May 18, 2019

This week in TV Guide: May 17, 1969

The biggest bomb of the season? How about one of the biggest fiascoes in the history of television? You've read about it before, you might even have seen it, but this week we get a chance to learn first-hand, from a contemporary account, about the disaster that was Turn-On.

In the event that this is all new to you, Turn-On's first—and last—episode aired February 5 of this year on ABC. As Richard K. Doan and Joseph Finnigan report in this week's lead story, the viewers who turned in to the series' premiere—"16 or 17 million"—"were so violently turned off by what they saw that the network had to call off the series the next day." The authors dryly note that "Not many series have played one-night stands." Within two days of its airing, 75 ABC affiliates—roughly half the network—told executives they'd no longer air the series. Critics referred to it as "dirty," "vulgar," and irreverent."

Part of the problem, the authors point out, might have been that viewers expected a show more like Laugh-In, which is not surprising considering it was created by Laugh-In vets George Schlatter and Ed Friendly. Instead, viewers wound up with "a crude fraud," and found themselves "repelled or confused or antagonized by it." One female viewer said "All I can remember is the word 'sex,' in huge letters, pounding across the screen," a scene that lasted several minutes, while guests Tim Conway and Bonnie Boland "flitted in and out of the picture, mugging suggestively at each other, to the tune of throbbing electronic sounds building in intensity." "There were no pros—only antis," says Gene McCurdy of Philadelphia's WFIL-TV. "We canceled the show right away." Baltimore station WJZ reported calls running three to one against, and said they'd have refused to carry it again even if the network didn't cancel it. New Haven's WNHC even aired an announcement before the show stating it was "for mature viewers"

Again, we're confronted with one of my favorite sayings, Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Take this quote, for example, from Robert Doubleday of KATV in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was one of the most outspoken critics of Turn-On, receiving letters of support from viewers around the country who'd read about his comments. If only, he said, the network had listened to people like him warning them that "most people still have standards of taste and morality." "It would be a good idea," he says in the money quote, "to load those people who do those TV series into Greyhound buses and take them on a trip across the country to show them how the rest of the people live." Red America before the term was coined.

The producers, Friendly and Schlatter, refuse to acknowledge that their show was a bomb; in fact, "It was really not a show; it was an experience, a happening." (Only someone from the TV industry or a political scientist could come up with doubletalk like that.) They didn't mean to offend; it was provocative, adult, sophisticated comedy. "But the fact that it was taken off doesn't mean it was unsuccessful. It only means it's going to take a little time before we can do it again." In other words, when the stupid yokels out there grow up.

One participant in the fiasco, speaking on condition of anonymity, offers a contrary viewpoint. "There were 300 jokes in that show, enough to offend everybody, regardless of race, religion or national origin. We just went totally wrong in our judgment. . . There were two things basically wrong with it: there wasn't any sort of identification with the audience—just a bunch of strangers up there insulting everything you believe in. And secondly, it wasn't funny enough."

I suspect Turn-On wouldn't be nearly as controversial today, but it also probably wouldn't be the same show that was aired in 1969. It would be cruder, more tasteless, more explicit. And it would probably be just as offensive today as it was 50 years ago. You can bet there'd be a network that would take a chance on it, though—nobody in Hollywood ever went broke by pitching an idea that offends people like us.

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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..

Ed Sullivan: Tonight Ed's live show features Lisa Minnelli; Mike Douglas; the 5th Dimension; and comics Bill Dana, Joan Rivers and George Carlin. Also on hand: the West Point Glee Club and Vino Venito, balancing act.

Hollywood Palace: An all-comedy potpourri is hosted by Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, with fellow comedians Ron Gaylord and Burt Holiday; banjo-playing pantomimist Gene Sheldon; double-talking Simmy Bow; telephone gossip Betty Walker; and stand-up comics Jackie Gayle and Irwin C. Watson.

I have to admit that I have never heard of most of Rowan and Martin's guests, which is probably a shortcoming of my own. On the other hand, I have heard of all of Ed's guests (except for Vino Venito), and there are some pretty big names there. Actually, I guess they're all pretty big. Which makes this week pretty easy: a unanimous victory for Sullivan.

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.Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's weekly 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's no sense trying to paraphrase the opening of Cleveland Amory's review of The King Family, so let's just go with it:

"The last time we reviewed the King Family, we told you there were 36 of them—which made, on our screen, about one King per five square inches or, on the other hand, 10 square inches per two square Kings. In any case, since that time, there are a great many more of them. On the whole, however, and to their credit, they do not seem nearly so square."

It's common knowledge that Tina Cole, best-known as Don Grady's wife on My Three Sons, was one of the "King Cousins," the younger generation of family members most responsible for rounding those square corners. But they're not the only reason this show has taken on a more contemporary sound, The Sisters, the other regulars, even Alvino Rey, have all taken on the new era; in one recent show, Cleve recounts that Candy Conkling ("she's a King, too") sang "Frank Mills" from the Broadway musical Hair. It might sound ridiculous, but "it actually wasn't."

The only sour note, notes Amory, comes with the notes of so much of modern music, which he calls "just plain hard of hearing." Some of it, like recent Oscar nominees "Star!" "Funny Girl," and "For Love of Ivy" just don't cut it. The Bottom Line, says Cleve, is this: "If the Kings can't sing it/there's something wrong/and not with the Kings/but with the song."

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The guest lineup of the week has to be on Kup's Show, hosted by Irv Kupcinet. (Tuesday, 7:30 p.m., WNYC) Try this on for size: Mel Brooks; Academy Award nominee Lynn Carlin (Faces); actors Gene Barry, Robert Young and Edy Williams; singer Lou Rawls; General Omar Bradley; porucers Robert Wise and Carl Foreman; former Pueblo crewman Richard Roggola; Yale President Kingman Brewster Jr., and John Gregory Dunne, author of The Studio.

If you're wondering how Kup was able to cram so many guests (and diverse ones at that!) into one show, it helps that it was three hours. But even that wasn't always enough. In the early days of At Random (the show's original name), the program would begin at midnight, and would end whenever conversation ran out—which sometimes wasn't until 5:30 a.m. It was, Kupcinet would say, all about "the lively art of conversation," something that's sadly lacking in television today. Of course, this presumes that you'd be able to find guests today who were capable of sustaining a conversation for more than a few minutes. When you consider that Kupcinet would never ask his guests about their latest movies ("We tried to make it meaningful."), they'd have even less to talk about. Can you imagine how stimulating a program like that must have been? Even when the standard length for a talk show was 90 minutes, you'd have occasions when the host and a guest would run out of time right in the middle of a good conversation. But to have an open-ended show like this one used to be? Better than informercials, I'd say.

I'm sure our loyal reader Mike Doran has some additional stories about Kup that he could tell. But the remarkable story of the murder of Kupcinet's daughter Karyn, and the various theories about it (including one linking her to the JFK assassination) would be worthy of a James Ellroy novel.

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What else is interesting this week? Well, on Saturday it's the second jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes, from Baltimore (5:00 p.m. ET, CBS). Kentucky Derby winner Majestic Prince goes two for two with a narrow victory over Arts and Letters, before losing to the same horse by 5½ lengths in the Belmont.

At 12:49 p.m. Sunday, Apollo 10 lifts off in the final dress rehearsal before July's scheduled moon mission, with 10's lunar module coming within 50,000 feet of the moon's surface. Needless to say, all three networks are planning extensive coverage. Also on Sunday, the characters from Walt Kelly's comic strip Pogo make their television debut in an animated musical special (8:30 p.m., NBC).

Monday night, comedian Alan King hosts his own comedy special (8:00 p.m., NBC, preempting Laugh-In), with guests Buddy Hackett, Linda Lavin and Karen Morrow. Considering the problems Sammy Davis Jr. had when he couldn't host his own NBC series for a period of time before and after his special on ABC, I wonder if Laugh-In's preemption had anything to do with Rowan and Martin hosting The Hollywood Palace the previous Saturday? Probably not, just the idle thought of a tired mind.

On Tuesday at 1:30 p.m., WNEW presents the movie The Winning Team, with Ronald Reagan starring as Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, co-starring Doris Day, and featuring a number of baseball stars playing themselves, including Bob Lemon, Hank Sauer and Gene Mauch. If you remember Terry Cashman's song "Talkin' Baseball" (real title: "Willie, Mickey, and the Duke), written in 1981, the lyric, "And the great Alexander is pitching again in Washington" is a reference to this movie.

Wednesday features the rerun of Yul Brynner's Oscar-winning performance in The King and I (8:30 p.m., ABC), a movie which Judith Crist calls "that loveliest of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals," with brilliant performances by Brynner and Deborah Kerr. If you're not up for that, and I probably wouldn't have been, try a repeat of Jack Benny's February birthday bash (10:00 p.m., NBC), with guest stars Lucille Ball, Dan Blocker, Lawrence Welk, Dennis Day, Don Wilson, Jerry Lewis, and Ann-Margret.

Jonathan Winters' short-lived CBS series goes off the air on Thursday (8:00 p.m.); his final guests are the Smothers Brothers (who also appear on Glen Campbell's show this week), Paul Lynde (who also appears on Jerry Lewis' show this week), Marvin Gaye, and Mickie Finn's musical revue. At the other end of the scale, Tom Jones moves to Thursdays this week (9:00 p.m., ABC), with guests John Davidson, George Burns, Sally Ann Howes, and The Dave Clark Five.

Each network features some fine guest stars on Friday night's programs; Michael Dunn is the evil Dr. Loveless in The Wild Wild West (7:30 p.m., CBS), an episode that also features Susan Seaforth, who'll become far better known as one of the great soap opera stars of all time. At the same time on ABC, it's the documentary "The Singers," featuring profiles of Aretha Franklin and Gloria Loring—not quite on the same scale, but we'll let it pass for now. And on The Name of the Game (8:30 p.m., NBC), Robert Young, Anne Baxter, and Ralph Meeker are among the stars in a drama about a right-wing reactionary (Young) marshaling a private army to fight the race war.

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Finally, a letter to the editor. Helen Harris, of Los Angeles, writes in to praise the recent 60 Minutes interview with Theodore Roosevelt's daughter, Alice Longworth. "She is bright, witty and sharp. But why must she be so unkind? If I were a Washingtonian, I would steer away from her like the plague."

Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of a president and widow of a speaker of the House of Representatives, one of the great figures of Washington society, knew every president from Benjamin Harrison to Gerald Ford. "Many were intimate friends," the Washington Post once said, "others were intimate enemies." She was famous for her wit, and her tart and acerbic tongue; her devastating impression of "Poor Cousin Eleanor" Roosevelt was a favorite at her tea parties.

Her most famous saying (and my personal favorite) is, "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me." Of Wendell Willkie, she once said, "He sprang from the grass roots of the country clubs of America." and she remarked that Calvin Coolidge "looks as though he's been weaned on a pickle." Of journalist Dorothy Thompson: "Dorothy is the only woman in history who has had her menopause in public and made it pay." In what could be a commentary on today's generation, she remarked that, "I've always believed in the adage that the secret of eternal youth is arrested development." Of her father, whom she adored, she commented that he "always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening." (TR once said that, "I can be President of the United States, or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both.")

It's a mark of her reputation that some of the quotes attributed to her were actually said by others—they just sounded like something she'd say. She admitted she wasn't the author of the devastating comment on Thomas Dewey, "How can you vote for a man who looks like a bridegroom on a wedding cake?" "She said she merely spread it around, or 'gave it currency,' out of respect for the phrase."

Perhaps only Winston Churchill and Dorothy Parker could rival the sharpness of her wit and her tongue. Ms. Harris wondered why Washingtonians didn't stay away from her, but presidents were known to change seating arrangements at state dinners in order to have her placed next to them. (LBJ had an attractive young woman moved to make room for her; when an aide told him he didn't know what he'd be missing, he replied, "Ah but I know what I'm getting.") Alice Roosevelt Longworth died in 1980; I wonder—I just wonder—what she'd have to say about Washington today? TV  

9 comments:

  1. I first read about TURN-ON in Bart Andrews' book, THE WORST TV SHOWS OF ALL TIME, published in 1980, and he used a lot of the text from this article in his book. I was at Chicago's Museum of Radio & TV back around 2000 when I took the time to watch TURN-ON, which was in its library. I fully expected to be as offended as the viewers back in 1969, and I'm surprised instead by how bored I was by it. I guess the 20 years between reading about it & watching it left me pretty jaded. This wasn't a career highlight for Tim Conway (RIP), as all of his failed sitcoms & variety shows outlasted it.

    I'm surprised that the Smothers Brothers were still appearing on CBS shows this month, as CBS had abruptly cancelled their own show the month before this. They also had shows on both ABC & NBC over the next 6 years.

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    1. I think I had heard about Turn On show from the same source. I'm currently listening currently to a weekly pod cast about ill fated SNL's 6th season (the year after the original cast). There's a lot similarities between SNL season 6 and Turn On in regards to a blend of bad taste humor and unfunny sketches.

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  2. I actually watched Turn-On in its only airing, and while I was a Junior in High School at he time, none of my family members were shocked. I think we just thought Tim Conway could do better (which he would). I

    I'm not familiar with Kup's show, but I would bet money if he had a sponsor it was probably Phillip Morris, because 3 plus hours of 1969 celebrities sitting around talking had to be accompanied with copious amounts of tobacco intake.

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    1. Last things first:

      - Irv Kupcinet - Kup from here on in - began At Random at Channel 2, the CBS station.
      When he moved to Channel 7, he couldn't use that title, which CBS owned.
      Part of Kup's deal with Channel 7 was that he would own and produce his show - Kup's Show - from then on; this included the rights to syndicate edited versions to other stations (Kup's company kept most of the money).
      In later years, Kup moved his show, first to Channel 5 for some years, ultimately to Channel 11, the PBS station, where it finished its very long run.
      Meanwhile, At Random continued on Channel 2 with different hosts, the longest-running being newsman John Madigan (whose daughter became actress Amy Madigan, who married actor Ed Harris (but that's another story …)).

      - As it happens, I also was watching the debut episode of Turn On on that Wednesday night, with my family in attendance as well.
      We weren't offended as much as we were bewildered.
      It was the kind of comedy where you thought "Hey, that was supposed to be funny … I think …".
      Almost every account of the bits that were used was totally inaccurate, in particular the Tim Conway - Bonnie Boland - SEX business:
      Black screen, Conway on lower left , Boland on lower right, static for the whole bit; lotsa mugging, SEX above changing colors, buzzing electronic sound, about two or three minute total.
      Didn't make a bit of sense, but on the other hand, it wasn't funny either …
      According to next week's TV Guide, Sebastian Cabot was supposed to be the guest, so I thought I'd see if Turn On's second try would be any better.
      The rest, you know.

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    2. Supposedly, five episodes of "Turn-On" were taped, with four of them never airing.

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    3. I thought Tim Conway was a guest on "Turn-On" and not a regular.

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  3. Fifty years later, the open-ended conversations have moved to podcasts. TV stations have other fish to fry (and more infomercials to run).

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  4. I suspect that ABC, CBS, and NBC probably each had three hours of live coverage of the first day of the Apollo 10 mission on May 17th, 1969.

    The first two hours were likely from 11:30 A.M.-1:30 P.M. Eastern time to cover the launch, then again from 3 to 4 P.M. Eastern time (approximate) to cover the spacecraft leaving earth orbit, the docking of the command module and lunar module (stowed during launch in a shroud between the command module and the third stage of the enormous Saturn 5 rocket), with the latter including the first live color TV pictures ever sent from a manned spacecraft.

    There would be several more hours of coverage in the next week (maybe between eight and ten hours per network over the rest of the mission?) to cover the spacecraft's going into orbit around the moon (May 20th), the lunar module maneuvers to text it ahead of landings on future missions (May 21st), the spacecraft leaving lunar orbit (May 22nd), and the splashdown and recovery (May 26th).

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  5. Supposedly, management of Cleveland's longtime ABC affiliate WEWS decided to cut-off "Turn-On" DURING the first episode because the station thought it was in poor taste.

    The story goes that there was a commercial break, then a "Please Stand By" slide appeared for the rest of the half-hour.

    I have also heard an urban legend that back then, Mountain time zone network stations would tape the East Coast network feed for playback an hour or so later, and that a couple of ABC stations in that region recorded "Turn-On" for later broadcast, thought it was in bad taste, and decided not to show it.

    I wonder if George Schlatter (who I think is still alive) would ever consider releasing the one aired episode and the four un-aired episodes in a DVD set.

    Tastes have changed so much since 1969 that I have a feeling that if "Turn-On" gets released on DVD, it would today be rated "suitable for the whole family"! ;)

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!