Sunday, July 18, 2004

Sunday Night Television

Growing up in the late Sixties, I think that Sunday night may have been the best night for television.  Back then Sunday night not only boasted shows that were good, these were shows that were classics. And in some cases, the shows were institutions.
This was particularly true of the granddaddy of all Sunday night TV shows, The Ed Sullivan Show. The Ed Sullivan Show debuted on Sunday, June 28, 1948 as Toast of the Town (it was named for its host with the 1955-1956 season). The show was hosted by newspaperman Ed Sullivan and its format was simple--it was a true variety show. On that first telecast there was the comedy team of Martin and Lewis, composers Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II, concert pianist Eugene List, singing fireman John Kokoman, ballerina Kathryn Lee, and other guests.  Nearly every episode of The Ed Sullivan Show was as varied as the first. Over the years,  the casts of such Broadway shows as Oliver! and My Fair Lady, ballet troupes, acrobats, ventriloquists, puppets, performing animals, and rock groups ranging from The Beatles to The Lovin' Spoonful appeared on the show. The Ed Sullivan Show was a variety show a kid could actually appreciate.  Never mind that there might be a boring (at least to a kid) soprano on one minute, the next minute there might be dancing bears or trapeze artists or the latest rock act. The Ed Sullivan Show was neither high brow or low brow,  as it catered to both crowds. The show was cancelled in 1971, not becuase its ratings had slipped, but because CBS thought its audience had grown too old.
Another show that was arguably an insitution was Disneyland,  which premeired on ABC on Wednesday nights in 1954.  The show moved to Friday nights in 1958 and underwent the first of one of its many name changes--this time to Walt Disney Presents.  In 1961, the show moved from ABC to NBC and to its familiar Sunday night time slot. It also received its new name: Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.  The name change also indicated a major change in the show, as from that time forward it was aired in colour. In 1969, when colour TV shows were no longer a novelty, its name was changed to The Wonderful World of Disney.  Despite the name changes, the format of The Wonderful World of Disney was consistent througout its run.  It was an anthology series which might air classic Disney cartoon shorts one week, an orignal live action adventure show (such as the famous Davy Crockett episodes) the next week, and a nature documentary the week after that.  I have very fond memories of many of the series' episodes, namely Davy Crockett (reran several times throughout the series' run) and The Scarecrow of Romney MarshThe Wonderful World of Disney had good ratings for most of its run, although it began a slow decline in the Seventies. In 1980 NBC cancelled the series. It was picked up by CBS in 1981. Unfortunately, it only lasted two seasons there. The series was revived in 1986 and lasted for a few seasons. It was revived once more in 1997 on ABC (now owned by Disney) and has been on the air ever since.
I am not sure that Lassie could be considered an insitution, although it is a show that is well remembered.  Lassie debuted on CBS in 1954 on Sunday night, where it remained for its twenty year run. Originally the show was about the adventures of a dog (Lassie) and her boy (first Jeff, then Timmy), but by the time I discovered the show Lassie was owned by forest ranger Corey Stuart.  Once the actor who played Stuart, Robert Bray, left the show, Lassie came under the care of two more forrest rangers, Scott Turner & Bob Erickson. Indeed, as a child I remember being surprised to learn that Lassie's original owner was not a forrest ranger, but a boy! Not having seen Lassie since childhood, I really do not know if the show was good. I know that I enjoyed it as a child and apparently others did too. Lassie ran twenty years on CBS and then a few more years in syndication.
The final Sunday night standby on television in the Sixties was Bonanza. Bonanza was the first Western broadcast in colour and one of the first regular series to be broadcast so. It debuted on NBC in 1960 on Saturday night. It was only after the move to Sunday night in its second season that Bonanza really took off.  Bonanza centred on Ben Cartwright and his three sons--Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe.  Adan was the eldest, level headed son. Hoss was the middle son, none too bright but kind hearted and big as, well, a "hoss." Little Joe was the youngest son, impulsive and prone to romance. Ben owned the enormous Ponderosa ranch, which was just outside Virginia City, Nevada.  Within its Western format, Bonanza could be a fairly flexible show in its plots. One episode might be a traditional Western with the Cartwrights facing outlaws. Another episode might be a legal drama, with one of the Cartwrights forced to defend an innocent man. Yet another episode might be a romance in which one of the boys might fall in love.  I am not sure, but I think Bonanza might have been my parents' favourite show. They watched it every single night and even watched it when it was reran in syndication.  I remember watching it loyally as a child. As an adult I have come to a couple of conclusions about the show. First, I think the show went into a slow decline after its first six or so seasons.  On the one hand, having been able to see much of the series again,  I have to say I was impressed with many of the earlier episodes.  On the other hand, I have to say that I found many of the later episodes positively dreadful (particulary an episode with Angel Tompkins as a pyromaniac).  Second, the show did have a definite formula. It semes to me that in many episodes one of the boys fell in love, only to have the girl die from some disease, accident, act of the gods, or other misfortune. It seems the Cartwrights had no luck with women! Bonanza was the number one show on television for several seasons in the Sixties. It was still getting respectable ratings in 1973 when Dan Blocker, who played Hoss, died.  Hoss was easily the most popular character on the show, so that the loss of Dan Blocker seriously crippled the show. A move to Tuesday nights certainly did not help the situation. After 14 seasons on the air, Bonanza was cancelled in mid-season.
I remember growing up, a typical Sunday night's TV viewing would begin with Lassie at 6:00 PM CST.  At 6:30 PM CST, we would switch channels and watch Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.  At 7:30 PM CST, we would switch channels again and watch the last half of The Ed Sullivan Show. At 8:00 PM CST it was time for Bonanza and we would switch channels again (keep in mind we did not own a TV remote either...). I have no idea what my parents watched at 9:00 PM CST, as my brother and I had to go to bed.  At any rate, I have fond memories of Sunday night television in the Sixties. I suppose much of it has to do with the fact that it was time spent with my parents as it does the TV shows themselves.  I don't think I have enjoyed watching TV on Sunday nights ever since.

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