P. Jay Sidney: The Heroic Actor Who Fought to Integrate Early TV

Sidney Route 66

P. Jay Sidney, who was born as Sidney Parhm Jr. on April 8, 1916 in Virginia, was a groundbreaking actor who fought to help integrate television starting in the 1950s. He often was relegated to small walk-on parts such as doormen and waiters.  But the African-American actor also played some substantial parts as he struggled to both make a living and to fight against the racism of the times.

Sidney’s Acting Career

Sidney started out with a career on stage and on radio.  But then he began making a living in TV starting in 1951.  He garnered some substantial roles such as that of Private Palmer on The Phil Silvers Show.

Sidney continued to take what roles he could get.  He appeared in more than one-hundred and seventy shows. He also did voice-over work and took roles in advertisements, such as Waxin Jackson in Ajax commercials.

Sidney’s Battle Against Discrimination

Sidney’s activism was fueled by the discrimination he saw in the limited roles given to African-American actors. He marched. And he advocated for a boycott against Lever Brothers for only using black talent for commercials aimed at African-Americans. He testified before the U.S. House of Representatives in 1962. He picketed. And he spoke out when he saw discrimination and encouraged others to do the same.

A December 7, 2015 article in The New Yorker, “American Untouchable,” by Emily Nussbaum discusses some of the toll that the discrimination took on Sidney.  His story is also recounted in Donald Bogle’s book, Primetime Blues. As in the case of baseball player Jackie Robinson, one may see that standing up to racism is not easy.

But as in the case of Robinson, we need to remember P. Jay Sidney.  He was a dignified man who did a job while also standing up for something greater.

Below, Sidney plays a small role as a doctor in a 1961 episode of Route 66, “Goodnight Sweet Blues.” In this opening clip of the episode, you may see Sidney at around the 3:16 mark, as a family doctor getting some assistance from a white cardiologist.

Sidney never got to see equal representation of African-American actors on TV or in Hollywood.  But he helped us take an early step toward that destination. Moses never made it to the Promised Land, and Sidney’s final role in a movie was playing a bellman in A Kiss Before Dying (1991).

Yet, other actors, like Ossie Davis recognized that they were able to get jobs because of Sidney’s activism. Sidney passed away on September 30, 1996, and while an increase in television channels has created more opportunities for non-white actors, Sidney’s legacy can be seen in critiques like the recent Oscar So White campaign in Hollywood.

Sidney’s battle, which is a battle for all of us, continues.

Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Classical Gas and 3000 Years of Art

    Mason Williams

    One of the coolest videos on YouTube combines a hit instrumental with fast-flashing works of art.  The story of the tune, “Classical Gas,” and the video, “3000 Years of Art,” go back to the Smothers Brothers in the 1960s.

    The Creation of “Classical Gas”

    Mason Williams, who was born August 24, 1938, was a comedy writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  The show began its first season during the winter of 1967.  After the show completed its first season, Williams began to work on some other projects.

    Following a two-week tour with Dick and Tom Smothers in Las Vegas, Williams returned home and picked up his guitar.  He had missed playing the instrument and decided to write something he could play for friends.

    So, Williams started on a piece he called “Classical Gasoline.” He got the idea for the title from his thought that the piece would be “fuel” for the classical guitar.  He continued working on the tune during the second season of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968.

    At one point, the Warner Bros. music label asked Tom Smothers for suggestions of new artists to add to its label.  And, one of the artist he suggested was Mason Williams from his show.  So, Williams began working on The Mason Williams Phonograph Record for Warner Bros.

    One of the songs featured on the record was the finished version of “Classical Gasoline.”  But the music copyist made the mistake of writing the name as “Classical Gas.” The new name stuck.  As Williams later explained, “It wasn’t until sometime later that I realized most people were thinking ‘Gas’ as in ‘Hey man, it’s a gas!’

    Below, Williams performs “Classical Gas” in 1968.

    “3000 Years of Art”

    After Williams premiered the tune on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the song climbed the charts.  Then, Williams contacted a filmmaker named Dan McLaughlin.  McLaughlin had made a student video putting together Beethoven’s 5th Symphony with a montage of art works.  Williams asked him to do the same with “Classical Gas.”

    So, McLaughlin created “3000 Years of Art” with the tune, using fast images in a visual effect that is now called kinestasis. The images purport to show a history of art in three minutes.

    The video premiered on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968. Check out the really cool video of “3000 Years of Art” below.

    In 1969, “Classical Gas” went on to win three Grammy Awards. The awards were for Best Instrumental Composition, Best Contemporary-Pop Performance, Instrumental, and Best Instrumental Arrangement.

    And that is the story behind the song.

    What is your favorite instrumental pop tune? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Eugene the Jeep and Popeye

    Popeye Dog

    On March 16, 1936, Eugene the Jeep made its first appearance in the Thimble Theatre strip that starred Popeye.  The Jeep was a yellow creature, somewhat like a dog.  But, unlike a dog, Eugene walked on his hind legs and had magical powers.

    From Where Did Eugene the Jeep Come?

    In the comic strip, Eugene the Jeep’s origin was explained by the fact that Olive Oyl’s Uncle Ben found Eugene in Africa and then gave it to Olive.  Animated episodes, however, provided different takes on Eugene.

    In animated versions of Popeye, the animators treated Eugene the Jeep largely as a “magical dog.”  In The Jeep (1938), Popeye gave Eugene to Olive Oyl and Swee’Pea.

    But a few years later in Popeye Presents Eugene the Jeep (1940), Popeye received Eugene from Olive.  In the episode, he acts like he had never seen the “baby puppy” before.

    Near Misses With Movies

    Eugene the Jeep almost made it onto the big screen with Robin Williams in Robert Altman’s 1980 movie Popeye. An early screenplay by Jules Feiffer included Eugene the Jeep.

    But reportedly it was difficult to make the magical creature believable in the live-action film.  So, he was taken out of the story. Some of his magic remained, though, as the writer gave some of the Jeep’s characteristics to Swee’ Pea in the movie.

    But although Eugene the Jeep missed out on that movie, he is still around. For example, he is the school mascot for a couple of high schools.

    At one point, Eugene the Jeep was scheduled finally to make it to the big screen by appearing in a 3D Popeye movie directed by Gennedy Tarakovsky (Hotel Transylvania). But Tarakovsky left the project in 2015 after disagreeing with the studio, which wanted a more modern version of Popeye.

    The video below features a screen test of animation from Tarakovsky’s film, including an appearance by Eugene the Jeep.

    We will have to wait and see whether Eugene the Jeep appears in the final version of the new Popeye film.

    What is your favorite Eugene the Jeep story? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Gravity Got Me Again: Mitch Hedberg

    Mitch Hedberg

    The brilliant stand-up comic Mitch Hedberg was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota on February 24, 1968. After starting his comedy career in Florida and then moving to Seattle, he got a big break by appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman in 1996.

    Hedberg went on to make people laugh onstage and to work on television and film. His unique pattern of speech and comedic style, partly created because he suffered from stage fright, makes him one of the most identifiable comedians. He was also simply brilliant.

    This video appears to show Hedberg’s first appearance on Letterman. He was on television with David Letterman ten times in his career, but this video clearly is an early performance (and some on YouTube note it is that first appearance).

    Unfortunately, Hedberg died at the young age of 37 in a New Jersey hotel room on March 30, 2005. The medical examiner listed cocaine and heroin as the cause.

    Fortunately, though, his work is still finding new fans and making us laugh today. He is missed.

    “I write jokes for a living, man. See I sit in my hotel at night, I think of something that’s funny and then I go get a pen and I write it down. Or if the pen’s too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain’t funny.” — Mitch Hedberg

    What is your favorite Mitch Hedberg line? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Mary Tyler Moore Episode, “Chuckles Bites the Dust”

    Chuckles the Clown

    We are very sad to hear that Mary Tyler Moore passed away today.  The iconic multi-cam television shows The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show made her a regular feature in many households.  Many have seen her in reruns, and she was a constant presence to those who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s.

    The Dick Van Dyke Show ran on CBS from October 3, 1961 to June 1, 1966.  The writing, characters, and acting make it a clever and funny show.  But one of the many wonderful things was that the loving relationship between Laura Petrie (Moore’s character) and Rob Petrie (Van Dyke’s character) seemed so real.

    The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran on CBS from 1970 to 1977, is often listed as one of the greatest television shows of all time (as is The Dick Van Dyke Show).  TV viewers and critics often cite Moore’s portrayal of a single working woman for breaking new ground on television.

    One of the most memorable episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show addressed the topic of death.  But it also was Moore at her funniest in the episode “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” written by David Lloyd.  In the episode, Mary and her co-workers at TV station WJM learn about the death of the clown Chuckles.  They prepare to go to his funeral, with hilarious results.

    I still remember the first time I saw the episode.  And it remains a favorite for many others.

    Like the best episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Chuckles Bites the Dust” is both funny and touching.  And Mary Tyler Moore is fabulous in it.

    Moore was born on born on Dec. 29, 1936, in Brooklyn Heights, passing away at the age of 80. It has been forty years since The Mary Tyler Moore Show went off the air.  But people around the world still love Moore’s work. Rest in peace.

    Did you know the house used for exterior shots where Mary Richards lived (2104 Kenwood Pkwy, Minneapolis) is for sale? What is your favorite episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show?  Leave your two cents in the comments.

     

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