March 20, 2012

This week in TV Guide: March 20, 1971

By and large, I find the TV Guides of the 70s less interesting than those of the 50s and 60s.  Part of that has to do with me having been around for all of the 70s, which might make the contents somewhat less exotic and more familiar.  However, I think much of it has to do with the aesthetic value of the magazine itself.  By 1970, TV Guide had adopted a new print format.  They probably considered it cleaner, more streamlined, more modern looking, and I suppose that's true.  But I never liked it, not even at the time.  It looked dull, ordinary, vanilla.  Looking back at it from the distance of over 40 years, I haven't found anything to change my mind.  The days of the week - Monday, Tuesday, etc. - are small and insignificant.  The little "C" logo next to a show broadcast in color seems puny compared to the "Color" label that used to adorn such a show.  And so on.  Oh well.  It's the content that counts, right?

That glum man on the cover is Harry Reasoner, formerly of Minneapolis (as will I be, shortly), and four months clear from having quit CBS to become co-anchor (with Howard K. Smith) of the ABC Evening News.  Reasoner was always one of my favorite newsmen, and I probably watched the ABC news more than NBC or CBS.  Don't know why - maybe the opening graphics, or maybe it was just that I liked the underdog.  Reasoner always had a way with words, and I've written in the past on some of his wry commentaries.  (One of my favorites: "Be highly suspicious of any political or social group which never under any circumstances thinks there is something funny about itself and its program."

Anyway, Reasoner has some interesting things to say in this interiew.  For example, on the question of the influence of the news anchor: "I don't think he should be [as important as the news he transmits].  It's a tremendous responsibility if people feel more comfortable getting their news from Walter Cronkite than from David Brinkley or vice versa.  But it's the same kind of responsbility that an editor has who has a paper that people like, and who can then manipulate the way he places his stories and how they are written.  And it's a responsibility perfectly within the capability of journalists to fulfill without corruption - not that they won't make mistakes."  And he likes that responsbility.  "I enjoy doing it.  I like having that influence.  I have confidence in how I use the influence."

March 10, 2012

This week in TV Guide: March 11, 1967

Every once in a while, you have a week where nothing much happens.  Such was the week of March 11, 1967.  Oh, there's a very nice picture of Dorothy Malone of Peyton Place on the cover (although I think the picture of her on the inside is better).  There's a profile of Noel Harrison, the male lead in The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.  Harrison is probably better known for his hit "The Windmills of Your Mind," because let's face it - when you're sharing screen time with Stefanie Powers, you are not the one people are going to notice.  Trust me on this one.

No, this time I think the programming section itself is going to tell us what we want to know about the week.  And what struck me in flipping through these pages was the heavy amount of what Terry Teachout might agree would have been thought of as "middlebrow" programming.  They're the kind of shows that you seldom see on TV anywhere anymore, let alone the major networks.  Maybe Ovation, possibly PBS once in a blue moon, but otherwise your chances of seeing a documentary on Arturo Toscanini, as viewers would have seen Sunday afternoon on NBC, are nil.  Furthermore, the average person back then probably knew how Toscanini was - after all, he'd conducted the NBC Symphony from 1937 to 1954, and he'd only died ten years before.  Would have liked to have seen that show.  I might well have been watching the Black Hawks vs. the Maple Leafs on channel 11, though.

If classical music wasn't your bag, though (speaking in the vernacular of the time), you might have dug CBS's special "Saigon: The City Behind the Headlines," on Tuesday at 9pm.  Considering the state of the war at that point, and the climate at home, I wonder how positive a report it was.  Might have still erred on the side of the military; I think the real rebellion from the media was about a year away.

Back to Sunday for a minute - CBS had three great cultural programs on Sunday morning: the religious shows Lamp Unto My Feet and Look Up and Live, and the arts show Camera Three.  I was always irritated that we didn't get these in Minneapolis, since our CBS affiliate saw fit to substitute Bowery Boys and Laurel & Hardy movies.  Fortunately, since my copy of the March 11 edition is the Minnesota statewide edition, I can tell you that Camera Three featured a discussion of the English artist Aubrey Beardsley.  ABC countered with Discovery '67, which visited Moscow to find out what life is like for little Russkie kids.

On Wednesday, the local independent (the aforementioned channel 11) had the conclusion of the Royal Shakespeare Company's War of the Roses, with Ian Holm as "Richard III."  The local NET (educational) station was not to be outdone, with its own Shakespeare programming - the epic An Age of Kings.  No word on which episode they were showing.  Later on NET continues with a one-hour profile of the director John Huston.

Project 20 was an acclaimed documentary series on NBC, and on Thursday at 6:30* they presented "End of the Trail," with the western character actor (and three-time Oscar winner) Walter Brennan narrating the story of the American Plains Indians.  Surprisingly, this program is available on DVD.  After that, NBC continued with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans hosting the annual telecast of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

*Remembering that at the time, network prime-time programming began at 6:30.  It wasn't until the very early 70s that it was moved to 7pm, so that local stations could present programs of interest to the community - like Entertainment Tonight and Wheel of Fortune.

No documentaries on Friday night, but more prestige programming - the once-great Hallmark Hall of Fame, which presented Lynn Fontanne and Julie Harris in "Anastasia," the story of the woman who claimed to be the sole surviving child fo Czar Nicholas II.  I have to believe that with that cast, it was pretty good, but could it possibly compare to the movie version with Ingrid Bergman?

And then there's the classic middlebrow show - Ed Sullivan, who probably did more to bring culture to the masses than anyone this side of Alexander Fleming.  Ed's show features Lou Rawls, Nancy Ames, and Stiller and Meara, among others.  Mind you, for every program of this type, there were ten times the number of Green Acres, Beverly Hillbillies, and the like.  But ask yourself - how many of these shows would you be able to find on your 250 channels today?

March 5, 2012

Small world

Lost in the stories about the untimely death last week of conservative activist Andrew Breitbart was the note that his father-in-law was none other than Orson Bean.

TV viewers of a certain age will have no problem remembering Orson Bean.  He was, for many years, a panelist on To Tell the Truth, and a frequent guest on many other shows, mostly from the Goodson-Todman stable.  You could see him often with Johnny Carson and other talk show hosts, guest-starred on the anthology shows that were so prevalent on TV in the 50s and 60s, and was a regular on shows as disparate as Mary Hartman, Dr. Quinn, and Desperate Housewives.  Some will even remember him as the voice of Bilbo Baggins, and later Frodo, on the Rankin-Bass animated versions of The Hobbit and The Return of the King.  

He was a Broadway star, appearing in the original Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and received a Tony nomination for Never Too Late.  He's the author of four books.  And as if that weren't enough, according to Wikipedia he also helped found the Laurel and Hardy fan club Sons of the Desert, and he's a first cousin twice removed of Calvin Coolidge.

He also holds the distinction of having been blacklisted in the entertainment industry not once or twice, but three times - first in the 50s by the right, when he got mixed up with a Communist girlfriend and was targeted for his apperances with leftist groups; then in the 60s by the left, when he supported Richard Nixon as the best hope for ending the Vietnam War; and most recently for his support of California's Prop 8, the amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.  (I refuse to call it the gay marriage ban; you can't ban something that wasn't legal in the first place.) I say that anyone who can fall victim to both the right and the left at various times must be doing something right.

In this clip from a few years ago, he discusses another transformation - that of becoming a Christian.  And I trust it will be that faith that will strengthen and guide both him and his family as they deal with their loss in the coming weeks and months.


March 3, 2012

This week in TV Guide: February 25, 1967

OK, so this isn't really for the first week in March - but this is the closest I could come. Besides, today's the 3rd, and this TV Guide runs through March 3. That's close enough, isn't it?

On second thought, looking through the pages of this issue, I can perhaps understand why I don't have anything for the first part of March - because there's nothing on. March Madness was only a glimmer in the eye of some as-yet born television marketer; the NCAA finals weren't even on network television in 1967.

In the headlines: "Night Falls on Panel-Quiz Shows" tells us that time's up for What's My Line?, I've Got a Secret and To Tell the Truth, CBS' triumverate of celebrity panel shows. The reason: "favorite fare of older viewers, and TV is determinedly for the younger ones, who presumably are more acquisitive." It is a similar mindset, I believe, that leads to CBS' "Rural Purge" that takes out still-popular programs such as Hee Haw, Green Acres, and Mayberry RFD. With Candid Camera likely to also come to an end at the end of the 67 season, Ed Sullivan would be the last remaining prime time entertainment show broadcast from New York.

But probably the best thing about this issue is something I know I always look for in TV Guide - a fashion shoot.

The blonde is the lovely Meredith MacRae, who at the time was one of the three daughers in Petticoat Junction (she was the third actress to play Billie Jo Bradley, following Jeannine Riley and Gunilla Hutton).  Her mother, Sheila MacRae, was playing Ralph Kramden's wife Alice in Jackie Gleason's revival of The Honeymooners.  Her father, Gordon MacRae, was a great musical star of the 50s, in Oklahoma and Carousel.  Great voice.  At this time, Meredith is 23, and surely a welcome andidote to the cover shot of the cackling Phyllis Diller.

Boy, do those outfits scream "Sixties" or what?  Like, groovy, man.  Geez.

These fashion shoots pop up in TV Guide from time to time - I can recall at least three more, with model Salome Jens, newscaster Nancy Dickerson (boy, how times have changed!), and Oscar nominee Julie Harris.  Culturally, this is kind of a mixed bag - today you can find actresses as sex symbols in all kinds of magazines, but there's something about a fashion layout in a non-fashion magazine that still seems a little - well, not sexist exactly, but certainly dated.  Yes, that's the term I'm looking for - dated.  I don't remember running across any fashion shoots featuring male actors of the day, but at this time it's still OK to admire female pulchritude without feeling like a total cad.

And you know - that's not necessarily a bad thing.

March 1, 2012

America's television opera composer

Today would have been the 101st birthday of the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, one of the major figures in the early days of television. Menotti is probably best known for Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first opera commissioned and composed for television, but there were other television milestones: his 1939 opera The Old Maid and the Thief (written for NBC radio) was the first production of NBC Opera Theatre in 1949, The Medium (1946) was the third broadcast on CBS's Studio One in 1949, a second NBC commission, Labyrinth, was broadcast in 1963, and Martin's Lie (1964) made its American debut on CBS in 1965.  Other of his operas, including his Pulitzer-Prize winner The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954) and Maria Golovin (1958) were presented through the years on NBC Opera broadcasts.

But there’s another TV link that I wanted to focus on today. It's from 1952, when Menotti took a break from opera writing to answer a commission for a violin concerto from the director of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.  The work made its debut in December of that year, after which Menotti went back to his operas.  I listened to it earlier today; it's an interesting piece; although it doesn't really have what I'd call the distinctive Menotti sound (it actually reminds me in many ways of Erich Korngold, who not coincidentally did a lot of movie music as well as writing operas), I could hear the playfulness of the Shepherd's Dance from Amahl in the final movement.

Oh, and the TV tie-in?  Well, the director of the Curtis Institute, the man who commissioned the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, was none other than Efrem Zimbalist.  No, not Efrem Zimbalist Jr., the star of 77 Sunset Strip and The FBI, but Efrem Zimbalist Sr., who in addition to his job at the Curtis was one of the world's great concert violinists.  Talent ran in that family; Zimbalist Jr's mother was the famous soprano Alma Gluck,

Here's a movement from the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra:


A well as a clip from Amahl:


And, for good measure, the opening to The FBI:


And now, as Paul Harvey would say, you know the rest of the story.