March 7, 2015

This week in TV Guide: March 7, 1959

Walter Brennan - veteran of nearly 40 years in the movies, three-time Oscar winner*, and currently the star of ABC's The Real McCoys, has some interesting thoughts on television:  "It's like ice cream.  Awfully good stuff but you've got to be careful not to 'eat' too much of it."

*Tied with Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis for most Oscar wins by a male actor.  Not bad company, hmm?

He wonders why anyone would willingly choose to do a television series, given the workload.  "We have to cover 14 script pages a day and do 39 shows a year.  I wake up in the middle of the night wondering why a man in his right mind does it.  Why, I see more of the people I work with in The Real McCoys than I do my own wife."

On the other hand, he also understands that television is the future, and that anyone who wants to continue working is going to have to gravitate towards it.  "TV is the thing that is modern, and you've got to go along with it.  They sorta talked me into this series against my better judgment.  Now that I'm in - well, I think we've got a good show.  Anyway, people seem to like it.  And I like the people on the show.  And I'm rather taken with [his character] Grampa McCoy."

I suppose it's likely more people saw Walter Brennan during the six seasons (plus endless reruns) of The Real McCoys than all of his movies put together.  It's true that his three Best Supporting Actor Oscars came from a different time in the movies, when the role of the supporting actor was well and exclusively defined.  (One wouldn't see Meryl Streep, for example, competing in a Supporting Actress role.)  And television has been very good to Brennan, giving him an income that, with his careful management, has allowed him to become a wealthy man.  With that kind of security comes the freedom to be outspoken, and Brennan has some definite thoughts on TV.  He's fond of it, and watches it "a good deal" until something on it starts to annoy him.  He's a big fan of his own show (never misses it), and prefers programs like Gunsmoke, Lawrence Welk, George Burns and Red Skelton to the "prestige" dramas such as Playhouse 90.

On the other hand... "I don't watch to criticize, but of course you can't help it.  I even criticize myself.  I don't like all this violence on TV these days.  I don't like depressing things.  I have an instinct to watch the other guy...If a guy thinks at all, he knows he's fortunate to have had a little recognition.  He'd be silly to think it was all him."

Brennan and Dezi Arnez once figured that The Real McCoys would be good for about five seasons before hitting the wall, and that's just fine with him.  "To be in this business longer than that a man really has to have a hole in his head."  It's not his last go-round in the weekly series department, though, with upcoming stops such as the underrated The Guns of Will Sonnett (a curious late-60s Western that debuted long after the golden age of Westerns had ended) and To Rome With Love.  For anyone familiar with Brennan's Western persona, a must-see is his lampooning of that character in the wonderful James Garner comedy Support Your Local Sheriff!


***

I don't mean to spend too much time in the glossy national section of this week's issue, but there's another article that catches my eye: "How Television Encourages Children to Read."  That is so contrary to the conventional thinking, both then and now, that it deserves a closer look.

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
The idea is that television shows send children running to the library to learn more about what they've seen, whether it be stars like Wyatt Earp, Robin Hood and Davy Crockett, or books on "how to make a monster."

The bulk of the article details the ways in which libraries are learning how to use the new medium to their own advantage.  In Philadelphia, for example, librarians publicize upcoming shows such as Peter Pan or Sleeping Beauty and suggest to kids that they'll want to read the book before they see the program.  In Los Angeles, where their evidence suggests "television programs stimulate children to read more widely," Davy Crockett is such a big hit that one patron contributed enough funds for the library to purchase 50 copies of Crockett biographies.  Denver reports that Shirley Temple's Storybook has sparked new interest in fairy tales, and in New York, Golden Press is working on book adaptations of popular TV shows such as Maverick and Leave It to Beaver.  The head children's librarian in San Francisco goes so far as to say that TV stimulates children to find out more factual information about the characters in their favorite shows.

All is not completely rosy, however - in Chicago, one librarian says she could not convince a child that Cinderella was written by Charles Perrault - the child was sure it was Rogers and Hammerstein.  Children do tend to be confused when shows are widely different than the books on which they're based, and kids from "poorer" reading groups often want simplified versions of the stories they see, rather than the real thing.

The consensus, though, seems to be that television should no longer be seen as the enemy, but as something that can be "a useful instrument in a child's education."

***

Television's favorite opera composer is back with a new production this week.  It's Maria Golovin, the newest from Gian Carlo Menotti, composer of the beloved Amahl and the Night Visitors.  The opera was commissioned by Peter Herman Adler, head of NBC Opera Theatre, and it makes its television debut Sunday afternoon with a two-hour color broadcast.  Maria Golovin is heavy stuff, telling the story of the romance between a blind, former POW and a married woman living in a European country a few years after a recent war.

Menotti was once famous enough that he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and he won two Pulitzer Prizes in the '50s for his operas.  By 1959, however, Menotti's star has begun to fade.  Golovin receives only fair reviews, and his subsequent operas, such as the made-for-TV Labyrinth and The Last Savage, are poorly received.  Today, he's a much underrated composer; although Amahl continues to delight audiences young and old, most of his operas have fallen into disuse, which is a pity.  Occasionally one comes across a revival of his Pulitzer-winning operas, The Consul (a brutal take on a totalitarian government) and The Saint of Bleecker Street, and Menotti deserves to one day be back in the opera house on a regular basis.  I fear, however, that it will happen about the time opera makes a comeback on network television.

***

I'll note once again why something like NBC Opera Theatre can be seen on a Sunday afternoon - it's because sports on television is in 1959 nowhere near as prevalent as it is today.  Take Saturday, for example, the busier of the two days of the weekend.  CBS has an "ice hockey" game between the New York Rangers and Chicago Black Hawks at 1:30pm CT, while there are a pair of collage basketball contests on at 2pm - Cincinnati vs. Bradley on Channels 5 and 6, Missouri vs. Kansas State on Channels 8 and 10.  A couple of made-for-TV bowling programs round out the day's sporting activity.  Sunday is even leaner, with NBC's NBA game between the St. Louis Hawks and Minneapolis Lakers being the only major event - unless you want to include another bowling show, and a roller derby match between the San Francisco Bay-Area Bombers and the New York Chiefs.

So what exactly did all-weekend sports replace on TV?  Well, there were a lot of movies, Westerns, and Western movies that ran on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.  There were syndicated programs such as Mr. District Attorney on Channel 8 and Abbot and Costello on Channel 11.  There were local and national variety shows, cartoons, Sunday afternoon religious, news and public affairs programs, and G-E College Bowl.  There was, in fact, a great deal of diversity in the programming.  Compared to the infomercials that too often dominate non-network hours today, I think that's not such a bad lineup.

***

Speaking of variety shows, we know that the golden age of variety has long since disappeared from television, but it's useful to see just how many shows there were in 1959.  In fact, as we run through the week, we find at least one on every night.

Saturday night always was a good night for variety, and there's plenty of it this week.  At 6:30pm, Dick Clark's ABC program features Jaye P. Morgan (pre-Gong Show), Paul Anka and Dale Hawkins, and Fabian and the Coasters.  That's followed at 7:00 by Red Foley's Country show Jubilee U.S.A., with Tex Ritter and the Schmitz Sisters; opposite that, Perry Como's colorcast on NBC has Ronnie Burns, Eve Arden (Our Miss Brooks) and Max Gallop.  Lawrence Welk is on at 8:00 with his show, known formally back then as the Dodge Dancing Party.

Sunday is Ed Sullivan's night, of course, and this week Ed's guests include Jane Russell and her younger brother Kevin, Shelly Winters, Fred MacMurray, Jan Murray, Joe Howard, David Seville and the Chipmunks, and Shecky Greene.  Before that, though, NBC has a program called Music Shop (last show of the series), hosted by Buddy Bregman and starring the great Billy Eckstine and Dodie Stevens.  Steve Allen follows Music Shop - although next week Steve movies from 7pm to 6:30, to get a half-hour jump on Ed.  For this week, Steve's guests are Zsa Zsa Gabor, Vic Damone, Jane Harvey, Johnny Carson (!) and Earl "Father" Hines.  NBC's variety show block concludes at 8pm with The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, and we're reminded just how attractive Dinah was back then.  Pretty good show, too, with Tony Randall, Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Grable.

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
Monday has what I'd consider an unusual variety show - a special presentation of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus on ABC, with ringmaster Ernie Kovacs.  I don't know if it lives up to its billing as The Greatest Show on Earth, but with a host like Kovacs it has to be pretty good.  Then there's the Arthur Murray Dance Party on NBC later that night, with Kathryn Murray interviewing Cornelia Otis Skinner, Rita Gam, Denise Darcel, Mitchell Parrish, Enzo Stuarti and Judy Lynn.  Opposite that is the wonderful singer Patti Page, whose ABC show features Duke Ellington and the Dukes of Dixieland.  Edge to Patti there.

On Tuesday, George Gobel and Eddie Fisher (aka Mr. Elizabeth Taylor) alternate in the 7pm slot on NBC, and George's guests this week are opera singer Patrice Munsel, Johnny Cash and Paul Lynde.  Not bad, huh?  Lucille Ball appears on Arthur Godfrey's show at 8pm, Cesar Romero and Terry Moore are on with Red Skelton at 8:30, and Garry Moore welcomes Ed Wynn, Jane PJowell, the Mills Brothers and Sue Carson at 9 - all on CBS.

Lawrence Welk is back on Wednesday with Lawrence Welk's Top Talent (again on ABC), while NBC counters with Milton Berle on the Kraft Music Hall, with guest Martha Raye.   Thursday night belongs to NBC's Ernie Ford, with his special guest Liberace.  There's no regular show scheduled for Friday, but Bob Hope's back with another of his NBC specials, featuring Julie London, Guy Mitchell, Chuck Conners, Fess Parker and Gail Davis.

If that isn't enough, there are also Monday through Friday daytime variety shows - Arthur Godfrey's back every morning at 9:30, Jimmy Dean has a show on CBS right after lunch, as does Liberace with his syndicated show, and Bert Parks hosts County Fair on NBC.  And then, lest we forget, there's Jack Paar's late night Tonight show.  If you include those, you come up with, I think 42 - plus two specials - for the week.  Granted, there were only four stations in most markets back then, but there really is something for everyone, don't you think?

1 comment:

  1. Here And There (mostly there):

    - While you were looking at the color section, you might have missed the spread on pages 12-13, about the Desilu Workshop. You should go back and take a good look at those youngsters from 1959 - you might get a couple of surprises.

    - Variety Show Round-up:
    Perry Como's Saturday show featured a popular British musical star named Max Bygraves, who was trying to get known in the USA at this time.
    Frank Gallop was Como's long-time announcer/foil, famed for his deep bass voice and sepulchral appearance (years earlier, Gallop had been the on-camera narrator and host of the TV Lights Out!).

    Sunday night: I remember that Steve Allen show, and Johnny Carson's appearance thereon.
    Carson presented a one-man skit in which he played out a poker game between Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, and 'Bret Maverick', the ABC competition at the time.
    Mostly, it was Johnny's 'Sullivan' voice, talking his way through the game.
    'Maverick' wasn't a James Garner impression, just Johnny in a Stetson doing card manipulations (something he genuinely enjoyed doing).
    And as 'Allen', Johnny simply put on glasses and did his version of Steve's abbreviated cackle that he'd do to avoid stepping on another comic's laugh.
    Funny bit.

    - Monday night:
    The Greatest Show On Earth is, of course, the long-term registered trademark of Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey - so naturally it's the truth.
    On The Arthur Murray Party, Kathryn Murray didn't do interviews as such; the first three ladies in your list were the competitors in the weekly dance contest, and the last two names were featured singers, part of a tribute to lyricist Mitchell Parish.

    - Liberace's weekday show wasn't his old syndicated show - it aired on the ABC network (though not for much longer - its cancellation is noted in the New York Teletype).

    - Off-topic:
    Remember a week or so back when I mentioned Tom Mankiewicz's memoir, and its co-author Robert Crane?
    Robert Crane is the son of Bob Crane (he's at pains to point that he is not a 'junior'), and he's just come out with his own book, about his father's life and murder, and how his own life was affected by all this. Maybe more than you'd want to know, but worth checking out.

    What day are you going to do tomorrow?
    Can't wait ...

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!