February 28, 2015

This week in TV Guide: February 27, 1960

Only three cities in the United States have ever hosted the Winter Olympics – Lake Placid, New York; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Squaw Valley, California.  Yes, the 1960 Winter Olympics were held in California, a fact that puzzled me no end when I was a boy, reading about the heroic exploits of the U.S. hockey team that year.  Of course I knew there were mountain ranges in California, but it still seemed a strange choice for the Winter Games, and as this issue of TV Guide sees them come to a conclusion, it’s worth spending a moment on just how this unlikely site was chosen as an Olympics host.

It was in 1955 that Squaw Valley was selected for the 1960 Games - "a town with no mayor, and a ski resort with just one chairlift, two rope tows, and a fifty-room lodge."  In fact, there was only one resident of Squaw Valley, a man named Alexander Cushing, who also happened to head the "group" bidding for the Games.  Through an ingenious campaign, Cushing managed to convince first the United States Olympic Committee and then, in a massive upset, the International Olympic Committee, that Squaw Valley was the place for the Games.  This was despite the fact that none of the facilities he included in his bid* even existed yet.  Had he been unable to pull it off, Cushing probably would have gone down in history as one of the great land swindlers of all time, and we'd be seeing his story on an episode of The FBI.

*Seen in a massive 3,000 pound model of Squaw Valley that Cushing commissioned for the IOC, a model so big that it had to be housed in the U.S. Embassy in Paris, where the final vote was taken.

But pull it off he did.  With only four-and-a-half years to get ready, he wasted no time hiring the best people, including famed Olympic course designer Willy Schaeffler, to construct a venue from scratch - everything from freeways, hotels and motels to access roads, bridges and arenas.  The result was a huge success, a spectacular resort venue that continues to thrive today, and a Games that scored a host of notable firsts, including the first to be televised.

Which brings us to this week's coverage, seen on CBS Saturday and Sunday.  Unquestionably Saturday's highlight is the live broadcast of America's upset gold medal victory in hockey.  As would be the case 20 years later, a team comprised of college players, cheered on by a rabid home crowd, takes on and defeats the giants of international hockey: Canada, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.  You can see that historic final game, against the Soviets, beginning here, with Bud Palmer doing the play-by-play:

CBS looked at the Games as a news event as much as a sporting one; Walter Cronkite was the anchor for the network's coverage, with Chris Schenkel and event experts joining in.  Douglas Edwards filled in for Uncle Walter on the Sunday night late news, which Cronkite helmed until taking over for Edwards on the weekday evening news.


This week's starlet is another destined to make it big, or at least one who has a successful career.  It's Shirley Knight.  The 23 year-old actress is primarily known for her many guest appearances on TV: G.E. Theater, Playhouse 90, Matinee Theater, Johnny Staccato.  She's under contract to Warner Brothers for both television and movies, and says she'll "work every day they'll let me until I'm 65."

And she does work.  Later that year she'll appear in her third movie, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, for which she'll get an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  In 1962, her fifth movie, Sweet Bird of Youth, will garner her another Supporting Actress nomination.  Her TV appearances will net her eight Emmy nominations and three victories.  A pretty good career, don't you think?  Probably even more successful than they could imagine over at TV Guide.


The irony note of the week comes from an article on ABC's smash hit, The Untouchables.  Executive Producer Quinn Martin is the brains behind the rookie show's success, the first of many hits ascribed to Martin during a long and successful career.  One of the complaints about the show surrounds what Martin calls "dramatic license," when the Untouchables are shown capturing Ma Barker and her gang.  In real life (yes, there was a Ma Barker in real life), it was not Eliot Ness and the Untouchables, but the FBI, who captured Barker and her bankrobbing sons.  Martin understands the FBI's ire at this; "After all, the FBI gets its appropriations based on the job it does, and it's understandable that they'd object to credit being given to someone else."

If Quinn Martin had any lingering feelings of guilt about cheating the FBI out of proper credit, hopefully he was able to even the score when it came to one of his longest-running hits: The FBI (1965-74).

Martin has other problems with The Untouchables - the estate of Al Capone, the first victim of Ness' squad, is suing Martin for a million bucks for using his likeness for profit without the family's permission.  The show faces pushback from Italian-American groups for its negative portrayal of Italian-Americans.  Critics claim the show's too violent.  But it's a lot easier to take when you're producing a hit.  Martin stays with The Untouchables for only a year, but his success and influence in television lasts a lot longer.


Saturday:  NBC's World Wide 60 presents the comings and goings of two of the world's more important figures: Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev.  The American and Soviet leaders are touring the world, vying for influence in various countries.  Ike's in the midst of his South American tour and, just finished a trip to Brazil, is headed for Argentina.  Khrushchev, meanwhile, is in Asia, visiting India, Burma and Indonesia.  NBC continues its coverage of Eisenhower's "Journey to Understanding" with another special on Thursday.

Sunday:  Pompous program of the week: the Archibald MacLeish drama "The Secret of Freedom," on NBC Sunday night at 7:00 ET, opposite Ed Sullivan on CBS.*  The drama, starring Tony Randall, Kim Hunter and Thomas Mitchell, tells the story of a woman who wonders whether Americans "have lost their souls" when a school tax referendum is defeated in her town.  If this sounds a lot like the tactics that school referendum proponents use to this day, it is.  I don't suppose there's anything in the script about holding the schools to accountability.

*Even then, prestige shows were stuck opposite popular programs.

Monday:  Bing Crosby returns to ABC with another special, this one co-starring Perry Como, dancer-singer Elaine Dunn, singer Sandy Stewart, and Bing's singing sons Philip, Dennis and Lindsay.  The Crosby Boys, as they were known professionally, were around in the '50s and '60s, and actually appeared on more than just their dad's shows.

Tuesday:  Another one of those daytime specials that used to crop up from time to time.  This one, Woman!, runs at 2pm CT on CBS, with Helen Hayes hosting a documentary on the problems of old age.  I like the thought that homemakers watching television are capable of appreciating more than just soap operas.

Wednesday:  Armstrong Circle Theater presents a drama dealing with two topical issues: drugs and beatniks.  "Raid in Beatnik Village" tells the story of cops on the narcotics squad going undercover to bust dope dealers.  Juvenile delinquency is a big deal in the '50s and '60s, and although this drama probably would feel dated today (particularly with reference to "narcotics"), I suspect it's a pretty accurate depiction of the societal anxiety around the coming counterculture, something that would become much, much bigger by the end of this decade.

Thursday:  Speaking of The Untouchables, tonight's episode is part two of an exciting story pitting Ness and the Untouchables* against the attempted assassination of FDR in 1933.  As in real life, Roosevelt escapes unscathed, but Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak is shot and killed.  The official story has generally been that Cermak, like Texas Governor John Connelly thirty years later, was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, but there are revisionist historians, including the writer of this episode, suggesting that the mob had a contract out on Cermak, and that he was at least as much of a target as Roosevelt.

*And please tell me why there isn't an alt-rock group out there called Eliot Ness and The Untouchables?  Or Tao Jones and The Industrial Averages, for that matter?

Friday:  Art Carney was on a lot more than just The Honeymooners, and tonight he stars on yet another live production, "The Best of Everything," on NBC at 7:30pm.  Actor Roddy McDowall and musical-comedy star Betty Garrett join Art to satirize "the American custom of handing out awards at the drop of a hat."  Considering that I'm writing these words the day after yet another bloated Academy Awards show, they seem more prescient than ever, don't they?


Finally, the big news of the week is that Jack Paar has returned!  You may remember that back on February 11, the controversial Paar had walked off the set of The Tonight Show during taping, because NBC had censored a story he'd told on the show the night before, having to do with some confusion over the initials W.C. - meaning, depending on the two main characters in the joke, either "Wayside Chapel" or "Water Closet," i.e. bathroom.  We wouldn't bat an eye at the story today, but literal bathroom humor was a no-no back then.

To compound the debacle, in place of the censored joke NBC substituted a five-minute news broadcast, right there in the middle of the show.  They could have just had the show end five minutes early, I suppose, which might have meant fewer people would have noticed anything was missing.  In any event, Paar complained that the amorphous term "censored" was leading people to speculate that Paar had told a story that was genuinely dirty.

Paar's spectacular walkout dominated the headlines for three weeks, until NBC board chairman Robert Sarnoff and president Robert Kintner flew down to Florida, where Paar had decamped to avoid the press.  According to TV Guide, the pair "were able to sweet-talk [Paar] back into the fold with an alacrity that bordered on the miraculous."  Paar's walkout "lasted just about as long as it takes to get a Florida tan," and Dwight Whitney somewhat cynically speculates that Paar's return will be "one of the most sensational 'comebacks' in entertainment history."

Was it a stunt or not?  Paar always insisted that his walkout was on the up-and-up; when he left the show, he said that "there must be a better way to make a living than this."  Returning on March 7, he added, "Well, I've looked, and there isn't."  TV Guide's letters section presents a cross-section of viewer mail; the editors noted that 78% was pro-Paar, 22% anti-Paar.  Interestingly, the listings for Tonight this week have Arlene Francis guest-hosting and Bill Wendell sitting in for Hugh Downs as announcer, while "Monday Jack returns from his vacation."  I guess that's one way to put it!


February 27, 2015

Get your classic detectives here!

Just want to take a minute to remind everyone of this week's Classic TV Detectives Blogathon sponsored by the Classic TV Blog Association.  I'd meant to write more on this today but was pressed for time due to the last-minute obituary for Leonard Nimoy, so I'll just direct everyone to this site, where you can read some delightful writing on television's classic detectives and crimefighters.  See you tomorrow for another TV Guide!

Leonard Nimoy, R.I.P.

Well, the original Star Trek is well and truly done, now.  Scotty, Bones, and now Spock.  Only Kirk is left, and even a lead character needs a sidekick, a second banana, as Grantland has shown this week.  Yet if that's all you knew of Leonard Nimoy, or all you ever saw of him, you missed a lot.

Just off the top of my head:  There's Paris, the mysterious character he plays for two season in Mission: Impossible, back when he was in his single-name days.  He was terrific as the bad guy in an episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (an episode he shared with William Shatner, ironically).  He was very good as the heavy - he also did a memorable turn as an arrogant doctor-murderer in Columbo - and wasn't it satisfying to see the good Lieutenant bust him at the end?  There was In Search Of..., which almost seemed to be a subtitle for Nimoy himself at that point in his career.

Was he an actor playing Spock, or was he Spock?  Nimoy himself seemed to struggle with the question; his two memoirs were titled I Am Not Spock and I Am Spock, and he was forever being recruited for voiceovers for space and supernatural programs.  He appeared in the Star Trek movies and directed two of them.  Whenever you saw him in a role, no matter what the genre, your first thought, more often than not, went back to the bridge of the Enterprise.  You always expected to see him arch his eyebrow, or pronounce something "interesting."

In the end, he came to terms with the popularity of the role, and the place in history which it secured him, even parodying it from time to time in shows like The Simpsons and Futurama.  And to dismiss Star Trek as a cult fad, to try and find his talent in the roles he played outside of that series, is to do him a disservice.  Spock was not an easy role to play; he had skills that could get the ship and its crew out of most jams, and he was frequently more level-headed, even more ruthless, than Kirk.  He was without most human emotions, which made his rare forays into humor - and his wonderful delivery of them* - unforgettable, He lacked the weaknesses of most fictional characters, which gave him an air of uncreative invulnerability to be sure, but also made him the most dependable of authority figures.  Never mind Allstate; you were always in good hands with Commander Spock.

*My favorite remains his unforgettable comment in The Trouble With Tribbles, regarding Kirk's disdain for a Federation official.  Baris: "You heard me."  Kirk: "I heard you."  Spock: "He simply could not believe his ears."  A shrug, and the eyebrow arches.

And my comment earlier, at the top of the page?  That's not really true, either, for as long as there are DVDs and streaming video and, well, memories, Star Trek will always live in the minds of its fans.  To say that Spock was a beloved television character is to state a fact.  To say that Leonard Nimoy was a product of that adulation is misplaced.  To paraphrase, the fans came for the character, they got the man.  And that was a pretty good deal.

It may be illogical to say so, but nevertheless: you've lived long and prospered, now rest in peace.

February 25, 2015

M Squad: where the M stands for Marvin

I begin by plagiarizing my own blog, but who better to talk about the Lee Marvin experience in M Squad than Lee Marvin?

In an October 1959 interview with TV Guide, Marvin holds court on M Squad, what it's like, what it means.

Who knows? You tell me. It's a cop series, what else? The guy's a cop. Who wants the truth? It's like an artist. He's got this painting. He says, 'But don't you see, it's yah-foo-lah-lah-lah. You notice how that yellow shines?

I dunno, it's moving. Lieutenant Ballinger - who knows - he's a cop. You tell me. We took Chicago. It was all that was left. I know Chicago cops. Rough. They have to be. The whole city would explode. It's like a bomb, Chicago. I know. Look at the setup. 

What about his co-star, the city of Chicago?  Jack Webb says "This is the city" when he introduces Dragnet, but we all know that Chicago is the city, the Windy City, the City of Broad Shoulders, the City that Works.  A city that's both grand and gaudy, hard working and hard living, luxury apartments and slums.  Lots of shots from winter, the snow applying a thin cover of purity, masking the hard core underneath. Home of the Bears, the Cubs, Frank Ballinger.

We shoot locations, twice a year.  No permit, no co-operation.  They don't want any part of us.  We're going next week again.  Shoot and run.  It finally came down to: 'Okay, any public building, but nothing else, no stopping traffic.'  I stay back, out of sight.  Hat pulled down.  Director says okay, walks through what I do, says, 'Like that, Lee.'  I do it, we shoot it and blow.  Kids come along, see the crowd, it's always the same thing in Chicago.  Right away, 'Who got killed?'  That's what a crowd means to most Chicago kids.

One time we're up on a roof.  On the edge over the sidewalk.  Me and this actor, struggling over a gun.  I thought I'd hoke it up a little. We can't carry sound equipment, have to move too fast. Dub it later. I saw these two gals walking along.  Right under us. I yelled, 'Gimme that gun, I'll kill you!' They looked up, yah, hoo, whu, hmm?  Two men on a roof, killing each other. And these girls went right on.  They didn't even break stride.

Lieutenant Friday, Dragnet, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Lineup.  What's their problem? No problem. It's routine.  It's static.  But not Chicago. They stop it before it happens. They have to.

Chicago'd go like a bomb, the whole place.  I know.  I spent a year there, going to secretarial school.  After the war, out of the Marines, wacked up, shot near the spine, whoo lah, hero.  I couldn't do anything.  Nothing.  I didn't know ho.  High school, no training.  Navy ROTC school in New Jersey, 14 years old and they pulled rank on me.  This old admiral, 61, still in uniform, and a kid 14 years old.  I cut out and sold my uniform.

It's like M Squad.  The M doesn't stand for anything.  It's any dirty job.  Let's face it, we're the Storm Troops.  A lone cop, Chicago, what else?  M Squad.  I liked The Loop.  That's what somebody wanted to call it.  I wanted to do a lot of things.  I talk to myself, driving along, who doesn't?  You come out of a conference, you sit there at a stop light, say, 'Yeah, fah-loo-dee-doo, BUT, you say.

Try paraphrasing that.  It doesn't work, trust me.  Plagiarism is the only way to go.

M Squad, Marvin's only foray into scripted series television, ran on NBC from 1957 to 1960*.  It was a half-hour drama, the once-commonplace television form that's now vanished.  Marvin plays the aforementioned Frank Ballinger, detective lieutenant at M Squad, a special branch of the Chicago Police that works on major crimes such as corruption and murder.  Ballinger's boss is Captain Grey, played by Paul Newlan, who is usually already there when Marvin arrives at the crime scene.  Newlan is good, even though most of his lines consist of saying either "Look into it, Frank," or "Do you think that could be it, Frank?" or "Remember to be careful out there, Frank - she's killed before, she won't be afraid to kill again."  This is usually followed by a meaningful pause.

*There were 117 episodes made over those three season - thirty-nine per season.  They don't make them like that anymore, either.

Ballinger is a no-nonsense cop who lives and breaths his job.  Glimpses into his private life are few and far between, and usually wind up being part of the cover he's using in his investigations.  He takes crime as a personal affront; Chicago is his city, baby, and don't you forget it.  You mess with Chicago, you mess with Frank Ballinger.  An author said once that it's best, when watching M Squad, to remember that it was made before the Miranda decision.

The music for the first season was typical tough-cop style; effective enough to win a Grammy for Stanley Wilson, but nothing unique.  For the second season, the producers went to Count Basie, who gave the show a completely different feel.  It was alive, jumping, edgy.  Like Chicago.  Throw in scores by greats like Benny Carter, Sonny Burke and Stanley Wilson, along with a young composer who still went by the name of Johnny Williams.

Add a lineup of guest stars that become a who's who of '50s and '60s television, Ruta Lee, Charles Bronson, Mike Conners, Janice Rule.  Watch out particularly for the dames like Ruta; they'll get you in the back if you're not ready for them.  Add a dollop of noir; the black-and-white images, the bright lights of the mean streets and the shadows that hide the seedy corruption, the two-bit chiselers, the punks and the rest of the hoods looking to take advantage of the honest people that make the city work.  It's an authentic slice of life, closer in look to Naked City than Dragnet.  If you've not seen it, check it out on YouTube, or invest in the box set, because if you like your shows with two-fisted action, hard-nosed cops and cold-blooded killers, you're going to like M Squad.  It stands alone - almost.

Because, of course, there's Police Squad!


Police Squad!, a creation of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, was their follow-up to the big-budget disaster spoof Airplane.  One of the stars in Airplane was Leslie Nielsen, playing against type as a straight-faced doctor who, when someone said to him "Surely you can't be serious," could reply "I am serious... and don't call me Shirley."

In 1982, Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker cast Nielsen as the star in their upcoming ABC sitcom, which would do to the stereotypical police drama what Airplane had done for disaster flicks.  Nielsen was to play Frank Drebin, detective lieutenant* for Police Squad, a special branch of the Police Department.  Drebin's boss is Captain Hocken, played by Alan North, who is usually already there when Drebin arrives at the crime scene.  Most of North's lines consist of saying either "Look into it, Frank," or "Do you think that could be it, Frank?" or "Remember to be careful out there, Frank - she's killed before, she won't be afraid to kill again."  This is usually followed by a meaningful pause.

*Actually, he was Sergeant Frank Drebin, Detective Lieutenant.  One of the show's many charms.

If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, it should.  While Police Squad! lampooned all cop shows, it was specifically modeled after M Squad and another '60s half-hour drama, Felony Squad.  If you don't believe that, check this out (and make sure to watch part two as well):

One of the comments on this video is right; the M Squad clip should have come first, because after watching Police Squad!, it's going to be impossible to take the same scene seriously.  That's not a knock on the latter, because were it not for Police Squad!'s brilliant satire, you wouldn't look at that episode of M Squad and roll your eyes.  Only the very good and the very bad get satirized; the rest of them don't matter.

M Squad is very good.  And it does matter.

Today's entry is part of the Classic TV Blog Association's "Classic TV Detectives Blogathon" - check the link for other great entries in this week's blogathon!

February 23, 2015

What's on TV? February 28, 1962

This week it's back to New England, and the listings for the Boston/Portland/
Providence/New Hampshire area.  As I've mentioned, my links to this area are far too recent to offer much in the way of background, but it's still interesting to look at what they've got to offer.  So let's go to Wednesday, February 28, 1962

February 21, 2015

This week in TV Guide: February 24, 1962

Troy Donahue, this week's cover boy, is nothing if not an accidental star, at least in name.  His real name is Merle Johnson, and the way he came to be Troy Donahue is more interesting than many other aspects of his life.  His agent, Henry Wilson, had the name "Troy" left over when one of his clients, Jimmy Ercolani, decided to keep his own first name while taking Wilson's suggestion for a new last name - he became James Darren.   The name "Donahue" came from another Wilson client, Timothy Durgin, who had his first name changed to Rory, and chose "Calhoun" over "Donahue."  So just think - we could be talking about Troy Calhoun here.

Anyway, Troy Donahue is Hollywood's current glamour boy, coming off the movie A Summer Place, which made him a household heartthrob, and currently starring in ABC's detective series Surfside 6.  So what kind of guy is Troy?   One of his movie costars, Suzanne **sigh** Pleshette, was prepared to dislike him based on the publicity, but instead found him to be "a very unusual boy - gracious and considerate."  I guess so, because the two of them were married in January 1964.  Of course, they divorced in less than nine months.

There's some thought that Donahue is letting the fame get to his head - he's more demanding than he used to be, more outspoken, urging colleagues to mention in interviews how lousy their director was. He's late to the set and often comes unprepared, blowing his lines more times than anyone would like to admit.  He's not an actor yet, but he's still learning.

And though he's got a very well-known name, and has a fairly long career, Troy Donahue never really does achieve the fame that seems to be his for the taking.  He never achieves the long-running television series that, at the time, substitutes for movie stardom, he never has the defining role that makes him a genuine star, never gets the Oscar nomination that sometimes comes to the pretty boy that turns into an actor.  He's never anything other than Troy Donahue - which is still a lot more than a lot of us ever achieve.


After a career of ups and downs, Judy Garland is on top again.  Her recent concert tours have been critical and popular successes, particularly her Carnegie Hall concert in April of 1961, which many have called "the greatest night in show business history," and resulted in a gold album and a Grammy for Album of the Year.  She's been nominated for an Academy Award for her supporting role in Judgment at Nuremberg.  And now she's returning to television for the first time in six years, with a deal in place for a new round of specials with CBS.

Her first, scheduled for Sunday, February 25, is treated as a television event, and it isn't hurt by the appearance of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as co-stars, and it's produced and directed by Norman Jewison.  The show's a smash - as you might expect with that kind of star power - and it results in a deal for Garland to return in a weekly series, with Jewison later coming in to direct.  The show only runs for one rocky season, and Garland returns to the stage and her final sad years.  For Norman Jewison, though, the future is much brighter.  Tony Curtis suggests Jewison start directing movies, which he does, amassing a brilliant portfolio that includes The Cincinnati Kid, The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming, The Thomas Crown Affair, Fiddler on the Roof, and his best-known movie, the Oscar-winning Best Picture In the Heat of the Night.

So this special is the start of a great career for Jewison.  A pity that it wasn't able to turn things around for Judy Garland as well.


Garland's Sunday special is not the only interesting programming on tap that day.  In fact, Sunday might be the best TV day this week.  NBC Opera Theatre is back with Montemezzi's The Love of Three Kings, featuring the great American bass Giorgio Tozzi.  Now, it's kind of rare to see dueling operas on television, but we have it here - Boston's ABC affiliate, WNAC, counters with Tchiakovsky's classic Eugene Onegin, with a Russian cast full of vowels.

Meanwhile, CBS Sports Spectacular has the 1961 Formula One United States Grand Prix, which was taped October 8 at Watkins Glen, New York.  That was fairly common back in the,day, networks covering Formula One races weeks or even months after the fact.  If race fans were really lucky, they might get to see the race only a week or two later on Wide World of Sports.  I'll admit, though, four months is a bit extreme,.

Edward R. Murrow is one of the legendary names in television news, with his CBS series See It Now and Person to Person, along with his landmark documentaries, becoming part of television history.  Which is why it's so strange at first glance to see him on ABC this afternoon, as the guest on Issues and Answers.  He's appearing on the show in his role as Director of the U.S. Information Agency, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Voice of America.


A look at the Teletype this week gives us a snapshot of the times.  First, we see that Merv Griffin and Hugh Downs are two of the guest hosts who will be filling in on Tonight during the interregnum between the departure of Jack Paar in March and the debut of Johnny Carson when his ABC contract expires in October.  ABC's reporting a flood of requests for interviews with Carson, but they're pretending not to know whether they want to talk about Carson's upcoming gig with NBC, or his current ABC show Who Do You Trust?  Yes, I'm sure everyone wanted to talk about that.  Paar himself is gearing up for his once-a-week prime time show on NBC, to debut in the fall.

ABC's got a World War II drama in development, Combat, which would star Rick Jason, Vic Morrow and Shecky Greene.  Unlike so many of the pilots we read about in this section, Combat not only debuts on ABC in the fall of 1962, it becomes one of the most successful war dramas on television, running for five seasons before leaving in 1967.  Shecky Greene only lasts for the first season, but Rick Jason and Vic Morrow alternate as episode leads throughout the show's run.

Speaking of the war, Peter Brown, one of the stars of ABC's Lawman series, is said to be testing for the role of JFK in the upcoming big screen adaptation of PT109, the story of Kennedy's wartime exploits in the Pacific.  The movie will come out in June of the following year, while Kennedy is still alive and in office, but when it does it won't have Brown, but Cliff Robertson, in the starring role.

Finally, in April, Burt Lancaster is scheduled to host At This Very Moment, a "Cancer Control Month" special on ABC.  I didn't know this, but April is still Cancer Control Month by presidential proclamation.  I've mentioned how, prior to the telethon years, Jerry Lewis used to host a one-hour Muscular Dystrophy special, and this seems to have been the same type of show.  I checked it out on IMDB and the guest list is impressive, so much so that I wonder how they all fit into an hour-long show: Harry Belafonte, Richard Chamberlain, Bobby Darin, Jimmy Durante, Connie Francis, Greer Garson, Charlton Heston, Bob Hope, Lena Horne, Rock Hudson - well, you get the picture.  The cast's in alphabetical order, so I've only gotten about halfway through.  The special includes taped remarks by President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson, and an archival message from Eleanor Roosevelt.


Monday's trip through the TV listings will cover Wednesday, February 28 - let's see what the rest of the week's highlights are.

Saturday:  Boxing is still prime-time box office, and ABC's got a good one this week: the lightweight championship fight between Joe Brown and Carlos Ortiz from Las Vegas.  Or at least that's what's in TV Guide, but for whatever reason - an injury, probably - the fight doesn't come off until April, when Ortiz ends Brown's five-year reign as champion.  Since this was a special rather than a regularly-scheduled broadcast, I'm not sure what ABC wound up broadcasting.

Sunday: In addition to the programs I listed earlier, Ed Sullivan wraps up his series of shows from Miami Beach, with guests Lloyd Bridges, the Crosby brothers, opera star Patrice Munsel, comedian Jan Murray, singer Damita Jo, acrobats the Gimma Brothers, and the dance team of Brascia and Tybee.

Monday: NBC's 87th Precinct airs at 9:00pm ET.  According to the Teletype, the show's been renewed for another season, but because it was unable to find a sponsor, that second season never came off.  Too bad; the series, based on the novels of Ed McBain, was very good, with a strong cast including Robert Lansing, Ron Harper, Gregory Walcott and Norman Fell.  In fact, the only weak episodes were the ones with Gena Rowlands as Lansing's deaf-mute wife.  Too much personal information there, but the other stories were hard-hitting police drama.

Tuesday: Bob Hope's on with his third NBC special of the season, and he has an interesting collection of guest stars: Jack Paar, the current (for now) host of Tonight: Steve Allen, the original host of Tonight, Joan Collins, who's co-starring with Bing and Bob this year in The Road to Hong Kong and looks painfully young (and **sigh**-able); singer Joanie Sommers, whom I don't remember - but my wife does, and she didn't like her voice; and comedians Robert Strauss and Sid Melton.  Sid's one of the co-stars on Danny Thomas' show, and coincidentally there happens to be an article on Thomas in this week's issue.  On the other hand, you can watch the show that precedes Bob, The World of Sophia Loren.  Speaking of **sigh**...

And speaking of late-night shows, did you know that Mike Wallace once had one?  Imagine him competing with Jack Paar and Johnny Carson.  It was called PM, and ran on the Westinghouse-owned stations in 1961 and 1962, falling in-between The Mike Wallace Interviews and Biography in Wallace's career.  It actually was two shows in one - PM East, based in New York and hosted by Wallace, which ran for an hour; and PM West, with San Francisco Chronicle television critic Terrence O'Flaherty.  It would have been interesting to see how this would have gone had it been able to reach a broader audience - it wasn't seen at all in the South and Southwest.

Thursday: Boston's WBZ preempts NBC's The New Bob Cummings Show at 7:30 to show syndicated reruns of You Bet Your Life, packaged as the Best of Groucho.  Groucho's not nearly as funny as he is in the Marx Brothers movies, which I've really come to appreciate over the years, but he can still bring it as the host of a game show.  If you haven't seen You Bet Your Life, by the way, it's one of the shows you can check out at the Movie and Music Network, and you can find out how to subscribe - at a special rate - here.

Friday:  The best night of the work week is here, and it's a great night for music, with WGBH carrying a concert by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony, and the Bell Telephone Hour presenting an hour of the songs of Irving Berlin.  If that's not your cup of tea, there's a fine episode of Route 66 with guest star Ed Asner on CBS, a suspenseful episode of The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor on NBC, and an intriguing episode of the syndicated The Third Man, which recasts Harry Lime (Orson Welles in the movie, Michael Rennie in the series) as a good guy.  I can't recall if it was supposed to take place before Lime had turned bad, or if it was kind of an alt-Lime who'd reformed, but in the movie Lime was anything but good.  Oddly enough, this series is actually pretty good, and I really like the way Rennie plays the role.  But then, he's that way in a lot of roles. TV  

February 20, 2015

Best political commercial ever?

Regardless of your stand on the upcoming Israeli elections (if you have one) you have to admit that this may be one of the most clever political commercials you've ever seen, and I wonder why we don't use humor more often in political commercials here?  It's almost always disarming, and if done right it can engender a lot of good will.  What humor we do see here tends to be mocking and caustic, not the self-effacing example of Netanyahu - I particularly like the scene of him eating popcorn while watching one of his own commercials on TV.

And yet there's still a message to this commercial - perhaps delivered as ham-fistedly as most, but it is a commercial, after all.  We've seen presidents do humorous pieces for events such as the Washington Correspondents' Dinner, so why not use them even earlier, when they're candidates?  The U.S. often exports political consultants to other countries; maybe we can start importing some of their ideas as well.

February 18, 2015

Why memory matters

As one or two of you have noted, this is a blog that is primarily concerned with memory.  Memory of things past and experienced, memory of things read about but never seen, memory that is individual and memory that is shared.  Two recent articles about two completely separate people, told from two different points of view, serve as a perfect illustration of why I write about memory - why memory matters, and ultimately why it's not just nostalgia or a longing for the past.

In his review of a recent biography of Bob Hope, I was taken aback by this description from Terry Teachout of Hope as "the comedian, who died in 2003 at the age of 100 and is now largely forgotten."  Forgotten?  Bob Hope?  You might as well forget about the Academy Awards, the Road pictures, the Golden Age of Radio and USO tours.  Then, of course, I realized that most people have.

I'm not sure I agree with Teachout that Hope has been forgotten, but maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part.  After all, people have used the same word to describe Johnny Carson - a man who once was as much of a television institution as anyone could ever hope to be.  True, Hope may not have lived the kind of private life that makes for good biography; Teachout writes that he was "less interesting as a human being than as a performer," a "dull, opaque man who came alive only in front of an audience or a camera."  Those words may seem harsh, but that doesn't make them any less true, if they are.

Nevertheless, were you to randomly query ten people under 30 on the nearest street corner, I wouldn't be surprised if you told me that nine had never heard of Bob Hope.  But even if that's true, I will insist that that Hope ought to be remembered, and it is no credit to those who lack the inclination to find out about him.  The reason why is described in this article that has nothing to do with either Hope or television, for that matter.  It's from a piece by Grantland's Charles Pierce, an obituary on the legendary college basketball coach Dean Smith, who suffered from dementia for several years before dying last week:

I know from my own family’s battles with this cruelest of all diseases, a disease that disappears the individual long before it kills the body, that the work of the kindest mercy is to become the memory that the person has lost. It is something atavistic in us, almost visceral, that awareness that the tribe needs to remember — and that the collective memory is always plural. We tell their stories, even to them, even while they are still alive, because we are their surviving memory, because the person already is lost.

The tribe needs to remember.  This is my point exactly, and if Charles Pierce tells it more eloquently than I, at least I'm the one who makes the link between Pierce and Teachout.  The memories from classic movies and television, of their stories and the personalities behind them, need to be remembered.  They are part of our collective memory, our cultural DNA.  The movies and programs we watch today are their progeny - the memories that have replaced those that we've already lost - which makes Bob Hope part of our entertainment family album.

I may have written it here, but if not here than somewhere: man has an insatiable desire to find out where he comes from and who he is.  And this is part of that, our collective memory of our shared history.  For remembering Bob Hope is more than just the memory of the English boy who was born Leslie Townes Hope in 1903.  It's vaudeville and the Golden Age of Radio, before television was a member of the household.  It's World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the first war in the Gulf.  It's Bing Crosby and Jack Benny golf tournaments and "I just want to tell ya" and a thousand other memories from a thousand other entertainers of the past - and the entertainers of today, and those yet even to be born.  It's why, as Charles Pierce suggests, the memories that people create survive long after that person is lost.  Remembering this is key not only to who we are, but what our country is, what our culture is.  What our history is.  If we forget those things, we're sunk.

So Terry Teachout may well be right that Bob Hope is forgotten today.  But if he is, and if Bob Hope is nothing more than a piece of the fog of things past, then we are the ultimate losers.  And it's why this blog - and all the other sites out there devoted to classic television, and other aspects of our history - it's our reason for being.  Because it's all about remembering who we are and where we've come from, and if that isn't something worth remembering, then I don't know what is.

Quote: Dr. Seuss

February 16, 2015

What's on TV? Saturday, February 11, 1967

It's fitting that we're looking at a Saturday listing this week; one of the feature stories in this issue is about Saturday morning television.  It's entitled "Where Did All The People Go," and it discusses how animated cartoons dominate the schedule.  Parents find them acceptable, networks appreciate how sponsors flock to them*, cartoonists everywhere are kept in business - and, of course, kids love them.  Gone are the days of live-action shows like Lassie, Fury, Flicka, Dennis the Menace, Howdy Doody, and Sherri Lewis and her puppets, and the Saturday morning Westerns.

*Fred Silverman, 29-year-old CBS VP, says that Kellogg and General Mills drove the trend; as recently as four years ago, CBS had but two cartoons, Alvin and Mighty Mouse on the Saturday schedule.

This will change eventually; today, there aren't any cartoons on Saturday morning on the networks, and marathon blocks of local news and infomercials have become dependable products for local stations.  So let's enjoy this while we can!

This week's listing is, in case we haven't mentioned it, from the Twin Cities edition of TV Guide, with selected outstate stations included.

February 14, 2015

This week in TV Guide: February 11, 1967

On Sunday February 12, NBC's Meet the Press presents a special one-hour edition with William Manchester, author of the controversial book The Death of a President, the authorized account of the assassination and funeral of John F. Kennedy.  Manchester is to be quizzed by Alistair Cooke, whom we'll get to know better as host of Masterpiece Theatre but at this point is the American correspondent for The Guardian; Chuck Roberts, White House correspondent for Newsweek, who was in Dallas and flew back on Air Force One with President Johnson; Robert MacNeil of NBC, the network's man in Dallas who covered the assassination; and Meet the Press producer Lawrence Spivak.  Edwin Newman is the moderator.

To understand why Manchester's book is so controversial, one has to step back in time to shortly after the funeral.  The Kennedy family realized that books about the assassination would come out; they worried about how both the event itself and the family would be depicted.  In an effort to control the story, they had commissioned Manchester, who had earlier written a flattering article about JFK, to write the book, and have exclusive access to family, friends, and political allies of the late president.

Once the manuscript had been produced, however, the family began to have second thoughts.  There were concerns that Manchester had revealed too many personal glimpses into the family's life, that Manchester's prose was "overwrought," and that his unfavorable portrayal of Lyndon Johnson could prove troubling to Robert F. Kennedy's political ambitions.  Jacqueline Kennedy had spoken frankly and personally with Manchester, but now feared the thought of those revelations in print.*  Bobby Kennedy, who was fanatically loyal to Jackie, got into the middle of the dispute. An agreement for a four-part serialization in Look magazine was, RFK charged, a breech of the agreement that "the final text" was not to be published until approved by the two Kennedys.  Manchester countered that Bobby had been in agreement that the book should be published as soon as it was finished, to avoid playing a part in the 1968 elections and also to counter the Warren Report critics, and that in fact Look was Kennedy's preferred magazine of choice. Lawyers were called, negotiations were conducted, Manchester himself almost suffered a nervous breakdown over the interference by the Kennedys and their Boston cronies.  When Jackie went to court, Manchester went to Meet the Press to tell his side of the story.

*Mrs. Kennedy later admitted that she never actually thought the public would read the book, but that it “would be bound in black and put away on dark library shelves.

In the end, things were settled.  As the family saw their popularity take a dive in the polls (people suspected the worst about their efforts to control the story, and that doesn't even take into account the conspiracy buffs already in full swing), Bobby decided he'd had enough; a drop in the polls is never welcome news for a politician.  As Spivak says on Meet the Press, everyone involved "has been hurt or somehow damaged - you, Mrs. Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy, President Johnson and the book itself." The two parties settled out of court, with Manchester removing 1,600 words from the Look serialization and seven pages from the book - "less than one percent," according to Manchester.  Look hit the newsstands at the end of January and immediately sold out; the book, published in April, became an instant bestseller.  But, as Alistair Cooke would later note, “the dispute is already more famous than the book,”

I've not been able to find any video of the program, but if you're interested, you can read the transcript of the sometimes-contentious interview here.  And you don't even have to send ten cents to Merkle Press to do it.


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..

Palace: Host Sammy Davis Jr. welcomes Mickey Rooney, Liberace, singer Kaye Stevens, comic Lee Tully, the acrobatic Mascots, and Mr. and Mrs. Bob Top, English high-pole roller skaters.

Sullivan:  Scheduled guests: comic-actor Jack Gilford, who appears in a sketch with comedienne Nancy Walker; comics Joey Adams, Joan Rivers and Richard Pryor; singers Sally Ann Howes, Jerry Vale and Lola Falana; the rock 'n' rolling Young Rascals; dancer Peter Gennaro; and teh roller-skating team of Ravic and Babs.

Short and sweet.  Sammy Davis Jr.  If there hadn't been anyone else on the show, Palace still would have won.  As it is, include Mickey Rooney and Liberace, and you've got it made.  It's Palace, in a dance.


I don't think we've ever had the chance to look at dueling ice shows, have we?

First up is NBC's Monday-night presentation of the 1967 Ice Follies, hosted by Jimmy Durante and featuring Jimmy Dean and the Supremes.  These ice shows are something of a regular occurrence on NBC; later in the year, Ed Ames hosts a similar presentation of the Ice Capades.  But, between you and me, this has to be one of the strangest combinations I've seen in a long time - I mean, I can understand Durante, since somebody has to host the show, but where do Dean and the Supremes come in?  It just sounds like a real mishmash to me - no synergy, to put it in business-speak.  Maybe someone was skating while "Stop in the Name of Love" was sung in the background.

On the other hand, Milton Berle hosts ABC's presentation of Holiday on Ice (one of the Ice Follies' bitter competitors) Thursday night, and here the emphasis is clearly on the entertainment.  We learn about the composer of the original music (AndrĂ© Muscat) and the choreographer (Ted Shuffle), and the themes of some of the production numbers ("Egyptian Fantasy" and "San Francisco, 1900."  Berle should be a good MC for this; it's much like his hosting jobs on his other variety shows, and there are probably plenty of pretty girls in skimpy outfits for him to leer at.

Interestingly enough, the Ice Capades went out of business in the mid-90s, while in 1979 the Ice Follies merged with Holiday on Ice.  There's no limit to themed ice shows out there even today, though.


And now a brief pause for some culture, and I'm not talking about what you'd find in a petri dish, either.

On Friday night, NET Opera Theatre presents Jack Beeson's opera Lizzie Borden, based on the ax murderer of the same name.  The production is from the acclaimed world premiere staged by the New York City Opera in 1965, adapted for the television stage.  The music is modern and at times atonal, and Beeson has taken liberties with the story for dramatic effect, but it makes for compelling viewing both as an opera and a television production.  The broadcast is a prime example of the advantage to staging an opera in a television studio (as opposed to simply bringing in cameras to cover a live performance, as is done with the Metropolitan Opera's HD broadcasts), giving viewers camera angles and views that would be impossible to replicate in a live theater broadcast.  Following the opera, there's a half-hour profile of composer Beeson, looking at his work methods and motivations.

If opera's not your thing, how about Shakespeare?  On Wednesday, KTCA, the public broadcasting station, has An Age of Kings, a continuing series of the Bard's historical plays.  You'll see this pop up throughout the '60s, especially the early part of the decade, on Channel 2 - it was made by the BBC in 1960.  Later the same evening, Channel 11, the independent station, has The Wars of the Roses, another BBC production of Shakespeare's first series of historical plays, made in 1965.  I find it interesting that this was being shown on commercial, rather than public, television; possibly it was some kind of syndicated package similar to when Edward the King was broadcast in America in the mid-70s.  Incidentally, I have both of these, as well as Lizzie Borden; they're all very good.


Some other notes from the week:

The Golden Globes are telecast Wednesday night on NBC, hosted by Andy Williams.  I wrote a while back about the Golden Globes; for a few years the awards were actually presented on Andy's variety show, but this year they get their own place in the sun.  It's a short spotlight, though; the show still runs for only an hour, but that's plenty of time to give out a handful of awards, most of them to the movie A Man For All Seasons.  You'll recall that this would have been during the period of time when winners were actually tipped off in advance that they were bringing home the award; it was often the only way to get them to attend the show.

One of the great Star Trek episodes of all time airs on Thursday, also on NBC - "Space Seed."  It introduces us to a ruthless dictator played by Ricardo Montalban, and without it we'd never have gotten this immortal scene.

OK, maybe it didn't last that long...

There's an article on Steven Hill, the original head of the Mission: Impossible team.  After decades of reruns with Peter Graves as Jim Phelps*, it can be a little surprising to remember that for the first season of M:I, it was Hill's Dan Briggs who listened to the recordings at the beginning of each show and pulled the same pictures out of the dossier each time.

*Who is not a traitor to his country, no matter what Brian DePalma thinks.

Hill is actually very good in the role, with just the right amount of menace to suggest that, if things were to get tough, Dan Briggs could get even tougher.  It doesn't work out, though, and the reasons are clear in the article.  Hill is an observant Orthodox Jew who leaves the set in order to get home before sundown on Friday and does not work on Jewish holy days, and while his beliefs are respected, there's no doubt that it puts a crimp in shooting a complicated television series.  Many times Briggs' visible role is limited to the beginning and end of the story, and there's at least one episode in which he isn't seen at all.  His level of involvement in each week's mission is seldom as large as it becomes for Jim Phelps in future seasons.  So it's one year and out for Steven Hill, but don't worry too much - Law & Order will be by in a couple of decades, and he'll get ten seasons out of that.

And finally, one of the classic pieces of pop culture: Batman.


Dwight Whitney spends some quality time with Adam West, learning about what it's like being the star of the hottest television show around.  His portrait of West paints a restless man who has already been married and divorced twice, an ambitious man who gave up a successful radio show in Honolulu (and his second wife) when Hollywood called, an actor who wants to be thought of in the same company with Marcello Mastroianni.  Batman, Adam West says, "will make it possible for me to do what I want to do the way I want to do it."  And that is?  "Like be a big fat star."

Lest this sound too serious though, there's a wonderful bit at the beginning of the article that is pure West, speaking in that stiff, breathless staccato full of odd pauses, as campy and self-deprecating as we've come to see him in the years since Batman.  The scene: West's dressing room trailer as he prepares for the day's shooting.

"It's hero time," says Adam West lightly, tugging the top of the tights up over the flat of his stomach and starting on the skintight tunic.  "In a moment I will step from this humble dwelling and, to the plaudits of the crowd, plummet from a platform fully three and a half feet high."

The chant "We want Batman!" rises in shrill crescendo.  "Ah, the adulation!" he continues, undulating like a Girl Scout in a tight girdle.  "Oh, I love it, basking in the sincere warm smiles of the little children.   What!  You say Chief O'Hara isn't working today?  Oh, I miss the Chief.  The family's disintegrating - Robin off to college, Aunt Harriet drafted and being shipped to Vietnam.  Oh, the heartbreak of it all.  Here, give me that!"

His dresser hands him the tiny gray skullcap worn beneath the Batman helmet. West places it with exaggerated care. "I wonder if I should go out and bless the crowd?  No, perhaps not."  He jams the fiberglass-and-nylon helmet down over his ears.  "Marvelous bit of haberdashery," he mumbles.  "It's hot.  The sound bounces.  Can't hear.  My nose pinches and gives me a cleft palate.  Can't see.  And I owe it all to that peerless Prince of Trivia, our producer Bill - 'Bull' - Dozier, who refuses to supply me with a seeing-eye dog.  Now off to give another Academy Award-winning performance."


"Sign my autograph, Batman, please!"

"Later, kids," says the Caped Crusader coolly. "Got to rescue Alfred from the clutches of that infernal scoundrel, The Archer."

"Aw, Batman, you couldn't hurt a flea!" says one.

"Yeah," replies Adam West amiably.  "Disillusioning, isn't it?"

And that, my friends, makes this whole blog worth it. TV  

February 13, 2015

Around the Dial

A  lot to get to this week, so I'll give you a bullet-point list of the classic TV blogs you ought to be checking out, and why!  And be careful while you're reading it - it is Friday the 13th, after all.

How could anyone resist a Valentine's greeting from Pepe Le Pew - or The Last Drive-In?

Cult TV Blog continues a look at '70s Brit TV with Z Cars.

At Comfort TV, David shares one of his book ideas that hasn't seen print - yet.

Classic TV Sports tells us the story of how Verne Lundquist made his debut with CBS - and it involves working for two networks!

Television's New Frontier - the 1960s reminds us of the show that was Dr. Kildare.  Interestingly enough, I was watching Richard Chamberlain Wednesday night in The Four Musketeers.

The Lucky Strike Papers brings the news that Mary Healy, widow of Peter Lind Hayes, died earlier this month at 96.  I've always enjoyed watching them on old shows like Password - he was particularly dry.

Those Were the Days has a picture of two of my favorites - Jack Webb and Paul Burke - with Victor Rodman in Noah's Ark.

Television Obscurities will have another TV Guide review later today, but in the meantime check out his review of a novelization of the '70s series Beacon Hill. TV  

February 11, 2015

When TV operas weren't all about soap


Believe it or not, there was a time when it was thought that television could play an important part in the creation of a new art form.  It was called the opera.

In 1952, NBC Opera Theatre prepared to present the American premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, which had been written only the year before.  Based on the novel by Herman Melville, one of the opera’s most famous scenes contains a twelve-minute aria by John Claggart, the villain of the piece, “in which the Master-at-Arms delineates his hatred of Budd and reveals his determination to destroy him.”  For the broadcast, producer Samuel Chotzinoff elected to excise the entire aria – partly because of the need to compress the opera into a 90-minute timeslot, but also because he felt television presented an opportunity to completely change the way operas were written.  Through the use of close-ups and shadows cast by lighting, Claggart’s malevolent intentions were expressed – proving, Chotzinoff said, that a broadcast could “[accomplish] in a few seconds what the aria took twelve minutes to tell us.”  The implications were obvious, Chotzinoff felt, thinking it “probably that the composers of the future, writing especially for television, will find no necessity for explanatory and illuminating solo arias, once they realize the revealing potentialities of the television camera.”

Samuel Chotzinoff certainly understood the visual power inherent in television, but his confidence that it would change the course of modern opera was more than slightly misplaced.  In Television Opera: The Fall of Opera Commissioned for Television, Jennifer Barnes shows how such early promise failed to pay off, leaving TV opera, like live drama, a dinosaur of television’s past.

Barnes focuses her book on three specific case studies, all of them operas commissioned for television: Amahl and the Night Visitors, Gian-Carlo Menotti’s landmark Christmas story that was the first ever written for TV; Britten’s Owen Wingrave, which he wrote for the BBC in 1970 after having seen several of his operas adapted for television; and Gerald Barry’s The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit, a 1994 production that was intended to explicitly take advantage of technology that only TV could provide.

While the three operas share a common birth, they differ in substantial ways.  For example,  Amahl was broadcast live on Christmas Eve in 1951, with Menotti working almost until the last minute to finish the composition.  Owen Wingrave was shot on tape, duplicating the feel of a live broadcast while enabling special effects and editing to ensure the best performance possible.  Beauty and Deceit was filmed, giving it the look of a movie, and allowing for a production radically different from one presented on the stage of a theater.

In the wake of the success of Amahl (including a rare front-page review in The New York Times), the future of television opera looked bright indeed.  NBC Opera Theatre had been a regular presence on the network since 1949, and would continue presenting a handful of operas each season up through 1964.  Menotti’s career flourished, as he won two Pulitzer Prizes and received several additional commissions from NBC.  While Britten had not been particularly thrilled with the network’s adaptation of Billy Budd (which was edited so severely that he demanded the broadcast be entitled Scenes from “Billy Budd”), he was happier with BBC adaptations of some of his other works, including Peter Grimes, for which Britten conducted the orchestra.  While Billy Budd was taped, rather than live, Britten insisted that the music and singing be performed live, rather than dubbed in after the fact (which would become standard in the future, including in The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit).

While many of these productions won great acclaim, however, ratings were something different.  Due to its enduring popularity, Amahl never lacked for sponsorship, but most of the other broadcasts were subsidized by NBC.  Gradually the number of productions diminished, as did the commissions, until televised opera of any kind – not just that written for the medium – had all but disappeared.  Public broadcasting, thought to be the safeguard of such cultural programming, started out with promise, but as government funding dissipated, it too felt the pull of ratings (and donor dollars) and opted for more “popular” programming.

The arts remained active, if not vital, on British television, and The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit was part of a series of operas commissioned by Britain’s Channel 4 – with the requirement that they be written in such a way as to make a live performance all but impossible.  In other words, the operas were not only written for television, but were meant to be performed only on television.  The fact that Barry’s opera went on to an eventual staged production is almost immaterial; several critics suggested that it was intrinsically unsuitable for live performances.

Barnes’ choice of these three operas for close examination does not neglect the overall genre; indeed, they were chosen specifically to illustrate the arc traveled by opera commissioned for television.  And while each one is interesting in and of itself, they take on an added dimension when considered as part of the whole, showing how a form of programming which once held such promise never truly fulfilled its potential.

As one might suspect, this isn’t a book to be read casually (though I must say I enjoyed it immensely), but while an appreciation of opera certainly helps, it isn’t absolutely required.  Our cast of characters ranges from merely proficient to fascinating to colorful, and Barnes takes a close look at the inside workings of television, spending ample time on the choice of camera angles, why close-ups are sometimes good and sometimes bad, and how in the early days of TV a director’s job was considerably more difficult that it might seem.  In doing so she reprints excerpts from several shooting scripts, showing the various stage directions and framings, and provides a glimpse at the challenges inherent in adapting a work for television - especially when the composer of said work is both alive and opinionated!

It may not be for everyone, but anyone wanting to learn more about a niche of television history that in a handful of decades went from accepted fact to invisible memory will find Television Opera not only the definitive resource, but an engrossing story as well.

February 9, 2015

What's on TV? February 11, 1981

This week we're back in the Twin Cities, back in the '80s.  It is, all in all, a fairly unremarkable day in the midst of the sweeps weeks, with the three-hour conclusion of East of Eden and the sensationalist movie A Gun in the House, which I hope you read about in my Saturday report.  So let's get started, and what better way to kick things off than with a 6:15am broadcast of Domestic and International Conflict?  Great way to get the day started, don't you think?  Ought to put us in a fine mood!

February 7, 2015

This week in TV Guide: February 7, 1981

Here's Jane Seymour, looking not at all like the future Dr. Quinn, but with a bit of a slutty, come-hither appearance to her, quite consistent with the role she's playing in ABC's three-part miniseries East of Eden.  And for those who think we don't need another version of John Steinbeck's classic, especially when we have one with James Dean in it, TV Guide assures us that we do - this one is "more faithful to Steinbeck," and Seymour, as the "Satanic siren" Cathy Ames, is a major attraction.

In Bill Davidson's profile, Seymour (real name: Joyce Penelope Wilhelmina Frankenberg) confesses she likes "evil parts," as did Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.*  She's just now coming into her own as an actress; despite her appearance as a Bond Girl in Roger Moore's 007 debut Live and Let Die, her most recent fame comes from her Emmy-nominated turn in Captains and the Kings, followed by another miniseries, Seventh Avenue.  With East of Eden, she's ready to cement her status as "Queen of the Miniseries."  And this is before appearing in War and Remembrance.

*Perhaps, rather than Dr. Quinn, she should have played a female version of Jack Kevorkian? 

Perhaps her fame today rests on her ability to sell jewelry, but Jane Seymour has come a long way from being mistaken for one of Henry VIII's wives.


There's another movie on this week, CBS' A Gun in the House starring Sally Struthers, and that's the subject of this week's editorial.  As one might imagine from the title, there's a gun involved in the story, and it's the violence surrounding the gun that's attracted TV Guide's "anger and disgust."  "Television drama," Merrill Panitt writes, "had gone too far again, in pursuit of a Serious Issue."  Surprisingly, given the movie's title and TV Guide's political leanings, the Issue is not gun control, at least as far as this editorial goes.

In the movie Struthers plays a woman terrorized by two robber-rapists who resorts to a gun "only when she has good reason to believe it is her only chance to avoid being raped and possibly murdered."  So far, so good.  "But the script establishes this by offering scenes of prime-time soft-core sadism that go considerably beyond the artistic requirements of showing a woman who fears for her life."  To cite one extreme example, "Was it really necessary for the would-be rapist to pour pear brandy over the head of his intended victim?  Two glasses of pear brandy?  And then force her to wipe the floor with her body?"  Ooh, kinky.  Too bad Jane Seymour wasn't available for the role.

But I get what Panitt is saying here.  It sounds campy today (and even he described it as blackly humorous), but over thirty years ago, something like this quite possibly would have earned a theatrical release an R rating.  And, in fact, what does it have to do with the main story.  Are the writers trying to establish the rapist as a sadistic, possibly psychotic, criminal?  It is, as Panitt says, "an excuse for scenes of gratuitous nastiness."

The point, the editorial concludes, is that scenes like this aren't necessary.  "For lessons on how to create terror without sleaze, they should see any movie of Hitchcock's."*  But in this case, it was business as usual for the writers, who simply followed the maxim of "hasty TV writing" that  "tastelessness is a shortcut to powerful effects."

*Notwithstanding that Hitch received much of the same criticism for a movie called Psycho.

It isn't just Panitt feeling that way, though.  Judith Crist's review calls it a "simple-minded" movie that winds up "exploiting sex and violence," is more interested in "sadistic perversions," and "loses all its credibility with the introduction of a near-manic district attorney and Struthers' being left to solve her own case."  Says Crist, "It's true that social-issue movies need juicing-up to hold the viewer, but lascivious drool isn't the lubricant."


And now a local note: I've had occasion in these reviews to allude to the Great Affiliate Switch of 1979, in which three of the Twin Cities' four commercial stations changed their affiliation, with Channel 5 switching from NBC to ABC, Channel 11 teaming with NBC instead of being an independent, and Channel 9 - the former ABC affiliate - winding up with the short end of the stick, becoming the new independent.

Or maybe they didn't turn out so bad after all.  Click to enlarge.


I'm not going to take up space with another of my gratuitous shots at what's become of the Hallmark Hall of Fame - I mean, it's like catching fish in a barrel, isn't it?  Instead, I'm just going to concentrate on this week's presentation, the one-man show Mister Lincoln, starring Roy Dotrice and taped at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.

The broadcast is one of three that appear this season on PBS*, the other two being Casey Stengel, another one-man show with Charles Durning, and Dear Liar, a two-person play with Jane Alexander and the late Edward Herrmann.  It's one of the Hall of Fame's most interesting recent seasons, the only one since 1979 in which the presentations were staged as plays rather than movies.  As for Mister Lincoln, I recall having seen this when it was first broadcast.  Dotrice, an English actor known as a man of many faces, is a most convincing Abraham Lincoln, and TV Guide's description of his "stirring reading of the Gettysburg Address" is no exaggeration.  This is one of the few instances in which Hall of Fame was done before a live audience, and at the end of that reading the audience burst into spontaneous applause.  But here - see for yourself.  The Address comes about an hour and 10 minutes in.

*Somewhat disingenuously, back when PBS still pretended to be commercial-free, these presentations were simply called the Hall of Fame, with Hallmark providing the grant.  Today, using the full title would hardly be an issue. 

There's also a nice article by Herbert Mitgang, author of the play, putting Lincoln's life in context and debunking many of the myths that have grown up around him, such as his being a hick lawyer, and that he opposed racial equality.  TV Guide would do this from time to time under the label "Background," with an article, often by an outside expert, providing added information regarding one of the more significant programs being shown during the week.


A warning, though - if you want to see Mister Lincoln, you're going to have to pass up part two of East of Eden, and the remake of the Doris Day movie Midnight Lace, starring Mary Francis Crosby in Dodo's role.  Capitalizing on the whole Dallas angle, the teaser proclaims, "She Shot J.R.  Now Who's Trying To Kill Her?"

That's the way of it during Sweeps Weeks of course, and February is long-known for the networks packing as much star power into their programming as possible.  East of Eden has it particularly hard; not only does it go up against Midnight Lace on Monday and A Gun in the House on Wednesday, its Sunday night premiere has to face NBC's three-hour docudrama Kent State, which Crist calls a "stunning film [that] allows us our individual judgment but, more important, does not allow us to forget."

And that's not all.  Both Kent State and East of Eden have some real competition with the week's other blockbuster movie, Burt Reynolds' Hooper, co-starring Sally Field and Jan-Michael Vincent.  It was one of the big box-office hits of 1978, and Crist's favorable review describes it as "wonderfully rowdy, funny and on occasion touching."

On the other hand, all this week Family Feud features competition between Miss USA and Miss Universe.  I don't suppose that has anything to do with Sweeps, do you?


As I was running through those blockbuster Sweeps matchups, I wondered how much any of that would mean to younger viewers, those who've grown up with DVRs and streaming video.  I mean, when you can record a half-dozen or shows at once, or go to your computer and watch a show any time you want, what difference does it make if there are two or three good ones simultaneously?

Remember, though, that this particular electronic age is in its infancy right now.  I was reminded by an ad that appeared just before the programming section.  It was for Audio King, an electronics chain that was big in the Twin Cities for quite some time.  It asks you to imagine the absolute wonder of being able to play a television program over again and again.

But be forewarned: this technical marvel will cost you.  The top-of-the-line MGA HS300U features infrared remote control, speed search, slow motion and a 7-day timer, all for $1,450.  If that's a little too rich for you, there's the Hitachi - it's compact and easily programmable, and only sets you back $1,250.  And for those of you on a budget, JVC has a two-speed model that still offers remote control, still-frame and slow motion for $950.

These are all in the VHS format, but don't forget there's another player in the field.  This ad for Video Images offers you your favorite movies and television shows on either VHS or Beta!  And when you buy three, you'll get a fourth title free!  What a deal!  And free with your order, you'll get their giant video catalog with "over 400 all time favorite TV shows, feature films, cartoons, etc!"  (That should just about cover it all.)  The cost?  Well, each Beta is $39.95, while VHS runs you $42.95.  And to think - today you can get a movie on DVD, a far-superior format, out of the bin at Walmart for a buck.*

*And you can download to your laptop or the cloud and not even have to have it physically in your possession.  How far we've come.

With prices like that, it's no wonder people are still complaining that they always put all the good shows on at the same time. TV