August 6, 2016

This week in TV Guide: August 8, 1959

This week Donna Reed graces the cover of TV Guide. The former Academy Award winner has, over the course of the last few months, helped steer her eponymous ABC sitcom from a "sort of Mother Knows Best" up against some rough competition (The Millionaire on CBS, Milton Berle's Kraft Music Hall on NBC), through the early days of dismal ratings (15.1 on Nielsen, which would qualify it as a smash hit today), to where it is today: an established hit (ratings up to 21.2) in a family-friendly time (Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. ET), all without changing writers, cast or format. How did she do it?

"We just stood firm," she says - the "we" referring to she and her husband/business partner Tony Owen. "The only think I can say is that we were a little late about persuading the sponsor (Campbell's Soup) to let us lose our tempers on the show." What does that mean? Making it more true to life, for one thing - showing her and her TV husband Carl Betz disciplining the children ("They need the security of knowing you mean what you say."). "There is no such thing as a family where arguments don't occur. Keep it goody-goody and you lose the effectiveness."

Her talk about showing how things are - or should be - in real life is interesting, given how by the time The Donna Reed Show came to the end of its eight-season run, it had become ridiculed as the epitome of "the 1950s nuclear family structure and idyllic suburban setting." Is that a fair criticism? Certainly the show's look can seem dated today, although I'd add that the values espoused in the program are still sound, if mostly ignored in today's day and age. Imagine families eating together! Having discussions! Mother staying at home to keep the household running! Expecting good grades and behavior from the kids! (The subject of this week's show, by the way.) As Marlon Brando would say, "The horror, the horror."

Seriously, this makes a point I've mentioned frequently - that while many programs of the '50s and '60s presented an idealized world, it was also a world with which viewers were familiar, and to which they could aspire even if they never succeeded in duplicating it. It's easy to see how, with race riots, the Vietnam War, and campus demonstrations all raging through the land, The Donna Reed Show might seem out of touch in 1966 America. I can't say whether or not it was in any way an accurate reflection of what times were like then - my own home life was hardly what you'd call "normal" - but the larger question remains whether or not it exemplified values which ought to have been admired. Children respecting their parents and teachers, parents remaining faithful to each other and their families, working to give their kids what they need to face the world - I don't really think those are grounds for ridicule, do you? You may think of this as living in the past, but if history teaches us anything at all, it demonstrates that some very good things are unchangeable now and always, and we ought to strive to hold on to them.

Yes, there were far darker problems to worry about in 1966 than those that typically affected the Stone family. But were those problems , and the situations which caused them, actually better? Given where we are today, were sex, drugs and rock 'n roll really an improvement?

No, I didn't think so.

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In sports, CBS has a special treat this week: as a prelude to the Saturday afternoon Game of the Week between the Kansas City Athletics and New York Yankees, viewers who tune in at 11:00 a.m. (CT) will get to see the fabled Yankees' Old Timers Game, the greatest of all such games played in any sport. But then, what else would you expect, with the Yanks bringing out the pennants from championship seasons past, and hosting names such as Joe DiMaggio, Dizzy Dean, Rogers Hornsby, Lefty Gomez, Carl Erskine and the like. This was a highlight any time it was carried as part of the Game of the Week.

Meanwhile, at 11:45 a.m., NBC has its own version of the Game of the Week, when the Detroit Tigers meet the Red Sox at Boston. Now, you may be asking why there were two games, shown at the same time on two different networks. Back then, there was no single contract covering national telecasts of Major League Baseball; both CBS and NBC (through their various sponsors) were free to make arrangements with individual teams - or, more specifically, with individual stadiums. For example, in 1959 CBS had the rights to broadcast games only from Philadelphia, New York, Washington, Baltimore, Chicago (both Cubs and White Sox), Cleveland, and Cincinnati. I agree that this is no way to run a railroad, but that's how it was.

Unlike today, Texas is without Major League Baseball in 1959, but Channel 11 still has plenty of local coverage of the state's minor league teams: Fort Worth plays St. Paul on Wednesday, while Dallas takes on Denver Thursday. Next week, Fort Worth plays Houston in a pair, followed by their game against Omaha.

August seems a bit early for football, but the annual kickoff to the season, the College All-Star Game, is Friday night from Chicago, with the defending NFL champion Baltimore Colts taking on an all-star team featuring the best college seniors from 1958. The Colts will win 29-0 before a crowd of 75,000, so if you had Baltimore plus the points you did pretty well.

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Now here's a picture to treasure: two of the most iconic Western stars ever, in the same shot.

Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, the quintessential singing cowboys, may not be the flavor of the month in this era of the "adult Western," but neither one of them seems to be too worried about it. Roy, in particular, says "I'm getting tired of these cracks about singing cowboys. I'll challenge the whole bunch in an all-around competition for horsemanship, roping, pistol and shotgun. And I'll challenge any of 'em at the box-office draw, too."

Things aren't really that different today; "They're a little more psychological, maybe. I see some pretty rugged things on TV. Sometimes the hero gets it in the belly - we always stayed away from that. Dress is more realistic . . . [and] there's more killing. But the stories are similar. It's still the cattlemen versus the sodbusters."

Fact is, Roy Rogers hasn't done too poorly - a millionaire with extensive real estate holdings, part owner of 24,000 acres between Phoenix and Tucson, a boat business, a golf course, an auto agency, and those appearance fees that he and his wife Dale Evans get from the state fair circuit. Oh, and there's also the $1.5 million he got from Nestlé for selling them the rights to his show. His specials trounce the opposition in the ratings, and Chevrolet has signed him up for six to run next season. No wonder Dwight Whitney describes him as "probably one of the happiest and least-resentful deposed cowboys (if you can call him deposed) in the world."

Gene Autry "is, if anything, even happier and even richer." His production company currently has five shows on the air, he has a 90-acre ranch which he rents out to Gunsmoke and Wyatt Earp (among others), he co-owns five radio and two TV stations, collects yearly royalties from merchandising, does state fairs and rodeos, etc., etc. Oh, and then there's the baseball team he'll own in a couple of years, the California Angels. Gene Autry may be the only Western star to have his number retired instead of a ten-gallon hat.

He, too, is skeptical that the adult Western is all that different - while "I miss the action. TV Westerns drive me nuts! Too slow!", he also says that the emphasis in today's shows on acting "means you've got to have a good story. And there're not that many stories kicking around these days. I admire a good actor - but the fact he's got boots on doesn't make him a cowboy." He's not interested in challenging today's shows to see who's the quickest gun. "What Roy and I have got is box-office draw - and showmanship." And as for the "singing cowboy" bit, he's quick to remind everyone that a record of his called "Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine" sold six million copies. And then there was a ditty called "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" - you might have heard of it. Sold five million copies.

"If that's funny, then that's the kind o' joke I like," Gene says. Like Roy Rogers, he's laughing all the way to the bank.

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Scattered headlines from the week:

On Sunday afternoon, NBC's Meet the Press welcomes former President Herbert Hoover, who's just about to turn 85. Hoover has since been surpassed as having had the longest retirement after leaving office, but still - when he departed the White House in 1933, it had been less than 30 years since the Wright Brothers made their flight, there had been only one World War, and we pretty much lived in a black-and-white world. Now, this same man is appearing on television, the man who defeated him for president has long since died, and before Hoover himself dies in 1964, he'll have seen man orbit the earth in a spacecraft. It's true that many people were able to claim that distinction - but that doesn't prevent one from being taken aback to think of Hoover on TV.

In Washington, the House Legislative Oversight Subcommittee announces it wants to look at the Grand Jury minutes from the New York investigation into the quiz shows. Says Rep. Oren Harris says, "We now have information leading us to suspect that contestants on some shows were coached."

In New York, the producers of CBS' Person to Person, John Aaron and Jesse Zousmer, announce that Charles Collingwood will take the place of Edward R. Murrow when the later goes on sabbatical from the network.

NBC takes an option on Michael Shayne, an hour-long pilot (or "test film" for a detective series. The pilot's going to be shot this fall; this is one of those pilots that actually does make it to the network schedule, premiering in the fall of 1960 with Richard Denning in the title role, and running for one year. I mentioned Shayne here a few years ago.

Did you know there used to be a Miss America Parade? Neither did I, but it's true - in fact, it still exists. CBS plans to show it on September 8, prior to the September 12 pageant, which it will also cover. Douglas Edwards and 1958 Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur will host.

Many of the shows this week are reruns, but we have the usual assortment of summer anthology series burning off pilots that didn't make the cut. Andy Williams continues his summer replacement series, with guests Diahann Carroll, Buddy Hackett, the Mello-Larks vocal group, and danger Joan Holloway. Merv Griffin, guest-hosting for the vacationing Bill Cullen, announces the winner of the Gift Showcase on NBC's The Price is Right. Tony Bennett, Jaye P. Morgan and the Modernaires appear on NBC's Perry Presents, a replacement series for - guess who? And Ed Sullivan welcomes movie star Jane Russell and her brother Kevin, singers Toni and Jan Arden, actor Keefe Brassille, comedian Shecky Green, dance team Helene and Howard, jugglers the Martin Brothers, guitarist Sabicas, trampolinists the Schaller Brothers, flying trapeze artist Miss Mara, and Sid Kroft's Marionettes.

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Finally, I don't know if this will help people figure out what classic TV fans are made of, but for what it's worth, here is the television guide to the Human Anatomy. I never was all that good at studying the human body - at least, not this way.



  1. Did you know that Roy Rogers was a really fantastic yodeler? Incredible skills; far beyond the typical Jimmy Rogers/Hank Williams blues lick. His Black Sheep Blues shows him at his best...can be heard on Youtube! :)

    1. Did I know that? I'm not sure - but I know it now! Thanks, Clayton!

  2. Just out of curiosity, what did they do with those old Sack dresses ?


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