July 31, 2014

Around the Dial

A variety of sources to spotlight the day - let's get started with this Awful Announcing interview with British soccer announcer Jon Champion.  I referenced this at the other blog today, but it's worth sharing here as well.  Money quote: "I was taught very early on that the picture is so powerful, you can’t hope to compete with it, all you can hope is to occasionally augment it, and add additional information and improve the overall viewing experience for the person at home watching the telecast."  From your lips to God's ears (and those of most American announcers), Jon.

Lassie is another of those shows that I watched when I was a kid, but don't have much time for today.  (Let's just ignore the autographed picture I have of Lassie and Corey.)  But Rick at Classic Film and TV Cafe has a very good interview with Jon Provost, who played Timmy, perhaps Lassie's most famous companion.  I really do love how accessible so many of these classic TV stars really are.

Joanna at Christmas TV History is continuing her month-long Christmas in July feature.  They're all great entries so it's hard to link to just one for this week (and mine was a couple of weeks ago), but I'll take Dominic Caruso's entry, not least because he cites one of my favorite movies (which I'm ashamed to admit I left off of my own list), The Man Who Came to Dinner.  If you haven't seen that movie, don't wait for Christmas - see it now!

Speaking of favorites, one of my favorite TV lines has to be from Rocky the Flying Squirrel; whenever he and Bullwinkle run into Boris and Natasha, Rocky invariably can be heard saying, "That face - where have I seen that face?"  Well, while you won't see Boris in this lineup, David at Comfort TV does provide us with this handy guide to the familiar faces that make up classic TV character actors.

I first became a fan of Doctor Who during our PBS station's run of the Tom Baker/Louise Jamison episodes, and one of the best-known of that era was "The Talons of Weng-Chiang."  It's a great period piece but, as Cult TV Blog points out, there was a lot of wasted potential to that story.  Agree, though, that Tom Baker is at his infuriating best.

One of the best of the Masterpiece Mysteries over the years has been David Suchet's definitive portrayal of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot.  Random Ramblings of a Broadway, Film & TV Fan reminds us that with the recent episode "The Big Four," we're now on the verge of what it seemed would never happen, all those years ago - the completion of the entire Poirot canon.

How Sweet it Was is sweet indeed this week, with a link to a piece on 10 classic TV shows and where to watch them.  I'm not surprised that The New York Times' Neil Genzlinger isn't a fan of them: (1) the Times is a day late and a dollar short on almost everything they cover anyway, and (2) the reasons he gives are the exact reasons why I don't read The New York Times.

Classic TV Sports is a site I always follow, since it covers two of my favorite things: television and sports.  This week Jeff borrows a page from my Saturday TV Guide reviews, as he takes a look at a 1980 issue of The Sporting News.  I used to be a subscriber to TSN, back in the day, and I know for a fact that I had this issue.  Sports was a lot more fun back then, at least in my eyes, and there were few publications better at covering it than The Sporting News.  Heck, I cancelled my subscription to Sports Illustrated to get it, and that with SI's swimsuit issue!

Finally, just a reminder that the It's About TV Facebook page is up!  Go there and follow, and as it evolves over the next few weeks, I'll be adding more exclusive content there, as well as asking for your ideas on future stories.

That's it for now - see you back here on Saturday!

July 29, 2014

We interrupt our regularly scheduled blogging...

I don’t often digress from TV-related matters on the blog – after all, there’s a reason why it’s called “It’s About TV!” instead of “It’s About Mitchell!” or “It’s About Everything!” or something like that.  But I’m going to make a small exception today, partly because I’ve wanted to and partly because I didn’t have anything else planned for today and I figured this might as well be the time.

From time to time I get emails from readers.  I’m immensely flattered by these – I think any writer feels that way when they realize someone’s actually reading what they write, and that they’ve chosen to make a personal contact that goes beyond simply commenting on a story I’ve written.

Now, if you’re one of those who’ve written me, you’ve probably noticed that sometimes it takes me a while to respond.  In fact, at times it takes long enough that you might be wondering (1) did my email go through?, or (2) what a jerk!  I take the time to write, and he doesn’t even reply!  While (1) is possible (although if it’s true, I’m afraid I can’t help out – after all, I didn’t get it), (2) is probably more likely – at least the jerk part.

The reason I bring this up now is this very good piece that Paul wrote over at Uniwatch* (page down a bit and you'll see it) on his experiences with a would-be editor who simply would not show him the common courtesy of replying to his communications, even to tell him that she was no longer interested in the story ideas.  My first reaction, as it was with many readers, was that the editor was showing an exceptional unprofessionalism.  Again, what a jerk!  But then, of course, the mirror turns, and I wonder how many people might have thought that about me?  Am I like that?  It’d like to think not, but still. . .

*One of the websites I mentioned in my recent Christmas in July contribution.

At times I can be notoriously slow in replying to emails.  I mean to, and then something comes up, and I forget about it for a bit, and when I find out I haven’t answered I’m mortified.  When I do reply, I almost always offer an apology and, when I can, an explanation for my tardiness.  Always, though, I make sure to point out that an explanation is not an excuse, and it’s entirely my fault for not having gotten back more quickly.  Someone who takes the time and effort to contact me (often with some very interesting information) deserves better than to be ignored for too long a time.

When I’ve become conscious about my deficiencies, I’ve tried to do better, and I’ll go through spells where I reply to emails within an hour or so of having checked my inbox.  Then, of course, my vigilance starts to flag a bit, and – well, we’re right back to where this starts.

So, consider this a blanket apology to any of you who’ve found yourself on the receiving end of my inactions.  I do sincerely appreciate it whenever you email me or leave a comment on a story I’ve done.  I don’t reply to every comment – sometimes there’s nothing more to add – but I do try and read them all.  And while I might not answer my emails quickly enough, I read those as well, and appreciate them.  If you’ve had a bad thought for me in the past, I don’t blame you, but I ask your forgiveness and indulgence and hope that it hasn’t kept you from reading the blog and enjoying the content, and if you’re so inclined I hope that you’ll continue to comment and to write me.

Around the end of August I’ll be offline for a week.  There are other times when I’ll be working on writing interests outside of the blog (I do have them, although for the most part they’ve yet to see the public light of day).  I’ve prepared material in advance to cover these times, so it’s probably that most of you won’t even notice when I’m not live.  But during those times my response time will be even slower than usual.  Call this a preemptive explanation if you will.

But for now, as this blog moves through its fourth year, I want to express once again my appreciation to those of you who take time out to read what I’ve written, as well as my fellow bloggers who’ve linked to this site.  (And yes, I’m still dumb enough that I can’t always tell when that’s happened, so if you’re waiting for an acknowledgement you might try an email letting me know, so I can properly ignore you instead.)

Anyway, thanks for your long-term indulgence.  We now return to regular programming.

July 26, 2014

This week in TV Guide: July 23, 1966

There are times, as you’re probably aware, when it’s particularly challenging finding interesting material from the summer issues of TV Guide.  Most programs are either reruns (some of which we’ve already covered here) or summer replacements, and the news isn’t always particularly noteworthy.  It’s as if everyone’s just marking time until the start of the new season in September.  As a matter of fact, the first issue I selected for this week’s coverage was so inconsequential I wound up throwing it back in the pile, replacing it with the one you’re about to discover for yourselves.  Thankfully, this issue has more than enough to interest the cultural archaeologist - so much that I can't even get around to cover boy Stephen Brooks, co-star of one of my favorite series, The FBI.  So let’s get right to it.

***

Since the death of Dorothy Kilgallen the previous November, the What’s My Line? crew from Goodson-Todman has been engaged in “The Great Woman Hunt,” a furious search for a permanent replacement for Kilgallen, who had been with the show since its inception in 1950.  So far the seat has remained in the possession of a rotating cast of guest stars – everyone from Kitty Carlisle (a stalwart of Goodson-Todman’s To Tell the Truth) to Dr. Joyce Brothers, with magazine publisher Helen Gurley Brown, TV Guide critic Judith Crist, columnist Sheilah Graham, and actresses Joanna Barnes, Joan Fontaine and Dina Merrill thrown in.  Even Muriel Davidson, the author of this article, has been considered for the list.  It’s a tough gig, though, coming into a long-running show with a veteran cast – as host John Daly puts it, “If she doesn’t fit into our family, we’ll just freeze her out.”

At press time there are three clear contenders for the seat.  There’s Phyllis Newman, another veteran of To Tell the Truth, married to legendary Broadway composer Adolph Green; charming, bubbly and very girlish (and I mean that as a compliment), always having to tilt her head upward slightly during the Mystery Guest segment so her mask wouldn’t fall off.  Sue Oakland is a surprise finalist; married to TV producer Ted Cott (David Susskind’s cousin), she’s got both beauty and brains: “Besides being breath-takingly beautiful and gowned, she is a near-genius, with a Master’s degree in political science from Columbia University and with one lovely leg up on a Ph.D.*

*Her Master’s was in the inside workings of the United Nations; her Doctoral dissertation was “The Function of Television on the Presidential Election Campaign of 1968.

And then there’s society columnist Suzy Knickerbocker, whose nameplate will eventually simply read “Suzy” rather than the letter-crunching “Miss Knickerbocker.”  Her real name is Aileen Mehle, and passing mention in the article is made of her having a 22-year-old son.  That son, Roger, is an Annapolis graduate and naval officer, and on the Christmas episode of WML, on which his mother is a panelist, he appears as the Mystery Guest.


The tongue-in-cheek question remains: “Can a girl be found who can win the hearts of a great, established family, still grieving the loss of one of its most beloved members? . . . Or will her struggle for acceptance bring about the destruction of the entire, proud, 16-year dynasty?”  In the end, despite the producers’ vows, none of the ladies above – or anyone else, for that matter – wind up filling Dorothy’s seat.  WML is starting to show its age, “developing creaks of the Nielsen in its venerable beams,” and it will leave the air in September 1967, with a run of 17 ½ seasons – at the time the fourth-longest-running non-news series of all time, trailing only The Ed Sullivan Show, The Original Amateur Hour and Lamp Unto My Feet.  Whether the right fit was never found, or time just wound up running out, that fourth seat on the panel will continue to be filled with rotating female guests until the very end.*

*Or almost the very end; the final show features a panel of Arlene Francis, long-time guest Martin Gabel (Arlene’s husband), former regular Steve Allen, and Bennett Cerf.  Host John Daly himself plays the Mystery Guest.
***

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: Host Bing Crosby and son Gary, comedian Henny Youngman; singer Rosemary Clooney; Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, dancer-choreographer Hugh Lambert, comedy xylophonist Roger Ray, and the Band of the Fiji Military Forces.

Sullivan:  Satirist Allan Sherman; the Supremes and the Dave Clark Five, rock ‘n’ roll groups; Richard Kiley and Joan Diener, appearing in a scene from “Man of La Mancha”; actor Menasha Skulnik; golf champion Ken Venturi; comics Stiller and Meara; and juggler Ugo Garrido.

“Those are both pretty good,” my wife said when I read this week’s lineups to her.  “I think you have to give a very slight edge to the Palace.  They’ve got Bing Crosby, even with that talentless Gary, and besides, it seems like the Supremes were on with Sullivan every other week.”  Hard to argue with that, not if you want to have a successful marriage.  Besides, with Bing and Rosie you’ve got a White Christmas reunion, and Bergen and Charlie are always funny.  Maybe if it had been the Stones instead of the Supremes – but, alas, we’ll never know.  The winner: Palace, by the slimmest of bouffant hairdos.

***

This week’s lead story is written by British humorist and critic Malcolm Muggeridge, the latest in a succession of distinguished writers that TV Guide employed through the ‘60s and ‘70s in an effort to raise the intellectual image of the magazine.  Muggeridge, a leading journalist, social critic and television personality in Britain, is a remarkable individual – a soldier and spy during World War II, a left-winger who eventually because staunchly anti-Communist, an editor with Punch magazine, an interviewer with the BBC, a stinging satirist who became a harsh critic of ’60s permissiveness, eventually converted to Christianity, and was widely credited with bringing Mother Teresa to popular consciousness in the West.  Incredible.

In this issue, many of his talents are on display.  He freely acknowledges the influence  of television – “what [children] see on it more than anything else, governs their present hopes and future aspirations,” and that the medium has become a major shaper of opinion:  “If Nixon had been better made up, without that devastating afternoon-shadow, for his encounters with the late President Kennedy, it is perhaps he who would have gone to the White House.”

He acknowledges that television is often of dubious artistic merit (“The old music hall, as I remember it in my childhood, was, by comparison, a feast of reason and a flow of wit.”), and that the quality “declines visibly year by year.”  However, he also cautions against throwing the baby out with the bath water, as it were:

Let it be remembered, however, that, on the same line of reasoning, the invention of printing might be as summarily dismissed.  After all, far more type is dedicated to Peyton Place and Playboy magazine than to “Paradise Lost” or “La Recherche du Temps Perdu.” . . . How tragic if, because men could be debauched by “Fanny Hill” and the works of the Marquis de Sade, they had been deprived of the solace of the New Testament and Shakespeare’s plays, which also come to them largely through the printed word!

To critics who charge that television numbs the mind and turns people into what we today would call “couch potatoes,” Muggeridge replies, “Nor is it true that, before television, those who now spend their evenings viewing sat at home doing embroidery or listening to ‘The Mill on the Floss’ read aloud.  They were much more likely to be out at the pub studying tomorrow’s racing lineup or swapping dirty stories.”  He adds that television may indeed be “a “cultural wasteland, but what about what they replaced?  Was that a well-tended garden?”

The fact is, according to Muggeridge, there has been little serious art produced in any media – there has been far more “wealth, talent, skills and endeavor” spent in the last half-century of cinema than produced the Italian Resaissance, but the yield in terms of “enduring worth and interest” is “virtually nil.”  Garbo, the Marx Brothers, Chaplin – “these are not the equivalent of even a minor work or art.”  A bit harsh perhaps, but not without merit.  Rather than being constantly disappointed by television’s output, he suggests lowering expectations – “We do not expect tabloid newspapers to serialize Kierkegaard, or women’s magazines to run extracts from Thomas a Kempis. . . Why, then, should television be expected to manifest its seriousness and concern for culture by every now and again putting on a half-fisted production of “King Lear” or mounting a boring lecture on the French Impressionists?”  Far better that TV concentrate on what it does best – news, sports, comedy, soap operas.*

*He had some definite thoughts on those who appeared on television as well, as was shown in a memorable confrontation with Monty Python's John Cleese and Michael Palin on a BBC show in 1979.  Maybe we'll talk about that someday.

This is Muggeridge as he came to be known in the late ’60s and ‘70s – an acerbic wit who nonetheless could not disguise an increasing seriousness creeping into his works.  And it’s in that spirit that he leaves us with this optimistic note: for as many times that people have stopped him and mentioned how they’ve seen him on television, “not one has ever so much as mentioned, let alone quoted, anything I have said.”  If that same “blissful ignorance” applies to all who air their views on the tube, “how splendid!”

***

I’ve mentioned before how many movies networks and local stations used to run.  Today we mostly see made-for-TV flicks on broadcast stations, with theatrical features are relegated to specialty networks or pay cable, but they were all over the dial back in the ‘60s.  I don’t think, however, we’ve ever spent a lot of time on the kinds of movies being shown – let’s take a quick look, shall we?  Remember, this is just a sample.

WCCO, Channel 4, has a double-feature on Saturday afternoon (since they have no network sports).  At 1pm it’s Souls for Sale, which sounds for all the world like one of those American International films*, with Vincent Price starring in the story, based on Thomas De Quincey’s “Confessions of an Opium Eater”, of a man arriving in San Francisco “determined to help an old friend fight the slave trade.”  That’s followed at 2:30pm by Curse of the Demon, in which “A girl believes her uncle has been murdered by supernatural means for defying a devil cult.”  Dana Andrews, what on earth are you doing in this movie?

*Just checked, and surprise! It’s not.  According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, it was produced and directed by Albert Zugsmith, who as a producer put out three classics of their kind: The Incredible Shrinking Man, Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, and Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind.

NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies has the Kirk Douglas classic Ace in the Hole, which is airing under its alternate title, The Big Carnival.  On Saturday night, Channel 4 is back with Magnificent Obsession, starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, while KCMT, Channel 7 has The Mummy’s Curse, with Lon Chaney.

Late night Sunday, WTCN, Channel 11, has a Hitchcock thriller, Shadow of a Doubt, with Joseph Cotton and Teresa Wright.   On Monday it’s the Cary Grant/Franchot Tone comedy Every Girl Should Be Married on WEAU, Channel 13, coupled with Burt Lancaster’s adventurous The Crimson Pirate on WDAL, Channel 3.  Tuesday it’s a choice between Loretta Young’s Mother Was a Freshman on KGLO or the WW2 drama Decision Before Dawn, with Richard Basehart heading a large cast, on Channel 9.

Wednesday I’d choose the noir classic The Big Heat on Channel 11, with Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin, in “the story of a policeman who resigns from the force to find the murderers of his wife.”  I’m betting on Ford as the former cop and Marvin as one of the killers.

Thursday night CBS has a so-so adaptation of the Broadway hit Mary Mary, which sounds right out of the ‘50s: “The hectic life of recently divorced publisher Bob Kellaway, who has problems with alimony, taxes, the wealthy girl he wants to marry – and his ex-wife.”  Where are Rock Hudson and Doris Day when you need them?  Probably better to opt for KMSP, Channel 9, and their late-night feature This Woman Is Dangerous, starring Joan Crawford (who is), or another Glenn Ford movie, Plunder of the Sun, on WDAL, Channel 3.

On Friday afternoon Channel 11 has what sounds like an interesting speculative sci-fi picture, The Creeping Unknown, with Brian Donlevy and Jack Warner.  “A new rocket is sent hurtling into space with three men on board.  When it crash lands in England, there is only one man left on board.”  That night Channel 11 is back with another Hitchcock mystery, Saboteur, with Bob Cummings as a man trying to clear himself of starting a fire in a military aircraft plant.  And Channel 4 winds down the broadcast week with Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, which stars Sidney Toler and Cesar Romero – but, alas, no Captain Hook.

***

Quick sports note – the bulk of the week is taken up with baseball (Tigers vs. Indians on NBC’s Saturday Game of the Week, and Twins games against Boston, New York and Baltimore), but the biggest event of the week is in golf - the PGA Championship, from the famed Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.  It’s an early appearance for golf’s final major championship of the year, which is usually played in August.  It’s also an unplanned location for the tourney – originally it was supposed to take place at Columbine Country Club in Columbine, Colorado*, but severe storms in 1965 had damaged the course, forcing the PGA to swap sites – Firestone had been scheduled to host in 1967, but traded with Columbine.  After 54 year old Sam Snead had turned back the clock by leading the first two rounds, the young Al Geiberger comes on during the weekend to finish at even par, good enough for a four-shot win over Dudley Wysong.

*Yes, that Columbine.

A footnote: that night, a few hours after the tournament, former British Open champion Tony Lema and his wife are among those killed in the crash of a small plane flying Lema to Illinois to compete in a Monday event.  The 32-year-old “Champagne Tony,” one of the best and most charismatic players on tour, had finished 34th in what turned out to be his last tournament.  Had he not died, I think a lot more people would know who he is today.

***

Ah, this is the kind of thing I always appreciate finding – a 1966 CBC documentary hosted by – Alex Trebek!  Yes, the same Alex Trebek who’s hosted Jeopardy since who-knows-when!  And what makes this even better is that the original Jeopardy, with host Art Fleming, is still on NBC’s daytime schedule!  Who could possibly have looked at this issue and thought to themselves that nearly 50 years later Jeopardy would still be on, and it would have been hosted for over three decades by this obscure Canadian appearing on a CBC documentary being broadcast by NET?

The show itself is, I think, striking – a look at “The Cultural Explosion” of the 1960s.  “More people go to concerts, museums and theaters than ever before – but are we on the threshold of a new Renaissance?”  What, exactly, does this tell us about today?  It’s very intriguing – after all, we hear constantly about how the arts must appeal to young people, who are increasingly turned off by the arts, and yet when it comes to the ‘60s, we tend to assume that the young dominated the tenor of the decade.

So: were older people driving this cultural boom?  If so, why?  Was it merely a measure of the post-war disposable income that drove the growth of the consumer society of the ‘50s?  Or did they have more influence over popular culture than we might think?

Their offspring, who today represent the demographic most interested in culture (i.e. grey-haired) must have had some of that rub off on them.  If so, why haven’t they been able to do the same thing with their descendants?  We know that schools played a greater role in art and music back then than they do now – is that the difference?  Were they already interested in culture in the ‘60s as well, or did that interest come to them later in life?

If the latter is the case, does it suggest that today’s youth, for whom culture is dead, might yet come around when they get older?  Or is it that things have changed so dramatically over the last 50 years that they must be reached earlier, or be lost forever?

Obviously you could write a whole book about this – and yet, when those of us with an interest in the arts read daily about the difficulties faced by classical music organizations, theaters, museums, and more, there’s something depressing about this program, so full of optimism for the future, talking about a culture “explosion” and the possibility of a new age.  Who would have imagined that the arts would survive the tumultuous ‘60s, only to run aground on the shoals of the new millennium?

***

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July 24, 2014

The lion that squeaks

I featured this piece at the other blog last week for Throwback Thursday, but it occurs to me that it has enough to do with television that we ought to take a look at it here as well.  After all, it did come from the pages of TV Guide at a time when that magazine wasn't afraid to assume that its readers could actually think and digest complex pieces.  It also makes a nice companion to an article written by Malcolm Muggeridge that you'll (hopefully) be reading on this Saturday's TV Guide review.

I realize that there's somewhat more socio-political content here than usual but that seems appropriate as well, given that my point with this blog has always been to highlight the relationship between classic television and American culture.  Reading this article, and interpreting it in the light of contemporary times, has a lot to do with understanding that relationship, and how television both reflects and shapes the times.  Most of the television commentary itself comes near the end, but the setup is important.

The strange thing about it, as you may notice, is that when I originally wrote this almost ten years ago (long before It's About TV was a gleam in anyone's eye), I was struck by how prescient it was to those times, given that it had been written back in 1965.  Looking over it again today, I find that not only have things not changed much since 1965, they haven't changed much since 2005 either.  Just as Arnold Toynbee's article could have been written then, my commentary could have been written yesterday.  Anyway, here goes.

***

I'm going to start you out with some quotes from an article I admire, and then we'll discuss it.
One cause of present-day childishness in grown-up people is the change in the character of the work by which an ever-increasing proportion of the world's population has come to be earning its living since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The mechanization of the world's work has been lightening mankind's physical labor, but this at the price of imposing on the factory worker a psychological curse from which the pre-industrial farmer was free. This curse is the curse of boredom.
Now, the farmer works from dawn to dusk. His life is not dull. Everything - everything - on the farm requires his attention. On the other hand, the factory worker tends not fields nor animals, but machines. "The factory worker's relation to the machinery is impersonal."
If the wheels are to be made to pay, they must be kept turning 24 hours in the day, so the machine-tender works on a shift; the machine is not his own, in the sense in which the farmer's cow and crop are his.

Understandably, this can lead to a dull life for the factory worker. "He may come out physically fresh; but he is likely to find himself phychologically jaded. What he craves for, in his off-time, is recreation; and of course, he is tempted to choose the kind of recreation that makes the lowest spiritual demand on him.
But this isn't an experience limited to those who work in manufacturing:
The middle-class office worker is also making the same choise, without having the same excuse. In his case, perhaps, the cause is not so much boredom as it is anxiety. His higher education has made him more acutely aware of problems - political, social, moral, and spiritual - that are baffling him. His flight from these cares to soap-box opera is a case of escapism.
Moreover, the incentives to seek frivolous distractions are growning in strength. The problems that create anxiety become more menacing, and daily work becomes more boring as automation's pace accelerates.
Interesting, isn't it? At least I think so. And you're probably wondering what kind of textbook or philosophical tome it comes from.

Arnold Toynbee
Well, in fact, it comes from December 4, 1965 issue of TV Guide (with the lissome Juilet Prowse on the cover), in an article entitled "The Lion That Squeaks" by the famed British historian Arnold J. Toynbee. Now, we could discuss at length what this says about TV Guide, that it could go from such in-depth and distinguished writing by a noted historian, to the pap that it now produces. But we've covered that ground before. What I find fascinating is what Toynbee has to say, and what it says to our own times. The lion in Toynbee's article is television, and his speculation is why TV has failed to fulfill its potential. Keep in mind that this article was written almost fifty years ago.

The scene that Toynbee describes is eerily our own. Writing in the '60s, when manufacturing still made up a large part of our economy, Toynbee focuses on the dreariness of factory work and what it does to an individual's spiritual makeup. However, in the paragraph I just excerpted, Toynbee turns his focus to the office worker, and here he describes our service-driven economy to a T.
Working hours are continually becoming shorter and leisure hours correspondingly longer; and here we have a second caues of the public's present choice of forms of recreation that are frivolous and childish.
Toynbee might have been amused to find that although technology has made it possible for us to do more work in less time, we seem to be reacting by working longer and longer hours, in an effort to afford more of the material goods that define our lives, even as in doing so we sacrifice the time available to make use of those toys. But he saw the results coming; oh, yes he did: "The misspending of leisure, even on comparatively innocent frivoloties, will lead to social, cultural and moral regression if it continues unchecked."

Isn't this what we're seeing this very minute? In a past post on TV Guide I cited a publishing expert who looked at the tastes of post-9/11 readers: "Everyone thought that after 9/11, people were going to focus on what really matters, get their priorities straightened out . . . [b]ut I think more than anything people have sought escape at a higher level." In a Strib article on the resurgence of horror shows on TV this season, an anylist followed the same reasoning:
"I think people expected that after 9/11, people were going to want light comedies," said Stuart Gordon, director of "Re-Animator" and the series' installment next week. "But there's so much tension in the world, and people need a chance to get it out of their systems."
It might be well at this point to remember that the great sci-fi movies of the 50s were often seen as cold-war metaphors, the paranoia reflecting our concern with Communism, nuclear war, and the end of the world. And so it's not surprising that we'd turn to horror and celebrity gossip - when we don't believe in anything, when we see no hope for anything other than the world in which we live now; and we see that world seemingly spiraling out of control, then why not turn to more and more destructive ways of living? Even if it's only vicariously, through watching the imploding lives of celebrities or the latest apocalyptical horror story. We're not only escaping responsibility, we're trying to close our hands over our ears and shut the whole thing out. We just don't want to think about it.

Toynbee describes a very Chestertonian-like outlook on economic issues and their relationship to the spiritual lives of people; the need for ownership of work, the essential goodness of physical labor, the dangers of becoming a "wage slave," with no personal stake in the work being performed. He's absolutely right when he talks about the inevitable effects: a rise in anxiety, laziness, moral slackness, an urge for the frivolous. He has looked at today's world through Chesterton's eyes, and seen what the great man predicted.

So what happens next? Toynbee's article concluded with a prescription for what was needed, but doubt that it would happen. First, people need to expect more from television:
How far does this depend on him, and how far does it depend on the policy of the commercial organization that purveys to him those silly programs to which the viewer is now giving an appallingly high proportion of his viewing time?
Networks have to be responsible to viewers, and since they're all businessmen they have to give the viewer what he wants. They can't afford to get too far ahead of the curve, for then it may appear they're trying to force-feed the viewer, who will turn away, leaving the network and its sponsors in a financial dilemma. But, as Barnum (I think) pointed out, nobody ever went broke by understimating what the people will accept:
The purveyor [executives and sponsors responsible for what's on TV] therefore allows himself a margin of safety. He sets the level of his wars below the average level of demand, not above it, and this poor-spirited policy gives him greater freedom of play; for his researches tell him that he can depress the level of his wares at least 12 inches below the average level of demand before his low-brow customers will give up television in disgust because they are finding it too banal to please even them.
Yes, TV needed to become more educational, at least in the sense of feeding the viewer's intellect rather than acting as junk food.
But will just educating the head be enough? The head cannot run far in advance of the heart; and, for bringing about a change of heart, something more than an improvement in formal education is required. A spiritual revolution is needed; and here, I think, we are touching the heart of the matter. We are putting our finger on what is wrong, not just with present-day television, but with present-day Western life.
[...]
In our time, we have lost the lofty vision and the serious purpose with which our forefathers used to be inspired by their ancestral religions. This inspiration has now been lost by many people who still attend church and temple and mosque. How is this vital inspiration to be regained? The future of television, and of everything else, will depend on our answer.
Toynbee was right forty years ago; he's even more right today. And while he's talking about TV in the article, he could be discussing all the institutions of our society: government, business, church. The mood he saw in the waning days of 1965 came to flower in a generation that seemed to reject everything: faith, morals, authority, responsibility, convention. They talked of peace, often in the most violent ways possible. The damage caused by the 60s and 70s can't be overestimated; we now see what happens when our major institutions are run by the generation that ceased to believe. And today's culture is being written by their offspring, children of the children who never grew up.

Toynbee saw the warning signs, and they came to pass. We are poorer because of it. And we must now ask, as we see the signs flare up again: what will they produce this time?

Originally published October 31, 2005

July 21, 2014

James Garner, R.I.P.

About James Garner, who died over the weekend, plenty of thoughts:

      1.  Terry Teachout put it so well in his obituary this morning, that Garner had died at “the magnificent age of 86.”  I’m not privy to insider information, but I’d bet that Garner lived those 86 years as well as anyone.  He worked steadily for most of his career, combining successful television series with a big screen career that was modest in terms of quantity but oversize when it came to quality, with Grand Prix, The Great Escape, Support Your Local Sheriff, and an Oscar-nominated turn in Murphy’s Romance more than enough to qualify him as a movie star.x

2.   As an adjunct to #1, he was married to the same woman since 1956.  Put that in your pipe and smoke it!
    3.   He was a rebel.  In the waning days of the studio system, he took on Warner Brothers, producers of his hit series Maverick.  Now, he wasn’t the only actor to do that – Clint Walker walked off Cheyenne in a similar dispute – but Garner made it stick.  He won his legal battle with WB, and never returned to the original series.  (He had a number of legal disputes with Universal, producers of The Rockford Files, as well.)
    4.   Speaking of The Rockford Files, I watched the show regularly when it was on in first-run, primarily because, living in the world’s worst town, NBC was the only network we could get.  I always had fond memories of it, but when I watched it years later, I found it dated.  I couldn’t get past the big cars, bad clothes, overteased women, and constant smoking.  A couple of months ago, I revisited Rockford while I had the flu – I was a captive audience, so to speak.  And I came to the conclusion that it was Garner who kept Rockford from being dated.  His acting style – well, was it really a style?  He was so natural, so effortless, the way he played not only Garner, but most roles.  He had an easy self-confidence that was probably the result of a lot of hard work, but still.  The ability to project yourself that way can only be called a gift.
    5.  I’d also compare him to Paul Newman in the sense that Garner was an actor who could give gravitas even to projects that didn’t deserve it.  Excepting Space Cowboys, of course.
    6.  And, as Teachout notes, didn’t Garner steal the show from Newman, et. al in Twilight? You probably didn’t see that – it was one of those rare movies, a drama for grown-ups that didn’t rely on special effects, comic book tie-ins, loud music, car chases, and the like.
    7.  Garner was really something behind the wheel, wasn’t he?  I mean, he, Newman, and Steve McQueen could have started their own race team.  They would have won a few, too.  Don’t know about the clash of egos, though.  Not to mention team orders.
    8.  He wasn’t perfect, though.  I recall years ago when he starred as a U.S. Senator in Space, the disappointing miniseries of James Michener’s equally disappointing novel.  In the book, Garner’s character had been a Republican, but Garner insisted on changing him to a Democrat for the series.  The character wasn’t that political, but Garner was a big-time Democrat, and perhaps he just didn’t have the acting chops to put himself into the role of a Republican.  That’s one thing I’ve always admired about Martin Sheen, by the way – I’ve seen him play a Republican before, and he did it with as much conviction and acting integrity as he did later on in The West Wing.
    9.  A last word about Maverick – it wasn’t originally intended to be a light-hearted Western spoof, but according to Brooks and Marsh in their Complete Directory, the change happened early in the series’ run, when a bored scriptwriter (later ID’d as Marion Hargrove) added a stage direction referring to Maverick looking at someone “with his beady little eyes.”  Garner thought the direction hilarious, and played the scene for laughs.  The rest is history.
    10. We shouldn’t mourn James Garner too much.  His life was full, his days as an actor were principally behind him, and he left a great body of work that will continue to please audiences for a long time.  We may miss the fact that we won’t be able to turn on the TV and see an interview with him, or read another volume of memoirs, or see him in a cameo appearance – but he’s given us more than enough pleasure to make up for it.
    11. If you want to read more, The Guardian – typical of Brit newspapers – has a wonderful write-up here.

    July 19, 2014

    This week in TV Guide: July 15, 1961

    The brooding visage on the cover of this week's TV Guide is not that of Dave Garroway, although it would appear to be a perfect match for the sidebar teaser on the left.  No, on the cover you see Gardner McKay, star of Adventures in Paradise.  More about him later.  First, here's Garroway.

    David Cunningham Garroway, the subject of Richard Gehman's multi-part profile, is one of the pioneers of television, a man of immeasurable influence insofar as on-camera persona is concerned.  He is a very complex man as well, a troubled man, and for once the psychoanalytical angle that Gehman so likes to use comes in handy.

    Garroway is the star of NBC's Today Show, or to be more precise, The Dave Garroway Today Show, as it is currently known.  His friendly demeanor, inquisitive mind and engaging personality all combine to make him one of the first big stars in the new medium.  Today reflects that personality perfectly.  Would that today's Today (a cumbersome handle, to be sure) had as much variety and innovation as Garroway's did.

    And yet the Dave Garroway that millions see every weekday morning is a far cry from the offscreen Garroway.  It's sometimes said that when TV viewers see a personality on their sets often enough, they come to feel as if they actually know that person.  In Garroway's case, those viewers probably know as much about him as his friends and coworkers do.  Garroway is almost painfully shy, far preferring the company of his cars and telescopes to human interaction.  He used to disguise himself before leaving the house, and he has a bomb shelter in his Manhattan townhouse, along with a bottle of Secanol in case of nuclear war.  He tells Gehman that his anxieties actually make him better on TV, where "he can be himself" in the unblinking eye of the camera lens.

    I described Garroway above as the host of Today; actually, that will be true only for another two days.  Come Monday morning, John Chancellor will take over as host of the new, hard-news version of Today.  Garroway had made the announcement in May, a month after his wife had committed suicide by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills, that he would be leaving the show in October, or earlier if possible.  He cites the need to recharge his batteries, to get away from the entertainment business for awhile.  The article promises that part two will tell why Garroway really left Today; unfortunately, I don't have that issue.  (But if you think I should have it, in order to finish the story, I'll gladly give you my PayPal address.)

    SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
    I've harped on Richard Gehman's writing style for some time.  I've often felt he was unnecessarily sarcastic; a snarky writer who makes his own cleverness too much a part of the story.  And yet perhaps this time, as I suggested earlier, the subject is a perfect match for the writer.  His opening paragraph is certainly as good as anything you'll read in classic TV Guide.*

    *When I mentioned this to my wife, she asked if today's TV Guide even has any writing; she thought maybe all they did was compose captions to pictures.

    In these troubled and abandoned days, some of the more troubled and abandoned among us celebrate the birth of Christ by behaving much like the very Romans who crucified Him.  A bacchanalian Christmas party given three years ago by the staff of the Today show would have delighted a contemporary Edward Gibbon.

    Gehman goes on to discuss Garroway's obvious boredom and discomfort in these surroundings, taking it for as long as he could before getting up and disappearing.  He continues,

    In "The Day of the Locust," the late Nathaneal West said of his protagonist, "He was really a very complicated young man with a whole set of personalities, one inside the other like a nest of Chinese boxes."  The phrase might have been written for Garroway, who is a very complicated 48.  Nobody knows it better than he.  For 14 years, off and on, he has been seeing a psychiatrist in an effort to learn what is inside those boxes.  And what the has learned is that there are more boxes.

    What I particularly like about those paragraphs is that Gehman assumes his readers will recognize the name Edward Gibbon, that they will know who Nathaneal West was and perhaps might even have read his writing.  It doesn't strike me that he's forcing these references; he's simply respecting his audience.  TV Guide always prided itself on being more than a fan magazine, with readers who were a far cry from those who read the other rags; writing such as this tends to confirm that assumption.

    Dave Garroway's story is a sad one, and it's not just because one of the pioneers of television is virtually unknown today.  He appeared on various media off and on through the years, hosting a science show on NET, several radio programs on both coasts, and occasional guest appearances in various series, including on Today show anniversaries.  He was married three times; the first ended in divorce, the second (as we saw above) with the suicide of his wife in 1961; his third to an astronomer, not surprising given his interest in that field.  He underwent heart surgery in 1982 and, suffering from complications as well as his continuing battle with depression, killed himself with a single blast from a shotgun later that year.  He was only 69 years old.

    Here's a clip from the beginning of Today in January, 1952.



    And here is a clip from Today's 30th anniversary, Garroway's last television appearance, where Garroway is reunited with the classic Today cast, his old partners Jack Lescoulie and Frank Blair.


    ***

    And now on to Gardner McKay.  He was discovered by Dominick Dunne, who was at the time a producer at 20th Century Fox, and hired to star in a new series Dunne was co-producing, Adventures in Paradise. Standing an imposing 6'5", he cuts a figure that leads Life magazine, in a cover story, to dub him "the new Apollo."  McKay considers himself to still be a rookie when it comes to acting - "I'm no real actor," he tells the unnammed interviewer, "Show me a two-page speech from 'Antigone' and I'd get sick." - but Dunne, who first spotted McKay reading a book of poetry in a coffee shop, says that though he was a nobody in Hollywood terms, "his attitude declared that he was somebody." Despite the criticism of his acting, McKay is unquestionably a star, receiving up to 3,000 pieces of fan mail a week, and is well-liked by the crew that services his series.

    Adventures in Paradise is now in its third and final season, but McKay remains untouched by his celebrity; he still drives the same 1958 Chevy convertible he had before Paradise, and he has no press agent, no business manager.  On his weekly salary of over $1,500, he has "a few blue chip stocks and a bank account."  In 1961, "the future burns brightly" for Gardner McKay.

    You can see the episode that played on ABC that Monday night, July 17, 1961, right here.  It's a rerun of "The Big Surf," in the first of five parts.  Feel free to check them all out:


    Like Dave Garroway after Today, Gardner McKay's life will travel a different route after Adventures in Paradise ends, but unlike Garroway it has a happy ending.  After the series ends, McKay declines to renew his contract with Fox and turns down a chance to co-star in a movie with Marilyn Monroe, who personally lobbied him to take the part.  Giving up acting completely, McKay works in the Amazon for two years and spends time in France and Egypt before returning to Hawaii, where he finds new success as a writer*, publishing several novels, an autobiography, and numerous short stories, as well as writing plays (winning a Drama Critics Circle Award for "Sea Marks").  In addition, he serves for five years as the drama critic for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and teaches a writing class at UCLA.

    *I remember once seeing an interview with him, perhaps on Today; he was plugging his latest book, possibly The Kinsmanand mentioned how at first people didn't believe he'd written it himself, until they realized the depth of detail with which he wrote about sailing.

    A friend said that he always considered himself a writer rather than an actor, and added that "He hated the fact that he was known for that television series.  It was not the professional or private path he wanted to take."  Gardner McKay was 69, the same age as Dave Garroway, when he died of cancer, a man who by all appearances was able to write himself a happy ending.

    ***

    And now, a word about Julie London, actress and singer.  The word is **sigh**.  If you're of an age where you only remember Julie London as nurse McCall in Emergency, you don't know what you've been missing.

    London, who's already had a successful career as a singer, complains of her lack of roles in Hollywood: "Sometimes I think they tend to measure an actress's talents by her - uh - measurements.  If the measurements go beyond a certain point, they figure she can't possibly act."  London's measurements, the unnamed writer helpfully points out, are 5'3", 37-23-36.

    London was formerly married to Jack Webb*; the marriage was a good one until the success of Dragnet, with which he became obsessed.  They divorced in 1953, and in 1959 she marries jazz musician Bobby Troup, who also starred in Emergency but is probably best known (as he should be) for writing the song "Route 66," which made a lot of money for both him and Nat King Cole, among others.

    *Of course, the irony here is that Webb, who remained on good terms with London, would hire both her and Troup for Emergency.  When it came to television, Webb apparently only cared about getting the right people.

    Today, though she continues singing, she still waits for the right role.  "All I really want," she says, "is what every other girl in this town wants - a really good script."

    ***

    There's seldom a great deal of interesting programming in the summer months; most of what we encounter consists of reruns and forgettable summer replacements.  In addition, this issue comes from Southern Ohio, which means I'm not too familiar with the local terrain.  I think, therefore, I'll wrap up with a look at a couple of programs that serve as perfect examples of why TV Guide offered such a window to the cultural world.

    The first comes to us on Tuesday night.  I think I've mentioned this before (pauses, enters words in the search engine, reads) - ah, yes, it's right here - the NBC Special For Women series that originally ran on the daytime schedule.  They're now appearing on NBC's summer prime-time schedule over the next six weeks.  "Each taped drama," TV Guide says, "deals with a problem faced by women in America," and concludes with a brief discussion led by NBC news reporter Pauline Frederick.

    This week's episode, entitled "The Single Woman," presents the dilemma of Elisabeth Greenway (Barbara Baxley), who "has reached an age where she knows she ought to get married."  She has a beau ready and willing to tie the knot, but "Elisabeth just can't see her way clear to committing herself to him - or any man - for life."  Following the play, Frederick interviews psychiatrist Louis English.

    Now, I would love to see how this drama played out.  It gives us a valuable glimpse into the culture of the early '60s, when marriage and a family is still considered the norm for women, and the stigma that's attached to being an unmarried woman - even the idea that she's not quite respectable.  After all, how many times have we heard the phrase "old maid" applied to a woman whom we might think is just coming into her own today?  I'd be curious as to what decision Elisabeth makes, and exactly what role the psychiatrist plays in the discussion.  Is he there to reassure women that the desire to remain single is not abnormal - or does he encourage them to confront their fear of commitment?  Again, talk about a time capsule!

    ***

    SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
    Did you say time capsule?  Here's a presentation of CBS' Sunday morning religious series Look Up and Live that, with few adaptations, could be presented today.  "The Police," based on the play by Polish writer Slawomir Mrozek, tells the story of a prison rapidly losing its reason for being.  "All the other prisoners, convinced that they were living under 'the best system in the world,' have confessed their crimes against the state, received their pardons and gone home.  Now there's only one prisoner left, and he too wants to confess.  The Commissioner receives this news with a certain amount of regret."

    Mrozek, often compared to the Absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco, is a fascinating character himself.  He was once an ardent Communist, praising Polish authorities for their persecution of religious leaders, and took part in demonstrations defaming Catholic priests.  Following his defection from Poland in 1963, he became a harsh critic of Communism.  The always-reliable Wikipedia offers this quote from him, explaining the change:  "Being twenty years old, I was ready to accept any ideological proposition without looking a gift-horse in the mouth – as long as it was revolutionary. [...] I was lucky not to be born German say in 1913. I would have been a Hitlerite because the recruitment method was the same."  "The Police" was published in 1958 and, I suspect, bears the marks of his growing skepticism of totalitarianism.

    He died, just last year, at his home in Nice, France.  Though he was never a religious man, he received a Catholic funeral presided over by  Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, the former personal secretary to Pope John Paul II.

    July 17, 2014

    Around the dial

    This week David at Comfort TV says what I've believed for a long time:  Mission: Impossible is TV for smart people.  Not only does it not refuse to pander to the audience by providing them with emotional soap opera ("the focus is always on the mission, not the operatives who carried it out."), it forces you to try and keep up with its frenetic pace and intricate plots.  The producers assumed their audience was smart enough to do so; if you couldn't, too bad for you.  Spot on, David.

    And spot on to Cult TV as well, for another incisive look at the use of allegory in The Prisoner.  This week it's the episode "Free For All," which is rich in allegory and symbolism.  Pretty soon it's going to be time for me to start through the cycle again, beginning with Danger Man and proceeding through to The Prisoner - I'll be reading through these again as I watch.  And I can't wait to read your theories on The Butler as Number 1!

    There can be no doubt that Made for TV Mayhem is dealing in mayhem of the highest order today: a look at small screen scream queens (say that five times fast).  Let's see, do I recognize any of these names?  Diane Baker, who always cut a lovely figure on television; Anne Francis, who didn't do much screaming in Honey West but changed her tune in the '70; Vera Miles, who always looks great.  Yeah, I recognize them.

    I touch on old-time radio (OTR) from time to time, and since we've gotten Sirius I've gained an even greater appreciation for some of the shows that really forced the imagination to work; How Sweet It Was takes us through a collection of shows celebrating the 4th of July.  When you have some time, really check these out; they're a delight to listen to.  And yes, I'd buy war bonds from Cyd Charisse, or anything else she cares to sell.

    Not a TV piece per se, but Terry Teachout writes this week about the limits of nostalgia, and there's no doubt that nostalgia plays a major role for many of us in gravitating toward classic television.  I really should devote a piece of its own to this article, but since you'll probably get sick of waiting for it, I'd urge you to read the whole thing now.  I particularly appreciate this quote, cribbed from Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

    And finally, yours truly appeared this week at Christmas TV History's Christmas in July feature.  There's a new post up every day, with some absolutely wonderful memories and recommendations from writers all over the blogosphere, so you should make it part of your daily routine.

    As a side note, one of Joanna's questions was "Name one Christmas program/movie you enjoy watching all year round."  I didn't think of it at the time (you'll have to read it to find out what I did say), but it struck me on the way home: it has to be Bing Crosby's 1977 Christmas show - you know, the one with the Bing/Bowie duet?  There's another segment to that program, though, a truly awful attempt to interject David Bowie into a second appearance without him actually being there.  While Bing and one of the kids are going through a box of memories in the attic, they get on the subject of heroes, which leads to a cut of Bowie's video for his song "Heroes".  Now, Bowie is a great performer and "Heroes" is one of his great songs - but it has nothing to do with Christmas, and it's absolutely painful to see it wedged into this show just to make it relevant.  Having said that, though, I'll listen to "Heroes" at any time of the year - like now.


    By the way, another of the questions was to "Send us to three places on the Internet."  I chose my three, but in reality I'd readily recommend any of the blogs I've featured in this piece today or on the sideboard.  Your blogs are the best at keeping classic TV alive, and the pleasure you give me in reading your pieces is equal to the pleasure I get in writing about them.  You guys are the greatest!

    July 15, 2014

    Hamlet ala Gilligan

    The bulk of this piece first appeared in July 2011 following the death of legendary television producer Sherwood Schwartz, and it's a piece I've always been fond of, because you wouldn't think that looking back at Gilligan's Island would provide you with great cultural insight; in fact, however, this is right up my alley.  What I really like about this episode is that it tells us so much - not only about the culture of the times, but the assumed sensibility of the viewer. Now, most people would scoff at the idea of Gilligan's Island being highbrow entertainment - but, in fact, here is a series that one could argue was amongst the most learned on television. Why, they were able to present not only Shakespearian tragedy, but dramaticopera - and all in the same episode!

    It was October 3, 1966 - the third and final season of Gilligan. This episode, entitled "The Producer," involved famed Broadway producer Harold Hecuba (Phil Silvers, wonderfully over the top), who finds himself, like so many before him, stranded on the island. (Is it just me, or does it seem as if the only people who weren't able to find that island worked for the Coast Guard?) After Hecuba insults Ginger, the castaways decide to show him how talented she really is, by (in the words of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland) "putting on a show."

    "Hamlet: the Musical" is perhaps one of the most creative bits of musical theater ever to find its way into an American sitcom. The lyrics are clever and witty, and yet faithful to the Bard's text.  The musical accompaniment is inspired, running the gamut from Bizet to Offenbach.  Here, for example, is Hamlet's (Gilligan) aria "To Be or Not to Be," from the "Habenera" of Bizet's Carmen.  For contrast, following is the original as it appears in Carmen.



    Not to be outdone, here is Ophelia (Ginger) in her duet with Hamlet, urging him to lighten up, to Offenbach's "Barcarolle" from The Tales of Hoffman, along with the same piece as it sounds in the opera.



    Finally, there's the showstopper, as the entire cast lampoons Bizet's "Torreador Song" (again from Carmen).  Not quite the same impact as in the original, perhaps, but not bad.  (And I much prefer Mary Ann as Laertes!)



    What is brilliant about this is not only the creativity of the lyrics, but the use of music that, in the days when classical music was actually part of mainstream American culture, would be instantly recognizible to most viewers, even if they didn't know where it came from.  And I can't help but wonder if the writers were aware of the appropriateness of using music from French opera, given that the most famous operatic version of Hamlet is by the French composer Ambroise Thomas.

    We may ridicule a show like Gilligan's Island, which was critically scorned but was a massive hit with viewers - but I doubt you'll see anything short of Looney Tunes that makes such good use of classical music. And that is nothing less than a shame.

    July 12, 2014

    This week in TV Guide: July 9, 1966

    Longtime readers of the blog may recognize the story stripped across the top of this week's cover: the disaster that was The Sammy Davis Jr. Show, which I wrote about here.  It's a pretty good piece that goes a bit beyond the article, so it's well worth your while checking it out.  Go ahead, I'll wait.

    ***

    A humorous note appears in the "On the Record" section that leads off this issue's programming section.  Seems as if the magazine has a writer, Richard Warren Lewis, whose assignment was to go undercover, as it were, as a contestant on ABC's The Dating Game, then come back and write an article about his experiences.  The article's now a week overdue, but Mr. Lewis presumably has a good excuse: Joan Patrick, the young woman whom Lewis selected during his turn in the bachelor's seat.  Miss Patrick, apparently, has quite the recipe for rock cornish game hen stuffed with wild rice and cooked in white wine.  Well, as they say, the way to a man's heart is through his stomach.  Next month the two are set to be married, and presumably the article will have to wait a while longer.

    ***

    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:  We're playing a little fast and loose with the listings this week; the Coaches All-America football game, which I discussed a couple of issues ago, preempts Palace this week, which means we're dependent on KCMT's delayed broadcast of last week's show.  In that one, host Ray Bolger presents singer Kay Starr; jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, accompanied by 7-year-old drummer Jim Bradley; impressionist Rich Little; comedian Norm Crosby; escape artist Michael De La Vega; and the Five Amandis, teeterboard act.

    Sullivan:  Ed's guests this week are Ethel Merman; the rockin' Rolling Stones; singer Wayne Newton; actor Hal Holbrook; comics Sandy Baron and Eddie Schaeffer; and the Rumanian Folk Ballet.

    James Bradley Jr., Lionel Hampton's accompanist, was already known to television viewers, having appeared on Jack Benny's program when he was five, and he'd later appear in a small role in Paul Newman's Cool Hand Luke, and continues in the business today.  Combined with Hampton, the wonderful song-and-dance man Ray Bolger, and the very funny Norm Crosby, the Palace would normally have this week hands-down.  But then Ed comes back with the Merm, the Stones, and Hal Holbrook.  There can be only one verdict for this high-quality week: push.

    Here's a clip from the Stones' appearance on Sullivan, which had originally been broadcast in February 1966:


    ***

    Random notes for the week:

    A letter to the editor lauding a recent article on NBC newsman Frank McGee and reminding readers of his yeoman in the hours and days following the assassination of John Kennedy is signed "Leslie Nielsen, Universal City, Cal."  I wonder - there can't be that many Leslie Nielsens, can there?

    Saturday is the final round of the British Open, live* via satellite from Muirfield, Scotland.  It's the first Saturday finish for the Open; in previous years 36 holes had been played on Friday, with Saturday reserved in case of a playoff.  Jack Nicklaus wins the first of his three Opens, edging Doug Sanders and Dave Thomas by a stroke.  Nicklaus loved Muirfield so much that when he built his own course in Dublin, Ohio, he named in Muirfield Village.

    *Interesting that in years to come, the Open would revert to same-day coverage on Wide World of Sports before attaining the massive television coverage it enjoys to this day.

    A prescient NBC special on Sunday afternoon, "Who Shall Live?" takes a look at the crisis facing medicine.  As producer Lucy Jarvis puts it, "One hundred thousand people die of [uremic poisoning] every year, and only 150 are being saved.  Why is that - in a country as rich as ours?"  The answer: a rigorous treatment for those suffering from the disease, which costs $10,000 a year and lasts for the rest of their lives.  Applicants for the treatment must go through a battery of tests and then await the judgment of a committee that decides "who shall live."

    Monday night Joey Bishop begins the first night of his three-week stint for the vacationing Johnny Carson.  I know Johnny liked his time off, but three weeks?  On the other hand, I've got a TV Guide somewhere talking about then-Today host Dave Garroway beginning the first of a five week vacation.  Must be nice.

    Tuesday is Major League Baseball's All Star Game, broadcast at 12:30 pm (CT) on NBC from St. Louis.  It's the last All Star Game to be scheduled in the afternoon; the following year's game in Anaheim has a late-afternoon start in order to capitalize on prime time in the East.  The National League wins an excruciating 2-1 victory in ten innings, played in 105° heat.  Imagine if Busch Stadium had had artificial turf back then.

    On Wednesday at 9pm, Channel 11 has a syndicated broadcast of the world middleweight boxing championship, as champion Emile Griffith takes on challenger Joey Archer live from Madison Square Garden.  Griffith wins a hard-fought 15-round decision.

    Thursday NET's At Issue presents a discussion on Congressional ethics - stop it, I know you're laughing out there - moderated by Robert Novak, long before he became famous on The McLaughlin Group.  If you're not watching that, you might have on the final episode of ABC's British-import series The Baron, starring Steve Forrest, and featuring an appearance by Lois Maxwell, whom we'd all come to know and love as the original Moneypenny of the James Bond films.  Replacing The Baron next week: The Avengers.

    An interesting program on Friday, another of those that it would be hard to imagine today: Pablo Casals conducting his religious oratorio "El Pessebre" (The Manager) taped at the United Nations in 1963, with an all-star cast and Robert Shaw conducting the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus.  I thought there might be a clip of that online somewhere, but no such luck.  However, if you're interested, here's a clip from a more recent performance.


    ***

    Has this been a duller issue than normal?  It's true there's not much to choose from during rerun season, and as usual the week's programming is studded with replacement series: Continental Showcase, hosted by Jim Backus, takes Jackie Gleason's place on CBS Saturday night.  Monday sees CBS' Vacation Playhouse, one of those collections of failed plots from over the years, while on NBC John Davidson takes over Kraft Music Hall for the summer.  Tuesday sees Hippodrome fill in on CBS for Red Skelton, and before there was Laugh-In, Rowan and Martin filled in for Dean Martin on NBC Thursday nights.

    Even the TV Teletype is pretty ordinary, but there is one thing that caught my eye: a plan to turn literary classics into soap operas.  It says here that NBC plans a soap - excuse me, "daytime series" based on Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights this fall, and that Jane Eyre and Rebecca could follow suit.  I don't know that the Heights idea ever took off; NBC only had a handful of soaps in the coming season, and all of them - Days of Our Lives, The Doctors, Another World - were pretty well established by that time.  A pity, I suppose; so many of these books were built-in soaps, just waiting for their stories to reach a daytime audience.  On the other hand, though, it might have been difficult to figure out how the network could have stretched Heathcliff and Catherine's tortured romance out for thirty years or so.  Even if they'd filmed it in real time they couldn't have made it last that long.

    July 10, 2014

    Around the Dial

    I've always been a fan of Raymond Chandler, arguably the greatest of American detective novelists, so it's no surprise that I like Rick's piece at Classic Film and TV Cafe giving us the "Seven Things to Know About Raymond Chandler (in his own words)."   I find his comments about The Big Sleep particularly interesting; I enjoy the movie a lot, but not nearly as much as the book, nor Bogart's other great detective movie, The Maltese Falcon.

    David at Comfort TV links to a piece I did last week, touting MeTV's growth among national cable networks, and offers three compelling reasons why this is so.  I like them all, and absolutely agree with #3 - the window to a long-past culture is something I've always valued in classic television.  Route 66 and Naked City, thanks to their location shooting, are the best of numerous examples of how America has evolved over the years.  There's no better - nor more entertaining - travelogue around.

    Cult TV Blog continues with his series on the use of allegory in The Prisoner.  There's some really good stuff in this analysis, and I suspect it will make both fans and first-timers of The Prisoner want to check the episodes out.  It should also make you ask why today's television, in its supposed Golden Age, can't do something like this.

    Stephen Bowie, who blogs at Classic TV History Blog, has a very good piece at The Onion's AV Club on The Andy Griffith Show, and why it developed into, along with The Dick Van Dyke Show, "the essential sitcom of the early ’60s."  I have to confess that though I watched this show faithfully as a kid, it hasn't worn well with me, and I don't see it much today.  I know a lot of people who still love it, though, and its place in TV history is undeniable.

    I mention in the upcoming TV Guide review that there wasn't a whole lot on television that was specifically connected to the 4th of July, and Television Obscurities' review of TV schedules on the Fourth generally reinforces that.  I'd agree that your best bet for holiday-themed entertainment back then probably came from the variety shows of the day, such as Lawrence Welk, but for a few years NBC carried the Stars and Stripes show from Oklahoma City.  Nowadays, since the Boston Pops are no longer regulars on the tube, you're pretty much left with PBS' A Capital Fourth.

    I referenced Naked City earlier, and Television's New Frontier: the 1960s has a very good review of that series, including its history and a look at the stars that made it one of the best serious cop shows of the time.  It took a few episodes for Naked City to grow on me (Sterling Sillilphant can have that effect on anyone), but I've come to greatly appreciate the show's portrayal of secondary characters and guest stars, without overlooking the police work that always brings the story together.

    Finally, "Christmas in July" continues at Christmas TV History.  I won't link to any specific entry, but they're all wonderful, presenting a real cross-section of Christmas TV memories that have made the time very special for a lot of people.

    That's all for today - see you back for another trip to the TV Guide archives on Saturday!

    July 8, 2014

    The book on the news: Eddie Barker takes us through the glorious past of TV news

    Eddie Barker's Notebook: Stories That Made the News, and Some Better Ones That Didn't!
    by Eddie Barker and John Mark Dempsey
    (John M. Hardy Publishing, 254 pages, available through used booksellers or at the Sixth Floor Museum)

    Before I moved to Dallas, all I knew about Eddie Barker was that he was news director of KRLD, the CBS affiliate in DFW, and that he’d covered the JFK assassination from the Trade Mart, announcing the President’s death based on information from a good source.  Now, that’s quite a lot to be known for right there, and if that was all there was to the Eddie Barker story, he still would have accomplished more than most of us.

    Fortunately, there’s a lot more to the story than that, and a few years before his death Barker set it down in the wonderfully anecdotal Eddie Barker’s Notebook.  Its subheading says it all: “Stories that made the news, and some better ones that didn't!”  Staring with the teen-aged Barker’s intro to radio at San Antonio’s KMAC-AM in 1943, and through a career that included broadcasting Southwestern Conference football, being news director (and on-air talent) for both KRLD-AM and TV, and on to the challenges of public relations work and the joys of small-town radio, Barker and co-author John Mark Dempsey give us insight into not only a remarkable broadcasting career, but a look at how the industry and the country itself have changed over the course of the last 60 years or so.

    Most of us who are of a certain age will remember Barker’s dramatic reporting from the Trade Mart, including the shocking announcement of Kennedy’s death at a time when much of the country was reeling from continuous bulletins and still trying to grasp the enormity of the shooting.  Though the initial news was very bad, there was enough uncertainty regarding Kennedy’s condition (and enough confusion surrounding the news stories pouring in) that one could still retain a glimmer of hope that JFK would pull through.  That lasted until an acquaintance of Barker’s who also happened to be a staff doctor at Parkland Hospital made a phone call and talked to a fellow doctor at the hospital.  After hanging up he approached Barker and gave him the news: “Eddie, he’s dead.”  Barker was so stunned that he couldn't even remember his friend’s name  - which was fine as it turned out, since the doctor didn't want attribution.

    SOURCE: DALLAS MORNING NEWS
    While it’s always interesting to read the behind-the-scenes account of a historic moment such as that, Barker offers us much more: the lead-up to the President’s visit, the around-the-clock work (much of it brilliant) done by KRLD following the assassination, the story of how Barker threw Dan Rather and his CBS crew out of KRLD’s newsroom (you’ll have to read the book to find out why), the coverage of Lee Oswald’s murder at the hands of Jack Ruby, and Ruby’s subsequent trial and conviction.  I don't want you to get hung up on the JFK angle, though.  Barker, a true raconteur, does indeed deliver on his promise to share not only those stories that made the news, but the ones that didn't.  Throughout his career he came into contact with people as diverse as Humphrey Bogart, H.R. Hunt, Richard Nixon, Dizzy Dean, Lucille Ball, Joseph McCarthy and Linus Pauling.  As befits a man who seemed to know everyone, colorful stories of colorful characters come alive on almost every page, from the man accused of blowing up an airliner in order to fake his own death to the successful businessman whom Barker accompanied on a private plane to prison, where the businessman was to start serving a sentence for drug smuggling.  It's a fact: everything, including the true stories, is bigger in Texas.

    Through it all, one thing stands out: the power of personal contact.  We’ve become used to the impersonal nowadays; we get our internet news from people we never see, we make decisions based on the recommendations of perfect strangers, we live our own lives in a cocoon into which very few people have access.  But Barker became indispensable to CBS throughout the Kennedy story because of his personal connections.  He knew how to open doors.  Many people talked to him simply because they recognized him from television and trusted him, and they wound up telling him things they probably wouldn't have dreamed of sharing with anyone else.*  It seemed many times as if, in Walter Cronkite's words, "he knows every cop, fire fighter, emergency room doctor, and ambulance attendant in Dallas . . . besides the city, county, state, and federal officials whom he taps for information when required," but in the few cases where he didn't, he likely knew the people that did, and again the doors would open.

    *An anecdote: at Jack Ruby's trial, Ruby's sister told Barker how much his presence at the trial meant to Jack, since "he's always considered you to be one of his best friends"; Barker had never met him before the trial.

    Now, there are many people who know how to open doors, or how to get someone else to open them; it's another thing entirely to know what to do once you've walked through them.  Barker was first and foremost a newsman; he knew the value of speed, the importance of trustworthy sources, when to ask a question and when to remain silent, when to prod and when to sit back.  He delivered more than one "beat" (scoop) for the network, and the number of CBS personnel who recognized him as a friend and colleague (Cronkite, Rather, Eric Sevareid, Harry Reasoner, Don Hewitt and Mike Wallace among them) testifies to the respect in which he was held.

    The other thing that struck me, again and again, was how informal the news business was back then, and how well it served us.  Somebody once said that corporate America began its slide when it replaced “Personnel” departments with the more antiseptic “Human Resources,” and Barker’s book goes far to bear this out.  Barker himself was hired as a teenager because he walked into a radio station and asked for a job.  He had no experience, had none of the qualifications that HR departments would look for today – but he’d listened to the radio, he’d practiced reading wire copy, he knew how names were pronounced and what inflections to use, and he wasn’t afraid of hard work.  He read some sample copy for the program director, who told him, “I think we can find a place for you.”  Just like that, his career had started.

    Barker didn't forget that, and once he became news director at KRLD he demonstrated the same willingness to take a chance, to use his newsman’s gut instinct to make a call.  When asked by Bob Phillips, who as an junior college student heard Barker speak and then worked up the nerve to ask him for a job, why Barker had hired him, an 18-year-old kid, Eddie's reply was succinct: he figured if Phillips "had the guts to ask for a job, [he] just might have enough guts to do that job."  Just like that, another career was started.  When he made Judy Jordan the first female news anchor in Dallas-Fort Worth, he didn’t even tell his superiors about it – he “snuck her on” the air so nobody could object to her without having first seen her talent.  She, like so many of Barker’s associates, went on to become a local legend.

    It was easier to do things like that back then, I suppose.  It was a time, as Barker writes, when television was brand new, without a playbook for success.  There were no focus groups to provide feedback, no consultants to offer insight; in other words, no clichés to fall back on.  People made things up as they went along, keeping what worked and getting rid of what didn't.  Everybody did everything; on-air reporters were expected to know how to shoot news film, and KRLD’s weatherman and sportscaster were both news reporters who covered breaking stories when bodies were needed in the field.*  News is more corporate now, more homogenized, more specialized.  But is it any better?

    *Another anecdote: in the fall of 1963, shortly before JFK’s visit, UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson was attacked by a woman with a picket sign after making a speech in Dallas.  It was one of the events that caused many to suggest that Kennedy forego the Dallas part of the trip.  Anyway, the reason KRLD had the film of Stevenson being wacked with the sign was because Wes Wise, the station's weatherman (and future mayor of Dallas), and Jim Underwood, the sportscaster, were there covering the speech.  As the time for the 10:00 news approached, they had to decide: get back to the studio for the newscast, or remain at the speech in case something happened.  Wise said he'd head back for his weathercast, and if Underwood wasn't back in time Wise would cover the sports as well. When the attack happened, Underwood caught it all on film, and KRLD had another story.

    There are plenty of stories to go around in Eddie Barker's Notebook, and for me to share any more would be a disservice; you need to read the book.  But just when you think you've read it all, don't miss out on the final chapter, in which Barker recounts his post-retirement days as host of a local call-in show in his hometown of Paris, Texas.  If you're of the impression that you have to work for a big organization in a big market in order to make a difference, think again.  And if the internet and its "online community" ultimately fails in its goal of uniting people, this closing story - of the power that the human voice has to bring people together and change lives - will stand as Exhibit A.  For while technology is a great thing, it will never replace the common humanity that links us all together, for better or worse.  In Eddie Barker's hands, it was usually the former.