June 30, 2012

This week in TV Guide: July 4, 1964

James Lileks once said that every lawyer's secret dream was to have the theme to Perry Mason played at his funeral, and I've no reason to think this isn't the case. After all, according to the cover of this week's issue, Perry Mason was "The Indestructible Hero." But part one of Dwight Whitney's two-part profile of Mason deals not with its star, Raymond Burr, but its creator, Erle Stanley Gardner.

In 1964 Gardner was 74 and still going strong, pumping out Mason mysteries on a regular basis. (Whitney reports he dictates "several books a year.") To date, Gardner had written 73 Perry Mason books, having sold over 100 million copies. Mason served Gardner well; it got him four homes, including a ranch in northern California and a house in Palm Springs. We think we know Mason, having seen Ray Burr play him for nine seasons, but until the birth of the series in 1957, Gardner hadn't even bothered to describe what he looked like, other than that he was big and broad-shouldered.

We can't imagine anyone other than Burr as Mason, but several actors played him in a series of movies which weren't really very good. (Take my word for it.) There was a Mason radio series for several years, which made it to television (sans Perry) under the title The Edge of Night and ran for 28 years. There was even a Mason comic strip. In fact, Raymond Burr didn't even try out originally for the role of Mason, but for Mason's nenesis, the hapless D.A. Hamilton Burger. The story goes that Gardner took one look at Burr, who was allowed to audition for Mason as well, and said, "That's Perry Mason." The rest, of course, is history.

Saturday was Independence Day, and of course there was baseball: the Twins taking on the New York Yankees. The Yankees would win the American League that season, the Twins the next. Neither would win the World Series. I would have enjoyed that week's Wide World of Sports, which featured the 24 Hours of Le Mans. That is, if I watched it at all - I was only four, after all. Otherwise, there's surprisingly little holiday programming, save Lawrence Welk's tribute to American music. Not so surprising, perhaps, at that; most people were probably out at parades, picnics, or fireworks shows. Community was important, back then.

The Republican National Convention was only a week away, scheduled to start on July 13, which (considering the luck the GOP had that year) should have been a Friday but was instead a Monday. It's hard to imagine now, but conventions used to be in the summer back then, not right around Labor Day. It's also hard to imagine, but comingto this convention there was no guarantee as to who was going to win. The favorite (and eventual winner) was Barry Goldwater, but he was facing a challenge from Pennsylvania governor William Scranton, a surrogate of New York's liberal governor Nelson Rockefeller, who had jumped into the race only a couple of weeks earlier.

This was, in significant ways, a landmark convention for the GOP. It was the first time the liberal and conservative wings of the party had truly duked it out in public, and it was one of the first times w saw a real hostility toward the media by the convention delegates (Dwight Eisenhower, in his speech to the convention, made passing mention to not allowing the media to exploit the party's fissures in public; the moment electrified the delegates, who started booing and shaking their fists upward at the network broadcasting booths.) Goldwater's defeat left the Republicans in truly horrific shape; the recovery would began with Nixon's victory in 1968, and finally come to fruition with Reagan's win in 1980.

The convention promised high drama, and the networks were ready; NBC planned to televise the Platform Committee's hearings all week, and ABC offered a couple of hours of previews. But CBS had what was, for my money, the most poignant (to our modern sensibilities) show: an hour of highlights of "Great Conventions" of the past - famous speeches, platform battles, floor fights, multiple ballots decided in smoke-filled rooms. The idea that conventions used to be dramatic, tense, battles for the heart and soul of a political party, with the outcome often in doubt until the last minute - well, for political junkies like me it's kind of sad. Today a political convention is as relevant as, say, the major league baseball All-Star Game.

Which just happened to be on Tuesday of that week, July 7, from New York's spanking new Shea Stadium, a picture of which merited a full page in TV Guide. The game, which was played in daytime and started at 11:45 a.m. Central time, was actually appointment television back then; in the days when most people only saw the Saturday afternoon Game of the Week unless you lived near a major league team, which might televise 25 or 30 games a year, it was a rare treat to see baseball's biggest names, and for those who did have a local team, it was the only time, other than the World Series, when you got to see the other league's players.

I think this year's All-Star Game is next week. I think it's in Kansas City. I know there's a home-run hitting contest that will run about an hour longer than necessary, and that Chris Berman will drive people to turn off their hearing aids (that being the typical demographic of today's baseball fans), and that there's a red carpet show and all kinds of Fox TV stars sitting in the stands, and that the winning league gets home-field advantage in the World Series. It sounds as if the All-Star Game has a lot going for it. Everything but relevance, interest, and a reason to watch it.
 
I hear there are a couple of political coventions coming up in a couple of months, too.

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