March 16, 2013

This week in TV Guide: March 18, 1967

The relationship between television and boxing has always been a complex one.  At the dawn of television, boxing was a major sport - more popular than professional football, comparable to baseball and college football - and it was a mainstay of early TV.  It was cheap to broadcast, easy to televise, and had a ready-made audience, and all three networks (four, if you include DuMont) had regularly scheduled boxing shows which garnered huge ratings and made bartenders the country over very happy.  By the mid-60s, however, prime-time boxing was gone from the networks - a victim of massive television overexposure, mob involvement, fight-fixing scandals, and deaths in the ring.  Oh, fights were still to be found - mostly on Wide World of Sports and CBS Sports Spectacular - but the big-time championship bout was already headed for the world of closed-circuit, pay-per-view broadcasting, which is what makes Wednesday night's heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and Zora Folley all the more interesting.

The fight, which Ali would win via a seventh round knockout, comes during a transitional stage in the broadcast of heavyweight championship bouts.  The fights had been steadily moving to closed-circuit TV broadcasts, shown in movie theaters or other large auditoriums, since the late 50s.  Many of Ali's greatest fights - his defeat of then-champion Sonny Liston in Miami, the "Fight of the Century" against Joe Frazier, the "Rumble in the Jungle" versus George Foreman, and the "Thrilla in Manila" rematch with Frazier - were broadcast on closed-circuit.  The broadcasts made Ali and his promoter, the infamous Don King, a lot of money.

However, at this point you could still catch a heavyweight title fight on home TV if you were lucky.  Maybe Zora Folley wasn't a big-enough draw (even though he was the number one contender), or possibly it was too soon to ask people to plunk down money for an Ali fight - he'd previously defended his title just seven weeks before, winning a 15-round decision against Ernie Terrell in Houston on February 6.  At any rate, the prime-time broadcast of the first heavyweight title fight to be held in the famed Madison Square Garden since 1951 came not via a network, but on a syndicated hookup of stations,* with the great Don Dunphy at the mike, and Win Elliot doing the color. You notice on the ad that Ali is also referred to by his former name, Cassius Clay - even though it had been almost two years since Ali had changed his name, many people still refused to refer to him as anything other than Clay.

*Prime-time boxing was pretty much confined to syndication by then, with title fights in many weight classes being shown on an irregular basis.

This was Muhammad Ali's last title defense for some time - in fact, it was the last time he would fight, under any name, for over three years.  He would be stripped of his title the following month for refusing induction into the Army, and remained in boxing limbo until his first comeback in 1970, when he fought and defeated Jerry Quarry.

Home broadcasts of heavyweight title bouts would make a comeback as well, ironically with Ali at the helm of many of them (the ones not big enough to go to closed-circuit).  Eventually, though, they would disappear again, to be replaced by another kind of pay-per-view, as cable TV became the main delivery mechanism for championship boxing.

Here's the original broadcast (complete with commercials!) of Ali-Folley, one of the last big fights held in the old MSG.  Coverage starts about 40 seconds in, with the pre-fight introductions.


***

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: singer-dancer Jane Powell; the singing Lovin' Spoonful; bandleader Cab Calloway and his singing daughter Chris; the comedy team of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara; Country and Western singer Johnny Rivers; comedians George Carlin, Jackie Kahane and Dave Allen; and the balancing Hoganas.

Hollywood Palace: Host George Burns presents the musical King Family; singer Lainie Kazan; Italian opera star Enzo Stuarti; Desmond and Marks, English music-hall comics; and Baby Sabu the elephant.

Ugh.  Not an inspiring week for either show, but Sullivan gets the nod with Cab Calloway, Johnny Rivers (C&W?  For this guy?) and George Carlin.  Perhaps the better decision would be to wait until Thursday, when Dean Martin's guests include Buddy Greco, Louis Prima, Bob Newhart and the McGuire Sisters.

***

Speaking of variety, Jackie Gleason is once again the cover boy for this week's issue.  He's in the midst of his fifth season with his eponymously-named variety show, telecast from Miami Beach, and Ted Crail's article gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the preparation for the show.  Gleason is pretty much invisible until the day of the taping, when he swoops in and takes total command.  Gleason insists on the hours, and also the control - "There were comedians who relied on everyone else" he tells Crail.  "They only got in trouble."

And Ethel Merman makes a rare television appearance on Sunday night, starrin in NBC's adaptation of Merman's Broadway hit Annie Get Your Gun along with Bruce Yarnell (Outlaws), Harry Bellaver (Naked City) and Jerry Orbach (Law & Order).  This seems to be the week for clips, so here's a look at the broadcast, brought to you by "Your Gas Company:


***

It always seems, in looking at these old issues, that we run into one of those "nothing ever changes" moments.  This week's comes to us in two parts.

First up is an NBC news special on Sunday night entitled "Whose Right to Bear Arms?"  At least the producers don't pretend this is anything other than an advocacy piece; says producer Fred Freed, "There are almost no real restrictions on buying guns.  You don't have to travel very far to accumulate an arsenal."  The show cites some outrageous examples of how easy it is to pick up a gun - in one place, if you don't have the cash you can use trading stamps.  And I like how the network arranges the spokesmen: the gun control advocates include President Johnson and Senators Kennedy and Dodd (the elder), while the opponents, in addition to the NRA, include "a Grand titan of the Ku Klux Klan and the speaker at a neo-Nazi rally in Los Angeles."  I wonder how this program would do with James Hagerty's creed for newsmen we looked at a few weeks ago?  Nah, no bias there.

The second is an entertaining exchange that takes up the entire Letters to the Editor section, concerning critic Cleveland Amory's review of ABC's The American Sportsman.  Amory, no fan of sports hunting, was disgusted with the show; three letters appear in support of Amory, three in opposition.  Jack Nicholas of North Hollywood likes Amory's "excellent and obviously heartfelt review," and Barbara Jager of Los Angeles adds, "Enough of cruelty."  On the other hand, Warren King of Bridgeport, CT writes that Amory "seems incapable of giving The American Sportsman an impartial review, and prefers to use it as a means to express his personal attitude toward hunting under the guise of public outrage," and Robert W. Sniegocki of Brooklyn says that if Amory would ever get out from behind his desk and into the outdoors, "it will make a man out of him."

***

This ad probably wouldn't make much sense to people today, unless you're of the same bent that I am.  But the audience in 1967 would have immediately gotten the reference to The Untouchables - not just the word play, but the style of clothing as well.  After all, the series itself had aired on ABC as recently as four years ago, and many local stations continued to carry it in syndication well into the early 70s.  But today?  Maybe some people would think of The Incredibles, but otherwise the joke probably falls upon deaf ears.

It reminds me of a cartoon strip from years past called Scroogie.  It was done by the late Tug McGraw, the former Mets and Phillies pitcher, and Mike Witte, and centered around a left-handed relief pitcher named Scroogie who played for a team called the New York Pets. (And any resemblance between said character and the left-handed relief pitcher McGraw was purely intentional.  I always thought Scroogie was probably baseball's version of Barney Miller, but that's another topic.)  Anyway, in the cartoon I'm thinking of, Scroogie is dealing with a potentially serious arm problem.  "It's over!  My career is over!" he laments to a teammate.  "I mean, who on earth would want a one-armed baseball player?"  At this point another teammate comes in with some news: "Scroogie, there's a Dr. Richard Kimble here to see you."  (Rimshot.)

When I first read that I assumed Kimble had to be some kind of famous doctor of the past come to look at Scroogie's arm, but if so the joke wasn't really very funny.  It wasn't until later that the lightbulb went on and I made the connection.  It would have been hilarious, if a bit cliched, in 1967.  In the late 70s and early 80s, my initial reaction probably wouldn't have been that unusual.  Today, with the growth of DVDs and nostalgia TV, most people today would probably get it right away.

I love how ads like this one can be so firmly rooted in a time and place.  They tell you about far more than just the products they're pitching.

***

There's no doubt about it - color TV, the wave of the future, is here.  If you've followed your TV Guide listings over the past months, you've noticed more and more shows being broadcast in color, and this year the networks have moved to all-color for their prime-time lineups.  And yet, there's still trouble in paradise, according to the TV Guide editorial, which challenges the networks and producers to "set up color standards they all can and will follow."

Viewers are fed up, say the editors, with having to keep fiddling with dials and buttons because "some commercial producers turn out film or tape with higher color intensity than others," some using "film that accets blus and others film that boosts reds."  The networks, the editors assert, can't even agree on what color flesh is.

It's generally agreed that "before long nearly all homes will have color sets."  Isn't it time, therefore, for everyone to come together to make sure these sets provide the quality that viewers expect?  "Color is great," TV Guide concludes, "and we've been among its most enthusiastic supporters for many years."  But "color will not be completely satisfactory to viewers until they can be freed from constant dial twiddling."  

The twin developments of digital television and high definition are amazing for many reasons, but even more than the astounding detail, their greatest contribution is that the viewer no longer has to deal with ghosts, interference waves, strange color tints and the like.  It's something that younger viewers can't even imagine, but for those of a certain age it's little less than a miracle.

6 comments

  1. The Fugitive's name was spelled "Kimble" not "Kimball."

    ReplyDelete
  2. One of the many little things I adore about "Mad Men" is the way, when we see characters watching TV, that the TV picture they're watching rolls or warbles when someone moves across the room. If you see it and know what it is, you're old, I guess.

    ReplyDelete
  3. My Dad bought us our first color TV set in March of 1968.

    He could have bought it as early as 1966, but waited until local shows and daytime network shows were in color as well as nighttime shows.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think our first one was in 1970. Still remember the first show - it was a football game between the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears, from Wrigley Field. The brightness of the color gave me a headache!

      Delete

And now for something completely different.