June 17, 2019

What's on TV? Thursday, June 21, 1962

I think I've written about this before, but for a network that was perennially in third place until the late '70s, ABC was home to some iconic shows. Look at tonight's schedule, for example: Ozzie and Harriet, Donna Reed, The Real McCoys, My Three Sons and The Untouchables. Only The Law and Mr. Jones is missing from a hall of fame lineup of classic television. Not that they were all great shows; I've never been able to get into any of them save The Untouchables, in fact, but they're familiar names to anyone familiar with classic television. And then NBC follows up with Dr. Kildare, Hazel and Sing Along With Mitch. No, if you can't find something to watch here, you aren't really looking very hard. The listings, as you might expect, are from the Twin Cities.

June 15, 2019

This week in TV Guide: June 16, 1962

A few years ago the concept of "six degrees of separation"* was coined, the idea being that everyone in the world could be connected to everyone else by no more than six degrees. The same could be said, I suppose, for articles in TV Guide. To test this theory, we took a look at this week's issue to see if we could bring it all the way from 1962 to today in six steps or less.

*Or "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," if you prefer.

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1.  Right doctor, wrong role: Westinghouse Presents was an occasional series of dramas sponsored by the electronics giant, previous sponsor of Studio One. On Wednesday evening (9:00 p.m. CT, CBS) Westinghouse Presents features Margaret Leighton in "The First Day," the story of a woman returning to her former life after having been hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. Leighton's husband in the play is played by Ralph Bellamy, who the next year would star as Dr. Richard Starke in NBC's psychiatric drama  The Eleventh Hour. I would presume that everything turns out all right for Leighton but, if not, perhaps she could make an appointment with Dr. Starke.

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2. Speaking of which: The Eleventh Hour was a spin-off from NBC's enormously successful doctor show Dr. Kildare,* starring Richard Chamberlain as the young intern James Kildare, with Raymond Massey as his mentor, the veteran Dr. Leonard Gillespie. The two men share the cover of this week's issue, with the feature article focusing on Massey, whose signature role prior to Kildare was Abraham Lincoln, whom he portrayed several times on stage, screen and television.  (There's a wonderful story from Wikipedia of how a fellow actor joked that Massey wouldn't be satisfied with his Lincoln impersonation until someone assassinated him.)

*The Eleventh Hour ran for only two seasons, but was still more successful than ABC's similar drama Breaking Point, which itself was a spin-off from the Kildare clone Ben Casey.

Massey won plaudits for his portrayal of Gillespie, a much more nuanced and less caricaturish performance than those rendered in the movies by Lionel Barrymore. He was a distinguished actor, with two stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame—one for movies, one for television, and Dwight Whitney's article highlights some colorful aspects of his life: an uncle was a bishop, his older brother was Governor General of Canada, and the Massey family owned the Massey-Harris Harvester Company, which we would recognize today as the manufacturing giant Massey Ferguson. His first Broadway role came courtesy of Noel Coward and Norman Bel Geddes (mid-century design icon and father of Dallas' Barbara Bel Geddes), and his movie career started with an offer from Sir Gerald du Maurier, father of the famed novelist Daphne.*

*Who, as far as I could tell, never wrote a work adapted into a movie in which Massey appeared.

Massey was a dignified actor—sadly, not too many of those around anymore.

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3. Since you mentioned it: In addition to his several portrayals of Lincoln, Raymond Massey also played the abolitionist John Brown in a pair of movies—Santa Fe Trail and Seven Angry Men—and onstage in a dramatic reading of Stephen Vincent Benét's Pulitizer Prize-winning poem John Brown's Body. And it's that very story—John Brown's Body that CBS has on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m, preempting the police drama Brenner. This one doesn't have Massey, but it does feature Richard Boone as the Narrator, with Douglas Campbell as John Brown. In a couple of seasons, Boone will star on NBC in The Richard Boone Show, an anthology series with a rotating repertory cast. Despite critical praise, it will only run one season before being canceled, replaced by The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Boone finds out about it not from the network, but from the trade papers.

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4. Her stock is rising: Actress Diana Millay, as it happens, appeared in both The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Eleventh Hour. But that is in the future—today, in addition to being one of the hardest-working actresses in New York (nearly 100 live shows to her credit), the 23-year-old is also making her mark as a day trader in the stock market. While most actresses are concerned with their reviews, Millay can be seen pouring over Forbes and The Wall Street Journal between takes. Later she'll find more success in commercial real estate and fine art.

This article is typical of so many that have run in TV Guide over the years, and you might wonder if anything ever happened with Millay or if she faded to obscurity like many a starlet from previous profiles. But in this case, Diana Millay did all right for herself, assuring lasting fame as Laura Collins in Dark Shadows. No word on how much of a killing she made in the market.

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Paul Anka and Friend
5. Did someone say "young star"? Any discussion of talented young performers has to include Paul Anka. At the time of this writing Anka is still 20—three years younger than Diana Millay, but in that time he's accomplished—well, let the statistics speak for themselves. At 15 he signed a contract with Don Costa at ABC/Paramount, and had his first hit: "Diana," which sold 8,500,000 copies. He followed that up with "Lonely Boy" and "Puppy Love," each of which were million-sellers. He's appeared as an actor in movies, most recently in the war drama The Longest Day, for which he also wrote the themeAccording to the famed musical writing team of Comden and Green, "it is not too early to mention Paul Anka in the same breath with musical immortals." He's accessible, appearing constantly on variety shows: Sullivan, Como, Shore. He's a mean Password player. He makes well over a million dollars a year.

And he isn't even old enough to vote or drink. Go ahead and grit your teeth if you want.

The unbylined article portrays Anka as a driven businessman. He has little time for personal relationships, other than those that are part of the business. He has little time for girls, even though the broken romance is a staple of his songs. He's insecure—"I care about being liked. I want everybody to like me," he tells his interviewer. He's angered by those who resent his early success, and those who ridicule rock music in general.

What's particularly interesting about this article is that although Anka is already established as a major star in records, television and movies, his biggest hits are still ahead of him: "My Way," the Sinatra hit for which he wrote the English lyrics; "She's a Lady," the Tom Jones hit, and "Johnny's Theme," the Johnny in question being Johnny Carson.  And the guy's still only 77—not bad, huh?

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6. What's old is new again: Paul Anka was payed a royalty every time the theme for The Tonight Show was played—over 1,400,000 times by one estimate. Every night Johnny's monologue began with that theme, and ended with Johnny's golf swing. And that brings us to the present day, and the highlight of the sporting week.

The U.S. Open golf championship, or the National Open as it was frequently called back in the day, is—then as now—this weekend's Big Event. (3:30 p.m. Saturday, NBC) This year's tournament is at Pebble Beach, the famed California course, but back in 1962 it's across the country, at Oakmont, outside of Pittsburgh. There's another difference in 1962: the tournament is scheduled for three days, concluding on "Open Saturday" with a 36-hole marathon.

Golf's reigning superstar, Arnold Palmer, is the hometown hero (from nearby Latrobe), and having shared the lead after the second and third rounds, everything seems to point to his second Open championship. However, at the end of 72 holes Palmer finds himself tied with a rising star: the 22-year-old Jack Nicklaus, who had been the low amateur at the last two Opens. The two meet in a playoff on Sunday, in front of a raucously pro-Palmer crowd. Jack leads Arnold by four shots after six holes and goes on to a three-shot victory. It's the start of the Nicklaus dynasty: his first professional win, and the first of his 18 major professional championships. Palmer, who had won the Masters earlier in the year and will add the British Open in July, takes his third Masters in 1964, but after that never wins another major title.

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And there you have it: from Margaret Leighton in "The First Day" to the U.S. Open in the present day, all in six steps. Not bad, hmm?

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Notes from the Teletype and more:  In the works for the coming season: The Patty Duke Show, Lee Marvin's Lawbreakers, and Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. All of them made it to the small screen, and all of them are available on DVD. . . Future Oscar winner Marvin stars this week in The Richest Man in Bogota, based on the sci-fi story by H.G. Wells . . . NBC announces that 68% of its prime-time programs for 62-63 will be in color, compared with 57% this season and 41% a year ago.  NBC remains the dominant player in the color television market . . .I wrote about the TV Guide Awards here; the 1962 version will air next week, headlined by Judy Holliday, Art Carney and Dave Garroway. . .Pat Weaver, former head of NBC television, was a prominent figure in my article about television opera last Wednesday; this week, he has an article on how television can "make the common man the uncommon man," which is why he believed in the potential of cultural programming. . .Premiering this week on CBS daytime: To Tell The Truth, which adds the daytime component to its long-running nighttime run, now in its sixth season. The prime-time version will run until 1967, daytime ends a year later. Longtime soap The Secret Storm expands from 15 minutes to a half-hour, leaving only The Guiding Light and Search For Tomorrow in the old radio-era length. Both will finally go to 30 minutes in 1968, bumping—To Tell The Truth.

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By the way, if you really do want to play this game with Kevin Bacon, then step 6 is as follows: Paul Anka was in Mad Dog Time with Diane Lane, who was in My Dog Skip with Kevin Bacon. See how easy? TV  

June 14, 2019

Around the dial

obert Earle died last week at the age of 93, and for those of a certain age, that name will probably bring back warm memories. From 1962 to 1970 he was the host of G-E College Bowl, the academic quiz show that pitted two teams of college students against each other in a battle of wits that left most viewers grasping at straws while trying to recall what general led Sparta into the Peloponnesian War against Athens.

He was a community-relations specialist for General Electric, and chairman of the radio-TV department at Ithaca College in New York, when the job with College Bowl came open after Allen Ludden left to concentrate full-time on Password. An article by Bob Stahl in my cherished copy of the January 25, 1964 TV Guide describes how Earle prepared his audition tape:

The following Sunday he set up the tape recorder next to his TV set and tuned in College Bowl. He recorded Ludden and the college students playing the game. Then he had his secretary transcribe the tape and took it to WHCU, the Ithaca radio station where he had once worked. There he edited the tape to delete Ludden’s voice, retaining intact the voices of the students and the show’s sound effects.

Next he went to WICB-TV, the Ithaca College studio, set up a lectern in front of a movie camera and put his tape on a playback machine controlled by a foot pedal. As the film rolled, he stood at the lectern and acted as the College Bowl host. Cutting with split-second precision back and forth to the tape, he voiced Ludden’s exact dialog from the transcribed notes. On the finished film, he was the College Bowl quizmaster.

I remember reading that when I was a kid, and for many years thereafter, and I thought that use of technology was the coolest thing. Nowadays, of course, anyone could do that with a phone, but back then there was a bit more to it, and Earle’s brainstorm won him the job over more established names such as Win Elliot and Dick Stark. Viewers at the time remarked on the physical resemblance between Earle and Ludden (minus the smarminess, of course); Betty White relates a story that the producers took Earle to Ludden’s optometrist to get the same frames that Ludden wore. Earle remained the host until the show went off the air in 1970, due in part to negative publicity from the rise of student protests on campuses.

Robert Earle was a warm presence on television, and had great rapport with the students who appeared on the program. College Bowl, which aired on Sunday afternoons for most of its twelve-year run, remains a vivid reminder of a time when weekend afternoons on television weren’t dominated by sports and infomercials. Even though I was only 10 when the show went off the air, I still have fond memories of it.

Want some more? This article at Slate by Lynn Yu tells the story of what was probably the most famous episode of College Bowl, and one of the greatest game show upsets of all time: tiny Agnes Scott College's victory over Princeton, which you can see on YouTube.

In other news, it’s Maverick Monday at The Horn Section, and this week Hal looks at the very funny 1959 episode “A Fellow’s Brother,” in which Bret (James Garner) suddenly finds himself with the reputation as a feared gunslinger. You’ll want to see how he talks his way out of that.

We haven’t visited Cult TV Blog for awhile, so let’s see what Jack has to say about “Jackpot,” an episode from the 1970s British crime series The Sweeney. I really enjoy Jack’s comment at the end about how “I just like TV to be unreal because I can fully see that this episode wouldn’t hang together in reality, but if TV was strictly real it wouldn’t be an escape, would it?” I need to keep that in mind more often.

From the UK newspaper The Guardian, this story on how "America's rural radio stations are vanishing—and taking the country's soul with them." It's not about TV, but it echoes the concerns I have about how, in the era of syndication and informercials and homogenized news anchors, local television barely has anything "local" about it. And that's a loss to us all.

At Comfort TV, David asks an excellent question: are the '80s "comfort TV"? I have never considered them part of my own personal comfort TV (YMMV), but David's article (he says yes, by the way) got me thinking: what are the shows from the '80s that I watch? Doctor Who, Police Squad!, SCTV, MST3K, Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, the entire Blackadder series—I guess there are more of them there than I would have realized.

One of the shows that's not on my list—The Wonder Years (no offense intended)—is the cover subject of this week's "A Year in TV Guide" feature at Television Obscurities. Head on over and find out what else the issue has to offer. TV  

June 12, 2019

The life and death of "NBC Opera Theatre"


Viewed from today’s perspective, the marriage of classical music and television would seem to be an unlikely one. And yet, in the early days of TV, it was a natural match. The new medium needed inexpensive, reliable programming. It needed the prestige and credibility that well-done presentations could provide. Perhaps even more important, it needed viewers—especially upscale viewers that would attract the attention of advertisers needed to sponsor these programs.

NBC’s commitment to classical music programming dated back to the pre-TV days; founder David Sarnoff believed the network had an obligation to serve the public interest, and one way of doing that was through such programming. To that end, Sarnoff hired the great Arturo Toscanini to create and head up the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1937.

It was inevitable that this partnership would continue on television as the new medium began to grow after World War II. as part of a more concentrated effort to bring high culture to the growing middle class. Time relates a story of how, in the late 1940s, Samuel Chotzinoff, who headed up NBC’s music programming, along with director Peter Herman Adler and accompanied by a small group of singers, cornered Sarnoff and presented a three-minute excerpt from Puccini’s La bohème right there in the hallway. Sarnoff, moved to tears (so the story goes), asked, “Could that be done on television?”

Moved to tears Sarnoff may well have been, but his interest in classical music wasn’t entirely altruistic, of course. For one thing, the FCC was said to be keeping a close eye on the broadcast content of the young medium, to make sure it reached its true educational potential. There were more practical, commercial considerations involved as well—selling television sets, for example, which was particularly important to NBC’s parent company, RCA. Few men understood this better than NBC’s head of programming, Pat Weaver.

Weaver, who was nothing less than a creative genius when it came to television, was the father of what he called “spectaculars,” a sort of “must-see TV” of the ‘50s. These live specials (often lavish, star-studded, and broadcast in color) were advertised to the hilt and designed to encourage people to purchase new sets—RCA color sets—in order to see them. “Prestige” television was a part of this overall strategy; Weaver calculated that the audience for such programs would be upscale, more likely to have disposable income, and less likely to be regular TV viewers. It was a fantastic carrot to dangle before prospective advertisers: sponsor this show and you’ll have access to an audience you wouldn’t otherwise reach. An audience with money, ready to spend it.

*He created the Today and Tonight shows, and was co-creator of the actress Sigourney Weaver, but that’s another story.

Whatever the reasons, opera was on its way to television, and NBC Television Opera Theatre, with Samuel Chotzinoff as producer and Peter Herman Adler as artistic and music director, made its debut on March 16, 1949, with Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief (which NBC Radio had commissioned; it was one of the first operas ever commissioned specifically to be broadcast on radio). From then through 1964, the company would perform nearly 50 operas, including several commissioned by the network, beginning with Menotti’s Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors.

Not just for TV
Many of the operas were abridged in order to fit a 90-minute or two-hour timeslot, and all were performed in intelligent English versions to make them more accessible to viewers. And while most of the operas were broadcast on Sunday afternoons, there were exceptions, as the series garnered three Emmy nominations. Chotzinoff and Adler believed in the power of television to bring opera to a wider audience than ever before, and to that end NBC Opera Theatre developed a reputation for naturalistic acting, creative staging and camera angles, and handsome wardrobes and sets. It was, at times, more like musical theater than opera; director Kirk Browning described it as  "drama with music more than, you know, an opera on camera." It was a radical attempt to create a dynamic production for a "non-operatically experienced target audience."

NBC's efforts were warmly applauded by critics, and have long been cited as a cultural high point in television history, but it would be a mistake to assume that they were a smash hit on television. Amahl and the Night Visitors, which premiered on December 24, 1951 as the inaugural presentation of the Hallmark Hall of Fame, was a sensation (the broadcast was reviewed the next day on the front page of The New York Times), but in general NBC Opera Theatre struggled to find a commercial sponsor. Most of the time it was a sustaining broadcast, supported by the network itself.

However, when FTD signed on to sponsor the April 10, 1960 broadcast of Mozart's Don Giovanni, it brought the issue to a head and suggested the inexorable, inevitable conclusion. The 2½ production featured two of opera's great stars: Cesare Siepi, the rare European star who was also fluent in English, in his signature role as the Don, and American Leontyne Price. who had first appeared on Opera Theatre in 1955* and was now on the verge of international stardom, as Donna Anna. A sizable audience was anticipated, and—much in the same way that Hallmark always seems to sponsor television shows just before holidays that prompt people to send greeting cards—FTD thought this would be the perfect program to sponsor, with Easter the following Sunday.** It was an ideal example of Weaver's theory linking "prestige" TV shows with potential sponsors. But there was a catch: unlike Hallmark's uninterrupted sponsorship of Amahl (with a running time of less than an hour, Hallmark put their commercials before and after the opera), FTD insisted on five commercial breaks during the broadcast, requiring the cuts of three arias as well as the epilogue (although it would have been edited anyway to fit in the timeslot).

*Price's debut, in the January 23, 1955 production of Tosca, marked the first time an African-American had appeared in a leading role on a television opera. As might be expected for the time, several NBC affiliates refused to carry the broadcast.

**Sample commercial line: "Clothes are important to us girls, particularly at Easter—almost as important as flowers." The commercials, shown every half-hour on the half-hour, featured opera star Rise Stevens in a faux floral store setting, chatting casually with a florist on the benefits of selling flowers by telegraph.

While critics were in general praiseworthy of the production, and the witty English translation by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, the commercials came in for a roasting. The New York Herald Tribune critic Paul Henry Lang called the result "barbarous," the result of having to watch "idiotic acts of commercials." "Morally and artistically," he said, "this atrocity is ... reprehensible," "criminally unworthy of a nation that pretends to have a culture," and concluded with this salvo: "All right, ‘Send flowers to your loved ones’ but not at the expense of a great work of art. They will wilt and stink. Nature’s most beautiful creations have been used to harm a most beautiful creation of the human mind.” Winthrop Sargeant, in an otherwise mostly favorable review in the New Yorker, wrote of the commercials that "... rather than listen to Don Giovanni on these terms, I would prefer not to hear it at all."

However, Paul Hume, writing in the Washington Post, provided perspective on the whole affair. He was no fan of the commercials himself (the title of his review was "Don Giovanni on TV; Sponsor Routs Mozart"), but pointed out that if NBC Opera Theatre continued to be sustaining, it was probably that many affiliates would cease carrying it (150 stations cleared Giovanni, probably the most people ever to see the opera). "Under our system of television," he wrote, "that is the way things have to be," and added that "between having commercials and not having "Don Giovanni" at all I think there is no question as to which is preferable." Take that, Winthrop Sargeant!

The audio of the Don Giovanni broadcast

By 1963, average viewership of NBC Opera Theatre had reached 15 million; by comparison, last season's highest rated program, NBC's Sunday Night Football, averaged a little over 18 million viewers a week, but times were different back then. The number of productions each year steadily declined, even as the costs of each production went up. Voice of Firestone and Omnibus, the other two great cultural icons of television, were both gone. And, in an unexpected way, the network was the victim of its own success: in trying to create a new art form, in attempting to humanize opera , bringing the drama home to the viewer and making it more realistic for the small screen, they perhaps did their job too well. As director Kirk Browning noted, "we reached the point where the audience was saying, ‘Why are they singing?’"

Samuel Chotzinoff died in 1964, the same year the Beatles premiered on Ed Sullivan's show. And while Sullivan had always been a champion of culture, presenting many opera stars and excerpts of productions, it was never enough to enable televised opera to break through the cultural barrier. Chotzinoff's death meant the death of NBC Opera Theatre, and while opera hung on for a few more years, making occasional appearances on commercial television, the handwriting was on the wall. Soon studio opera was gone altogether, and any opera that did appear on television would come from the great opera houses themselves, not a television studio in New York City. It was a short lifetime, but what a time it was.

I'm indebted to Daniela Smolov Levy's Democratizing Opera in America, 1895 to the Present for many of the details concerning NBC Opera Theatre's techniques and sponsorship challenges.

NEXT WEEK: The story behind the classic Amahl and the Night Visitors. TV  

June 10, 2019

What's on TV? Monday, June 10, 1963

Perhaps it's just because it's a warm evening as I type this, but I have no trouble imagining that it felt like summer on June 10, 1963. (Checks quickly.) Well, actually, the high was only 73 on that date, so maybe it didn't feel so much like summer after. But a perusal of the news headlines gives us an idea of what we might be seeing on TV the next few weeks: Roman Catholic cardinals gather in Rome to prepare for the conclave that will eventually elect Paul VI; a high-level conference is set for July in Moscow to negotiate a nuclear test-ban treaty; Governor George Wallace prepares to block black students from enrolling in the University of Alabama; and black Muslims want to create a "Negro Nation" within the United States. Fortunately, there's none of that in today's listings, which come from Minneapolis-St. Paul.

June 8, 2019

This week in TV Guide: June 8, 1963

The show where nothing's sacred. That's how Robert Musel, TV Guide's man in the UK, presents the most controversial program on British television: That Was the Week That Was. One American columnist (not Cleveland Amory?) describes TWTWTW as "the best TV show in the world." And while that may be exaggerating things a bit, you can't deny that this series is a candidate in the "show that changed television" category.

The mastermind behind TWTWTW is 31-year-old Ned Sherrin, whom you may recall also created the hilarious late-70s PBS game show spoof We Interrupt This Week. The show, which runs at about 11:00 p.m. on Saturday nights (about, because the show doesn't have a specific starting or finishing time) is, in Sherrin's words, "an intelligent television commentary on the week's events, at a peculiar hour posed between the sores and sorrows of one week and the alarms and excursions of the next. What we wanted to do was to try to convert conversation that is worth listening to into television terms."

The show's host, David Frost (24 years old!) expands Sherrin's comments. "There is a good and serious purpose behind everything we do. We produce a funny show about important things. We cater to the people who like to think while they laugh. We try to be as frank on television as one is frank in conversation at home. Nothing, as long as it is important, is sacred to us. What we don't do is deal in trivialities and we don't hit a man when he is down." That's an interesting point, about people who like to think when they laugh. You may recall the piece I wrote a couple of years ago about satire, and how difficult it seems to be to get it right. I think one of the reasons for that is that many satirists forget to be funny—they use the cover of humor as license to proselytize. Not saying that TWTWTW wasn't that way as well, but the point is that Frost's idea is right, whether he always followed it or not. And that bit about not hitting a man while he's down—well, that's long since gone by the by in our culture, but it's a corollary to his remark about nothing being sacred: for satire to be effective, there has to be a sense of equality about it, that everyone is fair game. And by those rules, you don't hit a man when he's down—or a woman, for that matter, nor do you kick dogs and cats.

The Royal Family has not been exempt from all this, of course, although the bits are more gentle than they are against politicians: on a joint visit by West German Chancellor Adenauer and French President de Gaulle: "They went to Rheims Cathedral and inspected troops and graves—an appropriate gesture for two who had spent so many years filling the latter with the former." I wouldn't have laughed at that when it was originally on, because I was only two years old and didn't know anything, but I laugh at it today, because I get it—and because it's true.

As is the case with so many programs from across the pond, an American version of That Was the Week That Was was developed and aired by NBC, and even though it had the same David Frost as host, it didn't fare quite as well, for a myriad of reasons. In Britain, television broadcasting comes under the jurisdiction of the Postmaster-General (don't ask), and the current occupant of that position, Reginald Bevins, quite approves. "On the whole I think the program has had a fairly salutary effect. After all it is human nature. Most people like to see other people lampooned. When I was recently lampooned on it, my family laughed their heads off. And so did I."

Here's a feature on the show for when you have some spare time.

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Speaking of things sacred, some time ago I was walking through an antique store last weekend when I came upon a book with an unusual title: Hollywood Priest.  Face it, when you see a title like that you're going to pick it up, as I suspect the author intended. And that author, I was not surprised to find, was Fr. Ellwood Kieser.

I recognized the name immediately. In 1960, Kieser began a modest, low-budget program called Insight which, at the time of this unsigned TV Guide profile, was entering its third year, given free of charge to some 100 channels throughout the United States. Insight was one of those programs that always seemed to be on somewhere in the early decades of television, filling a gap between programs, usually on Sunday mornings. It might flit from station to station, and you might see the same episodes from time to time, but if you watched enough television you were sure to run across it eventually.

What made Insight unusual was not just its religious message—after all, Bishop Fulton Sheen had been a major TV star in the '50s and early '60s—but Kieser's ability to get major Hollywood talent, Catholic and non-Catholic alike (Raymond Massey, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Jane Wyatt, Irene Dunne, John Forsythe), who appeared for scale and then donated it back, acting on low-budget, minimalist sets. A typical story might involve an estranged family, a man contemplating suicide, or a woman tempted to shoplift - in other words, the drama of everyday life garnished with a moral message.  There are many conflicts in the 20th Century, but the basic conflicts are theological," Kieser is quoted as saying. "We have discovered that theological conflicts make great drama." Its tone might have been earnest but was not especially preachy or moralizing; nonetheless, in its low-key way, it got the point across. Early shows featured Kieser at the blackboard, Sheen-like, but by the second season he had evolved into giving Serlingesque introductions to each episode (though not, perhaps, quite as sanctimonious).

The tone of the article is admiring and respectful, with nary a hint of cynicism—almost too good to be true. Kieser is portrayed as unassuming and modest, perhaps a bit nerdy ("I've found actors give better performances if you feed them."), but with an undeniable presence, as indicated by the story of an unnamed non-Catholic actress who after one rehearsal, tells Kieser she's decided to join the Church.

His television fame brought him a job providing network commentary on what was then called the "Ecumenical Council," i.e. Vatican II., and led to his producing several faith-themed movies, including biographical portrayals of Archbishop Oscar Ramiro and social worker Dorothy Day. Insight itself wound up a 23-year run in 1983, winning six Emmys in the process.  

The book, which was written in 1991, also detailed another side of Kieser, one that a more cynical article might have hinted at back in 1963. Kieser's spiritual struggles in the wake of the changes wrought by the Council, including a romantic (but ultimately chaste) relationship with a nun—one of the hoariest cliches of the post-V2 Church. Kieser considered breaking his vows, leaving the priesthood, marrying (he did none of them). He dabbled in psychotherapy and the New Age. He lived in the limelight, rode the talk-show circuit, and enjoyed it.

In a telling story, Kieser relates how he was once accused by a conservative Los Angeles monsignor of being one of those priests who "start out playing around with the liturgy. Next you question church doctrine. You end up dating nuns." Said Kieser, "I was furious; partially, I guess, because I was doing all three."

Was this all present in 1963, when Kieser was a young priest on a television mission? Did the writer miss it, or choose not to look at it? Or was it all a product of the turbulent times, something just under the surface, waiting for the breakdown in discipline that the era brought, a breakdown that claimed many souls? (Would the same thing, for example, have happened to Bing Crosby's Fr. O'Malley after Going My Way? He is, after all, described in the movie as a "modern" priest.) We'll probably never know, but I'm reminded of the story of a bishop in the early 60s, one of the staunchest defenders of Church tradition, especially celibacy. In the wake of the Pill, he was confronted by a climate that suggested the Church was about to change its mind on many of the principles which the bishop had fought so hard to defend. By the time Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae came out in 1968, reaffirming the Church's opposition to birth control, the horses had been let out of the barn, so to speak.

The bishop wound up leaving the priesthood and marrying a former nun.

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The week that is to be—a nice turn of phrase, don't you think?—starts off on Saturday with the Belmont Stakes (3:30 p.m., CBS), being run for the first time at Aqueduct while Belmont Park is closed for renovation. Chateaugay, winner of the Kentucky Derby and runner-up in the Preakness, makes it two out of three with the victory over Preakness winner Candy Spots. On Hootenanny (7:30 p.m., ABC), which features in a pictorial in this issue, Jack Linkletter (son of Art) welcomes the Smothers Brothers, Oscar Brand, Shirley Abicair, and the Tarriers, in a show taped at Rutgers University. And while we're on the topic of universities, this week's combatants on Sunday's G-E College Bowl (4:30 p.m., CBS) are brainiacs from Temple and Bucknell. That's followed at 5:00 p.m. by a Twentieth Century profile of Frank Lloyd Wright, with Mister Ed and Lassie to follow. Remember when Sundays weren't filled from end to end with sports?

Monday sees The Rifleman preempted on ABC for As Caesar Sees It, one of Sid Caesar's occasional specials (7:30 p.m.), and I'd particularly appreciate the skit that shows the perils of pro hockey "for the spectators who get too close to the game." Meanwhile, singer Lena Horne and comic writer Abe Burrows are the guests on Password (9:00 p.m., CBS). On Tuesday, Jack and Rochester play cards to decide who does the household chores, on The Jack Benny Program (8:30 p.m., CBS), and you can guess who loses. At the same time on NBC, the late Dick Powell (who died in January of 1963) makes one of his last appearances on The Dick Powell Theater as a lawyer checking out the potential beneficiaries for a dying man. Powell's wife June Allyson, Edgar and Frances Bergen, Jackie Cooper, Lloyd Nolan, Mickey Rooney, and Barbara Stanwyck are the guest stars. Fortunately, with a cast like that, we're able to watch this episode via YouTube:

Perhaps the highlight of the week is Wednesday's special featuring Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett from Carnegie Hall (8:00 p.m., CBS). Yup, you can see this Emmy-winning special as well:

I like Thursday's Andy Williams Show (9:00 p.m, NBC), with Kate Smith as special guest; at the same time on ABC, Fred Astaire's Premiere casts Claude Akins and Roger Perry as Marines who find themselves in the middle of a Mexican revolution in the 1930s. And on Friday's Jack Paar Program (9:00 p.m., NBC), it's the story of President Kennedy's exploits on PT-109, as Jack shows films from the South Pacific where JFK's boat was sunk, and interviews Benjamin Kevu, the native who found Kennedy and the other survivors, Reginald Evans, who was responsible for their rescue, and 10 of the crew members.

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Finally, if the ghosts of the near future were present in the article on Fr. Ellwood Kieser, the ghosts of our near future might well have been present in an odd little story appearing on Sunday, June 9 on the Dupont Show of the Week. Entitled "The Triumph of Gerald Q. Wert," and starring Art Carney, the story presents us with a dystopian future in which—well, let me give you the description that appears in the listings:

Gerald Q. Wert, the only comedian left on earth, finds his talents in great demand. But plying his trade is dangerous. The totalitarian regime has decreed that making people laugh is a crime punishable by death. Now government agents are hot on his trail and a suspicious little boy has seen him hiding from the police.

Although there's undoubtedly a good deal of humor in this episode, it is not a comedy—far from it. And I can't help but wonder about this; couldn't find anything on Google about it, no clips on YouTube, so I'm forced to rely on this listing for my information, but I wonder how close we are to something like this today? The Thought Police and Speech Police are everywhere, the slightest suggestion of disrespect merits condemnation, and everyone seems a victim, sensitive about everything. We're quick to anger,slow to forgive, disinclined to understand or make allowances. Once we've reached that level of humorlessness, will we even need a regime to outlaw humor, or will we be content to do it ourselves? TV  

June 7, 2019

Around the dial

We’ll start this week with another look outside the classic TV blogosphere, beginning at Uni Watch, the website devoted to the obsessive study of athletic aesthetics. In this article, Paul leads off with a fabulous commercial for the 1968 Dodge Charger, featuring members of—who else?—the San Diego Chargers! Chrysler was a great sponsor of the American Football League, and it’s great to see an example of it in this commercial.

And if I didn’t need something else to remind me that I’m getting older by the second, Bryan Curtis has an article at The Ringer on “the present and future of broadcasting” as heard on the NBA finals. Since I’m not a basketball fan, I can’t speak firsthand; I can only read it and wonder if the days of Chris Schenkel were really that long ago.

At bare-bones e-zine, Jack wraps up his look at the Hitchcock works of James P. Cavanagh with the seventh-season story “Where Beauty Lies,” and a summary of Cavanagh’s output.

Hondo and the Hanging Town” does not sound good, especially if your name happens to be Hondo. Find out the exciting conclusion from Hal at The Horn Section.

David offers a reflection on actress Season Hubley that’s as fresh as a springtime morning, with a review of her many television credits providing some Comfort TV indeed.

At The Twilight Zone Vortex, Jordan celebrates the upcoming first day of summer with a retrospective on the several excellent episodes that prove “summers are always strange” in the Twilight Zone.

Opera Winfrey looks like something out of a dystopic dictatorship in the ridiculous getup she’s wearing on the June 3, 1989 cover of TV Guide. Find out what else is in that issue at Television Obscurities.

On the other side of the ocean: Paul Darrow, one of the stars of the British sci-fi cult classic Blake’s 7, died over the weekend at age 78. Terence has an appreciation of his career at A Shroud of Thoughts.

And that, my friends, should hold you until tomorrow.  TV  

June 5, 2019

When opera on TV was about more than just soap



One of the great pleasures I find in studying classic television is the era of staged drama—live and taped performances of plays, musicals, and opera. The nature of the television studio and its confined space, as opposed to the large-scale movie stage, requires innovative direction; the ability to create imaginative set design and utilize camera angles and close-ups allows a freedom not found in a theater or opera house. Of all these various forms of television drama, I find television opera to be the most interesting. It's a relatively brief period of time, covering less than two decades, but it illustrates a type of high culture that had once shown great promise, but has long since disappeared from television. 

I'm dedicating this month to a four-part look at the history of television opera: an overview of opera specifically designed for TV; a look at NBC's bold effort to provide opera on a regular basis; the story of the most famous of all TV operas, one that became television's first Christmas tradition; and the state of opera on television today. We'll begin with Jennifer Barnes's definitive study of opera commissioned for television.

Believe it or not, there was a time when it was thought that television could play an important part in the creation of a new and revolutionary art form. It was called the opera.

In 1952, NBC Opera Theatre prepared to present the American premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, which had been written only the year before. Based on the novel by Herman Melville, one of the opera’s most famous scenes contains a twelve-minute aria by John Claggart, the villain of the piece, “in which the Master-at-Arms delineates his hatred of Budd and reveals his determination to destroy him.” For the broadcast, producer Samuel Chotzinoff elected to excise the entire aria—partly because of the need to compress the opera into a 90-minute timeslot, but also because he felt television presented an opportunity to completely change the way operas were written. Through the use of close-ups and shadows cast by lighting, Claggart’s malevolent intentions were expressed—proving, Chotzinoff said, that a broadcast could “[accomplish] in a few seconds what the aria took twelve minutes to tell us.” The implications were obvious, Chotzinoff felt, thinking it “probably that the composers of the future, writing especially for television, will find no necessity for explanatory and illuminating solo arias, once they realize the revealing potentialities of the television camera.”

Television Opera: The Fall of Opera Commissioned for Television, by Jennifer Barnes, Boydell Press, 138 pages, $29.95

Samuel Chotzinoff certainly understood the visual power inherent in television, but his confidence that it would change the course of modern opera was more than slightly misplaced. In Television Opera: The Fall of Opera Commissioned for Television, Jennifer Barnes shows how such early promise failed to pay off, leaving TV opera, like live drama, a dinosaur of television’s past.

Barnes focuses her book on three specific case studies, all of them operas commissioned for television: Amahl and the Night Visitors, Gian-Carlo Menotti’s landmark Christmas story that was the first ever written for TV; Britten’s Owen Wingrave, which he wrote for the BBC in 1970 after having seen several of his operas adapted for television; and Gerald Barry’s The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit, a 1994 production that was intended to explicitly take advantage of technology that only TV could provide.

While the three operas share a common birth, they differ in substantial ways. For example, Amahl was broadcast live on Christmas Eve in 1951, with Menotti working almost until the last minute to finish the composition. Owen Wingrave was shot on tape, duplicating the feel of a live broadcast while enabling special effects and editing to ensure the best performance possible. Beauty and Deceit was filmed, giving it the look of a movie, and allowing for a production radically different from one presented on the stage of a theater.

In the wake of the success of Amahl (including a rare front-page review in The New York Times), the future of television opera looked bright indeed. NBC Opera Theatre had been a regular presence on the network since 1949, and would continue presenting a handful of operas each season up through 1964. Menotti’s career flourished, as he won two Pulitzer Prizes and received several additional commissions from NBC. While Britten had not been particularly thrilled with the network’s adaptation of Billy Budd (which was edited so severely that he demanded the broadcast be entitled Scenes from “Billy Budd”), he was happier with BBC adaptations of some of his other works, including Peter Grimes, for which Britten conducted the orchestra. While Billy Budd was taped, rather than live, Britten insisted that the music and singing be performed live, rather than dubbed in after the fact (which would become standard in the future, including in The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit).

While many of these productions won great acclaim, however, ratings were something different. Due to its enduring popularity, Amahl never lacked for sponsorship, but most of the other broadcasts were subsidized by NBC. Gradually the number of productions diminished, as did the commissions, until televised opera of any kind—not just that written for the medium—had all but disappeared. Public broadcasting, thought to be the safeguard of such cultural programming, started out with promise, but as government funding dissipated, it too felt the pull of ratings (and donor dollars) and opted for more “popular” programming.

The arts remained active, if not vital, on British television, and The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit was part of a series of operas commissioned by Britain’s Channel 4—with the requirement that they be written in such a way as to make a live performance all but impossible. In other words, the operas were not only written for television, but were meant to be performed only on television. The fact that Barry’s opera went on to an eventual staged production is almost immaterial; several critics suggested that it was intrinsically unsuitable for live performances.

Barnes’ choice of these three operas for close examination does not neglect the overall genre; indeed, they were chosen specifically to illustrate the arc traveled by opera commissioned for television. And while each one is interesting in and of itself, they take on an added dimension when considered as part of the whole, showing how a form of programming which once held such promise never truly fulfilled its potential.

As one might suspect, this isn’t a book to be read casually (though I must say I enjoyed it immensely), but while an appreciation of opera certainly helps, it isn’t absolutely required. Our cast of characters ranges from merely proficient to fascinating to colorful, and Barnes takes a close look at the inside workings of television, spending ample time on the choice of camera angles, why close-ups are sometimes good and sometimes bad, and how in the early days of TV a director’s job was considerably more difficult that it might seem. In doing so she reprints excerpts from several shooting scripts, showing the various stage directions and framings, and provides a glimpse at the challenges inherent in adapting a work for television—especially when the composer of said work is both alive and opinionated!

It may not be for everyone, but anyone wanting to learn more about a niche of television history that in a handful of decades went from accepted fact to invisible memory will find Television Opera not only the definitive resource, but an engrossing story as well.

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Here's the complete broadcast of 1952's "Scenes from Billy Budd"; the title change was demanded by Britten, who felt that Chotzinoff's various cuts, including the excising of Claggart's aria, had so changed the nature of the production that it was no longer the same opera. The quality of the recording is rough, but considering the historical significance of the broadcast, I think we can handle it.

For reference, here's the Claggart aria that Chotzinoff cut from the production, which has come to be considered one of the most significant in the bass repertoire. The bass in question is the great James Morris in a Met performance from 1997.

NEXT WEEK: A look at NBC Opera Theatre TV