June 29, 2015

What's on TV? Wednesday, July 6, 1960

This week we revisit New England, and a typical night's viewing.  Nothing special here, nothing destined for immortality.  It's an entertaining night nonetheless, so let's take a closer look at what Wednesday night had to offer.

June 27, 2015

This week in TV Guide: July 2, 1960

One could draw a good many existential conclusions about the significance of Independence Day as acknowledged on television.  Even in TV's early years there were concerns about viewers becoming dependent on television.  Additionally, there have always been questions about how independent programming content can possibly be given the influence of advertisers and the importance of ratings.  And speaking of advertising, how about freedom from the corrosive effect of commercials?

As I say, these are all existential questions, which means they're probably unsuitable to be answered by leafing through the pages of a single issue of TV Guide.  However, the first Monday in this first year of the '60s is the Fourth of July, so let's see what the programming gods have to say about it.  Given that it's never been as big a day for television as Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's, there's still a good amount for us to look at.  But then, we're in New England this week, the cradle of American independence, so we shouldn't be too surprised at that.

What would the Fourth of July be without a parade?  At 11am, Channel 10 (WJAR, Providence) starts things off with live coverage of the nation's oldest Fourth of July parade, from Bristol, Rhode Island.  The parade dates back 148 years from this TV Guide and lives on today, as part of a huge celebration.  Sounds like a lot of fun.

What would the Fourth be without food?  At 1pm, Louise Morgan's "women's show" offers holiday food ideas, and TV Guide includes a note that pages 20-22 of this issue include recipes for "ho;liday dishes that mere males can prepare."  We'll come back to that later.

Thankfully they don't use these - yet.
What would the Fourth be without baseball, the game that's as American as hot dogs and apple pie?  Thankfully we don't have to find out; the Red Sox host the Baltimore Orioles in a 1:30pm holiday matinee broadcast throughout the area on the Red Sox television network, with the great Curt Gowdy at the mic.

What would the Fourth be without - horse racing?  Well, OK.  At 4:30 WBZ, the NBC affiliate, presents the Suburban Handicap from Aqueduct in New York, with 1959 Belmont Stakes champion and Horse of the Year, Sword Dancer, coming out on top.

What would the Fourth be without patriotism?  At 9:30, Channel 7 (WNAC, Boston), presents a special entitle Patriotism, 1960 with representatives from the All-American Conference to Combat Communism and the Council Against Communistic Aggression, and Channel 7's "Americanism Director."  I wonder how many stations have that job title today?

Finally, what would the Fourth be without politics?  At 10pm, NBC repeats a January episode of Sunday Showcase entitled "One Loud, Clear Voice," the story of three candidates battling for their party's nomination for governor: a Congressmen who represents the corrupt party machine, the undistinguished incumbent, and a millionaire mayor, riding a groundswell, who refuses to get involved in the political infighting.*  No word on who wins, but since the only one of the three candidates mentioned in the cast is Cogshill, I wouldn't bet against him.

*Sounds like a Monty Python sketch, doesn't it?  "Congressment Griffen, Corrupt Party, 683 votes.  Governor Sweeter, Ineffectual Party, 721 votes.  Mayor Cogshill, Groundswell Party, 839 votes."  As to which one is the Silly Party, I'll let you be the judge.

I'm only surprised none of the local stations had a movie like Yankee Doodle Dandy, but it's not a bad day of programming.

***

On the cover this week is none other than that Champagne Music Maker himself, Lawrence Welk.  Throughout the years, people invariably refer to Lawrence Welk as a "grandparents" show, and that only old people watch it.  That certainly was the case in our household, but the thing of it is that the old people of today - the people who watch the show on PBS stations throughout the country - are the just a bit older than I was when the show was in its heyday.  In other words, today's fans are the very ones who ridiculed it when it was on network TV.  Could it be something in the water?

Bob Johnson's article calls Welk "an unchanging leader in a fast-changing musical world," and I think that's as good an explanation as any for his enduring popularity.  Even in 1960 Welk was ridiculed by many ("The type of music seems to antagonize the young people," according to an employee at the Aragon Ballroom in Venice, California, where Welk and his orchestra regularly play, "sometimes to the point where we have to ask them to leave."  Welk's on-air demeanor can be even stiffer than Ed Sullivan's, but, like Sullivan, it's part of his charm.  When Welk told his TV consultant Don Fedderson (The Millionaire, My Three Sons, Family Affair) that he'd rather have someone else read the announcements, fellow South Dakotan Fedderson told him that his announcements "were what people were what people watched the show for."

Welk, who once had two hour-long shows on ABC certainly doesn't need the money from TV.  His weekly performances at the Aragon, where he drew 225,000 paying customers in 1959, earn him a minimum of $5,000 a weekend (New Year's Eve can pull in as much as $12,000), far more than the $55,000 he gets for the TV show.  No, it seems as if the primary motivation for Welk is the audience itself.  During rehearsals he spends his time not in front of the camera but in the front row, hobnobbing with his fans.  "He laughs, jokes and dances with an ease he admits he can't achieve on TV," Johnson writes.  "Without close personal contact with my audience," Welk says, "I just wouldn't be anything."

Lawrence Welk was something, for more years than almost any television host.  His network program ran from 1955 to 1971 (he started on local TV in Los Angeles in 1951), and in first-run syndication until 1982.  Reruns of the show continue on PBS.  It is quite a story - an American story, one might say.  And on Independence Day week, why not?

***

We've taken a good look at Monday; let's see some of the highlights from the rest of the week.

On Saturday, we have another episode of Ernie Kovacs' ill-advised game show, Take a Good Look.  I'm not saying the show was bad; no show with Kovacs can be completely without merit.  It's just that a game show is so wrong for Kovacs' brand of bizarre humor.  Unfortunately, Ernie's bizarre methods of finance led to a large lien from the IRS, which resulted in his being forced to take on programs like this.  Tonight's panel includes wife Edie, Hans Conried, and Cesar Romero, which is pretty promising.  Couldn't find that particular episode on YouTube, but here's the show from a couple of weeks later for you to judge for yourself.  OK, maybe it's just an excuse to show Kovacs, but still  - Kovacs!


You know how sometimes TV Guide, especially in this time period, uses some very generic titles for programs?  Well, on Sunday we have one of the most generic: Mystery Show, which I have to think must have had a sponsor's name or something attached to it.  It's a mystery anthology, and tonight's episode is "Murder Me Nicely," with Everett Sloane as a jealous teacher plotting to wreck a successful young student's life.

*Yes, I just checked: it was The Chevy Mystery Show.  Still pretty generic if you ask me.  It was made in color; I wonder if the opening titles were black and yellow?

On Tuesday, it's the precursor of today's CSI shows: Diagnosis: Unknown*, starring Patrick O'Neal as Dr. Daniel Coffee, a a big-city pathologist who solves mysteries with "an eye peering through a microscope."  He's joined by Chester Morris, who came to fame as crime-fighter Boston Blackie, playing helpful police lieutenant Ritter, and the always-cute Phyllis Newman as his "pretty lab technician" Doris.  It's the summer replacement for The Garry Moore Show.

*Like CSI, a product of CBS.  Again: coincidence?

Also on Tuesday but on ABC, an episode of One Step Beyond (or as the listing here has it, Alcoa Presents) entitled "The Day the World Wept," which I just happened to see the other day myself.  It's a very interesting dramatization of the premonitions people around the nation had of Lincoln's assassination - including, famously, Lincoln himself.

Friday's episode of The Twilight Zone is one of the series' most iconic: "Time Enough at Last," starring Burgess Meredith as the bookworm who survives a nuclear war only to break his glasses, leaving him unable to read his beloved books.

Earlier that evening, CBS has another episode of a series that I'll admit I've never heard of, Hotel de Paree, with Earl Holliman as a reformed gunfighter turned hotel owner.  An article elsewhere in this issue discusses Holliman's own dissatisfaction with the show - or perhaps puzzlement would be more appropriate.  He's turned down offers of other series that aren't as good, aren't as highly rated, but wind up with a longer shelf life than Paree.  The first few shows, he admits, were terrible; the quality subsequently improved, but not enough to save the show from the chopping block.  It'll run repeats throughout the summer, then disappear into the ether, like so many other failed series.

***

And now, since we still have a few days until the Fourth, here are those recipes that even men can make.  On our holiday menu: Chicken Casserole and Vegetable Compote, courtesy of Sue Lawler:


And here's the final product.  As Ernie Kovacs would say, take a good look.  If anybody tries this out, let us know!

June 26, 2015

Patrick Macnee, R.I.P.

Mrs. Peel may have gotten all the attention (and for good reason), but for my money John Steed was the irreplaceable member of The Avengers.  He was suave, sophisticated, stylish - oh, how he had style! Look up the word in the dictionary and you'll see John Steed's picture - and witty.  He would have made anyone an Anglophile.

The thing about John Steed, though - and there's always a thing - is that he didn't get where he was by accident.  One doesn't become a survivor in British intelligence by being a pushover.  Throughout the show's run, and particularly in the early years, there was a menace to Steed's manner that made it abundantly clear that this was not a man to be trifled with.  It was that edge, that constant threat of danger implied, that made the "Avenger" part of The Avengers ring true.

Yes, while Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson and even Joanna Lumley came and went*, there was one constant to The Avengers - Patrick Macnee.  And if John Steed was The Avengers and Patrick Macnee was John Steed - well, you see where I'm going there.

*And also Ian Hendry and Julie Stevens and Jon Rollason and Gareth Hunt, but the those four were the ones most remembered. 

Macnee was a veteran of stage and screen even before becoming John Steed, of course - look for his small but memorable role in Alistar Sims' version of A Christmas Carol, for instance - and he continued to work well after the end of The Avengers, but when people think of him they'll always go back to the man in the bowler who carried the umbrella and got to work with these incredible babes.  And while there are some heroes whose sex appeal escapes the viewer, you were never left wondering how it was that Steed was able to attract these incredible women.  He had every quality a woman would want, from a sense of humor to an indomitable self-assuredness.  He always took his work seriously, but not necessarily how he did it.  He truly was the man that every woman wanted and every man wanted to be like.  This article from The Telegraph tells you everything you'd need to know about how that made The Avengers work.

Macnee was the kind of actor you looked for as a guest star in other series, and when you ran across the name you made sure to watch the episode, even if you weren't a fan of the show itself.  He was a ship's captain in Columbo and a man who thought he was Sherlock Holmes in Magnum, P.I., and lent his voice to the Cylon leader in the original Battlestar Galactica (as well as doing the voiceover to the opening credits).  Whether playing the hero or the villain, he was a wonderful presence on screen, one that forced you to watch him.

And maybe that's why Patrick Macnee's death yesterday at the age of 93 stings.  Not because of death itself; anyone who lives to the ripe old age of 93 can be said to have had a good run.  Not because he won't be playing Steed anymore; thanks to modern technology those performances will be with us forever.  No, the reason his death creates an emptiness is because it quite literally leaves a void.  Think about it for a moment: who, today, could play the suave Steed?  Not Ray Fiennes, who tried in the movie version and failed.  Is there anyone out there with the blend of humor and menace, the smoothness without smarminess, the confidence without arrogance (not too much, anyway), the charm and sophistication?  Anyone?

I think not, but then the qualities that Patrick Macnee exemplified in the guise of John Steed, the qualities of his own personality that shone through his various roles over the years, is out of fashion everywhere.  Grunge and snark and slouching are in, while chivalry and manliness are yesterday's news.  And yet I prefer to think that there will always be a place for someone like John Steed; the question is, is there anyone out there up to the task?

To coin a phrase from The Avengers, one of its most famous:  Mr. Macnee, you're needed.

June 24, 2015

Now this is a TV Guide review!

I'm running a bit short on time today, but you'll want to have plenty of time to read through this terrific piece from the great James Lileks.  I like to think that I do a pretty good job with my Saturday articles, but it can be something of a crapshoot deciding what to write about and what to skip, what to link to and what to ignore.  Not so the great Lileks - enjoy!

June 22, 2015

What's on TV? Thursday, June 30, 1966

We're back in my comfort zone this week, with a look at the Minnesota State Edition of TV Guide.  As always, I have to limit the stations somewhat, since there are 16 of them in the issue, so you're getting the Twin Cities, plus some representative cities around the area.  Let's see what's up on the last day of June, 1966.

June 20, 2015

This week in TV Guide: June 25, 1966

How many times has this happened to you: you're driving through a strange town when your car breaks down.  While you're waiting for repairs, you have a run-in with one of the local punks, who just happens to be the son of one of the most important men in town.  Later on, the punk turns up dead, and guess who the prime suspect is?  You!

I don't know about you, but that's never happened to me.  I won't say that I don't expect it ever will, because that seems to be just the kind of person to whom it does happen.  At least that's the trope that's on display in this week's episode of Run For Your Life, starring Ben Gazzara as the doomed Paul Bryan, a man with only a few months (years?) to live.  We know Paul didn't do it, because he's the show's star; and we know he won't be convicted, because the show's called Run For Your Life and not You're Sentenced to Life.  So why even bother with a storyline like this?  Perhaps because it gives you a heavy you can really hate, or a heavy who reforms once he discovers the true meaning of life, or because it gives West Coast writers a chance to ridicule small-minded small-town America.  Your guess is as good as mine.  But with absolutely no prior knowledge of what I'm going to find, let's take a look through the listings and see if we can find any other TV cliches - or tropes, as they've come to be known - on the small screen this week.

Here's one, on Daniel Boone: "Daniel, the fort's best runner, sprains an ankle, which spells bad news for the settlers who have bet on him to win the hotly contested annual foot race with the Indians."  Yes: whenever I get sick or otherwise come up with some debilitating ailment, I always check the calendar, because I just know something important is about to happen.  Did you ever notice how you never see a listing like "Daniel sprains an ankle, and is grateful he doesn't have anything planned for the week"?  No, of course not - that doesn't make for very interesting television.  You'd have to add the sentence "And then one thing after another seems to pop up" to get a script out of it.

There's a rerun of Lee Marvin's M Squad latenight on Channel 5 that has another typical police story: "An ex-convict, suspected of murder, is about to commit suicide by leaping from a high window.  Ballinger races to get enough evidence to clear the man before he jumps to his death."  Will Ballinger get the evidence, and will it be in time?  What do you think?  "A man suspected of murder threatens suicide.  Ballinger looks into the case, but discovers the man really is guilty, and his death wouldn't change a thing."  Have you seen that lately?

The Big Valley offers a slight variation on the episode from Run For Your Life: "Gil Anders comes to the Barkley ranch looking for Heath and is shot from ambush by two bounty hunters, who claim he's wanted for murder."  This will, of course, come as a complete surprise to Gil, who has no idea why anyone would suspect him of murder.  Whether or not you think he's guilty of the crime depends on whether or not you think Barbara Stanwyck would let her son hang around with cold-blodded killers.  Heath's a lawyer, anyway, so he'll be sure to get Gil off.

In Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the Seaview takes on a couple of men adrift in a lifeboat, "unaware the they're rescued a pair of escaped convicts."  Because people are never what they seem to be.  Look for a scene where the radio operator gets a message about two convicts on the run, and the crew gradually put two and two together.  One of the escapees is Nehemiah Persoff, which means you get two tropes for the price of one since Persoff is never who or what he appears to be either, and if you ever run into him on a dark street you're right to feel uneasy.

Petticoat Junction has a storyline that's typical of what happens when misunderstandings occur:  "A feud between Charley and Floyd has sidetracked the Cannonball and paralyzed Hooterville Valley."  If you doubt the likelihood that the two train engineers will get their feud patched up by the end of the thirty minutes, you also probably think next week the train will be piloted by Arnold Ziffel.

On The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, "Harriet has been receiving a daily rose from a secret admirer."  Will this be the end of the Nelson's marriage?  Will we see Ozzie next week on Divorce Court, or Perry Mason, in "The Case of the Cantankerous Crooner"?  I'll bet there's a logical explanation for the whole thing, something that will be discovered in just under thirty minutes that will leave Ozzie feeling foolish, Harriet secretly pleased that Ozzie can still get jealous, and the whole family having a good laugh.

I could go on, but you get the point.  There are only a handful of original stories in existence; most people use the number seven, but that could be a cliche in and of itself.  And while some of them are commonplace, things that could happen to any of us, too many of them are like the one that Paul Bryan faces in Run For Your Life: ones that we scoff at for being so utterly absurd, and that keep us tuning in each week.

***

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..

Sullivan: Scheduled guests: singer Jerry Vale; Metropolitan Opera soprano Birgit Nilsson; comics London Lee and Nancy Walker; the singing Swinging Lads; the comedy team of Stiller and Meara; ballerina Joyce Cuoco; the Arirang Ballet, Korean dance and instrumental group; the Yong Brothers, balancing act; and the Berosini Chimps..

Palace: Host Ray Bolger presents singer Kay Starr; jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, accompanied by 7-year-old drummer Jim Bradley; impressionist Rich Little; comedian Norm Crosby; escape artist Michael De La Vega; and the Five Amandis, teeterboard act.

As I was typing this, I thought to myself, "that Palace episode looked awfully familiar," and it turns out I was right:  I reviewed it back on July 9, 1966, two weeks after this issue.  It was a broadcast airing on a station that presented Palace on a delay - KCMT, the dreaded Channel 7 of my teenage years, which had a split affiliation and ran several ABC series on a delay of a week or two.  At that time it was going up against a Sullivan program that featured Ethel Merman, the Rolling Stones and Wayne Newton.  I gave it a push back then, and I'm tempted to do the same this week.  But even though Ed has Birgit Nilsson, one of the greatest opera stars who ever lived, the supporting cast for Palace is a little stronger: Kay Starr is as good as Jerry Vale, Norm Crosby is much funnier than Stiller and Meara (Anne Meara, of recently happy memory), and Lionel Hampton is a legend.  On that basis, the winner is Palace by a nose.

***

So Henry Steele Commager says television must reform itself or else.  To which you might ask, "or else what?", and who the hell is Henry Steele Commager anyway?

To answer the second question first, Commager was a noted historian, a champion of the Enlightenment, and a chronicler of modern liberalism.  Insofar as Commager defined what liberalism was, he could be seen as a liberal version of William F. Buckley, Jr.*  Commager's article is the fifth in TV Guide's ongoing series "assessing the effects of television on our society," which is a lot like the mission of this here blog.

*Who once wrote a letter to Commager asking if he had changed his middle name to "Steele" in admiration of Josef Stalin, the "Man of Steel."  It's that kind of cheekiness that I always admired in WFB.

Commager acknowledges the importance of television, calling it "the most important invention in the history of the communication of knowledge" since the inventions of the University and the printing press.  He believes it foolish to think that, as some people put it, the only changes left for television are technical ones, such as color vs. black and white; it is a young medium, he says, continuing to evolve, which means that this look at TV should be regarded as "an interim judgment."  And part of the problem that television faces is that, in its 25 years, it hasn't quite figured out what it should be.

Commager from an early '50s TV interview
Arguably it should be a medium devoted to serving the public interest, as is set out in the FCC act of 1934.  And, as Commager points out, there are enough money-making enterprises out there that television shouldn't have to be one of them; "all the important contributions are to be made to the commonwealth, not the private wealth."  The rub, so to speak, is that television as an industry is controlled by "men without vision or imagination in anything other than their major interests - manufacturing, marketing and finance."  Yes, and it's probably also true that only men with those kinds of interests would have had the wherewithal to create the mighty networks that exist in 1966. Based on this assessment, it would seem as if the question Commager asks - is TV a form of entertainment and information, or is it a form of education similar to the University and the Foundation - has a self-ordained answer.  Yes, he concedes, it can be both, but "who can doubt that the proportions are badly mixed?"  And while the men who run television boast of their independence from government control, they say very little about "independence where it really counts" - freedom from the advertisers who "determine policy and content."

So we're faced with an argument that we've read and heard many times - it is the drive for profit, and the resulting lowest-common-denominator programming that results - that is responsible for the quality (or lack thereof) of television.  Television, Commager laments, has failed utterly in the realm of education: "it neither transmits the knowledge of the past to the next generation, nor contributes to professional training, nor does it expand the boundaries of knowledge."  It has no professional standards and practices.  What "meager" contributions it has made in these areas has been more than offset by "its contributions to noneducation and to the narrowing of intellectual horizons."

As it happens, I can agree with Commager on much of this.  But the question remains: what is one to do about it?  We've created a public broadcasting station that is supposed to be independent of pressures created by ratings and advertising dollars, but in its effort to solicit direct financial contributions from viewers - which would be the purest way of judging a network's ability to connect with the public - it is forced to rely on the basest form of crowd-pleasing shows, with virtually no attention to the educational and cultural forces which we were assured would result from its creation.

Commager's answer to this, not surprisingly given his ideological bent, is government control, specifically an empowering of the FCC.  Were television to be treated like any other utility, it would have to constantly show the ways in which it serves the public interest, lest it lose its license.  An FCC reconstituted in this manner would have "authority to make findings and impose decisions with respect to such matters as content and advertising, and to refuse to license stations which fail to devote themselves to the public interest."  Again, the problem with this is that Commager fails to appreciate that at least a part of the "public interest" consists of what the public is interested in.  With this attitude, television soon becomes a kind of medicine that people dread taking, even though they're being told that it's good for them.  And by allowing a commission - one with political appointments, no doubt, and how could anything possibly go wrong with that? - rather than the public to choose what should be broadcast, how does one truly find out the pulse of the viewers?

This much is clear: Commager is leery at best, and opposed and worst, to the idea of private ownership of television broadcasting.  It may be the norm here, he states, but not in the rest of the world.  Which, one would suppose, is why there's such a call for American television programs in the rest of the world, right?  Or why the shows imported from Britain so closely resemble ones being shown here.  Henry Steele Commager is not a stupid man, but he's something like a lumbering ox, an easy target.  He makes some very good points about the problems and challenges of television, but like so many, fails to come up with many answers.  I can't really fault him for that, either, though - after all, you don't see many coming from me, do you?

***

On the other hand, For the Record gives us a speech by Edwin Bayley, VP of National Educational Television (NET), who says that money for educational television should come neither from federal nor state government.  Once you get government involved in funding, Bayley says, "the inclination is to dictate program content."  He cites various civil rights programs that were rejected by educational television stations in the South due to worries "they would offend state legislatures that had provided them with funds."  The preferred source for funding, according to Bayley, is "foundations, industry and business."

Not much to see in the Teletype sections this week, other than a note that "ABC's daytime show Confidential for Women goes off the air July 8.  It'll be replaced by The Newlywed Game."  We all know how that turned out.  CBS has a new Peanuts cartoon planned for around Halloween, and hopes that It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown will have some of the success of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

The fortunes of dramatic programming ebb and flow in TV Guide, depending on what year you read.  This year it's a bull market for drama, with ABC talking about a monthly Sunday Night at the Theatre in addition to Stage 67.  NBC is producing a version of "Othello," while CBS, basking in the glow from their critically acclaimed production of "Death of a Salesman," looks to duplicate the results with "The Crucible" and "The Glass Menagerie," which wind up airing on CBS Playhouse.  Just wait a year or two, and the tide will turn again.

"Unlike the U.S. House and Senate," the British House of Lords is considering bringing television cameras in to the chamber.  They've agreed to a trial run, over the objections of Lord Balfour, who memorably observed that televising the Lords (which would invariably lead to cameras in the House of Commons as well) might cause viewers to look at the House "rather as a zoo, and frankly I do not think the public would like all the exhibits."  As he said this, notes TV Guide, "at least two members were asleep, and several front-benchers were hunched down in their seats, their feet wedged against the tables opposite them."  Good thing that would never happen in this country.

***

We're in the summer rerun season now, and it's quite possible the stories for the next couple of months might be shorter, concentrating on fewer topics.  There's not a lot to be gained from reviewing a rerun, and I've written about many of the summer replacement shows in the past, so I may wind up with two- or three-topic stories from time to time, a bit of a change from what we're used to.  On the other hand, I may not - the only way you'll know for sure is to keep tuning in.

June 17, 2015

"Major Hochstetter, Gestapo"

HOCHSTETTER GETS THE DROP ON THE KILLER, IN MAJOR HOCHSTETTER, GESTAPO
How's that for a provocative title?  It is, or should be, the title of a book that I'm hoping one of you out there will write someday.  Now, I know what you're thinking - I'm a writer; why don't I write it myself?  Good point, which can be answered thus:  yes, I may be a writer, perhaps even a novelist, but I'm no good at crafting a mystery, which is what this would be.  I'll be happy to serve as consultant for you, though.  And I don't even ask for much of anything in return; this is another of my ideas which I pass along to you at no charge, which means it's worth exactly what you pay for it.

Before I get too far ahead, though, a little background.  I've always been interested in what Paul Harvey called "the rest of the story" - in other words, after the happy ending, what happens to the rest of the characters?  For example, we know the star of the show always gets the girl in the end, but what happens to his romantic rival - Peter Lawford in Easter Parade, for instance?  He's often quite charming himself, but through no fault of his own (except, perhaps, that he wasn't a big enough star), he loses out to Fred Astaire, the guy that should have gotten Judy Garland in the first place.  Only I wasn't ever interested in that story, since we knew how it was going to end from the start.  What I wanted to know was where Peter Lawford goes from there.  Does he rebound quickly and move on to the next girl?  Does he agonize over what might have been?  Does he join the French Foreign Legion?  You get the picture.

I did something like this awhile ago with Hogan's Heroes, wondering what had happened to Colonel Hogan, so perhaps it's not surprising I'd return to the show here.  This is a little different though, in that I'm taking the bad guy, who was played entirely for laughs, and making him not only a serious character in a serious story, but the protagonist as well.  Would it work?  I suppose to a certain extent that depends on how good a writer you are.

The title of this piece comes from the first line of the book.  It's the line that Hochstetter always uses when entering a room.  He flashes his credentials and pushes his way through the door, past whomever it was that had answered his knock.  (That is, if he even bothers to knock.)  It's the same line he's said how many times?  Hundreds?  Thousands?  And at first it was exciting, being part of the elite Nazi corps, but as time has gone on it has become his burden rather than his glory.  He has come to see the corruption inherent in the Nazi regime, the evil that it pursues, the lost cause that the war has become.  (This is how we make him a palatable protagonist.)  And yet he remains - after all, nobody ever retires from the Gestapo.  Besides, it has kept him out of active duty on either front.  And even when you're in the middle of a war, there's still a job to do, and that's where Hochstetter finds himself as the story opens.

He's been called in to investigate a murder that's occurred at a defense plant, one that is working on a secret weapons package.  (I don't know if the Gestapo even did this kind of thing, but why not?  For something that's top secret and concerned with the war effort, you might have the Gestapo investigate.)  Because Hochstetter is portrayed as a comic foil in the series, we don't want to change him that dramatically; therefore, we turn him into a character that's something like Columbo without the cleverness.  He's kind of clumsy, a little slow on the uptake, a plodder rather than a thoroughbred, given not to brilliant deductions but simply following where a case takes him until he arrives at the end.  And in this case, the facts will take him in a completely different direction than we he, or the reader, expects.

As you can see, this is a radical reinterpretation of the Hochstetter character.  However, if it's going to work, you still have to have some traces of the Hogan version.  For instance, early in the book, as he surveys the crime scene he should notice someone standing in the background, after which he goes over to one of the junior offices and, nodding at the stranger, says "What is this man doing here?"  It's his trademark line from Hogan, but here it merely serves as an affectionate nod to the character's established history: it is perfectly logical coming where it does, and he does not use it again.  Similarly, he may make an offhand comment about it being a relief to be off of the POW beat - again, an acknowledgement of Hogan without getting into too much detail.

Obviously, we shouldn't try to make this a heavy-duty novel; perhaps a neo-noir with a colorful cast of characters would suffice.  It should be more like a fun beach read than an existential drama.  If you want to try something bold, make it in an alternate universe, one in which the Germans won Would War II (perhaps the Americans never entered the war - I think that premise has been done before), and we're seeing what a post-war Hochstetter does in a police procedural.  Anyway, since it's unlikely we'd get permission to use the Hochstetter character in the first place, this may all be nothing more than an intellectual exercise.

A lot of people might look at this as glorified fan fiction, which is definitely not what I think it should be.  That's why the plotting has to have a real credibility, and why I'm offering it up here.  There has to be complexity, red herrings, the element of surprise, and something of an attention to detail of the resources available to an investigator in the 1940's, as opposed to today.  Maybe it's even a look at Hochstetter before the era of Hogan.  I don't know, and in the end it isn't up to me.  It's up to you, if you've got what it takes to pick up this idea and run with me.  I think it's a fun idea, one that has a lot of potential.  Tom Stoppard did something similar with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, after all, and that turned out pretty well.  And if you don't need me as a story consultant that's fine, too.  Just remember to list me in the acknowledgements section, and make sure you spell my name correctly.

June 15, 2015

What's on TV? Friday, June 20, 1958

We're back up New England way this week.  I don't really have anything to add in the way of local insight and there's nothing special about the programming, so I'm going to let the listings speak for themselves this week, and depend on you good readers for the comments.  Have at it!

June 13, 2015

This week in TV Guide: June 14, 1958

An article last week pointed out how cable networks, with their shorter schedules and "brazen disregard for tradition" by debuting new series during the summer, have forced networks to change with the times. Nowadays, "summer has evolved from a rerun graveyard to the home of lively offerings, with enough choices to threaten your vacation plans -- or at least DVR capacity."

Well, as far as I'm concerned, that remains to be seen, but there's no doubt that things have changed since 1958, when June was officially proclaimed as the end of television's "regular" season, a time to take inventory of the past season and proclaim winners and losers.  And there are plenty of them, particularly winners, in Frank DeBlois' year-end review of the 1957-58 season.

Among the winners are CBS' "charming" Leave It to Beaver, hailed as television's best new comedy series; ABC's American Bandstand, "a national favorite among teen-agers", and a flock of drama series, including Hallmark Hall of Fame, Omnibus, Kraft Theatre and Playhouse 90. There's also praise also for news documentaries from Edward R. Murrow and Lowell Thomas, and docu-series like The Twenthieth Century and Bell System Science Series.  There's praise aplenty too for variety shows from Victor Borge ("Comedy and Music"),  Mary Martin ("Annie Get Your Gun"), Stars of Jazz, Crosby and Sinatra on The Edsel Show, the Young Peoples Concerts of Leonard Bernstein, The General Motors 50th Anniversary Show and NBC Opera Theatre.

And then - well, there are those shows that didn't do so well, such as Sid Caesar Invites You on ABC, which "was often embarrassingly bad," series by Frank Sinatra and Eddie Fisher that were "respectiively bad and fair," and "flops" by Gisele MacKenzie, Guy Mitchell and Polly Bergen.
NBC's You Bet Your Life, in which "Groucho [Marx] continues to prove that money isn't always everything on television."  A quiz show such as The $64,000 Question "supposedly enables a viewer to win thousands," and that's before they found out it was rigged.

While there is much to like about the season just ended, DeBlois notes that there are still too many Westerns - 17 on the networks, and another 15 in syndication - and dramas seem to be declining.  But then, who determines the difference between a good show and a bad one?  It is the critic, which one TV executive described as "any former obituary writer who happens to own a television set."

***

We're not just looking backwards in this issue though; there's also a preview of coming attractions for this summer.  Although the networks aren't looking for prestige dramas or breakout hits as they do today, they are looking to add some new blood, and perhaps find a series or two that has some staying power.  They promise "at least 18 spanking new shows," including eight - count 'em, eight - quiz shows.

There is, for example, E.S.P., ABC's panel show, hosted by Vincent Price, which may be "the most interesting of the new shows" but runs only from July 11 to August 26.  On the other hand, Buckskin, replacing Tennessee Ernie Ford's Thursday night show on NBC, is a "promising newcomer" that debuts July 3 and actually makes the fall schedule, with original episodes lasting until May 1959, and appearing in summer reruns in both 1959 and 1965.  The closest any network comes to "experimental programming" is probably NBC's plan to run 13 pilots (or "test films," as they're described) in hopes that "some will attract enough interest to win network time slots next fall."

Some familiar faces make appearances in unfamiliar settings - for example, Andy Williams.  He's pinch hitting for Pat Boone this summer, but it will still be awhile before he becomes a staple of NBC's regular schedule.  George Fenneman, the longtime sidekick to Groucho Marx, gets to host his own show, ABC's Anybody Can Play, on Sunday nights.  Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, mainstays for years on television, get a chance at their own show, filling in for Steve Allen; and a rotating list of stars including Edie Adams, Stan Freberg, and Rowan and Martin take over for Dinah Shore.

There's the switcharoo: Destiny takes the place of Zane Grey Theater, while reruns of Zane Grey fill in for December Bride.  I Love Lucy moves back to its original Monday night timeslot with a series of reruns, taking the place of Danny Thomas' show.  Lucy, in turn, is replaced in its current timeslot by reruns of Gerald McBoing-Boing.  Then there's the recycled show.  On Trial, last seen in 1957, returns as The Joseph Cotten Show, while No Warning!, which has actually been on for a few months, is nothing more than warmed-over Panic! from last season.  And an as-yet unnamed anthology show, made up of reruns from Schlitz Playhouse and G.E. Theater, spells Red Skelton. Got all that?

The only interesting note I see is for Perry Mason - it's "featuring new material in order to get a head start in next fall's race against Perry Como."  (Como is being replaced for the summer by bandleader Bob Crosby, brother of Bing, in a show that's live "purely in its technical sense."  That's a creative, nay innovative, approach to summer programming - nearly as creative as you might see today.

***

This is all not to say that there aren't new shows on this week, and one of the most noteworthy is Playhouse 90's presentation of "A Town Has Turned to Dust," written by Rod Serling.  The story of this episode, however, is actually more interesting than the show itself, and helped propel Serling into The Twilight Zone.

For some time Serling had wanted to do a script based on the real-life story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black teenager who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for flirting with a white woman.  His first stab at dramatizing the story was "Noon on Doomsday," written in 1956 for the U.S. Steel Hour, in which the murder victim was intended to be a Jewish storekeeper.  As this article shows, though, the program soon became bogged down in politics, especially after word leaked out that the story might be based on the Till case.  The location, which was never specified, was now to be New England, to avoid any possible suggestion that it could be in the South.  The Jewish victim was now an "unnamed foreigner," and the killer was not a psychopath but merely "a good, decent, American boy momentarily gone wrong."  At no point in the script could the word "lynch" be used.  It was a total beatdown for Serling, and although the show was pretty good, he complained that "its thesis had been diluted, and my characters had mounted a soap box to shout something that had become too vague to warrant any shouting."

"A Town Has Turned to Dust" is Serling's second crack at the Till story, but if he thinks it will be any easier this time (and, considering his past experiences with networks, he likely doesn't), he'll be sadly mistaken.  When CBS gets done with his script, the story has been shifted to the American Southwest, the time period changed from the present day to the 1870s, and he victim is now a poor Mexican boy guilty of admiring a white girl from afar.  Once again, the episode gets pretty good reviews; New York Times critic Jack Gould calls it "a raw, tough and at the same time deeply moving outcry against prejudice," and is particularly effusive in his praise for "superlative" performances by Rod Steiger and William Shatner, and the "superb" direction of John Frankenheimer, which he says "truly strengthened Mr. Serling's intent."  Interestingly, the final paragraph of Gould's review references how both Serling and the show "had to fight executive interference, reportedly requiring some changes in the story line, before getting their play on the air last night. The theatre people of Hollywood have reason to be proud of their stand in the viewer's behalf."

While Gould's conclusion makes it sound as if Serling had the last word, the author himself felt quite differently.  “By the time the censors had gotten to it, my script had turned to dust,” he later said. “They chopped it up like a room full of butchers at work on a steer.”  Was Serling justified in his outrage, or was he just a sensitive author who didn't want anyone to touch his work?  You be the judge:


***

Did you notice what I think is a first for this feature?  Last week we had Robert Young on the cover, in the guise of Marcus Welby, M.D.  This week, twelve years earlier, he's also on the cover, this time as Bob Anderson, the beloved star of Father Knows Best.  I don't think I've ever had the same person on back-to-back covers before.

Last week's story, fitting the relevant '70s, had to do with Young's real-life fight against alcoholism and depression, and his remarkable candor and lack of self-pity in talking about his battle for self-control and self-esteem.  No such worries back in 1958, where the focus is on the relationship between the adult actors and the children, and the impact which FKB has had on the American landscape, "impressing itself upon the collective conscience of the American Organization," in the words of writer Dan Jenkins.

In the 1957-58 season alone, Jenkins notes, the show has received requests from 22 organizations for personal appearances: a New York life insurance company (Jim Anderson, Young's character, is an insurance salesman), the U.S. Army Recruiting Services (Young and co-star Jane Wyatt appeared on the Army float in the 1958 Rose Parade), the National Safety Council (Young views his work for them as a year-around job), and the Mount Sinai Hospital and Clinic (recognizing Young as Father of the Year, "a title twice bestowed upon him by the National Father's Day Committee), among others.  The show, winner of three past Emmys, is seen in 21 countries, and is a smash in Australia.

Yes, Father Knows Best is one of the most popular shows on television, a gentle, literate family comedy about "a pleasantly intelligent and happy American family with all the built-in values," and Robert Young is one of the most popular stars on television.  For a generation he becomes the very model of a husband and father.  It earns him no credit with his actual family, though - one of his daughters recently chastises him when he replies "I don't know" to a question she asks, telling him that "Jim Anderson always knows."  To which Young replies, "Jim Anderson has two writers.  Bob Young doesn't have any."

***

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
This week's starlet is Whitney Blake who in a little over two years has gone from selling ice cream at an Oregon stand to becoming "one of TV's most active free-lance actresses".  "I always wanted to be an actress," she says, but it wasn't until her family finally settled in Oregon that she was able to pursue her passion.  "My mother wanted me to do something sensible, like get married.  But I knew what I really wanted."

After studying at Pasadena City College, Blake heads for Hollywood, where she's seen by a talent agent, after which the roles just kept coming.  She honed her skills playing in summer stock, and now she's ready for the future.  "I'm an actress now," she says.  "Even Mother now accepts that."

Indeed she is.  In addition to her many guest-starring roles, Whitney Blake the actress will be best known for her four seasons as Dorothy Baxter in the sitcom Hazel.  But there's also Whitney Blake the television mogul; she and her husband Allan Manings will create the sitcom One Day at a Time.  And then there's Whitney Blake the businesswoman; in the '90s, she and her son will own the Minneapolis bookstore Baxter's Books, which over the years helped me fill a shelf or so in my library.  (Had I known, I might have demanded to see the owner.)  Most famous, perhaps, is Whitney Blake the mother - her daughter, Meredith Baxter, will inherit her mom's looks and have a pretty good career of her own.

So as TV Guide starlets go, Whitney Blake is definitely one of the winners.

***

Among the week's other highlights, Ed Sullivan returns to New York on Sunday with film from his trip to the Brussels World's Fair, and clips of some of the stars appearing there, including Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot and Maurice Chevalier.  WGBH, the educational channel in Boston (home of this week's TV Guide), provides weeklong coverage of the Boston Arts Festival.  Some of those new shows we were talking about earlier make their debuts, including NBC's The Joseph Cotten Show on Saturday and ABC's Traffic Court on Wednesday.  On Thursday, NBC premieres Confessions, which is not about Roman Catholic priests but does focus on convicted criminals, with a panel of sociologists, penologists, clergymen, psychiatrists and lawyers providing commentary. Frigidare Summer Theater, one of those clearinghouses for reruns of dramas from old anthology series, makes its debut on Friday on ABC.

TV Teletype tells us about two new series being prepared for a fall debut:  Gunn for Hire, starring Craig Stevens, is set for Mondays on NBC.  You know it by the name they finally settled on: Peter Gunn.  Also on tap for NBC is a new Western series, Virginia City, which will be going into production next month.  When it debuts, it too will be under a different name: Bonanza.

Finally, there's Dotto, a quiz show on weekdays at 11:30am (ET) on CBS.  It just started in January of this year, but it's already been so popular that a nighttime version will premiere next month on NBC.  Dan Jenkins reviews the program on page 27, but he doesn't see much to write about.  It's "still another in the apparently never-ending succession of new quiz shows, [which] comes out of the same old mold."  "The game's the thing," he says, "the money prizes rarely going higher than about $3000."

And yet, only two months after this issue, Dotto disappears from the airwaves.  It's not that it suffered a sudden drop in popularity; on the contrary, one could say that its cancellation came about because it got too much attention.  It began the previous month, when one of the contestants, Ed Hilgemeier, discovered a notebook belonging to another contestant, Marie Winn.  Turns out that notebook contained the answers to questions she would be asked on the show.  Hilgemeier took his suspicions to the contestant defeated by Winn, Yaffe Kimball, and then to the show's producers.  The producers paid all three of them off to keep quiet, but as often happens with these cover-ups, Hilgemeier wound up going to the authorities anyway.  And - well, as Paul Harvey would say, I'm sure you all know the rest of the story.

June 12, 2015

Around the dial

At the AV Club, there's an interesting article by Larry Fitzmaurice on the long tradition of tragedy in sitcoms.  In some ways we shouldn't be surprised, since there's often such a thin line between comedy and tragedy; nonetheless, as he went through the list of recent shows featuring one or two dead parents, and these shows' occasional forays into relatively serious subject matter, it was a surprise nonetheless.  Of course, by concentrating on relatively recent shows he overlooks such famed programs as Family Affair and Bachelor Father that were established on the same premise.  Family Affair in particular would occasionally show the sense of confusion and loss the children sometimes felt; it never let you forget that the premise was built entirely on the death of loved ones.

David Hofstede of Comfort TV, whom I consider one of the most insightful of classic TV bloggers, has a very good take on what differentiates classic television from today's programs.  Even though we've been told repeatedly that we're living in a new Golden Age, there often seems - at least to me - as if there's something missing, and David's come up with what it might be: a default setting of kindness.  I've struggled for some time to try and articulate what I think the difference is, and while I haven't been able to do so yet (the closest I've come is "cynicism"), I think we're both coming from the same place.

Now, who can possibly do without wacky TV show cards?

Bare-bones e-zine continues with the Hitchcock Project.  This was such a good show.

I just ran across the old Tim Conway Show the other day in one of my TV Guides.  And now Those Were the Days gives us a visual reminder today.  Coincidence?

Need I say any more than Television Obscurities has another excellent TV Guide recap?  I enjoyed this issue myself.

Kliph Nesteroff has an outstanding piece on the strange story of Keefe Brasselle and Jim Aubrey.  It will cost you a contribution, which is a small price to pay for a wealth of information.  I'm going to make my contribution, and you should too.

A bit pressed for time today, but I wanted to make sure you got to these, and the many others out there.  Back again tomorrow.

June 10, 2015

The "fugitive" kind

News item #1: Warner Brothers announces a reboot of "The Fugitive" movie.  The original, based on the hit TV show of the '60s starring David Janssen, was one of WB's biggest hits of the '90s, with star Harrison Ford, a Best Picture Oscar nomination, and an Oscar win for Tommy Lee Jones as Best Supporting Actor.

News item #2:  CBS Video's newest DVD release of the complete Fugitive TV series runs into another roadblock, as the set mistakenly contains discs that include replacement music for some incidental scenes and had already been replaced once.  

The problem outraged Fugitive fans when it originally occurred several years ago in the release of individual season sets and forced CBS to issue replacement discs with some of the original music restored.  This marks the fourth time CBS has had to issue replacement discs for various Fugitive problems; in addition to the original replacement music issue, a previous complete series set was recalled in order to address music replacement, and was then re-released with the correct music but also with several discs that included incorrectly dubbed episodes that required replacing, and the current flawed set, released as a budget option, which used the defective discs from the individual season sets rather than the corrected discs from the previous complete series release.

What with all the problems this series has undergone in getting a correct release on DVD, it almost seems as there's more angst involved in getting this right than there was in Dr. Richard Kimble's original quest to clear his name and catch the one-armed man who killed his wife.  As so we asked the question: how could the reboot possibly compete with such internal torment?  To that, there's only one answer:


June 8, 2015

What's on TV? Wednesday, June 10, 1970

Have we ever stopped in Nashville before?  I don't think so, so we'll add this to the list of markets covered in the weekly listings.  I don't know anything about the television history of Nashville, but I'll try to come up with something interesting to say anyway.

June 6, 2015

This week in TV Guide: June 6, 1970

This week's review is dominated by legal and political issues that go a long way toward describing the transition of the turmoil of the '60s into the '70, and how America's cultural atmosphere has evolved since then to the point that it becomes difficult nowadays to imagine that it was ever any other way.  But don't worry; there's plenty of fun stuff in store as well!

***

I've always remembered something my 10th grade social studies teacher said.  It was before class, on a day when us students were talking about what we wanted to do with our lives - what colleges we hoped to be attending, what jobs we wanted to have.  "You know," he said, "a few years ago you wouldn't have been having this conversation.  You'd have been wondering when you'd be drafted, and whether or not you'd wind up in Vietnam."

He was right; the military draft had ended less than four years ago, and although we'd wind up having to sign up for selective service before we were out of college, by 1976 the idea of being drafted to fight in a foreign war was the furthest thing from our own plans. But in June 1970 the draft was a very real thing and, as the TV Guide listing for the June 6 ABC News Special "The Draft: Who Serves?" notes, men of draft age have four choices: "consent to induction, hope for deferments, refuse to report (and risk imprisonment) or leave the country."

The military draft was one of the stormiest parts of the antiwar movement, and I think the main reason protests over the Gulf Wars have never reached a critical level is that there is no draft to spread the threat around, to make the prospects of fighting more immediate for every young man and woman of a particular age.  That's what having an all-volunteer army has done for us, and as early as 1970 the prospects of such an army were under discussion in this special, as well as various inequities already existing in the draft, and the possibilities of increased future deferments.  Roger Peterson, the veteran ABC correspondent who was a native of the Twin Cities and started his television career at KSTP, is the primary reporter for a special that, as much as anything, shows us how much American culture has changed in the intervening 45 years.

***

Another program that highlights how times have changed is The Today Show from Thursday, as baseball writer Leonard Koppett discusses one of the most controversial aspects of the game: the reserve clause.

The reserve clause was a standard part of the player contract, and its very simplicity belied its contentiousness.  It stated that once a player's contract with his team expired, the team continued to retain the rights to that player.  Although he could not play for them unless he was under an active contract, the team could still trade him, send him to the minor leagues, sell him to another team, or release him.  Only in the last case, if he was released, would he be free to sign with the team of his choice.  In all other aspects his ability to earn a livelihood was entirely at the whim of the team holding his contract.

The clause was always controversial; for owners, it was the principal means by which salaries were held under control and teams held together.  For players, it meant being locked into service with a club until and unless they decided otherwise.  If the player did change clubs, he had little if any say in where he would wind up unless he'd been given his unconditional release.  If that were to happen, he would become what was known as a "free agent," and it didn't happen very often.  The reserve clause was often the target of reformers; when the Branch Rickey and the Continental League made noises about challenging the two existing major leagues, the abolition of the reserve clause was a fundamental part of their plan.

Flood v. Kuhn reaches the Supreme Court in 1972
Koppett's appearance on Today is likely tied to the ongoing court case of Flood v. Kuhn.  Following the 1969 season, Curt Flood, a star center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, one of the worst teams in baseball.  Flood refused to report to the Phillies, and sat out the entire 1970 season.  In addition, he brought suit against Major League Baseball and its Commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, challenging the constitutionality of the clause.  The case, supported by the newly empowered Major League Baseball Players Association and its dynamic leader Martin Miller, went to trial in May 1970, and it continued through June and the time of this issue.  Flood lost at the trial level, and the case eventually made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where the reserve clause was upheld in 1972 by a 5-3 vote, with an incomprehensible opinion authored by Justice Harry Blackmun, based on baseball's exemption from federal antitrust laws.*

*Blackmun also authored the equally incomprehensible opinion in Roe v. Wade, for what it's worth.

It would not be until 1975 that the reserve clause was essentially abolished, when an arbitrator ruled that any player who played without a contract for one season became a free agent.  The players and owners would later agree to the terms of free agency in a future collective bargaining agreement.

***

This week's letters section is dominated by responses to an article in the May 16 issue written by Vice President Spiro Agnew*.  The article, entitled "Another Challenge to the Television Industry," continues Agnew's attack on the objectivity of television news, which he describes as "manufactured news: revolutionary theater brought into millions of living rooms by the networks." "How much disorder, how many of these illegal demonstrations which pockmark the country would ever take place if the ever-present television camera were not there?"  Agnew holds out hope that the networks will eventually understand their implicit obligations to the welfare of American society, that "most of the leaders of this great industry are willing to accept the responsibility of citizenship along with its benefits.

*It's the cover story, with the cover illustration painted by Norman Rockwell, no less.

Surveys throughout the period show a constant level of support for Agnew's media attacks, as in this letter from S. Richmond of Manitowoc, Wisconsin: "It's about time people realize that violence and depressing news is contagious and spreads (especially in young minds).  It's about time the networks stop trying for the largest audiences and start thinking about improving the outlook of our great country before it's too late!"  Rheba Wellborn of Decatur, Georgia agrees, saying "I hope television will do something soon to help reverse the situation of deterioration and corruption that has evolved within our Nation as a result of ill-directed program planning."  On the other hand, B.J. Butler of Los Angeles, while acknowledging that "TV has room for improvement just as Mr. Agnew has room for improvement," adds that TV shouldn't get all the blame.  "TV is not God, TV is not Congress, TV is not a substitute parent or teacher.  TV can only reflect human nature.  It has yet to make it."*

*An argument similar to some of mine, in which I've cautioned that television is neither good nor bad, but morally neutral.  However, I diverge from Butler, who writes that TV "has yet to make" human nature.  True, but it has an immense power to shape it.

William H. Race of Palo Alto, California (home of Stanford University) takes issue with Agnew's accusation that television encourages demonstrations: "How then does he account for the past two decades of demonstrations in Latin America and Europe, where TV played little or no role?  With that reasoning, one might as well blame television for the war it is covering in every news broadcast." Michael Woodhouse of Ewa Beach, Hawaii agrees, writing that Agnew ignores "the real cause for demonstrations: an immoral war or a polluted environment."  Sally Ann Yater of Easton, Maryland counters that her family is living proof of Agnew's argument. "I wholeheartedly agree with the Vice President", she says, and adds that "my family goes for days, sometimes weeks, without finding anything worth-while on TV."

The letters section is usually a representative sampling of the correspondence TV Guide receives, which indicates how divided the country is on the issue and, by extension, illustrates the social turmoil enveloping the nation.  Not unlike what we're going through today, perhaps, although the letter writers were a lot more civil about it back then.

***

Enough with all this!  Let's find something a little less controversial - the Emmy Awards, maybe.  It continues our theme of the '60s transitioning to the '70s, albeit not quite as contentiously.

As we know, the Emmys used to be presented at the conclusion of the first-run television season, rather than prior to the beginning of the new season.  Therefore, we're not surprised to find the 1969-70 awards scheduled for Sunday, June 7 on ABC.  For the last time, the show is bi-coastal, with awards presented both in Hollywood (hosted by Bill Cosby) and New York (Dick Cavett), and it's a most intriguing lineup of nominations.  Once again, the categories are Drama, Comedy and Variety series, joined by Best New Series, Best Single Dramatic Program and Best Single Music/Variety Program (the later two comprised of special programs and regular episodes of a series).

Here are the nominees in various categories; as is usually the case here, I'll give you the winners at the end.

Best New Series:
The Bill Cosby Show (NBC)
The Forsyte Saga (NET)
Marcus Welby, M.D. (ABC)
Room 222 (ABC)
Sesame Street (NET)

Best Drama Series:
The Forsyte Saga (NET)
Ironside (NBC)
Marcus Welby, M.D. (ABC)
The Mod Squad (ABC)
The Name of the Game (NBC)
NET Playhouse (NET)

Best Comedy Series:
The Bill Cosby Show (NBC)
The Courtship of Eddie's Father (ABC)
Love, American Style (ABC)
My World and Welcome to It (NBC)
Room 222 (ABC)

Best Dramatic Actor:
Raymond Burr, Ironside (NBC)
Mike Connors, Mannix (CBS)
Robert Wagner, It Takes a Thief (ABC)
Robert Young, Marcus Welby, M.D. (ABC)

Best Dramatic Actress:
Joan Blondell, Here Come the Brides (ABC)
Susan Hampshire, The Forsyte Saga (NET)
Peggy Lipton, The Mod Squad (ABC)

Best Comedy Actor:
Bill Cosby, The Bill Cosby Show (NBC)
Lloyd Haynes, Room 222 (ABC)
William Windom, My World and Welcome to It (NBC)

Best Comedy Actress:
Hope Lange, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (NBC)
Elizabeth Montgomery, Bewitched (ABC)
Marlo Thomas, That Girl (ABC)

***

It doesn't seem as if we've discussed much actual TV this week, does it?  In addition to the heavy issues we're looking at, it's because we've entered rerun season; almost every series has started showing repeats, while the summer replacement series haven't yet made their debut.  Nonetheless, there are still some things to look at with our quick hits.

One carryover from the '60s is the variety show, and the airwaves are still full of them, from the long-running Jackie Gleason, Ed Sullivan, Andy Williams, Dean Martin and Red Skelton shows to the relative newcomers: Jim Nabors, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell.  If you're a celebrity looking to make a TV appearance and you can't find one this week, you've got no excuses.

There are also specials: NET presents a "relevant" version of Hamlet on Friday night, one that mixes the ancient and the contemporary, while CBS presents a repeat showing of the latest "Peanuts" special, You're in Love, Charlie Brown, and ABC gives us the latest in their series of specials on The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.

As for sports, for the second week in a row we see the finale of horse racing's Triple Crown with the 101st running of the Belmont Stakes.  There's no Triple Crown at stake this year, as High Echelon gallops through the slop to an upset victory.  On Sunday afternoon, CBS' NFL Action presents films of the final American Football League game ever played - the 1969 Championship Game between the Raiders and Chiefs, which the Chiefs win on the way to victory in Super Bowl IV.  Now that the NFL and AFL are officially merged, it's OK for NFL Action to admit the AFL exists, I guess.

Of course, we rely on the sitcoms to deal with the issues of the day: The Brady Bunch debates what to do with 94 books of trading stamps, The Governor and J.J. investigates dirty books, That Girl wants to get to the bottom of Don's Las Vegas marriage, and Tom tries to master the art of finger sandwiches on The Courtship of Eddie's Father.  Not to be outdone, dramas get their moment in the sun: Ed gets blamed for a fatal beating on Ironside, Welby deals with a young leukemia patient on Marcus Welby, M.D., Vietnamese war victims are treated by Gannon on Medical Center, and the primetime soap Harold Robbins' The Survivors returns for summer reruns, giving us all a chance to see if it's as big a bomb as it was in first-run.

***

And now the answers to our Emmy quiz.  If you're reading this on a laptop or tablet, just turn it upside down.  If it's a desktop, turn yourself upside down.


June 5, 2015

Bud Kraehling, R.I.P.

BUD KRAEHLING ON WCCO IN THE EARLY 50S
The Star Tribune called him the "Walter Cronkite of TV weather," and I'm perfectly willing to let that stand.  He was Bud Kraehling, and if you've read some of my TV listings from the Twin Cities for the '60s and '70s, you've probably seen his name on the WCCO (Channel 4) listings.  He was the weather for generations of Minnesotans, and it didn't matter that he wasn't a meteorologist, didn't have an alphabet soup of letters after his name, and wasn't a glib, sexy blonde in a short skirt.  He was, perhaps, the most trusted man on Twin Cities television.  Kraehling died on Wednesday from cancer.  He was 96 - we hardly have to shed tears for a life not lived.

Bud was part of the Twin Cities' top-ranked news program of the era, along with other bonafide legends of television: Dave Moore, the anchor, Hal Scott, the sportscaster.  As much as you could depend on Minnesota weather to change if you just waited a moment, that's how dependable he was. He stared out at an time when being the weatherman meant "he would stick magnetic clouds on the wall and draw on transparencies with a grease pencil."  By the time he retired from WCCO in 1996, it was done with Doppler radar.  Don Shelby, himself part of Minnesota TV history as the longtime news anchor for WCCO, Bud's station, gave a very insightful look at what makes a television weatherman a success.  “The person who does your weather has to be the most likable of the entire staff. Bud was that, a happy-go-lucky guy. But when weather becomes news and you have to tell people danger is approaching, he took that very seriously. When his face turned serious, the whole community stopped what they were doing and listened.”

He was much-loved in the community*, with his warm screen presence, his humor, his ability to deliver a tornado warning with a sense of reassurance.  When WCCO celebrated one of its landmark anniversaries on a gala show before a live audience - this was back in the late '70s and early '80s era when all the networks were celebrating similar anniversaries - the mere mention of his name, as part of that all-star news team, brought everything to a screeching halt, the audience rising and cheering until Bud was forced to stand and acknowledge the response.  That's what Bud Kraehling meant to Twin Cities television viewers.  In thinking about him today I realize he reminded me of my grandfather, a feeling I'll bet others had as well.

*A columnist once said that he'd become such an institution, his profile had even started to look like the state of Minnesota.

Unless you're from Minnesota, though, you probably don't know who Bud Kraehling was - but it's likely you knew someone like him, a local television icon that was more like a friend of the family. It was a time when local stations were really broadcasters, rather than merely transmitters of network programming.  Ernie Kovacs started out on local television, and so did Dave Garroway, and many many others.  Stations produced their own talk and variety shows, and oftentimes after-school dance shows for teens.  They created their own children's programs, both in the morning and the afternoon, creating some of the most memorable personalities in the history of television, shows and stars that are still revered today.  They aired their own news and information shows, and I'm not talking about the kind of news and information we get today, with its corporate smoothness and blow-dried bots, all operating from the same carefully scripted banter prepared by the same consultants, with content that would barely qualify as news even for illiterates.

I'm not saying you don't have local personalities like that today - particularly among weathercasters, who've always been audience favorites - but Kraehling and the rest of them were different.  As I say, even if you didn't know him, you knew someone like him.  And so we come not to bury Bud Kraehling, but to praise him, and those like him.  What we mourn is the death of the world of local television, and one of the last living reminders of that era.

Here are two videos of Bud Kraehling, talking about the early days of television:



And in this video, part of a retrospective on WCCO's wild, famed Bedtime Nooz (introduced by Kraehling), you get a brief glimpse at the 2:38 mark of Bud's deadpanned explanation of how he puts his weathercast together:  The rest of this video, and others like it on YouTube, are examples of the brilliance that could come from local television.


Finally, from the great Museum of Broadcasting in suburban Minneapolis, here is a tribute to Bud.

June 3, 2015

Jackpot Bowling Starring Milton Berle: January 16, 1961

SOURCE: DREW FRIEDMAN
It's been said that there are few things more painful than watching a great athlete who sticks around for too long.  Look at footage of Willie Mays playing in the 1973 World Series, unable to track down a fly ball without falling in the outfield - for fans who grew up with Mays as one of the greatest players of all time, the sight makes you want to close your eyes and turn away.

Much the same can be said about entertainers.  Bob Hope has often been cited as an example of someone who didn't know when to quit, with the result that his final appearances on television can be pretty embarrassing.  And yet for those who love what they do, how difficult it must be to turn away, to admit to yourself what others might be saying behind your back, that you're all through, you don't have it any more.  Bill Bradley, who was an all-star basketball player before going to the U.S. Senate, once said that an athlete owes it to himself to experience the entirety of his career, the downs as well as the ups, and that the worst thing he can do is walk away before he's sure there's nothing left in the tank. Put that way, it's hard for me to criticize anyone for staying too long at the fair.  I just trust that when it becomes obvious I don't have it anymore as a writer, one of you out there will tell me.

All of this brings us, in a roundabout way, to this episode of Jackpot Bowling Starring Milton Berle from January, 1961.  There's something just painful about the whole concept of this - Mr. Television reduced to being a warm-up act for a bowling show - and it doesn't get any better as the episode starts.  The look and feel of it is all wrong: you've got a band, a live audience, a celebrity guest - everything you need for a variety show, except that your backdrop is a bowling alley.  Then Berle walks out to great applause and starts in on his monologue, which has absolutely nothing to do with bowling; this one, just four days before the inauguration of John Kennedy, has a lot of political jokes.  You wonder, watching it, whether Berle loved the limelight so much that he simply couldn't walk away, even to the point of fronting for a couple of bowlers.*

*This may well be; Berle wasn't known for having a small ego.  However, according to the always-reliable Wikipedia, it was NBC, "desperate to burn off its 30-year contract with Berle" which the network had entered into during the peak of Berle's popularity, that insisted on putting Berle into the show.  Berle himself had had enough after six months and left the show.

Berle's monologue carries with it the whiff of desperation, of a big-league comedian trying to fight his way out of the minors.  (Of course, I've never been Berle's biggest fan, so I could be wrong here.)  But the show actually isn't as embarrassing as all that.  Chick Hearn, who would go on to great fame as the announcer for the perennial champion Los Angeles Lakers, does a very good job announcing the bowling matches that follow, and while the bowling isn't great compared to the power bowlers of today, it's not horrible.  Between matches Berle interviews a celebrity, who then goes on to roll for his or her favorite charity.  He then presents checks to the winner and loser at the end of the program.

The show I've included below is one of five that exist from Berle's time as host.  The celebrity of the week is the British blonde bombshell Diana Dors, with her then-husband Richard "Dickie" Dawson in the audience.  The interview is standard TV patter, nothing that you wouldn't see on Bob Hope's show, with Berle winding up as the butt of most of the jokes.  The final match, between "King of the Hill" Jim St. John and challenger Al Thompson, generates some real tension, as the two trade strikes into an extra frame.

In short, the show isn't nearly as bad as the concept sounds, but there's something sad about it all the same.  I suppose you could say that it indicates the growing maturity of television, that a man who was once the medium's biggest-ever star could, a little over ten years later, be reduced to this.  And there's nothing wrong with looking at it that way, I suppose, but I'll close this with the same thought which I expressed at the beginning - it's painful to watch someone who's stuck around too long.  Milton Berle would be a fixture on television for years afterward as a guest star on programs that belonged to others, but with the exception of an ill-advised comeback in 1967, he would never again helm a show of his own.  "Mr. Television" was, indeed, long gone, as were the early days of TV.