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  


  1. Best wishes for a speedy recovery!

    1. Thanks, hopestreet! I'm on the way - hope to be back at my day job by the end of the week, thanks to advances in medical technology. But I'll tell you, whatever discomfort I'm in now is well worth it compared to the discomfort I was in!


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!