BOOTLEG FILES 447: “Sha Na Na” (1977-81 syndicated series).
LAST SEEN: Bits and pieces of episodes are scattered across YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A nostalgic favorite that seems stuck in limbo.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not for a long, long time.
If you are under the age of 30, there is a good chance that you only know about the music group Sha Na Na from their guest appearance as Johnny Casino and the Gamblers in the ridiculously popular film “Grease.” But for those of us with a bit more age under the belt, memories of Sha Na Na are firmly rooted in the group’s popular syndicated variety series, which ran from 1977 to 1981.
Sha Na Na was originally formed at New York’s Columbia University during the 1960s as an a cappella group and quickly evolved as a high-octane, highly theatrical tribute to the music of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Adapting an on-stage persona as urban tough guys, they were booked at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 – and while the concert audience was probably too stoned to comprehend how this retro act wound up in the middle of the ultimate hippie-dippie extravaganza, the group managed to snag screen time in the groundbreaking 1970 documentary coverage of the event.
Throughout the 1970s, Sha Na Na became a ubiquitous presence on the concert stage circuit and on television variety shows. Their fans included the likes of John Lennon, who booked the group for his 1972 One-to-One concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden, and Frank Zappa, who had Sha Na Na as an opening act when the Mothers of Invention were on tour. By 1977, producer Pierre Cossette arranged for a weekly half-hour series starring the group. The show, simply called “Sha Na Na,” was syndicated to local television stations across the U.S. via LBS Communications.
Over the years, Sha Na Na changed personnel. By the time “Sha Na Na” came about, the group was a 10-man team with vocalist Jon Bauman, nicknamed “Bowzer,” as the nominal leader. The rest of the group consisted of Lennie Baker (saxophone), Johnny Contardo (vocals), Frederick “Dennis” Greene (vocals), “Dirty Dan” McBride (guitar), John “Jocko” Marcellino (drums), Dave “Chico” Ryan (bass), “Screamin’” Scott Simon (piano), Scott “Santini” Powell (vocals), Donald “Donny” York (vocals). McBride left the group in 1980 and was replaced by “Guitar Glenn” Jordan.
“Sha Na Na” maintained a strict format throughout its run. Each show opened with a concert segment that offered the group doing a spirited cover of a golden oldie. After the number, Bowzer would emerge and offer a comic introduction of what viewers could expect for that episode. Following a commercial break, the action switched to an inner city setting featuring brownstone apartment buildings, neighborhood grocery stores and a wide street. The episode’s guest star usually appeared at this segment, and the running gag of the series found the guests feigning horror that they would be forced to appear with such an allegedly untalented bunch like Sha Na Na. Indeed, this gag was milked so frequently that when singer Lola Falana appeared and declared her delight to be on the show, Bowzer felt her forehead to detect whether she was suffering from fever-borne delusions.
In keeping with the group’s retro theme, some of the music guests were legends from the late 1950s and early 1960s: Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Del Shannon, Paul Anka and Jan & Dean turned up to perform their classic hits. More frequently, however, the show was visited by performers who turned up on all of the other variety shows of the 1970s: Ethel Merman (who engaged Bowzer in a duet of “Anything You Can Do”), Rita Moreno, Connie Stevens, Milton Berle and Zsa Zsa Gabor were in the star parade, while a young Billy Crystal, then enjoying his first peak via the sitcom “Soap,” was brought on to do a stand-up routine. One of the most peculiar guests was a none-too-musical Joe Namath, who gamely joined in a doo-wop rendition of “Get a Job” after Sha Na Na threatened to read his then-current (and feeble) football statistics on the air.
After this segment and another commercial break, Sha Na Na would conduct an extended sketch centered on an oldie hit. The song would be broken into sections while the group engaged in some corny jokes in between stanzas. For example, a skit involving “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” had Sha Na Na dressed as jungle cannibals preparing for dinner, while “Alley Oop” found them as cavemen coping with prehistoric life and “Ghost Riders in the Sky” as cowboys and Indians in a none-too-wild West.
During this mid-part of the show, the group would engage in various comic bits with a small supporting cast. Much of the comedy was intended to poke fun at Sha Na Na’s supposed mediocrity, with dyspeptic character actress Jane Dulo offering the best wisecracks. Funnymen Avery Schreiber, Soupy Sales and Kenneth Mars also rotated in and out as semi-regulars.
In the final part of the episode, Sha Na Na returned to the concert setting for one last musical blast. Bowzer would then thank the show’s guest and the program concluded with a rendition of “Goodnight, Sweetheart” while the camera across each Sha Na Na member’s smiling and singing face.
While “Sha Na Na” never had a standout, one-for-the-history-books episode, the series was consistently entertaining. The group members brought an uncommonly high degree of enthusiasm and charm to their numbers, and they performed the old-time hits with style and panache that never veered into tongue-in-cheek camp. The series, as a whole, may have been predictable in its formatting and contents, but it was a pleasant predictability with a broad appeal to kids (many of whom discovered the program via “Grease” and were hearing the old songs for the first time) and their parents (who clearly enjoyed the nostalgia mix).
Occasionally, the program got a bit too silly – most notably with the insertion of Three Stooges-style knockabout to the tune of “The Three Bells” – but the only genuine annoyance was a too-obvious laugh track and applause track that punctuated each segment. But those problems were never enough to derail the fun.
“Sha Na Na” racked up 97 episodes over a four-season run before production ended in 1981. Although the show was routinely ignored by the Emmy Awards, it was one of the highest rated syndicated programs during its run. With the end of the series, however, Sha Na Na saw its popularity decline. There would be more personnel changes over the years, including the addition of female vocalists, and a modified version of the group continues to appear on tour.
To date, there has been no home entertainment release of “Sha Na Na.” Sony Pictures Television owns the rights to the series, but the music licensing costs related to the series’ numerous tunes appear to be too expensive and time-consuming to pursue. Fortunately, a number of “Sha Na Na” fans with VCRs preserved the show on VHS video, and segments from many shows are scattered about YouTube in unauthorized postings. Until such time that an official DVD/Blu-ray release can be arranged, this is the only way to see Sha Na Na – not counting the fifty-millionth TV rerun of “Grease,” of course!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!
Posted on September 28, 2012 in Bootleg Files, Features by Phil Hall
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