Saturday, October 13, 2018

THE NEIL SIMON BLOGATHON: You'll Never Get Rich aka The Phil Silvers Show (1955-1959)

Welcome to The Neil Simon Blogathon, a two-day internet event.

Saturday, October 13th please join the creator and co-host of the blogathon, Rich at Wide Screen World by clicking HERE

Sunday, October 14th Caftan Woman hosts the festivities HERE.

The lady who sat to my left in the second row of the Neil Simon Theatre in the summer of 1985 and I were never introduced. Nonetheless, I consider her a friend. We enjoyed the evening's performance of Biloxi Blues immensely and more than our companions on either side of us. We chortled and guffawed and collapsed on each other. We looked to each other with those knowing looks one has when one knows the upcoming joke was meant for us.

Raised on "Bilko" and McHale's Navy by a dad who sometimes would say that if he had it to do over he would have stayed in the Army (Canadian), Service comedies know how to work on my laugh muscles. There is a direct line from those television classics to Biloxi Blues, and that line is called Neil Simon.

Pulitzer Prize winning playwrights do not suddenly appear, they start somewhere. In Neil Simon's case, he followed his brother Danny into the world of writing comedy for radio and television, most notably Your Show of Shows.

Another comedy genius, Nat Hiken created You'll Never Get Rich, later called The Phil Silvers Show (1955-1959). Have you ever heard anyone refer to the program by that title? In our house, it was always "Bilko". Hiken was notorious for being able to do everything and wanting to do everything on his shows, but with 143 episodes, you've got to give some other writers a chance. Neil Simon worked on 20 episodes for seasons 3 and 4 of the series. Here are two of the classic tv gems about that perpetual schemer, Ernie Bilko.

January 17, 1958
Writers: Nat Hiken, Neil Simon, Terry Ryan
Director: Al De Caprio

Phil Silvers, Kay Kendall

Kay Kendall (Genevieve, Simon and Laura, The Reluctant Debutante) and her publicist played by Dan Frazier (Lilies of the Field, As the World Turns, Kojak) are touring the country promoting her latest picture; probably Les Girls as George Cukor's name comes up in the script.

Kay is having a great time meeting fans and visiting vibrant American cities. Next up is Roseville (Roseville?) in Kansas. It is next to Fort Baxter and Kay loves to meet fans from the military.

M/Sgt. Ernest Bilko's latest money-making scheme involved producing a show that is a tribute to the works of Stephen Foster. Well, the songs are Stephen Foster but the costumes and the dancing girls are strictly Burlesque. When Colonel Hall (Paul Ford) gets wind of the plan, then the jig is up; at least on the base.

Allan Melvin, Phil Silvers, Harvey Lembeck

The gang heads to town looking for a theatre with no luck. One manager bemoans the days when Barrymore, John played Hamlet to a full house and will have nothing to do with Burlesque. In the local hotel, the presence of Kay Kendall is discovered and Ernie has a plan. Bilko, Cpls. Barbarella (Harvey Lembeck) and Henshaw (Allan Melvin) put on the phoniest of phony British accents and barge in on Kay Kendall.

Our star is not fooled for an instant but finds the whole thing so funny and Bilko such a "gasser" that she plays along. Bilko tells her there will be a small gathering of like-minded folk who sit around reading Shakespeare and she agrees to join them the next night.

When she discovers that Bilko has filled the house at $10 a ticket Kay is determined that the money must be returned and feigns drunkenness at show time forcing Ernie to issue the refund. After that is done, she shows up on stage as her sober self and the show goes on. Sgt. Bilko presents a fine evening's entertainment, but it puts nothing in his pocket.

Surprise of the episode: Kay Kendall always could play the funniest drunk, but who knew she could do a spot-on impersonation of Phil Silver's unintelligible command shout?

May 23, 1958
Writers: Nat Hiken, Terry Ryan, Neil Simon
Director: Al De Caprio

Fred Stewart, Paul Ford

At the motor pool, Ernie Bilko has found himself dangerously close to doing actual, honest-to-gosh work. He needs a vacation but he's already taken a number of those this year so the chances of another furlough coming his way are rare.

The camp doctor advises a nervous Colonel Hall to give himself a two-week furlough. It is important for his health that he spends time away from Bilko. Colonel Hall is reluctant to give himself a break leaving Bilko unsupervised. The doctor suggests giving Bilko and his entire team a vacation as well. It is done.

Bilko, Barbella, and Henshaw see themselves at Dimmeldorf Lodge but are without funds. Ernie makes a deal with Dimmeldorf that they will stock the Lodge with guests in return for board. Most of the soldiers are tricked into choosing Dimmeldorf for their vacation spot when Ernie puts the camp on a made up list of places the Army wants their men to avoid. Well, if the Army is against it, that is where they want to go.

Corporal Fender (Herbie Faye) is persuaded to forego a second honeymoon to Atlantic City with the promise of a "beautiful child" contest at the Lodge sponsored by a cereal company with a $10,000 prize. The Fenders have six kids and they'll fill up the Lodge nicely.

Paul Ford, Hope Sansberry

Colonel Hall and his wife Nell (Hope Sansberry) are also going to Dimmeldorf Lodge. The Colonel didn't want to go to any place where Bilko might find him, so he chooses the place with the smallest ad in the newspaper. Everyone is angry that their vacation is ruined by the presence of Sgt. Bilko and, in his greatest moment, Colonel Hall turns the tables on the con man.

Mrs. Hall: "Are you going to order Sgt. Bilko back to the post, John?"
Col. Hall: "No. He'd find a way to get out of that. Nell, I'm going to think like Bilko. You don't live with a magician for ten years without learning a few tricks."
Mrs. Hall: "What are you going to do, John?"
Col. Hall: "I'm going to send myself a wire and when Bilko gets it he'll scoot right back to the post."
Mrs. Hall: "How will Sgt. Bilko get your telegram?"
Col. Hall: "Nell, Bilko always gets my telegrams before I do."

The telegram in question is purportedly from MGM studios stating that the base will be used for exterior shots for an upcoming film. With stars in his eyes, Bilko drags Barbarella and Henshaw back with him to Fort Baxter leaving all and sundry to relax and enjoy their furlough without the worry of losing their money in another Bilko run poker or crap game or have a nervous breakdown.

During this period Neil Simon wrote sketches for the Broadway revue shows Catch a Star! and New Faces of 1956. In 1961 he had his first Broadway hit, Come Blow Your Horn and it would be followed by many great successes and awards. We are the lucky recipients of immeasurable entertainment, laughter, and tears from the great Neil Simon.


  1. So how does SILVERS the show compare with HOGAN'S HEROES or even MASH? I know very little about Silvers the comedian.

    1. Silvers persona is the loud mouth con man. He bowls everyone over. You can't get in his way.

      The thing is, with this being peace time in Kansas, M/Sgt Bilko puts all of his energy into avoiding work and trying, mainly usuccessfully, to line his pockets. Like Hogan's Heroes and M*A*S*H, the show has a terrific ensemble and at its best is very funny indeed.

  2. I have never even heard of this show, but if Neil Simon wrote some episodes, it should be worth seeking out. I've been on a Simon "trip" lately, watching all of his movies.

    1. Well then, I am pleased I could introduce you to something new.

  3. Well thanks for introducing me to something new here. I have heard of Phil Silvers, but I have yet to see any of his work. I didn't know that Neil Simon had written for TV either. Great post.

    1. Aha, my work here is done (giggle). I hope you get a chance to check the program out and that it is an episode that tickles your fancy.

  4. Paddy Lee, I enjoyed your write-up of Classic TV Comedy at its best. I liked your statement that, "Pulitzer Prize winning playwrights do not suddenly appear, they start somewhere." The late great Neil Simon was a top notch writer and like many others he started in the Post World War II Classic Era of Television. Comedy was his forte and "Doc" Simon gave us so much throughout the years. Thank you Neil Simon.

    1. Thank you, Walter. Neil Simon and his work have meant a lot to me over the years, giving me laughter and tears when I needed them.



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