Happy Birthday today to Raquel Welch: Her 1970 primetime TV special will melt your mind!

By on September 5, 2015

Today is Raquel Welch’s birthday — she was born on September 5, 1940, in Chicago, Illinois — and to celebrate we’re taking a look back at her 1970 CBS network TV special, “Raquel!,” which aired at the peak of her sex-symbolish star-power, an expensively-made overly-extravagant production that showed the millions who tuned in that über-exotic Ms. Welch was not just a world-class beauty (she still is, folks), but she could sing, dance, tell jokes and read poetry just as well as any Hollywood celebrity.

Okay, maybe not the singing part so much: even though she had a reasonably acceptable okay singing voice, nothing to be ashamed of, really, the muckety-mucks at CBS decided her voice was not quite up to their prime-time standards, and so they asked Tina Cole — who had co-starred on the sixties TV show “My Three Sons,” and she often sang with her cousins on the King Family TV specials too — to do the singing for Welch, who was 28 or 29 at the time of filming.

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That’s definitely Ms. Welch doing her own dancing, though, as you can see this from this jaw-droppingly awesome clip of the show’s opening montage, wearin’ a space-age Bob Mackie-designed bikini and boots, and don’t forget to check out the second clip below, showing the choreographed a Mayan-ish dance number (“Aquarius / Let The Sunshine In”) that was actually filmed at the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican pyramids of the lost holy city of Teotihuacan (‘the place where the gods were created’), which was built sometime between the 1st and 7th centuries A.D.

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As we said, “Raquel!” was an expensive 49-minute song-and-dance prime-time special meant to showcase the range of her talents — costing an estimated $350,000 to make although we’ve also seen the term “multi-million dollar” tossed around, too. “Raquel!” was executive produced, directed and choreographed by David Winters and produced by Winters’ company Winters-Rosen for CBS-TV, and originally co-sponsored by Coca-Cola and Motorola.

Production on the sequences actually began in May 1969 (when she was 28), but the entire show had to be stopped for awhile when Ms. Welch had to go off to act in her movie Myra Breckinridge (more about that later). Filming resumed later in the fall of ’69, around the time of Ms. Welch’s 29th birthday.

The cost factor here is obviously at least partially credited to the fact that the special had elaborate sequences filmed in quite a few exotic locales around the world — in London, Paris, Mexico City, and Yucatan — and there were some pretty nice locals closer to home, in Big Sur, California, and the Sun Valley ski resort in Idaho, as well as soundstages in Los Angeles (probably Burbank).

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The special guest factor was top-notch too, the tone of the show skittering from frenetic to serious to comedic (sorta) and back again.

Ms. Welch sings a medley of Little Richard/Beatles rock n’ roll classics with Tom Jones (“Rip It Up”/”Slippin’ & Slidin'”/”Lucille”/”Tutti Frutti”/”Jenny, Jenny”/”Good Golly, Miss Molly”/”We’re Gonna Have Some Fun Tonight”). Jones opened that particular sequence with a song of his own, “I (Who Have Nothing),” with Ms. Welch joining him.

She sings the Beatles’s “Rocky Raccoon” and joking around with Bob Hope, imitating Mae West (!!). She’d appeared many times with Hope in the past by then, including entertaining the troops (whether or not you find this entertaining is up to you).

Raquel Welch sings “A Different Drum” for the troops in 1967

She tours a Mexican orphanage with John Wayne, and they also appear together in a sketch filmed on a backlot western set, which ends up with them singing “Mexico.” Ms. Welch and Mr. Wayne also appeared on the cover of TV guide to promote the TV special.

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She also sings top 40 AM radio-friendly hits of the era from movies and Broadway musicals like Hair, Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate, etc., memorable songs like “Games People Play,” “California Dreamin’,” “Everybody’s Talkin’,” “Peaceful,”Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” “Here Comes The Sun,” “Good Morning, Starshine,” and “The Sound of Silence.”

Ms. Welch also reads some poetry — you thought we were kidding? — which in this case is the 1833 edition of “The Lady of Shallot,” a Victorian poem by the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

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As gossip columnist Liz Smith — the “Grand Dame of Dish” — wrote in the pages of Q, the Quest magazine quarterly, Ms. Welch “was a beauty right from the start.”

Smith: “As a teenager she collected beauty queen titles such as “Miss Contour, “Miss San Diego,” “Miss Fairest of the Fair.” Obviously, she was not going to pursue a career in aerospace. Raquel studied dance and dramatics, but then took a surprising detour. She married her high school sweetheart, James Welch, and had two children Damon and Tahnee in quick succession. Childbearing did not alter Raquel’s figure in the least. Indeed, it seemed to improve! And her ambitions – she was, after all, “Miss Fairest of the Fair” – were still burning. Her marriage to Welch ended, for all intents, in 1961, though they would not divorce until four years later.”

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After splitting with her husband, Welch and her kids moved to Dallas, Texas, where she modeled for a time, before moving to Hollywood, California, where she ended up finding work here and there, most notably in 1965’s A Swinging Summer, in which she danced, tossed her enormous mane of hair and sang a song that referenced her imposing measurements.

Twentieth-Century Fox signed her to one of the last of its infamous seven-year contracts that bound a performer to the studio, for good or ill, and Ms. Welch ended up in a variety of movies — she wore some sort of rubberized one-piece outfit in the sci-fi thriller Fantastic Voyage, but it was her megastar-making role as Loana, the Queen of the Shell People, in One Million Years, B.C. wearing blonde highlights in her hair (Ms. Welch, proud of her brunette, Bolivian heritage, did not appreciate having to do that), and a carefully-designed fur-covered loincloth and bra that many still call a “fur bikini.”

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She went on to more roles in often-forgettable movies that weren’t always perhaps the best choices –“Shoot Loud, Louder … I Don’t Understand; The Biggest Bundle of Them All; Lady In Cement (with Frank Sinatra); Fathom; Flareup; The Magic Christian (as Priestess of the Whip); Bedazzled (as Lilian Lust). (We kinda liked these last two).

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Thousands of photos began to flood into popular culture as she became, unquestionably, one of the world’s top awe-inspiring pin-ups, the perfection of her body worshiped from every angle. Sometimes she was downright imposing in those photos, aggressive and assertive, Amazonian almost, a snarly lipped super-deluxe dominatrix.

Ms. Welch made bold attempts to pick roles where she could show off her acting skills, which just happen to be some of our favorite revisionist western movies of the late 60s and early 70s, movies like Bandolero! and 100 Rifles, but even in those she wore low-cut peasant blouses, and she had scenes where she was drenched in water, although it looks like she enjoyed it at the time. We know we did.

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However, Ms. Welch wasn’t being taken as seriously as she liked, and nobody she worked with, seemed interested in exploring any aspect of her personality beyond her staggering beauty. Her boyfriend and manager, Patrick Curtis, promoted her relentlessly, and by 1969, Ms. Welch had already earned a reputation for her let’s-call-it “temperament,” and a wicked reputation as being someone “difficult to work with.”

Her CBS TV special was, we think, an attempt by everyone associated with her career — but most importantly by Ms. Welch herself — an attempt to show off that she had considerable talents beyond filling out a bikini (fur, or otherwise) with an admirable physique and smiling sexily at any camera lens pointed her way.

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Around this same time, she was cast in Myra Breckinridge, a notorious movie based  loosely on a notorious novel, that was bound to raise eyebrows (she would be playing a vengeful transsexual), and she had to share the screen with the iconic actress Mae West, who was returning to appearing in motion pictures after taking off thirty years (!). Ms. West did not initially want to share the big screen or any screen with Ms. Welch (or anyone else, for that matter).

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It’s kind of incredible that in the midst of filming this TV special that she went off to make Myra, — Rex Reed (who appeared as Myron, Myra’s male alter ego) has written some incredible articles on the debacle that it was behind-the-scenes that you should seek out if you’ve never read those — and then came back to finish this special, which as we said, was an attempt to re-boot not only an image she’d acquired off-screen but to showcase that she was more than a “sex symbol.”

On the day of the premiere, the show received a 51% share on the National ARB Ratings and an impressive Overnight New York Nielsen Rating of 58% share. That’s a very good number. Really good.

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The home video of the special was released by V.I.E.W. in 1998, which included a three-page biography of Ms. Welch, a single-screen biography of Jones and a Welch photo gallery consisting of scenes from the special, and voiceover from the special (but no commentary track).

Myra, by the way, opened just a few months later, on June 24, 1970, to what Liz Smith called “horrifying reviews and miserable business.” The movie — which featured the first on-screen scene of “pegging,” where a woman fucks a man in the ass with a strap-on dildo — was said by some to have really hurt Ms. Welch’s career, but she’s pretty awesome in it, we have to say. The cast is incredible: in addition to those already mentioned, there’s also John Huston, Farrah Fawcett, Roger C. Carmel, Kathleen Freeman, Jim Backus, Andy Devine, John Carradine, and Tom Selleck makes his film debut.

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The critics, at the time, were not kind. TIME magazine famously proclaimed Myra Breckinridge “about as funny as a child molester.” The author of the original work, Gore Vidal, declared the film “an awful joke” and cited the fact that director Michael Sarne had not worked in films again as “proof that there is a God and, in nature, perfect symmetry.”

The 1970s ended up being a little difficult for Ms. Welch to maneuver her way through — there would be other challenges, particularly when it came to working on major motion pictures — but with movies like Myra, and extravagant attempts to correct the impressions that too many in Hollywood had about her actual talents, like this awesome CBS TV special, we can see how Ms. Welch’s tenacity and her undeniable skills enabled her to overcome bad business decisions and have a career that prospered into the the next several decades.

Happy Birthday, Ms. Raquel Welch!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.