Smith was a wonderfully humorous writer, and I would say that even if he hadn't written Rhubarb, the finest cat-baseball book ever written.* Here, he introduces us to the characters we've all met, every person who's ever offered a lame excuse as to why he knows everything about TV even though he "never watches it."
*The book, about a cat who inherits a baseball team, may also be the only cat-baseball book ever written, save the two sequels Smith wrote.
There's Ed Lashley, for example, who speaks favorably of Dean Martin, Gypsy Rose Lee and the soap Love of Life, even though he'd always sworn he'd never allow a television set in his house, and only relented because the live-in help insisted they couldn't live without one. But he makes them keep it in their apartment, not in the house.
"So," Allen asks him, "how's it happen you know all about Dean Martin and all these other shows?"
"Accident," he said. "Gustav and Margaret take their day off and that's the time of the week I go into their quarters and check on things. A man has to know what's going on under his own roof. So while I'm in there checking around, I just turn the thing on, just to have a little noise going for company while. . ."
And Sam Fennel, whose has a TV but "I almost never turn the thing on." Almost? Well, there was this time last week - "I was pooped. Young Sam and a couple of his pals lit out for Angelo's Pizza Palace and left the set going and I was about to switch it off and get to some office reading and this yarn came on, a G-man played by a pretty fair actor, fella with an unusual name, Ephriham Zimmerweiss, some damn thing like that. . ."
When Smith corrects him, telling him that the actor's name is Efrem Zimbalist Jr., his friends look at him "in an arch sort of way." One friend comments that it sounds as if he spends a fair amount of time with the boob tube.
"Sure," Smith replies. "Most evenings. And sometimes in broad daylight."
As I said, I'm automatically suspicious of people like this. First, they always seem to be smug about their non-TV watching, as if it somehow makes them not just more well-rounded, but better in some sense - even though you and I both know they're still sneaking a peek whenever they're on the computer*, or in a restaurant with a TV, or visiting friends. But there's also the suggestion of a willingness on their part to disengage with the rest of the world; they wear their ignorance of pop culture almost as a badge.
*I know of someone who insisted that her family didn't even own a television. Of course not - they sat around their computer's widescreen monitor while watching streaming video from Hulu. That didn't count, though.
I realize that there's a very fine line between being in the world and being of it, and when we watch TV indiscriminately, use it as a babysitter or worship it as an idol, we're in big trouble. But how can you hope to engage the world, to change it, to make it better, if you can't even understand the language people are speaking? I'll be the first to admit that my current TV consumption consists mostly of DVDs and MeTV, but that doesn't mean I keep my eyes closed and hands clamped over my ears. I do know something about Seinfeld and Friends and NCIS, even though I've never seen an episode of the first two and leave the room when my wife's watching the third. I make it my business to try and keep up somewhat with what's happening, at least enough to be able to nod sagaciously in the middle of a conversation and be relatively sure I haven't signed up with the Devil in doing so.
Besides, setting aside all the cultural and intellectual implications, there's something to be said for the simple act, as Smith writes, of walking into a room, turning on the TV, and preparing "for an evening of relaxation and . . . yes . . . enjoyment."
I don't usually take TV Guides from consecutive weeks of the same year but I'm making an exception this week, because I wanted to track the progression of Christmas programming throughout the season, and this should present us with a much more complete picture of how it really was.
Saturday it's all Christmas, all evening on NBC, starting at 6:30 (CT) with a rerun of the first animated Christmas special to become a holiday tradition, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. I've always loved this cartoon; Jim Backus, as the voice of Magoo, actually plays Scrooge pretty straight (except for a couple of very funny jokes about needing glasses), and for a 60 minute cartoon it's a very faithful adaptation of the story. Also unusual for a TV carton are the first-rate Broadway-quality songs, not surprising since they were written by Broadway vets Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. At 7:30 Bonanza star Lorne Green hosts the UNICEF Children's Choir in the appropriately named Christmas With Lorne Greene. I saw a few minutes of this on a video compilation some years ago. Cheesy, but in an endearing way. And at 8pm "Saturday Night At The Movies" presents the visually dazzling White Christmas, starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. Not one of my favorite Yuletide movies, I have to admit, and someday I'll give you my psychological interpretation of why Rosie Clooney's character is so afraid of commitment and has a hero-father complex.
On Sunday it's another animated blockbuster, CBS's How the Grinch Stole Christmas, wonderfully narrated by Boris Karloff and, in only its second viewing, already well on the way to becoming a Christmas classic. Monday night features Dickens' other Christmas story, The Cricket on the Hearth, hosted by Danny Thomas on NBC. It's a fondly remembered cartoon by those who've seen it; for some reason it never became a tradition as did so many of these cartoons.*
*Interesting thing about those shows, by the way - there's no consistency to how they're listed in TV Guide. Cricket on the Hearth, for example, is listed as "Danny Thomas - Cartoon", while The Grinch appears as "Christmas Cartoon" and Magoo is "Magoo's Christmas Carol." Some presentations of the Nutcracker will be listed as "The Nutcracker" and other times it will be something like "Christmas Ballet." As I said, no consistency at all - didn't they use a style book?
Tuesday ABC offers A Christmas Memory (more about that below). and CBS counters with Red Skelton's Christmas show, with songs by Howard Keel. Wednesday, the sensational Mitzi Gaynor hosts the Christmas edition of the Kraft Music Hall, with special guests Cyril Ritchard and Ed McMahon. Thursday it's Dean Martin's turn, as he's joined in a holiday songfest by his old friend Frank Sinatra, Frank's kids (Nancy, Tina and Frank Jr.) and Dean's family (daughters Gail and Deana, son Dino Jr., and wife Jeanne). (Interestingly enough, this is not the Dean Martin Christmas show that's currently available on DVD.) And Dragnet presents a new, color version of its classic Christmas episode "The Big Little Jesus," about a church with a missing statue of the infant Jesus. Friday night CBS presents a one-hour adaptation of "The Nutcracker" (or "Christmas Ballet," if you prefer), hosted by Eddie Albert and starring Edward Villella.
Then, of course, there's local programming - and plenty of it.
*My high school choir appeared on one of these concerts in the early 70s, while I was a student there; the highlight was when the show ran short, and to fill the extra time they had to sing the second verse of a carol which they hadn't rehearsed and whose lyrics they didn't know. Hilarious, appalling and even a little pathetic, all at the same time.
Not all music, though; on Tuesday afternoon Channel 8 in LaCrosse (WKBT) had "Christmas Food Hints," and KECY was back on Friday afternoon with the Rotary Club's annual Christmas party for crippled children.
Truman Capote has not one but two adaptations of his work this week, both on ABC. On Sunday night Xerox presents the first run of Among the Paths to Eden, starring Martin Balsam and Maureen Stapleton in the story of a middle-aged man visiting the graveside of his wife, and a middle aged woman who wanders the graveyard, looking for a lonely widower who wants to marry again.
For several years at my former place of work, I was forced to read this story at our office party, and after that for assorted other groups. For those of you who've never met me (which would be almost all of you, I suspect), let me mention that I do have a nice speaking voice, and having given many public speeches over the years I'm very comfortable reading to a group. So I looked over the text, never having read it before myself. I noted where I might want to put some vocal inflections in, and how I might want to read certain passages.* (It's a short story, probably no more than 20 minutes to read.)
*Thankfully, I didn't watch the DVD of the show (available on the bootleg market), which is narrated by Capote. No telling what kind of verbal tics I might have developed listening to him.
So the first time I read it, it was fine. Not my kind of story, a little cloying and sentimental, but OK. And I'm a ham at heart, so I didn't mind being asked to read. The second time, I found myself slightly embarrassed having to read some of those passages. The third time, I started to wonder if it might be more entertaining if I did read it like Truman Capote. I think I read it five times in all, and by the end of that fifth time I really, really hated that story. Part of it, of course, was the repetition. Some of it was because I didn't particularly like the people at my office who'd asked me to read. And the job ended badly, which at least meant I didn't have to read the damn story anymore.
Apparently I read it well enough that people thought I really enjoyed it, and they gave me a copy of the book as a gift. I never like to throw books away, so I'm happy to report that I donated it to a book sale, and I'm sure whomever wound up with it is just as moved as many others supposedly are. As for me, I'd rather read the death scenes from In Cold Blood.
During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..
Ed Sullivan: Scheduled: Joel Grey of the Broadway musical "Cabaret"; singers Patti Page, Spanky and Our Gang, the Kim Sisters and the Berlin Mozart Choir; impressionist David Frye; comedians Richard Pryor, and Stiller and Meara; and puppet Topo Gigio..
Hollywood Palace: It's family night at the Palace as host Bing Crosby introduces his wife, Kathryn, daughter Mary Francis and sons Harry and Nathaniel. Also on hand: the singing King Family, comic Louis Nye, Adam "Batman" West and the Marquis Chimps..
No discussion required. None at all. To choose against Bing at Christmas? The verdict: The Palace, without a doubt.
The NFL season concluded on a note of high drama. The Baltimore Colts were in pursuit of football's Holy Grail - an undefeated season. Perhaps the magnitude of this quest has been diminished somewhat over the years, with undefeated regular seasons by the Miami Dolphins (in 1972) and New England Patriots (2007), but in 1967 this was a big deal. Entering the final week of the season Baltimore's record stood at 11-0-2*; they had already tied the league record for the longest unbeaten streak in a single season, and only the Los Angeles Rams stood in the way of a historic season. But the stakes, if you can imagine, were even higher than that. The Rams were in second place in the NFL's Coastal Division, with a record of 10-1-2; the two teams had tied earlier in the season, and under the NFL's playoff format only the winners of the four divisions (Coastal, Capitol, Century, Central) qualified for the playoffs. Therefore, the winner of the game would also win the division and advance to the playoffs; for the loser, the season would be over. Naturally, with all this on the line, CBS had its cameras in Los Angeles to cover the action.
*Today, for purposes of calculating winning percentage, a tie game is considered a half-win and half-loss. However, back in 1967, tie games were not included in the calculations. Therefore, a Colts victory would have given then a 1.000 percentage; not technically a "perfect" season, but an historic unbeaten one nonetheless.
For football fans, there really was no choice required - this game was it. The Colts were my second-favorite team in those days (next to the Green Bay Packers, who could do no wrong), and I was passionately rooting for them. The outcome, sadly, was never in doubt. The Rams raced to a 17-7 halftime lead and coasted to a 34-10 victory. It was the end not only of Baltimore's unbeaten season, but their championship dreams as well. In the end, however, revenge would be mine. The Rams, entering the playoffs as heavy favorites, were forced to travel to Milwaukee to take on the two-time defending champion Packers*, who routed them 28-7. The next week Green Bay would defeat Dallas in the famous Ice Bowl, en route to yet another Super Bowl triumph.
*Home field advantage was determined not by best record, but was rotated between divisions. Thus Green Bay, although they'd finished the regular season at 9-4-1 and had lost to the Rams two weeks before, had home field for both this game and the Ice Bowl the next week.
At the beginning of 1967, 32% of Americans disapproved of the Vietnam War. By December 1967, that figure had risen to 44% One year later it would be over 50%. Every month in 1967, at least 400 American soldiers died in action. This is not a political statement, just a reminder that the real world intrudes - even in the week before Christmas, 1967.
And finally, in the "Famous Last Words" category, a profile of Tonight sidekick Ed McMahon includes this comment from an unnamed critic: "Ed is not a very good announcer. His makeup - physically and in the way he talks - doesn't really have the symbol of the announcer type the networks are looking for. Ed is a very lucky man." Well, let's see: he continued on with Johnny Carson for another 25 years after this article, hosted Star Search for 12 seasons, did TV Bloopers and Practical Jokes with Dick Clark for 16 years, appeared with Jerry Lewis on his Labor Day Telethon until 2008, and hawked the American Family Publishers sweepstakes for years. When he died, Conan O'Brien remarked that it was "impossible, I think, for anyone to imagine The Tonight Show . . .without Ed McMahon."
I guess we should all be so lucky.