Mitch Miller, the goateed bandleader who hosted NBC’s Sing Along with Mitch in the early 1960s, died Saturday at age 99. Miller’s music and his show were before my time, but I’ve always found the phenomenon of his show fascinating from the archival footage. Partly because Sing Along with Mitch was, in a way, before its own time.
His family music program—featuring performances of wholesome songs with on-screen lyrics to allow the home audience to join in—was a bit of pre-rock culture in the early rock era. Even as his show grew popular, the growth of rock music (which Miller personally disdained) was superseding the kind of novelty songs and standards the host preferred. (Watching the clip above it’s odd to see that the beach-party music in the Libby’s Sloppy Joe ad, about 5:00 in, is more musically current than Miller’s actual program.)
Sing Along took the kind of unjaded pleasure in the medium that many of the earliest TV programs do. It was the kind of show that still found it simply amazing that there was this machine that could bring pictures and music into your living room all at the same time, just like that.
The show seems impossibly ancient today—and, in the tribute to minstrel shows that appears after the first ad break above, unintentionally uncomfortable. [It's not as if Mitch's singers performed in blackface, thank God, but given the history of minstrelsy in America, the fact that this aired as the civil rights movement was stirring is, at least, jarring.] It’s so simultaneously naive and awkward I’m surprised it was never used on an episode of Mad Men (whose episode last night closed with “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” made famous by a Miller production).
But Miller’s show presaged a whole line of something-for-everybody TV music programs leading up to American Idol today, as well as being a precursor of karaoke. Long before the Internet and video games, Miller showed that TV was a device that people were going to want to interact with. RIP.