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Carnett: Before 'American Idol,' there was this other show

May 28, 2012|By Jim Carnett

"Rocket to Stardom."

It was a Stone Age talent-search television program that pre-dated "American Idol" by half a century. It might also be described as a pre-Pleistocene "Gong Show" — though it lacked the gong and snarky host, Chuck Barris.

"Rocket to Stardom" was a psychotherapist's dream: a slow-motion train wreck distributed via TV for rubberneckers and the unhinged.

The Los Angeles Times once referred to it as a "freak show," and in some respects it was. But a number of amateurs who appeared on the show were able to launch successful performing careers. Sitting atop that list is Duane Eddy, a Grammy Award winner who's been called the greatest rock 'n' roll instrumentalist of all time.

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Billboard Magazine wrote in 1956: "The talent on the show, to understate it, is not exactly good, but apparently this makes little difference, and a considerable amount of goodwill results."

My family viewed the marathon program in our Costa Mesa living room every weekend in the mid-1950s on Los Angeles television channels, KTTV and KHJ. As I recall, it ran 18 hours on Saturdays and Sundays, with a break after the Saturday midnight hour.

The show generally could be seen on our black-and-white console on Saturday nights and Sundays.

My mother, brother, sister and I loved ridiculing the horrendously inept performers. My dad, bless his gentle soul, felt embarrassed for the poor schlubs and generally avoided watching the program. He usually sat in his armchair with a book in front of his face, though he occasionally glanced over the pages and winced.

"Rocket" contestants displayed their "talents" on the showroom floor of Wilshire Oldsmobile in Hollywood. Bob Yeakel owned the dealership.

The show was labeled "Rocket to Stardom" for crass commercial reasons. The title was derived from the dealership's No. 1 sales product, the Rocket. The romanticized appellation had nothing to do with contestants' projected career trajectories.

"Rocket" began airing live from the Wilshire Boulevard showroom in 1955. It was, truthfully, a glorified infomercial, bought by Yeakel to puff his dealership. He once confided that 60% of his agency's business came from the weekend program.

Yeakel became the biggest Olds dealer in Southern California. He died tragically in 1960 when his small plane crashed on the San Bernardino Freeway in Ontario, on a trip from John Wayne Airport to Palm Springs. The crash also took the lives of two of his sons.

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