March 30, 2013

This week in TV Guide: April 1, 1961

Soap opera fans have always been known to be a loyal and hearty lot.  It might be hard for many to appreciate today, with the soaps all but gone from television, but in those first decades of TV fans were consumed by the stories of their favorite series, with a level of fanaticism perhaps unrivaled today, with stories of actors and actresses accosted on the street by fans furious over some misdeed they'd perpetrated in a recent story.

However, things reached a new high (or low) earlier in the year when CBS' The Edge of Night decided to kill off D.A. Mike Karr's faithful wife Sarah, by having her hit by a car while saving her small daughter from being run over.  Although it was actress Teal Ames' choice to leave the show in order to pursue work on Broadway, that didn't stop the show's devoted fans - over seven million each day, mostly housewives - from letting the network and the show's sponsors know how they felt about it.

CBS received 2,500 letters the the first week, and the mail was still pouring in as this article was written.  A "disillusioned" viewer from Columbus, Ohio wrote that she was finished with Edge, and with CBS.  "I had baked a Pet-Ritz cherry pie, but I could hardly eat it last night for supper after that terrible episode.  No more Pet products for me."   Meanwhile, a high school in Delco, North Carolina said that "Shakespeare himself did not create a more convincing cast of praiseworthy personalities," and wondered "what perversion of common decency prompted anyone to shatter such a team?"  One writer suggested that "you have these sadistic writers locked up in a safe place."

Here's that complete episode, including the exciting conclusion that triggered so much angst in the faithful.

This week's cover story is on Roger Smith, co-star of ABC's 77 Sunset Strip, destined to become one of the luckiest men in Hollywood in a few years when he marries Ann-Margaret.  But for now the focus is on Smith's penchant for being accident-prone - he tells author Richard Gehman that "I was sewed up 22 times before I was five," and since then was knocked out while playing football in college, has had nine car accidents, sprained his ankle doing a stunt for the show, and suffered a blot clot after bumping his head that was diagnosed only hours before it would have been fatal.
He's charming and engaging as he tells the stories, saying that "my mother used to say I would never live to be 21," but it seems less humorous in retrospect, when a few years later he was diagnosed with the neuromuscular disease myasthenia gravis; Ann-Margaret stepped away from her career to take care of him, before the disease went into remission in 1985. 


On ABC's Saturday Night Fights, Emile Griffith wins the world welterweight championship, knocking out Benny "Kid" Paret in the thirteenth round.  Just under a year later, on March 29, 1962, the two men would fight again (their third fight), and this time Griffith would deliver a twelfth round KO, putting Paret into a coma from which he would never recover; his death ten days later would start the death knell for regularly scheduled prime time boxing on TV.
Here's an interesting note about the NBA playoffs. NBC has Saturday/Sunday coverage, which wouldn't be particularly unusual, except: Saturday's tilt is Game 7 of the Western finals between the St. Louis Hawks (now in Atlanta) and the Los Angeles Lakers.  Sunday's game is Game 1 of the finals, between the winner of Saturday's game (the Hawks) and the Boston Celtics.  Two remarkable things about this: 1) St. Louis being expected to start the finals with no rest, flying from their home to Boston; and 2) the finals began on April 2.  April 2, people!  This year, the playoffs don't even start until April 20, and the finals begin between June 4 and 6.  That's two full months later than they did in 1961.  Of course, today 16 teams make the NBA playoffs; back in 1961, there were only eight teams in the whole league.

Making sure we give all three networks some coverage, The Masters begins on April 6, and CBS will be there next Saturday and Sunday with coverage of the final four holes.  To prepare viewers on what to watch for, PGA champion Jay Hebert* (pronounced AAY-bear) profiles those holes, and warns golfers that "there are no let-up holes at Augusta."  There was no let-up in the weather, either; rain forced the final round to be played on Monday, when Gary Player would win the first of his three green jackets, beating Arnold Palmer and amateur Charles Coe by one shot after Palmer double-bogeyed the final hole.

*Or, more likely, his ghostwriter.


Next, some scattered programming notes.

Saturday morning at 10am, Channel 11 presents a perfectly awful movie called Granny Get Your Gun which, believe it or not (and I'd rather not) was based on Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason novel The Case of the Dangerous Dowager, only without Mason.  It was said that Gardner wept when he saw it, which was one reason it was so hard to convince him to agree to a television series. Fortunately, he changed his mind.

Sunday night, CBS' G.E. Theater, hosted by Ronald Reagan, presents the iconic  French movie The Red Balloon, the charming story of a balloon that takes on a life of it's own.  This was unusual for G.E. Theater, but would not be unprecedented for CBS; three years later, perhaps inspired by this showing, The Twilight Zone would air the French short feature An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, which won the Best Short Subject award at the Oscars.  But back to The Red Balloon for a minute, or actually 34 minutes, which is the running time of the movie.  I wonder how much was edited from it to fit into G.E.'s half-hour timeslot?

It was shown in black-and-white on CBS, but was made in color, and here it is in its entirety, if you're interested:

Wednesday, Danger Man premieres on CBS, starring Patrick McGoohan as globe-trotting NATO agent John Drake.  This half-hour show will eventually morph into a one-hour series, renamed (in the United States) Secret Agent Man* which McGoohan would quit after three seasons to begin a new series: The Prisoner.  Now, die-hard fans of the series (like me) will argue endlessly as to whether or not John Drake is also The Prisoner's Number 6.  McGoohan did not have contractual rights to the name "John Drake," which  could explain why he always denied that Drake and Number 6 were one and the same.  Personally, having watched all 86 episodes of Danger Man/Secret Agent Man through to the 17 episodes of The Prisoner, I think there are too many similarities between the two - in manner, forms of speech, and the like - for there to be any doubt.  But that's just my opinion.


The teletype gives us some info on coming attractions, in this case two animated series, both among my favorites.  First, Hanna-Barbara is auditioning voices for the six cats in the upcoming ABC series Top CatSo far they've heard from Hack Oakie, Ken Murray, Stubby Kaye, Jesse White, Herschel Bernardi and the man who would, legendarily, eventually voice Top Cat himself, Arnold Stang.

There's also a note about CBS' upcoming Alvin and the Chipmunks, which would eventually air as The Alvin Show.   Now, to emphasize, this is not the Alvin and the Chipmunks of the recent movies, the chipmunks with an attitude (left), nor the pseudo-children version of the 80s revival (center); we're talking about the originals (right):

I know, I know, I'm showing my age.  Next think, I'll be telling kids to get off my lawn (one of the great things about condo life: no lawn).  But the original chipmunks had attitude enough - ever hear Dave yell "Alllllllvinnnnn"?  They weren't punks, they weren't the kind of kids you'd cross the street to avoid.  They weren't kids at all - they were chipmunks.  Oh well.  Classic TV wouldn't be so distinctive were there not so much to contrast with contemporary life.


Sunday April 2, is Easter, and there's appropriate programming for the day.  At 9am CBS presents Songs of Triumph from the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, followed at 10am by a Protestant service live from Riverside Church in New York City, the former home of William Sloane Coffin.

Also at 10, NBC has a live broadcast of the Mass, back at Holy Cross in Boston, celebrated by Richard Cardinal Cushing.  (Which leads me to believe the musical program was on tape - otherwise, you'd think one network would have carried them both.)  The broadcast of the Cardinal's Mass is only scheduled for an hour, which seems awfully short for an Easter Mass - I surmise it may well have been a Low, rather than High, Mass.  And locally, Channel 11 presents a live broadcast at 11 from the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Mark in downtown Minneapolis.  (I've been in that church, which is architecturally stunning.)


And on that note, for those of you celebrating, have a happy Easter, and we'll see you in a few days. TV  

March 28, 2013

Around the dial

Another week, another great series of posts in classic TV land.

Classic Film and TV Cafe has a nice piece on one of those actors whose name doesn't necessarily sound familiar, but his face will ring a bell: Harvey Lembeck, who I remember as Corporal Barbello in the classic Phil Silvers Show.  And by the way, Rick's celebrating Spring Break over at the blog - be sure to check it out!

Remember the movie Special Bulletin? Over at TVParty! (disclosure: I write occasionally for this site) Jim Longworth has an article on how the movie's message on TV news is as relevant as ever.  I remember watching this movie back in 1983, and was fascinated with the intricacies of TV news coverage - pro and con.  It was a pretty good movie, and a reasonably plausible story - better, I thought, than 1994's Without Warning.  Or maybe it was just that the ending, downbeat though it might have been, was better.

Noir and Chick Flicks comes up with another noir classic: After Tonight, starring Gilbert Roland and Constance Bennett.  But can it really be noir with a happy ending?  And Michael's TV Tray reminds us again that nothing's new, with a look at the 80s Showtime series Brothers, one of the first series to feature a major character who was gay.

Classic Sports TV and Media comes back with another clip from my childhood memory bank: with a twist. the 1973 NCAA basketball championship game, between UCLA and Memphis State, was the first to be played (and broadcast) in prime time, and also the first to be played on Monday night after a tradition of Saturday finals.  The twist is that I was only able to see the conclusion of this game, thanks to KCMT, Channel 7 in Alexandra.  The explanation: back in 1971, Minnesota had abandoned the single-class high school tournament in favor of a two-class system.  For those first few years, however, the tournament concluded with an overall championship game between the winners of the two classes.  The Class A and Class AA championship games were played on Saturday, with the overall title game played - you guessed it - on Monday night.  At the same time as the NCAA finals.  And was broadcast on the only TV channel in the area, which happened to be an NBC affiliate.  Hence, for several years I had to suffer through the Final Four being preempted in favor of the high school tournament on Saturday, and the championship game being joined in progress on Monday.  I still nurture the bitterness.

Have a great Easter weekend, everyone - see you on Saturday for a trip back to 1961. TV  

March 26, 2013

Advertising flashback: Twinkles

A 1961 TV Guide ad for Twinkles, the storybook breakfast cereal. The back cover of TV Guide was usually reserved for cigarette ads – I wonder how much General Mills had to pay to get this prime space?

Twinkles the elephant was created by Total TV, and although it never had a series of its own, it appeared as a frequent commercial on many of the cartoons of the day, particularly Linus the Lionhearted.  Eventually the FCC blew the whistle on Twinkles ("this isn't entertainment - it's advertising!")*.

*Try telling that to the ad executives who come up with the Super Bowl commercials.  And do you really want us to believe those viewers are less impressionable than kids?

Personally, I don't think there's much doubt that the "well-intentioned" reformers of the '60s caused the end of local kids' TV, and I don't know that the late-60s FCC ruling that banned commercial tie-ins wound up doing much good.  Subsequent changes in the law wound up giving us cartoons that weren't anything more than half-hour commercials anyway (G.I. Joe, Pokémon, etc.), so in the end these laws probably did more harm than good.  (A debatable point, to be sure, in case anyone wants to pursue it.)

Because of the FCC, Twinkles never appeared in syndication, but you can get a glimpse of him (her?) in this clip:

Twinkles wasn't the only breakfast cereal with a TV tie-in, though - check out this wonderful page for more of your favorite animated cereal characters. TV  

March 23, 2013

This week in TV Guide: March 27, 1965

I'm often fond, when writing here, of quoting the old French saying, "plus ça change, plus c'est la même" - the more things change, the more they stay the same.  And as I've read through these TV Guides, I find that more and more to be the case.  Last week it was gun control; this week it's politics.  (And keep in mind, as always, that the following discussion is not meant to be partisan, just to illustrate what I mean.)

For example, take the following quote: "When I was a boy, a liberal was one who looked upon the state as . . . a necessary evil, to be watched night and day. Today, a ‘liberal’ is likely to be one who looks upon the state as a panacea.”

Since we’re reviewing a TV Guide from 1965, you probably think that’s when this quote was authored, and that the point is to show how little things have changed in nearly fifty years. (Any guest on Fox News might say the very words today without changing even a comma, and nobody would blink an eye.)  But in fact that quote comes from 1947, predating this TV Guide by almost twenty years.

Spivak with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi
The man who said that was at one time one of the more recognizable faces on television, but today it’s unlikely you’ve heard of him unless you’re my age, or even older, and that's a shame because he was one of the major figures in early television, someone whose influence continues today. His name was Lawrence E. Spivak, and for thirty years he was the moderator and power behind Meet the Press. Spivak, along with Martha Roundtree, created Meet the Press for radio in 1945, and added a television component in 1947.  At the time he wrote the above, he was publisher of The American Mercury, a conservative magazine founded by H.L. Mencken.  Spivak fought vigorously against Communism and what he saw as its infiltration of labor unions.  He wrote against government control of the media, and advocated kicking the Soviet Union out of the United Nations.

Nowadays, Spivak has buried any personal ideology in the name of fairness.  "I couldn't maintain my position as an impartial interviewer in the eyes of viewers if they knew my political philosophy or position on any particular issue," he tells writer Edith Efron.  Instead, he positions himself as "anti-everybody," with no one escaping his public grilling.  And yet, when pressed, he will give us an insight into his personal opinions.  "I still think that the conflict between the individual and the state is the big problem of our time," he says.  "The question I ask is: How much freedom are we willing to sacrifice for how much economic security?  I fear that if we keep allowing the Government to handle more and more of our problems, we'll get into trouble."  Conservatives would probably accept this verbatim, and if you substitute "national" for "economic" when discussing the sacrifice of freedom, you'd probably describe every liberal's concern about the Patriot Act. "The old-fashioned liberal originally was a fighter against concentrated power in the Government," he concludes, echoing his comments from 1947.  "But the contemporary liberals are seeking more concentrated power." 

Efron says of Lawrence E. Spivak that his "heart is where Barry Goldwarter's is, his head is where [Socialist] Norman Thomas's is," meaning that Spivak is conservative in idology, but has the temperament of an anarchist who doesn't want to be told what to do.  And that seems to me like a pretty good combination.


How about this charming KSTP news quiz?  This is the kind of thing you see in free coffee store papers nowadays.  Can you answer all the questions?  (Presumably you could if you watched the Channel 5 news.)

1) 120 days.  Four months.  If only.

2) Msgr. James Shannon.  Shannon, who died in 2003, was an interesting figure.  I spoke with a priest who'd been in the seminary at the time Shannon was a teacher, and he said that although Shannon was considered a liberal, he was a staunch defender of orthodoxy, speaking at length about why the Catholic Church couldn't do some of the things its critics wanted it to do.  However, his life was turned around by Paul VI's encyclical Humane Vitae, which reaffirmed the Church's stance on artificial birth control.  It's possible that Shannon, who'd defended tradition so long, was rocked by the decision and lost faith with the teaching authority of the Church; I don't know for sure.  Anyway, his decision in 1968 to step down as Bishop and resign from the priesthood (and eventually marry) rocked the Church.  He remained a Catholic, but continued to speak out in favor of liberal causes.

3) The Gophers finished in second place, behind top-ranked Michigan, which made it all the way to the NCAA championship game before losing to UCLA, 91-80.


During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..

Ed Sullivan: Scheduled guests: comedian Sid Caesar; singer Bobby Vinton; comedian Jackie Vernon; impressionist Marilyn Michaels; comedian Bob King; Les Marcellis, acrobats; and Little Anthony and the Imperials, singing "It Hurts So Bad."

Hollywood Palace: Host Tony Randall; comedian Allan Sherman, who parodies the hit recording "Downtown"; romantic singers Nelson Eddy and Gale Sherwood; songstress Vicki Carr; the Supremes, vocal trio; Japanese comic Pat Morita; the Marthys, tumbling acrobats; Mendez's high-wire act; and a wrestling match between the Hangman and Victor the Great, a Canadian brown bear .

Allen Sherman (1924-1973) was Weird Al before Weird Al was born.  He was a brilliant song parodist; very funny, but even more, witty, and clever.  (He also created the game show I've Got a Secret, which had nothing to do with music, but was very successful.)  His biggest hit was "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah," which I listened to over and over again when I was but a kid.  Ed may have the bigger names this week, but based on my affection for Sherman, I'm going to give the edge to The Palace.  That whole episode is on YouTube, by the way - here's the clip of Sherman with host Tony Randall, including the aforementioned version of "Downtown."


Remember Pat Priest, the attractive young woman who played Marilyn on The Munsters?  (Hint: she was the normal-looking one.)  There's a profile of her this week, and as usual the best part about it is learning something new.  Did you know, for example, that Pat's mother was Ivy Baker Priest, former Treasurer of the United States (and Mystery Guest on What's My Line)?  Or that her then-husband, Pierce Jensen, was a Naval aide at the White House?  In fact, when the young couple were married, one of their gifts was a silver tray with the inscription "To Pat and Pierce from President and Mrs. Eisenhower."

Recognize the name now?
Pat Priest didn't have a huge career after The Munsters - she didn't even appear in the feature-film version of the show (the role instead went to Debbie Watson, who was under contract to the studio), and retired in the 1980s.   Pat and Pierce divorced two years after this article appeared - I wonder who got the tray?

TV Teletype gives us the news that the Alfred Hitchcock Hour is going off the air at the end of the season.   It was at the time the longest-running network anthology series of all time*, having run for 10 years in total - "five years on CBS as a half-hour, two years on NBC as a half-hour, two more years on CBS as an hour, and a year on NBC as an hour."  Ah, for the days when sponsors controlled more programming.

*It may well still hold that distinction, since anthology series have pretty much disappeared over the years.  Anyone know?

Melvin Durslag, TV Guide's most frequent sportswriter, has an interesting feature on the brand-new "Harris County Domed Stadium" in Houston, to be better known as the Astrodome.  It cost the then-heady sum of $31 million, which might pay for a restroom in one of today's modern palaces.  The stadium, besides having a plastic room, also has "de luxe boxes" on the top level of the stadium - what we'd today call luxury suites.  It doesn't yet have the plastic grass, though, and there's a good story behind that.  Originally the Dome was constructed with translucent plastic panes, in order to let enough light through that real grass would still grow.  The problem was that the plastic created a terrible glare for outfielders trying to follow the flight of a fly ball.  No problem - the offending panels, which comprised maybe a quarter to a third of the dome, were painted over.  The glare disappeared - but so did the amount of sunlight needed to save the grass, which died and was painted green for appearance's sake.  The next year it would be replaced by Monsanto's new product - Astroturf.


Romper Room, the classic kids' show, features in many of our 60s TV Guides.  In Minneapolis Romper Room starred Miss Betty, but in this WEAU ad, the hostess is Miss Yvonne.  A lot of kids had crushes on the various hostesses, but I don't think Yvonne would have been my type.


Quick sports note: baseball is just around the corner, as the Astrodome article would suggest.  On Sunday a couple of the CBS stations have a half-hour feature on the defending World Series champs, the St. Louis Cardinals.  St. Louis had been 6½ games out of first place with only 13 games to play, before Philadelphia's monumental collapse allowed the Cards to capture the National League pennant in a tight four-team race, and then go on to defeat the New York Yankees in the Series.  But there was even more drama ahead, as the Yankees fired first-year manager Yogi Berra following the Series and replaced him with - Johnny Keane*, who had managed the Cards to the championship and then quit, fed up with what he saw as a lack of front-office support.  It seemed a great move at the time for Keane, but who was to know that he'd arrived in New York just in time to preside over the collapse of the Yankee dynasty?  Injuries and aging stars spelled the end for the Bronx Bombers, and after finishing in 6th place during Keane's initial season, they came out of the gate in 1966 with a record of 4-20, and Keane was fired.  The Yankees would go on to finish in last place for the first time, and Keane died of a heart attack before the end of the year.

*Appearing on NBC's Today the next morning.


And then there's the story of, as the cover calls it, the season's most jinxed show.  It was CBS's variety ensemble show The Entertainers, which was supposed to star Carol Burnett, Bob Newhart and Caterina Valente.  How could this go wrong, right?  For starters, Burnett injured her back in October, putting her out of action for 10 weeks.  The famed comedienne Imogene Coca was signed to fill in for her; she sprained an ankle.  Bring in dancer Gwen Verdon, who promptly broke her foot.

Bob Newhart complained that the studio audience was so young it didn't get his humor.  ("I mentioned Wernher Von Braun* in one routine, and it was obvious from the response that few in the audience had heard of him.")  The producers managed to calm Newhart down enough that he agreed to stay on until Burnett was able to return. Caterina Valente was supposed to appear in Europe in November and December, and so she'd pretaped her spots, but she wasn't available to do anything more.  Ernest Flatt, the choreographer, quit to work on Mitzi Gaynor specials.

*Von Braun, the famed German rocket scientist who helped make America's manned space program a success, was the subject of a movie based on his autobiography called I Aim at the Stars, starring Curt Jurgens as Von Braun, which is being shown on Tuesday at 11:30pm on WEAU, Channel 13. The British, mindful that Von Braun also designed the V-2 rocket that the Germans used during their terror bombing, joked that it should have been called I Aim at the Stars, but Sometimes Hit London.

When Burnett's doctors did allow her to return, she was promptly sued by the producers of her Broadway musical Fade Out - Fade In, who claimed her absence had cost the show $500,000.   All of this, in and of itself, could perhaps have been overlooked if the ratings had been good, but they weren't.  As a result, the show broadcast on March 27 was its last.

Valente remained a singing star in Europe for some time, and was frequently on the Dean Martin Show.  As for those other two, Burnett and Newhart, your guess is as good as mine. TV  

March 21, 2013

Around the Dial

My apologies in advance for a short summary this week, but to be honest, I've got a headache and staring at the computer screen isn't the thing I want most to do today.  But that isn't going to stop me from sharing a couple of favorites.

Classic Film and TV Cafe has a terrific interview with David Hedison, who played Captain Crane on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and appeared as Felix Leiter in a pair of James Bond movies.  Voyage is one of those shows that I enjoyed as a kid, but doesn't wear as well today.  Nevertheless, I maintain an affection for it, and I might just grab a season or two on DVD if I see them on the sales table.  I did not know that Hedison had originally been approached to play Captain Crane in the movie version of Voyage, more's the pity.  (The role was instead played by Robert Sterling.)  Regardless of the merits of the stories, he and Richard Basehart (as Admiral Nelson) were a great team.

Appropriately for today, Classic Sports TV and Media has a retrospective on television coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament.  To give you an idea of my age, when I started watching the tourney there were only 24 teams, and the phrase "Final Four" was only a colloquialism, not a trademark.  Unlike many people, my interest in the tournament has eroded over the years to where I have virtually no interest in it today, but I still enjoy looking back at the "good old days" when a team had to be of truly championship caliber to make the "Big Dance," and the Final Four had room for schools like New Mexico State, Jacksonville, Western Kentucky, San Francisco and (my personal favorite) St. Bonaventure.  This also hearkens back to the days when TVS was a major player in college basketball coverage.  Jeff's piece is, for me, another welcome trip down memory lane.

And be sure to check out the Classic TV Blog Association for details on this week's blogathan tribute to Valerie Harper.  I don't really have anything to contribute so I'm not taking part, but for fans of Harper, there's some very good stuff.

That's all for today - I'm going to take a couple of aspirin and see you back here Saturday! TV  

March 19, 2013

Humor break

This was originally posted as one of our infamous Onion-esque pieces at Our Word and Welcome to It.  But is it really parody?  You be the judge.


Science: TV Causes Death 
Researchers Report 100% of Viewers Will Die

(Television City, Hollywood – June 23) Television – for generations a welcome guest in homes the world around, regarded by many as no less than a trusted member of the family – is now revealed to be something more: a transmitter not just of entertainment and information, but of the Grim Reaper.

In a study sure to shock the nation’s television viewers to their very souls, researchers have discovered a deadly link between television viewing and mortality. “The facts are undeniable,” according to lead researcher Theodore Varnis of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Regardless of your age, sex, race or religion, if you are or ever have been a television viewer, you will die.”

According to the results of the study, based on viewing trends beginning with the advent of television broadcasting in the 1930s up to the present day, an astounding 100% of those who have ever reported watching television either are already dead or will eventually be dead. “The pioneers of television – Farnsworth, DuMont, Sarnoff – all died some time ago, which isn’t too surprising considering the amount of time they spent in front of the tube. “ What did stun researchers, Varnis continued, was the low amount of exposure to television required to produce the fatal results. “It doesn’t matter how much you watch,” Varnis said. “A few minutes a day, or several hours a week. Even if you do nothing but sit in front of your television set all day, the mortality rate is no different than it is for the causal viewer. Which is to say, 100%. So, I guess, watch as much as you want.”

And it doesn’t do any good to cut back on the amount of television you watch, Varnis added. “This is not like smoking, where those who quit can expect to reverse the effects. Our study shows conclusively that TV viewing is fatal – no ifs, ands or buts.”

Varnis went on to dash any hopes for those clinging to some possibility of good news from the report. “We thought there might be some link to the type of programming, so we set up a control group and subjected them to every type of programming imaginable, from Laurence Olivier to Paris Hilton, Bill O’Reilly to Johnny Carson. We gave them comedies, dramas, variety shows, sports, documentaries, movies, news - what have you.” But, Varnis said, years of research from the control group generated but one answer. “No matter what kind of shows we had them watch, the results were the same – death.”

A fellow member of the research team, Hugh Davidson, spoke of the pathetic deaths many members of the control group underwent. “With some people death was the result of illness or the body simply wearing out. Others were the victims of accidents, violent crimes or natural disasters. It just indicates how pervasive this is, that it can infiltrate every aspect of human life with its insidious toxins.”

The only people apparently exempt from this deadly link are those viewers who are currently alive, but Varnis and Davidson discouraged any thoughts of complacency on their part. “While it is true that they may think they’re in perfect health today, they should not let themselves be fooled by this,” Varnis said. Make no mistake – they will die.”

“We don’t think it stops there,” Davidson added. “We’ve also noticed that pets, houseplants, virtually every living thing found in the homes of television viewers also experiences this type of mortality. Can no one rid us of this cold-blodded, heartless killer before it is too late? O tempora! O mores!”

Varnis said that a future study would be aimed at the collateral effects of television on non-watchers, referred to in the scientific community as second-hand viewing. “The question is whether the ecosystem has been contaminated to the point that that it affects even those who shun television. Our goal is to find out just how fatal this second-hand viewing has become.”

“We’re not trying to cause an all-out panic,” Davidson said in conclusion, “but people need to know what is happening to them.” He said that the research team planned to present their findings in a live televised three-hour town hall meeting next week, to be carried via satellite on all broadcast networks.

March 16, 2013

This week in TV Guide: March 18, 1967

The relationship between television and boxing has always been a complex one.  At the dawn of television, boxing was a major sport - more popular than professional football, comparable to baseball and college football - and it was a mainstay of early TV.  It was cheap to broadcast, easy to televise, and had a ready-made audience, and all three networks (four, if you include DuMont) had regularly scheduled boxing shows which garnered huge ratings and made bartenders the country over very happy.  By the mid-60s, however, prime-time boxing was gone from the networks - a victim of massive television overexposure, mob involvement, fight-fixing scandals, and deaths in the ring.  Oh, fights were still to be found - mostly on Wide World of Sports and CBS Sports Spectacular - but the big-time championship bout was already headed for the world of closed-circuit, pay-per-view broadcasting, which is what makes Wednesday night's heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and Zora Folley all the more interesting.

The fight, which Ali would win via a seventh round knockout, comes during a transitional stage in the broadcast of heavyweight championship bouts.  The fights had been steadily moving to closed-circuit TV broadcasts, shown in movie theaters or other large auditoriums, since the late 50s.  Many of Ali's greatest fights - his defeat of then-champion Sonny Liston in Miami, the "Fight of the Century" against Joe Frazier, the "Rumble in the Jungle" versus George Foreman, and the "Thrilla in Manila" rematch with Frazier - were broadcast on closed-circuit.  The broadcasts made Ali and his promoter, the infamous Don King, a lot of money.

However, at this point you could still catch a heavyweight title fight on home TV if you were lucky.  Maybe Zora Folley wasn't a big-enough draw (even though he was the number one contender), or possibly it was too soon to ask people to plunk down money for an Ali fight - he'd previously defended his title just seven weeks before, winning a 15-round decision against Ernie Terrell in Houston on February 6.  At any rate, the prime-time broadcast of the first heavyweight title fight to be held in the famed Madison Square Garden since 1951 came not via a network, but on a syndicated hookup of stations,* with the great Don Dunphy at the mike, and Win Elliot doing the color. You notice on the ad that Ali is also referred to by his former name, Cassius Clay - even though it had been almost two years since Ali had changed his name, many people still refused to refer to him as anything other than Clay.

*Prime-time boxing was pretty much confined to syndication by then, with title fights in many weight classes being shown on an irregular basis.

This was Muhammad Ali's last title defense for some time - in fact, it was the last time he would fight, under any name, for over three years.  He would be stripped of his title the following month for refusing induction into the Army, and remained in boxing limbo until his first comeback in 1970, when he fought and defeated Jerry Quarry.

Home broadcasts of heavyweight title bouts would make a comeback as well, ironically with Ali at the helm of many of them (the ones not big enough to go to closed-circuit).  Eventually, though, they would disappear again, to be replaced by another kind of pay-per-view, as cable TV became the main delivery mechanism for championship boxing.

Here's the original broadcast (complete with commercials!) of Ali-Folley, one of the last big fights held in the old MSG.  Coverage starts about 40 seconds in, with the pre-fight introductions.


During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..

Ed Sullivan: Scheduled guests: singer-dancer Jane Powell; the singing Lovin' Spoonful; bandleader Cab Calloway and his singing daughter Chris; the comedy team of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara; Country and Western singer Johnny Rivers; comedians George Carlin, Jackie Kahane and Dave Allen; and the balancing Hoganas.

Hollywood Palace: Host George Burns presents the musical King Family; singer Lainie Kazan; Italian opera star Enzo Stuarti; Desmond and Marks, English music-hall comics; and Baby Sabu the elephant.

Ugh.  Not an inspiring week for either show, but Sullivan gets the nod with Cab Calloway, Johnny Rivers (C&W?  For this guy?) and George Carlin.  Perhaps the better decision would be to wait until Thursday, when Dean Martin's guests include Buddy Greco, Louis Prima, Bob Newhart and the McGuire Sisters.


Speaking of variety, Jackie Gleason is once again the cover boy for this week's issue.  He's in the midst of his fifth season with his eponymously-named variety show, telecast from Miami Beach, and Ted Crail's article gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the preparation for the show.  Gleason is pretty much invisible until the day of the taping, when he swoops in and takes total command.  Gleason insists on the hours, and also the control - "There were comedians who relied on everyone else" he tells Crail.  "They only got in trouble."

And Ethel Merman makes a rare television appearance on Sunday night, starrin in NBC's adaptation of Merman's Broadway hit Annie Get Your Gun along with Bruce Yarnell (Outlaws), Harry Bellaver (Naked City) and Jerry Orbach (Law & Order).  This seems to be the week for clips, so here's one from the broadcast, brought to you by "Your Gas Company:


It always seems, in looking at these old issues, that we run into one of those "nothing ever changes" moments.  This week's comes to us in two parts.

First up is an NBC news special on Sunday night entitled "Whose Right to Bear Arms?"  At least the producers don't pretend this is anything other than an advocacy piece; says producer Fred Freed, "There are almost no real restrictions on buying guns.  You don't have to travel very far to accumulate an arsenal."  The show cites some outrageous examples of how easy it is to pick up a gun - in one place, if you don't have the cash you can use trading stamps.  And I like how the network arranges the spokesmen: the gun control advocates include President Johnson and Senators Kennedy and Dodd (the elder), while the opponents, in addition to the NRA, include "a Grand titan of the Ku Klux Klan and the speaker at a neo-Nazi rally in Los Angeles."  I wonder how this program would do with James Hagerty's creed for newsmen we looked at a few weeks ago?  Nah, no bias there.

The second is an entertaining exchange that takes up the entire Letters to the Editor section, concerning critic Cleveland Amory's review of ABC's The American Sportsman.  Amory, no fan of sports hunting, was disgusted with the show; three letters appear in support of Amory, three in opposition.  Jack Nicholas of North Hollywood likes Amory's "excellent and obviously heartfelt review," and Barbara Jager of Los Angeles adds, "Enough of cruelty."  On the other hand, Warren King of Bridgeport, CT writes that Amory "seems incapable of giving The American Sportsman an impartial review, and prefers to use it as a means to express his personal attitude toward hunting under the guise of public outrage," and Robert W. Sniegocki of Brooklyn says that if Amory would ever get out from behind his desk and into the outdoors, "it will make a man out of him."


This ad probably wouldn't make much sense to people today, unless you're of the same bent that I am.  But the audience in 1967 would have immediately gotten the reference to The Untouchables - not just the word play, but the style of clothing as well.  After all, the series itself had aired on ABC as recently as four years ago, and many local stations continued to carry it in syndication well into the early 70s.  But today?  Maybe some people would think of The Incredibles, but otherwise the joke probably falls upon deaf ears.

It reminds me of a cartoon strip from years past called Scroogie.  It was done by the late Tug McGraw, the former Mets and Phillies pitcher, and Mike Witte, and centered around a left-handed relief pitcher named Scroogie who played for a team called the New York Pets. (And any resemblance between said character and the left-handed relief pitcher McGraw was purely intentional.  I always thought Scroogie was probably baseball's version of Barney Miller, but that's another topic.)  Anyway, in the cartoon I'm thinking of, Scroogie is dealing with a potentially serious arm problem.  "It's over!  My career is over!" he laments to a teammate.  "I mean, who on earth would want a one-armed baseball player?"  At this point another teammate comes in with some news: "Scroogie, there's a Dr. Richard Kimble here to see you."  (Rimshot.)

When I first read that I assumed Kimble had to be some kind of famous doctor of the past come to look at Scroogie's arm, but if so the joke wasn't really very funny.  It wasn't until later that the lightbulb went on and I made the connection.  It would have been hilarious, if a bit cliched, in 1967.  In the late 70s and early 80s, my initial reaction probably wouldn't have been that unusual.  Today, with the growth of DVDs and nostalgia TV, most people today would probably get it right away.

I love how ads like this one can be so firmly rooted in a time and place.  They tell you about far more than just the products they're pitching.


There's no doubt about it - color TV, the wave of the future, is here.  If you've followed your TV Guide listings over the past months, you've noticed more and more shows being broadcast in color, and this year the networks have moved to all-color for their prime-time lineups.  And yet, there's still trouble in paradise, according to the TV Guide editorial, which challenges the networks and producers to "set up color standards they all can and will follow."

Viewers are fed up, say the editors, with having to keep fiddling with dials and buttons because "some commercial producers turn out film or tape with higher color intensity than others," some using "film that accets blus and others film that boosts reds."  The networks, the editors assert, can't even agree on what color flesh is.

It's generally agreed that "before long nearly all homes will have color sets."  Isn't it time, therefore, for everyone to come together to make sure these sets provide the quality that viewers expect?  "Color is great," TV Guide concludes, "and we've been among its most enthusiastic supporters for many years."  But "color will not be completely satisfactory to viewers until they can be freed from constant dial twiddling."  

The twin developments of digital television and high definition are amazing for many reasons, but even more than the astounding detail, their greatest contribution is that the viewer no longer has to deal with ghosts, interference waves, strange color tints and the like.  It's something that younger viewers can't even imagine, but for those of a certain age it's little less than a miracle. TV  

March 14, 2013

Around the Dial

So, what's new on the classic TV blogosphere this week? A few items of interest:

This is not about to turn into a decorating site (which is what HGTV used to be before it turned into the real-estate-channel-where-you-have-to-have-a-brother-cousin-cohost), but I do have an affinity for mid-century modern, and when that's combined with television - well, the Broadcasting Archives at the University of Maryland shows you the happy picture.

Great piece about the origins of the Dick Van Dyke show at How Sweet It Was.  At the risk of sacrificing my position as classic TV blogger, I have to admit that I was never a real fan of the Van Dyke show.  Oh, the parts that dealt with the office - Rob, Buddy and Sally - were always funny.  No, it was the home life, and Mary Tyler Moore, that left me cold.  Of course, I wasn't a fan of her show either, so I guess it follows.

Speaking of MTM, TV Gems has a very nice story on Valerie Harper, who is facing terminal cancer with a brave heart and encouraging words.

Kliph Nesteroff has another terrific interview, this time with John Barbour. It sounds strange to say that I only remember Barbour from a show I didn't watch, Real People, but after reading part one of this interview, I know a lot more.  Great stuff.

That's it for this week - see you on Saturday! TV  

March 12, 2013

Habemus Papam on TV

In case you hadn’t heard, the papal conclave begins today, and within a few days – perhaps, even, by the time you get around to reading this – the Roman Catholic Church will have a new pope.

Dating back to the 13th Century, the conclave, in which the cardinals* of the Church gather to deliberate and vote, is steeped in tradition, ceremony and secrecy.  It seems a throwback to another era entirely - the white smoke coming out of the temporary chimney, the cardinals emerging from the Sistine Chapel, the Cardinal Protodeacon appearing on the balcony to announce the name of the new pope.  And yet, for all its medieval trappings, the ritual has translated amazingly well to television.  In fact, if we look back at papal elections in the TV era, we see that the ceremony has remained essentially the same - it's the rest of the world that changes.

*Those under the age of 80.

Paul VI, June, 1963.  The cameras capture the chimney silhouetted against the Roman sky, the white smoke signaling the good news.  The breaking news is, as always, in black-and-white.  The crowds are polite and respectful, as always.

John Paul I, August, 1978.  Everyone thought the smoke was black, or at least grey - even if you don't speak Italian, you can tell that the broadcasters were as stunned as everyone when the doors swung open.  The look is similar, but the broadcast is now in color, and the cameras capture a closer look at the new pope.  The crowd is appropriately excited, not quite as restrained as 15 years before, don't you think?

John Paul II, October, 1978.  Only two months later, and not much has changed other than that the balcony is bathed in spotlights to illuminate the fall evening.  Note that at the 1:31 mark, as Cardinal Felicci announces the new pope's first name, "Carolum," you can hear ABC's analyst, Fr. Vincent O'Keefe, whisper, "The Pole!  Wojtyla!"  Considering that few outside the conclave thought Wojtyla a contender, it speaks to how well-prepared Fr. O'Keefe is in his preparation.  The crowd doesn't know quite what to make of this new, "foreign" pope, but roars its approval at the choice of his name, in honor of John Paul I.

Benedict XVI, April, 2005.  Here we see perhaps the greatest evolution in coverage.  The cameras are now more at eye level, rather than giving us the feeling of looking "up" at the balcony.  There are more closeups as well, and by the time the pope leaves the balcony (not seen here), we're actually looking over his shoulder at the cheering crowds.  The crowds themselves are less inhibited than we've seen in the past, with applause almost entirely replaced by cheering.

It's difficult to know what to expect this year.  It will be in high-def, which is an advancement.  I would expect we might have even more camera locations - perhaps even one on the balcony itself. The crowds will be large, I suspect, but this is a strange situation, with the pope having abdicated rather than died; there's a sadness, but of a different kind, and without that closure I wonder if people will be as enthusiastic as they have in the past.
Regardless, in a few days we'll have our answer - along with the name of the new pope.  I'm excited not only to see who he is, but how it's covered.  Time will tell.

March 9, 2013

This week in TV Guide: March 11, 1961

We've been on a bit of a run with 1961 issues lately; this is the third in the last four weeks.  But who could pass up a chance at an interview with the widow of Eliot Ness?

The Untouchables was perhaps, up to that time, the most violent weekly series ever seen on television.  It was ostensibly factual, based on the real-life story of Eliot Ness, the U.S. Treasury agent who did much to break Al Capone's bootlegging operations during Prohibition, and his small group of trusted, incorruptible agents, nicknamed "The Untouchables."  Ness' autobiography*, written with Oscar Fraley in 1957, was adapted into a two-part presentation on Desilu Playhouse and became a weekly series on ABC in 1959, running for four seasons.

*The book might be seen, in today's parlance, as "inspired by actual events."  Fraley wrote most of the book, embellishing stories and adding fictional characters to the extent that in the closing credits to The Untouchables, it's referred to as a novel.  The 21 pages that Ness himself was responsible for were, for the most part, straightforward and factual.  The book was released shortly before Ness' death of a heart attack in 1957 at age 54.

It's inevitable that a show about G-Men battling mobsters would be a rough one; it was not a world for the faint of heart.  I have to admit to The Untouchables as one of my favorite shows of the era.  It's an entertaining, fast-paced program that doesn't require a great deal of thought, but is a great deal of fun.  The bad guys generally get theirs in the end (except for Bruce Gordon's Frank Nitti, who is always foiled but never captured - and a good thing, because Gordon's menacing performance is always a highlight of the episodes in which he appears), and the show avoids introducing soap-opera elements into the lives of its leads, the downfall of many a modern series.  The level of violence is actually fairly mild at the beginning of the series, but ramps up quickly as it goes on, and it isn't long before we see Ness' men smashing illegal liquor stills, tommy guns blazing, bodies dropping everywhere.  In comparison to today's television, though, the violence is milder than a baby's chicken broth.

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In a fascinating article (which might well have been ghosted by Fraley, who lived until 1994), Elisabeth Ness reminiscences about the real Eliot Ness, and shares her thoughts on the TV series.  She likes Robert Stack's performance as Ness; Stack "has the same quietness of voice, the same gentle quality that characterized Eliot.  At times, even Stack's small mannerisms are similar."  He's a bit more serious than the real Ness, but she adds that "Mr. Stack has been given less to laugh at than Eliot found in real life."

She's also a fan of the program and never misses it, even though by this time the show has strayed so far from real life that "I no longer know what it will be about."  However, even though the stories may be fictional, Mrs. Ness says "they are, in spirit, the same - the enforcement of law and order, the fight against exploitation of the law-abiding members of society, the hunting down of criminals."  Eliot's admirers, she says, "should not feel let down."

The real Eliot Ness was quite a figure - charming, vital, charismatic.  He was three-times married (Elisabeth was the third and final Mrs. Ness), and - ironically, for a man who made his reputation fighting bootleggers - was a heavy drinker who used to frequent bars and amaze people with his tales of crimefighting.  He held a Master's degree in criminology and was one of the first law enforcers to use the lie detector, he helped pioneer the use of two-way radios in police cars, he was an early advocate for civil rights and a crusader against juvenile delinquency.  He was a fan of art, the theater and ballet - but also boats, cars and the Indy 500.

Most of all, Elisabeth Ness writes, Eliot should be remembered as a man of integrity and principle, an independent thinker, and a man who "was a practical do-gooder."  He enforced the law, but "never tried to reform the world.".


No Sullivan vs. The Palace this week, as The Hollywood Palace is still just a glimmer in the eye of some television executive.  Ed's guests this week, in case you're wondering, are (in a tribute to St. Patrick's Day) musical comedy star Tammy Grimes, actor Pat O'Brien, Irish tenor Brendan O'Dowda and the Clancy brothers with Tommy Maken, folk-singing group, and Irish harpist Mary O'Hara.

Did Ed have the best variety show of the week?  Saturday's Lawrence Welk show is also a St. Patrick's special, with the regular cast.  On Tuesday, Garry Moore's guests are singers Dorothy Collins and Steve Lawrence, and comedian Bob Lewis.  Perry Como countered on Wednesday with actor Don Amache and singer Frances Langford.  Ernie Ford welcomes singer Gordon MacRae on Thursday.

For my choice, I'm going with Friday's Bell Telephone Hour, an exploration of music inspired by William Shakespeare, with Shakespearean expert Dr. Frank Baxter hosting an hour featuring opera stars Patrice Munsel and Joan Sutherland, musical theater star Alfred Drake, ballet dancers Violette Verdy and Jacque d'Ambroise, and Sir John Gielgud with dramatic readings.  Not bad, if you ask me.


Since this is the third 1961 issue in the last four weeks, we should be pretty familiar with the programming guide, so let's focus the rest of our time on the information in what I used to call the "shiny section."

The shiny section always enjoyed casting the spotlight on the most attractive new starlets, and this week is no different.  There are profiles of two: Asa Maynor, "an up-and-coming TV actress," had a brief career and was married to 77 Sunset Strip's Edd Byrnes, before retiring become an executive at NBC and interior decorator.  However, the other was Lee Remick, and she turned out to have a pretty good career for herself.

Is the President overexposed?  That's the question the "For the Record" section asks.  On Sunday, February 26, JFK appeared on the premiere of the CBS documentary series Accent, where he discussed fellow New Englander Robert Frost.  On Tuesday night, he was the subject of the NBC White Paper JFK: Report No. 1.  Wednesday saw all three networks carry taped coverage of his press conference.  (These were the days before presidential press conferences were shown live.)  Thursday he was on that Life magazine anniversary special I referenced a couple of weeks ago.  He was also seen throughout the week in taped appeals for the Red Cross.  Today, regardless of who the President is, I'm sure people of all parties would be relieved if he only appeared this often.

Speaking of current events, the New York TV Teletype advises us that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has alerted networks of "a probable attempt to launch a man into space from Cape Canaveral in early spring."  They speak of a suborbital flight, about 250 miles downrange - the same flightplan that was recently followed by the chimpanzee Ham.

NBC's The Nation's Future plans a debate between movie producers Dore Schary and Otto Preminger on the subject "Should the movie industry be forced to classify its films?"  The show, which eventually aired on April 29, had Hollywood bad-boy Preminger arguing that movies should be rated, but that the film's producer should be the one responsible for the rating, and that the government should have no involvement whatsoever.  Schary thought ratings were a bad idea - after all, what producer would want to classify a film as "not suitable for children."  To Schary's thought, such a rating would offer no difference between a pornographic film and one that was simply worthy of mature viewing.  Which is, in essence what we've wound up with both the X rating and the NC-17, which most producers regard as the kiss of death.

Finally, "if a sponsor can be lined up," ABC plans to debut its Saturday sports anthology program on April 29, with a bullfight from Seville, Spain.  The show did indeed debut on April 29, but instead of the bullfight, it carried live coverage of the Penn and Drake relays.  And thus was the start of ABC's Wide World of Sports.


Back on February 16, ABC Close-Up presented a documentary on the first week of school integration in New Orleans.  Entitled "The Children Were Watching," it was, by all accounts, a pretty unsparing look at the anger and racism expressed by the parents of schoolchildren, while those very children watched and learned the attitudes of their parents.  That provoked the following letter to the editor from Mrs. John R. Lepak of Santa Ana, California:

The first time I saw a Negro was when I was seven.  In fact, it was my seventh birthday - the day my home town was liberated from the Nazis.  He gave me the most precious birthday present a person could receive.  At the time, I thought the candy he gave me was the best present I ever had.  But, of course, now I realize he gave me my freedom, which is by far more precious.  So why can't people, like the people in Little Rock and New Orleans, give the Negro his freedom?   I hope that programs like "The Children Were Watching" will continue and open the eyes of people so they can take a good look at themselves.  I'm sure they'll be shocked.

That was only 52 years ago.  At the time, the educational institution where I currently work prohibited black students from enrolling, a situation they wouldn't rectify for another year.  They're currently commemorating 50 years of integration, and while it's laudable, perhaps if they'd spent a little more time looking at themselves, as Mrs. Lepak suggests, instead of the color of their student body - well, perhaps change would have come a lot earlier.  I wonder, if they could watch this documentary today, if they would see themselves still in the images? TV  

March 7, 2013

Around the Dial

Another great selection of stories around the Net. Let's take a look at a few, starting with our CTBA colleagues.

How Sweet It Was has a delightful piece on classic TV show ads.  Many of these come from TV Guide, while others come from other sources.  I've killed many hours over the years looking at ads like these.  They tell you so much about a show, and do much to place them in context.  Great job!

Classic Sports TV and Media brings us back to opening day of the USFL.  I wanted this league to succeed, I really did.  I've always liked upstarts: the ABA, the WFL, the WHA, the AFL.*  I far prefer Canadian football to either the NFL or college football.  The USFL's problem was that it wasn't different enough, didn't offer enough innovation.  It was just another version of the NFL, with different uniforms, a few different cities, and a couple of rules tweaks, but nothing more.  And the quality of play wasn't that high, either.  Oh, well.  Still good memories.

*Even though the Packers were my favorite team, I never had the animosity toward the AFL that so many NFL fans had.

Classic Film and TV Cafe presents classic TV SciFi from A to Z.  I note approvingly that there are two references to Doctor Who; D, for Dalek, and W, for Who.  Some fun stuff there.

A new addition to the group, Random Ramblings of a Broadway, Film & TV Fan, presents a pretty neat encounter with Sarah Karloff, daughter of Boris, the wonderful voice of The Grinch and the host of the 60s series Thriller.  Random also has a nice obituary of former One Day at a Time star Bonnie Franklin.

The always entertaining Awful Announcing has a hilarious (because it's true) list of everyone who could do commentary on the NHL and the Chicago Blackhawks.  But then, after what that fool Stephen A. Smith did the other night, almost anyone could do a better job.

Finally, Television Obscurities reports that PBS is doing a best-of on Hullabaloo for their latest pledge drive.

That's it for today - see you back here Saturday! TV  

March 5, 2013

Close Up: How The Beverly Hillbillies explains your salvation

A while back I’d made an offhand comment that 1965 might well be the year that defined the decade of the 60s; prior to that, much of the 60s still depended on the 50s for its definition; after that, the 60s devolved into the disintegration of everything familiar, an era that continued well into the 70s.

And so perhaps it’s appropriate that we take a closer look at the Malcom Muggeridge article I mentioned at the end of this week’s TV Guide review (March 6, 1965), because I think there’s more to this piece than we can get into in the regular “This Week” format.

Muggeridge, although he once claimed to have no sense of humor, was widely known as a wicked satirist; the New York Times referred to him as a “caustic social critic.” He’d been the editor of the British humor magazine Punch, and he was rarely at a loss for words – or targets of that caustic criticism. He wasn’t afraid of being outrageous; witness his 1957 Saturday Evening Post article “Does England Really Need a Queen?” which, needless to say, created something of a stir back home.

However, there was always a serious subtext behind Muggeridge’s humor, and this side became more pronounced as the 1960s evolved. He became an outspoken critic of the counterculture, especially the drug and sexual revolutions. By the time of his 1966 book Tread Softly for You Tread on My Jokes this more serious side was much in evidence, so despite the TV Guide cover’s promotion of Muggeridge’s article as “a renowned critic’s witty report on the British passion for American TV” (and in fact the dry Muggeridge wit is certainly visible), I think it fair to assume that Muggeridge was really talking about something much more profound, especially regarding the spiritual evolution (or devolution) of British and American society.

The premise of this article is an analysis of why The Beverly Hillbillies has become the most popular program on British television. This is due in large part, according to Muggeridge, “precisely because they are so tremendously American.

The fact is that we Europeans, whatever we may say to the contrary, are crazy about everything American. Indeed, I sometimes think that the more anti-American we purport to be in attitude, the more Americanized we tend to become in our tastes, our speech and our attire.

OK, so that’s easy enough to follow. There’s long been a school of thought that anti-American attitudes are born of jealous as much as anything. (Whether this is still the case, or that in the intervening 50 years American culture has earned that antipathy on its own is another question.) But just what is it about the Hillbillies’ American-ness that makes such an impression on Brits – or fellow Americans, for that matter?

Muggeridge suggests that there is an innocence about the Hillbillies that appeals to a cynical populace. “We, too, yearn after wealth which does not corrupt; after an innocence which triumphantly survives the possession of riches.” Jed may have hit the jackpot with that oil strike, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed either he or his family, “constantly on the edge of succumbing to the lures of luxurious living, but always at the last moment pulling back and resuming their old, virtuous ways.” There is an irony to this, though, in that our cynical selves would rather admire the virtuous than emulate them: “In accordance with the principles of an Affluent Society as laid down by Professor Galbraith, we have rejected the outmoded Christian notion that the poor are blessed, but we should still like to be convinced that it is possible to be rich and blessed.”* By watching the success of the Hillbillies each week, we are reassured that we can have our cake and eat it too.

*Muggeridge was in large part responsible for bringing Mother Teresa to popular light through his book Something Beautiful for God. I suspect therefore that the phrase “outmoded Christian notion” is meant as brittle sarcasm.

And this success bodes well not only for the here and now, but for the hereafter as well. “Week by week [the Hilbillies] demonstrate that, though possessed of great wealth, they can still just get through the needle’s eye into the kingdom of heaven.” Muggeridge expands on this spiritual aspect, for it is one that is crucial to understanding the role of television in modern culture – it “is largely dedicated to providing reassurance on precisely this score.”

The early Christians, in order to secure themselves against indulgence in sensuality and cupidity, persuaded themselves that their fleshly appetites were vicious and great possessions a handicap to virtuous living. The writings of the fathers and the saints are full of denunciations of sex and riches. Now, when we have created a way of life in which sex is our chief relaxation and riches our main pursuit, traditional Christian teaching in this respect would seem to require revision. We cannot accept the drastic notion of ourselves as sinners. Nor can we in decency just repudiate the fathers and the saints.*

*Almost 50 years hence, has anything really changed?

The answer, therefore, is to demonstrate that the two can coexist, “that, like the Hillbillies, we can be rich and still successfully repel the assaults of the Evil One.”

It is not only tempting to draw parallels between the 60s that Muggeridge describes and our own time, it is virtually impossible not to do so. Many of us dream of what we would do with sudden wealth, should our Powerball number finally come up. We may quit our jobs, buy homes for our loved ones, establish scholarships, fund charities, buy a fancy sports car. One thing is for sure, though: our sudden wealth will not change who we are. We not only say this, we not only believe it will be so, we have a desperate need to believe it.

The role of television in all this cannot be minimized. As I’ve so often suggested, television does not create so much as it reflects, and the truth reflected by the success of the Hillbillies is one that dates back to the Victorians. “[O]bsessed as they were with the lusts of the flesh, [the Victorians] were always trying to demonstrate in their popular art that chastity could survive in the poor and the simple despite all the lures and stratagems of accomplished seducers. We, obsessed with money, seek in our popular art to reinforce the conclusion that the poor remain blessed even when they become rich.” Television, therefore, simply takes its place in a long line of visual media as reinforcing this belief.

What saddens me and, I think, would sadden (though perhaps not surprise) Muggeridge as well, is how we’ve seen this attitude change in the last few years. You hear much talk about the utility of morality, especially in terms of religion, and especially in terms of the American Founding Fathers. It is said, and it is a debatable point, that most of the Founders were Deists. However, it is undeniable that most of them understood the need for religion, even if they themselves didn’t believe in its truths. Franklin, for instance, felt that organized religion was necessary to keep men good to their fellow men, writing Thomas Paine that members of society “have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security.”

This attitude is mostly a given in Muggeridge’s article. Even if we strive to make wealth coexist with virtue, we do not deny the merits of virtue. We know that being blessed is a desirable state to be in, and we understand, even if only subconsciously, that the desire for wealth and power and sex somehow diminishes that state of virtue – else why should we attempt to reconcile it all?

Today, however, I don’t think anyone would be sure of that. Rather than aspiring to a virtue that, though it may be unattainable, is still recognized as being worthy, we now deride virtual altogether. Not only are there fewer and fewer standards which a majority can agree on, there is disagreement as to whether or not standards are even necessary. Viewers in the 60s may have looked at the Hillbillies as quaint, but they felt good about the idea that they could be both “rich and blessed.” Today, the blessed part isn’t important – we’d rather be rich and sated.

Not the Beverly Hillbillies
As evidence of the universality of the fairy tale epitomized by the Hillbillies, Muggeridge had cited, interestingly enough, The Beatles – a group he loathes, calling them “four moronic and unpleasing youths with long hair and little talent.” Nonetheless, a great deal of their appeal in 1965 came from the perception that they remained “unspoilt” by their wealth and fame. “[T]hey are still the same simplehearted, inarticulate Liverpudlians that they always were.” The Beatles are, in essence, Britain’s own Hillbillies.

Now, by the end of the 60s, I’m not sure anyone would have considered The Beatles “unspoilt”- by this time they’d encountered drugs, experimental music, and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In a way this exposes the fallacy of the fairy tale that so many longed to believe in. There’s an old saying that “when you lie down with dogs, you get fleas.” Likewise, wealth, power and sex create their own burdens, and by separating these from virtue, we soon succumb to their collective weight.

Muggeridge concludes his article with the observation that, thanks to television, “more people in the world today know The Beverly Hillbillies, it is safe to assert, than know President Johnson or even the Pope. Backward or undeveloped nations are shown by means of television the way of life toward which they so ardently aspire.” The global reach of television leads us into uncharted waters; “Such a thing has never happened before. No need to take on trust the rewards of toil and struggle; it is there, visible, on the television screen.” No matter who he is, no matter where he is, a citizen of the world “sees with his own eyes all he may enjoy and become”.

It’s quite interesting that an article with so many layers would be published in a “popular” publication like TV Guide, but the times were different, and serious content often landed in the magazine’s pages. By the way, if this all sounds a little dry and scholarly to you, it’s not meant to. Muggeridge’s article is in fact quite readable, and frequently slyly humorous. On the face of it Muggeridge is being his outrageous old self, satirizing the desire television has to be seen as Important. But behind his mock seriousness lies a true appraisal of the culture of the 60s and where it was leading, and I’ve no doubt that Muggeridge was deadly serious in his appraisal of what the popularity of The Beverly Hillbillies says about ourselves and our time. As Muggeridge might have said, “I’m surprised that you’re taking this seriously. But I’m even more surprised that you aren’t.” TV