The Little Network that Couldn’t

In television’s early days, the various players among the networks weren’t clearly defined as to who would be successful and who wouldn’t. The giants, NBC and CBS, were pretty much assured of success, since they had access to hordes of familiar radio talents. Things weren’t so clear-cut for fledgling ABC, which had begun business in 1943. They didn’t have the dedicated listener base that the big boys had.

Enter a fourth entity, one that I, and perhaps you, had never heard of before today: the DuMont Television Network.

DuMont Laboratories was founded in 1931 by Dr. Allen B. DuMont. He and his staff were responsible for lots of early technical innovations, including the first all-electronic consumer television set in 1938. The company’s television sets soon became the state of the art.

DuMont set up an experimental station in New York that year, and kept broadcasting throughout WWII, when CBS and NBC pulled the plugs on their similar installations.

The experimental station eventually became WABD, DuMont’s initials. He needed money, and cut a deal with Paramount Pictures for a 40% share of his network in exchange for $400,000. While it solved his cash flow problem, it ultimately doomed the little network that couldn’t.

When you’re small, and you don’t have radio talent to build on, you have to be innovative. DuMont Television certainly filled that bill. By 1949, they had three stations, in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh. They set out to fill their programming time by ignoring the way the big boys were doing it.

For instance, DuMont had few programs like Texaco Star Theater or the Colgate Comedy Hour. Allen by and large refused to give sponsors such power, which they frequently used by insisting programming be tweaked to suit them. Instead, he sold commercial time to many different advertisers, to give his writers maximum creative control.

DuMont also didn’t deliver kinescopes to affiliates in different time zones, to be shown after the original east coast showing, or force them to have their own regional networks. Instead, he hooked up his later midwest affiliates via cable, so they were able to show programming live.

This technical innovation cost lots of money. So there wasn’t a whole lot left over for developing shows. But the little network accomplished an impressive collection of shows and talent nonetheless.

There was Mary Kay and Johnny, a comedy which was the first to dare to show a married couple in the same bed. Poor Lucy and Ricky were still in twin beds years later. And there was Gillette’s Cavalcade of Stars (one of DuMont’s few shows run by a single sponsor), which was hosted by newly discovered Jackie Gleason. And there was Captain Video, a wildly popular kids’ science fiction show that was short on set enhancements but long on encouraging kids to use their imaginations.

DuMont’s affiliation with Paramount stung them when they tried to get two more station licenses in Boston and Cleveland. A gotcha in FCC regulations nixed the deal, due to the fact that two Paramount stations existed. The FCC limited licenses at the time to five per network, and considered the Paramount stations (actually DuMont competitors) to be DuMont-owned as well.

Another coffin nail was a 1948 FCC freeze on licenses, due to a flood of applications. When they finally did allow new applications for stations in 1952, it was very difficult to obtain any VHF licenses. Thus, many new DuMont affiliates were forced to use the new UHF band, which would not become freely accessible until the mid 1960’s, due to the FCC not requiring televisions to have UHF tuners until then.

DuMont held on as long as they could, but finally went under on August 4, 1956.

So here’s to the little network that might have been as familiar to us as NBC, CBS, or ABC, but which was doomed by bad fortune, a bad business decision, and governmental red tape.

The Late, Great Variety Show, Part 2

As we entered the 70’s, variety shows were stronger than ever. The Flip Wilson Show was one of my mom’s favorites. It was interesting that high-voltage Flip Wilson could host a show that my very conservative mother found entertaining. How conservative? She refused to watch Dean Martin or Johnny Carson because of their suggestive jokes.

The 70’s became known as the decade of disco, but variety shows also hit their peak then. For instance, among the celebrities hosting them that decade were the Carpenters, Tony Orlando and Dawn, Glen Campbell, the Captain and Tenille, Donny and Marie Osmond, Olivia Newton-John, Bobby Darin, Lynda Carter, Mac Davis, and Sha-Na-Na, among many others.

Indeed, it seemed that the natural progression after initially becoming a celebrity, or perhaps after seeing your star status begin to flicker just a bit, was to land a variety show.

As the 70’s drew to a close, the variety show was still a tried and true format. Barbara Mandrell, who was country when country wasn’t cool, had a hot series that began in 1980. It was followed by similar offerings by Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, and Dolly Parton. But when Dolly was introduced in 1987, it was the end of an era. The variety show had died a sudden death during the Brat Pack era of the 80’s.

What the heck happened, anyway? Why would a format that had proven successful since TV’s infancy, indeed, since RADIO’s infancy, suddenly go belly-up?

Some blame MTV. According to that theory, the ready availability of music videos simply caused audiences to lose interest in watching variety shows that gave their viewers intermittent musical interludes.

I don’t buy that. My own take is that cable TV in general was the culprit. A variety show was a hodgepodge of entertainment in a neat one-hour package. It was a must when there were three channels to watch on television. But when WTBS and ESPN showed up on people’s cable packages in the late 70’s, it was the initial death knell for variety shows. Within ten years, we could watch anything we wanted 24 hours a day. Network TV shows became much more focused in a desperate attempt to hold on to their audiences. Thus, today, primetime network TV is largely ignored by those who aren’t into crime dramas, medical dramas, or reality TV. Even sitcoms have nosedived in their numbers.

But go back to our youth, when the Big Three networks reigned supreme, and you could count on finding a variety show on any channel any night of the week.

The Late, Great Variety Show, Part 1

Don’t look now, but I have uncovered yet another phenomenon that was as common as the cold when we were kids, but which has disappeared as completely as 29-cent-a-gallon gasoline: the classic TV variety show.

We took variety shows for granted when we were growing up. If we weren’t watching Jackie Gleason, we were watching Red Skelton. But there were some that NOBODY missed: Sullivan and Dean Martin, of course, as well as Uncle Miltie and Your Show of Shows (for those old enough to remember the 50’s).

But, like so many things we took for granted, the TV schedule full of variety shows has passed from the scene.

Sullivan had a unique approach to variety. He would basically reproduce vaudeville. Thus, his shows would feature comedians and singers alongside circus acts. But most variety shows followed a different premise: lots of music interspersed with comedy.

Thus, most variety show hosts were comedic by nature. Sonny and Cher were singers, but their comedy came naturally with their barbs at each other. Carol Burnett was an actress who became more famous for her comedy thanks to hosting her own venerable variety show for an amazing eleven-year run.

Some variety shows used comedy sparingly. Lawrence Welk’s show was mostly musical (and a big hit among our grandfathers and grandmothers). Andy Williams’ show was mostly singing, ergo not one of my favorites. Julie Andrews had a show in the early 70’s that was all musical, as I recall.

But the ones I loved had lots of laughs. The Jackie Gleason I remember wasn’t Ralph Kramden standing in his black-and-white kitchen. No, he was the one who would say “How sweet it is” and “awa-aa-ay we go!” Interestingly, Gleason’s variety show work actually predated the Honeymooners. He had one of the DuMont network’s biggest hits beginning in 1950, Cavalcade of Stars. By the 60’s, he was back to hosting a show that my parents loved. I have snapshot memories of Crazy Guggenheim, the June Taylor Dancers, and of Gleason singing “A Man’s Home Is His Castle.”

Tune in tomorrow for more memories of the late, great variety show.

The Invaders

Space ship seen in The Invaders

For a mere season and a half, a truly great show appeared on ABC. The years it ran were 1967 and 68, when I was in the second and third grades. But the short time this show ran didn’t detract from the fact that it was the unanimous favorite science fiction show on TV among my friends and classmates, beating out the more famous Lost in Space and even Star Trek!

The Invaders was based on the premise that aliens were among us in the form of humans. They weren’t REALLY humans, though. For one thing, they didn’t have a pulse. For another, they didn’t bleed (that would require blood, also missing). And many of them had a deformed little finger.

So in other words, they would do a perfect job of mimicking the human body, but they just couldn’t manage to get that pinky right.

It reminds me of something my high school art teacher once said: the mark of a great artist is the ability to effectively draw human hands.

The Invaders was a Quinn Martin production. That meant each episode had a prologue, four acts, and an epilogue. That was Martin’s trademark for all his 60’s and 70’s shows.

The Invaders took the approach of implied action, much like the X Files would many years later. You never saw the aliens in their natural state, but you caught little glimpses behind car windows and such.

The show also laid the ground for the paranoia that would accompany each episode of The X Files. Architect David Vincent, who uncovered the invaders’ plot to take over the earth, had a difficult time convincing fellow humans of the aliens’ conspiracy. Many thought he was crazy, and he could never be sure if the humans he was trying to convince might be one of . . . them.

The eerie opening theme and spoken intro set the stage for each week’s struggle against those dastardly invaders. It was edge-of-your-seat suspense, and it was really pretty strong quality stuff for its time.

Alas, The Invaders just never caught on with the demographic that TV execs demand, hence its short life. But I’ll guarantee you that it was a major hit with the majority of second and third grade boys at Nichols Elementary in Miami, Oklahoma.

The Frito Bandito

“Aye, yai yai yai, I am the Frito Bandito!”

For many of us, when we hear the familiar verse to Cielito Lindo, those words pop into our heads. From 1967 until 1971, when he was done away with under pressure from a Mexican-American anti-defamation group, the Frito Bandito ruled the airwaves. He also sold a very large bunch of snack food.

I remember constantly hearing that song, and memorizing the lyrics.

His voice was that of the master of making cartoons talk, Mel Blanc. Mel, the man who provided voices for dozens of characters for Warner Bros.and Hanna-Barbera, was a natural for this gig.

Unfortunately, people took offense. The next thing you know, there were protests. And eventually, he was laid to rest.

While this piece could easily digress into social commentary, I won’t let that happen. However, I WILL replay those familiar lyrics in my mind whenever I hear that classic Spanish tune.

The Famous Mr. Ed

One memory that we Boomers have indelibly burned into our collective psyches is a theme song about a talking horse. We also have the sound of a baritone voice saying “Willlburrrr!”

The horse is, of course, the famous Mr. Ed. And it was very few black and white TV’s of the 60’s that didn’t have the beautiful palomino gelding on their screens during the Decade of Change.

Mr. Ed first appeared as a syndicated series in January of 1961. CBS spotted a potential hit, and soon grabbed it up. Originally set to be titled “The Alan Young Show,” the human star balked, in case the wacky premise of a talking horse’s day-to-day life should prove to be a bomb. He needn’t have worried.

Mr. Ed was conceived of by children’s book author Walter R. Brooks. He delighted kids with tales about talking animals on the Bean farm in upstate New York. Despite the eventual popularity of Mr. Ed, it was Freddy the Pig who was the star of the literary series. Such are the foibles of fame…

Mr. Ed also owes his origin to the Francis the Talking Mule series of comedic movies that was released in the 50’s. Francis would only talk to a single human, acting like a normal equine to everyone else, to the eternal consternation of the human. This was, of course, the same premise of Mr. Ed, the TV show.

Mr. Ed was played by a gelding named Bamboo Harvester. He had a number of voice actors. The speaking roles were provided by cowboy movie actor Allan “Rocky” Lane. When he sang on the show (I particularly remember “The Pretty Little Filly with the Pony Tail”), the voice was provided by Sheldon Allman, who also penned the tunes. Allman’s most famous creation was the pleasantly bizarre theme to cartoon showGeorge of the Jungle.

However, the unforgettable opening theme was written and sung by Jay Livingston, who prolifically produced smashes like Que Sera, Sera, Mona Lisa, and Buttons and Bows, among many others.

Guest star Clint Eastwood on Mr. Ed

The show’s plots centered around the amazingly intelligent horse and his communications with Wilbur. Ed didn’t talk to anyone else, other humans were beneath his intellectual level. This caused great consternation for Wilbur, as, for instance, his wife felt like he loved the horse more than he did her. If she would have only known that the horse talked…

The idea was successful, and crack writing and acting made for a TV classic that ran for six years. But it was in syndication afterwards that I soaked up episodes in my daily ritual of watching TV after school.

Mr. Ed enjoyed a long run of syndication which was further enhanced by the eventual appearance of cable station Nickelodeon, which began airing episodes of the show in 1986. Nowadays, the first two seasons are available in their entirety for free at Hulu.

Mr. Ed’s purported grave in Tahlequah, Oklahoma

Like many TV franchises, there were controversies raging behind the scenes of Mr. Ed.

For example, the pilot featured a unnamed chestnut gelding, who was unceremoniously dumped in favor of the prettier blonde star. This wasn’t the first time Hollywood spurned beauty over superior acting. BTW, the previous statement was delivered with tongue firmly in cheek.

However, more substantial controversy swirls around the eventual end of Bamboo Harvester, as well as his final resting spot.

Tahlequah, Oklahoma has long claimed the gravesite of the horse, who was said to have passed in 1970, euthanized after failing health. Alan Young decries this story, however, claiming that the real Bamboo Harvester died sometime after this after being overdosed with a tranquilizer by an inept stablehand. Adding fuel to the fire, in 1979, a horse (again in Oklahoma) died which was used for still photos during the show, thus garnering headlines of the passing of Mr. Ed.

Maybe the real one is buried in Giants Stadium?

One thing’s for certain, though, they just don’t make TV shows like that anymore. How fortunate for us Boomers that we grew up in the right era to enjoy sharply written series which came with their own unforgettable theme music.

Quick, can anyone come up with the song for Detroit 1-8-7?

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father

Must-see TV has changed from night to night over the years. During the 60’s, it was Sunday, with Sullivan and Bonanza. NBC reigned over Thursday nights for many years with Cosby, Cheers, Seinfeld, and ER. But go back to the early 70’s, and ABC made Wednesday night the night to stay home and watch Room 222 and the Courtship of Eddie’s Father.

You probably remember the them song more than the episodes. Harry Nilsson sang “People let me tell you ’bout my best friend” and we were given a tune that sticks permanently in minds that might begin to forget less tenacious memories.

The show was based on a movie that came out in 1963, starring Glenn Ford and beautiful Shirley Jones. The movie was a hit, and six years later, ABC execs decided to try a TV series.

But this wasn’t your father’s TV show. It was very offbeat, well written, and darned entertaining. Each episode would begin with a conversation between Eddie (Brandon Cruz) and his father Tom (Bill Bixby). Eddie wanted a new mommy, to replace his departed one, and dad was open to the idea as well.

Of course, like all sitcom families of the era, they had a maid. Her name was Mrs. Livingston, She was a wise lady who could occasionally get her feelings hurt, as I recall. I recall one episode where Eddie was explained the facts of life with pollination as an example. He suggested his father pollinate Mrs. Livingston so she could have a baby. I told you this wasn’t your father’s series.

However, it was all very innocent. There was nothing suggestive at all about the series. Familiar characters Uncle Norman and his secretary Tina would be regular visitors, with some saying the show jumped the shark when episodes were devoted to Uncle Norman instead of Tom and Eddie.

The Beverly Hillbillies

There are only a few memories that are common to practically every Boomer kid. Examples: we all got the smallpox vaccination. We all were blown away by man’s first moonwalk. And I’m pretty sure that we have all watched The Beverly Hillbillies.

The show actually spawned a genre that I was not familiar with: fish-out-of-water. In 1962, it was the first television program to take a group of individuals from one world and plant them in another, a trend continued by the likes of Green AcresMork and Mindy, and even The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

But, IMHO, nobody ever did it like Paul Henning and his wonderful creation.

As everybody on the planet knows, one day Jed Clampett was out hunting with his faithful bloodhound Duke, when he shot into the ground and spawned a miniature gusher.

The next thing you know, old Jed’s a millionaire. Banker Milburn Drysdale convinces him that he needs to move into a nice mansion in Beverly Hills, right next to him. And thus began TV history.

What makes a perfect sitcom? An endearing cast, brilliant writing, and love from the critics.

Just kidding about that last one. The critics largely panned the bizarre show when it first appeared among the likes of Ozzie and HarrietLeave It to Beaver, and The Lucy Show. However, the public immediately fell in love with the Clampetts, and CBS had a major hit on their hands, which would go on to be the #1 show of the year twice in its nine-season run, and would be canceled while still a very respectable #18.

The show used lots of hillbilly humor, to be sure. Granny would infuriate Mrs. Drysdale by making soap, the family ate off a big green felt-covered table with six holes and wooden “pot-passers,” and the millionaires insisted on driving their old jalopy (a 1921 Oldsmobile, currently on display at Point Lookout, Missouri.)

But it also took some rather risqué chances for the time. For example, there were the hippies that came to visit, who were intensely interested in the concept of smoking crawdads. And there was the episode where entrepreneur Jethro opened a topless restaurant. The waiters would, of course, go without hats. I remember this episode vividly. Ellie May was walking around carrying a sandwich board advertising the grand opening, and eager males followed her around. Jed explained to them that Ellie wouldn’t be working as a waitress, but that he and Granny would, and they would both be topless!

Funny stuff.

The show also made us aware of the effects of typecasting.

Max Baer, Jr. was perhaps the biggest victim. The son of boxing champion Max Baer, he was quite frustrated to find that there were no non-Jethro acting jobs to be found after the series. But he did okay anyway. He took matters into his own hands and wrote and produced 1974’s Macon County Line, a flick many of us saw at the drive-in. Seeing’s how he was running the show, he also starred. And the movie, made for $110,000, ended up grossing 25 million bucks! Baer produced more hit films, too. Good for him.

Donna Douglas was likewise forever known as Ellie May. She took it in stride, and started a very successful real estate career, and still occasionally appear in public in her familiar guise, complete with blue jeans and a rope belt.

Sadly, Irene Ryan died just a couple of years after the show’s end. She would likely have done fine in later roles, as she really didn’t resemble her heavily made-up character that much.

Only Buddy Ebsen overcame his character. He had a long history of film acting, and, as every trivia fan knows, would have played the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz if he could have tolerated the aluminum paint. In researching this piece, I learned that he turned down Louis B. Mayer’s offer of an exclusive contract with MGM, and was then told by Mayer that he would never get a job in Hollywood again.

You see, Hollywood producers used to be as evil as the RIAA and MPAA are nowadays. 😉

Ebsen is perhaps best remembered for his role as Barnaby Jones, an easy-going milk-drinking detective who was supposed to be past his prime. He kept that show popular for seven years.

The Beverly Hillbillies was canceled in 1971 as part of CBS’s infamous rural purge. Many popular shows died that year, “anything with a tree in it,” according to Pat Buttram. But even today, its syndicated reruns are some of the most popular on television.

And, as I stated earlier, I strongly suspect that the number of Boomers who never caught an episode is about the same as that of the honest Washington politicians who ignore lobbyists.

Star Trek Appears

“Space . . . the final frontier . . . ” Those words first were heard on September 8, 1966, with the debut of Star Trek.

The episode, as any trekkie knows, was The Man Trap. The show created a stir among science fiction fans, but it wasn’t the stir that would explode after its cancellation three years later.

Science fiction was pretty amateurish stuff on TV and the movies before Star Trek. Lost in Space was a hit, but there wasn’t a whole lot of credibility in its storyline. In fact, many fans tuned in for the camp, like they did with Batman. Hollywood really hadn’t topped 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still for realism and a good storyline. But when Star Trek came along, concepts were revealed that had a sense of possibility about them.

For example, how did you get around faster than 186,282 miles per second (it’s not just a good idea. It’s the LAW)? Easy, you used your warp drive, that would somehow change the nature of space and enable you to travel faster than light without going backwards in time. Hmm, that just might work!

Another means of transportation was beaming. Your atoms were transformed into energy and sent as a beam to a nearby location, where they were reassembled. The process was limited by distance, as well as the need for exact coordinates for your destination. Again, this sounds like it might be doable with future technologies!

Overwhelmed with tribbles

They even explained why all aliens spoke perfect English: the universal translator! Of course, that didn’t explain why their lips would form the words perfectly.

So Star Trek managed to fire the imaginations of its viewers. But what it DIDN’T do was attract large numbers of viewers. It was maddening to Trek fans that the aformentioned Lost in Space, with its “Crush! Kill! Destroy” spouting robot, consistently beat out TOS (as it’s now known among aficionados), and in fact was canceled due to the high cost of its episodes, rather than poor ratings.

So, after three seasons, the plug was presumably permanently pulled on the adventures of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Sulu, Scotty, Chekhov, and Uhuru.

How wrong that assumption was.

Ad in TV Guide, 1966

Fans immediately began writing letters to NBC demanding their show be returned. The deluge only grew with time, and by 1973, NBC began airing a really bad sequel: Star Trek: The Animated Series. The show featured the voices of most of the original characters, But the animation was horrible, and the writing was suspect. It lasted parts of two seasons.

Star Trek: TOS was aimed at adults, in fact I recall commercials describing it as “an adult science fiction series.” But that didn’t stop us kids from tuning in in droves, or NBC from selling Star Trek toys.

It also affected subsequent science fiction on TV and the movies. Fans demanded more realism, and explanations of what was going on. This reached its climax with 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s equally magnanimous novel is the only SF film I have ever seen that refrains from making spaceships go by with a whooshing sound, impossible in space’s vacuum.

But even though the Enterprise whooshed across the screen, you have to admit that video science fiction overall has become better, thanks to Star Trek’s more sophisticated audience.

But we’re still not happy about TOS’s cancellation back in 1969.


Allen Funt in the 60’s

Human nature is a funny thing. Put people into strange circumstances, and the results can be hilarious.

Producer Allen Funt figured this out in 1947, and began a radio show called Candid Microphone, It was a hit, and also proved popular in the form of filmed theater shorts.

In 1948, in the very infancy of the medium, Candid Microphone made it to TV.

If you older Boomers don’t remember Candid Microphone, it’s for good reason. The show jumped all over the place before being merged into The Tonight Show as a recurring segment, followed by yet another move to The Garry Moore Show. Somewhere during all of the hopping around, the segment changed its name from Candid Microphone to Candid Camera.

Finally, in 1960, it appeared as Candid Camera, the TV show. And CBS now had a very solid 9:00 (Central time) anchor on the Must-See TV night of the decade, Sunday.

Durward Kirby and Funt

Bedtime for kids in the Enderland house was 9:00 sharp on Sunday nights. Ergo, I don’t have as many memories of Candid Camera as I wish that I did. But still, I can recall Allen Funt and Durward Kirby introducing short segments and my middle brother (who would sometimes successfully cajole dad into letting us stay up an extra half-hour) and myself collapsing in laughter. In typical kid-memory, what I recall most sharply was the “window blind” effects as a scene would fade in and out.

But thankfully, YouTube is well populated with classic scenes from the era, as well as from later incarnations of the show and the British version. Witness the “drive-in bank,” featuring frequent participant Fannie Flagg.

The show was a monumental hit. Eventually, its peering into human nature would be much imitated by shows featuring hidden video and user-supplied home videos of whoopsy-daisy moments. At press time, the concept has culminated (for better or, in most cases, worse) in the form of the first distinctive TV style of the 21st century: reality TV.

Funt deservedly gets the credit for the genius behind Candid Camera, but what you may not appreciate about him is the massive amounts of work that had to take place behind the scenes.

For example, cameras were huge, bulky things in the 50’s and early 60’s. While they could be hidden behind fake walls and such, they also required extremely bright lights. Thus, many candid scenes were filmed under the guise of “remodeling” work being done in the various locations involved.

Additionally, clueless network censors and sponsors who were paranoid about what constituted acceptable TV programming caused Funt misery. They needn’t have worried. Funt himself made sure each segment was squeaky-clean. According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications:

Funt himself destroyed any material that was off color, or reached too deeply into people’s private lives. A hotel gag designed to fool guests placed a “men’s room” sign on a closet door. The funniest, but ultimately unaired reaction, came from a gentleman who ignored the obvious lack of accommodations and “used” the closet anyway.

The show made for many a Sunday night laugh, then was unceremoniously yanked in 1967 despite barely slipping out of the Nielsen Top Twenty. It reappeared in a polyester-clad syndicated version in the early 70’s, with Funt’s guest hosts including Susan George, Betsy Palmer, and the aforementioned Miss Flagg. More recently, Funt’s son continued to carry the torch in a revamped version of the show until a couple of years ago. Indeed, look for Candid Camera to resurface again and again.