Culture

getTV and Merv Griffin: Mining Gold From Talk-Show History

In late November, Sony Pictures Television threw a party on the Sony movie lot in Culver City, California. It wasn’t to honor a hot new movie or a current hit network TV show.

Instead, Sony was celebrating the 50th anniversary of “The Merv Griffin Show,” which, after a brief NBC run from late 1962 to early 1963, launched in syndication in 1965 and then stayed on the air in various incarnations until 1986.

“The Merv Griffin Show,” along with “The Judy Garland Show,” anchors the Monday-night schedule on getTV, Sony’s U.S. digital broadcast network celebrating rarely seen classic TV and movies. It regularly airs at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT.

On Monday, Dec. 14, following “The Christmas Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour,” getTV presents a special holiday edition of “Merv Griffin,” first aired on Dec. 25, 1965, starring singers Barbara McNair, Earl Wrightson, Steve Perry and Jimmy Boyd (“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”), along with singer/actress Florence Henderson (in her pre-“The Brady Bunch” days).

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As well as being a top talk-show host, Griffin was a show-business entrepreneur, creating such iconic game shows as “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune.” He also was owner of the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, home to many awards shows and events, most notably the Golden Globe and Daytime Emmy Awards (and also infamous for being where Whitney Houston died in 2012).

Born in San Mateo, California, in 1925, Griffin died in 2007 at the age of 82, from prostate cancer.

The Sony party featured a towering coconut cake, celebrating Griffin’s famous song, “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.”

On hand to cut the cake and reminisce were Griffin’s only child, son Tony Griffin, “Wheel of Fortune” host Vanna White, game-show host Peter Marshall, and some of Griffin’s favorite talk-show guests, including Charo, actress Donna Mills and comedienne Renee Taylor.

Spanish-born Charo, now 64 but still a bundle of energy, told PJ Media a touching story about Griffin’s final days, as Tony Griffin was taking his father home from the hospital.

“He wanted to die at home,” said Charo. “My sister was coming to visit somebody, and she saw him there when he was leaving the hospital. He knew that this was the end, but didn’t want to say nothing to my sister.

“He said, ‘You look great! Give my love to Charo. I love Charo; she’s so good.’ He knew that he was at the last. A week later, we lost him, but he never want to say that.”

White, who owes her game-show career to Griffin, who chose her from 200 hopefuls to be the letter-turner on “Wheel of Fortune,” spoke to PJ Media about the man she knew.

“He was the kindest, gentlest, sweetest man I’ve ever known,” she said, “seriously. I’m not just saying that because of what he did for me. I said earlier, he was intoxicating. You were around him, you wanted to be around him. He was addicting. He made you feel so good.”

Among the executives on hand was Jeff Meier, the senior vice-president, programming, for Sony Movie Channel, Cine Sony and getTV.

“We launched in February 2014,” he said of getTV. “We’re in a little over 30 million homes, and we keep on expanding. We’re bound to expand some more early in the coming year. We started off as all classic movies, but we always had a vision for being both classic movies and TV.

“The trick is trying to do something not everybody else is doing at the same time. We’ve really honed in on trying to find rare stuff.”

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While some classic scripted shows, from “I Love Lucy” to “Bewitched” to “Gilligan’s Island,” have never been off the air, talk and variety shows are more ephemeral. Not all the episodes have even been saved, and many have never been seen again since they first aired.

Said Meier, “I felt there was nobody doing classic variety or classic talk programming, so we put together a night where we have ‘Judy Garland’ on at 8; we’ve got ‘Merv Griffin’ on at 10; and at 9, we’ve been rotating episodes of different variety shows.

“We’ve had Andy Williams, Jim Nabors. There was a Dionne Warwick special that hadn’t been seen since 1969, and a Carol Channing/Pearl Bailey special, since it first aired.”

But Meier isn’t interested in finding oddities from the past.

“I don’t want people to laugh at the shows,” he said. “I want them to laugh with the shows, when the shows are laughing. It’s showing the proper respect to them all.”

And sometimes, talk shows are time capsules. Meier said that a recent “Merv” episode aired by getTV featured topical comedian and activist Dick Gregory.

“He was talking about the Watts riots,” he said, “and everything he was saying was very relevant to the whole ‘Black Lives Matter’ conversation that’s going on now. It’s eerie how those same conversations are happening 50 years later.

“We’ve got coming up, on Martin Luther King Day, Merv had a whole episode with Harry Belafonte Jr. and Martin Luther King Jr. Some of it is probably on DVD, but it hasn’t been seen on TV since then, so we’re airing that on that day.

“That, to me, is just as much news and history as it is entertainment talk show.”