably replaced by Sales, who stuck around until the series' end. Announcer Pamela Myers also appeared in front of the camera as Ginger, the femme fatale foil/love interest for the boys. There were a couple of occasions where she was also called on to sing, and covered Lesley Gore's "It's My Party", then teamed with Contardo to do "Hey, Paula", proving she was more than an equal to the guys. A vastly overlooked talent.

Sha Na Na, while airing during the week on local television, also aired on weekends on the NBC affiliate in Utica, WKTV, which is why it's included here in the Archives. Foofsmom, one of the devoted fans I referenced earlier, uploaded this skit, in which the guys toss in some bad gags to pad out the Hollywood Argyles' "Alley Oop".

A slightly smaller version of the ensemble still tours today, but with only two of the classic lineup, Screaming Scott Simon and Jocko Marcellino, still on the road.

Rating: B.


magicdog said...

I remember Sha Na Na fondly. Although the songs were generally sung by people other than the original artists, it was still entertaining.

I remember Jon Bauer (Bowser) VERY well! I didn't mind seeing him hosting Hollywood squares and I was a bit bummed when that version of the show ended.

I do remember some original artists were brought onto the show to sing - usually they were forced to sing under protest or were tricked into coming!

hobbyfan said...

There's one clip floating out there with Gary US Bonds who had managed to free himself, so it appeared he'd been abducted off-camera before the show in order to get him on.

The music was the hook, and in some cases, the covers often were a little better than the originals in that you actually could get a better handle on the lyrics that you couldn't comprehend originally (i.e. Donny York singing lead on Dion's "Runaround Sue").

It's a pity that it ain't airing anywhere at present.