Thursday, February 18, 2010

"The Best on Record" (1963): Is It Gone?

The discovery of a new clip of President Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963, sent me scurrying to the two TV Guide issues covering those infamous four days to see what didn’t air. The networks, of course, yanked regular programming within minutes of the gunfire on Friday afternoon and didn’t resume until after the President’s Arlington burial the following Monday. The aftermath of this singular tragedy came into our living rooms in real time, and united not just all Americans but all nations. “Television,” said ABC news anchor Ron Cochran during the weekend, “had actually become the window on the world so many had hoped it might be one day.”

As we resumed everyday life in the days ahead, so did TV. Most of the pre-empted programs appeared in December and the first two months of 1964. The 77 Sunset Strip episode shown in this Friday page aired on January 3; The Route 66 on January 24; "It's Mental Work" on December 20. The evening's scheduled foray into the Twilight Zone, "Night Call," finally appeared on February 7. Ballad of a Country, intriguing as it sounds, has vanished... at least from the depths of the worldwide web. If it was to be a live broadcast, perhaps that explains it.
Debuting late night movies plugged on the Saturday pages here for the Baltimore-D.C. region would have to wait; the networks remained on the air with news coverage, affiliate revenues be damned.

Of the Sunday programs, only Ed Sullivan was still live, so that particular lineup went by the wayside. Perhaps that was short-sighted; a little lightheartedness from Bert Lahr, Stiller & Meara and Topo Gigio might have given an emotionally drained viewing public some much needed relief. Most of the rest of Sunday was on film, while Judy Garland was videotaped... as much for her benefit as ours.

Also taped, according to this Close-up blurb, was The Best on Record. Designed to honor past and present Grammy Award winners, it looks like a dynamite hour, filled with the kind of variety that actually graced top forty radio once upon a time. Is there a genre not represented here? Folkies like me could dig Peter, Paul & Mary and the New Christy Minstrels; Connie Francis and Steve & Eydie assumed the pop duties; Tony Bennett provided his signature tune; Homer & Jethro kicked in a little country corn. And look at the star-studded lineup just doing introductions!

If taped, did this extravaganza ever make it to air? There doesn't seem to be any evidence that it did. Possibly some of it was cannibalized for a May 1965 special of the same title; Bennett and Henry Mancini are listed for that one, along with those Liverpool upstarts, the Beatles. If it was ever broadcast, the earlier version would've been sanitized in the wake of that dark Friday afternoon, the "First Family" routine in line for the initial shearing. There's a story, possibly apocryphal, about Lenny Bruce's first club appearance following the assassination. A crowd sat on the edge of their seats, wondering how this most notorious of the "sick comics" would address the tender subject. Bruce looked over the audence for a few seconds with the most somber expression imaginable, and finally sighed, "Man, Vaughn Meader is screwed!"

And so he was. Meader can be seen performing his Kennedy press conference shtick on Shout Factory's Hootenanny box set. The airdate for that clip was September 21, 1963... a scant two months before the world changed forever in front of his, and everybody else's, eyes.


Alfred Walker said...

"a little lightheartedness from Bert Lahr, Stiller & Meara and Topo Gigio might have given an emotionally drained viewing public some much needed relief."

Michael, going on my memories of that weekend as an 11-year-old, I don't think comedy on the Ed Sullivan Show would have flown. Things were just too somber. It was no more sorrowful a time than 911, if slightly less scary. And I'm guessing if left with the decision, Ed himself would have given the cut sign.

Other than the Kennedy haters, some of whom were laughing already, I don't think the general public was ready to laugh that Sunday evening.

Thanks for the creative and interesting research!

Alfred Walker

Michael J. Hayde said...

Alfred, I don't doubt you're correct about Ed Sullivan, and it's more than likely that the performers themselves would have found comedy too much of a challenge. But I can't help but wonder, after more than 48 hours' straight coverage by that point (and Oswald's killing early that afternoon), how many viewers simply said "enough" and went looking for something - anything - just for relief.

James Robert Smith said...

Once again, a very effective essay. However, I have to disagree about running anything like the things you mention that very evening. The nation was mainly traumatized and anything like that would have been seen as cold. We needed to mourn. For myself, at six years of age, I will never forget being sent home from school to see my mom sitting in front of the television set weeping. I'd never seen my mother cry and could not quite figure out what was going on.

The addition of Ed Sullivan at that time would not have served any useful purpose.

Mitchell Hadley said...

Michael, just ran across your site and this article. Very well done. I've often wondered myself what happened to some of those shows; it is quite telling to see the phrase "Postponed from an earlier date" popping up in the weeks following the assassination.

Speaking to the saturation coverage and whether or not people would have been receptive to non-assassination programming: good question. I know that Eisenhower, among others, felt that the TV coverage was overdone and that it would have sufficed to broadcast regular programming sans commercials, using the leftover time each half-hour to give news updates.

Not to disagree with any of the other commentators, since I myself was only three at the time, but recalling the assassination of RFK five years later, I can attest that many people were quite tired of the coverage by the time of the funeral that Saturday. Perhaps people would not have accepted entertainment programming during the four days, but then the NFL did play that Sunday (not on TV, of course), and a lot of people went to those games because they needed some kind of relief.

Again, great article!

Paul Duca said...

True...but Mitchell, don't forget that Pete Rozelle said that his greatest regret in all the years he was commissioner of the NFL was making the teams play that Sunday (while the AFL canceled its schedule).

Meanwhile, NBC MONDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES (which aired at 7:30 PM for the single 1963-64 season, before returning in 1968, was scheduled to premiere SINGIN' IN THE RAIN).

Michael J. Hayde said...

Author James L. Neibaur posted his memories of the assassination weekend, which include being taken to a movie theater that was running Jerry Lewis' latest picture and finding it jam-packed:

There are different ways to grieve. While it's good that television was there to examine the tragedy, keep us appraised of the aftermath and truly help expedite the healing, it clearly wasn't a one-size-fits-all option.

Sometimes laughter IS "the best medicine." Why else did THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, already TV's #1-rated show, find its ratings climb even higher in the weeks after November 22?