June 12, 2021

This week in TV Guide: June 11, 1955



What's this? Another Liberace? Could it be the famous pianist Chandell and his evil twin brother, the archfiend Harry, back to terrorize Gotham City? Close, but not quite; the "other" Liberace to which this week's cover referrs is George, Lee's brother, and he plays not the piano, but the violin. In fact, he was good enough to be first violin with his hometown Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, before setting out on the big band circuit.

It wasn't until 1947 that George joined up with Lee; "Up to that time," George says, "he couldn't afford me." George became Lee's musical director (paid, of course), and today the two are equal partners in the million-dollar Liberace Enterprises, with George handling "music selections, business details, lighting, the Bel Canto Publishing Co., the payroll—and the violin." He'll continue with his brother, often serving as the straight man, before touring the country in the 1960's with his own band. Eventually he retires from conducting in the late 1970's and moves to Las Vegas, where he manages the Liberace Museum until his death in 1983. 

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Well, that was a fun way to start this week's issue, wasn't it? Here's some more fun for you: the debut of NBC's famous radio program Monitor, which introduces itself to the public via a one-hour television simulcast on Sunday afternoon at 3:00 p.m. The brainchild of NBC president Pat Weaver, Monitor is perhaps the most audactious idea in radio history, aside from the invention of radio itself: a continuous, 40-hour program running from Saturday morning to Sunday midnight, featuring some of the biggest names in entertainment presenting literally everything: news, sports, comedy, live concerts, interviews with celebrities, recorded music, and remote reports from around the world—in other words, a show that will become known for "going places and doing things." Weaver describes his baby as a "kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria," but settled on Monitor as a much simpler name. It is a last-ditch effort to save network radio, to offer something that viewers can't get on television, and it uses that very medium to make the introductions.

The first regular full-length show will be next weekend, but in this Sunday preview (the radio broadcast will run another seven hours, until midnight ET), Weaver appears at the outset to introduce the program and explain the concept, before turning the reins over to the first Monitor host (or "communicator," as they would be known), none other than Today's Dave Garroway, the master communicator himself. This very first broadcast takes its audience from New York City to Hermosa Beach, California; Bucks County, Pennsylvania; San Quentin Prison; the Catskills (for a Martin & Lewis performance); and a jazz club in Chicago. We also get to meet some of the show's regulars, including Bob & Ray, sportscaster Red Barber, literary critic Clifton Fadiman, and Morgan Beatty with the news.

Monitor survives, in various forms, until 1975, and the story of this program can be found at this great website, as well as by reading Dennis Hart's book Monitor: The Inside Story of Network Radio's Greatest Program, which I reviewed for this website here

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Monitor isn't the only radio program making the crossover to television this week; on Saturday, NBC presents a half-hour of the legendary Grand Ole Opry (7:00 p.m.), from the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Minnie Pearl, Ernest Tubb, and Faron Young are among the performers appearing on the broadcast; unlike Monitor, Grand Ole Opry remains on radio Saturday nights to this day, the longest-running radio broadcast in U.S. history.

Sunday night we see another debut, that of the Colgate Variety Hour, successor to Colgate's long-running Comedy Hour (7:00 p.m., NBC). The inaugural episode, as well as next week's, is hosted by that famed variety show host Charlton Heston. Yes, I had a hard time envisioning that as well, but I suppose it's no stranger than the host turn done on July 24 by Jack Webb, although that one is really a plug for the upcoming Pete Kelly's Blues. But anyway, to get back to this week, Chuck's guests include Sarah Vaughan, Vera-Ellen, and Jimmy Stewart, and includes a salute to the Strategic Air Command. Next year the show will be replaced by The Steve Allen Show. Off we go, I guess. But I can't escape without mentioning G.E. Theater (8:00 p.m., CBS), in which Mike Wallace plays an American tourist in Capri.

On Monday, Art Carney ► and Leora Dana star in "The Incredible World of Horace Ford" on Studio One. (9:00 p.m., CBS). Many of you sharp-eyed fans out there may recognize this title, but not from tonight's broadcast or cast; Reginald Rose's teleplay also appears as a fourth-season episode of The Twilight Zone in 1963, with Pat Hingle and Nan Martin in the lead roles. There is, of course, a story behind this, as recounted at The Twilight Zone Vortex. Apparently, there was no little amount of confusion regarding the ending of this story; not only was it a downbeat ending, it also dabbled in time-travel, leaving viewers angry and puzzled as to what happened. (In fact, the network received a flood of complaints from viewers following the airing). When "Horace Ford" was revived for The Twilight Zone, the network was comfortable that viewers would appreciate the fantasy element, but producer Herbert Hirschman asked Rose to give the story a more optimistic conclusion. It was a request with which Rose was happy to comply; as he pointed out later, the story had already been shown the way he wanted it, so he had no problem changing it.

Tuesdsay, Armstrong Circle Theater (8:30 p.m., NBC) presents a conundrum that must have been rather interesting for viewers of the time: a congresswoman is torn between her husband, a foreign correspondent returning from a yearlong assignment, and a reelection bid that would enable her to pass a bill of great personal importance. The listing describes it as a story of a woman "torn between her duties to her country and to her husband," which I suspect would make feminists bristle today. The point is, this is an episode that would be nearly impossible to truly appreciate outside of the context in which it was originally written and shown; there's just too much cultural baggage from the subsequent 65 years for us to view it objectively today.

Sometimes a line of text just jumps out at you, as was the case with Wednesday's Tonight Show with Steve Allen (11:00 p.m., NBC). In addition to jazz pianist Erroll Garner and singer Bob Manning, "The voice of hospitalized Gene Rayburn* [Steve's sidekick] is beamed in to give us the latest sports scores and weather reports, with an assist from a pretty in-studio assistant." Given that people back then were often hospitalized for things that a doctor might take care of in his office today, I still wonder what that was all about? But if you're not as curious as I am, you might have watched Norman Ross Presents (Channel 7, 11:00 p.m.). Tonight's story: "A Man and His Kite—Ben Franklin."

◄ *Fun fact: In addition to hosting game shows, Gene Rayburn would go on to be a very popular host for several years on Monitor.
 
An assortment of shows on Thursday, starting with Dragnet (8:00 p.m., NBC), in which Friday and Smith spend New Year's Eve responding to an "officer needs help" call. As I recall, that does not end well. On ABC at the same time, it's Star Tonight, presenting "Strength of Steel," a drama written by Rod Serling (best-known at that point for "Patterns") about a young Army wife and her uneasy relationship with her father-in-law. David Niven stars in Four Star Playhouse (8:30 p.m., CBS) as a priest who must learn to forgive the Indians who tortured him for two years. And in the WGN late-night movie (10:30 p.m.), Tom Conway stars as a lawyer in "I Cheated the Law." You can be sure the law won.

It's not that I have a heart of stone, but I've gotten tired of those "surprise" reunions over the years, where a serviceman or woman returns home from a tour and surprises the spouse and/or kids. A little sentimentality goes a long way, you know. Anyway, what got me thinking on these lines is Art Linkletter's House Party (Friday, 1:30 p.m., CBS), in which Art and his crew film a serviceman's wife and the child he has never seen, to send overseas for the soldier-father. Nowadays you're talking about a Zoom or Skype call, or FaceTiming someone, but in 1955 it required a television show to shoot a film and send that film overseas in order to bring a family together. And I think that's worth getting sentimental over.

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That smiling cowgirl on this week's cover is Gail Davis, star of Annie Oakley, the syndicated Western series that will run for three seasons before going to weekend reruns on ABC. (A nice note from the always-reliable Wikipedia: "Except for depicting the protagonist as a phenomenal sharpshooter of the period, the program entirely ignores the facts of the historical Oakley's life.")

The protege of none other than the Singing Cowboy himself, Gene Autry, Davis has proven that she can handle a both a horse and a gun; she owns Target, the horse that viewers will be seeing in next season's shows ("He's still got a lot to learn"), and Autry, who produces the show, says that "Gail shoots very well, and she's getting better all the time." She's also a popular attraction on personal appearance tours.

Davis hails from Little Rock and graduated from the University of Texas, so playing the role of the cowgirl came easily to her. Six years ago, she came to Hollywood, where she made her debut in Van Johnson's The Romance of Rosy Ridge. She only had one line—"Hello, there"—but she had to say it to Van six times. "It wasn't a line you could do much with," she says, "but I did manage to give it six different inflections." Her big break came with the 1950 Autry flick Cow Town, the first of 15 Autry movies in which she's appeared. Autry had been looking to develop a female counterpart for many years, one that girls could identify with, but once Davis appeared, "I didn't have any more problems." 

Despite all this, Gail's career is a relatively brief one. Almost all of the movies she appeared in were Westerns (29 of 32 at one point), and most of her guest-starring roles on TV wer in the same genre, although she did play Thelma Lou's cousin on The Andy Griffith Show. "I tried to find other acting work," she would say, "but I was so identified as Annie Oakley that directors would say, 'Gail, I'd like to hire you, but you're going to have to wait a few years, dye your hair and cut off your pigtails." A career-limiting role, perhaps, but it earned her a place in the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame; how many of us out there can say that?

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Some quick notes:

Soap operas, which migrated from radio to television, are enormously popular, and prove to be a successful buy for soap and cereal sponsors. The networks are trying to give the shows a veneer of respectability, though; according to Bob Stahl's article, these shows (many of which are still 15 minutes long) are now to be called "daydramas." The truth remains that, no matter what you call them, they still "accent human misery," with storylines that boast "Suicides and murders that would rate time on Dragnet, love affairs that would interest Dr. Kinsey and surgery gripping enough for Medic."

And it's those love affairs that have attracted the ire of Harriet Spoon of South Beloit, Illinois, who writes to TV Guide: "Isn't it about time those borderline situations on the daytime serials were cleaned up? If the heroine has to drool over a man, she shouldn't pick one who is married. A lot of housewives like me are gtting sick of the lack of respect TV shows for marriage." It's nice to report that there's not nearly as much sex on soap operas nowadays. Not that the soaps have improved; there are just fewer of them.

And now, something from the teletypes: Ida Lupino, who's one of the four stars on Four Star Theater, is branching out into her own series with husband Howard Duff. Here, it's called Mr. and Mrs., but when it makes it to CBS in 1957, it's called Mr. Adams and Eve.

For years viewers have complained about popular TV shows being scheduled opposite each other, but there's reason to take heart: CBS says next season's ten full-color, 90 minute Saturday night specials will not be shown on the same Saturdays as Max Liebman's NBC Saturday night spectaculars. I'm not going to make the expected comment about the lack of DVRs—no, I'm just remembering the days when networks had big specials on Saturday night, instead of sports and reruns. Either way, it labels me as old.

And since we began with Liberace, we'll end the same way: Dorothy Malone has been signed to appear opposite Lee in his feature film debut, Sincerely Yours. The movie, unlike Liberace's television career, is a bomb—so much so that, according to Robert Osborne, by the time the movie made it to Seattle, "the billing was altered even more: Joanne Dru, Dorothy Malone, and Alex Nicol above the title (with big head shots of all three) and below the title in much smaller letters: 'with Liberace at the piano'." Lee was said to have been shaken by the whole experience, but I don't think we should feel too sorry for him; after all, in responding to a nasty review of his stage show, he famously replied, "My brother George and I cried all the way to the bank." TV  

8 comments:

  1. NBC Monitor was required listening on the weekends in the Rowe household in the 1960's into the 1970's on WSYR-radio AM 570, including the car radio...

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  2. ...and who can forget the sequence of "beeps" that was the signature of Monitor...?

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    1. Not to mention Miss Monitor. . .

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    2. I have the Monitor "beacon" as my ringtone. I always know when MY phone rings. :-)

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  3. As I listen to the initial broadcast of Monitor on June 12, 1955 (great job, Mitchell and the Monitor web masters), I am amazed at the refreshing approach to the news (which wasn't always happy). I realize that "nostalgia" loosely interpreted in Greek means "painful homecoming" but please take me back to this version of national broadcasting....

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    1. That Monitor book I mentioned is well worth reading, too. It's a real biography of a radio show; if you haven't read it, I'd heartily recommend it.

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  4. I remember listening to "Monitor" on the weekends. It was on our favorite station, WJAR radio 92.0 out of Providence.

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  5. Apparently Gail Davis was of the Jewish faith, as they air the show on the JLTV network.


    Paul

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!