June 21, 2014

This week in TV Guide: June 23, 1956

This is one of the oldest issues in the collection, older even than me.  (Wow, that's old!)  And gracing the cover is Steve Allen, star of the Tonight show, and about to enter into single-warrior combat against Ed Sullivan for control of Sunday night variety supremacy.

Prior to this, NBC's entrant against Sullivan was the Colgate Comedy Hour, which as we know from Gerald Nachman's book, either was or was not successful competing against Ed.  But now Steverino's been chosen to take on Ed and his weekly audience of 50,000,000.  Allen, a mere lad of 34 and already "well on his way to becoming a millionaire" (annual income: about $300,000!), has moved from panelist on What's My Line? to the man generally credited with creating the modern Tonight show, and now to prime-time host.  His plan, according to this week's article, is to build on his Tonight success, bringing along his producer, director, bandleader, and several of his regulars.  Says Allen, "We'll resemble Tonight, but we'll be smoother,"  giving the audience "what they have a right to expect" from a show in prime-time rather than late at night.  He plans fewer guests than Sullivan, meaning each one will get more time; and he plans to stay away from the "highbrow"* guests that Sullivan often features.

*As Terry Teachout frequently notes, we'd consider Sullivan's shows to epitomize the "middlebrow" culture, which I think would include the sophisticated comedy of - Steve Allen.

Allen's plan is to continue Tonight for three nights a week while he does the Sunday night show, with the other two nights filled by reruns; in fact, it is Ernie Kovacs and his crew who fill the Monday-Tuesday slot, and Allen (and Kovacs) will leave Tonight by the following January, leading eventually to Jack Paar.  As for The Steve Allen Show, it survives until 1960 and was known, among other things, for featuring a most incongruous appearance by Elvis Presley.


This is where we'd normally have the "Sullivan vs. The Palace" feature if we were in the mid-60s, but since we have the chance, let's see what Steve Allen had to offer against Sullivan that first Sunday.

Steve's show, which airs at 6pm CT, is a blockbuster opening, featuring "Glamorous" Kim Novak; the Will Mastin Trio starring Sammy Davis, Jr.; comedian Wally Cox; actors Dane Clark and Vincent Price; and the dance team of Bambi Linn and Rod Alexander.

Unfortunately for Steve, Ed's chosen tonight (at 9pm CT) to celebrate his eighth anniversary on television, and he has an all-star cast of his own: singers Harry Belafonte, Kate Smith and Teresa Brewer; comedian Jack Paar*; Klausen's Bears; and cameo tributes by Phil Silvers, Susan Hayward, Eddie Cantor**, Abbott and Costello, Red Skelton, Gregory Peck and Tab Hunter. 

*Who, as we mentioned, would eventually take over Tonight.

**Eddie Cantor, ironically, was one of the hosts of Ed's former NBC competition, the Colgate Comedy Hour.

Now those are two heavyweight lineups.  I might be wrong about this, but I think I'm going to give Steverino the edge this week, although it would be a lucky person who chose to watch them both.

By the way, you might wonder what the relationship was like between Allen and Sullivan.  Unlike many feuds he engaged in, Sullivan had no problem with Steve, having given him one of his first big TV appearances.  "I'm a Steve Allen fan," Ed says. "Been one for years."  For his part, Allen is effusive in his praise of Sullivan, saying "I have a high opinion of Ed's show.  And Ed himself has been overly kind to me in his column."  Steve's goal isn't to knock Sullivan off his stool; "All I want him to do is push over a little so that there's room for me too."


The layout of TV Guide - and television itself, for that matter - is quite different in 1956 from what we might see in the '60s, and it takes a little getting used to.  For example, the 10pm news on Channel 4 is actually at 10:30 - with varied programs filling the 10pm slot, from Burns & Allen on Monday to What's My Line? on Wednesday (yes, WML? wasn't seen in its usual Sunday night slot on Channel 4, what with Ed's anniversary show) to Climax! on Thursday.

It actually can be quite difficult to figure out what various schedules are.  Some of this, I think, is due to the difficulties of Daylight Saving Time, especially in places such as Minnesota that don't observe it.  The Twin Cities would be two hours behind New York rather than one (which probably made things like live broadcasts even more challenging).  For example, according to the always-reliable Wikipedia, the following was CBS' Thursday prime-time schedule in 1955-56 (with times adjusted to Central):

6:30  Sergeant Preston of the Yukon
7:00  The Bob Cummings Show
7:30  Climax!
8:30  Four Star Playhouse
9:00  The Arthur Murray Party
9:30  [unknown - Wanted, which had started the season, had been canceled by now]

Now, by contrast, here's what the two CBS affiliates, KDAL, Channel 3 (Duluth) and WCCO, Channel 4 (Minneapolis) offered:

6:30  Rin Tin Tin (Channel 3, from ABC); Sergeant Preston of the Yukon (Channel 4)
7:00  The Bob Cummings Show (Channel 3); Doctor Hudson's Secret Journal (Channel 4, syndicated)
7:30  Four Star Playhouse (both channels)
8:00  The Arthur Murray Party (both channels)
8:30  Make Room For Daddy (Channel 3, from ABC); Cross Current (Channel 4, syndicated version of Foreign Intrigue)
9:00  Climax! (Channel 3, until 10pm); The Bob Cummings Show (Channel 4)
9:30  Climax! (Channel 4, until 10:30pm)

Channel 3 offered news and sports at 10, while Channel 4 didn't get to their local news until 10:30.

By contrast, NBC's schedule for that evening was simplicity itself.  The network schedule:

6:30  Dinah Shore/NBC News
7:00  You Bet Your Life
7:30  The People's Choice
8:00  Dragnet
8:30  Ford Theatre (not to be confused with Ford's Theater, which is a different subject entirely)
9:00  Lux Video Theatre

And here's how the two NBC affiliates, KSTP, Channel 5 (Minneapolis) and Channel 6, WDSM (Duluth) handled it:

6:30  Topper (Channel 5, syndicated); local news (Channel 6)
7:00  The People's Choice (Channel 5); I Led Three Lives (Channel 6, syndicated)
7:30  Ford Theatre (Channel 5); Mr. District Attorney (Channel 6, syndicated)
8:00  Lux Video Theatre (both channels)
9:00  You Bet Your Life (both channels)
9:30  Dragnet (both channels)

Being a program director back then must have been a bitch.


What's that?  You say you want sports?  Good luck with that.  On CBS' Saturday game of the week, the Yankees play the White Sox in Chicago, with Dizzy Dean and Buddy Blattner providing the commentary.  On Sunday, Channel 4 has some bowling.  Monday night Channel 9 has minor league baseball featuring the Minneapolis Millers taking on the Louisville Colonels.   Wednesday is ABC's boxing night, Thursday features a syndicated bout, and Friday is NBC's fight night.  And that's it.

On the topic, an interesting letter to the editor from Morton Solomon of Minneapolis, asking a pretty straightforward question: "How come I can't see the Major League game of the week on Saturday afternoon on Ch. 4 when the Millers or [St. Paul] Saints are playing on Ch. 9?  I'd like to spend my time partially watching both."  The answer is equally straightforward: "The major-minor agreement, in order to help increase interest and attendance, is that no Major League game can be televised at the same time the Millers or Saints are playing in town."

What really caught my eye about that question was its very local-ness.  Back then, TV Guide was still enough of a local publication (in fact, TV Guide had bought out several local publications in the process of building their national circulation) that the local editor provides answers to local questions.  Yet another thing that went away somewhere down the line.


Let's look at the Teletype and see if we can find any clues to upcoming shows that caused a stir.  Here's one - CBS' new Playhouse 90 anthology series, premiering this fall.  Playhouse 90 went on to be come one of the classic anthologies of the original Golden Age, the most famous episode probably being Rod Serling's "Requiem for a Heavyweight," starring Jack Palance.

Here's another one - notice of Dick Powell's new Zane Grey Theater, also headed for CBS this fall.  Zane Grey Theater, with Powell as host and occasional star, was a mainstay on the network until 1961.  And finally there's the upcoming Whirlybirds, a show which I remember fondly from syndicated reruns on Saturdays.  It only ran for three seasons, but it's fondly remembered by many people my age.


It seems as if I've written a lot about nothing this week.  When summer rerun season comes around, I'm more inclined to focus on the features than on the reruns, and I guess this has been no exception.  One other thing I'll note, though, is the prominence given to the writer in the program listings.  Take, for example, Monday night's episode of Producers' Showcase on NBC.  It's a production of "Happy Birthday," starring Betty Field, but prominent billing is given in the Close-Up to the writer, Anita Loos.  It's partly because of her fame; her most famous work was "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," by which Marilyn Monroe did very well. But it's something we see time after time into the late '60s - even in regular series television, the writer of an episode, and occasionally even the director, is frequently credited.


By 1970 or so this has pretty much disappeared.  I suppose it's due somewhat to the increase in television stations, and the corresponding decrease in the amount of space given to each program in the listings.  The individual writer is also less important today, his role being superseded by the showrunner, or what we used to think of as an executive producer.  Some showrunners, such as Seth McFarlane, Matt Weiner, David Chase, Vince Gilligan and Aaron Sorkin, have become as famous as their creations, so much so that their name alone can sell a series.

It was that way in the Golden Age with writers.  A teleplay by Rod Serling or Paddy Chayefsky, a series episode written by Reginald Rose or Sterling Silliphant, was almost certainly worthy of a mention in TV Guide.  Even if you didn't know what the show was all about, you'd tune in based on the name alone.

There's a certain craftsmanship to that, don't you think?  A recognition that the people in front of the screen aren't the only thing a show has going for it.  We know much more about the behind-the-scenes of a television series today than we did in the past, but the simple mention of a writing credit for an episode of Dr. Kildare or The Defenders somehow makes it more real.  But then, for a country whose economy is no longer built around making things, I suppose it's not a surprise. TV  


  1. Whirlybirds! and Sky King! Oh man, takes me back.
    And I agree with you on writers and mentions. I think Hallmark Hall of Fame did that, too.

  2. As I mentioned last time, the issues I have are from the week before (June 14-22) and the week after (June 30-July 6).

    - The Arthur Murray Party was a perennial summer replacement series for most of its long history, covering eleven seasons and four networks (including Dumont).
    In 1956, Murray came on in April to replace The Johnny Carson Show, after its only season.
    At summer's end, Murray gave way to Playhouse 90; Arthur and Kathryn returned the following summer on NBC, in place of Robert Montgomery Presents. The following fall (1958), the Murrays were back on NBC for two full seasons, all year long, which concluded their network run.

    - For the record, here's ABC Thursday night summer schedule (all times Central):

    6:30: The Lone Ranger
    7:00: Hour Glass (hour anthology of low-budget movies; summer replacement for Bishop Sheen)
    8:00: Star Tonight (half-hour anthology of repeats from other half-hour anthologies)
    8:30: Greatest Sports Highlights (old sports newsreels)
    9:00: Compass (travelogues)
    9:30: Local stations time

    As you can tell, much of the above was pure filler, which many of ABC' stations (including the network-owned ones) didn't bother to carry.
    Here's what Channel 7 in Chicago had on Thursdays in summer:
    6:30: Lone Ranger
    7:00: Father Rigney Speaks, a local Chicago priest who'd survived four years as a prisoner in Red China.
    7:30: To Be Announced (I can't find out at this late date what syndie fodder came to occupy this spot)
    8:00 Star Tonight
    8:30: Al and Jimmy Demaret, the golfing brothers giving tips to Hollywood stars (syndicated from LA)
    9:00: Highway Patrol, which was (I think) still in production at that time
    9:30: Gangbusters, a rerun
    10:00: Douglas Fairbanks Presents, rerun (ch7 didn't have a late newscast then)

    That's how different things were back then.
    By contrast, Channel 2-CBS had separate newscasts at 10 (with Fahey Flynn) and 10:30 (with Frank Reynolds).

    - ABC's answer to Sullivan and Allen was Famous Film Festival, British pictures from the Rank Organisation that the network picked up for a song. They also used these flix on weekday afternoons for a while (ABC's only other daytime programming then was Mickey Mouse Club).

    - There's a feature in the June 30 issue (next week's if you're keeping track) about Crossroads, an ABC Friday night series based on the experiences of clergymen of all faiths.
    The producers had an advisory board with a priest, a minister, and a rabbi to vet the stories, presumably to equalize the weekly content. What I can find out indicates that Catholic priests got most of the episodes, rabbis the fewest ... but that's probably just a coincidence.
    Crossroads ran two seasons on ABC (about 60 episodes - I'll have to check); I believe that some episodes are available on DVD from Alpha Video, a low-end company specializing in obscurities (I'll have to check that too).

    - Oh, by the way -
    Channel 5-NBC had a local variety show at noon, hosted by Bob Murphy and Kay Westfall, called (naturally enough) Bob & Kay.
    Their regular singer - Mike Douglas.
    *See how this all ties together?*

    Lots & lots more - any questions?

  3. A priest, a minister, and a rabbi...Did they ever walk into a bar?


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!