Big Band Dreams
Meet Frank Masi, your hammy, mustachioed tour guide through his wonderful world of off-beat “talent” acts.
Frank Masi was born in 1925 in Philadelphia, PA. Growing up, he was strongly influenced by the the intoxicating, mellow big band sound of crooners like Billy Eckstine, Perry Como, Art Lund, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Inspired, Masi spent his evenings as a lounge singer. Allegedly, he released a couple of singles in the 60’s, one of was a minor hit in Memphis. However, an internet search came up empty.
While working the lounge circuit, Frank would meet former backup vocalist Evie Day. The two formed a professional partnership. But they’d find demand for their vintage sound had diminished drastically over the years. However, there was one outlet where they were able to put on the kind of show they wanted: the “anything goes” realm of public access.
A Vast Wasteland
On May 9th, 1961, FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow called out the National Association of Broadcasters, describing television as “a vast wasteland”. America’s desire to spend their time watching mindless programming was blamed for the slowdown of scientific advancement. He wanted television to serve the public in a more positive manner.
It may have been too late for broadcast channels to turn things around. (Although one TV producer responded in kind by by naming a wrecked ship carrying seven castaways after him. ) But Community Access Television (CATV or simply cable television) had a promising future. Cable started as a simple means to deliver over-the-air channels to sets located in areas with poor reception. Eventually, it evolved into an industry that was able to offer a vast array of choices without the same limitations of traditional broadcasting.
In 1972, the FCC mandated that the Top 100 cable markets offer up to three (but no less than two) channels for public, educational and government interest. (Often referred to as the PEG channels.) This rule was expanded in 1976 to affect all providers with at least 3500 subscribers. The supreme court struck down this rule in 1979, determining it to be an unlawful intrusion into private business.
Nonetheless, several local governments still mandated these PEG channels anyway, usually as a condition for awarding contracts to cable providers. New York City was one such municipality. Manhattan (the only borough that had cable at the time) was served by two providers: Sterling and TelePrompter. Both were required to provide two channels for public use. In addition, studio access, equipment and training was to be provided at no charge. Advertisements and content restrictions on these channels were prohibited.
A Two-Way Means of Communication
The well-intentioned idea behind public access was for television to finally become a two-way means of communication. It was to be an audio/visual representation of the thoughts and concerns of the big city’s diverse population – censorship-free.
Instead, what it eventually became known for was quite the opposite. It certainly was a platform for the voices that would otherwise be ignored – but often times for good reason. These programs were delivered to cable subscribers without the nuisance of competent production values, coherent thoughts or even modesty.
But it would be unfair to say all of public access was strict insanity. If you looked hard enough, you’d find several hidden gems. While often buried by inconsistent schedules, these well-produced programs were quite innovative. Many of them would never have been able to survive under the strict mandates of network executives and sponsor demands. It was no surprise that the few memorable public access shows that graduated to commercial television (ex: The Chris Gethard Show, Beyond Vaudeville) didn’t last much longer beyond that.
Falling somewhere in-between the best and worst of public access, you have The Frank Masi Show: Songs to Remember (a/k/a The Frank Masi Nostalgia Show.)
Step Stool to Stardom
The Frank Masi Show premiered in 1979 on Manhattan Cable Television. For a half hour, Frank Masi and Evie Day would entertain viewers with renditions of their favorite Big Band Era classics. To say it catered to a very specific niche would be a gross understatement. Specifically, it mostly appealed to older generations who were tired of the slick production values of The Lawrence Welk Show.
Frank and Evie took turns in the spotlight for most of the show, only handing the reins to one guest vocalist, typically saved for the back end of the episode.
This simple format would evolve by 1981. The retooled show put more emphasis on outside talent. Evie Day moved to behind-the-scenes work as talent coordinator. Frank’s wife, Tillie, took over co-hosting (but not performance) duties. Filmed at ELA Studios in Manhattan, the set was dressed up to look like your grandparents rec room except with a house-band that proudly boasts a 90% success rate hitting the correct notes. To go along with these changes the show was rechristened Stairway to Stardom.
At first Stairway to Stardom was almost indistinguishable from Masi’s previous effort. Much of the run-time focused on Frank and other amateur singers stretching their vocal muscles on a quiet public access set. But before long, the call for participants started bringing in those with more aspiration than talent.
Acts on Stairway to Stardom can fit in any one of four categories.
1. Genuinely Good Acts
The first category, as well as the most rare, are the genuinely good acts. These are the ones that would fool you into thinking you’re watching a different show, were it not for the constant production gaffes.
Anthony Ciula’s performance (below) might look silly. But that’s the fault of an over-enthusiastic special effects operator. And maybe his outfit. But he’s otherwise a sought-after professional with Tony awards to prove it.
2. Competent, But Unmemorable
Acts falling in the second category are the most common. I refer to them as “competent but unmemorable”. These are performers who would have no trouble auditioning at their local community theater. They do provide the minimal recommended daily allowance of entertainment and are probably affable individuals. But I also picture some of them as the insufferable-types who take karaoke way too seriously.
3. Uncomfortably Bad
Then there’s the third category: acts that are uncomfortably bad. Surprisingly uncommon, given the reputation of this show and public access in general. Typically I lump most of the stand-up comedy acts in that category. If you’re looking for the next, great undiscovered comedy legend, you’re not finding it on Stairway to Stardom. Their material, suffice it to say, wasn’t the strongest. Made worse by the fact that, without a real audience, the only feedback was the pity laughter of the crew and other performers waiting in the wings.
Finally, the fourth category and the one that likely helped earn Stairway to Stardom its cult following is what I call the “surreal acts”. Maybe they’re good. Maybe they’re bad. Doesn’t matter. You can’t turn away from them. They’re way too bizarre. Sometimes it’s simply stage fright taking an earnest effort down a weird path. Other times, it can be blamed on inexperience biting off more than it can chew. But often enough, there’s simply a healthy amount of quirkiness lingering inside these hopefuls.
Singing and Dancing
For a show that had its roots in vocal performances, Stairway to Stardom certainly had no shortage of aspiring dancers. Granted, many of them were kids who may have jumped at the chance of performing a recital for a slightly larger audience. And I realize that they were probably too young to rationally consider their decision to appear on a low-budget public access show. All the same, it’s hard to ignore the camp value.
Not that adults didn’t join on the fun. For some reason, Stairway to Stardom provided a last-ditch outlet to those who still haven’t gotten over the closure of Studio 54. And for every one legitimate professional (see above), there were seemingly dozen of amateurs gesticulating randomly enough to technically consider it dancing, but just barely.
But there was still plenty of singing. Except the dedication to 1940’s standards were long gone. The later batch of stairway climbers went up on stage (or rumpus room) to belt out their best rendition of whatever adult contemporary hit was playing on the car radio. Of course, results varied wildly. If their performance fits in the “surreal” category, it’s because it falls anywhere between “exaggerated” and “cat murder”.
Hairdressers and Operators
Even better were those who wrote their own songs. And literally anything can be a musical topic as Lucille Cataldo below illustrates. You would think that there’s really only so far you can take a ditty about your favorite hair stylist before you run out of things to say. You’d be wrong.
Say what you want about Lucille, she did bring the enthusiasm. But if “enthusiasm” is something you’re actively trying to avoid, then you may enjoy the performance of Raymond Lucky. Sometimes I wonder if he woke up five minutes before filming. He was barely able to muster up the enthusiasm to alternate between mumbling and lip syncing to Secret Weapon’s “Must Be The Music”. Or maybe he’s too busy concentrating on his elaborate dance moves such as the “invisible yo-yo” and the “malfunctioning robot”.
It is likely you’ve been over-stimulated by Raymond’s elaborate dance routine at the end. If so, you need something to take you down from that high. Gloria Huddle can help. Especially since she is seriously in no hurry to begin her rendition of The Manhattan Transfer’s “Operator”.
But if you really want to experience the whiplash of emotional cliff diving, I give you Precious Taft. It’s not often the otherwise chatty Masi was left temporarily speechless
The Cult of Stairway
Stairway to Stardom had all the amateurish trappings of other public access shows: needless special effects, a noticeable absence of blocking, primitive character-generator text and microphones that were were too hot. But this all seems to fit well with the motley crew of entertainers over which Frank and Tillie presided. Despite the shortage of production values and it’s relative obscurity tucked away on public access, the show still found an unlikely fan base. Viewers in awe of the unintentionally offbeat talent show fired up their VCR’s, trading with fellow “Stairheads” – even overseas.
One fan, Mitch Friedman, managed to get in touch with Frank Masi. Getting his number was easy. It was flashed on-screen during every episode. Mitch asked Frank for his original tapes to gather clips for a documentary he was producing. However, there was no documentary. Mitch copied every tape Frank lent him. Friedman shared these with fellow enthusiasts and eventually uploaded several episodes to the internet to entertain and bewilder new fans.
Stairway to Star Search
Stairway to Stardom had their small cult of fans and a handful of curious onlookers. But mainstream exposure eluded the amateur talent show. According to Masi, there were plans for him to appear as a guest on Late Night with David Letterman to help spread the word. For whatever reason (be it scheduling conflict or delusion) it never happened.
Masi also claimed that he had been in talks with Metromedia to bring Stairway to Stardom to syndicated television. Nothing came of these discussions. A few years later, Star Search would premiere on Metromedia-owned stations.
Masi was quick to notice the convenient timing between his meeting and Star Search‘s premiere. Though, in all fairness, the concept of a talent show/competition is not exactly unique. And I assume the Star Search producers set the bar a bit higher than Compleat Entertainer.
The End of Stairway
After an astonishing run of 13 years, Stairway to Stardom finally ended in 1992. Reluctantly, Frank Masi had to shut down production. He was no longer able to pay the weekly studio and band expenses (stated to run over $400 per week.)
Frank Masi may have not gotten to the top step of that stairway. But you wouldn’t know by the way he spoke. He always had a positive attitude about his career and the hurdles that tripped him up along the way. Through his show, he shared this positive attitude with other determined hopefuls doing what they loved.
Unlike the “bad” acts on popular talent shows like that serve as comic relief, Masi genuinely saw a hint of talent in everyone he put on. Sure, we poked some fun at their expense. But I have to give these acts credit for having the courage to give their dreams a chance to live, even if only for a few minutes. And, honestly, it looked like everyone was having a lot of fun.
Frank Masi passed away in 2013 at the age of 88. But thanks to fans, his legacy and that of Stairway to Stardom will live on for a long time.