August 26, 2023

This week in TV Guide: August 27, 1955

It isn't often that a horse race provides the lead story in TV Guide. It isn't often that a weekday afternoon sporting event, other than the World Series, becomes the most talked-about event of the week. But then, it isn't often that you see two horses like Swaps and Nashua, and therein lies the story.

The California-bred Swaps won the Kentucky Derby in May, defeating Nashua, the "Pride of the East," by a length-and-a-half—a "convincing victory," according to Sports Illustrated. Yet Swaps' owner  chose not to run him in the remaining Triple Crown races, returning instead to the West Coast, where the horse remained undefeated through the summer. Nashua, on the other hand, ran in, and won, both the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes; the Derby defeat to Swaps was his only loss of the year. The public, and the horse racing industry, clamored for a rematch between the two, to settle the question of which horse was the year's best.

Before we go any further, you have to remember that two of the biggest sports in the United States, circa 1955, were horse racing and boxing. Professional football was just beginning to outgrow its infancy, but was not yet as popular as its college counterpart. Baseball was, undisputedly, the national pastime, but the World Series was still a month away. Basketball, hockey, soccer—well, those are sports for another day. Horse racing was where the wealthy rubbed elbows with ordinary folk, where educated touts who studied the Daily Racing Forum matched wits against amateurs betting on a hunch or a lucky number. It was a brilliant microcosm of America in the 1950s. And so, when Ben Lindheimer, the owner of Washington Park in Chicago, arranged for a match race between the two horses to decide things once and for all, it captured the attention of the nation.

The race was scheduled for the afternoon of Wednesday, August 31, at Washington Park: just the two horses, the Eastern champion vs. the Western champion for horse racing supremacy. The jockeys, Willie Shoemaker on Swaps and Eddie Arcaro on Nashua, were two of the very best in the game. The prize was $100,000, winner-take-all. CBS would broadcast the race live to a national television and radio audience estimated in the millions, and despite a post time of just past 5:00 p.m. Central time, a crowd of 35,262 came to Chicago from around the country, while millions more tuned in on radio or television. It was the Super Bowl of its day.

After all that, was the race an anticlimax? Perhaps, although championship games have a way of generating a mystique all their own, regardless of the outcome. Arcaro drives Nashua from the start, forcing Swaps to the outside on a heavy track. (The Western champ was also troubled by a chronic foot problem, but the stakes had been too high to even think of cancelling the race.) Nashua wins the race by six-and-a-half lengths, and with it, the Horse of the Year. Swaps would not race again in 1955, but returned as a four-year-old and won Horse of the Year the following season. Nashua continued to run mostly in the East, Swaps mostly in the West, and although they both raced until 1956, the two never met again. 

And even though the names might fade into the history books—unless you're a dedicated sports or racing fan, do you even remember them?—Nashua leaves his mark: his half-brother, Bold Ruler, a champion in his own right, will sire another horse who created a bit of a stir. His name is Secretariat.

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Well, that's quite a way to start the week, isn't it?  There's actually more big-time sports over the weekend, though it doesn't quite create as much of a buzz: the Davis Cup tennis finals between the defending champion United States team and the challengers from Australia. (Saturday, 1:30 pm., Sunday, 1:00 p.m., NBC) The Davis Cup is a team competition spread over three days: two singles matches on Friday, a doubles match on Saturday, two singles matches Sunday. The first team to win three matches wins the Cup, although all five matches are played regardless. The U.S., as defending champion, was seeded directly into the final, while Australia competed against 34 other countries in matches running from March through early August. No matter; the Aussies, with some of the world's greatest players on the team, sweep the Americans 5-0 to take back the Cup; they'll win again in 1956 and 1957.

Musical comedy is always a crowd pleaser, and on Saturday Max Liebman Presents showcases 1943's "One Touch of Venus" in a live broadcast (8:00 p.m., NBC) with Janet Blair, Russell Nype, and George Gaynes. The music is by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Ogden Nash, and the book by Nash and S.J. Perelman; I think there are as many stars in the credits as there are in the cast. The TV production is generally considered superior to the movie version (you can see a clip of it here; it's on DVD), which starred Ava Gardner and Robert Walker, but I wonder how well it did in the ratings? Live "spectaculars" such as this were the brainchild of NBC's Pat Weaver, but the lavish productions were costly (one Liebman special cost $500,000), and the ratings seldom justified that kind of spending. Lawrence Welk is on at the same time as Liebman, and I'd bet the maestro more than held his own.  

You all know the premise of You Are There, right? The show presents a historical event as it might have been covered had television been in existence at the time, with Walter Cronkite as the host and actual CBS newsmen interviewing the participants. I don't know that I've ever seen them do a presentation of an event that actually was broadcast on TV, though, but they come pretty close on Sunday, as the show relives the events of December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor. (5:30 p.m., CBS) As we know, New York television stations carried wire service reports of the attack (no video from Hawaii, of course), but the major radio networks covered the breaking news. I wonder how many of the newsmen on You Are There were part of that radio coverage?

On Sunday's Toast of the Town (7:00 p.m., CBS), Ed Sullivan's guests are Eartha Kitt, the singing Mariners (formerly of the Arthur Godfrey show); comedian Jay Lawrence; German child acrobat "Wonder Boy John;" and the Chicago Festival singers. Godfrey and Sullivan feuded over Sullivan's propensity of featuring fired Godfrey performers (e.g. Julius LaRosa) on his show, so I'll bet Ed loved zinging Godfrey by having the Mariners on. Opposite Sullivan, the Colgate Variety Hour (7:00 p.m., NBC) has Charlton Heston as host, promoting his new movie The Private War of Major Benson with reenactments of scenes from the movie; his guests are singer-dancer Marjorie Fields, Edger Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, and comedian Bob Wiliams. 

A couple of prominent shows feature guest hosts this week; on the season premiere of The Loretta Young Show (Sunday, 9:00 p.m., NBC), Rosalind Russell fills in as hostess for the ailing Loretta, who won't return to the show until Christmastime; her Hollywood friends will continue to sub for her until then. Meanwhile, Steve Allen isn't ill, just on vacation after finishing his lead role in the movie The Benny Goodman Story, so Ernie Kovacs guest hosts for two weeks on Tonight (M-F, 11:00 p.m., NBC). Ernie winds up hosting Tonight two nights a week beginning the next season.

Speaking of vacations, Kukla, Fran and Ollie return from the summer break on Monday (6:00 p.m., ABC), and compare notes on what each one of them did on their summer vacations. And they're not the only ones starting the new season; Jane Wyman is the new host and occasional star on the dramatic anthology series Fireside Theater (not to be confused with Firesign Theatre), which returns Tuesday at 8:00 p.m. on NBC. Father Knows Best returns for a second season (Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., NBC), with Scott Paper as the new sponsor, keeping the show on the air after Kent cigarettes chose not to renewJoe Friday and Frank Smith kick off the fifth season of Dragnet (Thursday, 8:00 p.m., NBC), and  Edward R. Murrow is back, too, with his first Person to Person show of the new season featuring Dick Powell and his wife, June Allyson, plus the famed photographer Margaret Bourke-White. (Friday, 9:30 p.m., CBS)

And in a preview of coming attractions, The Big Picture, ABC's Army documentary, goes off the air on Tuesday, to be replaced next week by a series that revolutionizes the television Western: The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp

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This week's cover story by Robert E. Johnson begins with an anecdote about "a shrewd operator who studied the best-seller lists and decided the most consistent money-makers were books about Lincoln, doctors and dogs. So he sat down and wrote a book called Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog. There is such a story, by the way, a short story by Christopher Morley that was adapted into an episode of Screen Director's Playhouse; it'll be seen at the end of 1955, with Robert Ryan as Lincoln and Charles Bickford as the doctor. (No note on who plays the dog.)

I digress, though. The point of the story is that health, dogs, and Lincoln are three of the subjects most commonly explored on Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life, now entering its eighth season (including radio) and boasting a weekly audience of 40 million. And what we're here to learn about is what makes the ideal contestant—or foil, if you prefer—for Groucho. According to Bernie Smith, head talent scout for the show, that would be "a sexy relative of Abraham Lincoln's who made a lot of money raising dogs and now spends it trying to improve her health by eating baby food." Failing that, school teachers are always popular; in addition to knowing a lot about Lincoln, "a lot of them are good looking, and we always have at least one pretty girl on the show."

Groucho with contestant Jean Moorhead of MST3K fame    
Smith and his staff look through the yellow pages (that was the business part of the phone book, for those of you too young to remember, and it was printed on yellow paper), searching for offbeat occupations; public officials and war heroes are also well-received, and if you've been fortunate enough to have gotten your name in the paper recently (for a good reason), you can expect a call from the show. Once they've been vetted, they're interviewed by members of the staff    in order to compile information that Groucho and his writers can use for his jokes. "If he knows, for instance, that a man was born a block from the Fulton Fish Market," Smith says, "he’s got the basis for a dozen gags."

Johnson's look behind the scenes ends with the story of the female contestant, a mountain climber who'd climed higher mountains than any other woman. Four months later, another contestant, a female aqualung diver who'd gone lower than any other woman. "Now," Groucho said, "all we need on this show is a woman who never did anything!" One hundred fifty letters followed, from women who'd "never been kissed, never had an operation, never been anywhere." One of them wound up a lucky contestant, and ruined her perfect record: she won $145.

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If you've been reading these reviews for any length of time, first of all, you might require a doctor's care, so you'd better check just to be sure. Second, you'll know that one topic I frequently return to is that of movies on TV—or, nowadays, the lack thereof. In 1955, movies comprise between 25 and 30 percent of the average station's broadcast day; when you filter out network programming, movies make up more than half of a station's local schedule. In fact, as Frank De Blois points out, one New York station airs 50 different movies each week, or more than 1,500 bookings (including repeats) over the course of a year. With all those movies floating about, how do stations decide what to show?

William C. Lacey, manager of the film department at WCBS in New York, explains to De Blois his movie programming philosophy. WCBS programs four movies per day, starting with the Late Matinee, which runs Monday through Friday between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. ("Liberally pruned with the editor's shears," De Blois notes). For this time slot, Lacey prefers "romantic adventure stories," such as Salome, starring Yvonne De Carlo, aka Lily Munster. The Early Show, from 6:15 to 7:25 p.m., features "family" viewing, including It's a Wonderful Life—which, as I've mentioned before, was not always limited to Christmastime viewing.

Beginning at 11:15 p.m., The Late Show, perhaps the most famous of the WCBS movie slots, is geared toward an "adult" audience, with "high adventure, romance and an occasional dash of gore." One of this week's features, Susan Hayward's Smash-Up: the Story of a Woman is a good example, as is the station's most popular late night movie, Pygmalion, "which ran 14 times on four channels in New York during a single year." Also in this timeslot: 20 Charlie Chan mysteris, which Lacey bought several years ago; each was run six times, for a total of 120 showings. Chan you beat that?

The most outspoken audience belongs to The Late Late Show, which starts around 12:30 a.m. and runs until nearly dawn. The show boasts of nearly 300,000 regular viewers: "shipyard workers, cab drivers, firemen, waitresses, bartenders, short-order cooks in all-night cafeterias, invalids and people who just can’t sleep." It was temporarly dropped a year or so ago after it lost its sponsor, but viwer outcry was such that the station was forced to bring it back.

Nothing is perfect in TV land, of course, and viewers have complaints about the movies they're offered. Given how the studios view television as a threat to the business, they're reluctant to offer stations anything new; amost all the movies on TV are pre-1950, and it isn't until 1961 and the advent of NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies that movies made post-1950 were shown on network TV. Likewise, viewers get miffed about seeing the same films over and over. ("If you show 'The Bowery Boys' once more," one viewer complained, "I’ll stinkbomb the studio.") And then there are those who complain that the movies are too new: they still want to see Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickford.

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Are there such things as celebrity authors anymore? I'm not talking about someone like Stephen King, who I view as more "celebrity" than "author" (and I'm still trying to figure that one out), but authors who are famous for being authors. I noted somewhere that when Colson Whitehead appeared on the cover of Time in 2019, it was the first time an author had been on the magazine's cover since Jonathan Franzen in 2010.

There was a time, though, when it was an event for a mainstream novelist to come out with a new book, and that's the case on Friday's Today (7:00 a.m., NBC), when Herman Wouk sits for an interview with Dave Garroway. Wouk, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Caine Mutiny in 1951, is promoting his new novel, Marjorie Morningstar, which (natch) lands him on the cover of Time, and gets made into a movie starring Natalie Wood, Gene Kelly, and Claire Trevor. 

The reason I point this out, though (aside from having a vested interest in the fame of authors) is that Herman Wouk has a significant link to television. His novel The Winds of War was published 1971, and its sequel War and Remembrance followed in 1978; both were made into huge miniseres for ABC in the late 1980s and were ratings successes (The Winds of War was the most-watched miniseries ever at the time), but they were also expensive; War and Remembrance, which ran for 30 hours, was the most expensive miniseries ever made, and when it underperformed in the ratings (although winning its timeslot), it was one of the factors that cost ABC programming chief Brandon Stoddard his job. ABC lost between $30 and $40 million on the production, and along with the changing times and the growth of cable, signaled the beginning of the end of the prestige miniseries format.

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That's kind of a downer, though, so let's end on a brighter note, with a look at Eddie Anderson, who's risen to fame—an American institution, according to this unbylined article—as Rochester Van Jones, Jack Benny's valet and foil on the latter's popular radio and television series. Anderson's been with Benny since he debuted in 1937 as a gravel-voiced porter; he proved to be so popuar that the Rochester character was created for him. (Jack Benny owned the copyright to the Rochester character, and sold it to Anderson—for a dollar.)

That was 18 years ago, and now he makes upward of $75,000 a year, owns a custom-built sports car, lives in a handsome four-bedroom home in Los Angeles (with a pool), and until a few years ago had a stable of race horses (none of then named Swaps, sad to say). He's at a bit of a loss since the recent death of his wife; he talks about producing a Western with a Negro cast, based on a true-life character. In the meantime, he lives with his adopted son Billy (a former world-record hurdler and professional football player with the Chicago Bears) and Billy's wife and daughter.

Rochester was an enormously popular character, and despite his status as a "colored" servant, he often got the better of Jack, frequently offering acidic commentary that got huge laughts (which is all that Benny ever cared for; he was never selfish about who got them); the writers continuously worked to phase out stereotypical aspects of the character. Anderson remained with Benny until 1965, when the TV show ended, and the two maintained a friendship that lasted until Benny's death in 1974. For many years, Eddie Anderson was the highest-paid black entertainer in the business; he invested his money wisely, and had several business interests. He's a member of the Radio Hall of Fame, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As a descendant of slaves who traveled to freedom on the Underground Railroad, that's not bad at all. America—what a country! TV  


  1. The reason why Jane WYMAN had time to host FIRESIDE THEATRE while Jane WYATT was starring on FATHER KNOWS BEST is because they were two different people. One was the ex-wife of Ronald Reagan and starred in FALCON CREST, while the other played Mr. Spock's mom. :)

  2. The lead item (horse match racing) is something from the past that will probably not again after what happened to Ruffian 20 years later. Ruffian the was the "Triple Tiara" winner (female equivalent to the Triple Crown) and undefeated faced off against Foolish Pleasure. What ended up happening was Ruffian while leading, snapped both sesamoid bones in her right foreleg. Veterinarians tried to save the leg, but to no avail as they had to put her down the next day. Mind you that I am writing this when just now as a horse had to be put down while falling at a race in Saratoga.

    Sorry, to be the bearer of more bad news, but if you had not heard today's news, Bob Barker, former host of The Price is Right and Truth or Consequences has died at 99. :(

  3. Concerning movies on TV back in the 50s. Since the major studios weren't releasing their newer films, many local stations started showing imports from Britain. Most of the films were low budget potboiler crime films (British Noir). The Brit studios started churning out these films aimed specifically at the American market, some starring American actors. Amazon Prime had several of these streaming a few years ago. Many of them still stand up quite well.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!