Using program content, industry contextualization, and archival materials, this article analyzes The Gypsy Rose Lee Show (ABC, 1965–68) in terms of its complex relationship to labor and the consequences of labor practices for television workers. Hosted by famed performer Gypsy Rose Lee, this syndicated program utilized the celebrity and performance skills of its host and guests to both express and mask the labors required of television production. While the feminized and queer qualities of such labors created progressive performances around marginalized workers and invisible work, in some aspects the show acceded to the economic demands of capital against the rights of labor. Lee as a television celebrity and worker thus warrants consideration for her contributions to a transitional moment in American culture and television history.
“My Mother Told Me Never to Give It Away—Or How I Plan to Make a Million in a TV Strip Show.” So proclaimed Gypsy Rose Lee in a headline announcing her new job as host of The Gypsy Rose Lee Show, a syndicated television program produced by KGO, an ABC owned-and-operated station in San Francisco, that ran from 1965 to 1968.1 Given Lee's career as a striptease artist and the infamous relationship she had with her overbearing, archetypal stage mother, citing sex and business savvy as the keys to her success in television was very much on-brand. Yet more than simply capitalizing on a strategically curated star persona—something at which Lee was proficient, as evinced by her best-selling autobiography and its adaptation on stage and screen—Lee's translation of the personal into the financial proved a complex and far-reaching enterprise.2 In calling upon the sexual innuendos associated with “it,” Lee asserted her intention of profiting from highly personal aspects of her life along with the production of television entertainment.
The article that accompanied Lee's boastful headline underscored Lee's many talents. While Lee's abilities as a singer, dancer, actress, novelist, playwright, panelist, art collector, painter, author, and TV star authorized her as a talk-show host, her interests in the interpersonal realm and expertise in private-sphere tasks also played an important part in her hosting. Lee's love of pets, people, and knitting were selling points for her program and confirmation of her promise to monetize all aspects of her endeavors. This merging of the personal and the professional proved more than a compelling promotional framework; it defined Lee's labors and those of her guests in the production of the program, and created its most successful appeals and its most contentious production practices.
Lee's work on The Gypsy Rose Lee Show is important to consider not just because of the impressive range of talents this single television worker brought to the table. The permeable boundary between Lee's professional acumen and personal life redefined the unpaid work of the private sphere, with varying results for television and for the gendered worlds involved in its making. By engaging shared cultural literacies, valuing the tasks and skills disproportionately assigned to women, and deconstructing idealized notions of domestic and/or show-business existence, the various players involved in Lee's show operated in a progressive mode. In showcasing the labor of self-presentation, identity, and celebrity, Lee and her guests challenged the capitalist logic of success and competitive striving. Yet as much as Lee helped articulate critical and resistant terms regarding identity, work, and pleasure, she also disguised other aspects of effort, skill, and value. Certain labors involved in the show's production were occluded and resulted in outcomes that profited the television industry and eroded protections established for its workers.
In its most positive and progressive outcomes, Lee's announcement of “invisible work” as work radicalized labor practices. By validating and foregrounding labor within the domestic sphere and private realm, Lee and her guests reformulated the status of such work and denaturalized it. As Arlene Kaplan Daniels finds in her foundational study on the matter, invisible work remains underpaid or unpaid because “the apparently spontaneous aspects, the appearance of intuitive responses in social settings,” mask the training, skill, and exertion involved in these affective, interpersonal, and seemingly voluntary tasks.3 At particular moments in The Gypsy Rose Lee Show, Lee and her guests categorically countered this problem and challenged capitalism's power entrenched in the invisibility of women's and feminized labors.
The transposition of the private into the public, however, also operated in a disempowering fashion. As the feminist sociologist and labor scholar Kathi Weeks contends, work practices become increasingly invasive when they become personalized, individualized, and affective. This “effective privatization of work,” according to Weeks, is a “function of the way the labor market individualizes work.”4 When public workplace practices merge with those of the domestic—a sphere that has long eluded analysis because of its interpersonal, intimate, and presumably voluntary dynamics—they, like the feminized qualities of the household economy, become a “product of a series of individual contracts rather than a social structure.”5 While, as Weeks argues, late capitalism exacerbates the exploitation of individuality and choice, the foundations of this condition precede the contemporary moment, as Lee's work for television in the mid- to late 1960s demonstrates.
With all of its complex and problematic outcomes, the talent- and time-intensive labor Lee invested in the production of her program belies assumptions about syndicated television. Although hampered by the constraints of a modestly budgeted, regionally produced show, Lee planned for relatively elaborate programs and utilized high-level performance skills to deliver a “solid inexpensive daytime show” in which she took great pride and pleasure.6 Lee's investments in the program, the intricacies of the show's production practices, the calculations behind Lee's hosting persona, and the ideologically dense on-air performances by Lee and her guests make evident the contributions syndicated television made to the industry and to the culture in which it was produced and consumed. In exploring The Gypsy Rose Lee Show, this article argues for the importance of what has long been regarded as an inferior television product. Syndication's station-by-station sales approach places its programs outside the assumed vetting of quality done at the network level, and this lesser status is reinforced by “critical and industrial attitudes towards particular program genres, audiences, and dayparts.”7 With its daytime time slot, talk-show genre, and address to women viewers, The Gypsy Rose Lee Show ticked all the boxes for undervalued program aesthetics and audiences.8 In spite of this, the behind-the-scenes labor practices and attitudes toward work on-screen helped drive significant developments in television's cultural and industrial terms during the mid-1960s, and therefore warrant consideration.
SEX APPEALS ON TV
Scholarship on women's television history illustrates the importance of “fem-cees” in early TV as charming, glamorous, and likable hosts who nonetheless troubled visions of femininity and domesticity in their hosting duties and on-air personae.9 Female television hosts who predated Lee's program labored to straddle often-contradictory identities and worlds for women. On Home (NBC, 1954–57), Arlene Francis played the roles of both “devoted wife and mother and a politically astute career woman,” with program content that presented an “ambivalent representation of a woman's place in the public/private divide.”10 The program addressed concerns of public-sphere successes for women and domestic investments that reminded women of their role as “vivacious, feminine dolls”—incongruous goals that proved “clearly awkward” at times.11 Similarly, in The Faye Emerson Show (CBS, ABC, NBC, 1950), host Faye Emerson's popularity was based on her abilities to balance the contradictory elements of cosmopolitan glamour with approachability and feminine domesticity. Her plunging necklines, a signifier of her sexual allure and forward-thinking fashion sense, both appealed to audiences and made Emerson a target of criticism.12
Although Lee's challenges to conventional femininity at the time of The Gypsy Rose Lee Show were a product of the changing times of the 1960s, when sexuality and women's liberation were developing as an integral part of the culture and of television's investments, her unapologetic associations with sex were integral to her television career from the very start. Unlike other women who appeared on television in the 1950s, Lee's guest appearances during this time called upon a playful sexuality—a quality that proved popular with audiences in an era that was proving tricky for women in their negotiation of femininity and sexuality.13
From the first moment Lee appears onstage as the mystery guest on What's My Line? (CBS, 1950–67) on May 31, 1959, the audience responds with delighted shrieks and screams. After Lee seats herself next to host John Daly, she takes off her innocuous wrist-length gloves. Midway through this action, she seems to rethink the gesture and mischievously twirls the gloves. This performance transforms a demure fashion statement appropriate for middle-class American women of the time into a sexually charged prop in a striptease act. Later, panelist Gig Young asks, “Are you female?” in an effort to determine her identity. Lee answers in the affirmative and jokes, “Never been any doubt before.” As Lee delivers sly sexual asides and quips about her job as a striptease artist throughout her appearance, the audience expresses its enthusiasm with applause and appreciative laughter.
As evinced by this crowd-pleasing television appearance, Lee knew how to translate the skills she honed as a burlesque performer to television. Famous for a stage act that was “more tease than strip,” Lee entertained audiences with sexually charged humor and performance skills that suited television's media-specific appeals of immediacy and “liveness.” Lee's previous career also freed her from associations with “extraordinary” glamour that made work on television difficult for female talent. Her work as a burlesque performer neutralized many of the class-based issues that other women on television had to negotiate in the “tension that pitted glamour against ordinariness,” as they attempted to present a star image suitable for television.14 Lee played on the down-to-earth qualities of a woman who had to work hard in a less-than-respectable industry, even as she displayed outrageous and unconventional standards of costuming and behavior.
Just as Lee's television appearances in the 1950s were defined positively by her sexualized persona, by the time she hosted The Gypsy Rose Lee Show, her sexuality operated as a key selling point for the program. A November 1965 ad in Variety joked that Lee, whose success depended on “getting things off her chest,” was “back at it again.”15 More than mere double entendre, this assessment underscored how the work of television talk borrowed from the talents Lee developed throughout her career. Now “quipping instead of stripping,” Lee's aptitude in concealing efforts of the body and the light, conversational approach she had in her striptease performances informed her capabilities to make television work appear natural and easy.16
Lee's appeals were profitable ones. If, indeed, “Gypsy's Great! Daytime or Nighttime,” as promised in advertisements, Lee added value to the show by attracting multiple audiences and associated dayparts. This also included different regional audiences, from metropolitan cities (Miami, Los Angeles) to smaller towns (Poland Springs, Maine; Schenectady, New York) where her show had been picked up. Her success was further measured in both numbers of viewers and in targeted demographics: a September–October 1965 American Research Bureau report related that sets in use during Lee's show rose 57 percent in a six-month period, and that female viewers increased by more than 21,900 during this time period.17
Lee's success was particularly impressive, given the competition she faced. She was hardly the only player in the syndicated talk-show game during the 1960s, when the growing number of women as hosts extended the business practices of the 1950s and reflected television's growing reliance on syndication.18 Lee was competing with other consummate performers, such as Virginia Graham, host of Girl Talk (ABC, 1963–70) until 1969, and Joan Rivers, host of That Show (NBC, 1968–69). These women shared a background in live performance and were notable for their quick wit and verbosity. By the time she started Girl Talk, Graham had already established herself as a radio and television show host; for her part, Rivers was already a seasoned stand-up comic and frequent guest and substitute host for The Tonight Show (NBC, 1954–ongoing).19
The Gypsy Rose Lee Show was regarded as a direct contender to Girl Talk, arguably the most popular daytime talk show during the 1960s, so much so that Lee's show was initially titled Girl Talk—West.20 Lee's sexuality proved a key point of distinction between the two programs, as Girl Talk host Graham emphatically and consistently emphasized her lack of sex appeal and acumen in the sexualized world of show business. A self-proclaimed “show-business enigma,” Graham boasted that she “never had an hour of professional training in the theater,” “didn't come from the jungle of one-night stands,” and had not experienced the “heartaches of young performers.”21 Graham's persona, defined by her lack of worldliness, made her unthreatening to viewers. According to Graham, rather than seeing her as a glamorous, sexy star, women regarded her as a “fat, comfortable friend,” safe enough to “meet their husbands.”22 Although advertising for a “New! Revealing! Different!” Girl Talk punnily referenced the “strip” aspect of syndication programming—the scheduling of the same program at the same time throughout the week—with images of a silhouetted woman disrobing behind a screen, Graham was conspicuously absent from the ad's visual field.23
Unlike this generic sexualized advertising approach that bore no connection to the host's particular persona, The Gypsy Rose Lee Show's sexual enticement was obviously linked to its host. Promotional interviews referenced Lee's past career and featured Lee's image in direct association with that past. Advertising and journalistic coverage touted Lee's transition from “Take It Off” to “Keep Them Talking,” and from “Peeling to Patter”; her program was the “wildest afternoon in San Francisco.”24 Without exception, Lee was pictured alongside such language, frequently with an older photograph featuring her in her striptease act and updated photographs of her on set. Even the passage of time did nothing to dim associations of Lee with sexuality; one article marveled that Lee, then in her fifties, was “still a pinup.”25
As Lee quite clearly understood, a distinctive persona and performance style were crucial to her success in a crowded field of female-hosted syndicated talk shows. As she asserted in a press release, “What we set out to do is separated by a pretty fine line and individuality is key.”26 Lee's “individuality” depended upon a range of talents that bridged disparate worlds. When she endorsed Lee's show, Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons pondered, “What do famed ‘Strip’ artists talk about when they get together?” with “Needlepoint!” as the surprising answer.27 Parsons's appraisal homed in on the importance of incongruity in Lee's persona, interests, and skills. Lee appealed to viewers as sex worker and homemaker, as purveyor of high culture and appreciator of low culture, as glamorous show business legend and penny-pinching homemaker. As such she deftly navigated dissimilar worlds, with show topics that ranged from “Shakespeare” and “Pop Art” to “Knitting,” “Needle Handiwork,” “Problems of Being on the Road,” and “Experiences Waiting for the Big Break.”28 Lee's ability to span dissimilar cultural realms made her unique as a host and enabled her show to interrogate the prevailing valuations of these worlds.
CAMP WORK: GUEST STARS AND QUEER FAILURE AT THE SCENE OF PRODUCTION
By highlighting otherwise-invisible labor as work, Lee and her guests created dissonance around idealized gender roles and conventional aspects of domestic worlds. More particularly, the show's camp expressions denaturalized heteronormative behaviors and called attention to the unpleasurable nature of work required to succeed within a capitalist regime of production. Such challenges reconfigured idealized aspects of women's labors and feminized labors charged to queer subjects.
Camp occupied a central place in Lee's show, so much so that audiences were literally educated on the matter. When the actress Barbara Nichols was a scheduled guest, promotional materials promised viewers that she would respond to the question, “What is ‘camp’?”29 Recurring guest T. C. Jones, a cross-dressing performer, played up subversive aspects of gender and sexual identity to the point where Lee once joyfully proclaimed, “Between the two of us, we've made our producer very nervous.” Jones emphasized the artifice of his act and, in doing so, crafted an exaggerated performance of gender that scholars identify as camp.30 When Lee's comments elicit audience laughter, T. C. claims in faux-exasperated style to be “playing the role of straight woman again.”
As camp, according to David Bergman, “exists in tension with popular culture, commercial culture, or consumerist culture,” it offers not just entertainment value but a critical interrogation of identity and of labor.31 In one episode, when Lee asks him who “does” his hair. T. C. replies, “DuPont.” Lee herself then participates in the discussion of artifice, disclosing her own use of wigs and other manufactured hairpieces. When Lee asks T. C. about the particular wig he is wearing, which is fashioned into a blond bob, T. C. responds that he “killed Faye Dunaway for it.”
Whether in a didactic segment or a clear announcement of gender artifice, camp worked in conjunction with the show's ambivalence about labor. This imbrication of camp and work reorients camp from audience interpretation to the scene of production and the moment of its manufacturing. Matthew Tinkcom emphasizes camp's place within the constraints of capitalism and “queer labor that allow[s] for visions of work to emerge.”32 Camp thus presents itself through the worker. Lee and her guests demonstrate this type of camp work, in which “dissident” subjects “draw attention to the very labor … required to conceal themselves, the labor to produce themselves, and the work of camp.” Such camp expression moves us from a retrospective reading strategy or a reinterpretive function on the part of audiences to a deliberate construction on the part of the performer-cum-worker.33
When the actor Agnes Moorehead appeared on the show and demonstrated her needlepointing skills, Lee introduced her as a domestic ideal, a “good friend, mother, and homemaker … everything a woman should be.” Yet Moorehead's relationship with conventional domesticity was far more discordant than Lee's introduction would suggest. Her “undisputed camp-icon status” was secured through her role as Endora on Bewitched (ABC, 1964–72)—acting that corresponded with her appearance on Lee's show—with such certainty that, as Patricia White describes it, “gay audiences don't need to appropriate her.”34 White suggests that performance rather than audience interpretation structured Moorehead's camp queerness. Characterized by “deviant femininity” and roles that caustically commented on heteronormativity, Moorehead expressed discontent with sexual and gender status quos.35 Given Moorehead's career and persona, the notion that she occupied a conventional relationship to domesticity and motherhood would have come across as absurd to Lee's audience.
Even if, indeed, Moorehead actually was an idealized model of domestic perfection in her private life, as Lee's description suggests, she proceeded to present a dissonant picture of her domestic abilities on the show. In recounting a trip to Paris, she talked about her desire to create a sumptuous carpet of flowers in her hotel room. She bought thirty bouquets of violets to simulate the “elegant” sensation of walking through flowers. After spreading the violets all over her bed and sleeping on them, she woke in the morning to find that they had wilted and that she smelled of “rotted vegetation.” In recounting this failed dream of elegance, Moorehead pushed back against fetishized domesticity and feminized aesthetic refinement.
Throughout her interview, Moorehead voices dissatisfaction with the conditions of wage-earning labor. As a paid, professional actor, Moorehead represents acting as work, and not particularly glamorous work at that. In discussing Bewitched, Moorehead testifies to the labor involved in acting on television: the hurried pace of television production pressures actors to learn scripts quickly, and the pragmatic aspects of acting challenge creative license. Moorehead discusses the “extremely tedious” acting on Bewitched, something she likens to playing a game of statues. Instead of demanding nuanced acting and subtle expression, the program required waiting and literally standing about an actor's primary skills.
By the time Moorehead appeared on Lee's show, she was a woman who had achieved a tremendous degree of professional success. From such a position, she could authoritatively speak about the nature of celebrity and, in doing so, extend to it a critical deflation of glamour. In the course of the interview, Lee retraces Moorehead's illustrious career in theater and film—including her work with Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles in the famed Mercury Theatre—as well as her popularity on the extremely successful Bewitched. Yet in spite of her accomplishments, Moorehead is quick to challenge assumptions about the luxuriousness of celebrity life. She discusses having traveled to Lee's show by Greyhound bus and her familiarity with all modes of transportation, no matter how humble. Lee participates in this conversation by detailing her own eight-hour trip from her home in Los Angeles to the television studio in San Francisco, during which she drove her own truck and caravan. Through revealing these mundane aspects of show business, both women defined themselves as workers rather than glamorous celebrities. Their accounts of working life align them with laborers who must exert themselves, struggle with everyday concerns, and exist in a work world filled with tedium and time-consuming efforts.
A wide variety of show-business guests appeared on Lee's program and, with few exceptions, they exposed the difficulties of creative labor and the tenuous nature of show-business success. They expressed discontent with expectations of success and hard work; embraced failure in their on-air tasks, career choices, and personal lives; and rejected normative work behaviors. In one episode, when Lee invites viewers to write to guest Yvonne De Carlo for her pasta sauce recipe, De Carlo tells them to send a self-addressed envelope and to “please put a stamp on it.” In a pithy analysis of her financial situation, De Carlo tells Lee, “Honey, everything is going out, nothing is coming in.” Ed Ames spends a considerable amount of his interview discussing how making a living as a stage performer is a “hard life.” And Lee shared her own stories of austerity measures. Interviewing her former husband, the artist Julio de Diego, they recall living in a house trailer at the start of their married life. When interviewing Nanette Fabray, Carl Reiner, and Pat Morita, Lee admits that she steals everything that “isn't nailed down” when she travels. One of the recipes Lee offers her viewers is a salad that makes use of the “garbage” of “last night's leftovers.” Such precarious economics contested assumptions about the lavish life of stars and placed these performers solidly within the world of economizing and cost-efficiency.
By demythologizing celebrity culture, emphasizing the behind-the-scenes labor involved in show business, and describing the impossibility of achieving some utopian ideal of success, these guests exhibited what Judith Halberstam terms the “queer art of failure.” As a productive counterpoint to success, failure offers not just “disappointment, disillusionment, and despair,” but engages “negative affects” in order to “poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life.”36 In rejecting or resisting conventional narratives about stardom, celebrity, and gender norms, Lee and her guests expressed failures of talent, skill, and aspiration.
When Woody Allen and Selma Diamond appeared on the show, failure abounded. The set was constructed like a campground within the otherwise-glamorous space fitted with a crystal chandelier, gilded furniture, and armoires. In the midst of this set, Lee attempts to assemble a tent, with dismal results. This bit of humor leads Lee to prevail upon Mr. Abercrombie, head of Abercrombie & Fitch and the supplier of the tent, to come onstage to assist. Lee's failure and the incongruity of camping within the show's mise-en-scène established dissonance, which her guests’ engagement with the activity enhanced. Given these elements, the episode challenged the ease and efficiency conventionally associated with television talk-show content.
Throughout the episode, a husky-voiced, assertive Diamond repeatedly and sardonically emphasizes the effete, helpless Allen's violation of gender roles. “Shouldn't a man be doing this?” she asks while Lee struggles with the tent. Allen helplessly looks on, anxiously clutching a sleeping bag and proclaiming that he hates to leave the house. After initially refusing to enter the constructed tent, Allen goes inside and proceeds to spend the majority of the show out of the camera's view, periodically calling out responses to questions and jokes. At one point he asks Lee how the show is going, to which Lee responds, “I don't know. I'd hate to think of this as a show.”
The multiple failures and refusals in the episode point to the artifice and queerness of the show itself, its production values, and its performance style. With Diamond and Allen's gender offenses and general uncooperativeness, and Lee's disastrous attempts to construct a campsite on a soundstage, the failures of the episode are clear. The very premise of the episode and its artifice is played large, with Lee gleefully announcing at the top of the show, “We're going to pretend we're camping out!” This effect of “pretending,” of constructing a tableau through an activity otherwise linked to nature, activity, and the outdoors, was heightened through the artificiality of the set, the central conceit of the episode, and the participants involved.
Lee's show fostered performances that were not seamless, pro-social, or comfortable to watch. The labors of entertainment were laid bare for the audience, and the pleasures of easy charm and sociability were disrupted by awkward or hostile guests and thwarted tasks. No celebrity on Lee's show expressed resistance to “toxic positivity” more than Paul Lynde. When Lee discusses the high failure rate of the television pilots he has appeared in, Lynde, in characteristically biting fashion, responds, “You know what to bring up, don't you?” Alongside this professional failure, Lynde rejects the constraints of domestic normalcy and associated heteronormativity. After he talks with pride about a house he just purchased, Lee prompts him to play a parlor game meant to reveal the psychological makeup of the person sketching. After Lynde draws a window, Lee asserts that he is “building a nest in his mind.” Lynde immediately expresses his overwhelming desire to break the window and vehemently rejects the idea that he will ever get married. Lynde characterizes this response as an expression of his “selfish” nature and his disinterest in sharing his house with anyone else.
Lynde's lack of conventionally defined career success and refusal of heteronormative imperatives complemented his adamant refusal to perform the tasks expected of a “good,” cooperative guest. Lynde repeatedly resisted Lee's requests for him to participate in the DIY domestic chores central to her show and, in doing so, refused appropriate on-air behaviors and labors. On a February 2, 1968, program, Lynde appeared for a second try at soap making. An earlier attempt at the project had failed spectacularly, with soap that smelled, as Lynde described it, “just like a slaughterhouse.” Wearing an elegant pink jacket, Lynde is visibly put out when he has to don protective surgical gear for the project. He complains that Lee always asks him to perform unpleasant tasks that require costume changes. As Lee and her guests sit around an elaborate marble table in elegant chairs and a tufted upholstery settee, Lee instructs Lynde to “pretend we're in the woods, you know, honey.” An incredulous Lynde responds, “If you were in the woods?! Where would you get all of this in the woods?” As Lynde pours boiling soap into a leaking mold, the project comes to a chaotic conclusion, and production staff throw rolls of paper towels onto the set from off-camera.
Lynde's weary, cynical approach to the work required of him on the talk show troubled the model of the idealized guest and the breezy cooperation of host-guest dynamics. When Lee asks Lynde if he found the task of soap making interesting, Lynde replies, “Not particularly.” He then admits to participating in such activities only because of his mortgage. “That's why I'm up here,” Lynde says. “I'll do anything.” He presents a peevish engagement with the tasks he must perform and, in doing so, demonstrates that even light entertainment is hard work. And the worker only works for financial compensation.
Judith Halberstam reimagines failure through its radical potential to “recategorize what looks like inaction, passivity, and lack of resistance in terms of the practice of stalling the business of the dominant.”37 When envisioned in this way, failure becomes a means of “refusing to acquiesce to dominant logics of power and discipline and as a form of critique.”38 In promoting other systems of behaviors that resist prevailing ideological practices and the power they exert over subjects, the failures exhibited by Lee and her guests denaturalized social norms, capitalist striving and success, and television production itself.
THE HARD WORK OF SALACIOUSNESS, SPONTANEITY, AND TALK
Lee's performance style privileged “visual humor, physical play, and intimate address”—hallmarks of talent from live entertainment venues that translated well to television.39 Lee directly addressed her at-home and studio audiences, created a feeling of informality and chaos, and, at times, literally brought audience members into the production space of the set. Lee's “liveness” (in a program that was prerecorded), playfulness, and informality could succeed only if Lee presented these elements as effortless and unplanned. Segments and conversations with guests happen in media res, Lee often seems to have been caught by the camera in intimate talk or personal musings, and her reactions to guests appear spontaneous. In one such moment, while reacting to a sight gag Ed Ames has performed, Lee laughs, kicks up her feet, and knocks a teacup off the coffee table. At other moments, she appears to act on impulse. When she stands to show off her outfit in a presumably unscripted, unrehearsed moment, she instructs the boom mike operator that “Mama's getting up.” Such instruction insinuates that the crew might be caught unawares by impromptu actions.
The liveness and spontaneity typical of the show as a whole called upon Lee's familiarity with pre-televisual entertainment practices. As a performer from the burlesque circuit, Lee, like her contemporaries from vaudeville, the Broadway stage, and nightclubs, was knowledgeable about adaptable performance skills. Working in live performance venues provided Lee and her peers with models Lee extended well after their heyday on early television to meet the evolving needs of the television industry. Such spontaneity was an appealing selling point that made Lee valuable as a host.
Unlike the highly paid vaudeo (video vaudeville) stars of first-run network television in the early 1950s, who, like Lee, provided “effective performance models for television as they all utilized liveness, direct audience engagement, broad physicality, fast pacing, [and] verbal dexterity,” Lee in the 1960s was working for a relatively underfunded, regionally produced program.40 The show's meager budget meant a modest $1,000-per-week salary for Lee (a figure she negotiated hard to win, with ABC initially offering her $750), a tightly stretched production staff, and very low overhead that often left Lee paying out of pocket for secretarial and support staff expenses.41 Within this production context, Lee's talents and performance style facilitated profitability. The irrepressible, spontaneous, and uncontrollable qualities of her hosting defined the manner in which the show was sold to viewers and to stations.
A “natural for TV chatter,” Lee performed what was presumed to be instinctually feminine behaviors, as did her guests.42 The KGO Press Information Department promised potential viewers that the show would revolve around various types of women who “all love to talk.”43 Yet Lee's talking was oftentimes presented as a “problem” in the show's production, which only served to underscore how uncontrollable and impulsive it was. When Jimmy Stewart was a guest, he fell to the floor at one point in the interview. When Lee asks, “What happened?” Stewart replies, to much laughter, “Sorry, I was just trying to get in a word edgewise.”44 In a TV Guide interview, the director and executive producer, Marty Pasetta, recounted the “awful time” he had had with Lee at first because of her unfamiliarity with the role of television host, a job that required more listening than talking.45 While such criticism diminished Lee's capabilities as host, it positively demonstrated her natural affinity and love for talk.
Lee's talkativeness worked in conjunction with the show's promise of salaciousness, another vital selling point for the program. Much like the “ballyhoo” Eric Schaefer identifies as central to the advertising of exploitation films, the “hyperbolic excess of words and images” used to market Lee's show “sparked the imagination” in overplaying her scandalousness.46 The station was “forced” to hire a staff member to censor the objectionable language Lee employed. Pasetta suggested that the show could never be done live because of Lee's inability to self-censor. It is fairly clear that additional factors (cost efficiency, flexibility of air dates for a syndicated program, and other economic benefits) could also account for why the show was taped, yet this explanation never surfaces. Presenting Lee as raunchily uninhibited was clearly part of the program's appeal, as “sometimes what Gypsy says is more risqué and off-color with the ‘blips’ than it was originally and it gets more laughs from the home audience.”47,TV Guide notes that this effect “has led the producers to be rather lavish with the ‘blips.’”48
The value of such a performer was not limited to performance style but also involved the pragmatic demands of labor. With television's assumptions that the “taxing work on the vaudeville or night club circuit was more than adequate preparation from the demands of television,” a performer trained in the labor-intensive world of live entertainment was an invaluable commodity for television, even beyond its early stages.49 Lee's career as a burlesque performer conditioned her to entertain audiences night after night, making her a viable television worker capable of keeping up with a demanding production schedule.
In correspondence with friends, lawyers, and KGO's production staff, Lee frequently described the toll that working on the show took. Her personal life was so disrupted that she called upon this as a point of negotiation in her contract. With the loss of gardening, socializing, and caring for her pets, Lee told her lawyer, H. William Fitelson, “I must have something to compensate me for the absolute destruction of the life I enjoyed out here prior to this undertaking.”50 By the end of the show's run, she had taped 754 episodes over the course of nearly three years without “a proper holiday” and, according to Lee, fatigue had truly set in.51 She recounted her mixed emotions about the show's end in a letter to her lawyer's office: “In a way, I'm so relieved, as I was absolutely exhausted.”52
Most of the seemingly effortless moments of Lee's performances were actually carefully planned and required her attention. Alongside the handwritten records she kept of work-related expenses, Lee kept track of which puns, one-liners, and asides she used to lead in and out of commercial breaks. In one such note Lee wrote, “I'm not so sure I want those [c]ontact lenses—now that I can't see so well I don't look so bad.”53 Above this joke, she noted “Used” and underlined the word for emphasis. In another entry, Lee's joke, “[I] read tea leaves the hard way, while they're still in the bag,” is marked as “used, June 14, #46.”54 What appeared on-screen as a throwaway line or impromptu joke was actually a carefully crafted and managed product.
The intensive planning of Lee's performances was matched by her meticulous oversight in production. In preparing to entertain troops stationed in Germany in 1965, a performance from which she would cull footage for her show, Lee requested that the following be provided to her on the base: “an 8x10 movie picture screen, preferably one which rolls up and down like a window shade; a swivel stool with back and front foot rest similar to a bar stool; … a small pedestal type table with lamp; one spot light and a baby spot light; … [and] a Bell and Howell projector that can project magnetic sound.”55 Lee enclosed pictures to illustrate the type of stool she needed and the stage layout she envisioned. She also outlined technical specifications that justified her particular requests. “I specify Bell & Howell,” she wrote to Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence E. Sparks at the Army's Special Services Division, “because the film has many mylar splices which would not clear an Eastman gate.”56 She offered to provide her own microphone, but also asked for a “pencil mike which when operating in conjunction with the [f]ilm will not cause a feedback.”57
Lee's visits to Germany were personal as well as professional. She went there not just to perform but to visit her son Erik, who was enlisted in the Army at the time. While there, she took footage of her shopping excursions and her son's wedding, which she showed on The Gypsy Rose Lee Show. This type of episode confirms what her biographer Karen Abbott identifies as the exceptional qualities of Lee's television program, where “nothing was too private or trivial to share.”58 Lee's documentation of her private life was a recurring part of her program, something she introduced through home movies. These offered viewers an intimate, almost voyeuristic look into the life of a celebrity. They also commodified the personal for purposes that ultimately worked against the rights of media workers. Lee's reliance on her personal life and those of her guests, whether through footage or through in-studio appearances, placed Lee's show in the middle of labor disputes among actors, technicians, their unions, and the show's producers.
Episodes that featured home-movie-style footage promised viewers unmediated access to Lee's life, her friends and family, and the places she visited.59 Audiences witnessed, for instance, behind-the-scenes production aspects of a Broadway show; highlights from Lee's European vacation, working tour, and son's wedding; and a look at a clothing swap at Lee's home with her Hollywood friends. In each instance, audiences benefited from Lee's interpersonal relationships in these rarified realms. Only Lee could have this type of access, feel what she does about this moment, and provide such a perspective on life in show business. Indeed, as records demonstrate, Lee used her personal phone book as a source of guests to appear on the show and regularly socialized with many of her guests at parties held at one another's homes.60
As one promotion boasted, “There's no place in the world from which the cameras and the wacky antics of Gypsy Rose Lee is immune.”61 The excitement promised by Lee's globe-trotting antics were matched by the personalized narration Lee offered, all helping to create Lee's all-important spontaneity in the studio. In one episode, when presenting footage of her visit to New York and rehearsals for the stage production of Gypsy, Lee acts as if she must persuade, in a manner unrehearsed and unanticipated, her unknowing producer to set up the necessary arrangements to air her footage. “Marty, darling,” Lee entreats, “it takes a second, darling, for you to plug in the projector.”62 The home-movie-style material then shown is interspersed with Lee in the studio with guest Ethel Merman. The use of inserts is cast as unrehearsed, as something Lee unexpectedly wishes to share with the in-studio audience and at-home viewers.
When Lee interviews Merman about Gypsy, in which Merman plays the role of Mama Rose, Lee inserts footage shot at the play's Broadway rehearsal into the interview. Lee draws attention to the immediacy of the footage and the spontaneity of its production. She introduces the segment by directly addressing the camera in-studio. With a claim that she “can't go anywhere without [her] camera,” Lee intimates that the shooting was motivated by personal habits, an impulsive need to capture the moment. “They didn't know I had my camera…. Nobody was really planning on it,” claims Lee. What the viewer then sees, presumably, is an unplanned, unmediated look into highly personal show-business encounters.
While Lee may have actually shot some quantity of home-movie footage, much of her involvement in producing that footage was a thinly veiled fiction. Lee appears on camera in each segment to mingle onstage with the performers of Gypsy, her houseguests at a pool party, and her son and his new wife in Germany. In addition, the camera's mobility belies the point of view Lee purports to occupy. When she visits Gypsy, the camera, at times, shoots from a high-angle vantage point and rarely occupies the back-row perspective Lee claims to have occupied while “taking pictures.”
The persistent fantasy of Lee's involvement in production occluded other workers’ labor. In a 1966 letter to the documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker, Lee proposed that he film a two-week New York trip she was planning. Pitched as “ex–New Yorker visits the town,” the show represented a sentimental trip back to Lee's old working roots.63 Lee felt that the material would not only create an “interesting” show, but could be adaptable enough to work as an hour-and-a-half special program or be “cut up into a series of small shows and incorporated into [her] own.”64 The versatility of the material and its tone depended on its being a relatively fragmented and transparent glimpse into Lee's life.
To produce content that featured backstage interviews, scenes of her old entertainment venues, and places where she lived, Lee asked Pennebaker for a “single system with just a couple of lights [and a] hand held camera” in order to “keep it as home movie looking as possible.”65 The ramifications of deliberately crafting this style went beyond the personal and voyeuristic pleasures of seeing Lee in un-staged and behind-the-scenes actions. This aesthetic and conceptual approach also helped manage labor issues and regulatory policies of the television industry.
Don Cuddy, president of Point Inc., a publicity company employed by Lee, wrote to Lee about union-related concerns regarding her home-movie-style productions. In a letter dated February 11, 1968, Cuddy strategized about how to “get around” the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Talent (NABET) “situation” created by on-location shooting.66 He proposed skirting union-contracted labor by “pretending that [Lee], personally, [is] shooting films.”67 With this pretense, Cuddy promised Lee that “we certainly can create the same effect, using ‘hand held’ cameras on some travel shots and using cut-shots of yourself ‘making movies.’”68 He wanted to exploit fully the economic advantages for the production of the program and did so by calling upon the various loopholes granted through location shooting. In asserting his choice to “employ any crew I want,” Cuddy informed Lee that Florida is a right-to-work state, a state-specific legislation that guarantees that employment is not predicated on union membership.
Given that the labor situation was “solved” by Lee's home movies, her implied and overtly stated assertions about making her own home movies take on additional meaning. More than just a way to create a personal dimension in the show and to compete with other talk shows, Lee's home movies, as evinced by these behind-the-scenes conversations, modified labor practices for the sake of profitability. The illusion of natural, unplanned, spontaneous talk and engagement that Lee performed and helped her guests perform created conditions well suited to low-cost programming. Lee's show stirred debates about whether a guest appearance constituted an actual performance—the work of the talent—if the guest was not “performing” in a typically codified sense or in a way that aligned with the abilities that defined them as talent.
The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) repeatedly warned Lee about her show's violations of union rules, particularly when it came to fair compensation for talent. In a September 30, 1967, telegram, AFTRA informed Lee that they were aware that AFTRA members were “performing duties other than those normally performed by them under their individual contracts” on her show.69 It is clear that the program did not compensate certain guests at all. When Lee wrote to her lawyer to propose featuring an interior decorator on the show, she instructed him to inform the potential guest that “we do not pay a fee.”70 By January 1968 it was clear that AFTRA and ABC, the show's production company, could not come to an agreement on the issue of compensating guests, and the matter went to arbitration. By September 1968 AFTRA members were counseled not to appear on Lee's show unless they were contracted according to basic pay grades established by the union.
Broadcasting magazine identified the problem at the heart of the conflict by posing the following question: “Does a production company have the right to use free talent on a television show if the talent is not required to perform as an actor or do its established act?”71 AFTRA's ruling underscored the problem of nonpayment when it informed members that ABC “has stated that it will not compensate members who appear on [The Gypsy Rose Lee Show] where, in the opinion of the company, the services of the individual are not covered by applicable AFTRA Codes.”72 The issue of “talent” operated as the crucial means by which ABC could justify not compensating guests who appeared on Lee's show. This dispute between labor and the television industry suggests that the economics of “chat” and associated entertainment central to a talk show troubled clear-cut notions of work, talent, performance, and appropriate pay.
While no available archival records document how individual guests were paid, clearly ABC planned to systematically skirt AFTRA fees for Lee's show. Myriad guests appeared without performing the talents of their “established acts,” suggesting that these were the talents about which AFTRA was concerned. The intimacy and informality of Lee's hosting and the interpersonal nature of her relationships with guests became a crucial means by which professional talent and labor were downplayed. More than generating a highly personal exchange between celebrity and interviewer, appearances in which the guest stars did not “perform” helped the television industry redefine suitable compensation for talent.
When Liberace appeared on the show, his interview focused on his love and knowledge of antiques and minimized his piano performance. When Ethel Merman came on the show, she did not sing live in the studio. Instead, her singing was present on a recorded track that she and Lee listened to together. While discussing the stage production of Gypsy, Lee showed silent footage of rehearsals and provided her own in-studio commentary, which circumvented the stage actors’ appearance and acting in the studio. When showing footage of a celebrity clothing swap Lee hosted at her Los Angeles home, Lee represented the celebrities as friends who came to her house to exchange clothing rather than to act, sing, or otherwise perform. No talent was showcased and no conversation was recorded. Instead of performing, celebrities appeared on-screen as “themselves” and did not appear on the show as in-studio guests. Lee combined non-diegetic voice-over with silent on-location footage, which resulted in the centrality of her impressions of the day. This presentation made for an appealing personal narrative while sidelining any manner of performance by the celebrity guests.
When contextualized in its production history, The Gypsy Rose Lee Show's presentations of leisure, highly personal perspectives on celebrity, and the casual and naturalized efforts of hosting assume additional meaning. The show's informality and reliance on personal relationships confused the parameters of “talent” as well as the actual work performed by the host and guests. Thus, Lee's program serves as a complex illustration of labor practices that emerged during the mid-1960s. This relatively under-studied period in television production becomes increasingly important when viewed through evolving compensation practices, program content and aesthetics, and television celebrity.
The Gypsy Rose Lee Show occupied a transitional period in television, in both ideological and industrial terms. As much as Lee prolonged and modified elements of an earlier television era, she and her guests signaled the growing visibility of sexual minorities and the mainstreaming of sexual culture on television. The show also anticipated the types of talent and production practices central to low-cost programming of the 1970s and beyond. As the 1960s went on, syndication grew to include a “wide variety of less expensive, shorter, and demographically focused nonfiction programs” rather than the hour-long action-adventure series that dominated syndication in the 1950s.73 Syndication became increasingly important during and after Lee's show, with UHF's expansion and need for more and more content, a continued “accent on demographics” that could be met with the narrowcast appeals of a non-network production, and the “trend toward the shorter and shorter cycle of new episodes of network programs.”74 This trend resulted in “large revenue at relatively lower selling costs for syndicators” and became a vital part of the industry.75
The Gypsy Rose Lee Show helped pave the way for an explosion of low-cost programming, from the syndicated game shows of the 1970s to the talk shows of the 1980s. Central to these genres was the mix of naturalness, the personal, and a frankness about sex that Lee and her guests performed for viewers. Perhaps more than any other show at that time, The Gypsy Rose Lee Show predicted contemporary reality television, with its low-cost labor, program content that traffics in the intimate details of the TV worker's personal life, and use of sexual exploits in storylines and publicity connected to the program. As an antecedent to such practices, Lee's place in television history is an important but complicated one. For good and for bad, Lee helped establish a new type of sex-positive, spontaneous, and unabashedly self-disclosing television worker-celebrity who engages in exploitative labor practices that has become a staple of American television.