In the world of books about classic television there aren't a lot of original ideas. Profile some shows and try to provide some fresh insight, that's pretty much the standard. But a book I'm reading now - The Lucky Strike Papers - is truly unique. It's Andrew Lee Fielding's archeological dig into the career of his mother, Sue Bennett, a popular singer on early TV programs like Your Hit Parade, The Freddie Martin Show, and Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge. The author delves deep into TV obscura to focus on what life and television were like in the not-so-nifty fifties, into how blacklisting affected these shows and others, the haphazard nature of the new, unreliable technology, and what it meant to be part of one of the most revolutionary upheavals in American history. It's a loving journey back to an era when television was a mystery to everyone involved, when charm and talent were prerequisites for appearing in people's homes. Imagine that. One of the more fascinating aspects of this book to me were the chapters related to Kay Kyser's TV program, an hour-long, live variety and game show combined. An under appreciated musical genius Kyser walked away from show business - and his hit TV show - in 1950 when he retired to Chapel Hill, North Carolina at age 45.
I actually got to know Kyser's daughter Kimberly in the 1990s and had the pleasure to meet her mom Georgia Carroll Kyser (a vocalist and a model many called the most beautiful woman in America) at her lovely home in the heart of the city, practically on the UNC campus. This was when I was working on a web site for a proposed documentary on the man that I'm still shocked didn't get funded. It's not a tightly told story, meandering and going off on tangents, but that's one of the aspects I liked about the book. The Lucky Strike Papers vividly recreates the sophomoric excitement behind the blurry, flickering pictures that came to define that piece of furniture that changed our lives. If you even know who Ishkabibble or Snooky Lanson are you're in for a treat. There are lots of pictures and screen captures to illustrate the story, this would be a terrific book to take on vacation.