July 26, 2013

This week in TV Guide: July 26, 1958

The Millionaire, which ran on CBS for five seasons between 1955 and 1960, was a terrific idea for a TV series – a simple, straightforward concept offering a tantalizing and provocative premise with which virtually every viewer could identify. It’s also a prime candidate for a look at, in the immortal words of Paul Harvey, “the rest of the story.”

The Millionaire starred Marvin Miller as Michael Anthony, executive secretary to the mysterious multimillionaire John Beresford Tipton, Jr. Tipton remained an unseen presence throughout the series, his voice provided by veteran voice artist Paul Frees – the only part of him ever seen was his left arm, which he used to hand to Anthony a cashier’s check for one million dollars, along with instructions as to whom the money should be given. The rest of each episode played out as an anthology, as we follow the story of the beneficiaries and how the sudden wealth affects their lives.

It’s really kind of a cool idea, not unlike Fantasy Island I suppose, in that people are given the chance to experience a dramatic change in life and in the process discover the kind of stuff of which they’re made– sometimes it’s good, sometimes not so good. And, like the enigmatic Mr. Roarke, it makes you want to know more about this John Beresford Tipton.

Tipton gets ready to hand Anthony yet another million
We never know how he chooses his beneficiaries or what motivates him, save a comment in the opening episode that his goal was to set up a kind of chess game, using human beings as the pieces. So apparently Tipton has something of a God complex about him, or perhaps it’s more as if he were a scientist conducting experiments on human lab rats. Either way, there’s something somewhat disturbing about the whole idea of people being playthings of the rich (Brewster's Millions, anyone?), and one thinks that Tipton’s backstory might have made for interesting viewing itself.

I wonder, though, if The Millionaire is so much a product of its time that it couldn’t be made today. For example, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? notwithstanding, a million dollars doesn’t really go all that far anymore* (as Dr. Evil found out), which makes the show’s premise a charming artifact. To put in perspective, one million dollars in 1955 would, factored for inflation, have the buying power of $8,712,835.82 today. And then there’s the question of where the money comes from: I don’t know about you, but I might be slightly paranoid about accepting almost nine million dollars from a total stranger. Suppose I’m being sucked into some kind of money-laundering scheme? And wouldn’t that kind of sudden wealth attract the attention of the government, regardless of the tax consequences? Frankly, I’d probably suspect the whole thing of being like one of those African bank email scams.

*Even though Tipton had already taken care of the taxes for each beneficiary, which would have been quite a chunk of change itself.

Probably the best chance for a revival would have been to base the whole thing around winning a lottery, which has been done several times (Lottery, Sweepstakes, Windfall) without any great success. I think the problem there, though, is that with the lottery, we know where the money comes from – the government, in the form of ticket-buying suckers like you and me. With The Millionaire, on the other hand, the questions of “who” and “why” loom large over the series, even though the beneficiaries are prohibited from ever attempting to discover the identity of their benefactor.

Regardless, as Marvin Miller and producer Don Fedderson attest in this TV Guide article, The Millionaire is an irresistible premise. Each week Federson gets “scores” of letters from people convinced that Tipton is somehow real, who want to get a piece of the action. And Miller can’t really go anywhere anymore without people jokingly coming up to him and asking where the check is. Which just goes to show that, no matter how, the dream of instant wealth is alive and well.

***

In the category of “unfortunate use of words,” the top of this week’s cover bears the teaser, “How ‘Twenty One’ Rehearses Its Show.” It’s unfortunate because, in less than one month, the Quiz Show Scandal is about to burst into full view of the public, with Twenty One being at the center of the storm.

The article itself is pretty innocuous – telling of how host Jack Barry and the evening’s contestants run through their marks, testing microphone settings and camera angles, making sure the participants are comfortable with the setup. It’s an interesting behind-the-scenes look at a television show, which must have seemed quite the exotic thing back in 1958. Of course, looking back on it in context, the headline itself is the payoff – I mean, I bought this issue for that alone, without even caring about the rest of the contents. It’s the kind of thing you just can’t make up.

The most famous winner on Twenty One was Charles Van Doren, who parlayed his death struggle with Herb Stempel into a lot of money and a co-hosting gig on the Today show. I was hoping, in fact, that one of Today’s listings for the week would have included Van Doren’s name – but then, that would have been just too perfect, wouldn’t it? Sort of like winning a million dollars.

***

It’s always interesting to see how different things were in the 1950s compared to even five or six years later. For example, programming is all over the map. Yes, most of the affiliates in this issue adhere to network scheduling, but not all, and not all the time. And with the proliferation of syndicated shows such as Sea Hunt and Highway Patrol, not to mention the increasing availability of reruns due to the advent of tape, the local TV station has more options than ever.

For example: What’s My Line? has been a mainstay of the CBS Sunday night schedule since 1950. It’s broadcast live, every week, at 9:30pm Central, and will continue to be for the next nine years. And yet of the three CBS affiliates in this issue – WCCO in Minneapolis-St. Paul, KDAL in Duluth, and KXJB in Fargo – only WCCO carries the show in its live timeslot. (KDAL opts for the syndicated Mike Hammer, while KXJB offers a rerun of The Honeymooners.) My wife tells me that when she was growing up, her mother refused to watch What's My Line?, believing that it was too upper class and monied.* I wonder if that had anything to do with it - that it appealed to the wrong demographic?

*"Hoity-toity" was, I believe, the word she used for it.

I'm also amused by the future-tense grammar that TV Guide uses when writing about live events. For instance, Channel 4 presents a program of auto racing from a local race track. Per TV Guide, "Stock car races from Raceway Park in Shakopee, Minn., will be shown. Stew Reamer will report."* Okay.

*I've been to Raceway Park, by the way - it's still around. A lot of fun to watch races there. TV Guide misspelled Shakopee - according to them, it's "Shapokee." Good thing I new better.

Perhaps thinking that King
Arthur's no Doctor
Some other odds and ends for the week, some of which might be thought of as a preview of coming attractions. On Channel 11 at 5pm Tuesday afternoons, there's Sir Lancelot, starring William Russell - who would go on to great and lasting fame as Ian Chesterton, part of the original TARDIS crew of Doctor Who. Later that night, on a highlights edition of CBS' Name That Tune, the young Eddie Hodges is shown with his partner - Marine Colonel John Glenn - as they team up to win $25,000. That was often mentioned in stories after Glenn's selection as an astronaut. And on Monday at 10:30am, NBC debuts a new game show: Concentration. It does pretty well for itself, running until March of 1973. Hugh Downs hosts, while he's still doing double-duty as Jack Paar's sidekick. After that gig, he'll move to the morning as host of the Today show. Without Charles Van Doren.

Speaking of Paar, Monday's show is on location in Havanna, Cuba. Less than six months later, the country will have fallen to the Communists, and later Paar will try to arrange a swap of tractors for prisoners of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. I wonder if this is the only case of a network talk show originating from a country in the middle of a violent revolution?  And on Tuesday, Jack celebrates his first anniversary as host of Tonight.  He'll be the host for five years, moving to prime time in 1962 and ceding the seat to Johnny Carson.

Jim McKay - spanning
the courtroom
At 7:30 on Thursday evening, CBS presents The Verdict is Yours, a series of courtroom reenactments with actors portraying the actual participants. The court reporter in the series: a young Jim McKay, still a few years from the Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat. And at the same time, but on Tuesday night, ABC carries The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, starring Hugh O'Brian. A note after the listing teases an article in next week's TV Guide on O'Brian's efforts to get out of his Earp contract. Must not have worked; the show continues to run successfully until 1961.

Here's the kind of thing you don't see anymore: Lawrence Welk, star of the hit ABC series, will be in the Twin Cities August 5, and will be greeted by a parade from the airport to the Channel 11 studios at the Calhoun Beach Hotel. A parade!

And the word parade somehow reminds me of Disneyland. Walt Disney's show hasn't yet moved from ABC to NBC, and it isn't yet broadcast in color. (Hence: it's called Disneyland instead of The Wonderful World of Color.) Wednesday night's episode, "Magic Highway, U.S.A.," explores the roadways of the past, present and future*, but what's interesting about this is not the episode itself, but the ad appearing at the bottom of the page for the latest Disney theatrical presentation, "The Light in the Forest," opening August 1 at the State Theater in Minneapolis. Disney always did know how to use television, and he was the first of the major studio heads to understand how TV, far from being a threat, could be used to further the business. Ads for movies, especially ones starring TV actors, weren't unusual in TV Guide, but I thought this was a nice example of complimentary product placement. I wonder how much Disney had to pay for that?

*Among the predictions for the future: concrete tires on rubber roads, and separate routes for female drivers.

While we're on the subject of color TV as we were a moment ago, we've mentioned in the past that there are few enough shows broadcast in color that TV Guide actually has a special section devoted to listing them, in the same way that they list specials and time changes (and, later on, sports). Not surprisingly, given RCA's role in the whole thing, all the shows this week are on NBC, including a couple of daytime programs (It Could Be You and Haggis Baggis), a trio of prime-time game shows (Tic Tac Dough, The Big Game and The Price Is Right), a few dramas (Noah's Ark, The Investigator and Kraft Mystery Theatre), and some variety shows (Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme, Dinah Shore's Chevy Show, and Bob Crosby's Saturday night turn). Interesting, isn't it, the kinds of shows the network chose to colorcast?

***

Finally, because it's still the summer and there isn't that much else new to report, I thought we'd take a look at a few of the local ads appearing in this week's issue.


You don't see local music shows anymore, except maybe on public access.  This was a late-night show, airing live from 11pm to midnight - probably after some of these musicians had finished their gigs, or perhaps between shows.  Doesn't it look as if they've changed the start time of the show - that they laid that "11:00" over whatever it used to be?  If so, I wonder if it was a longer show before, or shorter?


I do have a fondness for the kids shows that used to be a staple of afternoon local programming - it's the kind of thing I grew up with.  Nonetheless, there is something pretty hokey about this ad, isn't there? Captain Q was played by Jack McKenna, who, like so many kids show hosts, was also a weatherman.  Here's a picture of him doing a weathercast (courtesy this site) - want to guess the era?*


*That collar could have doubled as a cold front milllibar, don't you think?

I dare say that KDAL wouldn't be able to use this ad today.  I don't know enough about the station to figure out the smoke-signal tie-in, unless it was just indicative of the culture of the time, what with Westerns being so popular.  And it's also interesting to think of Monty Hall hosting something other than Let's Make a Deal, isn't it?

The wonderful thing about these ads is that they take us back to an era when local stations had some kind of personality, an identity of their own.  They often created their own ads rather than depending on a generic network ad with a fill-in-the-blank for the station logo, and in fact they also created a lot of their own programming - nowadays, most of that falls into the news category.  There are no local variety shows, no local kids shows, no local talk or public affairs programming other than what you might find in the early morning hours on Sunday, and rarely are there things like hosts of local movies.  (For that matter, many stations don't even show movies anymore.)  KCMT, the infamous Channel 7 to which I often refer, doesn't even exist anymore, and in its last few years it had no local identity at all, simply simulcasting the programming from its parent station, WCCO.

This may or may not give us better programming - a lot of those local shows could be pretty awful - but it's deprived us of much more.  Ernie Kovacs, Ed McMahon, Jim McKay, Dave Garroway - all of them started out in local television, and they just scratch the tip of the iceberg.  We're now a "national" nation rather than a local one, as regional characteristics fade into a kind of bland homogenized culture, and in the long run we're a poorer nation for it. 

2 comments:

  1. At long last, you've got a TV Guide up that I have!

    - Sir Lancelot:
    This was a series that had run a season or two before in prime time on NBC.
    When ABC decided to cut Mickey Mouse Club back to a half-hour a day, they filled the rest of the time with Fun At Five, a different show each day.
    As noted, Sir Lancelot was Tuesday.
    Wednesday was Wild Bill Hickok, with Guy Madison and Andy Devine, from a few years before.
    Thursday was Woody Woodpecker, with Walter Lantz doing segments showing how cartoons are made.
    Friday was The Buccaneers, another British import from a couple of years back, and America's introduction to Robert Shaw.
    And on Monday?
    That was the original George Reeves Superman, in what turned out to be its last year of first-run production.
    The first 13 episodes were brand-new (the only such shows in Fun At Five), and reruns from earlier seasons filled out the year.
    This season was the only one in which Superman ran on a network (ABC, but it counts).
    These were also the episodes that were filmed in color, but didn't play that way because ABC didn't have the tech.
    Interesting ... Suppose that the Leo Burnett Agency, which packaged Fun At Five had placed it on NBC instead of ABC?
    Who knows how the history of those involved might have changed?

    - Twenty-One:
    Of course, the story wouldn't have mentioned Charles Van Doren; he'd been off the show for over a year by July 1958.
    The scandal didn't break until the following year, 1959.
    If you're using the movie Quiz Show as your source of information, you ought to know that the makers of that movie were no more faithful to the actual story than most other Hollywood films of true events have been.
    But that's another story ...

    - Elbow Grabbers, Etc.:
    That's the picture feature on pages 8-9, showing ladies who serve as functionaries on various game and variety shows.
    Take a good look at the girl seated third from the left in the front row - the one in the bustier and fishnets.
    Her name is Doris Bourgeois, a billboard from Steve Allen's show.
    A few years after this feature appeared, Doris Bourgeois decided to take a different career track.
    She dyed her hair blonde and changed her name to Donna Douglas.
    "... and now you know ... The Rest Of The Story ..."

    Keep Talking:
    Monty Hall was the first host of this show, but network politics forced his replacement by Carl Reiner a few months into the run.
    Keep Talking was a comedy-improv game.
    Two teams of three comedians.
    One member of each team would come center-stage and each be given a secret gag phrase sent in by a viewer.
    Then the Host - Reiner was the one I remember - would start a story; after aminute a buzzer would sound and one comic would pick up and go for about 30-45 seconds, buzzer would sound and the other comic would pick up, back and forth for about three minutes total.
    Each comic would have to work in his secret gag phrase. At the end of the game, aech team would have to figure out what the other team's gag phrase was.
    The comics included Joey Bishop, Morey Amsterdam, Paul Winchell, Pat Carroll, Peggy Cass, Orson Bean, and some others I can't call to mind, who rotated in and out.
    Pretty funny show - at least I thought so when I was a kid.

    I'm dry for the moment; I'll look a little closer and see if I can find anything else of note for later.

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  2. Ah, great stuff as always, Mike! Love the Elbow Grabbers bit - Donna Douglas! Who knew?

    You're right about Quiz Show - although I enjoyed the movie greatly, I recall, not long after it came out, an article by former Dartmouth prof Jeffrey Hart, who had known the Van Dorens and pointed out some of the more egregious inaccuracies of the movie.

    Fun at Five - nowdays the only thing on at 5 is the news, and that ain't much fun...

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