December 27, 2014

This week in TV Guide: December 27, 1969

The images on the cover only begin to tell the story of the end to one of the most tumultuous decades in American history, and the finale to one of the most remarkable years of that decade.  A man whose political career was left for dead is sworn in as president, a children's fairy tale comes true on live television, and the World Series is won by a team that didn't even exist at the start of the decade - that, and more, is what 1969 is all about.

***

I remember the end of the '60s, primarily because there was something about the idea of the '70s that just didn't feel right.  Perhaps it was because the '60s were the only years I'd ever known, or maybe it was because the '70s formally stylized the graphic elements that had taken root in the later '60s.  It could, I suppose, even be due to the shape of the numbers, the roundness of the 6 that was missing in the angular lines of the 7.  Whatever the reason, I never really did get used to the '70s, and even to this day there's a superficiality about it that I don't particularly feel in the '60s and the '80s.  TV Guide also changes its primary font for the programming listings, which I suspect they hope will give it a less cluttered, more modern and streamlined look.  To me it seems, I don't know, too minimal, insubstantial.  Never liked the look of it then, don't like it today.

Be that as it may, the end of the decade is a time for looking back, and CBS does that through Walter Cronkite's one-hour interview with former President Lyndon B. Johnson on Saturday night, the second of several occasional specials.  In this installment, LBJ discusses his decision not to run for reelection, and the factors that went into the decision.  Other programs offer a look back at the news of the past year (KSTP, Sunday afternoon) and a look ahead to what 1970 may bring (NBC, earlier Sunday afternoon).

TV Guide's look back at 1969 is filled with some stunning pictures, from Joe Namath leading the New York Jets to their shock Super Bowl victory over the Baltimore Colts to Richard Nixon being sworn in as 37th President.  There are the pictures of coverage of the death and funeral of Dwight Eisenhower, the formal investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales (a title he still holds, and I wonder how many people watching that broadcast could have predicted that), and mass protests over civil rights and the Vietnam War.  There's Ted Kennedy attempting to explain Chappaquiddick, the Miracle Mets winning the World Series over the Baltimore Orioles*, the debut of Sesame Street on NET, the end of the Smothers Brothers show on CBS, and Vice President Agnew's blistering attack on network news commentaries, carried by all three networks.  And, most remarkably, there's the picture of Neil Armstrong putting the first footprint on the moon.  Quite a year, wouldn't you say?

*Meaning that New York defeated Baltimore in both the World Series and the Super Bowl.

The closing weeks of December also brought forth retrospectives on everything from the decade in sports (ABC's Wide World of Sports, Saturday afternoon) to the big, fat mess that was the '60s.  I remember seeing pictures of the dead in Vietnam, the three astronauts killed in the fire on Apollo 1, the deaths of the two Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Woodstock, the riots in Watts and Chicago, the drug culture, - well, you name it.  I suppose the whole of the '60s could be summed up in Dickens' phrase about it being the best of times, the worst of times.  It was the first decade that TV had really covered from start to finish; sure, TV was around in 1950, but neither its capabilities nor its penetration were anything like what they were by 1969.  The decade was there, for us to see, in living black and white as well as color.  Every nuance, every victory and defeat, every triumph and tragedy, and some that we didn't find out about for years to come.  It was all there, in our living rooms, every day.  An incredible year to bring to the end an incredible decade.

As I've said - remarkable.

***

It's also the end of college football's centennial year, and this week everything come to a head in Dallas, as the top-ranked Texas Longhorns take their undefeated record to the Cotton Bowl, where they'll play the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, making their first bowl appearance in over 40 years.  In the increasingly competitive atmosphere of the college game, Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian has convinced the school that the Irish will no longer be able to compete for national championships if they don't abandon their long-standing no-bowl policy,* and the result is this dream matchup, one that doesn't disappoint.  Notre Dame, trying to spring the upset, leads late in the game but can't hold off the Longhorns; a fourth-down pass from James Street to Cotton Speyrer with barely two minutes to play gives Texas a 21-17 victory and the national championship.  A sign of the times: this Texas team is the last all-white squad to win the national title.

*Mostly because of the AP's recent decision to base their final poll after the bowl games, rather than at the end of the regular season. 



Fear not, though.  Just because the champion has been determined doesn't mean there aren't still some good football games out there.  For example, on Saturday it's the Gator Bowl from Jacksonville on NBC, followed by the East-West Shrine Game in Palo Alto, California.  Then, we have the second-ever Peach Bowl, a syndicated broadcast Tuesday night on Channel 11, and the following night the same channel carries the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl* from Houston.  And on New Year's Day itself, in addition to the Cotton Bowl on CBS, it's the Sugar Bowl on ABC (moving over from NBC) and the Rose and Orange Bowls on NBC.  Not all of these games were meaningful; everyone knew that if Texas won the Cotton Bowl, the national title would be settled.  Nonetheless, they were fun to watch - more fun, quite possibly, than what we have today.

*One of the more cumbersome bowl game titles of the day; it was the plain Bluebonnet Bowl before and after the years it was played in the Astrodome.

There's pro football, as well.  Saturday the Minnesota Vikings take on the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL's Western Conference Playoff, and on Sunday it's the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns to settle the Eastern Conference title.  Both of these games are on CBS.  The AFL is off this week, after its opening round of playoffs last weekend.  Next week the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs will meet in the 10th and final AFL Championship.  The Chiefs will win, advancing to the Super Bowl the following week, where they'll defeat the Vikings in the last NFL-AFL matchup, marking the end of a great era in professional football.

***

And, of course, what would New Year's Day be without parades?  What's that, you say?  Isn't the Rose Parade the only show in town on New Year's?  It may seem that way now, but back in the day, there were televised parades everywhere.  They start on New Year's Eve, with NBC's live broadcast of the King Orange Jamboree in Miami, hosted by Lorne Greene and Anita Bryant.  Then, on the big day, CBS covers the Cotton Bowl Parade from Dallas, with Jack Linkletter (Art's son) and former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur, while ABC covers the Sugar Bowl Parade from New Orleans, with Chris Schenkel and Karen Valentine.  When the granddaddy of parades begins, it's broadcast on two networks, with Bob Barker and June Lockhart covering the action on CBS, and Raymond Burr and Betty White hosting on NBC.  As you may have noticed, with the exception of CBS' Rose Parade coverage each parade is broadcast on the network that also carries the corresponding football game.

***

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..

Palace: Hosts George Gobel and Vikki Carr welcome the Edwin Hawkins Singers, comedian Pat Cooper, Algerian singer Enrico Macias and the Mecners, Polish acrobats.

Sullivan: Guests Robert Merrill and Roberta Peters of the Metropolitan Opera; Joan Rivers; singers Jerry Vale, Thelma Houston and Dana Valery; the Music Hall of Israel; comic Charlie Manna; Your Father's Mustache, Dixieland band.

If I were trying to keep things short this week, I'd just say Sullivan and leave it at that, because this is one of the easiest choices I've ever had to make.  I wondered at first why the Palace had co-hosts, until I looked at the rest of the lineup and found out that Pat Cooper was the only other act I'd ever heard of.  On the other hand, Ed has a big-name lineup to wind down the year, and that has nothing to do with my bias toward opera - Merrill and Peters were two of the biggest American stars in opera, no strangers to either Sullivan's show* or television variety shows in general, Jerry Vale and Thelma Houston were very popular singers, and Joan Rivers was in the process of becoming a big star.  I rest my case.  But don't worry, Palace - there will be better days ahead.

*Peters, who made her Met debut when she was only 20, was in fact the most frequent guest on the Sullivan show.


***

I don't know if you'd call this a Golden Age of variety shows, but besides Sullivan and the Palace there are a lot of others still on - more than you might remember, hosted by some very familiar faces.

Andy Williams - and Christmas just isn't the same without him - is on NBC Saturday night, with Johnny Cash, Jonathan Winters, the First Edition, and Claudine Longet (who never did get to be a big enough star that she escaped being identified as "Mrs. Andy Williams"). Following Ed on CBS Sunday night, it's The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour (the replacement for the Smothers Brothers), this week a rerun featuring singers Tom Jones and Jackie DeShannon, and comedienne Totie Fields.  Of course Tom has his own variety show on ABC Thursday night, appropriately titled This Is Tom Jones, this week with Victor Borge, British comic actor Harry Secombe, and singer-dancer Paula Kelly.  You can catch Tom right after Jim Nabors' show on CBS; Jim's guest is comedian Jerry Van Dyke.  Hee Haw is continuing to bring in big ratings for CBS (unfortunately, in the wrong demographic), and Wednesday night's show has Hank Williams Jr. and Dotty West.  And, of course, we can't forget Monday night, where NBC has Laugh-In with guest Nancy Sinatra and new regular Lily Tomlin (!), and Carol Burnett on CBS, with Donald O'Connor and Nancy Wilson.  Preempted this week (by a prime-time NBA game) is ABC's Jimmy Durante Presents the Lennon Sisters, which sounds as unlikely as it was; the show is off the air by next July.  There's a very nice article about Durante in this week's issue, though; I swear that you never read or hear anything bad about Durante, who can steal any scene he appears in.

***

There's one very big debut this week, and it comes in the late-night area with the premiere of Dick Cavett's new talk show, replacing Joey Bishop on ABC.  Actually, it isn't really a new show; Cavett's been on the network for awhile now, starting with a morning show in 1968, and then moving to prime time earlier in 1969, before being recruited for the time slot opposite Johnny Carson on NBC and Merv Griffin on CBS.

The Close-Up accompanying the premiere describes Cavett's forte as "an articulate way with an interview, plus approaches to comedy that range from youthful innocence to the cynicism of a W.C. Fields."  ABC's publicity machine rolls out a clever ad campaign for "The 1970 Cavett," reminiscent of the car ads that flood the airwaves at the new year.  Of all the Carson competitors over the years, Dick Cavett is, in some ways at least, the most successful.  Despite middling ratings, the show hangs on in a weekly timeslot for three years before moving to an irregular schedule in 1973, and Cavett maintains a presence on television for many years thereafter.

I always had mixed feelings about Cavett; on the one hand, I felt he talked too much about himself, occasionally making his guests play second fiddle to his own commentary.  That's not a unique criticism against Cavett, and it's been satirized often.  It's balanced, however, by the literate nature of his program, and his willingness to engage guests in actual conversation, instead of simply setting them up for one punch line after another.  A few years ago TCM ran a series of Cavett's single-guest programs, many of which are out on DVD.  Watching Cavett go 90 minutes with a guest like Robert Mitchum or Alfred Hitchcock was fascinating, the epitome - at least to me - of what sophisticated late-night television ought to be about, as opposed to the chucklefests we get today.  I supposed you could say the same thing about Charlie Rose, but I've always viewed him as someone to watch while you're trying to go to sleep, whereas Cavett is someone you want to stay awake to watch.

8 comments:

  1. Ah, the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl, the highlight of New Year's Eve for a kid shuttled off to Grandma's house on New Year's Eve so Mom and Dad can go out with friends. On December 31, 1969, I sat in my grandpa's rocking chair as midnight approached, and watched the last 10 seconds of the old year go by on the electric clock he kept on the end table. (I have the clock today.)

    My perspective on the 70s is different from yours. Most of what I know about the 60s I can't personally remember, although a few things stick in shadowy memories. I went from age 10 to age 20 in the 70s with all that implies for how one looks at the world ever after one's growing-up years. So for me, it's the 80s that seem like a pale imitation of how the world is supposed to be.

    Great post as usual. Happy new year to you and yours.

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    1. Thanks, jb, same to you! I think you're right about our perspectives on things. It's kind of like the Austin Powers movies; whichever one you saw first you're most likely to think was the funniest.

      Glad to see someone else remembers the Astro-Bluebonnet. Always one of my favorites; I can't imagine why the Texas Bowl doesn't use the old Bluebonnet name, unless it costs too much for them to obtain the rights.

      Glad you still have that clock - talk about memories!

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  2. I was a wee lad when Dick Cavett was in his heyday on ABC late night. Back then, I could easily tell you who Captain Kangaroo and Clancy & Willie were. My first recollection of him was on his weekly PBS interview program that ran from 1977-82. Only 30 minutes in length, but it had no breaks and a similar format where it was one guest only. I wonder why PBS never took advantage of his name and popularity and didn't give him either a 60 minute weekly program or put him on late night? The year he went off the air, PBS offered up a late night program to its stations, PBS Late Night with Dennis Wholey. I watched a few episodes of it on KTCA after the Britcoms they aired.....not a watchable show at all. I got to know Cavett best from his books and then from his TCM series with his unedited and extended interviews which you mentioned. Absolutely fantastic stuff! YouTube is the place I turn to watch the uploaded interviews with my 2 absolute favorite programs being the ones that feature Bette Davis and Bob Hope as solo guests.

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    1. I remember that late night show on PBS as well - you're spot on with your opinion of it! I wonder if PBS would have used Cavett differently today than they did back then, seeing as how the landscape of their programming has changed so much. I think a late-night show would be a very interesting move. Those single-guest programs are great, aren't they?

      Ah, Clancy and Willie - next to Casey and Roundhouse, they were my favorites. Oh, and then there was Carmen the Nurse as well, the va-va-voom factor for a kid! Very nice woman!

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    2. Oh, if only she could've dropped by on those rare days when I was home from grade school with a fever and cough. I have heard from alot of people who were kids at public events where she was one of the attractions and everyone said she was just as nice and as genuine as you would hope she would be.....same goes for Joyce Lamont, who I DID get a few chances to talk with over the years at the MN State Fair. RIP, Joyce!

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    3. Joyce Lamont! Along with all the rest of them, such an essential part of giving 'CCO its identity back in the day. I really miss what that station used to be - I'll bet I could still pick it up even here in Dallas!

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    4. Yes, she passed away Sunday morning at the age of 98!

      There are so many people, myself included, here in Minnesota who bemoan what WCCO has become....my kindest word to describe the station is "garbage". I haven't tuned them in on a regular basis for anything since around the very early 1990's. I occasionally wander over to the station's website to see their schedule and who the on air personalities are and it's like a dead nerve. Uninspiring talent, uninspired programs, rigid format for news, traffic, weather, sports updates, etc...

      I really and honestly can't think of anyone who I didn't listen to and like....Viken, Boone & Erickson, Cannon, Lamont, Hobbs, etc... It's truly a time that has come and gone and which will never be again. Glad I was around for the tail end of that era in radio broadcasting.

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  3. The Decades channel is now airing episodes of Cavett's shows

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!