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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Sue Bennett - On Live TV in Boston and New York

WBZ-TV in Boston, which was New England’s first commercial television station (it began operation in the summer of 1948), broadcast The Sue Bennett Show in 1954 and 1955.  The station was affiliated with NBC then.  It was an era of adventure and excitement on television, because it was still so new. 
Sue Bennett’s TV career started promisingly. She had appeared on the famous Your Hit Parade, sponsored by Lucky Strike, and on other shows in the heady, nerve-wracking days of live television. Soon, however, her career took a different turn, and by the time of Boston’s The Sue Bennett Show, was waning in the mid-1950s, mostly by her choice. 
She had moved from New York, where the big TV shows were produced, to Boston with her physician husband.  They raised two sons, and she occasionally hosted other local programs, or appeared as a guest on talk shows or took studio voice-over work for TV and radio commercials.  The career that now began to fade had started with the snap and sparkle of the Big Band Era and the promise of sudden stardom that TV gives.
The threads of her career, woven into the story of early live TV, is told by her son, Andrew Lee Fielding in his book The Lucky Strike Papers (Bear Manor Media: Albany, GE, 2007).  It’s a splendid book, sensitively written, that chronicles the phenomenon of live TV, and the musical variety type programs which are no longer with us.
He writes from his perspective as one who is taking a mental and emotional journey back to a time only just a handful of years before he was born--but it might as well have been a thousand years.  He is like an archeologist of popular history, as he examines artifacts of his mother’s career.  The book is filled with interviews of many of the figures of era, which he began interviewing in the late 1970s.  They include Dorothy Collins, Snooky Lanson, and Russell Arms of Your Hit Parade, as well as bandleader Kay Kyser, Merv Griffin, Jack Leonard, Freddy Martin, and many, many more.
We tread like explorers through the world of kinescope in the days when shows produced in New York could only reach Chicago and points west on a kinescope recording before there was a coaxial cable that far to broadcast live.  In the days when a new TV set cost over $900 in 1949 dollars. 
Technologically primitive by our standards, and cost prohibitive for purchasers of new sets, still the new media commanded such interest that theatre towns were shocked to discover that once TV came available to their areas, they experienced a drop in attendance.  Movies, too.  Hollywood was panicked.  For more than one reason.  We explore a world where Red Channels had the power to destroy careers.
Flitting through these images is Sue Bennett, a lovely young singer of great talent.  Her son grasps at her image, but never holds it for long because the evidence of her career is fragmented and time is getting away from him.  
Mr. Fielding manages to write a very personal memoir about a story that was not his own, and that is something wondrous.  I found the book quite moving in several passages.  I especially liked his references to the S.S. United States, a ship on which his mother and several of the Your Hit Parade cast performed in a special episode, a magnificent ship from the lavish days of transatlantic travel, whose fate the author follows to its lonely decay in a berth on the Delaware River.
For those interested in the days of early television, this book, filled with anecdotes and the details of excellent research, is a valuable asset.
For now, have a listen to Big Band singer Sue Bennett singing with the Kay Kyser orchestra on “Let’s Choo, Choo, Choo to Idaho”.  (Don't forget to scroll down to the bottom of the blog and mute the music so you can hear the YouTube audio.)


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