June 29, 2015

What's on TV? Wednesday, July 6, 1960

This week we revisit New England, and a typical night's viewing.  Nothing special here, nothing destined for immortality.  It's an entertaining night nonetheless, so let's take a closer look at what Wednesday night had to offer.

June 27, 2015

This week in TV Guide: July 2, 1960

One could draw a good many existential conclusions about the significance of Independence Day as acknowledged on television.  Even in TV's early years there were concerns about viewers becoming dependent on television.  Additionally, there have always been questions about how independent programming content can possibly be given the influence of advertisers and the importance of ratings.  And speaking of advertising, how about freedom from the corrosive effect of commercials?

As I say, these are all existential questions, which means they're probably unsuitable to be answered by leafing through the pages of a single issue of TV Guide.  However, the first Monday in this first year of the '60s is the Fourth of July, so let's see what the programming gods have to say about it.  Given that it's never been as big a day for television as Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's, there's still a good amount for us to look at.  But then, we're in New England this week, the cradle of American independence, so we shouldn't be too surprised at that.

What would the Fourth of July be without a parade?  At 11am, Channel 10 (WJAR, Providence) starts things off with live coverage of the nation's oldest Fourth of July parade, from Bristol, Rhode Island.  The parade dates back 148 years from this TV Guide and lives on today, as part of a huge celebration.  Sounds like a lot of fun.

What would the Fourth be without food?  At 1pm, Louise Morgan's "women's show" offers holiday food ideas, and TV Guide includes a note that pages 20-22 of this issue include recipes for "ho;liday dishes that mere males can prepare."  We'll come back to that later.

Thankfully they don't use these - yet.
What would the Fourth be without baseball, the game that's as American as hot dogs and apple pie?  Thankfully we don't have to find out; the Red Sox host the Baltimore Orioles in a 1:30pm holiday matinee broadcast throughout the area on the Red Sox television network, with the great Curt Gowdy at the mic.

What would the Fourth be without - horse racing?  Well, OK.  At 4:30 WBZ, the NBC affiliate, presents the Suburban Handicap from Aqueduct in New York, with 1959 Belmont Stakes champion and Horse of the Year, Sword Dancer, coming out on top.

What would the Fourth be without patriotism?  At 9:30, Channel 7 (WNAC, Boston), presents a special entitle Patriotism, 1960 with representatives from the All-American Conference to Combat Communism and the Council Against Communistic Aggression, and Channel 7's "Americanism Director."  I wonder how many stations have that job title today?

Finally, what would the Fourth be without politics?  At 10pm, NBC repeats a January episode of Sunday Showcase entitled "One Loud, Clear Voice," the story of three candidates battling for their party's nomination for governor: a Congressmen who represents the corrupt party machine, the undistinguished incumbent, and a millionaire mayor, riding a groundswell, who refuses to get involved in the political infighting.*  No word on who wins, but since the only one of the three candidates mentioned in the cast is Cogshill, I wouldn't bet against him.

*Sounds like a Monty Python sketch, doesn't it?  "Congressment Griffen, Corrupt Party, 683 votes.  Governor Sweeter, Ineffectual Party, 721 votes.  Mayor Cogshill, Groundswell Party, 839 votes."  As to which one is the Silly Party, I'll let you be the judge.

I'm only surprised none of the local stations had a movie like Yankee Doodle Dandy, but it's not a bad day of programming.

***

On the cover this week is none other than that Champagne Music Maker himself, Lawrence Welk.  Throughout the years, people invariably refer to Lawrence Welk as a "grandparents" show, and that only old people watch it.  That certainly was the case in our household, but the thing of it is that the old people of today - the people who watch the show on PBS stations throughout the country - are the just a bit older than I was when the show was in its heyday.  In other words, today's fans are the very ones who ridiculed it when it was on network TV.  Could it be something in the water?

Bob Johnson's article calls Welk "an unchanging leader in a fast-changing musical world," and I think that's as good an explanation as any for his enduring popularity.  Even in 1960 Welk was ridiculed by many ("The type of music seems to antagonize the young people," according to an employee at the Aragon Ballroom in Venice, California, where Welk and his orchestra regularly play, "sometimes to the point where we have to ask them to leave."  Welk's on-air demeanor can be even stiffer than Ed Sullivan's, but, like Sullivan, it's part of his charm.  When Welk told his TV consultant Don Fedderson (The Millionaire, My Three Sons, Family Affair) that he'd rather have someone else read the announcements, fellow South Dakotan Fedderson told him that his announcements "were what people were what people watched the show for."

Welk, who once had two hour-long shows on ABC certainly doesn't need the money from TV.  His weekly performances at the Aragon, where he drew 225,000 paying customers in 1959, earn him a minimum of $5,000 a weekend (New Year's Eve can pull in as much as $12,000), far more than the $55,000 he gets for the TV show.  No, it seems as if the primary motivation for Welk is the audience itself.  During rehearsals he spends his time not in front of the camera but in the front row, hobnobbing with his fans.  "He laughs, jokes and dances with an ease he admits he can't achieve on TV," Johnson writes.  "Without close personal contact with my audience," Welk says, "I just wouldn't be anything."

Lawrence Welk was something, for more years than almost any television host.  His network program ran from 1955 to 1971 (he started on local TV in Los Angeles in 1951), and in first-run syndication until 1982.  Reruns of the show continue on PBS.  It is quite a story - an American story, one might say.  And on Independence Day week, why not?

***

We've taken a good look at Monday; let's see some of the highlights from the rest of the week.

On Saturday, we have another episode of Ernie Kovacs' ill-advised game show, Take a Good Look.  I'm not saying the show was bad; no show with Kovacs can be completely without merit.  It's just that a game show is so wrong for Kovacs' brand of bizarre humor.  Unfortunately, Ernie's bizarre methods of finance led to a large lien from the IRS, which resulted in his being forced to take on programs like this.  Tonight's panel includes wife Edie, Hans Conried, and Cesar Romero, which is pretty promising.  Couldn't find that particular episode on YouTube, but here's the show from a couple of weeks later for you to judge for yourself.  OK, maybe it's just an excuse to show Kovacs, but still  - Kovacs!


You know how sometimes TV Guide, especially in this time period, uses some very generic titles for programs?  Well, on Sunday we have one of the most generic: Mystery Show, which I have to think must have had a sponsor's name or something attached to it.  It's a mystery anthology, and tonight's episode is "Murder Me Nicely," with Everett Sloane as a jealous teacher plotting to wreck a successful young student's life.

*Yes, I just checked: it was The Chevy Mystery Show.  Still pretty generic if you ask me.  It was made in color; I wonder if the opening titles were black and yellow?

On Tuesday, it's the precursor of today's CSI shows: Diagnosis: Unknown*, starring Patrick O'Neal as Dr. Daniel Coffee, a a big-city pathologist who solves mysteries with "an eye peering through a microscope."  He's joined by Chester Morris, who came to fame as crime-fighter Boston Blackie, playing helpful police lieutenant Ritter, and the always-cute Phyllis Newman as his "pretty lab technician" Doris.  It's the summer replacement for The Garry Moore Show.

*Like CSI, a product of CBS.  Again: coincidence?

Also on Tuesday but on ABC, an episode of One Step Beyond (or as the listing here has it, Alcoa Presents) entitled "The Day the World Wept," which I just happened to see the other day myself.  It's a very interesting dramatization of the premonitions people around the nation had of Lincoln's assassination - including, famously, Lincoln himself.

Friday's episode of The Twilight Zone is one of the series' most iconic: "Time Enough at Last," starring Burgess Meredith as the bookworm who survives a nuclear war only to break his glasses, leaving him unable to read his beloved books.

Earlier that evening, CBS has another episode of a series that I'll admit I've never heard of, Hotel de Paree, with Earl Holliman as a reformed gunfighter turned hotel owner.  An article elsewhere in this issue discusses Holliman's own dissatisfaction with the show - or perhaps puzzlement would be more appropriate.  He's turned down offers of other series that aren't as good, aren't as highly rated, but wind up with a longer shelf life than Paree.  The first few shows, he admits, were terrible; the quality subsequently improved, but not enough to save the show from the chopping block.  It'll run repeats throughout the summer, then disappear into the ether, like so many other failed series.

***

And now, since we still have a few days until the Fourth, here are those recipes that even men can make.  On our holiday menu: Chicken Casserole and Vegetable Compote, courtesy of Sue Lawler:


And here's the final product.  As Ernie Kovacs would say, take a good look.  If anybody tries this out, let us know!

June 26, 2015

Patrick Macnee, R.I.P.

Mrs. Peel may have gotten all the attention (and for good reason), but for my money John Steed was the irreplaceable member of The Avengers.  He was suave, sophisticated, stylish - oh, how he had style! Look up the word in the dictionary and you'll see John Steed's picture - and witty.  He would have made anyone an Anglophile.

The thing about John Steed, though - and there's always a thing - is that he didn't get where he was by accident.  One doesn't become a survivor in British intelligence by being a pushover.  Throughout the show's run, and particularly in the early years, there was a menace to Steed's manner that made it abundantly clear that this was not a man to be trifled with.  It was that edge, that constant threat of danger implied, that made the "Avenger" part of The Avengers ring true.

Yes, while Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson and even Joanna Lumley came and went*, there was one constant to The Avengers - Patrick Macnee.  And if John Steed was The Avengers and Patrick Macnee was John Steed - well, you see where I'm going there.

*And also Ian Hendry and Julie Stevens and Jon Rollason and Gareth Hunt, but the those four were the ones most remembered. 

Macnee was a veteran of stage and screen even before becoming John Steed, of course - look for his small but memorable role in Alistar Sims' version of A Christmas Carol, for instance - and he continued to work well after the end of The Avengers, but when people think of him they'll always go back to the man in the bowler who carried the umbrella and got to work with these incredible babes.  And while there are some heroes whose sex appeal escapes the viewer, you were never left wondering how it was that Steed was able to attract these incredible women.  He had every quality a woman would want, from a sense of humor to an indomitable self-assuredness.  He always took his work seriously, but not necessarily how he did it.  He truly was the man that every woman wanted and every man wanted to be like.  This article from The Telegraph tells you everything you'd need to know about how that made The Avengers work.

Macnee was the kind of actor you looked for as a guest star in other series, and when you ran across the name you made sure to watch the episode, even if you weren't a fan of the show itself.  He was a ship's captain in Columbo and a man who thought he was Sherlock Holmes in Magnum, P.I., and lent his voice to the Cylon leader in the original Battlestar Galactica (as well as doing the voiceover to the opening credits).  Whether playing the hero or the villain, he was a wonderful presence on screen, one that forced you to watch him.

And maybe that's why Patrick Macnee's death yesterday at the age of 93 stings.  Not because of death itself; anyone who lives to the ripe old age of 93 can be said to have had a good run.  Not because he won't be playing Steed anymore; thanks to modern technology those performances will be with us forever.  No, the reason his death creates an emptiness is because it quite literally leaves a void.  Think about it for a moment: who, today, could play the suave Steed?  Not Ray Fiennes, who tried in the movie version and failed.  Is there anyone out there with the blend of humor and menace, the smoothness without smarminess, the confidence without arrogance (not too much, anyway), the charm and sophistication?  Anyone?

I think not, but then the qualities that Patrick Macnee exemplified in the guise of John Steed, the qualities of his own personality that shone through his various roles over the years, is out of fashion everywhere.  Grunge and snark and slouching are in, while chivalry and manliness are yesterday's news.  And yet I prefer to think that there will always be a place for someone like John Steed; the question is, is there anyone out there up to the task?

To coin a phrase from The Avengers, one of its most famous:  Mr. Macnee, you're needed.

June 24, 2015

Now this is a TV Guide review!

I'm running a bit short on time today, but you'll want to have plenty of time to read through this terrific piece from the great James Lileks.  I like to think that I do a pretty good job with my Saturday articles, but it can be something of a crapshoot deciding what to write about and what to skip, what to link to and what to ignore.  Not so the great Lileks - enjoy!

June 22, 2015

What's on TV? Thursday, June 30, 1966

We're back in my comfort zone this week, with a look at the Minnesota State Edition of TV Guide.  As always, I have to limit the stations somewhat, since there are 16 of them in the issue, so you're getting the Twin Cities, plus some representative cities around the area.  Let's see what's up on the last day of June, 1966.

June 20, 2015

This week in TV Guide: June 25, 1966

How many times has this happened to you: you're driving through a strange town when your car breaks down.  While you're waiting for repairs, you have a run-in with one of the local punks, who just happens to be the son of one of the most important men in town.  Later on, the punk turns up dead, and guess who the prime suspect is?  You!

I don't know about you, but that's never happened to me.  I won't say that I don't expect it ever will, because that seems to be just the kind of person to whom it does happen.  At least that's the trope that's on display in this week's episode of Run For Your Life, starring Ben Gazzara as the doomed Paul Bryan, a man with only a few months (years?) to live.  We know Paul didn't do it, because he's the show's star; and we know he won't be convicted, because the show's called Run For Your Life and not You're Sentenced to Life.  So why even bother with a storyline like this?  Perhaps because it gives you a heavy you can really hate, or a heavy who reforms once he discovers the true meaning of life, or because it gives West Coast writers a chance to ridicule small-minded small-town America.  Your guess is as good as mine.  But with absolutely no prior knowledge of what I'm going to find, let's take a look through the listings and see if we can find any other TV cliches - or tropes, as they've come to be known - on the small screen this week.

Here's one, on Daniel Boone: "Daniel, the fort's best runner, sprains an ankle, which spells bad news for the settlers who have bet on him to win the hotly contested annual foot race with the Indians."  Yes: whenever I get sick or otherwise come up with some debilitating ailment, I always check the calendar, because I just know something important is about to happen.  Did you ever notice how you never see a listing like "Daniel sprains an ankle, and is grateful he doesn't have anything planned for the week"?  No, of course not - that doesn't make for very interesting television.  You'd have to add the sentence "And then one thing after another seems to pop up" to get a script out of it.

There's a rerun of Lee Marvin's M Squad latenight on Channel 5 that has another typical police story: "An ex-convict, suspected of murder, is about to commit suicide by leaping from a high window.  Ballinger races to get enough evidence to clear the man before he jumps to his death."  Will Ballinger get the evidence, and will it be in time?  What do you think?  "A man suspected of murder threatens suicide.  Ballinger looks into the case, but discovers the man really is guilty, and his death wouldn't change a thing."  Have you seen that lately?

The Big Valley offers a slight variation on the episode from Run For Your Life: "Gil Anders comes to the Barkley ranch looking for Heath and is shot from ambush by two bounty hunters, who claim he's wanted for murder."  This will, of course, come as a complete surprise to Gil, who has no idea why anyone would suspect him of murder.  Whether or not you think he's guilty of the crime depends on whether or not you think Barbara Stanwyck would let her son hang around with cold-blodded killers.  Heath's a lawyer, anyway, so he'll be sure to get Gil off.

In Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the Seaview takes on a couple of men adrift in a lifeboat, "unaware the they're rescued a pair of escaped convicts."  Because people are never what they seem to be.  Look for a scene where the radio operator gets a message about two convicts on the run, and the crew gradually put two and two together.  One of the escapees is Nehemiah Persoff, which means you get two tropes for the price of one since Persoff is never who or what he appears to be either, and if you ever run into him on a dark street you're right to feel uneasy.

Petticoat Junction has a storyline that's typical of what happens when misunderstandings occur:  "A feud between Charley and Floyd has sidetracked the Cannonball and paralyzed Hooterville Valley."  If you doubt the likelihood that the two train engineers will get their feud patched up by the end of the thirty minutes, you also probably think next week the train will be piloted by Arnold Ziffel.

On The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, "Harriet has been receiving a daily rose from a secret admirer."  Will this be the end of the Nelson's marriage?  Will we see Ozzie next week on Divorce Court, or Perry Mason, in "The Case of the Cantankerous Crooner"?  I'll bet there's a logical explanation for the whole thing, something that will be discovered in just under thirty minutes that will leave Ozzie feeling foolish, Harriet secretly pleased that Ozzie can still get jealous, and the whole family having a good laugh.

I could go on, but you get the point.  There are only a handful of original stories in existence; most people use the number seven, but that could be a cliche in and of itself.  And while some of them are commonplace, things that could happen to any of us, too many of them are like the one that Paul Bryan faces in Run For Your Life: ones that we scoff at for being so utterly absurd, and that keep us tuning in each week.

***

During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..

Sullivan: Scheduled guests: singer Jerry Vale; Metropolitan Opera soprano Birgit Nilsson; comics London Lee and Nancy Walker; the singing Swinging Lads; the comedy team of Stiller and Meara; ballerina Joyce Cuoco; the Arirang Ballet, Korean dance and instrumental group; the Yong Brothers, balancing act; and the Berosini Chimps..

Palace: Host Ray Bolger presents singer Kay Starr; jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, accompanied by 7-year-old drummer Jim Bradley; impressionist Rich Little; comedian Norm Crosby; escape artist Michael De La Vega; and the Five Amandis, teeterboard act.

As I was typing this, I thought to myself, "that Palace episode looked awfully familiar," and it turns out I was right:  I reviewed it back on July 9, 1966, two weeks after this issue.  It was a broadcast airing on a station that presented Palace on a delay - KCMT, the dreaded Channel 7 of my teenage years, which had a split affiliation and ran several ABC series on a delay of a week or two.  At that time it was going up against a Sullivan program that featured Ethel Merman, the Rolling Stones and Wayne Newton.  I gave it a push back then, and I'm tempted to do the same this week.  But even though Ed has Birgit Nilsson, one of the greatest opera stars who ever lived, the supporting cast for Palace is a little stronger: Kay Starr is as good as Jerry Vale, Norm Crosby is much funnier than Stiller and Meara (Anne Meara, of recently happy memory), and Lionel Hampton is a legend.  On that basis, the winner is Palace by a nose.

***

So Henry Steele Commager says television must reform itself or else.  To which you might ask, "or else what?", and who the hell is Henry Steele Commager anyway?

To answer the second question first, Commager was a noted historian, a champion of the Enlightenment, and a chronicler of modern liberalism.  Insofar as Commager defined what liberalism was, he could be seen as a liberal version of William F. Buckley, Jr.*  Commager's article is the fifth in TV Guide's ongoing series "assessing the effects of television on our society," which is a lot like the mission of this here blog.

*Who once wrote a letter to Commager asking if he had changed his middle name to "Steele" in admiration of Josef Stalin, the "Man of Steel."  It's that kind of cheekiness that I always admired in WFB.

Commager acknowledges the importance of television, calling it "the most important invention in the history of the communication of knowledge" since the inventions of the University and the printing press.  He believes it foolish to think that, as some people put it, the only changes left for television are technical ones, such as color vs. black and white; it is a young medium, he says, continuing to evolve, which means that this look at TV should be regarded as "an interim judgment."  And part of the problem that television faces is that, in its 25 years, it hasn't quite figured out what it should be.

Commager from an early '50s TV interview
Arguably it should be a medium devoted to serving the public interest, as is set out in the FCC act of 1934.  And, as Commager points out, there are enough money-making enterprises out there that television shouldn't have to be one of them; "all the important contributions are to be made to the commonwealth, not the private wealth."  The rub, so to speak, is that television as an industry is controlled by "men without vision or imagination in anything other than their major interests - manufacturing, marketing and finance."  Yes, and it's probably also true that only men with those kinds of interests would have had the wherewithal to create the mighty networks that exist in 1966. Based on this assessment, it would seem as if the question Commager asks - is TV a form of entertainment and information, or is it a form of education similar to the University and the Foundation - has a self-ordained answer.  Yes, he concedes, it can be both, but "who can doubt that the proportions are badly mixed?"  And while the men who run television boast of their independence from government control, they say very little about "independence where it really counts" - freedom from the advertisers who "determine policy and content."

So we're faced with an argument that we've read and heard many times - it is the drive for profit, and the resulting lowest-common-denominator programming that results - that is responsible for the quality (or lack thereof) of television.  Television, Commager laments, has failed utterly in the realm of education: "it neither transmits the knowledge of the past to the next generation, nor contributes to professional training, nor does it expand the boundaries of knowledge."  It has no professional standards and practices.  What "meager" contributions it has made in these areas has been more than offset by "its contributions to noneducation and to the narrowing of intellectual horizons."

As it happens, I can agree with Commager on much of this.  But the question remains: what is one to do about it?  We've created a public broadcasting station that is supposed to be independent of pressures created by ratings and advertising dollars, but in its effort to solicit direct financial contributions from viewers - which would be the purest way of judging a network's ability to connect with the public - it is forced to rely on the basest form of crowd-pleasing shows, with virtually no attention to the educational and cultural forces which we were assured would result from its creation.

Commager's answer to this, not surprisingly given his ideological bent, is government control, specifically an empowering of the FCC.  Were television to be treated like any other utility, it would have to constantly show the ways in which it serves the public interest, lest it lose its license.  An FCC reconstituted in this manner would have "authority to make findings and impose decisions with respect to such matters as content and advertising, and to refuse to license stations which fail to devote themselves to the public interest."  Again, the problem with this is that Commager fails to appreciate that at least a part of the "public interest" consists of what the public is interested in.  With this attitude, television soon becomes a kind of medicine that people dread taking, even though they're being told that it's good for them.  And by allowing a commission - one with political appointments, no doubt, and how could anything possibly go wrong with that? - rather than the public to choose what should be broadcast, how does one truly find out the pulse of the viewers?

This much is clear: Commager is leery at best, and opposed and worst, to the idea of private ownership of television broadcasting.  It may be the norm here, he states, but not in the rest of the world.  Which, one would suppose, is why there's such a call for American television programs in the rest of the world, right?  Or why the shows imported from Britain so closely resemble ones being shown here.  Henry Steele Commager is not a stupid man, but he's something like a lumbering ox, an easy target.  He makes some very good points about the problems and challenges of television, but like so many, fails to come up with many answers.  I can't really fault him for that, either, though - after all, you don't see many coming from me, do you?

***

On the other hand, For the Record gives us a speech by Edwin Bayley, VP of National Educational Television (NET), who says that money for educational television should come neither from federal nor state government.  Once you get government involved in funding, Bayley says, "the inclination is to dictate program content."  He cites various civil rights programs that were rejected by educational television stations in the South due to worries "they would offend state legislatures that had provided them with funds."  The preferred source for funding, according to Bayley, is "foundations, industry and business."

Not much to see in the Teletype sections this week, other than a note that "ABC's daytime show Confidential for Women goes off the air July 8.  It'll be replaced by The Newlywed Game."  We all know how that turned out.  CBS has a new Peanuts cartoon planned for around Halloween, and hopes that It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown will have some of the success of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

The fortunes of dramatic programming ebb and flow in TV Guide, depending on what year you read.  This year it's a bull market for drama, with ABC talking about a monthly Sunday Night at the Theatre in addition to Stage 67.  NBC is producing a version of "Othello," while CBS, basking in the glow from their critically acclaimed production of "Death of a Salesman," looks to duplicate the results with "The Crucible" and "The Glass Menagerie," which wind up airing on CBS Playhouse.  Just wait a year or two, and the tide will turn again.

"Unlike the U.S. House and Senate," the British House of Lords is considering bringing television cameras in to the chamber.  They've agreed to a trial run, over the objections of Lord Balfour, who memorably observed that televising the Lords (which would invariably lead to cameras in the House of Commons as well) might cause viewers to look at the House "rather as a zoo, and frankly I do not think the public would like all the exhibits."  As he said this, notes TV Guide, "at least two members were asleep, and several front-benchers were hunched down in their seats, their feet wedged against the tables opposite them."  Good thing that would never happen in this country.

***

We're in the summer rerun season now, and it's quite possible the stories for the next couple of months might be shorter, concentrating on fewer topics.  There's not a lot to be gained from reviewing a rerun, and I've written about many of the summer replacement shows in the past, so I may wind up with two- or three-topic stories from time to time, a bit of a change from what we're used to.  On the other hand, I may not - the only way you'll know for sure is to keep tuning in.