The Flip Wilson Show. 1970 – 1974
I was ten years old when the Flip Wilson Show premiered on NBC in September of 1970. Back in those days, we only had a choice of three channels. There were actually four, counting PBS. But it only showed Sunrise Semester or educational programs, which we got enough of in school and certainly weren’t going to watch once we got home. Living so far back in the woods, our television was like a member of the family: always there to inform, entertain and make a precocious ten- year-old like me feel good.
Daddy was very good about yelling outside when I was playing to let me know one of my favorite stars was on TV. He knew I loved Diahann Carroll and Diana Ross. And I fought him and Mama tooth and nail to let me stay up late enough to watch “Wild Wild West,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and Johnny Carson.
Diahann, Johnny, Napoleon and James T. became my loyal and trusted friends when those at school teased me for wearing homemade clothes, having frizzy bangs, using a word they didn’t know, or anything they could find “different” about me than them. I’d practically sprint all the way home to finish my chores and have supper before my favorite shows started coming on.
I can easily recall the glee that pulsated through me when the theme song kicked in and the announcer cried, “The Flip Wilson Show… This week’s guests: Diahann Carroll, Frank Gorshen (“The Riddler” from “Batman”), and The Temptations!”
The musical guests were always part of the sketches. It was fun to see them take on other characters, and really funny when they forgot their lines and started laughing at themselves in the middle of a skit. My favorite line was “In the booth, in the back, in the corner, in the dark.” Flip must have liked a lot too, because he used it in a couple of different scenarios.
The musical guest roster was also like a precursor to iTunes, in that they covered every genre, style and culture. While I often heard my favorite Soul groups on WIDU, I grew to appreciate people like Roger Miller, Bobby Darrin and Robert Goulet. I was already a big Lee Marvin fan because I watched him in Army movies and Westerns with Daddy. “Cat Ballou” is still one of my all time favorite films. But I loved him even more when I heard him sing “I Was Born Under a Wandering Star” from the movie he did with Clint Eastwood.
While I don’t know what could have been going on behind the scenes of the show, for me it was the manifestation of a multicultural melting pot. It filled me with aspirations of moving to Hollywood and just camping out on that set with the vast spectrum of entertainers who performed together. Bill Withers, The Supremes, John Creach, Della Reese, Ed McMahon, Roy Clark, Cicely Tyson, Don Knotts, Richard Pryor, Ruth Buzzi, Dionne Warwick, Johnny Cash, Slappy White, Jim Nabors, Kris Kristofferson, Roscoe Lee Browne, The 5th Dimension, Paul McCartney & Wings, Carol Channing, Ed Asner and Donny Hathaway. Everybody who was anybody showed up on Flip’s round stage.
With no reference points other than the snippets on Walter Cronkite, little did I know that riots, violence and racial discrimination were going on around the country as I curled up on the couch giggling at Burns and Schrieber. Looking back on this period, I believe this sheltered backwoods environment was the cocoon I needed to formulate my identity and aspirations, much like a young tomato plant needs to be propped up by a stick until it comes of age. For I believe that had I heard of, or been a victim to, such racially motivated harm at a young age, I’d have grown up with a deep-seated bitterness, or subconscious concept of being “less than…” because of the color of my skin, which I’ve never harbored. I have had my issues, but I’ve always felt just as entitled to walk on any street, or sit at any drugstore counter as Diana Ross or Lola Falana felt on Flip Wilson’s stage. Had I watched all these riots and brutality, I wonder if I’d have dreamed the same dreams. Or would I have been too bitter or afraid to pursue them?
Decades later, when my worst encounter with racism happened in an office in New York’s Herald Square, I was so shocked that someone else had to call the ugly thing for what it was. But by then, my dignity and vision were already intact, unscathed by history. So this incident merely contributed to my fervor to effect change and encourage creativity.
I couldn’t fight the feeling of choking up a few months ago when I happened upon a YouTube clip of Sammy Davis, Jr. performing “Mr. Bojangles” on the Flip Wilson Show. It seems like only yesterday that Daddy called out, “Poot, Sammy Davis on Flip Wilson doing Bojangles…”