April 21, 2018

This week in TV Guide: April 20, 1968

Of all the most obvious ways in which television shows the passage of time and the change of the culture, I think the variety show may be the most overt, although I'm willing to listen to opinions to the contrary. It's not just those psychedelic appearances by the Stones and the Doors and Jefferson Airplane with Ed Sullivan; I think that an entertainment format that dates back to the vaudeville era is not necessarily the best way to reflect the radical changes in progress. Case in point is Romp!!, a "psychedelic search for fun, filmed in Europe, Japan, California and board a Bahama-bound liner," which airs Sunday at 6:00 p.m. on ABC. Romp!! is hosted by Ryan O'Neal and Michele Lee, and stars Jimmy Durante, Barbara Eden, James Darren, Cream, Harper's Bizarre, and Liberace, with special appearances by Sammy Davis Jr., Casey Stengel, Sonny Tufts, The Celebration, Richard Dreyfuss, Joey Bishop, and Michael Blodgett. You know it's hip; Ryan O'Neal appears in a sportcoat and turtleneck rather than a tie, and the romping takes place "in a studio equipped with a squooshy floor, the better to romp on." The stars cavort with "all sorts of bikinied and mini-skirted lovelies." It does beg the question, though, as to how you can have both Cream and Durante in the same show - I mean, I love them both, but not together.

Perhaps a better example is Where the Girls Are, a "mod hour" on NBC Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m., hosted by Noel Harrison with appearances by Don Adams, Prof. Irwin Corey, Barbara McNair, the Association, the Byrds, and Cher. The network had high hopes for this; according to the TV Teletype, it "could become a regular on NBC's schedule if it clicks with the audience." Apparently it didn't, at least not enough to earn a spot on the schedule.

Clockwise from left: Sammy and Joey, Liberace,
Ryan O' Neal, Jimmy Durante, Michele Lee
The larger problem with all this is that intergenerational variety shows don't always work. Take that Romp!! show, for example; the only thing hip about Casey Stengel is the broken one that forced his retirement as manager of the New York Mets in 1965. The spectacle of an older generation trying to act hip is, as I've said before, a disturbing image, and it often fails miserably. It's particularly painful listening to someone like Frank Sinatra singing songs written in the 70s and 80s; as great a singer as Frank is, most of them just don't fit his style.

But for all that, the music often isn't the main problem with the variety show in this transitory period - it's the comedy. Bob Hope's skits from decades before feel increasingly tired in this new era. It doesn't matter whether they're funny or not (and some of them are, very) - they're just a bad fit with the "relevance" performances of the rock groups. Plus, try using them in the skits; can you see Grace Slick playing the Anita Ekberg role in one of his sketches? To a certain extent Carol Burnett was able to avoid this; one of her skits this week has guest Don Adams and Carol playing a marriage counselor and psychiatrist worried about their kids, and I'm sure it's filled with a lot of new age jive from the era.

This week Red Skelton's guests are Mickey Rooney and Lana Cantrell; Mickey and Red play Julius Caesar and Forsooth in a bit that I'm sure dates back decades. Again, I'm not saying it isn't funny - I  enjoy watching a lot of these old shows. I'm just pointing to the disconnect that's part of the television generation gap, and how it must have appeared back then. The kids probably weren't satisfied by it at all - not authentic enough. Whatever the case, it must have been a hard gig back then, running a variety show.

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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: Scheduled guests are Patty Duke; Diahann Carroll; singers Tom Jones and You're Father's Mustache; comics Totie Fields and Richard Hearne; magician Pavel; and the Muppets.

Palace: Host Bing Crosby welcomes Sid Caesar, the King Sisters, singer Florence Henderson, jazz pianist Joe Bushkin, comic Gene Baylos, the rocking Every Mothers' Son, Bunraku (Japanese puppets) and 16 children of the Palace production crew.

For the second issue in a row, we've got two very good lineups. Der Bingle is always worth a couple of points for Palace, and you've got Caesar and the future Mrs. Brady. On the other hand, the Muppets are better puppets than Bunraku, and it's hard to vote against Tom Jones. It's a tough call, but I'll give the week to the Palace by a nose.

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Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's reviews were written by the witty and acerbic Cleveland Amory. Whenever we get the chance, we'll look at Cleve's latest take on the series of the era. 

There are times when Cleveland Amory leaves you in no doubt from the beginning as to where he stands. This is one of those times, starting with one of Amory's laws of television: "If at first you don't succeed, fail, fail again." The failure this week is NBC's The Jerry Lewis Show, which is better than his ABC show from a few years ago; then again, that was one of the great failures in television history, so the bar was pretty low.

It's not that Amory is reflexively not a fan of Lewis, which is often the case with Lewis critics. "He can be a clown, as the saying goes, with the best of them; and time and again, in a whole comedy role, he has proved how funny he can be. As a host of a children's show he would be ideal. As host of an adult show, however, he is five fathoms over what might be described as his depth." It's a pity, in many ways, for it's a well-made show in many respects - the graphics are solid and it's imaginatively shot. What it is not, however, is well-written, and such sketches "are so embarrassingly overplayed by Mr. Lewis that they seem even worse than they are."

Amory cites one episode in particular that is supposed to serve as an example for the rest of the series. Lewis plays "Sidney," a regular on the show, who this week is "the yelled-at helper of a senior citizens' home - one who finally turns on his tormentors. Dreary to begin with, the tale grew so increasingly unfunny as to be actually fascinating in its tastelessness. And by the seemingly never-arriving end, the whole business was positively frightening." The premise of the skit itself is something I feel reasonably certain we'd not see on TV today; as for the slapstick that seems typical of many other sketches, though, I have to admit it doesn't sound much different from what you see on MeTV commercials for Carol Burnett. Of course, Cleve wasn't a fan of hers either, at least at first, so maybe there's something to that.

I'm not exactly unbiased here, since I was always a fan of Jerry Lewis. It could be something that Amory suggests early on, how Lewis is "extremely popular in movies." Perhaps he was just too big a personality to fit on the small screen. If so, he wouldn't be the first case, nor would he be the last.

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Here's some sports to kick off the week: on Saturday, NBC's Game of the Week features the Cleveland Indians in Boston to take on the defending American League champion Red Sox (1:00 p.m.), while it's the finale of this year's CBS Golf Classic; the 36-hole championship airs today and tomorrow with Art Wall and Charles Coody on one side, Al Geiberger and Dave Stockton on the other. You may not recognize their names, but you've got four very good golfers there.

Good night of TV on Sunday: Frank Sinatra's NBC special is rerun at 8:00 p.m., with Ella Fitzgerald and the great guitarist Antonio Carlos Jobim. NBC follows that at 9:00 with the Tony Awards, hosted by Angela Lansbury and Peter Ustinov. I'll tell you this much: the big winners include Robert Goulet, Martin Balsam, and Tom Stoppard. If you're the least-bit curious, you can see the whole show on YouTube.

The Singer Company, which sponsored many a fine special in its day (did they sponsor Elvis' comeback special? Why, yes they did!), and on Monday they cue up Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (8:00 p.m., CBS), singing a boatload of their hits, some of them performed on a Mississippi riverboat.

A couple of interesting programs on Tuesday; first, it's Harry Reasoner's profile of esteemed photographer, poet, composer, painter and filmmaker Gordon Parks (9:30 p.m., CBS) His many talents, says Reasoner, are his "weapons against bigotry and indifference." At 10:30 p.m., WKBT in Duluth presents an Ernie Kovacs special compiled from eight of the hour-long programs he did for ABC in 1961-62 (that ended with his untimely death). Channel 8 is ordinarily a CBS affiliate, but crosses over frequently with ABC programs - I suspect this was an ABC program from the previous week.

The Clampetts are in London Wednesday for the first of three episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies filmed across the pond (7:30 p.m., CBS). Eddy Arnold, one of the great country crossovers, hosts the first of six "County Fair" episodes of The Kraft Music Hall (8:00 p.m., NBC) with Al Hirt, Joanie Sommers, John Byner and Mark Wilson. And on Run for Your Life (9:00 p.m., NBC) James Daly plays a slimy talk-show host, Franchot Tone is the judge he attacks on the air, and our hero, Ben Gazzara, is the prime suspect when Daly gets plugged.

In Minneapolis-St. Paul, Channel 9 broadcasts The Hollywood Palace on Thursdays at 9:00 p.m., where it's up against Dean Martin on NBC. This week Dean's special guest is none other than Bing Crosby, which means you've got Bing vs. Bing. However, you've also got Lena Horne and Dom DeLuise on Dean's show, which perhaps makes it the best variety show of the week. If you do decide to watch Bing and Dean rather than Bing and the Palace, you'll get to see Crosby and Martin as a couple of golfers being driven crazy by their caddy (Dom), with the great golfing champion Byron Nelson in a cameo as himself. I have horrible news for you about Peyton Place (8:30 p.m., ABC), Betty and Steve's divorce is final. I don't think I can go on with the rest of the evening.

CBS's Friday Night Movie is a blockbuster: Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in "The Defiant Ones." (8:00 p.m.) It's one of director Stanley Kramer's infamous "message" movies, and a couple of weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. it's sure to pack a punch. For my money though, I'd prefer "Jazz: The Intimate Art" on The Bell Telephone Hour (9:00 p.m., NBC, except for KSTP, which routinely seems to preempt this program - cretins), with Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charles Lloyd. And WTCN's 9:00 movie is a pretty good one, especially for television buffs: 1959's "The Last Angry Man," with David Wayne as a television executive who must convince a Brooklyn doctor to appear on his show in order to save his job. As the crusty doctor, veteran Paul Muni receives his fifth Best Actor Oscar nomination.

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We'll end the week with another of those great "little did they know" stories, this time courtesy of the New York TV Teletype: "A two-hour version of the old stand-by "Heidi" will be visible on NBC next November, starring Maximilian Schell, Michael Redgrave, Walter Slezak and Peter Van Eyck, among others." It's hard to imagine from that innocent little remark what huge consequences were in store. Ask the fans of the Raiders and Jets how it turned out. TV 

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