Jan 8, 2011

Thoughts of Late Night TV While Thinking of Gerry Rafferty

Music conjures images in our minds; songs are road maps to our private caches of memories.  When we hear a cherished tune, we instantly recall the time we first heard it, or a time and place with which that piece is most synonymous with our individual experience. Thus, the opening sax riff on Gerry Rafferty's hit 70's song "Baker Street" will always conjure for me the beginning moments of the all-night show "The Cat's Pajamas", as that familiar instrumental intro was heard while a camera panned the blue night cityscape of Buffalo New York.  Gerry Rafferty was formerly in Stealers Wheel, who made the AM radio chestnut "Stuck in the Middle With You", before doing his own well-received LP's, which gave us the hit singles "Right Down The Line" and of course, "Baker Street".  Upon hearing of his passing this week at the age of 63, once again, the familiar strains of the latter song echoed in my mind, as did the comfortable images of those nights I often spent with Barry and the gang on "The Cat's Pajamas".

When I began publishing The Eclectic Screening Room in 2001, it was a deliberate choice for the very first article in the very first issue to reminisce about the bygone days of "The Cat's Pajamas" and the late night movie experience in general.  Since we're once again reminiscing about this show, I only thought it appropriate to reprint that piece for the interweb.  Here it is (slightly updated):

God, I miss The Cat’s Pajamas.

Film fanatics 30-plus years of age living in a city or town probably had access to at least one late show host. Back in the days when watching the tube after midnight didn’t mean sitting through incessant infomercials for exercise machines and salad spinners, instead you had some guy introducing the 12:30 AM broadcast of It Came From Pluto. And maybe in order to pay for the plumbing at the station, he unabashedly plugged a nearby pizzeria, whose staff hoped that their cheap advertising would reap revenue from orders by the stoned-out teenagers with the munchies who were watching because they had already seen the episode of "Tales from the Darkside" on Channel 12.

Every metropolitan centre big or small had some local celebrity who flirted with the cathode ray tube- maybe you saw this guy at some hardware store’s grand opening at a shopping plaza. He wasn’t some packaged-up host like the syndicated pre-sold musings of Zacherly or Elvira- he was a real human being, someone who was talking to you that minute from across town or the nearby metropolis. He seemed to be in the same room that you were- the congenial face in the box was a rare stranger that you allowed in your home on regular intervals. You may never know this person in the flesh, but night after night it was comforting to know that they were on the opposite end of the transmission, sharing this moment with you. My late-night movie watching experience of this nature begins and ends with Barry Lillis, the host of "The Cat's Pajamas", which ran in the mid-to-late 1980s on WGRZ-TV, Buffalo's NBC affiliate.

Well after Johnny Carson said good night, one would just be able to put a ham and cheese bun in the oven before sitting down to see a camera pan of the blue snowy city with the opening sax solo on "Baker Street", which was the call to form. Barry (also TV 2’s veteran weatherman) would appear as the affable host, introducing the old movies and TV shows. In between reels, he would also plug Mike’s Subs for the hungry insomniacs, and then another gentleman would pop up with a news brief about an accident down on Main Street. Then a still of slumbering cats perched in a crescent moon would appear as "Journey of the Sorceror" or Steely Dan’s version of "East St.Louis Toodle-oo" played. Then we were transported back to the show. Sometimes even the odd newsreel or serial chapter would pop up unannounced to fill some airtime before they began the morning daypart. With such a busy programming schedule, it was little wonder that a 73-minute TV-movie (remember when TV-movies used to be this long? used to be good?) would actually fill a two-hour timeslot. Of course, the impromptu scheduling was time-approximate anyway, but to ensure that all of their intended entertainment did unveil, the second feature would likely be shown without commercials.

ABOVE: Barry Lillis

Friday and Saturday nights were the busiest of all- in between the standard plugs for Mike’s Subs, as well as giveaways (one time the love scene early in The Hustler was given a Brechtian notion when a subtitled appeared: "We have our winner- please hold your calls"!) and reading fan mail (yes!) sometimes the movies were secondary. One busy Friday night, the 74-minute It's a Gift took up two-and-a-half-hours! Nonetheless, they followed with Million Dollar Legs... uninterrupted (although sometimes the Cat’s Pajamas logo would appear if there was a delay in changing reels). This loose scheduling would drive prime-time programmers mad. Truthfully, this kind of practice on The Cat’s Pajamas was not at all upsetting. Usually, the movie you were watching was just another facet of the entire package. The point is, to all of those insomniacs, lonely people, babysitters, janitors and security guards, this show was a nightlight with a lot of warmth. These people were our friends!

Early in 1986, Barry turned the reins over to Randi Naughton, a ravishing brunette who would have "Randi’s Pajama Party" on Friday nights, and, like her mentor, would read fan mail (often from Ace & Rob- forerunners of Wayne & Garth), hawk Mike’s Subs and have contests. However, the other six nights had become host-less. The programming, nonetheless, did not change. Theme nights started; Mondays showed kung fu flicks, and Sunday night was science fiction-horror night. Each night, the festivities started with a cartoon still of a cat dressed as Dracula or Indiana Jones (or whatever was relevant), married to a cheery voice-over (announcing the theme of the evening):

"Welcome to The Cat’s Pajamas, the all-night show on TV 2! Sit back and relax with your favourite movies and old time TV shows! Each night of the week, it’s a different theme! And tonight, it’s...

Then in 1987, the weeknight programming would consist of an old television show, followed by only one movie at 3 AM (broadcast without commercials, or at least the famous default: showing "Cat’s Pajamas" bumpers while reels changed). Soon even Randi would disappear from the Friday night line-up, and then the writing shouted from the wall. In the fall of 1989, Chamber of Horrors was shown on the Friday of Labour Day weekend, and it was all over. After that... infomercials!

The same instance when I moved away to university, the Cat’s Pajamas became a soft-focus memory. Symbolic, maybe; poetic, perhaps; but certainly this affair ended with an irony for which most Hollywood screenplays starve. It’s another way in which life reminds us that nothing is permanent except for memories. Barry even stopped being the weatherman (in 1997) and went on to be a respectable voice in the community with his co-founded Kids Escaping Drugs campaigns (one had seen advertisements of this very thing in between his on-air plugs for submarines), and most significantly, becoming an ordained minister in Niagara Falls! The Cats Pajamas is probably something he would prefer to leave behind.

It may sound like mush to be whining about a late-night show of yesteryear when -even though infomercials do persist on many stations- Showcase, Bravo and specialty stations still show movies in the wee hours. But it doesn’t take long to see how often they recycle their programming. The worst offender of this of course is the A&E 4 o’clock movie- just how many times does one need to see The Angel and The Badman (one of John Wayne’s lowlights)? Even so, all of this programming misses the point. Where is the spontaneity? Where is the voice from the other end of transmission?

The Cat's Pajamas provided a good history of non-silent, non-subtitled cinema seven nights a week: it was as likely to find Penny Serenade as it was When Tae-Kwon-Do Strikes. Besides the communal warmth, another appeal of The Cat’s Pajamas was the wealth of nostalgia for any persuasion: Cary Grant in Room For One More, a trio of Vincent Price movies on Halloween night, It's A Wonderful Life after "Saturday Night Live", almost complete catalogs of movie series with Blondie, Charlie Chan, Bomba The Jungle Boy and Abbott & Costello; W.C. Fields addressing the ball, Ice Castles, David Janssen TV series, The Rose, Mario Bava movies, a 1944 newsreel showing how the Allies are doing, early-70’s made-for-TV thrillers with Cloris Leachman, John Wayne B-Westerns, kung fu flicks with Bruce Li, Bruce Le, etc., "Our Gang" shorts, Papillon, a chapter from a 1932 serial with Bela Lugosi’s name way down in the credits...

It at least felt like Barry and the gang were in my living room sharing memories over the nostalgia on the air. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t being shown Gone With The Wind. I would just as easily see an equally worthy gem as a diverting turkey. Yet I was witness to artifacts of other parts of cine-culture which are still vital to history, if we are not to believe the faceless specialty channel’s doctrine that cinema began in 1985,. But where are these titles now? It’s like the mournful melody of Don Henley’s song "The End of the Innocence" (which coincidentally was popular during the time of The Pajama’s final sigh), like the 30-year-old former dragstrip king driving his old car down Main Street seeing the empty buildings- catacombs of what used to be his youth. Did we outgrow those flickering images? Are they not important anymore?

Today, surrogate companionship is more prevalent than ever, but now it's with laptops and Youtube. In an age of computer video games, downloading from the Internet, seeing Anthony Robbins with the same suit every night, and getting voicemail instead of a live person on the phone, it is no wonder we’re becoming just as impersonal as a machine. But at least I can remember a genuine feeling of community- knowing that I was sharing something with an actual human being on the other side of the screen.

The film has ended. On screen, TV-2 emits a cartoonish-still of a sun rising behind tall buildings. They’ve put it to music by something from George Benson’s “Breezin’” LP. Turn your head. Through the crevice between the drapes the ashen sky is now magenta. Communion has ended. The 325-lined sunrise has transported you back to a physical one. Take your fuzzy slippers off the footstool. Throw the aluminum foil in the trash. Go to bed. Dream.

Thanks, Barry. You were a true friend.


Jamie Boyd said...

Wow what an awesome piece. i live in Rochester, NY and im 40 years old. I remeber having a cheesie small color tv with rabbit ears (no cable) in my bedroom and used to catch sabres games on channel 2. Sometimes i would fall asleep with the tv on and occasionally wake up in the mibble of the night and see movies on Cat's Pajamas. As i finally caught on and got hooked i would actually unplug the cable tv on my parents tv and stay up on the weekends to watch Cats Pajamas. Back then you only had maybe 20 stations with cable. WOW these are fond memories

The G-Man said...

Thanks for your kind words, Jamie. Glad you enjoyed it.