March 25, 2023

This week in TV Guide: March 26, 1954

It really is difficult sometimes to explain the effect certain people have had on television history. Not because they weren't talented, or because their accomplishments transcended the medium, but because people don't remember them anymore. And that can be difficult for me to understand, because to me these are historical figures, as real (though perhaps not as important) as Grant, Lee, Jackson, and Sherman are to Civil War historians. Some celebrities just have more staying power than others; Arthur Godfrey and Dave Garroway, for instance, have probably disappeared from the consciousness of most people today, and yet there's no way to tell the history of television without apportioning a large part of that story to the two of them.

What about Jackie Gleason? His legacy, to the extent that it's remembered, is probably based on The Honeymooners, although film buffs will certainly remember his memorable, Oscar-nominated performance in The Hustler and his comic appearances in the Smoky and the Bandit series; others will recall that he won a Tony for Best Actor for Take Me Along, and had a series of successful, easy-listening record albums (which he supposedly arranged and conducted). And, as this week's lead story by Tom O'Malley shows, he was a larger-than-life presence off-screen as well as on: a man who, as his friends say, "really knows how to enjoy himself."

O'Malley describes Gleason as a "model of excesses," a big spender "even when he owned more bar tabs than dollar bills." Even now, when he grosses a half-million a year, one old friend bets he still hasn't got a quarter. He'll buy a thousand-dollar poodle on a whim, has (at least) 65 tailor-made suits in his closet (in three sizes, to accommodate his current weight) and "loves a good party"; he once presented a live goat to restauranteur and close friend Toots Shor because Shor "looked and smelled like one." 

Abour his weight: Fred Allen (another name sadly forgotten) once said of Gleason, "If he were a cannibal, he'd eat up the whole neighborhood." His weight fluctuates between 175 and 275, and he's known for his "much-publicized" trips to the hospital to starve it off; producer Jack Hurdle says Gleason "has to be tied down" to lose weight. But he makes sure that those 65 suits can handle it; he designs his clothes himself and has his tailor keep the "Jackie Gleason Drape" exclusive to him.

Part one of this three-part profile concludes by noting that all those friends who helped Gleason through the hard times, letting him roll up enormous tabs, knew their man. "The paid tabs are all torn up and now one of the softest touches in the business is Gleason himself."

I simply can't imagine what Gleason would have been like in the era of social media, of TMZ and E! and Entertainment Tonight. Would he still be the lovable bon vivant (warts and all) that we read about here, would he still be able to count on his chums in the media to be his co-conspirators (and frequently partners in crime)? Would he, possibly, be even bigger than he is now? Would he be as famous today as "real" housewives and celebrity sisters who've accomplished virtually nothing in their entire lives? Or would he have been laid low by a press that thirsts for scandal and loves the smell of blood, even if they have to inflict the cuts themselves? Would his relationship with them be acrimonious, contentious, punching out photographers? I'm not sure we'll ever know, but I'm not sure we'll ever have the larger-than-life figures like Jackie Gleason. To paraphrase The Great One himself, "Away they went."

l  l  l

Speaking of Arthur Godfrey, as we were up there, the two primetime "Godfrey Shows" Arthur Godfrey and His Friends and Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, are the subjects of this week's unbylined review. The review speaks of Godfrey as a man "who takes up more air space on both radio and TV than most mortals have time to keep track of" (Arthur Godfrey Time, his Monday-Thursday morning show, isn't included in this review; see what I mean about Godfrey's place in TV history?); even though Godfrey's been a lightning rod for controversy since sacking Julius La Rosa last year, The Old Redhead has so far maintained his popularity and it's no wonder, since "[Godfrey's] charm has an almost mesmerizing effect on almost every viewer in the land over 41, and a good many under."

As the first program's title suggests, Godfrey still has a lot of "friends," including singers Frank Parker, the McGuire Sisters, Marion Marlowe, Lu Ann Simms, and announcer Tony Marvin, but with the exception of Parker, the rest of the regulars "bear a strong resemblance to small children doing their Sunday afternoon recitation piece for a kindly but nonetheless exacting grandfather." They owe their success to him, though; "Only Godfrey, America’s No. 1 salesman, could have taught the newcomers the essentials of showbusiness, made them work at swimming, dancing and even ice-skating, and sold them to a doting public."

Talent Scouts, described as "a sort of amateur-professional talent show which, under the aegis of anyone else but Godfrey, undoubtedly would have died a Potter’s Field death long since," is exactly what it sounds like. Three amateur performers are presented each week, introduced by their sponsors, with the winners selected by audience reaction. It may not sound like much, but this simple formula was, nevertheless, a great success; as Talent Scouts ran on radio and television from 1946 to 1958. And the list of participants is impressive: the McGuire Sisters joined Godfrey and His Friends after winning here, as did Pat Boone; other contestants included Tony Bennett, Don Knotts, Leslie Uggams, Jonathan Winters, Eddie Fisher, Lenny Bruce (!), Connie Francis, and more. 

You might wonder why I'm spending as much time on this review as I am, given that it might not seem all that interesting (at least in comparison to Cleveland Amory's witty columns). Well, you have to remember that Arthur Godfrey and His Friends is, at this time, the #6 show in the Nielson ratings, while Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts is #3. You can't underestimate Godfrey's popularity, nor his impact on television (and radio). It really is quite remarkable, and for those not familiar with him (a number that, sadly, continues to grow) it may seem unfathomable, given his lack of obvious talent. Godfrey had three things going for him, though: an avuncular, folksy personality to which viewers quickly warmed; his ability as one of the medium's greatest salesmen (sponsors loved him); and a shrewd eye for appraising and developing talent. In terms of a ubiquitious presence, maybe Regis Philbin compares to him, but it really is difficult to imagine another Arthur Godfrey today. Maybe you have some suggestions.

l  l  l

I promise I didn't make this up, but when you're talking about television history and looking at an issue from the early 1950s, the time when most TV pioneers were active, I suppose it's inevitable: in that first paragraph today I mentioned both Arthur Godfrey and Dave Garroway; having just looked at the Godfrey story, who should pop up now but the Master Communicator himself, Garroway?

To be fair, Garroway is just one of many celebrities pictured here, recognizable for their various hand gestures (I wonder where Jack Benny's "Well!" is, by the way), but it's obvious that his "Peace" is first among equals. (He also has a pair of shows; in addition to Today, he hosts the primetime Dave Garroway Show on Friday nights.) More than anything else, I think this reminds us of the visual nature of television, and that it's still a new thing; in 1954 it's exciting to think that you can actually see these stars in your own home!

l  l  l

Some scattered notes from the week:

We've got another one of those two-network spectaculars this Sunday, with General Foods celebrating their 25th anniversary by purchasing 90 minutes (8:00-9:30 p.m. CT) on both CBS and NBC for highlights from the musicals of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II*. If you're a fan of musicals, you'll be bowled over by the productions: Oklahoma, Carousel, Allegro, South Pacific, The King and I, and Me and Juliet. (Even yours truly, who does not consider himself a fan of musicals, recognizes four of these.) The talent isn't bad either: Gordon MacRae, Jan Clayton, John Raitt, Mary Martin (who also hosts), Yul Brynner, Rosemary Clooney, and Tony Martin are among the performers, and special guests include Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, Ed Sullivan, and Edgar Bergen. Not a bad lineup at all; I'm betting it won its timeslot. You can see a portion of the show here.

*Interestingly enough, because I'm always curious about these things, the always-reliable Wikipedia says this was aired on all four networks (including DuMont). I suspect this information came from IMDb, which seems to be the source for similar writeups, and I wasn't sure what to think until I came across this contemporary account from Time, which confirms the four-network broadcast. (And that's why I take the extra step sometimes.) General Foods must have added DuMont and ABC at the last minute, although I'm not sure what they gained from the two least-watched networks on television.

Monday's Voice of Firestone (7:30 p.m., NBC) features 16-year-old Elizabeth Evans of Akron, Ohio, winner of the Eighth Annual Voice of Democracy Contest for high school students, repeating her essay "I Speak For Democracy" in response to viewr requests. Having scored a major triumph with my research on the General Foods special, it seemed like a good idea to follow it up and check this out as well*. Elizabeth Ellen Evans was one of four winners of the contest, all of whom received prizes of $500 college scholarships and trips to Washington, D. C. I'm guessing Elizabeth may have been chosen to appear on Voice given her hometown, Akron, which was also the home of Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. The show's musical numbers include "The Lord's Prayer," "Land of Hope and Glory," and "Stars and Stripes Forever," which I imagine were performed in the same segment. You can read the entire essay here; I wonder if you could read something like this on network television today.

*That same research revealed that Elizabeth's essay was recited at least one other time on television, by Susan Huskisson, Miss Teenage Knoxville, Tennessee, on the September 28, 1968 episode of The Lawrence Welk Show. I'd imagine this wasn't the only time it was repeated on TV.

On Tuesday's Today (7:00 a.m., NBC), "William Buckley, author of God and Man at Yale, discusses his new book, McCarthy and His Enemies." Buckley, only 29 at this point, is the l'enfant terrible of the burgeoning conservative political movement; at a time when there was no significant intellectual conservatism, he becomes one of the most prominent public intellectuals on the scene. I don't have to do extra research here because I have both of these books; Buckley was a major influence on me at a time when I was just beginning to appreciate the intellectual aspect of politics. I still enjoy reading his earlier stuff, even though I think he went soft later on and sided too much with the neocons.

One other note: on Wednesday, Arlene Francis takes her Home show on the road (10:00 a.m., NBC) for its first color broadcast, from Washington D.C. ("under the cherry blossoms.") Highlights include girls from the Japanese Embassy showing off authentic costumes, a preview of the Mayflower Hotel spring fashion show, and a demonstration of the care of cherry trees. Things aren't all lightness and grace, though; Filmed overhead views of Washington's slums will be followed by Arlene showing scale models of plans for slum clearance. Lord only knows how well that turned out. We don't mention Home much except for the daily listings, but it's part of Pat Weaver's dawn-to-midnight programming for NBC viewers: Today, Home, and Tonight

l  l  l

Boxing (along with wrestling) helped create early television—at one time, there were as many as six prime-time bouts a week, and there are five on this week—but now we're seeing some of the drawbacks of the mutual enrichment that came from that relationship. Two separate sources report that the upcoming heavyweight championship fight between Rocky Marciano and Ezzard Charles will not be shown on home television; the rights instead have been granted to Theater TV, which will show the fight in 61 theaters in 45 cities nationwide; those living outside of that select availability will have to be content to listen to the fight on network radio. It's the start of a trend that will grow in the years ahead; even as overexposure leads to the steady decline of boxing on network television, major bouts will migrate to theater broadcasts, and later to home pay-per-view. Nowadays it makes news when a major title fight is on free home TV. 

More sports: the baseball season starts next month, and the legendary sportswriter (and TV Guide columnist) Red Smith has his picks for the season. In the American League, the New York Yankees are going for their sixth consecutive World Series victory, and as Red sees it, "if the Yankees are to be beaten, they must beat themselves." Their opponents in the last two Series, the Brooklyn Dodgers, can expect stiffer opposition in the National League, but none of their challengers have "the superb balance expected of Brooklyn." Smith is a little off on his predictions this season: he feared that none of the Yankee rivals had done anything to challenge them, but the Cleveland Indians do exactly that, winning an American League-record 111 games and romping to the pennant; meanwhile, the New York Giants, picked to finish fourth by Red, take the National League title and then shock the Indians with a four-game sweep to win the Series. As a modern-day footnote, you've probably read about the pending collapse of regional sports channels and how it might affect the broadcasting plans for several teams, so I thought you might like to teams treated local television coverage back in 1954.

l  l  l

Finally, how about some food? This era of TV Guide includes an occasional feature on regional recipes, provided by hosts of local television programs from around the country. This week we're in the Midwest, and Anne Hayes, host of Today's Woman on KCMO-TV in Kansas City, Missouri, has a recipe for Mid-America Beef Potpie. "I've always found that my listeners and viewers prefer menus typical of the average American family," she says, and "Mid-America Beef Potpie" is the very spirit of the Midwest. It’s easy to prepare and delicately spicy."

As always, if anyone tries this out let us know. TV  

No comments

Post a Comment

Thanks for writing! Drive safely!