August 5, 2023

This week in TV Guide: August 7, 1954

Some years ago, an author whose work I otherwise respect—which is why I'm not naming him here—tossed off what I'm sure he considered an amusing bon mot about Orson Bean, to wit that he was a game show panelist known primarily for being known. It was an ignorant statement, which just goes to show the dangers involved in stepping outside your field of expertise without adequate preparation, but, as is often the case, it also offers the opportunity for correction, to write a wrong. Not that he's likely to be reading this, but it might be helpful in any event to set the record straight on Orson Bean.

Bean is hosting Blue Angel, the summer replacement series for Edward R. Murrow's See It Now, and to give things an authentic feel, the set is a recreation of the famed Blue Angel nightclub, where Bean made his breakthrough three years ago as a 21-year-old purveyor of sophisticated stand-up comedy. Originally from Vermont (and named Dallas Burrows), Bean took his first crack at show business in 1948 after leaving the Army. He started out as a magician, but transitioned into comedy, living "on peanut butter and crackers between jobs" before walking into the Blue Angel and convincing the owner that he was funny enough to be hired. 

Since then, he's appeared in several television shows, and made his Broadway debut in "Almanac." He feels that his greatest success, though, "has been in winning recognition from the folks Down East who never had much faith in my theatrical ambition." He's hoping for his own sitcom someday, and in the meantime he's taking lessons in singing, dancing, and acting, and teaching himself to juggle, a skill that will come in handy in future years.

For this isn't the end of Orson Bean's story, not by a long shot. He continued to appear on Broadway, starring in the original cast of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and later receiving a Tony nomination for Subways Are for Sleeping. He guested frequently on television, was a regular on Dr. Quinn, and became a mainstay on, yes, game shows, including I've Got a Secret and To Tell the Truth. He was a gifted storyteller, graceful and self-effacing, which won him a chair on all the talk shows of the day. He voiced Bilbo Baggins in the animated The Hobbit, and Frodo in the sequel Return of the King. And he remained an active actor until his untimely death in 2020 at age 91 after being hit by a car.

What bemused him in his last years of life was, he said, his status as one of the few celebrities to be blacklisted not once but twice, first by the right and then by the left. He was blacklisted in the mid-1950s "because I had a cute communist girlfriend," and went a year without appearing on television, before Ed Sullivan welcomed him back to his show. Later in life, he found hmself on the outs with the Hollywood left after he became an outspoken conservative; Bean's daughter married pundit Andrew Breitbart, and Bean converted Breitbart from liberalism to conservatism.  

Orson Bean was known for being an actor, a comedian, a voice artist, a raconteur, an a writer. The idea of being famous for being famous wouldn't have bothered him (he himself used the line, and said he was a "neocelebrity"), but if you only knew of him because you recognized his name, it was your loss.

l  l  l

Back before Instagram and Twitter and Facebook, before message boards, even before the Internet, there were things called "fan clubs." You'd generally join these clubs by sending your name and address through something called the "U.S. Mail," and in return you'd get a membership card, perhaps an autographed picture, and an occasional newsletter, all done by enthusiastic volunteers, often teens. And for all that, you became part of a following, one designed to "help fan an entertainer’s career to a flame so white-hot that he and his whole family can bask in its glow for years."

Perry Como with some of his adoring fans   
The times may have changed, and the methods adapted to current technology, but the importance of fans hasn't changed. For as this week's article says, "[T]he fans are the ones who buy most of their favorite’s recordings; come out in droves for any personal appearance; build TV ratings by tuning in faithfully to the star’s program; deluge their local disc jockeys with requests for his records and generally promote the wealth and welfare of the stars." 

Most fan clubs are not national organizations, but are local or regional; there are more than 2,000 devoted to Perry Como, for instance, not only in this country but around the world. Singer Eddie Fisher has a similar number (I wonder if Elizabeth Taylor belonged to any of them?), and even writer Paddy Chayefsky has one. And while stars may "pretend dismay," they know that their fans are what help keep them in the bread and butter. A group of Jimmy Durante's fans collared him at the track one day; he was hoping they had some hot tips, but they were only there to pitch some gags. Jerry Lewis "once embarked on an hour-long tirade against his sponsor and ad agency executives because they weren’t alloting him enough tickets for his fans. Lewis’ position: they lead the studio laughter." Como offers some of his fans haircuts on their birthdays; Como, as you may remember, was a barber before he hit stardom.

Although the means change, fandom, and its importance, remains the same today, and it's a foolish celebrity that risks antagonizing them, don't you think?

l  l  l

It's called "The Dream Mile," and it may well be the sporting event of the year. On Saturday afternoon, the only two human beings ever to have run a mile in less than four minutes will meet, along with several other runners, in the British Empire Games, from Vancouver, B.C. The CBC is covering the race live, with the signal traveling from Vancouver to Seattle, where it will then be picked up by NBC and relayed throughout the United States, starting at 4:00 p.m. CT.

It's difficult to really explain just how big this is; for decades, the four-minute mile (from an era when the metric system hasn't completely taken hold) has been the holy grail of sports; a barrier which seemed as impenetrable as the sound barrier once was. Studies have been conducted, techniques have been discussed, and tactics have been employed, all in an effort to break a barrier that some scientists thought was a human impossibility. When it became clear that it could, and would, be done, runners engaged in a battle to see who would be first. Roger Bannister ensured hs name would go down in history by becoming the first, with a 3:59.4 mile on May 6; that was then broken by John "Jack" Landy, who broke Bannister's record with a 3:57.9 less than two months later, on June 21. 

The world's media is focused on the outcome; as Landy would say in 2015, "The four-minute mile was something that even people who weren’t interested in athletics could understand and this fascination had built up." And now, with 35,000, including Prince Philip in attendence, the two will meet head-to-head, with several other runners, to settle the score. And while you might think that nothing could ever live up to that buildup, you'd be wrong. Landy leads throughout most of the race, but Bannister begins to reel him in during the final lap; in the final turn, Landy looks to the left to see where Bannister is, while Bannister passes him on the right, winning the race in a non-record but second-fastest-ever time of 3:58.8; Landy finishs in 3:59.6, the first time two runners have ever broken four minutes in the same race; a statue is later erected in Vancouver to mark the occasion of the race. You can see exactly how the sporting event of the year unfolded here

l  l  l

Today, the cover headline might read, "Godfrey Snaps Back at Fake News." Seems like people are always complaining about that, aren't they? As to the source of Godfrey's ire, well, when you spend as much of your life in the public eye as he does, you're bound to run into controversy, and as is so often the case, once it does, things just begin to snowball.

For the Old Redhead, his downfall probably began with his on-air sacking of Julius LaRosa last October, and since then things have gone downhill: rumors that he was disappointed in singer Marion Marlowe over several issues including her "choice of dating partners" and refusal to take orders; rumors that he was unhappy with Lu Ann Simms because of her recent marriage possibly disrupting the show's schedule; an on-air announcement that he'd fired a member of his crew for drunkeness; and the fall of both of his primetime programs out of the top 10 in the ratings. Because of this, he's agreed to an exclusive interview with TV Guide's Bob Stahl to try and set the record straight.

Asked by Stahl why the press seems to be out to get him, Godfrey blames it on "a dearth of any good news, so they turn to me. That’s why all this stuff starts. But none of it is true in any way and I’m hanged if I’ll get caught in the middle of it." He's denied he's planning on firing any of his cast members, but refuses to comment on whether or not he plans on hiring any new ones, including the young singer Grace Bumbry, who'd wowed audiences on Talent Scounts a few months ago. "But I talked with her then and we agreed she should finish her college courses before we do anything. I told her to come to see me as soon as she finishes school." (Bumbry goes on to a legendary career in the opera house, winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, becoming the first black singer to appear at the legendary Bayreuth Festival in Germany, performing at the Met for decades, singing at several presidental inaugurations, and eventually retiring as one of the greatest singers of her time.)

He dismisses the idea that he was angered by Simms's marriage; "I don’t give a hoot who they (meaning all the girls on his show) are in love with, who they marry, who they divorce . . ." And he's adamant that he has no plans to retire, and will be on all next season, "the Good Lord willing." Stahl notes, though, that amidst the declining ratings for he show, it may well be that he'll require a change of format, as stars such as Milton Berle have had to do, in an attempt to recover. In any case, Godfrey does wind up firing Marlowe and Simms in 1955; Talent Scouts leaves the air in 1958, while Arthur Godfrey and His Friends hangs on for another season; his daily radio program lasts until 1972, but he never completely regains the hold he once had on America. 

l  l  l

We've already seen the sports event of the week, but what else is on? 

Ed Sullivan is on vacation this week, so Victor Borge stands in for him on Toast of the Town (Sunday, 7:00 p.m. ET, CBS), with guests Audrey Meadows, Jack Whiting, singer Mary Small, and acrobat-muicians Les Charlivels.. Sullivan will have several guest hosts over the years (including Charles Laughton, who subs on September 9, 1956 after Sullivan's near-fatal automobile accident—the night Elvis makes his Sullivan debut) but since Borge himself is a performer, you have to imagine he does a couple of pieces; it probably gives the show a feel more like the Colgate Comedy Hour, where the host is also the star. And speaking of that, the Summer Comedy Hour (7:00 p.m., NBC) has the Will Mastin Trio featuring Sammy Davis Jr. as the headliner, with the Gaylords vocal trio and pantomime comic Gene Sheldon. I'll have to go with the Comedy Hour on this one.  

Top Plays of 1954 presents a grim story; "Wonderful Day for a Wedding" (Tuesday, 8:30 p.m., NBC), and I wonder just how top a play it is, since I can find very little about it online. After a bride changes her mind at the last minute, a "sultry next-door neighbor" consoles the jilted groom-to-be. Joan Leslie, Scott Brady, and Rita Moreno star; what do you want to bet that Rita is the sultry neighbor? Sounds like a nice day for a white wedding, doesn't it?

Celebrities were not always the stars of This Is Your Life (Wednesday, 9:00 p.m., NBC); in the early years of the show, the lives were often those of ordinary people who'd experienced extraordinary situations. Case in point is this week, when the honoree is Emma-Jo Wengert, a woman who was freed from Nevada State Prison as a result of Erle Stanley Gardner's Court of Last Resort, which proved she had been convicted of a crime she didn't commit. Some of the cases of the Court were dramatized in a series on NBC in 1957-58, but here we get an example of the real thing.

While this may not have the impact of the Dream Mile, the other major event in sports this week is Wednesday's world lightheavyweight championship fight between the ageless one, champion Archie Moore, and challenger Harold Johnson, live from Madison Square Garden (9:00 p.m., CBS). Moore, who admits to 37 but was actually 41, wins in a 14th round knockout; he's nowhere near done, though, as he still has two heavyweight title challenges in front of him, and remains lightheavyweight champion until 1962. Ah, longetivity.

l  l  l

The popular duo sing "Love Is the Reason"
No wonder people are so confused!
The Quiz Show Scandal has often been pointed to as when television lost its innocence. Now, I don't know whether or not that's true, but contemporary minds look back at it and frequently wonder how Americans could have been so naive as to buy into what they were seeing on TV. If you had any questions about that, though, this might help dispell them. A letter-writer from Waukeegan—I'm not naming this person either, although I can assure you it's not the same person in the Orson Bean story—says, "I watch the Garry Moore show frequently and would like to know if Ken Carson and Denise Lor are married. They always act like it when they sing together."

Well, it's called acting. Just like James Garner and Mariette Hartley were acting all those years when they were doing those Polaroid commercials together, and everyone wondered if they were married. Now, it's true that some actors are more natural than others, and some pairings have a chemistry that just works. But I'm reminded of an exchange from Doctor Who, when Romana expresses surprise that Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor doesn't believe someone's story. "But he had such an honest face," she says, to which The Doctor replies, "Romana, you can't be a successful crook with a dishonest face, can you?" So maybe none of these things surprise me after all.

Oh, and by the way, Ken Carson and Denise Lor are not married, at least not to each other. Says the editor, it's just good acting.

l  l  l

MST3K alert: Rocketship X-M
(1950) Scientists prepare for a trip to Mars via rocketship. Lloyd Bridges and Osa Massen. (Wednesday, 10:00 p.m., WGN) The brief description doesn't really do this movie justice; the crew is supposed to be making the first trip to the moon, but due to an engine malfunction, they wind up on Mars instead. (Don't ask.) It also marks the debut of TV's Frank (Conniff) and Kevin Murphy as the new voice of Tom Servo, so for that we should always be grateful. The rest of it will leave your lungs aching for air. TV  


  1. I vividly remember a commercial that Orson Bean did (in the 70s?) where he charmingly explained the correct way to use a Q-Tip.

    1. I can't imagine him being anything other than charming doing a commercial like that!

  2. I liked listening to Arthur Godfrey's radio program around 1969 and '70, when I was 12 and 13.

    1. I got to see him at the Minnesota State Fair when I 9, I think, back when he was still making personal appearances like that. Good memories, aren't they?


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!