March 9, 2013

This week in TV Guide: March 11, 1961

We've been on a bit of a run with 1961 issues lately; this is the third in the last four weeks.  But who could pass up a chance at an interview with the widow of Eliot Ness?

The Untouchables was perhaps, up to that time, the most violent weekly series ever seen on television.  It was ostensibly factual, based on the real-life story of Eliot Ness, the U.S. Treasury agent who did much to break Al Capone's bootlegging operations during Prohibition, and his small group of trusted, incorruptible agents, nicknamed "The Untouchables."  Ness' autobiography*, written with Oscar Fraley in 1957, was adapted into a two-part presentation on Desilu Playhouse and became a weekly series on ABC in 1959, running for four seasons.

*The book might be seen, in today's parlance, as "inspired by actual events."  Fraley wrote most of the book, embellishing stories and adding fictional characters to the extent that in the closing credits to The Untouchables, it's referred to as a novel.  The 21 pages that Ness himself was responsible for were, for the most part, straightforward and factual.  The book was released shortly before Ness' death of a heart attack in 1957 at age 54.

It's inevitable that a show about G-Men battling mobsters would be a rough one; it was not a world for the faint of heart.  I have to admit to The Untouchables as one of my favorite shows of the era.  It's an entertaining, fast-paced program that doesn't require a great deal of thought, but is a great deal of fun.  The bad guys generally get theirs in the end (except for Bruce Gordon's Frank Nitti, who is always foiled but never captured - and a good thing, because Gordon's menacing performance is always a highlight of the episodes in which he appears), and the show avoids introducing soap-opera elements into the lives of its leads, the downfall of many a modern series.  The level of violence is actually fairly mild at the beginning of the series, but ramps up quickly as it goes on, and it isn't long before we see Ness' men smashing illegal liquor stills, tommy guns blazing, bodies dropping everywhere.  In comparison to today's television, though, the violence is milder than a baby's chicken broth.

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In a fascinating article (which might well have been ghosted by Fraley, who lived until 1994), Elisabeth Ness reminiscences about the real Eliot Ness, and shares her thoughts on the TV series.  She likes Robert Stack's performance as Ness; Stack "has the same quietness of voice, the same gentle quality that characterized Eliot.  At times, even Stack's small mannerisms are similar."  He's a bit more serious than the real Ness, but she adds that "Mr. Stack has been given less to laugh at than Eliot found in real life."

She's also a fan of the program and never misses it, even though by this time the show has strayed so far from real life that "I no longer know what it will be about."  However, even though the stories may be fictional, Mrs. Ness says "they are, in spirit, the same - the enforcement of law and order, the fight against exploitation of the law-abiding members of society, the hunting down of criminals."  Eliot's admirers, she says, "should not feel let down."

The real Eliot Ness was quite a figure - charming, vital, charismatic.  He was three-times married (Elisabeth was the third and final Mrs. Ness), and - ironically, for a man who made his reputation fighting bootleggers - was a heavy drinker who used to frequent bars and amaze people with his tales of crimefighting.  He held a Master's degree in criminology and was one of the first law enforcers to use the lie detector, he helped pioneer the use of two-way radios in police cars, he was an early advocate for civil rights and a crusader against juvenile delinquency.  He was a fan of art, the theater and ballet - but also boats, cars and the Indy 500.

Most of all, Elisabeth Ness writes, Eliot should be remembered as a man of integrity and principle, an independent thinker, and a man who "was a practical do-gooder."  He enforced the law, but "never tried to reform the world.".

***

No Sullivan vs. The Palace this week, as The Hollywood Palace is still just a glimmer in the eye of some television executive.  Ed's guests this week, in case you're wondering, are (in a tribute to St. Patrick's Day) musical comedy star Tammy Grimes, actor Pat O'Brien, Irish tenor Brendan O'Dowda and the Clancy brothers with Tommy Maken, folk-singing group, and Irish harpist Mary O'Hara.

Did Ed have the best variety show of the week?  Saturday's Lawrence Welk show is also a St. Patrick's special, with the regular cast.  On Tuesday, Garry Moore's guests are singers Dorothy Collins and Steve Lawrence, and comedian Bob Lewis.  Perry Como countered on Wednesday with actor Don Amache and singer Frances Langford.  Ernie Ford welcomes singer Gordon MacRae on Thursday.

For my choice, I'm going with Friday's Bell Telephone Hour, an exploration of music inspired by William Shakespeare, with Shakespearean expert Dr. Frank Baxter hosting an hour featuring opera stars Patrice Munsel and Joan Sutherland, musical theater star Alfred Drake, ballet dancers Violette Verdy and Jacque d'Ambroise, and Sir John Gielgud with dramatic readings.  Not bad, if you ask me.

***

Since this is the third 1961 issue in the last four weeks, we should be pretty familiar with the programming guide, so let's focus the rest of our time on the information in what I used to call the "shiny section."

The shiny section always enjoyed casting the spotlight on the most attractive new starlets, and this week is no different.  There are profiles of two: Asa Maynor, "an up-and-coming TV actress," had a brief career and was married to 77 Sunset Strip's Edd Byrnes, before retiring become an executive at NBC and interior decorator.  However, the other was Lee Remick, and she turned out to have a pretty good career for herself.

Is the President overexposed?  That's the question the "For the Record" section asks.  On Sunday, February 26, JFK appeared on the premiere of the CBS documentary series Accent, where he discussed fellow New Englander Robert Frost.  On Tuesday night, he was the subject of the NBC White Paper JFK: Report No. 1.  Wednesday saw all three networks carry taped coverage of his press conference.  (These were the days before presidential press conferences were shown live.)  Thursday he was on that Life magazine anniversary special I referenced a couple of weeks ago.  He was also seen throughout the week in taped appeals for the Red Cross.  Today, regardless of who the President is, I'm sure people of all parties would be relieved if he only appeared this often.

Speaking of current events, the New York TV Teletype advises us that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has alerted networks of "a probable attempt to launch a man into space from Cape Canaveral in early spring."  They speak of a suborbital flight, about 250 miles downrange - the same flightplan that was recently followed by the chimpanzee Ham.

NBC's The Nation's Future plans a debate between movie producers Dore Schary and Otto Preminger on the subject "Should the movie industry be forced to classify its films?"  The show, which eventually aired on April 29, had Hollywood bad-boy Preminger arguing that movies should be rated, but that the film's producer should be the one responsible for the rating, and that the government should have no involvement whatsoever.  Schary thought ratings were a bad idea - after all, what producer would want to classify a film as "not suitable for children."  To Schary's thought, such a rating would offer no difference between a pornographic film and one that was simply worthy of mature viewing.  Which is, in essence what we've wound up with both the X rating and the NC-17, which most producers regard as the kiss of death.

Finally, "if a sponsor can be lined up," ABC plans to debut its Saturday sports anthology program on April 29, with a bullfight from Seville, Spain.  The show did indeed debut on April 29, but instead of the bullfight, it carried live coverage of the Penn and Drake relays.  And thus was the start of ABC's Wide World of Sports.

***

Back on February 16, ABC Close-Up presented a documentary on the first week of school integration in New Orleans.  Entitled "The Children Were Watching," it was, by all accounts, a pretty unsparing look at the anger and racism expressed by the parents of schoolchildren, while those very children watched and learned the attitudes of their parents.  That provoked the following letter to the editor from Mrs. John R. Lepak of Santa Ana, California:

The first time I saw a Negro was when I was seven.  In fact, it was my seventh birthday - the day my home town was liberated from the Nazis.  He gave me the most precious birthday present a person could receive.  At the time, I thought the candy he gave me was the best present I ever had.  But, of course, now I realize he gave me my freedom, which is by far more precious.  So why can't people, like the people in Little Rock and New Orleans, give the Negro his freedom?   I hope that programs like "The Children Were Watching" will continue and open the eyes of people so they can take a good look at themselves.  I'm sure they'll be shocked.

That was only 52 years ago.  At the time, the educational institution where I currently work prohibited black students from enrolling, a situation they wouldn't rectify for another year.  They're currently commemorating 50 years of integration, and while it's laudable, perhaps if they'd spent a little more time looking at themselves, as Mrs. Lepak suggests, instead of the color of their student body - well, perhaps change would have come a lot earlier.  I wonder, if they could watch this documentary today, if they would see themselves still in the images?

8 comments

  1. I have a battered copy (missing the front/back covers) of the Eastern New England edition of this issue.

    Maybe one of these hours, I will post Boston/Providence/Portland (Maine) listings for St. Patrick's Day 1961 on Radio Discussion.com's Classic TV Board.

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  2. I wonder if the Perry Como show featured a performance of "The Bickersons," which Don Ameche and Frances Langford performed on radio (and on records). I bet it did.

    Also: Thanks for adding my blog, The Hits Just Keep on Comin', to your blogroll. It's cool to be in such good company.

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    1. Ah, "The Bickersons" - see, that's what's so much fun about looking back at these old issues. It's knowing enough about history to be able to speculate on what might have happened.

      Love the blog, jb. Good luck with the new gig!

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  3. I brought my Chicago edition to work today, so I could refer to it as I write this.

    - I remember seeing that Perry Como show when it first aired.
    Don Ameche and Frances Langford did indeed play the Bickersons, starting out at the top of the show in the audience, where their arguing interrupted Como's introduction of the other acts. Later, they did a Bickersons bedroom sketch and "killed", as they say. I believe this led directly to a record deal with Columbia that led to two original LPs that sold quite well (Comedy records were at their peak back then).

    - Elsewhere on the comedy front, Thursday marked the final episode of Take A Good Look, Ernie Kovacs's version of a panel game.
    This program was very low-rated during its two seasons on ABC, despite having The Untouchables for a lead-in. Kovacs often referred on the air about how many stations carried TAGL as a delayed broadcast (ABC's Rockford IL station ran it Sundays at 11pm, right after Alfred Hitchcock).
    You can see a few Take A Good Look episodes on the Kovacs collections available from Shout Factory: If you order directly from them, you can get a bonus disc cotaining seven segments, not available in stores (now, anyway).The booklet accompanying the main set says that many more TAGLs have survived, more than enough for a box set of their own; here's hoping.

    - For those who recall my earlier "blind item" abot a tV teletype entry several weeks before:
    This week's Wagon Train introduced John McIntire as the new wagonmaster Chris Hale, the emergency replacement for Ward Bond, who'd died right at the turn of the year.
    It was a kind of "stealth" episode: the main guest star was Lee Marvin, playing the newly hired wagonmaster, who turned out to be such an SOB that he got overthrown, and McIntire's Hale stepped in and took over - for the remaining four and a half years of Wagon Train's run (across two networks).

    - This week, CBS started up a bunch of daytime game shows that I saw a lot of during summer break from school.
    Two that I remember particularly are Face The Facts, which was a game-show version of a courtroom show: contestants had to figure how actual judges decided civil cases that were acted out for them by actors:
    ... and Your Surprise Package, in which contestants had to guess what prize they were playing for, from the comic clues that George Fenneman gave them. This show was produced and head-written by Allan Sherman, just before he became an accidental comedy star with My Son The Folk Singer.
    This show also a gorgeous model named Carol Merrill, who found more permanent employment elsewhere a year or so later ...

    - In the color section, you might have mentioned profiles of Jack Bailey (Queen For A Day) and Roscoe Karns (Hennesey), and a piece about Hong Kong written especially for TV Guide by David Brinkley (they really did stuff like that back then).
    Also The Bearded Bards Of TV Comedy, a group profile of five comedy writers who all sported well-groomed goatees (not an everyday occurrence in 1961).

    As we lament how far TV Guide has fallen in 50 years ...
    ... fifty freakin' years! ...

    ... aaahhh nuts ...

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    1. Great stuff, Mike - thanks! The Wagon Train note especially - I like that idea of a "stealth" episode. Don't know how familiar you are with 12 O'Clock High, but do you know if the intro of Paul Burke's Joe Gallager character was intended as a stealth intro for him to take over in season two?

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    2. The 12 O'Clock High story as I remember it:

      ABC did a major promotion effort on behalf of Robert Lansing at the show's outset; one spot bracketed him alongside Vince Edwards and David Janssen as "discoveries" of the network (although all three had had considerable careers beforehand).

      After this, the story gets a shade murky; Lansing started getting a reputation for "difficulty" (which in TV can mean almost anything) - it is known that he didn't get along with Quinn Martin, which made him an exception in Hollywood.

      As for Paul Burke, he'd been the guest star in the pilot film, playing the Hugh Marlowe character from the movie; he returned at least twice during the first season, each time with a promotion to a higher rank. Give Lansing's problems with Martin, and added to other problems the production had had (mainly the death in midseason of regular John Larkin) this most likely was not a coincidence.

      12 O'Clock High was what would today be called a "bubble show", about midway in the overall rating list, and could have gone either way at renewal time.
      I'm not sure whether replacing Lansing with Burke was ABC's idea or Quinn Martin's; whoever had the idea, the other didn't object.

      12 O'Clock High was my father's war - the AAF in England. He was a major fan of the original novel and the Gregory Peck movie, and never missed an episode of the series;he especially admired Robert Lansing (he'd also liked Lansing's previous series, 87th Precinct).
      What my father didn't like was Paul Burke replacing Lansing; he simply didn't like Burke as an actor - ever (going back to Naked City). Even in later years he wouldn't buy anything at Radio Shack simply because Paul Burke did their commercials.
      (But he still never missed 12 O'Clock High - service loyalty).

      The "official" reason given was that ABC wanted to appeal to a "younger audience" - and they stuck to this even when it was pointed out that Paul Burke was two years older than Robert Lansing.

      So that's the 12 O'Clock High story, as best I recollect it.

      *Glad you asked?*

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    3. I'm always glad I asked, Mike! I'm going to have to have you do some guest columns for me!

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