Rod Serling with Playhouse 90 Logo
Today was a strange day. It was beastly hot and humid, with a Mexican Monsoon effect. Having no air conditioning in our apartment—and living in an area that regularly gets hit by power blackouts—Martine and I decided to go to the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. The lobby was crowded with young tourist couples seeing the displays about American Horror Story, a series on FX with which I was previously unacquainted. These guys (and their women) were heavily tattooed, wore their baseball hats backwards, did not know to flush toilets, and led with their smart phones taking pictures of everything in sight.
I suddenly felt old. Here I was with a large group of young people that made me feel alienated. And here I was going to see a couple of Playhouse 90 episodes from 1959. I might has well have been talking in Armenian to a group of prairie dogs. Did I feel bad about that? In a way I did, though I would not have considered going far to seek common ground with them: The gulf between me and them yawned as big as the Grand Canyon.
But I felt delighted with the Playhouse 90 episodes I saw, shot in consecutive weeks. The first was “The Town That Turned to Dust,” written and introduced by Rod Serling and directed by John Frankenheimer. The story was about a lynching in a small Texas border town called Dempseyville of a Mexican youth who was accused by William Shatner, as the local dry goods merchant, of beating up his wife Fay Spain and robbing the store. The sheriff who is powerless to prevent the lynching is Rod Steiger, in a powerful role, with James Gregory as a visiting newspaperman.
The other was a dramatization of “The Great Gatsby” starring Robert Ryan as Gatsby and Jeanne Crain as Daisy May Buchanan. Rod Taylor was excellent as Nick Carraway. Rod Serling introduced the episode, which was directed by Franklin Schaffner.
Although I do not watch much (if any) current television, I have a great deal of love and respect for the early days of the medium. Back at the beginning, they not only knew how to produce superlative entertainment, but used people who knew how to act, not just nod their heads meaningfully.
Muhammad Ali Takes Joe Frazier in 14 Rounds (1975)
No, it’s not December 26. At 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius), I wish it were.
Martine and I reacted to the heat by going to the air-conditioned Paley Center for Media. While Martine watched 1950s sitcoms, I saw Muhammad Ali’s three bouts with Smokin’ Joe Frazier over a three-hour period:
- The so-called Fight of the Century took place on March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden in New York. Frazier beat Ali in 15 rounds on a unanimous decision. Ali lost his world championship title as a result.
- On January 24, 1974, Ali beat Frazier in 12 rounds on a unanimous decision. Neither were world champions at the time.
- The “Thrilla in Manila” took place on October 1, 1975 in Quezon City in the Philippines. After 14 rounds, Ali, who was world heavyweight champion, hurt Frazier so badly that he was temporarily blinded, leading his trainer Eddie Futch to call the fight for Ali.
It was a grueling experience to see three fights between the same competitors one after the other, all with commentary by the grating Howard Cosell. At least, the Paley’s John H. Mitchell theater was well air conditioned, and the alternative would be to endure an altogether different sort of hell.
It was interesting to see Ali improve between the fights, starting from his clay-footed rope-seeking fighting style in the 1971 bout. Frazier stayed the same—always aggressive, bobbing, weaving, and left-hooking—but Ali developed new ways of meeting his challenge. Between the two of them, I was impressed by Frazier for his indomitable courage, and Ali for his intelligence and ability to adapt to different circumstances.
Mousketeers Around the 1950s
It all started in 1955. Not that it was the first TV show for kids—the Howdy Doodie Show beat it by eight years—but it was the first kids show featuring kids. I am referring, of course, to the Mousketeers of the Mickey Mouse Club.
After a morning doing tax returns at work, I acceded to Martine’s request to drop in at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. While Martine was watching some of her faves, I decided to see two episodes of the Mickey Mouse Club show, one from 1956 and one from 1957.
I saw at once why the show was a success. Not because I was entertained the way when I was a kid, but because Walt Disney had so much material lying around in film cans that there wasn’t as much of a burden to come up with new material for every show. Every show ended with a quarter hour cartoon segment from the vaults, and there were regularly repeating cartoon intros for the opening and many of the segment categories.
The live portions included the talents of the Mousketeers, including singing and dancing, and visiting a training center for firemen. They also featured local talent such as an archery champion and two yo-yo experts, all of whom were in their teens.
Of course, I watched the show religiously until I deemed myself too old and sophisticated and no longer in love with Annette Funicello with her dark hair and flashing eyes.
Perhaps the Most Inventive Funnyman in Television
Because it was a drizzly day (courtesy of El Niño), Martine and I spent the afternoon at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. While Martine was bringing up episodes of “Superman” with George Reeves, Captain Kangaroo, and “My Little Margie,” I was watching a number of episodes of “The Ernie Kovacs Show.”
What Georges Méliès was to the cinema, Ernie Kovacs was to the medium of television: He was brilliantly inventive and something of a magician. All the other comedians on early TV came up from vaudevillian comedy skits, Kovacs started with the new medium itself. He was not only the starring actor: He was also the director and, if the show had one, the main writer.
Music was a recurring unifying theme to the strange collection of cutaways which might include:
- A cute young woman taking a bubble bath, with strange things happening in the tub
- The Nairobi Trio, three apes playing music and annoying one another
- The furniture in an office acting as instruments, from the filing cabinet to the typewriter to the telephone switchboard to the water cooler
- Artistic variations on a cowboy gun duel
One recurring piece of music used was “Mack the Knife” sung in German, but he has also used the 1812 Overture (during which we cut to Kovacs breaking a stalk of celery at key junctures), and “The Tennessee Waltz” sung in Polish—or was it Slovenian?—while he unsuccessfully lowers a chained escape artist into the river who never manages to re-emerge.
For the three hours that I watched the shows, I was in seventh heaven. Kovacs is a fellow Hungarian (though he, like me, was born in the U.S.), and he occasionally inserts some phrases in Magyar.
On the way home, I drove by the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Beverly Glen where Kovacs died in an auto accident on my seventeenth birthday in 1962.
The one quote that he is remembered for is typical Ernie: “Television: A medium. So called because it’s neither rare nor well done.” Well, when Ernie Kovacs was on the job, it was well done.
The Caisson Bearing Kennedy’s Body Enroute to the Cemetery
It was another blast furnace day in Southern California. To avoid the smell of charred walls and furniture in our apartment, Martine and I decided to spend the afternoon in the air-conditioned video library of the Paley Center in Beverly Hills. While Martine watched Gale Storm in episodes of “My Little Margie” (1952-55), I watched the funeral cortège of the assassinated John F. Kennedy (November 24, 1963).
What would have happened if Kennedy were never shot dead in the streets of Dallas? (Way back in the depths of my mind, I have never forgiven Texas for being the scene of that sad event.) America was stunned. The news seemed to go on all hours: Poor Walter Cronkite talked about Lee Harvey OsBURN being shot by Jack Ruby. I remember watching the coverage at the auditorium of the newly opened Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College, where the TV coverage was aired in the auditorium.
Blackjack, the Riderless Horse in JFK’s Funeral Cortège
The President was buried with full military honors. Six grey horses pulled the artillery caisson on which his flag-draped coffin lay. Behind the caisson was a riderless black horse named Blackjack with stirrups and riding boots reverse, whose friskiness was in marked contrast to the grim pace of the procession. The muffled drums, the horns breaking out into the marche funèbre, the tolling bells of St. Christopher’s church, the grim faces of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and the two surviving Kennedy brothers—all added up to one of history’s grinning death’s heads.
What would have happened if President Kennedy were not assassinated? Would the conservative insurgency that followed years later ever have happened? There are so many terms in the equation that follows that it is difficult to conclude anything with any degree of certainty. There was Viet Nam, Cuba, Communism, the Economy, even the Mafia to consider. I guess, in the end, whatever happened was fated to happen.
Certain images from that funeral have stuck in my mind. Among the heads of state, there was the gigantic Charles de Gaulle in the front line. There were endless women crying—women that looked different in that period over half a century ago. As the procession proceeded, it was followed on either side by hundreds, perhaps thousands of everyday people who wanted to miss nothing.
Vicki Lawrence as Thelma Harper and Carol Burnett as Her Daughter Eunice
As you have heard me say on a number of occasions, I do not watch television—but I used to. That was back when the audience was less fragmented and less monopolized by navel-gazing “indies.” And, as the siege of furnace-level heat continues in Southern California, Martine and I decided to pay a visit to the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills.
The last time we were there, about four or five years ago, it was call the Museum of Television and Radio. A lot has changed since then. For one thing, it is much easier to use the library. Instead of just calling for videotapes to be mounted by some operator in the basement, some 40% of the content is now digitized and can be accessed by an interface similar to YouTube.
While Martine sat at one console watching the old Lassie show, I was watching 1970s comedy in the form of the Carol Burnett Show and Saturday Night Live. From the same console, it is also possible to call up old radio programs.
We enjoyed our visit so much that I signed Martine and I up as members, which gives us additional privileges.
If you perchance find yourself in Beverly Hills, the Paley Center is worth a visit—particularly if you enjoy old television and radio. An extra bonus: It’s located on the same 400-block of North Beverly Drive as Nate ’n Al’s, a Jewish deli that is as old as I am (Pleistocene Era) that has managed to maintain a high level of quality.