February 8, 2012

Gordon MacRea and Howard Keel DVDs

The pickings from the Bell Telephone Hour that Video Artists International delves into must be getting slim. It isn’t that the material on latest releases in VAI’ Music’s series isn’t first rate. Indeed, there are some tasty morsels in these collections of musical segments from the ten year run of that television variety show which Donald Voorhees conducted between 1959 and 1968.

One wonders, however, why the people at VAI couldn’t come up with more. Earlier releases have had fewer minutes of program content than the discs could reasonably contain, but as more and more discs have been prepared and released the duration per disc has constantly shrunk to the point where I think it is time to complain.

Let’s look at the trend. When the segments they chose to release featuring Shirley Jones and Florence Henderson ended up totaling just over an hour, VAI chose to release them as one disc.

For the Barbara Cook disc they found some 55 minutes and their Carol Lawrence disc ran over an hour so they released them as two separate discs.

More recently, the John Raitt disc included 49 minutes of programming and the Alfred Drake volume was, while not exactly voluminous, a full 48 minutes. Again, they released them separately.

But now, two new titles have hit the shelves and each is so short that they could have been combined as one disc with plenty of room to spare. One is listed as 30 minutes but the actual time of the material is just 28 and a half minutes…the rest is a very slow crawl of copyright information on the songs sung. The other is listed as 37 minutes but actually runs 35 plus two minutes of copyright.

To this, I must cry “Foul!”

The shortest disc is devoted to segments aired between 1960 and 1965 featuring Gordon MacRea, often with his wife Sheila MacRae. They sing songs from the 1959-1960 Broadway season as a series of duets from Take Me Along, Fiorello, Destry, The Sound of Music and Gypsy – hard to imagine all of those shows opening in the same season, isn’t it? As the Bell Telephone Hour show was telecast before the season was half over, they missed Saratoga, Greenwillow, Christine and Bye Bye Birdie.

They also team up for duets from shows of the 1961-1962 season including Subways Are For Sleeping, Sail Away and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Don’t ask me what happened to the 1960-1961 season – there’s no segment on the disc for that season which included, among others, Tenderloin, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Wild Cat, Do Re Me, Carnival and Camelot.

MacRea, who looks as smooth as his voice sounds, also sings a few numbers from Tin Pan Alley in a 1965 segment, belts “Who Can I Turn To” and joins his wife for a segment titled “Songs for Autumn” from 1961.

The marginally lengthier disc is a compilation of appearances of Howard Keel on the television series. He teams with Ann Blyth for a medley of Broadway songs including a very healthy rendition of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” which features a dance sequence. Keel walks smoothly through the song but stands aside for the dancers. Not all the songs in that sequence are by Richard Rodgers but another segment is devoted to his output with both Hammerstein and Hart. (Keel’s beautiful baritone is a fine match for “Some Enchanted Evening.”)

Theater fans might be somewhat less impressed with a segment of traditional Christmas songs which Keel and Martha Wright sing. It takes up nearly seven and a half of the 35 minutes of entertainment on the disc.

The packaging of both discs does disclose the duration of the material but both also trumpet “bonus” material – 12 minutes in one case and 16 in the other. These, however, turn out to just be clips from the other releases in the series. If you already own them, you already have these supposed bonuses.

Howard Keel, Bell Telephone Hour 1959 - 1965
VAI Catalog 4543
Running time 37 minutes
List price $19.95

Gordon MacRae, Bell Telephone Hour 1960-1965
VAI Catalog 4544
Running time 30 minutes
List Price 19.95