May 3, 2014

This week in TV Guide: May 2, 1981

Sometimes, in going through the archives, it's obvious to me why I might have hung on to a particular TV Guide: the date, the picture on the cover, one of the shows on the inside.  Other times, as is the case here, I look at the issue and have no idea why I ever would have saved it in the first place, when so many others went into the circular file at the end of the week.

On the other hand, I suppose it could have been Cathy Lee Crosby.

The quasi-sultry picture of her on page 28 accompanies a story about how the one-time professional tennis player, failed Wonder Woman and B-movie actress has joined up with a perennial game-show celebrity and B-grade singer (John Davidson) and a hall-of-fame quarterback and B-grade TV personality (Fran Tarkenton) in a series that somehow managed to stay on the air for four years - That's Incredible!  What's really incredible is that in its first season, the show finished #3 in the Nielsens.

That's Incredible! wasn't exactly a reality show, not in the way we think of them today, anyway.  It's closer  to shows like Ripley's Believe it or Not! or, back in the old days, You Asked For It.  I suppose you could also compare it to something like America's Funniest Home Videos, in that the hosts really don't do a whole lot more than introduce videos.  Time called it "the most sadistic show on television," and for every segment that focused on something that was a real accomplishment, a medical or technological advancement, there was a clip of a man catching a bullet in his teeth.

So why was it popular?  It's only a theory, mind you, but the show's first and most successful season was 1979-80.  The country was in a malaise, the economy was a mess, and we were apparently too inept to free the hostages in Iran.  There was, for those of us alive at the time, a feeling of great impotency, as if the United States couldn't do anything right anymore.  Under those circumstances, it's perhaps understandable that people wanted to watch a show that didn't require much from them, that consisted of people actually accomplishing things, even if it was just catching a bullet in your teeth.  A feature on cryogenic corneal reshaping through lathe keratomileusis might have been enough to remind people that we could get something right at least once in a while.  As I say, it's just a theory.

Either that, or it was Cathy Lee Crosby.

***

On Saturday ABC brings us the 107th running of the Kentucky Derby, live from Churchill Downs.  The broadcast's only an hour long, compared to the virtually all-day coverage that NBC foists on us nowadays*, but that's plenty of time to cover the excitement as Pleasant Colony held off Woodchopper to win by less than a length.  Colony would go on to win the Preakness two weeks later and then, with Triple Crown excitement building, would finish third in the Belmont.  As I recall, there wasn't as much excitement about a possible Triple Crown winner back in 1981.  After all, following the great Secretariat's victory in 1973, Seattle Slew had taken the Crown in 1977, and Affirmed the very next year.  In fact, Spectacular Bid had fallen just short in 1979, so at this point the question wasn't whether not the Triple Crown would be won, but whether or not this year's Derby winner would fail to win it.  Who could possibly have known that Affirmed's 1978 triumph would, to this day, be the last time it was accomplished?

*Which is still double the 30 minutes that CBS often offered when it carried the Triple Crown races.


***

By 1981, the TV Teletype - which once graced both the beginning and end of the shiny section - has been reduced to one single page, encompassing news from both New York and Hollywood.  There's not much here that's newsworthy, but I do see a note that in June, "NBC will telecast five pilot episodes of "Wedding Day," a daytime series in which real couples get married, for better or for worse, on TV."  Sounds like something you'd see on E! or Bravo nowadays, no?  Also in the Teletype is a story about Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Ken Berry getting together for "Eunice," a spinoff of the bit from Burnett's variety show.  That, of course, becomes Mama's Family.

Long Live Betamax!
In the "TV Q&A" feature, a questioner asks why TV sound can't be broadcast in stereo.  The answer - it is in Japan, and should be making its way here within the next few years.  Wonder what they'd think of surround sound?  There's also a question from someone who'd recorded a number of tapes on Betamax and wondered if it would be compatible with VHS, and another from someone concerned that their new cable box meant they couldn't use the remote control from their television.  A lot of this is probably gibberish to younger readers, but for people of my age these were real problems - and it makes me feel old.  Again.

An article on the most popular TV newsmen confirms what we've always been told: Walter Cronkite has the most charisma.  According to a network newsman charisma study conducted by the State University of New York, Cronkite scores a 43 in the antihero charisma category, which means that viewers tend to see him as someone they're comfortable with - one of us.  The Cronk well outdistances NBC's Roger Mudd with a 31, and John Chancellor at 29.  In a stat that bodes poorly for the future, current CBS anchor Dan Rather is in a tie for sixth, with - 0 - points.  (He's tied with ABC co-anchor Max Robinson, five points behind the fifth-place finisher, Peter Jennings.  In another twenty or so years, I'd suspect Jennings would rank at the top of the list.)

A rising star of the 80s is future Oscar nominee Mare Winningham, who appears this week in the TV-movie Freedom, in which she plays a rebellious 15-year-old runaway.  This comes on the heels of her performance as a runaway teen-age hooker in Off the Minnesota Strip in 1980, and Operation Runaway, in which she played, well, a runaway.  Typecasting, anyone?  Unlike many profiles from TV Guide, Winningham actually does fulfill her potential, with a long and successful career in both TV and movies.

***

HADLEY TVG
So what's on tap for viewing this week?  Well, on Saturday night, ABC has a special two-hour Love Boat, featuring "top fashion designers": Geoffrey Beene!  Halston!  Bob Mackie!  Gloria Vanderbilt!  Compared to the guest cast that week (including Morgan Brittany, Jayne Kennedy, McLean Stevenson and Robert Vaughn), it might have been the first time the designers were bigger stars than the celebrities.  Oh well, I'm sure a fun time was had by all.

If  you wanted to catch all of Love Boat, you would have been forced to pass up NBC's Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters.  I'm not a country music fan, so I really have no idea how well-known Barbara Mandrell is today, but back in the early 80s she was a big name.  Blonde, cute, with a good-enough voice, and two equally cute sisters; not a bad combination for a show that ran for a couple of years.  You also would have missed Channel 9's airing of the syndicated Hee Haw, not to mention the show that followed it at 8pm CT, Dolly.*  You would have been good to see Lawrence Welk at 6pm, though, so there is that.  And then don't forget ABC's Fantasy Island at 9, with an all-star cast - Cleavon Little, Joe Namath, Christopher Connelly, Trish Stewart.  I mean, they're stars, right?

*One guess as to who that would have been.  Or perhaps two, if you get my drift.

A quick look at the rest of the week's "highlights":

Sunday:  CBS has a pretty strong lineup, which kicks off with 60 Minutes, followed by Archie Bunker's Place, One Day at a Time, Alice, The Jeffersons and Trapper John, M.D.  All of those shows made a nice little profit for CBS.  But my choice would have been PBS' Meeting of Minds, the marvelous Steve Allen program in which historic figures from the past (played by actors) "sit down" to discuss the issues of the day.  This week's discussion looks promising: economist Adam Smith (Sandy Kenyon), birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger (Jayne Meadows, Allen's wife), and Gandhi (Al Mancini).  Again, back to a time when good conversation was actually considered entertainment.

Monday:  Take your pick; it's the aforementioned That's Incredible! on ABC, or Little House on the Prairie on NBC.  If you like your drama straight up, there's M*A*S*H (still) and Lou Grant on CBS.

Tuesday:  It's ABC's version of CBS' famed Saturday-night Murderers' Row of the 1970s, with Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Three's Company, Too Close for Comfort and Hart to Hart.  I'd imagine a lot of networks would love to have that lineup as well.*  But for other choices, there's always Hill Street Blues on NBC, or the made-for-TV flick Broken Promise on CBS.

*Topic for another day: could we postulate that this is ABC's signature lineup of all time, to compete with that CBS Saturday night schedule (All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett) and NBC's Must-See Thursday of the 90s (anchored by Friends, Frazier and ER, along with, variously, Will and Grace, Suddenly Susan and others)?  Might make for an interesting discussion.

Wednesday:  A fleeting reminder of the glory that once was Hallmark Hall of Fame, as PBS' single season of the long-running series presents Charles Durning in the one-man play "Casey Stengel."  I don't think Durning looked anything like Stengel, but he was brilliant in the role.  That year was a very good one for Hall of Fame; in addition to "Stengel," there was another one-man performance, with Roy Dotrice as "Mr. Lincoln," and Jane Alexander and Edward Hermann teaming up for "Dear Liar."  If you're not a fan, you're probably watching Real People, Diff'rent Strokes and The Facts of Life on NBC.

Thursday:  Heavy hitters, indeed: The Waltons and Magnum, P.I. on CBS, Mork & Mindy, Barney Miller and Taxi on ABC, and part one of the murder-of-the-week telemovie The People vs. Jean Harris on NBC.  Jean Harris, you may recall, was accused and convicted of the murder of her lover Dr. Herman Tarnower, author of the famed "Scarsdale Diet."  Think Atkins, without the violence.

Friday:  I'd think the night would have been dominated by CBS' twin-bill of Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas. Tonight's Dallas episode is a repeat of the season premier, which opened with J.R.'s crumpled body being discovered.  That's right, it's the "Who Shot J.R.?" season!  What's particularly interesting about this is that Friday, nowadays considered something of a TV graveyard, was anything but back in 1981.  ABC sought to siphon off some of that Dallas audience with a brand new Battle of the Network Stars, and NBC gave us the shocking verdict in the conclusion of The People vs. Jean Harris.


***

Also on Friday night is a program I have fond memories of.  Actually, "program" might be a misnomer, but I'm not sure what you'd call it.  Not a series, nor a miniseries, because it's not scripted drama.  I suppose you might think of it as reality programming, but it doesn't exploit anyone.  No, I guess there's really no way to describe the spectacle that was "Action Auction."

The Auction was the principal fundraiser for KTCA, Minneapolis' public broadcasting station.  It was a delightfully scatterbrained week or so of broadcasting that preempted Channel 2's prime time schedule and, on the last night of the auction, would stretch into the the early hours of the next morning.  I first became acquainted with it in 1971 or 72, when the broadcast came live from the Garden Court of Southdale Center.  The Garden Court was the center atrium of the three-story mall, and people were able to stand at the railings and watch the show while the mall was open.

You might think that this would be pretty dry programming, but you'd be wrong.  For one thing, celebrities from all the other Twin Cities stations would appear to do some time as a guest auctioneer (KTCA wasn't seen as competition at the time, and appearing on it was more like a civic duty).  There were also some fantastic items being auctioned off - from a popcorn wagon that became a staple during summers on the Nicollet Mall, to lunch with movie star Cary Grant.*  And it wasn't just a spectator sport, of course - anyone could call up and bid on an item, and anyone who's attended a benefit featuring a silent auction knows that some of those items are pretty good.

*Grant, a member of the board of Faberge, was in St. Paul often for board meetings, and was apparently a big supporter of public broadcasting.

The best part of the auction was the final Saturday, which would start at 4pm and would end - well, whenever the last item had been sold.  In the year I'm thinking of, the year of the Southdale broadcast, that hour came at 6am on Sunday morning, and there was a wonderful shot on TV of the sun rising through the clear windows that lined the Garden Court.  Watching the auction was a lot like watching a telethon, and as midnight came and went, as 2am came and went, the on-air personalities would get loopier and loopier.  (The closest I've seen  to it was the 1987 Islanders-Capitals four-overtime playoff game, which ended around 1am and at one point featured announcers Mike Emrick and Bill Clement on camera with their neckties tied around their foreheads like headbands while Clement did impressions of John Wayne.)

There was something delightfully amateurish about Action Auction, and as KTCA became more professional and more polished, the auction started to lose its appeal.  Eventually it became a dry affair, more reminiscent of a pledge break than live anarchy; I don't remember when KTCA finally discontinued it, but it would be great if they brought it back one more time - in its goofy version, of course.

3 comments

  1. Cathy Lee Crosby is one of the reasons I collected so many "Battle of the Network Stars" competitions. She definitely had the rare combination of classy and sexy.

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    Replies
    1. Yes - I'm beginning to think that she was the reason I saved that issue...

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  2. Interesting, as I'm reading that issue myself this week. Not sure if you caught this or not, but near the end of the CLC article, she mentions turning 32 at the end of the year (1981) - I usually like to follow up after reading and turns out (according to Wikipedia at least) she was actually turning 37 at the end of 1981. But, surprising still as she didn't do much after That's Incredible, but I also enjoyed her work on Battle of the Network Stars. She looked great for being 32, and even better for 37. Not sure if those in the entertainment business can really get away with the age-subtracting like they did back then, given the Internets and stuff...

    Also, in reading the Mare Winningham piece, prompted me to try and find her Gong Show appearance on youtube, where, in fact, there it was. She was good, really good. A lovely rendition of "Here, There & Everywhere" on acoustic guitar, worth checking out.

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And now for something completely different.