Monday, December 17, 2018

A Classic (Non-Controversial) Christmas Duet

Mention holiday duets, and thoughts immediately turn to “Baby It’s Cold Outside” which has been rebranded as offensive by people with ugliness in their souls. 

What surprises me is how surprised other people are by this controversy, as this is hardly the first year it has flared up. There was a Salon piece back in 2012 that asked the question “Is Baby, It’s Cold Outside” a date-rape anthem?”

The answer: No, it’s not. Is there a seductive, flirtatious quality to the give-and-take in the lyric? Absolutely. But to twist that into something violent and sinister – I feel sorry for anyone with such a grim view of romance.

I’m sure many believe such an interpretation would have been deemed ludicrous in any other moment but this one. But humanity has always had its outliers. Back in the 1970s, at a White House state dinner for President Gerald Ford, musical guests The Captain and Tennille performed “Muskrat Love.” Interviewed later, one of those in attendance found that song choice offensive, because the lyrics about animals making love were inappropriate for such an occasion. 

The difference is that such views were once easily identified for what they were, and dismissed. Today, they seem to find no shortage of converts. Heaven help us.

That took longer than expected – let’s get back to Comfort TV, and the Christmas duet that became a beloved standard of that era, through annual performances on Bob Hope’s Christmas specials. 

Hope’s first Christmas show aired in 1953. His last was in 1994. Let that sink in. If you were 10 years old in 1953, you spent an hour of your holiday season with Bob Hope every year until you turned 51.

I started watching them as a kid in the 1970s, and it became a tradition for the next two decades. I couldn’t recall one comedy sketch all these years later. But I do remember that in most of the shows I watched, there would be a scene in which Bob and one of his female guest stars would stroll through a wintry scene, performing “Silver Bells” as a duet. 

At the time Hope was a national treasure, one of the best-known and most beloved entertainers in America. So it was surprising to read the following quote from Terry Teachout, taken from his review of a Hope biography: “the comedian, who died in 2003 at the age of 100 and is now largely forgotten.”

I read that quote in Mitchell Hadley’s excellent book on television, The Electronic Mirror. He was shocked by it, but there’s likely more truth in that opinion than either of us wish to believe. Teachout is a prominent author and playwright, as well as the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, so this isn’t drivel from a millennial blog that thinks pop culture started with Game of Thrones.

It’s through television that I remember Hope best, though his career predates the medium with appearances on the vaudeville stage, on radio and in movies. Thinking back on the wonderful “Road” pictures he did with Bing Crosby, I wondered if the most influential singer of the 20th century might also be forgotten; but this time of year “White Christmas” still gets played, and hopefully that intrigues the young’uns enough to wonder what else that guy did. 

When TV came along Hope was among the first entertainers to embrace it. From 1950 to 1996 he headlined 272 variety specials on NBC. I suspect that record will stand for some time.

“Silver Bells” was part of the Christmas shows because it was a song already associated with the comedian, who performed it as a duet with Marilyn Maxwell in the 1951 film The Lemon Drop Kid. It might have become his signature song had  “Thanks For the Memories” not already claimed that title. 

Over the years, Hope’s duet partners included Barbara Eden, Dolly Parton, Marie Osmond, Dixie Carter and Reba McEntire, as well as Bob’s wife Dolores. I also believe there were versions with Shirley Jones, Crystal Gayle and Ann Jillian, but sadly there are very few performances online or details about these specials on IMDB.

However, I don’t have to do any research to know which version is my favorite:

Moments like these are nice memories to have.

I’ll let Mitchell Hadley, whose book makes a great holiday gift for any classic TV fan, have the last word: “Terry Teachout may well be right that Bob Hope is forgotten today. But if he is, and if Hope is nothing more than a piece of the fog of things past, then we are the ultimate losers.”

Of course, that’s never going to happen around here, as celebrating the past is what this blog has always been about.

Merry Christmas from Comfort TV! 

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Unshakeables: “Patterns”

Any history of television that does not recognize Rod Serling as the medium’s first transcendent writer should be viewed with skepticism. 

There were other titans in that pioneering era, from Paddy Chayefsky to Reginald Rose. But Serling was more prodigious, more prolific, and more willing to cast a critical eye on the times in which he lived. His association with the macabre, made indelible by The Twilight Zone, tends to overshadow many other brilliant scripts for TV’s once-abundant anthology series, including “A Town Has Turned to Dust,” “Requiem For a Heavyweight,” and a 1955 episode of Kraft Television Theater that is, indeed, unshakeable. 

“Patterns” is a 60-minute teleplay in three acts. Act One takes us into the corporate offices of Ramsey and Co., a thriving conglomerate located on the top floor of a New York skyscraper. What they actually do is never specified, because it’s not relevant: the company serves to represent many such businesses in Manhattan, all of which have board meetings and discuss budgets and acquisitions, with the apparent sole purpose of making more money. 

The story opens with secretaries (one played by Elizabeth Montgomery) gossiping about the arrival of a new executive. Fred Staples (Richard Kiley), recruited by Mr. Ramsey himself from Cincinnati, is warmly welcomed by his new coworkers, who expect big things from this young and energetic go-getter. 

If there’s someone on the way up in an organization like this, it means there’s likely someone on the way down; that would be Andy Sloane (Ed Begley), 24 years with the firm and “the last of the original bunch.” Everyone knows he’s lost the confidence of the boss (Everett Sloane) but he soldiers on, leaning more heavily than usual on the bottle of booze in his desk drawer.

Act Two opens one month later. Fred Staples has surpassed expectations, resulting in a shift of work toward him and away from Andy Sloane. Despite this the two men get along well, and Fred supports the input Andy provides into the company’s annual report. Mr. Ramsey is impressed as well, though he refuses to acknowledge Andy’s contributions, even going so far as to cross his name off the final draft. Fred protests, but to no avail.

The consequences of Ramsey’s actions reach their climax in the final act. Andy Sloane’s fate is not a happy one. An outraged Fred storms into Mr. Ramsey’s office, ready to throw away his future with the company and take a stand for fairness and common decency. But when he walks out, he’s still on the payroll. “I’ll be late,” he tells his wife, as he prepares to tackle the stack of papers on his desk. “Aren’t you always?” she replies. Fade to black. 

I know – doesn’t sound all that exciting. Why would anyone watch 60 minutes of office politics on a show that aired 63 years ago? 

But the excellence of “Patterns” was recognized immediately after its January 12, 1955 broadcast. The New York Times critic called it a breakthrough in television drama, and suggested a second showing for anyone who might have missed such a splendid show.  Amazingly, the NBC network obliged, gathering the cast back together for a second live performance on February 9. That was the first time that happened in the medium’s history.

In a September 1974 article in TV Guide, John Crosby writes that the day after “Patterns” first aired, it’s author was famous: “Within two weeks Serling, a struggling author up to then, got 23 offers of TV assignments, three movie offers and 14 requests for interviews from newspapers and magazines.”

Later that year, the show won him his first Emmy. The following year, he expanded his script for a 90-minute feature film version.

Clearly this was material that resonated with viewers at the time. But great writing also resonates across the ages, which is why I believe you could take the same script and transfer it to a Silicon Valley tech firm in the present day, and it would work just as well.

The cutthroat corporate world was one that apparently fascinated Rod Serling – or perhaps repelled is a more accurate description. What do these jobs give you, he asks – status and prestige. Some financial security. A nice home in Connecticut. But at what price? “They keep chipping away at your pride, your security,” Andy Sloane says at one point. Is it worth it?

Serling returned to this theme throughout his career. There are elements of “Patterns” is the standout Twilight Zone story “A Stop at Willoughby,” and Night Gallery’s most famous episode (“They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar”). 

But “Patterns” was the cornerstone. And anyone who is serious about experiencing the best of classic TV should see it  – which is easy to do as it’s been on YouTube for years.

If you do, I hope it will inspire you to watch more live television dramas from the 1950s. There are technical limitations they have to surmount, but these only remind us of how today’s television distracts its audience with shallow spectacle, because it lacks the quality and substance of the Golden Age programs.

“Patterns” offers no elaborate sets, no fancy camera movements, no swelling music to cue the viewer on when to get excited. It’s just a terrific script performed by great actors – all getting it right the first time, because there was no other choice.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Comfort TV Couldn’t Crack the Marvel Universe

Along with millions around the world, I mourned the recent passing of Stan Lee. 

Long before I cared enough about television to write books about it, I was a comic book fan – specifically a Marvel Comics fan. The first comic I ever bought, off a spinner rack at 7-11, was Defenders #23 – a team book featuring The Hulk, Dr. Strange, Valkyrie and Nighthawk. I was instantly hooked and quickly worked my way up to buying about 20 Marvel comics every month, a custom that continued for the next two decades. I also began buying back issues; at one point I had amassed full runs of X-Men, Daredevil, Iron Man and The Avengers.

I don’t have them anymore. Long story. Not a happy one.

As a fan I looked forward to the moments when Marvel characters would appear on television. But as much as I love the Comfort TV era and still prefer it to what’s on television today, I must concede that when it came to adapting the brilliant co-creations of Stan Lee, the medium failed miserably. 

Thankfully, we are now in a golden age of superhero films when these characters have been brought to life with respect for the source material, with writers and directors and actors that get why they were popular in the first place, and with the budget to convincingly portray super-heroics through sophisticated special effects.

Now that audiences have embraced Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Spider-Man and many others the way they were meant to be seen, we can now look back on TV’s first attempts with less ire.

Affection? Not quite. Amusement? Absolutely.

As a Marvel fan I also celebrate how that company has now surpassed rival DC in its adaptations, something that was not true in the Comfort TV era. The Batman and Wonder Woman series were not perfect but they were successful – they added to the richness of the characters rather than detracting from them. And Superman: the Movie was as good as it gets, then or now. 

It was released in 1978, the same year television introduced Peter Hooten as Marvel’s Dr. Strange. That exemplifies how, back then, the two companies were playing at very different levels. 

Sadly, the Dr. Strange series pilot was one of Marvel’s less cringe-worthy attempts, compared to such disasters as the Captain America (1979) TV movie that ignores everything that makes the character iconic. What were viewers supposed to think when a hero revered as much for his ideology as his exploits hems and haws through the death of a friend, and several attempts on his own life, before finally coming to his country’s aid?

Reb Brown played the title role, having apparently wandered in from a bodybuilding contest at Venice Beach. He’s a bad actor who drifts in and out of a Southern accent and obliterates what little was left of the character’s dignity. 

And yet, incompetent as this effort was all around, it still inspired a sequel, the imaginatively titled Captain America II (1979). It’s slightly better, but only in the way that a fender-bender is better than a rollover accident. One is clearly preferable, but you’ll be happier avoiding them both.

I covered the first attempt at a live-action Spider-Man in my Terrible Shows I Like series. The costume and some of the wall-climbing effects were adequate, and Nicholas Hammond was amiable if a bit too hunky as ‘puny’ Peter Parker. But no Gwen or Mary Jane, no comic book rogues gallery, and no snappy patter while crime fighting renders this version something we settled for rather than fully embraced. 

Ah, but what about The Incredible Hulk (1978), you say? It was a popular series that lasted five seasons. Bill Bixby gave us a studied, moving performance as a mild-mannered intellectual tormented by the raging spirit within him. The Emmy-nominated music was wonderful, and everyone remembers Lou Ferrigno in his fright wig and green makeup. 

Yes, it was a good show. But it also wasn’t The Hulk: It was The Fugitive with a supernatural twist. Where Dr. Kimble searched for the one-armed man, David Banner (Bill Bixby) searched for a cure for his condition. And since the show would have ended as soon as he found one, there wasn’t much dramatic tension along the way.

I’m sure there are fans that still prefer Ferrigno’s Hulk to the CGI creation rampaging through the Avengers films. I’m just not one of them.

We also have TV’s Hulk to thank (?) for introducing two more Stan Lee creations to live-action TV; The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988) features Eric Kramer as Thor. One picture says it all:

And The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989) features Tiger Beat’s own Rex Smith as the blind hero Daredevil. He’s grittier than expected, but we’re still worlds away from the Netflix series starring Charlie Cox. 

Stan Lee was listed as a consultant on these projects. That they all failed to some extent should not be viewed as a blot on his resume or his memory. Back then even someone of his stature in the comic book medium did not have the juice to demand script approval or closer adherence to the stories fans knew and loved. I’m glad he lived long enough to see them done right. I wish Jack Kirby had as well. 

Monday, November 19, 2018

Classic TV’s Most Unconvincing Indians

November means Thanksgiving, a time to remember that celebrated moment when Pilgrims and Indians shared a festive dinner table. Many of us first learned about the history and culture of Native Americans while studying Thanksgiving in elementary school. Hopefully those lessons were more accurate that what we learned from television during the Comfort TV era. 

I’m not going to condemn or defend the broad portrayals of Native-Americans in situation comedies. But I will say that when they were funny, I laughed. I don’t think that makes me a horrible person, but then we are rarely the best judges of our own characters.

There were a few (comparatively) earnest portrayals in this era as well, beginning with Jay Silverheels as Tonto on the classic Lone Ranger series. 

It helped that Silverheels was indeed Native-American – a Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River in Ohsweken, Canada. While he spoke in the broken English common to most Indians in film and TV westerns (“Him dead, kemo sabe”), there was also dignity in the character, and frequent acknowledgment that this “faithful Indian companion” was not a sidekick but a full partner in the Lone Ranger’s crime fighting exploits.

And then there was this guy:

Nearly 50 years later it is still a remarkably effective public service announcement, even if the crying Indian, billed as Iron Eyes Cody, was actually an Italian actor named Espera DeCorti. His work here belies the now common assertion that performers should always be the same ethnicity as the characters they play. Could anyone else have made that final image more heartrending?

I think I’d also have to put Ed Ames in the positive category, for his long-running portrayal of Mingo on Daniel Boone (and perhaps also for the most famous tomahawk throw in the history of television).

But enough praise – let’s get to those offensive but amusing stereotypes. Here are the nominees for classic TV’s most unconvincing Indians.

Bernie Kopell as Black Salmon
Petticoat Junction (1964)
In “The Umquaw Strip,” series villain Homer Bedloe discovers that the Cannonball passes through a stretch of land that was never legally acquired from the Indians. His scheme to shut down the railroad fails, but it does offer a chance to see Bernie Kopell, one of TV’s most prolific sitcom character actors, play a member of the Umquaw tribe (one who attended Harvard Business School).

Don Rickles as Bald Eagle
F Troop (1965)
If any series specialized in the type of Native American ethnic humor that typified this gleefully unenlightened era, it’s F Troop.

As if Frank DeKova’s recurring role as Chief Wild Eagle was not enough, the show featured a succession of guest stars who joined the tribe for some equally inappropriate banter, none more memorable than Don Rickles in “The Return of Bald Eagle.”  Rickles is totally unhinged as Wild Eagle’s soldier-hating son. 

Don Adams as Running Creek
Get Smart (1965)
A rogue band of Indians called the Red Feathers demand the return of their stolen land, or they’ll unleash a powerful new weapon. Max infiltrates the tribe and winds up engaged to the chief’s daughter. Of course Agent 86 in buckskins is funny, but “Washington 4, Redskins 3” also unveils one of the funniest sight gags in the history of television. The first time I saw it, I thought I’d never stop laughing. 

Edward Everett Horton as Chief Screaming Chicken
Batman (1966)
The plot of “An Egg Grows in Gotham” is strikingly similar to the Petticoat Junction episode with Bernie Kopell: Arch-criminal Egghead (Vincent Price) finds a technicality that would revert ownership of Gotham City to the Mohicans, now led by Chief Screaming Chicken. Edward Everett Horton steals every scene he’s in with the sort of lines you couldn’t say now without getting in trouble: “Indian poor businessman, my cousin, he sell Manhattan for 24 dollars, could have got 35!”

Burt Reynolds at John Hawk
Hawk (1966)
We’re told that John Hawk, detective with the New York District Attorney’s office, is a full-blooded Iroquois, but that just seems like something this short-lived series came up with to make a standard character more exotic. It’s also a role entirely unsuited to the charismatic Burt Reynolds. The stoic Hawk rarely cracks a smile and speaks in a slightly clipped monotone – like an urban Tonto. It’s a well-shot series that still has its supporters, judging from the high IMDB episode ratings, but Reynolds wasn’t one of them. It was a frequent target of his self-deprecating Tonight Show appearances. If you’re curious, check out the first episode, which features Gene Hackman as a Bible-quoting psychotic killer. 

Raymond Bailey as “Chief” Drysdale
Beverly Hillbillies (1967)
As in Petticoat Junction, another Paul Henning series, we have a white man impersonating an Indian to make a few bucks. Co-written by Henning, “The Indians are Coming” opens with the Clampetts learning about a minor border issue between their oil-rich land and the adjoining Crowfeet Indian reservation. At the bank, Mr. Drysdale is roused by the news: 

“They hit a gusher there! Send a message to my red brothers – Milburn Drysdale speak with straight tongue…send all black wampum my bank, we put in solid steel teepee.”

Miss Jane: “No…there’s been a boundary dispute and the Indians are claiming part of the Clampett oil land.”

Drysdale: “Why those dirty, thieving savages!”

The tribal representatives, Chief Running Wolf and his son, are cultured 20th century men who arrive at the bank to find Drysdale in full buckskins, spouting every Indian cliché from every western movie. The Chief and his son play along, letting him embarrass himself further. 

Willliam Shatner as Kir-ok
Star Trek (1968)
“The Paradise Syndrome” is not quite as bad as “Spock’s Brain” and “The Way to Eden,” but it dwells in the same rundown neighborhood of questionable third-season episodes. The Enterprise visits a planet populated by a tribe that resembles the Native-Americans from earth’s history. Kirk joins the tribe after his memory is wiped, and is soon being worshipped as the great healer, the only brave worthy of marrying the lovely Indian priestess Miramanee. It’s all a bit silly but William Shatner gives it everything he’s got and then some, as he always did to help sell a substandard script. 

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Cindy or Lisa? Let’s Play “Know Your Eilbachers”

Here is one more reason the Comfort TV era was better: it had more Eilbachers.

From 1964 to 1990, viewers grew accustomed to seeing sisters Cindy and Lisa Eilbacher pop up on a wide range of classic shows and made-for-TV movies. 

I’ve always been intrigued by their background, as the Eilbacher family was fairly well-to-do: unlike many child stars of that era, the kids didn’t have to go to work to keep the mortgage paid. Their father was a top oil company executive, which explains why both sisters were born in Saudi Arabia. They spent their early childhood in Paris before moving to Beverly Hills. Not bad.

If I were forced to pick a favorite I’d go with Lisa, the older of the siblings by two years. She’s also probably the better-known of the two because of a pair of memorable movie roles: as the naval cadet who couldn’t get over that wall in An Officer and a Gentleman, and as Eddie Murphy’s friend in Beverly Hills Cop.

Cindy never found that signature role that resonated in the pop culture memory beyond its original broadcast. But I was still always happy to see her guest star in a favorite series.

They worked together twice, playing sisters both times: first in a 1971 episode of Alias Smith and Jones (“The Posse That Wouldn’t Quit”), and later in the notorious 1974 TV movie Bad Ronald. It ranked #90 in my book, What Were They Thinking? The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History, but after that book was published I quickly discovered what a huge cult following it still has. 

It’s sad they are not better remembered now, though I guess it’s not surprising as Cindy’s last credit was in 1987, and Lisa’s was in 1996. They don’t appear at nostalgia shows or even maintain Facebook pages. But as long as the splendid old shows are playing somewhere, they’ll remain part of our precious television heritage.

How well do you know your Eilbachers? Let’s find out. If you want to guess, scroll down slowly so you don’t reveal the answer at the same time as the question.

1. Which Eilbacher used her photographic memory to help Wonder Woman capture a casino operator with ties to the mob?


“Skateboard Wiz” (1978) was a great time-capsule episode of Wonder Woman. It featured a skateboard competition (and possibly the first look at a half-pipe in classic TV), and an arcade filled with early video games (Sea Wolf!). Cindy played Jamie, a pigtailed teenage skateboarder: her stunt scenes were handled so well that it’s hard to believe that’s not her on the board. 

2. Which Eilbacher was Richie’s date to a sock hop in the first season of Happy Days?


In “The Lemon,” Richie and Potsie buy an old clunker to impress their dates, with predictable results. This episode aired four years before her Wonder Woman appearance, but Cindy seems far more mature here as a teenage temptress. 

3. Which Eilbacher starred in one of TV’s most famous sitcom flops, My Mother the Car?


Yes, Cindy again  - just to frustrate those who guessed a Lisa show had to be next. She played Cindy Crabtree, daughter of Dave and Barbara (Jerry Van Dyke and Maggie Pierce). Just eight years old, she was featured in the episode “When You Wish Upon a Car,” which was about as good as this show got. 

4. Which Eilbacher played Callie Shaw, sidekick to Frank and Joe Hardy in The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries?


She appeared in six series episodes and was always an attractive and enthusiastic member of the sleuthing team. It was also a refreshing change to keep the trio as friends and not introduce a romance with Frank or Joe to disrupt the camaraderie. I wish they had kept Callie around for the entire series. And it’s a shame she never got to meet Nancy Drew. 

5. Which Eilbacher played kidnapped socialite Patty Hearst in a 1979 Made-for-TV movie?


While it as certainly one of her most significant roles, The Ordeal of Patty Hearst told its story more from the perspective of the FBI agent working the Hearst kidnapping, played here by Dennis Weaver.

6. Which Eilbacher’s first professional credit was as Kimmie in the 1965 Bewitched episode “Eye of the Beholder”?


In her one scene, Kimmie is a cute little neighbor girl who picks up a heavy wheelbarrow that Darrin (zapped by Endora’s witchcraft) couldn’t budge. It’s of the series’ very best episodes.

7. Which Eilbacher Played Vicki, who was envious of Marcia being asked out by smarmy big man on campus Doug Simpson in the memorable Brady Bunch episode “The Subject was Noses”?


It’s an unexceptional part in an exceptional episode, but she does what she can with it. If you’ve seen Lisa Eilbacher in other TV appearances, where she always appears petite next to her costars, you may be surprised as I was at how she’s nearly a head taller than Maureen McCormick here. Maybe Marcia only looks tall standing next to Jan and Cindy.

8. Which Eilbacher played Dr. Ingrid Sorenson in the short-lived series Ryan’s Four (1983)?


I don’t recall watching this series, but from the opening credits it appears to have an interesting cast, and likely represented Lisa’s best shot at series stardom. 

9. Which Eilbacher attended ballet class with Buffy on Family Affair?


“Ballerina Buffy” is another first-season episode that explores the understandable separation anxiety felt by little kids after their family home is uprooted – as well as the mistakes that are made by uncles who don’t yet know how to be good parents. You should be able to spot Cindy right away – decked out in red, standing behind Buffy at the barre. 

10. Which Eilbacher was rescued by Captain Marvel on the Saturday morning series Shazam!?


We end with a trick question, as both Eilbachers appeared in separate episodes of this short-lived series. In “The Doom Buggy,” Lisa plays the girlfriend of a high school dropout who gets lost in the desert. In “The Odd Couple,” it takes both Captain Marvel and Isis to save Cindy and her equally misguided boyfriend after they get lost in a forest. How is the Big Red Cheese going to vanquish Dr. Sivana when all these teenagers can’t find their way home? 

And if you’d like some Eilbacher extra credit, you’ll find one or the other in episodes of My Three Sons, The Waltons, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Green Acres, Hawaii Five-O, It Takes a Thief, That Girl, Police Story and The Streets of San Francisco. IMDB has all the details. Happy hunting.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

How Classic Television Can Readjust Your Perspective

"Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?" – Matthew 6:27

“Forget your troubles and just get happy.” – Judy Garland, Summer Stock

I’ve often written of my belief that the classic TV shows of the past have more to offer us than a few minutes of entertainment. I am reminded of this once again after a week of tragic and frightening news headlines. 

There’s no question that Comfort TV can provide a respite from a world that a lot of people believe is descending into chaos. Should it be used that way? I know from personal experience that some people don’t think so.

“What, would you rather live in that fantasy world?” they ask.

Actually, yes, I would. I think most people would, especially in the wake of the kind of tragedies that happen in the real world. But that option is not available, and that’s not the point.

Granted, if you see a Breaking News bulletin about a mass shooting and immediately pop in a Love Boat episode to avoid the painful details, that’s not healthy. It’s a variation of the ‘safe spaces’ that have taken root on college campuses that deserve all the derision they have received. 

I watch a lot of news each day, and when there’s a major story I’ll often stay with it for hours. As a journalist I am interested not just in what is being reported but how the facts are (or are not) being communicated.

But when you dwell too long in that headspace, it alters your perspective. It becomes tempting to believe that such atrocities as school shootings or terrorist attacks or massacres in a house of worship are commonplace, and not extremely rare in a nation of 320 million people.

Be aware of current events, pray for the victims (sadly, even doing that has become a source of contention) and do what you can to try and make things better.

After that, there’s nothing wrong with a reminder that this is still a good and noble nation – and classic TV is one way to do that. 

Why the shows of the past and not current television? We’ve touched on this topic before: the shows from decades past were a source of happy shared memories among tens of millions of people; they are a common thread weaved throughout our culture; they portrayed a time when people were more sincere and less sarcastic; more civil and less cynical; they come from a time when it felt like we were more one nation (yes, under God) then different warring tribes. They show us families and communities that support each other. They show us cities where schools and offices and synagogues are safe.

In short, these shows offer a glimpse of the everyday that we recognize. They show us a picture of life in America – sure, one that focuses more on the positive, but the nightly news by its nature focuses more on the negative. As the old saying goes, there are no news stories about the thousands of planes that land safely every day.

Much of today’s television, sadly, does not provide a perspective for those seeking respite from our divisive times. Sitcoms are far more political now than they used to be. Try to recall any reference to whom was president or what legislation was working through congress on Leave It To Beaver, Dennis the Menace, The Patty Duke Show (in which patriarch Martin Lane worked at a New York newspaper!), I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Dream of Jeannie, The Odd Couple, That Girl or any other show from the 1950s through the 1970s that was not created by Norman Lear. 

If you’d prefer to watch All In the Family to remind yourself that we’ve always had robust debate (and stereotypical cheap shots), that is your privilege.

Even the current shows where you’d most expect to find an escape from grim headlines can’t resist the urge to proselytize. Supergirl is in the midst of a season-long allegory about immigration and intolerance; Doctor Who took a shot at Donald Trump in last week’s episode.

Whatever your politics, there was a time when scripted television offered a wealth of opportunities to withdraw from that world and get happily lost for a while somewhere more pleasant. During this same era, which was certainly not immune from terrible headlines – a seemingly endless war in Vietnam, a president and a civil rights leader assassinated, runaway inflation and gas shortages – television gave us stories to laugh about, characters to admire, and positive portrayals of life in America.

So go ahead – spend a little time watching Mr. Ed get the best of poor Wilbur, or Lucy try to get into Ricky’s show; have breakfast with the Andersons or dinner with the Waltons; laugh at the klutzy antics of Gilligan and Maxwell Smart. From McHale’s Navy to My Three Sons, Ozzie and Harriet to Laverne and Shirley, The Flintstones to The Flying Nun, whatever your preferred sanctuary might be, allow it to reset your outlook, and remind you of the good things in life. 

As one of the commercials from the Comfort TV era reminded us, you deserve a break today. 

Monday, October 22, 2018

Classic TV Halloween Costumes

Do kids still dress like their favorite TV characters for Halloween?

I know adults do. Certainly shows like Game of Thrones and Doctor Who have inspired memorable costume ideas.

But back in my day (I love saying that), television-themed costumes were as prevalent as those for monsters and superheroes. As a kid I’d look forward to that annual October trek to a store like K-Mart or Woolworth’s or Zayre or Turnstyle (if you were in the Midwest), where there would be an aisle near the front stocked with square, lightweight cardboard boxes, stacked high, each one containing a different identity you could assume for trick or treat. 

The labels on the boxes promoted the name of the manufacturer – usually  
Collegeville or Ben Cooper. We didn’t pay much attention back then. All we cared about was who we were going to be for Halloween.

The contents of the boxes were always the same: a thin plastic mask with an elastic band to stretch around our heads. The eyeholes and nose holes were cut out so we could see and breathe. But if you wore glasses, you were already in trouble.

Below the mask was a colorful smock. Slip it around your body, put on the mask, and you’re good to go.

It’s a nice memory to have all these years later, and one that obscures the fact that the costumes themselves…were kind of lousy.

Examples? This is supposed to be Caine, the character played by David Carradine in Kung Fu.

Here’s The Bionic Woman. Jaime Sommers looks like a sleepy Judy Norton-Taylor.

And here’s Bo Duke from The Dukes of Hazzard.

By now you may be asking, as I did, why Ben Cooper packed many of its TV character costumes in “Superhero” boxes. I don’t have the answer. Sure, to young fans Bo Duke and The Fonz probably did seem heroic, but it still strikes me as lazy marketing. 

Clearly, whatever money was saved from not designing a TV-themed box was not poured back into the actual costumes. The smock was the worst part. Instead of attempting to reproduce the clothing or uniform of the person being depicted, it was emblazoned with the character’s name in giant letters, or the logo of the TV show on which he or she appeared. It’s as if the company was saying, “No one will know who you’re supposed to be, so we might as well just tell them.” 

In retrospect we’d have been better off without them. What looks more like Fonzie: putting on a white t-shirt, pair of jeans and a black leather jacket, or this?

But at least the box reassured us that the costume was flame-retardant (or occasionally, unfortunately, “flame-retarded”).

If the quality was substandard, the one place where these costumes surpassed expectations was in variety. Companies grabbed every license they could get, so if just one (slightly odd) child somewhere ever said, “This year for Halloween I want to be Captain Merrill Stubing from The Love Boat,” Ben Cooper had him covered.

Were you a fan of Jennifer of the Jungle, as played by Judy Graubart on The Electric Company, or Gary Gnu from The Great Space Coaster? Then get ready to suit up.

While I retain some vague memories of shopping for my costumes, I don’t remember throwing them away after Halloween, though that’s what all of us did. If you saved yours, you are now reaping the benefits: that “flame-retarded” Farrah Fawcett costume can fetch up to $150 on eBay.

But at least you still have your Charlie’s Angels lunchbox, right?