April 4, 2015

This week in TV Guide: April 4, 1959

Most of the significant TV Guide listings we run across are those that weren't particularly important at the time but only gained cultural heft when looked at from the perspective of the future.  Every once in a while, though, you find one that tells you all you need to know, one that even at the time must have been recognized for some particular significance.  This week we have such an instance.

It's the Steve Allen Show, airing Sunday night at 7:30 ET on NBC, and its list of guests gives you the past, present and future of television - and American culture -all in one hour.  The guests are The Three Stooges, singers Connie Russell and David Allen, and comedian Lenny Bruce.

Consider that for a moment.  In the Stooges we have the past, a team who started in vaudeville in the '20s and made their first movie short for Columbia in 1934, and thanks to television are enjoying renewed popularity today.  Connie Russell and David Allen represent the present, the music styles of 1959.  And Lenny Bruce is the future, the "blue" comedian: topical, no-holds barred, nothing sacred.  Could you possibly have a better cross-section of twentieth-century American pop culture on one television show than that?  It's something to think about, and keep thinking about.

***

For those of you scoring at home -
or even if you're alone.
This week's television highlight is the 31st Academy Awards, broadcast live on NBC at 10:30pm ET Monday night from the Pantages Theater in Hollywood.  An interesting choice for the five men acting as emcees for the broadcast: Bob Hope (of course) and past hosts David Niven* and Jerry Lewis, but also Sir Laurence Olivier, Tony Randall, and Mort Sahl.  Randall has appeared in many of the light sex-comedies of the late '50s, but Sahl was primarily a comedian - the first stand-up comic, according to the always-reliable Wikipedia; the forerunner to Lenny Bruce, as a matter of fact.  I'm all for him hosting the show; I'm sure he injects some life into it.

*Niven's most famous role as an Oscar host has to be the streaker incident in 1974; nobody else could have handled the situation with his panache, although the conductor - was it Henry Mancini? - ordering the orchestra to play "Sunny Side Up" comes close.

This year's winners are a mixed group; Niven himself wins Best Actor for Separate Tables (the only time a host is also a winner the same year), while Susan Hayward takes home the Best ctress award for I Want to Live!  The winner of Best Picture, Gigi, sets a record by winning nine Oscars, although it will be broken the next year by Ben-Hur.  It's also the last movie until The Last Emperor to win Best Picture without being nominated for any of the acting awards.

So why do we want to remember this broadcast?  Well, probably for the misfortune that befell Jerry Lewis, the last of the five hosts.  Lewis had been widely praised for his previous hosting turns, and there'd be no reason to think that there'd be any trouble with this one.  But - and you might want to make sure you're sitting down when you read this - the show ran short.  Producer Jerry Wald miscalculated the timing, cutting too much from the broadcast, and Lewis suddenly found himself being told to vamp for twenty minutes to fill the allotted time.  He didn't get that far, of course; the whole thing became such a mess that NBC finally cut away from the broadcast, showing a short film about guns until the Jack Paar show came on.


I can understand that it must have been embarrassing; however, if I could bring Jerry Wald back today, I would.  An Oscarcast in less than two hours!

By the way, I've never liked the idea of televising the Oscars on Sunday night.  It takes away something from the whole event; Sunday nights ought to be for winding down, getting ready for the work week.  When it was on Mondays there was something special about it, the idea that all through the day you had something to look forward to, and somehow it made the day pulse with a little more energy.  Even though they can start it earlier on Sundays (nobody's coming home from work) it still runs too damn long.  I know, you kids get off my lawn.

***

The big news in sports is the final round of The Masters golf tournament, played on Sunday in Augusta, Georgia and broadcast on CBS, as it has been every year since 1956.*  Coverage is sparse by today's standards: only 90 minutes, covering the last four holes.  One of CBS' lead announcers will go on to slightly bigger fame when he gets his own show on ABC: Jim McKay.  As for the winner, Art Wall fires a final-round 66, birding five of the last six holes, to win by a shot.  The defending champion, Arnold Palmer, finishes third; a teen-age amateur named Jack Nicklaus playing in his first Masters, misses the cut by a single stroke.  He'd go on to play in the tournament 44 more times, doing a little better than that.

*That's 60 years for those of you scoring at home, or even... nah, never mind.

Sunday's a pretty good night for TV; in addition to The Masters and that Steve Allen show I mentioned above, Art Carney and the Baird Marionettes star in a charming musical play based on Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."  You might recognize the music - in fact, you probably would.  It's the music that went along with Mickey Mouse's disastrous turn as a wizard in the first segment of Disney's Fantasia.



Told you you'd recognize it!

***

Continuing a pretty good week of television, at 10pm on Monday CBS airs a notable rerun on Desilu Playhouse.  It's "The Time Element" by Rod Serling, and it serves as the defacto pilot for The Twilight Zone (although a Twilight Zone pilot was shot prior to the series premiere).  It's the gripping story of a man (William Bendix) who tells his doctor that when he goes to sleep, he actually travels back in time to Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941, where he attempts to warn the military of the coming disaster.  I won't give away the ending, but it's pure TZ-era Serling.  See for yourself:


Desilu Playhouse, hosted by Desi Arnez and sponsored by Westinghouse, was only on for two seasons, but it did pretty well for itself - in addition to "The Time Element," it also aired the pilot for what became one of ABC's biggest hits to that date: The Untouchables.

***
"It's such a fine day for baseball, I think I'll move the TV set out to the porch."  With this quote from newspaper columnist Bob Sylvester, Red Smith - one of the greatest sportswriters of the 20th Century - begins his look at the effect television has on the national pastime.  

Unlike many writers of the era, who look to blame television "for everything from juvenile delinquency to the Berlin crisis," Smith's question is not whether TV is having a negative effect on the way the game is played, but if the frequency of games on television is keeping fans away from the real thing.  He cites the fall in attendance suffered by the New York Yankees last season, despite the fact that the departures of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants left them as the only game in town.  "In past summers there was hardly a day when a New York fan couldn't find a game to attend in Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds or Ebbets Field.  When the Yankees went on the road last year, there was no baseball in town."  No live baseball, that is - but with Yankee road games, not to mention games from the Phillies, Pirates and Cardinals beamed into living rooms via TV, "Fans had to stay home because there was no game to attend, and they got accustomed to watching their baseball at home."  Says Smith, "It was a concerted campaign to educate the public to stay away from the ball park.  It enjoyed some success."  This season will be the telling point, according to Smith.  The sponsors of the Phillies games have dropped out, so the Yankees will be the only game in town once again, both in person and on TV.  "This year ought to furnish the answers."

Television was seen as quite the threat to the live baseball gate back in the day, notwithstanding that the game had gone through the same angst when radio had started broadcasting.  Teams limited the number of games that could be broadcast, and those games were usually when the local team was on the road.  On weekends when they were at home, even the national game was blacked out, in order not to compete with live baseball.  Nowadays, of course, just about every game by every team is available somewhere.  True, most of them are on cable, which means that the fan who depends on OTA television is still limited in his or her choices.  Nevertheless, a dedicated baseball fan who wants to try can probably see almost every game, home and away, played by their favorite team.  TV is thought to be an asset to the game's popularity, and ballparks have become smaller in order to compensate for those who would prefer to catch the action from their own living rooms (or the porch, if it's a nice day).  Quite a difference, isn't it?

(Incidentally, the very funny movie Rhubarb does a nice job of satirizing the TV commercials that were so frequent and intrusive on baseball games.  You can read my take on the movie here.)

***

Last month I mentioned the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of "Green Pastures," the first time that Hallmark had ever repeated one of their programs.  According to Television Diary, the program was a success: "Hallmark's extraordinarily sensitive and satisfying version of Marc Connelly's Pulitzer-prizewinning [sic] "Green Pastures" proved a standout, just as it did the first time around in October 1957."  The brief review praised William Warfield's performance of De Lawd, as well as the production itself, saying it was "hard to see" how they "could be improved upon, at least within the confines of the present TV screen."

Also in the Diary, movie mogul Sam Goldwyn announces that he'll be partnering with CBS in a series based on the Goldwyn movie Barbary Coast.  It doesn't appear that the program ever got past the pilot stage, but it's an interesting moment in what was then often a contentious relationship between television and movies.

That is borne out by comments from Harry Ackerman, president of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences - the people who put out the Emmy awards.  Ackerman says that TV is nothing like the movies, and insists that "It is really radio with pictorial values added."  Make of that what you will.

***

Finally, the cover article this week is on Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who at this point is still starring in Warner Brothers' 77 Sunset Strip, along with occasional appearances on that studio's Maverick.  As my obit of Zimbalist from last year indicates, I have always been a big fan of his, mostly from his work in The FBI.  I've seen clips from Strip though never a full episode, but I've no doubt that he was as good in that series.  

The feature is an interesting story, and it shows what eclectic tastes Zimbalist has.  His father, Efrem Sr., was one of the world's great concert violinists, and his mother, Alma Gluck, was a star with the Metropolitan Opera.  His childhood home was filled with visits from Rachmaninoff, Hofmann, Toscanini (who bounced young Efrem on his knee), Lunt and Fontanne, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.  Some of you youngsters may not recognize these names, but trust me - this is like a Who's Who of classical musicians, actors and writers.  An old friend of the family named Menotti was in his heyday as an opera composer, and Zimbalist decided to put some money behind them to bring them to Broadway.  One of them, The Saint of Bleecker Street, won the Pulitzer Prize and made a profit of $30,000, after which Efrem's brief career as a producer ended.  "I was never interested in being a capitalist.  I'd rather work for a living."

After dabbling in composing and painting, Zimbalist returned to acting with the help of his friend, Broadway producer Joshua Logan  From there, it was a short jump to Warners, and Strip.  He doesn't know how long the show will run - "I think people like the show" - but, with movies in dismal shape, he knows one thing: "I'll definitely stay here in Hollywood.  I'm very happy doing what I'm doing."  And I, for one, am very happy he made that decision.

2 comments:

  1. Zimbalist was terrific on both shows. By this time, he had made his final MAVERICK appearance, which was "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres". Marion Hargrove had written him into "The Rivals", which guest starred Roger Moore with Garner and Kelly. By that time Zimbalist's heavy workload on 77 SUNSET STRIP had made him unavailable, and Hargrove re-wrote the Dandy Jim Buckley cameo for Bart Maverick instead. Was a very funny gag either way.

    Had a big crush on Mr. Zimbalist's daughter in the early 80's thanks to REMINGTON STEELE also. :)

    Warner Archive recently added a number of 77 SUNSET STRIP to its Warner Archive Instant channel (which you would love, I think; lots of great shows from the 50s through 80s both long running and short lived). Unfortunately, none of the first season and only 3 episodes from the second; most of the episodes are from Seasons 3 through 5. Roger Smith was also very good in STRIP and even wrote a number of shows.

    ReplyDelete

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