Friday, December 25, 2009

Friday Dance Party: King-Sized Christmas

Back in the day, Rudolf, The Grinch, Charlie Brown, and Frosty were not the only television celebrities eagerly awaited by audiences every holiday season. If you had a bit of the vaudeville in your blood, you would also look forward to the annual Christmas variety specials. Several singing stars headlined such specials year after year. If you liked sweaters and snoozing, you waited for Perry Como's special; if you liked the Osmonds, you looked forward to the Andy Williams show. The stars of this week's Dance Party headlined more than two dozen specials (and two actual series) throughout the 1960s and 70s.
They actually started in vaudeville, traveling with their parents in an act called "The Driggs Family of Entertainers." In high school, three of the sisters formed their own vocal group, and the King Sisters were born. The group varied in size for a while, having either three or four members at one time, with the six girls in the family rotating in and out of the group. The number eventually settled to four, and they began a professional career singing with various bands, such as that led by Artie Shaw. They had over a dozen moderate hits in the early 40s, and even appeared in a few films, but did not achieve the stardom of competing sister acts such as the Andrews or the McGuires. One of the sisters had married bandleader Alvino Rey, and the group began touring with his band exclusively. Their repertoire of novelty songs (one of their big hits was "Mairzy Doates") masked their tight harmonies and musical expertise.

It was the early 60s when sister Yvonne was asked to put together a benefit performance for her church in Salt Lake City (it should come as no surprise that this family of major procreators was Mormon), and she added her children, parents, brothers, in-laws, aunts, and uncles to the big finale. The concert was such a success, she edited a video out of some home-movies of the event, and pitched the group to ABC. They were given a guest shot on Hollywood Palace, and The King Family was born. They headlined two short-lived variety series, but are better remembered for their specials, spanning the 60s and 70s, many of which centered around a holiday.

I remember being quite jealous whenever I bumped into The King Family on television, as the group included members as young as 3 and as old as 70. The children ("The King Kiddies") did not seem particularly stellar to me, even at my young age, but just by virtue of their birth, they were performing on TV!

In addition to the Sisters and the Kiddies, a group of twentysomethings splintered off into The King Cousins, who actually recorded separately, as well as with the family at large. They appear on the Bye Bye Birdie soundtrack (uncredited) as well as on their own recordings.
Though the King Family is largely dormant these days, several of the members of the extended family continue to perform (at any one time, The King Family numbered between 30 and 40 members, but occasionally that number could double, depending on "who was in town"). Original King Kiddie Cam Clarke is a major voice over talent, appearing in many cartoon series and films over the years. Original King Cousin Tina Cole had a bit of an independent career in the 60s, becoming the first female regular on the long-running sitcom My Three Sons. Original King Sister Marilyn continues a career as a solo artist, and is proud to have provided the singing voice to one of the nuns in the Sound of Music film.
Looking at them now, there is a lot at which to snicker, as we know nobody is this wholesome, and even in their heyday, the King Family did not get much critical acclaim. But they were hugely popular with the audience at large, perhaps because we wished our own families got along as well. And we really wanted to wear those clothes.

The King Family lost their matriarch, original sister Yvonne King Burch, the woman who put them onstage for the first time, just a few weeks ago, just shy of her 90th birthday. In her honor, and in honor of singing and dancing families everywhere (whatever happened to the Cowsills?), enjoy this reminiscence of a typical King Family Christmas:
Merry Christmas, everybody!