Tulsa, April 1970.
Oral Roberts University is a glimmering, cornflower-yellow tourist attraction, only seven years old.
The Golden Driller is four–youthful but chiseled–with a “Mid-Continent” belt buckle, and stands outside a 20-year-old Bell’s Amusement Park.
Camelot Hotel is only three and fit for a wedding reception; The Mayo Hotel is 45 years old and the doors are still open. Nearby, the ornate Cimarron Theater stands at 4th & Denver – a ballroom fit for a king.
Driving down Harvard between 21st and 31st, you see a giant, shiny statue of a chubby cartoon boy painted in glimmering red, white and blue with a fixed expression of happiness. He’s the mascot of “Kip’s Big Boy,” home of the big boy hamburger. This is your favorite burger joint to hang out at night for coffee.
The city is going through a musical renaissance. Downtown near 18th & Boston, Magician’s Theater and Nine of Cups are hot spots, attracting amazing musicians and nightly parking lot fights. Leon Russell is the Master of Space and Time and Jim Halsey is cranking entertainment through town.
Tulsa has only 4 stations on TV: 2, 6, 8 and 11. Home VCRs don’t exist yet and you only have one shot to see what’s on TV, and you’d better not miss it. Specifically, you better not miss Mazeppa Pompazoidi every Saturday night, because Saturday Night Live doesn’t exist yet.
TV ends at midnight. That’s right folks, programming isn’t never-ending. There’s a 3-minute “sign-off” segment with American Indian Dick West at the end of the night.
Then, anti-climactically, TV goes off the air.
Tulsa, January 2011.
Oral Roberts is dead. Camelot Hotel, Bell’s Amusement Park and Cimarron Theater have all been torn down and instead we have the massive BOK Arena. Kip’s Big Boy is now a Village Inn.
Thankfully, a couple Tulsa fixtures are still here: Gailard Sartain and Jim Millaway.
I heard legends about the magical episodes of Mazeppa from my family members who watched it when it aired from 1970-1973. My Uncle Mark described a living room full of friends, a record playing, lots of smoke and beverages of choice when the Mazeppa introduction would start: a psychedelic array of neon lights from rides at a state fairground with dramatic old music that sounds like it would accompany an entrance by the wicked witch of the west.
I never got to see an episode—until now.
When my cardboard box of four Mazeppa DVD’s arrived in the mail, I tore it open and unwrapped them, noticing they were manufactured by “Sartain, Inc.” These shows are local, obscure, and indie as they come.
Chances are, you haven’t seen an episode of Mazeppa either. You were either 1) Born too late or 2) Didn’t catch them on TV the first time and haven’t bought the four DVDs of existing episodes. They are obscure mostly due to technology and lack of archiving– the news directors at Channel 6 & 8 taped over Mazeppa each week to make the “best” use of two-inch tape. In fact, the DVDs that exist now only account for about a tenth of what they actually aired. Most Tulsans haven’t seen the footage for forty years.
The DVD exists because of pure luck. A few people ran off some tapes before they were destroyed, and some fans with access to commercial recording equipment made copies. I slid my DVD into the player, turned up the volume, watched the psychedelic intro and leaned into the screen.
Sherman Oaks (Jim Millaway) is the sweetly southern-accented host and interviewer for most skits. With a sense of the audience, he provided stability and pacing, playing a vital role in balancing each act.
Teddy Jack Eddy (Gary Busey) is “the man with the talent,” whose Hollywood acting school teaches everything from crying, falling and slow motion fighting to how to make airplane sounds. Teddy Jack ends up angry and slapping Gailard at the end of almost every scene he’s in.
Dr.Mazeppa Pompazoidi (Gailard Sartain) is the wizard who stops in to introduce a movie, but Sartain plays a different character in almost every scene. There’s Jerry Ralph R.B. Bob Bevis, a furniture salesman, Johnny Donut, host of “Dialing for Dullards,” Coach Chuck, a demanding gym teacher, Chuckles Gufaux, a professional “laugher,” Benny the Crusher, a wrestler who is secretly gay… and many more.
How did they come up with all this? Sartain has a hypothesis. “I think it’s the chicken poo poo that’s in the water from the chicken farms in Arkansas that made us silly.”
Jim Millaway mentioned the local inspiration. “The audience was in on it. We would portray characters with regional humor. Everyone knows one of those or unfortunately is related to one of those. We were just kind of riffing on a character.”
The Makings of Mazeppa Pompazoidi.
Gailard Sartain was 24 years old. He was a student at the University of Tulsa where he earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts and was working on his Master’s Degree.
He lived in his childhood home on Quebec near the fairgrounds. His Mother, Betty, feared he would never settle down. He was a complex artist with huge ambition disguised by an outrageous exterior. Later, he would be called the “local nut” in a Tulsa headline.
In 1970, he worked at KOTV, Channel 6 downtown, where he was a cameraman.
“I was foolin’ around on the set of Go for Dough, an afternoon show that was live,” Sartain says. “I just started fooling around with Gary Chew, who was the host, and he was amenable to me foolin’ around, so I did.”
The audience reacted to Sartain’s personality. “People started calling in, saying, ‘Who is that silly guy doin’ that?’ Some people liked it, and some people hated it.”
One day an opportunity presented itself–somebody left their position as the host of a horror movie wraparound show.
Sartain seized the slot. “I asked Art Elliot, the program director, who I was on good terms with, ‘Why don’t you let me do that?’ And he said, ‘Well, hell, I might as well let you because you’re gonna be here anyway.’”
Suddenly, Sartain was less than a week away from filming his first episode without a clue of how to pull it off.
Gailard asks Jim to help with his TV Show
Over a cup of coffee at TU, Jim Millaway was pulled into the cast of a brand new show.
Sartain recalled, “We were in the student union one day and I told him I had this show I was gonna do, and he said, ‘Oh, no kiddin? What are you gonna do?’”
“I said, ‘I don’t know—and it’s on this Saturday! You gotta help me!’”
“And he said, ‘No I don’t!’”
“And I said, ‘Yes you do! I’m not kiddin’ Jim, you got to!’”
“And he said, ‘Oh alright. But I’m not gettin’ on camera, I’m wearing a sock on my head or something.’”
And so Jim Millaway came on board as Sherman Oaks, the character who always donned the same costume: a mask from TG&Y at Utica Square with fake glasses and hair that covered only the top half of his head.
Mazeppa‘s Lost Year
In under a week, Gailard and Millaway threw together The Uncanny Film Festival (as opposed to the Cannes Film Festival) and Camp Meeting.
The show was going along, hardly being noticed at all by anyone at the station, and with little to no oversight. Bit by bit, they built a following that included thousands of Tulsans, among them people like Leon Russell and Roy Clark.
“Leon came down when he was at the height of his powers,” Sartain said. “He surprised everybody, came down to the station, we were recording, he came right in and ad-libbed a Mazeppa song, ‘Home Sweet Mazeppa On My Mind,’ or something like that.”
Can we see this magic moment?
“The director just decided he didn’t need that on his news reel so he just erased it.”
Sartain told me about another twist of fate, when music agent Jim Halsey paid Gailard a visit at the station. “He came down one time and said, “How would you like to have Roy Clark on your show?”
“And I said, ‘Who are you?’”
“And he said, ‘I’m Jim Halsey,’ like I should know who he was, and he was a real nice guy. And he said, ‘I represent Roy Clark and if you’d like to have him on your show I’d certainly like to do it.’”
“I said, ‘Are you… insane? Are you a real person?’”
“I looked outside and saw this big black Cadillac and said, ‘Oh, okay. I guess you’re for real.’ ‘Cause I had a lot of people come down to the studio and do the same kind of things to get on the show.”
“Roy Clark came on the show on Channel 6, and of course they erased that too. [laughs] So I have no proof that he did, but he did.”
For their second and third year, Mazeppa moved to Channel 8 on Lookout Mountain, and Gary Busey found his way to the cast.
“I knew him (Gary Busey) vaguely in high school. He went to Hale, I went to Rogers,” Sartain said. “And we’d run into each other a couple times and we were just kindred spirits. I was doing Mazeppa, and I went to a party for Tulsa Little Theater, I think it was. He was there and he said, ‘How in the hell do I get on your show?’ And I said, ‘You come down there,’ and that’s that.”
With that, the duo became a trio and Teddy Jack Eddy was born. His maniacal look and non-stop energy tied the final ribbon on the perfect cast. When they weren’t filming, you might find them drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes at Kip’s Big Boy, or hanging out at Magician’s Theater. It was a magical era in Tulsa, on screen and off.
Jim Millaway, who was playing a major role in writing as well as playing Sherman Oaks, told me about the recipe for hilarity that made Mazeppa. “Fortunately it was a small enough thing and we didn’t really think anyone was watching, so there was no fear of failure because, yeah. [laughs] But you have to have that no fear.”
Mazeppa Gets Saved
Mazeppa wasn’t making much, if any, money for the station. However, a call from a local business owner may have saved Mazeppa from being canceled.
“The powers that be thought it was just insane and didn’t want anything to do with it,” Sartain explained, “And they got ready to pull the plug when Ed Greer from Greer’s Electronics called and said, ‘How do I buy time on that show?’”
“And they said, ‘What show?’”
“They said, ‘You know that late night thing on Saturday night with the crazy guy.’”
“And they said, ‘We don’t have anything like that.’”
“And it really went like that. Finally somebody said, ‘Oh, I know what it is. It’s that guy that’s the cameraman. He’s doing that late night thing now.’”
“‘Oh!’ So then everyone fell in line after that. The show got popular.”
Popular it was. The actors were quickly becoming local icons and being recognized around town. “I’ll never forget it, one time I took my parents out to dinner,” Gailard recalled, “And some old woman came by with a whiskey voice and grabbed my hair and pulled my head back and said, ‘I don’t think that hair is real.’”
“I said, ‘God almighty.’”
“My Mother was appalled. She said, ‘How often does that happen?’”
“I said, ‘Too damn much.’”
Lawzee! (“Lordy” is too sacrilegious to say.)
There’s a skit where Sherman Oaks interviews Benny the Crusher. Benny (Sartain) is yelling at the top of his lungs about how he’s going to tear someone’s head off at an upcoming wrestling match. At the end of the scene, Sherman Oaks asks the cameraman, “Are we off?” As soon as Benny thinks he’s off the air, he deflates into a flamboyant gay man who says he’s exasperated and thinks he stubbed his toe.
“Well, have to tell ya, there were gay people in Tulsa in 1970,” Jim Millaway said. “Ya know, it was just a local TV show in Tulsa on late night. Television went off the air at midnight. We were the last thing on the air. The good people of Tulsa, they were asleep. We were really under the radar.”
Although Saturday Night Live would not air for 5 more years, Mazeppa’s format was almost identical.
I asked Sartain where the idea came from.
“It was traditional,” he said. “It was sketch comedy. It had been around forever. More like the Show of Shows, but we weren’t a variety show, it was more of a grab-ass kinda thing.”
Mazeppa had a new feeling, though. With no inspiration from SNL, Gailard’s timbre resembles Dan Ackroyd at times, Chris Farley falling all over the place at other times… even a hint of Jack Black here and there. The characters were multidimensional diamonds in the rough and had an in-the-moment nature to their approach.
“When we had an idea, we only had like 2 hours to do it in studio time,” said Sartain. “We had one set. The rest of it we just had to make up as we went along. And Millaway was great. If it hadn’t been for him, it wouldn’t have gone anywhere.”
1973: Hee Haw! The End Of Mazeppa
Sartain made a career move that led Mazeppa to a close in its third year. “Halsey came up and said, ‘How’d you like to be on Hee Haw?’
“And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, I’m trying to finish up my masters degree.’ And I was serious. I was almost halfway done with it.”
“And he said, ‘Well okay. I’d put you on if you’d like to.’”
“Then I said, ‘Well, wait a minute, how much does that pay?’”
“He said, ‘Well, the scale is what you’d begin with, so that’d be something like $650 a show.’”
“And I was like, ‘What the…!?’” Sartain thought about what he was making locally, and decided he was done with Mazeppa along with higher education.
“I got my BFA, but I dropped out of the masters program,” he said.
Mazeppa and the meaning of life
Jim Millaway still seems connected to his childhood self.
“You grow up watching TV and saying, ‘I want to do that,’ That’s still in the American culture. People are still desperate to do that. If you haven’t been on TV, your life is not fulfilled. [laughs] We just sensed that early on and got that phase over with.”
Millaway is humble about Mazeppa, attributing the hilarity partially to the audience’s state of mind. “A lot of that humor was, we called it, ‘viewer enhanced,’ because the viewers had been out or in and doing various substances and watching TV, so they thought the show was a lot better than it actually was.”
Although the show hasn’t aired for years, its humor has stood the test of time.
“Millaway and I were watching them about 5 or 6 months ago and we wound up laughing so damn hard that we were almost crying,” says Sartain. “I don’t know whether it was because of the nostalgia of it, or if it was really that funny… but when we discussed it later, we both agreed we thought it was funny. We did have some gems in there. Some of it was not, but we had some gems.”
All three of the leading cast members went on to have successful careers in entertainment. Millaway and Sartain worked on a CBS show together in LA. Millaway returned to Oklahoma to work as a writer for Roy Clark Productions and Hank Thompson’s TV show, as well as hosting another Tulsa movie wrap-around show in the 80’s before entering his family business.
“You can only do showbiz for so long,” Millaway said.
Leon Russell named his son “Teddy Jack” after Gary Busey’s Mazeppa character, and Sartain later painted one of Leon’s album covers: Will ‘O The Wisp.
Busey and Sartain were both in The Buddy Holly Story in 1978, and both continued entertainment careers that have lasted to the present day.
“Mazeppa was just something that was meant to be,” Sartain reflected. “It was like you mentioned the talent in Tulsa, it’s still here, and it’s everywhere, it’s just… some kind of synchronicity. I don’t know. I’m trying to put my mind to what it could be, but it’s not anything extraordinary other than who wants to pursue it, to even get lucky, and when they do get lucky they better be able to deliver, because you only get lucky about once. One time off the high dive, and that’s it.”