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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

We Love You, Sandy Becker

RESEARCHING THE MUSICAL “The Music Man” the other day unearthed this Playbill cover from Dick Van Dyke’s 1980 Broadway revival of the show. What struck me was the resemblance of costume and pose to a kid’s-show character I grew up with known as Hambone.

Dick Van Dyke as a
Harold Hill
As is too often the case with low-budget TV shows from the 50s (and, in this case, into the 60s), almost none of it remains. The stations wiped and reused the costly videotape. And so the legacy of Sandy Becker is one of anecdote and some blurry YouTube clips.

Becker was born in New York in 1922 and attended that city’s prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts before moving into radio and then television. In 1955 he began working for WNEW, which was New York City’s channel 5, hosting a weeknight cartoon show.

By the time I got hooked on the tube, living in Manhattan’s suburbs in the early 60s, “The Sandy Becker Show” was all over that channel, airing afternoons and evenings throughout the week and on Saturdays.

A fine sense of chaos prevailed. Becker was a skilled voice artist who created and portrayed a range of crazy characters. Elgar’s best-known “Pomp and Circumstance” march heralded the entrance of Becker’s “Big Professor,” a white-wigged putative sage who fumbled the answers to questions he received. Norton Nork, with center-parted hair and highwater pants, bumbled wordlessly through life’s simple problems. And a kid-voice chorus shouting over Red Saunders’s busy traps gave manic life to the song “Hambone,” accompanying the crazy dance with which that character appeared, clad in a drum major’s uniform, replete with epaulettes, sash, and centurion helmet. And a strange pair of eyeglasses with four-inch-long pill-bottle lenses.
Sandy Becker as Hambone
Look at this picture (or this video) and tell me the graphic designer of that “Music Man” program didn’t have Hambone lurking, however unconsciously, in the back of the brain.

My life intersected oddly with Becker’s in later years. I went to college at the State University of NY’s College at Purchase, where I stewed in disaffected immaturity long enough to acquire zero credits during my two and only semesters.

Somewhere in my turned-in madness, I decided that the college cared more about the damned Henry Moore sculpture (“Large Two Forms”) that sat prominently on the quad, and that I should go public with my grievance.

Not to deface the work. I was angry and depressed, but still deeply respected the idea of Art. But I could at least improve the plinth upon which it stood. Thus it was that I ordered a faux-bakelite sign that read “WE LOVE YOU SANDY BECKER” 1971 H. MOORE and epoxied it, late one night, to the marble base. And waited.

Henry Moore's Large Two Forms
at SUNY at Purchase
I told no-one. Well; I told Warren, who was in the room beside mine. I may have let something drop to another friend or two. But day after day went by with no discernible reaction.

More than a month after the sign went up, Warren told me that he was sitting on the quad, playing his guitar, as a business-suited group went by, evidently VIPs of some sort, with a college official guiding the tour.

“They came to the statue,” Warren reported, “and stopped in front of it as the college official talked. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but I saw one of the guests bend over to read your sign and then ask the official about it. The official looked at it, and obviously couldn’t explain it.”

Oh, the shame . . .
Within a day, the sign had vanished.

I later learned that word of my prank had spread far enough that one of the professors (I think it was theater) took a class to see the sign and praised the impudence of my action.

But there’s an even better postscript. At about this time, my friend Harry Minot was audio-engineering at Compton’s, a NYC ad agency, where he met much of the area’s leading voiceover talent.

Among them was Becker, whom Harry also knew from the kids’ show. And so Harry told him about my sign on the sculpture. Becker was suitably nonplussed, finally saying, “I’m not sure how to feel about that!”

1 comment:

Bob Kahan said...

Thank you for closing the circle. I love that Sandy Becker found out about it.