December 30, 2014

What's on TV? January 1, 1970

It's the end of the '60s and the beginning of the '70s, and in commemoration I thought we'd take a look at the broadcast schedule for that first day of 1970.  For many people New Year's Day means parades and football and the listings confirm this.  By the way, one year to the day, January 1, 1971, tobacco advertising in the United States would end; the date was chosen because of the industry's advertising on the parades and games.

One other thing, which I neglected to point out on Saturday; because CBS has joined the late-nite talk show wars with The Merv Griffin Show, there is no national broadcast of Guy Lombardo's New Year's Eve concert.  The always-reliable Wikipedia mentions that during these years, Lombardo's show was broadcast live on a syndicated hookup, but otherwise there's no New Year's Eve special broadcast on any of the networks.  Dick Clark's show is still three years away.

And now, on with the shows!

December 27, 2014

This week in TV Guide: December 27, 1969

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

As I've said - remarkable.

***

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

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



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

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

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

***

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

***

During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..

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

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

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

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


***

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

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

***

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

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

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

December 23, 2014

What's on TV? Wednesday, December 24, 1958

Well, Christmas Eve is finally here - at least in this issue of TV Guide - and let's see what people are watching when they're not getting together with family, opening presents, or going to church!

December 20, 2014

This week in TV Guide: December 20, 1958

The big day is finally here, and it's not about to escape the notice of TV Guide.  In fact, it would almost be easier to talk about the shows that don't have special Christmas themes than it is to point out the ones that do.

There's a special section devoted to Christmas programming - everything from Christmas stories of regular series to variety and drama specials.  Among those series with holiday-flavored episodes are The Lone Ranger, G.E. Theater, The Loretta Young Show, The George Burns Show, Ozzie and Harriet and The Donna Reed Show.  Christmas episodes appear in the unlikeliest places, on  series such as Naked City, Steve Canyon and Dragnet.  Even Westerns aren't immune to the trend, with The Texan, The Restless Gun, Tales of Wells Fargo, Wanted: Dead or Alive and Wagon Train all joining in the Yuletide spirit.  Syndicated reruns provide even more holiday episodes.

Variety shows, of which there are many, are made for times like this, and Perry Como, Dick Clark, Lawrence Welk, Arthur Godfrey, Red Skelton, Eddie Fisher, Arthur Murray, Milton Berle, Ernie Ford, Pat Boone and Garry Moore are making the most of it.  The Voice of Firestone and Armstrong Circle Theater present Christmas music, and Playhouse 90 shows the Nutcracker ballet, performed by the New York City Ballet Company.  Their absence today leaves a giant hole in Christmas on television.

But as far as cultural significance goes, probably the biggest difference between Christmas then and now.  All three networks will be carrying special religious services on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, including live broadcasts from New York, Washington D.C. and Chicago, and Bishop Fulton Sheen hosts a one-hour ABC special on Christmas Eve.  In fact, there are so many of them this week - 39, by my count, on the local and national scene - there's a column dedicated to listing them, just like the sports and specials sections. Even given that the majority of them are on Sunday, that's still a lot of programming.

The Christmas broadcasting season had begun early in 1958, on December 9, with a musical version of The Gift of the Magi, and had continued with Amahl and the Night Visitors, a Hallmark Hall of Fame Christmas mosaic, and specials on Walt Disney and Dupont Show of the Month.  All in all, some great programming, don't you think?

***

In addition to the national programs above, there are some nice little local shows airing this week.  For instance, Saturday morning on KDAL in Duluth, Chef Hans Freischle shows how to prepare a complete Christmas dinner, and later that day KMMT's (Austin, Minnesota) Uncle Al features a puppet show telling the story of Rudolph.  At 10:30pm (CT) Monday night, KGLO in Mason City, Iowa presents a concert by the men's choir of the Mason City Chamber of Commerce.  On Christmas Eve afternoon, KTCA, the educational channel in Minneapolis, presents a unique science fiction story on how the Nativity might have appeared if it occurred on another planet, and follows up that evening with various Christmas programs.  And on Christmas night itself, KSTP shows a Christmas night skating show featuring the Figure Skating Club of Minneapolis, an annual program that runs through the '60s on KSTP and later on WTCN.

There are some great local movies on as well.  The Saturday matinee on KROC in Rochester is The Bells of St. Mary's, Bing Crosby's sequel to Going My Way.  WCCO and KDAL both have my favorite, Miracle on 34th Street*, on Saturday and Tuesday nights respectively, while Wednesday night WTCN has the appropriately named Christmas Eve, which I hadn't heard of before.

*Not to be confused with The House on 92nd Street, airing Monday night on KDAL, about Nazi spies in the United States during World War II.

The great thing about all this is that there are other Christmas programs on this week that I haven't even touched on yet.

***

The NFL is supposed to have a week off between the end of the regular season and the championship game, scheduled for December 28.  But then there's this note in Sunday's programming section:

If there is a National Football League play-off game today, it will be televised beginning at 1 p.m. and will pre-empt the programs scheduled for this time period on Chs. 3, 3M, 4, 8.  It will emanate from New York City, where the Cleveland Browns and New York Giants will play for the Eastern Conference championship.  At press time, it was not certain whether such a game would be required.

A word or two of explanation: in these pre-playoff days when only the two conference champions faced off in the championship, the NFL (like Major League Baseball) used a playoff tiebreaker - not head-to-head record - to settle ties for the conference crown.  And entering the last day of the 1958 regular season, the Cleveland Browns lead the New York Giants by one game.  Adding to the drama, that final game pitted the Browns and Giants in Yankee Stadium.  If the Browns won, the East, and a championship matchup against the Baltimore Colts, would be theirs.  A Giants victory, however, would send the two into that playoff game on the 21st.

Summerall's kick is straight and true.
At the time, it might have seemed like a long shot, given the unlikelihood that the Giants would be able to stop Cleveland's great running back Jim Brown.  Brown, then in his second season in the NFL, was in the process of shattering the league's single-season rushing record (eventually winding up with over 1500 yards in just twelve games), and the Browns were heavily favored going into the final game.

Things looked even better for Cleveland when Brown lumbered 65 yards for a touchdown on the game's first play from scrimmage.  However, on a cold Sunday afternoon with snow drifting down from the grey sky, the Giants would rally in one of the most famous games in NFL history, and Pat Summerall's 49-yard field goal on the game's final play gave New York a 13-10 win, forcing this Sunday's playoff game.

That game, which preempts a variety of local programs, is something of an anticlimax, as the Giants shut down the Browns thoroughly, winning 10-0 and sending them to next week's title clash with the Colts.  That game will become known to many as The Greatest Game Ever Played, the first sudden-death game in pro football history, the game that put the NFL on the television map to stay.  But that's a story for another week.

***

In other news, an unbylined article covers the upcoming British invasion - no, not The Beatles, but British TV. So far, of the 19 series that have been shipped to America, the only truly successful one has been Robin Hood, but that's not stopping the Brits from working on more.  They have some obstacles to overcome, chief among them that the British film industry doesn't yet take television seriously.  They "just don't believe it when we demand the best there is to be had," says Donald Hyde, executive producer for Gross-Krasne, Ltd.  He's currently working on a series called The Flying Doctor, starring American actor Richard Denning.  Thirty-nine episodes of the series will wind up being produced and aired during the 1959-60 television season, but I don't see that it made much of a dent over here.  Perhaps Cult TV will know more about it.

It does point out one thing though, and that's the growing trend toward casting Americans as the leads in British shows to be exported.  In the future we'll see this more often; off the top of my head I can think of Steve Forrest in The Baron, Man in a Suitcase with Richard Bradford, and The Protectors with Robert Vaughn, but I know there are more examples out there.  As for British actors donning the American accent, Hyde's partner Phil Krasne points out, "We must watch actors constantly over here to keep them understandable to Americans."

None of the upcoming series in production were huge hits in America, although there was Ivanhoe, the first starring vehicle for Roger Moore, but the outlook for Brit imports is promising.  For one thing, "more and more" American companies are financing and producing shows in Britain, due to favorable financial conditions and exotic British locales.  So don't give up hope - Doctor Who, The Saint and The Avengers are just around the corner!

***

Did I mention Ed Sullivan yet?  I often overlook him in the weeks when there's no Hollywood Palace, but Ed's here with Jose Ferrer and Lois Smith, who are doing a scene from the current Broadway play Edwin Booth, plus opera star Rise Stevens (Going My Way), Canadian comedians Wayne and Shuster (who never did hit it as big here, despite all the times Ed had them on), Olympic figure skating champion Dick Button (who was on Hallmark Hall of Fame last week if you remember)*, jouranlist Bob Considine, singers Betty Johnson, David Seville (the creator behind Alvin and the Chipmunks) and Luis Mariano, and Vic Julian and his French poodles.

*Skating on the Rockefeller Plaza rink - in the shadow of NBC, no less.


***

Omnibus was a variety show of a different color.  Bankrolled by the Ford Foundation, it was television's attempt to bring a weekly cultural magazine to Sunday afternoons.  It was hosted by the wonderful Alistar Cooke, and offered a truly staggering blend of subjects - everything from classical music to jazz, comedic and dramatic performances, plays, musicals, interviews with public figures, profiles, and serious discussions of how to understand and appreciate the arts.  It's one of the rare series that appeared on all three networks at one time or another during its run from 1952 to 1961; in this case, it's on NBC.

This week's show, entitled "Dancing is a Man's Game," stars Gene Kelly, who explores the athletic as well as artistic side of dancing, and how many of the movements involved are similar to those used by athletes.  Up until the last 100 years, Kelly asserts, dancing was dominated by men, and it was considered a masculine form of art.

This particular episode is one of the rare ones available on DVD - here's a look at it:


I've said it before and I'll say it again - see what kinds of shows you can have when Sunday afternoons aren't dominated by sports?  But if that is what you're looking for, NBC also has an NBA game at 1:30 featuring the Syracuse Nationals and the New York Knickerbockers from Madison Square Garden, announced by Curt Gowdy.  In case Syracuse doesn't ring a bell with you, they're now the Philadelphia 76ers.

And a final sports note - did you notice I haven't mentioned college football?  This year, we'll have had ten bowl games played by Christmas Day, but in 1958 there were only eight scheduled, and only one - the Bluegrass Bowl - has been played.  Three more games are scheduled between December 27 and 31, with the Big Four (Rose, Orange, Sugar, Cotton) on New Year's Day.  There is a small-college game on Saturday, Northeastern State vs. Arizona State-Flagstaff in the Holiday Bowl for the NAIA championship, but don't confuse this one with the current Holiday Bowl - this is played in St. Petersburg, Florida.  In case you're curious, Northeastern State wins, 19-13.

***

And with that, we'll bid a fond farewell to this Christmas issue of TV Guide.  Except - we'll be back on Tuesday for a "What's on TV?" look at the listings for Christmas Eve, 1958.  See you then!


December 18, 2014

Around the dial

Some good things in the blogosphere, so let's get right to it.

As you may remember from this piece (near the end), I've got a deep-seated antipathy toward Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory.  Joanna at Christmas TV History has a more neutral approach though, and if you're interested in an objective viewpoint of the TV adaptation of Capote's short story, this is the place to go.

The idea of an NFL game not being televised anywhere nowadays is, as Jeff of Classic TV Sports says, unthinkable.  So when did this last happen and why?  The story here.  I can't imagine this happening today either, although I think we can all agree there should be some games that are better left not being seen.

I first learned about the British crime drama The Sweeney not from a TV website, but from the guys at Top Gear.  Now Cult TV Blog gives a more proper overview of the series.  He also makes a very good point in discussing the episode "Taste of Fear," that being that you can't separate shows like this from "the troubled history of the decade in which they were made."

The idea of a "classic TV constant" is one that I hadn't considered before, and I'm glad that David at Comfort TV brings it up.  Is there one show that you can turn to as comfort food, one that's an origin point for your classic TV appreciation, a focal point for your viewing?  I guessed Hogan's Heroes, but I'm willing to bet there are others on my list if I think about it.

Television Obscurities continues the week-by-week rundown of TV Guide for the 1964-65 season, this last week looking at the December 12 issue with Julie Newmar on the cover.  I've got this issue as well, and I'm glad that Robert didn't overlook Leslie Raddatz's kind-of snarky article on Bing Crosby.  I don't comment on these articles enough, but they're sure fun to read.

At The Lucky Strike Papers, Andrew reports on the death of former CBS News correspondent Richard C. Hottelet, the last of the "Murrow Boys."  I must have seen him on TV back in the day, though I don't remember him.  I have seen and heard him on some of the old news coverage that's online.  But I definitely remember his name from many an old TV Guide.  RIP.

It's another Kliph Nesteroff interview at Classic Television Showbiz, this time with Dick Gautier, a familiar face on TV from Get Smart and When Things Were Rotten, but I didn't know until I read this that he'd also had a career in stand-up comedy.  You'll always learn something new if you're not careful, as my mother used to say.

That's it for today; tune in on Saturday when Christmas Day comes to TV Guide!

December 16, 2014

What are we to make of Rudolph? (and other foibles of adults watching cartoons)

CELESTE HOLM AND GREGORY PECK IN A SCENE FROM GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT
We've been having a lot of fun at the expense of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer lately.  Now, we all love Rudolph, but let's face it - the script isn't going to win any kind of award.  In fact, for adults, the whole thing can be kind of, well, stupid.  Last week at the Facebook site I linked to a couple of articles pointing out the inconsistencies, if you will, of the story, not unlike the piece I wrote here last year.

And yet we watch it each year, and we're not about to give it up.  So what about people like the Hadleys - with no children to appreciate the simple treasures, as well as the fears that all kids have about being part of the "right" group, watching Rudolph is pretty much an act of nostalgia.  We marvel at the animation, hum along with the now-familiar tunes, but suffer in trying to make sense of it all.  Because it doesn't make any sense!

Some years ago I posted this piece, based on my friend Peter's ruminations about Frosty the Snowman, another cartoon that, shall we say, would fit in well at MST3K.  And yet Peter wasn't satirizing Frosty, but looking at it from another, more serious angle.  And it's true that stories can often have meanings beyond those intended by the storyteller.  So while watching Rudolph last Sunday afternoon (at 4:30pm CT, its original air time), I let my mind speculate on how one might choose to look at the story in a way that not only adds meaning to it, but puts it squarely in the context of its time.  After all, this is why It's About TV! exists in the first place.

Gentleman's Agreement, the 1947 Oscar winner for Best Picture, told the story of a journalist (Gregory Peck) who went undercover, posing as a Jew, to expose anti-Semitism in New York.  At the time, and for years afterward, discrimination against Jews was fairly widespread in certain quarters; the stories about Jews being unable to join country clubs are all the more powerful because they were true.  It didn't matter that many of these Jews were successful businessmen, pillars of the community, good and decent people - there were still landlords that wouldn't rent to a Jew, hotels that wouldn't book rooms for Jews, doctors that wouldn't treat Jews.  Oftentimes, the best evidence that someone was a Jew was simply the sound of their name.

That discrimination still existed thirteen years later, in 1964 - the year that Rudolph was first broadcast. At the same time, and even less subtly, was the discrimination suffered by many American blacks.  Based solely on an external - the color of their skin - they were forced to drink at separate water fountains, eat at separate restaurants, stay at separate hotels.  They too faced neighborhoods in which they couldn't buy homes, employers that wouldn't hire them, colleges in which they couldn't enroll, laws that were applied differently to them.  Although there's nothing to suggest that Romeo Muller, the writer of the animated Rudolph, had any of this in mind, it's inconceivable that he would have been unaware of it.  Did any of it influence what he wrote, even indirectly?

To go back to Rudolph, we know that there's no reason Rudolph should be prevented from being on Santa's sleigh team just because he has a red nose, and Santa was a jerk for going along with it.  He was like many people throughout history, basically good and decent men who were afraid to buck the majority (no pun intended).  Rudolph's father Donner was more interested in prestige and influence than he was in justice.  The other reindeer picked on him because he looked different from them, and it's always easy to hate those who are different.  Only Clarice and Rudolph's mother were able to look behind the externals and see Rudolph for who he really was.  The color of his nose was no different from the color of a man's skin, or the kind of religion he practiced.  That didn't stop people from discriminating against him, though.

To really make sense of Rudolph, therefore, it seems that one has to really understand the era from which it comes, and the cultural pressures that existed.  And indeed, it's not too hard to imagine that at least one child somewhere might have looked at Rudolph being ostracized by the reindeer community and wondered to himself why, if that was wrong, it was okay that the family of one of his classmates had such a hard time finding a place to live because of their religion or the color of their skin.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but this societal context can be seen in more than just Rudolph, of course.  Take Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, another Rankin-Bass animated special from 1970.  The story features an orphan baby named Claus being taken in by a family of elves, headed by the matriarch Tanta Kringle, who were formerly official toy makers to the king of the country in which they live, which is now under the rule of the Burgermeister Meisterburger, who lives in the capital city of Sombertown.  Now, I've often thought that this actually represented an allegory on Communism or some other totalitarian form of government, and over the weekend I deepened this thought.

Life was apparently once good in this country, until the Burgermeister came to power, so it's unlikely that the capital was always called "Sombertown."  More likely that it was renamed, in the same way that St. Petersburg was renamed Leningrad.  Also, note the atmosphere of Sombertown, all drab and gray, much as our perception of the Eastern bloc - East Germany, for example, or Czechsolvakia.  Remember, this was just two years after the Soviet army crushed the uprising in Prague.  As for the toys being thrown in a bonfire and burned, I don't know how anyone could not think of the Nazi book-burnings, or similar Soviet-era purges.  The Kringles themselves, in exile following the overthrow of the Czar - er, King - would have been outcasts in Siberia, much like other enemies of the state.

The Burgermeister and his predecessor, Stalin
You might think that I'm reading too much into these animated specials, which are merely meant to entertain kids (and sell toys), and I'm not suggesting that the makers had these allegorical messages in mind at all.  What I am saying is that you can never pull any piece of art out of its era without also looking at the context in which it was created, and the forces at work in the culture of the times.  Just as Rudolph was made in a time were people would have been well-aware of discrimination against blacks and Jews, viewers of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town were living during the Cold War, and many of the traits of the Burgermeisters would have been instantly recognizable to them as sharing aspects of Communist- or Nazi-era totalitarianism.

In other words, these shows, and many like them, are products of their times.  Look at when they were made, and you see a window into another time, another culture.  And we can often speak a truth unknowingly.  Caiaphas the High Priest, for instance, tried to justify Jesus' death by telling the Jews it was "better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish." Christians clearly see the fulfillment of this prophesy in the Resurrection of Christ as the Savior, yet this is certainly not what Caiaphas meant - he denied that Jesus was the Christ.  His words, therefore, carried a truth that even he was not aware of.

So it is then, and also today.  If we're inclined to watch Rudolph and Santa Claus and Frosty and the rest, by all means.  And next time you do so, think about watching them while keeping in mind what I've written about here.  The main lesson to take from this is that we're all part of history and it will always inform whatever we read or watch, whether we know it or not.

December 13, 2014

This week in TV Guide: December 12, 1959

It's less than two weeks to Christmas, 1959, and there are several Christmas shows on tap.  So let's get right to it, shall we?

The Hallmark Hall of Fame makes a rare matinee appearance on NBC Sunday afternoon at 4:30 CT with a four-part "Christmas Festival."  In part one, Olympic figure skating champion Dick Button appears in "The Ice Princess"; part two features the Obernkirchen Children's Choir* singing Christmas carols; Walter Slezak stars in part three's story "The Borrowed Christmas" and part four consists of Judith Anderson (not yet a Dame) narrating the story of the Nativity.  All that in just an hour - quite a show.

*Perhaps best known for their recording of "The Happy Wanderer."

It's not really a Christmas movie, but The Wizard of Oz has already become a holiday television tradition, and CBS airs the annual broadcast at 5pm Sunday,* hosted by Red Skelton and his daughter Valentine.  There's a short feature about it in the national section of the issue; because the movie only runs an hour and 40 minutes, they need something to fill the remainder of the timeslot; hence, the studio host.  Nowadays they'd just fill it with commercials.

*So you'd better record either this or Hallmark - oh wait, DVRs haven't been invented yet!

Ford Startime presents "Cindy's Fella," a Western version of "Cinderella" starring Jimmy Stewart, George Gobel and Lois Smith.  There's an article about this as well; "Cindy's Fella" actually started out as an idea for Stewart's radio show The Six-Shooter, which on television was converted into The Restless Gun, starring John Payne.  Who, of course, starred in one of the great Christmas movies, Miracle on 34th Street.  But you already knew that.
On Tuesday, NBC's

Also on Tuesday, Red Skelton has a Christmas theme (if not a complete show), with Clem Kadiddlehopper as a temporary post officer worker helping during the Christmas rush.  Wednesday, CBS' U.S. Steel Hour has "A Rose For Christmas," starring Helen Hayes and Patty Duke as a nun and an orphan.  And on Friday, NBC's live Bell Telephone Hour has its Christmas special, hosted by the fine actor Thomas Mitchell, with Rosemary Clooney, the Lennon Sisters, and opera stars Lisa Della Casa and Giorgio Tozzi, among others.  In subsequent years I recall Bell's Christmas show being even closer to December 25, but it's always a very pleasant hour of holiday music.

***

There's another aspect to Christmas programming though, one that we don't see much anymore - local shows.  And there are plenty of them this week, starring local choirs.

On Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, Eau Claire's (Wisconsin) WEAU features local school choirs., and on Thursday evening Austin's KMMT has a Lutheran church choir.  Friday evening the Rochester Male Chorus is on KROC in Rochester.  TV Guide notes that the group performed earlier in the year at the Sugar Bowl.  And various local choruses will be appearing on KSTP's noontime Treasure Chest show on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.  Thursday's is particularly intersting - a 60 voice choir from the Minnesota School of Business.  Do groups like that have choirs anymore?

***

The big news story this week is President Eisenhower's overseas trip, which is - as the TV Guide preview tells us - "the most extensive foreign tour ever undertaken" by an American president.  His 19-day trip begins in Rome and, by the time it's over, will include the capitals of Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Iran, Greece, Tunisia, France, Spain, and Morocco, as well as the Big Four Western summit in Paris.

Television coverage of the President's trip is extensive.  All three networks have specials planned for Saturday; NBC's is called the "Journey to Understanding," while CBS labels it "Eyewitness to History."  ABC's is fairly laid back by comparison, just "Presidential Mission."  NBC also has specials scheduled for Sunday and Friday, as well as daily updates on Today, while CBS counters with a Friday special devoted to America's "brittle" relationship with Iran.  If only they knew.

***

Speaking of history as we are, there's an interesting article by the historian Arthur Schlesinger, who in time will become best-known as one of President Kennedy's chief advisers.  The article is entitled "How Television Can Meet Its Responsibilities," which TV Guide bills as the third in a series of articles by "outstanding Americans."

Like so many, Schlesinger mourns the content of television, quoting Edward R. Murrow's description of the medium being used to "distract, delude, amuse and insulate," and echoes Pat Weaver's complaint that TV is "nothing but being largely a storytelling medium."  Of course, there are exceptions: Omnibus, See It Now, and special presentations of "Richard III" and the Bolshoi Ballet.  "But these well-advertised gestures of piety do not alter the fact that the central, the all-encompassing, the all-devouring commitment of television is to mass entertainment, conceived in a very limited way."

From here, Schlesinger takes up the question of how television got this way.  The traditional argument, of course, is that it's a medium that simply gives the public what it wants, but Schlesinger points to the argument made by Gilbert Seldes, TV host, occasional columnist for TV Guide, and director of the Annenberg School of Communications at Penn.*  Seldes says the question that should be asked is this: if TV is, in fact, simply giving the public "what it wants," how did the public get that way in the first place?  And does the public even know how good television can be?  How can it, when network executives refuse to demonstrate it to them?

*The TV Guide connection is no surprise, given that Walter Annenberg is the magazine's publisher.

Interjecting the political for just a moment, Schlesinger was known as one of the most liberal of Kennedy's New Frontier men, and I think this attitude comes through in some of his observations.  For instance, he insists that "artistic excellence is not something to be determined by majority vote," which I actually agree with, but it carries the whiff of the elitist argument that you've got to give the people what's good for them, whether they like it or not.  He feels that networks cannot continue to base their profits on the domination of advertisers, refusing to let them dictate what programs go on the air.

He also calls for more government regulation of television, suggesting the FCC should become more active in reviewing station licenses as they come up for renewal.  "The FCC might stipulate in the license that appropriate proportions of prime time be devoted to sustaining programs, to programs dealing with public issues, to cultural programs, to local live programs; that advertising be limited; that free time be grated during Presidential campaigns to all parties polling more than 10 percent of the vote in the previous election."  Some of these ideas might sound good, but remember that the Prime Time Access rule, which gave the first half-hour of prime time back to local affiliates, has given us not incisive public affairs programs dealing with local issues, but endless reruns of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Family Feud, and Entertainment Tonight.  Who's to say what constitutes a cultural program?  If The Muppet Show does an opera satire, does that count as culture?  Even if Kermit wears a tuxedo?  After all, many of us received our first introduction to classical music from Bugs Bunny - how do we classify that?


Schlesinger compares the effects of such action to that of the minimum wage bill of the '30s, and dismisses accusations of government control: "the setting of federal standards need not mean Government domination of television."  Need not, you notice - not does not.

In conclusion, Schlesinger, quotes CBS chief Frank Stanton, saying "the strongest sustained attention of America is now, daily and nightly, bestowed on television as it is bestowed on nothing else."  Schlesinger views this as a "frightening thought," but adds that if it is true, then so also is the fact that "if television is anywhere near so significant a public influence," then it must realize that if it does not regulate itself - if it does not take steps to ensure the broadcast of what Schlesinger sees as necessary programming - then "it must expect some form of public intervention."

***

A brief note on my favorite ad of the week.  It's the one on your right, for CBS' General Electric Theater presentation of "The House of Truth," starring host Ronald Reagan in the story of how a library in Southeast Asia leads the fight against Communism.  It's good to know that even back then, over 20 years before becoming president, he's fighting the war against the Commies.  And by the way, Ronald Reagan, needless to say, was no fan of Arthur Schlesinger.

Danny Thomas is this week's cover story, talking about his long run on television, which shows no signs of abating.  His weekly CBS series Make Room For Daddy (or The Danny Thomas Show, as it's now known) has been on the air since 1953, and will remain there until 1964.  What we learn from the story is that Thomas is a good guy, a burgeoning TV producer, a man uncomfortable with the label "The World's Foremost Entertainer," and someone who has no intentions of retiring any time soon.

***

It's the last weekend of the regular season in the NFL, with the Championship game still two weeks away,* and we've got a pair of games to round out the schedule.  In a Saturday broadcast, CBS carries the game between the Baltimore Colts and Los Angeles Rams.  It's preceded on NBC by an NBA game between the Cincinnati Royals and Minneapolis Lakers, from the Armory in downtown Minneapolis (a building I'm well-familiar with).  At noon on KGLO, the CBS affiliate in Mason City, Iowa, there's a one-hour condensed replay of an August baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Athletics.  What's notable about this programming?  Of the six teams featured in the three broadcasts - one from each of the three major sports - five of those six teams are no longer in the same cities.

*The game, played on December 27, is a rematch of the previous year's title contest.  It's won by the Baltimore Colts, 31-16 over the New York Giants.

On Sunday, the NFL finale on CBS pits the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears.  It's up against an NBA contest between the New York Knickerbockers and Detroit Pistons on NBC.  (At least none of these four teams have moved.)  Aside from some golf and bowling, that does it for Sunday's sports, which explains why the networks have time for shows like the Hallmark Hall of Fame and The Wizard of Oz.  For the rest of the time, I'm afraid you'll have to be content with Roller Derby and Championship Bridge, and the Wednesday and Friday Night Fights.  Like I keep saying, it's a different time.


***

Just a quick look at some variety shows.  Sullivan has veteran entertainer Sophie Tucker, singer-actress Dorothy Dandridge, singer Brook Benton, the Ames Brothers, and David Seville.  In case you're not familiar with that last name, here's a picture that might refresh your memory:


Elsewhere, Ed's competition on ABC is a Frank Sinatra special, featuring his Rat Pack buddy Peter Lawford, comedienne Hermione Gingold, singer Ella Fitzgerald, and Red Novro's jazz combo.  There's also an appearance by dancer Juliet Prowse, about whom we wrote last week.  NBC's Chevy Show features hosts Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and singers Dennis Day, Jimmy Dean and Molly Bee.

On Monday, Steve Allen's NBC show (which had started out as a direct competitor to Sullivan) has his wife Jayne Meadows, singers Vic Damone and Sandy Warner, and pianist Andre Previn.  Steve's also joined by his three sons from a previous marriage in a comedy sketch.  Arthur Murray's Tuesday night dance party (NBC) has guests including Burgess Meredith, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Shelly Berman and Merv Griffin.  Perry Como's guests on Wednesday (NBC) are actor Maurice Evens, singer Jane Morgan, and the Wiere Brothers comedy team.

Next week, I expect all these shows will have Christmas lineups.  Unfortunately, we won't be doing that TV Guide next week, for one simple reason - I don't own it.  You can help rectify that with a donation to my PayPal account, but in the meantime, don't worry.  There's still a pretty good issue in store, and a couple more articles in the meantime.

December 11, 2014

What's on TV? Friday, December 10, 1965

Yes, it's time for another edition of everyone's favorite - What's On TV?  This week we're taking a look at the listings for Friday, December 10, 1965.  You can read all about that issue of TV Guide here; now, be prepared for an in-depth look at the day.  We'll get right to it, after the break.

December 9, 2014

Celebrating A Charlie Brown Christmas, 49 years ago tonight

It was 49 years ago tonight that A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted on CBS.  As I suggested in Saturday's TV Guide review, there was a sense that this was a big deal, although almost everyone involved with the special, including the network, was filled with apprehension.

Lee Habeeb has a nice appreciation of the cartoon here (the details of which you might already be familiar with), which not only summarizes the doubts held by the network suits, but nicely puts the program into its cultural context:

As far back as 1965 — just a few years before Time magazine asked “Is God Dead?” — CBS executives thought a Bible reading might turn off a nation populated with Christians. And during a Christmas special, no less! Ah, the perils of living on an island in the northeast called Manhattan.

Yes, it was that long ago, and yet not so long; halfway through the tumultuous '60s, it was the end of one era overlapping with the beginning of another.  A few years prior, Linus' reading from the Bible might have raised nary an eye; a handful of years later, Theodore Geisel would insist that there be no religious overtones associated with his cartoon, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  I don't know that Schulz could have pulled it off today, nor am I sure he would have wanted to.  He did back then though, and for that I'm grateful, along with his insistence on using the voices of real children for the characters, and the wonderful jazz score by the great Vince Guaraldi.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which CBS airs tonight, but while there will always be nostalgia associated with Rudolph*, it is likely A Charlie Brown Christmas which was the more culturally profound, and contains the most meaning today.

*It certainly can't be the story, as I pointed out here.  And while we're at it, why in the name of all that is good and holy did CBS ever give up the rights to the Peanuts cartoons?  Was anyone at the network thinking?  Wait, don't answer that.

In her book Merry Christmas!, Karal Ann Marling points out that the popular celebration of Christmas has always had a secular overtone to it, one that preceded not only the "War on Christmas," but Charlie Brown as well, so I don't mean to put too fine a point on all this.  But there's no reason why we can't celebrate both the secular and sacred aspects of Christmas, after all.  That's what shows like A Charlie Brown Christmas are all about, and that's why we're all entitled to enjoy Christmas like kids at least once a year.  Watch it, watch Rudolph, watch them all!

December 6, 2014

This week in TV Guide: December 4, 1965

It is the first full week in December 1965, which means Christmas programming (and advertising) should be starting, right?  We only have three seasonal specials, but two of them are part of television history.

***

On Saturday, Channel 11 presents syndicated coverage of the Santa Claus Lane Parade, taped on Thanksgiving Day in Los Angeles and hosted by Bill Burrud.  (At least that's what TV Guide says, although according to the always-reliable Wikipedia, the parade was actually held on Thanksgiving Eve.)  At any rate, the parade, which continues to this day, is a tradition in Hollywood; it's said that Gene Autry, riding his horse in the parade, was inspired by children shouting "Here comes Santa Claus" to write the song of the same name.  The rest is - well, you know the rest.

It's the next afternoon that things start to get interesting, as NBC's 4:30 p.m. (CT) General Electric Fantasy Hour presents a rerun of last year's smash animated special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  That's right; it's only the second year for Rudolph, and yet it's already clearly destined to become a Christmas classic.  And classic it is, although this second showing is not quite the same as what audiences saw the year before; as author Rick Goldschmidt writes in his wonderful book, there were several changes made after the first year, including a new scene showing Santa stopping at the Island of Misfit Toys, a new song ("Fame and Fortune", replacing a duet of "We're a Couple of Misfits"), and the inevitable cuts made in order to squeeze in a few new commercials.  In fact, that inaugural telecast of 1964 has never been seen in toto again.

From one classic to another: Thursday at 6:30 p.m., CBS presents the debut of A Charlie Brown Christmas, perhaps the most beloved of Christmas cartoons.  It seems like a sure thing now, but most people know that CBS was very nervous about the whole thing, from the use of real children's voices to Charles Schulz' insistence on the scene of Linus reciting the Nativity from the Gospel According to St. Luke.  Schulz himself had misgivings about the quality of the animation and the cohesiveness of the script, which was written on short notice.  The special is finished only a few days before December 9, with everyone convinced it will be a disaster.  By the end of the premiere broadcast, however, it's clear that the show's a smash, destined to "run for a hundred years."  I don't know about that, but this year it will be halfway there.

TV Guide could sense how special it would be, though, as evidenced by this original two-page strip written exclusively for the magazine by Schulz.


***

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 Milton Berle's guests include Liberace, whom he joins in a song-and-dance number; actor Cesar Romero; singer-dancer Joey Heatherton; the singing McGuire Sisters; Johnny Puleo and his Harmonica Gang; the Berosinis' teeterboard act; and the juggling Peiro boethers from Argentina.

Sullivan:  Scheduled guests include singers Robert Goulet and Jane Powell; comedian Shelly Berman; rock 'n' rollers Tom Jones, and Martha and the Vandellas; comic Bobby Ramsen; the Idla Girls, Swedish gymnasts; Chong and Mana, a balancing act; and Burger's Animals - dogs, ponies and a monkey.

Both shows are heavy on the vaudeville acts this week, so let's concentrate on the big name stars.  I suppose it would be easy to make jokes about Liberace appearing with the in-drag Berle, so we'll let that pass; Cesar Romero has always been a personal favorite; Joey Heatherton's nice to look at; and the McGuire Sisters are OK.  Here's a pretty funny skit from the show featuring Berle as a stuntman, Romero as a pampered star, and Liberace as ruthless killer Irving Goldjacket.


On the other hand, Ed has Robert Goulet, who is very big, and Shelly Berman, who can be very funny.  And Tom Jones!  Tom Jones, who can still bring it!  With that kind of lineup, it's not unusual that we're going with Sullivan as the winner this week.

Here's Tom on that Sullivan show, singing the theme to Thunderball.



***

Youth Version:  In 1965, there were three music shows trying to capitalize on the new wave of youth-oriented music born of the British invasion - in other words, pop and rock.*  They were American Bandstand and Shindig!, both on ABC, and Hullabaloo, on NBC.  The later two shows would only last a couple of years each, although they both produced some memorable moments; Bandstand, hosted by the world's oldest teenager, had started in 1952, and would survive until 1989.  Let's see what their lineups tell us about the culture of '65:

*Or as Sullivan and The Palace would say, "the rock 'n' rolling ..."

Bandstand:  Dick Clark's guests are Gary Lewis and the Playboys and Diane and Anita.

Hullabaloo:  Host Frankie Avalon sings and introduces Nancy Sinatra; singer-dancer Lola Falana; the Ronettes; the Yardbirds; and the Hollies.

Shindig:  (Saturday)  The Animals; the Moody Blues; and Georgie Fame.  (Thursday)  Manfred Mann; the Yardbirds; the Who; and the the Graham Bond Organization.

As you might notice with the Yardbirds, there can be a lot of overlap between the three shows.  In fact, going through YouTube, it's not uncommon to find clips of the same groups on all three of the shows.  But we'll just take a look at what we have this week.

In September of '65, Shindig! went the Dr. Kildare/Peyton Place/Batman route by airing twice a week, which gives it twice the number of guests.  This week's pair of programs, originating from London, include a very strong lineup, including three of my favorites: the Animals, the Moody Blues and The Who, not to mention the post-Clapton Yardbirds.  And that's enough, in my opinion, for Shindig! to outpoint Bandstand's Gary Lewis (son of Jerry) and Hullabaloo's Nancy Sinatra (daughter of the Chairman) and the vivacious Lola Falana.

Here are The Yardbirds singing "For Your Love" from this very episode of Shindig!  Although the clip is in B&W, the show itself was broadcast in color.


These programs are interesting for a variety of reasons.  First, as we know, the transition from traditional variety performers (popular singers, crooners, various comedy acts) to contemporary musical groups have often made for awkward moments on shows such as Sullivan's,* and both Shindig! and Hullabaloo (along with their predecessor, the folk-oriented Hootenanny) are attempts to bring the new era of entertainment to a prime-time audience.

*As Gerald Nachman points out in his flawed but informative book, Sullivan's willingness to bring big-name rock acts on his program meant a temporary boost in the ratings, but ultimately led to the downfall of the "one-size-fits-all" variety show.

Just as important, though, these shows demonstrate the evolution of rock-pop music.  Groups such as The Who, The Yardbirds and The Animals understood and were heavily influenced by the roots of American R&B*, and incorporated it into their music, often in a sophisticated manner.  Other singers, such as Avalon and Nancy Sinatra, would be seen today as representing a much milder version of pop music.  To the extent that today's rock groups merely mimic the sounds of The Who, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, rather than understanding where these sounds are coming from, the contemporary sound is just so much noise, with none of the musicology behind it.  In that sense, these programs really do present us with a unique snapshot of a given time in music.

*Clapton, in fact, left The Yardbirds in a dispute over what he perceived as the group's evolution beyond pure blues.

***

Today (if you're reading this piece on the day it was published) is more or less the final day of college football's regular season (excepting next week's Army-Navy game), and so it is also in this issue of TV Guide, with Penn State-Maryland bringing down the curtain.  Each team is 4-5, meaning neither will go on to the bowl season, which starts the following Saturday with the Tangerine Bowl.  There are no conference playoffs in 1965; in fact, many of the biggest schools belong to no conference at all.  Competition is intense, as only 18 teams will be invited to the nine bowl games.  The games themselves are still transitioning from being merely exhibitions; while UPI still chooses its national champion at the end of the regular season, the AP has recently moved their final poll to after the bowls.*

*Michigan State, #1 at the end of the season, will lose to UCLA in the Rose Bowl, justifying AP's decision to wait after the bowls, when they select Alabama.

It's also nearing the end of the pro season, and the networks are ramping up their coverage; NBC follows the Penn State-Maryland game with a Saturday AFL special featuring the New York Jets and the Chargers in San Diego; Sunday's NFL doubleheader on CBS has the Vikings and Packers followed by the Lions and 49ers, while the AFL on NBC continues with the Bills and Oilers in Houston.

Speaking of which, For the Record notes that the NFL is on the verge of a record-breaking contract with CBS, one that will pay the league $75 million for four years, an increase of over $20 million from the previous contract.  This breaks the record set by the AFL's $36 million five-year contract with NBC.  By contrast, today's NFL TV rights are somewhere north of $6 billion a year.

***

I've written here about this week's cover story - no, not Juliet Prowse, but historian Arnold Toynbee's "Television: The Lion That Squeaks," and since that's an article in itself, I won't copy it here, but take a moment to check it out.  Hard to believe, considering the fanmag TV Guide has turned into, that serious, intellectual articles such as this used to be published in it.

And as for the leggy Miss Prowse, survivor of a broken engagement to Frank Sinatra, niightclub singer and dancer and current star of the sitcom Mona McCluskey, this is her second appearance on the cover of TV Guide in a little less than a year, the previous one having been in December 1964.  Alas for her, the show - which tells the story of an entertainer married to an Air Force sergeant, wouldn't even have spanned that length of time: premiered September 1965, cancelled April 1966.

December 5, 2014

Christmas invades Around the Dial - and more!

All right, all right, I know I'm a day late with this (and perhaps a dollar short as well, but that's for another day); better late than never though, right?  Besides, it just means we have even more to catch up with today, right?  Let's dip into a week with a definite Christmas theme!

I didn't see last night's live version of Peter Pan on NBC, but I doubt it would have compared to the classic Mary Martin production that NBC aired in the 1950s and '60s.  At Classic Film and TV Cafe, Rick has a fond retrospective of those Mary Martin versions, as well as some more recent attempts to capture the magic of that strange, wonderful story.  Although I must have seen the 1966 telecast, it's the 1973 version that I first remember, and the 1989 one that I captured on DVD.  (There's also a very good comprehensive look at the genesis of the original musical, from it's Broadway days to television, here.)

You probably aren't surprised to find that I have difficulty getting interested in more modern Christmas movies; my heart, after all, is with my own memories, which tend to be significantly different from contemporary ones, but Joanna at Christmas TV History covers a very unusual and often moving documentary from this year on men who play Santa Claus, and the effect it has on them.  It reminds me of the British Christmas special The Curious Case of Santa Claus, featuring Jon Pertwee as a psychiatrist and James Coco as the Santa who insists he's the real thing.  You should watch it when you get a chance.

Cult TV Blog is back with a look at the Avengers episode "Esprit de Corps," from the Mrs. Gale era of the show.  He correctly points out the negatives as well as positives of this episode, and why when all is said and done it's still vintage Avengers.  We finished our Avengers top-to-bottom viewing a year or two ago (it was a Friday night staple, since replaced by The Saint), but it's probably due for a revival next year.

I've mentioned some of my favorite Christmas shows from time to time, but I don't know if I've ever given a comprehensive list of the programs in the Hadley DVD collection.  (Note to self: idea for future post.)  Comfort TV's David has a great list of classic Christmas-themed episodes of popular shows, and since mine tend to be of the movie/variety show ilk, it also gives me something to add to my own viewing.  Thanks!

I'm old enough to remember the American Football League; hence, I'm also old enough to remember when there were not two, not three, but four pro games on Thanksgiving Day.  Ah, those were the days!  You don't read about them much, though, which at times makes me wonder if I remember them correctly.  Thankfully, Jeff at Classic TV Sports is here to remind me that I was right, with this review of Thanksgiving football of the late '60s.

This week's TV Guide review at Television Obscurities will be up later on, so be sure to go and read it.  In the meantime, there is this story on CBS' upcoming broadcast on Sunday of two colorized I Love Lucy classic episodes, including a repeat of the Christmas special.  I'm of two minds about colorization; I think it's criminal in the case of movies and shows that made the cinematography an integral part of the story's atmospherics (think film noir), but there are cases (Holiday Inn, for instance) where I'm sure it wold have been made in color were that the norm for the time.  (Speaking of which, Terry Teachout has an interesting piece on the colorization of old photos here.)

Whew - that should give you enough to mull on until tomorrow, when your scribe is back with another TV Guide from the mid '60s, featuring a couple of Christmas classics.  Be here!

December 2, 2014

Recasting "It's a Wonderful Life"

For many people, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without watching It's a Wonderful Life on TV.  I'm not one of those people - there's something about the dimwittedness of George Bailey that irritates the hell out of me.   I mean, sometimes you just want to grab him by the shoulders and slap him: “Don’t you get it? Clarence is an Angel! When he tells you this is a world in which you never existed, believe him!”  Until NBC mercifully stepped in a few years ago and obtained exclusive TV rights to the movie, one lived under the constant threat that someday they would find It's a Wonderful Life airing on every station, a kind of Orwellian nightmare that could turn even the biggest Christmas fan away from the Yuletide season forever.

I'll admit, as I always do, that I could be wrong about this; judging by the number of people who site the movie as their favorite, I probably am.*  So I've had to live with its presence; we even own it on DVD, though I don't think we've ever watched it.  It just seemed somehow sacrilegious to not have it.

*Of course, I have my own favorite, as I mentioned last year.

With that in mind, a few years ago I started thinking about how the movie might be saved, or at least made more palatable for people like me to watch.  And then it hit me - remake the movie as a buddy picture with George and Clarence being played by a famous comedy team.  Now, adaptations of It's a Wonderful Life have been done many, many times, probably as often as A Christmas Carol - after all, what better way to show someone the value of their life by demonstrating how different the world would have been without them.  But unlike Carol, nobody has ever tried to actually remake the original story with the original characters - instead, they invariably try to shoehorn it into a program's existing cast or storyline, and that misses much of the story's character.  Instead, all we do here is recast the two leads, and let their chemistry carry the rest.  Herewith, five suggestions for comedy teams that might be able to pull it off, and the relationships on which their performances would be based:

1.  Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie (Jeeves and Wooster)
I think this might be my favorite of all the variations.  Laurie, who's been in way better shows than House, would be perfect in adapting his well-meaning but bumbling Bertie Wooster to the uncomprehending George, while Fry, who was simply unflappable as the faithful valet Jeeves, would be a stellar Clarence.  Fry and Laurie are always wonderful together, and it would be terrific seeing them take on this pair.

2.  Bing Crosby and Bob Hope (The "Road" pictures)
Another thought that makes me smile.  With Crosby as the cool, hip Clarence and Hope as the neurotic George, these two could give Wonderful Life a well-needed facelift.  "C'mon, Junior, don't you get it?" Crosby/Clarence says.  "You were never even hatched from the egg."  Bonus points for casting Dorothy Lamour as Mary, and Joan Collins as Violet.

3.  Tony Randall and Jack Klugman (The Odd Couple)
Or Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, if you prefer - either way, it works wonderfully.  "George, George, George," Randall/Clarence says sadly, "you've made such a messy life for yourself.  But just imagine if that life had never existed."  One drawback - Clarence's loud honking from his sinus condition after he and George are pulled from the freezing water.

4.  Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (all their movies together)
Two scenes describe it all: Lewis/George falling to pieces when he finally figures out the truth of what Martin/Clarence is showing him, and the scene in Potterville where George runs after the spinster Mary: "Lady!  Hey, Laaaady!"  To which Clarence replies, "Pally, you got a lot of learnin' to do."

5.  Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (Sherlock)
Not one you'd immediately think of, but then, why not?  Could anyone be more precise, logical and irritating than Sherlock Holmes as Clarence?  Not only would he demonstrate that George was now living in an alternate world, but he'd go on to explain exactly how he'd been able to do it.  Of course, you'd still have to explain how he and George survived going over the Reichenbach Falls.  Andrew Scott (Moriarity) makes a cameo appearance as Mr. Potter.

And there you have it.  See how easy it is?  There are others, of course: Charles Grodin and Robert DeNiro (Midnight Run, and wouldn't that be dark?) or Peter Falk and Alan Arkin (The In-Laws), but you get the idea.  I'm willing to stake my reputation that any one of these combos would make for a better movie than the original.  Or, at least, a different one.  But it makes for a great game for you readers playing along at home!  And I'm sure some of you might be able to come up with different pairings...