Monday, July 16, 2012

Richard Dawson and the worst TV special of all-time

   With the passing of Richard Dawson on June 2, 2012 at age 79, there were many tributes reflecting on his career as an actor and as the smooching game show host of Family Feud. Forgotten in the tributes, a 1979 ABC-TV prime time special that marked a low point in his career, the “Playboy Roller-Disco Pajama Party.’ The program was so dreadful, a news anchor in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area slammed it on the air during a local update.

   Airing on Friday, November 23, 1979, the “Playboy Roller-Disco Pajama Party” was described by a reviewer in the St. Paul Dispatch as “plotless, pointless crap” and “one of the most preposterous and insulting programs in the history of television.”

   The show took place at one of publisher Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansions, and opened with Dawson, dressed in a brown turtleneck and tan sport coat saying, “Welcome to Hef’s Place... Everything around here is well built.”

   Featuring the “top Playmates of 1980,” Dawson was described in a review as “drool(ing) and sigh(ing) as Bunnies and Playmates frolic at a pool and waterfall at Hefner’s Playboy Mansion West in Los Angeles.” The first part of the program included shots of “young women gently smoothing oil on their well-tanned skin” and others roller-skating in “skimpy swimming attire” to the disco hit sung by special guest Donna Summer. “Tops and bottoms swing in slow motion. A Bunny in a blue, star-bedecked bra gasps in athletic rapture as a camera approaches for a close-up…Hefner, in a pale-blue jumpsuit and unexplained Indian headdress, leads a long line of disco skaters. Two women duel with Popsicles.” Disco might have been pronounced dead in 1979, but it was alive and well at “Hef’s Place.”

   The Village People and Chuck Mangione were among other guest entertainers appearing in the show, and meanwhile Dawson pursues a lil’ blonde cutie named “Dorothy,” (the late Dorothy Stratten, as a matter of fact) who at first rejects his advances because she’s only interested in roller-disco. It might have been Playboy but there wasn’t anything all that sexual outside of innuendo and mild titillation, as this was still network television in the late 70s.

   The “pajama party” part would come in the second half of the hour-long special, after “a word from your local ABC stations.” In the Twin Cities, KSTP-TV Channel 5 anchorman Ron Magers appeared live for an “Eyewitness News Update,” starting off with a statement that was not in the script.

   “I want to assure that this is a local news update and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Playboy Roller-Disco Pajama Party,” he proclaimed. He read a couple news headlines and then said, “For those of you who may have turned off your television sets in disgust, I want to assure you we’ll be back in 30 minutes with local news.”

   Within seconds, KSTP’s switchboard was inundated with calls that came in for more than thirty minutes, most of them supporting Magers’s comments, according to a switchboard operator there in a news story. The New York Times and Associated Press picked up on the story, which was in turn picked up by news outlets across the country. In the ensuing days the station received calls from all over giving kudos to Magers.  KSTP general manager Ralph Dolan had no comment about the incident.

   Magers told the Associated Press that he was required to appear with a news update during the show and he wanted people to know he was not part of it. “In my opinion, the program was blatantly sexist and of no redeeming social value,” he told the AP.

   Ron Magers was at the time the most popular news anchor in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market and so he could get away with such a bold move. Anyone else who tried that most likely would not have made it to the late-evening newscast that followed the Playboy special.

   Today Ron Magers calls Chicago home, arriving there from the Twin Cities in 1981 and working for two different network-owned stations through the years. He remains as one of the most popular—and occasionally controversial—anchors in that city.

No comments:

Post a Comment