‘Banner touch’ keeps grip on TV

In 1961, when he was producing “The Garry Moore Show” and “Candid Camera,” both top-rated shows for the network, CBS said Bob Banner was “a rare combination of showman and scholar” and to cite his credits”would be virtually to recite a history of television since 1948.”

If Bob Banner’s career was a television movie, that CBS evaluation could well serve as the log line.

John Crosby, one of the most distinguished of television critics, once wrote a column about what he described as the “Banner touch.”

Noting that Banner’s “touch” is discernible in all his shows, Crosby wrote, they all have “class,” and “a sort of richness in texture in their settings and costumes.”

The critic added that Bannerprograms exhibit “a marvelous pace in their movement and a high exuberant style.”

Crosby emphasized that “above all, the Banner show is strictly a television show; you couldn’ttransplant it anywhere else.”

That was written in 1958, when Robert James Banner Jr., 37, already 10 years into his televisioncraft, had taken over as producerof the then-faltering “Garry Moore Show.” His “touch” hadbeen applied to many shows by thattime, including directing suchtrailblazers as: “Garroway AtLarge,””The Metropolitan Op-era, “”Omnibus,” the “Dinah Shore” shows, “Wide, Wide World” specials and “Producers’ Showcase.”

About the same time, Donley Feddersen, Banner’s former faculty boss, mentor and friend at Northwestern University, the man who turned the young educator loose from a teaching contract to follow his television destiny, wrote a very telling letter to his protege.

“I come away pleased and happy for the good things which your energy, your talent, your wisdom–plus a little bit of luck–have brought you.

“The greatest cry of the human heart,” he continued, “is to be used to the limits of one’s powers in something worth doing. And though I don’t see any evidence that you have come close to the limits of your powers, you must surely know the taste of this deep satisfaction by now.”

It was then that Feddersen, chairman of Northwestern’s speech and drama department, capsulized what many people have come to appreciate about Bob Banner.

“The things you have worked on have been the best of their kind,” Feddersen concluded. “They have also been marked by a taste, a distinction, that have given tone to the genre. This seems to me to happen rarely enough in the world so that it is worth celebrating whenever it happens.”

Long-distance runner

What Crosby and Feddersen could not have known when they penned those accolades was that there was still an additional 35 years–and counting–of celebration to come. Feddersen, in particular, couldn’t have been more prophetic. Banner, at 38, had hardly come to the limit of his powers– or affect on television.

As 1993 unfolds, Bob Banner stands out as one of the few, still-active, behind-the-camera executives to bridge the entire history of television programming, from the hand puppets and gentle whimsy of “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” in 1948, to the music of “It’s Showtime at the Apollo,” to the hip one-liners of the “Uptown Comedy Club” of today.

“Bob Banner has been in television as long as television has been in American homes.” That line is just as valid today as it was in 1981, when one of his associates was introducing him to a reporter.

Banner has been driven by a love for show business since his teen-age years. But unlike most in the business, he wasn’t born to it. Show business was neither in his genes nor background. He didn’t come from burlesque, vaudeville, or European traditions. His show business came from watching MGM musicals on a big screen in a small town in Texas, and from a university in the Midwest.

“Bob is really the antithesis of the egotistical, Sammy Glick school of producing,” says Steve Pouliot, who has written, produced and directed many specials with Banner.

“He’s soft-spoken, doesn’t play golf, and has had words with associate producers because they’ve hidden away money instead of putting it up on the screen.”

In 1948, Banner was 11 credit-hours shy of getting his Ph.D. in speech and drama at Northwestern University, when it was suggested that Northwestern students should be taught a few things about the new medium, television. Banner was chosen to go out and get some first-hand experience.

And while Banner still doesn’t have his doctorate (he did receivean honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1981 from Northwestern), and is perhaps busier than ever gathering first-hand experience about show business, he’s never stopped teaching. That’s one of the reasons why he’s easily one of television’s most unusual, though lowest profile, success stories.

When Banner won an Emmy for directing “The Dinah Shore Chevy Show” in 1958 (surprisingly his only Emmy for individual achievement), he received a letter from Warren C. Rossell, then a radio/TV account executive with the Ketchum, MacLeod & Grove adver-tising agency.

“I studied radio music production under you at Northwestern, as well as singing in your ‘John Brown’s Body’ production,” wrote Rossell, who made it clear that Banner strongly influenced his own career, which included stints as a TV director, assistant program director and production manager at NBC-TV affiliates in Syracuse and Buffalo.

The ad agency account executive may have been among the first, but the list of Banner disciples is now long and impressive. He’s encouraged and helped many current writers, producers and directors. Actor Jeffrey Hunter and entertainer John Davidson were among the number of bright, young administrative assistants who have learned by working closely with him down through the years.

Banner has always believed television must have room for new talent. In essence, he believes that if television doesn’t find new young people with fresh ideas, the medium will go on making carbon copies of shows it has done before. When Bob Banner Associates was formed in 1958, Banner’s partners were two young talents he spotted and nurtured: Julio DiBenedetto,who became producer-director of “Candid Camera,” and Joe Hamilton, who produced “The Garry Moore Show,” where Hamilton met his future wife, Carol Burnett.

Ever since, BBA has become a kind of classroom in which the gentlemanly professor has gathered his most talented students. DiBenedetto used to take lecture notes from him at Northwestern.

Hamilton was the baritone with the singing group, The Skylarks, on “The Dinah Shore Show.” He wrote some special material for the show and Banner was quick to recognize and encourage Hamilton’s gift for production.

The first two associates in Bob Banner Associates, DiBenedetto and Hamilton have both since passed away.

Steve Pouliot describes Banner as “a mentor extraordinaire.” Just out of the University of Southern California film school, Pouliot was young and green when Banner gave him an opportunity to produce.

Pouliot says of Banner, “He was a great teacher, promoting my talents–and warning me, ‘Look, others will test your youth, but be confident of your ideas. Be clear, be firm, and move ahead.’ ”

Yet, for someone who would surely rank among the top 50 behind-the-camera people to make an indelible mark on the evolution of television, Bob Banner is one of the industry’s best kept secrets. He and his 35-year-old Bob Banner Associates have been deliberately low-profile. Arguably, BBA is the longest-running, still-active independent production company in the TV business.

Press clippings about his 45 years in television barely fill a file folder, much less a file drawer. The stories down through the years never fail to mention a long (6-foot-3), lean, soft-spoken, gentle Texan with a very calm manner.

A 1962 story in Television magazine (the only full-blown profile of Banner) cites his reputation as “The Quiet Man,” and as that rare executive who virtually never loses his temper.

“It’s amazing how a few genuine ideas and real talent can make the difference between mediocre and good TV,” then-Los Angeles Mirror-News TV-radio editor Hal Humphrey wrote about Bob Banner in 1956. “What’s amazing about it,” Humphrey added, “is that so few of the people in the industry know it.”

Humphrey went on to document one of Banner’s “genuine ideas” and his “real talent.”

Writing about “The Dinah Shore Chevy Show,” the newspaperman described how producer Banner gave his star the advantage of a studio audience that wasn’t detracted by the mechanics of staging a TV show.

To eliminate the audience having to try to gaze around the camera crew and stagehands, Banner constructed what amounted to “blinders” for his audience. Temporary walls and a retractable ceiling closed the seating area in, so that seat holders could look only straight ahead at the action on stage.

Among Banner’s involvements as either a director or producer of pioneering television, “Omnibus” was one of the most influential.

Beginning on CBS in 1953 and running through 1957 (it ended on ABC), “Omnibus” was probably television’s most honored program of the industry’s early years.

It was created by the Ford Foundation’s Radio-Television Workshop and was underwritten by the foundation to demonstrate that a program of cultural and intellectual value could attract an audience and sponsorship.

PBS forerunner

Hosted by Alistair Cooke, and produced by Robert Saudek, former head of public affairs for ABC, the program content was controlled by the producer of the show, not by the sponsors, and as such was a forerunner of PBS.

It overcame the hurdle of being too intellectual for appeal to a mass audience and created a new Sunday afternoon TV audience, regularly bettering its Sunday competition in ratings.

During Banner’s time (1953-54) at this unique cultural anthology series, “Omnibus” turned out “Die Fledermaus” as the first 90-minute opera on TV (as well as “La Boheme”), Jean Giraudoux’ “The Apollo of Bellac,” and ballet’s “Billy the Kid.”

And while Banner has cut his largest swath in the music-variety field, his multifaceted interests are reflected in programs ranging from the low-pressure and intelligence of Dave Garroway to the craziness of “The Garry Moore Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show”; from the big bands of “The Fred Waring Show” to the country and western music of “The Jimmy Dean Show” and the contemporary sounds of “It’s Showtime at the Apollo”; from the comedy-reality of “Candid Camera” to the hard reality of such TV movies as “My Sweet Charlie” and the more recent “Crash Landing: Rescue of Flight 232.”

One would not call the now 71-year-old Banner hip, his much younger friend and associate Steve Pouliot explains, but then again, he suggests, this may be a misconception.

“Bob has always been a trendsetter, and he’s always curious about, and educates himself about the next turn our industry will take,” Pouliot reports. First-run syndication, cable, international co-production, compact disk interactivity: Banner is interested in, knows about and is planning to be involved (if he isn’t already) in each, according to Pouliot.

A voracious reader, his morning fare consists of reading and clipping the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, both daily Hollywood trades, and USA Today. The weeklies, specifically Time magazine, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report are reserved for afternoons and evenings.

Not to disregard all of the subsequent triumphs and trophies, the best time of all for the boy who wanted most in the world to direct and produce an MGM musical may have been March 20, 1942, when “Sawdust and Sequins” debuted at the McFarlin Memorial Auditorium on the campus of Southern Methodist University.

The new musical comedy was staged by SMU’s Script and Score Club, whose president, musical director and chief producer was Bob Banner.

The music and lyrics were by Banner, among others. He also did the choral and , with his lifelong friend, Lanham Deal, the orchestral arrangements.

The finale was composed and arranged by Banner and another student, Virginia McLendon.

The program notes, anticipating what would become Banner hallmarks, acknowledged: “The present production could not have run so smoothly and amiably were it not for his patience, understanding and talent for every phase of the show.”

Then, in a postscript that today speaks volumes about the relativity of pay scales, SMU’s program editor wanted it known, “The entire company worked for Banner as if he were paying them $ 10 an hour for their time.”

This was no flash-in-the-pan effort by Banner, who was attending SMU on a music scholarship. The previous year, for “Pandamonia,” the eighth annual production of the Script and Score Club, the 20-year-old Banner co-wrote the music, did the choral and orchestral arrangements.

In high school and college he played keyboards and the trombone. In college, in addition to working on the school’s annual music extravaganzas, Banner led the Varsiteers, an 18-piece dance band and vocal group, and played trombone in the Mustang band as well as arranging its music.

Music lover

Music, in one form or another, was and is an enduring love for Banner. Pouliot says Banner has both “an eclectic appreciation” and “impressive knowledge” ofmusic–from opera, to big band to the range of pop hits played on “Solid Gold” and “It’s Showtime at the Apollo.”

He came to SMU from Ennis, Texas, a small town between Dallas and Houston, where his one sibling, a sister, still lives.

Born Robert James Banner Jr. on Aug. 15, 1921, Bob (his first name was legally changed when BBA was formed) determined as a teen-ager there were two things he was not going to do: Remain in Ennis and join his father’s insurance agency.

Banner graduated from SMU in time for three years of active duty during World War II. He was a lieutenant (junior grade) assigned to radar and sonar duties on a destroyer escort.

Banner returned to civilian life in 1946, and set about making teaching his career. He began working towards his master’s at Northwestern University. He received his M.A. from the school’s theater arts department in 1948, with a thesis on the field of binaural (stereophonic) recording and broadcasting.

Banner subsequently became a member of Northwestern’s theater arts faculty, serving as an instructor in speech and drama from 1947 through 1949.

Like many of television’s pioneer greats, Banner broke into television Chicago-style, as a stage manager for the NBC station, while he was still teaching at Northwestern.

Thanks to the understanding and generosity of his department head, Don Feddersen, he was allowed to leave the faculty of Northwestern to go into television. It’s a debt to education he’s never stopped repaying.

As Banner tells it, he was at Northwestern in the theater arts department in 1948, when television was getting started in Chicago. The faculty felt it should be telling students something about this new electronic form, and Banner, as a junior member, was elected to find out about it.

Chicago’s local WBKB allowed him to carry coffee and watch others produce such programs as “Kulka, Fran and Ollie.” Then, he applied for a job as stage manager at the new NBC station in Chicago, and got it. By 1949, he had become

director of one of television’s pioneer variety shows, “Garroway at Large,” certainly the precursor of today’s “David Letterman Show.”

When big-band leader Fred Waring, an earlier-day, more sophisticated Lawrence Welk, beckoned, and Banner left Chicago for New York. During the 1950-51 season he was the producer-director of “The Fred Waring Show,” and by 1952, already seasoned and with a musical reputation, he directed the Metropolitan Opera production over the CBS Television Network.

He spent part of the 1953-54 season as a director of “Omnibus,” as well as “The Dave Garroway Show.”

Banner’s big opportunity came with another warm, friendly southerner, Dinah Shore, one of the first women to achieve major success as a hostess on television.

From 1954-58, he was associated with Shore as producer-director, first of her 15-minute “Dinah Shore Show” series, and later of her much more ambitious Sunday night hour-variety series, “The Dinah Shore Chevy Show” (the one with the theme song, “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet” and the big kiss she threw at the audience at the end of each show), for NBC.

During 1956, Banner also produced and directed a number of acclaimed special shows for “Wide, Wide World” and “Producers’ Showcase.”

Rescue operation

In November 1958, the newly formed Bob Banner Associates took over the production reins of “The Garry Moore Show,” with Banner becoming executive producer. It meant leaving NBC for what amounted to a temporary six-week emergency assignment from CBS to try to save “The Garry Moore Show” from impending cancellation. He turned it into one of television’s consistently successful shows and an Emmy winner in 1961-62.

Among other Banner innovations of the time, he picked “Candid Camera,” which previously had flopped on TV, to use as a segment of “The Garry Moore Show.” It became immensely popular and was spun-off into a highly successful and long-running weekly program.

From October 1962 to April 1963, “Candid Camera,” under Banner, was the second-most-watched television series in America, beaten only by “The Beverly Hillbillies,” with a 31.1 average rating for that span.

Banner also picked a relatively obscure singer-comedienne named Carol Burnett , who he had previously force-fed the sponsor as a guest on “The Dinah Shore Show,” and gave her another guest shot with Garry Moore. She soon developed into one of TV’s hottest properties and a mainstay of the show.

When Burnett left “The Garry Moore Show” at the end of the 1961-62 season, Banner locked up a contract to produce a series for her as soon as she was ready to return to television, which came about with the start of the widely lauded “The Carol Burnett Show” in 1967.

But before “The Carol Burnett Show,” Banner did a series with a lanky Texan, like himself, Jimmy Dean in his own major league variety hour on ABC.

And all the while, there were important and impressive specials from the ’50s until the present. Banner produced “Carnegie Hall Salutes Jack Benny” for CBS in September 1961.

That was followed a year later by “Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall,” a celebrated music and comedy tour de force with Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett for CBS.

Banner’s output of specials in the ’70s was especially marked by the Ford Motor Company’s celebration gala as the company began its 75th year. Steve Pouliot,who produced “A Salute to American Imagination” for CBS under Banner as executive producer, remembers it as an “awesome” undertaking.

“Everyone in town was competing with ideas–and we won the job,” he remembers with pride.

The special was shot on Warner Bros.’ largest sound stage and the “Before The Parade Passes” segment featured Ethel Merman and 400 extras and included a highwire act.

“The Way We Were,” a 1981, 2-hour special taped at Northwestern University, brought together many of the school’s celebrated alumni, including Ann-Margret, Richard Benjamin, Charlton Heston, Cloris Leachman and Peter Strauss.

Always in the forefront of television, Banner produced the first co-production with the Soviet Union, a special starring Peggy Flemming.

He went on to do a real labor of love, the inspiring “Gift of Music,” a 2 -hour special paying homage to American musical composition and performance, hosted by Lorne Greene, Natalie Wood, Greer Garson, Twiggy and Dionne Warwick.

Among the first specials on television related to AIDS was the Banner-produced: “That’s What Friends Are For,” a concert atWashington’s Kennedy Centerhosted by Dionne Warwick.

In 1990, Banner, together with his then-partner, former ABC executive Gary Pudney, and under the banner of Paradigm Entertainment, produced “The Los Angeles Music Center’s 25th Anniversary Television Awards Gala.” De-signed to do for PBS what the Kennedy Center programs do forCBS, this special included appearances by some of the entertainment world’s leading performers, including Bob Hope, Kirk Douglas, Carol Burnett, Zubin Mehta, and many more.

Banner’s work in specials included the last 11 Perry Como specials, among them shows that emanated from the Bahamas, Austria, Mexico, Israel and various locations in the United States.

Television historians will find Bob Banner’s name not only among the first in musical variety,comedy series and specials, but also very near the beginning of the list in TV movies.

Banner’s “My Sweet Charlie” (he was executive producer working out of Universal with the great writer-producer team of Bill Link and Richard Levinson) was among the first 75 movies ever made for television and was also among the first to go from television to theatrical release.

Banner’s best-remembered TV movies include: “Bud and Lou,”starring Harvey Korman and Buddy Hackett as Abbott and Costello; “My Husband is Missing,” starring Sally Struthers and Tony Musante; the award-winning “Hallmark Hall of Fame” movie “Lisa Bright and Dark,” starring Kay Lenz, Anne Baxter and John Forsythe; and “If Things Were Differ-ent,” starring Suzanne Pleshette, Don Murray and Tony Roberts.

More recently, Banner, who says he would like his company to turn out perhaps as many as four telefilms per year, has been involved in what is hoped for as a Christmas classic, 1991’s “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” starring Charles Bronson, Edward Asner and Richard Thomas, and theaward-winning “Crash Landing,The Rescue of Flight 232,” star-ring Charlton Heston.

“With Murder in Mind,” starring Elizabeth Montgomery, Robert Foxworth and Howard Rollins, aired in May 1992; and “The Sea Wolf,” based on Jack London’s classic story and starring Charles Bronson and Christopher Reeve, is scheduled to run on TNT in April this year, marking Banner’s entrance into cable.

Television series continue to be the bread-and-butter of BBA. Starting with a special two-hour version in 1979, Banner originated and produced “Solid Gold,” a musical variety series that reviewed the popular artists of the week.

It was the first original series for the Al Masini-created OperationPrime Time and was the initial firstrun, made-for-syndication series to appear on prime time.

Currently, BBA is producing two weekly syndicated series: “It’s Showtime at the Apollo” (currently in its sixth season); and “The Uptown Comedy Club,” a new comedy-variety show taped in New York City.

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