June 13, 2015

This week in TV Guide: June 14, 1958

An article last week pointed out how cable networks, with their shorter schedules and "brazen disregard for tradition" by debuting new series during the summer, have forced networks to change with the times. Nowadays, "summer has evolved from a rerun graveyard to the home of lively offerings, with enough choices to threaten your vacation plans -- or at least DVR capacity."

Well, as far as I'm concerned, that remains to be seen, but there's no doubt that things have changed since 1958, when June was officially proclaimed as the end of television's "regular" season, a time to take inventory of the past season and proclaim winners and losers.  And there are plenty of them, particularly winners, in Frank DeBlois' year-end review of the 1957-58 season.

Among the winners are CBS' "charming" Leave It to Beaver, hailed as television's best new comedy series; ABC's American Bandstand, "a national favorite among teen-agers", and a flock of drama series, including Hallmark Hall of Fame, Omnibus, Kraft Theatre and Playhouse 90. There's also praise also for news documentaries from Edward R. Murrow and Lowell Thomas, and docu-series like The Twenthieth Century and Bell System Science Series.  There's praise aplenty too for variety shows from Victor Borge ("Comedy and Music"),  Mary Martin ("Annie Get Your Gun"), Stars of Jazz, Crosby and Sinatra on The Edsel Show, the Young Peoples Concerts of Leonard Bernstein, The General Motors 50th Anniversary Show and NBC Opera Theatre.

And then - well, there are those shows that didn't do so well, such as Sid Caesar Invites You on ABC, which "was often embarrassingly bad," series by Frank Sinatra and Eddie Fisher that were "respectiively bad and fair," and "flops" by Gisele MacKenzie, Guy Mitchell and Polly Bergen.
NBC's You Bet Your Life, in which "Groucho [Marx] continues to prove that money isn't always everything on television."  A quiz show such as The $64,000 Question "supposedly enables a viewer to win thousands," and that's before they found out it was rigged.

While there is much to like about the season just ended, DeBlois notes that there are still too many Westerns - 17 on the networks, and another 15 in syndication - and dramas seem to be declining.  But then, who determines the difference between a good show and a bad one?  It is the critic, which one TV executive described as "any former obituary writer who happens to own a television set."


We're not just looking backwards in this issue though; there's also a preview of coming attractions for this summer.  Although the networks aren't looking for prestige dramas or breakout hits as they do today, they are looking to add some new blood, and perhaps find a series or two that has some staying power.  They promise "at least 18 spanking new shows," including eight - count 'em, eight - quiz shows.

There is, for example, E.S.P., ABC's panel show, hosted by Vincent Price, which may be "the most interesting of the new shows" but runs only from July 11 to August 26.  On the other hand, Buckskin, replacing Tennessee Ernie Ford's Thursday night show on NBC, is a "promising newcomer" that debuts July 3 and actually makes the fall schedule, with original episodes lasting until May 1959, and appearing in summer reruns in both 1959 and 1965.  The closest any network comes to "experimental programming" is probably NBC's plan to run 13 pilots (or "test films," as they're described) in hopes that "some will attract enough interest to win network time slots next fall."

Some familiar faces make appearances in unfamiliar settings - for example, Andy Williams.  He's pinch hitting for Pat Boone this summer, but it will still be awhile before he becomes a staple of NBC's regular schedule.  George Fenneman, the longtime sidekick to Groucho Marx, gets to host his own show, ABC's Anybody Can Play, on Sunday nights.  Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, mainstays for years on television, get a chance at their own show, filling in for Steve Allen; and a rotating list of stars including Edie Adams, Stan Freberg, and Rowan and Martin take over for Dinah Shore.

There's the switcharoo: Destiny takes the place of Zane Grey Theater, while reruns of Zane Grey fill in for December Bride.  I Love Lucy moves back to its original Monday night timeslot with a series of reruns, taking the place of Danny Thomas' show.  Lucy, in turn, is replaced in its current timeslot by reruns of Gerald McBoing-Boing.  Then there's the recycled show.  On Trial, last seen in 1957, returns as The Joseph Cotten Show, while No Warning!, which has actually been on for a few months, is nothing more than warmed-over Panic! from last season.  And an as-yet unnamed anthology show, made up of reruns from Schlitz Playhouse and G.E. Theater, spells Red Skelton. Got all that?

The only interesting note I see is for Perry Mason - it's "featuring new material in order to get a head start in next fall's race against Perry Como."  (Como is being replaced for the summer by bandleader Bob Crosby, brother of Bing, in a show that's live "purely in its technical sense."  That's a creative, nay innovative, approach to summer programming - nearly as creative as you might see today.


This is all not to say that there aren't new shows on this week, and one of the most noteworthy is Playhouse 90's presentation of "A Town Has Turned to Dust," written by Rod Serling.  The story of this episode, however, is actually more interesting than the show itself, and helped propel Serling into The Twilight Zone.

For some time Serling had wanted to do a script based on the real-life story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black teenager who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for flirting with a white woman.  His first stab at dramatizing the story was "Noon on Doomsday," written in 1956 for the U.S. Steel Hour, in which the murder victim was intended to be a Jewish storekeeper.  As this article shows, though, the program soon became bogged down in politics, especially after word leaked out that the story might be based on the Till case.  The location, which was never specified, was now to be New England, to avoid any possible suggestion that it could be in the South.  The Jewish victim was now an "unnamed foreigner," and the killer was not a psychopath but merely "a good, decent, American boy momentarily gone wrong."  At no point in the script could the word "lynch" be used.  It was a total beatdown for Serling, and although the show was pretty good, he complained that "its thesis had been diluted, and my characters had mounted a soap box to shout something that had become too vague to warrant any shouting."

"A Town Has Turned to Dust" is Serling's second crack at the Till story, but if he thinks it will be any easier this time (and, considering his past experiences with networks, he likely doesn't), he'll be sadly mistaken.  When CBS gets done with his script, the story has been shifted to the American Southwest, the time period changed from the present day to the 1870s, and he victim is now a poor Mexican boy guilty of admiring a white girl from afar.  Once again, the episode gets pretty good reviews; New York Times critic Jack Gould calls it "a raw, tough and at the same time deeply moving outcry against prejudice," and is particularly effusive in his praise for "superlative" performances by Rod Steiger and William Shatner, and the "superb" direction of John Frankenheimer, which he says "truly strengthened Mr. Serling's intent."  Interestingly, the final paragraph of Gould's review references how both Serling and the show "had to fight executive interference, reportedly requiring some changes in the story line, before getting their play on the air last night. The theatre people of Hollywood have reason to be proud of their stand in the viewer's behalf."

While Gould's conclusion makes it sound as if Serling had the last word, the author himself felt quite differently.  “By the time the censors had gotten to it, my script had turned to dust,” he later said. “They chopped it up like a room full of butchers at work on a steer.”  Was Serling justified in his outrage, or was he just a sensitive author who didn't want anyone to touch his work?  You be the judge:


Did you notice what I think is a first for this feature?  Last week we had Robert Young on the cover, in the guise of Marcus Welby, M.D.  This week, twelve years earlier, he's also on the cover, this time as Bob Anderson, the beloved star of Father Knows Best.  I don't think I've ever had the same person on back-to-back covers before.

Last week's story, fitting the relevant '70s, had to do with Young's real-life fight against alcoholism and depression, and his remarkable candor and lack of self-pity in talking about his battle for self-control and self-esteem.  No such worries back in 1958, where the focus is on the relationship between the adult actors and the children, and the impact which FKB has had on the American landscape, "impressing itself upon the collective conscience of the American Organization," in the words of writer Dan Jenkins.

In the 1957-58 season alone, Jenkins notes, the show has received requests from 22 organizations for personal appearances: a New York life insurance company (Jim Anderson, Young's character, is an insurance salesman), the U.S. Army Recruiting Services (Young and co-star Jane Wyatt appeared on the Army float in the 1958 Rose Parade), the National Safety Council (Young views his work for them as a year-around job), and the Mount Sinai Hospital and Clinic (recognizing Young as Father of the Year, "a title twice bestowed upon him by the National Father's Day Committee), among others.  The show, winner of three past Emmys, is seen in 21 countries, and is a smash in Australia.

Yes, Father Knows Best is one of the most popular shows on television, a gentle, literate family comedy about "a pleasantly intelligent and happy American family with all the built-in values," and Robert Young is one of the most popular stars on television.  For a generation he becomes the very model of a husband and father.  It earns him no credit with his actual family, though - one of his daughters recently chastises him when he replies "I don't know" to a question she asks, telling him that "Jim Anderson always knows."  To which Young replies, "Jim Anderson has two writers.  Bob Young doesn't have any."


This week's starlet is Whitney Blake who in a little over two years has gone from selling ice cream at an Oregon stand to becoming "one of TV's most active free-lance actresses".  "I always wanted to be an actress," she says, but it wasn't until her family finally settled in Oregon that she was able to pursue her passion.  "My mother wanted me to do something sensible, like get married.  But I knew what I really wanted."

After studying at Pasadena City College, Blake heads for Hollywood, where she's seen by a talent agent, after which the roles just kept coming.  She honed her skills playing in summer stock, and now she's ready for the future.  "I'm an actress now," she says.  "Even Mother now accepts that."

Indeed she is.  In addition to her many guest-starring roles, Whitney Blake the actress will be best known for her four seasons as Dorothy Baxter in the sitcom Hazel.  But there's also Whitney Blake the television mogul; she and her husband Allan Manings will create the sitcom One Day at a Time.  And then there's Whitney Blake the businesswoman; in the '90s, she and her son will own the Minneapolis bookstore Baxter's Books, which over the years helped me fill a shelf or so in my library.  (Had I known, I might have demanded to see the owner.)  Most famous, perhaps, is Whitney Blake the mother - her daughter, Meredith Baxter, will inherit her mom's looks and have a pretty good career of her own.

So as TV Guide starlets go, Whitney Blake is definitely one of the winners.


Among the week's other highlights, Ed Sullivan returns to New York on Sunday with film from his trip to the Brussels World's Fair, and clips of some of the stars appearing there, including Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot and Maurice Chevalier.  WGBH, the educational channel in Boston (home of this week's TV Guide), provides weeklong coverage of the Boston Arts Festival.  Some of those new shows we were talking about earlier make their debuts, including NBC's The Joseph Cotten Show on Saturday and ABC's Traffic Court on Wednesday.  On Thursday, NBC premieres Confessions, which is not about Roman Catholic priests but does focus on convicted criminals, with a panel of sociologists, penologists, clergymen, psychiatrists and lawyers providing commentary. Frigidare Summer Theater, one of those clearinghouses for reruns of dramas from old anthology series, makes its debut on Friday on ABC.

TV Teletype tells us about two new series being prepared for a fall debut:  Gunn for Hire, starring Craig Stevens, is set for Mondays on NBC.  You know it by the name they finally settled on: Peter Gunn.  Also on tap for NBC is a new Western series, Virginia City, which will be going into production next month.  When it debuts, it too will be under a different name: Bonanza.

Finally, there's Dotto, a quiz show on weekdays at 11:30am (ET) on CBS.  It just started in January of this year, but it's already been so popular that a nighttime version will premiere next month on NBC.  Dan Jenkins reviews the program on page 27, but he doesn't see much to write about.  It's "still another in the apparently never-ending succession of new quiz shows, [which] comes out of the same old mold."  "The game's the thing," he says, "the money prizes rarely going higher than about $3000."

And yet, only two months after this issue, Dotto disappears from the airwaves.  It's not that it suffered a sudden drop in popularity; on the contrary, one could say that its cancellation came about because it got too much attention.  It began the previous month, when one of the contestants, Ed Hilgemeier, discovered a notebook belonging to another contestant, Marie Winn.  Turns out that notebook contained the answers to questions she would be asked on the show.  Hilgemeier took his suspicions to the contestant defeated by Winn, Yaffe Kimball, and then to the show's producers.  The producers paid all three of them off to keep quiet, but as often happens with these cover-ups, Hilgemeier wound up going to the authorities anyway.  And - well, as Paul Harvey would say, I'm sure you all know the rest of the story. TV  

1 comment:

  1. Marie Winn would go on to write a book about the effect of television on children, THE PLUG-IN DRUG.


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