November 25, 2015

Classic television that's a turkey - well, not really

When it comes to holiday-themed episodes, it seems to me as if Thanksgiving has never been quite as popular as Christmas (although there have certainly been classic episodes, from Bob Newhart to Friends), but that doesn't mean they don't exist. For example, TV Party has a great sample lineup from the 1950s here. So in the spirit of the season, here are some clips of our own, some nostalgic and others frivolous, all of them part of what makes Thanksgiving special.

The day always begins with parades. I've shared this before - it's an exceptionally clear clip from the Hudson's Parade in Detroit, 1962. Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Green Jeans and Mr. Moose are in the studio, and newsmen Dallas Townsend and Bob Murphy are on the parade route. This was one of the three parades that CBS carried in their "Thanksgiving Parade Jubilee," the other two being in New York and Detroit (with Toronto added later).

One of the most famous college football games ever played was on Thanksgiving - the 1971 "Game of the Century" between undefeated and top-ranked Nebraska and undefeated, #2 ranked Oklahoma. Watch this when you have some time - it's an unforgettable game, even if the wrong team won. (And check out the commercials!)

Of course, variety shows have never found a holiday they didn't like, and Perry Como did them particularly well.  Here is Perry's 1962 Thanksgiving eve show, which I think I've covered elsewhere in the archives.

Lawrence Welk's charmingly corny rendition of Plymouth Rock kicks off this special from 1958, when it was known as The Lawrence Welk Plymouth Show.

What would a holiday be without cartoons?  Here's Rankin-Bass' The Mouse on the Mayflower from 1968.

Or a sitcom? Here's the 1951 Burns and Allen Thanksgiving show.

As for the more recent past, there's the epic"Turkey Drop" from WKRP in Cincinnati, perhaps the most famous Thanksgiving clip ever.

And we'll end with this memorable message from Red Skelton in 1952.

What they're all saying is this: Happy Thanksgiving!

To which I add my own sincere wishes for a wonderful and blessed day, for we all indeed have much to be thankful for.

November 23, 2015

What's on TV? Tuesday, November 25, 1958

This is, if I'm not mistaken, our first look at the Nebraska/Iowa/South Dakota area, which means we'd better do a good job on it. I've mentioned in the past that one of my few fond memories of doing time in The World's Worst Town™ was the KELOland station we used to receive from South Dakota. It wasn't KELO, Channel 11 - I think it was either KDLO or KPLO, I can't remember which - but as the CBS affiliate, it was one of the few traces of the outside world to penetrate that little hole. Anyway, on with the show.

November 21, 2015

This week in TV Guide: November 22, 1958

One of the things I've noted in the past regarding Thanksgiving is that because it doesn't have a fixed date, you're never entirely sure when it's going to show up in a late November TV Guide. Fortunately, this week happens to be one of those happy occurrences, and since you could be reading this at any time of the week, it should fit right in with whatever you're doing, from finishing off that pumpkin pie to hanging your Christmas decorations.

I've also commented on how Thanksgiving isn't quite what it used to be, but when one looks at how it was in 1958, you can really see the changes. Take the parades, for example. CBS used to show multiple parades prior to casting its lot exclusively with the Macy's parade, but in 1958 there are but two, neither of them in New York. The coverage starts at 9:15am CT (following an abbreviated 15-minute edition of For Love or Money) with Captain Kangaroo himself, Bob Keeshan, hosting a 45-minute telecast of the Hudson's Thanksgiving Day Children's Parade* in Detroit. Following that, it's Arthur Godfrey's half-hour morning show, which the Old Redhead will interrupt periodically to look in on the Gimbles Toyland Parade in Philadelphia, where the grand marshal is Jimmy Dean and the TV Guide float is ridden by Orson Bean and Pat Carroll.

*I've never seen it referred to in that way, as the "Children's Parade," but a quick spin around the web shows several such references in this era. 

Over on NBC, where Macy's parade coverage has swollen to three hours in recent years, the 1958 broadcast runs but an hour, with Bert "Miss America" Parks and Frank Blair, newscaster on Today, as hosts. The big story in this year's parade is the workaround required to get the balloons aloft because of the nationwide helium shortage. For awhile there were concerns that the balloons might have to be abandoned, but ultimately they were saved with an ingenious solution: they were inflated with regular air and held aloft by cranes.*

*Helium is still in short supply, although there's been no serious threat to ditch the balloons. This article tells more about the growing demand for, and shortage of, helium.

Football coverage was different as well. This year features three NFL games* and a pair of college tilts, but in 1958 the number of games was two: the traditional game in Detroit featuring the Lions and the Green Bay Packers at 11:00am on CBS, and the annual college game between Texas and Texas A&M at 1:45pm on NBC. The Lions and Packers don't play every Thanksgiving anymore, although they do play on Turkey Day more often than would be dictated by random choice. Texas and Texas A&M, bitter rivals for a century, don't play each other at all anymore, thanks to conference realignment. Someday this will change, but for now it's yet another example of progress not necessarily constituting an improvement.

*Still falling short of the four that were telecast in the last year prior to the NFL/AFL merger: two in each league.

Before the Texas-A&M game, KMTV Channel 3, the NBC affiliate in Omaha, has an appropriate special on at 12:30pm - The Mayflower Story, a color documentary on the ship Mayflower II, an exact replica of the original, which traveled across the Atlantic in 1957, docking in New York City on July 1 of that year, after which her captain and crew received a ticker-tape parade along the city's Canyon of Heroes. You can see a brief clip of the ship's 1958 arrival in Washington here.


There aren't many other specifically Thanksgiving-oriented shows this week, although Red Skelton's Freddie the Freeloader looks for a free turkey dinner on Tuesday's program (8:30pm, CBS), and Lawrence Welk's Wednesday night show (he was on twice a week at this point) is his Thanksgiving special - but more about that on Wednesday. There may be others that were not described as such in the listings. And anyway, the holiday period has always been a prime one for specials, and this year is no different. For starters, I didn't know Dean Martin did a yearly series of NBC specials a year long before he started his weekly series, but on Saturday night at 8:00, Deano kicks off his first special of the season, with special guests Bing Crosby and Phil Harris.

On Monday, The Voice of Firestone (8:00pm, ABC) celebrates its 30th anniversary, having started on radio in 1928; from 1949, when the television version began, until 1956, when the radio version ended, the program was simulcast on both TV and radio. The program celebrates its anniversary with some of the biggest names in opera: Rosalind Elias, Anna Moffo, Cesare Valletti and Cesare Siepi (but no Maria Callas). The host is John Daly, taking time off his ABC newscasting duties and CBS What's My Line? hosting. Busy guy. Later that evening, CBS' Desilu Playhouse presents "The Time Element," the de facto pilot for The Twilight Zone, which I wrote about when it was rerun the following April. And the following night, NBC's Eddie Fisher Show is preempted for a special presentation of Shirley Temple's Storybook, the telling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes." Not a bad week's lineup.


Sportswise, the college football season winds down with the season-ending game between Iowa, winner of the Big Ten Championship, and Notre Dame. It's a down year for the Fighting Irish, as is the case any time the university isn't contending for the national championship, although their reputation does secure for them the #17 national ranking. For Iowa, their 31-21 victory over Notre Dame, followed by a 38-12 defeat of California in the Rose Bowl, gives them an 8-1-1 record, good enough for the #2 ranking behind undefeated Sugar Bowl champ LSU.*

*Interestingly enough, 1958 was the first year to feature the two-point conversion, introduced to help enliven what was, in Michigan athletic director Fritz Crisler's description, "the dullest, most stupid play in the game." Nearly 60 years later, people still describe the point-after that way, which causes me to ask where the progress is.

If you're in the mood for some "ice hockey," CBS has it with its NHL Game of the Week Saturday afternoon, featuring the Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins from Boston Garden. I would love to see footage of that game. If the NFL suits you better, there is a game aside from the Thanksgiving Day feature, with CBS carrying the Chicago Cardinals hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers. There's also some NBA action on Sunday, with the St. Louis Hawks and Cincinnati Royals playing on NBC.*

*Just to recap, the Chicago Cardinals moved to St. Louis and then Phoenix, where they're now known as the Arizona Cardinals. The St. Louis Hawks came from Milwaukee and would move on to Atlanta, while the Cincinnati Royals, once the Rochester (NY) Royals, later became the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, the Kansas City Kings, and now the Sacramento Kings. At least the Steelers stayed put.


This week's starlet is Diana van der Vlis, who might be the next Grace Kelly, or Maria Schell, or Eva Marie Saint. But what she looks forward to is the day when someone might come up to her and say, "I've seen an actress who looks just like you." She's earned her acting chops, from Broadway to B movies to television guest roles in shows such as Kraft Television Theater and Naked City. She's done a pilot, but the show hasn't yet been picked up. (And in fact never will be.) Her greatest fame will come on the daytime circuit, most notably in the soaps Ryan's Hope and Where the Heart Is. One thing's for sure, though - when you've seen her once, you'll never miss seeing her again.

And a note from TV Teletype that Jennifer Lea has been signed to play Carl Reiner's wife in Reiner's new series Man of the House. The series never made it, but a few years later Reiner retooled and recast it, and it wound up as The Dick Van Dyke Show.  Hmm - Jennifer Lea as Laura Petrie? Or Barbara Britton, as rumor had it? I think it would have been worth a look.


And now to the cover story: Ronald Reagan and his actress-wife, Nancy Davis Reagan. The "athletically lanky and likable" Ronnie, now 47, has for the last four years been the host and occasional star of General Electric Theater on CBS, and he and Nancy will appear on the show Sunday night, in the ironically-named "A Turkey for the President." Reagan doesn't play the president - that would come 22 years later, in the role of his life - he plays the father of a son who enters his personal turkey in a contest, only to find out the "winner" of the contest gets to serve as the president's Thanksgiving dinner.

It's not that Reagan's career is winding down, but he's at a point where he's less interested in what the critics think than what the sponsor and its employees think. He's acutely aware that part of his job is to keep GE happy, and he uses the feedback he receives from employees, which he gets regularly while touring GE plants nationwide, to help formulate his opinions about what television should be like. "People will accept art on TV," Reagan says perceptively. "They want art, not just amusement. They'll accept an unhappy ending. But they do want to know what happens after the story ended and they want to know why. They do not want to be left dangling in the air after a TV show." One other thing they want: "stars, stars, stars."

The unbylined article contains most of the biographical information we've come to know over the years: the beginning calling Cubs games on WHO radio, the trip to California, where he would star in movies, his marriages to Jane Wyman and Nancy, his time as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and his current role as corporate spokesman, in which he may make as many as 15 speeches a day - not only to GE employees, but to Rotary, Lions and Kiawinis clubs, churches and chambers of commerce. It will not only polish his public speaking, it will give him a unique opportunity to tour the country, speaking to ordinary persons, making connections and leaving impressions that will be remembered in years to come. The writer observes that Reagan appears to enjoy this part of the job most of all.

What's fascinating about this, at least to me, is that we're not reading about this in an after-the-fact biography, or listening to a political analyst talking about it in the past tense. We're seeing it as it happens. In fact, though few (including Reagan himself) would realize it at the time, we are watching, in real time, the embryonic stages of Ronald Reagan's campaign for the presidency. It is happening before our very eyes, and though we aren't even aware of it, we can suspect that more than one person from the 250,000 he meets during this time will come away from their encounter mightily impressed by the meeting, impressed by the man.

Nobody would have predicted what would come next,would have predicted that Ronald Reagan would not stop giving speeches when GE Theater went off the air in 1962, would not return to acting after his final picture, The Killers, would not return to Hollywood at all but would wind up in Sacramento as governor, in Washington, D.C. as the last larger-than-life president. But there it is, the future staring right at us in black-and-white. And we don't even know it.

November 18, 2015

The man who reminded us that life is worth living

Ask people for one word to describe how they feel about things today, and odds are a good number of them will use the word "despair." The political situation? It doesn't matter who wins or loses, nothing changes. The economy? There's nothing we can do about it, and we'll probably never be able to retire. Religion? Who knows what to believe anymore.

Yes, no matter who you talk with, no matter what subject, there seems to be this sense that things aren't good and they're only getting worse, that perhaps things might never get better. It's a tough world out there, and you think it will break your heart if you're not careful. No wonder despair is the word that first pops into so many heads.

In some ways, this isn't much different from the '50s and '60s. Remember that the '50s, for all the talk about limitless potential, was still marked by fear and trembling. The threat of the Bomb. The Russians leading in the space race. The pressure to keep up with the Joneses in a newly consumerist society is intense. The idea of an unwanted pregnancy or a spouse unwilling to agree to a divorce is the pivot point of many a murder mystery. Whenever you look at entertainment of the era, from Patterns to The Twilight Zone's memorable "A Stop at Willoughby" (both written by Rod Serling) to Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman to the movie The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, one can see the tumult just under the surface of the post-war era. And the '60s just ramp up the pressure, with Vietnam, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll just the tip of the iceberg.

In such an era, is it any surprise that one of the most successful programs on television featured a Catholic priest whose message was simple yet direct: life is worth living.

That priest was Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, and his program, Life Is Worth Living, premiered on DuMont in 1952, and after moving to ABC in 1955, continued to air weekly until 1957; the program continued on in syndication, under the less-descriptive title The Fulton Sheen Program, off-and-on until 1968. Volumes have been written about Bishop Sheen (who began in broadcasting with a radio program in 1930), and I won't attempt to recapitulate it all here; suffice it to say that Fulton Sheen was extremely successful on television, drawing as many as thirty million viewers a week, and being the only show to provide any serious competition when aired opposite Milton Berle's hit show*; and was as successful in print, authoring over 70 books on the spiritual life. He was responsible for the conversion of many prominent people into the Catholic Church, and probably only God Himself knows how many other people he touched in one way or another. Bishop Sheen died in 1979, but many of his books remain in print, and many of his shows continue to air on television (EWTN) and sell on DVD.

*Berle, known as "Uncle Miltie," dubbed his good friend "Uncle Fultie," and when winning an Emmy, Sheen's acceptance speech thanked his four writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

It's a remarkable legacy for any media figure, let alone a clergyman. I'll grant you that times were different then; it's unimaginable that such a show as Life Is Worth Living could air on network television today. But then, in these confusing times it's unimaginable that so many people - Catholic, Protestant and Jewish alike - could find solace in those four simple words: life is worth living.

A side note: in one of his most famous broadcasts, delivered in February of 1953, he delivered what Brooks and Marsh's Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows called a "hair-raising" rendition (without notes) of Marc Antony's famous funeral oration for Caesar (as written by Shakespeare). The show apparently doesn't exist, at least not in any medium I've found, but in my collection of scripts from the show I've got a copy of that one, in which Sheen substitutes names of prominent Soviet leaders — Stalin, Beria, Malenkov, and Vishinsky — for those of Caesar, Cassius, Marc Antony, and Brutus.  It is hair-raising, just in print, and I can only imagine how it must have sounded in Sheen's magnificent, charismatic oration. Concluding the program, Sheen dramatically notes that "Stalin must one day meet his judgment." A few days later, Stalin suffered a stroke and was dead within the week.

Sheen was no Pandora; he recognized well the threat of Communism ("Communism in America," "Western and Communist World," "Does Capitalism Still Exist") as well as the threats that were implicit in the culture built by the post-war era. He discussed man's weaknesses ("Hope for a Wounded World," "Human Passions and Emotions," "Selfishness"), the struggles of daily life ("Gloom," "Guilt," "Suffering," "Temptation," "The Identity Crisis"), ways of self-improvement ("An Alcoholic is Not a Pig," "How to Improve Your Mind," "How to Think"). Shows such as "The Psychology of the Rat Race," "What is Meant by Happiness?" and "War as a Judgment From God" could be given today without very little editing, and in shows like "There Is Hope" he reinforces the message of those four words.

Listening to Sheen's programs today, one is struck (not for the first time when watching classic television) by how little has changed. The specific names of issues may be different, the circumstances may be slightly altered, but at heart the insecurities, frailties, fears and sins of man remain as ever they have been and ever will be. What Sheen understood, perhaps better than anyone who's ever appeared on television, is the essential existentialist struggle that is part of life. St. John Paul II once remarked that the ordinary life is full of drama far beyond what any dramatist could concoct, and in a program such as "The Stranger Within" Sheen illustrates that existential drama. Television is in many ways a remarkable medium, but one thing it has never done well is existentialism. It does nihilism far better, by the way, and it's also quite good at amorality, but to seriously discuss the meaning of life and the implications arising from various answers is something one doesn't see anymore, and seldom did anywhere (aside from a top-notch drama) other than from Bishop Sheen.

Perhaps the biggest difference to be found, from the Catholic viewpoint, is how the Church has ceased to be the public foundation of certainty and instruction. As anyone who's read my commentary over at In Other Words knows (it's also the subject of my new book, The Collaborator), I've lamented the confusion, contradiction and outright heresy that has infiltrated the Church during the last fifty-some years. Today, even if someone were to have the opportunity to speak from a network-provided pulpit, it's unlikely he'd be able to speak from any kind of authority; if people didn't like he was saying, they'd just get contradictory advice from another Catholic prelate.

So a debate rages on, mainly from within the Church but extending outside as well, as to what exactly the Catholic Church stands for, what she represents, what her role is in the world. What I find remarkable is that through all this conflict, which in and of itself is enough to cause one to despair, so few people have hearkened back to the message of Fulton J. Sheen, and how applicable it is to people today. And yet we live in a time when suicide is rampant, especially among young people and military veterans, when so many people are inclined to throw up their hands in exasperation, when nihilism has invaded the subconscious and the existential. We debate liberal vs. conservative, orthodox vs. heterodox, we've battled over race, gender, identity; we've done just about everything within our power to ridicule and demonize those who disagree with us, and even some of those who agree. But through it all, from each and every source, I rarely hear those four words, the words that Bishop Sheen preached every week for so many years, the words that are not necessarily the end but most assuredly are the beginning, and from which goodness can ultimately flow.

Life is worth living. On that you can depend.

November 16, 2015

What's on TV: Monday, November 18, 1968

This week we make our first visit to Iowa, where we've got programming from three metro areas: Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and the Quad Cities.*  The daytime lineup is making its transition from black-and-white to color programming, and only a couple of stations lack the facilities to broadcast in color.  The shows, as well, reflect the times, as we'll see. One thing I do appreciate about these issues from the Midwest is the emphasis on farm reporting, which remains an important part of the economy until the farm recession in the 80s.

*Bonus points for naming all four of them.

By the way, coming from Minnesota I have hundreds of Iowa jokes: it was time for the big football game between Minnesota and Iowa, and the two teams were going at it when a train that was passing the stadium sounded its horn. The Minnesota players thought that meant the half was over, and ran off the field.

Four plays later, Iowa scored.

Well, maybe not so much this season.