We bid a fond farewell to a genuine television pioneer this week—his name might not be instantly familiar, but some of the people whose shows he worked on certainly are. Bob Banner was a young production assistant at Chicago’s WMAQ-TV, working on the children’s classic Kukla, Fran & Ollie and being fortuitous enough to work at a time when advancement came quickly in the new medium he became director of the station’s Garroway at Large, a show that soon went national over NBC (Banner would later produce Garroway’s self-titled primetime program in 1953). As both a producer and director during the Golden Age of Television, Banner would work for the likes of Fred Waring and Dinah Shore—he would win an Emmy as director of Dinah’s primetime variety hour, and the story goes that he came up with the idea for Dinah’s famous “MWAH!” signoff.
In 1958, having also worked on such prestigious programs as Producers’ Showcase and Omnibus, Banner formed his own production company (Bob Banner Associates) and took over the chores on the popular Garry Moore Show, a comedy-variety hour that would entertain audiences on CBS for six seasons, and featured regulars such as Durwood Kirby, Marion “Aunt Clara” Lorne and Carol Burnett—whom Banner hired one week to replace an ailing Martha Raye and liked her work so much she became a mainstay. He later went to work for Burnett—who affectionately called him “Bubba”—as the executive producer of her popular Saturday night TV series from 1967 to 1972. (He was the individual who suggested that Carol make a habit of answering questions from the audiences at the beginning of each telecast, a gimmick that endeared the comedienne to both the studio and home audiences.)
Among the series Banner had a hand in—directing, producing and writing—are Candid Camera, The Jimmy Dean Show, Thicker Than Water, Solid Gold, Star Search (which he created), and Showtime at the Apollo. Banner also produced several notable theatrical and TV movies including Warning Shot (1967), My Sweet Charlie (1970), Journey from Darkness (1975), and Bud and Lou (1978). Banner left this world for a better on June 15 at the age of 89.
One of the most important lessons I learned at a karaoke bar was that I would need an ocean of calamine lotion the minute that I started to mess around with…well, you’re probably familiar with that golden oldie. And the man who imparted those words of wisdom also departed for that great Oldies Reunion in the Sky this week—Carl Gardner, the lead vocalist and founding member of the immortal R&B band the Coasters. Texas native Gardner was a member of the doo-wop group the Robins (Smokey Joe’s Café, Riot in Cell Block #9) when, along with fellow Robin Bobby Nunn and singers Billy Guy and Leon Hughes, he formed the group known to one and all as “The Clown Princes of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Their catalog of hits (many penned by the team of Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller) are remembered by legions of oldies fans and include Young Blood, Searchin’, Charlie Brown, Poison Ivy, Along Came Jones, and the tune that hit the top spot in 1958, Yakety Yak. Most of these great songs I came to love and know by heart because they would always be featured on LPs of novelty recordings…and I wasn’t kidding about the karaoke joke at the beginning of this; Poison Ivy was one of the songs I used to love to do (along with Needles and Pins and Who’s Making Love). You will most certainly be missed, Carl, when I’m spinning those classic Coasters hits on my desktop; Gardner passed away on June 12 at the age of 83.
My love of novelty songs as a kid led me to discovering the legendary radio show of Dr. Demento (aka Barry Hansen)…and as a devoted listener, sooner or later you would make the acquaintance of Larry “Wild Man” Fischer, an itinerant vagabond street musician whose bouts of manic depression and schizophrenia inspired such musical morsels as Merry-Go-Round, My Name is Larry, and the Yuletide classic I’m a Christmas Tree. Fischer, who got his “Wild Man” nickname from R&B legend Solomon Burke, was most assuredly an acquired taste but attracted the attention of the avant-garde musician Frank Zappa, who produced the two-album An Evening with Wild Man Fischer in 1968. Fischer’s later albums were released by Rhino Records—two of which were produced by Barnes & Barnes (Fish Heads). According to documentary filmmaker Jeremy Lubin, Fischer’s family persuaded Larry to get back on his medication in 2004, the effect being that his trademark nursery-rhyme verse and accompanying yelps and vocal sound effects were lost in the bargain. Fischer died of heart failure on June 16 at the age of 68.
The obituary notices of trailblazing Hollywood motion picture and television producer Laura Ziskin—who succumbed to cancer on June 12 at the age of 61—credit her with not only being the major force in getting the 2002 film Spider-Man to the screen (not to mention the two sequels and the 2012 reboot) but according to the Los Angeles Times “paved the way for the superhero fare now standard during the summer filmgoing season.” And since she also produced 1990’s Pretty Woman…well, if I were in charge of admissions in the afterlife there would have to be a thorough review via a board of inquiry. But she also has films like Murphy’s Romance, Everybody’s All-American, and The Doctor on that resume, and was nominated twice for Emmys for her work on the Academy Awards telecast so maybe this would all balance out in the ledger. Regardless of how you feel about this (let’s face it—that Pretty Woman entry is bothering the crap out of me), we have suffered the loss of an amazing and talented woman.
And the man who assisted legendary director Ingmar Bergman in allowing audiences to watch a riveting chess match between a faithless knight and Death in The Seventh Seal (1957) has also taken his final bow at the curtain, having passed away on June 11 at the century mark. Gunnar Fischer—who, despite rampant and irresponsible* Internet rumors, is not related to Larry “Wild Man” Fischer—served as the cinematographer on many of Bergman’s classic feature films: Summer Interlude, Summer with Monika, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Magician, and possibly my favorite of Bergman’s oeuvre, Wild Strawberries. Fischer’s famous sequence of the chess match in Seventh Seal drew some ire from critics because it wasn’t entirely realistic-looking and the way it was shot it looked as if there were two suns in the sky. Fischer retorted: “If you can accept the fact that there is a knight sitting on a beach playing chess with Death, you should be able to accept that the sky has two suns.”
Among the others on the celebrity roster that have bid us farewell:
Robert Velaise (March 5, 96) – Motion picture producer of such films as The Wrong Arm of the Law and The Go Between; the death date is according to the IMDb but the obituary in the The Independent is dated June 7…and calls him “flamboyant” in the headline, so they must know something we don’t
Robert Foster (May 30, 72) – Motion picture director-writer-producer who worked on such TV series as Run for Your Life, Hawaii Five-O, The Mod Squad, Nichols, and Knight Rider and vehicles the TV reunion movie The New Maverick and the theatrical film Dead Bang
Rudy Williams (May 31, 70) – Memphis trumpeter and musician fondly known as “The Mayor of Beale Street” (the date of death is when Williams’ body was found—he had been missing since May 22)
Frankie Toler (June 4, 59) – Rock ‘n’ roll drummer/musician who was a member of Southern rock mainstays such as The Allman Brothers Band and The Marshall Tucker Band
Fred Baker (June 5, 78) – Jazz musician whose friendship with comedian Lenny Bruce started him off on a second career in underground filmmaking directing and producing the documentary Lenny Bruce Without Tears; also served as an executive producer (though without credit) on such cult classics as The Battle of Algiers, The Murder of Fred Hampton, and Eraserhead
Mildred Wolf (June 5, 101) – One of the last surviving movie accompanists from the silent film era whose son Charles Bernstein is also a prolific film and TV composer (Love at First Bite, Cujo, Inglorious Basterds)
J. Harold Lane (June 6, 82) – Southern gospel singer-songwriter and arranger who performed with such acts as the Gospel Harmony Boys and the Speer Family Quartet
Jeanne Bice (June 10, 71) – Minor home shopping doyenne and Martha Stewart pretender best known for hawking her Quacker Factory products on QVC
Alan Haberman (June 12, 81) – American business executive who, while not inventing the UPC bar code, lobbied extensively for its adoption and played a significant role in allowing your groceries to be scanned with the greatest of ease
Wiley Laverne “Mack” Self (June 14, 81) – Rockabilly singer-songwriter whose stint at Sun Records in the 1950s yielded no big hits but allowed him to work alongside such producers as Jack Clement and Chips Moman
Mae Wheeler (June 15, 77) – St. Louis-based jazz/blues vocalist known to admirers as “Lady Jazz”
*I may have exaggerated this.