June 14, 2019

Around the dial

obert Earle died last week at the age of 93, and for those of a certain age, that name will probably bring back warm memories. From 1962 to 1970 he was the host of G-E College Bowl, the academic quiz show that pitted two teams of college students against each other in a battle of wits that left most viewers grasping at straws while trying to recall what general led Sparta into the Peloponnesian War against Athens.

He was a community-relations specialist for General Electric, and chairman of the radio-TV department at Ithaca College in New York, when the job with College Bowl came open after Allen Ludden left to concentrate full-time on Password. An article by Bob Stahl in my cherished copy of the January 25, 1964 TV Guide describes how Earle prepared his audition tape:

The following Sunday he set up the tape recorder next to his TV set and tuned in College Bowl. He recorded Ludden and the college students playing the game. Then he had his secretary transcribe the tape and took it to WHCU, the Ithaca radio station where he had once worked. There he edited the tape to delete Ludden’s voice, retaining intact the voices of the students and the show’s sound effects.

Next he went to WICB-TV, the Ithaca College studio, set up a lectern in front of a movie camera and put his tape on a playback machine controlled by a foot pedal. As the film rolled, he stood at the lectern and acted as the College Bowl host. Cutting with split-second precision back and forth to the tape, he voiced Ludden’s exact dialog from the transcribed notes. On the finished film, he was the College Bowl quizmaster.

I remember reading that when I was a kid, and for many years thereafter, and I thought that use of technology was the coolest thing. Nowadays, of course, anyone could do that with a phone, but back then there was a bit more to it, and Earle’s brainstorm won him the job over more established names such as Win Elliot and Dick Stark. Viewers at the time remarked on the physical resemblance between Earle and Ludden (minus the smarminess, of course); Betty White relates a story that the producers took Earle to Ludden’s optometrist to get the same frames that Ludden wore. Earle remained the host until the show went off the air in 1970, due in part to negative publicity from the rise of student protests on campuses.

Robert Earle was a warm presence on television, and had great rapport with the students who appeared on the program. College Bowl, which aired on Sunday afternoons for most of its twelve-year run, remains a vivid reminder of a time when weekend afternoons on television weren’t dominated by sports and infomercials. Even though I was only 10 when the show went off the air, I still have fond memories of it.

Want some more? This article at Slate by Lynn Yu tells the story of what was probably the most famous episode of College Bowl, and one of the greatest game show upsets of all time: tiny Agnes Scott College's victory over Princeton, which you can see on YouTube.

In other news, it’s Maverick Monday at The Horn Section, and this week Hal looks at the very funny 1959 episode “A Fellow’s Brother,” in which Bret (James Garner) suddenly finds himself with the reputation as a feared gunslinger. You’ll want to see how he talks his way out of that.

We haven’t visited Cult TV Blog for awhile, so let’s see what Jack has to say about “Jackpot,” an episode from the 1970s British crime series The Sweeney. I really enjoy Jack’s comment at the end about how “I just like TV to be unreal because I can fully see that this episode wouldn’t hang together in reality, but if TV was strictly real it wouldn’t be an escape, would it?” I need to keep that in mind more often.

From the UK newspaper The Guardian, this story on how "America's rural radio stations are vanishing—and taking the country's soul with them." It's not about TV, but it echoes the concerns I have about how, in the era of syndication and informercials and homogenized news anchors, local television barely has anything "local" about it. And that's a loss to us all.

At Comfort TV, David asks an excellent question: are the '80s "comfort TV"? I have never considered them part of my own personal comfort TV (YMMV), but David's article (he says yes, by the way) got me thinking: what are the shows from the '80s that I watch? Doctor Who, Police Squad!, SCTV, MST3K, Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, the entire Blackadder series—I guess there are more of them there than I would have realized.

One of the shows that's not on my list—The Wonder Years (no offense intended)—is the cover subject of this week's "A Year in TV Guide" feature at Television Obscurities. Head on over and find out what else the issue has to offer. TV  


  1. Great article on Robert Earle, Mitchell. Having grown up in the shadows of Ithaca College and Cornell, he was a popular local figure. Plus, Ithaca College is the repository of Rod Serling's script collection. He had a camp on Cayuga Lake just north of Ithaca. I met him once at a marina when I was 11. Amazingly enough, he and I were the same height as Rod was only about 5' 4". I immediately recognized him (he drove his boat down the lake to buy cigarettes) and told him how scared I was when I watched "Little Girl Lost". He laughed, lit up a Viceroy and got back in his boat, no doubt going back to his camp at Interlaken to write classic scripts.

    1. You do know the most interesting people. Or at least you've had more brushes with fame than I have! Thanks as always!


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