December 31, 2012

Happy New Year!

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As a New Year's teaser, I thought I'd end 2012 with this video from the New Year's Eve 1965 broadcast of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Now, there are a couple of notable things about this clip.  First, it includes the rarely-seen 15-minute opening of the show, from 11:15-11:30pm ET.  See, Tonight originally ran for an hour and 45 minutes, back to the days when local news was usually only 15 minutes.  However, as the Jack Paar era gave way to Carson, and local news organizations matured in their coverage, more and more stations expanded their news to a full half hour.  NBC affiliates either showed Tonight on a delay after the news, or they just skipped the first 15 minutes altogether.

Needless to say, Carson soon tired of having his monologue cut, and from February 1965 on, he refused to do those first 15 minutes, leaving it to Ed McMahon and then-bandleader Skitch Henderson.  So this video offers us with a rare opportunity to see what those 15 minutes were like.  NBC eventually dropped that segment completely, and Tonight cut back to 90 minutes, and eventually to its current 60 minute length.  I would call this unfortunate, except I can't think of anyone who could be interesting enough for 90 minutes anymore.

However, for me the more interesting part of this clip comes just past the 6:00 mark, when we see NBC's schedule for New Year's Day.  And this, I have to say, perfectly encapsulates my memories of January 1.  The morning starts with the Orange Bowl Parade, taped the previous night (the parade, like the game itself, was a nighttime affair; NBC eventually showed the parade live as well), followed by the Tournament of Roses Parade.  And then, my highlight: NBC's Bowl Day Triple-Header, starting with the Sugar Bowl (Missouri over Florida), continued with the Rose Bowl (UCLA shocking #1 Michigan State), and ending under the lights at the Orange Bowl (Alabama dispatching Nebraska).  The triple-header was only made possible by the Orange Bowl's move to prime-time the previous year, and would continue until the Sugar moved to ABC in 1970.  But for me (and a lot of people, I suspect), not having to change the channels all day was a mighty appealing idea.


The games were different back then, as was almost everything else.  This year the national championship doesn't get settled for another week, and the luster of all of the games has been diminished.  I accept this as a fact of life; you can't live in the past forever, no matter how hard you try.  I do feel sorry, though, for those who never experienced those simple pleasures the way we did.

But then, that's what this blog is about.

Happy New Year everyone, and thanks to all of you for making this such a satisfying year.  We'll all meet again next year!

December 29, 2012

This week in TV Guide: December 29, 1973

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Ah, what an issue. We have the end of one year and the start of another, the early days of one New Year's Eve tradition and the waining days of a second, and a whole raft of bowls, including one of the greatest college football games ever played.

***

First, the football.  As I alluded to in my article earlier this week, years of segregation (officially or unofficially) had left the Sugar Bowl as the weakest of the Big Four New Year's games, and by 1973 ABC had moved the game to New Year's Eve, in an effort to build an audience apart from the Cotton Bowl on CBS, against which the Sugar Bowl was usually shown.*  1973 would be different, though, as the game hosted a marquee matchup for the ages: top-ranked, undefeated Alabama vs. third-ranked, undefeated Notre Dame for the national championship.**

*Until 1965 the Orange Bowl had been an afternoon game as well, meaning that all three - Sugar, Cotton and Orange - were more or less on opposite each other, giving the Rose Bowl, then as now, clear sailing.

**Second-ranked, undefeated Oklahoma was on probation, making them ineligible for a bowl game.  It was understood that if Notre Dame defeated Alabama, they would leapfrog the Sooners into the number one spot.

It had been dark and rainy during the day, with tornado warnings in the area, and at one point ABC sports head Roone Arledge allegedly wondered out loud if he might be able to persuade the two schools to postpone the game for a few days, so that the weather wouldn't play a factor.  Absurd, I know - even he didn't have that kind of power back then.  (Today, who knows?)  At any rate, the moment passed and the game kicked off as scheduled.  The lead seesawed  back and forth, and late in the fourth quarter Notre Dame, nursing a slim one-point lead, found themselves staring at third and long from inside their own five-yard line. In a daring bit of play-calling, the kind that wins national championships, Notre Dame QB Tom Clements, from his own end zone, hit Robin Weber on a play-action pass for 35 yards and the first down.  Notre Dame would hang on to win this first-ever meeting between the two college giants, 24-23, and claim the national championship. 



The next year the two teams would meet again, this time in the Orange Bowl.  Alabama was again undefeated and top-ranked; Notre Dame was an also-ran at 9-2, but in Ara Parseghian's final game as coach, the Irish would beat the Tide again, 13-11.

Notre Dame vs. Alabama for the national championship.  Sounds familiar, doesn't it?  I wonder who's going to win this time?

***

The 1974 Rose Parade on independent WTCN
A great lineup for New Year's Day.  CBS kicked things off at 9:00am CT with the Rose Parade preview, featuring hosts Bob Barker and June Lockhart and Grand Marshal Charles Schulz.  NBC countered with the Junior Orange Bowl Parade (the King Orange Jamboree Parade had been shown the previous evening), followed by their own parade preview show, hosted by Doc Severinsen.  At 10am CBS was back with the Cotton Bowl Parade, while independent Channel 11 carried the syndicated Rose preview show, which I'm guessing might have come from KTLA in Los Angeles.

The bowl games started at 1pm, with the Cotton Bowl on CBS.  (Nebraska 19, Texas 3), followed at 3:45 with the Rose Bowl on NBC (Ohio State 42, USC 24), and concluded with the nightcapper, also on NBC, the Orange Bowl (Penn State 16, LSU 9).  Back then college football games didn't run four hours; NBC even scheduled a recap of the day's coverage for 9:45, before the local news.

***

More sports?  A quadruple-header of college football on Saturday: in the afternoon it's the Sun Bowl on CBS (Missouri 34, Auburn 17), the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl on ABC (Houston 47, Tulane 7) and the East-West Shrine Game on NBC (East 35, West 7); ABC has the nightcap, the Gator Bowl (Texas Tech 28, Tennessee 19).

Sunday belongs to the pros, with the NFC and AFC championships.  In the NFC, Minnesota defeated Dallas 27-10, while in the AFC it was Miami over Oakland by the same score.  The Dolphins would defeat the Vikings in the Super Bowl two weeks later, the second of the Vikings' four defeats.  By contrast, this year the NFL's regular season won't even be done on December 30.

Here's something else that's changed: the NHL played hockey!  The local game was the Minnesota North Stars vs. the New York Rangers on Sunday night (Rangers won, 4-3) and NBC presented a special Friday night edition between the Rangers and the Boston Bruins (the Rangers won that one as well, 4-2).

***

And now the news.  In The Doan Report, Rhode Island Senator John Pastore calls again for hearings on television violence.  Like that did a lot of good.  And there's a new movement to curb the proliferation of network reruns.  In favor: unions, who hope that more episodes will increase studio employment.  Opposed: the networks, who claim that cutting back on reruns would pose a significant financial hardship.

Speaking of episodes, the new year used to introduce what was called the "Second Season," when the networks introduced their first wave of replacements for their failed shows, and so a number of series make their swan songs this week: Tenafly and the anthology Love Story on NBC, and Roll Out! on CBS.  Roll Out! was the  network's attempt, some thought, to copy M*A*S*H's  success with World War II, while Tenafly was notable for being one of the first series to feature a black in the lead role, with James MacEachin as a former police detective turned private eye.

And with the shifting of the schedules, a few favorites prepare for new timeslots.  ABC's Toma, which would become Baretta next season, prepares to move from Thursday to Friday to make way for two new series, Chopper One* and Firehouse.  Neither would make it past the Second Season.  Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law is also on the move, from its Wednesday time to Saturdays.  An upcoming CBS series, Dirty Sally, is previewed on Gunsmoke.  That one didn't go far, either.

*A type in TV Guide rendered this series "Hopper One."  Perhaps that's why they weren't able to find an audience; the audience wasn't able to find the show.

And then there's a series that did make just a little splash.  On PBS' Masterpiece Theatre, a postscript indicates that "Next week: 'Upstairs, Downstairs,' a 13-part drama about life in Edwardian England" will begin.  As I recall, that went over a bit more than those other series...

***

A while back, reader JB suggested we expand our "Sullivan vs. The Palace" feature to include a couple of the definitive 70s-era music shows: NBC's The Midnight Special and ABC's In Concert. Both shows aired on Friday nights after the late local news, and both premiered in 1973; Midnight Special on February 2 and In Concert on November 24.  Of the two, Midnight Special would have the more lasting fame, running until 1981 and remaining available through best-of DVD sets, while In Concert, running every other week as part of ABC's Wide World of Entertainment, departed these mortal broadcast coils in 1975.  With that said, let's take a look at what each show had to offer on the first Friday of 1974.

The 90-minute Midnight Special featured a compilation show spotlighting million-seller artists, including the Edgar Winter Group, Jim Croce, Loggins and Messina, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Billy Preston, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, the O'Jays, and Gilbert O'Sullivan.  The hour-long In Concert countered with Seals and Crofts, Jessie Colin Young, Eddie Kendricks and Walter Heath.

This isn't really a fair fight; Midnight Special is cherry-picking its best acts from the year, so it isn't hard to assemble an all-star cast.  Nevertheless, when your big guns are Seals and Crofts, you're in trouble.  The verdict: the clock strikes twelve for In Concert; a special night for the winner, The Midnight Special.

I'll offer this matchup whenver the occasion arises, and as a bonus I'll throw in the syndicated Don Kirshner's Rock Concert whenever it's in the listings.

***

And since we're on the subject of comparisons, there was something else on Monday night besides the Sugar Bowl - the battle of the network New Year's Eve programs.  On NBC it's the second edition of Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve*. which comes from the ballroom of the Queen Mary in Long Beach, CA and features host George Carlin, Billy Preston, the Pointer Sisters, Tower of Power and Linda Ronstadt, with a live cut-in to Dick in Times Square as the new year approaches.

*Yes, you read that correctly.  The first two New Year's Rockin' Eve shows were telecast not on  Clark's longtime partner ABC, but on NBC.  In 1972 the show was called Three Dog Night's Year's Rockin' Eve, hosted by - appropriately enough - Three Dog Night, and also taped on the Queen Mary.  Beginning in 1974, the show would add Dick's name to the title and would move to ABC, where it remains to this day.

Ironically, ABC's Wide World of Entertainment would counter-program that night with American Bandstand's 20th Anniversary Show, starring - of course - Dick Clark.

Meanwhile, on CBS Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians would make their 18th consecutive New Year's Eve appearance on TV, having started on CBS radio in 1929.  Guy's sole guest was singer Barbara McNair.  Among the pieces the Royal Canadians would play that night, besides "Auld Lang Syne": "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown."  This clip is from three years later, but I think you get the picture.



Channel 4, the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis, always tape-delayed Lombardo's show so that it would ring in the new year at midnight Central time.  To fill in the gap until Lombardo's show started, local children's TV host John Gallos would host an annual airing of Laurel and Hardy's The Music Box.  To this day, I'll associate The Music Box with New Year's Eve.

***

And that kid on the cover?  That's "Mason Reese, 7-year old huckster."  Back in the early 70s, Reese was ubiquitous on television, appearing on commercials for Ivory soap, Post Raisin Bran, Perdue chicken, Underwood chicken spread, the Zayre store chain, and more.  If he wasn't pitching products, he was chatting it up with Dick Cavett and Mike Douglas.

When asked how he liked the business, he replied, "It's fun.  You get to travel around and meet lots of important people and shoot crap with the cameramen."

December 27, 2012

Behind the Close-Up: the 1962 Rose Bowl

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If there was anything particularly notable about the 1962 Rose Bowl, you’d think a native Minnesotan would have heard about it. That game occupies a somewhat exalted position in the history of Minnesota sports, being the last time the University of Minnesota went to the Rose Bowl* (or any major bowl for that matter); and while the game doesn’t approach the historical significance of the 1961 game, which featured the Gophers’ beloved national championship team, it still remains a high point in Gopher football. And besides, that championship team was defeated in the Rose Bowl by Washington, whereas the ’62 team was victorious over UCLA.

*A drought so long that every team in the Big Ten – including Northwestern, the league’s longtime doormat, and Nebraska, which didn’t even join the Big Ten until last year – has been to the Rose Bowl since Minnesota’s last appearance.

So, at best, one might look at the 1962 Rose Bowl as a historical footnote; interesting, perhaps, to Minnesotans, but otherwise no more, or less, special than most editions of that storied game. And unless I miss my mark, that’s what Professor Kurt Kemper thought as well, at least until one day…

“In particular, I just found a fragment one time in a popular history about UCLA football where they happened to note that UCLA had threatened to boycott the Rose Bowl. I had grown up in Los Angeles as a UCLA fan, and I had never heard this before. It astounded me. The more I went looking, the more and more I found, and it just sort of morphed into this whole project.”

That project is Kemper’s book College Football and American Culture in the Cold War Era, and the Rose Bowl in question is the 1962 game. Kemper’s book doesn’t deal with television per se, but as is often the case, this listing from TV Guide belies a tumultuous current of social change, lurking just under the surface, ready to burst forth.

***

The 1962 Rose Bowl was shaping up to be a unique one.  The longtime contract between the Big Ten and Pacific 8* to send their champions to the game had expired, and there was reason to believe that it would not be renewed in time for the 1962 game - if in fact it was renewed at all.  For this reason, the Rose Bowl committee had unusually "wide latitude" in selecting the game's participants.

*The game's host conference underwent many name changes throughout the years, being known as the Pacific Coast Conference and the Athletic Association of Western Universities before settling down as the Pacific 8, later to become the Pacific 10 and Pacific 12, depending on how many schools were in the conference at the time.
  
The stakes were high.  Rose Bowl was considered the "grandaddy of them all."  It was the first bowl game, and by far the most prestigious.  For many years it was understood that the Rose Bowl winner was the champion team of the year, and even after the introduction and maturity of the other "Big Four" bowl games - the Sugar, Cotton and Orange - the Rose Bowl remained the gold standard.  It was played in the largest stadium, before the largest crowd, with the largest radio (and later television) audience.  When discussions of a national championship playoff first started, it was a given that the championship game would be played at the Rose Bowl.

The game started out matching the West coast champion against the best team from the East, and as the game grew in stature and lore, it became every young boy's dream to one day play in it.  Teams from around the country had competed for the honor of playing in Pasadena - programs as storied as Notre Dame and Alabama had won there, but so had the Ivy League's Harvard and Columbia, and tiny Washington & Jefferson had played mighty California to a scoreless tie in 1922.

The Rose Bowl’s ties to the Big Ten were not in fact that deep, only dating back to the 1947 game, and the conference's initial involvement was actually quite controversial; one sportswriter pointed out that the arrangement made the Rose Bowl in essence a “closed shop,” cutting off those dreams of young football players who had the misfortune of not playing for one of the ten Midwestern schools in the conference.. Read in this light, one could see that the possibility of looking outside the Big Ten for an participant was not necessarily the worst thing that could happen to the game.

Likewise, the Big Ten wasn't all that crazy about committing to the game.  This sentiment was especially strong at Ohio State, where many of the professors had come to see the athletic department as having undue influence over the university as a whole.  This is especially important within the Cold War context of the time; Kemper notes regarding the opposition from faculty members (particularly in the Humanities department), "They really thought that this was the Republic’s hour of need, that this was a period of great peril for the nation and that this was the type of service that university personnel could offer: to study the problems of society. They thought these efforts were really being hindered by the university’s obsession with football." Before the drama of the 1962 Rose Bowl was through, they would be heard from.

Many teams were mentioned as possible Rose Bowl contenders, but the focus of the game’s organizers eventually settled on two powerful Southern teams: Alabama and Louisiana State.  Both schools had powerful incentives for playing in the game: Alabama had a history in the Rose Bowl, having played there six times in the past (winning four); LSU was eager to break out of the Sugar Bowl rut into which they had fallen.  Excitement about the possibility of a Rose Bowl appearance was high on both campuses and, initially, among West Coast football fans as well. Fred Neil of the Los Angeles Herald-Express wrote, "The sportswriters' No. 1 choice is Alabama because everyone thinks they have a better team. I think they (the Rose Bowl) will look favorably on LSU. The Big Ten teams under consideration are dull, and there's little reaction to our going to the Big Ten with hat in hand and begging them to play us."  However, complications were not long in coming, and they dealt with race.  Not the race for the championship, nor the arms race, but the issue of racial equality.

***

There was a good reason why LSU had so often played in the Sugar Bowl.  New Orleans, home of the game, was one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States, and for years LSU had, by state fiat, been barred from competing against integrated teams.  It was simply assumed that LSU, if it qualified, would be one of the two teams in the game. For LSU, the game had ceased to be much of an incentive; head coach Paul Dietzel essentially told athletic director Jim Corbett, "If you want this team to play in the Sugar, YOU'LL have to take 'em."

Dietzel's comment was an indication of the changing situation. By 1961 the legal requirement against integrated competition had been overturned, but the school still maintained a policy of avoiding "integrated extracurricular activity," which could be anything from school dances to bowl games.  In fact, the 1961 baseball team, which had won the SEC championship, declined to play in the NCAA tournament out of concern that they would have to play an integrated team. 

But football wasn't baseball, and now, with a possible Rose Bowl invite dangling in front of them, supporters of a change in the school's policy saw their opportunity.  Rose Bowl fever was rampant in Baton Rouge, and even staunch segregationists admitted that they were excited by the prospect of a trip to Pasadena.  With the possible bid as bait, the school ultimately reversed the policy in November, allowing for the possibility of LSU playing an integrated team in a bowl game (although not integrating their own team).  As Kemper notes, "By placing the issue in terms of a national sporting culture unrelated to integration," supporters of integration carried the day.  It was acknowledged that the policy change would allow LSU to compete on a national level.  "When faced with the choice of regional values that isolated southerners or national values that celebrated American distinctiveness and unity, many southerners willingly embraced the latter because they could tell themselves the two were unrelated."

The role of football was a key point when it came to understanding the position of similarly-segregated Alabama.  "Accepting that segregation created division within the South and hostility from without, white southerners embraced the game of football because it represented both Southern and American ways of life."  Alabama had in fact played integrated teams before, notably Penn State in the inaugural Liberty Bowl* in 1959.  The school's policy seemed to suggest, more or less, that playing an integrated team outside of Alabama was fine as long as nobody made a Federal case out of it. 

*For the first five years of its existence, the Liberty Bowl was played in Philadelphia, hence its name.  It would not be until 1965 that the game would settle permanently in Memphis. 

As Alabama rose to the number one ranking in the country, Rose Bowl fever reached a peak.  But then there was a twist, as socially active students at UCLA (which would play USC for the West Coast Rose Bowl bid) began raising the possibility of a boycott of the Rose Bowl should a segregated team be selected.  The free-speech movement was already divisive on the campus, and the specter of mass protests against the game, and possibly at the game itself, raised red flags.  Especially harsh on the topic were two Los Angleles sportswriters, Melvin Durslag* of the Los Angeles Examiner and Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times.  Murray in particular wrote provocatively, with column titles such as "Bedsheets and 'Bama," and noted that sports could no longer be separated from society as a whole:  "The real news . . . had everything to do with the smell of roses and the color of the players."

*A frequent contributor to TV Guide, by the way.

 Anger rose throughout Alabama, and concern.  The desire to keep football isolated - segregated, if you will - from the larger social scene was clearly threatened by the actions of the student activists at UCLA and their allies in the press.  Alabama remained the top choice of Rose Bowl officials, but did the Crimson Tide feel the same way?
 
***

In the end, as is oft the case, the final outcome belied the drama that had preceded it, perhaps helping to explain why the entire episode has faded into the historical background.

LSU made the first move.  Earlier in November it announced formally that it would not play in the Sugar Bowl, perhaps hoping it would force the hand of the Rose Bowl committee.  However, it was clear to the school that the top-ranked Tide remained the committee's first choice and, fearing it would wind up playing in no bowl at all, preemptively accepted a bid to the Orange Bowl to play Colorado.

For Alabama, the concerns had less to do with either football or academics, and more with the school's (and the state's) reputation.  Concerned that accepting a Rose Bowl bid "would have allowed all of the scorn, rage, and disgust many felt toward the state and the region to be directed at the football team," the university announced that they would go to New Orleans and the Sugar Bowl, where they would play Arkansas. Much of the available evidence suggests that a Rose invitation was indeed offered (even prior to Ohio State's season-ending defeat of Michigan to win the Big Ten title), but declined, although no Alabama official would ever go on the record as admitting such.

Rose officials then turned back to the Big Ten, whose champion - undefeated, once-tied Ohio State - although not contractually obligated, would remain an attractive choice.  However, in Columbus the battle between academics and athletics had finally come to a head, as the faculty council met to consider the invitation.  As Kemper points out, "These faculty members were not against the Buckeyes having an athletic program. The problem was with the fact that football, in their minds, was the tail that was wagging the dog. So their hope, in terms of denying the Rose Bowl, wasn’t just some sort of childish temper tantrum, but was an effort to try to get people’s attention -- particularly those whose only connection to the university was the football program -- to help them realize that there’s a serious business going on here."  The council voted 28-25 to decline the invitation.  They hoped their decision would "vastly improv[e] the university's reputation as an academic institution fit for service in a Cold War political economy."  It may have done that, but it also set off riots on the Columbus campus, with students threatening to march on the state capitol.  The Buckeyes would stay home for the holidays.

Finally, with nowhere else to turn and with dissension rising within the Rose Bowl committee, an invitation was extended to Minnesota, defending national champions and the second-place team in the Big Ten. Ironically, had the Gophers won the Big Ten title, the conference's no-repeat rule would have prevented them from making a second successive trip to Pasadena.  However, since they'd finished second, the option was technically still available, and the Gophers accepted.*  Interestingly enough, in January of 1962 it would be the University of Minnesota that would cast the deciding vote as to whether or not the Big Ten would renew its contract with the Rose Bowl.  Having been assured that the contract would require not the Big Ten champion but instead a "representative team," Minnesota voted in favor, and the contract passed.

*The no-repeat rule, which existed in both the Big Ten and Pac-8, prohibited a conference champion from making back-to-back appearances in the Rose Bowl, in order to "spread the wealth" of experiencing the great game.  The no-repeat clause apparently did not anticipate the possibility of a conference champion declining the invitation.

So, to someone looking at the TV Guide from January 1, 1962, there would appear to be nothing out of the ordinary.  A Big Ten team was in the Rose Bowl*, the SEC champ was in the Sugar Bowl, and a highly-regarded LSU team travelled to Miami.  More along, nothing to see here.

*The 1962 Rose Bowl would be the first telecast in color.

***

Since then, the Rose Bowl has changed in numerous ways.  In the early 1970s, both the Big Ten and the Pacific 10 voted to end the "no-repeat" rule.  When the Rose Bowl became part of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998, even Big Ten-Pac 10 matchups were no longer guaranteed.  By 2012, with the Big Ten sending an 8-5 Wisconsin team that had finished in third place in its own division (upsetting Nebraska in a conference championship game they qualified for only because the two teams ahead of it were ineligible due to bowl bans), it would be hard to argue that the Badgers would have fit the 1962 definition of a "representative team."  The Rose Bowl had become, in essence, just another bowl game - a big one, to be sure, but no longer the "granddaddy" except in name.

The race issue would continue to evolve as well.  It was becoming increasingly apparent that a policy of segregation would continue to isolate Southern schools within the larger college football community, limiting not only their bowl opportunities but their national exposure.  This process would perhaps come to a head in 1966, when Alabama's undefeated, untied team would wind up third in the final national standings, trailing both Notre Dame and Michigan State (who had tied in their "Game of the Century"), in part because the school lacked a "national" footprint.  From then on, pressure to integrate and to look outside the South for opponents would increase.  Texas would win the 1969 national championship with an all-white team, but it  would be the last time college football would see a segregated champion.

The story of the 1962 Rose Bowl is a fascinating mess, as so much of history tends to be.  It's too bad that we aren't more familiar with the story, because it provides a stunning contrast with the state of college athletics today.  It's not that college football is more important per se - after all, when seen in the context of the Cold War, it assumes a great deal of significance.  Rather, it has become important in different ways.  The prestige of the university, with which the Ohio State faculty was so concerned in 1961, has now taken second place to the financing of the university and its athletic programs.  Mainly through the influence of television, the money behind college football has grown so immense, and the schools have become so dependent on that money, that no institution in its right mind would refuse a multimillion dollar payday on the grounds that their mission was being hindered by an "obsession" with football.

It is truly the story behind these TV Guide Close-Ups.

December 25, 2012

Happy Christmas to all

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As you may have gathered from some of the things I've written, Christmas is my favorite time of the year. And although I've lived long enough to see many of the cherished Christmas traditions change and even fade away, the reason for the season remains - and because of that, no matter what, Christmas will always be Christmas.

So a little Christmas TV for your viewing pleasure. I was surprised to learn, a few years ago, that "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" was written for Andy Williams' Christmas special. Specially written songs for TV are a dime a dozen, but few of them become part of the established tradition the way this has. Here it is from one of the Andy Williams specials, as highlighted on this DVD compendium.


Frank Sinatra not only performed the song "Mistletoe and Holly" on his 1957 Christmas episode (which included special guest Bing Crosby), he also wrote it.  It, too, has become a seasonal standard.  Here he is from that show, part of his short-lived ABC series, which was telecast in black and white but was actually filmed in color.  It's the color version that appears in this DVD, but here is is the way you would have seen it on your TV back on December 20, 1957.

And on those notes, I want to thank all of you who've contributed to this blog through your comments, suggestions and support.  I'll be back on Thursday with some interesting, non-TV, behind the scenes information on something you would have seen on your screens New Year's Day, 1962.

Until then, my wishes to you and your families and loved ones for a safe and happy Christmas, and I'll see you Thursday.

December 22, 2012

This week in TV Guide: December 22, 1962

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Let me say right off that this is one of my two favorite issues in my entire collection of TV Guides.*  It was the first "old" one I ever bought - previously, all of the TV Guides I owned were from my own personal stock, back when we bought it every week off the newsstand.  I paid $5 for it at an antique show in the Har Mar Mall in Rosedale, Minnesota probably a dozen years ago, and I still think it was a bargain.  Looking through the pages of this issue introduced me to an entirely different world, one that I was a part of at the time, but of which I have no memory.  And yet there was enough familiar about it - the channels, the personalities, various series I'd seen or titles I'd recognized - that I was immediately lost in the past.  My own past, and the past of the city I lived in at the time, and an era in which I had an intense interest.  So when it came time to pick this week's TV Guide, it only took me about two seconds to decide which one I'd choose.  Let's take a look at it, and see why it struck such a chord.

 *In case you're wondering, the other one is from January 1964, the JFK memorial issue, which my mother had saved for me knowing that one day I'd be interested in the history. 

***

Where to start? How about the cover? The traditional logo appearing in festive gold rather than red (itself a festive color, but there wouldn’t be anything special about that). The words “Merry Christmas,” which disappeared from the Christmas edition sometime in the 80s. There’s that poinsettia – is it supposed to be real, or a representation of the plastic ones so in-vogue and representative of the 50s and early 60s? Who knows? Who cares?

And look at the wonderful graphics on Christmas day itself.  There's just something fun about it, don't you think?


As for the shows themselves - well, I've mentioned in the past that Christmas specials aired early in December primarily for advertisers to get their Christmas shopping ideas out there.  So by December 22, unless you're really into last-minute shopping, most of the specials are going to have an explicitly Christmas message.

Take this add for the annual Christmas edition of NBC's Bell Telephone Hour.  Jane Wyatt hosts, as she often did for the Christmas show, and reads the story of the Nativity from the Gospel of Luke.  Try getting away with that today.  Her other guests on this live broadcast include singers Florence Henderson and Earl Wrightson, the Roger Wagoner Chorale,  ballet dancers Roberta Lubell and Michael Maule, and the Buffalo Bills singing group.*  I believe this episode is available on the underground DVD market if you're willing to spend the time looking for it.

*Not to be confused with the Buffalo Bills football team, although the later often performs in a manner befitting the former.

Up against Bell is ABC's Voice of Firestone, also in fine Christmas form, with the great mezzo Rise Stevens, tenor Brian Sullivan, and the famous Columbus Boychoir, in a half-hour of traditional Christmas music.

On Christmas Eve, Bing Crosby hosts his special, with guests Mary Martin and Andre Previn; it's notable in that it is the first ABC special to be broadcast in color.  Unlike Bing's future Christmas shows, it's not limited to seasonal music; in fact, most of the show consists of showtunes and standards sung by Crosby and Martin.  It isn't until the final segment that the program turns entirely toward Christmas, when the cast is joined by a 90-voice choir, conducted by Previn.

An interesting footnote about this program: although much is made of this being ABC's first color special, the clip from it appearing in a documentary made the year after Crosby's death (hosted by Gene Kelly and Bing's widow Kathryn) was shown in black and whiteThis clip, in fact: 
 
 
A kinescope, I assumed reasonably, meaning that the original color broadcast was probably lost.  But no; this show is now available on DVD, as part of a boxed set of Crosby's Christmas specials - in living color.  (And you can see the color version of this same song here.  Better quality, don't you think?)  I'm guessing that the color version wasn't available in the late 70s when the Crosby documentary was done. Perhaps it was tucked away in Bing's wine cellar, along with the seventh game of the 1960 World Series.

***


On Christmas morning, NBC offers its traditional coverage of the Episcopal service from the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.  I always enjoyed watching this (although perhaps not as much as I did opening presents), because the music was always lovely and well-done.  NBC continued to show this well into the 80s, as I recall, when it went into syndication.  I'm told that it's still broadcast to this day, although I haven't seen it for many years.

Most Christmas Day specials are like that, devoted to music and mood.  In fact, a cynic could suggest that most people weren't watching TV on Christmas, at least during the daytime, so why not put your Christmas-themed shows there, where they won't hurt the ratings too much.  Of course, I'd never suggest that, because I'm not a cynic.  Channel 4 has a pair of such concerts, at 1:30pm with the Mora High School choir, and at 4pm with the very good Gustavus Aldophus College choir.  NBC's children's show Exploring has Christmas stories and music by Skitch Henderson, who at this point still conducts the Tonight show orchestra.  At 9:30pm, Channel 5 presents a local broadcast of the 8th Annual Christmas on Ice, a skating show put on by the Minneapolis Figure Skating Club. This was on local TV for many years, moving to Channel 11 in the late 60s.

And then there's one of my personal favorites - Christmas in Tyrol, a program of traditional Tyrolian Christmas music.  It was originally shown at 6pm on Christmas Eve on Channel 11, and it's being rebroadcast on Christmas Day at 8:30pm on Channel 2.  The narrator was Father Richard Schuler, profession of music at the College of St. Thomas.  I knew him better as Monsignor Richard Schuler, pastor of St. Agnes Church in St. Paul, where my wife and I went to church when we lived in Minnesota.  Msgr. Schuler was an internationally renowned expert on church music, and did much to preserve the Catholic Church's liturgical history and heritage after Vatican II.  I had the chance to ask him once about this show; he remembered well the atmosphere in the tiny studio, the Bavarian costumes, and the heat from the television lights.  He was a good and holy man.


***

One of the seminal Christmas programs of early television, Amahl and the Night Visitors, has its 12th annual broadcast on Sunday afternoon; longtime readers of mine know the deep interest I've had in Amahl over the years.  This is the last broadcast of Amahl using the original production*; in 1963 it would be replaced by an all-new production, made without the participation or approval of the composer, Gian-Carlo Menotti, who was so outraged that in 1966, as soon as the broadcast rights reverted to him, he withdrew permission for NBC to show it.
 
*To clarify: each year from 1951 to 1962 a new version of Amahl was broadcast. The first few were live productions, but even after the transition to videotape the broadcast continued to be new each year, using the original sets, choreography, costumes, camera blocking, etc; the only thing that changed was the boy soprano playing Amahl, since he would grow out of the role after a few years The 1963 broadcast, in addition to being an all-new production with an all-new cast, would be taped and rebroadcast each year rather than staged anew. In addition to saving on expenses for NBC, it eliminated the need to recast Amahl.
 
I was only two years old that Christmas and wouldn't actually see Amahl for another 45 years, but even if I had been of viewing age back then I probably wouldn't have watched it.  Instead, my attention would have been focused on the show opposite Amahl, one of the greatest football games ever played: the AFL Championship between the Houston Oilers and the Dallas Texans, broadcast on ABC at 2pm CT.

This was the third AFL championship; the Oilers had won the first two behind veteran NFL quarterback George Blanda (who, despite being thought too old for the NFL, would play another dozen years after this game).  Their cross-state rivals, the Texans, were led by coach Hank Stram and quarterback Len Dawson.

The Texans burst out to a 17-0 halftime lead, the Oilers would rally in the second half to tie the game at 17 and send it to overtime, only the second pro game ever to go to an extra session.  The team captains gathered at midfield for the coin toss to start the overtime and there, in front of ABC's cameras, announcer Jack Buck and a nationwide television audience, Dallas running back Abner Haynes made one of the great blunders in sports history:


Haynes had been instructed that if he won the toss, he was to choose to have the wind at his back; i.e. to go in the direction of the Jeppesen Stadium scoreboard.  He did indeed win the toss, but in his confusion he said, "We'll kick to the clock."  He had the direction right enough, but by starting out with the words "We'll kick", he forfeited the right to say anything more.  Houston chose the wind advantage, and so the Texans got neither the ball nor the wind.

Fortunately for Haynes, the Oilers failed to capitalize on their early advantage.  The two teams traded possessions throughout the first overtime and into a second, before Dallas converted a Blanda interception (his fifth of the game) into a game-winning 25-yard field goal by Tommy Brooker.  It was the longest pro football game ever played, at 77:54, a record that would stand until 1971.*

*In addition to highlights on YouTube, most of the original broadcast is available on DVD from various sources.  Just check eBay and you'll probably find it.  As far as anyone knows, this is the only AFL game broadcast available in its entirety.

As for the rest of the story: this was the last game for the Dallas Texans; unable to compete with the NFL's Cowboys, the team would move to Kansas City the next season and become the Chiefs.  And it would be the Chiefs who would play the Miami Dolphins on Christmas Day in 1971 in that game that broke the record for longest ever played.  (The Chiefs would lose this time.)  And as for Jeppesen Stadium, it would be renamed Robertson Stadium and would be the home to the University of Houston Cougars until last month, when the stadium hosted its final game before being torn down in favor of a new stadium.

***
 
Care for a little more sports?  On Saturday there were two college football games: the North-South Shrine Game from Miami (not to be confused with the East-West Shrine Game in San Francisco), and the Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston.  The North-South Shrine game was played for 26 years, often on or around Christmas Day itself; in this year's edition the most notable player (of those named in TV Guide) was probably Bobby Bell, who would go on to a Hall of Fame career with none other than the Kansas City Chiefs, and played in that Christmas Day longest game.

The Bluebonnet Bowl was played at Rice Stadium, except for the years when it took place in the Astrodome, during which time it was known as the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl.  I have fond memories of this game, which was often played on New Year's Eve, and featured good teams, such as the 1962 matchup between Missouri (7-1-2) and Georgia Tech (7-2-1).  (Missouri would win, 14-10.)  Like the North-South Shrine game, the Bluebonnet Bowl no longer exists; it folded in 1987, and should not be confused with Houston's current bowl game, the Meineke Car Care Bowl.  (No, I'm not making that up.)

That night, ABC's Saturday Night Fights features a scheduled middleweight bout between Gomeo Brennan and Reuben Carter.  Brennan has to cancel from the fight and is replaced at the last minute by Holly Mims, but it's the other fighter we're more interested in.  You might know Reuben "Hurricane" Carter less from his boxing career than from his years as a cause célèbre after being convicted in 1967 for triple homicide.  After key witnesses recanted their testimony, Carter and a co-defendant were retried in 1975 and again convicted; this conviction was overturned in 1985 and the state of New Jersey declined to try him a third time. Denzel Washington played Carter in 1999's didactic The Hurricane. But all this was far away on December 22, 1962. 

By the way, Carter won the fight against Holly Mims.  You can see a clip here; the entire fight was shown on ESPN Classic once upon a time, when the network actually did show classic sports.

***

No particular reason for this, just another ad to put you in the mood for the season.  Ads for booze are always popular at this time of the year. Why do you think they call it "Holiday Cheer"?


***

One of the striking things about TV Guides of this era is the amount of detail included in the programming listings.  In these days - before 24-hour programming, before 150 cable channels - there was plenty of room to give viewers all kinds of information; not only the title of the episode, but often the writer of the script as well.  The description of the program itself frequently ran to two or three sentences.  If such a description made someone more likely to watch the show back then, the impact now is to increase one's curiosity, to instill a desire to find out as much information as possible.

This attention to detail is apparent in the church services on Christmas Eve.  On CBS, for example, we know that Dr. Harold A. Bosley will deliver the sermon at the Methodist service from Christ Church in New York.  We know that Dr. Austin C. Lovelace directs the church choir, and that they will sing "Break Forth, O Beauteous, Heaven Light," "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," and "The Inn at Bethlehem," along with three other pieces.  On ABC, we learn that Bishop Fulton Sheen will be the celebrant of the Midnight Mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and that the Marist College Seminary choir, under the direction of Eugene Stewart, will perform Palestrina's "Missa Aeterna Christi Munera" for the Proper of the Mass.   Meanwhile, Channel 11, the independent station in Minneapolis-St. Paul, covers the Solemn High Christmas Mass from the St. Paul Seminary.  The celebrant is the Right Rev. Msgr. Louis J. McCarthy, and the 200-voice seminary choir, conducted by Rev. John Sweeney, will perform Christmas Carols prior to the start of the Mass, including an arrangement of "The First Noel" by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Rev. William Baumgaerther offers commentary on the Mass, which would be necessary since the Mass is eentirely in Latin.

For me, these descriptions did more than tell me what was on; they whisked me back in time, as if I'd been placed in front of the TV on that Christmas Eve myself.  It was because of these descriptions that I became interested in the great Palestrina and his music, bought a recording of the "Aeterna Christa Munera", and came to a deep appreciation of sacred polyphony.  I'd already heard of Vaughan Williams, perhaps the most renowned composer of 20th Century church music, who had died only four years before*; I'd never heard his "First Nowell" (the correct spelling), which turned out to be not just the familiar carol, but an entire Nativity Play, and I embarked on a search to find it - which was harder than you might think.

 
*As one of the YouTube commenters points out, the complete First Nowell  may well have been the last piece that Vaughan Williams wrote; unfinished at his death, it was later completed by Roy Douglass.

To some (most?) this might seem like the ultimate nerd trip; but to me it was magical; in the last years before the end of the Latin Mass and the turning upside-down of the Catholic Church, these listings represented more than old television shows; they were a window to a lost world.  The idea that you'd find this much detail in a programming listing today is unthinkable.  (Not to mention this amount of religious programming on network TV, which truly is staggering.)

***

But here's a listing that could have used a little more detail: at 10:30 Saturday morning, the independent Channel 11 presented a syndicated one-hour variety special, From This Moment On, hosted by Jerry Lewis, on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.  This is pre-telethon stuff, and a quick look through the archives suggests that this show aired in different areas during November and December.  The listing includes the names of ten stars appearing on the show - alphabetically, from Steve Allen to Rose Marie, and reads to me suspiciously like a truncated listing.  Which begs the question: just how long was this show?  The listings from other stations give it as an hour, so in the absence of further information I'd have to go along with that.  But one wonders - how many other stars were on the show, and unless they were just one to add their endorsements to the cause*, how did they fit them all into one hour?  Anybody know anything more?
 
*The ad in the Appleton (WI) Post-Crescent bills the show as "60 SPECTACULAR FUN-FILLED MINUTES" which suggests at least a little entertainment, doesn't it?
 
***
 
One of the things which has always struck me about this edition of TV Guide, now 51 years old, is the number of programs from it that you can find and watch today.  There's the Bing Crosby special and the Hurricane Carter fight, the Bell Telephone Hour and the AFL Championship, movies such as Going My Way (Sunday night on Channel 11), and episodes of many of the series then on (The Rifleman, Car 54, Bonanza, Loretta Young, the TV version of Going My Way, and more) - enough that one wonders if you might not be able to recreate an entire night of prime-time television, as it existed in that issue.  I already have a few of these episodes myself; if anyone would like to finance my efforts, I'd be glad to see if I could do it.

 
***
 
Finally, one of my longstanding complaints about the Christmas season is that it begins far too early and ends far too quickly.  The twelve days of Christmas, of course, refer to the twelve days after Christmas, leading up to the Epiphany.  And yet today it seems as if by December 26, everyone's ready to take down the decorations and get back to normal life.

But in 1962, as was the case during most of my childhood, the Christmas season extended all the way to New Year's.  As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the famous Andre commercial that featured "Carol of the Bells" wasn't shown until after Christmas; after all, you bought Andre for New Year's Eve.  And the ads for the New Year's Day bowl games invariably included boughs of holly or other seasonal decorations.  (We may well see some of those next week.)  Back then Christmas was more than December 25; it lasted a whole week.

So to end on a charming note, I'll mention how WCCO ended its broadcasting day with charming notes - musical notes, to be precise.  From Sunday, December 23 through to the end of the week, the final program listing for Channel 4 was simply "Christmas Carols".  I don't know how long the program would last, whether the music was live or recorded, if it was a formal presentation or simply some music over a montage of pictures.  But it's such a nice way to end the day, don't you think?  And to keep going even after Christmas Day had passed - well, it may have been a simple touch, but it truly was a gift that kept on giving.

December 20, 2012

Christmas greetings circa 1962, part 2

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On Tuesday I shared some images of Christmas ads that appeared in the "Community Magazine" from Albert Lea, MN for Christmas, 1962. (See part one here)

You often get "Merry," "Happy" or "Greetings" wished you, but "Joyous" is kind of nice, isn't it?  I hope De Soto Creamery had some joyous sales.



This is also a nice sentiment.  With all the PC police, it's harder to find that part about "Good will toward men" than it used to be.


Here's not only a very nice sentiment, but a very stylish one as well.  Look how they've worked the numbers 25 into the sleigh.  Look even more closely, and you can see December in there somewhere.  Makes you wonder if Al Hirchfeld worked on it.



I like the sentiment in this - "Let us thank you for your past patronage."  Remember that the customer is doing you a favor.  A lot of businesses don't remember that anymore.



Christmastide - now there's a word you don't hear very often.  Sounds vaguely liturgical, doesn't it?  Also serves as a reminder that Christmas is more than one day.  They could have been talking about the lead-up to Christmas - or they could mean the whole twelve days, leading up to Epiphany.


Remember when carolers used to come to the front door?  Maybe they still do - just not here.


Another ad with candles - I really wish we saw more like this.  Notice too how many advertisers wish us something along the lines of "health and happiness"?


"Best wishes of the season" - with an image like this, there isn't much doubt as to what season they're talking about.  Remarkable how many of these ads had a religious motif.


Reddy Kilowatt wishes us all a Merry Christmas.  And, by the way, don't forget to use that electricity!

And let's finish this series with this serene portrait of a small town in the stillness of a winter night.  Sadly, the hopes for a lasting era of "Peace on earth, goodwill to man" would pretty much be wiped out by the end of 1963.


I don't know about you, but I enjoyed going through these ads immensely.  There was only one sour note in the issue (aside from the sense that this is a world lost to us forever), and that comes in what I suppose we'd call the "predictions" section of the magazine.  The column concludes with a prediction of "a year that lies before us clean and untouched.  May it bring joy and success to us and to you."  Indeed, the year was to bring the death of John XXIII, the continuing "work" of the Second Vatican Council, the overthrow of the president of South Vietnam and continuing U.S. involvement, the assassination of President Kennedy, the murder - live on national television - of his accused assassin, the death of C.S. Lewis - well, you get the picture.  Knowing how the year turns out adds an extra note of poignancy to the optimistic hopes for the year.  When, in 50 years, historians look back at 2013, I hope they will see better news.

December 18, 2012

Christmas greetings, circa 1962

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The cover of "The Community Magazine"
in festive green and red, complete with a
Dickensian-styled family at the Christmas table.

A few years ago, I wrote several pieces at the other blog about a magazine I’d stumbled upon in an antiques store. It was the kind of magazine I love to look through, because it tells us so much about, as Paul McCartney would say, the world in which we live in.

The magazine is called, appropriately enough, "The Community Magazine," and it's from Albert Lea, a town in southern Minnesota. "The Community Magazine" is one of those free magazines you get in supermarkets, and it's about what you'd expect: television listings for the month, a few local columnists and notes, and advertising. Mostly advertising. Which, in this case, is a real treasure trove for the cultural archaeologist.

I’m offering a condensed version of those pieces this week. As I’ve said in the past, one of the great treasures of TV Guide is that it shows us how life used to be, and often gives us tantalizing hints as to the shape of things to come. “The Community Magazine” isn’t TV Guide per se, but as a TV Guide substitute it delivers the same payoff.

This is the January 1963 issue, which means it would have come out sometime in December 1962, and as such represents the last chance for advertisers to wish their customers the greetings of the season. And herein lies the tale. Taken collectively, these ads present a remarkable slice of life from the early 60s: a time when religion was an accepted - no, a necessary - part of the public square, and when the PC police hadn't ridden Christmas out of town in the name of "diversity." This isn’t to say that the advertisers themselves shared those theological sentiments, but they believed strongly that this was appropriate to the season.

And this is the value of television as a cultural mirror - in looking at these ads, just as in watching the shows of the time, we see not just what people of the era believed, but what it was reasonable to expect them to believe. In other words, while things might not have been as idyllic as all that, it was reasonable to think it could have been that way, and that it was something people would recognize and be comfortable with.

Granted, we're talking about what might be referred to as "Small-Town America," but no matter how you look at it, it's a real document from a real time, one that sadly seems far away today. ne of the added benefits of combing antique stores in search of TV Guides is that in the meantime you can run into the most fascinating things.


This ad is mind-boggling for a couple of reasons.  First, it's brought to you by "your servants in government" - that sounds kind of quaint, doesn't it?  What's even more stunning is that it not only specifically wishes people "Christmas Joy," but it features the Three Wise Men.  Can you imaging a government agency using this kind of symbolism today?

Religious symbolism is a running theme throughout these ads.  I'd go to this company for a loan, wouldn't you?.  (Do you think it was an accident that a financial institution would go for images of gold, frankincense and myrrh?)


Here's another example.  Sorenson Lumber is doing more than advertising their business; they're telling you something about the kind of people that run the company.  I don't know anything this company (a quick Google search didn't tell me much), but I wouldn't be surprised to find out it was a family business.


This ad is from the local Skelly gas station.  Werner Wittmer doesn't leave you in any doubt as to what they think Christmas is all about.


Not every ad in this issue has an explicitly religious motif, but it's hard to look at a candle without thinking of "The Light of the World."  By the way, we don't see candles in Christmas decorating like we used to - when you find them nowadays, it's mostly as part of retro-themed advertising.


I'll be back on Thursday to take a look at a few more pages of "The Community News," and see how America used to celebrate Christmas

December 15, 2012

This week in TV Guide: December 16, 1967

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Perhaps it's my upbringing, but I've never quite been able to trust anyone who claims not to watch television.  Now, that statement's probably not a big surprise to you, considering it's coming from someone who writes a TV blog to occupy his spare time.  I will freely admit that there's far less worth watching on TV today, even as there are far more choices than ever.  I will also stipulate that not every black-and-white TV show is brilliance, just as not every show on TV today is unmitigated bilge, not fit to emerge from a sewer.  So, having that opinion, it should be no wonder that I gravitated toward H. Allen Smith's delightful skewering of "those people who 'almost never turn the thing on' in this week's TV Guide.

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.


The ad on the left is for KAUS, the ABC affiliate in Austin, MN; on the right, the annual Southwest High School concert on KSTP, the NBC affiliate in Minneapolis-St. Paul.  Programs like this weren't uncommon back then; every high school in rural Minnesota seemed to appear on one broadcast or another.  KECY, Channel 12 in Mankato, presented "Sounds of Christmas" weekday afternoons at 4:00pm, as did KCMT (Channel 7, Alexandria) at 5:00pm*; for KGLO, Channel 3 in Mason City, Iowa, the concerts were by church choirs as well as high school groups and aired at 10:40pm.  And it wasn't limited to high schools and churches, either; on Friday night Channel 9 in the Twin Cities presented the 100-voice Northwestern School of Nursing Choir.  No matter where one turned (or tuned), it seems there was Christmas music to be had - and not just secular, but sacred songs as well.  I doubt public schools are allowed to perform them nowadays.

*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.

Then on Tuesday, Geraldine Page and Donnie Melvin star in a repeat of one of Capote's most famous short stories, the Peabody-award winning  A Christmas Memory.  And let me take a moment here to interject a personal note: I loathe, absolutely loathe, this story.  I'm sorry if that offends you; I know that many people cherish this story and have made a Christmas tradition out of it, and if you're one of those people I'd just suggest that you move on to Sullivan vs. The Palace, which is much less controversial.  For the rest of you, let me explain.

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.

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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.

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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. 

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Something I've been noticing in these late 60s Guides is an increasing amount of programming on the Vietnam War.  ABC Scope had been covering Vietnam throughout 1967 (this week's episode focused on the problems encountered by returning veterans), and NBC had added Vietnam Weekly Report in 1966. (Frank McGee's Vietnam report would be preempted by Channel 5 on Sunday for the Southwest High School concert.)  This week, CBS shows what today would be considered a blockbuster, although it may have had far less significance back then, considering CBS buried it against Crosby's Hollywood Palace show.  It's a special entitled "A Conversation with Rusk and McNamara" - Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara, who had just resigned as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (his appearance was scheduled prior to his resignation), the two men considered the chief architects of America's Vietnam War strategy.  The listing notes that "[b]oth men have been the targets of heavy criticism over the conduct of the war in Vietnam," and McNamara in particular would continue to be vilified until his death in 2009.

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.

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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.