April 18, 2020

This week in TV Guide: April 15, 1961

Perhaps it was the fact that we shared a first name, or maybe it was the way he held his arms; Mitch Miller is to conducting what Joe Friday is to walking. Whatever the reason, and we'll probably never know just what it was, I grew up a fan of Mitch Miller. I've been told that I was quite the sight, standing in front of the TV with my legs together, arms stretched out, waving my hands in imitation of Miller's famous conducting pose. Ah, those were the days.

Mitch Miller was a singularly unlikely television star. He was a classical oboist, a studio musician, and head of recording for Columbia Records. He worked with, and later feuded with, Sinatra. He certainly had an eye for talent: his discoveries included Tony Bennett, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney and Johnny Mathis. He had a knack for marketing: in 1954, the producers of Studio One approached Miller in search of a song for a drama they were doing about payola in the music industry. (He was a natural to ask, given Columbia was owned by CBS); he gave them a ballad called "Let Me Go, Devil," and urged them to use an unknown singer (Joan Weber) rather than an established star. The show was telecast (with the song now titled "Let Me Go, Lover"); Miller shrewdly saw to it that store shelves were well-stocked with recordings of the song. It was a smash, and sold 500,000 copies in five days.

He made a few records himself, and had a big choral hit with "The Yellow Rose of Texas." Yes, Mitch Miller was doing pretty well. But there was one thing Mitch Miller didn't like: rock music. It wasn't his kind of music, the music that had been so successful for him for so long; he called it "musical baby food: it is the worship of mediocrity, brought about by a passion for conformity." So he decided to fight back, with what was called the "Sing-along" album, recordings of old favorites with the lyrics printed on the cover so listeners could sing along with Mitch and the gang.

And when Sing Along With Mitch debuted on television in 1961, Mitch Miller became a star.

Sing Along With Mitch was an instant, and surprise, hit, reaching #15 in its first season.  It slaughtered The Untouchables (perhaps the most violent program on television at the time).  It spawned the successful singing career of Leslie Uggams.  It introduced us to Bob McGrath, of Sesame Street fame, who was a longtime singalongers.  Not bad.

The show stayed on the air for three seasons, was seen in reruns through 1966. The Christmas specials were always a highlight. The records sold well. Eventually, of course, the British invasion and the rock movement proved too much. But Mitch Miller never really faded away entirely. He was a pretty good, not great, player on Password. He was a frequent guest conductor for the Boston Pops. A lot of people credit Miller with being the progenitor of karaoke. OK, we'll give him a pass on that one.

Today I suppose it's hard to imagine a show like that being a hit, but then back in the day, almost anything was possible on television. It's—well, it's unfortunate that TV, with its astounding technological advances, is in many ways far less advanced than it was when it depended on the incredible creativity of its pioneers. But, as with so many other things, that's a story for another day.

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This Saturday is a red-letter day in Minnesota: the first home game of the new Minnesota Twins, who used to be the old Washington Senators, back when we had sports—remember those days? The pre-game show begins at 1:00 p.m. on WTCN, and at 1:25 the Twins take the field against the new Washington Senators from Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota, a suburb located roughly midway between the rival cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul; the team plays there for its first 21 seasons before moving to the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis. The Met was as good a place as any to watch a ballgame, a stadium that lacked what we’d call the finer amenities, but there were few bad seats in the place.

Unfortunately, the one thing it lacked was a roof, and when the politicos in Minnesota decided that an indoor, climate-controlled stadium was essential to retain the Twins and Minnesota Vikings, the stadium’s days were numbered. The Metrodome, too, has since bit the dust, being replaced by a new—outdoor—stadium in 2010. Meanwhile, the site of the old Met is now the Mall of America, which shares one thing in common with today’s Twins: right now, neither of them is open. Oh, and by the way, the Twins lost that first home game to the Senators, 5-2. A perennial loser when in Washington (“First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League”), by 1965 they’d be in the World Series.

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Affiliate switch! It’s not as big as the one in 1979, but “Operation Big Switch” prepares the Twin Cities for the swap, effective April 16, with ABC moving from WTCN, Channel 11, to KMSP, Channel 9; Channel 11 will take Channel 9’s place as the area’s independent station. And the first fruits of that change. . .

. . . None other than Hollywood's own red-letter day, the 33rd Academy Awards (Monday, 9:30 p.m., ABC), live from Santa Monica, California. The show’s hosted for the ninth time by Bob Hope, with a star-studded cast of nominees, presenters, singers and dancers filling out the two-hour program, which preempts Peter Gunn. The big winners? Burt Lancaster as Best Actor, Elizabeth Taylor as Best Actress, and The Apartment as Best Picture. I suspect you can catch them all on TCM. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I always enjoyed having the Oscars on Monday night; like Monday Night Football, it gave you something to look forward to on the toughest day of the week. Moving it to Sunday night has, I think, taken some of the glamour away. As for the argument that Sunday allows for an earlier start (and therefore an earlier end), I have a better idea: make the show shorter. You know their attitude towards us viewers, though: let 'em eat cake.

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Sunday's highlights are mostly for night owls At 10:00 p.m. on WTCN, it's the debut of The Oscar Levant Show, with guests Carl Reiner and Jayne Mansfield. For those of you who aren't familiar with him, Oscar Levant was a fascinating bundle of contradictions: he was a prodigy at the piano, studied with Arnold Schoenberg (had he more self-confidence, he could have had a career as a concert pianist; as it was, he was still very good), was a friend of George Gershwin, served as Al Jolson's sidekick on the radio version of Kraft Music Hall, and acted in all kinds of musicals, including The Band Wagon, An American in Paris and The Barclays of Broadway, providing an acidic wit to leaven their hoakiness. It was that caustic, sarcastic humor that he came to be best known for—well, that and his mental health. Oscar was hospitalized several times because of it, and he was quite open and upfront about it; in fact, an episode of The Jack Benny Program features Jack going to Oscar's psychiatrist for troubles with his nerves. Levant often discussed his problems on talk shows like Jack Paar's, where he was a favorite. Oscar Levant was not, I think, a happy man; the fact that he found humor in his problems doesn't disguise the fact that he had them.

If you're still awake after Levant, you might want to stick around for Eichmann on Trial (Midnight, ABC), which replaces the news program Roundup USA for the duration of Adolf Eichmann's war crimes trial. It's a digest of the week's developments at the trial, which began on April 11 and will run through August; Eichmann will be found guilty in a verdict released in December, and is executed on June 1, 1962. Eichmann was one of the most evil of the Nazis, a prime architect of the "Final Solution" agreed upon at the 1942 Wannsee Conference. His trial is big, big news worldwide.

You're going to want to save your energy on Monday for the Oscars, but if you can, watch the prime time premiere of the daytime game show Concentration (8:30 p.m., NBC), hosted by Hugh Downs. Not only does it give working stiffs like us a chance to see the fun, there's a bonus: unlike the daytime version, it's in color! Tuesday night presents the premiere of Walter Matthau's only television series, the police drama Tallahassee 7000 (9:30 p.m., KMSP). As shows go, there's nothing special about it; according to the always-reliable Wikipedia, Matthau did the series "only for the minor inconvenience of making a living," and the bio Matthau: A Life by Rob Edelman and Audrey E. Kupferberg call it "another Matthau career nadir." If you want a Florida-based show, you're probably better off sticking with Surfside 6. Meanwhile, if you've only seen Frank Sutton on Gomer Pyle, you're going to want to check out Wednesday's episode of Naked City (9:00 p.m., ABC), where Sutton and Robert Blake (no surprise) play a couple of psychopathic killers on the loose.

Do you remember how the networks used to do specials when the Ringling Brothers Circus or the Ice Capades would open their seasons? They'd be hosted by someone like Ed Ames, who'd sing a couple of songs and introduce a few acts that would duly impress viewers, and everyone would have a good time. We have one of those on Thursday, as Arthur Godfrey travels to Greensboro for highlights of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus (7:00 p.m., CBS). Makes sense, since Godfrey often appears at western shows of one kind or another, doing some dance steps with his horse, Goldie; I saw him at the Minnesota State Fair one year, performing at such a show. He was a crowd pleaser, even when he wasn't appearing on a twin bill with Julius LaRosa. Later one, Pat Boone has his own springtime special (7:30 p.m., ABC), with Dorothy Provine, Fabian, Johnny Mercer, Joanie Sommers, and the Kingston Trio. Saving the best for last, at 9:30 p.m. on ABC, it's another of Ernie Kovacs' monthly specials. The night's heavy on music, with "interpretations" of Tchaikovsky, Bartok and Weill.

The most intriguing program of the week may well be Friday’s Jackie Gleason special entitled "The Million Dollar Incident” (7:30 p.m., CBS). It is presented to us as a “true” story and is set seven years ago, with Gleason, as himself, bursting into Toots Shor’s and, after a shot of whiskey for the nerves, telling his friend Ed Sullivan (also playing himself) what’s just happened to him. From there we learn that Gleason had been kidnapped by a trio of crooks who planned to hold him for ransom—one million dollars, to be precise, payable by CBS. The crooks are played by Everett Sloane, Jack Klugman and Peter Falk; Gleason himself came up with the story, which was written by A.J. Russell, Sydney Zelinka and Walter Stone, and was directed by Norman Jewison. You can see it at the Paley Center in New York, and it would be a great one (for the Great One) if it was made available for home viewing.

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Richard Gehman has an article on John Charles Daly, one of my favorite television personalities of all time, a man now making news rather than reporting it. We know about his remarkable news career, which I wrote about here; Gehman says that over the years Daly became known as a man "who could cover anything from a Presidential tour to the birth of a penguin." His desire to learn as much as he could about a subject, and to find the facts for himself, had made him one of the most learned men in the news business. Not long ago, according to Gehman, a friend had asked Daly about the situation in Laos. He replied with "a 10-minute exposition, peopling it with the principal characters in the struggle for power, giving their backgrounds and forecasting the events of the next few months."

But, as the headline says, Daly's now making the news himself. Last year he left his position as news chief at ABC after a dispute about the network's election-night coverage. Sure, there had been disagreements in the last four or five years, but things came to a head on November 8. "When the executives cut into my news coverage to put on two shows, Bugs Bunny and The Rifleman, I felt it was going too far." It's freed him to work full time as emcee of What's My Line? on CBS, a job he's held since 1950. (Even though he was a VP at ABC, the network allowed him to do WML on CBS, a network he had worked for until 1949.) For Daly, hosting the quiz show is "little more than a chore." He arrives at the studio at 10:10 p.m., talks a little with the night's guests, gets some powder on his face for the live broadcast beginning at 10:30 p.m, and leaves the studio at 11:05, five minutes after WML goes off the air.

A half-hour a week hardly enough time to keep a man like Daly busy, so everyone wonders what he's headed for next. Will he go into government? Will he go into newspaper publishing? Daly himself says only that "I've had no vacation for four years. I'm getting some rest now. [And also spending time with his bride, Virginia, whom he married last year.] I don't know how long I"ll rest. But when, one morning, I wake up itchy, I'll know it's time to go back to work." John Daly hosts What's My Line? until its network run ends in 1967. He then spends a year as head of the Voice of America, and works for several years for the American Enterprise Institute. Through it all he remains urbane, avuncular, good-humored; as I've said many times, he's what I want to be when I grow up.

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Do you remember Mark Wilson? I probably haven't thought of him in years, but whenever I see his name in TV Guide, or run across an article like the one in this week's issue, he reappears in my memory as if out of nowhere. Which is appropriate, since Mark Wilson is one of the best-known magicians in the country. For the last three years he's hosted the Saturday morning ABC show called The Magic Land of Allakazam. The article focuses on his work with the animals in his act (Basil the Baffling Bunny, Gertrude the Glamorous Guinea Pig, Charles the Charming Chicken, and more), but if you want to know how he gets them to levitate in his act, don't count on him telling you. "With all the animals sailing into space these days," he says, "we can brag that we do not use a space capsule, and we promise to bring 'em back alive."

Unlike many of the shows I write about, I can't really tell you much about Allakazam, other than that "Allakazam" (not "Presto!") is the magic word. No, my memory of the show comes from finding a "paintless paint book" in an old cedar chest in our basement about 25 years ago. There were all kinds of things in that chest: old cartoon-character soaky toys, scrapbooks, comics and coloring books. We kept the soaky toys and got rid of most everything else in one of the many downsizings we've gone through over the years; part of me is sorry for having gotten rid of it all, but on the other hand it's pretty embarrassing when things like that keep you from fitting into the condo you want to buy, so it's a question of values. We'll always have the memories though, even if we don't have Paris, and the memory I have is of seeing Mark Wilson on the cover of this paint book, where if you dampened the page, the color magically! appears. Even before I found the picture on the right, I could tell you what it looked like: yellow cover, Mark Wilson pulling a rabbit out of the hat, and the word "Allakazam" across the front.

So whenever I see Allakazam, I don't remember the show, although I know I watched it; I remember the paint book. It's a pleasant memory, seeing something that you'd forgotten about for so long, I suppose this whole website has been about memories, come to think of it. But then, where would we be without them? I think someone answered that once, but I can't remember what it was. TV  

1 comment:

  1. Hmmmm would a sing along program go over today? Maybe bring it up to date with songs from the 60s. 70s, and 80s with the male chorus sung by The NYC Gay Men's Choir.


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