April 23, 2012

Please Stand By

It's been very frustrating the last few days, with technical difficulties (read: computer) preventing me from updating both this site and the Our Word blog.  Hopefully, this will be corrected, at least temporarily, in the next week or so.  There's a lot to cover, including more classic TV Guides, a remembrance of Mike Wallace, and the sinking of the Titanic on live television.  So stand by! TV  

April 14, 2012

This week in TV Guide: April 15, 1961

Perhaps it was the fact that we shared a first name, or maybe it was the fascination a bouncing dot had for a small boy sitting in front of the television. Whatever the reason, I grew up a fan of Mitch Miller. I've been told that I was quite the sight, standing in front of the TV with my legs together, arms stretched out, waving my hands in imitation of Miller's famous conducting pose.  Ah, those were the days.

Mitch Miller was a singularly unlikely television star.  He was a classical oboeist, a studio musician, and head of recording for Columbia Records.  He worked with, and later feuded with, Sinatra.  He certainly had an eye for talent: his discoveries included Tony Bennett, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney and Johnny Mathis.  He had a knack for marketing: In 1954, the producers of the CBS TV anthology Studio One approached Miller in search of a song for a drama they were doing about payola in the music industry.  He gave them a ballad called "Let Me Go, Devil," and urged them to use an unknown singer (Joan Weber) rather than an established star.  The show was telecast (with the song now titled "Let Me Go, Lover"); Miller had shrewdly seen to it that store shelves were well-stocked with recordings of the song. It was a smash, and sold 500,000 copies in five days.

He made a few records himself, and had a big choral hit with "The Yellow Rose of Texas."  Yes, Mitch Miller was doing pretty well.  But there was one thing Mitch Miller didn't like: rock music.  It wasn't his kind of music, the music that had been so successful for him for so long.  So he decided to fight back, with what was called the "Sing-along" album, recordings of old favorites with the lyrics printed on the cover so listeners could sing along with Mitch and the gang.

And when Sing Along With Mitch debuted on television in 1961, Mitch Miller became a star.

Sing Along With Mitch was an instant, and surprise, hit, reaching #15 in its first season.  It slaughtered The Untouchables (perhaps the most violent program on television at the time).  It spawned the successful singing career of Leslie Uggams.  It introduced us to Bob McGrath, of Sesame Street fame, who was a longtime singalongers.  Not bad.

The show stayed on the air for three seasons, was seen in reruns through 1966.  The Christmas specials were always a highlight.  The records sold well.  Eventually, of course, the British invasion and the rock movement proved too much.  But Mitch Miller never really faded away entirely.  He was a pretty good, not great, player on Password.  He was a frequent guest conductor for the Boston Pops. (And wouldn't it have been interesting had he, and not John Williams, been chosen to succeed Arthur Fielder?)  A lot of people credit Miller with being the progenitor of karaoke.  OK, we'll give him a pass on that one.

Today I suppose it's hard to imagine a show like that being a hit, but then back in the day, almost anything was possible on television.  It's - well, it's unfortunate that TV, with its astounding technological advances, is in many ways far less advanced than it was when it depended on the incredible creativity of its pioneers.  But, as with so many other things, that's a story for another day.

There was one big show televised the week of April 15, and that was the Academy Awards.  Two things about that: first, it was shown on what was until the last decade or so its traditional night, which was Monday.  Second, it started at what was then the traditional time of 10:30 p.m. Eastern.  And when you think about it, that part makes sense - after all, it's hard to have the red carpet walk, with the flashbulbs popping, when it's still light out.  At 7:30 Pacific time, that wasn't a problem.  The show was only scheduled to run for two hours, and it only preempted ABC's detective series Peter Gunn.  Bob Hope was the host, for the ninth time.  And if you're interested, the winners were The Apartment for Best Picture, Burt Lancaster (in Elmer Gantry) for Best Actor, and Liz Taylor (Butterfield 8) for Best Actress.*  Definitely an adult-oriented group of films.

*No, I didn't have to look that up, either.

And back in my old home town of Minneapolis, the fans got to see the Minnesota Twins in their first-ever home opener, taking on the new team from their old city, the Washington Senators.

Indeed, those were the days. TV  

April 7, 2012

This week in TV Guide: April 6, 1968

artin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.  This isn't reflected in the programming for the week of April 6, which was already on the newsstands at the time of the shooting.  Its effects would be seen in subsequent weeks, however, along with the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy two months later, as a revulsion against television violence would manifest itself in rescheduled and re-edited programs.  Judging by looking at today's fare, the movement against TV violence didn't stick.

On the cover this week was Barbara Anderson, co-star of NBC's Ironside, along with Raymond Burr.  A quick perusal of programming for the week gives us some interesting listings.  The big show of the week was ABC's broadcast of the Academy Awards, which had been scheduled for Monday, April 8 but was rescheduled for Wednesday, April 10 due to King's funeral. (The winners: In the Heat of the Night, Rod Steiger, and Katharine Hepburn.)  The NBA and Stanley Cup playoffs were in full swing, with the hoopsters in the semifinals and the pucksters the quarterfinals.  Baseball season kicked off, with TV Guide's Melvin Durslag projecting the Twins and Cardinals in the last World Series to be staged before the introduction of divsions and playoffs.  (They were half right: the Cards were there, but they'd lose the Series in seven to the Detroit Tigers, Durslag's pick for second in the AL.)

There's another article referenced on the cover: "Yesterday's Quiz Winners - Today."  To put it in perspective, in 1968 it had only been a dozen or so years since the height of the quiz shows, which culminated in the scandals of the late 50s.  There are the usual suspects, those whose names have remained in the public eye to one extent or another: Charles Van Doren, the golden boy whose fall was the most spectacular of the scandal, and Dr. Joyce Brothers, an honest contestant who was already on her way to becoming America's most popular psychologist, the Dr. Phil of her day.  But it was the names of two other contestants that caught my eye.

Rob Strom and Leonard Ross were two of the most spectacular winners of the quiz show era.  Both were child prodigies: Strom, an 11-year-old science whiz who took home a cool quarter-million; Ross, a 10-year-old expert on the stock market whose winnings were more than $150,000.   When TV Guide's Dan Carlinsky visited with them in 1968, they were both on the road to success - Strom, now 21, had already graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard and was now doing graduate work, and the 22-year-old Ross had graduated from Yale Law School the previous year and was looking forward to a career in government.  (By the way, check out this interview with Ross and Mike Wallace in 1957.)  For each of them, the sky seemed to be the limit.  And so, I wondered, what had indeed happened to them?  Had they indeed fulfilled the potential that had been suggested in 1968?

In Rob Strom's case, it's hard to tell.  He doesn't have a Wikipedia entry, and while a Google search doesn't provide a definitive answer, it does give us some suggestions.  For example, there's a "Rob Strom" working (as of the mid-2000s) as a IBM Research Staff Member at the IBM TJ Watson Research Center, who was credited with several scholarly papers.  The brief bio in the abstract doesn't mention quiz shows, but this 1957 newspaper article mentions that IBM had already offered the 11-year-old a job in mathematical computer work when he grew up.*  Considering all this, I don't think it's unrealistic to suppose that this is the same Rob Strom. 

*I wonder if he had anything to do with work on the Watson computer that won on Jeopardy?  Wouldn't that have been ironic?

Leonard Ross, on the other hand, tells a different story.  Indeed, we know exactly what happened to Ross, and it's not a happy ending.  Maureen Dowd, back before she became as annoying as she is today, wrote this poignant 1985 column about Ross' death by suicide earlier that year.  He had, in fact, stormed through Yale; one classmate recalled that Ross "raised his hand and answered questions on torts and contracts with such lucid brilliance that . . . ''a chill went down the collective spine of the class.'''  After that he taught at Harvard and Columbia, worked for Jerry Brown in California, and worked in the early Carter administration. 

And then it fell apart.

Ross' torment was an awful one:  "Over the years, his friends had watched with horror as Mr. Ross's quicksilver mind moved faster and faster and his attention span grew shorter and shorter." Having been, as one acquaintance put it, an adult since childhood, he expected perfection and cut himself no slack.  He was compulsive about everything.  He became frustrated with government work once he discovered he wasn't able to really change things.  Eventually, nothing was able to hold his interest, and he couldn't even complete one project before starting another.  He attempted suicide, underwent psychoanalysis, took as many as fifteen medications a day, and even had an operation to "snip a circuit in the limbic system, the part of the brain concerned with emotion and motivation."

Nothing worked.  As one friend pointed out, perhaps the worst torment for Ross was that, due to his natural brilliance, he was fully aware of what was happening to him. His inability - helplessness? - to change things just made it worse.  Finally, on the last day of April in 1985, he walked into the pool of the Capri Motel in Santa Clara and was found the next morning face down at the bottom of the pool, with his arms crossed.  He was only 39. 

When we see child stars we always hope for the best, that they'll wind up a Mozart or Shirley Temple.  Too often it doesn't turn out that way.  Still, there was something hopeful, something wistful in that 1968 "Where are they now?" article.  We weren't talking about child actors or composers, but young boys whose intellect seemed to offer them the moon.  One wanted to find out that these two had fulfilled all that potential, had gone on to really make a difference.  Rob Strom likely accomplished a great deal, but Dowd's truly heartbreaking story shows that the gift that brought Leonard Ross his fame also resulted in his fall.  And that fall truly was tragic. TV  

April 4, 2012

The assassination of Martin Luther King - April 4, 1968

We do seem to dwell on death a lot at this site, don't we?  But there's no question the death of a prominent person provides television with some of its most dramatic moments.  Such a time was 44 years ago today, as we see with CBS' bulletin on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Note that in the five years since the assassination of JFK, CBS has changed its graphics.  Although they still use a modification of the repeating "CBS News" script, it is now a "Special Report" rather than a "Bulletin," a convention which is more or less standard today.  As a matter of fact, I can't recall the last time I saw an actual bulletin on TV*; the going concern nowadays is "Breaking News." 

*Actually, I think I do - it was in 1981, when ABC interrupted with the shooting of Ronald Reagan.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was not an elected official, a head of state or government; yet, such was the impact he made that his murder caused regular programming to be pre-empted, and his funeral would cause the Academy Awards to be postponed for two days. TV  

April 3, 2012

This week in TV Guide: April 1, 1967

Here's something you're not likely to see on television nowadays.  Thursday, April 6, ABC presented its latest episode of its anthology/variety show Stage 67.   This week: "A Time for Laughter: A Look at Negro Humor in America," produced and hosted by Harry Belefonte, and featuring Sidney Poitier, Godfrey Cambridge, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, and Diahann Caroll - to name a few.  I wonder what this show was like?  One sketch features Pryor as a nervous undertaker forced to deliver the eulogy when the clergyman doesn't show at the funeral, while another has Gregory as a civil-rights marcher discussing "Black Power."  Would we see this today as an example of ethnic African-American humor, or cheap racial stereotypes?

In all likelihood, it's a moot point: since the show was up against Dean Martin (this week's guests: Phil Harris, Sally Ann Howes, Paul Winchell, comedian Bob Melvin and the singing Kessler Twins), it's likely nobody saw it at all.  It was successful in one way though, winning an Emmy nomination for best variety special.

"Television Fights the War of Ideas," is one of the feature articles in the issue.  When I first saw that, I figured the author might be talking about how TV fights to keep ideas off the air, but in reality it's an examination of the United States Information Agency, the government's propaganda arm, and how it beams the American ideal into living rooms around the world.

The comely cover girl on the right is Cheryl Miller, one of the stars of CBS' series Daktari.  Her co-star on the right is Judy the Chimp, who was apparently quite the scene stealer (along with Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion, who had a stand-in lion for tough stunts).  I don't remember a whole lot about this show, nor do I remember Cheryl Miller.  In fact, until I ran across this issue, the only Cheryl Miller I knew of was the former basketball player.  She does not seem to have had a long career, and whenever TV Guide does a piece like this touting someone I haven't heard much of (for example, Laurie Sibbald, who played Sammy Jackson's girlfriend in the TV version of No Time for Sergeants*), I wonder if they were expected to become the next big thing, or if they were just actors and actresses filling a role.

*Not to be confused with the televised version of the play, which appeared on the U.S. Steel Hour, starring Andy Griffith and adapted by Ira Levin, who later would write something a little less gentle: Rosemary's Baby.

Dean Rusk, the U.S. Secretary of State, appears on an hour-long NBC news special which looks a lot like its Sunday morning regular, Meet the Press.  The main topic, of course: Vietnam.   CBS presents a repeat showing of its acclaimed production of Death of a Salesman, starring Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock.  It's one of the rare TV plays of the 60s that is available on DVD, and it's well worth watching.  CBS also reruns Frank Sinatra's special A Man and His Music: Part II, which is also on DVD and well worth watching, except for the part with Frank's daughter, Nancy.  And TV Guide's resident critic, Cleveland Amory, reviews Tim Conway's Western comedy Rango.  Ever heard of it?  Says Amory, "[I]f you've seen one episdoe, you've seen them all.  And although this is, in such a show, by no means bad news, the fact remains there are men still alive who claim to have seen several episodes.  They are not many, though, and they are fading rapidly."  That explains a lot.

Finally, does anyone other than me remember when CBS used to run what they called "National Tests"?  There was the "National Citizenship Test," the "National Driving Test," and on April 4 of this week, the "National Science Test."  Each of these shows came complete with an answer sheet for you mark your answers if you're scoring at home - or if you're just watching the show. TV  

April 1, 2012

Eisenhower's State Funeral, 1969

About Dwight D. Eisenhower, three distinct memories:

1. In his acceptance speech at the 1968 Republican National Convention, Richard Nixon starts off with mention of Eisenhower in the hospital, and that nothing would make him feel better than a Republican victory in November. “So let’s win this one for Ike!” The crowd roars.

2. In March 1969, Eisenhower is now gravely ill. Across the street from the South Minneapolis fourplex we live in is one of the regional headquarters of Northwestern Bell . (It has a large, rolling lawn that was just made for kids to have fun on, and we used to play football there on Saturday afternoons. This is, mind you, in the days before corporate buildings are fenced off from the rest of the neighborhood, or hidden within business parks.) I’m eating lunch (no school, it being what was at the time called Easter Break), and as I’m sitting at the table, we look out the kitchen window and see the flag on top of the Northwestern Bell building falling to half-staff. My mother nods; Eisenhower must have died.

3. Eisenhower, like Churchill, was quite the amateur painter, and many of his paintings were reproduced and sold in sets. We had one of those sets, along with a portrait of Ike – it wasn’t, as I recall, that we had an overwhelming affection for Eisenhower, but as Supreme Allied Commander he had won the war in Europe, and as the GOP nominee in 1952 he had ended 20 years of Democrat control of the White House, so in a Republican household like ours that was enough to generate some admiration, at least. At any rate, my grandparents worked at a department store just off Lake Street in Minneapolis , and they borrowed the Eisenhower portrait, which was framed. It was put in a front window of the store, which was otherwise bare except for yards of black fabric which had been draped along the bottom of the display. There may have been roses in the window as well; I can’t remember now. But this is the kind of thing that businesses used to do, at times of national mourning.

Eisenhower was given the choice, after his term ended, of the honoraria to be used - president or general.  He chose the later, which is why you'll often hear him referred to as "General Eisenhower" after his presidency.  Such is the case in much of the footage here.
Eisenhower’s funeral was, unless I'm wrong, the first American state funeral to be televised in color.  JFK had, of course, been in B&W; RFK's and MLK's hadn't been state funerals.  The procession to the Capitol took place on a rainy, cool Palm Sunday; the fact that people would have been in church probably accounted for the afternoon start.  CBS's coverage starts here, but we'll pick up the coverage with the Sunday procession.  You can follow the coverage with the succeeding segments.

An interesting footnote is that Eisenhower was also the center of attention in what has been referred to as the earliest surviving color videotape footage, as he appears at the dedication of NBC's new Washington facility in May 1958.  The color here is just brilliant; it would be completely realistic to assume that this event had been televised earlier today.  It also gives us another look at Ike, at the time the oldest man elected president.  We think of him as a figure out of the history books, but here he seems very much alive and relevant.  In many respects, he is more alive than the grainer, B&W footage of his successor a few years later.