It's easy to complain sometimes about the multitude of reality TV shows--some of the truly bad variety--that still pepper network and cable listings today. But strange television programming is nothing new. In the early 1950s, with TV still a new form of media and undeveloped territory, networks were still figuring out what types of programming would appeal to the masses and advertisers, occasionally taking chances with quirky shows. One such bizarre series that CBS aired in 1952 was The Continental.
If you're wondering if The Continental has anything to do with the Christopher Walken sketches from Saturday Night Live in the 1990s, the answer is everything! It's amazing to think that someone who worked at NBC at the time knew about this obscure show, because it was short-lived and not seen by many viewers. It was also kind of creepy.
Both the actual series and its parody featured only one character: a suave talking man with a foreign accent wearing a smoking jacket who spoke directly into the camera...at female viewers. Each unintentionally hilarious episode gave the viewer the perspective of being in the Continental's bachelor pad, with him pouring champagne and telling the viewer how beautiful they were. Lounge music punctuated by an organ played in the background. Yeah. Swoon, right?
The man who dreamed up and starred as the Continental was Renzo Cesana, an Italian-born actor, screenwriter, and songwriter who dreamed of making it big on the Hollywood screen. When his American movie career didn't work out, Cesana broke into radio, which is where The Continental got its start. It began airing in 1951 on a Los Angeles station after a program with a similar concept, The Lonesome Gal, which featured a female disk jockey "conversing" with male listeners in a soothing manner. What strange and desperate times for lonely people back in those days!
Not surprisingly, the radio version of The Continental was cancelled, but Cesana convinced a local TV station to air his filmed version, and eventually it piqued the interest of CBS. The Continental aired on CBS on Tuesday and Thursday nights from 11 PM to 11:15 PM. (Even fifteen minutes of a man whispering sweet nothings into the camera seems painfully way too long.) Occasionally, Cesana would recite the lyrics from a romantic song on the show, later referring to himself as "the only living Italian who can't sing." It ran from January to April in 1952, was cancelled, and then 13 new episodes became, remarkably enough, syndicated in 1954.
The most obvious problem with The Continental (well, aside from its odd premise) was its air time: 11 PM. If CBS was trying to reach desperate housewives seeking a bit of self-indulgent fantasy, then it should have aired in the afternoon...preferably before the hubby came home from work and kids hopped off the school bus. And let's face it: the show was the television equivalent of a blow-up doll...for women. A quick fix for truly desperate people searching for self-esteem, but ultimately phony and unsatisfying. Also, how long was the Continental planning on feeding lines of BS to his female audience? After a while, one would expect him to put a ring on it!
As strange as The Continental was, in a way it helped launch television's talk show format...which thankfully, relied on the presence of other live people on camera participating in conversations.
No episodes or clips of The Continental series exist online, which may be a good thing, but the SNL spoof was not the first time it was referenced in pop culture. Red Skelton performed a parody of it called The Transcontinental and Jerry Lewis performed the character as Marlon Brando. Mad magazine also poked fun at the show.
If you want to get an idea, however, of how Cesana channeled the character, you can listen to the "song" below, "You Go To My Head", where he recites the lyrics (remember, he couldn't sing.) It appears on a CD from the Ultra-Lounge series (not one of their best sellers, I'm guessing.)
And of course, we'll always have Christopher Walken's version. Pour yourself a glass of cham-pag-ya, and enjoy.