June 19, 2021

This week in TV Guide: June 18, 1954

It's rare that we have three unrelated articles providing a unified theme, but such is the case in this week's issue, and the thread that connects these stories is one that portrays a medium in the process of coming of age. It begins, appropriately, at the beginning.

Time Magazine once said of Ed Sullivan that "His smile is that of a man sucking a lemon." Why, then, does he look so happy on the cover of this week's issue, and on the pages inside? Perhaps it's because this Sunday, the master of the variety show begins his seventh season on television, and to fully appreciate the effect Sullivan has had on the young medium, one need only read the list of firsts ascribed to his show, Toast of the Town: "the first hour-long program on CBS; the network's first sponsored show; the first variety show to introduce guests from the audience and to integrate dramatic skits; the first to offer so-called 'spectaculars.'" This may not seem like a big deal today, but standards, like cliches, have to begin somewhere, and their point of origin is Ed Sullivan.

He's also responsible, according to TV Guide, for doing "more than anyone else" to bring Hollywood to television. Even back in 1949, he got permission from MGM to feature Luise Rainer recreating her Oscar-winning scene from the studio's movie The Great Ziegfield. Clips from other MGM movies were used in biography shows Ed did for Helen Hayes and Robert Sherwood. Sulliven also anticipated the current trend toward "spectaculars" back in 1951, with an all-star tribute to Oscar Hammerstein. "I was getting tired of the straight vaudeville format," he says of the theme shows, "and wanted to inject something new before the audience grew bored." His trademark of introducing stars from the audience began as a budget measure; "I figured if names make news, faces make news, too." The stars loved the publicity; Ed loved that he didn't have to pay for their appearance.

The star parade shows no signs of letting up; on the cover, Sullivan appears with Metropolitan Opera star Rise Stevens, and inside photos show him with Teresa Brewer, Ed Wynn, Patti Page and Tony Martin. Thus has it been, thus shall it be—every week, every year, the stars come out with Ed, and they stay with him until the show goes off the air 17 years later, in 1971.

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Speaking of those spectaculars, the concept was invented by Pat Weaver, in part because he believed that radio ratings had declined because listeners had tired of predictable weekly shows. He sought to avoid a similar problem in television by introducing lavish special programs, shot in color with big stars and big production budgets. As things turned out, though, viewers apparaently hadn't tired of predictable weekly shows, at least not yet. While some of Weaver's spectaculars succeeded—well, spectacularly—most of them didn't; CBS, by sticking to a regular schedule, moved ahead in the ratings race (ABC, of course, wasn't a factor), and Weaver was sacked in 1956. 

This, however, is not 1956, but 1954, and Bob Stahl's report to the Teletype is filled with talk of upcomng spectaculars that will "provide most of TV's excitement for next fall." (I wonder, by the way, when the term "special" became accepted? Maybe when they stopped being spectacular.) Broadway producer Leland Hayward's monthly series of Monday night shows on NBC, subsequently to be known as Producers' Showcase—you'll recognize the name from previous references here—has Mary Martin, David Niven and Joseph Cotton signed up for the first show alone, with appearances later in the season by Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda and Ethel Merman. and a story to be directed by Alfred Hitchcock. That not all of these came to fruition doesn't diminish the ambition in these plans.

I mentioned before that CBS's traditional scheduling won the ratings day over Weaver's spectaculars, but that doesn't mean the Tiffany Network was exempt from the genre; Bob Stahl's report touts Best of Broadway, set to run every fourth Wednesday in place of Blue Ribbon Bouts, and featuring current Broadway stars; looking at the shows that were eventually broadcast, the lineup included Helen Hayes, Buster Keaton, Claudette Colbert, Art Carney, Ethel Merman and Mary Astor. Pretty good, don't you think?

Producers' Showcase ran for three seasons on NBC, while Best of Broadway was on CBS for a single season. What one sees in these, though, goes beyond the number of broadcasts—am ambition for something new, something experimental. Something exciting. Maybe it's not possible to come up with anything like that today; maybe everything's already been done, and we're at the point where all we can offer are variants, with bolder storylines and bigger stars. Those are often rewarding in and of themselves, but the question remains: is there still anything new under the sun?

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That's not to say that everything's all hearts and flowers between the movie studios and television networks; far from it. In fact, this week's issue gives us several examples of how TV has become a punch line, or a punching bag, for some of Hollywood's most recent films. 

For instance, in the movie Top Banana, Phil Silvers ► plays an "ego-happy" television comedian—a broad caricature, "if that's possible," of Milton Berle. Judy Garland's character in her upcoming musical spectacular (to coin a phrase) A Star is Born is a struggling entertainer who, at one point, "sinks to the level of doing a TV commercial." And in the Judy Holliday movie It Should Happen to You, a TV "sensationalist" turns Judy into a figure of ridicule on panal and other shows.  

This is nothing new, of course; movies have long made fun of television staples such as quiz shows (Champaign for Caesar) and commercials (rightly so). Times will change, though; Phil Silvers, who did so well spoofing Milton Berle, goes on to quite a career in television himself, and the wistful conclusion of the article is prescient. "Some day," it reads, "the movies may discover the likes of Edward R. Murrow", and not only was the result Good Night and Good Luck, it was directed by someone (George Clooney) who made his name in television. But in the meantime, we shouldn't be so surprised that the movies are picking on easy targets, "TV is still a menace to the movie box office." And you don't make fun of things you don't feel threatened by. 

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In this issue of TV Guide, the week still begins on Friday, and Friday spells the end—the final episode—of Kate Smith's afternoon variety show. (2:00 p.m., NBC) Next week in this timeslot: Mrs. U.S.A. and Ask Washington. Meanwhile, keeping in the musical vein, Edward R. Murrow's guest on Person to Person is Guy Lombardo, who with his Royal Canadians makes "the sweetest music this side of heaven." (9:30 p.m., CBS)

Saturday, NBC covers the final holes of the U.S. Open Golf Championship, or the National Open, as it's often called, live from Baltusrol in Springfield, New Jersey, the first time the Open has ever been shown on television. (3:00 p.m.) Today is what used to be known as "Open Saturday," 36 holes to determine the champion, rather than the 18 holes played Thursday and Friday. Journeyman Ed Furgol wins his only major, defeating Gene Littler by a stroke to win a first prize of $6,000. First prize in 2020, on the other hand, was $2,250,000. But when it comes to the U.S. Open, it's not the check that counts; it's the money.

Also on Saturday, Ted Mack hosts the National Amateur Hour Talent Championships live from Madison Square Garden in New York. (7:30 p.m., NBC) Among the three-time winners featured is 19-year-old singer Pat Boone, from Nashville, Tennessee.

Sunday, the aforementioned Ed Sullivan celebrates the sixth anniversary of Toast of the Town with a program of comedic, dramatic, and artistic skits that review the show's history, as well as honoring the many stars who made their TV debuts on the program. (7:00 p.m., CBS) And Margaret Truman joins the panel on What's My Line?, subbing for the vacationing Dorothy Kilgallen. (9:30 p.m., CBS)

And now some odds and ends from the rest of the week:

On Monday, Billy Graham—no, not the evangelist—takes on Chris Christensen in a ten-round welterweight bout from Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn (8:30 p.m., DuMont). Graham, currently ranked #6 in the world, never wins the title, thanks to mob control of the reigning champ, Kid Gavilan, but wins 102 out of 126 career fights, and in 1960 appears on To Tell the Truth—not as himself, but as one of the imposters. By the way, Billy Graham was his real name.

Tuesday is a great day for guest stars: Carl Ballentine, in his magician guise, is the guest on Garry Moore's afternoon show (12:30 p.m., CBS); Ralph Bellamy plays a man refusing to pay the ranson to rescue his son from kidnappers in "Fearful Decision" on The United States Steel Hour (8:30 p.m., ABC); and Arthur Murray's Dance Party welcomes three guests from the Brooklyn Dodgers: Duke Snyder, Carl Erskine and Russ Meyer. Snyder and Erskine are among the Dodgers' all-time greats; Russ Meyer did not go on to make Beyond the Valley of the Dolls with Roger Ebert. 

I wrote about Don McNeil's Breakfast Club a few months ago, and on Wednesday the venerable show celebrates its 21st birthday on the air, having debuted on the radio on June 23, 1933. (8:00 a.m., ABC) In primetime, James Gregory plays a man struggling to adapt to life after being released from prison in "The Long Road Home" on Kraft Theater (8:00 p.m, NBC). And although you won't see it in TV Guide because it's a live show and the guest is always a surprise, actress-dancer Gilda Gray is the honoree on This Is Your Life (9:00 p.m., NBC). Not only was she a tuberculosis survivor, she also popularized a dance called the "shimmy," and raised funds for Poland during World War II.

David Niven is the star of the week, playing a dual role in "Finale" on Four Star Playhouse (Thursday, 7:30 p.m., CBS).  He is, of course, one of the titular four stars, the other three being Dick Powell, Charles Boyer, and Ida Lupino. Four stars, indeed.  

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"I enjoy watching The Plainclothesman every Sunday evening," writes Bernice Mackaitis of Calumet City, Illinois, "but I was wondering why they don't ever show the lieutenant's face. I think it would be much better if we got to see him, at least occasionally." And thus we begin a look at one of the more unusual programs in this week's issue—in fact, in this entire era of television.

I first heard of The Plainclothesman in the first edition of Brooks and Marsh's Complete Guide to Prime Time Network TV Shows, back around 1980 or 1981. I probably read that book from cover to cover, cumulatively, three or four times, absolutely fascinated by all the shows I hadn't heard of, as well as the ones that vaguely remembered but couldn't, in this pre-internet era, really prove had existed. I've bought updated versions of the Complete Guide in the years since, but none have captivated in the way that first edition did. I wish I hadn't gotten rid of it; while the current volume is more up-to-date, it's filled with hundreds of shows I don't care about.

But back to The Plainclothesman. It premiered October 12, 1949 on the DuMont network, something else that endlessly fascinated, and ran until September 12, 1954, or about three months after this issue of TV Guide. It was television's first police procedural, though you couldn't prove that by me, but even though it was the first, it apparently still felt it had to rely on a gimmick. In this case, the gimmick, as you might have gathered, was that the face of the show's star, Ken Lynch ("The Lieutenant"), never appeared on camera.* The entire series was shot from his point-of-view, meaning that, as Brooks and Marsh put it, "The technique was camera-as-actor… If he lit his cigar, a hand (his) came toward the camera with a lighted match (even the tip of his cigar could be seen jutting out at the bottom of the screen); if he was knocked down, the viewer looked up from floor level." 

*OK, there was one episode in which his face was seen via a flashback. The arms and hands that appeared belonged to Lynch, though, which meant he "often had to climb on the sides of the camera, or kneel underneath it for long periods of time."

As Cary O'Dell points out, it almost certainly was inspired by The Lady in the Lake, the Philip Marlowe drama starring Robert Montgomery, which came out in 1947; and if it's true that DuMont did this to keep costs down (since they didn't have to pay as much to an actor who wasn't seen), it still proved to be surprisingly effective and creative. Here's a look at one of only four episodes that are thought to still exist (and the only one on YouTube):

There are literally hundreds of stories like this in the Complete Guide, of programs you may or may not have heard of, of plots unique or cliched, of behind-the-scenes details that in some cases are even more interesting that the programs from which they come. It's what got me interested in the history of television, and even though it took me 25 years to figure out it's what I should be writing about, it still grabs me today; and I get the greatest pleasure out of sharing it with everyone who'll listen. TV  


  1. I have an early 1980's version of the complete directory by Brooks and Marsh. Very dog-eared and read many, many times. The book is a treasure to those of us who love TV history. They did some serious digging which is now supplemented weekly by your blog, Mitchell.

  2. I still have my 1st edition copy of the Brooks & Marsh book, though it's currently buried behind a lot of other books in my closet. I think I bought the 5tn edition around 1995 as well. Like Mitchell, I was fascinated by what I could find out about past tv shows in it. I liked the earlier editions more because they were limited in scope & didn't try to cover all the cable tv shows it does now. The book's writers also commented that it was easier writing the book initially because the networks had publicity departments to provide them all the info they needed. Those departments were apparently downsized later. I remember the book did have a couple strange errors in it initially, including claiming that THE LUCY SHOW moved its location to San Francisco (rather than Los Angeles) in 1965 and naming Shirley Jones' PARTRIDGE FAMILY character Connie Partridge, which indeed it was before the show went into production after the pilot mentioned her name once, in a cut scene w/ her real-life husband, Jack Cassidy.

    Before this book, the first book I had about tv was called "TV Book", and it had a running history of television taking up about the bottom 1/4 of each page, while lots of articles about tv took up the rest of the pages. I remember it had a couple of articles about game shows by Maxene Fabe, who was about to publish a book called "TV Game Shows" around 1979. One of the articles mentioned that the Quiz Show Scandals started w/ a DOTTO contestant named Marie Winn, and this same book had an article by Ms. Winn where she condemned tv as "The Plug-In Drug". I guess her DOTTO experience may have soured Ms. Winn on tv.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!