A Special Olivia Newton-John (TV Special, That Is)

Yesterday, I slipped behind the wheel of my Mazda3 and fired up the newly installed Flux Capacitor V8—a cool gadget I procured from eBay that runs on, of all things, tomato juice. Much progress has been made on the device since Emmett Brown developed the first model in 1985, chiefly the ability to choose a destination in addition to date. The stretch of the 15/501 thoroughfare that runs from Chapel Hill to Pittsboro provides just enough space (and sparse enough traffic) for me to push the pedal to the metal after the Fearrington Village traffic light and hit 88mph just as I crossed the Haw River bridge…

Or maybe I simply slipped a DVD into the DVD player. 

Either/or, white light filled the screen and I found myself in the Hatboro of my youth on November 17, 1976, a sunny Wednesday with temps in the low 50s and a mere 15 days following former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter’s defeat of President Gerald Ford in the first post-Watergate presidential election. Carter, for those not up on their election stats, received 50.1 percent of the popular vote and 297 electoral votes, winning in every southern state save Virginia. Ford, for his part, carried the most states of any losing president candidate in history, 27, while receiving 48 percent of the popular vote and 240 electoral votes. (Wikipedia has an excellent breakdown of the race and results here.) Ford did not dispute the results and, in fact, urged all Americans to give President-elect Carter their united support.

I’ve getting far afield, I suppose, so I’ll jump ahead to this: One can tell much about an era by its popular culture. Among the films in the theaters this week: Carrie, Car Wash, Marathon Man, Murder by Death, Norman…Is That You?, Shout at the Devil and The Omen. On TV, the No. 1 program for the week ending the Nov. 14th was the second half of Gone With the Wind, which was split into two parts and aired on successive Mondays by NBC, followed by a Sunday-night broadcast of The Apple Dumpling Gang on NBC’s Wonderful World of Disney. In the third and fourth spots were ABC’s Happy DaysLaverne & Shirley juggernaut, then the first half of Sybil (NBC), M*A*S*H (CBS), The Waltons (CBS), a soft-scrubbed broadcast of Death Wish (CBS), ABC’s made-for-TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, and Hawaii Five-0 (CBS). (FYI, Part 2 of Sybil fell into the following ratings week.) As for music? Weekly Top 40 lists these as the Top 10 singles for the week ending November 13th:

This Wednesday night, the primetime TV lineup in Philadelphia consisted of these options:

(For the uninitiated, 3 = NBC, 6 = ABC, 10 = CBS, and 12 = PBS; the others were the region’s UHF offerings.) We likely watched the Dorothy Hamill special, as my mother was enchanted by the gold medal figure skater’s performance at the 1976 Winter Olympics.

I was but a child, of course, having turned 11 over the summer—about the same time that my family moved from a townhome on the outskirts of Hatboro, a small suburban enclave outside of Philadelphia, into a house in its center. My bedtime, I believe, was 9pm on school nights, so the 8 o’clock hour was my last gasp at entertainment. Which is to say, I didn’t tune into Olivia Newton-John’s first American TV special this night—and, truth be told, I wouldn’t be aware of her until 1978 and Grease, as I discuss here and here.

But yesterday, I did slip a DVD into my DVD player and, indeed, white light did blanket the screen; I initially thought the gray-market disc had been encoded incorrectly. But as the music played, the white faded in the center to reveal Olivia singing (lip-syncing to a pre-recorded track, actually) “Love Song,” the Lesley Duncan-penned song that Elton John recorded in 1970 and that Olivia covered in 1971. The quality was what you’d expect from such a find: The picture quality is akin to a 10th-generation VHS copy and the audio, due to the technical limitations of the time, sports telephonic quality.

A Special Olivia Newton John, the name of the TV special, is a charming hour that enables Olivia to showcase her comedic chops as much as her songs. It’s one part silly and one part sweet, and built around a simple conceit: Though she’s had ample amount of time to book a guest star for the hour (or, as she points out in a monologue, 52 minutes after commercials), she’s yet to do so. Her quest to find one takes her to the Happy Days set, where Tom Bosley and Ron Howard offer to sing “I Honestly Love You,” and includes a chance run-in with Elliot Gould, who’s only too happy to show off his song-and-dance skills. Wonder Woman (aka Lynda Carter) also makes an appearance, as does the Six Million Dollar Man himself, Lee Majors, and gossip columnist Rona Barrett. (In the lead-up to the special, other names popped up in print, including Rock Hudson and Nancy Walker, but neither appears on screen.)

One highlight of the 52 minutes: a long song-and-dance medley that demonstrates “how every generation believes that it’s the wildest ever.” It begins with Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” and includes “Every Little Movement,” “Running Wild,” “42nd Street,” “Shoo-Shoo Baby,” “Sh-Boom,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “Love Is Alive” and concludes with “As Time Goes By.” It may sound a bit much or kitschy, and perhaps for some it was (and/or is), but I found it fun—and Liv looks like she’s having a blast throughout. 

The other featured songs include “Don’t Stop Believing,” “Pony Ride,” “Sam,” “Please, Mr. Please,” “Have You Never Been Mellow,” “Let Me Be There,” “Let It Shine” and “I Honestly Love You.” There’s ample audience applause and laughs throughout, though they were likely dropped in after the fact; the special sports the feel of being shot on a soundstage in front of a small crew.

In short, it’s a delightful hour well worth the time investment for any ONJ fan. As far as procuring it on DVD? As I discovered this morning, the entire hour is available on YouTube—and has been since 2014! (Click here to watch it.) The quality is slightly better than my particular DVD, actually. Yet I found the time-transport nature of the DVD to be well worth the expense—it took me back to a time when life was simpler and less antagonistic. About the only thing that would have made a good thing better: If the special came with the commercials that originally aired with it.

Oh, and here’s an addendum that might be of interest to some: An excellent article/interview that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on the day the special aired:

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