August 1, 2015

This week in TV Guide: August 5, 1967

It's another "second-look" week; this issue was first perused here a couple of years ago.  But in case you're thinking of giving today a pass, don't: I promise it's all-new material, never before seen by the eyes of you dear readers.  Unless, that is, you've got the issue as well.

***

When I was flipping through the pages, looking for something of note, the first thing I noticed was the number of ads for local news programs.  Some of them are quite professional; others have a charming homemade quality about them.  Let's start there.

First, there's the vertical ad at the rightfrom KGLO for Tom Anthony's sports show.  Unlike the other stations in the area, KGLO's 10pm news runs 40 minutes, and Anthony's ten-minute wrap-up is the capper to the nighttime news.

One of the biggest changes in the social media area concerns sports, and for people who've been raised in this era, it may be hard to believe how much a part of the local news sports used to be.  It was the viewer's source for the latest in scores and highlights, not only from a local standpoint but nationally as well.  Some local sportscasters were very good, others - well, we'll leave it at that.  Don't think I've ever seen Tom Anthony, so I'm not going to comment on him.

Next there's an ad for the ABC affiliate in Duluth, WDIO.  This definitely falls under the "charming, homemade" category.  Local news takes itself so seriously, even when it's trying to be folksy, it's hard to imagine something like this today.


On the other end of the spectrum, Rochester's KIRO features their lead newscaster Bob Warren, looking very much like the young, very serious Peter Jennings, even though KROC is an NBC affiliate.  No nonsense here, though.


When I was growing up, the traditional local news times were noon, six and ten.*  I don't even know if most local stations continue to have noon news programs, but this series of three ads from KSTP in Minneapolis (one shown each day) shows how seriously they took their local news.  You'll notice viewers are reminded this news is in color.

*Not to be confused with Dr. Pepper's 10-2-4 slogan.


KMSP, the ABC affiliate in the Twin Cities, is one of the first to go with co-anchors on the local news.  Their ad is small but makes up for it in quantity, running several times in the pages.  They also emphasize the hard-news approach as well as the colorcast.


KAUS in Albert Lea gives you good cause (pun intended) to check out their news.  It's also cutting-edge -  I mean, they have their fingers on the pulse of the news, and it looks so high-tech!


My old home station, KCMT in Alexandria, offers this serious take on the weather.  Living in that part of Minnesota, weather is a very important quantity - from blizzards in the winter to tornadoes in the summer, it pays to have someone dedicated to bringing you the latest information.  And Bob Hines assures you the weather's no laughing matter!


Here's this week's obligatory ad for TV Guide; kids (no longer limited to boys) delivering TV Guide to your home are now called TV Guide Young Merchants!


And here's the ad that appeared in the center of TV Guide.  It was always on stiff paper, with a perforated reply coupon that you could send in for records, books, model rockets and the like.  I always ripped it out first thing so the pages would lay flat (still do that with magazines), but thankfully the original owner of this issue left it intact.  It's for one of those infamous Time-Life book sets.


No ad for WCCO, the news leader in the Twin Cities.  Possibly because they didn't need it, they were so far ahead in the ratings?  Or were they preparing a new ad campaign for The Scene Tonight, which would debut early the next year?

***

Bad news for ABC: they've just moved into a glossy new headquarters in anticipation of government approval for their proposed merger with ITT.  However, the Justice Department's just moved to block the merger, and eventually the whole thing falls apart.  One possible victim of the cost-cutting that's suddenly taken hold at ABC: gavel-to-gavel coverage of next year's Republican and Democratic conventions.  Instead, the network will go with a nightly highlights package.  This accomplished two things: first, it made possible the memorable series of debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal; two, it set the model for the condensed coverage that continues to this day.  Let us now hoist a glass in honor of ITT, which helped make this reduction possible.

There's an article about Sigrid Valdis, also known as Helga on Hogan's Heroes.  She's grateful for the work, but a little frustrated as well; her typical line consists of "Herr Kommandant, Colonel Hogan to see you."  She'd like something a little more challenging, and indirectly she'll find it in her often-stormy eight-year marriage to Hogan himself, Bob Crane.

Finally, there's a profile of Roger Moore, formerly of Maverick, currently in The Saint, and the future James Bond.  In a few weeks I'll be writing about The Saint as part of the Friday night viewing lineup, but what makes The Saint work is Roger Moore, and what makes Moore work is his unusually self-deprecating assessment of his own talent.  He's had a significant career, he allows, "if there is any significance to mediocrity."  Lest you think he might be talking about the shows he's starred in, he continues, "I'm probably not a very good actor."  Of his time in Hollywood, he says, "My luck held out, too, until the studios found out I couldn't act very well."  His humility about his talent extends even to being humble about being humble; while a friend says he truly lacks vanity, he says it's more a case of lacking confidence.

Whatever the reason, what marks Moore's time as The Saint, and later on James Bond, is his refusal to take it all so seriously, combined with the underlying sense of menace often demonstrated by his characters, one that tells you this is a man not to be fooled around with.  The twinkle in the eye along with the steel in the backbone mark Roger Moore as a truly remarkable actor, one who has parlayed his supposed lack of talent into a very long, very successful career, leaving in his wake a legion of very happy fans.  And that's not a bad career, is it?

July 31, 2015

TV you can hold in your hand!

This Sony ad says their is the television of the '70s, and we have no reason to doubt it.  Thinking back to the huge consoles that were typical in the early days, followed by the sensation of the "portable" television,the idea that you could hold a TV in your hand must have been unthinkable.

Imagine now that you had been told you would have a device that you could literally hold in the palm of your hand, not much bigger than a wallet.  You could watch TV on it, but you could also use it as a calendar or a map.  You could control things like the lights in your house, even if you were miles away.  You could look up things on it, as if it were a very small "computer."  You could even use it as a telephone!

How much farther can the future go?  There's the Apple Watch.  There's Google Glass.   What's next?

In the '60s, seeing the technology of the '70s was to behold the awe and wonder of technology.  The technology of the early 21st Century was something for cartoons like The Jetsons.  Considering how exponentially we've advanced since then - what will make us look back at the inventions of today and laugh?

July 29, 2015

Sitcoms with a message

The Sitcom Class Wars: The 20th Century, by Ray Starman, The Troy Book Makers, 208 pages, $15.95

In the long history of television, the preferred method of communicating social change is and always has been the sitcom.  From the Cold War era, when shows from The Honeymooners to The Goldbergs were used to demonstrate how America was indeed the land of opportunity, to All in the Family and The Jeffersons, programs that conveyed messages of racial and social equality, to contemporary series that deal with issues ranging from homosexuality to divorce, from death to disabilities, from the strength of the American household to the disintegration of the nuclear family, and spanning the economic divide from the wealthiest professionals to the earthiest blue-collar couples, it is the situation comedy that has best dealt with those most serious topics.

This is one constant.  The second is that the sitcom thrives on conflict, allowing these opposing viewpoints (whether taken seriously or not) to be aired out, often loudly and with great emotion, but also subtly and with regret.  The conflict is often generational, occurring within a family, but it can also be within an office, in a neighborhood, or in the middle of a WWII prisoner-of-war camp.  The venue of conflict adds an extra dimension, one of strata, pitting the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the employer and the employee, the conformist and the rebel.  It is, one way or another, a class war.

The format of the sitcom is perfect for such discussion: non-threatening, short enough (at 22 minutes) to keep an individual story from becoming too complicated, with a likable individual or family at the center, and leavened with humor to keep from becoming overly proselytizing.  This is not to say that dramas have ignored social issues or conflict.  The risk inherent,  however, was obvious - dramas too easily can wind up as depressing, sanctimonious, prone to very low ratings and very strong pressure from advertisers, or some combination of all four.  Is it any wonder, then, that the sitcom has become the lens through which America's class wars are observed?

Which is why a book such as Ray Starman's latest, The Sitcom Class Wars: The 20th Century is such a valuable asset to anyone interested in following the evolution of such discussions.  Taking an brief, objective look at sitcoms from the earliest post-World War II era to the present day, The Sitcom Class Wars explains how each of these shows captured the feel of a particular part of American social culture, portraying various aspects of the American experience, and how the class wars of the day played out within the show itself.  For example, in The Goldbergs, one of the earliest ethnic sitcoms, we see the glories of assimilation, as a Jewish family struggles (in a gentle, humorous way) with children casting off the old customs in favor of a new, uniquely American way of life.  We  also see firsthand how life in the city shapes the family (Starman points out that this was one of the first shows to specifically feature an urban, rather than suburban or rural, lifestyle), and how they deal with the new and unique challenges of the post-war era.  This gives us a vital understanding of post-war culture, and shows us the blueprint for family sitcoms of the future.

Starman makes some very astute observations as he surveys the sitcom landscape, often giving an additional level of gravitas to shows that today are taken more for nostalgic or sentimental value.  He calls Leave It to Beaver "smarter than it looked" in the way it took the two children, Wally and the Beaver, through the maze of adolescence and into the minefield of adult expectations, knowing what was expected of them but not quite understanding why.  Lost in the criticism of the show as corny or cute is that the dialogue was often witty and clever.  In The Dick Van Dyke Show, Starman illustrates the double-edged sword that was upper-middle class Rob Petrie's life.  Rob's next-door neighbor Jerry, a dentist, can afford to lose a patient or two without seriously endangering his practice; Rob, on the other hand, risks being out of work for a week or a year if The Alan Brady Show goes off the air.  While the Petries live the upper-middle-class lifestyle, complete with ranch house and mid-furnishings in the suburbs, his position - and their status in that class - is far more vulnerable than some.

By the time we get to The Jeffersons, we see the various American class wars played out in all their messy, glorious  variety.  There is the racial divide, obviously, with George Jefferson still trying to prove himself after all these years; though he has become a successful businessman, with a home filled with expensive objects meant to send the message that "I've made it," he still carries a chip on his shoulder, still with something to prove to others or himself, without any real ability to appreciate the very objects he's accumulated.  He has a son with a completely different outlook on life, a maid who shows him no respect whatsoever, a wife taller (and more level-headed than he is), and for all his success remains, as Starman says, "a stranger in a strange land."

The last entry in Starman's book is The King of Queens, and by that time we've had a full survey of the sitcom landscape, with the various inner conflicts from each show representing America in a microcosm.  The good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the successes and the failures; they're all here to see, each one of them telling multiple stories from their own little worlds that unite to present the larger story of the nation as a whole.

This book can be read either from cover to cover, allowing the reader to look at the evolution over time of the class wars and their place in the national discussion, or as a reference guide that can be used to check out your favorite shows or eras.  There will be different ways in which one can interpret Starman's examples and theses as well; should you read this book, you might look at it in an entirely different way than I have, and challenge my assertions as to what Starman is trying to say.  But however you choose to do it, The Sitcom Class Wars is a book that belongs in your library if you're interested in how the sitcom serves as the mirror that America holds up to itself.

July 27, 2015

What's on TV? Sunday, July 29, 1962

Back home again in Indiana this week, with stops in Champaign, Fort Wayne, Terre Haute, Muncie and Lafayette augmenting the main listings from Indianapolis.  One thing I noticed is that many of the programs that pop up on public TV in Minneapolis-St. Paul during these days are seen on commercial TV in this issue, since at this point there aren't any public stations in the viewing area.  You'll see more of what I mean as we get into it.

July 25, 2015

This week in TV Guide: July 28, 1962

I't an interesting issue this week, as good as any at showing how some things have changed over time, and how hard it might be for us to appreciate what those things were like, back then.  And, as is frequently the case, we turn to sports to demonstrate some of those changes.

For example, two baseball All-Star Games?  Yes indeed; as sportswriter Melvin Durslag explains, for the last four years Major League Baseball has put its stars on display twice a year.  Although the fans enjoy seeing baseball's best face-off to determine league supremacy, the reason behind the game has always been to fund the players' pension fund, and starting in 1959, a second game was added to boost the fund.  This year's first game was played on July 10 in Washington, D.C., and the second game is scheduled for this Monday at Wrigley Field in Chicago.  The managers remain the same, and with the exception of a few additional players, so are the rosters.

The twice-a-year format has gotten mixed reviews at best; while the revenue is appreciated, players are concerned about the increased possibility of injury.  Fans seem to be tiring of it as well: 1960's second game, at Yankee Stadium, drew less than 40,000.*  As for the future, the National League favors playing two, while the American has reservations.  There seems to be a sense, though, that the days of two All-Star Games may be numbered.

*Remember that the games were still played in daytime back then.  Additionally, with the departure of the Dodgers and Giants, New York really wasn't all that great a baseball town.  

In fact, the doubters are right.  After Monday's game, televised by NBC at 12:45pm ET and won by the Americans 9-4, the Midsummer Classic will return to one game, where it remains to this day.  And with the explosion of televised baseball and the advent of interleague play, the game seems to carry less fan interest than ever.

***

The All-Star Game was created by Chicago Tribune sportswriter Arch Ward, as part of the 1933 Chicago "Century of Progress" World's Fair.  Ward was the brainchild behind another all star format, one designed to benefit the Tribune charities: an annual game matching the NFL champions and a collection of all-stars from the last season's college football seniors.

Thus was born the College All-Star football game, which kicked off for the first time in 1934 and will be played for the 29th time Friday night at 9pm ET on ABC, live from Soldier Field in Chicago.  The concept probably sounds absurd today: pitting a team of professional champions against college seniors, no matter how good those rookies may be, gives every indication of a mismatch.  And yet such was not the case for the first few years, when pro football was not yet the giant it is today, and the college game was still the more glamorous and popular of the two.  The Stars more than held their own for those first years, winning six of the first 17 contests (with two ties) and often keeping the score close in the years in which they lost.

This year's game pits an all-star team led by future pro stars Roman Gabriel, John Hadl, Lance Alworth, Merlin Olson, and Heisman winner Ernie Davis against the Green Bay Packers, coming off a 37-0 destruction of the New York Giants in the 1961 NFL Championship and featuring a roster with an astounding 10 future Hall of Famers, including Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Forrest Gregg, Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley, Willie Davis, Jim Ringo, Willie Wood and Henry Jordan.  With that kind of talent, it's no surprise that the Packers easily best the All-Stars, winning 42-20.

It's a microcosm of the game's future.  The All-Stars will win only one more game, upsetting the same Packers the following year 20-17.  Although the Stars put up surprisingly spirited games against the New York Jets in 1969 (losing 26-24), the undefeated Miami Dolphins in 1973 (a tough 14-3 struggle) and the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1975 (leading in the fourth quarter before losing 21-14), too many of the games are mismatches.  The NFL has increased worries about their star rookies being injured before the beginning of the season and the players themselves voice concerns about money.  After a 24-0 route of the Stars by the Steelers in 1976, in a game called in the 3rd quarter due to heavy rain, the annual matchup disappears, never to be played again.

It's too bad.  As a kid I always looked forward to this game, one of the few night games on television, and on a Friday night to boot.  With the exception of the years when the Packers played, I loved rooting for the underdog college stars, always hoping for that one year when they would shake up the pros.  It was, between the years when the old Chicago Cardinals departed for St. Louis and when the Bears vacated Wrigley Field, the only game played at Soldier Field.  It was an event, a game with its own charm and atmosphere, and its departure, like the watering down of baseball's All-Star Game, leaves something of a void in at least one sports fan's life.

***

One more sports note before we go on to another farewell.  Or actually, I guess this could fall into that category as well.  It's CBS' Saturday afternoon Game of the Week between the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees, from Yankee Stadium.  It's preceded by a 90-minute broadcast of one of the Yankees' great traditions: Old Timers' Day.  They still do this in New York, and it's still a great tradition though it's not carried on national television anymore, which is a pity.

Looking at the lineup for the three-inning game is like flipping through the record books: Joe DiMaggio, Lefty Grove, Hank Greenberg, Bob Feller, Jackie Robinson, Dizzy Dean.  Many of these players were relatively recently retired, and so they were still able to actively participate in the game.  What a treat that was, back when baseball was still the national pastime and giants still roamed the earth.

***

In an issue from last year, we read a profile of Gardner McKay, star of Adventures in Paradise.  At the time, McKay freely admitted "I'm no real actor," and the discussion continues this week, now that his series has been cancelled.  "I read a lot about my so-called 'quality,' he says.  'Let me tell you, in Hollywood when an actor is needed but not understood, it is suddenly discovered he has "quality."  The minute he is no longer needed he is dismissed as a nut.'"

Although McKay sounds bitter, confused would probably be a better word for it.  About the tendency of people to refer to him as an "enigma," he replies "That means perplexing, baffling, a person who talks in riddles.  It's true I don't have a disciplined mind, my thoughts do tend to wander, but I have always said what I think as best I could.  You know, for three years I have been castigated by the press for not saying what they want me to say.  I am sick of it."

In fact, McKay - who frankly has more going for him than acting; he is also a writer, a sculptor and a photographer - is fed up with the whole Hollywood scene:  "I hate television series, uniforms of any kind, agents, business, the practice of law, career women and Hollywood - which isn't really a place but a state of mind that has to be corrected if any measure of contentment is to be achieved."  So why is he still around?  His reply is honest and frank: "Because I don't have the guts to get out and because nobody has offered me $150,000 a year to go and search my soul elsewhere."

The Gardner McKay story has always revolved around his handsome features rather than his acting chops; Life magazine once called him "A New Apollo."  Actor Herbert Marshall said "His rare quality is being attractive to both men and women.  And compared with other TV actors, his ability to act is about average."  Regarding his ability, McKay complains, "Maybe I'm not the greatest actor in the world, but nobody has given me much help to improve.  I had a long line of directors who were more concerned with keeping the front office happy than working with the actors.  When I suggested acting lessons, I was told to forget it because it would make me even more introspective."  No wonder he felt the way he did.

Soon McKay will be gone from the acting ranks completely, by his own choice.  As we know from last year's piece, his second life as a novelist and playwright will be far more satisfying.

***

So what about this week's cover?  It actually tells not one, but two stories.  The first tells how being a game show host can mean big bucks for those who have the knack of "fast talk, good looks and some secret ingredients."  In fact, the best in the business can pull down as much as $150,000 a year, "which seems rather high pay for simply being pleasant."  But as Mark Goodson, one of the major domos of Goodson-Todman, remarks, the game show host - or emcee, as they prefer to be known - has to have specific qualities: they must be talkers, men who can "keep right on talking for as long as he has to - and enjoy it."  He has to be able to listen, rather than simply think about what they're going to do next; Goodson sites the story of an emcee who asked a woman what her husband did, was told that he was dead, and responded with a hearty "Fine!"  He also has to be friendly, and be able to communicate it genuinely to both contestants and viewers at home.  Then there are the secondary qualities such as timing, thinking quickly on his feet, and being a good "traffic cop."

The second article tells the story of Barbara Benner, who as a contestant on Bill Cullen's The Price Is Right won nearly $14,000 in prizes.  And at first it was pretty thrilling, until reality set in.  Her haul included a 21-foot Century Coronado worth $7,624, but that was the first to go: "We couldn't afford the insurance and we couldn't even get down to the shore often enough to use it."  Next to go was a dining room breakfront valued at $1,500; "it's Early American.  I have Danish modern."  She won 23 pieces of garden furniture, but only has room for a few pieces; she also scored with 1500 cartons of Sealtest lemonade and 100 4-pound bolognas and a giant barbecue ($1,380) - her comment on that was "who on earth needs to roast 40 chickens at a time?"  She had to sell that as well.

What is the result of Barbara Benner's big win on Price?  So far, she's sold the boat, barbecue, lawn furniture and a set of Royal Worcester china; the breakfront hasn't had any takers yet.  Sealtest gave her a $100 credit on her milk bill and paid her $200 for the lemonade, and her sister helped sell the bologna for $180.  All in all, she's made $7,130 from her winnings, a little over half of their worth.  But that's actually good news; "Out of the boat money, we got enough to pay all the taxes" on the prizes, and she and her husband were able to purchase a couple of modest cars, an electric dryer, some clothes, and some nice dinners.  They'll wind up with about $1,000 in the bank, and hope some day to take a cruise.

The lesson then, as now, is that not all is what it seems on game shows.  Paying tax on your prizes means many people have to sell some or all of their winnings, and unless you've got a cooperative prize supplier (which many are, nowadays), you might find all that glitters is not gold.

***

There are some very good movies on the tube this week; let's take a look at some of them, along with the rest of the week's highlights.

On Saturday, Indianapolis' WLW-i, Channel 13, has The Thin Man, the classic comedy-mystery starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles.  It's the first of six in the series, and in many ways the best.  Incidentally, for those of you who haven't seen it, the Thin Man is not William Powell's Nick, but the victim of the movie's central murder.  It's a wonderfully fun movie, and it will make you jealous that you can't come up with quips as quickly as these characters can.

Sunday, ABC's Hollywood Special movie is the Agatha Christie mystery Witness for the Prosecution, with a magnificent cast including Charles Laughton (who received his final Oscar nomination for the role), Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Elsa Lanchester.  Perry Mason notwithstanding, this is the courtroom drama against which all others are measured.

We're in that period of limbo between the time Jack Paar left The Tonight Show and Johnny Carson took over, so the show's featured guest hosts until Carson's October 1 start date.  On Monday, Merv Griffin is back for the week, his second stint as host; I've heard that NBC brass, aware of the critical praise for Griffin's shows and nervous about Carson's ability to keep the audience, seriously debated going with Merv before sticking with Johnny.  Don't know whether or not that's true, but in any event I don't think they had anything to worry about.  He's going head-to-head against Steve Allen's syndicated talker, positioned to take advantage of any stumble Carson might make as host of Tonight.

On Tuesday, CBS presents a repeat of "Carnegie Hall Salutes Jack Benny," a special from last year.  Benny's violin playing was a running joke, but he could actually play - not spectacularly, but certainly better than I can.  It's a salute because of the money Benny has raised in benefit concerts for musicians, and also because of the work he and friend Isaac Stern did to save Carnegie from Robert Moses' wrecking ball.  Fittingly, Stern is one of the guests on the show, along with Benny Goodman and his sextet, pianist Van Cliburn, opera star Roberta Peters, and conductor Eugene Ormandy leading the Philadelphia Orchestra.  What a lineup!  Here's an excerpt:


Armstrong Circle Theater was different from other dramatic anthology series of the time in that it tended to focus on docudramas and other stories having to do with current events.  This Wednesday's show is no exception, as Arthur Hill and Lydia Bruce star in "Battle of Hearts," a story of how marriage counselors work to save marriages from ending in divorce.  The series is hosted by Ron Cochran, who later in the year will find himself the anchor of the ABC Evening News.

It's movie time again on Thursday, with Indianapolis' WTTV showing the John Wayne classic She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.  Up against that, CBS presents a unique news special - a one hour discussion between two of the great writers of the era, Pulitzer Prize winners and old friends Archibald MacLeish and Mark Van Doren.*  What a discussion that must have been.

*Fun facts: MacLeish, according to the always-reliable Wikipedia, is the great-uncle of Bruce Dern, which makes him great-great-uncle to Laura Dern.  Van Doren's son, Charles Van Doren, achieved a sizable amount of television fame for reasons we all know.

Finally, the end of the week, and Friday's best, other than the All-Star Game, might well be the CBS western Rawhide, which at this point still stars Eric Fleming as trail boss Gil Favor, but the real star of the show is Rowdy Yates, best-known for bringing to prominence one Clint Eastwood.  You probably knew that, though.  The theme song was also pretty well-known, but then you probably knew that too.