My Television Diary: 5/6/12

06 May

I was out of town for most of the past week, and didn’t get to watch much of anything. Nothing vintage, anyway.

I spent a couple of evenings surfing the 2012 cable TV line-up. Having dropped almost everything from my own cable service, I’m not very familiar with what’s on the air these days. Fortunately, A&E was running marathons of two “reality” shows that won me over.

Duck Dynasty is a show I’d never heard of, about a family of very backwoodsy folks in Louisiana. I decided to try it for a few minutes, to see if it was as bad as I expected it to be. But in fact, it was hilarious and I’d love to see more. Less funny, yet inexplicably riveting was Storage Wars, about seven or eight fringies in Southern California who buy the contents of deadbeats’ storage units at auction, in hopes of selling the stuff for a profit later. I’m skeptical about how much “reality” there is in this show, as most of these units hold nothing but absolute crap except for one fabulously rare collectible tucked way in the back. The show’s real attraction is the mix of personalities among the guys bidding against each other, the most fascinating of them being the elderly hipster Barry Weiss. I’d watch him in anything.

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You Asked for It, 1951; exact date unknown

I wouldn’t risk a nickel on the public domain movies sold on DVD by Alpha Video, but Alpha also carries a large line of 1950s TV episodes, and the quality on these is pretty good. Alpha sells some rare episodes of You Asked for It, and as far as I can tell they’re all from the show’s first season, when it aired on DuMont. (The show then moved to ABC, which seems to have been more diligent about renewing its copyrights.)

Like all the others, this episode is a hodgepodge. It opens with a segment pitting an abacus against a modern, electric calculator (modern for 1951, that is— it’s bigger than a Thanksgiving turkey). A young gal in granny glasses operates the calculator, and the abacus is operated by an Asian guy who tells host Art Baker that he uses it all the time. Baker gives them both a sheet of formidable-looking addition and multiplication questions, produces a stopwatch, hollers “Go” and the race is on. In the end, the calculator does beat the abacus— by a mere six seconds.

The show closes with a surprisingly good assortment of card tricks performed by wrestler Gorgeous George, whose regular bouts on DuMont’s Wrestling from Columbia Park made him one of the tube’s biggest early stars. This appearance must be one of the medium’s earliest examples of craven cross-promotion, but it’s a treat, and George himself is oddly charming. Whereas the typical wrestler today adopts a hulking, knuckle-dragging Cro-Mag persona, George is quite the gentleman.

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The Outer Limits (1995 revival) (1:16, “Caught in the Act,” July 1, 1995)

I’d never seen anything of the 1990s Outer Limits revival, and I was curious to see how it compares to the original. The answer is “not very well,” though creator Leslie Stevens is credited as a “program consultant” (yeah, right)— as if the six credited producers, associate producers and executive producers on this thing weren’t enough.

Cannily, I selected an episode featuring Alyssa Milano, gambling that an hour of tedious Canadian science fiction might be offset by one of her trademark topless scenes. At least she delivered, playing a college student who suddenly becomes a nymphomaniac after a chunk of meteorite crashes through the ceiling of her dorm room.

But the episode doesn’t really work. Like Dead Man’s Gun (another 1990s Canadian-made series), the Outer Limits revival has all the potential in the world but falls down on execution. The actors never seem to be the characters they’re portraying. They’re just going through the motions and reciting lines, and superficially at that. The story sputters along without being very engrossing or believable, which is bad enough for any show, but it’s the kiss of death for science fiction. On the other hand, you do get to see Alyssa Milano topless, so I can’t complain.

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Town Hall Party, August 8, 1959

This show would probably be torturous for anyone who doesn’t care for 1950s country music. Fortunately for me, there’s no music I like better, and I can’t tell you how much I loved this broadcast!

With legions of transplanted Okies, Arkies and Texans in the area, Los Angeles became an unlikely hub of country music after World War II. Local radio shows nurtured a crop of promising country artists (Merle Travis and Tennessee Ernie Ford among them), and created a local scene that was rich and distinctive.

Cliffie Stone led the march from radio to television with Hometown Jamboree in late 1949. While it’s an obscure show today (apparently only two kinescopes survive and I’m dying to see them), it ran for a decade. Western swing bandleaders Tex Williams and Spade Cooley got shows of their own in the early 1950s, and August 1953 brought the most familiar of the local country TV shows, Town Hall Party.

It’s the most familiar mainly because it’s the one for which we have the most kinescopes. In Germany the acclaimed Bear Family label has issued a number of them on DVD. Like everything else from Bear Family, they’re pricy but impressive, with extensive liner notes.

This DVD presents one episode of Town Hall Party, essentially complete but with the commercials edited out. As usual, the show is a straightforward telecast of a live performance held at the old Compton Town Hall (now long gone). The cameras are simply spectators; announcer Jay Stewart (later of Let’s Make a Deal fame) seldom looks into a camera, and the performers never do.

I’m sure Bear Family selected this episode for DVD because the guest that week was Johnny Cash, newly free of Sun Records and still at his absolute creative peak. He performs two sets of about a half-dozen songs each, and the live audience (of several hundred at least, and possibly many more) goes wild for him.

But the line-up in this episode is a virtual Hall of Fame of 1950s California country. The legendary Joe Maphis backs up most of the vocalists on his trademark double-necked guitar. Among those vocalists are Skeets McDonald, Johnny Bond, Jeannie Sterling and Tex Ritter. It’s not all country and western, by the way. The blind pianist Jimmy Pruitt performs a blistering barrelhouse number, there’s a Southern gospel song by the dynamic Martha Carson, and a hot rockabilly song from Gordon Terry.

All of these are wonderfully well done, the pace is brisk and it’s all live. No retakes, no camera effects, and everything happens on a small stage. It’s happening on one hell of a sweltering evening, too. Most of the performers are visibly sweating up a storm, wiping their brows after each song and often in the midst of a song. (Cash wears a different outfit for his second set, apologizing that his “skin was leakin’ so much that I had to take that shirt, tie and coat off.”).

Occasionally the camera pans around the audience, which looks like it’s about as overheated as the performers are (note the shirtless tot). And yet, it really is a Town Hall party for the crowd, which cheers, howls and shrieks its appreciation throughout the show, especially for Johnny Cash.

Still, the times were changing. Hometown Jamboree would be off the air a few weeks later, and Town Hall Party itself would die in January 1961. The local country shows had all aired on Los Angeles’ independent stations, and were getting expensive to produce. It didn’t help that rock and roll was luring away younger viewers.

This trend wasn’t just an L.A. phenomenon, either. Springfield, Missouri’s Ozark Jubilee, which had been broadcast nationally on ABC throughout the latter half of the ’50s, went off the air about the same time, in 1960.

In my opinion, the disappearance of these local country TV shows coincided with a steep decline in country music itself. The Nashville sound took over, bringing in string sections and vocal choruses, banishing country’s honkytonk and hillbilly roots to the margins of the industry. Western music, which had been ubiquitous a decade earlier, essentially vanished. And in Los Angeles, the country music scene splintered and faded away. All that remain are 78s, a few kinescopes… and memories.


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