January 27, 2018

This week in TV Guide: January 31, 1959

I don't usually write about purely local events, let alone lead off with them, but this is an unusual week; we're interested in just a few specific shows, and most of our attention goes to things philosophic rather than the content on the tube, so there's no reason why we shouldn't start with a look at the big event in the Twin Cities: the St. Paul Winter Carnival.

1959 marks the 73rd edition of the great winter celebration, and even if you're not one for enjoying cold weather, you'll be able to stay in touch with the week-long excitement. It all starts at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday with the Winter Carnival Parade, covered on all four Twin Cities channels. (The listings even give the locations from which each station will be broadcasting.) The parade begins at the State Capitol and runs for two hours and 1.3 miles before ending at the St. Paul Auditorium, with 60 bands and 35 floats.* There are stars aplenty as well, including Jimmy Dean, Ronnie Burns (son of George), Arnold Stang, and George Montgomery.

*In the post-WWII period, over 250,000 lined the streets to watch the parade.

Jimmy's doing his CBS morning variety show from the Carnival all week; he'll be broadcasting from the Auditorium Tuesday and Friday, the skating plaza on Wednesday, and the toboggan slides on Thursday. The future sausage king isn't the only one who's brought his cameras to St. Paul, though: on Saturday following the parade, George Montgomery stops in to visit the teens on KSTP's Hi-Five Time (4:30 p.m.), and Wednesday, ABC's Wednesday Night Fights comes to you live from the Auditorium, as local favorite Del Flanagan takes on Ralph Dupas in a welterweight bout, with Carnival dignitaries taking part in the pre-fight ceremonies. One of the big events of the Carnival is the crowning of the Carnival Queen of the Snows, and KMSP's matinee movie hostess Mary Jo Tierney will be interviewing the candidates during the movie intermissions Monday and Tuesday. There won't be live coverage of the actual pageant and crowning, but the winner will be making the rounds of the local shows for the rest of the week.

As you can tell if you followed the link above, the St. Paul Winter Carnival continues to this day - this year the dates have been altered to coincide with the Super Bowl festival. Television stars aren't sent by sponsors to be part of the festivities, and in fact I'm not sure how much attention local TV even pays to it anymore. But there are concerts, ice sculpture contests, a triathlon and a parade; and even as we speak, the giant ice castle is under construction. In fact, it's kind of like television itself; it may have changed over the years, but it's still alive and kicking.

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What's Erle Stanley Gardner have to say about television? Since it's featured on the cover, we'd better take a look.

Not surprisingly considering the existence of a TV series based on Gardner's most famous literary character, the author of Perry Mason is positive about the medium. Right off the bat Gardner concedes television is a factor in juvenile delinquency - just one factor, though. "I think that where impressionable young people see violence on television, when they see wrongs being righted by means of the blazing six gun, they are tremendously impressed."

That's only 1% of America's young people, though; what about the other 99%? According to Gardner, these same forces "are at work today producing an overwhelming majority of outstanding young individuals who are the best weapons democracy has in its arsenal." For them, television serves as "a stimulant to constructive imagination," learning everything from analytical thinking to problem solving. As an example, he tells the story of a nine-year-old who recently submitted a script for a Perry Mason episode; while it reflected what Gardner calls "a juvenile turn of mind," it also indicated a remarkable understanding of plotting a complicated mystery show. "The swing and rhythm of plot development were there, the clue sequence, the motivation." It was so impressive that Gardner's publisher decided to put the script in print. "That couldn't have happened before the days of television," Gardner writes, and not just because television scripts didn't exist. "It couldn't have happened because a nine-year-old child wouldn't have developed that amount of constructive imagination."

Science, astronomy, even the field of law: all will be major beneficiaries of the constructive imagination developed as a result of television. "We learn as we are interested," Gardner writes. "The individual who watches a mystery story unfolding on television and is pitting his wits against those of the detective, is engaged in study." Great scientific discoveries, the understanding of the very solar system, come "because of detective ability, a shrewd reasoning from clues." Concludes Gardner, "[I]f anyone doesn't think this person is learning at a great pace, let him talk with some of the youthful fans who watch the mystery television shows today."

I have a great deal of respect for Gardner's analysis; television served much that function in my own youth. I think even today's television can provide the stimulation needed to develop the imagination, to teach the young to think outside the box, to give them knowledge about various aspects of history, science, and culture. It may not do it as well as it used to, but we should never underestimate the power of television to provide such stimulus - nor should we be afraid to use it more often.

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One of Ed Sullivan's first great on-air challenges came from Steve Allen, who left Tonight to take over an NBC variety show which, at the beginning, aired opposite Ed. It didn't run as long as Ed's, of course, but then Allen said his goal was never to conquer Ed, but to coexist with him, which he did for three seasons. Let's see who gets the best of the contest this week.

Sullivan: Ed presents a filmed repeat of his show of June 29, 1958 when the entire program was devoted to a performance by the Moiseyev Dance Company.

Allen: Steve's guests are comedienne Martha Raye, magician Mr. Ballantine, singer Danny Staton, and jazz musicians Eddie Condon, Woody Herman and Gerry Mulligan.

It's a special Sullivan show this week, an entire hour with the famed Russian dance troupe during last year's historic tour of the United States, the first cultural offering by the Soviet Union in an exchange program with the U.S. I like Russian dancing, and ordinarily I'd say that this would be good enough to carry the week. On the other hand, Steverino has a top-flight show of his own, and Condon, Herman and Mulligan - not just jazz musicians, but greats (with Allen probably joining in) - is very, very hard to beat. Too hard, I'm afraid; for the second week running, it's Heigh-Ho Steverino.

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It isn't often that we have one television show that was the subject of a book, but such is the case this week, with Sunday afternoon's Omnibus broadcast of "Abraham Lincoln: The Early Years." (4:00 p.m., NBC) The story of this program actually goes back to 1952, the inaugural season of Omnibus, and a series of five films entitled "Mr. Lincoln," written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Agee and directed by the renowned Norman Lloyd. The series was a huge success; one critic called it "the most beautiful writing ever done for television," and another classifies it as "among the finest - perhaps the finest - film about Abraham Lincoln ever made."But as William Hughes' book James Agee, Omnibus, and Mr. Lincoln: The Culture of Liberalism and the Challenge of Television 1952-1953 details, Agee's presentation of Lincoln and the Civil War is not simply a presentation of history; rather, it is an interpretation that was heavily influenced by the times, in particular the Cold War, not to mention Agee's strong personal identification with Lincoln.

As just one example. Hughes examines Agee's treatment of the alleged romance between Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, one of the pivotal stories in the series.. As Agee's Lincoln embarks on his political career, serving in the Illinois legislature, he grows ambivalent about his relationship with Rutledge; in one of their final meetings he "asserts his need for independence," According to Agee, Lincoln has begun to "realize the size of his vocation and the size of his responsibility toward it." In other words, as Hughes puts it, "The gifted must give priority to their gifts," and Lincoln realizes he must "redirect his misplaced love for Ann back onto the people he would serve."*

*As Hughes points out, "Given the writer's powerful identification with his hero, and the conflict between love and vocation in his own life, Agee's reworking of the Ann Rutledge story was a projection that owed as much to his personal story as to Lincoln's."

On the other hand, writes Hughes, the culture of Cold War liberals, prevalent particularly in the TV-Radio Workshop of the Ford Foundation, the underwriter of Omnibus, "were wary of the masses, with their immaturity, their volatility, and their potential susceptibility to totalitarianism," and Agee himself was scornful of what he called "common-man sentimentalists." How to reconcile this attitude with Lincoln's seeming self-sacrifice in order to serve those very people, whom Lincoln calls his "one great concern" and "his surest support"? It can be done only by looking at the environment in existence during the Cold War, and the vision of the heroic leader, the single-combat warrior. It is, after all, a distinctly American tendency, to elevate a single individual to the heights of national savior, the "Leader of the Free World," whether it be Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, or John F. Kennedy.

Lincoln, therefore, serves as a surrogate for this necessary Cold War leader, and in seeing his growth from small town lawyer in New Salem to something more, Lincoln's words - or, rather, Agee's, since we don't really know how accurate they are - suggest the need for the public to understand the role they must play, that "the common people are capable of collective wisdom, but only when they recognize, nurture, and stand by those uncommonly gifted individuals who emerge in their midst." Perhaps we aren't meant to be moved by Lincoln's words about those who supported him during his formative years, but instead we congratulate those people for realizing Lincoln's nascent greatness and doing what is necessary to nurture it for future greatness. Whew.

What we see this Sunday is a segment of "Mr. Lincoln" entitled "The Early Years," with Royal Dano (St. Peter in King of Kings) as Lincoln and the young Joanne Woodward as Ann Rutledge, narrated by Martin Gabel, which presumably deals heavily with this relationship. Agee's portrayal was controversial even at the time, (host Alistair Cooke read one letter from a viewer that chastised Agee for treating the relationship "as gospel rather than gossip."* In a 1953 episode of Omnibus, Cooke broaches the subject in a debate between Agee (who died in 1955) and Civil War historian Allen Nevins, who said of Agee's characterization of the Lincoln-Rutledge relationship, "Our count against him is simply this: That he has tampered with the truth."

*Of course, we can guess that Agee's real purpose was to use the relationship as a metaphor for his view on Cold War leadership.

In addition to the book, the movie-length, condensed edit of Agee's film is now available on DVD, with one of the extras being the Omnibus debate between Agee and Nevins. As an example of how television's storytelling fits into the large picture of the political, economic, and cultural forces of the time*, this is incomparable.

*On Sunday alone, the topic on Religious Town Hall is "Democracy," and that afternoon Channel 5 has a special called For God and Country, produced by the American Legion.

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You might remember that in last week's TV Guide we read about "The Lost Class of '59," which detailed the controversy around school desegregation in Norfolk, Virginia. This week the focus is on the Second Agony of Atlanta (Sunday, 5:00 p.m., NBC), and a strange law that mandates that if one school desegregates, all public schools in the city must be closed. Now, I've never heard of a law like that, but again, consider the times. Now, however, the people of Atlanta are faced with the choice between integrating and closing the schools. It's appropriate in some ways that this is following Omnibus, because this is the Civil War in practical terms. On the one hand you've got people looking at the Federal government coming in and overturning the laws they've made, the way of life they've lived; on the other, you've got people being discriminated against, feeling as if their own government sees them as the enemy, wondering if anyone will come and rescue them. Setting aside the human element of it for a moment, it strikes at the fundamental question regarding the founding of the United States: who has the power? Under whose rules do the citizens live? Who has the last word? Of course, it's the very human element that makes it all tragic.

This is one reason why by 1959 the relevance of "Mr. Lincoln" is not limited simply to the Cold War. As the debate around civil rights grows, as the Federal government takes a more active role in school desegregation (remember, Brown v. Board occurs only two years after the initial airing of "Mr. Lincoln), the idea of a prophet-leader such as found in Agee's vision of Lincoln takes on even greater social significance. Critics blame Richard Nixon for the creation of the "Imperial Presidency," but I wonder if the hagiography surrounding the life of Lincoln, playing off the larger-than-life presidency of FDR, doesn't have something to do with it as well.

Edward R. Murrow was the host of that Norfolk special; this week, back on Person to Person (Friday, 9:30 p.m, CBS), Murrow has one of the oddest combinations one could ever ask for: "Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and artist-illustrator Norman Rockwell." The anti-American and the all-American. Not at the same time, of course; that's not the way Person to Person worked, although it's interesting to think of Rockwell sketching an illustration of Castro during the show. Who could have imagined that in the next decade, Castro's Cuba would be the cause of a near-war and implicated in a presidential assassination, while Rockwell would be seen as the chronicler of an America that was old-fashioned and out of touch, one that had ceased to exist.

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"Television Diary," something of a predecessor to The Doan Report, tells us of a spat between, of all people, John Frankenheimer and Art Linkletter. Seems that one of the kids from the Linkletter show wandered on the set of a Playhouse 90 that Frankenheimer was working on, and the director chased him off. Linkletter responded, on-air, that Frankenheimer was "a young genius who takes himself too seriously," who which Frankenheimer replied that Linkletter is "one of the outstanding examples of TV's rush toward mediocrity." The "brickbats," apparently, are still flying. I've always enjoyed Frankenheimer's work, but judging from the defensiveness of his overheated retort, it sounds as if he does indeed take himself a bit too seriously.

And speaking of Playhouse 90, one of the last of the great dramatic anthology series, faces the ax at the end of the season. Finally Hubbell Robinson, speaking for CBS, says that the series will return for the 1959-60 season, but perhaps on a reduced schedule. In fact, the coming season will be the fourth and final for the series, and when it comes to an end so will an era. For now, though, this week's Playhouse 90 ("Child of Our Time") is up against NBC's Hallmark Hall of Fame (Thursday, 8:30 p.m.) presentation of "Berkeley Square," based on the Broadway play and movie of the same name, starring John Kerr and Jeannie Carson; and "introducing" Janet Munro - who appeared in the MST3K fave "The Crawling Eye" and was once married to Ian Hendry, an early partner of Patrick Macnee's John Steed in The Avengers.

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Finally, in the "Late and Exclusive" section, a report that George Burns is doing his show live for the next four weeks, apparently to get over with his contractual commitment to doing six live shows for the season. The report adds that Burns "was 63 years old last Jan. 17." Could they have known then that Burns' career hasn't even reached its high point yet, and that he'll go on performing for another 37 years?  TV  

4 comments:

  1. A friend was on the crew of one of Frankenheimer's later projects, and his recollections gave me the impression that the great man did take himself awful seriously. In his Archive of American Television interview Frankenheimer doesn't seem that warm, like it's a chore, and at points I half-expected him to be short with the interviewer. Maybe it was just the way he seemed, but while I love Frankenheimer's work I get the impression I wouldn't have liked meeting him.

    One request, as the quiz show scandal is a favorite subject of mine: what was the use for old isolation booths promised on the cover?

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    1. Jodie, ABC had two from "Who Do You Trust?" and they're being used as a dollhouse and a swimming pool dressing room. Some people had wanted to use them for a treehouse, a shelter for pier watchmen, a closet, and a telephone booth. As it turned out, they were too big to fit through a standard door, and too heavy (200 lbs.) to rest in the tree.

      TV Jibe suggested they could also be used as ice fishing houses, a time-out room for little brother, a den for the man of the house wanting to get away from the women, a bomb shelter to protect husbands from angry wives, a floating crap game, and a soundproof room for husbands who snore!

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  2. A Couple of Things:

    - Since Steve Allen's listing doesn't mention it, perhaps you don't know (or have forgotten) that The Amazing Mr. Ballantine is in fact Carl Ballantine, later of McHale's Navy and innumerable sitcom guest shots, one if the great Hollywood characters (see Mark Evanier's blog News From ME), and perhaps the only man of his generation who named both of his daughters after race tracks.

    - Edward R. Murrow was famed for his eclectic choice of subjects for Person To Person; in the last issue you wrote up here (from two weeks before), Murrow's announced subjects were Mr. and Mrs. Tony Randall, the latter well-known as the most publicity-shy spouse in show business. Getting Florence Randall to appear was probably tougher than getting Castro.
    The common line always was that Murrow was sort of ashamed of Person To Person, "... the show I have to do (in order to do) the show I want to do ...", but I've always had the impression that on a basic level he actually enjoyed it. His news friends always said differently, but it's always possible to have several sets of friends ...

    - I may have mentioned this before, but the conventional wisdom of the time was that George Burns's career was entirely dependent on Gracie Allen; when she retired early in '58, all the "critics' said that George was all but finished.
    George never really "went away", but his "comeback" didn't happen for about a decade; after "Sunshine Boys", many of his detractors switched sides in an unseemly hurry.

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    1. Tony and Florence are back together...I wonder what she thinks of his remarrying after her death and having kids in his 70's?

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!