The Phil Silvers Show (more commonly known by its syndication title Sgt. Bilko) was, and still remains, the gold standard for television sitcoms. Combining a comic genius like Silvers with an irresistible premise (a con artist flourishing in the US military) and an unbeatable supporting cast, Sgt. Bilko is just as breathtakingly hilarious today as it was when it premiered 55 years ago. At long last, CBS DVD has released the first season of Sgt. Bilko for home video.
The second episode The Empty Store (originally broadcast on Sept. 27, 1955) was the first great episode of the series and a direct sequel to the pilot The New Recruits. In that episode, three of Bilko fellow sergeants, Grover (Jimmy Little), Pendleton (Ned Glass) and Sowicki (Harry Clark) cheated Bilko out of his bankroll during an all-night poker game. Also, Bilko’s platoon was temporarily replaced by a group of new recruits.
The Empty Store begins with Bilko making a futile attempt at replenishing his funds by selling tickets to a dance commemorating the birthday of President Chester A. Arthur. The three sergeants enter flashing the winnings they just took off “some sucker” at yet another poker game. They taunt Bilko about the fact that he won’t be able to win his dough back unless he can show some money up front.
Back at his barracks, Bilko and his two cohorts, Corporals Barbella (Harvey Lembeck) and Henshaw (Allan Melville), try to come up with another way to raise the dough when in walks one of the new recruits, Pvt. Higgins (Michael Dreyfuss).
Bilko: What is it?
Higgins: Well, sir, you know that money I was holding for the squad?
Bilko: Was holding?
Higgins: Over two hundred dollars?
Bilko: Go on, go on, go ahead, what?
Higgins: Last night, I was passing by Sgt. Sowicki’s kitchen…
Bilko: Oh, no! Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead, go ahead…
Higgins: I heard there was a poker game going on in there and…
Bilko: You didn’t! Say it, you didn’t!
Higgins: (nods yes)
Henshaw: He did.
Barbella: This is the sucker Sowicki was crowing about.
Infuriated that the sergeants took advantage of a rookie, Bilko is more determined than ever to make them pay. Luckily, he has a plan up his sleeve. He consults the local newspaper and finds just the ad he was looking for.
Bilko: This ad’s been running in the local paper for over a year. It’s an empty store for rent. I’ve been saving it for an emergency just like this. Here, you, go into the town and rent me this store.
Barbella: Rent the store?
Bilko: Yes sir! There it is! Right there! “Store for rent. Month’s free rent for enterprising person. George Crow, real estate”, etc, go on!
Barbella: Sure, sure, sure, sure, Ernie? I was on the rifle range all day, my ears… with an empty store, we’re gonna get our money back from Sowicki and Pendleton and Grover?
Bilko: Get it back? They’re gonna come in here personally and beg me to take it back!
Sure enough, when word spreads around camp that Bilko has rented an empty store, everyone is convinced that, being the Machiavellian genius he is, Bilko must have one doozy of a money-making scheme in mind. One by one, the sergeants come to Bilko offering him bribes and favors for the opportunity to invest in his enterprise. The more Bilko honestly explains that he’s not going to do anything with the store, the more they’re convinced that he’s up to something big and, as Bilko predicted, beg him to take their money.
As with the best Bilko episodes, The Empty Store has its share of sheer laugh-out-loud moments. The best running gag involves the new jacket quartermaster Pendleton offers to Bilko as a bribe. For the remainder of the episode, as former tailor Pvt. Bender (Herbie Faye) goes to work fitting the jacket with his tape measure and chalk, Bilko makes more and more demands for the jacket’s specifications (“Give me something with the sleeves! Some character!”).
Sgt. Bilko: The Empty Store is available on the Sgt. Bilko Season One DVD set and can be rented from Netflix.