Saturday, August 12, 2006

Mike Douglas, RIP

A true gentleman died yesterday. Mike Douglas, whose legendary TV show started when KYW was Channel 3 in Cleveland, always made me laugh. I would often watch the first 20-30 minutes when I was home for lunch from elementary school, since it was on live 12:30-2:00 on weekdays. I missed my daily dose of Mike when the station and the show moved to Philadelphia in 1965, and moved its timeslot as well.

From the Plain Dealer:
Daytime talk show pioneer Mike Douglas, who got his start in Cleveland, died Friday at a hospital in North Palm Beach, Fla. He was 81.

The “Mike Douglas Show” aired every weekday for two decades, bringing a mix of talk, entertainment and information to millions of American households. During more than 4,000 shows, Douglas used his easy charm and self-effacing manner to bring out the best in actors, comedians, musicians scientists, athletes, authors and politicians — including seven presidents — as well as delight his wide audience.

For an entertainer, success came late in life for Douglas. Before landing the “Mike Douglas Show” at age 36, the singer worked with big bands and in nightclubs. He performed on radio and in a series of television shows. And he was the singing voice of the prince in Walt Disney’s animated “Cinderella.”

He had two hit songs when he was singing with Kay Kayser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge, “The Old Lamplighter” and “Ole Buttermilk Sky.

In 1960, KYW television producer Woody Fraser had an idea for a live talk and entertainment show. All he needed was the right host. He remembered Douglas from a short-lived Chicago television show on WGN called “Hi Ladies.” The Cleveland station was getting killed in the ratings by “The One O’Clock Club,” which starred local broadcast legend Dorothy Fuldheim and radio personality Bill Gordon.

Douglas was on the West Coast working nightclubs when he got the call from Fraser. At the time, Douglas was considering getting out of show business and into real estate. He flew to Cleveland to tape a pilot show for the Group W Westinghouse station. Several more auditions followed. “The Mike Douglas Show” began airing Dec. 11, 1961. The first show featured a banjo-playing priest as a guest. Douglas was paid $400 a week.

Within months the show was No. 1 in its time slot and airing in several major markets. A year later the show was syndicated. In two years the 90-minute show was No. 1 in daytime ratings all across the country. Douglas never looked back. For the next 20 years everybody who was anybody appeared on his show.

In every field of endeavor Douglas interviewed the giants. In comedy it was Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason and Bill Cosby. In dance it was Rudolf Nureyev, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. In jazz it was Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. Female vocalists Pearl Bailey, Barbara Streisand and Aretha Franklin all shared an afternoon or more with Douglas. So did actors Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro.
From the Courier-Post (Gannett News Service):

For decades, much of America whiled away its afternoons with Mike Douglas.

Douglas, who passed away Friday morning on his 81st birthday, ruled afternoon TV for 21 years as the singing host of "The Mike Douglas Show."

Airing in syndication from 1961 to 1982 and topping the daytime ratings for many of those seasons, the 90-minute show offered a non-taxing combination of music and talk, held together by the blue-eyed host's ready smile and almost unfailing amiability.

Douglas' show, which began in Cleveland and ended in Los Angeles, became a victim of changing tastes and syndicator Group W's belief that they could do better with a younger host. (John Davidson, and they were wrong.) For the bulk of its run, however, Douglas came to us from Philadelphia -- and that 13-year stretch from 1965 to 1978 is the show most people remember.

A former singer with Kay Kyser, Douglas would croon to his largely female audience in his light, pop style. (He provided the singing voice for Prince Charming in Disney's cartoon classic "Cinderella.") He would chat with his guests and encourage them to perform if appropriate -- famously getting Judy Garland to sing "Over the Rainbow" at one of the points in her life when she was reluctant to do so.

That was part of Douglas' appeal -- you didn't want to say no to him. The show traded on his geniality, and it was a rare afternoon when controversy or confrontation ruled the day. Douglas came across as one of TV's nicest guys, and his efforts to make guests comfortable were usually rewarded.

Not that Douglas did it alone. One of the show's signatures was Douglas' use of co-hosts who would sit by his side for the entire week and help question the other guests. Most memorably and least typically, perhaps, was the week in 1972 when John Lennon and Yoko Ono filled the role, helping the studiously non-hip Douglas connect to such guests as George Carlin and Jerry Rubin.

But then, pretty much everyone who was anyone in show business or politics showed up on the show, joining an eclectic roster that included Bill Cosby, Red Skelton, Marlon Brando, Malcolm X, Prince, Richard Nixon, Rose Kennedy, Mother Teresa, Mick Jagger, Ray Charles and Zsa Zsa Gabor (whose off-color insult to Morey Amsterdam in 1965 made the show switch from live broadcast to tape).