April 8, 2023

This week in TV Guide: April 9, 1955

When I was a kid playing with model trains, there was a line of accessories that you could use to build your own village, complete with stores, factories, and even a depot. It was called Plasticville, and it was (and is; it's still around) pretty cool. But can Plasticville possibly compete with Videotown, U.S.A.? 

Videotown is also known as New Brunswick, New Jersey, a community of nearly 40,000, which has been studied—"relentlessly scrutinized," as Frank De Blois calls it—for the last seven years to find out the impact TV has had on the community, "and, by extension, on all the rest of us." The raw figures tell us that 83 percent of families in Videotown own televisions (compared with 64 percent who own cars, and 80 percent with telephones), that the average size is 21 inches and that the family room is built around it, that 74 percent turn on the set at least once a day, and that the longer they have a set, the more they use it—at least three hours a day. What those numbers don't tell us is the effect television has had on these people. That is what we're about to find out.

It all started in 1948; there were 267 sets in the town at that point, and because of its proximity to New York City, the advertising firm of Cunningham and Walsh decided to launch their study. One of their initial conclusions was that, interestingly enough, television brought families together. "Children stopped playing stickball in the street. Parents quit going to the movies. Bowling leagues broke up. Even the sale of comic books went down. Result: the living room once again became the social center of the family." Said one mother in 1950, "We all stay home now. TV is wonderful." Women began doing their daily routine early in the morning, so they could get to watching TV. "It takes up so much of my time," one woman confided, "that I don't have enough left to do my housework." 

Since then, things have evened out a bit; "[P]eople began to go out to the movies again, to read books and magazines once in a while, and to get back into the bowling league. Even radio made a comeback." Even so, people continued to watch as much TV as ever: "Monday through Friday nights husbands total 13.3 hours; wives, 13.8 hours; kiddies 7.7." The conclusion, according to the firm's research chief Gerald Tasker, was that "for one thing, most viewers had completely stopped visiting their friends." When television first came along, one housewife recalls, "our neighbors used to come in every week and look at Milton Berle with us. But now they got the TV too—and whenever Milton Berle goes on, why, me and Pa just sit there and watch him all alone." Sure enough: whereas 25 percent used to go visiting or entertain, the number has now dropped to 10 percent. And that's how they can continue to go to movies, go bowling, read, or listen to the radio. Those who go out have simply traded one kind of socializing for another, but for those who don't leave the house at all, it's just them and their TV.

One of the broad conclusions that everyone seems to agree on is that people love their TVs ("It's the greatest thing in the world!"), and they'd hate to go without it. ("We'd rather hock the ice box.") The rest of the results are, as you might say, mixed: TV either starts or stops fights, it's good or bad for the eyes, it's better or worse than radio, and so on. 

It's hard to draw a direct parallel between 1955 and today, thanks to social media; you'd have to compare the number of hours people watched television back then with the number of hours they spend looking at their screens now. There are other differences; the multiplication of options and the introduction of various options for on-demand viewing mean that television—media, we have to call it—is no longer a unifying experience, with people watching the same shows at the same time. What it has succeeded in doing is isolating people, not only from their neighbors but from their own family members, as everyone retreats into his or her own virtual world. And it's trivialized so, so much; I do wonder if everyone still thinks of television as "the greatest thing in the world." 

On my reading list is Neil Postman's provocative Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, which I expect is going to have a lot to say about the effect television has had on our society. Once I've read it, you can be sure I'll be back to this subject. Maybe Videotown, U.S.A. is just another Plasticville after all.

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Here's something for my friend Hal Horn at The Horn Section: a profile of Bob Cummings, the "up and coming" star of The Bob Cummings Show, better known as Love That Bob. He's also the star of My Hero, which is currently in reruns and scoring healthy ratings. And he's also "a man endowed with a talent for spinning yarns so complicated and so fantastic—and yet, coming from him, so believable—that people believe them." For example, there are at least five different versions of how he came upon "Robert S. Beanblossom," the name of his My Hero character; the latest one says Beanblossom was a man who found a mechanical pencil that Cummings had lost and carried it with him for 16 years until he could return it to Cummings. 

Bob with co-star Ann B. Davis
Cummings is considered one of the most versatile performers in Hollywood, particularly in light comedies, but he's also made several movies, a Studio One drama, and a musical for NBC. (That Studio One drama, although the article doesn't mention this, was "Twelve Angry Men," in which he played the Henry Fonda role, and brilliantly.) And he's not afraid to use his influence, either: not only does he deliver the commercials on his show, he won the right to write them as well.

The concept for his new show—a Hollywood photographer with an eye for the starlets he snaps—came to Cummings in an episode he wrote for My Hero; independent of that, a similar idea had also come to Paul Henning, writer for Burns and Allen. When Henning approached Cummings with the idea, it turned out that Cummings had been about to call him with the same idea. Henning is now the show's producer and its only writer. The Bob Cummings Show will run for five successful seasons, and though Bob will have two other series and will appear many times on other shows (including a memorable appearance on The Twilight Zone), audiences will never love Bob as much as they do now.

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Sunday is Easter, and as is to be expected in the 1950s, television takes notice. Besides five chuch services on Sunday morning (two Catholic, two Episcopal, one Baptist for those of you keeping count at home), we have coverage of New York's Easter Parade on not one, but two stations. WPIX's ambitious two-hour broadcast, starting at 11:30 a.m., features Ed Sullivan as host and actress Haila Stoddard providing fashion commentary, plus the Georgetown Chimes a cappella group performing Easter songs, actress Patty McCormack reciting an Easter powm, Easter art fromt he Metropolitan Museum of Art, UN members talking about how the holiday is celebrated in their countries, appearances by Nancy Kelly, Don Ameche and other stars, and President Eisenhower's Easter message from Washington. Over on WRCA, coverage begins at 12:30 pm, with Ben Grauer on Fifth Avenue, Arlene Francis covering an international fashion show from the Hotel Pierre, and music from soprano Mimi Benzell and the Robert Shaw Male Chorus. Another Easter fashion show follows on WRCA at 1:00 p.m., this one from the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, hosted by Tex McCrary and Jinx Falkenburg. The show's called "The World of Silk," and it's sponsored, surprisingly, by the International Silk Association.

One of the day's highlights has to be The Kuklapolitan Easter Show (6:30 p.m., ABC), starring Fletcher Rabbit, with Fran Allison and the rest of Burr Tillstrom's Kuklapolitan puppets, plus a "special appearance" by Kukla and Ollie. It's an "egg-sighting" tour of the Easter Bunny's famous Egg Plant, and I think this would be a delightful show to see. The Hallmark Hall of Fame presents "Lydia" (5:00 p.m., NBC), with Sarah Churchill as a Greek pagan converted by the apostle Paul; there's also a special Easter show by Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians on G.E. Theater (9:00 p.m., CBS) to round out the evening.

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There's music in the air this week as well, with a couple of specials to look forward to. Max Liebman's monthly "spectacular" on NBC is the Franz Lehar operetta, The Merry Widow, with Anne Jeffreys, Brian Sullivan, Edward Everett Horton, and John Conte heading the cast. (Saturday, 9:00 p.m.) And on Sunday, The Colgate Comedy Hour turns itself over to an hour-long adaptation of Roberta, the Jerome Kern-Otto Harbach operetta, starring Gordon MacRae, Nina Foch, Agnes Moorehead, and Jack Carter. The orchestra is conducted by Carmen Dragon, whom, we all know, is the father of Daryl Dragon, the former husband of Toni Tennille. (8:00 p.m., NBC)

As if that isn't enough, baseball season starts on Monday, with two traditions: the Cincinnati Redlegs, the first professional baseball team, opens the National League season at home against the Chicago Cubs, while in Washington D.C., President Eisenhower is on hand for the Senators opener against the Baltimore Orioles. However, in New York the television season begins much earlier; on Saturday, WOR carries the pre-season game betwen the Yankees and Dodgers from Ebbets Field in Brooklyn (1:55 p.m., with Vin Scully on the play-by-play!). and on Sunday the two teams meet again, this time at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. (1:55 p.m., WPIX, with Mel Allen and Red Barber) You might wonder how baseball was handled in a three-team city like New York; WOR is the hme of the Dodgers, with all 77 home games and 25 road games on the channel; the Yankees and the New York Giants both call WPIX home, with each team having their 77 home games carried. Including the two exhibition games over the weekend, that means New Yorkers will be blessed with 258 games from which to choose. And here's a footnote: all three teams start weekday night games at 8:00 p.m. or so, much later than teams do today. Fewer night games, shorter games, and less crime are your reasons.

Keeping with the baseball motif, Ed Sullivan introduces all the stars on Toast of the Town. (Sunday, 8:00 p.m., CBS) The lineup includes Willie Mays, Pee Wee Reese, Dusty Rhodes, Robin Roberts, Warren Spahn, Vic Wertz, and Jerry Coleman. The first televised regular season games are on Tuesday (Dodgers vs. Pittsburgh Pirates at 1:25 on WOR; Yankees vs. Senators at 1:55 on WPIX.) Play ball!

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Some big names on Monday's shows: Robert Montgomery Presents stars Montgomery himself as Jay Gatsby in "The Great Gatsby" (9:30 p.m., NBC), which also includes Phyllis Kirk as Daisy, Ed Binns as Nick, John Newland (host of One Step Beyond) as Tom Buchanan, and Gena Rowlands as Myrtle. And at 10:00 p.m. on CBS's Studio One, Louis Jourdan stars as a Czechoslovakian hockey player plotting to defect after the Soviets take over his country, in "Passage at Arms"; Theodore Bikel is part of the supporting cast.

On Tuesday's Today (7:00 a.m., NBC), Dave Garroway interviews film producer Stanley Kramer; if Kramer's there to promote a movie (the listing doesn't say), it's probably Not as a Stranger, which comes out in June, and stars Olivia de Havilland, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, Gloria Grahame, Broderick Crawford, and Lee Marvin. Also, "[a]n armored truce is scheduled to drie up with a million dollars worth of jewels and Jinx Falkenburg inside." Whether the guards are for the jewels or Jinx isn't said. 

But since this is the second mention of Jinx Falkenburg in a handful of pages, let's take a timeout for a minute. Last year, after she appeared in a TV Guide from 1951, I noted that Jinx Falkenburg was the owner of the nightgown that Rita Hayworth wore in her famous pinup. Which is why I'm submitting this for your approval.

Getting back to the subject at hand, Tuesday night Wendell Corey and Keenan Wynn star in Rod Serling's "The Rack" on The United States Steel Hour (9:30 p.m., ABC). "The Rack" is a Korean War story about a decorated Army officer being court-martialed for collaborating with the Chinese as a result of being tortured in a POW camp. Marshall Thompson (Daktari) plays the young captain facing charges of treason; when the story's made into a movie the following year, the role's played by Paul Newman. The lesson remains that torture is second in immorality only to war itself.

Wednesday's Disneyland sees the premier of the three-part story "Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter" (7:30 p.m., ABC), shot on location in the Great Smoky Mountains and along the Ohio River, an impressive achievement for television. Fess Parker stars as Crockett, with Buddy Ebsen as George Russell. The Hollywood TV Teletype reports that Disney has already decided on four more Crockett films for next season.

This month's Shower of Stars (Thursday, 8:30 p.m., CBS) is called "Show Stoppers," and it figures to deliver, with Ethel Merman, Red Skelton, Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy, Harold Lang, and Cindy Robbins. It's nice to see how the ad reassures us that, even if you don't have a color set yet (a status that applies to roughly most of the country), you can still enjoy it in black and white. Later, on Four Star Playhouse (9:30 p.m., CBS), Charles Boyer and Angela Lansbury star in "Madeira! Madeira!" and Charles Bickford stars in "The Woman at Fog Point" on Ford Theatre (9:30 p.m., NBC). A big night for stars, indeed.

I don't know why, but I noticed the debut of a program on WOR called A Man's World (Friday, 7:00 p.m.), described as "a weekly series of fashion hints for men," starring a man with the unlikely name of Bert Bacharach. And no, of course it's not the composer. It's his father

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Finally, a collection of those clever slides you used to see on your screen whenever technical difficulties would arise, which in the early days of television happened relatively often. There must have been a million of these at one time or another; these are some of them.

I'm sure we're all grateful that technology has become more dependable over the decades, but there's something charmingly playful that's missing from our oh-so-serious way of doing things, even as the things we do continue to seem less and less serious. The 3D, CGI graphics, slick and polished and identical no matter what or where the channel is—is there really no room for them today? As the pioneers of television might say, so uncreativeTV  


  1. The parodies of those technical difficulties slides seen on such programs as The Simpsons and Fernwood 2 Night aren't too far removed from the real thing seen here. Very amusing.

  2. Thanks for the shoutout and for doing an issue that I'll have to look for! The Cummings article looks interesting, and S.1 of that show is really interesting, a lot of it fell into place quickly; recurring cast like Joi Lansing, Lisa Gaye, Lola Albright and of course Lyle Talbot were not yet established. Never really could get into MY HERO though, but Bob did hit upon this one genuine classic.

    I'm also a fan of the sadly sometimes forgotten Jinx Falkenburg, who was quite the presence onscreen. Wish that her 1940's films were easier to find these days.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!