January 26, 2013

This week in TV Guide: January 25, 1964

If I numbered the TV Guides in my collection, this would be Volume 1, Issue 1.  Not only was it the first TV Guide in my collection, it was the one that introduced me to a brand new world, a whole 'nother way of thinking.  It was The Land That Time Forgot, even though I didn't.

I’ve mentioned in past discussions of the JFK assassination that my mother used to save things for me, things that she thought I’d want to look at when I got older. The afternoon Minneapolis Star was one of them, with the headline “President Slain”; this TV Guide was another. It contained a special section, “America’s Long Vigil,” an in-depth look at television’s coverage of the assassination and its aftermath, with a special forward by President Johnson.

I was three years old at the time of this issue, January 25, 1964. The section begins in the front section of the TV Guide, just before the local programming section. As a matter of fact, readers are told that they “will have an uninterrupted section to keep if they remove the programming pages after those pages have served their purpose.” I don’t know why that wasn’t done in this case; probably it was just easier to save the whole thing.

I always knew where my mother kept the TV Guide, and eventually I tucked it inside the front cover of another book she’d bought, William Manchester’s The Death of a President, one of the best books on the JFK assassination. As I grew older and more interested in history – this was, after all, the seminal news story of my young life – I’d pull the book down from the shelves from time to time and read bits and pieces of it. Never from cover to cover, oddly enough; although I’ve read the book several times since then, I don’t think I’ve ever read it straight through.

Anyway, my interest soon focused on the television coverage, and I probably read that special section dozens of times, trying to imagine what it must have been like to see it as it happened.* And in the course of reading that section, I’d also read through the programming listings. Eventually, once I knew the JFK section forward and backward, my prime focus became the programs. It was like opening a door to a new world, the world of the past – not the distant past, but my past.

*Little knowing that one day I’d be able to see it all for myself, thanks to TV retrospectives, YouTube clips and various collectors. It was particularly exciting when I’d recognize a portion of the coverage from having read about it, to the point that I knew what they’d be saying next. Some of it was anticlimactic, some quite different from what I’d imagined, but most was even more dramatic than I’d hoped for. It was also interesting to find out that TV Guide’s writers got some of it wrong, but that’s another story.

Some of the listings rekindled memories. Hey - I remember when Combat! was on! And Whirlybirds! And Sea Hunt, and The Twilight Zone! I remember those sinister, silhouetted figures on Kraft Suspense Theater! And the Saturday morning shows, like Alvin and Fireball XL-5, and that episode of The Jetsons when George and Mr. Spacely go to the robot football championships (in a domed stadium, no less! I used to watch Mr. Wizard and G-E College Bowl! And Ted Mack and his Original Amateur Hour – round and round she goes, and where she stops, nobody knows!

In other cases there were shows I’d never seen or heard of, but they captured my attention. The Eleventh Hour. Route 66. The Bell Telephone Hour. The Greatest Show on Earth. They looked interesting, they sounded interesting. There was no way of telling from the listings whether they were any good or not, so I just assumed they were all classics. How could I ever have imagined that one day I’d be able to see so many of them and find out for myself?

Would I have developed the consuming my consuming interest in classic television if I hadn't had this TV Guide?  Possibly; there were many issues I saved over the years, even before I started my collection.  I used to cut out Close-Ups that caught my eye (mostly football games), and I always loved watching TV. So perhaps it was bound to happen whether or not my mother had saved this issue.

But the fact is that she did, and here we are.  Myself, I think this TV Guide instilled the curiosity in me, the wonder at what was, the desire to recreate the past and recapture its memories.  Even today, when I flip through the pages, I'm assaulted with those memories.  Memories of the shows, memories of the early 60s - and memories of reading about them in this TV Guide.  Sometimes it's that memory that's best of all.

***

Back in the day, the St. Paul Winter Carnival Grande Day Parade was televised on three of the four local stations, along with a pre-parade show.  It seems ridiculous now to think they'd devote that kind of time to it (I don't even know if there is a Grande Day Parade anymore), but there it is in black-and-white*, just as I remembered.  And the cool button in the Close-Up - the only thing cooler than that was the day, many years later in an antique store, when I found an actual button with that very image.  (No, I didn't buy it - I have enough junk now; what would I do with that?)

*Except for Channel 5, which colorcast it.


The button in color
There's a thread going on at the Radio Discussions message board that asks for reader input on "Once great stations that have fallen from grace."   The examples are too numerous to mention here, but they all seem to have a common denominator: the disappearance of local programming.  Think about it: many TV stars got their start on local variety programs.  There was coverage of local events, local sports shows (which I discuss below), and those marvelous kids' shows that so many of a certain age can remember.  There were local movie hosts, afternoon talk shows, and news commentary. To a great extent, those are all gone.  The reasons are complicated and would fill several books, but the end result has been a loss of connection between local stations and their communities.  The early pioneers of television saw the medium as one way to connect people, to bring together shared interests; too often, it has had the opposite effect.  We may all live in one big world, connected in so many ways, but we're still in our own separate cubes, and the medium that has brought us closer together has left us further apart than ever.

*** .

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 guests include actors Van Heflin and Sidney Blackmer, Carol Lawrence, Country and Western singer Eddy Arnold, comedienne Totie Fields, and soprano Shirley Verrett.  Heflin and Blackmer appear in a scene from their current Broadway success "A Case of Libel," by Henry Denker.

Hollywood Palace: Host Ernest Borgnine is joined by two of his "McHale's Navy" cohorts, comedians Carl Ballantine and Joe Flynn.  Other scheduled performers: Tony Bennett, dancer Eleanor Powell, South African singer Miriam Makeba, the Levee singers, songstress Vicki Carr, comics Pepper Davis and Tony Reese, and the Norbu novelty gorilla act.

Hollywood Palace had just started on January 4, replacing the disastrous Jerry Lewis Show*, so this was only the show's fourth episode.  It's probably not surprising that the producers depend on the trio from one of ABC's hit comedies.  There's real star power in the rest of the cast, making for a very attractive show.  Although I can't speak from personal appearance regarding the Norbu group.  I tried to find a clip of them, but I guess my luck in that arena ran out with Victor the Bear last week.

*As we're reminded by Mrs. William Mega of Grand Forks, N.D., who in a letter to the editor writes that the first Hollywood Palace episode, with host Bing Crosby, illustrated "the difference between a show-off and a showman."

Ed is, as usual, solid.  Appearances by Broadway and opera stars in recreations of their current hits was a common occurrence on Broadway columnist Sullivan's show.  The tuxedo-clad Arnold was one of the classiest singers around, one of the first "Country and Western" crossover stars, and a frequent host on Kraft Music Hall later in the 60s.  Totie Fields was very funny, and Shirley Verrett was one of the first great black opera stars.  This show has no weak links.

Nevertheless, I was leaning toward the Palace this week until my wife informed me that she couldn't stand Vicki Carr, whom she places between the over-emoting Connie Francis and the screaming Barbra Streisand.  On that basis, knowing what's good for me, the decision is easy. Verdict: Sullivan.

***

The entertainment show of the week might have been NBC's Bell Telephone Hour's tribute to Cole Porter, hosted by Ethel Merman.  I was always fascinated by the Close-Up for this broadcast.  I'm not entirely sure why; it wasn't as if I was a big fan of either Cole Porter or Ethel Merman back in those days.  Part of it might have been producer Charles Andrews' promise that there'd be so many songs they'd be posting the numbers "like a ballgame score." Always thought that would be fun to see.

Looking back on it now, the show is just as fascinating, albeit for different reasons.  We get so used to tributes to long-ago entertainers, but in fact the legendary Porter was still alive at the time of this live color broadcast, although he hadn't written a new song in some time and would die nine months later.

This was another show that, for most of this issue's life, would have been a long-gone memory - but now you, can check it out for yourself..

***

Sports story of the week is the opening of the Winter Olympics Wednesday night on ABC.  The network paid just under $600,000 to broadcast 17.5 hours of coverage over 12 days from Innsbruck, Austria, with nightly one-hour highlight shows and extended coverage on the weekends.  Tapes of the day's events are flown to New York, where they're rebroadcast that same night.

The 1964 Winter Olympics were the first broadcast by ABC; over the next 24 years the network became synonymous with the Olympics, showing either the Summer or Winter Games (and many times both) every four years, with their last hurrah being the 1988 Winter games in Calgary.  Over that time, the Winter Olympics would expand to 16 bloated days*, and ABC's coverage increased to 94.5 hours - for which they paid $309,000,000.

*17 days now, with Friday being devoted to the prime-time Opening Ceremony.

For the United States, the 1964 Winter Olympics would be less than memorable, coming away with only one gold (speed skater Terry McDermott), and six medals overall.  The most famous member of that team was probably one who didn't medal: the 15 year-old figure skater Peggy Fleming, who finished sixth in 1964, would go on to one of the greatest careers in women's skating, retiring in 1968 with three world championships and gold in the 1968 Olympics.

***

Nowadays ESPN brings us something like 6,000 college basketball games a week, and other networks offer us the NFL, the NBA and the NHL on a saturation basis. However, the most popular sporting event on TV in January 1964 was: bowling. There was, of course, the Pro Bowlers Tour on ABC Saturday afternoon (this week: the Hialeah Open, with a first prize of $4,000). On Sunday afternoon, CBS counters with the National All-Star Bowling Tournament, live from Dallas, featuring both men and women bowlers. Later on Sunday afternoon, indy station WTCN has the syndicated Championship Bowling, with John Guenther taking on Bob Kwolek.

But there was a lot of local bowling as well; WCCO, Channel 4, had a show called Bowlerama that aired at 12:15 Sunday afternoon, and another called All Star Bowling, which was at 10:30 Sunday night, following the late local news. These live shows pitted various local bowlers against each other, originating from bowling lanes throughout the metro area, most of which don't exist anymore. There's no description for Bowlerama this week, but All Star Bowling was broadcast from my home lane, Diamond Lake Lanes in South Minneapolis. I wasn't a big bowler, although I enjoyed watching on TV, but I did roll a few frames at Diamond Lake - I think the last time was around 1988 or so. Alas, it too has gone - replaced by a grocery store and a generic strip mall.

***

In last week's issue we looked at a preview of possible new shows for the upcoming fall season, and there's a similar article this week.  There seem to be a few more hits than misses in this issue - perhaps the networks were farther along the line in choosing their fall shows.  CBS, for example, touts a new sitcom starring Bob Denver and taking place in Hawaii - Gilligan, which would acquire an Island somewhere down the line and become an enduring cult favorite.  CBS also introduced The House, a political drama with Richard Crenna, which would wind up as Slattery's People and go on to critical acclaim and mediocre ratings.  The Jones Boys, starring Mickey Shaughnessy, which was called one of CBS's "top projects," never even made it to the IMDB.

NBC was taking a look at Please Don't Eat the Daisies, based on the book and subsequent movie starring Doris Day.  The series made it, but with a different star: Pat Crowley instead of Eleanor Parker.  Robert Vaughan's new spy series, Solo, made its way to the screen as The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. Kentucky's Kid, Dennis Weaver's first post-Gunsmoke series, same to the screen as Kentucky Jones, and left the screen 26 weeks later. Two shows that survived the whole season with both stars and title intact were The Rogues, with rotating stars David Niven, Charles Boyer and Gig Young; and Flipper, with a big fish.*

*I know - mammal.

ABC's big money project was Alexander the Great, starring William Shatner.  The series didn't make the cut; whether because of quality or cost remains a question.  Another failed idea was Royal Bay, starring Charles Bickford, Joan Crawford and Paul Burke.  Burke made it, though, in another ABC newcomer, Twelve O'Clock High.  Also surviving was Richard Basehart's underwater vehicle Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and the cartoon adventure series Jonny Quest, while a Bing Crosby medical drama, The Healers, was apparently DOA.  Wendy and Me, starring George Burns and Connie Stevens, found a place on the fall schedule, but perhaps shouldn't have.

Looking back at articles like this is always something of a crapshoot - for all the stories about how CBS chose Lost in Space instead of Star Trek, it's almost impossible to say whether or not any of the shows that didn't make it in 1964 would have been better than those that did.  I guess that's the fun of it.

2 comments:

  1. To think how many started on the local circuit, I agree. We often talk on Our Word about the screamers, shouters, and homers that dominate local radio broadcasts of sporting events today where SportsCenter will air the scoring team's radio broadcast of a score instead of us listening to national radio or television.

    Every time that happens it's always the screamer.

    In the past, before the modern trend of homers and screamers, you may have had radio broadcasters who attempted to make their way up the ladder from the local teams to the regional level, then from the regional level to the lower tier of the national level, then often national radio to mid-pack national television, then advancing to the top tier of television. It's no longer there as the screamer homers have replaced that. An older person and I discussed the issue recently and I agree.

    That's why you see fewer radio broadcasters who want to advance to the regional and national level. They want to stay "homer".

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  2. I enjoyed your recollections of TV Guide. I can remember devouring our family's copy when it would arrive in the mail. For a few years, I became a walking TV Guide and could tell what showing was playing on when, on what channel, whether it was a repeat, etc. These days, I don't even try...

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