December 31, 2013

Raging against the machine

I'll be making a tangential comment about Duck Dynasty coming up, but I'm not issuing my standard disclaimer about skipping this piece if it doesn't interest you, because this isn't really about Duck Dynasty.  So don't worry.

Instead, we'll start today with an insightful quote from Andrew Fielding's fascinating book The Lucky Strike Papers. (One of the positive aspects to having an appendectomy: being able to catch up on reading.)  I'll take a closer look at Andrew's book after the first of the year (hint: it's not too late to buy a last-minute gift for the TV fan on your Christmas list), but there's a bit from the early part of the book that jumped out, and I think it's a good starting point for today's discussion.  It's a quote from Douglas T. Miller and Marion Nowak's book The Fifties: The Way We Really Were.  They're discussing the appellation "Golden Age" to the early days of TV:

That assessment, even allowing for the rosy hindsight of nostalgia, is moderately true.  Those first years were fairly unique.  This was primarily because TV had a semblance of balance in programming.  The medium broadcast shows for widely disparate tastes, and this wide spectrum of shows appeared during prime time. One could choose opera (like the made-for-TV "Amahl and the Night Visitors"), the fights, live original drama, quality documentaries like the "See It Now" series, Sid Caesar's satire or Milton Berle's hamming, in addition to situation comedies, musical variety shows, news, and adventure shows.

This is not to say, of course, that every program from the 50s and early 60s was golden; I can tell you from first-hand viewing experience that a lot of them weren't.  But I think Miller and Nowak are on to something here.  I've read pieces from Terry Teachout to the Onion's AV Club to Grantland to James Lileks talking about how we're living in (or just concluding) a new "Golden Age" of television, and it's quite possible you can make the case that TV drama, for example, can deal more frankly and more realistically with today's issues than shows of the first Golden Age.  Certainly we see a more realistic depiction of things like violence and sex (though I'll leave it to you as to whether or not that's objectively a good thing), and coverage of sports and breaking news is - at least in some respects - light years ahead of where it was at the outset.

But here's the point - does the term "Golden Age" refer to more than just quality, and specifically quality in a particular genre or type, or must it encompass the whole of television programming, including the variety of programs available to the viewing public?

In lauding the future of television, media figures such as Newton Minow often heralded the potential that lie in the proliferation of cable television stations, which would be able to program for niche audiences.  Classical drama, opera, ballet, symphonic music, truly educational programming - all these were seen as a given in a world that had 50, or 100, or 200 channels.  And at first that was what we saw, too - until it wasn't.  The disappearance of niche networks give the programming pallet a bland uniformity - it's hard to tell TNT from TBS from WGN from USA from Cloo from FX from FXX from Hallmark from Lifetime from OWN from - well, you get the picture.  And don't even get me started on the betrayal of the "cultural" networks such as Bravo and A&E.

Which brings us, however obliquely, to Duck Dynasty.  In going through the various words from pundits and commentors alike, one phrase pops out over and over, in one variation or another: I don't watch TV.  I seldom ever watch the tube.  We haven't watched it for years.

This is invariably said with an attitude, however unintentional it might be, of smug superiority.  I'm too good, too smart, too moral, to watch television.  TV is the devil's instrument.  I haven't watched TV in years, don't even own a television, there's nothing on anyway.  You get the idea.  People think television is bad for you, and watching it is a waste of time.  I hear this attitude a lot, and every time I do it makes me want to wretch.

For one thing, television is morally neutral.  It's an instrument of transmission, neither good nor evil. It can be used to watch programs that are good for you, or bad.  It can broadcast programs that are full of truth, or made up of lies.  But all that is the fault, or the credit, of those in charge of programming, and the viewers in charge of selecting what to watch.  The television itself has nothing to do with it.

We've covered this territory before, and there really isn't much more to add to it.  As you probably have gathered, I watch a lot of television.  I love watching television - have ever since I was a kid. It hasn't made me stupid, stunted my curiosity, made me antisocial, or turned me into a chubby couch potato.* But, in fact, I Indeed, I probably learned more about American history from watching Alistair Cooke's America than I did in school.  It was watching how television told stories that made me want to create; even though my storytelling is in a different media, I think there's something absolutely visual about the way I write, and I owe that to television. The ability to watch events happening halfway across the planet, or in outer space; the improvement in quality from a fuzzy black and white to stunning HD color, this is truly a marvel.  To be able to plug in a cord and watch streaming video from my laptop - that's incredible.  Even though television has existed for the entirety of my lifetime, I'm still impressed by that fact.

*Well, there may be some truth to the last one.

Of all the criticisms of television, the only one I really have any sympathy for is the argument that there's nothing on worth watching.  A reader of the blog (and a television blogger himself) remarked that the irony for him is that he doesn't even own a TV; everything he watches is on DVD.  I know what he means, because that's true for so much of what we watch as well, albeit with at 40 inch flatscreen HD rather than a computer monitor.  But it's true that there aren't many current programs that I watch regularly - Top Gear, Doctor Who, sports, news, a couple other things.  Most of what I watch comes from my vast media holdings and streaming video.  I think people like us are reinforcing the opinion of Miller and Nowack - there's nothing good on TV, there's no variety in the programming, there's more on than ever before and less worth watching.

But if you're one of those television critics that doesn't see anything good about TV, even DVDs of shows from long ago - you can continue to be smug, you can continue to believe that by cutting yourself off from the outside world your own world is better off for it. I think there's a better way to deal with it: if you think what's on is garbage, don't give in - get your own programming.  You can build good, educational, family entertainment around it.  You can make your own Golden Age of Television.  Operas, Broadway plays, documentaries, family programs, award-winning movies, dramas that reinforce commonly held values - they're all available out there. A discerning viewer could literally spend years watching pre-recorded programming without once having to watch anything on the cable or broadcast networks.  Hell, the only reason we still have cable is for the sports and breaking news we can't get otherwise.  And I think it's only a matter of time, a few years perhaps, when even that will be available through other means.

Don't rage against the machine - instead, as the poet says, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.   You can make television better by making it your own.  You can turn it into a medium that teaches, entertains, informs.  You can do it - but you can't if all you're going to do is withdraw.

What do you think?  Am I reading Miller and Nowack correctly?  Is it true that "Golden Age" refers to the variety of programming as well as the quality?  Or is there more to it even than that?

December 30, 2013

The day in TV: January 1, 1964

You have to think that people are hoping January 1, 1964 signals a beginning to a better year. In fact, I think 1963 was for most a harbinger of bad things to come. By 1968 there will have been more high-profile assassinations, more deaths in Vietnam, more violence at home and abroad. The national culture will be virtually unrecognizable from what it is on this day.   And yet, even though it's only been 39 days since the death of JFK, this week's cover wants to put us in a mood to celebrate.  So let's forget what we know about the future, and look at the first full day of 1964.

KTCA, Channel 2 (Educ.)
Afternoon
05:30p   Kindergarten
Evening
06:00p   To Be Announced
06:30p   General Science
07:00p   Inquiry
07:30p   Inquiring Mind
08:00p   Conversational Spanish
08:30p   Carleton College
09:00p   See the West (debut)
09:30p   Word Power (debut)
10:00p   Profile
10:30p   To Be Announced

Good to see KTCA's sticking with its educational programming, and even introducing some new shows!  By contrast, I think this New Year's most PBS stations will be broadcasting the New Year's Gala from Vienna.

WCCO, Channel 4 (CBS)
Morning

07:00a   Siegfried, Axel, Clancy
08:00a   Captain Kangaroo
09:00a   News (local)
09:15a   What’s New
09:25a   Dr. Reuben K. Youngdahl
09:30a   I Love Lucy
10:00a   Cotton Bowl Parade (special)
10:45a   Tournament of Roses (special) (color)
Afternoon
12:45p   Cotton Bowl – Navy vs. Texas (special)
03:30p   Best of Groucho
04:00p   Around the Town
04:30p   Axel and Deputy Dawg
05:00p   Clancy and Company
05:30p   CBS News (Walter Cronkite)
Evening
06:00p   News (local)
06:15p   Sports (local)
06:20p   Spotlight
06:25p   Weather (local)
06:30p   Years of Crisis (special)
07:30p   Tell It to the Camera
08:00p   The Beverly Hillbillies
08:30p   Dick Van Dyke
09:00p   Danny Kaye
10:00p   News (local)
10:15p   Weather (local)
10:20p   Sports (local)
10:30p   Steve Allen (Steve and Jayne interviews at opening of “The Cardinal”)
12:00a   Movie – “It! The Terror from Beyond Space”
12:30a   News (local) (time approximate)

Kind of sad to see reference to the Cotton Bowl parade here.  For many years that was a warm-up to the network's coverage of the Rose parade.  Whether or not it's true, the story I'd always heard was that when the Cotton Bowl game moved from CBS to NBC for a short-lived alliance in the 90s, the network declined to pick up the parade as well - they didn't need it to fill out their programming.  Without a network home, the parade itself folded.  A brief revival a few years ago didn't take.  Chris Schenkel and Pat Summerall call the parade, and will be part of CBS' coverage of the game later in the day.  The network's announcing team for the Rose parade is lovely Bess Myerson and GE Theater host Ronald Reagan - wonder what ever happened to that guy?

The Cardinal, the opening night of which is being covered on Steve Allen's show, was a big-budget movie spectacle based on the best-selling novel of the same name.  It's actually not a bad story, fairly sympathetic to the Catholic Church and the people involved with it.  Tom Tryon, who starred, went on to a bigger career as a novelist.  The great director John Huston did not direct The Cardinal (Otto Preminger did), but instead did a rare acting turn in a small supporting role, and was good enough to snag a Best Supporting Actor nomination,

KSTP, Channel 5 (NBC)
Morning

06:30a   Film Feature
07:00a   Today (Tennessee Williams, Judith Crist, Richard Watts, Maurice Dolbeir, McHenry Boatwright)
09:00a   Say When
09:25a   NBC News (Edwin Newman)
09:30a   Word for Word (color)
10:00a   Concentration
10:30a   Rose Parade (special) (color)
Afternoon
12:45p   Sugar Bowl – Alabama vs. Mississippi (special) (color)
03:45p   Rose Bowl – Illinois vs. Washington (special) (color)
Evening
06:30p   The Virginian (color)
08:00p   Espionage
09:00p   The Eleventh Hour
10:00p   News (local) (color)
10:15p   Weather (local) (color)
10:20p   Sports (local) (color)
10:30p   Johnny Carson (Corbett Mnoica, Sam Levenson, Anna Moffo, Ken Carson)
12:00a   News and Sports (local) (color)

No, I'm not sure why Channel 4 lists the "Tournament of Roses" while Channel 5 has "Rose Parade."  To make things more confusing, the ad for NBC's coverage calls it the "Tournament of Roses Parade."  Oh well.  The ad also promises "Well-Known Surprise Guests," which - according to the listing on the opposite page - include James Franciscus, Bill Dana, Abby Dalton and Whitney Blake - NBC stars all.  There goes the surprise, I guess.  NBC's hosts are Arthur Godfrey and Betty White - Betty a real parade expert,as she's also host of the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade (with Lorne Greene) from 1962-1971.

Quick story about The Eleventh Hour, a psychiatric medical drama that aired for a couple of seasons.  Just as NBC and ABC had competing doctor shows - Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey - they also had competing psychiatrist shows spun off from those hit series.  NBC had The Eleventh Hour, while ABC countered with Breaking Point.  Wendell Corey was the original star of Eleventh Hour, but was replaced for the second season by Ralph Bellamy - who admitted that the show was on too late in the night for he and his wife to watch.  They generally watched Breaking Point instead.

KMSP, Channel 9 (Ind.)
Morning

07:40a   Chapel of the Air
07:45a   Breakfast With Grandpa Ken
09:00a   Romper Room (Miss Betty)
09:55a   ABC News (Lois Leppart)
10:00a   The Price is Right
10:30a   Object Is
11:00a   Mummers Parade (special) (color)
Afternoon
12:30p   Orange Bowl – Auburn vs. Nebraska (special)
03:30p   Trailmaster (joined in progress)
04:00p   Adventures in Paradise
05:00p   News (local)
05:15p   ABC News (Ron Cochran)
05:30p   Leave It to Beaver
Evening
06:00p   The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
06:30p   The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet
07:00p   Patty Duke
07:30p   The Farmer’s Daughter
08:00p   Ben Casey
09:00p   Channing
10:00p   News, Weather, Sports (local)
10:30p   Robert Taylor’s Detectives
11:30p   Target: Corrupters
12:30a   News (local)
12:35a   Sen. Eugene McCarthy

ABC carried the Rose parade from time to time, but not this year.  You can find some clips of the Auburn-Nebraska Orange Bowl game on YouTube.  It's the last time the game will be played during the day; next year it will become the first prime-time bowl game, and in the process moves from ABC to NBC.  That gives NBC the murderer's row of bowl games that I remember so well from my own youth - the Sugar, Rose and Orange.  It lasts until ABC spirits away the Sugar in 1970.  Now, of course, all these games are on ESPN - along with about 30 other games.

Channing, also known as The Young and the Bold, sounds as if it belongs during the daytime, doesn't it?  It's a drama set at a fictional Channing college, and only ran one season.  The supporting cast was pretty good - I mean, how bad can a series be if it has Suzanne Pleshette as a co-ed?  Leslie Nielsen, Keir Dullea, Marion Ross, Dawn Wells, Joey Heatherton and Leo G. Carroll were also listed as regulars, and it's not a good sign when your entire cast is better known for other shows they appeared in.

WTCN, Channel 11 (ABC)
Morning

10:45a   Kukla and Ollie
11:00a   En France
11:30a   Dateline: Minnesota
11:55a   Tricks for Treats
Afternoon
12:00p   Lunch With Casey
01:00p   Movie – “The Travelling Saleswoman”
02:45p   Lee Phillip
03:00p   December Bride
03:30p   Robin Hood
04:00p   Beetle and Pete
04:30p   Mickey Mouse Club
05:00p   Superman
05:30p   The Lone Ranger
Evening
06:00p   Whirlybirds
06:30p   Bold Journey
07:00p   Expedition!
07:30p   Stoney Burke
08:30p   Desilu Playhouse
09:30p   News (local)
09:45p   Weather (local)
09:50p   Sports (local)
10:00p   Movie – “The Desert Song”
12:15a   Burns and Allen

Stoney Burke hadn't been off the air that long before it was picked up in syndication by WTCN.  That happened with a number of their shows over the years - Run For Your Life, The Invaders and such.  I suppose it made sense to get them on the air while people still remembered them.  On the other hand, Burns and Allen had been around forever.

I mentioned a while back that RadioDiscussions.com, which had a terrific classic TV message board, had gone belly-up.  The good news is that it's been replaced by a new board, Radio Insight Community - I'm now posting this feature over there each week, and there are a lot of other good topics being discussed as well.  It's well worth a trip to check it out!

December 28, 2013

This week in TV Guide: December 28, 1963

There's something about the cover of this issue I really like. It's colorful and cheerful and fun (the picture at left really doesn't do it justice), and perhaps after the grim last month, it was meant to suggest a bright and hopeful future.

On the cover you see the 17-year-old Patty Duke, Academy Award winner and star of The Patty Duke Show, in which she plays twin cousins Patty and Cathy Lane. This show was a modest success, running for three seasons and producing a memorable theme song. The article itself (written by an unbylined author) wasn't particularly flattering, commenting on Duke's lack of personality; one might say, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, that there was no there there. Of course, given what we now know about Duke's horrific childhood - which included bipolar disorder, sexual abuse and financial manipulation by her managers/guardians (who also plied her with alcohol and drugs and kept her a virtual prisoner), it probably shouldn't come as a surprise that she came across as little more than a programmed robot with no independent thoughts of her own.  This really is one of those articles that becomes so much more interesting when you know the rest of the story.

I've commented on this before, but it remains interesting to see the different attitude TV Guide had about it's subjects. Back in the day, TV Guide wasn't merely a shill for the stars' publicity machines; at the same time, the writers often appeared to go out of their way to take shots at those whom they profiled, either outright or through snide insinuation.

Take, for instance, Richard Gehman's piece on Joey Bishop, whose sitcom was entering its third season. Bishop had by that time garnered a reputation as being difficult to work with, a trait which Gehman is eager to analyze. Speaking of the two major influences on Bishop's career - Frank Sinatra and Jack Paar - Gehman comments, "Some of their arrogance - the necessary cockiness of deep insecurity - has rubbed off on him." I'm sure Bishop appreciated the free psychoanalysis. Again, while Gehman may be making an astute observation on Bishop, with comments such as this peppered throughout the article, it appears as if he takes particular pleasure in doing so.

Here's another article on an actress named Katherine Crawford. Only 19, her television career has just started, with appearances on programs such as Kraft Suspense Theatre and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. She's cute enough, and apparently has talent, but her major advantage may be that she's was the daughter of Roy Huggins, creator of The Fugitive, The Invaders, and other TV hits. In the title of the article (also anonymously authored), Crawford proclaims, "I'll be acting till I'm 70." As you can see from her IMDB profile, her last credit was in the series Gemini Man in 1976. Well, she made it to 32, anyway.  Maybe she meant that she'd be acting until she was in the 70s.  And by the way, I don't mean for that comment to be snarky - she had a long resume of work up until then - she's accomplished a lot more than I have, that's for sure - and she could well have gone on to a life more productive and more fulfilling than most of us. It's just that it never ceases to be fascinating how short the lifespan of "the next big thing" can sometimes be.

In that light let's look at ABC's Saturday night broadcast of Hollywood Deb Star Ball 1964, in which we meet "the lovely Deb [for debutante] Stars, slated for future stardom by major Hollywood studios." Well, let's take a look. There's Meredith MacRae, daughter of Gordon and Sheila MacRae, who just happened to be the hosts of the show. She did pretty well for herself.  (And for It's About TV as well, as you can see here and here.)  There's the aforementioned Katherine Crawford. There's Susan Seaforth, who as Susan Seaforth Hayes will become a huge soap opera star. One of her Days of Our Lives co-stars, Brenda Benet, perhaps as well known for being Bill Bixby's ex-wife, is there as well. Linda Evans, star of Dynasty, is one of the Deb Stars, as is Chris Noel (whom was profiled in last week's edition), whose remarkable life led her from a modest Hollywood career to her vocation as a radio host and entertainer stationed in Vietnam for the Armed Forces Network, travelling to locations considered too dangerous for Bob Hope and other celebrities. Claudia Martin, Deano's daughter, was one of the ten starlets, and I think it's safe to say that her bloodlines were her biggest claim to Hollywood fame. And then there were Shelly Ames, Anna Capri and Amadee Chabot, who scored minor successes at best. Why do some careers take off while others flounder? Who knows.

***

For college football fans, this is the week of weeks.  The appetizer is served on Saturday, with Air Force taking on North Carolina in the Gator Bowl (won by North Carolina 35-0), and the companion to last week's North-South Shrine All-Star Game, the East-West Shrine All-Star Game, played in San Francisco.

Roger Staubach was to be on Life's
November 29, 1963 cover.  After JFK's
assassination, the mag scrapped 300,000
already-printed copies.
The real deal is on Wednesday, with the New Year's Day quad-fecta (is that a word?), featuring the de facto de facto showdown for the national championship between Texas and Navy at the Cotton Bowl on CBS. Now, let me explain this peculiar description: in 1963, the final AP and UPI polls, which determined the national champion, were taken at the end of the regular season.  The bowl games were seen as exhibitions, rewards to the players for a good season.  They were held in warm-weather locales where people could go to have fun, and fans could watch a football game as part of a festival that often included a parade, a college basketball tournament, and other events.  So entering New Year's Day, the title race had already been decided.  The de facto national champion was Texas, having finished the season at 10-0.

But there's a twist - their opponent, Navy, is the nation's #2 ranked team, with a record of 9-1 and the Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Roger Staubach.  Exhibition game or not, if Navy defeats Texas there are going to be a lot of people who look on the Midshipmen as the true de facto national champions.  So there you have it.  The game doesn't really count, but it does.  The championship has already been decided, but it hasn't.  Had Navy won, there would have been no little bit of controversy.

And there were a lot of people rooting for Navy.  Keep in mind the context of this game.  The Naval Academy, alma mater of the late President Kennedy, is travelling to the city in which he was assassinated less than six weeks ago.  Emotions are running high - the Middies are taken to the sixth floor of the School Book Depository to see where the assassination happened), and Big D, suddenly the most hated city in the most hated state in America, is desperate to regain its self-esteem, which can only be helped by having its state university win the national title.

In any event, the whole thing is an anti-climax.  Texas wins the game handily, 28-6.

In these times before prime-time football, the Cotton Bowl has to share the spotlight with the Orange (Auburn vs. Nebraska) and Sugar (Alabama vs. Mississippi), all of which were joint opening acts for the Granddaddy of Them All, the Rose (Illinois vs. Washington), which started at 3:45 Central time and ended the college football season. Good games, good times.

Oh, and there's pro football as well.  On Saturday Boston and Buffalo meet in the tiebreaker to decide the AFL's Eastern Division title.  The Patriots win 26-8, which earns them the right to fly to San Diego next week for the AFL Championship, where they'll be demolished 51-10 by the Chargers.

On Sunday morning at 11:45 CT, the Chicago Bears and New York Giants kick off for the NFL title. The early start time is caused by the need to ensure daylight in case the game requires Sudden Death, since Wrigley Field, home of the Bears, has no lights.  The Bears make sure that's no problem, as they defeat the Giants 14-10.*

*Fun fact - this is the last championship for the Bears until 1985, when they defeat the New England Patriots 55-10 in the Super Bowl.  It's the most points scored in a championship game since, well, the Patriots defeat in 1964 - which was the last time the Pats had played for the title.  Needless to say, things have improved since then in New England.

***

Remember Guy Lombardo? He's on hand as usual, on CBS' New Year's Eve special, entertaining with his Royal Canadians, joined by Dorothy Collins and the Willis Sisters.  They're not in their traditional stomping grounds at the Waldorf Astoria, though - for the first time, they're broadcasting from Grand Central Station in New York City, as part of the Bell Ringer Ball for Mental Health.  Channel 4, the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis, always delayed this show by an hour, so the ball in Times Square would drop at midnight local time.  I wonder how many other markets did this - if you're reading this, Mike Doran, how did Chicago handle it?  And for any other readers, what do you remember from your local stations?

A scene from the King Orange parade in the early 60s
Plenty of New Year's cheer earlier in the night, though - Andy Williams has his last special of the year, welcoming Fred MacMurray and Andy's family.  Up against Andy's NBC special is ABC's coverage of the King Orange Jamboree parade, taped earlier.  According to the Miami News, a half-million lined the parade route.  I always remembered this parade fondly for the lights and color; the next year, the game (and parade) would move to NBC, where the game would join the parade as a prime-time spectacle.  And at 11:30pm, the independent Channel 11 presents the New Year's Watch Service, a  a 2½ hour music spectacle by Souls Harbor Church in Minneapolis, broadcast from the Minneapolis Auditorium.  I remember this show from when it was on Channel 9 later in the 60s and early 70s.

Speaking of parades, if you want 'em on New Year's Day, you've got 'em.  CBS kicks it off at 10am CT with the Cotton Bowl Parade from the State Fair grounds in Dallas (which is where the Cotton Bowl stadium is located), hosted by Chris Schenkel (who'll do the game later in the day) and Pat Summerall.  It only runs 45 minutes, though - I'm assuming it's just highlights.  At 10:45 the network cuts to coverage of the Rose Parade from Pasadena, with Ronald Reagan and Bess Myerson reprising their hosting duties.  They join NBC, whose coverage started 15 minutes earlier, with Arthur Godfrey and Betty White behind the mics. ABC joins in the fun with coverage of the Mummers Parade from Philadelphia, the first time on national TV for the legendary parade.  Although the broadcast runs for 90 minutes, that's only a small segment of the all-day parade, which lasts for most of the day before it's done.

Interesting footnote - although only the Sugar and Rose Bowl games are telecast in color, all of the parades save the Cotton are colorcast.  Even though I watched the Rose parade in black and white for many years, I just can't imagine it today.

***

On Sunday, it's the television premiere on ABC of the documentary "The Making of the President 1960," based on the Pulitzer winner by Theodore H. White. I've seen it; it's a very interesting movie. It was completed prior to Kennedy's death, and is being presented unchanged except for a brief prologue by White.  Although this version, like the book, was the best-known and most successful of White's series, there were actually TV versions of the 1964 and 1968 volumes as well.  None of his 1972 edition, though, which itself ended the series.


Later in the week, on Tuesday morning, author Richard Condon is the guest on Today.  Condon is most famous, of course, for his novel The Manchurian Candidate, written in 1959.  The movie version, which came out in 1962, was rumored to have been withdrawn from circulation following JFK's assassination, though this appears to be an urban legend.  Condon is likely promoting one of the two books he'll have published in 1964 - either An Infinity of Mirrors or Any God Will Do.

Finally, on New Year's night, CBS has a news roundtable called "Years of Crisis," in which CBS correspondents gather to discuss the events of the past year and their probable effect on the future.  In case you were wondering, those events included the assassination of JFK, the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the death of Pope John XXIII and election of Paul VI, the overthrow of the Diem regime in South Vietnam and the escalation of American involvement, the continuing Ecumenical Council in Rome (Vatican II), the "I Have a Dream" speech in the March on Washington, and more.  Yes, 1963 was quite a year, and yes - it will have far-reaching effects on 1964 and beyond.

As I have said often, TV Guide is - or was - one of the prime cultural indicators of the past. For the cultural archaeologist, it's like opening a treasure chest. It reminds us not only of days gone by, the things that were, but, as in the case of the Deb Ball, some of the things - or careers - that never were. And it is nice, isn't it, to sometimes be able to look to the future in blissful ignorance of what we know is to come? A pity that we can't be more optimistic like that all the time, but then, times have changed. And not always for the best. TV  

December 26, 2013

The Bell Telephone Hour, 1959

My apologies for the relative silence this week - remarkably, I've been spending more time celebrating Christmas than I have blogging.  And I don't feel one bit guilty about it.

Perhaps I should have posted this earlier, but here's a glimpse of what we were watching on Christmas Eve - from the archives of the Bell Telephone Hour, which was one of NBC's classiest shows from 1958 to 1969.  A highlight of each season was the annual Christmas show, often broadcast live, featuring the best in classical and Broadway artists.  I've mentioned the program several times in past Christmas posts; here's a chance to see for yourself the beauty of the program - the beauty of the kind of television that appears all but lost.


And on that subject - television that's been lost and can't be found - I'll have more to say tomorrow.  In the meantime, a belated Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

December 21, 2013

This week in TV Guide: December 21, 1963

I know I've been doing a lot lately with issues from 1963, but I find it irresistible when I've got the chance to go back 50 years to the day.  It means that "This week in TV Guide" really is this week in TV Guide.  I promise I won't do it all the time, but I can't promise that I won't do it again next week.

So what's going on this week?  Christmas, that's what!  Even the feature articles from the shiny section have the Yule spirit, from an epic Christmas poem by Allan Sherman that manages to work in the names of almost every series on TV ("Hail and greetings of the season/to Ed Sullivan and Jackie Gleazon") to a profile of model turned aspiring actress Chris Noel (to borrow from Norelco, even her name spells Christmas) to a pictorial for The Story of Christmas, which featured an epic animated sequence I first wrote about back at the motherblog.

Despite the fact that we all know what Christmas programs are really for - that is, to move merchandise - there's still no shortage of festive programming on Christmas week.  Jackie Gleason's Saturday night show includes the Valley Youth Chorale of Brooklyn, and Jackie's reading of Bishop Fulton Sheen's "Prayer for Peace." An hour later, Lawrence Welk's music makers through their own Yuletide bash, and Joey Bishop's sitcom has its own seasonal show, with friends squabbling over who's going to play Santa for the baby's first Christmas.

Sunday features an early morning (9am CT) CBS special, "To Men of Good Will," featuring opera stars Roberta Peters and Charles Anthony as soloists in Hugh Wolf's cantata "Christmas Night" (you can hear that piece here), a replay of NBC's "Coming of Christ" special (which I mentioned last week), and the Wonderful World of Disney's delightful "From All of Us to All of You," which you can still find if you look hard enough:


The evening concludes with two classics: the aforementioned Story of Christmas with Tennessee Ernie Ford, and the famous (or infamous, if you prefer) Judy Garland Christmas Show. Now, I have both of these and I'll be watching them tomorrow night (assuming you're reading this Saturday).  Joanna Wilson tells us about the show here, while you can catch it below:


St. Olaf College is justifiably famed for its annual Christmas Festival, which is an annual standard on public radio and television, but even in 1963 they could be counted on for an appearance on KTCA, the local educational channel.  This year's program, on Monday night, consists of a half-hour of Yuletide songs, and is an excellent warmup for NBC's Sing Along With Mitch Christmas show at 9pm.  Oh, and there are Christmas-themed episodes of Andy Griffith and Danny Thomas as well.

Christmas Eve brings us a 5pm concert by the Southwest High School choir on Channel 5, a performance of Handel's Messiah on Channel 2, and Red Skelton's Christmas show, including the annual showing of Freddie the Freeloader and the rag doll (played by Cara Williams).There's another hour of Christmas music on Channel 2 at 9pm, up against Garry Moore's Christmas show on CBS, and Bell Telephone Hour's annual Christmas program, hosted once again by Jane Wyatt.  In case you're wondering, yes - Jane does read the story of the Nativity, as she did in last week's Guide.

Christmas Eve wraps up with five - count 'em, five - church services, which indicates more than anything, I think, how the perception and portrayal of religion on television has changed over the years.  After a program of Christmas music on NBC (in place of Johnny Carson), Midnight Mass is telecast live from St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.  Meanwhile, CBS offers a United Church of Christ service from Washington, D.C., ABC has a double-header - an Episcopal service from St. John the Divine in New York City, followed by Midnight Mass from the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, and Channel 11 gets into the act with a midnight service from Dr. Reuben K. Youngdahl's Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.  (I talked about the good Doctor a bit here.)

There was still Christmas programming to be had on Christmas Day itself.  At 10am, NBC has its annual telecast of the Episcopal service from the National Cathedral in Washington, at 7pm Channel 4 has a half-hour of music from the same Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church*, NBC broadcasts its annual presentation of Amahl and the Night Visitors at 8pm in an all-new production that would wind up severing the relationship between the network and composer Gian Carlo Menotti (see here for details), and Channel 5 follows that with an hour of local Christmas shows - a skating show from the Figure Skating Club of Minneapolis, and a concert by the Maurice Le Gault Chorale.  And at 10pm, Channel 11 shows Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire - all in all, not a bad way to end the day, don't you think?

*Since Channel 4 was the regular home of Dr. Youngdahl's daily inspirational program, perhaps they wanted to reinforce that relationship, seeing as how the Christmas Eve service was broadcast on Channel 11.

***

Something that I find interesting about Christmas week programming is what happens to regularly scheduled series.  As you probably know from looking at the TV listings, non-reruns are hard to find during the holidays, but thus was not always the case.  Variety shows used the week to do their Christmas programs, of course, and in the case of shows such as Red Skelton's, the episode could be repeated yearly (and was probably demanded by the show's viewers).  Series such as Andy Griffith had a Christmas episode or two that they'd done during the series' early years, which would pop up in reruns.  Even Dr. Kildare had a Christmas episode, though it isn't shown this week.

But take a show like The Fugitive, one that isn't likely to have a feel-good Christmas story - what happens to it?  Well, in this case, it was business as usual.  Not only did ABC air a first-run episode on Christmas Eve, it was one of the show's seminal episodes - "The Girl from Little Egypt," the story that more than any other tells the backstory of The Fugitive.  Our hero, Dr. Richard Kimble, recovering from being hit by a car, drifts in and out of consciousness - and his unconscious self mumbles the story of who Kimble is and how he came to be tried and convicted for his wife's murder.  I find it extraordinary that such a pivotal episode as this would be shown on Christmas Eve, up against two holiday programs.  But then, as I'm always reminding myself, things were different back then.

A handful of scattered programming notes from the rest of the week - Joan Crawford makes a rare television appearance on Friday night's Route 66.  Also on Friday, there's an episode of Jack Paar's show that features both Jonathan Winters and Peter Ustinov - I would have liked to have seen that.  Ronald Reagan's emergence into the political scene continues as he hosts a syndicated documentary, The Truth About Communism, that appears Thursday evening on Channel 11.

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This is the part of our weekly review where one of our favorite features usually appears - Sullivan vs. The Palace.  But before The Hollywood Palace can begin, the ill-fated Jerry Lewis Show has to come to an end.  Lewis' two-hour talk/variety show is one of the more celebrated flops in television history (Kliph Nesteroff provides many of the gory details here), and this Saturday it airs its final episode, which has the potential of actually being pretty good: a two-man show featuring Lewis and Sammy Davis, Jr. However, . . . Starting on January 4, the first half of Lewis' timeslot will be taken over by Palace and its frequent host, Bing Crosby.

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Everything isn't all holiday cheer, though.  A somber note hangs over Sunday; at 3:30 that afternoon, NBC and CBS provide coverage of President Johnson participating in a candle-lighting service at the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the one-month anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Johnson himself makes a few remarks, and is followed by singer Marion Anderson.

Later in the afternoon, at 5:30, Johnson appears again to light the National Christmas Tree on the White House lawn, carried live on NBC.  It may seem late to be doing this only three days before Christmas (by comparison, this year it was done on December 6), but the lighting had been delayed until the end of the official 30-day period of mourning for Kennedy; presumably, had Christmas fallen during that period, the tree would have remained dark.  The very lateness in the season of this ceremony must have rendered it somewhat bittersweet.

You can see footage from these two ceremonies below.


***

Bowl season: this week's edition looks a lot like that from last week.  We've got the Liberty Bowl (being played for the fifth and final time in Philadelphia; after a one-year stopover in Atlantic City, the game settles down in its current home of Memphis) and the Bluebonnnet Bowl, being joined today by one of the then-frequent all-star games, the 16th annual North-South Shrine Bowl from Miami. Back in the days before endless bowl games and around-the-clock televised football, the all-star games provided both fans and scouts a glimpse of very good players on teams that weren't quite good enough (or prominent enough) to make it to one of the bowl games.  Considering that Pittsburgh, 9-1 and the nation's #4 ranked team, wasn't even invited to a bowl, this means there was some pretty good talent out there - more than enough to fill several games' worth of rosters.

Sunday's pro scene is barren, to say the least.  The NFL, which you might recall chose to play the weekend of JFK's assassination, has wrapped up the regular season, with the Bears and Giants in the off-week before next Sunday's championship showdown.  (There were no playoffs back then either, just two divisions whose winners played for the title.)  On the other hand, the AFL, which had postponed its games on November 24th, is in its final weekend, and viewers are treated to a shootout between the Houston Oilers and Oakland Raiders, with the Raiders outlasting the Oilers 52-49.  Sounds like one of this season's games, doesn't it?

***

Finally, a word about TV Guide itself.  I'm quite fond of this issue, as you might have gathered; not only are many of the programs in it available via DVD or YouTube, it's just bursting with Christmas cheer.  It even includes an ad with "Holiday Greetings" from the writers and editorial staff of TV Guide.  From the advertising to the cover itself, there's no doubt about the season.

Sadly, such is no longer the case.  As you can see from this assortment of TV Guide covers, Christmas is now just another day in the publishing business.





By the late 70s the word "Christmas" had disappeared from the cover, replaced by a generic Christmas tree shorn of any particular religious significance; by 1983 the cover wasn't even about "Christmas" - the story was about The Love Boat, with a wreath (where the ship's anchor would be) the only sign of the season. By the end of the 80s even that had vanished.  To be fair, there is a "Holiday Preview" that appears early in December with details on programs airing through the season, but as you can see, the wishy-washy "Holiday" has taken center stage.

I know that one can't live entirely in the past; hell, the fact that I'm using social media to write about this, typing on my laptop while watching one of the 150+ TV stations we get through cable, is proof enough of that.  You have to adapt to survive.  And, as my recent stay in the hospital illustrates, I'm much happier with the medical technology of today than I would have been with that which existed during the time of my favorite programs.

Still, I can't keep from mourning a time that no longer exists.  Whenever I watch a vintage Christmas show for the first time, it's a thrill - whether the show's any good or not, it's new.  (No matter how much I love Bing Crosby, seeing him host his 1966 Christmas show on Hollywood Palace for the 20th time can get kind of tired.)  And that's what saddens me about television today; back in the 50s and 60s, the shows were new. Since you couldn't watch them year after year (unless they were repeated), new product had to be generated each season.

Now, we're stuck with a finite amount of supply.  With the exception of the odd special every few years, there's little new Christmas programming that's actually memorable.  NBC's recent live Sound of Music broadcast may not have been any good (I can't say; I didn't see it, and don't really like Sound of Music anyway), but it was an event.  That's one of the things that made Christmas programming special back then.  And that, as much as anything, is what we're missing today. TV  

December 20, 2013

Studio One, "The Nativity," 1952

This won't be the first time I've pointed out how much TV has changed since its inception, and how that change reflects similar shifts in American culture.  It's illustrative though, in that there's so much about this program that would be next to impossible on today's screens.

The date is December 22, 1952.  The program is CBS' legendary Studio One, and the episode in question is "The Play of the Nativity of the Child Jesus," based on the medieval mystery plays of the 13th and 14th centuries.  It's directed by Franklin Schaffner, who would later win an Academy Award for directing Patton, and features music by the famed Robert Shaw Chorale.  Hurd Hatfield is the narrator, and one of the Three Kings is a very young Lloyd Bochner.  The entire program, broadcast without commercial interruption, can be seen here:


My question is what is the most anachronistic about this program, the one thing most unlikely to be seen on commercial television today?  The obvious answer is the overt religious message, which emphasizes the status of Jesus as Savior, and is openly worshipful.  Beyond that, however, is the language - can you imagine a program today being based on plays from over six hundred years ago?  The warning at the beginning is that it may sound archaic, but that the ancient words serve to link us to the long-ago past.  I cannot imagine something like this today.  Add to that the medieval carols performed by the Robert Shaw Chorale, and you have a program that may have been unusual for the time, but is unthinkable for ours.  If you have a spare hour, check it out not only for the Christmas content, but as an illustration of how very far away fifty years can seem.

December 17, 2013

A week in the life: the Moore family of Minneapolis, 1961

Although some of the TV Guides I peruse each week were mine to begin with (bought at the grocery store or through a long-held subscription), most of them were at one time someone else's - purchased from flea markets, antique stores or eBay auctions. And every once in a while I’ll run across one, such as this week’s edition, where the previous owners have given us some idea of their viewing habits.  According to the subscription label, this issue was originally owned by F.W. Moore of Minneapolis.  Thoughtfully, Mr. (and/or Mrs.) Moore left us small markings next to some of the programs, and from this we can deduce the following:

The Moores either weren’t home during the day on Saturday, or they were busy and not watching television. The first carat appears at 6:30 Saturday evening, next to that night’s episode of Perry Mason (“The Case of the Unwelcome Bride”) on Channel 4. They apparently kept the dial on 4 for the next program, The Defenders (“The Prowler”) at 7:30.   It's another hour drama, but they might only have watched a half-hour*, because at 8:00 they’re scheduled javascript:void(0);to turn to Channel 9 for Lawrence Welk.   However, it’s back to Channel 4 at 9:00 for Gunsmoke.  Following the end of prime time, the Moores switched to Channel 5, the NBC affiliate, for the local news and weather.  That’s the last notation for the evening – the Welk program suggests they may have been older folks who went to bed after the late news, or perhaps read, or who knows what.

*Or, they might have had two televisions.  We’ll see if there’s any evidence of that as we go along.

Nothing at all for Sunday or Monday.  Could I be barking up the wrong tree with this experiment?  No, wait, here they are, back on Tuesday.  It looks as if it’s Mrs. Moore, watching her afternoon stories - The Secret Storm at 3:15 and The Edge of Night at 3:30.  Then, silence – until 8:00pm, when it’s the Dick Powell Theatre on Channel 5.  Powell hosted the show until he died a little over a year after this show was aired, and he starred in several of them, but not this one.  It's "The Fifth Caller,"a sinister murder mystery with Michael Rennie, Eva Gabor and Elsa Lanchester.  I like Michael Rennie, but I wonder if he's the bad guy in this one? He's playing a policeman, but could be he's using that to disguise his involvement in the crime.  Then at 9 it’s to Channel 4 and Garry Moore’s Christmas program, with Julie Andrews and Gwen Verdon.  The local news is back on Channel 5 to end the evening.

I’m getting concerned that the Moores didn’t watch much television, but it reminds me that someone once wrote that back in the day, people didn't just have the TV on - they turned it on to watch specific programs; otherwise they left it off.  They might have been doing exotic things when the set was off, like reading.

Wednesday - ah, we're hitting our stride here.  More soaps - Love of Life at 11, Search for Tomorrow at 11:30, and Guiding Light at 11:45, all CBS shows.  Nothing then until 3:15, when it's Secret Storm and Edge of Night again, followed by another long gap to evening.  Then it's Perry Como with his Christmas show at 8pm.  Como was famous for doing Christmas shows from around the world (Ireland, the Holy Land, Hawaii), but this is while Perry still has his regular weekly series, and so this is just another episode, with Tom Tichenor and his Puppets (currently appearing on Broadway in "Carnival"), and 14 teen-aged pianists. Most of it is Perry singing, and reading the Christmas story to the children of the production staff. There was a lot of that on TV in those days, reading the Gospel of St. Luke.  Good luck finding anything like that now - they don't even call them "Christmas" shows for fear of offending someone.  Nothing after that until the Channel 5 news at 10.

Thursday has the same daytime lineup, regular viewing.  Things pick up at 7, when Channel 4 presents a local program, Dr. Reuben K. Youngdahl in "The World and It's People," a half-hour of slides of the Rev. Dr. Youngdahl's trip to the Holy Land.  Reuben Youngdahl was a fixture on Channel 4 over the years; he had a ten-minute show on every morning called Live Today, with a book to match.  He was the pastor of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, the largest Lutheran church in the world.  When he died his son took over, and as far as I know a Youngdahl still runs Mount Olivet.  We used to drive past it frequently - it's as big as you'd think the largest Lutheran church in the world would be.

Things get interesting after that - at 7:30 there's a mark next to Dr. Kildare ("Season to be Jolly," Channel 5), but there's also one next to The Real McCoys ("The Diamond Ring," Channel 9).  Could this be evidence of a two-TV household?  Or was it simply a case of finding out who got to the dial first?  Kildare was an hour show, while McCoys was a half-hour sitcom, so perhaps the Doc won out, since at 8:30 the TV's back on Channel 5 for Hazel ("Hazel's Christmas Shopping"), and stays there at 9 for Sing Along With Mitch's Christmas show.  Since it's December 21 it's not surprising that every one of these series has a Christmas episode - I wonder if any of them are on one of those DVDs with collections of Christmas episodes. Channel 5 news at 10, as usual.

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
Soaps on Friday - we know.  Friday night kicks off at 6:30 on Channel 5 with International Showtime, a series hosted by former movie star Don Amache in which each week he visits another international circus. You wonder how much appeal a series like that would have, but it was enough to carry it for four seasons. Four seasons of circuses.  Stay tuned to Channel 5 at 7:30 for Robert Taylor's Detectives ("The Queen of Craven Point," with *sigh* Lola Albright).  And then - nothing save the 10pm news.  I wonder if they didn't leave it on Channel 5, since that was where the news was; if they had, they'd have seen the live broadcast of of Bell Telephone Hour's Christmas show, with Jane Wyatt in her traditional Yuletide hostess role, joined by singers John Raitt and Jane Morgan, the Lennon Sisters, opera singer Lisa Della Casa, ballet dancers Violette Verdy and Edward Villella, and the Schola Cantorum.  Jane reads the Nativity from St. Luke, as well as the famous "Yes, Virginia" letter.  I'd have watched that, and maybe I did.  I was only one at the time, though, so you can't blame me for not remembering.

And there you have it - one full week of scheduled television watching in the Moore household.  Based on some of their program selections, such as Lawrence Welk, Sing Along With Mitch, and Dr. Youngdahl, I think this was likely an older family.  They don't appear to have been sports fans, since for all the college and pro football on the weekend, none of them were marked.  There was probably brand loyalty in their viewing; Channel 5 was the local news of choice, and the number of weekly series they'd marked suggests they were regular viewers of a select number of shows. Mr. Moore probably worked a job, while Mrs. Moore kept the home and watched soaps. The nightly viewing was split between CBS and NBC, with only Walter Brennan's The Real McCoys on ABC.  As befits the pre-remote era, there wasn't a lot of channel-switching.

All in all, it's been a fascinating experiment.  Some of the shows they watched, such as Perry Mason, are part of my DVD collection, and their overall choices indicate solid, Middle-American, middlebrow tastes.  It really does give us a slice of life - at least one household's life - at the end of 1961.  Perhaps we'll run across another issue like this someday. TV  

December 16, 2013

Around the dial - appendicitis edition

Now, where was I?

Oh, yes - as I was saying before I went to the hospital, or at least as I would have been saying,  we have an interesting series of links to look at this week.  But, seeing as how I've had a few extra days to think about it, I've taken advantage of the opportunity to add a few new ones.

First, an old link, from last week.  Joanne at Christmas TV History has a very interesting guest post on the only commercially available DVD of the classic Amahl and the Night Visitors.  The fact that yours truly was the author of the post should be of no consequence whatsoever.

Joanne also has a really good piece on a previously "lost" Christmas classic: The Stingiest Man in Townthe 1956 musical version of  "A Christmas Carol," starring Basil Rathbone.  You might recall that I mentioned this last year shortly after its release, and I finally ordered it last week; it should be here tomorrow or Wednesday, and since I've got some time on my hands I'm really looking forward to watching it.  I first read about Stingiest Man in Fred Guida's terrific book A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations, and Guida's been as excited as anyone about its recovery and release.

Stayng on the Christmas Carol subject, How Sweet it Was has a look at yet another version, this one a half-hour rendition from 1949 that was narrated by Vincent Price.  The thought of Price as Scrooge is a great one, which this rendition doesn't really take full advantage of.  Nonetheless, when you can watch any Carol for free, it's worth it - right?

Cult TV Blog talks my language - The Prisoner, The Avengers and other great Brit series of the time that I haven't become a fan of - yet. This week's review is of one of the best of the Avengers episodes, "Dial a Deadly Number."  Now, how can you not watch an episode with a name like that?  (Of course, The Village would tell you that "6" is a deadly number indeed...)

Classic Sports TV and Media takes up a topic that only real sports nerds like me would appreciate - the longest consecutive year streaks in network sports broadcasting.  But as I read through the lists, so many great memories came back, of announcing voices such as Summerall, Enberg, Jones and McGuire.  It also serves as a reminder of how rare these great voices are, and why we ought to appreciate them while we can.

Television Obscurities reviews a book on a subject I've touched on a few times in the past - the soap opera.  I'm no bigger a fan of the soaps than he is, but if I'd had the chance I'd have snapped up this book as well - The Wonderful World of TV Soap Operas - for the cover alone if nothing else.

Finally, Classic Television Showbiz has been taking time out from great interviews with the stars of the past to post some video links, including this Desilu Playhouse episode from 1958: "The Time Element," which was the de facto pilot for Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone.  Read about this before, but hadn't seen it, until now.

That's it for this week - or is that last week, since that's when this started?  I don't know; I'm confused enough as it is with the pain medication!  But I'll be back tomorrow with a fun, pre-written piece that looks at last Saturday's TV Guide through the eyes of its original owner... TV  

December 14, 2013

This week in TV Guide: December 16, 1961

It's a week until Christmas, and this issue of TV Guide is full of programs we’d never see on network television today.

Take, for example, NBC’s Project 20 documentary series, which on Wednesday night presents “The Coming of Christ.”  “The life and ministry of Christ and prophecies of His Coming were constant themes for painters of the 15th to 17th Centuries.  This taped, half-hour show, first seen last December, uses photographs of the works of many of these painters – to depict ‘The Coming of Christ.’”

A few thoughts on this: first, if a program like this were on today, it would be on PBS or one of the shrinking number of “arts” shows on cable, and the emphasis would be on the art, rather than the religion.* The sidebar ad underscores the idea that art is being used as a vehicle for the greater religious event: “’Project 20’ brings art treasures to life to tell their deeply moving story.”  This is reinforced by narrator Alexander Scourby’s reading of passages from the Old and New Testaments as the pictures are shown (in a “’still-pictures-to-action’ technique [used] to create the illusion of movement”; similar, I suppose, to what Ken Burns uses today).  It’s also interesting to note the capitalization of the pronoun “His” as well as “Coming,” and later capitalizations of “Virgin” and “Child.”  Again, this denotes a respect for religion that isn’t seen as often today, but was taken for granted back then even in secular publications.

*I say this because TVG clearly labels this as “religion” and not, say, “art.”  I think programs such as Sister Wendy’s undoubtedly had religious overtones, but were still packaged as art documentaries. 

Alexander Scourby had a fantastic voice; I wish I could track down a copy of this show, though an audio version is available, as well as a book tie-in.

Immediately following Project 20 is Perry Como’s Christmas show, which includes a scene in which “Perry reads the story of the first Christmas” to children from the production staff.  That’s very similar to Friday’s Bell Telephone Hour, where hostess Jane Wyatt “recites the story of the Nativity from the Gospel of St. Luke.”  Now, I’m not going to get into the larger question of a “War on Christmas” or anything like that; it’s simply to point out, as this blog is want to do, of how we can see the culture’s evolution through the programs on TV.  Undeniably, we’re at a point now where there seems to be a reluctance to even use the word “Christmas,” let alone discuss the religious ramifications it contains.  And while there are a lot of Hallmark- and Lifetime-style “Christmas” movies out there, they almost always deal with it as a secular event, perhaps with some quasi-touchy-feely “spirituality” wrapped up in its message.

Not so in 1961, where religion was seen as an integral part of Christmas.  Sure, there were variety shows such as Garry Moore’s and Red Skelton’s (both this week) that focus more on the secular, celebratory aspects of Christmas, but the larger point is that even within that context, it would not have been uncommon for the host or one of the guests to say or sing or otherwise do something that contained an explicitly religious message.

Perhaps it’s the fact that New Year’s isn’t far away, but I’m reminded of a song by Louden Wainwright III shortly after The New York Times building in Times Square (hence the name of the square) was renamed Allied Chemical Building.  “Have you been to Allied Chemical Square?/It used to be called Times, but times have changed.”

Indeed the times have changed.

***

Channel 2, the educational station, has some fine Christmas programming this week.  On Monday it's Christmas Strings with the Patrick Henry High School string orchestra, and on Friday the Southwest High School Choir sings Songs of Christmas.  Red Skelton's Freddy the Freeloader appears Tuesday on CBS in "Freddy and the Yuletide Doll," which fills out the entire half-hour of Red's show.  And aside from the shows I mentioned above, there's also Mitch Miller and the gang on Thursday night on NBC.  It's a festive time of the year

Of course, Christmas isn't the only holiday that's fast approaching, and nothing quite describes the lead-in to New Year's the way college football does.  I’ve made this point several times before, but it’s always worth making again: there were only 13 bowl games in 1961 (and four of those could have been considered small college games), not the 35 there are today.  And with the exception of the Big Four, they were all played before New Year’s Day.  Two of them are on this week: the Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston*, pitting hometown #17 Rice against Kansas (Kansas wins, 33-7), and the Liberty Bowl (still being played in frigid Philadelphia), in which #14 Syracuse edges Miami (FL) 15-14.  These are two fine matchups for so-called lesser bowls; none of these four teams lost more than four games, and two of them were ranked in the top 20.  The games are played on Saturday afternoon; at this point there are no prime-time bowls (except for when the Rose runs late).

*The Bluebonnet Bowl folded in the 80s; there’s a bowl game played in Houston, called the Texas Bowl.  It’s yet to be dominated by a corporate sponsorship name, so I can’t for the life of me figure out why they don’t just call it the Bluebonnet Bowl again.  But then there are many things I don’t understand.

Later in the day, the NFL makes one of its late-season appearances on Saturday, with the 49ers playing the Colts in San Francisco.  Teams from the north and east always liked to make those west-coast trips late in the season; I recall that the Packers always used to fly out to play the Rams and 49ers in December, and they’d stay in California between games rather than fly back to Green Bay.  You’re forgiven for being confused by Sunday’s AFL matchup between the Titans and Texans – it’s not Tennessee vs. Houston, but the New York Titans (precursor to the Jets) and the Dallas Texans, who in a couple of years will become the Kansas City Chiefs.  And we still live in the era when there’s no exclusive national television contract for the NFL, so while the Vikings play the Bears on CBS, the Steelers take on the Cardinals on NBC.  Easy to follow, no?

***

Violence on television has come up several times in the last few months, but this week we've got something of an opposing viewpoint.  It comes from John Larkin, who's just stepped down from the role of Mike Karr, longtime star of The Edge of Night.*  (I wrote about the TV "death" of Karr's wife, played by actress Teal Ames, here.)  After over five years as the soap's hero, Larkin has tired of the soap grind, telling a critic that "If I thought I'd never do anything but this, I'd cut my throat."  "I' feel trapped, bored, fed up," he tells another.

*Fun fact: Larkin had played Perry Mason on the radio serial for years; the sponsor, Procter & Gamble, was unable to come to terms with Mason author Erle Stanley Gardner to bring the show to TV, so they created The Edge of Night, with Larkin playing an assistant DA who eventually becomes a Mason-type criminal lawyer.  Had P&G reached an agreement with Gardner, Larkin would almost certainly have played Mason on TV.


Larkin's headed for Hollywood, where he'll be one of TV's busiest actors, eventually winding up as a regular on Twelve O'Clock High, which was in its first season at the time of his death in 1965. Right now, though, Larkin's thoughts are on what's wrong with TV, and it's not violence.  "The critics say these plays [soap operas and popular drama in general] are escapist.  I say they are not.  Far from being an escape, they are involvement.  Escape is a blotting out of reality.  Involvement takes you along, whether you're reading 'Crime and Punishment' by Dostoyevsky or watching Mike Karr struggle with a villain.  One is just a more complicated moral drama than the other."  He continues, focusing his point on the critics.  "What do the critics want the public to watch?  All the shows that are being attacked show heroes.  They show virtue triumphing.  The guys who get shot deserve to get shot.  People cheer!  They're glad to see the forces of virtue triumph.  Is this what's corrupting the youth of America?

"I'll tell you what would corrupt the youth of America - and it's not a steady diet of cowboys and cops and robbers.  It's a steady diet of the plays written by Tennessee Williams, Inge or Genet - those writers who are preoccupied with themes of depravity, of vice, of perversion, of general evil."  Aside from the fact that I wish Larkin could unbend and tell us what he really thinks, I find this quite interesting when juxtaposed with the discussion on television drama I wrote about a few months ago.  It's clear to me that Larkin would not agree with the viewpoints of Roddenberry, Silliphant, et al.  And that this is an argument that has been going on for a long time.

***

Steve Allen left the Tonight show to take on Ed Sullivan in prime time, but now it's rumored he might be on the way back, at least according to TV Teletype, which reports that "Allen is mentioned as a possible replacement for Jack Paar on NBC" when Paar steps down the following year.  "Others mentioned for the job are Johnny Carson and Bob Newhart."  We all know how that one turned out, and though I knew Johnny wasn't the only candidate for the job, I confess I'd never heard that Allen and Newhart were in the running.  It makes sense, though; some felt that Allen's current talk show gig was to position him in case Paar's replacement bombed, and Newhart was certainly a hot property at the time.  I know that both Jerry Lewis and Merv Griffin were considered serious candidates as well.  Interesting how things turn out, isn't it?

***

There's more that I could mention, but I should explain the absence of my regular Thursday piece, why today's is a shorter edition than usual, and why it's appearing so late on Saturday night rather than first thing in the morning.  You see, as I was writing Thursday night - I was about halfway through the John Larkin section above, at the point where I'd written "Larkin's thoughts are on what's wrong with TV," I found myself unable to continue working because of a continuous pain in the lower right quadrant of my stomach that had become too distracting to put off.  Perhaps twelve hours later I found myself in a hospital bed, without my appendix.  Thanks to the dramatic advancements in modern medicine, not to mention the fine work of the doctors and nurses at Las Calinas Medical Center, I'm able to sit in my own living room on this Saturday night, in only a modicum of pain, finishing this on my laptop.  Thankfully there were no complications and I'm well on the road to a successful recovery, but in addition to cutting into my body, it did serve to cut into my time a little bit.  No fear though; since I'll be on the DL for a few more days, it will give me plenty of time to catch up, and take us through to the weekend before Christmas! TV  

December 10, 2013

The day in TV: December 12, 1966

As I mentioned last week, RadioDiscussions.com is no more.  It had a great classic TV discussion board (which I hope will be resurrected at another site in the near future), a place where TV nerds like me could compare notes on things like old television programming listings.  Whenever I linked to one of my TV Guide pieces, I'd always include the listings from a typical day, as a snapshot of what was going on that week.

I don't know if I'll continue to do that here on a regular basis, but the week seems kind of empty otherwise, so here's the schedule from last week's TV Guide - the date is Monday, December 12, 1966*, and it's the Minnesota State Edition of TVG, which includes listings from stations in outstate Minnesota.  Posting it here also gives me a chance to provide some more in-depth comments on various programs and personalities - it's from my TV viewing lifetime, so I know the time well.  So here goes!

December 7, 2013

This week in TV Guide: December 10, 1966

We're only a couple of weeks out from Christmas, and though the airwaves aren't dominated yet by Yuletide programs, we're seeing more and more specials to put us in the mood.

On Sunday evening CBS presents the second airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas, already well on its way to becoming a television classic*.

*Curious thing - the ad for the broadcast reads "On the first day of Christmas, my true love said to me, watch "A Charlie Brown Christmas."  In the first place, it doesn't rhyme - they should have added "on TV" to make it work.  Also, what are the twelve days?  If Sunday is the first day, the twelfth day would be December 22.  And anyway, the first day of Christmas is Christmas Day itself.  Do they mean to suggest this is the first day of Christmas specials?  Or that the season doesn't really begin until Charlie Brown is aired?  You'd think they would have thought this through more.  Or perhaps I'm thinking too much?

Later on Sunday, Danny Thomas presents his annual "Wonderful World of Burlesque."  As I've mentioned before, the season produces specials, but not all of them are holiday-themed, and this is one of them.  Still, look at the guest cast - Carol Channing, Mickey Rooney, Wayne Newton, Dean Martin, Robert Culp, Bill Cosby - that is special!

Bob Hope also has a special this week, on Wednesday - but we know this isn't his Christmas show, since 1) he's not in Vietnam, and 2) he's in Acapulco, and nobody's doing Christmas bits.  A big name cast anyway, including Glenn Ford, Elke Sommer, Michael Caine, and Jayne Mansfield.

There's a more thoughtful special on Sunday morning, when NBC airs the Hanukkah special I Never Saw Another Butterfly, the story of a woman returning to Czechoslovakia to recall her youth in a Nazi concentration camp.  Not a particularly upbeat show, to be sure, but with the script having been based on "drawings and poems by children in the camp," I'm sure it struck a solemn note.

And on a local note, KCMT, Channel 7 in Alexandria (my home channel in the mid-70s) has its annual variety show telethon to raise money for food baskets for the underprivileged.  It's a very good cause, but I can vouch that those shows were not the best of entertainment.  Then again, unless you live in Hollywood or a block off of Broadway, what local variety show is?

***

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..

Sullivan: Scheduled guests: singer Diahann Carroll, Edward Villella and Patricia McBride of the New York City Ballet, comedians Morey Amsterdam and Joan Rivers, trumpeter Harry James and his orchestra, the Obernkirchen Children's Choir from Germany and foot-juggler Uto Garrido.

Palace:  Host Jimmy Durante introduces Peter Lawford, who offers a song-and-dance routine; the rock 'n' rolling Turtles; Mrs. Elva Miller, the singing grandmother; comedian George Carlin; singer-dancer Elaine Dunn; comic dancer George Carl; and the Polack Brothers' elephant act.

If I'm not mistaken, several of the acts on this week's Sullivan show can be seen in the Ed Sullivan Christmas DVD that came out a few years ago and has been a staple on Public Broadcasting stations.  Unfortunately, none of them appear to be online, so we can't share in them here.  Suffice it to say that some are better than others.  I'm not a fan of Diahann Carroll; on the other hand, Morey Amsterdam is usually very funny.

I am, however, a big fan of Jimmy Durante.  I'm not sure about Peter Lawford as a song-and-dance man, though.  Elva Miller, always billed as "Mrs. Miller," was something of a phenomenon of the 60s, appearing on many of the talk shows with her "unique" song interpretations.  I remember her - or more properly, her songs - from the Twin Cities kids' show Lunch With Casey, when Casey and Roundhouse would pantomime to her singing.  Here she is with Durante in what may well be a clip from this week's show:


It's pretty hard to take sides with these lineups.  Neither of them are completely terrible, but neither do they get me very excited.  This week, I'm going with a push.

Looking for something more exciting?  Andy Williams has Jack Jones, Barbara Eden and Noel Harrison, while Dean Martin greets Sid Caesar, George Kirby, Vic Damone, Caterina Valente and Don Cherry*. And then there's Milton Berle, with Abbe Lane, Bill Dana, harmonica player Stan Fisher and magician De La Vega.  But more about him later.

*The singer, not the hockey coach-turned-pundit.


***

I'm pretty sure I've talked about this before, the vast difference in the college football bowl season between the 60s and today.  There are only nine bowls in 1966*, and none of them count toward the national championship, which is decided by the final polls after the end of the regular season.  The top two teams in the nation, Notre Dame and Michigan State, who played their epic 10-10 tie the month before, aren't even bowling - ND had a no-bowling policy at the time, and Michigan State, having played in the Rose Bowl the season before, were prohibited from a return trip.

*By contrast, there are 35 this season.

Miami and Virginia Tech had each played their final regular-season games two weeks before, when they meet in the Liberty Bowl on Saturday, December 10 on ABC.  It is the second time in Memphis for the game, which had made previous stops in Philadelphia (hence the game's name) and Atlantic City (where it became the first-ever indoor bowl game).  Miami comes out on top, winning 14-7.

With the next bowl game a week away, there has to be something left to fill up the day, and the NFL is happy to step up, as the league starts its end-of-season slate of Saturday games with the Packers, en route to winning their second consecutive title, taking on the Colts in Baltimore.  I probably watched the Canadian Football game on Channel 11 at 10:00am, advertised as Ottawa vs. Hamilton.  Since the Grey Cup championship had already been played, I'm guessing that this was a delayed broadcast of the first game* of the Eastern Finals, which had been played on November 13, won by Ottawa 30-1.

*Back then, the Eastern Finals was a two-game, total-points series.  Ottawa won the second game 42-16, taking the cumulative series 72-17, before losing the Grey Cup to Saskatchewan on November 26, 29-14.


***

At the end of November, NBC premiered a made-for-TV movie called Fame is the Name of the Game, starring Tony Franciosa as investigative journalist Jeff Dillon, Susan St. Sames as research assistant Peggy Chan, and George Macready as his boss, publisher Glenn Howard.  TV Guide calls the movie "a Grade-B murder melodrama souped up with sex and brutality."  But there's something else they call it: a success.

Fame is the Name of the Game isn't the first made-for-TV movie, but the publicity machine for it is unique, and trendsetting.  NBC puts it in its powerhouse Saturday Night at the Movies spot, the home of its big-name theatrical presentations, and bills it as a "World Premiere" of a "major motion picture."  Given the treatment usually reserved for the television debut of a big-screen blockbuster, Fame scores a 23 rating and a 40 share - equal to some of the best theatrical movie showings.

NBC's success is all the more satisfying given the scorn CBS had shown for "quickies," as they call these TV flicks.  CBS and ABC are much more inclined toward studio-taped presentations of plays (Death of a Salesman, The Glass Menagerie) and movies (Laura, Dial M for Murder, The Diary of Anne Frank), that hearken back to the feel of Golden Age live dramas.  But it's hard to argue with success: by the end of the decade the TV telefilm (or "non-movie," as one critic calls them) are all over television, and the term "World Premiere" even becomes the title of an ABC movie series.

The "Name of the Game" cast (L-R):
Robert Stack, Gene Barry, Tony Franciosa
As for Fame is the Name of the Game, it also becomes the name of the series.  In 1968 NBC premieres The Name of the Game, one of the last of the 90-minute series.  It features Franciosa, reprising his role as Jeff Dillon, joined on a rotating basis by Gene Barry, replacing Macready as Glenn Howard, and Robert Stack as Dan Farrell, editor of another of Barry's publications.  It's not been seen as frequently in syndication as many old series of the era, although it's running on Cozi right now.  It's not Golden Age television, and suffers from the dated fashions that plague so many series of the 70s but neither is it quite as bad as that "Grade-B" label that TV Guide stuck it with.  And any series with Gene Barry in it has to have something going for it.

***

Speaking of movies, one of the things I miss is the horror double-feature that so many local stations used to have.  I'm looking at this one on WTCN, Channel 11, starting Thursday night at 10pm.  First up is Attack of the Crab Monsters - "An expedition led by Dr. Karl Weigand arrives on a Pacific island to study the effects of H-bomb fallout."  It's followed by The Cyclops, in which "Susan Winter and a search party head for an unexplored area of Mexico - the place where her fiance mysteriously disappeared three years ago."  At least it has Lon Chaney Jr. going for it.  Channel 12, KEYC in Mankato, joins in the fun with Tobor the Great, where "A scientist builds a robot which is designed to serve as a metal guinea pig."  Tobor, of course, is robot spelled backward.  And then Channel 4, WCCO, has Attack of the Mushroom People, which tells the story of "A yachting party, cast ashore on an uncharted island*, encounters a horrifying fungus which begins to take possession of their bodies."  It does make you wonder where the silhouettes are, doesn't it?

*The castaways of Gilligan's Island?

And this doesn't begin to cover the whole range - there's The Undead and Curse of the Undead (on two different stations - unrelated movies, as far as I can tell), The Amazing Transparent Man, Man Without a Body - oddly enough, the only one that isn't labeled a "melodrama" is the one that's arguably the most disturbing one of all - Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's classic Cat People. I mean, if a movie about a woman afraid that she turns into a cat when she's aroused isn't a horror film, what is?

***

Earlier, I mentioned Milton Berle.  "Mr. Television," as he was known in the 50s, had last been seen on series television as host of Jackpot Bowling in the early '60s.


But now, after years as little more than a reminder of television's early days, Uncle Miltie is trying a comeback. He's bought himself out of a 30-year contract with NBC, and Dick Hobson relates Berle's barnstorming campaign in support of his new variety show on ABC.  Flying from city to city in a Lear jet, he shakes the hand of the governor of Kansas during a stop in Wichita, wears an Indian headdress in Oklahoma City, rides in parades in Detroit and Baltimore.  He visits injured Vietnam vets at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington.  He's honored at a party hosted by the mayor of Houston, and appears at halftime of the Syracuse-Baylor football game in Waco.  To those who proclaim that "Uncle Miltie's back," Berle responds, "I've never been away."

Travelling with Berle can be exhausting; the comedian's always on.  To a reporter's question about how he feels going up against NBC's The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Berle quips "I'm the real uncle!"  He tapes commercials urging people to watch him on "ABC, the American Berlecasting Company!"  When asked what he thinks of television today, he steals Fred Allen's famous line that "TV is like a steak.  It's a medium that's rarely well done."  An Oklahoma City host says he doesn't look as old in person as he does on TV; Berle tells her "I think you have an old TV set."

Throughtout the trip, Berle is accompanied by a retinue that includes singer Bobby Rydell, a 60s teen idol whom producers hope will attract the youth audience who aren't awed by Berle's reputation.  But despite the "Berlewind Tour," it will be the viewers, not Berle's energy, determining how successful his comeback attempt will be.  And when they speak, it's not a pretty sound.  His yukking and gladhandling and insistence that the King has returned to claim the throne have fallen on deaf ears; the October Nielsens put the show at a disastrous 84th out of 92 shows.  Berle's name has no cache with younger viewers, and Berle's spectacular failure truly demonstrates, if any further proof is needed, that television has fully entered a new era, with perhaps only Ed Sullivan truly reminding us of the early days.  On October 25 Variety reports that ABC has canceled the show, although Berle has to wait two additional days before he hears it personally from someone at the network. The final show will air on January 6.  Berle says there are no hard feelings, no sour grapes.  "I'm just going to take a rest."

***

This week's cover promises the story of "The Town That Is TV's Secret Laboratory."  We'll have more on that in the future - stay tuned. TV