Next month, if you have any interest in it, you'll be able to buy
a 3-DVD set of memorable episodes of This Is Your Life, a series that was
broadcast regularly from 1948 to 1952 on radio, from 1952 to 1961 on TV and in
various short-term revivals and specials since. Each week, the host — Ralph
Edwards in most cases — would "surprise" some celebrity, and that was always
the best part of the festivities. The "principal subject," as the show's staff
called each week's honoree, would be lured by a friend or family member to a
locale where Edwards could accost them with the news that their life would be
recalled and celebrated.
In the early days when the show was live, that usually meant
getting the principal subject to somewhere within a block or so of the studio
from which the show was telecast, surprising them there via remote camera, then
during the first commercial break, taking them over to appear on the program.
There, before a live audience, their past would be summarized with family
members and past associates coming on to tell anecdotes and show their love.
There were joyous reunions and there were old photos. And almost as much fun as
the opening surprise, there was always at least one moment when the host would
adopt a solemn tone and lead us through some heart-rending personal tragedy. The
obvious goal was to cause at least someone on stage — preferably, the principal
subject — to shed a few tears. This was all parodied on Sid Caesar's Your
Show of Shows in what may have been the funniest sketch ever done on
television. (See it here.)
Edwards swore up and down that with one or two admitted exceptions
— once, for instance, when honoring someone so old that they feared the
surprise could be fatal — his crew never told the principal subject in advance.
I'm sure that's true. I'm not as sure that a lot of those subjects didn't know.
Arrangements had to be made through the star's agent and family, and it's hard
to believe that some of them didn't check with the celebrity or tip them off to
be properly groomed and ready when the "surprise" came. Heck, it's even hard to
believe that some stars didn't tell their agents to call Ralph Edwards
Productions and suggest an honor was in order. But if they knew, the show's
staff never saw any evidence of that so they could claim it was all spontaneous.
(In his recent autobiography, Carl Reiner admits knowing about it in advance
when they did his life on the show.)
Only one star — Angie Dickinson — ever refused to go through
with it, and that was late in the show's history, when it was done on tape. But
it almost seemed to be happening on one of the most famous live broadcasts,
which is included on the forthcoming set. The evening of December 1, 1954, Stan
Laurel and Oliver Hardy went to the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel, ostensibly to
meet with a friend, the famed British theatrical impresario, Bernard Delfont.
Mr. Delfont was in on the set-up, as were The Boys' wives and their
agent-lawyer, Ben Shipman. Edwards and the live audience were in a theater about a block away,
and Stan and Ollie were surprised, none too pleasantly, via a live remote camera
and microphone. They were then to scurry on over to the stage during a
commercial break but when it ended, they weren't there yet and Edwards was
forced into one of the most awkward examples of ad-libbing and time-killing ever
seen on network television.
When Stan and Ollie finally arrived, the delay was attributed to
slow walking. Some say that's all it was. Others say they were furious at the
whole ambush and had to be persuaded to go through with it. Either way, the two
of them — Laurel, especially — were clearly undelighted with the
experience. On the air, Stan said little. Afterwards, he complained that they'd
been tricked into making their TV debut on an unrehearsed and unpleasant TV
program. He told one author, "I was damned if I was going to put on a free show
for them," though he probably received at least union scale. (In fairness
to the show, one should remember that they couldn't have done it without the
participation of The Boys' friends, family and business associates, all of whom
must have expected a different reaction.)
Sadly, it was the only time Laurel and Hardy appeared on
television apart from the endless rerunning of their old films. Laurel suffered
a stroke the following April and by the time he recovered, Hardy took ill and
never got much better.
It's odd that the folks behind the This Is Your Life DVD
release would pick that episode to kick off Volume 1 of what they must hope will
be a long series of releases. The episode is highly available on cheap Laurel &
Hardy DVDs and tapes, and it's pretty far from the show's finest hour. Here's a
more info, including the full list of episodes included. I have the feeling that
a lot of folks who buy the set will only watch the first few minutes of each