November 20, 2021

This week in TV Guide: November 22, 1958

Xne of the things I've noted in the past regarding Thanksgiving is that because it doesn't have a fixed date, you're never entirely sure when it's going to show up in a late November TV Guide. Fortunately, this week happens to be one of those happy occurrences, and since you could be reading this at any time of the week, it should fit right in with whatever you're doing, from finishing off that pumpkin pie to hanging your Christmas decorations.

I've also commented on how Thanksgiving isn't quite what it used to be, but when one looks at how it was in 1958, you can really see the changes. Take the parades, for example: CBS used to show multiple parades prior to casting its lot exclusively with the Macy's parade, but in 1958 there are but two, neither of them in New York. The coverage starts at 9:15 a.m. CT (following an abbreviated 15-minute edition of For Love or Money) with Captain Kangaroo himself, Bob Keeshan, hosting a 45-minute telecast of the Hudson's Thanksgiving Day Children's Parade* in Detroit. Following that, it's Arthur Godfrey's half-hour morning show at 10:00 a.m., which the Old Redhead will interrupt periodically to look in on the Gimbles Toyland Parade in Philadelphia, where the grand marshal is Jimmy Dean and the TV Guide float is ridden by Orson Bean and Pat Carroll.

*I've never seen it referred to in that way, as the "Children's Parade," but a quick spin around the web shows several such references in this era. 

Over on NBC, where Macy's parade coverage has swollen to three hours in recent years, the 1958 broadcast runs but an hour, with Bert "Miss America" Parks and Frank Blair, newscaster on Today, as hosts. The big story in this year's parade is the workaround required to get the balloons aloft because of the nationwide helium shortage. For awhile there were concerns that the balloons might have to be abandoned, but ultimately they were saved with an ingenious solution: they were inflated with regular air and held aloft by cranes.*

*Helium is still in short supply, although there's been no serious threat to ditch the balloons. This article tells more about the growing demand for, and shortage of, helium.

Football coverage was different as well. This year features three NFL games* and a pair of college tilts, but in 1958 the number of games was two: the traditional game in Detroit featuring the Lions and the Green Bay Packers at 11:00 a.m. on CBS, and the annual college game between Texas and Texas A&M at 1:45 p.m. on NBC. The Lions and Packers don't play every Thanksgiving anymore, although they do play on Turkey Day more often than would be dictated by random choice. Texas and Texas A&M, bitter rivals for a century, don't play each other at all anymore, thanks to conference realignment. This will probably change in the next few years with more conference realignment, but for now it's yet another example of progress not necessarily constituting an improvement.

*Still falling short of the four that were telecast in the last year prior to the NFL/AFL merger: two in each league.

Before the Texas-A&M game, KMTV Channel 3, the NBC affiliate in Omaha, has an appropriate special on at 12:30 p.m.—The Mayflower Story, a color documentary on the ship Mayflower II, an exact replica of the original, which traveled across the Atlantic in 1957, docking in New York City on July 1 of that year, after which her captain and crew received a ticker-tape parade along the city's Canyon of Heroes. You can see a brief clip of the ship's 1958 arrival in Washington here.

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There aren't many other specifically Thanksgiving-oriented shows this week, although Red Skelton's Freddie the Freeloader looks for a free turkey dinner on Tuesday's program (8:30 p.m., CBS), and Lawrence Welk's Wednesday night show (he was on twice a week at this point) is his Thanksgiving special—but more about that on Wednesday. There may be others that were not described as such in the listings. And anyway, the holiday period has always been a prime one for specials, and this year is no different. For starters, I didn't know Dean Martin did a yearly series of NBC specials a year long before he started his weekly series, but on Saturday night at 8:00 p.m., Deano kicks off his first special of the season, with special guests Bing Crosby and Phil Harris.

On Monday, The Voice of Firestone (8:00 p.m., ABC) celebrates its 30th anniversary, having started on radio in 1928; from 1949, when the television version began, until 1956, when the radio version ended, the program was simulcast on both TV and radio. The program celebrates its anniversary with some of the biggest names in opera: Rosalind Elias, Anna Moffo, Cesare Valletti and Cesare Siepi (but no Maria Callas). The host is John Daly, taking time off his ABC newscasting duties and CBS What's My Line? hosting. Busy guy. Later that evening, CBS's Desilu Playhouse presents "The Time Element," the de facto pilot for The Twilight Zone, which I wrote about when it was rerun the following April. And the following night, NBC's Eddie Fisher Show is preempted for a special presentation of Shirley Temple's Storybook, the telling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes." Not a bad week's lineup.

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Sportswise, the college football season winds down with the season-ending game between Iowa, winner of the Big Ten Championship, and Notre Dame. It's a down year for the Fighting Irish, as is the case any time the university isn't contending for the national championship, although their reputation does secure for them the #17 national ranking. For Iowa, their 31-21 victory over Notre Dame, followed by a 38-12 defeat of California in the Rose Bowl, gives them an 8-1-1 record, good enough for the #2 ranking behind undefeated Sugar Bowl champ LSU.*

*Interestingly enough, 1958 was the first year to feature the two-point conversion, introduced to help enliven what was, in Michigan athletic director Fritz Crisler's description, "the dullest, most stupid play in the game." Nearly 60 years later, people still describe the point-after that way, which causes me to ask where the progress is.

If you're in the mood for some "ice hockey," CBS has it with its NHL Game of the Week Saturday afternoon, featuring the Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins from Boston Garden. (I would love to see footage of that game.) If the NFL suits you better, there is a game aside from the Thanksgiving Day feature, with CBS carrying the Chicago Cardinals hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers. There's also some NBA action on Sunday, with the St. Louis Hawks and Cincinnati Royals playing on NBC.*

*Just to recap, the Chicago Cardinals moved to St. Louis and then Phoenix, where they're now known as the Arizona Cardinals. The St. Louis Hawks came from Milwaukee and would move on to Atlanta, while the Cincinnati Royals, once the Rochester (NY) Royals, later became the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, the Kansas City Kings, and now the Sacramento Kings. At least the Steelers stayed put.

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This week's starlet is Diana van der Vlis, who might be the next Grace Kelly, or Maria Schell, or Eva Marie Saint. But what she looks forward to is the day when someone might come up to her and say, "I've seen an actress who looks just like you." She's earned her acting chops, from Broadway to B movies to television guest roles in shows such as Kraft Television Theater and Naked City. She's done a pilot, but the show hasn't yet been picked up. (And in fact never will be.) Her greatest fame will come on the daytime circuit, most notably in the soaps Ryan's Hope and Where the Heart Is. One thing's for sure, though: when you've seen her once, you'll never miss seeing her again.

And a note from TV Teletype that Jennifer Lea has been signed to play Carl Reiner's wife in Reiner's new series Man of the House. The series never made it, but a few years later Reiner retooled and recast it, and it wound up as The Dick Van Dyke Show. Hmm—Jennifer Lea as Laura Petrie? Or Barbara Britton, as rumor had it? I think it would have been worth a look.

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And now to the cover story: Ronald Reagan and his actress-wife, Nancy Davis Reagan. The "athletically lanky and likable" Ronnie, now 47, has for the last four years been the host and occasional star of General Electric Theater on CBS, and he and Nancy will appear on the show Sunday night, in the ironically-named "A Turkey for the President." Reagan doesn't play the president—that would come 22 years later, in the role of his life—he plays the father of a boy who enters his personal turkey in a contest, only to find out the "winner" of the contest gets to serve as the president's Thanksgiving dinner.

It's not that Reagan's career is winding down, but he's at a point where he's less interested in what the critics think than what the sponsor and its employees think. He's acutely aware that part of his job is to keep GE happy, and he uses the feedback he receives from employees, which he gets regularly while touring GE plants nationwide, to help formulate his opinions about what television should be like. "People will accept art on TV," Reagan says perceptively. "They want art, not just amusement. They'll accept an unhappy ending. But they do want to know what happens after the story ended and they want to know why. They do not want to be left dangling in the air after a TV show." One other thing they want: "stars, stars, stars."

The unbylined article contains most of the biographical information we've come to know over the years: the beginning calling Cubs games on WHO radio, the trip to California, where he would star in movies, his marriages to Jane Wyman and Nancy, his time as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and his current role as corporate spokesman, in which he may make as many as 15 speeches a day—not only to GE employees, but to Rotary, Lions and Kiawinis clubs, churches and chambers of commerce. It will not only polish his public speaking, it will give him a unique opportunity to tour the country, speaking to ordinary persons, making connections and leaving impressions that will be remembered in years to come. The writer observes that Reagan appears to enjoy this part of the job most of all.

What's fascinating about this, at least to me, is that we're not reading about this in an after-the-fact biography, or listening to a political analyst talking about it in the past tense. We're seeing it as it happens. In fact, though few (including Reagan himself) would realize it at the time, we are watching, in real time, the embryonic stages of Ronald Reagan's campaign for the presidency. It is happening before our very eyes, and though we aren't even aware of it, we can suspect that more than one person from the 250,000 he meets during this time will come away from their encounter mightily impressed by the meeting, impressed by the man.

Nobody would have predicted what would come next,would have predicted that Ronald Reagan would not stop giving speeches when GE Theater went off the air in 1962, would not return to acting after his final picture, The Killers, would not return to Hollywood at all but would wind up in Sacramento as governor, in Washington, D.C. as the last larger-than-life president. But there it is, the future staring right at us in black-and-white. And we don't even know it. TV  

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