The Bootleg Files: “Parade” Starring Sammy Davis Jr.

BOOTLEG FILES 751: “‘Parade’ Starring Sammy Davis Jr.” (episode of a 1959 Canadian television variety series).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Multiple issues prevent its release in the U.S.

Not likely.

During the 1950s, Sammy Davis Jr. was a ubiquitous presence on American television. Whether working solo or with his father and uncle as the Will Mastin Trio, Davis’ singing, dancing and comedy made him a scene-stealer on nearly every variety program.

Davis was eager to headline his own television program, but there were problems in achieving that goal. In the 1950s, television programming relied heavily on corporate sponsorship to finance the production costs, but the major corporate brands were not eager to put their money behind a Black entertainer. NBC tried to break the color barrier by creating a variety show for Nat King Cole, but the show aired without a national sponsor and was ultimately withdrawn due to the expense of airing a program without backing – to which Cole sourly observed, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”

If U.S. television wasn’t able to accommodate Davis as the star of his own show, Canadian television was willing to offer him a platform. In July 1959, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation invited Davis to Toronto to headline a half-hour program within its “Parade” variety series. The timing was serendipitous, as the film version of “Porgy and Bess” co-starring Davis as Sportin’ Life was just opening and the “Parade” appearance could be used as free publicity for the big-budget musical’s Canadian release.

Unlike the U.S. variety shows with big production numbers, guest stars and supporting dancers and background singers, this Canadian endeavor was a shoestring budget affair – it didn’t even provide a studio audience Mercifully, Davis’ talent was so immense that he could carry this no-budget endeavor on the strength of his personality. However, the Canadians went one better than their American counterparts by arranging for corporate sponsorship: The Sunbeam brand of appliances agreed to underwrite Davis’ special.

The episode opens in a shadow-heavy set. Davis walks up to the camera, smiles and announces, “Good evening. This show is called ‘Parade’ and my name is Sammy Davis Jr.” From there, he launches into a jazzy version of “It’s Just the Gypsy in My Soul” while spinning around signs with the “Parade” logo to show the cover art of the albums he had released over the previous years.

From there, the show goes slightly awry with a silly effort to fool the viewer into believing Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong were guest stars. Two men who were supposed to imitate those icons appear in silhouette while Davis pretended they were the real deal – in reality, they neither sounded nor looked like the figures being imitated. After that odd business is over, Davis resumes doing what he does best, singing with his distinctive mix of bombast and emotion. These songs are framed in medium and close-up, though some close-ups are too close and show Davis sweating under the hot studio lights.

Davis also launches into a wild number where he sings, dances and plays a multitude of instruments including a xylophone, trombone and drums. Two drummers, one white and one black, turn up on camera and accompany Davis as he demonstrates his extraordinary tap dance skills.

To promote “Porgy and Bess,” a giant poster from the film’s release is set up on the stage, with Davis pointing to himself in the advertisement and facetious claiming it’s Johnny Mathis. He then does one of his Sportin’ Life numbers from the film, the hypnotic “There’s a Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon for New York,” and then he assumes the role of the crippled Porgy to offer the film’s final song, “Oh Lord, I’m on My Way.” The show ends with a seated and cigarette smoking Davis thanking the talent behind the camera and serving up a rollicking “Birth of the Blues.”

Davis’ appearance on “Parade” was popular with Canadian audience and encouraged the show’s producers to import more American guests, including jazz singer Ernestine Anderson (in her only TV appearance as a host) and folk singer Pete Seeger (who was blacklisted at home and banned from U.S. commercial television). Six months after Davis went to Toronto, U.S. television finally saw a major corporation sponsor a TV special hosted by a Black star – but rather than tap Davis for the honor, Revlon put its money behind a show fronted by Harry Belafonte.

The Davis episode of “Parade” was never broadcast in the U.S. and Americans never got to see the work in its entirety until 2017 when an unauthorized posting (complete with time code) was added to YouTube. The commercial prospect of releasing this half-hour production for U.S. home entertainment release is minimal, and in any event a distributor would need to clear the music rights to the songs in the show before it could go into retail channels.

For Davis’ U.S. fans, the YouTube bootleg is the best (and only) way to appreciate this brief and intriguing moment when he had the stage and the television camera all to himself.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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