February 3, 2018

This week in TV Guide: February 7, 1959

Sometimes you just have to play with the hand you're dealt. It was never my plan to do three consecutive issues from 1959; they just happened to be the ones that best fit the calendar. And you know what they say about making lemonade - except none of these issues have been lemons.

For example, NBC's Kaleidoscope, at 4:00 p.m. Sunday afternoon. It's hosted by Charles Van Doren, during the period of time before he was swallowed up by the Quiz Show Scandals, and it reminds me of Omnibus, another Sunday afternoon program on NBC, with topics that ranged from Communist East Germany to atomic energy to the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, and commentators that included David Brinkley and Edwin Newman.

This week's episode is a drama, "The Third Commandment," written by Ben Hecht and starring Arthur Kennedy, Anne Francis, Fay Spain, Richard Erdman, John Hoyt, Simon Oakland, Regis Toomey, and Jack Weston - familiar names all to classic TV viewers. The play's subject matter is a provocative one, centering on the Third Commandment, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord Thy God in vain." Kennedy plays Jim Mundy, an "embittered young writer" so determined to achieve material success that he ignores his conscience and abandons his principles. Hecht wrote the play for television; according to The Great American Playwrights on the Screen, it was a pilot for a proposed series on the Ten Commandments.

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
A thought before we move on: NBC, at this point in television history, had a remarkable record for offering high-class programs. In addition to Kaleidoscope and Omnibus, there was NBC Opera Theatre, Hallmark Hall of Fame, Bell Telephone Hour, and specials such as Astaire Time, which we'll get to later. These weren't attempts to be highbrow, either; they were middlebrow programs designed to appeal to viewers who might not otherwise be exposed to quality drama and music. (The operas on NBC Opera Theatre, for example, were all translated into English.)

One of the many unfortunate consequences of network television's shift to all-sports or all-informercial weekend afternoons is the loss of programming like this. It's true that a lot of these shows were not ratings bonanzas; that's why the networks stuck so many of them on Sunday afternoons, where they wouldn't do much damage to the ratings. But at least they were there, where people who wanted to see them could find them.

How did we get from there to here, from the classics to a network that has been variously labeled as the "Nothing But Coitus" or "Nothing But Crap" network? I know, I know - times change.

◊ ◊ ◊

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's guests are actor Richard Boone, actress Nancy Kelly, singer Frankie Laine, singer-actress Miyoshi Umeki, comedians Jan Murray and Wally Griffin, comedienne Trude Adams, singer Johnny Cash and the dancers from the Broadway musical "Jamaica."

Allen: Steve's guests are Liberace, singer Steve Lawrence and teh U.S. Army Chorus, actress Marie McDonald, and comedian Dayton Allen. Steve interviews mythical ex-celebrities, played by Don Knotts, Tom Poston and Louis Nye.

It's not that Steve's show is so bad this week; Steve Lawrence, who's a private in the Army, has been doing shows with the Chorus since finishing basic training, and I suspect his interviews with regulars Knotts, Poston and Nye are pretty funny. But c'mon, let's get real: Richard Boone, Frankie Laine, Jan Murray and Johnny Cash - Johnny Cash! It's a case of quantity and quality over quality this week; Sullivan for the win.

◊ ◊ ◊

I mentioned Fred Astaire earlier; last October Fred had starred in a color special with his new partner Barrie Chase, winning tremendous critical and popular acclaim, not to mention nine Emmy Awards including Program of the Year and Best Performance by an Actor.

On Wednesday at 9:00 p.m., NBC repeats the special "by popular demand," and it's a testimonial not only to the brilliance of the show (and of Astaire and Chase), it's a reminder of what things were like before the VCR/DVR/on demand era. Back then when you missed a show you missed it, and there was no guarantee you'd ever get a chance to see it again - particularly if it was a special.

On the other hand, it's also an example of the great strides that television technology had already made. In the earlier days of TV, this would have been a live broadcast, and the only way to repeat it would be to do the show all over again. With the advent of video tape, you not only had the opportunity for an encore presentation, you could preserve the performance so that we could watch it on streaming video 60 years later.


◊ ◊ ◊

And now, let's take an annotated look at the rest of the week:

A look at Saturday's college basketball serves as a reminder of how the balance of power changes through the years. On NBC at 2:00 p.m., future NBA superstar Jerry "The Logo" West leads West Virginia against Holy Cross. West Virginia will make it all the way to the NCAA finals in 1959, where they'll lose to California 71-70. That night on ABC (6:30 p.m.), it's The Dick Clark Show; Dwight Whitney reports that two tobacco companies have been battling for sponsorship of Clark's show, with Lorillard finally winning out. Writes Whitney, "Clark's 52-week contract is reputed to be one of the fattest in recent years."

We've already taken a pretty good look at Sunday, but the most interesting thing left might be this ad for the famed Art Instruction, Inc.advertiser on many a matchbook cover and in magazines far and wide. Usually, it's "Draw Skippy!" or something like that, but this week, in honor of Lincoln's Birthday, it's Honest Abe himself! Art Instruction Schools, as it's called now, is still around, and its headquarters are still right here in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Its two most famous graduates are Minnesota native Charles M. Schulz and "Beetle Bailey" creator Mort Walker, who just died last week.

Monday's Lucy-Desi hour features the gang going to Alaska (9:00 p.m., CBS), where Ricky's band is scheduled to appear on Red Skelton's show in a celebration of Alaska's admission to the Union; it became the 49th state just a month ago, on January 3. It's always interesting watching programs from this era; when Jack Paar brings Tonight to Hawaii in 1960, he refers to flying over from the States, whereupon the audience's shouts remind him that Hawaii is now one of the states.

On Tuesday, it's an all-American night of music on the Bell Telephone Hour (7:00 p.m, NBC), with an all-American cast of singers and dancers, including Risë Stevens, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Martha Wright, and the New York City ballet. Elsewhere, Jonathan Winters is the guest of Arthur Godfrey (8:00 p.m., CBS), Bob Hope welcomes Danny Thomas, Maureen O'Hara and Carol Haney to his NBC special (8:30 p.m.), and Cloris Leachman tries to fight off a mysterious strangler on One Step Beyond (9:00 p.m., ABC)

Besides Fred Astaire, Wednesday has other shows of interest in store. Last week Abraham Lincoln was the focus of Omnibus; tonight, on the eve of his 150th birthday, it's Project 20 (7:30 p.m., NBC), which presents a half-hour pictorial essay on the last four years of his life, accompanied by words from Lincoln and the people who knew him. That's followed at 8:00 p.m. by the Kraft Music Hall with Milton Berle - but, according to Burt Boyar's story elsewhere in the issue, next season Perry Como will be taking over Music Hall, with Berle filling in for eight or ten specials in the same time slot. NBC isn't crazy about having Como move from his Saturday night spot, but Kraft owns the Wednesday spot, and they want Como filling it. When you spend $8,000,000 to sponsor an hour of television, you get that kind of clout. If drama is what you're looking for, you'll probably find it on U.S. Steel Hour (9:00 p.m., CBS), with French star Jean Pierre Aumont starring in the Tolstoy story "Family Happiness," with Gloria Vanderbilt and Patty Duke.

Danny Thomas makes a rare dramatic appearance Thursday on Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre (CBS, 8:00 p.m.), playing an Italian immigrant targeted for some rough play by the citizens of Yuca City.* James Mason and Margaret Leighton star in "The Second Man" on Playhouse 90 (8:30 p.m., CBS), while at the same time Cliff Arquette, as Charley Weaver, guests with Tennessee Ernie Ford on NBC. The KMSP movie at 9:00 p.m. is appropriate: Abe Lincoln in Illinois, starring one of the movies' most famous Lincolns, Raymond Massey.

*Not to be confused with The Beast of Yucca Flats. (No offense to the Coleman Francis Fan Club.)

Connie Francis is one of the guests on CBS's Your Hit Parade on Friday (6:30 p.m.); in an article from this year, Francis talks about how the traumas of her rape and her brother's murder almost destroyed her career. On M-Squad, detective Frank Ballinger investigates a series of killings; in an article elsewhere in the issue the actor playing Ballinger, Lee Marvin (who is also half-owner of the series), describes the role as "a strait jacket." "I would get out of this series if I could," he tells his interviewer. "Do you realize I'm playing the same character on 19½ hours of film a year? And it gets pretty dull. In a movie you're on for maybe 45 minutes and that's it. The audience doesn't stand as much chance of anticipating you. After the second week in a series they gotta anticipate you. And when they do - adios!!" It's not nearly as colorful an interview as one we discussed earlier, but Marvin is outspoken and no fool, and it's always interesting reading what he has to say.

◊ ◊ ◊

Wrong again!
Polly Bergen was hired to be stupid, according to the cover. What's the rest of the story, hmm? Well, she's currently a panelist on the CBS show To Tell the Truth, along with Kitty Carlisle, Ralph Bellamy, and Don Ameche. Now, she isn't really stupid, but by the same token, according to producer Gil Fates, she wasn't hired to get the right answers, either. She's there for her effervescent personality, her coy mots and saucy rejoinders, tricks she's acquired from her night club experience. Her three rules for playing the game are: "1. Play that hunch. 2. Keep guessing. 3. Gag it up."

She admits to weaknesses: "I must admit I have a little trouble with athletes," she says. "And I'm not very good on the armed forces. I can't even remember whether two stripes on your arm means you're a second lieutenant or only a major." But there remains the big question - "Is that featherbrained gadabout on To Tell the Truth really Polly Bergen? Or is Polly Bergen merely playing a featherbrained gadabout on To Tell the Truth?" Says Polly, "You'd really like to know the answer to that one now, wouldn't you?"

◊ ◊ ◊

Finally, Chuck Connors is on the cover this week (along with Johnny Crawford, from The Rifleman).  I've always liked Connors, and he was good for an entertaining article a while back, so it's certainly worth spending a few lines on him.

With The Rifleman, Connors has, as the article puts it, "finally made the big leagues," and in his case that's to be taken literally. For five years he was a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers system, never able to beat out Gil Hodges at first base, so he found himself traded to the Chicago Cubs. After hitting .223, he was sent to the Cubs' minor league team in Los Angeles. He did pretty well in L.A., even hosting a TV interview show between games, where - only in Hollywood - he was spotted by a movie talent scout. His first role was as a state policeman in the Tracy-Hepburn movie Pat and Mike, making $500 a day. "I figured they'd made some mistake on the adding machine, but I stuck the check in my pocket and shut up. Sure enough, the next day they gave me another $500. 'Baseball,' I told myself, 'just lost a first baseman.' "

His big break came a few years later, playing a heavy against James Arness on Gunsmoke. It "typed him as a fellow you could depend on to take a beating gracefully in a Western." When he heard about a new series - The Rifleman - he decided to give it a try. They tossed him a rifle - wanted to see how it handled it. "Feels like a Louisville Slugger," Connors said. The rest, I would say, is a home run. TV  

5 comments:

  1. Some humor from, of all places, Jeopardy! The category: ''Talkin' Football''. Which obviously, none of the contestants had any clue about. The only 'answer' that I'd consider reasonably challenging was the $1000 one - because it dates back over 40 years ago and it doesn't look like any of the players are that old.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Someday I'm going to write a book about all the TV and movie cowboys who were natives of New York. Chuck Connors - Brooklyn; Gene Barry - Brooklyn; Perry Lopez - Spanish Harlem; Rick Jason - Manhattan; Jack Kelly - Queens; Peter Breck - Rochester; Kirk Douglas - Amsterdam; Peter Duel - Rochester; Paul Fix - New York City; Robert Fuller - Troy; James Gregory - The Bronx; Gabby Hayes - Stannards; Richard Jaeckel - Long Island; George Kennedy - New York City; Ed Lauter - Long Beach; Hugh O'Brian - Rochester; Guy Williams - Manhattan.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Don't forget the Hondo co-stars Ralph Taeger (Richmond Hill) and Noah Beery Jr. (NYC)

      Delete
  3. Chuck Connors was also played for the Boston Celtics as one of just 12 men to have played both pro basketball and pro baseball. That Gunsmoke episode with the 6'6" Connors and 6'7" Arness together must hold the record as the world's tallest single TV episode, star/guest star division.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think I have that beat, Cheri. Bill Russell 6'9" guest starred on Connors' later series Cowboy in Africa.

      Delete

Thanks for writing! Drive safely!