March 13, 2008
At the crossroads with Elvis
On March 14 at the Cinerama Dome, Elvis Presley will return one more time in a special 40th anniversary screening of the "Singer Presents Elvis" special from 1968, or "The Comeback Special" as it is more popularly known, as the kickoff event of the Paley Center for Media's 25th annual PALEYFEST. A panel discussion afterward will feature Priscilla Presley, his widow; as well as Steve Binder, the producer and director of the special -- which is the reason I'll be attending the event.
The Elvis Presley special is far from Binder's greatest accomplishment. A complete list of his film, TV and record productions would dwarf this column, but suffice to say that when Entertainment Weekly listed "The Top 100 Greatest Moments in Television," six were Binder's work.
So who is Steve Binder (beyond being my friend Dana Sigoloff's dad), and why was "Elvis" so special that 40 years later, people still regard it as one of the greatest TV musical performances ever?
Binder is a Los Angeles native who grew up in Carthay Circle. His father ran a gas station downtown. He attended Los Angeles high and served in the Army.
A friend told him that working at a TV studio was a good place to meet women, so he applied for a job in the mailroom at KABC-TV, the local ABC network affiliate. He quickly rose through the ranks until soon he was directing local programming, including "Soupy Sales." He then directed the Steve Allen-produced "Jazz Scene USA" and the syndicated "Steve Allen Westinghouse Hour" (at one point directing both at the same time).
In 1964, showman Bill Sargent asked Binder to produce and direct the West Coast portion of the NAACP 's "Freedom Spectacular," with Burt Lancaster, Edward G. Robinson, Gene Kelly, Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, Bill Cosby (in one of his first filmed appearances) and Benny Carter in a series of sketches, songs and readings that didn't lecture but subtly addressed issues of race in America. The show was an artistic success, but not a financial one (it was shown in closed-circuit theaters) and, as far as I can tell, was never subsequently released on television, cable or DVD.
Sargent's next production involved Binder filming a benefit rock concert for a foundation that awarded music scholarships to talented teenagers. This became the "Teenage Music International Show," or "The T.A.M.I. Show," one of the greatest rock and roll performance films of all times. Jack Nitzsche recommended many of the acts and put together the house band, which included Glen Campbell and Leon Russell.
Filmed at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, this 1964 who's who of artists included Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore, Jan & Dean, The Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Supremes, the Rolling Stones and James Brown and the Flames.
Over the next few years, Binder directed a variety of programs, including "Hullaboo" (he suggested having go-go girls in cages like at The Whisky), "The Danny Kaye Show" (a bad experience), a special for Lucille Ball (a good experience, but a flop) and two episodes of "Gilligan's Island."
Although Binder enjoyed directing the sitcom episodes, he observed that in sitcoms, the director was not the name people remembered. Binder had stumbled into television and directing almost by chance, and he now had to ask himself: What sort of a career did he want to have?
Binder had a realization: If he wanted to control his destiny, he would need to produce and direct unique programs for unique talent, or as he put it, "Tailor-made musical specials for individual stars." That insight led to some of televisions' most memorable moments and, of course, to Presley.
But before we get to "The King," it is worth mentioning the special that got Binder the job, a show in many ways more historic and precedent setting: "Petula."
Petula Clark was a blond, pixie-ish British singer, who had a No. 1 hit worldwide titled, "Downtown" (it was the first single record I asked my parents to buy for me). NBC had made a deal with Plymouth and its advertising agency, Young & Rubicam, for a special to star Nancy Sinatra. When Sinatra dropped out, Clark was recruited.
Binder decided to pair her with Harry Belafonte as a guest star. Some executives at Plymouth objected, but Binder insisted.
Although it was 1968, some advertising and auto executives were anxious about a white woman and a black man appearing in a national TV program together. I know it sounds crazy and hard to believe, but there was a moment in the show, unscripted, when Clark touches Belafonte's arm -- "the touch," Binder calls it, that was taken to be of such historic importance to race relations in America that Newsweek sent over a photographer and The New York Times and others ran articles about it.
In spite of this (and perhaps because of it), the show was a success. And that led to Binder receiving a call to meet "The Colonel."
TV producer Bob Finkel told Binder that NBC's Tom Sarnoff had struck a deal with Presley's manager, Col. Tom Parker, to do a special, but Presley was reluctant to return to television. Finkel felt Presley and Binder would hit it off, and that, based on Binder's experience on the "Petula" special, Binder would be able to stand up to the Colonel. Binder was not an Elvis Presley fan, but his partner, Bones Howe, a successful music producer, said he would be crazy not to meet him.
After a successful meeting with Finkel, Binder and Howe went to meet the Colonel at his offices on the MGM lot (what is today the Sony lot in Culver City). The Colonel dominated the whole meeting, telling grotesque stories from his carny circus roots and bragging about his deal-making business acumen (Binder said he was repulsed by the former and unconvinced as to the latter).
The first meeting with Presley took place, Binder recalled, on May 10, 1968, at the Binder-Howe offices on Sunset Boulevard (next to the old Tower Records store). Presley arrived on time with his entourage of four friends, who sat in the waiting room as Presley met with Binder, Howe and Alan Blye and Chris Bearde, who would write the special.