January 31, 2015

This week in TV Guide: February 3, 1968

This week the big TV event is the opening of the 10th Winter Olympics from Grenoble, France, and ABC is all over it.  The network promises “a 27-hour Olympic orgy” with at least one prime-hour a night, a 15-minute nightly wrapup, and daytime weekend coverage.  Included will be unprecedented live coverage, via Early Bird satellite, of the Opening Ceremonies at 7:45am CT on Tuesday morning.

The U.S. is hoping to make a better showing in this Games than in 1964, when speed-skater Terry McDermott was the lone American gold medalist  (with the U.S. taking home a paltry six medals in total), but the only American with a real chance for the gold is figure skater Peggy Fleming.  Nonetheless, ABC plans to cover all the angles, with a 250-man staff using 40 color cameras to bring the pictures back home.  Roone Arledge wants the games to be more than just a technical marvel, though: “Figuring out where the drama will be and shooting it – that’s more important than technical wizardry.”  In other words, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat – or, as Jim McKay would say many times over the years, “up close and personal” – that’s the ABC way.

ALL: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
Twenty-seven hours doesn't seem much of a broadcast “orgy,” does it?  By the time of the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, the TV schedule had expanded dramatically, to take advantage of the favorable time-zone (and to help pay for the enormous amount ABC was shelling out to win the rights).  This kind of saturation coverage has remained the rule since, to the point that new sports are added, it would seem, simply to give the broadcasters more to show. Now, when you add up all the different platforms used to broadcast the Olympics, you've got more than 27 hours of coverage a day.


And so, when one looks at the Close-Up that accompanied ABC’s coverage of the first week of the Games, it’s kind of nice to see how simple things are, how naïve.  The 1968 Winter Olympics were not free from controversy, but they were still a sporting event to be covered, not a made-for-TV spectacle that saturates everything in sight.  What a concept.

***

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 Phil Silvers introduces singers Connie Stevens, Jack Jones and Polly Bergen; comedian Henny Youngman; the Waraku Trio, Japanese pantomimists; and the rocking James Brown Revue.

Sullivan:  Scheduled guests: singer-actress Michele Lee; comedians Jackie Vernon, Stiller and Meara, Morecambe and Wise, and Stu Gilliam; dancer Peter Gennaro; and acrobats Gill and Freddie Lavedo.

Neither show overwhelms this week, and that's why I'm giving the slight nod to the Palace.  Phil Silvers is very funny, Jack Jones is very smooth, and Henny Youngman can be very funny, particularly in small doses.  On the other hand, while I love Jackie Vernon as the voice of Frosty the Snowman it's almost impossible to watch his stand-up without thinking of it, and I've never been a big fan of Stiller and Meara.  Maybe next week will be better.

***

Well.  It seems as if just a couple of weeks ago I was writing about Ben Gazzara, noting that the article in question was a pretty snark-free one.  I also mentioned that there was one from a year later that portrayed him "in a slightly less flattering light."  That would be this issue, and the article is by Edith Efron, who follows Gazzara around for the day on his press junket through New York.  And the one question that confronts Gazzara no matter where he goes, no matter who he speaks to: when are you going to die?

It's not as serious as it sounds, nor is it as existential as all that.  It refers to Paul Bryan, the character Gazzara plays in Run For Your Life, who at the outset of the series is given no more than eighteen months to live.  The series is now in its third season; hence the questions.  At first Gazzara is all bonhomme and laughter, reminding the interviewer that "Little Orphan Annie never grows up," lauding the writers for keeping the series' quality high, the usual dog-and-pony act.  But as the day wears on, Gazzara's defenses begin to drop.  A one-minute plug on Hugh Downs' Concentration is followed by a radio interview with Ed Joyce, then an appearance on NBC with Lee Leonard, a talk with Art Fleming on NBC Radio's Monitor, an interview with Bob Stewart, a pre-Tonight show prep with Carson's staffers.  And, bit by bit, the weariness and frustration that Gazzara has with series television begins to show.

To Joyce, who quotes the well-known director Elia Kazan as calling Gazzara "one of the three most brilliant actors working in the English language," he admits that "This kind of work doesn't tap all the muscles," and that an actor's career doesn't always go the way they'd want.  "The plays don't keep coming, the films are fewer and farther between.  An actor has to work."  This will be his last series, he promises, but "I'm coming out of this one with loot."  As the day progresses the bonhomme dries up, the answers become rote and mechanical, the eyes deaden.  By the time he gets to Stewart's, all his defenses are down.  Asked to complete the sentence "Doing a regular series is like ______," Gazzara replies, "Being in purgatory."  Between interviews, he will tell Efron that the problem is "that there's so little opportunity for complex acting" in Run For Your Life.  "It's scripts, it's directors.  I'm becoming interested in movies.  Something is happening in European films.  They're nonobjective, bu they're personal.   They're not the creation of a bunch of bureaucracies."

The process of selling yourself is often a distasteful one for celebrities.  It's the very thing that Sammy Davis Jr. found so difficult to stomach when his variety show started, and his failure to do it at the beginning, when it most mattered, was one of the many reasons for its downfall.  Gazzara understands the necessity of turning himself into a "zoological creature" putting himself on display for tourists.  When he sits down with Efron for the last time, after the Carson pre-interview, she says of the drained Gazzara that "It would be an act of cruelty to conduct an interview."  All she can ask him, with a wry sympathy, is "When are you going to die?" to which he says, with an exhausted smile, "You know, Little Orphan Annie . . . she never grows up," after which he finishes the last of his drink with a gulp.

***

Care for a quick look through the week?

On Saturday, ABC's Wide World of Sports presents a heavyweight semifinal bout, with Jerry Quarry taking on Thad Spencer in Oakland.  The winner will face Jimmy Ellis for the title vacated after Muhammad Ali was stripped of it for refusing military induction.  Quarry will win the fight, Ellis will later take the title, and he in turn will lose to Joe Frazier down the line.  But all that is another story.

Sunday afternoon features another of Leonard Bernstein's "Young People's Concerts" on CBS, this time an all-Beethoven program.  It's up against NBC's coverage of the final round of the Bob Hope Desert Classic from Palm Springs, California, which will be won by the great Arnold Palmer.  ABC has a preview of the coming Winter Olympics.

Monday, singer/actor/activist Harry Belafonte starts a one-week stint as guest host on the Tonight Show, with a star-studded lineup featuring Senator Robert Kennedy and his wife Ethel, Bill Cosby, Lena Horne, and actress Melina Mercouri and her husband, movie producer Jules Dassinn.  A great lineup, but wait until we get until Thursday.

In addition to the opening of the Olympics Tuesday morning, Mike Douglas' show, which airs at 4pm CT on Channel 4, has a star guest of its own in former Vice President and current presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon.  And NBC's I Dream of Jeannie gives us a thorny problem:  Jeannie's locked in a safe, which has an explosive mechanism that will go off unless a demolitions expert can disarm it.  Making things more difficult, the man who opens the safe will become Jeannie's new master.  How does it end?  Tune in next week and see if Larry Hagman's still in the credits.

On Wednesday, it's another of Fred Astaire's acclaimed specials, with his partner Barrie Chase and a bevy of artists promoting "today's sound" - Simon and Garfunkel, Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66, the Young-Holt Trio and the Gordian Knot.  I think I'll stick to Fred's specials from the early '60s - that is, unless "The Sounds of Silence" describe the noise Simon and Garfunkel make.  This isn't a train wreck, it's more like one of those 500-car pileups.

You remember I mentioned Thursday night's Tonight Show lineup?  Tonight Belafonte's guests are Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Paul Newman and comedian Nipsey Russell.  And herein lies a difference between late-night talk shows of the past and present.  Belafonte had an incredible guest lineup that week - I haven't even mentioned Sidney Poitier, Robert Goulet, Aretha Franklin or Dionne Warwick.  One of Belafonte's guests is a Nobel Prize winner, the other is a candidate for president of the Unite States.  Can you imagine Kimmel or Fallon with that kind of a lineup?   Or that two of the biggest headliners would be dead less than five months later?

NET has another of its unusual dramas on Friday.  Entitled "The Successor," the British play "focuses on the deliberations of a convention [in other words, conclave] of Catholic cardinals as they elect a new pope.  The cast contains characters such as the Cardinals of Palermo, Boston and Paris, plus some generically named prelates.  I wish I could find something more about it, but I cant.  This is the year Pope Paul VI releases his encyclical Humanae Vitae, after which many in the media probably wished the Church was meeting to select a new pope.

There are other things on this week - come back on Monday and see which day I chose.

***

Finally, this week's TV Teletype gives us a preview of coming attractions.  Sheldon Leonard, the producer of I Spy, has acquired rights to James Thurber's works with the intent of making an hour-long series for the 1968-69 season.  That turns out to be My World and Welcome to It, which stars William Windom.  It actually premieres on NBC in 1969 and runs only 30 minutes, but though it's cancelled after a single season it's still fondly remembered by many classic TV fans.

ABC has plans for a new daytime chat-and-info show called This Morning, a 90-minute daily show that premieres next month.  It's hosted by Dick Cavett, and will run in daytime for less than a year before shifting to prime time, and then to the late-night slot to replace Joey Bishop.

And then there's the one that got away, the one we would have liked to see.  It's a pilot called City Beneath the Sea, and if all goes well for producer Irwin Allen, it will become part of the prime time schedule.  "It's about a futuristic city under the ocean," writes Joseph Finnigan, who ads that "Maybe [Allen'll] cast Lloyd Bridges as mayor."  Sadly, the movie never turns into a regular series, and we're forced to conclude that Finnigan is right.  Imagine Lloyd Bridges as mayor, with Richard Basehart and David Hedison as head of the city's defense system?  It's a sure-fire idea, that is.

January 30, 2015

A deal for our readers, classic movies, tragic anniversaries, and Happy Birthday Dorothy Malone!

DOROTHY MALONE AND JOHN IRELAND IN A SCENE FROM THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS  
As is (too) often the case, it's time for me to play catch-up.  I've got announcements, emails from readers, requests for information, and more.  Let's get right to it, shall we?

A new benefit for our readers.  I've recently become acquainted with The Movie and Music Network, a website that offers streaming movies and music.  The good folks at MMN asked me to take a look around at the site, which offers all kinds of classic movies, foreign flicks, silent films, and more.  Best of all for us classic TV fans, there's a network devoted to our genre as well, with some very worthwhile shows for you to check out.

And now here's the good news.  A month’s subscription of unlimited streaming is ordinarily $5.99, but the Network has graciously offered my readers half-off of your first month.  To take advantage, just email Sonia at sonia@movieandmusicnetwork.com with the promo code “MITCHELL” to take advantage of this offer.

I'll be checking in from time to time with news on programs you might want to investigate, and why.  And speaking of which...

Happy Birthday Dorothy Malone & John Ireland!  Today's the 90th birthday of Dorothy Malone, and the 101st birthday of John Ireland.  Malone is, of course, known to classic TV fans for Peyton Place, and classic movie fans with a sharp eye and memory will remember her from her brief but memorable appearance in The Big Sleep.  In both of those roles, as well as so many through her career, she had a presence and appearance that caused you to turn your head and look - and remember.  Quite by accident, I read that she lives right here in Dallas, and with a little research - sure enough, she's right here in the phone book.  As a matter of fact, we've driven past where she lives without even knowing it!  It has been suggested that I should call her up and ask for an interview, but bold as I may be, I don't think I've got the guts to do it out of the blue.  Question of the day: am I a coward?

John Ireland's career was mostly in the movies, but he was no stranger to television either, with a raft of guest roles in series such as Bonanza, Thriller and Riverboat, and starred for two years in the British series The Cheaters.  (I wonder if Cult TV Blog knows about this?.  He also played a pivotal, Oscar-nominated role in the great political movie All the King's Men.  (I wrote about the Pulitzer Prize-winning book here.)

As luck would have it, you can catch both of these stars in Movie and Music Network's movie of the day, The Fast and the Furious.  No, not the franchise of films that seem to be in the theaters all the time, but the original, filmed in 1955.  It's a terrific noir thriller, and it's directed by Roger Corman - I mean, how much better can it get?  Not surprisingly, it's not nearly as frenetic as the remake (which, in fact, it only vaguely resembles), and seeing as how it's noir, you know that Malone's character is not as simple as first appears.  This movie also has a twist at the end that, I think, is somewhat surprising for the usually fatalistic noir genre - but why listen to me when you can check it out for yourself here.  And please do so - I don't think you'll be disappointed once you've visited MMN.

Calling Mike Dolan.  Mary Jo Schwartzhoff writes, "Hi, I have a question. I'm trying to figure out about what time I was born by what TV shows my sister remembers being on. Do you have the TV line up for Chicago for September 20, 1964?"   This sounds like a call for you, Michael.  Can you provide us with the information?

Remembering Apollo 1.  January 27 was the anniversary of the 1967 flash fire that claimed the lives of the three astronauts scheduled to fly the first manned Apollo mission - Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.*  My friend Marc Ryan sends along this clip from NBC of his father Bill anchoring a special report on the disaster.  He also writes, "You'll notice a funny edit after about 90 seconds. He is ad-libbing the rest of the way."  I remember when this happened; I was only six at the time, but for a kid who'd watched as many space launches as he could, it was - as I said to Marc - a hell of a shock.

*And January 28 was the anniversary of the Challenger explosion.  A somber week for the American space program.

And finally...  If you're out there Jeff Alexander, some time back you asked me for some information, and I've been woefully, woefully slow in getting it to you.  And when I did send it, the email bounced back.  If you see this and still need the information, send me your new email address, and I'll get it to you!

That's it for today - see you tomorrow!

January 28, 2015

The "Real" in Reality TV

Here's a shocker for you: a column that hasn't been thought out carefully, but comes to you on the fly.  I know; a number of you probably think that all the pieces on the blog come out that way, that I just make things up on the go.  And to a certain point that's true - there are many times when I begin writing without knowing exactly where I'm going.  But this one doesn't really have a narrative line per se; I'm just going to give it to you, and we'll see where we wind up.

So then: as you probably know, I'm no fan of reality television.  I've sniped at it often, and from time to time I've actually devoted significant space to it.  There are many people like me, people who think that reality TV is the most unreal thing on the tube.  "This isn't real," you can hear them say, "this is made up just like everything else."  But then, so is professional wrestling.

And it's pro wrestling that we're about to turn to; as something which has been on TV since, well, virtually the beginning of TV, you can't really divorce the two subjects.  From the days of Gorgeous George to Hulk Hogan to today, wrestlers have been some of the biggest stars on television.  Now, I know what you're thinking here: wrestling isn't real.  Of course not.  Yesterday I would have agreed with you completely, and that would have been the end of the discussion.  (And I would have been out of an idea for the blog.)

What changed my mind about this, and what causes me to think differently about reality TV (in the abstract, if not the concrete, is this terrific article from Grantland.  Entitled "Pro Wrestling for Auteurs," it gives the reader a look at the most significant wrestling documentaries of the last 50 or so years.  The fact that I'm just coming to it now, nearly three years after it was first published, is unimportant except to demonstrate that I'm sometimes behind the times, though always willing to revisit them.  But in discussing the history of wrestling documentaries, the author, David Shoemaker, points to a landmark in the genre, 1961's La Lutte, and it is here that we get the money quote, the part that explains everything that's to come.  The filmmakers, a couple of French-Canadians named Michel Brault and Claude Jutre, are planning to expose the fakery of wrestling, how everything was far from real:

Serendipitously, they met one Roland Barthes at a party, and although he was initially intrigued by the idea of a wrestling documentary, he was appalled by their objective. “Are you crazy?” Barthes said, according to Brault. “It’s as if you want to expose theater. The people’s theater, popular theater. It exists because people go see it, that’s the reason it exists. And that’s the beauty of wrestling. It’s an outlet for the crowd and it demonstrates how hard it is for right to overcome wrong. The good versus the bad. And don’t tamper with that. You mustn’t destroy that!”

As Shoemaker suggests, wrestling is perhaps the ultimate in interactive television, where the involvement of the fan actually can influence the storyline.  "The role of pro wrestling isn’t to be real — it’s to convey narrative reality, the way a documentary shapes a week of reality into two hours of greater reality."  As Roland Barthes puts it, "Wrestling is a stage managed sport (which ought, by the way, to mitigate its ignominy). The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle.”  Adds Schoemaker, "The point is to give us what we want - what we need."

Perhaps we should look at the more overt forms of reality television in the same way.  Nobody in their right minds thinks that the Kardashians and Honey Boo-Boo are "real."  Probably not many think that the shows capture the lives of these people as they really are - they're obviously stage-managed for television.  Even the term "unscripted," which sounds more respectable than "reality," is a crock - perhaps the participants don't speak lines from a script, but you might as well say the same thing about a Cassavetes film.  The direction of the story, the plot, is anything but spontaneous.  But does that make them any less plausible than wrestling - than any scripted television, for that matter?  These shows may well give us what we want, what we need.

That doesn't make them good television, of course, nor does it mean they have any redeeming social qualities.  For every Duck Dynasty that presents values a sizable part of the country can sign off on, there's a Bachelor or Bachelorette that makes a mockery out of a long-standing institution.*  As repugnant as these shows are, can we honestly say that they're any worse than American Horror Story?

*Which, to be frank, doesn't need reality television to be made a mockery of nowadays.

Shoemaker has this to say about wrestling documentaries, but in fact couldn't one say the same about the entire reality genre?

What’s at stake in pro wrestling — what the directors of La Lutte got, and what [fellow documentarian Robert] Greene gets — is the very question of narrative art. Wrestling documentaries work so well because they — like wrestling itself — are edited and assembled to create certain emotional reactions. And when we, as fans, react to these films, we’re playing our part in the show. That Fake It and today’s best wrestling documentaries expose the “reality” of wrestlers’ lives doesn’t diminish the power of the craft that Barthes longed to protect. It shows us how much we’re all like those wrestlers we’re watching, and how much wrestling is like everything else we watch.

In the end, this kind of television - "reality," or "unscripted," or whatever you want to call it - should be judged the same way we judge any other television series.  My favorite series, Top Gear, could be considered unscripted, and I think it's great television.  Forget all the labels, don't get caught up in just how "real" the show is - simply ask yourself if it's any good, if it has any redeeming qualities, if it adds anything to the social fabric (which is often a matter of opinion).  Perhaps they don't give us what we need, but what we deserve.

January 26, 2015

What's on TV? January 26, 1959

Last week I mentioned that we were making a trek into the Dallas-Fort Worth area - my new hometown, but one I'm not that familiar with, TV-wise.  This week is more of the same, with a trip into upper New England.   Let's see what the programming has to offer us on Monday, January 26, 1959.

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.

***

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.

***

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

***

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.

***

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.

***

"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."

***

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.

January 23, 2015

Quick stops Around the dial

A week for some quick hits - let's get started!

bare-bones e-zine has another installment of the Hitchcock Project - this time The Alfred Hitchcock Hour's second-season episode "The Second Verdict."

Classic Film and TV Cafe writes about a classic Sidney Poitier film that I can remember seeing on TV many years ago - To Sir, With Love. I did not know that the movie was directed by James Clavell, who wrote the epic novel Shōgun.

Classic TV Sports has a positive review of Al Michaels' new autobiography, You Can't Make This Up.

Made For TV Mayhem has a look at the made-for-TV movie Death Among Friends, a pilot for a series that never came about, but likely influenced some that did.

Cult TV Blog continues working his way through Brit TV of the seventies, this time with the series Minder.

Michael's TV Tray celebrates the birthday of the one and only Eartha Kitt.

Comfort TV has a great piece on how to settle in for a night of comfortable TV watching.  A man after my own heart!

Television Obscurities' latest TV Guide review is from January 23, 1965.  I hope you're reading these!

Happy reading - and we'll see you back here tomorrow!

January 21, 2015

The noir side of television

TV Noir: The Twentieth Century
by Ray Starman
(180 pages, $7.95 on Kindle)

When we talk about noir, we think of some of the great mystery movies of the mid-20th Century - Out of the Past, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Touch of Evil, The Big Sleep.  We think of hapless heroes and hardened dames, dirty double-dealers and bitchy betrayers and bad, bad endings; cigarette smoke and ceiling fans and the shadows of blinds slanting diagonally across the room, all in glorious black-and-white.

In other words, we don't often think of television, other than as a place where we've seen so many of these movies.

Which is why Ray Starman’s book TV Noir: The Twentieth Century is both an unlikely and a welcome addition to the television bookshelf.  Starman takes an encyclopedic look at TV shows from the 1940s to the present, examining them not only in visual terms, but in how the underlying themes of noir – corruption, pessimism, persecution of the innocent, and a feeling of helplessness – have penetrated programs all the way from Dragnet and The Untouchables to less likely prospects such as Miami Vice, Millennium and The X-Files.  All of which is to say that this is a book that causes me to look at some of these shows in a different, more appreciative light – both shows I’ve watched and enjoyed in the past, and new series to which I’ve never given much thought.

The noir roots of some series are obvious – Peter Gunn, for example, in which most all of the action takes place at night, on rain-slickened streets or smoky lounges full of jazz musicians and torch singers.  But then there’s Manhunter, the 1974-75 CBS series starring Ken Howard as a 1930s amateur crime fighter hunting down criminals following the death of his best friend during a bank robbery.  It only ran for 22 episodes, so many of us might not be familiar with it, and noir might not be the first thing that comes to mind.  But, as Starman writes, the show’s noir elements, “such as the loner fighting crime in his own personal, unofficial way, the lonely existence and mission that ruled his life and kept him from living more pleasant experiences [and t]he accent on violence and happenstance and accident] are obvious noir parallels.

I mentioned Miami Vice earlier, and Starman concedes that on the surface, with the bright colors and Phil Collins tunes, it’s so “not noir.”  But Starman disassembles Vice, looking at everything from photography and color difference to camera angles, to conclude that there is indeed a particular cinema associated with television noir (shooting nighttime scenes at night rather than through a filter, for example) that simply does not appear in non-noir TV.  And then there’s the cynicism, so typical of film noir, the hopeless feeling that Crockett and Tubbs will never succeed in the fight against crime, that for every hood or dealer they arrest or kill, another one will simply take his place.  As screenwriter and director Paul Schrader notes, noir is not a genre in and of itself, but “a style that reveals itself in any genre or drama.”  Given that, the analysis that follows is not only provocative but brings a new appreciation to the program.  Is it any wonder, then, that Vice’s mastermind, Michael Mann, has gone on to make noir-affiliated movies such as Public Enemies?

Rather than using a narrative, Starman looks at each show individually, categorized in such genres as “Police,” “Private Detective,” “Reporters,” “Spies,” and even “Westerns,” “War,” and “Science Fiction.”*  While this makes analysis of each show easy, it does limit the ability to look at trends as they form throughout time, although Starman offers a prologue for each “age” of the book that helps track such evolutions.  In addition, there are some typos and line breaks that indicate the manuscript could do with the oversight of a good editor. (I’d be happy to volunteer!)

*As I’ve noted in the past, the Private Detective genre, once such a dominant part of television, is virtually non-existent by the 2000s.

These flaws do nothing to get in the way of the enjoyment of the book, however, nor do they detract from the valuable information that Starman provides.  TV Noir is a necessary book that puts the spotlight on a less-obvious aspect of television, particularly in the color era, and it taught me things I didn’t know and hadn’t considered.  It is, therefore, a perfect addition to the Hadley Television Library.

January 20, 2015

What's on TV? January 16, 1960

We're back in another issue of TV Guide from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and as such I don't have a lot of local background to add. In a few more years, as I learn more about the history behind the television of my new home town, I expect this to change - but in the meantime, take a look at the listings from Saturday, January 16, 1960, and enjoy!

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?

January 16, 2015

Around the Dial

The Broadcasting Archive at the University of Maryland nails it with this one.  Star Trek III on VH-1?  In a previous installment we talked about the idea that so many niche cable networks have completely lost their way - and their reason for being.  Will the inevitable ala-cartization of cable TV finish them off for good?

The Flaming Nose has a story, appropriate for the coming long weekend, that tells how the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. played a role in keeping Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek.  Nice way I've been able to link these first two stories, hmm?

I haven't made a commitment to catching Maverick every week, but I'm almost always entertained when I do, and The HORN Section provides the background on yet another episode with this week's "Maverick Monday" on the final season episode "Epitaph for a Gambler."  Be warned, though: this is from the post-James Garner era of Maverick, though Jack Kelly was always good.

Bosom Buddies was not on my watch list when it was on TV, though I knew enough about it to notice that one of its stars hit it pretty big in the movies, and the other didn't do too badly in television.  But Comfort TV suggests that the show should be remembered as more than a punch line - in fact, it was pretty good.

This week's TV Guide review at Television Obscurities takes us to the issue of January 16, 1965.  Among other things, it gives us a preview of TV's coverage of the upcoming presidential inauguration, a look at behind-the-scenes battles at Peyton Place, and Cleveland Amory's savage review of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  Some great images from this week's issue!

Finally, The Bootleg Files gives us some insight on the beloved Sherlock Holmes movies of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, which many of us have seen on television, and tells us about the one person who wasn't a fan at all - Basil Rathbone himself.

Sorry for the relative shortness this week, which shouldn't reflect on all the great stuff out there.  See you back here tomorrow for another big TV Guide, right?

January 14, 2015

How Stirling Silliphant was responsible for the worst movie ever made

A RANDOM SCENE FROM THE INFAMOUS MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE.  THANKS, STIRLING.
I wouldn't have thought it was possible, but I'm about to make a link between one of the most literate writers from the '50s and '60s classic era of television, and the auteur of one of the worst movies ever made.  If nothing else, this proves that you really can be six degrees of separation away from anyone and anything.

The feature players are Stirling Silliphant, the mastermind behind series such as Route 66 and Naked City and Oscar-winning screenwriter for In the Heat of the Night, and Harold P. Warren, producer, director, writer and star of the astonishingly bad movie Manos: The Hands of Fate.  If you're familiar at all with Manos, it's probably because you saw it on Mystery Science Theater 3000, where it was known as the most famous - and worst - movie ever shown on the show.  Ever.  (You can see some of the reasons why here.)

So how does a distinguished writer and producer find himself involved with such extreme schlock?  Well, it's a fairly straightforward story, according to the always-reliable Wikipedia:
Warren [an insurance and fertilizer salesman] was very active in the theater scene in El Paso, Texas, and once appeared as a walk-on for the television series Route 66, where he met screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. While chatting with Silliphant in a local coffee shop, Warren claimed that it was not difficult to make a horror film, and bet Silliphant that he could make an entire film on his own. After placing the bet, Warren began the first outline of his script on a napkin, right inside the coffee shop. To finance the film, Warren accumulated a substantial, but nevertheless insufficient, $19,000 cash (equivalent to $138,106 in 2015 dollars), and hired a group of actors from a local theater, many of whom he had worked with before, as well as a modeling agency. Because he was unable to pay the cast and crew any wages, Warren promised them a share in the film's profits.

Ah, out of such chance encounters are history books written.  I would have loved to eavesdrop on that conversation between Silliphant and Warren.

Warren:  C'mon, it's not that hard.  Anyone can do it.

Silliphant:  Anyone?  I suppose you think you could do it, Hal?

Warren:  (perhaps having imbibed a bit too much)  I don't think, so, I know so.

Silliphant:  (Wanting to teach this punk that the movie business isn't as easy as it looks)   All right, smart guy, if it's that easy, let's see you do it!  (Reaches into his billford, pulls out a couple of bills, slaps them on the counter.)  Here's a hundred bucks says you can't do it.

Warren:  (Angrily)  You're on!  (Slams $100 of his own on the counter.)  We'll see who has the last laugh.

(Warren begins jotting down the draft of a plot on the back of a napkin, then pauses.)  

Warren:  (Sheepishly)  Uh, Stirl, do you mind if I borrow that hundred bucks back?  I'm afraid I'm a little short right now...

All right, maybe it didn't happen that way, but the gist of it was the same.  Warren did in fact write the first outline on a napkin, right there and then.  And while Abraham Lincoln may have been able to write the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope, he also started with a lot more talent.

Manos was pretty much what you'd expect from such an auspicious start.  The movie premiered at the Capri Theater in El Paso; Warren had arranged for for the cast to be brought to the premiere by a limousine, but  he "could afford only a single limousine, however, and so the driver had to drop off one group, then drive around the block and pick up another."  As for the rest of its run,

The film was briefly distributed by the Emerson Releasing Corporation. Following its debut, the film had a brief theatrical run at the Capri Theater, as well as a few screenings at various drive-in theaters in West Texas and New Mexico towns, including Las Cruces. Reports that the only crew members who were compensated for their work in the film were Jackey Neyman and her family's dog, who received a bicycle and a large quantity of dog food, respectively, would seem to indicate that even with its extremely low budget, the film failed to break even financially. Official box office figures for the film are unknown, if indeed they ever existed. 

But here's the thing: although even Warren conceded that Manos was perhaps the worst movie ever made, he did in fact make it on his own; therefore, he won his bet with Silliphant.  (I wonder if he ever paid off?)  It's a wonder that Silliphant's name didn't pop up in the acknowledgements section of the credits, although it's more of a wonder that there were any credits at all.

As I said, such are the small events that make up history.  And now you know the rest of the story.

January 12, 2015

What's on TV? Friday, January 13, 1967

Well, it's Friday the 13th, but have no fear - the listings this week are relatively nonthreatening.  Some weeks the listings contain hidden gems, but other times they're as ordinary as can be, a representative sample of how most television was and is.  And not a black cat to be seen.

January 10, 2015

This week in TV Guide: January 7, 1967

This week's cover story on Ben Gazzara, written by Maurice Condon, is surprisingly devoid of snark.  It is, indeed, simply a visit by Condon to the Manhattan neighborhood where Gazzara grew up, to see some of the places where he spent his childhood, and talk with the people who knew him.

What we find out is that Gazzara was a talented actor from the beginning, appearing in numerous plays at the Boys' Club, taking his craft seriously, and determined to become successful.  And - that's about it.  There's no evidence that he was a bully, a thief, a truant; rags-to-riches stories about overcoming a poor childhood in the slums are, according to his brother, figments of press agents' minds, and the neighborhood priest at the church where Gazzara served as an altar boy debunks any tales about he and other altar boys getting "stoned" on sacramental wine.  In fact, the priest proudly mentions that Gazzara and his wife returned a few years ago to have their daughter baptized at the church.*

*The Catholic Gazzara, who was married three times and divorced twice, was already with his second wife at the time; wonder how they pulled that off?  No irony intended, just curious.

In fact, just about the only bad thing you find out about Ben Gazzara is that he used to stick his fingernail into the centers of penny candy at the corner shop, looking for the ones with pink centers that would win him a prize.  And the only reason that comes out is that a friend used the knowledge to blackmail him into stopping his coaching of her at the Drama Club, where he made her go over her sole line in a play over and over again.  She was 12 at the time, he was a little older.  He laughed and told her that she could "say the line any way you want to, just so you don't squeal to your grandpa.  But you're missing your chance to be a great actress."

I note the gentleness of this article because there's another one from a year later, during the final season of Run for Your Life, which portrays Gazzara in a slightly less flattering light - complaining about the rat-race of promoting a television show and tired of scripts that don't require any real acting of him.  It's a common complaint of classically trained actors, and often an accurate one, but it can come across as whining at the same time.  We'll leave that for another time, though.  Gazzara was a tough actor, frequently a very good one, and this is a nice portrait of the actor as a young man.

***

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 Ray Bolger presents singer Diahann Carroll; actress Audrey Meadows; the singing King Family; impressionist Adam Keefe; Paul Revere and the Raiders, rock 'n' rollers; and the Morgan Ashton Family, acrobats.

Sullivan:  Ed's scheduled guests are Ethel Merman; singer Gordon MacRae; flamenco dancer Jose Greco; comics Myron Cohen, Flip Wilson, and Ross and Hunt; the Serendipity Singers; the Muppets puppets; King Toys, doll act; and the Canadian Black Watch and Dragoon, pipe-and-drum band.

Two good lineups to choose from this week.  The great Ray Bolger recreates his Scarecrow routine from The Wizard of Oz, Audrey Meadows (sister of Jane) is usually good fun, and Paul Revere and the Raiders were big stuff in the late '60s.  On the other hand, I was never a big fan either of Diahann Carroll (Julia) or the King Family.

Ed's lineup is vintage - Merman and MacRae have big voices, Jose Greco is one of the greatest of flaminco dancers, Myron Cohen is a terrific storyteller, and the Muppets are the Muppets.  As for Flip Wilson and the Serendipity Singers - again, not big fans.  On balance, I'm giving the edge to Sullivan, but if you chose the Palace, I wouldn't have any complaints.

***

The evening news programs on CBS and NBC expanded to 30 minutes within a week of each other in September 1963, less than three months before the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  The changes reflected the growing importance of news, with the Cold War, the civil rights movement, and various other foreign affairs crises demanding more and more attention.

More than three years later, on Monday, January 9, ABC joins the party, as Peter Jennings With the News goes to a half-hour, and in color to boot!  The fact that it takes ABC so long to join the other two networks is another indication that the network still lags behind its senior partners, not only in the news department but overall.  As a matter of fact, ABC will have only four prime-time shows in the top 25 at the end of the 1966-67 season with Bewitched, in seventh place, as the network's top-rated program.  ABC's era of dominance is still over a decade away.

One interesting note about all this is the addition of Howard K. Smith with daily news analysis.  Smith had left CBS in 1961 with hard feelings after refusing to remove controversial remarks from a civil rights documentary.  His move to ABC was not without controversy either - I'm thinking here of his premature "Political Obituary of Richard Nixon" in 1962 - and so his appearance with Peter Jennings is a welcome return.  By 1969 he'll be a co-anchor on the news, first with Frank Reynolds and then with Harry Reasoner.  Eventually, he'll return to being a commentator and Jennings will reemerge on World News Tonight, first as one of the co-anchor trio and later as sole anchor, as ABC becomes the dominant news network.

***

There's another return to the airwaves this week - the enduring cop drama Dragnet.  When last we saw Joe Friday and his partner Frank Smith patrolling the streets of Los Angeles, it was 1959; Friday had just been promoted to lieutenant and Smith to sergeant, and while the series was no longer in the top 30, it was still a solid hit when creator Jack Webb decided to hang it up and develop other programs.

Dragnet '67 premiers at 8:30pm CT on NBC, with Webb back as Joe Friday*.  He has a new partner, though; Webb wanted Ben Alexander back as Frank Smith, but by this time Alexander was sleuthing around on ABC's Felony Squad and was unable to get out of his contract, so Webb settled on Harry Morgan to play his new partner, Bill Gannon.  In reality, Gannon is no more than Smith with a different name, the two characters more or less indistinguishable - a combination of solid police work and quirky humor.

*Once again a sergeant; Webb thought it made for more interest. 

Dragnet is just one of a number of series making their debuts this week in the Second Season.  Also on NBC is Captain Nice, starring William Daniels, while CBS counters with the similar Mr. Terrific, with Steve Strimpell (both shows on Monday), and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on Sunday*; we all know how that turned out.  As is to be expected, third-place ABC has the most new programming, with The Invaders on Tuesday night, the Wednesday Night Movie on - you guessed it - Wednesday, Tim Conway's Western comedy Rango on Friday, and the return of The Avengers on Saturday.

*A variety show " 'in the tradition of the Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton shows,' say the producers hopefully."  Obviously they knew something we didn't.


***

Let's take a random look at some of the other programs on this week.

Mission: Impossible (Saturday, CBS):  "In Zurich, Switzerland, the IMF must bankrupt a scheme by neo-Nazis who are intent on recovering Hitler's hidden millions to finance a fourth Reich."  Oh, those wacky Nazis!  Actually, this is a pretty good episode of a very good series.

On Gilligan's Island (Monday, CBS) "The castaways re-enact the sinking of their boat in an attempt to soothe the Skipper, who's decided to end it all because a radio broadcast blamed him for the plight of his passengers."  Never pictured Skipper as that kind of guy.

Also on Monday on NBC, I Dream of Jeannie: "Jeannie has created a marvelous miracle fabric that can withstand anything, even Dr. Bellows' clumsy efforts to learn how it was made.  Groucho Marx makes a cameo appearance as himself."  I wonder how they worked him in?

The Fugitive (Tuesday, ABC): Kimble is forced to help a California sheriff conceal his son's holdup attempt.  The boy, critically wounded, is at the sheriff's home, where the fugitive doctor has been ordered to perform surgery."  Sounds a bit far-fetched, but this is from the show's final season, when many fans noticed a drop-off in quality.

Whirlybirds (Channel 11, syndicated, Thursday afternoon): "A glib-tongued deacon hires the Whirlybirds to transport him to a preaching engagement in a nearby city.  When some toughs threaten the deacon at the airport, Chuck and P.T. begin to doubt his integrity."  Watched this as a kid when it always seemed to be on Saturday afternoons.  Would it hold up today?  I don't know.

Ben Casey (rerun, ABC, Friday noon): "A staff psychiatrist is disturbed by her patient's revelation under the influence of drugs."  No kidding!  The psychiatrist is played by Patricia Neal, who later that year would appear in the movie Hud, for which she'd win a Best Actress Oscar the next year.  She took TV roles around then because the work helped her cope with the sudden death of her first daughter.

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From time to time TV Guide gives us profiles of up-and-coming starlets, those who are supposed to be The Next Big Thing.  Sometimes these actresses do indeed go on to bigger and better things, but most of the time they enjoy brief, undistinguished careers that fall short of the fame that was thought to be in their future.

This week we have a story about Melodie Johnson, who's parlayed a non-speaking role in Bob Hope Theater ("I got killed before I had a chance to say anything") into guest-starring roles in Laredo, Run for Your Life, The Rounders, and the movie that served as a pilot for The Name of the Game.  What's notable about her in the article, aside from her blonde hair and blue eyes, is that "Melodie Johnson" happens to be her real name - what one Hollywood veteran termed "a real starlet's name" - which her mother got from a character in an Andy Hardy movie, played by none other than Donna Reed.

So what happened to Melodie?  Off to Google, where we find that she's had quite an interesting life since January 1967.  She never did become a huge star, although she worked steadily in television throughout the '70s, but we do find out two rather striking facts about her.  One is that after acting, she became a writer, publishing short stories and essays, and authoring four mystery novels, one of which earned her an Edgar Award nomination for best first novel.  The other is that the man mentioned in the article as her husband, "Bones" Howe, is in fact still her husband, after 51 years of marriage.  Now that is probably as great an accomplishment as any we've seen in these profiles.  By any definition, we can conclude that Melodie Johnson Howe has had a successful life indeed.

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And finally a little teaser for an upcoming show next Sunday - and a reminder that even before that's what it was called, that's what it was called.

January 9, 2015

Around the Dial

I've always enjoyed Alfred Hitchcock's shows on television.  When I was younger, I found them sinister and spooky; watching them on DVD, at my advanced age, I can also appreciate the irony, dry wit and humor that are present in many of them as well.  bare bones reviews one of those this week, the delightfully ironic "Who Needs an Enemy?"  This is one I haven't seen yet, but I need to catch it the next time it's on MeTV.

CultTV has a typically thought-provoking article that features Leonard Rossiter, star of many British series including The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.  In this one he's writing about another of his series called Rising Damp, but makes a comment about what we see on '70s television that really resounds with me: "the 1970s were a frankly awful time."  That can apply either to the programs themselves, or the world they depict.  As I've mentioned before, I've no great love for the '70s, but as always your mileage (or opinion) may vary.

Last Sunday my wife and I were watching Columbo on the aforementioned MeTV, an episode in which Forrest Tucker played the victim du jour, and I remarked that F-Troop, the series in which he starred, would have been far, far less funny had it not been for his co-star, Larry Storch (with which my wife agreed).  So I was pleased to read The Flaming Nose's tribute to Storch on his 92nd birthday.

This week Television Obscurities has a review of the TV Guide from January 9th, 1965.  It's a typically good report, with a very interesting article about noted television critics and their thoughts on the year's new series.  Not surprisingly, they tore into Gilligan's Island; not surprisingly, most of those critics now live on in obscurity while Gilligan remains a show beloved by its generation.  The rest of the review is excellent as well, particularly a bit on Danny Kaye.

Between his two big hits, Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, M.D., Robert Young starred in yet another series, Window on Main Street.  It wasn't a success, and this week Television's New Frontier: the 1960's gives us some insight into why that might have been the case.  Heard of this show before, but never knew much of anything about it until now.

A new blog I'm following, Envisioning the American Dream, has one of many tributes to Donna Douglas, the much-loved Ellie May from The Beverly Hillbillies (another of those series the critics hated), who died last week.

And that will do it for today - be sure and come by tomorrow for further adventures in TV Guide-land!

January 7, 2015

Bess Myerson, R.I.P.

How do the lyrics to the song go? "Lovely to look at,/Delightful to know"? That, even more than "Here She Is," is what comes to mind for me, because Bess Myerson was indeed lovely to look at - even more so than she was the day she became Miss America.

I first heard of Bess Myerson primarily through her involvement in politics.  She had been commissioner of consumer affairs in New York City and later a candidate for the U.S. Senate.  She had been a companion of Ed Koch during his successful campaign for mayor of New York, and served in his administration, and was an adviser to three U.S. presidents.  She became involved in a huge scandal, dubbed the "Bess Mess," that involved adultery, financial collusion, and ultimately a trial involving charges that included corruption and bribery, in which she was ultimately acquitted.  And, of course, she had once been Miss America.

I knew all this, but then one night I saw my first rerun of the classic I've Got a Secret on GSN.

And I said to myself: ah, so that's Bess Myerson.

She was a striking presence - two inches shy of six feet tall, elegant, sophisticated, and beautiful.  Her presence lit up a show that already featured the comfortable friendliness of host Garry Moore, the warm humor of Bill Cullen, the acerbic wit of Henry Morgan, and the goofy charm of Betsy Palmer. Even in such august company, she fairly shimmered in her sleek dresses and fashionable hairdo.  Looking at her, you could easily believe she'd been Miss America who'd also played the piano at Carnegie Hall, hosted parades and pageants on television, risen through the ranks in both entertainment and politics - hell, you'd have believed anything anyone wanted to tell you.  She had class, as did so many TV personalities of the time, and so few today.

Bess Myerson's story was another of those that was uniquely American.  As Miss America she experienced hostility that is hard to comprehend today, simply because she happened to be Jewish. She missed out on many of the endorsement opportunities that other winners had had, from sponsors leery of having a Jewess as commercial spokeswoman. She turned that to her advantage, speaking out throughout the country against prejudice and discrimination, and over the years became a familiar face in print ads as well as on television.  And, as I said, ever lovelier.

After I became hooked on the old Secret reruns, I'd thought to write to her and let her know how much I'd admired her on the program, how I'd been taken by her presence and what she represented.  As is so often the case with me, I never did that, although at least in this case I'd tried, searched the web for an address that I might use to contact her.  Maybe I didn't try hard enough, or maybe it just wasn't there, I don't know.  I  read in some of the obituaries that she'd suffered from dementia in her last  years, and that sad news eased my regrets, at least a little, in that she probably wouldn't have been able to respond anyway.  Nonetheless, as I've said before, don't be afraid to contact those people who've made an impact on you over the years, because they may be more accessible than you think.

Our lives are composed of many things, events and circumstances that conspire to make us who we are, for better or worse.  Athletes often say that it's necessary to experience both the ups and the downs to be able to have fully lived the sporting life, and I would suppose that applies to all of us. Bess Myerson certainly lived both sides of a lifetime packed with events, both accomplished and messy, that few of us can even imagine happening to us.  That makes for a complete life, the good and the bad both, a life that was fully experienced by her, and appreciated by many of us.  Regardless of the pitfalls that may have accompanied that life, there is much to be said of it which was good - and so if you get a chance, on television or YouTube, to watch one of those I've Got a Secret reruns, or any of the other shows on which she appeared, odds are you'll sit back when it's over and say to yourself: ah, so that's Bess Myerson.

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A brief note: as part of the experiment I mentioned on Monday, I'll be shifting the "Around the Dial" feature to Friday during the weeks that include four posts.  The TV Guide piece will continue to appear on Saturday, with the accompanying program listing on Monday, the essay on Wednesday, and Around the Dial on Friday.  We'll see how it goes, but let me know if you have any thoughts.