Traditions are truly generational. Just think only a few generations ago there were no Thanksgiving TV traditions. After all the TV really didn’t start to have a real audience until after World War II. But since then it seems as the television has become a major part of most families Thanksgiving celebrations. Many television shows make or have made special Thanksgiving episodes. And of course there are many televised Thanksgiving Day events that have become part our annual Thanksgiving traditions.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the National Dog Show, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, and of course the newest entrant, “Punkin Chunkin.” By the way “Punkin Chunkin” is back on the Science Channel for the fifth year on Thanksgiving night, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012 at 8 p.m. ET/PT. So pumpkins will once again become projectiles in an epic autumn battle that has become a “NEW” Thanksgiving tradition, served up alongside turkey, mashed potatoes, and (of course) pumpkin pie. And let’s not leave out football and the televised Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show which is not on Thanksgiving this year but has moved to the following Tuesday, December 4th.
Most sitcoms have developed their own set of special little traditions. Much like how you’ll spend your Turkey Day eating your standard dishes to excess, sitcoms will inevitably have one or more of their characters ruin the meal, fight with a loved one, or wear clothing only acceptable for a holiday. Okay, so sitcoms maybe exactly like real life in that sense. Maybe that’s why so many sitcoms have had very successful Thanksgiving episodes. One such show started it’s own Thanksgiving tradition back in 1978. And in 1997 TV Guide ranked this episode number 40 on its ‘100 Greatest Episodes of All Time’ list. The series won a Humanitas Prize and received 10 Emmy Award nominations, including three for Outstanding Comedy Series.
Many TV stations have played or will play this sitcom’s episode special Thanksgiving episode Thanksgiving week each year. From my understanding this has become one of the most popular Thanksgiving sitcoms in history. What is the show you ask? “Turkeys Away” on WKRP in Cincinnati.
Here’s the famous Turkey Drop episode.
Oddly enough, this famous WKRP episode was loosely based on a real event! Back in 1946 (some sources say 1945), Yellville, Arkansas inaugurated the “Turkey Trot Festival” which included a wild turkey calling contest, a turkey target shoot, a Miss Drumsticks Pageant and oh yeah: a live turkey release from the roof of the courthouse.
After a few years, someone thought it might be fun to actually toss the poor gobblers out of a low-flying airplane for the event. This repeated for a number of years until 1989 when a national animal-rights protest cast the event in a bad light and the “National Enquirer” splashed a photo of the event across the nation forcing promoters to abandon the turkey drop.
Sometimes, real life is funnier, or stranger than anything you can make up.
So how does this apply to music you might ask? Or is this simply a ploy to get more share because of the Thanksgiving and entertainment angle? Well all of the above of course. But there’s an important music story here.
WKRP, as was commonly known is a series that featured the misadventures of the staff of a struggling fictional radio station in Cincinnati, Ohio. The show was created by Hugh Wilson and was based upon his experiences working in advertising sales at Top 40 radio station WQXI (AM) in Atlanta.
WKRP premiered September 18, 1978, on the CBS television network and aired for four seasons and 88 episodes (90 in syndication) through September 20, 1982. When WKRP went into syndication, it became an unexpected blockbuster. For the next decade, it was one of the most popular sitcoms in syndication, outperforming many much bigger prime time hits, including all the other MTM Enterprises sitcoms.
But here’s the rest of the story.
WKRP started pushing music licensing issues beyond the boundaries that existed in 1978. Remember MTV didn’t launch until 1981. These new licensing issues had even been thought. But because WKRP was one earliest to shows extensively use contemporary music by big groups and artists of the time such as The Who, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, and Elvis Presley this issue was not fully resolved. The show not only used big hits, but is credited with producing a few along the way.
Take Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” WKRP has been widely credited with helping the song become a major U.S. hit, and the band’s record label Chrysalis Records presented the producers or WKRP with a gold record award for the album Parallel Lines, on which the song appeared. This gold record can be seen hanging on the wall in the “bullpen” where Les, Herb, and Bailey worked in many of the episodes in the second, third, and fourth seasons.
The songs were often tied into the plot of the episode, and some pieces of music were even used as running gags. For example, the doorbell to Jennifer’s penthouse apartment played “Fly Me to the Moon” which was later replaced by “Beautiful Dreamer”, for reasons explained below.
Music licensing deals cut at the time of production were for a limited amount of time (approximately ten years). In addition, the show was videotaped rather than filmed because it was cheaper to get the rights to rock songs for a taped show. Once the licenses expired, later syndicated versions of the show did not feature the music as first broadcast, but rather generic “sound-alikes” by studio musicians to avoid paying additional royalties. In some cases, like when the music was playing in the background of a dialogue scene, some of the characters’ lines had to be redubbed by sound-alike actors. This was evident in all prints of the show issued since the early 1990s, which included its late-1990s run on Nick at Nite.
One result of these licensing issues was production and release of WKRP DVD series. It series was delayed for years because of the expense of procuring music licenses. It was feared that fans would reject edited versions. However, as was done with many other television series, the DVD release of WKRP in Cincinnati — Season One has much of the music replaced by generic substitutes. In addition, some scenes have been cut or truncated and voice-overs used to avoid using unlicensed musical content. Other scenes that were originally edited for television and thus never before seen were added back into the episodes and give viewers the backstory which further explained a later scene that appeared in the episode.
A 2009 syndication package of the show, however, aired as part of “Outta Sight Retro Nights“, a flashback TV block aired Sunday nights on the national WGN America cable TV service with promos voiced by Casey Kasem, appears to have all of the original music intact, according to published references about the original release.
So WKRP can be credited with including current popular music into each episode. How many shows have picked up that strategy since WKRP pioneered the practice. Many shows have even released annual episode music collections.
WKRP also created it’s own music. Each show had two musical themes, one opening and the other closing the show. The opening theme, called “WKRP In Cincinnati Main Theme”, was composed by Tom Wells, with lyrics by series creator Hugh Wilson, and performed by Steve Carlisle. A full-length version of the original theme song was released in 1979 on a 45 rpm vinyl single on the MCA Records label. It peaked at 65 on the Pop Singles chart in 1981 and at 29 on the Adult Contemporary chart in 1982. The lyrics refer to the life of character Andy Travis.
The closing theme, “WKRP In Cincinnati End Credits”, was a hard rock number composed and performed by Jim Ellis, an Atlanta musician who recorded some of the incidental music for the show. According to people who attended the recording sessions, Ellis didn’t yet have lyrics for the closing theme, so he sang nonsense words to give an idea of how it would sound. Wilson decided to use the words anyway, since he felt that it would be funny to use lyrics that were deliberate gibberish, as a satire on the incomprehensibility of many rock songs. Also, because CBS always had an announcer talking over the closing credits, Wilson knew that no one would actually hear the closing theme lyrics anyway. In one pop-cultural nod to the closing theme, a character performs the song in the film Ready to Rumble. The closing theme is also played at the end of the syndicated morning radio show The John Boy and Billy Big Show.
Hope you enjoyed the Thanksgiving entertainment and the walk down the musical road.