December 11, 2021

This week in TV Guide: December 12, 1959




This week leads off with an interesting article—well, interesting to me, anyway—by the historian Arthur Schlesinger, who in time will become best-known as one of President Kennedy's chief advisers. The article is entitled "How Television Can Meet Its Responsibilities," which TV Guide bills as the third in a series of articles by "outstanding Americans." It's a dual reminder to us that 1) we're still sorting out our way when it comes to television's overall effect on society*; and 2) TV Guide is still, in these decades, a serious magazine discussing serious issues. But I digress.

*As my friend JB reminds us, Kurt Vonnegut famously said that future generations would look back on TV as the lead in the water pipes that slowly drove the Romans mad. 

Like so many, Schlesinger mourns the content of television, quoting Edward R. Murrow's description of the medium being used to "distract, delude, amuse and insulate," and echoes Pat Weaver's complaint that TV is "nothing but being largely a storytelling medium." Of course, there are exceptions: Omnibus, See It Now, and special presentations of "Richard III" and the Bolshoi Ballet. "But these well-advertised gestures of piety do not alter the fact that the central, the all-encompassing, the all-devouring commitment of television is to mass entertainment, conceived in a very limited way."

Arthur Schlesinger with JFK
From here, Schlesinger takes up the question of how television got this way. The traditional argument, of course, is that it's a medium that simply gives the public what it wants, but Schlesinger points to the argument made by Gilbert Seldes, TV host, occasional columnist for TV Guide, and director of the Annenberg School of Communications at Penn.* Seldes says the question that should be asked is this: if TV is, in fact, simply giving the public "what it wants," how did the public get that way in the first place? And does the public even know how good television can be? How can it, when network executives refuse to demonstrate it to them?

*The TV Guide connection is no surprise, given that Walter Annenberg is the magazine's publisher.

Interjecting the political for just a moment, Schlesinger was known as one of the most liberal of Kennedy's New Frontier men, and I think this attitude comes through in some of his observations. For instance, he insists that "artistic excellence is not something to be determined by majority vote," which I actually agree with, but it carries the whiff of the elitist argument that you've got to give the people what's good for them, whether they like it or not. He feels that networks cannot continue to base their profits on the domination of advertisers, refusing to let them dictate what programs go on the air.

He also calls for more government regulation of television, suggesting the FCC should become more active in reviewing station licenses as they come up for renewal. "The FCC might stipulate in the license that appropriate proportions of prime time be devoted to sustaining programs, to programs dealing with public issues, to cultural programs, to local live programs; that advertising be limited; that free time be grated during Presidential campaigns to all parties polling more than 10 percent of the vote in the previous election." Some of these ideas might sound good, but remember that the Prime Time Access rule, which gave the first half-hour of prime time back to local affiliates, has given us not incisive public affairs programs dealing with local issues, but endless reruns of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Family Feud, and Entertainment Tonight. Who's to say what constitutes a cultural program? If The Muppet Show does an opera satire, does that count as culture? Even if Kermit wears a tuxedo? After all, many of us received our first introduction to classical music from Bugs Bunny—how do we classify that?

Schlesinger compares the effects of such action to that of the minimum wage bill of the '30s, and dismisses accusations of government control: "the setting of federal standards need not mean Government domination of television." Need not, you notice—not does not.

In conclusion, Schlesinger, quotes CBS chief Frank Stanton, saying "the strongest sustained attention of America is now, daily and nightly, bestowed on television as it is bestowed on nothing else." Schlesinger views this as a "frightening thought," but adds that if it is true, then so also is the fact that "if television is anywhere near so significant a public influence," then it must realize that if it does not regulate itself—if it does not take steps to ensure the broadcast of what Schlesinger sees as necessary programming—then "it must expect some form of public intervention."'

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That man on this week's cover, in case you weren't aware, is Danny Thomas, and at the time of this issue, he is one of the biggest stars on television. His hit sitcom, originally titled Make Room for Daddy but now simply called The Danny Thomas Show, has just begun its seventh season, and, he notifies the author of this week's profile, he has no intentions of quitting any time soon. "How could I quit?" he asks rhetorically. "I was born to show business. I don't do it so much to make money, but to stay alive." 

Not that he isn't aware of the risks that even the most successful show business personalities face. Success is transitory, and the man known as the "World's Foremost Entertainer" isn't exempt from it. "Well, that's tough," he says. "There's always the guy who comes in, gets himself a front row table and says, "Okay, genius, foremost me." One reason the show continues to roll on, it is said, is that it has the ability to reinvent itself—other "dimensions," they call it here. Over time, the show has evolved from a standard sitcom about an entertainer and his family, to one about a widower and his kids (after Thomas's first screen wife Jean Hagen left the show), to one about a blended family (when Marjorie Lord becomes the new wife, with her own child), to one in which the kids take a more active part as they grow older. You get the idea.

While Thomas has other projects he'd like to take on, including variety specials for the network, he's happy with the way things are. And, in fact, he has good reason to: The Danny Thomas Show is good until 1964, and then it makes a comeback a few years later as Make Room for Granddaddy. Thomas continues with other shows after that; none of them are particularly successful, but neither does he embarrass himself. But as the years go on, Thomas begins to be eclipsed, first by his daughter Marlo, and then by time itself. And so I wonder, how many people remember Danny Thomas today? Oh, you and I do, but then that's they way we're wired; it's why we're here at this site in the first place. But in popular culture? Well, let's see, he founded St. Jude's, and that's kind of good, isn't it? And then there was—well, you know.

And once again we're reminded that fame is fleeting, even for the World's Foremost Entertainer. Danny Thomas's legacy is intact, at least as a humanitarian; it's just another example of how the cultural icons of our own time can so easily dry up and blow away if we're not careful, and why the cultural historians have to work to keep them alive.

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The Hallmark Hall of Fame makes an appearance on NBC Sunday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. CT with a four-part "Christmas Festival." In part one, Olympic figure skating champion Dick Button appears in "The Ice Princess"; part two features the Obernkirchen Children's Choir* singing Christmas carols; Walter Slezak stars in part three's story "The Borrowed Christmas" and part four consists of Judith Anderson (not yet a Dame) narrating the story of the Nativity. All that in just an hour—quite a show.

*Perhaps best known for their recording of "The Happy Wanderer."

It's not really a Christmas movie, but The Wizard of Oz has already become a holiday television tradition, and CBS airs the annual broadcast at 5:00 p.m. Sunday,* hosted by Red Skelton and his daughter Valentine. There's a short feature about it in the national section of the issue; because the movie only runs an hour and 40 minutes, they need something to fill the remainder of the timeslot; hence, the studio host. Nowadays they'd just fill it with commercials.

*So you'd better record either this or Hallmark—oh wait, DVRs haven't been invented yet!

On Tuesday, Ford Startime (8:30 p.m., NBC) presents "Cindy's Fella," a Western version of "Cinderella" starring Jimmy Stewart, George Gobel and Lois Smith. There's a TV Guide preview of this, remarking about how "Cindy's Fella" actually started out as an idea for Stewart's radio show The Six-Shooter, which on television was converted into The Restless Gun, starring John Payne. Who, of course, starred in one of the great Christmas movies, Miracle on 34th Street. But you already knew that.


Also on Tuesday, Red Skelton (8:30 p.m, CBS) has a Christmas theme (if not a complete show), with Clem Kadiddlehopper as a temporary post officer worker helping during the Christmas rush. Wednesday, the U.S. Steel Hour (9:00 p.m., CBS) shows "A Rose For Christmas," starring Helen Hayes and Patty Duke as a nun and an orphan. And Friday's live Bell Telephone Hour (7:30 p.m, NBC) has its Christmas special, hosted by the fine actor Thomas Mitchell, with Rosemary Clooney, the Lennon Sisters, and opera stars Lisa Della Casa and Giorgio Tozzi, among others. In subsequent years I recall Bell's Christmas show being shown on Christmas Eve, but it's always a very pleasant hour of holiday music, no matter when it's on.

There's another aspect to Christmas programming though, one that we don't see much anymore: local shows. And there are plenty of them this week, starring local choirs. On Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, Eau Claire's WEAU features local school choirs, and on Thursday evening Austin's KMMT has a Lutheran church choir. Friday evening the Rochester Male Chorus is on KROC in Rochester. TV Guide notes that the group performed earlier in the year at the Sugar Bowl. And various local choruses will be appearing on KSTP's Treasure Chest show on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (12:20 p.m.). Thursday's is particularly interesting—a 60 voice choir from the Minnesota School of Business. Do organizations like that have choirs anymore?

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The big news story this week is President Eisenhower's overseas trip, which is, as the TV Guide preview tells us, "the most extensive foreign tour ever undertaken" by an American president. His 19-day trip begins in Rome and, by the time it's over, will include the capitals of Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Iran, Greece, Tunisia, France, Spain, and Morocco, as well as the Big Four Western summit in Paris.

Television coverage of the President's trip is extensive. All three networks have specials planned for Saturday; NBC's is called the "Journey to Understanding" (8:30 p.m.), while CBS labels it "Eyewitness to History" (9:30 p.m.). ABC's, also at 9:30, is fairly laid back by comparison, just "Presidential Mission." NBC also has specials scheduled for Sunday and Friday, as well as daily updates on Today, while CBS counters with a Friday special (9:00 p.m.) devoted to America's "brittle" relationship with Iran. Ah, if only they knew.

Meanwhile, speaking not of current but of future presidents, a brief note on my favorite ad of the week. It's the one on your right, for General Electric Theater (Sunday, 8:00 p.m., CBS—it really is a terrific day for television, isn't it?) and "The House of Truth," starring host Ronald Reagan in the story of how a library in Southeast Asia leads the fight against Communism. It's good to know that even back then, over 20 years before becoming president, he's fighting the war against the Commies. And by the way, Ronald Reagan, needless to say, was no fan of Arthur Schlesinger.

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How about some sports? It's the last weekend of the regular season in the NFL, with the Championship game still two weeks away,* and we've got a pair of games to round out the schedule. In a Saturday broadcast, CBS carries the game between the Baltimore Colts and Los Angeles Rams (3:30 p.m.). It's preceded on NBC by an NBA game between the Cincinnati Royals and Minneapolis Lakers (1:15 p.m.), from the Armory in downtown Minneapolis (a building I'm well-familiar with). At noon, CBS has a one-hour condensed replay of an August baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Athletics. Do you notice how many of those teams are no longer in the same cities?.

*The game, played on December 27, is a rematch of the previous year's title contest. It's won by the Baltimore Colts, 31-16 over the New York Giants.

On Sunday, the NFL finale pits the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears (1:00 p.m., CBS). It's up against another NBA contest, this one between the New York Knickerbockers and Detroit Pistons (1:15 p.m., NBC) At least none of these four teams have moved. Aside from some golf and bowling, that does it for Sunday's sports, which explains why the networks have time for shows like the Hallmark Hall of Fame and The Wizard of Oz. For the rest of the time, I'm afraid you'll have to be content with Roller Derby and Championship Bridge, and the Wednesday and Friday Night Fights. Like I keep saying, it's a different time.

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Here's a quick look at the rest of the week, with the accent on variety. 

On Sunday, Ed Sullivan (7:00 p.m., CBS) has veteran entertainer Sophie Tucker, singer-actress Dorothy Dandridge, singer Brook Benton, the Ames Brothers, and David Seville and his Chipmunks, who did pretty well with a Christmas song, as I recall. Elsewhere, Ed's competition on ABC is a Frank Sinatra special (7:30 p.m.), featuring his Rat Pack buddy Peter Lawford, comedienne Hermione Gingold, singer Ella Fitzgerald, Juliet Prowse, and Red Novro's jazz combo. NBC's Chevy Show (8:00 p.m.) features hosts Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and singers Dennis Day, Jimmy Dean and Molly Bee. 

Steve Allen, who used to compete directly with Ed, welcomes his wife Jayne Meadows to his Monday show (9:00 p.m., NBC) has his wife Jayne Meadows, singers Vic Damone and Sandy Warner, and pianist Andre Previn. Steve's also joined by his three sons from a previous marriage in a comedy sketch. Arthur Murray's Tuesday night dance party (8:00 p.m., NBC) features Burgess Meredith, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Shelly Berman and Merv Griffin, while Garry Moore (9:00 p.m., CBS) welcomes Steve Lawrence and Johnny Carson. Perry Como's guests on Wednesday (8:00 p.m, NBC) are actor Maurice Evens, singer Jane Morgan, and the Wiere Brothers comedy team. Pat Boone, who at 23 was the youngest person ever to host a network variety show when his Thursday show debuted in 1957, has Polly Bergen and Louise O'Brien as guests (8:00 p.m., ABC), and Ernie Ford guest is the great Kate Smith (8:30 p.m., NBC). And while we don't have any details, Jack Paar's taken The Tonight Show on the road—specifically, to Nassau in the Bahamas (Friday, 10:30, NBC), where Jack's bandleader, Jose Melis, leads a steel drum band. 

Next week, I expect even more Yuletide fare in store, no matter what year it may be. Why don't you tune in and see if I'm right. TV  

2 comments:

  1. Your friend JB's statement now applies to social media....

    ReplyDelete
  2. ...an "Easter Egg" reference to SCTV? "The Happy Wanderers"

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for writing! Drive safely!