February 20, 2021

This week in TV Guide: February 19, 1954

e must be born with some kind of a nostalgia gene as part of our DNA. Why else would we be talking about what television was like "back in the day" from the perspective of 1954? I mean, it isn't as if there were that many days to choose from in the first place, right?

And yet here we are in "Only Yesterday," the lead article in this week's issue, wondering if TV has fallen into a rut, and remembering what things were like six whole years ago, in February, 1948. Back then, "Milton Berle was making money, not in TV, but in night clubs' Eddie Fisher was a little-known singer, and Howdy Doody was a secondary character in an NBC Saturday afternoon program titled Puppet TV Theater." Back then, a TV with a 10-inch screen cost between $350-$400 ($3,631.14 in today's dollars), expensive enough that most people went to the neighborhood bar to watch TV. Back then, there were about 170,000 sets (or "receivers,") as they were called; in 1955 there are nearly 27 million. I guess it was a long time ago, wasn't it?

Of the shows on television in 1955, few of them existed six years ago, the exceptions being Kraft TV Theater, which debuted in 1947 and would run until 1958*, and The Original Amateur Hour, which had an even longer run, from 1948 to 1970. Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan were still a few months away from making their television debuts. On the other hand, NBC had been televising the World Series since 1947, and had shown two of Joe Louis' championship fights in the same year.

*Not only that, it spent 10 seasons in the same time slot; how many shows can say that today?

Pioneers of early television: Burr Tillstrom's
puppets, Kukla and Ollie, and Fran Allison
Speaking of sports, NBC spent about seven hours a week on sports, along with seven hours on "women's shows, mostly of the how-to variety." Three-and-a-half hours were spent on drama, three on kids' shows, two on educational features, and one-and-a-half on quiz and discussion shows. That adds up to 27 hours per week, which sounds pretty good until you realize that includes both daytime and evening programming. 

Still, it's better than CBS, which at the start of 1948 only showed sports and other remote shows, because they'd shut down their New York studios the previous year. In the works, however, was "the world's biggest TV studio," under construction in the Grand Central Station building, and while they still use it in 1954, it "would fit in the vest pocket" of Television City in Hollywood. Meanwhile, ABC and DuMont were airing public affairs programs that became the precursors of shows like Meet the Press.

So I guess that even in a mere six years, television has made giant strides. Remember that progress isn't always good, though: 1948 was also the year that the networks pooled their resources to show the political conventions.

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Some interesting shows on this week, or at least shows with interesting backgrounds. Let's take a look at some of them.

Don McNeill with Alfred Hitchcock
After 21 years on the radio, Don McNeill's Breakfast Club is coming to television (Monday, 9:00 a.m. ET, ABC). McNeill started out in Chicago on the NBC Blue Network in the early 1930s, and by 1933 the show had morphed into The Breakfast Club. Fran Allison, the aforementioned co-star of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, was a regular on the show, and one of the vocalists, known professionally as Annette King, was Charlotte Thompson Reid, who grew up to represent Illinois in Congress for five terms. 

This is actually the second go-round on television for Breakfast Club; an initial version was seen in prime time on ABC* in the 1950-51 season. This edition is simply a simulcast of the radio program (heard on ABC radio), and runs for one year.

*NBC Blue was eventually spun off into the ABC Radio Network thanks to intervention by the Federal Communications Commission. 

Don McNeill's Breakfast Club remains on the radio, with McNeill at the helm, until December 27, 1968. According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, McNeill's run of 35½-years run as host (on radio and TV) holds the record for longest tenure as emcee of a network entertainment program, surpassing both Johnny Carson (29½ years) on The Tonight Show and Bob Barker (34⅔ years) on The Price Is Right. Or, put another way, back in 1948, the show had already been on the radio for 15 years; it still has another 20 years to go.

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Wednesday evening at 7:00 p.m. on WBZ, it's The Sue Bennett Show, with "well-known recording artist" Sue Bennett. If you're a fan of classic television, or a longtime reader with a great memory, you'll remember Sue from The Lucky Strike Papers: Journeys Through My Mother's Television Past, the book written by Sue's son (and my friend) Andrew Lee Fielding. I reviewed The Lucky Strike Papers a few years ago; it's a wonderful book, both an affectionate tribute to his mother, and an evocative look at the early days of television, when local programming was much more of a force than is the case today. 

Sue Bennett had previously been on Kay Kayser's NBC show and DuMont's Teen Time Tunes before becoming one of the singers on Your Hit Parade, so she knew what it was like to be on national television. This was different, though; I had the impression from Andrew's book not because of ambition, to work her way back to national TV, but simply becuase she enjoyed singing, and this gave her an opportunity to do so. And I think that's kind of nice, don't you?

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We've done our fair share of obscure television shows here over the years, but here's one that I don't think we've looked at yet: Bride and Groom, a daily 15-minute show airing at noon on NBC. The premise of Bride and Groom was about what you'd expect: couples applied to appear on the show, where they'd be married live on the air, given some lovely parting gifts, and then whisked off to an all-expense paid honeymoon. For young couples who might ordinarily have to save up just for a modest wedding, it was an opportunity they might never have otherwise. (Over at my old stomping grounds, TVParty, Zachary Houle has a marvelous story about one couple's opportunity that didn't quite pan out the way you might expect.)

Bride and Groom attracted my attention for another reason, though, one having nothing to do with such domestic drama. In his excellent book on the 1960 Summer Olympics, Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World, David Marinass tells the story of Olympic gold medalist hurdler Lee Calhoun, whose fiancee, Gwen Bannister, applied for the couple to appear on the show; she didn't tell Lee about it until after they'd been selected. A week before they were to appear on the program, the Amateur Athletic Union, governing body for amateur sports in America, ruled that if Calhoun and Gwen appeared on the show, he would lose his amateur status and thus be ineligible for the 1960 Olympics. According to the AAU, Calhoun was profiting from his status as a track and field champion, despite the fact that any engaged couple could be on the show*. They got married on Bride and Groom anyway; Calhoun was suspended from amateur competition for one year, but returned in time to qualify for the Olympic team and win his second gold medal in Rome. Love wins out over all.

*Or almost any couple; divorcees were excluded, as were Catholics, since a sacramental marriage has to be performed in a Catholic church. 

There doesn't appear to be anything like that on this week's shows; for instance on Thursday, Blanche Magill of Silver Springs, Maryland, marries Roger Frody of Greenbelt, Maryland. No life lived is without drama, though; I wonder what kind of story the Frodys could tell us?

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As for the rest of the week, Tuesday night at 11:00 on WNHC, NBC's Robert Montgomery Presents adapts "Our Hearts Were Young and Gay," a "comedy about two young girls on an ocean voyage, who heed their parent's advice about being careful with whom they mix." Those "two young girls" were actually author-actress Cornelia Otis Skinner and journalist Emily Kimbrough (played here by Elizabeth Montgomery and Sally Kemp), and the account of their trip, which they wrote in 1942, became a best-seller, spawning a big screen version in 1944, and a play in 1946*. It was also a television series on CBS in 1950, so I suppose you could call this a reverse-pilot. 

*In a nice bit of TV tie-in, the story was dramatized for the stage by Jean Kerr, who later wrote Please Don't Eat the Daisies; the character loosely based on her was portrayed in the series by Pat Crowley (and in the movies by Doris Day).

Remember a couple of weeks ago how Edward R. Murrow told us he liked to choose personalities with contrasting backgrounds to appear on Person to Person? Well, this week is no different (Friday, 10:30 p.m., CBS), as Murrow's guests are film magnate Sam Goldwyn in California, and basketball star George Mikan in his Minneapolis home. 

Jackie Gleason's suffering from a broken ankle, and in these days of live television, that means guest hosts on his Saturday night show (8:00 p.m., CBS). Rumor (and the Teletype) has it that Red Skelton, despite his own ailment (a tightly-bandaged right arm "following an altercation with a shower door"), volunteered to step in for the Great One, but this week's stand-in is Perry Como, who appears in a skit with Art Carney and Audrey Meadows. Not playing Ralph Kramden, thankfully.

On Sunday, Hallmark Hall of Fame (5:00 p.m., NBC) tells a little-known part of American history: "Miss Tracy of Mt. Vernon," starring Sarah Churchill, is the story of Sarah Tracy, the woman who kept Washington's home at Mt. Vernon neutral during the Civil War by using it as a resting place for both Union and Confederate soldiers. She must have been a remarkable woman, able to create neutral ground for two armies in the middle of a war. Too bad Hallmark doesn't make movies about people like her anymore. Probably couldn't toss off enough bon mots for their liking.

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As far as coming attractions, the man responsible for Today is at it again. Pat Weaver's latest brainchild is The Home Show, a "revolutionary idea in daytime television."  

Home was a magazine-type show, with guests and features specifically designed to appeal to the homemaker; in that sense, it's not so different from many of the morning shows on TV today—or, one supposes, the fourth hour of Today. Hosting Home is Arlene Francis, making her the second member of the What's My Line? team (the other being John Daly) to host programs on two different networks. Hugh Downs, a man who will spend the next couple of decades sliding effortlessly between morning and late night shows, is Arlene's sidekick (as he will be for Jack Paar), and the whole thing's backed by by the Norman Paris Trio.

Home is the second segment in what Weaver saw as a trio of shows that would unify NBC's daily schedule; the third, which will premiere later in the year, is Tonight. Home runs until 1957; Today and Tonight, of course, are still on the air. Still, two out of three ain't bad.

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A long, long ad for The Long, Long Trailer, with Lucy and Desi—and a chance to see that flaming red hair in color. Don't underestimate the appeal of that; when Dragnet became the first TV series to be made into a feature film in 1954, one of the major talking points in convincing people they should pay to watch characters they could see for free in their homes was that now you could see Joe Friday in living color! (According to this week's Hollywood Teletype, filming on the movie is scheduled to start in the next 90 days.)

It wasn't uncommon to see movie ads in TV Guide, even when there wasn't such a direct tie-in with a TV show. After all, it's a great place to advertise, and there were still some things that you could only get in the movies. TV  


  1. Working from the Chicago edition:

    - Since you're apparently working from the Boston-Providence region, I don't know how well ABC was represented in that area, affiliate-wise.
    Check out the listings for Thursday night at 9:00, Eastern Standard Time.
    If ABC is fully represented here, you'll find Talent Patrol, a talent contest for servicemen, hosted by - Arlene Francis.
    This gives Mrs. Martin Gabel a three-network hat trick, thus beating out John Daly and Hugh Downs.
    ... and I suspect that, given time and research, this might not be the only example we could find.

    - Robert Montgomery Presents Your Lucky Strike Theatre aired on NBC on Monday nights, which means that the Montgomery show airing on Tuesday night is a delayed broadcast, on kinescope as was the practice of the time (Most likely, it aired on the network the previous week).
    For the record, the day-and-date Montgomery on Monday night was "Land Of Happiness", about a Danish girl who marries a minister.

  2. What about, posting the TV Guide Cover Page article about actress, Ann Sothern, too?


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!