February 15, 2020

This week in TV Guide: February 15, 1969

This city of Chicago runs the city of Prague a close second right now as the world's least attractive tourist attraction." Now, before you get upset with me, I didn't say this; as a matter of fact, I rather like Chicago, even though it's one of the most violent and corrupt cities in the country, if not the world. No, these words come from CBS commentator Eric Sevareid, in the buildup to the 1968 Democratic Convention, and they set the tone for Neil Hickey's article, the second of four parts, on "Television in Turmoil"—in this case, the networks defending themselves against charges of bias and distortion in their coverage of the convention.

And they can use all the help they can get. As we saw a while back, the media were united as seldom before in their opposition to the violence and police abuse that they had witnessed (and, in some cases, experienced personally) during the "Battle of Chicago," only to find that the great majority of Americans were siding against them, and with Mayor Daley and his police. They're now being called upon by the FCC to answer the many letters of complaint received about their coverage, and in their defense they point out that a relatively small percentage of their overall convention coverage was devoted to the more violent moments. ABC, for example, points out that with their limited coverage (90 minutes per night), only 13 minutes and 49 seconds concerned the violence between police and demonstrators. Additionally, ABC counted William F. Buckley Jr. among their commentators, and both he and ABC newsman Howard K. Smith were strongly critical of the demonstrators. NBC had perhaps the cheekiest response, telling the FCC that many viewers simply had "forgotten instances of reporting which contradict their conclusions, while recalling only selectively or inaccurately to suit an argument." (Doubtless those same viewers probably felt the same way about the NBC,) CBS, meanwhile, criticized the limits set up by the Chicago police, "restraints upon the freedom of movement and technical resources of television . . . which have never before been imposed on the medium."

ABC's explanation may be the best: the events were so "inherently inflammatory," and "people identified so passionately with one side or the other, that no matter how these events were treated by the news media, there would inevitably have been criticism of the news coverage." However, Hickey concludes, that explanation has pleased nobody, neither "private citizen nor public official who was convinced that television behaved with partisan bad manners in Chicago last August and ought to be restrained from ever doing so again."

What's the moral of the story? For the news media, Chicago 1968 was an existential crisis, the first time they'd been confronted with the possibility they were out of touch with the views of the public, and many media people wondered if that might not in fact be the case. The question of media bias is rising, through the coverage of civil rights, Vietnam, the convention, and national protests, and it's only going to get more pointed with the outspoken speeches of Vice President Agnew. And, judging by what we read and hear today, the argument shows no signs of dissipating. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

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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: Tentatively scheduled guests: Arthur Godfrey; singers Caterina Valente and the Young Americans; the rocking Blood, Sweat and Tears; comedians Rodney Dangerfield, and Fiore and Eldridge; and juggler Eric Brenn.

Palace: Host Milton Berle welcomes Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows, Mel Tormé, singers Dana Valery and Leland Palmer, and comedian Jerry Collins.

This matchup could go either way. I think Sullivan has a deeper lineup, but I like the way Palace starts out strong with Steverino, Jayne, and the Velvet Fog. And anyway, this isn't about which lineup is better, it's about which one I like the best, and I think this week I prefer Hollywood over New York. Palace wins the week.

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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. 

Before Brian Lamb and Booknotes on C-SPAN, there was a program on NET, a much-loved program called Book Beat, hosted by Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Cromie, in which Cromie interviews an author about his latest book. Now, there's nothing particularly new about authors being interviewed about their books, though rarely for a half hour. Johnny and Merv and Joey do it all the time. And this doesn't always make for the best television since, as Cleveland Amory points out, authors make for difficult interviewees: "All too often he exhibits that one unpardonable combination—nervousness and ego together. A man becomes an author, Somerset Maugham once said, because he is the kind of man who things of what he should have said on the way home from the party. We have often thought of that line as we watched some interview program and saw some author mumbling along."

(As an author myself, I'm probably not the best one to talk about the accuracy of this statement. It is true, I will admit, that many of my best retorts come post facto, when I become hilarious and erudite in the eyes of an audience of one. In my defense, however, as well as the defense of authors everywhere, I should note that the only important thing about coming up with the right thing to say is being able to remember it long enough to write it down. This I am usually able to do.)

What makes Bob Cromie, and Book Beat, different is this: not only does Cromie read every book that he discusses on the show, he proceeds from the assumption that his viewers are as interested in these books as he is. This makes a big difference. It also helps that Cromie knows his role on the show. For instance, notes Cleve, a recent program with Marc Connelly (Voices off Stage) required him to do little more than provide the punctuation for Connelly's nonstop stories. On the other hand, when interviewing Norman Mailer (Miami and the Streets of Chicago), Cromie's job was to "grin and bear it" in the face of Mailer's relentless negativity, and he did it so well that, Amory says, "at the end Mr. Mailer was actually likable."

Most memorable, perhaps, was an interview with Elie Wiesel (Legends of Our Time), in which Cromie's simple question, "You are, I believe, a survivor of Auschwitz?" was enough to "open the floodgates of one of the most memorable interviews we have ever heard." So memorable was it that Cleve dispenses with his clever bon mots and puns, in favor of quoting Wiesel's poignant words about the Holocaust. When asked how many of his family died in Auschwitz, Wiesel replies, "Dozens. Dozens and dozens and dozens. In each of my books I give life to one member of my family. In one book my father, in another my grandfather, in another my little sister. I try to bring them in and give them some kind of monument. In words, not stone—there is no stone." That, I think, is what it means to be an author, and also what it means to be interviewed by a pro.

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The Americanization of Emily is generally considered one of James Garner's best movies; with a script by Paddy Chayefsky, it combines the easygoing charm of Garner and co-star Julie Andrews with the savage satire and biting wit of Chayefsky's other hits, including The Hospital and Network. (In fact, both Garner and Andrews considered it their personal favorite of all the movies they acted in.) Its anti-war message was controversial in its time, however, and we get a hint of that in Judith Crist's review (Thursday, 9:00 p.m. ET, CBS). "[This week's] pretension is in The Americanization of Emily, an "almost" movie in that it almost gets where it thinks it's going before it changes its mind  and gets nowhere. Blame the fuzzy-minded and phrase-gimmicked screenplay extolling cowardice because heroics and heroism immorally support and encourage war. James Garner is simply unbelievable as the antihero and Julie Andrews is charming, but Emily barely gets her first papers.

If you think that's a bad review, though, wait until you get to her take on The Carpetbaggers (Sunday, 9:00 p.m., ABC). "Five years ago this screen version of Harold Robbins' foray into poor man's pornography was noteworthy for its being dull and dreary soap opera decked out with near-incest, nymphomania, alcoholism, prostitution, blackmail, big-business dirty-dealing and some antique theorizing about hereditary insanity. Since these are now the everyday stuff of entertainment, we're left only with the dull and dreary. The movie grossed millions because people paid to see if it was as smutty as the book. It wasn't." Ouch!

Lest you think all is negative, there's "one of Hollywood's best movie musicals," Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Friday, 9:00 p.m., CBS), directed by Stanley Donen and choreographed by Michael Kidd, and staring Howard Keel and Jane Powell. "The fresh humor of the plotting is irresistible and the dancing—particularly a barn-raising and rough-house sequence—still stands beyond compare." I know it's one of my wife's favorites, but I can't help but think about this version.

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College basketball is the big winner in this week's sports scene, highlighted by the famous Palestra doubleheaders that have been such a big part of the Philadelphia basketball scene for so many years. On Wednesday night it's Seton Hall vs. St. Joseph's, followed by Duquesne vs. LaSalle; Friday it's Brown vs. Penn and Detroit vs. LaSalle. Both nights begin at 7:00 p.m. on WPHL. While some of these colleges may be obscure in the big-time scene nowadays, Eastern basketball was big-time back in the 1950s and 1960s, when the NCAA tournament had maybe 22 teams and each conference could only send one team.

There's also golf this week; the PGA Tour event is the Phoenix Open (5:00 p.m. Sunday, ABC), and the made-for-TV shows include the CBS Golf Classic (4:00 p.m. Saturday) and Shell's Wonderful World of Golf (Saturday, 5:00 p.m., NBC). With their big names and color footage of some of the world's greatest golf courses, I think these shows had more to do with the growth of golf than the actual tournaments. The NHL Game of the Week gives us the Boston Bruins against the Black Hawks at Chicago (Sunday, 2:30 p.m., CBS), and the Flyers are on local TV, taking on the Blues in St. Louis Wednesday at 9:00 on WKBS.

Also on Wednesday, it's the second annual Academy of Professional Sports Awards, live from Hollywood (10:00 p.m., NBC). Last year, the host was Johnny Carson; this year, the honors go to Perry Como. I haven't been able to find out too much about these awards; I know there were several awards of this type around this time (the Victor Awards, for example), but I don't see any evidence of this outfit beyond this year.

And if none of these float your boat, there's ABC's Pro Bowlers Tour Saturday at 3:00 p.m., followed by Wide World of Sports, featuring figure skating and the World Figure-Eight Stock Car Championships at Islip, New York—always a favorite. Remember these?

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Raymond Burr has moved out of the courtroom and into a wheelchair, as the star of Ironside. In fact, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that, despite the supporting cast, Burr, virtually through an act of will, is the show. And in this interview with Edith Efron, he shows how similar the character is to the man.

Efron begins by looking back, to Burr's portrayal of Perry Mason, to find how the actor inhabits a role—or, more accurately, how he creates it. Speaking of Mason, Burr says he wasn't given much to work with: "Erle Stanley Gardner did not create a character with spiritual qualities." But Mason, like Robert Ironside, "is something like doing a Greek tragedy. You already know what the end will be. Because the action is schematized and predictable, the whole concentration must be on qualities of character. I had to project these qualities, these values, from the inside."

So what, Efron asks, does it take for an actor to portray a hero? "It's harder to play a hero than a heavy. It requires the ability to project honesty and truth, to project great moral purity. A certain subtle quality of evil can prevent an actor from conveying the purity required for a heroic lead." When Efron asks if, then, Burr lacks that quality of evil and has that purity, he replies "I didn't say that." Even though, implicitly, he did.

Because of the values he projects, Efron says, Burr "has gotten more than respect. He is the object of moral adulation by an incredible legion of human beings in 71 countries—where the Perry Mason show is breaking international records for inspiring devotion, as it did for so long in this country." He inspires awe in fellow actors, and even fear. Says an old friend, "Those eyes—they seem to go right through you to the core. He looks—and you've had it. He affects a lot of people that way."

Raymond Burr is something of a contradiction. He's an intensely private person, and yet to a great degree the man you see on the screen, regardless of the role, is Raymond Burr. He tells Efron a curious thing: "I never lie. I don't say all there is to say about myself. But I never lie. And I hate being lied to." Well, we know that he has lied, about his life and his background, though there's no evidence that it was ever done for personal gain, but simply to help create that barrier around him. (And in fairness, a number of the "lies" are simply conclusions drawn by others based on things he's said.)

This isn't the first article TV Guide has done on Burr, and it won't be the last. But no matter how many times we read about him, he continues to be more and more fascinating, even as we find we never get any closer to knowing him.

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I don't really know what to make of the show I'm about to mention. It's a special called Children's Letters to God (Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC), hosted by Gene Kelly and by our old favorite, Dr. Frank Buxton, and based on the best-seller by Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall. From the description, I think it's supposed to be a humorous half-hour, kind of like those bits that Johnny Carson used to do where he'd read Thanksgiving recipes from children. ("Put the turkey in the oven at 1,000 degrees for 10 minutes.") The letters were written by kids in Sunday school, and put to animation by Bill Melendez Associates, the folks responsible for the Peanuts specials.*

*Of which there just happens to be one this week, He's Your Dog, Charlie Brown, Thursday at 7:30 p.m. on CBS.

Some of these letters are pretty funny: "Dear God, Why did you make worms and things? I know you must have had a reason, but I hope it was a good one," reads an unsigned one, while Frank writes, "Dear God, I saw St. Patrick Church last week when we went to New York. You live in a nice house." The program description notes that a child may write about "anything—slum conditions, a show-business career or a distaste for [as we saw] crawly creatures." The letters are described as whimsical and touching, and there's something quite poignant about how these children share with God so freely and openly, about whatever happens to be on their mind, as if they were talking with a friend or parent—and that's the way it should be.

At the same time, I get the feeling there's something far more existential buried in this idea, especially considering when this show was made. I'm drawn back to that memorable 1968 Mister Rogers episode in which Daniel Striped-Tiger asks about assassination. Was there a letter from a child asking, "Dear God, Why do bad people kill good people? Or are they not really bad?" What about a letter like, "Dear God, Why did you make things like War? And why did my daddy die?" And, of course, we're right in the middle of the counterculture revolution; I wonder if anyone would have written, "Dear God, My older sister says you're dead. Is that true?" Maybe a Jewish child would have asked a question about the Holocaust, like Elie Wiesel. I realize that this all sounds terribly depressing, or at the very least like something that The Onion would have come up with. But there was great desperation taking hold of America at the end of the Sixties, and no wonder: war, race, poverty, sex, drugs, divorce. Children must have been frightened by it all, it also seems quite natural that this would have been a deeper, more reflective program than it is.

And then there's how a show like this looks from today's perspective. I know that these kinds of programs are still done by people like Steve Harvey, and books like this one are still written. (The original authors themselves wrote additional volumes.) But there's a segment of the population out there, the people who despise any kind of religion, and they probably equate Sunday school with some form of child abuse, or scoff at the naivety of these children that they actually believe in something as foolish as God. Certainly the East and West Coasts are far too sophisticated for this kind of sentimental claptrap. Seriously, could you air a program like this today? It seems to be a relic not just from another era, but another world.

That's why I say that I'm not quite sure what to make of this program. I look at the title and I see something that's probably completely different from what the program actually was. I look at the books with their brightly colored covers, and read the earnest letters written in a kid's handwriting, and I understand what they're going for. Then I look back at the title again: Children's Letters to God. There is something so very stark about that, don't you think? "Dear God, Please get me and my family out of this place." "Dear God, I pray every night. Do you hear me?" Maybe one like "Dear God, Thank you for the food we have every day," or "Dear God, Thanks for bringing my mom home from the hospital." Were there letters like those too? Why is there suffering? Why did my dog have to die? Kids ask these kinds of questions, and I think the answers would have been quite moving, as well as inspiring.

I know, I know; reading too much into something again. Still, a version of this program on Lamp Unto My Feet or Look Up and Live might have been interesting; Fred Rogers would certainly know how to do it. As the world seemed to crumble before our very eyes, it would have reminded us just Who holds it all together. TV  

1 comment:

  1. The name Stuart Hample rings a bell, but not for the reasons you would think. Stuart, or Stoo as he was sometimes billed wrote many other children's books with THE SILLY BOOK being the other well known one. He also assisted Al Capp on Lil' Abner in the 1950's. By the 1970's he had a comic strip called "Inside Woody Allen", which he initially wrote under a pseudonym Joe Marthen. In the 1980s, Stoo actually wrote for the "Kate and Allie" TV show.

    Stuart is also known as the father of well known ball-hawk and baseball superfan/celebrity Zack. Zack has caught over 10,000 baseballs at Major League ballgames. Some people like Zack for his persistence, while others hate him for his aggressive style. Google "Zack Hample" for more info. Stuart died in 2010 at84.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!