Thursday, June 29, 2006

When the Kids Ruled the Tube

There were times when you'd be forgiven for mistaking TV Guide as a kid's magazine, filled as it was with advertisements for children's programming... and with full-page blurbs more often than not.

All of the ads you see here are from 1956, lifted from New England, Pittsburgh, Baltimore-Washington and New York City editions.

All-in-all, 50 years ago was a great time to be a kid... wouldn't you agree?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

George Reeves, Your Candid Reporter

Toward the end of 1955, actor George Reeves, then starring in the Adventures of Superman TV series, came up with an idea for a series of commercials. He and his manager, Art Weissman, formed "Candid Reporter Productions." Reeves' idea was to present himself as the "candid reporter for Kellogg's" (and possibly other products), as he filmed the stars in their homes enjoying, and reaping the benefits of, the sponsor's wares.

And what better subject for the pilot film than himself? Weissman turned the camera, as George began his day with a bowl of Kellogg's Corn Flakes - then the Superman cereal of note. Appropriately fueled, George dons his gi and is ready for a judo workout in his back yard.

This commercial, which never aired, was filmed entirely in Reeves' home. That it was nothing more than a test is evidenced by the fact that George's hair is not dyed for his "candid reporter" introduction; nor is there any professional lighting or editing (although it does contain one lap dissolve, possibly something that could be accomplished in the camera itself). All of the footage - even George's spoken intro - was shot silent and overdubbed later.

The introduction takes place in George's den, and then, when we discover that "our guest star" is himself, we are taken to his bedroom.

Yes... that bedroom. The one where, less than four years later, George Reeves' life came to a sudden, tragic end. This coming Friday will mark 47 years since that fateful event.

There's been a lot of debate (healthy and unhealthy) about that day, June 16, 1959. A man, a hero, beloved by millions, left us under circumstances that were at best suspicious, and at worst nefarious. Some believe that Mr. Reeves found himself caught up in a lifestyle that was spiraling out of control and, in a moment of drunken despair, chose an irreversible escape. Others are firmly convinced that somebody got away with murder that night. Both sides are represented by people who actually knew Reeves personally, and by those who knew him only through their weekly, and later daily, 30-minute visits with his most lasting role. And both scenarios have been postulated by scholars and researchers who have dug deep into the mystery, sought out experts in the fields of criminology, forensics and suicide pathology... and still cannot say with certainty what exactly happened.

A theatrical film, Hollywoodland, is expected later this year; its theme is the death of Reeves, with Ben Affleck playing the actor. Word-of-mouth is that the film won't pull any punches regarding George's troubled last days - the man died with a blood alcohol count of .27, after all - but also shows due respect for his life.

It's a little disconcerting to watch "the candid reporter" footage today, seeing George playing in bed with his pet schnauzer, Sam, then rising up to greet the morning... knowing that one day, in that very room, he would lie on the bed and never get up.

But lately the tide has turned. The tendency now is to put aside questions about death, and celebrate the life of a man who really was something of a Superman. A man who faced the challenge of portraying an invincible alien dressed in "a monkey suit" and did so with dignity and respect for his audience. A man who took the time to visit orphanages and children's hospitals, and bring ailing youngsters face-to-face with their TV hero. A man who, even when the series had ceased production, had the grace to keep his personal life out of the newspapers, refusing to alienate his juvenile followers for the sake of cheap publicity.

This weekend, Woolstock Iowa - Reeves' birthplace - will be hosting a celebration of George's life and career, the purpose of which is to raise funds and attention toward restoring the home in which he was born. Details can be found here:

Sunday, June 11, 2006

And So It Begins: March 10, 1962

If Oscar Katz had never made another "enthusiastic" programming choice in his career, this one would assure him a place in TV's Hall of Fame.

This early mention of a situation comedy that would premiere on September 26, 1962 was just the kick-off to reams of coverage that followed in the wake of its nine-season run... very little of it positive. Did Katz forsee the impact this show would have, not just on his network, but on television comedy as a whole? Undoubtedly he would say "Yes."

The Beverly Hillbillies shot to #1 in the ratings in a mere three weeks. That was unprecedented; even I Love Lucy - at a time when there were fewer sets and fewer choices - took three months just to get to #2. To complicate matters, most serious critics hated this show. Renowned author (and then-critic for TV Guide) Gilbert Seldes practically found himself apologizing for liking it: "The whole notion on which The Beverly Hillbillies is founded is an encouragement to ignorance - in a time when our only salvation lies in education. But it is funny. What can I do?"

Katz's selection did much to shape the future of CBS. When the Hillbillies debuted, the network already had one sucessful folksy sitcom: The Andy Griffith Show. Once Hillbillies soared, CBS pulled out all the stops. Hillbillies begat Petticoat Junction, which begat Green Acres. And Griffith begat Gomer Pyle, USMC and later Mayberry R.F.D. By the time Hee Haw came along at the end of the decade, CBS had settled into its role as the Cornpone (or maybe Cornball) Broadcasting System.

But just why did the Hillbillies get so far so fast with viewers? "It's the least obvious, most unpredictable material I've ever been associated with," said Buddy (Jed) Ebsen early on. "Sixty million viewers can't be wrong," affirmed Irene (Granny) Ryan. Both were show business veterans, going back to the vaudeville era. And both were correct.

America certainly took this series to its heart. It's probably no accident that it reached #1 right around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. When the nation was plunged into shock and grief on Friday, November 22, 1963 by the assassination of President Kennedy, it quickly tuned to The Beverly Hillbillies for comfort. For years, the seven episodes that immediately followed that terrible weekend were the highest rated TV shows ever. Once you deduct sports, movies and mini-series from the mix, you'll still find them in the Top 20.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Just the Funnies, Ma'am

In early 2000, while I was researching and writing My Name's Friday, I was contacted by a fellow writer - John R. Cochran. Coincidentally, he was researching an article about the Dragnet newspaper strip, and asked if I had any information.

I told him what little I'd gleaned from the Library of Congress - namely that it ran about three years, from 1952-55, and that the scripts originated with Jack Webb's stable of writers. Plus, of course, that the cases depicted were taken "from official police files."

In turn, he sent me photocopies of examples from the strip. It was hardly an equitable trade; I made out far, far better than he did.

Due to space limitations, I was only able to include a single example of the strip in my book. I chose the one that had appeared on November 2, 1954 as it seemed to me the most "Dragnetesque" of the bunch.

With this post, I can finally share all 13 of the samples Mr. Cochran generously sent, along with some additional info he provided.

Unfortunately, we did not stay in touch and I have no idea where Mr. Cochran's article was published, or if he was able to finish it. John, if you're reading this, please let me know.

There were three artists on the strip during its lifetime: Joe Scheiber, Bill Ziegler and Mel Keefer. Scheiber's the illustrator for the first five strips included here - which happen to be the first five Dragnet strips, period. (Dragnet apparently did not run on Sunday, which was apropos - it was Joe Friday's only day off, too.)

As you can see, Scheiber didn't attempt to depict Webb or any of the Dragnet actors. The series had been on radio 3 years when the strip debuted on June 23, 1952, but the TV version had only been on for six months - and airing every other week, to boot. Nevertheless, it's the TV version that's promoted on the bottom left corner of strip #3.

Bill Ziegler took over the strip in 1953, and lasted about a year. Mr. Cochran didn't provide any examples of Ziegler's version, but he did volunteer his opinion that "the strip didn't look nearly as good" under his pen.

When Mel Keefer took over in 1954 - the strips reproduced here are from November 1 - 9 - he took the opposite approach, and did a superb job characterizing Webb and Ben Alexander. I would guess he referenced stills from the series.

By this time, the TV version was second only to I Love Lucy in ratings and popularity, so it was an added boon for the artwork to reproduce the two leads so accurately.

I have no explanation as to why the strip folded within a year of Keefer's arrival. All told, the daily strip was an interesting venture; one more example of Dragnet's hold on popular culture at the time.

Perhaps one day, a specialty publisher like Fantagraphics will collect them all in book form. Until then, if anyone has other examples, I'll be happy to post them.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Beatles For Sale

When I spotted this ad in the August 14 issue of TV Guide, at first I thought it was for the Shea Stadium concert. Then I remembered that historic event took place on the 15th, didn't appear on TV until 1966, and aired on ABC when it did.

Then I looked at the listing itself:

This one was news to me. I presumed from that it was originally filmed in late '63 - early '64, as every song is from Meet the Beatles, the group's first Capitol Records release. I also figured it originated from England.

Ah, the good old internet. A few quick searches, and I discovered that Big Night Out was actually a series. The Beatles apparently did the show quite a few times - this one originally aired on February 29, 1964 in England, and had been taped six days earlier - almost immediately after the band returned from their whirlwind first visit to the U.S. As it happened, they were touring America when this "film feature" aired... playing Atlanta Stadium that evening. Was the point of this special to spur ticket sales... or was it compensation for cities that weren't on the itinerary?

The station shown in the ad is in Wichita Kansas, so this is prime time for CBS, although the listing doesn't say what's being pre-empted. (The Beverly Hillbillies followed at 7:30.) Does anyone remember seeing this broadcast in their home city?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

And So It Begins: March 12, 1955

Possibly the most interesting feature to be found in old issues of TV Guide are the "Teletype" pages. Usually there were two of these: one datelined from New York and the other from Hollywood, each containing one- or two-sentence news items. Here's where viewers were first informed about pilots, productions and purchases that might impact their future viewing habits. It's fun to look at some of these knowing that what followed turned out to be a medium-changing boon... or an earth-shattering bust.

I'll attempt to showcase the best (or most notorious) of these news bites about twice a month. Here's the first selection:

The cartoons sold by Warner Brothers were the b&w Looney Tunes titles, produced from 1930-1943. Although only two "latter-day" characters - Porky Pig and Daffy Duck - ever starred in any of these Tunes, it wouldn't be long before the rest of Warner's pre-1948 cartoon library made it to the home tube... and the baby boomer's world would never be the same. This marks the moment when Porky, Daffy, Bugs, Tweety, Sylvester, Wile E., Speedy and the rest transitioned from theatrical filler to a necessary part of daily life.

As for the Paramount shorts, the Popeye cartoons would be withheld from the first TV sale, to U.M.&M. Corporation. It would be another two years before the Sailor Man took TV by storm, just as he did the kiddie matinees of the 1930's.