TelevisionWeek Executive Editor Tom Gilbert joins our roster of bloggers with this forum all about classic television, where anything from "Leave It to Beaver" to "Malcolm in the Middle" is fair game for discussion. Reunion specials, DVD releases of classic shows, vintage commercials -- anything that's ever been telecast is the hot topic here.
Kris Trexler, a Hollywood film and video editor, has created a great Web site about the early days of color TV—well, it’s mainly devoted to his extensive collection of fabulous ’50s and ’60s cars, but at the bottom of the home page is a section all about the beginnings of color broadcasting.
There’s a sample somebody swiped from Kris’ site and posted on YouTube: the opening and closing of NBC’s second-oldest surviving color videotaped broadcast, the October 1958 special “An Evening With Fred Astaire.” Check it out:
Kris also has a fantasic clip from the oldest surviving videotaped black-and-white broadcast, CBS’s 1957 “The Edsel Show” spectacular. The car was infamously ghastly and so was the musical fanfare announcing it, but the show was a landmark presentation and full of amazing talent: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Louis Armstrong. Give a look: http://www.ev1.pair.com/edsel/edselshow2.html
Not all TV can be timeless, of course, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is otherwise without value. TVParty.com, a great site for fans of classic TV, has edited together a few choice echoes of the past that may pleasantly jog the memories of folks of a certain age.
If you remember the original NBC peacock, S&H Green Stamps, Dobie Gillis, Captain Kangaroo, “That Girl” and when a colorcast was special, then enjoy!
The strange little syndicated half-hour comedy from Canada with a cast of unknowns first hit the U.S. airwaves in 1977, seemingly a “Saturday Night Live” also-ran.
By 1981, a 90-minute version was running on NBC, firmly launching the careers of John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis, Catherine O’Hara and Dave Thomas, and a bit later, Martin Short.
At the time the show went network, many felt it was funnier than six-year-old “Saturday Night Live,” which was struggling along with a whole new cast after the 1980-81 season. And by then the “SCTV” cast had perfected their recurring characters and their spot-on impressions of contemporary Hollywood celebrities.
The show was set in a fictitious TV station (SCTV) located in the city of Melonville and sketches revolved around the station’s peculiar employees and egomaniacal on-air talent.
Among my favorites bits: “The Sammy Maudlin Show,” a send-up of talk shows of the time complete with all of the phony Hollywood sincerity that oozed out of the screen.
Here’s a clip with host Maudlin (Flaherty), the sycophantic second banana William B. Williams (Candy), a nonplussed Mother Teresa (Martin) and foxy headliner Lola (“I Wanna Bear Your Children!”) Heatherton (O’Hara), with a surprise appearance by cheesy Catskills comedian Bobby Bitman (Levy):
There are few sitcoms as good as “Bewitched.” I mean, come on, Agnes Moorehead as imperious Endora? How great was she? And Marion Lorne as stuttering, bumbling Aunt Clara? You can’t even tell she’s acting.
“Bewitched” was a very funny single-camera comedy with a great cast of character actors, and it still holds up. It’s amazing the directors (primarily Bill Asher) could maintain the superb comic timing with all the starts and stops and set-ups the special effects called for—all while shooting on film with no audience reaction to go by. The only show to come along in recent times that even compares to it is “Malcolm in the Middle”; the recent movie starring Nicole Kidman and Will Farrell didn’t come anywhere near doing it justice.
The stars, Elizabeth Montgomery, as the beautiful witch Samantha, married to Dick York, as the insufferably mortal Darrin Stephens, played well off of each other. Both were originals and even though they were the leads, they were character actors of sorts; he was pretty much geeked-out while she was a little more goofily comical than your average blonde sitcom star.
Some other standouts: Mabel (“Sick Headache”) Albertson as Darrin’s meddlesome mother; Alice Pearce as the relentlessly nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz; Paul Lynde as the snide Uncle Arthur and Alice Ghostley as the tentative housekeeper Esmeralda—they just don’t make ’em like that anymore. (By the way, did Paul Lynde really steal Alice Ghostley’s act, as has been rumored? Does anybody know? It’s uncanny how similar their styles are, down to the head-waggling line delivery.)
Here’s a great clip -- the first time Darrin meets mother-in-law Endora:
Every Sunday at midnight (3 a.m. if you’re on the East Coast), a nearly forgotten national treasure pops up on GSN: the long-running CBS panel show “What’s My Line?” I relish it and TiVo all the installments so I can watch them at a more civilized hour.
Over its 17-year run (1950-67, and that was for 52 weeks per year—no reruns), “What’s My Line?,” broadcast live from New York Sunday nights at 10:30 ET, presented history as it happened. Today the series is a fascinating living timeline.
The witty, urbane panelists, always formally attired, set out each week to determine the occupation of the evening’s series of layperson “challengers,” along the way chattering with the moderator about current events or the latest fad. “Line” also showcased the day’s biggest celebrities—newsmakers, politicians, movie stars, sports legends—in weekly mystery-guest shots, all adding up to a remarkably well-defined picture of the postwar era that, owing to the innate simplicity and enduring appeal of the game at hand, still manages to entertain even while it informs in a new way that it hadn’t intended.
This granddaddy of panel shows was one of many class programs that helped put the patina onto what was once known as the Tiffany Network. “What’s My Line” was presided over by genteel, high-minded moderator John Daly, by then a statesman of the broadcast news business; the regular panelists for most of the run were Arlene Francis, an elegant (and sometimes naughty) Broadway and radio actress and pioneer TV hostess; Dorothy Kilgallen, a sharp and powerful (if priggish) gossip columnist who died mysteriously of an overdose during the 16th season; and Bennett Cerf, an affable Random House book publisher with a penchant for really bad puns. Along the way, a couple of regulars were lost: Steve Allen, who left for the greener pastures of NBC and “The Tonight Show,” and radio comedian Fred Allen, who dropped dead of a heart attack the night before the March 18, 1956, telecast.
As it is with live TV, the shock and sorrow of the show’s participants were evident the next night on the air. Have a look:
GSN recently resurrected “I’ve Got a Secret”—never one of my favorites; rather forced and silly, I always thought—with a new, hip version. Wouldn’t a better choice (and saving convoluted rights issues) be to revive “What’s My Line?” with a contemporary panel of sophisticates?
Who would make up your ideal panel for a revived “What’s My Line?” Say Anderson Cooper moderating Stephanie Miller, Frank Rich, Oprah Winfrey and Andrew Sullivan? Charlie Gibson moderating Janeane Garofalo, Tom Shales, Jodie Foster and Sean Hannity?
Or is the country so politicized now that there’s no way to bring its brightest together for some lighthearted fun on a Sunday evening?