The Bootleg Files: Dolly

BOOTLEG FILES 734: “Dolly” (1976-77 television variety series starring Dolly Parton).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Six of the 26 episodes were released on DVD.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Difficulties in clearing music and performance rights, along with the star’s lack of enthusiasm for the endeavor.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It seems unlikely that the full series will get a release.

Most Americans got their first look at Dolly Parton in her appearances on “The Porter Wagoner Show,” a syndicated TV variety series. Parton joined the program in 1966, two years into its run, and left in 1974 when her star was beginning to rise as she sought to broaden her appeal from a country music fanbase to a wider mainstream audience.

In 1976, Parton was approached by Bill Graham, president of Show Biz Inc. and the producer of “The Porter Wagoner Show.” He convinced Parton to host her own syndicated variety series, with the goal of highlighting her versatility as a star performer. Parton accepted the offer, but later came to regret the endeavor and pulled the plug on “Dolly” after a single season of 26 half-hour episodes.

The problem with “Dolly” is that it could never quite figure out its personality. Some of the episodes are typical of the breezy-cheesy variety shows of the mid-1970s, with B-listers and flash-in-the-pan talent being given the spotlight. Other episodes plumbed Parton’s country music heritage and offered memorable pairings with Nashville royalty. And still others tried too hard to widen Parton’s appeal by pairing her with R&B guests whose musical styles never quite meshed with hers.

Also creating a dilemma was the decision to have Parton perform tunes that were not suited for her singing style. Parton’s upbeat personality combined with heavy Nashville-style orchestrations made a mess of her attempts at moody classics like “In the Ghetto,” “Dock of the Bay” and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” One bizarre segment had Parton singing “Hello, Dolly!” while dressed as a maid at a fancy mansion. More unlikely moments involved Parton being joined in uneasy duets by Anson Williams on “Mack the Knife” and later by Karen Black on “Me and Bobby McGee.” And don’t get me started on Parton’s duet with Rod McKuen on “Feelings” – he may have been a great songwriter, but who told him that he could sing?

Parton carried on gamely, but she would later admit that she had no say over the show’s contents or guest bookings. “I liked all of the people that were on,” she said, diplomatically. “But I would have had a totally different lineup of guests myself.”

But when “Dolly” worked, it was a lot of fun. This was especially true when Parton performed her own music. Each show started with a sampling of “Love is Like a Butterfly” and closed with a piece from “I Will Always Love You,” and during the show’s run all of her hits and some of her more intriguing but lesser-known works like “Down from Dover.”

Parton seemed particularly bubbly when paired with her fellow country performers. “Dolly” marked her first appearance with Kenny Rogers – albeit in a weird version of “Knock Three Times” where Rogers appears out of a sealed shipping crate – and other shows paired her with Tom T. Hall, Ronnie Milsap and Tennessee Ernie Ford. One show brought two guests, Linda Rondstadt and Emmylou Harris, and the experience must have been very positive as Dolly would reunite with them a decade later on the best-selling “Trio” album. These episodes are rich with peerless performances of great songs, and they represent the best of mid-1970s television programming.

Parton would later joke that “Dolly” was made on a shoestring budget, but actually each episode cost about $85,000 to produce, which was a fairly hefty sum for a mid-1970s syndicated series. In retrospect, it would appear the money was spent on Parton’s costuming and wigs and her song selection – the show’s sets looked a bit cheap and booking talent along the lines of Captain Kangaroo, Chuck Woolery and Ray Stevens would not break the bank.

“Dolly” debuted on September 11, 1976 on independent television stations around the country. It became a very popular staple of the syndicated programming orbit, but Parton’s dissatisfaction with the production ensured there would not be a second season. The series’ episodes disappeared from sight for many years until 2007 when six of the episodes were collected for a DVD release “Dolly Parton & Friends.” This offering included four country-flavored episodes: the Ronstadt and Harris pairing plus episodes featuring Rogers, Milsap and Anne Murray and Parton’s brother Randy. Oddly, two of the wobblier episodes – the lamentable Rod McKuen appearance and the arrival of Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. – were also included.

Fortunately, an ambitious Parton fan managed to secure all 26 episodes via VCR recordings and has them on an unauthorized YouTube playlist. Surprisingly, the quality of these recordings is not as one might imagine, given the primitive nature of home entertainment videotaping in the mid-1970s. And despite its uneven nature, “Dolly” offers a good-natured time capsule to yesteryear’s entertainment and a rare glimpse of a beloved star as she was on her road to greater career glory.

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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