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Taking a Sentimental Journey

March 08, 1992|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On most nights the Hollywood Palladium vibrates to the sound of loud and raucous rock concerts. But for one night late last fall, the Palladium took on a romantic tone as it turned back the clock five decades to the bygone era of the big-band.

For the new KCET special, "Those Fabulous '40s," fashionably dressed couples hit the floor, jitterbugging and dancing cheek to cheek to the music of such greats as Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.

Hosted by actor-singer-musician Hal Linden, "Those Fabulous '40s" stars Toni Tenille, Jack Jones, "The Tonight Show's" Doc Severinsen and the Pied Pipers.

An 18-piece band featuring drummer Louis Bellson performs such standards as Dorsey's "I'm Getting Sentimental Over you," Miller's "In the Mood," James' "I Heard That Song Before," Goodman's "Moonglow" and Shaw's "Frenesi" and "Begin the Beguine."

Featured in the 90-minute musical is a performance by big-band leader Les Brown, who celebrates his 80th birthday on the special. Also included will be interviews with a slew of singers, including Maxene Andrews of the Andrew Sisters, Kitty Kallan, Helen O'Connell, Kay Starr, Martha Tilton and Yvonne King.

(It's a week for big-band fans as PBS also premieres "Big Band Ballroom Bash," starring Juliet Prowse and Bobby Short and featuring performances by competitive ballroom dancers to the sounds of the Artie Shaw Orchestra.)

Yvonne King, who sang her way to fame during the big-band era as one of the King Sisters, has vivid memories of performing at the Palladium during its heydey in the '40s.

"In those days, the audience would dance when the band was playing, but when the girls came out to sing they would rush toward the front of the bandstand and just stand there," she said. "It was really fun. In fact, they had a dress code. A lady couldn't wear slacks and a man had to have a jacket."

Executive producer Patricia Kunkel, who also produced for KCET the special "Sentimental Swing: The Music of Tommy Dorsey," said the music from the '40s has endured because it is "so fabulous. It was probably one of the more prolific times in our musical history. I think the music really strikes a chord. I grew up listening to this music and I have carried it over into my adult life. It strikes memories in the people who lived and danced with it at that time and it continues, hopefully, to be rediscovered."

King said big-band music quickly caught on in the late 1930s because it was new. "Before big-bands, they had jazz combinations and New Orleans groups," she said. "Dixieland combinations each played their own bit. It was a kind of like jamming. (Big-band music) was arranged by an arranger so everyone was playing harmoniously with each other. It was the birth of swing and you never in your life felt such an enthusiasm as the young kids had for these bands. They would travel really far to see them in one-night stands. A lot of the songs seem dated, but a lot of them still have the same appeal."

"The musicianship required to play that kind of music was pretty amazing," said Tenille of the pop group the Captain and Tenille. "We take these people for granted who sat down and sight-read anything we put in front of them. They had to be really good and practice and study and really know their instrument."

Tony-winning Hal Linden, who plays a version of "Frenesi" on the clarinet on the special, said his boyhood fantasy was to play with the big-bands. At 13, he was playing in "kid" bands.

"The big-bands were still around in those days and we emulated them," Linden said. "We played arrangements of Woody Herman tunes. I actually ended up playing with a big-band in the late 1940s."

Director Kip Walton, who also directed "Tommy Dorsey," wanted to put a new twist on the old standards with this special. "It is time for a new generation to do the music," he said, pointing out Natalie Cole's recent success updating the songs of her father, Nat "King" Cole. "That's what we are trying to do with this show, is update the music but not alienate any of the people who remember it."

Appearing in "Those Fabulous 40s" was very special to Tenille, who has released two albums of big-band and jazz standards. "My father was a big-band singer," she said. "My daddy sang with Bob Crosby and His Bobcats in the late 1930s. He wasn't with them long because my grandfather passed away and Daddy had to go back to Alabama to run the family business."

During the taping of "Fabulous '40s," she met singer Martha Tilton. "My father used to date her," Tenille said. "They were very, very close. She is absolutely a little darling, full of life and she is a wonderful singer. My dad died a couple of years ago and all of this meant so much to him, doing this kind of music, and meeting her made me feel close to him."

"Those Fabulous '40s" airs Wednesday and Saturday at 8 p.m. on KCET and March 17 at 9 p.m. on KPBS.

"Big Band Ballroom Bash" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on KPBS, Thursday at 9 p.m. and Saturday at 6 p.m. on KCET, Friday at 4 p.m. on KOCE and March 15 at 7 p.m. on KPBS.

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