February 27, 2012

When the government was the "good guys"

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One of the stated goals of this blog is to analyze how television interacts with American culture - the ways in which it forms it, and the ways in which it reflects it.  This is one of those times when we look at the later.

It's all prompted by the death earlier this month of the actor Peter Breck, who was probably best known for playing Nick Barkley in the 60s western series The Big Valley.  But prior to that, on November 4, 1963, Breck starred in an episode of The Outer Limits entitled "O.B.I.T."  The opening narration presents the premise:

In this room, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, security personnel at the Defense Department Cyprus Hill's Research Center keep constant watch on its scientists through O.B.I.T., a mysterious electronic device whose very existence was carefully kept from the public at large. And so it would have remained but for the facts you are about to witness…
And there's a very good reason why O.B.I.T. is kept secret: the machine "allows the observation of anyone, anywhere, at any time."  Breck enters the story as U.S. Senator Jeremiah Orville, whose committee is on the scene to investigate the murder of the center's administrator.  During the course of the investigation, Orville uncovers the truth about O.B.I.T. - that the machine is in reality controlled by "imperialistic inhabitants" of another planet, who are using their human pawns (as aliens from other planets so often do) to gain control of the planet.




Now, what I find interesting about this story - and the point I'm trying to make here, although I may not be doing it very well - is that there is no question about Orville being the protagonist of the story, as the dogged senator determined to get to the bottom of things and find out the truth about the strange goings-on at the facility.  His presence presents the clear message that one doesn't screw around with the United States Government.  At the end of the episode, the government smashes the conspiracy, and we are assured that "Agents of the Justice Department are rounding up the machines now."  There is, in fact, something charming about this idea - that a U.S. Senator, and the government in general, are "the good guys."  Today it's far more likely that the government itself would be portrayed as instigating the development of such an all-pervasive surveilance machine, and that the senator (or the military, at the very least) would more likely than not be involved in a cover-up of the whole thing.

That's what I like about "O.B.I.T." - it's taken for granted that the government is there to find out the truth, and once accomplished they'll see to it that the threat is destroyed.*  The assassinations of the two Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and a host of other events have yet to occur, and the general cynicism with which the government is observed today has not yet become all-encompassing.  In fact, as author James Pierson notes in his book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, in the early 60s the government enjoyed a high approval rating from the public, who also had a great confidence that the government knew what it was doing.

*Author Mark Holcomb, in his excellent summaries of Outer Limits episodes, points out the McCarthy-era subtext in the story, which certainly isn't intended to show the government in the best light.  However, he also notes the evolution of Orville "from publicity-seeking sham to deeply concerned crusader."  This is, in fact, quite a nuanced episode in many respects, but I think the larger point remains: that Orville is from the government and is here to help.

And it's through this lens that one has to view this episode.  It reminds me a great deal of one of my favorite series, The FBI.  If you remember that show, you might recall that each week the series opened with the mission of the FBI.: "[T]o protect the innocent and identify the enemies of the Government of the United States."  That, combined with the images used in the opening (the Washington Monument, the Capitol, the Supreme Court and Treasury buildings) was enough to make any red-blooded American race out and sign up to be an FBI agent, even though it was Sunday evening and the offices were closed.

Today, we'd probably see the show for what it was, in part - a piece of Hoover-era propaganda designed to put the Bureau in the best possible light.  Just as we'd expect O.B.I.T. to be a product of a conspiracy involving the government and the military.  If anyone was to uncover it, it would probably either be an intrepid newspaper reporter, an intrepid group of high school civics students, or perhaps both.

We're right to be suspicious of government, for in many respects it has evolved into something the Founding Fathers would scarcely recognize, an invasive, intrusive, often malignant presence in the lives of Americans.  However, for better or worse we didn't always feel that way.  This episode of The Outer Limits, I think, accurately reflects how we saw the government back then - as a force for good, protecting us from threats to life and limb.  It's hard to imagine we could see an episode quite like this today.

February 25, 2012

This week in TV Guide: February 24, 1968

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The Doan Report, TV Guide's industry-insider column, surveyed the landscape of the coming television season.  What would the fall of 1968 bring?  "Variations on the familiar," was the verdict.  Since television was dominated by westerns, cop shows, science fiction and sitcoms, the future would bring: westerns, copy shows, science fiction and sitcoms. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, as the French say. 

In those early weeks of 1968, one thing was clear: television had to appeal to "the uninvolved young."  And so there were shows like ABC's The Mod Squad, "about a group of Los Angeles cops who police the hippies."  Or at least TV's idea of hippies.

Anyway, you get the picture.  And, surprisingly, many of the shows that were previewed in The Doan Report actually made it to air, and some of them stuck around for more than a cup of coffee.   The Mod Squad ran for five seasons.  NBC's effort to illustrate cops dealing with the young was Adam-12, which made it through seven seasons.  CBS offered Hawaii Five-O (the original, not the cheap remake), and that was the most successful of all, running all the way until 1980.*  Not everything came to pass; CBS was looking at an auto-racing drama called The Big Prize, and a sci-fi show entitled Man of the 25th Century.  If you've heard of either of those, please call me.

What else?  Well, on Leap Day, Carol Channing starred in an ABC special that had originally been set to air in November but was postponed by an industry strike.  Peter O'Toole and Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore!) starred in Noel Coward's play Present Laughter(Imagine that on network TV today.)  Joan Crawford guests on The Lucy Show.  That's Lucille Ball, for you kids out there.  And there's an argument in the Letters to the Editor section about the relative patriotism of the Smothers Brothers.

*Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, would run for president in 1968.  As he would in 1980.  That should tell you something about the lifespan of Hawaii Five-O.

And on each day, from Monday through Friday, there's a small ad featuring a resigned-looking Joey Bishop.  "The Joey Bishop Show.  Live in color, from Hollywood."

There was more to Joey Bishop than the Rat Pack, of course - otherwise, he wouldn't have been on the cover of TV Guide for February 24, 1968. He was a successful nightclub comedian, a not-so-successful sitcom star, and a longtime talk show host. For a generation, in fact, he was probably best known as Johnny Carson's perennial substitute, pinch-hitting for him over 200 times. And, in fact, from 1967 through 1969 he went head-to-head five nights a week as Carson's competition, hosting his own talkfest on ABC. (Fact number one: Joey's sidekick was the young Regis Philben. Fact number two: the first guest on Joey's show was none other than Governor Reagan himself, who due to a scheduling snafu was 14 minutes late to the live telecast.)

This issue of TV Guide offers a profile of Bishop that provides us with a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the talk show. However, it also gives us a portrait that is at odds with the conventional wisdom surrounding Bishop's show. For the conventional wisdom is that Carson was insurmountable, that Bishop's show was merely one in a long line of failed attempts to challeng the King of Late Night (preceded by Crane, soon to be followed by Cavett, Griffin, Thicke, Sajak, Rivers, Hall, et al). Brooks and Marsh, in their indespensible Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, state that "Joey limped along for more than two years, never posting much of a threat" to Carson. According to CNN's 2007 obit, "despite an impressive guest list and outrageous stunts, Bishop couldn't dent Carson's ratings." And that, as I said, has become the established school of thought.

Except, according to Richard Warren Lewis' story, it wasn't necessarily so. It was true that Bishop premiered on April 17, 1967, and that it wasn't met by a great deal of enthusiasm. (One-third of ABC's affiliates chose not to air the show at its premiere.) The critics of the time pronounced it a "turkey."

But, slowly, it started to turn around. As Lewis notes, "Six months after that shaky start, Bishop was seriously challenging Carson both in the battle for ratings and late-night advertisers' dollars." (Emphasis added.) According to the industry experts, Bishop had found a unique niche, a "totally different audience" that the urbane Carson (who, ironically, was thought to face the same challenge when he replaced Jack Paar, who at the time was seen as far more urbane than Carson). While Carson appealed to the sophisticated viewer, Bishop's audience resided in the outlying areas, the Bible Belt, flyover country.

Big names of the time such as Gregory Peck and Omar Sharif appeared on Bishop's show. Paar himself came out of semiretirement to trade jokes for an hour. When David Janssen, on the night of The Fugitive's final episode, appeared live with Joey, the ratings topped Carson's in New York for the first time. The picture painted by Lewis' article is an optimistic one, of a show on the rise, a show to be taken seriously as a threat to Carson's five-year run of supremacy.

But it didn't last.  Carson, reacting to any possibility of competition, put pressure on potential guests.  As TVParty's Billy Ingram told me, "Anyone booked on Bishop's show would find themselves persona non grata at the Tonight Show - unless they were a gue star, and in that case they would be temporarily sidelined or had to promise not to appear on the Bishop show for some period of time after a Tonight Show appearance."  By the end of the next year Bishop was gone, replaced for 1970 by the intellectuals' favorite, Dick Cavett.

Now, Lewis' story itself is not without its flaws; he makes a point of referring to Bishop's custom of wearing a black tie for every show since a priest had presented it to him on opening night, yet on the cover of the issue, Bishop is pictured behind the host's desk, interviewing a guest, wearing a red tie. So I suspect that, as is so often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between.

One thing is sure, however. Bishop's show was not the unmitigated disaster, the eternally ratings-challenged program that many make it out to be. And so perhaps we should be a bit kinder to the memory of Joey Bishop's talk show, and smile as indeed we do whenever we remember his presence with the Rat Pack, and remember what it feels like to be young again.

February 21, 2012

Hogan's Heroes - the final episode

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I do have a point to this piece, although it takes me a while to get to it - just bear with me.  It starts, unlikely enough, with the Isaac Asimov Super Quiz.  I don’t know how many of you have the Isaac Asimov Super Quiz in your newspapers, but a while back there was one that that dealt with final episodes of TV series. You might think that this would be a quiz in which the Cultural Archaeologist would have excelled; if you’d had that thought, you’d have been wrong. I owe it to the abundance of questions featuring series from a year starting with 2. (Frankly, it’s been about twenty years since I’ve watched any current series with any kind of regularity. I don’t say this boastfully, except to note that most of what passes for TV nowadays is crap. I still prefer the oldies but goodies, which is another reason why I get down on my knees every night and thank God for the DVD.

Anyway, back to the quiz - none of us sitting around the table that day did very well, but it did instigate an interesting question – what TV series do you think should have had final episodes? The phenomenon known as the “final episode” is a fairly new innovation, relatively speaking. Can you think of the final episode of I Love Lucy? Gunsmoke? The Beverly Hillbillies? Does Lucy leave Desi, is Matt gunned down on Main Street, does Jed hit rock bottom as oil prices collapse? These series didn’t require any kind of resolution; they left you with the impression that things would continue more or less the same forever.

Today, it’s almost obligatory that a long-running series gets to call it quits with a finale, often taking up two or three times the length of a normal episode.  Some, like St. Elsewhere and Newhart, end in a delightfully surrealistic manner.  M*A*S*H ended with the end of the Korean War, albeit a few years overdue.  Seinfeld’s final episode was, to many, disappointing.  The last episode of Cheers was probably better known for the drunken afterparty.

One of the first major series to introduce a final episode was, if I’m not mistaken, Route 66.  In that final story, shown in March 1964, Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) calls it a day after four years of crisscrossing America behind the wheel of a Corvette.  Having finally found that place where he belongs, he pulls off the road for the last time and settles down in Tampa with Barbara Eden. (And if you remember Barbara Eden from I Dream of Jeannie, then you’ll agree that this is not such a bad way to settle down.) And that’s a nice way to end the series – logical, low-key, and inevitable

The most famous final episode is probably that of The Fugitive, in which Richard Kimball finally catches up with the One-Armed Man. (Sorry if I’ve ruined it there for you.) This made sense; the whole series was about Kimball’s dual quests to clear his own name and to find the man who actually killed his wife, all the time while escaping from the relentless Lt. Gerard. The final episode of The Fugitive was the highest rated program ever seen on television at the time, and remained so for many years. The lesson for television executives and producers alike: final episodes could be profitable as well as fun.

One series that definitely deserved a final episode was a 1967 mid-season replacement called Coronet Blue. It starred Frank Converse as an amnesiac trying to find out who he was and why people were trying to kill him. (Think The Bourne Identity, which once again proves there’s nothing new under the sun.) Converse’s only clue was a piece of paper he was found clutching, with the words “Coronet Blue” written on it. Coronet Blue was thrown on almost as an afterthought by CBS, with little publicity or notice, and only after it had been sitting on the shelf for months. It went on the air and immediately became the smash hit of the summer. By that time, however, all those involved with the show had gone on to other projects, since there’d been no particular reason to think they’d be needed again. Despite best efforts, they were never able to pull everyone together to continue the series, or even offer a one-shot episode resolving the loose ends. Today, they’d probably get together for a big-screen movie.
 
But the series I’d most have liked to see come up with a final episode was the long-running sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. I’ve never been ashamed to admit that Hogan was, and remains, one of my all-time favorites. It was the first series I got in its entirety on DVD; the acting was superb, the writing often brilliant, the plots usually literate and clever and frequently downright hilarious. The cast – Bob Crane as Hogan, Werner Klemperer as Klink, John Banner as Schultz, Klink’s nemeses General Burkhalter and Major Hochstetter (Leon Askin and Howard Caine) and the whole cast of heroes (Robert Clary, Richard Dawson, Larry Hovis, Ivan Dixon and Kenneth Washington) were uniformly great.

The last episode, airing on July 4, 1971 could have been any particular episode from that final season, and in fact there’s no reason to think it was conceived any other way. The show had been around for six years and, like most extended-run shows, was beginning to show its age, the ratings had begun to fade, and the cancellation was not particularly unexpected. In other words, a perfect candidate for a wrap-up episode.

So what would that final episode have been like? Well, many of the major events of the war had come and gone during Hogan’s run, including D-Day. The Allies might have come to liberate the camp, or they might simply have terminated Hogan’s assignment (the POWs, you recall, were stationed at Stalag 13, posing as prisoners but in reality operating a massive underground commando and espionage ring). Myself, I prefer to think of the series concluding with the end of the war; Burkhalter and Hochstetter, being true believers in the Nazi regime, probably would have been taken prisoner themselves by the Allies. (In reality, they might have committed suicide, but let’s not make this too realistic.)

Hogan and his men probably would have vouched for Schultz, who really was just a working man at a job he didn’t particularly like, and possibly even Klink, who when all was said and done didn’t really bear the POWs any real malice; he was too incompetent to have done too much harm. The men would have been lauded as true heroes for their daring behind-the-lines escapades, none more so than Colonel Robert Hogan himself. Already a full colonel, it’s reasonable to assume that Hogan would have come out of the war at least a Brigadier General, with a brilliant future should he decide to stay in the service. The Army, recognizing what it had on its hands, would have made the most of the photogenic, dynamic Hogan. (An earlier episode had actually involved the brass bringing Hogan back home, cashing in on his accomplishments by having him lead bond drives throughout the country.)

And where do things go from there? There certainly would have been a book about such an audacious assignment, just as there was with A Bridge Too Far, A Man Called Intrepid, The Great Escape and other true war stories, probably called, simply, Hogan’s Heroes, by General Robert Hogan as told to David Halberstam. In due course, a movie would have been made based on the book, and it’s fun to speculate on who would have played Hogan in the movie. (Greg Kinnear, anyone? Probably more likely Kirk Douglas.) Hogan might have served in Korea, flying the same kinds of bomber missions he flew in Europe during WWII; on the other hand, he probably would have already been back in Washington, with a high-level job in the Pentagon.

Come the early 60s, Hogan would still have been only about 50. JFK, who also recognized talent when he saw it, might have made Hogan his Air Force aide, working directly out of the White House. (I'll bet they would have had some adventures together.) Our co-blogger Steve suggests that Hogan might have been in charge of the Bay of Pigs invasion, which would have meant that the fiasco would have been averted, Castro toppled, and Cuba liberated. Without Castro and the CIA working behind the scenes, JFK doesn’t meet his death at the hands of conspirators in Dallas, and as we all know that means no expanded war in Vietnam. (Yeah, right.)

See how easy this is? The world as we know it changes completely! Kennedy goes through with his plan to dump LBJ from the ticket in 1964, choosing instead the charismatic Senator from Minnesota, Hubert Humphrey. Bobby lives, not being shot in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, because it is JFK’s loyal Vice President Humphrey who becomes the unanimous choice to continue the legacy of the New Frontier. (Bobby continues as Senator from New York, even providing consultation with that young Clinton fellow from Arkansas who’d had his picture taken with JFK that time. Bobby and Bill fly to Hollywood often and hang out with friends.

The Republicans, of course, turn to Richard Nixon as the best bet to unseat Humphrey and end eight years of Democratic dominance. In a peaceful campaign prosperity becomes the number one issue, and the voters decide to give the Republicans and their tax breaks a chance, electing Nixon as president. True to form, Nixon immediately sees an opportunity to wreak havoc on his enemies, even authorizing a burglary at Democratic headquarters at the Watergate. (What was that about history changing?) The country in a shambles, being led by the president who pardoned the man responsible for it, the people turn to someone they can trust: Robert Hogan, the now-retired military hero, the man who has always stayed above politics, the most trusted man in America (next to Walter Cronkite). And with him, the charismatic former actor and governor of California, Ronald Reagan. What a match! Hogan and Reagan – or is it Reagan and Hogan? Whatever. Happy days are here again.

All that from a simple half-hour sitcom. See why it’s so important for series to have final episodes? You can never tell how history could turn out differently.

February 20, 2012

John Glenn's orbital flight - 50 years ago today

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Readers of Our Word know I'm a big space buff, and so it didn't escape my attention that today is the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's first flight into space - the first American to orbit the earth.  It's hard today to imagine what an effect this had on the nation - Tom Wolfe, in The Right Stuff, writes about how New York poliemen actually wept during the tickertape parade the city held for Glenn. 

The great site Television Obscurities has the story of the television coverage, along with footage from CBS' telecast.  The issue of TV coverage is a significant one; the Russians, leading the space race, were extraordinarily secretive about the whole thing (what a surprise).  A major factor in the American space program was its openness - this flight, like all others, would be done not in secret, but out in the open, on television.  Its success, or its failure, would be there for all to see.  And there were failures, in the early days, with many of the unmanned launches.  People saw rockets exploding on the launch pad, failing to reach orbit, spinning out of control - and the Russians laughed.  (Khruschev called one failed attempt "Kaputnik," a pun on the successful Soviet satellite Sputnik.)

But on February 20, 1962, the world saw Glenn's success.  It may have been insignificant compared to Soviet accomplishments (Gherman Titov, the second cosmonaut, orbited the earth for an entire day, far more than Glenn's three orbits), but it showed that the Americans were players in the space race.  As UPI noted, "merely recording the event in a free and open way, the United States scored an enormous propaganda victory."

Here's some archival footage of Glenn's launch.
 

February 18, 2012

This week in TV Guide: February 17, 1968

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On the cover this week are the two stars of The FBI, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and William Reynolds, although judging by the background one would be forgiven for thinking that they were starring in a series about Grand Prix racers.  (By the way, for an excellent review of The FBI and the role played in the series by director J. Edgar Hoover, check out this series from our friends at TVParty.)

Across the top of the cover is a blurb for "The Most Outlandish Game Show Yet," which turns out to be ABC's Treasure Isle.  Not only did the show take place outdoors, it was staged on a one-and-a-half acre man-made lagoon in Palm Beach.  Probably the most interesting item we find out is that the show was financed and packaged for $800,000 by John D. MacArthur, who's probably better known as the founder of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, supporter of many programs over the years on public television.  MacArthur's brother was Charles MacArthur, playwright and co-author of The Front Page  Charles MacArthur was married to the actress Helen Hayes, and their son James MacArthur played Danno on Hawaii Five-0.  When your geneology is more interesting than the TV show you created, you know you're in trouble.


The most notable program that week, although nobody knew it at the time, was an NBC made-for-TV movie on Tuesday called Prescription: Murder.  Judith Crist, TV Guide's longtime movie critic, noted that the movie had not been made available for preview by NBC, meaning that she'd have to stick to the facts without being able to advise potential views of the "wonders you may or may not behold."  She reported that the movie "stars Gene Barry as a doctor who murders his wife."  And that's true, as far as it goes.  What she didn't mention is that the murder is investigated by a detective named Columbo.  The listing doesn't even suggest that the movie's a pilot.  But the rest, as they say, is history.

Although made-for-TV movies were really making an impact by 1968, the big movies were still the ones coming from the theaters.  This week, the big news was the network television premiere on ABC of Shane, the landmark western starring Alan Ladd and Van Heflin.  As Crist pointed out, Shane was "the original source for many of the cliches of subseuent Westers - cliches that in the original are matters of inspiration, of genius and of art."  But that wasn't all, as CBS countered with Steve McQueen's WW2 hit The Great Escape, "offered again uncut in two installments, each supplemented by equally pleasing short subjects."  Although it's hard to imaging having to wait two nights to see a single movie, that was pretty common back in the day: running a long movie in two parts over two nights if it wouldn't fit into a two-hour time slot, except for Saturday and Sunday, when networks were more willing to let a movie run into the local news slot.  And those short films that the nets would use to fill up the rest of the time slot.  Sometimes TV Guide would note what the films were - in this case, part 1 was followed by a short cartoon, part 2 by "'Rainshower,' a 15-minute featurette honored at the Chicago Film Festival."  Quaint.  I probably wasn't watching it though; the state high school hockey tournament was on Channel 11, the independent station, on both nights.

What else?  On Saturday, ABC pre-empted the Pro Bowlers Tour for the penultimate day of the Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France.  The last day, including the closing ceremonies, would be shown Sunday afternoon from 1-3pm, followed by pro basketball - a little different than the saturation coverage we get today, hmm?  And then there were these two curious items: on Tuesday afternoon, CBS presented "the 19th annual Busy Lady Bake-Off."  Now, I've heard of the Pillsbury Bake-Off, but the Busy Lady?  Turns out a Google search suggests they're the same thing.  I wonder if this was a way for TV Guide to avoid the commercial mention for Pillsbury, or if the company itself billed the contest this way.  And then there's a musical version of Robin Hood airing on NBC Sunday night (in place of Walt Disney and The Mothers-In-Law).  It has a great pedigree: songs by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, and featured a who's who of familiar 60s names - Noel Harrison, Roddy McDowall, Steve Forrest, Walter Slezak, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Arte Johnson and Victor Buono in supporting roles.  But in the starring role of Robin Hood - David WatsonWho?  I'd never heard of him until checking him on Wikipedia, and it turns out that he had a pretty good pedigree on the legitimate stage and was one of the apes in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (taking Roddy McDowall's place, it should be noted), but his TV career seems limited to guest roles in various shows.  Well, you learn something new every day.

And one final note, just a small one.  "Communications experts seem increasingy agreed that closed-circuit TV (CATV) will gradually replace the over-the-air kind,"  Richard Doan writes.  And what would this new, "cable" TV mean besides the end of ghostly reception and the ability to beam signals into remote rural locations?  "It would mean the view would pay for his piped-in TV, much as he now pays for lights and phone service."  Not everything that TV Guide predicted came true - but this certainly did.  But many thought that three networks constituted a vast wasteland - could they have possibly foreseen the scorched earth that the future would bring?

February 13, 2012

A real Mickey-Mouse broadcast

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The cultural historian Karal Ann Marling (a fellow Minnesotan, by the way) wrote a very good book back in 1996 called As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s.  It's not really about television, at least not in the way that we often talk about it here.  For the most part, rather than talking about television in the 50s, Marling is referring to the cultural mileposts that we would have seen on television - things such as fashion, cars, and Elvis.

It really is a fascinating book, one that I'd like to write about at more length sometime.  For today, though, I'd like to call your attention to a television broadcast that Marling does write about at some length - the grand opening of Disneyland on July 17, 1955.



The opening was broadcast live on ABC from 7:30 - 9:00 that Sunday evening, hosted by Art Linkletter, Bob Cummings and Ronald Reagan.  It was fitting, since ABC had helped to underwrite the construction of the park through its contract with Disney, signed in 1954, in which Disneyland agreed to produce a weekly television show in return for ABC's financial support.  Cleverly, Disney called his program Disneyland, which by sheer coincidence just happened to also be the name of his budding amusement park.  Hey, the man wasn't a business tycoon for nothing, you know.


However, as Marling recounts, the broadcast was in many ways a disaster.  The park was still under construction, traffic was backed up for over seven miles (at dawn!), there were gas leaks, food ran out, and the park was massively overcrowded (6,000 by-invitation-only guests, but 22,000 extra people arrived with counterfeit tickets). And there were technical snafus galore: women walking out of their shoes, presenters being drenched by sprinklers, cameras showing one thing while announcers talked about something else - you name it.  Linkletter, Cummings and Reagan were old pros though, smooth operators who managed to handle the adversity without losing their wits. 

The day was known around Disney HQ as "Black Sunday," and the reviews of the program were universally bad.  In addition to the glitches, the show was so heavily scripted that it lacked any sort of spontaneity, and was filled with hype, such as Cummings comparing the opening of Disneyland to the dedication of the Eiffel Tower, and the slickness that Disney has always been known for.  All was not lost, though, as Sheila Graham, the Hollywood columnist, assured her readers "Walt has always been a smart trader and I’m sure there will be some changes made.”  There were, and Disneyland wound up working out pretty well, one would have to admit - it took only seven weeks for the one-millionth visitor to pass through its gates.

More than anything, that opening broadcast points out the risks - and sheer fun - of live television.  It's hard to imagine today's television dedicating 90 minutes to the opening of an amusement park, but after all ABC had helped bankroll Disneyland, and Walt Disney was responsible for the young network's first commercial credibility. 

February 11, 2012

This week in TV Guide: February 12, 1966

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One of the ways I justify my modest TV Guide collection is to cite it as "research," that is, to take what is in reality a relaxing diversion and turn it into a scholarly enterprise.  But of course there is something to it: as I've mentioned before, one can do far worse than use TV Guide to provide a snapshot of popular culture at any given time.  Since I started this blog, I've been intending to take an issue from my collection every week, and just open it at random: see what's inside, whether or not there was anything important going on, and whether or not something in it wound up being pretty special.  So let's take a look at this week in TV Guide from 46 years ago, the week of February 12, 1966.  And since TV Guide always started the week on a Saturday, we'll do the same.

***

On the cover are two of the stars of Peyton Place, Ryan O' Neal and Barbara Parkins.  O'Neal, of course, went on to have a pretty successful career, highlighted by his Oscar-nominated role in Love Story.  Parkins was big in the late 60s and early 70s, with her starring roles in PP and Valley of the Dolls.

Inside we have a profile of James Drury, star of The Virginian, by that up-and-coming young writer Peter Bogdanovich, five years before writing and directing The Last Picture Show.  There's also a teaser for an upcoming National Geographic* special, The World of Jacques Cousteau.  The TV critic Cleveland Amory reviews Batman.  ("The whole show, on first impression, may not be as great.  It is, after all, trying to be all things to all men.  Still, it is the season's most talked-about offering.")

*Apparently National Geographic wasn't extreme enough back in those days to be called "NatGeo."

There was a section in the front and back of TV Guide issues, printed on yellow paper, called "TV Teletype."  The front usually covered TV news from Hollywood, the back from New York.  The Teletype often referenced shows that were never made, underwent name and/or cast changes, or wound up in substantially different shape from original plans. The New York version carries a note on an upcoming pilot for a show called The Time Tunnel.  That show did made it, as did its two stars, James Darren and Robert Colbert.  There's also an announcement that Truman Capote's short story "A Christmas Memory" is going to appear on ABC next season - it did, and won an Emmy.  On the other hand, Hollywood reports on a pilot for Li'l Abner, featuring Robert Reed.  The show didn't make it, but Reed would be back two years later, in The Brady Bunch.*

*Reed was said to be the second choice for the show, after Gene Hackman turned it down.  Imagine it for a moment: Mike Brady hunting down the French Connection.  Kinda makes you pause, doesn't it?

Inside, in the program listings, there's not  a whole lot to talk about.  CBS Reports features "The Divorce Dilemma," wherein we learn of "one of the major social problems in the U.S." - the divorce rate having hit an unthinkable 25%.  It's a bit higher now.  Bob Hope has a comedy special on NBC, and CBS has "An Evening with Carol Channing."  There's also a teaser for next week's TV Guide, featuring a profile of Lee Majors.  "Seven years from now . . . I'll be getting an Academy Award nomination," Majors is quoted as saying.  Well, he didn't - but he did go on to a long and pretty successful career in television.*  The Rolling Stones and Wayne Newton appear with Ed Sullivan, and ABC's Hollywood Palace counters with Donald O'Connor and Paul Anka.  

*A bit of irony there, if you're looking for it.  Consecutive issues of TV Guide presenting us with Ryan O'Neal and Lee Majors, the future companion and husband (respectively) of Farrah Fawcett.  What, I wonder, are the odds?

There's really nothing that jumps off the page though, no hockey or basketball game that everyone talked about the next day, no show that went on to set a viewing record or introduced us to a new star or caused the controversy of the season.  In short, it was a perfectly ordinary week in television, the kind that gives one a snapshot of how things were, the week of February 12, 1966.

February 10, 2012

Notice anything funny about this?

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In case you're thinking that I just can't get enough of old football video, you're probably right.  Today's clip is from a 1963 game between Nebraska and Oklahoma, who were forming a bitter rivalry that would captivate the football nation for probably close to thirty years, and is pretty much dead now that the teams aren't in the same conference.




Now, while the game itself was interesting enough (Nebraska wins 29-20, clinching an Orange Bowl birth), what is most interesting about the whole thing is the date.

November 23, 1963.

In the wake of the Kennedy assassination, it's hard to believe that anyone's minds could have been on the game that day. As a matter of fact, considering that most games that day were cancelled (including the Harvard-Yale game, as well as the entire AFL slate of games on Sunday), one wonders why it was even played. Was this an example of insensitivity to the Kennedy name?*

*I believe that William Manchester mentions that Dallas high schools went through with their regular football schedule that Friday night.  That seems beyond insensitive.  But then again, it was Dallas.

According to the fine Nebraska football site Huskermax, the decision to play was not an easy one and came with significant misgivings:
Friday night, university officers and officials in both states conferred at length. They were counselled by the NCAA and the Big 8 officials. Neither state nor school wanted to play the game because of the national tragedy — but Oklahoma had a game the following week, and Orange Bowl officials were on hand and needed to know about a representative, the game was a sell-out and thousands of people had traveled into Lincoln, TV staffs were on hand.

Finally, late Friday night, it was the decision of all officials concerned that the game be played. However, all pre-planned festivities were canceled and the huge crowd stood in silent tribute to President Kennedy prior to the kickoff. Flags were at half-staff.
There are a few things I don't know about this game. For one thing, was the telecast shown live or was it taped to be shown at a later date? I don't suggest that the commentary was dubbed later - I'm sure that the game was at least taped live. But one of the reasons I ask is that there seem to be no references whatsoever to what had happened the day before (DISCLAIMER: I haven't watched the entire broadcast, so I could easily have missed something). We don't see the moment of silence prior to the kickoff, so it may have been edited out of the broadcast or it may just be missing from the exerpt we see here.  We don't see a close-up of the flag flying at half-staff, and the announcers don't seem to be wondering if the players have been distracted by the continuing events in Washington and Dallas. Again, it may be in a part of the broadcast that I haven't seen.

Regardless, I think this is an interesting piece of cultural history. In a weekend that was marked, in terms of television, by massive disruption, here is an example of people trying to carry on as if everything was normal. Whether or not that was the right decision, the ghosts in the stadium are overwhelming.

February 8, 2012

Are you ready for some football?

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You know, I just haven't written enough for this blog.  (Conversely, there may be some of you who think I've already written too much.  In that case, I'm not talking to you.)  So my pledge to you, dear readers, is to try and give you more to read - even if not all of the pieces contain the significant social and cultural study I'd promised when I started this almost a year ago.

Example #1 consists of this little bit that I posted at Our Word last week - it's a clip from one of the oldest extant college football television broadcasts: Notre Dame vs. Indiana, from September 29, 1951.




A few notes: it's the opening game of the season (on September 29! They only played 10 games at this point), which Notre Dame wins 48-6 (Indiana is bad as usual; rare enough that the Fighting Irish get off to a good start nowadays). According to one of the YouTube comments, the game "was actually a broadcast done by something called the Theater Television Network*, which didn't do traditional broadcast to homes, but to theaters, where patrons bought tickets to watch the game on the big screen. TTN began in 1951 by televising Truman's State of the Union address and followed with college basketball games that winter and this Sept. 29 game from South Bend, Indiana. TTN died two years later." 
*Sounds like a topic for a future piece, doesn't it?

And the announcer? None other than the future anchor of ABC World News Tonight, Frank Reynolds!  Who knew?

February 6, 2012

Ben Gazzara, R.I.P.

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About Ben Gazzara, three memories:

First, of course, was Run For Your Life.  Now, I don't have clear memories of it - I was, after all, only five or six when it was on.  But I remember him running, always running.  And lying in the back of an ambulance.  And sitting next to someone lying in the back of an ambulance.  And that he was supposed to be dying, but he never seemed to look any different.  And that his dying didn't have anything to do with him having been in the back of the ambulance.*  But I do recall that I liked the show, even at five or six.

*And an opening title scene that looked as if it had been shot on the Bonneville Salt Flats.  But that may also have had something to do with Craig Breedlove, who was breaking the land speed record at the time, and who I watched on Wide World of Sports. 

Then there was a two-part TV movie, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald.  This was a movie that speculated on what would have happened had Oswald not been shot by Jack Ruby but lived to stand trial.  Gazzara was the prosecuting attorney, and Lorne Greene the defense attorney.  (John Pleshette, in his pre-Knots Landing days, was Oswald, for what it's worth.)  At the time, back in 1978, I was inclined to buy into the JFK assassination conspiracies - it seemed like an exciting thing to believe in.  And that was the crux of the movie, that Oswald had been part of a conspiracy, that Gazzara was relentless in his efforts to prove Oswald's guilt, and that Greene was desperate to get his client off - without, as it happened, Oswald's cooperation.  I also remembered that Oswald was kept in a glass booth in the courtroom, ala Adolf Eichmann.  A nice historical touch, I thought, since Eichmann's trial occurred in 1961, and would have been a strong influence on an Oswald trial in 1964. 

February 3, 2012

The ghosts of Route 66

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If you’re like me*, Friday night in your household is Route 66 night.  Route 66 was the iconic CBS series of the early 60s, in which Tod and Buz (Martin Milner and George Maharis), two guys with no roots but a thirst for adventure and a willingness to try anything, travelled across America in a Corvette that looked as if it should have been red and white but was in fact blue, working odd jobs while looking for the meaning of life.  The show ran for four seasons, on Friday nights – and so the DVD version runs on Friday nights in our household.
*And in this case, I'm fairly sure you aren't.
Route 66 was a unique show in that every episode was shot on location in some part of the United States, not necessarily along the real Route 66.  Although Tod and Buz were the stars, they often remained in the background while the guest stars and their stories took center stage, which at times gave Route 66 the feel of an anthology.    
It could be preachy (the series creator and writer of many of its episodes was Stirling Silliphant, a brilliant writer (and creator of the legendary police series Naked City) who was second to none when it came to earnest discussion of “important” issues), and there are episodes in which you wish Tod and Buz were more (or less) involved in the plot than they are.  For all that, though, Route 66 is a virtually unparalleled look at the America of the late 50s and early 60s – the small towns, the large cities, the unique, often ethnic, flavor of each region of the country, at a time when the culture was far less connected than it is now.  It’s almost like having a mini-documentary each week, and I suspect it would function quite well as a companion to Alistair Cooke’s America in giving us a glimpse of a country that both is and was. That alone would make the show worth watching.
And it’s that snapshot of time and place that makes for some memorable moments, such as last Friday.  The episode was “Aren’t You Surprised to See Me?” (original air date February 16, 1962), in which David Wayne (Inspector Queen in the great Ellery Queen series of the 70s) plays a religious fanatic determined to hold a city hostage.  He fails, of course, and we knew that from the start, although we didn’t know just how things would reconcile themselves.  Let’s put it this way – for Wayne, it didn’t end well.
But what I found interesting was the look it gave us of Dallas, Texas, less than two years before the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  I don’t know how well-known Dallas was in the early 60s – it had just gotten its first professional sports team, the Cowboys (along with the AFL Texans, who would move to Kansas City at the end of that season), and I’ve always had the thought that for most people, Dallas was some remote place in the wild west, where it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see steers coming down Main Street in the middle of the day.  Maybe I’m wrong about that, maybe not. 
At any rate, the episode opens with Wayne’s character walking through the terminal at Love Field.  He makes a phone call, and shortly thereafter meets someone who delivers him a package.  We see him standing near the statue of the Texas Ranger that William Manchester refers to in his epic Death of a PresidentEveryone has pretty much free reign of the place, and it was just after the missus remarked on how different things were back then, when security wasn’t so important, that we see Wayne going into what is supposed to be a secure part of the airport, whereupon he begins to prepare a biological weapon with which he intends to terrorize the city.  As the threat unfolds, we hear a reference to Mayor Cabell - Earle Cabell, the real mayor of Dallas, who played a prominent role in the Kennedy assassination. 
Later, walking through downtown, Wayne looks down from the top of a tall building, surveying the scene around him, in much the same way that Oswald might have viewed the city from the School Book Depository.  He’s on his way to a fateful encounter with Tod and Buz, who are working at an imported goods store.  As Buz delivered a crate of items to the store, I thought to myself, “That building looks familiar.”  And indeed it should have – it was the Trade Mart, to which JFK was headed when he was shot.  Now, the fact that I could recognize the interior of the Trade Mart, specifically the catwalks that crisscrossed the main atrium, probably means I’ve been watching way too many of those JFK videos.  (More irony - the Trade Mart is part of a complex called the World Trade Center.)

The point, though, is that for someone of a certain age and era the Trade Mart would have provoked an instant reaction – not quite like Ford’s Theater, but something close.*  And here was a chance to see it without irony, when all it was was a merchandise mart.  One thing the viewer wouldn’t have seen in the exterior shots of the Trade Mart was the memorial to JFK which now sits outside the main entrance.

*Maybe like the start you get even now when you see the Twin Towers in an old movie or TV show.

I don't want to put too fine a point on the similarities existing in this episode - besides, there's an even better example of that if you want to draw the parallels.  But it remains a point of fascination to see the ghosts in this episode.  In his book, William Manchester mentions Rita Dallas, the nurse to family patriarch Joseph Kennedy, and the shame she suddenly felt for her last name, along with the fear that people would hate her for it.  Foolish, we might think from a distance, but there's no doubt that in "Aren't You Surprised to See Me?" we see a Dallas that, less than two years later, would never be seen in the same way again.