If variety is the spice of life, Judge Dennis Prince thinks he's fallen into the pepper mill of flash and fandango.
He's comin' home, he's done his time.
If ever there was an act that was in the proverbial "right place at the right time," it was Tony Orlando & Dawn. A self-motivated entertainer at heart, New York born and Puerto Rican bred Tony Orlando began his musical career at the tender age of 16. Signed as the very first act for Epic Records, Orlando broke into the national music charts with his 1960s hits, Carole King's "Halfway to Paradise" and "Bless You." It was the onslaught of Beatlemania that drove Orlando out of performing; however, the singer, stating he preferred not to be "one of the youngest 'oldies but goodies' to ever live," elected to work behind the scenes in the biz as an executive at Columbia Records. He found his way back into the performance spotlight when approached in 1970 by Bell Records executives to lay down a vocal track for a new song, "Candida." Wary of aiding a competing studio, Orlando agreed to cut the track only if it would be credited to a fictitious group, Dawn. Lo and behold, the song took off and climbed to the number three spot on the pop charts. In 1971, Orlando lent his vocal talents to "Knock Three Times," also recorded under the name of Dawn, which secured the number one spot on the charts, sold over six million copies, and brought in demands for personal appearances by Dawn. The problem: Dawn didn't really exist and, apparently, other would-be superstars were stepping forward to proclaim that they were the sensational group responsible for the two songs that all of America was singing. The solution: create a real singing group, quick, which would consist of the suave, silky, bona-fide entertainer Orlando plus two lovely backup singers, ultimately former session singers Thelma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson. From there, caught up in a whirlwind of fame and fortune, the trio toured the world, performing live and on television while continuing to turn out pop hits, most notably in the form of the venerable tune of hope and homecoming, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Ole Oak Tree," which commanded the number one spot on the charts throughout 1973. Follow up successes included "Sweet Gypsy Rose," "He Don't Love You," and "Steppin' Out (Gonna Boogie Tonight)." All of this success, then, was attributed to former performer-turned-music-executive Orlando being at the right place at the right time in 1970.
Lightning would strike again for Orlando in 1974, when he was offered his own prime-time variety show. A warring singing couple that had their own top-rated musical-variety show finally called it quits—for both their show and their marriage—opening up the 8 PM Wednesday timeslot on CBS and providing Tony Orlando & Dawn the opportunity to broaden their reach from the turntable to the television set. Slated as a mere four-week summer replacement, Orlando and his crooning beauties gave it all they had, serving up an offering similar to the dysfunctional duo that preceded them: a big intro onto a dazzling stage, a bit of a song, a few wisecracks and putdowns, a completion of the song, and a sampling of the special guest stars who would perform alongside the threesome in song and skit. The Tony Orlando & Dawn Show was the surprise hit of July, 1974 and earned the group an extended TV contract that would last through December, 1976. Again, right place, right time.
The show began as more music than variety, the headliners performing collectively and solo (giving opportunity to Hopkins and Wilson to showcase their smooth vocals, individually and in duets) while coaxing vocal performances from their guest stars like Loretta Swit (M*A*S*H), Danny Thomas (Make Room for Daddy), Florence Henderson (The Brady Bunch), Neil Sedaka, and even baseball legend Hank Aaron. There were a few light skits to add a bit of non-musical comedy, mostly corny even by 1970s standards, but clearly, music was the focus. Orlando, with his characteristic big hair, tall shoes, and omnipresent moustache, oozed Vegas-style charm from every pore. While he can be caught occasionally in clumsy lip-synching, his moves and emotion are genuine and largely heart-felt. The musical numbers ranged from soulful solos to larger scale stage numbers featuring a bevy of extra singers and dancers. The oft-noted highlight of the show was the playful platitudes of Lou Effy and Moreen, two blue-collar roomies—played by Wilson and Hopkins, respectively—who provide commentary on 70s life. Orlando would then wrap up each show with his signature musical montage during which he'd wander into the studio audience and connect (figuratively and literally) with those in attendance, having fun and providing what he called a temporary respite from the grief of the day, politics and inflation. Lighthearted and sometimes even a bit lowbrow, the show struck a chord with viewers and was a quick hit.
The show continued to draw viewers throughout 1975, yet come the fall season of '76, its creators decided to up the ante of the comedic content. Renamed The Tony Orlando & Dawn Rainbow Hour, the show now featured regular comedic contributions by pontificator of the profound, George Carlin (minus the seven dirty words) and an increased number of skits, often featuring the delightfully dimpled Edie McClurg (Cheech & Chong's Next Movie). Musical guests included the likes of Sly and the Family Stone, Dr. Hook, The Bay City Rollers, and the incomparable Alice Cooper. The competition in the year of the Bicentennial was stiff, though, and the Rainbow Hour would only last the remainder of that star-spangled year, finally succumbing to the likes of Little House on the Prairie and That's My Mama.
Well, if you've longed for the return of the 70s variety show, take heart because R2 Entertainment has delivered a slick and supple collection of original Tony Orlando & Dawn episodes, selecting shows that mark each stage of their TV career. This three-disc boxed set, Tony Orlando & Dawn—The Ultimate Collection features eleven episodes (complete with whimsical animated title sequence), and while that may not be undeniably "ultimate" in light of their 55-episode canon, it makes for a fun collection nonetheless. Specifically, here are the episodes (with guest stars noted) that you'll find in this new release:
Disc One ("Knock"):
• July 3, 1974: premiere summer replacement episode featuring
Loretta Swit and Rosey Grier
Disc Two ("Three"):
• November 5, 1975: guest stars Neil Sedaka, Phyllis Diller, and
Disc Three ("Times"):
• March 3, 1976: guest stars Jerry Lewis and Anne Meara
It's difficult to determine how many of these episodes preserve full-length original broadcast content since they vary in run time. Some run more than 50 minutes while the final episode is only 34 minutes; other episodes fall somewhere in between. Clearly, die-hard fans will enjoy this set, yet unfortunately, it appears that they won't be getting full-length goodness here. It's too bad, really, because what's here is unexpectedly enjoyable—that coming from the perspective of a non-fan. If you're a connoisseur of 70s artifacts, this boxed set is requisite viewing, if only for the guest stars (with the Alice Cooper performance being must-see TV for fans of the maven of shock rock). The episodes themselves look generally good and are chock full of color. The mastering itself, however, is spotty. This is a good news/bad news sort of situation as, on the bad side, you'll see frequent grain and numerous spots of video "pops" and dropout inherent to the 1970s source tapes; if you're a videophile, this is the sort of thing that might make you believe you're watching a bootleg VHS. On the good side, though, these video idiosyncrasies lend an air of authenticity to the overall experience, giving you opportunity to practically relive the original telecast experience, imperfections and all. If you love the 70s, well, you gotta love all that came along with it including technical limitations. As for the audio, it's offered in an energetic Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix and will definitely be an improvement on the sound you heard from your single cone TV speaker or stereo console upgrade of the day.
Despite the uneven quality of the shows themselves, you'll enjoy the interesting extras. They begin with the special Juke Box feature on each disc where you can jump directly to the musical numbers. The bonus here is six extra performances not included within the actual episodes, including numbers by Florence Henderson and Art Carney. Disc Three contains the remainder of the extras beginning with an extended sequence from The Tonight Show where guest host Freddie Prinze subs for Johnny Carson and enjoys a lengthy chat with his good friend Tony Orlando. Next up is a 1981 excerpt from the short-lived SNL competitor Fridays featuring Don Novello, Thelma Hopkins, and Joyce Vincent Wilson as Father Guido Sarducci & Dawn; look close and you'll also see a very young Michael Richards (Seinfeld). Then there's a fun skit from the original Carol Burnett Show in which Harvey Korman, Carol Burnett, and Vicki Lawrence do a put on as Tony Tallahassee and Dusk. Lastly, there's an excerpt from a TO&D show where the "Domino Wizard" has set up a domino track that mesmerizes the audience (and Orlando himself).
Certainly, this is not to be considered an "ultimate" set by television or Tony Orlando completists. It's a shame, really, as yet another opportunity to provide complete vintage programming is overlooked in deference to attention-deficit sampling. R2 Entertainment is certainly hard at work creating their ultimate DVD sets (including releases that also feature Sonny & Cher and Captain & Tennille) but they need to check their dictionary to discover the true meaning of "ultimate." To the avid TV archivist, that would include complete shows, bumpers, promos, galleries (including vintage photos and articles of the day), and even sponsor breaks. Somewhere all of this material exists in its entirety, and if it's not captured and archived on digital media it's very possible it could be lost forever. That truly would be tragic.
If you're a fan of Tony Orlando & Dawn or are just ready to revisit the happier time of variety show schmaltz, you'll find something to enjoy in this new release. If you're a purist or completist, you'll need to keep searching for that truly ultimate experience.
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