December 13, 2014

This week in TV Guide: December 12, 1959

It's less than two weeks to Christmas, 1959, and there are several Christmas shows on tap. So let's get right to it, shall we?

The Hallmark Hall of Fame makes a rare matinee appearance on NBC Sunday afternoon at 4:30 CT with a four-part "Christmas Festival." In part one, Olympic figure skating champion Dick Button appears in "The Ice Princess"; part two features the Obernkirchen Children's Choir* singing Christmas carols; Walter Slezak stars in part three's story "The Borrowed Christmas" and part four consists of Judith Anderson (not yet a Dame) narrating the story of the Nativity. All that in just an hour - quite a show.

*Perhaps best known for their recording of "The Happy Wanderer."

It's not really a Christmas movie, but The Wizard of Oz has already become a holiday television tradition, and CBS airs the annual broadcast at 5pm Sunday,* hosted by Red Skelton and his daughter Valentine. There's a short feature about it in the national section of the issue; because the movie only runs an hour and 40 minutes, they need something to fill the remainder of the timeslot; hence, the studio host. Nowadays they'd just fill it with commercials.

*So you'd better record either this or Hallmark - oh wait, DVRs haven't been invented yet!

On Tuesday, NBC's Ford Startime presents "Cindy's Fella," a Western version of "Cinderella" starring Jimmy Stewart, George Gobel and Lois Smith. There's a TV Guide preview of this, remarking about how "Cindy's Fella" actually started out as an idea for Stewart's radio show The Six-Shooter, which on television was converted into The Restless Gun, starring John Payne. Who, of course, starred in one of the great Christmas movies, Miracle on 34th Street. But you already knew that.

Also on Tuesday, Red Skelton has a Christmas theme (if not a complete show), with Clem Kadiddlehopper as a temporary post officer worker helping during the Christmas rush. Wednesday, CBS' U.S. Steel Hour has "A Rose For Christmas," starring Helen Hayes and Patty Duke as a nun and an orphan. And on Friday, NBC's live Bell Telephone Hour has its Christmas special, hosted by the fine actor Thomas Mitchell, with Rosemary Clooney, the Lennon Sisters, and opera stars Lisa Della Casa and Giorgio Tozzi, among others. In subsequent years I recall Bell's Christmas show being even closer to December 25, but it's always a very pleasant hour of holiday music.


There's another aspect to Christmas programming though, one that we don't see much anymore: local shows. And there are plenty of them this week, starring local choirs.

On Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, Eau Claire's (Wisconsin) WEAU features local school choirs, and on Thursday evening Austin's KMMT has a Lutheran church choir. Friday evening the Rochester Male Chorus is on KROC in Rochester. TV Guide notes that the group performed earlier in the year at the Sugar Bowl. And various local choruses will be appearing on KSTP's noontime Treasure Chest show on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Thursday's is particularly interesting—a 60 voice choir from the Minnesota School of Business. Do groups like that have choirs anymore?


The big news story this week is President Eisenhower's overseas trip, which is, as the TV Guide preview tells us, "the most extensive foreign tour ever undertaken" by an American president. His 19-day trip begins in Rome and, by the time it's over, will include the capitals of Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Iran, Greece, Tunisia, France, Spain, and Morocco, as well as the Big Four Western summit in Paris.

Television coverage of the President's trip is extensive. All three networks have specials planned for Saturday; NBC's is called the "Journey to Understanding," while CBS labels it "Eyewitness to History." ABC's is fairly laid back by comparison, just "Presidential Mission." NBC also has specials scheduled for Sunday and Friday, as well as daily updates on Today, while CBS counters with a Friday special devoted to America's "brittle" relationship with Iran. If only they knew.


Speaking of history as we are, there's an interesting article by the historian Arthur Schlesinger, who in time will become best-known as one of President Kennedy's chief advisers. The article is entitled "How Television Can Meet Its Responsibilities," which TV Guide bills as the third in a series of articles by "outstanding Americans."

Like so many, Schlesinger mourns the content of television, quoting Edward R. Murrow's description of the medium being used to "distract, delude, amuse and insulate," and echoes Pat Weaver's complaint that TV is "nothing but being largely a storytelling medium." Of course, there are exceptions: Omnibus, See It Now, and special presentations of "Richard III" and the Bolshoi Ballet. "But these well-advertised gestures of piety do not alter the fact that the central, the all-encompassing, the all-devouring commitment of television is to mass entertainment, conceived in a very limited way."

From here, Schlesinger takes up the question of how television got this way. The traditional argument, of course, is that it's a medium that simply gives the public what it wants, but Schlesinger points to the argument made by Gilbert Seldes, TV host, occasional columnist for TV Guide, and director of the Annenberg School of Communications at Penn.* Seldes says the question that should be asked is this: if TV is, in fact, simply giving the public "what it wants," how did the public get that way in the first place? And does the public even know how good television can be? How can it, when network executives refuse to demonstrate it to them?

*The TV Guide connection is no surprise, given that Walter Annenberg is the magazine's publisher.

Interjecting the political for just a moment, Schlesinger was known as one of the most liberal of Kennedy's New Frontier men, and I think this attitude comes through in some of his observations. For instance, he insists that "artistic excellence is not something to be determined by majority vote," which I actually agree with, but it carries the whiff of the elitist argument that you've got to give the people what's good for them, whether they like it or not. He feels that networks cannot continue to base their profits on the domination of advertisers, refusing to let them dictate what programs go on the air.

He also calls for more government regulation of television, suggesting the FCC should become more active in reviewing station licenses as they come up for renewal. "The FCC might stipulate in the license that appropriate proportions of prime time be devoted to sustaining programs, to programs dealing with public issues, to cultural programs, to local live programs; that advertising be limited; that free time be grated during Presidential campaigns to all parties polling more than 10 percent of the vote in the previous election." Some of these ideas might sound good, but remember that the Prime Time Access rule, which gave the first half-hour of prime time back to local affiliates, has given us not incisive public affairs programs dealing with local issues, but endless reruns of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Family Feud, and Entertainment Tonight. Who's to say what constitutes a cultural program? If The Muppet Show does an opera satire, does that count as culture? Even if Kermit wears a tuxedo? After all, many of us received our first introduction to classical music from Bugs Bunny—how do we classify that?

Schlesinger compares the effects of such action to that of the minimum wage bill of the '30s, and dismisses accusations of government control: "the setting of federal standards need not mean Government domination of television." Need not, you notice—not does not.

In conclusion, Schlesinger, quotes CBS chief Frank Stanton, saying "the strongest sustained attention of America is now, daily and nightly, bestowed on television as it is bestowed on nothing else." Schlesinger views this as a "frightening thought," but adds that if it is true, then so also is the fact that "if television is anywhere near so significant a public influence," then it must realize that if it does not regulate itself—if it does not take steps to ensure the broadcast of what Schlesinger sees as necessary programming—then "it must expect some form of public intervention."


A brief note on my favorite ad of the week. It's the one on your right, for CBS' General Electric Theater Sunday evening presentation of "The House of Truth," starring host Ronald Reagan in the story of how a library in Southeast Asia leads the fight against Communism. It's good to know that even back then, over 20 years before becoming president, he's fighting the war against the Commies. And by the way, Ronald Reagan, needless to say, was no fan of Arthur Schlesinger.

Danny Thomas is this week's cover story, talking about his long run on television, which shows no signs of abating. His weekly CBS series Make Room For Daddy (or The Danny Thomas Show, as it's now known) has been on the air since 1953, and will remain there until 1964. What we learn from the story is that Thomas is a good guy, a burgeoning TV producer, a man uncomfortable with the label "The World's Foremost Entertainer," and someone who has no intentions of retiring any time soon. What's interesting about this to me, from the standpoint of today, is that the "World's Foremost Entertainer" is now almost completely unknown to modern-day generations, unless it's as the founder of St. Jude's Hospital. Which, in my opinion, is not a bad legacy to have; it's just another example of how the cultural icons of our own time can so easily dry up and blow away if we're not careful, and why the cultural historians have to work to keep them alive.


It's the last weekend of the regular season in the NFL, with the Championship game still two weeks away,* and we've got a pair of games to round out the schedule. In a Saturday broadcast, CBS carries the game between the Baltimore Colts and Los Angeles Rams. It's preceded on NBC by an NBA game between the Cincinnati Royals and Minneapolis Lakers, from the Armory in downtown Minneapolis (a building I'm well-familiar with). At noon on KGLO, the CBS affiliate in Mason City, Iowa, there's a one-hour condensed replay of an August baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Athletics. What's notable about this programming? Of the six teams featured in the three broadcasts—one from each of the three major sports—five of those six teams are no longer in the same cities.

*The game, played on December 27, is a rematch of the previous year's title contest.  It's won by the Baltimore Colts, 31-16 over the New York Giants.

On Sunday, the NFL finale on CBS pits the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears. It's up against an NBA contest between the New York Knickerbockers and Detroit Pistons on NBC. (At least none of these four teams have moved.) Aside from some golf and bowling, that does it for Sunday's sports, which explains why the networks have time for shows like the Hallmark Hall of Fame and The Wizard of Oz. For the rest of the time, I'm afraid you'll have to be content with Roller Derby and Championship Bridge, and the Wednesday and Friday Night Fights. Like I keep saying, it's a different time.


Just a quick look at some variety shows. Sullivan has veteran entertainer Sophie Tucker, singer-actress Dorothy Dandridge, singer Brook Benton, the Ames Brothers, and David Seville. In case you're not familiar with that last name, here's a picture that might refresh your memory:

Elsewhere, Ed's competition on ABC is a Frank Sinatra special, featuring his Rat Pack buddy Peter Lawford, comedienne Hermione Gingold, singer Ella Fitzgerald, and Red Novro's jazz combo. There's also an appearance by dancer Juliet Prowse, about whom we wrote last week. NBC's Chevy Show features hosts Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and singers Dennis Day, Jimmy Dean and Molly Bee.

On Monday, Steve Allen's NBC show (which had started out as a direct competitor to Sullivan) has his wife Jayne Meadows, singers Vic Damone and Sandy Warner, and pianist Andre Previn.  Steve's also joined by his three sons from a previous marriage in a comedy sketch. Arthur Murray's Tuesday night dance party (NBC) has guests including Burgess Meredith, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Shelly Berman and Merv Griffin. Perry Como's guests on Wednesday (NBC) are actor Maurice Evens, singer Jane Morgan, and the Wiere Brothers comedy team.

Next week, I expect all these shows will have Christmas lineups. Unfortunately, we won't be doing that TV Guide next week, for one simple reason: I don't own it. You can help rectify that with a donation to my PayPal account, but in the meantime, don't worry. There's still a pretty good issue in store, and a couple more articles in the meantime. TV  


  1. A great entry this week.
    It does make me wonder if Allison Williams' Peter Pan becomes an annual or relegated to the dustbin!
    Happy Holidays!

  2. I guess Skelton's son had succumbed to leukemia by this time....


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!