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Archive for the ‘television’ Category

It’s always fun to look back at the things we took for granted, the things we thought were omnipresent and would never change.

It’s also fun to apply hindsight to hubris … to burst the bubbles of people or organizations that blew their own horns a little too loudly.

So this week we’ll do a little of both.

Specifically, we’ll sit down in the family room of 1107 Hope Street, where the TV was, and watch as a well-known American institution pats itself on the back for a quarter-century of success.

Probably no one involved — from the stars, to the producers, to the viewers in family rooms like my grandpa’s — had any inkling that the institution being celebrated had fewer than a dozen years of Life left.

No, that’s not a typo:

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March 2, 1961.

Strictly speaking, Life magazine wasn’t 25 years old in the spring of 1961; it was 78.

The original Life (I steal liberally over the next few paragraphs from Wiki) was founded in 1883 as a humor and general interest magazine. Apparently it influenced The New Yorker, which promptly ate its lunch.

Life had been struggling for years when Henry Luce bought the name in 1936, relaunching it as a weekly newsmagazine with a focus on photography. Sparing no expense on capital letters, Luce described the revamped magazine as “THE SHOW-BOOK OF THE WORLD” in the prospectus he prepared before its launch.

As we all know, Luce’s vision paid off. The magazine was selling a million copies a week just four months after launch. Its coverage of World War II, as well as copy contributions from well-known authors, further established Life as near-required American weekly reading.

As TV caught on in the 1950s, Life’s circulation began to drop. Americans could now see the kinds of images in which Life specialized every day in the comfort of their living rooms.

I cannot imagine, then, that Henry Luce was entirely happy about handing cash to a TV network — NBC, as it happened — to host a celebration of Life’s quarter-century as a photo magazine. (News articles from the time describe the 90-minute show as being “sponsored” by Life; NBC didn’t independently  decide that the subject was worth covering.)

But, TV is a visual medium; and Life was a predominantly visual magazine; plus there was a story the company wanted to tell. So in the end, Luce’s desire to celebrate his success won out over his reluctance to pay a competitor for America’s eyeballs.

Did they hire Bob Hope? Of course they hired Bob Hope. Heck, they even got President John F. Kennedy to record remarks for the occasion. Since I can’t find a video of the show online, Kennedy’s remarks appear to be the only scrap of “25 Years of Life” that is available on the Internet 55 years later.

I take that back: Another remnant of the show is available on eBay if you care to pay for it. Life commemorated the event by pressing a vinyl record with musical and comedic highlights of the show. I’d love to know how many they pressed, how many they sold, and how many were ever spun more than once. Something tells me handsome copies can still be found at your local flea market.

A flea market — rather than a newsstand — is also your best bet for copies of Life. The magazine ceased weekly publication at the end of 1972. Life changed, and left Life behind.

I can’t say whether my grandpa watched “25 Years of Life” because he was genuinely interested, or because Time Inc. company men were expected to. Some of both, most likely.

Either way, I wonder whether he questioned at any point in those 90 minutes why people would put up with still photographs when they could watch them move.

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This week, we find a group of well-meaning policy-wonk types trying to save the world through the teevee, with the unlikely help of my grandfather.

March 16-17, 1973

When first I saw the TV listing on the 17th, I assumed it was an early countdown program to the 1976 Presidential election. You know, the sort of show on which avuncular men in sensible suits would intone things like, “Rep. Morris Udall of Arizona represents the centrist wing of the Democratic Party.”

(Sure, March 1973 seemed awfully early to be looking ahead to the next Presidential race. But the mainstream media never cared much for Richard Nixon, so I figured they would put on a program about his successor just to piss him off.)

Instead, what we have here is something much more interesting — one of those earnest, Moog-toned Seventies civics experiments, with the hamstrung City of New York at its center.

“Choices for ’76” was actually a series of five hour-long TV programs produced by the Regional Plan Association, a New York-area citizen group, with a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (Plus support from viewers like you.)

The “televised town meetings,” as they were styled, turned the spotlight on problems affecting America’s cities and detailed possible solutions. The March 17 show, first in the series, focused on housing. Others later in the series tackled issues like transportation and the environment. Stars like Ruby Dee and Eli Wallach hosted the episodes.

After each show, viewers were asked to send in ballots giving their opinions on questions related to each subject. The ballots were made available at banks, libraries and through some newspapers. Also, hundreds of thousands of surveys were mailed to people throughout the region.

The point of the series was threefold — to inform the regional public, to draw it into involvement in planning issues, and to obtain feedback that could be used as part of the planning process.

Was the “Choices for ’76” effort a success? Depends on who you ask.

The Regional Plan Association later reported that some 3 million people in the greater New York City area watched at least one of the programs. An average of 26,500 people submitted ballots after each of the programs — topping the 25,000 responses organizers had hoped for. The series was also honored with a regional Emmy Award.

Whether it made a real dent in the city’s problems is another question, and one I don’t have the answer to. I think the quality of life in most of New York City is better now than it was in 1973, but I have no idea whether that had anything to do, directly or indirectly, with “Choices for ’76.”

Did the show engage people outside the five boroughs with the city’s problems over the long term? I tend to doubt it, as I think people tend to focus on their own back yards after a certain amount of time.

I’m kinda surprised that my grandfather would have tuned in to this, in fact. I never knew him to be all that interested in civic planning. He was interested in how machines worked, but not societies. And, he had no particular attachment to New York City that I know of.

I kinda wonder if he didn’t tune in to this show expecting to hear about Morris Udall and the ’76 campaign.

(It is still a mystery to me, by the way, why the series was called “Choices for ’76.” The issues on offer were not specific to that year, and certainly weren’t going to be solved by then. Maybe it was an attempt to hook on to the slow-building interest in the Bicentennial, and to subliminally express the idea that America ought to be a better place by the time its 200th birthday came around.)

But, far be it from me to drench an earnest policy experiment — or my grandpa’s participation in it — in cynicism. It was worth trying; they tried it; and my grandfather was one of the millions tuning in.

I can only wonder what they might have accomplished with the Internet at their disposal.

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I’m cheating a little bit this week: I’m featuring a calendar entry because of what’s not on it, instead of what’s on it.

Of course, it’s hard to fit a cultural revolution onto a little square of paper, even if you’re inclined to try.

Feb. 9, 1964: A day in the life.

My grandfather would not have made a special note on his calendar to watch “The Ed Sullivan Show” that Sunday night. The Blumenau family tuned in just about every week, somewhere between habit and religion, no matter who was scheduled to perform.

And they were all there in the living room that night — the 77-year-old piano-teaching grandma, the fiftyish parents, the 20-year-old son home sick from college, and the teenage daughter — watching as four charming Britons picked up American popular culture and dropped it on its crewcut ear.

The Beatles were not unfamiliar to Americans — or young Americans, anyhow — when they kicked into their first number that night. In the New York area, they’d already owned the top spots on hit-radio stations for a solid month.

WINS’ Murray “the K” Kaufman, the first of many nominees for “Fifth Beatle” status, was riding his Fab Four connections nonstop on the air. And over at WABC (or “WABeatleC”), the weekly surveys from January and February 1964 show the station eagerly shoveling everything and anything Beatles onto the playlist — from album cuts, to “Tony Sheridan and the Beatles” obscurities, to cash-ins like Donna Lynn’s “My Boyfriend Got A Beatle Haircut.” (More on that in a moment.)

Still, the group had plenty to prove. If they’d gotten up on network television and frozen under the stage lights, they might have been dismissed — not just by the older generation, but by the young as well, who are always prone to backlash when they perceive excessive hype.

But John, Paul, George and Ringo didn’t freeze or choke. And as a result, even 48 (!) years later, the Beatles’ five-song “Ed Sullivan” debut remains a pleasure to watch.

The band exudes charm, energy and confidence. They’ve drilled this act in a hundred musty ballrooms across the pond, and they’re more than ready for their close-up.

And every song is crafted or arranged with ear-catching creative fillips, from George’s surprisingly dexterous chording on “‘Til There Was You,” to Paul’s high harmony the second time through the bridge of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (“And when I touch you I feel happy inside”), which still gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.

But what did the five people in the living room on Hope Street — a scant 40 highway miles away from Ed Sullivan’s theater — think?

Pauline “Grossee” Blumenau, the piano-teaching grandma

My Aunt Elaine says:  Girls watching them on the Ed Sullivan show were screaming and fainting, and your grandparents and Grossee could not comprehend what all their hysterics were about. Even I thought they went a bit overboard.

The people who owned the music store where Grossee purchased music for her pupils predicted the Beatles would soon be over and done with. Many adults hoped so, I think.

William Blumenau, paterfamilias and keeper of the calendar

My dad says: My father didn’t tip his hand; I suspect he thought it was pop culture nonsense. 

Corine Blumenau, homemaker

My dad, again: I’m quite sure Corine was impressed with their dress and cleanliness (Chuck Berry or The Rolling Stones would not have appealed to her), and their early politeness with Mr. Sullivan.  Although their HAIR struck people at the time as revolutionary.  Up to that point John F. Kennedy (OK, and Elvis Presley) had just about the longest hair on the planet (I myself had the requisite crew cut from my early teens through college).  Turns out they were more roguish than the Stones, but Brian Epstein cleaned up their appearance before they came to the U.S., and he succeeded in making Corine if not a fan, and least not a detractor!

Rod Blumenau, college-age son, jazz fan with a sideline in Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley:

I thought the music was light-weight, a type my roommate Bruce Allen would derogatorily call “teeny-bopper” music.  In my case it wasn’t that I preferred music with more profound meaning, but that I really couldn’t stand two-guitar, bass guitar and drums groups of any sort.  Much preferred horns, or at least keyboards, or at least a nice bluesy groove (e.g. Chuck Berry).  “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” didn’t meet any of my criteria!

Elaine Blumenau, high school student:

Basically all my friends, especially the girls, were aware of the Beatles, and their impending appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Your Grandma, Drawing Boy and Grossee always watched the Ed Sullivan Show and I usually watched when I was around, but I made a point of watching it to see what  this Beatles thing was all about.  I have to admit, they were pretty cool, and I liked their song, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” which was the first one to come to our shores, I think. I liked “She Loves You” even more.

Of course I watched the next two programs [the Ed Sullivan Shows of Feb. 16 and 23] when they were to appear. My current boyfriend was there for one of the shows, and he combed his hair forward like the Beatles did, to try it out.

When they first came to town, my favorite was Ringo, but then I liked Paul, and later came to appreciate George for his depth. John seemed a bit arrogant, but his songs were incredible too.

I doubt anyone in the living room that night would have guessed that Elaine’s take on things would be closest to the truth over the long term.

(Of course, I doubt even she would have anticipated the sheer force of the Beatles’ song power, musicianship and charisma. She would not have predicted the creativity and beauty of “Penny Lane,” or the breathtaking climax of “A Day In The Life,” or any of the genius scattered so liberally throughout the White Album and “Abbey Road.” But she was right: There was definitely something to this Beatles business.)

All these years later, three of the people in the living room on Hope Street are gone. So, for that matter, is the living room.

Three of the players on TV that night have passed too, if you count Ed Sullivan.

Rod, the college-age son? He’s a retired corporate middle manager turned jazz musician and music teacher. Two or three years ago, he performed an entire concert of nothing but Beatles tunes.

And Elaine? Well, we’ll give her the last word:

The best thing about the Beatles, was that they evolved, both in music and appearance, along with our culture. Other bands came and went, particularly from England  (the Beatles had opened the door to British bands’ popularity in the U.S.) However, the Beatles changed their style to incorporate classical music, Indian music, etc. etc., and kept evolving!

As for me, the Beatles represent my youth and growing up, and their music is still amazing. … The Beatles really were the representatives of our time, but their music will transcend all time.

I think she’s right, again.

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For whatever reason, my grandfather’s consumption of mass media fascinates me.

Regular readers will remember my extended meditation, at the start of this blog’s existence, on the movie “That’s Entertainment!” I’ve also mused on my grandfather’s newspaper readership, and on what he might have watched the day he got a new TV aerial installed.

So when I noticed a passing reference in yesterday’s blog entry to my grandfather watching a “BOB HOPE SHOW” on Oct. 24, 1975, of course I had to go find out what he saw.

(If you missed the mention, go back to yesterday’s post and look at the illustration of the witch flying east. Then, go north.)

Ol’ Ski Nose had a busy 1975 on the small screen. He co-hosted the Academy Awards telecast; appeared in a documentary about Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire; cracked wise about Lucille Ball on a Dean Martin celebrity roast; showed up on Tony Orlando and Dawn’s variety show; and hosted an improbable confection called “Bob Hope on Campus,” which included appearances by Aretha Franklin, John Wayne, America and Flip Wilson.

But the Oct. 24 show was one to trump them all, as Hope marked 25 years on television with special guests Wayne, Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Clips from previous shows featured the most popular mass-market entertainers of the post-World War II era.

A few parts of the show I might enjoy watching today, such as Sinatra singing “The Lady Is A Tramp.”

Other parts of it I would probably find groanworthy. (Bob and Steve McQueen play Japanese soldiers in a comedy sketch from 1960? Time to go wind the clock and make the popcorn, and maybe even steam-clean the rug.)

Still, while I wouldn’t necessarily like to watch this special, the idea of it gives me a mental snapshot — not just of my grandparents in their little house, but of an entire generation continuing to find humor and relaxation in its preferred brand of comedic comfort food.

Not many new laffs in a clip show full of familiar faces. But when you’re 65, as my grandpa was at the time, you’re not looking to be shaken up. You just want to sit for a while with old friends who entertain you.

The equivalent for my dad’s generation — and to some extent mine — would be a “Saturday Night Live” anniversary show.

Of course, I like to think of SNL as hipper and less middlebrow than Bob Hope — and at various points, it has been. But at this point, it’s a familiar cultural institution with its own well-worn riffs, just like Bob Hope was in ’75. The Bass-O-Matic? Gumby? The Church Lady? Sure, roll ’em out again.

(Bob might fare better than I care to admit in a clip-show cutting contest with SNL. The drug jokes of the Seventies seem just about as faded now as Bob’s brand of humor probably would. And which would you rather see — Sinatra bringing down the house on Hope’s show, or Leo Sayer doing “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” from the SNL archives?)

In subsequent years, Bob Hope would appear in a dizzying number of TV specials with titles like “James Bond: The First 21 Years,” “All-Star Look at TV’s Prime Time Wars” and “All-Star Celebration Opening the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.” I have no indication that my grandparents watched any of those — and actually, I rather hope they didn’t.

I’m being careful not to sneer, though. I know TV programmers, by and large, are no more intelligent and creative than they ever have been.

I wonder if, when I’m 65, I’ll check the TV listings and see “Adam Sandler’s All-Star Salute to The National Football League,” or “Will Ferrell With His Beautiful Easter Bunnies and Other Friends.”

If so, Bob Hope and Steve McQueen as Japanese soldiers might seem very funny indeed.

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