February 8, 2014

This week in TV Guide: February 11, 1961

Until a few years ago, the most I could say about Peter Gunn was that Craig Stevens played a suave private eye, and it had one of the coolest themes of all time.  Now, to know that I had to have seen it at some point in time, probably many years ago, before I was old enough to understand Lola Albright.  But then I was able to get the complete series on DVD - and then I got Lola Albright.

[Pause while heartbeat returns to normal.]

Albright plays Edie Hart, the singer who's also Gunn's girlfriend. She works out of a bar called Mother's, which doubles as the place where Gunn meets his clients and conducts his business.  She's a smart, sassy character* who's graced with some snappy dialogue, every bit Gunn's equal in the scenes in which they're matched.  She has a fine singing voice, doing her own vocals in the occasional set pieces at Mother's.  She exudes an adult sexiness that makes it impossible to take your eyes off of her when she's on screen.  And she's a likable character, as is Gunn, making this one of the easier private eye shows to watch.

*Gunn's nickname for her was "Silly."


Off screen, Lola Albright has some things to say about what she sees as an unreasonable invasion of her privacy since her divorce from actor Jack Carson.  "To tell the truth, I'm sick and tired of the line 'Does Lola get what Lola wants?'*  Every magazine and newspaper seems to leap on it as though discovering it for the very first time.  I am equally sick and tired of the line 'Lonely Lola.'"  Such are the curses of having an alliterative name, it would appear.  "If my name were Betty, I'd be two cliches to the good."  She struggles with the line between personal and public; while she understands the sacrifices of privacy that are part of stardom, she wonders "why does the press have to go so far?  Why do they print things you never said, things they make up out of a blue sky?  Why do they twist what you say into meanings you never meant?"  Lola also denies she's dissatisfied with her role on Gunn; she likes how Edie got her own place in the third (and final) season, a plot devise that gives her a chance to sing more.  "I don't want to dominate the show and I certainly don't want a series of my own."

*If you're unsure of the origin of the line, watch this.

People who work with her have nothing but good things to say.  Frank Stempel, who was her ex-husband Carson's manager, says that "Even now that she's making good money, she doesn't really know what it is.  She goes out of her way to help people.  She'd give away her last dime if she thought it would help somebody."  Press agent Bill Stein remembers how when his wife was in the hospital, "Lola must have called me a dozen times offering to come out and take care of the two kids while I was working.  If you know her, you like her."

Peter Gunn, which ends its three-year run at the end of the current season, is probably the high point of Lola Albright's career, although she's hardly a recluse once the series ends, appearing in several big-screen movies and is a steady presence in guest roles on TV through the 80s.  But there's no disagreeing that in a genre that often produces more than its share of annoying characters, Peter Gunn's Edie is one of the most enjoyable; in fact, after you've watched her in a few episodes, you'll probably be singing these words as well:


***

I've mentioned in the past the snarkiness of TV Guide writers like Richard Gehman, and the Letters to the Editor section this week shows I'm not the only one who picks up on this.  Apparently Gehman did another of his hatchet jobs a couple of weeks ago, this time on Bobby Darin.  Carol Tuman of Great Neck, NY writes that Gehman's profile of Darin "is . . . full of unprecedented nastiness," while Donna Ott and Joyce D'Ambrosio of Fair Lawn, NJ say that "We have never read or heard so many degrading comments on this terrific star," and make the point that "we are not teen-agers; we are a single girl of 20 and a married woman of 23," possibly in response to a comment about the demographics of Darin's fanbase.

Now, it might be that Gehman's article is a fairly accurate portrait of Darin; Kevin Spacey's Darin biopic Beyond the Sea certainly pointed out that Darin had a few warts, and maybe Gehman really does capture how the people who work with Darin feel about him.  But at the same time there's something about Gehman's writing style, his choice of words and turn of phrase, that clearly rubs readers the wrong way.

In Glenn Altschuler and David Grossvogel's Changing Channels: America in TV Guide (review upcoming later this year), the authors write that "Gehman believed that creative people were often emotionally insecure because of an unhappy childhood, and that those who became celebrities in the entertainment industry sometimes did so because their insecurity motivated them to succeed."  I'm not surprised to read that; it's fairly typical of the amateur psychoanalysis that was prevalent in journalism of the time.

Were one of that bent, it would be tempting to suggest that Gehman was projecting his own insecurities onto his subjects; according to his entry in the always-reliable Wikipedia, he was married five times and fathered at least nine children, and wrote under a variety of pen names - all before his death at age 51.  Perhaps he had an identity problem tied to a basic inferiority complex, causing him to tear others down in an attempt to elevate himself.  Perhaps his experiences in the entertainment industry left him jaded and cynical, and ascribed those same motives to those he met.

Of course, I'm not of that bent.  As you know.

***

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
On NBC Wednesday night, Bob Hope hosts the aptly-named Bob Hope Sports Awards, honoring the "best and brawniest athletes" of 1960.  Being that it's a Bob Hope special, there are plenty of beautiful women among the presenters* - Julie London, Jayne Mansfield, Ginger Rogers, Jane Russell, Tuesday Weld, Esther Williams - but I wonder how many athletes were in attendance?  We're told (by the Bob Hope on TV website) that the winners included Joe Bellino (college football), Norm Van Brocklin (pro football), Wilt Chamberlain (pro basketball), Pancho Gonzales (pro tennis), Dick Groat (National League baseball), Rafer Johnson (track), Roger Maris (American League baseball), Arnold Palmer (golf), Floyd Patterson (boxing), Jerry Lucas (college basketball), and Barry Mackay (amateur tennis).  Might have been an interesting show; might not.

*Also among the presenters was a guy named Ronald Reagan - obviously an afterthought.

This didn't become an annual tradition (there are a lot of one-and-done sports awards shows in the history of television), but Bob did return with another version of the Bob Hope Sports Awards from 1973 through 1975.  Hopefully, they didn't wait so long for an encore because the first one had been such a dud...

Wednesday's schedule also featured taped coverage of President Kennedy's fourth press conference..  (No details on which networks or what time.)  I've mentioned before that these press conferences were quite the sensation, as Americans had never seen the president quizzed by reporters quite like this; President Eisenhower's conferences had been shown on same-day tape, but JFK had been the first to air a live presser, and it was his generous access to the press (at the time of his death, according to the JFK Library, he'd held 64 conferences, an average of one every sixteen days.  "The first, less than a week after his inauguration, was viewed by an estimated 65 million people. A poll taken in 1961 indicated that 90 percent of those interviewed had watched at least one of JFK's first three press conferences. The average audience for all the broadcast conferences was 18 million viewers."

We shouldn't be too surprised; the medium loved JFK, and he loved to use the medium.  The reporters loved him as well, for he was great copy - witty, quick, engaging, informative without necessarily saying anything.  There's been a good deal of controversy over the amount of press access given by the current resident of the White House, but there's little question Kennedy made himself much more accessible.  And the viewing audience responded.

***

The great American composer Aaron Copland celebrated his 60th birthday in November 1960, and the event is being commemorated on Sunday's Young People's Concert with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.  I loved watching these concerts when I was young, although this one would have been a bit old even for me.  Bernstein, whatever his other faults, was an engaging and often brilliant teacher: in these telecasts (53 of them, which ran on CBS from 1958 to 1972) he never talks down to children, never dumbs the material down for them.  He treats them, instead, as intelligent beings capable of understanding and appreciating music, and he does a wonderful job of making classical music accessible without resorting to gimmicks.  If it is true that the audience for classical music is dying off (literally), much of the blame can be laid at the feet of an educational system that no longer values music appreciation classes, and an industry itself that thinks Star Wars-themed concerts and hyperactive experiences are the way to introduce kids to the classics.

A number of Bernstein's Young People's Concerts are on YouTube (more are available on DVD), and here happens to be that broadcast:



Bernstein wasn't the only teacher of classical music, of course.  Through the 70s there were various attempts to use television to spread music appreciation.  The famed opera singer Joan Sutherland, with her conductor husband Richard Bonygne, hosted a PBS series in the early 70s, Who's Afraid of Opera? (described in this wonderful appreciation appearing after Sutherland's death), which used puppets to help teach children (and adults!) about opera.


It was the young people's concerts of the Minneapolis Symphony that first introduced me to classical music, and helped foster a lifelong interest in the classics.  True, I didn't really develop this appreciation fully uintil the last 20 years, when I learned to embrace opera, but who knows if I would have been open to it at all without learning about it at a young age?

I'm put in mind of all this because of another letter this week, from Paul Winterhalter of Lincoln, NE, decrying the disappearance of Voice of Firestone.  "The television 'brains' who presume to do all the thin king for the millions of viewers said that the Voice of Firestone lacked the quality for prime time, so we lost a fine program."  Mr. Winterhalter said this in the context of criticizing Jackie Gleason's You're in the Picture flop - "the most awful bunch of garbage" - which those "brains" obviously considered a superior, or at least having the potential to be a more popular, show.

It's true that acclaimed music programs such as Voice of Firestone were never ratings hits, and it's also true that television - a medium designed primarily as a vehicle for moving the products of its advertisers - can't pay the bills solely from Peabody awards.  Nonetheless, as I mentioned a while back, the Golden Age of Television referred to more than just the quality of programs; it had to do with the variety as well.

One of the last surviving programs of quality music was The Bell Telephone Hour, which started on NBC radio in 1940 and ran on television from 1959 to 1968*  Back in December I linked to a Christmas episode of the show, and while those Christmas editions may have been among the most popular, there's no doubt that Bell presented some of the finest classical artists of the time, often showcased in fully staged excerpts from some of their most well-known works.  But it wasn't only classical music that shown on the program.

*Not surprisingly, considering it aired on NBC, every episode of The Bell Telephone Hour was broadcast in color.


SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
This Friday, opposite the post-You're in the Picture Gleason show, The Bell Telephone Hour presents "The Sounds of America," a salute to American music taped at Disneyland and produced (and conducted) by the famed Gordon Jenkins (who did so well with Frank Sinatra, among others).  The show features not only musical pieces but "sound-effects 'essays'" that bring, literally, the sounds of America - the West, the river, Main Street.  There's a heavy emphasis on dance, with Gene Nelson, Jacques d'Amboise and the Earl Twins dancing to choreography by Hermes Pan, who collaborated so successfully for so many years with Fred Astaire.  There's a sad irony in all that, don't you think?  A program about America's long-gone past, told by a television genre on the way to being long-past itself.

2 comments:

  1. Lola Albright recorded a number of albums, and I suspect she also had some success as a recording artist around the same time she was co-starring on "Peter Gunn".

    ReplyDelete
  2. I don't know what you've got planned for next week, so I'll just take a shot and put this here.

    In addition to this week's issue, I also have next week's - February 18-24, Nanette Fabray on the cover.
    If you have this issue in your inventory, I commend you to the listings, which have a number of programs on display.
    Such as The US Steel Hour, presenting a play that became an Oscar-winning movie a few years afterward.
    Or Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall, featuring Anne Bancroft, Jimmy Durante, and Ray Charles; this particular show had a special significance for two of those guest stars.
    Or Red Skelton welcoming Al Capp and the stars of the just-released Li'l Abner movie, who in turn welcome Clem Kadiddlehopper to Dogpatch.
    Or ... a bunch of others that I'll notice after I hit Publish
    But I really want you to check out the Letters column in this one.
    There are two letters commenting on violent TV -
    - and wait 'til you see who wrote them.

    ... and if you don't have this issue ... well, say so, and I'll post the answers next time ...

    ReplyDelete

Keep those cards and letters coming in!