Friday, March 23, 2018

THE 4th ANNUAL FAVOURITE TV EPISODE BLOGATHON: Ellery Queen, The Adventure of Miss Aggie's Farewell Performance (1975)


Terence Towles Canote at his A Shroud of Thoughts site is hosting the fourth annual Favourite TV Episode blogathon, a highlight of the blogathon year. Click HERE for all of the classic memories.

The Ellery Queen TV series from 1975 holds a place in history of which you may not be aware. NBC's cancellation of the program after one season precipitated the only time I ever wrote a letter of protest to a network. I didn't really think an American television network would care about the thoughts of a Canadian teenager. Nonetheless, so strong was my affection for the show that the trouble was taken.

Cousins Manfred Lee and Frederick Dannay
"Ellery Queen"

Frederick Dannay and Manfred Lee's creation of character Ellery Queen in 1928 was a stroke of genius. Many popular novels and short stories followed the career and mysteries solved by their fictional author whose named adorned the book cover as his own storyteller. Ellery's popularity extended to film, radio and five television programs, to date.

Richard Levinson and William Link

Jim Hutton stars as Ellery in this Levinson and Link created series based on the fictional detective/author. The Ellery of this series bears little resemblance to the Philo Vance-ish character of the 1920s and 1930s, but leans more toward the Ellery of the Wrightsville stories who is a more laid back and compassionate character.

Jim Hutton and David Wayne as Ellery and pere

Our TV hero as written is way laid back, depending on the talent and charm of our leading man as the somewhat hyper-focused Ellery. Ellery shares NYC digs with his widowed dad, Police Inspector Richard Queen played by David Wayne. The father-son dynamic feels real and comforting. The stolid Sgt. Velie played by Tom Reese is everything you could want.

There are many eras in the novels that could have been tapped into, but setting the series in the immediate post-war era gave the writers lots of interesting material. The production values and costumes give the audience an opportunity to sink into the joys of another era, forget their cares and immerse themselves in the time-tested joys of mystery fiction.

John Hillerman as Simon Brimer

A Levinson and Link creation that adds greatly to the fun and atmosphere of the series is Simon Brimer played so brilliantly by John Hillerman. Brimer, a fastidious and ego-driven radio star of The Casebook of Simon Brimer has manufactured a one-sided feud with Ellery over which of them is the best amateur detective in the city. When Brimer shows up, his efforts are always to top our Ellery. The fact that Ellery blithely goes on his merry way solving case after case without seeming to care about the "competition" is great fun.

Today's featured Adventure with Ellery was directed by James Sheldon, a familiar name to Boomers with over 100 television episodes to his credit, Sheldon began that career as an assistant director on radio. The story is credited to Levinson and Link, with the screenplay by Peter S. Fischer. Collectively, these fellows have probably entertained more people than Shakespeare!


Announcer: "At this moment Vera Bethune is playing the last scene of her life. Who killed her? Was it her unhappy costar? Her agent? The ambitious announcer? The organist? The young actress? The worried writer? Or was it someone else? Match wits with Ellery Queen and see if you can guess who done it."

Bert Parks, Paul Shenar, Nan Martin, Eve Arden

Eve Arden plays Vera Bethune, the lead character of the beloved principal of Middleville High, Miss Aggie, on a popular radio program. Few watching this episode would miss the allusion to Eve's popular radio and television series Our Miss Brooks. The studio feels like a less than welcoming place this day with sniping performers and a gloomy organist. Is it a surprise that our leading lady collapses after ingesting poison from a water carafe?

Jim Hutton, Betty White, Eve Arden

The murder attempt has made headlines and caused an outpouring of affection from fans. Vera's agent, played by Betty White, knows this will be a boon in negotiations with the show's producer played by John McGiver. Miss Aggie, as Vera asks to be called, persuades Ellery to look into the case while ignoring Inspector Queen's offer of police protection. Mistake! In the middle of the night, the beloved Miss Aggie is shot.

Sidney Miller, John Hillerman

Simon Brimer has been desperate to reach a deal of his own with the Miss Aggie's producer and immediately starts nosing around the case. Should he solve it, Simon believes his career plans are assured. Here he is at the coroner's office with Sidney Miller in the white coat. Old movie fans will recognize the actor as a teenager in Andy Hardy movies, City for Conquest, etc.

Nina Roman, Jim Hutton, Gerald Hiken

Ellery determines through interrogating the writers of Miss Aggie (and The Family on Elm Street and Shadows of Tomorrow and Kindly Dr. Keene, etc.) that the cold suffered by the character could be cured by a suitable contract negotiation or turn deadly if needed. Ellery and his dad also learned that a younger, and less expensive and less demanding actress on the show is in consideration for the leading spot. H'm.

Jim Hutton, Beatrice Colon

A highlight of the episode is the amusing conversation between Ellery and the studio organist Mary Lou Gumm. She is uncomfortable speaking face to face, or indeed speaking without the sound of her Wurlitzer in the background. Ellery sits with his back to Mary Lou as she relates her soap opera experience of life in the big city.

John Hillerman, Paul Shenar

There are no lengths to which Brimer will not go in pursuit of suspects. Here he confronts Miss Aggie announcer Wendell Warren played by Paul Shenar. Do you remember Shenar as radio legend Orson Welles in The Night That Panicked America?


Joseph R. Sicari, Tom Reese, Jim Hutton

Meanwhile, Ellery has been following his own clues which lead to a hospital janitor, enforced confinement, and a fence. Aha! There was a dying clue that will tell all!

Jim Hutton

It is the moment all fans look forward to because we are matching wits with Ellery Queen. It is the moment all fans dread because the episode is almost over.

Ellery: "Now, I'm pretty sure I know who killed Vera Bethune, but how about you? Was it Lawence Denver, Miss Aggie's co-star, or Anita Leslie, the young actress who's gonna replace her? It might have been Wendell Warren, the announcer, and don't forget that Mary Lou Gumm was in the studio that morning. Or it might have been someone else, someone who wasn't in the studio. It's possible."


Bert Parks, Nan Martin, Nina Roman, Beatrice Colon, Paul Shenar, John Hillerman

Simon Brimer is about to solve the crime on live radio, with the Inspector on hand to make the arrest. All are assembled, and Simon is poised for his great triumph until Ellery shows up and utters one simple pronoun. Drats! Foiled again!

Betty White

Now, what do you suppose she's so upset about?

Ellery, as expected, solved the crime with his customary erudite manner combined with a becoming modesty. Ellery and his dad leave the studio with Mr. Pearl, the producer, begging our author/detective to accept the sort of radio show offer that Simon Brimer can only dream about.













28 comments:

  1. So did NBC write back to you?

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    1. Actually they did. It was a form letter outlining their decision based on ratings and thanking me for my interest. I'm still upset about the cancellation!

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  2. I was fascinated by this TV show. My two favorite crime shows of the era were Columbo and this one. Columbo for the fact that you knew who and how the crime was committed and watched with anticipation as he solved the mystery. I liked this one especially for that moment when Jim Hutton as Ellery Queen broke down the fourth wall and addressed the audience just before the denouement. I wasn't nearly as disappointed when the show wasn't renewed as I was with my beloved sci-fi dhows, but i still missed it when it went away.

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    1. Indeed. When a program is this thoughtfully put together and creatively successful, it leaves a hole when it is taken away.

      PS: It's grand to know you are another Ellery fan.

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  3. Not heard of this series, but loved John Hillerman in Magnum PI, so will definitely be checking this out in Youtube thanks to your lovely introduction.

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    1. You're welcome. Thanks for reading.

      I'm a big Magnum fan. I was drawn to the show when it started because of John Hillerman. Gotta love Higgie Baby.

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  4. 'Course the early novels also addressed the reader with a direct challenged to solve. Those things were fiendish in their ingenuity. Too bad they're all outta print physically.Before they were finished, the cousins stretched the form in remarkable ways.

    The TV EQ may have been bland a character to sustain a series. That kind of sleuth seemed to work more with little old ladies.

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    1. My old Ellery paperbacks are yellowed with age, but I am loath to throw them away. Never thought I'd be around in the time when you couldn't pick up new copies of classic mysteries in the neighbourhood book shop.

      On behalf of little old ladies everywhere, I don't know whether to be insulted or try to turn it into a compliment.

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    2. Just an observation. Male TV detectives seem to need some "tic", some eccentricity. Females like Marple and Jerrica Fletcher didn't.

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    3. I get you. That would be an interesting look at various TV detectives, their popularity, etc.

      You reminded me that even when I was a teenager I was a "little old lady". Something the hubby loves to tease me about.

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  5. Great pick. I really liked what I saw of this version of Ellery Queen.

    Personal story: when I was trying to sell a TV series that I wrote circa 1990, Jim Sheldon was one of the directors I wrote who took the time to write back. He was essentially retired at the time, and wanted to stay that way, but he wrote a very encouraging letter back and said he admired my "derring-do". I still have the letter.

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    1. Thanks for reading, and for sharing that story. I will think of it every time I watch the work of Jim Sheldon.

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  6. Well, now I'm upset about its cancellation, too! Thanks for introducing me to this interesting, albeit short-lived, show. It always stings when a show is taken away when it still has potential. (Speaking from experience here. I still don't think my heart has recovered yet from the loss of Pushing Daisies!)

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    1. I watch Chi McBride on Hawaii Five-O and not an episode goes by that I don't bemoan the loss of Pushing Daisies!

      I hope you get the chance to watch Ellery Queen. I think it will tickle your fancy.

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  7. As you know, I'm a fan of this show and am delighted to hear that you tried to save it. This was a stellar episode with a great cast (hey, it even had Bert Parks!). My personal fave, though, was probably "The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party." But it was a consistently very entertaining TV series!

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    1. Yes, that's one of the things about Ellery, it was consistently entertaining. I could have chosen any one of the episodes as my favourite, but I remember being intrigued by the radio setting upon my first viewing, and appreciating it more as the years take us farther away from those days.

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  8. I was an Ellery Queen devotee long before this series.
    Started with the Mystery Magazine, went on to the books, sought out and found the few surviving episodes of the older radio and TV shows, and like that there.

    The Hutton-Wayne series is one of the lost loves of my life.

    But this particular episode is a touchstone, starting when I saw it in first run, on NBC in October of 1975.
    Items:
    - NBC scheduled this episode for a Sunday night, away from the Thursday slot where Ellery hadn't been doing so well; the idea was to see whether it would work against lesser competition.

    - John McGiver's character wasn't the producer of the soap - he was the sponsor. That was why Simon Brimmer was pestering him throughout the show- he was trying to keep Vita-Creme as his own sponsor.
    I recall this in particular because this episode was the final film performance of John McGiver - he passed away less than a month before the show aired (I tend to notice things like that - now more than ever).

    - The Sunday night airing was a success of sorts: ABC's Six Million Dollar Man won the timeslot, but Ellery ran a decent second place, beating out Cher's rapidly declining variety hour on CBS.

    - Thusly, NBC made the switch to Sunday permanent, effective in January, and for a few weeks Ellery was shaping up as an effective loss-leader (and a good lead-in for the Sunday Mystery Movie).
    And then -
    - and then, somebody at CBS decided to stage a "reunion" of Cher with ex-hubby Sonny, giving the whole thing a promo build-up worthy of the Second Coming.
    The Big Build-up worked, sort of - the Bionic Guy on ABC wasn't affected, but Ellery was done for.

    40+ years down the line, I still blame Cher, in toto.

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  9. I assumed that as sponsor Mr. Pearl was also the producer. I apologize to all for that assumption. I hadn't realized that John McGiver passed away so close to this airing. I don't think it even registered with me at the time. It is something I take note of more often these days.

    Ellery is so prevalent in so much of our entertainment. There have been years when my sisters have given me Ellery Queen books collected at garage sales or a subscription to the EQMM for birthday presents. I'm easy to shop for!

    While I hate to diss a fellow Taurean, now that I now it is all Cher's fault, she must face my ire.

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    1. One more thing about John McGiver:

      After I sent in my comment, I watched the Ellery episode again, on my digitally-restored DVD.

      Thanks to the much-improved resolution, I noticed that John McGiver had apparently lost quite a lot of weight just before filming "Miss Aggie's Farewell Performance".
      Not a good sign ...
      Then, I looked up IMDb:
      John McGiver was only 61 years old when he passed.
      That's six years younger than I am right now.
      I think I'll go and lie down ...

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    2. 61! My goodness. I'm always happy to see John McGiver, and the weight loss didn't register with me. I guess we don't see what we don't want to see.

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    3. ... and This Just In:

      Tom Reese, 'Sergeant Velie', has just passed on, aged 89.

      Just what we needed to hear, right?

      Oh well ...

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    4. I suppose it shouldn't come as a surprise, but there is an odd sort of comfort in not knowing.

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  10. Thanks for this excellent look at one of my favorite (albeit, short-lived) mystery series. The excellent cast, the gallery of wonderful guest stars, and the period flavor combined to make it essential viewing. Its a shame that it didn't run longer. We've been re-watching the episodes on DVD recently, and the show has lost none of it's charm.

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    1. So true. Essential and charming are the perfect words to describe this version of Ellery Queen.

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  11. I loved Ellery Queen and I too was disappointed when it was cancelled. And this episode was one of my favourites. I liked it any time Simon Brimmer appeared and Ellery showed him up. And while all of the episodes had great casts, this one especially did: Eve Arden, Betty White, John McGiver, Bert Parks, and more!

    Thank you so much for taking part in the blogathon!

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    1. My pleasure. I spend most of the year trying to decide on an episode for this blogathon.

      I feel the same way about Brimer/Hillerman. A great character and a great actor. Television greatness.

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  12. I LOVED this show. I was also an Ellery Queen fan before the series, reading the books at my local library. One of my favorite books is a beat-up paperback I got for my 13th birthday, "The Finishing Stroke" about a 12-days of Christmas house party where, of course, murder occurs. It wasn't beat-up when I got it, just now because I've read it 4,178 times. I really mourned when they dropped this series. Thanks for a lovely trip down memory lane.

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    1. I'm glad you liked the trip down memory lane. I can't throw out my Ellerys, no matter how beat up. It would be nice to walk into a book store and see new prints, wouldn't it?

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