January 31, 2013

Around the dial

Ah, Magnum, P.I.  One of my wife's favorite shows.  She likes Sellick, but I also think that Hawaii looked pretty good during all those cold winter nights in Minnesota.  (Personally, I depend on Hawaii Five-O for my Hawaii fix.)  Anyway, good memories of that series from Amanda at Made for TV Mayhem.  You and my wife would get along quite well.

Joanna Wilson from Christmas TV History has been doing a great series on Rankin-Bass' voice talents, and the work they've done in other TV Christmas shows.  It's particularly nice to see pictures of the faces behind the voices.  It's almost - almost - enough to make me wish it was Christmas again, but I'd sure like to have summer first.

Congrats to Ivan at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear - he has a new gig starting soon at ClassicFlix.com.  We'll miss his regular contributions at Thrilling Days, but I'm looking forward to his work at ClassicFlix - you can bet we'll have that on the favorites list.

New blog!  Welcome to Tom and TV Gems.  Glad to see you're going to be part of the blogathon!

Is Classic Sports TV and Media's video of the Super Bowl VI postgame interviews worth looking at?  Evidentally...

And don't forget the Variety Show Blogathon starts on Super Bowl Sunday.  Read here for the lineup and more details!


January 29, 2013

Ernie Kovacs and the finality of death

So this post is going to be a little different from some of those I’ve done previously. If it’s not your cup of tea, feel free to blow it off – you won’t hurt my feelings. In fact, I probably won’t even know you did it.

I say this because today’s topic is death. The Grim Reaper. The great equalizer. It can be difficult thinking about death, because so many times it remains an abstract proposition. Those of us who watch classic TV – well, most of the people we see in our black-and-white shows are dead, so we’re kind of used to it. But that wasn’t always the case, of course; all those people were alive and well at one time, and their focus was going forward, on what they would do next, rather than backward, on what had already been done.

Like them, we all live within the shadow of death, and inevitably we’re forced to confront it at one time or another. The culmination, of course, is in the ultimate confrontation with death – our own.

For Ernie Kovacs, that confrontation came on January 13, 1962, at the age of 42, in a car crash. It barely scratches the surface to call Kovacs a brilliant comedian; he was perhaps the most innovative performer ever seen on television, the first to really understand how to exploit this new technology. Kovacs was an acquired taste, too unorthodox for many, but for those who “got” him, it was a delight to be kept off-balance, to see how he might surprise you next. Shout! Factory’s box set of Kovacs’ shows was arguably the best TV set issued on DVD in the last few years, and it’s good that more people can see what all the shouting was about.

At the time of his death, Kovacs was doing a series of monthly specials for ABC. Seven had been telecast prior to his death; the eighth, which was taped in December of 1961, was aired on January 23, 1962 – ten days following his death.


That show started on a somber note, and for one unfamiliar with the circumstances it might almost have seemed a joke. It opened not with the typical barrage of sights and sounds that usually greeted the viewer, but instead offered a simple white background, with “The Ernie Kovacs Show” in black lettering. A studio announcer gently intervened:

Good evening. The show you are about to see was videotaped by Ernie Kovacs on December 3rd for Dutch Masters Cigars at the ABC studios in Hollywood. We have received numerous requests from his many fans to televise this show. That is why we present it tonight. Ernie wanted it to be seen and enjoyed.

Whereupon the show commenced, visually chaotic and dazzling. That opening, though - it didn’t belong, wasn’t part of the “real” show, but was tacked on by the network (and he always hated interference from the suits). It was ominous and foreboding, it almost made you nervous to watch the rest of the show. With all that you might have thought that the finality of death would strike home, that it would sink in. But, ominous and foreboding though it was, I didn’t feel it then. The show itself was typical Kovacs, although it seemed as if he weren’t as physically present as he usually was, running things more from the control room than on the stage with the rest of his crew. Was it just an illusion, a trick played by a mind that already knows the rest of the story? Hard to say. It was a funny show, not more or less than usual. But still you were aware of watching a man who, ten days ago, had been so alive and was now dead and buried, yet performing right now on your television, with no presumable intention of it being his final show.

One might have thought that the finality of death would be present there, in the image of Kovacs live on the screen and dead in the world; but I didn’t feel it then, either.

The show concluded, the closing credits ran, and the studio announcer returned:

The show you have just seen was videotaped by Ernie Kovacs on December 3rd for Dutch Masters Cigars. It was made to be seen and enjoyed. Because commercials were eliminated the show has run several minutes short. In the time remaining, we'd like to show you one of Ernie's favorite sketches from a previous show.

And followed a routine that would forever be associated with Kovacs, the Nairobi Trio.


Dutch Masters, his long-time sponsor, had in his memory presented the show without commercials. It was the right thing to do, and yet the brilliance of Kovacs' commercials for Dutch Masters was such that airing them might have been an even more fitting way to remember him, for though the commercials were made to sell cigars*, they were in every way a part of the show, made to be seen and enjoyed. Here's a typical one:


*Though Kovacs was seldom seen without his trademark cigars, they were, oddly enough, not Dutch Masters. (Nor did he ever claim they were.) He smoked only the best - from Havana.

The absence of the commercials meant the show would run short, and ABC filled the remaining time with a brief homage to Kovacs, including a quote from the minister who presided at the funeral.

We loved this man. He gave joy, happiness and gaiety to the world. He was a rugged individualist and a creative genius, but he was always ready to listen and slow to judge.


As the words were read, there was the image of Kovacs in the control room, laughing with pure joy. Was he laughing at the show, or perhaps at something someone said? Or was it because of the absurdity of the situation, of the network actually allowing him to put these things on the air, as if he had pulled one over on everyone and it was all just a great joke. It was moving, it was close to being final, but it wasn’t quite there yet.

I thought about it, after it was all over. It was the last show on the disc, the last complete show in the set. I thought about it and then it struck me, and I started the episode again and fast-forwarded through to the original closing credits.


Kovacs had loved classical music, had done an entire special on music once, and so it was no surprise to see the names there, Strauss and Bach and Haydn. I remembered the Strauss and Bach pieces, but Haydn? When the hell did he use Haydn?

He didn’t.

And then I understood, I saw and I knew the finality of death.

I grabbed the laptop and Googled a couple of things to make sure, and I was right. Kovacs’ Dutch Masters commercials, every one of them, had used Haydn’s String Quartet, Op. 3 No. 5. I hadn’t remembered hearing the music because the commercials hadn’t been shown. And yet Haydn was in the credits, because the commercials had been made and Kovacs, of course, had assumed they would be seen. And they weren’t, because when he’d made the show he was alive but now they were showing it and he was dead.

There was no reason to change those closing credits. I doubt that anyone even thought about them. They were just part of the show, after all. But in that one line, I understood. In what I had seen, I had been reminded of what I had not seen. Just as Ernie Kovacs would not be seen alive again.

I had seen the living testament that was the finality of death.

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.

January 24, 2013

Around the dial

Back in the day, the phone company used to remind us all to "let them know how you feel," and over the years, as the figures from my youth have passed on, it's something I wish I'd done.  At Classic Film and TV Cafe, Rick reminds us that good things can come from fan letters - but we have to write them first.

When we talk about the "Game of the Century," we're usually referring to college football - but at Classic Sports TV Media, Jeff recalls the 1968 college basketball battle of the unbeatens - Houston and UCLA - that truly lived up to the name.  I was only seven when this game was played, but it was a seminal event of my early sports life, and it's stayed with me since.

The NHL is back!  Except in Cleveland, where Tim at Cleveland Classic Media recalls the long and proud history of hockey in Cleveland, especially the minor-league Barons.  I've always had kind of a fondness for the Barons - the short-lived NHL team that shared that name wound up merging with the old Minnesota North Stars, giving us the nucleus of some fine teams (until they moved to Dallas...).

Staying with sports, have you had enough of the Manti Te'o story yet?  At SI.com, Richard Deitsch talks with two Pulitzer Prize-winnners about where the press fell down on the job.  Te'o isn't the only one who should be embarrassed.

Soaps aren't my thing generally, but Amanda's piece at Made for TV Mayhem is good news for those who are - two of the biggest soaps, All My Children and One Life to Live, are coming back in an online format. Apparently some old shows do have more than one life.

How Sweet It Was - how true, how true.  Aurora blogs on one of my favorite shows, Columbo, with one of  my favorite actors, Patrick McGoohan, in one of my favorite episodes.  A great showdown between two actors putting on a clinic.

And a reminder that the Classic TV Blog Association's variety show blogathon begins in a little over a week. Yours truly will be part of the opening day festivities, and the fun keeps on going from there!  Be sure to check the lineup for the most recent additions to the schedule.

January 22, 2013

The man who never was

It's been an interesting last week or so if you've been trying to keep up with real people, fictional people, and real people who turned out to be quite different from who they pretended to be.  It brought a whole new meaning to the saying, "You can't tell the players without a scorecard."  And while most people were no longer surprised that Lance Armstrong was not the man he wanted us to believe he was, there was fairly universal shock over the story of Manti Te'o and his fake dead girlfriend.

As that story picked up steam during the week, taking one bizarre turn after another, it was easy to assume that this was probably going to be one of the strangest news stories of the year.  The tale of a star football player and a fake dead girlfriend (doesn't that phrase just trip off the tongue?) boggled the imagination.  Was Te'o involved in the deception?  Was he the most naive football player in the universe?  What, we demanded, was the rest of the story?

And it was somewhere in the middle of all this that my wife turned to me.  "It kind of reminds you of Raymond Burr, doesn't it?"

***
 
Many of you have probably heard the story of Raymond Burr's double life, or at least parts of it.  For years the star of Perry Mason had had an established biography: a happy childhood, a tour of Europe with a Shakespearean company, service in World War II (during which he'd been severely injured at Okinawa and won the Purple Heart), teaching assignments at Amherst and Columbia. There were the three marriages, two of which had ended tragically (and a possible romance with Natalie Wood), and a son, who'd died of leukemia at age 10. Most of you also probably know about Burr's homosexuality, which was more or less an open secret in Hollywood, but a secret to the general public.

Still, it came as something of a shock when, after his death, details came out of the extent to which Burr had manufactured the details of his past life.  For example, there was the story of how his first wife, Scottish actress Arnette Southerland, had died in the 1943 plane crash that also claimed the life of Gone with the Wind actor Leslie Howard.  In fact, there's no evidence of any marriage to Southerland, who in fact wasn't even on that fatal flight.  There's also no evidence that of a marriage to Laura Morgan which, Burr said, ended when she diied of cancer in 1955.* 

*He married his "second" wife, Isabella Ward, in 1947; the marriage, which was brief and ended in annulment, was true, and was apparently Burr's only marriage.

The story of his son, Michael Evan, whom Burr claimed to have on a tour of the United States prior to his death in 1953, was likewise fictitious.  In fact, when you came right to it, virtually everything about Burr's early life - his athletic prowess in high school, the service in World War II (he might have been in the Coast Guard, but never served in the Navy and never won the Purple Heart), the teaching jobs at Amherst and Columbia, the acting troupe in England - was a lie.  People who'd known Raymond Burr for years, who'd worked with him and eaten at his home and considered him a friend - found out that they didn't really know him at all.

It's easy to understand some of it, the fake marriages, for example. Although many people knew of his sexual preference, or suspected it, homosexuality was still a career killer in the 50s and 60s.  Burr didn't flaunt his lifestyle in public; he was anything but dainty in his manner and speech, and the story of the failed marriages provided good cover.  Likewise Burr was not the first star, nor the last, to have padded his CV with facts that couldn't be verified: roles that didn't exist and tours that never happened.

It's also easy to see how he got away with it for so long. Over time, the stories of Burr’s dead wife and son became an accepted part of the actor’s bio. Burr’s general refusal to talk about them with reporters – “I don’t discuss that” was his usual answer – only added to the fiction. And it was understandable; why would anyone want to keep bringing up such a painful past?  Eventually, reporters quit asking about it and went with the established story.

By all accounts, Burr was a true professional and a loyal friend and colleague; one rarely reads of anything bad said about him by those whom he knew and worked with, and there wasn't much motive for anyone to go to the press with salacious stories.  (In fact, had the press been told anything, they likely wouldn't have printed it; the queen of the Hollywood gossips, Hedda Hopper, was the mother of William Hopper, who played Paul Drake on Perry Mason; after receiving one report of Burr's behavior, she assured him "he need only 'call on the mother of Paul Drake and I will stand up and swear anything for you.'")*  Most of Burr's friends and colleagues were circumspect when it came to what they knew of Burr's private life, often neither confirming nor denying any knowledge.

*It's hard to tell whether or not Hopper had known of Burr's homosexuality prior to receiving the information; regardless, it's clear that, even if she believed it, his secret was safe with her.

Still, the depth of the deception, and the length to which he built and expounded on it, was remarkable. Though he may not have discussed his past often, as recently as 1991 Burr talked to Parade magazine about his dead son, saying that "Before my boy left, before his time was gone, I wanted him to see the beauty of his country and its people."

How much did his associates know?  Said Perry Mason producer Arthur Marks, "I know he was genuine in liking and disliking people; I don't think he hid that. But I just know he was putting on a show for the other things about wives and children. That was my gut feeling. I think the wives and the loving women, the Natalie Wood thing, were a bit of a cover." On the other hand, close friend Barbara Hale, who played Mason's loyal secretary Della Street, believed that at least some of the story was true. "He had a great love for Barbara Stanwyck and for Natalie Wood . . . but he said, 'I was too old for [Wood], but oh, my gosh, Barbara.'"  Even with Hale, though, Burr perpetuated the lie.  "[H]e said, 'My wife and little one, that was tragic,' but he said it was 'something I don't talk about that much.' And that's about as much as we talked about it."

It's easy to say that Raymond Burr created this "other" life because of his sexual orientation, but I'm not sure that's all there is to it.  The deception goes far deeper, and far wider in scope, than I would have thought necessary if that's all it was.  No, I think the answer lies more in the mystery that was Raymond Burr the man.  Whether a desire to change the facts of his life to conform to something more acceptable to him, or perhaps just a deep desire for privacy that could only be found through the creation of an altar ego, Burr did what he felt he had to do.  Personally, I think it was that need for privacy that compelled Burr to go to the lengths he did, and given the chance to do otherwise - in today's world, for example, where homosexuality is far less of a stigma - I wonder if he would have done anything differently? 

***

Now, I'm not interested in tearing down anyone's reputation.  Perry Mason is one of my favorite shows of all time, and Raymond Burr one of my favorite actors.  There was much of Burr's life that was not a lie: his philanthropy, his generosity to co-workers and others in the industry (many of whom he didn't even know), his involvement with the USO and his repeated trips to visit the troops in Vietnam.  His lifestyle aside, what I do know of Raymond Burr - what we think is true - I like.

I'm also not interested in imputing the character of Manti Te'o.  I have no idea whether or not he was involved in the dead-girlfriend-hoax, and unless we get convincing statements from the participants, we may never know.  I'm also not particularly interested in imparting motives to him, if he was involved.

No, I just find the whole story - well, for lack of a better word, interesting.  In today's age, it is both easier and harder to create a fictitious life.  Easier in the sense that one can create whole records out of thin air, and also manufacture the "documentation" to back it up.  Harder in that those same resources - the wealth of accessible information and the ease with which it can be obtained - make it that much more difficult to perpetuate the lie.  Clearly, the times have changed since Raymond Burr lived, and it's hard to say if he could have gotten away with such a deception today.

Cary Grant once said something to the effect that he hadn't been born "Cary Grant", but that "Cary Grant" was a creation, a style and a persona, a way of walking and talking and moving, and that he simply acted the part, over and over, until eventually "Cary Grant" became Cary Grant, and he became the man that people wanted and expected him to be.  In the same way, I think all of us have dual personalities: the people we are, and the people we want to be.  Sometimes in becoming the second, the person we want to be, we take factual liberties with the first, the person we are.  Some of those liberties are small; others, as in the case of Raymond Burr, not so small.  It is, however, a quirk of the human condition - and that is something that will never change.

January 19, 2013

This week in TV Guide: January 18, 1969

It's the dawn of a new era in American politics, with the Inauguration of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew as President and Vice President of the United States. Out with the old, corrupt LBJ administration, and in with...wait, how did that all work out again?

***

I try not to get too hung-up on politics here, and since I've done my fair share of writing on JFK, think of it as part of the equal time clause.

Coverage started at 10am ET on all three networks, and would continue throughout the day, featuring the swearing-in at noon, the parade throughout the afternoon, and the inaugural balls following the late local news.  For the first time, networks discuss the idea of providing political analysis of the president's inaugural address; as NBC producer Robert Shafer says, "I've felt the Inaugural has been covered in the past too much like a sporting event.  I'd like to give this one more historical perspective."

Network anchors admit a decided lack of enthusiasm for the parade, which, Chet Huntley says, is "kind of a bore."  His colleague David Brinkley is more delightfully pungent: "Every state demands to be seen in it, so it always drags on three hours or more, going into absolute darkness, and nobody can see the end of it."  Concedes Walter Cronkite, "how can they [cut it out]?  It's one of our ceremonials."

Security is expected to be tight for the parade; President Nixon will be riding in a new limo with bulletproof windows and, like LBJ in 1965, will be seated behind bulletproof glass in the review stand.  The glass will make it impossible for famed cowboy actor Monty Montana to repeat his 1953 trick of lassoing President Eisenhower.  And once again there's the ghost that's present by its absence, something that happened between Eisenhower and Johnson that caused the increase in security, the bulletproof glass and limo.  Five years later, it still hangs overhead.

***

And now, as Paul Harvey would put it, the rest of the story:  the man to the right of Nixon in the Close-Up is Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the United States, whose duty it is to administer the presidential oath*.  Warren, wanting to ensure that his successor shared his liberal judicial views, had announced his retirement in June 1968 in order to allow President Johnson to nominate the new Chief.  That man, Associate Justice (and LBJ confidant) Abe Fortas, would come under intense fire for alleged ethical violations and, after a contentious Senate filibuster, his nomination would be withdrawn.

Warren, stymied in his efforts to - well, frankly, manipulate the situation - agreed to remain on the bench until the next term (which wouldn't begin until after the election), in a deal in which his son-in-law acted as intermediary.  His son-in-law was none other than John Charles Daly - the same John Daly who'd been host of What's My Line? for so many years and then moved on to head Voice of America, and had married Warren's daughter Virginia in 1960. Small world, isn't it?

*Nixon had for many years been a harsh critic of Warren, and it must have irked Warren greatly to be administering the oath to him.  That had to have played into his thinking as well.


***

Darren McGavin, star of NBC's Wednesday night private detective series The Outsider, is an outsider in more ways than one.  Digby Diehl tells us that McGavin has a reputation for being egocentric and difficult to work with - says former costar Burt Reynolds (Riverboat), "Darren McGavin is going to be a very disappointed man on the first Easter after his death."  That's a very good line, very funny - I didn't know Burt had it in him.

Anyway, McGavin did several interviews for TV Guide in the 60s, and comes across as blunt, gruff, a straight-shooter who's free with his opinions and doesn't care whether you like them or not.  A sampling: Mike Hammer, Mickey Spillane's famous detective, whom McGavin played for two years, was "a one dimensional person.  Mike Hammer is of another era, another time.  He's not a valid man in this world."  Violence on television? "How can anybody seriously be surprised about violence on TV and movies or in ghettos and campuses when the United States Government is resolving a conflict today in Vietnam not only with violence, but more or less illegally."  Gun control?  "Firearms, all firearms, should be abolished.  That includes sidearms and shotguns for the police.   And then we would get rid of guns."  He doesn't see it happening, though, as "the gun lobbies are too strong."

David Ross, the character McGavin plays in The Outsider, is one of the actor's favorite roles; the fictional man and the real one share a common background and characteristics.  They're both outsiders, McGavin explains, having come up from broken families, spending time in jail, learning life on the streets.  "[A]mongst herd animals in Africa a strange thing happens to an animal that has not had the normal herd experience, one whose mother is killed.  That animal is always an outsider to the herd.  They reject him inasmuch as he does not want to relate to the herd.  He develops his own path and ethic."  No surprise that McGavin has a copy of Colin Wilson's existentialist study, The Outsider.

As for acting, McGavin acknowledges that the legitimate theater is his true love, but that "you can't go back and do play after play."  For all of television's faults, "even in that context you can do something."  And that is what he would do, for years to come.


***
.
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: Tentatively scheduled guests: Liza Minnelli; singer John Davidson; Gary Puckett and the Union Gap; the Lennon Sisters; comedians Wayne and Shuster, and Scoey Mitchell; and Victor the Bear.

Hollywood Palace: Roy Rogers and Dale Evans present a country show.  Guests: Burl Ives; George Gobel; "Beverly Hillibilly" Irene Ryan; singers Sonny James and Jeannie C. Riley; and the Stoney Mountain Cloggers.

Hmm.  Both shows have strong lineups.  Liza Minnelli was well on her way to a great career, and the Canadian comedians Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster* appeared on the Sullivan show 67 times, more than any other guests.  But Victor the Bear - well, you be the judge.


*Frank Shuster's uncle was Joe Shuster - co-creator of Superman; Frank's daughter Rosie was for a time married to Lorne Michaels and served as one of Saturday Night Live's chief writers at the beginning (thanks, Kliph!)  We're just full of tidbits like that this week.

The Palace has a big-name lineup, including two of my favorites from my childhood, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, but the guests are mostly country (except for George Gobel - how'd he get in there?), and I'm not a big fan of country.  That keeps them from coming out on top, but you can't ignore the strength of their schedule.  I just can't make up my mind.  The whole Palace show is online and starts here.  My verdict is Push.  What do you think?


And now, a bonus track: the Smothers Brothers, airing right after Ed on Sunday, January 20: guests Ray Charles and comic Jackie Mason, plus Chuck Braverman's short film "The World of '68," first seen on 60 Minutes.  Here it is from the Smothers show:


***

Leslie Raddatz (male, not female) gives us a sneak peak at what the networks might have in store for the 1969-70 season.  According to his sources, five factors above all are at work influencing the programmers: 1) the national revulsion against violence in the wake of the assassinations of MLK and RFK; 2) the decline in audience interest in movies making the transition from theaters to TV; 3) the emergence of "Negroes" as a force in the entertainment industry; 4) the rising cost of filmed (as opposed to taped) programs; and 5) the popularity of half-hour sitcoms over hour-long dramas.

Crime, war and spy shows are out, and there are only two Westerns on the docket.  A quick scan through the potential series yielded a few tidbits: CBS had UMC, which with a different lead (Chad Everett instead of Richard Bradford) wound up being Medical Center; To Rome With Love with John Forsythe; and The Jim Nabors Show; NBC weighed in with a post-I Spy vehicle for Bill Cosby, which would have been The Bill Cosby Show; The Whole World Is Watching, a drama about three lawyers that evolved into "The Lawyers" segment of The Bold Ones; and Flip Out, which became The Flip Wilson Show.  ABC doesn't have much, but the ones that stood out were The Courtship of Eddie's Father (with Bill Bixby); Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (with Monte Markham); and The Brady Bunch (enough said).  

What missed doesn't usually bear much scrutiny; I never did see anything of Philip Clark and Skye Aubury in Barefoot in the Park, or Stefanie Powers (our loss) in Holly Golightly, and we'll never know what our lives might have been like had The Punxatilly Pioneer made it to the small screen.

***

Game shows featuring celebrity participants, while not what they once were, are still to be found in the late 60s.  Longtime warhorses such as What's My Line?, I've Got a Secret, Password and To Tell the Truth have all disappeared in the last year or two, destined to return in diminished form via syndication strip programming, but you can still find your favorite B-list stars throughout the daytime network lineup.

NBC has a morning trio, starting at 10:00 Eastern with Snap Judgement, featuring Tony Randall and actress Ina Balin*, followed at 11:00 by Personality, this week with Godfrey Cambridge, Joan Fontaine and Peggy Cass.  At 11:30 it's the king of celebrity shows, Hollywood Squares, with Wally Cox, Henry Gibson, Arte Johnson, Paul Lynde, Rose Marie, Jan Murray, Tony Randall (again!), Kaye Stevens and Charley Weaver.  The afternoon continues at 3:30 with an additional pair: You Don't Say!, with Pat Buttram and Alice Ghostley, followed by the original Match Game, with Ethel Merman and Nipsey Russell.  And here's one I've never heard of before, ABC's Funny You Should Ask, this week with Stu Gilliam, Shecky Greene, Rose Marie, Tony Randall (does that man have time to do anything else?) and Kaye Stevens.  Curious as to what this show was like?  Well, funny you should ask...


*Ina Balin also starred in the Jerry Lewis movie The Patsy, which ABC happens to be showing that Wednesday. 

If celeb shows aren't your thing, you could still appreciate NBC's Concentration, Jeopardy and Eye Guess, while ABC offers Let's Make a Deal, Dream House, The Newlywed Game and The Dating Game.  You notice CBS missing from this list; the network, which today airs the only network daytime game shows, had axed all of their games by 1969, concentrating instead on sitcom reruns and soaps.

Speaking of the sudsers, there are plenty of those as well: General Hospital, One Life to Live and Dark Shadows on ABC, Love of Life, Search for Tomorrow, As the World Turns, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, The Guiding Light, The Secret Storm, and Edge of Night on CBS (they also had the only talk show, Art Linkletter's), and Hidden Faces, Days of Our Lives, The Doctors and Another World on NBC.

So for your daytime television viewing, you had 14 soap operas, 13 game shows, five sitcom reruns, one morning show (Today), one morning news show (CBS), a children's show (Captain Kangaroo), an interview show, and a partridge in a pear tree.*  Six hours were given back to local stations (half of that from ABC, which didn't begin its morning feed until noon), although preemptions were common throughout the daytime lineup.

*Actually, I made that last one up.

By contrast, today's daytime lineup is thus: four soap operas, three talk shows, three morning shows (with Today now running an extra hour), two game shows,  and 10 hours of local programming, most of which is filled with more talk shows, fake judge shows and the like.

I grew up with these shows, in the summer months when school was out, during Christmas break in the winter, and on those days when I was home sick.  I loved watching them - well, maybe not each individual one*, but the concept of them.  Sure, some of them might have been cheesy, but I miss them.  If I had children, I'm not sure I'd let them watch daytime TV today.

*I didn't like the soaps, but my mother did and so they were on.  She was partial to the NBC lineup, especially Another World.  I actually - and quite unintentionally - share my first and middle name with a character from that show (albeit with a slightly different spelling), but that's another story for another day.


***

Finally, a quick word on sports.  There isn't much.  The NFL and AFL both played their all-star games on Sunday, a week after the Super Bowl; the NFL gathered in its traditional (for then) venue of Los Angeles, while the AFL visited Jacksonville, a city as yet without professional football, which the league might have been checking out.  It would have been a joyous meeting for the AFL all-stars, as they would still have been celebrating the Joe Namath-led Jets' victory over the NFL's Baltimore Colts.  It was the greatest moment in the history of a franchise that holds the dubious distinction of having the longest span of time between Super Bowl appearances - 44 years and counting.  Watching the Jets upset the Colts (my second-favorite team, you'll recall) was one of the most traumatic events of my young sporting life, so to any of you Jets fans moaning about your Super Bowl drought, you can cry me a river.

January 17, 2013

Around the dial

At Classic Film and TV Cafe, Rick has a rundown of TV Westerns from A to Z. It's interesting that, though I've never considered myself a Western "fan" per se, I have a lot of them in my collection - Have Gun - Will Travel, Wyatt Earp, Maverick, The Restless Gun, Wanted: Dead or Alive.  Some of the appeal lies in the stars (Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Boone), and the stories are generally quite well-written, but I love the titles.  I mean, Wanted: Dead or AliveHave Gun - Will Travel!  You know those shows mean business!

Remember Charo?  (Hint: if you ever saw her, you'd remember her.)  Michael's TV Tray does, and it's a reminder of how strange and fleeting the nature of celebrity is.  Boy, Xavier Cugat had good taste in wives, didn't he?

A new member of the Association - Jeff's Classic Sports TV and Media, with a piece on the start of the ACC's "Super Sunday" basketball games.  Growing up in Big Ten country, I still remember that there was something mysterious and interesting about the ACC, which at the time only had seven members and was one of the few conferences to have a post-season tournament to decide its conference champion.

Happy New Year!  As far as I'm concerned, it's still not too late to say it, and at Christmas TV History, Joanna does it well with this retrospective of the Ellery Queen New Year's Eve mystery.  I've read a lot of the books in addition to having the complete series on DVD, and while Jim Hutton may not exactly fit Ellery on the written page, he gets the spirit absolutely right.  This show is great fun if you've never seen it.

***

And just a reminder that the Classic TV Variety Blogathon starts on February 3, and yours truly will be there writing about the King of Cool, Dean Martin, and his great 60s show. Here's the rest of the schedule:

Sunday, February 3 
The Judy Garland Show - How Sweet It Was
The Dean Martin Show - It's About TV!
The Flip Wilson Show - Outspoken & Freckled

Monday, February 4 
The Jerry Lewis Show - Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
The Brady Bunch Hour - Michael's TV Tray
The Frank Sinatra Show (Christmas episode) - Christmas TV History

Tuesday, February 5 
The Paul Lynde Halloween Special - Made for TV Mayhem
The Carol Burnett Show - ClassicBecky's Brain Food
Shindig! - Classic Film & TV Cafe

I was going to say something perfunctory about "I'm really looking forward to reading about..." and then I realized I'm looking forward to all of these!   I'm not sure there's any genre more foreign to today's young viewers than the variety show, so you won't want to miss it.

January 15, 2013

The next big thing

Have I got a million dollar deal for you. And just to show you how generous I am, I’m going to give it to you for the simple price of continued royalty payments from whichever one of you is able to make it work.

But first some background.

Back in the day, which for our purposes is 1963, The Fugitive generated some measure of controversy for proposing the idea that an innocent man could be tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, and that after his escape the police would continue to pursue him. The thought was that such a storyline, in which the escapee (Richard Kimball) is the “good guy” and the lawful authorities the “bad guys” might play into the hands of the radical elements promoting an idea of American judicial injustice.*

*For an explanation of the cultural dynamics in effect during the Cold War, see here and here.

It wasn’t just The Fugitive that triggered the Evil Eye from some; movies from Dr. Strangelove to M*A*S*H were decried by critics from mainstream publications* as being anti-American, anti-military, anti-religion – in short, they violated the common cultural understanding of right and wrong when it came to America’s relationship with its civic, religious and governmental institutions.

*Mainstream, as in The New York Times and the Washington Post.  Yeah, I know.

Today, of course, such a sentiment would be laughable. Far from being the “good guys,” the authorities (government, the police, religious institutions, etc.) are now assumed by a majority of people as hopelessly corrupt, stupid, evil, or a combination of all three. At any given time, roughly half the American public probably things the current political administration is illegitimate. Conspiracy theories, all pointing back to at least one branch of the Federal government, abound.

So here’s the million-dollar idea.

Within the next four years, someone should develop an idea for a television series based on the premise of a group working to overthrow the government of the United States – with the understanding that these modern-day rebels are the good guys.

Let me repeat – a group of individuals are trying to stage a coup d'etat against our government, and we – as Americans – are supposed to root for them.

This clearly turns tradition on its head. One need look back no further than the 1964 classic Seven Days in May, in which members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (including the Chairman) plotted to stage a military coup and overthrow what they perceived to be a dangerously weak and naïve American president,* to see that the idea of overthrowing the government was considered – well, unacceptable in polite company.

*You only had to look at the casting – Burt Lancaster as the Chairman of the JCS and Kirk Douglas as the colonel standing up to him – to tell which one was the hero and which the villain.

Now I hasten to add, right off the top, that I am NOT advocating the overthrow of the United States Government, either violently or peacefully. I am in favor of neither treason nor sedition, and I do not want either the FBI or the Secret Service knocking at my door in the middle of the night.* But I think the public is ready for a show like this. People aren’t as naïve as they used to be; instead, they’re now hopelessly cynical about everything and everyone. Not all people, but certainly enough to make up an audience large enough to make a TV series a success. There’s so much pent-up anger out there, you’re likely to have half the country on the side of the heroes right off the bat. We have plenty of shows about agents trying to protect us from the enemy – it’s time now for one where the agents aren’t pointed outward, but inward – toward the government itself.

*I would not, however, object to them pouring over the blog looking for evidence. Anything to drive readership and increase numbers, you know.

As to the format of the show, I’ll leave that to you. It could be someone like Jack Bauer, a rogue agent operating undercover for the CIA, having determined that the government has sold out to foreign nations. It could be a group of freedom fighters, ordinary citizens trying to wrest control of the nation from politicians who’ve sold out to special interest groups. It could be the military, alarmed at the direction of the country and wanting to preserve the American way of life.* (It probably wouldn’t be an organization of big businessmen; they’re never the good guys.) Whatever, it should be clear that we’re not talking about something simple, like "eliminating" a specific individual. The protagonists must clearly be determined to replace the current system of government with a new one – either more radical, or more true to the Founders. That’s not for me to say – you decide.

*Before you say anything, I’m not talking about a series like Last Resort, either. A scenario that involves either an accident or an act of war is too reactive. This has to be more calculating. A dystopic, post-apocalyptic future, on the other hand, should not necessarily be ruled out.

And one friendly piece of advice: do not mix in real names or real political issues. This is a sure fire way to disaster, for even if you have half the country on your side already, there’s no sense antagonizing the other half. They’re all potential viewers, right? This isn't about liberals wanting to get rid of colonial racism, nor conservatives battling against radical socialism. If you start to take sides, you’ll be perceived as trying to make a political statement (like Aaron Sorkin), rather than presenting a dramatic presentation that asks a simple question: would the American public, the average American television viewer, feel comfortable cheering on the end of the very system we’ve been taught to revere from long ago? Fifty years ago, those who criticized The Fugitive thought rooting against legal authority was un-American. Would we say the same, today, about a coup against our own government?

And besides, it’s not about politics. It’s about making money. That’s what million-dollar ideas are for, after all.

January 12, 2013

This week in TV Guide: January 14, 1967

N othing much to report this week.  Nothing new, exciting or noteworthy.  Unless, that is, you count the first Super Bowl.

***

January 15, 1967.  This season the playoffs don't even start until January 5, but the 1966 season for both the NFL and AFL ended in December, and the leagues played their championship games on New Year's Day*.  Even with the bye week, the game would still be played in mid-January.

*New Year's Day being on a Sunday.  As per tradition, the college bowl games were played the next day.

Legend has it that the Super Bowl wasn't called that at first, that it only got its name later, but this isn't quite right.  True, the game was officially known as the "AFL-NFL World Championship Game," and the TV Guide lists it thus, but as you can see below, ads for both networks use the phrase "Super Bowl," so it must have been in common-enough usage by then.

Both CBS (left) and the NBC affiliate in Minneapolis-St. Paul (right)
used the phrase "Super Bowl" in their gameday advertising.
And you read that right - both CBS, the NFL network, and NBC, the AFL carrier, provided coverage of that first game.  Each provided its own announcing crew, and had their own technicians at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles.

The game started at 3pm Central time, for a 1pm kickoff in LA, and I still remember my six-year-old self waiting impatiently throughout the afternoon - the hands on the clock just couldn't move fast enough.  There was only a 30-minute pregame show on CBS; NBC, perhaps eager to give the game (and the AFL) more credibility, had a one-hour review of the season as well as its half-hour pregame.  And then, finally, game time.

I don't remember which channel I watched.  We had guests over to watch the game, which meant I probably didn't have free run of the dial, but I likely checked out the broadcast on each network.  As for the game itself, I don't remember anything from it, or at least nothing that I can distinguish from the endless highlights I've seen over the years.  It was a surprisingly competitive game, at least for the first half - the Green Bay Packers, who'd been expected to blow the AFL's Kansas City Chiefs off the field, led at halftime only by 14-10.  The Pack poured it on in the second half, however, and went on to a 35-10 victory, the first of two consecutive victories for Lombardi's men.

For years that first Super Bowl game was one of the holy grails of lost television shows.  You would have thought that with two networks carrying it, at least one would have managed to keep it, but we all know how careless networks were with video tape back in the day, more interested in saving money by reusing the pricey tape than preserving it for future viewing.  Then, back in 2011, a breakthrough - a copy of the game had been found, and restored by the Paley Center in New York.  It wasn't the complete game; some plays were missing, and some of the tape was too damaged to preserve, but most of it was there, and watchable.

So why haven't we watched it, you might ask?  Well, long story short, the owner of the tape, who donated it to the museum in return for the restoration, and the owner of the copyright, the NFL, can't agree on terms.  The league offered $30,000; Sports Illustrated once valued it at closer to $1 million.  And I haven't read anything more about it, so until we learn something new the game remains in limbo.  Which, I guess, is better than nothing.

***

The latest sports fad is basketball games on aircraft carriers.  (Great when it works, but not so great when the weather's a factor.)  Big deal, right?  Not for the Harlem Globetrotters, who also played a basketball game on the deck of a carrier - in 1966.  On January 15, CBS Sports Spectacular airs the Trotters' game against the New York Nationals* taped on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise in Hunters Point, California.  Of course, since ESPN wasn't there, I guess it didn't really count.

*Presumably the Washington Generals, the Globetrotters' traditional rival, refused to set foot on a naval carrier.

***

The cover story this week is on Art Carney, who's making a bit of a comeback - in more ways than one.  Ted Crail's profile discusses Carney's recent hospitalization.  "I don't like the word 'breakdown,' Carney says.  "It could be called exhaustion.  I just had to get out of the show [the Broadway run of The Odd Couple] and get some rest."  He was in the sanitarium for three-and-a-half months and then went back for another month "because he needed it."  Unsaid in the article is that the second trip was to break a growing addiction to drugs.  Though he beat that, it would take another decade before he was able to overcome his alcoholism, which the article sidesteps by referring to Carney as a "hard drinker." 

The other comeback by Carney is a professional one - as Ed Norton, his famed role in Jackie Gleason's Honeymooners skits.  Gleason, now hosting his variety show from Miami Beach, originally brought "The Honeymooners" back as a one-off musical, but its success turned it into a regular feature, often comprising the entire show.  Carney was considered by many to be almost equal to Gleason, and he'd go on to win an Oscar in 1974 for the movie Harry and Tonto - during which he finally kicked the booze.

*** 
.
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: comics Alan King and Allan Sherman; the rockin' Rolling Stones; singer Petula Clark; Monroe, a balancer; the singing Sisters '67; and dancers from Broadway's recent "A Joyful Noise."

Hollywood Palace:  Bing Crosby is host as the Palace starts its fourth year.  Guests: Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R, Ill.), who offers "the Gallant Men," a dramatic reading; comics Jimmy Durante and Tim "Rango" Conway; songstress Edie Adams; and pole-climber Danny Sailor.  Also seen: last month's Palace anniversary parade in Hollywood, and a collection of celebrities' fluffs made during the past two seasons.

Some history here - this is the infamous Sullivan show where the Stones, scheduled to perform "Let's Spend the Night Together," are asked by Sullivan and CBS to change the lyric to "Let's spend some time together."  Jagger complies, but not without long and loud complaints, and when it comes time he sings the lines with a smirk and a roll of the eyes.


It might seem strange for a United States Senator to be appearing on a variety show, but Everett Dirksen spoke with a marvelous, rumbling bass voice, and had recorded several spoken word albums.  Despite the turmoil beginning to engulf the country, politics wasn't polarized along party lines quite as much as it is today, and so it's not as much of a stretch to envision the Republican Dirksen appearing on network television, as he frequently did.  "The Gallant Men" album (ignore the distracting video accompaniment if you can) topped out at #16 on the Billboard charts.


So on one hand you've got the Stones, the very funny Allens (King and Sherman), and the lovely Petula Clark; on the other, there's Bing, Dirksen, the very funny Durante and Conway, and the lovely Edie Adams.  Could the Palace's blooper reel make the difference?  I want to call this a push, but that's such a cop-out.  The verdict:  The Palace, by Durante's nose.

***

How about movies?  According to TV Guide's movie critic Judith Crist, it's a "star-watcher's week," and here are the stars to back it up.  On NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies, it's Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn and William Holden in Sabrina.  Sunday night ABC has The V.I.P's, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.  ABC also has Elvis Presley in The Flaming Star on Wednesday, and CBS finishes the week on Friday with Jerry Lewis in The Delicate Delinquent.  From the available evidence, all of these movies were making their network premieres, which is a reminder that it often took quite awhile for Hollywood favorites to make it to TV (Sabrina was a dozen years old at that point), and how their premieres really were big deals.

Local stations were big movie consumers back then as well, especially on weekend afternoons and late-nights.  Science fiction and westerns were always good on Saturdays, and more than one movie buff was born from watching classic noir mysteries on the late late show. Most of that time is now filled with sports, infomercials, and syndicated talk shows.

Back then we were more easily pleased; we didn't realize how "deprived" we were, having to watch movies that had been trimmed for time and cut up to fit in commercials.  Nowadays, between movie rentals, premium cable and Turner Classics, I'm not sure I can even imagine watching a movie on regular TV anymore.  What's the old saying: how ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen movies uncut and without commercial interruption?  Something like that, anyway.

***

A few loose ends to finish up.  ABC is touting its Second Season (which tells you how bad their First Season must have been), including the return of The Avengers on Friday night.  For you youngsters who only think about comic book and movie superheroes when you hear The Avengers - well, you haven't seen a superhero until you've seen Diana Rigg in a leather catsuit.

Now, where was I?  Oh, yes - TV Teletype New York: "Cartoonist CHARLES SCHULZ is at work on another "Peanuts" animated cartoon for CBS, this one with love as its theme."  That would be this one, which I don't think ever caught on the way some of the others did.

And finally, from TV Teletype Hollywood: "JOEY BISHOP hired boyish-faced REGIS PHILBIN as the announcer on his new ABC nighttime show which starts this April."  You know, I wonder whatever happened to that Philbin guy?

January 10, 2013

Coming Soon: the Classic TV Variety Show Blogathon

Next month I'll be taking part in the Classic TV Blog Association's latest blogathon, on TV variety shows. The last one, on classic horror movie hosts, was back in October and was a tremendous success.

The variety show truly is a part of television's past, a chapter that doesn't really seem likely to make a comeback.  In some ways that's a pity, but in other ways it's almost a relief - the axis of modern entertainment has pivoted to the point where it's increasingly hard to think of who could host, let alone appear on, such a show today.

Perhaps we are best left with memories of the past, and there's no better way to relive them than through us!  So come along and share the fun with  Dean Martin!  Jerry Lewis!  Judy Garland!  Ed Sullivan!  The Brady Bunch!  Paul Lynde!  (See what I mean about the dropoff in star power?)

If you want to know more about the schedule, or are perhaps interested in participating yourself, check out the details here.

January 8, 2013

Review: Carol for Another Christmas

From my latest piece for TVParty!:

A couple of years or so ago, I wrote an article for TVParty! on a series of made-for-TV movies produced by the United Nations to commemorate the 25th anniversary of its founding. It was hailed at the time as a significant event in television, and yet today hardly anyone remembers it, including the UN itself. (I know, because I called a librarian at the UN and got the vocal equivalent of a blank stare when I asked her about it.)

My curiosity had been piqued by a TV Guide article about the first special in the series, Carol for Another Christmas, written by Rod Serling and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. It was broadcast for the first and only time on December 28, 1964 (since then it’s been available only at the Paley Center in New York, the UCLA archives, or in the bootleg market), and in the intervening 48 years it’s attracted something of a cult following, along the lines of “It’s Serling, for God’s sake!” Some even referred to it as a “lost classic.” The fact that most critics had said it wasn’t very good was almost beside the point for them. So when TCM announced they’d be airing Carol for Another Christmas on December 16, I thought it might be a good idea to cut through the myth and rumor with a look at the actual movie.

[...]

So what do we make of this? Despite the negative reviews that had come out at the time, I was willing to set it all aside and judge it not on rumor or hearsay, but fact. That lasted through the opening credits and the initial, suitably dark scene, until the dialogue started. It was all downhill from there.

Your feelings about the questions debated in the story probably depend on your own political beliefs. Serling and Mankiewicz were political liberals, deeply committed to the United Nations and its mission. Having said that, even liberals will be put off by the shrillness of the script and the paper-thin one-dimensional characters. From the first, the movie plays like a bad version of a bad Twilight Zone episode (and, for all the greatness of that series, there were many). Marc Scott Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion, said that “Serling has two poles in his writing. There’s his powerful, human-oriented writing, and his very didactic writing, and ‘Carol’ falls on the didactic side.” These characters are really “caricatures”, figureheads for Serling’s political polemics. They don’t talk to each other, but at each other. As a critic once said of a Serling-penned Twilight Zone script, it sounded like a bunch of Rod Serlings sitting around a table talking to each other.

Read the entire piece here.

***

In that article, I alluded to evidence that the version of Carol for Another Christmas shown on TCM might not, in fact, have been the original version.  In question: the absence of Henry Mancini's lovely theme, which many critics agreed was the best part of Carol:

I’d figured the theme would have been used for either the opening or closing credit scene; instead, for each we were given a series of Christmas carols by a children’s choir. Combined with the strange look of the opening graphics, I’m convinced that this movie was altered from its original presentation, and Mancini’s theme was deleted in favor of the carols.

That suspicion has now been verified by two sources: Zachary Kelley, who provided an extensive review of Carol a couple of years ago, told me that the copy he had watched did contain Mancini's theme, and that the credits did not have the superimposed, added-at-a-later-date look


And Chip Arcuri, at the wonderful Yule Log site (and if you've never gone there, make it your mission between now and next Christmas) confirms that not only was Mancini's theme missing from the opening title montage, his name was deleted from the credits, and nobody knows why.

I spoke with Felice Mancini tonight and she told me that she has absolutely no idea why her father's music was removed from TCM's print of the film. She's especially disappointed because it's one of her favorites of her father tunes. She's going check into it to see why this happened.

So while we've solved one mystery - seeing the long-ago show - we've created another one.  Somehow I suspect that Dickens, who wrote those "scary ghost stories of Christmases long ago" that Andy Williams sings about in "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," would be amused by the whole thing.