June 13, 2020

This week in TV Guide: June 12, 1953

Yes, my friends, television is a fickle mistress. TV Guide is still only three months old, and yet Milton Berle—Mr. Television, the first star of the still-young medium—is already on the comeback trail. His Texaco Star Theatre burst on the scene in 1948, and yet by early 1952, his Texaco star was in deep decline. This wasn't exactly seen as a bad thing by the critics, who had long been critical of the American public for elevating this "embodiment of bad taste" to the hierarchy of popular stardom.

Fast-forward to today, and Uncle Miltie, with a new format and attitude to match, is back. Only I Love Lucy outranks him in the weekly ratings, and the critics who once scorned him are now singing his praises. What in the name of Philo Farnsworth has happened, and who is this new Milton Berle?

According to his manager, Irving Gray, the Berle show's format hasn't changed, as much as it has evolved. "When we started out, we made everything as broad as possible," Gray says. "You know, platter jokes—jokes that are served up on a platter so you can't miss them. Naturally our show appealed more to the kids. As the television public grew larger, we began losing out on the older audience that wanted something a little more sophisticated." By having a more structured format, one that often focuses on preparation for the show itself, "it has allowed us to take a more adult approach."

Many in the industry say the "prize move" was Berle's hiring of Goodman Ace, one of the top comedy writers in the business. Berle, who hates sharing credit with anyone, is effusive in his praise for Goodman, who has successfully convinced his boss that his audience is smart enough to get the more restrained humor of the new format. Ace, who is unsparing in his criticism of various shows in his role as columnist for the Saturday Review, says he's happy working with Berle; "I worked for 15 years writing good stuff and nobody paid any attention to it. Now I can write for a big audience and still squeeze in some clever material." With a cast of regulars and everything "toned down," Berle is "learning that jokes springing naturally out of character are vastly important to a well-integrated program."

TV Guide is overly optimistic about the future of Berle's show, though. While it's true that the critics approve of the new format, the ratings rise is only temporary. The show finishes #5 for the season (with a rating of 46.7, as opposed to 61.6 two seasons before), and by the 1955-56 season it's out of the top 30. Berle tries several comebacks; each time, however, the highs are that much lower, and while he'll always be "Mr. Television," the title is increasingly an honorary one.

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Sunday's Colgate Comedy Hour (7:00 p.m. CT, NBC) features Bob Hope as host, with guests Rosemary Clooney, Randy Merriman and Bess Myerson. A word about Randy Merriman: he toured with Hope for the USO during World War II; later, he hosted The Big Payoff with Bess Myerson on NBC, which explains his appearance on Comedy Hour. However, his roots were in his hometown of Minneapolis, where he got his start in radio, and after leaving The Big Payoff in 1957, he returned to Minneapolis and radio station WCCO in 1958, where he would remain for the rest of his career; he would later be inducted into the Minnesota Broadcasting Hall of Fame.

ANSON R. "RANDY" MERRIMAN from Pavek Museum on Vimeo.

The Comedy Hour goes head-to-head with Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town (7:00 p.m., CBS) which features the entire cast of Arthur Godfrey's Friends* on the first half of the show, followed by a minstrel show with Gracie Fields, Smith and Dale, Hal LeRoy, Joe Howard, Will Oakland, the Ford Choir, and a host of others, celebrating Ed's fifth anniversary on TV. I'll have to give the edge this week to Colgate.

*Julius LaRosa, Janette Davis, Marion Marlowe and Frank Parker.

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This week's big entertainment is so big—well, how big is it? It's so big that it takes not one but two hours, and not one but two networks, to contain it all. We've seen the occasional program, usually a telethon or other type of charity program simulcast on multiple networks (as opposed to shows appearing on cable networks that share common ownership, or Jackie Kennedy's White House Tour), but how many times can you remember a sponsored show appearing on both CBS and NBC at the same time? It happens this Monday at 8:00 p.m. as the Ford Motor Company presents a salute to their 50th anniversary in the business. The star-studded special, produced by agent/Broadway producer Leland Hayward (responsible for the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musicals South Pacific and The Sound of Music) uses the two hours to look back through American history, including appearances by singers Marian Anderson, Mary Martin and Ethel Merman, Edward R. Murrow, the stars of Amos 'n' Andy, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, Oliver J. Dragon (Kukla's sidekick), and more. It features singing, dancing, comedy, and even a bit of history as Ollie teams with science reporter William L. Laurence to look at the Atomic Age.

It must have been one of the great specials—spectaculars, as Pat Weaver called them—in the young history of television. And on two networks at the same time! Ford had pretty big pockets back then. From what I've read, the long medley of duets by Mary Martin and Ethel Merman was the hit of the show, but why take my word for it?

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That there on the right is an ad for TV Guide, the perfect Father's Day gift: "A gift fit for a king." By purchasing a subscription to TV Guide, which comes complete with handsome Gift Card, "you assure Dad night after night, week after week of more televiewing pleasure, more real relaxation than he ever enjoyed before." An entire year for just $5—at that rate, Rover won't bring dad his slippers and pipe anymore, just the latest TV Guide.

That got me thinking about some of the ads in this week's issue; as has been the case with these early Chicago editions of TVG, they're dominated by local advertising, much more like one of the TV Week-type issues you'd get free at a convenience store back in the day.

◄ Linn Burton, the legendary Chicago "radio and TV pitchman," as his 1995 obituary in the Tribune puts it, was best known as "Burton for Certain" ("To get across the price is always my main objective," he told an interviewer in 1988), and was a fixture on late-night television, selling "Polk Brothers appliances, Bert Weinman Fords, L. Fish furniture, Curtiss candy bars, Joe Rizza Chevrolets, Rogers & Holland jewelry and glow-in-the-dark crucifixes." After doing commercials for Polk Brothers, he would often stop in to eat at a Rush Street restaurant, in which he was later invited to invest as a partner. It was later renamed Burton's Steak House; I wonder what it was like? You can find out what Burton the pitchman was like with this great clip here.

I joked once that TV Guide wouldn't include the sponsor's name in the title of a show unless that sponsor advertised in the issue; I don't know whether or not that's true, but the 1950s issues did pull out the stops to highlight some sponsors; take a look at the listings for these shows:

Nice little bit of PR, right? Incidentally, those stock car races are held at Soldier Field, now home of the Bears. Before its various renovations, there used to be a track running around the perimeter of the football field, and the races—which ran from the 1930s to the 1960s and included NASCAR at one point—would draw as many as 50,000 fans; STP icon Andy Granatelli was the promoter. I just think this is very cool.

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Speaking of racing, it's easy to forget, if indeed you ever knew, that horse racing was once a very big sport in this country, which of course also means it's a big sport on TV. A card of races features every Saturday afternoon on NBC, courtesy of Gillette (this week: the Kent Stakes, live from Delaware Park, just outside of Wilmington), and at 3:30 p.m. CBS presents the third jewel of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, won by the much-loved Native Dancer. Meanwhile, throughout the country, race courses are packed; Jamaica Raceway in New York frequently draws as many as 50,000 fans to a facility originally designed to hold half that many. When a racing fan can "curl up on a chair in his own living-room

Jamaica packs 'em in on a routine Saturday
And yet. . . many in the sports business wonder how racing has, so far, remained immune to the damaging effects television has brought to other sports. "As TV coverage increases" for baseball, boxing and college football, "the gate receipts tumble," and when a racing fan can "curl up on a chair in his own living-room, turn on his TV set and then settle back in comfort to watch the thoroughbreds streak across the finish line," what incentive is there to fight the crowds and make the trek to the track? The answer lies with that little, five-letter word that makes the world go around, and has brought misery to so much of the world throughout so much of recorded history: money.

"The fact that TV receivers are not yet equipped with parimutuel windows might have something to do with it. And since it is fairly difficult for setside track fans to back their favorites any place but at the track, the racing associations need have little worry about TV cutting into their gate receipts." Because we all know that those back-of-the-store bookie joints, with their colorful environments of surreptitious phone calls, tipsters, and Runyonesque characters taking bets at newsstands and in phone booths of drug stores—those only exist in movies and on TV, right? I suppose TV Guide doesn't want to encourage illegal activities like placing bets with bookies, and I for one haven't got a clue as to how I'd have done that. But then again, I wouldn't have a clue as to how I'd buy drugs from a dealer, either. Probably everyone in the world but me knows how to do these things, but frankly it's kind of hard to do when you spend all your time parked in front of the TV.

But I digress, as usual. The racing associations may not be worried right now, but the aforementioned Jamaica closes in 1959, when the newly renovated Aqueduct reopens. As is the case with so many things—like boxing, for example—the Sport of Kings has been fading for decades now. And if you do want to gamble, who wants to spend the time studying the Daily Racing Form to be really good at it, when you could win a whole lot more by buying a lottery ticket? What's odd is that, thanks to the all-horse racing network TVG, there's probably more horse racing on TV than ever before, and the Triple Crown races remain event viewing, thanks in large part to NBC's promotion, But, like so many things we read in these pages, it ain't what it used to be. TV 


  1. It is considered that Berle's initial, phenomenal success was as much from the fact was that televisions and their viewers were concentrated in the urban Northeast in those very early days (1948-51). In addition, viewing was more a group activity, in homes or other facilities with a TV, such as bars--as such, it was more of a party-type atmosphere where the broad humor went over well with the people watching...working stiff city folk. And as the reach of television expanded, it was now being watched by more and more people whose tastes didn't run to even the quieter, more sophisticated humor Berle was offering, In Charlotte, NC he was utterly crushed in the ratings by the competing station airing the syndicated DEATH VALLEY DAYS opposite him (I don't understand the pre-1961 Nielsen calculation of the numbers, but it's safe to say he had only 1/20th of the viewers in that city in that timeslot, if not less)

    I believe this is the season finale of the COLGATE COMEDY HOUR...Merriman and Myerson appeared because a prime time version of THE BIG PAYOFF would fill half the time slot during its summer hiatus. On it, Bess Myerson gave Hope a miniature version of the mink coat she modeled on the show (it being part of the Payoff) to be worn by his honorary Oscar statuette.

    Paul Duca

  2. I can only find half of this cartoon online...in the other part, they offer a "Santa Anita" model, with built in betting window and pari-mutual operator.

    Paul Duca


  3. This pantomime on 50 years of fashion was another highlight of the Ford Anniversary show...recognize the narrator?

    Paul Duca


  4. TV GUIDE may not have cared much about encouraging gambling, given that its parent, Triangle Corp., also owned DAILY RACING FORM. TV GUIDE's cover of Sept. 14, 1974, which you may have reviewed, borrowed its sister magazine's layout to list predictions for how well or badly the network's new shows for 1974-75 would do.

  5. Ah, Home Sweet Home Chicago!

    In June 1953, I was three months away from my third birthday; the family Motorola was across the living room from my brother and I, so my direct memories are a bit limited.
    However, local TV had more staying power back then, especially in Chicagoland.

    Here's a little guided tour of the listing pages:

    - Page A-6:
    Jack Mabley had already given up his TV column in the Daily News not long before this, in favor of a general commentary column that he did for many years thereafter.
    Jack was phasing out the TV Guide gig about now; this was one of the last ones he did.
    Any questions about what he was writing about here? Let me know.

    -Page A-7:
    For as long as there's been radio and TV, there have been loud, abrasive, obnoxious talk show hosts.
    Chicago had a bunch of them back in the '50s, but few were louder than Tom Duggan, the subject of the story here.
    Duggan had just left WNBQ-Channel 5 for WBKB-Channel 7 (details in the story), and the story reflects the sorts of thing that everybody was required to say for public consumption (smile and say nothing).
    Duggan's whole career is quite a story - several stories, in fact - which would strain your character limit.
    Should the subject ever come up again …

    - Pages A-14-17:
    The Movie Guide has quite a few titles, which I can safely assume you won't have heard of most of them.
    The major studios were still holding out from selling to local stations; what was available were lower-end 'Bs' from Poverty Row of the '30s and '40s - cheap and short (which meant easy to edit to a TV hour).
    Check out those titles and stars: Maybe you might have seen a few (by accident) in very late hours on low-budget stations when you were very young …

    - Pages A-30-31:
    Facing each other here are two Chicago TV pioneers I've had occasion to mention here before:
    Channel 2's Lee Phillip did what most women in early TV did: weather and "features for The Ladies".
    Miss Lee had quite a bit more staying power, building up her cred to take on many serious subjects over 30+ years, while her husband Bill Bell was writing and producing soap operas for Irna Phillips (no relation to Lee).
    Of course you already know about Young & Restless and Bold & Beautiful, but those were far in the future …
    Meanwhile, on the facing page, there's Alex Dreier and The News, which was at noon back then, but ultimately came to take 6 & 10 PM on Channel 5.
    Not long ago, I mentioned that when I started reading Nero Wolfe, I always pictured Alex Dreier in the role; if you'd ever seen and heard Dreier booming his way through a news broadcast, I believe you just might have felt the same way.

    - By the way, notice that the ads for these two shows make prominent mention of the sponsors.
    In the '50s, almost every show on TV had a sponsor or two (locally, sometimes more).
    The RCA Victor Show was Dennis Day's radio sitcom transferred to the tube, more or less intact: "Charlie" was Dennis's radio partner Cliff Arquette as Charley Weaver (and I wouldn't be surprised if the "old crony" was Arquette's old friend Dave Willock (you'd know the face)).
    That ad is on Page A-21, but check out all the other ads for shows throughout the magazine: the ones that don't mention a sponsor or two are the exceptions.

    I'll stand down for the moment; I might be back later if anything else occurs to me.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!