ebyMy grandparents in Cassopolis had color television years before us.

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John Eby: Goateed bandleader Mitch Miller foretold karaoke

Published 4:33pm Sunday, August 15, 2010

Seeing that NBC peacock saturate the screen was worth a car trip.

Saturday mornings I could watch Beatles cartoons or walk to Harding’s and buy two 12-cent comic books and a piece of candy for a quarter.

Afternoons, Grandma Eby enjoyed her soap operas, though sometimes before lunch we’d play “Concentration” hosted by Hugh Downs.

Unless they yielded to their grandsons, at night they watched Lawrence Welk or, at New Year’s, Guy Lombardo.

My one and only time in Hollywood, we passed Welk’s band bus unloading, and me at about 13 half expected to see the champagne maestro counting off with his baton as the musicians hoisted crated accordions, as if he wouldn’t have roadies.

Grandpa Eby taught me to play chess, though not well enough to beat either of my sons, and turned me on to the Tigers, which were televised much less frequently when George Kell was in the booth.

When I had to pick berries I usually relied on Ernie Harwell on my transistor radio I won in a coloring contest at the bank.

What a thrill it was to meet that amazing broadcaster.

A couple of occurrences unleashed this rush of memories.

One was my mom finding a crate of my vintage comic books and my 1980 Newsweek with John Anderson on the cover.

Some of the Disneys are more than 60 years old, and the Spiderman, Batman and assorted superheroes are from the early 1970s.

Preserved in plastic, even Logan seemed impressed with their condition.

The other was the death of Mitch Miller.

Like “House Party” host Art Linkletter, who got kids to say the darnedest things, I didn’t even know he was still alive.

And indeed, the goateed bandleader who hosted NBC’s “Sing Along with Mitch” in the early 1960s, was 99 when he died July 31.

It occurs to me that he passed on the same day as my father, although Dad has been gone since 1988, months before the birth of his first grandchild.

We used to be there sometimes on Sunday nights to watch Walt Disney’s program with its colorful fireworks over the Magic Kingdom intro, but I think Welk was on Saturday nights, and they also watched “Sing Along with Mitch,” which debuted in 1961.

How an oboe player landed a network show, I never figured out, but at least, unlike the seemingly extraneous Welk, he played something.

Unlike my Beatles, he could probably even read music and could be his own George Martin in deciding where and how to put French horns or trumpets.

Mitch was what you might call a music impresario and similar to Martin, except he produced hits for the Mercury label and then Columbia Records — you know those black pizzas with the hole in the middle we spun on phonographs?

The first time Jordan encountered records inside the old stereo at my mom’s house he was baffled.

Tony Bennett and George’s aunt, Rosemary Clooney, owe some of their singing success to Mitch, who is credited with being one of the first studio overdubbers.

An accomplished musician, he played with George Gershwin and recorded with Charlie Parker.

But to me, he was just this corny guy like Welk and Lombardo I had to endure to enjoy some color TV.

His “Sing Along” albums led to his wholesome program with onscreen lyrics to follow along with the standards and novelty tunes he favored.
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Makes me wonder what he thought of karaoke, which he seems to have envisioned.

And I guess we were even, because Miller was said to hold rock music in disdain.

I still remember that lush, dark goatee, which gave him a head of hair on his chin fuller than what grew on his head and, for some reason reminds me of Burl Ives, whom my other grandpa claimed to have run into at the bullfights in Spain.

Of course, I used to confuse two mustachioed notables of the day and always wondered how Walt Disney found time to sit in the CBS anchor’s chair, since that’s who I thought Walter Cronkite was.

Especially when the news came on at our house in black and white.

John Eby is Daily News managing editor. E-mail him at john.eby@leaderpub.com.

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