The opening sequence of ‘The Donna Summer Special’ January 27th, 1980.
When I first saw The Donna Summer Special in 1980, I was excited to see that actor Robert Guillaume—the star of the popular television series Benson—was scheduled to appear along with Boston-born disco queen Donna Summer. Sadly, I was too young then to grasp the fact that legendary Andy Warhol/Halston muse Pat Ast and model/actress/cultural icon Twiggy were also a part of the special. Honestly, my pre-teen mind could simply NOT handle all that went down on the show which originally aired on January 27th, 1980. Even now my adult mind still can’t handle it—though at least now I can properly appreciate it.
The show was part live-performance showcase for the then 32-year-old Summer and part autobiographical variety show as it tells an abbreviated story of Summer’s life, how she became the “Queen of Disco” and one of the biggest musical stars of the 1970s. For the live musical segments, we get to see Summer strutting her hot stuff at the Hollywood Bowl in all her sequined glory. The other musical interludes are (mostly) not live but presented as short music video-style pieces—and that’s where things get weird, and also magically wonderful. As I mentioned previously, the show included several interesting casting choices—an unexpected highlight being a vocal performance by Robert Guillaume. Many people are unaware that Guillaume spent decades on Broadway showing off his impressive musical skills early in his long career. Of his many stage credits, Guillaume is also noted to be the very first black actor to ever portray The Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s longrunning musical The Phantom of the Opera. The choice to place Guillaume in the role resulted in a fair amount of controversy causing some racist-ass ticket holders to return their tickets, outraged that he would replace long-time Phantom, Michael Crawford.
A vintage newspaper ad for ‘The Donna Summer Special.’
Getting back to The Donna Summer Special one of the live musical segments included Summer banging out a version of her 1979 Grammy Award-nominated single for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance “Bad Girls” produced by Italian disco shaman Giorgio Moroder and English songwriter Pete Bellotte. The song (which was co-written by Summer and her often collaborators, Brooklyn disco band The Brooklyn Dreams) spawned a music video which the show reproduced as a live number on a soundstage with an audience in attendance. According to folklore, the song was allegedly inspired by a real-life incident involving a member of her staff. Here’s Summer on that:
“I was in my office in the old Casablanca building, and I sent my secretary to do something, and the police stopped her on Sunset Boulevard. She was dressed in business attire, but they were trying to pick her up. That ticked me off. I pondered why that would happen to innocent people—and then I developed compassion for the girls, working on the street.”
If you’ve completely forgotten the epic video (or were a tad too young to process it like I was), it is a fantastic disco adventure featuring Summer looking like a futuristic streetwalker flanked by her Bad Girls—Twiggy, Pat Ast, actress Debralee Scott (who famously played “Hotsi” Totsi on Welcome Back Kotter and the younger sister on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman), and a cast of other characters. The Donna Summer Special does not disappoint nearly 40 years later and as a more enlightened viewer, it is all the more fun to watch. I’ve posted the one-hour show below and highly recommend you watch it as soon as possible to ensure your New Year gets off on the good foot.
Take a look, after the jump…