October 15, 2016

This week in TV Guide: October 12, 1957

Inquiring minds want to know: why is this "the week to watch"? Or is it just another piece of hyperbole? As is usually the case, "a little bit of each" appears to be the answer, with plenty of recognizable names, and a few that are footnotes to history now but were well-known to viewers at the time.

By consensus, Sunday appears to be the big night, not only for the week, but quite possibly for the year. It begins at 4:30 p.m. (CT) on NBC with David Susskind's musical version of "Pinocchio," starring Mickey Rooney as the wooden juvenile delinquent, with veteran character actor Walter Slezak as Geppetto, Fran Allison (without Kukla and Ollie) as the Fairy Godmother, Stubby Kaye as the Town Crier, and Jerry Colonna as the Jolly Coachman. Here's a very rare clip from the broadcast:


NBC follows that one-hour broadcast with a star-studded tribute to the Standard Oil Company on its 75th anniversary. Yes, for those of you who think television is just a corporate sell-out today, this is the kind of thing that used to happen back then. Not to worry though, because it's not a documentary on oil production; far from it, with a rare television appearance by host Tyrone Power, and performances from Jimmy Durante, Marge and Gower Champion, Duke Ellington, Jane Powell, Bert Lahr, Art Buchwald, Donald O'Connor, and others. It takes 90 minutes to cram in all the entertainment, and I'm not surprised.

In the duel of corporate sponsorships, it's the turn of Ford next, with a program we've seen here quite recently - The Edsel Show, headlined by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Rosemary Clooney. If this is what TV Guide meant when they said it was a week to watch, they were right. And yet, you can find history in the smaller places, as well. At 8:00 p.m., CBS's $64,000 Challenge, not yet exposed by the quiz show scandals, has one of the most famous of the "honest" guests, boxing expert Dr. Joyce Brothers. Dr. Brothers parlayed her experience into a very long, very successful career as America's Psychologist (with a couple of guest shots as a boxing commentator along the way). Could she be responsible in the long-run for people like Dr. Phil? Possibly, but we love her anyway.

But that's not all! On Thursday night, the Hallmark Hall of Fame opens its new season with a landmark broadcast of the acclaimed Pulitzer-winning musical "Green Pastures," which I first mentioned when it was rebroadcast in 1959. It features an all-black cast, including William Warfield, Ethel Wathers, Eddie Anderson (Jack Benny's Rochester), and Sugar Ray Robinson, and it will win a Peabody award, in addition to being rebroadcast several times. The show doesn't come off very well in this revisionist look at it which views it as somewhat safe and condescending; I find the review itself to be somewhat predictable and condescending, And it's one of the dilemmas one faces with shows of this kind - you can't win no matter what.

In the end, the show, as that article points out, is lost in the ratings bonanza generated by another self-serving program, labeled in TV Guide as "Mike Todd Party." It's a 90-minute special from Madison Square Garden, purporting to celebrate the first anniversary of the Broadway opening of the movie Around the World in 80 Days, produced by Mike Todd. It's hosted by Todd's wife, who happens to be Elizabeth Taylor*, and while Time magazine famously calls the party a "spectacular flop" (which the showman Todd dismisses with the comment "You can't say it was a little bust."), I suspect it all depends on how you look at it; cynically, I'd view it as a 90-minute infomercial for the movie, which is still in theaters, and I'm only surprised it wasn't aired before March's Academy Awards, as part of the movie's very expensive Oscar campaign. No matter - it wins five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, anyway.

On Friday, it's the premiere of two new variety shows on ABC. The first stars Patrice Munsel, the star coloratura of the Metropolitan Opera and has great crossover appeal as well, singing show tunes and interacting with guest stars (the premiere features Eddie Albert). That's somewhat overshadowed by the show that follows, The Frank Sinatra Show, with an opening night lineup that includes Bob Hope, Peggy Lee, and Kim Novak. You might not think this, but both shows lasted the same length of time: one season. Sinatra had an interesting idea of doing a program with a revolving format: variety shows, dramas starring him, and dramas hosted by him. Interesting, yes, but was it really what viewers wanted? We'll probably never know, because Frank also didn't like rehearsing much, and so many of the programs weren't very well done. When Sinatra reappears again on TV in the '60s, it's with a series of very good specials that feature Frank (and some guest stars) singing - and nothing else. On the theory that even bad Sinatra is still Sinatra, here's that opening show.


In addition, all three networks will provide sporadic coverage throughout the week of Queen Elizabeth's visit to Canada, including the arrival of the Queen and Prince Philip* on Saturday (CBS), her Speech from the Throne at the opening of the Canadian Parliament Monday afternoon (NBC), her arrival Thursday in Washington D.C., where she and the Prince will be greeted by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (NBC), and events such as a reception held at the British Embassy. In addition to the special broadcasts Today keeps us posted on all the activities.

*Of all the names listed in this issue of TV Guide from some 59 years ago, the Queen and Prince Philip are two of the only people still living. What do you think the odds of that would have been back then?

Well, what do you think? Does the week live up to the hype or not?

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One of the shows that isn't on the hype list for the week is another newcomer, a Western airing Saturday evenings on CBS. It stars Richard Boone, who most recently was in the medical series Medic, and it's called Have Gun - Will Travel.

For Boone, the new series marks a pleasant change of pace from playing the doctor/narrator on Medic (he was the in-character host for all 60 episodes, and acted in the episodes himself 20 times), a role in which he was convincing enough that an actual doctor wrote to him with an offer to join the practice. In fact, even though he's played in nearly a dozen Westerns on the big screen, CBS wasn't quite sure he was right for the role of the elegant, black-clothed gunfighter Paladin. "They told teh studio I'd never played anything but doctors. I had to make a five-minute test film as Paladin to ship to New York before they accepted me." Needless to say, it took about five minutes for the network to see the light.

During Have Gun - Will Travel's successful six-season run, it was often held up as an example of violence on television, which makes his comments on playing Paladin even more interesting. "I red the scripts for 14 different series looking for a character with the right humor and complexity," Boone says, "something as far from [Medic's] Styner as I could find - and the minute I read this one I jumped up and yelled, "This is for me." In fact, Paladin is no heartless killer - he's cultured, West Point-educated, a connoisseur of fine wines, fine cigars, fine music, and fine women. It's only when he's on the job that he turns into the grim, determined man with the gun, and even then he frequently turns to violence only as a last resort. He's a great believer in the dignity of individuals, and on occasion he even turns against the man who hired him, if he feels that an injustice is being done. He also has a sense of humor. It's an adult Western to be sure, but a far cry from the bloody gunfights that marked many of the genre back then - and even today. In fact, there are many episodes I wish had a little less of a light touch and a little more of an edge. and But, as they say, it's all relative.

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One of the things you might have noticed missing from the week so far is sports. It's still there; you just have to look a little more closely for it.

The World Series ended on October 10, a splendid seven-game series in which the Braves bested the New York Yankees for their first Series title since 1914, back when they were in Boston. For a comparison, the seventh game of this year's World Series, if there is a seventh game, is scheduled for November 2.

There's one college football game on, the annual classic from the Cotton Bowl between Texas and Oklahoma. At the time, Oklahoma's in the midst of their epic 47-game winning streak, dating back to 1953. The Sooners would beat Texas 21-7, their 43rd consecutive win; a month later the streak would end with a 7-0 defeat to Notre Dame. You might have seen the Oklahoma-Texas game just a week ago, still in the Cotton Bowl. Oklahoma won this one as well, 45-40. By contrast, the '57 Sooners gave up 89 points the entire season. It was a different game back then. As for pro football, there are a pair of games on Sunday afternoon - the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears on CBS, and the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns on independent KFJZ. Again, a far cry from today.

There's some golf on Saturday - the premiere of one of the most influential golf programs of the day, All Star Golf. This was before tournament golf was a regular part of the weekend schedule; The U.S. Open had been telecast only since 1954, The Masters had just started the year before, and even these tournaments only covered the final three or four holes. When All Star Golf came along it gave viewers the opportunity to see two big-name golfers play 18 holes head-to-head, with the time between shots cut out to enable it to fit in a nice, neat one-hour timeslot, All Star Golf begot other made-for-TV programs, Shell's Wonderful World of Golf, Big Three Golf (Nicklaus, Palmer and Player), and the CBS Golf Classic, but it wasn't until the '70s and '80s that tournament coverage really took off. Hosted by former Masters champion Jimmy Demaret, All Star Golf would stick around until 1963.

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The mission of CBS's Playhouse 90, says its producer Martin Manulis, is to "entertain the grown-ups," and that includes topics such as illegitimacy, discrimination, addiction, - why, one show even used the word "damn." "We believed that was the way those people would talk," Manulus says. "And we didn't receive one letter of complaint."

What this probably proves is that viewers aren't necessarily in favor of profanity, but they understand that it can be appropriate based on the context, and they're not going to be particularly disturbed when it happens. It kind of reminds me of the old cliche about the actress willing to do nudity "if it's artistic," but there's obviously something to what Manulis says when he proclaims, "I don't believe that one or two quacks should dictate the policies of other well-informed and, I might add, quite nice people."

Manulis comes from the "standard of excellence" created in Broadway theater, and his goal with Playhouse 90 is to retain that standard, "to bring the theater into the home." That goes not only for the stories but for the actors and actresses appearing in them, and one of Manulis' trademarks is "switch-casting," when he puts an established star in an unconventional role. It was his idea, for instance, to cast comic Ed Wynn in his first straight dramatic role in "Requiem for a Heavyweight," and he's featured Tab Hunter as aheel, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre as lovable guys, Shirley Jones as an alcoholic (Mrs. Partridge!), and Zsa Zsa Gabor as a 70-year-old matron. There is, he stresses, a difference between switch-casting and miscasting.

Obviously, not every episode of Playhouse 90 is a hit, but even in 1957 there's a suspicion that television's catering to the lowest common denominator, with more than a few shows - particularly Westerns - geared to younger viewers. People like Martin Manulis believed it didn't have to be that way, that one could be serious but not boring, provocative but not offensive. Later in life, he would produce the series James at 16, and miniseries such as Chiefs and Space. What, I wonder, would he think of TV today?

9 comments:

  1. Kim Novak is still living among the people that you mention, in addition to the Queen & her Consort. All the rest have passed though.
    Martin Manulis also produced DOBIE GILLIS for Fox television. DOBIE GILLIS can still be seen early Monday mornings on Me-TV at 3:30 AM ET.

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  2. The Queen, Prince Philip and Kim Novak are still with us, but Mike Todd would be dead six months after this issue, in a plane crash. Still love the PHIL SILVERS SHOW in which Todd appeared as himself (April 1957).

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  3. Didn't one of the reasons for the Queen's visit to Canada had to do with groundbreaking of the St. Lawrence Seaway?

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    1. She visited Canada in 1959 to open the St. Lawrence Seaway.

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  4. Initially, "The Frank Sinatra Show" rotated between the three formats mentioned above.

    By the end of 1957, ratings for the musical-variety shows weren't bad, ratings for the dramas he starred in were mediocre, and ratings for the dramas he merely narrated were disasterous.

    At the end of 1957, the format was changed so that Frank would do musical-variety shows two weeks out of three and a filmed drama he starred in would be seen the third week. The dramas he merely narrated, but didn't star in, were dropped.

    Ratings improved somewhat, but not enough for the show to be renewed for a second season.

    Sinatra had signed a three-year contract with ABC; the rest of that contract was fulfilled by a number of specials broadcast during the 1958-59 and 1959-60 seasons.

    The most famous of those specials for ABC was his last, broadcast in May of 1960, since the major guest was Elvis Presley. Elvis was making his first TV appearance since being discharged from the Army.

    Ratings for those specials, and his subsequent "A Man And His Music" specials (the latter considered among the best musical-variety specials in TV history) were much, much higher than his 1957-58 series.

    Had Sinatra decided to do a weekly musical-bariety series when he signed with ABC in 1957, it might have been a huge hit and lasted several seasons.

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    1. Had to look this up ...

      Frank Sinatra had already done a weekly music-variety series, on CBS, in the fall of 1950.

      It ran against Your Show Of Shows on NBC.
      One season and out.

      When Sinatra signed with ABC in '57, part of the deal was that he wouldn't have to do a weekly variety show; he was starting to develop the lazy streak that characterized his later career.

      Side story from a later time:

      Frank Sinatra hated "Strangers In The Night", almost from the moment he heard it.
      At that point (the mid-'60s), he'd ceded control of his recording career to the Reprise A&R guy, Jimmy Bowen; Frank would come in a couple of times a year and record a string of songs that Bowen would pick out for him.
      When Sinatra heard the "Strangers" lyric, he hated it so much that he decided to tank the recording.
      Think I'm kidding? Listen to the record sometime: this is supposed to be a romantic ballad, and Sinatra snarls the words, like he's threatening someone.
      That's where "Doobie-doobie-doo" came from: who the heck would do 'scat' lyrics at the end of a love song?
      Frank was convinced that these actions of his would make "Strangers" unreleasable ...
      ... and it turned out to be his biggest hit record up til then.

      Go figure ...

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  5. Who won the Edsel/Standard Oil faceoff?

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