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The Bootleg Files: Mary’s Incredible Dream

BOOTLEG FILES 725: “Mary’s Incredible Dream” (1976 television special starring Mary Tyler Moore).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS:
Too many music and performance rights issues to address, not to mention quality control problems.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE:
Unlikely.

The 1970s represented the pinnacle of bizarre variety programming on American television. Whether it involved regularly scheduled programming – look at “Pink Lady and Jeff,” “The Gong Show” or “The Brady Bunch Hour” – or standalone specials – think of Raquel Welch doing “The Age of Aquarius” on an Aztec pyramid or Ann-Margret joining the Bay City Rollers” in “Saturday Night” before an audience of old ladies or Paul Lynde throwing lavender-scented double entendres at KISS on his Halloween show – the decade represented the alpha and omega of musical-comedy inanity.

But for sheer off-the-wall lunacy, you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced “Mary’s Incredible Dream,” a one-shot 1976 special designed to highlight the singing and dancing talents of Mary Tyler Moore. At this point in time, Moore was eager to wind down her iconic sitcom and pursue ventures that tapped into her desire to sing and dance. The fact that she was strictly adequate as a dancer and decidedly unsatisfactory as a singer did not bother Moore – and her network, CBS, gave her green light to proceed while forgetting her dismal track record with the song-and-dance film flop “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and the legendary Broadway musical disaster “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

As its title suggests, “Mary’s Incredible Dream” is a slumberland fantasy with the star drifting off into a deep snooze that finds her in extraordinary situations with extraordinary people. In this case, she is surrounded by Ben Vereen, the Cajun singer and fiddler Doug Kershaw, the cutesy-poo quartet The Manhattan Transfer and the Boston Pops’ maestro Arthur Fiedler. The theme is a vaguely Biblical riff on the earlier aspects of the Old Testament’s cycles of sin, salvation, the return to sin, the return to salvation and the endless wash-rinse-repeat formula.

As Moore drifts off into sleep, her dreams take her to a version of Eden if it was redesigned by Busby Berkeley for a 1930s Warner Bros. musical. Arthur Fiedler conducts a heavenly choir while the Manhattan Transfer zips through Depression-era pop standards and Ben Vereen prances about in a green tuxedo and derby with “666” shining on his chest. Doug Kershaw sings his tune “I’m a Natural Man” while wearing a white tuxedo, while poor Moore tries (and fails) to vamp her way through the Peggy Lee standard “I’m a Woman.” Whether cocaine played any role in conceiving and executing this segment is unclear, but it is hard to imagine sober minds and clean nostrils played a role in this.

The story then goes to a supposedly post-Eden setting in what looks like a typical Saturday night in a 1940s Monogram Pictures cowboy flick. (Don’t ask why.) Kershaw does another Cajun-flavored tune called “Mama’s Got the Know-How” while Moore dresses in hippie-mod clothing with a headband and cutoff blouse. There is a wild bacchanalia with Vereen dancing wildly and the Manhattan Transfer singing “Java Jive” before Kershaw does an intense fiddle rendition of “Wabash Cannonball.” The segment is supposed to represent society before Noah’s flood, with Arthur Fielder conducting an off-screen orchestra in appropriately fatalistic music.

In the post-flood epoch, Moore emerges with Vereen as her supposed mate a water-logged world – the two never show any physical affection, perhaps because old-school taboos on interracial relations were still in place in 1976. Instead, Moore launches into a sincerely incompetent rendition of Cat Stevens’ syrupy ballad “Morning Has Broken” – and I will wager this performance qualifies as torture under the Geneva Convention. Seriously, it is worth enduring this catastrophe just to see this musical nadir – you cannot imagine how bad television variety programming can descend until you hear Mary Tyler Moore eviscerate Cat Stevens’ hippie-dippie pop musing.

Any redemption that Moore and friends might have enjoyed after the deluge is lost in a return to sin and incivility. Moore barely dresses for a scanty burlesque-style number that shows off her legs (to her credit) and her vocal cords (to everyone’s loss) as Kershaw launches into a convulsive version of “Wabash Cannonball” while going into Ed Gein-worthy facial madness. The Manhattan Transfer warble “Sh-Boom” while a chronologically eccentric patchwork of political newsreels flash across the screen.

And just when you think things could not get worse, Moore dresses up in old lady make-up and clothing to eviscerate Stephen Sondheim’s landmark “I’m Still Here” in a talk-sing presentation that steamrolls the song’s irony with breathtaking incompetence. The Manhattan Transfer tries to score with “Sympathy for the Devil” while Vereen does some furious dancing in a one-piece red jumpsuit and Moore does a reprise of “Morning Has Broken.”

As a writer, I find impossible to lambast “Mary’s Incredible Dream” because any trash-talking of the endeavor will give the impression that this is a so-bad-it’s-good work. On the contrary, it is a so-bad-it’s-bad initiative. The production is not lacking considerable talent, but it is incompatible talent that doesn’t belong together under the same banner. It’s like a TV version of a peanut butter and sardine taco – great ingredients separately, but totally wrong when combined.

This production was created and written by Jack Good, who helmed the Monkees’ career-killing 1969 TV special “33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee” and directed by Gene McAvoy and Jaime Rogers, who served respectively as art director and choreographer on Sonny and Cher’s TV series. The series seemed to make some impact on CBS’ executives, who approved the star’s two unsuccessful attempts at variety programming when her classic sitcom went off the air.

“Mary’s Incredible Dream” can be found from several grey market labels and in a blurry. multi-part unauthorized posting on YouTube. Problems in clearing music and performance rights have kept it out of commercial home entertainment channels, and the dismal quality of the show doesn’t help much. Mercifully, the self-indulgent star was able to turn the world on with her smile and save her reputation from what should have been the television equivalent of a career suicide letter.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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