January 24, 2015

This week in TV Guide: January 24, 1959

This week it's the first of several issues coming to us from New England.  I'm a bit familiar with the area myself, having lived in Maine for four years, so I recognize a few of these stations.  And while we'll see some differences in programming, for the most part television is television, no matter where it comes from.

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And we'll lead off with our cover story, looking at the great Red Skelton. You might think he's the one asking "What Good Are Television Critics?" but he's not - we'll get to that later.  In fact, the bulk of this article asks a different question - "What Makes a Clown?" - and plays this off against the death last year of his nine-year-old son Richard from leukemia.  Does tragedy help define a clown - you know, in the same way that Janus has the laughing and crying face?  "Malarky!" Red replies (or something like that; I'm betting that he didn't use quite that tame a word); "My comedy has nothing to do with tragedy.  I couldn't tell you why people laugh at me."

But laugh at him they do.  Skelton started on radio in 1937, graduating to host his own show the next year, and moved to television in 1951, where he will stay until 1971.  He's made movies, done countless personal appearances, and lives on an estate with his wife and daughter and a staggering number of pets.  In his spare time he paints clown pictures (such as the one on the cover), and estimates he's done at least 500.

But Dwight Whitney's story keeps coming back to tragedy, albeit sensitively, and though Skelton denies it, there is a moment when he lets the mask slip.  Everyone undergoes tragedy, he says, everyone suffers.  "How about the parents during the war who sweated out that telegram from the War Department?"  And then, after a pause, he adds, "Except my kid had no gun to defend himself with."

Red Skelton has a reputation for being difficult to work with, a suggestion that all is not rosy behind the crowd-pleasing clown's face, but for this article, at least, Skelton is all-too human.

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It's a Leonard Bernstein doubleheader this week!  I assumed that Sunday afternoon's concert on CBS, in which Bernstein leads his New York Philharmonic in a program called "Jazz in Classical Music," must have been one of his renowned "Young People's Concerts."  After all, it has all the trademarks of one of Bernstein's programs, "showing how composers have consciously or unconsciously employed jazz elements" in their classical pieces.

But no - flipping the pages to the front of the programming section, there Bernstein is again, with a Saturday noon offering, on CBS that is one of the Young People's Concerts.  The ad promises "an exciting opportunity to learn 'What Does Classical Music Mean?'"  And it was exciting.  Bernstein, whatever his faults and flaws - and he had many, both professionally and personally - was a wonderful teacher, not only able to transmit knowledge to both children and adults in an understandable manner, but to infuse it with his own personal enthusiasm and excitement.  I wasn't yet alive when his Young People's broadcasts started, but Bernstein did them throughout the '60s, and many of them (along with his broadcasts for Omnibus) survive on DVD.  Here's part one of the broadcast in question:


To this day I may not always get everything he's teaching, but I know he had a lot to do with building a love of classical music in me.  Could anyone today do what Bernstein did back then?  My wife suggested Michael Tilson Thomas, the conductor for the San Francisco Philharmonic, who succeeded Bernstein in the original broadcasts.  He's done some very good classical music programs for PBS in the last few years, but could he transmit Bernstein's excitement to young people?  If there's anyone out there who could, I suspect it would be Gustavo Dudamel, the dynamic conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  I wish he'd try it, he might be the only one who could talk a network into broadcasting that kind of show.  Since most schools, for whatever reason, no longer have music appreciation, a show like this may be the last best hope for transmitting to future generations a love of classical music.

ALL: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION

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Also on Saturday night, WBZ carries Archbishop Fulton Sheen's religious program Life is Worth Living.  Sheen is one of the most famous religious apologists of the time, a popular and widely loved spokesman for the Christian faith.  His gentle, witty manner has won many converts among both celebrities and ordinary folk, and his long-running program, seen first on DuMont, then ABC, and by 1959 in syndication, has won Emmy awards and drawn audiences of as many as 10 million viewers.  Here's the program that was broadcast that Saturday on WBZ, with Sheen discussing the topic of courtship:


This of course begs the same question: could anyone do this today?  Granted there are any number of religious networks on cable today, including the Catholic network EWTN, which broadcasts Sheen's program.  But could a mainstream network do it?  You've got to be kidding, right?  These are the people who won't even use the word "Christmas" anymore.  But even if there was such an opportunity, who would take advantage of it?  With Billy Graham having retired, is there anyone that the public would trust, anyone who could escape the suspicions generated by sex and financial scandals?  I know a few who would be great at it, but they lack the high profile to be able to do it.  No, I think not - and in this case, the churches have often been their own worst enemies.

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There are other programs like these this week - The Voice of Firestone, for example, which airs on ABC Monday nights and this week features a quintet of stars from the Metropolitan Opera; and a host of religious programs on Sunday morning, including highlights of the installation of the new Protestant Episcopal Bishop, shown on WHDH in Boston.

And those aren't the only kinds of programs you don't see on mainstream television anymore.  For instance, science.

The United States has been in something of a tizzy about a "science gap" since the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957.  Amid growing fears that the U.S. is falling farther and father behind, the nation launches a renewed emphasis on teaching science*, and evidence of that can be seen on TV screens everywhere.

*No pun intended.

On NBC Monday night, our favorite scientist, Dr. Linguistics (aka Dr. Frank Baxter) is back with another installment in the Bell Laboratories Science Series, "The Alphabet Conspiracy."


Continental Classroom, which airs Monday through Friday morning at 6:30am ET on Portland's WCSH, is chock-full of science programming - "Electromagnetic Waves" on Monday, "Vacuum Tubes" on Tuesday, "Experiment on Vacuum Tubes" on Wednesday, "Oscillators and Amplifiers" on Thursday, and "Transistors" to end the week.  WGBH, Boston's legendary public broadcasting channel, carries Grade 6 Science on Monday morning and has Science in Sight on Monday evening, and WPRO in Providence has Space and Science Saturday afternoon, And then, of course, there's the grandfather of them all, NBC's Watch Mr. Wizard, with Don Herbert.  Oh, and don't forget programs such as G-E College Bowl, which made knowledge admirable, if not sexy.

Does any of this help close the gap?  I don't know.  We do know that the United States will catch and pass the Soviets, landing a man on the moon a little over ten years from now.  It is a great victory for American engineering and one of the great scientific achievements of all time.  Now, over 40 years since that first moon landing, there's a cable channel devoted to science, But you might need that microscope to find any scientific programming on mainstream television.

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"What good are television critics?" is the question posed on this week's cover.  And the answer?  It depends on who you ask.  Oliver Treyz, president of ABC, says they "Certainly affect our over-all thinking," which C. Terence Clyne, vice president of the McCann-Erickson ad agency, counters that critics' importance are "limited to the board of directors of the sponsor and his ad agency."*

*Remember that at this time, sponsors were still prime movers and shakers when it came to the television schedule, and a sponsor could doom a series if it withdrew sponsorship.

Critics are themselves divided on the subject - the famed New York Times critic Jack Gould things "our influence is vastly overrated.  We generate interest more than influence," while his counterpart at the Herald Tribune, John Crosby, says that he and other critics get plenty of mail from their readers telling that that "we persuade or dissuade them from watching a certain show."  A recent poll shows that 54% of viewers have, at one time or another, made their viewing choices based on a review.

One thing that everyone seems to agree on, though, is that critics perform a vital function.  David Susskind feels it is the critic who holds producers' feet to the fire, forcing him to offer better quality programming.  "Without the critic, I believe we would have more mediocrity than we now have."

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Last week I wrote about the March of Dimes, which updated the progress of their annual campaign with a local television program.  This week, we're reminded again of how big the March of Dimes was with WHDH's March of Dimes Auction.  The show kicks off at 2pm and runs until 4:30, returning intermittently throughout the night until the station signs off.  All the goods are donated by local merchants, and the phones are being handled by "models and Channel 5 staffers."  It reminds me of the old Action Auction fundraiser on Minneapolis' PBS station, Channel 2 - although that was used to raise money for the station itself.

The show is described as a fundraiser "for the benefit of polio victims," of which there are still many.  It's true, however, that with the advent of the Salk and Sabin vaccines, polio is not the horrifying plague that it has been for so many generations.  And this ad perhaps indicates that knowledge, as the organization begins to transition from polio research to that of other illnesses, finally settling on birth defects.  I love the tag line at the end of this ad: "Toward Greater Victories".  It's a reminder that the March of Dimes helped fund the discoveries that helped stamp out polio, and a sign that the same kind of scientific progress can be made toward other diseases.  And a reminder, as if we didn't need one this week, that science indeed plays a major role in the culture of the late 1950s.

3 comments:

  1. I remember seeing "The Alphabet Conspiracy" in 8th grade, about 20 years after it was made. I specifically remember the linguistic interrogation that happens at about 35:00 in the video. I'd moved from Upstate NY to the Nashville, TN area by then and tried "greasy" on my TN-native friend, but since I said it to him instead of showing it to him on a card, he pronounced it as I did. When I told him he was supposed to pronounce it "greazy", he said of course he normally pronounced it that way. I've always found language fascinating, studying Latin & Spanish in high school and taking an elective course in linguistics in college.

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    1. One of the things I think you can pick up on from time to time in programs of the era is the regional difference in how some words are pronounced. For example, I've seen several shows from that era in which people pronounced Houston as "Whoston." Of course, it wasn't the fourth-largest city in the country back then, either!

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  2. If my memory serves me correct, I think Leonard Bernstein's "Young People's Concerts" moved from Carnegie Hall to the Ed Sullivan Theatre in the Fall of 1965 so CBS could carry these specials in color since the Sullivan theatre had been converted to color in September of that year.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!