Sometimes it seems like every night is amateur night at NBC. Consider the things that network will throw on the air -- such as, recently, "13 Great Disasters That Shook the World." It sounds like NBC's fall schedule.
However, there is an NBC amateur night worth looking forward to: "Amateur Night at the Dixie Bar and Grill," a sterling, funny, lovable TV movie that got lost in the shuffle when first shown on Jan. 8, 1979. Actually, NBC creates its own shuffles; the network failed to promote or advertise the movie adequately.
On-air promotion of programs poses a dilemma for the old professional TV-watcher. On the one hand there is too much of it, too many yakkety-yak promos for shows. On the other hand, one gets awfully peeved when a network has something fresh and shiny on its hands and fails to give it the kind of push it needs to find an audience.
"Amateur Night" got fairly crummy ratings on its first airing and may get them again when it is rerun tonight at 9 on Channel 4. You can't force a network into realizing what's good and what isn't. Sometimes programs fall into bureaucratic cracks for intricate and arcane corporate-political reasons, it's clear NBC lost interest in this project somewhere between its conception and the night it finally appeared on TV.
In a fit of indecision, the network even changed the title of the picture at the last minute from its original, and more direct, "Amateur Night." In fact it was advertised under one name and televised under another in the opening credits.
At any rate, "Amateur Night" remains on second viewing a sweet potato pie, served up with verve and ginger rate for TV films. It actually has a distinctive personality and genuine style; it isn't just plastic-wrapped hackwork from a fun factory.
Writer and director Joel D. Schumacher may have based his idea for the film partly on Robert Altman's "Nashville," since it also deals with one night in the lives of several interacting characters who inhabit a microcosmic country-wetern milieu.But there's none of Altman's hate-America shtick; "Amateur Night" is strictly of good cheer and well wishes.
All the action takes place on a rainy May 15 night at a comfortably run-down bar where an obnoxious local disc jockey (comic Jeff Altman) is trying to put on a money-raising amateur night to be judged by a washed-up ex-alcoholic singing star (the invaluable Henry Gibson).
Schumacher stitches the vignettes together with spirited humor: Sharee the waitress (Candy Clark of "American Graffiti") on whom hapless Harry (Rick Hurst) has a futile crush; Marcy, another waitress (Joan Goodfellow) who wants to pin down the childishly restless cowboy (Don Johnson); Mac and Fanny, the sparring partners who own the roadhouse (Victor French and Louise Latham), and the hustling Snuffy (Jamie Farr) who tries to win his woebegone protegee Doreen (Roz Kelly) top prize in the semi-talent contest.
Other subsidiary characters fill out the story; they include Sherry North as an aging, incorrigibly pessimistic barfly ("Life's too long," she grumps), singer Tanya Tucker in her acting debut as a stage-shy hopeful, and fat Pat Ast, an Andy Warhol alum, who does a hilarious medley that omits only the kitchen sink.
The first words heard in the film are sung under the credits: "My life is one big audition, I sing and dance my way through, I give my best and what do I get? 'Don't call us, we'll call you.'" It sets the tone for the film's tales of hope and desperation, heartache and backache and, just for good measure, rumors of a "ski-mack disco killer" on the loose.
Schumacher supports the notion that even in soap opera and the lachrymose lyrics of country-western tunes, there is some central wisdom about life and love on the merry old planet of earth. In one of the film's first scenes, a waitress comes in out of the rain to announce that a boyfriend has a brain tumor. "Well, go dry your hair," counsels Fanny.
There's a flip but affecting attitude toward the crisis and calamities of daily life, and the narrative quirks and asides that keep it terribly entertaining.You believe in these characters and their desperate belief in themselves -- certainly more than NBC appears to believe in the film. Well, what do networks know? "Amateur Night" is extremely swell.