On Sunday evening CBS presents the second airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas, already well on its way to becoming a television classic*.
*Curious thing - the ad for the broadcast reads "On the first day of Christmas, my true love said to me, watch "A Charlie Brown Christmas." In the first place, it doesn't rhyme - they should have added "on TV" to make it work. Also, what are the twelve days? If Sunday is the first day, the twelfth day would be December 22. And anyway, the first day of Christmas is Christmas Day itself. Do they mean to suggest this is the first day of Christmas specials? Or that the season doesn't really begin until Charlie Brown is aired? You'd think they would have thought this through more. Or perhaps I'm thinking too much?
Later on Sunday, Danny Thomas presents his annual "Wonderful World of Burlesque." As I've mentioned before, the season produces specials, but not all of them are holiday-themed, and this is one of them. Still, look at the guest cast - Carol Channing, Mickey Rooney, Wayne Newton, Dean Martin, Robert Culp, Bill Cosby - that is special!
Bob Hope also has a special this week, on Wednesday - but we know this isn't his Christmas show, since 1) he's not in Vietnam, and 2) he's in Acapulco, and nobody's doing Christmas bits. A big name cast anyway, including Glenn Ford, Elke Sommer, Michael Caine, and Jayne Mansfield.
There's a more thoughtful special on Sunday morning, when NBC airs the Hanukkah special I Never Saw Another Butterfly, the story of a woman returning to Czechoslovakia to recall her youth in a Nazi concentration camp. Not a particularly upbeat show, to be sure, but with the script having been based on "drawings and poems by children in the camp," I'm sure it struck a solemn note.
And on a local note, KCMT, Channel 7 in Alexandria (my home channel in the mid-70s) has its annual variety show telethon to raise money for food baskets for the underprivileged. It's a very good cause, but I can vouch that those shows were not the best of entertainment. Then again, unless you live in Hollywood or a block off of Broadway, what local variety show is?
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..
Sullivan: Scheduled guests: singer Diahann Carroll, Edward Villella and Patricia McBride of the New York City Ballet, comedians Morey Amsterdam and Joan Rivers, trumpeter Harry James and his orchestra, the Obernkirchen Children's Choir from Germany and foot-juggler Uto Garrido.
Palace: Host Jimmy Durante introduces Peter Lawford, who offers a song-and-dance routine; the rock 'n' rolling Turtles; Mrs. Elva Miller, the singing grandmother; comedian George Carlin; singer-dancer Elaine Dunn; comic dancer George Carl; and the Polack Brothers' elephant act.
If I'm not mistaken, several of the acts on this week's Sullivan show can be seen in the Ed Sullivan Christmas DVD that came out a few years ago and has been a staple on Public Broadcasting stations. Unfortunately, none of them appear to be online, so we can't share in them here. Suffice it to say that some are better than others. I'm not a fan of Diahann Carroll; on the other hand, Morey Amsterdam is usually very funny.
I am, however, a big fan of Jimmy Durante. I'm not sure about Peter Lawford as a song-and-dance man, though. Elva Miller, always billed as "Mrs. Miller," was something of a phenomenon of the 60s, appearing on many of the talk shows with her "unique" song interpretations. I remember her - or more properly, her songs - from the Twin Cities kids' show Lunch With Casey, when Casey and Roundhouse would pantomime to her singing. Here she is with Durante in what may well be a clip from this week's show:
It's pretty hard to take sides with these lineups. Neither of them are completely terrible, but neither do they get me very excited. This week, I'm going with a push.
Looking for something more exciting? Andy Williams has Jack Jones, Barbara Eden and Noel Harrison, while Dean Martin greets Sid Caesar, George Kirby, Vic Damone, Caterina Valente and Don Cherry*. And then there's Milton Berle, with Abbe Lane, Bill Dana, harmonica player Stan Fisher and magician De La Vega. But more about him later.
*The singer, not the hockey coach-turned-pundit.
I'm pretty sure I've talked about this before, the vast difference in the college football bowl season between the 60s and today. There are only nine bowls in 1966*, and none of them count toward the national championship, which is decided by the final polls after the end of the regular season. The top two teams in the nation, Notre Dame and Michigan State, who played their epic 10-10 tie the month before, aren't even bowling - ND had a no-bowling policy at the time, and Michigan State, having played in the Rose Bowl the season before, were prohibited from a return trip.
*By contrast, there are 35 this season.
Miami and Virginia Tech had each played their final regular-season games two weeks before, when they meet in the Liberty Bowl on Saturday, December 10 on ABC. It is the second time in Memphis for the game, which had made previous stops in Philadelphia (hence the game's name) and Atlantic City (where it became the first-ever indoor bowl game). Miami comes out on top, winning 14-7.
With the next bowl game a week away, there has to be something left to fill up the day, and the NFL is happy to step up, as the league starts its end-of-season slate of Saturday games with the Packers, en route to winning their second consecutive title, taking on the Colts in Baltimore. I probably watched the Canadian Football game on Channel 11 at 10:00am, advertised as Ottawa vs. Hamilton. Since the Grey Cup championship had already been played, I'm guessing that this was a delayed broadcast of the first game* of the Eastern Finals, which had been played on November 13, won by Ottawa 30-1.
*Back then, the Eastern Finals was a two-game, total-points series. Ottawa won the second game 42-16, taking the cumulative series 72-17, before losing the Grey Cup to Saskatchewan on November 26, 29-14.
At the end of November, NBC premiered a made-for-TV movie called Fame is the Name of the Game, starring Tony Franciosa as investigative journalist Jeff Dillon, Susan St. Sames as research assistant Peggy Chan, and George Macready as his boss, publisher Glenn Howard. TV Guide calls the movie "a Grade-B murder melodrama souped up with sex and brutality." But there's something else they call it: a success.
Fame is the Name of the Game isn't the first made-for-TV movie, but the publicity machine for it is unique, and trendsetting. NBC puts it in its powerhouse Saturday Night at the Movies spot, the home of its big-name theatrical presentations, and bills it as a "World Premiere" of a "major motion picture." Given the treatment usually reserved for the television debut of a big-screen blockbuster, Fame scores a 23 rating and a 40 share - equal to some of the best theatrical movie showings.
NBC's success is all the more satisfying given the scorn CBS had shown for "quickies," as they call these TV flicks. CBS and ABC are much more inclined toward studio-taped presentations of plays (Death of a Salesman, The Glass Menagerie) and movies (Laura, Dial M for Murder, The Diary of Anne Frank), that hearken back to the feel of Golden Age live dramas. But it's hard to argue with success: by the end of the decade the TV telefilm (or "non-movie," as one critic calls them) are all over television, and the term "World Premiere" even becomes the title of an ABC movie series.
|The "Name of the Game" cast (L-R):|
Robert Stack, Gene Barry, Tony Franciosa
Speaking of movies, one of the things I miss is the horror double-feature that so many local stations used to have. I'm looking at this one on WTCN, Channel 11, starting Thursday night at 10pm. First up is Attack of the Crab Monsters - "An expedition led by Dr. Karl Weigand arrives on a Pacific island to study the effects of H-bomb fallout." It's followed by The Cyclops, in which "Susan Winter and a search party head for an unexplored area of Mexico - the place where her fiance mysteriously disappeared three years ago." At least it has Lon Chaney Jr. going for it. Channel 12, KEYC in Mankato, joins in the fun with Tobor the Great, where "A scientist builds a robot which is designed to serve as a metal guinea pig." Tobor, of course, is robot spelled backward. And then Channel 4, WCCO, has Attack of the Mushroom People, which tells the story of "A yachting party, cast ashore on an uncharted island*, encounters a horrifying fungus which begins to take possession of their bodies." It does make you wonder where the silhouettes are, doesn't it?
*The castaways of Gilligan's Island?
And this doesn't begin to cover the whole range - there's The Undead and Curse of the Undead (on two different stations - unrelated movies, as far as I can tell), The Amazing Transparent Man, Man Without a Body - oddly enough, the only one that isn't labeled a "melodrama" is the one that's arguably the most disturbing one of all - Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's classic Cat People. I mean, if a movie about a woman afraid that she turns into a cat when she's aroused isn't a horror film, what is?
Earlier, I mentioned Milton Berle. "Mr. Television," as he was known in the 50s, had last been seen on series television as host of Jackpot Bowling in the early '60s.
But now, after years as little more than a reminder of television's early days, Uncle Miltie is trying a comeback. He's bought himself out of a 30-year contract with NBC, and Dick Hobson relates Berle's barnstorming campaign in support of his new variety show on ABC. Flying from city to city in a Lear jet, he shakes the hand of the governor of Kansas during a stop in Wichita, wears an Indian headdress in Oklahoma City, rides in parades in Detroit and Baltimore. He visits injured Vietnam vets at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington. He's honored at a party hosted by the mayor of Houston, and appears at halftime of the Syracuse-Baylor football game in Waco. To those who proclaim that "Uncle Miltie's back," Berle responds, "I've never been away."
Travelling with Berle can be exhausting; the comedian's always on. To a reporter's question about how he feels going up against NBC's The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Berle quips "I'm the real uncle!" He tapes commercials urging people to watch him on "ABC, the American Berlecasting Company!" When asked what he thinks of television today, he steals Fred Allen's famous line that "TV is like a steak. It's a medium that's rarely well done." An Oklahoma City host says he doesn't look as old in person as he does on TV; Berle tells her "I think you have an old TV set."
Throughtout the trip, Berle is accompanied by a retinue that includes singer Bobby Rydell, a 60s teen idol whom producers hope will attract the youth audience who aren't awed by Berle's reputation. But despite the "Berlewind Tour," it will be the viewers, not Berle's energy, determining how successful his comeback attempt will be. And when they speak, it's not a pretty sound. His yukking and gladhandling and insistence that the King has returned to claim the throne have fallen on deaf ears; the October Nielsens put the show at a disastrous 84th out of 92 shows. Berle's name has no cache with younger viewers, and Berle's spectacular failure truly demonstrates, if any further proof is needed, that television has fully entered a new era, with perhaps only Ed Sullivan truly reminding us of the early days. On October 25 Variety reports that ABC has canceled the show, although Berle has to wait two additional days before he hears it personally from someone at the network. The final show will air on January 6. Berle says there are no hard feelings, no sour grapes. "I'm just going to take a rest."
This week's cover promises the story of "The Town That Is TV's Secret Laboratory." We'll have more on that in the future - stay tuned.