December 31, 2011

New Year's Eve, 1965

Those of us of a certain age remember seeing Guy Lombardo ring in the New Year from New York, usually on CBS. If you're a little younger, you probably grew up watching Dick Clark and his New Year's Rockin' Eve on ABC. Easy enough, because neither of those networks had regular late-night programming on a consistant basis.

Nowadays, NBC has its own show, with Carson Daly. But for many years the peacock network stuck with its regular programming - that is to say, Johnny Carson and the Tonight Show. Johnny didn't do a regular New Year's special per se, but especially during the years when he broadcast from New York, he'd cut away as the clock approached midnight to provide live coverage from Times Square. Here's a rare clip from New Year's Eve 1965, as Johnny goes to (I believe) Ben Grauer to watch the ball drop. (Note how the studio broadcast is in color, but the live remote is still black and white.) Frankly, from the looks of this footage, I think they'd already been celebrating back at the studio.

2011 has not been a great year, and there's a lot of apprehension about 2012 - the economy, the state of the nation at home, tensions overseas, the election. It's somewhat poignant listening to Ben talking about 1965 and all that had happened, particularly the escalation of the war in Vietnam, and his hopes that 1966 will be better. In fact, I thought as I watched this, the worst was yet to come - even more war, even more drugs, even more death, MLK, RFK, riots, and more. John Lindsay, the new mayor of New York, will turn out to be a disaster, and it will take the city until the time of Rudy Giulianni to return to its former glory. Carson himself will leave New York for Hollywood in a few years.

Tonight we hope that 2012 will be a better year. Personally, I think that it will - at least, let's hope that 2012 will be kinder to us than the end of the 1960s was to that crowd in Times Square on New Year's Eve, 1965.

December 29, 2011

TV Guide: New Year's Day, 1961

Back in the day, New Year's meant four things: Guy Lombardo at night, hangovers in the morning, the Rose Parade, and college football.

People change, and times change. Guy Lombardo has long since gone to his eternal reward, but the hangovers are still around. The Rose Parade is now in HD, probably soon to be 3D. The big sporting event now is an outdoor hockey game, and although the bowls are still going, the big game doesn't come along until a couple of weeks later.

So let's take a glimpse at what New Year's Day used to look like.  Welcome to New Year's Day, 1961.

The first thing you'll notice is that they seem to be celebrating New Year's on January 2. That's because the 1st fell on a Sunday, as it will this weekend, and traditionally the parades and games are moved to Monday.



Imagine what it must have been like to watch the Rose Parade in black-and-white.  Yet that's the way it was throughout the 50s; NBC, the pioneer in color broadcasting, is the only place you'll see the flowers in living color in 1961.  And don't forget to send in your order for those lifelike plastic roses.


Ah, Bess Myerson. The former Miss America was a sophisticated beauty, and a staple on game shows such as I've Got a Secret.  Bess Myerson alone might have been enough to make up for ABC's black-and-white coverage.


At this point in time, there were only four football games on January 1 (or January 2, in this case), and most of them overlapped: the Orange Bowl at 11:45, the Sugar Bowl an hour later, the Cotton Bowl at 2:30, and the Rose Bowl, the granddaddy of them all, at 3:45.  There were no night games, which is a big difference compared to today.  But the biggest difference, which football fans will notice immediately, is in who plays in these games.


The Orange Bowl, of course, was the first of the bowl games to go prime-time, two or three years after this game was played.  It's been a long time since either Missouri and Navy were New Year's Day contenders, but there's a good reason for Navy to be there: Joe Bellino, the Heisman Trophy winner, is their star running back.  A future Heisman winner, Roger Staubach, will be quarterbacking them the next three years.

 
For many years the Sugar Bowl labored under a self-imposed handicap: New Orleans, one of the most racially segregated cities in the country, was somewhat less than inviting to integrated teams.  Hence, the majority of Sugar Bowl participants came from the South, and for that reason, the Sugar had a tendency to pick more unlikely teams than the other bowls.  And for today's football fan, they wouldn't be much more unlikely than Rice Institue.  They seldom appear in bowls nowadays, but at one time Rice was a pretty good team, as their 1960 record of 7-3 would indicate.  They would lose this game 14-6, however.

   
In fact, perhaps the only team unlikelier than Rice is Duke.  Duke! Yes, the team that year-in, year-out has one of the worst records in college football, was a powerhouse in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Even in 1960, they were 7-2. And they'd come out on top here as well, beating the Razorbacks 7-6.


Well, maybe there's one other team even more unlikely than Rice and Duke, and that would be the Minnesota Golden Gophers.  If you're my age or younger, you likely weren't alive the last time the Gophers played in the Rose Bowl.  As a matter of fact, every team in the Big 10 - including Nebraska - has been to the Rose Bowl since the last time the Gophers were there.  Even Northwestern!  And Indiana!  And while it may be hard to believe today, the Minnesota Gophers were the National Champions in 1960, even though they will lose this Rose Bowl to Washington.  Reason?  In those days, the bowls were purely exhibition games - the national champion was chosen at the end of the regular season.  Incidentelly, Minnesota would return to the Rose Bowl the next season, becoming the first Big 10 team to make back-to-back appearances in Pasadena.  And that time they would win, defeating UCLA.  They haven't been back since.


One of the advantages to having the hometown TV Guide is the chance to see a charming ad like this, as a local brewery wishes the native sons well.  Kind of poignant, in a way.  Ah, but then, isn't that part of what nostalgia is all about?

December 22, 2011

Christmas Greetings, 1962

Last year I shared some great stuff over at the Our Word site - a Christmas issue of a community magazine called, appropriately enough, "The Community News."  It was published in 1962 in Albert Lea, a town in southern Minnesota.  Although it isn't a TV Guide per se, it's one of those typical supermarket magazines that includes the TV listings for the week. 

And what's interesting about this issue is not the TV listings - I already had them in a 1962 TV Guide - but the ads.  It's as clear an example as you can find about how American culture has changed over the past 40 years. 

I linked to part one above; you can read part two here, followed by part three.  It would be fun to go down there and see how many of these local businesses are still around, wouldn't it?

December 21, 2011

TV Guide: Christmas, 1977

In years past at the Our Word blog, I've taken a look at Christmas issues of various TV Guides, but I haven't done this for awhile.  So, with the big day just a few days away, let's go back thirty-four years, to Christmas week 1977 (when, as is the case this year, Christmas fell on Sunday), and see what's cooking besides the ham.

The saying, "It's the same, only different," could well apply to some of the programs of the week.  It's almost as if we see a shadow of today's Christmas in the margins of 1977.  For example, there's a Jean Shepherd story dramitized on PBS Christmas Eve - but it's not A Christmas Story, which of course hadn't even been made yet.  Instead, it's The Phantom of the Open Hearth, "an affectionate look at life in a 1940s Midwestern steel town," with Shepherd as narrator.  Now, if that sounds just a little like the setting of A Christmas Story, it should: the protagonist of the story is a boy named Ralph, who has a Father and Mother, and a friend named Schwartz.  Clearly, it's drawn from the same material, a preview of what we would see a few years later.

And of course what Christmas would be complete without a Frank Capra movie?  But once again, it's not what you think - not It's a Wonderful Life, which had not yet become the Christmas staple,* but instead Gary Cooper's classic performance in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, made ten years earlier.  In fact, I don't see It's a Wonderful Life anywhere in this TV Guide.  Perhaps it was on earlier in the season, or maybe it hadn't become so closely identified with Christmas - after all, the first time I saw it was in the middle of summer, when our ABC affiliate stuck it on in the middle of the night during a hold for one of the first space shuttle launches.

* It was, in fact, the ubiquitous showings of It's a Wonderful Life on virtually every television station known to man which led to its eventual exclusive showing on NBC.  With its removal from mass circulation, another movie had to be found to take its place: A Christmas Story.

There are other examples of not-quite-the-same.  The Boston Pops had their annual concert (which A&E televised up to a few years ago), but it wasn't Holiday at Pops - it was the decidedly un-PC Christmas at Pops.  There was Midnight Mass, but it wasn't from the Vatican - instead, it was live from the Cathedral of St. Paul, in Minnesota.  There was an NBA game on (only one, though, instead of the five we get this year), and it featured a team that isn't even around any more: the Buffalo Braves, now the suddenly-hot L.A. Clippers.  There was football, but not the NFL - they're playing on Saturday and Monday (and it's the playoffs, not the second-to-last game of the regular season).  Instead, it's the Fiesta Bowl (Penn State vs. Arizona State), which was a staple of Christmas until it moved to New Year's Day some years later.  And there's a Minnesota NHL game too, but it's the North Stars, not the Wild.  (And just to show that some things never change, CBS has a documentary on "Illegal Aliens in Los Angeles.")

Not everything was there-and-not-there, of course.  Channel 5, the ABC affiliate, presented a charming special at 6:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, called "The Flight of Reindeer 8," with Channel 5's anchors covering the event from the North Pole, including interviews with the elves and Mrs. Santa.  The George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol hadn't been made yet, but Alastair Sim's classic is there in all its glory, at 11:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve on Channel 4. 

What I find interesting, which I've commented on in the past, is how the Christmas season didn't end at midnight on December 26.  For example, there's the obligatory sappy Christmas movie, this year being Christmas Miracle in Caufield, U.S.A., but it was shown by NBC on the day after Christmas.  PBS had "A Child's Christmas in Wales" and "Christmas Around the World" on the same evening, and "An Elizabethan Christmas Celebration" on December 27 (right after William F. Buckley's Firing Line).

The week winds down with the Gator Bowl on Friday, in what was then it's traditional just-before-New Year's time slot (Pittsburgh vs. Clemson, which as I recall was a pretty good game).  Not a lot of football that week, but then there were only perhaps a dozen bowl games, as opposed to the orgy we have today.

It's an interesting week - as I've suggested, the most interesting aspect is the same-yet-different feeling that one gets when reading through the listings.  With Christmas Eve on Saturday and Christmas on Sunday, you don't quite get the flavor that you see when Christmas comes later in the week, but it still brings back memories.  We should be so lucky today.

December 8, 2011

Another Christmas Carol?

A few years ago I wrote a piece for the great website TVParty! about the little-remembered series of TV movies produced by the United Nations.  (And, not coincidentally, designed to present the UN in the best possible light.)

In that article I spent a little space discussing the first and best-known of the movies, "Carol for Another Christmas," which aired on December 28, 1964.  It was a high-profile start to the series, with a sterling pedigree: written by Rod Serling, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, featuring an all-star cast including Sterling Hayden, Ben Gazarra, and Peter Sellers, and presented without commerical interruption by Xerox.

"Carol for Another Christmas" was probably the easiest of the four UN movies to research - there was more material about it out there, and since it was the first of the movies to air it created the biggest buzz.  (As is so often the case with ideas that don't quite pan out, the buzz is loudest at the beginning.)   It was also perhaps the most interesting of the specials, or at least the one that to this day carries the most fascination - probably because of Serling, whose name features most prominently of all the participants in the venture. 

"Carol" was only a part of the overall story of Telsun, the foundation that produced the movies for the UN.  But for those who want to know more about the television special that, even though (or perhaps because) it aired only once, has built up something of a cult following, here's a longer piece that gives more details about a movie that should have been much, much better than it actually was.  Far from being a Christmas classic, it was "a dreary, unsubtle rant" didactic, heavy-handed, shrill, with a plot that had enough holes for Santa to fly his sleigh through. 

That's not to say it isn't worth watching, and since it's readily available on what I call the "brown" market (videos that aren't commercially released, but aren't cheap knockoffs of commercially released videos either), it's well worth checking out, if for no other reason than to see what all the talk is about.  Methinks that those who are most fascinated by it - and presumptively impressed with it - probably haven't seen it yet.  But to each his own.  It did, after all, result in some lovely music by Henry Mancini.  Undeniably, "Carol for Another Christmas," like the rest of the Telsun movies, is a piece of TV history.  And as we all know, history ain't always pretty.

December 6, 2011

The secret life of Frosty the Snowman

Regular readers of Our Word know that I generally devote most of December to writing about Christmas, particularly from a nostalgic viewpoint. And since this year will probably be no exception, I thought I'd reprint one of my favorite pieces, which actually isn't by me at all, but by my friend Peter.

Now, Peter is a pretty bright guy, so when he told me about the allegorical implications of Frosty the Snowman, I had to sit up and take notice.

I’d always enjoyed the cartoon in something of a nostalgic way, as part of the memories of Christmases past. At that, I thought the plot was kind of thin. I mean, a kid thinking they can take a train to the North Pole on Christmas Eve? Without bringing any money? And then there’s the phony magician, the talking rabbit, and – well, you get the picture. You didn’t watch Frosty for the drama, you simply basked in its warm sepia glow.

But then Peter asked me if I’d ever noticed how the story of Frosty was an allegory for the life of Christ.

“What?” I think I said.

“Sure,” he replied, and proceeded to document the ways:
  • His birth occurs in the dead of winter, much as Christ's birth is symbolized with the evergreen in winter (and obviously suggests miraculous life from a dead or virginal womb).
  • Frosty always says, "Happy Birthday!" when he comes to life...strongly suggesting a birth... and the tradition of birthdays probably comes from the celebration of Christ's birth.
  • Frosty’s self-sacrifice, going into the greenhouse to save Karen’s life even though he risks melting in the heat, much as Christ the Savior suffers and dies on the Cross.
  • The resurrection – Santa opens the door to the greenhouse and the winter winds sweep into the room, bringing Frosty to life, in the same way that the Holy Spirit (often portrayed in the Bible as a wind) enters the Tomb.
  • Frosty goes to the North Pole with Santa in his sleigh, as Christ Ascends into Heaven.
  • Frosty returns every year with Santa (“I’ll be back again some day,” he sings in the song.) Christ, having been seated at the right hand of the Father, will come again in glory.
Interesting, hm? Of course, Peter added, “some folks will read that and think I'm making too much out of a tenuous connection. Those people may be right, but I only say that to be polite. It would be too much of a coincidence, otherwise. It's obviously magicked-up (or kid-story-ified) to make into a neat little story for children, but the inspiration is obvious. The producers might not have wanted to make a Christian story, and that's certainly possible... however, they clearly used the Christ story as inspiration."

All of a sudden, the story starts to make sense, and what until then had been a fairly one-dimensional cartoon (literally, given that the rest of the Rankin-Bass cartoons were done in that three-dimensional animation) has become, in fact, a much deeper and more complex parable. Now, maybe this is like Pink Floyd and the Wizard of Oz in that everyone in the world already knew about this and I’m just finding out. I’d be interested to hear if anyone out there has noticed a similar religious vein to the story. And I’d love to be able to ask Arthur Rankin, Jr., the producer, if either he or Romeo Muller, the writer of the story, had any intentions of this.If not, of course, it’s just another example of how the Lord works through even the most common and ordinary means.

November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving often seems like an underappreciated holiday, serving as little more than a warmup act for Christmas, and people seem eagar to get it out of the way so they can invade the stores in the dawn hours of Black Friday.  (Those stores that aren't actually open on Thanksgiving, that is.) . Back in the day, however, Turkey Day used to get a little more love.  And so this seemed to be a good reason (or at least a good excuse) to dip into the TV Guide archives for a look at Thanksgiving through the early 60s, as seen on TV.

This first picture below above is from Thanksgiving 1962.  Then, as now, the Thanksgiving Day Parade was a mainstay of both CBS and NBC.  As now, NBC was the network of the Macy's Parade, with longtime hosts Betty White and Lorne Greene.  CBS had the Macy's Parade too, but they also specialized in parades from around the country - the Gimbels' parade in Philadelphia (wonder why TVG gives this big press?  It's because their headquarters were in Pennsylvania) and the Hudson's parade in Detroit.  The department stores aren't around anymore, but both Philly and Detroit continue to celebrate the day with big parades. 


I always preferred the CBS coverage - Macy's was OK, but getting to see Detroit and Philadelphia (and later on Toronto's Santa Claus parade) made the day even bigger.  Back in the 60s Captain Kangaroo hosted the overall coverage from New York (William "Cannon" Conrad would perform the same function through much of the 70s), with CBS newsmen and celebrities alternating as hosts in the various cities.  Besides, seeing the Detroit parade would be an early tipoff to the weather for that morning's football game.


The next picture, also from 1962, is for the Pat Boone Thansgiving special.  Pretty good cast, although Peter, Paul & Mary seem a bit out of place.  Or perhaps Pat wasn't as much of a square as people thought. Notice the start time: 4:30 pm (Central time).  Doesn't seem likely any more that a network show would come on at that hour, not with the news saturation that local stations have today.


Here's another late afternoon special from 1961, with Al Hirt and a cast of thousands, or at least the popular singer Gordon MacRae, the opera star Patrice Munsel, and dancer Carol Haney.  "Home for the Holidays" - then, as now, Thanksgiving was the start of the Christmas season.  Notice that these ads prominently boast that the specials are "In Color!"


The holidays are always a time to bring back stars who haven't had regular series for several years.  Bonne was one, and the Old Redhead, Arthur Godfrey was another.  His 1963 Thanksgiving night special promises "a post-turkey pot of tea."  I imagine things were a bit muted that year, since JFK had been buried just three days previous.



Perry Como no longer had a weekly series in 1962, but his Kraft Music Hall appeared several times a year.  Since the show was always on Wednesday nights, his November special was always on Thanksgiving Eve.  (And that's exactly how it was described - putting Thanksgiving Eve on a par with Christmas Eve.)


Of course, you can't have Thanksgiving without football.  Look at how CBS advertises its game between the Colts and Lions in 1965:


I actually remember watching that game (I won't say how old I am now, but I was five back then).  The Colts and Lions battled to a 24-24 tie that pleased nobody.  Nowadays, I imagine the Lions would be pretty happy with that result.  And remember those Seagram's ads that used to appear with every major sporting event?  There were three games played that day; in addition to the Colts and Lions, the AFL game on NBC featured the Buffalo Bills and the San Diego Chargers, and ABC's college action was the traditional battle between Oklahoma and Nebraska.


It wasn't just television shows that advertised for Thansgiving - take a look at this ad for General Electric. I wonder how many families took advantage of the free heat 'n' serve baby dish for every baby born on November 28, 1963.  (Just think - that baby would be almost 50 today.)


Thanksgiving wasn't only a day, though - traditionally, it was one of the biggest television weeks of the season.  Check out the sidebar on the 1965 cover - from football to the Hallmark Hall of Fame, tributes to recently deceased Stan Laurel and Cole Porter, specials starring Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., a White House tour with Mrs. LBJ, and a James Bond documentary.  And this was before VCRs.
 
 
And this is just scratching the surface - for example, in 1962 the Bell Telephone Hour had special guest Carl Sandburg, the American poet and Lincoln biographer.  It seems to me that there truly was a sense that Thanksgiving was a time for the family to get together, and with a little of something for everyone there was no better way for quality family time than to sit in front of the television.

November 10, 2011

The Bookshelf #1

Often I'll walk into a bookstore - Half Price Books, a chain in our area - looking to see what they have in the TV DVD section, and emerge instead with books about TV. (Imagine that - coming out of a bookstore with books.)

The thing is, I've often contended that just as you can learn more about an event by how it was covered on TV at the time than you can reading about it afterward, you can frequently learn more about television by reading about it than watching it. And so, from time to time, I'll dip into my bookshelf to take a look at some of the books that talk about television - its history, its shows, and its personalities.

A while back I shared my review of Gerald Nachman's Ed Sullivan biography, one of the larger-than-life personalities of television in the 50s and 60s. Today we'll take a look at another of those outsized figures, David Susskind, in Steven Battaglio's David Susskind: A Televised Life.

Today's TV viewer might not recognize Susskind's name at all.  Those of a slightely older bent possibly remember his talk show, which ran for over 25 years in New York and, through syndication, the rest of the country.  But for those of another era, the name David Susskind meant one thing: quality television.  Susskind was one of the most prominent figures in television of the 50s and 60s, starting out as a talent agent but soon evolving into one of the most prolific and respected producers of the time, particularly in the golden age of anthology television.  He was famous for specials - The Moon and Sixpence, The Power and the Glory, A Man is Ten Feet Tall, Eleanor and Franklin - television series - N.Y.P.D. (the original, not the racier NYPD Blue of years later), Get Smart, East Side/West Side - and movies - Straw Dogs, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and Fort Apachie, The Bronx.  For most of you, the names probably don't mean much, except perhaps for Get Smart, and maybe some of the movies, but in their time they were major accomplishments - event television, when there was such a thing.   (His company also produced the game show Supermarket Sweep, which failed to burnish his image but did help pay the bills.)

Susskind was short in stature, but an enormous presence in the entertainment business.  He was complex - a chauvinist who nonetheless employed women in high positions, a man who loved women so much that he couldn't stop even when he was married, a talk show host who prided himself on quality television yet became the godfather to hosts such as Phil Donohue.  He loved the art of the deal, he gloried in the publicity that his achievements brought him.  He was vain, but he was also talented - always a dangerous combination.

Battaglio captures the many sides of Susskind, his public and private achievements and failures, and he does so without falling into the "too much information" trap that many biographers do.  He presents a fascinating picture of the excitement of early television, of the days when sponsors ruled the programming roost, and the transition to the system we see today.  It's a valuable insight into a pioneer of television who deserves to be remembered.


* * *


Here's author Steven Battaglio talking with Inside Media about David Susskind: A Televised Life.


November 1, 2011

Some more Requiem Masses for JFK (I know you've been waiting for this)

Today we’ve got some new and interesting footage of Requiem Masses from the time of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Granted, as a primary document this may be mostly of interest to Catholics and/or liturgical scholars, but from a television viewpoint there’s something very interesting as well.

The first one is from the night of the assassination, and was held at Our Lady Chapel in Los Angeles, which closed just a few years ago.  Charles Kuralt (perhaps taking time out from one of his two families?) is the correspondent, and the coverage begins just before the reading of the Gospel. I don't know about you, but that boychoir kind of gives me the creeps (but then I'm not a big fan of children's choirs anyway). Maybe it's just the tempo they use. Interesting that the closing hymn is the National Anthem - I think I have seen it in hymnals before, but from a religious standpoint "America the Beautiful" might have been better. Of course, people weren't seeing America as quite so beautiful that night, so we can probably give this a pass. The celebrant clearly appears to have been influenced in his speaking style by Bishop Sheen. His comments about JFK's personal life, in retrospect, are rather ironic. Also, is it just me or does he give more or less the same talk after the Mass as he does at the homily? Kuralt gives a dignified commentary. The Mass is on parts 39 and 40 of this series.



This second Mass is from St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on Saturday morning.(interestingly enough, this segment of the broadcast begins outside St. Francis Xavier church in Hyannis Port, where Rose Kennedy is attending yet another memorial Mass, although the network does not provide coverage of that.) I know from reading NBC's transcript of their assassination coverage that they also broadcast the Mass (this coverage, like all that we're linking to, comes from CBS). The Mass coverage from St. Patrick's begins at 4:14 on part 46 and continues on part 47.  We don't get the entire Mass here, but beginning a little over 7 minutes in, we hear a magnificent rendition of the statley Dias Irae. Notable also is that the Cathedral is using a symbolic catafalque, representing the deceased.



Of course, the coverage of various Masses makes perfect sense.  President Kennedy was the first (and so far only) Catholic president.  Catholics offer Mass daily.  Catholic churches, reeling with grief at Kennedy's death, were offering Requiem Masses (for the soul of the departed) everywhere. The networks were bound to gravitate toward them as an expression of Catholic mourning.  All well and good.

But I just find this whole religion angle fascinating.  Perhaps it's because I grew up in a time when religion wasn't verbotten on TV, or maybe it's from my research in old TV Guides and the like where I've seen that religious programming steadily decrease over the years.  On the other hand, there was a certain amount of religious programming shown in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, so it could be that we're simply seeing how a culture reacts to tragedy.

My own opinion is that there is still something unique about what we see here, the idea that religion is more a part of the mainstream broadcast culture, and that broadcasting these Masses is more organic than it would be today, but again, that's just me.  Watch it and see what you think.

October 25, 2011

The JFK funeral: a cultural spotlight

A few months ago, back when I was more responsible in keeping this blog updated, I did an interview with David Von Pein in which we discussed the extensive footage available of the television coverage surrounding John F. Kennedy's assassination.  At that time I suggested - all right, I virtually promised - that I'd return to this subject.  So here we are, and what I want to look at today is a very particular part of the coverage, along with its cultural significance. 

Many of us have seen the usual clips: Cronkite's announcement of Kennedy's death, the live covearge of Oswald's murder by Ruby, the salute by young John Jr. (which wasn't actually captured live, or at least not in the way that we see it in retrospectives), the bugler cracking during the playing of Taps at the gravesite.  But what interests me most, and has for quite some time, is the Kennedy Funeral Mass.

Very few clips of the Requiem Mass are shown in the standard retrospective, and until I got serious about digging through the hours and hours of online video, I'd pretty much dismissed the idea that I'd see more of it.  Imagine, then, my surprise at finding almost all of CBS's live coverage of the Mass, on the YouTube network of JFK1963Videos.  (David has mentioned to me that he has this coverage as well, but has not uploaded it to YouTube.)





This is a precious piece of footage, for it gives us one of the last glimpses of the pre-Vatican II Mass, the Tridentine (today known as the Extraordinary Form).  The Mass is said entirely in Latin, with the priest facing the altar (ad orientem) for much of the time.  For those who have no memory of the "old Mass," this may be a revelation.  For those who do remember it, or who have attended an Extraordinary Form Mass in the last few years (as this Mass once again becomes more available), there may be even more eye-openers.  For those who aren't Catholic, or even religious, there are many interesting aspects of the television coverage.  Nevertheless, much of what follows could be seen as "inside baseball" aimed at the more liturgically-minded.

October 11, 2011

How the Rangers rounded up the TV bucks

He's alive!

Well, yes.  I've been away from the blog for far too long, and since I've just made a mea culpa over at Our Word, I should do the same here.

I could blame several things: a new job, moving to a new home, a cold.  But in the end I'm finding this a very lame series of excuses.  And so I thought I'd better get something up, even though it deserves to be treated at much greater length than I can at the moment.

With the Texas Rangers just two victories away from a return trip to the World Series, it seemed a good time to link to this fine article from Jonah Keri over at Grantland (and if you haven't checked this site out lately, do so - it's become one of my daily must-reads) on the role television is playing on the possible creation of a Rangers dynasty.

We all know how earth-shattering the effect has been of television on sports - everything from sustaining the American Football League in the mid-60s, to the boom of college football, to the emergence of ESPN as not just a sports channel but a lifestyle network.  Those of us who follow the business side of the sport know also of the inherent advantages a large-market team has when it comes to local media revenue (see: New York Yankees).

But I found this particularly interesting, in that we're now seeing how TV, especially in the form of regional networks, might be able to level the playing field.  Is it temporary, or will we see a true shift in the ability of teams outside the traditional media centers to compete financially?  And here we thought it was all about putting people in the seats and games on the tube.  Hah!

A fascinating topic, the relationship between television and sports.  I'll be back with more thoughts on this shortly.

August 17, 2011

The health of television (or, at least, its viewers)

There's nothing new about the idea that watching too much telelvison can be bad for you. Back in the early days of TV, it was thought that it might cause bad eyesight. Then it was the violence on television that could be dangerous to your psychological well-being, especially if you were a kid.  There were even fears of what an unstable portable TV might do to small children.* Not to mention how unhealthy the average TV dinner probably was.

*It reminds me of an old Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown, reading a story in the newspaper, asks Linus if he thinks television is harmful to his health.  To which Linus replies, "I don't know.  I've never had one fall on me."

Now it appears they've finally quantified just how harmful TV can be. According to an Australian study, for every hour someone watches TV, they take 22 minutes off their lifespan.  At that rate, I probably ought to be dead by now.

Except - the same story I linked to above notes a study by the medical journal The Lancet found that as little as 15 minutes of physical activity every day could increase a person's lifespan by three years.  Since I get at least twice that much exercise just walking to and from work, that means I might actually come out ahead on the deal.

There's no word, as far as I can tell, of the effects of watching television while exercising.  But, one wonders, how long before they try to ban TVs from hospital rooms?

August 16, 2011

St. Claire, patroness of television

A belated happy feast day (August 11) to St. Claire, the patron saint of television.

And how does a woman who died in 1253 become the patroness of television?  Well, as I understand it, Claire was living in the abbey at Assisi, confined to her small room because she was too ill to attend Mass.  The nuns returned to tell her about what she had missed, only to have her tell them that she had seen and heard it all, projected on the wall of her room as clearly as if she had been there in person.

Pius XII made Claire the patron saint of television in 1958.  Mother Angelica, the founder of ETWN, is a sister in the order of the Poor Claires.  Makes sense.

And my apologies for not being more regular in my writing over the past month or so.  I can only say in my defense that I had the best of intentions, but between a new job and preparing to move, things haven't been quite what I had hoped,.  There may be a bit more silence, but I'm hoping I'll soon be able to return to my regularly scheduled blogging.

July 13, 2011

Gilligan's Island goes to the opera house

Yesterday we told you about the death of Sherwood Schwartz, the creator of Gilligan's Island, among other TV series. Now, most people would scoff at the idea of Gilligan's Island being highbrow entertainment - but, in fact, here is a series that one could argue was amongst the most learned on television. Why, they were able to present not only Shakespearian tragedy, but dramaticopera - and all in the same episode!

It was October 3, 1966 - the third and final season of Gilligan. This episode, entitled "The Producer," involved famed Broadway producer Harold Hecuba (Phil Silvers), who finds himself, like so many before him, stranded on the island. (Is it just me, or does it seem as if the only people who weren't able to find that island worked for the Coast Guard?) After Hecuba insults Ginger, the castaways decide to show him how talented she really is, by (in the words of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland) "putting on a show." 

"Hamlet: the Musical" is perhaps one of the most creative bits of musical theater ever to find its way into an American sitcom. The lyrics are clever and witty, and yet faithful to the Bard's text.  The musical accompaniment is inspired, running the gamut from Bizet to Offenbach.  Here, for example, is Hamlet's (Gilligan) aria "To Be or Not to Be," from the "Habenera" of Bizet's Carmen.  (For contrast, here is the original as it appears in Carmen, sung by the great Marilyn Horne.)

Not to be outdone, here is Ophelia (Ginger) in her duet with Hamlet, urging him to lighten up, to Offenbach's "Barcarolle" from The Tales of Hoffman, along with the same piece as heard in the opera. Finally, there's the showstopper, as the entire cast lampoons Bizet's "Torreador Song" (again from Carmen).  Not quite the same impact as in the original, perhaps, but not bad.

What is brilliant about this is not only the creativity of the lyrics, but the use of music that, in the days when classical music was actually part of mainstream American culture, would be instantly recognizible to most viewers, even if they didn't know where it came from.  And I can't help but wonder if the writers were aware of the appropriateness of using music from French opera, given that the most famous operatic version of Hamlet is by the French composer Ambroise Thomas.

We may ridicule a show like Gilligan's Island, which was critically scorned but was a massive hit with viewers - but I doubt you'll see anything short of Looney Tunes that makes such good use of classical music. And that is nothing less than a shame.

July 12, 2011

Sherwood Schwartz, R.I.P.

Sherwood Schwartz, who created the iconic sitcoms Gilligan's Island and the Brady Bunch, died today at 94. Courtesy of my home blog away from home, TVParty!, here's L. Wayne Hicks' interview with Schwartz - who may not have been a critical fav, but certainly was a successful one.

July 11, 2011

ABC Promo, 1957

It's summer, and on an evening when the temperatures are in the mid 80s, the humidity is low, and there's a nice breeze - well, it's hard to get excited about writing. So since television has it's season of summer reruns, I'll be doing the same thing from time to time, looking back at some of the best of television from the Our Word archives.

Here's something I've never seen before: "Peter Rabbit Ears" speaking of the wonders of television - our best friend - in an ABC promo from 1957.



What I find particularly interesting about this is that although it's a promo for ABC, never once does it even mention the name of an ABC show. True enough; in the late 50s, the perennial third-place network didn't have much to promote. Kind of refreshing in comparison to today's overblown network hype though, don't you think?

June 26, 2011

Nick Charles, R.I.P.

The battle ended Saturday for Nick Charles, the longtime "Sports Tonight" anchor for CNN, who was finallly claimed by The Big C. Story here. I wrote about him earlier this year here. Not really much to add, except that I always enjoyed his work, liked him as far as I could know him through the small screen, liked him that much more as I read about him, and take solace in the thought that finally his pain and suffering is over. Safe journeys.

UPDATE: One reason I didn't write more: Joe Posnanski, who would make any such effort appear even more feeble.

June 23, 2011

Jon Miller, then and now

Baseball fans recognize Jon Miller as the longtime voice (until this season) of ESPN's Sunday night telecasts, as well as the play-by-play man for the Baltimore Orioles (formerly), and the San Francisco Giants (currently). As baseball announcers go, he's one of the best.

But how many knew that at one time, Jon Miller was the voice of American soccer? I sure didn't, until I came across this footage* of Miller broadcasting the North American Soccer League (NASL) game of the week for TVS in 1978.

*Not that you can actually go directly to it. TVS's online archives don't give you a share link, so you have to go here, page down to "Soccer," and select one of the NASL games. This one, in case you're really interested, was San Jose vs. Los Angeles.

 

A few notes on TVS: the TVS (for TeleVision Sports) Sports Network, founded in 1960, was best-known as the dominant syndicated sports network in the business, having come of age with its telecast of the historic Houston-UCLA basketball game in 1968. For many years TVS was the national home of college basketball, providing regional coverage of almost every major conference, as well as broadcasting the first round of the NCAA tournament. But that wasn't all TVS did: in 1973, they went to China with a team of college basketball all-stars; in 1974 they covered the fledling World Football League, they picked up the rights to several college bowl games along the way, and eventually entered into a joint production arrangement with NBC to provide national coverage of college basketball, an arrangement that ended when CBS won the rights to the tournament.  TVS itself disappeared from the scene when founder Eddie Einhorn moved on to CBS, and later to ownership of the Chicago White Sox.  I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that, as a kid who loved sports and loved television, I loved TVS. They always broadcast the games I played in my imagination.

And now, a few observations on our soccer match:
  1. Jon Miller had a lot more hair back then. And a little less face. But then don't we all?
  2. If you watch the video, you'll notice Miller consistently refers to the upcoming match as a "ball game." Any soccer fan will tell you that this is akin to calling the Mona Lisa a "chick." But in their efforts to sell Americans on this foreign sport, I'm sure Miller was told to make it as American-sounding as possible.
  3. But Paul Gardner, I always thought, was a very good commentator.
  4. The American brand of soccer at that time was quite different from the rest of the world. The offside rule, for example. Today's MLS plays by the international rules, which I think is for the best.
  5. On the other hand, they've got a pretty good crowd there, no? We have to remember that back in the late 70s, when Pele and Beckenbauer and Chinaglia led the way, soccer was a pretty hot sport in this country. It didn't last, though - the roots weren't that deep. For all that, I think the sport in America is probably stronger than ever.
  6. The 70s really were a bad time, weren't they?

June 14, 2011

Conference Who, or "Haven't I seen you somewhere before?"

You may have seen this recently, but it seems as if the Mountain West athletic conference has introduced a new logo, to capitalize on the new image they want to create with several new schools (including football power Boise State) joining the conference.  Here's a look at the new logo, along with the one it replaced:



Now, if that new logo seems slightly familiar to you, let me draw your attention toward the British Isles (or BBCAmerica, at least):



Hmm. Interesting, huh? Of course, I'm not the only person who's noticed this, nor found it somewhat ironic. I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But when you're doing battle with a Time Lord, it's probably best to remember that anyone who can go back in time can surely wreck havoc with your conference.

To be fair, however, we should recall that this isn't the first time something like this has happened.

June 10, 2011

Interview: JFK assassination archivist David Von Pein

It is often said that television truly came of age with its coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I think that can be a bit overstated, but there's no question that, almost 50 years later, the "As It Happened" coverage, coming as it did like a lightning bolt out of the blue of an ordinary Friday afternoon in November, remains absolutely riveting.

Until the advent of YouTube, access to this video coverage, which tells you the story in a way totally unlike the history book or the newspaper, was relatively hard to come by, limited mostly to video traders and online dealers. Today, however, anyone can call up hours of footage, not only from the three networks but also from local television and radio.

Of the various sites devoted to the JFK assassination, few come with the video treasure that can be found on the sites run by David Von Pein. An outspoken believer (as am I) that Lee Harvey Oswald was the one and only assassin of Kennedy, Von Pein has amassed an incredible amount of video history on JFK - not just the assassination, but various tributes, documentaries and movies, not to mention rarely seen clips from Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign. As someone who has spent more than a few hours with my own JFK collection, I thought David would be an outstanding choice for the inaugural It's About TV interview. 



Q: David, thanks first of all for your time. We're going to be talking about collecting old television shows on DVD, because you have an amazing collection, not just of the JFK assassination, but all kinds of TV series and movies. Do your friends and family think you’re kind of, uh, nuts for doing this? Because I know some of the looks I get, I have to go into this long academic discussion about how this is all historical research, in order to justify what is probably really a guilty pleasure.

A: No, I don't think my family thinks I'm TOTALLY crazy. Just a LITTLE bit. ~wink~ My brother, in fact, runs a fairly popular TV website himself. You can find it here. He was kind enough to link to some of my sites from his "Showcase" TV website (even a page for my JFK stuff).


June 6, 2011

Philip Glass on Sesame Street? (1979)

The blog Brain Pickings isn't a television site per se, but as a culture blog it strays into television from time to time, and we've linked to it over at Our Word. So I couldn't pass up this article on Philip Glass' collaboration with Seseame Street in 1979.

Philip Glass is one of the most contemporary of contemporary composers. I'm not the fan of his that Maria is (nor am I a fan of Sesame Street*, but that's for another day), but I find some of his work quite extraordinary, particularly his opera Satyagraha, which I'm really looking forward to seeing on a Met Opera broadcast next season. (He's also a very engaging personality when interviewed, which helps.)  He's done music for movies, and probably even for television commericals, but I didn't know he'd worked with Seseame Street before. Perhaps it was all just part of a plot to turn our children into minimalists, or maybe it was all a hypnotic spell with some secret message contained (Bauhaus is good!), but I think it's still OK to have fun with it. Here's the last of the four pieces - it is striking, isn't it?

*Not including the Muppets.  Particularly Ernie and Bert. And Cookie Monster. I'm a big fan of them.


June 3, 2011

The ABC Evening News, circa 1969-1970

For some reason, I've found myself watching a good number of news videos on YouTube lately, which (as you might expect) means a lot of them will probably find their way to the blog. They're fascinating to watch not only to show how much things have changed, but how much they've stayed the same.

Take these promo pieces for the ABC Evening News. Many of you probably haven't seen them before; not many people watched the evening news on ABC back in the day. The two news giants, NBC and CBS, had dominated coverage for years, with NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley leading the way up through the mid-60s, and Walter Cronkite steering CBS into first place by the end of the decade.

In response, ABC tried a number of things, all of them failures. John Daly (of What's My Line? fame) anchored the news up to 1960; Ron Cochrane was there through JFK's assassination; Peter Jennings, at 26, became the anchor in 1965, and was still there when the 15-minute broadcast expanded to a half-hour in 1967 (three years after the other two networks had done so). Bob Young, Frank Reynolds, and Howard K. Smith followed.  When Chet Huntley retired from NBC in 1970, ABC must have thought they had an opportunity to make inroads, and they hired Harry Reasoner away from CBS.  Later, they would team Reasoner with Barbara Walters in a disasterous match, before finally striking gold in the late 70s when Roone Arledge came from the sports side to take command.

The first clip here is probably from 1969, when Reynolds and Smith were the anchor team. Very fast-paced, quick-cutting, perhaps an attempt to demonstrate vitality in the face of the warhorses at CBS and NBC.




The second clip would likely be from 1970 or so, when Reasoner had come over from CBS to replace Reynolds. The graphics are quite similar, the music connotates the seriousness of news. This news means business!




The point here is not just to take a look back, although that's always a lot of fun (and a great timewaster). But look at the headlines that the 1969 clip uses: Congress and taxes are right at the top; for Vietnam and Cambodia, you can substitute Iraq and Afghanistan, and Israel and Egypt are still in the news. Back then "Liberation" stood for women's lib, but today it could be gay marriage. The USSR is called Russia today, but they still dominate world affairs, as does China with the world economy. The Mideast is still a complete mess, "Ecology" is now the environment and it's even bigger than it was then, and how many predicted abortion would become as dominant as it is today? The economy, Holy War, politics - the whole friggin' thing is still the same! Some of the old issues have disappeared, replaced by new ones, but what's sobering is that for the most part we're still fighting the same battles we were fighting 40 years ago.

That's not really meant to sound depressing. What it really means is that history is what it is, as is human nature. The danger is that utopians try to tell us that the world's problems, or at least some of them, can be solved, when history tells us they probably can't. Lyndon Johnson thought he could wipe out poverty in ten years, Richard Nixon declared the economy could be managed to ensure continued growth, Jimmy Carter tried to bring peace to the Mideast in our time. Oftentimes the social engineering policies of the government produce the very problems they were designed to solve, or at least create ones that hadn't been foreseen.

Of course these issues are still with us. Nature, and the news cycle, abhors a vacuum. It doesn't mean we shouldn't continue to try to solve our problems - indeed, we must - but there is no such thing as heaven on earth. So when you look at these clips and think how little has changed, ask yourself this: should we really be surprised?

June 1, 2011

So what does TV do to you?

A couple of weeks ago, Ben Berger put up a provocative article on National Review Online entitled "Tocqueville and the Tube," and since this deals with both television and culture, I suppose I ought to have a few thoughts on it. And, of course, I do.

In parsing an article like this, one needs to avoid two assumptions. The first, on the part of the writer, is that television is all-bad, or at least a necessary evil to be watched as little as possible. The other, on the part of the reader, is to assume that every serious article written about television is going to bash it.*

*Which reminds me of an old Peanuts cartoon - Lucy is reading an article about television, and asks Linus if he agrees with the premise that TV can be harmful to your health. His reply: "I don't know - I've never had one fall on me."

Berger's start is not promissing on either level.  He begins with a flat declaration: "Television makes us fat, lazy, inattentive, unsociable, mistrustful, materialistic — and unhappy about all of that. It cheapens political discourse, weakens family ties, prevents face-to-face socializing, and exposes kids to sex and inures them to violence." I notice he didn't include the national debt, the bad weather in the South, or the rise of Bin Laden - but perhaps I wasn't reading closely enough.

OK, so I'm being a little flip there. Truth is, I agree with much of what Berger says in that paragraph - with reservations.  Like most things, television itself is neither good nor evil, but neutral. The same goes for watching television. Yes, you can watch too much, in the same way that you can eat too much chocolate, or spend too much time in the sun. The effects aren't going to be good for you.

Television is best used not as replacement, but as an augmentation, for human interaction, if you allow the exchange of information that one gets from television to become an interpersonal, interactive activity. I've often argued that I learned more from watching Alistair Cooke's brilliant television series America than I did from the high school classes I was taking at the same time. A smart teacher (of which there weren't many in the high school I attended) might have found out a way to integrate that program into the classroom, to use it as a springboard for learning and discussion about topics that Cooke didn't cover.

Berger does not deny that the quality of television you watch can make a difference, acknowledging that "moderate viewing is not so bad" (and that "[h]igh-quality programs may enrich us,") - but the problem is that we do not watch in moderation. "According to the Nielsen Company, in 2009 the average American watched more TV per day (over five hours) than ever before." But was not thus always the case? The March 18, 1961 issue of TV Guide notes that according to a Nielsen survey in January 1961, "people in the average home put in six hours a day in front of their TV sets. This is the highest level in three years, just short of the all-time peak of six hours, six minutes which was hit two months in a row in 1958."

Now, I suppose there are subtleties embedded in these statistics. For example, we seem to work longer hours that we did in the 50s and 60s, and more women have jobs today than they did then, which means we may be spending a larger percentage of our disposable time in front of the tube. And there's no denying that families don't watch TV together the way they used to, which when added to the likelihood that every room in the home has a television leads one to suspect that our six hours a day are in fact spent alone, or at least with fewer people around us than there used to be. The DVR, and the introduction of "on demand" viewing, makes the shared experience of television one step further removed.

Hmm. Suddenly, I seem to have talked my way into agreeing with Berger, or at least part of his premise. And from there, of course, things get more complicated.

May 26, 2011

Recalling Richard Denning

I know, I haven't done a very good job keeping up lately. But I do have some goodies in the hopper, namely an interview with one of the best JFK video historians around, and what I hope will be a provocative piece bout the relationship between Route 66 and the philosophy of Rousseau. (Boy, doesn't that sound like a mouthful?)

In the meantime, here's a piece I did for Our Word last year, which I think is an appropos follow-up to my previous article on the Sammy Davis Jr. Show.



* * *

During the course of my research for my series last year on those dreadful Sammy Davis Jr. TV theme covers, I dipped into the archives on the original version of Hawaii Five-O and pulled out the name of Richard Denning.

Now, when people think of Hawaii Five-O, they probably think first of the theme, and then of Jack Lord. True enough, since in my opinion, Jack Lord is Steve McGarrett, and his catchphrases are part of TV lore: "Book 'em, Danno," and "Be here - aloha," when doing the promo for the next week's show. Some people might remember James MacArthur, who played Danno for eleven years, and booked all those suspects. Others might recall one of the other officers, primarily from the opening credits (e.g. "Cam Fong as Chin Ho").

But Richard Denning? Well, for all those years he played Paul Jameson, the governor of Hawaii,* and he was one of only a handful of actors who appeared in all twelve seasons of the original series. It must have been an ideal role for Denning, who had already retired to Hawaii and was coaxed out of retirement by the offer of five-hour days and a four-hour work week.

* Surely one of the most successful politicians in all of television.

Richard Denning had a long and successful acting career. His most well-known roll was probably that of Jerry North, the mystery writer-turned detective in the whimsical crime series Mr. and Mrs. North, in which co-starred for three seasons with Barbara Britton as his wife Pam. I first ran across this series in one of those boxed set compliations of public-domain crime dramas, and to be honest I didn't think much of it. Oh, Denning's pretty good, given what he has to work with, and Barbara Britton's certainly lovely to look at. But her character is one of those screwball wives we see so often in sitcoms of that era, the kind that induces you to shout at the screen while you're watching, or just as often to mutter something like, "I'd slap her if I was him."* Added to that, even though Jerry was the supposed crime expert, it's Pam who generally winds up solving most of the cases, with little help from her bumbling, somewhat patronizing husband. It's a low-budget version of The Thin Man without the charm, and I was only able to make it through two episodes before I gave up.

* Not an advertisement for spousal abuse.

Here's a clip from the opening of a typical Mr. and Mrs. North episode:




May 11, 2011

The Sammy Davis Jr. Show, 1966

Over at Our Word a while back, I had occasion to do a piece on Sammy Davis Jr. and an album he’d done in the 70s which apparently involved, for reasons known only to God, Sammy doing covers of hit TV show themes. There were several of them, enough to give me a week’s worth of material, including some that to the best of my knowledge hadn’t even had lyrics.

For instance, there’s the theme to Hawaii Five-O. This was a big hit when it first appeared in the late 60s. I hadn’t ever thought, though, that it had – you know, words.




If you want to see the week’s worth of videos, including the Baretta theme (the only one that was actually the real deal and not a cover), you can look here, here and here.

But, and here’s the great thing about blogging, how you can change your mind halfway through a piece, I’d originally intended to simply repost the five videos, which I thought would themselves make for an interesting, if somewhat disconcerting, story. This isn’t the Vintage Sammy here – the man who could sing, dance, do impressions, act in comedy and drama, and take brilliant photographs, the man who was perhaps pound-for-pound the greatest entertainer of his time, which is why listening can be a bit painful.

And that got me thinking about vintage Sammy, and whether or not we’d ever actually seen that Sam on TV (aside from guest shots on other people’s specials). It seems as if you had to see him live, on stage or in clubs, appearing solo or hamming it up with the Rat Pack, to truly experience him, to appreciate everything he could do. Even the big screen wasn’t really big enough to hold him.

Granted, Vintage Sam probably was a bit ahead of his time as far as television was concerned. It wasn’t easy for black entertainers to have their own shows on TV in the 50s and 60s; Nat King Cole lasted as long as he did primarily because of guest stars who waived their massive fees to give his sponsorless show a chance, and he was probably a lot less threatening than Sam, who’d already converted to Judaism and was involved in a torrid relationship with the white actress May Britt – in fact, Davis, an outspoken supporter of John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race, postponed his marriage to Britt (under some pressure, one might think) until after the election, lest it become an issue for JFK.*

*Davis appeaedr as part of an all-star celebrity chorus singing the National Anthem at the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles and was booed by southern delegates, so there was a real chance it could have been an embarrassment for JFK. One letter addressed to Davis and signed “A Former Kennedy Supporter” started out “Dear Nigger Bastard.”

Heck, in the mid 60s you had enough trouble getting an interracial kiss on Star Trek. I recall a letter to the editor in a TV Guide issue of the time, from a southern writer, who allowed that blacks might be good on TV in dramatic roles, but they certainly shouldn’t be allowed to sing. Another letter, from the same general time period, complimented the brilliant Ella Fitzgerald’s appearance on Ed Sullivan, but said that Ed then ruined it by daring to touch her on screen.


Anyway, enough of a digression – this wasn’t meant to be an extensive social critique of the nation and its attitudes toward race relations, but was really kind of a roundabout musing as to whether or not we’d seen Vintage Sammy on TV. And, in fact, Sammy Davis Jr. did get his own TV show, in January of 1966. Unfortunately, the genesis of The Sammy Davis Jr. Show was probably as odd as it gets, and matched the series itself for drama and pathos.

For starters, in the fall of 1965 Davis had made a special, “Sammy and His Friends,” which, like other Davis specials, was bought by ABC. (The “friends” included Frank Sinatra, Edie Adams, Joey Heatherton, and Count Basie and his orchestra.) In order to protect its investment, the terms of the ABC contract prohibited Davis from appearing on any other network show for a period of three weeks preceding the broadcast.

However, according to The New York Times, as early as October 18 of 1965, NBC and Davis had discussed starting The Sammy Davis Jr. Show in January of 1966. ABC’s decision to air “Sammy and His Friends” on February 1, therefore, meant that Davis would be prevented from appearing on his own show for almost a month after the January 7 premiere, and it’s hard to imagine a more awkward way to start a television series.

I’m not sure exactly what transpired behind the scenes. In a 1966 TV Guide article, Alan Ebert, NBC’s publicity director for the Davis show, mentions a “crazy contract hassle with ABC” that would keep Davis off the show for a month. Did ABC deliberately schedule “Sammy and His Friends” for a date which would damage his new NBC series? Did NBC, or Davis, think they could appeal to ABC to waive the no-appearance portion of the contract? Either way, "hassle" suggests trouble.

There’s nothing to suggest that NBC had considered postponing the start of The Sammy Davis Jr. Show, which was being scheduled as a midseason replacement for the failed war drama Convoy. Television scheduling was more rigid back then – the fall season always started in early September, and the so-called “Second Season” began right after New Year’s, so NBC may have felt there was no choice.

The show seemed to have a good setup: Davis was already considered one of the most exciting performers around. Joe Hamilton, who would later produce an extremely successful variety show starring his wife Carol Burnett, was tapped to produce. George Rhodes, Sammy’s longtime musical director, would head up the show’s orchestra.

However, in addition to the conflict with ABC, there were other problems. Chief among them, as Ebert points out in his TV Guide article, was Davis’ own approach to the show. He was frequently difficult to reach, almost impossible to schedule for promotional interviews, and was perpetually surrounded by hangers-on and camp followers. (It was, interestingly enough, similar to the approach Davis’ mentor, Frank Sinatra, took toward his own variety show in the late 50s. That show, too, was doomed to failure.)

The initial episode of The Sammy Davis Jr. Show was taped on December 19, featuring Richard Burton and Liz Taylor, Nancy Wilson, Corbett Monica, Augie and Margo and The Will Mastin Trio. It was, by all accounts, a disaster. Taylor was, in Ebert’s words, “so nervous she’s practically hysterical.” In fact, the only person who seemed happy with the result was Davis himself.

By the time of the show’s premiere, on January 7, 1966, Davis had built up the reputation around NBC as “difficult, a prima donna.” The premiere broadcast garnered terrific ratings, but the reviews were dismal – every bit as bad as Ebert had feared. He laid it on the line to Davis: without major changes, the show was doomed.

Perhaps because of Ebert’s bluntness, Davis himself appears to have been overcome by doubts. He later would tell a newspaper reporter that he “knew one week after the first show that he wouldn’t be picked up for more than 13.” He complained that he was being prevented from being himself – he “couldn’t undo his necktie or smoke. . . this is like putting a muffler on a drag race or refusing to let Jack Benny fold his arms.” He pleaded with the network to “take me as I am,” to no avail. "If I don’t know anything else, I know how to entertain people, but I’ve got to be me” he told the reporter. “I ain’t a good somebody else – hey, listen, I ain’t but a fair me.”

Davis was finding himself the victim of the same sea change that would eventually claim Ed Sullivan, along with other variety shows of the time. Sullivan’s decision to appeal (or pander, as some thought) to the younger generation meant the traditional variety format – the very format that NBC wanted from Davis* – was living on borrowed time.

*In the interview, Davis complains that NBC wanted seven acts –“another Hollywood Palace,” he called it.

Added to this was the enforced vacation that Davis was about to endure. Following that premiere telecast, he was off the show for three episodes, replaced by guest hosts. Johnny Carson, Sean Connery and Jerry Lewis would fill in for Davis, and at this point – one month into the show’s run – each of them had appeared on The Sammy Davis Jr. Show as often as Davis had – once.

But though Sammy was nowhere to be seen, he was busy behind the scenes, though. Despite his later observation that it wasn’t until after the cancellation notice that the network let him be himself, Ebert said that in preparation for the second episode, Davis had decided “without consultation, that he’ll revert to the old Sammy Davis and be ‘on’ constantly.” He rolled up his sleeves, doing as many as 19 interviews a week to promote the show, even though he resented having to do any publicity, feeling that his stardom was enough to stand on its own. He worked hard on a new format, one that would make him less of a host and more a participant. He would sell the one thing that only The Sammy Davis Jr. Show could give people – himself.

Ebert said of the second show, which featured singer Trini Lopez, that it was “truly one of the best variety shows I’ve ever seen.” Davis “kills himself in it,” Ebert wrote. “He even made Trini Lopez look better than he ever has before.”

The reviews were better, much better. But it was too late. It may have been that those three missing weeks right at the start were too much to overcome, or it could be that Davis was never able to gain any traction after the disastrous initial episode. (You never get a second chance to make a first impression, after all.) Davis himself felt that NBC realized too late the need to let him be himself (or, in the words of one of his biggest hits, “I gotta be me”) – “[T]hose were our best shows,” he lamented, “and they said it, too, afterward.” The show disappeared on April 22, after 15 episodes (only 12 of which Davis actually hosted), with perhaps the best show of them all – a one-man show by Davis. Vintage Sam, indeed.*

*Reminiscent of the final episode of Jerry Lewis' failed variety show of a couple years previous - a two-man show featuring Jerry and Sammy.

So, in the end, it may be that my hypothesis was right after all – the small screen was too small for Sammy Davis Jr. Had he come along at a different time, in a different era, or had the network given him more freedom, things might have been different. As it was, the Sammy Davis Jr. Show is known today primarily for the oddity of its host being MIA for almost a month. Davis himself continued to entertain in nightclubs and on concert tours, producing several more hit records, making frequent appearances on other people’s shows, and even taking another turn with his own show – a mid-70s late-night talk show that ran for only two seasons (Ironically, it may have been Sammy’s high-octane performance that did him in this time, in a time slot that generally required something lower-key.)

Here is a clip from the March 4, 1966 show, featuring The Supremes. The opening titles probably had more energy than any other five variety shows combined. The entire episode is available on YouTube.


April 30, 2011

Wide World @ 50

You've probably heard that Wide World of Sports, ABC's legendary sports anthology, premiered 50 years ago yesterday. It was originally projected as a summer replacement series; I doubt that anyone back then could have predicted its legendary run of 37 years.

TV Guide certainly didn't know what was coming; as you see in this close-up for the premiere episode (April 29, 1961, on Channel 9, the Minneapolis ABC affiliate) they didn't even know quite what to call it. By the end of May they had the title right, and it pretty much remained in the same place, expanding depending on the event, for the next three decades.


A milestone, certainly. But one of the great things about perusing an old TV Guide, even one containing a significant program like this, is to see what else you might stumble across.  And in this issue, it was something the very next night - a documentary on the upcoming manned spaceflight. The first American spaceflight, that is. Frank McGee, NBC's longtime space correspondent, hosts the Sunday evening program, seen on Minneapolis' Channel 5.


At this point it had been less than three weeks since the Russians had put Yuri Gagarin into orbit, and while this American suborbital flight would not be nearly as ambitious, it was extremely important to a nation suffering from a space inferiority complex. Notice that the announcement of the first American astronaut hadn't even been made public yet; the astronauts themselves knew it would be Alan Shepard, but only knew it would be either Shepard, Gus Grissom, or John Glenn. In fact those were the first three Americans to go into space, and at the time everyone thought Shepard had come out on top - it wasn't until Glenn's historic orbital flight that people realized he had been the big winner after all.

Even though we're expecting the penultimate space shuttle launch this weekend, I think that for the general public, the glamour and drama of space travel probably ended with the conclusion of the moon program at the end of 1972. Wild World of Sports, by contrast, would continue until 1998.

April 28, 2011

Sullivan's Travels

Right Here on Our Stage Tonight: Ed Sullivan’s America
by Gerald Nachman
University of California Press, 466 pages, $18.95 paperback

(review is of hardcover edition)

Jonah Goldberg once said, “Our lack of imagination about how different the future will look causes us to extend the present off into the future.” In the same sense, our knowledge of the present causes us to extend that knowledge to the past. Since this is the way it is now, it’s not hard to imagine that this is the way it’s always been.

And that’s the problem when it comes to appreciating someone such as Ed Sullivan; For anyone under the age of 40, the name Ed Sullivan is a notation in a history book, someone you’ve read about or seen but never really experienced ; Most people have probably seen clips from the Sullivan show (which ran on CBS for a staggering 23 seasons, from 1948 to 1971), particularly the four appearances by the Beatles in 1964-65, but even then what we’re seeing is nothing more than a reference point for a history that is already understood. We watch it on YouTube already knowing how it turns out, what kind of impact it makes, how the future plays out – but imagine seeing it for the first time, not understanding the chaos on the screen in front of us, wondering if it’s all just a fad while perhaps asking ourselves what the world is coming to. In other words, while today we watch in order to see what happened, back then people watched to see what was going to happen.

For millions, the Sullivan show was a window to a landscape many of them had never seen before, a world of Broadway plays and grand opera, dancers from Russia and puppets from Italy, ventriloquists and comedians and plate spinners and nightclub singers, stars that had been heard of but never seen, and others that had never been heard of but would never be forgotten. It was a show the whole family could watch and often did, not only for what was on at the moment, but what might come on next.

Clearly, we live in another world today, beholden to the past but with only the most tangential of resemblances. And so one might be forgiven for wondering why all the fuss about a man who had the stage presence of a cigar store Indian, moved in stiff, stilted gestures, and spoke in garbled sentences about that night’s “really big shew.” What can a dusty old show like that tell us that we don’t already know? Plenty, according to Gerald Nachman in his book, Right Here on Our Stage Tonight: Ed Sullivan’s America.