Not “Oh My!”….But Oh No!: Dick Enberg, Mt. Rushmore Broadcaster, Leaves Us

December 22, 2017

I stayed up past midnight this morning and was making one final flip through Twitter, a dubious exercise some evenings.  In the left-hand column of Trends, I saw a name that led me to one of those moments where I knew what I would see if I clicked on it.

My reaction was “oh no!”  The man who made “oh my” a cemented phrase in sportscasting, Dick Enberg, died at the age of 82.

Dick Enberg 2Without question, he was my idol in basketball broadcasting.  Though he was spectacular at the wide variety of sports he called, he made basketball come alive for me as if it were on an Imax screen.  I never even remotely came close to his talent and recognition, though I enjoyed 25 years as an NAIA and NCAA Division II basketball commentator.  Yet, Enberg was my role model and the main influence for me to go behind the television mike.

This, however, is not going to be a recitation of all of Enberg’s accomplishments.  Plenty of obituaries and radio and television reminiscences will do that quite well.  As a game show enthusiast, I could wax forever about one of my favorites of the genre of all time, Sports Challenge.  The host was Dick Enberg.

Instead, I want to focus on a signature moment that changed the face of one sport.  Dick Enberg was a major reason why.

Nearly 50 years ago in January 1968, Enberg played a seminal role in turning college basketball into a national television sport.  That is no exaggeration.

At the time, Lyndon Johnson was facing challenges from his own party for re-election which led to his dropping out of the race.  Racial strife led to rioting and burning in the Watts district of Los Angeles and Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco.  Dr. Martin Luther King and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy would both be assassinated only weeks apart.  An irreverent satirical hour labeled Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In was about to become television’s number one show.  In a last hurrah, the Green Bay Packers had just won their second straight Super Bowl.  College basketball was a non-entity on network television.

In a game that was a precursor of today’s college basketball Final Four in domed stadiums, John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins were matched against the Houston Cougars of Guy Lewis (who closely resembled Al Lewis, the proverbial Grandpa on The Munsters).  The teams would square off at the three-year-old Astrodome.  If Barney Fife were describing the plans to Andy Taylor, he would say, “It’s gonna be big, Ang.”

Dick Enberg 6A 33-year-old sportscaster with Midwest roots was chosen to call the game.  He was building a name on the West Coast as the voice of UCLA basketball, as well as the radio voice of the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Angels.  Dick Enberg would not only make history by broadcasting in the largest venue ever to house a basketball game, as well as the largest crowd, but his work nearly a half century ago pushed the sport to a major transition.

The game was in prime time (9:30 pm on Saturday night in the East). However, it was not on CBS, ABC or NBC, but on a small regional sports syndication network—-TVS, created by television sports entrepreneur Eddie Einhorn.

NBC gave a valiant six-year run to college basketball and the NBA from 1955-61. The network dropped both despite having voices such as Lindsey Nelson, Curt Gowdy and Jack Drees calling the games because the sports just did not click with audiences as an appointment attraction.  Advertisers clamored for baseball’s weekend games.  They gave support to the National Football League a half century before its multi-billion dollar contracts.  They were not even lukewarm to sponsor basketball on TV.

In 1964, Einhorn launched TVS with regional telecasts of SEC basketball and Big 8 games, later expanding to three other conferences. The C.D. Chesley Co. began a package of ACC games to stations along the Eastern seaboard.

Still, the networks were not interested in the NCAA tournament or a regular season college basketball package.  Fans had to read about the championship game in their morning or afternoon newspapers. When Bob Wiesenhahn and Paul Hoque led Cincinnati to two straight NCAA titles in 1961 and 1962 and the Bearcats lost a thriller 60-58 to Loyola of Chicago in a bid for a third in a row, television was not there.

The UCLA-Houston matchup was the first attempt of Einhorn to go in prime time. The setting of the Astrodome was enough to attract stations as well as the name recognition of UCLA’s powerhouse center Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). A surprising 154 stations picked up the game, most of them network affiliates.  Media billed the showdown as the Game of the Century.  What a cliche that four-word phrase is now.

Dick Enberg 4The decision to assign Enberg, who called UCLA games on a tape delay but was not a national broadcast name, as play-by-play commentator served as an introduction to a wordsmith with the ability to lift a game into an event.  Enberg was limited exposure in about 40 TV markets with “The Perfect Match,” a “Dating Game” knockoff.  In dozens of cities, he was an unknown.

Before the first half was over, viewers knew Enberg was on a level above anyone they had ever heard call college basketball. His spectacular intonation and clarity of voice gave viewers the idea this was a night of sports history and that a possible upset was in the making.

Ironically, this was a game UCLA’s legendary coach did not want to play.  Wooden did not like his Pacific-8 conference race interrupted by an intersectional game.  He felt a non-conference game in January was a distraction to his team’s ultimate goal.

UCLA came into the game with a 47-game winning streak.  Most sports analysts predicted the Bruins would eclipse San Francisco’s 60-game streak set in the 1950s.

The Cougars had other ideas.  Houston’s Elvin Hayes, who averaged 37.7 points a game, went on a tear in the first half.  On his final basket of the first half, Enberg chanted, “ELVIN HAYES HAS 29 POINTS!” Houston led 46-43 at halftime.

Dick Enberg 5The second half was much more defensive. Hayes was held to 10 points but hit two key free throws with 1:54 remaining to put Houston up 71-69. Long before the shot clock era, UCLA worked extensively for a tying shot and possible foul. All-America guard Mike Warren made one of his rare mistakes and threw away a pass with forward Lynn Shackelford wide open.

Houston held onto the ball (this was 15 years before Jim Valvano launched the foulfest on his way to an NCAA title at North Carolina State) and pulled the two-point upset.  Enberg could not be accused of being a homer for UCLA.  He called the game right down  the middle.  He built high drama and made the game a larger-than-life experience.

I was watching the game on WJXT in Jacksonville, which pre-empted “Petticoat Junction” and “Mannix” to carry the game. I had a huge fatigue factor with UCLA, though I was a major admirer of Coach Wooden. I celebrated when anyone could knock off the Bruins. I had no doubt this was a college basketball telecast like none I had ever seen. The setting and the exuberant crowd set the tone but Enberg made that game an American classic that paved the way for a much bigger future for the sport.

The ratings were the highest ever for a college basketball game on American television, once all of the markets reported.  Advertisers began to take note that, given proper promotion and announcing talent, the college game could draw an audience.

The following year, NBC began carrying Saturday games in the NCAA tournament.  By 1969, the championship game and national consolation game became a Saturday afternoon tradition on NBC until they eventually moved to Monday nights.

In the late ’70s, after Curt Gowdy left NBC, Enberg became NBC’s senior voice. His years of pairing with Al McGuire and Billy Packer were of legend. His calls of Super Bowls and Olympics, as well as the PGA tour, placed him on the Mount Rushmore of sports broadcasters.

Study the careers of the classic sportscasters and you will often fine one signature game that propelled them into national prominence.  The great Ray Scott’s disciplined call of the Green Bay-Dallas Ice Bowl 50 years ago cemented his legacy.  Al Michaels’ “do you believe in miracles?” finish of the U.S. Olympic hockey team semifinal win over the Soviet Union in 1980 was a milestone marker.  Verne Lundquist was already a distinguished announcer but his 1986 chant of “yes sir!” when 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus hold a 20-foot putt to take the lead at The Masters is on the all-time, all-star list of TV sports memories.

The night of January 20, 1968, was the key moment in Dick Enberg’s career that elevated him to the A-list of commentators.  Never again would he be regarded as a regional broadcaster.  He changed a sport’s image in the eyes of America on that Saturday night.

I learned a lot that aided my modest career as a sportscaster by watching everything Enberg did and from his autobiography, “Oh My!”  In the book, he wrote that in  basketball, many young commentators attempt to call every basket in the first half of a game as if it’s a buzzer-beater.  “You have to play it calmer early in the game,” he wrote.  “If you have a real thriller, you want to save the drama for the closing moments.”

If we are honest, many of us who have been sportscasters on a much smaller level have patterned our styles after broadcasters we admire. One has to be one’s self at the mike to be a quality communicator but in key moments of dramatic and thriller games, I did my dead level best to pump the drama like Enberg during my 25 years as an NAIA and NCAA Division II television sportscaster. He was my absolute role model in basketball commentary.

I periodically look at a women’s conference championship game I called 20 years ago in an electrified arena.  In overtime and in a record performance by an NAIA All-American, I screamed, “MICHELLE STREET HAS 45 POINTS!” I thought of that UCLA-Houston game at that precise moment.  That call was a tip of the cap to my idol.

That game at the Astrodome nearly 50 years ago was a major reason I wanted to be a sportscaster. Dick Enberg was the catalyst for me.

The news came early Friday morning that Enberg passed away Thursday, likely of a heart attack.  His loss leaves a gaping hole for those who appreciate the art of sports broadcasting.

Dick Enberg 3As another great commentator who is a friend, Tim Brando, frequently says when we lose legends: “We’re not replacing them with people who have half the talent.”  This morning, Brando tweeted:  “(Enberg) was just being himself, a warm human being that brought out only the best in those around him.  No one was better!”

A lot of fine broadcasters are out there today.  Many young men and women want to go into the field.  My two young successors calling NCAA Division II basketball hope they are on a ladder to eventual success.  I only wish they all could learn from Dick Enberg.  He was one of a kind.

Rushing Faster to Unsubstantiated Judgment: No Validation to Journalism

John SkipperDecember 18, 2017

ESPN President John Skipper resigned today, acknowledging a long-term substance abuse problem.  His announced departure also quickly revealed another stain on the culture of contemporary journalism.

Yes, you have the typical online soreheads who are irritated at the perceived political climate of the Worldwide Leader.  They are virtually celebrating Skipper’s exit.  Some of those people would throw a party for an animal’s death.

More disturbing is how certain media members and the Twittersphere are already rushing to judgment that something more sinister is behind Skipper’s decision.  The recent rash of sexual misconduct issues of media personalities and executives quickly led the instant opinion crowd to put two and zero together and have them equal four.

The immediate condemnation of Skipper with wagering that another story will follow in his case with no proof of such is an embarrassment to our profession.  True, journalism is a profession in which its practitioners are trained to be skeptical to a fault.  Wading through the spinners and the carefully-crafted public relations statements is part of the job.

However, drawing unsupported conclusions in the name of opinion and commentary or outright boorishness when a man’s reputation is at stake is the epitome of irresponsibility.  We seem to have an epidemic of that in today’s journalism culture.

I am not now nor have I ever been the faculty advisor to our student newspaper at Union University.  As a practicing journalist for the bulk of my adult life, I do offer consulting help on occasion.

More than a decade ago, a student-athlete was suspended from the women’s basketball team and ultimately left the university.  At the time, we were between journalism professors.  An adjunct advisor was hired for the semester.  Suspicions on the part of some students was that the student was caught with some variety of drugs.  Despite various efforts to ferret a confirmation of those conclusions, none was forthcoming.

I cringed when I saw a line iEthicsn a paragraph in the story which read:  “We contacted The Jackson Police Department but were told no arrest had been made.”  I asked to step into the once-a-week afternoon practicum of the newspaper staff.  My question was simple:  do you have any proof, written or verbal, that the athlete was suspended from school because of drugs?  After a few stammers, the admission was that no confirmation existed.  My response:  then why did you raise the issue that you contacted the Jackson Police Department and received no information of an arrest?

The editor-in-chief of the paper sheepishly grinned as he said:  “I thought it was something that needed to be addressed.”  I then posed a hypothetical to him:  if someone said to you that the president of this university was embezzling money and you could not gain confirmation of it, would you do a story on that just because you felt it needed to be addressed?  “You would find yourself more than vulnerable to a libel suit,” I told him.

If more to the story of John Skipper’s resignation exists, no doubt that will be revealed in time.  His and ESPN’s credibility would take a sharp blow.

However, if his decision to step down is, in fact, strictly because he needs help to cure a substance addiction, then unsubstantiated questions are being raised that create potentially libelous damage to the man’s reputation.

Assuming Skipper is opting to focus on fighting his addiction, he should be celebrated for acknowledging the problem and getting help.  To go public and admit his illness may indeed be a major step toward conquering the problem.

The sad truth is that in today’s media—-especially the largely-unfiltered and unedited social media, we have some elements who can’t wait to stomp with a size 14 boot on one’s head.  That’s not journalism.  That’s arrogance and vulture commentary.  That has no place in a medium designed to inform, educate and provide viewers and readers with a barometer to make better decisions.  Yet, we wonder with astonishment why the cry of “fake news” spreads faster than the California wildfires.

John Skipper photo:  ESPNMediaZone

Ethics graphics:  RTDNA

Sgt. Carter: Gomer’s Rejoining You; Remembering Jim Nabors

Jim Obit 2Ask me to rank my top 10 favorite characters in TV history.  Gomer Pyle will be in the Final Four playoff, along with Andy Taylor, Barney Fife and Beaver Cleaver.

Ask me who delivered the definitive version of “The Impossible Dream” with a voice as powerful as a riptide and I will not hesitate to answer Jim Nabors.

I was spending a recent Thursday morning doing as I was told in helping to set up and decorate our church for our daughter’s Saturday wedding.  The news came over Twitter and Facebook that Jim had left us at the age of 87.

This one was like a punch in the gut.  The news was another reminder that while characters that strike a chord in our lives through television are immortal, the people who play them are not.

I actually saw Jim Nabors perform for the first time in 1961.  My family had just moved to Waycross, Ga., then the home of what one national magazine described as one of the 15 worst cities in America for television reception.  Unless one had a prohibitively expensive high-gain antenna, the choice was WJXT in Jacksonville or nothing.  Jacksonville had two affiliates but one of those spring thin air nights to pick up the NBC station, WFGA.  Both channels cherrypicked ABC programs.

WJXT opted on Wednesday nights to snag The New Steve Allen Show, a comeback bid for The Tonight Show originator.  Steve’s show was up against television’s number one show, Wagon Train, and failed to last.  However, a young singer named Jim Nabors appeared on several shows.  He could belt out a tune with a powerful baritone.  My parents enjoyed him.  However, with the short life of Steve’s variety hour, Jim faded into the woodwork as did scores of other performers who tried to break into early sixties television.

A little more than a year later, the Christmas Eve episode of The Andy Griffith Show was entitled “The Bank Job.”  Barney Fife set out to prove that The Mayberry Bank was a crime pushover.  A local mechanic who had never been introduced, Gomer Pyle, appeared.  Gomer had a voice that sounded as if he had done a dozen lube jobs in a Jim Gomer 1day.  Bit characters came and went in Mayberry, most never again to be seen.  Somehow, Gomer grabbed our attention.  I remember my father laughing uproariously at the few lines Gomer delivered.  We thought little more about it the next day—but Andy Griffith and his producers did.

Jim had no idea the 23 episodes in which he appeared on The Andy Griffith Show would propel him into major stardom.  This is a guy who just 10 years earlier had been a camera operator, film editor and morning show host at WJBF in Augusta.

The episode of December 16, 1963, was arguably the major turning point in the 33-year-old Nabors’ career.  Directed by actor Richard Crenna, “Citizen’s Arrest” became a signature episode of The Griffith Show‘s middle years.  Frustrated after Barney wrote him a ticket for making a U-turn in the middle of the town square, Gomer catches Barney doing the same thing.  The Mayberry mechanic begins yelling, “Citizen’s array-ust!  Citizen’s array-ust!”  The next three minutes of confrontation between Gomer and Barney were sheer comic genius.  Crenna never received the full credit he deserved for staging that scene.

I knew that episode hit home.  For the next two weeks during my school’s Christmas holidays, I encountered people everywhere—-including myself—-shouting “citizen’s array-ust!”  Along with “nip it in the bud,” Floyd’s “oooooh, Annnnndy” and Barney’s classic “Juanita?  Barn….cock-a-doodle-doooooo,” Gomer’s revenge became one of the ten charismatic catchphrases in the history of the series.

Spinoffs were still fledgling elements of television in the mid-sixties.  Harry Morgan’s character of Pete Porter was spun off into Pete and Gladys, a CBS sitcom derived from fifties favorite December Bride.  The characters of Bronco Layne and Sugarfoot were introduced on ABC’s Cheyenne but not expanded into their own rotating series until Clint Walker engaged in a contract dispute with Warner Brothers over merchandising and salary from Cheyenne.  In 1956, The $64,000 Challenge was a spinoff from the megahit The $64,000 Question to exploit the popularity of winners on Question.  Andy Griffith’s own series was introduced as a one-shot pilot on The Danny Thomas Show but the ensemble characterizations had not been developed.

The evening of May 18, 1964, was the moment of truth for the character of Gomer Pyle.  Gomer enters the sheriff’s office and does a choreographed version of The Marine’s Hymn.Jim Marine  Andy watches and says, “That’s real good, Gomer.”  Quickly, Gomer tells his friend, “Andy….I’m in.”  “In” was his enlistment papers in the United States Marine Corps.

In the following 27 minutes, we had a preview of what would take over sitcom television the following season.  Gomer as a bumbling Marine only embellished his personality as the bumbling mechanic from Mayberry.  We also saw how the chemistry would build between Nabors and one of the most underrated supporting actors in sitcom history, Frank Sutton.  Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. could not have been possible without Jim’s talent but the series would also not have worked without the counterpoint of Sutton as the beleaguered Sergeant Vince Carter.  When the two stood nose-to-nose after Gomer’s initial faux pas, you knew a winner was on the way.

Contrary to information in some of Nabors’ obituary tributes, CBS had already decided to pick up Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. as a series well before the pilot aired.  In those days, the network fall lineups were locked in as early as Washington’s birthday.  Network executives screened producer-writer Aaron Ruben’s pilot and immediately gave it the green light.  CBS intentionally saved its airing until the final Griffith episode of the 1963-64 season.

Ironically, TV Guide—in its fall forecasts—did not see great hope for Pyle.  The prediction was for a middle-of-the-pack rating.  Indeed, the time slot would be a challenge.  CBS had not experienced exceptional success with sitcoms on Friday nights through the years.  Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. would go in Fridays at 9:30.  The lead-in was a new but highly-touted ensemble variety hour The Entertainers starring Carol Burnett, Bob Newhart and a cast of up and coming singers and comics.  The lead-out, Slattery’s People, was a high-concept drama starring Richard Crenna in his first serious role as a state legislator.

The biggest battle for Gomer would be the series’ competition.  After CBS network president Jim Aubrey abruptly canceled The Jack Benny Program after 14 years (the book CBS:  Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye quotes sources as saying Aubrey cruelly told the legend, “You’re through.”), NBC picked up Benny for the Friday at 9:30 half-hour.  Benny promised to feature younger guests (The Smothers Brothers, The Lettermen, Peter, Paul and Mary, Jack Jones) as well as TV heavyweights Lucille Ball, Bob Hope and George Burns.  ABC countered with 12 O’Clock High, an hour-long war drama based on the movie of the same title.  The betting line was the Benny would be tough sledding for Gomer if his audience followed him to NBC.

Until the 1975-76 season, Nielsen ratings were based on two-week averages.  The first Gomer Pyle episode featured a solid premiere as Gomer was inept trying to navigate the obstacle course but worked extra time at night until he succeeded.  Week two fleshed out some of Gomer’s fellow recruits as a platoon member’s girlfriend managed to sneak into the barracks.  The verdict was a stunner for the handicappers.  Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. was immediately CBS’s number one show, finishing third for the two-week period behind NBC’s Bonanza and ABC’s Bewitched.  Twelve O’Clock High was 59th but the shocker was the result for The Jack Benny Program.  Out of 100 network series, the legend from Waukegan was in 97th place.  CBS indeed appeared to be right in canceling him.

Jim Nabors TTTTin case the early ratings were a fluke, CBS sent Nabors on a promotional swing as he appeared on Art Linkletter’s House Party and the prime time version of To Tell the Truth.  Regular panelist Orson Bean was given the week off from Truth in order to bring Nabors to the popular game show’s panel October 26, 1964.  For a week in a blitz of heavy daytime promos, voiceover announcers touted the star of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. as joining the panel of stars (Tom Poston, Peggy Cass and Kitty Carlisle).  Jim was a bit nervous.  He never before had played on a game show.  Onstage with heavyweight veterans Poston, Cass and Carlisle, the Alabama native struggled to ask pertinent questions of the contestants.  Only two games were played rather than the usual three because the episode was cut to 25 minutes to accommodate a five-minute political talk for the upcoming Presidential election.

Jim Nabors TTTT3As a testament to CBS’ promotional machine and Nabors’ increasing popularity resulted in the highest rating of the 11 years of nighttime To Tell the Truth.  The episode scored a 26.4 rating and 42 percent share of audience, crushing the NBC and ABC competition.

The numbers for Gomer Pyle were no fluke.  They not only held up but increased week-to-week.  For the full 1964-65 campaign, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. averaged a 30.7 rating, finishing in a virtual tie with Bewitched (at 31.0).  For the final 14 weeks of the season, Gomer overtook Bewitched  to become number two overall.

Jim Nabors was no longer a solid supporting actor.  He was morphing into a major network television star.  His musical talents were incorporated into two episodes of the first season.  He recorded his first album for Columbia Records, Shazam!, based on the Captain America yell he comedically incorporated in Mayberry and on the Marine base.  The first recording was in Gomer’s country voice.  That was followed up with By Request, which featured Nabors doing a number of Broadway and movie standards in his operatic style.  A third LP, Jim Nabors Sings:  Cuando Calienta el Sol, went gold.

During the five years of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., more elements of Gomer’s family were expanded.  He frequently quoted from Grandma Pyle (“Sergeant Carter, Grandma Pyle says you should chew your food 12 times before you swaller it.”).  We met his cousin Bridey and his grandfather.  He dated a colonel’s daughter and two Hollywood stars (one of them Ruta Lee).  He gained a steady girlfriend in off key nightclub singer Lou Ann Poovie (played by the incomparable Elizabeth MacRae).  He gave Vince constant nightmares, including one literally in a hilarious episode during which a meal of Welsh rarebit made Gomer and Vince both dream they had switched personalities.

A favorite Gomer Pyle episode was one in which Gomer was entrusted with Vince’s car while the sergeant was dispatched to collect an AWOL Marine.  The vehicle was stolen.  Eventually, it lands on a construction site where the car is destroyed.  The outstanding character actor Ken Lynch, whose TV career went back to the days of DuMont as The Plainclothesman, played the police sergeant who felt a sense of empathy for Private Pyle.  My daughter, watching the episode in rerun as a small child, went around the house for days chanting Gomer’s lament, “Sergeant Carter’s goin’ to kill me.  He’s gonna kill me dead!”  The construction company owner agrees to replace Carter’s car.  A classic line toward the end comes when Gomer explains to Vince:  “This big ball fell on it and smashed your car to Smithereens!”  Every time I saw a similar device when my university’s library was built three years ago, I kept thinking, “This big ball’s going to fall down and smash somebody’s car to Smithereens!”

The writers looked for more openings to incorporate Jim’s vocal talents into the series.  The most memorable musical moment came in episode nine of the fourth season.  During the November rating sweeps, Gomer won a singing contest.  The prize:  a trip to sing before an elite audience at a Washington, D.C., concert.  Nabors had already sung “The Impossible Dream” from “Man of LaMancha” on The Danny Kaye Show and the premiere episode of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967.  The arrangement in which Jim was accompanied by the U.S. Marine Corps Band was unmatched.  People have been tweeting and spreading that version on Facebook in the hours after we learned of Nabors’ death.  I don’t care how many times I hear it, Jim’s powerful delivery still gives me chills.

During its five seasons, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., never finished lower than tenth in the Nielsens (and that was in year three when CBS moved the show to Wednesday nights).  The series was invincible.  Back on Friday nights at 8:30, Gomer finished the first month of the 1968-69 season as the number two show in the Nielsens, runner-up only to NBC’s juggernaut Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.  At that point, TV Guide reported that Jim was thinking out loud about doing a weekly variety hour in 1969-70.  CBS was still non-committal.  With the numbers Gomer was still pulling, the network was willing to offer a Brinks truck for Nabors to do two more years of the sitcom.

Jim had other numbers on his side.  In November 1965, The Andy Griffith Don Knotts Jim Nabors Show, a variety special, went through the roof in the Nielsens.  In 1967, American Motors sponsored Friends and Nabors, Jim’s first solo special, with guests Griffith, Tennessee Ernie Ford, opera star Marilyn Horne and Shirley Jones.  The following year in what would be a fortuitous Thursday at 8 slot, Jim hosted Girl Friends and Nabors.  As a finale, Nabors sang an old Ernest Tubb song rearranged with a big band sound, “Tomorrow Never Comes,” which drew a huge audience reaction.

Gomer Pyle, USMC, had been a far bigger success than even the best of network prophets could have forecast.  Yet, Jim was tired.  Because of the interaction required, he was in virtually every scene.  Back home at night, he had to learn an additional 14 pages of dialogue.  Five years of the grind was taking a toll.

With his nightclub and recording career taking off, Nabors conferred with his manager Dick Linke.  As reported in TV Guide, Linke advised:  “Jim, with your talents, better to gamble now.”

Jim Nabors Hour 1When the fall 1969 CBS lineup was released in April, Gomer Pyle was not on the schedule.  The Jim Nabors Hour was.  The original plan was to go Fridays from 8 to 9 on the same night that Gomer had been such a huge success.  The popular Hogan’s Heroes would return for a fifth season by moving to 7:30.  However, CBS opted late in the scheduling game to go pick up the declining Get Smart from NBC for a sixth season and give a reluctant pickup to The Good Guys, a Bob Denver-Herb Edelman comedy that limped in the Nielsens in its first season.  Those comedies were penciled in at 7:30 and 8.  Hogan remained at 8:30.

CBS looked at the success of two Nabors specials on Thursdays at 8.  Further, after two CBS affiliates experienced success with Family Affair on a delayed broadcast Thursdays at 7:30 in 1968-69, the network opted to move the Brian Keith-Sebastian Cabot hit into that time slot as a lead-in for The Jim Nabors Hour.  The decision was inspired.

In a future blogpost, we will explore the detailed two-year history of Jim’s variety hour.  With a premiere episode that featured Andy Griffith and up-and-coming singer Julie Budd (along with a cameo by Don Knotts), the first week results were impressive.  The Sept. 25, 1969, debut scored a 26.0 rating and finished fourth for the week.  Family Affair drew higher ratings than its traditional Monday night slot.Jim Nabors 3

Some guests were better draws than others.  However, The Jim Nabors Hour finished 11th for the season in the 1969-70 Nielsens.  The following season, tougher competition from NBC’s new The Flip Wilson Show weakened the ratings.  Nonetheless, the Nabors show was still 28th in 1970-71 and was primed for a third season renewal.

What has unofficially been labeled The Great Rural Purge led to what many observers believed was a premature end for The Jim Nabors Hour.  Madison Avenue advertising agencies were pressuring the networks to end a decade of rural appeal shows launched by The Beverly Hillbillies in 1962.  Ad executives wanted more dramas, more shows with urban appeal in the large population centers and more programs appealing to the 18-49 age bracket that was viewing song-and-dance hours in fewer numbers.  The Nabors show was one of the final casualties on the CBS lineup for 1971-72.

Ironically, Jim was still in demand as a guest star on the remaining CBS variety shows during the seventies.  He continued his “good luck charm” appearances on every season premiere of The Carol Burnett Show until its end in 1977-78.  He showed up on Tony Orlando and Dawn, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and the final season of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.  A syndicated Nashville-based Music Hall America welcomed Jim as a host.

In 1977, Jim subbed for Dinah Shore on her daytime 90-minute talk/variety series.  So impressed were Dinah’s producers that they developed a similar one-hour format for Nabors.  In January 1978, The Jim Nabors Show premiered on 140 stations, including WCBS in New York.  Many of those stations slotted Nabors opposite the fast-rising Phil Donahue in an early morning time period.  After a strong first two weeks, Jim’s ratings began to sag.  By the end of the 14th week, his distributor announced The Jim Nabors Show would end after 26 weeks.

Jim never did another series.  In 1981, he frontlined a Christmas Jim Nabors 2special, Jim Nabors’ Christmas in Hawaii, which included him singing Silent Night at Pearl Harbor.  His most frequent annual appearances, which started in 1969, were at the Indianapolis 500 where he offered the emotional state song “Back Home in Indiana” for 36 years until a farewell in 2014.

The fact that a native of middle Alabama could be propelled into near-overnight success as a small town mechanic-turned-Marine private is one of the genuine folklore tales of television.  The day of his death, Jim Nabors’ version of “Impossible Dream” from Gomer Pyle, USMC, went viral online.  More than one person reacted in the sixties with the phrase, “That voice just doesn’t go with that face.”  Indeed, it did.

I enjoyed Gomer because I knew people like him in my hometown.  I was an unabashed fan of Jim’s music because our vocal range was similar and his versions of Broadway showstoppers and contemporary middle-of-the-road favorites of the era connected with me.  His variety hour was a weekly appointment for me because Jim was himself, not a craft of handlers or managers who wanted him to fit into a pattern.

Most of us never met him but never heard a cross word about him from those who did.  For most of the sixties when Jim Nabors appeared either in character of singing a powerful showcloser, we watched—and we wanted more.