June 6, 2020

This week in TV Guide: June 6, 1964

How do you choose what you write about in each week's TV Guide? asked nobody ever. The truth is, there's no rhyme or reason to it, though some stories jump off the page and beg for attention more than others. But on occasion, there do seem to be some obvious choices; for example, there's the heading on this week's cover, "How to Make Millions Without Really Working." That seemed like an obvious place to start, since it might enable me to not only make millions myself (notwithstanding those who've suggested in the past that I've made thousands, or at least hundreds, without doing much of anything), but if the idea were really good, I could repackage and sell it to others who, like me, want to know the golden secret; this would, coincidentally, make make me more millions.

Alas, it's not quite so easy as that. The case in point is Milton Berle, who, as Dwight Whitney points out, is currently making $100,000 per year from NBC for doing absolutely nothing. To understand this, we have to flash back to 1951, when the network signed Berle, then at the top of his game, to a staggering 30-year contract. Part of that contract, perhaps the fine print, is known as the "pay even if no play" clause, which locks Berle into an exclusive arrangement with NBC. In other words, he works for them or for nobody; as Whitney puts it, the suits "would rather keep ebullient Uncle Miltie warming the bench at $100,000 a year than suddenly have him blast a homer for somebody else." It isn't exactly unusual to have this kind of clause in one's contract—Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Jimmy Durante, Lucille Ball, Phil Silvers, and Carol Burnett are among those who have similar contracts, although none of them have one that runs for as long as Berle's does.

It's this clause which results in one of the saddest, most pathetic sights ever seen on TV, the 1960 series Jackpot Bowling Starring Milton Berle, in which the man known as "Mr. Television" is reduced to doing standup in a bowling alley as a warmup to a couple of professional bowlers competing in a match. That Berle would subject himself to this kind of spectacle is, perhaps, a testimony to how badly he wants to perform. "This is my life," he tells an audience while performing in the Crystal Room. "I love the lights. I love to hear people laugh, and I love to make people laugh."

Despite the frustration that comes from sitting on the sidelines, Berle can't bring himself to give up the money. "It's a lot of money," he confesses, "but that's not what really bugs me. I have a lot to offer creatively and I want to know reasons. But there are no reasons." NBC, of course, presents a different picture. "We listened carefully to every one of Milton's ideas," says Mort Werner, vice president for programming; "they just didn't seem to work out for one reason or another. And a year ago he told us he wasn't interested in doing a weekly variety show." Werner points out that the network has loaned him out; he did a dramatic turn on The Defenders (which Berle says he had to beg NBC to let him do), and another time guest-hosted for Ed Sullivan. "But we can't let him do too much of that—we're not in this business to help out the competition."

In the end, it's a sad standoff. "Milton just can't stand having nothing to do," his wife Ruth says, but his pride just won't let him give in to NBC. In the end, of course, he does get out of the contract, enabling him to make a disastrous 1966 return to the variety show format for ABC, and he continued to appear in guest spots on various programs (including several very good performances in straight dramatic roles), but the glory days were exceedingly to be found in the past. In June 1964, no longer a superstar but not quite a has-been, he is very much a lion in winter.

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And then there's Richard Gehman's very funny profile of Steve Allen, the second of a two-part article. As you may remember from past articles, I've often approached Gehman cautiously, uncomfortable with his tendency to psychoanalyze his subjects in a somewhat disparaging manner. Perhaps it's the fact that the premise of Gehman's article—that Allen is one of the busiest performers in show-business—leads to a conclusion that is purely and delightfully absurd.

At this very moment, Allen is doing his five-nights-a-week Steve Allen Show, syndicated to 40 markets nationwide, mostly to compete with Johnny Carson. He's also just signed to replace Garry Moore as host of I've Got a Secret. This is how his schedule looks: "He will commute to New York every other week, tape two shows [of IGAS] there, get back to Hollywood and tape two of his own shows per night on Thursdays and Fridays (the fifth segment of the week will continue to be a rerun), and in addition will do various guest appearances as his whim strikes him and his energy permits."

Gehman takes a deep breath and recites Allen's various talents, while the rest of us suffer from a mass inferiority complex. He is a pianist, trumpeter, clarinetist, tuba player, bandleader, recording artist and songwriter; he has written 10 books and is a publisher of others; sculpts, lectures, does a nightclub act, and acts both in movies and on stage. He's a businessman and is active in politics. Some people think he's a jack of all trades, master of none, while others consider him shallow. The point is, he's a busy guy.

In attempting to interview Allen for this story, Gehman runs into roadblocks. albeit not intentional ones. He's meeting with agencies, talking to a representative from an actor's union, interviewing a singer, holding production meetings, working with the Cerebral Palsy charity, holding production meetings, and lecturing. Finally, Allen's talent coordinator comes up with an idea. "Why don't you come on the show and interview him?" Which is precisely what Gehman does.

There's nothing historic, or snarky, or particularly notable about the appearance; Gehman gets a chance to ask some questions and gets some answers. As I said, it's so absurd as to be perhaps the truest representation of the Hollywood lifestyle we'll ever see. If this had happened in, say, Get Shorty (one of the best treatments of said lifestyle), I never would have believed it.

After the show, as Gehman grabs a bite, he notices a sign at the market: WE NEVER CLOSE. "It was appropriate for Steve to be running his show so near, I thought. Steve Allen never closes either."

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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: Scheduled: Sir Alec Guinness in a scene from Broadway's "Dylan"; singer-actor Robert Horton; English musical comedy performer Tessie O'Shea; comics Nipsey Russell and Alan Gale; British vocalist Billy Jay Kramer; the Dakotas, British vocal and instrumental group; and comedians Grecco and Willard.

Palace: The host is Gene Barry, who parks his Burke's Law Rolls Royce and takes up his earlier profession of vocalist; Gloria Swanson and Buster Keaton, who offer a Mack Sennett silent-comedy version of the Cleopatra story and join Barry in a dance routine; comedian-singer Jack Carter; dancer Juliet Prowse; the Grammy award winning Swingle Singers; the André Tahon puppets; hand-balancer Marco; and the Romano Brothers, jugglers.

At first, I didn't think this would be much of a contest. When you start with Alec Guinness, as Ed does, that's pretty strong. It kind of tails off after that, though, with no disrespect to the rest of the guests. (And by the way, the Dakotas actually perform with Billy Jay Kramer.) On the other hand, while Gene Barry may not be any better a singer than Robert Horton, he fits the bill of host just fine, and it's hard to top two legends like Gloria Swanson and Buster Keaton. Throw in Carter, who's at least a big name, and Prowse, a talented dancer, and the Swingle Singers, and you've got a winning program. This week Palace takes the prize.

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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. 

This week Cleveland Amory turns his eye to one of the longest-running and most successful of TV sitcoms, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. And this is where we get to see the sophisticated and erudite Cleve make mincemeat out of the old-fashioned, corny humor of the Nelson family, right?

Wrong. Not that there's not plenty at which one could poke fun, such as the procession of Nelsons playing themselves in the show (Ozzie and Harriet, the two sons Dave and Rick, and their wives, Kristin and June), and the wholesome nature of the program, but Amory has nothing but respect for the program. "Indeed, we are inclined to believe that these adventures, Miss-adventures and now Mrs.-adventures, which were on radio long before the days of television—and, for all we know, have been going on since before the days of the telephone—still hold the mirage up to nature about as likably as any show on the air; and if you don't like it, it is perhaps less a reflection on the show than it is on the mirage itself—i.e., The American Way of Life."

The man most responsible for all this is Ozzie himself, as co-star, producer, director and head writer. He's the one that holds everything together and keeps it anchored, and if he's not the most exciting actor around, he still grows on you. As does Harriet, though more slowly; and the rest of the cast has advantages as well—Dave keeps the wholesomeness from being too much, and "Rick is always a threat to break up the plot with a song." Kristin and June are so obviously right for their roles that it doesn't really matter. In fact, Skip Young, who plays Wally, probably has the hardest role on the show: he's not a Nelson, doesn't even go steady with one, and can't play himself. What a hardship.

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One of the programs that got me most interested in television history was a 1963 Tennessee Ernie Ford special called The Story of Christmas, presented on NBC without commercial interruption and featuring an 18½ minute animated sequence depicting the story of the Nativity done by artist Eyvind Earle, who had previously worked at the Disney studios on such movies as Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty. It was one of the first non-series programs that I ever found on DVD, and for many reasons it's maintained a spot next to my heart since then.

According to the Hollywood edition of the TV Teletype, work has already begun on a sequel, The Story of Easter, which would reunite Ford, the Roger Wagner Chorale, and Earle's animation. I'd never heard of this, and a quick internet check informed me that the project was never green lit. Which is a pity, because in the process I also ran across some of Earle's conceptual art for the special, and as it was with The Story of Christmas, it is stunning, especially the image on the left, Jesus in the Temple. If you've seen any of those images, you'll recognize Earle's style here.

A real pity that this never got made; I'm sure that, like The Story of Christmas, it would have been a classic.

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Speaking of NBC, the network has another in its series of Project 20 documentary specials coming up on Tuesday at 8:00 p.m. CT. It's called "The Red, White and Blue" and is narrated by Walter Brennan, and producer Donald B. Hyatt has some interesting observations on its topic, ones that—as is so often the case—mirror the discussions that we have today.

At work in the world's largest flag factory, Verona, NJ
What, Hyatt says, has happened to the Spirit of '76? Watching a small Veterans Day parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City, he notes that as the flag passed, onlookers neither took off their hats nor held their hands over their hearts. Even when a massed group of 25 American flags passed, "[t]he sparse crowd was unimpressed. It was the same all along the parade route." The Pledge of Allegiance is increasingly being dropped from schools as students complain about "their rights." Sophistication is now in, and patriotism is "corny," for squares only. As one said, "All the flag flying these days is done by a lot of super patriots, nuts and radicals." Others equate patriotism with nationalism, or triumphalism. And this, Hyatt says, is deeply disturbing. "The kind of patriotism that our founding patriots envisioned had a universality to it. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written as testaments embracing all mankind."

Hyatt contrasts the apathy of New York with Faith, North Carolina, a town of 500 people, where a crowd of nearly 30,000 gathers to celebrate the Fourth of July. "Throughout the country," Hyatt says, "we found American patriotism far from dead, but it and the flag were hiding under a cloak of apathy and sophistication too often. We can't afford that." In another tiny town, Noank, Connecticut, the entire town marches to the cemetery on Memorial Day for a dedication.

Although he doesn't say it, I'd be tempted to think of this as an example of, in today's vernacular, "The Two Americas": one that takes pride in the country, the other that carries a sense of shame. I won't go into this in any detail because I want to stay apolitical, but I present it to you as food for thought. The divide, this difference of opinion, is nothing new, and apparently is not going to go away. The only thing we can control is how we react to it. TV  


  1. Thanks for the intro to artist Eyvind Earle. His graphics are stunning. Interpretive. I totally agree with your comments.

  2. The Berle article and Amory review are in THE FIRST 25 YEARS compilation...you missed Cleveland's comment about David's wife being billed under her maiden name of Blair--"She's a wild one, that June"

    Paul Duca


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