June 29, 2016

Not seeing the forest for the trees

I mentioned on Saturday that I'd be taking a closer look at one aspect of this week's TV Guide, one that clearly demonstrates how by June of 1968 television had entered something of a twilight zone - one that has nothing to do with science fiction, even though the events might have seemed just as outrageous.

In that TV Guide of June 29, 1968, it had been only a little over three weeks since the death of Robert F. Kennedy (which itself was less that two months after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.), and TV finds itself having to deal with one of its periodic existential crises. However, whereas in the past the issues were juvenile delinquency, rigged game shows, and a vague concern about violence, the RFK assassination has raised the stakes considerably. The programming section in this issue kicks off with a notice that "In the wake of the Kennedy assassination, the networks have been changing series episodes and movies in order to avoid running particularly violent material. We regret any inconvenience these last-minute changes have caused."

Obviously the networks are concerned about being sensitive to the convulsions gripping America, but at the same time one can't help but think some of this is lip service. After all, the cancelled episodes and TV movies will likely show up some time during the season; it's not as if the suits are going to throw away their money by throwing away all that film. The Doan Report gives a rundown of the various shows that were pulled:

ABC shelved a Big Valley story for good - it dealt with the assassination of a congressman. Reruns of The Avengers, The FBI and Will Sonnett were shuffled; a Man in a Suitcase episode was dumped. Even comedy sequences of The Flying Nun and The Second Hundred Years were found inappropriate. CBS, for its part, not only switched reruns of Cimarron Strip, Gunsmoke and Wild Wild West, but pulled out some movies like "Portrait of a Mobster," "Where the Spies Are" and "Young Dillinger" in favor of such happier items as Judy Garland in "I Could Go On Singing" and Peter Sellers in "World of Henry Orient." CBS's daytime serial Love Is a Many Splendored Thing got orders to postpone for a few days a story line about a young aspirant for the White House. At NBC, the soft-pedal removed episodes of Bonanza, High Chaparral, I Spy, Tarzan, The Champions, and even Mothers-in-Law. On the Saturday night movie, "Girls! Girls! Girls!" turned up in place of "Prescription: Murder." [The pilot for Columbo - MDH] The network insisted all the postponed shows will be aired "ultimately," unaltered. At another network, so many questionable series episodes were being pushed back to August that one underling predicted that month probably will be "the bloodiest in TV history."

(And they didn't even know about how the Democratic Convention in Chicago was going to turn out.)

WPIX in New York broadcast the single word "Shame"
for over two hours Wednesday morning while RFK
underwent surgery.
(WPIX/Corbis Images)
Nor is the concern limited to the programming. As we dip into this week's Letters to the Editor, we read one from Mrs. C.H. Scott of Rio Linda, California, who writes that "I have three little children and I don't want them growing up in a world where, if you don't agree with another human being's views, you just shoot him down. I feel that what is watched on TV does influence our lives, and all three networks do show too much violence, hate and fighting." Then there's Carolyn Shaffer of Tacoma, Washington, who excoriates violent commercials: "Surely manufacturers can find some way to sell their products other than with guns and gangsters. Immediately following a talk by Eric Sevareid against violence, two commercials came on, one with gangsters stealing a car, the other with guns blasting in the background to sell a 'thirst killer.'" Concludes Ms. Shaffer, "Guns and violence are prevalent enough; must we view these portrayals in commercials also?"

Mary Hager of Altoona, Pennsylvania, urges the networks to put programs with such adult themes in late-night hours where children won't see them. "We have to move forward with the times and not try to keep everything as it was in the past. Fairy-tale days are gone." However, counters Mrs. T.L. Carpenter of El Paso, Texas, "in Western time zones these 'adult' movies come on in prime-time for children viewers." What to do, what to do?

The rescheduling of particularly violent or questionable episodes is, as suggested, a temporary reaction to the high-profile murders of the past two months, but merely delaying such an episode for two months is hardly a solution. No, the larger question concerns television's responsibility for fostering a climate of violence, and how its content will change in the future. That's the subject of this week's As We See It editorial, in which Merrill Panitt asks The Suits whether or not all the violence they show on television is really necessary. For example, that episode of The Virginian in which a barn full of horses is set ablaze, and viewers are left listening to the neighing of terrified horses while a gun battle breaks out between an outlaw, a bounty hunter, and others. And then there's Run For Your Life, where "two punks seized an Army payroll, then shot and killed - in close-up - a motorcycle policeman" before being shot and killed by other police in Mexico. As Panitt puts it, "Violence certainly is a basic element of drama. And we know the argument that 'Macbeth' is full of violence too. But that violence is necessary to the plot, not something forced in to titillate the audience."

It's important to keep in mind the editorial viewpoint of TV Guide as you read the final plea to the networks to "reduce, or eliminate, unnecessary violence in entertainment shows." The politics of TV Guide, like those of its publisher Walter Annenberg, are conservative, and decidedly anti-censorship., However, the magazine has never hesitated to urge television networks to reform their programs, whether the topic is violence (as it is here), children's programming, or the quality of its drama offerings. There's a belief in the importance of these issues, but there's more to it as well. TV Guide has always been mindful that if the industry fails to police itself, that inertia will eventually constitute an open invitation for the government to step in and do the policing. The line about "Macbeth" may well be a concession that TV cannot and should not get rid of all violence, but it's also a warning to the industry that in order to preserve its freedom, it had best engage in some self-censorship before the Feds come in and do a much more extensive job. Watch yourself, it suggests, while you can.

Just as the movie industry has encountered such controversy over content, so does radio and television, and eventually record albums, comic books and video games. The violent content in the shows mentioned here, in comparison to what we see today on cable TV (and even most network programs) is almost laughable. Even when one looks at them in the context of the times, it's hard to imagine this kind of controversy. Perhaps I'm wrong about this, but with the mass shootings that have taken place in the last few years, has there been any significant discussion about the violence in Breaking Bad, Boardwark Empire or The Walking Dead (to cite just three contemporary series) leading to a social breakdown? Indeed, we hear a lot of discussion about how TV content doesn't influence behavior (I'm sure the people who buy commercial time would be dismayed to hear that), when one would have to think that at the very least such an onslaught of violence, on television and movies and video games, would at least have to desensitize viewers to its effects. Maybe you can blame a YouTube video for violence in Benghazi, but has anyone linked The Sopranos to the wild west shootout going on every weekend in Chicago? If there has been such angst, it certainly hasn't been to the extent that the topic was raised in 1968.

However, there's something else we can observe here, something that is in the long run more important. Let's draw a line from 1963 onward and see if we can find any consistent threads emerging by looking at three particular events:
  • In 1963, John F. Kennedy is murdered by a Communist sympathizer, Lee Harvey Oswald. The angst is over the availability of guns and a climate of hatred created by right-wingers.
  • In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy is murdered by an anti-Israel Arab sympathizer, Sirhan Sirhan. The angst is over the availability of guns and the content of television programs.
  • In 2016, 49 people are murdered in a nightclub in Orlando by an ISIS sympathizer. The angst is over the availability of guns and an attack against homosexuals.

What do these three events have in common? I think you could make a plausible case that each one of these acts was political in nature, that the ideological motive of the attacker in each case was readily apparent, and that there was a widespread inability on the part of the media and many in the public to confront that motive, preferring instead to focus on a broader (and more convenient) cultural indictment. This isn't to say that every major act of violence between then and now falls into this category; I'm not trying to suggest that at all. What I am saying is that in many respects, there isn't that much of a difference between 1963 and 2016. Just as conspiracies abounded in the wake of JFK's death, just as conspiracies abounded in the aftermath of 9/11, we seem determined to embark on a Quixotic quest to find a motive bigger and more "important" than the one that's staring us right in the face as the result of a simple reading of the situation. My point is that if you want to argue with me about Oswald being the lone gunman, about Sirhan being a patsy, or the Orlando gunman being motivated by something other than ISIS-inspired hatred of American culture, this is not the place to do it.

But if - and I mean if - Sirhan was indeed the assassin of Robert F. Kennedy, it probably wasn't because of a gunfight on The Virginian; I doubt that a shootout on Run For Your Life was what pushed him over the edge, what made him get up on the morning of June 4, 1968 and say to himself, "If Kennedy wins tonight, I will go to his hotel and kill him." The motive - Kennedy's support for Israel - already existed; the hate was already there. You can blame television for a lot, but not for that.

Reading the TV Guide of June 29, 1968 gives us a feeling not that dissimilar to what one gets when looking through the internet today. It doesn't even matter what the truth is, or what one believes the truth is - only that if you want to look at how people are going to react to events today, you can get a pretty good idea by looking at how people reacted to them back then. And that's a big part of what this blog is all about - how looking at television and what was written about it can serve as a jumping-off point for a study of the larger issues involved. You can't deny that such is the case here.

I don't think I'll pursue this any further here, but a deeper analysis would make a dandy chapter in my future book on TV. However, I say it time and time again, and it never proves wrong - the more things change, the more they stay the same.

June 27, 2016

What's on TV? Tuesday, July 2, 1968

As I mentioned on Saturday, we're back on familiar turf this week - Minneapolis-St. Paul in the '60s. And while the summer schedule doesn't always give us blockbuster shows, there's always something worth looking at. So let's get to it!

June 25, 2016

This week in TV Guide: June 29, 1968

Well, well, it's homecoming week here at the blog! We're back in the '60s, and back in the Twin Cities. Not that I haven't enjoyed our recent excursion through DFW in the late '50s, but every once in a while it's kind of nice to visit a place you're familiar with. Think of it like returning to a favorite vacation spot - you know your way around town a bit, you remember some favorite restaurants and places you've been to before, you look up friends you made the last time, and yet you know there are still more places to explore, more discoveries to be made, more fun to be had.

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There's a very interesting story present in this week's issue, dealing with the aftermath of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. It's not an article, but a collage comprised of editorials, letters to the editor, programming schedules, and a note to the readers that tells you what you're not seeing. All of these disparate pieces form a tableau that tells a story about how we disseminate the news, not just then but all the way to our present day.

I started writing about it here, but quickly realized it was big enough for its own piece - and even that won't be large enough to dig deeply enough into the topic; ultimately, it should make up a chapter in the TV book I'm hoping to publish in the next couple of years. Sorry to do this to you, but you'll have to wait for Wednesday's feature to find out what I'm talking about.

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During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..

Sullivan: Singers Jimmy Dean,and Nancy Sinatra, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Spanky and Our Gang; singer-composer Lee Hazlewood; comedians George Carlin and Lewis and Christy; magician Dominique; and Charlie Cairoll, clown act.

Palace: Host Bing Crosby welcomes Don Ameche, Frances Langford, Louis Nye, singer Barbara McNair, the King Family, comic pianist Yonely and the Pollack Brothers' trained-elephant act.

It's been a while, hasn't it? Both of this week's shows are reruns, meaning we're certain about the lineups; no last-minute substitutions this week. And it's an easy choice, truth be told. Palace has an automatic edge by virtue of Bing Crosby hosting, plus Don Ameche and Frances Langford recreate their roles on the OTR show "The Bickersons," while Louis Nye is on hand as "a Hollywood hippie putting the bite on a staid banker (Bing)."

While Ed offers Jimmy Dean and George Carlin, I'm afraid Diana Ross and Spanky are no favorites of mine, and the rest of the supporting cast falls short. No question; this week The Palace reigns supreme.

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As far as our other weekly feature is concerned, Cleveland Amory is off for the summer, so we won't be reading any of his reviews for a few months. He'll be back, though - and so will we. In the meantime, there's plenty more to look at, starting with a famous name in sports.

That name is Pelé, and he's not only the most famous soccer player in the world, he's also the highest-paid athlete anywhere, making an exorbitant $400,000 a year. To put that in perspective, the average major league baseball salary in 1968 was a little over $20,600; its highest paid player, Willie Mays, made $125,000.

Pelé has already made his mark in soccer history, playing on two World Cup-winning teams for Brazil, and this Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (CT) on CBS, he takes his Brazilian club team, Santos, to Busch Stadium and an exhibition match against the St. Louis Stars of the North American Soccer League. A crowd of over 20,000, more than double the team's average home attendance, watches the Stars jump out to an early 2-0 lead before Santos storm back for a 3-2 victory with Pelé, naturally, scoring the winning goal.

In 1970 Pelé will become even more well-known in America as he leads Brazil to their record third World Cup, The clip of the exuberant star leaping into the arms of his teammate Jairzinho after scoring the first goal in Brazil's 4-1 victory over Italy (left) was a feature of Wide World of Sports' opening montage for several years afterward.

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Judith Crist, TV Guide's movie critic, is on hand with some of her famously acerbic reviews this week, so if Pelé wasn't enough to help you get over missing Cleveland Amory, maybe this will help you out. The TL:DR version: the best you can say is most of them are harmless

Take A Girl Named Tamiko. for instance, starring Laurence Harvey, which "proves that all Japanese are kind, courteous and charming, and all Americans are simply stupid when they're not downright nasty." Small consolation that the real heavy, Harvey, "is a Chinese-Russian photographer who plays fast and loose with the ladies of both nations."

Then there's the Yul Brynner/Richard Widmark feature Flight from Ashiya, "one of those almost-perfectly-awful adventure films," in which the ultimate rescue of shipwrecked sailors "becomes an eternity because each of the three Air Rescue Service members heading for the survivors over the China seas takes time to flash-back his life story to us. At least the shipwrecked sailors are spared the details, and only Widmark watchers can win."

Gregory Peck's Captain Newman, M.D. is a "relatively sincere film," in which "corn and cliches are rampant and its major embarrassments are Tony Curtis and Angie Dickinson as Peck's prime aides. Curtis has a hideous dialect but pretty teeth; Miss Dickinson has pretty legs." And The Secret Invasion, a wartime adventure movie directed by Roger Corman (!)*, "boasts some of the loveliest views of Yugoslavia on film, as well as some strictly-from-muscle chases involving messy Nazis and a passel of pretty partisans."

*MST3K, where are you?

The two best bets of the week are It Started in Naples, with Sophia Loren and Clark Gable*, "masters of the comedy craft [who] provide some passable fun," and the third version of The Phantom of the Opera, this time starring Herbert Lom as The Phantom, which features "an unpretty hero, a pretty heroine [Heather Sears], nice old-fashioned scares and some dreadful operatic interludes. It won't beat the heat but it's good for a shudder or two." Oh well, as it says in the Hippocratic Oath, "Primum non nocere" - do no harm.

*The last of Gable's movies to be released while he was alive; the infamous The Misfits is yet to come.

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Wagner and his TV father, Fred Astaire
This week's cover boy is Robert Wagner, star of the new ABC series It Takes a Thief, which Edith Efron describes as "a rehash of The Saint, Raffles, The Rogues, The Dirty Dozen and Garrison's Gorrillas." Wagner's made the move from movies to television in an attempt to recapture the magic of his youth.*

*Wagner's an old man by now, all of 38.

Wagner's matured over the years; more confident, more sure of his talent, a man who "knows now where he's going and what he wants to do in the business." Some credit his second wife, Marion Marshall, with giving him this new sense of contentment, after the failure of his first marriage to Natalie Wood (they'd give it another go later on). Wagner himself is ready to burst out from the "restrictions" that have kept him from being "free to be myself." Whatever the reason, It Takes a Thief is just what he needs - a success, as will be two later series, Switch and Hart to Hart, and his later appearances in the Austin Powers movies will give his career a boost for yet another generation.

Also in the national section, educator Rosalyn L. Switzen tells parents not to get so uptight about using television as a babysitter; says Switzen, "We are going to have to call an educational spade a shovel and admit that formal education owes much to the informal medium of television," and offers the reassurance that "Once we are able to throw away our out-of-date prejudices about television, and harness that awesome power, we may yet usher in a new era of automatic education through entertainment."

Meanwhile, Jack Lescoulie, the former number-two man on Today, speaks about his firing from the show, the result of a fight with a crew member*, and how he's desperately looking for a way back into the business, whether through acting in movies, working on news programs, or appearing in the legitimate theater. "I'll be back," he promises grimly, but the comeback he hopes for never materializes.

*Unfortunately for Lescoulie, Amazon.com didn't exist then; Jeremy Clarkson can testify to how helpful that is.

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Finally, although you'll have to wait until Wednesday to find out more about the RFK feature, you can see much the same spirit in this story. Xerox, which in the early '60s sponsored the series of movies supporting the United Nations and earlier this year presented a commercial-free running of the antiwar classic Paths of Glory, is back this week as sponsor of another of the socially conscious programs of which they're so fond. This time it's the CBS documentary "Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed," airing Tuesday night at 9:00 p.m., one of seven "Xerox Special Events" under the umbrella title Of Black America. It's hosted by Bill Cosby and CBS newsman George Foster, and it focuses on how American history, primarily written by whites, ignores most aspects of black history, and the contributions by blacks in science and agriculture. Some of the examples shown will likely induce a head-shake or two; even taking into consideration the hermeneutics of television - the need to view things contextually, rather than through a constant evolution - there's a lot here that is clearly wrong. On the other hand, some of the political commentary may well make your blood boil.


As you know, I'm loathe to dip into partisan politics on this blog. After all, as the name suggests, it's about TV, and it should be a place that's safe for anyone to visit without being too ticked off by the cacophony of caterwauling that takes place in the real world. I bring this up because it's another example of how similar things are today to how they were in 1968.

Yes, it's true that Of Black America can look and sound dated; a similar documentary made today would be different - slicker, quicker, featuring people like Al Sharpton. The content would be similar, though, as would the accusatory tone. Whereas the emphasis in 1968 was on the struggle for equal rights and the sanitizing of American history, set against the backdrop of Martin Luther King's assassination, today we couch the discussion in terms such as "Diversity Training" and "Unearned White Privilege," and create a virtual cottage industry around them. Yesterday's Black Panthers have given way to today's Black Lives Matter. Listening to the rhetoric, one wouldn't be blamed for wondering if anything at all had changed in the intervening 50 years. Whether it has or not, whether today's arguments consist of substance or bluster, motivated by a wish for equality or ideological derangement, probably depends on your political point of view. What can't be doubted is that it's another of the issues that we can't seem to stop debating.

As you'll read (hopefuly) on Wednesday, our reaction to such headlines hasn't changed much over the decades. Yes, in the land of Oprah we've gotten more into sharing our feelings, searching for closure, and all the other new-age buzzwords she's championed, but our unwillingness to deal with the cause of tragedy, to look for other, more politically palatable rationales, remains. You'll see this even more clearly after reading the Wednesday essay, how society struggles to assess the blame for RFK's death while  - in my opinion - an obvious motive stares back, unblinkingly.

As you look at this era on television, consider the issues covered by news programs: race relations, gun control, violence on the streets, unemployment, war. In other words, the very same issues we struggle with today. (And they weren't new in the 1960s, either.) And the questions are asked each and every time: what can we do, how can we do it, do we have the will and determination to do it. We ask them over and over again every few years, almost in willful ignorance of the last time we posed them. Do we, I wonder, ever think why these problems continue, why there is no cure? Might it be that original sin and human nature have rendered them, like the common cold, incurable?

June 24, 2016

Around the dial

This week, Comfort TV takes us back to the days when newspapers were one of the places to be, thanks to the TV show Lou Grant. I was not the biggest fan of this show, but it was grown-up drama without all the soap elements, which is sadly lacking in much of today's TV, and it reminds me of how exciting it must have been back then to work for a paper.

The Horn Section takes a visit to the 1967 Hondo episode "Hondo and the Apache Kid."  I love the sidebar quote "Your lives are meaningless compared to Hondo" - sounds like something you'd say about Chuck Norris or The Stig, doesn't it?

At bare-bones e-zine, the Hitchcock Project looks at an episode I just saw last week (I kid you not!*) - "Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Fenimore."  The moral of the story: don't trust a character played by Mary Astor. Whatever it is you're trying to pull, she's better at it.

Cult TV Blog writes about the Big Finish audio version of the first series Avengers episode "Brought to Book."Ah, such a shame more of those early episodes weren't saved. And yes, the image of Steed as a dirty old man is delightful!

Martin Grams offers us the latest book reviews on a variety of television- and movie-related books. Perhaps one day he'll have my TV book there; of course, there's the little matter of having to write it first...

I've had Roald Dahl on my mind lately, perhaps because the title of his book Fantastic Mr. Fox has come up so often in conjunction with the new Premier League champions. Be that as it may, he's also known for a good many other things, including the TV series Way Out, an episode of which is reviewed at Recap Retro.

Faded Signals reminds us of a blast from the past - Morton Downey, Jr. Seems like just yesterday, doesn't it? It amused me to watch his show for awhile, but all the shouting finally got to me. You know what it reminds me of, though? It's the magic and wonder of cable TV - it was fairly new in Minneapolis-St. Paul when I started watching Downey; we were very late to the cable world in the Twin Cities, so I'm sure most people don't have the same association.

Dean Martin's always been a favorite here, so it's no surprise I'd gravitate toward I Love Dino Martin's piece on Dean's 99th birthday. Ah, they don't make 'em like Deano anymore.

Dunno how old this is, but Ralph Senensky's most recent blog post has to do with his experiences directing an episode of Hart to Hart, and insofar as Robert Wagner is on the cover of tomorrow's TV Guide review, I thought this was well worth reading.

Catching up on this from last week, but TV Obscurities has the television listings for WCBW in New York for the week of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

June 22, 2016

The Rebel: a portrait of America's existential crisis

ACADEMY AWARD NOMINEE NICK ADAMS AS JOHNNY YUMA IN THE REBEL
The Civil War remains, to this day, America's great existential crisis. Beyond the obvious issues surrounding how one defines the humanity of a man, about whether or not I am my brother's keeper, the war continues to asks questions that strike at the very existence of the American nation. Can a country continue to exist half-slave and half-free? Is participation as a member state under the umbrella and protection of a central government voluntary, can a state freely choose to no longer be part of that grouping, or does the federal government have an obligation to hold all the disparate parts of the nation together, as if they are limbs of a single body?

These are all heavy questions, and in case you haven't already figured it out, this is going to be one of those kinds of pieces. If you'd rather take a pass on it, I'll understand - just come back on Friday to check out some more neat stuff. If you hang on, though, I think you'll find this at least a stimulating discussion that goes far deeper than simply a television show.

As I said, there are many questions involved in our premise. The Rebel does not answer these questions; indeed, it only obliquely raises them. But raise them it does, in such a way that it compels serious consideration of those questions, and causes one to look at how a television show, as a product of its own time, engages with such topics.

The Rebel*, which ran on ABC for two seasons from 1959 to 1961, starred Nick Adams as Johnny Yuma, a veteran of the war who'd fought on the Confederate side, and his adventures roaming the West while looking for meaning in his own life. That in itself carries an air of existentialism, not all that different from programs as varied as Route 66 and Then Came Bronson. As much as the series itself, though, it is the show's premise, and Adams' personal involvement in its creation, that pique my interest. Indeed, I freely admit at the outset that I've never even seen an episode of The Rebel. I suppose that makes this essay even more existential, the equivalent of Schrodinger's Cat - if I actually watch the show, does the question still exist? Enough of that, though - let's get down to business.

*Produced by Goodson-Todman, The Rebel was one of their few non-game show programs.

The impetus for this piece is a very fine article written at Television's New Frontier: the 1960s, a though-provoking piece which I can admire even as I disagree with its premise. In the process of reviewing the series, the author Beestguy makes a number of associations between the Civil War and the underlying premise of the program - assertions about the nature of the war, the reasons it was fought, and the principles for which the Confederacy stood - that instantly got me thinking. Depending on how one feels about the whole thing, the answers can tell a lot about what The Rebel means, and how it reflects America's DNA.

Beestguy's theory, and his subsequent commentary, rests upon the premise that the South was a culture of collective thought, that the only reason for the Civil War was slavery, and that the rebels (as we will call them) had a single specific goal, that to preserve what they referred to as the Peculiar Institution – an institution with which by necessity they must be in whole-hearted agreement.

The problem with this theory – and I promise this will eventually connect up to The Rebel – is that it isn’t consistent with the bulk of American history. Any number of revisionist historians will argue, from a number of perspectives, that the true nature of the Civil War, for both North and South, was over economics – the manufacturing of the North vs. the agrarian of the South. At this point in the discussion, that’s neither here nor there; it’s important merely to note that it exists.

Of far more historical precedence is the definition and nature of nationhood, of what it means to belong to both a state and a country. Overlooking this element of the conflict is to ignore how many Southerners, including a fair number of the Founding Fathers, thought of themselves first as residents of their state, i.e. Virginians, and only second as Americans. While we’ve been taught that the necessary elements of the Civil War go all the way back to the founding of the United States, the element that is most often focused on, to the exclusion of the rest, is slavery, when in fact the rights of the state vs. the rights of the nation were at least as important, particularly when it came to the ratification of the Constitution.

Understanding this is why we can understand how Robert E. Lee, perhaps the most brilliant military mind in United States history (at least up to that point), a man wooed by both North and South to govern their armies, came to the agonizing decision to fight for the South. Lee had hoped Virginia would not secede, thought that it would bring bloodshed more than anything else, but stayed loyal to Virginia and resigned his U.S. Army commission to lead the Southern armies. "I could not raise my hand against my home and my family," he says by way of explanation, and his private letters emphasize the agony surrounding his decision, despite his conventional (for the South, for the time) opinion that slaves were, indeed, property.

During the ratification debate, Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty or give me death”) voiced his apprehension over the Constitution, writing that “our rights and privileges are endangered, and the sovereignty of the states will be relinquished” should it pass as presented. “Is this a confederacy,” he asked, “like Holland - an association of a number of independent states, each of which retains its individual sovereignty?” One thing was for sure: “It is not a democracy, wherein the people retain all their rights securely.”

Yes, I know this is a TV website, which is what it will remain, so we’re not going to go too deeply into the history lesson here. My point, and I do have one, is that divided loyalties were a given from the founding of the country, and those divisions could be most clearly seen in the South. Again, it is important to accept this as the backdrop whenever discussing the Civil War as being strictly, or even primarily, about slavery.

Now, this brings us back to The Rebel. For Nick Adams personally, there must have been a great deal of symbolic appeal to casting himself as a veteran of the Confederacy. In real life, Adams was a frustrated Hollywood actor who sought his own series because he was tired of his many supporting roles in movies and "desperately wanted to be a star." This reading extends as we look at the premise of The Rebel. Adams’ Johnny Yuma is a man who has spurned his home town and people of the North and chosen instead to fight for the Confederacy. The reasons are never entirely clear, although there is “a vague reference to his wanting to get away from home during a troublesome time, a suggestion that perhaps he did not get along with his father.”

The Confederacy, in this sense, becomes a true metaphor for the man who finds that he doesn't belong, whether it be Adams the actor or Yuma the character. It positions him as the ultimate outsider; not only has he betrayed his native North to fight for the South (ostensibly for a cause that was not his), it also means he continues as an outsider to this day, a member of the vanquished rebellion living as part of a conquered people.  And for a show in which the main character lacks a permanent home, wandering from place to place and encountering new characters and situations in each episode (much like, say, The Fugitive), this is a perfect setup – the man who wanders, knowing all the while that no matter how long he remains in one place he will never truly "belong," he will never have a real home.

Beestguy refers to the “sense of misplaced southern martyrdom” present in The Rebel. One might be able to make this case more strongly had it been clearly established that slavery was an integral part of Yuma’s decision, but by his own admission the author can’t demonstrate that. We’re left, therefore, with the hypothesis that it was Yuma’s existential struggle, reflecting Adams’ own struggle in Hollywood, that becomes his motivation, with slavery either an afterthought or something that doesn’t even enter the equation. Preposterous? Perhaps, unless you don’t take the time to put everything in context, to realize the many dynamics in play at the start of the Civil War – dynamics that, as we’ve seen, extend to the very beginning of American history.

One of the problems we have today, a problem I’ve pointed out many times in this forum, is our determination to apply the morals and values of today to events from yesterday, without consideration of situational context - the hermeneutics of television, if you will. A case in point is Beestguy’s comment that “besides portraying the defeated South as somehow deserving of pity, the series whitewashes their role in fighting for slavery.” Here we see another example of painting with a broad brush. Not only is there no reason to attribute the same motives to all Southerners, to all who fought for the Confederacy, we can see that it’s historically inaccurate. Certainly there were cases where politicians and other public leaders used the issue of states’ rights as a cover for their support of slavery.* But remember who we’re talking about – politicians! Obfuscation is a prerequisite for the position. I think we can find just as many instances where the issue of states’ rights spoke honestly to the fears of Southerners – people like Patrick Henry, who knew that the usurpation by the federal government of the individual rights of a state was a slippery slope. Indeed, it’s an issue that we see constantly in today’s politics.

*I think you also have to create a distinction between slavery and racism. It depends on your definition of racism: whether you attribute it to a belief in a fundamental difference between the two races, whether you extend that to belief in a native superiority of whites over blacks, or if you have an innate fear – a phobia, we would call it today – of other races. The existence of humane slaveowners may or may not be a myth, but to the extent that we associate ownership of slaves with brutality, exploitation, and abuse, and then link this to the all-encompassing issue of “racism,” we cannot say that all slaveowners were racists, any more than we could assert that all racists are slaveowners. The existence of racists in the North, people who supported the Union against the Confederacy but opposed Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, should alone be proof of that.  

As his discussion of the series winds down, Beestguy concludes with what I truly consider a questionable statement. Referring to the episode “The Hope Chest,” he cites the “inexplicable” line Yuma utters in response to an old man’s offer of $200 if Yuma will marry his daughter. Declining the offer, Yuma remarks, "I just don't think anybody has the right to sell a human life." This line, says Beestguy, is “Spoken like a page from the Confederate apologist's playbook: the Civil War was not fought over the issue of slavery. Denial couldn't be painted in any starker terms.”

Perhaps I’m guilty of denial then, in full or in part. Once again, there is no evidence that slavery was the only cause of the Civil War. There is no evidence that Yuma was a slavery sympathizer. If anything, there is more evidence to suggest that Yuma had other, more personal, reasons for joining the Confederacy. If that’s the case, then why would he see any irony in what he says? Is there ever a moment in the series when Yuma asserts the justness of slavery, or supports the South’s right to own slaves? I don’t think so. We have to get away from the idea that when it comes to the Civil War, racism and slavery are all-consuming. Not only is that not the case, it becomes a somewhat self-centered way of thinking, the historical equivalent of the “it’s all about me” school of thought. History is a subtle mistress, and woe be to those who fail, willingly or unwillingly, to see her intricacies.

The fact that The Rebel doesn't deal with some of these questions - or, in fact, with any of them - doesn't mean the questions don't exist. It means that they are superfluous to the motivations of the characters, at least as they're projected on screen. It also means, in all likelihood, the network, the producers, or both, could have been well aware that the nation's viewers weren't ready to confront them within the framework of a half-hour drama. This isn't The Defenders, after all.* As a matter of fact, I think this is a point that probably deserves far more attention than I'm giving it, but in the end it comes back to context, whether that means when the series occurred, or when it was aired.

*In fact, even The Defenders wasn't The Defenders yet; it didn't come on the air until 1961, the year The Rebel went off.

Maybe I have come to understand this more clearly since I’ve moved to Texas. I’ve seen many of the values which I once associated with America either disappear or become a point of contentiousness. I’ve seen the federal government become more omnipresent in the lives of Americans, and at the same time more distant in terms of the average citizen’s ability to interact with it. Over the years, I’ve come to think as many Texans do, that I’m a Texan first, an American second. That doesn’t mean I’m not an American, but my state has pride of place. Does this mean I’d take up arms against the United States? In the abstract, I don’t think that’s a question that needs to be answered. But it does mean that your birthright, your family, your people – they all remain powerful motivators of human behavior, both now and then. To make such an association between slavery and the Civil War, to use it as a motivation of the character and the actor, to pick away at the contradictions with modern sensibilities rather than those of the time – well, it’s all a misreading at best, facile at worst.

I hope that you, dear readers, understand me well enough by now to appreciate that I am neither a racist nor a sympathizer of slavery. I trust that I don’t have to prove this to you, but I will mention again that, logically speaking, A does not yield B, except in arrogance.  All living people are human beings, born of the same dignity, the same worth, with the same rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Period, end of statement. If slavery is America’s original sin, then the Civil War is her existential struggle for understanding, for what it means to be a collection of quasi-sovereign states existing within a central government.  We should not be surprised that this struggle can come to light through a television series, for even though the examples can seem few and far between, there is enough evidence of it that we do television a disservice to think it capable of nothing other than a simplistic worldview. If we write about classic TV, we should give it more credit than that.

June 20, 2016

What's on TV? Wednesday, June 24, 1959

For this week, I thought we'd take a look at Wednesday's listings. (We're in Dallas-Fort Worth, by the way.) We haven't done a Wednesday lately, and unless there's something outstanding that causes me to choose a particular day, I like to change them up, provide a bit of variety, especially if we've been travelling in the same year or two.

This week we've advanced a bit in the late '50s - we're up to 1959, and although we may not see it here, I think we're entering an era where television starts to get a little more sophisticated, the technical aspects a tad more sophisticated. Not when we compare it to the '70s, of course, or even the late '60s, but progress is being made nonetheless. Let's see what kind of shows stand out.

June 18, 2016

This week in TV Guide: June 20, 1959

When last we heard from Robert Young, the year was 1958 and Young was riding high as America's Father Figure, the star of the popular Father Knows Best. Back then, Young was in great demand, as writer Dan Jenkins noted:

[T]he show has received requests from 22 organizations for personal appearances: a New York life insurance company (Jim Anderson, Young's character, is an insurance salesman), the U.S. Army Recruiting Services (Young and co-star Jane Wyatt appeared on the Army float in the 1958 Rose Parade), the National Safety Council (Young views his work for them as a year-around job), and the Mount Sinai Hospital and Clinic (recognizing Young as Father of the Year, "a title twice bestowed upon him by the National Father's Day Committee), among others.  The show, winner of three past Emmys, is seen in 21 countries, and is a smash in Australia.

Well, come a year later, little has changed for Young, who has just returned from a trip to Toronto, where he addressed the Canadian Highway Safety Conference on the media's role in traffic safety. It's one of the effects of television's ability to bring stars right into the living room, where they're virtually a part of the family. "There is a tremendous difference in the public's attitude," Young says. "In the movies they were either overawed and silent, or they wanted to claw you. In TV they regard you as a known friend and are not hesitant in stepping right up to engage in conversation." Young is up to around 1,000 requests a year from bona fide organizations, most of which he has to decline - if he accepted even a fraction of them, there's be no time for the television show.

And this brings up something else that Young has noticed, something that's taken a bit of getting used to. "At first, when I began to realize how seriously people took me in Father Knows Best, I was badly frightened. Understandably perhaps, I began to think the character was me. My wife finally brought things into focus. She advised me to know who I was and who Jim Anderson was and not to confuse the two." Added to this, Young is by nature an introvert, who is now finding himself pushed into all kinds of situations outside of acting, situations that nobody could have foreseen. "They may be suited to extroverted Jim Anderson but they are not necessarily suited to me. I am inherently shy. I don't move easily in a crown. So I had to do some serious work on myself in order to meet the requirements of what was expected."

Reading this can cause one to ponder how the stars of today react to such attention. Some of them, of course, will loudly proclaim that they are not role models and shouldn't be taken as such. Some will become mysterious recluses, seldom seen in public and somewhat surly about it when they are. Others will use their celebrity in order to pursue political agendas, going even so far as to appear in front of Congressional committees to testify as "expert witnesses," based either on their familiarity in general or on authority derived from the television roles they've played. Raymond Burr did a lot of the latter, addressing bar association conventions because of his familiarity to the public as Perry Mason.

However, if there is a difference between then and now, it may be because Burr's appearances, for example, were often designed to communicate to groups of attorneys how they were perceived by the public, the kinds of responsibilities inherent in being a lawyer and maintaining the public trust, things like that. I may be wrong, but I don't know that Burr ever went to a group and lobbied for the Miranda warning. Have times changed as much as they would seem - have movie and television stars entered a different dimension when it comes to how they exploit their celebrity? And do we see them in the same light? I know that fanmags, with their constant references to stars by their first names or nicknames, add to the delusion that we actually know these people, but in general do we still find stars as approachable, as much a part of the family as they were when they first entered our living rooms? Or have we become too cynical for that nowadays?

◊ ◊ ◊

On Friday, President Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth II are in Montreal for the ceremonies commemorating the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, a joint venture between the United States and Canada that started in 1954. CBS and ABC are on hand to present live coverage beginning at 9:00 am CT, while NBC has taped coverage later in the day. The Canadian Broadcasting Company provides the video for all three networks.

The Seaway runs from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, on the Atlantic Ocean, all the way through the Great Lakes and to Duluth. As I recall from my grade school history, the early explorers searched for an opening that would run the length of the continent, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, but of course they never found it, and eventually they'd have to settle for the Panama Canal.

I've no doubt a project like this would garner a fair share of attention from the news channels today, but the networks? Someone once asked me why I was interested in the '50s and '60s; I gave several reasons, but one of them was that it was a time when we still had the capacity to be awed by technology and human achievement.* The Empire State Building. Boulder Dam. The Houston Astrodome. The 1964 World's Fair. Today? Meh. That's what cynicism does to you.

*From anyone other than Apple, that is.

◊ ◊ ◊

Saturday night it's the 21st Mrs. America Pageant, coming to us from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This article details the colorful history of the pageant, including its journey from a "cheesecake" contest (Miss America for married women) to its current status as an event "celebrating the homemaker." The customary trappings of a beauty pageant would be replaced by "contests of household skills like ironing, cooking, baking, sewing, and cleaning," Now, I'm sure that these qualities are vital when it comes to homemaking, but I don't know that contests like this make for the most riveting television.

Mrs. Clark Priebe, Mrs. America 1960
The pageant, which began in 1938, petered out in the late '60s, only to be revived in the late '70s, with its purpose “to recognize the single most discriminated against person in the history of international beauty competition: the married woman.” However, what with the need for marketing and promotion and whatnot, the pageant has returned to something more like a conventional beauty contest; as a spokesman once pointed out, "you can be beautiful and still be married," and a look at previous winners indeed confirms no shortage of pulchritude. The pageant continues happily to this day from its home in Las Vegas (natch), with this year's show scheduled for August 27.

The winner of the June 20, 1959 pageant - Mrs. America for 1960 - is Margaret Priebe of Iowa. Here's a story on the trials and tribulations of being Mrs. America.

◊ ◊ ◊

In a somewhat related note, on Wednesday The Donna Reed Show (9:00 CT, ABC) portrays the difficulty a mother has when she tries to do it all. Here's Donna's dilemma: "Dr. Stone is scheduled to read a paper before the medical society and says it's important that Donna be present. But on the same night Jeff wants his mother to watch him play basketball and Mary is about to be initiated into a girl's club." I have no doubt Donna makes the right decisions, but in these days when the debate continues about whether or not a woman can "have it all," can you imagine how much more complicated Donna's situation would have been if she had to satisfy an outside boss as well? I wonder if Margaret Priebe ever had to deal with situations like this?

◊ ◊ ◊

The television tube is joining the ranks of the squares. It's the first change in the basic tube size for almost 10 years, and it's such a big deal some manufacturers are even scrapping their plans for next year's models in order to conform to the new shape.

If you're familiar with the changing shapes of the TV Guide logo over the years, you'll know what this looks like - "square corners, straighter sides and top, flatter screen surface, much closer to a perfect rectangle." In the case of a 21-inch tube, this amounts to an extra 20-square inches of viewing surface. Because of the change, this will now be known as a 23-inch tube.


And yet, even though it's billed as close to a "perfect rectangle," anyone who's watched classic TV from the '60s and '70s on DVD knows this isn't quite the case, for on occasion you can still see a little bit of black creep into the corners on a given shot - not at all visible on TV sets of the era, but a charming reminder today of the advancements that have been made since then.


◊ ◊ ◊

In the front of the programming section (the "News and Notes" part of the issue), a couple of reminders that we still live in an era where ad agencies call many of the programming shots. For one thing, the job of Head of Programming for CBS is up for grabs. The pay is $70,000 per year, more than what I make today, and I'd guess there are probably a few fringe benefits in addition. And yet, no luck filling it so far, even though the job has been offered to top TV execs at three ad agencies. Why? "Although the CBS spot pays well in prestige the salary plus possible stock options are considerably under what the ad agencies can afford to pay in salary and bonus." The position has also been offered to the legendary Pat Weaver, former president of NBC and currently a consultant to several sponsors. He'll turn it down as well, probably for the same reason.

If I seem to mention the Quiz Show Scandals frequently, it's only because they pop up so frequently in the TV Guides of this era. Right now, a grand jury is looking into the matter, and the presiding judge, Mitchell D. Schweitzer, has ordered it impounded, saying the jury has gone into areas they're not allowed to pursue. Specifically, "they have inquired into so-called fraud, but no crimes have been found to be committed and there are no public officials involved." As it stands, Judge Schweitzer won't make the report public so as not to smear the reputations of those mentioned in it, and challenges the district attorney "to show legal reason why I cannot do what I have done."

Also, we have another piece of evidence as to how television has changed from its early days. The amount of prime-time programming devoted to filmed shows, as opposed to those broadcast live, now nears 70%, with about $170 million worth of programming to be filmed between now and next May.

◊ ◊ ◊

Finally, we have a pictorial (sadly, not in color) of the painfully young-looking Inger Stevens, all of 24 years old, spending some time at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in preparation for her role as a nurse in an episode of Playhouse 90. This type of research by actors isn't unheard-of, but some of these pictures make me wonder just how much of her work was genuine, and how much was merely for the camera. I rather doubt that the photo to the right, in which nurse Stevens is "ignoring the approving stares of two passing doctors," was a candid one, though I have no doubt things like that actually happen.

However, the atmosphere of picture below encourages me to think it was taken in an unguarded moment. I realize this might be a pipe dream, but it captures Inger in a moment of reflection, when her youth is most winsome and vulnerable - she could indeed be a student nurse - as well as the beauty that is said to be most apparent when a woman is not aware she is being looked at.


Seems to me this is as good a note as any to end on, don't you think?

June 15, 2016

The charm of "Monsterpiece Theatre"

I'm in an expansive, even whimsical, mood today, so let's put aside the serious subjects today and look at something really important, one of the most charming of the regular features on Sesame Street: "Monsterpiece Theatre."

Regardless of what you might think about the educational merits of Sesame Street, one of the strengths of the longtime children's series has been its ability to deal in humor that appeals to children and adults alike, often on two completely different levels. "Monsterpiece Theatre," introduced by "Alistair Cookie" (Cookie Monster), is one of the best examples of this. It's obviously a parody of Masterpiece Theatre, right down to the meticulously detailed opening sequence (including pictures from previous "Monsterpiece" episodes, and spines of books adapted for the show, such as "The 39 Stairs."*)

*A parody, of course, on John Buchan's famous thriller The 39 Steps.

This segment spoofs Spading Gray's "Monster in a Box." The title is the same, but the story is much different.


As usual, the introduction by Cookie Monster is very funny, particularly his perpetual problem with pronouns. "Me digress," he says at one point, though I doubt children would know what the word "digress" means.I particularly appreciate his sly throwaway comment when, referring to how the story is written by Spalding Monster and stars Spalding Monster, he remarks "No ego problem there."* It also features something that, to the best of my knowledge, never happened with Alistair Cooke on the original, when Cookie Monster becomes directly involved with the story, as he has to show the dimwitted Spalding what "inside" means. A bit of a thin plot, though.

*Lest this be seen as a shot at Spalding Gray, I had the opportunity to see him in person once, at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, when he was performing "Gray's Anatomy." It was terrific, as were most of his other monologues.

What would "Monsterpiece Theatre" be without the most famous of the Masterpiece Theatre plays, though? Here's the appropriately-named "Me Claudius," (a "classy drama") complete with new opening credits.


I can guarantee you no child is going to get those opening titles. I also have to think that the writer of this scene saw Spartacus at one point, don't you? (I don't think I ever saw Alistair Cooke eat his pipe after the broadcast.)

Here's a brilliant take on "Waiting for Godot," called "Waiting for Elmo," a "contemporary classic," which means nobody can understand it, "Not even Alistair." After the absurdist drama plays out, Cookie astutely comments, "That deep, deep stuff,"


Finally, what would any classy show be without the touching and heartwarming "Conversations With My Father"? After all, the only thing better than one Cookie Monster is two Cookie Monsters.


There are other funny take-offs out there, of everything from "West Side Story" to "Lethal Weapon." As I mentioned, you can argue about whether or not Sesame Street has done a good job of educational television. However, there's no doubt that skits like this show how the program has always had the knack of appealing to adults without contaminating, if you will, the effect it has on kids. As evidence, I'll leave you with a non-Cookie Monster skit, the famous Ernie & Bert bit about "Bert's Brother Bart." Unless you have a very precocious child, I don't think he'll get that "I'm aghast" joke.

June 13, 2016

What's on TV? Thursday, June 14, 1956

In his heyday, Johnny Carson used to compose ridiculous captions and stories to go along with old black-and-white photographs. This week, I find myself in a similar mood, so I've taken some of the more interesting TV Guide program descriptions, and (as Paul Harvey would say) given you "the rest of the story." If you've got some better ones, and I'm sure you do, feel free to chime in.

By the way, this week's listings are from Dallas-Fort Worth.

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.

◊ ◊ ◊

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.

◊ ◊ ◊

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.

◊ ◊ ◊

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!

June 10, 2016

Around the dial

The Broadcasting Archives at the University of Maryland links to this article about the man who saved Monty Python from being erased. Whenever I see stories like this, I'm aware of just how fragile so much of our classic TV heritage is, and why it's important to preserve what we do have.

As bare-bones e-zine continues with the Hitchcock Project, I had to struggle for a moment to recall the episode entitled "The Crocodile Case," but as soon as I started reading, it came back to me. A clever, entertaining episode, with a great twist at the end.

A new addition to the Classic TV Blog Association is Reelweegiemidget, with a question that's fun whether you're talking about television or movies: recasting roles made famous by other actors. In this case, who would you cast as Indiana Jones?

Another week, another British detective series unfamiliar to me until now. However, thanks to British TV Detectives, we can read about Death in Paradise, the comedy-drama that has aired on BBC One since 2011.

Cult TV returns to his analysis of the first season of The Avengers with a review of "Crescent Moon." I was trying to remember whether or not this was one of the handful of episodes available on the DVD set of The Avengers, but fortunately I quickly found out hardly any of it still exists - and what does exist isn't particularly satisfying.

I will be honest here and tell you that B.J. and the Bear was not a series I watched when it was on, and I've seldom given it much thought. That doesn't mean I can't appreciate Some Polish American Guy's look at the second season episode "Pogo Lil." It's certainly the week for great episode recaps, isn't it?

Joanna at Christmas TV History is calling for submissions for her annual Christmas in July roundup. This year, it's a questionnaire that anyone can answer, so there's no excuse for you not to join in the fun. I dropped the ball on this last year, but not this time!

At Television Obscurities it's a look at one of those comic book TV-tie ins - this one for the short-lived relevant lawyer series The Young Lawyers, which aired on ABC in 1970. It wasn't one of Lee J. Cobb's more distinguished moments in showbiz.

Finally, from The Ringer, another article that doesn't deal specifically with classic TV programs, but which I find quite relevant.  It's Chuck Klosterman's essay on "The Future of Television," and one of the questions he asks is this: Which American TV programs — if watched by a curious person in a distant future — would latently represent how day-to-day American society actually was? Klosterman says it's "the kind of question even people who think about television for a living don’t think about very often," but in fact it's the question that's driven me since the start of this blog.

Enough for now - see you again tomorrow!