August 31, 2013

This week in TV Guide: August 24, 1974

The late summer isn't usually a time when one thinks of pro football - at least not in 1974, unless you're talking about NFL exhibition games.  But amidst the preseason hoopla, on Thursday night we have a game that actually counts: the Birmingham Americans vs. the Chicago Fire. And if those team names don’t sound familiar to you, there’s probably a good reason why. They’re franchises playing in week 8 of the inaugural season of the World Football League, with games broadcast via syndication on TVS, the network primarily known to that point for college basketball (including the epic Houston-UCLA game of 1968). (Birmingham wins this game, 22-8.)

The World Football League was the brainchild of Gary Davidson, who had played a part in the formations of the American Basketball Association and the World Hockey Association. The idea behind the WFL was to liven up the pro game which, in the wake of the NFL-AFL merger (remember, that happened only five years before), had grown a bit stale. The league placed teams in cities such as Birmingham, Memphis, Jacksonville, and Anaheim – thought to be strong football areas – and places like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit, NFL cities that had suffered from bad football teams for too long. The WFL introduced new rules that they hoped would make for a more open, high-scoring game: kickoffs from the 35 to encourage more returns (the NFL at the time kicked off from the 40), goalposts at the back of the end zone ala college football to discourage field goals (the NFL would follow suit there as well), and an “action point” to replace the perfunctory extra point (which the NFL never did adopt). Overtime would be adopted for tie games (which the NFL also incorporated). They planned a 20-game season (it would be a few more years before the NFL expanded to 16 games), and launched successful raids on NFL rosters, luring players who, since the merger, lacked the leverage to get higher salaries.

With a players strike delaying the start of NFL training camps (and cancelling the annual College All-Star Game), the new league hoped to attract fans who were increasingly disgusted with labor unrest in the pros. And, in fact, the WFL had a marvelous rollout. Through two games the Jacksonville Sharks had averaged over 50,000 fans, while the Philadelphia Bell, playing in venerable JFK Stadium, averaged over 60,000. And then – Ticketgate. Turns out most of the attendance counts were padded by freebees – the Bell had given away 100,000 of the 120,000 tickets for those two games, and only about half of the Sharks fans had paid. The Detroit Wheels, playing in a decrepit high school stadium in Ypsilanti, had hoped to hang on until the Lions moved into their new domed stadium in Pontiac, at which time the Wheels could take over Tiger Stadium. They couldn’t hang on, and folded in September. The New York Stars became the Charlotte Hornets, and the Houston Texans moved to Shreveport, LA. Birmingham players went without pay for the last five games of the season. Most of the NFL stars who’d signed contracts would have to wait until the 1975 season before they could play for their new teams.

Somewhat surprisingly, the league actually made it through that first season, with Birmingham defeating the Orlando-based Florida Blazers in the World Bowl (Birmingham’s uniforms were confiscated after the game to take care of unpaid bills). The league did attempt a second season in 1975, but folded halfway through.

And yet this wasn’t really such a foolish idea. Had the WFL come along a few years later, it could have taken advantage of cable TV to get more exposure. The idea of summer football would be copied by the USFL, with some slight degree of success. The rules changes, most of which were copied by the NFL, did in fact open up the game. Had the league survived, it would have had a very good roster of players for upcoming seasons (including Memphis’ trio of Miami Dolphins stars: Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield), and new NFL stadiums in Detroit and New York would have opened up better home fields for those teams.

As they say, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts,…


Speaking of cable TV, it’s been predicted as the wave of the future in many of the TV Guides of the era, but this week we see that the future of television has hit a stumbling block.

Cable had started out as a way to provide clear pictures to rural areas that suffered from poor reception (or no reception at all in certain places), but everyone knew the real money lie in cable’s spread to large urban markets, which comprised 70 percent of the nation’s viewers. However, as New York City is demonstrating, there doesn’t seem to be all that big a demand for more stations, clearer reception, or some of the extra services that went along with cable: access to banking and other financial services, being able to get advice from their doctors, casting votes in elections, and fire and burglar alarms. Dayton, Newark and San Antonio have given up on cable, while Chicago and Detroit debate the issue, and Boston recommends against it.

The costs of installation, as it turns out, are enormous, and construction has been delayed time after time. Illegal taps into the system are decreasing subscriber numbers, and the service itself continues to get more expensive. Manhattan Cable reported a net loss of $1.3 million in 1973, even though they raised monthly rates from $6 to $9.

What can be done? Well, some think that sports might eventually migrate to cable, even though surveys show only about 20% would subscribe to cable for sports alone. FCC action to allow cable systems to carry local stations and syndicated programming will be required to broaden cable’s appeal. A pay channel showing first-run movies would help a system that’s already profitable, but probably can’t save one that wasn’t. As for home shopping services? It will be tough to make them work when only 12.5% of homes are wired for cable.

TV Guide’s conclusion is not an optimistic one. The rush to cable is, for now, stalled. “No one talks of ‘the wired nation.’ Potentially, it still exists. But today it is still short-circuited.”


TV's two definitive 70s-era rock music shows, NBC's The Midnight Special and ABC's In Concert, faced off on Friday nights.  Midnight Special was a weekly show, airing after Johnny Carson, while In Concert was an every-other week part of Wide World of Entertainment.  Whenever the two slug it out, we'll be there to give you the winner.

Well, we have a match this week! In Concert was not a weekly series, so it’s always nice when we get the chance to compare lineups. And what do we have this week? Hmm.

In Concert: Rock musician Don E. Branker welcomes guests including ‘50s style group Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids, the Hues Corporation and O’Jays soul groups, and the Chris Jagger (Mick’s brother) Band rock artists.

Midnight Special: An all-blues show with B.B. King (host), and guests Jimmy Witherspoon, Papa John Creach, Paul Butterfield’s Better Days, Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker, Joe Williams and Bobby “Blue” Brand.

Okay. I think I’ve heard of the O’Jays, and I do recognize the song “Rock the Boat,” though I wouldn’t in a million years have known that it was sung by the Hues Corporation. Other than that, the only thing I can say about In Concert’s lineup is that Chris Jagger’s name reminds me of a story that Arrowsmith’s Steven Tyler told about having once passed himself off as Mick Jagger’s brother, and how the adulation he received from the girls made him want to be a rock star. I’ve never been a big blues fan, but I know who B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and Joe Williams are, and I know just how big they were. Ultimately, that’s what makes this week’s decision so easy. The verdict: Midnight Special.

As a note, Channel 4 presents Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert at 2:30am Saturday, but with no description of who was on, it’s pretty hard to say how it compared to the others. It would have been a rerun from the show’s first season; the new series wouldn’t begin until September. Maybe we’ll have better luck next time.


I’ve talked before about the Saturday morning cartoon graveyard so I won’t belabor the point here except to illustrate just how vapid and derivative kids programming was in the mid-70s. For one thing, a startling number were merely animated versions of past live-action shows: Emergency Plus 4, The Addams Family, My Favorite Martians, Lassie’s Rescue Rangers, Jeannie, Star Trek, The Brady Kids. On top of that, CBS also has an “animated” movie entitled “Guess Who’s Knott Coming to Dinner,” which features a cartoon version of Don Knotts.*

*Is that an oxymoron?

I’ll grant that not all of these ideas are ridiculous. The Addams Family started out as a cartoon, of course, and the animated Star Trek did offer producers a greater leeway in some of the special effects and creatures that the crew of the Enterprise encountered. But by and large, these cartoons could be taken as dumbed-down versions of adult programs that weren’t all that smart to begin with. It could have been worse, I suppose. Goober, which was a Scooby-Doo clone about a crime-fighting bunch of kids and their dog, could have been referring to him.

Other cartoons were merely spin-offs of previous cartoons, such as Sabrina (Archie) and Pebbles and Bamm Bamm (The Flintstones, which started out as an adult show), and then there’s another movie-length animated special, “The Red Baron,” in which all the characters are dogs, and the Red Baron himself is a heroic character trying to rescue the Princess of Pretzelshtein. Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as World War I goes, wasn’t the Red Baron one of the bad guys?

There’s just a stunning lack of imagination to these programs, and it’s kind of sad considering the time period. In the last ten years, the nation had come through riots and assassinations, the Vietnam War and Watergate. It was a dark and cynical time. The least we could have done was to give kids something that would stimulate their minds, instead of the escapist junk food they got.


Back in the day, PBS would make the occasional foray into sports programming, and this Monday night sees the network bring us the finals of the U.S. Pro Tennis Championships from Boston. This was the cusp of the American tennis boom, when it seems that everyone was running around in shorts and carrying a racket, so I suppose PBS figured this was a good program for their demographic.

Actually, this Monday night tennis series ran for several summers on PBS, and it was an excellent production, with legendary tennis writer Bud Collins teaming up with Donald Dell to bring us the action. It was a serious, no-frills broadcast that concentrated on the tennis itself instead of the glitz. These late-summer tournaments served as the warm-up to the U.S. Open, so they tended to attract some pretty big names. I was a tennis fan myself at this time, and I always chose this over NBC’s Monday Night Baseball series. If PBS had stuck to sports, who knows where it would have wound up?

Golf is another sport that’s changed radically when it comes to television. In 1974 a considerable number of tournaments were still shown through syndicated broadcasts (mostly from Hughes Sports Network), and this week’s Westchester Classic, from Harrison, NY, is no exception. The announcers are a mixture of network figures (Ray Scott), syndicated staples (Jim Thacker, John Derr) and golf experts (Bob Toski). The Westchester was actually one of golf’s biggest money tournaments of the time, with a first prize of $50,000. Johnny Miller, in the midst of his incredible 1974 season, takes the title this year, with a record winning score of -19. Today, the Westchester goes by the name of “The Barclays,” and isn’t even played at its namesake Westchester Country Club anymore. It’s still a big tournament, though – one of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoff.  You could have watched it last weekend on CBS*.

*Unless you lived in Dallas and some other cities.


Ah, nostalgia. We don't often get to take a nostalgic look back at a nostalgic look back, but NBC’s Wonderful World of Disney embarks on such a tour this week with a rare rebroadcast of its 1954 Davy Crockett series. It’s a great throwback to the origins of the Disney program, and one of the classic adventures that helped establish Disney’s greatness in the non-animated arena. The Crockett adventures will run for the next three weeks, starting this week with “Davy Crockett – Indian Fighter.” I wonder why NBC was rerunning the series at this particular time? Could it be because Crockett’s sidekick, George Russel, is being played by Buddy Ebsen, star of CBS’ Barnaby Jones? I wouldn’t think so. Maybe they’re just celebrating the 20th anniversary of the original run.


Ah, Susie Blakely. Her smile, Neil Hickey tells us, is worth $100,000 a year. She’s typical of today’s big money, big star models, and she has what it takes: an inventory of great smiles. “I can do fake smiles for you all day, and every one of them will look real,” she says, matching the smile to whatever she happens to be hawking.

Right now, Susie has been taking acting lessons, hoping to duplicate the success of other models-turned-actresses such as Cybill Shepherd and Ali MacGraw. And it will be acting that will bring Susan Blakely her greatest fame, forever known for her role as Julie Prescott in the landmark miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, winning a Golden Globe and getting an Emmy nomination in the process.


Finally, one more rare glimpse into the world that was. A brief TV Guide editorial morns the loss of programs such as Where’s the Fire?, Everything Money Can’t Buy, We’ll Get By, The Love Nest, Sunshine and Second Start. What’s that, you say? Haven’t heard of them? There’s a good reason why – they never aired, at least not as part of the 1974 fall season. Just two months ago, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling overturned changes to the FCC Prime-Time Access rule, which meant networks would have to cede 90 minutes per week of prime-time to local stations – 90 minutes they’d already plotted out.

The shows listed above, manned by stars such as Paul Sorvino, Bob Crane, Cliff DeYoung, Billy Mumy and Meg Foster, would have aired in those lost time slots (mostly the 6:30 – 7:00 CT period, right after the local news). And as for what happened to them? Well, Television Obscurities has a very good write-up here.  By and large, I’d have to pronounce the local access rules a failure – the thought had been that local stations would provide news and public affairs shows in those timeslots, but the stations quickly figured out it would be cheaper and more profitable to run syndicated game shows and reruns of network series. We all know how well that’s worked out. TV  

August 29, 2013

Around the dial

If it's Thursday, that must mean it's time to take a spin around the classic TV blogosphere:

Grantland's Ben Lindberg has a terrific piece on the appalling body count in A&E's Longmire, which would qualify it as the most dangerous city in the world if it were true. As soneone who's constantly struggling with the suspension of disbelief when watching TV, I love this kind of analysis.

Speaking of the suspension of disbelief, Television Obscurities has yet another typically good piece on 10 of the most outlandish TV concepts ever. It takes a special program - often a combination of writing and acting - to sell viewers on something that is, on the face of it, a ridiculous idea. You can be the judge as to how well these ten turned out.

One of the blogs I enjoy following is Andrew Fielding's Lucky Strike Papers. His mother, Sue Bennett, was a singer on early television, and Andrew's blog (and book, which I'll be writing about in the near future) provides a marvelous glimpse into some of those early-TV days. This week, Andrew reminds us of the upcoming Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention. I've always wanted to go to that, and the one year I was right next door, living in North Carolina, I wasn't able to make it. Well, as the Dodgers used to say, maybe next year.

At Comfort TV, David asks and answers the question "Why we stil miss Johnny Carson." Some great clips underline David's observation as to why Carson was so good at what he did. I will always admit to having more of a fondness for Jack Paar*, but you could still see the Tonight Show's line of succession from Steve Allen to Paar to Carson. I'm not sure you can, anymore. The Tonight Show's still on, but it's not really the same program, is it? David mentions that as early as 1980 he'd asked himself the question, “What are we all going to do when Johnny Carson retires?” I particularly like his closing line: "Now I know the answer. I wish I didn’t."

Finally, don't be surprised if you see a new look to the blog in the next few days. It might appear as early as Saturday, or sometime next week. Then again, this all depends on the industriousness of yours truly, so if I get too lazy (i.e. watching too much television), it could be later than that. You'll just have to check back Saturday and see if This Week in TV Guide looks any different! TV  

August 27, 2013

Mitchell's Top Ten, #7: Nero Wolfe

Each week for the next couple of months, I’ll profile one of the series that appear on my personal Top Ten list. I don’t claim that these are the ten greatest series of all time; that would be presumptuous. However, I do presume to identify those shows that mean the most to me.

These aren’t academic histories or encyclopedic entries; rather, they’re personal memories of shows that, through the years, have brought me delight, influenced my way of thinking and doing, left their indelible traces imprinted on me. Think of it as a memoir of my life as seen on TV.

I’ve probably mentioned this before, this annoying reluctance I have to watch a TV show that’s been recommended to me. Generally I watch it only if I have to (i.e. with the recommender sitting next to me), with an anticipation not of the show itself but of it ending. And, more often than not, I wind up enjoying the show immensely. Which doesn’t stop me from repeating the same pattern with the next recommendation.

There are shows I’ve tried and never gotten into: The X-Files was recommended to me early in its run, but I never made much of an attempt. Many people have suggested Mad Men, which, as I’ve noted before, may happen someday – but not today. There are others, which I’ve probably forgotten about.

And then there are shows like Nero Wolfe.

I’d noticed the series’ debut back in 2000, but it didn’t particularly appeal to me at the time. I knew who Nero Wolfe was, and what the stories were about. I’d never read one of the books, but I had seen some of the 80s version that starred William Conrad and Lee Horsley – and that wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. Maybe it was the commercial that A&E ran for the new series, which as it turned out, didn’t present a particularly accurate picture of the overall show. It might have been because of Timothy Hutton, whom I didn’t particularly like at the time (probably having to do with his politics).

So when my friend Gary told me how much he and his wife enjoyed the show, I was skeptical. We’re known to have fairly dramatic differences in our programming tastes – Barney Miller and Desperate Housewives were never considered must-see TV in our household.* But, knowing Gary as I do, I realized the subject would continue to come up until and unless we gave it a try, so that Sunday night we put aside whatever else we might have watched and tuned in to Nero Wolfe. We’ll at least give it a try, we thought.

*Though, it should be said, it was Gary who introduced us to A Christmas Story and Going My Way, two movies we’d never seen before but which became Christmas staples for us, which makes my reluctance regarding Nero Wolfe even less understandable.

The fact that the show appears on this list is evidence of how the experiment turned out.

There are many who blame television for the decrease in literacy, but Nero Wolfe is one of the few television shows around – Perry Mason is another – that caused me to go out and buy the books to read the original stories. (All the episodes in the show’s two-season run were based on Rex Stout’s novels and short stories, rather than being original stories as is the case with so many series.) The pleasure I’ve derived since from reading the Wolfe mysteries would have been reward enough, regardless of the merit of the show, but to say that I’ve enjoyed the show every bit as much as the books should be seen as putting the show on a high plane indeed.

Start with the casting: Timothy Hutton, as Archie Goodwin. Or rather, Timothy Hutton is Archie Goodwin. Wolfe’s legman is so finely brought to life in Stout’s writing that it is difficult to imagine how anyone could possibly capture him in a series, especially since Horsley’s portrayal fell far short of the mark. And yet, having seen Hutton embody Archie so thoroughly, it has now become impossible to read the books without hearing Hutton’s voice as the narrator. He has style to spare, along with a strut and an attitude for which I’d readily kill.  Let's face it - his Archie Goodwin is who I want to be when I grow up.  There is, simply, nothing lacking in the character. It comes as no surprise that Hutton was heavily involved in the creation and production of Wolfe, as well as directing several episodes – the love he has for this project appears in every frame of film.

Nor is there anything lacking in the late Maury Chaykin’s performance as the arrogant, irascible genius Wolfe. Bill Conrad might have been able to capture Wolfe’s gruffness, but never his nimble mind, the quickness with which he connected the dots, the outrage (feigned or real) present in his battles with his nemesis, Inspector Cramer, and his utter disdain for the people he questions - often including his own client. "Either, sir, you're an ass or you're masquerading as one" - well, that's a pretty typical line.  And I love the idea, prevalent in so many of the stories, that Wolfe is personally offended by the criminal who dares to presume that not even the great Nero Wolfe can catch him ("He's taunting me!  I will not have anyone taunting me!") and he winds up investigating out of sheer spite - or vanity.

Put Wolfe and Archie together, and they often bicker like an old married couple.  One of Archie's jobs is to "provoke" Wolfe into action.  If Wolfe had his way, he'd never do anything more strenuous than press the button for Fritz to bring him beer - but there are those bills to pay, such as the salaries for Archie, Fritz and Theodore, the keeper of Wolfe's thousands of orchids.  That takes money, and when the bank balance runs too low, it's up to Archie to goad Wolfe into taking an assignment.  Their frequent arguments hide a deep respect and even affection between the two; Archie is second to none at investigating and amassing evidence, and Wolfe unparalleled at putting the pieces together, often through the most brilliant use of logic and deduction this side of Sherlock Holmes.  There can be no question that Wolfe and Archie are two of the greatest characters in the history of mystery fiction, and Hutton and Chaykin are two of the greatest duos in the recent history of TV.

Add to that a superior supporting cast – Bill Smitrovich as Cramer, Colin Fox as Fritz Brenner, Wolfe’s major domo, Saul Rubinek as newspaperman Lon Cohen, and Conrad Dunn as the freelance detective Saul Panzer – and a repertory group of secondary players, from George Plimpton to the luscious Kari Matchett, and source material far above that used by the average series, and you have the recipe for television greatness.

Unfortunately, in A&E’s efforts to reshape itself as a storehouse for second-rate reality-based crap, there wasn’t room for high-budget period pieces like Wolfe, and after only two seasons the show left the air. With Chaykin’s death, any kind of reunion is pretty much impossible, so between the 20 episodes and the 47 Wolfe books written by Stout, what you see is what you get.

Ah, but for those who check out Nero Wolfe on DVD, what you get is priceless – an intelligent, literate series, with nearly perfect period details, a topflight cast, clever mysteries, and characters you like and care about. It might even cause you to check out the books if you haven’t already; unlike so many movies and TV shows, you won’t be disappointed by the comparison between the two. Even though I’ve seen every Wolfe episode at least twice, I’ve still got a ways to go on the books, so there’s that to look forward to.

Nero Wolfe is the shortest-lived series on my top 10 list, but this is one of those cases where size isn’t everything.

We take a breather next week to catch up on some other topics, but the list returns in two weeks with the story of the man who won't take "guilty" for an answer
Last week: The Fugitive

August 24, 2013

This week in TV Guide: August 22, 1959

There's a little something for everyone this week, and there's no better place to begin than at the beginning, so let's go through the week a day at a time!

Saturday night football! The NFL preseason continues with a game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Cardinals from Austin, Texas. The appeal of this game would have been obvious: Bobby Layne, the star quarterback of the Steelers, was a native of Texas and an all-time great at the University of Texas – which, of course, is in Austin; while John David Crow, star halfback of the Cardinals, had won the Heisman Trophy at Texas A&M. In these days before widespread coverage of pro football, when Texas didn’t have any professional football of its own, I imagine the chance to see two of Texas’ greatest football stars live and in person made for quite an event in Austin.

The Chicago Cardinals were nearing the end of their run as the number two team in the Second City. Their history in Chicago dated back to 1920, but those years were spent mostly in futility and by 1959 the team had had only one winning season in the decade. There was no way the Cards could compete any longer with the Bears, and as the Bidwell family (which had owned the team since 1932) looked for options, a number of businessmen sought to buy the team and relocate it. Those attempts failed due to the family’s insistence on maintaining majority ownership of the team, and eventually the NFL allowed them to move the team to St. Louis.

Among those businessmen seeking (separately) to buy the Cardinals were Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams. When those efforts failed, they joined forces with others to form the American Football League, Hunt owning the Dallas Texans (which eventually moved to Kansas City) and Adams the Houston Oilers. I can’t help but wonder if the scheduling of this game was perhaps a trial run to test out the Texas market. In any event, by the next year the Lone Star State would have three professional teams: the Texans, the Oilers and the Dallas Cowboys. Of the three, only the Cowboys remain where they started.


On Sunday afternoon at 4:30, Arkansas Senator J. William Fullbright* (listed in TV Guide as “James W.”, which is technically correct but not the way he was usually referred to) is the guest on CBS’ Face the Nation. I’ve frequently mentioned how sports was not always wall-to-wall on the weekends, and stations generally filled the time with public affairs and documentary programming. At various times this Sunday we have Open Hearings (hosted by ABC’s John Secondari), College News Conference, Victory at Sea, Conquest (a science program on CBS narrated by Eric Sevareid), NBC’s Meet the Press (with this week’s guest, Erwin D. Canham, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and editor of the Christian Science Monitor), The Twentieth Century (CBS), and Chet Huntley Reporting (NBC). Religious programming, such as This Is the Life, This Is the Answer and The Gospel in Art fill out the schedule, along with Quiz a Catholic, which I guess would be both religion and public affairs.

*Fun fact: Fulbright’s sister Roberta is the maternal grandmother of Fox pundit Tucker Carlson.

There is some sports on Sunday; both NBC and CBS have afternoon baseball (Red Sox vs. Indians on CBS, Orioles vs. Tigers on NBC)*, but the games are blacked out in the Twin Cities, as the Triple-A Minneapolis Millers are hosting the Kentucky Colonels. WCCO fills the time with more auto racing from Shakopee’s Raceway Park.

*CBS broadcasts from Cleveland both Saturday and Sunday, as does NBC in Detroit. There was no collective television contract for either Major League Baseball or the individual leagues, which meant networks were free to sign up whatever teams they could. The blackout rule of the time protected minor league teams from suffering attendance drops because of televised major league games..


The American Legion is having their national convention in Minneapolis, and on Monday both Channels 4 and 9 offer coverage of the Legion’s parade, which is expected to last eight-to-ten hours, with 7500 marchers, floats and bands, and delegations from nine foreign countries. Channel 4, the CBS affiliate, breaks away from the coverage from time to time for local news, soaps, and game shows; Channel 9, the independent station, actually begins its broadcast day 2 ½ hours earlier than usual, and only breaks for an afternoon movie. A few years ago, while I was still living in Minneapolis, the Legion returned to the city for its convention, and I can testify that the parade is very long and very colorful, though I don’t think it attracted the crowd it did in 1959.

One thing I really like about the listing for this is the reference to representatives from “the 49 states.” That’s right, we’re in that one-year period when Alaska’s achieved statehood, but not yet Hawaii. That we’re able to capture a reference like this in writing, from such a relatively short timeframe, is just a very cool cultural reference.

On Monday night, CBS’ Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse presents the story of famed gangster Al Capone in part one of the two-part “The Untouchables,” with Neville Brand as Capone and Robert Stack as Eliot Ness, the G-Man who helped bring Capone down. The show was a hit when it was originally broadcast in January, and in October it premieres as a weekly series on ABC, where it remains for four successful (and extremely violent) seasons.*

*Fun fact: Desi Arnez, whose Desilu studio produced The Untouchables, went to high school with Al Capone’s son.


Tuesday features a David Brinkley report entitled “Back to School,” which takes advantage of the upcoming start of the school year to examine the problems faced by America’s public schools. Not surprisingly, they’re some of the same problems that exist today, particularly financial ones: crowded classrooms in New York, no money for school construction in New Orleans, no funds for facility maintenance in Los Angeles, and desegregation problems throughout the South.

But if you look closely, you’ll notice something strange. Many of those challenges facing American school systems in 1959 are the result of overcrowding. New Orleans, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, New York – all face a need for more school buildings to house additional students. The school I attended for grades K-6, built early in the 20th century, had temporary classrooms built to accommodate the growing student population.

And that’s not happening today. The baby boom is over, and in many places the increase in student enrollment comes from immigration, from people moving to a community from another state or country. Some school systems may be looking at expansion, but in how many situations is this anything other than a zero-sum game, with enrollment increases in one area coming at the expense of another?

So many things have changed since 1959, but the decrease in population growth is one of the most significant, and I think one of the saddest, of all. Maybe Bishop Sheen’s program (7:30pm, Channel 9) has some insight into what plagues us today. The topic: “Cure for Selfishness. To do great deeds we must supplant self with the Divine Will.”


Wednesday: One of the more unique programs on television is Court of Last Resort, based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s organization, devoted to investigating cases in which reasonable doubt about the original verdict exists. Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason, started the actual Court of Last Resort in 1948, and the program’s 26 episodes are based on actual cases investigated by the real Court. The show ran for a single season in 1957-58 on NBC, and the broadcast in this week’s TV Guide is part of the series’ rebroadcast on ABC in 1958-59. Actors played the principles, but the real members of the Court appeared at the end of each episode.

The real-life Court investigated the murder case of Dr. Sam Sheppard in the late 50s, with Gardner believing in Sheppard’s innocence even though nothing came of the Court’s investigation. Had The Fugitive existed in the same universe with Court of Last Resort, I suspect they would have investigated Dr. Kimble’s case as well. And isn’t that a meta conversation: a TV show, about a TV show about an organization started by the creator of a fictional character, investigating a character from another TV show. Makes your head spin, doesn’t it?


Thursday: Now here’s the type of local programming you don’t see anymore: at 7:30 on Channel 4, Operation Southdale presents a fashion show in the Garden Court of the famed Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota – the nation's first enclosed shopping center. “For the men’s benefit,” an auto show is being held in the parking lot. And a musical group called the Jimarlen Trio provides background color for the show. For this, Channel 4 pre-empts a rerun of Yancy Derringer.

Later on Channel 4 (and the other CBS affiliates), Playhouse 90 presents a curious drama, based on the true story of the first hydrogen bomb test. In “Nightmare at Ground Zero,” starring Barry Sullivan, the scientists behind the development of the bomb discover that they’ve made a few miscalculations, and that the bomb is really many times more destructive than they’d anticipated.

On the face of it, this sounds like all the makings of one of those 50s sci-fi movies that wound up on MST3K. You know how it goes – the bomb goes off, much more powerful than they’d thought, with the result that people or insects or vegetation (or all three) are turned into mutants 50 feet tall. And it was written by Rod Serling. But it’s also directed by Franklin Schaffner, who would eventually win an Oscar for Patton*, and the true story of the blast, which went off at 15 megatons rather than the expected five and vaporized three coral islands, in the process raining the fallout over a 7,000 square foot area , is remarkable.

*Although Schaffner also directed Planet of the Apes, with a screenplay by Serling, so who knows?


A big matchup for NBC’s Friday night fight on Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, as Gene Fullmer faces Carmen Basillo for the world middleweight championship from the Cow Palace in San Francisco. I’ve written before about how boxing used to be a major sport on television, and Friday’s bout is one of two broadcast in prime-time this week (the other being ABC’s Wednesday Night Fights). But there’s one thing that never changes in boxing, and that’s politics. The reason Fullmer and Basillo are meeting for the title is because the National Boxing Association (which would have been the bigger “NBA” at the time), had stripped Sugar Ray Robinson of the title, leaving the top two contenders, each of whom had both won and lost title fights to Robinson in the past, to settle the score.

Fullmer wins on a 14th round TKO.


Finally, on Monday night there’s this ad from Channel 4 for a “Girl Reporter.” A few weeks ago I referenced Barbara Walters’ role as the Today show’s “Today Girl,” so the term wasn’t terribly unusual; still, it’s another of those things that reminds the reader that they’re in a different place and time. Naturally, the Girl Reporter’s job is to cover the unveiling of CBS’ daytime television schedule.


I wonder who the winner was, and if she ever went into the media business? TV  

August 22, 2013

Around the dial

Since I neglected putting anything up last Thursday, you get a bonus post this week! Three (Tu-W-Th) for the price of, let's see - how much are you paying to read this site again?

I've remarked before my fondness for The Onion's AV Club, which I think contains some of the most literate television writing around.* This week, in their continuing series "A Very Special Episode," the Roundtable looks at the very special, and very disturbing, episode of Diff'rent Strokes dealing with child sexual predators. We're starting out here with two strikes against the show already; I never liked either Diff'rent Strokes or Gary Coleman, and in general, my Pavlovian reaction to "very special episodes" is to go to the bathroom and empty the contents of my stomach. The AV gang, however, give a balanced, nuanced reaction to this surreal two-parter, which might result in your giving it more credit than you would have thought. Or not.

*Don't ask me why a writer of such talent and knowledge as yours truly isn't writing for the AV Club; ask them.

At Comfort TV, David tells us why he won’t be watching the Emmys this year. I won’t, either, and like David this wasn’t always the case. I used to recognize all the shows and stars up for Emmys, even if I didnt watch them, and I can recall being introduced to Hill Street Blues through its big first-season Emmy win, when it was struggling for its very survival. There was something about the way the house orchestra played the familiar Hill Street theme that lent it a dignity, if not gravitas, that convinced me it was worth trying out. That tryout didn't last long, just a season or two, but had it not been for the Emmys I wouldn't have tried it at all. Same thing happened to me with the Oscars - I take no pleasure in being nausiated by them, and the fact that they do saddens me.

Staying on the movie theme, TerryB at Classic Film and TV Café shares with us his opinion on the best James Bond themes. Hard to argue with his choices, and I agree with him as well that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service deserves a special mention – it’s not exactly a song, since there are no lyrics, but it’s as exciting an instrumental as any of them. One pet peeve – Live and Let Die, though it has a well-deserved place on the list, also has one of the most atrocious grammatical screw-ups you'll ever find in a set of lyrics: "...this ever-changing world in which we live in." You don't need to use the word "in" twice! Cole Porter would never have made that mistake.

A number of readers have asked me where I've found the old TV Guides I feature each Saturday. Well, some of them actually belonged to me from the very beginning - I subscribed to TV Guide for over 30 years, before the content became too banal for me to put up with, and our family had bought it at the grocery store checkout line for years before that. The rest of them have come from an assortment of antique stores, flea markets, and ebay. It's getting harder and harder to find the older issues (pre-1980) in the stores or markets, though that's where most of my collection has come from; if you're looking for a specific issue, I'd try ebay first. And speaking of memorabilia, Hollywood Memorabilia is one of the better sites out there if you're looking for authentic collectibles and other items of interest. It's a site certainly worth putting on your shopping list.

Finally, I'm a bit late on this one, but my piece yesterday about the devolution of the evening news pointed me in the direction of TVParty! and Billy's post recalling the debacle that was the Hughes Rudd-Sally Quinn version of the CBS Morning News. For all that, Billy makes the same observation that I made regarding the 1968 ABC Evening News, that there's a depth and seriousness to the stories that would be unthinkable in regular newscasts today. When I was growing up, the CBS Morning News was not shown on Channel 4, the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis, but on Channel 9, the ABC affiliate. Channel 4 instead broadcast a block of local kids shows as a lead-in to Captain Kangaroo; even after those shows disappeared, Channel 4 was still slow to come to the party on the morning news. CBS had some fine newsmen anchoring the morning news over the years, from Joe Benti to John Hart to Hughes Rudd and Bruce Morton, who would succeed Quinn as Rudd's partner in 1974, and I always enjoyed its hard-news alternative to NBC's Today. No matter which channel it aired on.
That's it for this week; see you back here on Saturday with another great TV Guide! TV  

August 21, 2013

When the news was the news

The other night I was watching the network news – or at least the news was on, in the workout room of our apartment complex; I can’t say I was really watching it, but it was within my field of vision. The sound was off, but because the modern news broadcast can’t survive without having a third of the screen covered with graphics, I was easily able to figure out the gist of the stories.

I didn’t catch the lede, but as I glanced at the screen I was able to see the other major stories in the first half of the broadcast. There was a story on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his decision on so-called “conversion” therapy for homosexuals, followed by the latest in the A-Rod steroid scandal, a story on another person being attacked by a bear, a feature on America’s most infamous speed traps, and a bit about Dick Van Dyke being rescued from a burning car. Granting that the first story could well have been about the unrest in Egypt, everything else pointed to a newscast that could just as well have been done by Mary Hart as Diane Sawyer. It was almost entirely soft news, driven by personalities, with the emphasis on newsmaker-as-celebrity.

Contrast that newscast with this rare footage of the January 25, 1968 broadcast of the ABC Evening News with Bob Young. (It may not be the entire broadcast, but at nearly 18 minutes it’s well over half of the show.) The bulk of the newscast concerns the escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea in the wake of the Korean seizure of the Pueblo, starting with news of President Johnson’s call-up of National Guard reserve forces, including interviews with reservists and an analysis of Johnson’s response by White House correspondent Frank Reynolds, then seguing to an overview of the United States’ military options – including the possibility of a tactical nuclear strike – by Bill Downs. Howard K. Smith follows with a hawkish commentary, in which he warns the North Koreans that Americans have never been ones to back down from fighting for what they think is a righteous cause. Young gives the closing numbers from the Wall Street (over 12 million shares traded!), followed by a summary of recent fighting in Vietnam, Tom Jarrell reporting on civil rights from Mississippi, and wrapping up with an unrelated news story from Louisiana.  But don't just take my word from it - see for yourself.

As the broadcast shows, the accent is on hard news and talking heads – in fact, it could easily have been a radio broadcast, with Reynolds summarizing comments from various administration officials rather than showing footage of them speaking, and Young reading several Vietnam stories with no video accompaniment save a map superimposed over his right shoulder. Some of this could be a result of ABC’s relatively miniscule news budget, but a good deal of it relates to the slower, more in-depth pace of the broadcast.

The detail given on each story is another departure from the headline-oriented broadcast of today, in which viewers are often encouraged to check the network’s website for more information. In fact, on first seeing this excerpt, my wife couldn’t believe it had all come from one newscast and not a compilation of several reports. It’s also interesting to see the casual, commonplace way in which the Communists in both Vietnam and Korea are referred to as “the enemy,” while American troops are “our” forces. It’s an astonishing lack of cynicism, reminding us of a time in which newsmen recognized that they were Americans as well as journalists.

Bob Young himself could be thought of as a “no-frills” broadcaster. He’s not concerned with coming across as warm and fuzzy, or to bond with the viewer; he’s there to read the news, to communicate it as clearly and professionally as possible.

I alluded at the start of this piece to Mary Hart, the former co-host of Entertainment Tonight, for good reason.  In Glued to the Set, Steven Stark makes the point that the success of programs such as ET, Hard Copy, and Inside Edition led the network evening news shows to "ape" these shows to the extent that by 1993, "for the first time, news about the entertainment industry and its stars became among the Top Ten most heavily reported subjects on the evening newscasts."  As newsmakers become celebrities, Neil Postman says, "both the form and content of news becomes entertainment."

I wonder – do you think that, in today’s short-attention-span culture, the average TV viewer could sit still through a 30-minute newscast like that, with no shouting, no flashy graphics, no quick cuts from correspondent to correspondent? Do you think they’d be interested in a broadcast that devoted most of its time to foreign affairs? Would they have the curiosity or the interest in serious news stories, and would they have the intellect to understand them? Of course, we've discussed the evolution of television and popular culture enough that you and I both know the answers.

Watching this broadcast is yet another reminder of the evolution of our society, and the way in which television operates. It’s a look back at the days when the news was the news, and we all had the time to assimilate more information at a slower pace. It was a time when viewers felt they knew more about what was going on at the end of the broadcast than they did at the beginning. In short, it’s a time that’s long gone, and probably never coming back.

August 20, 2013

Mitchell's Top Ten, #8: The Fugitive

Each week for the next couple of months, I’ll profile one of the series that appear on my personal Top Ten list. I don’t claim that these are the ten greatest series of all time; that would be presumptuous. However, I do presume to identify those shows that mean the most to me.

These aren’t academic histories or encyclopedic entries; rather, they’re personal memories of shows that, through the years, have brought me delight, influenced my way of thinking and doing, left their indelible traces imprinted on me. Think of it as a memoir of my life as seen on TV.

Dr. Richard Kimble was in a position none of us hope to ever find ourselves. Convicted of murdering his wife, he’d escaped from a train wreck while en route to be executed. He knew he was innocent – he’d seen someone, likely the real killer, running from his house moments before he discovered his dead wife’s body. He knew it, but he couldn’t prove it. Lieutenant Philip Gerard, the man seeking to return Kimble to prison, didn’t care about his innocence or guilt – his job was not to determine what justice was, but to administer it.

And so, against this backdrop, Richard Kimble spent four years as the most wanted man in America, a high-profile escapee trying to stay one step ahead of the law, but seemingly doomed to remain one step behind the man responsible for his predicament.

Through the course of those four years, Kimble had many opportunities to fade into the background, to blend in with his surroundings in such a way that he might be able to stop running. America is a big country after all, and in those pre-Internet days it was even bigger. Without the instant recognition that social media brings, Kimble quite likely could have found a place – Mayberry, North Carolina for example – that would have been far enough out of the way that he could relax for awhile. After all, he’d met and helped enough people during his travels that a virtual underground railroad existed, dedicated to helping him escape. It’s not hard to imagine one of his benefactors helping him get to a place where he’d really be out of reach, a country like Argentina, where he’d be able to practice medicine, grow a beard, perhaps remarry and settle down. Start a new life.

But Richard Kimble didn’t want a new life. He wanted his old life back, or as much of it as was possible.

It wasn’t enough for Kimble to be “free,” in the sense that any man running from the police is ever free. Staying out of the death house was good, but only as a means to an end. And that end was to prove his innocence.

In fact, it’s likely Kimble never would have been executed. A remarkable number of people believed in his innocence. Gerard himself said that Kimble was not a “killer” per se, but a man who had done the one bad thing he’d ever do in his life. A few years as a model prisoner, giving officials no trouble, working diligently in the prison dispensary, perhaps even saving a few lives, and he probably would have been paroled, maybe even pardoned by the governor.

But there would have been that sticky little matter of the murder conviction remaining on the record – if not officially, at least in the minds of many. What Kimble wanted was to prove his innocence, that he was not a good man who’d made a mistake but an innocent man who had suffered due to the mistakes of American justice. And in that effort to clear his name, Richard Kimble was willing to risk his life. After all, if living was the only thing that mattered, a good attorney probably could have gotten the original charge reduced to second-degree, if Kimble had only been willing to plead. But sometimes it’s more important to do the right thing, to fight for the truth, than to simply go on living. For without truth, what good is life?

By asking that question, even unintentionally, The Fugitive was perhaps the most existential series ever seen on TV to that time. Its premise contained a delicate balance: a hero on the run, running both away from and toward something at the same time. And those two things he sought – escape and vindication – could only come from the same source.

I’ve written in the past about how revolutionary, and controversial, The Fugitive was. In an era before Vietnam, before Watergate, when authority was presumed to be right, we had a man whom the system had failed. The police were wrong, the judge and jury were wrong, and after Kimble had escaped we rooted for him to evade the police, cheered those who willingly broke the law in order to help him, imagined that we would have done the same thing as they did had we been in their position. As I say, radical stuff. But even beyond that, the show touched on deeper questions. Who was Kimble, really? Every episode found him in a different place, working under a different name. The jobs he held – trucker, rancher, laborer – were not those for which he’d been educated, and it generally didn’t take long before people saw that he was a man capable of far more than what he was doing. Having changed his appearance, his name and his profession, one couldn’t help but think that Kimble would sometimes lie awake in bed wondering what had become of that man he had always thought himself to be. Even if he were to clear his name, to find the one-armed man and bring him to justice, could he ever be that man again? Could he, in the hoary clichés that are nonetheless true, learn once again to believe, to trust, to love?

The series chose to establish from the outset that Kimble was innocent, that he had not killed his wife.* But was he truly innocent of his wife’s death? Had he not stormed off after their latest argument, he would have been there when the break-in occurred, and perhaps saved her life. Was he, in some sense, responsible for what had happened? And how did that jibe with his own self-image?

*Had this series been made today, not as a revival but as a brand-new idea, I think it’s likely that the producers would have left the issue of Kimble’s innocence an open question. Sure, the premise would go, Kimble claims to be innocent. He says he saw a one-armed man. And many of the people he runs into believe his story. But is it really true? It would have made a fascinating premise, the idea that we don't know for sure, but I suspect that back then having as your series protagonist a man who might actually be guilty of murder would have been a very tough sell. After all, a man wrongly convicted by the system was radical enough.

To its credit, the series didn’t often get bogged down asking these questions – had it done so, it could have lapsed into a Bergmanesque morass of didactic self-doubt that would have slowed each episode down to a painful crawl. But even if they weren’t directly acknowledged they were there nonetheless, hanging over Kimble’s every action (and present in David Janssen’s brilliantly understated portrayal), and their existence only added to the richness of the show’s premise.*

*Along with its presentation of an America that doesn’t really exist anymore, a trait it shares with Route 66. Watching it, one can see, as if frozen in amber, just how rich that lost world was – while, at the same time, how much of it remains timeless.

Kimble, with Gerard's gun, tracks down
the One-Armed Man in the final episode
Much of The Fugitive’s fame derives from the decision to resolve the question that had sustained the series, to present a final episode that would bring Kimble’s odyssey to a conclusion. The Fugitive was not the first series to provide such a concluding episode – both Leave It to Beaver and Route 66 can make claims in that direction. And, just as Route 66’s Tod Styles stops running* and settles down, Richard Kimble no longer has to wake up each morning wondering if it will be his last day of “freedom.” Both men have found what they’ve spent four seasons looking for. But unlike many series, the end of The Fugitive doesn’t try to tie everything up in a nice, neat bow.

*Or driving, in his case.

And because it doesn’t, we’re returned to one of the questions we started with: what is freedom? Will Kimble ever be free of the nightmares of his time in jail and on the run? Will he ever not have that momentary flash of dread every time he hears a police siren? Will he be able to cope with the fame and notoriety of having once been America’s Most Wanted, of having people who see him not as a pediatrician but as a symbol, not a man but a myth? Will the new relationship he’s apparently embarking on be a happy one, or will it crumble from the pressures applied by a past that can’t be undone?

One gets the feeling that Richard Kimble’s real story is just beginning, and that this new chapter will prove as difficult for him as the one just concluded. It would make a fascinating series, a different series. But in the end, even with the same characters, it wouldn’t have been The Fugitive. And given that The Fugitive remains one of television’s greatest series, we certainly have no room to complain.

Next week: He's the greatest detective who ever lived - just ask him.
Last week: #9 -
The Alvin Show

August 17, 2013

This week in TV Guide: August 19, 1967

David Janssen knows exactly how The Fugitive will end. “It goes like this," he tells an observer. "Kimble, cleared of the murder, retires to a desert island to recuperate from his ordeal. At sunset he takes a swim. Just before plunging into the surf, he pauses, unscrews his wooden arm, and tosses it on the sand. Fade-out.”

Janssen was joking, of course. He liked to do than when it came to his most famous character portrayal. In an interview on Joey Bishop's show following the airing of the final episode on August 29, 1967, he admits, "I killed her, Joey. She talked too much." But there was nothing funny about the impact The Fugitive had on the culture, as Dwight Whitney relates on the eve of the show’s two-part series finale. French intellectuals, of course, wanted to look at the show’s existential connotations. The Germans, foreshadowing reality shows like The Great Race, wanted Janssen to travel through Berlin in disguise, with people competing to track him down. In Spain, viewers haven’t quite caught on to the fact it’s a recurring series, and great each episode with great anticipation, wondering whether or not this will be the week his luck runs out.

Janssen could have gotten a half-million for agreeing to a fifth season of The Fugitive, but he thinks in retrospect that “I would have fallen apart” if he’d signed on. The rigors of doing four years of a series in which he appears in almost every scene, with no regular supporting cast to help ease the burden, have taken a physical and mental toll. His smoking is up to three packs a day, and his drinking is up as well, which often leaves him depressed. His ulcer has returned, his trick knee often forces writers to incorporate the resulting limp into the script, and when he is exhausted – as he frequently is – his performance begins to develop tics and other mannerisms. His character is forever reactive, always running, and there are only so many ways in which an actor can portray a man who is not weak but cannot afford to appear too strong.

The show’s fans, and after four seasons there are still many of them, are glad Kimble’s situation will be resolved, but sad to see the series come to an end. “Of course, I knew he had to be exonerated some day,” says one viewer, but “I just wasn’t expecting it to happen – well, quite so soon, you might say.” Those fans will turn out in force to view the final two-part episode of The Fugitive, entitled “The Judgment,” and that last episode is the most-watched television show in history to that time, racking up a record 72% share of households with television sets. The other networks must have known what they’d be up against; opposite part one of “The Judgment,” CBS aired a Harry Reasoner documentary on “The Hippie Temptation,” while NBC showed a rerun of the movie The War of the Worlds.

I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating that unlike other series finales, the conclusion to The Fugitive was aired in August, after the rerun season. As it was known that the fourth season of The Fugitive was to be the last, this allowed the suspense to build up throughout the summer; had that final episode aired in May or June, the reruns might have seemed ridiculous, but this way they were still relevant, still part of the chase, since Kimble was theoretically still running. Therefore, when the series ended, it really ended. It’s a brilliant idea, and I still wonder why more series don’t do it that way.


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..

We’re back in London for this episode of Piccadilly Palace, and this week Millicent Martin dons the hosting duties for an “evening of swingin’ sounds,” with singers Matt Monro and Bruce Forsyth.

Ed’s in reruns for the summer, with guests Jimmy Durante; singers Connie Francis and the Four Seasons; musical-comedy star Gwen Verdon, who does a song-and-dance routine from “Sweet Charity,” and the Festa Italiana dance group.

Matt Monro was a smooth-voiced singer, whom you’d probably recognize from two of his biggest hits, "Born Free" and "From Russia With Love."  Sir Bruce Forsyth has been a British TV regular since the 50s, and even today, at age 85, he continues to host the successful BBC show Strictly Come Dancing, which we here in the States might recognize by its American name: Dancing with the Stars.

But I’m going to have to go with Ed this week. Jimmy Durante was one of the great characters of movies and television, a man who could steal any scene, and even though by 1967 he’s already had a long and successful career, he’s still two years away from one of his most recognizable roles, that of the animated storyteller in the Rankin-Bass cartoon Frosty the Snowman. Connie Francis was lovely to look at if, at times, somewhat difficult to hear; and Gwen Verdon was - well, just a terrific singer and dancer. Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, and Chicago were some of her stage credits, and if you ever saw her with that flaming red hair and those legs, you wouldn’t forget. Hands down, this week goes to Sullivan.


These summer issues of TV Guide are always something of a mixed bag; with most of the networks in rerun mode, there isn’t always a lot to choose from, with summer replacements the best bet. I’ve previously mentioned Jackie Gleason’s fill-in, Away We Go, hosted by the unlikely combination of George Carlin and Buddy Greco,* and the Smothers Brothers’ replacement, Our Place, hosted by Burns and Schreiber, as well as Vic Damone, Dean Martin’s summer host, and the appropriately named Spotlight, Red Skelton’s replacement.

*Fun fact: Buddy Greco’s second wife (of five) was Dani Crayne, who later divorced him and married - David Janssen!

Tony Bennett’s terrific NBC special on Monday night is a rerun, notable because it’s another in the occasional series of “Singer Presents” specials, sponsored by the sewing machine company. Herb Alpert and Burt Bacharach are other performers featured in Singer showcases, but the most famous of the specials will be in December of 1968, when Singer Presents – Elvis Presley.  That ’68 comeback special, as it came to be known, remains one of television’s iconic programs.

There’s sports to be had as well, and although the NFL offers a prime-time exhibition on Monday night between the Baltimore Colts and St. Louis Cardinals* set to kickoff at 8:30pm CT (late start!), the focus is on baseball. That red-hot pennant race continues in the American League, playing out on our television sets: the Minnesota Twins, beginning the week with a slim 1.5 game lead over the Chicago White Sox, are featured on local broadcasts against the New York Yankees (Saturday and Sunday), the Detroit Tigers – who trail the Twins by only 2.5 games (Tuesday and Wednesday), and the Cleveland Indians (Friday). Meanwhile, the Boston Red Sox, a mere three games behind Minnesota, face off against the California Angels, only five games back. By the end of this week’s TV Guide, the Red Sox and White Sox will have closed to within a half-game of the Twins, with the Tigers only 1.5 games back.

*Or as we’d know them today, the Indianapolis Colts and Arizona Cardinals.


Israel watches Egypt – on television. That’s the news from Robert Musel, who reports that Egyptian television – widely considered not only the best in the Middle East, but the equal of many networks in Europe – attracts a significant number of Israeli viewers every day, since Israel doesn’t yet have its own television network. It’s a message the Israelis themselves could benefit from, according to a number of experts who say the nation has been slow to realize the propaganda value of TV. Its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had felt that television had little to offer his people (they’d be “better off reading books”), until he saw a nature documentary while making a state visit to France. Ben-Gurion was fascinated by the show, which included film shot from inside a beehive, and said that “Israel had to have television like this.” He feared that, due to the country’s high taxes, only the rich would be able to afford sets, but as many a nation has discovered, the truth is that low-income groups love their television as much as anyone.

But though Israel may have discovered that television isn’t all bad, it still has yet to use it to their advantage. Israel won’t begin its own broadcasts until 1968 – far too late, according to Musel, who says they should have been exploiting it for years, giving its neighbors a look at what the country and its people are really like. Foreign correspondent Shelby Scates of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer tells Musel that most Arabs “had no idea what the average Israeli was like” other than the “highly-colored” acconts from Arab newspapers. The Israelis are missing the boat, says Scates – “If the Arabs could see this land of milk and honey and the people in it, they wouldn’t be so afraid.” An Israeli journalist agrees, saying that “It’s time the Arabs stopped thinking we’ve got two tails.” Television as a bringer of world peace? I think it’s naïve, but maybe, back in 1967, not so much. TV  

August 13, 2013

Mitchell's Top Ten, #9: The Alvin Show

Each week for the next couple of months, I’ll profile one of the series that appear on my personal Top Ten list. I don’t claim that these are the ten greatest series of all time; that would be presumptuous. However, I do presume to identify those shows that mean the most to me.

These aren’t academic histories or encyclopedic entries; rather, they’re personal memories of shows that, through the years, have brought me delight, influenced my way of thinking and doing, left their indelible traces imprinted on me. Think of it as a memoir of my life as seen on TV.

Old habits die hard, and so do old memories. One habit of mine that died a particularly hard death was that of being a pack rat, and for years I schlepped around boxes filled with old toys, notebooks, magazines, and the like. An archaeologist would have loved it, for in those boxes was basically the story of my life, and that of the era in which I’d grown up.

Eventually, there comes a point where a person has to draw the line. For me, it came when we decided to move from a house to a condo in downtown Minneapolis. Lacking the independent wealth that is often a vital component to living downtown, we had to settle instead for a smaller, more affordable place, with one bedroom and a modest storage unit. Thus, the moment of truth. It was bad enough to have a garage full of old stuff; to pay extra money to store it off-site was ridiculous, especially when the likelihood that I would ever go through the stuff was pretty remote.* Therefore, it was time to open the boxes and see what was inside.

*When it came to housing, I had a rule of thumb that continues to this day: it’s one thing to find the home of your dreams and not be able to afford it, but to not be able to fit into it is downright embarrassing.

With the help of a dealer in antique toys (and if you don’t think it’s humbling to think of your own personal toys as antiques, you’ve got another think coming), I came out pretty well in selling my Matt Mason space rockets, electric football games, slot car racing sets, GI Joe dolls, comic books, and other reminders of a misspent youth. Many of the magazines I had were in poor condition and of little value; those got trashed. The TV Guides made the cut, for which this blog is eternally grateful. And then there were the assorted toys that, for one reason or another, transcended the state of life I’d been in when I’d gotten them.

There was, for example, a hand puppet of Alvin the singing chipmunk, one that played the Chipmunks’ biggest hit, “The Chipmunk Song,” when you pulled a string. There was a collection of soap containers in the shape of various cartoon characters, including two different versions of Alvin, as well as his brother chipmunks, Simon and Theodore. There was an old 45 record, a promotion for Green Giant that featured Tennessee Ernie Ford, and I remembered that I’d never listened to that record without turning the speed up to 78, which made Ernie and all the other characters sound like the Chipmunks. There was an Alvin coloring book, an old Give-a-Show projector slide of an Alvin cartoon (the projector itself was long gone) – you get the picture.

When I was a kid, Alvin was my favorite cartoon character. It was probably because of the funny voice, but I suspect that there was more to it than that. Alvin was, in a way, a forerunner to another favorite, Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes. Both had vivid imaginations, both were reasonably intelligent, both were strong-willed, full of mischief, and constantly getting into trouble. Now, I don’t recall that I was a particularly troublesome kid – in fact, I was always kind of afraid of mischief – so it’s possible that Alvin was my alter ego, my version of Walter Mitty.

“The Chipmunk Song” had been a Christmas novelty hit back in 1958, and though the Chipmunks only existed on record, they came with remarkably well-developed personalities – Simon was the intellectual, Theodore the chubby innocent, and Alvin the smart-alec. They first appeared on television as puppets, but it was their 1961 CBS animated show that gave them their modern identity.

Like The Flintstones and The Jetsons, The Alvin Show started out in prime time, and was designed to appeal to adults as well as children. It never reached the level of success that the others did, however, running only a single season before being shipped off to the Saturday morning scene, where in ran for several more years (and where I first encountered it). As I’ve written before, there are some shows that you loved as a kid but are horrified by you when you see them as an adult, and the same goes for cartoons. Take Josie and the Pussycats, for example, or perhaps The Archie Comedy Hour. (Did I ever watch them when I was a kid? If I did, I’d be embarrassed to admit it. You’ll never find out.) The Alvin Show, on the other hand, remains a guilty pleasure.

What I loved about Alvin, and still do, is that it’s one of the few cartoons that can make me actually laugh out loud, even as an adult. For a character based on a novelty song, Alvin has an extremely developed personality. He doesn’t respond well to authority, he likes to have the last word, and he’s enterprising in search of getting it. He is, in many respects, cut from the same cloth as one of the other great stars of Saturday morning cartoons, Bugs Bunny. And although Bugs’ humor is definitely more sophisticated, geared as much to adults as to children, there’s a cleverness to Alvin’s antics that really works. Case in point: my favorite Alvin cartoon.

The premise: A neighbor’s dog keeps digging up Alvin’s flower garden (the flowers, naturally, spelling the word “ALVIN”). Alvin complains to the neighbor, but the neighbor won’t countenance the idea that “Doggy-Boy” could possibly do something so mischievous. Finding that diplomacy has failed, Alvin decides to take more aggressive action. After Simon tells him about an ad for a silent dog whistle that helps control the dog’s behavior, Alvin rushes off to order it – oblivious to Simon’s warning that some dogs have an allergic reaction to the whistle.

When he gets the whistle in the mail, Alvin can’t wait to use it. And, predictably enough, Doggy-Boy flips out when he hears it. This upsets the neighbor, who complains to Dave that the evil Alvin is torturing his dog. Alvin is, of course, all innocence as Dave tries out the whistle. Hearing nothing, Dave figures the whistle is broken, and that the screwy neighbor doesn’t know what he’s talking about, while in the meantime, we see the dog wrecking havoc with the neighbor. Dave tells Alvin he should get his money back from the manufacturer – only to find that the house is surrounded by dogs attracted by the whistling.

This may not sound that funny on the face of it, but I can’t watch this without laughing. When Alvin decides to order the dog whistle, it’s the equivalent of Bugs saying, “this means war.” And just as Bugs always gets revenge on his adversary, Alvin has gotten back at the jerk of a neighbor and his annoying dog.

For many years, the only evidence that existed of my Alvin passion was the toys, gathering dust in one storage room or another. When NBC revived the franchise in 1978, they replayed thirteen of the original cartoons on their own Saturday morning schedule. In these days before the VCR, this meant I was setting the alarm to get up at 8:00 on Saturday morning, after having gotten up early the rest of the week for college. That should speak volumes about my dedication. It was as funny then as I’d remembered, and for me it’s that funny today.

The remakes – the cartoons and CGI movies that have polluted the landscape in the last few years – don’t hold a candle to the original. Alvin, Simon and Theodore are not kids – they’re chipmunks! And they didn’t have an attitude – even Alvin was a good kid at heart; he was mischievous, not malicious. For whatever reason, the original show has never been released on DVD, save a single segment that was included with one of the wretched modern versions, so don’t even go there. I’m fortunate that the old show was rerun on several stations in the post-VCR era, so I’ve got all 26 episodes (minus some song segments that were deleted to make way for more commercials, natch), and it looks as if that’s going to have to do me for the foreseeable future.

You could argue that of the shows on my list, The Alvin Show is the weakest. You could even make the case that if one had to have a cartoon on that list, Rocky and Bullwinkle would be a better choice than Alvin. Make no mistake – I love the moose and squirrel. But the list is mine, not yours, and somewhere on any list there has to be room for a show that brings back the world of being a kid, and can still make me laugh today. At least that’s good enough for me.

Next week: The show that escaped to the top ten
Last week: The Twilight Zone