Saturday, December 30, 2006

The 1992-1993 CBS Monday Night Schedule

In the history of television I can think of very few perfect nights when it comes to American network broadcasting, nights when every single show on a given night and on a particular network was good. In my opinion one of the few times this occurred was during the 1992-1993 season, when CBS had a perfect Monday night lineup.

In some respects it does not surprise me that CBS would have a perfect Monday night lineup that season. While they aired some bad shows on Monday night throughout the Eighties and early Nineties (does anyone out there remember My Sister Sam or Major Dad?), for the most part CBS had been on a roll when it came to that night for some time. Throughout the Eighties Monday night on CBS had been home to M*A*S*H, Newhart, and Designing Women. Indeed, the making of CBS's perfect Monday night lineup during the 1992-1993 season can be traced back to the 1988-1989 season, when Murphy Brown debuted. During the 1992-1993 season, Murphy Brown was the oldest TV show on CBS's Monday night lineup. It was also still very much in its prime.

CBS's Monday night lineup during the 1992-1993 season opened with Evening Shade. The series had debuted during the 1990 season on Friday night, but eventually moved to Monday night where it spent the rest of its run. On the surface Evening Shade had everything going for it. It was created by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. who had also created Designing Women. Its cast featured several big names. Set in Evening Shade, Arkansas, it featured movie star Burt Reynolds as a former pro football player who had returned home to coach high school football. His wife was played by Taxi veteran Marilu Henner. The cast was filled out by movie stars Hal Holbrook, Ossie Davis (whose character narrated the series), and Charles Durning, as well as character actor Michael Jeter. Not only did the show have a great cast, but Evening Shade also boasted some of the best scripts of any sitcom on at the time. Quite frankly, it was one of the funniest shows of its time.

Unfortunately, despite its big name cast and stellar scripts, Evening Shade did not meet with a good deal of success. Its rating, although hardly bottom of the barrel, did not make it one of television's biggest hits. The series ended its run after only four years and has only been seen in reruns sporadically ever since. I find this sad, as it is a show that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

Following Evening Shade on Monday night during the 1992-1993 season was another creation of Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. The series featured John Ritter and Markie Post as a married couple who also happen to be a senator's aide and a political reporter respectively. The cast was rounded out by Billy Bob Thornton (before he became famous) and Ed Asner. The series was a combination of romantic comedy (the relationship between Ritter and Post's characters being central to its premise) and a satire on current, political affairs. Like Evening Shade, it featured some of the best writing on television at the time. Sadly, it was never a huge hit. The series lasted only three years before going off the air. It hasn't been seen very much in reruns since then, although it is now available on DVD.

As mentioned earlier, Murphy Brown was the oldest of the shows on CBS's 1992-1993 Monday night lineup. Created by Diane English and debuting in the fall of 1988, the series focused on the title character played by Candace Bergen. Murphy was an outspoken anchor and investigative reporter for the fictional news magazine FYI. Set in Washington D.C., the show was well known for taking potshots at both the American political scene and American television. In 1992 the series was both at the height of its success and the height of its notoriety. During the 1991-1992 season, Murphy, unmarried at the time, discovered that she was pregnant. During the 1992 [residential campaign, then vice president Dan Quayle attacked the series in a speech given that May as "...mocking the importance of fathers..." If Quayle's intention was to persuade Americans not to watch the series, he failed miserably. Even more viewers tuned into the series. I might also add, the series seemed to get even better after it had been singled out by the Vice President--it produced some of its funniest episodes during this season. At any rate, Murphy Brown ran another six years (for a total of ten years on the air) and went onto a healthy afterlife in reruns and on DVD.

Following Murphy Brown was a new sitcom, Love and War. Created by Diane English, the series focused on a restaurant owner (played by Susan Dey) who has an off again, on again relationship with a self centred sports writer (played by Jay Thomas). Arguably, its first season was also its worst season--I've always thought Susan Dey had all the charisma of a block of a wood. That having been said, Jay Thomas and the patrons of the restaurant (including the hilarious Joel Murray as Ray) were fantastic. The series improved greatly when Dey left and the talented Annie Potts joined the cast with the 1993-1994 season, but even in its first season it was a good show. Unfortunately, it only lasted three years.

CBS's Monday night during the 1992-1993 season was closed by Northern Exposure. The show debuted as a summer replacement series in July of 1990, garnering such a following that it made its way onto CBS's 1990-1991 fall schedule. It was one of the few summer replacement shows in the history of television to have actually been picked up for the fall. At any rate, it had a distinguished lineage. Its creators, Joshua Brand and John Falsey, had been producers on St. Elsewhere. The series centred around New York lawyer Joel Fleischman, who finds himself in the small town of Cicely, Alaska as a means to pay for his medical education. Fleischman is not only a fish out of water in this new environment (Cicely not only being a small town, but a very eccentric one at that), but finds himself romantically drawn to pilot Maggie O'Connell (played by Janine Turner), who is in many ways his polar opposite. While Fleischman would appear to be the central character on the show, Northern Exposure was largely an ensemble series, with one of the best ensembles on television. There was Ed (Darren E. Burrows), the young, aspiring Native American filmmaker, Marilyn (Elaine Miles), Fleischman's unusually quiet receptionist, Chris Stevens (John Corbett), the philosophical radio personality and ex-con, Holling Vincouer (John Collum), the owner of the local eatery (The Brick), and too many others to name. Northern Exposure was essentially an intellectual show with elements of both comedy and drama. It often explored existential themes and even employed fantasy and dream sequences, and there were even episodes which flashed back to Cicely's past. Its influences ranged from psychologist Carl Jung to Native American culture to mythologist Joseph Campbell to the TV series Twin Peaks to the works of Kafka and Dostoevsky. Not only did the show receive fairly good ratings for much of its run, but it also received many awards, including Emmys and Golden Globes. The show ran for five years before going onto a successful afterlife in rerun and on DVD.

Sadly, this lineup would not last. With the 1993-1994 season, the inferior Dave's World would take the place of Hearts Afire on Monday night. By the 1994-1995 season Evening Shade would be off the air. Indeed, while I obviously consider all of these shows good, it is worth noting that only Murphy Brown had a long run. Northern Exposure had the second longest run, at around five and a half seasons. Sadly, the rest ran at most three to four years. Worse yet, only Murphy Brown and Northern Exposure would see any success in syndication. The rest simply disappeared from the television landscape. Unfortunately, the quality of a show does not always guarantee its longevity. And at least three out of the five series are on DVD: Hearts Afire, Murphy Brown, and Northern Exposure. Perhaps eventually Love and War and Evening Shade will find their way on DVD as well.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (the Movie, NOT the Album)

Tonight, in the interest of history, my best friend and I finally broke down and watched Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. Both of us being die hard Beatles fans, we had actively boycotted the movie ever since it debuted in 1978. Of course, as pop culture historians, we both realised that sooner or later we would have watch to the film.

For those of you who have, fortunately, never heard of the film, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band stars Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees as the band of the title. On paper I suppose the project sounded like a good idea. Both Frampton and The Bee Gees were at the height of their careers, and the music of The Beatles was, as always, hugely popular. That having been said, it soon became apparent that what seemed like a good idea on paper was not so good an idea in reality. Indeed, producer Robert Stigwood fired the original director, Chris Bearde (a comedy writer best known for his work on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and hired Michael Schulz (best known for Car Wash). Even The Bee Gees begged to be released from the project, to no avail.

None of this boded well for the film. When it was released in 1978, it was to universally bad reviews and an indifferent audience. Despite the continued popularity of The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton, it bombed at the box office. And there is no wonder it failed. Quite frankly, even though I had heard the movie was bad over the years and even expected it to be so, nothing prepared me for this. It is much worse than I ever expected. Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band has only a shoestring of a plot, which is at times incomprehensible as well as nearly nonexistent. Worse yet, the characters speak no dialogue...the plot is largely conveyed through the narration of George Burns as Mr. Kite. Of course, this is probably just as well. While Frampton and The Bee Gees speak no dialouge, it is still readily apparent that they lack acting talent. Frampton is incapable of even so much as convincingly looking soulful and The Bee Gees are wooden.

Of course, all of this would be forgivable if the music was actually good. One would think that with the great George Martin, The Beatles' producer, who arranged the songs, that the music would at least be acceptable. Sadly, it is not. The Beatles songs as performed by The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton effectively have the life sucked out of them to the point that they are bubblegum rather than rock 'n' roll. Indeed, they turn "Nowhere Man," one of The Beatles very best songs in my opinion, into an adult contemporary tune! And while The Bee Gees are perhaps best known for their vocal ability, it seems to me that this movie makes it readily apparent that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were actually the better singers. The Bee Gees' vocals are a far cry from the originals. While The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton hardly do The Beatles' songs justice, at least they are not nearly as bad as some of the other performers. "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is turned into a disco song (who would have even thought it possible...) by a group called Stargard, who were unknown at the time and have remained so ever since. "You Never Give Me Your Money" is also ruined by Diane Steinberg of Stargard and a total unknown, Paul Nicholas, whose film career never quite got off the ground before or after this film. "When I'm 64" is turned into a novelty number with British comedian Frankie Howard (who plays the villainous Mr. Mustard) singing the vocals--the only problem is that it isn't so much funny as painful. One would have hoped that the music in this movie would have been its saving grace. Unfortunately, it is not. In fact, it could be the worst thing about the whole film.

That is not to say that the movie doesn't have its good points. The movie's highpoint is Aerosmith's classic rendition of "Come Together." Ironically, not only does Aerosmith give the movie's best performance (they bring out the sleaze in "Come Together" in a way that Lennon never did), but they also put the viewer in the dubious position of rooting for the bad guys! Another highpoint is Steve Martin's performance of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," a rather bizarre Busby Berkley sequence in the evil Dr. Edison's clinic and one of the few funny moments in the film. Earth, Wind, and Fire's version of "Got to Get You into My Life" is also great--they bring out the soul in a song that is basically soul to begin with. Finally, Billy Preston--the only one of the musical performers to actually work with The Beatles--delivers a show stopping version of "Get Back." Individually, the sequences featuring Aerosmith, Steve Martin, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Billy Preston are great. Sadly, they do not make up for a movie that is abysmal at best.

Needless to say, unless you want to do so out of historical interest, I cannot recommend watching this movie, even if some of the performances are worthwhile. If you do chose to watch Robert Stigwood's Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, be prepared to find yourself rolling your eyes and groaning a good deal, not to mention heckling some of the worst parts of the film. Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band has made some lists of the worst movies of all time, and I can honestly say that dubious honour is entirely warranted.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Sixties

With the New Year only a few days away it seems natural to engage in a bit of nostalgia. Today I find myself thinking back to the decade of the Sixties. My memories of the Sixties are very fuzzy. After all, I was born in 1963, making me only six years old when the decade ended. Much of what I know about the Sixties then stems from books I've read, TV shows I've seen, and so on. Still, I can't help but think that pop culture reached its pinnacle in that decade.

Indeed, it seems to me as if nearly medium that existed at the time was going through some sort of Golden Age or Silver Age. It was a time of fresh, original ideas, and a time of unbridled energy. Much of this seems odd to me in a way, as the Sixties was also a very tumultuous decade. It was not simply an era of long hair and love beads. By the middle of the decade the Vietnam War was well underway, as were the growing protests against it. Riots were not unheard of in the Sixties. Some were associated with race, such as those in the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles and on 12th Street in Detroit. Others were associated with the politics of the day, such as the one at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. I can easily understand why some might view the Sixties as a dark period in American history.

Despite this, I have to disagree that it was a dark period. As I said earlier, it seems to me as if almost every medium was going through some sort of Golden Age or Silver Age. And while the headlines in the Sixties could sometimes be bleak, it seems to me that there was a good deal of optimism in the air. The space programme was well underway and man reached the moon in 1969. And behind the various protests, there seems to me to have been the idea that one could ultimately change the world for the better. I think much of this optimism in the face of what were sometimes rough times was ultimately responsible for the high quality seen in the various media in the Sixties.

Indeed, I honestly think the heyday of American television may well have been the Sixties. There are many who identify the Golden Age of television as roughly being in the Fifties. Given the high quality of many of the dramatic anthologies (such as Playhouse 90 and Studio One), it is hard for me to argue with that. That having been said, however, I think the Golden Age of series television may well have been the Sixties. It seems to me that the decade produced more classic TV shows with continuing characters than any other. I must admit that if I were to make a list of the greatest sitcoms of all time, most of those shows on the list would have either debuted or aired during the Sixties: The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Bewitched, Gilligan's Island, Get Smart, The Monkees, The Addams Family, and Batman. Of course, the Sixties was also the heyday of sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and action-adventure oriented programming. It was the era of Thriller, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, and Star Trek. Indeed, some of the best comedies (including some of those listed above) were also fantasies. The Sixties was also a time when the American networks would actually air some of the best British shows of all time, including The Avengers, Danger Man (once under its original title, later under the title Secret Agent, The Saint, and The Prisoner. And while most people think of spies and beautiful, blonde genies when they think of the Sixties, it did produce some quality dramas. The Defenders, Route 66, The Fugitive, and Bonanza all aired during the decade.

Indeed, I have to say that quite frankly I think even the commercials were better in the Sixties. This was the era when a shining knight would "zap" clothes clean in ads for Ajax laundry detergent. It was also the time when ads for Hai Karate asserted that the cologne made men so irresistible to women that they'd have to fight them off. It was also an era of animated ad spokesmen, from Tony the Tiger to Cap'n Crunch. I don't think commercials have been nearly so good ever since.

While I suppose some might disagree with my assessment of the Sixties as the Golden Age of Series Television, it is agreed by most fans that it was the Silver Age of Comic Books. This was the era during which DC Comics revived some of their biggest names in new forms. The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and The Atom were all revived during this time. For better or worse, the TV show Batman (a classic in its own right, but hardly representative of the original Caped Crusader) fueled new interest in the Dark Knight. And while DC Comics was creating new characters based on Golden Age ones, Marvel Comics was introducing entirely new characters and a new approach to comic books. The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Daredevil, and most of Marvel's classic line-up were introduced in the Sixties. What set Marvel Comics' characters apart from any superheroes that went before them is that they actually had personal problems. Indeed, some could be considered downright neurotic. And it must be kept in mind that DC and Marvel were not the only comic book companies who saw a resurgence in the Sixties. Charlton, Archie, and Dell all tried their hands at superheroes, sometimes even with a small degree of success.

While comic books were going through their Silver Age, I would also say that pop music was as well. Of course, much of this was due to the British. In 1964, The Beatles arrived on American shores and changed American music forever. In their wake followed several classic bands, such The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Hollies, and many others. For a time, the British literally dominated the American pop charts. This is not to say that American music was not good in the Sixties; actually, it was better than it ever was before or since. This was the heyday of Motown, with such artists as Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, The Temptations, and Stevie Wonder. And great American music did not end with Motown in the Sixties. This decade was when the late, great James Brown was at the height of his success. The decade also marked the first stirrings of power pop, in the forms of such bands as Paul Revere and the Raiders and The Monkees. Throughout the decade, rock music would get harder and harder until the subgenre later called "heavy metal" was developed. Such artists as Jimi Hendrix, Iron Butterfly, The Move, and others were fundamental in the development of the subgenre.

The Sixites also saw the publication of several books now considered classics. This was the period when To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest were all published during the decade. And while it was published earlier, it was in the Sixties that The Lord of the Rings first attracted widespread attention. It was also a good time for children's books. Such classics as A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, and The High King by Lloyd Alexander were all published in the Sixties.

I must also that the Sixties was a good decade for fashion. Okay, the bouffant hairstyle was definite hair don't, but by mid decade fashions were the best that they would be for fifty years. It was the era of the Mod look, with button-down shirts, wide lapels, kipper ties, turtlenecks, and flared pants all the rage for a time. And, of course, the decade also brought us the mini-skirt (the greatest fashion development in the 20th Century, in my humble opinion). The Sixties was the heyday of such designers as Mary Quant and Ben Sherman, when for a brief time Kings Road and Carnaby Street were the centre of the fashion world. Of course, later in the decade fashion would go downhill again, with such hippie fashions as love beads and sandals taking over, but for a time I think fashion was at its best in the Sixties.

The one medium I honestly think was not experiencing a heyday was the movie industry. Indeed, it seems to me that at that point the major studios were stuck in a rut. I honestly think they were out of touch with their audience and, as a result, were content to try to make movies similar to previous successes. The success of the classics Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady, and of the not so classic Sound of Music (I love the songs, but hate the movie) would lead Hollywood to try a number of big budget musicals that would bomb at the box office (Dr. Doolittle comes to mind....). That is not to say that the Sixties did not produce its share of classic films. This was the Golden Age of the action movie in my mind, with such classics as The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, and Planet of the Apes being released during the decade. It was also a good time for comedies, particularly spoofs. This was the era of Dr. Strangelove, A Hard Days Night, The President's Analyst, Cat Ballou, and many others. The Sixties was also a time when filmmakers pushed the envelope as to what was permissible in films, to the point that the Motion Picture Association of America finally replaced their Production Code with a ratings system. It was during this period that the movies Bonnie and Clyde and The Dirty Dozen upped the ante on screen violence, that the movies Ulysses and I'll Never Forget What's His Name let slip "the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words (as it is called in A Christmas Story)," and films from The Graduate to the Bond movies were a bit more frank about sex than movies made in earlier eras were. Of course, whether all of this is a good thing or a bad thing I guess depends on one's point of view.

Quite simply, it seems to that almost every medium that existed at the time was hitting on all six cylinders in the Sixties. To me, this is when television and music were at their very best, and comic books and books were nearly so. I can't think of any other decade that was quite so productive when it came to creating high quality pop culture artefacts. Sadly, it was not to the last. As the Sixties wound down, the British Invasion came to an end, Motown started producing fewer hits, television started airing more mundane fare, and the comic book industry stopped churning out new superheroes. Eventually, the Sixties would give way to the Seventies, when it seems to me that television, music, and especially fashion were at low ebb. I guess it really is true...all good things must come to an end.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Lionel Jeffersion, the Godfather of Soul, and Dr. Stanton

I swear that this December more celebrities have died than have in a long while. And while some of them have not been that famous, others (such as Joseph Barbera and Peter Boyle) have been living legends. Recently, three more people died and as usual I feel the need to eulogise them.

Mike Evans died before Christmas, but I decided to hold off on a eulogy for him until after the holiday. For those of you wondering who Mike Evans is, he played Lionel Jefferson on both All in the Family and The Jeffersons and was the co-creator of the TV series Good Times. He died at the age of 57 from throat cancer on December 14.

Mike Evans was born in Salisbury, North Carolina on November 3, 1949. His father was a dentist, his mother a teacher. While still a child the family moved to Los Angeles. He attended Los Angeles High and was attending Los Angeles City College when he was cast as Lionel Jefferson on All in the Family. The Jeffersons (except for George, played by Sherman Hemsley) first appeared on All in the Family in 1971 as the Bunkers' neighbours. The characters proved so popular that they were spun off into their own series, The Jeffersons, in 1975. The series was successful enough to run 14 seasons. Evans appeared on The Jeffersons until its second season, when his responsibilities on Good Times forced him to give up the role. Following the cancellation of that show, he returned to The Jeffersons as Lionel.

With Eric Monte, Evans created the series Good Times. Although it was not initially meant to be so, Good Times became a spinoff of Maude after Esther Rolle was cast in the lead role (she had played Maude's maid, Florida). The series debuted in 1974 and ran until 1979. It was unique in being one of the few sitcoms about a poor African American family, and it may well have been the last such show on network television.

In addition to his work on The Jeffersons and Good Times, Evans also appeared on the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man and Love American Style.

The Jeffersons remains one of my favourite sitcoms from the Seventies, and Evans was perfectly cast as Lionel. And while my memories of Good Times are not quite so fond, I must admit that for its first few seasons it was a good show (it eventually went downhill, in my humble opinion). In both playing Lionel Jefferson and co-creating Good Times, then, Evans made some significant contributions to American television in the Seventies. I must say that it is very sad to hear that he died.

Of course, while Mike Evans is not a household name, James Brown most certainly is. In a career that lasted over 50 years, Brown was one of the most influential singers of all time, he was known as the Godfather of Soul for his impact on that particular genre. Brown died yesterday at the age of 73 from heart failure brought on by pneumonia.

Brown was born May 3, 1933 in Barnwell, South Carolina. His family moved to Augusta, Georgia while he was still young. His family was poor and as a child he both picked cotton and shined shoes to help make money. At age 16 he was convicted of armed robbery and sent to a juvenile detention facility. Following his release, Brown tried both boxing and baseball before taking up music.

Initially, he performed in a gospel group called The Gospel Starlighters, alongside the sister of Bobby Byrd, perhaps most famous as Brown's co-vocalist and sideman, but eventually he joined the Avons. Changing from gospel to rhythm and blues, the group was renamed the Fabulous Flames. Eventually signed with King Records, their first single "Please, Please, Please," written by Brown and Johnny Terry, went to #5 on Billboard's R & B charts in 1956. Sadly, James Brown and the Fabulous Flames had trouble following up "Please, Please, Please." They were in danger of being booted from King Records when in 1957 they had their first #1 hit, "Try Me." Even Brown's earliest work showed influence from Little Richard, who helped Brown in his rise to the top, although they also showed a heavy use of rhythm and extreme vocals. Not only would Brown's songs have a huge impact on soul music, but they would also help shape the music form that would become known as "funk."

Entering the Sixties, James Brown came into his own. Not only would his song "Night Train" go to #5 on the R & B charts, it would also become a soul standard. It was also the first song that would characterise what most people consider "the James Brown sound." With the success of "Night Train," Brown would have a string of hits in the Sixites and would even see success on the pop charts. "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," one of the songs most identified with the Godfather of Soul, was released in 1965. The song not only went to #1 on the R & B charts, but also hit the top ten on the pop charts. Brown followed up the success of "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" with "I Got You (I Feel Good)," released the same year. Brown's success also gave him greater exposure. In 1965 he appeared in the films Ski Party and The T.A.M.I. Show. He would also appear on the TV shows Shindig, The Ed Sullivan Show, and Hollywood Palace.

As the Sixties progressed, Brown not only refined his style, but the content of his songs also became more serious. "Say It Loud--I'm Black and Proud" and "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I'll Get It Myself)" both addressed the position of blacks in American society. Brown continued to have hits into the mid-Seventies, although by the late Seventies, his career was in decline. While Brown would continue to tour and make television appearances, he would never again see the success that he did in the mid to late Sixties.

It is hard to sum up the career of James Brown, quite simply because his influence was so great. Although called the "Godfather of Soul," his influence extends well beyond that genre of music. He also had an impact on rock and can be credited as one of the creators of funk. Indeed, as a measure of his influence, Brown hit the Billboard charts more than any other artist without hitting #1. Among the diverse artists Brown had an influence on were soul groups Booker T and the MGs, The Temptations, Sly and the Family Stone, jazz musician Miles Davis, rock group The Rolling Stones, Prince, and funk artist George Clinton (of Parliament fame). Quite simply, Brown's influence transcended genres to the point that he is probably one of the most influential musical artists of the 20th century. One thing is certain, he won't soon be forgotten.

The day before James Brown died also saw another man die whose influence cannot be measured. Dr. Frank Stanton died at the age of 98 on December 24. For those who have never heard of him, Stanton was a legendary broadcaster who, alongside its founder William S. Paley, turned CBS into the most powerful American television network in the Fifties and the Sixties.

Dr. Stanton was born in Muskegon, Michigan on March 20, 1908. His father was a woodworking and mechanics teacher. The family moved to Dayton, Ohio while he was still young. While still a child, Dr. Stanton learned electronics. Going to college he meant to be a physician, but found medical school too expensive. Having received his bachelor's degree at Ohio Wesleyan, he then received a master's degree at Ohio State in psychology. While he worked on his PhD, he experimented with various way to measure audiences for radio. He developed a device that could be plugged into a radio and register which station someone was listening to. Quite simply, it was a forerunner of Nielsen's audimeter and the first device to qualitatively measure a programme's appeal. This brought him to the attention of CBS, who offered him a job in their research department (which then consisted of only two men). Having received his PhD, Stanton went to work for CBS.

Dr. Stanton's knowledge of psychology proved formidable in the field of radio. He was able to chose programmes that would not only attract audiences, but advertisers as well. He was also able to persuade affiliates to leave NBC for CBS. This knowledge helped Dr. Stanton in his career at CBS. By 1938 he became their research director and the research department now boasted 100 employees. It was also with this knowledge that Dr. Stanton created what is known as "block programming." In his research he noted that by airing similar programmes one after the other, a network could increase its ratings. Stanton then persuaded CBS to air similar programmes in blocks. The practice soon became established in radio programming and would be a part of television from the beginning.

By 1945 Dr. Stanton was vice president and general manager of CBS. By 2946 he was its president. Dr. Stanton and CBS's chairman and founder William S. Paley divided the responsibilities of running the network between themselves. Stanton would handle such things as the company's organisation and policies while Paley handled programming entertainment. Among the first things Stanton did was to reorganise CBS. He divided the network into divisions for radio, television, and research CBS Laboratories. The other networks would follow CBS' lead in using their model for organisation.

Dr. Stanton was also pivotal in the effort to bring colour to television. Alongside actor Robert Alda, actress Faye Emerson, TV personality Arthur Godfrey, columnist and TV show host Ed Sulivan, and CBS founder and chairman William S. Paley, he appeared on Premeire, a TV special introducing CBS's colour sequential system for colour television. Unfortunately for CBS, their system was incompatible with black and white sets, so the FCC ultimately chose RCA's system.

Dr. Stanton's power at CBS was such that he even helped shape the network's look. He oversaw the creation of CBS's "eye" logo, designed by graphics artist William Golden. He also oversaw the design of the company's headquarters in New York. Dr. Stanton approved or vetoed all of the designs submitted to him by Golden, then creative director for the network. Between them, Golden and Dr. Stanton were responsible for he use of Didot Bodoni as CBS's primary typeface.

While Paley handled the entertainment programming and Dr. Stanton handled mostly news programming at CBS, he did sometimes venture into the entertainment realm, and his choices were almost always correct. It was Dr. Stanton who drew comic Jackie Gleason away from DuMont on the chance that he could bring in ratings for CBS. Dr. Stanton also saw to it that Arthur Godfrey made the transition from radio to television, even though Paley disliked Godfrey. His most lasting contribution to entertainment programming may have been overseeing the legendary anthology show Playhouse 90. Among the teleplays that aired on the show were Rod Sterling's Requiem for a Heavyweight, Judgement at Nuremberg, and The Miracle Worker.

Following Edward R. Murrow's lead, Dr. Stanton also encouraged CBS to make a greater commitment to public affairs. This would result in the CBS public affairs series CBS Reports and still later the news magazine 60 Minutes. He was also responsible for the fist televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. He persuaded the FCC to suspend Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1934 (which requires equal time for political candidates) so that they could air the debate.

Dr. Stanton would also become an unofficial spokesman for the broadcasting industry. In the Seventies, when Nixon attacked the networks for their coverage of the Vietnam War, it was Dr. Stanton who most often defended the industry. In 1971 he also faced jail time. CBS had aired a documentary, The Selling of the Pentagon, which examined huge expenditures, not all of them legal, for the United States military. Subpoenaed by the House Commerce Committee to provide research materials for the documentary, Dr. Stanton refused on the grounds that news programming deserved protection under the First Amendment. Eventually, the House sided with Dr. Stanton against the committee.

Paley had promised Dr. Stanton the position of chairman and CEO at CBS upon his retirement. Unfortunately, this was not to be. Paley went back on his promise and Dr. Stanton served as the company's vice chairman from 1967 until 1973, when he retired. During his retirement he served as chairman of the American National Red Cross, and on the boards of the Carnegie Institution, the Lincoln Centre, the Stanford Research Institute, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He remained on CBS's board until 1978.

There can be no doubt that Dr. Frank Stanton was pivotal in American television broadcasting. Alongside William S. Paley, he turned CBS into the Tiffany Network, for a time the most powerful network in the United States. For better or worse, he was a pioneer in measuring audiences, working in the field long before the Nielsen ratings. He was largely responsible for the growth of CBS News and hence the networks' expansion into news and public affairs. He created the modern day organisation of most television networks. And for many years he was the unofficial spokesman for the broadcast industry. Dr. Stanton was one of a number of figures, such as William S. Paley, David Sarnoff, Pat Weaver, and Edward R. Murrow, who largely made American broadcast television what it is today. We probably won't see his like again for some time.

Monday, December 25, 2006

A Holiday of Specials and Movies

Some people might find it odd, but I have always enjoyed spending Christmas Eve watching my favourite holiday specials and movies. Indeed, specials and movies have traditionally played an important role in our observation of the holidays. Yesterday, partly through planning and partly through sheer serendipity, I was able to watch some of my favourite Yuletide specials and movies.

Yesterday morning I just happened to come upon How the Grinch Stole Christmas on the Cartoon Network through sheer luck. And I feel very lucky to have found it. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is one of my favourite Christmas specials and my favourite holiday special created using cel animation. Of course, the special is based on upon the classic Dr. Seuss book of the same name. It was produced by Dr. Seuss and his old friend Chuck Jones, who also directed. It first aired in 1966 and has been a holiday staple ever since. And there is little wonder. It bears the unmistakable style of Dr. Seuss' illustrations, while at the same time featuring Chuck Jones' unmistakable animation style. And while the special expands upon the story, it is also very faithful to the book. As an added treat, the special was narrated by Boris Karloff and the vocalist for the songs was Thurl Ravenscroft (best known as the voice of Tony the Tiger). I don't think there has ever been a cel animation TV special ever so good, not A Charlie Brown Christmas, not Frosty the Snowman.

Watching Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer yesterday was hardly an accident, as I have it on DVD. It remains my favourite holiday special of all time. Today, after 42 years on the air, we tend to take the special for granted. In fact, I rather suspect that some probably think of it as sweet natured and sentimental. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Eschewing a more traditional holiday message, like the song upon which it is based, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer emphasises the right of one not to conform to other's expectations. Rudolph leaves Christmas Town rather hide his rather unique nose. Hermey the Elf quits to pursue his dream of a dentist rather than remain and make toys. And even after repeated viewings (I have at least seen it every year since I was four or five, maybe earlier), I still find Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer quite funny. Indeed, I have no doubt some of the humour goes above most kids' heads.

Seeing Miracle on 34th Street was a bit more serendipity. Until I checked the TV schedule, I didn't realise that AMC was showing a marathon of both the original black and white version and the colourised version as well. I made sure to catch the black and white original (I will spare you a tirade against colourisaton for now...). Save for It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street is widely considered the greatest holiday movie of all time. And there is little wonder why it is. Miracle on 34th Street is actually a very complex movie. In telling the tale of an old man who believes he is Santa Claus (and may just be the genuine article), Miracle on 34th Street addresses such issues as the commercialisation of Christmas, the importance of faith, the importance of being oneself, and the importance of pursuing one's dream. Miracle on 34th Street is also very, very funny--I think many forget that it is essentially a comedy. Regardless, it has been remade at least four times (three times on television, and once in that dreadful 1994 version), although none of the remakes ever captured the magic of the original (especially the horrible 1994 remake).

Of course, I knew that NBC would show It's a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve, as they have ever since they got exclusive rights to it. There can be no doubt that It's a Wonderful Life is considered a classic--in fact, it is widely thought to be the greatest Christmas movie of all time and even counted among the greatest movies of all time. Watching again for the umpteenth time, I can say that counting it as one of the greatest movies of all time is not mere hyperbole. Not only is the movie technically well made, but it also features one of the most moving stories of any movie ever made. And it does this without being overly sentimental or preachy (an accomplishment for director Frank Capra, who could at times be guilty of both). The movie is not only a tribute to the human spirit, but also the importance of friends and family and, especially, the significance of the individual (as Clarence says, "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"). I don't think there has ever been any holiday movie that has ever been quite powerful or so moving.

I must also that watching A Christmas Story last night was also part of my plan--I knew that TBS always shows a marathon of the film on Christmas Eve each year. Aside from It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story is perhaps my favourite holiday movie of all time. Quite simply A Christmas Story is one of the funniest Yuletide movies of all time. Who can't help but laugh as Ralphie, wanting an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle so much he can taste it, is repeatedly told by nearly every adult in the film (I think his father is the exception), "You'll shoot your eye out." Indeed, this movie has some of the funniest set pieces in film history. And what makes it funny is that nearly every American born in the mid to late 20th century has been there before. All of us have wanted things for Christmas that we were almost certain we would never get. All of us have uttered the forbidden word and found ourselves punished for it. All of us have gotten into fights at one time or another. While I suspect that most people think that A Christmas Story lacks an "important" message such as those that Miracle on 34th Street or It's a Wonderful Life possess, I must disagree. In showing a typical boy growing up in the mid-Twentieth century (from various clues, the movie would seem to be set in December 1940), who is part of a typical American family, the movie underscores the importance of the family in our society. The Parkers may not be perfect, but ultimately they do love each other. In telling how Ralphie pursued his dream of getting a Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle for Christmas, it also underscores the importance of pursuing one's dreams, no matter how impossible.

It is perhaps significant that all of the specials and movies I watched yesterday are, well, old. It's a Wonderful Life was the oldest, released in 1946. A Christmas Story is the youngest, released in 1983. I must say that when it comes to holiday movies, the old adage that "They don't make 'em like they used to" holds true. To be honest, since A Christmas Story I can think of only one holiday movie released recently that might achieve classic status. For me The Polar Express captures the spirit of Christmas, particularly as it was in the mid Twentieth Century, perfectly, while being a technical marvel. I can think of no holiday movie made recently that matches it in quality. In fact, most of the ones released lately have been pretty dreadful. In fact, some have simply been mean spirited. It seems to me that lately Hollywood's idea of a good Christmas movie is one in which people are downright cruel to each (Deck the Halls was the latest in this rather depressing trend). I rather suspect that the major studios long ago forgot the meaning of Christmas. For that reason I think that they probably needed to watch the holiday specials and movies that I saw yesterday more than I did. It seems to me that they could certainly use a dose of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and It's a Wonderful Life.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Holiday Decorations

For many this is Christmas Eve, but for me this day has another significance. It was on this day that a very dear friend of mine was born. I do hope that she has a happy Yuletide and an even happier birthday.

Anyhow, this evening being what it is, I thought I would write about a suitable subject, namely holiday decorations. I covered the Christmas tree last year and Christmas lights just a few days ago. Now I thought that I would cover the rest. Decorations are very much a part of the holidays. Holly and mistletoe are mentioned in innumerable songs. In fact, decorating for the Yuletide is the theme of the classic carol "Deck the Halls."

In fact, it seems to me that decorating for the holidays goes so far back that it most likely predates the holiday of Christmas. Many of the traditions of our modern day Christmas celebration as we know it in the English speaking world probably started as part of the midwinter celebration known in Old English as Geol (modern English Yule), in Old Norse Jol, and so on among the various Germanic peoples. We don't know too much about how they celebrated Yule, but we do know that they did decorate for it. Grettis Saga Chapter 19 refers to the mistress of the house decorating it and readying it for the Yuletide. As to how the house was decorated, it doesn't say, but it seems likely to me that the use of holly, mistletoe, ivy, and other evergreens may stem from the celebration of Yule. I suspect that much of this may have been sheer practicality--flowers and other greenery not being available at this time of year in Northern Europe--but much of it may also have been due to the significance of these plants. Of course, mistletoe plays a role in myths about the death of Baldr. As to holly, it may too have been significant to the early Germanic peoples. Maxims I refers to the burning of holly with reference to the dead. This would seem more likely a pagan, rather than Christian custom. The use of evergreens would then seem most likely to stem from the pagan celebration of Yule rather than something that developed later as a part of the Christmas celebration.

Of course, other decorations than evergreens would be developed later. Among these would be the use tinsel, the thin gold or silver metallic strips used for decorations. Tinsel appears to have been developed in Germany in the 1600s. Even then I suspect that it was mostly used for decorating tannenbaums, although its use would spread beyond the trees. Many would use tinsel in lieu of the tradition boughs of holly for sprucing their houses come Yuletide.

While tinsel was the result of technological advancements, other Yuletide decorations were borrowed from yet other holidays. This is the case of Christmas stockings. According to legend, in the 4th century a noble despondent over his wife's death spent his entire fortune, leaving his daughters without a dowry. In those days this could well mean a spinster's life for a young woman. St. Nichols (Bishop of Myra in the 4th century) heard about this and came to the girls' rescue. He rode past their house and threw three sacks of gold up the chimney. The pouches landed in the girls' stockings (they had hung them by the fireplace to dry after being washed). It became part of the celebration of the Feast of St. Nicholas (December 6) to hang stockings by the fireplace in expectations of gifts from the Saint. Because St. Nicholas' day occurred so close to the Yuletide, many of its traditions were absorbed into the celebration of Christmas.

Of course, one popular holiday decoration originates from the fact that Christmas is celebrated by Christians as the time of Jesus's birth. Nativity scenes are believed to have been invented by St. Francis of Assisi in the 12th century. The early nativity scenes were live, with real people assuming the roles of Joseph, Mary, the Magi, and so on. The Nativity scene became popular enough to spread to Germany in the 1600s and then to England. And while the first Nativity scenes were staged by live people, eventually artisans would make them out of wood, straw, and even stone and ivory. Still later they would be made of ceramics, glass, and, in the 20th century, plastic. If you're my age, you are probably familiar with those Nativity scenes in which the figures are made of plastic and lit from the inside.

At any rate, Nativity scenes are not the only figures associated with the holidays. Figurines of Father Christmas and Santa Claus date to the Victorian era. I am not sure when the lighted, plastic figures of Santa Claus, snowmen, and so on originated but it must have been before I was born (which was the Sixties, to clarify things). I remember them from when I was a small child.

Of course, the big trend in Christmas ornaments the past several years have been inflatables. Christmas inflatables were introduced in 2001 by Gemmy Industries, the same company responsible for the Bigmouth Billy Bass (the singing fish of a few years back). Starting simply with a snowman and a Santa Claus, Gemmy now makes inflatables of elves, snowglobes, and even Disney characters. Despite their popularity, the inflatables have been controversial--some think they're cute, others think they're tacky. For myself, it depends on the inflatable. Some look good. Others look, well, not so good.

Decorating for the holidays has a long history stemming back even before there was a Christmas. In those thousands of years we have progressed (if that is the operative word) from holly boughs to electric lights to inflatables. It is hard to say what future trends there will be in Yuletide decoration, but one thing is certain--people will be decorating for them for a long time to come.