Thursday, September 24, 2020

Hot Hero Sandwich: The Late 70s TV Teen Scene

by G. Jack Urso 


Hot Hero Sandwich was an hour-long, Emmy Award-winning TV series aimed at adolescents that ran on NBC from 1979 to 1980. It debuted on Nov. 10, 1979 and lasted just ten episodes in one brief season. Although NBC promotional materials advertised a planned start date of Nov. 17, according to media reports at the time it kicked off a week earlier on Nov. 10. It was recorded at Studio 8H, NBC Studios, 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan, New York City, on the same stage used by Saturday Night Live. The series was created by the husband and wife director/producer team Bruce and Carole Hart, both of whom helped develop material for the first season of Sesame Street. Bruce Hart, in fact, co-wrote the Sesame Street theme, with Joe Raposo and Jon Stone, while Carole Hart wrote some early episodes, according to her obituary in The New York Times, Jan. 11, 2018. Both Harts were involved with Marlo Thomas’ noted children's entertainment TV special Free to Be . . . You and Me (1972). So, the Harts had some experience producing educational entertainment programs for young people before creating Hot Hero Sandwich. Video clips from the program are provided below from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.

 

Synopsis 

Newspaper advertisement, Fall 1979.

Hot Hero Sandwich is a variety show that mixes several formats: the sketch comedy and ensemble casting of Saturday Night Live, as well as its hip topical humor; “Kid News” segments, sort of a cross between a feature on 60 Minutes and Big Blue Marble (1974) or Razzmatazz (1977); talk show elements such as short segments involving a celebrity discussing their issues as teens; and American Bandstand-like live (or as close as they could get) in-studio music performances by the totally rockin' house band, called Hot Hero, and often with a musical guest or group. Comedian and staff writer Andy Breckman turned up as the hairy Puberty Fairy. Graphic designer Bob Pook provided the graphics and artist Jerry Lieberman supplied the animated segments. Casey Kasem, taking a break from American Top 40, did the announcements over the opening credits.

 

Celebrity guests included Cheryl Tiegs, Christopher Reeve, Donna Pescow, Eric Estrada, Gloria Steinem, Hal Linden, Henry Fonda, Joe Jackson, Judy Blume, Kareem Abdul Jabar, KISS, Leonard Nimoy, Levar Burton, Loretta Lynn, Eddy Money, Joe Jackson, Marlo Thomas, McLean Stevenson, Caitlyn Jenner (as Bruce Jenner), Olivia Newton John, Pam Dawber, Rev. Jesse Jackson, The Persuasions, The Little River Band, Richard Pryor, Robert Guillaume, Frankie Faison, Jimmy McNichol, Ron Howard, Sally Struthers, Sister Sledge, Stephen Stills, Stockard Channing, Coretta Scott King, and Barbara Walters, among others.

 

Some of those names will likely only be familiar to Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, but it is a pretty impressive list representing many sectors: TV, film, music, news reporting, social activism, and politics. While some, such as the musical guests, are there to perform, others discuss the struggles of their own teen years. Christopher (Superman) Reeves talks about how skinny and “gangly” he was at 12 years old, shedding a few tears as he recounts those times. Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talks about the day when, as a young girl, she lost her temper and attempted to strike a cousin with an ax. Caitlyn Jenner (then as Bruce Jenner) discusses her first kiss as well as problems with dyslexia. Erik Estrada tells of a friend from his teen years who died because of a heroin overdose. Kids of that era were facing bigger issues than the Beaver Cleaver generation just before theirs. Increased divorce, drug use, and family dysfunction, often left young people with few tools and support to navigate the brave new world of the post-1950s/1960s era. Hot Hero Sandwich made a valiant, if not completely successful, attempt to address those issues.

 

Clinical psychologist Thomas J. Cottle spoke to the live studio audience about the issues raised in the celebrity interviews, putting them in context for the young viewers. The show didn’t talk down to its target audience, but tried to be aspirational as well as inspirational.

 

Tom Shales, in his review of the show in The New York Times, Nov. 10, 1979, gives the debut episode and the overall premise high marks, though he sours on the cross-promotion the celebrities do for their own shows. An unnamed network executive plays coy with Shales when asked about the production costs of the show, revealing only that it was more than US$1 million (approximately US$3,424,479 in 2020). According to Shales, the show aired on 186 of the 216 NBC network affiliated stations.

 

That the series lasted only one season should be no surprise considering McLean Stevenson appeared in it, but I digress.

 

The Cast

 

The regular ensemble cast includes:Vicky Dawson, Denny Dillon, Michael Longfield (as L. Michael Craig), Matt McCoy, Nan-Lyn Nelson, Paul O'Keefe, and Jarett Smithwrick. One actor who was cast, Adam Ross, appears in promotional photos (at left, bottom row right, in cuffed jeans), but did not actually appear in the show itself. Dillion returned to Studio 8H the following year as a cast member of Saturday Night Live for its troubled 1980-1981 season and continues to appear in TV and film roles. McCoy also remains active in the industry with well over 100 credits in various TV series and film roles. He is probably most recognizable today as a TV commercial pitchman for Hartford Insurance. Paul O'Keefe is better known for his role as Ross Lane, Patty Duke’s Cathy Lane character’s younger brother on The Patty Duke Show (1963-1966). Hot Hero Sandwich seems to be O’Keefe’s last acting credit before one final appearance as Ross Lane in the reunion show, The Patty Duke Show: Still Rockin' in Brooklyn Heights (1999). Apart from Jarett Smithwrick, the other actors have maintained steady, if at times intermittent, work in TV and film through the present day, though Smithwrick, after nearly a 40-year absence from TV, turned up in a few recent roles in 2018.

Cast Members: (top, left to right) Nan-Lyn Nelson, Paul O’Keefe, L. Michael Craig, Jeff Smithwrick, Vicky Dawson, and Matt McCoy; (bottom) Denny Dillon.


Acting Out 

 Hot Hero Sandwich: Sketches and Loretta Lynn interview.

One big part of the show were the sketches. They reminded me of short farcical after-school specials. They were a bit corny, but nevertheless they sometimes made some pretty good points. Two such sketches are featured in the clip from episode 1 above. The first sketch is about parents talking to their three teenagers about a joint of marijuana the father found around the house. The parents castigate the two siblings who are completely innocent while praise the third who is clearly stoned out of his mind. The second sketch in the features a teenager on trial in a Salem Witch Trial-era court with his mouth taped shut, his court-appointed defense lawyer is a completely disinterested dog, and the adults conspire to convict him. I could totally relate to that as a kid. Also featured in the episode 1 clip is a short interview with Loretta Lynn recounting the time she was caught smoking as a young girl. This spot was typical of the celebrity interview spots, where each week a celebrity would discuss some event from their childhood about their own struggles growing up.

 

In addition to marijuana use, Tom Shales’ review notes that Bruce Heart was looking forward to tackling such issues as “pre-marital sex, masturbation, and nuclear power.” Frankly, I can think of no topics that pre-teens and young teenagers (the target audience) try to avoid discussing more, except in a jocular manner, than sex and masturbation, and probably none they’re less interested in than nuclear power. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the partial meltdown at Three-Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, took place on March 28, 1979, six months before the show’s premiere, so it was topical. Considering this educational aspect of the show, it strikes me as though it might have done better on public rather than commercial television, though I find it unlikely PBS could have afforded the tab for all the musical artists who turned up, let alone rent Studio 8H.

 

And Now, Your Musical Interlude

 The Hot Hero Band performing the full theme song.

The music is one area where the show really was superlative. Sister Sledge, Eddie Money, The Persuasions, The Little River Band, and Stephen Stills, all hit the stage at Studio 8H. Joe Jackson performed his hit “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” which summed up the frustration of many a first crush. We even got a sneak peek at KISS backstage before a concert (see clip below at the end of the article), but I waited in anticipation for the show’s rockin' eponymously-named house band, Hot Hero, sometimes referred to as The Hot Hero Band.

 

The Harts worked with producer Felix Pappalardi, bassist and lead vocalist of Mountain and a producer for Cream, to create the music for the show. The band members included Mark Cunningham, on guitar and vocals; Rich Steele, also on guitars and vocals; Rob Brissette, bass guitar and vocals; and Mike Ratti on drums. Cunningham, on his website, credits the band and Pappalardi as composing the music. After the show, Pappalardi, as producer, and the Hot Hero Band spun off on their own as 212 (the New York City area code for all five boroughs through 1984), playing on their own and performing back-up vocals for other bands.   

The Hot Hero Band in action on the show.

The lyrics for the theme song recast the teenage experience as a heroic journey. From simply getting up and going to school, dealing with the various issues growing up, and discovering who we are as individuals actually did challenge my perspective to seeing adolescence not as a tribulation, but rather as a trial and a test of character. Given that aspect of the lyrics, one wonders if Bruce Hart didn’t have a hand in it as well.

 

After a great deal of searching, trying an endless variety of keywords and reading a remarkably surprising number of articles on a long-forgotten show (apparently no so long-forgotten), I was unable to find the lyrics anywhere. So, for Aeolus 13 Umbra readers, here are the first compiled lyrics for the show’s the totally awesome rockin’ theme song. It took some time to transcribe as a few lines are nearly drowned out by the instruments, but with patience, and little help from the sound editing program Audacity, I was able to piece together the lyrics.


Hot Hero (left to right): Rob Brissette, Rich Steele, and Mark Cunningham.

Hot Hero Sandwich Full Theme

 

Got out of bed today — HERO!

Got to school okay — HERO!

Did what I could do

Pretty much like you

You’re a hero too

I’m finally coming through

You’re a hero to me, yes it’s true

You are my hero

Me, I’m like you

I’m a hero too!

 

I’m gonna hang around — HERO!

At a place downtown — HERO!

And meet somebody new

Pretty much like you

You’re a hero too

No matter what you’re goin’ through

You’re a hero to me, yes it’s true

You are my hero

Me, I’m like you

I’m a hero too!

 

Taking our place, doing our dances

Questions come easy, three for a dime

Layin’ awake, takin’ our chances

Answers come hard, but we got to try

 

I got a place to sleep — HERO!

I got a dream to keep — HERO!

I got a friend or two

I got a dog named Boo

He’s a hero too

You’re a hero too

And, my hero, try just to see

We must be heroes

Try, what’s to lose?

You’re a hero too

I’m a hero too

You’re a hero to me — HERO!

 

Opening Credits Lyrics

 

I went out the schoolhouse door — HERO!

What was I heading for? — HERO!

I didn’t have a clue

Pretty much like you

You’re a hero too

Whatever changes you’ve been through

You’re a hero to me, yes it’s true

You are my hero

I’m gonna hang around — HERO!

At a place downtown — HERO!

And meet somebody new

Pretty much like you

You’re a hero too

I got a place to sleep — HERO!

I got a dream to keep — HERO!

I got a friend or two

I got a dog named Boo

He’s a hero too

You’re a hero too

You’re a hero to me  . . .  Hero!

 

It Was Short While it Lasted


Hot Hero Sandwich aired on NBC Saturdays between 12 pm to 1 pm. Schedule-wise, this proved to be problematic. By noon, most kids had already been sequestered in front of the TV watching cartoons for several hours, and by that time, my parents, and many others, were pushing their kids out of the house or to do their chores. The main competition for Hot Hero Sandwich included the live-action Shazam! and the first half-hour of the animated Tarzan and the Super 7 on CBS. On ABC, the Hot Hero Sandwich faced off against the ABC Weekend Special and the first half-hour of American Bandstand. Also, as I found out in regards to such shows like Space Academy (1977) and Jason of Star Command (1978), starting at noon, network affiliates could sometimes opt-out of shows aired at that time slot so they could switch to local programming. This was further frustrated due to FCC regulations that allowed shows to be blacked out on cable television if a local network affiliate was scheduled to carry the same program. However, if that affiliate switched from network to local programming, then there would be no way to actually see the show. I don’t recall that happening to Hot Hero Sandwich as it did to Jason of Star Command, but for whatever reason that time slot didn’t help the program and it was cancelled after just ten episodes, with the last original show airing Jan. 12, 1980, and reruns reportedly airing through April 4, 1980. A Nov. 12, 1979, article in People reported production on the first season was set to wrap up in February 1980, so probably only half a full season (approximately 13 episodes) was planned in any event.

 

In addition to the competition was the format of the show itself. The variety show format of Hot Hero Sandwich, while a staple of television from the 1950s through the mid-1970s, had fallen out of favor with the public by the time the show debuted in late 1979. Sketch comedy, music, interviews, filmed segments, and reality show-type chats with the studio audience, the experimental nature of the program aspired to accomplish many things, but perhaps a bit too much. Also, the show debuted on Nov. 10 (moved back a week from the planned original Nov. 17 start date), while the Saturday morning season itself kicked off in mid to late September. By November, audience viewing patterns were well-established and less likely to change.

 

According to an article by Katie Leishman in the Mar. 29, 1980, issue of TV Guide about the demise of Hot Hero Sandwich, there does seem to have been a disconnect between the pre-teen and teen viewers. Children 6-12 years old were not fond of the interview segments, preferring instead the sketches. The teenagers enjoyed the music, but found the issue-oriented material a bit pedantic (which was also my feeling at the time). In trying to satisfy two age groups, the show managed to do neither. One young viewer, 13 year-old Rob Tickle of Hopkins, MN, summed it up quite succinctly when he told TV Guide, “Sometimes you'd wonder who this thing was for. It would seem too dumb to a teen-ager, but a really young kid wouldn't understand it. While NBC had the scripts reviewed by child psychologists and experts, there were almost no test screenings for youngsters, who could have offered vital feedback (Leishman). Pitted against more traditional Saturday morning programming from the other networks, the ratings were low with just 13 percent of the Saturday morning audience tuning in. Nevertheless, it managed to snag an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Entertainment Series, honoring Bruce and Carole Hart as executive producers and Howard G. Malley as producer.

 

With a sixty-minute runtime (including commercials), the show was probably thirty minutes too long. If it was trimmed down to a half hour, focused on less issue-oriented sketches, animation, music, “Kid News” segments, celebrity interviews minus the follow-up sessions with Dr. Cottle, and aired it during an after-school timeslot, such as 4:00 or 4:30 PM on a weekday afternoon, the show might have survived for at least a full season’s worth of episodes rather than the ten it just managed to squeak out.

 Hot Hero Sandwich Kid’s World Segment: Behind the Scenes with KISS.

If the kids of the late 1970s had it rough, kids today have it even rougher. Now, they have to deal with cyberbullying, climate change, natural disasters. gender, sexuality, racism, mass shootings, police brutality, riots, and a pandemic, among so much more. As a late Baby Boomer (born 1964), I only wish we had left the world in better shape than we received it. The effort now required by the next generation to get us back on course will be nothing less than heroic.

__________________________________________________________________

Sources:

Internet Movie Database “Hot Hero Sandwich”: www.imdb.com/title/tt0364818/?ref_=tt_urv

Mark Cunningham’s Website (Hot Hero Band guitar and vocals): www.markcunningham.com

People, Victoria Everett, “Bruce and Carole Hart Give Teenagers Food for Thought in Hot Hero Sandwich,” Nov. 12, 1979: https://people.com/archive/bruce-and-carole-hart-give-teenagers-food-for-thought-in-hot-hero-sandwich-vol-12-no-20/

Rich Steele’s Website (Hot Hero Band guitar and vocals): richsteele.com

The New York Times, Alexis Greene, “For Children, a Few Nuggets Amid the Cartoons,” Sep. 2, 1979: www.nytimes.com/1979/09/02/archives/for-children-a-few-nuggets-amid-the-cartoons-childrens-tva-few.html

The Washington Post, Tom Shales, “NBC's Ambitious 'Hot Hero Sandwich,’” Nov. 10, 1979: www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1979/11/10/nbcs-ambitious-hot-hero-sandwich/27688bc6-b714-49cb-ab0e-fae207ed55d4/

TV Guide, Katie Leishman, “Hot Hero Sandwich’: The Audience Didn’t Bite,” Mar. 29, 1980.

 

                         


3 comments:

  1. This is fantastic, one-stop Hot Hero Sandwich shopping.

    I recently did a reviews on several of my beloved "after school" movies from the Big Three Networks . . . and have fond memories of this short-lived SNL for kids.

    Again, nice job!!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks! I really thought I was probably one of the few who remembered the show, but in doing my research I was pleasantly surprised to discover so many others remember it as well! Thanks for reading it, appreciate it very much!

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  2. Why is it the good die young, even with TV shows that try to raise the bar of program quality. Excellent research, thanks for the memories.

    ReplyDelete