November 30, 2015

What's on TV? Wednesday, November 30, 1966

We're at the final day of November 1966, and in this otherwise not particularly remarkable day we see a couple of local Christmas shows pop-up; I mentioned on Saturday that the networks were blissfully void of coverage this early in the season, but I don't mind these local shows that are airing. Maybe it's just me, do you think?

This week's listing is from the Minnesota State edition; as usual, I've taken a cross-section of stations from a very full channel lineup. Perhaps some day I'll do an entire issue with all the stations, but I think you'd find it very repetitive. But who knows?

November 28, 2015

This week in TV Guide: November 26, 1966

A fun issue this week, though not one with any particularly noteworthy items, so we'll do what most people do on Thanksgiving evening - graze on the leftovers.


Ron Ely, the new Tarzan, is on the cover this week, and apparently playing the king of the jungle isn't all it's cracked up to be - what with "multiple injuries, torrential rains and a berserk elephant" to deal with.

Nancy Sinatra's mentioned on the cover as well, as she works with daddy Frank on his upcoming CBS special. And speaking as we are of celebrity progenies, author John Gregory Dunne writes about the challenges of doing an interview with Patrick Wayne, son of The Duke.

Isaac Asimov tells us that from a scientific point of view, most science fiction on television is laughable. Surprisingly, according to Asimov, most television writers have no idea what a galaxy is. Martin Mayer has an article on the FCC, second of two parts, in which he details how some commissioners are lobbying for greater latitude for the agency to become more involved in network programming. My observation has always been than when the government wants to poke its nose in that, it isn't a good thing.

NBC is cutting back on its news specials, while CBS is beefing them up. However, one thing they have in common is that most of them, regardless of which network they're on, will wind up on late Sunday afternoons, where they're no ratings threat to the rest of the broadcast schedule.

And with that, let's gt to the fun stuff!


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..

Sullivan: Guests are singers Leslie Uggams and Glenn Yarbrough; comedians Wayne and Shuster, Richard Pryor and Kovin and Wilder; the Muppets puppets; Fiesta Mexicana (performing native songs and dances); and All-American college football stars.

Palace: Host Bing Crosby introduces his old movie co-star Dorothy Lamour; comedians Sid Caesar and Bill Dana; singer Vikki Carr; singer-dancer Liliane Montevecchi; fire-eater Tagora; and the tumbling Gimma Brothers.

This one is short and sweet - Sid Caesar, a frequent guest on Palace, is famously funny. Bill Dana's José Jiménez character would be considered most politically incorrect by the PC fascists today, but the character (this week playing a CIA agent) is very funny, Dorothy Lamour was always an exceptional foil for Crosby and Bob Hope in their Road movies. See which way this is going? Ed does have talent as well this week, but it's not as much, and not as much to my taste. Palace wins in a romp.


We continue our new feature, Cleveland Amory's review, with his look at a series that was - or could have been - a bold experiment, or about as bold as television was going to get in the late '60s. It's ABC's Stage 67, billed as a weekly show highlighting the best in culture. (Never mind that it's still 1966; it's a progressive show.) Amory was intrigued by the premise:

When we first heard that ABC was going to bring culture to TV in prime time every week, we repaired to our dictionary. We found there several definitions of culture. The first was "The act or process of tilling and preparing the earth for crops." The second was "The raising, improvement, or development of some plant, animal or product." The third was "The growth of bacteria or other microorganisms in a specially prepared nourishing substance, as agar." Ha, we thought. And we immediately looked up the definition of agar. It was, we found, "a substance containing agar-agar." This was hard news. Obviously, we were not only not gaining, we were losing. But one thing was certain. As ABC knows by now, however you look at this agar stuff, it's evidently very important. And so far, Stage 67 just hasn't had enough of it.

Like me, Amory thought it a noble concept, but his enthusiasm begins to wane as he gets a sample of the program. "Olympus 7-0000 was the most appalling production with which we have been in any way concerned since the school Christmas play in which we played the part of an avenging angel." Olympus 7-0000's only virtue was "in places so bad it was funny," whereas the comic review "Where It's At" "was just so bad it wasn't funny."

In fairness, Amory notes some successes so far, including The People Trap and The Love Song of Barney Kempinski, but in the end he adds that one of the major problems with Stage 67 is that "if the pace is slow enough, and not too much happens, and the point is not only labored but also belabored, then it must be culture." It isn't, and the fact that so many people think - or fear - it is is one reason why so many people think they don't like cultured things. It doesn't have to be that way, trust me. Besides, as Amory concludes, "it's very very agar-vating."


The college football season is nearly at an end, and before we look at what's on, we'll talk about what isn't on. When last we saw #1 Notre Dame, they were walking off the field in East Lansing after playing #2 Michigan State to a 10-10 tie, and while this is the end of Michigan State's season, the Fighting Irish have one more game, a game which they have to win if they're to stay #1. That game is against one of their most bitter rivals, USC, and while it would be nice to say this was our lead game this week, it would not be true. Because of the NCAA's rules governing how many times a team can appear on national television in a single season, Notre Dame's 51-0 thrashing of the Trojans, earning the Irish the national championship, goes unseen. Our consolation game is another classic, the annual Army-Navy game, which Army wins 20-7 before a crowd of over 100,000 in JFK Stadium in Philadelphia.

If, like me, your tastes run to the Canadian version of football, Saturday morning's game on WTCN, Channel 11 features the Ottawa Rough Riders and Montreal Alouettes in a game taped October 30. In a game only a CFL fan could love, Montreal comes out on top by the very Canadian score of 1-0.

On Sunday, where the pro season still has a few weeks to go, we have three games to choose from. At noon CT, NBC's AFL game of the week pits the Kansas City Chiefs, who will win the AFL championship and go on to the first Super Bowl, against Joe Namath and the Jets in New York.  At 12:45pm*, the NFL kicks off with the Los Angeles Rams and the Colts in Baltimore. That will be followed by the Green Bay Packers at the Minnesota Vikings, blacked out in Minneapolis-St. Paul and Mankato but seen in the rest of the viewing area.

*The late start is due to Baltimore's Blue Laws (since revoked), which prohibit a game beginning before 2pm. 


There are no single standout shows this week, so we're going to go a little deeper into the nightly listings and give you more of an idea of TV's really like.

On Saturday night, NBC features the first of the season's made-for-TV movies, Fame is the Name of the Game, starring Tony Franciosa and Jill St. John. A couple of years later, the movie will evolve into a full-fledged series, and Franciosa will return in his role as magazine writer Jeff Dillon, one of the three stars of The Name of the Game, which runs for three season. Meanwhile, for its late Saturday movie, WKBT in LaCrosse has the 1962 movie The Courtship of Eddie's Father, which will eventually become a series in 1969, with Bill Bixby taking over the role played in the film by Glenn Ford.

Perhaps I'm the only one interested by Sunday's Bell Telephone Hour, which documents the September opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House in the relatively new Lincoln Center in New York. I'm certainly not the only one who watched Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea back in the day, but this week's episode is one of those really hokey ones, in which Admiral Nelson's 200-year-old ancestor appears on the submarine and tries to force Nelson to join him in immortality. Right. It's About Time, the CBS sitcom about astronauts who go back in time and meet a community of cavemen, is only slightly less realistic. And in a delayed broadcast (which CBS affiliate WKBT picks up from ABC), it's a late-night broadcast of the aforementioned Stage 67, with Stephen Sondheim's musical "Evening Primrose" starring Tony Perkins, one of the few Stage 67 broadcasts to be released on DVD.

I think the most notable program on Tuesday is a local one, WCCO's Our Men in Viet Nam, the first in a series of ten-minute reports that feature Phil Jones, who eventually graduates to CBS news, interviewing troops from Minnesota and Western Wisconsin during his trip to Vietnam. That pushes back the airing of The Merv Griffin Show, which features an eclectic lineup: Minnie Pearl, straight from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, actor (and personal favorite) Orson Bean, impressionist David Frye, and future star of Starsky and Hutch David Soul, perhaps from his iteration as the "Covered Man." There's also an episode of NBC's Occasional Wife in which "talentless Carol Zogerdorfer," an important client's daughter, is played by a guest star who doesn't even get top guest star billing - Sally Field.

Wednesday features part one of Batman's adventure against the notorious criminal Shame, played by Cliff Robertson. The episode, which concludes tomorrow night, is entitled "Come Back, Shame," a nice parody of the Western Shane. Danny Kaye also has a standout episode of his CBS variety show, with guest stars Peter Ustinov (I'll bet the two of them had a great time), singer Nancy Wilson and impressionist Frank Gorshin - the Riddler on Batman. And on Stage 67 (have we ever given more extensive coverage to such an obscure show?), it's a documentary by David L. Wolper on Marilyn Monroe, who we have to remember had only been dead a little over four years at that point. Best oddity, though, might be Gloria Swanson playing herself in a rare television appearance on - The Beverly Hillbillies. "Convinced that Hollywood has turned its back on a great star, Jed charges to the rescue, and a startled Miss Swanson soon finds herself on the set of a new silent film - 'Passion's Plaything.'"

On Thursday, Batman concludes its story with the villainous Shane. I think one of the series' all-time great lines comes in that concluding episode ("It's the Way You Play the Game"), where s solemn Caped Crusader tells the villain, "You're nothing but a sham, Shame." Love that line. Robertson also stars, more seriously, in CBS' Thursday Night Movie, "Love Has Many Faces," with Lana Turner. Meanwhile, Jack Benny returns to network television for the first of his two specials this season, with Phyllis Diller, Trini Lopez, and the Smothers Brothers, who are still a couple of years away from real controversy. I think I'd rather go with Dean Martin's show later in the evening, which stars Arthur Godfrey, Eddy Arnold, Dom DeLuise and singer-dancer Elaine Dunn. To each his own, but as W.C. Fields says in WTCN's 10:00 movie, "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break."

Friday wraps up the week with Tony and Doug trying to prevent the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on ABC's The Time Tunnel. When are they ever going to learn you can't change history? Just ask Doctor Who. Danny Kaye, whom we last saw on Wednesday, returns on CBS' Friday Night Movie with one of his most recent movies, "The Man From the Diner's Club." You'll miss the first half-hour of that if you want to catch NBC's The Man From U.N.C.L.E. which presents an outrageous episode that stars Jack Palance and Janet Leigh as guest baddies, and features Napoleon Solo working with "the notorious Stilletto brothers." And in a reminder of when politicians could appear on talk shows and retain their dignity, Senator Everett Dirksen is a guest with Johnny on The Tonight Show. Dirksen was always good for a quote, and perhaps this was the appearance in which he uttered the memorable line, "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you're talking real money."


The approach of year's end means it's time for charities to make their pitches, and here's an ad featuring Jerry Lewis for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, back when they weren't too good to have Jerry appear. We usually think of MDA around Labor Day, but in these pre-national telethon days, it's a reminder that MDA is a charity like other charities, reminding people that they can make their contributions before the end of the year.


Finally, a brief observation. As I'm sitting here on the couch typing the words you've been reading, I heard a commercial on ABC for tonight's broadcast of the Rankin-Bass Santa Claus is Coming to Town, with Mickey Rooney and Fred Astaire. Tonight is November 27, and I've gotten used to the Christmas shows premiering before December 1, but I'll have you know that in this issue, which runs from November 26 through December 2, I didn't see one Christmas special except for local choirs. As I often ruefully point out, things were different then. TV  

November 27, 2015

Around the dial - Yule preview

The refrigerator is still full of day-after-Thanksgiving leftovers, but apparently it's already Christmastime, which means it's also time for the Classic TV Blog Association Christmas blogathon. This year's event is a little different; rather than being grouped during a single week, it takes place throughout the entire season, and in fact as already started. My own contribution won't be up until Christmas Eve, but you can see the complete schedule here, and doubtless I'll be referring to them throughout the coming month.

In fact, The Last Drive-In gives us a sample, with the Christmas episode from the inaugural season of Thedy Griffith Show, a sentimental yet witty version of A Christmas Carol that shows the essential humanity that exists in Mayberry.

Comfort TV reminds us that the classic Bob Newhart Show was one of the few with a Christmas episode every year, and he ranks them all the way up to the top.

And the wonderful Christmas TV History blog is in its element, with a look at the 1980 Christmas episode of M*A*S*H, as well as a list of upcoming Christmas TV episodes.

But let's not forget Thanksgiving quite so soon, The Flaming Nose remembers the 1967 Thanksgiving episode of That Girl, involving two families and a Thanksgiving turkey.

Here's a great post for those of you looking for the perfect Christmas gift for that classic TV or movie buff - Classic Film and TV Cafe's shopping guide. Aside from the fact that my (non-TV related) book isn't there, it's a terrific list!

In non-holiday related doings, The Horn Section looks at another classic episode from Love that Bob, while Lincoln X-Ray Ida does the same with Adam-12.

And that's it for the day after Thanksgiving, but be back here the day after the day after Thanksgiving, when this week's issue of TV Guide takes us into December. TV  

November 25, 2015

Classic television that's a turkey - well, not really

When it comes to holiday-themed episodes, it seems to me as if Thanksgiving has never been quite as popular as Christmas (although there have certainly been classic episodes, from Bob Newhart to Friends), but that doesn't mean they don't exist. For example, TV Party has a great sample lineup from the 1950s here. So in the spirit of the season, here are some clips of our own, some nostalgic and others frivolous, all of them part of what makes Thanksgiving special.

The day always begins with parades. I've shared this before - it's an exceptionally clear clip from the Hudson's Parade in Detroit, 1962. Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Green Jeans and Mr. Moose are in the studio, and newsmen Dallas Townsend and Bob Murphy are on the parade route. This was one of the three parades that CBS carried in their "Thanksgiving Parade Jubilee," the other two being in New York and Detroit (with Toronto added later).

One of the most famous college football games ever played was on Thanksgiving - the 1971 "Game of the Century" between undefeated and top-ranked Nebraska and undefeated, #2 ranked Oklahoma. Watch this when you have some time - it's an unforgettable game, even if the wrong team won. (And check out the commercials!)

Of course, variety shows have never found a holiday they didn't like, and Perry Como did them particularly well.  Here is Perry's 1962 Thanksgiving eve show, which I think I've covered elsewhere in the archives.

Lawrence Welk's charmingly corny rendition of Plymouth Rock kicks off this special from 1958, when it was known as The Lawrence Welk Plymouth Show.

What would a holiday be without cartoons?  Here's Rankin-Bass' The Mouse on the Mayflower from 1968.

Or a sitcom? Here's the 1951 Burns and Allen Thanksgiving show.

As for the more recent past, there's the epic"Turkey Drop" from WKRP in Cincinnati, perhaps the most famous Thanksgiving clip ever.

And we'll end with this memorable message from Red Skelton in 1952.

What they're all saying is this: Happy Thanksgiving!

To which I add my own sincere wishes for a wonderful and blessed day, for we all indeed have much to be thankful for.

November 23, 2015

What's on TV? Tuesday, November 25, 1958

This is, if I'm not mistaken, our first look at the Nebraska/Iowa/South Dakota area, which means we'd better do a good job on it. I've mentioned in the past that one of my few fond memories of doing time in The World's Worst Town™ was the KELOland station we used to receive from South Dakota. It wasn't KELO, Channel 11 - I think it was either KDLO or KPLO, I can't remember which - but as the CBS affiliate, it was one of the few traces of the outside world to penetrate that little hole. Anyway, on with the show.

November 21, 2015

This week in TV Guide: November 22, 1958

One of the things I've noted in the past regarding Thanksgiving is that because it doesn't have a fixed date, you're never entirely sure when it's going to show up in a late November TV Guide. Fortunately, this week happens to be one of those happy occurrences, and since you could be reading this at any time of the week, it should fit right in with whatever you're doing, from finishing off that pumpkin pie to hanging your Christmas decorations.

I've also commented on how Thanksgiving isn't quite what it used to be, but when one looks at how it was in 1958, you can really see the changes. Take the parades, for example. CBS used to show multiple parades prior to casting its lot exclusively with the Macy's parade, but in 1958 there are but two, neither of them in New York. The coverage starts at 9:15am CT (following an abbreviated 15-minute edition of For Love or Money) with Captain Kangaroo himself, Bob Keeshan, hosting a 45-minute telecast of the Hudson's Thanksgiving Day Children's Parade* in Detroit. Following that, it's Arthur Godfrey's half-hour morning show, which the Old Redhead will interrupt periodically to look in on the Gimbles Toyland Parade in Philadelphia, where the grand marshal is Jimmy Dean and the TV Guide float is ridden by Orson Bean and Pat Carroll.

*I've never seen it referred to in that way, as the "Children's Parade," but a quick spin around the web shows several such references in this era. 

Over on NBC, where Macy's parade coverage has swollen to three hours in recent years, the 1958 broadcast runs but an hour, with Bert "Miss America" Parks and Frank Blair, newscaster on Today, as hosts. The big story in this year's parade is the workaround required to get the balloons aloft because of the nationwide helium shortage. For awhile there were concerns that the balloons might have to be abandoned, but ultimately they were saved with an ingenious solution: they were inflated with regular air and held aloft by cranes.*

*Helium is still in short supply, although there's been no serious threat to ditch the balloons. This article tells more about the growing demand for, and shortage of, helium.

Football coverage was different as well. This year features three NFL games* and a pair of college tilts, but in 1958 the number of games was two: the traditional game in Detroit featuring the Lions and the Green Bay Packers at 11:00am on CBS, and the annual college game between Texas and Texas A&M at 1:45pm on NBC. The Lions and Packers don't play every Thanksgiving anymore, although they do play on Turkey Day more often than would be dictated by random choice. Texas and Texas A&M, bitter rivals for a century, don't play each other at all anymore, thanks to conference realignment. Someday this will change, but for now it's yet another example of progress not necessarily constituting an improvement.

*Still falling short of the four that were telecast in the last year prior to the NFL/AFL merger: two in each league.

Before the Texas-A&M game, KMTV Channel 3, the NBC affiliate in Omaha, has an appropriate special on at 12:30pm - The Mayflower Story, a color documentary on the ship Mayflower II, an exact replica of the original, which traveled across the Atlantic in 1957, docking in New York City on July 1 of that year, after which her captain and crew received a ticker-tape parade along the city's Canyon of Heroes. You can see a brief clip of the ship's 1958 arrival in Washington here.


There aren't many other specifically Thanksgiving-oriented shows this week, although Red Skelton's Freddie the Freeloader looks for a free turkey dinner on Tuesday's program (8:30pm, CBS), and Lawrence Welk's Wednesday night show (he was on twice a week at this point) is his Thanksgiving special - but more about that on Wednesday. There may be others that were not described as such in the listings. And anyway, the holiday period has always been a prime one for specials, and this year is no different. For starters, I didn't know Dean Martin did a yearly series of NBC specials a year long before he started his weekly series, but on Saturday night at 8:00, Deano kicks off his first special of the season, with special guests Bing Crosby and Phil Harris.

On Monday, The Voice of Firestone (8:00pm, ABC) celebrates its 30th anniversary, having started on radio in 1928; from 1949, when the television version began, until 1956, when the radio version ended, the program was simulcast on both TV and radio. The program celebrates its anniversary with some of the biggest names in opera: Rosalind Elias, Anna Moffo, Cesare Valletti and Cesare Siepi (but no Maria Callas). The host is John Daly, taking time off his ABC newscasting duties and CBS What's My Line? hosting. Busy guy. Later that evening, CBS' Desilu Playhouse presents "The Time Element," the de facto pilot for The Twilight Zone, which I wrote about when it was rerun the following April. And the following night, NBC's Eddie Fisher Show is preempted for a special presentation of Shirley Temple's Storybook, the telling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes." Not a bad week's lineup.


Sportswise, the college football season winds down with the season-ending game between Iowa, winner of the Big Ten Championship, and Notre Dame. It's a down year for the Fighting Irish, as is the case any time the university isn't contending for the national championship, although their reputation does secure for them the #17 national ranking. For Iowa, their 31-21 victory over Notre Dame, followed by a 38-12 defeat of California in the Rose Bowl, gives them an 8-1-1 record, good enough for the #2 ranking behind undefeated Sugar Bowl champ LSU.*

*Interestingly enough, 1958 was the first year to feature the two-point conversion, introduced to help enliven what was, in Michigan athletic director Fritz Crisler's description, "the dullest, most stupid play in the game." Nearly 60 years later, people still describe the point-after that way, which causes me to ask where the progress is.

If you're in the mood for some "ice hockey," CBS has it with its NHL Game of the Week Saturday afternoon, featuring the Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins from Boston Garden. I would love to see footage of that game. If the NFL suits you better, there is a game aside from the Thanksgiving Day feature, with CBS carrying the Chicago Cardinals hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers. There's also some NBA action on Sunday, with the St. Louis Hawks and Cincinnati Royals playing on NBC.*

*Just to recap, the Chicago Cardinals moved to St. Louis and then Phoenix, where they're now known as the Arizona Cardinals. The St. Louis Hawks came from Milwaukee and would move on to Atlanta, while the Cincinnati Royals, once the Rochester (NY) Royals, later became the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, the Kansas City Kings, and now the Sacramento Kings. At least the Steelers stayed put.


This week's starlet is Diana van der Vlis, who might be the next Grace Kelly, or Maria Schell, or Eva Marie Saint. But what she looks forward to is the day when someone might come up to her and say, "I've seen an actress who looks just like you." She's earned her acting chops, from Broadway to B movies to television guest roles in shows such as Kraft Television Theater and Naked City. She's done a pilot, but the show hasn't yet been picked up. (And in fact never will be.) Her greatest fame will come on the daytime circuit, most notably in the soaps Ryan's Hope and Where the Heart Is. One thing's for sure, though - when you've seen her once, you'll never miss seeing her again.

And a note from TV Teletype that Jennifer Lea has been signed to play Carl Reiner's wife in Reiner's new series Man of the House. The series never made it, but a few years later Reiner retooled and recast it, and it wound up as The Dick Van Dyke Show.  Hmm - Jennifer Lea as Laura Petrie? Or Barbara Britton, as rumor had it? I think it would have been worth a look.


And now to the cover story: Ronald Reagan and his actress-wife, Nancy Davis Reagan. The "athletically lanky and likable" Ronnie, now 47, has for the last four years been the host and occasional star of General Electric Theater on CBS, and he and Nancy will appear on the show Sunday night, in the ironically-named "A Turkey for the President." Reagan doesn't play the president - that would come 22 years later, in the role of his life - he plays the father of a son who enters his personal turkey in a contest, only to find out the "winner" of the contest gets to serve as the president's Thanksgiving dinner.

It's not that Reagan's career is winding down, but he's at a point where he's less interested in what the critics think than what the sponsor and its employees think. He's acutely aware that part of his job is to keep GE happy, and he uses the feedback he receives from employees, which he gets regularly while touring GE plants nationwide, to help formulate his opinions about what television should be like. "People will accept art on TV," Reagan says perceptively. "They want art, not just amusement. They'll accept an unhappy ending. But they do want to know what happens after the story ended and they want to know why. They do not want to be left dangling in the air after a TV show." One other thing they want: "stars, stars, stars."

The unbylined article contains most of the biographical information we've come to know over the years: the beginning calling Cubs games on WHO radio, the trip to California, where he would star in movies, his marriages to Jane Wyman and Nancy, his time as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and his current role as corporate spokesman, in which he may make as many as 15 speeches a day - not only to GE employees, but to Rotary, Lions and Kiawinis clubs, churches and chambers of commerce. It will not only polish his public speaking, it will give him a unique opportunity to tour the country, speaking to ordinary persons, making connections and leaving impressions that will be remembered in years to come. The writer observes that Reagan appears to enjoy this part of the job most of all.

What's fascinating about this, at least to me, is that we're not reading about this in an after-the-fact biography, or listening to a political analyst talking about it in the past tense. We're seeing it as it happens. In fact, though few (including Reagan himself) would realize it at the time, we are watching, in real time, the embryonic stages of Ronald Reagan's campaign for the presidency. It is happening before our very eyes, and though we aren't even aware of it, we can suspect that more than one person from the 250,000 he meets during this time will come away from their encounter mightily impressed by the meeting, impressed by the man.

Nobody would have predicted what would come next,would have predicted that Ronald Reagan would not stop giving speeches when GE Theater went off the air in 1962, would not return to acting after his final picture, The Killers, would not return to Hollywood at all but would wind up in Sacramento as governor, in Washington, D.C. as the last larger-than-life president. But there it is, the future staring right at us in black-and-white. And we don't even know it. TV  

November 18, 2015

The man who reminded us that life is worth living

Ask people for one word to describe how they feel about things today, and odds are a good number of them will use the word "despair." The political situation? It doesn't matter who wins or loses, nothing changes. The economy? There's nothing we can do about it, and we'll probably never be able to retire. Religion? Who knows what to believe anymore.

Yes, no matter who you talk with, no matter what subject, there seems to be this sense that things aren't good and they're only getting worse, that perhaps things might never get better. It's a tough world out there, and you think it will break your heart if you're not careful. No wonder despair is the word that first pops into so many heads.

In some ways, this isn't much different from the '50s and '60s. Remember that the '50s, for all the talk about limitless potential, was still marked by fear and trembling. The threat of the Bomb. The Russians leading in the space race. The pressure to keep up with the Joneses in a newly consumerist society is intense. The idea of an unwanted pregnancy or a spouse unwilling to agree to a divorce is the pivot point of many a murder mystery. Whenever you look at entertainment of the era, from Patterns to The Twilight Zone's memorable "A Stop at Willoughby" (both written by Rod Serling) to Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman to the movie The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, one can see the tumult just under the surface of the post-war era. And the '60s just ramp up the pressure, with Vietnam, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll just the tip of the iceberg.

In such an era, is it any surprise that one of the most successful programs on television featured a Catholic priest whose message was simple yet direct: life is worth living.

That priest was Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, and his program, Life Is Worth Living, premiered on DuMont in 1952, and after moving to ABC in 1955, continued to air weekly until 1957; the program continued on in syndication, under the less-descriptive title The Fulton Sheen Program, off-and-on until 1968. Volumes have been written about Bishop Sheen (who began in broadcasting with a radio program in 1930), and I won't attempt to recapitulate it all here; suffice it to say that Fulton Sheen was extremely successful on television, drawing as many as thirty million viewers a week, and being the only show to provide any serious competition when aired opposite Milton Berle's hit show*; and was as successful in print, authoring over 70 books on the spiritual life. He was responsible for the conversion of many prominent people into the Catholic Church, and probably only God Himself knows how many other people he touched in one way or another. Bishop Sheen died in 1979, but many of his books remain in print, and many of his shows continue to air on television (EWTN) and sell on DVD.

*Berle, known as "Uncle Miltie," dubbed his good friend "Uncle Fultie," and when winning an Emmy, Sheen's acceptance speech thanked his four writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

It's a remarkable legacy for any media figure, let alone a clergyman. I'll grant you that times were different then; it's unimaginable that such a show as Life Is Worth Living could air on network television today. But then, in these confusing times it's unimaginable that so many people - Catholic, Protestant and Jewish alike - could find solace in those four simple words: life is worth living.

A side note: in one of his most famous broadcasts, delivered in February of 1953, he delivered what Brooks and Marsh's Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows called a "hair-raising" rendition (without notes) of Marc Antony's famous funeral oration for Caesar (as written by Shakespeare). The show apparently doesn't exist, at least not in any medium I've found, but in my collection of scripts from the show I've got a copy of that one, in which Sheen substitutes names of prominent Soviet leaders — Stalin, Beria, Malenkov, and Vishinsky — for those of Caesar, Cassius, Marc Antony, and Brutus.  It is hair-raising, just in print, and I can only imagine how it must have sounded in Sheen's magnificent, charismatic oration. Concluding the program, Sheen dramatically notes that "Stalin must one day meet his judgment." A few days later, Stalin suffered a stroke and was dead within the week.

Sheen was no Pandora; he recognized well the threat of Communism ("Communism in America," "Western and Communist World," "Does Capitalism Still Exist") as well as the threats that were implicit in the culture built by the post-war era. He discussed man's weaknesses ("Hope for a Wounded World," "Human Passions and Emotions," "Selfishness"), the struggles of daily life ("Gloom," "Guilt," "Suffering," "Temptation," "The Identity Crisis"), ways of self-improvement ("An Alcoholic is Not a Pig," "How to Improve Your Mind," "How to Think"). Shows such as "The Psychology of the Rat Race," "What is Meant by Happiness?" and "War as a Judgment From God" could be given today without very little editing, and in shows like "There Is Hope" he reinforces the message of those four words.

Listening to Sheen's programs today, one is struck (not for the first time when watching classic television) by how little has changed. The specific names of issues may be different, the circumstances may be slightly altered, but at heart the insecurities, frailties, fears and sins of man remain as ever they have been and ever will be. What Sheen understood, perhaps better than anyone who's ever appeared on television, is the essential existentialist struggle that is part of life. St. John Paul II once remarked that the ordinary life is full of drama far beyond what any dramatist could concoct, and in a program such as "The Stranger Within" Sheen illustrates that existential drama. Television is in many ways a remarkable medium, but one thing it has never done well is existentialism. It does nihilism far better, by the way, and it's also quite good at amorality, but to seriously discuss the meaning of life and the implications arising from various answers is something one doesn't see anymore, and seldom did anywhere (aside from a top-notch drama) other than from Bishop Sheen.

Perhaps the biggest difference to be found, from the Catholic viewpoint, is how the Church has ceased to be the public foundation of certainty and instruction. As anyone who's read my commentary over at In Other Words knows (it's also the subject of my new book, The Collaborator), I've lamented the confusion, contradiction and outright heresy that has infiltrated the Church during the last fifty-some years. Today, even if someone were to have the opportunity to speak from a network-provided pulpit, it's unlikely he'd be able to speak from any kind of authority; if people didn't like he was saying, they'd just get contradictory advice from another Catholic prelate.

So a debate rages on, mainly from within the Church but extending outside as well, as to what exactly the Catholic Church stands for, what she represents, what her role is in the world. What I find remarkable is that through all this conflict, which in and of itself is enough to cause one to despair, so few people have hearkened back to the message of Fulton J. Sheen, and how applicable it is to people today. And yet we live in a time when suicide is rampant, especially among young people and military veterans, when so many people are inclined to throw up their hands in exasperation, when nihilism has invaded the subconscious and the existential. We debate liberal vs. conservative, orthodox vs. heterodox, we've battled over race, gender, identity; we've done just about everything within our power to ridicule and demonize those who disagree with us, and even some of those who agree. But through it all, from each and every source, I rarely hear those four words, the words that Bishop Sheen preached every week for so many years, the words that are not necessarily the end but most assuredly are the beginning, and from which goodness can ultimately flow.

Life is worth living. On that you can depend.

November 16, 2015

What's on TV: Monday, November 18, 1968

This week we make our first visit to Iowa, where we've got programming from three metro areas: Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and the Quad Cities.*  The daytime lineup is making its transition from black-and-white to color programming, and only a couple of stations lack the facilities to broadcast in color.  The shows, as well, reflect the times, as we'll see. One thing I do appreciate about these issues from the Midwest is the emphasis on farm reporting, which remains an important part of the economy until the farm recession in the 80s.

*Bonus points for naming all four of them.

By the way, coming from Minnesota I have hundreds of Iowa jokes: it was time for the big football game between Minnesota and Iowa, and the two teams were going at it when a train that was passing the stadium sounded its horn. The Minnesota players thought that meant the half was over, and ran off the field.

Four plays later, Iowa scored.

Well, maybe not so much this season.

November 14, 2015

This week in TV Guide: November 16, 1968

It's Sunday, November 17. A perfect fall day, perhaps a slight chill in the air, but not quite close enough to December for snow. Thanksgiving's coming up a week from this Thursday, and the wife wants to make sure everything's in shape for when the family comes over. So after church, you might have spent some time outside, raking the last of the leaves, or freshening up the trim around the windows, finishing up the Honey-Do list.

Afterwards, you're ready for a little time to yourself, so while the wife is doing some shopping and the kids are playing outside, you settle in to your barcalounger with a cold drink and a snack and turn on the TV to catch the late football game. You have your choice, but instead of the NFL's Rams-49ers on CBS, you decide to go with the AFL game on NBC, pitting the New York Jets against the Oakland Raiders, a showdown between the two best teams in the league.

And what a game it is; with Joe Namath of the Jets and Daryle Lamonica of the Raiders trading touchdown passes, the two teams trade the lead throughout the game. The Raiders lead 14-12 at the half, but early in the 4th quarter Namath launches a 50-year touchdown pass to his favorite receiver, Don Maynard, and the Jets take a 26-22 lead. By now the wife is home and dinner's cooking; the kids have finished their homework and everyone's ready to eat, but it's been a long game, what with scoring and penalties and incomplete passes, it's already dragged well past the time you would have expected it to be done. After a Jets field goal, the Raiders drive down the field and Lamonica tosses a 22-yard touchdown to the great Fred Biletnikoff with four minutes left to tie the game 29-29. Then, with a little over a minute to play, another field goal puts the Jets back in the lead, 32-29. "Can you keep it down?" you yell to your impatient wife, "I'm watching the game!"

Indeed it is, although you don't know it at the time. Not until after the Jets kick off, and suddenly you find yourself watching not the end of the game, but the beginning of - a movie? "What the hell is this?" you shout, jumping out of your chair, spilling your drink, your face as red as a beet. Your wife comes in, hushing you - "not around the children." You don't care. "What the hell is this," you repeat, "this, movie? The game's not over! What happened to the game?  The game!" You have a few more choice things to say, things that can't be repeated on a family site. Then you pick up the phone and call the local station. It's no use; the game won't be back. Outraged, you call the sports department of the local newspaper; it takes several attempts, because the line is constantly busy (from others complaining, you assume), but finely you get through to someone, and if anything you become even angrier: it turns out that Lamonica isn't quite done yet, and with 42 seconds left he throws a 43-yard touchdown pass to put the Raiders back in front 36-32. On the ensuing kickoff, the Jets fumble; it's run back by the Raiders for another touchdown, making the score 43-32, which is how it ends. You don't know it right now, and you probably wouldn't care if you did, but you've just been a witness to one of the most famous football games ever played, one that even would up with its own name: the Heidi Game.

A number of sources, including this article and Jeff Miller's history of the AFL, Going Long, provide the rich details that prove Talleyrand's saying, "It is worse than a crime; it is a blunder."A succession of increaingly abusrd events guaranteed the game's place in infamy. Network executives tried to reach Dick Cline, NBC's broadcast supervisor, to tell him to keep the game on the air; they weren't able to get through to him because the lines were jammed by concerned viewers themselves worried that the end of the game wouldn't be shown. After the switch was made, the network president, Julian Goodman, himself called to demand that they go back to the game, but it was impossible to reach a technician who could throw the switch. Once NBC became aware of the furor erupting, they ran a crawl on the bottom of the screen telling people the final score; the crawl ran during one of the most dramatic moments in the movie, infuriating those who actually preferred Heidi to football.

Cline's dry recitation of the facts in subsequent interviews, including his response to Goodman's demand to resume the game ("Well, I'll try."), and the equally dry coverage of the events by David Brinkley on the Huntley-Brinkley Report the next night, make anniversary recaps of the game a hoot. One of the funniest occurred in 2003, when the NFL Network commemorated the game's 35th anniversary by preempting their regular schedule to broadcast the movie Heidi (the first non-sports related programming the network had ever shown), only to interrupt the movie at the climactic moment to replay the final minute of the game and the two Raiders touchdowns that most of the nation had missed back in 1968.

The Heidi Game becomes far more than a great football game; it makes the front page of the New York Times, is featured on evening news broadcasts, and proves to television executives the appeal of pro football. Never again will a football game take second fiddle to anything. But to get to that point, it has to start somewhere, and November 17, 1968 is that day.


Cleveland Amory's target in this week's review is The Doris Day Show, which ran on CBS for five seasons, this being the inaugural one. And I use the word "target" without reservation, given Amory's opening lines. Referring to the show's main title, with Dodo singing her best-known hit "Que Sera, Sera," (translated, "Whatever will be, will be," Amory remarks, "In this show, whatever will be, will be, all right, but it won't be good." This, he stresses, is not to be taken as an attack on Miss Day, although "she is photographed through so many filters that you feel she is not on TV but on your radio - but never mind. If she's too far away to think of as the girl next door, think of her as the girl next to the girl next door."

With that out of the way, he continues, "Unfortunately, it is now necessary to discuss - and now you can get mad - the rest of the show." Take the idea behind the show, for example, but "don't lose it, because the producers of this show sure did - if indeed they ever had one." Two of the regulars, played by Denver Pyle and Fran Ryan, number among the the two most irritating people on television. The kids aren't any better, but "don't blame them. Presumably they don't write the lines, although we wouldn't bet on it." Of supporting player James Hampton, he says, "Even when he's not on, he's a threat - there is always the chance that he will appear."

There are plots in the episodes, although Amory realizes most people won't believe that statement, but "they are buried under so many layers of cotton-candy writing, not to mention the thunderous laugh track, that they deserve better." And that's one of the nicer things he has to say. But there's hope - if you get up and butter some bread, you've got action. Ask Grandpa (Pyle) if he wants some, and if he says no, then you know something's wrong. And with that, you've got a plot.  Nowhere to go but up.


November is a sweeps month, so it's not surprising we see a lot of specials and the like on the schedule this week.

NBC gives us two on Saturday night: Tennessee Ernie Ford, with special guests Lucille Ball, Andy Griffith and the Golddiggers, followed by Jack Benny, with Phyllis Diller (spoofing the movie The Graduate; ugh) and Dick Clark, and cameos from Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Rowan and Martin. On the slightly more serious side, WMT, Channel 2 in Cedar Rapids, IA, presents one of the darkest movies of the '60s, On the Beach, with Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire in the story of a world slowly dying following a nuclear war.

Sunday gives us, in addition to the infamous Heidi, the broadcast premiere of The Sons of Katie Elder on ABC, starring John Wayne and Dean Martin. Judith Crist calls it "pleasant and lighthearted," and I'd say that's about right. The more esoteric choice would be Knife on the Water, director Roman Polanski's first feature film, on NET Playhouse.  Monday and Tuesday nights, NBC unleashes an epic blockbuster, El Cid, with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren. El Cid has a running time of three hours and four minutes, although I suspect some of that was edited out for television. By the way, remember when longish movies were split into two parts? Sometimes, as in this case, they'd air on consecutive evenings, but I can remember when you might have to wait several days, if not an entire week, for the conclusion.

Wednesday night is the season premiere of NBC's Hallmark Hall of Fame, which makes sense since the company's got greeting cards to sell, and Christmas is right around the corner. (There will be another episode next month, just in case anyone's missed the chance to buy their cards.) This episode is, alas, not one of the series' more distinguished efforts: "A Punt, a Pass and a Prayer," starring Hugh O'Brien. I actually remember seeing this on its original broadcast; it's always difficult when actors are asked to play athletes, and while the storyline has potential (an aging football star tries to come back from a serious injury), it falls short of what one might have expected from Hall of Fame.  Up next, also on NBC, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans host the Country Music Association Awards on a special edition of Kraft Music Hall.

Thursday is dominated by friendly, familiar names. The episodes aren't themselves particularly special, but the titles are comforting to see: Daniel Boone, Ironside and The Dean Martin Show on NBC, Hawaii Five-O and The Thursday Night Movie (Cheyenne Autumn, with Richard Widmark and Carroll Baker) on CBS, and The Flying Nun, Bewitched and That Girl among the offerings on ABC. Friday has a strange piece of casting (or two or three), with CBS presenting Ensign Pulver, the sequel to Henry Fonda's classic Mister Roberts. For this effort, Jack Lemmon is replaced in the role of Pulver by Robert Walker, better known for playing young, unhinged psychotics; Burl Ives essays the role of the captain originated by James Cagney, and Walter Matthau takes over from William Powell as the ship's doctor. That casting fails me on many levels.


Some interesting things on the Teletype this week. We often read news of possible new series, and they often never get out of development limbo, but this time we've lucked into a batch that actually made it to the 1969 fall schedule. Michael Parks' And Then Came Bronson winds up as Then Came Bronsonafter debuting as a pilot in March of that year. It joins Bracken's World, a movie-studio drama that NBC had been considering, and ABC's Bill Bixby vehicle The Courtship of Eddie's Father, for which that network had just ordered a pilot. The only clunker in the list is a proposed CBS sitcom starring Minnie Pearl.

No starlet of the week, but Richard Martin pens a short article about a young actor named David Barton, who is said to have quite a bit of potential, as well as being an incredibly gifted student. David is 12 years old and although the odds of moving from child actor to adult star may be remote, Martin reminds us that "if it eventually happens to David Barton, just remember - you read it here first." This, of course, piqued my curiosity, and I'd love to be able to report that young Barton did in fact go on to a long and successful career. I could report that, but if I did, I would be lying to you. According to IMDB, Barton appeared in several television series between 1969 and 1974, but with the exception of the role of "Delivery Man" in the 2000 movie Endsville, he hasn't been seen since he played "Boy in Chains" in To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. the 1995 cult movie. Oh well, these things don't always work out. David, if you're out there and you read this, let us know what you've been up to.


Finally, I mentioned that Christmas is just around the corner, and proof of that is a string of ads for Mattel's new toy line, which they have helpfully pointed out to parents by letting them know when their commercials can be seen on TV.

For example, there's this reminder that on Tuesday night, you can catch commercials for Strange Change, "the toy that turns time capsules into monsters over and over again!" on I Dream of Jeannie at 6:30, while Skediddle Kiddles and Disneyland See 'n' Say can be seen on The Avengers, also at 6:30. Incidentally, if you want to see how Strange Change works, or if you had it when you were little and just want to relive the memories, here's a clip of it in action.

I loved the Matt Mason toys when they came out. I was already a long-term space buff at that point, and I collected all the different astronauts, along with the moonwalker, the space station, the play set, and other things, I'm sure. This could well be the very commercial - I'm surprised they couldn't find a science fiction series to put this on.

Since Barbie was born, has there ever been a time when she wasn't a best seller? Parents who saw her on Get Smart! and made a mental note were the smart ones.

Finally, a more somber sign of the times - here's an ad you wouldn't have dreamed of seeing six months ago. How quickly things change.


November 11, 2015

Why I won't sell out

o what are we to make of this post? "10 Reasons We Sold Our Television," the writer says, and for some people, I'm sure this is the correct decision, though I do have to wonder how much television they were watching in the first place. For others, including me, it would be a lifestyle downgrade. It is absolutely true that no one size fits all when it comes to things like this; nevertheless, this is just another part of the badmouthing of television that has gone on since the medium was invented, and continues to this day.

Sometimes people have developed a true hatred for television and think everyone should feel that way (and these are the people who most seem to delight in telling anyone and everyone about it), while others simply think this is a better lifestyle for them. I suspect our writer here falls into this second category, as she spends no time castigating people who do watch the tube.

I've taken on this subject before, and probably will again, but since she's been so good as to give us ten reasons why she and her husband have sworn off TV, I'll chip in with commentary on her points, as to why we haven't.  Keeping in the spirit of things, I've made them as lighthearted as the situation demands, but I'm making several serious assertions at the same time.

Herewith her list, and my rebuttal:

1. We Actually Live in Our Living Room. So do we. That's where the television is. Last I checked, you can still snuggle, have a conversation, and watch TV with friends. We've made some real memories that way as well, such as the final match of the 2012 Premier League season.

2. Hollywood and Television Networks Are Overbearing Houseguests. Not to mention offensive, irritating and frequently obscene. But this isn't the fault of television as much as it is your choice of what to watch. The point of classic television, whether seen on DVD or via one of the streaming services, is that you can watch what you want, when you want. No law says you have to have it on all the time. If you're selective in your viewing choices and still find it overbearing, you need to watch less. Not necessarily none.

3. No Cable Bill. This is a good point. Were it not for the live sports coverage I can't get on OTA television (European soccer, F1 racing, etc.), we would have cut the cable long ago. As it is, I believe that a la carte streaming is the future of all sports programming, and sooner rather than later. While you will incur a monthly fee for the services, you won't be paying for programming you don't want.

4. Our Couches Look More Cozy Arranged around a Coffee Table. So does ours. That's why we arranged the room that way. It would be the same whether or not we had a television.

5. We Spend Thursday Nights with Our Own Friends, Not Meredith Grey's Friends. Have you never heard of Mystery Science Theater 3000? When we did have friends, we used to spend uproarious evenings watching movies and commenting on the proceedings a la Joel and the Bots. As long as you're not watching the kind of a show where you don't want to miss a word, this is as much fun as wine tastings and game nights.

6. 'If Music Be the Food of Love...' We tried filling the space on the wall where the flat screen was with a piano, too, until the grommets pulled out and took half the drywall with it.

7. We Relax More. And it's true that television sometimes (oftentimes?) can be nerve-wracking, which is when you turn it off or turn on some music. In general, we don't veg out with TV; we watch something we want to watch, which in religious-speak would be "active participation." But sometimes you've had the kind of a day when SpongeBob SquarePants is the perfect antidote. As with everything (including wine tasting), moderation is the key.

8. We Get More Work Done. My wife falls into this category more than I do, and perhaps I've got ADHD or something, but I frequently work on other things while I'm watching TV (though not, I admit, when there's a program I really want to see). So far I've managed two blogs and written a book, so I think I'm doing all right, but there's no question that sometimes you need peace and quiet.

9. I'm Actively Recovering. The author is absolutely right in that serial shows demand your attention week after week. That's one of the many reasons why I scoff at the serialization of modern television. It's one of the things you don't have to worry about with classic television. That being said, I'm not sure anyone ever complained that Roots or I, Claudius required a weekly commitment.

10. We Can Still Watch Epic Movies. And old television shows, and anything else you want, between YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Acorn and the rest. And by the way, you don't have to watch them on your laptop, if you keep your flat screen and use Google Chromecast to project it up there. Trust me, White Christmas and Ben-Hur look much better that way. And that piano you have filling the space where your flat screen once was? I have to tell you, it looks pretty stupid up there on the wall.

A final note, if I may. It is a momentous decision to give up television; I know, because for a couple of years we gave it up as part of our Lenten sacrifice. No TV except for Sunday. It wasn't terribly hard, because television has never been a be-all and end-all for us; we've always had other things to do. And yet if television is not always high art, it remains (for me) one of life's simpler pleasures, which means that after the discipline of foregoing it for 40 days, it's that much sweeter when it returns. I watch less TV now than I did then, and almost all of it (aside from news and sports) is done on DVD and streaming video. I believe that going without for those two Lents had something to do with it.

And when you think about it, isn't that what a Lenten sacrifice is for, offering up the sacrifice of something that is not objectively evil, not only to benefit others but for your own self-improvement as well? If you don't have television, you can't give it up. As Captain Kirk famously said, "Too much of anything, Lieutenant, even love, isn't necessarily a good thing." Balance and moderation, as it is with everything in life, is the key.

November 9, 2015

What's on TV? Sunday, November 12, 1978

It's a very sleepy Sunday in the Twin Cities, as reflected in today's listings. Even though I subscribed to TV Guide, I generally threw most of the issues out; this one I kept, for reasons that even now aren't apparent to me. I remember this particular day, though; or at least I remember The Word, which began its four-night run on Sunday. I'd also be willing to bet I watched Soccer Made in Germany; more on that below.