March 14, 2015 by billysparrow
Some of my happiest summer memories involve sitting in front of a television.
I don’t want to give the impression that I spent most of my childhood summers staring at a glowing box (though that is how I’ve been spending most of my recent adulthood; if any of you want to discuss “Bar Rescue,” I’m ready, willing, and disturbingly able). I had plenty of good times in the sunshine of my youth, playing wiffle ball with friends, watching my dad play softball for the Eva’s Farm team (when he wasn’t breaking his collarbone or pulling a hamstring), and so on.
But if I am being honest, I don’t know that anything topped the one summer when the family rented a house upstate and I was introduced to something much talked about but never fully seen, something that seemed indescribably glorious and potentially life-changing. I am speaking, of course, of cable television.
I think I am of the last generation who can remember life with less than 10 channels of television. It seems barbaric that it was considered acceptable to raise children in such a manner, but, hey, it happened and we can say we made it out safely on the other side.
Of course, I didn’t mind the paltry selection at the time, because I did not know of any other way of life. But, gradually, word spread of this magnificent cable television and its seemingly endless entertainment options. But this cable was slow in coming to Staten Island for some reason (or maybe we were just late adopters; I know it took a bit before we went in on a VCR), so when word came that the house my mom and dad were going to rent in Windham, NY, for the summer had cable. Well, this was unbelievable news. This was clearly going to be the best summer ever.
I’m trying to pinpoint what summer it was, and I’m guessing it was 1985, or maybe 1986, though I feel like 1986 was the year cable came to the family home in Staten Island. If only I had kept a TV diary in my childhood. I originally typed that sentence in a lame attempt at humor, but now all I can think about is how incredible it would be if I had written a journal entry every day of my childhood strictly about what I watched on TV that day. Oh, young me, I wish you had been as smart as old me. Way to blow it, dumbass.
Where were we? Oh yes, the Summer of Cable. Whatever year it was, I can tell you it was the greatest year of my life (I suppose I should add “to that point” there, but I’m not sure that’s it not still the case). I could now watch professional wrestling shows that I had only read about in magazines, or occasionally seen in fleeting glimpses when I positioned the antenna in just the right way on one of the UHF stations! How amazing! There was a whole world outside of the WWF that I could now savor. It was like a dream.
But it was neither the National Wrestling Alliance nor World Class Championship Wrestling that thrilled me the most that summer. No, it was the reruns that aired on the USA Network–namely, the game show block that aired every day (though seeing the WWF’s “Tuesday Night Titans” on the same network provided a thrill, too). According to a post on Game Show Forum (what a great world we now live in), the 1985 USA Network game show block was as follows:
4:00 Joker’s Wild
5:00 Make Me Laugh
5:30 Gong Show
That looks right to me, though I would’ve thought they aired earlier in the day. But I have very clear memories of all four of those shows: Joker’s Wild had its awesome giant slot-machine lever that the contestants pulled, Bullseye (probably my least favorite of the bunch), was hosted by the underappreciated Jim Lange, and Make Me Laugh was probably the first time I saw stand-up comedians (I remember being big into Bruce Baum because of his appearances on the show).
But The Gong Show–that was the stuff.
I’m not sure that my eight- or nine-year-old mind was really able to wrap itself around what I was seeing, and looking back, my mother’s constant denouncement of the show that summer, though sad, is completely understandable. I can see how troubling it might be when your young child begin to worship Chuck Barris (a worship that nevertheless did not waver and still continues). But the show was so bizarre and unlike anything that I had seen before that it quickly became my all-time favorite thing. Even more so than wrestling. Yeah, I know. Shocking.
There was so much I liked about the show, but there was one thing that rose above it all, above Jaye P. Morgan, above The Unknown Comic, and even above Chuckie Baby clapping is hands and saying, “We’ll be right back, with more stuff.”
I am talking about Gene Gene the Dancing Machine.
He wasn’t on every show, and, believe me, it was a bit of a drag when the show would come to an end and I realized there would be no Gene Gene. But when Milton DeLugg and his orchestra jumped into that song (“Jumpin’ at the Woodside”) and Chuckie Baby would say, “It’s Gene Gene the Dancing Machine!” there was no place else in the world I would rather have been than in front of that TV. And 30 years later, I still don’t think anything on television has brought me as much joy as Gene Gene dancing to “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.”
So, a few hours ago, when I saw that Gene Gene (real name Eugene Patton) died at the age of 82 on Monday, my heart sank. Part of that, of course, was because someone who made me happy so often had left the world (no joke: for years, I’ve done periodic Google checks of Gene Gene to make sure he was still among the living). But it also made me think of my childhood. And that summer. And the smell of the musty carpet in that house. And the TV by the fireplace, playing The Gong Show. And that piano roll, those horns, and Gene Gene shuffling onto the stage. It’s weird to say that you want to go back and relive a day where you watched television. But life’s weird sometimes.
I can still watch Gene Gene clips on YouTube (and on my bootleg Gong Show DVDs). It’s not quite the same, but what hasn’t changed is the thrill I feel when that music starts. I have s spent more than a few hours watching Gene Gene clips and, yes, occasionally dancing along. And the day that Gene Gene’s music hits and I don’t feel a thing is a day I don’t even want to think about (there’s a reason I have an MP3 of a Gene Gene appearance on my “get moving” playlist).
Thank you, Mr. Eugene Patton. The joy you have brought me cannot be quantified. May you rest in peace. Or dance a happy shuffle, if you prefer.