December 31, 2021

Around the dial

We'll start the final Around the Dial of 2021 at bare-bones e-zine, where Jack's Hitchcock project focuses on "The Lonely Hours," the first solo Hitchcock script by William D. Gordon. Once again, one of the most interesting aspects of this very interesting writeup is Jack's description of how the episode differs from the original source material.

At Garroway at Large, Jodie is back to give us an update on the progress of her Garroway biography. This is another book that I'm really looking forward to reading when it comes out, and my suspicion is that the Garroway family will be very pleased with the final product.

John at Cult TV Blog (yup, changed the name again) recalls the 1980s series Max Headroom, with a look at the brilliant pilot that established the story behind one of the stranger series of the time. I remember seeing that movie, and thinking that the series never lived up to its heights.

At Comfort TV, David takes a look at the classic TV year in review. There are actually several highlights here that I'd forgotten about, as well as a look at some of David's most popular posts of the year. And let me echo his wishes for 2022.

In a similar vein, Rick spends this week's Classic Film & TV Cafe looking back at his top 10 posts of 2021. I always enjoy these retrospectives, because it's so easy to forget some really good writing over the course of a hectic year. (I don't do them myself, because I hate rereading most of what I've written.)

Let's get a final Christmas 2021 post from The Horn Section, as Hal looks at Love That Bob's 1955 episode "Grandpa's Christmas Visit." Grandpa, of course, is played by none other than Bob Cummings himself. 

Sally Ann Howes, the British musical comedy star, died this week, aged 92. I did not know her from her movies, such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but from her appearances on American game shows like Password. Fortunately, Terence has a more comprehensive look at her career at A Shroud of Thoughts.

And with that, we'll say farewell to 2021; the next time you visit here, whether tomorrow or sometime next week, we'll be in 2022, with hopes for a happy New Year indeed. And remember, let's be careful out there. TV  

December 27, 2021

What's on TV? Tuesday, December 24, 1968

As you might have gathered from Saturday, Christmas Eve has always been one of my favorite days, and so it's no surprise that I keep gravitating toward the listings for December 24 each year, reliving the sense of anticipation that builds throughout the day. You can see it in the programs; for most of the daytime hours, it's business as usual, albeit with a seasonal spin to the regular shows. But as daytime turns to evening, the shows take on a special hue, with specials dotting the landscape until the church services begin after the late local news. I couldn't find anything like it on television this year, save perhaps PBS, which has always had choral programs on Christmas Eve, though maybe not as many as they used to. Note that tonight's programs are subject to change, given the live Apollo 8 broadcast coming up around 7:30 or so. And speaking of space, you might notice that Today takes up more space than usual, expanding to three hours this week for Apollo coverage. It's just a special day all around, isn't it? We're getting all our goodies from the Minnesota State Edition this week.

December 25, 2021

This week in TV Guide: December 21, 1968

The house we currently live in was built in 1961, which means that it's quite likely whoever was living here in 1968 watched several of the shows in this week's issue. That gives me a warm feeling, and not just because it's Christmastime, although this is one of my favorite issues. It's that there's some kind of a—I don't know, maybe it's a sense of uniting the past and the present in a way that we don't usually experience here. Were I reading this issue in the apartment we lived in back in Minnesota, a building less than 20 years old, it wouldn't have the same effect, I don't think. Or maybe the season's just making me feel sentimental. Who knows?

When I owned this issue, we were living in a rented bungalow in Minneapolis, a few miles away from the scene of the riots last year. It was a different neighborhood then, of course, and a different time. I remember laying on the floor in the living room, playing with some of the toys I'd gotten, and watching The Legend of Silent Night (Wednesday, 8:00 p.m. CT, ABC). I'm not sure what attracted me to this special; I didn't know either Kirk Douglas or James Mason from Adam, and while I've come to appreciate "Silent Night" over the years, back then it wasn't my favorite Christmas song. (It didn't mention Santa or presents, after all.) It could have been because of the epic suggestion implied in the title, or just the distinctive typeset used in the closeup. 

I remember having watched the show, although I can't tell you anything about it; I think it was the experience of watching it more than the actual watching that stayed in my mind. But I'm surprised that, for all the shows that one can watch from this period (see below for examples), this one has never popped up anywhere. Not on YouTube, not on the gray market. It surprises me, considering the big names involved, but there you have it. Perhaps someday. 

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During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup.

Sullivan: Scheduled guests for this live show include Mike Douglas; singers Patti Page, Lovelace Watkins, and the Vogues; comedians Flip Wilson, and Stiller and Meara; dancer Peter Gennaro; the Muppets puppets; and the Chung Trio, singer-instrumentalists.

Palace: Christmas hosts: Bing Crosby and—

OK, we might as well stop here; the outcome has already been settled. If you think we're going to go with anyone other than Bing Crosby for Christmas, you're even more of a Scrooge than the Grinch. I mean, it would almost be un-American. But in the interests of full disclosure, we ought to look at the rest of the lineup anyway. We now return to our regularly scheduled description.

Bing Crosby and family (wife Kathryn, sons Harry Lillis and Nathaniel, and daughter Mary Frances). Guests: Glen Campbell, the Lennon Sisters, comedian John Byner, and juggler Nicolai Olkovikov from the Moscow State Circus.

As it happens, I think Palace really does have the edge this week. The Lennon Sisters give the program a nice, warm holiday flavor, and Glen sings one of his biggest hits, "Wichita Lineman." It's true that, as singers, the Crosby children really aren't very good, but it does remind us that Christmas is a time for families. 

Sullivan isn't bad either, though. Jim Henson's reindeer Muppets do a funny bit on snow, Stiller and Meara are good as a newsman interviewing Mrs. Claus, and Mike Douglas does a very nice rendition of "The Christmas Song." They're both worthy programs for Christmas week, but Palace wins by a snowflake.

And for those of you wanting to relive those memories, you can: the Hollywood Palace episode is available in its entirety, as are a surprising number of the acts from Sullivan: the Muppets, Mike Douglas, Stiller and Meara, Patti Page, and Peter Gennaro. Pretty cool, huh?

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Ah, what a festival of programming this week. You'll see the complete list of programs for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in a special "What's on TV?" feature, but the rest of the week has plenty of fun for everyone. In addition to what you see below, there are countless local Christmas programs (37 to be precise, although I might have missed a couple), consisting mostly of high school choirs singing seasonal favorites. The cynic in me wonders if religious Christmas songs are even allowed in the average public school repertory anymore; that's how far removed from the scene I am. It was a great part of the seasonal experience, though, and whether or not they're allowed in schools anymore, I'm sorry they don't seem to be on local TV like they once were.

 begins with the NBC Children's Theatre production of "Stuart Little," the kind of special you show at Christmastime even if it doesn't have a holiday theme; Johnny Carson narrates this charming presentation. This afternoon, the King Cousins are featured in a Christmas musicale edition of Happening '68, with Paul Revere and the Raiders. As we move to the evening, we get Christmas shows from Jackie Gleason (6:30 p.m., CBS) and Lawrence Welk (7:30 p.m,. ABC), and a Yuletide episode of Adam-12 (6:30 p.m., NBC). And what would Christmas be without White Christmas (8:00 p.m., NBC) on Saturday Night at the Movies? Not as much fun, that's for sure. 

Sunday's filled with a variety of programming, from morning till evening. CBS airs a repeat of the Christmas oratorio L'Enfance du Christ by Hector Berlioz (9:00 a.m.), and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has a half-hour of Christmas music (10:00 a.m., KDAL). On Camera Three (10:00 a.m., CBS), short films on Christmas include "The Season" "a bittersweet study of California's commercial yuletide." The ABC religion program Directions presents the Christmas opera "The Shepardes Playe," based on four medieval Corpus Christi plays (12:00 p.m,); several stations, including KCMT (2:30 p.m.) have a Davey and Goliath special on Christmas Lost and Found"; and CBS has the third airing of the instant classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas (6:30 p.m.). And in non-Yule programming, Harry Reasoner anchors CBS's coverage of the marriage of President Nixon's daughter Julie and General Eisenhower's grandson David, held earlier today at Norman Vincent Peale's Marbe Collegiate Church in New York City. (5:00 p.m.)

On Monday, KAUS features a Christmas special from 1965 by Ray Conniff and his singers, with special guest star Alan Young. (10:30 p.m.; it will also be seen on Christmas Day on WCCO.) As someone once mentioned, it used to be you couldn't go more than about 15-20 minutes on radio without hearing Ray Conniff at Christmas. It's probably this show from 1965.

A few shows to spotlight on Christmas Eve: Victor Borge hosts "The World of Christmas," The Bell Telephone Hour's traditional Christmas Eve show (6:30 p.m., NBC), opposite which ABC airs "Christ is Born," first telecast in 1966 on The Saga of Western Man, narrated by the show's writer, John Secondari, with John Huston reading passages from the Bible. In syndicated specials WCCO airs a Merv Griffin Christmas special (6:30 p.m.), with guests including Garry Moore, dancers performing a scene from The Nutcracker, and singer David Soul; meanwhile, at 7:30 p.m., KAUS has the King Family Christmas special.

There's also a Christmas episode of the musical-comedy series That's Life (9:00 p.m., ABC), starring Robert Morse and E.J. Peaker, with tonight's special guest stars Leslie Uggams, Rodney Dangerfield, the Bill Baird Puppets, and comedian Joe Jackson Jr. Another choice is Holiday Inn (9:00 p.m., WTCN); there's been some fair debate lately as to whether or not this is actually a Christmas movie, since there are nearly a dozen other holidays involved; I come down on the side of "Yes," since it opens on Christmas Eve, continues on Christmas Day, and the climactic scene occurs on the following Christmas Eve. Throw in New Year's, which is part of Christmastime, and what more do you need? 

A trio of shows which are not Christmas-themed but are most certainly special lead the way on Christmas Day, starting with a pair on CBS: at 4:00 p.m., it's the season premiere of Leonard Bernstein's young People's Concert, the subject being Richard Stauss's magnificent tone poem "Don Quixote." After a break for local and national news, it's a rerun of Vladimir Horowitz's historic first TV recital (6:30 p.m.), presented without commercial interruption. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for YouTube, but I'm just glad it's been preserved.

I've made the point before (and will again, I'm sure) that the Christmas season doesn't end on Christmas, and that our culture used to recognize this fact. Thursday, Boxing Day, presents another example: the storied Dragnet Christmas episode (8:30 p.m., NBC), in which Friday and Gannon are called to investigate the theft of the Child Jesus from a church's Nativity scene. This was a standard dating back to the days of the original Dragnet in the 1950s, and this episode is simply updated to color, with Harry Morgan taking the place of Ben Alexander as Jack Webb's partner; in addition to Webb, 
three cast members reprise their roles from the 1954 edition: Harry Bartell, Ralph Mooy, and Herb Vigran. There's also an appearance by a pre-Brady Bunch Barry Williams. It really is a wonderful episode; I'm not quite sure why it didn't air last week, but let's keep the sprit going!

There's a lone high school musical special Friday afternoon; otherwise, the holiday festivities are done for now, so as we move to primetime, we'll focus on Lady Bird Johnson's five years as First Lady, as she shares The View from the White House with Howard K. Smith. (6:30 p.m., ABC) And a very interesting episode of Star Trek (9:00 p.m., NBC) has more than a few echoes of the current Pueblo incident, as the Enterprise makes an incursion into the Romulan Neutral Zone in "The Enterprise Incident." Meanwhile, Easter is the next big holiday on the calendar, and WKBT gets us ready with The Robe (10:30 p.m.), the widescreen spectacular with Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature and Michael Rennie.

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Of course, even in the midst of this Yule clambake, as Bing would say, we pause for sports. Aside from the Shrine All-Star Game on Christmas Day (3:45 p.m., ABC), there's no college football—we haven't reached the stage of having five hundred bowl games yet—but that doesn't mean we're without big games: on Saturday, it's the NFL's Eastern Conference championship game between the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns (12:30 p.m., CBS); the winner of that game takes on the winner of Sunday's Western Conference championship between the Baltimore Colts and Minnesota Vikings (1:00 p.m., CBS). I won't spoil the results for you, except to say that Cleveland and Baltimore will be playing for the NFL title next week.

The American Football League was scheduled to enjoy a week off prior to its title game, but the Western Division ended in a tie between the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs, necessitating a tiebreaker playoff game* (Sunday, 3:00 p.m., NBC). There's also some basketball on hand, as the NBA's traditional Christmas Day game pits the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns (1:30 p.m., ABC).

*Oakland wins decisively, giving them the honor of losing the following week to Broadway Joe Namath and the New York Jets. The league championship games the following week set the stage for the Jets' storied victory over the Colts in Super Bowl III.

And on Christmas night, NET Festival presents part one of Leni Riefenstahl's magnificent documentary Olympia, the story of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (10:00 p.m,. NET) Propaganda or not, I'd challenge anyone to discount Riefenstahl's abilities as a documentarian, and Olympia is filled with striking images, far beyond what one usually sees in a sports documentary.

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Nineteen sixty-eight was, as we know, a very, very bad year; a damning time and a damaging time. Not unlike this year, most people couldn't wait to see it end, their only apprehension being the possibility that the coming year might be even worse. There was one event, this week in fact, that, in the opinion of many, redeemed the year. It was a singular event, a moment of singular drama, and it was broadcast to the entire world on Tuesday night, Christmas Eve. It was the flight of Apollo 8, and the reading of the Creation Story by the astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders as they became the first humans to orbit the moon.

In a two-page spread providing details of the flight and the television coverage, Stu Samuels noted that a Christmas Eve broadcast from the moon was scheduled, beginning at 8:27 p.m. Eastern time (assuming the launch went off on schedule). The astronauts, having been briefed on the broadcast schedule, had, between themselves, prepared something they hoped would be appropriate, even healing, for those watching back on Earth.

I'm not sure, though, that anyone—even the astronauts—anticipated the impact of that broadcast. From their darkened capsule, farther away from their home planet than any humans had ever been, the first ten verses from Genesis—"the foundation of many of the world's religions," Borman pointed out—was staggering, as were the images beamed back to Earth: the craggy surface of the moon, and especially Anders' memorable picture of the Earth rising from the moon, so small that it could be blotted out by a man's thumb. From that distance it was like a blue marble against a black satin backdrop—vulnerable, fragile, an image never before seen. TV Guide would later estimate the audience at about one billion, or one-quarter of the Earth's population. And as Borman wished a Merry Christmas and "God bless all of you, all of you on this good Earth,” no one who saw it would ever forget it.

You have to understand that in our family, the tree was held on Christmas Eve, following a festive family dinner with my mother, my grandparents, and my aunt and her husband. I was eight years old, and had been eyeing those presents under the tree for a long, long time. I'd always been fascinated by the space program, but c'mon—even that can't compete with a child's excitement and avarice at Christmastime. I might have become aware, later that night, that I had missed it (I have a vague recollection), and if I had, I would have been disappointed about it. You can't have everything, though; the moon landing would happen less than a year later, and I didn't miss that. And it was a wonderful Christmas, a child's Christmas, a Christmas I remember with wonder and warmth and gratitude.

The way it should be for us all. TV  

The True Meaning of Christmas

The Mystical Nativity (Detail), by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1500-1501

Xrom his 1956 program "The True Meaning of Christmas," Bishop Fulton Sheen recites Francis Thompson's poem Ex Ore Infantium ("Out of the mouths of infants").

‘Ex Ore Infantium’
By Francis Thompson (1859–1907)

LITTLE Jesus, wast Thou shy
Once, and just so small as I?
And what did it feel like to be
Out of Heaven, and just like me?
Didst Thou sometimes think of there,        5
And ask where all the angels were?
I should think that I would cry
For my house all made of sky;
I would look about the air,
And wonder where my angels were;        10
And at waking ’twould distress me—
Not an angel there to dress me!
Hadst Thou ever any toys,
Like us little girls and boys?
And didst Thou play in Heaven with all        15
The angels that were not too tall,
With stars for marbles? Did the things
Play Can you see me? through their wings?
And did thy Mother let Thee spoil
Thy robes, with playing on our soil?        20
How nice to have them always new
In Heaven, because ’twas quite clean blue!
Didst Thou kneel at night to pray,
And didst Thou join thy hands, this way?
And did they tire sometimes, being young,        25
And make the prayer seem very long?
And dost Thou like it best, that we
Should join our hands to pray to Thee?
I used to think, before I knew,
The prayer not said unless we do.        30
And did thy Mother at the night
Kiss Thee, and fold the clothes in right?
And didst Thou feel quite good in bed,
Kiss’d, and sweet, and thy prayers said?
Thou canst not have forgotten all        35
That it feels like to be small:
And Thou know’st I cannot pray
To Thee in my father’s way—
When Thou wast so little, say,
Couldst Thou talk thy Father’s way?—        40
So, a little Child, come down
And hear a child’s tongue like thy own;
Take me by the hand and walk,
And listen to my baby-talk.
To thy Father show my prayer        45
(He will look, Thou art so fair),
And say: ‘O Father, I, thy Son,
Bring the prayer of a little one.’
And He will smile, that children’s tongue
Has not changed since Thou wast young!        50


December 24, 2021

The Night Before Christmas

Picture courtesy

It's true that we don't live in Minnesota anymore, but my childhood memories of Christmas are all from there, and it wouldn't be Christmas without appearances from two staples of childhood: Axel and Lunch With Casey

First, Axel (Clellan Card) serenades us with his famed rendition of "The Night Before Christmas." What better time to look at this than Christmas Eve, right?

And from Lunch with Casey, here's Casey (Roger Awsumb) with "Vinter Undervear."

To all of you, my sincere and heartfelt wish for a blessed and very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, until we meet again! TV  

Around the dial

On this Christmas Eve (that's not me in the picture, by the way, although I wish I could say it was), we'll start, appropriately enough, at Comfort TV where David tells us about one of the best Christmas episodes from any series: "A Vision of Sugar Plums," from the first season of Bewitched, and it's hard to argue with David's assessment.

You'll never in your life read a Chrismastime issue of TV Guide from the day that doesn't have at least one station showing Reginald Owen's magnificent version of A Christmas Carol, and at A Shroud of Thoughts, Terence gives us a more in-depth look at this timeless classic.

At the Broadcasting Archives, a link to Faded Signals and a very cool 1961 trade ad for NBC (probably from Broadcasting magazine, I'd bet) that boasts: "Whenever all three networks cover the same event at the same time, more people watch it on NBC." With Chet and David at the helm, even Uncle Walter had a hard time competing back then.

That Blog Where the Bloke With No Shirt (John, for the rest of us), introduces us to the popular British comedian of the time, Harry Worth (endorsed personally by Laurel and Hardy), and "Help," an episode from Worth's final TV series, How's Your Father?

It doesn't look as if we're going to have a white Christmas here in our new home, but all's not lost, as Silver Scenes takes a look at eight classic Westerns that take place in winter. Speaking of which, now that we're officially in winter, the days are getting longer again!

And while it's not directly related to TV, I'd like to end this pre-holiday edition at The Hits Just Keep on Comin', where JB has a touching reflection on what the world was like on Christmas Eve, 1971. Ah, yes.

I'll be back later today with a special Christmas Eve edition, and tomorrow we'll look at this year's Christmas TV Guide, from 1968. And for those of you (and I hope it's most of you!) who might be busy travelling, or with family, or having fun under the mistletoe and might not be back here until after Christmas, my wishes as always for a Blessed Christmas Eve and Day. TV  

December 23, 2021

Christmas Greetings, 1962

About ten years ago, I wrote about a magazine I’d stumbled upon in an antiques store. It was the kind of magazine I love to look through, because it tells us so much about, as Paul McCartney would say, the world in which we live in.

The magazine is called, appropriately enough, "The Community Magazine," and it's from Albert Lea, a town in southern Minnesota. "The Community Magazine" is one of those free magazines you get in supermarkets, and it's about what you'd expect: television listings for the month, a few local columnists and notes, and advertising. Mostly advertising. Which, in this case, is a real treasure trove for the cultural archaeologist. It became, almost immediately, a cherished possession of mine, and even though I shared this with you a decade ago, I realize that many of you might have missed it back then, so I'm here to offer you a condensed version.
As I’ve said in the past, one of the great treasures of TV Guide is that it shows us how life used to be, and often gives us tantalizing hints as to the shape of things to come. “The Community Magazine” isn’t TV Guide per se, but as a TV Guide substitute it delivers the same payoff.

This is the January 1963 issue, which means it would have come out sometime in December 1962, and as such represents the last chance for advertisers to wish their customers the greetings of the season. And herein lies the tale. Taken collectively, these ads present a remarkable slice of life from the early 60s: a time when religion was an accepted—no, a necessary—part of the public square, and when the PC police hadn't ridden Christmas out of town in the name of "diversity." This isn’t to say that the advertisers themselves shared those theological sentiments, but they believed strongly that this was appropriate to the season.

And this is the value of television as a cultural mirror—in looking at these ads, just as in watching the shows of the time, we see not just what people of the era believed, but what it was reasonable to expect them to believe. In other words, while things might not have been as idyllic as all that, it was reasonable to think it could have been that way, and that it was something people would recognize and be comfortable with.

Granted, we're talking about what might be referred to as "Small-Town America," but Small-Town America is where I live now, and no matter how you look at it, it's a real document from a real time, one that sadly seems far away today. One of the added benefits of combing antique stores in search of TV Guides is that in the meantime you can run into the most fascinating things.

This ad is mind-boggling for a couple of reasons. First, it's brought to you by "your servants in government"—that sounds kind of quaint, doesn't it? What's even more stunning is that it not only specifically wishes people "Christmas Joy," but it features the Three Wise Men. Can you imagine a government agency using this kind of symbolism today?

Religious symbolism is a running theme throughout these ads. I'd go to this company for a loan, wouldn't you? (Do you think it was an accident that a financial institution would go for images of gold, frankincense and myrrh?)

Here's another example. Sorenson Lumber is doing more than advertising their business; they're telling you something about the kind of people that run the company. I don't know anything this company (a quick Google search didn't tell me much), but I wouldn't be surprised to find out it was a family business.

This ad is from the local Skelly gas station. Werner Wittmer doesn't leave you in any doubt as to what they think Christmas is all about.

Not every ad in this issue has an explicitly religious motif, but it's hard to look at a candle without thinking of "The Light of the World." By the way, we don't see candles in Christmas decorating like we used to—when you find them nowadays, it's mostly as part of retro-themed advertising.

You often get "Merry," "Happy" or "Greetings" wished you, but "Joyous" is kind of nice, isn't it? Easy to forget nowadays that this is supposed to be a joyous time of the year. I hope De Soto Creamery had some joyous sales.

This is also a nice sentiment. With all the PC police, it's harder to find that part about "Good will toward men" than it used to be.

Here's not only a very nice sentiment, but a very stylish one as well. Look how they've worked the numbers 25 into the sleigh. Look even more closely, and you can see December in there somewhere. Makes you wonder if Al Hirchfeld worked on it.

I like the sentiment in this—"Let us thank you for your past patronage." Remember that the customer is doing you a favor. A lot of businesses forget about that.

Christmastide—now there's a word you don't hear very often. Sounds vaguely liturgical, doesn't it? Also serves as a reminder that Christmas is more than one day. They could have been talking about the lead-up to Christmas, or they could mean the whole twelve days, leading up to Epiphany. Or even Candlemass, if you prefer. 

Remember when carolers used to come to the front door? Maybe they still do. Back where we used to live, they would have been afraid of getting shot.

Another ad with candles—I really wish we saw more like this. Notice too how many advertisers wish us something along the lines of "health and happiness"? And they weren't talking about the virus, either.

"Best wishes of the season"—with an image like this, there isn't much doubt as to what season they're talking about. Remarkable how many of these ads had a religious motif. Or maybe not so remarkable, for the time. I guess we just weren't tolerant enough back then. 

Reddy Kilowatt wishes us all a Merry Christmas. And, by the way, don't forget to use that electricity!

And let's finish with this serene portrait of a small town in the stillness of a winter night. Sadly, the hopes for a lasting era of "Peace on earth, goodwill to man" would pretty much be wiped out by the end of 1963.

I don't know about you, but I enjoyed going through these ads immensely. There was only one sour note in the issue (aside from the sense that this is a world lost to us forever), and that comes in what I suppose we'd call the "predictions" section of the magazine. The column concludes with a prediction of "a year that lies before us clean and untouched. May it bring joy and success to us and to you." Indeed, the year was to bring the death of a pope, the overthrow of the president of South Vietnam and continuing U.S. involvement, the assassination of President Kennedy, the murder—live on national television—of his accused assassin, the death of C.S. Lewis; well, you get the picture. Knowing how the year turns out adds an extra note of poignancy to the optimistic hopes for the year. When, in 50 years, historians look back at 2021, I hope they'll see better news. It may be an impossible dream, but dreams never come true if you don't have them.  TV  

December 20, 2021

What's on TV: Thursday, December 22, 1955

We're in the home stretch tonight, and those programs that aren't Christmas specials have a holiday theme. Johnny Carson's variety show, for instance, features Johnny being granted three wishes by his fairy godfather "in keeping with the holiday season." Bob Cummings welcomes his grandfather (also played by Cummings), who's coming to pay his grandson a Christmas visit. And, as I mentioned on Saturday, Dragnet features the famed Christmas episode "The Big Little Jesus," in which Friday and Smith investigate the theft of the Child Jesus from a church manger scene. Go watch it if you've never seen it before. That and the rest of today's listings are from the Minneapolis-St. Paul edition.

December 18, 2021

This week in TV Guide: December 17, 1955

This week, Robert Montgomery reminds us that TV just ain't what it used to be.

We read that and we laugh. In 1955 television has been around for less than ten years, although it's been around longer than we think, and from today's perspective we look back at the years that are affectionately called Golden, and we wonder what Robert Montgomery can possibly be thinking of.

He knows of what he speaks, though. Montgomery is truly one of the pioneers of television, "the first top name movie personality to enter TV full-scale," as host and occasional star of Robert Montgomery Presents, a show which premiered in January, 1950. It is, therefore, winding up its sixth year on TV, and if there is anyone with the right to say "TV's not what it used to be," it's him. His memories constitute an encyclopedia of what can go wrong on live television (the only kind, back then): an actor who muffs his lines, forcing his co-stars to ad-lib for 10 minutes before he gets back on track; a ladder left on stage by a sloppy stagehand, requiring the cast to dodge around it for the entire act, until the next commercial; Montgomery himself muffing an interview with actress Teresa Wright, repeatedly calling her "Martha" instead.

With the logistics involved in early television, it's a wonder any of these shows ever got on the air. "We produced our show at 67th St. and Central Park West," Montgomery says; "our music came from Rockefeller Center, half a mile away; the commercials came in from Columbus Circle. We figured we were lucky if we got them all on the air the same night." Cameras quit working, lights burn out, actors freeze—and yet the only time the show failed to make it to airtime, it was because of a studio strike. Compared to those early days, the show today is "as slick and smooth as the wax made by one of its sponsors." And we'd probably consider it primitive.

Montgomery is definitely a populist when it comes to programming: "Let's let the audiences—and not just the critics—decide what's good and what's bad on TV," he says. And for the most part, there aren't any problems that a few good scripts won't cure. In other words, this is television—thus has it been, thus shall it be.

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With one week to go before Christmas, I'll bet we can find some shows on TV—what do you think? Why yes! This is the week that many series have their Christmas episodes, and we'll run by some of them along the way.

Few entertainers are more associated with Christmas than Perry Como, thanks to his '70s-era specials from all over the world. In 1955 Perry has his own weekly program on NBC, and since next Saturday is Christmas Eve, I'm betting that's when all the holiday trimmings come out. Even so, he manages to work in a couple of Yuletide songs this week: "The Christmas Song" and "Jingle Bells." Doesn't get much better than that.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that not every program has to be Christmas-themed in order to be the kind of special that's only shown at special times of the year. Just check out this ad for Saturday's Ford Star Jubilee (8:30 p.m. CT, CBS), with Eddie Fisher, Red Skelton, and Ella Fitzgerald. (Oh, and Nat King Cole makes an appearance, too.) There are a couple of Christmas pieces in the 90-minute program, but for the most part, it's just songs. And I'll bet it was a pretty good show, too. It does prove one thing, though: if it's near Christmas and you're showing a special, just throw some decorations on the ads. It never fails.

Sunday is where it really starts to look a lot like Christmas, starting with the afternoon program Wide Wide World at 3:00 p.m. on NBC. During the 90-minute program, host Dave Garroway takes us around the world to see how different cultures celebrate the season, including choirboys singing hymns in Quebec and New York, decorations at the Tropicana night club in Havana, the Posada Christmas processing in Mexico, and decorated department store windows in New York, Dallas, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Washington.* A little after an hour into the program, they'll cut away for live coverage of President Eisenhower lighting the White House Christmas tree, from his home in Gettysburg.

*Do they still do that nowadays? Do they still have department stores nowadays?

At 8:00 p.m., the husband-and-wife team of Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy star in the Goodyear Television Playhouse production of "Christmas 'til Closing," which ponders the question of "whether the Yule season's emphasis has not become far more material than spiritual." In a twist, it's the couple's children, not the parents, who wonder if there's too much of a fuss being made over it all.

The Today show spends the entire week before Christmas touring various churches, most of which will have their choirs performing appropriate pieces. Garry Moore's CBS morning show has the spirit as well, featuring Christmas-themed entertainment all week, including an appearance by the famous Trapp Family Singers (The Sound of Music) on Monday. And on NBC's Home, host Arlene Francis tours the department store windows along 5th Avenue in New York. Voice of Firestone's Christmas program is Monday night (7:30 p.m., ABC), with opera star Eleanor Steber joining the Firestone orchestra for a predominantly classical Christmas.

On Tuesday Dinah Shore sings "White Christmas" on her 15-minute program that precedes the NBC evening news program, while on CBS Red Skelton celebrates the season with his traditional Freddie the Freeloader skit, in which the tramp tries to get arrested so that he can spend the night in a nice warm jail cell. And speaking of jail cells, DuPont Cavalcade Theater tells a tale of Christmas in a POW camp. Later that night, on Steve Allen's Tonight, an extraordinary program featuring survivors from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. They're appearing with Walter Lord, whose universally acclaimed book A Night to Remember, written this very year, was predominantly responsible for the resurgence of interest in the disaster—although, as the 1953 movie with Barbara Stanwyck demonstrates, it never completely went away. Think about it, though: it had only been 43 years since the disaster (which would be like 1973 to us), so it wouldn't have been all that remarkable to have had survivors still living. And technology, the great god that failed everyone in the design of the ship, leaving them alone and isolated in the darkness, is what makes it possible for viewers to see them on television this night.

Bing Crosby's brother Bob hosts his own music program afternoons at 2:30 p.m. on CBS. He's been playing Christmas music all week, and Wednesday is no exception, including one of his brother's favorites—"Christmas in Killarney." Howdy Doody's celebrating Christmas this week as well, and this afternoon he takes the NBC cameras to Santa's workshop at the North Pole. Santa's also part of The Mickey Mouse Club on ABC, in the cartoon "Midnight in the Toy Shop," and the Mouseketeers also see a film on Christmas around the world. MGM Parade, about which more later, has clips from some of the studio's holiday offerings, and Father Knows Best, Kraft Television Theater, Studio 57, Waterfront, and The Millionaire have Yuletide-themed episodes of their own.

On Thursday it's one of the most famous of all traditional Christmas episodes, Dragnet's "The Big Little Jesus" (left) at 8:00 p.m. on NBC, as Friday and Smith investigate the theft of the Child from a church Nativity. Babies are also the theme on tonight's episode of Climax (CBS, 7:30 p.m.), which tells the true story of a 12-year old orphan who spends Christmas Eve finding homes for his five younger brothers and sisters. Brandon de Wilde, Barbara Hale and Joan Evans star. Before that, Bob Cummings plays his own grandfather in an episode of his show (CBS, 7:00 p.m.) called "Grandpa's Christmas Visit." Even Johnny Carson gets into the act, on his CBS variety show (9:00 p.m.), where a fairy godfather grants him three holiday wishes.

By the time we get to Friday, practically everybody's doing Christmas: Rin Tin Tin, Ozzie and Harriet, and The Patti Page Show on ABC; Mama, Our Miss Brooks, Crusader, and Playhouse of Stars on CBS; and The Big Story on NBC. I particularly like the Patti Page touch; her program ends at 11:30 p.m. out East, just a half-hour before midnight rings in Christmas Eve.

And of course, this doesn't include all the other episodic series, Burns and Allen, Medic, and the like, that have their Christmas-themed stories. Yes, it's true that at Christmastime, everything comes to a halt.

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There's an interesting article by Dan Jenkins (not the sportswriter) about how, in the wake of Walt Disney's spectacular television success, the rest of Hollywood finds this TV business isn't as easy as it looks.

Take Warner Bros.'s foray into the small screen. They've got a series called Warner Brothers Presents, featuring a rotating trio of shows, each of which runs for 45 minutes, followed by a nine-minute "behind the scenes" film "designed to sell Warner Brothers pictures." Of the three—Kings Row, Casablanca, and Cheyenne—only the third, with Clint Walker in the lead role, will have any staying power. However, it won't be long before WB gets it figured out, and their cookie-cutter style of replicating successful shows—for example, 77 Sunset Strip, Bourbon Street Beat, Hawaiian Eye, and Surfside 6—prove successful, even though many critics accuse Warners of sacrificing quality in the process.

20th Century Fox, long before they it starts its own network, makes its first stride with The 20th Century Fox Hour which, like Warner Brothers, features a nine-minute behind-the-scenes piece to accompany its anthology format. It alternates every week on CBS with The United States Steel Hour, and while the series isn't bad, it lags behind both boxing and This Is Your Life in its time period. A similar series, M-G-M Parade (which you can see occasionally on Saturday mornings on TCM), has been a disappointment for that studio. In fact, even Alfred Hitchcock Presents has fallen short of "setting the TV audience on its ear," although it winds up being one of the most venerable, and loved, of mystery series.

One of the problems, says an ad executive, is that studios have yet to figure out that television isn't the movies. Says another executive, "Wed' like to pitch in with our own people who know television" in order to improve the quality of the shows. In fact, Otto Lang, executive producer of The 20th Century Fox Hour, acknowledges that "We have a lot to learn, I guess," and M-G-M's executive producer Les Petersen points out some of the differences the studio has already learned. "A hilarious scene from a movie is suddenly not very funny when seen by just two or three people in a living room," which has led them to experiment with the use of a laugh track. They're also not sure how to lead into and out of commercials, since those aren't found on the big screen, but he knows they'll figure it out—eventually.

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TV Teletype has some fun items for us to look at this week.

For instance, we get the scoop that "Twelve Angry Men," the award-winning Studio One presentation from last year, is headed for the big screen. Henry Fonda's going to play the lead role, which Bob Cummings played on TV. I seem to recall that movie was pretty good . . .

And then there's this note that "TV actor PAUL NEWMAN, who played the part of a prize fighter in Playwrights 56's 'The Battler,' has won the big role in MGM's Somebody Up There Likes Me, the Rocky Graziano biography." That Newman fellow turned out to make the transition to movies without too much trouble . . .

In an effort to get consumers interested in color TV, CBS-Columbia is offering up to $400 for New Yorkers who want to exchange their B&W sets for an $895 color set. They say they'll expand the promotion nationwide if it's successful, but I think this color TV business is just a fad . . .

Finally, CBS is trying to pep up its Morning Show, competing against NBC's Today, by sending its host "on quickie weekend trips to foreign cities," where he'll shoot films that can be shown on the show when he returns the next Monday. The host is a guy named Dick Van Dyke—wonder what happened to him? . . .

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Last but not least, As We See It has yet another story for its collection of "doctors who blame television for practically anything." In this case the doctor is Salmon Halpern, who says that "children who watch television while lying on a rug may contract an 'allergic' type of cold." He doesn't recommend, for example, that parents tell their children to get up off the floor; rather, he recommends spraying the rugs with a special solution. Methinks that the doctor might well have some kind of financial interest in that special solution, but who am I to judge?

Merrill Panitt compares Dr. Halpern to "the dentist who said children's teeth get out of whack because they lean on their chins while watching TV, the chiropractor who insists TV causes back trouble because people slump in their chairs before TV screens and the doctor who blames TV for obesity because viewers keep nibbling at snacks." These videochondricacs, as Panitt calls them, probably won't be satisfied until they've "blamed television for scurvy; that is, scurvy in children who refuse to touch food except the cereal advertised on television."

Now, I've grown up as a child of television; TV and I have been constant companions as long as I can remember. I do have allergies, although they owe more to cats than watching TV; the fillings in my otherwise excellent teeth are more the result of failing to brush than leaning on my chin; and the only way in which my chronic back problems could be related to television would be if I twisted my back reaching for the remote. I will allow as to how my weight is higher than it should; but since I can watch television on my iPhone while working out, it's probably laziness more than TV that keeps me from getting in better shape.

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It's Christmas next week; bet there'll be some special content just waiting for you! TV  

December 17, 2021

Around the dial

Another family gathered around the TV watching C-SPAN

Whenever I see an article about how classic shows of the past weren't really that good, my Spidey sense starts to in, and I immediately prepare for some kind of knee-jerk reaction—you know, something along the lines of how this author doesn't really know what he (or she) is talking about, blah, blah, blah. And when I saw this Atlantic article by Tom Nichols on how most Christmas specials are terrible, I was prepared to do the same. After all, his focus is entirely on animated specials, leaving out some of the most significant Christmas shows in television history. But in this case, I'm not going to jerk my knee, because as it happens, this is something I like a lot; I feel as if I could have written it myself.

The idea that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is, well, kind of stupid, is not one foreign to this site. Its charm, and its classic status, comes almost entirely from the stop-action animation, the songs, and its connection to our childhood. But let's admit it: Rudolph's Santa is a jerk; if I'd been Rudy, with Santa asking for my help after everything I'd gone through, my answer would have been short and sweet: "Bite me, Santa!" (But then, I suppose Rudolph is a more forgiving soul than I am.) And then there's the idea that King Moonracer, who's apparently able to fly around the world gathering up misfit toys, can't fly to the North Pole himself and ask Santa's help. For that matter, why doesn't the king just fly over to Amazon and let them deliver the toys? Anyway, the point is that, unlike A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the two specials Nichols singles out for praise, Rudolph's story really isn't very good.

There is one thing regarding the Rankin-Bass specials, though, that I ought to point out—and I really am fond of them; I own most of them, including some that aren't commercially available—and that is that they work splendidly, if perhaps unintendedly, as allegories for our modern times. As I've pointed out before, Frosty the Snowman can be seen as a retelling of Christ's Resurrection, while Santa Claus is Comin' to Town works best as an allegory of the fall of Communism, with Sombertown serving as a stand-in for East Berlin. In fact, it seems to me that these readings are the only way either special makes sense. But then, that's just me.

Meanwhile, let's see what else is on tap this week:

At The Guardian, Anne Billson has binged on Christmas romcoms and she's here to see what they're all about. The Hallmark (and now Netflix) Christmas movies have been in my bullseye for a long time, but after reading this article I felt like I needed to go to the bathroom. Fantasy is one thing, but these movies not only dishonor Christmas (although they especially do that), they dishonor moviemaking itself. Remember when the Hallmark Hall of Fame produced class entertainment? One of the things that makes A Christmas Carol timeless is Scrooge's realization that life is not all about "having it all," but about sharing it all, especially yourself, and that you can never undo the past—you can only redeem the present and the future. On the other hand, if this kind of escapism is what people really want, no wonder we have so much trouble confronting the issues we face today.

At bare-bones e-zine, Jack wraps up the Hitchcock Project look at Joel Murcott's contributions to the show with the ninth-season episode "The Dividing Wall," an uneven but nasty little piece of work featuring a nuclear cannister. It isn't quite Kiss Me Deadly, and not nearly vintage Hitchcock.

I've decided this week to use the full name of John's blog, That Blog Where The Bloke With No Shirt Blogs About TV and Tries to Stay on the Subject, as he covers a disastrous rendition of A Christmas Carol as seen on The Play That Goes Wrong, a bizarre series that you really need to see to believe.

And though Christmas is just around the corner, it's not too early to look forward to New Year's, and at Shadow & Substance, Paul lets us in on the episodes that SyFy's chosen for this year's Twilight Zone New Year's Marathon

Another icon of 60s television passed this week with the death of Mike Nesmith, and at A Shroud of Thoughts, Terence shares an affectionate remembrance of Wool Hat. And don't miss several other articles that Terence has on his favorite Monkees songs.

At Drunk TV, Paul is back with another look at Hanna-Barbera animated specials; this time, it's the 1972 A Christmas Story. No, not the movie, but a sparkling special with an all-star lineup of cartoon voices. 

Finally, since I started this off by talking a lot about myself, I'll end the same way, with a link to episode 118 of Eventually Supertrain, in which Dan and I revisit Search, Dan and Tim talk about Kolchak, and Dan and Chris take on Battlestar Galactica. Don't miss it! TV