A Tribute To The Gong Show'sGene Gene The Dancing Machineby James Lipton of Bravo's "Inside The Actors Studio"
His arrival on the TV stage was always treated as though it were a glorious surprise to everyone on on the set, even to the show's host. Upon hearing the opening notes to his theme music (an arrangement of "Jumpin' at the Woodside," a popular Count Basie orchestra song), the host's face would light up and he would stop the show, yielding the stage to Gene-Gene The Dancing Machine, a seemingly ordinary heavy-set, middle-aged black man.
And as Gene Gene emerged on stage, members of the crew would toss random objects from the wings, littering the stage while the heavy-set black man danced on, seemingly oblivious to all the activity around him. In the meantime, both host and panelists would enthusiastically mimic Gene Gene's dance moves, which consisted primarily of a slow-footed chug-chug motion, punctuated by an occasional, exultant fist pointed skyward.
And now that Gene Patton, the beloved Gene Gene The Dancing Machine, has shuffled off of this mortal coil, it's time to honor his memory with more than faint praise.
Indeed, all the praise and acclaim accorded to him were surely merited, yet Gene Gene The Dancing Machine was far too subtle a figure to be caught in a net of loose superlatives. He was many contradictory things at once. Look at him. He was a bear of a man whose dancing attire usually consisted of nothing more than a green windbreaker jacket, bell-bottomed jeans, sneakers, a yellow polo shirt, and a black painter's hat. Yet, he was a thing of ineffable beauty when he moved.
He has been compared to Bach by George Balanchine. Merce Cunningham called him a genius. Rudolf Nureyev considered him the greatest American spontaneous dancer in history. But what exactly was it that made Gene Gene The Dancing Machine's dancing so extraordinarily beautiful and timeless? What was it in his choreographic style that made him so distinctive, so inimitable?
Eugene Patton (born April 25, 1932), more widely known by his stage name Gene Gene the Dancing Machine
, was a stagehand for the National Broadcasting Company's Burbank, California studios who gained fame as an occasional performer on The Gong Show. Patton was also the first African-American member of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, Local 33.
Patton was one of several amateur performers who would warm up and entertain the audience during commercial breaks. Host Chuck Barris found him so entertaining that he had him dance on the show on-air, and he proved so popular that he soon became a recurring act, an occasional judge, and eventually the regular closing act for the show, with the credits rolling over his enthusiastic dancing, often joined by Chuck, the celebrity judges, the stage hands, and whoever else felt like joining in. He appeared in "The Gong Show Movie" (1980) and had some dialogue.
Although he later appeared in the 1983 movie, "My Tutor", Gene Gene had a cameo as himself in the film version of "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" based on "Gong Show' host Chuck Barris' incredible autoiographical tell-all in which Barris claimed to have worked as a hired assassin for the CIA while he was chaperoning couples who'd won dates on his "Dating Game" show back in the mid-1960s and early 1970s.
After "The Gong Show" was cancelled, Patton remained a stagehand at NBC but continued to appear on "The Gong Show" as it was still airing in syndication. Later, he worked as a camera man for "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."
Patton's popularity was such that his retirement from NBC made the national news wires in 1997, unique attention for a stagehand. In a bitter irony, Patton's legs were amputated in the early 2000s due to complications from diabetes. In his latter years, he wore prosthetics and walked with a cane.
In his heyday, Gene Gene The Dancing Machine presented us with that rare phenomenon: a self-made unpretentious spontaneous dancer whose zest for tripping the light fantastic was so infectious, it captivated a nation like few other hoofers have done before. This was part of Gene Gene's power over the public: the uncanny ease of his dance mastery. It made him the envy of dance professionals everywhere. His place in dance history will rest not only on his unprecedented efficacy as an inspiring dance role model but also on his unique style of spontaneous dance, a versatile fusion of soul, jazz, ballroom dance, and choreographical improvisation.
And although his dance career spanned only five short years on "The Gong Show" (1976-1980), because his primary medium was television, most of his work has been preserved and continues to live on in reruns. As a profoundly welcome result, his brilliance is there to be discovered and enjoyed all over again by future generations.
I've often asked actors what music they'd most want to hear playing when they enter the pearly gates of Heaven. In the case of Gene Gene The Dancing Machine, well, I wouldn't have had to ask him because we all know it would have to be that Count Basie hit, "Jumpin' at the Woodside", the very tune to which he shuffled and strutted on the classic "Gong Show" to the delight of millions.