June 9, 2012

This week in TV Guide: June 8, 1963

I was walking through an antique store last weekend when I came upon a book with an unusual title: Hollywood Priest.  Well, when you see a title like that you're going to pick it up, as I suspect the author intended.  And that author, I was not surprised to find, was Fr. Ellwood Kieser.

I recognized the name immmediately. In 1960, Kieser began a modest, low-budget program called Insight which, at the time of this unsigned TV Guide profile, was entering its third year, given free of charge to some 100 channels throughout the United States.  Insight was one of those programs that always seemed to be on somewhere in the early decades of television, filling a gap between programs, usually on Sunday mornings.  It might flit from station to station, and you might see the same episodes from time to time, but if you watched enough television you were sure to run across it eventually.

What made Insight unusual was not just its religious message - after all, Bishop Fulton Sheen had been a major TV star in the 50s and early 60s - but Kieser's ability to get major Hollywood talent, Catholic and non-Catholic alike (Raymond Massey, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Jane Wyatt, Irene Dunne, John Forsythe), who appeared for scale and then donated it back, acting on low-budget, minimalist sets.  A typical story might involve an estranged family, a man contemplating suicide, or a woman tempted to shoplift - in other words, the drama of everyday life garnished with a moral messag.  "There are many conflicts in the 20th Century, but the basic conflicts are theological," Kieser is quoted as saying. "We have discovered that theological conflicts make great drama."  Its tone might have been earnest but was not especially preachy or moralizing; nonetheless, in its low-key way, it got the point across.  Early shows featured Kieser at the blackboard, Sheen-like, but by the second season he had evolved into giving Serlingesque introductions to each episode.

The tone of the article is admiring and respectful, with nary a hint of cynicism - almost too good to be true.  Kieser is portrayed as unassuming and modest, perhaps a bit nerdy ("I've found actors give better performances if you feed them."), but with an undeniable presence, as indicated by the story of an unnamed non-Catholic actress who after one rehearsal, tells Kieser she's decided to join the Church.

Hollywood Priest, which was written in 1991, gives us another, slightly different side of Ellwood Kieser.  His televison fame brought him a job providing network commentary on what was then called the "Ecumenical Council," i.e. Vatican II., and led to his producing several faith-themed movies, including biographical portrayals of Archbishop Oscar Ramiro and social worker Dorothy Day.  Insight itself wound up a 23-year run in 1983, winning six Emmys in the process.  

The book also detailed another side of Kieser, one that a more cynical article might have hinted at back in 1963.  Kieser's spiritual struggles in the wake of the changes wrought by the Council, including a romantic (but ultimately chaste) relationship with a nun - one of the hoariest cliches of the post-V2 Church.  Kieser considered breaking his vows, leaving the priesthood, marrying (he did none of them).  He dabbled in psychotherapy and the New Age.  He lived in the limelight, rode the talk-show circuit, and enjoyed it.

In a telling story, Kieser relates how he was once accused by a conservative Los Angeles monsignor of being one of those priests who "start out playing around with the liturgy. Next you question church doctrine. You end up dating nuns."  Said Kieser, "I was furious; partially, I guess, because I was doing all three."

Was this all present in 1963, when Kieser was a young priest on a television mission?  Did the writer miss it, or choose not to look at it?  Or was it all a product of the turbulent times, something just under the surface, waiting for the breakdown in discipline that the era brought, a breakdown that claimed many souls?  (Would the same thing, for example, have happened to Bing Crosby's Fr. O'Malley after Going My Way?  He is, after all, described in the movie as a "modern" priest.) We'll probably never know, but I'm reminded of the story of a bishop in the early 60s, one of the staunchest defenders of Church tradition, especially celibacy.  In the wake of the Pill, he was confronted by a climate that suggested the Church was about to change its mind on many of the principles which the bishop had fought so hard to defend.  By the time Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae came out in 1968, reaffirming the Church's opposition to birth control, the horses had been let out of the barn, so to speak.  The bishop wound up leaving the priesthood and marrying a former nun.

*****

If the ghosts of the near future were present in the article on Kieser, the ghosts of our near future might well have been present in an odd little story appearing on Sunday, June 9 on the Dupont Show of the Week.  Entitled "The Triumph of Gerald Q. Wert," and starring Art Carney, the story presents us with a dystopian future in which - well, let me give you the description that appears in the listings:
Gerald Q. Wert, the only comedian left on earth, finds his talents in great demand.  But plying his trade is dangerous.  The totalitarian regime has decreed that making people laugh is a crime punishable by death.  Now government agents are hot on his trail and a suspicious little boy has seen him hiding from the police.
Although there's undoubtedly a good deal of humor in this episode, it is not a comedy - far from it.  And I can't help but wonder about this; couldn't find anything on Google about it, no clips on YouTube, so I'm forced to rely on this listing for my information, but I wonder how close we are to something like this today?  The Thought Police and Speech Police are everywhere, the slightest suggestion of disrespect merits condemnation, and everyone seems a victim, sensitive about everything.  We're quick to anger,slow to forgive, disinclined to understand or make allowances.  Once we've reached that level of humorlessness, will we even need a regime to outlaw humor, or will we be content to do it ourselves?

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