May 29, 2021

This week in TV Guide: May 29, 1953

For a nation still struggling to overcome the effects of World War II, the coronation of the young, beautiful Queen Elizabeth II this Tuesday, June 2, promises to be an unforgettable event, one you can tell your grandchildren about someday. For now, thanks to the miracle of television, this grand event will be available for the entire nation to see. True, for those who remember back to May 12, 1937, there was a limited broadcast of the coronation of Elizabeth's father, George VI, on the fledgling BBC television; television cameras were excluded from Westminster Abbey, however, which meant they weren't present to carry the most important moment of all: the placing of the crown on George's head by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But this time, thanks to the influence of Elizabeth's husband, Prince Phillip*, cameras will be allowed in the Abbey, and the entire ceremony will be available live to viewers, not only in England but throughout Europe, and via film to other countries, including the United States and Canada. Not only will it be the first time the coronation of a British monarch has been televised in its entirety, it will be the first television event of international proportions.

*Establishment figures, including Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother, argued for maintaining tradition and excluding television from the ceremony, as had been the case for George VI's funeral. Phillip, however, strongly favored modernization and urged that the entire ceremony be broadcast. Ultimately, the Queen herself decided in television's favor.

The event is watched by 27 million people in the U.K., three quarters of the population. It is the first time many of them have ever watched an event live on TV; some people purchase their very first telly just for the occasion, while others rent one for the day. There's a joyful feeling, one that unites the nation, allowing them to experience this monumental event together—young and old, rich and poor, upstairs and downstairs.   

And now here we are, 68 years later, and such a broadcast has yet to be repeated. Those who considered Elizabeth's coronation to be a once-in-a-lifetime event couldn't have known that for many millions, that would literally be the case.

Think about it: since that day, there have been fourteen U.K. prime ministers, thirteen U.S. presidents, seven popes (including one who reigned for nearly 37 years), the rise and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the first and second Gulf wars, the Falklands War, and countless events large and small (including fourteen Doctor Whos). Russia launched a dog into space, the Americans put a man on the moon, television has gone from a shadowy picture on a small tube through color, cable, satellite, high definition and streaming, and through it all Elizabeth has been the one constant. 

The point here is not to reflect on the length of Elizabeth's reign, impressive though it may be, as much as it is to ask this serious television question: accepting this as the first televised coronation, is there any similar event of such historical importance that has only been televised once? One* comes to mind—the investiture of the Prince of Wales—but that doesn't really count, for obvious reasons. We've even had multiple moon landings televised! Empires rise and fall, leaders are elected and buried, champions are crowned and defeated, but considering how long television has been in existence, the idea that only one British coronation has been televised kind of boggles the mind. Staggering, even.

*OK, two, if you count Turn-On. 

If one were to try and calculate the odds, I wonder what they would be.

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A model of one of the 65-foot arches which will span the processional route    
I was fascinated—still am, in fact—to read about the various plans the networks have for covering the Coronation. They might seem weird to people today, but to someone who was weaned on space shots featuring animated graphics and simulations of the moon's surface, they make perfect sense.

CBS and NBC plan to begin their live coverage at 5:30 a.m. ET with radio broadcasts from London, augmented by background graphics, wire photos, and "other graphic arts displays" from their New York studios. ABC, which begins their coverage at 8:00 a.m., has constructed a series of miniature replicas of the Palace, the Abbey, arches spanning the parade route, which they plan to supplement with rear-screen projection to "give viewers the illusion they are actually witnessing the Coronation as it occurs." Fake news alert! (DuMont, in case you were wondering, plans to take the air late in the afternoon.)

NBC has the most audacious plan of all the networks, one which, if it works, will allow at least some live television coverage of the ceremonies. As I mentioned last month, the network hopes to bounce the BBC's video signal off the ionosphere to an antenna on Long Island, and they claim they've had success in tests. 

Following the morning coverage (live pictures or not), the networks plan to return at 4:00 p.m. for the Queen's official address, and again at 6:00 p.m. for the kinescopes of the actual ceremony, flown from London. (They hope to show later BBC kinescopes at 10:30 p.m.) As for those flights, both CBS and NBC have hired planes in a desperate race to be first on the air. Paul Mantz, champion air racer, is flying the Peacock's plane, while CBS plans to use a British plane with facilities to develop the film on the way. 

How does it all turn out? Well, NBC's signal-bouncing experiment didn't work, so they settled for their backup plan. And while CBS won the race to get the film first, in a bizarre twist, NBC got on the air first. Well, actually, it was NBC and ABC. You see, ABC, with no money to spend on things like charter planes, entered into a deal with the CBC to simulcast their footage from Montreal, which would be ready slightly earlier than either NBC or CBS. But, in yet another twist, NBC's plane was forced to return to England due to bad weather. Knowing they now had no chance to beat CBS, they came up with a bold idea of their own: NBC VP Charles Barry reached out to ABC president, Robert Kintner and offered to pay for the cost of the line from Montreal to New York if ABC would allow NBC to share the CBC's coverage. The deal was struck, and NBC's full-page ad the next day boasted of their victory over CBS. (Perhaps ABC should have asked NBC to kick in the cost of an ad of their own.) 

The story of the battle for Coronation coverage supremacy is almost a better story than the Coronation itself, and you can read all about it in this wonderful reminiscence by TV legend Reuven Frank. 

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Like him or loathe him,   
Ralph Edwards had the golden touch   
And now, one of the most controversial programs on television: This Is Your Life

Why, you might ask, is a show like this—lacking sex, violence, or anything as garish as, say, Milton Berle or Howdy Doody—so controversial? Well, depending on who you aski, This Is Your Life is either a "wonderful human interest drama," or one that reveals "the mistakes and foibles in the life of each week's guest" for millions of viewers to see.

The (unbylined) article in this week's issue doesn't really go into a lot of detail about this; as the "Program of the Week," it's a mostly flattering piece. Still, you can pick up bits and pieces of what it might have been all about. The guests weren't always celebrities, back then, and Edwards was often accused of emphasizing the sensational in his choice of subjects. There are, of course, two sides to that story.

Take the show that honored singer Lillian Roth, for example. Roth's once-promising career had fallen victim to alcoholism, a battle which she finally won, and about which she was always frank and forthcoming. Her appearance on This Is Your Life, in a February 1953 special episode, was likewise frank and forthcoming, and done with the complete suport of Alcoholics Anonymous. It was, by definition, a "sensational" topic—an accusation which Edwards often faced. It was also, however, very inspirational (Roth had by then made a successful comeback), and the program generated more than 40,000 letters of support. It's hard to know how many lives might have been changed for the good because of that one episode.

Personally, I've never been a big fan of Ralph Edwards (neither was Art Linkletter, FWIW); I always thought there was something kind of smarmy about him, like a used car salesman. (No offense to any used car salesmen in the audience.) There was no denying, though, that between This Is Your Life and Truth or Consequences, he knew what makes a hit. 

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One of the running "jokes," if you will, of Bishop Sheen's Life Is Worth Living is the "angel" responsible for erasing the Bishop's blackboard during each program. If you're not familiar with the show, Sheen would often illustrate a point on his ever-present blackboard, after which he would take a couple of strides toward the center of the stage. When he returned to the blackboard, it had been wiped clean, the work, he would say, of his angel (which he sometimes called "Skippy"). Becuase the cleansing occurred off-camera, viewers never got to see just who this "angel" was, and there was a good amount of curiosity as to his identity.

This week, we get to meet him, along with the other angels—that is, crew members—that keep Bishop Sheen going each week. For the record, the angel in charge of the blackboard is a crew member named Walter Colgan, complete with an oversized sponge. His father, John, is the show's lighting technician. Other angels are responsible for the audio, video, and even the small watches that hang from each camera to remind Sheen of the time on each live broadcast.

Our intrepid, nameless reporter asks the crew what it's like working with Bishop Sheen. "He's wonderful to work with," one cameraman says. "Even remembers many of our names, although we rotate crews often." On any given day, the writer says, "he's apt to call them around and distribute rosaries or other gifts." He offered each of them $100 at the end of last season, to "Have a few beers on me," but they declined, and suggested instead that he donate the money to his charity. 

And the famous Sheen humor isn't just a pose; "He's at his funniest after the regular program," one member of the audience says, talking about Sheen's habit of going into the crowd to chat after the program. "I could come over to Manhattan to see a play or something, but when I do, it's always with a ticket to see Life Is Worth Living."

I've written before of my admiration for Bishop Sheen, and how we could use a program like his on television today; there's nothing here to change my mind. He'd never make it, though—he's just too positive for today's world.

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How is it that we've gotten this far—nearly to the end—and other than the Coronation, we haven't said anything about what's on this week? Well, what is on? Not much, but we'll do the best we can.

On Monday night, young light-heavyweight boxer Floyd Patterson takes on Gordon Wallace (8:30 p.m. CT, DuMont). Patterson, the former Olympic gold medalist, has only fought six times, but he's considered one of the most promising fighters around. Three years later, having moved up to the heavyweight division, he knocks out Archie Moore to become, at 21, the youngest-ever world heavyweight champion.

Wednesday at 8:30 p.m., all four networks cover President Eisenhower's speech to the nation, live from the Conference Room at the White House, and accompanied by members of the Cabinet. If you want to know why people often talk of Ike's paternal relationship with the American people, here's the start of the speech: "Good evening, everybody. This evening some of the Cabinet members have gathered here with me to discuss points of interest-points of interest to your Government and to you." He goes on to talk about the importance of the family, the prosperity of the farmer, the necessity for a strong education system, and the need to protect the nation from communism, Some of the Cabinet members then go on to answer questions they've received from the public. Hard to imagine a presidential speech like this today.

Thursday's feature is White Sox baseball (1:30 p.m., WGN), as the Sox take on the defending World Series champion New York Yankees. It's preceded by the pre-game show and, before that, Jack Brickhouse's show Baseball with the Girls. Not going to see that nowadays.

Friday afternoon at 3:00 p.m. on WGN, it's the matinee movie Alaska, starring Dean Jagger, John Carradine, Kent Taylor and Margaret Lindsay. There's nothing particularly notable about the movie, based on a story by Jack London, except that it reminds me that in 1953, Alaska wasn't yet a state. That really was a long time ago, wasn't it?

As far as the weekend, it looks as if the Honeymooners are around at least part of the time on Saturday night's Jackie Gleason Show (7:00 p.m,. CBS), with Art Carney and Audrey Meadows, and guest star Merv Griffin. Finally, on Sunday, it's Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town (7:00 p.m., CBS), and Ed's guests are singer Tony Martin; Spanish dander Jose Greco; comedians Myron Cohen and Joey Forman; Phil Rizzuto and Tommy Henrich of the Yankees, and Ralph Branca and Roy Campanella of the Dodgers. Sounds like a home run to me. TV  

1 comment:

  1. Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation was on Tuesday, June 2 (not June 3), 1953. I've seen a few seconds of brilliant-looking color coverage of the Coronation, which almost looked like live coverage.


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