Thursday, June 09, 2016

Overcoming Stage Fright

On this night in 1966, Bewitched aired its final black–and–white episode, "Prodigy."

That was a big deal in 1966. Color television was not nearly as prevalent then as it is today, but there were enough color television sets in homes across the country that many TV series were making the transition from black–and–white production to color production. Bewitched went to color programming when the next season began in the autumn of 1966.

At the time, the networks were known to precede broadcasts with special announcements if the episodes were being shown in color. Such announcements were not necessary for owners of black–and–white TV sets — after all, color programming still appeared black and white on those TVs — but I suppose it alerted owners of color TV sets that their investments were about to pay dividends.

That last episode was also the final appearance of Alice Pearce as the original Gladys Kravitz, the Stephenses' busybody neighbor. Pearce died of ovarian cancer three months before this episode aired, and she was replaced as Gladys by her friend, Sandra Gould, when that first color season began. Gould played Gladys for the remainder of the series' run.

Gould did such a good job that most viewers probably forgot Pearce ever played Gladys, just like most viewers didn't really seem to notice when the original Darrin (Dick York) left the series. (Personally, I never saw the episodes with Pearce until the series was in syndication, and I grew up believing she played a different character altogether. For me, Gould was always Gladys Kravitz.)

I suppose much of that was due to the appeal of the undisputed star of the show, Elizabeth Montgomery.

But while Montgomery was the star of the show, the star of the episode that aired 50 years ago tonight was Pearce, who invited Darrin and Samantha to come over to watch her violinist brother Louis' (Jack Weston) first nationally televised performance, prompting the Stephenses to recall the first time they met Louis.

The Kravitzes considered Darrin and Samantha responsible for Louis' success. He had been regarded as a prodigy when he was a child, but he had been emotionally scarred when, midway through a public performance at the age of 9, his knickers had fallen to the floor. While he still had great talent, he suffered from extreme stage fright and had not performed in public since. He had taken to traveling from one relative to the next and living with each as long as possible.

On the night the Stephenses met Louis, Gladys' husband Abner (George Tobias) dismissed Louis as a freeloader, but Gladys continued to defend him, repeating what was no doubt the family line about how talented Louis was and how he was destined for greatness. Louis seemed to believe it as well and argued with Abner when Abner implied that Louis was the family leech.

Louis was pompous and arrogant, all right, but he definitely possessed a skill that he demonstrated before the astonished Kravitzes and Stephenses. Well, Gladys wasn't astonished. She had known that Louis had talent all along and didn't hesitate to remind Abner of that.

I took piano lessons as a child (regretfully, I haven't kept it up as an adult, mostly due to lack of access to a piano), and the students performed in an end–of–the–year recital every year. As I recall, many of those kids suffered from stage fright, but they were afraid mostly of bad things that might happen, not a repeat of something that had already happened. At least Weston had a real experience he did not wish to repeat.

Samantha was convinced that Louis needed a gig to boost his confidence, and she got one for him — playing at a benefit event. It served its purpose, and Louis was on his way.

It was a pleasant enough episode to wrap up Bewitched's black–and–white era and to end Pearce's career. It wasn't the best episode Bewitched ever aired, but it was entertaining enough — and it helped to introduce viewers to Weston.

He wasn't exactly a newcomer in 1966, but he wasn't a household name, either. I guess his appearance on Bewitched 50 years ago tonight brought renewed attention to him — and opened the door for some of his best performances on TV and the big screen.