||THE DEAN MARTIN SHOW
US entertainment icon in his own variety series.
1965 - 1973
When the comic team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis broke up for good in 1956 after nearly ten years of success in nightclubs, television and film, most believed Lewis would be the star attraction, while Martin would fade into obscurity.
At first, that seemed to be the case, as Jerry Lewis went from one triumph to another in the late 50's and early 60's with various film projects such as “The Errand Boy” and “Cinderfella”. By contrast, Dean Martin’s first post-breakup film, a slight comedy called “10,000 Bedrooms,” nearly destroyed his career. But Martin’s fortunes changed with his well-received role in the 1958 Marlon Brando drama “The Young Lions,” leading to other film roles and a series of successful television appearances.
His Las Vegas shows with buddies Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Junior in Las Vegas–the famed “Rat Pack”–was the stuff of legend. He also found renewed success on records; his 1964 up-tempo ballad “Everybody Loves Somebody,” did what few other American artists could do at the time–it knocked The Beatles (“A Hard Days Night”) off the number one spot on the singles charts!
By 1965, NBC–which was heavily into musical variety as part of its lineup–expressed interest in a show built around the laid-back Italian crooner. Martin wanted no part of it; to ensure its rejection, he demanded a large amount of money, wanted all the rerun rights, and said he would work just one day a week for rehearsals and tapings! Much to his surprise, NBC said yes to all his demands. Martin admitted the network “should have thrown (his demands) in my face, but they agreed to it all. So what the hell, I had to show up!”
With veteran producer Greg Garrison at the helm (he produced Kate Smith’s and Milton Berle’s variety series), “The Dean Martin Show”--in living color, complete with the requisite NBC peacock--made its debut on September 16th, 1965. Pianist Ken Lane was his only regular, the series was initially just Dean hosting and singing, while big-name acts filled the hour. After a strong start, viewers turned away, possibly disappointed because there was not enough Dean. Garrison brought in musical director Lee Hale to help revise the format. Hale complied by paring down the number of guests and making Dean more comfortable with the show. Though he would only do a dress rehearsal before the final taping Sunday nights, Hale and Garrison’s teaming of just the right guest stars and songs or skits allowed the crooner to relax more; his persona of a boozing, womanizing playboy was just right for the swinging 1960's. The ever-present “drink” in Dean’s hand on the show was usually apple juice. To those who thought Martin was on the sauce when the cameras rolled, he had this response:
"How could a drunk get up at six o'clock in the morning, play nine holes of golf and then spend the rest of the day working on a show he's never even seen before, with music cues, tricky arrangements and all the rest of it?".
Viewers liked the relaxed, spontaneous Dean. And they responded; ratings started to go up. By its second season, “The Dean Martin Show” landed in television’s top 20 and remained a top ten attraction for the rest of the decade. Much of the reason was Dean himself. At a time when many young people talked about “free love” and an new, open sexuality, Dean was comfortably at ease with himself, treating women as sex objects and making relatively clean jokes about certain parts of their anatomy. For a large portion of the American population with more traditional views of sex and the role of the sexes, “The Dean Martin Show” was a familiar oasis in a fast-changing world.
In keeping with the tenor of the girl-watching 1960's, the show introduced a group of attractive gals in its third season. “The Golddiggers” were twelve women put together by Garrison and Hale to banter and sing with Dean; they also appeared on summer replacement shows for Martin between 1968 and 1970, and a short-lived syndicated program in 1971. By the fall of 1970, four of the best “Golddiggers” were spun off as “The Ding-a-Ling Sisters,” who replaced “The Golddiggers” on the Martin show and stayed through 1973.
Also in the fall of 1970, a regular stable of comics gave Dean and his guests a lift in skit after skit. Charles Nelson Reilly, Tom Bosley, Dom DeLuise, Nipsey Russell and Rodney Dangerfield were among the regulars.
During the summer months, the show was replaced by musical variety shows featuring newer talent. In the summer of 1966, a pair of comics named Dan Rowan and Dick Martin took over “Dean Martin’s”slot; they eventually became hosts of the extremely popular “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In”. Singer Vic Damone had his own summer series in 1967. As noted above, “The Golddiggers” were Dean’s summer replacements from 1968 through 1970; the 1970 “Golddiggers In London” introduced up-and-coming comic Marty Feldman to American audiences.
In 1971, repeats of the Vic Damone summer series were used. Singer Bobby Darin was Dean’s replacement in 1972; it led to his own series a year later which ended just before Darin’s untimely death. For the summer of 1973, the focus was on country music with “Dean Martin Presents Music Country”.
Between 1970 and 1973, as the women’s liberation movement took hold, feminists took aim at Dean Martin’s treatment of the ladies. Producers responded by toning down Dean’s more sexist attitudes, but viewers began to turn away. (He may have been sexist, but he was simply Dean, and that’s what audiences wanted.)
For the fall of 1973, NBC moved Dean Martin from Thursday to Friday nights and its format changed. So did the title: “The Dean Martin Comedy Hour” put the emphasis on skits, sprinkled with a “country music” segment and a new feature that “roasted” celebrities with famous names providing the zingers. The roasts were so popular, NBC decided to scrap the weekly Martin series and launch “The Dean Martin Roasts” as occasional specials starting in 1974. Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball–even then-California Governor Ronald Reagan were the good natured subjects of these “tributes”, with many of them taking place at the old MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.
The specials ran on the network through 1984, while Martin continued to act and record. But friends say Martin never recovered emotionally from the tragic 1987 death of his actor son Dean Paul in a plane crash. Dean took part in a concert reunion tour with fellow “Rat Packers” Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Junior the following year, but pulled out in 1989 due to ill health. By the early 1990's, he was living a quiet retirement; he died of acute respiratory failure on Christmas Day, 1995.
Dean Martin was one of the last of a breed, with success in just about any field of entertainment you could name. He was the swinging uncle who was always the life of the party, and asked for little in return. “The Dean Martin Show”–which is available in DVD form–was pure, unadulterated Dean. Just the way his fans liked him.
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