October 31, 2013

Around the dial

In last week's "This Week in TV Guide," I mentioned a 1951 movie called The Tall Target with the intriguing plotline of a policeman named John Kennedy trying to prevent the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  Ironic, right?  Well, as Ivan mentions at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, that very movie will be appearing on TCM the morning of November 15 at 1am ET.  Might be worth a look for curiosity's sake if nothing else.

Just in time for Halloween, David of Comfort TV gives us a disturbing look at the seven most intimidating classic TV characters.  How disturbing?  Try Aunt Fran from Family Affair, just for starters.  Speaking of Family Affair, Embarrassing Treasures presents another edition of Family Affair Fridays, the episode-by-episode guide to the 60s series.

Keeping with the spooky theme, Rick at Classic Film and TV Cafe looks at the five best made-for-TV horror films.  I'll admit to a partiality for The Night Stalker, but in general I'm not sure how well television has done the classic horror movie.

Leaving the pumpkins for a moment, let's return to the old West.  Kinescope HD has a look at yet another of the 60s Westerns, but one that wasn't afraid to let its heroes have a laugh or two: Larado.

Finally, we'll conclude the last post of October with this.  Television Obscurities takes a look at Halloween television through the years.  It wasn't a holiday that generated a great deal of programming back in the day - when Trick or Treat was still more for the kids. But it still has its traditions - think It's the Great Pumpkin, for example, which we'll be watching in a very few minutes.

Happy Halloween to all - see you back on Saturday with another great TV Guide!



October 30, 2013

Jackie Kennedy leads a tour of the White House, 1962

As we approach the anniversary of the JFK assassination, we're apt to hear the Kennedy name a lot, which makes this a good time to take a look at one of the landmark events in "early" television - Jackie Kennedy's tour of the White House.  It was such a big deal that CBS and NBC aired it simultaneously, and ABC planned to before cancelling for budgetary reasons.

Television Obscurities has a very good writeup on this famous program, in which many Americans got to see the people's house for the first time.  (I know that Charles Collingwood refers to it as the president's house, but we should always remember that it belongs to us - the president merely rents it for four years at a time.)

And I'm reminded once again that I never have understood the appeal of Jackie Kennedy - but, different strokes for different folks.

October 26, 2013

This week in TV Guide: October 26, 1968

One of the most tumultuous election campaigns in American history is nearing its end, and with a week to go there’s plenty of coverage to be had. From the cover, Richard Doan discusses the art of polling with the two masters of the art, Dr. George Gallup and Louis Harris, creators of the polls that bear their names. As Gallup points out, “We don’t predict. A poll really is just a photograph of opinion taken at the time the interviews are conducted.” Polls can take from 45 minutes to an hour and a quarter to conduct, and both polls rely on a scientific pool of about 1,500 participants from around 300 locations throughout the country.

In what I’m sure will come as no revelation to any of you, the polls come in for their share of criticism. Just three months ago, in July, the polls diverged dramatically in their measurement of the presidential race, with Gallup finding Nixon in the lead while Harris had Humphrey on top. Though both Harris and Gallup cited the margin of error as explanation for the differences, Burns Roper, from rival Roper Research Associates, speaks words that could well be written today, and might well be remembered by aspiring politicians and their staffs: “The main thing wrong with the polls is that they have been overinterpreted, overrepresented, and overrelied on as measuring public opinion with micrometer accuracy.” Seems as if you could say that about last year’s election, doesn’t it?

No predictions from the pollsters on who’s going to win, but they both agree it’s going to be close. Gallup plans interviews on Saturday and Sunday, with the final reveal on Monday morning, the day before the election, and Harris says the schedule’s about the same for them. Their biggest worry is the last-minute event that throws everything into flux, as was the case with the Hungarian revolt 10 days before the 1956 election, which Gallup says resulted in a jump of as many as three million votes for Eisenhower. “If we hadn’t taken a new poll in the last 10 days, we might have been as wrong as we were in 1948.” And, it seems to me, that’s the problem with early voting as well. What happens when things change? They don’t give you a do-over, you know.

The Sunday shows are filled with election drama as well. General Curtis LeMay, independent candidate George Wallace’s running mate, is the guest on CBS’ Face the Nation,, while Vice President Humphrey appears on NBC’s Meet the Press, and Texas Senator John Tower, a Nixon ally and strategist, joins former Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton (rumored to be a possible choice for Secretary of State if Nixon wins) on a special hour-long edition of ABC’s Issues and Answers. Each network, as well as NET, also features previews of, as NET puts it, “the candidates and the issues.”

We’re still in the age of the five-minute political talk, and the airwaves are full of them, cutting short your favorite programs. It’s kind of interesting to see how the shows and candidates are paired up: no surprise that the Republicans follow Lawrence Welk , Red Skelton and Ed Sullivan, as well as the law-and-order Hawaii Five-O and Gunsmoke, but I did raise an eyebrow that they’re also on after the Smothers Brothers – makes sense if you want to take your message to the opposition. George Wallace doesn’t mess around with a measly five minutes; he’s bought a whole half-hour on NBC Monday night, preempting I Dream of Jeannie, although he does take five (so to speak) following The Big Valley. (That’s nothing compared to the one hour for Nixon and Agnew on ABC Halloween night.) The Democrats book time following Hollywood Palace and the movies Quick Before It Melts, The Nanny and part two of Exodus*

*With, presumably, Hubert Humphrey as Moses, trying to lead the Democratic Party out of the LBJ wilderness.

And then there’s a show on Channel 2, the local educational station, that I mention for personal reasons. It’s called Books and Ideas, and the guest is Dr. Scott Johnston, chair of Political Science at Hamline University, and my advisor when I attended Hamline. He was a good and fair man, with a specialty in the Middle East and Turkey, and I’d love to know what he would think of the situation there today.

***

The World Series is over and the Super Bowl is still a little over two months away, which means it’s time to
turn our attention to the year’s other big sporting event – the Summer Olympics, from Mexico City. This is about as late in the year as the Summer games are held, save the 1956 Melbourne Olympics that were held in November and December, and even with a climate such as Mexico’s, I have a hard time believing the American networks would appreciate an Olympics that conflicts with the NFL.*

*Although we might find that out in a few years, if indeed it comes to pass that the world’s biggest sporting event, the soccer World Cup, is moved to winter 2022 to avoid the heat of Qatar.

As in years past, we can see that ABC’s emphasis on the games is not quite up to the level of today’s around-the-clock coverage. Saturday afternoon’s broadcast runs for exactly thirty minutes, squeezed in between the Notre Dame-Michigan State college football game, and Wide World of Sports (the NASCAR National 500 race, taped the previous Sunday, plus the World Invitational Table Tennis Championships, from May). Saturday prime-time coverage begins at 5:30CT, with highlights of the diving and soccer finals. Sunday’s live coverage of the closing ceremonies, paired up with the finals (on tape) of the horse jumping, also begins at 5:30, running for an Olympic-like three hours, at the conclusion of which the Olympic flame will be doused until the next summer games, in Munich in 1972. We all know how well that worked out.

***


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: Tentatively scheduled: Helen Hayes recites a passage from her autobiography; singers Ed Ames, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the Doodletown Pipers, and Mary Hopkin; comedians George Carlin and Pigmeat Markham; and the Kuban Cossacks, dancers.

Palace: Don Adams of Get Smart plays host to Barbara Eden of Jeannie; Arte Johnson (doing his Laugh-In routine as Rozmenko the singing Russian); Janis Joplin, Big Brother and the Holding Company; the singing Brothers Castro from Mexico; and the Dovyeko Company, acrobats on stilts from the Moscow State Circus.

Now, picking a winner from a lineup like this is where I make the big bucks. Even though it’s on ABC, Hollywood Palace reads more like an NBC prime-time lineup, with the stars of three of its bigger hits topping the bill. But it’s the appearance of Joplin, as much as anything, that shows us how much the times have changed during the decade. For all the vaudeville acts the show continues to feature, it’s clear we’ve crossed a line and we’re not going back.


Sullivan also gives us a bit of the past, present and future; a dramatic reading by Hayes, the great lady of the American theater, indicates there’s still something to the power of the spoken word (as well as a precursor to books on tape?), while Carlin perhaps gives us a hint of the direction stand-up comedy is going. As for the present, is there anything that says “The Sixties” more than the Doodletown Pipers singing “MacArthur Park”? Excuse me for a moment…

There, I’m back, in time to give a half-hearted nod to Sullivan as this week’s winner. Perhaps best again to look elsewhere – Dean Martin’s Thursday lineup features Tony Bennett, Elke Sommer, impressionist David Frye, and comedians Skiles and Henderson.

Or you could look to Wednesday night, also on NBC. It seems like only a couple of weeks ago I was making jokes about there being a Country music awards show on every time you turn around. Well, here we are again, and as it was previously, this year the ceremony is being presented as part of a regularly scheduled variety program. This time it’s the Kraft Music Hall, hosted (appropriately enough) by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, in a taped broadcast from the Grand Ole Opry stage at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. It’s a star-studded lineup, with performances from Johnny Cash (“Folsom Prison Blues’), Tammy Wynette (“D-I-V-O-R-C-E”), Bobby Goldsboro (“Honey”), and Jeannie C. Riley (“Harper Valley PTA”), plus appearances by Pat Boone, Tex Ritter, Jimmy Dean, Chet Atkins, Roger Miller and Roy Acuff. Did I say star-studded? Make that Hall-of-Fame worthy. I’m not a fan of Country music, but even I’ll admit this is the cream of the crop of the industry, a lineup you’re not apt to top any time soon.

***

Some highlights from the week:

Monday Night Football! Well kinda, but not really… On Monday the Packers and Cowboys face off in Dallas in a Monday night special, starting at 8:30CT.* This was one of a handful of Monday night games that the AFL and NFL did in the late 60s, likely as a trial for a regular series. Classic TV Sports Media can probably confirm this, but as I recall NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle offered CBS rights to the Monday night games, and the network declined (probably due to the strength of their Monday night lineup), whereupon ABC became the lucky winner.

*Pre-empting Family Affair and Carol Burnett. Once again we see how late in the evening this game was airing, to create as little disruption in the regular CBS schedule as possible. It may have helped that CBS did not at the time have a late-night talk show in their lineup.

You Don’t Say! Not the game show, but the Tuesday matinee movie on Channel 11, which would have passed through theaters without much notice, but must have raised an eyebrow or two with this showing. It’s called The Tall Target, made in 1951, and I’m going to repeat the listing in its entirety.

In 1861, New York policeman John Kennedy uncovers a plot to assassinate President Lincoln.

Obviously, Kennedy (played by Dick Powell) succeeds in saving the President’s life – this time. But how weird is this? I know there’s a list out there of coincidences between presidents Lincoln and Kennedy (Lincoln’s secretary was named Kennedy, JFK’s was named Lincoln; both had VPs named Johnson, etc.) but this has to be one of the strangest. I really do wonder how this kind of movie went down in this era, five years after Kennedy’s assassination. Did anyone even notice the coincidence?

The People’s Choice. I’m thinking back to a couple of weeks ago, and that writers’ roundtable on the future of television drama. CBS Playhouse recently presented a production of J.P. Miller’s original drama “The People Next Door,” which, according to The New York Times, “socked the facts of life to its audience with a bluntness of language and a vividness of depiction that mark a definite turning point in the evolution of the medium.” I’m sure Gene Roddenberry and Sterling Silliphant approve, but what did the viewers think? Says CBS: “more than four-to-one ‘not just favorable, but terribly enthusiastic… Little feeling that TV had overstepped the bounds.” The audience: 25 million, which would knock ‘em dead today.

Letters, we get letters… Letters to the Editor almost always tell us something about the culture, by giving us an insight into the minds of the viewers out there in greater TV land. Margaret Gist of Visalia, California, complains at the recent butcherings of the National Anthem – first at the Democratic Convention, and more recently by Jose Feliciano at the World Series. I’m not quite sure who the butcher was at the DNC, but I remember the stir that Feliciano created with his rendition. Today, it wouldn’t even attract a ripple of attention – that boat sailed long ago with Marvin Gaye’s version at the NBA All Star Game many years ago, and with today’s diva hysterics, you could make a compelling argument that Feliciano’s treatment of the Anthem was actually quite dignified.


Bruce Stephenson from Portland, Indiana, complains about the content of today’s soap operas. “All one gets is an immense feeling of depression. No wonder we have such a high rate of divorces, illegitimacies and family problems.” What I find interesting about his letter is that it comes from a time when “divorces, illegitimacies and family problems” were actually acknowledged as being bad for society. There’s no stigma involved with them today (depending on exactly what the “family problem” is), but reminds us of when many people believed there were certain decencies (for lack of a better word) to observe. They weren’t always done correctly, but at least they existed.

Some things never change – Debbi Krueger, writing from Fremont, California, comments that NBC’s recent showing of Cat Ballou “should have been entitled “Wednesday Night at the Commercials – with Bits and Pieces of ‘Cat Ballou’.” And that’s why we have movie channels like TCM today, Debbi.

(As an aside, sportswriter John Steadman echoes Debbi’s complaints in an article spotlighting how disruptive television, with its endless commercial breaks and even more frequent plugs for upcoming network shows, is driving him crazy as well as ruining the flow of the game for those in attendance. And that was in 1968 – since then, the average time of a football game as probably increased by a half-hour.)

Finally, Bill deRaac, from north of the border in Victoria, British Columbia, asks a quite sensible question: “If Mr. Spock is so darned smart, why isn’t he captain of Enterprise?” S. Harris, the TV Jibe cartoonist, has a similar thought:



***

On occasion we’ve taken a look at some of the ads the networks have for their upcoming shows. Each network tends to have its own style template, which I think works with varying degrees of success. Take this CBS ad for the Thursday Night Movie:


Kind of minimal, don’t you think? It reminds me of the kind of notice you’d have for the late-late show. Definitely looks cheap, not to mention easy to miss, but maybe the Tiffany Network figured they didn’t need to oversell, and that all the whitespace would make the ad look dignified.


This one is for NBC’s Monday Night at the Movies. It probably helps that Exodus has an explosive logo that can be included, but the overall presentation remains clean and attention-grabbing, and leaves the impression that this is not just a movie, but an event.


ABC’s approach is something of a combination. With Is Paris Burning?, ABC tries to impress you with the sheer number of stars in the movie, expecting you to be duly overwhelmed, but the arial font just isn’t that special, and although the repetition of the movie’s logo in the simulated film frames is clever, the whole thing just doesn’t draw the eye toward it. It’s better than CBS’ plain Times New Roman, I think, but in all other ways both networks come up short when measured against NBC.

***

Let’s end the week with a look at the TV Teletype, see if we can find anything that augers well (or ill) for the future. Like this! “ROBERT REED, long-time Defender, has a lead in Paramount’s pilot The Brady Brood, a half-hour comedy for producer SHERWOOD SCHWARTZ (Gilligan’s Island). FLORENCE HENDERSON plays REED’s wife in the series about a widow with three daughters who marries a widower with three sons. ANN B. DAVIS, Schultzy on the old Bob Cummings Show, is the housekeeper.” Also reported: JOHN FORSYTHE heads to Copenhagen to work on the new Hitchcock movie, Topaz. But not everyone is so lucky – RICH LITTLE is lined up for a sitcom called Pioneer Spirit, from the makers of Green Acres and Petticoat Junction, and RICARDO MONTALBAN heads up a two-hour TV flick called Joaquin Murietta, which 20th Century Fox hopes to make into a weekly show. I guess they were destined to be LOST IN SPACE.

October 22, 2013

Mitchell's Top Ten, #1: Top Gear/The Grand Tour

For the past couple of months, I've been profiling one of the series that appear on my personal Top Ten list. I don’t claim that these are the ten greatest series of all time; that would be presumptuous. However, I do presume to identify those shows that mean the most to me.  And now, we've finally come to the end: #1.

These aren't academic histories or encyclopedic entries; rather, they’re personal memories of shows that, through the years, have brought me delight, influenced my way of thinking and doing, left their indelible traces imprinted on me. Think of it as a memoir of my life as seen on TV.



To be honest, I’m not quite sure how I wound up watching Top Gear, let alone how it became my favorite show on television, the number one show on the Top Ten list.

My relationship with cars has always been a complicated one. On the one hand, the first sports magazine I ever subscribed to was Stock Car Racing, which my aunt bought for me for my sixth birthday.* My favorite sports stars were drivers like Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Fred Lorenzen, my ancient toybox was filled with smacked-up racing cars of one kind or another, and like many little boys of the era, I had a giant 1:32 scale Eldon slot car racing set in the basement.

*By contrast, I had no time for Hod Rod Magazine.

On the other hand, I had no real interest in cars themselves. Perhaps it was growing up in a family of women, but I never had the urge to get my hands greasy, to take engines apart and put them together, or to build a go-kart.* I didn’t even want to learn how to drive – something about it being too grown-up, perhaps, which might well be the same reason I never started drinking coffee. I was in school, so I didn’t want to grow up. (And this was before I’d even heard of Toys-R-Us.) I never had the urge to “run out of gas” as an excuse for a make-out session – there were other ways, after all.

*I take that back – somewhere in the inner recesses of my mind I’ve just remembered some kind of a kit that I got for Christmas one year, that was all about making your own go-kart. But it was only the tools and the instructions – no pieces, of course. You had to furnish that yourself, which is probably why I lost interest in it quickly and forgot about it for the next 45 years.

I progressed this way for the next few decades. At the same time I grumbled about having to go through driver ed and behind-the-wheel classes in high school (after I passed my test and got my license, it would be another ten years before I’d actually drive a car), I also tried to figure out how I could get out of going to a classmate’s birthday party in order to watch the Indianapolis 500. When a new job forced me to buy a car, I drove without enthusiasm, and whenever I found myself in a subsequent job search, I always looked first for one that would enable me to take the bus. Even in the last few years, when I’ve been driving more than ever before, I still look at it as more of a chore than anything else. Even though it was the car that enabled me to drive to the store where I bought my new die-cast Shelby Daytona Cobra coupe.

Against this backdrop, a television show about cars wouldn’t seem to be the most promising choice for prime-time viewing.

But then, Top Gear isn’t just about cars. In fact, some would say that it’s hardly about cars at all.

The Three Stooges, with The Stig
I stumbled on to it one Monday evening while channel surfing. At the time, the only program I watched with any regularity on BBC America was Doctor Who, so the network wasn’t exactly a destination stop. And to this day I have no idea why I lingered over Top Gear that night. I have no idea what was on, what misadventure they were engaged in. Perhaps it was the idea of a studio audience on a car show that intrigued me. Maybe it was the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car. Or possibly it was that things always seemed to be catching fire and blowing up. It was probably a little bit of all that, combined with there being nothing else to watch.* I watched the last minutes of that show and then, upon finding out they were programming back-to-back episodes, I stuck around for the next one as well.

*An appalling number of my favorite shows have started out that way, as alternatives to not having the TV on at all.

I haven’t missed an episode since.

It’s very hard to describe Top Gear to someone who’s never seen it. It’s true that it’s an automotive show, in which three blokes sit around talking about cars they’ve test driven, demonstrating their turning radius, their naught-to-60 acceleration, how it handles the curves and whether or not the ride was smooth. In other words, not the kinds of things in which I have a particular interest.

There’s a lot more to it than that, though. The show’s hosts – Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May – while making serious points, don’t take themselves all that seriously. They’re knowledgeable, but also funny, opinionated, and (especially Clarkson, the first among equals) decidedly politically incorrect. In fact, as I think of it, that might have been the show’s appeal to me at the outset, the idea that they weren’t afraid to say what they thought regardless of whom it might offend, without being rude, crude or boorish. Well, at least not too much – these are guys, after all.

There were the “challenges,” such as a race to see who could cross Japan first – Hammond and May on the country’s famed bullet trains, or Clarkson in a supercar. The challenges, which came to dominate many episodes, did offer somewhat serious reviews of the cars, but never in so much detail that it would interfere with the essential absurdity of the moment – that is, unless you didn’t think it was absurd to watch a nun crushing cars while behind the wheel of a monster truck, or a race between different kinds of buses, or an experiment to see whether a harvester could be converted into a snow plow, or an attempt to build a reusable space shuttle using a car instead of a space vehicle.

And then there were the celebrities, the “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car,” who would first be interviewed by Clarkson, after which we’d see the star taking a lap around the circuit, often with hilarious results. Some of the celes, the British stars mostly, were new to me, but there were other Petrolheads (Gearheads to you and me), Tom Cruise and Simon Cowell and Jay Leno, who were not only excellent drivers, but were knowledgeable, funny guests as well.

Two from my Top Ten: Doctor Who's David Tennant is the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car

And I mentioned The Stig earlier – he’s the show’s silent partner, the “tame racing driver,” always mute, wearing a white suit and white crash helmet, seemingly capable of nothing besides driving cars at high speeds around the show’s test track. (He also preps the celebrities for their race laps.) He’s invariably introduced by Clarkson using some bizarre description – “Some say that his voice can only be heard by cats, and that he has a life-size tattoo of his face on his face.”* We can’t know who or what The Stig is; whenever his identity is outed, he’s killed off the show and replaced by a new Stig (we’re on the third right now).

*Clearly, to my mind, the inspiration for Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World.

If you’ve never seen Top Gear, I don’t know that this description would have made much sense, or would do much to encourage you to watch it. But really, this is a show that defies explanation. It’s a car program and a comedy hour, a celebrity chat show and a reality competition. It’s been on the BBC, in one iteration or another, since 1977, with the same three madmen hosting it for the last ten years (Clarkson, has been on, with a break, since 1988) and it’s as popular today as it’s ever been.

And then there’s something else about Top Gear, perhaps the best explanation as to why the show appeals to me so much. Yes, I’ve gotten a finer appreciation of cars; I’ve even warmed to the idea that driving can be fun, although the best way to do it is on a track with a fast sports car. But beyond all that, Top Gear is about a state of mind, the romance of the road, the days when being behind the wheel of a car gave one freedom to go anywhere, to experience anything. It’s a show that fights the self-defeating prophesy of the environmentalists who worry about pollution, who worry about oil reserves, who worry about living itself. It’s a celebration of human ingenuity, of technical marvels, and of the desire to go faster as a way of measuring progress. And, as each season comes to an end, there’s invariably a moment when a more serious tone is struck, with the realization that this is a world, a culture, a way of thinking that’s slowly going away, never to return; that we have the ability to build a car – itself a noble thing, to build something using your hands and your mind and the machines you’ve designed – you can build that car that can go so fast, that can do so many things – but there’s no longer a need for it.

I may never own one of the cars they’ve profiled – I may never, in fact, get beyond tolerating my commute to work each day – but thanks to Top Gear my relationship with the auto has changed forever.

It is, quite simply, the best show on television, and it gives me absolute pleasure and enjoyment to watch it.

Last week: Hogan's Heroes

October 19, 2013

This week in TV Guide: October 16, 1965

One of the things I miss about today's television is the celebrity-driven game show. Of course, there aren't many game shows at all today, let alone ones with TV and movie stars in them, but back in the 60s it was a great way to publicize an upcoming movie or show, or at the very least (for those stars who had gone a while between hits) to remind the audience that you were still alive.

CBS is always good for some of these. There's the venerable Password,, which this week features singer Jack Jones and actress Sheila MacRae, followed by the daytime version of To Tell The Truth, with the regular panel of Tom Poston, Peggy Cass, Orson Bean and Kitty Carlisle. NBC, the network with the most daytime game shows, has a couple of celebrity versions of their own: You Don't Say!, with this week's stars psychologist/TV personality Dr. Joyce Brothers and educator/TV personality Frank Baxter, followed by the original Match Game, with Gloria Swanson and Chester Morris.

I've mentioned before how ABC struggled with their daytime lineup, and while they'll eventually become a powerhouse with Chuck Barris' duo of The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, their current schedule is a mix of local programming, reruns of prime-time series (Donna Reed, Father Knows Best, Ben Casey, trendy talk (The Young Set, hosted by Phyllis Kirk) and soaps (mostly forgettable, with the exception of General Hospital).

There are, of course, all manner of other game shows on, ones that don't feature celebs: Concentration, Jeopardy! and Let's Make a Deal (all on NBC) being prime examples, and shows such as Fractured Phrases where the stars aren't listed, at least in this issue. I have great affection for these old shows, even for some of the soaps that my mother watched and were on in the background while I was playing. The reason - if I was watching daytime television, it meant that school was on break or off for the summer. Growing old is, on balance, a good thing; but one of the bitter pills you have to swallow, until retirement, is the realization that you don't get to take summers off anymore.

Here are some other highlights from the week:

On Tuesday, CBS presents master documentarian David L. Wolper's adaptation of Theodore White's best-seller The Making of the President 1964. Neither the book nor the documentary have quite the cachet of White's original 1960 book (and subsequent documentary), but it's still a valuable portrait of the tumultuous 1964 campaign, as LBJ tries to step out of the shadow of JFK. As with the previous documentary, stage actor (and frequent What's My Line? guest panelist) Martin Gabel provides the dignified narration.*

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
*Also in the programming pages for Tuesday is this ad for the John F. Kennedy half-dollar coin set, a valuable collectors item as silver is being phased out of coin-making. Is the placement a coincidence?  And what about that Dallas mailing address?

Barbra Streisand burst onto the television scene in April 1965 with her special "My Name Is Barbra," and CBS repeats the Emmy-winning show on Wednesday night. Also on Wednesday, NBC's Hallmark Hall of Fame presents James Daly and Trevor Howard in the orginal drama "Eagle in a Cage," the story of Napoleon in exile on St. Helena. Now tell me - can you see Hall of Fame showing something like that today? Not quite enough of a chick flick, I'd say.

Awards shows haven't quite progressed to the point where they're stand-alone programs. The Golden Globes, for example, have been presented for several years on the Andy Williams show, and on Friday night the Country Western Music Awards are handed out on The Jimmy Dean Show. The show runs the typical one hour; nowadays, it seems as if there's a Country music awards show every other week.

What's that? You say there 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..

Hollywood Palace: Host Frank Sinatra welcomes Count Basie; comic Jack E. Leonard; dancer Peter Gennaro, choreographer for Perry Como and the recent Andy Griffith special; West German singer-dancers Alice and Ellen Kessler; and Colombian high-wire acrobat Murillo.

Sullivan: In Hollywood, Ed's scheduled guests are Sid Caesar; actor Sean Connery; the singing McGuire Sisters; singer Pat Boone; the rock 'n' rolling Animals; comics Guy Marks and Totie Fields; and the Fiji Military Band.

What a week! After so many weeks of so-so lineups, both shows really deliver this time. Sullivan may have a deeper lineup, there's no way I'm going to go against Frank Sinatra and Count Basie. The verdict: The Palace, but in this pre-DVD era watch for Sullivan on reruns.

***

For political junkies, the Sunday interview shows are a feast. On NBC, Meet the Press interviews the three major candidates for mayor of New York City: Republican John Lindsay, Democrat Abe Beame, and Conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. Buckley's stated reason for entering the race is an attempt to deny victory to the liberal Lindsay (indeed, Beame may well be less liberal than Lindsay), and although he fails (Lindsay wins with 43% to Beame's 39% and Buckley's 13%), WFB does get off the best line of the campaign: declining his rebuttal time during a debate, he remarks that "I am satisfied to sit back and contemplate my own former eloquence."*

*I've used this line many times over the years myself. Although there are those who would have preferred I stop with "I am satisfied to sit back."

With the death of President Kennedy last year, former President Dwight Eisenhower is seen even more as the elder statesman of the presidency, and on ABC's Issues and Answers he sits down for a one-on-one interview with White House correspondent Bill Lawrence from the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg. General Eisenhower* analyzes military tactics in the Vietnam War, discusses the final volume in his memoirs, and talks politics, including "a plan for limiting Senate and Congressional terms of office." Ah, Ike always was a man ahead of his time.

*As a five-star general, Eisenhower was given the choice as to what title he wished to use following his presidency. He always chose to be referred to as "General" rather than "President."

There's no guest listed for CBS' Face the Nation, but a quick Google search reveals that it was Alabama Attorney General Richmond Flowers, who's there to discuss the trial of KKK member Collie Leroy Wilkins for the murder of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo following the march from Montgomery to Selma. Wilkins' first trial ended in a hung jury, and the moderate Flowers, a proponent of civil rights legislation, has announced that he will personally take over prosecution of the retrial because, as state AG, he won't be subject to the pressures that local prosecutors might face. The sensational case has drawn worldwide attention, as well as a move to have the KKK investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Wilkins is never convicted by an Alabama court (thus escaping the electric chair), but is found guilty of civil rights violations in a subsequent Federal trial.

*Fun fact: Flowers' son, Richmond Jr., was a football player at Tennessee and went on to play in the NFL for Dallas and the New York Giants. (He chose Tennessee over Alabama because of his father's controversial politics.) He was also a star hurdler, a contender to make the 1968 Olympic team (a torn hamstring prevented him from qualifying), and was known at the time as "the fastest white boy alive."

***

Let's continue with the sports theme for a moment. The World Series has ended, and now the spotlight turns fully to football. (Another sign of how the times have changed - today, it's the World Series that struggles - unsuccessfully - for a place in the spotlight.) The college game of the week on Saturday features a Southwestern Conference showdown between Texas and Arkansas, two of the top teams in the South. Arkansas, after blowing a 20-0 lead, rallies to defeat Texas 27-24. Four years later the two teams would play for the national championship. Today, the SWC is but a fading memory, as are (increasingly) the glory years of both teams, especially Texas.

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
On Sunday, the defending AFL champion Buffalo Bills take on the Kansas City Chiefs in NBC's feature game. Buffalo, led by a stalwart defense and the quarterbacking of future political star Jack Kemp, defeats Kansas City 23-7 on their way to a second straight AFL title. To date, it's the last league championship for the Bills, who've only come as close as four Super Bowl losses since then. No TV doubleheaders yet; the game is followed by the season premiere of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, as Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler go in search of a marauding mountain lion in Arizona.*

*Did you ever notice how often Marlin let Jim do the dangerous work while he sat back with the segue to the commercials? Typical line: "While Jim risks his life to capture that poisonous rattlesnake, you risk your financial security every day without the income protection you get from insurance by Mutual of Omaha.

There's no NFL football on WCCO today, as the Vikings are playing at home and the current blackout rules mean that when the home team is home, there's no broadcast of any game into that market. They do get the Vikings-Chicago Bears game on KGLO in Mason City, IA, though, and (apparently on a one-hour delay) on KDAL in Duluth. WKBT in LaCrosse carries the Green Bay Packers game (naturally) against the Detroit Lions. WCCO, meanwhile, has to make do with its long-running bowling show Bowlerama, the movie Martin Luther, and what we would recognize today as infomercials.

***

Some interesting feedback in the Letters to the Editor section regarding that writers' roundtable I spent so much time on last month. There's an interesting response from Howard Bell, the NAB Code Authority Director, who takes issue with the idea that the Code is responsible for the decline in TV drama. "[T]he TV code is not designed to stifle creativity in writers, nor does it do so in actual practice," Bell writes, quoting extensively from Section 1 of the Code: "It is in the interest of television as a vital medium to encourage and promote the broadcast of programs presenting genuine artistic or literary material, valid moral and social issues, significant controversial and challenging adult themes." While the Code isn't responsible for television's premier dramas, Bell writes, neither has it been a deterrant. If there has been a decline in the quality of television drama there are undoubtedly reasons for it, but "from the Code Authority point of view, the excuse of censorship through the TV Code is misleading."

Leo Monaghan of Springfield, MA also sees the issue of censorship as a straw man, pointing out that "Movies, paperbacks and magazines have amply shown that elimination of censorship is not the answer to mediocrity, but merely an invitation to degradation." According to Monaghan, the answer is not license, but talent. And while Maureen Bendich of Saratoga, CO says that the article was "appalling and stimulating," suggesting that she sympathizes with the writers, she says it also "confirms my impressions that there is no room left for creativity." Finally, Robert Shaw, a visiting Briton writing from Jamaica NY, finds the whole thing ironic, having "been lectured on the 'evils' of government-controlled TV [i.e. the BBC] compared to the free enterprise system, as practiced ehre where 'no censorship exists.'" It's not clear whether Shaw finds the complaining or the assertion of no censorship to be the most humorous.

***

The networks lost a combined $10,000,000 in revenue during their coverage of Pope Paul VI's historic visit to New York City earlier in October, but it was worth it, as Henry Harding reports they "rose magnificently to the occasion." The networks devoted virtually all of October 4 to coverage of the papal visit, with 90 pool cameras broadcasting images to over 140 million viewers during the 14 hours of coverage, including a high point of 70,000,000 at one point. Compared to "the esteem and gratitude of millions of viewers," the loss of revenue may be well worth it.

And they could use it, according to Samuel Grafton, in the first of a three-part series on how television covers the news. His question: does TV news really give the viewer the whole story? His answer: no. It's quite interesting, and another indication of how times have changed, that the article is full of comparisons between television and newspapers. NBC's Reuven Frank, for example, says that "A television news show is a front page. It is not a full news service, like a complete newspaper." Washington correspondent Clark Mollenhoff, who covers the capital for the Des Moines Register and Tribune and the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, says, "They touch the surface," but to do anything further would take "depth knowledge of a subject, which they don't have, or don't have time to acquire." Even Walter Cronkite, in a recent interview on the educational station WNDT, admits that "I do not think we cover the news"

Grafton compares the newspaper reporter, who "works through contacts he develops over the years, with many people, great and small," with the television reporter, who "comes through like a parade, with his truck and his cameras." Complicating things is television's fear of boring viewers, requiring them to reduce stories "to a small enough compass so that the viewer can take all of it," unlike the newspaper reader who commits himself to a thorough review of the daily paper. For the same reason television news avoids stories that lack mass attention - "news of music, of the theater, paintings and new books." As Frank says, although "[t]here's no subject that can't be covered on television," it should only be covered if it's of interest to the layman - "not if it is interested only in a specialist's way."

By comparison, local television news is seen as a strength of the medium. Now, most sane people today consider local news to be pretty much, not to put it too delicately, crap. The "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality, combined with the boy-girl happy news anchor teams, most of which look as if they're auditioning for a fashion runway rather than the newsdesk, has heavily influenced network television. But the advantage that local news has in the mid 1960s is that its audience is interested - these are stories that have a direct impact on viewers, from commentaries to reviews of new plays.

The lack of commentary on television news is particularly striking, since the three major anchors - Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley - all have five-minute daily radio spots in which they often make pointed comments. Why radio and not TV? Huntley acknowledges that "We're still feeling our way on television. We'd feel naked on TV doing a one-and-a-half-minute think piece." Lacking commentary, there's always hard-hitting reporting, but even here television falls short. According to Raymond Brand, an editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, it's because TV newsmen are too worried about their own images, too "dignified" and respectful, to lower themselves into the muck. CBS' Fred Friendly hopes this changes; "We want yeast. We want savvy. We want what comes out of a reporter's deep experience. Our reporters are going to dig, not just read."

Much as was the case with that drama writers' roundtable, the main obstacle to television news seems to be a sort of censorship, a reluctance to go beyond self-set limitations. But with expenditures of over $100 million annually, it's clear that television news won't remain static.

***

Harding also reports that CBS' Slatterys' People is the first casualty of the season. Slattery had barely escaped cancellation last season, but was unable to dodge the bullet this time, scheduled to leave the airwaves on December 3 in favor of a talent show hosted by Art Linkletter. Rawhide isn't far behind, as it's due to leave in January in favor of Daktari. Says Slattery star Richard Crenna, "I've always thought the ratings system was a stinking way to program...they never intended to give the show a chance." Calling Sterling Silliphant...

October 17, 2013

Around the dial

There's more than a hint of fall in the air this week here in Texas, which has nothing to do with the following links, but, hey - TV and fall just kind of go together, don't they?

Scott Carpenter, one of the original seven Mercury astronauts, died earlier this week, and Television Obscurities has a nice piece on how television covered his Aurora 7 flight, one of the most dramatic of the early space shots.

A couple of fun pieces on the original Hawaii Five-O (which I'll be watching here in about 20 minutes as Thursday's DVD theater night: at The Hits Just Keep on Comin,, jb points out how the show's self-contained format differs from today's serialized programs (and that doesn't begin to cover the show's disco flavor), while at Classic Film and TV Cafe, Rick goes all the way back to the beginning with a look at the pilot and first episode.

I've seen many of Gilbert Seldes' reviews in older (i.e. pre-Cleveland Amory) issues of TV Guide, but I'd never seen him until I ran across this great ad courtesy of the Broadcasting Archives at the University of Maryland.

Can't remember if I've linked to this before, but this article by Billy at TVParty shows why a telethon (remember them?) should never announce their goal ahead of time.

That's all for tonight, boys and girls, but be back here on Saturday for a look at another classic TV Guide!

October 15, 2013

Mitchell's Top Ten, #2: Hogan's Heroes

Each week for the next couple of months, I’ll profile one of the series that appear on my personal Top Ten list. I don’t claim that these are the ten greatest series of all time; that would be presumptuous. However, I do presume to identify those shows that mean the most to me.

These aren't academic histories or encyclopedic entries; rather, they’re personal memories of shows that, through the years, have brought me delight, influenced my way of thinking and doing, left their indelible traces imprinted on me. Think of it as a memoir of my life as seen on TV.



A favorite point of discussion is to name the television shows you loved as a kid but as an adult are embarrassed to admit having watched. We all have them; I’ve got a few that I’m even too embarrassed to mention, although that embarrassment would fade away pretty quickly if I thought I could get some good material out of it.

There was a time when Hogan’s Heroes fell into that category for me. I’d enjoyed the show immensely in first-run, and then kind of forgotten about it while living in the world’s worst town. By the time I returned to civilization, in 1978, the show had long been off of CBS. But it continued in syndication, and in 1978 it was a constant presence on Channel 5 at 5:00pm, just before the national news.*

*This was in the days before many local stations prefaced the evening news with what might be called the pre-local news, more of a 30-minute teaser for the 6:00pm broadcast. Now, of course, local news is a cheap source of programming, not to mention commercial plugs, which means you can’t get away from it. But then, when I was born, both the local and national news were 15 minutes each.

I can recall a few times when people would stop by at our apartment during the 5pm hour, and my reflex action was to turn to Channel 4, which did have a 5pm show. I thought it more appropriate to my image as a college student and budding politician to be seen watching the local news, rather than a mere sitcom about World War II POWs that many thought of as being in somewhat questionable taste. Hogan’s Heroes didn’t quite have the gravitas that I wanted. I was a TV snob, in other words.

Once, though, I hadn’t changed the channel – I might have been out of the room when company came – and so I explained to our guest, somewhat apologetically, that Hogan was just something that happened to be on in order to have some noise, and that I could turn back to the news. “Nah,” the guest said*, “I remember that show – used to love it.” Feeling that I no longer had to introduce myself as if I were at an AA meeting – “My name is Mitchell, and I’m a Hogan’s Heroes fan” – I was no free to embrace my inner Hogan.

*Or something like it – this should be taken as a paraphrase rather than an exact quote.

I’ve written before about Hogan’s Heroes, so there’s no reason to go into great detail once again. Suffice it to say that few sitcoms displayed the cleverness of Hogan, combined with almost perfect casting, to achieve a show that can simply be enjoyed on its own merits. There are no “very special episodes,” no heavy themes, no underlying meaning – just a show that managed to be both very entertaining and very funny. There aren’t that many shows that can make me laugh out loud, and only one current one – Top Gear – but Hogan was constantly able to do it.

I’ve never been able to understand the disapproval some people have for Hogan’s Heroes. Yes, it’s set in a POW camp, and I suppose you could argue that the camps weren’t appropriate sources for humor. But there have always been war comedies (see: M*A*S*H), and it’s important to distinguish a POW camp from a concentration camp, which probably would cross the line when it comes to comedy.* The Nazis aren’t glorified; in fact, Schultz and even Klink show more than a trace of humanity. Hogan’s Heroes owes less to shows like M*A*S*H, and more to another military comedy: Phil Silvers’ Sergeant Bilko. At heart, it’s a show about a bunch of guys working together, trying to pull one over on the none-too-bright boss. It’s just that in this case the guys are soldiers who happen to be working together as part of the underground, and the boss is the camp commandant.

But what I’ve liked about this show over the years is what lies just under the surface. Hogan is the glib, cocky colonel – the quintessential American who has a way with the one-liners as well as the ladies with the curvy lines. Make no mistake, though: the writers gave Hogan a dimension that many sitcom characters lacked. When push came to shove you knew Hogan meant business, and he’d do whatever was necessary to make the mission a success. In one story, pointing a pistol at a reluctant turncoat, he warned that “You can do it my way or you can die my way,” and though I’m not sure you ever saw him actually kill someone in that manner, enemy soldiers did die as a result of those successful missions. That could have been a major flaw in some series, but the way the role had been written and acted, it was completely plausible. The show never came close to drifting into pious dramedy, but there was a serious context in which it existed, and the war itself was never taken lightly.

You can’t say enough about the cast, starting with Bob Crane and the rest. And imagine the challenge that was presented to Werner Klemperer and John Banner as Klink and Schultz. To make Nazis funny – to make them real characters, rather than cardboard buffoons, while still enabling the audience to look at them affectionately, is quite the job. Not one that you’d ask, say, Dabney Coleman to undertake. Unlike Burkhalter, who may have harbored some doubts but was nonetheless a loyal lieutenant of Hitler, or the SS colonel Hockstetter, who probably did believe the party line, I’m not sure that either Klink or Schultz were really dedicated to Nazi ideology; they were men who were following orders and defending their country, but at heart I don’t think they were killers. They were, however, very funny.

Hogan’s Heroes was the first complete TV series I collected on DVD, and one of the few that I can watch repeatedly. The only reason I tend not to watch it on broadcast TV nowadays is because the prints are faded and cut up, while the DVDs are the real deal, crisp and uncut. Having said that, though, there have been times when a Hogan marathon would pop up on one of the oldies stations. Running across it, I’d pause to see how the heroes’ latest scheme turned out; I already knew the answer, of course, but the payoff is always in the punch line. And, of course, the next thing I knew it would be two hours later, and I’d sat through four episodes and was well into a fifth.

*Although who knows? I wouldn’t have thought you could make a sitcom about Hitler, either.

Hogan’s Heroes is one of the few comedies on my favorites list, as I tend to be more of a sucker for the heavy, existentialist stuff. But, as Agent Cooper once said in Twin Peaks, you have to treat yourself every day, and Hogan’s Heroes is one of my favorite treats. One that I don’t feel guilty about.


Next week: we move into top gear to reveal the number one show on the list!
Last week: Doctor Who

October 12, 2013

This week in TV Guide: October 3, 1959

Lee Marvin is, according to this week's cover, "TV's Angry Man," but he sounds more like a character from a Paul Auster or Don DeLillo novel, or maybe Ernest Hemingway.

I can't really call Bob Johnson's article an interview or a profile, because aside from the first and last paragraphs, there's no evidence that Marvin actually answered any questions.  Instead, he conducted a very entertaining two-page stream-of-consciousness monologue.

The article begins with Marvin (and, presumably, Johnson) leaving the set for the lunch break.  "'It's moving,' he said, stomping and muttering through smaller billows of the claylike material he was brushing out of his crew cut with both hands.  'If it's moving, baby, I say grab it. Look at this filthy mess.  Let's go.'"

The topic is, naturally, M Squad, which Marvin starred in for three seasons. I promise you, these are actual quotes from the article, not taken out of context.

"Who knows?  You tell me.  It's a cop series, what else?  The guy's a cop.  Who wants the truth? It's like an artist.  He's got this painting.  He says, 'But don't you see, it's yah-foo-lah-lah-lah.  You notice how that yellow shines?

"I dunno, it's moving.  Lieutenant Ballinger - who knows - he's a cop.  You tell me.  We took Chicago.  It was all that was left.  I know Chicago cops.  Rough.  They have to be.   The whole city would explode.  It's like a bomb, Chicago.  I know.  Look at the setup."

After talking about Chicago police politics, he continues.

"We shoot locations, twice a year.  No permit, no co-operation.  They don't want any part of us.  We're going next week again.  Shoot and run.  It finally came down to: 'Okay, any public building, but nothing else, no stopping traffic.'  I stay back, out of sight.  Hat pulled down.  Director says okay, walks through what I do, says, 'Like that, Lee.'  I do it, we shoot it and blow.  Kids come along, see the crowd, it's always the same thing in Chicago.  Right away, 'Who got killed?'  That's what a crowd means to most Chicago kids.

"One time we're up on a roof.  On the edge over the sidewalk.  Me and this actor, struggling over a gun.  I thought I'd hoke it up a little.  We can't carry sound equipment, have to move too fast.  Dub it later.  I saw these two gals walking along.  Right under us.  I yelled, 'Gimme that gun, I'll kill you!'  They looked up, yah, hoo, whu, hmm?  Two men on a roof, killing each other.  And these girls went right on.  They didn't even break stride.

i"Lieutenant Friday, Dragnet, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Lineup.  What's their problem?  No problem. It's routine.  It's static.  But not Chicago. They stop it before it happens.  They have to.

"Chicago'd go like a bomb, the whole place.  I know.  I spent a year there, going to secretarial school.  After the war, out of the Marines, wacked up, shot near the spine, whoo lah, hero.  I couldn't do anything.  Nothing.  I didn't know ho.  High school, no training.  Navy ROTC school in New Jersey, 14 years old and they pulled rank on me.  This old admiral, 61, still in uniform, and a kid 14 years old.  I cut out and sold my uniform.

"Yeah, typing, shorthand, I didn't know.  And then back to New York, digging ditches.  Septic tanks.  A guy digging ditches or a plumber wiping a joint, you know?  It solves problems.  Says, 'Dig this hole, so wide, so long, so deep,' you dig it.  That's it.  You climb out and say, 'Boy, I don't know what it was,  and loo-foo-fah-foo, but I solved it today.'  Good therapy for my back.  Plumber in New York, fixed pipe up in Woodstock.  They were doing a play, who knows?  Said why didn't I give it a try.  So?  I tried it.  One line, walk on, walk off, deep voice, big shoulders, and back the next night.  And so on.

"It's like M Squad.  The M doesn't stand for anything.  It's any dirty job.  Let's face it, we're the Storm Troops.  A lone cop, Chicago, what else?  M Squad.  I liked The Loop.  That's what somebody wanted to call it.  I wanted to do a lot of things.  I talk to myself, driving along, who doesn't?  You come out of a conference, you sit there at a stop light, say, 'Yeah, fah-loo-dee-doo, BUT, you say."

There's more to the article, but you get the idea.  It's easily one of the most entertaining pieces I've ever read in TV Guide, and you wonder if Bob Johnson had to do anything other than take notes.  My wife thought he must have pieced together the article from answers to various questions, but I'm not so sure.  After starting Marvin off, Johnson doesn't return again until the final paragraphs, when the two men return to the set, ("Three steak sandwiches later.")  Marvin talking all the way.  As they part, he says, "If it's moving, baby, grab it."

***

The World Series continues this week, though we don't know quite when or where.  If the Milwaukee Braves won the National League pennant, Saturday's Game 4 will begin at 12:45 pm CT, and will be in black-and-white.  If the pennant went to either the Los Angeles Dodgers or San Francisco Giants (and how strange those names must have seemed), the first pitch will be at 2:30 pm, and the game will be colorcast.  All we know for sure at this point is that the opposition will be the American League champion Chicago White Sox, playing in their first World Series since the Black Sox days.  The Series continues Sunday (if necessary; same time choices), before returning to the Windy City* for the final two games (noon, in color).  

*I wonder if they saw Lee Marvin while they were there?

In fact, there was no game on Saturday - the Dodgers and Braves finished in a tie for first place, and the resulting three-game playoff (won by the Dodgers two games to none) delayed the start of the Series to Thursday.  The Dodgers and Sox split the two games in Chicago, before the Dodgers won two out of three in Los Angeles and closed out the Series with a 9-3 victory in Game Six in Chicago.

If you had your heart set on sports on Saturday, you'd have to make due with NBC's telecast of California at Texas in the college Game of the Week, or the NFL Saturday Night tilt on ABC between the Colts and Bears from Baltimore (with a live starting time of 10:30 pm ET, if the TV Guide is to be believed).

***

Let's pick a random night of programming to look at.  Sunday night, for example. Lots of series premieres this week.  After Lassie, CBS presents the debut of Dennis the Menace, based on the popular comic strip, starring Jay North as Dennis.  The comic strip itself is something of an acquired taste, which I had only intermittently, and the sitcom lacked that much charm, although it survived for four years.  Dennis is followed by Ed Sullivan, who's got an all-star lineup: Danny Thomas, live from Chicago*, while joining Ed in New York are singers Eartha Kitt, Julius LaRosa and Jane Morgan, comedian Joe E. Lewis, European novelty act Trio Rayros, and the winners of New York's Harvest Moon Ball.

*Where he was probably watching the World Series with Lee Marvin.

At 8, General Electric Theater presents a provocative title: "Hitler's Secret," starring Robert Loggia as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, now in its fifth season, and the return of Jack Benny, maintaining his every-other-week schedule (his alternating partner this year is George Gobel).  The night concludes with the venerable What's My Line? with guest panelist Mort Sahl.
No, not that secret!
Hitler, and hosted by Ronald Reagan.  What was Hitler's secret?  As far as I can tell, it was that President Paul von Hindenberg (Raymond Massey, more famous for playing Abraham Lincoln) had second thoughts on his deathbed about Hitler succeeding him, which I suppose makes it more Hindenberg's secret than Hitler's, since we all know how that turned out.  "Hitler" is followed at 8:30 by

NBC's schedule begins with Darrin McGavin and Burt Reynolds in Riverboat; a mark of how difficult McGavin could be to work with was Reynolds' later comment that McGavin would be in for a disappointment on the first Easter Sunday after his death.  Opposite Sullivan at 7 is Sunday Showcase presents part two of "What Makes Sammy Run?", Budd Schulberg's bitter look at the dirt under Hollywood's surface, starring Larry Blyden, John Forsythe and Barbara Rush.  It's not a great story, but it is very good, and was later made into a Broadway musical starring Steve Lawrence*.  Oddly enough, it's never been made into an actual big-screen movie; perhaps it cuts too close to the bone.

*And co-starring Sally Ann Howes, who also features in the premiere of Bell Telephone Hour Friday night on NBC.

At 8, Dinah Shore returns for another season of her musical variety series, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show. Here's Dinah urging us all to "See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet" as if her life depended on it.


Oh, by the way, Dinah's guests are singer-dancer Gwen Verdon, comedian Carl Reiner, and heavyweight boxing champion Ingemar Johansson.

Following Dinah is another episode of The Loretta Young Show, the popular anthology series.  I've always liked Loretta Young, but I have to admit, having seen several episodes of this series, that it doesn't do much for me.  I can't remember now if it was the writing, the acting, the story, or a combination of the three. Whatever, it just goes to show that not every popular show from the 50s is a classic.  Interestingly enough, the network goes dark after that, returning control of the airwaves to local stations.*

*Sorry for the Outer Limits lingo there; must have been because Joseph Stefano, the series' original producer, was the writer of that "Hitler's Secret" episode.

That leaves ABC, which leads off with Colt .45, the story of Christopher Colt (Wayde Preston), creator of the Colt .45.  Makes sense, I guess.  Then it's their own ace in the hole, the Western classic Maverick, this week starring Jack Kelly.  The Western motif continues at 7:30 with The Lawman, starring John Russell and Peter Brown.  It's not one of the most famous TV Westerns, but it was good enough to run for four seasons and 156 episodes.  And after that it's the debut of yet another oater, The Rebel, starring Nick Adams as Johnny Yuma, "a young Southern veteran of the Civil War," and the premiere of The Alaskans, which isn't quite a Western but is set in Alaska during the gold rush of the 1890s, and stars Roger Moore, who'd later go on to share lead duties on Maverick.  The Westerns, and the evening's programming, end with the world's oldest teenager, Dick Clark, in yet another of his network programs, Dick Clark's World of Talent.  All in all, far from the worst night of television one could imagine.

October 10, 2013

Around the dial

Some quick hits on the best from the week in classic TV:

I love this post from Captain Video - Burke's Law in comic book form!

Halloween doesn't mean as much when you live in a complex without trick-or-treaters, but Comfort TV has a list of five horror-themed episodes "more frightening than a Miley Cyrus video."

Classic Sports TV and Media previews the latest ESPN documentary on one of the most colorful teams in pro sports history - the ABA's Spirits of St. Louis.

And how great is this - Vincent Price on F Troop!  Thanks, How Sweet It Was.

TV Gems lists TV Guide's "60 Greatest Animated Shows of All Time."  Tom's got some doubts - and I have to ask: where's Alvin?

If you've commented lately and I haven't responded, don't take it personally - I'm scrambling on a few projects right now, which means I don't spend nearly as much time here as I'd like.  But don't let that stop you from coming back on Saturday for another great look at another great TV Guide!

October 8, 2013

Mitchell's Top Ten, #3: Doctor Who (Classic)

Each week for the next couple of months, I’ll profile one of the series that appear on my personal Top Ten list. I don’t claim that these are the ten greatest series of all time; that would be presumptuous. However, I do presume to identify those shows that mean the most to me.

These aren't academic histories or encyclopedic entries; rather, they’re personal memories of shows that, through the years, have brought me delight, influenced my way of thinking and doing, left their indelible traces imprinted on me. Think of it as a memoir of my life as seen on TV.



It's possible I may have told this story before, so if I have bear with me.

It was many years ago now, over 25 at least, and I was spending a Friday night at a friend’s house. Around about 10pm or so, he flipped on the TV to the PBS channel, to a show he wanted me to watch with him. “I think you’ll like it,” he said, or words to that effect. The show was a British import, as so many of the local presentations were (and are), a science fiction series called Doctor Who. I’d seen the show listed in the TV Guide before, but hadn’t paid any attention to it. As the episode unfolded ("The Face of Evil," my episode guide informs me), my friend briefed me on the basics: the show’s hero was an alien with the ability to travel in both time and space. His space ship was a blue box, normally used by British police to phone the station, which was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. His personality was outsized, a man who met challenges with an impervious humor, and something of an Enlightenment attitude toward religion. He often traveled with attractive women, but there was no hanky-panky involved. And there was one other thing, though it wasn’t germane to this particular episode, but he thought I should know about it because Doctor Who was on twice a week – Friday and Saturday – and a different actor was playing the role on each night. That was because whenever the hero was seriously injured, on the point of death, he had the ability to regenerate into a new person, or rather the same person, but with a new body, appearance, and personality.

Right.

Watching Doctor Who was an agreeable-enough experience, although I’ve always struggled when it came to watching programs that weren’t my idea to watch, especially when I’ve been assured that it was a show I would like,* so I tolerated the show for the 90 minutes that it ran, assured my friend that I’d have to keep an eye on it, and then promptly forgot about it.

*Even though the recommendations have been right more often than you’d think, which you’d also think would tell me something. See Nero Wolfe, for example.

The quintessential Fourth Doctor
Fast-forward a few weeks, to another Friday night. In these pre-cable days (for us, at least), there weren’t many viewing choices, perhaps six or seven channels in all, so when all three versions of the 10pm news led with the same story (the Jordan child-abuse scandal, which was a staggeringly big deal in the Twin Cities), a story I was sick to death of, I stretched out my arm, desperately flipping the dial in search of the first channel to have something on besides the news, at least until they were done with the Jordan story. I landed on Channel 2, which was airing Doctor Who.

It stayed there, every Friday (and Saturday) night, for the next five years.

At first I watched it because it was fresh and new. Later, after I’d fully enveloped myself in the Doctor Who universe, I watched it because I couldn’t not watch it. It was maybe the second show that had ever had that effect on me, where I became so fully a part of the world of the show and its inhabitants. I even became a member of the local PBS station, since they were offering a Doctor Who picture-disc as the pledge-break premium.  I don’t mean to say that I ventured into the territory of the Trekkers and role players, although Doctor Who has its fair share of those.*  No, it was the desire to learn as much about the program as I could – its history and continuing storyline, the actors who’d played The Doctor, the rules governing Time Lords and time travel, the whole thing. As the BBC released more episodes from the early days of Doctor Who, dating back to the first episode in 1963, I was enthralled. To find that there were others aware of this TV show with the cult following, not typical sci-fi nerds but people such as the man who maintained the plants in the office in which I worked, was thrilling. I attended the conventions at which actors who'd played The Doctor appeared (Peter Davison, Patrick Troughton and Colin Baker, to be precise; but not, alas, my favorite - Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor).  I celebrated the show's twenty-fifth anniversary in 1988.  I even took up eating jelly babies.  And when the newest episodes came over, with only a few months’ delay, my dedication to the show was complete.

*Don't pay any attention to the 12-foot scarf I have hanging in the library at home.

I came to know and appreciate each Doctor for his own personality quirks - William Hartnell's imperiousness, Patrick Troughton's playfulness, Jon Pertwee's swashbuckling, Tom Baker's bohemian unpredictability, Peter Davison's reluctant heroism, Colin Baker's anti-hero rudeness, and Sylvester McCoy's mysterious omniscience.

The First Five (from left): Hartnell (1), Pertwee (3),
Davison (5), Troughton (2), Baker (4)
And then the BBC, after twenty-seven seasons, pulled the plug. It wasn’t cancelled, they insisted – only on hiatus – but as the years went on, the show became less and less of a presence, both on television and in my life. I still had the books, and that scarf, and as the show began to come out on video I enjoyed the episodes, but somehow it wasn’t the same, knowing that what we had was all we had and that there wouldn’t be anything more.

Until there was. Doctor Who reappeared, first in a Fox movie that briefly rekindled the hope of a regular series; and then, following years of rumors and false starts, in a revival that picked up where the old series had left off, one that’s done a remarkably good job of integrating itself with the original, so that it’s easy to believe that the eleven actors* who’ve played The Doctor have all inhabited the same universe, even though the special effects are fancier and the monsters aren’t as cheesy and the show itself is less campy and more dramatic.

*Twelve, if you include Peter Capaldi, who takes over this Christmas.

Perhaps I don’t have the same passion for Doctor Who that I once did – after all, the blaze from the spark that ignites any love affair eventually lessens, and the thrill of discovery can’t last once everything’s discovered – but my enjoyment of the series continues. I miss some of the trademarks of the old series; the new show can be a little too bleak at times, a little on the preachy side with a bit of an agenda, and for all that cheesiness of the old days there were some stories with a remarkably deep insight into the human condition.* Plus, the new Doctors seem to have a little more, well, romantic interaction with others, and there’s a sense that they’re a little more vulnerable, not quite standing above it all in the same way that the old Doctors once were.

*For example, in "Planet of the Spiders," the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) risks his life against overpowering odds because it was more important to him to confront his fears than to simply go on living, while in "The Sunmakers," Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor once reminded a group of slaves that "you're human beings, and humans always have to fight for their freedom."

But Doctor Who remains one of the few contemporary series that can capture my interest, even if the intrusion of real life has left me hopelessly behind the curve for now, and some of the new episodes ("Silence in the Library," for example) have been true classics. And there's no question that David Tennant's Tenth Doctor not only turned the show into a genuine mainstream favorite, he proved to be an absolutely convincing successor to the Doctors of the original run.

It’s a show that I can look back on with affection, one that I’m not embarrassed at having watched when I was younger, as well as one I can continue to enjoy today. In November Doctor Who will celebrate 50 years on television, and even if those 50 years haven’t been continuous, the show you see today has a clear and ever-present legacy that stretches all the way back to the very beginning. Doctor Who’s almost as old as I am, and I should hope I’ve aged as well. No list of my favorite television shows could ever exist without it.

Next week: If you liked World War II, you'll love these guys
Last week: The Prisoner

October 5, 2013

This week in TV Guide: October 1, 1966

For the first time, the stain of the 1960s - Vietnam - graces the cover of this week's TV Guide.

Neil Hickey, TV Guide's New York Bureau Chief and author of some of the best news features published by the magazine, presents the first of a four-part series on how - and how well - television is covering its first war. It is a war "exorbitantly more demanding, both mentally and physically, than anything those earlier newsmen faced in Europe or the Pacific." It's a guerrilla war, replete with everything from jungle disease to ambush land mines and booby traps, field telephones that barely work, and as one correspondent puts it, "pushing the cause of journalistic profanity to new horizons." As NBC's David Burrington puts it, "There are so many imponderables and ironies here that it's sometimes difficult, if not downright impossible, to explain what's happening in terms that an American audience will understand."

Cameramen lug their equipment around in temperatures approaching 130, walking over 17 km only to find that an outpost had already been wiped out or a Vietcong squad disappeared, and wind up with less than a hundred feet of footage. Newsmen tell the story of a press conference called by Buddhist leaders in Danang, in a room with 35 dead bodies piled up in the corner. Soon, it became apparent that there would be no press conference, that the newsmen themselves were being held as hostages. They were able to escape in the ensuing firefight between government and rebel forces. Other times journalists aren't so lucky, and though none have been killed yet, several have suffered serious wounds. ABC's Lou Cioffi speaks for many when he says, "You begin wondering when the law of averages will catch up with you. I'm scared all the time, but I'm more scared now than when I first came out here. TV has nothing in its history to prepare it for this kind of story."

So why does the network correspondent put himself through such hell? After all, they've all volunteered; no newsman is ever assigned to Vietnam. "Let's be truthful," a young journalist says. "We're all war profiteers. We know that if we prove ourselves here we can short-cut our careers by five to 10 years. Here in Vietnam you can get your face on the network news three or four times a week. That's more than you can do in the United States. It's risky, but it's money in the bank." CBS' John Flynn adds, "This is where it's happening, and I see no reason to be anywhere else." And soldiers like having the newsmen around, at least at this point; "To them," an ABC newsman says, "it means somebody really cares about what they're doing. They'll share their last C-ration with you, and tie down your poncho tent properly so it doesn't blow away. I have never felt more appreciated, nor more humble." That comment about "somebody really caring" - for some reason, that makes me tremendously sad. Is that Vietnam in a nutshell, or what?

As I mentioned, this is part one of a four-part series; next week's will deal with the battle between the networks for ratings and exclusives. Looking at the glorified fan-mag that TV Guide has become today, it is difficult to imagine the magazine could come up with anything this serious, this newsworthy, nor would they want to. But to the TV Guide of this era, television was a serious business, covering serious news, and deserved to be written about and covered in a serious manner. For that matter, it's hard to imagine any of today's celebrity-driven newsmagazines (or is that "news" magazines?) producing a story as substantial as this. My, times have changed, haven't they?

***

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..

Hollywood Palace: Elizabeth Montgomery of "Bewitched" makes her debut as a Palace hostess and her first network appearance as a song-and-dance gal. Guests: singer Vic Damone; comics Paul Lynde and Jackie Mason; the Baja Marimba Band; Pat Anthony's tigers; and two acrobatic acts, Sensational Parker and the Three Robertes.

Sullivan: Ed's scheduled guests are Jimmy Durante; Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, who appear in segments from the filmed version of Prokofiev's ballet "Romeo and Juliet"; comic Alan King; singer Connie Francis; Gwen Verdon and cast members from "Sweet Charity," who perform "The Big Brass Band"; ventriloquist Arthur Worsley; and the winners of the New York Harvest Moon Ball dance contest.

This is actually a pretty strong week for both shows, but Ed has, I think, just a little more class. Nureyev and Dame Margo were two of the most famous ballet dancers of the time, and their appearance - even on film - would have been a highlight for many people who wouldn't get to see them otherwise. Durante and King are always funny, and Gwen Verdon likely danced up a storm. No backing into it this week, but Sullivan's the clear winner.

***

You'll remember how last week I said that TV Guides of this era covered live events with a combination of up-to-the-minute and to-be-announced? Well, this week's edition demonstrates that in spades. The World Series begins Wednesday, with the runaway American League champion Baltimore Orioles taking on - who? At this point, your guess is as good as anyone's, with the Dodgers, Pirates and Giants locked in a three-way battle for the flag. The weak-hitting Dodgers, defending Series champions, are led by Sandy Koufax (in his last season) and Don Drysdale; the slugging Pirates feature future Hall of Famers Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente; and the Giants counter with some stars of their own, namely Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal. Awaiting them, the Orioles have Triple Crown-winner Frank Robinson, slugger Boog Powell, and a pitching staff featuring Dave McNally, Jim Palmer, and Stu Miller.

Because of the uncertainty surrounding the National League winner, who will also host the first two games of the Series, we don't even know what time the games start: noon CT if it's the Pirates, 2pm if the Giants win, and 3pm if the Dodgers come out on top. And it is the Dodgers, ultimately, who emerge from the logjam, besting the Giants by a game and a half and the Pirates by three. Little good it does, though: after Baltimore's Moe Drabowsky stops the Dodgers with 6.2 innings of one-hit, 11-strikeout relief, Orioles hurlers go on to record three straight shutouts (the final two by scores of 1-0), winning the Series in a four-game sweep. I remember this Series with great satisfaction; the Dodgers had beaten the Minnesota Twins the year before, and being a good Minnesotan who also hadn't learned how to be a discerning fan, I thirsted for revenge. The Orioles gave it to me with one of the most powerful pitching performances in Series history: two runs given up in the four games.

***

Once again, the Series tops all other sporting events for the week, such as Saturday afternoon's college football match between Missouri and UCLA. UCLA Quarterback Gary Beban, who will win the Heisman Trophy the next season, leads the Bruins to a 9-1 season, losing only to Washington (but staying home for the bowl holidays, thanks to the conference's Rose Bowl-only rule), and they take the Tigers handily, 24-15.

Sunday's NFL games are all over the map, with the Minnesota Vikings playing at home, and thus blacked out within a 75-mile radius. Channel 4, the CBS Minneapolis affiliate, offers an Eastern Division matchup between the Cleveland Browns and New York Giants; Channels 8 and 12, located in LaCrosse, Wisconsin and Mankato, Minnesota respectively, carry the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers; and the two stations unaffected by the blackout, in Duluth, Minnesota and Mason City, Iowa (both Channel 3) carry the Vikings game against the Chicago Bears. It's much easier keeping track of the AFL game - the Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs, a preview of the 1966 AFL Championship Game.

In this era before Sunday football doubleheaders, there's actually some time for other sporting events, such as the Canadian Open golf championship. This tournament used to be much bigger than it is today, and the 1966 field included the sport's best: Gene Littler, Jack Nicklaus and Billy Casper. To reinforce the event's stature, a footnote in Sunday's listing mentions that in case of a tie, CBS will provide coverage of the 18-hole playoff on Monday afternoon - a playoff format once seen in all the majors, but now only the U.S. Open.

Not exactly sports-related, but then you can't exactly leave off something on Tuesday called "The National Sports & Physical Fitness Test." It's the latest in CBS' popular series of interactive viewer tests, which have included "The National Driver's Test" and "The National Citizenship Test." I don't have a list of the questions in front of me, only the "official score card" included in the TV Guide; however, the Close-Up promises location shoots from the Air Force Academy, "where cadets eat heartily without gaining an ounce," a New York dance studio, and a California high school with an acclaimed fitness program. Also, for no apparent reason, the program includes clips of Bobby Thomson's famous 1951 home run, and Joe Louis' first-round knockout of Max Schmeling in 1938. Harry Reasoner hosts; I wonder if this had any of the success that the other tests did?

***

So if you don't have wall-to-wall sports on television Sunday afternoon, what the heck is on? Well, between the NFL football and Canadian Open, CBS has To Tell The Truth and Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour; in later years the lineup would include Mister Ed. NBC featured G-E College Bowl (North Dakota State versus the winner of last week's contest between Oklahoma and the University of Scranton; the Minnesota statewide edition of TV Guide might have had an earlier go-to-print time that didn't allow them to wait until Monday), and a religion special. ABC's coverage leans more toward the affiliates; Minneapolis' Channel 9 has reruns of The Untouchables, Naked City, Thriller, Surfside 6 and The Greatest Show on Earth.

Sundays were also known as the "graveyard" for public affairs and educational programming, and that's well in evidence this week. There are the venerable Sunday morning news chat shows; ABC's Issues and Answers has a debate between the candidates for governor of California, Democratic incumbent Pat Brown* and his Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan. Brown, who'd defeated Richard Nixon in 1962, had said that he looked forward to sending Reagan back to Death Valley Days, a show he'd once hosted. Presumably this was before Reagan managed to eek out a one-million vote win, garnering a mere 58% of the vote. ABC also had an interview show called Elections 66, with Vice President Hubert Humphrey and former Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater as the guests, and ABC Scope, their weekly Vietnam report. Face the Nation on CBS had Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen; the venerable Republican senator from Illinois is quizzed on the coming midterm elections. Dirksen's Democratic counterpart from Illinois, Paul Douglass, is the guest on NBC's Meet the Press (he's not listed in the TV Guide, but a quick Google search gives us the answer).

There's a heavy concentration of news this particular Sunday, and per the cover story, much of it has to do with Vietnam. In addition to ABC's weekly Scope, NBC has Vietnam Weekly Review, and later that afternoon The Frank McGee Report, which often presented breaking Vietnam news. NBC also has a special report late Sunday afternoon, "The Agony of Two Cities," looking at racial conflict in Chicago and Cleveland.

*Father of the past and current governor, Jerry.

Channel 11, the Twin Cities' independent station, presents the long-lost standby of the local channel, matinee movies, which in this case is a prime choice indeed: the Academy Award-winning Casablanca, followed by Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes in The Voice of Terror. Reruns of Laramie and Sea Hunt and a religion show round out the afternoon.

***

I talked a little a couple of weeks ago about the frustrations that writers had working with the Production Code, that arbiter of content that governed how certain moral issues should be presented. Well, that was in 1965, and now one year later TV Guide takes on the question of what should be done to produce a movie code that "makes sense in view of contemporary standards." The Editors' conclusion: "It isn't easy."

For starters, it's becoming increasingly clear that movies and television present separate challenges. As the editorial puts it, "while you can forbid youngsters to enter a theater, you can't keep all of them from seeing an 'adult' movie on TV." And yet you can't allow the needs of television to control what paying customers in movie theaters can see. And speaking of that audience, while there's been a relaxation of moral restrictions lately, "puritan standards still control the thinking, if not the actions, of most Americans."*

*A fact that must drive Gene Roddenberry and Sterling Silliphant to drink.

And then there's the foreign audience to think about. Nudity and bedroom scenes are as commonplace in European movies as violence is in American ones, and "Europeans aren't exactly titillated by a sheepish Rock Hudson trying, unsuccessfully, to hold hands in a crowded restaurant with a well-corseted Doris Day."*

*From what we know now, neither, apparently, was Rock.

The answer, according to the Editors, is that the movie code shouldn't worry about television and concentrate on theaters only. Most movies, they point out, can be adapted to run on television*, and the ones that can't will probably recoup any advertising losses through European distribution. "The important thing is that such a code, run by administrators empowered to interpret its provisions, will make it possible for creative men to treat any subject tastefully."

*Which in itself was the source of no little controversy.

Is that what we wound up with? My suspicion is that the code Hollywood wound up with included the Ratings System that, with subsequent changes, we've come to know and love (or hate). Television, itself under increasing pressure from the government, came up with its own ratings system, not to mention the V-Chip. But whether it be movies or television, I'm not sure that the word "tasteful" is the first that would come to mind...