June 11, 2016

This week in TV Guide: June 9, 1956

You never know when you're going to run into something interesting in this business, and this week is no exception. For example, we have an intriguing item in the write up for this week's Ed Sullivan show: "In answer to popular demand, Sullivan will show again the animated fantasy "A Short Vision," which depicts abstractly the effects of the H-bomb."

These two articles do a very good job of summarizing the stunned reaction from viewers accustomed to much lighter fare from Sullivan. And while it's true that Sullivan might have had varied reasons for presenting the film, it is nonetheless difficult to suggest there were no political considerations involved in the decision to show "A Short Vision." Sullivan himself, after the first showing on his May 27 program, says that while "several people on his show warned him that it was “too grim” for TV consumption," Sullivan decided to go ahead with it, believing it "a powerful plea for peace" and adding “I figured with the H-bomb just being let go of last week it was apropos.”

As noted in the articles mentioned above, the reaction post-showing varied from “seven minutes of terror” to “the best piece of anti-war propaganda ever shown.” Regardless of where one comes down on the merits of the film itself, it's hard to imagine that there had been anything quite like it on television before, and I wonder why this whole thing isn't better known. Or maybe I'm the one who's in the dark, and every other classic TV expert knows all about it.

Just days after the broadcast, Sullivan mentioned his intention to air the film again, on June 10. Prior to the original showing, which was just before the end of the program, he warned viewers with children to remind them that this is just "a fantasy," and that they should not panic. (Privately, Sullivan believed children ought to be in bed by that time anyway.) He concluded that it was important for everyone to see "A Short Vision" as a reminder that "in war there is no winner." For this viewing, Sullivan issues a stronger statement:

Two weeks ago on this program I put on a film — an animated film — about the atom bomb. And the first tremendous reaction came from the World-Telegram, New York — three column story, ‘Shock Wave from A-Bomb Film Rocks nation’s TV Audience’ by Carol Taylor.* And I notice in Time this week, they have a big story on it. So, tonight, in answer to requests from civil defense bodies from all over the country, I’m going to show the film again, but for those of you who have youngsters in your living room, it is a harrowing experience for youngsters, so would you please take them out of the room and just have the older people in the family look at it. I think its something the country should know, should see, but the youngsters, that is the little ones, should not be looking at it. So now if they’re out of the room, here is this film, by two young Britons on the possible repercussions of an A-bomb. George, may I have it? 

*The headline writer didn't quite get his alphabet right; we're talking about the H-Bomb, not the A-Bomb. As if it makes any difference.

Following the showing, Sullivan added this:

You know, a little boy last week, after he had seen it—by accident—he asked his dad, who is Marlo Lewis, he said, “Daddy, was God destroyed, too?” His father explained to him that God wasn’t destroyed and this was all fantasy and, of course, God never is destroyed and always looks out for little boys. But they’re some men out in the audience and I know they’re particularly interested in this short, “A Short Vision” by Joan and Peter Foldes, because they are the famed Blue Angels of the United States Navy. They’re the fliers who fly these precision formations—how they do it no one’s ever been able to figure out—but they’re celebrating their tenth anniversary and I’m going to ask them to stand up with their commanding officer, Richard L. ‘Zeke’ Cormier. The Navy Blue Angels, will you all stand up, please. [Audience applause].

Here is the film in question. From what I've read, it may have been even more horrifying in black and white, but this version is vivid enough:


With something like this, who needs Sullivan vs. The Palace?

Again, I must ask the question - had there ever been anything like this on television before? This must have marked a moment when television's potential as a medium for more than just entertainment was made vividly known. I sense this would make a very good chapter in a future book on television and American culture, should anyone out there care to write it.

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And here's another case where we need to find out "the rest of the story."

On Thursday's episode of the documentary series Where Were You? (7:00 pm CT, CBS), we read, "On April 27, 1928, tribute was paid to the man who made jazz respectable."

[Beat] Of course.

It's quite possible, given that in 1956 people were: 1) 60 years closer to the date in question than we are, and quite possibly would have been more familiar with the date and man in question; and 2) tended to be more educated on history (and other things) than today's generations.

At any rate, thanks be for the internet. A bit of Googling tells us that on the date in question, "the orchestra of W.C. Handy and the Jubilee Singers gave a blues and spiritual concert" at Carnegie Hall in New York City.* And so "the man who made jazz respectable" was none other than ''The Father of the Blues," William Christopher (W.C.) Handy. He composed the timeless ''St. Louis Blues,'' perhaps his best-known composition. But, then again, there's the equally famous "Beale Street Blues," so I suppose you can take your pick. The point is, there is no question of W. C. Handy's fame, and while I might suggest it would have been more proper to use the term "blues" rather than "jazz" in the TV Guide listing, the idea is right. Perhaps if they had used the title "Father of the Blues," it would have been more clear. As I say, maybe they figured people would automatically know who they were referring to in the listing, and if that's the case more power to them. Perhaps I've been too conditioned by our times, when a CNN article about corruption in Illionis can include a reference to "[Abraham] Lincoln." As if there was any other Lincoln worth mentioning in an article about politics and Illinois.

*The concert also featured the legendary Fats Waller on piano and organ.

But then, I suppose you can't be too careful nowadays.

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As we look at documents from the past, I generally advise caution when applying today's cultural standards to yesterday's actions. Often, the context of the times makes apples-to-apples comparisons challenging at best, and anyone who tries to do it can wind up looking like a fool if they're not careful. However, here's an item that I find so appalling, I may have to make an exception.

It's from Monday morning's Garry Moore Show (CBS, 8:00 am CT), and I'll give you the listing exactly as it's printed in front of me. "Garry, Durward Kirby, Denise Lor and Ken Carson discuss the 'New Theory' advocating that husbands beat their wives."

Now, it's difficult to know for sure exactly what this means. A quick Google search of "New Theory" combined with wife beating yielded no results, and I'm not entirely positive what other search parameters to use. This could have been some kind of satire, some play on the lyrics of a popular song, or something else that, having been read in 1956, gives the paragraph an entirely different context. (See what I mean about being careful?)

Otherwise, I just don't know what to make of this. Can they be serious? If so, what exactly qualifies as a "beating"? I mean, spanking is bad enough (unless you walk on the wild side), but it's a lot different from a sock to the jaw. I kid you not that the thought of this, even to try and figure out what it means, makes me sick to my stomach. Merely to consider the action, even to critique it, I find heartbreaking, and that doesn't happen to me often. I hope someone out there can tell me that it doesn't mean what it sounds like it means.

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I think we have a tendency, sitting in front of our flat-screen digital televisions, to forget what it was like to watch television in the '50s and '60s. If you're lucky, it's because you're too young to have ever known those days. But for someone like me, it's a good thing to be reminded every once in a while, lest I get too complacent and start complaining about little things I have no reason to get uptight about.

There's a semi-regular feature here entitled "TV Service Guide," in which the Philadelphia Radio Service Men's Association, a "veteran radio-TV group,"* answers the most commonly asked questions. Many of the questions revolve around improving the quality of the reception you get on your set. 

*No surprise there, since TV Guide's headquarters are just outside of Philadelphia. 

For example, "Why is it that I get some channels better than others?" "How can I tell when my antenna is no longer efficient?" or "How do I know that I am getting a new receiver tube?" I can relate to some of these questions; I remember the days of playing with dials and holding the rabbit ears at weird angles, and the satisfaction that could come from being able to see a particular program all the way through without something strange happening - especially if it was a station you ordinarily had trouble with. 

A couple of weeks before, there was a cartoon illustration in TV Guide, showing how the signal traveled from the studio to your home. (It still amazes me.) My point here is that television was very much a mysterious machine, somehow able to transmit moving pictures from faraway places right into your home. I don't mean to suggest that people thought it was some kind of voodoo or anything like that - television wasn't exactly a novel concept to people who had kept up with technology since the days of radio - but it still created a bit of awe, and people enjoyed demonstrations of just how it worked. 

On the other hand, maybe even this is too blasé; television probably was regarded as a wonder machine, and most of us have probably heard jokes about how viewers feared someone might be able to use the set as a two-way monitor, able to see into your home just as you were able to see into the studio. (Doesn't sound so far-fetched today, does it?) I can understand how fascinated people were with how it worked, how they needed to understand the technical side, at least to some extent, and how even the most obvious (to us) questions were probably triggered by some thought that this was all magic. And yet, for those who've seen both sides, those days look pretty simple: no DVR to hook up, no surround sound to adjust, no guides to program, . . .

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Speaking of magic (they don't call me the king of segues for nothing), what do you know about The Amazing Dunninger? Probably not as much as he would have known about you, if you were around back then.

I love this picture of Joseph Dunninger they use in this week's issue; the caption is just as snarky as one I would have come up with myself. (In case you can't read it, it says "Dunninger doesn't actually change color when he performs." Dunninger is"the man who does the impossible," the forerunner to The Amazing Kreskin. He didn't predict the future, he was always careful to note; he was a mind-reader - or, as he's described in the weekly listings, a mentalist*. "Of course I can read minds," he tells Frank DeBlois. "If I can't always tune in on the thoughts of a person, it's because that person is hostile. I'll read your thoughts, all right, but only if you concentrate." Dunninger's show runs on ABC Wednesday nights, where he demonstrates the amazing skills that have defied a standing $10,000 offer to anyone who can prove he uses plants or stooges in his act.

*Not to be confused with The Mentalist, a show which probably wasn't nearly as entertaining as Dunninger's.

I wasn't able to locate a clip of Dunninger's television show (he also had a radio program, back in the day) but here's a look at him in action, debunking spiritualists. Kreskin also did this kind of thing, and also refers to himself as a mentalist. He's going to be at the Mid Atlantic Nostalgia Convention this September; I'll let you know if he's able to read my mind.


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Quick hits: a preview of the new summer season reveals that, as is the case today, many of the new shows are genre types. For us, it's been reality shows; back in the mid '50s, it's quiz shows and musical revues. Among the quiz newbies are 20 Steps to $1,000,000 (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, anyone?), Treasure Chest and High Finance, while bandleader Paul Whiteman, singer Snooky Lanson, and the variety show Polka Time highlight the musical offerings.  An interesting footnote: Steve Allen prepares to give up his Tonight spot to take on Ed Sullivan head-to-head Sunday evenings.

The biggest successes of the season just past? The unexpected triumph of Phil Silvers as Sergeant Bilko, the smash hit The $64,000 Question, Rod Serling's gripping drama Patterns, Mary Martin's Peter Pan, and The Mickey Mouse Club. Interesting note: Jackie Gleason's "Honeymooners" skit, split off into its own freestanding show (the classic 39 episodes that have been cherished for so many years) is said to have "lost much of its zest" and was routed by Perry Como.

And finally, another crossword puzzle. I showed you the first one last week (answers to which can be seen below), so why another one so soon?


As you can see it's already been completed, but in a way that makes it even more of an artifact. Think of it: this puzzle was completed 60 years ago, by someone who lived in and watched the television of its era - not as nostalgia, but as contemporary entertainment. The answers, written in pencil, have faded a bit over time (unlike last week's entry), but that's as it should be. Now that's context!

8 comments:

  1. I had never heard of "A Short Vision" or the Sullivan airing either. Fascinating story. And I enjoyed your reminder of the frustrations of TV watching in the age of picture tubes. Every so often I realize it's been decades since I had to worry about adjusting the vertical hold.

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    1. On Sullivan - why don't we know about these things? Surely between the two of us, one should have heard of it before now. I think it's a deficit in our classical television education.

      I've got a mention upcoming in this week's TV Guide piece about the "new" picture tubes coming out - that should bring back some memories as well!

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  2. I have this week's Chicago edition, from which I can add very little:

    - Where Were You wasn't a CBS network show; I'm not sure whether it was local or syndicated (the latter is more likely).
    The CBS entry at 7pm CDT was The Bob Cummings Show; where that may appear in your issue - you're just going to have to look.

    - Joe Dunninger had a very long running career.
    As recently as the early '70s, he had a syndicated show out of NYC, for the Metromedia station (here in Chicago, channel 9 carried it on Saturday afternoons).
    Dunninger had been semi-retired at that point (he was nearly 80 years old), but he was moved to make a comeback when he saw another 'mentalist' who he felt was "stealing his act".
    That's right - I'm talking about The Amazing Kreskin, who was just starting to catch on in the early '70s.
    Dunninger's animosity toward Kreskin was pretty virulent - he felt that Kreskin had stolen not only his "Amazing" billing, but also some of the Dunninger stage business as well.
    Just before his death in 1975, Dunninger published a memoir (in collaboration with his old friend Walter Gibson (creator of The Shadow)), in which he (they?) devoted an entire chapter to trashing Kreskin's act (never mentioning him by name, of course, but the clues were there).
    Dunninger/Gibson maintained that much of Kreskin's act came straight out of readily available magic catalogs; any amateur could do the tricks, and as far as D/G were concerned, Kreskin was strictly a very lucky amateur.
    If memory serves, Dunninger's book came out just after his death, and had no effect on Kreskin's career.
    Still, should you happen to meet the man, it might not be a good idea to bring the matter up to him (and to be on the safe side, don't even think about it ...).

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    1. Hah! Great suggestion - I'll purge it from my very memory bank. I'm sure meeting a mentalist can be a very disorienting experience...

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    2. Well if you know magic history, it's pretty much everybody ripping off everybody else; just google "history of sawing a woman in half" for a typical case.

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  3. One of my favorite details in the series "Mad Men" was the way, when a character was seen watching TV, the picture on the screen they were watching would occasionally roll, or waver when someone walked across the room. Because it did, all the time.

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    1. It's that attention to detail that makes all the difference!

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  4. Knowing Garry Moore's work a little...I get a feeling the "New Theory" was a satire of discussion shows, not actually endorsing wife beating. Remember, the trio of Moore, Kurby and Lor did a live spot for S.O.S. soap pads as a grand opera parody.

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