Friday, April 5, 2013

Cousin Tuny as Dolly Levi, Jackson Theatre Guild in Jackson, Tennesee 1979


Nashville may be America's Music City but it has no territorial license on the term throughout middle and
Cousin Tuny
west Tennessee.
Today's country music may be miles different from the traditional mountain melodies of our heritage. However, one performer who started her entertainment trail as a hillbilly singer/comedienne parlayed her character into her region's most legendary kidvid host.

Doris Freeman (Cousin Tuny) had been in radio from the age of seven but when she was asked to file the papers for the FCC license of Jackson, Tennesee's first television station in 1955, she went to her boss and brother-in-law. "We need to have a show for children on this station," she said. "Something which can teach them at the same time we entertain them."
That set in the works the premiere of The Cousin Tuny Show.

The show began in Setpember 1956 as a one-hour, forty-five minute Monday-through-Friday offering on WDXI-TV, west Tennessee's first CBS affiliate.
The station had bought the rights to a package of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers theatrical westerns. During the break, Doris---as Cousin Tuny, in her $1.98 hat and red-checkered dress and pantaloons, would dish out her daily fun in large doses. "I wanted to teach the children five things---respect of country, love of people, healthy habits, laughter, and love of God," Tuny remembers today. "We said the blessing before we had our meal. In some places today, they'd throw you off television and send you hate mail."

Cousin Tuny hands out Kadet rifles to Joe, left, and Marty Clements, who were in the hospital with mumps.
She visited children in the hospital every Thursday evening for 15-20 years.
Russ Morgan's Doll Dance was the theme song which let every child within seventy five miles of Jackson know Cousin Tuny was on the air.
"We had twenty kids a day at first in the studio until we established the Birthday Club. We kept it to twelve a day then to have the birthday parties for children," says Tuny.
Her legendary "our cousins have a birthday...we're so glad" song is still a fond memory for thousands of adults who were on that show.
Cousin Tuny today
Children waited between six months and a year for tickets. Yet, birthday parties were free, unlike charges made by other stations around the country. "We had a deal with our sponsors and no child's parents ever paid a red cent for a birthday party," recalls Tuny.

Eventually, the show would move to its own theatre, an old quonset hut film palace in downtown Jackson, where live audiences of up to one hundred a day would watch as the kids and Tuny bond. "I told the parents before the show to stay in the audience and let the kids have their day," says Tuny. "I wouldn't have any stage mothers. This show was supposed to be fun...and it was."
Once, in the late1950s, fire broke out in a downtown store across from the theatre. Cameras were lifted off their pedestals and cables run into the street in the middle of Tuny's show. "I did what was probably the first live news report of any kind, in my full costume, before anybody ever thought of a live truck," says Tuny.

Tuny was handling seventy-five radio sales accounts and doing a half-hour of Bingo on WDXI-AM every day before changing into her hillbilly togs for the day's TV show. Yet, she says she was never uptight.
"I couldn't be," she said. "I didn't want the kids to be nervous."

In the 1960s, the show left behind the western flicks for Terrytoons cartoons (Deputy Dawg, Heckle and Jeckle) and the show telescoped to an hour. "We called them cartoonies," says Tuny. "I also would have a
time every day where I'd read the children stories. We'd do a book over the course of a week." Tuny's
Courtesy: Cousin Tuny (as Dolly Levi
gentle education supplemented their school days for more than a decade.
Through the years of the series, Tuny appeared with country stars Minnie Pearl and Eddy Arnold, Jackson native and game show host Wink Martindale and Duncan (Cisco Kid) Renaldo, among dozens of celebrities.
 Yet, one of her most poignant memories came during an unexpected response when she was interviewing a six-year-old live one afternoon. "I'm the man of the house now," the boy said. "My daddy died last week." Fighting back tears, Tuny said to him on the air, "You're going to have to be the one to look after your mother now, because she'll be looking after you. Just remember---you're nose to nose with God because He loves you, too."
Many legends have floated as to how the Cousin Tuny character was created. However, Doris Freeman credits its origination to her sister, Agnes. "I used to sing this song, I'm a Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch, Tuny says.  
  
The Allison Insurance Group
 "I was going to call myself Cousin Petunia. Agnes said, 'That's too long. Why don't you just pull it down to 'Tuny.'" In the early years, the name was misspelled 'Tuney' on the set of the series.

Doris blacked her teeth out in the early years for the children. She painted false freckles across her nose. The makeup made her a hit on the hillbilly shows she did weekends. The hat and exaggerated makeup has disappeared but the checkered dress and pantaloons remain.

Cousin Tuny in her Jackson High School Golden Bears T-shirt
The Cousin Tuny Show featured Sealtest milk and ice cream, Brundage hot dogs, Coca-Cola, and cakes from local bakeries for the many on-air birthday parties. She well remembers the day she offered a Brundage frank to a child, who promptly looked into the camera and proclaimed, "We eat Frosty Morn (a major Brundage competitor) at our house."

The story of Tuny's landing Sealtest for the show is a legend. "They were only sending one truck a week up to Jackson from Memphis," says Tuny. "The show had been pitched to another dairy, which turned it down. I wanted Sealtest as a sponsor, so I made the trip to their office in Memphis. They asked me why I wanted them. I said, 'I use Sealtest. I have four children of my own. My daughter Connie was a baby when we went on the air." Sealtest agreed to the sponsorship and all of its executives from Memphis came up from the premiere. "They were all nervous," remembers Tuny. "Not me. It turned out to be a pretty good deal for them. They started having to send three trucks a week to Jackson because so many children told their parents they wouldn't drink anything but Sealtest milk." (Source: Cousin Tuny's Website: CuzTun.com)

In addition to all of that, in the fall of 1979, in October and November, she added the role of Dolly Levi to
Cousin Tuny in Hello, Dolly (Courtesy: Cousin Tuny)
her already impressive resume. When it comes to dolly Levi, as much as Cousin Tuny enjoying becoming her for a short while, she says that mantle belongs to Carol Channing whom she loves and adores. Cousin Tuny had a great Horace Vandergelder, William Brown, an attorney who has since moved away.
He was great.
Their Cornelius was Billy Worboys...and he is still ultra active in Jackson Theatre Guild.  Billy designed and was a big part in constructing all the sets. 

He was super multi-talented and a joy to work with.
They had rehearsals every night and week ends..any down times Tuny  would have during rehearsals , she was studying the script.

Cousin Tuny sincerely believes this production was super great with terrific actors. These were extremely talented local people who had regular jobs elsewhere and donated their time and talent. The local Jackson Theatre Guild announced they were going to stage Hello Dolly, and opened up for auditions. 
Cousin Tuny auditioned and got the part.
Hello, Dolly shots (Cousin Tuny)
The arrival of Dolly Levi at The Harmonia Gardens coming down those steps and the song and dance routine with the waiters stood out and was a thrill.
Cousin Tuny saw Mary Martin in Hello Dolly at the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, Tennessee in 1965. She was mesmerized throughout the entire show. On the way back to Jackson that night, she made the remark that she would love to do Hello Dolly.
Her friend in the car with her said. “Tuny,, you are a lot like Dolly Levi and I would love to see that happen.”
Tuny’s director was David Pyron and he was a joy to work with. He was a very talented young man with terrific smooth self control that was pleasantly contagious.  Her assistant director was Becky Fly...she teaches Drama here at the High School and in between times she is off to appear in a movie or commercial (she had a bit part in the movie, The Help..she was the little obese lady at the grocery store reading the book)...she also appeared in Hello Dolly as Ernestina.
This was typical community theater as far as the rehearsal and performance schedule was concerned.  They had little over two months for rehearsals...they rehearsed at night and every week end...because as stated above, they all had regular jobs and we were donating their time and talent to make money for the Jackson Theatre Guild.

On their opening night, they had about a forty minute delay because the orchestra was down below on the lift that was supposed to rise as they played the overture, but the lift didn't budge...they  took care of that...got it fixed...and the show went on wonderfully.
After they opened, their director just encouraged and praised and he had a way about him that when he was correcting a mistake, everyone welcomed it and followed his instructions to the letter. Now that may sound fairy tale but “tiz the truth, cuz”. David tweaking pumped everyone up.
David is extremely talented in acting, he excels in writing, staging, a super versatile guy with experience in most every area of the business.He kept the adrenalin bubbling.

There are so many wonderful memories...but the closing night sorta stands out..the finale was victorious...and when Tuny arrived at the cast party later, all the cast was lined up, did the routine and sang Hello Dolly to her ...and then she chimed in and they just right then and there did “some of that scene from Harmonia Gardens.”

Courtesy: Cousin Tuny
Tuny did not have a worst experience, but a funniest. They had an audience for dress rehearsal.  Just before   your EVERY move”. That was a blessing in disguise, the whole cast got loose and they did a terrific dress rehearsal show.

That night, Tuny made a visit to the Ladies Room and as she began her preparation, one of the cast members came running in saying -'Tuny, your mic is on and the auditorium is being amplified with

Mega kudos to Carol Channing, Mary Martin and Pearl Bailey, all of whom Tuny saw   
It is interesting to recap those outstanding performances.   
Carol Channing stood out a little more but all three were fantastic—Tuny has seen several of the other stars on tape...and loved them all. She just loves this show!
The first time Tuny heard the score was in 1965 when she saw Mary Martin star in Dolly in Memphis, Tennessee. Tuny was in a trance absorbing every musical note and every word of the show. 
She lives some 80 miles from Memphis and as noted above .. On the way home, she made a wish to hopefully someday get to be Dolly Levi...and that came true several years later.

The one thing that Tuny learned from her involvement with doing Dolly that she has carried throughout her career is teamwork, togetherness, perseverance, cooperation, patience, all “a treasure chest filled with love.”

The biggest change that Tuny has seen in the business since she began is it seems so many talented writers have faded away which has necessitated in repeat performances of successful shows from the past thankfully. 
Originality is scarce it seems.  Tuny considers herself fairly broadminded but the trash content of some of the scripts today is to her an insult to intelligence and human dignity and decency.

When Tuny took the last curtain call each night, she closed as most of the Dollys did, with a curtain
Courtesy Cousin Tuny
speech....Mary Martin closed with a quote that Richard Rodgers wrote to her not long before he died...and it goes like this....'A BELL IS NOT A BELL UNTIL YOU RING IT, A SONG IS NOT A SONG UNTIL YOU SING IT, LOVE WAS NOT PUT IN YOUR HEART TO STAY, IT IS NEVER REAL LOVE UNTIL YOU GIVE IT AWAY'....Closing the last performance of the show was a sad and glad time. Their cast had become family and through the years from time to time when they see some of those actors, they share their thanks and memories for a life loving experience in HELLO DOLLY.

Tuny considers Jerry Herman a genius. “Oh, for more Jerry Hermans in this day and time..he was a class act for sure.”

Unfortunately, Tuny  never had the privilege of meeting Carol Channing. Tuny feels that Carol has a terrific unusual talent that is pleasantly contagious in entertaining and capturing her entire audience throughout her performance. She is an icon in the business.

“This show is loaded with great lessons for happy living and the script has class and is acceptable for all ages.  Oh, to see more of this type of entertainment.  We are exposed to too much sparsely talented dark material.  No wonder our children stray.  Well, I guess this clarifies I am taking advantage of my vintage.  At 87 years of young, I have earned this -----'and I have just one more thing to say'----thanks to you, this experience is and I know will continue to be among my favorites. 
WOW...what a super final curtain call on down the road for this ole Dolly..when the Lord calls me home...to pass my my harp audition (after I get the G String in tune)...as Richard Rodgers wrote and Mary Martin shared...and this earns repeating..
"A Bell is not a Bell until you ring it, A Song is not a Song until you sing it, Love was not put in your heart to stay and it never real love until you give it away." So, cuz, ring yo bell, sing yo song, and share yo love.  And always remember..YOU CAN CALL ON DOLLY...I luv ya...SEE YA DOWN THE ROAD....JUST CUZ (as in Tuny) And that's a wrap.....”
Thank you Cousin Tuny for the gifts you have given to the world and continue to give!

Thank you, Cindie Haynie, for arranging this interview! 

 With grateful XOXOXs ,

 


Check out my site celebrating my forthcoming book on Hello, Dolly!
I want this to be a definitive account of Hello, Dolly!  If any of you reading this have appeared in any production of Dolly, I'm interested in speaking with YOU!



If you have anything to add or share, please contact me at Richard@RichardSkipper.com.

NO COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT INTENDED.  FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY!





When it comes to the history of Jerry Herman’s brilliant production, beyond the 5000+ performances of my own, even I turn to Richard Skipper when I have questions about the remarkable ladies who followed me in the role that the world fell in love with over 50 years ago.”-Carol Channing

               
My next blog will be...My exclusive interview with Megan Thomas (Carol Channing's LAST tour of Hello, Dolly!)


Thank you, to all the mentioned in this blog!


  



TILL TOMORROW...HERE'S TO AN ARTS FILLED DAY
Richard Skipper, Richard@RichardSkipper.com                            
 

This Blog is dedicated to ALL THE DOLLYS and ANYONE who has EVER had a connection with ANY of them on ANY Level!







1 comment:

  1. Cousin Tuny: What a story....what a lady! You
    indeed are one of the most talented hard working
    beautiful lady I've ever known. When I worked
    at WDXI Radio & TV, back in 57 and early 58 you
    were a real joy to be around. Shirley and I love you greatly, CUZ.
    Jack Parnell

    ReplyDelete