Wecome to Installment 3 of 78,486
Television was still relatively new and had great popularity in the 1950s---and before Gallup, there was the American Research Bureau's ratings, recorded from diaries kept in selected homes. Results during February 1956 showed: 1. Ed Sullivan, a really big evening variety shew; 2. $64,000 Question, a questionable quiz show; 3. Perry Como, a musical variety presentation; 4. I Love Lucy, a timeless sitcom; 5. Climax!, a murder-mystery drama; 6. Person to Person, an interview show; 7. Groucho Marx, an ersatz quiz show; 8. December Bride, another sitcom; 9. Caesar's Hour, comedy and variety; and 10. Lux Video Theatre, with dramatic presentations.
In this 1956 survey, CBS took six of the top ten spots, with NBC having four. Just a year earlier, CBS had taken eight of the top ten spots, with NBC at one and ABC at one lagging behind. Both years, Perry Como on NBC was in that top ten. Interesting observations, certainly, but not Earth-shaking, n'est pas? These days, I would observe that the top ten shows are probably on cable and not broadcast TV.
Kate Smith with her robust voice had a show every weekday at 4 pm in the early 1950s [as did Nat King Cole and Liberace.] My Nana watched it [and them] religiously. Kate was best known for her rendition of Irving Berlin's 'God Bless America', but she belted out other songs with grace and elan as well. Berlin pretty much gave her the song. No one else dared sing it while she was in her heyday. No other singer has done a better job.
Edgar Bergan's Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd were classics. Wooden wisecracks are always popular, aren't they? To me, those two dunderheads were almost like real people, and Edgar Bergen's id must have suffered from the efforts. 'People are Funny' with Art Linkletter was an enjoyable diversion. I'd rather watch the actions and hear the words of normal people than Hollywood and TV stars any day. This was especially good with the little kids and what came out of their mouths. I could relate to them, having been a little kid myself not so many years before.
'The Naked City,' based on a great movie, began as a half-hour show in 1958. Starring John McIntyre and James Franciscus, it was a controversial New York City crime drama rather like the Law part in today's 'Law and Order,' and with a semi-documentary look. McIntyre became homesick and wanted to return to California, so he was killed off in a fiery crash. That created a firestorm of criticism that led to the show's demise in 1959. It returned in 1960 as the one-hour 'Naked City' with Franciscus, Nancy Malone, and Horace McMahon [who in some studio stills looks like Jack Webb.] As before, the show was a popular and critical success, but it was canceled in 1963 despite the good ratings. Another example of TV executive wisdom. Getting back to the 'Naked City' movie, which had come out in early 1958, it starred Barry Fitzgerald and Howard Duff. I can still watch that over and over and over, and I heartily enjoy it even though I know how it ends. Either I'm senile or that's a great movie!
Perry Como's variety show began as the 'Chesterfield Supper Club' in 1948 and lasted until 1955. It was then changed to 'Kraft Music Hall,' and lived a good life until 1963. Both shows had obvious sponsors. Perry's theme song was the romantic “Dream Along With Me...I'm on my way to the stars…' With 'Chesterfield,' Perry featured the Fontane Sisters and Ray Charles Singers, while his 'Kraft' show offered Kaye Ballard and Don Adams. In both shows, Perry charmed the audience with his friendly nonchalance and golden baritone voice. We watched it all the time, though I was bit young during the 'Chesterfield' run. And if Perry were ever to be compared to the later star, Andy Williams, I'd say Perry 10, Andy 5.
Ralph Edwards dominated and laughed his way through each 'This Is Your Life' episode that ran from 1952 to 1961.
He presented the sugar-coated lives of Marilyn Monroe, Bob Hope, Laurel and Hardy, Jack Benny, Bette Davis, and too many movie production individuals and teams and civic leaders I didn't know and couldn't appreciate The 'lives' would be illustrated by the voices and anecdotes of relatives and friends, present and past, sometimes to the astonishment of the surprisee---and me because I didn't know them either. And we weren't always sure that the guest surprisee was particularly happy about the 'voice' or 'person' from the past---or, for that matter, even having his life discussed in the first place. A party would be held after the show for the guest and the visitors. I'd have given my 'Crackle' puppet to have been a fly on the wall for some of them.
Ray Forrest hosted the 'Children's Theater' from 1949 to 1961, culminating in his five week broadcast from 'Freedomland' in the Bronx, a place we visited during high school. Sadly, 'Freedomland,' which was laid out in the shape of the US, has been closed and gone for quite some time, and I deny responsibility for that. The 'Merry Mailman' of Ray Heatherton ran from 1950 through 1956, providing cartoons and gentle shenanigans for we kids to follow. Ray was okay, but his daughter, Joey, was a knockout! I also remember 'Mr. I. Magination from a bit earlier, and---except for a scene or two---I always get my memories of the two shows mixed up. His kid's show was the only one in memory which exhibited the character's wife---in this case, Mrs. I. Magination.
In 1958 on Channel 11 were Officer Joe Bolton and the 'Three Stooges' Funhouse.' I probably saw dozens of the trio's movies in those years. Curly, Moe, and Larry were classic funnymen, though Laurel and Hardy still stand greater in my memory. Their antics may just have inspired my brother Ed to provide his corny military greeting to me. He'd pat me on the head, the back, and then the chest while saying 'Hi old top, glad to see you back from the front.' Uh, top sergeant, that is, and uh---well, we thought it was funny!
Claude Kirchner's 'Super Circus' was televised from Chicago (and presented by Kellogg's,) and when it moved to New York in 1955 the ringmaster was changed to Jerry Colonna. His open eyes were almost as big as plates to us. He was naturally funny. Kirchner, a much stiffer man, moved to New York at the same time, and from then until 1962 he led the “Terrytoons' Circus,' another venue of wonderful cartoons for kids. I would imagine it was a tough job for an adult to emcee a cartoon show. You had to project enthusiasm and concern for cartoons and the characters on a regular basis. To paraphrase Roy Campanella: 'you have to have a little kid in you.' To paraphrase me: 'you have to have a lot of patience and chutzpah!'
We enjoyed Broderick Crawford in 'Highway Patrol' with his guttural '10-4.' That utterance became a regular sign off in the civilian world as well, whether for fun or in all seriousness. 'Yeah, Dad! '10-4' Dad!' Smack! 'Show your father more respect when you answer him!' Then in the 1970s, the handles and messages of the truckers and the CBers were all the rage. Lucy and Desi in 'I Love Lucy,' is a classic sitcom, especially when Fred and Ethel were at their best. Lucy's and Ethel's chocolate escapade was funny as all get out [we can't use h*e*l*l on this blog.] Just as the Lucy situations were predictable, they were very funny. 'Good clean fun.' as they say. And, we didn't have to understand Desi's Spanish to enjoy the proceedings. As with Old Lady Schumaci [a childhood nemesis and neighbor who spoke only Italian---discussed in another essay,] tone and arm movements are the universal language. Lucy's antics, usually aided and abetted by Ethel and Fred, included grape stomping, dancing, vaudeville skits, and embarrassing Rickie's guest stars.
Eve Arden and Richard Crenna in 'Our Miss Brooks' often exasperated their private school principal, Gale Gordon in the early fifties. Crenna in particular, as Walter Denton, was enough to drive anyone up a wall. Later, he was a bona fide movie star, including a stint in 'Rambo, First Blood.' John Daly's 'What's My Line?' ranged from silly to mundane to deep. 'I've Got A Secret' with Garry Moore and Durwood Kirby always seemed somewhat inane. Of course, you know that Kirby was reincarnated in the 1970s as Spiro Agnew. Richard Carlson thrilled us with his 'communist' adventures in 'I Led Three Lives.' The show was about an FBI double agent among the communist cells in America. Each week was a different story about his infiltration of the cells and (Herb) Philbrick's subsequent report---from a secret room in his basement---to the Feds. Who said the cold war era of the 1950s didn't affect regular television shows?
That TV show encouraged me to read the source book, 'I Led Three Lives' as well as 'You Can Trust the Communists [to do exactly what they say,'] 'The FBI Story,' and 'Masters of Deceit' by J. Edgar Hoover. At that point, I was ready to report for duty with the FBI or CIA at a moment's notice. I did join the boy scouts, and my two brothers were members of the Ground Observers' Corp.
A funny result of all this TV viewing is that later, when I saw their earlier movies, my mind saw these stars in their later TV guises. [Got that?] Thus Broderick Crawford would always be Dan Mathews of Highway Patrol, whether he played a governor, senator, or hitman; Lucy would always be Lucy Riccardo of I Love Lucy; Richard Carlson would always be a double agent; Richard Crenna would always be a wise-cracking Walter Denton; etc. 'Hey, there's Herb Philbrick! What's he doing in this movie?' 'How did that annoying Walter Denton get to be a General?'
Jackie Gleason's 'Honeymooners' was originally a skit on his 'Cavalcade of Stars' [on the Dumont Network, later moving to CBS.] The old Dumont system is said to be reincarnated in Fox. I don't know for sure. I remember the night Gleason broke a leg while running offstage on his variety show. He slid and tripped off stage and out of camera range during a Reggie Van Gleason skit. Of course, the show went on, though Jackie was missing. Most shows were live in those days, so accidents, bloopers, and other flubs were right in front of us. I enjoyed the 'Honeymooners' and probably saw most of the shows, many of which cannot be shown today because they weren't recorded. '…One of these days, Alice. Right in the kisser…' '…Baby, you're the greatest…' Ralph was a city employee and he was proud of it: '…I brive a dus…'
'Don Winslow of the Coast Guard' was an interesting show, though a stiff acting ensemble kept it in the unbelievable category. Winslow and his compatriots were always attired in formal, dress-white uniforms. I believed logically they should have been wearing khaki. White is a formal dress uniform and not a work uniform. [I was in the Navy years ago---but after this.] After all, Winslow and associates were working at the time, and it seemed to me that fighting in khaki would have been much easier---no shoulder boards, at least. Actually, I think the show was made up from a movie series, and the white uniforms probably made in more Navy/Coast Guard-like.
Richard Greene's 'Adventure's of Robin Hood' was a closely watched show. I enjoyed the weekly adventures through the fake TV forests of Sherwood of the twelfth century. '…Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen…' Rufus Cruickshank, at 6' 5” made a marvelous stand-in as “Little John' for the injured Archie Duncan, and the Prince John of Donald Pleasance was admirably evil and creepy. Greene, at least, had an English accent. The voice of Pleasance was---well, pleasant. And it could fit any nationality easily,
Part 70,589.4 coming up. Stay tuned.