January 30, 2016

This week in TV Guide: January 27, 1962

On of the all-time favorite TV tropes is the wedding. It can be used to write someone out of a series, to introduce someone into a series, or to bolster fading ratings. It's almost always an event, and sometimes the "very special episode" will even be advertised with fake "invitations" asking you, the dear viewer, to take part in the blessed event.

This week, the latest show to fall back on the wedding is CBS' Father of the Bride, at 8:30pm CT on Friday night, based on the 1950 movie of the same name starring Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett and Elizabeth Taylor. Granted, any series with the word "bride" in the title would lead one to expect a wedding at some point or other, but when the first seventeen episodes are dedicated to setting up the premise, it's a little hard to know where the series hoped to go afterward. Sure, there are all kinds of traditional newlywed storylines to choose from, but even that will take you only so far. Eventually, the series would have had to go far afield from its original scenario. We'll never know for sure, though, because the series only lasted one season, its contract with the network being annulled with the last original episode on June 1, 1962.

At any rate, it's not the series that's the point this week, but its star, Myrna Fahey, who takes on the Elizabeth Taylor role. In this week's issue, we have a seven-page layout of Fahey modeling various fashions and accessories, including a smart pink suit with matching pillbox hat that looks eerily similar to that worn by Jacqueline Kennedy on November 22. Close enough, at least, to startle anyone seeing it after the fact.

Myrna Fahey was very busy on TV in the late '50s and '60s, and made a memorable appearance opposite Vincent Price in Roger Corman's 1960 movie House of Usher, but Father of the Bride was her only major television role. She died of cancer in 1973 at the young age of 40.


One of the more enjoyable aspects to trolling through the TV Guide archives is running across mention of a series that's destined to become a classic but for the moment is still in its embryonic state. Thus is the case in this week's issue.

We don't have Cleveland Amory for a critic yet; he won't come on the scene for another year. But in his stead we have an equally illustrious name: Gilbert Seldes, film critic for The New Republic; first Director of Programming for CBS, host of various cultural and educational programs on both radio and television, and head of the Annenberg School for Communications - that's as in Walter Annenberg, President of Triangle Publications, publisher of TV Guide.

This week Seldes takes a look at The Dick Van Dyke Show. The rookie series premiered in October 1961, which gives Seldes three months worth of episodes to check out. And - surprise - he doesn't particularly like it. Well, that might be an exaggeration; he does allow that "it's all in fun and some of it is fun." But his main criticism of the program is that creator Carl Reiner seems to have based this show on the idea that you "take an event that has happened to nearly everybody and that nearly everybody has told to everybody else. Then make it funnier than it ever was. And throw in a surprise ending." Instead, though, he concludes that it's more "like having someone tell you what happened to him and you know the story isn't any better than what happened to you." In other words, the plots are routine and predictable, the situations generally call for some degree of misunderstanding, and a couple of twists are thrown in to ensure a surprise ending that nevertheless means everyone lives happily ever after.

Now, I'll admit that the Van Dyke show has never been one of my favorites; I enjoy the scenes with Rob, Buddy and Sally at the office, but I've never understood the appeal of Mary Tyler Moore. (I'm a heretic? So sue me.) But a couple of things about Seldes' review rub me the wrong way. For one thing, he never mentions the names of any of the actors in the series. You might be able to figure out Dick Van Dyke is in the series because his name is in the title, but it might as well be called The Carl Reiner Show, because almost all of the review is devoted to discussing Reiner's part in the program, and the success (or failure) of his scripts. But the point is you don't see anything about Moore, nor Morey Amsterdam, nor Rose Marie, nor even Richard Deacon. Now, I might be able to understand Seldes' fascination with the writing, given that he's a writer himself, but still. Second, in the review's final paragraph Seldes mentions fleetingly that Rob Petrie's job is as a TV writer, but he completely ignores the dynamic of the characters making up the office staff. As I recall, one of the Van Dyke show's special touches is that it was one of the rare sitcoms to spotlight not only the star's home life, but his work life as well. To shrug off that office, so integral to the success of the sow, as merely his occupation is to do it a gross disservice.

Perhaps the show wasn't literary enough for Seldes. Maybe it didn't hit upon social issues, or have redeeming educational value. Perhaps The Dick Van Dyke Show was just 30 minutes of harmless entertainment that everyone could identify with, acted out by a superior cast. Is there anything wrong with that?


As you know, on Mondays we focus on a single day's worth of listings. Sometimes I add local color to the story, especially when I'm reporting on the Minneapolis-St. Paul channels. Rarely, though, do I get a chance to go in-depth on some of the programs on that day. I thought I'd rectify that this week; it won't replace Monday's story (you'll have to tune in to see what day I'm doing), but since Sunday afternoon programming has, arguably, changed more than any other day of the week, let's take a closer look at some of the shows people were watching on January 28.

The reason Sundays are so different, of course, is that the early '60s didn't see wall-to-wall sports or infomercials on during the day - there was time for something else. Much of that programming falls into the category of "public affairs" - hey, I didn't promise it would be exciting, just different. For example, at 4:00pm CT NBC has The Nation's Future, in which two public figures debate one of the leading issues of the day, following by questioning from a studio audience. This week: Democratic Senator Clifton Anderson (New Mexico) and Republican Senator John Tower (Texas) take up the question "Should medical care for the aged be linked to Social Security?" The show runs for an hour. It's up against Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour on CBS and Wide World of Sports on ABC. Later on, NBC has the venerable "press conference of the air" Meet the Press, which wasn't always shown on Sunday mornings. TV Guide doesn't provide any details, but a little Internet research tells us the guest is Representative Chet Holifield (D - California), Chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. What with all the talk about the Test Ban Treaty, it's not surprising that atomic energy gets a lot of play.

Meanwhile, WFAA, the ABC affiliate in DFW, has a program called Meet the Professor, which this week has Arthur Mizener, a professor of English at Cornell. Later on, WFAA features Young America Speaks, with students from Texas and Midwestern Universities debating the question "Should the Federal Government subsidize cultural and artistic programs?" while Wichita Falls' KSWO brings us ABC's Issues and Answers, an interview with Chester Bowles, special representative to the President on Asian, African and Latin American Affairs. And after that, NBC carries "the first of three half-hour programs presenting taped highlights from the Federal Communications Commission's hearing on network television programming." You might wonder if anyone was ever interested enough to watch it, but again, let's put it in context: the Quiz Show Scandals (see more below) had changed the way TV programming was sponsored, and questions about (for example) whether or not the networks relied on ratings to the exclusion of quality were, indeed, very controversial.

Besides public affairs programming, Sunday was known as a graveyard for cultural programs that might not find a large audience in prime-time. At 1:30pm, NBC Opera Theatre reruns 1960's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni, featuring two of the greatest opera singers of the 20th Century, soprano Leontyne Price and bass Cesare Siepi.  The show expands to two hours and thirty minutes for the opera. Meanwhile, at 2:00pm, WFAA's Great Music from Chicago is an hour of classical music from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Also at 2:00pm, Directions '62 has "Singer Among the Nations," a profile of the wonderful tenor Jan PeerceAt 4:30pm, it's one of the most loved quiz shows of the '60s, G-E College Bowl, which pits DePauw University against BYU. Oh, and on Amateur Hour, "Ted Mack's guests include a barbershop chorus, a guitarist and a dancer."

Local movies? At noon it's One Way to Love on WBAP and We Who Are Young on KSYD. At 4:30pm on KTVT, it's Flaxy Martin. Religious programming? Everything from Gospel Lighthouse Church on KTVT to Davey and Goliath on KXII. Oh, and there is some sports: CBS Sports Spectacular spotlights the always-enjoyable Harlem Globetrotters, once again taking on the Washington Generals. Former PGA champion Bob Rosburg competes against Japanese champion Pete Nakamura on Shell's Wonderful World of Golf on NBC. The aforementioned Wide World of Sports has highlights of yesterday's Oregon Invitational Indoor Track Meet. And in the most exciting show of the day, KTVT has Championship Bridge, hosted by the renowned Charles Goren.

See how much we've lost?


The sports schedule is a little light this week, with football finished for the year and baseball still three months off.

Not the Green Bay Packers
NBC's Saturday afternoon NBA Game of the Week might confuse you if you aren't up-to-date on the early history of the NBA. The game pits the Syracuse Nationals and Chicago Packers from the Chicago Amphitheatre. Now, the Packers aren't some early version of the Chicago Bulls - the league's first expansion team is actually the predecessor to today's Washington Wizards, having been known during the intervening years as the Chicago Zephyrs, Baltimore Bullets, Capital Bullets and Washington Bullets before settling on their present moniker.* The history of the Syracuse Nationals, by contrast, is much simpler - they moved to Philadelphia at the end of the 1962-63 season and became the 76ers.  (Replace the Warriors, who had moved the previous year to San Francisco. Think Philly would like to have that trade back?)

*The present-day Bulls actually began in 1966.

As for the Amphitheatre, which was demolished in 1999, it's probably best known as the home of that infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention. But that's another kind of sport, for another time.


In last week's TV Guide, which was from 1958, we saw that the big-name quiz shows still maintained an active presence on the airwaves. with entrants like Dotto, The $64,000 Question, The $64,000 Challenge and Twenty One among otheres. Later in 1958 the Quiz Show Scandals will become public, taking down most of these shows. In 1959 the sins of the industry were put on public display during Congressional hearings, and this past week the story finally comes to an end when a Manhattan district court judge gave suspended sentences to the guilty parties, the most famous of which being Charles Van Doren.

In another note, we read a brief mention of the death of Ernie Kovacs on January 13 in a traffic accident. It's just one sentence, commenting that the saddest faces on television were those seen at Kovacs' funeral. Now it's true I don't have the issues just after this, so there's no way of telling if a bigger tribute to Kovacs was offered later on, but for one of the greatest pioneers television has ever known, a man described in the sentence as the "beloved comedian," there would have been more about him. Nowadays there would be special editions of People all over the newsstands, but perhaps things were more sedate back then. It is true that Kovacs, in his lifetime, was always something of a cult figure with a niche audience, and it's also true that greatness is seldom recognized in one's lifetime. There's no question, though, that it was a sad day, for Kovacs' family, friends and admirers, and a sad day for television itself. (I wrote about Kovacs' death here.)

And finally, we have a selection of quotes from Jackie Gleason, who earlier this month appeared as a guest on David Susskind's infamous Open End program. Among the gems from The Great One:

On Money: "Well, I think the best way to waste money is to keep it."

On Drinking: "I have some rules about drinking. I never drink when I'm angry. I never drink when I have a problem. I never drink to ward off a cold or to get a good night's sleep. I drink with the honorable intention of getting bagged."

On Fallout Shelters: "I don't go around picking wild mushrooms. I go to a store and buy some food. That store isn't going to be there, Pal."

On TV: "I think it's doing a pretty good job now - with the exception of a program like this." TV  

January 29, 2016

Once "Around the Dial," Maestro

The title for this week's entry comes from our first story, a very interesting link from Terry Teachout on Leonard Bernstein's Young Peoples Concerts on CBS, and why they had such prominence when they were aired. In this Saturday's TV Guide review I take some time to look at a typical Sunday afternoon of programming back in the early '60s, also known as the timeslot where cultural shows went to die. It's quite interesting to note that half of Bernstein's concerts appeared not in this Sunday afternoon slot, but in prime time. How things change.

Speaking of Teachout, you'll recall that last year I wrote about Bob Hope, and how Teachout had identified him as a man largely forgotten today. I had my doubts, which have increased since then, and that's why this piece from the AV Club on the lasting influence of the Crosby-Hope "Road" movies interested me. Forgotten by individuals, perhaps, but still present in what we watch.

At Comfort TV, David delivers a timely message, one with which I agree wholeheartedly: Do not leave this world without tracking down The Fugitive. Message received?  By the way, for those of you who like to mix genres, my obituary of Andy Griffith included my surmise of what might have happened if Dr. Richard Kimble had strayed into Mayberry. It's not played for yukks, either.

I've always had something of an affinity for losers, having been one (big time) when I ran for political office in a previous life.* Naturally, therefore, I was attracted to Cult TV's article on the obscure British show The Losers, starring Reginald Perrin's Leonard Rossiter.

*So much so that I used to joke our campaign theme ought to have been Beck's "Loser."

Television Obscurities has a piece on the state of classic TV on television, which gives us a rundown on the increasing number of classic TV channels, and what you can expect on each of them. In our apartment building, thanks to ATT Uverse, all we can get is MeTV, which means an HD antenna may well be in our future.

Those Were the Days has some great images in their collection, and this one is a terrific TV Guide cover from 1956 with Janis Page. The colors on that are so vivid; they leap off the page so much more than the covers today. (Check out the green logo!) And of course Janis isn't bad either.

And speaking of images, Faded Signals has some great ones from the good old days when Dallas was on the air. That's my adopted hometown you're talking about now, and although some of the sites (like Texas Stadium) have since disappeared, there's still a lot of the skyline to see.

Many thanks to you who wished me well last week while I recovered from my brief bout of something or other, from which I've mostly recovered thanks to the miracle of modern pharmaceuticals. Let's celebrate with a new issue of TV Guide tomorrow!  What's that, you say I do that every Saturday anyway? Well, we'll still take a look at it! TV  

January 27, 2016

When the story is not yours, but belongs to the guest star

The pivotal moment comes almost halfway through "Heart of Marble, Body of Stone," a 1963 episode of the ABC psychiatric series Breaking PointDr. Edward Raymer (Eduard Franz) is treating Shelly Peters (Gena Rowlands), a woman who attempted suicide while drunk. They are discussing why she and her husband were not able to conceive, and why she wanted children in the first place. At one point Peters asks Dr. Raymer "Are you married?" to which he replies, "Does it matter?"

With that, we see one of the major differences between television of the '50s and '60s and the television of today, within the context of an episode that tells us much about the different between culture then and now, and how people see themselves.

I've discussed Breaking Point in the past; it was a spin-off from ABC's successful doctor drama Ben Casey, following the protocol for medical dramas of the day: a young doctor dedicated to change (Paul Richards) with an older doctor who serves as a partner/mentor (Franz). It didn't achieve the success of its parent series, running for only 30 episodes in the 1963-64 season. It's never received an official DVD release, although episodes can be found on the grey market and, as was the case here, on YouTube.

My impression of it, having watched a few episodes, is that it's a very good show. Franz is an actor of great dignity and gravitas, and Richards, whose face will be familiar to classic television aficionados, shows a depth and subtlety that we haven't often seen in other settings. It's different from many other medical dramas in that it deals with illnesses of the mind, rather than those of the body, and while many doctors touch on that element, it's usually with a guest star portraying the psychiatric aspect of medicine.* Watching it, I've wondered why there seem to be no shows with psychiatrists or psychologists as leading characters, much as there are no shows with classic private detectives anymore.

*A notable exception, of course, being NBC's The Eleventh Hour, itself a spin-off from Ben Casey's great rival Dr. Kildare, which ran during the same period of time as Breaking Point.

And then there was Rowlands' question and Franz's answer, and it started to come clear to me. Unlike today's serialized programs, Breaking Point was not about its lead actors, but about the guest stars and their stories. Today, were the star of a drama, medical show or police procedural to be asked if they were married, we'd almost certainly be treated to a pained look of remembrance, a flashback, an invitation to the tortured backstory which so many of today's leading characters seem to have. In other words, the story is about them, not about the guest star. If you've read this blog for any length of time you already know that this is one of my real grievances with modern television*, this tendency toward turning all drama into soap opera.

*The feeling is a little too strong to simply be called a peeve.

But that's not what Breaking Point is, because that's not what psychiatry is. The only thing important to the therapist is the life of his or her patient, and it is their story which drives the narrative; hence the response by Dr. Raymer. If it had been material to his patient's well-being, one thinks, he might have given her - and us - the answer, but as it is, she never finds out, and neither do we. It simply isn't germane to the story.

Most of us realize how vulnerable we would make ourselves by putting ourselves in the hands of someone who is essentially a stranger, paid to listen to us unburden ourselves of the most intimate, the most personal details of our lives. It is a leap of faith in more ways than one, and it must include absolute trust in the doctor. As viewers, we also look to our protagonists to display that confidence and competence in order to assure us that the story will end well, and in the case of a series in which the doctors deal with these very delicate issues, I think it would be a logical extension of this theory to suggest that we'd be uncomfortable watching a psychiatrist treat someone whose welfare we're being asked to invest in, if said psychiatrist was struggling with problems of his or her own - substance abuse, infidelity, a financial crisis, or whatnot. Yes, it's true that it might create a compelling character, this doctor who can heal others but not himself - but then the series becomes all about the doctor rather than the patient.

That's not what '60s shows of this kind were about, and for that reason I think that's why it would be very difficult to have a successful series of this type today. When we demand serialization, when we want our dramas to be all about seething passions, we cannot afford for our protagonists to cede the focus of the story to a guest star, to act as a vehicle for the story and then recede into the background. It just isn't done that way. One could argue that the last successful series to portray a mental therapist as lead character was The Bob Newhart Show, but there again the show wasn't about the patients - it was about Bob. And anyway, we all know that Suzanne Pleshette was really the sane one. . .

It's a theory anyway. It may or may not be right, but for what it's worth, it's mine. Perhaps you have some thoughts on it?


I mentioned that this whole discussion played itself out in a larger context, and I want to come back to that briefly in conclusion. One of the central points in the episode was the relationship between Shelly Peters and her father, and between her and her husband. She wanted to have children, or at least she says so, but why? It's the matter that Dr. Raymer is probing when the question about being married came up.

She finally confesses to the doctor that she wanted children in order to feel like a "real wife," a complete woman, one who sits on a park bench with a stroller in front of her, discussing things like child care with other mothers. It may sound terribly sexist to modern ears, but that's the reason I bring it up. In 1964 the idea of the "Career Woman" had not completely overrun the culture, and it wasn't always because women were being oppressed, locked into stereotypical roles, kept prisoners in their own homes. It was because they saw a sense of fulfillment, of completion, in being a mother. There was something natural about it, and I think this is what you hear in many of the complaints today from women who find it so hard to have it all, to combine a career with motherhood, who wish the economy would allow them to concentrate on nurturing their family.

I touched on this a couple of years ago in a piece I wrote about the '50s medical drama Medic. I won't rehash it here now; I'd much rather you go back and read the original article, which I think is still quite good. The point, though, is that it is another episode in which a woman demonstrates her understanding as to the importance of child-bearing in a marriage. In this case, she carries the gene that causes hemophilia. The only sure way to prevent it from being passed on is to not have children, and her fear is that not being able to have children will make her less desirable as a wife.

Again, it's a thought that sounds very foreign to us today, but it was something very real back then, because of the societal understanding about the definition and purpose of marriage (which, of course, drives some of our most bitter political conflicts today). And it's another example of how television, the window to the world, gives us such a good portrait of our time. It doesn't need to preach, to make a point of it, to send a message: it simply gives us a story borne of the era, and allows us today to look back on it, and learn.

January 25, 2016

What's on TV? Monday, January 27, 1958

This week we're in upstate New York, with a collection of stations located in Syracuse, Albany and Rochester, among many other locations (including one in Canada!). I don't know much about this area; I think this is the first time I've looked at an issue from this area. That doesn't make it any less interesting, though, and since I don't know any more than you, let's learn together.

January 23, 2016

This week in TV Guide: January 25, 1958

Well, look who's back: Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. It's been four years since their legendary Your Show of Shows went off the air, and in the meantime both have tried solo efforts without being able to duplicate its success. Now they're together again, for Sid Caesar Invites You, a new Sunday night effort. They say this will be a bit different from Your Show of Shows, which was a 90 minute variety program. This will be shorter, at only 30 minutes, and will stick to comedy.

There will also be some new bits, and anyone expecting to see the same skits and characters as in the old shows will be mistaken. "We looked at some of the old Caesar-Coca kinnies [kinescopes] a couple of weeks ago," says producer Hal Janis, "and it was like looking at museum pieces. Sid and Imogene both have grown as comedians in the past seven years."

It would be nice to say that the new show was a smash, making time stand still and all that, but it would also be untrue. Someone once said it's difficult to catch lightning in a bottle twice, and whatever magic it was that made Caesar and Coca a smash in the early '50s no longer exists in 1958. Sid Caesar Invites You lasted but four months, and though both stayed in show business for many, many years, neither ever reached the heights that they once had, back when television was young.


No single dominant moment this week, so let's spend our time doing something we don't do often enough: just see what's on TV.

On Saturday it's one of those this-happens-to-me-all-the-time instances, Perry Mason's "The Case of the Haunted Husband." "After Mason arranges bail for a woman charged with auto theft, a man's body is found in her hotel room." The woman, quite sensibly, is now charged with murder, despite the fact, as Mason's defense will show, that the police barely investigated the case at all before lighting on the most obvious suspect. There will be no bets taken on the outcome of the case.

So when did
Miss Manners
get married?
Here's an interesting sign of the times on Sunday's Ed Sullivan show - among Ed's guests (the next-to-last mentioned, in fact) we find "Buddy Holly and the Crickets, a rock-'n'-roll group." Notice that they aren't "the rockin' Buddy Holly and the Crickets," or "Buddy Holly and the Crickets, rock-'n'-rollers." No, they're just "a rock-'n'-roll group." "That'll Be the Day" had hit #1 on the charts just four months previously, with "Peggy Sue" following up at #3, and this is already the second appearance for the group on Sullivan, their first having come only the month before. In all likelihood, Buddy Holly was far better known than the listing in TV Guide would suggest; even so, this issue captures him on the very cusp of superstardom. Thirteen months later, he would be dead.

Something else on Sunday night, G.E. Theater. In this episode, Alan Ladd makes a rare television appearance as a frontier sheriff running for reelection, who discovers he's losing his hearing. Because he's afraid the town's criminals would take advantage of his disability if they knew, he decides to keep it a secret. It's an interesting question, whether or not the voters deserve to know about the health of their sheriff, who's also a candidate. It's understandable why he might not want to reveal his growing deafness, but things like that have a way of becoming a slippery slope, and once you use one excuse, it's easier to use another, and another. Should he resign and let his deputies take over? Not having seen the episode, I'm not sure how I feel about the ethics involved - what about you?

For Monday we'll take a look at a show from north of the border, on CKWS, which offers the type of program we're only too familiar with in this country: a political talk. This one is from John Wintermeyer, a member of the Ontario Liberal Party. I'd love to be able to report that Wintermeyer went on to become Prime Minister or something like that, but he never rose higher in the political world than leader of the party in Ontario, a position he held until 1963. The talk runs for 30 minutes and is followed by a rerun of The Millionaire, which Wintermeyer might have been envious of since he was also Shadow Finance Minister.

Tuesday's Schlitz Playhouse of Stars (10:30pm, CBS) gives us an example of the interesting relationship between theatrical movies and television. It's "The Lonely Wizard," starring Rod Steiger. Steiger is far from an unknown quantity; in 1954 he'd copped a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for On the Waterfront, and he's acted in many big screen movies before and since. In the early '60s Steiger's talent really comes to the forefront: a nomination for Best Actor for The Pawnbroker in 1964, an evil politician in Doctor Zhivago in 1965, an Oscar for Best Actor for In the Heat of the Night in 1967. At this point in time television was thought to be a medium for young actors on their way up (Charlton Heston, Clint Eastwood), or veterans on their way down. Steiger doesn't really fall into either category; although he's certainly a star on the big screen, his best days in movies are still ahead of him and he's not too big a name to appear on the small screen. Above all, Steiger is a working actor, one who always wants to be active, and for him a role is a role is a role, whether in movie theaters, Broadway stages, or television studios.

On Wednesday it's Date With the Angels, a sitcom that had been pretty much forgotten until star Betty White staged her career comeback a few years ago. With White suddenly a hot commodity, it didn't take long before this series, as well as White's Life With Elizabeth, found their way onto DVD and into stores. It's actually the last show of the series; the show wasn't a great experience for White, who called the show "run-of-the-mill" and said that it "was the only time I have ever wanted to get out of a show.Next week White will resuscitate her old variety series, which will fill out the rest of the season.

Thursday, it's Ronald Reagan's former wife and the future star of Falcon Crest, Jane Wyman, host and occasional star of NBC's Jane Wyman Presents the Fireside Theater (10:30pm). She's not in this week's episode, a story of mystery and intrigue. In "A Guilty Woman," Jan Sterling is paroled from prison after having served seven years for the murder of her fiancee. She's released to the custody of her good friend Virginia Grey, but as time progresses Jan "begins to realize something new" about Virginia. Do you suppose there may be some doubt as to who committed the murder?

Speaking of murder, on Friday, ABC's The Court of Last Resort (8:00pm) presents us with one of those real-life moments. The cases in the series are based on the real-life Court of Last Resort, founded by Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner to investigate crimes for which the wrong person might have been convicted. The most famous case which the Court investigated was that of Dr. Sam Sheppard, the Cleveland osteopath who'd been convicted in 1954 of murdering his wife, but the Court of Last Resort investigated many such cases, the findings of which were often written up in Argosy magazine, and Gardner remained committed to the Court until his death in 1970.

This week's episode is "The Phillip Huston Case," in which the Court takes on the case of a man convicted of a shotgun killing. Eager to keep the Court from digging too deeply, the authorities offer Philip Huston parole in order to fend off the investigation. A parole, like a pardon, implies a certain degree of guilt; a similar situation actually occurred in the Sheppard case, when Sheppard's new attorney, F. Lee Bailey, began to find out things that made state officials too uncomfortable and they likewise began to float the idea of such an offer. Under Bailey's prodding, Sheppard made it clear he was going for broke - guilty or innocent. He was eventually acquitted in a retrial in 1966.


Care for some sports? On Saturday afternoon at 2:00pm, dueling telecasts of what would have been seen as minor sports back in the day: CBS presents an "ice hockey" matchup between the Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins from Boston Garden, while NBC counters with pro basketball, pitting the Minneapolis Lakers and New York Knickerbockers from Madison Square Garden. At 9:00pm CKWS, the Canadian station, has CBC's Hockey Night in Canada with the Chicago Black Hawks and Montreal Canadians from the Montreal Forum.

Not an ad for
At 4:00pm, it's ABC's All-Star Golf, with a match between two top players of the day, Mike Souchak and Stan Leonard. There are several golf series similar to this in the late '50s through the mid '60s, shows such as Shell's Wonderful World of Golf, where the world's best played on courses around the world, and Big Three Golf, which featured Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. It's before tournament golf becomes the dominant form of televised golf, and the appeal lies in the format, which features two name golfers in a head-to-head match, with all the "dead spots", i.e. the time it takes for the players to walk from one shot to the next, cut out, allowing the match to be edited into an attractive, one hour package.

At 4:30pm, NBC covers what's still considered a major sport - horse racing - with the Royal Palm Handicap from famed Hialeah Park in Florida. It's very rare today to see significant coverage of any horse racing aside from the Triple Crown races and the Breeders Cup at the end of the season, but in the late '50s a race such as this, which must have been considered a big race, is a pretty common sight on Saturday afternoon television.

There's still prime-time boxing to look forward to as well. ABC's turn comes on Wednesday, when Wayne Bethea fights Young Jack Johnson in a heavyweight bout, while on Friday NBC has light heavyweights Yvon Durelle and Tony Anthony. I wish I could tell you these fighters went on to become big names in the business, but - no.


What about culture? It's here this week as well, starting on Sunday with what sounds like an intriguing episode of CBS' morning show Camera Three. It's a play entitled "Mark Twain's Nightmares," and notes that for most of his life, Twain suffered from nightmares. (I did not know that.)  In this scenario, one of Twain's dreams yields a meeting with some of his own characters, critics and biographers. Interesting idea.

Sunday afternoon, it's an episode of NBC's Omnibus, surely one of the most fascinating, and missed, shows in television history. Hosted by Alistair Cooke, it combined music, drama, comedy, science - really, anything you could think of - in a program that was not only educational but entertaining as well. Think of it as what PBS might have been. Anyway, this week it's a special 90 minute presentation of Offenbach's comic opera La Perichole, based on the production being done by the Metropolitan Opera, staged by and co-starring Cyril Ritchard, who would also be familiar to TV viewers of the time as Captain Hook in Mary Martin's Peter Pan. And on Monday night, it's ABC's venerable Voice of Firestone, with two of opera's best-known stars, soprano Lisa Della Casa and tenor Cesare Valletti.

In fact, the number of music programs on TV this week is almost, though not quite, staggering. Lawrence Welk has two programs, his eponymously-named one on Saturday and the Top Tunes version on Monday. Arthur Godfrey has a couple as well; besides his regular variety show, there's Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. We've also got regular series by Perry Como (NBC), Red Foley's Country Music Jubilee (ABC), Polly Bergen and Your Hit Parade alum Gisele MacKenzie as well as the aforementioned Your Hit Parade (all NBC), Dinah Shore (NBC), Patti Page (The Big Record, CBS), Pat Boone (ABC), Tennessee Ernie Ford (NBC), Rosemary Clooney (NBC), Frank Sinatra (ABC), Patrice Munsel (ABC) and Country Hoedown (CBC), and I'm sure I'm missing some. That's in addition to variety shows hosted by Steve Allen, Ed Sullivan and Red Skelton. It's almost impossible today to think of what kind of talent you'd need to fill all those shows, let alone who they'd be.


Finally, a brief mention of what might otherwise have appeared as little more than a footnote. It's the 7:00pm sports on WTRI, Channel 35, an ABC affiliate in Menands, a suburb of Albany. As you know if you read the Monday TV listing, I generally include the name of the local newscaster, sportscaster, etc. when it's included. And at 7:00pm on WTRI, we begin a 15 minute sports update hosted by Howard Cosell. Now, it's not unusual for a local anchor to step up to the big time, and Cosell had a relationship with ABC since the mid-50s. In fact, I'm not suggesting Cosell was broadcasting from WTRI; if anything, the show was probably emanating from WABC in New York. Still, could anyone in 1958 have looked in on this show and imagined Howard Cosell would have become the sensation he did?  I'm not making it up - I'm just telling it like it is. TV  

January 22, 2016

Around the dial

We start off this week with a couple of pieces about movies, but the stars involved will be familiar to any classic TV fan.

Barbara Stanwyck's reputation as a tough dame was made in film, and for the most part it's the role she continued to play in television, whether in her own anthology show or in The Big Valley, where she was often tougher than any of her sons. Outspoken and Freckled offers us a look at a Stanwyck movie from early in her career, Baby Face. I hadn't heard of this before, which made it an enthralling read.

And of course I've written often about one of my favorite Christmas movies, Miracle on 34th Street, which means any article about Natalie Wood is right up our alley. Rick at Classic Film and TV Cafe provides us with all that, as he looks at Wood's five best performances, including her famed duo with Kris Kringle.

For those readers in New Jersey, Carol Ford from Vote for Bob Crane will be at a signing for her book Bob Crane: The Definitive Biography. I'm hoping to have an interview with Carol here at the site shortly, but in the meantime check out some of her pieces on this fascinating man.

As those of you who read my obituary of Jim Simpson know, I'm a sucker for classic sports broadcasts, particularly those that represent rebroadcasts of the original television coverage. And though it wasn't the original broadcast, the NFL Network's "recreation" of the first Super Bowl promised to be a treat. Classic TV Sports tells us why it wasn't, and what the network plans to do about it.

Television Obscurities has a nifty review of a a 1956 book edited by Gore Vidal entitled Best Television Plays, which he received as a Christmas present. He's a better man than I, since I just got done giving you a review of a book I first read at least ten years ago. At any rate, it sounds like a fun book, with the scripts of eight classic TV plays, from Rod Serling's "The Strike" to Paddy Chayefsky's "The Mother." A reminder of when TV was literate.

Sorry for the brevity of this week's offering, but I'm battling a bit of an illness - enough so that I'm on some fine medication, and I can feel the battle for control of my bloodstream going on inside me at this very moment! I'll conserve my strength for tomorrow, and a TV Guide from the late '50s. TV  

January 20, 2016

When television's stars were gods, with feet of clay

by W. D. Wetherell
Anchor, 384 pp, $14.00 

Morning wasn't morning until McGowan came to town."

This is the first line of W. D. Wetherell's multilayered 2002 novel Morning - or rather, it's the first line of a prospective biography about Alec McGowan, the hots of television's first morning show (appropriately titled Morning) and the young medium's first superstar, being written by Wetherell's protagonist, Alec Brown, the middle-aged owner of a small-town radio station. Brown's fascination with McGowan stems from the host's live, on-air murder in 1954, a murder for which McGowan's close friend and TV sidekick Chet Standish was convicted. Now, 46 years after the murder, Standish, elderly and dying, is being released from prison into the care of his son - who happens to be Alec Brown.

If that were all there was to Morning it would be a fascinating setup, albeit something perhaps more appropriate for a Hallmark movie. But there's much more to the story than that, thanks to Wetherell's eye for detail and characterization and obvious affection for the early days of television. For that opening line I quoted above not only sets the stage for the story to come, it speaks volumes about the promise and potential seen in those early days, when anything and everything seemed possible, and innovations occurred on a daily basis because everything was new.

The setup for Morning is obviously NBC's Today, with McGowan taking the role of Dave Garroway, one of television's true pioneers. In fact, you can probably go through the cast of characters and hook them up with their real-life counterparts (Lee Palmer, McGowan's lover and fellow murder victim, assumes the role of Today Girl that previously was held by Lee Meriwether and Betsy Palmer; Standish is Jack Lescoulie, the show's longtime sidekick, and Freddo the chimp is Today's famed J. Fred Muggs. Don't think these to be mere character ripoffs though, because to Wetherell the real names are merely stand-ins, place holders that allow us to find our bearings while he creates the distinctive personalities that inhabit each iconic role.

On the surface, for example, McGowan is everything we expect Garroway to be, right down to the black horn-rimmed glasses* and closing gesture, an upraised hand with his signature sign-off. ("Peace," in Garroway's own words, "Truth" in McGowan's version.) Through the force of his personality and the makeup of his show, he successfully changes the morning habits of businessmen and housewives across the nation. But while the real Garroway was notoriously shy and publicity-averse, Alec McGowan is a drug addict and compulsive womanizer, a man who hungers for the public eye and yet remains oddly mysterious, seeking in the future a refuge from a past that drives him to succeed even as it drives him further and further away from himself. You might think of him as a television version of Don Draper.

*I don't know how close this is to the truth, but there's a wonderful scene in which McGowan explains the use of the glasses, which he didn't need and never wore when he went out. "They cut through the fuzziness" of the TV signal, he explains, allowing him to create a trademark that would penetrate the viewer's consciousness even when the black-and-white image was blurry and unclear. Of such small gestures are legends made.

As the story progresses, we learn that Alec Brown harbors a grudge for his father, a man so completely separated from his family that his son does not even carry the same name. Chet Standish must, we would think, be one of the most notorious criminals in America, the first man to commit a murder on live television. And yet his motives remain mysterious, the act itself lost in the mists of a pre-video tape era that has given the act an almost mythic quality. It is this that motivates the quest Brown finds himself on - not to prove his father innocent, not to clear his name (for Brown harbors an intense hatred for Standish) but to try and understand what actually happened that day, and why.

What elevates Morning above the standard father-son conflict is Wetherell's eye for detail, his lovingly crafted rendition of the early, exciting days of television when ideas were produced at the rate of a mile a minute, a time full of hope, when the future literally was now, and that excitement fairly jumps off the page, so much so that you may find yourself wanting to dip into television history to learn more about these fascinating people and their times.* Think My Favorite Year, in a more refined version, and you'll get the picture. Morning has its dark clouds as well, though, and not just from the story Wetherell has constructed. As the '50s progress, the naivetĂ© of television's early days begins to fade away, as advertisers and network executives begin to recognize the commercial potential of the new medium, and whatever purity television once had starts to take a backseat to the bottom line: profit.

*Since it's a novel though, you'll have to do with the actual history of television's early days, which is pretty exciting on its own. 

Ultimately, Morning gives us a story of people searching: Brown, searching for the truth about his father and the murders, searching for the truth about his namesake Alec McGowan, searching for the meaning to his life, and what the future holds in store for his family, his career, his radio station. It's not just Brown's story, though, but television's, and the medium's own search for its future, one which it still seems unable to quite grasp. For what is television today, how does television see itself? Its networks are bare shadows of their past selves, fractured into dozens of demographic niche groups, with viewers cutting the cord in increasing numbers, and more and more programming coming from decidedly nontraditional sources. If the adults at the dawn of the fifties were the last generation to grow up without television, the children of today may be the first generation to grow up having it and not watching it. Had this book been written today rather than a decade earlier, it's interesting to speculate if Wetherell would have made anything of this parallel.

Morning is not without its faults, the coincidences and uncertain motivations that mark so many stories, with some things forced just a little too much. But ultimately one comes away from reading it with the idea that the final product is the story that Wetherell wanted to tell, and if the flaws are merely a byproduct of what had to happen in order to achieve that end, then it's a price that ought to be accepted.

If you're looking for a story about family conflict, about murder and motive, then Morning is just fine, as good a book as any. If, however, you're looking in addition to relive those early days of TV as seen through the eyes of those who made it possible, a story of lives shattered by a tragedy that seems preordained, and yet promising the chance of a future as hopeful as the dreams of the early medium itself, then it's worth your time to hunt this book out, either in paperback or through a used bookstore. For the memories of the "Golden Age" alone, you won't be sorry.

January 18, 2016

What's on TV? Thursday, January 21, 1965

Boston is our location this week, not for the first time, but the listings might look a little different from the last time we visited. Four new stations are included in this issue, in Worcester, Providence, Hartford and Boston. We still have Manchester, NH (although I didn't include their programming), but we're now missing Portland, Maine. It's the Eastern New England edition, and I guess Maine just isn't far enough East - or at least too far Down East.

January 16, 2016

This week in TV Guide: January 16, 1965

Well, I wanna tell ya, in 1965 there was no doubt that Bob Hope was, as the cover says, an American Institution - and had been for quite some time. It is not lightly that we dress someone in a red, white and blue tie and pose him as the Statue of Liberty, after all. And yet, to some - as Terry Teachout pointed out in this essay from last year - Hope is, today, a forgotten man.*

*I wrote about that Teachout piece when it first came out, though I'm not of a mind to go back and look up what I wrote back then. What Teachout wrote was thoughtful and provocative, as he usually is, but as I've thought more about it, I've come more and more to disagree with it, as you'll soon see.

What makes a man an institution? As Dwight Whitney writes, it's more than whether or not you're funny. Hope "has long ceased to be a mere jokesmith, quipster, and all-around funny fellow." He is a man who has traveled to virtually every country in the world, often at Christmastime. He is a man called upon by the State Department to use his prestige in the cause of international diplomacy, as in the case where he facilitated a Japanese Little League team getting their visas in time to come to the Little League World Series. He is a man who can glibly throw spears at politicians from all parties and still have them love him. He receives 50 requests a week to appear at benefits for hospitals, churches, homes for juvenile delinquents. "He considers them all, then agonizes because he can do only a few." He does all this - and more.

I think the Hope-Crosby Road movies are very funny. Watching Hope's TV specials (or listening to his radio programs) I can take him or leave him; some of the jokes work, others don't. Not any more, at any rate, although the audiences of the times seem to have appreciated them. He stayed around too long, as his last shows will attest; but then, how many performers really know when it's time to say good bye?

Times change, as to tastes. One commentator on Teachout's article remarked that he didn't find Hope funny, but then he didn't think Dick Van Dyke or Bob Newhart were funny either. His taste ran more toward Seinfeld, to which another wrote that Seinfeld was old news, that he wasn't funny either. You can accept Teachout's thesis that Hope's main flaw was that he wasn't a "Jewish comedian," but my hunch is it as much more to do with our short-attention-span generations, where except for slights (real or imagined), nothing that happened more than 36 hours ago is worth mentioning. Hope forgotten? Yes, as are most of the Founding Fathers and U.S. presidents (well, perhaps Grant's Tomb was a little hasty), Johnny Carson, Peter De Vries, Sinclair Lewis, Jackie Gleason and - for the latest generation - even Jerry Seinfeld. Playwrights, poets, novelists, movie stars, television heroes, political leaders, religious figures - their time always seems to come and go, when a society doesn't care to remember its history.

Bob Hope may not be the funniest man in the world to modern ears, but in context he was at the top. He was a great humanitarian, an institution at the Academy Awards, a Godsend to the troops. You just don't forget someone with the body of work he has. Even if you don't respect his humor, you respect his accomplishments, and to the extent that he is forgotten, it says little about him - and a great deal about us.


No "Sullivan vs. The Palace this week; usually, it's because ABC's found some reason or other to bump The Hollywood Palace, but this time it's CBS', fault - Ed makes way for the network's annual showing of The Wizard of Oz, hosted by Danny Kaye. It's easy to forget that in the days before DVDs and VCRs and all-movie cable channels, the showing of a movie like The Wizard of Oz could be quite an event. In its early broadcast years, it was shown as part of pre-Christmas festivities , but starting in 1964 it was moved to January, which is where it is this year. I was surprised to learn, in a somewhat jumbled and repetitive article from the always-reliable Wikipedia, that the movie has never been shown on local television - it's always been broadcast either on an over-the-air network or on cable. I guess it's true that you learn something new every day if you're not careful.

Anyway, I digress, It's too bad Ed didn't show up for the battle this week, because it's the first anniversary of The Hollywood Palace, and to celebrate they've brought back the host of that first show, Bing Crosby. Bing welcomes his co-stars from his ABC sitcom, Beverly Garland and Frank McHugh, the King Sisters, ballet dancers Jacques d'Amboise and Catherine Mazzo, comedian Corbett Monica, the Three Rebertes acrobats, and Leonardo, who does some always-welcome plate spinning. Bing's joined for a skit by previous Palace hosts, including George Burns, Liberace, Cyd Charisse and Tony Martin, Gene Barry, Ed Wynn, Debbie Reynolds, Groucho Marx, Buddy Ebsen, Phil Harris and Bette Davis. I think I'd have to give the week to Palace even if Ed was on.


This week, Cleveland Amory takes a trip into the world of spies with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Now, this is another program we enjoy watching, so we have to admit having our feelings hurt a bit when Amory begins his review by noting that earlier in the month, NBC had preempted the show for a White Paper report on "The Decision to Drop the Bomb," and then remarks, "They should have kept U.N.C.L.E. on while they dropped the bomb."

To be fair, though, those first few U.N.C.L.E. episodes really weren't that good, at least compared to when the show found its stride in the last part of the first season and throughout season two. For one thing, the episodes Amory references come from before the producers figured out that David McCallum was just as important to the success of the show as Robert Vaughn.* One contemporary critic commented that it was McCallum's presence that allowed Vaughn to become a more well-rounded character, rather that the generic superspy he was originally conceived as. That, and the fact that McCallum had tremendous appeal to the young female fans of the show.

*In the past I've commented that Robert Vaughn is the only man I know who can make even the hero look and sound smarmy.

In that sense, we can't really disagree with Amory's observation that "for all the fast pace and gimmickry, there just isn't enough charm." Even when the concept is a good one, as was the case with "The Double Affair," the execution is lacking. "But there was also scene after scene which seemed to be building up to something that never happened." Even when it does, he complains, you don't really care about the characters; he's sure one bad guy keeled over not from violent mayhem, but because " he was, we are certain, bored to death."

He does credit McCallum as being better than Vaughn, although not by much, but again - it would be interesting to see if Cleve revisits the series in a year or so. Not during the dreadful season three, when the show becomes a grotesque parody of Batman, but when the balance between thriller and spoof seems to be just right. By then, we feel, Vaughn and McCallum are doing just fine as Napoleon and Illya - and we think he might agree with that.


I'm often impressed by the narrow lead time some issues of TV Guide have - take G-E College Bowl, for example, in which the winning college returns the following week to defend its championship. The show airs live on Sunday afternoons, and yet week after week the name of the returning champion can be found in the following week's listing. Assuming the magazine comes out on Thursday or Friday, that gives it only a couple of days to get everything ready. Sometimes, however, especially in cases of the unexpected, we'll run into a listing for a program that never was. Such is the case this week.

On Saturday at 2:00pm Eastern Time, ABC is scheduled to broadcast the AFL All-Star Game, live from the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. In fact, while the game was played that Saturday, it was not in New Orleans. It's one of the more important events of the civil rights movement, and yet I don't know how much it's remembered today. Thanks to sports documentaries, the details have been pretty well shared by now, but if you're not a sports fan I don't know if you've ever heard the story.

New Orleans in the 1960s remained a racial tinderbox - one of the most racist cities in the South, according to some. In fact, just a couple of weeks prior, the Sugar Bowl had hosted its first game that included a fully integrated team (Syracuse University), a game which had come off without incident. The American Football League had scheduled the All-Star game for the city as a try-out for a possible expansion team; at the time, there were no professional franchises located there. However, as this excellent article points out, New Orleans was headed for a major black eye. Despite assurances by the league and city officials, black players were almost immediately subject to discrimination:

[M]any of the black players were left stranded at the airport for hours when they arrived in town. Once in the city African American players were refused cab service and in some cases those who were given rides were dropped off miles from their destinations.

Other players were refused admittance to nightspots and restaurants, while nearly all were subjected to tongue-lashings and to a hostile atmosphere on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter while sightseeing.  The situation became so uncomfortable for the black players who clearly felt unwelcome that most simply returned to their hotels.

Eventually, the twenty-one black players selected to play in the game - supported by many of their white teammates - voted to boycott the game. League officials, with little time to do anything else, were forced to act quickly. On Monday, January 11 - only five days before the game - AFL Commissioner Joe Foss announced the game was being moved to Houston. It was too late for TV Guide to do anything about it, but the Close-Up remains a reminder of the climate of the times, and of how long it took some things to change.


Wednesday is January 20, and we all know what that means every four years - the inauguration of the President and Vice President of the United States. This year, President Lyndon Johnson will take the oath of office for his first full term, in circumstances quite different from those which existed when he became President on November 22, 1963.

For the first time since that date, the nation will have a Vice President, as Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey is sworn in, followed by LBJ himself. After a landslide victory over Republican candidate Barry Goldwater, it is a chance for Johnson to rejoice, to feel the sense of triumph denied him due to his sudden accession to the presidency. As one newsman commented - probably Edwin Newman; it has his puckish sense of humor - Johnson "looked as if he could dance all night, and probably did." And yet, I wonder if the nation had really recovered from JFK's assassination. It's only about 14 months since then, and just as news commentators compared Kennedy's triumphant inaugural trip down Pennsylvania Avenue to his solemn funeral cortege along the same route, it was bound to occur to more than one observer that LBJ's victorious parade could well have been - should have been, his enemies would say - Kennedy's.*

*A brief political interjection: though I'm no fan of Johnson's politics, I've always felt compassion for the man considering how he was treated by so many of the Kennedy loyalists. 

TV coverage of the inauguration is complete, beginning at 7:00am on NBC with Today, and continuing on CBS at 10:00 and ABC at 10:30, leading up to the oath-taking at noon, with musical performances by Leontyne Price and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, followed by the Inaugural Parade  That night, attention shifts to the four Inaugual Balls, so big that even The Tonight Show is preempted in order for NBC to cover them.

Four years later, the scene will repeat itself, with a stunningly different cast of characters. Richard Nixon, thought to be cast into political oblivion, is now President; LBJ, harried and hated, leaves office after choosing not to run for reelection; Robert F. Kennedy, the heir-apparent to Camelot, is dead; Hubert Humphrey, four years a Vice President, barely misses catching Nixon at the end. Not for the first time, nor for the last, does one muse on how nobody possibly could have predicted it.


Let's see, it's been awhile since we've had a starlet of the week, hasn't it? Well, let's try Debbie Watson on for size.

Debbie, still 15 at the time this issue comes out (she turns 16 on January 17) is, in the words of "people who should know," one of the "it" girls - that is, whatever "it" is that makes someone a star, she has it. She's the lead in the sitcom Karen, one of the three programs that makes up the umbrella series 90 Bristol Court on NBC*, and even though that series only lasts a year, she'll rebound to star in the 1965-66 version of Tammy, based on the big-screen movies. In 1966 she'll take the place of Pat Priest in Munster, Go Home. And at this point, she is getting a kick out of the whole thing.

She's naive, though, and hasn't seemed quite to understand what it means to star in a TV series. She's been late to a photo shoot, and she's skeptical that being an actress will change much about her life. These things aren't offered as criticisms, but pointed out to show just how green she is. And maybe that's why her career is so short. Her last entry in IMDb is an appearance on Love, American Style in 1971, and after that she retired to what has been by all accounts a relatively satisfied life. And there's nothing wrong with that.


A couple of weeks ago ABC telecast the UN drama Carol for Another Christmas, which strongly supports international interventionism, and at the time I mentioned there'd be more discussion to come. That discussion comes in the form of the Letters to the Editor section, which - unlike the reviewers - are strongly positive. Ruth Halfman of St. Louis writes to say she was "greatly moved," while C. Herbert Wolf Sr., who lives in Roswell, New Mexico, calls it the finest sermon he's ever heard, and adds that "it put the Christ in Christmas." George Oliver of Metairie, Louisiana thanks Xerox, writer Rod Serling, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz and ABC itself for "the best Christmas present of the year," and appreciates the lack of commercials.

Not everyone is so sanguine, though; George W. Coughenour of San Bernardino, California congratulates everyone involved for "a wonderful piece of Communist propaganda," and Frances K. Samuels of New Caanan, Connecticut complains that "Rod Serling laid the blame for all the world's wars and ills on the American doorstop."

Perhaps the most ironic letter comes from Linda Love of Pensacola, Florida. In its entirety: "My husband spent the last few months in Vietnam. After seeing this program I won't have to ask why. Thank God we Americans care enough for our fellow man to fight to free him from oppression." Why do I call it ironic? Well, the conventional wisdom, for what it's worth - certainly for Mr. Coughenour, as well as the Scrooge-like character played by Sterling Hayden in the show - is that those who like the show are nothing more than bleeding-heart activist liberals. And yet within three years, many of those same liberals will be marching through the street, chanting "What are we fighting for?" and Muhammad Ali is saying "I ain't got nothing against those Viet Cong." Even the UN turns against the war.

TV Guide says that letters are running "about 6 to 1" in favor of the UN series. I wonder, if they were to revisit those letter writers in 1968, how many of them would feel the same way?


Finally, a note from Richard Warren Lewis' article on the development of the ABC series Peyton Place. It is said that the idea to air the show twice-a-week was inspired by twice-weekly soap opera Coronation Street "that was aired on British television and earned huge ratings." I'm sure Lewis didn't mean to refer to Coronation Street n the past tense, as if it weren't on television any more. It premiered on ITV on December 9, 1960 and at the time of this article had been on for just over four years.

Peyton Place, which debuted on ABC September 15, 1964, would run to June 1969, and then was resurrected for a daytime run on NBC in the early '70s. Coronation Street, on the other hand, remains a British institution, more than 55 years after its debut and still going strong, with almost 9,000 episodes under its belt. Something which we can all only dream of. TV  

January 15, 2016

Jim Simpson, R.I.P.

It was just two weeks ago; totally uninspired by the New Year's Day football, I had spent the day watching videos of the 1970 Cotton and Rose Bowls, and now I had turned to the 1968 Orange Bowl, which had been billed as the game of the day, between #2 Tennessee and #3 Oklahoma. Unlike many of the games from that era, I don't remember anything about that particular Orange Bowl, although I'm positive I would have watched it. All of the New Year's games had special meaning for me, but the Orange Bowl was special - not only because it was the only night game, but it was often also the most exciting, which is saying something if you've spent the last six or so hours shuttling between three football games. But of all the reasons I was drawn to the Orange Bowl, one of the most appealing was that Jim Simpson would be calling the game.

You'll read in the obituaries that Jim Simpson, as one of the first established play-by-play men to jump to ESPN in 1979, gave the fledgling network instant credibility, and that is true. It's not why I remember him, though; in the Twin Cities, we didn't even get cable until the mid '80s. No, when I think of him, I remember his smooth voice, the controlled way in which he called a game, how he could engender a sense of urgency and excitement to the closing minutes without having to scream to do so.

His was a long and rich career; in the early '60s he was part of CBS' college football team, along with Lindsey Nelson and Terry Brennan, and the three of them were in New Haven to call the Harvard-Yale game on November 22, 1963 when word came that President Kennedy had been assassinated. As Nelson remembered it in his autobiography, while the men walked from Yale Bowl back to the hotel, Simpson said, "We will remember this walk and this moment for a long, long, time." If you ever listened to Simpson on television, you'll agree that it sounds just like him - understated, yet able to encapsulate the moment with dignified eloquence.

According to those obituaries, Simpson called 14 Orange Bowl games; no wonder my memories of sitting in front of the television watching New Year's nights unfold in Miami are so vivid. Like many great announcers, he was versatile - he could do football, golf, basketball, the Olympics, and wherever else he was needed. At ESPN, he not only did college football but basketball as well, and mentored Dick Vitale in the art of when to talk and when to keep his mouth shut, threatening to pull the cord on his mic if he didn't follow his instructions.

You can learn why Simpson was a broadcasting legend from this terrific tribute to him at Awful AnnouncingTonight (Friday, January 15), can hear his NBC radio call of the first Super Bowl on the NFL Network's broadcast of the game, taken from NFL Films. Or you can just do what I did, and call up that 1968 Orange Bowl (or many others) on YouTube.

I've written in the past of the "Big Game" announcers, mostly in their obituaries - Curt Gowdy, Chris Schenkel, Pat Summerall, Jim McKay, They were the voices I grew up with and the voices that made the biggest impression on me. When I was young I thought of becoming a sports announcer (I eventually decided against it when the call of politics became stronger*), it was because of them as much as it was the drama of the game. They were the best kind of announcers, the ones who seemed to be talking directly to me. Whenever you heard their voices on television, you knew you'd tuned in to a big game.

*You fool you. 

They're pretty much all gone now; most of them have passed away, a few (Keith Jackson, Dick Enberg, Vin Scully) have either retired or are about to. The men who call the Big Games today - Jim Nantz, Joe Buck, Al Michaels, others - all leave me cold to one degree or another. They're smarmy, or they project too much ego, or they call attention to themselves rather than the game, or they sound like they're auditioning for open mic night at the Improv. The Big Game announcers from the day didn't strike me that way then. Jim Simpson didn't strike me that way then, and he doesn't now. I miss them. Boy, do I miss them.