Sunday, February 14, 2010

"King of Twangy Guitar"

Television's "American Idol" is, of course, famous partly for its comically inept performances.

But in the 1950s, the fans of two talent shows on local TV were treated to some moments that were more bizarre than anything "Idol" has shown.

That's because the programs -- "Hollywood Opportunity" and "Rocket to Stardom" -- were live. And the performances they aired, no matter how weird, couldn't be edited.

Take the time an actor pulled a gun on the audience during his angry monologue on "Hollywood Opportunity" -- a rant, ironically enough, about how Hollywood wasn't giving him an opportunity to earn a living.

One of the witnesses was Stan Chambers, the commercial announcer of the KTLA-TV Channel 5 show.

Yes, that Stan Chambers, the newsman who is now in his 63rd year at KTLA.

In his memoir, "News at Ten," Chambers recalled that the audience gasped when the out-of-work thespian produced the firearm. Backstage, the reaction was no different.

"He didn't do that at the audition!" director Jack Parker shouted.

"Let's play it cool," a cameraman said as the actor waved the gun menacingly.

Someone suggested dropping the curtain, but Chambers pointed out that the actor might fire through it and hit someone in the audience.

"Or he could turn and try to hit us," a stage manager said.

Suddenly, the actor muttered, "There comes a time when you realize it is the end."

He jammed the gun into his stomach. A shot was fired. He fell and lay motionless on the stage.

After a few moments, he got to his feet, brushed himself off and exited, toy pistol in hand.

The audience responded with what Chambers called "nervous applause."

The contestant's name is lost to history, but the judges awarded him no prize that night.

In 1955, two years after "Hollywood Opportunity" went off the air, Oldsmobile dealer Bob Yeakel began broadcasting an amateur talent show from his showroom on Wilshire Boulevard.

He called it "Rocket to Stardom" because a rocket was the company symbol at the dawn of the Space Age.

The show became so popular that it ran more than 18 hours, from Saturday afternoon to Sunday afternoon. In an unusual arrangement, one half of the show appeared on KHJ-TV Channel 9, the other half on KTTV-TV Channel 11. "The talent on the show, to understate it, is not exactly good, but apparently this makes little difference, and a considerable amount of goodwill results," Billboard magazine wrote in 1956.

Goodwill could translate into good business. Yeakel estimated that 60% of his sales were related to the show, and he became the biggest Olds dealer in Southern California. He died in 1960 when his small plane crashed on the San Bernardino Freeway.

Despite what Billboard said, some of the contestants were talented. One was Duane Eddy (above), who would become a recording star known as the "King of Twangy Guitar."

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