Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Classic Television as Historical Document

 I was sad to read about the passing of baseball great Stan Musial. Most will first remember Musial as a Hall of Famer and one of the game’s great gentlemen. Some in my family recalled how his St. Louis Cardinals owned my Chicago Cubs during his heyday, a tradition that sadly continues to this day.

But as a Comfort TV fan, my first recollection was his appearance on an episode of That Girl.

Such moments are an often-underappreciated aspect of classic TV. Television shows from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s document a historic era, and not only provide a record of how people once dressed and talked and worked, they sometimes let us see and hear from famous and notable people that future generations would otherwise only know in history books.

Of course it’s not just baseball greats, though that sport is certainly well-represented with appearances by Musial with Ann Marie, Willie Mays on Bewitched, Sandy Koufax on Mr. Ed and Don Drysdale on The Brady Bunch, to name just a few.

Before Game Show Network devolved into its current sorry state, it used to air classic game shows like What’s My Line, The Name’s the Same and I’ve Got a Secret. One night many years ago I was watching I’ve Got a Secret and was amazed at the secret of one of the guests – he was a witness to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Think of that – there was once a man whose lifespan linked the era of Lincoln’s presidency with that of television game shows. His name was Samuel J. Seymour, and he was just five years old when his family took him to Ford’s Theatre on that fateful night. He was 96 when he appeared on a 1956 episode of I’ve Got a Secret, and died less than two months after his appearance. 

Other notable guests from the show’s run include artist Salvador Dali, Ray Harroun, the winner of the first Indianapolis 500 (in 1911!), Philo Farnsworth, one of the men credited with inventing television, and the parents of Neil Armstrong, who appeared several years before the historic moon landing and proudly discussed their son’s promotion to astronaut.

What’s My Line was another popular quiz show from the same era that had its share of notable participants, from poet Carl Sandburg to architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Eleanor Roosevelt. But when I watch episodes today I am most captivated by the sophisticated demeanor of the celebrity panel, who always dressed formal to appear on a game show, and the impeccable diction and manners of host John Daly, a respected newsman.

Daly addressed the panel as “Mr.” and “Miss,” and there was a genteel quality to the proceedings that would disappear not only from game shows but also from much of our social interaction within ten years. I’m afraid my manners are as sloppy as everyone else’s these days, but when I look into these windows on the past, I sometimes wish we had held on to their ideals awhile longer. 


  1. Another interesting "Comfort TV" take on 20th century history (and in this case, 19th century). GSN used to be such a treasure trove of classic goodies. Fingers crossed people will one day tire of their current slate of classless, reality TV-influenced junk. In the meantime, keep the great blog posts coming, David.

  2. Great post David, and Chris is right in that GSN USED to be a great treasure trove for game show fans and fanatics, but after caving into the likes of GLAAD and not showing game shows with cigarette sponsors, not to mention getting into bed with Steve Harvey and his version of "Family Feud", the network has really gone into the crapper! Not only that, the great works of game show announcers such as Johnny Olson and Gene Wood are now muted in favor of self promotion - all for the love of the almighty dollar I'm afraid!