April 11, 2020

This week in TV Guide: April 10, 1953

Last week we were on hand for the first anniversary of TV Guide as a national publication. This week, we’ll go back one more year, to the second-ever issue of the magazine. We’ll also travel from Philadelphia west to another city with a rich television history, Chicago. Over the course of 2020, we’ll be looking at several 1953 issues from Chicago, and we’re bound to see some of the city’s early TV stars along the way. Since the Chicago edition began life as "TV Forecast," we’ll also see features unique to that publication, ones with a definite local angle.

First, though, we'll start with the cover, and a man sitting on top of the television world right now. Jack Webb is in his early 30’s, he weighs a trim 165 pounds, and Dragnet plays to an audience estimated at 38 million each week. (For context, 2018’s top-rated program, NBC’s Sunday Night Football, averaged about 19.3 million viewers, up about a million from the previous year.) And, according to this week’s article, "He plays every television scene as if it were a real police case."

Dragnet started on the radio in 1949, and from 1952 to 1957 was broadcast on both radio and television (different stories, of course). Webb got the idea while playing a police lieutenant in the movie He Walked By Night; he asked a Los Angeles police sergeant serving as technical advisor if it would be possible to do a radio series based on actual case files. After getting information from the department, creating his characters, and coming up with a format, he made the pitch to NBC and won the day. According to police chief C.B. Horrall, what made the show appealing is how it doesn’t make heroes out of ordinary policeman, and reflects "the day-to-day drudgery of police work." The sponsor suggested adding a TV version in 1951, and it made its debut on January 1, 1952.

No, Joethe ratings are great!
There's a good look backstage at how each episode is made. It stars with Webb and writer John Robinson reviewing case histories given to them by the department. Once they’ve chosen the week’s story, they do the script for the radio series (they’ll later adapt it for TV), which is then submitted to the department for technical corrections and the City Attorney’s office for any legal ramifications; a policeman from the appropriate department is on the set to guarantee authenticity. Webb makes liberal use of teleprompters to cut down on retakes (important since the budget for each episode is only about $30,000). He makes four episodes over a two-week period, then takes two weeks off for “careful planning and editing.”

Other things that I find quite interesting: Webb reads and answers every letter he gets (about 400 per week; he estimates that each letter represents about 10,000 viewers), and if even ten letters suggest a change, he’ll consider it—after all, that translates to as many as 100,000 listeners who might feel the same way. It’s not a show that thrives on violence (and that alone makes it notable in the world of TV police shows); Webb estimates that only about 15 bullets have been fired during the life of the show, which would probably equal an average single episode of The Untouchables—before the first commercial break. (Ah, but we’re skipping ahead a few years, aren’t we?) He’s most proud of the letters he gets from real law enforcement officials praising the show’s realism. And while Webb is a stickler for accuracy, he also wants to make sure there’s nothing in the episode that would make the criminal recognizable in real life—he’s already paid his debt.

All this accuracy has helped make Dragnet the #3 rated show on television. It also reminds the public that “crime does not pay.”

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We’re always looking at Ed Sullivan’s competition around here, and in the first half of the 1950s, that competition is NBC’s Colgate Comedy Hour and its stable of rotating hosts. While Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were the most famous (and most popular) headliners, there were a number of big-name entertainers who at one time or another were part of that rotation, including Donald O’Connor, Eddie Cantor, Abbott & Costello (separately and together), Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope. Although the show gave Ed a real run for his money early on (especially when Martin & Lewis hosted), by now Toast of the Town, as the Sullivan show was known for its first few years, is exercising ratings dominance, and by 1955 it’s off the air. For now, though, they’re still going head-to-head at 7:00 p.m. CT every Sunday. Let’s see what it looks like this week.

Sullivan: Ed presents Jane Powell in a scene from “Small Town Girl”; Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer; Billy de Wolfe; Billy Ward’s Dominoes, singing and instrumental quartet; the University of Michigan Glee Club; and the Gae Foster Toastettes.

Comedy Hour: This week’s host is Eddie Cantor, with guests Gloria Grahame, the Will Maston Trio with Sammy Davis Jr., and Harry Kari, Japanese singing comedian.

You know, these are both pretty good, pretty typical lineups for the time. Ed has some real star power with Powell, Harrison and Palmer; on the other hand, you've got the young Sammy Davis Jr. performing with the Will Maston Trio, and you know I'm a fan of Sammy's. In the end, though, Ed just has too much star power; perhaps if Eddie Cantor had Harry Caray the baseball announcer, or Harry Carey Jr. the actor—but no. And so we'll toast Ed as this week's winner

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Another week, another big championship bout. Or not. Red Smith, perhaps the nation's premiere sportswriter, has an article on what to look forward to in the Rocky Marciano—Jersey Joe Walcott heavyweight championship fight, scheduled for Friday night from Chicago Stadium. The two had first met last September in Philadelphia with Walcott's title on the line, and ended in the 13th round with a spectacular Marciano knockout, one of the most famous in the long history of the sport. Friday night Marciano makes his first title defense in a rematch with Walcott. Not everyone is convinced that the rugged, rough-around-the-edges Marciano has what it takes to be a champion, and that his one-punch KO of Walcott was more a fluke than anything else. Red Smith's take is that Walcott, known affectionately as "The Old Man" ("the oldest heavyweight champion since Achilles outpointed Hector," Smith says), has reached the end of the line, and that Rocky, crude and inexperienced though he may be, should take him out in the seventh or eighth round.

Now, you'll notice how I mentioned that the fight was "scheduled" for Friday. So why, when you turn to Cavalcade of Sports at 9:00 p.m. on NBC, do you see Randy Sands scheduled to take on Willie Troy? Well, it's like this: just as the national section of TV Guide went to press, Marciano sustained a cut while in training, necessitating a postponement of the fight by one month, to May 15. The editors decided that Smith's article "still holds true for the May 15 match."* And when that fight does take place, still in Chicago, Marciano scores a knockout two minutes into the first round. It's a controversial ending; many think Walcott took a dive in return for the biggest payday of his career, even more than the champ was getting paid. We'll probably never know. What we do know is that on Monday night, young Floyd Patterson is scheduled to meet Dick Wagner in a light-heavyweight bout (8:30 p.m., DuMont). It's only the sixth professional fight for Patterson, the 1952 Olympic light-heavyweight gold medalist.

*FYI: since the fight was held in Chicago, it would have been blacked out in Chicagoland anyway.

The rest of the story: Jersey Joe Walcott never fights again after losing to Rocky Marciano. The Rock retires in 1956 as the only undefeated heavyweight champion in history (a distinction he holds to this day). A tournament is held to select his successor; it's won by—Floyd Patterson.

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If, like me, you believe that Ronald Reagan’s road to the presidency begins with his long association with GE Theater, you’ll note this from the New York TV Teletype, that the show, “which substituted for Fred Waring while the Pennsylvanians were on tour, will also replace the Waring show this summer.” It stays there, airing Sunday nights until 1962, as Reagan tours the country as commercial spokesman, meeting and impressing the public. Four years after the show goes off the air, Reagan moves into the governor’s mansion in Sacramento.

You might be surprised to see Perry Como with a 15-minute program, but until 1955, when he got an hour-long show (and moved to NBC), Mr. C made do with airing three times a week (6:45 p.m., CBS) in the remainder of the half-hour taken up by Douglas Edwards and the CBS news. (None other than Dinah Shore performed a similar function over on NBC Tuesday and Thursday nights). And yes, the Eddie Albert who hosts his own daily half-hour variety show on CBS (2:30 p.m.) is the same Eddie Albert who, 15 years later, lives on Green Acres.

And on Tuesday morning (7:00 a.m., NBC), Today throws "a birthday party for Mr. Muggs, who is one year old today." That's certainly a cause for celebration!

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What kind of letters are people writing about in 1953? The magazine doesn't have a national “Letters to the Editor” section yet, so the letter writers are going to be from the TV Forecast circulation area, Chicago and surrounding cities. Also, since this is only the second issue of TV Guide, they’re probably also all referring to articles that had appeared in TV Forecast. And there’s a heavy, though not exclusively, local slant to the correspondence.

For example, the Leptich Family of Chicago writes, “Your TV critics really can miss the boat. There is a real personality right here in Chicago. The warm, humorous off the cuff type such as Godfrey—And we mean Chuck Bill. Why not put him in charge of a panel show or variety show?” Chuck Bill is the host of Adventure Time Saturday mornings on WBKB; later on, he hosts the station's Serial Theater on Saturday afternoons, and later on he can be found on the radio at WLS Farm Special. As far as I know, he never got a national show of his own.

There are a couple of letters referring to the Fohrman family; alluding to their sponsorship of Saturday night wrestling on WGN. Mrs. Mack McIntyre of Hammond, Indana, thanks God that “we still have a few men in America like them that will spend part of their money in America for the American people,” and ads that her TV “wouldn’t be worth 10 cents to me without wrestling.” Mrs. Fred Coughenour of Gary, Indiana adds that “I’m for the Fohrman family 100% . . . Now don’t answer me and say I don’t know art.” I’m assuming that these two ladies (and remember how many wrestling fans of the 1950s were women) are referring to Fohrman Motors and Benjamin Fohrman, referred to in his obituary as “an early television advertiser.” In fact, that obituary mentions a remarkable and tragic story, which you can read more about here.

And then there are some stories that supersede regional interests. Mr. and Mrs. Henry Von Ogden of Chicago have some strong words for the star of the sitcom My Friend Irma.* “Why don’t they do something about the clothes Marie Wilson wears on “Irma”? We’re so disgusted we stopped smoking her sponsor’s product.” I looked around the internet and watched a couple of episodes of Irma, and while it’s not hard finding a cheesecake photo of Marie Wilson, this picture from the cover of TV Forecast is the only specifically “Irma” photo I could find that could conceivably fit the outrage from Mr. and Mrs. Von Ogden. (And she does look very friendly indeed, doesn't she?) Call the Morals Squad!

*Fun fact: Irma began on radio in 1943 and moved to television in 1952. A movie version of My Friend Irma was made in 1949; Marie Wilson played Irma, but it's mainly remembered today for introducing Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis to moviegoers

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Finally, here's something I can almost guarantee you won't see on WGN today: the grand opening of City & Suburban Heating, at 4:00 p.m. Saturday, or right after the ball game, with a host of personalities headed by WGN radio personality Jim Ameche (brother of Don, and cousin of Alan "The Horse," the great Baltimore Colts running back who scores the winning touchdown in overtime in the 1958 NFL Championship), and before you assume that this is just a collection of B-listers and brothers of more famous stars, Jim is a star in his own right, most prominently as the radio voice of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy from 1933 to 1938—no surprise since the show originated on WBBM in Chicago. He'll continue with a long and successful radio announcing career before dying in 1983.

As for City & Suburban Heating, it's still around, known today as City & Suburban Heating & Cooling. A pet grooming business now operates at 5434 South Archer, but City & Suburban has a location about 12 miles away, and they're an A-rated company by Angie's List. It's nice to know that, even after more than 60 years, some things don't change. TV  

1 comment:

  1. It's likely that Harry Kari, Ed Sullivan's Japanese singing comedian guest, is actually a character played by Harry Stewart, better known for his Scandinavian character Yogi Yorgesson, famed for "I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas." After several years of success with Yogi, Stewart expanded his lineup of characters, and Harry Kari was one of them.

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