Carnett: Before 'American Idol,' there was this other show

"Rocket to Stardom."

It was a Stone Age talent-search television program that pre-dated "American Idol" by half a century. It might also be described as a pre-Pleistocene "Gong Show" — though it lacked the gong and snarky host, Chuck Barris.

"Rocket to Stardom" was a psychotherapist's dream: a slow-motion train wreck distributed via TV for rubberneckers and the unhinged.

The Los Angeles Times once referred to it as a "freak show," and in some respects it was. But a number of amateurs who appeared on the show were able to launch successful performing careers. Sitting atop that list is Duane Eddy, a Grammy Award winner who's been called the greatest rock 'n' roll instrumentalist of all time.

Billboard Magazine wrote in 1956: "The talent on the show, to understate it, is not exactly good, but apparently this makes little difference, and a considerable amount of goodwill results."

My family viewed the marathon program in our Costa Mesa living room every weekend in the mid-1950s on Los Angeles television channels, KTTV and KHJ. As I recall, it ran 18 hours on Saturdays and Sundays, with a break after the Saturday midnight hour.

The show generally could be seen on our black-and-white console on Saturday nights and Sundays.

My mother, brother, sister and I loved ridiculing the horrendously inept performers. My dad, bless his gentle soul, felt embarrassed for the poor schlubs and generally avoided watching the program. He usually sat in his armchair with a book in front of his face, though he occasionally glanced over the pages and winced.

"Rocket" contestants displayed their "talents" on the showroom floor of Wilshire Oldsmobile in Hollywood. Bob Yeakel owned the dealership.

The show was labeled "Rocket to Stardom" for crass commercial reasons. The title was derived from the dealership's No. 1 sales product, the Rocket. The romanticized appellation had nothing to do with contestants' projected career trajectories.

"Rocket" began airing live from the Wilshire Boulevard showroom in 1955. It was, truthfully, a glorified infomercial, bought by Yeakel to puff his dealership. He once confided that 60% of his agency's business came from the weekend program.

Yeakel became the biggest Olds dealer in Southern California. He died tragically in 1960 when his small plane crashed on the San Bernardino Freeway in Ontario, on a trip from John Wayne Airport to Palm Springs. The crash also took the lives of two of his sons.

Bob's sister, Betty Yeakel, acted as the show's emcee. She wasn't a particularly gifted mistress of ceremonies, but Betty obviously loved the limelight. She introduced the performers and provided a shoulder to cry on when said performers bombed.

No audition was necessary for the show. Singers, baton twirlers, magicians, ventriloquists, jugglers, dancers, mimes and assorted other "entertainers" were required only to show up and go live on the air.

I had a friend who performed on the show, but I wasn't unique in that aspect. Most Southern Californians in those days knew a "Rocket" veteran.

It was a hoot watching the contestants flub up. We were witnessing live, amateur TV in progress, and mistakes came fast and furious. "Start-overs" (restarting a song after messing up) were common.

Many performers developed stage fright and fled the set in mid-warble. Others just plain crashed and burned. Most, however, valiantly soldiered on. A minuscule few actually had some talent.

As I recall, an inordinate number elected to sing Doris Day's 1956 Oscar-winning hit, "Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera Sera)" — and quite badly, I might add.

In that song, a young girl inquires of her mother what she can expect to become when she grows up. The mother offers an unenthusiastic, fatalistic reply:

"Que Sera, Sera/Whatever will be, will be/The future's not ours to see/Que Sera, Sera/What will be, will be"

Perhaps Mom might have advised little Doris to take high school AP classes in preparation for the SAT. Just a thought.

Still, I miss "Rocket to Stardom." It was live, unscripted, dangerous.

In a word, it was real!

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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