May 21, 2016

This week in TV Guide: May 26, 1956

Last week we mentioned in passing Norma Zimmer, for 23 years the Champagne Lady on The Lawrence Welk Show. Zimmer was the longest-running of the Ladies, and the one I remember from my grandparents having had the Welk show on every Saturday, but in 1956 the one and only Champagne Lady was Alice Lon, this week's cover girl.

Lon was Champagne Lady from 1954 to 1959. As her status on the cover would indicate, she was quite the celebrity of the time: a member of the Kilgore Rangerettes as a young girl living in Texas, married to former football player Bob Waterman, and a featured singer on Don McNeill's Breakfast Club radio program before joining the Welk orchestra, where she's become famous for the petticoats she wears.

For classic television fans, Alice Lon's primary fame comes not from her performances with Welk, but for the circumstances surrounding her departure in 1959. She left the program over "music and money issues," but the legend has it that she was dismissed for "showing too much leg." The always-reliable Wikipedia pronounces this an urban legend, and Lon herself said the dispute was over money, but UPI quotes the conservative Welk as having said, "Her knee showed too much. Cheesecake doesn't fit on our show," adding that "Our show goes into homes and I have always opposed anything the least bit immoral."

Is the "too much leg" story true or not? Later, Welk would say that "I don't think she was let go for that*. . . What you folks hear out there sometimes is from people who know nothing about it. The writers who create a story like that, they get a little more print. I've never been a person to lower the boom on people. If I was, they wouldn't stay with me."

*Which begs the question: if Welk says "I don't think," does that mean he doesn't know why she was let go? If not, who does? Isn't he the boss? I suspect this was a rhetorical phrase, saying that wasn't the reason she left while refusing to disclose what the actual reason was.

I'm sure this is a point I don't need to belabor, but consider the difference in attitudes and mores - arguing as to whether or not Lon's knee showed "too much" - between then and now. No, wait, better yet - let's fast-forward four years, to 1960, and Jack Paar's walkout on The Tonight Show over his infamous W.C. joke. By that time we're out of the '50s, at least chronologically. During the follow-up program - the one in which Paar dramatically walks off the show - he talks for a moment about his television philosophy, how he doesn't want "girls with low cut dresses" on the show. It's "nicer to dress like the people who watch," he says. He also doesn't look for people who come on the show to advertise their problems, though he says this not to knock whatever problems they might have. His goal is to bring on people the audience will find "fun," and he specifically mentions Christine Jorgensen - ironic, don't you think? "I don't want people like that on the show," he says. By contrast, this very day I read a review of Amy Schumer's latest program which, though there are parts that may be very funny, appears to be "intentionally testing basic cable’s allowance for repetitions of the word pussy." Discuss.

Whether or not Alice Lon got the sack because of the way she dressed, or how she crossed her legs when sitting on a desk, we'll probably never know. The point is this: the audience found that explanation entirely plausible to the era and to Welk's sensibilities. They might not have liked it, they might have found it draconian, but even if such an attitude was antiquated back then, it would have been at least understandable. Today, if you made that kind of suggestion, you'd probably be locked up in Bellevue.

At any rate, whatever the reason, there was in fact something of a public outcry over Lon's departure, not unlike the larger kerfuffle when Arthur Godfrey dismissed the recently-deceased Julius LaRosa*, and eventually Welk was forced to ask her to return. She refused, and although they eventually reconciled, they never performed together again.

*RIP.
***

On Friday night, the dramatic anthology series Schlitz Playhouse of Stars (CBS, 7:30pm CT) presents "The Unlighted Road," starring the late James Dean. Dean had only appeared in a few television plays, this being one of them, before being killed in an automobile accident a little less than a year ago, on September 30, 1955.

In one of those little footnotes that I love to run across, the kind that tells you more not for what it says but what it doesn't say, the TV Guide listing mentions his achievements in East of Eden (for which he received a posthumous Oscar nomination for Best Actor) and the immortal Rebel Without a Cause, but not Giant - it hasn't even been released yet. Next year, that movie will earn him another posthumous Best Actor nomination

In "The Unlighted Road," Dean plays a former GI who takes a job at a diner and winds up being implicated in a robbery and murder. What kind of an actor was he at this point, on the verge of superstardom? Take a look for yourself.


***

Here's what appears to be an interesting hour on Monday night's Robert Montgomery Presents (7:30pm, NBC). It's the play "Who," written by Robert Wallace.

Its thesis is that a man is many men, and to illustrate this, seven actors will play the seven personalities of one man, a certain Mr. Who.* These personalities run the gamut from godlike to wretched. Our Mr. Who, containing all these personalities, is seen during a typical day in his life, from the time he appears for breakfast. Mr. Who is a bank official, a husband and an Elk. As an Elk, he is up for office. As a bank official, he is up for promotion - as assistant to the vice president. As a husband, he is up for his morning coffee, and this is where our tale begins.

*That's Doctor Who to you, pal. After all, how many actors have played The Doctor? And they're all part of the same personality, right?

I have no idea whether or not this was any good, but it's a fascinating idea, and truly creative. Moreso than much of what's on TV, then or now.

***

TV Guide has always been suspicious of government interference in television, frequently using its editorials to chastise television executives for not policing themselves lest the government be forced to step in and do the policing themselves. This week, the editorial cites British television viewers, who have sent the resounding message that "commercial television is more popular with viewers than the noncommercial variety."

Since the advent of British television, the BBC has had a monopoly on programming. In fact, it's the only channel televisions can receive. But last September, not long before the death of James Dean, and after years of debate, the first commercial television station debuted in London. Despite the fact that TV owners have to pay as much as $50 for a converter that allows them to receive the new station, it has been a roaring success. "The 10 most popular programs in the London area today are all on the commercial channel. I Love Lucy, Dragnet, Roy Rogers and Robin Hood, along with some quiz shows based on American ones, and some fine dramatic offerings, are included in the Top 10."

The commercial provider in question, I believe, is ITV, and there's no question it changes the face of British television. Unlike government-subsidized programming, the ads purchased to air on ITV "are supposed to be absolutely independent of the programs offered." As the editorial concludes, "The moral is obvious: In commercial TV, viewers see what they want to see. In the other kind, viewers see what someone else wants them to see." As last year's debacle over Top Gear demonstrates, it is a moral that the BBC still seems incapable of understanding.

***

Some random notes:

Remember the days when networks used to take all the failed pilots from the past year or two and group them together into an anthology series that would run in the summer? We're seeing it now, as "ABC [will be] presenting a collection of test films as summer replacement for the Danny Thomas show. The new summertime sponsor will hold that Tuesday night period next fall, which means Make Room for Daddy must move to a new time period." Test films, which I've also seen referred to as "audition films." Huh - I guess it sounds better than "failed pilot."

On Thursday's matinee movie Theater 11 (on Channel 11, natch), it's The Judge, starring Milburn Stone. Better known as Doc Adams in Gunsmoke. Movie ought to have been called The Doctor, no? But then people might have thought it was about Doctor Who. I know, you're thinking that's impossible, since Doctor Who doesn't debut until 1963. But he's a time traveler, right? OK, I've probably pushed the Doctor Who jokes enough for one week.

Martin and Lewis are said to be looking to get out of their four-show commitment for 8:00pm Tuesday night slot on NBC in favor of four weekend "spectaculars" (as specials are still called), which they think will get them more attention. Guess what, boys? Breaking into two separate acts will get you twice as much attention.

And Perry Como explains to columnist Earl Wilson that he's not as calm as he appears on his variety show. "Sure, I fell so nervous I want to lie down," Perry says. "But there's no place to lie down, so I have to stand up there and sing." Of course, by this time, he didn't even have to worry about that:


***

And finally, some exciting news from TV Guide!

NEXT WEEK!

More articles, more features, more color!

All this and a lot more await you in next week's issue of TV GUIDE and in every issue to follow.

The reason: we are publishing more pages in our colorful feature section. We realize that we must grow as television grows. Hence, we are expanding our publication to keep faith with readers in more than 4,000,000 American homes.

The additional pages mean that nowhere else can you find such complete television coverage as well as such complete program service.

Don't miss your exciting new TV GUIDE starting next week!

Do I have that issue? No, but I've got the one from the following week. We'll have to see if there's any difference. One thing that I can tell you is that the famed crossword puzzle hasn't yet appeared, at least not in this issue. Will it be part of the change? That, of course, would be telling.

3 comments:

  1. Alice Lon lived most of her last two decades in Dallas; first husband Bob Waterman played his football at SMU. She passed away too young (only 54 in 1981).

    On the cheesecake story: I imagine money was the big issue. Welk didn't seem to get into a lot of conflicts, like, say, Arthur Godfrey did. La Rosa was one of many.

    Mitchell, I'm working on two more of these of my own, the two remaining F Troop covers. One of them is a Ronald Searle article with three of his illustrations accompanying.

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  2. I remember reading about Lawrence Welk firing Pete Fountain. While there were probably other issues involved, the flashpoint was Pete's insistence upon "jazzing up" a Christmas carol.

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  3. Continuing from tomorrow's comment (see above):

    About that ch11 movie, "The Judge":

    To start with, Milburn Stone, before he got Gunsmoke, was one of those utility actors, not quite handsome enough for a leading man, not quite ugly enough for heavies, so he went back and forth in B movies like this one.
    In "the Judge", he's the bad guy - a crooked lawyer who catches his wife cheating with a crooked doctor, and plots murder.
    The 'Judge' of the title is the movie's narrator; this may have been an attempt to start a series of Bs, along the lines of Suspense or The Whistler; that didn't happen, and the B programmers were among the earliest features to be sold to TV.

    - Lately, I've been looking at the old Lawrence Welk shows on PBS.
    Mainly, they're coming from post-1965 - the year they started doing the show in color.
    Wouldn't you just know it - Welk's cast was loaded with lovely ladies with very lovely legs, which were all over the place (in every sense of that term).
    Oh well - Welk always said that he tried to keep up with the times ...

    - Right now, as I'm typing, Channel 7, the ABC station, is carrying a live tribute to Ron Magers, who's retiring as WLS-TV's principal anchorman after thirty-something years (this total may include a lengthy stay at Channel 5-NBC, I'm not entirely certain).
    Just thought I'd throw that in ...

    - The Robert Montgomery play "Who":
    Does your edition have a cast list in the listing?
    You might like to take a look at the actors playing the various Whos.
    You might find a familiar name in there somewhere ...

    ... Yes, that's right: William Darrid, who married Kirk Douglas's ex-wife, thereby becoming Michael Douglas's stepfather!
    (...but seriously folks, take a look at that list ...)

    - You migt also want to check out the color section again, particularly the features about Hans Conreid, June Foray (still active at 90-something!), and Richard Simmons.
    That's the guy who played Sgt. Preston of The Yukon - not the other one.

    That about covers this one. Going Down ...

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!