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.
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.
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.