May 1, 2021

This week in TV Guide: May 1, 1953

If you follow European soccer, or if you've been surfing through sports sites the last couple of weeks, then you know the role played by fans in the failure of the recently proposed Super League. Moral of the story: never underestimate the power of the public. Television, too, has experienced moments when viewers have collectively exerted their influence to change the minds of network corporate suits in the executive suites, all the way back to the early days of the medium. Case in point this week: the "triumphant" return of Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour, for which, as the cover says, you were responsible.

The progenitor of Star Search, American Idol and all other talent shows dates to 1934, when it premiered on radio under the direction of Major Edward Bowes, and made its way to television on DuMont in 1948 with Mack, who had become host after Bowes' death. By 1952, the show was being aired on NBC, and had become something of an institution; its disappearance from the airwaves, however brief, was sure to cause a stir.

The circumstances of Amateur Hour's temporary hiatus, starting in September 1952, are interesting enough, and wholly a part of the era of sponsors controlling television content. The show's tobacco company sponsor (unnamed in the TV Guide article, but it was the Old Gold brand of R.J. Reynolds) wanted to cut the running time to a half-hour. Mack and the producers refused, and took the show on a highly successful national tour, including a stop to entertain the troops in Korea. NBC was flooded with "thousands of letters, wires and phone calls" urging a return of the show. Sure enough, the network found a place for Mack and Amateur Hour, and it returned in April.

    Gladys Knight, 7 years old, was a winner in 1952
Reasons for the cancellations of popular shows vary. Some become the victim of a capricious sponsor that discontinues its financial support for one reason or another, leaving the old series with no visible way of getting on the schedule. The soap opera One Man's Family, despite its popularity, is one such example; its sponsor dropped the show because of rising costs, but it continues to be successful on radio. Danny Thomas and Jerry Lester, two popular entertainers of the time, left because of contractual demands, while programs like The Goldbergs couldn't find a place on schedules increasingly being filled by network-produced shows. In those cases there's little to do but bide one's time until a slot opens.

Mack's return, however, has given fans hope that their favorites might make a comeback, whether from viewer pressure, new sponsorship, or the vagaries of the schedule. The popular sitcom Ethel and Albert is one such program risen from the dead, and Thomas is returning in a new sitcom, Make Room for Daddy, this fall. So for all those crowd-sourced combacks of the last few years that have resulted in the rebirth of cult favorites, there was a precedent.

As for The Original Amateur Hour, it would continue on various networks for another seventeen years, finally being pushed out of its Sunday afternoon timeslot in 1970 when televised doubleheaders became a regular part of the NFL. Its list of discoveries remains impressive, with Gladys Knight, Pat Boone, Ann-Margret, Jose Feliciano, Irene Cara and Tanya Tucker.* Ted Mack, who hosted matinee movies and variety shows in the 1950s as well as Amateur Hour, retired from television having spent more time in front of the camera than anyone else to that time.

*You never know who you'll see pop up here: one contestant, according to the always-reliable Wikipedia, was young Louis Wolcott, who appeared in 1949 playing his violin. You probably know him better today as Louis Farrakhan.

It's safe to say, though, that none of those who appear during the television version's long run will measure up to the most famous winner from radio, a skinny singer from Hoboken, New Jersey named Frank Sinatra.

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Chester Gould, the creator of the Dick Tracy comic strip, is well aware of the power of television, which he calls "a scientific miracle" that we're beginning to take in stride. But TV can be much more than a medium to beam our favorite entertainers into our living room: according to law enforcement officials nationwide, it's "another weapon in the never-ending war against crime."

Gould has always been keenly interested in the use of science to fight crime—after all, you're talking to the man who invented the two-way wrist radio in 1946, and saw it become a reality in 1952. Now he's speculating on what else the future might have in store: battery-powered TV cameras, for example, that could be installed in a suspect's room (with a warrant, one would hope) to monitor his movements. Or permanently mounted TV camerasr in bank vaults, jewelry stores, fur stores and the like, with the picture being viewed constantly at a nearby police station. TV could also be used to link police departments in various cities to help identify suspects.

Obviously, this has all become fact—you could accomplish more than that with an iPhone—but it's a lot easier to look back on it from nearly 70 years' experience. I've written many times over the years about the hopes that television's pioneers had when they considered television's potential, and we should look at Gould in the same way. After all, it takes some vision to see that there's more to TV crimefighting than Dragnet.

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Speaking of television's potential, it sometimes seems to me that I talk too much about the highbrow stuff you never see on TV anymore—opera, live theater, classical music—and if I feel that way, I can only imagine how you must feel about it. Nevertheless, there's a reason why TV was taken seriously in its early days, not just by people involved in the industry, but those in the arts as well. Case in point is this week's episode of Omnibus (Sunday, 3:30 p.m. CT, CBS), which devotes the entire program to George Bernard Shaw's play "Arms and the Man." Shaw, who's only been dead for three years at the time of airing, authored such well-known plays as "Pygmalion," "Major Barbara," "Man and Superman," "Androcles and the Lion," "Saint Joan," and many more. And yet, according to TV Guide—and I have a hard time believing this, but since it's in print it must be true—this is "the first authorized presentation in the U.S. of any work" of Shaw's. (As opposed, I'd guess, to all those unauthorized garage theater presentations.) Presenting this on television suggests that someone must have thought the medium had some cultural value. 

Close, but no cigar for Native Dancer
As Chester Gould points out, TV is also an entertainment medium, and there's nothing more entertaining on Saturday than the 79th running of the Kentucky Derby (4:00 p.m., CBS). Unbeaten Native Dancer is the heavy favorite, butthe Gray Ghost is upset by Dark Star, who wins a neck. It is the only blemish in the Dancer's magnificent career; he wins both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, and retires with 21 victories in 22 races. That race was seen on TV by 40 million viewers, or about 25 percent of the U.S. population; as Chester Gould said, TV is a scientific miracle, and it must have seemed a miracle to many that they could watch the celebrated race from the comfort of their home living room. I wonder how many ever got any closer to Churchill Downs than that?

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Some of the other highlights of the week: 

Ed Sullivan faces off aganst Colgate Comedy Hour, hosted by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, on Sunday night at 7:00; Ed's really big shew features Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck in a filmed preview of their new movie Titanic; Joe Louis in his TV song & dance debut; and Diesso Tatto, a wire walker from the circus. Against this, Dean and Jerry offer singer Mary McCarty. and a skit about a TV set which gets only Martin & Lewis on all channels. As much as I like the boys, I think Ed wins this one hands-down. (Or a titanic win, if you prefer.)

Garry Moore guest hosts on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts (Monday, 7:30 p.m, CBS) while the Old Redhead undergoes double hip surgery on May 6 at Mass General, under the car of the famed orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Marius Smith-Petersen.* It's a good thing Garry's hosting tonight; I'd hate to think you'd take the show into the hospital, scouting for a talented doctor.

*Fact #1: TV Guide misspells the doctor's name as "Narius Smith-Peterson." Fact #2: Dr. Petersen died on June 16, just six weeks after operating on Godfrey. 

On Wednesday, Kraft Theatre celebrates its sixth anniversary with recreations of scenes from some of the show's best-known productions. Kraft Theatre is television's oldest network series, having premiered on May 7, 1947, and boasts an impressive list of alumns: Grace Kelly, Anne Francis, Nancy Marchand, Ralph Meeker and Betty Hutton are among those counted as breakout stars from the show. When Kraft Theatre goes off the air on October 1, 1958, it's the last of the shows from the original Golden Age. 

There's a show on Thursday night that appears in the listings as "Washington Rendezvous" (8:30 p.m., WGN), but turns out to be an episode of Fireside Theater. The plot: "A Hungarian-born wife of an Amer. diplomat is blackmailed & unable to tell her husband anything of her plight, they slowly become estranged." All I hear is Washington: Behind Closed Doors. (As pronounced by Howard Cosell.)

Eve Arden and Gale Gordon
And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention our cover girl for the week, Eve Arden. It's an indication of just how popular she was that she was on the cover of TV Guide so often; she graced at least three during the run of Our Miss Brooks. She's been playing America's favority teacher since 1946, when the radio version began; the show debuted on television in 1952. Having succeeded on stage, in the movies, and on radio and TV, you'd think Arden would have been on top of the world, but you'd be wrong. "I had all the things I wanted, but I couldn't enjoy them because of inner conflict," she says. "I felt a sense of responsibility for everyone whose life touched mine. It was a little like trying to play God." It took five years of psychoanalysis, and a happy second marriage, to actor Brooks West, for her to figure things out. "Because I couldn't help everybody, I constantly found fault with myself." She wishes she'd met Brooks years earlier; "Whenever I begin to worry, he stops me on the spot." 

Arden is much like the down-to-earth Connie Brooks she plays. She dresses simply, doesn't pose when she's not on-camera, and rarely goes to clubs, preferring to spend evenings and weekends at home with her husband and two adopted children, from whom she's never been away for more than two weeks at a time. She's pround of the fan mail she receives from teachers, considering she never had a chance to attend college herself—she wants this for her children, but only after they've spent "a year in the world." All in all, it's not a bad life being Eve Arden—or watching her.

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Talk about "behind closed doors"—drama seethes behind the closed doors of WBBM, where "Popular Russ Reed, who was suddenly axed from channel 4's weather show, had reasons other than the elements for his dismissal. Seems Russ was giving a talk for a PTA group and turned up too late for his WBBM-TV stanza." So in other words, he was sacked for doing the station's PR—and did he even get paid extra for that? And it's not as if it was habitual; it "was the first show Reed missed since becoming a TV weatherman." That happens today, it probably winds up in court. Don't worry about the weather, though: "Frank Reynolds is now doing the barometer readings in Russ' place." Yes—that Frank Reynolds.

In other industry news, Dragnet's sponsor (Liggett & Myers) has indicated Jack Webb that they're renewing the series for another season. As I mentioned in the lede, the sponsors exerted a tremendous amount of influence over the schedule back then, although I think NBC would have been happy to renew the series anyway.

Rumor has it that Bing Crosby's headed for TV this fall, specifically CBS. Der Bingle's scheduled to timeshare with Fred Waring's music show and G.E. Theater. Waring will do two shows a month, while Crosby and G.E. hold down the other two. Don't hold yoir breath, though; when it comes time for the fall season, it's just G.E. and Waring sharing the spot. 

Finally, NBC has a surprise planned for next month's coverage of Queen Elizabeth's Coronation: "NBC engineers, secretly experimenting with a high-powered directional antenna on Long Island, have succeeded in bringing in a live TV picture directly from BBC in London." Keep in mind, this is long before satellites made global coverage commonplace; "They bounce the British signal off the ionosphere. The picture is fuzzy but NBC hopes it will be good enough to use occasionally in covering the Coronation June 2." And I go back to Chester Gould's "scientific miracle" description. A lot of people still don't have TVs in their home, or maybe just got one; for most people, the reality of TV is less than ten years old. And yet they might be sitting at home, seeing a live picture from London. Bounced off the atomosphere. If that isn't a scientific miracle, I don't know what is. TV  

1 comment:

  1. Arden and Danny Kaye were involved for several years after her divorce and his unhappiness with his marriage...I just learned this.



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