January 17, 2015

This week in TV Guide: January 16, 1960

Cliff Arquette is one of those whose name means different things to different people, depending on how old you are.

To a certain generation he'll be known, if at all, as the grandfather of actresses Rosanna (who wasn't really the inspiration for the song by Toto) and Patricia (who was nominated this week for an Oscar for Boyhood).  To my generation, he's "Charley Weaver," the beloved lower left square in The Hollywood Squares.  And to the generation reading this week's TV Guide, he's the jolly host of The Charley Weaver Show on ABC.

The Weaver shtick started in the late '40s, and has been smoothly refined by now.  In addition to his show, Arquette is the author of Charley Weaver's Letters From Mama, as well as a regular on Jack Paar's Tonight.  His homespun humor is based on the goings-on in the fictional town of Mount Idy, and most of his jokes deserve some kind of rim shot.  ("Doctor Beemish was caught driving while drunk the other night.  But they let him go.  He was already late for an operation.")

What's interesting about Charley Weaver, or Cliff Arquette, is how his career spans so many different times.  Like many television stars, he and his character came of age on radio.  By the time of this issue of TV Guide, in the pre-JFK days of 1960, he was already well-established on television, yet his greatest fame probably came on Squares, on which he appeared until his death in 1974.  He spanned the years from the static of network radio to the musty black-and-white days of this issue to the vivid color and double entendres of the '70s.  Three different ages, three different worlds.  And he was there for them all.

***

ALL: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
A word of explanation about the "ideal woman" picked by Today.  Were you to read the article, you
might be puzzled as to why Carol Brady, aka Florence Henderson, has been chosen as one of the hosts of what is ostensibly a morning news program.  The explanation lies in the phrase "Today Girl."

From the show's beginning until the mid '60s, the "Today Girl" (or "Woman's Editor," as they were originally called) had a specific role: to report on woman's issues (fashion, lifestyle), to give the weather, and to spar with the male host of the show (variously Dave Garroway, John Chancellor and Hugh Downs).  None of the "Today Girls" were news reporters or had much of a news background at all; they were either singers (Henderson, Helen O'Connell), actresses (Estelle Parsons, Maureen O'Sullivan), or the vaguely-worded "personalities" (Lee Meriwether, Betsy Palmer).  Not to put to fine an edge on the point, they were eye candy just as much as anything.

Barbara Walters was the final "Today Girl," joining the program in 1964 and being promoted to full-fledged co-host in 1966.  According to Walters, the show's producers (and many in the television industry, to be honest) were concerned that "nobody would take a woman seriously reporting 'hard news.'"  We can see that begin to change in the pages of TV Guide; anyone who's read the program listings from the early '60s has probably noticed ABC's Lisa Howard and Marlene Sanders as two pioneers in the news business.

Of course, Today was never really a news program in the strict sense; after all, this is a show that had a chimp as a co-host for a while.  And it would be a very hard sell to suggest that there aren't better female journalists around than those who do host the morning shows.  But even Robin Roberts, who made a successful transition from reporting sports to hosting Good Morning America, would have been a tower of journalistic chops compared to some of the early morning hosts of the past.  And I'd like to think that the hosts on today's morning shows* would be well-equipped to cover a breaking news story.

*Except for "Fox and Friends," that is.  Mercy, but they need a better cast on that show.

By the way, the story of Lisa Howard, ABC's first female newscaster, is a fascinating one.  Remind me to tell it someday.

***

Yes, we all know that Saturday night is the television graveyard today, and that this wasn't always the case.  I've referred frequently to the "Murderer's Row" that CBS used to have: All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, M*A*S*H and Carol Burnett - but even before then, Saturday was a big TV night - the famed Sid Caesar-Imogene Coca Your Show of Shows aired on Saturday, as did Gunsmoke, Lawrence Welk, Perry Mason and many other series.  Now, of course, people go out to bars, restaurants, or other special events on Saturdays; back then, when they went out, it was likely to someone else's home for a night of television.  TV was the special event.

We get another example of the power of Saturday night broadcasting this week, with back-to-back color specials on NBC.  First, at 7:30pm CT, it's Jerry Lewis, hosting his second comedy special of the season, with opera star Helen Traubel, jazz great Lionel Hampton, football quarterback Johnny Unitas, and Jerry's sons Gary and Ronnie.  It's a big lineup for one of the biggest comedians in the business.

Following that, at 8:30, it's another comedian, Art Carney, starring in a much different role.  It's the one-man drama "Call Me Back," in which Carney plays a man whose life is on the verge of destruction.  His marriage has ended and taken his daughter away, he's been fired from his job, and his friends have deserted him.  Sitting alone in his home with only a diminishing bottle of booze and the telephone, he tries to maintain a tenuous connection with the world.  As I said, a different show altogether.

All in all, it sounds like an interesting night of television.  One that you'll never see on Saturdays again - and wouldn't likely see on any other night of the week.

***

There's not much to report on the sports scene this week.  On Saturday afternoon there's some basketball - college and pro - along with an NHL game on CBS (joined in progress).  NBC has the Royal Poinciana Handicap horse race, a reminder of when non-Triple Crown horse races were still notable.

Sunday's little-better - another pro basketball game, CBS' Sports Spectacular, wowing us with sports such as water polo, badminton and judo, and that abomination of a sporting event, the NFL Pro Bowl.  Perhaps it was a better game back then, when we didn't get to see all these great players on TV all the time.  And the players, who didn't get paid all that much back then, probably welcomed the extra cash from competing.  Or maybe it was just as bad then - who knows?

Ah, but there is one sport that still has a presence on television - boxing.  It's the only prime-time sport on TV right now, and this week's highlight is NBC's Friday Night Fight between Sugar Ray Robinson and Paul Pender for Robinson's world middleweight championship.*  In an epic battle, Pender wins a controversial split decision to take the crown.  He'll retain it in a rematch with Robinson later in the year, and will retire as champion in 1963.

*That is, if you define "world" as Massachusetts, New York, and The Ring magazine.  Robinson had previously been stripped of his title by the National Boxing Association for having failed to defend it for 22 months.  In case you're wondering why Massachusetts recognized Robinson, could it be because the fight was being held in Paul Pender's hometown of Boston?


***

Some brief notes from the rest of the week:

On Monday, The Mike Wallace Interviews (KFJZ, the independent station in Fort Worth, now KTVT, a CBS affiliate) has Mike's interview with the legendary Dorothy Day.  Day, who is currently being considered for canonization by the Catholic Church, is the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, dedicated to peace and social justice.  She's one of the most influential American Catholics of the second half of the 20th Century, and has continued to grow in statue since her death in 1980.  You read and hear a lot about her today, so this interview with her, capturing her work at the moment, is a cultural moment - much like Wallace's interview with, for example, Ayn Rand.  I wish there was a video copy of it, but audio copies are available at numerous internet sites.

Even in 1960, polio is something to be feared, though the Salk and Sabin vaccines have dramatically reduced the risk in the United States.  Still, we're not that far removed from the time when even the whisper of the word polio was enough to send everyone into a panic, and we're reminded of that by KRLD's Monday night report on the Mother's March on Polio, with reports given "by the team captains of each section of metropolitan Dallas."  Thankfully, that scourge has been more or less eliminated here, although it continues to break out in other parts of the world.

Live TV isn't dead yet, and we have three reminders of that on Sunday night alone.  First, at 7pm CT we have Ed Sullivan's show, which is usually live; Ed's guests are singers Rosemary Clooney, Billy Daniels, Nelson Eddy and Gale Sherwood, musical-comedy star Carol Lawrence, and an assortment of dancers, acrobats, ventriloquists and other novelty acts.   The Chevy Show, on NBC at 8pm, has Jane Powell hosting an hour of variety featuring Peter Gunn's Craig Stevens, Tales of Wells Fargo's Dale Robertson, Miyoshi Umeki, Taina Elg and Carl Ballentine.*  Opposite that, at 8:30 CT, The DuPont Show of the Month on CBS presents a live 90-minute adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' Pulitzer-winning novel Arrowsmith, starring Farley Granger and Diane Baker.

*Peter Gunn and Tales of Wells Fargo are both NBC programs.  Imagine that.

And a glance at the movies on TV this week show that, unlike what we have today, big stars frequently starred in movies that were not blockbusters (several per year, in some cases), and even with TCM we might not recognize the films today.  For example, WBAP has Cloak and Dagger, the story of an atomic scientist spying on the Nazis' atomic development from within German-occupied Italy, starring Gary Cooper and Lilli Palmer.  There's They Met in Bombay on KFJZ, a jewel-heist story with Clark Gable and Rosalind Russell, which also has another Gable flick, Love on the Run, a spy story co-starring Joan Crawford, and The Secret Heart, about a rich widow and her stepchildren, with Claudette Colbert and Walter Pidgeon.  Of course, there are plenty of familiar titles to choose from as well - Meet Me in St. Louis, Summertime, My Favorite Wife, Scarlet Street.  Back when TV stations loved movies - those were the days, weren't they?

4 comments:

  1. In re Cliff Arquette/Charlie Weaver:
    You didn't mention that Arquette's Hollywood Squares tenure was interrupted when he suffered a major stroke circa 1970 (not sure of the exact date). He did return after some month's absence, but he'd lost an enormous amount of weight, which caused his 'Charley Weaver' clothes to hang loosely on him.
    The stroke also slowed his mind a bit. On Squares, Charley was known as the one who would almost always come up with the right answers to the various questions; that didn't happen as often post-stroke.

    In 1963, on a short-lived show called Laughs For Sale, Cliff Arquette made his only TV appearance (that I know of) as himself, without the Charley Weaver get-up.
    This show had comics performing material sent in by would-be comedy writers, which they would then analyze and suggest improvements.
    All the comics were in black tie (this was a Sunday night show); without the wig, hat, and mustache, Arquette could have passed as a newscaster.
    The other comics on this episode were Shecky Greene and Paul Winchell, who brought along Jerry Mahoney (they did a double act with the submitted skit).

    Which reminds me ...
    At this point (Jan. '60) Paul Winchell had a weekly variety show on ABC, airing Sunday afternoons (4:00 pm Central Time). In that time slot, you can assume that the show was kid-oriented, but Winchell was a multi-talent, singing, doing characters, and the vent act.
    The Paul Winchell Show ran on ABC for three seasons on Sunday afternoons, not a bad run for this kind of show.

    Still on KidVid:
    Channel 7, the Chicago ABC affiliate, had a live show on Saturday mornings called Chatter's World.Chatter was a trained chimpanzee who would be turned loose on a stage with various sets and props, and would do whatever he would with them. Offstage, staff announcer Ronny Born would assume Chatter's part and adlib comments to go along with the chimp's actions. Chatter could be unpredictable, but Born was pretty fast himself. The live parts were interspersed with film segments in which Chatter would be on location in "roles" (such as a real estate salesman showing a house to a couple or the like); these were a little more scripted than the live parts, but Ronny Born handled these with aplomb. A pretty funny show, all in all.
    And after fifty-plus years, I still remember the theme song:

    Chatter's got the whole place in a mess
    Chatter doesn't know that he's a pest
    Chatter's only trying to do his best
    CHATTER!
    What's the matter with you?

    Chatter's got some trouble on his brain
    Chatter's gonna drive us all insane
    Chatter, we really hate to complain
    But CHATTER!

    (music up and out)

    ... it's even better with the music ...

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    Replies
    1. Good stuff! I was thinking about Paul Winchell; I think I saw the listing in that TV Guide. And I thought, not for the first time, what a remarkable man he was, with his work on the artificial heart. Charley Weaver was always great on Hollywood Squares, bless his heart!

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  2. Cliff Arquette and Jonathan WInters are untouchable legends!

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    Replies
    1. Absolutely! It's trite to say that they don't make 'em like that anymore, but...

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