We read that and we laugh. In 1955 television has been around for less than ten years, although it's been around longer than we think, and from today's perspective we look back at the years that are affectionately called Golden, and we wonder what Robert Montgomery can possibly be thinking of.
He knows of what he speaks, though. Montgomery is truly one of the pioneers of television, "the first top name movie personality to enter TV full-scale," as host and occasional star of Robert Montgomery Presents, a show which premiered in January, 1950. It is, therefore, winding up its sixth year on TV, and if there is anyone with the right to say "TV's not what it used to be," it's him. His memories constitute an encyclopedia of what can go wrong on live television (the only kind, back then): an actor who muffs his lines, forcing his co-stars to ad-lib for 10 minutes before he gets back on track; a ladder left on stage by a sloppy stagehand, requiring the cast to dodge around it for the entire act, until the next commercial; Montgomery himself muffing an interview with actress Teresa Wright, repeatedly calling her "Martha" instead.
With the logistics involved in early television, it's a wonder any of these shows ever got on the air. "We produced our show at 67th St. and Central Park West," Montgomery says; "our music came from Rockefeller Center, half a mile away; the commercials came in from Columbus Circle. We figured we were lucky if we got them all on the air the same night." Cameras quit working, lights burn out, actors freeze - and yet the only time the show failed to make it to airtime, it was because of a studio strike. Compared to those early days, the show today is "as slick and smooth as the wax made by one of its sponsors." And we'd probably consider it primitive.
Montgomery is definitely a populist when it comes to programming - "Let's let the audiences - and not just the critics - decide what's good and what's bad on TV," he says. And for the most part, there aren't any problems that a few good scripts won't cure. In other words, this is television - thus has it been, thus shall it be.
Few entertainers are more associated with Christmas than Perry Como, thanks to his '70s-era specials from all over the world. In 1955 Perry has his own weekly program on NBC, and since next Saturday is Christmas Eve, I'm betting that's when all the holiday trimmings come out. Even so, he manages to work in a couple of Yuletide songs this week: "The Christmas Song" and "Jingle Bells." Doesn't get much better than that.
Sunday is where it really starts to look a lot like Christmas, starting with the afternoon program Wide Wide World at 3:00 p.m. CT on NBC. During the 90-minute program, host Dave Garroway takes us around the world to see how different cultures celebrate the season, including choirboys singing hymns in Quebec and New York, decorations at the Tropicana night club in Havana, the Posada Christmas processing in Mexico, and decorated department store windows in New York, Dallas, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Washington.* A little after an hour into the program, they'll cut away for live coverage of President Eisenhower lighting the White House Christmas tree, from his home in Gettysburg.
*Do they still do that nowadays? Do they still have department stores nowadays?
At 8:00 p.m., the husband-and-wife team of Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy star in the Goodyear Television Playhouse production of "Christmas 'til Closing," which ponders the question of "whether the Yule season's emphasis has not become far more material than spiritual." In a twist, it's the couple's children, not the parents, who wonder if there's too much of a fuss being made over it all.
The Today show spends the entire week before Christmas touring various churches, most of which will have their choirs performing appropriate pieces. Garry Moore's CBS morning show has the spirit as well, featuring Christmas-themed entertainment all week, including an appearance by the famous Trapp Family Singers (The Sound of Music) on Monday. And on NBC's Home, host Arlene Francis tours the department store windows along 5th Avenue in New York. Voice of Firestone's Christmas program is Monday night (7:30 p.m., ABC), with opera star Eleanor Steber joining the Firestone orchestra for a predominantly classical Christmas.
On Tuesday Dinah Shore sings "White Christmas" on her 15-minute program that precedes the NBC evening news program, while on CBS Red Skelton celebrates the season with his traditional Freddie the Freeloader skit, in which the tramp tries to get arrested so that he can spend the night in a nice warm jail cell. And speaking of jail cells, DuPont Cavalcade Theater tells a tale of Christmas in a POW camp. Later that night, on Steve Allen's Tonight, an extraordinary program featuring survivors from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. They're appearing with Walter Lord, whose universally acclaimed book A Night to Remember, written this very year, was predominantly responsible for the resurgence of interest in the disaster - although, as the 1953 movie with Barbara Stanwyck demonstrates, it never completely went away. Think about it, though: it had only been 43 years since the disaster (which would be like 1973 to us), so it wouldn't have been all that remarkable to have had survivors still living. And technology, the great god that failed everyone in the design of the ship, leaving them alone and isolated in the darkness, is what makes it possible for viewers to see them on television this night.
Bing Crosby's brother Bob hosts his own music program afternoons at 2:30 p.m. CT on CBS. He's been playing Christmas music all week, and Wednesday is no exception, including one of his brother's favorites - "Christmas in Killarney." Howdy Doody's celebrating Christmas this week as well, and this afternoon he takes the NBC cameras to Santa's workshop at the North Pole. Santa's also part of The Mickey Mouse Club on ABC, in the cartoon "Midnight in the Toy Shop," and the Mousketeers also see a film on Christmas around the world. MGM Parade, about which more later, has clips from some of the studio's holiday offerings, and Father Knows Best, Kraft Television Theater, Studio 57, Waterfront, and The Millionaire have Yuletide-themed episodes of their own.
By the time we get to Friday, practically everybody's doing Christmas: Rin Tin Tin, Ozzie and Harriet, and The Patti Page Show on ABC; Mama, Our Miss Brooks, Crusader, and Playhouse of Stars on CBS; and The Big Story on NBC. I particularly like the Patti Page touch; her program ends at 11:30 p.m. out East, just a half-hour before midnight rings in Christmas Eve.
And of course, this doesn't include all the other episodic series, Burns and Allen, Medic, and the like, that have their Christmas-themed stories. Yes, it's true that at Christmastime, everything comes to a halt.
There's an interesting article by Dan Jenkins (not the sportswriter) about how, in the wake of Walt Disney's spectacular television success, the rest of Hollywood finds this TV business isn't as easy as it looks.
20th Century Fox, long before they it starts its own network, makes its first stride with The 20th Century Fox Hour which, like Warner Brothers, features a nine-minute behind-the-scenes piece to accompany its anthology format. It alternates every week on CBS with The United States Steel Hour, and while the series isn't bad, it lags behind both boxing and This Is Your Life in its time period. A similar series, M-G-M Parade (which you can see occasionally on Saturday mornings on TCM), has been a disappointment for that studio. In fact, even Alfred Hitchcock Presents has fallen short of "setting the TV audience on its ear," although it winds up being one of the most venerable, and loved, of mystery series.
One of the problems, says an ad executive, is that studios have yet to figure out that television isn't the movies. Says another executive, "Wed' like to pitch in with our own people who know television" in order to improve the quality of the shows. In fact, Otto Lang, executive producer of The 20th Century Fox Hour, acknowledges that "We have a lot to learn, I guess," and M-G-M's executive producer Les Petersen points out some of the differences the studio has already learned. "A hilarious scene from a movie is suddenly not very funny when seen by just two or three people in a living room," which has led them to experiment with the use of a laugh track. They're also not sure how to lead into and out of commercials, since those aren't found on the big screen, but he knows they'll figure it out - eventually.
TV Teletype has some fun items for us to look at this week.
For instance, we get the scoop that "Twelve Angry Men," the award-winning Studio One presentation from last year, is headed for the big screen. Henry Fonda's going to play the lead role, which Bob Cummings played on TV. I seem to recall that movie was pretty good...
In an effort to get consumers interested in color TV, CBS-Columbia is offering up to $400 for New Yorkers who want to exchange their B&W sets for an $895 color set. They say they'll expand the promotion nationwide if it's successful, but I think this color TV business is just a fad...
Finally, CBS is trying to pep up its Morning Show, competing against NBC's Today, by sending its host "on quickie weekend trips to foreign cities," where he'll shoot films that can be shown on the show when he returns the next Monday. The host is a guy named Dick Van Dyke - wonder what happened to him?...
Last but not least, As We See It has yet another story for its collection of "doctors who blame television for practically anything." In this case the doctor is Salmon Halpern, who says that "children who watch television while lying on a rug may contract an 'allergic' type of cold." He doesn't recommend, for example, that parents tell their children to get up off the floor; rather, he recommends spraying the rugs with a special solution. Methinks that the doctor might well have some kind of financial interest in that special solution, but who am I to judge?
Merrill Panitt compares Dr. Halpern to "the dentist who said children's teeth get out of whack because they lean on their chins while watching TV, the chiropractor who insists TV causes back trouble because people slump in their chairs before TV screens and the doctor who blames TV for obesity because viewers keep nibbling at snacks." These videochondricacs, as Panitt calls them, probably won't be satisfied until they've "blamed television for scurvy; that is, scurvy in children who refuse to touch food except the cereal advertised on television."
Now, I've grown up as a child of television; TV and I have been constant companions as long as I can remember. I do have allergies, although they owe more to cats than watching TV; the fillings in my otherwise excellent teeth are more the result of failing to brush than leaning on my chin; and the only way in which my chronic back problems could be related to television would be if I twisted my back reaching for the remote. I will allow as to how my weight is higher than it should; but since I can watch television on my iPhone while working out, it's probably laziness more than TV that keeps me from getting in better shape.
It's Christmas next week - bet there'll be some special content just waiting for you!