BOOTLEG FILES 526: “The 1974 Tony Awards” (1974 television production honoring Broadway’s best).
LAST SEEN: The broadcast (minus commercials) is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Clearing the music and performance rights would be an expensive nightmare.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Extremely unlikely.
I very rarely watch the TV broadcasts of entertainment industry award shows, simply because these shows tend to be rather boring. I can’t say that I really care who wins, and I have no particular curiosity to see whatever designer gowns are being worn by the reigning starlets.
But the TV broadcasts of awards shows weren’t always so dreary. Forty years ago, the American Theatre Wing offered a genuinely fascinating production with its annual Tony Awards presentation. The reason it was fascinating was not because of its sense of style or its rich entertainment value – instead, it turned out to be one of the most delightfully weird award shows ever shoved in front of the cameras.
From its opening moments, the 1974 Tony Awards acknowledged its relatively minor role in the award show galaxy: the program offered a seemingly quotidian couple sitting in their living room, uncertain if they were watching the Oscars or the Emmys. The program went on the air with the promise of four hosts – Robert Preston, Cicely Tyson, Florence Henderson and Peter Falk – and a line-up of stars that were primarily known for their film and television acting rather than for their contributions to the stage.
Part of the problem in putting this show together was the unusually weak 1973-74 Broadway theater season. Indeed, only three shows – “Raisin,” “Over Here!” and “Seesaw” – were nominated in the Best Musical category. In order to fill the show with musical numbers, it was decided to present a parade of little-known songs from musicals that had mostly faded from the popular culture. I don’t know who thought that was such a great idea, but the viewers of this show wound up watching such unlikely show-stoppers as Florence Henderson singing “Welcome Home” from the musical “Fanny,” Beatrice Arthur growling her way through “There Goes My Life” from “A Mother’s Kisses,” and Will Geer barreling through a medley from “The Cradle Will Rock.” Needless to say, none of these numbers inspired a rush to put those mostly obscure shows back on the boards.
Robert Preston opened the show by introducing a dance number from “Over Here!” – and for today’s viewers, the real surprise is seeing a young John Travolta as a member of the song-and-dance ensemble. (Marilu Henner and Treat Williams were in the show’s ensemble when it opened on Broadway, though I didn’t recognize them in this broadcast – Ann Reinking was a prominent dancer and was identified by Preston in the introduction.) The stars of “Over Here!”, Patty and Maxene Andrews, arrived later in the broadcast, thus giving their show two production numbers.
Preston followed that number by introducing Cicely Tyson. Their co-host Florence Henderson then joined them, only to ask them to get off the stage so she could perform the aforementioned “Welcome Home.” The task of presenting the first award was given to Karen Black, who announced that Franne Lee won the Best Costume Design Award for “Candide.” Following a rousing spin by the show’s orchestra and a thunderous applause by the audience, Black found herself on stage alone with the award – Lee did not attend the ceremony. After a few awkward moments, Black ad-libbed, “Well, I’ll take it!” – and promptly exited with the Tony in hand.
From that bizarre moment, the broadcast became a hodgepodge of great talent and borderline lunacy. Charles Nelson Reilly, complete with a polka-dot bowtie and oversized eyeglasses, came out on stage and hijacked the show for a seemingly endless stretch, laughing at his own jokes and performing numbers from his earlier Broadway appearances (including “Spare That Building” from the show “Skyscraper” – yet another obscure song from a barely-recalled show). At a time when Reilly’s career was mostly limited to playing a singing banana on a TV commercial and trading zingers with Brett Somers on “Match Game,” this presentation offered the zany star some of his highest profile exposure for the year. Reilly was followed by Joel Grey reliving his “George M!” glory with a medley of George M. Cohan tunes – though, quite frankly, Grey’s razzle-dazzle was somewhat less interesting than Reilly’s rambunctious hamming. (Reilly returned later opposite Nancy Walker in a number from another obscure musical, “Phoenix ’55.”)
Johnny Carson also turned up, telling the Broadway crowd, “Now, it’s great to be back on the boards!” Carson reminded the audience that he actually did appear on the Great White Way, as the replacement star for Tom Ewell in the 1958 show “Tunnel of Love” – the reference brought zero recognition – and then the late-night king presented a special award to Bette Midler for her one-woman show. “You know, you still dress like a stolen car,” Carson told Midler, whose award acceptance speech was equal parts sincerity and snarky.
Old-time Hollywood stars Alice Faye and John Payne then turned up to dance to “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” from the old show “Good News.” While it was fun to see these veterans together, it was difficult not to notice that their steps were woefully out of synch – and that Payne’s high-kicking seemed to be inspired by Sonny Chiba action flicks rather than Broadway choreography.
Carol Channing turned up to offer a special award to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore for their show “Good Evening,” which degenerated into a grueling segment with Channing’s dumb blonde persona being confused by Cook and Moore’s British humor. Peter Falk, who was supposedly a host of this program, eventually turned up to give a special award to Liza Minnelli for her one-woman show.
And who won the main competition awards? To be frank, I was barely paying attention to that aspect of the show, which was the least interesting part of the production. The only acceptance speech that resonated was Christopher Plummer for Best Actor in a Musical in “Cyrano.” Plummer took the award from presenter Elizabeth Montgomery, gave her a big kiss, and told the audience, “What a nice way to see Liz again.”
The all-star presenter line-up included some movie royalty (Henry Fonda, Bette Davis, Elliott Gould, Al Pacino), but was mostly populated with the reigning TV stars of the day (Carroll O’Connor, Esther Rolle, Alan Alda, Michael Learned, Cloris Leachman, David Carradine, Marlo Thomas, Suzanne Pleshette). But the real stars of this show were the nervous cameramen, who either could not keep their cameras steady (thus creating some Dogme-worthy shakiness) or didn’t know where to point the lens (when the elusive George C. Scott was named among the Best Actor in a Play nominees, the camera zoomed in on a curtain in lieu of the absent nominee).
“The 1974 Tony Awards” was broadcast live on ABC on April 21, 1974, with commercial sponsorship by Cool Whip and Ford Motors. The entire show, minus the commercials, can be found on YouTube in an unauthorized posting. If you are looking for the show on DVD, forget it – there has never been a commercial home entertainment release, and it seems highly unlikely if one will ever happen.
This go-round of the Tony Awards is far removed from the slick, streamlined, Neil Patrick Harris-hosted shows that have been on the air for the past few years. But to be frank, even with its ramshackle production values and odd celebrity line-up, this 40-year-old version is far more entertaining – if only for the wrong reasons. Give my regards to a Broadway that doesn’t exist anymore!
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