February 27, 2016

This week in TV Guide: March 3, 1956

We spent most of last week talking about quiz shows, and so perhaps it's appropriate that our first story this week is about - a quiz show! Actually, it's cover boy Hal March, who hosts The $64,000 Question, television's top-rated program, every Tuesday night at 9:00 pm CT on CBS. (Lynn Dollar, pictured next to March, is the show's "assistant.")

Hal March has that important quality that often makes the difference between a successful quiz show and one that comes and goes in a matter of weeks: likability. Contestants feel comfortable around him, and audiences like him because he's, well, human. One night he forgets to ask a contestant the $32,000 question, another time he accidentally gives the answer as well as the question, and then there was the time he almost forget the sponsor plug before signing off...

But, like Donald Trump in a completely different context, March doesn't seem to be hurt by these flubs. In fact, he's increasingly moving beyond quiz shows to other areas of entertainment. He's already appeared as himself on Perry Como's show, and he's played a forger on Omnibus, acted opposite Maurice Evans and Vivian Blair on stage, and even made the big screen in the Warner Brothers movie It's Always Fair Weather. The talk now is that March might be headed for Broadway, and more movies may be in store as well.

The scandals put all of that to an end, of course; although there's no evidence that March was involved in fixing games*, there's that taint of guilt by association, and with it March's opportunities begin to try up. There are the odd guest star bits here and there; I've seen him on Burke's Law, and he's good, not great, but very natural in his technique. By 1969, though, things seem to have turned a corner, and March signs up to host a game show called It's Your Bet.  But only a few weeks into taping, tests show that March has lung cancer, and he dies in 1970, only 49 years old.

*If anything, the pressure to fix Question came not from the producers, as was the case with other quiz shows, but from Revlon, the sponsor. 

***

We've read about Lawrence Welk's success before, so there's no reason to rehash all that. One example should do fine. Last year he and his orchestra played five nights a week at the Aragon Ballroom in Ocean Park, California grossed the maestro $100,000, which in today's dollars comes out to a little over $884,000. Besides that, there's his income from his television show, and then the royalties from all those records he sells. So in other words, he's doing all right.

For as long as Lawrence Welk was around, his show was described as something your parents, or more likely your grandparents, watched. It holds true today, even though the "grandparents" who watch it would have been kids when he was originally on. And yet there's no doubting his success. His show ran on local television in Los Angeles for four years, and moved to ABC only the year before this issue of TV Guide, where it stayed until 1971, only to reemerge in first run syndication until 1982, before reruns found a home on PBS stations to this day. By any measure, this has to be the definition of success, don't you think?

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SOURCE ALL: HADLEY TV GUIDES
It's been a while since we've looked at "As We See It," the TV Guide editorial. However, we know in general about what appeals to the editorial staff, and one of their enthusiasms has always been for "quality" television, and it's safe to say they're very enthusiastic about NBC's programming the next couple of weeks.

It begins this week with the network's telecast of George Bernard Shaw's witty "Caesar and Cleopatra," starring Claire Bloom and Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Tuesday night on Producers' Showcase, and continues with a movie version of Richard III and Hallmark Hall of Fame's "The Taming of the Shrew." The programs face steep competition, especially "Caesar and Cleopatra," which has to deal with Burns & Allen, Arthur Godfrey and I Love Lucy on CBS. And while the editor, probably Merrill Panitt, points out that TV Guide "is far from a highbrow publication," he adds that they are "grateful for any sort of programming that tends to enlarge television's scope." How, for example, could one say that they don't like Shakespeare or The $64,000 Question unless they've seen them?

NBC should be thanked, he concludes, "for gambling money and prestige on the theory that viewers want such fine fare." I suppose at some point they did, although even in the Golden Age documentaries suffered, and Voice of Firestone dragged down the ratings of every show on the network that night. Quality television has been said to have made a comeback on cable in the last few years, and indeed there is no doubt a high quality of drama available for viewing. But as for the classics, I don't think we'll be seeing them anytime soon. Not even on PBS.

***

Not much on the sports front this week - Illinois takes on Iowa in college basketball on CBS Saturday afternoon, and the Minneapolis Lakers play the Rochester Royals in the NBA Game of the Week on NBC at the same time.

NBC's Wednesday Night Fights gives us probably the best matchup of the week, a middleweight bout between Jackie LaBua and #7 contender Gene Fullmer in Syracuse. Gene Fullmer, who died just last April, was one of the great middleweight champions of the era; in less than a year, on January 2, 1957, he will upset the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson to win the middleweight championship for the first time. He loses a rematch with Robinson, then wins the title back with a victory over Carmen Basillo, fights Robinson to a draw and then defeats him again, and remains champ until 1962, when he's defeated by Dick Tiger.

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Elsewhere on the dial this week:

On Tuesday, The Phil Silvers Show presents one of the greatest episodes in sitcom history. It's "The Court Martial," in which Bilko winds up defending a chimp that's accidentally been inducted into the Army. Silvers himself called it "the funniest half-hour on television, unconditionally." Probably the funniest segment of this hilarious episode occurs during the court martial (which would have been funny anyway), when the chimp, given the name "Harry Speakup" by the induction center, begins acting up and Silvers, completely in character, ad-libbs to the chimp's antics. You can see the other actors in the scene trying valiantly to keep from laughing, but Silvers never breaks stride. How wise they were to let the camera keep rolling.


Also on Tuesday, Dave Garroway and the rest of The Today Show staff make the journey to Williamsburg, Virginia to check out "the famous restoration of colonial houses." The restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, which began in the late 1920s, was the brainchild of the Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin, with major financial support from John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

For four seasons, the CBS anthology series Climax! presented various tales, mostly of the mystery type; it was later known as Climax Mystery Theater. It's first episode was, appropriately enough, an adaptation of the Raymond Chandler classic "The Long Goodbye,"* and it's perhaps best known for two things: the third episode of the series, "Casino Royale," which represented the first screen adaptation of a James Bond story**, and the fact that all episodes were broadcast in color, a rarity on any network other than CBS.

*Famous because an actor playing a supposedly dead body got up mid-scene and walked off the set.

**"Jimmy" Bond was played by American actor Barry Nelson

However, this Thursday the show presents a change of pace with "The Louella Parsons Story," based on her autobiography The Gay Illiterate. Parsons, America's most influential gossip columnist from the early '30s into the '60s, achieved a level of stardom as great as that of some of her subjects, and she maintained a feud with her hated rival Hedda Hopper for decades. What makes this show so unusual is not just the subject matter, but that following the story, there's a tribute from stars of the industry, emceed by Jack Benny and featuring Gene Autry, Charles Boyer, Rock Hudson, Susan Hayward and John Wayne, among others. An odd hybrid of genres, no?

Speaking of odd hybrids, there's M-G-M Parade on ABC Wednesday night. The half-hour show, hosted by actor and future U.S. Senator George Murphy, was one of MGM's first ventures into television. They didn't really get it, though - at least not with this show, which contained clips from vintage MGM movies of the past, and plugs for upcoming MGM releases. This week, for example, Judy Garland sings in an excerpt from The Harvey Girls, and we see previews from the new movie Meet Me in Las Vegas. Eventually, the studio succumbs to the show's bad reviews and adds more extensive, condensed versions of its classic movies.

***

Finally, what gives a network censor headaches? A similar article appeared in a 1980 issue, and though there's a vast difference between the shows of the mid '50s and early '80s, the censor's job is pretty much the same. The censor in question is Stockton Helffrich, Director of Continuity Acceptance for NBC, and he strongly believes that one of the jobs of a censor is not to censor. "We are not kill-joys, spoilsports, crape-hangers or wet blankets," and part of the philosophy is that "children should be able to reach adulthood as really mature people without prejudices." What that means is that much of their work deals with censoring "racial stereotypes, religious oversimplifications, unkindness toward the physically handicapped, ignorance regarding the emotionally disturbed."

However, censors also represent the interests of sponsors, which means if your favorite show is brought to you by Your Gas Company, you probably aren't going to see someone commit suicide by sticking their head in an oven. If the show is sponsored by a billiard company, the script can't suggest that pool halls are the exclusive domain of underworld characters and shady punks. While the sponsors' interests clearly need to be taken into account, Helffrich warns against "authors and producers [indulging] in fearful knuckling under." In other words, don't self-censor yourself - let the professionals decide what ought to be included.

Oh, there's the occasional "low neckline," but Helffrich says those are "an exception on current TV," and there's no discussion of profanity - I suppose that isn't even an issue in 1956. For Helffrich and his three dozen colleagues (and assistants working with them), it's a never-ending job, encouraged by the occasional constructive letter from a viewer that "has made us take pause and try to do better."

7 comments:

  1. Where you mention Climax, you state that this show, which was on CBS, has all episodes in color, "a rarity on any network other than CBS". Did you mean NBC here? NBC was known as the network carrying more shows in color than any other network, mostly because it was owned by RCA, which manufactured color tv sets.

    This review was a great look back. I don't have this issue in my collection yet, but today I just got in the mail an EBay purchase of the Oct. 24, 1959, issue, which was the first cover appearance of Jay North of "Dennis the Menace". who was 8 years old and probably still the youngest person ever to appear on the cover of "TV Guide" by himself. I'll have to check your archives and see if you have it reviewed yet. There's an interesting article about late night tv which lists names of the past, like Charlie O'Donnell & Ed McMahon, who became better known in the future.

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    1. No...after the battle in which RCA's color TV system was chosen over CBS's, they did use it irregularly for certain programming until early 1960, when chairman Bill Paley insisted it stop--and even then he made exceptions for special programs, like THE WIZARD OF OZ, until 1965, when he finally understood that color was here to stay and CBS had better get on board, rather than find itself compared unfavorably to NBC.

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  2. Hal March was an actor before QUESTION...IMDB shows he had roles in movies and TV shows as far back as 1949. And in a twist of fate, he had filmed 13 episodes of a sitcom called THE SOLDIERS before being tapped for the hosting duties, which NBC began airing the month after it started (by which time it was already the biggest sensation on TV)
    March did appear on Broadway, starring in Neil Simon's first play COME BLOW YOUR HORN (in the role Sinatra had in the movie)

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  3. Hal March briefly moved into directing in the mid-1960's. Only 3 sitcom episodes, but one was the F TROOP finale, "Is This Fort Really Necessary?" in 1967. A well-directed, and top-notch entry BTW.

    "The Court Martial" is great; I'll be writing about another first season BILKO for a blogathon at the end of next month; honestly, during the first two seasons (the ones Nat Hiken did most of the writing) almost every episode was a classic. Another priceless moment in this installment was when "Private Harry Speakup" scored highest on the intelligence test.

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  4. Hal March was in an episode of I Love Lucy - Season 2 Episode 27, "Lucy is Matchmaker."

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  5. I've heard an urban legend that it was Louella Parsons in late 1966 (towards the end of her career) who broke the story that the Monkees only sang and didn't play instruments on their first two albums. According to the story I heard, Ms. Parsons went as far as writing that "Musically, the Monkees can't even carry the Beatles' doggy bags!".

    In any event, Michael Nesmith confirmed in an early 1967 press conference that the group only sang on their first two albums, confessing that "We're being passed off to the American people as something we're not".

    Nevertheless, the Monkees were allowed to play as well as sing on their subsequent albums.

    If she (or any other gossip columnist) had written that, it would have been scathing!

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    1. Parsons had quit writing her column the year before...it was taken over by her assistant Dorothy Manners

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