February 18, 2019

What's on TV? Thursday, February 23, 1961

For some reason, I really enjoyed this issue. It's not that there are landmark series or important specials to look at; it's just an average night. Perhaps that's it, that it's because it's so representative of the era, at least living in the Twin Cities. In fact, this week I've been take a closer look at the local angle of the television shows in Minneapolis-St. Paul; even though I wasn't even one year old when this issue went to press, so many of the same personalities were around for most of my time growing up there.

February 16, 2019

This week in TV Guide: February 18, 1961

Every year it seems there's yet another meaningless awards show on TV. And yet, very view of them seem to go away. (Personally, I don't think they'll stop until everyone's won at least one. I'm still waiting for mine.)

A variety of sources suggest that the "TV Guide Awards" began in 1999, but if the magazine says that then they're ignoring their own history - as this week's issue proves. The TV Guide Awards started in 1960, and by the next year AP's Cynthia Lowry refers to the "three important awards-presenting shows—Oscar, Emmy and TV Guide." The young medium hadn't been around that long, and there are already two awards shows devoted to it.

What makes this different from other awards shows of the time is that, in kind of an early People's Choice Awards, the winners of the TV Guide Awards are chosen entirely by viewer votes. The ballot we see here  for the 1961 Awards (which was scheduled to be on NBC April 11, but in fact didn't air until June 13) allows readers to cast their vote for Favorite Series, Favorite New Series, Best Single Musical or Variety Show, Best Single Dramatic Program, Best Single News or Information Program, Favorite Male Performer, and Favorite Female Performer.  Not many categories compared to today, hmm?


The awards show had a moderately successful run, lasting from 1960 until 1964. It didn't always have a dedicated program built around it; for example, the 1963 awards were presented during the last segment of the Bob Hope Show. According to the contemporary reports, the 1961 show had its pluses-and-minuses—the pluses included the entertainment portions, which were done on videotape; the minuses, which occurred during the live awards presentation, included technical glitches, speeches ending before they were done, and confused winners not knowing which way to exit the stage. Despite all that, it sounds as if a good time was had by all.

Interested in knowing who won the '61 trophies? You're going to have to wait until you get to the end of the column to find out.

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I don't think it won any awards, but on Saturday (8:30 p.m., CBS), one of the prestige shows of the time, David Susskind's Dupont Show of the Month, features a live 90-minute presentation of "The Lincoln Murder Case," starring Luther Adler, House Jameson and Roger Evan Boxill as John Wilkes Booth.* I don't have a clip of that show, but for what it's worth, here's an episode of I've Got a Secret from 1956 featuring a gentleman whose secret was that he was an eyewitness to Lincoln's assassination. Think of that for a minute—he lived during the Civil War, while Lincoln was President, and appeared on television. That is something to marvel at.

*Meaning no disrespect to Roger Evan Boxill, I'd like to think he was cast as John Wilkes Booth because of the three names.

We don't have any "Sullivan vs." matchups this week, but I will mention that Ed's guests on Sunday (7:00 p.m., CBS) are Lucille Ball; comedian Jack Carter; instrumental group the Bill Black Combo; the comedy team of Rowan and Martin; folk singer Leon Bibb; and tap dancer Timmie Rogers. Lucy's on the show to sing "Hey, Look Me Over" with Paula Stewart; it's from the musical Wildcat, Lucy's only appearance on Broadway.

One of those shows that winds up being nominated for a TV Guide Award is Astaire Time, Fred Astaire's third television special, rerun "by popular demand" Monday night at 7:30 p.m. on NBC. (And in these pre-VCR days, I have no doubt that it was in fact by popular demand.) Fred's guests include his current dancing partner Barrie Chase, the Count Basie band with singer Joe Williams, the Hermes Pan Dancers (Pan being Astaire's long-time choreographer) featuring Ruth and Jane Earl, and the David Rose Orchestra. I've seen all the Astaire specials on DVD and this one, like the others, is terrific.

I have, in the past, mentioned my alma mater, Hamline University in St. Paul, and on Tuesday night The Hamline College Hour (8:30 p.m., KTCA, and it's actually only a half-hour) presents a discussion of Milowan Djilas's book The New Class, hosted by Dr. Wesley St. John, who happened to be my adviser in the Political Science department twenty years later. One of my rare brushes with fame, I guess; Dr. St. John was indeed a scholar and a gentleman.

A show that didn't win any awards but led to a movie that did is Wednesday night's U.S. Steel Hour presentation of "The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon" (9:00 p.m., CBS), based on Daniel Keyes' Hugo Award-winning short story "Flowers for Algernon" and starring Cliff Robertson, which will be made into the big-screen movie Charley, for which Robertson wins the Best Actor Oscar in 1968.

It was a couple of years ago that the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus shut down for good (it's mentioned at the end of this piece) but Ringling Bros. seldom came to the Twin Cities when I was growing up. Instead, it was the Zuhrah Shrine Circus, which played the Minneapolis Auditorium (and for which we got an afternoon off from school, which tells you just how long ago that was). On Thursday night, WCCO personality Randy Merriman, who used to be a ringmaster before turning to radio and television, hosts a live half-hour broadcast of opening night (8:00 p.m., WCCO), including the opening prade and some animal acts. Yes, good luck with that nowadays.

On Friday it's another of the shows that competes in the TV Guide Awards, Sing Along with Mitch (8:00 p.m., NBC), with Guy Mitchell as the guest star. Mitchell had a very successful career as a singer, but I remember him better as George Romack, Audie Murphy's sidekick on the Western police drama Whispering Smith.

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Care for some sports?

Let's start with Saturday, and you'll see that things are a little different than they are now. For example, Wide World of Sports hasn't premiered yet, and college basketball hasn't become a national obsession, with only two games on tap: SMU vs. Texas (1:00 p.m., WTCN), and the Big Ten Game of the Week between Purdue and Michigan (3:30 p.m., WCCO). The NHL isn't on network TV and there isn't a team in Minnesota yet, so the hockey coverage is a taped replay of last night's game between the St. Paul Saints and Omaha Knights (2:00 p.m., WCCO). The NBA isn't the cool game yet, so there's only one game—NBC has the Lakers and "Knickerbockers" in New York (1:00 p.m., NBC). The PGA isn't a weekly happening, so the duffer out there has to settle for All-Star Golf, with Sam Snead taking on Bob Rosberg (5:00 p.m., WTCN). Even the Pro Bowlers Tour hasn't hit the big time yet (it'll be on ABC next year), so we've got a potpourri of bowling shows: Bowling Stars at 3:30 p,m, and Championship Bowling at 5:00 p.m., both on KSTP. There is football, though, at least sort of: WCCO has a one-hour replay of the Packers-Lions Thanksgiving Day football game* from three months ago.

But there's still boxing, and it's still a prime-time sport in 1961. Saturday's Fight of the Week (9:00 p.m., ABC) features future middleweight champion Dick Tiger taking on Gene Armstrong from Madison Square Garden, which has apparently been turned around from the Lakers-Knicks game earlier in the day. (Tiger wins in a 9th round TKO.) Fight of the Week was the last regularly scheduled prime-time boxing show, running on Saturday nights through September 1963 before spending another year on Friday nights. When it ended its run on September 11, 1964, it was the end of an era that at one time had seen as many as six televised boxing shows a week.

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Jackie Gleason's profiled in an article sans byline. He's described as "the star of a new CBS panel show called You're in the Picture, which went on the air Jan. 20 and which was pre-empted on Jan. 27 by Jackie himself, who spent a half hour apologizing to viewers for perpetuating 'that bomb' on them."

You're in the Picture was, in fact, one of the most infamous bombs in TV history. Although the article professes confidence that the show would return, in fact it did not. Of that initial episode, UPI's Vernon Scott wrote "Jackie Gleason is a big guy who does everything in a big way. Friday night he laid a big egg." Gleason's apology on January 27, delivered with real panache, won raves from critics, including Scott, who this time called it "the most delightful show on television in the last few weeks"


As detailed by Television Obscurities, there was great confusion as to what was going to happen after the January 27 apology show—as late as the day before the next broadcast (February 3), the network didn't know what they were going to get. Kellogg's, the sponsor, apparently wanted (for some unfathomable reason) to continue with You're in the Picture, but Gleason did not. What went out that night was Gleason again, continuing his apology, combined with some sketch comedy. Kellogg's dropped its sponsorship, and the remainder of the show's run (seven weeks) was in talk-show format, entitled The Jackie Gleason Show, with The Great One interviewing various celebrities.

Such a debacle might have brought down a lesser star, but not Gleason. He would be back on CBS in 1962 with his big-budget variety show, which he would move to Miami Beach and would run for four successful years.

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Maharis (left) with Milner and the famed 'vette
There's also a profile of George Maharis (again without byline), co-star of the CBS series Route 66. Maharis, much like Buz Murdock, the character he portrayed, comes across as loud, brash, a fighter, a man who "not only looks like a hood but might well have become one." The article opens with the story of Maharis, while on location, walking into a bank and shouting, "All right, folks—this is a stick-up" before breaking into a big grin. Everyone agrees that he was lucky he wasn't killed. No question, he's a stark contrast to his Route 66 co-star, Martin Milner, a veteran actor who brings his family along during the location shoots whenever possible (virtually all of the show was shot on location).

Maharis is being prepped for stardom—"the hottest thing to come along in TV since the invention of the hot plate," according to one executive. But Maharis will miss several episodes in 1962, near the end of the second season, reportedly due to infectious hepatitis. He returns for the start of the third season but there are rumors that he is difficult to work with, that he wants a movie career, that his illness persists. Eventually he breaks his contract in the middle of the third season and leaves the series, and although he has steady work, he never does quite become the star that everyone thought he would be, back in 1961.

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A few notes from the yellow Teletype section, where "It looks definite now for The Rifleman to switch from ABC to CBS in the fall." For some reason the switch never happened though, and The Rifleman would end its days on ABC after two more seasons.

Producer Hubbell Robinson has four shows on tap for the 1961-62 season. ABC is interested in Stage 61, although what they eventually got was Stage 67, and The Lawyer, which apparently nobody got. NBC was luckier, though—it got not only the police series 87th Precinct, but the Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller.

There's also excitement about a TV version of the hit movie Some Like It Hot, with Vic Damone and Tina Louise. Despite getting Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis to cameo at the start of the pilot, there were no takers.

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Finally, we shouldn't ignore another program from Wednesday night, Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall (8:00 p.m., NBC). Perry's guests are Anne Bancroft and Jimmy Durante. As our faithful reader Mike Doran notes, "The main guest was Anne Bancroft, who at the time was one of Broadway's most notable bachelorettes; the premise of the show was to show her the joys of married life. The historical significance is that this show was where Anne Bancroft first met Mel Brooks, who was on Como's writing staff at the time. The two married a few years later, and the rest is history.

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Wait a minute, I did promise you the winners of the TV Guide Awards, didn't I? Very well, here they are: see how your favorites did:

Favorite Show: Perry Mason
Favorite New Show: Andy Griffith
Favorite Variety Show: Sing Along With Mitch
Male Performer: Raymond Burr
Female Performer: Carol Burnett
Best News Program: The Huntley-Brinkley Report
Dramatic Program: Macbeth, Hallmark Hall of Fame  TV  

February 15, 2019

Around the dial

At bare-bones e-zine, Jack continues the Hitchcock Project review of James P. Cavanagh's works with the Emmy-winning season two episode "Fog Closing In."

Speaking of Hitch, working with the master is just one of the memories shared by Jerry Mathers in a sparkling interview with Rick at Classic Film and TV Café.

This week marks the 100th anniversary of Forrest Tucker's birth, and at The Horn Section Hal honors the occasion with Tuck's television best.

I think everyone has a terrible show or two that they like, don't they? David's not ashamed to admit it, and in this week's Comfort TV he tells us why Pink Lady and Jeff is one of them.

One series that won't make that "terrible show" list is The Avengers, and at Cult TV Blog, John shares one of his favorite episodes, the Prisoner-influenced "Wish You Were Here."

At The Garroway Project, Jodie talks about one of the challenges of the television historian: increasingly, the people who made it happen are no longer with us.

The great Albert Finney—one of my all-time favorites, who surely should have won an Oscar for Tom Jones—died last week at the age of 82, and A Shroud of Thoughts has a great remembrance.

Finally, we're up to February 11, 1989 on Television Obscurities' review of A Year in TV Guide, featuring Larry Hagman and J.R. Ewing on the cover, and including some free advice for Vice President Dan Quayle—remember him? TV  

February 13, 2019

TV Guide: America's Time Capsule

A number of you have been asking if it would be possible for me to post the presentation I gave at the Mid Atlantic Nostalgia Convention last September, "TV Guide: America's Time Capsule." Thanks to my great and good friend Carol Ford, the audio of my talk has now been synched with the PowerPoint slides to replicate last year's spellbinding experience. It's the next best thing to having been there yourself! From the program description:
Throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, there was no better barometer as to the cultural climate in America than the pages of TV Guide. During those days, the little, odd-shaped magazine was arguably the most influential publication in television, and those who think of it merely as something that told us what was on TV, something that could be read and then thrown away as soon as the week was finished, risk overlooking a treasure trove of information, a time capsule that helps us understand who we were then, who we are now, and how we got that way. 


While I'm at it, this is a good time to remind you that if you like this presentation and appreciate the material I bring you each week on It's About TV!, you can find more of it in my book, The Electronic Mirror: What Classic TV Tells Us About Who We Were and Who We Are (and Everything In-Between!) available at Amazon.com, BN.com, and other online dealers. It was one of the hits of the convention, and it's sure to find a place in your classic TV book collection! TV  

February 11, 2019

What's on TV? Monday, February 15, 1965

We've gone back almost 20 years in time this week, to the Minnesota State Edition of 1965. It's the day after Valentine's Day, but I don't think we've missed any special programming; at least, I can't remember having seen Perry Como's Valentine's Day in Morocco, or anything like that. But there's plenty of fun out there, with Sheriff Andy and Lucy and the men from U.N.C.L.E., and that doesn't include Bing's special guest tonight: his wife Kathryn!

February 9, 2019

This week in TV Guide: February 13, 1965

This week's cover profile of Andy Williams was written by John Gregory Dunne; I don't have anything against Dunne, although I do prefer the work of his brother, Dominick Dunne, to either John Gregory or his wife, Joan Didion, but it bears saying that Dunne's story on Williams displays, I think, the worst aspects of TV Guide writing of the era.

There is, for starters, the annoying habit of the author injecting himself into the article. Dunne notes in the first page that "I had no particular desire to meet the boy next door, and the first two paragraphs concern Dunne's reactions to the comments of Williams' publicist, his thoughts on the decor of the dressing room, his impressions of the books on the shelf.

Once the focus of the story turns to the putative subject, Williams, there are more TV Guide trademarks; the anonymous criticisms, for instance. "One executive who has had dealings with [Williams] refers to him in extremely unflattering terms. Another says, 'He's not a very nice young man.'" We are, of course, never told who the unnamed critics are, nor are the criticisms put in any context. Is Williams an unpleasant person? A hard negotiator? A driven, hands-on micromanager of his own show? Your guess is as good as mine.

I'm not a fan of this kind of faceless, nameless attack, but one reads it week after week in the TV Guides of the 60s. A story about insecure Gene Barry, a score-evening profile of David Susskind, a hatchet job on Patty Duke—it's almost as if the magazine. desperate to distinguish itself from the fan magazines of the era, bends over backwards to tear down every star it profiles. Now, these comments could be from someone with a score to settle: a jealous co-worker, a disgruntled former employee, a frustrated publicist. They might be completely true, or a bushel of lies, or something in-between. We could be seeing one side of the story with two sides, or we could learn what everyone in Hollywood already knows.

The point is, I don't much like writers who repeat anonymous comments without providing context. I don't think it's good journalism. I'm not suggesting all TV Guide profiles should be puff pieces; that's just as bad, and it's terrible to read. But a journalist should demand more of his sources—he should challenge them just as much as he does his subject. If what they have to say is reliable, if he's satisfied himself that their comments have merit, if he can give a positive answer to the question "Do my readers need to know this?" then by all means go ahead. But if that's the case, then give your readers that same satisfaction. Otherwise, I'm going to think your source is just nursing a grudge—and you're just a lazy writer.

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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..

Ed Sullivan: Scheduled guests: Victor Borge; Steve Allen; comedian Jackie Vernon; the Israeli Ballet; the Dave Clark Five, British rock 'n' rollers; comedians Rowan and Martin; the Mattison dance trio; and John's balancing act.

Palace: Host George Burns welcomes Connie Stevens, his co-star on Wendy and Me; singer Wayne Newton; the Greenwood County Singers; impressionist Rich Little; the Zacchinis, human cannonballs; illusionist Prassana Rao; and the Ganoas, Mexican trampolinists.

If it is true that 1965 is the representative year of the 60s, one can see it right here in this week's Sullivan show. Victor Borge had been around (and very funny) for years; Steve Allen was also a TV veteran, but one who'd shown an ability to adapt to the times. Jackie Vernon was a classic nightclub comedian (as well as the future voice of Frosty the Snowman); Rowan and Martin would in a few short years be part of the progressive TV future with Laugh In, and the Dave Clark Five were a prime example of the state of rock music, as the breeziness of The Beatles transitions to the harder sound of the Stones. I can't speak for the success of John's balancing act. (And who is John, by the way?)

You see this to a lesser extent in Palace—Burns the old-time star trying to recapture the magic with the new generation, Connie Stevens taking the place of Gracie Allen; Wayne Newton, the youngster singing the old-time songs, and Rich Little, part of the new breed with the politically sharp humor.   But unless Little can impersonate two or three more big-name guests, this one goes to Sullivan.

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These United Nations dramas just seem to keep popping up. You'll recall my article from a few years ago on the series of four dramas designed to educate the public on the activities of the United Nations; the first drama in the series, Carol for Another Christmas, broadcast in December 1964, was reviewed here.

Well, now, in February 1965, ABC airs the second installment: Who Has Seen the Wind? Like Carol, it boasts an all-star cast, including Edward G. Robinson, Maria Schell, and Theodore Bikel; an original story, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tad Mosel, adapted by Oscar and Emmy nominee Don Mankiewicz (nephew of Joseph L.); costumes by Oscar-winner Edith Head; and produced and directed by George Sidney, who had cut his teeth on Our Gang comedies before going on to such classic musicals as Anchors Aweigh, Show Boat and Bye Bye Birdie. Like Carol, it's presented without commercial interruption and sponsored by Xerox.

Who Has Seen the Wind? was more successful, or at least not as heavy-handed a mess, compared to Carol. The Los Angeles Times called it “better than [the] first,” and the Lima (OH) News named it the night’s “Best Bet” and pronounced it “an extraordinary television film.” On the other hand, to The New York Times it was a “soap opera at sea,” a “waste of [the actors’] artistry.” Oh well, you can't please everyone.

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Want some more politics? Earlier that week (Monday, to be precise) on the same network, Dinah Shore hosts a musical salute to the Peace Corps, with Harry Belafonte and Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver. You think I'm kidding, right? Well, here's proof:


According to newspaper accounts, there were about 100 Peace Corps volunteers in the audience along with Shriver, preparing to head for Uganda and Kenya. However, aside from a cringe-worthy opening in which Shore sang "Getting to Know You" while shaking hands with members of the audience, the show was apparently pretty good. UPI correspondent Rick Du Brow called it a "so-easy, so-relaxed, so-expert" evening, and that the stars were able to concentrate on the job at hand "without too many pitches for the corps." Significantly, the show was featured "a minimum of heavy-handed idealistic talk (thank heaven no one thought of calling Abby Mann to write the script)." That, of course, might have been even worse than Carol for Another Christmas.  

Which just goes to show that Samuel Goldwyn was on to something when he famously said, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." "Message" shows like this one and the UN series go a lot farther if you take it easy on the message and emphasize the entertainment. Nobody likes to be preached to, but everyone likes to be entertained.*

*Well, almost everyone. I'm sure I have to put that disclaimer in somewhere. By the way, some of you youngsters might be too young to remember what Western Union was. They sent something called "telegrams." Think of them as emails printed on paper, sent by an intermediary who'd charge you for them by the word, which could result in some pretty fragmented speech, generally without conjunctions or articles


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Had enough politics? How about we throw Pope Pius XII into the mix? Though he died in 1958, Pius remains a controversial historical figure. Did he do enough to save the Jews during the Holocaust?  Was he, as one author referred to him, "Hitler's Pope"? Or was he a man of heroic virtue, arch foe of the Nazis, who in fact did everything he could to save the lives of the Jews?

The controversy about Pius was largely absent during his lifetime, largely gaining traction following the staging of Rolf Hochhuth's 1963 play The Deputy, which suggested that Pius was too timid to speak out publicly against the Nazis. (I have it; it's a heavy-handed but effective piece of propaganda.) Evidence suggests that Hochhuth's play was financed and promoted by the KGB as part of a Kremlin disinformation plot against the Vatican; I myself hold to this position, and believe Pius to be the victim of a wholesale character assassination. However, this is neither the time nor the place to debate the issue, nor do I bring it up for this reason.

Regardless, in 1965 the public perception of Pius was still largely positive, as witnessed by Tuesday night's episode of Biography on KCMT Channel 7narrated by Mike Wallace, in which Pius is presented as a man who "dedicated his life to peace and denounced tyranny and religious persecution."

This early Biography series was produced by master documentarian David L. Wolper and ran for three seasons in the early 60s before going into a seemingly endless series of syndicated reruns. It was a popular film in schools (I sat through more than one in my days), and eventually wound up on A&E, where many additional episodes were produced (though without Wallace; the most popular narrator was Peter Graves), and was eventually spun off into the Biography channel, which may or may not still show biographies.

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A while back I'd noted in passing how there were so many more soap operas on TV in the 60s than there are today.  (I don't think that's giving away any state secrets.) But it's interesting how some of them even have episode write-ups, which I'd think would be very unusual for a soap since they always tried to keep you tuned in to see what happens next.

Moment of Truth (NBC): Nancy's sister and niece arrive unexpectedly.
Flame in the Wind (ABC): Jason's maneuvering brings unusual results. (Live)
The Doctors (NBC): Matt's actions have a surprising effect on Maggie and Kurt. (Live)
Day in Court (ABC): A five-part story begins today when a woman seeks to have her husband committed.

Granted, with the possible exception of The Doctors, none of these are the biggest soapers, so this could have represented an effort to drum up an audience. But, looking through the entire week's listings, there's nothing in any of these write-ups that would seem to give anything away or tip off viewers as to what happens next, so I guess the key element of surprise is retained.*

*In other words, we don't learn that "Joan has shocking news for Martin" on Monday, and "After telling Martin she's pregnant, Joan runs away with Jeff" on Friday.

Of course, we know that soap operas used to be done live; after all, it's because As the World Turns was being taped for rebroadcast in the Pacific time zone that we have CBS' first bulletin on JFK's assassination. But as late as 1965, we still have at least two being shot live. I wonder how long it was before they all went to video tape? I'm sure there's someone out there who knows. And, aside from some variety shows, were these the last regularly scheduled series to be done live?

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On Saturday evening ABC has a documentary from the aforementioned David L. Wolper entitled "The Way-Out Men." Sounds vaguely psychedelic, doesn't it?  In fact, it has to do with "[t]oday's scientific theorists, researchers and other inquiring men [who] are testing theories and ideas that are 'way out'." Probably the best-known featured is the famed heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey, who'd recently operated on the Duke of Windsor. However, for my money, the most interesting is Dr. James V. McConnell. In "The Way-Out Men," he's profiled for his work on "the chemistry of memory," but that doesn't begin to scratch the surface.

His original research involved memory transfer among flatworms that had been trained to respond to external stimulus - bright lights and electric shocks. The flatworms were subsequently cut up and fed to other flatworms; the second group of flatworms, McConnell contended, responded to the same stimuli more quickly than flatworms not part of the experiment. McConnell called this memory RNA, but when subsequent experiments by other researchers failed to duplicate his results, buzz on the theory faded away.

It may well have been his research on human behavioral modification that attracted the attention in 1985 of Ted Kaczynski, aka The UnabomberKaczynski sent a bomb, disguised as a manuscript, to McConnell's office; the resulting explosion caused hearing loss.

But on a more pleasant note, McConnell was also known for his quirky sense of humor, beginning a magazine called The Worm-Runner's Digest featuring flatworm-themed satirical articles—because, supposedly, readers couldn't tell the difference between the serious and satirical articles that appeared in his other journal, The Journal of Biological Psychology. And you know how much of a sucker I am for flatworm humor. I wonder if Wolper covered any of that in his documentary? TV  

February 8, 2019

Around the dial

Ever heard of an episode of Father Knows Best called “Twenty-Four Hours in Tyrantland”? Neither had I, until it wound up on David's list of "The Unshakeables" at Comfort TV. I mentioned on Wednesday how much have changed—this would be right there. Wish I'd included this in my book.

The first time I ever saw the Twilight Zone episode "Miniature," it was as a colorized presentation, and the big news was that this was the first time the episode had been seen on TV since the original broadcast, due to legal technicalities. It's a masterpiece, as Jordan shows at The Twilight Zone Vortex.

What I like about our classic TV blog community is that it is a community, with new friends and heretofore unknown treasures just around the corner. That's why I take a moment to share Carol's story about the passing of her friend (and former colleague of Bob Crane) Morgan Kaolian over at Bob Crane: Life & Legacy. Sounds like he was quite a guy, Carol.

One of my favorite television books of all time—but why narrow it to that? a favorite book period—is The Lucky Strike Papers, Andrew Lee Fielding's warm and wise memoir of his mother's time in television, particularly on Your Hit Parade. Good news from The Lucky Strike Papers: a revised edition is coming out! You really should have this book in your library.

At Garroway at Large, Jodie points to another reason why Garroway deserves to be remembered, and not just by historians. As we can see in "Lost Garroway," Dave was truly the face of NBC, both TV and radio. It's beyond foolish to even consider anyone with that kind of stature in television today, and to think that someone who was as much a part of the American consciousness as Garroway is now all but forgotten—well, I just don't get it.

Oh, I used to love watching the Oscars. Of course, this is back when the show only ran a couple of hours, meaning I could stay up at least that late, even though I had to go to school the next day. Today, you'd have to pay me. But it's a good excuse to look at Classic Film and TV Cafe's "Snubbed by Oscars" poll. Vote for your favorites; it's not as if the Oscars got it right every time.

TV Guide promises a Hot February! in the issue of February 4, 1989, the latest in Television Obscurities' look at 30 years back. Among other things, there's a story welcoming the return of Columbo, and an on-location report on the heralded miniseries Lonesome DoveTV  

February 6, 2019

Another world, not my own*

*With apologies to Dominick Dunne.

Odysseus sat on the beach, Anthony Esolen tells us in the opening to his new book, Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, casting his eye upon the sea, as he has done every night for as long as he can remember. It is a beautiful world, Esolen says, a world in which all is well; "only the man is lost; only the man is not well." He has all he needs here, and the beautiful woman who loves him like a pet has promised that he will not age as long as he stays here. And yet, "He suffers the pang of something bitter and sweet, and more bitter than sweet." It is, says Esolen, the pain from the desire to return from whence he came. It is, in the Greek word that we use to describe it, nostalgia, "the ache to turn back home."

How I wish I had read this before I wrote The Electronic Mirror. Not because of the elegance of Esolen's language, though elegant it is, in a way to which I can only aspire. No, it is because of the essential truth contained in those words, a truth I've tried many times to express, here and elsewhere. It helps give us a better understanding of just what that "turn back home" really means, and it has to do with what I feel is the problem today: alienation.

I'm going to refer back to that JFK assassination radio coverage I wrote about last month. Now, I don't mean to put too fine a point on this—it's certainly not my intent to turn this into the JFK channel. At the same time, these long-form recordings provide a brief immersion in the past; not just the big moments, but the little moments that precede them—and, as we'll see, the little moments within the big moments, the ones that I think provide the clearest insight and the most pain.

For example: whenever CBS would break to allow affiliates to make local announcements, the announcers at my hometown station, WCCO-AM in Minneapolis, would read listings of special church services being held in memory of Kennedy; there were so many that it sounded like they were reading lists of school closings in the Midwest during a blizzard. A lot of businesses were closing early that Friday; not so much because of the shock (although that too), but to allow their employees to attend services that might be happening at, say, 5:00 p.m. Would we hear that today?

Outside the WCCO studio, as the station broadcast the news on loudspeakers, passersby were asked for their impressions. First one man, then another, and still another, would say it. I wasn't a Kennedy man, they would say, I didn't vote for him, but I think this is the most terrible thing that's ever happened to this country. Now, remember: these were businessmen being interviewed, old enough for nearly all of them to have remembered Pearl Harbor (it was only 22 years ago, after all), and probably for most of them to have fought either in World War II or Korea. And yet, this is a terrible, terrible thing, the worst thing that could happen. Said about a man they hadn't voted for. Would we hear that today?

In Washington, the Senate majority leader, Mike Mansfield, and the minority leader, Everett Dirksen, spoke to the media. Dirksen, a Republican, talked about the last time he and the president had spoken, just a few days ago when Kennedy was presiding over the annual pardon of the Thanksgiving turkey, and what a pleasant conversation they had had, talking of pending legislation, of 1964, and other things. Democrat Mansfield, after praising the president's memory, talked of “the cooperation and the support which the distinguished senator from Illinois, Mr. Dirksen, the minority leader of the Senate, gave to the President of the United States, a Democrat, time and time again, when the interests of the nation were at stake; and I know how grateful he was to you for the many contributions you made, and I am just as grateful, and the nation is, too.” Mansfield called it a fond memory; do people have fond memories of those they disagree with today? Dirksen later said of Kennedy, “If at any moment he may have seemed overeager, it was but the reflection of a zealous crusader and missioner who knew where he was going,” Would we hear that today?

Throughout the weekend, on WLW-AM in Cincinnati, at every station break the announcer recited a variation of the same script, WLW and the Crosley Broadcasting Corporation asking listeners to "join with us in prayer for John Kennedy, his family, and President Lyndon Johnson." At ABC radio, Don Gardiner, a newsman given to a very formal style, announced the death of the president and, one suspects for his own benefit as well as that of the audience, says, "Let us pray," followed by a moment of silence. Would we hear that on a network today? Now, it's true that the public tends to turn to religion in times of crisis; 9/11, for example. And not to suggest that such revivals are insincere, but usually church attendance returns to normal after a few weeks. Conversely, during the JFK weekend, one reporter remarks how the churches are full, yes, with people saying prayers and lighting candles; but not as full as they are on Sundays. Would we hear that observation today?

I could go on with this, ad nauseam. You listen to the music being played on the radio prior to the news bulletins, and there's no need for parental advisories. You hear the prices being quoted for groceries, and a family could probably be supported on the father's salary. You hear about families, for that matter, and that seems to be a quaint concept today. It is impossible to look at the past without feeling alienated by the present.

Yep, things have changed during my lifetime. But then, my wife's grandmother was alive when the Wright brothers flew, and again when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. There is anger in the world, and discontent, and searching. Sic semper erat, et sic semper erit,you say; thus has it always been, thus it shall ever be, and I get that. As Esolen points out, there has been no Eden since Eden. But the life that was lived in that world, and the things about which we disagreed, were still based on a common sense of principles, a shared definition of things. We hear it said often that "we don't speak the same language anymore," and I believe this; in his book The Great Delusion, political scientist John Mearsheimer reminds us that “For a society to hold together, there must be substantial overlap in how its members think about the good life, and they must respect each other when, inevitably, serious disagreements arise.” Perhaps God, in His infinite wisdom, is demonstrating something of His divine sense of humor—using the lesson from the Tower of Babel to impart a rebuke to us all.

We all feel this, the unsettledness of the world. Opioids, depression, suicide; you don't have to look far to see it. Anxiety is at an all-time high; social media makes it impossible to escape, makes it too fast to assimilate, makes it too contentious to discuss. We all live in our own little universe, where reality is whatever we choose to make of it. Nostalgia doesn't exacerbate this feeling; it helps explain it. Classic television and radio don't cause us to live in the past; they help us see how things were at any given point in that period without, as someone once said, "the corruption of hindsight." As you turn the pages, you visit a world as it was at the time when it was.

"I do not believe," John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address, "that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation." Indeed; we must accept this, since it's impossible to travel backward in time anyway. But nostalgia does not suggest that we live in the past; instead, what we must do is find out what the past can teach us about the future. As I've said many times, you discover who we are by understanding who we were. When we hear, as we often do, that you can't turn the clock back, that you can't return to how things used to be back then, that's the very time when we do need to return to "back then," as Esolen reminds us in the parable of the Prodigal Son, and find out (or remember) what it means to go home.

This doesn't mean that I'm condemning the present uniformly, nor am I idealizing the past unequivocally. That would be as foolish as trying to pit 2018 against 1968 in terms of which year was worse. There is much about the present that is good, in the same way that there is much about the past that was not. The point is that the world has changed since 1963, and in doing so I believe we've seen a steady erosion of what kept society—the world—together. It had already started before 1963, and it will probably continue beyond today. But it's only that nostalgia that understanding of who we used to be, that can help us truly understand how far we've traveled from home, who we've become today. Alienation? No wonder. It is, as I said, another world, a different world from that into which I was born. And increasingly, it's a world that doesn't feel like my own. TV