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Looking into the box

A cabaret show at TBPAC gives the X-Team a fast-paced, amusing look at television's past.

By NATALIE BINDER, ALEX ZIMMET, ALLY SIKORA, JOSHUA A. BELLIS, LAURA KRANTZ, NICK LINGUANTI, SARAH WHEATON and VINCENT VALENTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 5, 2001


How many times have you heard adults rant: "KIDS TODAY WATCH TOO MUCH TV!"?

Well, admit it. Many of you do watch a lot of TV.

So, who better to judge some of television's classic moments than kids?

That's why we sent the X-Team to see TeleVisions, A Tribute to the Golden Age of Television! -- a cabaret musical by the Center Theater Company at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's Jaeb Theater. It runs through April 14.

Even though many of the television programs and commercials depicted on stage aired long before the X-Team ever started reaching for the remote control, these television experts offer interesting insight about the performance, television's beginnings and the theme songs that stick in our heads long after the shows have marched into history. And now, a few words from our sponsors, er, X-Team writers:

The drama of it all

So, what is it that makes "the box they buried vaudeville in" such an attractive subject for this delightful stage performance?

Perhaps it is the idea that television has touched, or at least, idealized, every facet of our lives. Even before television became a medium for communicating the news, television illustrated the tensions between men and women, black and white, young and old in a format we could all understand -- entertainment.

The dramatic format of TeleVisions brings TV, and its history, out of the box and into human perspective. As several of the actors emphasized in a press conference after the show, drama makes a "magical connection," with people. Though you may be able to see Egypt on the tube, you can be in Egypt when it's on the stage. A younger audience may not remember I Love Lucy or hum the jingle from a Mr. Clean commercial, but they almost can say they were there with TeleVisions.

The cabaret's charm may also lie in the parallels it draws between TV and drama. We are quickly turned into a live studio audience, complete with APPLAUSE and LAUGHTER signs. The variety of media used to create TeleVisions -- from frozen frames projected onto a pair of "televisions" to an actual, live recording of the audience and show, displayed on TVs offstage but visible -- shows just how much vaudeville affected TV.

So, how will TeleVisions affect you? Well, that's something you'll have to see for yourself. As for me . . . I think it's time for a commercial break.

Click.

-- Natalie Binder, 15, is a sophomore at Tarpon Springs High School.

Uncle Miltie?

With the theater audience taking the place of a live TV studio audience, TeleVisions was like time travel through the history of television and its theme songs. The narrator, who doubled as the show's announcer, asked questions, expecting audience members to respond.

What show made the line "the devil made me do it" famous? Which company sponsored the Milton Berle show? Since I wasn't around for any of these shows, I had to rely on my mom for the answers.

One thing I learned was that commercials used to be more a part of the actual show instead of separate, the way they are now. How many of you remember the Texaco men introducing Uncle Miltie? The older members of the audience seemed to recognize a lot of the shows and their trademark lines and theme songs, such as The Honeymooners ("To the moon, Alice!"), The Jeffersons ("Hey, we're moving on up") and The Smothers Brothers ("Mom always liked you best"). They showcased Solid Gold and Sonny and Cher, which got a huge audience reaction, especially Kissy Vaughan's Cher. But I stared clueless at the stage. It wasn't until Act II when they sang songs from Scooby Doo, The Flintstones and The Brady Bunch that I finally started to relate.

So why would someone my age go and see TeleVisions (unless his editor assigned him to)?

You'll see how shows and commercials have changed over the years. You'll find out about the great game show scandal of early television. Would Regis ever be caught in such a thing?

It's good to know this history; after all, think about how much television is a part of your life.

-- Alex Zimmet, 10, is in the fourth grade at Cypress Woods Elementary School, Palm Harbor.

A poopular show

I've always pictured theaters as large and crowded places with never-ending rows of seats. The Jaeb Theater is a small place, where you sit at tables and feel very close and involved with the play and the actors.

One of my favorite parts of TeleVisions is the I Love Lucy act. Lucy, portrayed by Laura Anne Hodos, is practicing for a commercial for a supposed health tonic, "Vitameatavegamin." Unknown to Lucy, the tonic is loaded with alcohol and Lucy, who can never do something half-way, drinks way too much while rehearsing. When it is time to do the actual commercial, Lucy asks her audience, "Do you pop out at parties? Are you unpoopular? Wellllllll, the answer to your problem is in this little bottle!"

Although the shows portrayed in TeleVisions were made during the 1950s through 1980, I could still relate to them because I've watched many on television. TeleVisions taught me a lot about TV's history and along the way even gave me a few laughs!

-- Ally Sikora, 10, is in the fifth grade at Tarpon Springs Fundamental Elementary School.

2.5 TVs and counting

How much is TV a part of Americans' lives? Researchers say that by the time you turn 65, you have spent eight years watching television.

It is estimated that each American household has an average of 2.5 televisions. That figure seems a bit low, as we have 6 in our home and one in our van! Not to mention the battery-operated one that accompanies us on camping trips and family outings.

Television is the collaboration of imagination and ideas, fiction and non-fiction, all squeezed through a little wire connected to a box in your house that can stir your emotions in a heartbeat. The production TeleVisions, written and directed by Claude McNeal (artistic director and founder of the American Cabaret Theatre, based in Indianapolis), breathes life into these two-dimensional situations and characters in a rib-splitting musical comedy.

-- Joshua A. Bellis, 15, is a freshman at Venice High School.

A good time was had by all

The show was fun for me for two reasons. I really did like the fact that I got to watch parts of TV shows that I have heard about but have never seen. What I liked the best, though, was just sitting back and watching talented people who so obviously enjoyed performing for an audience. A show is really worth remembering if the performers look as if they're having a good time, and the ones in this show did that.

-- Laura Krantz, 13, is in the seventh grade in home school in Tampa.

We still love Lucy

The older programs in TeleVisions showed an innocence that really seems lost today. My favorite was the I Love Lucy segment -- that was hilarious! I have been able to catch reruns of this show on Nick at Night on Nickelodeon. Comedy routines today just can't compare with the high jinks of Lucille Ball! The audience seemed to love this part as well. Other parts worth noting were the segments on quiz shows.

While getting a snack at intermission, I heard a woman remarking how many memories this musical brought back for her.

-- Nick Linguanti, 13, is in the eighth grade at Southside Fundamental Middle School, St. Petersburg.

Not all was 'Golden'

I must confess that any negative attitudes I harbor toward TeleVisions are likely rooted in my weariness with the sentiment that the previous generations' culture is inherently superior to mine. However, this multimedia cabaret show, which traced the history of the tube in its early days, provided plenty of the good-natured fun its subject is known for.

Songs and skits from a variety of shows, including the Milton Berle Show, the Ed Sullivan Show and even Saturday Night Live, offered nostalgia fodder for almost all ages. Although all performances were solid, Kissy Vaughan stole the show with her strong, soulful voice. Highlights included her rendition of Midnight Special and her stint as Cher during a duet of I Got You, Babe. The audience easily could ignore the fact that Vaughan, who is African-American, looked nothing like Cher, because her tone and delivery were so similar.

Quentin Darrington, the other African-American in the seven-member cast, also played a white character, Buffalo Bob Smith, host of the popular children's program The Howdy Doody Show. Certainly there was nothing wrong with their performances, but it was disappointing that black actors had to take white roles in order to appear in the first part of the musical. Granted, cabaret shows are supposed to be light-hearted, but it seemed that an opportunity was missed to decry the inequities of early television, to criticize either the stereotypical or completely nonexistent portrayals of minorities during the early decades of the "Golden Age."

TV during this period was marked by a generally wholesome quality, common examples being that married couples slept in separate beds and the Mary Tyler Moore Show was considered controversial at the time because Moore's character was divorced. But of course, few families ever had that Leave It to Beaver perfection. Television glossed over some of the realities of life. Similarly, TeleVisions glossed over some of the realities of show business during the Golden Age."

Again paralleling its subject matter, however, TeleVisions definitely does not need to make a profound statement to offer family-friendly entertainment.

-- Sarah Wheaton, 17, is a junior at Palm Harbor University High School.

Applause, applause

"Applause" and "Laughter." That's what the signs said above the stage, just the way they do in a television studio, to direct a live audience. There's a giant Sony television stage right and, stage left, a giant Zenith television. These TVs projected actual clips from the programs being acted out on stage, as well as other historical footage.

Even though this musical was based on television events before my time (and some a little before my mom's, too), I did recognize some shows because they're being aired again on Nickelodeon or because they are still popular today.

I enjoyed the show, because it is neat to compare television now and television then. Another reason I enjoyed it was watching my mom laugh at the shows she remembered from her era.

-- Vincent Valenty, 12, is in the seventh grade at John F. Kennedy Middle School, Clearwater.

* * *

IF YOU GO: TeleVisions, A Tribute to the Golden Age of Television!, through April 14 at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's Jaeb Theater. Tickets are $24.50-$27.50. Call (813) 229-7827.

Talkin' TV

After a matinee performance, cast members of TeleVisions met with the X-Team to share their thoughts about the big stage and little screen.

* * *

"Only in theater does magic happen." However, "Make no mistake -- none of us would turn (a TV offer) down, because everybody watches TV."

-- Laura Anne Hodos

"Since my mom was a single parent, TV was my babysitter. I LOVE to watch TV."

-- Heather Krueger

"Television teaches, entertains and babysits."

-- Quentin Darrington

The cast's favorite TV shows, past and present

Wonder Woman

Solid Gold

Brady Bunch

Good Eats

Iron Chef

The Practice

Saturday Night Live

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