December 29, 2011

TV Guide: New Year's Day, 1961

Back in the day, New Year's meant four things: Guy Lombardo at night, hangovers in the morning, the Rose Parade, and college football.

People change, and times change. Guy Lombardo has long since gone to his eternal reward, but the hangovers are still around. The Rose Parade is now in HD, probably soon to be 3D. The big sporting event now is an outdoor hockey game, and although the bowls are still going, the big game doesn't come along until a couple of weeks later.

So let's take a glimpse at what New Year's Day used to look like.  Welcome to New Year's Day, 1961.

The first thing you'll notice is that they seem to be celebrating New Year's on January 2. That's because the 1st fell on a Sunday, as it will this weekend, and traditionally the parades and games are moved to Monday.

Imagine what it must have been like to watch the Rose Parade in black-and-white.  Yet that's the way it was throughout the 50s; NBC, the pioneer in color broadcasting, is the only place you'll see the flowers in living color in 1961.  And don't forget to send in your order for those lifelike plastic roses.

Ah, Bess Myerson. The former Miss America was a sophisticated beauty, and a staple on game shows such as I've Got a Secret.  Bess Myerson alone might have been enough to make up for ABC's black-and-white coverage.

At this point in time, there were only four football games on January 1 (or January 2, in this case), and most of them overlapped: the Orange Bowl at 11:45, the Sugar Bowl an hour later, the Cotton Bowl at 2:30, and the Rose Bowl, the granddaddy of them all, at 3:45.  There were no night games, which is a big difference compared to today.  But the biggest difference, which football fans will notice immediately, is in who plays in these games.

The Orange Bowl, of course, was the first of the bowl games to go prime-time, two or three years after this game was played.  It's been a long time since either Missouri and Navy were New Year's Day contenders, but there's a good reason for Navy to be there: Joe Bellino, the Heisman Trophy winner, is their star running back.  A future Heisman winner, Roger Staubach, will be quarterbacking them the next three years.

For many years the Sugar Bowl labored under a self-imposed handicap: New Orleans, one of the most racially segregated cities in the country, was somewhat less than inviting to integrated teams.  Hence, the majority of Sugar Bowl participants came from the South, and for that reason, the Sugar had a tendency to pick more unlikely teams than the other bowls.  And for today's football fan, they wouldn't be much more unlikely than Rice Institue.  They seldom appear in bowls nowadays, but at one time Rice was a pretty good team, as their 1960 record of 7-3 would indicate.  They would lose this game 14-6, however.

In fact, perhaps the only team unlikelier than Rice is Duke.  Duke! Yes, the team that year-in, year-out has one of the worst records in college football, was a powerhouse in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Even in 1960, they were 7-2. And they'd come out on top here as well, beating the Razorbacks 7-6.

Well, maybe there's one other team even more unlikely than Rice and Duke, and that would be the Minnesota Golden Gophers.  If you're my age or younger, you likely weren't alive the last time the Gophers played in the Rose Bowl.  As a matter of fact, every team in the Big 10 - including Nebraska - has been to the Rose Bowl since the last time the Gophers were there.  Even Northwestern!  And Indiana!  And while it may be hard to believe today, the Minnesota Gophers were the National Champions in 1960, even though they will lose this Rose Bowl to Washington.  Reason?  In those days, the bowls were purely exhibition games - the national champion was chosen at the end of the regular season.  Incidentelly, Minnesota would return to the Rose Bowl the next season, becoming the first Big 10 team to make back-to-back appearances in Pasadena.  And that time they would win, defeating UCLA.  They haven't been back since.

One of the advantages to having the hometown TV Guide is the chance to see a charming ad like this, as a local brewery wishes the native sons well.  Kind of poignant, in a way.  Ah, but then, isn't that part of what nostalgia is all about? TV  

December 22, 2011

Christmas Greetings, 1962

Last year I shared some great stuff over at the Our Word site - a Christmas issue of a community magazine called, appropriately enough, "The Community News."  It was published in 1962 in Albert Lea, a town in southern Minnesota.  Although it isn't a TV Guide per se, it's one of those typical supermarket magazines that includes the TV listings for the week. 

And what's interesting about this issue is not the TV listings - I already had them in a 1962 TV Guide - but the ads.  It's as clear an example as you can find about how American culture has changed over the past 40 years. 

I linked to part one above; you can read part two here, followed by part three.  It would be fun to go down there and see how many of these local businesses are still around, wouldn't it? TV  

December 21, 2011

TV Guide: Christmas, 1977

In years past at the Our Word blog, I've taken a look at Christmas issues of various TV Guides, but I haven't done this for awhile.  So, with the big day just a few days away, let's go back thirty-four years, to Christmas week 1977 (when, as is the case this year, Christmas fell on Sunday), and see what's cooking besides the ham.

The saying, "It's the same, only different," could well apply to some of the programs of the week.  It's almost as if we see a shadow of today's Christmas in the margins of 1977.  For example, there's a Jean Shepherd story dramitized on PBS Christmas Eve - but it's not A Christmas Story, which of course hadn't even been made yet.  Instead, it's The Phantom of the Open Hearth, "an affectionate look at life in a 1940s Midwestern steel town," with Shepherd as narrator.  Now, if that sounds just a little like the setting of A Christmas Story, it should: the protagonist of the story is a boy named Ralph, who has a Father and Mother, and a friend named Schwartz.  Clearly, it's drawn from the same material, a preview of what we would see a few years later.

And of course what Christmas would be complete without a Frank Capra movie?  But once again, it's not what you think - not It's a Wonderful Life, which had not yet become the Christmas staple,* but instead Gary Cooper's classic performance in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, made ten years earlier.  In fact, I don't see It's a Wonderful Life anywhere in this TV Guide.  Perhaps it was on earlier in the season, or maybe it hadn't become so closely identified with Christmas - after all, the first time I saw it was in the middle of summer, when our ABC affiliate stuck it on in the middle of the night during a hold for one of the first space shuttle launches.

* It was, in fact, the ubiquitous showings of It's a Wonderful Life on virtually every television station known to man which led to its eventual exclusive showing on NBC.  With its removal from mass circulation, another movie had to be found to take its place: A Christmas Story.

There are other examples of not-quite-the-same.  The Boston Pops had their annual concert (which A&E televised up to a few years ago), but it wasn't Holiday at Pops - it was the decidedly un-PC Christmas at Pops.  There was Midnight Mass, but it wasn't from the Vatican - instead, it was live from the Cathedral of St. Paul, in Minnesota.  There was an NBA game on (only one, though, instead of the five we get this year), and it featured a team that isn't even around any more: the Buffalo Braves, now the suddenly-hot L.A. Clippers.  There was football, but not the NFL - they're playing on Saturday and Monday (and it's the playoffs, not the second-to-last game of the regular season).  Instead, it's the Fiesta Bowl (Penn State vs. Arizona State), which was a staple of Christmas until it moved to New Year's Day some years later.  And there's a Minnesota NHL game too, but it's the North Stars, not the Wild.  (And just to show that some things never change, CBS has a documentary on "Illegal Aliens in Los Angeles.")

Not everything was there-and-not-there, of course.  Channel 5, the ABC affiliate, presented a charming special at 6:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, called "The Flight of Reindeer 8," with Channel 5's anchors covering the event from the North Pole, including interviews with the elves and Mrs. Santa.  The George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol hadn't been made yet, but Alastair Sim's classic is there in all its glory, at 11:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve on Channel 4. 

What I find interesting, which I've commented on in the past, is how the Christmas season didn't end at midnight on December 26.  For example, there's the obligatory sappy Christmas movie, this year being Christmas Miracle in Caufield, U.S.A., but it was shown by NBC on the day after Christmas.  PBS had "A Child's Christmas in Wales" and "Christmas Around the World" on the same evening, and "An Elizabethan Christmas Celebration" on December 27 (right after William F. Buckley's Firing Line).

The week winds down with the Gator Bowl on Friday, in what was then it's traditional just-before-New Year's time slot (Pittsburgh vs. Clemson, which as I recall was a pretty good game).  Not a lot of football that week, but then there were only perhaps a dozen bowl games, as opposed to the orgy we have today.

It's an interesting week - as I've suggested, the most interesting aspect is the same-yet-different feeling that one gets when reading through the listings.  With Christmas Eve on Saturday and Christmas on Sunday, you don't quite get the flavor that you see when Christmas comes later in the week, but it still brings back memories.  We should be so lucky today. TV  

December 8, 2011

Another Christmas Carol?

A few years ago I wrote a piece for the great website TVParty! about the little-remembered series of TV movies produced by the United Nations.  (And, not coincidentally, designed to present the UN in the best possible light.)

In that article I spent a little space discussing the first and best-known of the movies, "Carol for Another Christmas," which aired on December 28, 1964.  It was a high-profile start to the series, with a sterling pedigree: written by Rod Serling, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, featuring an all-star cast including Sterling Hayden, Ben Gazarra, and Peter Sellers, and presented without commerical interruption by Xerox.

"Carol for Another Christmas" was probably the easiest of the four UN movies to research - there was more material about it out there, and since it was the first of the movies to air it created the biggest buzz.  (As is so often the case with ideas that don't quite pan out, the buzz is loudest at the beginning.)   It was also perhaps the most interesting of the specials, or at least the one that to this day carries the most fascination - probably because of Serling, whose name features most prominently of all the participants in the venture. 

"Carol" was only a part of the overall story of Telsun, the foundation that produced the movies for the UN.  But for those who want to know more about the television special that, even though (or perhaps because) it aired only once, has built up something of a cult following, here's a longer piece that gives more details about a movie that should have been much, much better than it actually was.  Far from being a Christmas classic, it was "a dreary, unsubtle rant" didactic, heavy-handed, shrill, with a plot that had enough holes for Santa to fly his sleigh through. 

That's not to say it isn't worth watching, and since it's readily available on what I call the "brown" market (videos that aren't commercially released, but aren't cheap knockoffs of commercially released videos either), it's well worth checking out, if for no other reason than to see what all the talk is about.  Methinks that those who are most fascinated by it - and presumptively impressed with it - probably haven't seen it yet.  But to each his own.  It did, after all, result in some lovely music by Henry Mancini.  Undeniably, "Carol for Another Christmas," like the rest of the Telsun movies, is a piece of TV history.  And as we all know, history ain't always pretty. TV  

December 6, 2011

The secret life of Frosty the Snowman

Regular readers of Our Word know that I generally devote most of December to writing about Christmas, particularly from a nostalgic viewpoint. And since this year will probably be no exception, I thought I'd reprint one of my favorite pieces, which actually isn't by me at all, but by my friend Peter.

Now, Peter is a pretty bright guy, so when he told me about the allegorical implications of Frosty the Snowman, I had to sit up and take notice.

I’d always enjoyed the cartoon in something of a nostalgic way, as part of the memories of Christmases past. At that, I thought the plot was kind of thin. I mean, a kid thinking they can take a train to the North Pole on Christmas Eve? Without bringing any money? And then there’s the phony magician, the talking rabbit, and – well, you get the picture. You didn’t watch Frosty for the drama, you simply basked in its warm sepia glow.

But then Peter asked me if I’d ever noticed how the story of Frosty was an allegory for the life of Christ.

“What?” I think I said.

“Sure,” he replied, and proceeded to document the ways:
  • His birth occurs in the dead of winter, much as Christ's birth is symbolized with the evergreen in winter (and obviously suggests miraculous life from a dead or virginal womb).
  • Frosty always says, "Happy Birthday!" when he comes to life...strongly suggesting a birth... and the tradition of birthdays probably comes from the celebration of Christ's birth.
  • Frosty’s self-sacrifice, going into the greenhouse to save Karen’s life even though he risks melting in the heat, much as Christ the Savior suffers and dies on the Cross.
  • The resurrection – Santa opens the door to the greenhouse and the winter winds sweep into the room, bringing Frosty to life, in the same way that the Holy Spirit (often portrayed in the Bible as a wind) enters the Tomb.
  • Frosty goes to the North Pole with Santa in his sleigh, as Christ Ascends into Heaven.
  • Frosty returns every year with Santa (“I’ll be back again some day,” he sings in the song.) Christ, having been seated at the right hand of the Father, will come again in glory.
Interesting, hm? Of course, Peter added, “some folks will read that and think I'm making too much out of a tenuous connection. Those people may be right, but I only say that to be polite. It would be too much of a coincidence, otherwise. It's obviously magicked-up (or kid-story-ified) to make into a neat little story for children, but the inspiration is obvious. The producers might not have wanted to make a Christian story, and that's certainly possible... however, they clearly used the Christ story as inspiration."

All of a sudden, the story starts to make sense, and what until then had been a fairly one-dimensional cartoon (literally, given that the rest of the Rankin-Bass cartoons were done in that three-dimensional animation) has become, in fact, a much deeper and more complex parable. Now, maybe this is like Pink Floyd and the Wizard of Oz in that everyone in the world already knew about this and I’m just finding out. I’d be interested to hear if anyone out there has noticed a similar religious vein to the story. And I’d love to be able to ask Arthur Rankin, Jr., the producer, if either he or Romeo Muller, the writer of the story, had any intentions of this.If not, of course, it’s just another example of how the Lord works through even the most common and ordinary means. TV