November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving often seems like an underappreciated holiday, serving as little more than a warmup act for Christmas, and people seem eagar to get it out of the way so they can invade the stores in the dawn hours of Black Friday.  (Those stores that aren't actually open on Thanksgiving, that is.) . Back in the day, however, Turkey Day used to get a little more love.  And so this seemed to be a good reason (or at least a good excuse) to dip into the TV Guide archives for a look at Thanksgiving through the early 60s, as seen on TV.

This first picture below above is from Thanksgiving 1962.  Then, as now, the Thanksgiving Day Parade was a mainstay of both CBS and NBC.  As now, NBC was the network of the Macy's Parade, with longtime hosts Betty White and Lorne Greene.  CBS had the Macy's Parade too, but they also specialized in parades from around the country - the Gimbels' parade in Philadelphia (wonder why TVG gives this big press?  It's because their headquarters were in Pennsylvania) and the Hudson's parade in Detroit.  The department stores aren't around anymore, but both Philly and Detroit continue to celebrate the day with big parades. 

I always preferred the CBS coverage - Macy's was OK, but getting to see Detroit and Philadelphia (and later on Toronto's Santa Claus parade) made the day even bigger.  Back in the 60s Captain Kangaroo hosted the overall coverage from New York (William "Cannon" Conrad would perform the same function through much of the 70s), with CBS newsmen and celebrities alternating as hosts in the various cities.  Besides, seeing the Detroit parade would be an early tipoff to the weather for that morning's football game.

The next picture, also from 1962, is for the Pat Boone Thansgiving special.  Pretty good cast, although Peter, Paul & Mary seem a bit out of place.  Or perhaps Pat wasn't as much of a square as people thought. Notice the start time: 4:30 pm (Central time).  Doesn't seem likely any more that a network show would come on at that hour, not with the news saturation that local stations have today.

Here's another late afternoon special from 1961, with Al Hirt and a cast of thousands, or at least the popular singer Gordon MacRae, the opera star Patrice Munsel, and dancer Carol Haney.  "Home for the Holidays" - then, as now, Thanksgiving was the start of the Christmas season.  Notice that these ads prominently boast that the specials are "In Color!"

The holidays are always a time to bring back stars who haven't had regular series for several years.  Bonne was one, and the Old Redhead, Arthur Godfrey was another.  His 1963 Thanksgiving night special promises "a post-turkey pot of tea."  I imagine things were a bit muted that year, since JFK had been buried just three days previous.

Perry Como no longer had a weekly series in 1962, but his Kraft Music Hall appeared several times a year.  Since the show was always on Wednesday nights, his November special was always on Thanksgiving Eve.  (And that's exactly how it was described - putting Thanksgiving Eve on a par with Christmas Eve.)

Of course, you can't have Thanksgiving without football.  Look at how CBS advertises its game between the Colts and Lions in 1965:

I actually remember watching that game (I won't say how old I am now, but I was five back then).  The Colts and Lions battled to a 24-24 tie that pleased nobody.  Nowadays, I imagine the Lions would be pretty happy with that result.  And remember those Seagram's ads that used to appear with every major sporting event?  There were three games played that day; in addition to the Colts and Lions, the AFL game on NBC featured the Buffalo Bills and the San Diego Chargers, and ABC's college action was the traditional battle between Oklahoma and Nebraska.

It wasn't just television shows that advertised for Thansgiving - take a look at this ad for General Electric. I wonder how many families took advantage of the free heat 'n' serve baby dish for every baby born on November 28, 1963.  (Just think - that baby would be almost 50 today.)

Thanksgiving wasn't only a day, though - traditionally, it was one of the biggest television weeks of the season.  Check out the sidebar on the 1965 cover - from football to the Hallmark Hall of Fame, tributes to recently deceased Stan Laurel and Cole Porter, specials starring Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., a White House tour with Mrs. LBJ, and a James Bond documentary.  And this was before VCRs.
And this is just scratching the surface - for example, in 1962 the Bell Telephone Hour had special guest Carl Sandburg, the American poet and Lincoln biographer.  It seems to me that there truly was a sense that Thanksgiving was a time for the family to get together, and with a little of something for everyone there was no better way for quality family time than to sit in front of the television. TV  

November 10, 2011

The Bookshelf #1

Often I'll walk into a bookstore - Half Price Books, a chain in our area - looking to see what they have in the TV DVD section, and emerge instead with books about TV. (Imagine that - coming out of a bookstore with books.)

The thing is, I've often contended that just as you can learn more about an event by how it was covered on TV at the time than you can reading about it afterward, you can frequently learn more about television by reading about it than watching it. And so, from time to time, I'll dip into my bookshelf to take a look at some of the books that talk about television - its history, its shows, and its personalities.

A while back I shared my review of Gerald Nachman's Ed Sullivan biography, one of the larger-than-life personalities of television in the 50s and 60s. Today we'll take a look at another of those outsized figures, David Susskind, in Steven Battaglio's David Susskind: A Televised Life.

Today's TV viewer might not recognize Susskind's name at all.  Those of a slightely older bent possibly remember his talk show, which ran for over 25 years in New York and, through syndication, the rest of the country.  But for those of another era, the name David Susskind meant one thing: quality television.  Susskind was one of the most prominent figures in television of the 50s and 60s, starting out as a talent agent but soon evolving into one of the most prolific and respected producers of the time, particularly in the golden age of anthology television.  He was famous for specials - The Moon and Sixpence, The Power and the Glory, A Man is Ten Feet Tall, Eleanor and Franklin - television series - N.Y.P.D. (the original, not the racier NYPD Blue of years later), Get Smart, East Side/West Side - and movies - Straw Dogs, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and Fort Apachie, The Bronx.  For most of you, the names probably don't mean much, except perhaps for Get Smart, and maybe some of the movies, but in their time they were major accomplishments - event television, when there was such a thing.   (His company also produced the game show Supermarket Sweep, which failed to burnish his image but did help pay the bills.)

Susskind was short in stature, but an enormous presence in the entertainment business.  He was complex - a chauvinist who nonetheless employed women in high positions, a man who loved women so much that he couldn't stop even when he was married, a talk show host who prided himself on quality television yet became the godfather to hosts such as Phil Donohue.  He loved the art of the deal, he gloried in the publicity that his achievements brought him.  He was vain, but he was also talented - always a dangerous combination.

Battaglio captures the many sides of Susskind, his public and private achievements and failures, and he does so without falling into the "too much information" trap that many biographers do.  He presents a fascinating picture of the excitement of early television, of the days when sponsors ruled the programming roost, and the transition to the system we see today.  It's a valuable insight into a pioneer of television who deserves to be remembered.

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Here's author Steven Battaglio talking with Inside Media about David Susskind: A Televised Life.


November 1, 2011

Some more Requiem Masses for JFK (I know you've been waiting for this)

Today we’ve got some new and interesting footage of Requiem Masses from the time of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Granted, as a primary document this may be mostly of interest to Catholics and/or liturgical scholars, but from a television viewpoint there’s something very interesting as well.

The first one is from the night of the assassination, and was held at Our Lady Chapel in Los Angeles, which closed just a few years ago.  Charles Kuralt (perhaps taking time out from one of his two families?) is the correspondent, and the coverage begins just before the reading of the Gospel. I don't know about you, but that boychoir kind of gives me the creeps (but then I'm not a big fan of children's choirs anyway). Maybe it's just the tempo they use. Interesting that the closing hymn is the National Anthem - I think I have seen it in hymnals before, but from a religious standpoint "America the Beautiful" might have been better. Of course, people weren't seeing America as quite so beautiful that night, so we can probably give this a pass. The celebrant clearly appears to have been influenced in his speaking style by Bishop Sheen. His comments about JFK's personal life, in retrospect, are rather ironic. Also, is it just me or does he give more or less the same talk after the Mass as he does at the homily? Kuralt gives a dignified commentary. The Mass is on parts 39 and 40 of this series.

This second Mass is from St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on Saturday morning.(interestingly enough, this segment of the broadcast begins outside St. Francis Xavier church in Hyannis Port, where Rose Kennedy is attending yet another memorial Mass, although the network does not provide coverage of that.) I know from reading NBC's transcript of their assassination coverage that they also broadcast the Mass (this coverage, like all that we're linking to, comes from CBS). The Mass coverage from St. Patrick's begins at 4:14 on part 46 and continues on part 47.  We don't get the entire Mass here, but beginning a little over 7 minutes in, we hear a magnificent rendition of the stately Dias Irae. Notable also is that the Cathedral is using a symbolic catafalque, representing the deceased.

Of course, the coverage of various Masses makes perfect sense.  President Kennedy was the first (and so far only) Catholic president.  Catholics offer Mass daily.  Catholic churches, reeling with grief at Kennedy's death, were offering Requiem Masses (for the soul of the departed) everywhere. The networks were bound to gravitate toward them as an expression of Catholic mourning.  All well and good.

But I just find this whole religion angle fascinating.  Perhaps it's because I grew up in a time when religion wasn't verbotten on TV, or maybe it's from my research in old TV Guides and the like where I've seen that religious programming steadily decrease over the years.  On the other hand, there was a certain amount of religious programming shown in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, so it could be that we're simply seeing how a culture reacts to tragedy.

My own opinion is that there is still something unique about what we see here, the idea that religion is more a part of the mainstream broadcast culture, and that broadcasting these Masses is more organic than it would be today, but again, that's just me.  Watch it and see what you think. TV