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.
Arlene Martel and Robert Culp in “The Demon with a Glass Hand”
Right after lunch, it started to drizzle; and Martine was without her umbrella. So we decided to go to the Paley Center for Media and watch some old TV. While Martine was watching episodes of Amos and Andy and My Little Margie, I decided to watch an episode of The Outer Limits.
The episode in question was “The Demon with a Glass Hand,“ directed by Byron Haskin and written by Harlan Ellison. It starred Robert Culp as the mysterious Trent, whom we are told at the beginning has lived forever, and the elfin Arlene Martel as Consuelo Biros. It was originally aired on October 17, 1964, and was the fifth show in the show’s second season.
This was at a time when television was great. tt reached out to a more unified audience with a well crafted story authored by the talented paranoiac Harlan Ellison. Trent found himself in Los Angeles’s Bradbury Building (called the Dixon Building in the story), with a glass hand missing the middle three fingers. A group of killer extraterrestial aliens called the Kyben are being sent from the future to get Trent’s hand and to supply the missing glass fingers, which they have. The object is to question the hand as to where the seventy billion earthlings from the year AD 3000 have gone. At the same time, Trent must obtain these fingers so that he could answer the same question and protect the missing earth people.
Interior of the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles, Where Most of the Action Occurs
My friends in the film industry are always trying to get me to watch television, which they say has vastly improved with new original series like Breaking Bad and The Game of Thrones. In the relationship that Martine and I have, she gets to control the TV while I hit the books. Occasionally, I will watch a DVD while she is out taking a walk. That seems to work well for both of us, and I don’t feel as if I were missing out on anything.
In any case, it is fun to see some of the old classic television series like The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock, and One Step Beyond. I also have a real fondness for The Carol Burnett Show.
Whatever Happened to Real Stories?
Television used to be first class entertainment. There was great comedy (Sid Caesar and Milton Berle), great speculative fiction (Twilight Zone), great whodunits (Perry Mason), and great quiz shows (You Bet Your Life). The shows were either scripted or with great impromptu acting. There was talent in front of the camera and in the smoke-filled rooms where the shows were planned.
That was then. Somewhere along the line, the TV producers decided that reality TV was cheaper to produce and would be accepted by the viewing public. And it was: with hundreds of channels of cable, there were scads of shows like Antiques Road Show, The Kardashians, Dog the Bounty Hunter, Pawn Stars, and a million forensic crime shows reprising old crimes.
Instead of entertaining the viewers, these shows sedated them. One of the stars of the genre was Donald J. Trump of The Apprentice. All he had to do was glower and say “You’re fired!” and everything was golden.
Now this same Donald J Trump is our next (and perhaps last) president. All he has to do to solve the problems of this poor country is strike a few attitudes and tweet his uneducated opinions in the middle of the night. Advance planning no longer exists. We are now being governed by a bunch of untalented poseurs.
A REMINDER: Don’t forget to turn off your TV for tomorrow’s inauguration. Reality TV types hate having a bad Nielsen rating.
Rod Serling with Playhouse 90 Logo
Almost sixty years ago to the day—on October 4, 1956—CBS presented its first Playhouse 90. It was called “Forbidden Area,” written by Rod Serling, directed by John Frankenheimer, and starring the likes of Charlton Heston, Tab Hunter, Diana Lynn, Vincent Price, Victor Jory, and Charles Bickford.
As he did later with Twilight Zone, Serling takes us to the heart of the Cold War and a projected Christmas Eve nuclear attack by the Soviet Union on major cities across the United States. Charlton Heston is trying to discover why eight B-99s of the Strategic Air Command suddenly disappeared without a trace from radar screens.
Playhouse 90 was live television: There were no rehearsals. While American viewers were watching, the actors were acting. As difficult as it was, this was the Golden Age of Television. Now there are hundreds more channels, dozens of content providers, and tens of millions more viewers, what they are watching is nowhere near as good as during those heady days of the 1950s and the early 1960s.
I love television as it used to be. As it is today, I would rather leave the remote to Martine and go read a good book.
Tonight, the UCLA Film & Television Archive put on a double bill of Playhouse 90 episodes written by Serling. It was introduced by Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, who gave an excellent speech about why those days were the artistic pinnacle of television as an art medium.
Maurice Evans as Macbeth and Judith Anderson as Lady Macbeth
There was a time when there were only a few television channels, and one could see wonderful material that presupposed a literate audience. In honor of Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23, the Paley Center for Media put on screenings of six of Shakespeare’s plays on Saturday and Sunday of this weekend. It was my good fortune to see two of the plays.
The better of the two was a Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Macbeth fist aired on November 20, 1960. It was directed by George Schaefer and starred Maurice Evans as Macbeth, Judith Anderson as Lady Macbeth, Michael Hordern as Banquo, and Ian Bannen as Macduff. It was shot in technicolor on location in Scotland.
Richard Chamberlain as Hamlet and Ciaran Madden as Ophelia
Also produced for the Hallmark Hall of Fame was a 1970 Hamlet directed by Peter Wood and starring Richard Chamberlain as Hamlet, Michael Redgrave as Polonius, Margaret Leighton as Gertrude, and Richard Johnson as Claudius. John Gielgud had a walk-on role as the Ghost.
Both productions were highly professional. So professional that I was stunned seeing the two great tragedies one after the other. I thought to myself, “What would it take to have something like this on cable television today?” I would say close to zilch. Perhaps if Ophelia were in the nude and we saw a slo-mo close-up of Banquo being knifed in the head, but otherwise, no.
I think we may have to assume that the audience for these two great 1960 and 1970 productions no longer exists, or else they don’t allow patients in nursing homes to watch anything quite so exciting. Not when Lawrence Welk and Matlock reruns are available.
It’s strange that I have to drive to the Paley Center in Beverly Hills to see what television can do. As for my own television, I’d rather read a good book.
Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams
One of the most poignant things about watching old movies and television programs is that, quite suddenly, the veil of years disintegrates, sometimes leaving an image of inexpressible beauty. That happens when I see films with Louise Brooks, Mabel Normand, Marilyn Monroe, and now Edie Adams.
Sunday was a rare wet day in Los Angeles, so Martine and I spent it at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. While Martine watched some of her old faves, for three hours I watched nothing but the old Ernie Kovacs show. While she was married to Ernie, until he died in a spectacular car crash in West Los Angeles on my 17th birthday, she was in her late twenties and drop-dead gorgeous. The above picture doesn’t do her justice. In the earlier shows on the Dumont and NBC networks, she was cute and obviously in love with her tall Hungarian madman.
Although she had a long and distinguished career in showbiz after the accident, she is buried at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills next to her late husband.
As a child, I remember watching Ernie because, well, we were Hungarians; and Ernie was our hero. I recall Edie as being lovely. Years later, she still is in those old kinescopes.
As Portuguese writer and poet Fernando Pessoa wrote, “The feelings that hurt most, the emotions that sting most, are those that are absurd—The longing for impossible things, precisely because they are impossible; nostalgia for what never was; the desire for what could have been; regret over not being someone else; dissatisfaction with the world’s existence. All these half-tones of the soul’s consciousness create in us a painful landscape, an eternal sunset of what we are.”
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.